Apr 102013

Recently the wife and I have been playing through Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite, and there is one thing that has really stuck in my mind from those games: how much I hate scouring a world for crates of loot.

Tomb Raider

First things first – the new Tomb Raider is really good. It’s actually the first Tomb Raider game I’ve played (not sure how I managed that) so I don’t know how it compares to previous ones, but it looks great and the animation on Lara is top-notch. The storyline is pretty interesting and very dark, exploring her journey from gentle young woman to bloodthirsty killing machine. Well, the story elements explore her trauma and shock at having to kill to survive, but it obviously doesn’t affect her too much because by the end of the game you’ve murdered several hundred people. Such are the concessions to interesting gameplay I suppose, but it does create a bit of a disconnect.

The were a few moments of intense frustration and boredom for me. These weren’t directly the fault of the game, but from years of conditioning. Most of the time my wife was playing the game and I was watching. Every so often we’d come into a large open area with loads of buildings and things to climb around. After ten minutes of viciously killing the local inhabitants, the next hour was spent meticulously exploring every single corner of every single part of the map, in search of crates of salvage, ancient relics or log books. It must be an obsessive compulsive thing learnt over her previous fifteen years of playing Final Fantasy games.

“OK, we must be done here, are you going to go rescue your friend now?”

“Hang on, there’s another thing over there I think I can get to…”

“You don’t need any more stuff.”

“But… need to get the things…”

“…I’m going to do the washing up, call me when you’re ready…”

The best part of the game in this regard is the Survival Instincts feature. Press a button and everything you can see that can be interacted with glows yellow. Which I feel should have sped up the exploration process a lot more than it actually seemed to.

Overall though, I highly recommend giving Tomb Raider a go. Interesting story, satisfying combat and very pretty.

Bioshock Infinite

I’m currently undecided about Bioshock Infinite, although it would appear that I’m in the minority. We both loved the first game – the art deco styling; the creepy atmosphere; the scary enemies; all came together to make a memorable experience. I don’t remember much about how it actually played, and as the general opinion is that Infinite is basically the same gameplay-wise, I think I may have a case of rose-tinted glasses. Because I’m just not having much fun actually playing the game.

We’re maybe three-quarters of the way through. It looks nice enough (we preferred the aesthetics of the first game, but that’s just personal preference), the storyline is getting quite interesting, and your companion character brings a lot of life to the game when you meet her. But far too often the game falls into that all-too-familiar and ludicrous situation of:

“I need to rescue Elizabeth, she’s been seized by the baddies again. Hmm, she can wait, I need to finished searching all of these bins for loose change and scraps of food. Oh, a few random rooms, I really want to get on with the story but if I don’t thoroughly search them I might miss a big pile of coins or an infusion or a good piece of gear…”

Nothing breaks the flow of a game more for me than having to take time out from saving the world to scavenge for junk, search for trinkets, or steal from random people’s houses. It’s not so bad if it’s just optional extras (e.g. relics and audio extracts in Tomb Raider), but in Bioshock it’s almost the entire progression mechanic. Upgrading your guns and powers requires money, which is primarily obtained from scavenging, and the health/shield/salt upgrade infusions are usually tucked out of the way behind closed doors. All of which means that you’re ill-advised to ignore the quest for loot.

Overall, it’s still a pretty good game I think. It’s very old-school in its mechanics (particularly the combat, which feels really dated), but it’s worth playing to see how a companion character can be done right.

So you should probably get it. But play Tomb Raider first.

Mar 022013

Lately I’ve mainly been playing a couple of shooters at different ends of the same evolutionary path.  They are Planetside 2 and Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (henceforth called ET).

Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory

I’ll start with ET, as it’s pretty old now and you might not have come across it.  It’s a free game that started out as an expansion to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but was never finished and simply given away as a standalone game.  Amazingly I’ve been playing this on and off with my gaming group for eight or nine years now, and it still gets an enthusiastic response.

