Infested Planet is a little game that caught my eye after Defense Grid 2 awakened in me a love of tower defense games.  Of course, it’s not really a tower defense game, in that you have units that can move around the map – but you do have to defend points against swarms of mindless minions, and you do have some turret options.

It’s fun.  It’s not compelling play, but it’s fun.

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I don’t know if it’s a technology thing, or a design thing, or a problem with my own percetion and sense of what seems “right,” but there is something that is just not right with the weather in modern open-world RPG’s.  I’ve played Dragon Age Inquisition, Fallour 4, and am in the midst of The Witcher 3, and they all have the same odd weather issue.

In the midst of heavy rainstorms, the sun is routinely, almost universally still poking through the clouds.  There are deep, clearly visible shadows beneath stormy gray skies, and it’s just not right.

DAI’s Storm Coast was, by far, the worst offender here.  The zone is permanently raining.  That’s fine – day and night and weather are static in the game, and I can live with that.  What I can’t live with is the lighting.  It’s basically full daytime, judging by the sun and shadows, yet at the same time it’s stormy and cloudy.  It was just strange.

The Witcher 3 has dynamic weather and a full day and night cycle.  It’s pretty cool, actually, and a lot of the weather states I really like.  But The Witcher 3 also has some sort of light perception mechanic going on, where it adjust visibility according to a sense of relative visibility based of where Geralt is looking and standing.  Dark places look darker if you’re in a light place, I believe.  That’s cool in a lot of places, but when half the sky is sunny and half the sky is stormy, it leads to odd effects.  I was in Novigrad, walking along the docks in a rainstorm.  It was sunset, and of course the sun was in a clear part of the sky, and the dynamic light perception was trying to adjust for perceived glare, or something.  I don’t know – but the end effect was that I simply could not see anything, and kept running into posts and barrels and people

Now, where I’ve lived – Los Angeles, and Michigan, and Japan – it’s pretty damn rare to have a bright sun AND heavy rain at the same time.  Clouds cover up the whole sky, leading to a diffuse, even light across the land.  It can get pretty dark when real rainstorms hit – like those nasty summer thunderstorms in Michigan that threaten tornadoes – but it can also be reasonably bright.  It’s a pretty rare storm where visibility gets really bad at noon, and those sorts of storms are not very long lasting.

But maybe I’m the freak here, and this seems normal to others.  Any thoughts on the matter?

Darkest Dungeon has some of the best voice work I can remember in a game.  The glorious voice of your corrupt ancestor, alternatively bemoaning his own fate and pushing you to violent revenge against the unnatural fruits of his works, is simply compelling.  It alone pushes Darkest Dungeon into the realm of the must-play, in my opinion, especially when combined with the beautiful artwork.

Aside from that, it’s a perfectly competent tactics game with a somewhat shallow metagame.  It’s fun figuring out how to use the different heroes, trying out combinations, and discovering different ways to use trinkets to your advantage.  The zones provide distinct challenges and push you to strategize carefully, especially once you reach the medium-level quests.  The game asks you to find a balance between upgrading heroes and letting them go, buying trinkets vs. removing quirks and affliction, and training new heroes or pushing old ones.  It’s interesting, and definitely a challenge.

The problem is, the story and atmosphere is almost entirely incidental to the gameplay, and after a certain point, when you’ve memorized all the narrator barks and seen all the monsters a few times, when you’ve built and lost a few good parties and have had your sentimental attachment to your favorite hero broken … after all that, the game starts to suffer a bit.

All RPG’s are, at one level, about making numbers get bigger.  They try to hide this by using the numbers to unlock new things – story content, zones, characters, etc. – but the game mechanics  come down to making various number sets go up or down, allowing you to stay in place on the combat treadmill.  I’ve done this a million times in a million games.

Darkest Dungeon executes this side of things well enough, but by the midgame the surprises and newness of everything begins to fade, the system becomes known, and it becomes a set optimization problem, where the chief variable is your willingness to grind.  Mine is rather low, and I have begun to tire of the game.

