The Secret World Legends (first impressions)
I should point out that I’m approaching this as a player who never played The Secret World, so the story, environment and game mechanics are all completely new to me. I'm also playing this as part of a duo, not solo.

I had a bit of a stumbling block before I even got to character creation. The game said something about needing to be in a different dimension (which I assume is game-speak for “server”) to create another character, and yet I had not yet created my first character! After a few minutes of clicking around, I realized that the fullscreen window had additional buttons on the bottom of the screen that were obscured by the Windows toolbar. Changing the resolution fixed that and I was able to start the character creation process. Not an auspicious start.

Character creation is nice. It is not as full-featured as I’ve seen in other games, but it still allows for some pretty good character customization. I chose a Punisher (shotgun/hammer tank) and my partner chose a Mercenary (rifles/fists healer). Like many gamer couples, we have a long long history of playing as a tank healer duo and those seemed like a good choice for both of us.

The intro cinematic doesn’t do a very good job of explaining what is going on, or making the player feel like there is any kind of epic battle between the forces of good and evil. It does feature some pretty particle effects. Overall I was mostly confused.

The very first gameplay segment is not much better. The audio mixing is less than perfect - the male voice is completely dominated by the female voice. I was automatically awarded my first weapon (a shotgun) which put two skills on my hotbar. Unfortunately, the UI doesn’t seem to have any way to examine these skills, so I have no idea what the effects are, or how those skills differ. From the images, it appears that one of the skills is a single-barrel shot and the other is a double-barrel shot. I would think that the double-barrel shot would do more damage but be slower to reload, but a little experimentation showed that both skills use a single shell, casting doubt on my initial assumptions. At some point I ended up getting a third skill that makes a red fist appear above my character (which quickly fades away), but again, I have no idea what this ability does.

Speaking of the hotbar, I don’t see any way to move skills from one hotbar slot to another. The three abilities I have are slotted into the Q (one barrel), 1 (fist), and E (double barrel) keyslots. While that’s not horrible, it isn’t intuitive at all. Plus as I gain additional abilities, I’m absolutely certain that I’m going to want to move things around at some point.

I can also trigger a weapon ability using the left mouse button, but I’m not sure which ability it is. The hotbar slot shows a blank slot with the LMB icon under it, so I’m mystified what is actually happening. I’d really like to be able to put my two weapon skills on the left/right mouse buttons – for example, it would be great to put the single barrel shot on left and the double barrel on right mouse buttons, but I have no idea how to do this. There doesn’t seem to be a RMB hotbar slot and I have no idea how to make one. It doesn’t seem like the mouse buttons are mappable on then options screen(s).

Dodging is introduced fairly quickly, but it felt really janky until I realized there is a dodge/stamina bar – this isn’t explained at all in the tutorial. I know that dodging is a resource that is supposed to be limited, but one dodge every 10 seconds feels REALLY slow! Also, only “active” dodging (using the shift key) is introduced. I actually prefer the double-click method of dodging, and it wasn’t until about my third fight after dodging was introduced (and some clicky experimentation) that I discovered this works. It’s not a great tutorial when half of the mechanics/options are left out!

The next hurdle occurred at the very first “quest” interaction. The on-screen hint said something to the effect that I needed to explore and discover a clue. The actual “clue” I needed to discover was the big giant green “ACCEPT” button that defaulted to displaying _under_ other UI elements, making it difficult to see. Not impossible, but difficult. Now that I know where to look, I can find it, but it wasn’t obvious and it was easily missed in the screen clutter. That was about 10 minutes of frustration.

Doing the first graveyard/dream area mini-quests, both of us were unsuccessful in the one single-jump "puzzle". I really hope that jumping is not a Thing in this game. We almost always avoid jumping puzzle areas whenever possible because neither of us are good at them and they end up being frustrating game-stoppers for us. Jumping in this game feels even less precise, which could make jumping puzzles not just annoying but frustrating. Time will tell.

Eventually, I made it through to the London area. I immediately set about exploring the area and completely ignored the sole active quest. I gathered up about a dozen golden honeycomb collectible things that appear to add text-based backstory/lore to the UI. It looks like I am unlocking different “chapters” in a mini-novella. The problem is that the sections don’t unlock in consecutive order. As soon as I discovered that I could only read specific sections of a larger narrative (which is confusing as all hell for a new player) I stopped reading them. I may go back and see if there is any semblance of coherency later, but the way the information is presented at first is not very good.

I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to play together in London. Clearly this was a"public" area - both of us could see other players running around - but we were in different instances. Will this change if we formed a party? Is there an in-game friends-list that encourages us to be in the same instance? Hopefully, this will be less of a problem as we get further into the game.

My partner logged out so I spent about 30 minutes running around London. Many of the locales are closed to me, with a glowing red wall blocking progress. I was bemused to find that there is actually a “sprint” button in-game, but I had already remapped it to something else, so I was denied that ability. I like to put sprint on the shift key, and kept tapping that out of habit so I was doing the active dodge roll constantly. (I’ll remap this before I do much else.)

I did find several interesting interior locations and I gotta say that the artwork and background design is pretty impressive. In particular there was one building that was full of a glowing field of stars that was simply mesmerizing! I did not have the needed key to do anything in there, though. I also found several vendors that sell various potions and foods but I did not have any of the required currency to buy anything and my only possessions were a belt, a necklace and my freebie shotgun, none of which I was willing to part with in order to experiment with consumables.

I managed to get my character stuck between two background elements. I could spin but not jump nor move at all. The /stuck command returned a helpful message that I wasn’t actually stuck and I should try something else. After a bit of online searching I found the /reset command. That seemed to instakill my character and I respawned in a similar area in the same London instance and continued exploring. Just for giggles I tried getting stuck in the same place again, but was unsuccessful in hitting the proper pixel of mesh. Hopefully, it won’t manifest again elsewhere in the game.

Eventually, I triggered the London quest. The quest “text” was spoken dialog that was not easy to follow. (Are there subtitles? I normally don't use these but accented dialogue can be difficult to follow.) Apparently, my character found it difficult to follow as well, and passed out from the effort. I was transported to some other locale, and logged out for the day before I advance beyond my partner's progress.

Overall, not a great first impression (mostly due to a clunky user interface) but I’ve played far worse F2P games in the past. It certainly didn't suck and I'd really like to give it another go. The action combat felt “okay” but I haven’t gotten the cadence of the dodging and attacking down yet, and not really knowing what my abilities are or what they do is a major liability. I found that I was just spamming the LMB ability and circle strafing through everything. Hopefully some of this will be better explained as we continue along.

Second Session

After talking offline with some experienced TSW players, we were able to add each other to our respective “friends” lists and were finally able to join each other’s instances. This made a huge difference as were able to play together for the first time. This made the game feel like a MMO and not like a we were just playing two instances of the same game in the same room.

Another thing I had learned was that where we had left off was basically the START of the in-game tutorial! Playing through the actual tutorial made a lot more sense. Some things I knew already, other things I discovered for the first time. Many of the interface things that annoyed me were actually covered in the tutorial. I did NOT like the fact that the game forced you into the initial skill and passive choices. I mean, yes, it needs to show how those systems work, but let me choose which skill I want!

We finished the tutorial and started into the first actual game area, Innsmouth.

We ran a few dozen quests together. I was disappointed that the majority of the quests were basically “go to the area marked on the mini-map, find the macguffin and return to the quest giver.” I had heard that the game had some pretty involved, complex and non-obvious quests. Still, it was a fun shared experience and the story presented by the game and quests was interesting at least. It’s a nice break from the pointy eared high-fantasy that we normally play.

There are a LOT of cinematics in the game. Pretty much every quest (even a good number of the throwaway side-quests) have a little cinematic introduction. This led to my first major quibble with the game: the character models. Specifically the clothing on the models. Maybe I’ve gotten accustomed to having capes and cloaks in the fantasy-based stuff we normally play. This game is based in the “real” world, and you have things like old grannies wearing cardigans and biker dudes with leather jackets. Problem is, the clothing is “pasted on” to the character models. So when a character leans over a table, rather than their clothing hanging forward, it is “stuck” to the character’s body. It looks weird and it distracts me every time it happens. Maybe that’s just me though.

I really am enjoying the amount of lore in the game and how it is presented. Rather than being pages and pages of text-based lore that the player has to slog through, most NPCs have a dialog option. Choosing that will lead to a prompt of the two or three (or five or six) things they know about. Usually the first option is “Yourself” as in “Tell me about… yourself.” (Pretty much if you mentally prefix everything with “Tell me about…” it works pretty well. When you choose anything, it triggers a voice acted lore explanation. Again, maybe it’s just me, but voice acted lore is a lot easier to digest than printed lore. With printed stuff, I’m just skimming for the important bits. With spoken dialog, even though it is slower, I assume everything is important and pay more attention. And if I don’t want to spend a few minutes listening to lore, I just don’t select that option. (But you should; it’s actually pretty interesting stuff!)

We ended the evening after playing for nearly six hours straight with a pretty solid understanding of the game mechanics and locales.

Third Session

When we started our third session and picked up the main story quest where we had left off, another problematic thing occurred. We got to a step that required us to be a specific character level to proceed. The next quest step quite literally said “Achieve level XX”. This to me is a HUGE issue. For me, personally, one of the most fun aspects to playing these sorts of games is being able to see how far I can go with my current level/gear. In Dark Age of Camelot, I was the guy out in the Frontier at level 35 (and doing moderately decently). I was proud to have solo traversed the entire Guild Wars map (the original game, not GW2) at level 12 – none of this have someone “run” you through, I did it solo and by myself.

Having a game’s main questline literally stop me from progressing because of my level is very much an annoyance. I mean, I understand if the quest is going to be harder than normal, and I would even be okay with a giant red warning that says: “If you try this, you’re very likely to die horribly!” But to simply stop my advancement because of some arbitrary level limitation feels artificial and contrived. It feels like “forced grinding” and if anything will get me stop playing a game, this is the main thing that will do it. Hell, that’s the primary reason I stopped playing more than a few MMOs in the recent past. (Skyforge and BDO, I’m looking at you!)

So we set out and started doing silly side quests just for the sake of XP.

One thing I notice right away doing these side quests was that when the quest said “go to the gas station” or “enter the hardware store” (these are actual locations in the game, by the way) I instinctively knew where I was meant to go. The map design here is TIGHT and even after only a few scant hours, I had internalized many of the main locations. This may not seem impressive, but considering that the starting area is a confusing grid of streets and same-looking buildings, it’s actually a testament to how well the map is designed!

Another thing that I really like about the game is the Sprint system. I finally remapped my Sprint button to Shift where I prefer it – I only have access to double-tap dodging now, no “active” dodge button is mapped – and I really like the way it is implemented. It only works when you are out of combat, so Sprint cannot be used as an offensive or defensive tool and it takes a couple of seconds to activate, so you can’t just pop it as a “get out of jail” card. It’s a great way to traverse the map a bit faster than normal running, but little else. It ends up feeling like a free mount that you don’t have to stop to get on!

After plinking around a bit on the map, we started the very first “dungeon” of the game, called “The Polaris”. This was the first time the game actually challenged us and was a great change of pace. I have to admit it took us a few hours (and at least two complete wipes) to get through. I’m sure any experienced TSW player will tell you how these are simple and solo-able, but when you hit them for the first time and don’t know any of the mechanics, it’s a different story. Plus, we were hitting this level 18 dungeon at level 13.

It was a shock going from normal world MOBs that had 100 to 125 hitpoints and could be killed in a hit or two, to dungeon “bosses” that had tens of thousands of hit points and took several minutes of combat to kill. Add in “tricky” dungeon mechanics and you’ve got a recipe for overwhelming frustration. And indeed, on at least two of the bosses we wiped out and had to re-approach the fight with an eye for “what are we doing wrong here… what’s the trick?” a couple of times. Once we were able to figure out the mechanics (during the fight) it became a matter of just playing the game again, albeit at a level that required at least some minimal attention, rather than just facerolling through things.

Two encounters in this dungeon stand out to me.

The third boss that protects it’s den with lighting/electricial effects was extremely difficult for us to figure out. Maybe it has to do with our computers, but the little tiny lightning bolts/sparks effects that are supposed to tell you which areas are safe and which ones aren’t played on EVERY surface. There was absolutely zero indication that any area was safe to stand. We finally figured out (by trial and error) where to stand and when to move – mostly by watching for the red lightning bolt icon that appeared next to our health bars when we were being shocked. Some better visual feedback here would have helped immensely.

The final “guardian” boss gave us a ton of trouble until we figured out that there was one repeating phase of the fight where you simply couldn’t fight and needed to hide (or be instakilled). We died at least three times to that until we realized it wasn’t a tricky fight mechanic, it is a tricky don’t-fight mechanic! And then in the fight’s final phase, when that same effect played we both instinctively scurried away , but we actually needed to kill the big bad.

Overall, despite bordering on frustratingly difficult (at least at our level and gear) with new situational mechanics it was rewarding and fun. When we completed it, I felt exhausted as if I had been (mentally) working on a difficult puzzle for the whole time. Which in a way… I was.

We ended the night at another “hard” level-block: “Obtain level 14 to continue.” If this becomes a continual stopping point, I may abandon the game completely. Aside from that, I’m really enjoying the setting, the story, the loot system, and the way the game plays.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, July 11, 2017 3:19 PM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - session ten
While our prior session broke all records for the longest Seafall game (yet), clocking in at over four and half hours, this session was our shortest ever, both in time elapsed and in turns played. The entire session was a bit over 90 minutes and we were done before we hit our first Winter (technically the second, since the game officially starts with Winter).

This is a continuation of our 5-player playthrough of the "legacy" campaign boardgame Seafall. If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading these postings - there will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any hidden game mechanics or surprises that are revealed during gameplay. At this point, we had unlocked up to the fifth (out of six) Secret chest.

While it’s easy for me to keep track of who is who, for that sake of the reader, I think the colors will help track who is winning and who is falling behind. Our players, in order from lowest to highest scores at the outset of the game:
At the start of this game, there were so many milestones on the board that we actually had to sort them and stack them by achievement type. Only one of these is an unlock (for the sixth and final box) and it isn’t clear (yet) how to accomplish this, so it went mostly ignored. Some of us (sneaky players) are taking notes about how to get there. Someone will eventually solve this puzzle, and I’m hopeful that it will be me.

Because it was such a short game, it was difficult to track the timeline of major events. So, I’ll try to recapture what I recall, as sparse as it is. My first few turns were basically setup for my plans, which never came to fruition.

On turn one, I sailed to the closest island (affectionately referred to as “Spice Island”, as it is completely filled with Spice producing sites) and bought two Spice cubes. My intent was to sail home, build a +2 Explore upgrade on one of my ships and start hitting the more difficult exploration sites that were still within range of my colony’s bonus area.

On my next turn, the Spice Merchant advisor (appropriately named “Ginger”) was available, and the Lord Merchant built a Marketplace structure on his colony at the island of “Booty Bay”. He was advertising a nice gold bonus for goods sold there. Seeing this, my plans changed. Even though I knew it would add one more turn of setup, I thought the long term benefit would make it worthwhile. I hired the spice merchant (but did not activate her), bought another two spice cubes and sailed towards “Booty Bay”.

On my third turn I activated Ginger (the Spice Merchant) and sold all my Spice cubes. Between the Marketplace bonus (which cost me one Reputation token) and the Advisor bonus for selling only Spice, I managed to pull in 44 gold in that one sale! This is not as much as the Lord merchant moves in an average turn, but it was the largest amount of money I had ever had in all of our prior sessions. I was going to save one cube and use it to help pay for an upgrade, but the native 8-Gold discount was dwarfed by the 11-Gold sale price, so I sold out completely. At the end of my turn, I split my ships up, with one heading out to my colony at “Danger Isle” and the other heading to the Spice Port at a nearby island.

I should point out that up to this point, I had only gained points from activating my colony at the start of the game, and interrogating Advisors (and learning nothing). However, some interesting information had been revealed from other player’s interrogations, and I had noted it privately.

It was on this turn that a fatal mistake was made which would cut the game session very short. The Event Card that had been pulled at the start of this round was one of the new “secret society” cards, where players compare society values for all Advisors of a specific guild. There was some discussion about how to resolve it, but no clear consensus. So while the turn order went around the table, the Lord Merchant did a web search and found a comment from the designer that instructed us what to do. That this explanation is not in the rule book is yet another strike against the poor quality of the rules of the game.

As it turned out, we were supposed to place all advisors of the specific guild from all player’s council chambers (even if they had been used already or had not yet activated!) out on the middle of the table and shine the “Light of Truth” on all of them collectively. The player who had hired the highest ranked society member of that guild would take the effect of the card. Again, there was discussion about whether the revealed ranking should be written on those cards since it was “publicly” revealed, but since it was not an actual interrogation, we opted not to. However, several people did note the relative values. For myself, I jotted down the values for all the members that were exposed for later reference.

The result of this particular test was that the Lord Merchant was forced to give away one-half of his amassed fortune to other players in any way he saw fit. He gifted 10 gold each to the BLUE Duke and GREEN Count (me), and the RED Prince received 20 gold. (Yes, the Lord Merchant had 80 gold on the third turn of the game. Making gold is kinda his “thing”.) The Lord Merchant was led to believe that the RED Prince was an “ally” and would use the money wisely. Suffice it to say, he got played.

On the next turn, the BLUE player claimed his first ever milestone for having five Advisors with his own enmity in his council chambers. I note this because, nine sessions in, it was his first milestone of the entire campaign. Despite being a small one, it was still a victory and should be acknowledged.

On my fourth turn, I bought the +2 Explore upgrade for my flagship and started sailing out to sea. On the next turn, I managed to regroup my ships, and did some research. On the final turn I believe I was able to explore one site, and positioned myself for the next few turns. Pretty much all the other players were setting themselves up for major point gains on the next few turns as well, but it was not to happen.

The game ended abruptly on turn six, just before Winter, when the RED player interrogated some random throwaway Advisor (for one point), leveraged the 20 Gold he had been gifted on Turn 3, plus one good, and bought the Museum (for a second point), and was immediately rewarded four additional points for his two tablets. And since he was (and will remain) the Prince player, the game ended on his turn before we could enter the Winter phase.

This is the second time that the same player has used this strategy to close out a game suddenly. Last time it was a relief to finish a much-too-long game session. This time it was a shock to be shut-down before much of anything happened. The takeaway from this experience is that we cannot continue to let the RED player make these 6-point jumps at the end of each game! The museum is an “expensive” structure (at 24 Gold) but with a discount for the right kind of material, it is only 16 Gold to build, and at this point in the game, 16 Gold is about one turn’s worth of financial effort for most players.

One other thing that came up mid-game is that we need to watch when players move ships together, because not everyone has the same Sail value on both of their ships. My ships both have a sail of four (4), so this will not affect me at all. But the RED player still has one ship with a Sail value of three (3)! (This might be sour grapes from the group after seeing two sessions end the same way, but it’s still an important thing that should be enforced.)

The final scores were disappointing. No one changed ranks, and the RED Prince widened his lead with no sign of stopping. His sudden six-point gain left everyone else in the dust. After this session, the Lord Merchant said (multiple times) “I would have doubled my score if the game had lasted two more turns!” I think he was a bit dismayed that his gift of 20 Gold (given in good faith) was used to shut down the game so quickly. We’ll see if he learned the lesson. I fell a bit farther behind both the leading RED player and the second place BLUE player. The fourth place PURPLE player was able to close in on me mostly because he now has four colonies and is able to easily leverage his starting gold for easy activation points.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, May 2, 2017 9:27 AM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - session nine
This session was our longest yet. Despite being only nine turns total, this session went on for nearly four hours! I am trying to remember all of the events, but this one may be light on detail due to my fatigue at the end of the game. Note this is a continuation of our 5-player playthrough. If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading these postings - there will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any hidden game mechanics or surprises that are revealed during gameplay. At this point, we had unlocked up to the fourth Secret chest during our prior game.

I’m going to continue to refer to players by their province color rather than Rank. It’s pretty easy for me to keep track of who is who, but for the sake of the reader, I think the colors will help track who is winning and who is falling behind.

Our players, in order from lowest to highest scores at the outset of the game:
- The Merchant, who will be known by this title. He was playing as the Lord in this game, and seems to be happy to be the “first” player.
- The PURPLE Baron, who is starting to catch his style of play.
- The BLUE Count, who not only seems to the worst luck possible, but also appears to be the favored punching bag of the RED player.
- The GREEN Duke (me) – and the majority of my commentary will focus on my personal strategies and experiences.
- The RED Prince, who seems to be solidifying his military presence (which could be a problem moving forward).

Going into this game session, there was only one “unlock” milestone on the board: ”Whispers Made Real”, which required the “Ornate Chart” to accomplish. While I owned the exploration colony in the far seas and it was still within reach of one of unexplored open sea, I felt like there were too many research cards in the deck to make that a priority this game. And to make matters worse, the BLUE player (to my right), with the help of several Advisors, was focused almost entirely on exploration and research. I was only three (3) points behind the RED leader and my goal was to widen that gap to exactly 5 points. As such I planned on completely soft-pedaling this game. (Un)fortunately, my ambition didn’t allow me to completely throw the game, and there was a late-game surprise upset.

At the start of the game, the large amount of enmity on Patmos made it impossible for most players to buy or raid. This affected everyone to varying degrees.

Our Lord Merchant only had one enmity sticker on the entire map (and it isn't on Patmos!) so he was almost completely unaffected. He set out to start his financial empire, using his startup bonus cash as a bootstap but ill-timed demands for gold and goods from the Pirate King slowed his progress immensely. Despite this, he quickly amassed a pretty significant amount of gold. Rather than cashing it all in for glory, he started doing calculations based on the projected winner’s score and his “goal” of having a specific number of starting bonuses in the next session. He only purchased treasures that would put him exactly where he wanted to be and no further ahead. Every time someone other than his predicted winner would score a point, he would re-calculate his “allowable” score. And if he had already exceeded that amount he would wheedle and cajole other players into scoring more to put him back on track. Aside from this questionable “alternate” gameplay strategy, he continued buying and selling goods as per his normal strategy.

The PURPLE Baron was also almost completely unaffected as he already had up to four enmity on almost every island already (from prior “adventures” – mostly from over-use of the Thug advisor) and the enmity on Patmos was dwarfed by various island's native’s hatred of him. Still, he was able to maintain his normal gameplay strategy of buying (albeit at a slower rate than the Lord Merchant) and translating this into buildings and colonies. He quickly built the building that allowed him to hire Patmos advisors from afar.

As mentioned above, the BLUE Count seemed to be entirely focused on research and exploration, specifically exploring Tombs. Alas, the curse of Bad Luck™ still weighed heavy on him and his three Tomb forays resulted in: sinking his flagship in the attempt; gaining some (small) amount of gold and nothing else; and then on his third and final try, he actually found the game’s first Relic! Of course, almost immediately afterwards he received damage to his hold and the Relic was “lost” to the sea. In the meantime, he was hiring every Explorer’s Guild advisor that appeared in the forum! This was exceedingly frustrating to me, as I was seated to his left and he was taking all of the advisors that I was looking at. By the end of the game, he had both Archaeologists, plus the Explorer’s Patron and the Renowned Explorer! (So, maybe his luck was not so bad after all.) As a result, on any turn where he could not explore, he was researching. He probably performed the research action at least four times during the course of the game. Due to his continual actions using beneficial advisors, BLUE found, not one, but two of the special two-part maps! He was able to use both of them in this game, resulting in him gaining a 7-box upgrade to his raiding; a 7-box upgrade to his exploration; and the destruction of an iron market on an island owned by the RED player. Of course, he applied both upgrades to the same ship. Due to all of these shenanigans, BLUE was holding a healthy Glory lead in this session.

GREEN (me) went into the game with the strategy of exploring the few still available spaces on far-flung islands, and do some minor research on the side. But since my BLUE opponent was stopping me from doing any of that (by taking all of the advisors), my options become much more limited. I did have one decent advisor (The Captain), who had been upgraded to an overall explore bonus of +5, which is not shabby! But she was only one advisor. Luckily, I was able to pick up “throwaway” advisor that allowed me to refresh any advisor in my council chambers, so I was able to leverage her twice in one year. Between those successes and investing in a couple of structures and upgrades, I stayed in competition. I was still far behind everyone else, which was fine. Until…

Around the sixth turn, I realized that BLUE had almost completely cycled the research deck. On a whim, I used my appellation to perform all three Explorer’s guild actions and did some research (in addition to sailing and exploring). And, ironically, I pulled the Ornate chart! (Interestingly, I also pulled the second half of the specific “two-part” chart that the RED player was hunting for. I think he was far more upset that I dumped it rather than putting it in my Treasure Vault where it could later be raided away than he was that I’d basically completed a milestone. On my next turn, I went to the last column where my colony had +Exploration influence and used the chart, and unlocked Box 5.

The ensuing chaos was worth it. It catapulted me from dead-last (in terms of Glory) to second in the session, and only behind BLUE by one point. If the game had ended right then, that would have been ideal for me. But it didn’t. And it wasn’t.

The RED Prince was soft-pedaling on his usual hit-and-run strategy. Instead, he was mustering forces for a dedicated run at Ker. After some maneuvering, upgrades, advisor selection and travel time (his slowest ship only has a sail value of three) he mounted an all-out assault on the colony. Armed with a stunning 21 dice, minus the defensive values, he still had an almost certain victory. And indeed, he was victorious! This may have been why he was so non-plussed when I discovered the Ornate chart – he was already eyeing Ker. In fact, if memory serves, I believe he captured Ker on the same turn that I discovered Arados. This pushed him up to the same score as me. So our top three players RED, GREEN and BLUE were far ahead of everyone else and any of us could win in a turn or two. This game our Lord Merchant fits as he was trying to reconcile how many points to gain based on a nearly 10 point campaign spread.

As it turned out, BLUE got there first… but not last. With Arados out of the bag, all players began interrogating their advisors, with all of them coming up blank. We actually began to wonder if the “Light of Truth” was a gag gimmick that had no real effect. The game was winding down, I’d done as much as I had hoped (and far more), and there was a Patmos Advisor in the forum that would allow me to reclaim two enmity form the table. I sailed to Patmos and hired him (at great cost – 12 gold after the penalty for my 4 Patmos enmity). On my next turn, I interrogated him with ill effect: he was immediately dismissed and I was unable to use his "end of turn" ability to reclaim enmity. I paid 12 gold for him and got nothing for it! Still, this did confirm that sometimes the “Light of Truth” had some effect.

The PURPLE Baron had also hired a Patmos Advisor, and upon interrogating him, was forced to DESTROY the card. Apparently Arados infiltrators are skittish and/or suicidal!

Immediately following that fiasco, BLUE gained the victory points needed to win the game. With one final turn remaining, I launched a suicidal raid against the Lord Merchant’s colony. This was not “suicidal” in that it was a Hail Mary last-ditch effort. No, instead it was suicidal in that I had literally ZERO chance to succeed. My flagship has a native raid value of two, and was suffering from a damage card that gave it -2 to Raid. Taking into account the emnity stickers on his province, I would need to deduct 5 more dice from that. And then the defensive values of the colony would take effect, reducing the number even further. So in essence, I was rolling zero dice, was guaranteed to take at least eight damage. We didn’t even pull the cards and just sank the ship. Which had an upgrade. So, I dropped two points. (I did this on purpose to maintain an appropriate deficit.)

But the RED Prince was sneaky and used his final turn in a completely different way. Not only was what he did amazing (for him) but it was also devastating (for me). He interrogated a throwaway advisor (for one point), bought a final structure (for a second point), but the structure immediately awarded him two points for each of his Tablets (he has two) for an additional four points -a total of six points in a single turn!! This did several things: it moved him AHEAD of the “winning” BLUE player and gave him the session victory (which he used to upgrade the farm on the always active Ker); it not only invalidated my prior point “dumping”, but since he was already in the lead it pushed me even further behind (I was going to be finishing the game slightly ahead of him, before his six point finale); and it annoyed the Lord Merchant, who could have gotten far more points based on the already leading player winning (again).

This session was our longest one yet and I sincerely hope we do not have a repeat of this length. For me, the game dragged on and on and never seemed to go anywhere. The first few hours were pretty unexciting and while there was a mid-game pickup with Arados and Ker the final turn was personally distressing. Seeing my well-crafted plan fall apart unexpectedly was not a fun time. I can only hope to make it up next session.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 25, 2017 8:54 AM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - session eight
This is a continuation of our ongoing playthrough of this campaign-style "legacy" boardgame. If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading these postings - there will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any hidden game mechanics or surprises that are revealed during gameplay. At this point, we had unlocked up to the third Secret chest during our prior game.

Our players, in order from lowest to highest scores at the beginning of this game session:Going into this game session, there was only one “unlock” milestone on the board: 'A Fable Reborn', which required the “Strange Chart” to accomplish. As I had just built the exploration colony in the far seas, my primary strategy was to camp out on my colony and research until I found the Chart and accomplish the unlock. With luck I would be able to accomplish the explore easily in a single turn and insulate myself from the risk of having the Strange Chart plundered before I could use it. Aside from that, it was my fervent hope to finish the game exactly five points behind the RED player. (At the start of this session, I was only a single point behind.) As a result, I did as little as possible to score points. As a tertiary goal, I was hoping to reclaim the enmity that I was forced to hand out to other players as part of the “catch up” mechanism. I have been remiss on this in the past, and due to my consistent placing in the top one or two ranks – I only fell as low as 3rd place for a single game – I have been handing out enmity stickers to other players quite a bit.

At the start of the game, there was the usual maneuvering and jostling for goods on the various islands. The Merchant seemed to be taking an interest in actually playing the game for a change and not just scooping up every good possible, reselling them and amassing a huge pile of gold that counted for nothing. Interestingly enough, The PURPLE player set out doing this instead, gathering goods for something (but we didn’t know what yet). The BLUE player split his fleet, sending one ship to Paradise Island and one to the unexplored island in the far seas. I sailed my fleet to a nearby island and scooped up two specific goods – spice and iron – intended to buy upgrades that would aid with my goals.

Within two turns, the Merchant had built a Trading Post, allowing him to sell goods at a much higher profit. He wasted no time in telling everyone that he was willing to share this benefit with anyone that could provide him with Reputation. (I’m still not sure what his goal was with that strategy – I suspect I will learn more in later sessions.) The BLUE player was positioned to take advantage of the offer, but as luck would have it the Pirate King was demanding Gold this turn, making arbitrage very unattractive. (As it turned out, the BLUE player was the wealthiest at the end of the turn anyway, and the Pirate King raided his coffers for one-half his vast fortune - a single gold!) The RED player continued his reign of terror from the prior game and declared that “none shall enter” at Paradise Island, where he had established his raiding colony; as warning to everyone, he sank the ship of the BLUE player who was anchored there. (Personally, I felt the time could have been better spent working on expansion, rather than protectionism.)

I quickly sailed home, turned my spice into an exploration upgrade, and then set out for Danger Island where I had my exploration colony. With no other potential actions available, I spent a turn taxing my province. I arrived at my destination on Turn Four, and spent my tax income on building a new Gun Tower at my home province (using the iron I had previously purchased on Turn One). The Merchant felt that this was a stupid move, as I could have sold the iron for ten gold, and then used that to purchase the same upgrade later, saving two gold. But that tactic would have cost me a turn and a reputation. I was jealously guarding my reputation as mentioned above, so it would have been an extremely poor trade (for me!).

I began to explore the virgin lands of Danger Island. I should note that it was named “Danger Island” because all “minor success” rolls (the single dot face on the dice) count as failures, making it more difficult to accomplish any endeavor there. Plus, every single site on the island is a “dangerous” site, meaning that Fortune tokens could not be used to make it easier! But by taking advantage of my colony bonus, ship upgrades and Advisor bonuses, I was easily able to explore two new sites on the island. Unfortunately, I chose entries in the Captain’s Booke poorly. I found a 6-gold mine, and iron dock upgrade locations. At least the mine will produce three gold per Winter, making the colony activation cost effectively only half as much (6 gold out-of-pocket, 3 gold return on investment form the mine.)

I should note that I was exploring rather than researching because I was out of gold. The Gun Tower purchase used my last two gold (with the 8 gold discount from the single iron in my warehouse.) I had hoped to uncover additional resources to move the supply further out to sea, and removing resources from the islands closest to shore, but was not successful. (Un)Fortunately, due to my exploration success (?) I had gained six Glory and was within a few points of the lead.

Meanwhile, the BLUE and RED players were busy exploring the furthest island sites. This concerned me a bit since my colony at Danger Isle was only two spaces away, and could impact my overall plan, should it come to fruition. But they seemed to be worried about the “danger” at Danger Isle and stayed away, only exploring a nearby island. A new Tomb was discovered, and both BLUE and RED seemed determined to explore it. Both made a pass at it, but neither found anything of note, and the Tomb remained open. Normally, this would be an important factor for me as well, but since I was focused on a different goal, I let them fight over it. This would be a very important factor in the later game. The PURPLE player was quietly building structures, without anyone noticing. Or, rather, if anyone did notice, we weren’t really concerned. There was a milestone available for building five structures, but the PURPLE player was the only one with more than one colony, so there was no contest for it.

The turn before our first Winter, the Merchant player did something amazing: utilizing the Advisor bonuses of Mr. F. Mason The Surveyor (“You may substitute 8 gold for a good when building a Colony. You may use this ability to substitute for multiple goods.”) He plunked down the full 48 gold and built a colony on the island of Booty Bay, using no goods at all!! (He did try to argue that he could use that Advisor’s build cost reduction bonus as well, but after several minutes of FAQ checking, we disallowed that. It would have saved ten gold overall, so it might have made a small end-game difference, but not a large one.) Of course he chose the colony that allowed him to sell goods from the colony warehouse. Without a doubt, this will profit him as we move forward.

With a fresh infusion of gold from the Winter Harvest, I was well positioned to move forward on my overarching strategy. As it turned out, the very first Event of our second year was The Explorer’s Guild Festival (“This round the Research action is free.”). Accordingly, on my turn I explored another site on Danger Island, discovering another do-nothing site (a Spice Market) and then, taking advantage of the Event, performed a Research action. Imagine my joy when the Strange Chart appeared in front of me! I was going to accomplish the unlock on my very next turn!!

The flaw in my plan was the RED Player. As the Prince, he had yet to take his turn. On the prior turn he had sailed home, intending to raid a player Province! The Strange Chart was sitting in my Treasure Room and it was clear that I was positioned to use it. The BLUE player still held the Advisor who had touched off our first “war” (in session 4) and the +7 Exploration benefit would undoubtedly help with the still-open Tomb on the furthest island. But, I had used two prior “win” bonuses from previous sessions to upgrade my home Garrison, plus I’d built a Gun Tower in this game, giving me a home defense of 4. Adding the enmity that had already developed in past game sessions, getting to my Treasure Room was going to be extremely difficult. On the other hand, by leveraging Advisor bonuses and upgrades, it was not out of the question. Running the numbers, I made it to be slightly less than a 50-50 chance of success and would definitely cost three enmity. On the other hand, attacking the BLUE player’s Advisor Room was an almost certainty, and would only cost a single enmity. (RED's Advisor in play was “The Pirate” which allowed two fewer enmity to be “paid” for attacking other players.) Luckily for me, the cost-benefit was pretty clear and RED stole the famed explorer from BLUE, ignoring my research.

As expected, on my next turn, I unlocked box 4. We took a short intermission establishing the new rules and effects. Two major points of contention with what we found:

First, when adding starting enmity to Patmos, the rules state that players add starting with the player to the left of whomever discovered the island. As spaces fill up, subsequent players will cover previously applied stickers. This means that the player who discovered the island is going to have no opportunity to ask others to cover his stickers! In our game, the player to left of me was the RED player who ended up placing nine stickers on Patmos. The Merchant only needed to add two, PURPLE added six and BLUE added another five. When it came back to me, I literally had no choice but to make the game easier on my opponents by covering their stickers. This seems to unfairly punish the exploring player who unlocks the island! I would like to hear the justification for this rule and why it was done this way.

Also, the text on the Colony of Ker with respect to the “new” global enmity rules is extremely poorly written and subject to interpretation! (There are plenty of threads on BGG that bear witness to this.)

Thirdly, one of the sticker packs in box 4 includes what seems to be additional slots for ship upgrades. However, none of the new rules explain how or when these additional slots may be used. All players in our current game have maxed out one or more categories on the current ships. How do we get a seven-slot ship? Once again, the rules seem to have missed an editing step!

Finally (and not a concern, but of note), the new “unlock” milestone also seems to be tied to Research, which, given my appellation and strategy, means that I am more likely to accomplish it than other players. Having said that, this game session was bereft of explorer Advisors, which hampered me slightly. If the situation continues, it might be difficult to unlock. We shall see how this unfolds over the next few sessions.

With that out of the way, the game continued for only one more turn. As expected, the PURPLE player built his fifth (and final) structure earning a new milestone and winning the game. However, he was still at the Baron rank, giving the BLUE Count, GREEN Duke (me), and RED prince one final turn. The BLUE Count used his final turn to make a second attempt at the only open Tomb but did not succeed. Unfortunately for me, my success had granted me so much Glory in a single turn that I was now tied with the RED player for second place. I followed the BLUE player, and sailed my fleet to the Tomb. Even though I had nearly no chance of success, the outcome would be good for me; if I succeeded, I could potentially explore a Tomb, if not, my ship would sink and I would lower my session Glory. (I was hoping for a second starting bonus – ideally I would finish five points behind the Prince.) As it turned out, I sank, costing me two points from destroying ship upgrades. (Personally, I consider it to be a pretty significant game design flaw when losing points is the best course of action!!)

I also took advantage of my Appellation bonus in this final round and performed all three of the Explorer’s Guild actions. Leveraging my Advisor’s abilities to draw three and keep two Research cards, I was hoping to make some headway on the newly discovered unlock milestone, but instead I found and kept two +1 exploration maps, each with +2 exploration bonus on “skull” sites. The RED Prince was in position to sink the PURPLE Baron and prolong the game, but I suspect fatigue was in play and instead he performed Research and was able to claim one-half of one of the new two-part Research cards.

Once again, for me this was a nearly completely successful session. I met my primary goal. As for my secondary goal, once again, I was somewhat less successful. Despite targeting a 5-point deficit, by gaining the big unlock milestone I scored too many easy points. Even though I was mostly not looking for scoring opportunities, I still managed to only finish two points behind the leader. Since I had started only a single point in arrears, I'm now only three points back from the Prince. I have been specifically targeting milestones for the entire game – without any contest, I have unlocked far more than any other player – and at this point I’m not sure whether the best strategy is to stay within striking distance of the lead an hope for a last minute surge, or to simply blast ahead and close out games quickly and gain a large lead. Either strategy may lead to me wining the Throne at the end. Even trying to "soft pedal" my score, I'm easily staying in the top two ranks.

It was very enjoyable seeing the Merchant take time out from simply building an economic engine and actually take part in other aspects of the game. The PURPLE player was awarded his first ever win and moved closer to being in contention for the overall win! Having said that, his deficit from the early portion of the campaign was so great that he did not make any ground in terms of rank, only narrowing his tail. PURPLE may actually be in the best position to hit milestones in our next session. He is probably the second best raider, plus one of the lowest enmity counts on Patmos. BLUE is still focusing on exploration, but with his prized explorer Advisor now gone, he may need to change strategies. I think the next session will be make-or-break for him. The RED player has been painted into a corner now and will need to work very hard to change direction. With six enmity on Patmos, and being the Prince, capturing Ker is almost certainly not possible for him. (Even though I did not know what was going to happen, I was very careful to make sure that Patmos was discovered outside of his raiding colony’s sphere of influence, while keeping it within my exploration colony’s range. Net result: neither of us get any benefit.) Past raids against other players have left him at a deficit there as well; now that the actual Pirate King is in play, he likely won’t be able to continue on his past path.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 18, 2017 8:59 AM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - session seven
This is a continuation of our ongoing playthrough of this campaign-style "legacy" boardgame.

I’m going to refer to players by their COLOR rather than Rank. While it’s mostly easy for me to keep track of who is who, for that sake of the reader, I think the colors will help track who is winning and who is falling behind.

Our players, in order from lowest to highest scores at the outset of the game:

At this point, we had unlocked up to the third Secret chest during our prior game. If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading these postings - there will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any hidden game mechanics or surprises that are revealed during gameplay.

Going into this game, my strategy was to quickly purchase wood, return home and build a Hold upgrade on one of my ships and then scavenge the six goods required to build a colony. I had tried this in the previous session without success. By making it my #1 goal and staying focused on that, I assumed I would have better luck. The overall goal was to plant the “exploration” colony on Danger Isle, which would hopefully allow me to attempt exploring more Tombs as the game progressed. I went into the game assuming that I would be building the colony right around Turn 6 or 7. I was really hoping to get out of the Prince position. Ideally, I would end up 6 points in arrears for two starting bonuses in the next game.

For the first “year” (six turns), each player seemed to be committed to following their own specific strategy.

The PURPLE (Lord) player seemed to be in the best position to get at least two milestones (three colonies, and five structures) and he continued gathering materials. It looked like he was focusing on the former milestone first, and was successful in achieving his very first milestone around the fourth or fifth turn into the game! The Glory and Honor gained along the way put him at 10/16 points, nearly 2/3 of the way to finishing out the game. (It’s worth noting that at that point, two players – me and the Merchant – still only had ONE point on the board!) It’s also worth noting that all three of these colonies are on the islands closest to our Province ports. Without any spoiler-knowledge of the future events, I have a suspicion that this is not a good strategic location for colonies. My feeling is that as goods move further afield, he will have fewer “production” from those colonies and it may end up biting him in the long-game. We’ll see.

The BLUE (Baron) player seemed to be continuing his strategy of exploration. He made a quick rush out to a couple of unexplored locations on remote islands. He managed to quickly score a handful of points by opening a new Tomb exploring a “Turtle” symbol something that we didn’t know was possible. The very next turn the Pirate King demanded Gold. Everyone at the table started plotting ways to reduce their gold supply to not be the target – with the exception of the RED player. He was the strongest “raider” of us all and would have had about a pretty good shot at gaining Glory from the defense. Amusingly, the BLUE Baron ended up discovering a treasure trove of 45 Gold on that same turn, making him the wealthiest player by far and subjecting him to the Pirate King’s ravages.

The Merchant started out slower than normal this game, mostly due to a bookkeeping error. During setup, three of the wood upgrades were left in the box and not put onto the sideboard. One of these three was the Merchant’s “normal” setup buildings. The error was discovered on the third turn, but by then the damage had been done and it set back building his arbitrage-engine by at least two full turns.

The RED (Duke) player also was continuing his established strategy of hit-and-run tactics, attacking other players whenever they seemed to have an advantage, and utilizing his Advisors and Appellation to remove enmity whenever possible. In this case, he had “adopted” an island (St. Rebecca aka "Paradise Island") as “his” property. When the BLUE player discovered a Tomb there, he quickly followed with his entire fleet and sank the BLUE ship, declaring that no-one was allowed to visit that island again! Of course, on the next turn he explored the Tomb that had just been opened, discovering the game’s second Tablet (we have yet to find a single “Relic”, unfortunately!) and closed the tomb. It’s still a valuable island, but it is tucked away in a corner of the map (for now) and I suspect the other players will likely just stay away from it. (I’m planning on avoiding it in any case!)

I stuck to my original plan. As we approached our first Winter, I was stocked with the required goods and was within striking distance of two different islands. Along the way I had upgraded one of my ships, succeeded at two raids, and used the Advisor “Stabby” to gain two more goods along the way, giving me four points. Sensing that I was about to do something, the RED player attacked my home Province. I don’t think he actually knew what I was planning, just that I was about to accomplish a goal. He easily stole the Tablet that I was storing in my Treasure Room, which didn’t affect my plans at all, and gave me three enmity towards him.

On the very first turn after Winter, the Pirate King once again demanded gold. I was well positioned to accomplish my initial game-goal, but as a developed Province, I was once again in the running for Pirate Raids. I considered dumping gold into a Treasure, but instead I purchased an expensive Advisor that would have helped the BLUE player. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated how much gold I was left with and it looked like I was going to be the target.

Amazingly enough, the BLUE player (who was now last in the rotation, due to the reassignment of the Astrolabe during Winter) explored a site and discovered an ominous “Tower of Bones”! The options he had to select from were
  1. Leave it alone,
  2. Share with his province, or
  3. Become a God.
It seemed like an easy choice to me, but he made a different selection that I would have. I won’t say which one he chose (it would spoil the fun for others) but I will say that the result was that he gained 50 Gold. As the final player in the round. When the Pirate King was raiding the wealthiest player. So, our poor BLUE player was attacked by the Pirate King for the second time in this game, costing him over 55 Gold total in this session! The only good that came of it was that he ended up gaining Glory for most of his actions that led up to those calamities and was close to closing out the game as the victor.

On the next turn the Merchant was making his first arbitrage “withdrawal”, selling a boatload of stored goods and gaining 72 gold. On the next turn he was going to buy new buildings that would increase his sale prices even further and within two more turns would have become an unstoppable economic force. I accomplished my goal on turn eight (second turn after Winter). Immediately after that, the BLUE player gained the points needed to end the game, winning his first session ever.

For me, this was a nearly completely successful session. I met my primary goal. As for my secondary goal, I was somewhat less successful, but certainly did not "fail". I had targeted a 6-point deficit, but there were too many easy scoring opportunities for me to ignore, and I only slid back by a mere three points! Since I had started two points in the lead, this only put my one point back from our new Prince. Still, that's better than staying in the lead. I suspect that my weakness in the meta-game is that I tend to gain points steadily as we play, not in bursts. This means that my only path to victory will be to stay at or near the top of the scoring charts; that may allow other players to burst past me in later games and cost me the Throne at the end. We’ll see.

Both the BLUE and the PURPLE players accomplished firsts for them: The BLUE player was awarded his first ever game victory, and the PURPLE player was awarded his first ever milestone! Both of them moved up one rank in the campaign hierarchy. The Merchant, having gotten off to a slow start, was the big loser of the day. He wasn’t able to start his economic engine as quickly as normal (although, personally, I think he was really only delayed by one turn) and slipped from the Count position all the way back to Lord. My fear is that he will use his low rank to quickly swoop in and abscond goods from the map before anyone else can make use of them, setting up his economic empire and then winning by “buying” enough points (in the form of treasure) to win the game. Barring any changes to prevent this strategy that come with the next unlock, I suspect our games will be no more than 9-turns long as we move forward.

The RED player has established himself as the de facto Scourge of the Sea, and I will definitely be watching where he goes as the game progresses. Even though his strategy is not in conflict with my goals, I feel like he will be the biggest (and least predictable) threat to my ambitions.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 11, 2017 4:57 PM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - session six
Our group played through Pandemic Legacy with five players - we had our normal group of four, but whenever one player couldn't make a session, we had a dedicated "filler" player who would rotate in and out. It was with this dedicated group of five that we are playing Seafall. This is a continuation of our ongoing playthrough of this campaign-style "legacy" boardgame.

We had unlocked up to the third Secret chest during our prior game. If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading these postings - there will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any hidden game mechanics or surprises that are revealed during gameplay.

Our players, in order from lowest to highest scores at the outset of the game:

- Stupid @ Thursday, April 6, 2017 11:52 AM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - session five
This is a continuation of our playthrough of this campaign-style "legacy" boardgame. If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading these postings - there will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any hidden game mechanics or surprises that are revealed during gameplay.

We unlocked the second Secret chest at the end of our third game, and the third Secret chest during this session, so we are about half-way through revealing all of thew game rules at the end of this session.

Our players, in order from lowest to highest scores at the outset of the game:
Going into this game, it was pretty well understood that the Merchant was going to win, and win big. Two of the milestones that were unlocked in Secret box 2 related directly to gold and arbitrage, and our Merchant was uniquely equipped to play that role. As expected, during the session, he ended up claiming the first milestone ('sell 30+ gold of items in a single turn') on turn 3. Only a mere three turns later he had his second milestone for the day ('60+ gold in the vault'). After that it was a simple matter of buying a couple of treasures (which he could easily afford) and the game was ended.

More interestingly though, was the leftover “unlock” milestone from Secret box 1 to explore a Tomb. Prior to the start of the game, I had looked at the numbers and did not see any way for this to happen. We assumed that the “skull” symbols were tombs, and the lowest value “skull” was an 11 exploration. With an exploration value of 4 on our best ships, plus one more from a supporting ship, that was still less than half of the requirement, so it seemed unlikely to happen. What I did not know at the start was that the Baron had an Advisor that granted a massive +7 to exploration endeavors. 4 plus 7, plus support, plus a couple of fortune tokens and it was certainly within reach!

This led to our first “war”.

The Prince, Baron and Duke (me) all had vessels fast enough and skilled enough to make the attempt. The only island that had a valid site was Buttseam Island (so named due to its location on the gameboard fold), located six spaces out of harbor. The Baron took advantage of a +2 Sail event on the first turn to park his fastest ship on that locale. I did not make a play for the milestone, still (erroneously) thinking it was unobtainable. The Prince launched an all-out attack on the Baron’s homeland. The attack was eminently successful, and Gordon (the Renowned Explorer) was captured by the Prince. The Prince used his Advisor to lower the enmity granted, but the damage was still done. The Baron was not going to accomplish that goal this turn.

On the next turn, the Baron retaliated. Since his fastest ship was far at sea and he was ill equipped for a strong attack, he made his best attempt, and was successful in rescuing Gordon from the Evil Prince’s castle. Still, this had cost him a turn. Mere moments later, having recalculated the odds, the Duke (me) turned an equally malignant eye towards the Baron and kidnapped poor Gordon. (It's worth noting that this was a rules error on our part - since the Prince had already raided the Baron's council chambers, it would not have been possible for a second raid on that site to occur. This is one of the many mechanics that prevent players from teaming up to eliminate a single underdog opponent.) I thought it was pretty much a 50/50 ploy that I would keep him since I had already upgraded by home garrison a bit. As luck would have it the Baron’s warship sailed into port and raided my Council Chambers, returning Gordon to his original home.

We had to re-review the enmity rules several times over the course of this adventure, making sure that the proper tokens were handed out and placed correctly. In retrospect, aside from the aforementioned gaffe, I believe we neglected to account for the pre-existing enmity stickers on our home ports – something we will need to watch for as we move forward.

Amusingly enough, the Prince took advantage of the lag time to send his fastest ship to Buttseam Island and used no fewer than three Research cards he had been hoarding. Between the bonuses on those cards and potential triggered effects, I estimated he had about a 65% chance of success. Not as good as having Gordon, but certainly within the realm of possibility. He had two +2 successes from research cards, plus at least one “reroll” card, and a small stack of fortune tokens to use. I’m not 100% sure exactly how it worked out (going from memory here) but he basically needed to roll five dice and get all five with some flavor of success. Amazingly, despite all of the angst and worry, the very first throw of the dice showed five straight successes!

This led to the unlocking of Secret box 3. This was a bit confusing to us as both of the prior boxes did not unlock until the end of the game. We reviewed the Captain’s Booke entries for the prior unlocks and saw that they had text to imply that those boxes were to be opened at the end of the game. This one did not. After several minutes of searching FAQs and online research, we decided to open the box immediately. Once again, this should have been caught in playtesting and/or proofreading of the rules! If the intent was to open the box immediately, it should say so in the Captain’s Booke entry!!!

In the end, we opened it, and added the materials to our ongoing game, shuffling all of the affected decks. This led to another question: Do the “curses” card get mixed into the “damage” card deck, or are they treated separately? We mixed them in and shuffled, but it would be easy to create a separate stack for curses if that is the way it intended. Once again, the rules are unclear about this!!

While the “Gordon War” was underway, the Merchant was quietly winning the game. We essentially only had two more turns before the game ended. The Lord player ended up founding our first (and so far ONLY) colony taking him from a very distant fifth place to only one point in arrears of the pack. In fact, if not for a couple of clever uses of goods and Advisors by the Duke (netting him 4 Honor in only two turns) that single colony would have propelled the Lord out of the trailing position!

When the final tally was made, the Merchant had a significant lead over every other player, and will be our new Prince (next game). Despite already being in the lowest position, the Lord fell a bit further behind (but not much!). The Baron, played well but was not able to pass the Duke (me), and kept his same overall position. The Prince and I started this session tied for the overall lead; we were both pushed down one seat by the rise of the Merchant, and the Prince pulled ahead of me by two points.

I don’t see the Merchant player as being able to hold on to his lead for much longer. He was artificially handed this game due to having a total of 8 Glory (out of 14) handed to him from milestones. The remaining milestones on the board are not eminently achievable – although I said the same thing about the unlock that happened this game too, so maybe they are! – I expect that the next game or two will be much like our second game meeting: a “development” game that allows each player’s strategies to develop. I expect that as heaps of gold and treasures start to accumulate in our Merchant’s vault, he will find himself a more and more juicy target. Particularly for players who have been focusing on raiding!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 4, 2017 12:19 PM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - sessions three and four
This is a continuation of our playthrough.

We played our first "real" game (following the prologue) without achieving the only “unlock” milestone, so this report will cover our third meeting - with events that typically occur during the first game for most people - and our fourth session, which ended with one of the two "Box 1" unlock milestones being achieved. This report will be pretty spoilerific, and if you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading this post. There will be spoilers that will affect your enjoyment of the game if/when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any later game hidden mechanics or surprises.

We (erroneously) started our game with two milestones available. Even though it had been claimed in the first game, after a VERY careful review of the rule book and Captain’s Booke, we left the “An Island Revealed” milestone on the board. We were already a bit iffy on this, but the other milestones had clear instructions to record the achievement in the Historical Record and this one specifically did not; we (mistakenly) assumed this was a conscious decision on the part of the game designer and left it in. Of course, on the first turn, one player quickly sailed to the closest island (only two spaces from the harbors) and explored there. During the re-reading of the indicated entry, we quickly came to the conclusion that this might have been an error. Searching on BGG, we confirmed that this was an "oversight" and the “An Island Revealed” milestone was supposed to have been destroyed when it was achieved in our prior game; this meant that the exploring player in THIS game would not get any additional Glory, or any other rewards, benefits, or disadvantages for the milestone. Since it had already been claimed, it couldn’t be claimed again. This was a huge mistake and completely changed the outcome of the game, because the “highest site” that had just been explored was (of course) a 6. And since it was only 2 spaces from everyone’s home harbor, the very next player sailed out and immediately raided that spot (on their first turn!), claiming the “Darkness Stirs” milestone. Had the “An Island Revealed” milestone not been mistakenly placed on the board, it would have forced us to move a little slower and the scores would have been very different!

In any case, after our only milestone had been claimed, we went along playing the game. I went into the game with a healthy 5-point lead, and I had heard that the catchup mechanics were pretty brutal, so I had planned on soft-pedaling this game, shooting for a second or third place finish.

I should point out that the players are given ranks in the game based on their overall campaign score. The rankings determine turn order as well as starting bonuses, and they change after each session. From lowest to highest, the rankings are: Lord, Baron, Count, Duke, and Prince.

For the most part, our strategies pretty much carried over from the first game. Our Lord player (who was all about raiding) continued to raid the entire map and spread enmity around. The Baron (who was simply buying goods and then reselling them) continued his strategy. The Count (who really didn’t have a coherent strategy in the first game) went all-in on exploring. Our Duke (who was pretty much “gifted” the only milestone for this session game) took on a fairly aggressive stance and started raiding quite a bit. I was playing as Prince and (as mentioned above) was not really doing anything coherent – I was planning on playing the merchantile game, but as I found out, being ranked so high made that pretty much impossible.

I had set my eyes on a few remote goods, hoping to snatch them up, quickly return home, and then use them to buy a few upgrades, selling off the leftovers for a second trip. Unfortunately, as the Prince, I went last in the turn order and every time I went to buy a good, it was gone before my turn. Or the upgrade that I was planning on buying with a good that I did have would sell out before I could buy it.

After our third session game, the scores moved around a bit, mostly driven by our milestone error. The Count (who was hoping to claim the erroneous milestone) ended in third, not changing his standings at all. The Duke (who was the lucky recipient the error - pretty much handing him 3 Glory on the first turn) became our new Prince. My initial lead from the prior game was so much that, despite a pretty dismal final score (I think I only had 5 Glory in this 12 Glory game), I managed to only slip down one rank, to Duke. The raiding Lord moved up one slot, and the merchant Baron moved down, effectively trading places.

We ended our third meeting by opening the first Secret Box, revealing a whole lot of new stuff: new rules were introduced allowing players to raid each other’s ships, new research cards that would convey lasting bonuses to players, and new rules for exploring the unexplored oceans. Up until this point, we had been limited to only four islands to explore, and this opened up the wide seas for exploration (and exploitation)!

At the start of our fourth session, my biggest goal was to go exploring. At the end of every game session, we were allowed to upgrade one "stat" on one of our two ships, and in order to (hopefully)
get ahead of my competition, at the end of our prior game, I had selected to increase one of my ship's speed. Not being in the Prince’s seat, coupled with that (speed) stat increase, left me in a good position to buy hard goods from a remote island and try to get a quick upgrade or two in my province on turn two before turning my eyes west.

However, my plans changed instantly when the Count (immediately to my right) performed a devastatingly bad raid on the nearest island and took two damage to his flagship. There was a one-time only bonus milestone called ”The Sea Embraces” on the table, which had a very simple requirement to sink an opponent's ship. This was just too juicy of a target to pass up, so I quickly ran out and sank his ship for an instant 5 points. The resulting special event was kind of cool to read, too. It basically created a shipwreck that would occasionally send out a ghost ship to attack whomever was closest to the sunken shop site! Another case of the rules changing and the game morphing as we played it. Unfortunately it ended up being placed right next to the Coastal Waters mega-space which is going to pretty much screw whomever is in port when the Event activates.

I immediately set my eye on a second milestone called ”Trade Flourishes” that required selling four of any goods in a single turn. Unfortunately (for me) I didn’t notice that it could only be achieved with bonuses from Advisors - the game specifically limits players to selling TWO goods in a single turn. Selling more than that requires a +sell bonus from an Advisor. I was thinking that all I had to do was to gather the good and then sell them. A huge mistake on my part, and probably cost me the game.

Our new Lord Merchant player continued his buying and selling spree. Due to his place in the turn order he immediately grabbed one of the new Advisors, allowing him to instantly “teleport” home from anywhere. Coupled with two prior upgrades to his ship’s holds, he was able to accumulate a nice stack of hard goods in his warehouse before our second Winter. At one point he had over 40 gold, plus another four five goods warehoused. Solid CONSISTENT choices of Advisors and upgrades seemed to really work well for him!

Our new Baron Raider player continued his raiding ways and his score reflected it. He slowly gained points from raiding and built a couple of defensive structures in his province. I suspect that might be a valid tactic later, but for now, it did not serve him well, as no one was attacking.

The new Count and I (the new Duke) started exploring to the west and discovered no less than three atolls, two islands, and several dangerous waters. The new islands have some site marked with new symbols, which are likely tied to the “Ancient Secrets Unearthed” milestone. Sadly, the lowest exploration value on any of these is a 7, which, at this point in the game, is going to be a risky proposition for anyone. Our two new islands were and “Island A” and “Island G”.

Sadly, we immediately discovered that Island A has a typo on the island sticker: it has a Dangerous Waters value of 4, instead of the 3 value that is called for on the island card. I'm really disappointed by the number of typos, "oversights" and out-and-out rules errors. If anything, this will be the thing that drives our group to stop playing the game. We are enjoying the pace, the theme and the weight of the game. We are not enjoying plans that go awry due to rules errors and needing to keep mental track of stickers that have incorrect values! Island G will hencforth be known as "Paradise Island", because player enmity doesn’t affect prices. (This means that no matter how much you abuse the natives, they will never raise prices for their goods.) I expect this will become a popular stop for most players, particularly as we move further west. The Glory from these discoveries really helped us stay afloat .

The Prince kept up the pace by exploring the (very few) locations left on the initial four islands and raiding here and there, but kind of lost inertia as the game progressed. I suspect he was feeling a bit unhappy about his position in the turn order (as I had been in the prior game) and was playing a bit softer to move down a rank or two.

I started with a massive 5 Glory lead, and one of the Pirate King Event cards came up, leading to some minor damage to one of my ships, and costing me one action/turn.

Amusingly enough, when the "The Sea Embraces" Event card popped up (this is the Event that triggers the Ghost Ship that I had created in prior turns), I was headed back to my Province. All the other players ships were scattered far and wide and it was unavoidable that I would be targeted. It felt thematically correct, but it cost me another turn/action.

As luck would have it, the only Advisor in the game with a Sell Goods +2 did not pop up until the very last turn before our second Winter. He only came up at that point because of the “Whispers” Event card that causes all Advisors with a Reputation value of one to be dismissed and replaced with new Advisors. And then Winter came and all the advisors were dismissed and replaced. At that point both the Lord Merchant and I had four goods ready to be sold. (The Lord merchant actually had no less than 8 Lumber cubes in his warehouse! This actually led to a lumber shortage in the world and several wood spaces went un-refreshed during Winter.)

After our second winter, the Lord Merchant built an upgrade that allowed him to rotate through all of the active Advisors for one gold. After selling off half of his stock (and using another Advisor bonus), he had enough gold on hand to simply “find” the Advisor he wanted and hire him. Claiming the selling milestone that I was tracking, he started buying treasures and went from dead last to winning the session. In fact, just by leveraging his massive amounts of wealth, he gained 10 points in three turns, ending the game with 15 overall and exceeding the amount needed to win by two entire points! Again, a solidly CONSISTENT choice of Advisors and upgrades meshed to make his strategy really come together!

For myself, I was playing a “jack of all trades master of none” strategy. Between my initial 5 point lead, exploring several new sites in the far ocean, and judicious use of my funds and hard goods, I managed to stay in the lead up until the final turn - albeit at times I was only one or two points ahead. Had it not been for that early gift of Glory, I would have fallen far behind the curve. I don’t think this strategy will serve me moving forward. Still, I was able to use my final turn to take advantage of one of my ”Renowned” Advisors, and launched an easy 3-point raid on a nearby island, awarding me two final points right at the end of the game. Overall, I finished in second with 14 points (out of the 13 required to end the game).

When the totals were added up, we have two players each with 30 points. Since I was the lowest rank player tied for the lead, and as much as I don’t want the role, it looks like I’m back in the Prince’s seat for the next game. Our Lord Merchant slingshotted himself from dead-last to third place overall, with only a 3 point deficit off the lead! I can see how this is going to go for at least the next few games. The old Duke kept pace, but the Lord’s meteoric rise left him in the dust, bumping him down one rank. The ex-Baron, who seems to be mostly treating the game like a military conquest, is now firmly in last place, with less than 2/3rds the point total of the leader(s). At least he’s going to have plenty of enmity against the other players due to the title bonuses. Maybe he’ll start raiding other players!

- Stupid @ Thursday, March 30, 2017 10:00 AM PT [+]

Seafall (boardgame campaign) - sessions one and two
Our group played through Pandemic Legacy with five players - we had our normal group of four, but whenever one player couldn't make a session, we had a dedicated "filler" player who would rotate in and out. It was with this dedicated group of five that we started playing Seafall.

Seafall is a "legacy" boardgame. That is, each session of this boardgame has a clear winner, decided by points, but the rules change (sometimes) based on actions that occurred during the game. Then for the next session, the game is slightly different, based on the rules that were added or changed, and the scores from the prior session carry over. Over time, the game changes in dramatic ways that were almost unimaginable when it first started. In essence it is a "campaign-style" game, but rather than being a Role Playing game where everything is imagined or described, it takes place on a tangible map, with chits and markers and effects cards.

If you are planning on ever playing Seafall, I STRONGLY urge you to skip reading this posting. There will be spoilers! Spoilers will affect your enjoyment of the game when you play it. I will make no attempt to shield you from any later game hidden mechanics or surprises.

The first sessions of the game is called the Prologue.

Before playing the prologue, I put the How to Play video on our TV and we all watched. (I won't recap the game rules here. If you want to know how the game plays, go watch the video.) When we sat down, the gameplay went quickly and we finished the prologue in two and a half turns. All players (expect for one) named one island each and the game was quickly over. It was a nice intro to the mechanics, but since it was a short game there really wasn't time for any kind of real strategy to develop. It actually felt kind of rushed.

We were all disappointed to "kill" our leaders at the end of the prologue. As a full five players, that meant that our second pick was going to be chosen from the five (subjectively) worst leaders. Even though it is just artwork, it is our characters in-game, and we wanted to choose someone that "felt" right. This was a major black mark against the game right away.

At the start of the fist real game, we were looking forward to a longer game, and one that actually had some kind of strategy develop. One of our players decided to be the "nice" guy and started buying goods from uncovered locales, sailing home and using the goods to buy single-point treasures. Another player chose to be the raiding master and started pillaging every island he could find; his goal was to use the goods to build structures. My strategy was to explore as much as I could and uncover new goods that way. The last two players, because of their position at the table, had limited options, and they did their best but never really got much of anywhere.

After four turns, our intrepid treasure hunter had managed to buy his third treasure, netting him the first achievement of the game ("The Finest Treasures") and putting him in a tenuous lead. My strategy of exploration had earned me enough hard goods to buy two structures - but at the cost of spending both of my luck tokens. On the fifth turn, I made a gamble and attempted an exploration of the highest numbered site on a remote island and managed to complete the endeavor, taking only one damage in the process, and gaining me the second milestone of the game ("An Island Explored") and putting me solidly in the lead. Plus that final exploration granted me enough goods to buy my third and final structure, which would award me the third milestone and win the game. I just had to make it home to port and manage to keep at least two gold in my treasury.

Alas, on the sixth turn, one of the last two players sabotaged my efforts and purchased the last 10-gold structure on the sideboard. That left only 18-gold structures available. Even with the hard-good discount, I was going to need 10+ gold to buy that last building. I positioned myself for the goods refresh in Winter. My plan was to use the first turn to buy some goods (ANYTHING!) and then tax my populace until I could buy that expensive structure. But I had forgotten that our fields produced in Winter! Suddenly I was awash in gold, and I could win on my next turn! But the astrolabe passed to the player on my left, putting me last in the play order, and giving everyone else one more guaranteed turn.

After some conversation (and smack-talk) at the table, our raiding player decided that his job was to destroy one of my cheap and easy-to-pillage structures. He brought his entire fleet (of two ships) and after accounting for my Gun Tower, rolled four dice. He was surely going to sink his flagship, but he was determined to stop me from winning. Three successes would give him enough. Fortunately for me (but unfortunately for him) he rolled three blanks and one dot. He only had one luck token left, so rather than waste it on raiding a field (which wouldn't have stopped me) he took his lumps and left me unharmed.

On my seventh turn I bought my third structure and won the game. Final score was 12-7-6-6-5, a runaway victory. No one achieved the "unlock" milestone, but all three of the others were claimed and destroyed, as per the directions and we added two new event cards to the event deck. (See, the game is already changing!)

I'm not sure where the game will go from here. Our next game seems to be a bit rudderless in that there are far fewer milestones left on the table. With only the unlock and the treasure goals, getting to 12 points may take a very VERY long time.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, March 28, 2017 5:54 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Hyper Void+ VR

The video games industry was just getting started in the late 1970 and early 1980s. The first video game, Pong, quickly gave rise to more advanced games like Spacewar and Astreriods. The vector graphics style of games quickly fell by the wayside and sprite-oriented games started to appear, like Willams’ Defender, and Space Invaders. Some of these newer games saw iterative improvements. For example, Space Invaders begat Centipede And Galaxian.

All of these games had several things in common. Since each play cost 25 cents, the game was designed to get extremely difficult in a short period of time in order to get more money out of the player’s pockets and into the game’s coin hopper. There as usually very little in the way of expository story. And there was (usually) no way to “beat” of “finish” the game. The vast majority of games ended with the player’s character or sprite dying, getting blown up, running out of gas, or some other untimely demise.

Hyper Void+ VR is basically a remake of the classic coin-op Galaxian in VR. While it's kinda neat to see a video game from my youth (and one that I absolutely LOVED at that!) be remade into VR, outside of the nostalgia factor, there really isn't much of a game here. I mean, there really wasn’t much of a game when Galaxian was originally released in 1979. It was basically endless waves of enemies dropping down from the top of the screen, sometimes making a few swirling patterns on the way, and trying to get past the guardian player who could move around in the bottom 1/3 of the screen.

Rather than having a screen where action goes top to bottom, this VR version features a "field" where the action goes from afar to near. The "hook" (as it were) is that the playing field is not always "flat"; instead it warps around with wrinkles and folds and occasionally closes completely to form a tube. The problem is that while a joystick worked fine as a input device for a flat-screen game of this type, it quickly becomes confusing in three-dimensional VR-space. For example, when your ship is situated on the upper portion of a tubular field, pushing the stick to the left makes the ship go right (its left, since its upside down to the player).

There is some semblance of a story that was added to make the game feel like the player is actually doing something, but to be honest, it is completely ignorable and doesn't change the experience at all. It's basically a game about shooting bad guys and not dying for as long as possible.

The game is not VR-specific. It can be played both “flat” and in VR. I’m not sure why a VR version was produced, unless it was trivially easy for the developer to port to PSVR. Even allowing for the confusing controls scheme, it’s just not that compelling of a game. At the end of the day it’s still just a buffed up version of Space Invaders. It’s available on both PSN and Xbox Live (for the Xbox in non-VR).

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 14, 2017 3:56 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Thumper

Thumper is billed as a “rhythm violence” game and it pretty much deserves that moniker.

This is one of the few VR games that is available in “flat” gaming, but playing it “flat” is really doing the game a disservice. Instead of being a game on a screen, playing in VR is like being inside the game. Not in the sense that you are inside the game world, but rather, while paying it, this game becomes your entire world.

The visuals of the game are pretty simple. You are the pilot of a bug-like vehicle that is speeding down a one-lane highway (at least at first). It’s shown in third-person, so you can see the highway as well as the controlled vehicle. You can push the stick right or left, but the only result is that you “twist” on the single lane. Pushing the stick up causes your insect-like avatar to jump up for a (very) short distance. Pushing one button press causes it to unfurl some “wings”. Meanwhile, a beat-heavy techno track plays over the game. The music is integral to the gameplay.

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that this is a rhythm game like Rock Band. Press a button at the right time and you continue. Miss too many button presses, or press too soon or too late and you lose and have to restart the level. Well, yeah. But no, not really.

The controls are literally limited to one stick and one button. The game combines these simple actions in such a way that it will require 100% of your attention to play. And as you play, your entire life will shrink down into the virtual world of Thumper. It starts easily enough... press the button as you pass a glowing spot on the track (which appears only on the down-beat of the game’s music). At first the game gives you a nice leadup queue, both visible and audible. It counts down 3..2..1.. with a tick-tick-tick sound, and then on the beat it goes BOOM and you hit the button and the game continues. After you get it right three times, the game asks you to do it again, but this time without the hand-holding. A bright spot is seen far up on the highway and when you hit it at the exact moment of a downbeat, you press the button and BOOM! You succeed.

In most games, this kind of tutorial training feels contrived and simplistic. In Thumper, it is neither. The game is not teaching you mechanics in any interpretation of the word. Instead, it’s teaching you a whole new, completely foreign control scheme. It's teaching you how to play a musical instument. After you master the button press, the game teaches you about sliding – holding down the button and moving the stick to one side or another. Then it will mix the two, then it adds in holding the button down to break small barriers. Each new control mechanic is drilled into the player; you do it a few times in isolation, by itself. Then the game tosses that same control scheme at you in combination with something you’ve already mastered, and then weaves it into EVERYTHING you’ve been taught so far. And it does it at a pace that can best be described as breakneck.

Not that the game’s pacing is anything even close to “too fast”. Without any exaggeration, a literal five-year old played it and was able to deal with the first level’s tutorial speed. The challenge is that once you’ve shown that you understand a specific part of the game, it unrelentingly adds it to the quiver of tricks that it will throw at you. And throw it will. Often in quick succession.

Before I bought the game I watched a few YouTube videos of gameplay. I marveled at the speed at which people were able to react to the gameplay. I thought to myself, “There is no way I could play this! It’s way too fast for me! I just don’t have those kinds of reaction times anymore!” But the thing is, it really isn’t that fast.

Playing this game is more like playing a musical instrument than it is hitting certain buttons at a specific time. Just like a guitar only has 5 strings but can produce a lot of different tones and chords that combine to make music, so too are the one stick and one button controls of Thumper capable of describing a great many different actions. And just like most people could pickup a guitar and learn to play something like “Stairway to Heaven” in an hour or two, gaining the proficiency to beat the first few levels of Thumper takes only slightly longer than the levels actually last. The difficulty curve is almost perfectly balanced with the length of each level.

Every action you take in the game makes a sound. Every time the game is going to ask you to do something, it makes a similar sound about a second beforehand. After a few minutes in the game, you learn the call-and-response; you see the queue shown on the highway, you hear the sound prompt and you react without thinking as you’ve been trained to do.

And then it gets harder.

In most games of this type, the difficulty is increased by simply making the game go faster or adding more interaction. In Thumper, the speed does go up, and you will be forced to push the buttons and waggle the stick faster, but it also continues adding new control mechanics. The first level teaches you the basics. The second adds in jumping. The third adds in “thumping”. At level four, the highway gains more lanes. And while each of these mechanics is added, you also get more challenges that require you to use all of these new skills.

There are only nine levels but every single level adds more “game” to the game. Somewhere around level four or five it stops being a simple rhythm exercise and starts being a transcendental experience. The booming techno soundtrack, the simple visuals, and the brutally intense challenges combine to force the player into a zen-like mindset that excludes all distractions. It’s like adrenaline-fueled meditation on steroids.

Thumper is only available digitally. It’s currently $20 on PSN, or it can be purchased on steam for the PC. There is a free demo version which contains the entire first level. Give it a try. It’s well worth the price of admission, and I highly recommend the entire game.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 7, 2017 10:26 AM PT [+]

PSVR - Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

I should start by saying I'm not in the target market for this type of game. I'm not a huge fan of (so-called) "horror" games. Yes, I still jump at the jump-scares, but to me that’s not frightening, it’s annoying. Sure, I’ll have an instantaneous and involuntary fight-or-flight reaction, but it doesn’t give me an adrenaline rush. I’m back to normal in about the same amount of time as the jump-scare lasts. Also, I firmly believe that the world could use a lot fewer rail-shooters. So, yeah, I’m really Really not in the target-demographic for this game.

In case you aren’t familiar with this game, the “story” (such as it is) is that you are in a roller-coaster style cart that carries you through a funhouse of horrors. The motion controls turn into guns such as pistols, machine guns, shotguns, and other lead-spitting devices as you progress through the game. You always have the default pistols, and by shooting blue or yellow “power up” boxes, you can upgrade your guns to something stronger. Of course, the stronger guns have a limited amount of ammo and when they run out, the gun instantly degrades back to the default pistol. So basically, it’s a VR Horror Rail-shooter Shooting Gallery.

I tried this game mostly because many people are saying that it is a great VR demo. I expected it to be nausea inducing. (I am not one of those iron-eared VR players. Scavenger's Odyssey on the VR Worlds disc was practically unplayable for me.) Oddly enough, for the most part, it wasn't too bad. It did have a few moments where it kinda flirted with motion sickness - particularly when the rails "dropped" in a steep downhill, or whipped back and forth quickly, but those feelings quickly evaporated as soon as the track smoothed out, or when the game forced me to concentrate on aiming and shooting. I was able to get through the game without too much discomfort, but I can see how it might be difficult for some people.

The "horror" part of the game was as advertised. If you are disturbed by: realistic animal slaughter; clowns; zombies; zombie clowns; doctors; nurses; spiders; feelings of helplessness; animated mannequins; scary things that you can't really get a good look at; or giant malevolent demons, this game will probably be able to push your buttons. I'm usually not affected by these sorts of things; I’m old enough and have seen enough real-world “scary things” that I’m pretty well able to ignore scary things on a screen, no matter how realistic they are. Having said that, there is a level that ends with tarantula spiders crawling up your “body” and on to your face. That was the closest I've ever come to pulling the headset off during gameplay (aside from checking out due to motion sickness).

The shooting gallery aspect of the game was challenging and actually pretty fun. I played it on "normal" difficulty. The first few levels were pretty easy to get through. The game has a “collector” bonus for shooting a bunch of optional targets that are sprinkled liberally around the various levels. Problem is, in order to hit all of them you would need to be very quick on the trigger, have excellent aim, AND time your reloads so that you are never left without bullets in the chamber. Suffice it to say, any illusions I had of doing well at that aspect of the game quickly evaporated.

As the game progressed, the difficulty started to ramp up, but not impossibly so. It felt like a nice solid level design that got progressively more difficult as the game went on. The final two levels were very difficult and took me multiple attempts to get through. The final level in particular was extremely difficult. As the difficulty ramped up, I stopped shooting most of the optional targets and started conserving the big gun ammo for monster targets that were either going impede my progress or could actually hurt me (and reset the level).

Every level had a slightly different “scary” thing. All of them were pretty creepy. The scare for each level was just different enough that most people would have trouble becoming acclimated and stop being scared. (Unless, of course, you start out with the mindset of “it’s just a game” and never allowed the visuals to get inside your head. Easier said than done for most people, particularly in VR!)

The entire game was about 2-1/2 hours from start to finish. I played it from start to finish in a single sitting. It did not keep me engaged for the entire duration. About 2/3 of the way through the game I started looking for the end, wondering how much longer before I could finish up and go do something else. I actually got bored with shooting yet another “scary” target about mid-way though. The difficulty curve at the end of game recaptured my attention though, so it was worth sticking it out. Had I played over the course of multiple 30 to 45 minute sessions, maybe one level per sitting, I probably would have enjoyed it more.

The game does have a high-score table and can be filtered to your PSN friends list, so if you’re the competitive type, you might have some fun there. Several sections of the game have branching paths, so it could be fun hunting for the optimal path to get a higher score. (Or simply being more accurate and have better timing than your friends!)

Overall, it was a good game, but not a great one. Personally, I found the demo of the game to be just as much fun as the actual game, just shorter. The story (such as it was) felt like an afterthought rather than a integral part of the game. It certainly wasn't inspired enough to warrant repeat play. However, if you’re the ultra-competitive type, the high-score table might keep you coming back for additional playthroughs. If you can pick this one up at a discount, it’s probably worth it. Otherwise, the demo version is likely enough for most people.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, February 1, 2017 10:36 AM PT [+]

PSVR - Rez ∞

I was introduced to Rez on the PS2 by my then-girlfriend. We were in the pre-courting stage and she only owned two video games, Rez and Kinetica, which she brought over to my house to play.

I remember playing Rez and having a lot of trouble with it. I was originally a PC gamer and I’ve never been very good with a controller. Plus I’m not a really big music/rhythm gamer. Between me just not being able to deal with joystick aiming and the tap-tap-tap-tapppity-tap cadence of a rhythm-shooter like Rez, I was pretty much unable to finish the game. I think I was able to make it to the end of the third level after a couple weeks of trying. (My then-girlfriend completed the game right in front of me and I was blown away by her l33t skillz!)

Fast forward 15 years….

It’s the same game, with the exact same “look and feel”. The graphics have been updated to account for the much higher resolution of a HD display, but it still retains the same TRON-esque graphical style. It allows for both traditional thumbstick based aiming, and it also allows for the new VR-style "look-to-aim" control. I recall being put off by look-to-aim when I first time the PSVR back in October, but after playing a variety of VR games for the last few months, look-to-aim has become second nature. And using that control scheme, the game is dead easy.

I finished the first level (for the first time) at 9:01pm and completed the final level at 10:11pm. I played the first level twice because I'm a doofus that can't select levels properly, and I was forced to repeat the third level twice. The final boss in the third level unleashes a huge swarm of missiles at one point, and I just don’t think is possible to simply shoot or avoid them all. My game ended during that phase of the fight. Up until that point I had completely ignored the old 1980s-style “smart bomb” feature that instantly kills all enemies on the screen instantly. Popping a couple of those during the third boss battle made that challenge much more approachable. (It still required a bit of timing, because you only have a limited number of “smart bombs” and the battle goes on for a goodly while.)

After getting past that little speed-bump and finishing the five legacy levels in the game, I unlocked the new "Area X". This is the new VR addition to the game, and was designed specifically for the VR experience. This single area takes the “story” of the original game and compresses it down into a single level, complete with mini-boss battles and a final fight that mirrors the original game. Unfortunately, it's kinda short. The entirety of Area X took me only 17 minutes to complete (as compared to about one hour for the full "flat" game). Having said that, it was quite a surreal experience! Rez was always a bit of a mind-blender - the original game was actually pulled from store shelves and recalled in some places due to triggering seizures in some players - and playing it in VR was even more so. This is probably the most TRON-like experience I've had in VR to date.

Outside of Area X, Rez is still an on-rails shooter. While the design still holds up, VR aiming really detracts from the originally designed difficulty. On the other hand, Area X was designed specifically for VR and it shows! If the original five levels of the game had been redesigned in the style of Area X, and presented as an entirely new game I would probably have a completely different impression. (The original game remake still could have been included as a “nostalgia mode”.)

Overall, I'm not sure I would recommend the game outside of the nostalgia factor. It’s available digitally on PSN for about $20, which seems to be about right for an hour-and-a-half trip down memory lane.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 24, 2017 12:50 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Rogue One and Jackal Assault

This last weekend I finally went to see Rogue One. Yes, I’m a slacker and I’m really late to this party. So what? It was a good movie and I recommend it. The last word uttered in the film was a bit of a surprise, and I’m not going to spoil it. When I got home, I played the Star Wars: Rogue One VR Mission. This was really cool!

The start of the mission is pretty nifty in breaking the player in to the VR world slowly. There is an opening cinematic that is cool, but non-interactive. The first “playable” part of the game is more-or-less a walk-around mode for an X-Wing fighter. You can look at it from a ton of different angles, which is pretty neat. The model is really well developed and there is an incredible amount of detail. It “feels” like you actually are right next to this space-fighter plane!

Eventually, you start the mission by climbing into the cockpit. Many of the buttons in the cockpit actually do a thing. You can press various buttons, levers and knobs in the X-Wing cockpit. The start of the mission is pretty guided, allowing you to get a feel for how the thing flies without being immediately thrust into combat. This is good because it makes the experience much more immersive, but it is also bad, because the flight mechanics are pretty simple. You won’t be doing loops or pulling an Immelmann maneuver here. It’s limited to “arcade” style flight, which may be off-putting to sim fans, but this wasn’t really the point here.

Pretty quickly, you’re placed into a simple flight through an asteroid field, with weapons hot. You need to blow up the smaller rocks and fly around the larger ones. Again, a great way to settle the immersion even more. Unless you’re completely blown away by the experience, you can play with the different buttons and find several that work. You can open/close the S-foils. You can trigger a ship shield. You can change your X-Wing’s firing mode. You can even enable a targeting computer a la Episode IV.

After a few minutes, you encounter a damaged U-Wing flown by K-2SO, and need to provide escort to a jump point. (Interestingly, this occurs about mid-way through the movie’s timeline, albeit off-screen.) And then the shooting really starts! The simple flight mechanics, coupled with the slow introduction serve to get you into the scene extremely well. Again, this isn’t going to be a mission that is going to appeal to hardcore sim fans (it doesn’t support HOTAS setups). But if you’ve ever watched a Star Wars movie and wanted to be part of that world, this experience delivers and delivers big!!

After about 15 minutes of fighting (with a couple of interim tasks that you are asked to perform), you complete the mission by escaping. A final scoreboard is shown for the competitive people, but it really isn’t needed. This experience was AMAZING! Moving forward, this will likely become one of the experiences I use to demo PSVR to folks.

It's impossible to not compare this to the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Jackal Assault Mission, which was clearly designed with a completely different goal. Where the Rogue One mission focuses on immersion, the Jackal Assault is more about shooting. The flight model in Jackal Assault is not quite as simpler as Rogue One, but it still isn’t a sim. feels way more “arcadey” with a faster, more nimble fighter. The guns feel like they have a lot more “weight” and the entire thing feels more like a strike fighter with serious punch. When you fire the guns in Jackal Assault it actually feels like you are shooting some serious firepower.

The graphics in Jackal assault are slightly better too. While Rogue One puts you into an X-Wing that was originally imagined in the 1970s, Jackal Assault shows you the cockpit of a very much 21st century fighter. Like most modern games, the rendering of the cockpit is both clearer and better resolved, but has less functionality. None of the buttons or knobs in the Jackal’s cockpit are functional. But they sure do look nice!

Jackal Assault also ends with a scoreboard. And again, outside of those few people who feel obligated to get “the high score”, it will be meaningless to most players.

The two missions play out very similarly. Both offer about 15 minutes of overall gameplay. Jackal Assault is free for download from PSN and can be played by anyone with a PSVR. Rogue One is free DLC for Star Wars: Battlefront, but it requires you to own the game to download. (It can be purchased used for about $10 these days.) Overall, Jackal Assault is probably a better “game”, but Rogue One is by far a better VR experience!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 17, 2017 2:16 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Proton Pulse

Proton Pulse is more or less breakout/brickout in 3D. You might think that this would be fun, and in concept it seems like it would be! Imagine that you are controlling a paddle on the near side of a corridor and the “ball” bounces away from you, off walls, off the back, and then back towards you, only to be deflected back into play. Simple gameplay; classic brickout but in 3D VR environment! Unfortunately, it didn’t come out that way.

I keep going back to a comparison with DangerBall (found on the PSVR Worlds disc) comparison. DangerBall is a super simple game with spartan, functional graphics. It doesn’t have a lot of “nift” value, but it gets the job done. By comparison,Proton Pulse feels like a neon factory vomited all over the screen. Practically everything glows in some way or another. The player paddle is glowing green. Some (but not all) of the “bricks” glow green. Occasionally, one of the powerups will glow green. The “ball” glows green too! There are glowing red, and yellow elements in there as well, and it’s easy to get lost in all of the glowing neon on the screen at all times. There is so much visual clutter that there were several times while playing that I completely lost track of what I was “supposed” to be aiming for. That is bad enough but…

Proton Pulse lacks "urgency". Unlike DangerBallwhere the pace gradually increases until you are frantically trying to just stay in play, the pace here is glacial. Even when things get a bit frantic, all it takes is a single well played hit and the pace slows back down. Sometimes, randomly hitting some powerup or another would grant me a super big ball that was all-but-impossible to lose. Or a “metal ball” that would rip through everything and win the round without much effort. It’s not a difficult game. Without any exaggeration, my very first session with this game (which was also my LAST session with the game) lasted for over two hours. I could have played for longer – I was in no danger of actually “losing” the game when I stopped – but I was actually getting bored with it.

There are some interesting powerups. One in particular makes your paddle fire laser blasts. I can assume that this was supposed to add “difficulty” in that you would need to choose whethewr to deflect the ball or to fire the lasers at a specific location. Problem is, you can do both with the HUGE paddle.

The game does support the move controllers, just like HoloBall. Pressing a button changes the visor-controlled paddle into two hand controlled paddles. That’s all well and good, but the Move paddles made the game very twitchy. It was actually a lot less fun waving my hands around than it was simply “looking” to control the paddle. I’m not sure why this was even implemented in the game; it certainly doesn’t add gameplay value.

I think there is supposed to be some kind of narrative story involving some Easter Island monolithic heads, but even after playing for a couple of hours I had no idea what was going on. That’s not the end of the world, because it’s supposed to be brickout, not The Last of Us!

Between the brightly colored visual noise, the almost complete lack of any kind of challenge, and the glacial pace of gameplay, this is yet another $10 purchase that will never get played. DangerBall is better.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 10, 2017 1:39 PM PT [+]

Welcome to 2107
Well, it’s a new year. Woo!

About this time of year, a lot of people are posting their "Worst/Best of 2106" lists. Why? Because it's low-hanging fruit. It's easy to do and it looks like you worked hard on it. I'm not going to bother.

In 2016, I played a LOT of games. I started the year in full-on indie mode, got all excited and sucked in to Black Desert Online (which, by the way, is not a Bad Game, it's just not a very Good MMO!), took a side-detour into anime and TV-land, and then, as the year went by, found VR.

What I am going to do is repeat myself from a year ago. Last January, I said that I was going to post 52 weeks of content. Looking back on my history, I see that I posted 30 different reviews or impressions over the course of the year. Clearly I did not meet my goal. Rather than set the same goal for this year (which I'm also unlikely to achieve), this year I'm going to aim to improve my posting frequency. So, the number to beat for 2017 is 30 reviews.

We'll see how that goes.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 3, 2017 1:56 PM PT [+]

PSVR - HoloBall

HoloBall is a PSVR version of racquetball. It's supposed to be a souped-up version of Dangerball (from the VR Worlds disc), but instead is a buggy mess.

The initial configuration had my player crouching like a monkey, and I had to completely restart the game to fix it. The paddles didn't track well and I could not reach the edges of the playing field without leaving the play area. The game popped up an error screen after every point was scored, stopping the game and forcing me to press the X button to acknowledge it and get back into the game, completely ruining any immersion. The controls scheme was not well explained and two first-time players didn't understand how the paddles interacted with the ball. (It sounds silly, but it actually happened - both of the players who were confused by this are engineers and are very smart people... just not gamers.)

If you have ANY controller wobble at all, HoloBall is almost unplayable. On several occasions, the paddle "wobbled" right through the ball, making a perfect hit into a perfect miss. Overall, HoloBall left a bad impression on everyone who played or watched it being played.

I know not every game is going to for every person, and I'm capable of seeing the draw to most games that I don't enjoy. However, the fact that this game was constantly and consistently throwing up error codes and message after every goal leads me to believe that it was not well tested and had some sort of major errors. It even crashed completely while I was playing! (Which led me to stop playing.)

DangerBall is one of the most requested games in my multiplayer household. If I could get a refund for HoloBall I would. It's not even a good game to use as a VR demo.

- Stupid @ Friday, December 30, 2016 6:48 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Bound

This is a lovely indie game in the same vein as Journey or Flower. It's quite an experience, but not a great game. I do like the way the game looks - it's stunningly beautiful! But the gameplay is lacking in the "fun" factor. The camera controls are really wonky and detract from the experience. (I'm told this has been fixed since I've played it.) I'll finish it, mostly because it's pretty to look at at. But once I'm done, I'll probably never bring it out again. Even with the fixed camera controls, I just don't see this ever being played again, even as a VR demo.

Many people say that this game was an emotional experience for them. I don't get it. I mean, I do get why people feel emotionally attached to some games. I remember my first playthrough of Journey on my old PS3 and how emotional that was for me. But, after playing it again on the PS4, I realize that it really wasn't the game that was such an amazing experience, it was that the game allowed me to have an amazing emotional experience. The feelings that I had on that first playthrough were mine, and came from me, not from the game. I suspect Bound is the same for some people. But not for me. By the time I got to the final "level" I was simply waiting for it to get over, so I could get my consolation trophy for completing the game. (Spoiler: there isn't one.)

It a graphically lovely game. The environments are cool to look at and play in. But the "game" (if you can call it that) is super-linear, and there are no real challenges. The story (such as it is) may resonate with some folks' specific life-experiences (it has to do with loss and rejection), but I found it boring and uninspired. For me the ending was more "WTF?!" than "OMG!"

Overall, I'm glad that I played it so that I can say that I've seen it. But it wasn't rewarding and it wasn't fun. Luckily, it was only $10 (on sale).

- Stupid @ Thursday, December 29, 2016 6:40 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Gary the Gull

This is less a "game" and more of a semi-interactive VR demo.

It's about 5-10 minutes long. The "player" interacts with the environment in the form of nodding to say "Yes", shaking one's head side-to-side to say "No", looking at specific things, and speaking aloud. The speech part doesn't do vocal recognition (although it would be really cool if it did somehow!) but is more like the old DS "blow into the microphone to do [something]" mechanic. As long as you say SOMETHING it detects it and the experience progresses.

