27 October 2012

Review: Carrier Command - Gaea Mission

Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is supposedly a remake of an old game which was revolutionary for its time. It's a weird way to make a game, really, copying a game which was revolutionary precisely because it didn't copy anything else. I guess the idea is that the concept the discovered by the original game was so good that it deserves a revisit.

I didn't play the original Carrier Command, so I'll look at this one on its own merits.

Carrier Command is a bit of a branched game. The biggest distinction is FPS parts  vs. non-FPS parts: Occasionally, for plot reasons you are forced to play a very bad FPS section which has almost nothing to do with the rest of the game. Outside of these, the game is about conquering islands with a mothership (the carrier). There is a resource management/grand strategy game on that level - it's not really a full game; it's very basic. I'll call it a grand strategy "gamelet". Then when attacking an island, it becomes a tactical RTS, uh, gamelet. There is your carrier, and two whole (albeit configurable) unit types. Then, you can actually take control of the units and drive them, so then it becomes a tank driving or helicopter flying gamelet.

So as you can see, Carrier Command is really not one game, but several different games (grand strategy, tactical RTS, FPS, vehicle sim) rolled into one. Neither of them is really any good, for the vehicle sim part the visuals are kind of pretty, but no part of the game really has any depth, and I'm afraid 5 shallow games just isn't as good as one deep game. I'd rather play a good FPS, or a good RTS, or a good helicopter attack sim than Carrier Command, at least after Carrier Command's initial 1-2 hours of novelty are over.

Also troublesome is how these different gamelets are composed. The way that the FPS and grand strategy bits are handled, it feels like "Here, play this game for an hour. Done? Now then, for something completely different..." It just throws you back and forth. I could have just went and gotten 2 decent games, and then switched between them myself - and they'd both be good games. There's one (sorta) exception: The transition between the tactical RTS and vehicle sim is not so bad. It reminds me of being the commander in Battlefield 2: You get the same map, a very sluggish but well-armed carrier, and you issue basic move and attack commands when you switch to the map, or you can take control of a vehicle yourself.

This RTS/vehicle sim blend is the main part of the game. 90% of your time is spent in it, it's the only part that doesn't look like crap, and it's the only part that needs meaningful input from you as the player. Taken on its own, it's fun for an hour or two, but quickly becomes tedious because they didn't bother fleshing it out: There's two unit types, a Walrus (basically a BTR) and a Manta (a VTOL aircraft). You can have up to 4 of either, although the AI is so terrible that only solo ever makes sense. The enemy can have much larger numbers and can also have robots (irrelevant cannon fodder infantry with shit health and shit damage), AA guns and AT guns. You get a grand total of 5 enemy types to fight through many, many hours, and 2 of them are the same as your units, 1 is useless, and the remaining 2 are stationary turrets. If only there was more variety in this stage, it could just be entertaining enough to save the rest of the game, but as it is, it's a drudge.

The AI sucks, too. Enemies have absolutely no cohesion, it's like they are just some random dudes hanging around. It just doesn't feel at all like attacking a single force occupying multiple bases across the island. You can drag away and pick off the garrison units one by one and nobody except the units you directly engage will ever care. Bases will never reinforce each other. Even enemies on one side of a large base will not help the defenders on the other. Besides this, pathfinding is also godawful. This is one of the biggest flaws that prevent you from enjoying the game: It is just such an enormous pain to make units go from point A to point B. They get confused by trees, they take huge detours to avoid going up a gentle hill, they get stuck in deadlocks with each other on narrow roads (one reason why you tend to go solo, the extra units just get in each other's way). It seems that pathfinding divides the map into a very large grid and then works from there, so sometimes the bridges will end up right between two grid points and the units think there's no bridge and refuse to cross it. Which is *slow*. I guess they went for a realistic physics model for the controls, but all it does is drag out the gameplay. I don't see why the vehicles couldn't just handle like, I dunno, Battlefield 2. They handle like bricks. So your one recourse is to let the AI deal with driving them, because it's such a pain, but the AI is imbecilic and will lose engagements you could easily have won yourself. Seriously, the cunning tactic of "sit in place and fire at the enemy until your guns overheat" manages to outperform the AI by 5-10 times.

On a higher level, the islands themselves are not designed very well. If you don't get any story events forcing an FPS section for that island, then the basic mission structure is always the same: First beat 3 secondary objectives, then go to the command center and hack it (by standing next to it for 10 seconds). The secondary objectives can be "hack the firewalls" (which means go to each non-main base and stand in it for 3 seconds) or "disrupt the shield" (which means go to each non-main base and destroy a special building) or "eliminate scramblers" (which is the same as the shield but instead of blocking the command center with a shield, the scramblers make your units able to go only a short distance from your carrier until destroyed). These are all the same basic mission. Together with the way island topology is designed (lots of impassable cliffs blocking all creative paths) and the braindead AI, the net result is that every single island assault is "attack 3 secondary bases, then attack main base". Until you get the Gatling Gun and Mark 2 Armor (you pretty much get these for both aircraft and land unit around the same time) the game is ridiculously hard, after it is effortlessly easy. It is never really fun, and because the AI is dumb and the units are sluggish and the paradoxically the islands are so *linear* you cannot breeze through either.

So, the main game is a nice idea but flawed. That leaves us the grand strategy and the FPS parts. The former is just pointless, and again, drags out gameplay needlessly. There's an enemy carrier which attacks your islands while you're elsewhere, and there's no way to defend, either you have to come over to the attacked island (which makes the enemy carrier run away) or you just let it be and recapture them (UGH). Either way, pointless artificial padding. I would actually be happier if there was no map and just a branching mission selection menu. You can have production islands (make weapons and replacement units), resource islands (not sure what they do) and defense islands (supposedly harder to capture). But only the number of production islands matters, and fairly early you can get as many as you'd ever need. So after a while, it ceases to matter which islands you hold or lose.

Lastly, there's the FPS parts. Jesus, how fucking terrible. The mouse sensitivity is shit. The graphics just don't work for an FPS. The controls are basic (no jumping!). You only have 1 gun (one time I got to use a laser for like, 1 minute). There are only 3 enemies and they are all the same infantry with a rifle. The missions are not challenging. Very quickly I found myself rushing through the FPS parts because of how terrible they are, and the only consolation is that usually the FPS mission saves you the bother of capturing the island.

By the way, I just feel like mentioning the story. There's a story. It is cliche, it is racist, it is xenophobic (hurr evil chinamen with chinaman accents do evil things because they are assholes like all chinese, while noble westerners nobly fight them because they have noble hearts USA is always good guys). It is also painfully, horribly, indescribably bad. The accents, the plot, the dialogue, it's all fingernails on a blackboard. I'll endure all sorts of shitty storytelling just out of curiosity about what happens next - even I couldn't do it, after the third one or so I just started skipping the cutscenes when I could. The main character has one of the worst fake British accents (although it sounds more like Australian, I guess) I have heard, and I have heard quite a few.

Enjoying Carrier Command is a matter of being bored enough. You are never bored quite enough to really consider it fun, but if you are just that bored then it works as a diversion. For a while. Not long enough to endure through the whole game. Paradoxical as it may sound, this game has to last a fifth of the time, and have a fifth of the "stuff" (and possibly have five times the variety) to really be worth playing.

Score: 2/5

07 October 2012

Review: Gemini Rue

Glorious 640x480 resolution: It's like I'm really in 1997!
I usually hate half-baked sci-fi opera, and I disliked Gemini Rue.

Stylistic problems

The vaunted atmosphere of Gemini Rue is just a blanket of old noir detective film cliches draped over a generic, tired "oh no, in the future, technology will steal people's SOULS" plot and theme. But the gaudy veneer really is paper-thin.

One of the first things that hit me about the game's setting is that two and a half centuries in the future (the game is set around 2270 or something), moody trenchcoats and crappy wallpaper is still inexplicably fashionable - remarkable, given that these things went out of style around, oh, maybe the 70s, at the latest.

The graphics are yet more dime-a-dozen pixel art crap. I mean, seriously, the economy being what it is, the job market is crawling with desperate artists, and the ones you have are nothing special. Why don't you spend a buck or two on real art staff and draw some sprites with more pixels than you have IQ points?

And don't even get me started on the colors. The palette has, like, 5 colors, and they are all shades of gray. This game has fucking awful colors.

