26 July 2011

You say X-Com, I say Xcom

So some time ago, there was a bit of a stir when 2K Studios announced, hilariously, that "strategy games are not contemporary". The context is XCOM, that apparent twisted abomination of a game, and things quickly linked up with the already long-growing murmurs of discontent over where that IP was going.

Troy Goodfellow has written a very nice response to the whole thing, one with which I agree in many respects. I'd take the argument a bit further than he did, though.

I think it looks quite certain at this point that XCOM was a poor decision, which backfired in a way the company did not plan on dealing with. The how of it really eludes me: To me it just makes no sense to market a shooter to X-Com fans, and for catering to shooter fans, why bother with the IP? Troy suggests the IP's function is to generate hype, and it seems logical (although also a bit cynical). I think after that plan was set in motion, it turned out that there IS such a thing as bad publicity after all, as everyone and their brother joined the whine bandwagon to complain about how they weren't faithful to the original games, and to (I imagine) the devs' dismay most of them didn't even bother to hype the game very much!

It's really not a good idea to antagonize your future customers, so the inane bit about strategy games was probably a desperate attempt at damage control. It seems that whenever 2K is interviewed about XCOM, when they are asked actual question about the game as opposed to just given free reign to wave hands and spin yarn, their answers are likewise devoid of meaning and completely out of touch with the point of the question. They either have no idea what they're doing, or are desperate to not let anyone find out just how bad their ideas are, or both, and the way things are going, it looks like XCOM is headed right for a 60 on Metacritic. Of course, who knows. The game's not done, there's still lots of time. Maybe all the weak promises they made weren't bullshit, and XCOM will turn out to be great, even if not quite the successor to the franchise. Not that I'm holding my breath or anything.

As for X-Com dying, I don't think a shooter called XCOM will make the games any deader than they are now- I just don't see anyone familiar with X-Com taking it (or rather the game that XCOM is shaping up to be) seriously.

Game of Thrones 1x02: The Kingsroad

Well, then! Hello again. I said I'd post two every week, right? Guess it took me a bit longer than a week... Oh well.

The second episode is vastly more self-explanatory than the first, and I suppose I kind of exhausted much of the background by rambling on about every lore-related thing in sight. So the good news, this one will be short.

We start off with the Khaleesi riding with the Dothraki horde. It looks more like a small-time caravan than a horde, but you can blame Sean Bean for that. (Just kidding, but it really would have been nice if they had money for more impressive scenes.) Dany is a character who we meet when she is 14 (I think she is supposed to be 16 or 17 or thereabouts in the series) and she has lived a relatively uneventful life up to that point. I mean, there's the whole royalty in exile with a paranoid brother who sees assassins in every shadow thing, but whose family isn't a little crazy, right? Anyhow, she doesn't care about her lost throne since she was too young during the Rebellion (to be sure, so was Viserys, but he's a nutjob so nevermind him) and a lot of huge, life changing things happen to her during the course of the books, which define who she becomes very distinctly. So she's interesting because of how clear the cause-and-effect relationships are throughout the development of her personality.

Here, she is still shocked and traumatized, being sold by her own brother to a repulsive barbarian who subsequently rapes her. Nevertheless, she still tries to play the cards dealt to her, and adapt to circumstances, however hopeless everything may seem.

We get some Viserys being Viserys. Oh, Viserys! You Viserys, you. You're such a Viserys! I have no clue why, but I just love this guy's seedy, overenthusiastic grin.

The Lannister scene pretty much establishes the family food chain. Tyrion is at his best here- the unique Tyrion wit, at once imaginative, clever, insightful, turning the issue on its head without being a smart alec. We also have the other defining trait here- in Jaime's words: "My dear brother, there are times you make me wonder whose side you're on." I mean, you know he's loyal to the Lannisters. Except he isn't. Except when he is. Except those times he isn't... But that's not mentioning the times he is... And then there's the times...

