Category Archives: Games

A Long Time Gone


A picture of a dead whale. Because this blog is like a … never mind.

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Not that this was deliberate on my part. I had plenty of intentions of posting new and fascinating content, but circumstance and laziness always got in the way. I do intend to be better though. Thoughts about films, books and games will be forthcoming, and there will – in a not overextended period of time – be more travel journals. (Yes, that time of the year has come around again. I have become terribly predictable in my elder years.) In the meantime, a few thoughts on some of the media I’ve been consuming lately.

Mysterium: It’s a board game. Which is not something that I play enough of these days. (There’s a Tuesday evening boardgaming evening in the Black Sheep pub in Dublin that I’ve been making excuses for not going to for weeks now.) What sold me on Mysterium was the review from Shut Up and Sit Down, a site you should really be following. Boiled down to a brief description, it’s cooperative psychic Cluedo (Clue for Americans) and is as easy to play and strange as that description suggests. One player is a silent ghost who hands out vision cards to the gathered psychics; the others are those selfsame psychics, who must use those visions to solve a long-ago murder. Cue a lot of confused babbling about the exact meaning of the symbolism on the vision cards and exasperated gurning on the part of the Ghost, who doesn’t understand why they can’t figure it out. It’s a lot of fun, and most importantly you don’t need to be a boardgame veteran to play. Highly recommended.

(I also played Cards Against Humanity for the first time at a recent wedding (no, really) and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that I am a horrible person. Which is all that you need to know about that.)

The Just City: I burned my way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy recently, having enjoyed the TV series to start with, so normally I’d be writing about that. But I’d been looking forward to reading Jo Walton’s The Just City for so long that it sneaks in ahead of it. The high concept – the goddess Athena decides to build the theoretical state from Plato’s The Republic as an experiment – is delightful, and the execution more than lives up to it. The viewpoint characters are chosen to pick apart the assumptions of privilege and precedent at the heart of Plato’s supposed clean-slate state, and while it’s no surprise when holes are poked in it, the manner in which it happens is consistently engaging. The second book in this series is already out, and the third is coming soon, and if they live up to the opener they’ll have a happy place for themselves on my bookshelves.

Stellaris: It’s been an odd year for games. This was the first of three games I was really looking forward to, and poor reviews for the latter two – No Man’s Sky and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – have put me off splashing money on them until the next Steam sale. So in the moments between the vaguely social activities that are my forays into Lord of the Rings Online, I’ve been playing Paradox’s Stellaris, a mostly successful attempt to lift its grand strategy template into space and take the place of much-loved classics like Master of Orion. The opening stages of the game, as with all Civilization-style games, are the key draw, as you map out a galaxy for your new interstellar power (designed with plenty of freedom courtesy of the game’s engine), and the mid-game has improved with Paradox’s legendary post-launch support. As yet, none of my games have made it into the late-game phase, so I can’t really report on that (blame LotRO) but with larger patches and content expansions looming, I’m looking forward to seeing the game it becomes.

Film: Honestly, nothing I’ve seen in the past few months has really floated my boat. Which is a little depressing. Overhyped offerings are the order of the day in blockbuster season, and even those films that promise something more haven’t gone anywhere. There’s been no Mad Max: Fury Road this year, and while that’s a high bar to clear, it would be nice if someone at least got close. Or made the attempt.

So, that’s where I am right now. There are political thoughts (shudder) and other matters in my brain that may or may not get exposed in the three-and-a-bit weeks before I escape on another travelogue. In the meantime, my apologies for having been absent and my promise to be a little more present in the weeks and months to come.

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Prague: City of a Thousand Photo Opportunities

 

Just a couple of in-spiring towers.
Charles Bridge, somewhere near sunset.
 
My preferred method of exploring a city is to start walking and only change direction whenever I see something more interesting down another street. Were I to try that in Prague, I would end up walking in spirals, or in an endlessly zig zag pattern. In Prague, there’s always something more interesting around the corner. This is a city that’s as close as any I’ve seen to the clichéd fantasy medieval metropolis.