The characters all speak with this subdued, overly-calm, throaty voice like Max Payne wannabes that reminds me of those talentless hacks who used to copy Hemmingway, apparently thinking that the reason he is so good is the minimalistic prose. Besides that shitty veneer, there is nothing. They're not two dimensional, they're not even one dimensional. They are bland, completely interchangeable mannequins whose only purpose is to read lines of brain-dead fluff.

Gemini Rue really is all style no substance, and the style fucking sucks!

Technical problems

I feel compelled to mention that I was forced to play this game in compatibility mode with 640x480 resolution, because the stupid piece of crap wouldn't even run otherwise. This is a point and click adventure game made with fucking adventure game studio. It's literally the god knows how many hundredth iteration of the exact same game that must have been made for three decades now. I am appalled that people are capable of fucking it up so much that it won't run on Windows 7.

All you have to do is show some backgrounds while sprites wander on screen and the user clicks on stuff. There's no AI. There's no netcode. There's no computationally expensive graphics. There's no pathfinding. The number of actors on screen rarely reaches 5. Not to mention these guys have made a veritable pile of adventure games like this before (I mean, I'm not gonna say "shovelware" - oops! I guess I just did!). Just how are the fucking this up? What did they even spend "development time" on? Come on, how many times can you masturbate in a day before it gets old, guys?

 Logical problems

The whole story of Gemini Rue hinges on the player being shocked at the idea of memory wiping. It has a prison that collects homeless drug addicts and petty criminals, wipes their memory, trains them in a skill such as computer programming or firearm use, then wipes what is known as declarative memory while leaving implicit memory untouched (bullshit - programming and many other useful things aren't learned through implicit memory), to get people with no memory of their past criminal lives or their training at the prison, who nevertheless retain their learned skills. These reformed criminals are then given fake memories and set free to go get jobs and do something worthwhile with their lives.

If I were 13, I'd probably love it. I'm not, though, and since then, I'd like to think I am slightly wiser, and I fail to see what is so terrible. These are scumbag thugs and junkies who live on the street - they are freed from guilt, freed from the desperation of knowing they will repeat those actions which cause them guilt, freed from the necessity of atonement, given fresh starts with useful skills and presumably jobs (even if those jobs are sometimes "Boryokudan enforcer"). They don't even have to serve years in prison to be rehabilitated, what's the problem? It's too expensive to print licence plates without slave labor?

Anyway, you play one of the convicts and of course wade knee deep in adolescent existential drama about the self. There's another convict, a woman called Epsilon-something, whom I can only describe as a stereotypical love interest. She's a pretty, graceful, shy maiden in distress that the protagonist rescues, and suddenly she's infatuated with him (and that's all there is to know about her, honestly). She serves as the spokesperson for the antithesis of the dystopian backdrop.

The problem is, she is delusional. Right off the bat she launches into a bull-fest about how memories of being pushed around in a prison should be treasured and memory wipes are death (the other day I forgot where my keys are, guess I should have called the funeral home). Her convictions are like primitive tribesmen thinking cameras will steal their identity and it destroys any credibility that the theme has.

One of her favorite ideas is that conscience is innate or impossible to erase - indeed the "triumph of the conscience" gives energy to the protagonist(s) to fight back against their mental conditioning. Unfortunately, modern neuroscience would disagree - conscience would very likely be wiped clean after such a magical memory wipe procedure. In general, the whole game betrays a particularly poor understanding of how memory and personality works, and builds silly notions on top of this poor understanding.

Moreover, the plot itself is also full of holes. The doctor doing the memory magic apparently puts in emergency recall switches that mind control prisoners into - no, no, wait, don't laugh!- coming back to the prison. How does he send these recall signals to light years away, from a nebula where no navigation beacon can function? Are there tiny FTL radios in their brains?

Ethical problems

Lastly, here is one of the more awful problems of this game: It's racist.

Everyone in the future is white, and all culture is American/British with slight Japanese and Scandinavian linguistic influences. Where are all the Ahmeds walking around in robes? Where are the Indians? Where are the blacks? Where are the Dr. Hu Xing Wei's?

Presumably the lesser races have been eliminated.

This one only occurred to me while I was rolling my eyes at Sayuri's name - who has no conceivable reason to have her cool Japanese sounding name (why don't they ever use boring Japanese names like Haruka?) - she is not Japanese and had nothing to do with Japanese culture. Soon after I realized no one is Japanese in this game, or anything besides white, for that matter!

In this day and age, I don't think you can find a single place on Earth today that resembles the absurd, exclusively Aryan makeup of Gemini Rue. The closest thing I can imagine is a KKK rally in the deep south, but ignorant, graceless rednecks are a far cry from the refined middle class white paragons populating this game.

So it's not only a bad game, it's also offensive.


Gemini Rue isn't really, really bad, but it's really, really not worth the time it takes to play it. You might feel prompted by the discussion it gets to see what the fuss is about, my advice is watch a playthrough (there's even one in 2 4-hour parts on Youtube) and skip lots of crap.

The graphics are bad, the gameplay is awful (it's bad even for a point and click adventure), the "puzzles" are boring, the story is awful, the themes are a mix of tired cliches and offensive boorishness. It's a pain in the ass to get it to run besides.

The whole experience is boring and shallow. There's no payoff, no justification for the idiocy and incompetence you suffer, no vindication. Just a shitty "tweest ending" you saw coming from a mile away. As I said, don't bother.

Scores: 2/5
Bias: Gave it an extra 1 because it's a small company making an adventure game in 2012.

11 May 2012

Review: Alan Wake (PC)

It's funny because people keep telling him to wake up.
I often complain about games that were made by people who really just wanted to make movies. Alan Wake is definitely one of these. Well, I guess the intention was more to make a TV-series... They even broke it down into episodes and what not.

As a matter of fact, it fits that description so well, I think I'll review this in three separate parts: As a game, as a series, and as a book.

Alan Wake: The Game

Alan Wake isn't much of a game. It's linear, slow, tedious and boring. The same encounters are repeated over and over ad nauseum and it feels like slogging through endless filler. The controls are lazy and the camera angle is horrible. There are few enemy types and few weapons. What's there is annoying to use. The incessant tiny ammo cashes every five paces are stupid and immersion breaking.

Gameplay-wise, the one potentially interesting thing about it is the novel gameplay mechanic: Your enemies are clad in shadows, you must shine your flashlight on them first to make them vulnerable, only then can you shoot and kill them. It's even kind of neat- until you realize this idea is as old as time: Point (and shoot) your shield-destroying gun at enemies until their shields are down, then shoot to lower their health, sound familiar? Still, credit to them for giving it such a nice new spin.

Alan Wake: The TV-series

As a visual-thing-that-one-watches, AW is not bad. The visuals are pretty nice. The dark woods look beautiful, the locales are interesting, detailed and well made. The characters are irritating but amusing to watch. The "acting" is quite hammy and bad, but again, it manages to be amusing in its incompetence, so it's okay. I also really like how, occasionally, you get TV-screens turning on to show yourself monologuing about the plot and just generally exposition-ing.

One annoying thing are the cheeky "Last on Alan Wake" recap segments. These happen at the beginning of every "episode's" cutscene. I don't know why they thought everyone plays their games one part a time - I don't! I play until whenever and save when I want to stop. Sometimes I save mid-episode. Sometimes I do more than one episode in one go. You know how super annoying it is when you marathon a TV-series and you have to keep skipping the recap bits because you literally watched the previous episode five minutes ago? Well, in Alan Wake, you can't even skip them.

Alan Wake: The Story

At the "low-level", the writing is great: The way the sentences are strung together, the tone, the word choices. It's all quite well executed and enjoyable to hear.

At the higher level, hoo boy. It just makes me grit my teeth in anger when I think about it. The story is full of overused cliches, cliches which are extremely obvious to someone who doesn't read a many horror books like me. But more importantly, it commits the cardinal sin of these stories: The characters are dumb. Why doesn't Alan just talk to the bloody police when he first gets proof of his wife's kidnapping? So what if they might kill her? Maybe if he plays along, they'll kill her anyway. And why is he just so damn... Stupid? Why does he not notice when characters start speaking in a creepy, monotone voice all of a sudden? Why does he not draw attention to the fact? Why does he keep leaving people and his weapons in places where something might happen to them? Why does he never question how his flashlight can recharge its batteries while on? Or how paper can stay planted firmly on the ground in a wind strong enough to shake trees? Why does he keep strutting straight into situations that will be difficult to get out of? The unfortunate fact is that the game would be minutes long if only Alan had an ounce of the sense he purportedly does, and you can never really forget about this because of how much the plot hinges on Alan's tremendous stupidity and ridiculous lack of genre-savviness. I mean, he's a horror writer, trapped in a horror story, that HE'S writing, and clearly aware of it no less. Come ON.