The Queen visits Bran to pay her respects. The interesting thing is, she comes off remarkably sincere, in my opinion. Anytime I watch that scene, for a second, part of me thinks that maybe some part of her is sorry for the whole thing, and does want to be a more positive influence on the people around her, except she doesn't believe she can change herself now and she's in too deep to do it anyhow. But then again, Cersei is a master manipulator, and it's just like her to fake sincerity to such an absurd degree... But you just never know. It's one of the things I like about Game of Thrones; every so often a pair of characters meet, and based on their pre-established roles you know they're gonna act one way, but they suddenly almost have a change of heart, but nothing concrete, really. And then that passes and they carry on like they did before, and you're left wondering if the change of heart was ever sincere and simply reversed afterward, or if the whole thing was a deception throughout. It's one of those "weird feeling" moments I have sometimes, and Martin's presentation of it is just so eerily familiar.

And, while Lena Headey may not pull off everything perfectly, she's certainly great at looking wistful.

Next we have a *groan* Jon chapter. For some reason I just never liked Jon much. He's boring, he has plot armor, and he's the closest thing to a "humble, well-meaning warrior guy who saves the world and turns out to be the long lost heir to the throne" archetype. I don't think he saves the world, or at least he hasn't so far (spoiler spoiler, boo hoo) but I don't think he even does anything wrong at all either! I mean... He's just perfectly principled. He has no crises of identity. He's never tempted to betray his own identity. He's just... He happens to be a guy who always acts like he ought to, in circumstances that happen to be permissive to this. I dunno. It's just weird.

Catelyn is a horrendous bitch to him in this scene, too. I think unduly so. Jon's ancestry is a bit of a mystery, you see. The kind of mystery that shouts "Chekhov's mystery, git your main plot point right here folks, Chekhov's mystery!" from the rooftops with a loudspeaker. It's just so obvious that his parent(s) -Ned may very well not be his father at all!- are extremely important and will shape the climax of the story... Except the Gurrm never really does anything with it! It doesn't go anywhere. And Cat's disproportionate disdain of him is pretty much the main contributor to that air of importance. I mean, geez. So the guy is your husband's bastard. Newsflash, every other lord has them in droves! It's not accepted, it's expected! So what if your hubby had one slip? Fine, chew his head off. Why take it out on the poor boy? Not like he had any say in it. And besides, he just worries about his half-brother, your son. What the hell, Catelyn.

Anyhow, there's more sappy Jon stuff, and then we get to see King Bob talk about his great love of cuntry. The question of our white-haired friends comes up, and Ned puts on his trademark honor before reason routine.

We get yet more Jon, and I have to say, it's a bit of a Mortonian choice there. I mean, the thing you save by going to the wall, you're not allowed to use because you're on the wall! Harsh, man.

There's the iconic scene of Catelyn catching an assassin next. It's an event that pretty much serves as Cat's finest moment, and also sets in motion much of the events of the first two books. One strange thing here, they never suspect that the knife might have been sent to frame the owner. Everybody seems to assume that things are exactly what they seem like, and Luwin at least should have been cleverer.

Meanwhile, lovely lesbian fan service. It is known. Dany also decides to be quite a bit more proactive with her husband... This part never felt quite right to me. Maybe it's just too quick a flip from battered child-sex slave to passionate lover. Adapting to circumstance is one thing, but just everything about her quick acceptance of Drogo implies that she's... Well... A bit of a whore. But then again, the books take place over quite long time periods, and this fact is even less obvious in the series- it's probably been weeks or even months from the opening shot to this one.

We get some more lore with King's Landing as the backdrop. A lot of people were dissatisfied by Sophie Turner's ability to play Sansa. Personally, I think she's okay, she's not terribly great but then again Sansa is really uninteresting, it's the things happening around her that make her book chapters worthwhile. In this scene, though, she's kinda bad. Or rather, the bad is really easy to see- Sansa is meant to be naive, stubborn with her silly girly fantasies, and extremely well mannered. Sophie's expression while apologizing to Sir Ilyn is more of a petulant, delinquent teenage girl's desperate attempt at holding the laughter in. That's really what's wrong with Sophie, and why it's not that big a deal- she plays Sansa like a petulant teenager, and most of the time it works, because most of the time Sansa is a petulant teenager. It's just that, every now and then she isn't, but Sophie sticks to her usual thing in those rare moments as well. I do hope she gets better eventually.