Wolfenstein: ET Seawall Battery

This is purely a multiplayer game and was an early example of lots of the things you see in modern shooters. It has asymmetrical gameplay, with an attacking and defending team. It’s purely objective based, with a string of objectives for the attacker to accomplish within a time limit.  It’s class based, with five distinct classes. And it has an XP and levelling system.

Our favourite map is Fuel Dump.  The Allies are attacking and first must escort a tank across a bridge, with their engineers keeping it repaired while the Axis team rain down air strikes and sniper shots. Oh, and the bridge requires building before the tank can cross, and every time it’s built the Axis team seem to blow it up again.  Then the tank is driven through a tunnel system before finally blowing a hole in the fuel dump wall.  Finally the Allies have to get into the base, destroy the gates with explosives and plant the dynamite.

The longer maps can be a bit of a gruelling slog, repeatedly running out into the defenders’ guns as you inch closer to achieving the objective, but when you finally get that dynamite to blow seconds before the 30 minute timer runs down, it’s really rewarding. The classes are varied – the engineer is the most generally useful as most objectives require building stuff or blowing stuff up, but you’ll likely die a lot. Soldiers have heavy weapons (switch to the Panzerfaust if you’re getting frustrated at not getting any kills…). Covert Ops can steal uniforms and snipe. Medics pick everyone up again when they go down. Finally, Field Ops get love and hate in equal measure as a well timed airstrike takes out three enemies in one go, or you wipe your entire team with a misplaced flare canister throw.

Wolfenstein: ET Gold Rush

It’s not the most accessible game ever, likely because it wasn’t ‘finished’. There are very few hints as to what you’re supposed to be doing as a new player and the maps can be a bit confusing, but after a game or two on each with someone showing you the ropes you’ll know exactly what’s going on. Also you need a decent sized group of players to make it work – three per side is the absolute minimum in my opinion, but you’ll have a great game with five or more per team.

I’m not exactly sure why we’re all still playing it years later (and in preference to many more recent games, including the disappointing sequal, ET: Quake Wars). At a guess, I’d say that it’s because it’s free (everyone has a copy), it runs fine on literally any machine, there are no server and connection issues (we have our own private server), and we’re all ‘bought in’ so there’s no learning period any more.  Oh, and it’s just a damned good game.


Planetside 2

At the other end of the spectrum is Planetside 2, which I’ve played a fair bit in the last few weeks. Planetside 2 is an MMOFPS, with each server seeing hundreds of players across three teams, all fighting over the same objectives at once on a massive map.

The first thing that strikes you on joining the game is that it actually works. Countless other infantry rush around you, tanks trundle past and aircraft buzz overhead, and there’s hardly any lag. The second thing that strikes you is a hail of bullets, and you’re back at the respawn.

Planetside 2

PS2 also isn’t a particularly newbie-friendly game. The UI is confusing, and the mechanics of capturing objectives isn’t obvious. Identifying friend from foe is tricky, the constant explosions and gunfire is disorientating, and standing still in the open will get a sniper’s bullet in your head.  And it’s the closest a game has made to feel to taking part in a real war.

Or at least, one of those fictional wars where random people are pulled off the streets, given a gun and thrown into a combat zone with no training.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the aircraft. My favourite activity in Planetside is flying the fighter jets. Very rarely do I get shot down. This isn’t because I’m some kind of flying ace, but because most flights end up with me crashing into mountains, buildings, trees, or the ground. Occasionally I crash into enemy aircraft, but that’s good because they tend to blow up and I get XP. Sometimes I manage to shoot at ground targets, although I imagine the conversation in the last transport I attacked would have gone something like this:

“Hey, there’s a plane firing rockets at us!”

“Really? But we’ve taken no damage.”