And not just Alan, either. Why does Barry, his supposed close friend, refuse to believe Alan when he clearly has been injured? Supposedly, he knows Alan as very logical and sane - why does he immediately assume he magically developed severe schizophrenia overnight? Why does the FBI begin to fire on an unarmed, innocent man with lethal force out of the blue? Why do they not take action against the fucking shadow zombies?

In the end, Alan Wake is a bad game with pretty visuals and a story good by videogame standards, but awful by book standards. It's a fairly interesting story, but it has no end (he sacrifices himself to save his wife from... drowning... or something; there, saved you a couple of hours) and no point, and the conclusion is unsatisfying and leaves you with a feeling of unwittingly having wasted your time on nonsense. If you like that sort of thing, I recommend finding a playthrough video. The gameplay is too tedious and drawn out; I can only imagine someone playing it in exchange for a decent hourly rate. Be warned: There's escort missions and vehicle sessions, although neither is the worst I've seen.

Score: 2/5

22 March 2012

Review: Star Prospector

At least the concept art is kinda nice.
Star Prospector is a by the numbers RTS. I mean, really, it's like a "reference implementation of typical RTS game" project or something. There are only two things that you could argue are unique; one is trivial and one is rendered irrelevant by bad decisions.

Every game goes like this: You are thrown in the middle of a map with your "rig", which is a unit that can build and mine. You build a unit factory, an ore drop-off, and one worker. Then you wait for money to be collected, and make a second worker. Then you build a power generator, and a fuel factory. Then you build three combat units. At this point an enemy or two attacks. You kill it, mass your units, attack move them to the objective and win the map.

I'm not exaggerating. This is literally how every level goes. There is no variation in the gameplay. There are supposedly different objectives, but all of them amount to the same thing: Go to the exclamation point on the opposite side of the map, clear the enemies there, and possibly right click a few of the entities placed in a cluster there. Sometimes it's called clearing archeological sites, sometimes it's "recovering downed shuttles", sometimes it's "refueling powered-down base" but in practice all that changes is the building model and briefing text.

Even the maps are all the same. They are not even randomly generated: The same mission always has the same map. Which is unbelievable, because of how utterly flat and featureless the one level template is: A flat square, with one tiny impassable pit somewhere in a corner, a few scattered rocks/trees, and one completely straight river with two bridges crossing the map horizontally or vertically. There's lots of different biomes but it doesn't matter because they're all the same map with the textures swapped.

There's always a few lone enemy spawner buildings which regularly pop out the local enemy variety and the ubiquitous scavengers. All the enemies, indeed all the combat units, behave exactly the same. There's a couple of damage types, maybe 8, but they're immediately, stifflingly boring: There's the one that does extra damage to type 1 enemy, the one that does extra damage to type 2 enemy (there's pretty much only 2 types), the one that damages in a line, the one that does splash damage, the one that does extra damage to buildings, the chain lightning one... It's tiresome even to think about. There isn't even so much as a rock-paper-scissors unit network, it's even simpler, and very boring.

You build a base and train units like in a normal RTS, but the enemy is just milling around. They have free units, and they don't compete for resources or territory. In fact they just sit there and wait for you to come and kill them. So theirs is a forlorn cause, and you really can't lose unless you can't kill that weak first rush (which always comes at the same time and is extremely easy to beat) or you just not notice some enemy walk in your base and level all of it while you're not looking (base defenses aren't worth it).

There's two resources: Ore and fuel. There are also power and population but those come from buildings so you just make a pile of generators/houses in a corner and that's that. Anyway, fuel doesn't matter, because all you have to do is build some "fuel well" buildings next to some purple fuel spots on the map and you get free fuel forever. Well, they deplete, but you never play long enough for that. Ore is the only resource that isn't trivial, and boy is it ever non-trivial. Unlike the two rich fuel spots you always get next to your start location, by the time you set up the bare minimums and a tiny army, your starting ore runs out. You then have to find new ones and here comes the fun: Ore is mined from these colorful rocks, but until you walk up to them with your rig or a scout and use the short ranged "scan" ability, they look almost exactly like the other useless grey rocks on the map. Nor do they show up on the minimap. So exploring for expansions is one enormous chore. You also have to build a resource drop off at every site, and occasionally start over because some enemy came and wiped it out, again, when you weren't looking.

The AI is also abysmal. The pathfinding barely works. Units refuse to follow simplest orders because they can't path around a building and get to a destination half a screen away. They get stuck on corners. They occasionally forget bridges exist. They attack without the slightest understanding of tactics. I mean it, even the CnC era (that was 15 years ago!) RTS games had better unit AI!

All of this combines to make a very frustrating, boring game. What's even worse is that the initial base building phase at the start of each map is very slow and tedious, so it takes half an hour of grind for five minutes of barely entertaining combat. And then you do it again, and again, and again... There must be something like 20 "stars" on the map (essentially a glorified list of levels to play), and each star seems to have at least 5 planets/moons. So you get at least 100 maps... And remember, as I said, every one is exactly the same damn boring map!

I talked in the beginning about two "unique" feature. They aren't, really, they're old as rocks but I guess they're not "canonical RTS features" so I might as well say that... Yes, I really do have to grasp here to find something in Star Prospector that does not old and boring the moment you see it.

One is the concept: You're this guy who flies around the galaxy with a host of automated robots trying to gather resources and run errands. It's an interesting idea - if it wasn't so completely tacked on. As I said, the galaxy and system maps are nothing more but a list of playable missions/maps just like every RTS game ever has had. The maps work like standard RTS maps, instead of taking into account that concept: If you built units and buildings permanently on the galaxy map screen, and brought them with you mission to mission (same for resources!), while missions consisted of defending a harvester and so on, it could have actually been fun. Or at least less of a chore.

The other thing is the "RPG-elements". Your rig has a level which goes up, you can buy upgrades like better weapons for it and stuff. However, your rig is never really much stronger than a single basic soldier, so in practice there's no point bringing it into combat, it just gets killed and you lose the map. In fact, you rig does everything badly, so you only use it for collecting loot and building (because only the rig can do those two). The rig still sucks at either, though, and you cannot even upgrade them, so it's all quite pointless. We could as well have cut to the chase and just had a building system like in CnC.

Needless to say, as a hero unit the rig is useless. It has no unlimited use healing power (and what's the point of wasting money on potions when you can just rebuild units?), no area buffs, no useful ability whatsoever. Like I said, if other units could build and collect loot, the rig would not move a cumulative inch throughout the entire game.

By the way, you can't buy upgrades for units between levels. Not only that, you can't even upgrade them all at once inside a map. If you want upgrades you have to do it over and over until not just in every map, but for every individual unit. I kid you not.

I can see Star Prospector being interested for someone who has never played an RTS in their life. Otherwise, you'd need quite a bit of cheating and hacking to make the game even remotely enjoyable, and even then, it would only be remotely enjoyable.

Score: 2/5

18 March 2012

Review: Dear Esther

Dear aspiring indie filmmakers, novelists, musicians, and other such pests: Will you please leave video games the fuck alone already? Games are meant to be played. They're supposed to have gameplay. At its most basic level, a game is something that becomes meaningless once you take the gameplay away, and you're doing just that. I understand that it's really easy to throw together some brushes in a level editor, but if you just spend an afternoon reading up on it, you will quickly discover that it's possible to turn the whole thing into a more conventional movie. In fact, there's a whole community based around that, it's called machinima, and yes if you present your little $10 waste of time as a game rather than machinima maybe more people will pay attention to it, but that's because machinimas suck! You are only deceiving people into thinking there's some chance of finding any entertainment in your... your... thing!

You know you're in for a treat when the controls look like this.

Dear Esther is, of course, another one of those games which aren't actually games. I understand there's some controversy over this one point - all I gotta say is, fuck anyone who even considers seriously participating in such an argument. No, it isn't a game. It isn't a story. It isn't a concert. It's barely a picture, and a boring one at that. It's a waste of time, is what it is. It only took about an hour, and by the end I was genuinely sad, because while I has wasted so comparatively little of my time, I had wasted it so utterly, so absolutely, it was depressing.