There are the endlessly winding cobbled streets, with tiled rooftops packed so tightly overhead that guilds of thieves could conduct entire wars up there with no one below being any the wiser, save for the occasional corpse-cobble impact incident. There’s a town hall with an overly ornate astronomical clock, complete with clockwork mannequins. (The story goes that the designer was blinded once he finished so he wouldn’t go on to make a better one.)

 

The mannequin show is fun, but surprisingly minimalist.
Other clocks are available, and probably easier to read.
 
There are legends and stories galore surrounding the city, from poor old Jan Hus, who put too much trust in princes, to the golem that once stalked the Jewish quarter. Best of all, there’s the Defenestration of Prague, which manages to use one of my favourite words in its title. (Seriously – how much more fun is it to say “defenestration” than “thrown out of a window”?)

There’s a centuries-old bridge lined with statues of saints and divinities, across a river that’s home to an entire flotilla of swans. There’s not one but two hilltop citadels overlooking the city. Prasky Hrad, with its Gormenghast-like scale and complexity, and the over-the-top gothicness of St. Vitus’s Cathedral, gets all the press, but I’m partial to the more ancient Vyšehrad, which is mostly a shell these days, but is lovely to wander through and offers great views of the Vlatva River and Prague itself.

 

And this is the commanding view the rulers thought they could do better than.
The Vlatva, looking south from Vyšehrad.
 
There’s even a hill hard by the city that’s swathed in an encroaching forest and hides not only a monastery with an ancient library but also a wizard’s tower that peeks through the treetops and has a labyrinth at its base.

All right, so the tower is a copy of the Eiffel Tower and the labyrinth is a maze of mirrors, but wizards are noted for their lack of originality. I doubt the average medieval inhabitant of Prague would have quibbled over the details before reaching for the nearest pitchfork and joining the local mob.

It’s a city for losing yourself in, then, as I’ve done for the past few days, the high point of which was when I found a store selling replica Viking arms and armour. For a good five minutes, I considered attiring myself in a manner befitting a Norse adventurer and taking ship down the Danube to the Black Sea and seeking service as a Varangian Guard in Miklagard/Constantinople.

Sadly, dreams of adventure and fantastic vistas founder when they hit the hard rocks of reality. Even as I’m enjoying my travels throughout Europe, a group of far more desperate travellers are trying to head in the opposite direction. The “tide” of refugees entering Europe is much in the news at the moment, often to heartbreaking effect, and while I’m currently on my way to Vienna, my plan is to be in Budapest, the current flashpoint of the crisis, in three days.

That may change, but even if it doesn’t, it forces me to think about why I’m travelling – this experience of cities and nations I’ve never been to before. How much worth does my indulgence hold against the desperate need of others, exemplified in the huddled form of a small boy washed up on a lonely beach? Are they comparable? Or even relatable? And what can I do?

I only have the beginnings of answers for any of those questions. I doubt that one traveller can make much of a difference, or learn everything he’d need to in the space of the two weeks I have remaining. The one thing I do know is that if I close my eyes, I’ll learn nothing. So I’ll keep travelling and see what answers I can find.

Free-to-Play Three Ways: Capitals, Future Fight and Fallout Shelter

Sometimes, I just revert to mucking around in Pixelmator instead.
*Some terms and conditions may apply.

I have no aversion to spending money on mobile games, and some of my best experiences with iOS games have been paid for: Plants Vs Zombies, Hitman Go, Thomas Was Alone and Monument Valley to name but four. Still, the plethora of free-to-play games does allow me to try out new gameplay experiences more or less forever, as long as I’m willing to risk the intrusion of money-making schemes into your fun. Recently, I’ve been playing three F2P games that have taken very different approaches to monetising fun, with very different results.

Monetization-Lite: Capitals, NimbleBit

Capitals is a clever little app that combines a Scrabble-like word game with some simple head-to-head strategy. You and your opponent start with one space each (your “capital”) on a hexagonal board, and the aim is to grow your territory and ultimately conquer your opponent. You do this by claiming spaces: each space has a letter, and if you use the letter in a space connected to your territory, you expand into it. But if your opponent claims territory bordering yours, some of your territory will turn neutral again.