The story is basically that you are on a beach somewhere and this seagull flies down and starts talking to you. That's Gary. The writers tried to insert some humor into the experience, but the jokes are pretty flat; I didn't even chuckle, and I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to humor.

The graphics are pretty decent for what it is. There isn't a lot of variation, and the environment is completely fixed. You never "move" during this experience at all. It's as if you are glued down to your beach chair. As a result, the motion sickness issues are non-existent.

It's a cute little vignette and it's over pretty quickly. It's also free on PSN, so everyone should try it out at least once. It's definitely a pretty great first-timer's VR experience. It's much shorter than most of the other first-time experiences, which allows for a new user to get their VR-legs really quickly before moving on to more intense experiences. I'll likely add this to the list of "first time" VR experiences for demoing to friends and family. Outside of that, I don't think I'll ever play it again.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, December 28, 2016 1:35 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Wayward Sky

Just prior to the PSVR’s release, I’d seen this game demonstrated on Penny Arcade’s “Tycho Tries…” series. They only played the first level of the game in the episode, but that was plenty to get a feel for what the game was like. It looked cute, but not like something I would invest a lot of time into.

And then I got my PSVR. Wayward Sky was one of the titles on the demo disc. It started just like the actual game, so it looked and felt very much like the demonstration I'd seen already. One or two screens in, it changed course and turned into the much shorter "demo" experience. It didn’t really have as much of puzzley goodness as the game I’d seen demonstrated on YouTube, but it did have a lot more character. Much more character than I had expected to find. After playing the (pretty short) demo all the way through, I decided to pull the trigger on this one and bought it digitally on PSN. I believe there was a launch-day sale as well, so that probably helped me make the decision. I’m really glad that I did!

The graphical presentation is mostly done in third-person. The camera is perfectly stable, but the player can lean around and look in any direction. It looks and feels like you are looking over on to a tiny world with tiny people that move around. The Move controllers give you a perfect “click to move” interface. As you move away, or through a door, or into a building, the camera quickly fades to black and then comes back up in the new location that you moved into. And every once in a while the game switches into an actual first-person view. Primarily for manipulation-style puzzles. For example, you might need to pull a series of levers in a specific order, or flip some switches, or plug in some devices. (Or shoot some bad guys.)

The story and characters are easily the best part of this game. The style of the character models in the game is very simple. That’s not to say that they are boring, though! Despite the relatively low resolution of the VR world, all of the various characters just plain ooze with personality and charm. The voice acting is not perfect, but it is certainly passable and not cringe-inducing. And as the story progressed and I learned more about the characters and their story, the more I liked them all. Even the minor side-characters that played a very small role in the overall game were presented in a humorous and fun way.

The difficulty of the game levels was very well done. The early levels were quite easy, and even the supposedly “hidden” secrets were pretty trivial to ferret out. But as the game progressed, it started to introduce new and more difficult mechanics that made the game quite a bit more challenging. This worked fine, since a game should get more challenging as you progress. After all, the player is getting better at playing over time, so increased difficulty keeps things interesting.

I didn’t notice it initially as I was playing the game, but about 2/3 of the way through, I realized that every single character in the game was a person of color! Despite being a white male gamer, I found this to be amazing and quite refreshing. Unfortunately, I can see a lot of self-indulgent white gamers finding reasons to not like the game because it lacks “relatable” (that is, white) characters. That point is a bunch of baloney. The story revolves around the loss of a family member, abandonment, insecurity and, ultimately, anger at the unfairness of the world. Anyone who claims that these are “unrelatable” is simply making excuses for their own racist tendencies. The characters in the game are great!

But, the ending of the game is not great. And, as is sometimes said: The Ending is Tantamount. In fact, to me, this is the biggest failing of the game. The writer of the storyline had this amazing story of courage, determination, and the attempt at making the world a better place, fighting against adversity, feelings of betrayal and Byron-esque “screaming at the storm from the mountaintop” moments. And then the story’s final wrap-up felt like all of that was Just Kidding. A happy ending is all well and good, but the way in which this was wrapped up felt really contrived and simplistic. The denouement of the antagonist felt very artificial. I mean, I just couldn’t see someone with that much internal strife just accepting that he was wrong all along and going along with “sure, let’s all just be friends” and sailing off into the sunset with the heroine.

The complete game is not terribly long, but it didn’t need to be. It probably could have used another level or two on the tail end – if nothing else to help ease in to that happy ending a bit more smoothly – but it doesn’t suffer too much from the length. It certainly shouldn’t have been much longer than it is, no matter what. I finished the whole game in one playthrough, lasting about four hours.

Outside of the story’s culmination and the feeling that the third act was a bit rushed, the game was really enjoyable and well worth the time and money invested in it. I heartily recommend this VR game!

- Stupid @ Saturday, December 24, 2016 1:41 PM PT [+]

PSVR - Tumble VR

When the PSVR released in October, one of the things that was included in the box was a demo disc that had demos for 18 games. Well, actually, there were demos for 16 games – two of the “demos” were literally nothing but a splash screen and a “buy now” button. As I played through the various demos, one in particular caught my attention. Tumble was one of the very few games that I had played on a 3D television during the brief time when that technology was in fashion. Stacking blocks in 3D was kind of neat, and the Move controllers on the PS3 were pretty amazing for control. But since the 3D TV set I was playing on was 5-hours from my actual home, I never really invested much time into it.

It’s so much better in VR.

One might think that simply stacking blocks wouldn’t be much fun, but it is! The levels start out pretty easy. You just stack an unlimited number of cubic blocks, without them falling over, to a certain height. Then the block start being not-so-cubic and the odd angles mean that you have to counterbalance them. Then you start getting cylinders, pyramids and other geometric forms. Then there are a limited number of blocks. And then the blocks are made of different materials – some might be slippery, others quite sticky; some are light and won’t contribute (much) to the tower falling over, others are super heavy and will press things down quite a bit. And then the game start throwing crazy stuff at you: there might be a moving platform that will knock everything over unless you build your stack out and around it. You might have to balance the proverbial plate on top of a pencil… and ten put another five blocks on top of that! There are even “hidden” blocks that you can only unlock by stacking up to a “dashed” or “ghosted” image of a block that is floating in the air somewhere. And of course those locations are almost always in inconvenient locations and sometimes so far out of the way that hitting them means that you are going to not be able to beat that level.

The virtual presentation is pretty good. There isn’t any sound to speak of, other than the clicks and clunks of the various blocks being set. There is no built-in background music, which might turn off some players. The graphics are best described as “utilitarian”. I mean, it’s basically blocks, right? And there’s not a lot of action in the gameplay. Each section of the game is introduced by a little robot guy that has a bunch of Portal-esque quips. The humor isn’t as solid as GLaDOS’ was in Portal, but it still adds a little bit of levity to the game and I got a few chuckles out of it.

Tumble VR was the first VR game I bought, and also the first VR game that I played for four hours non-stop. I really enjoyed it, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

- Stupid @ Friday, December 23, 2016 1:49 PM PT [+]

PSVR - VR Playroom
The VR Playroom is a free “game” that is downloadable from Sony’s Playstation Network. It’s kinda-sorta a followup to the original Playroom “game” that was released when the PS4 first came out, only this time, it’s highlighting the new PSVR virtual reality headset. I put “Game” in scare quotes, because it’s not really a game. In fact it’s a collection of five mini-games and one VR “experience”. So let’s talk about the things that are included in this package.

Cat and Mouse is a asymmetric multiplayer title that can handle two to five players. The VR player is the Cat; up to four TV players are the mice. The interesting part about this game is that what the VR player sees and what the TV players see is almost completely different! This is an exciting thing that I hope more future games take advantage of as we move forward with VR game development. The game takes place in a futuristic kitchen, where the mice are trying to steal bits of cheese, and the cat is trying to catch the mice.

The VR player is a controller-less Cat. This player uses their head to look at the mice to aim, and then lunges forward to pounce. The Cat lives in a tiny alcove that is separated from the kitchen by three sheer curtains. When the cat is completely in their alcove, the view to the kitchen is almost completely obscured. By slowly moving their head forward, the cat draws back first one, then the second and finally the third curtain. With all three curtains pulled back, any mouse that is visible is immediately caught and dragged into the Cat’s alcove.

The catch is, of course, that if the curtains remain open for a certain amount of time, a Dog playfully jumps into the kitchen. If the Cat is visible when the Dog is in play, all of the caught mice are released.

The TV player(s) each control a single mouse with the dualshock controllers. From the mice’s point of view, it is a normal (albeit simple) video game. Each Mouse can move around in the kitchen to collect cheese bits, or they can press and hold a button to hide. They can hide indefinitely, but while hidden, the Mouse cannot move, which means they cannot collect any cheese. The Cat’s alcove is clearly visible and the mice can choose when to move (or hide) based on whether the curtains are open or closed.

The first time we played this game at my house, we had a full complement of four mice. To complete a single game took over half-hour. What ended up happening was that the gamer mice would hide almost constantly. If the cat was out of the alcove, the mice just hid. Only if the Cat was completely in the alcove would the mice move at all. And to move, they would only release their hide button for a split second, and then hide again. This allowed them to “pop” move with near immunity. The time that they were visible was so short it was nearly impossible for the Cat to catch them. (Except that he did… it just took for-freaking-ever to get it done.)

So, this is a really clever concept, and perhaps it would work with non-gamers. But with experienced gamers, this became more of a chore than entertainment. As one of the TV players said when we were about 20 minutes in, “I guess the game of Cat-and-Mouse really is a waiting game…”

Monster Escape is another asymmetric game where the VR player and the TV player see different things. This game is also very cute, and actually works for experienced gamers. In this one, the VR player takes on the role of a giant monster that rampages through a stylized cityscape, demolishing buildings and other structures by hitting them with his head (using the motion controlled VR headset). Meanwhile the TV players are tasked with saving as many civilians as possible by choosing which lane on the monster’s route to be in. Debris tossed from the impacted buildings falls on the road and the route chosen needs to avoid the falling detritus.

After a short intermission, the TV players then are given the chance to throw objects – crashed helocopters, bits of rubble, destroyed furniture, barrels of oil, and the like – back at the monster player, who has to duck, weave and dodge to avoid being hit. If the players manage to hit the monster some number of times, they win (by saving the remnants of the destroyed city). If not, the monster wins.

This combination works pretty well. It doesn’t have player elimination, and everyone is always engaged at all times. It does a great job of showing different things to different players.There is some amount of skill involved, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Whether you win or lose really isn’t all that important because it’s silly and fun from start to finish.

Wanted is a 2+ player game. In this one the VR player is an old-west cowboy sheriff in a western themed saloon. He can see two to twenty different non-players in the saloon, and one of them is the bad guy, but he has no idea who it is. His dualshock controller is a “gun” that can shoot one bullet. The TV players are shown a picture of the bad guy who is “wanted” and they have to communicate who it is to the sheriff. Thus the name of the game.

If the sheriff shoots the wrong target, the bad guy drops a bomb and ends the game. If the sheriff doesn’t shoot the bad guy within a really short time limit (around 5 to ten seconds), the bad guy jumps out and ends the game. It boils down to the TV players being able to describe the wanted guy as quickly and as clearly as possible. There is really only a handful of seconds to get the description out and have the sheriff act.

This one is fun and also makes really good use of the asymmetric views. The biggest problem here is that it really only works well with two or three players. Any more than that and the chaos of having multiple people simultaneously describing the bad guy becomes untenable. (This is kind of a first-world problem for me in particular. I know that most people only play with as a couple or trio, but in my house, we actually have to work to have only four players in a game. Even the most casual of game events end up with 6 players, so this one doesn’t really work well for me.

Ghost House has a lot of the same issues and advantages as Wanted. In this game, the VR player is a ghostbuster type character. They look around with the VR headset, and uses the dualshock controller as a flashlight and as a ghost-sucking device. The TV view shows what the VR player can see, with the addition of showing ghosts that invisible from inside the VR headset. The TV players do not get a controller; they simply shout out directions where the ghosts are visible.

This makes really good use of the asymmetric views. And even thoigh it is easier than the Wanted game, the theme didn’t really grab me. Plus it has the same problem as Wanted: it really only works well with two or three players. With 5 people shouting “There it is!” and giving different directions, it became really difficult to play.

Robot Rescue is the final game in this package, and is probably the most fun in the bunch. This is a Mario World style platformer. The VR player is given a 3rd person view of the platform world and uses the dualshock to move their little guy around. The controls are fluid, there are secret hidden passages and overall the game is super fun to play. In fact, the biggest problem here is that this game is so short! It’s only a single level that can be completed in less than 15 minutes. Even if the payer takes their time and looks for all the hidden secrets, it is still well under 30 minutes to complete the game. And with the game level being the same each time, there really isn’t much replay value here.

The game also allows for a single TV player, who drives a tiny little hovercar around in the world. The goal of the VR player is to locate and rescue 20 little robots that are hidden all around the map. The TV player is the standard Player 2 – they have limited effect on the game and are mostly along just for the ride. That’s not to say that there is nothing for them to do. The TV player can use a vacuum on their hovercar to suck up different items on the map and then spit them back out at flying enemies that the VR player cannot reach. There is at least one robot that cannot be reached without help from the hovercar’s assistance. In short, just like the classic Mario-style platformers, while the game is mostly a single player game, it does have some compelling reasons for 2-player action.

This last game is super fun! And even though it really doesn’t have a whole lot of replay value, I’ve played it from start to finish at least four times. It’s just that fun!! It’s really a shame that the team that developed this game has been dissolved and it’s unlikely that the game will be expanded at all. If ever there was a demo of a game that needs expansion into a full-fledged game, this is it.

Overall, the VR Playroom is a good quality demonstration for the PSVR. It offers some really great (albeit short) single-player games, as well as pushing the boundary for what can be done with asymmetric social multiplayer. For the cost (free!) it probably represents the base value game experience for the PSVR headset.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, November 8, 2016 3:19 PM PT [+]

PSVR - VR Worlds
The VR Worlds disc was bundled in with the PSVR for many people. Those that didn’t get the bundle might have ordered this package anyway since it has five different “experiences” on one disc: Ocean Descent, The London Heist, Scavenger’s Odyssey, VR Luge, and Danger Ball. That seems like a pretty good value. And it is! Most people have already seen two out of the five experiences, so let’s talk about them first…

Ocean Descent is one of the public demos that Sony has been using to show the PSVR for the last year or so. This is a non-interactive “experience” where you, the “player”, are put into a shark cage and lowered down to the bottom of a Tropical ocean scene. There is some voice-over that plays in the background that kind of lends a tiny bit of “realism” to the event, supposedly providing some kind of “story”. You’re on a salvage team, sent out by some mysterious guy named “Connor”. Your “boss” is a woman named “Kie” and she is the one talking you through the event. The cage is being winched down (and later back up) by a man who also has a few lines.

This is a great ‘first-timers’ experience, because the player doesn’t actually DO anything. It’s about as interactive as watching a movie. Albeit a 360-degree movie that you can look at from different angles. As the cage lowers into the ocean depths, various sea-life appears and disappears. You go from a colorful reef complete with swimming sea turtles and angelfish, to soaring manta rays, to glowing jellyfish, and finally to an encounter with a large toothy shark.

It’s a fun experience for people new to VR because the feeling of immersion is really present. Even though you know it isn’t real, and it isn’t interactive, you still feel like you could fall out of the cage, and you actually feel threatened by the shark. For people who have experienced VR before, it’s kind of ho-hum. I mean… it’s immersive and all that, but nothing really happens. If you’ve seen any of the press event videos of the PSVR, you’ve already seen this experience (minus the voice-over and “story”). Still, for a first-time introduction to VR, it has value. But that’s really about it.

The London Heist is another one of those demonstration-event games. In this case, they’ve taken the car-chase segment and the desk shooting segment that have both been seen multiple times and stitched them together with some semi-interactive expository segments and turned it into a 60 to 90 minute interactive “movie”. It’s interactive in that the player has to do stuff to progress the story, but it’s still a movie-like experience. The story plays out the same way no matter what the player does.

The story follows the events of a diamond heist gone wrong (or right, depending on the player’s final action). It is told non-linearly, starting with the player seemingly tied to a chair in a lock-up in London, being interrogated by a beefy looking man in a wifebeater shirt. The slow start give the player a few minutes to look around and get used to being in VR. After a few moments, the scene changes to a “business meeting” in a London Pub. Some of the items in the pub are interactive, some are not. There is some expository language that sets the scene for what is about to happen and the player has the opportunity to play with their “hands” picking up different things on the table in front of them. After a short segment that takes us back to the lock-up (and a bit more exposition), the player is whisked off to the first action sequence, the “robbery”. There is one simple puzzle to solve, and then, of course things go awry and violence does ensue. After some expert shooting (or not, depending on the player’s level of comfort with the motion controls), it’s back to the lockup, which serves as the “anchor” for the storytelling. After that there is the car-chase action sequence that climaxes with some really awesome time-dilation effects – “bullet time” has always been a neat FPS convention and it ends up working even better in VR! Finally, it’s back to the lockup for the culmination of the story. The story is fun and there are three different endings that the player can choose, based on their actions.

In addition to the story-mode, there are several shooting galleries. These can be done with or without a laser sight (called “aim assist”). These are score based games, and each one lasts about a minute. Each of the different galleries have a separate online leaderboard, allowing competitive players to compare their scores to others. These are fun, but not something that is going to be a good for long term play.

This “game” is another great intro to VR, and it has some replay value in the shooting galleries and choosing the different endings, but is not a super compelling experience in itself. It ends up feeling like a demo – albeit a really good one – and not a “real” game.

Scavenger’s Odyssey is the first title that most people have not seen before. It was very briefly shown once and then never again. There’s a good reason for that. This game is a cockpit-shooter, that takes about an hour or so to get through (assuming you can). The problem is that the vast majority of people can’t play it without getting horrible motion sickness. Some people have no problem with it. For myself, as soon as the “scavenger” started moving, this one threw me off-kilter. One of my friends had no issues with this at all and found it extremely fun to be jumping around in the game. Another friend played for 15 minutes and ended up being laid out with dizziness and nausea for about two hours after she took off the VR headset. I was able to complete the entire thing by playing it in short bursts, then saving my game and quitting. Each time I would advance the game a bit further. It took about a week, but I got through it.

The story is that you are some sort of oppressed slave-like person that manages to escape a spaceship crash in the middle of some sort of huge event. As the story progresses, you end up fighting space bugs and learn about your people’s origin in a pseudo-mystical religious experience. At the end of the game you have the option to start the destruction of the universe, to “start over” with your people as the “chosen ones”, instead of the slaves that they are.

The shooting uses the VR “look to aim” system (which I think is likely to become the new standard in VR), and movement is still on the controller. It feels odd at first, but since the in-game movement and view are completely decoupled it allows for a lot more gameplay freedom. The really sad part is that it isn’t really a bad game, it just pushes the wrong button for some people. And by “wrong” I mean the “vomit” button.

VR Luge was also shown a few times publicly, but not a lot. In this game, the (obviously male) player is on a street luge that begins hurtling down a hilly road, complete with car traffic. Steering is accomplished by tilting your head – it doesn’t use a controller at all. Luckily, impacting with a car or roadside hazard simple causes the screen to flash red and your virtual speed to decrease. Tucking in behind a car or truck going the same direction (ie. downhill) causes the speed to increase. Unfortunately, playing this game is literally a pain-in-the-neck. Using one’s head as a controller is a novel idea, but in practice, it ends up detracting from the fun, rather than making it better.

The game is fairly simple and easy to pick up and play. There are a few sections on the road where the player flies into the air and those sections can lead to some minor discomfort. Luckily, they are only a second or two long, so most people can get through them without issues. The bigger issue is that the graphics are muddy and aliased. As an “action” game, the poor graphics are a pretty large impediment to gameplay.

The biggest problem with this game is that it is so simple. The only real challenge in not hitting obstacles and getting to the bottom of the hill as fast as possible. In fact, the “campaign” mode is to do four events in a row with an ever decreasing timer. The campaign ends when the player runs out of time, regardless of how far they got into the event. Partial credit is NOT given. And in order to give the illusion of gameplay, the designers set the time limit extremely low. After nearly three weeks, and earning over half of the trophies available for this event, I have yet to complete the entire campaign! (It’s worth noting that the trophies for this game are the most rare ones out of all five experiences.)

Similar to the other experiences, this game is a good introductory experience for players new to VR, but not much else. Completionists will be frustrated by its poor graphics, high difficulty and wonky gameplay. Overall, this is the worst game on the disc.

Danger Ball, on the other hand, is probably the best game on the disc. This is the sleeper surprise. It’s more or less VR Pong, which seems silly and pointless, but ends up being compelling and a ton of fun to play!

In this game, the player is placed just outside of the end of a square hallway. On the near end of the hallway a paddle is controlled by the view of the player. Look up, and the paddle moves up. Look left, and the paddle moves left. On the far end of the hallway is a computer-controlled opponent’s paddle. The ball bounces between the two paddles, deflecting off the hallway walls. Hitting the ball past the opponent scores a point for the player and letting the ball past the player's paddle scores a point for the opponent. A match is won when either player scores five points. It’s honestly three-dimensional pong!

There are several game modes, the most obvious of which is the “tournament”. (Note: I said “obvious” not “easy”!) In this mode, the player is matched up against five random opponents, selected from the eight in the game. Each of these opponents has a “trick”, and they are all unique. For example, the Twins player has two paddles to hit the ball back; Tornado causes the ball to swerve and sway as it returns; Buzzsaw makes the ball “stick” to the sides of the hallway; Dupe sends back two balls instead of one; and so on. After beating five opponents, the player then has to best a unique opponent named Necro. His “trick” is to mimic the same five opponents that the player just beat. Each time the player scores a single point, Necro changes to a new form. Beating the tournament is extremely challenging!

There is also a “quickplay” mode where you choose a specific opponent and a difficulty level. This allows for practice against any one opponent to figure out how to best beat them. Unfortunately, because Necro depends on the prior five matches in a tournament, it’s impossible to play quickplay against him.

Finally, there is a score based mode called “score attack”. In this mode, the far end of the hallway becomes a solid wall that always returns the ball, peppered with a series of targets that decrease in size as the game progresses. The speed of the ball steadily increases over time, and the score attack ends after three balls get past the player. The goal is to hit specific targets to score points. This mode rewards players with lighting fast reflexes and precision ball control.

Because it is such a simple game to play, with three different modes, Danger Ball ends up being a lot of fun. When demoing the PSVR to new people, once they see Danger Ball, they may play something else, but they almost invariably end up wanting to try this one again.

OVERALL, the VR Worlds package has some really great introduction-to-VR titles. If you’ve never used a VR headset before, or plan on showing it to people who haven’t, this is a great place to start! However, for long-term play or compelling repeat gameplay, it really doesn’t offer much. Even the best game on the disc (Danger Ball) has a limited amount of gameplay value – mostly because it is such a simple game. If you were going to buy only one or two VR games, you could do a lot worse than buying this package. Just don’t expect it to be something that you’ll be playing for more than a few weeks.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, November 1, 2016 5:07 PM PT [+]

PSVR (hardware)
A few weeks ago, a friend brought a HTC Vive over to my house. I was able to spend a solid couple of days playing with the thing as well as watching a half-dozen friends play with it for a couple hours each. Overall, it was a pleasant experience and it provided a nice solid benchmark for comparing other VR headsets to. All told, I was inside the Vive headset for at least five or six hours and was able to play a handful of different titles.

On October 13, 2016, Sony released their entry into the Virtual Reality space, the PSVR headset. The stand-out features of the PSVR are its comfort, its “ease-of-use” in setup and its low cost. In this overview I’m going to talk about the headset itself (and its associated bits and goodies). I’ll post a bit more about the “free” software that comes with it, or available for download from PSN (for free) to every user in my next post (which, with luck, will be up in a few days).

First, let’s get one thing out of the way right away. The PSVR is not the same quality as the Vive or Rift headsets. If you are interested in getting into the VR space, and want “The Best”, PSVR is not that. There was a lot of ballyhooing about how the RGB-subpixel display would be equal to (or even better than) the plain-jane 1080p displays in the Vive/Rift. Simply not true. There have been reports about how the field-of-view of the PSVR “feels” wider than the Rift/Vive. I’m not one to discount other’s “feelings”, but from a purely objective stance, the difference is so small as to be negligible. The overall resolution of the PSVR is limited to the same 1080p as the Vive and Rift, but the bigger limit is the video processing power of the PS4, and it just can’t push pixels fast enough for that.

But so what? The whole point of VR is not to display crystal-clear photorealistic graphics. Maybe that’s what they show in the TV advertisements, but that’s just not reality. Even the very best military-grade VR that literally costs hundreds of thousands of dollars is not capable of that. But what you DO get with a consumer level VR headset is the feeling of “being there” inside the game. Cutting edge graphics are not required for that. And the PSVR, running off a standard original-model PS4, has a display resolution that is quite capable of making the user feel like they have been transported into another place. Sometimes it is a TRON-like computer generated place, sometimes it is a soft-focus cartoony place, sometimes it is a sharp-focus marionette world, and sometimes it actually feels like a real-world place... just maybe not this world! Graphically speaking, the PSVR and PS4 display is more than adequate for presenting believable virtual reality.

The optics in the PSVR, on the other hand, seem to be a lot more finicky than the Vive. I wear glasses. In fact, because I’m an “older” gamer (I turned 50 this year), I wear bifocal glasses. Because of this, I can only use the top half of my glasses in a VR headset; the VR optics make it “appear” as if the display is 8 to 15 feet away from your eyes and only the top half of my glasses’ lenses are set for “distance” viewing. For me, with the Vive, I had to keep hitching the display up on my face. It naturally wanted to sit slightly too low for me to have clear vision inside the thing; I had to choose between being comfortable, or being able to see clearly. Because of the construction of the PSVR, I was able to move the headset to the perfect position and keep it there with minimal fussing.

The “halo” design of the PSVR is unique among all three of the commercial headsets. The Rift and the Vive both attach like a pair of goggles – there is a strap that goes around the user’s head and holds the display tight against the face. This leads to the infamous “VR-face” where, after some amount of use, the gasket leaves a red “ring” around the user’s eyes, as if they had been SCUBA diving for some time. Compared to that method, the PSVR seems both bizarre and amazing! The display more-or-less doesn’t touch the user’s face at all. Instead it kind of “floats” in front of them. It is supported by a single hard plastic handle that is attached to the “halo” – a headband that sits on top of the user’s head like a plastic baseball visor. In fact, wearing the PSVR feels very similar to wearing a baseball cap. There is a soft plastic gasket that does prevent light from outside the display from obscuring the view, but this is not a friction fit and is noticeably less cumbersome than the Vive/Rift.

Setting up the headset for use is amazingly simple. There are a total of five cables to connect. At first this sounds like a lot, but two of them are to the PS4 and the other three connect to the PSVR breakout box. That’s it. No drivers. No configuration files. You push a single button and the thing goes “beep” and it’s ready to use. Compare this to the Vive, which requires two “lighthouses” to be set up and configured; a wand to be walked around the play area to set up the boundaries, drivers to be installed and configured for the lighthouses, and then finally the headset is ready for use. With practice a Vive can be set up in ten minutes. Initial setup for the PSVR was less than that, and once it’s connected, getting it ready for use can be done in seconds. That’s not hyperbole – last night I played with the PSVR for a few minutes and the total setup I did was: Pick up the headset, push the power button on the headset, place headset on my head.

There is a caveat for that quick setup and configuration, of course. The reason that the Vive (and to a lesser extent, the Rift) take so long to set up and configure is that they use a high-tech system to locate and track the headset (and motion controls). The Vive uses “lighthouse” technology (which I won’t explain here, but it is really cool) and the Rift uses infrared detectors (which is also cool). Both of these technologies are inherently redundant and self-correcting. The PSVR, on the other hand, uses normal, garden-variety, optical tracking. From a single camera. That has an incredibly tight field-of-view. This results in two problems:
First, the field of view. When you are in the “best” position in front of the camera, you have about three feet to either side of you that is visible to the camera and about two feet above and below (the headset). The side to side range is adequate, but not great. If you stay seated and don’t move around too much, it will capture most people’s outstretched arms. You can move to the side and get a hand/controller out of the tracking area, but it isn’t common. More impactful is the vertical limit. Assuming you are seated (and even if you are standing) and you put your hands down as far as you can, your hands will be (for most people) more than two feet below your eyes. This happens quite a bit in actual gameplay. Even setting a controller on one’s lap will cause it to “vanish” from the virtual world as it leaves view.

The other major problem is that optical tracking is based on visible light. If the room is too dark, the camera can’t “see” and it loses tracking. If the room is too bright, it can’t make out the glowing LEDs on the headset and loses tracking. If there are lights (or reflective surfaces) behind the user, where the camera can see them, it gets confused and loses tracking. And a loss of tracking for the PSVR means that it “jitters”. That is, the apparent location of both the headset and the controllers appears to unpredictably move around slightly. For controllers, this is annoying, but not terrible. Most of the time you are moving them around already and if it moves an extra ½” to the left when you throw a Batarang, you still hit the target. Where it becomes a problem is when the headset jitters. This makes the view/camera adjust for the user’s (apparent, but not real) motion. In effect, the entire virtual world “jitters”, which is disconcerting and unnerving.

The solution to controller and headset jitter is more-or-less to just play with it until you find a solution that works. For my particular situation, where I had originally placed the camera, some bright lights were visible directly behind the user. Moving the camera to another location (above my TV) changed the point-of-view such that the lights were less obvious and cleared up a lot of the headset jitter. (There is still some controller jitter though.) Sitting or standing about 6 feet away from the camera seems to work best. If you are more than 10 feet away, from the camera, the light levels from the LEDs and controllers is “too dim” for good recognition and the whole thing becomes spasmodic.

The controllers used by the PSVR come in two flavors. Many games use the standard DualShock4 PS4 controllers. As many players of the PS4 already know, the battery life on these is pitiful. Luckily, since I am a PS4 user who often hosted other players locally, I already own four of these. As one would go dead, I toss it on the “cooker” and grab another and I’m back in business. Some of the more immersive games use the old PS3 Move controllers, which have been repurposed for the PSVR. These things are often modeled in the game as hands, allowing for more direct interaction with the virtual world. Even though my Move controllers are about 5 years old, they work extremely well and the batteries actually last longer than the DS4 controllers. As described above, they are not as “stable” as the Vive’s wands (due to the optical tracking), but they certainly work and they work well.

All told, the cost for a PSVR is around $400 to $800. On the lower end, assuming you already own a PS4, PS Camera, and two Move controllers, then the “core” system is all you need. At $400 out-the-door, you get the headset, a demo disc with 18 game demos and the free VR Playroom on PSN. That’s everything you need to experience virtual reality. On the other hand, if you own nothing, you’ll need to buy a PS4 (at about $275 these days), a PS Camera (about $50 on amazon), two move controllers (another $75), and the PSVR (for $400). Compared that to the cost of a Rift ($600) or the Vive ($800), both of which require a minimum $900 gaming PC computer with a top-of-the-line video card... the value proposition of the PSVR is unmatched.
For the casual non-core user who has experienced cellphone style VR (with Google “cardboard” or the Samsung GearVR), the PSVR is going to be a HUGE upgrade. Compared to that low-end VR, the PSVR is night-and-day better. It makes those cellphone based system look like toys. On the other hand, for a user that already has access to a Rift or Vive headset, the PSVR offers a solid 80% of that same quality, at about half the cost. The value of the PSVR is head-and-shoulders better than any other VR option available now.

It isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It does have some very real limits that may prevent some users from enjoying it. Watching YouTube videos of games played on the thing really isn’t impressive; most of the VR games look like hot garbage on a flat screen. (They really aren’t when you’re inside the headset.) As long as you know what the limitations of the system are and are willing to stay inside the lines it creates, it is extremely compelling, usable, and (above all) an extremely BELIEVABLE experience. On at least two occasions, while hosting friends, they had to tap out because the experience was “too much” to handle (too scary, too creepy, or too upsetting, depending on the person and situation). Overall, the PSVR hardware is a GREAT system and it does a wonderful job of presenting an immersive, believable virtual world to the user. I’m super glad I bought mine!!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, October 25, 2016 9:29 PM PT [+]

Olli Olli Oxenfree!

I saw an advertisement for Oxenfree several months ago, and really thought it looked like a really cool concept. I wasn’t completely sure what kind of game it was at the time, but I knew I wanted to play it. When it finally released on the PS4, I bought it on launch day. It sat in my queue for a while, but I finally finished it. And, wow, this is a really good game. Not a “great” game – it does have some serious flaws - but it’s still very entertaining and I’m glad I played it.

The basic premise is that you play Alex, a blue-haired high-schooler, who, along with some of her classmates, are going to illegally camp out at a local tourist trap. That happens to be a deserted (and haunted) island, complete with a spooky old mansion, WWII backstory, ghosts of fallen soldiers and… oh, yeah, it’s a time-travel story too.


The gameplay is kind of unique. In a nutshell, you “walk” around the map and have conversations with the other characters. There are the odd interactions with the environment, but the meat of the game is in the conversation engine. While conversations are going on, you will often be given two or three options of what to say. The really interesting part of that is that you can NOT select any of them and the conversation will continue. So, there is always the option of not responding.

All of the conversations happen in real time. The bad part of this is that if you are a slow reader, or have social anxiety, or are not a good conversationalist in Real Life, you will likely find yourself left out of many of the in-game conversations as well. The whole thing operates in real-time, so if you are not quick on the draw you’ll be left out. There is very rarely a moment where the other character’s chatter stops and waits for you to respond. It is more akin to being around several people talking in Real Life – if you say nothing, someone else will keep the conversation going, usually without a pause.

The net result of this is that, until I got accustomed to not waiting for a pause in the conversation and just saying something, it often felt like I was interrupting the other characters. And I kinda was. At first. Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the game, it started to feel much more natural. Some people might not get past that, and it would likely detract from their gameplay. The player who stays silent will miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn about the backstories of the different characters and how they might react in different situations. Also, the choices you make (or don’t make, depending on how assertive you are with the conversation engine) do, in fact, come back to haunt you as you play through the game. After about an hour of playing (and settling into the pace of the game), I was able to identify with Alex much better. I started to think, “What would I do/say in this situation?” And that really helped set the mood of the game for me.

In the opening scene, we meet Alex and her best friend Ren, who, along with Alex’s new step-brother, are on a ferry boat to Edwards Island. As the game progresses, we meet Carissa (the girlfriend of Alex’s recently deceased brother Micheal) and Nona (with whom Ren has a crush). That’s the sum total of all of the living characters. The story doesn’t really get going until Alex tunes her pocket radio to a radio station that doesn’t exist and more-or-less opens a hole between two universes. Yeah, it really starts getting crazy after that.

The puzzles in the game were not terribly difficult, and served more to advance the story. Sometimes, a puzzle will be easier (or harder) depending on a conversation choice you had made much, much earlier in the game. Sometimes a supporting character will pipe up about some factoid that you had mentioned (literally hours) previously and that will solve a puzzle or open up advancement in the game. I can’t stress how much effect the conversation engine has on gameplay here!

Having said that, there were a couple of times where things took me completely out of the game. There were a couple of puzzles where my poor vision didn’t notice the microscopic switch or button that I needed to press to advance, and the character “trapped” with me would “helpfully” spout off the same line or two of “hint” dialogue. Over and over and over. After about the sixth or seventh time hearing the same character say the same thing (which I already knew because I’m not a moron… plus I heard them say it the first three times!) I got a little annoyed.

Another issue that failed for me was a couple of the conversation options appeared in mirrored fashion. In other words, I had to select LEFT to choose the RIGHT option. These conversation options occurred when Alex was talking to a reflection in a mirror, so it made sense thematically, but those conversations had a VERY short timeout. The first time I encountered one of these I missed the chance to pick anything because the game moved on before I selected; subsequently I ended up picking the exact opposite of what I intended because the time pressure on me and the reverse controls. I don’t think I ever got one of those “right”.

Speaking of “right”, the options given during conversations are very rarely obvious choices. Often you’ll have three options that say essentially the same thing, with the only difference being how it is articulated. But, just like in Real Life, often HOW you say something is just as important as what you are saying. And, as mentioned previously, these choices can sometimes make a large difference later in the game.

The story is a pretty compelling one. You really don’t know what’s going on for a long time, and once you start to figure it out, the game throws in a curveball or two. Without spoiling anything, there are a few sequences that the game forces you to complete several times, with slight alterations each time you repeat that scene. And each time you repeat it, you learn more about the storyline. And this is where those tiny differences in conversation can make a huge difference. Repeating a scene with someone who you’ve set on edge or made a disparaging remark towards earlier in the game can really make things difficult.

I will say this, the story is probably one of the most frightening game stories I have ever played through. I’ve played a few “scary” games in the past – I’ve completed the P.T. demo, I played Soma straight through, I enjoyed the shooter F.E.A.R. when it came out, and I’ve even played part of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but I got bored about 1/3 of the way in – and Oxenfree was the first time I’ve actually started to dread advancing the story because it was so disturbing. There are no jump-scares here - or, at least, no notable ones. Personally, I don’t find jump-scares to be “scary” at all. Yes, they are startling and they can make me jump – which is kind of the point – but while playing a game that has a lot of jump-scares, I’ve never felt any worry of concern about the next jump. This game is scary in the same way that creepy clowns are scary. The kind of disturbing mental scary that you can’t quite put a finger on, and makes you a little hesitant to progress because you’re not feeling super confident about that you might learn or find.

Much like a Telltale game, the overarcing story is mostly immutable, and the actions that player takes (and the order in which you do things) really won’t change the Big Picture storyline. However, unlike a Telltale game, because you are an active participant in most of the in-game conversations, it feels as if you are having a much more direct and immediate effect on the story (even if you aren’t really). However, unlike Telltale’s games, there are seven completely different ways for this one to end, ranging from saving a character that was previously dead to completely obliterating a character from existence (remember: there is a time-travel element here!) Pretty much all of the other options are much less extreme that those, but (assuming you can develop even a slight emotional connection with the characters) have some pretty dramatic effects. For myself, I was able to accomplish the goal that I had set for myself early on in the game (and was awarded a PSN trophy for doing it).

Overall, there are a lot worse games you could play this year. I don’t expect this one to be winning any Game of the Year awards, but it’s a great buy and a lot of fun to play. It’s out on the PC via steam, PS4 and XBone.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, August 10, 2016 4:48 PM PT [+]

Pokemon GO
I started writing this post four weeks ago. In that time period, Pokemon GO has gone from a fun concept, to a social phenomenon, to possibly the most successful mobile game in history, and in the last 48-hours, has become the most-hated product on the internet.

Unless you’ve been comatose or trapped in an underground facility for the last three weeks, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Pokemon GO, the “new” game from Niantic Labs and The Pokemon Company. (I put “new” in quotes because the game borrows pretty heavily form Niantic Labs’ prior game Ingess.)

When the game came out four weeks ago, it was an instant, overnight smash success. The kind of success that no one expects. The kind of success that is literally the stuff that hedge fund managers dream about. Nintendo stock more than doubled in value overnight – which was actually kind of funny, since Nintendo doesn’t actually own any part of the game and isn’t involved in its production. In fact, Nintendo only owns about 1/3 of The Pokemon Company. And even better, since Niantic is the actual creator of the game, The Pokemon Company is only entitled to a flat-fee licensing agreement – they likely aren’t getting a percentage of the profits at all! So when all is said and done, the overall effect of this overnight success on Nintendo’s profitability will be pretty close to zero.

Within a week of release, the game was the most downloaded smartphone app of all time!! It passed Candy Crush in popularity; it passed Tinder (admittedly not a game, but still very popular); and it even surpassed Twitter. While we don’t have access to the exact numbers, it has been reported that Niantic Labs has seen about $2M per day in microtransaction profit from Pokemon GO!

The game is mostly free-to-play, just like Ingess. You get gear (pokeballs, healing sprays, revive gems, etc.) from Pokestops. You capture Pokemon in the wild. But there are certain specific “freemium” items that the game includes that are only given out in extremely limited quantities, mostly only to educate the player of their existence. Aside from the one or two freebies, those items are only available from the in-app cash-shop. And true to F2P form, the cash shop uses a special in-game currency that you need to buy with actual real money and the more you buy the less each Pokecoin costs. For example, you can buy 100 coins for $0.99 (about one cent per coin), but if you pony up $99 you get 14,500 coins (about .68 cents per coin).

As you walk around in the real world, various Pokemon will randomly appear and you “throw” pokeballs at them to catch them. It’s basically the old Paper Toss game. As you progress in the game, catching these “wild” Pokemon becomes more difficult (but they become more powerful as a reward). Obviously, you need pokeballs to do this. Luckily, you can get anywhere from three to six pokeballs every time you “spin” a pokestop. Unless you live in a rural area, pokestops are common enough that you should never run out. In my town, I can take a half-hour walk at lunch and gather between 75 and 150 pokeballs.

The other way to get new Pokemon is to “hatch” them from eggs. One of the many potential rewards from pokestops is eggs. Each player is given one “infinite” incubator. You put an egg in the incubator (or, as we refer to it here “on the cooker”) and then you walk. The game client tracks your mobility using the GPS. As long as you are walking less than 5MPH, the distance you move used to advance the incubator. Eggs come in three flavors, all based on distance needed to hatch them: 2km, 5km, or 10km. The “bigger” eggs take a longer distance hatch into more powerful pokemon.

And then there’s “hunting”… which is the cause of all of the recent whinging. Hunting for Pokemon involves a part of the game called the “tracker”. The tracker, in prior incarnations, would list the nine closest Pokemon to the player and displayed them in a ranked grid, where the closest Pokemon was in the upper right and the furthest one was in the lower left. One very early version of the tracker actually listed the distances to the Pokemon in 20 meter increments; a later version showed the distance based on a cold/medium/warm/hot scale, where Pokemon that were far away were shown with three footprints under their image, Pokemon that were a moderate distance away had two footsteps, nearby Pokemon would have one footstep and Pokemon that were in the immediate vicinity showed with no footsteps at all. By using this tool, players could move around in the world, and more-or-less triangulate towards (and hopefully capture) specific Pokemon or Pokemon types.

Sadly, about a week after release, the tracker stopped functioning. (The reason why is still hotly debated on the internet, but no one really know for sure why it was done, or if was accidental or intentional.) Everything on the tracker showed as being “three steps” away, giving this situation the nom-de-plume the Three Step Bug. As a result, some third-party applications became popular. Most notably was the web-accessible online tool called PokeVision. This basically was an overlay onto google maps that showed the exact locations of all Pokemon in any area of the world, including de-spawn timers. One could zoom to an area, click on the map and see exactly where everything was. This, unfortunately, was completely against the spirit of the game. “Hunting” became a matter of clicking on a amp, finding out what was there and then driving to the exact location and capturing it.

Over this last weekend, Niantic finally shut down these third-party tools. They also removed any distance marking from the tracker completely, making it appear as if all Pokemon were some indefinite distance away from the player. But despite all the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, this really didn’t change the existing (broken) behavior of the tracker. Whether it is three-steps or no-steps, the same Pokemon are listed and they're listed in the same order. So, really, nothing has changed. Despite this, the internet has lost its collective mind and is decrying this change as if it were the coming of the apocolypse.

Which brings me to the first type of player of the game: the Collector. The Collector's main goal in the game is to "catch them all". There are 151 different Pokemon types in the game presently. A dozen or so of these are so common thta everyone will have them within the first hour of playing. Many others are uncommon, but not terribly rare. Those account for about another 75-ish. Beyond that, there are the rare Pokemon that pop up occasionally, maybe another 25 or so. The last 50 are only obtainable by hunting specifically for them, breeding them from eggs, or evolving them from lower Pokemon.

The Collector types were the most impacted by the recent brouhaha. Without any way to hunt the specific Pokemon they need to fill out their pokedex, this type of player really has no reason to play. For better or worse, these players really have no long-term effect on the overall health of the game. Once they filled their pokedex with all 151 entries - whether legitimately, or by "cheating" - they were destined to quit the game. For this type of player, the whole game revolves around "catching them all", but once you accomplish that, there's no more game to be had. You've "won" and can stop playing.

The thing is, the game actually has a lot more to it than just hunting Pokemon and collecting them all. In fact, there's a lot more. The mid-level game revolves around capturing and holding capturable points called 'Gyms'.

Gyms started out neutral. (I'd be very surprised if any neutral gyms still remain after 4 weeks of play, but let's start there for the sake of discussion.) Any player can put one of their Pokemon into a neutral gym. This 'claims' the Gym for their team. There are three teams: the red Team Valor, the blue Team Mystic, and the yellow Team Instinct. From there, the player would fight thier own (friendly) Gym. If they defeat the Gym, the Gym gains 'reputation'. Once it gains enough reputation, it 'levels up'. At each level, another Pokemon can be added to the Gym, but each player can only place one at each Gym. This means that in order to really power up a Gym requires multiple players on the same team. As of this writing, the maximum level for a Gym is Level 10, taking ten unique players on the same team to populate.

If a player discovers a Gym that is held by an opposing team, they can 'battle' it using six of their Pokemon. They need to defeat all of the defending Pokemon, in order, from weakest to strongest. If they defeat them all, the Gym loses reputation. If it loses too much, it will go down a level, kicking the weakest Pokemon off the Gym. When the reputation reaches zero, the Gym reverts to neutral and can be captured by any player. Each battle won might reduce the reputation by a few thousand points. Considering that a Level 6 Gym has over 30,000 reputation, it takes quite a few battles to 'flip' a Gym. It isn't a simple task.

Gym battles are the reason that the game asks players to collect Pokemon. Collecting Pokemon isn't the goal in of itself, it is a means to attack and defend Gyms. Sadly, most players don't know, or don't care to know, how Gyms work. They assume that they only need to battle a Gym once to defeat it, and when that doesn't happen, they give up in frustration. They don't understand that you need to "fight" friendly Gyms to level them up and never do so. And then they are frustrated when they can't add a new Pokemon to a friendly Gym because it is too low level. They don't understand that they get credit for holding a Gym even if they are the lowest ranked Pokemon on that Gym.

Gyms and the Gym systems appeal to the second type of player: The Fighter. These type of players are going to obsess about having a Pokemon on the largest number of Gyms possible. And since holding on to a Gym (or capturing enemy Gyms) means that they need a veritable army of powerful Pokemon, they're going to be out capturing as many as they can and powering them up to higher levels, discovering and recording the hidden 'individual values' for each of their Pokemon, and researching which Pokemon are strong against other specific defenders.

The third type of player are the Achievers. See, just like in any other MMO, everything a player does in Pokemon GO grants experience. Get enough experience and your character levels up. Capture a Pokemon, get 100 exp. Capture a Gym, get 500 exp. Beat a Gym in training mode or in a battle, maybe you'll get 1000 exp. Evolve a low level Pokemon into a later form, get 500 exp. The leveling curve is pretty gentle for the first 20 levels, and then it gets crazy. The amount of experience required to go from a brand new level 1 all the way to level 20 is less than the amount of experience required to go from level 20 to level 23. So, it's a tough road to walk. However, there are a lot of players who have made it their primary goal to make it to the level cap of Level 40.

The time sink of gaining so much experience is pretty daunting. Luckily for this type of player, the game has a cash shop item called as Lucky Egg. Using one of these will give the player a 30 minute buff that doubles their exp gains, turning those hundreds of exp into thousands. But it still requires over 23million exp to hit the cap, so this is a significant time investment.

While the Achievers will have a larger footprint on the game than the Collectors do - mostly because of the amount of time required to get to the level cap, and that actually playing the end-game grants additional exp - these players also won't have a long-lasting effect on the game. Oh, they'll have more effect then the Collectors (who will be playing their own game and not really interacting with anyone else). Achievers will still be playing the Gym game and making life miserable for the lower level players in their area (which is likely to be almost everyone). But, just like the Collectors, when they hit their goal of reaching the level cap, they're done with the game. They've "won" and there is no more reason to play.

Overall, Pokemon Go is a really fun game. The early-game Collecting loop is exceptionally compelling (tracking issues aside), the mid-game Achieving loop provides a lot of fun watching numbers get bigger, and the end-game, while still immature, provides a unique challenge for long-range planning. I've been playing for four weeks and I am still having as much fun now as I did when the game was released. Sadly, far too many ex-players might say that they "used to play the game but it sucks now", without even knowing or understanding why.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, August 2, 2016 9:08 PM PT [+]

The Order: 1886

I originally thought that this game was supposed to be a launch title for the PS4. Apparently it was delayed a bit, coming out over a year later. Upon release it quickly garnered a lot of extremely negative buzz. The game was too short; there wasn’t enough interactivity; there weren’t enough branching options… it was pretty hard to find anyone who actually liked the game, much less a positive review of it.

But in a way, all of that negative had a positive effect. Several retailers had banked on the game being a high-volume seller, and so when it tanked, they had a ton of overstock. As a result, the price plummeted and I was able to pick up a brand new physical copy of the game for $10. (The digital version of the game is often hitting the $6 mark on PSN.)

I have got to say, for all of the negative buzz this game got, it’s actually a pretty fun game! True, it’s not a hundred-plus hour slog through some writing team’s magnum opus… but not every game needs to be. I’ve certainly played shorter games that cost me far more. The Last of Us, a game generally recognized as Game of the Year for 2013 (and then again in 2014 for the Remastered version) barely climbs over the 20-hour length. Pretty much anything produced by Telltale is going to be in the 5-10 hour range, and no one is complaining about that! The length of this game is long enough to become invested in the characters, and that’s really all that matters.

There is another argument that this is actually just a long cinematic experience and not actually a game at all. And there is some truth to that. There are a lot of cutscenes in the game. But there aren’t any more cutscenes here than there are in any of the Uncharted games. It never felt like I was “mostly” watching the game and not playing it. There was really only one sequence where the cutscene was jarring. I had finished a medium difficulty fight, and was moving on past that area when a cutscene triggered and yanked me BACK into that same area. That was immersion breaking and detracted from the experience. Aside from that, the cutscenes did a decent job of presenting the story and developing other characters. Having said that, that same information probably could have been presented differently through gameplay, without resorting to pre-rendered cutscenes where the player had no control.

One place where the game really shines, though, is in the graphical presentation. This is one GORGEOUS game!! The engine that was developed for this thing is simply amazing. It’s a dialog heavy game and the lip flap of the character models actuyally looked like they were talking. In the early part of the game I would get as close as possible to the ambient non-players and just watch them talk. When I was running through this game, I had just finished playing Life is Strange and one of my biggest quibbles with that game was that the graphical presentation often did not live up to the amazing storytelling. I kept imagining how amazing that game would have been with this games’ graphical engine!! Not only was the character modeling and engine extremely well done, even simple stuff like the background textures and the modeling of the ambient background characters was amazing. Clothing that fluttered in the wind when you ran was not just pre-rendered flapping, it actually dynamically changed based on direction and velocity. The visuals here really feel like a high production value movie with period costumes and incredible set design.

Of course, while the levels looked and felt amazing, a common complaint of the game is that they were very linear and only allowed the character to progress in one way. That’s mostly true, but that’s also true in most other adventure type games as well. If you look at well-received games like the Uncharted series, or any one of the long running Tomb Raider series of games, or even the Bioshock games – all of those games had tight, directed, and constrained level design as well. So, while the level design was fairly linear, it wasn’t obtrusively so and no more linear than other games of this same type.

The one complaint that I didn’t hear prior to playing this game (and turned out to be my biggest problem with it) was with the difficulty scaling and game pacing. In a well-designed game, the difficulty starts out pretty low and gradually ramps up as you progress. Ostensibly, the player is getting “better” at the game as they play, so as the difficulty increases, the player is better equipped to deal with it. This makes the player feel like a bad-ass since they are taking on fights in the late-game that would have been impossible – or at least extremely difficult – for them to win in the early portions of the game. The problem is, that the difficulty ramp in this game is extremely uneven. There are some throwaway fights in the middle of the game that are brutally hard, and some of the (supposed) “boss” fights are pitifully easy.

The most telling example of this is the next-to-last fight in that game. In this fight, you are solo against about 30 enemies, some of which take multiple hits to down. Meanwhile, several of them have weapons that will strip off 2/3 of your health in a single hit. It is a do-able fight, but it requires that the player have perfect aim, be positioned in just the right place, and know exactly when they can reload between shots. Up to that point, the game was mostly a cover-based strategic shooter, but that penultimate fight was seemingly designed for a run-and-gun playstyle. And then, once past that, the actual game-ending boss-fight was pitifully easy, requiring only five well-timed button presses.

Personally, I would have preferred the boss-fighting sequences to be much much harder. They never felt “epic” to me. Especially since those fights were mostly presented in a quick-time cutscene style. It almost felt like the developers had put together a semi-interactive brawler game, then decided to change to a cover-based strategic shooter style game, but felt like they HAD to use the brawler portions somewhere. The “big” fights really felt out of place with the rest of the gameplay!

Maybe I’m looking at it differently than people who paid $50 for it, but overall, I enjoyed the game. It certainly had some rough spots and I wouldn’t say that it was ever in the running for Game of the Year, but it certainly is a lot better than many other games. Heck, despite its flaws, it’s better than probably half of the full-price stuff coming out this year, let alone in last year! If you’ve got 10 hours to burn and can afford what amounts to one ticket to a movie, you could do a lot worse than to try this one out. And who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 28, 2016 7:05 PM PT [+]

Your Lie in April

This is the last anime review I’m going to do for a while. Black Desert Online really took a LOT of my time to get through and pretty much killed my momentum for both playing games and writing. It was an all-consuming time-sink for a few months, and I used anime to pull myself out of that funk. What this means is that starting next week, I’m going to be talking about games again. I’m sure you’re overjoyed.

I started watching Your Lie in April based on the recommendation of Tristan “Arkada” Gallant, who runs a user-supported YouTube anime review channel called Glass Reflections. He gave it a “blind suggestion” in the beginning of this year. Meaning that he hadn’t actually watched it yet, but was still giving it a tentative “you should watch this” review. (Note that he has since done a complete review, which I had not seen at the time of this writing.) Also, Netflix was pushing this one into my face as a recommendation too. Although that last time I listened to Netflix recommendations, I got Aldnoah.Zero… so I was a mostly going off Tristan’s non-review.

I am SO GLAD that I spent the time with this show!! I’ll tell you right up front that this show was both amazing to watch, and at the same time brutal to watch. It fall firmly into the “slice of life” anime category. There isn’t a Bad Guy that the heroes are struggling to overcome and there isn’t a challenge that the world is presenting to the protagonists. It’s simply one year in the life of one young man and his friends. But, oh my! What a year!

The show pretty much revolves around the main protagonist, a teenage classical piano prodigy. Some people might be turned off by the subject matter, but rest assured, while the show does feature classical music, it is more of a character in the show rather than the focus of the show. I, personally, find music to be pointless; I’ve never gotten a tune stuck in my head, and I don’t hum to myself during downtime. Music, to me, is just a series of sounds with zero emotional impact. So while the concepts of music runs rampant in this show, the music itself is never presented as something that is more than something that the characters are doing. Even when the show is holding a concert, the music is never center stage, it’s just a thing that is going on, in, around and with the characters.

What the show is about is Life. It’s about Love. It’s about Loss. It’s about Acceptance. These are all very deep and philosophical issues and they are presented with care and respect. The emotional impact of this show is pretty significant. Sometimes when I’m watching an anime that I really enjoy, I’ll binge watch it, only to stop when I look up and see that it’s very late and I have to get up for work in only a few hours. For this show, there were several points times during the season that I simply couldn’t watch another episode. Instead of hitting the “next episode” button, I would watch the entire closing credits and then sit quietly for a few minutes to digest what I’d just seen. In a word, this show is Heavy.

I just happened to watch the next-to-last episode while my Lovely Partner was in the same room. She’s not a big fan of anime, and was only half-paying attention to the show, but at one point when the show dropped another one of its (many) emotional bombs, she actually looked up and said “Oh…. Ouch.” This show will almost definitely hit you in the feels. No punches are pulled here.

It’s not all bad news though. Even though the show features a massive dose of heartbreak, it also heaps on a generous supply of hope and happiness, joy and beauty, and love and understanding. This show is a veritable mélange of emotions and it will resonate with nearly every viewer.

The story revolves around a young man who has lost his taste for life, and then rediscovers it suddenly and unexpectedly. Not once while watching the show was there a sudden unexpected plot twist. That’s not to say that events were predictable. Instead, the events that transpire are meaningful and impactful, but always logical and presented in a way that the viewer is never surprised or taken aback. The intent of the show is to make the viewer FEEL, not to dazzle or amaze them!

The characters in the show are complex, and well-developed. There are no cardboard cutouts here. Even the throwaway background characters are interesting. For example, one of the judges during a competition is literally on-screen for less than two minutes, and yet, in his three or four lines, we are shown a person that is not only thinking but that is willing to consider and accept that the world might not be as black-and-white as one might imagine. This kind of detail is written into almost every character in the show, particularly the main characters. And rather than doing the typical anime “flashback” character backstory filler episodes, we learn about their lives and experiences as they relate to the other characters, without minutes of exposition or even getting off the main subject of the show. Essentially, you learn about these characters organically as you watch the show. This makes them feel a lot more ”real” than most anime characters.

The artwork is stunning. At first I was put off by the pastel-heavy color palette, but the art style fits this show perfectly. It almost feels like older western cell-shaded animation, before they cheapened up production values. The characters are not the skinny sticklike beings that are often seen in these shows, and are presented more realistically. In particular, the female characters are neither busty nor bouncy, but are drawn very conservatively and realistically. In one of the later episodes a female character is running away from the camera, while wearing a skirt. Rather than showing a bit of thigh or resorting to the ubiquitous panty-shot, we see a running girl wearing a skirt. And since there are many scene that feature a character playing a piano, the level of detail is impressive. It seems as if all of the people in this show actually have five articulated fingers on each hand!

The titular “lie” is not revealed until the final episode, and when the curtain is drawn back, it is not a gut-punching betrayal, but rather a simple white lie that, in retrospect, plays so well within the overall narrative that one can’t help but feel like it’s something you’ve known all along, but just weren’t really thinking about at the time. That is, if you’re the type of person that will skip to the end to see what the big secret is, you shouldn’t bother. It’s not really that big of a deal, even if it is the glue that holds the entire show together. In fact, had the show been called something else, and the “lie” never revealed, it wouldn’t change the impact of the show one single iota. In fact, the subject of the “lie” is only on-screen for only a few minutes at a time, and is completely absent from the majority of episodes.

Overall, this show was extremely difficult for me to get through. Despite being a single run of only 22 episodes, I spent nearly a month getting through this. The emotional impact of several episodes was so great that I simply had to take a few days to process it. This show really tore me up, but I had to come back for more. The telegraphed message of the final show is presented so well that you are left both in awe of it, while at the same time filled with a complete and utter sense of loss. When the final credits roll, you know that it is over.

I strongly recommend this show. If you’ve ever watched shows like Clannad or (to a lesser extent) Angel Beats and found them even the least bit touching or emotional, then this anime will kill you. Happy viewing!!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 21, 2016 9:42 PM PT [+]


So recently, I’ve been on an anime kick. I was looking for something new to watch and Netflix had recommended this show Aldnoah.Zero for me a few times. I sat down with my Lovely Partner to watch the first episode, and after the 22 minutes had run their course, I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t exactly looking for the next episode either.

But, see, here’s the thing. I’ve seen anime before. My rule-of-thumb is that any show gets a minimum of three episodes before I even start to think about calling it “good” or “bad”. Anime has a slow, slow burn and often times, something that you see in the first show won’t really play out until you are halfway (or sometimes more) through the entire first season. Usually the first few episodes are more-or-less world building and character introductions. (For a long-running show, there might be “filler” episodes where one or more characters get a complete detailed backstory reveal, but those are usually not until you’re seven to ten episodes in, and you’ve already established a connection with the character.)

So I gave it three episodes. And then I ended up watching the entire first and second season.

That might seem like an endorsement, but let me be up-front here. This is not a great anime. It’s decent enough for a rainy Sunday afternoon, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it. The characters are simplistic and one dimensional, the humor is quirky and misses the point more often than not, the fight scenes are predictable and when there is the occasional plot twist, you will more likely go “Yeah, I could see that” rather than “Whaa?!?” Pretty much the only thing that kept me going through the entire first season was the overarcing story.

Despite being fairly predictable and full of standard action tropes, the story was interesting. It kind of takes the standard “overpowered gundam-style mecha against a horde of dudes”, except in this case, the overpowered gundam-style mecha is in the hands of the Bad Guys and the horde of dudes that are getting destroyed are the Good Guys. The juxtaposition ends up highlighting the uselessness of war, and lends a feeling of pointlessness and depression to the entire situation.

But, true to the trope, everything always works out okay because even though the Bad Guys have gundams, the Good Guys have the main protagonist, a super-smart high-schooler who creatively figures out how to defeat each of the overpowered enemy mecha, one after another. Even when the Bad Guys finally get wise to this strategy and attack with three gundam at once, through the magical power of being the main character, a third party suddenly appears to provide just the right amount of assistance at just the right time and the Good Guys end up winning again.

The story is interesting, even it is mostly predictable. Up until the end of the first season, I kept watching mostly because I’m a completionist and I was mildly curious to see how it all resolved. So, when I got to the end of season one and (spoiler alert) Every. Single. Character. Dies.... Well, that kinda put the nail in the coffin, both literally and figuratively. And I’m not kidding about every character dying. Well, actually I am exaggerating a tiny bit. Only the five main characters die. It’s like a Mexican stand off and rather than everyone backing away looking nervous, they all pull the trigger and shoot each other in one giant mess.

After that disaster, I figured I was done with this show. It seemed like a clean break for both the viewer (me) and for the writers. It didn’t feel hastily done or unplanned. It honestly felt like this was the end-story that the writers had intended. I mean the entire show had been presented as a kind of “war is hell” diorama, and how better to really drive that point home than to have all of your main characters all murder each other?

But then I saw that Netflix had season two. And after thinking about it, and the aforementioned murder of pretty much everyone who had any real impact on the story, I got curious. So I watched the first show of season two. And, guess what?? Giant retcon!! Waitaminit, even though we shot one person in the head, another got shot in the eye, one was impaled and bled out, and one was riddled full of holes by a machine gun... miraculously everyone survived somehow and we’re back with our familiar characters! Plot twist, though: some of them turn out to be better/worse than they were in season one and their goals are now different (or the same)! Introduce a few new supporting characters and off we go again!!

Season two actually seemed a lot more watchable than season one. The story is still super-predictable and the characters are still as one-dimensional and narrowly defined as before, but since we were able to skip all of the initial world-building and introduction stuff, it got down to action right away. Rather than being a straight up rock-em-sock-em fight, the different characters started to get sneaky and dastardly. This allowed for a few more “twisty” plot twists - even if they are still telegraphed well in advance. It probably also helped that I started watching while drinking heavily. Despite that, even the better of the two seasons never really got above the “this still isn’t great” level. The fact that I define this as this show as what it -isn’t- instead of what it -is- speaks volumes.

In the end, the finale of season two almost made up for the 12+ hours I spent on the show. Almost. Just like the initial season, the end of season two offered complete closure to pretty much every main plot point and tied up the vast majority of the various sub-plots. In fact, it really felt like the writers were offing a nice easy “get off this train if you want” full stop. Unlike season one, the season two closer did not involve killing (or apparently killing, as it turned out) the entire cast. Instead, season two offers a hopeful, happy ending – just maybe not the one you were expecting.

Overall, the show falls firmly into the “not great” category. I could only recommend watching it if you have oodles of free time and need something to kill a dozen hours on. And be sure to pour a nice tall adult beverage beforehand. You’re going to need it. Otherwise, give this one a pass.

- Stupid @ Friday, June 17, 2016 2:56 PM PT [+]

Log Horizon

A few years back, I discovered the anime Sword Art Online. Before diving in, I read a few reviews on it, as I tend to do. Since my free time is so limited, I try to make sure that I’m not spending time on something that isn’t going to be enjoyable to me. I quickly discovered that people tended to either really really love SAO, or really really hate it. But, as a long-time MMO player I was intrigued by the whole concept of being “in” the game, for reals.

At first, I thought SAO was a really clever idea. But the more I watched it, the less I liked it. It was better than average up until the mid-season break at the end of episode 14 – after that, it introduced some “icky” stuff that I wasn’t completely comfortable with. Still, it was an anime so I watched it to the end. But I didn’t love it.

I bring up SAO in this because, for better or worse, it is the “gold standard” that most people use for the “trapped in a MMO” anime.

Enter Log Horizon.

This anime has the same basic premise as SAO, but it has some pretty significant differences. Differences that make for a completely different feel for the show, and ultimately correct most, if not all, of the “bad” stuff in SAO, and improve upon the premise. In fact, it would not be too far off to say that Log Horizon is so completely different that it completely breaks the “trapped in a game” formula.

Obviously, this is a show about a bunch of MMO gamers trapped in the game world. Unlike other shows that follow this formula, the first episode makes no attempt to explain the hows and whys of this process. There isn’t any software malfunction, or demonic summoning, or whatever other crazy ideas the writers can come up with to explain why a bunch of otherwise normal gamers are suddenly inside an MMO. No, in this case they actually come out and say “We don’t know what happened. One night we went to bed like normal and the next day we woke up here.” (Perhaps a later story arc will attempt to retcon this aspect of the show, but if they do, that would really be a shame and probably detract from the show. Hopefully, the writers are smart enough to know this.)

Once inside the game, the show takes a major departure from the typical “trapped in a game” premise. One that I, as a hardcore MMO player, felt was much closer to reality than other shows like SAO or the dot-hack franchises. I can’t speak for all gamers, but if I were trapped in a game, my first thought almost certainly is not going to be “How do I go home/log-out/escape?” Hell, I play these games because it’s FUN!! Getting “trapped” in a fun situation doesn’t sound like something I’d be really working very hard to escape. Even if you posit the “death game” rule of “if you die in the game, you die in real life”... so what? I’ve played MMOs before. In new games it is usually hours and hours (sometimes days) before I die for the very first time! Even then, it's usually because I got complacent about the challenges, or just plain outright tried something silly. If you told me that death was real, I’d just play a little bit more conservatively, or work on non-combat portions of the game. I mean, after all, not too many characters have died during crafting, or material gathering, or playing the auctionhouse/marketplace!

And this is one thing that Log Horizon nails perfectly. The characters aren’t trying to get out of the game and they aren’t obsessively working towards some escape goal. In fact, very early on, we are told that dying in this MMO has the same effect as dying in an actual MMO – you just respawn at the local safepoint. (There are some other more far-reaching issues with this game mechanic that are revealed later, but let’s ignore that for this discussion.)

In fact, the whole premise of the show never really sets up a “good guy vs bad guy” dynamic. That’s not to say that there aren’t some bad players in the game. It’s just that the main protagonist and his buddies aren’t working to defeat a single enemy, or to complete specific task, or even to develop a stated goal or ideal. The “enemy” is not really a thing or person, it’s more that they are trying to understand their new situation and how to deal with it. There are plenty of antagonists and personal challenges, but they are mostly faceless and more ephemeral. In a way, the concept of ignorance is the only real enemy here.

The main character in SAO was almost purely a wish-fulfillment role. The amazing (white, male) character that could do anything and accomplish anything, without any help; the guy who is so over-powered that he can single-handedly do what it takes an entire team of other people to do, and all without ever working hard to get there. He might be dark and broody and misunderstood, but when the rubber meets the road, he's going to win every time, because he's just that amazing. Meanwhile the ensemble cast of Log Horizon are shown to be individually powerful, but not overly so. Several of them die (and are revived as per the game rules), and many times the main hero has to run away from a fight. It is only when the different characters work together that they accomplish amazing things. The main character is kind of the “mastermind” of the whole thing and while it’s easy to envision one’s self in that role, it’s made clear at several points that he is working hard to maintain his abilities and role. He isn’t just slacking about most of the time, while somehow magically remaining super-powerful.

Because the show is more focused on learning about the player’s new situations and how they interact with the game world, the show avoids most of the common Anime tropes. The downside of this is that it is light on flashy action sequences. In fact, the fight scenes and flashy MMO-style spell effects are probably some of the most boring parts of the show. Where it really shines is in telling the story of these people and how they are adapting to their new reality. And every time they make a new discovery, it feels like you are discovering something alongside them. In that way, it feels more like playing a game that just watching a show about a game.

Overall, this show is one of my top anime. In fact, I’ve actually watched season one of this show from start to finish twice already and probably will circle back to watch it again at some point in the future. That’s highly unusual for me; I’ve only re-watched three anime in my entire life. The vast majority of shows, fun or not, simply aren’t worth the time investment to re-watch. I can usually tell if an anime is going to grab me when the theme song gets stuck in my head for days after I watch it. This one definitely makes the cut. I highly recommend it. It is available for streaming in all the usual places. (I only wish there was an English adaptation of the in-game menus!)

- Stupid @ Wednesday, June 15, 2016 3:35 PM PT [+]

Neverending Nightmares

I first saw this game in the Indie Zone at PAX Prime (now called PAX West), way back in 2013. I remember watching the scrolling trailer that was playing in the small booth, and being surrounded by other folks who were obviously disgusted with what they were seeing. The subject matter is deeply disturbing, showing scenes that are quite honestly terrifying. I remember standing next to a young man who commented on how uncomfortable watching the demo made him feel, to which I quipped, “Oh, it looks like just another Thursday to me!” Some free space appeared around me pretty quickly, as the PAX-goers suddenly felt a need to not be standing next to me. When I say this “game is terrifying” I mean that in a profound way; it doesn’t just rely on “jump-scares” to frighten the player (although there are a few). No, instead this game uses slow, deliberate pacing to draw the player in, to command their full and undivided attention, and then shows them something that is truly horrifying.

Wait.… Let’s back up a bit.

The game presentation is that of a hand-drawn Edward Gorey animation. In the very first (non-interactable) scene of the game, you witness a brutal stabbing murder. From context (and dialog), you learn that the murderer is you (the “protagonist” of the story) and the victim is your sister. “But,” you might protest, ”Why would I brutally stab my own sister? Even in a game, that makes no sense at all!” And you would be right to ask that. Luckily, within seconds, we learn that it was only a nightmare and you wake up from that horrible dream with a start and a gasp, quickly sitting up in bed.

And that’s where the game starts: in a gothic style bedroom, of what appears to be a Victorian-era mansion, complete with hand drawn paintings along the walls, striped wallpaper and wooden shutters on the windows.

As you start your journey through the game, the stylized artwork and visuals, coupled with the mood-inducing background music serve to draw you in. You may not be completely aware of your goals or motivations in the game (yet) and you are limited to a slow, plodding pace across each screen, giving you ample time to soak in the presentation and absorb every detail of the game. And then, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly and viciously attacked and you die….

Or do you?

With a gasp and a start, you quickly sit up in bed – a different bed, in a different room – and start again. But you’re not starting again. You’ve progressed somewhat, and both the graphical presentation of the background visuals and the music are subtly altered. It doesn’t take long for you to notice that you’re in a different place. The wallpaper is stained and dirty, the paintings on the walls are a bit askew, the furniture is worn.

As you start your journey through the game, the stylized artwork and visuals, coupled with the mood-inducing background music serve to draw you in. You may not be completely aware of your goals or motivations in the game (yet) and you are limited to a slow, plodding pace across each screen, giving you ample time to soak in the presentation and absorb every detail of the game. And then, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly and viciously attacked and you die….

Or do you?

With a gasp and a start, you quickly sit up in bed – a different bed, in a different room – and start again. But you’re not starting again. You’ve clearly in a different place now. This isn’t a bedroom, it’s a padded cell. You try the door and find that you’re in a mental asylum, complete with padded walls, uncomfortably primitive looking medical equipment, and lit by flickering gas lamps.

As you start your journey through the game, the stylized artwork and visuals, coupled with the mood-inducing background music serve to draw you in. You may not be completely aware of your goals or motivations in the game (yet) and you are limited to a slow, plodding pace across each screen, giving you ample time to soak in the presentation and absorb every detail of the game. And then, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly and viciously attacked and you die….

Or do you?

The atmosphere of the game is INCREDIBLY compelling and while the “looping” style nature of the storytelling may seem slow and annoying to some players, the deliberate pacing provide a stable backdrop for the occasional scenes of misery and torture that are presented. You were just trying to get to the kitchen for a glass of milk and then you’re… well, I’d prefer not to mention some of the misery that is inflicted upon the protagonist. More than once while playing I found myself aghast in dismay, and actually asking aloud, “ Why would he do that? Why would I do that?” The presentation of even the most awful and heinous events are presented in that same tasteful Edward Gorey stylized artwork and between the unsettling background music, the occasional background audio clips – which, in at least one case, used both the normal audio and the controller speaker in tandem to create a VERY unsettling effect – the game just DRIPS theme!

As you progress through the story, the background graphics will change to different locations and the music and background audio clips will adapt to the new setting. It is always presented in the same black-and-white (and bloody red!) hand drawn graphics, which lends a feeling of consistency throughout.

There are a few puzzle type situations in the game, but they are not terribly difficult to figure out. The puzzles fit very well with the theme. Having said that, there was one puzzle that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to circumvent, so they aren’t completely simplistic.

When I finally reached the end, I was relieved. The game is supposed to be a living illustration of mental illness and it does that amazingly well. I felt drawn in to the game as I played it, and then when it delivered one of its (many) shocks, I was almost always disgusted and repulsed. And yet, the looping nature of the story instilled a feeling of inescapability from finishing – much as I would assume an actual mentally ill person would feel unable to escape from the horrors that life visits upon them.

There are supposedly many different endings. I finished the “standard” easiest one, saw that there was a branching tree for the others and went back in for more. After the second ending (which in my opinion was less satisfying) I called it quits. If I had nothing else to play, I probably would have finished this completely for the 100% trophy, but my “to play” list is far too long to spend more time on this.

Overall, it was an educational experience. I wouldn’t call it a “fun” game, but if you have any friends or relatives that suffer from depression, anxiety, or psychosis, I strongly recommend you play this game from start to finish. If you don’t , it is still worth playing through at least once, just to experience it. And if, while playing, you ever feel like the game is stupid and boring, or sick and twisted, or gross and disgusting… just remind yourself that there are people for whom it isn’t “just a video game” but have to deal with these types of visions and events on a day to day basis.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, May 17, 2016 9:27 PM PT [+]

Rollers of the Realm

Rollers of the Realm is a Pinball RPG. You might ask, “What the heck is a pinball RPG and how could that work?” Well, you would be right to ask and it actually works pretty well.

I purchased this game some time ago, but never invested much time into it. I originally saw it on sale on PSN for $5 and was intrigued by the concept of a pinball RPG, but didn't buy it. Luckily, there was a free demo. I tried it out, and within 20 minutes had plunked down my credit card numbers for the full unlock. (It was only $5 after all!)

The initial impression of the game is your standard run-of-the-mill budget RPG trope: ancient evil, lost heroes, a downtrodden main protagonist... typical stuff. But as soon as the game actually starts, you realize how this is anything but a standard RPG game!

The basic gameplay is simple pinball. You might have multiple paddles in various places on the screen, and there might be a ramp or some minor barricades on the table, but it’s always an extremely simple layout. The biggest departures from classic pinball games is that there is no “nudge” feature – instead you can actually “steer” the ball with one of the controller’s sticks – and the typical pinball “bounce” from hitting rubberized items is nearly non-existent. The key gameplay hook is that the different characters in your party have different physical characteristics. For example, the initial character that you start with (the Rogue) is a small, very lightweight ball that is easy to maneuver around, and will fly all the way to the top of the “table” with a paddle hit. The second character you find (the Knight) is massive in both size and weight. It’s easily two times the size of the Rogue ball and a solid hit from a flipper will only launch it about 2/3 of the way up the screen. By the time you reach the end of the game, your party will have a stable of six different characters, plus you can “hire” additional helpers for a maximum of ten total.

The game of pinball is typically played for a high score. Not so here. Instead, the game of pinball is used as a mechanic to advance the storyline. And there is definitely a storyline. Each “table” is a “chapter” in an overarching storyline, with a specific goal required to advance to the next table. For example, you might need to hit a specific number of targets to open the exit, or you might need to defeat one or more enemies (by rolling into, or over, them), or you might need to traverse a specific path along the table, or there might be a timing-based challenge that requires you to move paddles out of your own way by pressing and/or holding them in a specific pattern. Or, you might need to defeat a “boss” that can only be damaged in a specific way. In short, despite each table being fairly small, they can each present an interesting and somewhat unique challenge.

Typical for a RPG, each character/ball has specific stats. Translating the standard combat strength, armor, hitpoints, etc. statistics into a pinball game is done very well. Combat is joined by rolling into an opponent that is represented by a miniature soldier of other figure on the board – they sometimes will move around, too! Offensive stats like strength will increase the amount of damage you do to your target. Dexterity will allow you to hit more reliably - some opponents have armor or shields. Armor means you take less damage in combat – which is represented by your main paddles shrinking in size until they are completely ineffective. (Thankfully, they can also be "healed" back to full size by at least two of the characters.)

Borrowing another page from the RPG world, each character has one or more unique abilities that are triggered by collecting Mana. This resource is gained by hitting specific targets on the pinball table. Most importantly, Mana is required to Revive fallen characters; when a ball falls off the table, that character is “dead” and can’t be used again until you revive them (or when you advance to the next table). When all of the characters in the party die, the game is over and you are forced to restart. You only lose progress on the current table, you do NOT need to start from the beginning of the adventure!

There is even an in-game item shop where you buy and upgrade equipment for your characters/balls. Buying a new sword for the knight allows him to do more damage when he hits an enemy. Buying better armor for the Rogue allows her to protect your paddles better. There are assorted magical gizmos and doodads that grant additional special abilities to some characters, or make them more powerful in different ways. For example, an upgraded Frying Pan for the Wench character (I’m not making this up) allows her to gain a small healing ability to repair the paddles at a slow rate.

At various points during gameplay there are short comic-book style vignettes that play on specific triggers. Usually these will be at the start or end of a specific table/level, but occasionally they will trigger in the middle of a pinball game. Thankfully, these are generally unobtrusive and generally will not impact the pinball gameplay. The little comic-panel events do serve to introduce new characters, show new RPG mechanics, explain the current challenge and to advance the story plot points as you play through campaign. The overall story is not horrible; it’s mostly predictable; but it is fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, pointing out its own inherent stereotypical trope-y-ness in a few places. For a reasonably skilled gamer, the whole game clocks in at about 4-6 hours from start to finish. The final three-part “boss battle” is extremely challenging and will test the mettle of even the best pinball wizard!

Overall, this is a fun little game, and well worth an afternoon of time. It’s not going to change the world: don’t go in expecting a great pinball game, and don’t look for an epic fantasy story. However, it does mesh the games of pinball and the RPG genre together in a unique and fun package.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, May 11, 2016 8:49 AM PT [+]

Black Desert Online is... a breeding game

You know, like Pokemon or Tomogachi!

Anyone who has played an MMO released in the last 30 years knows that mounts are almost always sought after. Both for the utility (faster travel speed, more storage, etc.) and for the pure aesthetics – I mean who doesn’t want to careen around a pretend landscape on a trusty steed? BDO has an interesting way of dealing with this. And like many other aspects of that game, it combines the tried and true with a little dash of something that is pretty unique.

Let’s start with how a player gets a mount. For the sake of grounding the discussion, the mounts in BDO come in three major categories: donkeys, which are slow but can carry a moderate amount; horses, which are fast but don’t have much carrying capacity; and wagons, which have incredible carrying capacity, and can be connected to horses.

In BDO, there are basically three ways of getting your first mount. First, you can spend a few thousand of the in-game currency “silver” to buy one from a vendor. This has the advantage of being “easy” (and most MMO-like), but the product you get will not be worthwhile. You can buy a donkey, a horse, or a wagon from the vendor. All of them are universally slower than any of their kind. You will get the slowest donkey, the slowest horse, or the slowest wagon. Additionally, the carrying capacity of the store-bought mounts is lower than your other options.

There is also an in-game store where players can trade mounts between themselves. These mounts will cost several orders of magnitude more, and eliminate most (but not all) of the deficiencies in the store bought mounts.

The second option is to catch a horse in the game. This involves a rather complex and time consuming process. There have been several youtube videos posted on the process. If you are a visual learner (like I am) I highly recommend you watch any one of them. I'll also summarize here:

First you have to go to a horse-spawning area and find a horse. There are several of these in the game, and a new horse will spawn at each one every two to three realtime hours. Once you find a horse, you have to equip a specific piece of equipment (a lasso) and “rope” the horse. This involves a reaction-type mini game event where you have to click the mouse to start, then press space at a very specific time to “win”. Press to soon, and you lose. Press too late, you lose. Get confused about whether it is a click or a spacebar tap, and you lose. Once you’ve roped the horse, you press the W (forward) key to advance towards it. You cannot turn or change your path of movement here. If you cannot get to the horse due to terrain, you lose. At some point the horse will rear up. As soon as this happens, you start spamming the spacebar. Anything less than about 100 taps per minute is going to be too slow and you will lose. You will keep doing this for 10 seconds. After that you go back to holding down the W (forward) key again… until the horse rears again. Repeat this process until you get close enough to interact with the horse. Once there, you “use” a specific food item (lumps of raw sugar) to gain “faction” with the horse. Usually 2 or 3 lumps will do. (If you don't have enough sugar, you'rte very likely to lose.) Once you've placated the horse with sugar lumps, you press R to attempt to mount the horse. If you’ve done everything properly, you’ll jump on its back. If not, it will kick you in the face and run away. Fighting back will cause you to lose your karma stat (which is bad). If you get kicked, you basically play a punching bag and take the damage until the horse has had enough. And then you start over. If, by some miracle, you manage to not lose at any point and actually manage to get on the horse, you’re still not done. You have to ride it slowly to an in-game stable. Here you can finally Register your new horse, and it is yours!

Whew! That’s not an easy process! But it gets even better. Horses that you catch come with random skills - some of which are quite desirable and others which are almost completely useless - a random gender (male or female) and a random “tier”. Higher tier horses are obviously more desirable. Unfortunately, the player has absolutely ZERO control over any of this. You just hope for the best and see what you get. There isn’t a Tier 1 location, and a Tier 2 location, etc. in the game. You can get a lowly Tier 1 from the most difficult locations and a Tier 7 from the easiest location. It’s completely random.

In addition to having a Tier, every horse has a Level. Levels, unlike Tiers, operate exactly as you would expect. All horses start out as level 1 and they increase in level as they gain experience. And of course, horses gain experience as you ride them. Each time a horse levels up, it has a small chance to learn a new skill. Again, these are randomly awarded. Luckily, the chance increases with level, so a horse probably wont learn anything going form level 3 to level 4 (for example), but almost certainly will when going from level 28 to level 29. Which leads to the third and best way to get horses: breeding.

Once you’ve captured at least two horses, you can try breeding them. You’ll need to have one male horse and one female horse. (Females are much more rare than males.) Breeding two horses will lead to a new horse, that is also randomly generated. In this case, the player actually has some modicum of control over what comes out. See, both horses' tiers and levels are added up and plugged into a mysterious formula that determines what the foal will be. Higher level horses will grant a better chance at a higher tier foal. For example, breeding two Tier 1 horses that are both level 11 (or higher) will always result in a Tier 2 foal. (There is actually a great website that allows you to plug in the tier and level of your breeding pair and shows you the chances of what the foal’s gender and tier might be.)

Breeding is pretty much the only way to get higher Tier horses. The maximum Tier that can be captured is Tier 2 or 3. (This will raise to Tier 4 at some point in the future.) The maximum Tier currently in the game is Tier 7. (This will go up to Tier 10 as expansions are released.) The sole way to go from the maximum capturable Tier 3 to the maximum Tier 7 is by breeding.

And to make things interesting, each horse can only be bred a certain number of times. Females can be bred once and once only. Males can be bred twice. So if you get a low tier foal, or one with undesirable skills, you don’t just “try again” and hope for a better RNG roll. No, instead, you get to start over by capturing another new horse or two!

I should also point out that there is a similar breeding sub-game for in-game pets. In Black Desert Online, the mini-pets that you see in other games actually have some utility. Some pets will alert you about the location of usable gathering nodes. Others will auto-loot for you. Some will sound an alarm when enemies are near. Still others can provide a small combat buff. Higher tier pets are, obviously, more powerful. A low-tier pet might pick up one piece of loot every 10 seconds; a high tier pet could pick up a piece of loot every two seconds! But since pets, like horses, can only be bred a limited number of times, and the offspring vary wildly based on RNG stats, it takes a significant amount of time and effort to get a valuable high-tier pet.

Finally, there are wagons and carts. In addition to outright purchase (from the NPC merchants, or on the player marketplace) these can be crafted using the worker subsystems, which depends on your "Contribution" (which I've already talked about). Most of the materials needed can be gathered by automated workers (that we refer to joking as "dudes"), but some are only gatherable by players. The entire crafting system is easily as complex and involved as the breeding game; it is not simply a matter of putting specific ingredients into a crafting tool and waiting for a green bar to fill up! In fact, because it is so involved, the "best" wagon in the game regularly sells for 3-million silver.

The in-game horse and pet breeding systems are complex and time consuming, but extremely rewarding. So much so that it has developed into a completely separate sub-game within the game world. Some people play the game solely in order to breed horses. And, honestly, offering more than the standard “go out and kill stuff” activities makes Black Desert Online a much more robust gaming experience for all players.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 19, 2016 4:40 PM PT [+]

Black Desert is ... an Empire Building game

One of the easiest non-MMO sub-games to get involved with in Black Desert Online is the “trading” game. If the player were to completely ignore this part of the game, they would probably not even notice it (outside of not being able to participate in about 1/3 of the potential Guild Missions), but playing the trading game is an easy way to earn quick in-game money.

Just about every major town in the game has a special NPC called a Trade Merchant. These NPCs buy and sell trade goods only. You can’t sell normal dropped loot at this NPC, you have to go to a standard shop. Essentially, these NPCs ONLY deal in a specific “special” kind of item, trade goods. Trade goods do rarely drop during normal fighting, and they are occasionally rewarded for turning in some quests, so they aren’t completely ignorable, but for the most part, if you only used the trade merchant to sell the odd trade good and nothing else, that would work.

If the player were just using them as a way to offload the trade goods that appear during “normal” play, they could triple their income by starting on the path to the trading game (and, indeed, this is how most players get sucked into it). See, every trade good has a region of origin, and unless you have a complete chain of linked nodes between the region of origin of the trade item and the region you are selling the item, the merchant only pays out 30% of the listed value. (You “link” nodes by using the Contribution system that was talked out last time.)

For example, say you were killing Kuku Birds in the Northern Plains of Serendia. (Those are an actual MOB and an actual region in the game.) And let’s suppose that in the course of that game play you were awarded a “Closed Beak” item. (Again, this is an actual item in the game.) You probably might never have seen one before, so you mouse over it. The tool tip says that it is worth 10,000 silver! Wow! A lucky drop! So you run back to town to sell it and reap the rewards, but unless you have linked the Northern Plains of Serendia node with the city node, you will only get 3,000 silver, 30% of the expected value. In order to get the full actual value of the item, the player would need to invest Contribution points to create a link between the node where the item was dropped and the city where they are trying to sell it.

But once you’re at the trade merchant, you’ll likely take a look around. And that’s when you’ll discover that these seemingly useless NPCs actually have a boatload of functionality. See, the trade merchants also SELL trade items. These are usually very heavy items that do not stack; trade goods both take up a lot of inventory space and weighing down whomever is carrying them so that they move very slowly. The price to purchase these items varies depending on the demand that the players have made. For example, if a lot of players are buying a specific trade item, the price will start to increase. If there is no demand for that item, the price will drop. The price to buy a specific trade item can vary from as low as 80% of the normal cost, to as high as 110% of the normal cost.

Once players have purchased these items, they can literally carry them to another city or to a trade merchant in another region, and re-sell the item, hopefully at a profit. Keep in mind that these trade items exist solely to be bought and sold and have no actual use in the game outside of this system.

When a player sells a trade item, the actual sale price is modified by several things: the “demand” for that item; the distance from the item’s origin, whether or not the player has a valid “link” between the source and the sale nodes, and, occasionally, how long has passed since the item was acquired. For example, a food item (like a fish) or a medicine item (like a salve) will sometimes have a 24-hour timer on the item. As time passes, the value of the item will decay until it is literally worthless. The distance between the source and sale nodes will positively influence the sale price. The further you travel before selling a trade item will increase the sale price. The longest route in the game right now will net a cool 55% profit on each trade run! The drawback, of course, is that the longer the trade route is, the longer it takes in time to travel that distance. Finally, the sale of the item will also depend on other player’s actions. If everyone in the game tries to sell the same item in the same place, the sale price will go down.

The prices of each item is displayed in the game as a historical line chart. If demand for an item increases (or supply decreases), the line will go up and the price will be higher (for both buying and for selling). If the demand goes down (or supply increases) the line will go down and the price will be lower. To make this more complex, most of the trade items can only be purchased form a specific vendor. For example, you can only buy “Velian Red Wine” in the city of Velia. Even if someone else has carried a huge shipment of Velian wine to Port Epheria, you cannot buy it there (but they will push the sale price down for everyone else).

When you are considering buying a trade item, you can spend one Energy to see the price trends for that item in every other city and node that you have unlocked. This allows the canny trader to pick and choose items that are being produced/sold for a low price, but needed/purchased for a high price at some remote location, and, thus, maximize their profits!

Finally, when one sells trade items, there is a “Bargaining” mini-game. For a cost of FIVE Energy, the player is presented with a graphical set of scales and two buttons. The goal is to balance the scales. One button moves the scales “a lot” and the other moves it “a little”. The description of the effect is purposely vague, because the in-game effect seems semi-random. The player only has three attempts to get the scales to balance. If the character has a lot of the “luck” stat (which has a range of zero to a maximum cap of +5) then they are more likely to “win”. If the scales balance, the sale price of the trade items increases by another 10%. If not, the price remains as it normally would be. For most players, five Energy is a significant cost – at a regen rate of one Energy every three minutes, that represents 15 minutes of playtime!

Because the trade items are unstackable and impose a very large carrying capacity penalty, it is mostly impractical to actually carry trade goods on the character. A player character loaded down with only a handful of trade goods will be reduced to a very slow movement rate, and would take several minutes to get to the destination - sometimes longer than an hour for a very long trip. To deal with this, the game has purchasable (and craftable) mounts, carts, and wagons! Depending on the size and complexity of the mount, these can has over a dozen spaces and have a carrying capacity that is multiple times larger than a normal character.

And to make less of a simple spreadsheet management exercise, there are NPC “bandits” that roam the byways and highways of the game. These are shown on the main map as a red-colored tag and they move around randomly (but always in the same general area). Should you pass one of these locations, several AI-controlled bandit “monsters” will spawn in the roadway. This will block or hinder your movement if you aren’t paying attention. And then they do their best to kill you, causing you to lose your investment and your life.

Overall, the trading game provides a completely different playstyle to a MMO that is not often explored. To my knowledge only EVE Online has anything similar. It doesn’t provide a quick and instant way to make money, and, in fact, is probably one of the slowest ways to accumulate wealth in the game. But it does provide a nice solid diversion from the endless kill/loot/repeat cycle of most combat MMOs.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 12, 2016 5:33 PM PT [+]

Black Desert Online is ... a Resource Management game

The very first non-standard mechanic that players will encounter in Black Desert Online is going to be the resource management portion of the game, and is the first non-combat sub-system that I’m going to talk about. If a player were to completely ignore this portion of the game, they would literally have nothing to do but fight. They would lose access to crafting, they would never be able to afford anything on the “auction house” (called the Marketplace here), they would never be able to level up their gear, they would never be able participate in the Trade game (which will be covered later), and they would even be crippled dealing with the in-game chat system.

There are two important resources in BDO that have no parallel in any current MMO, but are not unlike resources in world-building games. These two resources are “Energy” and “Contribution”.