It's 2012, and after spending 4 years on remaking a mod with no gameplay, no enemies, no NPCs, only one small island level and putting it up for sale at $10 a pop, the textures still have 13 pixels.

From the beginning, you are made intensely aware that this is a game meant to be watched, not played. Your freedom is rudely taken away – you can’t jump1, you can’t run, you can’t crouch. Jump in the water and your vision is blackness, even just below the surface: “You’re not supposed to swim, dummy!” Enter a dark house, the flashlight automatically turns on. You can’t turn it off if you want to. Your path is stubbornly linear, affording nary a step off the designers’ predetermined course. Dear Esther railroads in the most obnoxious manner possible. Okay, I get it, you want some "interactive storytelling experience" bullshit. Whatever... But do you have to make every single road exactly the width of my collision box? I feel like a bloody marionette in this game! Why am I even controlling anything? I don't provide any input that matters, except maybe if I stop and the story pauses... But I can pause an animation, too. So what?

What lines, game? What are you even talking about?

Yes, there isn’t any game to play – instead, you are left to wander about a sort of gallery of maudlin landscapes, realized with mediocre skill and imagination through the Source engine’s outdated graphics2, listening to overly long excerpts of purple prose about nothing in particular every once in a while when you pass a trigger threshold. And the thresholds are not even well placed. Half the time I could tell that the voice-over referred to some scene I should be seeing, but having followed a perfectly reasonable course through the level, I couldn't even see what it was.

Whatever it was that you smoked, buddy, it must have been something good.

At least the narrators have done a good job. The voice acting is excellent. I would love to listen to an audio-book narrated like this… Hey, that’s a great way to describe Dear Esther! It’s an audio-book. The book is not particularly good, and it is one of those tiresome texts which are about nothing at all3. And you are forced to look at CGI animations badly made with Source, and to wander at an agonizing pace between each “paragraph”. Naturally, the book is actually quite short once you cut out all the pointless, tedious non-book. There is also very little in it: Dear Esther is about a woman who died in a car crash and a guy who climbs a tower on an island and kills himself. That's not a summary - that's all you're told. That's all there is. Most of the "narrative" is just inane bullshit.

No seriously, this is like one of those deliberately bad books in cartoons and stuff.

If you do actually play this (don’t!), at least spare yourself the idiotic shuffling: You can set your walking speed with de_playerspeed x in the console, where x is the walking speed you want (default 90). Because the game is made by assholes, of course, it will constantly reset this back to default, so you’ll have to enter the command many times over.

Dear Esther is monumentally lazy. For instance, you better love this fucking can, because for me it got old the first time I saw it and it is literally the only kind of can on the whole island.

Dear Esther is awful. It's boring, it's ugly, it's rude. It smells its own farts. It commits that unforgivable error of insisting that it is very smart, and then promptly displaying exasperating stupidity. It seriously depressed me because of what a pointless waste of an hour it was. Yeah, the music wasn't bad and the voiceovers were good, but that is literally the only thing it has going for it.

Score: 1/5

1: Not only is this irritating and offensive, but it’s also stupid. The levels are badly designed, in a game sense, and you often get stuck on scenery. Jumping would have made it all a trivial matter, but no. Every mistaken footstep means pitifully walking into ankle-high rocks and hoping to find that one spot which is marked as climbable. But hey, immersion! Jerks.
2: I would not normally complain about Source’s graphics. Indeed, I think they are wonderful for many games! But firstly, Dear Esther has managed to squeeze nowhere near the mileage out of the engine that Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, Left4Dead 2, HL2: Episode 2 and Alien Swarm 2- err, Alien Swarm, did. Moreover, I don’t mind non-stunning visuals in games which have some gameplay. A game is about playing it, so visuals don’t have to be pretty, they just have to show you enough to let you play. But there is nothing to play in Dear Esther – it conspicuously omits gameplay and quite obviously expects you to just gape at the scenery, expecting you to find it beautiful enough not to care. That’s laughable! On an aesthetic level, Source graphics are already sub-par. You can do some great stuff with them if you know what you’re doing, as the Team Fortress 2 Meet the Whatever videos show. But Dear Esther has no clue what it’s doing. It’s deluding itself that utter mediocrity is somehow exceptional.

3: There are many writers who are so good at writing that the value of their books comes as much from their insights and observations as from the events of the plot. Indeed, such writers can write a book truly about nothing at all, and it will still be a great read. Many, many more authors, however, are complete hacks who think they can do this, and only write about nothing, producing tomes upon tomes of wasted tree-flesh, morbid monuments to celebrate their arrogance and narcissism.

09 March 2012

New Octodad trailer!

Say it with me: Finally, a reason to use this picture!

I just found out they're gonna make a new Octodad!

It's great news. The first Octodad was lovely. It wasn't really a "big" game, I suppose. It was more like a proof-of-concept. I seem to recall the whole thing was a student project to begin with. But still, the idea was quite novel (like QWOP, but with an octopus!), and the setting... How can you not adore a game about being a "loving father, secret octopus"?

18 February 2012

Review: Jagged Alliance - Back in Action

My impression of the new Jagged Alliance can best be summed up thus: "Hey, cool tech demo, guys. When's the alpha? What? What do you mean this is the whole game?"

What's good

Jagged Alliance claims to be a remake faithful to the original. In some sense, I guess it is, with the enormous exception of the combat system. You still get to hire mercenaries with a cute little laptop thing, you still wander around the map with your team killing enemy soldiers and trying to liberate the island. It even has a lot of the mercs from the old game, and while I never got around to playing Jagged Alliance 2 much back in the day, from what I can recall the story is pretty much lifted verbatim, too.

I guess I liked that they didn't change even more of the game than they already did. Honestly, if you're as cynical about these newfangled "remakes" as I am, you'll appreciate that they could have gotten rid the world map. They could have given you a set line-up of maybe 8 mercs, with no RPG mechanics and with predefined abilities, and made you do mission after mission in a linear fashion. You think I'm exaggerating? Look at that XCOM FPS. Bewilderingly, there are people out there, in charge of game studios, who actually, seriously think this kind of shit is somehow a good idea! It could have been worse. They could have gotten rid of the create your own mercenary screen! Oh wait, nevermind. That's already gone.

So, like I said, you still get the mercenary roster with plenty of guys (and gals) to choose from. You still call them and have a little conversation, and they may still refuse to work for you on principle, and they have their default equipment they come with and skills and attributes and they can level up and increase these.

You still have a nice item system with all sorts of little weapons and other junk. You can wear things like sunglasses to (supposedly) help your vision during daytime, but hinder it at night (I just wear them because they look cool). You can get a silencer, or a scope. Clothing comes in three different terrain camos, and a fourth camo for night missions. You can just wear a black suit and it counts as night camo, too, which was a nice touch. This kind of thing is nice - I mean, just that they bothered with the camo types was pretty cool, and one of the things that charmed me in this game.

But the problem is, the game is really not... Well... I don't wanna say it's bad. It looks like they had a few right ideas (except for the combat system) and it could have been fun if they had just finished them - maybe another year in development, maybe two. Maybe even an actual QA phase, like a real game? Hmm, bitComposer? Wouldn't that have been nice?

It's like every remake is required by law to suck

But no. They had to do a half-assed hit and run to milk a long-ignored fanbase. Let's start... You know what? Let's start with the combat system. Fuck their combat system. Honestly, when I first heard they were doing a Jagged Alliance remake, but real-time1, I hadn't immediately thought it would suck. Maybe I should have... But I didn't think the combat system in UFO: Aftermath was awful, and more recently Frozen Synapse had a great real-time with pauses thing going on.

"Sure, turn-based would be better, but maybe they know what they're doing!" I thought. "Maybe they'll make a pausable real-time game that's even better! Besides, Commandos was real-time. Nothing wrong with real-time, you can make a good squad tactics game with that, too."

Yeah, right. First off, the game looks like this:

Hey, where'd the left half of my screen go?

Lovely, isn't it? And then when you pause, it looks like this:

Now the bottom is gone! Who's stealing my screen space?

Yes, that's the actual, real interface, as of 1.03. It takes up half the vertical space. And then when you pause, for some reason sees fit to take up a whole lot more space at the bottom to display command queues. I don't know about the devs, maybe they play it on two enormous 2560x1600 monitors. Me, I have only one, and it displays in glorious 5:4 aspect 1280x1024. I know this is a supported resolution, because the available resolutions are 1024x768 (god help the poor sod who has to use that, the interface really would take up half his screen), 1280x768, 1280x800, 1280x960, and yes, 1280x1024. Compare that to Oil Rush, which had every resolution under the sun, and then let you specify your own anyway. Why couldn't you be like Oil Rush, huh, Back in Action?

