Archive for category Video Games

Video game update

I haven’t talked about video games in a while, so I thought I’d put together a short summary of what I played this past year, in no particular order.

The original Deus Ex is considered to be one of the best PC games of all times (along with another one mentioned below), so developing a sequel more than ten years later is quite a tall order. From what I can see, DXHR manages to pull it off. I played about one third through the game and then put it away with the firm intention to go back to it (a pattern that seems to be recurring in my gaming habits).

I don’t think Portal needs any introduction, and nobody actually expected a sequel to the best PC game of all times (according to PC Gamer) to be able to measure up. This is why Portal 2 was such a delightful surprise to me, and in hindsight, I think it’s better than the first episode in all respects. On top of inventing new creative puzzles, Valve managed to actually imagine a very poignant and appealing story that I absolutely fell in love with. I replayed the game three times and I suspect that I will do so again on a regular basis in the years to come. The characters, their acting and voices are also incredibly well done and downright funny despite the tense scenario, and I don’t think anyone will be able to forget the Stephen Merchant / Ellen Mc Lain duo for a long time.

I have always been a Civilization fan, going back to the very first installment of the series and its insanely punishing difficulty. Civilization V doesn’t betray the series and streamline a lot of the rough edges that players complained about in the previous version. List most Civilization, I have the feeling I barely scratched the surface of this one and I’m looking forward to going back to explore it further. In my book, however, Civilization IV remains the best of the entire series.

Referring to this little gem as “Minecraft in 2D” is not doing it justice. It shares some crafting and discovery ideas with Minecraft, but the resemblance stops there. In this 2D platformer, you craft to create stronger weapons and armors so you can explore further away from your base. That’s about the extent that I know of it, I only spent an hour or so on it but I definitely want to see how far that rabbit hole goes. The developers recently announced that they were moving on, but there is already enough material in the current release to keep someone playing for a long, long time (some fans have clocked more than 100 hours on this game).

While I did buy Oblivion on the day it came out, I felt that I never really explored all that it had to give because I was extremely turned off by the clunky, obviously console targetted, UI. While I think that Skyrim is one of the best games I’ve played these past years, I’m sad to report that it suffers from the exact problem as Oblivion. However, the UI is not irreparably damaged that it makes playing it on a PC impossible, so after some tweaking, I was able to play the game in a reasonably satisfying manner. In one sentence, Skyrim is what World of Warcraft would be if it weren’t a multiplayer game.

I spent about thirty hours on it and reached level 20 while barely touching the main quest line (and I had a tremendous amount of fun doing so). And then my excitement and interest waned. Again, I really want to go back to it, if only to finish the main quest and visit some of the gorgeous locations I’ve heard of, such as Black Reach, so I really hope I’ll find enough resolve and time to do so.

Rift recently became free to play, so why not try it? I did but after an hour spent in the beginner zone, I can’t say I felt compelled to push further. Admittedly, this is no way to assess a MMO game, so I’m aware I might be missing out.

Another attempt at reusing some of World of Warcraft’s successful recipe without the MMO component. The main difference is that the fights are much more action oriented (this game also runs on consoles, after all), so you will find yourself sidestepping, dodging, rolling and also swinging, parrying and triggering various special combinations during your fights. The story line seems to be fairly expansive with a lot of content to go through. I have only spent five hours on this game and it feels like I have barely scratched its surface.

No, I didn’t get the screen shot wrong. I really mean the original X-Com game, released in 1993. I mentioned in the introduction that I would talk about another game ranked among the best of all times, and this is it.

I never really played the original when it came out but given the non stop rants and articles I have read about it during these past two decades, I have always wanted to give it a fair shot. What eventually motivated me was learning that Firaxis was going to create a sequel for it. There have been several sequels to the game but the one that the Firaxis (of Civilization fame) is working on is pretty much guaranteed to be true to the original. Here is one of the two interviews they gave on the subject. These guys mean business.

