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October 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»teamfortress

Vox in Socks

Playing Team Fortress 2 is like a flashback to high school, when I first saw the original being played on Quakeworld at a friend's house. I was hooked. But I was also torn apart every time I tried to play. It was a hardcore crowd, that game. And the Classic version that came out a few years later wasn't any easier.

So it's nice that TF2 is not really being made for the hardcore, as the developers confirmed lately. The classes are more cleanly defined now, so that the supporting roles actually support, instead of being hidden offensive classes at the hands of crazed obsessive players. I'm looking at you, Medic.

But it is still possible, even in the limited beta, to get wiped out by better teams--usually not better players, although that happens, but actual teams that are obviously linked up in either a physical location or by voice. In a game like this, that communication is deadly. There are several classes--the scout, the pyro, and to some extent the spy--that I don't think come into their own until they're really used as part of a team effort. To their credit, Valve has built a voice system into Steam that should make this possible even in pickup rounds, except for one little stumbling block: it weirds me out to hear other people talking when I'm playing video games.

Actually, I think it's more that I don't like hearing strangers online. People I know would probably be more palatable, maybe. But either way, it's a new experience, having someone's voice in my ear. And the vast majority of gamers--strike that, the vast majority of people--are not mouths that you want to imagine in close proximity to your head. It may be that turning them down, so that they blend in with the soundtrack a bit more, would get me past the discomfort.

Optimally, I join a clan with Gina Gershon and Shingai Shoniwa. Barring that, I'd probably prefer voice-to-text options--less lag, faster messaging. But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps there's an opportunity here. Speech training for gamers: who's up for a class?

September 11, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»halflife


So who wants a free copy of Half-Life 2 and HL2: Episode One?

Valve opened up the pre-order process for The Orange Box today, and rolled out the Orange Box Gifts program while they were at it. Even though I already own the previous Half-Life 2 components, the Box is a great deal on Episode Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2, so I'll end up buying it anyway. The gift program just lets me give away the parts that I've already got.

The web will be filled with gift opportunities when the Box launches on October 10th, I'm sure. But I just thought I'd make the offer now. I can give either HL2 or Episode One separately, or both together, so I could possibly hook a couple of people up if people are interested.

This is probably a real winner for Valve. I can't imagine the original title is flying off the shelves anymore, and a person who's played the previous titles is a much more likely customer for the new episode.

August 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock


Because I know I was looking for this information and couldn't find it: Bioshock (the demo, at least) does run playably well on my Thinkpad, which is using an nVidia Quadro 140M (roughly equivalent to a destkop GeForce 6600). Obviously it doesn't run native resolution with everything turned up, but I seem to get good results from 854x480 and High settings, or native resolution and low settings.

Neither of these is an optimal solution, of course: replaying Halo and Half-Life 2 on the laptop, which runs them better than my old desktop, is a revelation in how much easier they are to play with high resolutions and smooth framerates. But Bioshock is certainly playable, especially considering that I beat and enjoyed both of those other games at similar view sizes (and without all the eye candy). If I were willing to try a combination of medium settings and non-native resolutions, I'm sure I could do quite well.

Actually, it does raise the question, though, of how well something has to run before it becomes unplayable or clumsy. When I used to play Counterstrike, before I realized that it wasn't much fun being beaten by obsessive players with better reflexes and equipment, I would always hear that the really competitive players turned off as much detail as they could, in order to boost the resolution and still keep a good framerate. The argument, I believe, was that it's easier to be precise when your view is sharper, even if it's not as pretty.

But then, I don't really play multiplayer anymore. So what makes the game "better?" Which side of the tradeoff between resolution and eye candy, given limited hardware (since I am never going to be the kind of person that spends $600 on a video card), works best for an individual? For me personally, I've been choosing shiny effects over more pixels, particularly for a game like F.E.A.R. where the graphics are kind of the point. I find that I don't notice the low resolution once the game is in motion anyway, especially on a 14" screen.

As for Bioshock, the demo is reasonably fun, but it's short (I downloaded two gigs for that?), and I don't really understand what all the fuss is about. It's slick and well-presented, but there are some jarring exceptions: I always thought System Shock 2's menagerie was odd-looking, and Bioshock shows that Irrational still can't do a human model that doesn't look vaguely like a creepy marionette. The hack minigame, also, is one of those things that yanks me right out of suspension of disbelief. Why am I suddenly playing Pipe Dreams? It's been thirteen years since the first System Shock game, and no-one can think of a better way to do this?