To be fair, it’s taken 30 hours or so of gameplay for this fatigue to set in.  I could also imagine putting another 30 hours or so in, if I was going to seriously pursue the endgame.  I don’t think I will.

I decided that a reasonable way to get used to the game again would be to play all of my heroes once in bot matches, just to get a feel for them again.  Here are my impressions.

Janna – I remember why I like Janna – aside from the cheesecake.  Her whirlwind does solid poke damage and is useful as a slow.  It’s also a great lane clear for when your ADC is out of lane, especially in the mid/late game.  Zephyr puts on the hurt if you level up AP, and sets up targets for the kill – or alternately, can help your ADC get out of a jam.  Shield is a lot better than I remember it, and now there are fancy items that make it even better, like the censer of whatisname.  Serious item study will come later.  Also, playing support, I have the comfort of stepping into a role that nobody else wants to play, and thus I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes.  That is always nice in a social game like LoL.

Veigar – I also remember why I like playing Veigar, and he seems a lot better now.  Deathfire Grasp is a skillshot now, but it hits and kills up to 2 enemies, making it vastly easier to build his AP stack.  He just does SO MUCH DAMAGE, it’s wonderful.  The only problem is that everyone wants to play solo-mid.

Zilean – Zil is interesting, and I’m happy to play him as an alt to Janna … but he’s just not as fun.  It’s his rewind power.  I understand, in theory, how good it is, but it’s just not very interesting.  His ult is great, though.

Tristana – I can’t last-hit very well, and I’m too aggressive to play her properly.  It’s a skill I should practice, I suppose, but if you’re going to be on a team and suck, it’s perhaps worst to suck as the ADC.

Caitlyn – Her long-range poke is good, though I doubt I’ll be nearly as effective with it as I was against dumb bots.  Given just how long-range and standoffish her ability set is, I figure that it would make the most sense to practice my ADC game with her, because of that slight margin of safety.

Jax – I decided to try jungling with Jax, without actually reading anything about how to jungle.  After a few minutes of flailing helplessly and failing to get any Xp, I gave up and crowded in on top-lane.  I remember why I liked Jax before, and he’s a lot of fun to play, but I need to do some serious practicing and studying to learn him properly.

Ziggs – He reminds me of Veigar, but with more range, less damage, and better standoff/escape.  Meh.

Sona – I’ve heard that she’s a top-flight support, and given her direct healing abilities I can understand why.  She seems a lot more vulnerable than Janna, but that might just be my misunderstanding of her abilities and ranges.  Her ult is just as brutal as Janna’s, but in a directly offensive way rather than a defensive manner.

Zyra – She’s really fun.  Her W plants are a lot of fun to set up and trigger, and can do a fair bit of damage to a rooted enemy.  I like her, but I can see how she needs some serious finesse to play well.  I definitely want to practice more with her.  Given her diversity of slows and rooting abilities, I can also imagine her playing as a very offensive support, setting up kills for the ADC.

Rengar – I don’t own him, and don’t figure to buy him.  Looking at his ability set, it became clear just how much of a jungle-ganker he is, to the point that he’s really not set up well to do anything else.  Nice burst damage, the leaping ability is cool, and it’s nice that he doesn’t need any mana – but you need to really know how to jungle well to be able to use him.

Nautilus – I don’t know why, but Nautilus is a lot of fun.  I don’t own any big heroes like him.  It’s also not obvious how exactly he should be built – AP, DP, tank, jungle?  I don’t know.  I suppose this is why I like him.

That went better than expected.  Two practice matches against beginner AI, just to get a handle on what things look like and how they play.  I chose my two standbys of yore, Janna and Veigar, and pretty much cleaned house in both matches.  12/1/9 with Veigar seemed pretty good, for a first go around, but the AI bots are SO BAD that I know that playing against them just builds bad habits.  Then again, just last night, some Elite AI beat my team in HotS last night – thanks to two dumbasses who thought that split push in the face of a deathball was the way to go, over and over and over.