Back to the original game: it’s very simple to install and play on any OS (thanks to DOSBox) and while I expected some frustration from the punishing user interface, I ended up finding my way through it fairly easily. I only played a few hours and I managed to down my first UFO, so I can’t say that I have experienced what everyone has been raving about, but I think I now have a better idea. I’m hoping I’ll be able to push through a bit further before Firaxis’ version of the game comes out.

Yes, that Ultima 6. Inspired by the riveting reports of the “CRPG Addict” blog, I decided I wanted to replay an Ultima. Since he had just reviewed Ultima 5 and I still felt that Ultima 7 was fresh in my mind (I played it a couple of years ago), I decided to go for Ultima 6. I wasn’t holding much hope, but it didn’t take long for Lord British’s creation of 1990 to completely suck me in again. Next thing I know, I was taking tons of notes and slowly unraveling the mystery of the False Prophet. It was a blast from start to finish, but unfortunately, I didn’t keep track of how many hours I spent on it. I did save all my notes for posterity (the annotated map might come in handy and it doesn’t contain any major spoilers).

Maybe I’ll carry on with Ultima 7, which has several flavors available (I’ve only ever played the first one, so I have at least three to discover before moving on to Ultima 8, which I don’t have fond memories of).

Don’t try, you have probably never heard of this game. It was released in 1984 on the Apple ][ and even back then, it was a pretty obscure game. Yet, I remember vividly spending hours and hours on it during high school until I finally managed to beat it. For some reason, I thought about this game again recently and I decided to see how well it lived up to my memory.

Like most of the games that came out at the time, it’s pretty hard to describe and bizarre in its own way, but that’s also what makes it very interesting. You are controlling a ship in across a maze made of sixty-four rooms and your goal is to explore all of them. Part of the fun of the game is to uncover its mechanisms and how to unlock doors. Once you have solved the game, you can complete it in less than twenty minutes but to get there, you should expect to spend at most a couple of hours to unravel its mysteries. I have to say I enjoyed playing it this time around and I certainly wish we saw more of these creative and innovative games today.

I actually wrote an extensive review of this absolutely wonderful adventure game last year, so I’ll just refer you there if you are curious. Even if you’re not that much into adventure games, I strongly recommend giving this game a shot, it’s perfect in pretty much all respects and it sits up there with the likes of “Monkey Island”, “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” and “Zak Mc Kracken and the Alien Mindbenders”.

Speaking of classics, I spent some time rediscovering the Monkey Island series and I play them whenever there is a bit of a lull in my video games activities. The Monkey Island Special Editions are fantastic, they talk about pirates, they are funny and the entire series is considered the best adventure game saga of all times. What’s not to like?

An indie game that took everyone by surprise last year. The soundtrack is beautiful and it’s hard not to start paying attention to the story as it slowly unfolds through the wonderful Chandler-like narration. Bastion also sits in a niche of its own in terms of game play, with the land assembling ahead of you as you make progress through the levels. It offers various weapons (melee, range and special ability) which can be boosted by elixirs (buffs) and other customizations that you can gain either through the game or by performing well on challenge levels (such as knocking out all the enemies with only fifteen shots of your scrap musket). I must be about one third through the game and while I’m starting to feel a little bit of repetition, I really want to reach the conclusion of this game to find out where it’s taking me.

“You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave”. This probably sums up my relationship with World of Warcraft since 2004. At least, I feel I made a major advance two years ago when I stopped raiding, and at that point, I thought I was pretty much done. Well, it turns out that the devils living in Blizzard’s halls know a thing or two on the multiple ways in which they can hook you to a game, and they certainly managed to pull that trick on me since I became a casual player.

The good news is that I’m no longer spending as many hours as I used to in Azeroth and also that my interest goes in bursts. The latest example is deciding to level a new character and take it to the very end of the game: killing Deathwing. I was curious to find out how long it would take, and while I thought most of it would be a grind, I actually enjoyed goign through the entire journey, probably since it was a good opportunity to find out exactly what changes had been made to the early areas of Cataclysm, but also because the new “Looking for Group” mechanism makes leveling very fast. You basically queue all the time and you then have the choice to either quest or accept the dungeon invitation.