Anyway, point is, these clowns didn't invent the "pausable real-time squad tactics" genre. It's been around. For a while. And there's a kind of system that everyone else converged to, because it works fucking great:

Why couldn't you be like Frozen Synapse, Back in Action?

You draw the fucking waypoints, connect them with lines, and show other actions as symbols on that path. Then you make each waypoint draggable, and each symbol movable along the path. A bunch of fucking symbol rows in a separate window in the bottom? What the fuck were you thinking, bitComposer? I wouldn't be so annoyed if this was some crazy, unknown genre they were trying to explore - Frozen Synapse has literally been around all of last year2, blogging all about their dev progress! How could you manage to fuck this up, bitComposer? Unbelievable.

Anyway, the interface is ugly and clunky, but I could learn to live with this if it at least fucking worked. But:
  • Once you give commands, there's no way to reorder them.
  • There's no "kill enemy" command- you have to queue up 10 shots from your 1-hit kill weapon because if you queue only one and it misses, the merc will sit there like an imbecile staring at the enemy while getting shot.
  • There's no real way of seeing what areas you will be able to hit after moving to a position. Yes, there's a green view cone, which shows up occasionally when it feels like it, but it's short as balls (half or even less, much less, of your weapon's actual range or the view distance).
  • The command keys are very inconveniently placed and their hotkeys (which can't be remapped) are stupid. F1-F4 for prone/stand? Are you brain damaged? No quicksave? What?
And that's just the interface. So-so interfaces aren't a big deal if the task you are attempting to do is simple - but playing Back in Action is anything but simple. Not because it's particularly hard (it's a pushover except for the godawful controls, but I'll get to that) but because the AI is dumb. I mean, it's really fucking dumb. As in, "guys, are you sure you even coded all of the basic AI routines yet" dumb.

Maybe "artificial stupidity" is a real discipline and that's what all the game AI programmers are trained in

Soldiers sit and stare at their enemies, even though told to shoot. They will sit there, aiming their weapons at the exact corner the enemy turns, and do nothing for 3-4 times the supposed duration of their "time to aim"3, while the enemy lazily strolls over to them with his axe and whacks them over the head. Now, I don't know if melee in this game is like this because they were too stupid to balance melee weapons properly, and deliberately rigged ranged vs. melee4, or whether an evil gnome went and deleted a couple hundred TODO comments from their melee code5. It's honestly hard to tell with this game. But the point is: It sucks. Your guys are dumb and the code is broken. They'll run up to mines when told to defuse them, but if you cancel it they'll blow up because moving away without having the "trying to defuse mine" flag triggers the detonation6. They will fail to reload their weapons on the world map, beginning levels with empty clips and not reloading until you manually order them to. They will fail to reload when you give them a new gun. Pretty much the only way they will reload is if they are in the middle of shooting at an enemy.

Then there's the fucking insane pathfinding- your guys constantly get stuck in doorways, they occasionally can't get LoS to shoot enemies which are shooting at them. If two of your mercs meet at a doorway, god help them- they'll never figure out how to end the deadlock, try as they might. Even when one of them tries to step aside for a moment, it fails, because they both decide to step aside at the exact same moment. At least with your guys, you can manually sort it out. Occasionally, the NPC civilians will block the only doorway out of the building. Good luck getting them to move... Why can't I just fucking shoot all the useless beggar children? No, of course you can't shoot civvies. How could you? That would be too reasonable and make too much sense.

Oh but, that's not even the worst of it. The thing is, the only reason this game is even "playable", if you can call it that, is because the enemies are equally awful. They'll walk past corpses without a blink, and you can often kill their friend right in front of their eyes without them batting an eyelash. They have the hearing ability of a lifelong metal fan who has recently retired from being a jackhammer operator, having hit his eighties. Except for running. Take one step standing up, and enemies all across the map will instantly turn towards your location (just turn, mind you). It's also impossible to climb down ladders without alerting half a city (and this makes some missions extremely difficult) because the end of the ladder climbing animation has like 2 frames which are technically in the "standing up" stance.

At least it's sort of fun to kit out Fox in full Night Ops gear and silenced SMG, then pick off enemies one by one while humming the Metal Gear Solid theme to yourself. But then the enemies keep randomly deciding to go into panic mode for a few seconds, running about like headless chickens and ruining your approach7.

In general, the AI in this game is predictable in all the wrong ways, and extremely unpredictable in things where it really shouldn't be. I've started several games, for instance, and the enemy always sends squads on the world map through the exact same paths and captures the exact same areas. Not that I played in wildly different ways, but world-map AI really should not be this deterministic!

Lastly, I'd like to remark about the visuals of the game. I mean, they look pretty and all but that's not the point. First off, there's an enormously stupid decision made that building insides can only be seen if you have soldiers adjacent to windows or doors, at least. Even an arm's length away from a door isn't good enough. For one, this horrible in terms of gameplay when you need to assault enemies in rooms. But also, hilariously, you can just make the camera angle really low and see most of the inside of the building anyway!

Another thing is, if you go back to the screenshots above, have a closer look at the top left corner: The time is 4 AM. That's night. Does it look like night? It doesn't to me. I'd say it looks like an overcast afternoon, except there's pretty clear fucking shadows from everything! I wouldn't normally complain about something as inconsequential as day/night lighting, but for a game where night missions have this much importance, it really detracts from the experience when I can't even tell if it's supposed to be night without looking at the clock.

Malice and ill-intent, not incompetence

Now these were, for the most part, things which I think can be taken as "unintentional shortcomings". There are also things they did which are obvious, deliberate bad decisions. A small one is level-design. There are many failures8, but one was particularly egregious on a conceptual level: In one of the earlier areas, there's a hut, which you can clearly see has items inside it. This hut, built in the middle of nowhere, which looks perfectly lived-in and not at all abandoned, has no doors. Not even boarded up, former doors. The idiot map designers just forgot to put any doors on it and nobody noticed. They did, however, put some pretty decent -and important- loot inside. No, of course you can't climb through the many open windows. The only way in is to have an explosives expert (it's likely you don't), and have a bomb on hand (you could easily not have one because they aren't common up to that point and you may have used up yours elsewhere), and to blow up the wall of the building. This affords no tactical advantage, kills no one, does nothing. You essentially waste a bomb just to get inside a hut with no doors. That moment really exemplifies much of the very frustrating stupidity about this game for me.

But that's just one small thing. The real problem is, while you could debate whether pausable real-time combat is incompatible with Jagged Alliance in principle, what bitComposer did in practice is objectively shit.

The fog of war is gone. You can see everyone and everything on the map all the time... Except for indoors, of course. You know, it's probably why they made it that way- because they were too incompetent to add real fog of war. Needless to say, in a game like this, revealing the map just destroys the gameplay. The only time when it isn't a trivial pushover, is when it's being a pain in the ass because of the bad UI, bad controls, bad merc AI, bad pathfinding, bad LoS detection, broken enemy logic and whatever else. If the map wasn't revealed, it would be unplayable. Revealed, it's not worth playing.

And of course, the lack of turn-based combat. Now, I won't go into the more common arguments- enough people do as it is. But the thing is, in Jagged Alliance you can target areas of the enemy's body, and without using this ability you will probably get your ass kicked. Unfortunately, Back in Action makes this very difficult for you, because you have to click on a 4x5 pixel head and the camera never really zooms properly9. Of course, it's real-time now, so the enemies constantly move about, and if you don't click on the head you'll instead issue a move order10. When it was turn-based, it was fucking turn-based: The enemies didn't move while you were aiming, it wasn't their turn! So one huge, enormous mistake they made was to switch to real-time without properly adapting the control scheme, which was -very competently- designed for a turn-based game in the first place.

You could pause the game, of course. Leaving aside how annoying pausing is in this game (space is the hotkey but it doesn't always pause/unpause), there is the command issue. In real time, clicking on an enemy means "keep shooting him until he's dead". Paused, it means "shoot once, and then lower you weapon and begin contemplating the finer points of modern cosmological theory". The pause mode is very limited and absolutely isn't a substitute for real-time, and real-time is only usable when sneaking up on stationary enemies, thus it is impossible to play this game in any other way.


