Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Burnout 3: Terrifying in how much fun it is

One of my and my girlfriend’s favourite games to play together on our PS2 is Burnout 3: Takedown.  It’s fun, it’s addictive, and it’s challenging, which is always a good mix.  It is a rare game in that it is still fun to play if you don’t win or don’t play properly.  Its entertainment value, however, is perhaps one of the most sinister parts of the game.

 Burnout 3 is a racing game with a twist.  It’s all about danger.  You get more boosts in the race for driving dangerously and for pushing other cars to their doom.  They have an entire game mechanic in place, including slow-mo cameras, for the act of crashing.  Our favourite part of the game (because we’re both pretty rubbish at actually racing) is Crash Mode.  In it, there’s no concern about road safety.  Your goal is to crash your car into traffic to cause as much mayhem and damage as possible.  There’s a commentator which seems to suggest that this is a full-on sport, which is confusing as it’s doubtful that anyone could survive actually participating in it.

As the title states, one of the most terrifying things about this game is how much I enjoy it.  Driving as fast as I can, hitting a ramp, smashing into an oil tanker, and then using the slow-mo explosion mechanics to bounce around an exponentially increasing circle of carnage.  What’s not to love?  Your points are based on the dollars worth of damage that you do, and seeing that number top $1,000,000 for a single crash is very satisfying.  And of course, you can select your car, so things like the Fire Engine suddenly become very enticing indeed.

It’s an excellent game for what it is: hilarious destruction.  If you’re looking for anything serious, look elsewhere, but then again, who’s looking for that?  I’ll take my cars extra crispy!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Plagiarism in RPGs – Hilarious or Unimaginative?

I won’t lie.  My games are full of fairly blatant references, at least the homebrew ones are.  The Pokemon game I have going is crazy for them.  The party was recently set upon by a trio of assassins that looked kind of like this:

I like making up stories and interesting people for the characters to meet and interact with.  I’m quite proud of Lorelai’s son, Gareth, who is wandering around with a chip on his shoulder and a total lack of appreciation for the power of the Elite Four, because he’s grown up around them.  I really like what I’ve done with Blaine.  He’s not at all what the party are expecting, but I won’t spoil that for them here.  Quite frequently though, when I need a character quickly, or need a large array of characters to be created, I will just draw upon what I already know.  Hence, Stark and Chad from Bleach are in the world.  So are Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers (the party narrowly avoided encountering them a while ago).  I needed a plotline for their time in Fuschia, so suddenly one of the noble houses was titled the Iron Throne and a quest to go wreck an iron mine was created – fairly directly ripped from Baldur’s Gate.

Is this poor DMing though?  It’s certainly plagiarism, though I doubt it can really be taken to court.  It can add a little humour to the situation, and I do tend to run games which get a bit silly at times.  However, it means that my world is a little less... mine.  A little less... original.  And it wrecks the 4th wall something terrible, as the players automatically know a bit more information about what’s going on than they really should, and it destroys a little of the atmosphere of a self-contained game world.

On the other hand, I just had the idea of a horrific boss combination: Deadpool and Psycho Mantis rip-offs.  Nasty mind-screwing times.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Absolute Power: Civilization 4 and Morality

I’ve talked about the Civilization series a lot now.  There’s a good reason for that – I really really like them.  One of their best features however, is one of the basic concepts of the game: you get to rule a civilization.  You are the undisputed ruler with no fear of elections or impeachment of an entire race of people.  You make the choices that will shape their lives, help them, hurt them, give them parks or send them to war.  And what is more interesting still is seeing how you react to this.  How do you handle true power?
How deep does your heroism run?

 Morality in video games has interested me for a long time, and I know this will be brought up again, but in Civilization, you get to experience the great mix of video games, morality, and politics.  That’s just dangerous.  My girlfriend started playing Civ 4 the other day, and aside from being really good at it, was also interesting to watch.  She’s a pretty liberal person, so I was a little surprised when, given the option of researching Democracy, she didn’t even check what it gave her and instead focused on Military Tradition and Rifling, exclaiming that it would help her army out.  Awesome.  To be fair, she was at war, and so this made a lot of sense.  Still.  How much of our morality gets put into these games?  Yes, you have the opportunity here to play however you want.  Yes, she also focused on getting Environmentalism and never researched Fascism at all (though she chose Communism before Democracy.  Shocking!).  But I don’t know.  I will be interested to see how she plays the game when she tries properly applying her own morality to the game, rather than just reacting to what the world presents.
A winning strategy