As soon as I met the level 85 gear requirements to queue for the new “Looking for Raid” interface, I did so and one hour later, I had killed Deathwing. It took me about five days played (emphasis on “played”: that’s more than one hundred hours of game time and two-three months of real time) to take my character from level one to end game. And once I was done with this task, I… well, felt absolutely no urge to launch the game again. I’m probably done until the next expansion, the Mists of Pandaria, comes out, at which point I will probably fall for it again.

Conclusion

So this is my video game history of this past year. If there is one thing I’m taking away, it’s that I’m finding it increasingly hard to be interested in a game for extended periods of time, World of Warcraft being the striking and sole exception. I seem to hit a ceiling at twenty or thirty hours, and most of the games I play don’t even make it that far. This year, I’m looking forward to playing Mass Effect 3, Diablo 3 and maybe give Guild Wars 2 a try. Hopefully, I’ll come across a few other interesting games that are not sequels of well established franchises, something that seems all but impossible outside the Windows gaming arena.

Sheep, camels and llamas… all in space

Jeff Minter recently
made a presentation at Google.  If you are not a gamer, Jeff is a very
prolific programmer with a perplexing obsessions for animals and an undisputable
talent for writing top-rated action games.  He started his career on Vic’s
and C-64 and he’s been repeatedly known to push the limits of whatever hardware
he was programming on.  All his games feature spectacular psychedelic
effects and sound tracks that are guaranteed to make you laugh even if you’re
just watching the game.

Jeff went through a quick history of the games he worked on and concluded on
his current project, called Space Giraffes.  Here is a quick overview:

  • GridRunner, on C64.  A Centipede-looking game that is going much faster
    than any you’ve seen.
  • Attack of the Mutant Camels.  A Defender-like game that includes giant
    camels that got in trouble because it was looking too much like The Empire
    Strikes Back.
  • Sheep in Space.  A space shooter with a sheep as a…  ship, that
    needs to land and graze on grass to refuel.
  • Llamatron.  A supercharged Robotron, probably his most famous game.
  • Tempest 2000, on the Jaguar.  When he presented this game to Atari, he
    was told that he wasn’t programming the console correctly.  Tempest became
    the number one selling game on the Jaguar and he was hired at Atari shortly
    afterwards.

His current project is Space Giraffe, on the XBox 360, a souped up version of
Tempest.  Jeff spent some time showing the game and explaining the thought
process behind the logic, how the hostiles work and react and where his
inspiration comes from.

If you’ve never played a Jeff Minter game and that you like fast-paced action
games with an edge, you know what to do.

 

Snowballs from hell

World of Warcraft has recently received a few seasonal additions for this late year celebration, and one of them has caused a lot of turmoil among the players: snowballs.

There are two kinds of snowballs: regular ones, which you can buy at your usual vendor and that don’t have much of an effect when you throw them, and “hardpacked” ones, which you can pick up in Alterac Valley. When you get hit by a hardpacked snowball, you are instantly knocked back by a significant distance, and players were quick to realize that these snowballs could be a very effective defensive weapon in the battlegrounds, since not only do they interrupt whatever spell or fight move the player was attempting to make, they can also knock them off a bridge and send them down to a spiraling death…

Demonstration:

But the fun with snowballs doesn’t stop there.

A few days ago, forty players from our guild headed to the flight tower to make our way down to Onyxia’s Lair. Right before I flew off, the guildy before me threw a snowball at his teammate, who had just taken off ahead of me. The snowball immediately made a sharp right angle in order to follow the fast wind rider, but since its velocity was not high enough, it couldn’t quite catch up and therefore, proceeded to follow dutifully my teammate over the entire trip to Onyxia’s Lair.

The snowball immediately hit him as soon as he landed, but I was too busy laughing to capture that moment. I did manage to take a few screenshots of the journey, though…

snowball1 snowball2
snowball3 snowball4
snowball5

Click on the images for higher resolution pictures.