A huge amount of strategy emerges from this simple gameplay: Sometimes it’s better to avoid a big word in favour of shoring up your defences. Sometimes you see an opportunity to strike deep into your opponent’s territory. Sometimes you want to use up convenient letters so as to cramp your opponent’s options. In the games I’ve played, some have been brief and wild struggles, others chess-like confrontations of advance and retreat.

There’s not much to complain about on the gameplay front: a few games turned into slogs as I tried to grind my opponent down (or they tried to grind me down), but there’s plenty of fun to be had. All the same, you wonder whether NimbleBit thought out their F2P strategy very far. Right now you can pay for unlimited “lives,” which you can also claim by watching promotional videos (one view equals one life). It feels restrictive, and Nimblebit might have been better simply making this a cheap paid game instead. Still, they’ve been updating Capitals gradually since it came out, and they might yet get the balance right. In the interim, I’d recommend giving it a try.

Monetization-Heavy: Marvel Future Fight, Netmarble

I’m a comic book geek, and when it comes to superheroes, you can Make Mine Marvel. So a F2P fighting game starring a range of Marvel heroes, with good gameplay and high production values should be a winner, right? Future Fight certainly makes a good start, giving you three leading heroes (Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow) to start with and plenty of free goodies just for logging in every day. But it then buries the whole experience under layers of complexity, social networking hooks and premium currencies.

The core gameplay is a lot of fun—the three hero types (brawler, speed and ranged), are each stronger or weaker against one of the other types. Missions last no more than two minutes, providing experience and equipment to improve your heroes, and there’s even a story illustrated with quick cut scenes before and after missions. So that’s fun. The problem is that managing everything else becomes a chore. There are multiple ways to improve your hero, multiple types of mission you can take on, and coins, gems and tokens galore to collect.

If you’ve got the patience to get to grips with all of this, there’s a rewarding game to be found under all of the cruft. However, I found myself reduced to logging in once a day to pick up my daily reward, telling myself that I’d try to get to grips with it later. I never did. It’s one of the problems of F2P—having paid nothing, I’m not invested, and the grind of gaining expertise and levelling up my characters has put me off. Which is a shame. This is a well-coded, slick and fun game that might have done better had it been paid-for with much less in the way of complications.

Just Right?: Fallout Shelter, Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout Shelter caused a lot of fuss when Bethesda announced it alongside Fallout 4 at E3 recently. As a promotional iOS app, trading on an established franchise name and using a F2P model, it could have been awful. It isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the friendliest F2P games out there, with an in-app purchase model that actually seems to work. (It’s currently at #18 in the top-grossing games in Ireland.) How did Bethesda manage this? By keeping things simple and sticking to the feel of the Fallout franchise.

Whimsical ‘50s nuclear paranoia might not seem like a good basis for a game, but it’s worked for Fallout for years. The main Fallout games have been roleplaying-focused, but this is a management game that charges you with creating a paradisiacal “Vault” in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. To do this, you’ll have to guide your vault dwellers to create food, water, energy and medical supplies, send them out to explore the wasteland, and encourage them to breed in order to swell your population. Do it right and everyone will be blissfully happy. Do it wrong and you’ll have miserable, radiation-raddled inhabitants who fall prey to radroaches, raiders and the occasional nuclear reactor fire.

The first ingredient that makes this game so appealing is the grace notes sprinkled across the game (equipment descriptions, wasteland explorers’ journals, and cheesy banter between dwellers—the writing is uniformly excellent). The second ingredient is an in-app purchase system that doesn’t intrude and even enhances the game. The standard currency is bottle-caps, with which you pay for new rooms (and occasionally resurrecting unlucky vault dwellers). The premium currency is lunchboxes, which serve as booster packs that contain equipment, caps or dwellers, some of them better than any you’re likely to find in game. You can earn these lunchboxes through the game, but the excitement of opening a new one is enough to encourage you to plonk down actual money for more.