“Yeah, I’m using ‘at’ in the vaguest sense.  Oh, he’s coming in closer… er… looks like he’s trying to park upside down…”

Planetside 2, not crashed this plane yet

This is a free to play, micro-transaction supported game. This instantly sets off alarm bells among gamers about pay-to-win, but I’m impressed with how much this isn’t the case. All you can buy with real money is additional weapons and cosmetic player customisations. The basic free weapons are all good, and the paid for ones are just different rather than better.  All of the other unlocks and upgrades are bought with XP earned in game, so it’s perfectly viable to play on a level playing field without spending any money.

When this game is good, it’s really good. Your enjoyment is quite dependent on getting into a good squad (or bringing your own group of friends).  If you’re lucky you’ll end up in a well organised team, with a leader with voice comms who knows what they’re doing and sets appropriate objectives.  When that happens it’s as good an MMO experience as I’ve ever had (well, outside of a successful Eve Online fleet battle, but I don’t have time for those any more).

If you’re on Woodman server and come across a TR player called Schizofen, go easy on him…

Jan 252013

I recently found out that the awesome Spectrum game The Lords Of Midnight had been updated for iOS, so I promptly coughed up the £2.99 asking price and downloaded it.

I remember playing the original on my Spectrum when I was probably nine or ten years old.  I paid zero attention to the actual quest, I had no idea on how to even attempt to win the game, but I’d just spend hours exploring the landscape, admiring the views, recruiting a few allies and battling dragons and random passing armies.

Lords Of Midnight Spectrum

Spectrum version

Released back in 1984, this game was completely different to anything else around at the time.  The concept of an epic 3D war game just didn’t exist back then.  These were the days of the text adventure, of brief text descriptions of environments and guessing commands to type into a  terminal window.  Actually seeing graphics of armies marching across the plains in front of you as you moved through the landscape was revolutionary.  Also new was the variety of gameplay with two completely different ways to win the game, leading to two very different game styles.  The first was as an war game, gathering armies together for an assault on the enemy stronghold.  The second was to guide Frodo Morkin to the Tower of Doom, on his own, to destroy the Ice Crown.  It was all very atmospheric.

However, due the the very complex (at the time) nature of the game, it was quite demanding of the player – to have any chance of winning you really had to manually map the game world and keep track of where your characters were in relation to one another.  That was far too much like hard work to me, which is probably why I never bothered with it.

iPad version

So how good is the new version, and how does it stand up today?  In short, I was surprised at how well it’s stood the test of time.  The quality of the port is top-notch.  The style of the graphics has been preserved really nicely, just recreated in high resolution, so it’s unmistakably the same game.  Nicely, the landscape smoothly scrolls when moving or looking rather than just drawing discrete frames at each location.

The touch controls work well enough.  Some of it feels a little clunky, such as the Think screen and having to go to a whole options page to search and attack, but that’s just to keep it as faithful as possible to the original and you soon get used to it.  The vital addition to the game though it that it now has a built in map.  This shows the area of the world that you’ve seen so far with the locations of all of your characters.  It’s so much easier to get a handle on what’s going on than I remember, and it makes the game much more enjoyable to play.

In actual gameplay terms it holds up well enough as a fairly simple strategy game, and I think it would pass as a newly released mobile game today.  My current game sees Morkin dodging whole armies as he sneaks ever closer to the Ice Crown, while further south Luxor is heading up a desperate defence as more and more armies from both sides pile into a massive meat-grinder battle that’s been going on for days.

The meat grinder

If you’ve got fond memories of the game first time around you’ll love this version.  Even if not I’d still recommend checking it out to see what the granddaddy of all modern wargames was all about.  The game is still fun and challenging, but it was never really about the deep strategy so much as the atmosphere of experiencing the world of Midnight, and it’s still got that in spades.

Jan 092013

I’ve been playing a couple of space games lately, which is good because I like space games.


You’ve probably heard of FTL, if you’ve not already played it.  It’s a small game from a two-man team, and was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.  The game is basically about flying your ship through randomly generated sectors of space, facing random enemies and encounters and picking up random loot.  What makes it great compared to some of the overblown epics you might have played is that you have one life, there is only one autosave and a whole playthrough only takes an hour or two.