I need to learn the items.  I don’t know them, and waste lots of time in the store.  I need to remember visibility and warding, and get comfortable enough with the flow of things to watch the minimap.  I need to figure out how to get feedback about what my teammates are doing.  In HotS, I always felt like I knew what my allies were up to, all game.  Here, they seemed nearly invisible unless I really took time to figure it out.

But at least I knew not to feed the bots, not to chase, and not to tower dive.  That’s a start.

You’re an insurance adjustor for deep-space claims, examining the wreckage of ships, mining platforms, space stations, and whatnot with an eye for who’s paying out and who’s culpable for damages.  Deep space equipment is expensive, and your bosses would rather fob expenses off onto a guilty party, and guilty party, than take the hit themselves.  If you can find evidence which puts the blame on operator error above and beyond reasonable use expectations, faulty machinery that failed while still covered by warranty, or circumstances not covered by the policy, then you’re that much more likely to come home to a fat Christmas bonus.

The game is a 3rd person investigation simulator, with substantial time spent reviewing black box recordings, camera data, and audio logs.  First off, is the visual inspection, checking the damage and determining the main cause of failure.  Part of this task is figuring out how much can be salvaged or repaired, and so a fair bit of jury-rigging and equipment testing goes on here.  Jump start reactors, connect battery cables, check zones for air-tightness, that sort of stuff.  Every piece of machinery that can be salvaged lessens the sting of a payout.

Eventually, though, you’re going to need to probe deeper into the records to figure out why the operators made bad decisions at the wrong moment, and to pin the blame on their stupidity.  Here is where you’ll review their records – maintenance logs, video data of normal operating procedure, audio recordings, that sort of stuff.

The thing is, you only have so much time for the job, and there’s a TON of material to look through – after all, this is the future, there are cameras everywhere, and they’re always running.  The key is using clues to figure out WHEN you need to examine the records, and WHICH records are likely to say something interesting about the disaster.  What I imagine is a “full” set of records, most of which just show standard operating procedure.  Watching these would be like watching the most boring machinima ever – people doing work, and slacking off periodically.  They could be procedurally generated using a few general guidelines, so that the full spectrum of records really is available for the player’s persual.

However, should the player use clues properly, they will be treated to more properly scripted sequences showing actions of interest.  Let’s say that the primary cause of the problem was that the main drive overloaded.  Oh, what’s this, there was a regular maintenance performed a week before the disaster?  Let’s watch it, and see if there’s anything obvious.  Oh, look at that, the mechanic is just using duct tape to close key seals, because they ran out of the proper sealant.

The more detailed the machinery and equipment design, the better for this game.  You can use highlights and whatnot to draw the player’s attention to things which the character’s expert knowledge will recognize as problematic, but the key is to create large and deep investigative scenarios, where visual clues left from the disaster must be interpreted properly, and used as a guide to further research – all in the interests of finding any reason at all to deny payment.

Think Eve Online, get rid of the spaceships, and add cowboys, railroads, factories, slaves, and Indians.

The map would be simple enough in theory, but a remarkable achievement if actually done – use USGS satellite survey maps, and historical documents, to create a digital simulacrum of North America West of the Mississippi as it may have looked at a certain time in the 19th century.

Factions are simple enough – Northerners, Southerners, Mexicans, Canadians, and Indians.  Carve out space for your faction in the lands of the West, build up the strength and wealth of your people, and survive.  Set up farms, mines, factories, towns, etc. that are populated by NPC’s – NPC’s that you need to recruit and escort to the West, and perhaps feed, house, and support.  Cooperate with other players from various factions to do this – but be aware of which faction will gain the most from your new developments.  Engage in range wars and vigilante actions against your faction enemies when it suits you, but beware of causing too much chaos lest the army come in to settle things down.

This would be best run on instanced servers.  Each server would have a set time-dilation.  Travel and economic actions would take time in the game, similar to what they might take in the real world, but as game time moves forward far faster than in reality, things would move forward.  Allow players to have multiple characters in game, acting as part of a clan or tribe or business empire, so that they’ll usually have new orders to give and new things to do.