It’s not a perfect game—the learning curve is a little steep if you don’t RTFM, and there’s a lack of depth in the challenges you’ll face as you build your Vault beyond 100 inhabitants. But even so, it manages the SimCity trick of making you feel proud of what you’ve created while allowing you to peek in on the lives of your dwellers and even get a little invested in their continued existence.

Hitman GO and the Pit of F2P

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On my way to make a killing…

I’ve been looking for a new smartphone game recently. It’s a fraught process these days. The goal is to secure a source of entertainment. The dilemma you face is this: do you go free or do you pay? I’ve done both, and I’ve returned from the wilderness of the App Store with dusty wisdom.

Free-to-play (F2P), or freemium (ugh), games have flooded App Stores in recent years. After all, with so much competition, it’s all about about ensuring that as many people as possible sample your wares. Free entry means that there’s no barrier, so the potential audience is everyone who has a device capable of playing your game. With such a large audience, only a small percentage have to make “in-app purchases” for a game to be profitable.

The problem is that F2P games are a balancing act. On the bright side, they can offer you plenty of enjoyment at no cost, with the option of throwing in some cash for more of the same, or faster progression. On the dark side, the reminders to spend money can be relentless, multiplayer games can fall into “pay-to-win” scenarios, and progression can become a terrible grind for those unwilling to fork over their money.

My first attempts at finding a new game headed in the direction of golf games. (Blame Rory McIlroy’s recent success for that.) I’ve an old copy of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012, but it’s creaky and buggy now. EA’s King of the Golf Course seemed like a sensible replacement, and its core mechanic was beautifully smooth, but the game structure of a linear set of challenges devolved into a slow grind after a couple of days. Com2uS USA Inc.’s Golf Star was even worse: old-fashioned mechanics stuffed into an overly ornate game that never missed a chance to encourage you to spend money. Both were highly rated on the App Store. Both are no longer on my phone.

It doesn’t have to be this way for F2P games. NimbleBit’s NimbleQuest is an addictive arcade game that is fun to play even as you’re grinding, and their Pocket Trains trades a little immediate fun for a lot more strategy. Plain Vanilla Corp.’s QuizUp is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on the iPhone for trivia geeks. Gameloft’s Rival Knights devolved into excessive grinding by the end but was fun until then. PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 took a F2P approach to a superlatively fun paid game and only suffered because it made the game more complex, a different kind of entry barrier.

The fact is though, I’ve found that the best results are to be had when you’re willing to pay for a game that isn’t going to nag you or slow your progress. You’re rarely going to be paying more than the price of a pint or two for an iPhone or iPad game, and for that price, ten or more hours of entertainment is a small price to pay.

Paid games seem particularly suited to more story-based titles, games with a finite span. Capybara Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery is an absorbing adventure, beautifully presented. Bossa Studios Thomas Was Alone is a similarly absorbing recreation of an atmospheric online puzzle game. Lastly, usTwo’s Monument Valley is a perspective-based puzzle game, perfectly suited to touch screens. I paid for all three and don’t regret it, even if Monument Valley is a little light on content.

There’s plenty of space for both models in the App Store economy. F2P games when you want to sample, browse and check things out. Paid games when you know what you want. Well, I tried out the browsing side of things, but if was paying that got me what I wanted.

Square Enix’s Hitman GO, (pictured above) is a genuinely strange mobile adaptation of a first-person assassinate-em-up. Rather than try to recreate the shooting segments of the game that inspired it, the mobile version focuses on the tactical thought behind it, locking the player into a turn-based board game as they make their way through a multitude of levels, setting numerous targets along the way.

The board-game aesthetic is beautifully realised and feels only a little cramped on a phone screen. The rules of the game are rigid enough to allow the player to plan, and the occasionally mutually exclusive achievements encourage replay. There are a massive number of levels too, with the option of paying for more if you want to. (The line between F2P and paid is blurry in places.) At some point in the future, I may exhaust its appeal, but by then I’ll have long since got my money’s worth.