 Every world leader has to respond to reality.  If a country declares war on you, you have to respond if you want to survive.  I agree with enough of Realism to accept that.  But I also think that every leader brings their own personality, their own morality to the table.  Hence, my girlfriend may have focused on war techs, but she also made sure to get Environmentalism.  I play a very set game strategy.  Low-military, high-science expansionism with a strong commitment to peace with everyone.  I suppose this reflects my own morality to an extent – I prefer diplomacy to war and science to economics.  But then towards the end of the game I face the same problem that she did.  As they say in Buffalo Soldiers: “Peace is fucking boring!”  You end up going to war because it gives you something to do other than managing cities and improvements.  Even diplomacy can’t keep you occupied for 6000 years.  War happens out of boredom.

There was a study done of nuclear defence experts and how they talk about nuclear strategy.  The study was horrified that the words “collateral damage”, “acceptable losses”, and similar phrases were used when talking about entire cities.  Millions of people were considered ‘acceptable losses’ in a nuclear war.  The study commented that these words mask the significance of the lives under threat, and said that it was all easier to talk about, easier to plan, because you don’t have to think about the lives at stake.  It’s a difficult question to ask, but even if we played as moral a game of Civ as we could, would we do it any differently if we were in charge of a REAL state?  Would we be less enthusiastic about choosing the option you get after conquering a city to “Burn, baby! BURN!”  It involves the fiery slaughter of thousands of people, and you can do it with a click of a button and no bad press.  Obviously, I think we would, but that’s an extreme example.  What about shelling a city?  It may kill a part of the population.  Or starving a city so that the country will give up the war?  Also possible, also kills people.  What about denying people hospitals and running water because you’re busy building the components for your spaceship so that you build it before anyone else?
It's important!
We don’t see the consequences on people’s lives for any of these actions, because the game isn’t designed that way.  The game creates the abstraction put in by words like “collateral damage” for you.  It keeps the abstraction there so you can have more fun playing however you like without so much consideration for the well being of the people.  So immorality, as it were, is more excusable in theory in the Civilization series because it’s encouraged.  Having thought about this though, I think I’m going to try and be a lot more caring for my population.  And I’ll probably get conquered because of it.
And here's an interesting article that's kind of related: http://www.cracked.com/article_15660_the-ultimate-war-simulation-game.html

Monday, May 23, 2011

Empire Earth: A Farewell to Arms Races

The other day I gave a friend of mine a game that I hadn’t played in years because she was looking for something else to play.  Not an overly exciting event, but it got me thinking about the game all over again, so I thought I’d bring it up here.  The game I gave was Empire Earth, and it’s one of the few RTS games I was ever any good at.

Turn based strategy has always been my forte compared to real time games.  I just can’t keep up with the computer or another decent player on any RTS – Starcraft, Warcraft, Age of Empires, Battle for Middle Earth and I haven’t even tried the RTS version of Blood Bowl yet (it has the option to switch from one to the other, which is quite cool).  On Empire Earth, I didn’t always win, but I didn’t always get crushed, and I think that came down to one thing – walls.  Big walls, sometimes several layers of them.  I could build a defensive system on that game to rival the Maginot Line, except it actually covers my whole border.  But anyway, I should tell you about the game first.

Empire Earth is a cross between Age of Empires and Civilization, in that it has the same RTS, resource collecting, technology upgrading, unit building gameplay as Age of Empires, but on a time scale more appropriate to a Civilization game.  Instead of the 3 or 4 ages you used to get in AoE, you take your culture from the Prehistoric Age through about 15 different ages all the way to the Nano Age with awesome cyber-warriors named after the Greek gods.  It’s truly an epic-scale game – axes and death rays in an hour or two.  I don’t really remember AoE that well, but I think Empire Earth’s units are all designed to look more realistic, more accurate, and there are a LOT of units.  From clubmen to swordsmen to the arquebus and musketeers to riflemen to marines to laser-gun wielding guardsmen, and that’s just a fraction of one group of warriors.  Again, its the scale of Empire Earth that really grips you.  The graphics are smooth and pretty decent, which means that the units all look good, as do the buildings.  The campaign mode is fairly entertaining even if it is very short.  However, it is a game that is meant to be played multiplayer.  The ZeroPunctuation review of Halo 3 gave it a mediocre rating because its campaign mode was rubbish, and stated that he wasn’t interested in the multiplayer, which I don’t understand.  The Halo franchise is a multiplayer series, especially by the time of the 3rd installment.  I think a game should be judged on what it was designed to do.
Riflemen and Cannons (Halfway through Game)

