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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.


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.

Yeah, I’m writing about a 4 year old game.  Hey, it’s new to me.

I am surprised at how much I’ve been grabbed by the Terran campaign.  It’s cheesy as all hell, but there’s something about this style of game that I like – focused, fairly small-scale real-time scenarios.  It’s not the pure battle of the real online Melee, and it’s easy to see the triggers and the seams in the AI – if you can even call it that.  I’ve seen nothing beyond “throw units at the enemy when the time is right.”

But it’s a definite genre, one that’s not all that common these days.  I got the same high off Dawn of War 2, which I played by myself, and co-op, and even tried on Hard.  Both expansions, too.  I loved that game.  Reaching way back, I remember loving Myth 2.

You fight a battle, you reach for extra objectives, you spend your credits on upgrades.  It’s a fun formula, and it’s rarer than it should be.  That, or maybe I’m the only one who digs this stuff.  I hear there was a lot of hate for DoW2 amongst the gaming cognoscenti, and a good number of them attacked it for the very things I loved the most.

The biggest problems that StarCraft 2 has come from the fact that it’s StarCraft, and the extreme ludo-narrative dissonance that is unavoidable given the game’s basic design.

It all comes down to the base.  That’s the biggest and ugliest flaw this game has.  First off, it’s just ridiculous.  The whole idea of building units on the battlefield is nonsensical from the start.  Dawn of War 2 made it work because you never brought new units onto the battlefield at all.  Myth just gave you a set of guys, and that was it.  Both of those systems were better, because running the base is just pure busy-work.  I understand that it’s a key part of micro in the real game, blah blah blah.  I’m just an old man, I guess, but I don’t see the need for such an ugly attention-splitter when the problem of resource gain has been solved in better ways by more recent games.

But ESPECIALLY in the campaign, it makes no sense at all.  “Gee, good thing this firebase we just set up happens to be centered around a naturally occurring outcrop of minerals.  Lucky the people who built this building we’re standing upon just left them here, like a sculpture or something.  We can mine them and transform them into new weapons on the spot, in minutes.  Fortunately that Barracks we just built came with a theoretically infinite quantity of men.  I handcrafted them myself, out of pure mineral.  But, even though they’re magical mineral men, they won’t leave the barracks or do anything unless the proper kit is built for them.”

A more fully SF game could have made it work, I suppose, with 3D printers and AI, but of course StarCraft doesn’t go that route.


I started playing the StarCraft 2 campaign tonight.  I’m trying to make a world-beating MOBA in the StarCraft 2 editor, so I figure I oughta learn the base game, at least a little bit.

I am perhaps the only one whose initial reaction to the StarCraft 2 campaign was, “WTF, all the future people are white!”

They’re not only white, they are white Americans.  Not only white Americans, but vaguely southern white Americans.  And by southern, I don’t mean Mexican, Latino, or any form of Hispanic.  No, they’re good ol’ boys.

Perhaps in the 1950’s, during the era of unparalleled American strength and dominance in pretty much everything, it was possible to imagine a lily-white space-faring future.  Nowadays, it requires total and utter ignorance.  India and China are recovering from 300/200 years on the downswing, respectively, and have the economic clout and demographic weight to be a key part of any realistic Space Future, whatever form it may take.  Not just a part, but in all likelihood a dominant part.

In particular, if any Earth nationality is likely to produce a “Space Emperor,” it would have to be China.  Seriously, who could imagine a post-Enlightenment European or North American power creating a proper Absolute Monarchy?  It does not seem terribly likely for China, either, but at least there’s a very strong cultural tradition to draw upon, one that had some currency into the 20th century.  But a Space Empire based on any Western culture?  No.

Corporate dystopia?  Maybe.  Anarcho-syndicalist communes?  Maybe.  The Federation, in its fullest Star Trek sense?  Maybe.  An ugly and inefficient UN lookalike?  Maybe.  Space Empire?  Yeah, right.

Mobile is generally known as the home of crap free-to-play scamware, engineered to exploit the flaws in human psychology and trick people into wasting money while giving them next to no actual gameplay as a reward.

However, the iPad is also a wonderful platform for boardgames, and has been graced with a number of truly excellent boardgame ports in the last year.  Agricola is one of them.

Agricola manages a true miracle of alchemy, turning what has to be one of the most boring themes ever (become the most average peasant possible!) into a dense and tricky strategy game.  It plays really, really well as a purely solo game, wherein you try to match a ever rising score total through sheer mastery of the system.  It plays really, really well as a 2 player game, where you have to quickly distinguish your strategy from that of your rival to avoid conflicts over a limited number of resources which you both need.   It plays really, really well with 3, 4, or 5 players as well.  It’s just an incredible design.

The iPad port is, in many ways, distinctly superior to the boardgame.  Agricola is a beast to set up, as there are a TON of different little colored chits you need to lay out.  It requires a ton of fiddly little recordkeeping ever turn, refreshing the building resources and animals, and it requires a fair bit of attention during the Harvest phase, when you have to accurately feed your family, harvest crops, and increase animal counts accordingly.  And finally, scoring is fairly complicated – at least until you’ve memorized all 10 categories in the scoring table.  On the iPad, all of these problems simply disappear.  All that fiddly record-keeping is automated.  All those chits are kept and placed automatically, and all that complicated scoring is effortless.  It’s easy to follow, and it’s just better.

Alec Meer over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a sort of hindsight retrospective re-evaluation of Far Cry 2 out today.  He didn’t like it before, but now he does.  Well, at least, now he appreciates it – and for many of the same reasons that I did as well.

I’ve written a bit about Far Cry 2 before.  It was a game that I found utterly engrossing at the time, because of the exact same sense of constant fear and weakness described by Mr. Meer.  My favorite thing about that game was trying to plot out a course to the various distant quest locations, figuring out how to by-pass as many checkpoints as possible and reaching the destination by the skin of my teeth.  This was particularly the case before I discovered the buses, which made things SO MUCH EASIER but also eliminated a good deal of that tension.

There was also an interesting discussion of the exact same game, and many of the same issues, by the guys on the Idle Thumbs podcast Episode 143.  That discussion was prompted by an almost tragically sad email by an individual who was on the Far Cry 2 team, and who had decided that the game was a failure.  One of the most interesting points raised was about the way the game dis-empowers you, the player, in ways that are incredibly unusual for an FPS, and in particular for an FPS released back then.  While nowadays, with the boom in rogue-likes and the example of Dark Souls in mind, it’s much more acceptable for a game to put the player in a truly hostile world, back then it was jarring – particularly when the game looked and felt and was released as a typical AAA FPS.

Yeah, there were a lot of things about the design that were both incredibly frustrating and which made no sense.  But that game did a lot of stuff that’s not been done before, or since, and for all the legitimate crap it has taken, it’s still a major achievement.