As time passes, the game world would change.  Towns will grow, populations will move, the economy will develop.  Along with this, political boundaries will shift.  Land may be incorporated into free states, slave states, Canadian or Mexican provinces, or it may stay under the control of the Native Americans.  These political developments would take place in part due to population triggers (so much population of one faction in an area, and stuff starts to happen), but could be molded by player activity as well.  Players could become politicans, and work for support both amongst the NPC population (by doing things that those NPC’s would like) and amongst the PC population.

As things change, the game would move closer and closer to a set end-game time, perhaps 1914.  Then, it would all start over.  The game would play out differently every single time, both due to modifications in the resources available on the map, and what sort of PC’s join the server, what faction they support, and what they choose to do.

 

This is the most awesome game ever.

Well, maybe that’s a bit strong.  But it’s one of the most cackle-inducing displays of awesome-ness I’ve seen recently.

Stick-figure kung-fu, with every over-the-top ass-kicking move imaginable, fast and smooth and fluid animation . . . it’s seriously awesome.  Every fighting game tries to create the feeling of being the most bad-ass warrior who has ever lived, but all too often they get bogged down by the actual mechanics of fighting in an open environment, and you end up jump-kicking against the wall and looking silly.

By restricting you control in the most severe way possible, One Finger Death Punch allows for a more cinematic experience while still giving the player a modicum of control.  Your little stick-figure dude whips out the most awesome kung-fu ass whuppin’ imaginable at a blinding pace, and you feel like a badass just clicking along.

And the game modes . . . utter brilliance.  Light sword round?  Why not.  Oh, and a numchuck round, because of course.  And a thunderstorm round, because seriously, you have to.

If you love kung-fu, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

One Finger Death Punch, by Silver Dollar Games.

Steam has a lot of games now.  Here are some new ones that look kind-of interesting.

Qualia 3 – Evolve your entity in a Shmup-style melee game set underwater.  Maybe.

The Last Federation – This is by the guys who made AI War, which is very highly regarded.  The semi-turn-based combat system reminds me a bit of Space Rangers.  I’m definitely curious.

Circuits – Anything with logic gates intrigues me, as one of my formative gaming experiences was playing Robot Odyssey as a kid.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a hard-core game marathon, the sort where you sit down to play with the morning’s coffee, then look up a while later to discover that the day has gone by, you’ve skipped lunch, and pretty much nothing else is going to be accomplished for the day.  But this week, as I enjoyed the between-term break provided by my generous and magnanimous employer, I wasted three days playing Betrayer start to finish.

Betrayer is the first game from the new studio Blackpowder Games, which is composed of several Monolith veterans – Monolith being the developer behind F.E.A.R. and No One Lives Forever and various other well-remembered games from the Golden Age of the PC FPS.  I first heard about this game on episode 3 of Tone Control, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network that is a series of interviews with game developers about their careers and the process of making video games.  The developer in this case was Craig Hubbard, and towards the end he discussed this game.  It’s been on Early Access for a bit, but I got the game on a whim when I saw the full release announcement on Steam. 

To steal a phrase from Rock Paper Shotgun, here’s what I think.

Betrayer keeps you in the dark, literally and figuratively.

Literally speaking, the game’s default graphics mode is black and white, with the occasional splash of red.  Furthermore, nearly half the time you’re in the “dark world,” which is quite literally dark and foggy and definitely tilted towards the black end of the black and white spectrum.  Figuratively speaking, the game tells you absolutely nothing about its fundamental mechanics or about the story.  I didn’t figure out how to use one of the most critical game mechanics until the fourth map stage, and when I got around to going back to early stages with that knowledge in hand, I was able to unearth tons of stuff which I’d simply bypassed the first time through.  Look to the spoilers section at the end for my discussion of this.