And following that, we finish up with another mini-event, leading to a closing shot of Ned shooting the dog. Tune in next time for more shameless politics, callous hypocrisy and wanton animal cruelty!

25 July 2011

Review: Global Agenda

I don’t really like MMOs. Or, rather, I'm fine with the concept of MMOs, but in how the turn out in practice doesn't agree with me- of necessity, commercial MMOs appear to be a little on the grindy side, requiring huge time commitments.

If I was to be perfectly honest, it’s not like my habit of watching TV series marathon or binging on a sandbox doesn’t represent a big chunk of time spent, but I guess with an MMO there is the a priori acceptance... Well, that, and you can’t really take a break from an MMO for a couple of months. Not that I take breaks like that from single player games either, though. But you know, it's nice that the option is there.

Steam recently started allowing free-to-play games, and one of those was Global Agenda, so I immediately wanted to try it. Based on a brief glance at the screenshots and quick skim of the info page, I expected some class based team deathmatch (or CTF or whatever) with lots of items. You know, like TF2, except more futuristic, and instead of hats you get new weapons which give you more plusses, and there’s a lot of good ones for free. (Why would I even want that? Wouldn’t that mess up the balance? Who cares? I was just looking for a laugh.)

My enthusiasm lasted 2 days, and I will soon delete it from Steam. I’m mainly deleting it because I realized today that I’m running out of space, but if I had the space I would still have made the decision to not play the game anymore.

The first problem: The game doesn’t use your SteamID. You download, install, open it, and create an account, using your real email address. The obvious stupidity of this aside, why even bother with Steam then, jeez. There’s two reasons to have your game on Steam: Either you want to make it easy for many gamers to hear about and pay you money through a convenient, established digital distribution platform, or you want use Steamworks. Given that this is F2P, it’s not the former, so if it’s not the latter, why bother? Maybe you can buy premium items with your Steam wallet or something.

That hurdle passed, the game itself starts with an intro and a tutorial. The story isn’t anything to write home about, blah blah multinational corporations control everything, some of their super soldier secret agents defected and went underground, cue many small-scale team-based skirmishes. We all know the story in these things is just an excuse for the gameplay. That said, it is quite well executed (especially for a free game), the voice acting or CGI isn’t really dorky or anything like that, and an interesting thing is, it’s… Plausible. It does a nice job of explaining why a global authority doesn’t just crush the tiny rebellion; all the rebels operate covertly! Kind of elegant, really.

The tutorial gets the job done. That may sound like a small compliment, but it really isn’t- so many games have bad tutorials: This one doesn’t explain too much of the obvious, it doesn’t take longer than it needs to, it doesn’t fail to mention crucial things.

The game itself, it’s a bit of a many genres of stat and skill based shooter at once. I was really quite put off when I realized this is an honest to god, wander endlessly around the wilderness and kill Heinous Angerspawn until you gather 20 forked tongues, grind grind grind all day every day mumorpuger. The twist is you play it like an FPS, so you have to aim and maneuver around as opposed to just standing there and mashing skill hotkeys. Admittedly this bit does make it more interesting than WoW and its ilk, combat-wise.

There are 4 classes; they’re basically Fighter, Rogue, Summoner, Healer. I heard ex-medic players complain the damage output sucks. Fighter has a tank tree and DPS tree. Rogue can cloak. Summoner makes little turrets and robot minions.

As I said above, the base game is an open world, there are towns with quest giver NPCs, and various mob spawn areas. But there are special missions, too, which is the more interesting part.

