Archive for November, 2006
I just want to record this, the time I was second on the scoreboard.
I doubt I’ll hold the spot for long and then it’s down, down, down…
Not first impressions, this is second impressions.
The first impressions, you see, weren’t that great. Oh, they were good, very good, but there was no sense that this was a great game, a future classic or a system seller. It looked nice, yes, but the controls felt clunky and the gruff space marine voice-overs, while providing much amusement, made me feel about twenty years too old for the game. First up, as is usual, I played through the tutorial. I died several times in the process, but I did have it set on the “Hardcore” difficulty setting so I don’t feel too bad about that. I then played through a bit more of the early game, taking cover, shooting aliens, dying a lot and wishing the controls let me do what I wanted to do, instead of sending me off in odd directions.
When I turned off the game to make dinner my wife asked me if it was good and I said “yes”. She then asked if it was as good as I’d hoped it would be and I said “no”. I felt satisfied with the game, but disappointed. I’d expected that, though, as my expectations had been stupidly high.
A pause for dinner, then back into the action. It immediately seemed to make more sense. Not just to my brain, but to my hands. I wasn’t rolling instead of taking cover, I wasn’t moving out of cover seemingly at random… or at least, not as often and not randomly. I could quickly do what I needed to do and everything just felt smoother. I guess it was partly down to being more comfortable with the controls, but it was at least partly down to getting into the right mindset for the game, knowing what I wanted to do and how the game would process my inputs.
Take cover. Don’t move out of cover blindly. Don’t aim unless it’s safe. Just keep down. And, for God’s sake, look for flanking opportunities. That’s the most important thing. Flank those bastards.
I was still dying over and over again. But I didn’t mind. This is Halo again, combat evolved, where every fire fight is a set piece and the fun comes from the playing, not the progressing. This isn’t a sight-seeing tour through a virtual world, this is a game. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t look great – it really does – but the progression isn’t the point, the fighting is the point.)
The greatest moment in the game so far? Crouching down behind a wall in a ruined room in what was once a grand old building as an enemy turret fired just over my head and hearing a piano explode behind me as the bullets meant for me slammed into and through it…
…But that’s a lie. Sorry. That was just the greatest single player moment. I tried multiplayer as well. I jumped into a quick ranked match and chose to be on the side of the locusts. (As is the way of things, they look much, much cooler than the good guys. Less armour, more cloth, great big teeth and terrible skin. I think I want to be one when I grow up.) We started off outside an old house that had seen better days. The kind of spooky, ruined house kids would dare their friends to walk up to and just touch – because entering would be unthinkable, even in daylight.
And it was raining. And somehow, despite being almost devoid of colour, the house, the cloth flapping from my teammates’ waists and the rain all added up to one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a videogame.
It was – and I really don’t say this lightly – it was up there with leaving the castle in the Ico demo and walking out into the sunlight.
Then we were off, running towards the house. I followed a teammate, but lost him, found myself alone. Using cover, moving slowly, hearing firefights far off, inside the house. Unintentionally, I’d come up to the enemy from behind. Not sure if I killed anyone that first round, but I helped.
Soon I’d discovered I had a shotgun and I’d learned the layout of the small but perfectly-formed map. Two very important things.
I worked with a teammate to take down a sniper crouching behind an old sofa at the top of some stairs. I didn’t have my headset, so I couldn’t speak, but it’s one of those games where you don’t really need to. You know what needs to be done and you do it, instinctively working together.
The sides were evenly matched in numbers, but not skill, and my team won the match, getting to five wins first. I was the worst player on my team, but not by a lot and I got enough kills and downs to feel pretty pleased with myself.
It was glorious. I want to remember that match for ever.
The second match couldn’t and didn’t live up to it. Firstly, it took me about five minutes to get into another match. Then it was two against four and I was one of the two, which really showed up my weaknesses – the primary one being a weakness to chainsaws being forced into the back of my head. It was still great fun – the one kill I did get felt like a real victory – but it didn’t reach the same heights. It was a first-to-ten wins match and after the first couple of rounds it was obvious how each round was going to go. I did feel some comradeship with my single teammate, though, and by the last couple of rounds we were really working well together. (The map wasn’t as good, either, for the record. Just a square room with spawn points either end and various bits of cover lying around.)