Energy is the easier of the two to understand, but the hardest to manage and will affect nearly every aspect of the game. In prior versions of BDO (which has been released in Korea and Russian territories for around 18-months already), Energy was referred to as “work points”. It was called this because it takes one Energy (aka a “work point”) to do just about anything in the game (with the exception of combat). For example, mining at an ore node requires one Energy. Picking a flower takes one Energy. Gathering wood costs one Energy. Catching a fish, one Energy. Crafting an item, cooking a meal, or brewing a potion… one Energy is required every time you perform one of these actions. And it isn’t like you spend an Energy point to unlock these. No, you spend one Energy each time you perform these actions.

And in a radical departure from standard MMO practice, sending a line of text out into the game world over global chat, that takes one Energy as well. This has the side effect of making people a bit more “nice” in the global chat than they are in many other MMOs. Being spammy or annoying has a very limited time frame since Energy runs out pretty quickly since the offender will lose one every time they hit the return key.

A character will be spending a LOT of energy to do most things. For example, to craft a highly desirable buff item called “Milk Tea” (that grants a 30 minute bonus to XP gains), the player needs to “cook”. Each time the player cooks, they use an energy. Let’s assume that the player is making ten Milk Tea items. That would require ten energy, one for each cooking action. But one of the ingredients for this recipe is (2) units of Flour. Flour is also crafted, by “grinding” some kind of grain, like a potato or corn or barley. It takes one energy to grind. So that is going to be another 20 energy to create the Flour required to make the Tea. Another of the ingredients is Milk. Milk is obtained by “milking” an in-game Cow (using the gathering skill). And guess what? Each “gather” requires an energy. Ten tea needs 30 milk. Luckily, gathering gains milk at a rate of about 5 milks per gather, so this is only another six energy needed. Milk Tea also needs Tea leaves, which are grown by the player in a farm. Picking the plants there takes energy as well. In this case, a single farming action will result in about 50 Tea, so it’s not a huge energy cost, but it takes about an hour of real time for the tea to grow to maturity before it can be picked. Smart players will have several Tea plants growing at the same time, each of which takes an energy to harvest. Finally, the last ingredient is Honey. Players can gather Honey (using energy) or they can buy it from an NPC merchant. Overall, to make a stack of ten Milk Tea, the player will need a minimum of 37 Energy and a bit more than an hour of real time in the game.

As I said, Energy is a precious resource. You spend it for everything. But how do you GET Energy? Well, it’s easy to get. You simply play the game! For every three minutes that you are logged in to the game, your character gains one Energy. If your character takes a nap in the game (by “using” a bed, located in a house that you own – which I’ll talk about in a moment), the rate of gain doubles to TWO Energy every three minutes. But when your character is resting, you cannot move, craft, gather, trade, or do anything other than chat. (And remember, chatting in the open world channels requires Energy every time you send something!) Most people will put their character to bed, and then walk away from the game for some time.

Surprisingly, If you are not in the game, the Energy gain is one point every 30 minutes per character! This has an interesting side-effect that encourages players to create multiple characters. If you have more than one character and are playing on one, the other characters are still considered to be “not online” and continue to gain Energy at the slower rate. And since in-game storage and most resources are mostly shared between an entire account, those offline alt characters represent a “free” 48 Energy every day. Energy that can be used for processing raw materials, crafting, gathering, and assorted other things.

Interestingly, even though Energy is tracked individually on a pre character basis, the maximum amount of Energy that your characters can accumulate is tracked on an account-wide basis. That is, if you do something on one character that raises the Energy cap, then that cap is raised for every character on your account. Every account starts with a “cap” of 30 Energy. Remember that example I used just a moment ago about crafting a stack of ten Milk Tea items? Recall that it took 37 Energy to create a ten-stack of these. As a new player, none of your characters can ever have more than 30 Energy “in the tank”. This means that a new player would find it simply impossible to create those items on a single character! Luckily, as you play the game, certain tasks will increase that maximum Energy cap, which raises the maximum Energy on ALL characters on your account. (For the most part, the Energy cap is raised by gaining “knowledge”, which will be the subject of another posting.)

Overall, Energy is an incredibly valuable resource. Since Energy enters the system at a fixed rate of about one point every three minutes, whenever you “spend” faster than that you are accumulating an Energy deficit that will need to be made up at a later time. Managing Energy is by far the largest impediment to unlimited character advancement, but if a player is mindful of it, it will never seriously impede them.

The other major system is the “Contribution” system. This system is more complex, but has a lesser effect on general MMO play. That is not to say that it can be ignored! In fact, if the player ignores this aspect of the game, they will negatively impact their advancement by around 25%. Unlike Energy, Contribution is tracked account-wide, and any change made on one character will affect ALL characters on that account.

The way Contribution works is that every account starts with 4 points. You can “contribute” these points (thus the name) in various “nodes” in the game world. By making a contribution in a node, all income to player within that node’s sphere of influence is increased. By about 10%. Additionally, if an account has invested in a node, they can spend Energy to “level up” that node, which adds additional bonuses. This is both an increase loot drop rate, a better chance at rare items, and increased EXP gain. (I should note that the maximum bonus costs several hundred Energy, so it is not a trivial cost!)

Investing in a node requires that the character actually go to that node and talk to a specific NPC, called a “Node Manager”. The catch is that you can only invest in nodes that are adjacent to a node that you have already contributed to. For example, you could not just run out into the wilderness, finding a grinding location, spend a Contribution point locally, and start reaping benefits. No, you would have to “link” each node, in order, all the way back to a “base” node. (Each of the cities in the game are considered “base” nodes.) For locations that are far afield from the nearest city, this could require four or five (or more!) nodes to be chained before you get to the one you want.

Contribution to a node gives other benefits as well. Rarely, a “trade item” will drop in that area. If you sell these to a NPC merchant, they will only give you 30% of the maximum value, unless you have the node where the item came from linked up to the location where you are selling. And since you cannot link ANY nodes unless they are linked to a City (either directly or indirectly)this means that they would be linked to a city as well.

Contribution points are also used to “rent” items from various NPCs. This works exactly like buying items for in game “gold” (unimaginatively called “silver” in BDO). They have a listed cost, you “spend” Contribution, and you get the item to use for as long as you want. These items are account bound, so you can't change Contribution into silver (for a good reason), but they are not character-bound, so you can move them around between characters. They are also not destroyable (for a good reason).

Additionally, Contribution is the currency used to buy an in-game house. There are literally dozens of houses, rooms, barracks, guild halls, warehouses, and even factories that the player can buy. Each of these has a small cost in silver, but more importantly (and more limiting) is that they cost Contribution as well. Prices range from 1 Contribution (there are no “free” purchases in this system) to up to 6 Contribution. (And possibly higher, I have never seen anything exceed that value though!)

One of the effects of the Contribution system shows up when you play a second (or later) character, and are repeating some of the same in-game areas of the game where you've already made some Contribution investments. As you play these subsequent characters, they will gain EXP and loot at a much faster rate than the original characters. Those Contribution investments increase advancement on your entire account, making the alt-leveling process significantly less painful. Of course, this is dependent on the player keeping an active Contribution investment.

You increase your Contribution pool by doing quests. Lots and lots of quests. Almost every quest in the game gives some amount of Contribution EXP. Contribution EXP is tracked completely separately from Combat EXP. (And I say “Combat EXP", because there are actually about ten different EXP bars on every character for various things, which I’ll talk about in another post.) Each time you gain some number of Contribution EXP points, you gain an additional Contribution Point for your account. Since this is tracked on an account wide basis, if you do the same quest four times on four different characters, you get four times the reward in Contribution EXP! To my knowledge there is no maximum to the number of Contribution that an account can have. It’s not uncommon for a player to have more than 60 Contribution by the time they reach Level 20 on their first character.

One of the nice things about Contribution is that you never actually "spend" it, you just "invest" it. You can always un-invest in anything, at any time. (The only limit to this is that you can never un-invest in a node that would disconnect another node from a city "anchor".) If you want to upgrade to a larger house, just “sell” the one you already own. 100% of the original contribution comes back into your pool. You never lose any Contribution! Remember that “rental” equipment I mentioned? The same thing applies there. When you outgrow that gear, or no longer need it, you simply return it to the same NPC and they happily refund 100% of the original Contribution cost – that’s why it's called a “rental” and not a “purchase”.

Interestingly, though you need to actually go TO a game location to invest Contribution, for the most part you can get a Contribution refund from anywhere in the game. For example, if you had spent Contribution in a way that doesn’t work any longer, you don’t need to waste time running around collecting it. Instead, you can simply open the in-game map, click on the location where you want to reclaim your investment, and hit the “Refund Contribution” button. ALL of the previously spent Contribution points are immediately refunded and placed back in your pool to re-invest elsewhere (or back in the same thing later if you wanted).

By themselves, the Energy and Contribution systems do not add a whole lot to the game. Outside of limiting the number of repetitive actions a character can take, and a bonus to experience and loot for re-playing areas of the game, they really don’t affect the “standard” MMO playstyle. But they do provide a really solid foundation for the other game mechanics, which I’ll be talking a bit more about in tomorrow’s posting.

- Stupid @ Friday, March 18, 2016 4:34 PM PT [+]

Black Desert Online is ... a Fighting Game

[i]Black Desert Online[/i] has a pretty unique combat system for a fantasy-based MMO.

If you don’t look too closely at it, it looks just like most other MMO games. It has a hotbar with ten slots, numbered 1 to 9, plus 0, where you place abilities. You press those hotkeys to trigger those abilities. And like many modern “action based” MMOs, it has a reticle in the middle of the player’s screen. Pressing an ability “aims” that ability at the target under the reticle, or directly in front of the player’s character if nothing is specifically targeted. This system will seem very familiar to anyone who has played [i]Guild Wars 2[/i]… or [i]Elder Scrolls Online[/i]… or [i]TERA[/i]… or any one of a number of newer MMOs.

But where BDO takes a left turn is that the vast majority of the many abilities each class gets can also be activated by a specific hotkey combination. These hotkeys are NOT remappable (for a good reason that will be apparent in a moment). For example, on the Valkyrie class (which I am playing) the “Guard” ability is triggered by pressing the Q button, and the “Flurry of Kicks” ability is activated by pressing the F button. There are also a very few abilities that are not possible to put on the hotbar and can [u]only[/u] be activated by using the mouse buttons or hotkey. For example, the basic attack (again on my Valkyrie character) “Valkyrie Slash” is activated by pressing the left mouse button (LMB), the right mouse button (RMB) causes the “Shield Strike” ability to trigger, and pressing both left and right mouse buttons together uses the “Severing Light” ability. None of these three abilities can be placed on the hotbar; they are permanently bound to the mouse button presses. This still isn’t too far off the beaten path of modern MMO design.

Where it gets real interesting is that some of the most powerful abilities use a combination of mouse clicks and button presses. For example, the normal LMB ability is “Valkyrie Slash”. But that ability changes if you press the forward/up key (default is W) at the same time as clicking the LMB. With that combo it changes into the “Forward Slash” ability, a kind of mini chain/combo ability. It you hold the LMB after it activates, the character will do three chained attacks in quick succession. There are around 30 of these types of attacks, all of which have a different (unchangeable) hotkey combination. And with only ten hotbar slots, the players are going to have to use the different keypress combinations to be effective.

Where it starts to get really REALLY interesting is that some of the keypress combos are a bit esoteric. For example, the “Shield Chase” ability, which is a short range mobility skill that ‘teleports’ the Valkyrie a short distance, is activated by pressing Q to put up “Guard” and then pressing any direction (W, A, S, or D, for forward, left, backwards, and right, respectively) while holding down the shift key. It’s worth noting that this ability cannot be put on the hotbar because it requires a directional input to trigger, and the hotbar button is isolated from other inputs.

Even more interesting is that each of the ability “chains” can be transferred. For example, say I were to trigger my “Forward Slash” (W+LMB) and it starts the three-hit combo. After the second hit registers, I switch to a different ability, “Sword of Judgment” (S+RMB) for example, which is also a three-hit combo. Instead of interrupting the initial ability and starting the second one, the combo chain ‘transfers’ over. It still is a three hit combo, but the first two hits are from the “Forward Slash” chain (which builds my combat resource) and the third hit is from the “Sword of Judgment” chain (which does damage scaled off of the level of my combat resource). If a player times their keypresses properly, they could potentially do a chain of moves that uses a different ability for each attack. Doing this will massively increase the character’s damage output and is the crux of good quality combat in BDO.

For example, a common three-hit chain that Valkyries use is Forward Slash-> Sharp Light -> Sword of Judgment, which is the keypresses W+LMB -> shift+LMB -> S+RMB. This builds resource on the first hit, chains into a single-target knockdown ability, and follows up with a massive finishing move that does a ton of damage that scales off the resource gathered in the first hit. Since each of the attack swings in this combo are about 0.5 seconds long, it requires good timing, good aiming, finesse and a bit of manual dexterity to pull off. It’s also a very powerful chain and a player who cannot master this type of play is not going to have anywhere close to the damage output of a player who is good at combination chains.

Another departure from the standard MMO paradigm is that all abilities can be used as often as you want. They do have a cooldown, but the cooldown doesn’t stop you from using them. For example, the “Breath of Elion” is a self-healing ability that has a 40 second re-use timer. If you press it again right away, while it is still on cooldown, rather than doing nothing, the ability still triggers, with either a reduced effect, or with some of the supplementary effects removed. In this example, the self-heal does not trigger, but the AE buff that it also grants is still refreshed. Most attack abilities that have a ‘special’ effect (like a knockdown, or a knockback, or a stun, or debuff) will go off and still do some (usually reduced) damage, and will completely lose the ‘special’ effect while on cooldown. But the effect still goes off.

Finally, there are a very few abilities that have no keypress activation and can ONLY be activated by putting them on the hotbar. These abilities tend to be the most powerful ones in the player’s arsenal, so a skilled player will be weaving hotbar abilities and keypress abilities into their attack chains.

If you think this seems a bit confusing and not at all like a standard MMO, you would not be alone. It took me a couple of days of play before I realized that some (but not all) abilities had internal combination chains that I could access by holding down the mouse buttons. It was another solid week of play before I started to get the hang of interrupting my own ability chains and ‘transfering’ between them, thus accessing the most powerful hit of each chain without having to do the rest of that move. I still have trouble with many of the combinations because they really require a lot of dexterity and razor sharp timing. Occasionally, I will do something unexpected by accident, and then I’ll spend the next several minutes trying to recreate it reliably.

The combat system in [i]Black Desert Online[/i] can be played like a typical MMO, and when I’m tired and not willing to think to much I do just this. Target an enemy, press a few buttons and it’s ‘dead’ and I’m collecting some loot and XP. But that style of play is extremely lazy and is almost a disservice to the game. Instead, it is much more effective (and fun) when different abilities are used.

Overall the game plays a lot like a fighting game, with complex and convoluted keypress combinations to achieve high end play. The game even supports a controller for fighting - although I've never tried it. It's an incredibly fun and innovative take on a core MMO mechanic that feels fresh and exciting. It's really fun and you'll probably like it.

- Stupid @ Thursday, March 17, 2016 5:34 PM PT [+]

Black Desert Online (overview)

I’m very happy to report this, but I firmly believe that the days of the “WoW-killer” MMO are over and gone. Dead and buried. Kaput. Goodbye and good riddance, say I! It was never a good idea. Developers that set out to make a MMO that was “just like Wow, but…” were on a fool’s errand. They thought that they were going to grab ahold of the genre that ActiBlizz has been using to more-or-less print an almost unlimited amount of money for the last decade, but it was never going to work. People that were playing WoW were always going to keep playing WoW. People that were not playing WoW had no interest in playing WoW-not-WoW. And if they somehow got interested in playing WoW, they were going to play WoW, not WoW-not-WoW. Still, the market says that if there is a raging success, publishing a knock-off is an easy way to make a few bucks. And it (mostly) worked for a lot of people. But it also (mostly) killed innovation and development of the genre for over a decade.

There has been some innovation in MMO design, but it has been slow to creep in, and until very recently was only found in the dark corners of the MMO-verse. There are quite a few innovative (albeit occasionally creepy) gameplay items that have appeared in smaller free-to-play (F2P) and Asian-developed MMOs over the past few years, but they never really caught on in the mainstream. Mostly because they were featured in smaller titles that few had heard of, and the big money was still being poured into the elusive money-printing WoW-killer MMO.

But in the last year or so, some real innovation in the MMO genre has started to happen. And by innovation, I mean games that aren’t simply taking the DIKU/WoW model and iteratively improving on it. I mean a whole parallel branch of development. These new games are more like “cousins” to the WoW-like MMO we’ve all grown accustomed to. They share some common geneology, but they aren’t always “like” WoW at all. I’m talking, of course, about things like Destiny, SkyForge, Blade and Soul, and The Division. Games that are MMO-like, but aren’t exactly a MMO.


I’ve been trying to keep posting on my blog every week on Tuesdays. Last week, I skipped. And this post is a day late. Why? Because I was playing Black Desert Online. I’m going to make up for that this week. I’m going to post EVERY DAY for the next six days about a different aspect of BDO. Today, I’m going to talk generally about the game, and more specifically talk about the things that are NOT good. In other words, this is going to be a very negative review of the game. Keep in mind however, that if you catch yourself saying, “But that doesn’t sound so bad!” that these are the biggest flaws in the game. The good parts are so freaking amazing that they make up for the flaws.

Black Desert has a lot in common with your typical MMO. It’s a Korean developed game, so it has the generic Asian fantasy races: there’s the tiny girly ones (called Shai in BDO), the lumbering huge ones (unimaginatively called Giants), it has a few monstrous ones, like the lizard-like Naga, the pig-like Orcs, some kind of weasel-like race, among others. As is typical for an Asian-developed MMO, aesthetics are highly valued, so the game is gorgeously rendered. The player is shown in third-person. You have a hotbar of abilities that you can trigger (if you want to use it – more on this later). WASD to move, mouse to look around. You know, the typical MMO stuff.

Black Desert also is completely different from your typical MMO. There is combat, both ranged and close up, but combat is not the main focus of the game. In fact, in the 100+ hours I’ve played the game, I can only think of a handful of the literally hundreds of quests I’ve done that involve killing monsters or collecting monster parts. The vast majority of the game involves doing… other stuff. Stuff that you don’t normally do in a MMO. Like, for example: managing my production workers and making sure they are fed; playing mini-games within the game that give actual benefits and improve my overall character; researching item costs (in-game), buying them, travelling to a distant point on the map, and finally reselling them at a huge profit (or not); taking apart and rebuilding my network of control nodes to be more efficient and reap greater benefit for myself; gathering materials; playing the Marketplace; crafting; and, of course, questing.

I mention questing, because this is probably the biggest development flaw in BDO. When the game installs, it has most of the quests filtered out. And when I say filtered, I don’t mean that they are not obvious, but you can still get them. No, I mean that by default 95% of the quests in the game are completely and utterly inaccessible. They are impossible to start, advance or complete. If you interact with a NPC that has a quest, not only do they not mention it, they won’t trigger. It’s as if the quests don’t exist in the game at all. By default. Luckily, there is a very simple fix: turn off the quest filter.

Why this wasn’t done to start with I have no idea, and if I were going to make a single suggestion to the developer, I would say that if it is at all possible, they should patch in that global filter being turned OFF as soon as they possibly can. In the past week and a half I’ve become OBSESSED with this game (just ask my wife!) and yet, when I first played, I almost didn’t give it a passing grade because of this setting. As soon as I hit that magic “show me the real game” button, it exploded into so so much more than I had ever imagined!

The second major flaw in the game is that the graphical presentation of the player’s character pretty much never changes. When you create your character, there are several different “outfits” that you can try on to see what you would look like, but those outfits aren’t actually in the game (outside of the cash shop, which I’ll talk about next). The look of your character on day one is probably going to be the same look that you will have after hundreds of hours of playtime. Sure, your equipment may “get better” (using an esoteric system that does not involve replacing items), but it still looks the same. This is a complete departure from the “look more bad-ass as you get stronger” MMO paradigm; players have to be willing to play a character that continually looks like just an average denizen of this world, forever.

There are a few exceptions. There is one set of armor that offers a completely different look for every class, but it is generally acknowledged to have inferior stats. There is a fairly robust dying system in the game. Every bit of armor has two, three, four and sometimes, five different “regions” which can be individually colored and tinted with any one of a couple hundred different dyes. But dyes are single use and only available on the cash shop. And finally, there are “costumes” which go into a cosmetic item slot and have no effect on gameplay (other than looking amazing), but again these are a cash shop item.

Speaking of the cash shop, whoever set the prices here completely missed the point of the word ‘micro-transaction’. No, even the least expensive items on the cash shop are several dollars, and offer very little in the way of value. For example, buying a full set of equipment for your in-game horse is around $25. Buying a new outfit so you look reasonably unique in the game is a whopping $30. A single inventory slot will cost you around $1 each. Dyes come individually, or in three-packs (for 50 cents or for $1.20 respectively) but they are random colors that you don’t get to select and they are single use only. (You can purchase a specific palette – for example, you can buy a “red dye pack” which will contain only red-flavored dyes, but it’s still a random selection of various reds. There is no way to buy a specific color.) So if you want to match all your equipment, or if your in-game guild has a specific color scheme and want you to wear a specific color, you may be putting a significant amount of money into the cash shop.

In a way this is a good thing, because many of the items on the shop are pretty compelling. The costumes are very attractive. The hunt for a specific dye may be difficult, but since you aren’t changing armor often (if at all) you don’t need to continually buy them. The utility items (like additional inventory slots, character slots, bank space, and utility pets) only move gameplay in a positive direction. Having such desirable items on the cash shop with higher than average prices means that the developers will be more likely to earn a profit, and thus fund the game. And that’s good for everyone. The prices really aren’t too far out of whack, it just takes some time to adjust to a slightly higher than expected price point.

Finally, there is just so much to DO in the game that it is difficult to stay focused and on-track. I’ll log in to do one thing and end up getting distracted by any one of several other things and before you know it, I’ve been playing for three hours and I still haven’t done the thing I was originally intending to do. This game has literally had me up until 1 or 2 AM almost every night since I’ve gotten it. There have been two “all nighters” over the weekend, where I would creep into bed well after sunrise. And every moment has been compelling and interesting. As I mentioned previously, very little of the time has been spent grinding on monsters, or even in combat. It does happen occasionally, but for the most part, I’m playing a very complex world simulation, and it’s incredibly fun!

My short review of this game: Buy it. You’ll probably like it.

(Tomorrow I’m going to post about the combat system.)

- Stupid @ Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:27 PM PT [+]

Hide and Seek in Waterfalls/Life is Strange/GOTY 2015

Well, I put this off long enough. It’s the end of February as I type this, and it’ll actually be the 1st of March when I post. Two months have passed since we waved goodbye to 2015. So far, I’ve been posting weekly this entire year (although it’s getting harder to keep up that schedule without resorting to shorter, meaningless posts). And I never did write anything about my pick for the Game of the Year for 2015. So here it is.

If you looked at all of the Game of the Year lists that came out in the last couple of months, you would have seen the same titles repeated on them: Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid 5, Bloodborne… well, I don’t really enjoy these kinds of games. I never have. Even in the early days of computing, I never could get interested in the “big” RPGs of the day. The whole progression style of single-player RPG gameplay never felt real to me; I always knew it was “just a game”. I never really cared about getting a bigger sword or better pants. Growing a character from a baby toon that could barely kill a rat into a behemoth that could smack down a dragon with a single blow was uninteresting to me. Single-player games which promise hundreds of hours of exploration never hold my interest long enough for me to get out of the tutorial areas. (MMORPGs get a pass for me due to the multiplayer nature of the game – to me, the interactions with other players make the game fun, not the RPG parts of it.)

One game that is pretty much on every GOTY list as an “Honorable Mention” is Dontnod’s Life is Strange. And while it doesn’t have super long gameplay, or character building, or state-of-the-art graphics (all of which make for great box quotes), it does have an amazing story, and the emotional impact of a train car full of kittens plunging off a cliff into a volcano.

Life is Strange is an episodic “choose your own adventure” style game in the line of the Telltale games, yet it varies significantly from those games in several significant ways.

First off, the interface is pretty much completely different. The first time I picked up a Telltale game, the way that you would interact with the world was intuitive and easy to internalize. Not so here. I wouldn’t say that it is “clunky”, but it felt like the developers at Dontnod specifically made it slightly different from Telltale’s interface to avoid legal issues, and in the process, made the game a little less intuitive to control. Having said that, it only took about 45 minutes of playing before the I was able to adjust to the new paradigm. Still, I never felt like I could do things instinctively in this game, the way I could in Telltale’s games.

Secondly, each episode is a lot longer than Telltale’s games. And while I’ve said it before, I’ll repeat it here: I hate episodic games. I don’t like to play part of a game, only to hit a specific save-point and then have to wait (sometimes for several months) to see what happens next. When I sit down to play a game, I want to PLAY that game! I don't want to wait until the next chapter is released. So, of course I didn't play this game until I had all the chapters loaded on my PS4; I pretty much binge-played the entire thing in one go. Regardless of that, even though Life is Strange is only five episodes, it is likely as long as any two of Telltale’s games combined. With Telltale’s games, I’ll usually play an entire episode in an evening. This game, playing a single episode was usually two or three sessions.

Part of the reason why the game is so long is the subject matter. In case you didn’t know, this is a time travel story. The main protagonist, Max Caufield, is a teenage girl with the ability to rewind time. Not only does this allow for some really, really mind-bendingly weird puzzles, it also means that you end up replaying a great many sections of the game multiple times. Usually this is a bad thing, where you are forced to sit through a cutscene over and over because you failed an in-game challenge or couldn’t solve a puzzle. But here, you won’t replay portions of the game because you failed to progress in the game. No, you’ll progress through the story just fine. But every time you make a choice, every time you do something, there is an in-game voice that says “Did I do the right thing?” And you’ll rewind time and re-do that part of the game, make a different choices, do or say something different, follow a different character, or use a different tool. And then you’ll see how those different choices play out. Sometimes, it works out better than what you did the first time. Sometimes, it's worse, and you’ll go back again and re-do your original choices. Sometimes, you’ll realize that there is yet another option, and rewind to try it again… differently.

The thing is, even though the overarcing story is still fairly immutable (just like Telltale’s games), in this game the choices you make, what you do, and how you react to other characters in the game, all seem to have actual real effects (which is very different from pretty much all of Telltale’s games). There are actually a few points in the game where a supporting character can actually die! If you save them, they can help you progress, either right away or in future chapters. If you do not save them, the late-game can get fairly difficult because you won’t have that help. The gameplay is presented in such a way that you very quickly learn that at least some of your actions can have real consequences, and that leads to replaying sections multiple times in order to get it “right”.

The main storyline revolves around the aforementioned Max Caufield, a 17-year old Oregonian high-schooler, attending a private school for the arts. As you might expect, the game is loaded with the typical pointless high-school drama. Who wore what dress to the dance; who’s boyfriend was seen kissing some other girl; who’s popular and who’s not (and why)… those things are in the game as a backdrop, and while they aren’t the main thrust of the story, they do help the player to “get into” playing as an angsty teenage girl.

One of the biggest problems with this methodology is that Max, the main character that you control throughout the entire game, is kind of unlikable. Even though I found her problems and her life to be extremely relatable, I never thought, “Wow, I wish I could be like her.” Even though she has this mysterious super-power to rewind time, allowing her to literally un-do mistakes that she makes – which, by the way, is AMAZING! - she is so bland and boring that even with that perk, she still isn’t someone I would want to be.

The “rewind” power than Max has is nothing short of incredible. Since the game setting is mostly realistic, it “feels” right when Max rewinds something. It is almost like getting a game save/reload feature in real life. (And to those detractors that find the language used in the game to be unrealistic, you’re hella wrong! People actually do talk like that. Or they did at the time that the game is set. Deal with it.)

One thing that did not play well for me was the graphical fidelity of the game. While the environments were mostly rendered well, there was occasional model clipping. And the character models are well built, but aren't quite right, which leads to an “uncanny valley” feeling once in a while. Worst of all was the lip-flap animations for speaking characters. And the game is VERY heavy on dialogue and exposition. I did get used to it quickly, but it still was distracting. I can’t help but feel that if the graphic and physics engine used had been better, this game would have been higher on some of the mainstream GOTY lists.

The other major flaw in the game was the “nightmare” sequence in the final chapter. I can kinda see what the developer was trying to do: make the player feel actual depression and dread, and that their earlier decisions were ALL wrong. Not because they chose incorrectly, but because they are a horrible person and everything they do is going to fail. (I’m not kidding here. That's the underlying message in this sequence. It's NOT fun!) The problem is that this sort of mind-fuckery only works if the player can internalize the character’s feelings. When someone in the game tells Max that she was never any good and everyone was just humoring her so that she would shut up and go away, it would probably be really debilitating to the actual person that Max is, but maybe not so much for the player that is controlling Max. As a result, the long sequences in the final chapter that are designed to force the player to slow down and listen to other characters tell Max what a horrible, terrible and useless person she is, rather than making the player second-guess themselves and their choices, it just ends up being tedious to play through. It would be some of the least memorable parts of the game if it weren't so close to the end.

There were a few other minor presentation-type quibbles that stuck in my mind. For example, in one sequence a character is mixing chemicals in a high-school science lab. At several points, the character animations made it seem as if this character was going to DRINK the solution. I was dismayed at this presentation, and it really seemed out of place, taking me out of the moment.

Minor points aside, the big draw here really is the story. It starts out as a time travel story, takes a little detour into a missing person mystery, then catapults into a creepy stalker/slasher story, and finally comes full circle. There are a few unexpected twists, but for the most part, the game sets up pretty much everything for you. While some might say this makes the story “predicatable”, the standard set-up->climax->denoument sequence gets turned topsy-turvy with time-travel involved. For example, you might know that a specific Bad Thing happened (or is going to happen, after you rewind back before it happened) and then you work to try to prevent it from happening. And when you succeed, you realize that an unintended side effect of what you did was that a very different but even more Terrible Thing is going to happen. But you may not know what the New Terrible Thing is, or when it is going to happen. And then when it does happen (just as you knew it would) you have to choose between which of the two Bad Things is going happen, because you can only stop one or the other, but not both. It’s like choosing between getting run over by a truck or getting run over by a bus. Either way, it’s horrible. And you, with the rewind power, can try and try and try, but no matter what you do, Something Bad is going to happen. Even though you can predict where the story is going pretty early on, it doesn’t lessen the feeling of dread as you watch time wind towards an inescapable conclusion.

And the conclusion of this story is TERRIBLE!!! Not in that it is a terrible game, or presented poorly. It is terrible in that it makes the player choose between two equally horrible choices. The first time I played through, I made my choice in about 15 seconds, feeling I was doing the “right” thing. (People who have played the game will know what my choice was by the title of this posting. I still feel it was the right thing to do.) But even that first time, I had to wonder if what I was doing was actually right. So I reloaded from my final auto-save (you can’t rewind past this final decision – the game ends after you choose). And when I reached the climactic scene a second time, I hovered my finger over the “other” choice, curious to see what it was… and held it there. I knew that this was real life and that my choice would not affect any real person (other than me), but I simply could not do it. My imagined relationship with the various characters was set, and even though I wanted to do something different, I couldn’t make myself do it. Those seconds stretched into minutes as I sat there with my finger hovering over the button that would decide the fate of these imaginary people. I experienced actual mental anguish as I looked at the screen, trying to force myself to make a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible choice. (I did not repeat the word "horrible" unnecessarily – this choice is truly devastatingly horrible!) In the end, I couldn’t do it. With tears streaming down my face, I made the same choice a second time.

I’ve since read what happens (in text form) on the other path, but I will never watch a YouTube of that sequence and I will never play through it “just to see”. I’m convinced that what I chose was “right” and I have no desire to put myself through the agony and heartache that would result in seeing what the other choice results in. This final decision is one that is very personal for every player, and despite the game being “finished” over five months ago, people are still arguing over what the ramifications of each of the final options are, and which one is “better”. (Hint: there is no "better"; you only have horrible options.)

So, as I said, the story here is pretty compelling. It starts out fairly slowly, with high-school drama in Chapter One, ramps up during the missing person mystery segment in Chapters Two and Three, takes a turn into a tear-jerk cry-fest during Chapter Four, nearly sidelines itself as it winds towards the climax in Chapter Five, and then finishes SUPER STRONG with ALL THE FEELS.

If you haven't played the game, please do not search for spoilers! The emotional impact here is so dramatic because even though you will suspect where the story is going, you will try to convince yourself that it couldn't possibly be so horrible. Denial is a powerful force, and this story uses it for maximum impact.

Life is Strange is available everywhere digitally for about $25. It’s also out on physical media for most platforms. If you haven’t played it, you should. It’s well worth the time and money. And that’s my pick for Game of the Year 2015.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, March 1, 2016 11:06 AM PT [+]

The Division - beta impressions

There have been two “beta” events for The Division now, and I played in both of them. Between the two events, I racked up around 30 hours of total play time. I played through every single PvE event and mission that was included in the level-limited beta – about a dozen different encounters – and spent a over a dozen hours in the PvP-enabled “Dark Zone”. I'd like to talk about both aspects of the game and why I've placed a pre-order.

Let's start out with something that I think is often overlooked. The Division isn't a FPS game. It looks like a FPS game, with guns and upgrades and DPS progression stats, and it kinda-sorta plays like a cover-based shooter (if you don't look too close), but it doesn't take to terribly long before you realize that it is actually a third-person RPG game that just happens to be set in a shooter world. And when I say “third-person RPG”, I'm looking squarely at fantasy MMORPG games, like WoW, ESO, or Guild Wars 2. I'll come back to this point later.

The PvE gameplay falls into three major categories: there are missions that unlock parts of the game; there are encounters that provide progression; and there are completely optional side-missions that give basic PvE rewards, but don't really contribute to character advancement in any meaningful way. Between the two beta weekends, I was able to do two “story” missions, about a dozen “story” encounters, and a handful of side-missions.

The two PvE missions that were available were one that unlocked the Medical wing of the player's in-game base (which gives access to skills that more-or-less equate with “healing” type skills), and the one that unlocks the Tech wing of the base (which gives access to skills that are more-or-less DPS oriented). I'll talk a bit more about skills later.

I ran the medical mission solo about a half-dozen times, both solo and in a group. This mission was generally pretty easy for me to run through solo, and I was able to complete it in about 10 minutes from start to finish. (I ran it so many times because it gave a fixed reward of 250 “credits”, the in-game currency, and I was trying to buy some goods – I'll come back to this later when I talk about why this game is really an RPG.) The one time I ran through this mission as part of a three-man fireteam, it was brutally difficult! The game scales the number of enemies up based on how many players are involved, plus it ramps up each enemy's health pool, making it much harder to kill each of them. So whereas I, as a solo player, could take down an enemy with three shots of my Marksman rifle, it took double that when I was in the group. Plus there were easily twice as many enemies to kill when I was grouped. One thing that I also learned from repeating this missions was that the individual loot sacks that seem to appear randomly on the map are timer based. Once looted, they will not respawn for a goodly long time. So after about the fourth run of the mission, there was no loot to be found (aside form the fixed rewards, which was why I was there anyway).

I ran the tech mission only once as a solo. This mission felt much more challenging to me. There is one section of the mission that felt as if it was specifically designed to be excruciatingly difficult for a solo player, but probably wasn't terribly difficult for a duo or group. Basically, in this section, you need to pick up and carry a heavy object that limits your movement to a slow walk, plus prevents you from using your primary or secondary weapons (limiting you to a one-handed pea-shooter gun). If you had a friend (or two, or three) to “guard” you while you carried this item, no problem. Solo, however... well, lets just say it wasn't easy. The final fight in this mission involved so many difficult targets that it was a serious challenge to get through it. Plus this mission had a lot more intermediate steps and battles than the medical mission. All in all, my one solo run through this mission took just a bit under two hours to complete!

Overall I found the two missions that we were allowed to play to be challenging mini-dungeons. I did not find them particularly enjoyable. Mostly because, like all PvE content, they relied on some “trick” to complete. If you know the “trick”, the mission becomes trivially easy. For example, in the Medical mission, the main bad guy never advances or moves forward at all, so if you stay in cover until he reloads, you can pepper him with bullets until you win without taking a single hit. (I did this one several times and got pretty good at it.) On the other hand, if you don't know the “trick”, the mission is practically impossible. For example, while you are carrying the heavy item in the Tech mission, you are both defenseless and extremely limited in attack power, so you're basically going to lose every single fight – even if it just a single weak enemy. (I did solve this one too – eventually! - but I'm not going to say what the “trick” was. Some things are best discovered by the player!)

Once you complete the missions to unlock the various portions of the in-game base (which grant skills), story encounters provide resources that allow you to upgrade the base, which, in turn, either unlocks more skills or provide bonuses to skills you already have. (Again, more on the RPG-style advancement later.) The varous encounters are introduced by a voiceover character that sounds like someone's kindly old granny from Minnesota. I think it was supposed to be cute; I found it annoying and distracting. However, the encounters were pretty varied in both difficulty and style. The simplest ones were super easy: go to a place, and kill some dudes. Shooty, shooty, and you're done, easy as pie. On the other hand, some of them involved a bit more complex tasks. For example, one was a staged fight that had you advancing along a narrow alley, and fighting three mini-bosses that increased in difficulty as you progressed. Another was a “capture and hold” mission where you had to kill all the enemies around a point, “capture” it (by interacting with it for about 5 seconds – without getting shot!), and then protect it from endless waves of enemies that continually spawn for 90 seconds. (If the enemies retake the point, the spawns would shut off, allowing the player to recapture and start the timer - and the endless spawns! - anew.)

Overall, the various encounters were mostly fun. In fact, I found them to be more enjoyable than the actual missions. Mostly because they were accessible, straightforward and understandable. Even while doing the more complex encounters, I was easily able to understand what I was supposed ot be doing and how to get it done. (Unlike in the missions, where it was like a puzzle trying to figure out what the “trick” was.) The biggest problem with these encounters is that they are NOT repeatable! Once you do them, they disappear from the map. You can join up with a friend to repeat them, but absolutely zero rewards are granted on subsequent runs. In fact, once you do them, you don't even know that it is an encounter, it just “looks” like a normal, random part of the game. So once you and your friends complete these, they essentially stop being part of the game. And that's too bad.

I also played through several optional side-missions. These were extremely long, multi-step missions that tasked the player with going to several different locations and doing something. For example, one of the side-missions had you go to a ruined building to watch a little vignette, then travel to a different location (about 5 minutes of running away) to watch another little mini-movie, before going to a third location (another two or three minutes of travel) to see a third exposition, before finally going to a fourth (thankfully nearby) location to fight several enemies (which were positioned in a way that made it difficult to get a good angle on them without exposing yourself to their attacks), which (finally!) completed the side-mission. Now, I'm not one to disparage how other people play games – if you're having fun with a particular game style, by all means, play that game! I'm sure that a RPG player who enjoys digging into a game for the lore and backstory, who enjoys having to read pages and pages of text in the middle of a game to learn more about the setting and the character, who hunts the entire map for little lore-based tidbits.. that kind of player probably would find these side-missions amazingly enjoyable. But, for me these side missions were horrible experiences. They took far too long to finish, had practically no reward, and did not advance my character in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, the one thing that they did provide as a reward were crafting recipes (yes, there is crafting in this game too!) so it's very likely that I will suffer through them in order to get those, no matter how unendurable they may be.

So, that's the PvE picture. Will there be “enough” for a mostly PvE player to play the game? I would say yes. There is character advancement, there are a bunch of repeatable missions that can be played with friends, there on non-repeatable solo encounters, and there are lore-based side-missions. All together, I think the amount of content would keep a dedicated PvE player busy for several dozen hours of game play. A dedicated player will likely burn through everything in a few weeks, but a casual player will probably take a month or two to “beat” the game. About on par with most single-player games these days.

The other side of the gameplay picture is the so-called “Dark Zone”. A lot of people hear that it is the PvP area, and immediately discount it as ever being fun. After all, it's “open PvP”, right? Well, technically it is, but the game uses a fantastic mechanic to discourage wild killing of other players, and actually rewards players for being “good” and playing nice together – as well as enforcing the rules (in a deadly way) by removing miscreants form the field of play. It's amazingly innovative and it works really really well!

Everyone enters the Dark Zone (hereafter referred to as the DZ), as a “white” player – a non-PvP player. That's not to say that you can't be attacked by other players (or attack them!) but you are flagged as “good”. When you shoot another player and do some threshold of damage, you go “red”. (The threshold is pretty low, but unless you are bottom feeding in a low-level zone, you can almost always avoid doing it by accident in a big fight.) Once you go “red”, anyone can (and likely will!) attack (and kill!) you. When you kill another player, red OR white, you get some in-game money. This money is a special PvP currency that can ONLY be used on PvP gear. That's pretty standard open PvP rules, and we've seen how that plays out in most games (ands it usually isn't pretty).

Here's where The Division gets it right. When you kill a “white” player you get a dozen or so DZ bux; being killed as a white player costs you about the same – maybe a dozen or so credits. But when you kill a “red” player you get several hundred DZ bux, plus they lose an equal amount! Someone did the math, and it works out to about a 16-to-1 ratio. For every white kill, you get about 1/16th as much as a single red kill (or death). This means that in order for player-killing to be profitable, a player-killer would need to kill at least 16 players before getting killed themselves! And, to ensure that this NEVER happens, every time they kill a player, it “pings” every other player's map with a “go here for free loot” symbol. After five kills, the game starts a dynamic event that makes the player-killing player a “quest” boss, which leads to a very fast demise.

Similarly, if you play as one of the “good” guys and never shoot another white player, you can be killed 15 times by reds, for every one time you kill them, and you still come out ahead. Sometimes a LOT ahead. The more players a “red” has killed, the larger the reward bounty for finally ending their run. Simply standing around popular player-killing areas and “guarding” other players is immensely profitable!!

With the deck stacked so heavily against player-killing, why would anyone do it? I mean, if you're going to lose 16 times as much as you gain, who in their right mind would start down that path... ever? Well, in opposition to the “go red and you will lose money every single time” mechanic, they have a companion mechanic that incentivizes players to take that first shot.

The DZ is not just a bunch of players shooting it out. No, there are also PvE encounters. And unlike to PvE areas, the PvE encounters in the DZ repeat on a regular (timed) basis. The loot you get from the PvE encounters in the DZ is typically a step or two “better” than the stuff you get in normal PvE. The catch is that you can't use it right away – it's “contaminated” loot. To use it, you need to take it to a specific area on the map, called an “extraction zone”, and start a 90-second countdown. Which, of course, shows up as a blinking alert on every other player's map. Until you extract it, that loot can be lost (by dying or leaving the DZ), or stolen (by getting killed by another player). Simply grabbing loot and running away results in it being lost. The ONLY way to keep it is to call for an extraction! Once you extract it, however, the loot is yours forever; no one can take it from you even if they kill you!

And the fact that you are carrying loot is displayed on your in-game character as a giant glowing yellow sack. The catch is that all loot displays the same way, regardless of whether it is a cosmetic item, an underleveled grey item that grants no bonuses, or an epic weapon or armor that would turn you into an unstoppable killing machine – it all displays exactly the same way. So everyone around you knows that you have loot (but not what it is). And when you try to “extract” it, they also know where you are and exactly how long you're going to be there for.

This leads to a very common situation: You have loot and want to keep it, so you call for an extract. Someone else shows up, also carrying loot, and waits with you. You both have guns. You both know the other guy has some loot. You both know exactly how long you have until you can get that loot out. And as the timer ticks down, both of you are doing the math on how fast you can kill the other guy, steal their loot, and get it out. It's a classic “Prisoner's Dilemma” problem. If you play nice, everyone wins. If you kill the other guy before he kills you, you win big. But maybe not. All you know is that he has loot, not what it is. It might be some useless newbie equipment. Or it might be an epic rifle. You just don't know.

The really neat thing is that the combination of these two mechanics results in gameplay that still ends up being a net win for playing nice-nice with other people. Sure, there is a chance that by going red and stealing people's loot just before the timer runs out, extracting it in the last few seconds and then taking the punishment from going red, you might earn a super item. But it's a pretty small chance. The safer (and usually more profitable) path of extracting the items you are carrying (because you DO know what YOU have!) works out to much faster advancement. But the chance, no matter how small, still entices people to try, Every time you're extracting an item, you never know if the other players are going to let you live, or if they are going to turn on you like a rabid snake and steal your stuff. (Remember, they can only steal the stuff you haven't extracted yet – getting killed by other players NEVER causes you to slide backwards in advancement, it can only stop you from moving forward for a short time.)

For me, as a primarily PvP player, I found the Dark Zone to be incredibly fun and I easily spent the vast majority of my time in there. The tension of never knowing whether I was going to be able to extract a decent or good item was crazy! Yes, there were a few times where I was summarily executed by other players, when I had no loot, and I did lose a few DZ bux. But one PvE kill later, I was back where I had started – and I had the pleasure of watching the players who had killed me for some unknown reason get gunned down by a handful of other players who sprang to my aid. (Because the reward for killing red players makes them an instant target.)

So, that's the gameplay. Up until now, I could have been describing almost any kind of game. And, as I said way upstream, The Division looks an awful lot like a FPS game – the setting is modern New York, and literally everyone in the game is carrying some kind of gun - and plays a lot like a cover-based shooter - the very first trick the game teaches you is how to snap to cover and fire around things without exposing yourself to return fire- but it really is a third-person RPG game that just happens to be set in a shooter world.

To start with, your character has levels. A low level character can barely kill a street rat. A high level character can destroy a small building with a glance. There are stats that will increase the character's damage output, hit points, and skill recycle times. Gear and equipment is limited by both level and, in most cases, stats. Gear might also provide some innate stat bonuses. For example, you might find a gun that requires a specific experience level, plus a specific stat be above a lower limit. If you don't meet the requirements, you simply can't equip the item.

It goes even deeper than the stat/gear link too. Remember those missions that were done to unlock portions of the in-game base or operations? Well, that base acts as your character's “build”. As you unlock more areas, you also unlock more skills that your character can equip, Instead of a skill bar that has five, six, or even ten slots, here, you have three skill slots, but you can mix and match any skill form any part of the base. You could slot in a personal shield, a throwable heal, and a buff... or you could put in a personal deployable turret, a radar pulse that exposes enemies that are hidden behind walls and objects and a grenade that tracks down the closest enemy and then blows up at their feet, lighting them on fire... or any combination. Each section of the base has ten possible skills, and there are three sections (which loosely translate to heal/dps/tank skills), so there are a ton of builds available to try out.

The character development, stat and gear mechanics and the skill-bar setup could be used to describe any one of a number of Fantasy RPG MMO games! Outside of the visuals, It really wouldn't even take too much to imagine this game as a fantasy-based RPG MMO. And it even mimics the RPG MMO world in another way – unlike shooters where skill is tantamount and progression plays a lesser role, here, power progression rules the game and no amount of skill can make up for that.

For example, when I last played the game, I was focusing on a more “tanky” build. I had focused on my Stamina stat, which gave me additional hitpoints. This was done at the expense of not putting any points into Firearms (the DPS stat) and Electronics (the “skill” stat). As a result, my DPS output was fairly low (around 2000 DPS), but I could take a beating in a fight (I had around 6500 hitpoints) Just from a pure numbers standpoint, if I was fighting myself, it would have taken me around 3 seconds of solid shooting to kill myself. But, it isn't pure numbers, because I also was wearing armor that lowered the amount of damage I took from all attacks. AND I had a heal skill slotted! AND because of one of the upgrades I had made on my Base, I could carry three heal kits. Essentially, I could realistically take around 18,000 hitpoints worth of punishment. With my measly 2000DPS, it would have taken a similarly equipped and built player a solid nine or ten seconds to kill me. Assuming, of course, that I was doing absolutely nothing to stop him. Like for example, running away. Or ducking behind cover. Or even – gasp! - shooting back! Higher levels and higher stats play a HUGE role in power progression.

Overall, the game was a LOT of fun to play. The biggest problem is that it looks and feels like a shooter, but is actually an RPG. The PvE content isn't horrible, and the PvP mechanics are amazingly fun. As an old-school PvP MMO player, this game pushes all the right buttons for me. I'm not so invested in this that I'm going to take time off from work to play the first few days after launch (mostly because I'm running low on PTO and have plans for a longer vacation that is actually going somewhere nice), but I can easily see myself playing this game for the next three to six months. And loving every minute of it!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 23, 2016 11:17 PM PT [+]

The Expanse

So, I’m going to cheat a bit here. I had originally planned on writing a VERY long article on my Game of the Year for 2016, but due to the holiday and some personal issues, I haven’t finished it yet. So instead of that article, I’m going to talk about a TV show that I binge-watched this weekend. I know this is primarily a gaming blog, but it’s MY blog and I’ll write about what I want!

The Expanse is a sci-fi space opera/mystery drama that was produced by and aired on the ridiculously named Syfy network. It is supposedly based on a series of novels by James S. A. Corey. I’ve never read them, mostly because they were published this decade and I haven’t read an actual physical book since 2008. (I primarily “read” audiobooks while I run, and, like most active readers, I have a large backlog of books to work through.)

The series is set in a future in which humanity has colonized much of the solar system, but not interstellar space. In a departure from the standard utopian or dystopian sci-fi settings (like the entire Star Trek series and pretty much every show, movie, and series that involves any kind of battle or war setting, respectively) this setting is one of political stability, but with a lot of unrest. And the political climate of the setting really is what makes the story work so well.

In this future, the Earth and the moon (Luna) have been brought under a single rule, the United Nations. Meanwhile, a colony on Mars has broken away from the U.N. and has developing their own planet into a major power. Further afield, the asteroid belt is being mined for resources by a bunch of independents called “Belters”. So, right from the start, we’ve got two super-powers, and a smaller, disorganized, but critical, faction. As the show opens, the fact that the inner planets (Earth and Mars) have been exploiting the weaknesses of the belt and it’s lack of a cohesive governmental structure is made abundantly clear.

Just as there are three major political factions in the mix, there are three major characters that story revolves around. Unexpectedly, the three characters do NOT each represent one of the three factions! These three people are generally not connected and, for the most part, what happens in one person’s world has little or no effect on the other characters (at least not at first). The three major characters are Christian Avasarala, a UN executive on Earth that is heavily involved in the political landscape; Joseph Miller, a Belter cop that is employed by an Earth corporation; and Jim Holden, an Earth-born officer on an freighter that delivers frozen water to the Belt.

The story starts out pretty slow. The opening scenes are a complete mystery, and feel completely unrelated to any of the other sub-plots that are introduced. At first, the main story seems to revolve around Miller, and the hard-boiled private-eye in space angle has been done in countless other movies and shows, and done much better than here. As a result, it's a bit hard to really invest in the show. And even though the first episode ends with a dramatic space battle where one large ship is completely destroyed, it’s really hard to care. There just isn’t any real dramatic tension created with these characters who we really haven’t seen doing anything important or worthwhile. The second episode serves to really solidify the political portion of the setting and starts to introduce some of the action, but for the most part, it is still just treading water.

Having said all of that, if you can make it through the first 90 minutes of the show, things only get better and better from episode three forward. Which is not to say that one should just skip the first two episodes!! No, because the viewer has a very solid understanding of the various powers in the solar system and how they relate to one another – as well as how they don’t - is the reason the subsequent episodes work! Without that backstory, I don't think the later episode would be as dramatic or interesting. Some of the smallest plot points that were introduced in the very first episode come back in a HUGE way in later shows. And to the writers' credit, they do NOT remind the viewer about something that they may not have noticed. In this way, it’s very reminiscent of the recent Battlestar: Galactica series. If you were watching it casually, you would probably miss a lot of important stuff the first time through.

The other show that this drama brings to mind is HBO’s Game of Thrones series. Not because of the setting (which is about as different as you can get), or because of the number of characters (each of the three threads only have a handful of recurring roles that need to keep track of), but because of the episodic nature of the series. These first ten shows more-or-less capture the first book from the series. It’s assumed that the second season will follow the events of the second book. As of this writing, there are six novels completed, and three more planned to complete the series. And I can personally say that when I finished watching the tenth episode, I was looking for more.

Overall, I strongly recommend this show. I’m sure that there are some George R.R. Martin style plot-twists coming up, and I’m looking forward to it!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 16, 2016 2:36 PM PT [+]

Infinity Runner

This game was a complete impulse buy for me. It was on sale for $1.75 over the holidays, and the gameplay trailer looked moderately interesting. I mean, werewolves and spaceships – how bad could it be?

Well, let’s just say it wasn’t great. I started the game on “normal” difficulty and couldn’t get through the first level. I bumped it down to “easy” and still ran into issues. Like most games, the first time you meet a specific challenge, the game gives you some direction. The problem is that the written instructions are on-screen for 0.001 seconds and then you instantly die and have to start over. Some challenges took me a few dozen deliberate deaths before I could piece together enough of the direction to actually know which button I was supposed to be pushing.

For those that don’t know (like me!), Infinity Runner is one of the new high-speed “runner” games where the character you play “runs” through a map (on rails) and then you have to react to challenges that occur as the game runs. (Race the sun is another game in this genre, and a much better one!) In Infinity Runner, you are running down a seemingly endless series of corridors. When the corridor turns, you need to press the controller stick in the proper direction at the proper time, or your character either runs in the wall at the end of the corridor (if you are too late), or slams into the side of the corridor (if you turn too early). Either of these costs you a “life” and you restart at the last checkpoint. Five deaths and it’s Game Over, man! And this is all presented in First-Person perspective.

The graphics are very reminiscent of an old PS2 game; this is definitely not HD. The soundtrack is supposedly high-energy electronica/techno inspired, but I turned it off after the third level and my Lovely Partner (who was doing dishes in an adjacent room) actually exclaimed out loud, “Oh, Thank God!” Even the in-game animations are poorly done. The “helper” character that appears on-screen to present game plot points only has lip-flap in the first level. After that she makes some sort of psionic connection with you, so you just see her idle-animation while the voice-over plays. Speaking of voice-overs, I always turn off subtitles by default, but I had to turn them back on after two levels because the thick accent and heavy use of reverb made the audio all but indecipherable.

The name of the game is “Infiinity Runner” which, to me, anyway, implies that the game is going to be an endless series of levels that increase in difficulty until you lose, kind of a runner-genre version of Horde Mode. While that option does exist here, the main draw of the game is (supposedly) the Story Mode. And the story is kinda weak. At the end of each level you get a paragraph of unintelligible voiceover, followed by a very short paragraph of text that says something related, but completely different. There are only about a half dozen levels, and when you beat the final one, the story ends on what I assume was supposed to be a cliffhanger… but in this case, just seemed silly, contrived, and sadly predictable.

All was not horrible however! The map design is pretty top notch. I mean, there’s not a lot of things you can do with a “runner” type game, but this game does them pretty well. Aside from the aforementioned lack of explanation in some cases, the challenges are (mostly) fun and visually interesting. The first time I had to jump across a wide chasm, I actually jumped a little physically and exclaimed out loud. That was pretty impressive for a simple game like this. Also, the game hands out trophies like candy. I completed the game from start to finish in just under two hours (on easy difficulty) and was awarded 37 different trophies in that time frame. And since the game really is that short, it can be completed in a single sitting. (Although, saying that a game doesn’t require a lot of time investment to “beat”, might not be the best thing ever!)

Overall, I can see this game appealing to two types of gamers: players that hunt for easy trophies/acheivements are going to definitely love this one; and players that have a few hours to kill on a rainy day and are bored with all of their current games. For everyone else, I’d give this one a pass.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 9, 2016 6:25 PM PT [+]

The Fall

This was a game that was completely off my personal radar. To be honest I had never even heard of it until it went on sale for one of Sony's “4 Weeks of Holiday Sales” events in December 2015. I probably still would not have been interested if not for the very vocal postings of several people on the various gaming forums that I frequent. I saw just too many unrelated folks all singing the praises of this one. I was intrigued. And at a sale price of a mere $3, I thought I would give it a shot. After all, $3 is less than what many people are willing to pay for a cup of bad coffee, so I figured if I got a couple of hours of mediocre entertainment out of it, it would have been a good investment.

I'm so glad that I did! Going in, I had almost no idea what I was going to get. Heck, I didn't even know what kind of game this was - was it an RTS? An adventure? A FPS? I really had no preconceptions of the game at all.
As it turns out, this is a side scrolling puzzler. It's rendered in gorgeous high-definition, with large animated sprites (which is good, since I sometimes have trouble picking out small objects, even if they are rendered well). The display shows one "level" of the game, with the levels above and below being party visible from time to time. Safe to say, the graphical presentation never got in the way of enjoying the game and always showed what you needed to see. Overall, the production values were very very high. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I've played some triple-A games aren't as well produced!

The basic premise of the game puts you in the role of an A.I. in control of a military grade combat suit. The human occupant of said suit is injured and unconscious. He was injured during a fall from somewhere to the location where the game takes place - thus the name of the game "The Fall". Your job as the A.I. is to seek medical attention for your human and ensure their survival. The problem is that The Fall (there it is again!) caused you to lose your weapon. And since you are simply a backup safety A.I. you do not have full control of various subsystems of the combat suit.

You interact with the game world by shining a "flashlight" on various "hotspots" in the game. When illuminated, they pop up large, clearly readable text clues. For example, when you shine your flashlight on the rock near to where you start the game, a text box pops up that tells you that it looks like something was dragged through here, and there are traces of what appear to be human blood. The hotspots are not just text clues - they also can be interactable items like buttons, levers and switches, or they can also be carryable inventory. For example, when you find a working combat pistol, it starts out as a hotspot, and doesn't go into your inventory (and thus become usable as a weapon) until you highlight it and interact with it. Of course, the hotspots are not terribly obvious unless you are paying attention to the game world; some of them are pretty easy to miss - especially the puzzle specific hotspots! For example, one specific hotspot that you need to shoot (after you retrieve the aforementioned gun) is located out of view in a dark area of the screen, behind an impassable partition. Unless the player is diligent in exploration, some puzzles may become unsolvable.

The puzzle elements of the game are another high point. While some of them can be difficult to figure out, I never felt like they were unfairly so. Some modern exploration puzzle games have puzzles that make no logical sense. For example, you might need to pick up a book to get a key that allows access to the doghouse, where you fill a water bowl that allows a crank to be turned. Seriously, some of these puzzle games are ridiculously obtuse and really only solvable by randomly trying every item. That is definitely not the case here! Every puzzle makes sense, and is solvable without resorting to online hints, spoilers or guides. Having said that, some of them are far from easy! In fact, when you solve some of these puzzles you feel like a mental badass. The answer is always right there you just have to figure it out.

As the game progresses, a very compelling storyline develops. You will meet several other A.I. inhabitants of this world, some of which are helpful and others… not so much. In fact, I didn’t know it at the time that I bought the game, but apparently The Fall won an award for “Best Story” in 2014.
The only real problems with this game are the length of the narrative and that it is not a “complete” game. I was able to complete the game in two sessions, probably about 4 to 6 hours of total gameplay, and much of that time was spent pondering various puzzles. If you remove the time required to work out solutions, the game is probably only a 30 to 45 minute romp. That’s pretty short. And then when you reach the end, it is a cliffhanger ending, not a resolution of the story. The ending of the game will leave you with more questions than when you started. Luckily the developers, Over The Moon Games are working on Part 2 of this fantastic storyline. I really hope they continue to support the PS4 version!

Overall, despite the short duration of the gameplay and the unexpected cliffhanger ending, this game turned out to be one of the best things I played over the 2015 holiday season. I completely recommend this game.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 2, 2016 11:49 AM PT [+]

Tearaway Unfolded: Crafted edition

Tearaway has a an interesting mental history for me. I remember seeing a papercraft game at PAX Prime several years ago and thought it looked amazing. (It wasn't Tearaway, but it had the same sort of "paper-y" asthetic.) That unknown game still remains stuck in my mind. And then, when the PS4 pre-release brouhaha was happening a couple years ago, one of the games that was shown was the "endearing" Tearaway as a launch title (although Mr. Andrew House kept pronouncing it "teir", like a bunch of platforms, not "tear" as in what you do to paper). Of course, it wasn't released as a launch title (and maybe it was never going to be, but that's what's in my head).

When Tearaway was released in September, it came out to a lot of really good reviews, but overall it didn't sell very well. It went on sale on PSN (for $20) and a few of my local friends bought it digitally. And I almost bought it then, myself. But I prefer physical copies of my games - I very rarely sell them back, but I do have a habit of loaning the discs out to friends. (Local friends, take note!) While it can occasionally be a bit of a hassle to change discs, I generally play games serially - I'll play a single game straight through all in one bunch - so I'm not typically swapping discs.

Then in mid-December, thanks to the poor sales of the game, Gamestop held a blow-out sale to get rid of all of their unsold back-stock, reducing the cost of a brand new disc to only $20. (I later took advantage of a similar blow-out for The Order: 1886, but that's a story for another time).

The PS4 version of Tearaway is called Tearaway Unfolded: Crafted Edition. It's an expanded remake of the 2013 PlayStation Vita game Tearaway. For the record, I never played the Vita version, but I'm pretty sure it didn't have the Dualshock 4 and PS Camera features. For example, in the PS4 version, you use the DS4's touch pad to draw things that show up in the game; the lightbar on the DS4 is used as an in-game flashlight (as if it were shining "through" the TV, into the game world); the Real World player appears in the game (as seen by the PS Camera); some game sounds are player-created (using the Camera's built-in microphone); and in the later levels the controller's gyroscope is used to augment the controls.

The game starts out innocuously enough. It's a not terribly inspired third person platformer. The "hook" of the game is the aesthetic: the entire game world looks like it is made out of paper. The main character is a old-school paper letter (in an envelope, no less!) that walks around the papery world. The main task of the game (at least at the beginning) is to close a giant hole in the paper sky, where villanous paper creaters called "scraps" are changing all of the colored paper in the game world into boring newsprint. Using the PS Camera, the giant hole in the sky actually shows a real-time image of what the camera is seeing, as if the hole is peeking into the real world. It's a cute feature, and I found myself waving at the game a few times at the novelty of it.

It isn't far into the game until the player is asked to aim the DS4's light bar at various parts of the screen to lluminate hidden paths and platforms. The player also "shines" the DS4 lightbar into the game world to "clean up" the newsprint and restore color to the game world. (There is actually a trophy for doing this some number of times.) You are also tasked with drawing a few simple items on the DS4's touchpad that get inserted into the game world. And while drawing on the touchpad might sound like a neat feature, it's actually pretty difficult to accomplish. The DS4 touchpad has plenty of resolution and sensitivity, but it's kind of difficult to tell where you are on the screen without any visual feedback, and once you start drawing, there are no takes-backsies. (This is likely a non-issue for artists and other people accustomed to using a drawing pad, but for us "normal" folks, it's kind of a bother.) And in other sections, a quick swipe of the touchpad creates "wind" in the game world, allowing you to blow platforms open or closed, or blow down obstacles that block the player's path. (They are just paper, right?)

The game itself isn't particularly great. Playing through the various levels becomes pretty tedious fairly quickly. The game does try to break up monotony with different kinds of gameplay - for example, in one section you ride a pig like a rodeo horse, complete with silly rodeo music, breaking down a bunch of otherwise impassible barricades - and there are the requisite "collectible" items, and a few really REALLY difficult mini-quests, but the main game seems to drag on for hours without really going anywhere. Even the combat sequences are mostly uninspired, requiring only a modicum of attention to complete. Between the "cute" aesthetic, the lack of real difficulty in combat, plus the simplistic theme of the main storyline, it almost feels like a game was that was designed for kids.

But if you are willing to stick out the initial few hours of gameplay, the game actually starts getting both "challenging" in gameplay ("challenging" in quotes, because it ends up being REALLY HARD!!), and the game world itself starts to be more interesting and entertaining than the standard kid's fare. The "final" level of the main story has some sequences that require the player to swipe on the touchpad while holding down two different buttons on the controller, pressing one of the sticks to move, and tapping a "jump" button... all at the same time!! There is no way any child would have the physical dexterity to accomplish this. Heck, as a grown adult and experienced gamer, it was difficult to accomplish!!

Once you "finish" the main storyline, the game starts to get wired. It really starts to incorporate motion controls that involve moving the controller form side to side and/or tilting it to control different aspects of the game. And these later levels are where the game REALLY starts to shine. Some of the level design in the late part of the game is really inspired and could have made a decent stand-alone game in and of themselves. In fact, playing trough Tearaway Unfolded actually ends up feeling like you are playing through five different games. As soon as you finish one "game", they say a few lines and send you off on something new, and it's a whole new game. Even the papercraft aesthetic turns out to be flexible during some portions of the game (unless you consider mylar foil to be "paper"). If you can stomach getting through the first several hours of uninspired platforming, there's actually not a bad game waiting.

The biggest problem with the game is that the entire package ends up feeling like it was designed by a committee. It ends up feeling completely disjointed, like the pieces don't completely fit together. It's as if someone handed the developers a list of new features that were available on the PS4 and told them "make sure you get all of these things into the game"; and then various teams went out and designed a game that highlighted one or two features; and then they just stitched all of the resulting mini-projects together into a single game. The resulting package feels and plays just as you might think it would - the various sequences vary wildly in difficulty, theme and look. The initial main storyline is not terribly fun until the very end and while the final extended "games" after that are fun to play, the end result just doesn't hold up well at all.

Overall, while it might be a good game to highlight the various features and accessories of the PS4, it just isn't entertaining enough to warrant the time investment to get to them.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 26, 2016 6:58 AM PT [+]

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm not a huge fan of episodic games. I tend to wait until the entire game is released before buying in on them. The game Life is Strange has gotten a LOT of really good word-of-mouth and I was super excited to play it, but when the final chapter was released just before Halloween, I was already invested in finishing the Uncharted games, and Rock Band 4 had just come out.... So I waited. My plan was to buy the season pass when my queue of games was close(r) to running low, or if the season pass went on sale.

And then came the wave of holiday sales on digital games. The Life is Strange season pass went on sale for $10 so I pretty much had to buy it. Also on sale was Telltale's season pass, for $7.50. This game wasn't really on my radar, and after just finishing the black pit of despair and depression that was Telltale's Game of Thrones, I really wasn't chomping at the bit to jump on it. But several of my friends told me it was a great game, so I ponied up the $7.50 and bought it. “How bad can it be for $7.50?” is how I convinced myself. (I ended up buying five more games this holiday season using this same logic, for a total of around $100.)

I am so glad that I bought this!!

While this is still a Telltale game, with all of the flaws that comes with that (i.e. gameplay “on rails”, a nearly immutable story, lack of re-playability, etc) the overall experience here was compelling and interesting, and was the polar opposite to the Game of Thrones experience.

I should point out that going in to this experience, I had never played a single Borderlands game, so most (if not all) of the Borderlands-specific jokes and references were completely lost on me. I'm told (but cannot verify or confirm) that several of the background characters that you meet during the story are well-known to Borderlands players. When one character in particular is introduced, the game even says “You didn't think we left him out did you?” However, even without knowing who these characters were, the game provides enough backstory so that I had a feeling for who they were and what they did.

It's also worth pointing out that while this is based in the Borderlands universe, this is NOT a “shooter” game. It's a story game. And while there is some shooting, it is handled with the Telltale Engine's version of shooting. That is, the game puts up a reticle that is about 1/5 the size of the entire screen and you have to move the reticle using the right stick, then press R2 when it is “on target”. Generally, this can be done pretty easily, even for a really horrible shooter player like me.

The overall story is well written, entertaining, and extremely engaging. It only takes about 5 minutes for the first episode to start rolling in a fun way. The first three episodes are told in a kind of “flashback” style, which opens the door for a few pretty funny jokes. For example, first time I “killed” one of the main characters (who is telling the story in flashback) the other character says, “So you died, huh?” Which of course, is silly. How could the guy be telling the story if he died? The obvious response was “Well, maybe not exactly like that, but...” and then the game picks up form the last savepoint. That kind of off-kilter humor runs throughout the game.

Speaking of humor, supposedly the entire Borderlands franchise is built on silly humor (much in the same way that Terry Pratchet's Discworld is built on puns). As a non-Borderlands player, I can't confirm this, but I can assure you that silly humor runs deep throughout this entire game! In fact, that little factoid is why the fixed story elements work so well here. In a dramatic story, where the choices you make are expected to change the plot elements, here the choices you make change the humorous dialog, while leaving the plot elements pretty much alone. And it works great!! While choosing Joke A vs. Joke B doesn't make you feel like you are actually driving the story, it does make it feel like you have some control and it makes the player WANT to keep playing! (Unlike the prior game I played.)

And then we come to Episode 4. Telltale is (in)famous for having the penultimate episode being the strongest of the bunch, and this is certainly true here! From the opening title’s kick-ass 80’s rock ballad , to the puniest joke (you can always COUNT on accountants to out NUMBER you!) and the amazingly fun finger- gun fight, to the dramatic death of one of the characters (no link for that one because I don't want to spoil it, even though you will see it coming when you play through). Overall, Episode 4 is the crown jewel in this series, but you really should play the entire thing to appreciate it.

Some people mark this game down because the overall ending is happy-happy-joy-joy. Everyone gets what they want and all is well and right in universe. I didn't feel that detracted from the game at all. Outside of one preposterously contrived deus ex machina moment in the final Episode, which seemed so ridiculous that it left me scratching my head, the whole thing holds up really well. The entire experience was these people trying to achieve some ridiculously difficult thing. And whether or not they are ultimately successful or not really doesn't lessen the path they take to get there. As the saying goes: it's the journey, not the destination!

Overall, despite this being an impulse buy (and not one that I had planned on making) I really enjoyed this game. It convinced me to buy Borderlands: The Handsome Collection when it went on sale for the Holidays, and I'll likely be playing some of that later in the year. Bottom line: Highly recommended!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 19, 2016 10:43 AM PT [+]

I’ve been a huge Game of Thrones fan since I read the first book of the series way back in the early 2000s. When A Feast for Crows came out in 2005, I took a day off from work and literally read the entire book in one sitting. And then when HBO announced they were going to do a TV adaptation, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. Sadly, when I started watching the show, I was less than impressed, mostly because the characters on the screen were far less… everything… than they had been in my mind. The most fun I had was near the end of Season One, when “the thing” happened – watching the outrage and confusion on social media was more fun than anything on the show! Still, even though the series never really grabbed me, I did watch the first four seasons. Mostly when I was travelling for work and was staying in a hotel room in a strange city. My options were to go down to the hotel bar and get blindingly drunk or to watch TV. So I ended up watching four seasons of a show that I already knew the story to and wasn’t terribly invested in.

In 2014, Telltale Games released the first episode of their Game of Thrones adaptation. Reviews started coming in that it was a really great experience. But I don’t like the episodic nature of these games, so I didn't buy it at the time. Truth be told, I’ve never bought any of TellTale’s games until the final episode is released. Usually, there will be a sale on the Season Pass about a month before the finale comes out. That’s when I’ll buy in. Then I’ll sit on that Season Pass until the finale is released. When I finally play them, I don’t have to wait for two to four months between episodes. I did that for The Walking Dead, I did it for The Wolf Among Us and I did it for this game as well. (I also did it for Tales From the Borderlands, and Life is Strange but those are another story.)

As expected, the Game of Thrones Season Pass went on sale for $10 on PSN a couple of months before the final episode was slated to be released. I immediately bought it, downloaded the first episode and then completely ignored it until the final episode was released. Of course, when that finale finally came out, I was in the middle of playing through the Uncharted series, and Rock Band 4 had just come out, so it sat on my PS4’s hard drive for a few weeks until I got to it.

For those who may already be familiar with the Game of Thrones series (either the books or the TV show), the game deals with the lesser House Forrester. The Forresters are bannermen to the Starks, and their house’s seat is Ironrath, located in northwest Westeros. The game makes some pretty broad assumptions about the player’s knowledge of the show. The setting is the same as the books and TV show, so events that happen in that story are shown here. For example, the game story starts on the eve of the Red Wedding and the last episode occurs during the coronation celebration of Tommen Baratheon. The larger events of the book/show also happen during the game. For example, when a main character (in the book/show) is killed, or granted lands, a reference is made to that in the game. In fact, one of the game’s primary villains is placed in a position of power specifically because it happens (or happened, depending on how you view the timeline) in the main story of the book/show. So unless you are already aware of the overarcing story, this game will present some pretty significant GoT spoilers to the player.

The main characters are not the ones that you see in the pages of the book or on the screen of your TV. However, true to the form of both book and show, you will play as nearly a half-dozen different people over the course of the game. The characters you control can and do meet up with the main characters of the bigger story! The first time you meet Tyrion is a pleasant surprise; by the end of the game you will have had conversations or interactions with such luminaries as Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Margaery Tyrell, and "The Bastard of Bolton" Ramsay Snow. The original cast members of the TV show provide voice acting talent, which (assuming you’ve watched the TV show) make those characters seem even more believable.

The total game comprises of six “episodes”, each of which is about 45 minutes to an hour of gameplay. As one might expect from the gritty nature of the source material, the first episode starts out with some fairly unforgiving combat situations. Within the first five minutes of gameplay, the player is forced to perform some fairly gruesome acts, make some questionable moral decisions and basically sets the stage for the story to come. The combat consists of moving an on-screen target to the proper location using the right stick and then pressing R2 to attack. If the player takes too long to hit the target, or if they hit R2 when the crosshair is not aligned, the shot or swing misses and the player has to deal with the consequences. Sometimes this means you die, and have to restart for the prior checkpoint. Sometimes, it means you take a hit and have to get set up for the next shot. It’s always a Bad Thing ™ and should be avoided.

The graphical presentation is typical for the TellTale series of games, but is missing their trademark comic-book “inking” look. Instead the art is much softer and pleasant to look at. Unfortunately, they also added a painting-like filter to the background. While this looks great in some places, it causes a lot of distracting shimmer in many scenes where there is motion. In fact, there are several instances where the backdrop filter interacts with items in the foreground, causing some minor annoyances. Overall, by the time I reached the end of the game, I found the backdrop filtering to be mostly detrimental to the gameplay experience.

The story starts out really strong, feeling very much like something that would take place in the Game of Thrones world. All of the people you meet seem to have believable backstories, realistic goals, and understandable motivations. The point of view of the game does jump around a bit as you are introduced to the Forrester family members. My initial thought was that it actually felt like I was playing a Game of thrones episode!! Clearly the writers and consultants who worked on the storyline did an amazing job putting the player into this world and giving them realistic options. Unfortunately, the further you get into the game, the more the strings holding up the story start to show.

In all of TellTale’s games, there is a main storyline and the player’s actions “modify” that story in subtle ways. But the story always goes the way the story goes. There is never an opportunity for the player to make wholesale changes to the direction of the narrative. The real magic of the storytelling is to make the player feel like their choices are significant – that they are not making decisions “for show” – and actually DO have a real effect on the game world. Unfortunately, this game never really achieves that feeling. Even as early on as the second episode, when the game seems to be implying that the player “should” do a specific thing, or focus on a certain goal, whether or not you succeed or fail, the story advances in exactly the same manner. And since the story is not a happy one, the player might go back to an earlier game save point to try to “fix” the problem. (I should point out that I never did this, but I was really tempted on more than a couple of occasions!) The problem is that the story is immutable. If the player makes all “perfect” choices in dialog and combat and seems to be succeeding… the Bad Stuff ™ that happens in the story... it still happens. If the player makes all “wrong” choices in dialog and combat and the situation is going to hell in handbasket, the Bad Stuff ™ that happens in the story, still happens in EXACTLY the same way, at the same time, with the same results. In short, the player’s feeling of agency quickly evaporates and it’s hard to convince yourself that you're actually playing, as opposed to "watching". It fails even as mere interactive fiction, because the player’s “interaction” is essentially meaningless. The story is basically “on rails” and the player is simply an often unwilling viewer.

Unwilling because the story as a whole is not a happy one. I suppose that anyone familiar with the Game of Thrones would be mostly unsurprised by how much blood and fire and general mayhem occurs. But of the characters that the player controls, nearly all of them end up dead at some point in the story, and the ones who do survive end up powerless and/or abandoned and generally in very dire and untenable situations. At several points during the story, I kept hoping against hope that things would turn out well for the “good guys”, but, as things wound towards their inevitable conclusion, it felt like the writers got halfway through the story and then simply said, “Let’s just kill everyone – that’s what George R.R. Martin does, and people love that!” Well, they were wrong. When you’ve got an investment in a character and they die (whether expectedly or not) it is a huge mental blow. That kind of event can be used for HUGE dramatic effect. Mr. Martin knows this and while he does kill a lot of characters, he is very careful with the pacing of those deaths, and whether they die on- or off-screen. Here, the pacing is such that, as the story winds towards the end, it feels like the player is getting incessantly pummeled with Bad Stuff ™ non-stop. At least three characters die while the player is controlling them; several more are put into extremely uncomfortable situations and the player is continually forced to be complicit in their discomfort, even if they don’t want to! Remember, the story really is “on rails” and you’re going to experience the same Bad Stuff ™ regardless of what choices you make! There is literally no way to "play" the game towards a good or happy ending here.

Overall, it started out strong and had me quite excited to play through. The first three episodes show how much potential this setting had, and were a lot of fun to play. But, by the time I had reached the fifth episode I was simply waiting for the end. Supposedly, the recently announced second season of this game will leverage the choices the player made here in order to further the story. But with a completely unchangeable pre-programmed story, horrible pacing and delivery, and a story that alternates between depressing and disappointing without any positive interactions at all, I can’t recommend this game series to anyone.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 12, 2016 11:49 AM PT [+]

Well, it’s a new year. Woo!

About this time of year, a lot of people are posting their "Best (whatever) of 2105" lists. As a gaming-centric blog, I should probably be posting my "Best game of 2015. But I'm not going to. I played a LOT of games in 2015. I started the year in full-on MMO mode with Elder Scrolls Online, got all excited about GW2's Heart of Thorns expansion, hit the F2P Skyforge over the summer, and then, as the year went by, drifted further and further from the mainstream. Luckily, 2015 has some amazing indie releases, and I've was lucky enough to play play several of those (or am still paying them).

I distinctly remember saying this a year ago. I still have a PostIt™ note on the side of my monitor with a few blog entry titles that I was supposed to write up. Obviously, that didn’t happen. This year, however, I have already made a head start. So:

In 2016, I resolve:
  1. To send one blog entry per week, on Tuesday, for one full year, or 52 weeks, whichever comes first. Unless something comes up that prevents me from posting on Tuesday, in which case I will post at the next available instance.
  2. There is nothing else.
Of course, I’m going to “cheat” a bit. Because this entry (which basically says nothing) is going to count as my first one. Conveniently, today is Tuesday! So… one down, 51 more to go. Well, actually, the last one will likely be a year-end wrap up, so that’s two entries that are more-or-less written already.

Of the remaining fifty, I’ve already got two more entries sitting in my queue (from those aforementioned late-2015 indie surprises) and two more that I have already got outlines for and will likely write in the next week or so. That’ll get me through the entire first month of the year. I’ve started the next game that I’ll be writing up already, so as long as I can finish this thing in six weeks, I should stay on track! If, in the worst case, I run out of stuff to write, I can always fall back on those year old PostIt™ ideas, right?


- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 5, 2016 10:26 AM PT [+]

Even though I bought my first PS3 in 2008, I had never played any of the Uncharted games. When the Tomb Raider reboot came out in 2013, I played it on the PC (thanks to steam) and loved it!! (It was actually my favorite game that year; I actually enjoyed it more than the so-called GOTY Bioshock: Infinite.) Several of my console compatriots assured me that Uncharted would be right up my alley. So, when the Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection was released the same week as Rock Band 4 (which I was already going to buy) it seemed like a good purchase to me. Since I’ve never played the originals, I can’t (and won’t) comment on how much the visuals have (or haven’t, depending on who you ask) improved. I will, however, comment on what I played.

I should point out that I completed all of these games on the “Normal” difficulty. I played them all back-to-back, or as close as back-to-back as my time allowed. For the record, it took me a bit less than two months to complete all three games. (I have a lot of "real-life" commitments.)

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

For those (like me) that are completely unfamiliar with this series, here’s the elevator pitch: Nathan “Nate” Drake (not his real name as find out later) is a Indiana Jones style action hero who is chasing after some long lost treasure that was hidden by his “ancestor” Sir Francis Drake (of the British Royal Navy) on some island in the south Pacific. I think that when it first came out in 2007, the move from 2D platforming to a 3D “real world” gaming probably made this game look pretty impressive. Compared to today’s games though? Well, it certainly shows its age.

I’m not a very good FPS player; At best, I have horrible aim. With a controller, it sometimes seems like I'm actively trying to miss. As such, I prefer taking my time going through single player games, and taking my time lining up shots. Action sequences that force me to aim and fire while moving tend to be extremely difficult for me to complete. I am also not very good at platformers. Pixel-perfect jumps and razor sharp timing are not my forte.

I tend to prefer “floaty” FPS games because it feels more forgiving when it comes to aiming – or, in my case, “spraying and praying” – and “tight” FPS games like Call of Duty are really REALLY difficult for me. Oddly enough, the FPS elements in Uncharted didn’t feel floaty OR tight. They felt “loose” and uncontrolled. Had I been playing on a higher difficulty level, I likely would have found the various gunplay sequences very challenging. As it was, the cooked-in automatic aim-assist made the gunplay almost trivial in difficulty. Find a bad guy, line up a shot where he is going to be, zoom in and wait for him to walk into the crosshairs. Find another bad guy and repeat. There really wasn’t much challenge to it because the 2007-era enemy AI would give a bad name to “artificial stupidity”.

The puzzle elements are likewise underdeveloped. They do provide a bit of a break between the pointless FPS play, but actually calling them “puzzles” is like calling it a “puzzle” to get out of bed in the morning and correctly close (and latch) the bathroom door. The solutions to these puzzles is almost always completely obvious, well-marked, and simplistic to accomplish. For example, you might be “stuck” in a room, where the only way out is a door that requires you to flip a lever, or turn a crank. That’s a “puzzle”.

The characters felt really one-dimensional. Again, I blame the era that this game was developed. No one would ever say that the “story” of a game like Donkey Kong is going to compare to something like Halo. Much like some of the original Star Trek (TOS) episodes are almost laughably funny today, a game that was produced nearly a decade ago is going to be saddled with the prejudices and built-in expectations of that time-period's designers. And as such, the characters exist to make a VERY specific point and they don’t stray one iota from that stereotypical paradigm. A decade later, the (so-called) “snappy” dialogue feels incredibly stilted and completely artificial and forced. Maybe it was sharp and witty for its time, but that time has long passed. Even the villains are so one-dimensional that it’s almost impossible to dislike them – they feel like cardboard props set up along the map in order to advance the story.

Having said all that, the level design is pretty good. I guess that’s one thing that had already been worked out in 2007. There were several sections where the levels were fun to traverse. The jet-ski sections were a great example of where the level design complimented the gameplay to make a challenging and fun experience. You could drive to avoid obstacles (some of which could kill you) or to stop form being pushed backwards, or you could aim/shoot, but you couldn’t do both at the same time. Having to compartmentalize those two different actions, which were both required (sometimes simultaneously!) was fun and challenging.

Overall, it wasn’t a BAD game, but it really felt like going back in time to an earlier era of gameplay – one that has been improved on in almost every respect. Playing an older game like this may be worthwhile for nostalgia, but if this were released today, it certainly wouldn’t win any awards.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

My local console friends told me that I should have started with this game, and after playing the first one, I can see why. Even though it originally came out only a couple of years after the original, it’s clear that Naughty Dog (the developer) learned a lot during that time. The gameplay is much improved in some areas, but not always in ways that make it a more fun experience for me. Basically, this is a “two steps forward, and one step back” kind of improvement. The difference is, that here, forward steps were pretty large, and the backward step was much smaller.

The FPS gaming is much tighter here! Even though I still never felt like I was limited by ammo or weapon selection, gunplay was much more challenging. A huge stealth aspect was added. Instead of a bunch of small rooms with 4 or 5 enemies (as in the first game) this one has large open areas with 15 to 20 enemies. The thinking (I believe) was that the player would stealth around and kill many (or most) of them before being discovered, and then the remaining gunfight would be relatively challenging but doable. Except that I am horrible at that style of gameplay. I would typically take out one, maybe two, of the enemies before being spotted. The resulting gunfight would have me fighting literally dozens of opponents in each battle. They would spawn from all directions, making it impossible for me to use my standard “hide until you get a good shot” tactic. By the time I had lined up my shot, two or more bad guys had flanked and were shooting me in the face. I had So Many Deaths in the FPS portions of the game that it was bordering on the silly.

Having said that, when I was able to stealth past an opponent without killing them, or by taking them out silently without alerting the hordes, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. So, hey, that’s good, right? In particular I had a blast in the snowstorm fight. Even though the opponents were super-hard to take down, I was able to use the visual breaks to get away, reposition and take them down methodically. So, overall I would say that the combat was better in almost every regard. It was certainly more difficult, but if you could manage it, it never felt unfair. I just wish there wasn’t such a huge reliance on the stealth aspect – it almost seemed like the designers had just figured out how to design that kind of gameplay, and so it got (over) used EVERYWHERE!!

The puzzling aspect is also better here. It still seems to be really basic puzzles, but they have added in some platforming and time-based elements, where the puzzle involved a non-obvious jump, or couldn’t be completed until you clear the area of enemies, or after watching a specific cutscene (that had a specific trigger). The variety of maps really helped here, too. Some of the jumping puzzles really were tough to figure out – especially when you were being shot at while trying to decide where to jump, what path to take and where you could dive into cover to take a (very) short break and assess your next move – and that was a nice change too.

The characters still felt pretty one-dimensional, but they really started to develop during the game’s story. In the original game, it felt like each of the main characters were created specifically to make a point, or for a specific set piece. Here, it was more like someone said: Hey, we’ve got these people as our cast, and here’s the story, now how would they act in this situation? I got the feeling that the writers were much more “invested” than they were in the prior game. In short, the storytelling is much better, and while the characters are still kind of trite, the humor and “snappy” dialogue actually works! The jokes feel like witty comments that these people would actually make in those situations. Some stand-out lines are the bit about “last year’s model” and “You’re going to miss this ass.”

The level design was much improved as well. Even though there were a few sequences that seemed to go on and on forever (the train sequence, for example), and repeating the opening scene twice (once at the opening and then a redux later in the game) the variety of environments and the different challenges that were presented really provided a mental break. Going from desert, to cityscape, to snowy mountain, to villages, to underground tombs, each portion of the game stands out as memorable in its own regard.

Outside of a few mis-steps, this was a really fun game. It didn’t feel like an old game that had been remastered, it felt like a new game from a new developer. Not “Game of the Year” quality, but certainly fun and playable in today’s market. I can see why the series has such a following, based on this game. It really did capture the feel of playing an Indiana Jones style adventure!

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

I started this game with really high hopes. I’ve played The Last of Us and having seen firsthand the massive improvements in storytelling between Uncharted 1 and Uncharted 2, I was really ready for a great game. Instead what I got was a hot mess. Even though the various aspects of the game are much improved, I found this game to be a massive step backwards in terms of level design. So much so, that it significantly detracted from the overall experience.

The gunplay here was pretty much the same as the prior game, but the developers (rightly) backed off the over-reliance on stealth kills. There were some sections where stealthy movement and setup was needed, but once discovered it wasn’t quite the clusterf*** that the prior game was. The opponents would spawn in logical locations and spread out over time, allowing the player to develop an actual strategy for dealing with being spotted, rather than just running around and hoping they could kill everything before they took too much damage. It was challenging and entertaining, without feeling bogged down or unfair. Overall, the combat improved in each game, with this installment having the best combat of the three!

The puzzle aspects took a major step forwards and were actually quite challenging to solve, even with the in-game hints. While I was able to figure them out without resorting to spoilers or online hint guides, I’m quite certain that some people won’t be able to do so. One in particular that stands out is the “wall” puzzle in Chapter 6. (A quick internet search shows that this puzzle actually did stop a great many people from advancing.) The puzzles were both challenging to solve, but also required a non-intuitive interface to be used, so it was kind of a puzzle within-a-puzzle. Whenever I came across one of these in the game, it was a great break from the full-tilt pace of the normal gameplay. Again, seeing the progression from the simplistic “push button, open door” puzzles of the first game, to the complex multiple-element puzzles of this final installment was fantastic!

The characters and storytelling improved again here. Uncharted 2’s storytelling was head and shoulders above Uncharted 1’s, and this installment continued the trend. Characters that started out as being one-dimensional throwaways turned into complex multi-dimensional characters. When presented with a difficult moral decision, it wasn’t always clear which way they would go. The writing and storytelling moved the entire game forward and made the player want to see how things turned out. The main villains here are not cardboard cutout villains that are Pure Evil; rather, they are self-motivated, greedy bastards that want what they want and do horrible things to get it. In short, they are detestable characters and when I finally got to fight (and kill) them, I had a feeling of personal satisfaction. Overall, both the storytelling and character development improved from game to game, and the presentation of this installment was top-notch!!

Level design, on the other hand, was horrible. So, so, so, so horrible! There were endless platforming/jumping sequences that served no purpose other than to slow the player down. There were huge set-piece combat areas that were nearly impossible to complete without finding “the trick”, or getting very very lucky. Nearly half of my overall play time was spent jumping from pipe to pipe to beam to ledge on some pointless platforming, or being frustratingly killed by a hundred zillion enemies that spawned out of thin air on every side of the room and instantly ended my game if I wasn’t predictively standing in just the right place at the right time. Missing a single shot would add enough time for enemies to build up reinforcements so quickly that I would be impossibly overwhelmed. And the platforming sequences seemed to go on forever, for no apparent reason other than that they could. The pitiful attempts to combine the two (platforming while being attacked by enemies) resulted in a trivial hanging-gunfight that was super easy to defeat, but simply added additional time to the platforming sections. In fact, I spent so much time being annoyed and frustrated by the horrid level design that I came very very close to just setting down the game and never finishing more than a few times.

Uncharted 3 could have been a really fun game, but was crippled by the horrible level design. Despite having some real blockbuster elements, if this were released today, it would likely be massacred by reviewers and players alike.

The Last of Us and Uncharted 4

I know The Last of Us was not part of this package, but playing these games serially, back-to-back, made me really appreciate Naughty Dog’s triumph The Last of Us even more than I had after finishing it.

I can see where the incredibly strong storytelling comes from. Watching it develop from simplistic characterizations into multi-dimensional characters that made you care about what happened to them was amazing, and The Last of Us moved that even further into a storyline that really tugs at the soft squishy heart of even the most hardened gamer! I actually have one friend who stopped playing The Last of Us after the first 15 minutes because it was “too hard” from an emotional standpoint. Now that I’ve gotten to know the cast and characters of the Uncharted series, I’m actually really looking forward to seeing them again next spring!

The addictive mix of stealthy gameplay combined with in-your-face gunplay really works well, once the balance is found. And honestly, now that I’ve played the Uncharted series, I have to say that the stealth mechanics in The Last of Us were probably overly used. The artificial limitation on ammunition and supplies, with strong, almost un-killable opponents, really served to over-emphasize the stealth game a bit too much. Bringing this gameplay back into the Uncharted world (and lessening the artificial dependence on stealth that was so strictly enforced in The Last of Us) is probably going to be a winning combination!

Level design needs to support the gameplay, and the level design went from mediocre, to great, to awful, and then finally back to mediocre (in The Last of Us). Assuming that Naughty Dog can get this dialed in, Uncharted 4 could be a lot of fun to play! (I just hope it doesn’t fall apart like Uncharted 3 did!)