The first is a 4-player dungeon with a boss in the end. The game tries to match you with 3 other guys, and tries to make sure there’s one of every class too, it was a lot of fun and quite dependent on teamwork in my experience. The whole thing was quite fun.

Next, there’s a point capture team-versus-team mode. Not sure how people get assigned to teams since I don’t recall choosing sides anywhere, but yeah. It’s a lot like TF2 point captures, except it’s not just that some people have better weapons, some people are literally way better. One, I think 12-on-12 game I played, there was a 34 level assault on the other team, (you finish the tutorial at around 7-10) and he just plowed through everything we had. He just had too much health, too much damage, too much mana, you get the idea. It was a very hopeless kind of fight whenever he showed up. It’s not utterly un-enjoyable: asymmetric fights can be fun too, sometimes, but seems you’re bound to end up with too-unbalanced-for-fun matches occasionally with this game.

There’s one mission type which is some kind of PvP that low-levels aren’t allowed in. Then there’s the fourth, which looks really interesting: Unless I am mistaken (level gate here too), there’s a map of the world and clans can battle clans in a team-based skirmish to capture territory! It sounded exciting. If I was into this game, this would probably be one of my big reasons why.

I wonder if the special feature icons mean a different scenario?

The combat system has a few interesting quirks: Melee weapons get an enormous damage bonus from behind (50% or something). Both your jetpack and weapon share their energy store. Plus all the special class and item spells. Unfortunately, the controls aren’t perfect (by that I mean they are not as smooth as Team Fortress 2) and the game also lagged for me (bad netcode I think), leading to my character frequently “jumping” around, which made the experience irritating and difficult. So, nice idea, but didn’t work for me but I can see how if you don’t lag and ignore a few goofy combat animations it can be sort of enjoyable.

So how’d I decide to not keep playing? Well, I was on the fence from the beginning, but it was a nice time-killer so I went along, until fairly soon I got a quest to kill this mob. Except I go where the quest marker is, and he ain’t there. There’s like, two other guys looking for him as well, we even hung out a bit and had a chat, helped each other grind mobs and so on. I spent a lot of time looking for that guy. It was a main-looking quest chain too so I couldn’t progress without doing it. Eventually my mounting apathy reached the "whatever" threshold.

Yup. Sorry, devs, I’m essentially quitting your game because of that one bug. On the other hand, it’s kind of critical and you can’t progress at least in one apparently significant plotline because of it. Plus it’s at the very beginning, and if there’s one part of an MMO that should be flawless, it’s the beginning: You should give people time for the game to grow on them, so they can ignore its flaws out of fondness for it later.

I dunno, maybe the bug was fixed the next day. Maybe you can just forget the dude, go to another town and do the quests there like nothing happened. I didn’t try and didn’t care to try. I just… stopped caring.

I would have otherwise kept playing intermittently for a few weeks, I imagine. If I roped in a friend, or made some friends in the game whom I grew very fond of, I could keep playing several months or even more than a year. Being that this is a free-to-play game I have no doubt at high levels you either have to endure insane grind to keep up with spending players, or you just flat out can’t, ever. For that reason I’m quite sure I’d get bored and quit eventually either way.

In conclusion, it’s an MMO, there’s a reasonably decent mix of skill and stats deciding combat outcome. Plusses are, there’s some fun looking missions, it’s reasonably well executed thematically and visually, it’s free and the cash shop doesn’t get in your face too much. Minuses; doesn’t use your steam account, buggy, laggy, doesn't use your Steam account, matchmaker isn’t perfect.

Another plus: You can be Lando Calrissian!

Why bother with this and not some established MMO like WoW or Eve Online? Eh, for one it's free. It adds skill and reflexes into the mix. The mission matchmaking is cool. There appears to be a neat clan-versus-clan battle system. If you like MMOs, I think it's definitely worth a try; it's certainly not yet another soulless clone like so many F2Ps are. If you don't like MMO, you probably don't like it because you can't or won't commit the time, and looks like you need to commit time with this one, so yeah.

Score: 2/5