Monthly Archives: September 2014

Review – Steam’s Update

If only it stopped me from overspending on sales too.

If you’ve dropped by Steam lately, you’ve no doubt noticed a rather significant change. In addition to the lovely light blue streak across the background (it brings such light and warmth!), Steam has totally revamped how it curates the presentation of the games it sells.  From the first sales window to the recommendations, Steam has taken a page from other digital relators and used user preferences to guide what it does and does not sell you.  Which is good, because, damn, did Steam need it.

Somewhere in the past couple of years, publishers figured out Steam’s game. In an effort to combat endless waves of dreck, Valve established the Greenlight Games feature which allowed users to vote on games that looked interesting to them and therefore, they would like to see in their Steam store.  Publishers, on the other hand, could put forward whatever games they liked.  While this system prevented the tiny developers from flooding the market with their digitized hopes and dreams, it did nothing to stopped publishers from buying up terrible games and releasing them to realize whatever profit could be found.  Perhaps more frustrating was that Steam could not handle the glut of games it inspired.  The advent of the digital store front allowed for a renaissance of PC game development as developers no longer had to fight for physical storage space.  When the number of these games was relatively small, they were given top status and granted a larger audience.  As more and more piled on, they crowded each other out.  Steam, being unable to prioritize games well, slapped them on the front page with little regard for whose front page it was.  Advertising Call of Duty to someone like myself made no sense, yet I was made aware of all of its new content and updates thanks to good old Steam.

The new system appears to be an improvement on that. Steam has shifted its underlying philosophy from an undecipherable mess to sourcing user opinions to inform what should and should not be shown.  The first change is finally using all the information that users provided about themselves.  Steam logs both the games people buy and the time they spend with them.  This alone is enough to give the service some idea about what kind of games people want to play.  Why show me the latest basketball title when I haven’t played a single sports game across thousands of hours and well over 100 games purchased?  The games I’m seeing match my tastes far more closely than what I saw before based on that principle alone.  With new customization options that allow me tailor my viewing even more, Steam finally looks like it’s looking at me as an individual rather than as a giant, amorphous game buying blob.

In addition to evaluating individual user data, Valve has boosted Steam’s capacity to analyze and use the broader community’s information. A summation of user reviews is now at the top of the page.  Users can become curators and offer lists of recommended games that others may follow.  Trust a particular user or game site?  Follow their list and get their recommendations while you shop.  Steam is kicking the review process back to the users, and the results are clearly an improvement.

At least, they look that way. Over the next few weeks, I intend to test this by reviewing the games under the “Recommended for you” section.  I’ll reload the page twice and pick from the six games on offer.  I won’t replay anything either.  While I can’t commit to finishing them (a week isn’t a lot of review time when you have a full time job), I’ll put in at least 10 hours.  Let’s see where this goes.

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Review – Endless Legend – PC

Reviews? I do those?

I’m a big fan of Amplitude Studios. Actually, I’m a big fan of Microprose which is what Amplitude Studios dresses up as every Halloween.  When Microprose failed and took fan favorites like Master of Orion or Master of Magic with it, they left an enormous gap in the 4x turn based strategy world.  Endless Legend fills that gap, but it doesn’t do much more with it.  This is the evolution that genre fans will appreciate, not the revolution that 4x games need to reach beyond their predecessors.

Any Civilization player will appreciate the basics of Endless Legend. The player starts off with a small army and a settler with which to found an empire and explore the world of Auriga.  The army, with a hero unit in the lead, explores ancient ruins to gather crucial resources for the opening turns and becomes a powerhouse army later.  Battles are grid based affairs which the player can also auto resolve should they face overwhelming odds.  Meanwhile, the city back at home is researching technology, developing resources, building units, and generally focusing on whatever victory condition the player has decided to go for.  Victory conditions are the fairly standard with only the quest based version offering any substantial difference.  If you’ve played Civilization or Stardock’s Fallen Enchantress, you have a good idea of what to expect.

This is not to say that Endless Legend is totally derivative. It has a number of small and large changes that keep it feeling fresh.  Among the most prominent is the division of the world into territories.  Each territory may host one city and that city reaps the benefits of the resources within the territory.  Territories also host minor races which generate monsters if unpacified and or provide workers for the territory capitol if pacified.  Another twist is the winter.  Auriga’s winters last for a varying number of turns and grind production and movement to a halt.  In the early game, reduced movement and production are frustrating, but later in the game the player gets some tools to adapt and thrive.  Winters can have game changing effects by slowing wars in full swing and slowing building momentum.  Adapting to this mechanic is one of the key ways to regain the advantage in a losing conflict.