I’m not going to describe the game in detail because that’s been done to death elsewhere.  What’s interesting is that it plays very much like a board game.  Pick a location to move to, draw an event card, pick an action and roll a dice to see what the outcome is.  The combat is realtime and has enough nuances to make it interesting (especially when it comes to the harder enemies and the final boss), but you could definitely see something like this working as a solo tabletop game.

The problem I tend to have with random single player games is I don’t like losing by pure luck.  This is a problem I often find with computer adaptations of games like Catan and Carcasonne, where there is some element of skill but a lot comes down to pure luck of the draw.  When playing against real people this isn’t a problem because, I think, there is still a winner in the room.  But when losing to a computer there is no winner, only a loser, and nobody likes to be a loser…

Having said that, I don’t have that problem in FTL.  Games don’t come a lot more random that FTL, but if you’re getting unfairly screwed you find generally find out in the first few minutes of the game so you can just restart.  Another reason is that you shouldn’t really expect to win.  The game is hard, really hard (and that’s just on the easy setting).  If you just go in with a goal of unlocking a new ship, getting one of the achievements or playing with a different play style (e.g. focus on boarding actions, drones, ion cannons etc) then dying isn’t really a failure, it’s the expected outcome.  I think I’ve just been spoilt for too long with spoon-fed “experience” games, but FTL is a perfect antidote.

So I very much recommend you take a punt if you’ve not played it.  It usually seems to be up for sale for under a fiver, so for that you really can’t go wrong.


Endless Space

I picked up Endless Space in the Steam sale and I’ve been playing around with it a bit.  My first comment is this – it is most definitely not wife-friendly.  The most common question in the house recently has been “What are you playing, that boring game again?”

It is not a boring game (well, if you’re into this kind of thing).  True, there will be a lot of staring at spreadsheets and production queues, but it induces in me exactly the same “one more turn” compulsion that keeps me up late into the night as the various Civilization games over the years.  There is good reason for that – it is basically just Civ In Space.

Instead of cities you have planetary systems, instead of city buildings you have system improvements.  The resources types are exactly the same: food to increase system population, production in each system to build improvements and units, “dust” (gold) to rush constructions, science generated by each system, strategic and luxury resources to unlock new constructions and keep your population happy.  It’ll all seem very familiar.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s all really slickly presented with a nice intuitive interface.

Combat is rather abstract.  Each fight is played out at three range bands – long where missiles dominate, medium where lasers work best, and close which favours projectile weapons.  Your only control is picking an “order” card for each phase, using a board/card game concept again.  Some are offensive, some defensive, and each card cancels out a different class of card.  So if you expect the opponent to play a defensive card in a phase you can for example use the “Sabotage” order which will cancel it out.  It’s a bit random and takes some getting used to but it adds some more interactivity over Civ’s battle system.

My main problem with the game, and it’s exactly the same problem as Civ has, is that it all gets a bit bogged down about half way through.  When you’ve got 20+ systems to manage, with half a dozen finishing constructions each turn, it takes an age to micromanage what they should all be doing next.  Turns start taking 5-10 minutes each and the game can start to drag a bit.

The tech tree is also huge, and you’ll need a couple of games under your belt to become familiar with all the upgrades.  A couple of times I’ve come across some amazing technology (e.g. the planetary exploitation upgrades) that would have provided some massive boost to my empire if only I’d noticed it 20 turns earlier.

Overall though, it’s a decent game.  If you like Civ games you’ll love it.  If you don’t then you probably won’t.

Jan 022013

The usual image of board games is of a sedentary pursuit, with players taking their time to decide their next move or roll some dice.  These games can be incredibly tactical and intense, but one thing that’s usually not associated with board games is adrenaline.