Overall, I’m glad I played through these three games. It was fascinating seeing the designers improve from game to game, practically in front of my eyes. The biggest takeaway from this experience was not learning about Uncharted, but rather making me incredibly excited to see what the next game will look (and play) like! After completing the series, I’m really looking forward to playing Uncharted 4 next year!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, December 15, 2015 10:03 AM PT [+]

I'm THE WORST at FPS games. Like, so bad that a "real" FPS player watching me play would probably think I'm purposely trying to be bad, as some sad kind of joke. Unfortunately, that's not the case, I simply AM THAT bad. For reference, after a solid three months of playing and practicing, I was able to get my K/D in Destiny "up" to 0.35 (It started at 0.2). I would be ecstatic if I ended a PvP match with a K/D over 0.4! So, yeah, I'm really bad at these kinds of games.

Having said that: I did not find the gameplay of this beta enjoyable at all.

It might seem like sour grapes, a la "I suck at this game, so it's a stupid game". But really, I'm okay with being an awful player. I've accepted it. That's not really the issue here. The issue is that the game isn't fun to LOSE.

I played for around five hours. That's how long it took me to crawl my way to level 5 (I told you I'm bad at these games!) and there were a few times where I was effective and got a kill or two. Those instances did feel pretty good, so I imagine that someone who has a K/D north of 1.0 is probably having more fun than they are having not-fun. And while that's okay for a niche game that is going to cater exclusively to a hardcore audience, a game that is arguably aimed at a more general population has to be fun for everyone. EVERY fight is going to have a winner and a loser. If it isn't fun to lose the fight, then eventually the losers are going to stop playing. Some might say that is a good thing; it will make the game more challenging for those that remain. But these kinds of games live and die on the size of their playerbase. Every time another person leaves the player pool, the game edges one step closer to being "dead".

I would say that 75% to 90% of my time spent playing this game was doing a not-fun thing: running across the map. Either I was running from a spawnpoint towards a fight, or I was wandering around the map looking for where a fight might be. I would either find a fight (usually not) and then would be nearly instantaneously killed (usually by an opponent I didn't see). If I did find a fight, it would last a second or two at most, and (because I'm terrible) I would usually lose horribly. And, repeat. Over, and over, and over. It didn't feel like it was a difficult challenge; it felt like a brick wall. It wasn't fun.

The matchmaking (if there was any enabled for this beta) doesn't appear to take levels, equipment, or any kind of player "skill" into account. There seems to be a "stats" page (not enabled for the beta) so I can only assume that they are tracking, or at least plan on tracking, player stats in terms of in-game performance. Players like me, with rock-bottom skills and a K/D that is 0.1 (or lower!) should be filtered into our own matches. As a brand new out-of-the box player, I shouldn't be saddled with a double-handicap of not only being horrible bad at the game but also fighting people with way more firepower, equipment, and mobility. That's not how you attract and retain players! It isn't fun (for anyone!) to be in a lopsided match. I actually was in one match last night where the top player on the other team had over 50 kills and only a handful of deaths. Clearly that guy was overpowered for the skill of everyone else in the match. I was in at least three matches where I had 12 to 15 deaths and ZERO kills. Neither of those
should ever happen in a game with a healthy player population. (I assume a healthy populations because I could toggle between different matches on the lobby page and saw there were many matches to join.)

The effective range on all the guns seems to be REALLY FAR. For someone like me with piss-poor aim and not-so-great vision, I find that I'm taking hits from an opponent that is almost impossibly small (for me). Occasionally, I wouldn't be able to spot them, even in the post death "this is who killed you" display. Clearly this is a personal failing on my part. I mean, if they can reliably hit me, then it must be possible. Just not for me.

The map design felt far too open, seemingly catering to people (not me, obviously) who can line up long-range quick-draw firing opportunities. Even the Drop Zone map, which some people are saying has really limited sight lines, felt far to open for my taste. I felt like I was getting sniped from people that were well outside of my usable range far far too often. Either they were perched on top of a peak and had sight lines that covered a huge portion of the map, or they were shooting me from above as they jet-packed around the map like a heavily armed rabbit on steroids. I mean, there is a melee button, right? I'm not sure why, since 99% of the combat in this game is medium- to super-long-range.

The time-to-kill (TTK) felt incredibly low to me. I'm not sure if it is due to my incompetence, but each firefight seemed to be over in less than a second or two. Often times, I would be dead before I even completely registered that I was even getting shot. Or if I did notice it, I'd turn to return fire and be dead before I could line up a shot. Yes, I'm not taking the time to zoom, I'm "hip firing". I also have crappy aim and bad vision, so I need a solid 1/2 second to even line up a shot. And with a superfast TTK, by then I'm already dead.

The powerups on the map felt arbitrary and most didn't seem to be particularly useful. The first time I picked one up, I was like "Oh Ho! This is going to be FUN!" And then I deployed it and found that it had a super limited range, or could only look in one direction, or only shot once, or magically vanished before I even was able figure out the controls. Having some sort of tutorial for each powerup might help with this issue, but "learn as you play" for powerups that have such severe drawbacks isn't particularly enjoyable for a casual player.

The "card" system felt artificial and limiting. No grenades until I reach level 2? Fine, but you better let me grind levels in single-player before throwing me into a fight with people who have tons of equipment that I have zero counters for. (This might be in the full game, but was certainly not part of the beta.) Level 5 for a jetpack? Why am I fighting in matches where everyone else already has this stuff?!? Even once I had unlocked most of the available cards, the vast majority didn't feel like they changed the gameplay at all. (Obvious exception to this is the jetpack, which mostly introduced a new way for me to be a target, and thus eliminated, much sooner.)

Having said all that, the visuals and music are AMAZING and AWESOME and the "feel" of being in an actual Star Wars event are spot on! Despite all of the gameplay "problems" I had, I never once felt like I was playing a game with Star Wars "pasted on". It ALWAYS felt very immersive and very much Star Wars-ey! Near the end of my 5-hour stint I was actually thinking that this is what it must feel like to be a Stormtrooper - you know... the guys that fire a zillion shots but never actually manage to hit anything before getting blasted into oblivion by a shot or two from one of the heroes - but in a Groundhog Day-esque loop.

I'm not a FPS player, so I can only compare this to the last FPS I played which was (year one) Destiny. I was equally horrible at Destiny, but in that game I actually had fun losing. Even though I was still getting killed often (and sometimes quickly), I almost always knew what I had done wrong, why it had killed me and I kinda-sorta knew what I needed to do to improve. In SW:B death was too fast, too often, and too mysterious. The only remedy that I could come up with in almost all cases was "get better" (i.e. L2P, Stupid!) which is a non-solution. If a game is fun out-of-the-box, I'll get better at it because I'm having fun playing it. Getting better at a game for the sake of being able to have fun in the future, isn't a game I want to play. I already have a job. I don't want to "work" in my free time.

I *REALLY* wanted to like this game. You have no idea how excited I was to be able to try it out. But, unfortunately the only thing that being able to play this has done is to completely cross this off my "games to buy" list. The really tragic part is that I think all of the issues I had with the game are resolvable. But I suspect that they would require some major gameplay tuning and development time, and probably aren't part of the "Battlefront" design paradigm. Lowering the damage done by ALL weapons across the board by 35%, cutting effective ranges in half (or introducing significant damage drop-off at longer ranges), and reworking the entire powerup system... while that would make the game "better" (in my opinion), but at that point it might not be a "Battlefront" game. Sadly, as great as it looks and feels, Star Wars: Battlefront (at least in the current beta incarnation) simply isn't fun.

- Stupid @ Friday, October 9, 2015 1:30 PM PT [+]

I actually wrote this blog post back in February, but somehow managed to not post it. We were coming out of the holidays, and I was trying to keep the momentum of our Descent campaign going. As a result, we met again in January and completed the first encounter of Act II. Sadly, the momentum did not keep going and we did not meet again until July! But here is what happened in January!!!

As a reference, we’re playing the Labyrinth of Ruin Campaign as a role-playing game. The party is not allowed to look at the quest book, and each encounter is a bit of a mystery to them at first. I am playing as the Overlord and using the Basic II deck and filling with Punisher cards.)

The Setup

As was recalled in my last report, our party of Heroes was now under the guidance of Lord Merrick Farrow, and had been instructed to “deal with” the Goblin King Splig. The directions given were based on the symbols on the campaign map, and I had the party figure out where to go based on that. This was a fun little mini-game for me. The initial travel step is always a great opportunity for some random expository events to occur, and with the party telling me which way they were going I thought it would be fun to let them know if/when they were off the path with these events. The first travel event was perfect for this and it allowed for a short 10-minute role-playing event which resulted in Leoric taking two wounds, and the rest of the party getting nothing except a confirmation that they were on the right path. Sadly, the party quickly realized where they were going and never strayed from the correct path. To make matters worse, remainder of the travel events came up with “no event”. This was really disappointing since the path for this encounter was a minimum of four-steps.

Session One

I had selected this encounter as the first Act II quest because I really want to have a good shot at winning this. A Hero win here would remove Splig from the Finale and I wanted to keep him with us to the end. Since I was really only concerned about the end of this encounter, I was not really all-in on the first session. I described the setting and let the Heroes do their thing. As usual, they bumbled around aimlessly, but managed to completely block Splig’s path and continually stunned or immobilized him. By the end of the encounter, Splig only managed to move a single space.

(For reference, postings on boardgamegeek suggest that this encounter is all-but-unwinnable by the Heroes if the Overlord plays dirty. As it turned out, I didn’t ever get a chance to set this up since the Heroes basically blocked the chokepoint early and never moved. They’ve learned that Hero blocking works very well in an un-timed encounter and if they can block the timing event, then they are almost guaranteed a win. And they did just that!)

In the next-to-final turn, I played my trump card “Blood Bargaining”. I knew I was going to lose this session since Splig had barely moved out of the gate and the open group (which was the win condition for the heroes) was spread out and nearly dead. I picked my players and monsters and let the turn play out. The Heroes did exactly as I expected and literally killed each other with their actions. That single card resulted in the deaths of three Heroes in one round! Unfortunately, it was also the end of the session as they dropped the open group in that same attack. I took my three additional cards (for dropping the heroes) and Splig slipped off into the darkness.

Session Two

Before we started this session, I made a few “house rules” for role-playing’s sake. If a hero was “knocked out” they would slide to the bottom of the map; if it were more than 5 spaces they would break both of their legs, their pelvis and a few ribs, and basically be out of the encounter. (Similar to the Sudden Death rule in the Finale, although it did not work out that way at all!) I also “house ruled” that fatigue movement was ½ normal speed to prevent the 8 fatigue characters from moving 11 spaces every-other-turn. I did start Splig in the less-advantageous location, and I made a house rule that any Web ability that the Cave Spiders used would create a semi-permanent web feature on the map that would help the Heroes move down the slope quickly. So, it was not completely skewed in my favor!

At this point I think it is worth re-mentioning that the Heroes did not know the winning condition for this encounter. To help them I gave Leoric the hint “When violence fails, turn to logic”. I had also prepared a short speech for Splig when the heroes attacked him directly that was a lot more explicit that presented them with an open-ended question, hopefully to spur them into convincing him to give up his evil ways. At least that was my plan.

What actually ended up happening was that the heroes used the summoned stones as backstops and basically “skied” down the incline, with a purposeful slide never moving more than 2 or 3 spaces, which was easily absorbed by their armor. Additionally, the “Quaking Word” ability was used to stun Splig for three turns, changing what could have been a 8-round session into a 11-round session. As it transpired, the tag team of Trenloe and Leoric were able to move downslope quickly, and the only reason they stopped advancing so fast was due to a second fantastic OL card play that killed Trenloe in a single round.

Meanwhile, Kirga and Augurra (and the ally Raythen) stayed near the entrance to heal up before moving in. But since this was a “race” encounter, the three rounds they spent healing up turned out to be their downfall.

After stopping Trenloe and Leoric, and with the rest of the group lollygagging about, Splig moved off the map before a single hero ever got adjacent to him. My prepared speech and hints about “talking about this” never even got used.


We ended the session when Splig moved off the map. We did not do the town step, and did not go shopping or train the Heroes. I wanted to cut this one short because I had not considered how LMF would react to their success/failure and which direction he would push them afterwards. Obviously, with a win, he would push them towards a more difficult encounter with higher-stakes; with a loss, he might consider the party to be less worthy and have them spend the next encounter darning socks or picking flowers or something innocuous.

Overall, it was a fun encounter. The biggest issue was that one of the party members spent the whole final hour browsing boardgamegeek looking up this encounter and pointing out how every rule change I had made was wrong, how the party didn’t know what they were doing and was doomed, and how this encounter was completely unfair to the group and was impossible to win no matter what. I certainly did stack the deck on the second half, but despite that, the party came within one space of Splig and the most powerful character was literally only one turn from taking control of him.

Since the was written so long ago, I can share that the next encounter made sense for the current story conditions! I’m looking forward to advancing this story to the conclusion!

- Stupid @ Tuesday, August 4, 2015 5:10 PM PT [+]

When The Last of Us was released on the PS3, I played it. I’m not very good at first-person games, and while most gamers barreled right through the story in about 20 to 25 hours, it took me well over 40 hours to finish that content. And that’s only the time logged in successful play. Every time that I died in combat, or failed at some skill check, or was discovered from stealth… all of those events didn’t even count towards that completion time!

(To those who can’t fathom how it could have taken me so long to play the game: the reason I advanced so slowly is because I would take several minutes to evaluate each and every combat situation; and I would look at each puzzle in the game form pretty much every angle before attempting it. I spent a lot of time crouched behind cover and watched the NPC enemies wander around until I learned their patterns and routes and then would try – often unsuccessfully – to get past them without depleting my minimal ammo. Because, in addition to being “not very good” at first-person games, my aim with a controller is worse than abysmal! Give me a pistol with a full clip and it’s even odds that I’ll even hit a single enemy, much less kill them. So I ended up having to rely pretty much entirely on stealth kills for the entire game. That takes time to set up and execute with any chance of success.)

After the game wound down to its predictable but extremely entertaining conclusion, I felt like I had just played through a fantastic story. One that I wanted to share with my friends. Unfortunately, most of them either did not own a PS3 or were unwilling to play through “just another zombie game”. When the game was re-released on the PS4, it got a little more traction and won another batch of Game of the Year awards, but it still represents a solid 20+ hours of gameplay for most people.

Enter Grant Voegtle. This guy played through the entire game and video captured it. Several times. Sometimes dozens of times for some specific sequences. He took all of that recorded captured video and edited the entire game into a 7-part mini-series. The story survives mostly intact (with one notable exception that I’ll talk about in a bit) and despite being “filmed” from what is essentially a massive Let’s Play video series, the acting, blocking and layout of the action is pretty darn good!

Unfortunately, it isn’t perfect, and it does show it’s gameplay roots occasionally. This was most apparent to me in the first 15 minutes of the game. This first part of the game itself is mostly a playable movie anyway, and the translation to an actual video experience is a bit clunky. But once the plot gets past the main titles, the action gets a lot smoother and the blocking is a lot cleaner. There are still the odd moments where the characters are having a conversation about various background situations while running down a corridor, but those are mostly ignorable.

One nice thing about this video series is that some of the protracted fight sequences are trimmed down to only a few opponents. There were some sequences, that , when watching, I felt dread due to my memories of trying (and failing) to get through that portion of the game for hours (and sometimes days) of playtime. And then the video playthrough would breeze right through it, clearly showing it as a “difficult” sequence, but successfully navigating it in only a minute or two.

Despite heavy editing – the story is still 20 hours and is squeezed into around 7 hours of video – the continuity is pretty much preserved. The only thing that leapt out to me was that one particular (and VERY IMPORTANT) conversation between the main characters was omitted from the video. Specifically, it is during a long-ish sequence where Joel must dive underwater to open a gate and allow Ellie to pass a barrier. Because (as is revealed in the game) Ellie can’t swim. This tidbit of information is used for huge dramatic effect in the game’s penultimate platforming sequence. When that portion of the story is shown in the video, it lacks the emotional punch because you aren’t already primed to see Ellie drown if she falls in the rushing waters. (Spoiler for those who haven’t played the game: she doesn’t drown.)

Despite those minor niggling bits, the video captures the essence of the game’s story extremely well. So well, in fact, that I would caution anyone that has even the slightest inclination to ever play the game to not watch these videos! While the experience is not quite the same as playing the game, the emotional impact of many of the sequences is still there and will definitely detract from the experience of actually playing the game. Conversely, for the person who has no intention of ever playing, or simply does not own a PS3 or PS4 (and has no plans on ever getting one) should watch this as soon as possible. I would definitely NOT wait until the rumored Last of Us movie is released (which could be years from now) as there is no way that the story portrayed in the game could possibly be trimmed down to a 120 (or even 180) minute film. Entire plot development chapters would have to be cut just to get the basic story into that short of a timeframe. Alternately, they could rush through the entire story, which will likely end up as an undecipherable mess. (Jupiter Ascending, I’m looking at you.…)

Weighing in at under 8 hours total, this video mini-series really captures the essence of the game, without the time and mental effort required to play through it. Highly recommended.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, July 21, 2015 2:48 PM PT [+]

I had first heard of Valiant Hearts: The Great War in a reddit post about upcoming indie games. (I tend to troll a lot of these kind of places; there are a lot of really great games out there that aren’t advertised in the mainstream!) After watching the trailer on YouTube, I was tempted to buy it, but my finances have not been in great shape for the last couple of years and I didn’t want to waste money. Sure it’s only $15, and I could easily spare that. But $15 here, and $15 there, and pretty soon it’s $500 spent, and that’s a lot of money. In any case, I thought it looked really interesting, but never really bit. And then a few months ago it was “free” on PlayStation Plus.

The game is a kind of historical story-based action/puzzle game. The emphasis is on the puzzle aspects of the game, but there are a few action sequences that are pretty difficult. The puzzles are generally of the “get the correct item to the proper location” type, where the player searches the game environment for a “thing” that they will take to a place to “use” it to solve a puzzle. For the achievement hunter type gamer, there are also collections of small semi-hidden items that, upon completing the collection, give a small reward. The puzzles are generally straightforward – not like puzzles where you will find a thing that you need to carry around for hours before you find the otherwise unsolvable puzzle three levels later, and woe to you if you didn’t hold on to it! All of the puzzles can be solved by a reasonably attentive player that is cognizant of the game graphics. Some of the puzzles are fairly complex requiring the player to find and use several different items in the correct order, but I completed the entire game without once feeling the need to look online for a solution to any of the puzzles (even if a couple of them took me a pretty long time to figure out).

The action sequences are few and far between and only of moderate difficulty. Most involve timing or dodging at the correct time, and the things to miss or avoid are well telegraphed. Overall, the difficulty is not very high.

The real draw of the game is the historical story aspect of it. Much like the indie game Brothers (which I’ve posted about in the past), the story is the real draw. The game focuses on four different people as they try to make their way through “The Great War” i.e. World War I. The story begins by introducing us to Karl, a young German man who is living in eastern France, married to a woman named Marie who is pregnant with their first child. As the story (and the war) begins, Karl is forced back to Germany and is drafted into the German army. Meanwhile, Karl’s father-in-law (his wife’s father, Emile) is drafted into the French army. As you play through the game, you also get to meet Anna, a young Belgian woman who becomes a battlefield nurse, Freddie, a shirtless American soldier, and Walt, trained German war-dog.

The story is punctuated by interspersed pop-up historical info-bits. These little bits of real-life wartime information feature descriptions of the people, places and actions that took place during the actual events portrayed in the game. They are accompanied by sometimes graphic historical photos. There is no gore or gratuitous violence, but there are images that could be pretty disturbing to some players. But, even though the subject matter is a major wartime conflict, death and destruction in the game are shown in a very cartoonish and digestible form.

As the story winds towards it’s inevitable conclusion, there are few surprises and with the fairly easy puzzles and gameplay, most gamers should be able to make it through the game. It is currently available on PS4, PS3, XBone and PC. You could do a lot worse for $15.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 16, 2015 9:45 PM PT [+]

I don’t normally watch “reality” TV. Like all fiction, those kinds of shows require a willing suspension of disbelief. If you’re not willing, the “magic” of the production doesn’t work, and it becomes pretty easy to see how hackneyed, fake and completely divorced from actual reality they actually are. For every dramatic moment captured, there is an entire camera crew involved. No one is ever “trapped” in a well, room, or jail. Every solitary experience shown involved having, at the very least, a cameraman, a lighting guy and a sound guy right there next to the actor. And while it makes for an interesting story to have little mini-interviews with the people involved, where they explain their thoughts and feelings, real life doesn’t work that way. In order to capture those moments, the action is stopped every few minutes, and the contestants are bustled off-set to give their little interviews.

Having said all that, I have watched “reality” TV in the past and found it quite entertaining. The very first season of the Survivor show hooked me in. I would watch the shows while running on a treadmill in my apartment complex’s health club. At first it was simple entertainment. After a few weeks, I started to get a feel for the different personalities of the contestants. When it came down to the final episode, I was at a remote campsite and I crowded into a packed community center with 100 other people to watch the last episode on a tiny 19-inch TV set. I remember being so completely caught up in the events at the time that I was willing to overlook the obvious fake storytelling and completely manufactured drama.

This last weekend, I was introduced to a TV show that originally aired on ABC, and is currently available on NetFlix. I have to admit that watching the first three minutes of the show hooked me in. The Quest is a “reality” show that revolves around a fantasy-based storyline that directly affects and influences the challenges and competitions of each episode. That sounds amazing!

The show almost lost me about mid-way through the first episode, when they started telling me the backstory of the different people’s real lives. I’m sure they are all wonderful people, but I wanted to see a fantasy-based story, not hear about how some lady from Chicago thinks that the dude from Joliet might end being an ally… Once they got past the boring introduction, and into the actual storyline and challenges, the show really took off.

The main premise of the storyline is that these twelve regular people are whisked off to a fantasy-based realm. They are the twelve “paladins” and each of them is given a piece of a magical weapon called the Sunspear. One of them is the One True Hero. Which one will be determined by a series of challenges, some of which are really cool, others which seem punishingly difficult.

The first challenge breaks the twelve contestants into four teams of three people each. Each team is given a “scorpion” (basically a very large floor-mounted crossbow) that is installed behind a 10-foot wall of dirt and straw. The object of the challenge is to shoot as many targets as possible located on the opposite side of the wall. One person on each team climbs a tall tower. They are the “eyes” of the team. One person aims and fires the scorpion. They are the “fist” of the team. The final player runs to the storage unit and brings bolts back to be fired. They are the “feet” of the team. This seems like it would be challenging enough, but to spice it up, the entire group is pummeled with steam powered mud-flinging cannons while they fire as many bolts as possible in a pretty short time frame. Only direct hits are counted, so blindly firing is pointless. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch, and even though you don’t really know any of the players (yet). It’s impossible not to grin every time the camera catches a bolt skewering one target dummy, or bouncing off another target, or missing entirely and hitting the ground, all while the cannons go Fa-WHOOSH! and hot mud comes raining down.

Of course, like all “reality” shows, there is elimination. The way it works here, is the players or team that perform the poorest are singled out for a second challenge, called the “Fates’ Challenge.” In the first episode, the Fates’ Challenge is an archery duel between the three players on the team that lost the scorpion challenge. Each of them is assigned a colored dummy. They then have a few minutes to shoot as many arrows as possible into their opponents dummies. The dummy with the least amount of arrows determines the “winner”. And to spice it up, the dummies are on a rotating platform so they are a constantly moving target.

The winner of the Fates’ Challenge is granted immunity and gets to stay in the game. The remaining players (including the winner of that challenge) then vote on who they would like to remain in the game. This process really adds to the drama of the show because, unlike other “reality” shows, the voting is 100% public. Not only do the players who are potentially leaving see who votes which way, but all of the other players do as well. (And, of course that gets factored into their future votes!)

Each episode follows this same formula: a daytime challenge where all remaining players compete, followed by a nighttime challenge where the losers of that day’s event do their best to not be “banished” from the show.

The daytime challenges are fun to watch and even more fun to imagine taking part in, or even getting trained for! There is a horsemanship battle, where the players must ride through a route, fire arrows, throw a spear, hit a target with a lance, and finally smash a skull with a hammer, all while on horseback. There is a sword-and-shield fight that takes place on planks, where the object is to knock the opponent off balance while not falling yourself. There is a mini-siege simulation, where teams of four barricade a door, and then use an actual battering ram to bash down the opponent’s barricade. These medieval-style challenges are fun to watch, even if you don’t care about the players.

The nighttime Fates’ Challenges are equally period-appropriate, but they aren’t so fun to imagine taking part in. Working with red-hot metal and hammering it to a spinning wooden wheel while wearing a thick leather apron; playing baseball with a sword, where every “strike” counts against you; running an obstacle course while locked in a steel cage… these don’t sound like fun things to do. Of course, these are the parts of the show where the different players’ character start to really show. You come to realize who is “just playing” and who is really a good, decent human being.

The voting sequence is overly dramatized – it is still “reality” TV, and that kind of drama is what keeps most people watching – but it does serve to even further reinforce the different personalities of the players. By the time you reach the third episode, you’ll most likely have seen enough of these folks to pick a favorite. Or at the very least, you’ll know who you want to see “banished” when it comes down to the final challenge of the day.

The Quest is no The Lord of the Rings, but it really is a fresh fusion of “Reality” TV and a fantasy-based storyline. You certainly could do a lot worse for 9-hours of mindless entertainment.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 2, 2015 11:17 AM PT [+]

In the first commercial video games invented – the classic Space Invaders and Asteriods and even the venerable William’s Defender and Pac Man – every game ended in a loss for the player. There was literally no way to win these games. The game would just continue to ramp up in difficulty until the player lost. (There were some exceptions, where the game wasn’t coded beyond a certain difficulty and those players who devoted hours and hours to playing would “win” the game by more-or-less “breaking” it. But that doesn’t really count.) These games were coin-operated and you had to pay 25 cents to play. By making every game a losing game, it not only ensured that there was a constant flow of coins into the hopper, but it meant that the only real measure of “skill” was being able to survive as long as possible. On the other hand, it meant that unless a game was amazingly fun, no one was going to play it.

Race the Sun is a return to those classic arcade roots, and it is a ton of fun!

The basic gameplay is thus: you control a solar-powered glider racing along the ground. The sun is setting and you are trying to keep up while avoiding collisions with buildings, trees, boulders and mountains. Traveling in shadowed areas will cause you to slow down, while staying in the sunlight will keep you running at full speed. The controls are limited to steering with the left stick and one action button.

The graphical presentation of the game is, to put it in the most positive terms possible, extremely functional. While the game is rendered in lovely 1080p and runs at an incredibly high frame rate, the game world is limited to three “colors” white, black and grey. The objects in the world are not texture-mapped, not even smoothly gourad-shaded. Instead, they are blocky polygonal objects with only basic black/white/grey faces. This might seem boring to a gamer accustomed to a visually noisy FPS game, but it actually allows the player to focus on the task at hand. And you’re going to need all the focus you can muster. Whether you are a 5-year old boy who barely knows which end of the controller to use, or you are a 28-year old woman with perfect vision and lightning fast reflexes, this game will be challenging.

The pacing of the game is nearly perfect. The first time you play, you start in Region 1, with only steering control. As race along, the sun will slowly and continually outpace you. You probably didn’t notice it when you started, but there are three “challenges” that you can complete to level up your glider. There are glowing blue “tris” (they look like small glowing blue tetrahedrons inside a glowing blue bubble) scattered around and you’ll undoubtedly run over these expecting a bonus of some kind – they look like bonuses! – and when you do, you’ll be rewarded with a pleasant “ding!” sound. When you lose (and you will, either by hitting something, or when the sun falls below the horizon) you’ll “level up” and get some kind of a reward. The first few levels will give you game hints: the yellow glowy things make you go REAL FAST for a short time, moving the sun further into the sky; collecting five of the blue glowy things will increase your score multiplier by one; and as you level up a bit more, you’ll gain access to the green glowy things which give your glider a short “jump” ability that will let you avoid some terrain, and the purple glowy things that give you a one-time game-continue. There are also the wispy portals that warp you to the end of the current region and the gates that whisk you to an alternate level.

Each of these things unlock at various levels, and you’ll never see a powerup in the game until the game tells you what it is. This results in a nice steady feeling of progression. This is a really neat way to advance the game as the difficulty is more-or-less “locked”. You always start each game in the relatively easy Region 1. Each successive Region becomes increasingly difficult with the stationary rocks and buildings giving way to rolling block, moving vehicles and platforms that appear and disappear in front of you. Personally, I never made it past Region 4, and I’m glad for it. Even that level was nerve-wrackingly difficult for me. For players who have better vision and reflexes than me, each region only takes around two minutes to complete, so you will find your level fairly quickly.

For the “hardcore” player, one of the thing that unlocks fairly early on is the Apocalypse mode. This takes the sedate and well balanced gameplay and turns the difficulty up about six notches. Instead of having an initial region that is an exercise in slow dodging and route planning, it changes the game into a fast-twitch reaction/memory based game. Missiles and bombs drop onto the landscape and flying through one of the blasts will leave you blind for a few seconds. The game world is full of moving obstacles, the pace is MUCH faster, and the normally monochrome world is tinted a dusky redish orange.

Unlike the old arcade games I refer to in the first paragraph, Race the Sun keeps things fresh by not allowing you to memorize maps or patterns. Every day at a specific time, the map changes. This is really nice because each game only last a few minutes at best. After playing the first region a few times, you’ll start to mentally map out a route that gets you the bonuses you need to complete one of your three current challenges. But since it does change every day, you can’t expect to simply play it a few hours every day to learn the timing to get to the “end” of the game. First, because there is no end, and secondly because the map will be different every day.

The only drawback to this system is that if you find yourself in a position where the current challenges require you to collect a specific type of bonus – for example, at one point I was tasked with using two emergency portals in one round – and those types of bonuses are not on the map. For me, I literally could not advance. The other two challenges were to do 20 barrel rolls or to get a multiplier of 15 without dying, both of which were outside my game playing skills. (As it turned out, I was able to get the 15 multiplier after three days of trying. I never did use two portals in a single round.)

And while it is a really fun game, it is not without its flaws, one of which I’ve already mentioned. Another is that the “challenges” all vanish as soon as you hit the maximum level of 25, which only takes about 4 or 5 hours of play (less, if you are good at video games). It would have been nice to leave those available. Even if they no longer provided level-up skill increases, just as a kind of mini-game for completionists. The challenges were nice small bite-sized cookies to keep one playing, and when they vanish there is a real sense of “what now?”

Once you do cap out at max level, the game unlocks the “Labyrinth” mode. This mode changes the perspective of the game to a much higher viewpoint allowing you to see further into the distance, and changes the multiplier increasing “tris” from their normal glowing blue into white lightbulb shaped objects. The real draw to this mode is that it has an actual “end”, a real victory condition, and a quick YouTube search shows that it only takes about 5 minutes to finish this mode’s three regions. While some might view the Labyrinth as a long-term completion goal, for most people this will never happen. The difficulty curve in this mode is ridiculously steep. It still starts with the same sedate difficulty as the normal game but it ramps up super-fast.

Overall, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this game!! As of this writing it is free to Playstation Plus members on PS4, PS3 and Vita. It is also on steam and Xbox Live, as well as a stripped down free Flash-based version on Kongregate.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, May 19, 2015 10:02 AM PT [+]

In late January, we went to the inaugural PAX South show. Since we were going to be in San Antonio for a week, I thought it would be neat to start playing Ingress. That was two months ago.

Now, if you didn’t know from reading this blog, I’m a “system” guy. I like to understand how the games I’m playing WORK on the inside, and then I play them. In the last nine weeks, I‘ve learned a lot about Ingress. If you’re already an Ingress player, this is going to sound a lot like “things I wish I had known when I started playing.” I should point out that this is based entirely on things that I have learned while playing Ingress. Your personal experience may differ.

Level 1
So, you're new to Ingess? The first thing you need to know about Ingress is that it is a very deep rabbit hole. You may not realize it, but Ingress is a very social game played by dozens of people in even smaller towns, and thousands (if not millions) of people globally. There are HUGE community events that involve coordinated efforts from hundreds of people in diverse locations around the globe. If you have the desire, you could potentially be coordinating efforts with other players in Australia or New Zealand or Iceland or South Africa. If you're looking for that kind of involvement, I strongly encourage you to contact your local operators and join in the big hangouts. You’ll get way more than you need there and will be encouraged devote your entire life to the game.

I'm more of a "casual" player. I play during my lunch breaks and commute to and from work. Occasionally I will go out on a weekend day to get some sunshine and do a mission. I almost always play solo and I don’t really join in on local operations. There’s nothing wrong with this style of play, but I am purposely not taking advantage of my local social group. Mostly because I don’t have the time to devote to full-time play. Having said that, I’ve learned many local player’s handles, and actually met a few in person when we both happened to be hacking portals at the same time.

At level 1, you're not really going to be able to do much. Your biggest weapons are going to be little more than a tickle for an enemy portal, and your total defensive abilities are going to register as “non-existent”. Luckily, leveling up is fast and easy!

As a new player, the key for you is going to be to hack, hack, and hack some more!!! Go to the Ingress Intel page and find a few portals that are near your home, work or school, or along your daily commute route. Make it a point to hack these every day!! Try to hack enemy portals if you can; you get +100AP for every hack on an enemy portal. Going from level 1 to level 2 is only 100 total hacks, and going from level 1 to level 3 is only 300 hacks. If you have ten portals on your daily route, and you do nothing other than hack those portals twice a day (once on your commute to work/school and once on your way home) it will take you two weeks to earn level 3.

Always play the glyph game (if you can). When you hack a portal, do a "long-press" on the hack button by holding it down for a few seconds. This will launch a little mini memory game. Watch the symbols and re-draw them. The symbols will get more complex as you level up or try to hack higher level portals, but should be pretty easy at first. By doing this, you will be working on a badge (which you will need later), you get additional AP towards leveling up faster, and you get bonus gear. Instead of getting one or two bursters or resonators, you might get four or five of each! Starting out, it is going to feel like you never have enough gear, but if you regularly play the glyph game, by the time you hit level 6 or 7 you will be throwing away stuff because you have too much!

Level 2 to Level 3

Once you’ve mastered hacking, you’re starting to build up a small stash of gear and are itching to use it. Even as a low level player you CAN actually go on offense and “smash” enemy portals. But you’ll need to know a few things about how attacking works, and more importantly how defense works.

First of all, your targets are the RESONATORS not the actual portal! It seems simple, but if no one has told you this, then you're not being effective. Weapons have range drop off. In other words, they only do max damage in a very small radius around you and the damage drops off the further away from you the target is. To maximize your damage output, you’re going to need to move around in the real world and use your GPS to stand as close as possible to the resonators you are attacking. Low level bursters are already pretty anemic, so unless you're right on top of a resonator, it is going to be really hard to kill one.

You should pick your targets wisely at first. With low level weapons, you’re not going to be able to even scratch a portal with any kind of real defense. Each existing link on a portal will negate 5% of your (already weak) attack power and there is literally nothing you can do about that. Attacking a portal that is an "anchor", with multiple fields and links, is going to be more difficult (maybe MUCH more difficult, depending on how many links it has) than a portal with no links. Starting out, just go after portals that are sitting by themselves. Also, ALWAYS check the mods on an enemy portal before you attack. Common shields provide 30% protection, rare shields provide 40% and AXA shields provide 60%. This is in addition to however much defense the portal has due to links/fields and it all adds up!! There is a cap of 95% mitigation, and it isn’t rare for a portal to have that much defense. Two “rare” shields (which aren’t actually “rare”, they are just called that) with three links is 95% mitigation. That means that every attack you do is only 1/20 as powerful as normal. Basically, if a portal has ANY shields on it, you should probably leave it alone for now.

As a low level player, portal decay is your friend. Every day, all of the resonators on all existing portals "decay" by 15%. If the owner (or some other player) does not "recharge" them, the portal will decay to nothing in 7 days. After a few days of being ignored, the energy level on all resonators will get really low. If you happen to find one on Day Six, it will only have 10% health on all resonators and make it easy(er) to neutralize.

When you do find a target to attack, don't hoard your best XMP Bursters and Resonators!! (Do hoard Ultra Strikes, Jarvis Virii and ADAs. You will need these later.) There is a lot of tendency to think you're going to "save" higher level gear for later. Don't. Always use the highest level gear you have access to! You will get a "care package" every time you level up, and if you are hacking daily, you will usually accumulate better gear faster than you can use it. (If you do run out of gear, just ease off on attacking for a few days and go back to hacking. You’ll replenish your supply of weapons in a few days.)

Finally, use the attack bonus! It's not shown anywhere, but if you hold down the "fire" button, you will see a little animation on your screen. Release the fire button when the circle of dots are as close to the center of the screen as possible. This will give you an up to 20% attack bonus (before shield and link mitigation). This isn’t going to be a huge effect, but when you’re firing a peanut-shooter at an Abrams Tank, using a slightly larger peanut will help.

Level 4 to Level 6

Congratulations, you’re now a “mid-level” player! Up until level 4, you’ve been mostly been paying a passive game, mostly gaining AP through hacking. Starting at level 4, your best way to level changes into fielding and linking. (You could start this as early as Level 3, but it will be a rough game at first.)

There is a natural tendency to try to make a large field, thinking it is “better”. Bigger is better, right? Not in Ingress. The amount of AP you get for making a tiny 1Mu field and the AP for creating a 4M Mu field is exactly the same. So, you should focus on making small fields in clusters of local portals.

Look for a group of four portals. Look at how they are arranged and draw a triangle around the outermost portals, with one portal inside the triangle. Now draw lines from the tree corners to the center portal. That is your goal to create. This is called “layering”. Attacking and capturing a single group of four portals, then linking them together in this fashion will award a whopping 12,878AP! Plus you can get another few hundred AP for neutralizing and hacking. Using this strategy you can level up pretty quickly.

Once you find a good group of portals for linking, go capture the portals. You already know the basics of attacking, so neutralize all four portals. Once they go white, move as far away as possible from the portal before placing any resonators. Any resonators you place will be installed at the same distance that YOU are from the portal at the time you place them. If you place a resonator when you are standing on top of the portal, all of them will be clustered together in a tight bunch. That’s bad. You want them to be as spread out as possible because (as you know) weapons have fall-off. The further apart the resonators are, the harder it will be for an enemy agent to destroy your handiwork. You’re going to need to place eight resonators on each portal in order to link them. Go ahead and use the largest resonators you can. (Remember, don’t hoard gear!)

To link two portals, you need to be standing next to the portal you are linking FROM and have a Portal Key for the portal you are linking TO. Each time you hack a portal, there is an 80% chance that you will get a “key”, which is another reason why it is important to hack everything. As you level up, sometimes you will capture a portal and discover that you can create a very long blocking link or BAF (big ass field) just because you happen to have a key from somewhere far away. No matter your level, you will always be hacking!

The game will not allow you to gain more than one key for a given portal, and creating layered fields requires two or three keys for all of the portals. A common strategy to get multiple keys for a portal is called “drop-hacking”. To do this, you find the portal key for the portal you are about to hack, and you drop it on the ground. Then hack the portal (probably getting a key). Finally, pick up the key you dropped on the ground. Now you have two keys for that portal!! The drawback to this method is that it is time consuming and if you are unlucky to have another agent nearby when you do this, they can scoop up the keys off the ground before you pick them back up. In any case, once you have the keys, it’s time to start linking.

The order in which you create links is actually very important. The game will not allow a link to be placed where it creates more than two fields at one time; links cannot go “out” of a field, only “in” to a field; and links cannot cross any existing links. Without thinking about it, it is easy to create links that block yourself and cheat yourself out of precious AP.

Go back to the image you drew (five paragraphs up, if you’ve forgotten). What you want to do first is create two links from the inner portal to any two adjacent corner portals, forming a kind of “V” shape. Next, close the “V” to form a triangle. This should be a very small triangular field that is more-or-less “pointing” at the fourth portal. Next step, go to the unlinked portal and link to the FURTHEST portals. You want to be making a larger triangle that completely encloses the field you already made. The end result should look like a triangle with a darker base, due to the “layering” effect on the two triangles you just created. Finally, you are going to “cut” the field by linking the apex of the outer triangle to the apex of the inner triangle. Note that you have to link “in” to the field - the game won’t allow you to link “out” from the inner triangle to the outer triangle Even though it is effectively the same link! The direction does matter.

The end result should be four complete portal captures, six links created and four fields created. (Don’t forget to hack everything one last time before you leave!)

Level 7+
Welcome to the “Real” game. By now you’ve probably met a handful of other local players and you might be part of the local Ingress community. Great job! At this point, even as a solo player, you can make life miserable for the enemy team. (Again, just like the last section, you CAN start this earlier, but anything lower than L7 is going to have a pretty rough time.)

X7 bursters have enough firepower to take out an unshielded enemy portal in about 10 seconds, and even a heavily linked portal will go white in less than minute. The trick is to get past the shields and other mods. You do this using Ultra Strikes. If you’ve been hoarding these, should have a small cache of Ultra Strike weapons. Ultra Strikes are the best way to remove shields and other mods. The trick is that you have to get right on top of the portal, not the resonators. Don't rely on the image on the scanner, look at the GPS display on your phone. If the wedge that indicates your position is not inside the portal plume graphic, you're not close enough! Ultra Strike weapons only have an effective attack radius of about 5 feet, so you really need to be right on top of things! A level 4+ Ultra Strike has about 40% chance of killing a “common” mod on a portal each time you fire it. Most of the time you're going to see two "common" green shields. Hitting the portal with a handful of US weapons will usually kill the shields completely and allow you to burst down the resonators.

As a solo player, your best value is in field suppression. I’ve made it my goal to make sure that my home is never under an enemy field. Secondarily, I make sure my workplace office is not under an enemy field. As a solo player, even a dedicated and educated one, it is impossible to defeat an entire enemy team. There is always going to be someone who has more free time, is higher level, and has more equipment than you. Just like you had to pick your portals at low levels, you’re going to need to pick your fights at higher levels. Thus I limit my “regular” play to my home and my workplace – places that I am physically available most of the time. Having said that, occasionally I will look at Intel and pick out a major anchor for a multi-layered enemy field and go smash that.

Once you capture an anchor, you’re going to want to make sure the enemy doesn’t just come take it back and set up the nasty enemy field you just worked to take down. You do this by installing mods on friendly portals.

If you’re solo, the best bang for your buck is going to be two shields. The better the shield the harder it is to remove. Two “common” green shields are going to be little more than a speedbump for an enemy player, but it lets them know that you are likely not going to allow the field to stand. A couple of “rare” purple shields take a bit more effort to remove and two “Ultra Rare” AXA shields are going to be a bit of bother for any solo player.

If you’re working in a duo or as part of a small strike team, install two shields, one turret, and one force amp. This is the “best” (passive) defense you can install on a portal. The shields will provide protection from the incoming attacks; the force amp will double the XM-cost for attackers; and the turret will fire XM-sapping shots back at the attackers. A single attacker, even a very high level one, will find a fully fortified portal a very tough nut to crack!

Another way to support your team as a solo player is by recharging portals. You can remotely access any portal that you have a key for, and that includes refilling damaged resonators. Before I start my commute, I will almost always make it a point to scan through my cache of portal keys and recharge any friendly portals.

Keep in mind you can’t do ANYTHING in Ingress if you are moving faster then 37.5MPH. It might appear to work, but after a few seconds, whatever you did will disappear and any XM you spent will be refunded. Sometimes, the speed limit will catch you even after you’ve stopped moving. The game servers will try to “guess” how fast you’re currently travelling based on your last position when you did something and where you are now. Sometimes it guesses wrong and will not allow you to play for a minute or two. Just wait it out and the servers will unlock and you’ll be able to play soon enough.

So that’s what I’ve learned about solo play. Ingress can be a fun little diversion of a game, or it can become a part of your life. The world around you is not what it seems.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, April 7, 2015 11:36 AM PT [+]

So I watch anime. Some would say I watch a lot of anime, but I would argue that the amount of anime that I watch is less than the amount of “normal TV” that most other people watch. Anyway, one of my friends is a fan of the game streamer channel Rooster Teeth, and their anime show RWBY popped up in my Netflix queue a while back. So it was suggested that I watch this.

My first impression was not good. The animation style is very flat and colorless CGI. If you’ve seen the animation used in Knights of Sidonia, this is kind of the same. The biggest difference is that in Sidonia, the backdrops were gorgeous renders that made up for the flat characters; there was always something interesting for the eyes to look at in the background, even if the main action was shown in bland flat shapes. In RWBY, the backdrops are rendered with even LESS detail than the main characters. The stylized background characterizations seemed kind of neat initially, putting the focus squarely on the main characters and their actions. But those main characters being rendered so plainly gave the entire show a kind of boring look to it.

The voice acting is pretty abysmal as well. In most anime, the different characters are recognizable both in look and in voice. While RWBY certainly makes a good point of color-coding the main characters (and even the secondary characters have a very distinct “look” to them) all of the voice actors sound very bland. Even after watching nearly two dozen of these shows, if you closed your eyes, it would be difficult to tell which character was talking.

Those poor initial impressions weren’t helped by the fact that the introduction to the show’s world comes in fits and starts. Usually when you are watching an anime that has a not-quite-normal setting, the show spoon feeds you how the world works through exposition or exemplary distillation. For example, in FMA by the time you finish watching the second episode, you have a pretty decent understanding of the limitations of Alchemy and more-or-less how it works. Not so in RWBY. It wasn’t until I was deep into the second season that I started to understand what was actually going on, and even after sitting through nearly 4-hours of the show, there are still a lot of really basic “world view” questions that aren’t well explained. (And I’m not talking about the obvious “cliffhanger” type mysteries that the show throws at you.) I’m talking about basic stuff. Like: what does “Dust” do? How does the government work in this world? Where did the Grimms come from? How did these huge cities get built? There are a lot of hints dropped that these things are a Really Big Deal, and that there is a lot of unspoken backstory that is important, but we, as viewers, never really have any of this explained in any coherent manner. I mean there are entire aspects of the show’s obvious antagonists (the Grimms) that aren’t even talked about until nearly the end of the second season! It’s a common writing mistake for and author to assume that the reader knows as much about his setting as he does, but it almost never is true.

While it isn’t an inherent failing of the show, the way that Netflix has the show packaged (in two gigantic “chunks” around 2 hours each) makes viewing it a little confusing. The first chunk includes the first ten 12-minute episodes, minus the opening titles. You are basically watching a two-hour long smash-up of all the first season with no breaks. If you do decide that a 2-hour marathon is too much, then you are left trying to guess where the episode breaks should have been and stopping at one of those points. Personally I think this show would have been easier to watch if it had been released as individual episodes, complete with opening and closing credits bracketing each show. As it is, the first chunk doesn’t include an opening sequence at all, and you only see the closing titles once, at the very end of the twelfth episode. The start of the second chunk does include an opening title sequence (which actually isn’t bad) but then you never see it again. One of the biggest “hooks” (for me anyway) is the opening and closing credits of an anime, and that was completely missing here.

Sadly, one of the few things that this anime got “right” was in the story pacing department. That is to say, it has the standard slow build of anime. Most of the time this works fine, because the first few episodes are filled with setting and character exposition and explanation. But none of that exposition is present here; the setting and characters aren’t really well explained EVER. And the actual story not really getting involved in the show until much later, the first couple of hours are pretty bereft of anything even remotely resembling interesting content. The few fight scenes ARE fun to watch, but without any real investment in the characters or the world, it’s hard to really care about the outcome. Eventually the characters do get a proper introduction and their interplay becomes enough of a plot point to fill two or three episodes, and the viewer actually starts to care about them a little bit. But it really isn’t until the start of the second “season” that all four of the “main” characters have real backstories.

Where the show does shine, is in the fight scenes. It wasn’t until a good portion of the way into the first bundle of shows –more on this in a moment! – that the first “real” fight takes place. There is a little minor dust-up in the very first episode that serves as a kind of introduction to one of the main characters (actually THE main character), but it really doesn’t show off the magic here. During these fast-paced multi-colored effects-riddled fights, the sparse graphical look of the world suddenly makes sense. There is just so much going on during these frenetic combat scenes that the animation HAS to be plain, otherwise the viewer would be overwhelmed! I think that was the intent because the further you get into the show, the more frequent the fighting becomes. But it’s a really rocky beginning to get there.

While I was watching this show, I never really felt any compulsion to finish. There was never a sense of “I wonder what happens next?” It was more like watching a sitcom, where every episode existed in a vacuum but there really wasn’t an overarcing story that made you want to find out how it ended. There are a few cliffhanger-style mysteries that the show dumps on you near the very end of the run – the mystery huntress on the train, the little robot girl-weapon, the interplay between the “grownups” and whatever Big Deal they keep hinting at (but never explain) throughout the show – and those are fun and actually DO want me make to watch a third season. But alas, the show end after two seasons, leaving those unresolved threads… unresolved.

Overall, I can’t recommend this show. It’s not horrible, and it is far from the worst anime I’ve seen, but it is lacking in a lot of ways. If you’re trapped in a house with a TV and Netflix on a rainy Sunday afternoon, you might give it a spin. But there are a lot of better shows out there. Watch one of them instead.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, March 31, 2015 9:29 AM PT [+]

I meant to write and post this last week, but I have been sick. Here it is a week late.

It’s been very nearly exactly one year since I posted my original evaluation of Elder Scrolls Online. On March 17, 2015, the original ESO MMO has gone free-to-play, in that they no longer require a monthly subscription (but they still require that you buy the game, so technically this is a “buy-to-play” game, like Guild Wars 2 and many others in the MMO-scape). The bottom line question is now: a year after the original release, is it worth buying this game?

The short answer is an unequivocal Yes. If you read my old posting, you’ll see that there was a lot about the game that I liked. All of that is still true, and even moreso today. I was hesitant that the game was being released too soon, and they’ve certainly managed work most of the rough edges off. When I log in, I’m never bored or lack for interesting tasks. There is questing (some of which is decently written), there is crafting, there is silly, pointless achievement hunting, there are dungeons, there are things to steal, there are people to murder… in short, there is a lot going on here. A year ago, I didn't feel that ESO was worth a $15/month subscription fee. I still don't. But, since there is no longer any monthly fee, I feel completely safe in recommending this game to others.

It’s actually a pretty good game. The crafting system still works as wonderfully as it did a year ago. The in-game lore is great. I absolutely love the way the world all ties together. The individual sub-stories all relate to each other in understandable and logical ways. Even for a technically minded pedant like me, the lore just WORKS! But it’s not a great game, or even a great MMO.

It still isn’t “Skyrim Online”. Because it is a MMO, some kinds of RPG gameplay have been removed from the game. Any kind of gameplay that could negatively affect the experience of other players is not available – for example, you can’t just go around killing folks just because you feel like it. Because there are actual players behind the vast majority of the characters you meet, the game publishers have (wisely) taken that kind of gameplay out. And it’s not really an “open world”; the design of the various zones is very much level-gated. You start in Region A and as you level up, you move into Region B. If you loop back into Region A, you will find that the content there is now trivial to complete because you are grossly overpowered for it. Conversely, if you want to go to Region C, you will find that the content there is impossible to complete, because you are not high enough level yet. This lends to a bit of an “on rails” feeling of the game. A pure RPG player will probably feel very limited by the MMO changes, and the semi-directed game content.

It misses the mark on the MMO scale as well. It retains many of the “bad” gameplay issues seen in myriad WoW-clones over the last decade. For example, there is player competition for gathering nodes. It's not uncommon for you to not get kill credit for an open-world boss or quest because you did not do enough damage, or one of the other players was too-high-level to allow for loot and rewards. Coming from a social/cooperative MMO (like GW2) back into a competitive one like ESO is a bit of a shock. It’s extremely annoying when a MOB attacks you while you’re gathering, and then, before you can finish the fight, some random nobody swoops in, grabs the node, and then fleetfoots back out of there right under your nose - and there's not damned thing you can do to stop them!!

Quest completion isn’t “shared” – if you have a quest to collect 10 Rat Tails, for example, your personal count of rat tails and the count of other people around you will be tracked separately. This means that grouping up for minor quests will actually slow down your progress. And there are a lot of standard trope quests in the game. The “kill ten rats” quest is alive and well in ESO, as is the “escort the stupid NPC” quest and the “deliver this message to another NPC that is 60 seconds away” quest.

Worst of all, the “phasing” issues with the world meta-server that I talked about last year still exist and prevent people from playing together. I've tried twice to meet up with friends in-game. Both times, there have been major phasing issues where we would be in the exact same place in the world, but couldn't see or interact with each other at all. Very frustrating!!

Having said that, there have been several major improvements to the game over the past year:

The vast majority of broken quests have been fixed. I’ve been playing for about a month now and I’ve only come across two quests that were broken in a way that stopped advancement. That's a pretty significant improvement from launch – I had over two dozen “stuck” quests within the first few days of release – but it’s still a fairly high number for a game that is nearly a year past “release”. (Interestingly, the most recent patch notes include fixes for two more quests. So apparently this is still an issue!) In both cases that I observed, logging out and logging back in resolved the problem (probably by moving me to a different game world “phase” where the quest was not “stuck”).

The massive PvP area, Cyrodiil worked pretty well right out of the box, but minor tweaks have made it even better. Creating a separate non-veteran campaign specifically for characters that have not reached max-level has made the PvP system much more accessible and fun for casual players. Jumping in at Level 10 and being scaled up to be equal to other players has resolved the feeling of uselessness when fighting higher level characters. Gear and abilities are still based on level, so a low level character isn’t going to completely waltz all over everyone. In other words, a higher level character will still have some minor advantages, but it is nowhere near as egregious as it was. A good player will easily beat a sloppy one regardless of level advantage. The large-scale battles I have been involved in were mostly lag free. Obviously, different players will have different definitions of “lag free”. Compared to large scale PvP in DAoC in 2001 where the frame rate was one frame every 2 to 3 seconds, ESO’s PvP is flawlessly smooth. But there is simply going to be more video stuttering and ability lag in any online game, if you compare it to a single-player game that runs consistently at 60fps. Realistically, it’s very playable and I never felt like the lag was detrimental to my gameplay.

Overall game balance of various classes, skills and abilities is a lot closer to parity than it was a year ago. At launch, there was really only One Way to “build” your character and one (out of four) of the classes was clearly better in every regard (and one was clearly worse than the others as well). This is no longer true. In the current version, I am playing an Altmer (high-elf) Templar that wields a giant 2H sword and wears heavy armor. This choice should fail completely, because the strength of the Altmer race is in magicka levels and regeneration, Heavy Armor is all about damage mitigation and heath regeneration, and 2H Greatswords use Stamina for all of their attacks. Generally speaking, this is about as UN-optimized a character as it is possible to create. And yet... this character works extremely well as DPS/healer hybrid. Using two or three 2H abilities can almost insta-kill an equal-level opponent; the heavy armor gives him a ton of sustain and allows him to take on two or three opponents at one time without too much worry; and the high magicka allows for really great healing both in the middle of a fight, or on the periphery. I’ve played this character as both a primary damage dealer and as the primary healer in a group and it works pretty well in both roles. And that’s a UN-optimized choice!

The recent addition of the “Justice” system has really opened up completely new ways to play the game. Players can now choose to play as the same villainous thieves or murderers that they could in offline Elder Scrolls RPGs. (There is no Thieves Guild yet, sadly.) Obviously, there are some limits and sacrifices made to fit into the MMO genre. You can only steal from and kill NPC characters, not player characters and the NPC guards will not hesitate to enforce the “law” in the game, including dealing out virtual corporal punishment. Suffice it to say that activating “useless” abilities in the game can often have fatal consequences for your character! If you “accidentally” attacked that merchant, too bad for you! A drive-by heal or buff for a fellow player who is in combat with guards will get you killed. (There is talk that at some point in the future, player “Vigilante” characters can hunt down and kill characters that have been playing too far on the wrong side of the law! I can't wait!!)

On the other hand, there are still a LOT of “Quality of Life” user-interface issues that really detract from the game overall. This is probably my biggest issue with the game overall. Fans and long-time players of ESO will dismiss these concerns as unimportant or trivial and ignorable, but they are minor annoyances that continually remind the player that they should be doing something other than playing this game. They are like an itch on the bottom of your foot that you can’t reach, or the incessant dripping from a faucet in the other room. Those “little things” that continue to annoy you for hours on end and eventually sour the entire experience! There are just so many ridiculously arcane keypress/mouseclick combinations required to accomplish seemingly simple tasks!!

The minimalist heads-up-display creates a wonderful feeling of immersion and adding to gameplay. That part is well designed, and you will quickly forget that it is there at all, but the important information you need will always be visible and ready when you need it. But the overall user-interface includes much more than just the display. Sadly, whomever designed the HUD was clearly not in charge of the rest of the user-interface team.

Forming, joining, and leaving a party is needlessly complex and difficult to accomplish. Were you playing the game when a group request came in and you accidentally pressed a key that wasn’t “F” or “X” in the course of your gameplay? Too bad, the party request notification is gone and you can’t get it back. Want to transfer leadership of the group? Press “P” to open the party window, right click on the new leader’s name, select Transfer Lead on the resulting dropdown menu, then press “E” to confirm. Leaving a party is a similarly arcane sequence of clicks and keypresses, or, optionally, you can press “X” at any time with the party window open and instantly quit the party – even if you didn’t intend to.

The bank interface seems simple at the outset: press “E” to interact with a banker. But then you left click to select whether you want to access your personal player bank, your guild bank, or the guild merchant, and switching between these means completely closing the banking interface and starting over. (And listening to the NPC banker's dialog, over and over and over and over!) Want to transfer something from your guild bank to your personal bank? This takes a minimum of six mouseclicks and four keypresses.

The game allows every player to be in up to five player guilds, which is great. But the manner in which the player interacts with those guilds is so ridiculous that it’s almost silly. You use /g1 through /g5 to “talk” in guildchat, but there is no indication of which guild is /g2 and which is /g3 until you type something. Maybe your main guild is Guild D, but when you access the guild bank it always defaults to Guild A. The guild window, guild bank/merchant and guild chat are all selected separately and completely differently, in different windows and using a different sequence of keypresses and mouseclicks. This could potentially result in the player to be chatting with one guild, withdrawing items from a second guild’s bank, while having a third guild’s status window open on their screen. Possibly unintentionally!

Getting into or out of the large-scale PvP area is another part of the game that is poorly designed. Before you can enter this area of the game, you need to select a “home” Campaign. Unfortunately, the list of campaigns is hidden away behind not one, but TWO “hidden” tabs that appear to be merely decorative labels. Should the player accidentally discover that one is a tab that changes the content of the window, the second hidden tab is in a completely different area of the window, looks completely different in presentation and also does not appear to be an actual selectable tab! Having said all that, once the home campaign is set, the process has gotten better, where only a double-click on a list is required to enter.

The game does have a looking-for-group tool in the game, but it simply doesn’t work! I accidentally skipped one of the many dungeons in the game, and I’ve been looking for a group to help me fill in that accomplishment. For the past week I have been “searching” for a group using the LFG tool. Not a single group has been listed in the tool in all that time. Finally, in desperation, I put out a call for a group in the general chat channel. I had a full group within 20 minutes. Clearly there were groups forming this whole time, but not a single one showed up in the LFG tool. I’m not going to comment on how hideous the LFG tool design and how un-intuitive it is to use, because not only is it horribly designed, it is horribly implemented!!

Now some might say that I’m cherry picking some of the less usable UI elements here. This is not true. I could keep going and continue this list for quite a while, but I promised I would limit this to FIVE user-interface issues. I could easily come up with another handful of these without trying – there are just so many clunky, annoying and poorly designed UI elements in this game.

Some of the UI issues can be solved with the use of addons. Personally, I’m of two minds on addon use. On one hand, addons can improve the game experience. For example, the LootDrop addon allows you turn off the ridiculous two-keypress looting system and shows you what you’ve just picked up in an unused corner of the screen. The S’rendar addon unobtrusively displays all of your currently active buffs and debuffs onscreen (which, by default, are hidden on your character sheet, requiring a keypress to access and hiding the screen while open). There are addons that add colored borders to loot so you can quickly see what is worth keeping and what can be destroyed with minimal loss. Overall, there are around a dozen of "must have" addons like these. Combat info addons that track your performance, addons that let you know when very-long cooldown abilities are ready to use, loot info addons, minimap addons, crafting timer addons, improved grouping window addons, improved HUD layout addons, inventory management addons... why this stuff wasn't implemented into the stock user-interface indicates to me that the developers either had no idea what a good UI looked like, or they were too damn lazy to bother. Or both.

On the other hand there are addons that let you see “behind the curtain” and make the game a lot less fun. For example, there is an addon that reveals all of the “hidden” items in the game world, and actually puts markers on your map showing you exactly where to go to find them. There are addons that pop up huge on-screen warnings telling you to use a specific attack or defensive ability. These kind of addons, while they don’t not completely automate the game and remove all need for player input, certainly detract from the game experience. Why bother with actually playing a fight when all you need to do is wait for the “bong” sound and then press the proper key? Why explore when you already know that there are two skyshards and three lorebooks inside that specific house? Some UI addons can make the game so much easier to play, in so many ways, that they almost make it into a color-by-numbers exercise.

At the end of the day, the game is better. But even after a full year, the game STILL isn’t worth a $15/month subscription. Happily it doesn’t require that. It has always been worth a $40 to $60 investment (depending on where you buy it) and this new re-release has only increased the value. If you already bought the game and let your subscription lapse, you should give it a second look. If you never played it and are looking for a new MMO or RPG, you could do a lot worse. But don't plan on spending hundreds of hours playing. It’s just not that kind of game.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, March 24, 2015 9:57 AM PT [+]

Over the holidays we managed to throw a couple of gaming parties, and one of them moved our ongoing Descent campaign along.

Simply put, we’re playing the Labyrinth of Ruin Campaign as a role-playing game. The party is not allowed to look at the quest book, and each encounter is a bit of a mystery to them at first. I am playing as the Overlord and using the Basic II deck and filling with Punisher cards.)

Mission: Start!

We started this session with some narrative-heavy role-playing decisions. The group had retrieved a mysterious map from the fallen corpse of Huldyr the Dwarf, and Raythen was (supposedly) a member of the departed Huldyr’s group. Leveraging off this, I prepared a REALLY LONG text description for Raythen. The resulting two pages of text were read aloud to the players. (In this campaign, Raythen is a bit of blabbermouth and tends to ramble on quite bit.) In summary, he had deciphered the map and it led to two potential locations, either an abandoned temple of the Sun or a dwarven tomb, ripe for looting.

To play off this, I gave Leoric a full page of text that was not read aloud, but was used to start a conversation with Raythen. He confirmed some of what Raythen was saying, and added some additional tidbits regarding some less savory religious practices. He was also given a hint that the temple would be ideal to discover the secrets of the campaign. On the other side of the table, I gave Kirga some information about what kind of treasure might be “rescued” from the tomb/treasure vault, as well as quoting back some her own backstory to indicate that the temple would not be a “profitable” location. (I also took the opportunity to give her a free dig at Leoric.) For Augur Grissom, I set the stage by providing some really creepy dwarf fairy-tale stories about how tombs were bad places, and, while yes there was treasure to be had, it was not worth the effort to reclaim. Trenloe was the simplest of all. For him, he was told that temples didn’t have anything to kill and often have tricky puzzles and traps. (Our Trenloe only cares about killing things.)

This initial setup took only about 20 minutes (for the reading and dialog). The resulting discussion and debate took nearly two hours to resolve. Easiest GM-ing ever! I just sat there with my arms folded and watched the different players try to argue for their personal preferences. And since almost all of them are strong willed personalities, they really weren’t willing to make any sacrifice on their point-of-view. After a (long) while, I noticed that a couple of the players were starting to lose interest (understandably, since “nothing” was going on!) and called for a final “vote” on where they were going to go. Sitting in the Camp wasn’t getting them any richer or discovering anything - after all, this is an “adventuring” group, not a “sit around the fire and talk about things” group!!

The final decision went the way I preferred. I had deliberately set up the weighting in the “opinions” that I had started each player with to go away from my preferred selection, mostly because they had “won” the prior encounter, but they surprised me. Leoric was a strong voice (as always), but Trenloe surprised me by favoring a (supposedly boring) temple run instead of massacring monsters in a treasure vault. (Later the player confided to me that he thought it sounded more interesting.)

Overall, the roleplaying setup phase went exceptionally well!

The Encounter

The encounter started well. A few mistakes were made on both sides. I, as the GM/OverLord, completely missed the ability on my Sorcerers to let them switch range into damage and vice/versa, which made it nearly impossible for them to damage the statues. On the flip side, the players took their sweet time moving towards the “holy water” – even though I had provided a TON of hints that the water was the key to the encounter. They tried several ridiculous things (in character, but still silly) like pouring wine on the statues, drinking the wine and urinating on the statues, trying to destroy the statues….

The first statue fell quickly. After several turns, the party FINALLY made started carrying water to the closest statue and opened the entrance portal. About this time I realized I had been playing my Sorcerers incorrectly and almost instantly killed the second statue. Poor Leoric went through the portal alone (this party has a really bad habit of splitting up, something I use to my advantage nearly every session) and started a duel with Ariad. A few easy swipes at the statue closed the portal and some stalling tactics at the holy water pool meant that the party took nearly three turns to start ferrying water back to “heal” it. Geomancer Leoric was using his standard “run and hide” tactic, by using the summoned stones to completely box in Airad, doing negligible damage and more-or-less just staying out of sight. In the meanwhile, my Sorcerers walked to the third side of the temple completely unmolested and easily finished off the third statue, ending the game with an OL win.


I had a nearly full-page of text prepared for the end of this encounter. This was simplified by the fact that the story elements were the same regardless of which side “won”. After reading the story and pretty explicitly pointing the blame at the party (which is suggested but not explicitly stated in the default flavortext) I set the stage for a long march back to Pylia in near darkness.

When they got back to Pylia, I was able to wrap several prior story elements back into the game. First, Lord Merrick Farrow was now in charge of the encampment. Previously, he had been trying to get various people in the party to join up with him for “something” – my original intent was to ask one or more of the party to backstab the others, but since that never happened, Lord Farrow turned out to be perfect as a “bad guy turned good”. At least for as long as “being good” meant that he was still moving forward on his own personal goal. Kind of an enemy-of-my-enemy relationship. Secondly, since Merrick had “won” a much earlier encounter and had used the Sunstone against the party (with devastating effect) I used that power to create a kind of “safe zone” at the Pylia Camp. After all, they wouldn’t just hand over power to this guy unless there was a good reason, and the SunStone was it.

This left the party at the mercy of Lord Merrick Farrow. He used the chance to really dress them down about how stupid and shortsighted they had been, pointing out specific instances where, had the party only listened to him and done as he had asked them, this disaster might have been avoided! (It was actually quite fun, and at least one of the players was nearly giddy seeing how the plot had twisted. On the other hand, a different player who had been 100% convinced that Farrow was The Bad Guy for the entire campaign was disgusted by this turn of events.)

Breaking from my tradition of always allowing the players to choose the next encounter, I used Farrow to direct them to the next encounter by telling them that this was their “last chance” to repair some of the damage they had done, and pushed them to the “Let the Truth be Buried” encounter. (In my GM-ing backstory, LMF has been racing with Ariad to reclaim the power of Sudanya to use as part of his rituals, but she got there first. He is telling the party to remove Splig from the equation to give himself a bit more leverage for reclaiming that power. In the meantime, he’s running the Camp and will undoubtedly present some more interesting narrative options to the party as we move towards the Finale.)

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 6, 2015 2:29 PM PT [+]

As people who know me in real life know, I watch anime. Not a lot of anime, but some. This last year, I watched several shows, some with enjoyment, others with trepidation and at least a couple simply because I’m stubborn. For me, a good anime relies on three major things: Story, characters, and artwork.

Like most forms of entertainment, anime really lives and dies on its story and presentation. Unfortunately, for most western viewers, the pace of anime is really very different from Hollywood-style movies. In a Hollywood movie, the story is supposed to grab you in the first few minutes. Typically there will be some Very Important Plot Point or an action sequence within the first five minutes. In anime, usually you won’t even really know what the point of the story is until the third or fourth show, over a full hour into the story. And then character backgrounds will be introduced much later (usually as “filler” episodes about mid-way through the story). To watch an anime, you really need to be willing to sit through at least three episodes before deciding whether you like the story or not. And even then, you still might be wrong. One of the really cool things that I like about anime is that the “ending” can completely redeem a poor storyline. Unfortunately, the reverse holds true as well. A well-crafted story can completely fall to pieces in the final 22 minutes of a 48 episode anime.

Because the pacing is so different from most western entertainment, this gives the anime writers a lot of opportunity to develop the characters much better than a movie or TV show. They’ll often have complex backstories and unique quirks that you won’t find in the typical cookie-cutter trope characters. Even on an “edgy” TV show, most of the characters do things because that’s what those kind of characters do (I’m looking at YOU “The Walking Dead”!) not because they are actually interesting well-developed characters. Learning about who the players are in an anime is half the fun for me, and characters that end up doing things that I don’t expect (but are still true to the development) are the most interesting to me.

Finally, the artwork and production values of an anime will affect how much I enjoy it. It is, at the end of the day, an animated media. A poorly drawn or animated show will not hold my interest very well. For example, a lot of the CGI animated shows, even if they have strong characters and a strong storyline, tend to not really grab me. I just can’t relate to the animation style very well. On the other hand, if it is well drawn and well produced, I’ll want to keep watching it even if the story isn’t all that great (which really helps get past that initial three- or four- episode “bump” until the story really gets going.)

So, having said all of that, what did I watch this last year?

Fullmetal Alchemist
I watched Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in late 2103. It was an epic undertaking with nearly 30 hours of story (longer than most video games!) and excellently produced, drawn and voice acted. After finishing it up, I read several reviews that said that I should watch the “original” FMA since it was supposedly better. After having watch both of them, I can only think that most people are going to find whichever one they watched first to be the superior show. The original FMA, to me, was a very dark and depressing story. Some of the plot elements that evicted a very emotional impact in Brotherhood were just a blip in the road in this show, mostly because the whole story was pretty bleak in tone. When the entire theme is based on a horrible fatal mistake, having a single character die really doesn’t really hit home so hard. FMA’s ending did not feel satisfying; it was like the story just ended, and nothing came of it. The take-away (for me anyway) was “bad shit happens and there’s not much you can do about it.” Finally, I found the voice acting of a couple of the characters (notably Envy and Barrie) to be a little grating. The story was different enough, and some of the characters slotted into different roles, that it was distracting. I kept waiting for specific plot elements to be revealed, but they never were, and that made me sad. If I was forced to sit down and re-watch one of the two, I would much rather watch Brotherhood. Not that FMA is a bad show, it’s just that Brotherhood was, in my opinion, better.

Magica Madoka
After slogging through FMA, I took those same reviewer’s advice again and started in on Madoka. Supposedly, this show is a new take on the “magical girl” theme and turns it on its head. Well, as a anime fan (but not fanatic) I had no idea what that meant. And to be honest, I really didn’t like this show when I started it. When I got through the first episode, I was completely disappointed. I thought the show was pointless and stupid. But, I knew that anime sometimes takes a while to get going, so I gritted my teeth, poured myself a very large adult beverage and queued up the next episode. After the third episode, I kept going mostly because I had already invested over an hour; I slogged through the first five episodes simply because I was determined, because I was bored, and because I was drinking heavily. I remember thinking “Heck, this is only 13 shows total. Even if it never stops sucking, it’s not that big of a time investment.” And then, during episode six, something “magical” happened. Remember that thing about pacing? It isn’t until the sixth episode (out of 13 – nearly half way through the entire run!) that the plot becomes clear. That’s a LOT of setup for the casual viewer, and definitely far too long to grab a non-anime fan. On the other hand the artwork is really nice. The show uses several different animation styles to illustrate different things. It’s a bit shocking when the style changes and it really throws you for a mental loop until you figure out what is going on. But once you get it, it makes complete sense and actually adds to the final experience. The sound work adds to this stylistic design choice. The characters are fun, and since there is SO MUCH buildup in the first half-dozen episodes, by the time the actual story gets rolling, you’ve come to know them very well, which adds to the impact at the story’s climax. This anime is a classic case of the ending being a redeeming moment for a mediocre show. Given an opportunity to rewatch this in its entirety, I would do it.

Soul Eater
After Madoka I started in on Soul Eater. This show is almost the exact opposite of Madoka in nearly every respect. The story and setting is well introduced in the very first episode; even if the overarcing plotline is not really clear until much later, you know all you need to know about the setting after the first show. The first handful of episodes are pretty much devoted to introducing the main characters. This makes it feel a little scattered at first, because each new episode is seemingly completely unrelated to the rest. But once the main story gets going, you already know who all these folks are so there isn’t the typical mid-story break for character backstory. In fact, there really aren’t any “filler” episodes (with a few exceptions) like you would typically see in a long-ish anime like this (it’s 48 episodes long). The characters are really what makes this show amazing. The main villain character is probably one of the most disturbing I’ve seen in a very long while. Even the recurring side-characters, who in a typical anime would be forgettable nobodies that you hardly remember existing, are fully developed personalities. The opening sequence is a lot of fun, and the animation and music are really great. Overall, this show was a great ride! (How can you not like a show that has Death as the main Protagonist and the legendary sword Excalibur voiced by Troy Baker?) There is only one small problem… the culmination of the climactic battle is completely and utterly lame. When the end comes, the show falls back on the same old tired tropes. I ended up closing this one down with disappointment. Despite being an amazingly fun and entertaining ride, I don’t think I would sign up to see this one again.

The Legend of Korra – Book 3: Change
I took a break from watching “anime” anime, to watch this U.S. produced Nickelodeon TV show. Not that that’s a bad thing! We watched the first two seasons of Korra and mostly enjoyed them. We sat down to the third season of the show with some preconceptions and the show did not stray far from our already established expectations. Pretty much the only thing I can say about this show is that if you watched and enjoyed the prior Korra shows, you will likely enjoy this one. Having said that, I have to admit that the villain in this story arc (voiced by the amazing Henry Rollins) felt much more threatening than the prior arcs. In the first two seasons, the Big Bad was a cartoonish miscreant, dead-set on seizing control and ruling the world. In this story, the bad guy is a psychotic murderer that really doesn’t care whether he, personally, ends up in the driver’s seat. He just wants to fuck things up for everyone else. And, to me at least, that was a far more worrisome antagonist. Also, the writers did a really good job of assembling the final scenes in such a way that it actually felt unwinnable. (Spoiler alert: there is a Korra Book 4… you can figure out who actually wins.)

The Girl who Lept Through Time
This is a MOVIE not a show. It’s only 98 minutes long. It’s deep into the “Young Adult” genre, so it’s not overly complex, and the final ending is kinda “meh”. But despite all that, it’s great entertainment. The pacing and narrative move along at a good clip, never dragging or bogged down with unneeded filler, and you’re never left waiting for something to happen. There are several heartwarming moments and more than a few clever chuckles found within. The overall story is well done, and even though the end is mediocre, it really doesn’t kill the overall experience. The animation is good but not great. Overall, it’s well worth the time, and given a rainy cold weekend day, I would watch this again in a heartbeat!

Sword Art Online
One of my biggest hobbies is online gaming. SOA came up as a recommendation on Netflix so I though t I’d give it a whirl. I watched the first couple of episodes without knowing anything about it. After seeing what it had to offer, I read a few online reviews, and then showed it to my Lovely Partner (who plays along with me in most games). We ended up watching the entire run together. The first few episodes were mostly forgettable, trying to introduce online gaming to an audience who probably were not connected with that genre. Some of the explanations of standard MMO language and terms was humorous for us, since it sounded like a small child trying to teach a baby to talk. The plot didn’t always agree with how we both knew online games to work, but it was done well enough that we were willing to let the inaccuracies pass. Once it caught its stride (around episode 4 or 5), we had a lot of fun with it. And then… there is a mid-show “break” where the expected climax comes to a resolution and everything changes. Suddenly, the one major plot point that added tension and urgency to the plot was, just, gone. It’s as if the writers just ran out of ideas, even though there was a lot of places they could have gone with the framework they had put together. Instead of working with what they had created and developing the Kirito/Asuna relationship, the second half of the show introduces a brother/sister love triangle that is, well, just… ick!! Maybe that’s a-ok for Japan, but it didn’t play too well for either of us. We did finish it out and the final message was a good one, but you really have to look past a lot of plot holes, silly writing mistakes and just plain silly/unrealistic/gross choices to get through it. The animation is better than average and some of the visual particle effects rival CGI. The opening theme for the first few episodes is one of the more memorable sequences I’ve seen and it gets stuck in your head easily. I would actually watch the first 13 shows of this again, but I’d prefer to walk away with a cliffhanger ending than to re-watch the trainwreck that is the second half of this show. (Supposedly there is am SAO 2 but I’d prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist.)

Knights of Sidonia
This was announced as a Netflix exclusive so we watched this one together to encourage businesses to provide more non-traditional entertainment options. My first impression was that this was your standard sci-fi apocalypse survival war story. Everything plays into this, even the vaguely Teutonic march that plays over the main title. (I can usually tell if an anime has grabbed me if I find myself humming the opening music between sitting down to watch it, and this one has that in spades) The animation style tends to be a bit bland in look, using the CGI-style animation that had turned me off to a few other shows in the past. Having said that, after you get used to the animation style, it really isn’t as bad as some of the older CGI work. Once you get past the introduction, the story is a by-the-numbers space-opera: over the top battles, an unknown hero that saves the day, blah blah blah. But, despite being a standard sci-fi trope, it’s still a really fun ride! (Not everything has to be a super dramatic life-lesson!) In fact, my biggest disappointment with this show is that it is over too soon and there isn’t any more. At the end of the 13 episode run, I felt like I was really getting to know these people and their situation and I wanted to see how things were going to develop, to see the next big battle and how it would resolve, to see the young hero become more confident and claim his heritage…. Sadly, that’s all there is. It ends up feeling like the first book of a series that doesn’t exist. I’m impatiently awaiting more of this one and am almost certainly going to rewatch the current episodes before digging into the new stuff. (Season Two is airing in Japan in February. We’ll see when Netflix picks it up.)

Neon Genesis Evangelion
I sat down to watch NGE because I had seen that this is one of the “classic” anime shows, just like FMA or Cowboy Bebop. Unfortunately, even though I am a child of the 1980s, this show just didn’t hold up for me. I mean I could see where they were trying to be edgy (for the time) with hints of nudity and some adult themes, but overall it just felt dated. It probably didn’t help that I was watching it on a 50-inch HD TV set and the original show was only done in SD low res quality. The animation felt clunky and the frame rate was low. The voice acting in the English dubbed version I watched was just slightly less than “stab yourself in the eardrum with a fork to make it stop” annoying, and after about a dozen episodes I started actively hoping that the main character would die a horrible fiery death. The characters were completely monolithic tropes, which led to a storyline so predictable that it was almost laughable. I kept waiting for a plot twist, but there never was one. In the end, I’m glad I watched it, because it shows just how far anime has come since the mid-1990s. I kept comparing this show to Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 and, at the end of the day, I’d much rather watch that show than this one.

Welcome to the NHK
I saw that Welcome to the NHK was on a LOT of anime “must watch” lists. After slogging through this show, I have to assume that my tastes and the tastes of the average anime viewer are vastly different. This show was, to me, about as much fun as going to the local mental institution and watching the patients there wander around aimlessly. I honestly would have preferred getting a root canal over sitting through this show – it would have been over sooner and been less painful. Every single character in this show is a miserably broken person, but not in an interesting way. Broken in a depressing, sad and pitiful way. It’s like a show about a box of crippled puppies, abandoned in the arctic, trying to figure out how to not starve to death, but without the heartwarming feeling of success against insurmountable odds. I watched the entire thing, mostly because I’m stubborn. I’d seen SO MUCH about this show and how it was “almost guaranteed” to resonate with every viewer that I stuck it out to the bitter end. When I finally finished the last episode I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t see myself reflected back in these people. In fact, I go to great pains to not interact with people with those kinds of mental issues! If someone offered me a hundred dollars to watch each episode again, I’m not sure I would take that offer. was possibly the least entertaining anime I watched all year.

I don’t recall where I saw the suggestion to try watching this show, and I really wish I could. Mostly so I could avoid suggestions from that person ever again. Now, I’m a fairly intelligent guy. I have a college degree in electrical engineering and my job is to solve pretty complex technical problems on a daily basis. This show is 22 episodes long. I can honestly say I watched them all without skipping any parts. And after all that, I still am not completely sure what this show was about. There were a bunch of people, and they all did some things, and there were varying motivations in their own little world… but what it was actually about? I have no idea. I’m not even 100% sure about the setting, and how things worked in there! Most of the time I could describe an anime in a sentence or two that more or less summarizes the setting, story and plot. For this one, I can only relate EVENTS that happened because I really have no clue what the heck was going on. I knew that I was in for a bumpy ride when, after 10 episodes, I still wasn’t sure what this anime was about! Even now, having finished it, I’m don’t think I could tell you what the main protagonist’s name was. I will say that it was not uplifting and cheerful show. (Spoiler alert: Everyone dies. Everyone! That’s not a happy ending!) To make matters worse, the artwork here is not terribly appealing, with flat featureless faces on most the characters. Maybe I’m just not the target audience for this type of show. I did find the opening credit music really good though – it was probably my favorite thing about the entire thing. Do yourself a favor: skip this anime and just listen to the soundtrack. (Still better than NHK though.)

I’m cheating here a bit on this one since I have not yet finished the second season of this show. I started it when a friend was on vacation and I was cat-sitting. It was on Netflix and it kept coming up in my suggestions. I can see how this might have been a good anime - all of the seeds are there – but it’s pretty offensive in the presentation. Watching this makes me embarrassed to be watching it. At one point I wasn’t sure whether it was poking fun at itself (which would have been cute) but after getting halfway through the second season, I’ve come to the conclusion that no, it isn’t trying to be a parody of itself, it really is that shallow and offensive. The really sad part is that I like the characters, the artwork is really good (even if the subject matter is a bit… tasteless) and the story has the potential to be pretty darn interesting (assuming it goes anywhere, which it hasn’t thus far). It’s like the creators of this show took a really good idea and made it as unpalatable as possible. Mission accomplished. I’d recommend skipping this one.

Star Wars: Rebels
Some might say this is technically not “anime” but I would argue that point. This just finished its season one run on Disney XD and I’m sorry to report that I was forced to torrent this. We do get the Disney Channel here, but XD is not in our cable package, so it was not available without a several hundred dollar investment that I’m not willing to make for one 8-episode TV show. It’s a decent show, and I really liked that two of the five main characters are female. Even better, in one episode they were pretty much the only characters in the story! I don’t think it’s necessary to highlight female characters unless it makes sense, but in this case it made complete sense and it added to the overall story arc quite well (in both story and character development). My biggest issue with this show is that we already kinda know how it ends, since it takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Overall, worth watching but not as much fun or as well developed as The Clone Wars. I think it could get better if Disney decides to do a second season run, but I suspect that when the new Star Wars film comes out next year, this show will be sidelined permanently.

Wolf Children
This is another MOVIE, not a show, and it clocked in at 117 minutes. It’s a really great and heartwarming story about growing up, and the difficult choices you have to make in life. The artwork is AMAZING, probably the best animation I have seen all year (Madoka would be a close second) The melding of cell-style animation and CGI backdrops is completely seamless. The characters are strong and as they develop during the movie, it feels very fluid and real. It has parts that are funny, parts that are touching, and parts that are unexpectedly emotional. I wouldn’t recommend this one to everyone, but anyone who enjoys Miyazaki films will likely find this to be just as enjoyable. (Hint: the tagline “Love Wildly” really fits the film here.)

That’s it for my 2014 Anime Round-up. I’m planning on taking some time off for the winter break, but my next post should be my Best Games of 2014. (Sadly, it doesn’t look like it will be a long list.) See you on the other side!

- Stupid @ Wednesday, December 24, 2014 10:27 AM PT [+]

Wow, I'm actually amazed to be posting another Descent report so quickly! As adults with Real Lives, it takes a bit of wrangling to get everyone to the table regularly. Having said that, past experience shows that the Silly Season actually makes things easier. Go figure.

Simply put, we’re playing the Labyrinth of Ruin campaign as a role-playing game. The party is not allowed to look at the quest book, and each encounter is a bit of a mystery to them at first. I am playing as the Overlord and using the Basic II deck and filling with Punisher cards.


This was our first session after a five-month long break (as mentioned in Part II), so the first thing we did was to play a few “fake” turns from the prior encounter. Truth be told, the prior encounter had already pretty much resolved, but there were still miniatures on the table (we have a Geek Chic table and Descent lives in the “well” area) so we played it out to the bitter end. (Note that this is actually described in Part II as well.)

After getting our feet wet with some Descent-y gameplay, it was narrative time! I actually used the group’s long break as a narrative device: “It seems like it has been months since you last visited the camp…” and used the opportunity to describe a small bustling village complete with a gaggle of NPC adventurers going about their day-to-day business, selling loot from their (offscreen) encounters, buying and trading gear, and offhand chatter about possible places to explore.

As the party returned to the small Inn, I made the party EXTREMELY aware that they had pre-paid rooms waiting for them, and that the person responsible for paying for the rooms was none other than Lord Merrick Farrow! (This may not be “cannon” in the Descent universe, but it works in the overarcing storyline that is developing. To be honest, I didn’t know where this was going, but I have read the quest book, and it doesn’t conflict with anything in the Labyrinth of Ruin story. As it turned out, it ended up being a fantastic plot device that will see use later on as the party continues, so that was a good call – albeit an unintended one – on my part.)

The innkeeper also handed Raythen a note, which outlines the start of the Back from the Dead encounter. Raythen also got some dialog that outlines just why doing this encounter is a horrible idea. Something about it being a trap, an obvious trap, and a bloody obvious trap. (Side note: I always allow the party to choose the next encounter. They are given the choices in a thematic expository way with no hard descriptions and then they make their best guess on which one to do based on “feel”.)

I also primed the pump for Secrets in Stone by giving a bit of “secret” information to each of the other characters. Both Raythen and Grissom were easy, they both want to recover magical dwarf artifacts (for different reasons), so I gave them strong hints to choose that one. Trenloe’s backstory was that he is an un-undead, so he was given a slight hint to go to the tombs as well. I knew that the player controlling Kirga was doing her best to be contrary, so I gave her a note that LMF wanted her to go to investigate Hulldyr. (My thinking was that she would immediately choose the opposite – which turned out to be right on target!)

The sole voice that I set up to desire to go do the Back from the Dead encounter was poor, old, Leoric. If you recall, way back in Part One, Leoric was almost completely responsible for the loss of the very first encounter. It made sense from a role-playing perspective that he would be guilty. I played up on that.

The resulting in-character “discussion” took nearly an hour to play out. It was a ton of fun seeing the players talk it out. Two of them actually said out loud, “well, personally, I would want to go do THIS, but my character would want to do THAT…” and then proceed to argue quite passionately for the thing that their character would want to do (even though their own preference was different).

After 45 minutes, I called the discussion to a close. I needed to know which encounter to put on the table. I forced them to vote, and the encounter chosen was Back from the Dead! (I believe that Leoric is becoming the de facto “leader” of the party - or at least the party is deferring to him on some “big” decisions – but there is still a lot of campaign to play out, so we shall see how that thread develops!)

Encounter One

The party knew this was a trap, so they devised a clever plan to try and outwit the setup. They were going to send a single party member to the cabin and everyone else held back. Trying to accommodate that, I switched out a few tile pieces to allow for a large open area outside the cabin, “south” of the graveyard.

The warrior tromped past the zombies and up to the door while the rest of the group milled about in the open clearing I had created for them. The respawning zombies led them to think that it was pointless to advance, so they looted the few treasures they could reach, and discovered the opening to a hidden storeroom (the Secret Room card came up on a search). They then spent the next two turns playing around in the secret room and almost completely ignoring the cabin. As a result, it was a really quick encounter. The goblins achieved their goal, and I explained how hundreds of goblins swarmed into the cabin. The party was forced to hide in the secret room, and all items of value were removed.

Kirga was unhappy that she could not get the last few treasures, but overall everyone had a lot of fun with the role-playing aspect. I even got emails from two of the players commenting on how much fun this play session had been!

Encounter Two

This turned out to be one of those rare cases where the provided quest text matched up almost exactly with where we were, so I did not prepare for this encounter much (i.e. at all). Sadly, it led to a very disappointing run through. I made a critical error in evaluating the quest, thinking that Hulldyr could move off the map in 4 or 5 turns, but in reality, there is an impassible barrier in the direct path, so it would have taken 11 or 12 turns minimum. I tried to advance some monsters to protect him, but as the final encounter of Act I, the party is really powerful at this point. They sliced up all the monsters in no time at all – they weren’t even a speedbump for the group. Leoric masterfully used his summoned stones to block Hulldyr’s pitiful movement. The party is very mobile, and without monsters to force them to move through the bushes, the overgrowth mechanic really didn’t have a chance to be a factor. They just moved around the areas, not through them. They never removed any of them. Within 5 turns the game was lost and Ariad was forced to flee.


This adventure started out amazingly well, but ended with a giant thud.

The lesson I learned here was that while I am getting better at reacting to the party trying to break the rules of physics, time, and space, and figuring out thematic, logical and fair ways to deal with them, I really need to prepare better for these games. It’s difficult (for me at least) to tell a story without at least a modicum of forethought and planning. I also learned that giving the characters (and not necessarily the players!) some personalized motivation for each encounter really enhances the experience for everyone.

Those lessons were taken to heart, and as I write this, the group is almost complete with the Interlude and back on the fun-train again! Next post as soon as we finish that encounter.

- Stupid @ Thursday, October 23, 2014 10:06 AM PT [+]

When the second edition of the Descent: Journeys in the Dark boardgame came out, our little group started a Campaign game. But because we are all adults with Real Lives, it took a bit over a year for us to complete it.

When the Labyrinth of Ruin expansion came out, with a completely new campaign, and I started it up with the crazy idea of treating it like a Role Playing game (instead of the tactical miniature game that it was designed as), I knew that it was not going to be without challenges.

As expected, we were finishing around on "encounter" per session, about four hours. The game advertises 45 minutes per encounter, but treating it as a Role playing game really slows it down. Plus, even though the game does provide a "story" in the Campaign, the writing is atrocious and the continuity is non-existent. As the Overlord, I am having to create a lot of new content from thin air in order to support the bare-bones story. And, as an added boinus, I pretty much have to tinker with the wining/ending conditions in almost every encounter to allow for continuity. Luckily, there is a vibrant Descent community and a lot of (unofficial) background information to pull from.

What I didn't count on was a five-month long break in play.


After their daring escape from Lord Merrick Farrow’s jails (described in Part I, the party was presented with a narrative choice. I had prepared nearly a full page of story-based text for each player, feeding them specific information. Two of the party members were given general information about the Barrow of Barris encounter: one of them had overheard some of Lord Merrick Farrow’s guards talking about a dwarf tomb that contained a powerful magical item; the other was told by Lord Farrow himself, with a promise that the party could keep all of the mundane loot if they would assist Lord Farrow in retrieving a magical item. Two other party members were fed a story about goblin raids north of the Sudanyan River, being orchestrated by a Goblin King (aka Splig) and his (supposedly) captured “Fine Lady”. This was, of course, the lead in for Fury of the Tempest. I instructed Raythen to argue for the Barrow adventure.

My thinking was that since we had just completed a Lord Merrick Farrow encounter, it would make the most sense to follow that story thread. I had fully expected the party to debate this for a few minutes and then decide to go for the Barrow. Interestingly, one of the characters I selected to learn about the Fury encounter was the same bloke who had completely flubbed Ruinous Whispers by carrying the woman almost to the doorstep and he roleplayed it extremely well – his character, it seemed, was feeling pretty guilty about losing the woman and the rumors about a Fine Lady being held captive incented him to argue long and hard for that story.

One of the characters whom I had set up to argue for the Barrow turned out to be completely apathetic. The other, as it turned out, was much more contrary than I had anticipated and ended up switching sides and arguing AGAINST the encounter I had set up for her. That left Raythen as the sole voice talking for the Barrow against three “real” party members. (Raythen was still fairly new to the group in roleplaying terms, and the core group kept referring to him as only “half a member”.) The decision did not go the way I had planned, but that’s how role play stories work sometimes. You gotta be flexible!