Factions deserve special mention as they are varied in their aesthetic design as they are in their gameplay. Each faction has something beyond the usual focus on a given victory condition.  For example, the Cultists only get one city, but they can convert minor races to provide resources and produce military units.  The Drakkan can force opponents to accept truces and other diplomatic proposals.  The powers feel unique and help set the races apart.  The different play styles, combined with the story telling quests, encourage repeated playthroughs to see all that Endless Legend has to offer.

A few problems do creep up. The AI isn’t particularly aggressive, even when it has a substantial advantage.  I played most of a game having only a small army on hard and wasn’t challenged until I had almost won.  This is aggravated by the ability to upgrade units.  Like Endless Legend’s predecessor, Endless Space, the player can upgrade their units with new equipment to create a more powerful unit. I often created a single upgraded doom stack which scared away most of my competitors.  Combined with a powerful economy to purchase units and an aggressive AI can become a frightened kitten with one round of army buying.

The issues are ultimately small and don’t address the broader issue that 4x games face today. As much fun as Endless Legend is, it still feels like a contemporary of the 4x masterpieces from long ago.  It’s becoming clear that developers will need substantially new ideas to push the genre forward and prevent it from stunting….eventually.  For now, Endless Legend is a polished and fun experience.  Go play.

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Opinion – Women as Background Decoration Part 2

Improvement!

Part one of “Women as Background Decoration”, one of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, had some serious problems, but an important message.  For this video, and its predecessors, the worst I can say of them is that they have value for asking questions that developers and critics have often ignore or poorly address.  The most recent entry, part two of the above mentioned video, is much stronger.  It shares many of the flaws of its predecessors, but targets issues so incredibly widespread that Sarkeesian’s data shy approach doesn’t harm it.  As such, there’s a lot to learn from this recent entry into the series.

Women as Atmosphere

With clips from Hitman: Blood Money, Bioshock 2, and other major games, Sarkeesian shows how violence against women is often used to set the tone.  Vignettes about brutalized or vulnerable women NPCs are used to add edginess to a dark and gritty world.  These women often lack a back story and seem to solely exist to be harmed to convince the player of how nasty this setting is.  The same can be said of their corpses.  If these women die, they often do so in sexualized ways such as wearing revealing clothing or being positioned provocatively.  The inclusion of women, whether it is to establish atmosphere or titillate, uses sexual violence as a prop rather than addressing the very real issues that women face.  Of course, the same could be said of violence in general.  Gang violence, poverty, drug addiction, and other social ills are all trucked out as one note props for most video games.  Sarkeesian’s laser like focus on women prevents her from addressing these issues, but it would be nice for her to acknowledge that this is not a problem that women face alone.  All the same, her argument is strong and game makers need to be aware of how they’re using these very real problems in their games.

That’s Not What Evil Looks Like

Violence against women isn’t only used to set up atmosphere, but also character development.  Attacks on women are often used to establish just how evil a character or organization is.  Want to show that Badguy McDeathFace is evil?  Have him hit a women!  Or a dog.  In this case, the role is interchangeable.  When women fill the role of victim again and again, it establishes a narrative of perpetual victimhood where the (often male) player is the rescuer.  It’s a power fantasy with abused women as props and who rarely as actual agents of their own defense.  It continues the idea that women are weak and in need of protection.  More insidiously, it also establishes abusers of women as easily identified monsters when the reality is far from the truth.  Most abusers don’t walk around with identifying signs (I beat women!) and are often seen as kind or generous in other parts of their lives.  Games that lump violence against women in with burning villages and bending mint condition Magic cards (YOU MONSTER) allow us to believe that abusers are easily identifiable abominations rather than included among our friends and neighbors.

Ignoring the Problem Won’t Make It Go Away

So far, I’ve largely agreed with Sarkeesian, but we differ on how to approach the issue.  Sarkeesian argues that any game that is unwilling to address issues of sexual violence head on ought not to include it.  Even games that attempt to show the realities of such things should not do so unless they are prepared to tackle the problems head on.  She even takes to task Dishonored’s inner monologues of abused prostitutes and Watch Dog’s assigning a back story to a sex slave gallery.  These acts are subversive in a way that Sarkeesian does not acknowledge.  While they do perpetuate the narrative of victimhood, they also lay bare the brutal reality underneath the sugar coated world that gaming presents.  Too many games have included those exact same scenes without a hint of criticism.  By replicating the brothel scene, but showing how abused those women really are, the above mentioned games force gamers to look critically at a scene that they previously accepted as fun.  It’s harder to be titillated by a scantily clad woman when you know she’s been trafficked and sold.