Shiny Happy Knightly People

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What does it take to make a game? Not all that much, it seems. Take a rhythm action section, consisting of eight taps on a screen, then add a few seconds of drag-to-target and voila! You have new free-to-play offering Rival Knights (Gameloft, iOS and Android).

Oh, all right, there’s a bit more to it than that. This game of jousting knights is deepened by an item (mail, helm, lance and steed) collecting element that improves your abilities, and it’s polished by some fine design, graphics, audio and physics. The latter element is particularly satisfying, as a successful strike sends your opponent ragdolling through the air.

Still, the core of the gameplay comes down to the joust itself, and given that each joust lasts around ten seconds or so and will be repeated many, many times by a player seeking to advance through the single- or multiplayer modes, it has to be refined to a high degree. Luckily, it is. While the mechanics can be made more difficult by the wrong equipment, they provide satisfying rewards for increasing expertise.

That equipment affects the three measures that decide who wins a joust. Armour is largely decided by mail and helm, though it, along with the other measures, can be boosted by a critical hit. Speed is based on your horse and modified through the rhythm-action segment. Attack Strength is based on your horse and modified by your accuracy in the targeting segment. Win two out of three and you win the lot.

Being a free-to-play game, players can spend some money to purchase in-game cash or the game’s premium currency: gems. Gems allow you to buy special equipment to get a head start in both game modes, though you can play with the standard items without feeling short-changed. You can also use gems to reset the timers that control how often you can play, though they fill quickly enough on their own. If you’re trying to hit the top of the daily leaderboards in the multiplayer mode, though, spending gems gained either in-game or through purchases might sound appealing.

So we have some simple, yet rewarding, game mechanics at play and a relatively nonintrusive payment system. What really sets Rival Knights apart is the amount of detail and polish Gameloft has lavished on it. The graphics are top-notch, and though there’s only one jousting field, differing times of day and weather conditions (none of which have any effect on the gameplay) boost variety.

Even more variety comes through the equally attractive equipment you can collect, which extends to designing your knight’s coat of arms. I’m getting into the third of five tiers of the single-player game and there are still plenty of opportunities to mix and match equipment to find a successful blend of armour, speed and attack strength. Even lower-tier equipment remains useful in the multiplayer mode.

Still, it’s not a terribly deep game, just a fun one. The multiplayer mode relies mostly on daily leaderboard challenges, with an asynchronous knock-out competition offering some secondary fun. It’s a bit loose and while it offers rewards to dedicated players, it’s not as big a draw as the single-player mode yet. Worse, the networking behind the multiplayer is pretty flaky at the moment. While this will probably be smoothed out soon, it’s annoying right now.

The only real worry I have with regard to the game is the impact of all that shiny graphical wonder on my iPhone’s battery. Sure, it looks beautiful on an iPhone 5S, but the way the phone heats up proves just how hard its graphics chip is being pushed. As a result, playing regularly through the day is going to burn through your charge. So while you might enjoy the life of a knight on the tourney circuit, it’s best not to stray too far from a plug socket while you do so.

Tiny Death Star

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It’s a hard life as building manager of the Death Star…

Nimblebit, iOS, Free

It’s a mark of how watered-down Star Wars has become that Tiny Death Star even exists. The villains of the original trilogy, a bunch of faceless, menacing, planet-destroying quasi-fascists are here rendered down into cutesy 8-bit form, as you’re asked to fund the construction of the planet-destroying battle station by turning it into a residential/commercial emporium.

Yeah, someone didn’t put a lot of thought into that. Best to just roll with it.

Tiny Death Star is, of course, a reskin and slight reworking of Nimblebit’s hugely popular Tiny Tower, taking the basic mechanics of building a tower block and filling it with inhabitants and things for them to buy and tweaking it for a kiddiefied version of the Star Wars universe. As such, anyone who’s played Tiny Tower will find themselves right at home. However, they may also find themselves uncomfortably constrained.