You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned lag. Simple reason – there wasn’t any that was visible to me in either match. End of story.
After the multiplayer it was back for a bit more single player and then and end to the night’s play.
So, then, that’s Gears of War. On turning off for the night I told my wife that I’d changed my mind: it was as good as I hoped it would be.
And I’ve not even tried campaign co-op yet… or got tired of putting on a silly voice and saying, “Hey, I’m big gruff space marine. Shit.”
There are sentences I never thought I’d write. Here’s a good example:
My current favourite game is a turn-based play-by-email strategy game on the PC.
I have fallen in love with a game with no single-player component and which I play against total strangers.
Yet both those sentences are true. My current favourite game, by quite some way, is low-budget indie title Naked War.
I’ve mentioned it before, but not in any great depth. I’m going to write more now, though, because this isn’t a game that you’re going to be seeing everywhere. For starters, you won’t find it in the shops. No adverts on the sides of buses. No flash ads on IGN or Gamespot. No front covers on the magazines in your local newsagents.
This is because the world is very, very wrong. Naked War is simply one the best-balanced and most fun strategy games I’ve ever played. It’s up there with Advance Wars in terms of… of… well, everything. And what it loses in portability, it makes up for in human opposition. Yes, this is a game where playing random real human beings is a good thing. This is not a game crawling with cheaters, stat-whores and quitters. I don’t think anyone’s managed to cheat so far, at least not intentionally. Everyone I’ve met so far is after a good game, rather than a certain and easy win. And anyone who stops replying to turns to avoid a loss is out of luck – their opponent can, after a week or so without reply, choose to end the game and take the win.
It’s also a very simple game, in terms of rules, but endlessly varied in terms tactics and how games develop. It may take a couple of games to really get to grips with things, but the current players are very helpful to newbies and your first game or two will usually be free, so you’re not losing money when you’re learning.
Which seems like a good time to mention the payment structure. It’s easy. When someone challenges you to a match, you play for free. If you want to challenge someone, you have to use a credit. That’s it.
You get one credit free when you download the game and can buy more from the web site. They cost a dollar each if you buy twenty, but cost less if you buy more at one time. (If you’re worried about burning through the credits, then you’re guaranteed at least twenty hours of play if you buy twenty credits. And that’s a worst case scenario. I’ve still got half my credits left, five or six games on the go and I’ve played for over fifteen hours.)
And you can get free credits if you top the various charts each month, or even if you’re on the winning team. (When you create an account you’re assigned to the red or blue team. If you’ve been playing the game one month and your team wins, you get a free challenge credit. Generous, don’t you think?)
Now, you may be thinking that you don’t know anyone playing the game so you don’t have anyone to play. Wrong. First off, you’re welcome to challenge me. My username is therev and that’s all you need. Secondly, you will probably get a challenge from one of the developers when you register. Thirdly, you can look on the web site for player names. Fourthly, you can issue a challenge to “Anyone” and someone will pick up the game. (There’s also the special case of “Everyone”, but I don’t want to muddy the waters too much at this point.)
When someone challenges you or replies to your challenge you’ll get an email. You’ll open the attachment, Naked War will start up, you’ll play your turn and Naked War will close and you’ll just wait for the next email. And wait you will. During a particularly tense game you may well find yourself hammering your email client’s Send & Receive button, hoping for that next email… And at other times you’ll be content to play a game over several weeks, with turns being swapped every day or two.
You’ll grow very attached to your cartoon soldiers. You can name them yourself, so my team consists of Ventress, Dooku, Sidious and Maul. (Star Wars names, if you’re looking blank.) You give them orders – move, fire, use an upgrade, jump into a vehicle, etc. – and then choose to play your turn. It’s sent off to the server and then you watch everything unfold. Which is incredibly tense when you’re not sure if you’ve got quite enough firepower to kill the final enemy…
Everything’s so well-balanced, that’s the nicest thing. Not in a rock-scissors-paper way like, say, Pokemon, but just in the way that everything has strengths and weaknesses. Turrets are immensely powerful, but static and you need to have four shots to fire them. Helicopters pack a punch, but have very weak armour. Boats can zoom around the waterways, but don’t have much firepower. And soldiers on their own start weak, but can become powerhouses if you promote them up to Sergeant-Major level. Every turn has you wondering where to go, whether to use a vehicle or stay on foot, whether to use the cover of the forests or stay out in the open where you’ll be better placed next turn if you survive and a whole galaxy of other choices that come from the simple rules and finely-tuned maps.