Abuse against women is part of our current reality.  Telling developers to shelve it does nothing to spread awareness of the issue.  Any game that seeks to provide additional depth and detail to a pervasive problem should be encouraged to do so.  Some will certainly feed aspects of the problem, but any gains of an intelligent, if incidental, treatment will certainly be more beneficial than pretending like the problem doesn’t exist.  Games where the inclusion of sexual violence makes sense in the context (which is far fewer than those that include it) need not base major parts of their vision on it as long as the time they do spend is quality.

Conclusion

My agreement should not be taken as a sign that the most recent video is without flaws.  Though she avoided some of the more obscure titles mentioned in part one, Sarkeesian still has not come up with a comprehensive reason why certain games are chosen.  She also remains prone to cherry picking cutscenes which makes it harder to believe her when I don’t know the game well.  Sarkeesian would do well to shy away from the most salacious videos in favor of the most representative ones.  Finally, she has a tendency to pretend that women are alone in their plight, when developer’s insensitivity extends beyond that.  Still, the problems she’s addressing are so universal that it’s hard to deny that they are a key part of gaming culture.  Developers ought to pay attention to how the approach violence against women and be certain that their inclusion of such themes don’t trivialize a very real problem.

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Preview – PAX Prime 2014

You totally should have been there.

PAX was an amazing experience that I whole heartedly endorse to those who can make it.  I saw tons of amazing games, so here are the ones I enjoyed the most:

Nova 111 Tucked away in the Indie Megabooth was Funkatronic Labs’ Nova 111.  This colorful dungeon crawler received a PAX Prime official selection and it’s easy to see why.  Nova 111 has the interesting conceit of combining realtime and turn based movement which opens up interesting possibilities in gameplay.  For example, an enemy fires a shot in real time.  By memorizing another enemy’s movement, the player can maneuver that enemy into the path of the shot.  Funkatronic Labs encourages this kind of gameplay by awarding upgrade points for inventive kills.  Sadly, the upgrades weren’t playable and so it’s hard to say what form they’ll take.  The turn based/real time combination, plus a suite of interesting abilities make this game one to watch. 

Check it out:  http://nova111.com/

 

Lead to Fire – From the creators of Monaco, Lead to Fire seeks to simplify real time strategy games down to a few buttons.  The player starts with a commander.  The commander can move across the map and build food producing farms or unit generating buildings.  Food is the currency of the realm.  Once the buildings generate enough units, the player can call all his units to him and attack the enemy.  While the basic gameplay is simplistic, the real depth comes from balancing economic and military goals as well as an interesting new addition: decks.  Players create decks of cards which determine the available buildings allowing for interesting strategies and unit interactions.  My brief time showed that Lead to Fire was also easy to pick up and play.  The real challenge will be in maintaining that accessibility while adding strategic depth.

Check it out: http://www.pocketwatchgames.com/games.html#ltf

 

Darkest Dungeon – I’ll admit, I was skeptical when this game hit Kickstarter.  Yet another grim game about dark times doesn’t really interest me.  Fortunately, I checked out the booth and discovered a delightful surprise.  Underneath all that doom and gloom is a complex and thematic game.  Battles are turn based affairs relying on unit initiative to determine who goes first and what strategy is most effective.  Character positioning, and the attacks that alter it, play a key role in determining the flow of battle.  Even more interesting is the flaws each character possesses.  When characters max out their stress meter, they act out problematic traits such as “masochist” where the character will run to the front.  This adds an extra layer of depth to selecting party members.  Knowing how to manage each character’s flaws is the key to getting them all out alive.  This could also backfire.  Very few situations are more frustrating in a video game than when the computer takes control of your character.  Developer Red Hook Studios will need to strike a balance between the tension of characters fallen to madness and the aggravation of trying to shepherd suicidal, dungeon delvers.

Check it out: http://www.darkestdungeon.com/buy/

 

Planetary Annihilation – I didn’t get a chance to play this one, but that’s almost beside the point.  I’ve played Total Annihilation and its spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, and Planetary Annihilation doesn’t look different enough to merit my time.  What I can say is that PA is damn fun to watch.  The booth had two teams of three fighting over multiple planets in a bid for supremacy.  Players shared resources and units with their team, but each controled a special commander unit that can build and attack.  What makes this so fun to watch is the sheer size of the battlefield.  With fights occurring across multiple planets, a quality fight is practically guaranteed to happen at any given time somewhere.  Listening to the commentary, there were few breaks in between the constant bouts.  I’m also looking forward to when devoted gamers get more time with the broader strategy.  Team coordination is crucial to success and it’s easy to see how interesting the massive engagements and plans could get once players start to explore the possibilities.

Check it out:  http://www.uberent.com/pa/

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