Thursday, June 30, 2011

Minecraft: Gameplay – 1 : Graphics - 0

Well, it has become a phenomenon, and at last I have properly encountered it.  I spent several hours exploring the world of Minecraft today, and I have to say that I am impressed.  Minecraft is an incredibly vast and varied game where you can build just about anything you can conceive of – at least in shape.  Functionality is being continually added, but even now, the scale of the game’s potential is staggering.

Since when did 'sandbox' mean 'construct a new civilization out of blocks'?
I understand that the Beta version of this game was essentially an epic sandbox that allowed you to build anything you could conceive of, and people have built incredible things.  The version I tested today, which I believe is the release version, is much more of a survival game.  You are in a world.  It has many resources, including animals, and you have just yourself and the ability to craft anything you have the materials for.  Thus begins your adventure, if you can call it that.  Your first challenge is to survive the night, when monsters appear.  So you gather wood, turn it into planks, and build a hut.  Then, like primitive man discovering technology, so too do you make a wooden pickaxe which lets you mine stone which builds a better house.  A sword will defend against the monsters and from there the sky is the limit.  Literally.  Find more resources, build bigger and better things, construct intricate tunnels and rail networks and jukeboxes and a trail of houses across a world which is significantly larger than the surface of the earth!  The game, though simple at first, becomes as complex as you can make it, and it is both breathtaking and addictive to see.

Now, the biggest gripe that I think most people will launch at Minecraft is of course its graphics.  They are very simple, and hearken back to an age closer to the original Warcraft game more than anything else.  It’s a shocking thing to see in a game being produced today. However, the gameplay doesn’t suffer significantly for it, and in fact having everything laid out in neat cubes makes planning structures just that little bit easier, although of course going in anything other than a straight line is a challenge.  The graphics can sometimes get in the way of understanding exactly what you’re seeing, especially if you get turned around in the tunnels you dig, but that’s hardly a significant problem.  Basically, after you’ve played it for even a short time, you suddenly realize you’ve stopped worrying about the graphics at all, and you’re entirely focused on dealing with the threat of this laughably pixelated spider which is jumping at you.

That’s the surprising thing about Minecraft: the danger of it.  Though the zombies and creepers aren’t particularly threatening visually, the pure terror you can have when you’re half a mile underground, digging away, and suddenly there is a guttural growl behind you... that sound will shake you to your core.  You look around in all directions, and there’s nothing there.  So you keep digging, and the zombie snarls again, this time closer.  In the mines, no one can hear you scream.  The people watching me as I played were laughing quite a lot about just how paranoid I was being – building a back door to my house by tunnelling for half a mile, and placing a door inside the tunnel to trap anything that got in.  When you suddenly realize you’ve constructed an elaborate security system out of pixelated cubes, you understand the power of Minecraft.

This is an excellent game, and I can see why even the Beta version became so phenomenally popular.  This is not the Beta version however, and it is far more of a video game and far less of the ultimate sandbox.  Or rather, it is still the ultimate sandbox, but now you have to earn your right to play in it.  The graphics are incredibly low, but the content is so vast that it makes up for it several times over.  It’s a game that anyone can play and pretty much all ages and demographics can enjoy.

Gameplay – 1 : Graphics – 0

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Makings of a Hero: The Many Sidekicks of Sonic the Hedgehog

Luigi is famous for being the sidekick to Mario who really didn’t seem to have much reason for being a sidekick at all.  He was just as strong, fast, and talented as his brother, yet he always seemed to take second place.  Luigi’s Mansion, his solo debut game, demonstrated a little of why this was – he wasn’t as brave, apparently.  In Paper Mario he sits back the whole time and just lets you handle it.  Weird.  Today’s instalment of the Subspace Emissary is focused on the number of characters in the Sonic the Hedgehog series who seem to fill the same role, namely Tails and the Chaotix.  Knuckles would count, except he’s awesome and at least in Sonic and Knuckles he is a largely equal character.

Miles “Tails” Prower is an incredible guy.  Tails can fly a plane, he can fight countless robots, and he himself can fly and carry Sonic whilst doing so.  In most games he seems to be able to match Sonic’s speed as well.  With all these skills, how is he not superior to Sonic, whose only claim to fame is a speed which everyone seems to be able to keep up with?  The answer it would seem is simple: he is 6 years old.  I will repeat that.  6.  Years.  Old.  Again, surely this makes Tails the coolest kid ever, and the smartest given his talents as an aviator.  However, the fact that he is so young seems to mean that he always defers to Sonic’s lead in any situation.  He is a born sidekick.  Extremely competent, but just not focused enough.