All of the above, together with the constant typos (a perk that probably half the mercs have is called "Though"), lack of any real configuration options, the placeholder-y interface (strangely enough, the older beta screenshots actually look much better), and a few other things gave me the impression of playing a very, very early development build of a game which would probably be an excellent one, when it is released a few years in the future after much bug-fixing, polishing and many rounds of QC. If Jagged Alliance - Back in Action was a little hobby project that my buddy is making on the weekends, I'd say "that's cool, man! You should fix some of the big bugs and release it as alpha!". Given that they have released it, and priced it at 40 bucks at that, going so far as to provide pre-order options and day-one DLC, the best I can muster is a disappointed frown.

Honestly, I don't know if it's simply a case of "poor small studio with tight budget had big plans but money ran out so they released the alpha as a full game". It seems just as likely that they saw a large group of people who loved the original Jagged Alliance games, churned out a shitty skeleton of a game, and released it after a wave of cheap hype (that everyone lapped up because they -we- wanted a new Jagged Alliance so bad) to cash in on the gullibility and hopefulness of a bunch of people whose only crime was to like a great game with poorly protected IP. I may sound harsh, but these are people who decided to make a Jagged Alliance game without turn-based combat - why expect them to care about the series, or about making a good game?

It's doubtful if this game is worth anyone's time, let alone the $40 they ask. Seriously expecting $40 for this unfinished, ungainly mess is obscene. I felt like they owed me money for playtesting their alpha. And to be frank, if not for the Jagged Alliance name, this "game" would be totally irrelevant, and the only reason it gets a 2 is because it's hard to not get curious about just how a Jagged Alliance remake turned out, even if it turned out horrible.

I mean, I feel bad saying games like these are crap, because I don't want to give the impression that I don't want such games to be made. A Jagged Alliance remake is a great idea, and I'm 100% behind it! These games should be made - but, not like this. This is bullshit, if not an outright scam!

Score: 2/5

Some parting tips: If you are going to play this, I recommend you to start with Fox, kit her out for night missions (not being naked doesn't matter as much as not having kevlar or camo, plus she looks cool in a suit), buy her that SMG that has a silencer (I was using a USP .45 with silencer attachment because I was looking for a better gun), add a scope, and pump Marksmanship. She's very effective at sneaking up on enemies in crouch mode and putting single death bullets through their skulls, and from what I can tell this is one of the less aggravating play styles. She also has entertaining dialogue11, which is good, as she will be your main and you'll be hearing her yap a lot. Also, in the beginning, you start the airport mission right next to a watchtower. That tower has a silencer on the platform, which is very useful if you use Fox.

You should bring along a doctor with 80 medicine (to use the big kits) in case Fox is incapacitated, MD is nice for this. You also want a mechanic for picking locks and repairing guns (can't repair armor because lol balance), Wolf is pretty much your only decent option starting out (and he likes Fox).

As soon as you can, you should get an explosives guy to deal with situations like the doorless hut thing I mentioned. At the beginning, when money is tight, get the Hungarian guy to the left of Red. I only got Red because I liked his accent more, but the Hungarian guy is slightly better than Red in every way.

Two of the things not to do are getting unfit mercs, and getting high-level mercs with low marksmanship. Hitman is an example of both- he keeps running out of stamina and being a pain (and whining about what a fat ass he is on top of it) and while his SMG perk helps, he levels far too slowly to ever become a decent shot. I handed him a good SMG with the 16x scope, and he was picking off enemies decently at long range, but with that kind of equipment my grandma could do the same.

Also, there's nothing really stopping you from getting some killing machine like Raven with your starting money and going solo. It works quite well and is quite fun, but the problem is that you'll have 2 less mules starting out that way, and loot will be annoying to haul, not to mention the lack of a doctor.

Speaking of doctors, the guys with high medical and marksmanship may sound great, but in practice you want your medic to stay away from combat for obvious reasons, unless you carry healing drugs just for that occasion.

And if you're wondering about all the spiders, vegetables, and other crap you pick up that isn't ammo, expensive weapons or expensive armor- ignore it, it's vendor trash and it sells for pennies (except diamonds and jewellery).


1: It's like there's some fucking law against making too good a game nowadays - whenever someone decides to remake a great old game, they always slap on these annoying bullshit "improvements". See X-Com, and many other remakes: Game devs, why can't you fucking stuff your idiotic ideas and just remake the damn thing exactly, only with higher resolution and maybe some new extra levels? It's called a classic for a reason - stop trying to fix shit that isn't broken! Really, guys. That's all we fucking want from remakes of classics - the same exact game, with slightly better graphics. That's all you have to do. By the way, if they really wanted to change something in Jagged Alliance, instead of fucking with the turn-based system, why couldn't they have just made the island and quests procedurally generated or something?

2: And that's not to mention all the dozens of other games with this exact same squad-based tactics set-up, all the way back to fucking Fallout, the Bioware RPGs, X-Com games, and the motherfucking actual Jagged Alliance!

3: And where's the "shoot without aiming, he's five feet away from you, you dolt" option, anyway? Because, you know, you could quickly shoot without aiming when it was turn-based. Just saying.

4: A guy with a knife, and a chick with an AK-47, prone and aiming at him. They are 50 meters apart, on featureless desert terrain, and the guy has a red flannel shirt and dark green pants, no armor. Who wins? Nope, not in Back in Action she doesn't.

5: Clearly they wouldn't notice in testing because I don't think there was any.

6: I don't know what the fuck kind of proximity biosensor mines these are; last time I checked, mines have to actually be stepped on detonate - moving within 10 feet, with or without pliers in hand, isn't enough. Though, then again, these are mines that the users have strangely left conspicuously sticking out of the sand like sore thumbs - like Christmas presents for desert mercenaries short on cash.

7: It may sound cool and challenging, but all that happens is that you go sit in a corner until they settle down, then crawl out in Prone (aka invisible) mode at an agonizingly slow pace, go around the enemies, and attack again from whatever direction they left unprotected this time. Or just reload a recent save and do the same exact things over, and they'll probably not bolt this time. Yeah, it's definitely a bug, not a feature.

8: Such as putting a troop of shotgun wielding enemies in a basement which can only be reached with a ladder- a ladder whose base sits in clear view for most of them, is placed such that they all end up behind cover when aiming at it, and which, of course, alerts all of them if you try to use it due to the ladder noise issue. Actually, there's a second entrance to that room - but the enemies still end up in cover, some awkwardly placed columns lead to endless LoS bugs where enemies can shoot you but you can't shoot back, and there's no way to stand such that you only have LoS to one of the enemies due to a combination of awkward stair/door placement, the unwieldy camera, and the seeing-indoors issue.

9: It sort of tilts upwards towards the sky while remaining at pretty much the same height, utterly failing to be useful and making for one of the worst 3D strategy cameras I've had the displeasure of associating with. What the fuck is the point of making it 3D if you won't just give me a goddamn free camera, anyway? Assholes.

10: And your merc will run over and get killed, and even if you cancel it you will betray your position because he will still move quite a bit in the time it takes you to reach the tiny stop button in the corner of the fucking screen, or its hotkey H (why the fuck H? Why not Q!?), and even if you manage to remember hitting Space to pause, cancelling orders is still awkward and annoying and it doesn't even always pause.

11: Although some uncommon lines are painfully stupid; the two "landmine discovered" alerts are "That looks more suspicious than lipstick on a man's collar!" and "I wouldn't trust that any more than a man's zipper!". Why is an implied nymphomaniac nurse who poses nude for gun magazines and likes to prance around warzones naked making references to marriage and monogamy, anyhow? What the hell? Her actually frequent lines are just vaguely "voluptuous bimbo" stuff though, and she's not that bad to listen to most of the time.

14 February 2012

Review: Oil Rush (Windows)

Oil Rush is one of those kinds of games. You know, the games which should be a genre or sub-genre, but aren't, but there's this cluster of a bunch of them which are very similar and all use the same mechanical tropes and the moment you see one, you can instantly place it in that cluster because of it. Oil Rush belongs to a cluster, which, for me, is exemplified perfectly by Eufloria1.

Basically, you have a graph. Each node produces units and they defend that node from any enemy attacks. You can select units and order them to go to this node or that, and if they go to a hostile node they will fight the defenders and attempt to capture that node. You can build turrets to defend your nodes.

It's an old concept, and not a very complicated one. It's also a concept that tends to be reproduced almost verbatim by these games (perhaps they can be called TSP-strategies, because hey, lol, TSP).

