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.