Possibly the only time they are all assembled in a video game?

The Chaotix are possibly my favourite character group of all time.  The official group comprises of Vector the Crocodile, Charmy the Bee, Espio the Chameleon, and the often forgotten Mighty the Armadillo.  It’s worth mentioning that Mighty, now missed out of most Chaotix appearances, was actually the original concept for Sonic himself, but then they decided speed was cooler than strength, I guess.  They have featured in many comics, certainly, but in the video games they only make a handful of appearances.  There was a Sega Genesis game, Knuckles’ Chaotix, which according to all reports was atrocious, and the first three of them appeared in Sonic Heroes, but that’s about it.

Vector is easily my least favourite member of the Chaotix, and yet he always seems to be the leader.  A lazy, loudmouthed Crocodile, he is constantly listening to music, and whenever he takes the headphones off, everyone in front of him gets blasted by the pure sonic (hah!) force of the music.  Headphones as a weapon though?  Really?  I never really got it.  Anyway, he seems to fail as a leader because he can simply never be motivated to do much.  In Sonic Heroes he seems purely motivated by money, which in some game settings is totally fine, but in the Sonic Universe, it seems to grate with the general ‘do-goodery’ of the rest of the cast.

Charmy is a young bee.  In some canons he is in fact a prince of bees! Oooooh.  His skills include flying, stinging, and sometimes the ability to shrink from his usual small size to the actual size of a bee.  Moderately useful, very hyperactive, and generally a nuisance, Charmy is a fun character to have around, but I can agree that he’s not very interesting to play.  Curiously he is also only 6 years old, just like Tails, and yet has none of the brilliance that Tails displays.

While the first two Chaotix are fairly rubbish, Espio and Mighty are a great pair to behold.  One, a ninja-trained, serious, lightning fast chameleon who can turn invisible and climb up walls; the other, a pleasant armadillo with a tendency to forget just how strong he is.  The two of them form the actually useful core of the team, though Espio is definitely the brains of the outfit.  If Mighty was given more game time, for instance replacing Vector in every game, I think we’d see a much more entertaining character.  As it is, we know relatively little about him, and are forced to focus on Espio as the coolest character out of the lot of them.  He is talented, he is capable, and he is smart.  Why he doesn’t have his own game eludes me.

Looking through these characters, and considering the other members of the Sonic cast, I wonder why some of the others aren’t made more of.  Tails isn’t even playable in many of the games!  Instead, Shadow and Silver have been invented, along with a host of other characters like Blaze the Cat and Rouge the Bat.  Why would Sega do this, when they have a host of characters already in stock?  Shadow and Knuckles remain the only characters to have received their own game, neither of which were very impressive.  The characters I have chosen to review are those who have been ignored for the longest time and have served as the real ‘Luigis’ of the Sonic games.  Tails obviously has too many skills not to be recognized, and the Chaotix, while they have a few faults, have strong heroes in Espio and Mighty.  They could easily have their own games without much problem and should certainly be featured more in the regular games.  It seems to come down to motivation.  Knuckles and Shadow both have the confidence and the focus needed to go off and get something done.  Tails won’t move without Sonic’s say so, and Vector and Charmie can’t be moved without heavy explosives.  Espio would do it if it was interesting which leaves Mighty as the only one who would likely do something just because it was the right thing to do.  I dunno.  It’s a tricky issue, but these characters have been ignored for too long and I don’t like it.  Whining over.

EDIT: It seems there was a Tails game for the Game Gear.  Who knew?  I certainly didn't...

Tower Defence: Keep Calm and Carry On

One of my favourite styles of game is the tower defence.  This game crops up all over the place, and in a variety of different forms.  The custom maps section of any online Blizzard game, be it Warcraft or Starcraft is full of them in various guises.  Scores of them exist on the internet as flash games.  Plants vs Zombies, at the end of the day, essentially fits into this category too.  It often appears as a mini-game within a larger game – Warcraft III for example and World of Warcraft (yes, Blizzard is clearly also a fan of these games).  I think a game style which has provided so much entertainment for me over the years deserves a small celebration and promotion.  So here it is.