July 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software

Fire Sale

With my contract in limbo, it makes me feel better to sell a few games. Just in case. The capsule reviews are free:

  • Mega Man ZX: It's Mega Man as reinvisioned for a sugary cartoon, with a little bit of Metroid thrown in. Everyone always talks about Mega Man games like they're the bread and butter for the hardcore, but for the most part I end up bullying my way through them based more on hoarded energy tanks than any kind of innate skill. It might be hardcore, but it's not elegantly so.
  • Trauma Center: Now this really is pretty hardcore. It's also fairly well-written, includes some clever scenarios, and makes you feel a little bit better about yourself. My only issue with it is that you cannot leave and come back a few months later, because each illness is treated in very specific ways, and the game will not prompt you after the first time.
  • Resident Evil DS: Not much to say about REDS. This was the first time that I beat the first game, although I'd played about a quarter of the way through the PC port many years ago. It's not RE4, but there's still a lot to enjoy.
  • Brothers in Arms DS: On the one hand, this game is beautifully rendered, well-animated, with lots of cool scenes going on around you the entire time. Very cinematic. On the other hand, it lasts about 3 hours all told, poses no real difficulty at all, and the controls can be a little wonky. I enjoyed it, but I don't know if I could recommend it at full price.
  • Star Trek Tactical Assault: I like this one, but other people didn't. It has its charms. Like Brothers in Arms, if it could play online or with a single-cart download, it would have a lot more going for it.
Everything starts at $5, and the Buy It Now prices are pretty reasonable, I think. Tell your friends.

May 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»homebrew

Nitro Pills

As far as I can tell, NitroTracker is the top of the DS homebrew world right now, if for no other reason than sheer physical convenience--any decent software really requires the GBAMP add-on for storage, and it sticks out about an inch from the DS, making it an unattractive package for MP3s or relatively shallow gaming. Music is more stationary.

Which is not to say that the experience is flawless, but the problems with it still lie mainly with the nature of the software and not with the program itself. NitroTracker is, well, a tracker. That means that it programs its sample-based music by stepping through a grid of notes like a piano roll, but less flexible. It's like writing a song in Excel (and I would know). For some genres of music--techno and house come to mind--having strict grid patterns of 4/4 eighth notes works well. But if you need to swing at all, or work in different time signatures, it gets ugly fast.

For example, the first slightly elaborate production I tried was the Galactica theme, because I knew that in 9/8 time it would be just slightly larger than a standard NitroTracker measure. It turns out pretty odd--partly because of the samples I used, but also because it's really hard to do decent timing this way (listen for yourself). This morning, on the Metro, I also put together a short version of Dave Brubeck's Take 5, which is even more difficult--not only is it 5/4 time, but it has a definite swing groove going on, which meant that I had to use 15 grid spaces to represent the song in triplets, and even then it sounds odd. To really get good exact timing, you'd need to break each quarter note into at least six grid spaces to get eights (every three spaces) and triplets (every two). That's a clumsy way to build a song. (here's an MP3 sample)

But for all that, I can definitely see this as one of the few applications where it is actually worth the hassle of putting homebrew together. After all, that Take 5 cover uses the DS microphone to sample my voice and whistling, which is pretty cool. A clever and patient programmer could use this to build songs out of ambient noise wherever he or she went. It's quick and fairly cheap, all things considered. As of version .3, it loads samples correctly (the Galactica snippet was built using .wav files I took from Ableton Live) for expandability, and it understands MIDI over WiFi. You could conceivably build a whole row of electronic instruments out of a PC and set of homebrew-capable DS's, especially if you used the other DSMIDIWiFi apps for control and simple synths.

April 24, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»chocobo_tales

That Old Magic

More than anything, Chocobo Tales makes me wish I was playing Magic: The Gathering. Which is impressive, because I haven't wanted to do that since high school.

I don't even remember where I got my first deck of Magic cards. I'm pretty sure that I never spent very much money on it, although I guess $10 decks and $1 booster packs can pile up over time. At lunchtime, friends and I used to go to the library and play a few games. We weren't very serious about it, and I was less serious than most--I tended to build strange, uncompetitive decks, like one that was completely themed around rats. Eventually, we stopped playing as much, and I sold my collection to another student for enough money to buy a nice harmonica.