The moment I launched Oil Rush, I was confronted by a very strange thing. I mean, it wasn't really strange, it was just a graphics options dialog2. It was strange how Oil Rush's dialog made me instantly want to like it - a game that supports OpenGL, in this day and age! Resolutions grouped together by aspect ratio! Ability to choose between different versions of DirectX! You can just see these guys care about your experience.

But then I played the game. I mean, it wasn't bad, exactly. I guess it was quite good for what it was. It just seemed like it could be so much more.

The single-player campaign is awful. I mean, between the voice acting, and the dialogues, and the ridiculous plot development, it's honest-to-god, genuine, bring-your-friends-to-point-at-it-and-laugh, so-bad-it's-good awful. I honestly burst out laughing at several points. Beyond that, because you have a tenuous control of your units, and you can build towers, the developers appear to have convinced themselves that they were making a tower defense crossed with an RTS, so the campaign gradually slides into straight-up tower defense. It's kind of fun at first, but really this graph strategy type of game, the way most people seem to do it, doesn't have much depth. "Strategy" converges on regularly gathering up most of your units and throwing them at the next node. That sort of thing can't help but get old after a while, and lo, it does.

Certain quirks of Oil Rush's variations were annoying in practice:
  • Global abilities cost oil, for instance, despite already having a cooldown. I don't know what the deal's with that. I guess because there are things like like the instant free permanent highest-tier unit powers, but they cost so little that I don't see how it's supposed to matter. And, meanwhile, actual units themselves do not cost any oil to keep running, nor do the factories or turrets.
  • Resource nodes can't have turrets. Again, why? What's so special about it? In the end I just leave 5 turrets' equivalent of units there to patrol. All that's accomplished is that you've now undermined your very useful "select all units on the map" hotkey, and I am forced to click on every node manually anyway. Not to mention...
  • It's too hard to select parts of forces. Both to select a fraction of a force and to select units of a certain type3. The rock-paper-scissors unit relationships are already shallow, and you can't even do much with them because of how difficult it is to control your units. Cue "select all, attack-move enemy, repeat until you win the map".
  • You can't really select units. It's a pain to change course mid-way, and as I said above, selecting parts of garrisons is a pain - you can't just click on the units themselves, you have to dick with a list of selected units in the corner. Again, I don't see how it would affect the balance to just let me click on the individual units I want to select (not like anyone plays the multiplayer of this).
  • The campaign AI has a very annoying habit of magicking up reinforcements from off-screen, and often enough you actually see them popup on the edge of the minimap. Game, you can't do this. Nobody likes a cheating AI, especially when it's obvious.

Also, the unit designs are a bit... Bad. The heavy naval unit had to be, for some reason, a tank. The main character, in his typical, heavily accented Australian accent and bizarre tone pattern, which makes him sound mentally retarded4, remarks: "Those things are like tanks!" They are, Kevin5. In fact, they are literally tanks, square and floating in water. Jesus Christ, Unigine! It doesn't work like that! I mean, it's hardly a difficult concept - if you couldn't think of something good, couldn't you just copy a real world gunboat or something?

And then there's the plane with a cannon. I mean, sure I've heard of the Spectre, but this is a bloody Osprey with a tank gun, pointing downwards. Come on. You can't just do that! It'll spin out of control the moment you fire!

Moreover, a bit more broadly, the contrast between the rickety, built-from-scrap "Raider" units and the extremely high tech normal units is a bit annoying, especially given that there isn't a high-tech faction and a scrapyard scavenger faction, and you just use both unit types.

Really, I don't think they should have made this a graph strategy. You know what would be great? Remember that big mothership tanker from Waterworld? Imagine this game was like Homeworld, with a mothership like that, building jet-skis and mortar dinghies and small gunboats and what not, and satellite cargo ships which travel to uncapturable derelict oil pumps to gather oil and bring it to the mothership. You could sail from mission to mission searching for dry land (if you feel like you've got the balls, the expansion can feature amphibious assaults on small islets), fighting enemies like the high-tech Sharks faction, the rickety raiders, the ice covered sea guys6, and, oh, I dunno. Weird sea monsters and krakens who attack you and a race of underwater dome-dwelling psycho cannibals could be later enemies. It would've been awesome! But, in the end, we got a graph strategy with awful plot that thinks it's a tower defense. I suppose some things are not meant to be.

Damn. I miss Aquanox now. =(

Anyway, Oil Rush is a pretty Eufloria7. Not much of a surprise, given that it's a demo for their engine. I appreciate that they went and tried to make a strategy game without any land - not the "safest" of ideas (though making it a graph strategy largely negates this). And also, I very much appreciate that they made their game support OpenGL8. The gameplay isn't terribly deep - it's nothing to write home about - but it's not awful either, so it may be worth a try if you like this kind of stuff.

Score: 3/5


1: I name Eufloria as a great example because it is just so basic, and so "pure" in the sense that it contained so few elements from other genres. While Eufloria was fun, I don't think it's the best game of this kind. I think one of the best games of this type was Sins of a Solar Empire, actually. I would probably have enjoyed Oil Rush more if it was more like Sins of a Solar Empire.

2: I usually hate those graphic options dialogs, because they mean no in-game graphics options menu. But not so with Oil Rush, thankfully. You still get to change all sorts of settings from inside the game.

3: You do have buttons for issuing the order to half and quarter of the selected force. It's not clear whether the fraction is by number alone, HP, damage, or what. Moreover, if you want a specific number of units, you have to play annoying games with linear algebra - the kind where you think "gee, sure would be nice to have a calculator in the game for this" and then think "why isn't the computer calculating this stuff for me, anyway?".

4: And he's supposed to be you!

5: Yes, to add insult to the injury, not only are you a mentally challenged Australian, but your name is Kevin. I'm telling you, this fucking campaign... I'm just glad there was no romance subplot with Firefly.

6: Dunno what unit style they would have, as it is they are just Sharks with a different unit decal color.

7: Except Eufloria was already pretty... Let's say "fancier".

8: Yes, this runs on Linux! I wish more games did this, especially the larger companies who have the resources to develop with OpenGL. Probably one of the biggest problems with running games through Wine is DirectX.

13 February 2012

What's so great about indie games

Jeff Vogel has written an excellent article on Gamasutra about how he was able to do a great making games that cater to a formerly popular niche. I won't comment much, because it really is an excellent article: It gets everything right. It clearly states everything that is wrong with how big game companies do business nowadays, and everything that is right with how small ones do it. His opinion on piracy, and how it should be dealt with, is one of the most logical, sensible ones I've seen. It's a very short, very "simply" written, straightforward article, and yet it wonderfully explains how indie devs work and what it's all about, really.

So, I don't have much to say, except that if you haven't, go read it. Because, yes, this is why indie devs are great, and why there should be more of them, and why they matter.

Why my opinion matters

No, this is not a long overdue explanation for this blog. It's about an irritating article by Marsh Davies on Eurogamer. He thinks we, consumers, have no right to opinions.

He was apparently annoyed (like many assholes on the internet I noticed) by the recent campaign to play HL2 and get Valve's attention, with the hope that they will maybe release Episode 3 in our fucking lifetime.

Look, there's an unspoken contract between players and developers. It's not just "lol they not buye your're gayem xD". The devs are investing money into something for years, and for all they know, it may turn out to be a complete waste because no one pays for the game. The players are investing money into a product, and it may turn out to be a complete waste because the thing is unplayable tripe. Either side is taking a leap of faith. Either side of the relationship calls for lots of trust.

Now, when you are lucky enough as a developer to build a strong fanbase which likes the thing you do, there is one very important thing which you must absolutely not fuck up: Keep making those games. Those guys love you, because they love the games you made. They'll buy whatever else you make, because they expect more like them. This doesn't mean you literally have to make clones of the same game- but do fucking learn lessons, and don't forget the things that made your games good. If you were prized for originality, don't start making uninspired shovelware! If you were prized for complexity and respect for the player's intelligence, don't start making idiotic, casualized games that betray deep contempt for the player.

What if you don't? Your fanbase might leave you. You reputation will be hurt- many will buy your games expecting, rightfully, something of similar qualities to what you've made before. They will, again rightfully, feel cheated. And then, when your audience likes one kind of game, and instead you make another, there's just nothing to keep them interested anymore!