 A tower defence game is one where there is a set path or paths which enemies will move along.  The goal is to not let any enemies (or less than a certain amount) reach the end of the path.  There is some incentive for this, such as in Plants vs Zombies where if they reach the end of the lawn, they enter the house and eat your brains.  That’s motivation enough for me!  Anyway, you have some resources, either collected from killing enemies or by farming it, which you use to create defences.  Traditionally, these come in the form of towers which you place along the track to fire at the incoming enemies.   However, due to the wide variety of TD games, there are an equally wide variety of towers.  Everything from missile turrets to elemental spirits to soldiers and tanks to plants with little faces has been used.  There are generally multiple types of towers, with different abilities and different costs which give you some variety in your set up.

The key to the game is generally to find the ideal set up of defensive towers – such as placing a pair of towers which slow the enemy down alongside a group of extremely high damage towers on a U-turn in the track, thus maximizing the time enemies will remain within the most dangerous section of the path.  There are whole websites dedicated to the debate over the perfect PvZ strategy – is the cob launcher or the gloom shroom strategy more successful?  Many games are multiplayer, with each player defending a branch of the path.  That can get annoying if one person simply leaves, but entertaining if there is just one weak link which you have to cover for.  That’s a good challenge.

I think the appeal of tower defence games comes from its intensity.  You are constantly in a battle to protect yourself/the sanctuary/the city, and the enemy doesn’t let up.  Usually they don’t shoot back, but they will press on relentlessly, and if there is a single hole in your defence, they will break through it.  If it is not strong enough, they will overwhelm it.  It is a battle for survival, and it tests both your endurance and your defensive strategic prowess.  Most TD games feature levels of increasing amounts of stronger and stronger monsters, so there is little time for relaxing.  I’m a defensive player in most games anyway, so my love of purely defensive games is hardly surprising.

My favourite Tower Defence game of all time that I can remember well is probably GemCraft.  It’s an online browser game, so it isn’t hard to find.  You are a wizard gaining experience in your ability to craft gems which can be used to grant firepower to towers to kill the monsters.  There’s even a semblance of a plot on this one, which makes it interesting.  A few Warcraft III mod maps come to mind as my favourite, but I don’t remember any with enough clarity to discuss them.  GemCraft, however, was quite well made and very long.  It took me months to work my way through all the levels and they do get very challenging.  The gem system is pretty nifty, as it allows you to create more or less powerful gems of each type, and place them in either towers to attack or traps on the actual path to make the monsters’ life more difficult.  You can even turn up the pressure on yourself, calling more monsters up or accelerating their appearance, and the game rewards you for it, which is very fun. I recommend GemCraft to anyone who loves TD games, especially Chapter Zero if you can find it.  For some reason it’s far better than Chapter One in my opinion.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Expedition Fleet: An Explanation and an Invitation

Hello.  I am Captain David Louis Nida of the USS Broadsword, a Akira-class starship which has seen its fair share of battles.  The Federation is caught up in a number of conflicts, each of which is threatening its very existence.  The Cardassians are the most pressing threat, and the war with them is only just starting to turn in our favour.  However, the drain on resources puts us in danger of losing everything we have rebuilt so far after the devastation of the Borg War.  Kimira Industries, a galactic corporation, is a mixed bag of assets and dangers, supplying us with technology and resources at some times and then working against us at others.  The Romulans are up to their usual tricks, and on top of all of this, there are seven ancient devices being uncovered by each faction, devices which if brought together, could grant incredible power.  Even one alone is enough to pose a serious security risk.  Ancient races are re-emerging, old enemies are gathering on the horizons, and current events could overwhelm us at any time.  These are dangerous waters we sail in...  However, my crew are more than up to the challenge.  My senior staff are some of the most impressive officers in the fleet, and we will not see the Federation fall on our watch.  Not if we have anything to say about it.

So, welcome to Expedition Fleet.

If you haven't guessed, this is a summary and introduction to one of the many RPGs I play.  I thought this one deserved a special post because it is done in a style of gameplay which many people are unfamiliar with and often find confusing.  This is a play-by-forum SIMM with 4 ships (4 games) running simultaneously, which comprise the fleet, overseen by a friend of mine who wrote the background for this timeline, and captains the Vendetta.

What this means is that everything is done in writing.  Every event that happens, every move you make, every conversation you have and every thought you think is entirely decided by what you write in your posts.  A mission takes place within a single thread on the forum, with a separate thread for Out of Character (OOC) discussion.  There are no dice to roll and no stats to reference - your character is who you say he/she is and can do what you so they can do.  The captain of the ship is effectively the DM.  The DM the mission and push the plot forward.  As the captain, you give assignments to your crew and ask them to carry it out.  If you're clever, you've thrown in some twists and intrigue to keep them interested.
Playing an android or an engineer with a visor may be considered plagiarism...