So Chocobo Tales reminds me of the game in a couple of ways. First, it's got a card battle system that's a bit like Magic in its simplicity, although without the metagame rule-bending that really made Richard Garfield's invention fun. Second, getting cards is an expensive pain, if you consider time to be money, because it requires you to obsess over a set of minigames that would probably be more fun if you weren't trying them for the 300th time. If it were balanced, Squaresoft would make the value of the cards recieved inversely proportional to the amount of effort required. I'm not sure yet if they've done so, and don't know if I'll bother to try to figure it out.

It's too bad that this is a one-off game, though, because with some more meat it would make a fine central concept for a full title, instead of just a boss challenge. The CCG genre is well-suited to the DS, I think, especially since WiFi is a great environment for it. But to really give depth to the experience, it needs more: more cards, more oddities, and more room for people to build their own unique decks. Maybe someone will port Magic Suitcase or Magic Workstation to the DS homebrew and fill the gap.

March 4, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»lunar_knights

Why I stopped playing Lunar Knights

Consider this a very personal, and massively unreliable, review:

  • You know... for kids! What little drama exists in this game unfolds at the level of "Captain Planet." The voice work is annoying. Nobody has a sense of humor, or (for that matter) depth. As someone in their mid-twenties who plays video games, I'm aware that often my entertainment may be far beneath my chronological age, but it doesn't have to rub it in.
  • There's no need to be difficult. At the same time, I can't imagine a kid actually playing through this thing. Lunar Knights is sometimes irredeemably difficult and cheap. For example, there's a dash move available by double-tapping in any direction. It drains energy, but it's helpful. But when dashing, enemies do a lot more damage--three times as much, I think, which is enough to turn several parts of the game into one-hit kills. Not to mention the fact that the dash is oddly touchy for a mechanic that's been around for years, and often triggers accidentally.
  • The Four Seasons, this ain't. Reviews I have read have been very impressed with the game's weather system, which gives you a variety of climates you can choose when playing through one of the dungeons. Again, this is not a new idea--it's basically the same thing as the dark/light dichotomy used by Zelda and Metroid, or Soul Reaver's spirit world. But you can't change climate except by exiting a level, moving through a set of (clumsily-designed) menus on another part of the world map, and then re-entering the level from the start. Also, my version seems to have been faulty--on the one level where you have to do this four times to open a locked door, the climate refused to change properly on the fourth room. No matter what I did, the room would not respond to the climate, which left me stuck.

I liked Boktai, the game that led to Lunar Knights, for its odd use of a solar sensor to tie the real and virtual worlds together. It was cute. It was also not terribly complicated, and I think that worked in its favor. For this outing, Kojima has displayed his typical sense of humor by including not only the climate and the "sun brightness" display on the top screen, but also the wind speed, temperature, and humidity. They don't do anything--it's more like he's joking about how the game no longer responds to the player's environment, but has to make its own in obsessive detail.

But I think this joke also reveals the big problem with Lunar Knights. Boktai was a fairly simple game, which was a large part of its charm. This is not. It has piles upon piles of complications thrown in--an annoying just-in-time block system that has to be mastered in order to survive combat, the pointless climate system, aiming lock-on (!!!) in an isometric game--combined with silly and lightweight writing. Simultaneously, there is too much and too little going on here.

February 25, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»hotel_dusk

Darkness Falls

Let's start by looking at the things that Hotel Dusk does right:

  • It has little to no violence, even though it is basically an homage to noir. The only time a gun is fired is in flashbacks to the protagonist's police career.
  • The characterizations really are excellent. The writing might not quite be as good as Chandler, but it's better than most pulp. For a video game, that's really rather impressive.
  • The art backs up the writing. There's some sort of filter on the 3D that makes the hotel agreeably grungy and run-down, and the shaky pencil-sketch style for each character is impressionistic while still capturing a lot of subtleties.
  • Its plot, which revolves around art theft and family reconciliation, is a step above the average video game, most of which aspire mainly to the heady heights of Saturday morning cartoons.
Is it a perfect game? I'm not even sure it's a game, technically. What little amount of puzzle-solving and inventory management exists is basically just a way of moving the narrative forward. In fact, there are several points where the interactive segments don't really serve any purpose except to liven things up a bit--a bowling mini-game, for example, where you won't even make it through a full set. There's no real reason for you to have to go bowling. They could have just written "Kyle rolls the ball toward the pins." But it's like they thought "hey, while you're reading, wouldn't it be fun if you could be a little more involved?" They weren't really making a more book-like game, just a more game-like book.