Encounter One

Since we’re doing this role play style, the party is NOT reading the quest book and the encounter information is presented as they play. I described the beginning field pretty well, and described Splig carrying a huge barrel, sweating and panting as he carried it. I described the pool of water with electrical energy running all over it. I described the Open Field shrouded in mist with an electric blue tinge and an oppressive feeling of immense power.

I also replaced the 17A tile with a 24A tile to straighten out the map and make it very clear that there was no way to “shortcut” across the water. I read most of the stock quest flavortext, but my description of the electrical energy on the water made the party not want to drink right away. They stopped and gathered some of the water in bottles to carry along and drink after they crossed the field. Which was very clever of them! Luckily I had a clever response.

The players are always motived by search tokens and feeling secure with their bottled magic water, they cautiously moved forward. The apathetic player simply wanted to kill things and charged towards the monsters. As luck would have it, one of the players carrying the bottled water used a potion on the second or third turn, which allowed me to descriptively tell him that when he grabbed at his potions, the bottle of “electric water” felt oddly light on his belt. It had "evaporated"! I also dropped a hint that water cannot evaporate after it has been consumed.

It took the party about 0.3 seconds to reverse course and start drinking the water. The sole exception was the apathetic player who was hell bend on getting to the exit as quickly as possible, with no regard for the story. (This was actually “in character” for him, so it played out pretty well.)

The resulting encounter ended up being a comedy of errors. Two of the party ended up getting blown up by lightning. Splig poisoned the pool. Another party member was blocked into the firepit tile by a large monster and chain-defeated. The player who had the least interest in “playing nice” (the original apathetic player) ended up having to come back into play (with a huge sigh of disgust and disappointment) and rescue everyone. Eventually a single player reached the exit and the session ended.

Encounter Two

At the start of this encounter, I left the prior (encounter one) map pieces on the table and built the encounter two map attached to it. This did require a little tile swapping, but it did not have any real effect on the gameplay. Since this is a role-playing session and not competitive, all of the objective tokens were randomized with neither side looking at any of them.

The narrative introduction was that as the first party member (who was still “marked” from encounter one) reached the door, a breeze blew away the mist and revealed that the party was in the front courtyard of a huge dilapidated mansion. The party spent a few minutes cleaning up the final monsters outside. (I stopped reinforcing the encounter one monsters as soon as the encounter shifted, and allowed the party to kill them off for continuity. Plus it makes them feel better about “finishing” the encounter.) I used the “free” turn they gave me to move the goblins into a more advantageous position but did not “cheat” too much – the party still did not know the objective so I was soft-pedaling the first turn.

As soon as the party was inside the mansion, I gave them a narrative description (using the quest introduction text as a guideline). I described a ruined mansion with tattered wall hangings and tapestries, piles of rubble and rubbish, and a ruined leaking roof. I described the gruff voice of Splig telling the goblins to look for “shiney gloves” and that he needed both of them. At that point the adventure was on!

The party’s treasure hunter quickly searched the closest token and found one glove right away. Splig and the goblins search the far north token and got nothing. The treasure hunter bolted north and found a treasure room. I unwisely did not press the attack in the south and the geomancer used his summoned stones to bottle up the large monsters I had chosen there. Using the stones as blockers the party was able to trivialize the southern fight. Luckily for me, one party member went for the treasure room – that had been the main goal in prior encounters and she did not switch gears fast enough – and got separated. Unfortunately, that one character provided enough of a distraction that I never was able to amass enough goblin reinforcements to make a solid push at the party.

After the party recovered the second glove, I used a narrative description to have Splig use a one-time use teleportation potion to escape from the fight. I stopped reinforcing and the party cleaned up the monsters. Interestingly, rather than leaving through the front door (for which I had additional narrative prepared), they went to the rear door (where the goblins were spawning). Also, I had planned on limiting the use of the Gloves to one of the two players who has gotten inside the mansion while still being “Marked by the Storm” from encounter one. (I was anticipating some discussion about who would get the gloves once they saw the loot card.) Amazingly, they didn’t even debate who got the loot and it went directly to the healer. This was not the optimal choice but it was a great one from a role playing perspective. The healer has always played her character as a wannabe fighter, and the gloves fit right into that style.


Even though it came after a long break, this session felt a lot better than our prior meetings. I'm getting better at being more flexible and accommodating the party's weirdly erratic actions and keeping them on-task with narrative tools instead of resorting to "God" moments. I do need to avoid using words like "win" and "lose" when it comes to these game sessions and encounters. There should never be a "winning condition" or a "losing condition", only an "end of session trigger."

The players are settling into their roles much better. Initially there was a tendency to "roll" play to the Descent mechanics, rather than ROLE play the characters. As the players change their mental space, the game is becoming more story like and they are filling in the holes in the encounter stories, making them more robust. In the next encounter they will actually meet the Goblin King and his Fine Lady, and that should be a fun little conversation!

- Stupid @ Wednesday, August 20, 2014 9:47 AM PT [+]


The Elder Scrolls Online.

As I write this, there is less than two weeks before “early access” release of the game. I’ve played in three open beta weekends so far, and have done my usual survey of the entire game. I don’t expect my little blog post to have much if any effect, but I write this as a plea to Zenimax. I’m hopeful that it gets tossed in front of them at some point. Strap in, because this is going to be a long one.

The Meta Server

One of the most innovative things in the game is probably one of the most subtle, and won’t even be noticed by many people. I’m talking of course, about the so-called meta-server. I have no idea how they are doing this on the back-end, but as a player it shows up in a very interesting way.

So, let’s take a fairly standard MMO trope. Suppose, for example, that you come across a small village that has been attacked by enemies. Many buildings are on fire, there are bad guys at every intersection and evil patrolling guards all over the place. As part of your quest, you go to a specific location and do a thing – kill the leader, destroy a portal, cleanse an altar, whatever – and the village is saved. Now when you go to that same village, the buildings are no longer on fire, there are friendly guards patrolling, and those bad guys on every street corner have been replaced with good guys.

This sort of thing is expected in an MMO, and it usually done with a triggered event. The problem with a timed-trigger is the world is the same for everyone. If player A comes through and “saves the day”, then when player B enters that area a few minutes later he finds that it has already been saved and there is no way for him to complete the quest. In order to allow for player B to complete the event, it re-triggers and repeats after a short time delay. This is what we’ve come to expect in an MMO and it leads to a feeling that the player has no real agency in the game-world. Sure, you can save the town from the centaurs, but in a half hour, those same centaurs will be back and the town will need to be saved again. And again. And again....

The difference here is that the change that is affected is permanent and real. The way they do it is very sneaky and very very cool. When you first happen upon the area, the village is under attack, or is being attacked, or whatever. Let’s call this the initial condition. There is a specific server just for this. As you enter the area, you will see other players fighting the same bad guys as you. They are on the same sub-server as you; you can group up with them and fight alongside them. As you progress along the event path, you may go through a portal, enter a dungeon, or simply go into a building. All it takes is a simple load screen. Suddenly, you (and everyone who has crossed that same load-screen boundary) are on a different server! Anything and everything might be different. Or it might not. When you leave that area, if you have completed the objective, the load screen hands you off to a different server where the final condition is now the case. The village is no longer on fire, the bad guys are gone and the good guys are here. The event will NOT re-trigger. The reason is that once you’ve completed the event, the meta-server hands you off to a specific server where that event has been completed and always will be. You can stand around in that village for the rest of time and it will NEVER be re-attacked.

That’s very cool and it really adds player agency to the game world. However, it does have one major drawback. The meta-server will sort you based on what you’ve done in the word, and will put you alongside other players that have accomplished similar goals. But if your actual friends and guildmates have not accomplished similar tasks in the game, it’s not only possible that you might be on a different server, it actually very likely that you will be. Using the attacked village example, if you party with someone who has NOT saved the village, you will not be able to naturally adventure together, since you will be on different sub-servers. The solution is simple, but artificial. One of you can Travel to the other using the party menu, which forces you onto their sub-server. This means that either you Travel to their server where the village is under attack (again) or they travel to your server where the village has already been saved. (Once you leave the party and go through any loading screen, you should be placed back onto your “natural” sub-server.)

Again, I have only a base understanding of the server voodoo that it takes to make this happen, but I’m incredibly impressed that they were able to pull this off, and if nothing else survives from this game, I hope this innovation makes it out to other games!

Alliance vs Alliance
I don't know if you ever played Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC). Even though it was released in 2001, DAoC is still considered by many to be the best faction-based PvP MMO every created (so far). Well, ESO is DAoC reborn, but bigger and better. I have no idea how end-game strategy will develop post-release, but I can tell you that there is so much more tactical choice here that it makes GW2's WvW look about as complex as checkers compared to a modern 4X game. I won't describe it in detail; it would take another three pages to describe all the inter-relations and intricacies of the system.

I will say this:

It's easily 30 times larger than a GW2 borderland. That is to say, if you took the time it takes to run from garrison to the southernmost supply camp, that is about 1/6 of the run across the entire ESO AvA map.

Relative to the size, there are more capturable points, but they are laid out in a way that encourages a main "front line" development and organized large-group fighting. The transit system reinforces this.

Get ready to re-learn the term assjam. Whichever team has the races with the best CC are going to be experts at this.

Relic ("Elder Scrolls") raids are going to be EPIC!! Again, I don't want to talk about specific mechanics, but it likely to require coordination between at least two large forces, hitting disparate targets simultaneously.

Havok groups that run far behind the enemy to steal a small point (like a tower or supply camp) are still possible, but they play a dangerous game with risk vs. reward. The small goals are individually less important (both score wise and strategically), and it could be a very long run to get back there (like 10-15 minutes).

Solo and small group fighting is probably going to be much more common than large zerg fights. And probably more rewarding too.

I was out there as a brand new level 10 (the minimum level to get in) and in my very first large-scale battle, I racked up 14 ungrouped kills. Later (still level 10!) I was running with a very small group, over-extended (my own stupid fault) and ended up in a 2v1 fight. I managed to kill one of them before the second one finished me off. Character build and player skill make a HUGE and very noticeable difference! A player would have to be an idiot (or blatantly ignoring facts) to even suggest that zerging is the way to victory.

If there is anything that will keep ESO online, it will be this single feature.

The Good Stuff
The Crafting System in ESO is really well done. Basic crafting is very simple and pretty much everyone will do it. It doesn’t require any skill point costs, nor does the player need to buy any specific crafting or gathering tools. They just find a crafting station and start hitting buttons. Raw materials are found in the open world and can be refined into intermediate materials. Those can be used to create basic equipment extremely easily, with only a few mouse clicks.

The catch is that once the player delves down to the next level of complexity, it requires not only a large real-time investment, but it also requires a large game-play investment. To craft anything better than level 14 (out of 50), the player needs to invest skill points. Early in the game, skill points are limited and most players may not be willing (or able!) to make this investment. Additionally, materials are gated such that the player needs to craft a minimum number of items at each material tier to “qualify” for the next grade. Unless the player has invested the time in gathering, or has the available gold to buy raw materials, this may be a small hurdle to jump.

But even if the average player makes this investment, there is another level of complexity to the crafting system! In order to create special items that have innate abilities, the crafter must “learn” those traits by researching them. This research process is gated by real time. There are seven traits per type of item. Researching the first trait takes six hours, and each subsequent trait requires twice as long. This means that it takes 31.5 DAYS to research all seven traits for a single item. And by “item” I mean just that. For example, cloth gloves are a different “item” from cloth boots. A sword is a different “item” from a mace. You may be the highest skilled blacksmith in the world, but a player with half your skill level that focused specifically on making greatswords will have an advantage over you since they know all seven greatsword traits and you only know two or three. (You’ll still be better at making everything else though.)

Another level of complexity comes from the need for advanced materials. Advanced materials can only be created from the disassembly of loot items, and this requires players to pass the skill gates listed above. For example, to create a “precise” greatsword, the crafter needs a Ruby. But the only way to get a ruby is from disassembling a “precise” item. This sounds easy to deal with, and it will be at low levels. But when the average player is questing in a level 30 area and getting “obsidian” level gear, the casual crafter cannot disassemble it. Advanced materials will become difficult to get and crafters that are efficient at collecting and saving these will be rewarded.

Upgrade items fall into this same category. Collecting the "green" level upgrades will be easy (at least at first) since there will be a bevy of low-level crafters. Getting blue and higher level upgrades may be difficult since those will require dedicated crafters to disassemble them, and I expect dedicated crafters will be moderately rare.

The crafting system is really well designed with a very low initial investment to enter, but a very high level of skill required to be effective!

There is a ton of Class Flexibility built right into the game. In most MMOs when you create a character, you choose a class and that determines your archetype and what role you will play in the game. Not so in this system. Every single character has access to a minimum of seventeen skill lines. Here, your class determines exactly three skill lines (out of seventeen!) that you will have access to. This is a fairly minor distinction and really allows for a ton of flexibility in builds.

For example, let’s look at the much ballyhooed Sorcerer class. By choosing this class you gain access to the three Sorcerer skill lines: Dark Magic, Daedric Summoning and Storm Calling. But as a Sorcerer, you still have access to any and ALL of the weapon skill lines. Do you want to wield a giant greatsword? Fine. Want to wear heavy plate armor while flinging spells? Sure, no problem! The game allows the player to mix and match pretty much any active or passive ability in a single character. Any kind of character type that you can imagine can be built from this framework.

Personally, I built two diametrically different characters from the same class. I chose a Nightblade for no other reason than I wanted to test the flexibility of the system, and I came away amazed by it.

My first attempt used a tanky Sword&Shield weapon. I also trained several passive health regen and damage mitigation skills from the Heavy Armor line. Finally, I added in one pure DPS skill from the Assassination tree. The result was a high DPS tank that could stand up to three opponents without taking any appreciable damage and could three-shot MOBs that were two levels higher. In PvP, I was almost impossible to beat in a 1v1 fight and able to survive a 2v1 fight for a goodly amount of time. (It still got steamrolled by zergs, but there’s no way around that.)

My second build was a more standard ranger Bow build. I went heavy into Bow and increased both my range and damage. On top of this I chose some stealthy Shadow skills allowing me to escape from a bad fight, and I bumped the critical damage and health regen skills in the Medium Armor line. Finally, I added in one life-stealing skill from the Siphoning line. This resulted in a very high DPS ranged character that could kill most targets before they even got to me. Those that did try to get to me, were knocked down, interrupted or pushed back by various attacks. In PvP, getting kill assists was as simple as randomly clicking into a zerg fight. Even non-skilled “light” attacks were hitting for as much as ¼ of an enemy player’s health.

The same class, but two completely different playstyles. That's really amazing.

The Bad

This kind of Class Flexibility does have drawbacks, of course. There are no training wheels on this skill system. If the player chooses different skill lines (or even individual skills) that do not synergize, they can and will result in a gimpy character build. For example, training light armor for a high level of magical damage, but primarily using a melee weapon might not be a wise choice. The light armor may give a lot of mana (or, magicka, as it is called here) regen, but it is poor protection in a fight. A melee weapon requires the player to be up close and personal with his opponent. Light armor in melee… these two things are not going to work well together. This puts the onus on the player to develop a synergistic build. Many players may not have the time, inclination or the understanding to do so.

It also makes it very difficult to “survey” a skill line to see if it works for the player’s style. Most of the skill lines do not really open up until you reach the third ability, which is gated by a specific skill level in that line, plus several skill points. There is a certain minimum level of investment into a given skill type to get much from it. This means that in order to really see what a specific weapon type can do, the payer must devote at least 10-20 hours of actual in-game play time using that specific weapon type. If, after that time investment, the player decides that weapon is not for them, they’ve “wasted” that play time. Respecing is available, so the skill points can be reclaimed, but the time cannot be. And even with a nice solid stash of skill points, there is still the time-gating requirement.

Balance is important, especially in a PvP MMO. This is why so many MMOs use a class-based skill progression. It affords the developer a much higher level of control over the balance of the game. If a specific weapon skill is too powerful, they can change a value in a spreadsheet and tune it down very easily. The problem with a skill-based progression system is that players mix-and-match things in unusual ways. That one over-powered weapon skill may be perfectly balanced when used by itself, overpowered when used in conjunction with a different skill or ability, and completely underpowered when used differently. It’s impossible to simply tune up, or down, any single item without affecting it in unexpected ways. The interrelations between itemization and skill usage is much more complex. Sadly, balance is not anywhere near completed in ESO. I expect that there will be some major balance tuning in the next six to nine months. It will be the Smite Cleric and Dual Wield nerfs rolled into one, but multiple times.

Another imbalance is in the world design. The different faction zones were obviously designed at different times during the development cycle. It’s obvious that one area is much more polished than the other two, and one of them is really badly put together. Realistically, each team that designed areas should QA the other team’s zones. Alternately, the team should completely redesign the areas that they designed first and bring them up to the standard of the other two. Yes it takes time, but those kind of first impressions don’t get a second chance.

The Ugly

Questing is part and parcel of the PvE experience. The problem is that the vast majority of the non-repeatable quests in ESO were designed prior to the meta server implementation and they can easily enter a locked or confused state. Suppose that you do some Very Important Quest solo or in a PUG. You get the reward, a Ring of Ultimate Shielding and equip it. Later that day, a guildmate puts out a cry for help, he’s trying to complete this quest and is having trouble. You volunteer to help him and Travel to his server. The problem is, you’ve already done the quest. The server sees this, says “Oh wait, you can’t do it again!” and disables the quest. This results in a required quest MOB not spawning, or an event to not trigger, or some similar effect. The net result is that the quest is now “broken”. The real problem is that it STAYS broken, even after you leave. Your presence on that mini-server puts that quest into an unresolvable state for everyone else on that server. Forever. (Or at least until that server is restarted or reset.) This means that other players that come along many hours after you have left the game cannot complete the quest. To them, it simply appears like a broken quest (which it kind of is).

This is a game-killing situation. Unless Zenimax can find a way to fix this, ESO will have a mass exodus of PvE players. If fixing this means pushing back release, then they should push back release. Developing a solution and throwing it on a live server without a real stress test is not an acceptable solution. I’m told that a solution is in place on the PTS, but internal testing of such a key gameplay element is simply not going to work out well. Personally, I feel that this should the #1 priority of the developers and that the game should not be allowed to go live until this is resolved and tested.

The #2 thing that needs major work is the User Interface. I really enjoy the minimalist base UI that the game uses, with hot-buttons and bars that fade in and out as needed. During normal play, they are out of the way and invisible. When something happens and information needs to be shown, they pop back into view. That’s really nice!

The bad part is the various widgets and controls. Whomever designed this UI is clearly stuck back in the last century. For example: to leave a party you open the party window gadget (default keypress ‘P’) obscuring your view of the game, find your own name on the text list (really! a text list!) of party members, right click on your name (but not anyone else’s name, that won't work!) to open a special personal drop-down menu, then choose “Leave Party” on the resulting drop down. Really? How about something like right clicking on the actual party graphic on the main screen and selecting “Leave Party” from there, like any sane person that has played an MMO in the last three years would expect?

Want to send a private message to another player in game? Maybe a /whisper or /send chat command? Pshaw!! No, you need to open the social window gadget, press E to get a second window to pop open, then you can enter their name and message on that second window. Oh and if you happen to get attacked by anything while your doing this, you have to close the two windows (in the correct order!) to regain control of your character.

Fast travel? Yes, it's in there. But instead of double-clicking on a map, you must press E to confirm. Every single time.

Want to go to the PvP area? Open the PvP window, go to the right-most tab, find your “campaign” on the text list (what's with the text lists, already!?), right click on that name, and then choose “Enter Campaign” from the drop-down. That puts in a request to enter. After a few minutes, a notification will pop up. Open the notification window and click on the check mark next the notice. Oh, and by the way, the notification times out in 60 seconds, so if you fail to see it, or were not aware you needed to click on it, you have to start the process again.

The game UI is full of these sorts of complex last-generation interface options that require an arcane, bizarre and completely non-intuitive combination of clicks, key-presses and window options to get even the simplest of tasks accomplished. Zone-chat should not have people asking how to leave a guild or party, or how to access their guild’s bank!

Admittedly, after playing three weekend events, I started to understand how the UI works and was able to find most things after a few minutes of searching and experimenting. But it should not take several dozens of hours to “learn” a User Interface. MMO UI design has advanced in the last decade. There are a lot of really intuitive advancements, and none of them are here. Put a new player in front of this and they are going to be frustrated and annoyed. Hell, I’m a long-time MMO player and I was frustrated and annoyed! This is not a game-breaker, but the new player experience is going to be negatively affected by this in a major way.

In Conclusion

I told you this was going to be a long one. I have a fairly divided opinion of the game. On the one hand, the technical merits they’ve achieved are amazing. The PvP design is incredibly tight and will keep the game running for years. But some of the core features of the game simply don’t work, required quests are getting stuck and halting advancement, game balance is poor, and the user interface is tragically bad.

It’s (supposedly) coming out in less than two weeks. There are still some major technical issues to resolve and test, and I just don’t see how they have the time to accomplish this. I expect that there will be a launch day rush from the fans of the Elder Scrolls, followed by a mass exodus as soon as the “free” 30 days is up. I myself, who normally buys online game time in six-month blocks, am only going to go monthly on this one. I’m extremely trepidatious about over-investing.

Overall, I like the game. If you told me this was coming out in the summer, I’d be super hyped for it and telling all my friends to pre-order now. I really think this is a solid game that needs about three to six months of more time. If it is released on schedule in April, I predict Bad Things Will Happen™. And that's a real shame.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, March 18, 2014 1:03 PM PT [+]

Another game that was given extremely high marks in 2013 was the (supposedly) ground breaking game Brothers. As luck would have it, this game was available on PlayStation Plus during the month of January. (For those that don’t know, PS+ is essentially Sony’s version of Xbox Live, but in addition to all of the online features, they also give subscribers access to about a dozen free games each month. In January, the two of the titles offered were Bioshock Infinite and Brothers. If you have a PS4, PS3 or a Vita, you really should subscribe!!) So I downloaded it and played it through.

Now, I’ll admit that 2013 was not a great year for games. There were a few standout games that made a big splash (the aforementioned Bioshock game being one of them) but generally there weren’t a whole lot of really great games last year. Brothers fits right into that same category.

Fans of Brothers ballyhoo two things: the story and the innovative controls.

The control scheme is a bit different from most other games and I’m not sure how well it would translate to a PC kayeboard-and-mouse. On a controller, it makes perfect sense. You have two brothers, the “big” brother (dark haired, dressed in blue tones) and the “little” brother (blonde, dressed in red tones). The left stick moves the “big” brother, L2 makes him do an action. The right stick moves the “little” brother and the R2 button makes him do an action. The L1/R1 buttons are also used to move the view around, but this is fairly limited in scope; there are many places in the game where the view cannot be rotated, and it doesn’t work at all during in-game cinematics.

The game makes good use of these controls from the very start. The first task you have to complete is to carry a cart to a house on the other side of a bridge. The cart CAN be moved by a single brother, but it is much easier with both of them. At the bridge, there is a level that must be pulled, and you quickly discover that the “little” brother is not strong enough to do it, so you use the “big” brother.

As the game progresses, the puzzles don’t really become more difficult. Some minor complexity is added occasionally with the different size/strength of the two brothers - you have to use the little brother to sneak into small places (say, between the bars of a cage, or through a small hole) and the big brother for strength related tasks (pulling levers and swimming) – but that’s about it. Once you solve the first puzzle and get accustomed to the controls, the game just goes through the motions here.

And this is my largest gripe with this game. The independent control of the two brothers could have been used in a lot of interesting and challenging ways. Instead of being the cornerstone that a great game was built upon, the control scheme feels almost like a sideshow. Even in the penultimate challenge of the game, the “boss battle”, you really only control one brother at a time. While one is doing something, the other is just standing there. Use the big brother to lure the boss, then when he gets trapped, use the little brother to stun the boss, then switch back to the big brother to do damage to the boss. Without any exaggeration, in 90% of all of the puzzles, the game could have been played with standard FPS controls and one button to switch viewpoint between the two brothers.

Sure you CAN control them simultaneously, but aside from moving across the countryside (where they are moving in basically the same direction anyway) you never really NEED to. In almost every case, you move one brother somewhere, hold down the action button for that brother and forget about him while the other brother does the same thing. There are never any pat-your-head-and-rub-your-tummy type puzzles, and that’s a shame.

One interesting thing that I really did like was the complete lack of dialog in the game. Rather than spoken words or screens of text to read, all of the characters pantomime their needs and desires. This is very well done and there was never any doubt in my mind what the various characters wanted. This is true for even minor side-characters that have no direct impact on the story!

The game feels like it contains a really innovative concept, but it never really goes anywhere. The comparison that comes into my mind is that playing Brothers is like playing the first 18 levels of the original Portal game with the sound turned off. It’s a really great introduction, but the actual GAME part of it seems to be missing.

Which brings me to the story. Now, I have some friends who get really bent out-of-shape about spoilers. They want the story to be a “surprise” and I respect that. But, c’mon here… this is a game about two brothers that share a common control scheme. It shouldn’t be a huge stretch to figure out what happens at the end of the game. (In case you are willfully trying to not do the extremely simple math here, you may want to skip the rest of this posting. Just sayin’.)

One of the reasons that many people find the end-game to be so emotionally gripping is the control scheme used. Big brother dies (shocking, right?) and you are left with the little brother. The one that uses the RIGHT stick for movement. In a typical FPS game movement is on the left stick, so this supposedly “feels wrong” to many people. Personally, I play FPS on the PC, and using the right stick for movement was not a factor at all. To be honest, I hadn’t even considered it as a gameplay element until after I had completed the game and then went back and read a few detailed reviews. So depending on how invested you are in the right-stick/left-stick control scheme, this may or may not bother you.

The other big “story” item that people seem to get all broken up about is the final puzzle of the game. It’s a really REALLY simple puzzle (that I will not spoil), but it stopped me dead in my tracks for a solid ten minutes. I didn’t resort to looking for an answer on the web, but, I admit, I was really close! When I realized what the solution was my reaction was more along the lines of, “Well, of course! That makes perfect sense!” Apparently I’m a cold hearted bastard because that solution has brought many gamers to tears.

So, in summary: Great innovative game CONCEPT, but mediocre execution, and a predictable story. For the price I paid (free!) it was worth the 90 minutes it took to complete. Just like so many games of 2013, it was good, but not great. As a commercial release, I would have been disappointed with it.

- Stupid @ Monday, February 3, 2014 11:04 AM PT [+]

I’ve always like the Descent: Journeys in the Dark boardgame. Even the original first edition was fun to me, even though t each game session ranged between 8 and 12 hours long. The new streamlined second edition works a lot better, allowing us to finish a single encounter in just about four hours. In our group we have always had the same player running as the Overlord, but when the Labyrinth of Ruin expansion came out, I decided that I was going to try my hand at Overlording. Additionally, I asked all the players to NOT read the quest book. When I was playing a character, I found it more entertaining to “discover” each encounter as we played. Of course, with some encounters being timed, it was going to mean that the players would need to know enough to win.

My solution was to craft it as a Role Playing game. I (as the Overlord/GameMaster) would lay out the situation in flowery verbiage and then make sure the players understood exactly what their goals are as we played along. When I first imagined running a Role Paying “Descent” variant, I knew it was going to require a little bit of effort. I may have under-estimated that effort. Almost every encounter needs to be modified in one or more ways. Overall I think it is working out splendidly; the result is a nice mixure of mystery and exploration while retaining the tactical positioning decisions of a Descent game.

(For reference, we’re playing the Labyrinth of Ruin Campaign; I am using the Basic II deck and filling with Punisher cards.)

First session
Our first session was the starter “Ruinous Whispers” quest. Aside from developing the backstory of the game, and asking the heroes to come up with a capsule character description, I did not prepare for this session very much. I (incorrectly) assumed that since the players’ winning condition is “kill everything” that they would automatically assume that as a default position. How wrong I was! In fact, out of the four Hero players, I received the following comments and/or complaints. One player confronted me afterwards, saying that they never understood what was going on during the game. A second player said that they were disappointed in the overall lack of role playing opportunities and it was “too Descent-y”. A third player made the assumption that the goal was to grab the woman and take her to the map exit, which was actually MY winning condition, and then felt I had not given enough information for them to figure out the goals. Overall it did not go very well.

Second session
For the second session, I prepared a lot more. Since I was technically abler to “win” the first session, I was supposed to choose the next quest. However, after thinking about it a bit more and looking at the quest choices, I decided that I was going to give the Hero players an option to choose between two quests EVERY time, whether they won or lost. In this case, since I had read the entire quest book, and knew the drawbacks of the two ally characters, I really did not want to allow the heroes to get Serena. Plus I already had outlined the role playing aspect of Raythen in my mind. So the decision that I presented the Hero players with was to rescue a captured Dwarf that might have information about the local ruins, or to go see a dwarven smithy who had developed a new kind of armor. (The second choice was a rumor card from the Lair of the Wyrm expansion.)

I tried to present both options as equally viable to the players. On one hand I had already set up “Honor Among Thieves” and was ready to roll on that. On the other hand, I wanted to get the heroes into the side quest early on, so that I might gain the Valyndra overlord card later. So, from a Overlord/GameMaster perspective, there were advantages to both, which let me look at it a lot more neutrally. As it turned out, the heroes ended up have a pretty lengthy in-character discussion about their options. After asking for more information about both paths (with no spoilers, but outlining the potential gains and pitfalls of both paths) the opted to stay on the main story line. I did ask why they chose that one, and they said it sounded cooler, and they wanted to know more about the ruins right away. They didn’t choose it because it was the main story quest – they actually didn’t know which path was the “right” one for the main story.

The first encounter of this session went much better. I gave them more information about what to do at the start of the quest, describing the captive Raythen across the clearing, and having him gesture that the players should talk to the hooded figures. Luckily the very first check was a hint, so the players continued doing the right thing. I was pleased to the players setting into their roles much better this time, with everyone doing what their character would have done in a similar situation. The treasure hunter went for the gold, the warrior ran into fight, the wizard gathered information and the healer tried to get to Raythen to rescue him. As it turned out, the warrior got there first and tried to open the lock, but he (correctly) role-played as a dumb fighter and flubbed the combination. (I’m not 100% sure this role-playing since the players only knew two of the four colors, the player was drinking, and appeared to have “forgotten” what the ones they knew were.) The knockback to the start of the map was a surprise to all.

In a “normal” Descent game, this particular encounter is timed, only seven turns long maximum. However, the Heroes started with a lack of knowledge about the goal, the knockback was a complete surprise to them, and they certainly weren’t in any rush to get to Raythen. To balance against their lack of tactical knowledge, I had already decided to ignore the time limit. Plus, I wanted them to win this encounter. I figured it would help to bolster their morale as a group, and a win or loss in the first encounter of a quest really doesn’t have any significant effect on the game. Having said that, when the healer tried to open the lock (still only knowing two out of the four colors) and failed, I made another decision. If the players failed the lock three times, regardless of game length, the encounter would be lost.

Since they did not feel any time pressure, the heroes had pretty much settled into “clear the map” mode. But I had really been soft pedaling with my Overlord cards (another drawback of being an Overload/GameMaster is that I must use a feather touch to avoid a Total Party Kill), and in order to get them moving I started using these, almost killing two heroes in the next turn. The mage took the hint and popped the lock, rescuing the Dwarf and ending the session.

Third session
Learning from my prior mistakes, I prepared a bit for this next encounter. I prepared several pages of dialog for Raythen, to set the stage for the next encounter. (I should add that in a break from normal Descent rules, we have a fifth hero player choosing what to do as Raythen.) This went over great! The heroes started the encounter and at different times during the game I would say: “Raythen, please read the page marked (blahblah)” and an additional narrative element was introduced.

This encounter was also supposed to be timed, but rather than an artificial (and arbitrary) time limit, I decided that I was going to track Overlord fatigue as per the normal rules, but would simply add in a new open group at different intervals. This would make it appear that the alarm had been raised and would “encourage” (ahem) the heroes to leave before collecting all the treasure.

Sadly, the heroes completely flubbed this encounter. Before the end of the second turn, they had only gathered three relics, two of the heroes had been incapacitated, and I was at the “alarm” level. I never even activated my original open group (I chose Ferrox, by the way) and started following the pre-defined schedule I had already developed.

What came next was unexpected, but turned out to be a blessing. When Raythen gave his pre-prepared speech about getting out NOW and started for the door as if to abandon the party (which is exactly what the directions on the card told him to do), the group split up, abandoning two players on the map. The other three (including Raythen) made it to the exit, got out and ended the session.

Fourth session
The resolution of the capture of two characters could have been handled with a narrative trick, but that’s kind of cheap. (That’s how most of the quest text in the manual works, sadly.) Instead, I created a new encounter from scratch. I used the “Fountain of Insight” quest as inspiration and created a “jail” for the two hero players. I removed all of their starter equipment and put them in locked cells. I used the voice of Lord Merrick Farrow (hereafter referred to as LMF) to advance the plot. He explained to one of the incarcerated heroes (the warrior) that he would reward them handsomely if they would retrieve “an item” from the ruins, they would know what he spoke of when they saw it, and that it was guarded by spiders. Our warrior agreed instantly to turn his cloak when the opportunity arose (how that plays out is yet to be seen). To the captured scout, he explained that the jail was rigged with explosives and that it would take a mere wave of his hand to bury both heroes forever. The scout was dumbfounded and would not agree to or discuss anything with LMF.

Again, I used Raythen to set the stage. Since Raythen was so recently escaped from the clutches of LMF, he knew where the captured heroes were “most likely” to be held. “Easy ta get in, hard ta git out,” was the catchphrase of the day. After presenting this, the three escaped heroes (again, including Raythen) started on their rescue mission. It took several turns, and during the time before their cells were opened, the captured heroes really weren’t able to do much (which was unfortunate, since one of them is our star Role Player). Eventually, everyone was able to escape and as the heroes escaped, the jail was detonated.

The players were completely unaware that this third encounter was not part of the quest book. In fact, our mage player actually thought that it specifically Was and comment on how cool it was that FFG had put in a three-encounter quest in the book.

Moving Forward
It took a couple of sessions, but I feel like all of the players have mostly settled into their roles now. I’ve had a chance to watch them all play, and I think I know what motivates each player. I’m developing new story elements that will appeal to all four of them, encourage them to play their roles more and shift the focus away from the dry ‘roll the dice, move the mice’ tactical game. It is still going to require a lot of planning modifications to each encounter, and a few on-the-fly mods while we play, but I’m really enjoying the direction the game has taken and am honestly looking forward to future plot twists… whether from me, or from unexpected player actions.

- Stupid @ Monday, January 20, 2014 5:22 PM PT [+]

One of the nice things about the end of each calendar year is that it gives all of the media outlets an opportunity to publish year end wrap-ups. As a “normal gamer” this allows me to cherry pick my next few games from various “Best of” lists. Of course, as a discriminating gamer, I typically find that I’ve already played most of the games on those lists, but clearly I can’t play them all. I do have a real life as well, you know. Anyway, this year was no different and there is a short list of new games that came out last year that I plan on playing over the next few weeks.

One that I managed to fit in over the holiday break was Papers, Please! Prior to seeing it pop up on a half-dozen 2013 lists, I had never heard of this game, but it was under $10 on steam, so I bought it to try it out.

The game is a little indie game that has pixel graphics and a gameplay description that look and sound like they came directly from an old Atari VCS in the 1980s. In the game, you play as a customs officer at the border of the fictional country of Arstrozka. The actual game mechanics are that you choose to stamp each person’s passport with a “yes” or “no” stamp. You are paid a wage based on the number of people you check for entry to the country, and you need to balance this money against daily expenses like rent, heat, food and medicine for your family. At the end of each day, your scores are tallied and you pay (or don’t pay) your fictional bills, and then there is a little “newspaper” that has headlines from that day’s events in Arstrozka. Each day is timed, and is only a few minutes long.

At the beginning of the game, the selection is pretty simple. Native Arstrozkans are allowed entry, all others are denied. You do need to check the nationality of the passport, verify that the picture on the document matches the person, and that the passport is not expired. If everything checks out, you allow the person in; if not, you deny them entry. Remember that you are only paid based on how many people you “process” during the “day”, and that the “day” is timed! You need to work as quickly as possible in order to pay all of your bills. (If you go into debt, the game ends immediately and you lose.) Also, if you make an error and allow someone past that should not have gotten in, you are fined, which eliminates the wages earned for two others. Basically, it’s much better to go a little slower and not make errors than it is to rush.

The second game “day”, the ne newspaper reports that visitors will be allowed, but only if they have a valid pass. This adds a little more complexity since you now need to check the non-natives instead of just turning them away. The visitor pass dates need to check and the passport numbers need to match. Sadly, the second day is cut short by a terrorist attack which will put a strain on your money levels.

The next day the rules add a bit more complexity. Fortunately, the different rules for checking the various documents stop changing so frequently after the first few days. And after a couple of times going broke (and losing) you start to get really fast and efficient at checking all of the paperwork. After my third game, I was processing around 15 people on the first (and easiest) day. That’s about one every 20 seconds, including the downtime between people (that you can’t affect).

All in all, this would be a cute, albeit uninteresting, little puzzly time-challenge game. But once it gets past the introduction of the border guard mechanic, it gets’ very interesting indeed! For example, one event that happens fairly early on is a man goes through the checkpoint and all of his papers are in order, so he allowed past. He mentions to you that he is immigrating to Arstroztka and his wife is next in line. Sure enough, the wife is next, but she is missing one document. Do you do the “right” thing? Actually, what is the “right” thing to do? If you let her pass, you get fined, which hurts you and your family. If you turn her away, she will probably be killed, and her husband will hate you for it. This kind of a decision is extremely simple to make and you only have a few seconds to decide. Press “yes” or press “no”…. If you let her in, and she turns out to be a terrorist, you might be arrested (and lose the game). If you deny her, the husband may come back to kill you (and you lose the game).

These kind of blind decisions come up again and again as you play the game. There are no cutscenes and no long text descriptions of the situation(s). Each of the choices you have to make are explained fully with less than a dozen words and the natural gameplay. Yet the scenarios they present are incredibly complex and require a lot of personal thought about the potential outcomes of your choices.

Here’s another example: A lady comes to the counter looking to move to Arstrozka for work. Her work visa shows she is a cook, but the business card she gives you is for a massage parlor. This is fine, and all of her papers are in order. A bit odd, being a cook at a massage parlor, but no reason to deny her entry. After you let her pass (which you should probably do, since you’ll be fined if you deny her for no good reason), she hands you a note that says that she is being followed by a guy that she thinks is going to sell her into sex-slavery, and gives his name. A few people later, and an individual with that name shows up. He’s a native, his papers all look okay, but…. I chose to let him pass. What could I do? Everything was in order and there was no good reason to deny him. The next day the newspaper had a headline about sex-slavery and a bunch of murdered prostitutes. I felt pretty badly about that. I knew that I could have stopped that from happening, but should I have done so?

For being such a simple game in graphical and gameplay presentation, Papers, Please forces the player to make very deep moral decisions on a frequent basis. The game looks like crap, the game play is super-simplistic, and the mechanics feel like a 30-year old video game from the last century. But if you can get past that, there is a true gem here. I wouldn’t say it was one of my top-three games form last year, but I’m certainly very glad that I took the time to try it out.

It's on steam for about $10.

- Stupid @ Monday, January 6, 2014 1:05 PM PT [+]

Yesterday I opened my email and found two more character write-ups ready for me. I'm really excited to see that the Hero players are jumping in to the Role Play aspect of the game with both feet. I was so impressed with the thought that went into these that I have to share them with everyone! (Please keep in mind I did not write these!)


Kirga is the daughter of caravan guards. As you might expect, Kirga learned early on the many tasks such a life would entail. More often that not Kirga would serve as lookout for her family. Kirga was extremely observant for her age, but she had trouble keeping her hands to herself.

As she grew older, she became more and more dishonest. Much to her delight, a somewhat oblivious merchant named Kendal ignored Kirga's penchant for trouble. He taught her everything there was to know in the art of appraisal. Kirga, of course, used what he taught her to delve into the art of forgery.

As Kirga grew into adulthood, she became bored with the limitations of the nomadic caravan life that kept her from further developing her forgery techniques. She packed her bags and headed out for the long-abandoned dwarf citadel, Koganusan.

Kirga had a lot of fun looting that citadel over the next few years. She had quite the pile of plunder when she was done, but, despite her best efforts, she could not figure out how to create passable knock-offs of the dwarven inventions. She decided to go schmooze with the only dwarves around, and struck a course for The Forge. (She may or may not have robbed everyone she encountered along the way.)

Turns out, the dwarfs had been waiting for someone like Kirga to come along. They bought the items she had salvaged from Koganusan, and they also hired her to help preserve their monopoly of all the best dwarven creations. Any thefts of dwarven goods were reported to Kirga, and she gleefully “repossessed” the items and brought them back to The Forge in exchange for quite the fee. Kirga was also sent out to the old dwarven citadels to retrieve what the dwarves didn't feel like trudging out to get themselves.

Della Kolmud, a matriarchal guild master in The Forge, developed a fondness for Kirga. Della started lavishing quite impressive rewards on the treasure-hunting orc. One of those rewards was a rare Dead Man's Compass (Item: gain 1 movement point if within 3 spaces of a search token.) but other that, no one knows for sure. It has been said that she carries a nasty amulet of warding though (Ability: monsters can not target her if there are other heroes closer to that monster and in its line of sight.)

As for fighting techniques, Kirga tends to prefer dwarven fire bombs and exotic range weapons. Her current weapon of choice is a deceptively ordinary-looking whip. If you're dead-set on inviting her to this thing of yours, I'm sure she can handle her own, but try to warn the other people you invite that Kirga is a bit impatient and pushy. (Feat: Use during another figure's activation to immediately perform a move action.) Also, it would be in their best interest if they left their heirlooms at home!

Leoric of the Book

Early Life
My original goal for Leoric is to show a man who has not fallen from grace, but he does not managed to uphold his ideals gracefully. He tells himself he follows his Hippocratic oath, but he’s just going to use stone shapes and earthquakes to kill when he has to, and it’ll only make him more bitter. Originally interested in the natural world thanks to his bright parents (a), he later turned this lust for knowledge to medicine, anatomy, and fixing people. This is mostly because despite all of his virtues, he was 10, and he sincerely believed the world was going to end.

Of course, he still believes the world is about to end. He waited out the intervening years first in the cloister dedicated to Kellos. His fondness of myth and legend did lend itself well to Kellos, and he did sincerely wish to do something good with his talents. However, due to the hierarchical nature of the church Leoric’s formative years saw him prematurely defrocked (b), with bitter feelings on both sides. He couldn't turn a blind eye to what he now knows to be ordinary politics and administrative ‘graft’ in the biggest center of worship in the baronies, and his superiors could not tolerate someone who diminished the church in the eyes of the community with his arguments, challenges, and lack of discretion.

They still call him Leoric of the book to mock him for being a failed priest, and it does bother him.

Despite the fact the church had to kick him out some of Leoric’s fellows and mentors did see some potential in him and did not wish to see it wasted. Without his knowledge, an old mentor managed to speak to an acquaintance of his at Greyhaven University (c). Leoric had applied in one of his bitter phases a year prior, but lacked any real patron to fund his studies. With the holy father’s endorsement and a few books concerning the Elder Circle (d), our unlikely protagonist received a patron under the condition he do some rather serious undergraduate work on studying the Elder Circle. As a moody young man, Leoric was already familiar with the site in passionate detail.

He believed it to be ancient and enduring, holding together a greater mystery he had never puzzled out. Spending time there was also a good time to brood, which he did a lot of early on. But it made him forget for a time that the world was ending, and he was grateful. Out of this obsession you what eventually steered him towards geomancy.

During the following years, as an undergraduate, a fellow, an associate professor, and other such humiliating offices, Leoric watched his old patrons fade from the scene. However, his esoteric field at least gave him a niche, and not many of his fellows were both experts on religion, and willing to criticize the practices of the faith. He was reluctant to learn ‘useful’ applications from the occult stones he had studied, imbued with power from generations of blood spilled, incantations made, and sacrifices accepted. His only escape from the politics of the university was working on his great work that will establish him as a Runecaster and to be left alone. He did not know what it would be, but he found reasons to travel far and wide. He did not mean to be gone so long, but he took an ecclesiastical variant of the Hippocratic oath (e) in the cloister. While he is not bonded to any power or god, he takes it all the more seriously for that.

Learning to bend great arcane powers to defend yourself without doing something that repulsed him was truly a challenge, and time consuming. To explain his exceptional practical wisdom, I wanted to work in lots and lots of historical anecdotes to give him color. I’ll probably wish to make some up on the fly, but I had some basic ideas.
  • He was a vizier to an up and coming (failure of a) Sultan. He mostly was an exotic foreigner, and added to the prestige of his homely court. He tried to help, but he found it a harsh, confusing land, which often brought out man’s worst nature.

  • He was press-ganged by deserters and outcasts who sought opportunity in a land still recovering. This establishes the fact he’s a coward, and was willing to be intimidated if it meant he was stabbed by these men he met by chance. However, he learned something about crime, economics, and surviving outdoors. I wanted to work in with Kirga that we might have crossed paths before, and Leoric used Kirga as a distraction to escape, or as a way to set up the brigands to fail miserably and die. He was pretty bitter and shameful, by the end.

  • He was an intended sacrifice when he ran into some scoundrels who seemed to be willing to buy him drinks and listen to his stories in Nerekhall (f). Turns out, they had made some sort of esoteric magical error and wouldn't be able to sacrifice him at all. Feeling a distinct loss of face in front of the junior professor of Greyhaven, they let him go. The fact they could do something so callous and attend class the next day reminded Leoric of his own school, and contributed to his eventual disenchantment with his life there.

  • A broad category could be defined by his experience as a mercenary, or adventurer. He still feels the doom and gloom from when he was 10, so he doesn't worry about risk when it’s only a potential part of a job. So he’s been reckless, he’s survived, and he learns. He tries to share his wisdom about being beaten, cursed, impaled by traps, falling down pits, betrayal, etc. This lends him an air of humility that would have been godly and pious in the cloister. He’s old enough now he can laugh at that, and who he was, but he still hates pit traps.

I think I’ll call it there for now, two pages is a lot of backstory. This is mostly the stuff I was toying with working in on the fly, but it might make the game a bit easier for you if you already know what it is I’m drawing on. To wrap up the last part before the adventure briefly--

When he did finally come back to the school, he could take care of himself. And he was ten times worse than he ever was in the cloister. Perhaps his age was catching up on him, maybe he is rather preoccupied after learning about some strange rumors concerning upheaval and magical intrigue back in Cathridge thanks to that absentee Daqan Baron "Lord" Zachareth. He declares he’s found a new lead, and he takes off as part of his graduate runecaster work. All the while knowing that considering the circumstances he left under, he’ll never be able to go back.

And he may be okay with that.

(a) Bright, like scribes, not wizards
(b) They told him he could not become a priest
(c) Greyhaven: Best known for the Universities of Greyhaven which have, for generations, been the paragon of magical learning and knowledge of the arcane. Runecasters the world over have learned how to work their magics here. [D1/RtL]
Also houses the Shadow Academy, an underground magic school in Greyhaven, run by Kral the Bone Lich and offering to teach young wizards the forbidden arts in exchange for a piece of their soul. [RB/Web]
(d) Elder Circle, the: A old set of stones arranged in a circular pattern in the Carthridge Downs. A strange cavern is hidden beneath. [D2: The Ritual of Shadows]
(e) Or some variant that makes him reluctant to use the supernatural to hurt. Directly.
(f) Nerekhall: Another center of arcane lore, although not as prestigious as Greyhaven. The wizards in Nerekhall are not as shy about researching the darker arts - such as necromancy - as their counterparts. This cavalier attitude towards the darker arts has been known to cause trouble from time to time, however. [D1/RtL]

- Stupid @ Wednesday, November 13, 2013 9:09 AM PT [+]

We started a new Descent: Journeys in the Dark campaign on Saturday. We are playing the “new”(ish) Labyrinth of Ruin campaign. This was my first time playing as Overlord and I made it really hard on myself by starting this campaign off as an experiment.

Descent was designed as a “dungeon crawler”, but is actually better described as a turn-based tactical combat game. My goal was to use the Descent campaign encounters as the “combat” portion of the play session, and to do some real Role Playing between the descent encounters to better develop the bare-bones campaign story a bit better. Mission goals and objectives would be presented in Role Play and the players would describe their actions in more detail, rather than “I move forward three spaces and (roll dice) hit the goblin for (roll dice) three hitpoints.”

I had prepared a long history of the game world that laid out generations of backstory. My goal was to allow the players to have a rich backdrop to develop their own characters from, rather than coming up with something fresh out of thin air. Unfortunately, when Bob left us last week, that really had a pretty major impact on my mental well-being. This spilled over into our first session. All of the great ideas I had in my mind were pretty much squashed flat and it was really hard for me to get into the story mode. Rather than telling a grand tale of intrigue and betrayal, of magic and war, I fell back to merely reading the words I had typed out. It wasn’t horrible, but I was not able to completely come up with the mystique that I was shooting for.

(I used the simply amazing Runiverse “fluff” files compiled by Steve Williams to put this together. It’s not official, but it should be!!)

After the world was set before them, I asked the players to choose an archetype. I stressed that it was not necessary that they have one of each archetype and that, in fact, it would probably be preferable if they were missing one or two and doubled up on others. I told them that they would be gaining a “non-player” character during the campaign that would fill some missing roles. After a short discussion, they selected their archetypes. I was a bit disappointed that they ended up with the tried-and-true one-of-everything combination. It did happen organically, so I can’t say that they didn’t think about it. It was a conscious decision, not a default position.

Once archetypes were chosen, each player was given a card that described the four classes available within that archetype. Each player individually deliberated over the role they wanted to play. After they selected a class, they were given that class' starting cards, and allowed to review the purchasable skill cards. Amazingly, not a single player asked if they could go back and choose again. I think this shows how much effort they put into their initial selections, and not trying to min/max the party makeup.

(I used the incredibly useful Hero Selection Guide to get to this point.)

After classes were chosen, I gave each player free reign to select a character within their archetype. I reminded them that there was going to be a strong Role Playing emphasis on the game so they should pick a character that was going to complement both their style of play and one that they could personally identify with. Two of the players were able to make a quick decision, within only a few moments. I knew the Warrior archetype would take the longest since it has the most character sheets available, and the warrior player slowed this down a bit by choosing to read each and every Hero Ability and Heroic Feat on every card. I grimaced inside every time I heard the name of some of the known overpowered characters, but none of them ended up on the table.

The group that we ended up with are:

Trenloe (the Strong) – Berserker
Augur Grissom – Disciple
Kirga – Treasure Hunter
Leoric (of the Book) – Geomancer

After this phase was done, I asked all of the players to come up with a short character history and their individual motivations for coming to the adventure site. The looks on their faces varied from shock to terror to amusement to mild disinterest. Despite getting blindsided like that, they all came up with extremely good descriptions. Some were stronger than others, but they did not have much time to come up with their histories and they wanted to be consistent with the world I had already presented. I’m sure that many of these characters break “cannon” for the Runiverse setting, but since we started out with an unofficial world backstory anyway, what does it matter?

In summary:

Trenloe was a fighter in the undead army of Waqar Sumarion. He hated being undead and one day he fell behind his patrol. An (unspecified) miracle occurred and he was restored to life and began to fight for the forces of good. But his memories and dreams are haunted by the atrocities he had committed in his past so he flees to the comfort of alcohol.

Augur was a young dwarf who grew up in The Forge but always wanted to be an adventurer. As soon as he came of age, he grabbed a shield and a mace and went out into the world on his own, armed with only the countless sayings grandmother had drilled into him as a child.

Kirga is an orc refugee who relocated to The Forge in hopes of cashing in on the dwarves near-monopoly on high-quality armor and weapons. She is extremely skilled with a whip and can use it not only to grab items from afar, but is able to spot weaknesses in other’s armor and has an quick eye for finding quality items.

Leoric was a professor at the University of Greyhaven when he was “invited” to take an extended sabbatical after expressing a bit too much interest in some of the younger students.

I have invited each player to expand on their backstories. The only one that has actually been done so far is the story for Trenloe the Strong. I hope to see others soon! Here is what was done:

Trenloe the Strong
Old and Cold. It seemed as if that was all he felt any more. Sitting on a stone bench in an alcove of the Cathedral of Kellos, he the took a deep swig from the half-empty bottle of brandy in his hands. The red and gold armor of his new "god" Kellos comforted him much less than the hot liquor as it slid down his gut. He could feel the alcohol start to dull the memories of his past. It felt like centuries since he had last felt warm. He muttered aloud as he took another long drink. It had been so long....

Trenloe was born poor. His parents were sharecroppers working the lands in central Terrinoth, outside of King Daqan's capital. As he grew from a babe into a young boy, he would often marvel at the power and might of knights and soldiers that would pass by his farmhouse window, off on errant missions. He would daydream of the day that he would become a soldier and visit far off lands.

One night after Trenloe had grown into a young man, he was sleeping in a nearby barn. Hordes of marching soldiers streamed past on the road. Trenloe did not know what was happening, but he knew this was his chance to become a soldier. He grabbed his meager possessions and ran out to join their ranks. At first, the soldiers laughed at him and told him to go home, but his perseverance finally paid off. The Captain of the force told Trenloe that if he wanted to join their numbers, he would have to swear an oath of loyalty and would be expected follow any orders, no matter how strange or unexpected they might be. Trenloe quickly agreed and swore the oath. Little did he know that he had just volunteered in the army of Waiqar Sumarion and was about the attack the city that had been his lifelong home.

During the fight, Trenloe had little choice. His oath compelled him to take up arms and he fought his way into the city square along with others in his new company. Suddenly, a great ring of light exploded form the top of tallest tower in the city, the one belonging to the great wizard Timmoran Lokander. Bright flecks of glowing power streamed away in all directions. All fighting stopped as the combatants on both sides craned to look skywards at the display of power. As the light faded from the sky, Trenloe heard a great voice in his mind, swearing never to rest until all of the Stars were collected. All warmth left him, and he became undead.

Over the next few years, his un-life was one never-ending battle. The Elder Kings rule came and went. The Rebellions changed the names of places, but the land endured and so did Trenloe. Not all the Stars had been found and Trenloe's curse sustained him. The Dragonlords came and new wars erupted, spurred on by Trenloe's master. It during one of the final battles of the Dragon Wars, that mere happenstance gave Trenloe a second chance.

His company had been assigned to guard an old ruined Temple of Kellos not far from the site of his upbringing. He was assigned to watch duty on a crumbling wall when the army of the Free People attacked. A Dragonlord that had been hiding within the Temple burst forth and breathed fire on army. Trenloe was set alight by the dragon's fire. Knowing that it was his doom, he jumped off the crenellations into a deep pool of water, hoping to extinguish the burning fire. But this was a Temple of Kellos and the pool was a blessed spring. As his body plunged beneath the surface, the magical fire of the Dragonlord combined with the fading power of the sacramental water. His head broke the surface and he gasped out the first real breath he had drawn in nearly five thousand years.

The battle soon ended and a Knight of Kellos found Trenloe's now-living body next to the pool of water. It was proclaimed a miracle and Trenloe was immediately made into a Knight. He was taken back to the Free City of Carthridge, given quarters in the Cathedral of Kellos, and equipped to fit his new station. But the memories of his past un-life never left him. He had committed untold atrocities in the service of his Master and those memories weigh heavy on him to this day. He only took comfort in two things: fighting and drinking. Little else interests him.

He channeled his self-hatred into combat training and quickly became one of the strongest fighters on the Cathedral training grounds. He used his great strength to overpower opponents, rarely missing a strike. (Ability: reroll one power die on each attack.) He would often fly into a rage in melee, doing additional damage to his foes. (Skill: "Rage" gain +1 damage.)

When he can no longer fight, Trenloe seeks refuge at the bottom of whatever bottle he can find. Luckily, the sacramental wine used by the church was always on hand, and "convincing" the wineseller to include a barrel of brandy in the deliveries was the least of the sins that Trenloe carries on his conscience.

It is this broken Knight that comes to the Pylia Encampment, searching for... something.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, November 6, 2013 11:28 AM PT [+]

Depression is not be a great place to be, but it sure is one heck of a weight loss program. I'm not sure that I ate or drank anything on Monday. I honestly don't remember. Yesterday, my total intake was one small bowl of cereal for breakfast (that made me cry), a package of Costco trail mix for “lunch”, a small plate of veggie pasta (that I had to choke down - it tasted bitter and salty) and one glass of homemade sports drink for dinner. I've lost six pounds in the last three days.

It’s easier to be at my office and not at our house. I say “our house” instead of “home” because that’s how it feels. There is a feeling that goes along with “home”. It’s like when you’re on vacation or staying with friends. You have a place to sleep and go to the bathroom and that’s good, but it isn’t “home”. When we were in Australia, we stayed in several different apartments and while they were all very nice (except for the one in Melbourne which was extremely disappointing) they never felt like more than a temporary way station. Just a place to stay, a place to live. After being away for three weeks, I was ready to go home and sleep in my own bed, with our Bob.

When he got sick last year, we made changes to our home - subtle changes, but changes nonetheless - to accommodate his needs, to make his life easier, and to keep him happy and warm. We pushed an ottoman up against the front picture window and folded up his favorite blanket on top of it so he could sleep in the sun. We put a cat bed on the dresser in our bedroom, and a second one on the computer desk behind our monitors in our home office. We arranged furniture to create sunny cubbyholes during the day. We bought cans of tuna and then boiled them in water to make a kind of cheap tuna stock. We would mix it in with his food to encourage him to eat more. We would put his food in different places in the house so that he was always near a food bowl, just in case he got some appetite and wanted to nibble on something -- but always in the same place in each room so he would know where to go. He was a small cat, but every single room in our house has a spot where he always was. Eating, sleeping, playing, resting, or just being himself, he was in every room and every room was his to be in.

I woke up this morning and the very first thought I had was “Where’s Bob? Why isn’t Bob laying on us?” He would always nestle between us while we slept. And even though his morning routine was to wander around the house about an hour or two before my alarm goes off, he would almost always make his way back to the bed and crawl on top of us. He would rest in the crook of Karen’s knee while I showered. I would joke that he was making sure that she didn’t float away from me.

He would follow me around the house while I ate my breakfast cereal and he knew the sound of the spoon clinking on the porcelain meant I was getting to the bottom, and that he was going to get the dregs of the milk. If we wasn’t in the room with me (as he often was, pawing gently at my arm as if to encourage me to finish faster) he would come running to the spot at the top of the stairs where I would set my bowl down for him. I would always leave a teaspoon or so of milk in there just for him to clean up. While I laced up and tied my shoes on the top step, I would hear the sound of him clinking the spoon with his nose as he licked his way around the bowl. He got accustomed to drinking cereal milk that he would turn his nose up at milk from the refrigerator; it was too cold and it didn’t have bits of cereal in it.

When I came home from a day at the office, if he didn’t greet me at the door, I could call for him. He would come running, or he would raise his head all bleary eyed from sleep, or (on especially bad days) he would stay on our bed and wait for me to come to him. It was a kind of ritual for both Karen and I to announce our presence at home by notifying Bob that we were there and that he wasn’t alone any more. We would say hello to Bob before we would say hello to each other because Bob was part of our home, part of “us”. Greeting him was as much a part of coming home as opening the door and walking across the threshold.

Coming home to a cold, dark house these last couple of days has been very difficult. His absence in the house is a tangible thing; it is ever present, in every room and in every place. Each time I walk in, I have to fight the urge to call for him, because I know he isn’t there to answer. We’ve eaten our last two meals in a different room than normal. He was always with us when we ate, and I don’t want to face the spectre of his not-being-there. I can’t help but check where his food bowl(s) normally sit, to check if they have been nibbled on. It’s a slap in the face each time I remember that there will never be a food bowl in those spots again.

Karen found a great quote and it has helped me a lot.

"There is a cycle of love and death that shapes the lives of those who choose to travel in the company of animals. It is a cycle unlike any other. To those who have never lived through its turnings and walked its rocky path, our willingness to give our hearts with full knowledge that they will be broken seems incomprehensible. Only we know how small a price we pay for what we receive; our grief, no matter how powerful it may be, is an insufficient measure of the joy we have been given." ~Suzanne Clothier

I miss him terribly. But I feel glad that I got to know him, to share in his life and to spend the last decade with him in my life.

I'm still very sad, but I'm getting through it. I feel hungry today, for the first time this week. At times, the sadness feels overwhelming (again), but other emotions are starting to creep back in around the edges. I actually laughed at a co-worker’s joke today. I’m starting to think about my games and what I want to do for the holidays, and making tentative mental plans for next year. But I still have unexpected random waves of sadness that wash over me, almost bringing me to tears. It seems like my mind and emotions are on a hair-trigger, and the slightest push drops me back into that pit of doom.

Karen and I had a great conversation last night before going to bed. We were trading stories about the wonderful, adorable and amazing things Bob has done. I want to cherish those memories. I suppose it’s all a part of healing, but I still miss him terribly.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, October 30, 2013 1:16 PM PT [+]

I first met Bob almost ten years ago. Karen had just moved in with me (technically our second date but it’s been 10-1/2 years so far and she still makes me deliriously happy). Roommate Dave was living in the spare bedroom with his dog Rufus.

At first he was just a cat that Karen brought in, but it didn’t take long for him to become an integral part of my life. Bob was already a six year old adult cat when we were introduced, and the male figure in life prior to me had not treated him well. When we first met, Bob was a bit shy around me. He would sometimes flinch when I reached for him to pet on him or to move him to different spot on the bed. I don’t think it was more than a couple of months before he finally accepted me as part of his life too. I’d like to think he knew that I wasn’t going to hurt him and that food, shelter and a clean litter box would always be near the top of my priority list.

Bob was named after Bill Murray’s character in the movie “What about Bob?” He was totally unflappable and completely trusting of his human caretakers. Taking him to the vet for the occasional checkup was never a chore. We could just put his cat carrier on the floor with the gate open and he would walk right in, turn around and lie down, and then look at us like we had given him a new place to hang out. Yes, no one likes the vet visit, but when we brought him home afterwards he would never be sulky or vindictive. Instead he was crawl all over us as if to say “That really sucked, thank you so much for bringing me home!”

Bob was burrower. Most cats don’t like confined spaces, but Bob would make it a point to dig under the covers on cold winter nights. We always had to look for a Bob-shaped lump on the bed before flopping down, and there were more than a few times when we had to reach under the covers in the middle of the night to pull him out. I used to worry that he wouldn’t get enough air and suffocate under the heavy covers, but Bob knew when to move around. He loved curling up in the crook behind our knees while we slept.

I knew that Bob loved me when I would come home from work, and he would hear my car in the driveway and greet me at the door. He hadn’t learned to come to greet me for a reward of food, but just to be picked up and put on my shoulders. It was a daily ritual where he would perch on my left shoulder and purr in my ear while I walked around the house putting down my work stuff.

Bob was always super social and very curious. When we would have parties, Bob was never one to shy away from the noise and action of drunken people boisterously playing games. He was always there making the rounds, sitting on everyone’s laps and getting petted by everyone. He would always seek out new people and introduce himself.

Bob was an amazingly smart cat too. It sounds cliché, but Bob was definitely at the top of his class in the intelligence department. I’ve had cats before and Bob was the first one I’ve met that understood that doors could open three different ways. You could push a door open, but if that didn’t work, you could pull the door towards you to open it too. And sliding pocket doors open by pushing to the side, not pushing or pulling. The old saying about a cat waiting at a door for a human to open it for them? Not Bob. We had to specifically latch doors to keep him from opening them himself. If he had thumbs, I’m sure he would have found a way to turn the doorknob too.

During the days when Karen and I would sit in our home office playing MMOs together, Bob would come and find us just to hang out in the same room as us. He didn’t like being left alone in the house and he was always around when we were watching TV or playing video games. If I was home alone, Bob would follow me from room to room doing house stuff. He was always underfoot, but never in the way.

Last year, Bob started getting sick. He would vomit often and he was chewing all of his own fur off. When he went in to the vet, we discovered that he was in renal failure (i.e. kidney disease) and extremely dehydrated. Our vet at the time did not have a positive prognosis, so we switched to closer vet that gave us a couple of meds for his kidneys, suggested some food additives to lower the digestive impact of high-protein foods and gave us saline ringers for sub-Q hydration.

The first question we asked when he got sick was, “Is he in pain?” We decided that no matter what we did not want him to suffer just so that we could keep him around. That would have been selfish for us and cruel to him. It would have been sad to say goodbye, but I would rather deal with that than to put him through a life of torture. After doing a lot of research on kidney disease, which also occurs in humans, and we discovered that the overriding description of the condition was a general feeling of unwellness. It was not painful nor did it have any debilitating symptoms (if treated).

It was a tough few months. He had lost over 1/3 of his total body weight and we had to “spoon feed” him (which is a polite way of saying “force feed”) since his appetite was practically nonexistent. He was getting 75-100ml of sub-Q fluids every other day, which was an ordeal for both him and for us. He continued vomiting often, ruining our carpets, and between the vet bills, medications, ringers and some herbal remedies suggested by the new vet, we were shelling out around $250 a month for him.

It was completely worth it. Within a couple of months, his blood toxin levels were back in the “normal” range and he was back to being his normal self. The vet actually commented that if any other cat had come in with those blood levels they would have called them perfectly healthy. He was still vomiting occasionally, but we just considered it part of the price for keeping our Bob around.

Then on March 25 2013, Bob had an episode where he was panting, as if he couldn’t breathe. Karen noticed it earlier in the week, but cats are really really good at hiding symptoms when they are sick. It was a Sunday night and he started having EXTREME problems breathing. His nose and ears which were normally pink were very pale and he was laying on the floor with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out. We rushed him to the Veterinary ER and it turned out that he had 350mL of lymphatic fluid called Chyle in his chest cavity and it was squashing his lungs to about 1/5 of their normal size. The vet drained the fluid but they gave Bob about a 50% chance of surviving the night.

Neither Karen nor I slept much that night. True to form, Bob had curled up in the bed with us, and every time he moved, we would wake up to check on him and make sure he was still breathing. We had a timer set for every 2 hours to take a closer look at him and make sure he wasn’t having any reaction to the sedative they had given him at the ER.

The next day we took him a feline cardiologist (such things exist!) and they did an ultrasound on his chest cavity, called an echocardiogram. (This is the same procedure they use on humans with congestive heart failure.) The procedure showed that the left side of his heart was atrophied and the right side was enlarged to compensate. They called it “severe dilated cardiomyopathy” which is doctor language for “your heart is leaking fluid into your chest”. They took out another 140mL out of his chest (a total of 490mL in two days – that’s over a full pint of fluid!)

The cardiologist told us that Bob might not survive two weeks, but if put him on a aggressive drug regimen that we might (might!) keep him alive for six months, but that would require a heroic effort from both us and from Bob. (She actually used the world “heroic effort”.)

After a consultation with our normal vet, we put him on a couple of medications. Again, our first question was whether he would be in pain. Again, the answer was that he would not be hurt, but he might be mildly uncomfortable. I can tell you that he did not like getting his pills in the morning and evening. When we first started the meds, he would get all squirmy, but I think he was smart enough to have already figured out that even though it was annoying to have some big human shove stuff in your mouth and force you to swallow it, you would feel better afterwards. He never stopped trying to avoid the pills, but giving them to him was generally pretty easy.

The total cost to get him through the heart issue was nearly $5000 and his meds were running around $100 a week, plus around 20 minutes a day in prep time. Balancing the heart meds and his kidney issues was a challenge, but he was generally healthy once we had him stabilized. We had a large party in May and June and for both events, Bob was being his normal social self, introducing himself to the party guests, sitting on any lap that would let him and getting pet on by many.

The last visit to our normal vet was about 5 weeks ago for a followup echocardiogram. The technician was surprised that his heart had improved as much as it had.

During most days, despite his years and his various medical conditions, Bob would be as playful as a kitten. He would bat around toy mice and chase little bits of paper that we would throw for him. He would curl up in the bed with us every night and he still came running to the front door every time I came home from work. He was ever-present in our home and there wasn’t a day that passed when he did not add joy to our lives.

Bob was a buff colored American shorthaired cat. He died on October 27, 2013 at 11:45 PM. He was nearly 16 years old.

I miss him so much.

- Stupid @ Monday, October 28, 2013 1:44 PM PT [+]

I'm a Hilton HHonors member. I joined this "club" specifically because we've stayed at the Homewood for the last five PAXs and really enjoyed it. When we go on other trips, we usually try to make it a point to stay at a Hilton property because they have done good by us in the past.

I typically make my reservations for Seattle in March, well in advance of the PAX block opening up. I make my reservation through the web and not through OnPeak. It costs a little more, but I'm willing to pay for the peace-of-mind that my reservation will be made, no matter what. This year, I reserved an "accessible" (ie. handicaped) room with one king bed. When we checked-in, they put us in a NON-accessible room. (This isn't a problem, since neither of us is handicapped, but it could have been a deal breaker if we were.) Amazingly, our room was a 2-room suite, with two queen beds, plus a pull out hide-a-bed couch. A bit of overkill for two people, but not unreasonable for the $249/night I had reserved it for.

We happened to be going on the elevator at the same time as BigRed. We got to chatting with him and found out that his group of four people (one of whom was BigRed!) were stuck in a tiny room. We offered to swap, since we certainly didn't need all the space we had, and moving into a lower cost room would help us too.

What we didn't know was that tiny room was more than just tiny. It doesn't include a kitchenette (the main reason we book at the Homewood), and it's no more than 175 sq feet total including the bathroom. And as a "bonus" they raised the room rate from Bigred's original rate of $197 (for four people) to $239 (for two people) for the same fucking room!!!

Homewood is seriously on my shitlist right now. I'm already in Seattle for PAX and using the WiFi in this joke of a room to "explore other options" for lodging. This is not how I wanted to spend my pre-PAX Wednesday night. And if this is how they treat their "valued customers", I'm not so sure I'm going to be looking for Hilton properties in other cities from now on.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, August 28, 2013 8:32 PM PT [+]

This is the final post about our three-week trip to Australia.

We were there in the dead of winter (mid-July) and had been warned about how it was going to be cold. We packed our cold weather overwear, and more-or-less wasted space with it. Apparently in Australia, water freezes at about 60-degrees Fahrenheit, because a great many natives we met continued to tell us how it was “freezing” outside. Meanwhile, we were blissfully traipsing about in jeans and t-shirts, sometimes with a light sweater.

It’s not as if we are conditioned to live in a cold-weather climate. I would posit that a major grape-growing region in Northern California is probably the closest you are going to get to the dictionary definition of “mild” weather. I mean, the week we left, there was a heat wave and we were transitioning from super-hot summertime temps of 100+ (Fahrenheit, of course) to the middle-of-winter. If anything, this should have made the cooler temps all the more biting. And yet, on more than one occasion, I found myself wishing I had packed shorts!

The only possible conclusion I can take from this is that summertime in Australia must be brutally hot.

Anyway, for my final trick, I’d like to stir the pot of inter-city rivalry that is alive and well down there.

I’m not sure I can explain the extent to which this kind of rivalry exists on a national level. In the US, we have sport-ball teams that people will get all upset if you suggest that their favorite team isn’t going to win their championship. In Australia, simply being from a place where you live is a banner worth waving. All the time. It’s really weird. People who used to live at Place A and are now living in Place B will be either apologetic (about moving) or adamant (that it was a good move).

So anyway, here are my impressions of the three major cities we visited. (Having said that, I have little doubt that people from any of these places would question my use of the word “major” in reference to the other two.)

Sydney is a lovely coastal town. It has the big-city feel of San Francisco with the weather of Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, due to our incoming plane flight SNAFU, coupled with a migrane headache one day, and some major issues dealing with mobile phones (which could have been EASILY resolved in minutes if we had known about them before we left the US), the four-and-a-half days we had planned to stay in Sydney were trimmed down to one-and-a-half days.

Our apartment was in Haymarket, right on the edge of the Chinatown district, and we were able to sample some local restaurants. Chat Thai was AMAZING! We did not expect to have such a good feast there, and it really set the tone for our stay. (AS a side note, since our trip, we have both been craving Thai food, mostly because Chat Thai set the bar so high.) Sadly, this was countered by the really awful noodles we had in the Chinatown Food Court. I honestly felt like we had wasted both time and money there.

Of course we took in the iconic Opera house and Harbor Bridge scenery. We opted not to climb the bridge tower, but that could be fun for some. We spent one day wandering around Hyde Park, seeing the ANZAC Memorial, followed by the Royal Botanical Gardens, and ended the day watching the sunset behind the Harbor Bridge from Macquarie Point. (By the way, it’s pronounced “muh-kwar-ee”, not “maa-kuh-ree” like a American would say.) We met up with a local who pointed us towards Love Tilly Devine. This fantastic wine bar is located in a small service alley off of another alley, and from the outside looks very uninviting, and even a bit scary. It literally looks like the kind of place a gang would use as a hideout! (And kinda is.) But inside…? Oh my! The sommelier-slash-owner was VERY knowledgeable about the wines they served and willing to take as long as needed to make sure you got exactly what you wanted.

We also spent some time walking around visiting some of the old cathedrals and churches in the area, ending the day in The Rocks part of town, but we were really tired from our flight and it was the end of the day, so we really weren’t able to get much out of that region.

On our final day we went to the Museum of Sydney, which was neat. They had a lot of interactive displays showing how Sydney had developed. We spent a couple hours there. When we left, the staff told us that we could also visit the Barracks Museum for half-price with our ticket stubs. Since it was our last day in Sydney we thought this would be a nice way to close out our time there. What an amazing surprise! This place had a self-guided tour that really delved into the nitty-gritty of the history of Sydney and New South Wales as a whole. We expected to be in here for a couple hours, but as it was, we spent nearly four hours in there. I really recommend this stop to tourists!

We really never left the ten-block area between Haymarket and the Opera House. I really felt like there was so much more to do and see. We had planned a trip out to Manly one day but never made it. We didn’t get out to Bondi beach. Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Sydney and would love to go back and visit it again sometime.

Canberra is a weird place. I knew that it was a “designed” city, but I had no idea how recent it really was built. While in Canberra we learned quite a bit about the history of Australia as a nation (which was interesting), and how the city had been designed form the ground up as a compromise. Pretty much everyone in Australia hates it, with the exception of the people who live there.

Canberra is not a very city-esque city. It’s more like a planned community. This means that it doesn’t have the high population density of an urban area, and really retains a small-town feel even though it houses over 350,000 people.

Luckily for us, we had a rental car while in Canberra, and took a full day driving tour of the five “hills” that surround the City. Some really great views! Although, speaking as a native of Northern California, these were more like speed bumps than hills. Anyone from San Francisco or Seattle would be amazed that the word “hill” was associated with these topographical features. One of the hills we visited was not an “official” hill, but was home to the Telstra Tower, which is a prominent feature in the Canberra skyline. (It was the first thing we noticed when we got into town.)

The city of Canberra is centered around a man-made lake, complete with a paved running/biking path that goes all the way around on a 28km route. We rented bicycles one day and spent several hours riding this route. Incredibly scenic and easy to access from downtown. We stopped in at the National Library and ended our day at a mini-mall eating some fast-food falafel. While sitting there eating, we noticed a game store called The Games Capital so we HAD to stop in. (Good thing too, as it would turn out.)

Canberra is very close to the northern end of the Australian Alps. Again, the use of the word “alp” has some connotations that aren’t really true here. Yes, it’s rugged terrain and there are some pretty impressive rock formations. But the highest peak in these alps is only 7,300 feet high. It’s pretty comparable to the Santa Cruz mountains. Luckily, there is a lot of hiking trails, and we spent one day walking around in the Namadgi National Park.

We were surprised to learn that there was an Alp Walking Track that is a good approximation of the John Muir Trail we have always wanted to backpack.

After four days in Canberrra we had pretty much seen everything that we wanted to see. We skipped the War Memorial (not really our interest, and we had already seen the ANZAC memorial in Sydney) and we didn’t visit the embassies. Instead we spent our last day at a game con in town, learning a new, unpublished game!

I wouldn’t recommend Canberra as much of a tourist town, but If I had to pick one of the three cities we visited to live in, I would definitely pick Canberra. It felt like a better planned version of Sacramento. It’s close to the mountains (such as they are), within reasonable driving distance of a big city (Sydney is about a 3-hour drive), not far from the ocean (again, about a 3-hour drive) and chock full of outdoor activities like cycling, hiking, swimming, etc. All while being a major metropolitan area with all of the benefits of such. In fact, it felt very much like the city we live in right now, but bigger and better. (And without our local gang, gun and drug problems.)

I know this is going to stir those inter-city rivalries, but Melbourne was probably the biggest disappointment on our trip. It really felt like Melbourne was set up simply to serve as a shopping and food hub for tourists, and there was literally nothing else to do to or see. We were in Melbourne for a total of one week, three days of which were our primary reason for going to Australia: PAX Aus. Despite that, after a couple of days we really ran out of things to do.

We took the free tourist shuttle and rode all the way around the entire loop. We got off and toured a little shopping mall, but it was just more shopping. Walked a bit, and then finished the loop. We got a Myki pass (which isn’t as bad as the locals would have you believe) and rode the train out to St. Kilda which is a beach resort. The day we visited was the warmest July day on record – it was nearly 80 degrees (Fahrenheit). Watched some bikini girls on the beach and found a local community garden, which was kinda neat.

One thing that was really neat about Melbourne was that cultural diversity. Walking down the street you would hear four different languages in a single block. Being from liberal left-coast California, I thought I knew what cultural diversity was, but I was wrong. Melbourne has us beat by a long shot in that regard! Aside from that, however, everything in Melbourne seems to be designed to cost a ton of money, and provide almost nothing in return.

Luckily, we met up with some local people (shout out to Giselle @IDGAMelbourne and Igor @FuzzyPredator for getting us going) and did a little mini-bar hop on Wednesday night (which led to some minor hangover action on Thursday morning). Thursday we went to a gaming session in the evening, and then it was off to PAX!

Overall, I feel like there was more to Melbourne than what we saw. I really wanted to know more about the history of how it developed from a shipping port into a metropolis. But apparently that’s a well-kept secret, not to be revealed to tourists. If your idea of a vacation is to spend a ton of money on shopping and food, Melbourne is your place. If you actually want to see and/or do stuff or learn about local culture… not so much.
As I said in my previous blog post, I’m a planner. I plan things. One thing I had planned on not doing while in Australia was eating out at restaurants every day. To accomplish this, I booked us in “apartment hotels” in each of the various cities we were visiting: Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. As it turns out, my employer had a discount program in all three of these cities. (Actually, they have a discount in most major Australian cities, since the bulk of the firm is based there.) And of course I took advantage of this. This let me get some pretty nice accommodations for a very reasonable rate. I was getting a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and laundry facilities for about AU$175 a night.

Our first stop was in Sydney. We stayed at the Quest World Square. They had a normal hotel-style front desk that was manned 24/7. We arrived around 11AM, but they wouldn’t allow us to check-in until 2PM. They did however allow us to check our bags so we could be rid of them and explore the city a bit. Right across the street (literally, right across the street) was the World Square shopping center, which included a Coles supermarket and a JB HiFi. We went over to JB to buy cell phone SIM cards for our phones, grabbed a cup of coffee, and bought some groceries for later.

The room was a very nice studio apartment. The kitchen included a full refrigerator, a four-burner electric stovetop, a small oven, a dishwasher, and a hot water pot (for tea), toaster oven, and microwave oven. (We took advantage of the kitchen facilities making hot breakfasts and lunches for ourselves. We did not cook dinner while in Sydney.) The bathroom had a stall shower, no tub. The laundry facilities were in a small closet attached to the kitchen and included a stacked washer/dryer unit, large enough to do a reasonable load of clothes. (We took advantage of this the night before we left Sydney, and the machines did a bang-up job.) The television was set up for comfortable viewing either from the bed or from a small loveseat with a coffee table. There was a “breakfast nook” style dining area in the kitchen, complete with a small table and two chairs. Also a work desk with an office-style chair adjacent to the TV. This is where the internet cable was located, right next to a power outlet that we used for charging our various devices – iMac, phones, PSP, etc. Sadly it is cable-only internet (no WiFi was available) at a cost $5.50 an hour or $20 per day. (We declined.) The bed was king-sized and the mattress was thin enough to feel the “ridge” between the two box springs. Not terribly uncomfortable, but not great either.

The entire place was clean and neatly kept, with a full room turn-down on a daily basis. The maid service did not disturb any of our possessions, including the small pile of Australian currency we left on the dining room table. The room was very well lit with three square fluorescent lamps, and a couple of MR16 down lights in the entry hall in front of mirrored closet doors. All of the fixtures and outlets worked as expected.

The only real downside to this apartment was that it is located on a very busy street and there was a lot of noise all night long. Our first night there, a Red vs. Blue AFL game as on and the revelry went on literally until 6AM the next morning. I’m pretty forgiving of drunken celebration (we’ve all been there) but I had been travelling for two days before checking in. Listening to some drunk footie fan belting out his team’s fight song all night long was not fun. Subsequent nights were better, but overall, there was still a lot of street noise that never really went away. Between sirens, shouts, traffic noise, etc. I suppose that is to be expected in a business district of a major urban area.

Our apartment in Canberra was courtesy of the CityStyle Executive Apartments. The property we stayed at was called The Avenue, located on the corner of Northbourne and Barry. Unfortunately, the management office is located two blocks away and is only open during normal 8AM to 5PM business hours. Our check-in information had been sent to my office phone in the US and not to my Australian mobile. This led to a few very tense moments as we were trying to check in at 9PM. I had to locate a working "emergency contact" phone number, when none was posted at the property and there was no indication of how to proceed! It took about two hours to work it out, but once the check-in procedure was resolved, we retrieved our keys and moved in.

The apartment was a very nice 1-bedroom unit. The kitchen included a full-sized refrigerator, a four burner electric stove, a small oven, a dishwasher and a hot-water pot (for tea) and a toaster. There was no microwave oven. A full set of cooking utensils, pots and pans were included. (We used this to make hot breakfasts, lunches and dinners for our stay, including a small pot roast.) There were several different storage containers for storing leftovers in the refrigerator for later reheating. The bathroom had a stall shower, no tub. The laundry facilities were in a closet attached to the bathroom and included a stacked washer/dryer unit, large enough to do a reasonable load of clothes. (We took advantage of this before we left Canberra, and the machines worked fine.) The living area included a full sized dining table with four chairs, a small sofa and coffee table and a television and DVD player. The entry area included a very large desk and office chair, which we did not use at all. A 3G/WiFi hub was available upon request for an additional $20 per week, but we already had local 3G on our mobile phones. The bed was queen-sized and Oh My God! It was like sleeping on a cloud! This bed was so comfortable that we took photos of the brand and are buying one for ourselves!! (If we can get one in the US, that is.)

The apartment was clean and well kept. There was no maid service during our stay, but it was easy to keep the apartment tidy ourselves. Interior lighting was atrocious with small spot lights only. Even with all of the lights on, it was still dim in the apartment. The reflections from the lights off the glass dining table were difficult to deal with while eating. The heating and cooling was provided by a wall-mounted system and the remote-control failed a day before our stay ended. After a quick call to the managers, within hours they had provided plug in heaters for the rest of our stay.

Despite being at the intersection of two very busy streets, there was very little street noise and we were able to sleep very peacefully all night long. Covered car parking was included. There is a SupaBarn market about four blocks away, and the local bus transit hub was two blocks away.

Despite the minor issues we had with this property, we enjoyed this apartment.

Sadly, I cannot say the same of our apartment hotel in Melbourne. Of the three apartments we stayed in, the Punthill Little Bourke was the most disappointing. The check-in desk was only manned between the hours of 6AM and 10PM. Late or early check-ins are done by dialing an off-site manager whom did not know the combination to the key safe. (We found this out from experience, unfortunately.)

The studio was extremely small, about the size of a budget hotel. The “full kitchen” was a mini-fridge that belonged in a college dormitory, a tiny two-burner gas stove, a miniscule wet-bar sink, and a hot-water pot (for making tea). There was no oven and no dishwasher. The sink was too small to wash a single plate. The cooking utensils were extremely limited and only one small sauce pan and one frying pan were provided. No bowls or storage containers were provided. (If they had been, they would not have fit into the refrigerator.) Oddly, the microwave oven was as large as the refirgerator.

The closest market was a Coles that was six blocks away. One kilo of bacon, one dozen eggs, one liter of milk and a few vegetables completely filled the refrigerator. There was also a small freezer that was only large enough for a miniature ice-tray. To use the “kitchen”, it was required to run a very noisy fan full-time to exhaust any cooking smoke or the fire alarm would go off. (We found this out from experience as well.)

The bathroom was spacious and included a full tub and shower, but the shower curtain was a fixed pane of glass that did little to keep the floor from becoming a swampland whilst showering. The laundry facilities were a euro-style combination washer/dryer in one unit, located in the bathroom. We ran two loads of clothes during our stay and while the washer was passable, the dryer simply did not work. A collapsible drying rack was provided and we ended up air drying our clothes. The living area included a very small loveseat and a tiny coffee table.

There was no dining table. We ate our meals seated at the loveseat, using the coffee table.

A small work desk and a single chair adorned the room. The TV was positioned to be watched form the bed only (it was completely across the room from the loveseat). WiFi was available for the standard $20 per day, but we opted not to buy this.

The rooms were not well maintained. The stove was greasy and dirty on our arrival. I accidentally dropped some bread crumbs on the floor while making sandwiches and even though maid service entered our rooms and turned down the linens and towels, the crumbs remained on the floor for three days. The bed was extremely lumpy and uncomfortable and was so old that it had two body-sized depressions where past guests had slept, creating a huge ridge in the center of the bed.

Half-way through our stay, we found ourselves locked out of the hotel. Our card-keys would not let us into the hotel lobby. Luckily, another guest was entering at the same time. He let us in and allowed us to ride the elevator with them to our floor, but our keys would not open our room door. I had to call the off-site late-night phone number, where I spoke to an attendant that had to put me on hold for several minutes while he called someone else for the key-safe combination. Despite providing a local Australian phone number, the hotel did not call us to let us know that our key-cards were going to be replaced mid-stay. I would have expected them to either hand us new keys that day, or slide them under the door in the morning before we went out. At the very least they should have called us to warn us that we might need to get new keys! Instead we found ourselves locked out of a hotel that we had pre-paid for, at midnight on a Wednesday night.

One of the two elevators in the building was out-of-order for our entire week-long stay.

Despite it being the middle of winter, the room was extremely hot. The only window in the room was a sliding glass door that opened into a busy alleyway with foot and vehicle traffic all night long. We resorted to running the air conditioner set to a chilly 18-degrees C, and it ran non-stop for our entire stay. Even with the A/C running constantly, the room temp was maintained around 22-degrees.

Finally, the Punthill had required that we pre-pay for our stay when we booked it in March. At the time, the exchange rate was about US$1.10 per AU$1, so I paid an extra 10% over the published rate due to exchange, plus another 1.5% credit card fee. During our stay the exchange rate had fallen to US$0.93 to AU$1. Because of this, I ended up paying nearly 20% more than it should have cost me, for a room that was sub-standard, not as advertised and extremely poorly maintained!!

The only good thing that can be said about this property is that it is ideally located for Chinatown restauranting. I cannot recommend this hotel to anyone and would actively direct others to stay elsewhere.

- Stupid @ Monday, August 5, 2013 11:16 AM PT [+]

I’m a planner. That is, I like to plan things. When I’m doing something new, I like to go in with some expectations of how things will play out. Obviously one has to be flexible to survive, but I like to have a general idea of a what to expect before embarking on a new adventure. For the month of July, my long-time girlfriend and I celebrated our tenth anniversary by taking a trip to Australia. This was a monstrous undertaking and I had planned out where our trip would take us. Well, I thought so, anyway.

My plan was to fly out of San Francisco on an overnight flight. We would leave just before 10PM, fly all through the night and land in Auckland at 5AM, then transfer to a connecting flight after one hour on the ground (never leaving the airport in New Zealand, so no customs checks!) and then arrive in Sydney just a bit after 7AM. It would be a really long “night” – the total flight time was expected to be 17-1/2 hours - but it was essentially one “night” on an airplane. We would leave SFO late in the evening and then we would be in Sydney the next morning. Well, that was the plan.

As it turns out, the airline I had selected (Air New Zealand) only owns two 747-400 aircraft. The one scheduled to depart SFO for Auckland (our flight) had some sort of mechanical issue that prevented it from leaving on schedule. In fact, the flight was canceled completely. I should point out that ANZ really did go to great lengths to make it right and did a great job of dealing with the issue. Regardless, it really sucked for us.

The flight was rescheduled for 10:30AM the next day, but that would have us flying in the daytime, which was exactly what I didn’t want to happen. Not to mention that our connecting flight to Sydney would have been long gone by then. But there was actually a silver lining! When I was making reservations for the trip, the apartment that I had picked out for our stay in Sydney was sold out for our first night there. To deal with this, we had a reservation in a different hotel for one night. After that first night, we would transfer to the apartment, which was going to be a hassle, but it seemed like the a much better solution than camping on the street. But there was another ANZ flight scheduled for the identical time we had originally planned on, just one full day later. If we simply changed to that flight, we could cancel that one overnight stop and our vacation would continue, just one less day.

When we got to speak to an ANZ representative, we asked if we could do just that. We wanted to transfer our reservations to the same flight on the next day. Sadly, we were told that flight was at capacity. (I’m not really convinced this was true, but that’s what we were told and I wasn’t going to start accusing anyone of anything in the middle of the airport.) We mentioned our connecting flight to Sydney, and this got some attention. It turns out that we were “special” since we had one of the few connecting flights that could not be accommodated by the 12-hour delayed/rescheduled flight.

The ANZ people pulled us aside and told us that there was a possibility that we could get on to an United Airlines non-stop from SFO to SYD, leaving in about an hour, and dropping us in Sydney about two hours earlier than expected. This was an even better deal, since it would still have us there as expected, minus a layover and plane change, and in less time. The catch was that there were a limited number of meals on the plane and unless they had food for us, we wouldn’t be allowed to fly. The ANZ people were frantically calling the SFO catering folks to see if additional meals could be transferred.

While we were waiting, we got to watch them process several other people. They were handing our vouchers for a local hotel in Millbrae, which is where the majority of the SFO hotels actually are. As we watched, they started to run out of vouchers and started parking people off to the side, as they called around trying to find rooms for everyone. After about a fifteen minute wait, we were told that the United flight was a no-go. We were destined to get onto our 12-hour late plane the next morning. They checked our luggage, gave us a credit voucher for staying at the Embassy Suites in South San Francisco, told us where to catch the shuttle and sent us on our way.

We checked in to the Embassy suites around 10:30PM. The first question we asked the hotel staff was, “How late is your bar open?” We had both been pretty stressed out by this whole process, and really wanted a drink. Thankfully, the bar was open until 11PM. During the conversation, the hotel staff asked us why we were going to Auckland, and we explained that this was our tenth anniversary trip. After checking in, we went up to our room, dropped our carry-on luggage (in which we had thoughtfully packed a spare set of underclothes and spare shirts) and went back down to the bar. We ordered a couple of drinks and some fries. While sat there, a second shuttle pulled up and about 50 people from our flight, the ones that had been “parked” at the airport, got off. It took the hotel a good 20 minutes to process all those people. By that time we were already on our second cocktail.

The very nice lady from the front desk stopped in to the bar and told the bartender to comp our drinks since we were on our 10th Aniversary trip, which was really nice. (I’m almost certain that she charged Air New Zealand for that, but whatever… Free Drinks!!) After our nightcap, we trundled up to our room and got off to sleep. For about 6 hours.