Players take the role of crewmembers, generally the senior staff - Chief Engineer, Chief Medical, Chief Tactical, Executive Officer, and the like.  You write up a biography and a general character background - the more in-depth the better - and that's it.  That's your character made.  Apply for a position and wait for the captain to accept you on board his ship.

Play takes the form of a forum thread, as I said.  The captain generally starts things off, either wrapping things up from the last mission, granting a bit of shore leave, or just going straight into the next mission.  You can post about your own actions as often as you like, and the more creative you are the better.  There are points where you really cannot go much further, like if you are waiting for a meeting to start or generally having a conversation with another player.  At those points you have to wait for the other players to respond.

That's totally my character... give or take

An example of how conversations works could be the following:
==Bridge, Deck 1, USS Broadsword==

Captain Nida sat in his chair, waiting for each department to report ready for launch.  He was anxious to get underway with the new mission.  It looked dangerous, but exciting, which would make a nice change from the last mission which was just dangerous.

"Helm, have you finished the diagnostic on the warp drive yet?" he asked impatiently.

<tag Chief Flight Control Officer>

"I see," he replied, and went back to waiting.


The helmsman would respond in the next post by copying the above post, and either adding in their own thoughts and actions as background and then inserting their half of the conversation, maybe adding extra bits in if they feel like it.

This is where we play.  Take a look.  It's pretty awesome.  All 4 ships would love to have more people, and it's a really interesting style of game play.  It has its advantages and disadvantages, like how it allows you to really explore the background and thought processes of the character and challenges your creative writing skills, but at the same time can be difficult to, in the middle of a mission, express true initiative, because you can only deviate so far from the main plot (although you can send a message to the DM asking if certain actions could be allowed, which can make life very interesting).  All in all though, it's an excellent system, and doesn't take much time, as you generally post a few times a week, instead of an entire afternoon which it takes to play a game of D&D.

So boldly get on over there and join in!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Kaldahar Chronicles: Session 3

Dalziom – Dwarven Cleric
Kuraileon – Elven Cleri... I mean, Eladrin Wizard

Note: This was probably the shortest session, and the summary of it is similarly abridged.

Having ended the last session by pulling down a gold statue to reveal a long tunnel with a foul stench emanating from it, we began in exactly the same place.  The stench was gone, mysteriously, as if the person creating the tunnel had forgotten to mention it.

We entered the tunnel with trepidation, as it was covered in glittering stone that pulsed mysteriously.  Studying the magic surrounding it, I could deduce little more than that there was a lot of magic going on.

We encountered a glowing blue forcefield some distance down the way.  Whatever went into it got thrown backwards very quickly.  After scratching our heads and attempting to dispel it, I tried walking backwards through it.  That worked fine.  On we walked.

Another forcefield blocked our way; this one was a purple spider web.  All of these traps were of arcane magic, and so Dalziom couldn’t see them, but he waited while I tried to puzzle them out.  It was definitely sticky, and could be destroyed with magic, but it reformed very quickly.  Blasting it apart and jumping through was the simple answer.

Next, came a yellow field, with a V shape in it.  Anything that went into that was forced by a gravity well down to the ground and became very heavy.  We just crawled through.  However, right next to that was a red demonic symbol.  There was nothing to do to get round it, and I had already used up my ability to dispel.  I stepped through and everything went dark.  A trio of fast moving Evistras (red humanoid demons) slammed into us and we had to fight them off.  It didn’t take long, but we beat them off and proceeded to the end of the tunnel where we found a gargantuan cavern.

At the far side of this cavern stood the great lost city of Donagasplod.  It was reputed to contain buckets of impressive items, and we decided to go back and get everyone else before venturing in.  So we went back.

We realized that the last survivor of the bandit camp battle had been left in the dragon cave and returned to find him in pieces around the place.  Somewhat distraught, I looked for something else to do and pulled out the strange ring I had found before.  Determining it to be a ring that would take me to a fancy item, I put it on and it promptly commanded me to exit the cave through the blocked front door.  It would not listen when I explained that I could not, and kept up its nagging of telling me I was going the wrong way for the next several weeks.

Ignoring it, we dropped down a ravine in the cave to a river where the dragon could drink.  Climbing aboard my magical disc, we floated down the river.  Quickly, unfortunately, we encountered rapids, and things got hairy.  We wound up in an oasis on the other side of the continent (thanks to a portal we hadn’t spotted in the river) and joined a caravan heading for the next town. From there we took a ship back to Arasamar and our companions.