Airports and Tanks (still only 75% through the tech tree!)
 Anyway, though the game has the epic time scale of Civilization, it lacks any ability to conduct meaningful diplomacy with the AIs, which again, is not the point of the game, so fair enough.  Most multiplayer matches are a straight resource-grabbing, tech-maxing deathmatch, and it’s a lot of fun.  My strategy for all such games has always been a low-military, high-resource and high-tech start off, and then build up a military once you have the superior capabilities.  In Empire Earth, this means spamming workers until you get the ability to build walls, at which point I surround myself with massive defences and then let everyone else fight amongst themselves until I’m ready to fight with my tanks against their musketmen.  This is generally a good plan, unless they get more resources... which happens.  Still, I can usually make it a good fight, and the AI is good enough to provide a solid challenge at any level.  I’ve certainly never felt like it was an easy game.  Then again, if I’m so bad at other RTS’s, then maybe this game is actually too easy for most.

Generally, Empire Earth is a fun game because of the wide variety of units you can obtain, and the challenge the AI provides.  I do like just creating 3 snipers, calling them the Last of the Mohicans, and sending them out to do as much damage as they can, or creating a group of knights, calling them the Knights of the Round Table, and going on a bit of a charge for a while.  The Three Musketeers generally don’t last long.  I’ve given the game away now and so likely will never play it again, which is a little sad.  I’d played the game to death over the years, but still, I’m sad to see it go.  So here’s me giving a salute to that game which gave me a real appreciation for the fun an RTS can be, and for draining away a significant part of my life.  GG.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Kaldahar Chronicles: Session 2, Part 1

Dalzion – Dwarven Cleric - John
Kuraileon – Eladrin Wizard – Me

As the rest of the party were no-shows, it was left to Dalzion and me to continue the quest.  As our main objector to delivering the chest and leather case was not present, I suggested we could change our objectives and just take them back.  We decided it was unfair though, so we stuck with the plan: find out what was in the chest.  I’d already looked in the leather case and found a staff.

So, there we were, in the middle of a pile of bandit corpses amongst flaming tents and blood-soaked sand.  We had with us several chests that I had acquired, along with the official quest chest and leather case.  We also had with us five of the soldiers we had rescued, the unconscious form of Kimiriel, the battle-mage who had led the soldiers, and three other people who had been tortured past the breaking point, and were now vacant huddles off to one side.  Seraphim had wandered off, perhaps to finish off the survivors.

We had to get everyone back safely, I decided, although Dalzion the cleric wanted to put the broken souls out of their misery.  I reasoned that since the Crystal Palace was home to one of the largest schools of healing magic in the world, there might be someone there who could help.  Before we set out, we spent some time looting bodies and gathering supplies.  We found all sorts of weird and wonderful objects around the place, including a rather interesting Shadow Shield, which could prove very useful eventually.

Since everyone was caked in dirt and blood, I decided to be kind and use some Prestidigitation to clean everyone up.  This was when the trouble started.  It seemed that there had been an unstable magical field in the area that had been storing up excess magic throughout the previous battle.  Now, with the liberal amounts of magic I was spewing out everywhere, it overloaded.  In each of the four cardinal directions, a red glowing line appeared which then detonated.  I would have been unconscious instantly had I not dived quickly to the side.  The soldiers I was attempting to clean up were not so lucky.  Two were engulfed in flames and the other two were thrown back by the heat.  Dalzion hurried over to tend to their wounds, and managed to save one, but could not put out the fire on the other one, who died screaming in agony.

The soldiers stayed well away from me from then on.  As soon as our backs were turned they ran for their lives, and we have not seen them again yet.  I figured out with my magical senses that the field was partly caused by a very magical rock some distance beneath me.  Curiosity overtook my sense of danger and I immediately looked for the most practical way to dig down.  Naturally, a shovel was out of the question.  Magic was the easiest solution.  I had just gained the power called Wall of Fire, and Marius declared that I could use it down into the sand to bury down a distance.  I gave all my magical items to Dalzion, including my armour, so that there would be no risk of them being damaged in my attempt.  I cast Tenser’s Floating Disk so that I would have something safe to stand on and then, in my underwear in the desert night, cast the spell in as tightly controlled a manner as I could manage straight down.