At the same time, Betrayer makes no secret about being a serious First-Person shooter.  This is clear from the opening scenes, where you learn to smash open crates with a COD-style super-fast melee attack and then find the weapon store and your first “real” weapon, the longbow.  Yes, that’s right, a longbow.  This is a serious first-person shooter where you’ll spend most of the game shooting arrows, because your only guns are single-shot black powder muskets and pistols which take forever to reload.

This is the split-personality of Betrayer – serious shooter mechanics of the strangest sort versus challenging tactical situations, on the one hand, and a grab bag of exploration, puzzle, investigation, and story mechanics on the other.  It’s the oddest mix I’ve run into in a long time, and while utterly captivating, it has its share of problems.

So, the story.  You wash up on the coast, mysterious protagonist, looking for . . . something.  An English colony, one would presume, given the remains of an English colony you find.  It’s not clear at first what’s going on – and as one advances, things become even more murky.  You meet nobody living, except, maybe, a mysterious woman in red.  She’s looking for her sister, but cannot remember her own name, or much of anything.  Is she really alive, or just another spirit in another form?  Are you even really alive, or just another wraith, like the other wraiths and specters and lost souls you meet in the dark world?

Ring the bell, and the world changes, from the “light” world, which does not seem quite right, to the “dark” world, which is very definitely the world of the dead.  In the world of the dead are skeletal and spectral enemies, who are just as vulnerable to musket and arrow as are the Spaniards and Natives you fight in the light world.  Also, there are wraiths, glowing ghosts who are actually friendly and communicative.  You help them piece together the events of their last days, usually by going out into the world and finding objects or interviewing lost souls, and helping them attain a degree of closure in their after-life.

Finding things is not easy, because you’re thrown into a series of very large and fairly open maps, where you are free to wander through the forest at great length.  One can be methodical, and through brute force alone scour the maps for all relevant clues, but the game provides you with the oddest of hint mechanics – and of course, it doesn’t explain it at all.

Why are you able to switch between these worlds?  The woman in red has no answers.  Indeed, she openly mocks you and your craziness, as she can’t see the dark world at all, nor does she see any of the enemies you face.  It’s all quite unnerving – you’re not sure who she is, or who you are, but it’s pretty clear that the final answer is not going to be all that simple, or pretty.

Solving puzzles means traveling around the world, and traveling around the world means combat.  There are lots of enemies in the colonial Americas, be they zombie-esque Spaniards (their presence is explained, sort of, but their bestial nature is not), Native warriors (who are on fire), skeletons, or wraiths.  The Spanish are a particular challenge, as much of the game is comprised of clearing them out of key towns or outposts.  There are a LOT of Spaniards guarding the game’s main areas, and they are quite tough.  Given your weaponry, it’s not a good idea to charge straight in.  Instead, you need to sneak up on the Spanish sentries, one by one, and knock them out with assassin-style headshots from your bow.  Problem is, it’s HARD to hit them in the head properly, and one false hit, and the whole contingent of guards is on your case.  Sometimes you can run away and hide, but more often than not they’ll hunt you down and shoot you to death.

When this happens, it becomes clear just how strong the influence of Dark Souls has been on the game’s basic design.  Whenever you die, the world and its enemies re-spawn.  Clear out an entire area, and it stays clear – that’s one little mercy the game provides, and after opening up an area in this fashion you’ll typically find all kinds of new stuff to investigate.  Should you fail in clearing out a new zone, though, you’ll have to start from scratch, and try again and again until you manage to kill every single Spaniard guarding your target area.  Succeed, and you’re rewarded with a clear audio cue and in-game message, “ZONE X UNLOCKED.”  This forces you to master the game’s stealth mechanics, which are quite forgiving, and it forces you to learn the bow.  It also forces you to get 10 to 15 successful headshots with your bow in a row, which is no easy accomplishment.  Betrayer is serious about giving you some serious FPS challenges.

After you figure out the nature of the challenges in both the Light World and the Dark World, the game falls into a bit of a rhythm.   Enter a new zone, find the key areas, clear out the Spaniards.  Find the bell, then enter the dark world.  Meet the wraiths and lost souls, look for clues, and clear out the evil forces.  Move to next zone, repeat.

