Sunday, June 5, 2011

Monday Musings - 6th June 2011

It's funny. About midweek i often worry about writing this column the next Monday, mainly cause by Thursday or so i haven't played that many games and i worry i wont have much to talk about. Then the weekend comes and i always find myself with lots of material. Time to muse.

Civilization 5

Once again the epitome of addictive turn based strategy was my gaming bread and butter for the week. I've now ironed out the game settings i prefer. I play continents on Prince difficulty with quick turns. Sometimes i choose a civ, most of the time i hit random. I gravitate between small and standard map size, and i always start in the ancient era. The early game is actually the most fascinating for me. It's the exploring, and that barbarians are actually a threat to your lands (a brute stole my first worker in a game last night). You meet your neighbours and think about future expansion and the type of victory you want to try and achieve.

I'm also getting more savvy with diplomacy. Many Civ fans complain about the diplomacy being broken and needing improvement. It's true, the system isn't perfect... but with a little savvy, you can make the most of the system to create some very entertaining game stories.

For instance the game i started last night, i picked random and was given the Iroquois. I share a continent with an expanding Persian empire. I blocked off their southern expansion, and through trade, became friendly. Once i was able to explore the seas, i met everyone else. Two other main continents with at least 2 -3 civs on each. There were wars and alliances already formed while i was off on my own building an economic empire.

By refusing open border treaties, the other civs could never see what type of army i possessed, but because of my high economic standing, they chose to become friendly through trade (it also helped my lands had 5 wine patches, so i had plenty of luxury resources to trade with). Out of all the civs i met, aside from Persia, Siam seemed to be the most dangerous. America and Mongolia had engaged in wars with the other civs, so to increase my standing, i denounced both, and bribed Rome to war with Mongolia (as they shared the same continent. The Japanese share that continent as well, but at the moment i cannot bribe them into that war).

Turn 200 is where i left it as it was nearing 2am. My plans now are to do what i can to stay in good graces with Persia and Siam, while manipulating the other civs against each other. I think i will aim to secure a diplomatic victory as i can build the UN and then bribe all the city states to vote for me.

Bionic Commando Rearmed

The Playstation Store finally reopened this week so i was able to download Bionic Commando Rearmed again. I've had two play sessions so far and am up to the final part of the game (when you get access to areas 10, 11, and 12).

The desire to play this game again came from watching my friend Robbie's Let's Plays of the original NES Bionic Commando. With that game fresh in my mind, it was great to see both the similarities and differences between the two versions. Most of the level design is intact, but of course the bosses have been changed, and mechanically having all your upgrades stacked and able to change weapons during a mission is a big plus, as the guns definitely have their individual uses.

Sticking true to its NES roots, levels can be completed within about 5 mins (maybe 10 if something tricky has gone on), so especially against Civ5, this bite size approach to gaming (that has you swinging around a tricky to control bionic arm) has been a welcome change of pace. And having a game nearing completion after two play sessions always excites me... as you should know by now, i do not finish many games.

The Witcher

I'm now an hour into chapter 2. Chapter 1? Wow, talk about choices with consequences. Mass Effect had a very easy to understand moral system. Top right, paragon. Bottom right, renegade. The big choices i had to make in chapter 1 of The Witcher had no such telltale signs. Both choices seemed equally horrible with far reaching consequences. I gotta tell you, it makes for a very interesting game. With no shining beacon of good or evil, you feel like you're wading down in the murky depths of grey areas. It also helps to cement the foreboding atmosphere that the game presents. This is a hostile world and you play a character that exists in a way, outside of it. I am looking forward to seeing how the story and the choices presented progress.

On a side note, blizzard potions are ever so useful... though that span of time after the fight is over till the potions wears off? Yeah, that's pretty annoying.

Frozen Synapse

I saw this on the steam sale page. It touted simultaneous turn based strategy. My mind instantly went to Combat Mission; a series of games where both armies gave their troops orders and then for a minute, the game played out these choices in real time. A great mechanic that made for some very tense and strategic match ups. I notified my friend James of this (he introduced me to Combat Mission and was my main opponent over the years). He bought Frozen Synapse, started to warm up to it, and gifted me a copy. Once you get over the initial learning curve of the controls, this is a really fun game that presents many amazing combat scenario opportunities.

It's almost like a corridor FPS version of Combat Mission. A Small maze like area with cover of various degrees, and a group of units with different weapons. Before committing to a turn, you can play out the orders you've given to troops, and the turn will play in realtime to show you the results. Of course, this is based on the idea that the enemy is not moving during their turn (which they do), so its effectiveness at planning your movement only goes so far.

I have yet to play an online match, but that will be remedied sometime this week.

Final Thoughts

Game openings are very important. Actually the first hour of a game is excruciatingly important, but today we're just going to focus on the openings. Some games just pop you in the game and let you go. This is fine, as games are meant to be played. Perhaps story can be told emergently as the gameplay progresses. This is a unique strength of the medium (especially when it's done well).

Most games however use the intro as a story buffer. To set up the world, the characters, and your goal. These vary in length and some gamers opt to skip them and get straight to the gameplay. I must admit that even as a lover of story in games, a tedious, lengthy intro can put me off a game when i just want to start playing and see if i'm going to like what's presented. It really doesn't help when you have a lengthy intro, then the gameplay is sub par (or even worse, the gameplay keeps being interrupted by more cutscenes. I give exception to the Metal Gear Solid series as i find those games amazing. Others may disagree).

In a way a lengthy intro is at its worst when the gameplay is amazing. You want to just jump in and play, enjoying the rich fruits of this game world, and you can't. This is why unskippable cutscenes are one of the greatest sins in game design.

But if you have to set up your game world, sometimes the simplest way is the best. Like the arcade games of old, a splash page of text or a few seconds of bad animation may be all you need. The arcade is the home of what i believe is the greatest and most succinct game opening in the entire medium, and that game is 'Bad Dudes Vs Dragon Ninja'. Two sentences, "The President has been kidnapped by Ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?"

What more do you need?

Till next week, happy gaming all!

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