See, by the time we had gotten through all of the rescheduling and shuttling and checking-in process (not to mention two drinks each), it was nearly midnight. Our flight was scheduled for 10AM and the shuttle left the hotel at something like 7:45. So we set an alarm before going to sleep, then got up, caught a quick shower and then headed back to SFO for our “overnight” flight that was now going to be in full daylight for the entire trip, landing in Auckland about 10 minutes after sunset.

Overall, the flight wasn’t bad. I had hoped to sleep for most of it (or at least doze), but since it was now a DAYTIME flight, we got a full assortment of meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a couple of snacks at various times. The aircraft had a built-in in-flight entertainment system and I watched Wreck It Ralph while Karen watched Hitchcock. I really enjoyed my movie, and recommend it. Karen spent about a half hour typing up a blog post about hers. Later we both watched Cloud Atlas at the same time and we shared a smile and a laugh at a few points in the movie. (For the record, it’s a VERY long and very deep, thought provoking film. I think it really lost a lot of presentation being shown in ultra-low resolution on a badly lit 9-inch LED screen, but I’m not willing to sit through it again just for improved visuals!) It was a solid 12-1/2 hours in the air, and it wasn’t exactly an easy ride, but it wasn’t as unpleasant as I thought it would be, I had planned on hitting my PSP and/or the DS for the bulk of the time, but really didn’t even get them out at all. It was nearly impossible to sleep however.

We arrived in Auckland about a half hour later than the delayed flight was expected. After checking with the ANZ people, we were told that we were going to be on the very next flight to Sydney, which left at (you guessed it) 8AM the next day. Not to worry though, we were going to be comped a night at a local hotel (again). BUT since we were going to overnighting in New Zealand, we were going to have to collect our luggage, and go through customs. That process took about two hours.

Eventually we boarded our shuttle to the hotel, only to be greeted by an enormous group of people already in the queue to check-in. We had been lucky in South San Francisco, but this time we were the late-coming group, so we had to wait in line to be processed. And the hotel staff in New Zealand was nowhere near as efficient as the staff had been in SouthCity. Once again, it was well after 10PM before we got checked-in and into our room. And this time our flight was even earlier! We needed to be back on the shuttle at 4:45AM the next day, so we skipped dinner and went to bed. For a second night in a row, we only got around five or six hours of sleep.

The next day was much smoother. After getting up at Oh-My-God-Are-You-Fucking-Kidding-Me o’clock, showering, catching the shuttle to the airport, re-checking our bags for a three-hour international flight (New Zealand to Australia is international!) and boarding our final plane for the “day”. We had landed in New Zealand at night (in the rain!) and were leaving before dawn. While we can say that we spent time in New Zealand, we didn’t see anything aside from a rainy nighttime and pre-dawn street.

By the time we landed, and then went through Australian customs (which was SUPER easy – you scan your passport on a machine, then a dude asks you if you have any food or drugs and off you go. Seriously, the entire process took about 2 minutes!) it was nearly noon, a full day later than we had expected to arrive. We skipped the one-night transit hotel completely (and amazingly they actually did not charge me for the cancelation, even though they had every right to bill me anyway) and went to our first apartment hotel.

We were in Sydney!

- Stupid @ Monday, July 29, 2013 10:28 AM PT [+]

Last week was the annual geek-fest E3. The major fallout from that (at least in my world) has been mostly bashing on Microsoft, so why shouldn’t I put out my two-cents as well, right? As a kind of disclaimer, I should point out that I currently own Microsoft stock, and have a vested financial interest in seeing them be (more) profitable. I’ll also say up front, right now, that I am leaning heavily towards the Sony camp.

Let’s ignore the public relations nightmare that Microsoft has created. Personally, I think many of the arguments against the B.S. that Microsoft is trying to pull are, in fact, pretty valid. However, I have a full time internet connection; I have a game room that is almost letter perfect for the kinect where I don’t really have any real privacy concerns; I live in a country where I will get support; and I can honestly say that outside of the nine months where I was a GameFly customer, I have never sold, traded, or returned a game after I purchased it. In short, for me, specifically, none of the Xbone “issues” really apply.

However, there is one issue that really gives me pause, and that is the issue of price. A hundred bucks is not going to make or break me, but I’m not so blasé that I just go around dropping benjamins like they are growing on a tree in my backyard. $100 is more than I spend on food for a week and it's more than I spend on gasoline in an entire month. When Sony introduced the PS3 and it was $100 more than the Xbox 360, it was a big deal. It was a big deal in 2006 and it’s still a big deal today.

The PS3 was a financial disaster for Sony for the first three years. It wasn’t until the “slim” model was introduced in 2009 that Sony actually started making money on selling these things. The Xbox 360 maintained a price advantage and as a result maintained a very healthy sales advantage until January of this year – over six years after release! Personally, I believe that the one of the main reasons that Sony was even able to catch up was because the Xbox 360 completely saturated the console market – everyone that was going to buy one, already had one – and consumers really only had one other option for a current generation console. (Plus, Sony has been doing great job of putting out good quality games for the last couple of years with some very well received exclusives.)

I would say that, historically speaking, the price issue hurt Sony a lot over the last seven years.

I think it’s safe to say that the Nintendo Wii was not exactly the pinnacle of entertainment technology. From a technology standpoint, it's pretty lackluster compared to either the Xbox 360 or the PS3. But it does have two things going for it. One was the “innovative” motion controlled WiiMote. This captured the fancy of casual non-gamers, who didn’t have to deal with a 16-button controller, dual thumbsticks and a D-pad. You just picked the thing up and started swinging it around. It's terribly easy to control and made the system an easy sell to non-gamers.

Even more important for the majority of consumers was the price point. Imagine a typical consumer in 2006, standing in WalMart looking at these newfangled vidya gamer boxes. There are three systems, side by side. They all have some technical gobbledygook written all over them about framespersecond, resolutions, HDTV, blu-hd-cdrom, HDMI, whatever! While this stuff is the wet dreams of engineers and hardcore gamers, Joe Consumer doesn’t know what any of it means and (quite frankly) doesn’t care. All he cares about is “is it a video game thing, does it hook up to my TV, and will it make little Billy and Sally stop pestering me?” Three boxes, all incomprehensible, priced at $600 (PS3), $400 (Xbox 360) and $250 (Wii). Despite being by far the “loser” in the technology race, the Wii flew off store shelves! One would have to be delusional to try to deny that it’s low price point was not a factor in this phenomenon.

Anecdotally, I work in an engineering office with about 100 people. All of them are what would be politely described as “above average intelligence” (in other words, a bunch of know-it-all geeks), and operate at a fairly high level of technological competence. At least ten people I work with bought a Wii system within a year after it came out. Not because it was “better” for games, or fit in their lifestyle better. No, for most of them the driving factor was the price! In fact, one of them bought the Wii specifically to play Rock Band after playing it on my PS3. (I used to host an after-hours Rock Band group in our office’s conference room.) He bought the Wii version because it was less expensive. After all, why pay more for the same thing, right?

While it’s fair to say that the majority of consumers play single-player games in offline mode, there is a pretty significant percentage of people who play online multiplayer. The most common of these are first-person shooters like Call of Duty, but there are also other type of multiplayer games: racing games, card games, fighting games, strategy games, online multiplayer role-playing games, and even online play in old games like Rock Band.

These systems, be it a XBone, PS4, SteamBox, pocket calculator, or whatever... these gaming systems exist as entertainment devices. The system specs are fun and interesting to technology grognards like me, and to hardcore gamers that expect to wring every possible iota of performance from their consoles. But for most people, the biggest factor is price. And a hundred bucks is… a hundred bucks. That $100 difference *is* going to matter.

When this holiday season come around and the general consumer (not the hardcore gamer) is standing in front of the games section in WalMart and they see two very similar looking black boxes, both play games, and one is $100 cheaper, there is going to be a lot of pressure to go with the less expensive one.

Personally, I really enjoy multiplayer. I’m absolutely horrible at first-person-shooters, mostly because I’m a goofball with a controller. Give me a keyboard and mouse controls and I’m slightly above average, but I never touched a controller until I was in my late 30s and I just don’t have the muscle memory to make them work. It shows! (Having said that, the E3 demos of 'The District' and 'Destiny' are pretty compelling. I might have to go on a “controller training session”.) Regardless, I really enjoy multiplayer games. That means I need someone to play against/with.

When the vast majority of consumers are on a specific system, there is a lot of pressure to go with that same system. This is why, even though I already owned a launch-model PS3, my preference was to play games on the PS3, and the PS3 offered more games that I wanted to play, I ended up buying an Xbox 360. The vast majority of people I know are on Xbox-Live. If I want to play a game with my friends, it’s going to be on the 360. It doesn’t matter how much “better” I may think the PS3 is than the Xbox 360, my gamer friends are on XBL so that entices me to play multiplayer there. This will hold true for multiplayer games on the XBone and PS4 as well. Whichever system takes an early lead will require a lot of momentum to overtake.

Interestingly, last week put up an informal survey asking people to indicate which system they are more likely to buy. After only two days, the poll was taken down, with the PS4 getting over 95% of the votes. (See article HERE.) Now, this may be a bit disingenuous since there was so much bad press from Microsoft and Sony was doing their very best to capitalize on that. This same poll may end up being equally skewed in the opposite direction in five months, but I doubt it. Regardless, the point that the market tends to follow the early leader remains. And at this time, at least, it looks like Sony is that leader.

Finally, as an aside, assuming that Microsoft stands firm on the issue of requiring a full-time internet connection (which is far from assured at this early date), I have to believe that there will be an extremely high XBone return rate in January. Many "normal" people simply don’t have a full-time internet connection in their living room, where the XBox goes, or in their bedroom, where it might potentially go. (This is patently untrue for gamers or internet users, so if you’re reading this, I’m not talking about you!) When it misses a 24-hour check-in and stops playing games (even single player games!) John Consumer isn’t going to care about cloud-saves, external processing or stream-while-you-play features. All he is going to care about is that he can’t play games on a system that he already bought, and is going to pack the whole thing back up and return it to WalMart and buy a PS4.

It’s still only June, and November is a long ways off. A lot can change. But for now, it looks pretty likely that Sony is going to have a winning system this holiday season.

- Stupid @ Monday, June 17, 2013 1:41 PM PT [+]

For the dozen or so regular readers of this blog, you may have noticed something new has appeared here in the last day or so. I’m referring, of course, to the nice shiny new RSS icon in the upper right. If you’re not a regular reader, I can’t say I blame you since my updates are sometimes fairly sporadic, and unless you happen to follow me on twitter or Google Plus, you probably wouldn’t click back. Even if you do follow me on one (or both) of those networks, clickthroughs are rare.

Last week, Brian “psychochild” Green posted an article on his blog about the relative paucity of MMO blogs. This touched off a short conversation about my own blog and the very small amount of traffic I have. I’d like to think that I do more than (as Brian put it so elegantly) “vomit words into an input box.” (This particular article may violate that rule. You be the judge.) Last year, when GW2 was in beta testing, my various class descriptions actually gained bit of notoriety among followers of the game, and over the years I’ve had a lot of game developers and publishers link to my writing.

But, as mentioned, clickthroughs are rare. Google says that their RSS products really don’t get that much use, but everyone I’ve talked to about my blog says that the number one reason they don’t follow is because there is no RSS feed. Well, this weekend I spent some time and added one.

You may not realize it, but this blog (like most blogs you read) doesn’t actually exist in any real sense. The HTML text that you are looking at right now isn’t stored on a server anywhere. The text data is stored in a perl-based multi-level database, extracted by a custom CGI script and output to your web browser as a HTML page. I wrote the handful of scripts that run things here in 1999 as part of a project to create a Guild webpage for my old EverQuest guild. The scripts allow for any authorized user to authenticate and enter an article, and anyone with read access (i.e. anyone) to view those posted articles. It was intended that all guild officers would have write access.

In late 2000, I switched from playing Everquest to playing Dark Age of Camelot, and my guild webpage project was abandoned. In December of 2002, I made some very minor changes to those scripts and started blogging. At the time I was going through some very rough personal issues and I really needed the creative outlet to keep myself sane. (If you want to see them, those old posts are still archived here – click on the little plus sign at the bottom of any post there and scroll down as far into the past as you want.) Aside from being my own personal shoutbox, the blog really didn’t serve any purpose back then and eventually slipped off my priority list.

In May of 2007, I revisited the scripts and updated from table-based formatting to actual CSS, and to repair the damage done by moving to a new type of webserver. That was the last time I touched the scripts until this weekend.

Despite being over six years since I’d even looked at the code, I was happy to find the well-commented and really straightforward. The script that outputs individual articles, it reads the database entries and then outputs them as HTML which essentially “builds” the page you are looking at right now. It seemed like a pretty trivial task to modify the output to dump XML formatted correctly as a RSS feed. The problem is, I didn’t know what valid XML looked like, so I had to learn that first. As I started editing scripts, I quickly realized that it is far more than just changing a few tags to make this work. Actually, that may not be entirely true, but the way THIS blog works is that it uses several HTML templates and then does a kind of “mail-merge” to insert the actual data. For example, the heavy blue line at the top of each entry is a specific HTML file, the body of each entry is a second, and the little “signature” line at the bottom of each entry is a third.

In order to make the HTML turn into XML was starting to require a lot of conditionals. Pretty much every line in my script was turning into “if HTML do THIS, if XML do THAT.” It was not a good strategy. I was getting frustrated and after nearly six hours of reading about RSS standards and coding, I was only about 25% done with the scripting, and had done none of the verification that it actually worked. I needed a break, so I went downstairs, got quietly drunk while watching Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’s 2nd Gig.

But, as my mind often does, I kept working on the problem. And at 8am the next morning, without having looked at the code, doing any research, or even really giving it any conscious thought, I had a solution. What I was trying to do was create XML for the readers on-the-fly, the same way I create the HTML. But, really, when you think about it, the only time the XML changes is when a new article gets posted. And I already have a script that runs specifically when that happens. Why not create a new script that specifically creates the XML and then trigger it to run when a new posting is made. That way the XML is always up to date and I don’t need any conditionals at all. Plus, I could manually trigger it to create the XML without any “live” activity in order to test my feed.

Using this strategy, the entire thing fell into place in less than 4 hours. I had a few coding issues - I’m not a programmer by trade and every time I do scripting I basically have to re-learn perl – but the web is an amazing resource.

So (if you’re still with me), no longer do you, the reader, need to click on anything. There is now a valid RSS feed for this web page. You can add it form the RSS icon in the upper right, or by manually entering the URL Welcome to my blog.

- Stupid @ Monday, June 10, 2013 10:07 AM PT [+]

I like Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. I like them a lot. When I’m not actively playing a MMO with a monthly fee (and sometimes even when I am) I sample Free-to-Play (F2P) MMOs as a kind of hobby. Since I started playing these types of games in 1984, I’ve probably been a “tourist” in several dozen different AAA MMOs and probably around a hundred different F2P titles.

When I try a new F2P game, I’m usually going in with one of two expectations. Either it’s going to be a cash-ship pay-to-win scheme, or it’s going to have ultra-low production values. In short, I’m not usually going in to these things thinking it is going to be the Next Big Thing, or that I’m going to be playing this new title for the rest of my life (or even for the rest of the month)! Because my expectations are so low, I usually make a deal with myself. I play each game long enough to find three things that are fun, innovative or unique.

Recently, I tried Cryptic’s new F2P MMO Neverwinter. Ostensibly, this is a Dungeons and Dragons game, based on the current D&D ruleset. Supposedly it is based on the old PRG and semi-hosted MMO called “Neverwinter Nights”. I wouldn’t know about either of those things. I haven’t player real D&D since I was in Junior high School (in the early 1980s) and I was too busy playing Dark Age of Camelot when Neverwinter Nights was released to notice it.

In a nutshell, Neverwinter is a standard DIKU-style MMO. Unfortunately for Cryptic, I feel that the days of the DIKU-MMO are in twilight and we really don’t need another. I know a lot of people would disagree with me, but the standard for comparison in today’s DIKU-like MMO marketplace is Guild Wars 2, not World of Warcraft. And I’m sorry to report than Neverwinter simply does not hold up. In fact, it does such a great job of not comparing well, that even after playing a character to level 20 (1/3 of the max level and certainly enough to get a good flavor for the game), I couldn’t find my typical three things to say about it. Instead, this posting will be the three things I found very confusing about Neverwinter.

But before we get too negative, let’s start at the beginning.

Character creation is pretty typical for a fantasy MMO. The race and class selection is a bit unique in that - I assume – it comes from D&D races and classes. (Again, I’m not a D&D player so I’m just guessing here.) The descriptive text really doesn’t tell you much about the backstory of the races, or which classes excel at what skills. I assume that the player is expected to already know this going in since D&D is apparently all-prolific and well understood amongst the potential playerbase. (Note: this isn’t true, and it is a place where Cryptic could improve the appeal of the game to new players with very little investment.) After a bit of web-based research, and according to my normal playstyle preferences, I created a “tank” class. I prefer to have something resilient to play around with. In this case, I chose a half-elf Warrior Guardian. Clearly not an optimal choice, but I’ve found that the difference in DPS output is so small at low levels to be insignificant, whereas the survivability of a tank class at low levels is really high. That makes a baby tank an ideal test case.

The graphics in Neverwinter are very reminiscent of Rift. Whether you think Trion’s graphics were great or not, this has a lot of the same feel. Each time I logged out of Neverwinter, I would replay Rift zones in my mind for some reason. In fact, after my first session with Neverwinter, I kept having flashbacks to the tutorial zone in Rift. Speaking of tutorials, the opening levels of Neverwinter are pretty decently done. There’s nothing too surprising here, as far as gameplay mechanics. The tutorial areas and on-screen popups do a moderately good job explaining where the various widgets are and what they do, how the skill system generally works. Instanced content is not very well explained, but newbie areas in general are designed to be really easy, so it isn’t hard to just muscle right through it.

I should point out that the very first thing I did, before I even took my first step, was to turn off the zone-wide chat channel. I’ve found that generally, the “easy” chat channels tend to evolve into an XBOX-esque pit of filth, racism, misogyny and generally unsavory stuff. (Note: I’m far from easy to offend. But there are a lot of players who get kicks out of giving misleading answers to newbie questions, so I consider that kind of chat channel to be almost completely worthless when it comes to learning a new game.) For me, aside from any very limited voiceovers, the game was nearly silent. I never saw any other player say a single thing. I may have missed several messages directed at me in the zone chat, but since I had squelched it, I’ll never know.

In terms of initial immersion, I really felt like Neverwinter has taken a giant step backwards from GW2. In fact, it was very reminiscent of the first time I played EverQuest, after coming from Ultima Online. In UO, the cities felt very alive. There was chat everywhere on the screen, and people bustling about on their personal tasks. Even the NPC merchants had a schedule. If it was night time they would be at their house. If it was daytime they would walk to their store and start buying and selling stuff. Guards stood around, and when a player did something “bad” they would dispense justice with a witty slaying. Going to EQ was a shock. The NPC merchants didn’t have storefronts, and in some cases didn’t even have buildings. They were just a non-descript NPC standing stock-still in one place, unmoving. Chat was limited to the chat box (as it still is today!) and unless you made a point to mentally connect that disembodied text with the figures shown on the screen, it felt very… dead.

Coming from Guild Wars 2 to Neverwinter felt very much the same. If you stand in a city in GW2, there is ambient voiceover chatter. Yes, if you stand still for 5 minutes it will repeat, but it exists! Click on a random NPC and the majority of the time, they’ll say something. NPCs wander around doing whatever pre-programmed thing they do. Again, if you stand and watch them it is completely fake, but at least it moves! Not so in Neverwinter. The NPCs didn’t move from their pre-assigned locations. Even when you click on characters, most of the time they don’t have voiceovers, it’s back to text boxes. It feels very silent, and the game did not feel alive to me.

Eventually, I got through the newbie stuff and was dropped into the first quest city. (Maybe the only city? I wouldn’t know.) This is where my experience, which was none to good already, took a huge turn for the worse. Apparently there are seventeen different forms of currency in Neverwinter and none of them exchange. All of the “gold” I had been accumulating up to this point is essentially worthless outside of the tutorial area. There is a cash shop currency – understood since this is a cash shop F2P game. But there are also two different flavors of crystals, and at least three different “seals”. Again, none of them seem to be equivalent or tradable, so if you find a Lion Seal vendor and all you have is Unicorn Seals, you can’t buy anything. This really confused me, and there didn’t seem to be any kind of in-game tutorial explaining what these different currencies are, where they come from, or what seals the different vendors use. (I later figured this out, but only after about 10 hours of play.)

Another thing that took me ages to figure out was crafting. Crafting in Neverwinter is not like standard MMO crafting and this is probably one of the very few things I actually like about the game. In Neverwinter, you can craft from ANYWHERE in the game by opening a UI widget. Your very first crafting task is to create a kind of “henchman resource”. (Not to be confused with “henchmen”, since they have actual henchmen in the game that you can buy and help you out in combat.) Once you have done that, the actual crafting is done by this “resource”. It uses materials from your inventory, and deposits the end result back in your inventory, but essentially it does the crafting off in an alternate dimension that you don’t have to worry about. Obviously, more difficult items take longer to create, and there is no crafting queue, but it is easy to start the guy doing something whilst you’re off doing a quest, then starting a new task 20 minutes later. My absolute favorite part of this system is that crafting still progresses when you are offline. So you can queue a very difficult, costly, or bulk order item that takes (for example) 6 hours, then log off for the day. And then the next time you log in, your item is ready for pickup! That’s pretty neat.

The final bit of confusion I had about Neverwinter was the actual skill system. It uses a pretty standard skill system where you gain one point each level, and then spend them on skills which are increasingly expensive to buy and/or upgrade. The thing that caught me was that some of the better skills has a tool tip that says something like “Unlocks at xx skill points.” So I picked out a few advanced skills that I felt would complement my playstyle and started saving. Well, as it turns out, that tooltip is incorrect and misleading. What it actually meant was “Unlocks at level XX”, even if you didn’t have the skill points saved up, or had already spent them. In fact, when the skill unlocks (at level xx!) it only costs ONE skill point to buy, and one additional point to upgrade. What this meant was that, until I discovered this, I was using sub-standard skills, and fewer of them. No wonder I was having a lot of trouble with low-level content!!

The supposed “hook” for Neverwinter is layer generated content via something they call The Foundry. This is a little toolpack that allows the player to generate in-game quests using the resources that the game has provided. For example, you could use a given map, repopulate it with different monsters and set up different triggers form the normal game. While it’s an interesting idea, the quests are limited by the tools, so they are always “go here” or “kill this”. The narrative that surrounds those two basic tasks may change, but unless you’re a lore buff, or you really like reading other peoples badly written D&D fan-fiction, it really doesn’t add anything to the game.

The final killer for me was gearing. This is probably related to my currency misunderstandings. But at level 20, most of my gear was patchwork, a little of this, and a little of that, with nothing that synergized and very few things that helped my specific style of play or my character.

Overall, Neverwinter was an interesting little diversion, but I don’t miss it, I’m not excited to see what’s around the next virtual corner, and I’m certainly not chomping at the bit to get back to playing it. If anything, it stands head-and-shoulders above its MMO peers as a shining beacon of mediocrity.

- Stupid @ Monday, May 20, 2013 5:43 PM PT [+]

One of things I maintain on this blog site is a “wish list”. It’s over there on the left side toolbar, at the top, red text on a green background (with no apologies to color blind readers). I typically keep this pretty much up-to-date with a variety of gift ideas. These are things I “want”, and even though I do have the financial wherewithal to buy them for myself I don’t “need” them, so they are gift ideas.

During the Holiday season last year, I received some duplicates. Specifically my Sister and my Mother both ordered the silent sweep wall clock that I had been lusting after for several years. We all got a good laugh out of that since I had been “wishing” for this clock for at least five years, and then when I got one, I ended up with two!!

Anyway, I kept the one my Sister bought and my Mother volunteered to send hers back to amazon for a refund or a gift card. Well, she surprised me by trading it in for a game that I had on my list: Nike+ Kinect Training. It arrived a couple of weeks into January, but we’ve been dealing with several minor disasters in the last few months, so I really didn’t even look at it until March. Well, I’ve finished my first 4-week training session with it and wanted to post my impressions.

In a nutshell, it's a really good product and great at what it does. If you have an Xbox360 and a kinect, and have any desire to “get in shape”, there are a lot of worse options. For example, playing Dance Central, while fairly taxing from an aerobic standpoint, is not going to be nearly as effective, nor as quick, as Nike+.

The first session with Nike+ is a kind of “evaluation”. The game asks you to so some basic exercises and stretches as a baseline. It does a pretty good job of making it impossible to “cheat” since the kinect sensor is what is evaluating you. It’s doesn’t really let you lie and say “Oh sure, I can jump three feet to the left while clearing a 6-inch hurdle!” or “Yeah, running in place for 90 seconds is easy!” You might think you can, but when it comes down to brass tacks, you probably can’t.

Once you finish the evaluation, the game allows you to select a main goal and then tells you how you stack up against other players in your same age group. The idea here is that the “competitive” athlete/gamer is going to want to try and increase their score over time. Frankly, I found it pretty demoralizing. A typical “easy run” for me is a quick 6 mile run. I bicycle to work at least one day a week. I’ve completed a half-ironman triathlon in the last decade. In my mind, I’m generally pretty fit for my age. But, according to my evaluation, I scored in the bottom 1/3 of players my age. That doesn’t encourage me to play more, it makes me depressed!

Once you get into the main game, the workouts in Nike+ are really well balanced. Depending on what goal you have selected, there are strength workouts that use your body weight as resistance, flexibility workouts, and cardio/aerobic workouts. Even though the workouts can be as short as 25 minutes, you will sweat!!

A lot of the exercises are a lot of fun too! There is one where you stand in the middle of your room and virtual walls come from one side or another, with a small “gap” or space. The goal is to move your body to avoid the walls. It’s a lot harder than you would think, but it’s a lot of fun. Another interesting one is “dodgeball”, where the game throws virtual soccer balls at your on-screen avatar. Rather than moving a joystick or D-pad to dodge, you have to actually move your body to avoid being hit. Fun!!

BUT (and there is always a big but):

The game really expects you to be in reasonably good fitness and fairly flexible before you start. There is no (so-called) couch-to-fit workout. As I mentioned, I’m in pretty good shape for my age, and some of these workouts are very difficult for me. I actually had to stop doing some of these routines because I just plain ran out of air. And the supposed "cooldown" stretches are simply a non-starter. As a runner/cyclist/triathlete, I have really tight hamstrings; I had one real life personal trainer describe my legs as “like a bowstring”. I just don’t have the flexibility to do many of these things.

The most eggregious problem is that the workout will not adjust the workouts to accommodate a chronic injuries. After over a decade of running, coupled with poor posture and ergonomics of working in an office, I have a bad left knee. But the game still expects me to do to deep knee squats and deep lunges. While some people might say “no pain, no gain”, I’ve found that to be wrong. Plus, we’re not talking about “oh that’s a little sore” kind of pain here. When I tweak my left knee, it’s more like “rolling on the floor screaming” kind of agony. I’ll often get a zero score on some exercises simply because they aren't possible for me to do. In one notable session, I quit the game in frustration because it gave me several things to do that I could not complete, and then after 20+ minutes of not-working-out, it asked if I wanted to do another set! No, I don’t want to waste my time doing pointless stretches that I can’t do!

Finally, there is the kinect tracking itself. Most of the time it is pretty usable, but occasionally it just goes wonky. It will sometimes tell me to "slow down" when I'm already motionless, or miss me doing a rep of something I've done perfectly, or count a rep of something I didn't do. It might tell me to “go lower” when I’m sitting on the floor, or ask me to move my feet further apart when I’m already spread-eagled. Sometimes I just need to turn slightly without changing my position or form and suddenly I’m “doing it right”. While the tracking is better than pretty much every other kinect game I’ve played, it’s far from perfect.

Despite these pretty significant drawbacks, it is a really fun and challenging workout routine. It’s definitely not as good or as valuable as having a real life personal trainer that can adjust the workouts to accommodate different failings and strengths. I’m also kind of mystified why such a product exists at all. It’s really targeted at the casual “hard core” athlete, who happens to own an XBox360 and a kinect (a real ‘hardcore’ athlete would be paying for a real personal trainer). I just don’t see this game having a large market.

Having said all of that, if you’re looking for a fun workout game – or if you’re playing Dance Central to “get in shape” – you should definitely give this one a spin. Now that summer is here, I’ll probably be playing this less and going outside more, but when the weather starts getting cooler in the Fall, you can be sure I’ll be picking this up again!

- Stupid @ Monday, April 29, 2013 4:18 PM PT [+]

I recently finished both of these outstanding games and I wanted to talk a bit about them with respect to one another. If you’re a skimmer and don’t care to read the massive wall-of-text that is in front of you, let me say this up front and save you some time: I liked Tomb Raider better. Why I liked it better is a much more complex issue. So let’s compare the two games. (This is a *SPOILER FREE* comparison.)

Tomb Raider is a complete reboot of the 1996 franchise of the same name. I played about half of the original Tomb Raider game when it was first released, but never finished it. I was a 30-year old man at the time and the supposed draw of a low polygon-count pneumatic Lara Croft wasn’t enough to encourage me to play any of the successive games. The new reboot is a new storyline that does not require any knowledge of the prior games, nor is it a continuation of any of the storylines. Essentially, other than being connected by name, it is a new game.

Bioshock Infinite is the followup to the Bioshock games originally released in 2007, with a sequel in 2010. I did not play either of those games, but as a gamer I am familiar with the basic setting and storylines of both. This new game is set in a completely new environment and doesn’t depend on the earlier games in either story or background information. Essentially, other than being connected by name, it is a new game.

Initial reactions
Games, like all entertainment, really need to have a strong initial hook. The first few minutes of gameplay are crucial in getting the player involved with the game. There are lots of different ways of accomplishing this. Tomb Raider has great hook, Bioshock Infinite does not.

Both games start in a rainstorm.

Tomb Raider opens with a two and a half minute long action-packed cutscene that shows you a massive disaster, a near-drowning, and a shipwreck, before the titles even come up. The player doesn’t even have control until three and a half minutes into the game and does not know the details of the games backstory or the various character’s motivations, but it is crystal clear that some Bad Stuff™ is happening. When the player is given control, the very first thing you see is the heroine hanging upside down in a kind of meat larder. Without any exposition at all, it is obvious that goals are to escape and survive. Standing still and doing nothing doesn’t seem like a good option since, based on the initial cutscene and current situation, it seems like that will result in a Very Bad Thing™. You’re literally less than 5 minutes into the game and already you have some real motivation to play the game.

Bioshock Infinite starts in a dinghy being rowed towards a lighthouse. You are forced to listen to some inane chatter between two NPCs in the rowboat with you, and while what they say is moderately important to the story (once you know it) it isn’t interesting and you really don’t have enough information (yet) to understand what in the hell they are talking about. (Watching it after you finish the game, you can see what is going on, but on an initial playthrough… no.) After more inane (and initially meaningless) exposition, you are given the direction: “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” What girl? What debt? Why should I care? Even when you reach Columbia, the motivation to continue seems tenuous at best. The first few hours of the game are more of the same. Long exposition pieces that eventually make sense, a seemingly open world to explore, but no real reason to care about it.

This is an aspect where Tomb Raider stands out far ahead of Bioshock Infinite. I played both of these games on a mid-range PC. Tomb Raider’s crazy hair TressFX were disabled by default, but I played the original Doom on a machine that could barely pump out 20 frames per second. I turned TressFX on the first chance I could, and while it did impact my framerate, it was still a very playable 40 to 60 frames per second.

Bioshock Infinite seemed like it was using a graphics engine from last decade. Aside from the main characters, all of the NPC models look creepy and fake. (Hello from the Uncanny Valley!) Exposition is handled by having the characters speak during the game, which removed jarring cutscenes, but at times in the game there was overlapping dialoge which led to me missing story points. The overall texture quality seemed to be mediocre, but they were well applied and did not alias or tear. The ambient NPCs and enemies only seemed to come in one or two flavors, and while the overall enemy count was probably higher than Tomb Raider, you only fought one or two “types” at a time, giving the impression that they were all Bad Guy Clones. The environment was actually the high-point of the graphics, but that very pretty background scenery was just that: background scenery that didn’t have any real impact on the experience and definitely did not make up for the poor rendering.

On the other hand, the character models in Tomb Raider had very high poly counts and looked very realistic, almost movie-like. Textures were well-rendered and there was minimal artifacting or tearing. There were a few cases where “creepy eye” syndrome was apparent, but it was rare. Cutscenes appeared to have been rendered with the in-game engine (albeit with the settings set to maximum) so they did not feel very disjointed or out-of-place. Enemy models had a lot of variety and it very rarely felt like you were fighting enemies from the Bad Guy Press-O-Matic factory, and the environmental effects were well done. The only real graphical complaints I had were that the shadows cast by the TressFX were a bit too blocky and led to some really bad artifacting on Lara’s face at times (it sometimes looked like a really bad scar or a dark colored zipper), and that the physics engine did not deal with water effects very well during the game’s many sections where a character was wading. One section of the game (about one-third in) had me literally shaking from fear due to the environmental graphics.

Map design and gameplay
Both of these games fall into the general bucket of First Person Shooters, but they play very differently. For reference, I played both games on “normal” difficulty.

Tomb Raider is a fairly short game, but it has a lot of optional side content for the meticulous player. Basically, the core gameplay in Tomb Raider is a shooter. The maps are well designed to “feel” open, with large unobstructed areas allowing for a lot of mobility. The areas of the game that take place in smaller, constrained spaces never felt like the player was pinned down, unable to move into a more advantageous position, or limiting in playstyle. The gated content was well done, with obvious connections between areas, but it never felt artificial or manufactured. Optional content was off to the side, but never really hidden. Depending on the player it was easy to experience or ignore.

Each map section was fairly large with only minimal loading screens, adding to the feel of a unified world.

One of the things I really liked about the map design in Tomb Raider were the “timed” sections. When Bioshock infinite wanted you to move along quickly, it would have an NPC urging you on and played very dramatic fast-paced music. But in reality, if you put down your controller and walked away, nothing would happen. The urgent mucis would continue playing and the NPC would keep calling out “Hurry! We need to get there!” In Tomb Raider, when you hit a section where you had to move quickly, if you didn’t move (usually in less than a second) the game would kill you. Hanging from a burning rope above a spike trap? If you don’t jump to a nearby ledge before that happens, the rope burns through and you die. This led to me reacting very quickly in some situations, usually without the time to completely consider my options, just taking the first visible opportunity to survive. This was extremely fun and injected an interesting challenge into the game.

Enemy battles were generally pretty well balanced. Ammo was plentiful and easy enough to find, and I was usually full. When a fight was designed to be an ammo sink, it worked pretty well and I would have to start thinking about making shots count in the next fight or until I hit the next ammo store. Occasionally I would run out of ammo for my “favorite” weapon(s) and be forced to fall back on one that I was less proficient with or less ideal for the fight, adding to the challenge. But that situation would be remedied quickly at the next ammo supply.

Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, is a longer game with almost no optional content. As a result, the map design felt very linear and tightly constrained. I always felt like I was trapped in a very small map with connectors to other very small maps. Loading screens popped up frequently, making the world feel much more segmented. Even the layout of the maps seemed archaic. Whenever I came to a fork in the road, I had to force myself to take the path I would not have normally have chosen; my instinct was to pick the path that moved me into the next area. I believe the intent of the map was to deceive the player into going the “wrong” way and then having them backtrack to the less obvious “correct” way, but in this case the map designer missed the whole “less obvious“ part of that concept.

Fighting seemed to be all or nothing. Small, ambient fights were so trivial that it wasn’t uncommon to come out of the fight with more ammo than when you started. On the other hand, some of the larger fights required magical, unexplained (or expected) triggers to complete. For example, there are at least three fights with infinitely respawning enemies that continue until the player takes a specific action, targets a specific enemy or passes a certain point on the map. Nowhere in the game are these triggers shown or explained. Basically, the player learns about them by dying and repeating the same fight again and again (with less ammo each time!) until they stumble across the “secret”. By changing the “trick” in each fight, the player is corralled into changing their gamestyle in order to progress. One fight requires a Rush to get past, another requires Stealth, and third requires Sniping.

The final battle in particular was extremely frustrating to me. Some of the earlier boss battles were challenging, but I was forced to repeat that final battle no fewer than twenty times and look up hints on the internet before I managed to beat it. To be honest, I’m not certain I could do it again.

In my opinion, Tomb Raider is a much better designed game.

Another reason Bioshock Infinite feels like a game from the last decade is the weapon system. While there are about a dozen different weapon types in the game. The player only has access to two of them at any given time. In order to pick up a different weapon, you need to drop one of the two you are carrying. While this is supposed to present a tactical decision, what it really ends up meaning is that once you pick your favorite weapons you end up using them for the remainder of the game. Since I never really knew what was around the next corner, I ended up using the most flexible weapons (for me, the machine gun and the sniper rifle) 90% of the time. The only time I switched away from these two was when I ran out of ammo for one or the other. Even then about half the time I just suffered along with a dead weapon until I found ammo for it.

The “special power” alt-fire abilities functioned the same way. Even though you had a handful of these to choose from, you only had one active and one swap ability. (The others are available on a menu.) And similar to the weapons, once you settle in on a favorite Vigor (as they are called) you will rarely, if ever, use any of the others. This is compounded even more by the fact that ALL of the special abilities use the same “ammo”. If you run out of salts, you can’t use ANY of them, so if you have salt, you might as well use your favorite one.

Tomb Raider is much more forgiving with weapons selection. Even though there are fewer of them overall, once you acquire a weapon, you have access to it. (There are a few places where the game strips all your weapons, but you get them back pretty quickly.) Switching between weapons is quick and painless, allowing the player to use the best weapon for the task at hand. The player can switch from a sniper, to close combat, to knockbacks, to flame attacks with fluidity, even within the same fight. Have a one-shot “open the can” type situation? Pull out the pistol, take the shot and swap back in less than a second, saving “important” ammo. This really allows the player to play the game they want to play, rather than the game that the designer decided was appropriate (or required) for the situation. Even the boss battles allow the use of any weapon type.

I found myself making a lot more tactical decisions (and having more fun) with Tomb Raider’s system, so it wins in this respect as well.

(NOTE : I will not be spoiling either story here, so if you haven’t played the games, you’re safe reading.)

The story in Tomb Raider is pretty much a throwaway excuse for a bunch of people to be shooting at you. That doesn’t mean it’s a dull or uninteresting story, but it is pretty predictable. Most of the really neat parts of the story are told in optional ways; only the bare minimum to get you to the climax is revealed in mandatory cutscenes. If you just go through the game with the goal of finishing it and don’t seek out all of the optional books, puzzles and trinkets, you won’t even know much of the backstory or the motivations of the characters (including the main antagonist). On the other hand, if you do make the effort to find all of the story tidbits, there is an amazing amount of background material available that paints a fairly robust (albeit unoriginal) backdrop for both the antagonists and the environment.

Bioshock Infinite’s story starts off extremely slowly. The vast majority of it is non-optional, with only minor story elements being “off the track”. Even if the player isn’t interested in the story, it will be force fed to them, willing or not. And, oh my, what a story it is! This is easily the strongest point of Bioshock Infinite. As you play the game and the plot unwinds, amazing things happen. This story starts to suck you in and makes you want to see what happens next. (Something that the game design itself never does.) When you finally reach the climax, you may think you know how it is going to end, but (unless someone has spoiled it for you) you will NOT see this ending coming. This is the kind of complicated story, dealing with very human elements, that will leave you thinking about it for days after you finish.

As much fun as the Tomb Raider story was, Bioshock Infinite is BY FAR a better narrative. Both are entertaining, but one is a “movie” that you go see and enjoy, while one is a “film” that has you considering the different character’s motivations for days afterwards. Tomb Raider’s story is a fun-filled adventure that we all can enjoy; Bioshock Infinite’s story is one that leaves one questioning if they would have made the same decisions or if the characters did the right thing. We fantasize about being an actor in one, and agonize over the choices we made in the other.

The last-decade gameplay and graphics, poor enemy balance and slow plot development really turned me off to Bioshock infinite. I never really felt like I -had- to get back to the game to complete it. I felt like I was grinding out the game to see the story. Even though the story was well worth it in the end, the game never really felt “real” to me. The motivation to “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” never really hit home for me. I never really cared about Booker until the finale’s big reveal.

Tomb Raider, on the other hand, pulled me in right away. I felt invested in Lara’s character immediately. The game triggered my survival instinct fomr the frist few seconds. The background story, while unoriginal, was pretty well developed and revealed at a good pace. Map design felt fresh and exciting and enemy balance kept me on my toes without being overly difficult or easy. While I was running through this game I always felt as if I wanted to continue playing it, not just finish it for the sake of finishing.

Both are great games, but for very different reasons. As I mentioned in the opening, I preferred Tomb Raider to Bioshock Infinite. (As of this writing Bioshock Infinite has a metacritic score of 95/100, and Tomb Raider is ranked at 86/100.)

- Stupid @ Monday, April 22, 2013 3:14 PM PT [+]

This posting is a result of a comment made by a GW2 player on Google+. GuildWars2 is running a month-long "april fools" gag that is a throwback to the 8-bit games of your youth. I say "your youth" because even though I was playing video games at that time, I completely missed the 8-bit gaming era.

I was playing video games on home systems like the Atari VCS and ColecoVision in the very early 1980s, then switched to online gaming in 1986. While all the kiddies were going ga-ga over their silly super mario B.S., I was shooting down people in AirWarrior (Kesmai, 1986), tossing fireballs and lighting bolts at wizards in OrbWars (Simutronics, 1987), glomping along as a self-healing tank in Dragon's Gate (AUSI, 1990), and playing against Real People in countless other modem-connected games. When Ultima Online was released in 1997 I was already a 10-year veteran of online gaming. I was sucked into EverQuest the day it released.

I didn't circle back to consoles until the PS3 was released in 2007. Today I have a PS3, an XBox360 and a Nintendo Wii nestled under my 50-inch plasma TV, with an easy way to set up a PC system and use the TV as a display. My PC is not a top-of-the-line system, but it is definitely better than average. I am no longer able to boast that I am a hardcore online gamer simply because I have more varied interests than I did when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and thus devote less time to playing them.

My point is that 8-bit "nostagia" is completely lost on me. It doesn't exist. I don't look back on the nintendo-era with longing. I play online games for the competitve aspect, not because I want to recapture some bygone era of my youth. Quite frankly, when I was in that age-group, I could not wait for the future!! In 1986, while all of those cracked-out hyper-kids were learning controler codes, I was dreaming of the day when a world-wide network would exist, with data rates in the hundreds of kilobits per second and sub-second latency! To me, the high-point of my gaming "career" was in late 2000 when I was asked to be a Phase 1 alpha tester for DAoC, exactly one year prior to it's release! I played DAoC fulltime and nonstop. When it was released, I logged in 5-8 hours a day during the week (while holding down a full time job) and was online 12 to 14 hours a day on weekends. As a tester, I already had the client when the game went live so I was able to log in a good 12 hours before regular players got in. Anyone who was playing at release on the Percival server would recognize the name of my character.

That was pretty much all I played until mid-2007. I made several month-long excursions into other games, one of which was the original Guild Wars, but DAoC always called me back. I was internet-famous (which, I know from experience, means next-to-nothing), and I had a close connection to many of the Devs. I won't claim to have had any control over development decisions, but I know from speaking to many of the people involved that they actually considered my voice to be as valuable as any designer of the game. Near the end, I was actually allowed to design an end-game weapon which became the "go to" choice for my class within a day after it was added to the game. Those are the memories and times that I long for and look back on with pride. Not jumping.

I'm not a jumper. I play the jumping puzzles in GuildWars2 for one reason, and one reason only: they grant 5 to 10 acheivement points each. They are, as the saying goes, a means to an end. I don't enjoy them and They. Are. Not. Fun.

I will complete this stupid "super" puzzle thing (just like I completed the Halloween jumping puzzle and the Holiday jumping puzzle) because it grants acheivement points. I won't enjoy it. In fact, I've been dreading this content. The entire 8-bit look (to me) is a reminder of a time when the games I wanted to play just weren't ready yet; when a "high speed" connection was a 2400 baud modem and 1250ms latency times; when I was paying $6 per hour in online fees and the several months where my monthly bill was in excess $1000. These are not things I want to remember. It doesn't make me go "Oh, cool!" It makes me go "Oh, no!"

To the people who say "but this is optional content; you don't need to do it" I would like you to show me how to get those acheivement points without doing this content. I would like you to show me how to get these (so called) exclusive skins without farming PvE for hours upon hours. PvE players can get Badges (the rewards from killing other players in WvW) without actually killing other players, by doing a jumping puzzle. Where are my jumping puzzle rewards from killing other players? Or from doing anything OTHER than a jumping puzzle? Why is it that they can get WvW rewards from doing PvE content, but when it's a PvE gating issue, suddenly it's "optional content" that doesn't need to be completed? How can I get those rewards without doing the tedous, annoying and difficult PvE puzzles? sPvP? WvW?? Why not??!?

May 1st can't come soon enough.

- Stupid @ Monday, April 1, 2013 9:59 AM PT [+]

Recently I read another gamer’s blog linked to me on G+.

I'm nearly 15 years older than the author and I both agree and completely disagree with his blog.

I agree that no game will ever recreate that "first time" feeling, but I disagree that gamer ennui is the result of getting older or from limited play time. It's not that things were better or brighter or shinier or less expensive or more fun when we were younger. If you have kids, or even if you know some kids, try showing them some of the games that you found so compelling when you started playing them. I would be very surprised if their reaction isn't along the lines of "Really? You thought this was fun?"

I hit my own personal gaming doldrums around 2005. I was wandering around on the show floor at E3 in Los Angeles, a virtual video gaming nirvana, and all I could think was "another FPS", "another RTS", "another platformer".... Despite being surrounded by the best new games that were coming out in the next year or so, I was so jaded that I really couldn't see the improvements in gameplay. All I saw was the same old gameplay wrapped up in prettier graphics.

The real problem is unrealistic expectations.

We older gamers are jaded and cynical. We've seen the "man behind the green curtain" (how's that for an old reference, eh?) and we recognize the tricks that developers use to make games seem fun when they are really just padding lackluster content. But many new games actually ARE offering new and improved gaming experiences. Better NPC AI, more involved and emotionally touching stories, more dynamic scripting, and, yes, better graphics.

You're NEVER going to recapture that "first time" feeling. But that doesn't mean that today’s new games can't be just as engaging and fulfilling as new games were when you first started playing them. When you start with the expectation that a new game is going to be as compelling as the very first MMO you played (Ultima Online, EverQuest, or for most people, World of Warcraft), or the very first RTS (Dune, Command and Conquer or WarCraft III), or the very first platformer (Super Mario Bros for most people), or the very first ANYTHING… you're already setting yourself up for failure. It's just not going to happen!

That’s not to say that new game types don’t pop up occasionally. I mean look at the original Portal (which really doesn’t qualify as a “new” game any longer). When it was released in 2007 (six years ago!) there was nothing like it. It was heralded as a groundbreaking new game type. And it was. It was new, it was original and even though it was still a FPS type game it really did recapture that “first time” feeling. Similarly, we’ve seen new “first time” games in the RTS genre with the MOBA style games. But those games are going to be few and far between.

Some of the difference is the actual games. Today's games aren't designed to be long-term investments of time. Oh sure, there will be a very small percentage of players who will get “hooked” on a specific game and play it until they master it. But generally speaking, even the triple-A games of today are designed to be completed in six to ten hours of gameplay. For a “hardcore” adult gamer, that is going to be anywhere from one to five sessions with a game. Assuming you are setting aside about an hour a day for gaming related pursuits, you’re probably going to burn through a game in a matter of a few days. Regardless of how much hype is developed about the newest title, the marketplace is pushing developers into smaller, tighter and shorter games. The expectation of a long-term “relationship” with a new game is just not realistic in today’s game market.

The real key to getting maximum enjoyment from a new game today is not to look for the long-term play, or a brand new experience. You don’t go to a movie or watch a TV show with the expectation of a life-changing experience, or to become a fanboy/girl. You expect to be entertained for a couple of hours, and maybe have something to think about for a day or so afterwards. We always wanted our video games to be more like movies and TV shows, and guess what? We got that. Games are no longer life-sucking vortices that will happily vacuum up every free moment of your time. Instead, today’s games are spot entertainment that can be enjoyed after a long day at the office and eating dinner with our families, or for a few hours on the weekend when we’re done with the kids’ soccer game or mucking out the garden beds or taking a long bike ride with our Real Life friends.

If you go into a new game with the expectation of being entertained and nothing more, you’ll find that the games today are no worse than the games of our youth. And, in many respects, are actually quite a bit better.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, March 12, 2013 10:31 AM PT [+]

This seems to be the season for gushing about Guild Wars 2, and I haven’t posted a blog in a long while. Plus my head feels like it is full of dead bugs and oil blackened cooking oil. So here we go.

For those who aren’t completely familiar with the Guild Wars 2 World-versus-World-versus-World (aka WvW; wuvwuv; or DubVDub), the way it works is this: All of the game servers are placed into brackets of three. Each of these matchups battle over four complete zones, each of which is big enough to take about 5 to 10 minutes to run across. Each particular zone has about a dozen control points (castles, towers, and the like) that earn varying amounts of “points” for the server that controls them. After two weeks, the points are totaled up, and the server matchups are re-sorted so that winning servers fight against winning server and losing servers fight against losing servers. There’s a lot of nuance that I’m leaving out, but that is not the point of my discussion, and there is plenty of information on the inner strategies of WvW elsewhere. The takeaway here is that there are three (relatively balanced) "teams" and the areas are HUGE.

So here is one of the fun little things that happened to me this week.

I was playing in the Eternal Battlegrounds (the “neutral” zone out of the four). I had just zoned in and popped open the map to get an overview of the fight. I saw a few crossed swords not too far from my location, and a Commander icon sitting outside of an enemy tower that was under attack, only about a minute’s run away.

Now this particular tower is a bit unique in that the approach comes up on the “back” of the tower, and the front gates are on the opposite side from the main road. It’s build into a steep hillside, and the “front gate” is accessed from a small level plain. The only way to get to the front gate is to climb a narrow set of steps right along the outer wall, or to go way around the too-steep-to-climb hill.

I’m frantically checking my map every few seconds as I run. I can see on the map (and hear in the map-chat) that my team is about to breach the gate. Typically when the gate goes down, there is a furious melee and then the tower will be captured in a matter of only a handful of seconds. So, I’m scrambling to get there as fast as I can.

As I climb the steps, suddenly an enemy player drops over the tower walls right in front of me. They had seen that the tower was lost and were making an exit out the back. I was so shocked I didn’t even have time to react before he was up and running. I wheeled around, but by the time I had recovered from my surprise, he was long gone. So I turned back to the tower and started up the steps again.

Once again, an enemy player dropped right into my sights. Only this time, he wasn’t alone. This time, there were four of them, and they were looking for an easy kill while they fled from their obvious demise. They took a few swings at me, but I’m moderately defensively built and I knew they weren’t interested in a protracted fight, so I just played a delaying tactic and generally kept moving up the steps.

By this time the gates had gone down, the tower had been captured (Darn, I missed it!) and my team had swept in. The zerg crashed over us as we fought and washed the few enemies away. I joined the zerg and we flooded down the road towards the closest supply camp.

For the next few minutes, what followed was unexciting zerg surfing. We crashed into the supply camp and captured it in seconds. The small group of defenders was downed almost instantly. The zerg turned towards the next tower and started running….

Along the way, the commander that was (supposedly) leading the zerg took a right turn. The zerg, of course, being a mindless horde, didn’t notice and kept trucking down the road. I stopped to follow the commander, along with one other person. The three of us climbed a small rise into a cave that ran behind the enemy tower that the zerg was swarming towards. As I crested the hill and got a view of the interior of the cave, I saw red names. First one or two, then five… no, more! I immediately flipped around and started fleeing. There was no way the three of us were going to survive this many enemy players. My only chance was to get back to the zerg and hope they noticed.

Luckily, I only had to run for a heartbeat. Somehow, the zerg had finally noticed the commander had peeled off and they were coming to our position. When the friendly zerg came over that small hill, I was awash in friendly green names. Again, I turned. Battle was about to be joined! (Open-field fights are always my favorites because of the mobility they offer. I’ve always been a player who hunts around the edges of a big fight.)

Imagine my surprise when I turned to see that the enemy zerg was MUCH larger than I had thought. There were at least 100 enemy players! Way too many for our zerg to handle, but we were going to chip off a few. But wait, their nameplates were different…

Unbeknownst to me the few enemies I had seen coming out of the tunnel weren’t charging in to fight us, they were running for their lives from the third server zerg, right behind them. When our force appeared, they were sandwiched between two enemy teams. Instantly chaos erupted. There were at least three times as many enemy players as there were friendly ones, but the enemies were fighting each other as well as us! In fact, it was obvious that we were the smallest force in the fight. All of the heavy DPS jumped right in and started swinging. Our ranged players spread out and were firing like mad.

I jinked to the right to get out of the main furball. I’m not sure how it happened, but I found myself on the flank of the enemy backline. I found a player with low health, hit leap, snare, frenzy, and they went down. 1-1/2 seconds later, I had a kill and two Badges. I looked up and lo and behold another player with low health, trying to exit the fight, right in front of me. Leap, snare, swing, bleed, and down they go!

The fight went on like this for about two minutes. My timing was perfect, and every time I was looking for an ability it was available. Kill one, pop a 5 second buff, leap and attack another. Swing a few times, dump conditions, debuff them, and that’s credit for another kill! I was right where I loved being, on the outskirts of a three-way mashup, and given a license to kill with impunity. No one was paying attention to the lone warrior.

All in all, I got credit for ten kills and never went down a single time. Our zerg, despite being smaller, was able to take advantage of the other two team’s inattention to us (and their single-minded focus on killing each other) to win the day.

Is it just me, or am I amazing?

- Stupid @ Wednesday, February 6, 2013 10:34 AM PT [+]

After the Thanksgiving holiday I came down with a horrible horrible cold. While I was busy being brutally sick I played one of the unplayed games that was on my Steam list. In this case the game was a very “noir” style game called LIMBO. I played the demo when it was first released and bought the game when it was on sale several months ago, but I had never actually played it. LIMBO is very reminiscent of a much older video game called Another World. That game came out just as the modern “story” games were starting to make an appearance.

Way back in the dawn of coin-op video games, there was no way to “win”. Ever. If you were very very good, you might be able to play for a goodly long time. But there was no “end” to the game; it would just get progressively harder and harder to continue until you ran out of virtual lives and you walked away. There was no incentive for designers to give the player any way to “finish” the game. In fact, they would go to enormous lengths to make sure that the player did not win, and kept pumping quarters into the coin box.

There were a few outliers, like one infamous laserdisc powered game that asked the player to complete 30 randomly ordered “screens” to get to the end and rescue the Princess. And there was the Adventure game on the Atari VCS where you controlled a red square trying to kill a green squiggle with a black line. But there were few and far between. The vast majority of games were games that you were guaranteed to lose.

As personal computers started making inroads into home entertainment, game designers started designing “story” games. At first these were role playing beasts, intended for the hardcore grognards that grew up on the original Dungeons and Dragons (and had barely outgrown it). As more powerful graphics processors started to make an appearance, we started to see action/adventure type games appear. Another World was one of the first side-scrolling adventure type games and it has since been ported to pretty much every computer system ever created.

Keep in mind that Another World was designed when many game developers still thought that games were supposed to be unbeatable. While it is not a difficult game to beat (I think I ran through the whole thing in a handful of hours) it was brutal in terms of the player body count. After the initial cutscene, the player’s first action had to be performed in 5 seconds or the main character would die. On the second screen, there were at least two different ways to kill the character. The idea was that the player was going to die, and die a lot. But it was never an unfair death, and each time they would learn something. “Oh, those little worms have poison claws!” Splat! “Oh, that lion can jump further than me!” Whoof! “Hey, that alien man has a personal shield he can shoot me through!” ZZAP!!

Anyway, the reason for this little trip down memory lane is to illustrate why I really enjoyed LIMBO. It isn’t a difficult game, but your little character is going to die, over and over again, usually in brutal and horrendous ways. It will never be an unfair death, but it will almost always be something that you didn’t expect. Once you know that tall grass can conceal a bear traps, you can easily jump over them, but until you know what to look for… well, let’s just say that it will be a learning experience.

Almost all of the puzzles are extremely logical and are pretty obvious. That’s not to say that they are trivial. For example, one of the first puzzles is to use a log to cross a pool of (deadly) water. The problem is that the log is at the top of a tree that you’ve already passed before you get to the water. That you can only climb by jumping up to a cleverly concealed rope hanging from one of the tree’s branches. The clever part is that the rope looks like just so much background environment imagery that many players will look right at it and not see it at all. With the exception of one notable mechanic, the game does a great job of teaching the player what they need to know in order to solve each puzzle. Anyone who was able to complete Portal will likely be able to figure most of these out. (I did have to resort to “cheating” on one puzzle, but I’d like to think that was because my disease-addled brain wasn’t seeing the answer. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

The game world is done in faded sepia tones and really has a “creepy” kind of vibe. When the occasional splash of color appears, it really stands out (as intended). There really isn’t any introduction to the “story” (such as it is) but it only takes a few minutes of play to realize that your goal is somewhere “that way”, the guys with the bows are “bad” and there are a LOT of ways to die. Eventually you will find out what you’re after, only to have it snatched away from you at least once. By the time the game winds to its conclusion, the reward you get is well worth it.

Overall, it was a fun game and a good investment of an afternoon.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, January 2, 2013 5:00 PM PT [+]

People have funny ideas about what it means when an MMO "fails". In particular I’m thinking about two very specific “failed” MMOs that have been released in the last few years. Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (aka WAR) and Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). Interestingly, aside from both having a colon in their name, they both were published by Electronic Arts.

WAR, for all of its flaws, was not a "failure" for EA. It made back all of their invested money in initial box sales and then some. Right now, as long as they have enough subs to pay for the network connection and the handful of people left maintaining it, it is still a "success".

I’ve “worked” (ie volunteered time as a stunt dev) on MMO products for over ten years. When a game goes into maintenance mode at the end of its commercial life, it really only takes a few people to run the thing. A skeleton crew is usually going to be one server guy who does the coding/scripting, an artist, and one real “dev” (who is usually a mid-level manager in charge of the team and takes the blame from upper management and also plays community face as a side job). On average, they probably are paid about $100k each per year, for a total outlay of $25k per month.

Commercial office space isn’t cheap, but a small team doesn’t need a lot of room. A 600 sq ft office would allow for two “private” offices (one of which doubles as the company “conference room”) and a small cube farm with 4 8x8 cubes. In a major metro area, commercial space rents can be as high as $5 a foot for primo space. Still, even assuming the worst, that is only $3000 a month in office rent.

Network connections, server hardware, and technical upkeep is practically free on these games; they are usually going to be piggy-backed onto a newer, faster, shinier game and get the hand-me-downs. Still, there are some minor maintenance costs: office supplies for the staff and whatnot. For the sake of argument, let’s assume around $1k per month.

That bring the total “cost” to maintain an older MMO s only $30k per month. Assuming they are still selling subscriptions at $15/month, that means they really only need about 2000 active subs to break even.

An older, niche game like WAR is sure to have a solid ~20k subscribers. That’s about 1/600th the subscriber base of WoW. If you look at it from a bitter ex-gamer perspective, you might say that such a small market share is a complete and unmitigated failure. Clearly their product sucks, since they can’t even boast to have a 1% share of the overall space. But, at $15 per sub, and with almost no overhead at all, those 20,000 subscribers generate around $270,000 of profit every 30 days, or $9k every day. Personally, I would consider a product that pays back $9 every day to be the exact opposite of a failure!

SWTOR has a similar story.

SWTOR is an MMO which I had absolutely zero interest in from the day it was announced. I went to several of the big initial announcement’s made and BioWare never demonstrated to me that they were going to deliver anything other than a re-hashed WoW-clone... in a sci-fi setting... with more voice acting. (Which, as it turns out, was exactly what they delivered.) All the talk of the “third pillar” of gaming being story telling sounds great, and probably works wonderfully in a single-player game where the developers can control the pace and gameplay much better. But in an MMO? No so much.

MMO players are finicky, terrible people that will rip a design to shreds and optimize the hell out of progression. 99% of the content you design will be completely ignored. The remaining 1% will be played exclusively since it is the fastest/easiest path to the best part of the game (whatever that is).

Despite creating a single player game in MMO clothes, BioWare still sold 1.7M boxes. Maybe it was on the shoulders of a grand old IP, but regardless they sold a lot of boxes. Even with a publisher's cut of only 50% of retail, that means EA pulled in a sweet $42.5M just in box sales!

And since the “average” player took about three months to figure out that they were paying a monthly fee for what is essentially a newer version of Knights of the Old Republic (now with more voice acting!) each of those 1.7M players poured an extra $45 into the pot.

As stupid as SWTOR turned out to be, it was profitable within a month after release. It made a boatload of money in the first three months. It _continues_ to be a profitable title for EA to this day. A failure? As an MMO, it most certainly was a failure. But as a money-making game? From a development standpoint, SWTOR was a smashing success.

Having said that, I personally don't play either of those game and I don’t recommend either one of them. Personally, I think that the DikuMUD MMO design paradigm has played out and I can’t see anyone choosing them when there are so many other, better choices in today’s marketplace. But just because a game isn't generating truckloads of money doesn't mean it is a "failure". There's plenty of room in the MMO-space for smaller niche titles too. And as long as there are enough players to support those smaller niche titles, they are going to continue to be successes in their own rights.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, September 18, 2012 12:32 PM PT [+]

Guild Wars 2 has been released for over two weeks. To say that I’ve been playing it a lot would be an understatement. Even after taking an week away from the game for PAX, I’ve managed to get my “main” character up to level 49 and have completed all of the personal story quests up to level 54. (I finished the level 54 part last night.) While I really like the concept of the “personal story”, and it really is a great improvement over the static storylines found in the earlier Guild Wars games, it does have some rough spots.

I've found that the personal stories only tell you a tiny little piece of the overall story taking place in the game. This is true in many parts of the game, just as it is in life. We only see what we can see, and only experience what happens in the game world while we are there. The rest of the story keeps going without us, and a lot of other story plot items keep occurring when we are not present.

That’s not to say that one must be logged in continuously to see the whole picture. The pace of the story is completely dictated by the player and the amount of time they play. With respect to pacing, the “personal story” is a complete success! If I play for 20 hours straight over a single weekend, I can experience the first two “episodes” of my story. And if I take a week off from playing for a vacation in Seattle, when I log in a week later, the "my" story has not advanced without me; I pick right up where I left off.

But what does end up happening is that the larger meta-story is being told in multiple places, by multiple characters. This is similar to a typical high-fantasy book. Two well-known examples of this that come to mind almost instantly are the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time series, but it's really true of almost any good story. In the Lord of the Rings, once the Fellowship is broken, there are several sub-stories that develop: Frodo and Samwise go to Mordor, Merry and Pipin are kidnapped by Uruk-Hai, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas persue them. In the Wheel of Time series, each of the main characters has their own story which contributes to the overall plot: Rand becomes the Dragon Reborn, Perrin comes to grip with being a wolfbrother, Mat adopts his past lives as a great general, Egwene becomes the Amerlin, Nynaeve becomes a… well, whatever. Each of these sub-story threads is separate and distinct, but each is an integral part of the overarching story. Since a book is a written media, we get to experience all of these distinct parts. Not simultaneously, but as invisible observers to the story we do get to see ALL of the pieces and parts of the overall story.

But we are actual characters in the story in GW2. We simply cannot be in all places, at all times. We can't experience the entire story. It's as if we were reading the Lord of the Rings or Wheel of Time, and we were only able to read a single sub-story of the entire book. The Lord of the Rings would be a lot less epic if we only followed Aragorn, and only found out what happened to Frodo, Sam and Smeagol as “background”. The Wheel of Time would be a lot less compelling if we only followed Rand’s story and the other main characters were simply people that we saw occasionally and didn't get to know intimately.

The upshot of this is that making different story choices and following multiple paths can result in wildly different stories. This is great for replay value since every playthrough of the personal story can be completely different. One time through you can follow Frodo and Sam, the next time you might follow Merry and Pippin, and the time after that you might be following Gimli and Legolas. There might be some parts of the story that are the same (the Fellowship, for example) but others might be completely different, and take place in areas of the world you didn’t even know existed on the first playthrough (Isengard vs. Mordor vs. Helm's Deep).

On the other hand, you never really understand what is going on in the bigger picture (and really not even in your own story) unless you play the game multiple times. There is just so much going on "off camera" that you really only see about 10% of the action. The rest is delivered in cutscenes, but that doesn't have near the impact or tangibility of avtually playing it. Being told "so-and-so fought a great battle in such-and-such place" is compeltely different from actualy being part of the battle and fighting next to the main character. (Especially when you almost lose, but then manage to succeed!)

Other story problems manifest in several ways.

In order to accommodate flexibility in player choice, the meta-story is broken into little pieces. The player gets to make several choices as they progress which selects which pieces they see. Continuing my prior examples, when the Fellowship breaks, the player chooses which character they will follow, or whenever two of the main characters in the Wheel of Time meet, the player can “switch” from one story thread to another. More or less, these switching points occur every ten levels, after three or four story missions. For the sake of discussion, I refer to these ten-level chunks of the story as “episodes”.

The episodic nature of the personal story is readily apparent when dealing with the major NPCs in the story. I’ll use an example from my character’s personal story. (WARNING: this paragraph will contain spoilers, skip to the next break if you want to preserve yourself.) I created a sylvari mesmer. One of my character creation questions asked me to choose what time of day I awakened, and I selected to awaken in the dawn. As a result of this choice, my level 10-20 episode dealt with a mini-story involving the Hylek and a major character in the meta-story, a sylvari Firstborn named Treehearn. I played alongside this NPC for several missions, and the spoken cutscenes told me that he was impressed by me and was going to be watching my progression. And yet, when he re-entered my “personal story” at level 50, my mentor introduced him to me, he was completely oblivious to our prior missions. He did not say “Oh yeah, I’ve met you and you’re doing great since we last adventured together.” Instead it was if we had never met and he had forgotten completely about me. All it would have taken to stitch together this discontinuity would have been a single line of dialog: “Yes, I’ve met him/her, back in Caledon Forest. I’m glad he/she is here to help.” Instead, it was a jarring discontinuity that really took me out of the game.

(That’s it for story spoilers; it’s safe to read again.)

Now I know WHY this is done. Other players will have experienced different low-level episodes from me and will probably not have met the same characters that I did. Thus, those NPCs won’t know those players and thus can’t “remember” them, since they’ve never met. Recording voice and animations for every possible combination of story choice is probably not practical, but may have been simulated by creating a more procedural cutscene display engine. Rather than popping out each pre-rendered cutscene as a whole chunk, each cutscene could have been comprised of smaller one- or two-line bits that are displayed in sequence, making it appear as a continuous cutscene. This would allow for a lot more flexibility in dialog and allowed those continuity preserving lines to be inserted (or omitted, depending on the writer’s intent) into the cutscenes.

Another issue is transition between episodes. Since the player is allowed to select which story thread they will follow several times during the game, occasionally they will end up with completely new (to them) NPCs in a completely new (to them) environment, with a completely new (to them) backstory and lore that they haven’t been exposed to (yet). For example, at one point in my personal story, my character (a sylvari mesmer) chose to learn more about the Quaggon. This choice resulted in my personal story introducing me to a new NPC (a norn warrior), going to a new far-off zone (the Shiverpeaks), to battle against evil forces I had never heard of (Jormag, the Ice Dragon). The problem is, as a sylvari, I hadn't yet learned any of the lore of the Shiverpeaks regarding the norn race and their long-standing fight against Jormag and the Sons of Svanir. Luckily for me, I had played a norn guardian during beta and had seen the personal story of the first two norn zones so I (as a player) was able to make the transition. But a new player who hadn’t already played multiple characters would have been completely lost by this sudden abrupt story transition.

Even worse, (and much harder to solve) that particular part of the story really seemed to have been designed for players who had selected to join the Priory. (I had chosen The Vigil.) The whole zone was full of Priory NPCs. The zone-wide meta-event was kicked off in a Priory outpost. And that meta-event was completed with Priory NPC helpers.

When the three factions were introduced, I did one mission with each of them. During the mission I did with the Priory characters, I developed a deep-seated loathing for them. The mission itself was a lot of fun and I probably enjoyed it the most out of the three faction missions I did. But I really disliked the Prior characters and their methodology was completely dissimilar from my own preferences. In short, I just could not stand the Priory and their entire outlook. (In a way, I guess that's a testament to the quality of the story, since it did invoke a emotional reaction from me.)

And yet, here I was in a zone that was more-or-less being run and managed (albeit badly) by Priory NPCs. As a member of The Vigil, my intial reactions was "Why am I helping these bozos? Can't they solve their own problems? Shouldn't I be helping The Vigil somewhere else?" I would have been much happier if all of the local (unnamed) NPCs were wearing the tag of a Vigil class. I strongly suspect that one of the other two options I did not select led to a zone where that was the case. On future playthroughs (with other characters) I will make those other selections.

A potential solution to this discontinuity is to develop a way for each NPC to have multiple names and selectively display a different name based on player faction affiliation, but that would be extremely difficult to implement and could lead to other technical issues such as different players seeing different NPC names while playing together. Alternately the game could limit the player’s options to ONLY allow them to go to the “right” zone for their given faction; while that’s a much easier technical solution, it would make the game a lot less flexible and would negatively impact replayability.

Guild Wars 2’s “personal story” is not a perfect solution, and it does have some pretty significant problems. The “episodic” nature of the personal story is really a mixed blessing. While it can lead to some weird continuity problems, with amnesiac characters and jarring transitions, it adds a lot of replay value to an already fairly epic game plot. Rather than metering out lore and story as walls of text hidden in quest dialogs (does anyone read those anymore?) it’s told in an entertaining and engaging way. Being able to make different characters and see completely disparate events and people in the story, while telling a coherent and unified meta-story is a fantastic improvement over prior storytelling in MMOs. I just wish it worked a little better.

- Stupid @ Monday, September 10, 2012 11:56 AM PT [+]

Elementalist was the second caster class I tried. Like the Engineer, this profession simply didn’t sit well with me. Probably because my playstyle revolves more around a longer, drawn-out fight, and I absolutely hate dying. The Elementalist is more about hitting hard, dying a lot, but taking the opponent with you.

I played the Elementalist during a four-hour "stress test". The starting weapon for my Elementalist was, like all other casters I tried, a Scepter. I quickly paired that with an off-hand Focus. I only used this one weapon combination for my entire play session.

The Elementalist’s class mechanic is a bit weird. Rather than having two weapons they can swap between, they have four elemental attunements that they can select from. Each attunement changes the weapon abilities. For example, while wielding a Scepter, the #1 Fire ability is a high DPS attack, but with the exact same weapon, the #1 Water ability is a triple-shot of ice. There are four different elemental attunements (Fire, Water, Earth and Air) and they each have a separate focus, although there is a bit of overlap between them. Generally speaking: Fire is all about damage; Water is mostly support; Air is for mobility; and Earth is for control.

And herein lies my first and biggest problem with the class. Just like all other professions, weapon skills unlock with use. Unlike all other professions, the Elementalist needs to unlock each weapon set four times, once for each element.

To avoid confusion, when starting out, only the first element (Fire) is available; the other three are locked until the character gains experience. Water unlocks very quickly (I believe that was at level 3 or 4). Air unlocks shortly thereafter (level 5 or 6), and Earth unlocks at level 9 or 10.

Switching attunements is similar to changing weapons on other classes. If all five weapon skills in Fire are unlocked, when the player unlocks and switches to Water for the first time, only the first Water ability is available. As they are used, subsequent abilities unlock. When Air attunement unlocks, the player is forced to train their weapons skills yet again. While this seems very similar to other profession’s training different weapon skills, in practice it ends up being much more frustrating. By the time I had unlocked the final attunement (Earth), I already had access to several high DPS abilities, some medium DPS utility abilites and a few low DPS mobility abilites, all already on my toolbar, only two button presses away. Forcing myself to not use those skills in order to unlock the new Earth skills was not enjoyable and really limited my play options.

Having to repeat this process for more than one weapon set was beyond my capacity for tolerance. Particularly when, after unlocking the third attunement (Air) I found myself switching back to Water or Fire (mostly Water) in most fights.

I believe that most players come the Elementalist profession for the Fire attunement. I actually found that Water was the most useful for my playstyle. The #2, #3 and #5 abilities are all ground targeted and have a short time delay. My strategy in a fight quickly became a kiting tactic. I would run away, drop the GTAE at my feet as a I ran, and the poor sots chasing me would run right through an ice field, or into the AE range of an ice grenade. And if they actually managed to catch me, all of these abilities granted me a small heal at the same time.

Once I had developed this playstyle, it was extremely difficult to unlock the Air abilities. Even though Air and Earth both provide a lot of new utility, the later attunements are arguably weaker than the first two. (In my opinion, Fire and Water are the strongest attunements.) This made it even more difficult to work through Air and Earth, since the player is forced to ignore the powerful abilities they have already unlocked.

In the four hours I played the Elementalist, I was able to develop up to level 11, unlocked all five of the Fire and Water skills, four of the Air skills, but only one of the Earth skills for a single weapon set. This, in my opinion, is far too slow character development. On every other class, I had unlocked all of the basic skills and abilities by the time I had reached level 10, and spent the next 10 or so levels refining my playstyle. I can see it taking up to level 20 to simply unlock all of the weapons abilities on the Elementalist.

I was initially excited by this profession and thought it would be challenging and fun to play, but after I tried it, this class is simply not the right choice for me. I will break from posting a "build" here, since I do not feel that my play session really was able to generate anything worthwhile.

- Stupid @ Monday, August 13, 2012 1:47 PM PT [+]

After I completed running through all of the heavy and medium armor classes, it was time to start running through the light armored ones. In Guild Wars 2 these are called “scholar” professions, but let’s be honest here. It’s an MMO. These are casters!

I traditionally do not play caster classes very well. As I’ve said several times, I tend to prefer heavy armor classes, getting into the mix with the melee, and fights that tend to last a relatively long time. Casters are everything that I have not described. They are lightly armored and tend to die quickly. To make up for that lack, they output tremendous levels of damage, leading to the popular phrase “glass cannon”. I strongly suspected that I was not going to enjoy playing a caster, so I picked the one that was least attractive to me as my initial foray: the Mesmer. For reference, this was my second character created during BWE2, so any bugs, issues and imbalances that I mention were present at that time, but may have been fixed, resolved or corrected by now.

Like all of the caster classes, the Mesmer starts with a single one-handed scepter as their initial weapon. I was surprised by the #2 skill on this weapon and actually didn’t figure out how it worked until much later, which prompted me to return to Scepter. This is a “block” similar to the warrior’s Mace #2 and offhand Sword #5, but instead of just timing out and doing something if you weren’t attacked, the mesmer’s Scepter #2 chains to a followup skill. In this case, if the block fails (ie. you used it when no one was attacking you, or the attack does not come in the very short 2 second duration of the “block’ effect) the ability simply goes on cooldown and nothing happens. But while the block is active, the followup skill allows you to “cancel’ the block and trigger a second effect. For this ability, that happens to be a ranged Blinding beam effect. Effectively, this wraps two weapons skills on one button. Press once for a very short duration single-attack block; double-tap for a ranged blind effect. It’s worth noting that this dual-skill ability meshes very well with the scepter #3 ability which puts Confusion on your opponent, making them take damage when they use any ability. Confused and blinded (or blocked) means that they are doing damage to themselves, and not doing any to you.

It’s also worth mentioning that using this weapon effectively is pretty difficult. I completely missed out on the utility of these skills at first, even though I used a Scepter for nearly 10 levels of play time.

The first off-hand weapon I found was a Focus. Scepter and Focus were my ranged mainstays on the guardian, so it seemed to be a good match to try out. The Focus #4 is mostly a utility skill, putting down a speed/snare wall. I used this to good effect in a Personal Story mission where I ended up kiting hordes of bandits across the instance and back. But when I unlocked Focus #5 (summons an illusion that blocks projectiles), I started to realize that this profession was not at all what I expected.

Mesmer is not a caster class. Well, it is in that it wear tissue paper armor, and generally speaking it doesn’t go around hitting people with large chunks of virtual metal. But for playstyle? The Mesmer is a Tank class! Even though I still had not developed any real synergies between the weapon skills, out of my five weapon skills, two of them were almost completely defensive abilities. And both of them had a small offensive component which allowed for a very “active” tank style, much like my beloved Reaver from DAoC. Where the Reaver was a completely reactional/positional fighter, doing most of its damage after triggers from the opponent or form being in a specific position during fights, the Mesmer is more of a “control” fighter. The Mesmer dictates where the fight will go and uses that to their advantage. The Scepter #2 and #3 abilities are a perfect example. By Blinding and Confusing an opponent, the Mesmer is basically telling you to stop attacking them. A poor player who mashes buttons and doesn’t pay attention to conditions will fight a Mesmer and lose and not realize what killed them. A good player fighting a Mesmer will be forced to switch strategies several times during the fight to avoid killing themselves.

The biggest similarity between the Reaver and the Mesmer is this: Most people that play them are not going to get it. Oh sure, they’ll have fun and there will be one or two “faceroller” abilities that will make everyone go “Holy Crap! Overpowered!” (For the Reaver this was the infamous Leviathan.) But for the most part, outside of those simple combos, the “average” player will not be very effective. But for the player for whom the class “clicks”, they are going to be able to (in the words of one of the DAoC devs) “bounce sparks off the ass of anyone else.”

My point is that is going to be my longest profession posting. You’ve been warned.

The next weapon I found was a Sword. I wasn’t really enjoying the offhand focus, so I unlocked the offhand sword abilities first. #4 is another dual-ability skill, but used traditionally, it is simply a second single attack block, just like Scepter #2. #5 summons an illusion that fights for you. It was about this time that I realized that the “block” abilities on Scepter #2 and Sword #4 had a followup skill. For the sword block, the followup is a ranged daze/interrupt. It also is a “leap” finisher, even though you don’t actually leap and it acts like a projectile. So for this ability, a single tap is an ordinary block, and a double tap is a ranged interrupt, on a 15 second cooldown.

Offhand Sword couples very well with Scepter for a very defensive style of play. Of the seven weapon skills you have access to, two of them are blocks, and one of them summons a pretty tough “pet” illusionary swordsman. Drawbacks of this combo are that using this weapon set effectively requires a lot of skillful finger dancing (two of the abilities are a double-tap to trigger) and the lack of “on demand” illusion summoning. With the right utility skill selection, this could be a very effective (albeit hard to play) weapon choice.

Since I already had a Sword, I switched to Sword/Focus. The Sword mainhand abilities really captured me, particularly #2. I believe that this is going to be one of the two “faceroller” Mesmer skills. This ability makes the Mesmer immune to damage for about a second or two, while unleashing a pretty massive melee attack, on a ten second cooldown. As expected, while this can be a devastating ability against an unskilled or inattentive opponent, it is very easy to dodge or simply move away from. The sword #3 is yet another dual-function ability that seems straightforward, but will really shine in the hands of a skilled player. Press the ability once to summon an illusionary swordsman that leaps at your target (which is, in fact, a “leap” combo) and snares them. Press it again quickly to swap places with the illusion and root any enemies nearby. This ability is great for mobility, allowing the Mesmer to enter a melee fight from range (twice.. if you count the illusion), or it can be used defensively to snare/root opponents before making a quick (and potentially invisible) exit. Finally, the Sword’s 3-attack spam chain applies 10 stacks of Vulnerability on the opponent, followed by a boon canceling effect. This is pretty powerful in a more subtle way. Rather than straight up hitpoint damage, this effectively nerfs the opponent’s armor, making them much easier to hurt, and stops them from using HoT regens, or damage boosters of their own. Mainhand sword is a very solid weapon choice!

Since I was happy with my mainhand Sword, I explored the offhand options. I had already unlocked offhand sword and focus, but neither or those seemed to be all that compelling to me. Sword/Sword does provide a very interesting mix of offense and active defense, but it didn’t really grab me. Sword/Focus also provides a nice mix of offensive punch, with a more passive defense and some great utility, but again, it did not grab me.

Offhand pistol, however, did. The #4 ability does a CRAZY amount of burst damage. It summons an illusory pistolier who uses a skill similar to the thief’s Pistol/Pistol “Unload” ability, shooting like ten times in two seconds. Of course, to keep this ability from being crazy overpowered, the pistolier only unloads this ability once every dozen seconds or so. Still, as a ranged burst DPS skill, it is pretty impressive. This skill is probably going to be another of the Mesmer’s “overpowered” abilities since it does provide a fire-and-forget very high burst. The catch is that since it is burst, a skilled player can turtle (with a shield or other defensive ability) for a second and avoid most of the damage and then ignore the pistolier. They won’t even need to waste time killing him, since he doesn’t DO anything outside of that small burst. The #5 ability is a bouncing attack that will hit three targets and apply a different effect to each one. In order, it applies a 2 second stun, a 2 second daze, and, finally, a blind. The catch is that it only applies one effect per “bounce” so against a single target, it will NEVER apply the daze or the blind. And with uncontrollable bounce, this skill will undoubtedly result in over-agro and additional (unintentional) pulls. Still, the #4 ability is really powerful and easily makes up for the unpredictability of the #5.

Similarly, offhand Torch is another winner. The #4 ability (called “the Prestige”) grants the Mesmer three seconds of stealth while applying blindness to adjacent opponents. This can be used as an “head start” on escaping from a fight gone bad, particularly if triggered right after the mainhand Sword #3 snare/root. When the Mesmer reappears, they apply three stacks of Burning on any adjacent enemies. This ability has so much utility and different potential uses that it boggle the mind. On the other hand, it is not very straightforward to use. The Burning DoT is applied as a PBAE, and it is a three-second delay after casting, so it is not a normal DoT. The stealth is only three-seconds long, and slow running speeds make it a poor alpha-strike ability. The blind is applied with the stealth, and only absorbs a single attack, which will likely be made while the Mesmer is stealthed, so it can’t even be used as a normal defensive ability. However, this combination of effects, when used properly, can turn the Mesmer into a blinding, stealthed, fireball. The Torch #5 is equally useful, but in a much more subtle way. It summons an illusory caster that applies a damage shield to allies, and confusion to enemies. Either way, this discourages the opponent from hitting the Mesmer, and makes for a great defensive tool.

The first two-handed weapon I found was a Staff. Now a lot of people really like Staff Mesmers. I am not one of them. My biggest gripe with the Staff is that the effects are unpredictable. The spam attack shoots a slow ball that hits multiple people, friend and foe alike. For friendly targets, it applies a random boon. It might apply Fury, or it could apply Might, but never both. For opponents, it inflicts one random condition: maybe Burning, maybe Bleeding, or maybe Vulnerability. Staff #2 summons a illusionary caster that uses the Staff spam attack. Staff #3 summons an illusionary caster that acts like a Ranger DPS pet: it’s not great damage, and it tends to die fast. #4 is a defensive armor ability that triggers when you get hit. Now, I’ve never been a fan of abilities that require me to take damage to trigger. The whole reason I’m using the ability is to avoid damage, not cause it! In any case, the effect of the armor spell is, of course, random. There are five possible effects, two of which are good for the Mesmer (Protection or Regenration) and three that are bad for the opponent (Confusion, a snare, or Blind), but you don’t get to select which one you get or apply. It’s random! The final Staff ability is the one that everyone loves to see and is actually kinda neat, but with a very long 40 second cooldown, and seven completely random effects, it really didn’t make me want to use Staff. You might notice the word “random” being used a lot in these descriptions. That’s why I couldn’t stick with Staff. I’m all for a little randomness. I don’t want my weapon to do exactly the same damage every time I use it. But I do want to be able to rely on it doing damage every time, and not surprise me with a bonus buff or heal every once in a while. Having said that, I will happily take advantage of every Chaos Storm I see, and combo the hell out of it.

And what Mesmer discussion could ignore the two-handed Greatsword? This weapon has been the star of many YouTube Memser videos, and for good reason. Who expected a caster class, using a giant two-handed sword would be using it to shoot laser beams at enemies from long range? Who saw them having the ability to stab the sword into the ground and have the tip stab back up and apply Vulnerability to a foe that is well out of melee range?? Who expected them to swing the sword in a cone AE in front of them and knockback enemies (potentially off a cliff)??? No one did, that’s who! And yet these are the three Mesmer Greatsword “melee” abilities. The other two abilities are a summon that brings an illusory Greatsword Warrior that uses Whirlwind Attack, and a giant sword toss that hits three enemies and summons an illusory Warrior. Greatsword is flashy, it’s fun, it’s pretty simple, and it’s mostly effective. I expect this will be the “go to” weapon for newbie Mesmers. The problem with this is that the spam attack has a very loud sound effect that plays on every shot, and it can get annoying really fast.

The Mesmer’s special class abilities all involve the illusory summons. The Mesmer can “shatter” them at will, providing one of four different effects. Managing and shattering the illusions (especially for a Greatsword user) is really going to separate the good from the bad Mesmers. A Mesmer that ignores his shatters and just uses the normal abilities is going to be okay. A Mesmer that uses the normal abilities and knows when to shatter and which shatter to use, is going to be amazingly powerful.

The simplest shatter is Mind Wrack (F1). This makes all of your current illusions explode right where they are, causing AE damage to everyone nearby them at the time. While this seems straightforward, it really is situational. If you had three melee illusions in a fight with a single opponent, this would be three AE bombs going off right next to them. On the other hand, if you had caster illusions fighting, using this would be pointless since they would explode far away from any opponents.

One of the more interesting shatters is Cry of Frustration (F2). Similar to mind Wrack in that it causes illusions to explode where they are, but rather than doing damage, each clone applies 5 stacks of Confusion to nearby enemies. Confusion is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful tools in the Mesmer arsenal. It causes damage each time a skill is used. So, with three illusions, a single Mesmer could potentially apply fifteen stacks of confusion to multiple foes, causing each of them damage for their next fifteen skill usages. Even if the Mesmer dies in the fight, the conditions can persist, allowing the Mesmer to do additional damage even when they are no longer an active participant in the fight!

Diversion is the third shatter, and it is a bit unique. This shatter makes the illusions charge their target, then interrupt them. This is especially useful with ranged illusions. Since they will likely have different distances to cover, they will arrive at the target at different times, providing three different interrupts. Also, since shatters are not technically an “ability”, it may be possible to use this to interrupt an enemies’ channeled attack even while stunned or knocked down!

The final shatter is a defensive ability. Rather than exploding the illusions for an effect on the enemy, this one puts an effect on the Mesmer. What it does is allow the Mesmer to completely avoid one attack for each illusion. If they shatter all three illusions, the Mesmer would be invulnerable for the next three attacks.

I did not experiment much with the three Mesmer heals, and stuck to the default one for the duration of my play session. The secondary option is a projectile reflection/heal, which would be very useful when fleeing from a fight, and being shot at the whole way. The healing mantra is something I really wished I had experimented with. At the time, I didn’t understand how Mantras worked. Essentially, these are pre-casted spells that you “load”, and then can be triggered instantly at any time, even while in the middle of an channeled ability without interrupting it!! The catch is that the pre-cast is slow and forces you to stop moving, so it can’t be chained. Which is a good thing since the cooldown on the healing Mantra is only 8 seconds!

The Mesmer has a wide variety of utility skills. This was the first BWE that had the tiered utility skills, and after buying all of the passive Signets, I really did not test many of these skills. Due to time constraints (and skill point limits) during BWE2, I was not able to experiment with very many of them. Here are the ones I did try out:

Signet of Inspiration – great signet that gives a random boon every ten seconds. I can’t tell how many times it would magically pop out a speed boost when I was running, or a health regen in a close fight. The active ability allows you to buff everyone around you with the same boon. It’s a 1 point skill, and I would make this one of my first purchases! I kept this loaded for my entire play session.

Signet of Domination – increased power. I may have already been capped on power since I was concentrating on keeping that stat very high, but I did not see any appreciable return from this signet.

Signet of Midnight – adds duration to boons. I thought this would pair well with the prior skills, but the durations were so short that the additional time was nearly insignificant.

Signet of illusions – adds health to the illusions. This was useful in learning how to shatter. It kept my illusions alive long enough for the “shatter now!” message to stumble around in my brain before running down to my fingers and jumping on the F-keys.

Blink – teleport. This was a fun one for getting around, but unlike some of the other classes “jump” skills, this one requires there to be a valid path to your target. It cannot be used to teleport through, for example, a jumping puzzle. If you try this (and I did!) all that happens is that you move in the direction of your target up to the edge of your current platform, and then stop. Still, this has some pretty obvious mobility uses in a fight.

I did not try any of the Mantras, I wish I had!
I did not play with Portal Entre, I wish I had!
I did not try Decoy, which would be a great skill for a non-torch using Mesmer.
I was playing a PvE character, and only made it to level 20 (and just barely that!) so I was not able to try out any of the elite skills.

For my trait, I went into the Chaos line choosing the Descent into Madness trait. While this may not have been a good PvP choice, it was a ton of fun in PvE and world exploration. The reduction in falling damage was neat, but being able to summon a Chaos storm on demand was even better. I was climbing up on rocks and things in fights just so I could drop down and pop one.

Overall, the Mesmer went from being a class that I was almost completely not interested in, to my favorite class in the game. I will be playing one of these guys as my “main” character come release time. At first I was treating the illusions as summonable allies or pets (a la the Necromancer) but once I started to understand the shatters, the class really started to wake up for me. I hope to get better at managing the illusions as I play it more. I ended this play session at level 20, from 100% PvE play. My final spec can be found HERE.

(I told you this was going to be a long one! I'll edit typos later....)

- Stupid @ Friday, August 3, 2012 1:15 PM PT [+]

I was discussing my Ranger experience with another GW2 player at my office and he told me that the melee-heavy style I had adopted while playing the Ranger was almost identical to the way he was playing his Thief. I had already decided that the next profession I was going to try was Thief anyway, so it seemed a bit serendipitous. So when BWE2 rolled around, the very first thing I did was create a new Norn Thief.

As always, I feel obligated to point out that my preference tends to favor “tank” classes, and longer fights where the timing and situational use of skills tend to matter more.

Because the thief has a fairly limited selection of weapons (sword, dagger, or pistol mainhand; dagger or pistol offhand; two-handed shortbow), my usual strategy of unlocking all weaponskills worked flawlessly. It was actually quite fast to unlock all of them. Once done, it only took a few fights with each combination to see which skills were working for me and which ones were not.

I thought the unique #3 “combo” skill for each weapon combination would add complexity to weapon choices. In actual practice, it felt like it was mostly tied to the offhand weapon; instead of being three skills determined by the main hand weapon and two skills determined by the offhand weapon, it felt like there were two skills from the mainhand and three skills from the offhand. And with only two choices on the offhand, it was pretty easy to run through them.

Mainhand sword really didn’t do much for me. The primary attack chain was basically damage. It did have a very short duration snare on the third attack in the chain, but it was almost impossible to capitalize on this effect. It took too long to land initially. Once done, the short duration forced the player to continually refresh the effect, which ties you to simply using the spam attack. The #2 sword attack is the analog to the jump out/in sword attack that I loved on the ranger. The problem with this ability is that the thief’s version is jump in first, then out, and the thief already has a leap in with the F1 “steal” ability, making a second “leap into melee” skill practically useless. Especially when the followup is “leap back to where you were” – and 95% of the time “where you were” was already in melee range.

Mainhand dagger suffered in exactly the same way. The spam attack chain was just more damage and the second attack skill was a similarly useless, duplicated, leap skill.

Mainhand pistol clicked for me. The spam attack not only did damage, but also inflicted a bleeding condition. (And I love those DoT conditions!) When used from stealth, it unloads several rapid-fire shots, which instantly applies several stackable bleeds. And even though it is a ranged attack, it could be used from melee range with no detriment.