A view from below…





Click on the image for full size (2 megs)

Just when I thought I’d seen everything in World of Warcraft…

An underground subway runs between the two major Alliance cities
Stormwind and Ironforge.  For a long time, I noticed that this
Tram goes through an underwater section about halfway between the two
cities, but I never bothered to find out. It always intrigued me, though, so a few days ago, I took the long walk
to see for myself, and I wasn’t disappointed…

Through the
waving reflections of the force field that keeps the water from
flooding the tunnel, you can see a cute Deep Run Diver walking on the
sandy bottom, a sunken pirate ship and a mermaid.  But the
best is on the other side of the track…

And as for all World of Warcraft screenshots, I strongly recommend to
click on both of these pictures, they are worth it…

href="http://beust.com/pics/deeprun2.png"> src="http://beust.com/pics/deeprun2-small.png">

Order and chaos in Alterac Valley

I know there are hundreds of World of Warcraft screenshots out there, but it
just so happens that I felt compelled to take two of these myself within a
half-hour time, which is rare enough, so I thought I’d share my experience (and
said pictures).

I took these two screenshots in Alterac Valley, which is one of WoW’s three
player-vs-player (PvP) areas.  In these areas, members of the main two
factions are pitted against each other and assigned certain goals.  In
Alterac Valley, the goal is to conquer the enemy’s fortress and kill its general
before your opponents do the same.

Alterac Valley is a big battleground with various buildings and constructions
that you can choose to conquer or skip, depending on your strategy.  The
Alliance put up a good fight in one of their advanced bunkers and it took us
numerous attempts to finally capture it.  The fights were fierce and all
classes of combatants were involved.  I died several times myself along the
way, but since the graveyard was nearby, I was able to come back and continue
the fight.

Finally, we were done, and when the flag eventually converted to our color, I
emerged from the bunker, still pumped with adrenaline and ready to move on to
the next target, but the landscape outside just stopped me in my track. 
The moon was rising behind the hills and a pond way down below the valley was
reflecting its silvery rays.  The entire scenery looked so peaceful and it
contrasted so starkly with the intense scrimmage I was just submitted to that I
paused and took this picture.  The two blue banners in the distance are set
on the Alliance fortress, which is our next goal.



The moon rises over the Frost Wolf Fortress
Click for the large version (3 megs)

There are various ways you can make the fight for Alterac Valley more
interesting.  One of them is being able to summon various elite characters
or animals that will help you in your fight against the other faction.  You
need to fulfill certain conditions before you can do this (such as turn in items
collected on the dead bodies of your enemies), but once you’re done, it’s
definitely worth making a quick run for the altar and do the summoning.

While the Horde can summon a creature called the Ice Lord, the Alliance can
invoke the help of Gryphons, which hover high above the fight scene and have the
ability to cast a powerful knock back that will throw all the troops under it at
a distance.  It doesn’t harm anyone, but it causes chaos that is very
valuable to the attackers.

The Gryphons fly so high that you usually never notice them until you feel
yourself lifted in the air for no reason.  This is exactly what happened to
us during that fight and the group reacted immediately by concentrating their
firepower to the harmless-looking creature flapping its wing over our heads. 
Again, the sight was so taking that I stepped back on a nearby hill and snapped
several pictures to immortalize the instant…



A Gryphon becomes the target of a Horde group in Alterac Valley
Click for the large version (3 megs).

Say what you want about World of Warcraft, but I have yet to come across a
game that, one year and a half after I started playing it, is still making me
live such intense and gratifying moments…

 

Game of the week

The game of the week is Dice Wars. It looks a lot like Risk but with simpler rules: your armies are dice, and when you attack another country, all the dice involved are rolled. If you lose, all your dice but one are eliminated, and if you win, all your armies but one move to the conquered territory.

That’s it.

Well, almost: after your round, you receive a new supply of armies based on the number of conquests, which are then randomly assigned to your countries (and incidentally, I still haven’t figured out how this number is calculated, so if you know, please share!).