In short, it’s a great game, everyone playing is very nice, you won’t have any trouble finding someone to play and there’s no complicated network setup or anything. So what’s stopping you following the link up above and downloading?
Maybe you’re rubbish at strategy games. Well, so am I, and even I have won a few games of this. And it’s still fun to lose, amazingly. The game’s been successfully designed to always be fun and to never get dull – it’s always possible to come back and win, right up until the end.
Maybe your PC is rubbish. Well, this game runs on terrible PCs. I should know. I’m playing this on a PC with everything set to minimum and it still sometimes chugs when it plays back a turn. But when I’m ordering everyone around, it’s absolutely fine.
Maybe you have a Power PC Mac. Well, then, yes, you’ll have to grit your teeth and wait for a Mac version. Or you’re using Lunix, or some other operating system. BeOS, maybe. You have a reasonable excuse.
Really, though, if you’ve got a PC with any sort of 3D capability, you should try this game out. It’s far less intimidating than it sounds. It’s cute, friendly, easy to pick up, often tense, sometimes hilarious and, most importantly, never boring.
As I said, it’s my current favourite game.
1) Bosses must not have any unskippable cut scenes before the fight, though pre-fight animations of under seven seconds are allowed.
2) It must be possible to save directly before any boss fight in any game where progression, not scoring, is the main indicator of success.
3) All boss attacks must be avoidable, though games with character customisation can make this harder or easier based on the skills/equipment chosen by the player.
4) If the battle is based around finding weak spots, the number of times the boss’s weak spot must be hit must always be three, no more, no less.
5) If the battle is based around doing a certain amount of damage, the boss must have a health bar or equivalent way of seeing damage being taken (i.e. armour that falls off when attacks connect).
6) The player must never take damage due to an attack they couldn’t see because the camera got stuck behind a crate/wall/etc.
7) In a game with energy/hit points no attack should be able to kill the player in one hit.
8) Bosses must never be allowed to heal themselves fully when nearly dead, though partial healing is allowed.
9) Boss fights should always reward tactics, cunning and creativity over mere endurance.
10) All bosses must be killable in less than five minutes, though fights can take longer when players are unskilled, unsure or underpowered.
Well, I have now played Pokemon Ranger and from first impressions it seems to be an object lesson in how not to take a franchise to the DS.
They’ve taken Pokemon and changed it so instead of turn-based battles you now have to use the stylus to draw circles round Pokemon. (The number of circles depends on the strength of the Pokemon.) If the Pokemon touches or attacks the circles you’re drawing or if you lift the stylus from the screen before you’ve drawn enough of them, then the circles dissapear and you have to start over.
It doesn’t sound too bad on the face of it, but as soon as I first tried to draw two complete circles round a Pokemon that was zig-zagging round the screen, I knew something was wrong. But what? You have to draw with inhuman speed around a target whose movements can’t be predicted, which is difficult. Difficult’s not always bad, though, that’s not the real problem. No, the main problem is that drawing circles really, really quickly is just no fun.
Somebody should really have noticed that during development, I feel.
You can try it, too, without a DS, to get an idea. Get a pen and a piece of paper. Start drawing circles really, really fast. Then get a parent or guardian to slap your hand away from the paper at random intervals. Then stop and get a friend to witter on about Snorlax and Pikachu at great length. Then go back to drawing circles. Repeat until your soul dries out and crumbles into dust.
Anyone who loves Pokemon may be able to get through the battles to experience the world and story, but the gameplay is fundamentally broken and without the Pokemon nobody would think of giving this a second glance.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon was a slight disappointment, due to its simplicity and slow start, but Ranger is just plain awful. Replacing button presses with stylus actions isn’t a good idea unless it improves the fun factor of a game. I thought we’d got past the stylus-for-the-sake-of-it part of the DS’s lifespan. It seems not.