As for the offhand options, pistol seemed to pair well with the sword or dagger, providing for a defensive melee support. The fixed #4 and #5 skills are a daze (interrupt) and a blind, both of which are used to best effect when one is in melee range with the opponent. The combo skills are a stun (with sword), a blind (with dagger), or a massive DPS burst (with pistol). The dual-pistol DPS combo skill was really fun, but it really didn’t make up for the general lack of ranged utility with the pistol offhand. The dagger/pistol combo effect (blind) duplicated one of the offhand pistol skills, making it not terribly useful. Similarly, the sword/pistol combo effect (stun) has such a short duration that it is really only useful as an interrupt, which duplicates the other full-time offhand pistol skill.

Offhand dagger seemed to have more overall utility. The #5 skill is an on-demand 3-second stealth ability, albeit at a high initiative cost. #4 is a short-range multiple target snare ability, incredibly useful for delaying advancing opponents or catching fleeing enemies. The combo skills include an evade/reposition (with sword), a high DPS bleed (with dagger) and a stealth/escape (with pistol). All three of these abilities mesh very well with their mainhand partners. The sword ability is exactly the same as the #3 ranger sword ability that I had grown so enamored to in my last play session. It’s very useful in melee letting the player both avoid damage, and move to a new location on the battlefield simultaneously. Used thoughtfully, it can be used to dodge a large hit without any endurance cost. The dagger ability not only does a large amount of damage and stacks several DoT conditions but is also a “whirl” finisher. It’s no coincidence that whirl finishers have come to be known as “spin-to-win”. The pistol ability provides a second stealth-on-demand while simultaneously moving the player out of melee range. This was a great first-use ability, and provided a “jump out” ability followup to the “jump in” F1 steal ability.

Obviously, my preference fell pretty strongly towards the pistol/dagger combination.

The shortbow offers some really interesting abilities, but it’s a two-handed weapon. The #2 ability is a ground targeted AE DPS skill with a variable radius. #3 is a snare shot with a leap away. #4 is a ground targeted AE that inflicts a strong poison DoT condition. #5 is a fantastic mobility ability that allows the thief to teleport to a ground targeted location. Collectively, these abilities offer a ton of utility, but ground targeting requires a lot of finger waggling. Since my preference was to use a ranged weapon (pistol) in my main hand, the ranged bow attacks did not offer enough variability to make me want to use the bow in fights, but I did keep the shortbow in my swap slot just for the #5 mobility skill during long distance travel and the ground targeted AE effects when other players were fighting in a ball of MOBs.

For my healing skill, I ended up using the Signet of Malice. The passive health regeneration while fighting added a little bump to the skill, and the cooldown on the active heal was only 5 seconds longer than the default healing skill, while healing for a similar amount. The default heal skill might be slightly more useful against skilled PvP opponents due to the instant stun break. Unfortunately, I was on a “new” server for BWE2 and our initial matchup was against an established server. Within hours after the weekend started, the established server had steamrolled all of WvW, and they had a large group camped directly outside of our home keep. This meant that I wasn’t able to test out different healing abilities in WvW situations.

As per my usual preference, I started out with passive utility skills: Signet of Shadows (for the speed increase), Signet of Agility (for the increased crit rate), and Infiltrator’s Signet (for the increased initiative). While this was a good no-brainer setup, I never felt like I was getting much utility from these so-called utility skills. I experimented a bit with poisons, but since they only affect the “next X attacks” and have a relatively long cooldown, these skills ended up requiring too much situational awareness for me to get much utility form them. By the time I had run through these skills, I was out of skill points, so I was unable to evaluate some of the more interesting utility skills.

I didn’t figure out how to effectively use the thief’s F1 “steal” skill until I was nearly level 19 (out of the 20 levels I played). It is a “jump into melee” skill that changes into something new every time you use it. The new skill that is granted depends on the “class” of opponent you jump on. For example, if you jump on a melee class, you might get a followup that blinds the opponent for a short time. But since the followup ability is semi random, the steal can be difficult use. What I found to be very effective (for my weapon selection) was to leap into combat, steal something, then use my #3 combo ability to leap back out. This gave me a second to look at what I had gotten and decide whether to use it immediately, or what to watch for to maximize its effectiveness in the coming fight.

I specialized into the Tactics line and chose the Uncatchable trait. This trait had me throwing caltrops on each dodge. After playing four characters to level 20+, I have gotten fairly good at dodging at opportune and appropriate times during combat. Tossing caltrops on each dodge really had a pretty major effect on each fight. With continual dodging, this ability kept opponents almost continually snared and really reduced their mobility in a fight. If I was trying to escape a fight, I could dodge once and snare all chasing opponents without blowing a cooldown ability, without aiming, and without any additional effort.

The thief’s initiative system didn’t work as well as I had hoped. While the lack of cooldowns is supposed to allow any ability to be chained or used at any time, the long global cooldown really stopped the thief from stacking several abilities at once and then moving on, which was my expectation. In practice, the lack of skill cooldowns really didn’t allow skills to be used faster than is possible on any other class, and, in some cases, the initiative system actually slowed my skill use down. The one upside to the system is that it made me consider every skill use a bit more since I knew that initiative was a finite resource that needed to be doled out carefully. At the end of the day, the initiative-based combat didn’t offer any real advantage over cooldown-based combat.

Overall I found the thief to be an entertaining profession, but not really my style. I would probably play one as an alt, but it won’t be my main class. It really depends on actively managing alpha-strike utility skills and roll-of-the-dice abilities that have semi-random effects. I ended my play session after achieving level 20 from purely PvE play. My final spec can be found HERE.

- Stupid @ Sunday, July 15, 2012 9:27 PM PT [+]

My second foray into the “adventurer” medium-armored classes was the Ranger. This was the fourth and final profession that I was able to squeeze into the first BWE. At the time I played it, this profession has some definitely “unfinished” aspects, but despite the flaws, I really enjoyed the experience. I ended the weekend with the ranger at level 24, with about 60% of my time in WvW.

Traditionally, I play a “tank” class. Heavy armor, low DPS, and long, drawn out fights. The ranger was the opposite of this in almost every regard.

Very surprisingly, after playing the warrior and engineer, the ranger actually felt very “tanky”. No so much due to out-and-out protection, but more due to the evasive nature and high mobility of the class. It may also have been that after playing three other professions for many hours, I was getting better at the game.

My first goal is typically to unlock the various weapon skills as quickly as possible. I’m starting to question this strategy. While I am opening up weapons, I tend to look at them in a very short-sighted fashion and not evaluate their overall value very well. When I come across a weapon or combination that I like, I tend to stick with it and not look at the other options creatively. I believe this really impacted my experience with the ranger profession, particularly with respect to greatsword play.

The ranger can use two different types of bows (short and long – both of which have the same effective range but offer different skills), a greatsword, and two mainhand weapons in combination with four offhand weapons. That’s a lot of different weapon types!

The default starter weapon is a one-handed axe. I had heard a lot about the #1 ability being incredibly useful. As a more tanky/control type player, I found it to be both unpredictable and annoying. It often would hit a target, bounce and pull two additional adds that I didn’t want.

I switched to bow as quickly as I could, but found that the shortbow was not my style. While I do enjoy positional play, it is very difficult for me to maintin optimal position when dealing range. I think in the hands of a different player, it might have been effective, but I never could grasp the synergy of the abilities. In particular I am not fond of “cone” abilities like the shortbow #2. Shortbow #4 provides a pet buff and my pet was dead the vast majority of the time, lessening this ability’s utility for me.

Longbow worked m uch better for me and I ended up keeping it as one of my two active weapons for my entire play session. But it really required keeping the target at long range to be most effective. The only real control ability is on #5 with a long cooldown. In WvW (or group encounters where someone else is controlling the battlefield) the longbow is capable of devastating levels of damage. In particular, I was able to take another player (in WvW) from full health, down to about 30% health with one rotation. This makes the longbow a great sniping/support tool, but not very effective for solo play.

I tried the greatsword and had moderate success with it. The #2 skill offered great mobility, but required a lot of targeting control. If you targeted correctly, the leap could be used as a linear damage ability, hitting multiple targets, and hitting them hard! But if you are targeted on something not in your direct view, often the leap would take you in a direction you weren’t expecting, completely missing what you were aiming for and wasting a cooldown. I suspect that if I had stuck with this, I would have gotten more mileage out of it, but I was still trying things out.

Mainhand sword stuck with me. Despite being a moderately lightly armored “adventurer” profession, I was able avoid a lot of hits by liberal use of the sword #2 and #3 abilities. I would say that both of these abilities require the same type of “learning” that the greatsword #2 does, but for some reason the one-handed abilities gelled for me in the way that the 2H sword’s did not. I was leaping out of melee, repositioning, leaping back in, snaring folks, and spinning around behind my targets with wild abandon. I was actually using the #2 and #3 abilities so often that I started to internalize the cooldowns.

As for the offhand, I liked the warhorn’s #5, but the #4 ability was on too long of a cooldown to make it useful to me. Players that are more accustomed to burst DPS would probably enjoy this ability though. Dagger #4 was too similar to the sword #3 for my tastes, and the #5 was too short of range to be effective as a closer. Both of the torch abilities are nice, but I’m finding that burning effects (in general) are too common and I’d rather capitalize on others’ fires than try to create my own. Offhand axe offered both a short range attack plus a defensive ability, both of which fit my style very well. Plus the whirl finisher on axe #5 gave me the perfect ability to leverage all of that overcommon fire! Had the offhand axe #4 had a snare (even at the cost of shorter range) this would have been my perfect weapon selection.

The default healing ability provided healing to both the player and the pet, but since my pet was usually dead, it really didn’t do much for me. The cooldown on the self-regen was quite long, and I found myself without healing most of the time. I took the compromise for the healing spring. While this really impacted my mobility, it also gave me more group utility. And in stationary fights (for example when somone else was providing control) the overall healing effect was much larger.

For utility skills, at first I took passive signets: Signet of the Hunt for the speed boost, and Signet of the Wild for the health regeneration. I also took a single trap skill (Viper’s Nest). After a bit of play, I dumped the Signet of the Wild (the regen level was so low that it was unnoticeable) and added a Flame Trap. I was surprised how fast the traps were able to be set, and used them to decent effect even in WvW. The sword #2 ability really helped with this, allowing me to set both traps for a pursuing enemy, then use the leap away to gain distance and escape, or to jump back in, crippling them and then running away. Either way, they would take the full brunt of both traps, while only hitting me once or twice. It didn’t take long before I was traited to maximize my trap effectiveness. and had completely dumped the passives in favor of a hotkeyed DPS booster.

The ranger’s pet was, in my opinion, useless. While it was alive, it did provide some minor tank-ability and a small amount of DPS. But it would die in every single fight, even a one-v-one with a same level MOB. Rezing it after every fight added downtime to my play, and the "dead" pet wandering around was almost always in the way of quick looting, taliing to a NPC or activating world items. If I chose not to rez it, I lost the DPS and protection that it afforded me, making play much more difficult. Overall, it felt more like a detriment to me than an added bonus. The only pet that had any decent stayability was the bear, but it had a less-than-stellar selectable ability.

Managing the selectable pet skill on F2 felt odd as well. Other classes have their class “thing” on F1, but since F1 swaps between the two “active” pets, the ranger is constantly looking the F2 button. The pet’s #3 and #4 abilites were not controllable by the player, leaving the player to the whims of the pet AI. More often than not, the pet would blow it’s “big hit” ability on an opponent that was nearly dead, wasting most of the effectiveness of the ability, or heal itself when it was not taking damage, or somthing similarly boneheaded. Basically the pet AI was simply spamming cooldowns in combat, which is not a very effective way to play.

Overall, I found the ranger to be a surprise equal to the warrior. Whereas the warrior ended up being a great ranged profession, the ranger ended up being a great melee DPS profession! Even with the stupid pet being dead, a sword/axe ranger or a greatsword ranger both have great battlefield mobility, can hit like a truck and get out of a fight quickly when things turn south. The longbow offers some great group play opportunities (in terms of massive damage), and the shortbow can really shine in the hands of positional fighter.

It probably won’t be my first choice (mostly due to the difficult to manage pet) but (despite the pet issues) it really is a fun profession. I ended my ranger play session at level 24, equal to the guardian. My final spec can be found HERE

- Stupid @ Friday, June 29, 2012 2:06 PM PT [+]

Way back when I first started playing online games (in 1984!!) it was a very collective experience. There was no internet. Online gaming wasn’t really even a Thing back then. Mentioning that you played games “online” would result in people tittering nervously behind your back as if you had just revealed that you enjoyed some deviant sexual practice. It wasn’t anathema, but it certainly wasn’t acceptable and far, far from commonplace.

There were so few of us back then that when our little gaming groups grew into small communities (as they always do) we became furious friends with each other. Even if the games we played forced us to become fierce opponents, asked us to try to will the other player out of existence with every fiber of our being, placed us in game situations where it was not just us-or-them but asked us to look at each other with inhuman disdain… even then we became brothers-in-arms. Our collective, shared experience made us One with each other, rallying together against the blind populace that did not understand what we saw in those “video game things”.

Journey is a game that encourages this kind of bonding.

In the game, your character’s actions are pretty limited. You can “use” power that you have accumulated (to go up) or you can “talk”. Talking is manifested in the game by a little mysterious glyph and a sing-song-y pinging. The beauty of this simplistic system shows up in multiplayer. Journey’s multiplayer is one of the “new” multiplayer titles that is non-traditional. As you go through the game, occasionally you will meet another player on the same Journey as yourself. There are no weapons and no trading, so your interaction options are very limited. You can’t even “talk” outside of the sing-song-y “ping-ping-pong-ping” communications.

As I was playing, I met several others. (The game does show a list of the people you "met" along the way when you complete it.) Some of them seemed as lost as I was, wandering around the world, trying to figure out how to get up the mountain. Some seemed to know where they were going. Sometimes they would show me a way to progress, softly pinging to me as they walked along the proper path. Other times, I would find the next doorway and ping back to them, as if to say “This way! Follow me!” Players would appear mysteriously. I would spot one off in the distance, running along the desert floor. We would travel together for a few moments and then I would lose sight of them and they would be gone. It was a very organic method of matchmaking and while I would see others along the way, I rarely connected with them for very long.

As I progressed through the game, my character’s scarf grew in length. I’m not certain of the mechanic, but I believe that this showed “experience”. In some games you might call it “level”. In any case, it was clear that as I did things correctly, my scarf grew in length, and with it, my “power”. It didn’t take long for me to progress to the point where I was swooping through the air. Until I met the first “monster” in the game. I didn’t even know these creatures existed. When it captured me in its gaze and blasted me, my scarf was shortened to non-existence.

I had lost my power. I was alone. I felt trapped. It was a dark level, full of power-sapping monsters. I didn’t know which way to go. I wandered aimlessly for several minutes, hoping that another traveler would appear and show me the way to go. No one came. After retracing my steps several times, I finally found the doorway to the next section of the game and started rebuilding my scarf.

I had managed to gain three panels when I met the next player. His scarf was longer than I had ever seen. Obviously, he was much more accomplished than I. So I followed him. I think he recognized me as a new player (with a tiny tiny scarf) because he constantly sang to me, showing me where to go and leading me on. I followed him through an entire level. When I would fall behind, he would wait, patiently pinging as he stood next to the next doorway, on the next platform, at the end of the next bridge. His chatter was incessant, something I was grateful for. I got lost several times, not knowing which way to go, but all I had to do was stop for a second, listen for the continually tapping pings and orient on that.

Eventually, I reached the final level. It was here that I was the leader. Maybe it is because I played so many flight sims three decades ago, but I’ve always had an easy time with 3D puzzles. The last level was to follow a path that was not only winding, but had a lot of vertical component. I literally flew through this section of the game. I rocketed up, and up, and up, and up. Over waterfalls, up cliffsides, higher and higher I climbed into the clear blue sky, while the game’s music swelled, and birds flew around me.

It seemed like only a flash before I was at the summit, my goal in sight. I started the final walk into the light that had been the goal of my quest. I was literally moments away from winning the game. But then…

I listened.

I heard him.

My fellow companion. I could hear him continually pinging as he struggled to keep up with me. I stopped and turned away from the light.

I waited.

He came running up to me. “Ping ping ping pong ping pong!” He said.

I replied, “Ping. Ping.”

He started past me towards the end-goal of the game, but then stopped. I started moving forward. Maybe it was just lag, or maybe it was intentional, but as I walked past him, he started walking beside me. He had stopped his chattering. Side-by-side we slowly, silently, walked towards the glowing portal at the end of the game.

I don’t know who it was, this faceless, nameless person who shared the previous 10 minutes of their life with me. I didn’t care what their gamertag was, how many kills they had, whether they were an elite or casual gamer. It no longer mattered if they were a school kid, a 32-year old man-child living in his parent’s attic, or a 60-year old granny. K/D ratios, leaderboard rankings, ELO scores, none of that counted for squat. All that mattered to me at that moment was that they were walking next to me.

We had beaten this.


- Stupid @ Monday, June 18, 2012 10:34 AM PT [+]

After trying both of the “heavy” classes in Guild Wars 2, I decided to start working my way through the medium-armor classes. My first foray into this group was the engineer. Over the course of BWE1, I had three people playing Guild Wars 2 in my home. My lovely partner, my best friend and myself. At one point all three of us were playing engineers.

At this point, I’ll mention once again that my preferences are biased strongly towards being a traditional tank class. I enjoy fights that last a long time and require a lot of maneuvering. A fight where the apparent victor changes several times over the course of the bout is (to me) much more exciting and fun than a fight where the winner is decided instantly or where the fight is over in a matter of seconds.

As always, my first goal was to unlock all of the weapons abilities for the profession.

The engineer is starts with a single pistol, which is a decent weapon. However, after playing the guardian and warrior classes, the DPS output of the engineer’s pistol felt very lackluster. The off-hand pistol abilities did not provide much additional utility, mobility or high-DPS burst, making the combination feel even more awkward. Off-hand shield seemed moderately defensive, but the long cooldowns made it difficult to use either shield ability effectively.

Rifle felt similarly anemic, and had some odd skill combinations. In particular, the #3 and #4 abilities seemed to lack synergy. Similarly, #5 seemed to be a bit schizophrenic: it does a considerable amount of damage when used at point blank range (hitting the enemy twice) but loses its mobility bonuses, OR if you use the mobility portion, the damage done drops nearly to the point of uselessness.

Even worse, unlike the prior two professions I had tried out, the engineer did not allow for “swapping” weapons. Rather than selecting two weapons that complimented each other and switching between them as needed (an aspect of the game that I found to be very enjoyable), the engineer is limited to a single weapon set.

They make up for this lack with their “utility tool” bar, four abilities that sit on the F1 to F4 keys, that basically act like separate weapons sets. These weapon-esque skills are selected by the utility skills slotted into the 7 through 9 skills. For example, the F1 class ability is a skill that is selected depending on which of the profession’s three healing skills are on the player’s hotbar. F2, F3 and F4 are determined by which utility skill the player loads into slots, 7, 8, and 9, respectively.

And this is where my engineer experience took a bad turn.

Some people will absolutely love this class, and be very effective at it. I am not one of them. Having a utility skill that does Thing X, and a class-specific F-key skill that also does Thing X (or at least something very closely related to Thing X… let’s call it Thing X.1) seems cumbersome and awkward to me. This type of setup is advantageous for the real weapon-y utility skills like the flamethrower, bomb kit or grenade kit. For these tools, the F-key skill is more-or-less a sixth “weapon” skill which adds utility. For everything else, it feels like the designers were just searching for a half-way decent skill to put on the F-key, and were only moderately successful.

For my first utility skill, I saved up seven skill points and selected the Rocket Turret. This was pretty effective in short to mid-range fights. The turret did a decent amount of damage (albeit at a slow fire rate, with missiles that could be dodged), and could be overcharged every 20 seconds to do much more damage. And in a pinch, the player could detonate the turret for pretty significant PBAE damage. The problem with turrets are the incredibly long 60-second cooldown. Once placed, it was practically impossible to reposition. Even for stationary fighting (like command points in WvW) where turrets could be extremely powerful, if the turret is accidentally placed in a location where it cannot see enemies, or has it’s shots blocked by terrain, it can’t simply be “moved” to a better spot. You basically have to detonate it (or pick it up... but why would you do that when you can detonate it?) and wait out the cooldown before trying again. This was incredibly frustrating!

After slogging along with the engineer profession for some time, I decided that I simply wasn’t having fun with it. Games are supposed to fun. We play them for entertainment. Since I wasn’t having fun, I decided to abandon the engineer at level 9, with only one utility skill and no traits. My experience probably would have been very different if I had selected a different utility skill (like flamethrower, or grenades), but that wasn’t the case.

My final (very low level) spec can be found HERE

- Stupid @ Friday, May 25, 2012 10:50 AM PT [+]

The second profession I tried in the first Guild Wars 2 beta weekend event (BWE1) was a human warrior. I think it’s important to point out the use of the word profession rather than class. Unlike most other MMOs, each profession in Guild Wars 2 actually plays is several different classes, depending on what weapons are equipped. The warrior was my first real taste of how dramatic this difference can be.

I leveled this character up to level 15 in the time I spent with it. My play time on this character was spent mostly in PvE – I completed all 20 levels of the personal story available during the BWE – with only about 10% of my time in WvW.

In the interested of full disclosure, I should point out that I was coming to this character directly after playing a norn guardian up to level 24, and that I have traditionally played a “tank” class. Also, I have a long history of being a skilled “kiter”, going all the way back to games I played in the early 1990s. I mention this because those facts have undoubtedly affected my impressions and opinions.

My first impression of the warrior was that they are fragile. Even with heavy armor and one of the largest hitpoint pools in the game, I quickly had to modify my playstyle from the guardian’s “scream and leap”, to a more cautious “fighting around the fringes” style. It may have simply been due to the abrupt change from a high-mitigation character, but the warrior really felt like a fragile DPS profession, and not a heavily armored one. Because of the huge hitpoint total, the biggest self heal was only a 20% heal. Whereas the guardian was quite happy to pop the self heal at less than ½ heaIth and be refilled to nearly full, I found that I had to be much more proactive on the warrior and use the self heal at around 75% health. If I waited until I was at ½ health (or less) to use it, I would often be dead before the 40 second cooldown was up.

As an aside, I found the human areas to be much more generic than the norn zones. The first chapter of my “street rat” human personal story was pretty uninteresting. The people in my story did not seem to be well developed, and felt more like throwaway, background characters. The buddy/love-interest character of Quinn did not seem likable, and I really did not bond to him or his problems at any time. When given the choice, I did choose to save him specifically (as opposed to stopping the bandits from poisoning the water supply), which, after playing a different character, I think was a more difficult path to complete, but only because I felt that the character I was playing would have done that. (Yes, I sometimes role-play. Try not to faint.) But as a player, I really couldn’t have cared less about him. I found the second chapter (the unknown parents storyline) much more interesting, but that may have been because it was steeped in Guild Wars 1 lore, which really catered to my geek interests.

As always, my first task was to unlock all of the various weapon skills and abilities.

The default starter weapon combination is a sword/shield. This really added to the fragile DPS feel of the class. The defensive shield ability on #5 took a long time to unlock, and the long cooldown made it very difficult to use effectively. The offensive shield ability on #4 did not add any real functionality over the sword #2 ability, and is on a much longer cooldown. #3 provided a short duration snare for getting out of melee, but the preponderance of ranged abilities made this almost useless against anything other than a pure melee opponent. The auto-attack was strongest with its initial abilities that apply a bleed, with the finisher being the weakest attack in the chain. As you have probably guessed, I did not enjoy this weapon combination.

The warrior has many weapon choices and combinations and I tried pretty much every possible combination for at least one protracted fight. Rather than list them all (for reasons which will be made clearer), I will point out a few notable abilities that stood out for me. Generally speaking (and surprisingly), melee was not a very good place for a warrior to be.

Mace/sword is a good defensive weapon selection, and is ideal for melee duels or dealing with veteran or champion MOBs. Between the mace #2 and the sword #5 abilities, this combination can “turtle” incredibly well. The various other abilities add daze or stun effects as well, allowing the warrior to almost completely shut down their opponent’s DPS. On the other hand, this really only works against a single opponent, and the DPS output is so low that the player will get bored and wander off before a single fight winds to its inevitable conclusion.

Offhand warhorn provided good support abilities with a group-wide speed boost on #4 and a melee buff/debuff for allies and opponent, respectively. This would be a good choice for a group-oriented support warrior build.

Axes generally focus on AE melee damage and effects. I settled with offhand axe as my primary weapon choice at one point. The whirl finisher in conjunction with a fire effect makes for an amazing combo. Being able to transform from a melee warrior into a mobile, whirling tornado of flame that stacks a half dozen burning effects on an opponent is so much fun that it cannot be understated. I was literally cackling maniacally every time I was able to pull off this move. With a relatively short cooldown, this was probably one of my most favorite warrior experiences, but it was highly dependent on another player putting down a fire field.

Both of the two-handed melee weapons seemed lackluster compared to the guardian’s greatsword. This may have been partly due to my impression that the warrior really didn’t fare too well in a melee fight. Regardless, the 2H options didn’t feel as powerful as the guardian greatsword, and the fragility of the class made any melee fight a dicey proposition.

What was really surprising was how powerful the warrior became with ranged weapons. Despite having access to no fewer than 17 different melee weapons combinations and access to heavy armor, the warrior really excels as a ranged profession.

My first ranged weapon was a rifle. This weapon was ideal for taking down a single target without getting hit at all. This felt very natural, since the warrior seemed so fragile when in close quarters combat. In fact the #5 ability is actually a knockback, and the #2 ability is a snare, allowing the rifle warrior to keep a target at range for much longer than one might expect. The autoattack applies a stacking bleed effect. I was able to win several fights by stacking bleeds on one target and then switching to a second target, letting the bleeds finish them off. The F1 adrenaline ability, if used after the #4 debuff, could remove 40% of an opponent’s health in a single shot. Not to mention that the rifle has an incredibly long range; if a rifleman to opens a fight at maximal range, they can almost always kill an opponent without taking a single hit.

The other ranged weapon usable by warriors is the longbow. Where the rifle was a strong single target device, the longbow excels at area-effect damage and combo effects. In the hands of a skilled player, the longbow is devastating. Using the F1 ability to lay down a fire field, then following it with the #5 snare (to keep the target in the fire area), the #4 blast (to spread the fire around to even more opponents), or the #1 autoattack (to add two additional burning stacks to your target), can be incredibly effective. The #2 ability provides additional burning effects to a single target, and the #3 can be used to ignite either multiple targets (at range) or two or three stacks of burning to a single target (up close). If a warrior is traited/runed/equipped to maximize condition damage, the multitude of short-duration high-DPS burn effects will likely be extremely painful to entire groups of enemies. The drawback to the longbow is the range; the longbow only has ¾ of the range of the rifle.

Once I tried them, it didn’t take very long for me to completely abandon melee weapons in favor of the ranged options.

I chose the Healing Signet as my self-heal. This signet grants a passive hitpoint regeneration, and a fairly strong heal when activated. I think the longer cooldown was (mostly) offset by the passive regen, but once I switched to ranged weapons I almost never needed this. Even a slow backpedal (after applying a ranged snare) kept me out of melee range and dodging most ranged attacks was fairly easy.

Since I only made it to level 15, I only unlocked two utility slots. And since I more-or-less completely altered my playstyle about halfway through the session (switching from melee DPS to ranged DPS) I did not make good utility skill selections. My initial choice was to choose the passive Signet of Might to increase my DPS output. While this may have been a decent selection in the end, I did not feel that it added much (the majority of my damage was condition based). A few amber pebbles mounted in my equipment seemed to have a larger effect than this signet. My second utility skill was Endure Pain, allowing me several seconds of immunity. Again, this was based on a melee setup, and once I changed to ranged, I never used this.

I ended up favoring longbow over rifle, so I traited into the Tactics line with the intent of taking either the Stronger Bowstrings ability, or the Burning Arrows ability. However, as noted, since I only made it to level 15, I wasn’t able to get that far, so I don’t know if that would have been a good choice. I think that the Arms line would be better suited (for the passive condition damage increase) but none of the trait abilities really add much for a bow warrior. They add a lot for the rifleman, but rifle lacks the heavy condition damage of the bow.

Overall, I found the warrior to be a surprisingly poor melee profession, but an amazing ranged profession. While this is not generally my playstyle, I think that players who tend to enjoy a long range style of play will be ideally matched with the warrior. Both rifle and longbow have amazing utility in both PvE and WvW. In PvE, the combination of abilities allow the player to drop MOBs of much higher level with no worries of ever getting hit. In WvW, the rifle shines in attacking control points and blasting defenders on the walls, and the longbow is amazing for defending a control point when opponents are forced to ball up at the gates.

For reference, my final spec can be found HERE.

- Stupid @ Friday, May 18, 2012 11:54 AM PT [+]

A couple weeks ago, Guild Wars 2 had their first beta weekend event (BWE). During that time, I pretty much immersed in the game. I played a norn guardian up to level 23, a human warrior up to 15, a char engineer to 9 and finally, a human ranger up to level 24. I also dabbled in crafting (up to around 125 skill points). My time was about 50/50 PvE and WvW (aka DAoC style RvR).

I found that each class plays VERY differently. Within a single class, the different weapon choices really complement a specific playstyle. While it can sometimes be subtle, the different weapon choices really differentiate even a single class. There didn't seem to be a "best" weapon choice for any class, only a "best for me" choice. For me, I knew I had found the right weapon selection when I started using all 5 weapons skills consistently, rather than hitting 2 or 3 all the time and the others only occasionally.

Historically, I've favored tank type classes in MMOs, so that undoubtedly colors my experiences. Today, I’d like to talk a bit about the guardian class.

I created a norn guardian for my very first character. During play, I found the guardian to be an extremely robust character, able to take quite a beating before falling down. In fact, during play, I was often completing “hearts” three or four level higher than my character, and leaping into battle with bunches of up to four or five enemies without any concern. It does have a comparatively small hitpoint pool, which makes it seem less powerful than other classes, but it had much more durability.

My first task was to unlock all of the weapon skills for all the different weapons.

The default starter weapon combination is a mace/shield. This is a great choice for a player who wants a traditional “tanky” character. The primary auto-attack chain provides a small self-heal on every third hit, increasing the durability of the guardian. It gives a (very small) point-blank area-effect heal-over-time on #2, and a finisher on #3 that not only provides a 33% damage reduction, it turns the #2 field into a wide area group heal. Between the auto-attack heal and the #2 heal, the guardian's hitpoint pool is actually quite a bit larger than you might think. #4 and #5 on shield are primarily utility skills. With the (existing) overabundance of ranged classes, #5 is especially powerful in a large WvW fight. The disadvantage is that this weapon combination is pretty low on the DPS scale, making even easy fights take a very long time to play out. I pretty much abandoned this combination as soon as I unlocked others (around level 6). In retrospect I should have gone back and tried it again after gaining some experience with the game.

A lot of people found the hammer to be a lot of fun. I am not one of them. Perhaps it was because I did not take the time to learn it properly, but I found the #4 ability to be a detriment more often than not. I've never been able to understand why people flock to a knockback on a primarily melee class - when you hit things with a giant piece of metal, the last thing you want to do is punt them further away! There were several times over the weekend when other players would indiscriminately use a knockback and negatively impact their own play – sometimes they would punt an opponent away from other players, making it harder to kill; other times they would push a nearly-dead opponent out of the fight, allowing them to heal and/or escape completely. I barely touched this weapon outside of unlocking the skills.

Mainhand sword has an auto-attack chain that ends with a cone AE on the third swing, which made aggro management a bit difficult. The #2 “leap” skill was a bit confusing to me, since it was functionally the same as the Greatsword #4 ability. Why would the same ability be #2 on one weapon and #4 on a different one? The sword’s #3 ability also seemed to mirror one of the shield skills. I unlocked sword in combination with the torch. The torch abilities seemed very situational and more intended for a support character. Similar to the prior weapons, I did not use this combination beyond unlocking the skills.

Like many others, I settled on a 2H sword as my weapon of choice. The auto-attack chain provides a small buff that increases the chance of a critical hit. This makes greatsword a great choice for guardians who simply want to cause others pain. The #4 leap skill offers fantastic mobility. Plus, when combined with the #2 and #3 skills, it can take out a ball of opponents very quickly: leap in, set a mark, then spin to set everything around you on fire! Plus as opponents invariably target you, the retribution reflects their own damage back to them. When fighting a solo (player or MOB), the #5 (which can chain off #2 for additional burning/retirbution damage) could be either a long 10-second root (good for burning some self-heal cooldown time) or a very strong pulling tool (or both)! The damage output of the greatsword more than made up for the lack of defense. (Also, my utility skills helped quite a bit, as I’ll discuss later.)

The biggest downfall to the Guardian was the real lack of ranged options.

Staff was too short range for me to think of it as ranged. The primary attack ability only has a range of 600, only four times normal melee range. It ended up with more of a "magical melee" feel to me. Plus, the staff skills basically turn the class into a well-armored support character. I'm thinking that players accustomed to playing a healer will probably gravitate towards this since it plays more like a classic mid-line healer than a melee class. I beleive that the staff guardian is probably the strongest "heal others" class in the game, even more than a water elementalist. I could see a staff guardian choosing more support-oriented utility skills and really getting a lot of mileage out of the staff, particularly the #4 ability in a WvW keep fight. But I’m not that kind of player.

Scepter was pretty much the only ranged option. The auto-attack range was the same as most ranged classes attacks and while it certainly wasn't notable damage, it wasn’t ignorable either. I was able to kill a few Wilsons (running players) in WvW with this. The combination of the #3 and #2 skills is pretty powerful too, and I found myself watching these cooldowns often. Because of the way they interact, it was always a strategic decision to pop the AE damage and hope the enemy didn't move out of the circle, or hold it for a bit longer and root them down first, to ensure they took the full brunt of the damage. The root had the obvious utility uses as well, making it an even trickier balancing act. I unlocked scepter with a focus. I found #4 to be very powerful in a large fight (like WvW) but required careful positioning to use effectively. The long cooldown on this made it hard to use, since it was so positioning dependant. #5 seemed to be too situational, like a seldom used, get-out-of-jail ability. Having said that, I still feel that focus is the best offhand for a DPS oriented guardian.

The #6 skill healing breeze was extremely powerful. Much more so that the #6 skill on any other class I played. I think that it is partly due to the small hitpoint pool, but the self-heal on the guardian seemed to be practically a 50% heal. It also allowed me to heal others around me. Definitely not as a dedicated healer, but it certainly did help to supplement their self-heals. The default heal was extremely lackluster with a very short duration block. If the block were longer it might have some utility for a melee-oriented guardian. The healing signet option only healed for a tiny bit more than healing breeze, and did not heal others, making it a non-starter for anything other than solo play - which never happens. Even when you are “solo” there are other players around that will be affected by the healing breeze.

For utility skills, I chose Shield of the Avenger, Signet of Judgment, and Retreat!

Shield of the Avenger made me even more "tanky" as it would block about 20% of the incoming damage I would have normally taken, and was especially powerful in WvW. I didn't understand how the followup skill worked until much later, so I probably did not use this to its full effectiveness. Regardless, this ability was almost always on cooldown for me.

Signet of Judgment was a great passive making me even more durable. I did not ever use the active skill, but this was mostly because I was still trying to learn the class. I expect that if I had internalized this ability earlier in my play session, I would have made better use of it. But I didn’t.

Retreat! was an incredible skill that I used both offensively as a gap closer and defensively as an exit skill. This made the class more like a traditional "tank", since it allowed me to better control the fight. With two other people playing in the same room as me, I was able to call an exit from the fight, pop this and all three of us could escape safely (even from overwhelming odds, most of the time). In retrospect, I would probably choose this as my first utility skill. The only downside to this skill was the icon has a dark area that looks EXACTLY like the cooldown timer. Often I would think it was up when it wasn’t, or think it was on cooldown when it was ready.

I did not use my class specific abilities a single time over the entire play session. The passive effects are decent, and the active abilities didn't seem to make up for the loss of the passives. For example, the F1 passive is to burn my foe every fifth swing. The active ability is to make my entire group burn their foe(s), but then the passive is disabled for 30 seconds. The problem is that if I am attacking continually, I am going to attack many more times in 30 seconds, burning more foes by myself, than my group can do in a single attack. Thus the active becomes less worthwhile (outside of very specific burst damage situations). I found this to be generally true of all three of the guardian's class abilities.

Overall, I found the guardian to be a very fun class to play that complimented my personal playstyle while allowing for a great amount of flexibility. Players of traditional Tanks and traditional Healers would both probably enjoy the guardian. Since this was my first character, and I was still learning the GW2 character systems. I did not trait it at all. For reference, my final (untraited) spec can be found HERE.

- Stupid @ Friday, May 11, 2012 1:32 PM PT [+]

I’ll admit it. Guild Wars 2 may not be the game for everyone. As the past beta weekend showed, with all of its attendant NDA breaches, some people really didn’t like Guild Wars 2. With good reason. Some people simply aren’t going to like it. Here’s why:

There aren’t any quests.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There is exactly ONE quest that every character gets, their so-called “personal story”. Other than that, there are no quests that give the player direction on where to go. Instead, the player is thrust into an organic world with dynamic events that just spring up around them. Without the giant green exclamation point quest givers, walls of needless flavortext and quest tracker summaries, how is the payer supposed to know where to go and what to do? There is no mechanic that directs the player to grind out XP gathering 15 rat tails, shows them where a cave is so that they can rescue 5 slaves, or pushes them into the next XP area with a quest to deliver a message to some random NPC in the next town. Instead, the player is left to their own devices.

Players who want quests to help them explore and experience a game are going to HATE Guild Wars 2.

Players are forced to explore the game’s world without being told where to go. Players expected to gain XP by reacting to events that occur in the world around them. There is no NPC that tells you to go kill ten bandits on the hill overlooking the town before they attack. Instead, the bandits actually attack the town while you are standing there. If you fail to defend it, there is a very real chance that the town will cease to exist and it will become a bandit enclave. There is no quest giver that tells the player to go rescue townsfolk that the bandits captured when they took over the town. There is no nearby guard who has a quest to recapture the town from the bandits. All of these things JUST HAPPEN in the game. A player who is expecting definitive directions in the form of a formal quest might not notice or even realize that something is happening in the world around them.

Players aren’t given a bridge quest to the next level-appropriate section of the game. The game does not give the player a clear signal that they are “done” with a given area. In most MMOs the player knows when to move on when they run out of quests in one area and they get a quest that send them down the road to the next quest hub. Instead, the player is forced to decide for themselves whether or not to move on to the next section of the game. Which can be difficult because of…

High-level players are not Gods
Every area of the game has a very specific level range that is appropriate. For example, the very first area that new players spawn into might have a lot of level 1 and level 2 monsters to kill. Guild Wars 2 puts an “effective level” cap on the player in that region. As long as they stay in that newbie area, they will never gain stats higher than a level 2. They actually do gain the levels, but the game will not take those higher stats into account as long as they are in that area, effectively de-leveling them in that region. A high level player can go back to a newbie area and they are effectively limited to a much lower level.

Players who like to feel powerful by attacking dozens of low level monsters and killing them instantly are going to HATE Guild Wars 2.

Players are forced to deal with challenging low-level content even when they hit max level. When the player enters a level 15 area, their stats, equipment, hitpoints and DPS are down-scaled as if they were level 15. Even if they are actually level 80, as long as they are in that area of the game, the game will treat them as if they were level 15. This means that when you find a task or event that is “too hard” at a given level, it is impossible to simply gain a few levels, come back and simply herpaderp through it. The game will downscale the character so that they can NEVER make challenging content “easy”. A low level explorable dungeon that is hard for a level 35 will be just as hard for a level 80, because the level 80 will be “down scaled” to level 35 the instant they step into the dungeon.

Players will never be able to blithely waltz back to a newbie area with their high level characters and completely obliterate low-level content. The game does not allow players to trivialize content that they have outleveled. Which is not to say that character level doesn’t matter. Character level is important because the game does not (generally) “up scale” characters. Low level characters will find play impossible in high level areas. High level characters will find challenging play everywhere. Which will become easier, not as the character levels up, but as the player becomes more skilled. Especially because…

There are no attack rotations
Most players are accustomed to combat being a situation where you use damaging attack skills in a specific order to maximize your effectiveness. If you aren’t familiar with what each ability does, or what effect it has, you spam them as quickly as possible, and then pop them again as soon as the cooldown expires. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing. The dynamic feel of combat is due to the player continually using different attack abilities. They develop “attack rotations” where a specific sequence of attacks, used at a specific time, can be spectacularly effective in a fight. Autoattack (or “white damage”) really not a factor. It is only about 10% of the total damage.

In Guild Wars 2 , auto-attack (or “white”) damage is your most effective attack.

Combat in Guild Wars 2 is not deciding WHICH ability to use as soon as they are off cooldown. Instead, players need to be continually repositioning themselves and thinking WHEN to use their very limited situational attack abilities. Guild Wars 2 weapon attack abilities are specifically designed to be almost completely ineffective when spammed.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine a (fictional) example. Suppose there is an attack skill on a 20 second cooldown that does 100 points of damage when used from the side, but does only 20 points of damage when used from the front. If this ability is used as traditional “spam”, it will do 20 points of damage each time it comes off cooldown every 20 seconds. If the player sits on the ability and waits for a single “side” hit they will do 100 points of damage. The player who holds off on using an ability until the ideal opportunity will out-damage the spammy cooldown hunter by a factor of five. Even if they are sitting on a ‘ready to use’ ability for half the time, and only using it half as often as they could (by chasing cooldowns) they are still going to be putting out 2-1/2 times as much damage as the ability spammer.

This is not too dissimilar to other games. Most games have some situational attack abilities. But in Guild Wars 2 all attack abilities are situational, but some of them are less obvious than the example used here. Like a snare attack that does minimal damage. At first glance this might seem to be a pointless ability that the player would rarely use. That’s actually true. In a normal fight, it really wouldn’t be a standard “go to” attack. But when chasing a fleeing opponent, or when a player needs to extend out of range to heal up or use a potion/expendable item, or simply decide to flee, a snare attack becomes an invaluable resource.

Players can no longer just madly mash buttons and expect “something” to be better than “nothing”. Using abilities in that fashion will actually make them less effective and limit their combat options. Instead players will have to learn which abilities do what, and when it is appropriate to use each one. Combat becomes less about who can quickly push buttons in the right order, and more about who is better at recognizing (and creating!) opportunities where abilities will give them maximal benefit. This will really change the definition of player “skill”. Which shows up in other parts of the game too, because…

You aren’t competing with other players
This one is really hard to get. Dozens of years of MMO play have trained players to hate each other. Let’s use a little quest example to illustrate how much difference this makes. Suppose Susie the Piemaker has a quest to gather apples so she can make a pie. She needs 36 apples, and there is 3 minute event to gather apples from the nearby orchard and bring them back to her.

In a traditional MMO, there are 36 apples to gather. Players must run to the orchard and gather apples as fast as possible to collect them. Every apple that Player A picks up is one that Player B cannot gather. Every player is in direct competition for apples. When the event ends, the player who gathered the most apples is given the “gold” reward, the two second best gatherers get a “silver” reward, the three next best get “bronze” and anyone else who participated gets s consolation prize of some XP and maybe some gold. The competition between players is reinforced because they know that in order to get the “best” reward that have to gather more apples than everyone else.

Or it might be a quest to kill some type of monster. When someone kills one of the monsters, that means there are fewer for other players, forcing them to wait on respawns.

In Guild Wars 2, the rewards work differently than what we are used to. Using the apple gathering as an example, the requirement for a “gold” level reward might be based on a combination of participation time and gathering. For example, the event might be tuned so that if you gathered only one apple (or a very small number) but you were out in the orchard TRYING to gather for the entire event you still get a “gold” level award.

Players who like to feel that they are “better” than other players are going to be disappointed.

Getting the “best” reward doesn’t require the player to be better than the other players in the event, they simply have to meet some minimum criteria. Potentially, every single player could get “gold” rewards with no one getting “silver”, “bronze” or lower awards. This doesn’t mean that the rewards are easy to get. Low level events might be trivial to get gold level every time. But since every player is trying to meet the same requirements, a higher level events might have a higher threshold for success. Just like it is possible for every single player to get a “gold” reward, some events will result with no one getting “gold” and every single participant getting “bronze” (or lower) rewards!

It’s NOT “completely different” gameplay
Players who are expecting Guild Wars 2 to be a complete reboot of the MMO genre are going to be disappointed. While it does have a lot of new gameplay elements, at the very core, it is still an MMO. There are still “kill ten rats” events. There are still “go to town X” tasks. There are still dungeons that have button puzzles, “secret” crafting recipes that will be posted to various websites within hours after release, and button-mashing combat opportunities.

If you are expecting something revolutionary, you will likely be disappointed.

Guild Wars 2 is innovative just like WoW was innovative in 2005. It really isn’t adding anything completely new and revolutionary to the genre. What it is doing is wrapping pretty much everything good from every other MMO, dropping all of the time-sucking pointless parts of it and rolling it into one giant ball of fun gameplay. The sum is a product that feels very fresh and new, but still familiar and easy to pick up. The roughest spots for most players are where the design is mostly what they are used to, but implemented just different enough that their old “bad habits” still work (sort of) and they aren’t willing (or able) to adjust their playstyle to this new paradigm. (Combat is a prime example of this.)

Guild Wars 2 will become the new standard for MMOs. There is no doubt about it. There will be detractors who don’t enjoy it. That’s undeniable. I’ve listed a few reasons why people won’t like the game right here. But for most players of MMOs, Guild Wars 2 is going to be a game that they can play and enjoy for years to come.

- Stupid @ Thursday, March 29, 2012 11:59 AM PT [+]

By now it should come as no surprise that I'm a fan of Guild Wars 2. When I was first bitten by the bug a couple of months ago, one of the things I started doing was working on the Guild Wars 1 Hall of Monuments. This is a repository of titles, pets and items that new characters will get in Guild Wars 2. The only way to get them is to earn them in Guild Wars 1. There are a total of 50 "points" available, with every single point up to the first 30 granting an item, a title, a pet, or some combination of those.

When I first started, I had 3/50. This was pretty easy, since every player in the game gets three points just for linking their account. It's like the proverbial "first one is free" credit.

It didn't take long to get to 8/50. I had some legacy accounts, so I was able to dedicate 15 miniature statues right away for one point. I bought an in-game item allowing me to put a Hero staue in the hall for a second point. I had already finished the original Prophecies campaign, and that was worth two more points. And finally, I had already set up some end game "elite" armor for my final point.

And there I sat. For about two months. And then came this weekend.

In my past game play, I had completed 15/25 of the Prophecies "bonus" missions. Completing all 25 would give me a title and move me towards another point. So I started working on bonus missions. Luckily, I had a friend who was playing through for the very first time, so I would do missions with him and complete the bonuses that I was missing. The problem was that he was playing on my second account. About halfway through, he decided to buy his own account and restart the game. So I had to work on the bonus missions solo. I managed to finish all of them except for one: Thunderstone Keep. I remembered that this mission was incredibly difficult with a full group, and I needed to do it solo. So I put it off.

I saw (in-game) that I had explored about 70% of Tyria, so I started working on the Cartographer title. Because of the name, I assumed (mistakenly) that I nly needed to explore 90% of the game to get credit. When I passed 92% and still did not have it, I realized that I actually needed 100%. But since I was already, as they say, "invested" in the title, I decided to finish it off. Some of the areas needed are within difficult to get to mission areas, and others required a lot of wall-scrubbing.

A good portion of what I needed was in the Thunderstone Keep mission. So on Friday, I bit the bullet and tried it. It took three attempts, each of which was a good 45 minutes of time investment, but by persevering, I was able to prevail and completed the final bonus, which earned me Protector of Tyria.

As a bonus, i came out of that mission with 98% explored. I finished up the two other small areas I knew were missing and brought it up to 99.8%. Looking around the map, I found a slice in a very early mission that looked fairly easy to get to. A few minutes later, I was awarded Grandmaster Cartographer of Tyria. Two more titles!

In parallel, I was working on the Factions. I had been stuck on the second-to-last mission. I was able to complete it, but for the Protector title, I needed to beat it in 20 minutes or less, which seemed nearly impossible for me. I had tried it a handfull of times and no matter which route I took, or what strategy I used, I was finishing within ten seconds of 24 minutes, four minutes too slow! So I did some soul searching. I spent several hours skill hunting in orer to tweak my build. I took a deep breath and plunged in... and finished in 18 minutes! From there the final mission was a cakewalk. I needed to beat it in 150 seconds for the bonus; it took 45 seconds. Two more titles, added to the three Tyrian ones gave me three more HOM points, for a total of 11.

(It's worth pointing out that my "good enough" goal for HOM was ten points. For ten points, you get the title "Guild Warrior", which seemed oddly appropriate for a game called Guild Wars.)

Following the Factions campaign, I was able to charm a phoenix. I took it to the Zaishen Menagerie and death leveled it with a throwaway PvP character. This involved letting the pet kil me endlessly for about 30 minutes. Eventually, it gained enough XP to become level 20 and could be mounted in the HOM. The phoenix is a rare pet, worth two more HOM points, bringing me up to 13 total!

As a followup, I was only two quests away from completing the War in Kryta storyline. I knew this story would give me a weapon that was worth another two HOM points so I completed that. Sure enough, two more points. But one of the ancilliary rewards is a box that contains a random item. I've gotten these in the past and they invariably give some useless totchke that I would never use in normal play and would end up clogging my inventory until I ineffectively used it in a useless situation, just to get rid of it. Lo and behold, but I pulled out a rare gold miniature! This was worth yet another HOM point!

So in two days I went from 8/50 to 16/50!!

I still need to buy a unique green miniature (another point). I'm 90% done with the Black Moa Chick quest. But I'm told that I can sell the moa for 70k and buy any other green for 30k. The extra money will help towards my armors. And since I'm sitting at 19 minis right now, the green one will also trigger the 20 statue award for an extra 2 points.

I should finish Eye of the North. Once done, I can dedicate two more hero statues for two more points. (I already have the items needed, but I can't access the location until I complete the quest line.)

I still need to finish Nightfall. This won't get me any more HOM points, but it will give me access to the vabbian elite armor crafter.

I should try to get some elite Kurzik armor (another point for that one), some cheap norn armor (another point), some expensive vabbain armor (another point), and another cheap armor (two more points when I have five total).

I need to beg, steal or buy a Destroyer weapon and a toremtor weapon. Each of those is worth a point.

Finally, if there is time, I will buy a Zaishen PvP title. This "only" costs 1.1million in-game gold.

If I manage to get all of this done, I should end up with 31/50 points.

And I'll never play Guild Wars 1 again.

- Stupid @ Monday, March 5, 2012 11:10 PM PT [+]

This is the third part of a mulit-part blog post. If you didn’t see the first two parts, they should be right below this one. Or you can click here for the first part, and here for the second part.

It’s worth noting that arenanet has more-or-less confirmed my speculation in a recent dev-blog posting. Even if the specific details are not inlcuded, it looks like the general idea will be in the game. They call them “meta-events”, and they will involve multiple groups defeating multiple local events that combine into a large zone-wide meta-event. In fact, the dev-blog even mentions the centaur invasion event I’m discussing!

One thing that often comes up in this discussion is what happens when the event is “over”. In past games, like WAR, the PQ would simply reset to the initial stage and restart in the same exact area. This felt clunky and unrealistic during play and it certainly wouldn’t make sense to have all of the centaur camps just instantly spring back to life the same second that players killed the centaur War Boss! I think that these events could reset organically, simply by virtue of how they could be implemented.

So how could you build this centaur event that I’ve laid out? It’s actually not too difficult, and mostly uses existing MMO elements. Let’s break it down and see how you can build this thing. (This may get a little technical. I’m going to talk about game design!)

First, think of each centaur camp as its own “event”. There is a static spawn (an existing MMO element)… but let’s not put it in the camp. Instead, put it somewhere not-too-nearby, but not-terribly-far-away. Now when the centaurs spawn, they need to path to the camp. This is easily handled by making them default to be “patrol” MOBs (again, an existing MMO element). The only catch here is that they need to be pathed to patrol only once. This might require a little code change since most “pat” spawners use the actual spawn point as one of the waypoints. In this case, they spawn, move along their patrol, then stop. Of course the end point is going to be in the camp that they are attached to.

This layout means that if the camp is occupied (by players) the remote spawner makes it “appear” that wave after wave of centaurs are attacking. After all, the spawner will continue to spit out MOBs as soon as the prior ones are gone. But if the players all leave – after the event is over, for better or worse – and the camp is unoccupied (by players), the centaurs will continue to attack any NPCs there, eventually kill them and then set up residence in the camp. If the NPCs manage to kill one (or more) of the attacking centaurs, the spawner naturally spits out a couple more until the camp is full. and then the spawner would stop, since its MOBS are still in the game. This allows the centaur camps (with NO active event running) to naturally and organically reset itself.

The only major code changes to make this happen would be the “trigger” for the events. Each event would need to be “active” all the time, but basically “asleep” until a specific condition was met. For most of the camps, the trigger would be that each of the prior events is in the “defeated” state. That is, players have occupied the earlier stages and, as new “patrol” centaurs spawn, they are killing them off. Thus the event chain ends up being essentially a cascade of static events. The other significant code change would be that the later stages of the chain need to be able to instantly “fail” when any of the earlier chained events fail. Essentially this is similar to the “trigger” condition, but in reverse. (This is actually the same code change.)

So if we have things set up like this, let’s look at the “reset” conditions. The event can end in one of two ways: either the players kill the War King (which a pretty easily definable state), or they fail to defeat the War King. The failure condition is harder to define, so we’ll deal with that later.

If the players defeat the war king... nothing happens. The natural triggers for the event will automagically reset it over time. Maybe I’ve grown jaded form playing MMOs for so long, but I strongly suspect that players will not bother to defend NPCs that are being slaughtered unless there is either an active event or they are directed to do so as part of a quest. The remote spawners will just keep spitting out centaurs util the NPCs are killed and each camp goes back to being occupied by enemy MOBs. The only trigger that is a concern is the very first camp, which instigates the chain. If we set the trigger condition for the very first camp to require that ALL of the later stages be occupied by centaurs, the event cannot “reset” until it has naturally put itself into that condition. No special code or game design trickery needed. It just naturally “happens” over time. It’s unpredictable how long the event would take to reset, but it would happen. Eventually.

The other condition is even less clean. This is an open-world event; how do we know when the players have “failed”? It could be a timed event (Kill the War King in 30 minutes) but that always feels unnatural and doesn’t really work within the organic world paradigm. A potential solution that accomplishes the same thing, but “feels” better, is to have a massive spawn that is on a time delay. When the final event kicks off, the timer starts running. If the players take too long, the War King calls up his army (who conveniently spawn on the other side of a hill) and they massacre the players, causing a complete wipe. Those spawns could be set as the same kind of one-shot “patrol” spawns as the earlier camps, with one assigned to each camp.

This causes the centaur army to essentially send a massive wave of attackers back along the chain, causing resets and failures as they fight back. The chain would migrate backwards along it’s conditions, resetting where the players lose, and staying active where they win. Either the players lose completely and the centaurs push the chain all the way back to the initial setup (which is a reset), or the players manage to stop the “failure” wave and start advancing the chain forward at some point (which isn’t really a “reset” but would serve as one). It could end up with a “front line” being established. Where the players are pushing the event one way, the MOBs are pushing the other way and the event chain simply sits at a point of stability, oscillating between to chained camps. Eventually the players will get tired and leave (causing the chain to reset completely) or rally and kill the War King (and cause the chain to reset completely). Either way, it would be fun to be in a continual battle!

Again, much of this is conjecture and guesswork. The start of this discussion (chained DEs) has been already revealed to be factual. And while the actual mechanics of this specific DE chains is mostly guessing, it has been confirmed that large “meta-events” such as what I’ve described are definitely in the game! How different events tie together is only one potential possibility. The actual event chain described is mostly conjecture based on the text on a year-old leaked image, and the final event described here is almost certainly wishful thinking. None of this is based on “privledged” information and I am not involved in the GuildWars2 beta. I respect and adhere to non-disclosure. I am NOT in any way involved in the development of Guild Wars 2, or, for that matter, any game product at all.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, February 21, 2012 12:03 PM PT [+]

This is the second part of a mulit-part blog post. If you didn’t see the first part, it should be right below this one. Or you can click here.

To see how a Dynamic Event (DE) is going to differ from War’s PQs and Rift’s rifts, I’d like to present a develoment image that was leaked on to the web some time ago, and present some speculation on one possible DE “chain”.

I’m going to make some guesses about a chain that runs across the entire map. It’s listed as the “N” chain. This is a very long chain with potentially twenty-eight steps. I’m going to make some very broad brush assumptions based on publicly released information and add in a healthy dose of speculation in order to describe how this system might actually work in the game. Please keep in mind that I am NOT in any way involved in game development, nor am I in the beta. It’s worth noting that I would never be making this post if I were under NDA. It’s also worth noting that the start of this discussion is pretty firmly based in fact, each successive paragraph delves deeper and deeper into conjecture and wishful thinking. I do think that everything I describe here is POSSIBLE and would be relatively easy to implement given the types of development tools that are available. In fact, my next blog post will describe just how simple something like this would be to implement.

Let’s start at the “beginning” of this chain. It’s listed as N1 at Camp 6. But actually, maybe not. We’ve been told that some DEs have pre-requisites in order to start. Similar to the “random” spawns of rifts, DEs are not always on and might have some sort of "trigger" to start. This is an important point and something that should be kept in mind. Regardless, let’s make an assumption here that when the player enters the they are told that enemy centaur have occupied Camp 6 (listed as N1/2 on the map) and the players need to kick them out. The players move forward and kill all of the centaur and destroy their encampment. (This would be the event “N1: Destroy Camp 6”). After a short time delay, a caravan of NPCs moves in and starts building a friendly outpost at Camp 6. At the same time, centaur continue to attack that area from nearby (and maybe not-so-nearby) spawns. If the players are not vigilant in defense, the encroaching centaur population will stop the friendly NPCs from building and, in the extreme case, if the players vacate the area for a while, can actually rebuild the enemy encampment. So the players must stay active on the next part of the chain, N2: Hold Camp 6.

Once the friendly NPCs are established at Camp 6, this acts as a "trigger" for the start of the N3: Destroy Camp 7 event. It's worth noting that up until this point, that event did not exsit in the game world. Until Camp 6 is captured, the players would just see a centaur encampment at Camp 7. There would no active DE in this region. Even though the N3/4 event exists, it would not be active and the players would not be notified. Killing the centaurs here and capturing the camp would not result in a friendly camp being established. The chain requires that prior steps be completed in order to unlock later ones.

Even better, suppose the centaur attacks at Camp 6 don’t just artificially stop because the players captured it. Suppose that the N2 "event" continues indefinitely and the monster attacks continue. If the players abandon Camp 6 after they "win" and run off towards Camp 7, the centaur spawns recapture Camp 6. The event chain would then "reset" and return to its prior state of N1.

Capturing Camp 7 is going to be more difficult because the players must, by necessity, split their forces and attention between protecting Camp 6 (N2) and capturing Camp 7 (N3). Even if each camp is individually very easy to capture – suppose it only takes two to three players working together – by “stacking” the event chain in this manner, the event is going to very naturally and organically ramp up in difficulty. It will get harder without resorting to standard MMO tropes like mini-bosses, increased monster levels, faster spawn rates or silly raid-like “tricks”.

Let’s assume that the players are successful and manage to do this. This would unlock the next event in the chain, “N5: Destroy Camp 8”. Meanwhile, the prior events Hold Camp 6 (N2) and Hold Camp 7 (N4) continue to be active. Let’s continue with our assumption that the players are able to split their forces and successfully capture Camp 8 while keeping both Camps 6 and 7 defended. I would expect that there is some time delay between destroying each centaur encampment and the time it takes the friendly NPCs to arrive/spawn and set up at each camp. The “hold” quests would stay active throughout all of this allowing the players to adjust to the increased difficulty as it ramps up.

Now that the players have successfully captured Camps 6, 7, and 8, the chain splits. They can push on the northern fork and capture Camp 9, or they can go south around the mountain and capture Camp 10. Either of these two events are valid, and completing either one of them will advance the chain.

Keep in mind that centaur spawns are continuing to attack each camp that the players have already captured. If any one of these is lost to the attacking centaurs, the players “fail” the current step and the chain resets back to the camp that was lost. Let’s suppose that, for the sake of the example, that while the players are attempting to capture Camp 9, the players are stretched too thin. It’s getting late on the east coast and some players have been defending Camp 7 for nearly two hours. They are getting bored with the endless cycle of slaughtering waves of centaur, so they log out. With no one defending, the monsters manage to kill the camp’s few NPC guards and start to rebuild their own encampment. The current steps at N4, N6 and N7 automatically fail, and the “current event” listing on the screen of all of the players in Camps 8 and 9 vanishes. Meanwhile, Camp 6 players are told that they need to retake Camp 7.

Some players will assume the event is “over” and leave. Others will use whatever means they have to figure out what happened. Over time (when these chains are better known) players will realize that a prior event in the chain has failed and go back to reclaim that lost stage. Eventually an organized group of players will be able to coordinate these types of chains and keep multiple stages active by assigning different players to different tasks and rotating new people in and out as required. It’s possible that players could potentially capture multiple camps simultaneously and push the chain ahead several steps at once. Keep in mind that we have so far only talked about three parts of an event chain that has TWENTY-EIGHT stages!

Let’s go back to the position where players have captured Camps 6, 7, and 8. They will need to either keep a couple of people in those “back line” positions, or rely on “fresh recruits” – as new people enter the zone, they will automatically find the “hold” events active and hopefully participate. In any case, let’s assume that the players have this figured out and, this time, for some reason, they decide to go south to Camp 10 instead of Camp 9. Once Camp 10 is captured, the actual chain continues on to Camp 11. But what about N11:Centaur Mining? That could be an optional dynamic “side” event that doesn’t advance the event chain, but may offer special rewards. For example, maybe Camp 10 is a forge or refinery that is processing ore and after taking it, the players have an opportunity to attack the adjacent mines. (This part is almost entirely guessing on my part.)

The neat thing about the concept of a “side” DE is that is it only available if the chain is pushed forward to that point, and the correct situation has unfolded. For example, when the players go north to Camp 9, they can still push forward to Camp 11 (without taking Camp 10), but there is no side-event associated with that route and the N11 “side” event is never activated. Until these event chains are better explored, it’s impossible to know which stages have the potential to “unlock” a side quest like this and which ones are the fast, easy way to the final stage of the chain. The “side” events probably will not advance the DE chain, so players who rush off to collect ore at the mining camp (N11) will not be told to progress to the next step of the chain at Camp 11. A similar “side” event might be triggered at farming Camp 11, activating the N14:Stop Harvest event.

So, let’s assess the situation so far. There probably a couple players defending continual centaur spawns at Camp 6, another few defending at Camp 7, several more defending at Camp 8, a handful defending Camp 10, Camp 9 is left under centaur control, a couple of groups went out to mine ore or stop the harvest at N11 and N14, and more players are holding Camp 11. This might ALL be required to unlock the “Destroy the War King” event at N15. It’s likely that this event will involve a very difficult and boss-like event, similar to the undead dragon and pirate ship dynamic events that have been shown at various trade shows.

This one event chain could require over three dozen people actively involved and working towards a common goal! All without any real coordination or formal grouping. This seems very exciting to me. In my next posting, I'll discuss how I think these types of events can conclude in an organic way and how they could be implemented fairly easily.

- Stupid @ Friday, February 17, 2012 10:48 AM PT [+]

So it should be obvious by now (based on my last five postings) that I’m pretty excited about Guild Wars 2. In fact, it was this excitement that led me to start posting to my blog again. More specifically, I was motivated by a single question: What is it that you are most looking forward to in Guild Wars 2? I will leave the honest answer to that question for future posting. News is only now just starting to be released on the aspect of that game that I find most intriguing. Instead, I’m going to start posting my short list of features that I’m really looking forward to in the new game.

So, let’s talk a little bit about Dynamic Events.

First I’d like to discuss some of the “dynamic events” we’ve seen in past MMOs. I’m going to ignore player-run and GM-run events in even older games because those were rare things that most people never got to participate in. I was lucky enough to be playing EverQuest one night when a Gnoll “came alive” (ie, a GM was controlling it) and began to RP with me. It was a lot of fun, and in the end I ended up having a two-hour long in-character “discussion” with this Blackburrow Gnoll. But that was one singular event and it happened only to me. It was not part of the game. I’m not going to consider those kind of events.

The first game that I played that had automated dynamic events was WAR. For those that never played that game, it had (and still has, I suppose) an innovation called Public Quests. For example, as you entered one of the low level areas, you might see a burning windmill off in the distance. It looked cool, so you would go there to see what was going on. As you entered the area near the windmill, a new quest would just “pop up” on your screen. You didn’t need to talk to an NPC and click through dialogue or text to accept it, you just entered an area and suddenly you were given this additional task. Something simple usually. Continuing the example of the burning windmill (which is an actual PQ in the game!) the new quest would say “Stage 1: Seeker Horror 0/50”. Mouse over the text and the tooltip would have some flavortext about the Seeker Horrors and how they were evil and blah blah blah. All around you are a bunch of Seeker Horrors just wandering about. So you get to it, and start killing them in droves. When the counter reaches 50/50, the quest changes to “Stage 2: Seeker Cultists 0/16” with a ten minute timer. Suddenly the Seeker Horrors all de-spawn and six Seeker Cultists appear, along with two pets each. These are much more difficult monsters to kill and you are forced to fight three of them at once. Meanwhile the clock is ticking down. There are some other players in the area who were also killing the Horrors, so you team up (without actually forming a group!) and start knocking out the Cultists. It’s tough but, by working together, you manage to kill all six before the timer runs out. The quest then changes to “Stage 3: Baruun the Seeker 0/1; Volkyth Flamecaller 0/1” with another ten minute timer. The Cultists and their pets do not respawn, and two very large Bosses appear at the base of the burning windmill. All of the players charge in to kill them, and several characters are killed almost instantly. These guys are TOUGH!! The flamecaller summons ten Horrors every minute, and Baruun starts spawning Seeker Flamers that do an AoE attack. As luck has it, a high-level character happens to be wandering by and he helps you kill them. The quest is completed well within the ten minute timer.

And then the real treat: the reward. Once the quest is completed, a kind of scoreboard pops up and you can see how much each player contributed towards the different goals. You never formed a group/party/fellowship/whatever with these other people, but the game was tracking your individual contribution towards the goal regardless. It didn’t matter if you tagged each monster first or just wildly flailed about, hitting things that others had already tagged. Killing blows were not counted. But if you were working towards the goal, you got some amount of contribution. The top three players get a really nice special reward, about a quarter level of XP, a decent amount of coin, and a blue or purple item. Everyone else gets some coins, some exp and a white item. The amount of reward is tied to the contribution. So even if you just wandered in during the middle of the PQ and started killing things, you got something.

While this was innovative and new when WAR came out, there are some inherent problems with this system. They are completely static, just like standard monster spawns. If the quest is completed (or failed) it just “resets” back to Stage 1 and the exact same goals are listed. In essence, it becomes a kind of open-world instance that never changes. The location is fixed. The Windmill PQ is always based around the burning windmill. The stages are always the same, and they occur in exactly the same order. This makes each PQ predicatable, boring, and not a lot of fun to repeat. The fatal flaw is that PQs do not scale. If the PQ is designed for 10 level 5 characters, a single level 10 can probably complete it without breaking a sweat. Likewise, if a PQ is meant for 40 level 50 players, it's going to all but impossible with fewer than that number. This leads to PQs being fun the first time you do them in a level-appropriate group of the proper size, and completely useless when you are not in the correct level range, you have a group that is too large or to small and incredibly boring to repeat. 90% of the PQs become trivial or impossible, limiting their appeal. With a limited selection that is even further constrained by level and group size coupled with the lack of replayability, the Public Quest system really couldn’t maintain it’s appeal.

The next iteration of this type of design came with Rift’s… well, rifts. This system was similar to PQs but added some dynamics to the scope. Rather than being fixed in a single place and continually available, rifts would spawn in semi-random locations. The engine would check to make sure that the area had the right number of players of the proper level range and then spawn an appropriate Rift event in that area. Similar to the PQ system, there would be multiple stages to a Rift, with some stages timed. Also similar was the reward system that counted overall contribution even if the player was ungrouped. One of the major changes was that if the players did not “close the rift” by winning the event, the monsters that it spawned could gather forces and attack the NPC towns and villages. There was the possiblity of the local merchants, equipment sellers and even the player’s spawn points being overrun and lost to the AI controlled monsters. This gave the system a feel like the monsters were actually AT WAR with the players. It really felt like the player was under attack by the game at times, and not just a static game world where nothing ever changed.

This solves some of the problems with the original PQ system, but not all of them. The rift locations were still mostly static. Even though they could appear randomly, they always appeared in the same exact spots within a region. If players did nothing, the game would “reset” a rift after one hour, so even if the monsters took over an area, all a solo player had to do was wait a bit and the attackers would magically “go away”. Each rift event followed the exact same cookie-cutter formula: 1. Kill some number of weak monsters; 2. Kill a smaller number of stronger monsters; 3. Kill a single Boss. If the players were fast enough killing the Boss, a “bonus stage” would start: 4. Kill a small number of difficult monsters within a set time; 5. Kill a second Boss within a few minutes. Even by adding some dynamicism to the system, the real killer of the rift system was that it was still far too static. After playing through them, all of the rift events really felt the same and become monotonous. It was like having each and every “raid” in the game, be set in the exact same dungeon, only with different monster populations to differentiate them. And regardless of whether players participated (and won) or ignored them (and lost), the events never really affected the game world in any meaningful way.

Which (finally!) brings us to Guild Wars 2’s Dynamic Events. I believe that these are next stage in the evolution of this type of automated dynamic gameplay. I will deal with these in my next posting.

- Stupid @ Thursday, February 16, 2012 12:20 PM PT [+]

It seems like a lot of my attention over the last few weeks has been focused on completing my Guild Wars Hall of Monuments. This is true. Sadly, I’m finding this task to be a lot more challenging than I originally expected.

I started a new Ritualist in the Factions campaign. One of the HoM guides I read suggested that starting a Ritualist and running a Spirit Spammer build was a quick and easy way to complete that campaign. Further, the guide suggested that it could be done by a “new” player in about 25 hours. I figured this would be about a week or two of my effort and I would have two more trophies in the Hall.

So far it has been two weeks. I’ve completed only 9 out of the 13 missions. The next mission appears to be impossible to solo, and my pleading for help online has basically gotten me the answer that I need to complete the Nightfall campaign to level up NPC Heroes to get me through it. This makes me unhappy.

I almost always play a melee class in MMOs. I originally played a Warrior in Guild Wars. And I really enjoy smacking things around until they die. My Hall is based on my original Warrior character since it had the most “complete” and it seemed easier to finish off an 80% done trophy than to restart on a new character. But in the current game, Warriors have been almost completely eclipsed by one of the newer classes in Nightfall, the Dervish.

Then I learned that the Hall was account-wide, and not character wide. So trophies from different characters all count in the Hall. Of course, the catch is that a given character has to actually get the trophy. You can’t, for example, have a one character finish ten missions and then a different character complete the final three and call it done. A single character has to do all 13. But, having done that, the credit for that trophy shows up on all characters on the account.

My hope was to finish Factions, and the “master” mode for that storyline, grab those two trophies, then abandon the Ritualist. Quite honestly, I’m finding that Spirit Spammer playstyle is pretty boring. Basically, you start each fight by dropping five spirits (which are essentially turrets) and then just waiting for things to die. It is a lot like the old Minion Master builds, but without needing to have startup time.

My plan, once finishing Factions, was to use my existing Warrior to complete the “Protector” trophy in the original game (I only need 6 more bonus missions to finish it up), and complete the “Cartographer” trophy (I only need 4% more of the map to be explored to get this one). Once those tasks are in the Hall, I can start a new Dervish in Nightfall. This would replace my existing Warrior for the remainder of the game, and I would run through Eye of the North with the full palette of Heroes as the designers intended.

That’s the plan, anyway. Meanwhile, back in reality, I’m still playing Factions. I’m two weeks in and it looks like I’m going to be working on finishing that campaign for at least two more. Intellectually, I know it’s just a game and that I should be having fun playing it no matter what. But I’m putting a lot of personal pressure on myself to get to a specific point on my accomplishments – a point that seems like it may be unobtainable. And that’s making me treat this game like a job.

- Stupid @ Friday, February 10, 2012 1:23 PM PT [+]

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been (re)playing portions of Guild Wars in order to fill out my Hall of Monuments and get some unlockable skins, titles and vanity pets for Guild Wars 2.

Now, let’s be honest. Guild Wars is an OLD game. It was released at the end of April 2005, making it nearly seven years old. Like all MMOs, it has a slash-command that allows the player to track time spent online, in-game. In Guild Wars, the command is /age. Truth be told, I had actually completely forgotten this command and had to ask about it. As it turns out, the /age command not only reports how long you’ve been online on that specific character, it also reports how long your account has been active and how long you’ve been in the current zone.

Despite being one of the original purchasers of the game in 2005, I really never got very far. (For what it's worth, my /age on the original character I created 81 months ago is just about 450 hours. That would be around 5-1/2 hours each month.) I finished the original campaign (called “The Flameseeker Prophesies”) and I played a VERY little bit during the lead-up to the second campaign release. It was essentially DLC that was published as a for-pay expansion called “Factions”. By that time I was pretty much done with guild Wars, so I never purchased it. One of my co-workers was very active in the game and my purchase decision was strongly influenced by his opinion that it was not worth the $60 price of admission.

When the third campaign/DLC/box “Nightfall” was released, I heard a lot of rumblings from other MMO players that this was (finally) a worthy successor to Guild Wars and it was well worth the price. But, by this time, the skills and abilities that were introduced in Factions were widespread in the game. The developers had (rightly) assumed that if you were playing through the newest campaign, you had access to those abilities and had balanced it based on that assumption. Skipping Factions and going straight to Nightfall was said to be “extremely challenging”. So instead of being a worthwhile $60 purchase, for me it would have been a less worthwhile $80 to $100 purchase. I opted not to do so.

The point is that I barely scratched the surface of the game that Guild Wars currently offers. The Hall of Monuments has some easy to achieve trophies, but they are spread out in all three campaigns, two of which I did not own. Since I had stopped playing the game at least four years before the Hall of Monuments was even conceived, I didn’t have many trophies.

My co-worker who played Guild Wars a lot (it was his first MMO) has 23 trophies on his account and he did not even try for them. He just “got” them for doing the stuff he had already finished in the various campaigns. Me, on the other hand... I’m working on finishing achievements by going back and picking missing steps in mostly completed achievements.

One of those is to complete all 25 of the “bonus” missions in the original game. When I first (re)logged in to Guild Wars a couple of weeks ago, it turned out that I had already finished 15 out of the 25! All I needed to do was to complete the ten missing bonus missions and I would get a trophy. The problem, of course, is that the ten bonus missions I was missing included some of the most difficult missions in the game. If you think about it, it makes sense. If it had been easy to get them done, I would have done it already. I’ve got a bit of the completionist OCD in my personality, and I could easily see the six-year-ago me wanting to see crossed swords on EVERY mission shield. (In fact, I recall thinking that exact thing at one time.)

As luck would have it, I ended up in a group of real people (a rarity in Guild Wars these days it seems) and we ran a couple of missions and their bonuses. I ended up just standing around watching one particular player who literally accomplished two missions and two bonus missions, solo.

I’ve been playing MMOs for a long time. I know what the buttons do. I’m pretty fast at learning how skills work and putting together a prettyy solid understanding of gameplay design. I’d like to think that I’m a better than average player. I admit that I am hampered by my (relative) lack of time to play MMOs, and my advancing age has certainly taken the edge off of my skillz. I know there are some people who will literally spend more time playing these games in a single day than I spend in an entire week. (For reference, I typically play one or another MMO for around ten hours a week.) I’m at a point in my life where I realize there are players who are just plain better than me and I’m definitely okay with that.

But, while I was watching him play the game, I felt like a five-year old boy interested in sports being suddenly plunked down on the sidelines of a professional event. More accurately, it would be like a recreational player who has long since left the field of play watching that same professional event. This guy was so much better than me that I wasn’t even sure how he was accomplishing some of the things he was doing. It was definitely amazing, and almost surreal.

Just prior to this, I had run a Real Life friend across a different section of the game. I went as quickly as I could (which was probably about five times faster than my buddy would have been able to manage). When we were about ¾ of the way there, he mentioned that he was feeling like a complete noob watching me because I was making his gameplay look childish. I can’t even imagine how he felt watching this “pro” play the game! For me it was a very humbling experience.

The one consoling thought that I am left with is that a player of a game that has spent seven years perfecting his technique and practicing gameplay is probably going to be quite skilled. When Guild Wars 2 is released later this year, no one will have those years of experience. Many of the standard gameplay tropes we are accustomed to are not present. We will all be starting from square one. And even though my reflexes and eyesight will never be as quick and sharp as a 20-year old’s, I still expect that I will be better than the average player. At least for a little while.

- Stupid @ Friday, February 3, 2012 4:24 PM PT [+]

At PAX Prime 2011, I was vaguely interested in Guild Wars 2 but nothing even close to the frothing-at-the-mouth level of intense fanboy-ism that I've recently adopted. (This is kind of an important point to this story, so keep that fact in mind.) So I was wandering around in the Arenanet booth and watching other people play a demo of the starter levels and the two mid-level events they had set up. Each player was allowed only 45 minutes and the line was two or three people deep at best (it was five or six long at some stations). I really didn't feel the need to stand in line for a couple of hours, so I watched other people play. Remember, I was only "interested" at this point. And as an old-time MMO player with over two decades of experience in the genre, watching others play was giving me plenty of information. In fact, I probably had a better "hands on" experience just watching others, since I was able to see two or three different classes at the same time.

It's worth noting that at this point I had not watched any of the promotional videos, done much reading, and I know for sure I had never even heard the phrase WvWvW yet. I only had the barest grasp on basic gameplay mechanics. For example, I knew how weapons skills developed, but I didn't know how weapons skills were selected. I was honestly coming into this as an interested observer, and not as a "fan".

After about a half hour of watching the three stations I was parked in front of, I found an Arenanet rep. I asked a handful of questions about what I had seen and some of my concerns about gameplay. Of the three questions I asked, two of them got me a blank stare for several seconds, followed by a regurgitation of some already well-known basic game info: "Our game is going to be great, because we intend to have... blahblahblah (weaponskills/crafting/dynamicevents/peronsalstory)." Totally not answering my question(s). Which was totally understandable. When you’re at a exhibition with 75,000 attendees, and 95% of them have never even heard of your game, you only need to be able to spout of the most basic info to generate hype. But that’s not what I was interested in. I was already interested, I wanted some specific answers. So I re-asked the same question in a different way. The person I was talking to clearly didn't know how to deal with me, and I most definitely wasn't treading into NDA territory. I've "worked" for a dev before and I know what that looks like. This wasn't that.

It didn't take long for me to be passed off to a "real" dev to deal with. So I asked my original (and still unanswered) questions. This resulted in a several minute long discussion that started out with the exact same marketing/basic info but as soon as I said ten words, we quickly started down into MMO design issues and the intended specific intent in GW2. In a nutshell, my basic questions boiled down to: "What if the player does this other thing you aren't considering? What if they don't want to play the way you expect them to play?" I had an easy to understand, illustrative and completely sane and logical example that I could point to on the screens right in front of us.

The final answer I got was that they really hadn't thought of that, but it was pretty unlikely that anyone would play that way (even though I had just seen someone playing EXACTLY that way not a mere handful of feet from where I was standing). And then came the question that I was totally unprepared for: Hey, would you like to be in our beta? Yes, an Arenanet dev actually asked me if I wanted to be in the GW2 beta!

Now remember when I mentioned (way upstream) that at this point I was only "vaguely interested" in the game? That's why, at that moment in time, that I looked this guy right in the eyes and said "No, thanks for the offer, but I'm not really interested."

Since then, I've learned more about Guild Wars 2 than is probably healthy. I spend a good two hours every day reading speculation posted on various GW2 communities on a handful of message boards. I've "done the math" on various builds already, played with online tools, watched HOURS of YouTube video, and have started picking out which class and race is going to be the right fit for me. I honestly believe that this game will revolutionize MMOs as we know them today. In short, I've made the switch from "interested observer" to the guy who WOULD be willing to stand in a six person line for four-and-a-half hours in order to spend 45 minutes with a time- and feature-limited demo of the game.

And I really, honestly, and truly wish that I could go four months back in time and punch my past-self in the face for turning down a chance to play it sooner.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, February 1, 2012 11:29 AM PT [+]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been totally geeking out about the upcoming release of Guild Wars 2. That has gotten me playing the original Guild Wars game again.

I never was a huge GW fan. It was released in the Spring of 2005 and I was still actively playing Dark Age of Camelot at that time. I did buy a preorder box and I did have a lot of fun with it, but it never really stuck.

I was especially intrigued by the way they handle in-game abilities. In most MMOs, the player has access to a few dozen abilities that range from spammable attacks to long-cooldown spells that can completely change a fight. You can pick and choose which ability to use at any time, allowing the skilled player to pop a situational ability at the right time. Most people develop a "rotation" of a handful of abilities and largely ignore the rest.

In Guild Wars, the player has access to literally over 100 abilities on each character. The abilities run the gamut from damaging abilities and attacks, defensive abilities that prevent damage, heals, control, and utility type skills. The catch is that you can only put eight of them on your hotbar at any given time. And you can only change your hotbar in a non-combat area. Once you step foot outside of a “safe area” (like a town or outpost) your hotbar is fixed and you cannot swap out abilities until you enter another town or outpost. (You can do this by simply pressing M and double clicking on any outpost you’ve already been to, but you lose all forward progress you’ve made since then.)

I found it a lot of fun trying to develop a good ability “build”. While my preferred ability loadouts never became incredibly popular, for what I wanted to do, it really worked quite well.

The first character I played was an Warrior/Necromancer that specialized in knocking down opponents while slowly draining their health and healing my own. I still remember going through a mission at level 12 and, after an ill-advised pull killed everyone else in my party, soloing two level 14 MOBs at the same time, and winning the fight with my (dead) party cheering me on! Of course, I hadn't loaded a resurrect ability so we had to restart the mission anyway, but it was still fun. I still have this character and it is the one I am playing now.

One of the later characters I made (that is still around) was also a kind of odd duck, but again, it worked really well for what I intended. I built a Elementalist/Monk with an emphasis on Protection type abilities. These abilities would do things like change an attack against one of my allies into a heal, limit the amount of damage that a character could take, or simply absorb a hit entirely. Most of the protection skills were low mana cost and as an Elementalist I had a very large mana pool to draw from. I could spam protection spells for several minutes without running out of mana. And when I did, I had a self buff that filled me back to full in about 10 seconds. I remember doing a mission near the end of the game and having the group’s healer comment on how they were getting bored. I was simply preventing so much damage that they didn’t need to heal at all!

I never bought any of the expansions and pretty much stopped playing when the Factions was released in 2006. But since Guild Wars has never had any monthly fees, I’ve left my account open and accessible. According to the in-game /age command, my account has been active for 80 months!

The primary reason I’m playing Guild Wars again is because of something called the Hall of Monuments. By gathering achievements in the original game and its expansions, various armor and weapons skins, titles and vanity pets are unlocked in Guild Wars 2. As of this writing there are 34 different items, titles and pets available for unlocking. I currently have eight (8) items unlocked and should be able to acquire another 15 more with a little effort.

- Stupid @ Monday, January 30, 2012 10:42 AM PT [+]

I held on to this game a lot longer than most of the prior GameFly discs. I’ve had a massive backlog of games to play over the last couple of months. Plus this game has some “issues” that made me not want to power through it. I’m kinda glad that I did. Despite the bad parts of the game, the overall experience was worthwhile.

So here are the two main things that I did NOT like about the game:
  1. The Story: Probably the primary reason I was so interested in playing this game was for the (supposedly) “adult” story. It does have some very mature themes, dealing with adultery, love, relationships and even a transgender background character. Sadly, at the start of the game, the main characters are presented as trite, one-dimensional, abusive, and unlikable. As the early game progresses, the characters develop into pointless cardboard cutouts that seem to serve no purpose other than to advance a high-school level “morality play”. (In actuality, “high school level” may be a bit disingenuous. It’s not to the level of “Did you SEE what she wore to the Prom? O-M-G I would have killed myself…” but it really isn’t too far from that.) Suffice it to say that I was extremely disappointed with the story.

    There are actually a lot of little side story characters that TRY to be interesting, but these poor sots are presents as so one-dimensional that they are forgettable fluff. In fact, the side-story character that was most interesting to me was Daniel’s wife, Anna, and she is only a side-story to one of the side-stories.

  2. The Difficulty Level: Okay, I’m not a “pro” level gamer. I’m not handy with a controller. But I do know how game difficulty is supposed to go. Even in a very difficult game, there is an introduction level (or two) that teaches you basic gameplay, and then as the game progresses, new gameplay elements are introduced and the difficulty ramps up. The problem with this game is that the difficult does not ramp up evenly.

    The game has major levels called “nights”. Each night has one to four timed puzzle sections, followed by a “boss battle”. As new gameplay elements are introduced, the puzzle sections simply do not get any harder. Ever. Even though they are timed, I never once felt any time pressure to solve the puzzle elements of the game. In fact, It was not uncommon for me to be topping out each of the puzzle sections with half of the allotted time left over. Even in the later stages of the game, the puzzle difficulty simply wasn’t.

    The boss battles, on the other hand, start out at “very difficult” and by the time the player is on the fourth night, the difficulty is approaching “impossible”. (I should note that I played through the entire game on “Normal” difficulty.) And then, amazingly, the difficulty actually goes DOWN. Yes, once you pass the fourth night, the game gets easier to beat. I was barely getting past the first few bosses, but the later ones presented very little challenge.

    To really make things even more mucked up, the player can only change difficulty between nights, not between individual stages. When one starts a new night’s puzzle stages and finds them easy to finish, and then the boss fight at the end is maddeningly difficult, the only way to turn the difficulty down is to go back and replay all of the already-too-easy puzzle stages. Oh, and you need an old save file to restore from, because you can’t change the difficulty from a save in the middle of a night.
It’s so easy to focus on the bad middle parts of this game because they really stand out. Mostly because the end-game is actually very good. And not in a “game-ey” way. If this was a film, it would have fallen squarely into the “Oscar Movie” category. When the game reached its two final chapters, the simplistic and trite characters finally really got interesting and developed. And since the final chapters are long ones – between them they total seven stages long with three boss battles – there is actually enough time to add some depth to them. The story moves from being a teenage-level relationship story to a study of personal growth and mature awareness. It’s almost as if the final (good) bits of the story were written first, and then handed off to a low level intern to “fill in the opening bits” that ended up being the bulk of the game. It’s really a shame. I suspect by the time most people reach the end of the game they will have stopped reading the game text and watching the cutscenes, so they will miss out on some really good fiction.

There were a few little aspects of the game that were pretty neat and added a lot to the experience. One of these was little “bar trivia”. See, in the game, the main character spends a lot of time at a bar (I can relate to that at least!) and after he has had a certain number of drinks, the game presents you with some interesting little factoid about the type of alcohol he has been drinking. Another was the morality questions between each section. Even though some of these questions were quite laughable (Housekeeping? Really??) the game totals up the answers in an online database and then reports back how everyone else answered the same questions. it was fun and interesting to see how other players responded to some of the questions. More than once I was shocked or surprised by the outcomes.

Another really cute aspect of the game is a little mini-game within the game. It’s basically the same as the puzzle levels of the game, but with a small twist. Rather than being timed, the player is only allowed to make a set number of moves. The mini-game is quite fun and it’s really too bad that this puzzle element was not incorporated into the main game on one or two sections. Oddly enough, the difficulty of the mini-game is better tuned than the main game itself.

The game purports to have eight different endings that vary depending on the answers you give during the game. (I only played it through once.) By the time I got to the end of the game I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted things to go. Amazingly, even though the game did not end the way I expected (or the way I wanted, for that matter!) I was very satisfied with the ending that I did get. It actually seemed to make sense and fit into the final characterizations (or at least how I imagined them to be) extremely well.

Overall, I’m glad I played it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to others.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 3, 2012 11:21 AM PT [+]

As a gaming enthusiast, I have several gaming news aggregators on my RSS reader. I will typically scan through the headlines at least once a day and read articles that seem interesting to me. Now, I’ll admit that articles that mention new beta-test cycles will almost always catch my eye, but the truth of it is that I’ve grown tired of the current crop of “beta” tests that are little more than hype-generating marketing ploys. And it’s not like I don’t have enough games in my current rotation to keep me busy for the rest of the year!

But for some reason, an article about Hedone caught my eye. It came with a link to a “free beta access code” (as if the marketing department really had any intention of selling access to beta!) to a one-day, six-hour testing session. Karen was having some friends over for her Book Club at the same time as the event, so it seemed to make sense to try it out. I took the bait, grabbed a code, signed up for beta, and downloaded the client.

In a nutshell, Hedone is a FPS. It uses the unreal engine, and the graphics use a gritty, ultra-realistic style.

The game fiction/backstory is actually pretty good. Supposedly, in the not-too-distant future, some yokel figures out how to clone people and “copy” their memories into the new clone, granting a kind of immortality. The catch is that the copy has to be made within a few minutes of death. Completely ignoring the socio-political implications, and staying on the simplistic game writing track, this gives rise to a Blood Sport where contestants are killed, cloned, and killed again for entertainment value. The player takes on the role of one of these clones. It's not a BAD story, but, like too many other FPSes, the backstory and the gameplay are almost completely divorced from one another. Once you’re in the game, you might as well be playing Call of War’s Battlefield Fortress or any other FPS. The other big problem became apparent right away, but I didn’t figure out what it actually was until I played for a few hours.

See, the game is billed as a FPS-MMO. This means character advancement. In the game, your character doesn't really gain stats, but as you gain “fans” (XP) you unlock more powerful weapons and skills. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a “pro” FPS player. I can hold my own on most public servers, but real FPS players will wipe the floor with me. In my first dozen or so games I was running a K/D ratio of about 1:4. I chocked it up to inexperience with the game and trundled on. Eventually I unlocked the first weapon upgrade, a new machinegun. Suddenly, my K/D jumped up to 1:1.5! I was killing people in ¼ second if I got the drop on them. I was shocked how much more efficient the first upgrade was in terms of firepower. No more “spray and pray”. With the new gun it was more like pulling off short controlled bursts of fire. And this was the first upgrade.

As the night wore on, the total population of the game fell down to about ten players. It was me, one other newbie and several people who were level 30+. They had access to weapons and skills that I could only dream about. My K/D fell back down to the 1:3 range. I could still get kills, but it started being more about LUCK than about skill. Simply put, the power differential between the haves and the have-nots was too great.

I didn't look into the monetization strategy, but the game is pretty clearly set up for micro-transactions. I would suspect that they are going to allow players to buy in-game currency with real cash. (You can also gain this in-game currency, albeit very slowly, as you play.) This would solve the problem of high-level players dominating, but opens the door to the typical pay-to-win issue that plagues many F2P games.

The game is clearly still under development. There were only two game modes available: Team Deathmatch and Domination. The latter was a standard Control Point variant, one team attacking and one team defending for a specified time, with only two points that would periodically reset, and then the roles reverse for an identical time. There were only four maps, and these did double-duty for both modes of play. The maps seemed to be designed for different numbers of players. For example, the trailer park map was very small and cramped, and in a game with 16 people, there would be four or five firefights going on within my field of view. Whereas the warehouse map was huge and confusing and in a 6-player game, I spent more time looking for opponents than actually fighting. The lack of diversity in maps made the game feel very “samey” after only a handful of plays.