This is a long way of saying that you will only enjoy Hotel Dusk if you actually enjoy reading. It is, as critics have alleged, a very verbose piece of software, and the text does take its sweet time making it across the screen. The fact that the writing is very good seems to have only made a cursory impact. For people who don't actually relish the experience of reading, the kind of people who don't list it as one of their hobbies when someone asks, the problems with text speed and clumsy puzzle design no doubt loom large. I would again protest that Hotel Dusk is certainly no more tedious or overladen with narrative than your average Squaresoft RPG, it simply does not hide that behind slick CGI.

Maybe I was just willing to forgive a lot. And it's possible that I'm the only person who feels this way, or that it's a game that caught me in one of my book-intensive phases. But moving from Hotel Dusk to Lunar Knights, a game that has been much applauded for its mechanics but in content embodies the most spastic tendencies of a marketing-driven anime, has been eye-opening. When I play a game like Lunar Knights that's been clearly aimed at children or short-attention-span adults, I find that my attention span likewise wanders quickly. Hotel Dusk may be long-winded, but it was not talking down to me, and I appreciate that.

January 30, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software

Market Price

Original trade-in price offered by Gamestop on five games: ~$45

Income from selling said games on eBay instead, not counting shipping: $106.52

Difference between Gamestop and eBay prices: $61.52, or 136% of the trade-in price

I didn't even have to try very hard. eBay has an ISBN database now, so usually I could type one number and have the whole listing completed for me. Retailers had better hope no-one realizes that it's basically the same amount of hassle whether I wait around at the post office or at the store. Not to mention, postal workers rarely ask me if I want to preorder anything.

Although I was tempted by their crafty "stamps" pitch. Next time, USPS. Next time.

January 27, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software

Grey Market

I'm selling some games on eBay this weekend. They're only up for three days, because I'm impatient that way. If you're looking for a pretty good deal, I think these are fair prices, and they're more than I'd get from the thieves at EBGames. Of course, just between us friends, I'm not selling all of these because they are too good to keep, if you know what I mean. So here's what we've got.

  • Dragon Quest: Rocket Slime for DS: This one genuinely is a pretty good game. It's got more puns than you can shake a stick at, a broad slapstick sense of humor, and the bizarre tank battles are really a lot of fun. Plenty of item collecting for the completist.
  • Yoshi's Island DS: It's not bad, but it's got some really cheap moments in it, and I don't feel like it has quite the same magic as the original. I made it through four worlds, and then just couldn't bring myself to struggle past the fifth.
  • Mechwarrior: Phantom Assault for DS: Now this one, like Star Trek Assault, has been unfairly maligned in my opinion. Also, it seems to be hard to find. I really enjoyed it, but it doesn't have a lot of replay value and it requires another copy for the multiplayer. The touch control is worthless, but once you get used to the face-buttons-as-dual-thumbsticks mechanic, it plays pretty well.
  • Animal Crossing for Gamecube: If you're not going to play it every day, it's not worth it, and we don't. I actually think that this is better than the DS version, since the calendar is more creative and there are NES games included, but it does lack the WiFi connection.
  • Children of Mana for DS: Yeah, this one's kind of a stinker. Imagine Diablo with a Secret of Mana skin, then make it boring. I think my main problem is that there's just not a lot of depth to it. Not my cup of tea, but you might like it better.
  • Legend of Zelda Collector's Edition for Gamecube: Now that Nintendo's releasing these over the Virtual Console for Wii, I'm sure this will be quickly made obsolete. On the other hand, that requires you to actually own a Wii, which seems to be about as likely as owning a handful of precious gold at this point. Besides, for the price of the VC games, you'd probably pay as much as my Buy it Now price. For someone who doesn't own the Classic Series Zelda (I do) and likes the N64 games (I don't, clearly), this is a nice package.

All games start low and have a Buy It Now price of $20, except for Animal Crossing at $10 and Zelda at $40, because I'm CRAAAZY! They end Tuesday at around 12pm ET.

Speaking of the grey market, I have to say that in retrospect the imported DS Lite is looking like a pretty good purchase. When I first got it, and then they announced that they'd be releasing it a month later domestically, it looked like I'd paid a big premium just for the blue color. Now, of course, Nintendo hardware is backordered everywhere, and the import prices have skyrocketed. Brinstar and I don't look quite as silly now. Well, relatively speaking, I guess.

Future - Present - Past