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the rules, as they allow for some singularly sophisticated strategies. For example, you might be tempted initially to pick a pile of six dice and plow through enemy territories until you run out. This will get you a nice supply of new armies, but it will also leave a wake of countries protected by only one dice, which will undoubtedly be taken back by the opponents at the next round (which will also allow them to insert a wedge through your possessions, another bad thing). However, you also quickly realize that a pile of eight dice is useless if it’s only surrounded by friendly territories, so in some way, you want to invite the enemy to come nearby so you can unleash your stockpile…

The game allows for two to eight players, but I strongly recommend starting with four and work your way up from there…

Enjoy!

World of Warcraft Battlegrounds guide

I just wrote up a quick Battlegrounds for Dummies article… Comments welcome.

World of Warcraft Methadone

Ever since I started playing World of Warcraft some ten months ago, I have
been hoping for the addiction to end.  It’s a bit ironic to enjoy something
so much that you actually want to get off it so you can return to a more
balanced life, but it’s really how I’ve been feeling these past weeks.  Not that my life hasn’t been balanced:  I think I did
pretty well, especially compared to some of my guild mates who routinely spend
twelve hours in a row playing the game without any bios (warcraftese for
"a break dictated by a biological necessity:  food, bathroom, etc…").

Well, I think that time has finally come.  I can proudly announce that
"I am over World of Warcraft".

Let me explain how I got there.

I have to hand it off to Blizzard for creating a game that is equally
fascinating "in the middle" (levels 1-59) as it is "at the end" (level 60). 
Keeping level 60 characters interested is no small feat, and you need to find
ways to keep them entertained even though they no longer get any experience. 
World of Warcraft does this by providing dungeons of
incredible difficulty that can only be defeated by groups of 10, 20 and even 40
(all group members need to be level 60, of course).  As you can imagine, finding groups to enter
such "instances" (the technical term for these dungeons) is not easy and
even if you might be lucky and find yourself invited to a random pick-up party
for the
Molten Core (one of the hardest instances in the game), you probably
don’t want to join anyway because you really need to play these dungeons with
people you know and trust.

What is the appeal of these instances?  Loot.  Very rare and overly
powerful gear that will greatly enhance your character.  It’s really the
only reason why players enter these instances, which is a bit baffling to me
(and probably one of the reasons why I am finally quitting).

A high-end instance is an intense experience.  Very intense.  Here
are a few points:

  • You need to commit for four to five hours in a row.  Don’t even
    think of quitting unless you have a replacement ready and that the class of
    your replacement is similar to yours (or close enough).  Parties for
    high instances need a very precise balance of various classes (warriors,
    mages, priests, etc…) and tilting this balance, especially in the middle
    of the instance, can prevent the party from finishing.
     
  • You need to be on TeamSpeak.  TeamSpeak is a central server that
    allow groups of people to communicate with their microphones and headsets. 
    You don’t really need a microphone if you’re not a leader, but being able to
    listen to the directions from your leaders and to the talks during the
    fights is absolutely essential.  Regular chats are not fast enough and
    very easy to miss in the heat of combat.  I expected a lot of chaos on
    this channel, but all the players of my guild turned out to be very
    disciplined and they do not talk unless absolutely necessary.  It was my
    first experience of a video game leveraging audio and I was quite surprised
    by how well it worked out.
     
  • A high instance has several "bosses" (featured above is
    Ragnaros, the final boss of the Molten Core, and you’re not even sure that
    you’ll be able to summon him every time) and the preparation to fight each
    of them can take easily twenty to thirty minutes.  I’m not even talking about
    the fight itself, which can also be very long, but just the planning and the
    directions from your leader instructing various groups where to stand, where
    to go depending on how the fight turns, explaining various tactics,
    describing how the boss works and what attacks to expect from it, telling
    you which spells and moves to use which which ones to avoid, sharing "buffs"
    (protective spells that players cast on each other), etc…  By the
    time the fight is about to begin, your head is literally buzzing with the
    information overload, but now is certainly not the time to lose your focus
    because the real work is just about to begin.
     