Sure, you may get a new fanbase, which likes the games you make "now". You better damn well hope that you do, because the one that liked you for the games you made "then", sure as hell won't be pleased.

With regard to Valve: They should be happy the players whine about Episode 3. How often is it that a business has consumers tell them, "just make us this product, and we'll happily throw lots of money at you"? No lengthy design process, no uncertainty, no agonizing market research. It's a million dollar idea, delivered right to your inbox, just waiting to be capitalized on! Valve is free to say, "thanks, but we don't feel like making a product guaranteed to turn huge profits and enjoy great success", of course. Their loss. But I can't fathom how anyone would fault fans for saying, "if you made a game like this, we'd totally buy it, just saying". For fuck's sake, they're doing Valve a favor!

The Eve Online reference? Entirely out of place. MMOs are a continuing service. If I'm paying you money for a service on a continuous basis, you damn well have an obligation to render me that service. The player complaints were perfectly justified- the company decided to start being obnoxious assholes and charge outrageous prices for cosmetic items, the players said, "hey, you better stop trying to be obnoxious, or you'll lose us, your customers". They listened, the customers didn't leave. Happy ending!

DDoS attacks? Sure, they're a bit of a stupid way to voice your enthusiasm and support for a developer's work. But that said, it wasn't a case of them "not being seen as working hard enough", as Marsh so grossly understates. First off, Notch was literally taking more than every other day off on vacations, and he'd then go and gloat about it on his blog. It's not that people though he could work harder- he barely worked at all. Second, while you may question the wisdom of such payments, the purchases of early Minecraft were not as is. Perhaps legally they were, but Notch heavily implied if not outright stated and the customers all understood that they were paying for ongoing future development of the game. And then Notch decided he didn't care about that ongoing future development. Buyers were not reimbursed. You honestly think Notch was in the right? Sure, they were gullible, and they got scammed. But saying Notch had every right to be lazy is blaming the victim no matter what you say, and you'll only fool clueless chums who weren't there to see the thing unfold throughout 2010.

I guess linking to poorly-written forum threads passes for investigative journalism nowadays, but again, what's wrong? The game is for sale at a price. The price is too high. The customers are saying, "if you made it lower, we would buy it". What's the problem? Would you prefer to sit there shaking your head, staring at tea leaves, trying to divine why they're not buying your game? There, they've come out and said why. Go do what needs to be done. What the hell more do you want?

About the Kotaku trash, little needs to be said. But, dear Marsh, pretending people who are joking are serious, and then chiding them for it, is not clever or mature, it makes you look painfully, embarrassingly stupid and out of touch. And second, obviously exceptional events are not a good way of proving a trend, and attempting to do this has a similar effect.

But in general, he is just so, so wrong. Yes, developers do owe me something. They owe me to live up to their end of an unspoken contract. When I buy their game simply because I like their previous game, not listening to critical word of mouth and negative reviews, they don't complain about it, do they? They don't bemoan their reputation that brought them all these customers, who decided to buy a game which, if made by a developer with a bad reputation, they might not have bought (or even heard about). In fact, developers don't complain at all! It's always these sycophantic commentators who feel the need to white knight for the supposedly hurt developers. Fuck you, white knights! I bought the game because I expected something good, like what the developer made before. If they're not delivering on that, I have every right to complain. If I go and tell them, "hey guys, I really like the game you made, please make more like it so I can buy that, too!", you have no right to tell me I'm being "entitled". Exercising your right of free speech, to offer business opportunities, to a company in need of them, is not being entitled. You're a cunt if you say it is.

10 February 2012

Castle Story video with NEW GAMEPLAY


09 February 2012

Review: Fail-deadly (PC)

Fail-deadly is one of those as-simple-as-it-gets, distilled-to-the-core “RTS” games: The screen is a lane, at each end are bases, you build troop factories and they automatically produce troops which automatically attack the enemy.

While the above may come across as scoffing, it’s probably worth noting: These games really are pure strategy, if you think about it. Most RTSes are really real-time tactics- they’re about micromanaging your small forces of troops to get more bang for the buck you spend on them than your enemies. Even sophisticated RTSes tend to give rise to a few optimal build orders, and there’s comparatively little long term planning involved. Whereas, when all you can do is decide what units will be available, and tactical success is at the AIs mercy, you are forced to make long-term decisions, and to have a strategy, because the short term is so damn chaotic and uncontrollable.

Really, it’s unfortunate that these “base building” games have ended up being confined to custom maps and flash games... But anyway, let’s get back to Fail-Deadly, our main topic.

Fail-Deadly is, as I said, one of these base building games. With a TWEEEST: You control both bases. Your aim is to make neither win, so that they get fed up with the conflict and launch nuclear missiles.

Woah. I know, right? It’s cool. Now, if you haven’t played it yet, go play it first. It’s free, it’s small, it’s short. Just play it and experience it for yourself.

Done? No, I mean it! Really, go play it.

Ok. Now, time to whine! First off, the twist is very clever, but doesn’t really work. Or rather, they did take a crazy idea (“Woah man, what if you were like, trying to lose, man?”) and actually got it to work. But it doesn’t work very well. Essentially you get a “make side stronger” card to play every now and then, so all you do is play the card on the left, then right, then left... Occasionally chance causes the sequence to end up favoring one side, so you play two cards for the weak side. It’s hard to really fail this game unless you want to.

One problem is that, right from the start, all building is done by you. The game claims you have secret agents planted on either side who “influence” building decisions. This is, of course, “tutorial sass”: It’s blatant lies. You have total control over each side, and this makes it very easy to do what you want. How would one fix it? Have each side build their own stuff. For this to really work, they should of course have a budget, and build accordingly. You could act outside this budget, or for a harder mode, be able to only precipitate decisions that are within a side’s budget. Brute forcing things to your will isn’t a fun challenge, it’s a trifle. Steering enormous entities by a small, cleverly placed nudge, on the other hand, feels clever.

A second problem is that the game forces you to play your card quickly, “to avoid being discovered”. Firstly, this is illogical- agents being passive should make them less suspicious, not more. More importantly, it stifles strategic freedom- you can’t withhold your helicopters from red up until the point the green tank horde has almost overwhelmed them.

Especially if the AI becomes active, there should be lots of “cheese”. There must be viable massing strategies and hard counters. Perhaps the AIs can adapt to each other, and you can trick one into provoking the other into massing a unit, and then give the other one the hard counter for that unit.

Which brings me to yet another possibility: More than influencing decisions, which the AI would adequately make anyhow (and your influence is best exerted through gambits the AI is too limited to see or understand), granting tech to them would be an even more interesting way of turning the tide. It would also make sense for the AI to mass something that can be hard-countered: Perhaps it’s hoping the other AI hasn’t researched hard counters yet, and just at that point, you come in, and…
Of course, if you can give the game that amount of depth, another natural direction to go in is multiplayer: How about having either side be controlled by a player, and a third one be the “invisible influence”? Now that would make for some crazy mind games.

Furthermore, I at first expected that each side has its own panic score, and launch their own nukes accordingly, so that you have to time them. In truth, it’s just a global kill count. While that makes sense in a mutually assured destruction way, it would be more interesting if you had to balance sentiments of either side and synchronize their breakdowns. Perhaps each side’s liability to launch is increased so long as troops are on its own soil?

Lastly, why restrict yourself to nuclear doomsday? You can frame the game as a 3rd world proxy war fought between non-nuclear powers, either of which buys weapons from you, and you can offer things such as discounts to weaker sides, to extend the gameplay and boost your profits. For even more complexity, a mechanic could penalize you for switching sides too often, so that once you start helping one guy, you better make sure not to help him too much, because if you have to switch favorites again soon after, your shenanigans will be exposed to the international community. This would be another reason why doing the “one card for red, one card for green” thing is not feasible- you would become “exposed” very quickly, because you essentially flip-flop at every card.

And that’s that for the whining. Once again, I may complain, but I actually liked the game. As I said, the idea is very clever. The realization is smooth and playable. The graphics, sound and interface are quite polished, especially for an apparent hobby project made by one programmer. So, Josh Sutphin: I love your game, but it’s too short, and there’s not enough depth, and it seems so damn easy to add depth- please do so!

Score: 5/5

Bias: I was on the fence between 4 and 5 (if you don’t think I’m serious: I decided to score games on this blog based on whether I think my audience will regret playing them, and I’m perfectly confident at least 80% of you won’t wish your handful of minutes back), but it’s a free indy game with a fresh idea, so it gets a +1.