So, would I buy it? No, not really. Usually when I play a new game for the first time, I have this desire to learn more about it, at least for a few days. This one just didn't grab me. It doesn’t really have any stand-out feature that makes it more appealing than any of the other FPS games on the market (or even some that I already own).

If it were released as free-to-play, would I drop a few buck on upgrades to play on release? Again, the answer is no. Half the enjoyment of an MMO is watching your character advance in power. The game just isn’t interesting enough to me to want to pay my way to the top of the heap.

Overall, it was a fun little diversion, but I don’t think I’ll be going back. Unless the developers come up with a new hook, I doubt I’ll even be checking back for more beta events.

- Stupid @ Thursday, October 27, 2011 11:40 AM PT [+]

Since I live in a multi-system household, GameFly is working out great for me. The latest game I’ve finished is Ghost Trick: Phanotm Detective. This wasn’t one my top picks, but apparently I have a bunch of really popular games on my Queue, so I got this one, which was eighth or ninth on my list. That’s okay though, because I wouldn’t have put it on my list at all if I weren’t interested in playing it.

I first discovered this game nearly a year ago. See, as a gamer I follow a lot of gaming blogs and gaming news aggregators. Last year, the publishers of this game put out a flash-based demo that is the first chapter of the game. (The demo is available for play here.) I played the demo and thought it was a clever puzzle-game concept. And it really is. The mechanic is very easy to figure out and well implemented.

As my friends know, I’m not much of a “story” guy, but the story in this game is presented in bite-sized chunks. I’m easily annoyed by games that force you to click through 25 minutes of exposition in order to get to an action/puzzle/challenge level that takes 45 seconds to complete. In my opinion, if I’m spending more time reading about the game than I am actually playing the game, then, quite frankly, I’d rather just go read a book. It’s a very rare game that has a compelling story that even comes close to even a poorly written book. So I was very happy to find that even the longest clicky-story parts of this game were only a few minutes long. About half of the story is actually told as part of the puzzles. And, to be honest, the pace of the story really does a pretty good job of keeping the player interested. The basic “murder mystery” is introduced in the first chapter, using gameplay elements. After that, it’s pretty much got your attention for the duration.

The downside of this is that there really is only one story. The replay value of this game is virtually nil. There aren’t branching paths, and the choices you make don’t affect the storyline at all. Either you solve the mystery, or you don’t continue the game. Sadly, this lack of replay value is also true in the puzzles. While many of them were challenging and some were real head scratchers, once you know the solution, you know the solution. There is only one way to get past each puzzle. Even later in the game where you have three different ghost abilities, and have to use different abilities at different times or places, there is still only one way to get past each puzzle.

Despite the linearity of the story and puzzle elements, some of the puzzles are extremely difficult. Some of them are timed – the game has a clever “four minute” mechanic – and some rely on you moving to a location or interacting with an object that is only available for a split-second. For example, one puzzle required me to wave a flag to stop a pitcher of water from falling. If I waved the flag a second too soon or a second too late, I would miss the pitcher and it would spill. This made some puzzles very difficult to figure out since the window of opportunity was sometimes very small. In other cases, the complexity of the puzzle required multiple retries. In one particular puzzle, I knew what I wanted to do, but getting my pieces in the right position to affect the game object in the way I wanted took nearly a dozen attempts.

Luckily, the game offers infinite retries. In most cases this was a boon, keeping the game moving even when I failed. For long, complex puzzles, the game has a kind of “mini-save” checkpoint at various points in the puzzle and if you are forced to restart (due to missing one of the aforementioned short windows-of-opportunity, or simply failing the puzzle) you don’t have to redo much of the puzzle. In one case, the dialog during the puzzle was long and annoying and I had to wade through it a handful of times. This only happened once in the entire game.

The game only autosaves at the conclusion of each chapter, but it does allow manual saving at any point. I played it through without ever powering down (over the course of 12 days). I would estimate that the average player will get about 20 hours of play. A skilled puzzle-player (which I am not!) will probably finish it in half that time.

The denoument of the story is quite satisfying, even if it is somewhat predictable and a bit drawn out. The final chapter got a bit long on exposition, as if the writers were getting frustrated by not being able to put in tons of text within the game and finally convinced the producers to allow them some free reign. Of course, by the time the player reaches the final chapter they are most likely willing to sit through a few dozen screens of text to complete the story arc.

Graphically… well, it’s a DS game. If you’re looking for high-definition 1080p graphics on the DS, you’re insane. Generally the graphics made sense and never once did I say “That’s a WHAT?” due to pixelization or low-resolution. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, that equates to very good DS graphics.

Overall it was a fun, fast little romp. I gave it an 8 out of 10.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, October 18, 2011 3:47 PM PT [+]

We discovered Thunderstone at PAX Prime this year. Having played Dominion and Ascension before, the concept of a deck-building game was not new to us.

In case the reader is not up-to-speed on this concept: Basically it is a card game similar to Magic: the gathering, but with three important differences
  1. You don’t buy expansion packs. All of the cards come in the box.
  2. You build your deck as the game progresses.
  3. You don’t battle each other directly.
All players start out with a very small, identical deck of weak cards. You shuffle these and draw a hand of random cards from this starting deck. Everyone has the same cards on the first two turns, but because they are randomly selected, there are going to be slight variations. You use the cards in your hand to “buy” additional cards from the table, which go into your deck and will show up in subsequent hands.

We tried out the base game at PAX and really loved it. It was much more immersive than Dominion; it felt like you were actually doing something. Rather than just buying victory points, you were building an army of heroes to go into a dungeon and kill monsters (which are worth victory points). And it felt “cleaner” than Ascension; you only had to deal with your own hand and not with lingering effects from other players.

We played several rounds at PAX and purchased the second “base” set Thunderstone: Dragonspire there. It’s technically an “expansion” for the game but it includes all of the base cards as well, so it is a stand-alone game in its own right. When I unboxed this game (a while back I was quite confused by some of the stuff that was included. Since this was basically the “not really, but sorta second edition”, the publisher included a LOT of cards that were corrections for the prior games and not intended to be used in this stand-alone game. This confused me at first, but after going through each and every card, I sorted it out and set aside the unused cards.

Anyway, this weekend we played our first game of Dragonspire. When we bought this game one of the things we asked for was that there be more “chain” cards. One of the things that made Dominion fun was the ability to play a card that gave you additional actions, or draw and play more cards per turn. Well, Dragonspire has that for sure! A normal turn in Thunderstone is six cards. During one turn in Dragonspire, Kyle has nearly TWENTY cards on the table (nearly his whole deck!)

Unfortunately, three Bad Things™ happened during this session that really detracted from the game:
  1. A really bad random draw. One of the really cool things about Thunderstone (and especially Dragonspire) is that most of the cards have some really cool synergies. For example a Fighter hero that wields an edged weapon or a Wizard hero using multiple spells will get bonus attack power; or a weapon that “saves” a hero will allow you to use a different item that gives a combat bonus and would normally kill one of your heroes without the drawback; or a hero type that gets a bonus from other non-hero cards in your hand. These kinds of synergies make every game of Thunderstone really a unique experience. The problem is that when you randomly draw decks, sometime you end up with cards that DON’T synergize well or at all. For example, you might randomly draw four Wizard hero types, and only have edged weapons available to buy. This really slows the game down because players are not able to quickly grow powerful heroes and/or abilities and as a result can only kill the weakest monsters. This is exactly what happened, so our game lasted nearly four hours, the last two hours of which were painfully boring.
    (It’s worth noting that I’ve since discovered an online “intelligent” randomizer tool that specifically will not allow those sorts of combinations from occurring. We will be using this next time!)
  2. Low value cards. Normally, the decks available to buy are mixed in price form dirt cheap to hideously expensive. Sometimes there will be a cheap card that lets you either take a gamble and possibly get a higher priced card, or a trade-in card that lets you make more money when it comes back. For this game, we were all gold-poor so instead of buying heroes in the first couple of hands, the hero decks were mostly full all the way to the end of the game. In fact, of the four hero types on the table one of them still had level 1 guys showing, and none of them had advanced to level 3! Mostly because no one could afford to buy them.
  3. A really bad shuffle. This was seen in both the drafting phase (we got the first three monster groups alphabetically) and in the dungeon decks. The monsters came out of the deck, practically in order! First we fought a wave of Fire Elementals, then we got Humanoid Bandits followed by a few Dark Enchanted. This added to the slowness of the game because the Bandits required that you have three, four or five heroes in your hand. And (as I mentioned) we were gold and hero-poor. It was a minor miracle when someone had three heroes in a hand. Pretty much those cards were cleared just by attacking them and losing, just to push them back into the dungeon.
Despite these drawbacks, the game was still interesting to play. I really enjoyed the theme or the dungeon crawl. I lucked out on one of the first hands and was the first player to buy a hero and a giant sword; rather than building a “fun” deck with chained cards and weird effects, I was focusing on a utilitarian “get to the end” deck and trying to synergize my hands as much as possible. I took an early lead, but stalled out in mid-game with several bad hands in a row. And by then the dungeon was locked in Bandit Mode and I had concentrated on building two strong heroes instead of the required three/four/five heroes needed to defeat those buggers. And when our dungeon’s only “trick”, a Guardian, popped up, we were all so battle weary that no one even wanted to deal with it, so rather than deal with it, we just pushed it to the bottom of the deck right away.

We played Thunderstone at PAX with three people and a second time with four people. This session was with five players. As you add more people around the table the pace of the game slows since you’re more-or-less doing nothing but spectating during other people’s turns. I felt like the ideal number of players is three, but four is manageable. I’ll probably try to limit it to three or four next time we play.

Overall, I would say that we’ve played worse games. It certainly wasn’t a session that is going to have the players clamoring for more. The player who ended up winning (Wyatt), won by a landslide victory. He ended the game with over double the next highest score. And one of the players only managed to kill three monsters. I think with a better draw and more randomization the game would have been much more fun. I’m actually looking forward to giving it another try. At our next party.

- Stupid @ Monday, October 10, 2011 1:51 PM PT [+]

The second game I've gotten from my new GameFly account has been Heavy Rain. I actually have had this one for about a month, but I loaned it out to my good friend Colby at my office for a few weeks before digging in to it. I finally finished it today.

I'm not big on the writing in most video games. I have a long running "discussion" about the storylines in single-player games with another friend. He feels that video game stories are engrossing and force the player to make difficult decisions. I thinks that's a load of crap. I've NEVER felt like any decision in a video game was going to have any real effect, even in the game. After all, if I make the wrong choice, its just a reload away to back up and try again.

The counter argument to that is that in a "good" story, the fallout from the choices you make early in the game wont be known until much later, when it's far too late to go back and change them. Fine, but you know what? It doesn't matter. Even if a bad decision in chapter one would put my character in an unwinnable situation, the game HAS to let me keep going. I know that it is just a game and even though I'm "driving" the characters, the game HAS to let me get to the end. So armed with that knowledge, I stop caring about the "hard decisions" and "moral dilemmas" that an RPG will present.

Heavy Rain is not that kind of game.

First of all, the genre isn't high fantasy, post apocalyptic sci fi, or even adrenaline filled action. It the story of a father who has had his son kidnapped by a psychopath and what he is willing to go through to get his son back. (Hint: it's some twisted fucked up shit.) The characters are well developed and believable, which really allows the player to care about them. The storyline has a few predictable elements, but as a Murder Mystery, it feeds you enough condemning evidence that you start to question your predictions (which are probably right). The decisions you make in game are true moral dilemmas that have real lasting effects. It is entirely possible for you to make a choice that will literally result in one of the four main characters getting killed. Forever. Like when you are being chased by the police, do you allow them to capture you or do you jump off a three story building to escape? You know you're innocent, and the jump might kill you; but the police think you're guilty and might shoot you unless you get away.

The catch of course, is that if you choose the wrong path, the game actually kills that character off. Often brutally and graphically. The story keeps going, but if the character is integral to the story-line, you simply lose the game. Period.

One of the first things I noticed about Heavy Rain was that, unlike typical RPGs where you can exhaust dialog trees and learn everything about the game, most of the time you are put into a branching situation, whether it be dialog or action, you only have a limited number of "turns" before the game moves you on. So, for example, say you're asking someone about something in their past. You have four basic things you can ask about and each of those items may have two or three followup questions. But after you ask three questions, the other character gets a phone call, makes an excuse and leaves. Even if you didn't ask everything. In this way you really DO need to think like you're trying to solve a mystery.

Playing with the Move was very natural. The actions on-screen and the actions with the controller were very similar. Enough so that it really felt like I was controlling the characters. For example, to knock on a door, one would hold the Move upright, lift it about 6-inches and then thrust it forward, approximating the same hand-motion that you would make knocking on a door in real life. Fight scenes would flash motion cues on the screen for about 1/2 second. For example, if the character needed to doge right, it would show a right facing arrow. If you completed the cued action fast enough, the character would react properly and dodge the punch/bullet/knife/whatever. If you "missed", either by moving the wrong way, hitting the wrong button or not reacting fast enough, the character would react incorrectly and get hit. Sometimes fatally.

The same also applies to dialog timing. If you spend too long trying to decide what to say or ask, the game just moves you along as if you said *nothing* and you miss out on any information in that dialog tree! This makes the mystery even more compelling. It feels a lot more like real life, where there are things going on that may not be related to the core story.

The story is EXTREMELY compelling, easily on par with a dramatic movie or a complex book. Even if this had been a non-interactive experience, it still would have been a good story. One of the bonus features that is unlocked during play is a 4-minute tech demo. Even that little vignette was worth watching and it was literally just a short film. A story of love, betrayal, despair and ultimately revenge... in less than 5 minutes. Let's just say the writing is well done and leave it at that.

During my play session, I "lost" two of the main characters at various points in the game. I reloaded those segments and worked like hell to keep the characters alive to the end of the game. By the time it wound to it's conclusion, I had (as they say) "investment" in these people. I played through the final action sequence at least ten times in order to get through it with everyone intact. I tried. I really tried. I was not able to achieve that goal. So close...

If you have a PS3, and haven't played this game, you need to get it. Now. If you don't have a PS3, it's worth borrowing one from a friend to play this game. I play a lot of games in my life, and Heavy Rain is one of the top ten games I've ever played.

- Stupid @ Saturday, October 1, 2011 10:18 PM PT [+]

Let me preface this by giving a little background.

I've been playing MMO type games since the mid-1980s. My first online gaming experience was in 1982 with a game called "Isle of Kesmai" run on a dialup service called CompuServe. We connected at 300 bps with an option for a "high speed" 2400 bps connection. Graphics were ASCII art. I think the maximum simultaneous online users was slightly over 100.

Since that rather crude beginning, I've played, tested, sampled and enjoyed several dozen different MMOs and basically watched this industry develop from it's most tender roots. I was able to play all of the first generation of mass-market MMOs (UO, EQ, AC), most of the second generation, and in the last few years have made it a point to sample at least one new F2P MMO every few weeks. I was an unpaid volunteer "consulting" designer on Dark Age of Camelot for nearly eight years.

I should note that I am a bit unique in that I have not played very much World of Warcraft; I only played WoW for about two weeks when it was released. As a result, I am not very familiar with common WoW setups that differ from standards in the industry as a whole. A classic example of this is the keypress to access your inventory: In WoW, you press B for "bags"; in nearly every other MMO in the entire world, you press I for "inventory". A small thing, and remapping keys will fix it, but it serves as an example of how I am not "in touch" with WoW-like design decisions.

So... Rift.

This opinion is based on one 8-hour play session, from character creation up to level 14. Anyone who has been paying attention will realize that its impossible to get a good handle on an entire MMO in such a short time frame. So consider this a "preliminary" opinion, subject to change as I explore the game a bit more. If I had to sum up my initial feelings about Rift in one line it would be this:

Rift is just like WAR, without the PvP.

Right out of the virtual box, Rift gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. Patching it for play was quick and painless. The first time I ran the client, it actually checked my video drivers and upon finding that I was a mere three months out-of-date, recommended that I update before playing. That's a nice touch!

Character creation in Rift is pretty standard fare. There are two major factions, each of which has three races. Each race has a special racial ability, so the choices are not just cosmetic. You also choose a gender and one of four primary "callings". These are the base meta-class that your character will develop from; Fighter, Mage, Cleric or Rogue. Each Calling adds another unique ability to your arsenal, so even as a level 1 newbie, there is a pretty wide variety in character skillsets.

Sadly, the world in which the game takes place is not very compelling. I'll admit that I did not read the numerous quest dialogs, so a lot of the "flavor" was lost there. (I did skim the tutorial text for game-specific idiosyncracities.) But the world/setting didn't really induce me to WANT to read the flavortext either! In fact, the tutorial area was actually extremely annoying. I found myself counting the minutes until I would complete the final quest to get out of that area and be kicked into the "real" world. I understand that the goal was to create tension and give the player a feeling that there is a larger battle going on in the game as a whole, but let's face it, you can't simulate an exciting, dynamic battle-scene with stationary NPCs that are locked in "mortal" combat when neither side will EVER actually win. I never felt like I was actually in a battle, nor any sense of urgency. Admittedly, this was the newbie area, but the quests themselves were quite boring and simplistic. The only time I ever even paused to jump into a fight was the final "rift" quest. As it turned out, that quest was actually easy to complete, but until I hit the trigger location it appeared to be impossible.

It's worth noting that the character development system in Rift is actually very well done, and one of the strongest aspects of the game. Each "Calling" can activate up to three "Souls" from a selection of eight. Basically this is a sub-classing system where you can mix-and-match different specialties. For example, a Warrior can choose any three sub-classes from Paladin (tank), Warlord (self-buffs), Beastmaster (pets), Champion (two-handed), Paragon (dual wield), Reaver (AE), Riftblade (magical attacks), Void Knight (anti-caster), and later in the game, Vindicator (PvP specific). Each subclass has 20-ish abilities that the player can train, laid out in a skill-tree format. Some of the abilities have up to 5 levels, increasing in power and utility as you train them further. Of course, the player only has a limited number of skill points (about one per level) to spend. The net result is that the player ends up with a lot of options and no way to choose them all. With three different sub-classes to choose from and 20 skills in each subclass, it allows the player to really create a unique character skillset as they grow and develop.

For example, I chose a Cleric "calling". For my first "Soul" I chose Justicar (a primarily melee-based subclass). One of the default abilities this class gets is a melee-based self heal, similar to a lifetap. I knew that this was likely to be a pretty durable selection, so I focused on the DPS skills. As expected, my damage output was still fairly low, so I selected Shaman as my second "Soul" and started pushing my DPS skills in that tree as well. By the time I hit level 10, my self-healing was actually out-pacing the damage I would take from most MOBs. At level 12, I gained an ability that let my heals "spill over" to another person in my party and suddenly became a tank's best friend. By standing next to the Warrior and fighting his target, as long as I didn't take damage, all of my self-heals would transfer to him!

I had started with a concept of what kind of character I wanted to develop and within a few hours of play, I had actually "created" a character class that met my concepts. This system is a lot more flexible than most traditional class-based systems I've seen, but it's structured enough that it avoids the confusion that class-less skill systems often create. My only concern is that specific combinations will prove to be more powerful than others and the entire system will distill down to only a handful of viable options. Only time will tell if the developers are savvy enough to keep the system in balance and that there are multiple options for the player.

It's important to spend a few paragraphs discussing the "rift" system. This concept sounds great on paper: random "rifts" appear, spilling a kind of mini-raid into the area. A battle cry goes up (it actually prints a short paragraph of text in the middle of the screen) and the map has a huge, unmistakable marker showing where the fight is. Just getting close to the vicinity allows the player to join a "public group" which is extremely reminiscent of WAR's public quests. To sweeten the pot even further, participating in a rift even awards the player with a special kind of currency that can be used to buy upgraded equipment, armor and weapons (also similar to WAR's public quests).

Where it falls down is in the actual execution. Even a small rift will dump a group of 4-5 hostile MOBs right on top of the player. The MOBs are tethered, and they move as a group. If a solo player draws agro from one, you end up fighting all of them. A rift event can potentially shut down a game region for players who are questing or grinding there. A large rift even will spawn up to 50 (yes, really!) elite-level MOBs, some of which are very high level. To make matters worse, rift events specifically target a quest hub, or town, so players don't even have the option of opting out and hiding behind the guards. For example, when I was finishing up some quests in the level 7 to 9 area, a large rift dropped 40 level 18 elite MOBs immediately adjacent to the town area. The rifting MOBs made quick work of killing all of the local guards and quest givers in that area. Within about 45 seconds all of the players were killed as well (including me). Since the fight was happening in the middle of a town area, the game would respawn you right in the middle of the fight, where you would be summarily killed again. I lost count of how many times I was killed within seconds of respawning. I'm almost certain that there is a game mechanic that allows the player to "escape" from this death-loop, but it wasn't obvious to me. (It's worth noting that eventually the players did band together, killed all of the MOBs, and closed the rift, allowing the town to respawn.)

Anyone who played Aion probably has some bad memories of being killed without warning by an enemy player. Rift recreates that experience and removes the safety of guard posts in towns and quest hubs. After a few "rift" experiences, I started to actively AVOID them! When the screen showed a rift event starting, I would immediately check my map and run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. It wasn't until I finished my character skills set up and had outleveled the smaller rifts before I started participating in the smaller rift events again. (I still avoided the larger ones.)

At the end of the night I was standing on the bridge leading to the main city for my faction. I think I have completed almost all of the quests in the newbie area (but might be wrong about that).

I have not tried any of the battlefront (PvP) scenarios yet, and I'm hopeful that those will be enjoyable and relatively balanced. With the flexibility of the character skill system, I hope that there will be a wide variety in playstyles and it will not devolve into a rock-paper-scissors system like so many other PvP MMOs.

I also have not done any crafting. I'm not sure I will have time to explore that part of the game.

My initial impression is that this game is trying very hard to be what WAR aspired to be, and I think they've done a great job of it. WAR's fatal flaw was it's indecision about trying to be a WoW-clone while at the same time trying to be a completely different experience from WoW. Rift avoids this pitfall by completely embracing it's WoW-ness and simply adding a few interesting tidbits into the mix. Some of the mechanics that Rift adds to the mix are well done. For example, the fun and inventive character development system. Sadly, the game taken as a whole isn't very compelling. If they had a team of writers (not to be confused with "quest developers") and another six to nine months to work on the game world and backstory presentation, it would probably help a lot. But in the end it will the the "rift" mechanic that will doom this game to niche status. Very few players will enjoy being FORCED to participate in a fight that they are not prepared for and cannot escape from, even in defeat.

This phase of beta testing is scheduled to shut down at 4PM PST on Friday, which will only allow me one more play session. I will follow up with my final thoughts then. (EDIT: this was expended to 10AM on Saturday, so I will get two more play sessions.)

- Stupid @ Friday, January 28, 2011 3:51 PM PT [+]

I normally go home for lunch. I only work about 2.4 miles away from my house, so it makes sense. I eat leftovers which gets rid of old food and saves money at the same time. Plus it allows me to do a 30 minute run or bike workout on my lunch-break which works really really well.

Yesterday I had planned on starting my 2009 taxes. I was going to install TurboTax and start inputting income. But alas....

The night before, I thought I had left my computer on, but when I glanced into the room before bed, all was dark. I assumed that I had actually put it into hibernation mode and had just forgotten about it. So when I pushed the power button at lunch at it made a nice "click" sound and nothing else, I suddenly remembered that I had NOT turned it off the night before, but it was clearly off now. It was dead, dead, dead.

I did some basic troubleshooting. The power supply fan does spin up. The "power on" LED on the mainboard lights up, but the computer doesn't turn on any farther than that.

I wasn't planning on doing a rebuild, but this looks like a good excuse to upgrade. I spent a good three hours last night reading builder's guides and I think i have a decent set of parts picked out. I was amazed to find that the best way to get a good performing system these days is not to pick out speedy parts, but rather to pick a "suite" of parts that work well together! I was also surprised to learn that the high-end processors are wholey unsuited for my applications (primarily gaming) and that lower-end "budget" systems actually performed BETTER in many cases.

So I've started buying pieces. I'm going to buy them in little chunks and replace things until it works again. I've set a $1000 limit on what I will buy no matter what. So here is my new system list:

Antec Three-Hundred Black Steel ATX Mid Tower Case
OCZ 600W ATX 80+ Modular Power Supply

Intel i3-530 Dual-Core Processor
GIGABYTE GA-H55M-S2H Motherboard
4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 Memory
GeForce GTX 260 (280Mhz overclock) Video Card
Windows 7 Professional 64-bit

- Stupid @ Friday, January 29, 2010 11:16 AM PT [+]

So, this year has been a fun-filled ride so far and I haven't made time for this blog. Or training. Or gaming. Or pretty much anything.

This morning, I spent a couple hours and updated this year's training log, my weight tracker, and the current Wish List. Some is better than none, I suppose.

- Stupid @ Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:16 AM PT [+]

I wrote this back in May and intended to edit it to be cleaner and better presented, but I'm clearly not going to "find the time" to do that, so here it is in it's ugly glory:

We tried out Shaiya - a "mature" rated MMO. It's also free-to-play (F2P) so the only thing lost by trying it out is a little time.


My first impression is that this game really needs a publisher. It looks EXTREMELY amateurish and unfinished. The text popups break in the middle of words so a quest might tell you something like:
" Go out into the wilderness and ki
ll seventeen wild tree monkeys. B
ring back their tails."

Really?!? You couldn't even program a way to make the text break on whitespace?

Monster names are often truncated. Only the first dozen or so letters are displayed so a long name gets appended with an elipsis. For example, if the monster were called "Thantalorn Evil Quest Monster" (a very long name) it would display as "Thantalorn Evil ..." The only saving grace is that it is displayed that way -everywhere- so you can kinda match up the truncated names in the quest log to the truncated names in the game world.

The font that use for names is a 1-pixel wide simplex font that scales to always be microscopic and annoying.

THE GOOD (sort of....)

The world graphics are very nice, albeit a bit dull in palette choices. The first time you come into view of a big city and the different sections of the model draw in, you go "wow!" It would be nice if they had used more dynamic colors though. The whole game feels a bit... brown.

The character models are very attractive. This is the first game in which the male characters actually look sexy and strong. Oddly enough, they are actually more attractive than the female models.

Skills can be trained as soon as you level up, no matter where you are. You don't have to visit a trainer, you just pop open the skills window and train right there and then. On the other hand, with no real way to know what skills are valuable and which are fodder, it's easy to gimp yourself early on. With a limited number of skill points and more skills than you could afford to buy, choosing the "right" skills to train can be a challenge.

Quests are standard MMO faire. Step one: go kill ten moneys, bring back the fur. Step two: go kill five elk, bring back the antlers. Step Three: go kill seven sealakel (??) and bring back the scales. Yawn. But you do get "free" equipment and weapons for doing them.

Leveling is superfast and easy. In four hours of play I've leveled three characters up to level 10+. I only died once and that was because I wasn't paying attention. The PvE game is almost mindlessly simple.


RvR is very similar to DAoC. You go through a portal to the "Borderlands". You initially zone in to a "safe" area with friendly guards. Passing through a large gateway, you enter a land full of MOBs and enemy players. The "game" (so to speak) is to capture and hold a central tower. The tower becomes stronger (or weaker) depending on how many smaller capture nodes your side holds. So the RvR action becomes a large zerg at the central point, while smaller premade groups roam around capturing the smaller nodes. If you've ever played in a DAoC battleground, this is almost the same feel. The "borderland" areas are even level limited, to make it a relatively even paying field. The first area is limited to level 1-15. One significant difference is that it won't kick you out if you level up within the borderland zone. So as long as you do not log out you could be one, two, three or more levels above the limit for that area. Couple this with not needing to train and you often will have one or two people that are almost invulnerable wandering around.

Unfortunately, there are only two factions, like WAR and WoW.


When you make your first chracter, you can start in "easy" or "normal" mode. Easy limits your level and how many skill and stat points you get per level. Normal gives you a nominal amount. Once you reach level 40 you can start a new character in "Hard" mode. Hard mode characters get extra points each level. So a level 10 "hard" character will wipe the floor with a level 15 "easy" character. This means that the first character(s) you make are essentially throwaway toons no matter what you do, and you'll need to grind out a character to level 40 before you can really play the game... by restarting and throwing away that progress.

Even weirder, when you reach level 50 on a "hard" character, you have the option to start a new "Utilmate" mode toon. These get a ton more skill and stat points, but come with a major drawback. If you die in PvE and are not resurrected within three minutes... that character is dead. Forever. Yes, they have permadeath. But supposedly the extra stat points make up for it. Personally, I’m not convinced.


We only played this game for a handful of hours, so its hard to say whether it is any good. I'm enjoying the character development portion. Thus far I've tried a Fighter (melee DPS), a Ranger (stealth DPS), a Mage (ranged DPS) and a Defender (melee Tank) on the "good" side. The roles play as one would expect.

The pace of PvE is pretty slow and bland (just like every other MMO) and the RvR action is insanely fast paced. We spent only 30 minutes in the first RvR zone and every time we saw a red enemy name, we were dead in 2-3 hits - faster than we could figure out what was going on. That's normal for the first venture into PvP in a new game.

I have a feeling that if we devoted the time to become familiar with the game, figure out how to recognize the other classes and gain some experience with the skill system that RvR would be fun and competitive.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, October 27, 2009 5:29 PM PT [+]

In the past week and a half, I’ve played seven “new” games. I put the word “new” in quotes because one of them is actually an older game that I’ve played before, but haven’t seen in a while. It was a fun experience. In chronological order:

Aye, Dark Overlord!
This is a cute little story-telling card game. One player is the Dark Overlord and then he asks his minions to explain their failures. The minions (everyone else) have to come up with a story about how it wasn’t their fault, deflect blame and pass the buck to another player. The catch is that the buck-passing story has to involve one of three “hints” that every player draws randomly from a deck of cards. The person passed to then has to continue the blame avoidance by pointing the finger at a different player using one of their hint cards. If a player is unable to pass the buck, or can’t come up with a reasonable story, or if the Dark Overlord simply decides so (the Dark Overlord is the ultimate judge during gameplay) they get a Withering Look. Get three Withering Looks and you lose!! This is fun because everyone wins (expect the loser). The drunker everyone is, the more fun this is.

A Game of Thrones
This is an AWESOME strategy board game based on the George R.R. Martin book of the same name. It has about a million rules and uses cardboard chits, token, counters and card as well as a beautiful game board that is 2 feet wide by 4 feet long. It can be played by three to five (we played with four) and completely captures the intrigue, strategy and feel of the books. I found it unusual in that it is a “war” game, but the winner isn’t decided by the one who has the biggest army. It is very reminiscent of Diplomacy in that you really have to work with (or against) your fellow players. If you don’t make alliances, you simply cannot win. It started out slow. The first few turns took a long time to resolve (partly because we were still learning the game) but around the fifth turn, the game really got super-interesting. We only played seven turns but it took about 4 hours to complete. It has a nice mechanic that if the game doesn’t resolve with a victor by the end of ten turns the game juts ends and the highest score wins. I’m really looking forward to trying this one again as soon as we can, but this one will require some hard-core gaming geek friends.

Kyle actually bought this on my PS3 when he was visiting over the weekend. This game is the latest installment of the venerable “artillery” genre. Not that anyone would ever recognize it as that. Oh sure, you have the same base concept: choose an angle and a velocity with varying “wind” and then fire. But the “tank” is actually a little cartoon worm, you have four of them, the terrain is anything but flat, being made up of a psychotic mish-mash of over-the-top cartoon landscapes, and your gun is a wide variety of rockets, grenades, airstrikes and flamethrowers, each of which reacts to the environment slightly differently. Kelly, Kyle and I played this well into the wee hours and had a blast doing it. This was a great PSN purchase!

Linger in Shadows
I bought this PS3 “game” because I saw it has trophies and it was only $3 on PSN. It really isn’t a “game” per se, more like a semi-interactive 6-1/2 minute long graphics demo. It basically plays a really weird movie, and you can move the camera around (within limits) and change some of the items in the environment, in real time. There are a total of six “puzzles” and ten “hidden” items, all of which grant a trophy. It took me a grand total of 45 minutes to unlock all sixteen. Aside from being a trophy whore, this would have been a colossal waste of my time even at the low price.

Noby Noby Boy
I had heard a lot of good things about this PS3 game and since I was already on PSN, I bought it too. I played with it for about two hours and I’m still not entirely sure what the heck this thing is. I can’t recommend it because it is simply mind bogglingly weird. You control a worm-like creature (the “boy”) which you move by jiggling both analog sticks. One stick controls the front, and the other stick controls the back. The middle parts just get dragged along. One of the most annoying things is that the camera follows the midpoint of the “boy” which means that often you can’t see what you’re doing at all. And there doesn’t seem to be any point of goal that I could discern. It’s just your worm-thing in a very small square world. Another $10 down the drain.

Eye of Judgment
This is the one older game I’ve already played. I have a soft spot in my heart for collectable trading card games, even though I pretty much suck at them, and this one is no different. I pulled it out to grab a few more trophies and managed to beat all of the pre-made decks on “normal” level. I only lost a few times to the computer. I don’t have many card, but I do have a generalist deck that has a few nasty tricks in it and when it worked, it worked big. The problem with this game is that it never really caught on and due to its age, the only people still playing are super godlike experts that would kill me in five turns. I really wish there were a new-ish TCG that was moderately popular, could be played online and didn't require a small fortune to play.

Burnout Paradise
Well, I didn’t actually play this. I loaded the disc into my PS3 and patched it to the current version, but never actually started the game….

- Stupid @ Monday, April 20, 2009 2:38 PM PT [+]

On Wednesday, a lot of people that I’ve been associating with for a LONG time (almost nine years now – time flies!) lost their jobs. I’m uncharacteristically not going to go into what actually happened, nor why. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t involved and I don’t know what conversations happened behind closed door. I do know that they were very talented people and they did not in any way deserve what happened to them. I also know that a few other people who I have very little respect for are still employed by the same company. It certainly lessens my opinion of that company as a whole, knowing that the upper management is willing to throw good hardworking people off the bridge and keep less valuable assets employed. Enough about that before I start to really rant!

Anyway, as a result of this, Karen “found” several of my friends on Facebook. While not a perfect solution, it prompted me to start a Facebook account of my own. It’s a neat little tool, but I’m not in love with it. I’m still unsure as to how much value it has overall. Like Wikipedia, it seems like the more “free time” one has, the larger footprint one can put on the Facebook community and also like Wikipedia, it allows people with strong political and/or religious views a nice perfect pulpit to spew rhetoric. Unfortunately, the only people hit on Facebook are people who are “friends”; that is, people who are connected to your personal network. Based on the people who have “found” me there – whether directly or indirectly or via connections with other people (to its credit, Facebook does have a really extensive organic network of friend-of-friend-of-friend linking!) I’m even less sure about it as a social tool.

Maybe it says more about me, but it is like meeting an old high-school or college acquaintance for the first time in twenty years and then having them instantly more in next door to you. I’m sure that some people would find that perfectly fine – Karen, for example seems to really enjoy it – but the level of immediate intimacy with near total strangers is a bit disturbing to me. Even I recognize their names from my past.

And that's really the key thing. I don’t consider my past to be a wonderfully happy time. Prior to about a half-dozen years ago I wasn’t particularly enjoying life in general (with very few rare exceptions). I pretty much hated everything about high school, but I had a lot of fun in the year after I graduated and went through a period of “better living through Chemistry”. When I entered my first long-term-relationship (which later turned into a marriage) my life took a major downturn and only got worse from there. There was a short bright period of time when I left the workforce became a full-time college student at my local Junior College. And then when I transferred to a 4-year school, my life turned into a living Hell. I can only think of three good things that came out of my college experience:
  1. I graduated and that allowed me to get a job that I -love- working for a great GREAT employer.
  2. The bullshit that happened while I was at Cal Poly (which, to this day, I consider to be the single biggest mistake of my life) ultimately led to the dissolution of my marriage (which I consider to be the second biggest mistake of my life), and
  3. I ended up with a great friend (who, ironically, was a large part of the aforementioned bullshit)
Without any exaggeration I've been happier in the last five years than any other time in my life. Sure I've had rocky spots and trying times in the last half-decade, but prior to that it was mostly bad times interspersed with good stuff. More recently it's been almost universally great with a very few abysmal periods. Having people continually remind me of the less-than-happy times in my past is not a joyful experience. I’d prefer to simply forget most of my past life. And Facebook is not a good tool for that.

- Stupid @ Monday, February 9, 2009 10:42 AM PT [+]

We made our first trip to the mountains in a long time this weekend. Kyle graciously let us stay at this family cabin at Echo summit. The trip up was wrought with minor disasters throughout the day. It started out as a late start, due to Kyle and Karen being hung over from a late night of drinking. (I was smart enough to retire at midnight and was instantly asleep whilst they continued to celebrate the end of the work week.) We forgot a whole slew of items while packing. Loading the car was problematic. At the ski rental place, it turned out one of the missing items was Karen’s insoles, so I went home to get those. And then I had to go home again to get a checkbook because the lift passes were cash/check only no credit cards. Then we had to stop for fuel. The stop at In-and-Out burger took about 17 years because they were busy and then when they finally got our order, they had forgotten to get our drinks. When we got to Kyle’s mothers home to pick up the cabin keys, the snow pants that Kyle needed were missing. When we got to the cabin, it turned out we needed a Sno-Park pass. The list goes on and on. It was one minor thing after another all day long.

Eventually we got to the ski mountain and had a GREAT time. Kyle got to take his very first ever snowboard lesson and he had a blast. Karen and I skied together for a few hours and then we split up for the last few hours of the day. I skied Sierra from top to bottom non-stop several times. The longest run on the mountain is over three miles in length and it took a considerable time to go that far. As I write this, my legs are sore from the exertion but I’m already looking forward to our next ski trip!

Despite the multitudinous minor setbacks, Kyle’s cabin is ideally located for a trip to Sierra. I hope we can do it again before the winter ends. Although at the current rate, the winter should be over in about a month.

In other news, about a week ago, I ended up leading a Warband in WAR and figured out why WAR’s RvR won’t work for casual players. See, I’m no stranger to leading groups. In Camelot, I knew so much about the game that people would just start following me and even thought I would never ask to lead, I always ended up leading a small group around, roaming and killing other people... or attacking and capturing towers… or seiging or defending a castle. WAR, on the other hand, has “warbands” which is 24 people in a single ubergroup. Despite that, the options of “what to do” when you have a group are much much more limited than Camelot. You pretty much can’t attack a keep unless you have a full warband, and if there is even a small defense force, you need two warbands. The parallel to a Camelot tower would be the WAR battlefield objective, but even one full warband is overkill for that and they become trivially easy. Open field player-vs-player fights are few and far between; the only place you really find enemy players is either at a keep or an Objective. So the group size is either optimally a small group of six (and limited to Objectives) or a huge zerg of 50+ people and limited to keep takes. The moderately sized group of a dozen people really doesn’t have any fun options.

To make matters worse, once you’ve captured the keeps and objective in your area (which takes about an hour total) there’s nothing left for you to do! So unless you just happen to be online at the right time, you’re basically stuck with all of the fun stuff already done, or not enough people to try doing it. This really is going to hurt the casual player who can only play for a few hours at a specific time every day. If it isn’t the “right” time, they’re never going to see any of the fun content. And that’s a shame because the fun stuff is REALLY fun. I wwas left very disappointed with the leadership experience.

Finally, I’ve been playing a small MMO called Wizard 101. It’s a totally kid-based MMO that strips away all of the fancy graphics and complex gameplay. It’s is basically a MMO skeleton. It still has all of the basic MMO concepts and gameplay paradigms, but without the “flash” to distract you. It’s actually quite entertaining.

They’ve done several things which I find simply amazing to keep it kid-friendly and kid-safe. Even something as simple as name generation has been sanitized and modified to prevent abuse. Chat doesn’t use a blacklist of “bad” words, instead it uses a “white list” of allowable words. And even then, “bad” combinations of “good” words are still filtered out of chat.

The core combat mechanic is a collectable-card game or CCG. Like any CCG, you have a “deck” that you build from cards. During each 30-seocnd combat round you choose to play one card from your “hand” which is exactly six randomly selected cards from your deck. Your deck size is limited by your equipment, and the cards that you have to choose from are gained as you level up. So when you start the game you have a deck with a maximum size of 10 but only five cards to choose from (each card can be put into the deck a maximum of three times). By the time you reach level 10, you can buy a deck size of 20 and you should have around 15 different card types… AND you can put up to four copies of each card in your deck. The effect is that as you level up and gain additional cards and a larger deck, you see a nice steady progression of power.

Of course, when you strip away the trappings, you get to see the MMO skeletons in the closet too. Like all MMOs, this one is not immune to “the grind”. There comes a point in the game where you aren’t doing anything new, you’re juts finishing things up and the challenges aren’t very challenging, they’re juts taking time. That’s “the grind” – you just “grind” out the gameplay to move on to the next area. Some people would say this is a pacing “problem” but its part-and-parcel of every major MMO out there today and I think that perhaps MMO designers have gotten a little too stuck on the idea.

To me, the fun part of the game is seeing my character grow and advance. When I get a new spell, or a new attack or even new equipment, I’m happy. When you start out, advancement is fast and furious. There is an imperative to give the player the basic toolset to compete as quickly as possible. Once past that, you’re going to see “fluff” advancement, upgrades to existing abilities and bigger versions of the same thing you already had. And to keep the player form finishing the game in just a few sessions, the advancement slows to a crawl. When you are level 1, you might need to kill ten snakes to get to level 2. When you are level 100, you might need to kill 100,000 snakes to get to level 101. In theory, this is supposed to simulate that it is harder to learn to become a master than it is to become an apprentice. In reality, it’s just a artificial way to stretch out gameplay and keep people paying monthly subscription fees. That’s “the grind”. And it is just as annoying in a kid-friendly MMO as it is in a major MMO.

- Stupid @ Monday, February 2, 2009 6:06 PM PT [+]

A few years back, when I was still involved with Kristen, I had a conversation with her shortly after the holiday break. The first thing she asked me was “What did you get?” This seemed to me, both at that time and now, to be an incredibly selfish way of looking at the holidays. In retrospect, I’m not surprised by that attitude from her since she was an incredibly selfish person.

My best holiday memories are of giving gifts that were exceptionally clever or well-received. Like the “rat family” I got for my uncle Joe and his family, or the year I took Karen to San Diego for her birthday. Sadly, I didn’t give anything very nice this year. But I did receive a lot of very very nice gifts. My “wish list” has been pruned down to reflect that. (See the link on top left.) I’m going to list these in the order I received them…

From Zant: Chimayo Tequila Reposado. I had some of this many years ago when I was on vacation in Southern California. I’ve been searching for it ever since. Amazingly enough, our local Bottle Barn started carrying the stuff about a month before the holidays, so I bought a bottle. And then my friend Zant bought me a second bottle! This is “sipping” tequila, super smooth and quite tasty. I’ve already had a few shots of this. I’m going to try a little taste test with the Patrón Silver soon.

From Kyle: I received a very cool Rock Band instrument bag. It stores all of the instruments including the drum kit, two guitars, the mic, cables and the game itself. Everything in one bag. This is especially cool since I already have a carrying bag for the PS3, so now when I plan a Rock Band event at work or want to take the game somewhere, it is all self-contained in two cases. A much better solution that the vegetable box I was using previously.

From Karen: The best ski jacket EVER! This is a top-of-the-line North Face ski jacket with a removable liner and about a million pockets. I took it with me to New Orleans, but of course the temperature never dipped below 60-degrees while we were there so I didn’t need it at all. But I suspect we will be visiting the snow soon and my old ski jacket is about a million years old so this was an incredible gift.

From Yvonne: Blu-ray copy of 300. I’ve wanted this for a very long time and I’ve already watched it twice. Also a $50 gift card from SonyStyle. I suspect that this will turn into PSN credit soon and be used to buy more Rock Band tunes and downloadable games :)

From my Dad: BEST GIFTS EVER!! Not one, but TWO of the “Perfect Beaker” measuring cups. I know it sounds trite but getting these made me extremely happy. It’s such a simple thing and was the least expensive item on my wish list but was probably the one that I wanted the most. (For future reference the item that I most desire on the shorter list is the clock.) Also a copy of Valkyria Chronicles, which is a kick-ass PS3 strategy wargame. If this had a multiplayer mode I would say that it is the best strategy game ever made for the system. The gameplay is be –perfect- for that type of play. Alas, it only has a single-player campaign, but I’ve already spent about 10 hours playing it. It’s very story-driven and has Final Fantasy-esque cutscenes to advance the plot, but you can skip some of that if you just want to play the game. The gameplay is extremely easy to pick up and the missions are pretty challenging. In the six or seven missions I’ve played, I’ve failed two and had to replay them to advance. My favorite type of game: one that is easy to learn but difficult to do well with. Thanks, Dad!

From Karen’s Parents: $50 gift card from I’m not sure what this will turn into, but I have no doubt that it will be used (eventually). The last time I got an gift card I spent it the very next day on a new network router/switch. Nothing is broken right now, but I –will- buy something from amazon eventually.

Overall, it was a very fruitful and fun Xmas.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, January 6, 2009 11:07 AM PT [+]

TLDR version:

Karen's computer broke. We tried three different video cards, a new motherboard, two new power supplies, a new hard drive and after three weeks of dinking around with it constantly, it works again! We still need to replace here DVD burner, though.

The full story:

For some time now, Karen's computer has been giving odd warning messages about USB power. It would pop up an alert that a USB device was pulling too much power from the hub and could potentially be damaged. The odd thing was that the device listed was always "unknown device". The only things plugged in via USB were (and still are) a keyboard and a mouse.

About a month ago, some strange video artifacting started happening and programs that were graphics intensive (ie games) would sometimes close unexpectedly. She even got a Blue Screen of Death a few times with an error on the video driver. I had to reinstall the newest drivers for her card to resolve the problem.

Three weeks ago, anything that hit the video card would instantly crash and her computer would boot back up into 640x480, 8-color mode. There was noticeable artifacting and graphic errors even before the OS would load; there was vertical banding in the POST screen and the bootup splash had a checkerboard pattern. It was almost assuredly a dead or damaged video card.

Luckily, Kyle was visiting and he had just come from his brother's house. Apparantly his brother had not one but TWO GeForce 8800GTX cards sitting around unused. Serendipity! We offered to pay for the shipping to have his brother send us one and the deal was struck.

A week passed.

The new card arrived, I installed it and.... no video output signal at all. I tried everything I could think of, but could not get the card to output a single scan line. The card had been "altered" to work with a liquid cooling system, but had been reverted to the stock heatsink. After a visual inspection I found a bit of discoloration on the video board directly opposite the main GPU. I assume that there was some heat event or condensation or some sort of electrcial problem there. It had only cost us $15 to ship it so it was not that big of a loss. I packaged the whole thing back up and we went to Best Buy and bought a brand new GeForce 9800GTX.

I was shocked and amazed at the prices for video cards. It was only about $125 for a 1GB card that was faster than the $300 cards we bought only one year ago! So we bought one and brought it home and installed that. It output video (indicating that the "free" card was indeed damaged) but it had the EXACT SAME artifacting pre-POST and after bootup! It seemed that the problem wasn't the video card after all.

So, we returned the new video card to Best Buy and started thinking about what might actually be the problem. The most likely candidate seemed like the mainboard. We asked at BestBuy if they sold motherboards, but they did not. We drove to our local computer shoppe (which happes to be right around the corner from our house) and bought a new Asus P5QL-Pro mainboard.

It took about an hour to swap out the mainboard. I plugged it in and.... the computer powered on. Then it powered off. Then it powered on again. Then it powered off. It flicked on and off about six times in as many seconds, and then shut down. there was a strong smell of burned plastic in the air and nothing would get it to power on again. Thinking the worst, I swapped the old mainboard back in and tried again. The computer seemed dead and would not power on. I walked away from it before I broke anything else.

The next day, I went and bought a new power supply. I suspected that was the "new" problem. I put the new mainboard back in (clearly the old one has a video/"north bridge" issue) and disassembled the case to put in the new power supply.

It seems that the case we used to build Karen's computer uses a "custom" power supply layout and a standard power supply doesn't work. Luckily, again, fortune smiled on us. It turns out that Kyle had the exact same case with the exact smae power supply sitting around unused. He actually was going to throw it away so we all piled into the car and drove down to San Francisco to pick it up. Along the way we stopped and had some noodles in Japan-town. Hey, if you're in the area, might as well enjoy it, right?

The next few hourse were spent moving stuff from Box A into Box B. Finally it was time to test it. I plugged it all back in (and held my breath AND crossed my fingers, toes and eyes) and....

It started up. NO video errors, NO flickering power, NO problems at all! Except that it didn't detect the main hard drive. At all. It didn't show up in the POST detection, and it wasn't found as a bootable drive. It was as if it didn't exist at all. I tried switching power cables, I tried switching SATA cables, I tried moving the drive to a different (working) computer. It was well and truly dead. It was a brick. A dead, dumb brick.

So, I ordered a new hard drive. The smallest one I could find economically was a 320GB drive (double the 160GB that died) but it took a few days to arrive. I pulled the old (dead) drive ad dropped in the new (good) drive and rebooted and it was detected! Hooray! I put in the Windows XP install disc into the CD drive and... it didn't boot. GAH!!

I tried three different XP installation discs. I tried slipstream. I checked the boot-ability of the discs in another (working) computer. Everything was fine but the installation disc simply would not boot.

After a bit of thought and some research I decided that the next troubleshooting step was to pull a known working CD reader from another computer, install that and see if the machine was bootable then. But I didn't want to rip apart another (working) computer so I put it off for a day or two. And then an idea occurred to me: What if I made a bootable USB drive with a copy of the WindowsXP installation on it? I did some research and it certinaly seemed do-able.

It took three days of playing around but it finally came together last night. After -exactly- 21 days, I successfully installed Windows XP on Karen's computer. After that was done, I tested the optical drive and it too is dead beyond repair. I guess that when the power supply died, it took the drives with it.

I spent a good portion of today reinstalling her apps. Lukcily, we have a network attached fileserver, so I would copy the installation CD/DVD to the fileserver from my computer (with a working CD and DVD drive), create a windows "share" to that directory on the server, then map a network drive to that share and Windows would treat that like a local disc. It was very speedy to install things like that -- the slowest part was the copy from the optical drive to the server.

I'm still doing research about the optical drive and I will probably buy one this weekend.

21 days Karen's computer has been dead. Merry fucking Christmas.

- Stupid @ Saturday, December 20, 2008 6:48 PM PT [+]

The holi-daze shopping season is almost upon us. I know that the economy is in poor shape but in my close circle of friends and family, I think we're all doing okay.

I've updated my "wish list" (top link on the left) with some current wants and desires. I do update this occasionally during the year and pretty frequently during the end-of-the-year sanitized-ex-pagan celebration-of-your-choice.

- Stupid @ Monday, November 24, 2008 9:40 AM PT [+]

- Stupid @ Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:07 AM PT [+]

A couple of weeks ago, the good folks at Penny Arcade blogged a little note about WAR. Ever since Karen read that, she comes home from her stress-filled days at work and asks if we can go fucking murder people. I think that it’s kinda sweet that she wants to include me in that.

I spent the entire weekend last weekend reinstalling XP pro on my computer. It has been nearly two years since I've had a fatal crash and Windows has been slowly eating it's own brain for the entire time. I finally decided that I was tired of all the little warts it had grown - like defaulting to the sound being off and losing the active user's name every 15 seconds - and started over.

And I'm also working my way through an anime series called "Fruits Basket". This is a cute little show that we discovered when we were at PAX and I've downloaded the entire thing off the internet. At 20 minutes per episode it doesn't take a huge time investment, but there ate 26 episodes, so it does add up. I'm 11 shows in, so far.

In other gaming news, the holiday deluge is upon us. Little Big Planet is out now, but I have thus far resisted buying it. I know it is an awesome product and would suck me in for a few weeks but I’m not buying it simply because I have too many other irons in my virtual fire. I ordered Rock Band 2 "special edition" from amazon on the day it was released. It arrived on Saturday, last, and I’ve managed to scrape together enough time to set it up, create our characters and five-start the first batch of songs. This was a monumental effort considering that there is this constant siren call to fucking murder people. We’re about ½ way to maxing out in Warhammer and then the progression will start to slow down a bit. We are, however, starting to form a nice core group of people that we play with often and building synergy with those folks. That will help us out a lot in later stages of the game.

Rock Band 2 is very slick, a nice incremental improvement over the first game. For an additional $5 I was able to transfer all of the 45 songs from the first game over to the second one, and all of the downloaded content I’ve already purchased works in the new game, so I have a bit over 200 individual songs on Rock Band 2, right out of the box. (It’s worth noting that this isn’t true for Guitar Hero; none of the existing content will work with the new game!) The new drum kit s a lot quieter and more "snappy" feeling. The setup phase is fully automated now and times things down to the individual millisecond, which is very cool.

I was hoping to set up a RB2 night at the office for those people who wanted to see the game. The sad part is that most of the new songs in RB2 are still locked up. I have to play through the game at least once to unlock them. And that might be hard to swing considering the pressure on me to fucking murder people every night.

- Stupid @ Monday, October 27, 2008 4:20 PM PT [+]

So ever since PAX, I pretty much decided that I was going to focus my time and energy on playing games for the rest of the year. It was a messed up summer for doing triathlon – all the fires we had on June and July made the air quality so bed that it was almost hazardous to breathe outdoors. Plus the huge VA project that I’m still working had me going down to San Francisco two days every week and pretty much ruined every weekend for the entire summer. As a result my training has been basically non-existent (much like it was the year I took and passed my P.E. exam) and we had a TON of fun at PAX, so the decision was pretty easy to make.

As you can see from the last few posts I’ve made and the tracking that xfire does, I’ve really been going full-bore playing Warhammer. I logged 91 hours the first week it was out. The second week I only put in 50-ish hours.

And then someone from work invited me to go mountain biking.

It was supposed to be a casual thing, just a little ride in a local park after work. As it turned out it was a very technical, white-knuckle, adrenaline-filled, heartbeat-in-the-mouth kind of ride. Complete with grueling climbs up rocky fire trails and fireball careening down rocky singletrack at breakneck speeds. There is a path all the way around Lake Ilsanjo and we had a little “race” there and I swear there was at least three times that I was sure that I was going to go down in a bloody heap, or smash into a tree, or go flying off the path into some rocks… But every time my back tire slid out and it felt like I was completely out of control, I’d hit a root, or a rock, or something and my wheel would stay on the path and I’d breathe a quick sigh of relief and keep pedaling. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before something goes horribly awry and I do actually fall and I break myself in some uncomfortable way.

But it’s a LOT of fun and I’m doing it twice a week until Daylight Savings ends.

- Stupid @ Monday, October 6, 2008 9:40 AM PT [+]

- Stupid @ Monday, September 22, 2008 4:24 PM PT [+]

I’ve been lax in updating again, but mostly for lack of time to post. Several interesting things have happened in the last few weeks, but in the interest of brevity (and time) They are all only going to get a brief mention.

I’m spending every Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco for the next month or so. This is a –huge- project that I’ve been working on since November of last year. And it looks like I’ll be working on it for some time to come. I’m actually getting tired of being “stuck” on the same project, but it is paying my salary and is making a bucket-full of money for W&K… some of which is actually trickling down to me.

We went to Tahoe for the weekend of the 4th (thanks Kyle!) and had a great time. We went on several hikes that never made it all the way to intended destination, but were still a lot of fun. We ended up meeting two women on the trail, one of which was a proverbial “cougar” who seemed to take a real shine to Kyle, and lives in Seattle. We got a business card and will probably be pushing Kyle to see if he can hook up with her when we’re in the Seattle area for PAX.

WAR beta is in swing again. The difference this time is that Karen has a slot (Thanks to Larian!) so we are both playing alongside one another again. After a false start, she is having fun with her second character – a DPS caster/healer hybrid. I seem to be settling on a melee/healer hybrid. This is weird for me, but the combination is quite deadly. If enemies go for me, she heals, and if they go for her, I heal. Between the two of us, we stay up for a long time.

Tri 4 REAL #2 happened a couple weeks ago, but we didn’t race. The smoke here has been very thick and it’s been very difficult to get outside. So our training really has been mostly non-existent. When race day came, it was amazingly clear and we probably could have raced, but since we had fallen off on the training we decided not to participate. I have high hopes that we will make it to Tri 4 REAL #3 in two weeks and I –am- training for it now, but we’ll see how things turn out in the next 10 days.

Well, there you have it. A one-page summary of my last four weeks.

- Stupid @ Tuesday, July 22, 2008 9:43 AM PT [+]

So I got a call today from my doctor.

1. The x-rays came back "negative". That is to say, the infection had not affected any bone, so the only thing I have to deal with the is the infection itself.

2. The infection is a not anti-biotic resistant. There is apparantly a strain of staph virus "out there" that is resistant to anti-biotics and there was some concern that this might be the case. As it turns out, the pills I've been taking for the last week should knock it out in a couple more days.

All in all, good news!

- Stupid @ Monday, July 7, 2008 4:36 PM PT [+]

This is a difficult blog entry to write. I have good news and bad news. Let's start with the good.

I'm becoming more and more happy with the PSP purchase every time I download something new. I recently downloaded Jeanne D'Arc - a single player RPG. I've only played it a little bit, but it is very reminiscent of the old-school dungeon romps I grew up with.

I really like the story thus far (and not just because it features a anime-style french girl either!) and I'm excited to see where it goes.

I also downloaded the third X-Men movie. After watching it on the PSP I'm -very- glad I did not waste the time to go see it in the theater. I actually bought a print copy of the Dark Phoenix saga for Karen to read before seeing it. I don't think she ever did, and I'm actually glad for that. If she had read it, I would have wanted to see the movie, and the movie was a train wreck in slow motion. I'd like think that I'm not one of those fanbois that isn't willing to let a filmmaker take "creative license" with the source material, but COME ON!!! They killed off (or neutralized) pretty much all of the main characters of the entire X-Men storyline. They aren't called the X-Men for nothing, you know? When you kill the "X" (i.e. Xavier) you pretty much kill the X-Men; and yet, the writers and director felt it was okay to do just that. And then, once they did this, they figured it would be just peachy to completely remove all mutant powers from the leader of the "bad" mutants. The "hook" (if you can call it that) at the end of the movie was that Magneto _might_ be regaining his former powers. Who the f--- cares!?! You've already taken a giant shit on the franchise, why bother trying to make it look like "it might be okay in the end." Too late!

Anyway, despite being a god-awful movie that made me angry at the filmmakers, it was cool watching it on the PSP. I'm currently downloaing Spiderman 3 and UltraViolet. I don't have high hopes for either of those, but they will be nice time wasters over the next couple of weeks.

Finally, I downloaded a game called PataPon. The game defies description, but it is both annoyingly difficult and amazingly easy at the same time. It's a little puzzle-y, and a little music-y, and a little RPG-y. (I told you it defied description!) It's been the game that I've been playing whenever I have a spare five minutes. Although I find myself "stuck" at a certain level currently, I'm working my way back out of the hole I dug for myself.

In other news, I finally got beta access to WAR for Karen. The beta is currently closed, but should be reopening sometime after the holiday weekend. Finally Karen and I will be able to play an online game together again. And we may have a lot of time to do just that because of the Bad News (tm).

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on this blog that we had done a training ride of the Vineman loop with some friends. What I didn't mention was that just prior to embarking on this ride I stepped on a tack or nail or something. My left foot was punctured in some way. It seemed trivial at the time, but it was sore for a couple of day afterwards. That was over two weeks ago.

Last Friday my foot started hurting. A lot.

I'm not talking about, "oh that's a bit sore" kind of hurt. Nor the "Ouch!" kind of hurt. I'm referring more to the "OHMYGODITHURTSMAKEITSTOP" kind of pain. I couldn't walk. It was difficult to even -move- without crying out in pain. And of course, it started hurting at 4:55PM and my doctor closed at 5. I tried calling but got the answering service. I looked at my foot and it had a red spot about the size of a silver dollar with a tiny white spec in the center. I know enough to know that is a pretty telling sign of infection. Luckily I did not see the telltale black streaks that indicated a SERIOUS infection. I considered going to the emergency Room, but I already knew what they were going to do - tetnus shot, anitbiotics, and bed rest.

And a $1000 fee, which my insurance would only pay 80%.

So I let it be. Over the weekend it oscillated between mind-numbing pain and a mere annoyance. On Saturday I barely got out of bed. Going downstairs was unthinkable. Yet, on Sunday I went for a 30 mile ride - my foot wasn't hurting at all.

Today I went to my doctor. A $20 co-pay later I got what I expected: a tetnus shot and a presciption for a sulfur based anti-biotic. But I also got something I didn't expect. She told me to get an X-Ray of my foot. I wasn't sure why I would need an X-Ray for what was obviously just a simple infection. So she told me.

Because of the time involved (two weeks) there is a possibility that the infection may have reached bone. (Thus the X-Ray.) If it turns out that the bad stuff has gotten into the bone, the only solution is to remove the affected bone(s). That is to say, there is a distinct possibility that part of my foot may need to be removed/amputated.

Yep. That's right. They might need to cut part of my foot off. Great, huh?

I'll know more later this week. I'm just hoping that the X-Rays come back clean.

- Stupid @ Monday, June 30, 2008 8:51 PM PT [+]

So after plinking around with the PSP a bit, I posted an advert on craigslist looking for someone to mod my PSP to use “homebrew”. As luck would have it, I got a response almost instantly form some guy in Santa Rosa. After a bit of back and forth, we finally met in the parking lot of Taco Bell on Wednesday. It felt so “shady” to meet some strange guy in a Taco Bell parking lot – almost like we were doing a drug deal, but with high tech goods.

Anyway, he popped the battery and memory stick out of my PSP, put in the Pandora battery and memstick and while we chatted the PSP downgraded itself. It took maybe 3 minutes, tops. After that, he put my battery back in, changed to a different memory stick and installed what is essentially the exact same firmware that I had - version 3.90 – but in “homebrew” style. That took another 3 minutes. I handed him a $20 bill and that was it.

When I got home, I copied three ISO files onto the PSP. I had already downloaded a couple of games just to see how they worked. I have ISOs for God of War, Puzzle quest, Syphon Filter, Wipeout Pulse, and Crisis Core.


I’ve been playing Puzzle quest for the last two nights. The PSP is small and light so I can play it while I’m laying in bed. The screen is bright, but not as bright as a decent booklight and it has a headphone jack. Karen reads for a bit before sleeping and I play and then she turns off her booklight and I keep playing. This thing is super addictive. It has an internet connection so I can even play online multiplayer while reclining in bed. The game is pretty cool, it’s basically a little puzzle-y combat game similar to Puzzle Pirates. It has a multiplayer component, but I haven’t really explored that much. I don’t think there is a matchmaking server; even if there were, I’m pretty sure that there aren’t people just waiting to play.

I played a few acts of Crisis Core. It seems typical, albeit simplistic fighting game. I found it amusing that some of the cutscenes are rendered with voiceovers and other cutscenes are dynamic with text “voices” in the game engine. I suck beyond words in Wipeout. Racing games just aren’t my thang, apparently. (I plan on downloading the PSP version of Burnout to see the trend continues.) I haven’t moved the God of War or Syphon Filter ISOs to the PSP yet. I only have a 4G memstick and the ISO files are really big. The God of War ISO is nearly 2G all by itself. (UMD, the optical media that PSP games are distributed on, can hold up to 1.8G!)

I may have to buy another few memsticks just to carry different games around on. They’re very small though, so the chances of them getting lost are great. It would also be nice to have one memstick dedicated to just MPS3 and other media. That stick could be inserted into the PSP when we’re on long trips and want to listen to music (the stereo in the Rav4 has a iPod input).

Overall, my excitement level about the PSP has increased dramatically since I can now use it for a ton more things and not just commercial games that cost $30 to $50 each. There are homebrew emulators that allow the PSP to play a wide variety of games from –other- systems. For example, the PSP can play games for the NES, SNES, N64, Gameboy, Genesis, Atari VCS, C64 and NeoGeo. Tired of having a separate remote for your DVD player, TV, cable box, receiver, etc? There is homebrew software that lets you use the PSP as a universal IR remote control! There is even a homebrew httpd so you could run a website, not just host a page or two but actually host an entire site, from your PSP! The PSP homebrew community is very creative and has a ton of very smart people working on really cool things.

There is even a homebrew PSP GPS device. Why buy an expensive GPS when you can use the PSP?

Getting my PSP hacked was the best $20 I’ve spent in a long time!

- Stupid @ Friday, June 20, 2008 2:38 PM PT [+]

So last weekend we gave what is most definitely the biggest gift we’ve ever done. Not the most expensive, because we’ve spent more on smaller items, but the surely the largest physically. We bought a car for Kyle.

It was his 33rd birthday. He’s been without a car for about a year now. He’s been bicycle commuting to work and when he had longer trips (or on the weekends) he would get a ride from Kelly. Well, Kyle broke up with Kelly about two weeks ago so getting around was difficult. He was going to make the trip from Mountain View to Santa Rosa using only public transit, but that was going to take about 4-1/2 hours. It wasn’t terribly costly, but it was annoying and very time consuming. Not to mention difficult to bring luggage or his bike along.

We really like when Kyle visits and he needed a way to move his stuff around. A car was the right answer. So we started car shopping. We had a maximum amount that we wanted to spend and started looking in that range. Karen found one that was more than I wanted to spend and it looked to me like a real piece of crap, but she was excited about it so we went and did a test drive. As expected, it WAS a piece of crap. But, as it turned out, it was being sold by a charity and they had a whole yard full of used cars. We told them what we were looking for (a –reliable- car that wouldn’t require much maintenance and was inexpensive) and they pointed us at a 1990 Honda Civic DX. We test drove that one and it seemed pretty decent. The only real flaw was that it had an aftermarket sunroof – those ALWAYS leak – and that it had some mysterious damage on the driver’s side. Not like car-type damage. It didn’t look like it had been in a crash. It was like the driver’s side door was really really OLD. The plastic was brittle and the rubber parts were all powdery. But the passenger side looked almost brand new. The same thing was on the outside. The plastic lens on the drivers side running lights was all white and pock marked like it was really really old and left in the sun too long, but the passenger side was fine. Even the paint on the driver’s side exterior was obviously oxidized and discolored, while the rest of the car looked decent.

As it turned out, the car had been parked next to a house that burned down in a fire. The driver’s side of the car was “cooked” in the heat. We had to replace the driver’s side seatbelt (it had melted), and did some work on the sunroof to try and get it to seal (unsuccessfully). We also spent a full day washing it completely, inside and out, vacuuming the whole thing and fixing little miscellaneous issues.

When Kyle came up for the weekend, we asked him to bring his bike. Not to ride, just because we wanted him to put it into the new car for the drive home.

Karen did a great job wrapping it too. She took a medium sized box and wrapped it. Inside that was some little trinket that she had bought with Kyle. That was good for a laugh. Kyle was like: but you bought this with me there!! Also inside the box was a smaller wrapped box. Inside that was another little toy (magnetic stix in this case) and a smaller wrapped gift box. Kyle opened the toy and we played with it for a moment before opening the next box. And inside THAT was a little toy car and a Starbucks envelope. Kyle was mystified by this one. So we told him we bought him a car. It really didn’t sink in since he was –holding- a toy car. I think he thought we meant we bought him a toy car. So he set it down and opened the envelope and a key dropped out. He was enev more confused by this. So we told him again. “We bought you a car.” And then it sank in.


- Stupid @ Friday, June 20, 2008 1:27 PM PT [+]

I bought some new racing wheels about a week before the Tri-4-REAL #1. Since I’ve been doing pretty good at getting out and riding my roadbike semi-regularly I figured it was a good time to invest in some bike-related improvements. My original plan was to buy a new bike and replace my Y2K model road bike with a new TT bike, but I’m not riding enough to make that level of investment worthwhile (yet?) I have wanted to get a set of racing wheels for about a year, so I finally did the last bit of research and settled on a set of RŌL d’huez wheels.

I basically narrowed it down to that wheelset or the Shimano Dura-race wheels. In the end there were two things that swayed me. First, I naturally tend to mistrust large faceless corporations. While I do use many Shimano components on my bike, as I buy new things I have been slowly transitioning over to SRAM. And, really, Shimano makes a –lot- of stuff. Maybe they’re really good at making bicycle wheelsets, but they also make a lot of other stuff. I just don’t have the confidence that their wheelset is going to be the shining star of the production line.

After the wheels arrived, I needed to buy a new cassette. I wanted to have a complete set of racing wheels that I could just pop on/off my bike with out having to dink around with changing gears and readjusting things. After shopping around I found my preferred cassette for “only” $170 plus shipping. I don’t know if this is loss leader marketing, or if it was on closeout, or what, but the next lowest price I could find was $190. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks, after all!

I had tubes sitting around, so the last piece of the puzzle was tires. Doing research on tires was very difficult. Tires are one of those things that no one really notices but make a huge difference. I started looking at what the pros use and then reading any reviews that “normal” people would have seen of those products. Eventually I narrowed it down and bought some Michelin Pro3 tires. The silly part was that place I got my cassette from was the same vendor that had the lowest price on the tires, meaning if I had ordered them together I could have saved a few buck on shipping. Alas, I did not.

I finally assembled the entire shebang on Thursday. We had invited a couple of people up on Saturday to ride the Vineman route and it seemed like that would be a good ‘shakedown’ ride for the new wheels. If something broke, I’d have people to help out. So we did Karen’s longest ride ever, 61.3 miles. I found that the new wheels are really nice on the climbs. They’re over a full pound lighter so that’s less weight to haul up a hill. On the flats, they accelerate like I’ve got rocket boost – much ‘snappier’ feel than my old wheels. I felt like it took less energy to get them up to speed and keep them there. The downside is that they just don’t roll downhill as fast as my old crappy wheels. I don’t know if it is a terminal velocity issue, or if the hubs just aren’t as smooth or what. But whenever we would start down a hill, I’d have to work hard to keep up with Karen. Normally, I can pass other people on the downhills without pedaling (even if they are, sometimes!) but this time I was the one having to keep adding energy on the downhills.

I think they’ll be a huge advantage on a flat course like the Tri-4-REAL route. I’m not completely sold on them for a hilly ride, though. If it was a hilly ride, I might use my old heavy wheels because they go so much faster on the descents.

- Stupid @ Friday, June 20, 2008 12:29 PM PT [+]

So the PSP arrived last Friday (a week ago!) and I spent a little time playing with what it could do. It has a lot of features that I think are pretty cool.

It works as a little handheld media player, MP3s WMAs and video all play on it. The nice thing about the video is that the screen is like 4.3 inch diagonal screen, so while it is small, it isn’t eyestrain-o-vision small like the iPod. And since it is a 16:9 “wide” screen, it doesn’t lose screen real estate to letterboxing. The screen resolution is “low res” but at that size, there just isn’t the physical space to fit in many pixels; I know that the resolution is only 480x272 but in actual practice it appears to be crystal clear and super sharp for images and video (more on this later).

It has WiFi connectivity and a built-in web browser. This is one of the primary motivators for me to buy the thing. I configured it to access the internets via the home router. Setup was quite easy and only took about 45 seconds. The speed was passable, but not great. Despite it’s small size, it seemed to have better connectivity than the PS3 and TiVo. I used it to read web-based forums for about a half-hour in bed. The small screen size was not much of a hindrance when it is only 12-inches in front of you. I did notice that that low resolution was not very good for text-based applications. There was a lot of visible aliasing and it made the text a bit difficult to read. As a test I pointed the browser at one of the ubiquitous pr0n websites and was surprised to see how sharp and clear the images appeared. The aliasing that I noticed on the text was completely invisible. The time to load an image-heavy web page was actually quite good.

One of the (many) kewl/nifty things that the PSP does is it can act as a display device for the PS3. Basically, I turned on the PS3 and put it in “remote play” mode, and the connected to it wirelessly with the PSP. At that point the PSP becomes the “screen” for the PS3 and the PSP controls work as if you were holding the PS3 controller. I tried playing a couple of the games I own on the PS3 and some of them work but others do not. The display of the PSP just isn’t up to the task of displaying a blu-ray image, and any game that uses the motion sensing aspect of the sixaxis/dualshock controller won’t work.

I was also able to play MPS3 and video files from our file server. Karen’s computer runs a DLNA media server on her computer. The PS3 acts as a DLNA media client, and the PSP acts as a the display device for the PS3. So essentially, the files were read from the file server by Karen’s computer, sent via WiFi to the PS3 which sent them out again to the PSP. Adding in the links between the router the data made seven network hops between the hard drive and the PSP, three of which were wireless! Wild, but it played with practically no latency in full screen video playback.

I’m told that it is possible to transfer TV video to the PSP as well, using TiVo software, but I haven’t tried it yet.

The only game I have right now is the one that came with the PSP when I bought it: GTA Liberty City Stories. I’m not a big GTA fan, but I did try it out for a little bit. Metacritic gave this game an 88 so it should be good. I only played it for a few minutes and it seemed to perfectly capture the story-heavy style of a GTA game. The graphics were passable - about the same level as a PS2 – but on a much smaller screen.

I did check to see what version of firmware is installed. Most of the really nifty-keen-cool stuff for the PSP requires what is referred to as “homebrew” firmware. The problem is that the homebrew stuff has to be installed over a very early version of the default firmware. Sony, in their infinite wisdom, have been adding things to the firmware that make it impossible to update to “homebrew”. Sadly, my PSP came with Sony 3.90 firmware. The only way to install "homebrew" on that is to use something called a Pandora battery and memory stick; those cost about $80 on eBay.

- Stupid @ Friday, June 20, 2008 10:03 AM PT [+]

Well, the first “real” triathlon of the year is in the bag now and I did pretty well considering that my training ahs been hit-and-miss all spring. It really shows where my weaknesses are and what I need to concentrate on. My goal for this year is to set a new PR, but I’ve only got two more shots at it!

Swim: 30:44
I felt –great- on the swim. I went out with absolutely NO expectations on finish time for the swim. My goal was to stay calm and practice bi-lateral breathing. That usually means I have to slow down to stay aerobic in order to hold my breath long enough. Usually I’m pushing pretty hard in the swim and need to breathe on every stroke. So this time, I just stayed relaxed and swam. I didn’t do any bi-lateral breathing but I completely forgot about racing and just swam. I didn’t pay attention to when the first group of people from the wave behind passed me (I usually do) and I didn’t try to draft off of anyone that passed me (I also do this). When the swim was over I still felt VERY fresh and I was only 44 seconds off from my “ideal” swim time!!!

T1: 3:47
I’m still not fast in transition. I suspect that I never will be. I feel like this is about as streamlined as I am going to get. My wetsuit practically fell off. I probably might have been able to save a few seconds putting my bike shoes on, but only a few seconds. I might save another second or two doing a moving mount of the bike, but I don’t think that shaving those seconds is really going to buy me much.

Bike: 1:18:15
This is still my weakness. A few years ago I was doing bike-centric training and set my PR. Since then I’ve really been run-centric and have struggled on the bike. I really need to get back into the habit of riding my bike regularly and start doing focused bike skill/speed drills. The farthest half of the out-and-back bike course was all brand new smooth-as-glass asphalt and my overall bike speed –should- have been close to 20MPH on that surface. But alas, my legs just didn’t have the conditioning. I pushed really really hard on the bike to come up with the split that I got, and it isn’t all that impressive.
One thing though: I normally count the number of people who pass me. When I pass someone I decrement it so that it ends up being the number of overall places I’ve lost on the bike ride. Not really, but sorta. Anyway, it is a nice metric to measure my performance. This time the count was only four. So, I’m getting conflicting information here. Clearly, my bike times are not as good as they have been (and, truth be told, the bike route “felt” short) and yet I’m holding my own with the pace of the riders around me.
It doesn’t matter in the long run. I need to get faster on the bike and that’s all there is to it. This is one aspect that I can definitely work on and get some concrete benefit from.

T2: 3:17
Again, slow transition. My setup was in a poor spot for a speedy T2 and I bobbled a few items while changing from bike to run. I’d like to see this go under 3 minutes, but clearly not likely.

Run: 56:55
This run time is actually pretty kick-ass. It’s only 21 seconds slower than my fastest ever run split. I honestly think that if I focus on my bike training I’ll get faster on the run too – at least that is how it has worked out in the past. If I can knock 6 or 7 minutes from my bike split, I should be able to drop a minute per mile from my run times. That would put me in position to beat my current PR by a whopping 7 minutes!! I’m not going to count on that (or even try for it)… just beating my current PR by a few seconds would be gravy as far as I’m concerned. But I could see that happening with a little consistent training effort.

OVERALL 2:52:58

- Stupid @ Tuesday, June 10, 2008 11:23 AM PT [+]

For the last few weeks I've been putting in low-ball bids on PSP units on eBay.

The PSP only runs $170 new in the box, but I was looking specifically at the more aesthetically pleasing "ice silver" model. These, unfortunately, retail for the slightly higher price of $200.

My desire to have this device is not so great to drop $200 on what is essentially a toy (albeit a toy with a lot of nifty features) so I was pretty firmly in the "looking... but not serious" phase of the purchase. Which brings me back to eBay. I had been tracking ice silver PSP units and putting in the odd bid when I saw one that was in good shape. I had pegged my highest price at $125, a nice solid 37% off from retail. So when I would see a likely candidate, I'd take $125, subtract whatever they were asking for shipping and enter that as a bid.

As expected, I lost a lot of these auctions. In fact, I lost sixteen of them. (eBay tracks this for some reason.) But as I mentioned, I wasn't really serious about buying a PSP so the lost auctions weren't even a consideration.

Yesterday, I won an auction. So I guess I own a PSP now. It should be arriving in a week or two. It will be interesting to see what it can (and can't) do when it arrives. I suppose my first task will be to see if i can install the "homebrew" firmware so I can play "backup" games and utilities on it. I'll post more as it develops.

- Stupid @ Friday, June 6, 2008 6:13 PM PT [+]

So this last week I was playing a little Asian MMO that I’d heard of some time ago. It has what is possibly the stupidest name every for an MMO ever. It’s called Dofus.

Apparently a Dofus is a dragon’s egg and the goal of the game is to collect five or six of the little buggers. I can’t speak to what happens if/when you do that but I assume it’s something along the lines of “You win!” and then you re-roll and do it again.

Anyway, they have what I’d like to call a “misleading” game. Well, that’s the polite way of putting it. I’d actually like to use several expletives to describe their hook, but I won’t. They CLAIM to have a “free to play” (or F2P) game that you can subscribe to (“pay to play” or P2P) and get additional goodies and whanot. What they actually have is a free to play –trial- version that is level-limited that only allows you to access a small fraction of the entire game. You’re excluded from most of the crafting sub-games, you may only enter a small part of one dungeon for adventuring. There are only about 20 quests that you have access to. You can’t even pick up or equip any items over a certain specific level. Basically, it’s the MMO version of a single-level demo. I found this to be very frustrating and annoying. When someone advertises a “free to play” game, I expect it to be “free to play”. I don’t expect it to be “free to noodle around in the noobie area but that’s all.” I understand that they are trying to make a profit here, but even if I thought that game was worthwhile, this marketing scheme would have turned me off.

So the game has a few of what I’d consider to be fatal flaws:

1. Equipment is “level limited”. This is a huge no-no. If I’m good enough or lucky enough to end up with a sword of instakillyoudead when I’m only level 5, I want to use it. I do not want to put it in my backpack while I grind out 195 more levels of XP because it has a level limit that means I cannot equip it. “This item is too powerful for you” is NOT a fun gameplay mechanic. Sure, twinking is bad (especially in any kind of competitive MMO) but there are a lot of creative ways to deal with this issue. Limiting the level at which equipment can be used is not a good solution and it really annoyed me that I could buy a weapon that was level 45 for a few hundred kamas (the in-game currency) but I couldn’t use it at all. Meanwhile, a level 10 weapon (that I could use) cost several thousand kamas. Stupid, stupid game design!
2. Dropping an entire complex game design on a new player is intimidating. I really was hesitant to spend my first few advancement points because I really didn’t know what was “good”. This is especially problematic when you have specific racial/class limits on equipment that aren’t noted anywhere. I had to find out (by trial and error) what types of weapons I could equip/use and what types were useless. If you have artificial limitations on what kind of equipment is usable, you’d damn well better put that info in big giant bold letters. When I spent all of my hard earned kamas on a sword that my class couldn’t use I was flaberghasted!
3. The rate of character advancement was glacially slow, even at low levels. This game advertises 200 levels of character “evolution” (their word, not mine). In a good solid week of around 20 hours online, I managed to reach level 10. Admittedly the first few hours were spent just noodling around and trying to figure things out, but once I found the wiki page and read up on the various quests and abilites and game hints I was running pretty well. I joined a guild and we were running the starter dungeon over and over and the XP was moving in pretty fast. But advancement was still extremely slow. This is a deal breaker for me. I’m not going to grind away for months and months just to get to a decent competitive level!
4. Character advancement was completely linear. From the instant you started a new character you knew exactly what skills you were going to get and what level you would get them at. I suppose this was done to make players want to keep playing despite the slow level of advancement. When you know that you’re going to get new ability XYZ in just one or two more levels, it gives you incentive to grind it out. But with no alternate character development, there really wasn’t any way to distinguish yourself. One warrior was as good as any other. Why bother playing if I’m just going to be a_player_4973!?
5. The world is separated into distinct tiles (called “maps”), and combat occurred outside of the game world. This really broke the continuity of the game for me. It actually took me several minutes the first time I logged in to figure out how to move between maps. Once I saw how it was done, it became much smoother, but the feeling of discontinuity remained. When combat starts, you and the opponent are replaced with a combat symbol and whisked off to an identical, but different map. After 30 seconds the combat symbol vanishes and no one can even tell that you’re in a fight, much less help you out, or offer advice or anything. When the fight is over you just appear back on the map in your initial position as if nothing had happened, except you have a few more XP. Very

Things that I found annoying, but could have learned to live with:
1. Player commerce was extremely limited. The player-to-player selling mechanic was actually quite innovative (see below) but limited to only 5 lots per vendor. Lots were only allowed to be singles or sets of 10 or 100. so if you had, for example, four of one item, you could list four individual items but that counted as four separate lots. On the other hand if you had –exactly- ten of one type of item, you could list it as a set and it would only count as ONE lot. This led me to hoarding useless junk until I had exactly ten of them and then listing them at a much lower price than I could have sold them for individually. A simple NPC merchant that bought everything for a few kamas would have been preferred since I could have offloaded my entire inventory without worry.
2. Sales made to other players via the NPC merchants would result in the money going into my bank account, not into my inventory. This meant that even if I immediately sold an item (it happened a few times) I had to walk to the bank, open the box, and grab the money I earned from selling something at the merchant.

On the other hand, they did have some interesting bright spots:
1. Combat is turn based. You have a limited number of action points to cast spells, buffs or debuffs, or use weapons/abilites and a limited number of movement points to move yourself. You could move, cast, move in any order or sequence as long as you did not exhaust your points. You only had 30 seconds per turn to do this. This led to some interesting decisions in combat. Do I move forward one step and unload spells and then step back? Do I move forward and enter melee? Should I cast now and move later? The ticking timer lent a feeling of pressure and sometimes I found that I figured out the proper sequence of events just as the timer was running out and then didn’t have enough time to actually do them.
2. Player-to-player commerce. Every MOB drop was used by someone for something. So rather just having vendor trash loot, you would always take your drops to a merchant and see how much it was worth. Some of the most trivial items that dropped in the lowest level dungeon were required to make the highest level items in the game. This led to a lot of player-to-player interaction. The NPC merchants do a great job in matching buyers to sellers and a lot of times I would find that my items that were posted one day would be sold by the next time I logged in. Occasionally, “trash” items that I posted at a vendor would sell to another player almost instantly. Profits from sales are directly deposited into the character’s bank account, so I would have to check the bank occasionally to pick up my sales money.
3. The race/class interaction is actually pretty interesting. Rather than having classes and races, each race –is- a class. So, for example, if you choose to be a Feca, that means that you are a staff-wielding protector type with defensive spells. While this might seem to simplify things to the point of being too dumbed down, it actually doesn’t. What it does do, is allow for instant identification of specific character abilities. For example, the fairy-like Eniripsa is the healing class/race. So when you see someone with wings, whether it be big pink butterfly wings or little black bat wings, you know –instantly- that they are a healer type. The same sort of thing applies to each and every race/class, and this was really nice for “profiling” others in a fight.
4. Character customization. When you create a new character there are three different areas of the character that you can color. You can choose garish colors or nice ones; it is totally up to the player. For example, when I made my Feca, I chose to make him a blonde chap with yellow-gold hair, blue clothes and light grey boots and gloves. Even if I stood right next to another Feca, using the same exact model (and easily identifiable as such!) we looked completely different. In fact, despite having relatively “common” colors, during the time I was playing, I only ran across one other player with a similar scheme and it was startling enough that we both sent PMs to the other about the choices. It’s a simple little thing, but it really lends a lot of attachment to the character when you feel unique in the game world.
5. The game client is written in Flash® so it runs on a variety of different computer types. I think this is a huge bonus for a small game like this.

The final thing I wanted to comment on was the pricing scheme. We’re obviously not looking at a WoW type game here, and the pricing is accordingly low. The game is based somewhere abroad and the base prices are in euros, with US dollars accepted as an alternate (they also accept GB pounds, CA dollars, Czeck or Swiss francs or Japanese yen). It comes out to only $6.90 a month (5 euros), or $65 for a full year. This is roughly ½ the cost of a modern fantasy MMO.

It was a fun little diversion, but not worth paying for in my opinion. Too many fatal flaws to account for the few bright spots. Still, I’m glad I took the time to explore this product. It made me feel better about some of the items I’d like to see in a “mainstream” game and opened up a few options that I hadn’t previously considered.

- Stupid @ Thursday, May 22, 2008 5:38 PM PT [+]

To help me keep my blog current and semi-relevant, I’ve made myself a reminder in my outlook calendar that pops up annoying notices on my desktop every Monday morning. The theory is that I’ll have something interesting to say at least once a week, and it will usually be about those oh-so-precious days where my head is not stuffed full of volts, amps, watts and all things that keep a hospital operational.

Every year my company sponsors me and several other people to run in our county’s Human Race event. This is a “fun” event, but I always try to inspire a bit of competitive spirit in my fellow coworkers. I make a challenge that if anyone can beat me in the 10km race that I will give $10 to the charity of their choice. Well this year, it finally bit me. Two of my fellow employees bested me. And not by just a few seconds either. The guy who came in first (from our company) crossed the line a good seven and a half minutes ahead of me! Not only did he decimate my finish time, but he beat my 10km PR by over five minutes!! The number two man was within striking distance – only beating my average time by about 30sec per mile, but still. Maybe I’m getting older and starting to slow down. Well, no, that’s not it. I’ve had slower 10k races before. These guys just had a GREAT run and me… not so much.

One of the highlights of the race was that I actually ran the entire event with two different shoes on. I had my new Saucony shoe on my right foot and an older Brooks shoe on my left foot. This was completely unintentional; I simply didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me (AFTER the race) and I had to laugh. At that point I’d already been “in public” for a good two hours, so I wasn’t going to go run and hide in the car or change my shoes. I just had to throw my hands up and admit being an idiot (again).

I felt like my pacing was good, I just didn’t have it in the tank that day. Some days you wake up and you feel like you can take on the world. This wasn’t one of those days. On the good side, this has given me a lot of incentive to lose those extra 5 pounds and train much harder for the next Tri 4 Real on June 8!

My splits were
Mile 1 – 8:38
Mile 2 – 8:05
Mile 3 – 8:16
Mile 4 – 8:16
Mile 5 – 8:14
Mile 6 – 7:39
Mile .2 – 1:22 (6:50 pace)
FINAL 50:30

In other news, I tried The MMO With Possibly the Stupidest Name ever: Dofus. I saw this advertised at an E3 several years ago and was moderately intrigued by their casual-friendly price structure (ie: free, but you get “perks” if you subscribe). It’s all done in Flash, so it’s platform independent. I played iot for about 8 hours on Sunday and it most definitely isn’t for me. I did take one very strong lesson away from the experience.

If you have your own IP, don’t just drop it on the user and assume they are going to figure it out.

If you’ve got an IP like (for example) Camelot, you can probably fake it. Most people know the legend of King Arthur and even though they may not be familiar with the details of the story, they know that it is in Briton, and that there was a round table and whatnot. The basic framework is in place. So when you start seeing Welsh names like Bwca monsters in Llyn Barfog, people may not know –exactly- what it is or where it might be found, but they have a general feel that this probably is something Olde Englishe. When you start talking about Elves and Dwarves and Orcs and Dragons, people have a built-in understanding of what that means. The details may not be there, but given the basics, most people will figure out the rest.

The problem comes when you have a cartoonish race of dog-people and cat-people and rat-people and squirrel-people and bear-people and fairies and demons and cartoonish… uh, CARTOON-people, and then you drop some silly sounding names on them like Feca, Ecaflip, Osamodas, Pandawa, Cra and Iop…. Well, most people go WTF?? There isn’t any basis to start wrapping the game milieu around. It’s all uncharted and unfamiliar territory, and it’s just too much to expect the new player to assimilate it all at once. It’s a Berlitz course in some strange IP, without the payoff of taking a vacation to a mystical foreign country. I played for 8 hours and I still have no idea what each race/class combination is, whether they are good or bad or even possible. I’m sure someone put a –lot- of time and effort into making a cohesive game world, but it’s just too far removed from anything I’ve seen before to make it understandable.

It would have been better if they had introduced little bits of the IP over time. But they couldn’t do that without limiting player choices initially. I’m not convinced this is a bad thing. Especially for a brand new player in this (supposedly) vast online space. I don’t want to be coddles, but I’d rather be spponfed for a little bit before the game starts throwing not only shovelfuls of data but TRUCKLOADS of new info at me. Heck, just to creat my first character I had to read 12 different descriptions written in flowery high-fantasy style. I want to play a tank; is that the one that is “valued in groups because of their protective powers” or is it the one that ”are warriors beyond reproach”? In the end I chose the one with the shield icon on the class selection page.

The thing that kills the game for me is that the world is too compartmentalized. As you move around, you walk around on a “screen” and then you move to a little dot to load the next “screen”. So when you’re standing on the edge of the display, there could be a huge fight going on just over the edge of the monitor and you’ll never know because you haven’t loaded that map yet.

Still it was an interesting experience and it was completely an utterly free to download and play. I’d like to try it with Karen and see what her impressions are. As we know, even a bad MMO can be fun if you play together!

- Stupid @ Monday, May 12, 2008 6:08 PM PT [+]

I read several blogs. Many of them are linked off in the left hand column. I know that when a blog goes quiescent for weeks, it makes one not really excited to read it. On the other hand, I’ve seen personal blogs which daily postings simply for the sake of having daily postings. Those are annoying. It’s like having some bubbleheaded girl telling you about how they went shopping yesterday and saw these super-cute shoes but they were too expensive and they didn’t even come in plum, but they bought them anyway because they were just so cute and they matched the new ankle bangle that they had found at the boutique the other day when they were getting their hair colored. Whew! Anyway, I’m falling on the “too few” side of that and I will try to do better.

My friend Zant called me last night and was asking about my life, so I’m going to update this. Tardy, I know, and I –will- try to be more punctual!

Carneros 10km
We did our first 10km race of the year on April 3. It was a bit rough since I really haven’t been training much over the winter. I had a GREAT fall training schedule and was sticking to it, but in mid-December when we abandoned the idea of running the Mardi Gras Marathon (which was held in February) I kinda stopped training for the most part. Oh, sure, there was the occasional run or bike, but pretty much I haven’t really done any athletic stuff for nearly three months. So I approached this e