  • Depending how well you do and how disciplined the party is, the boss
    will finally drop, possibly after a few "wipes" (the entire party decimated)
    followed by a long session of resurrections to bring everyone back. 
    When the boss is defeated, it’s time to uncover the loot and decide who gets it. 
    That’s right.  Each boss typically drops three or four items maximum,
    and since you have forty players, not everybody is guaranteed to get an item
    on a run.  So how do you decide who gets what?  There are various
    systems in place, the most popular one being DKP (Dungeon/Dragon Kill
    Points).  I won’t go into detail on how this system works, but suffice
    to say it involves keeping track of who has gone to what raid, and what
    dropped during these raids.  It’s a fair system that guarantees that
    the more raids you participate in, the more likely you become eligible
    for a rare item.  If you are curious, here is a typical

    DKP standings page
    .

With all that in mind, it should be no surprise to you that a high instance
raid is an intense experience that will leave you sweating.  But boy! 
What a rush!

I went on a few of those runs after finally deciding that the amount of
involvement versus the feeling of reward was no longer high enough for me. 
It was one of the most immersive experiences in a video game I have ever had
(which is no small feat in a career of almost thirty years playing videogames),
but the time has come for me to move on.

So I am now looking for my new addiction, and the winner is…

Ah…  Civilization…  my old Nemesis.

I’ve only been playing for a week so it’s still a bit early to tell if
Civilization 4 will deliver.  All I can say for now is that the ramp up is
pretty tough, especially for a Civilization I veteran such as myself.  But
I’m going to give it a fair chance, even if coming right after World of Warcraft
is certainly a challenge.

So here’s to a fond goodbye to World of Warcraft and the dawning of a new
Golden Age (ah… already using Civilization lingo).

 

The cost of fun

In a recent game review, PC Gamer mentioned that Quake IV, which was released recently, can be completed in about ten hours.  Ten hours.

This made me think.

I must have spent easily that much in my first week of World of Warcraft.  And probably just as much in all the weeks following, for a period of several months.  Which led me to wonder about the cost of entertainment, and how each type compares to each other.

Let’s start with Quake IV.  Ten hours to complete it, maybe another ten hours to do it a second time (some people seem to do that) and maybe twenty hours playing on the multiplayer version, for a total of forty hours of fun.

World of Warcraft… well, it’s actually fairly easy to quantify since the game keeps track of this for you.  Over a course of nine months, I built two character up to level 60 and each of them clocked in at over twenty days of playing.  That’s twenty days of effective play — 480 hours — and let’s add a few hours spent on a few other characters to round it up to about 1000 hours total.

Here is a quick breakdown:

Name Upfront cost Cost per hour Explanation
World of Warcraft $50 + $15 / month = $185 18.5 cents per hour $185 / 1000
Quake IV $50 $1.02 per hour $50 / 40 hours
TV Show $30 per month (basic cable subscription) $2.70 per hour $30 / 12, assuming you watch 3 series, each showing 4 episodes per month
Movie (rental) $5 $1.7 per hour $5 / 3 hours (movie + extras)
Movie (theater) $10 $5 per hour $10 / 2 hours

Of course, there are plenty of other activities we could add, such as sport (mostly free:  basket, volleyball, etc…  and not so free:  golf, scuba diving, horse riding. etc…) and other ways to pass the time (hiking, walking, running, reading, etc…).

Another factor that we should probably add is the "intensity" of these activities.  Not all of them will enrapture you and isolate you from the real world with the same intensity, and you could probably say that World of Warcraft would score very high on that scale while hiking would not.

But the general idea is this:  World of Warcraft, and massively online games in general, have often been chastised for not only the monthly fee they charge but also for charging for the game in the first place.  In light of these numbers, one might actually wonder why they don’t charge more…

 

Halloween in Azeroth


alt="Click for bigger image (4 megs)"
/>

I was quite a bit surprised to find pumpkins everywhere in the main cities of World of Warcraft today.

This was already funny it itself, but the Warcraft developers didn’t stop there: if you talk to an
inn keeper, you can “trick or treat” and you will then receive either a candy or a wand.

The wand will randomly turn one of your party member into a pirate, a ninja, a skeleton, a worm, a miniature cat,
and many more possibilities that I haven’t discovered yet
(click on the picture above for a larger image). At any rate, this little patch
is causing hilarity throughout the various realms.

The Blizzard developers are having way too much fun.