I’ve played two great games recently that are completely different from this, and I’m going to tell you what makes them awesome.  The games are Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker.  They are both designed by the same person, one Vlaada Chvátil, and they both include the element of real-time gameplay.

Space Alert

Space Alert is a co-operative game for four or five players.  You play the crew of a spaceship sent into hostile territory who must survive for ten minutes.  What makes this game different though is that those ten minutes are played out in real time, to an accompanying soundtrack CD.  Every minute or two the ship’s computer will call out a new threat that has to be dealt with, and as a team you have to work together to defeat each threat before it tears your ship apart.

During those ten minutes you put down cards to plan out what your little crewman is going to do.  With each action you can move to a different room, or you can press the A, B or C button in each room which either fires the guns, powers up the shields, moves power to where it’s needed, or a few other special actions.  All players plan out their moves, but the move cards are placed face down so nobody can see what anyone else is doing – you have to talk to each other to make sure all threats are being dealt with.

Finally, after the ten minutes are up, there is the “action replay” phase.  Each player turns over their action cards and replays on the board what actually happened.  If all went well and the team played as a cohesive whole then a whole pile of alien spaceships will appear and be blown away by coordinated volleys of laser fire, and you can congratulate yourselves on a job well done.  More often than not though one player will be pressing the fire button on the main laser but nothing will happen because someone else drained the batteries to power up the shields and nobody remembered to throw more fuel into the reactor and the missiles were fired too early and the target was out of range and…  and it’s just funny to watch what you thought was a bulletproof plan fall to pieces as your ship does likewise!

Playing this game is completely unlike playing any other game.  You will experience ten minutes of pumping adrenaline, shouting and panic as five people all try to coordinate their actions against the clock.  Make a mistake, lose track of what room you thought you were in, press the fire button at the wrong time and the whole carefully laid plan can fall down around you.  Everyone is relying on you, and you are relying on everyone else.  But each game only takes around 20 minutes, so if you fail horribly (and you will), just get back up and try again.

Galaxy Trucker

I love Galaxy Trucker.  It’s very high on my list of “Games to try with people who don’t play board games”.  The premise is simple: build a spaceship out of junk and fly it to the other side of the galaxy, and hope it makes it in one piece.

This is another game of two halves, one frantic half against the clock and a more sedate resolution phase.  The best bit is building your spaceship.  Each player has a board with squares on in the rough shape of a spaceship.  In the middle of the table is a pile of face-down square tiles.  Each of these tiles is a ship component (such as an engine, laser or crew compartment), and each has different shaped connectors on each edge.  You build a ship by taking a tile, looking at it, and then either connecting it to an existing compatible connector on your ship, or placing it back on the pile face-up.  But, there is no turn-taking.  Everyone plays are once, grabbing pieces, looking at them, and deciding whether to attach them or put them back on the table.

What you’ll get is a mad dash as everyone grabs components looking for the best bits for their ship.  But as you’re taking new tiles you have to keep an eye on what’s being thrown back, in case it’s that battery with the awkard connectors you’ve been looking for.  As the tiles start to run out the panic can set in as you realise you still need to find shields or engines and you just can’t get them.

It’s all so tactile, and the few rules about how components fit together are pretty simple and all make sense.  It’ll take five minutes to explain the basics to new players before they’re building their first ships, and this is what makes it so approachable for novices.

After the building phase there is a simple adventure phase, where random event cards are used to throw asteroids, pirates and planets full of loot at the players.  Bits fall off the ships when they’re hit, and there is great comedy potential as you watch a lucky asteroid hit cleave your friend’s precarious construction in half before it limps to the destination with nothing but a crew compartment attached to an engine.  But nobody minds because the whole thing is over in 20 minutes again so you just move up to a bigger and better ship and try again.

So, Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker are two of the most fun games I’ve played recently, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that both involve real-time gameplay.  I appreciate a complex strategy game as much as the next geek, but playing these games scratches a different itch and comes much closer to what we think of as playing in the traditional sense.