I loved it.  I love exploring large open worlds, and discovering everything in them, wondering if I’ve found everything I need, and hitting the wall of incomprehension now and again.  There were moments where I was stuck, wondering if I’d missed something earlier (thanks Sierra games!), or wondering if I had failed to grasp some basic game mechanic – but soon enough, I figured out what I needed to know, and with that mastery, was able to move forward in a much more assured and competent manner.  It was awesome.

For anyone who enjoyed the moments of total incomprehension in Dark Souls, AND enjoys some serious if unconventional FPS challenges, this game is highly recommended.

Spolier-ey nitpicks below.  You don’t have to look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

In all honesty, the game’s main plot is a mess.  Vengeful spirit, ancient Indian burial ground, first-contact difficulties, asshole boss – it’s all there, but it just doesn’t make sense!  Where did Tabitha’s super-death powers really come from, and how on Earth did she turn into such a super-destroyer?  As if every young woman dealt a shit hand in life gets massive destructive super powers!  Then again, what exactly was the relationship of the woman in Red to the whole set of events?  Did she turn her sister into this death-dealing mega blight?  Was she merely the tool of the ancient evil powers of the woods, alluded to on several occasions?  Who knows.  None of it was made clear in the middle, and at the end, the developers threw a massive sucker punch at the player, but didn’t give them time to figure out its meaning.  Seriously, wtf was the meaning of that last scene?

Furthermore, what was the significance, if any, of all the little decisions the player made through the game?  Did any of those gifts to the Woman in Red matter? How? Why?  Did it matter whether you consigned the wraiths to Torment or to Peace?  I made judgements of each person on a case by case basis, forgiving most but condemning the worst of the worse – but did it matter at all?  I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong – the fact that I’m left with all these questions is a sign of success.  I care enough to wonder, meaning the developers did most of their job.  However, it’s a big problem with games as a medium in this particular historical moment that players can never tell how much this sort of end-game confusion is a result of poor design (nobody could get it because it’s just stupid), the player missing something (I failed to notice the scrollwork in the background which tied it all together, or something), the player not being on the same wavelength as the developer (expecting something so different from what the developer intended that the final reveal was incomprehensible), deliberate creative decisions (obscure for the sake of being artistic), or a failure to 100% the game (if you’d read the secret note hidden under a rock in the first zone, you’d totally understand everything).  The author of a book does not have this problem – if the reader doesn’t “get” the book, it’s either because the author sucks, or the reader didn’t get it.  With games, you have that ugly middle ground to worry about – maybe I didn’t do all the busy work, and if I had, I’d get the REAL ending.  I don’t know what the situation with Betrayer is, and it kind of bugs me.

All that said, the biggest let down in the game was discovering that the all of the little goody piles buried under rocks were just money, weapons, or charms.  I was CERTAIN that when I went back and unearthed all those little rock piles, there would be tons of story-related goodness, and I’d really start to understand what was going on in a much deeper and more comprehensive manner.  Finding 200 coins or a Warrior’s Shortbow was a massive disappointment, because by that point in the game I didn’t CARE about the FPS challenges nearly as much as I cared about the story and the world.  Thus, finding FPS bonuses was nice, I guess, but it was not at all what I was really looking for.

On the other hand, one of the most surprisingly cool elements was the use of sound cues as a primary navigational aid.  There’s a LISTEN command, which plays a sound effect.  This sound effect is rendered in Stereo, so you can use it to turn towards a target, and it gets louder as you get closer to a target.  You don’t really know what the sound is leading you towards, but it gives you a guide to help find MOST of the important things in both the Light and the Dark worlds.  I didn’t figure out how these worked until the third or fourth map zone, but once I did they were absolutely wonderful, especially in the Dark World.  It was awesome to figure this out for myself, but on the other hand, I wonder how many people may NEVER figure out how useful these sound-cues are, and thus suffer horribly from the difficult of finding things in the forest.