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"?