The big draw of Tiny Death Star is the Star Wars ambience, and the game sprinkles it around liberally, with famous figures from the movies roaming the levels of your growing battle station, sometimes incongruously so. Fittingly, the soundtrack also consists of musak versions of famous Star Wars themes, though these soon enough grate through repetition alone.

Tiny Tower’s gameplay has also been tweaked in several ways. In addition to the standard residential and commercial floors, you can also build Imperial levels, which allow you to complete missions (about which more later). Since these levels don’t make you money though, this slows down the process of building new levels, which was already slow in the original game.

Of the game’s two currencies, then—credits and bux—the former, used to build and stock new floors, comes more slowly than before. Not half so slowly as bux though, which are used to buy elevator upgrades and hurry various other aspects of the game. As purchases of bux are the main form of in-app purchases the game offers, it’s understandable that Nimblebit have chosen to strangle in-game opportunities to earn them, but in doing so they’ve also strangled the sense of progress for players who don’t want to spend extra coin.

Providing at least a modicum of variety to gameplay that strays close at times to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker (click on things to earn more things, then click on them to earn yet more things) are the missions, provided by Darth Vader and the Emperor. Both provide credits as rewards, but although the Emperor’s missions are designed to guide your construction efforts, the rewards are meagre. Vader’s missions are slightly more rewarding, but I ran into one that required me to build a specific level (the game chooses which levels in a specific category are built at random), stalling any progress in that direction.

In the end, this is a Star Wars game, offered for free. If that appeals to you, go for it. But be aware that unless you’re willing to pay up, it’s going to present you with a choice between a long, hard slog and an escape route from this doomed battle station.

It’s About Time for Zombies

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Part of the Pirate World in PvZ2

Plants Vs Zombies 2, Popcap, iOS, Free

No game on my iPhone engaged me as long or as deeply as the original Plants Vs Zombies. A tower-defence game blessed with an abundance of humour, impressive cartoon visuals and a catchy score (including the best end credits song since Portal), it also had the benefit of a developer that continued to enhance and upgrade the game for several years after it came out, with new game modes and other add-ons.

Well, the sequel has finally landed, in the form of Plants Vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time, a punning, double-meaning subtitle that reassures fans of the original that the same twisted brains are still in charge. The big change this time around is that PvZ2 is free-to-play. The game itself comes without charge, but players can decided to pay more for extras within the game itself.

Free-to-play is rightly viewed with some suspicion. It’s a new business model for the games industry, and earlier efforts to make it work have resulted in crippled games that frustrate players. Luckily, PvZ2 takes another tack: the game offers an abundance of content, all of which can be accessed for free, but players can spend some coin to make their passage through the game easier or to buy some new plants to improve the variety of the experience.

As far as gameplay goes, the winning formula hasn’t been altered: the player places plants on the left of the screen and zombies attack from the right in waves of increasing intensity. There are some new elements thrown in, such as new plants and new zombies, but if anything the variety is a little bit down compared to the state the first game reached with all its expansions in place.

Tweaks have been added to the gameplay in the form of new special powers. Plant food supercharges plants temporarily and coins can be spent to activate special powers that will squish, electrocute or fling zombies offscreen. For an old-school player, these powers can seem a little like cheating, but the game is balanced so that while plant food is often necessary, the special powers rarely are. However, the in-battle currencies of plant food and coins do add complexity to a game laden with currencies (the familiar sun for buying new plants, stars for completing new levels and keys to unlock new routes).

These routes are the big change in the presentation of the game world. The first game took place in a back yard, by day and night, with a pool and without, and occasionally afflicted by fog. The player progressed from level to level, in a linear fashion. In PvZ2, the game is split into three worlds (Ancient Egypt, Pirates and Wild West, with an upcoming Far Future world having been announced). Each one is completed by following a linear path, but keys gained during battles allow the player to unlock side paths and gain extra plants and abilities thereby.

It’s a slightly more graphically intense game than the old one (only iPhone 4 and above need apply), and the graphics designed for retina displays take a little adjusting to, but everything is in order gameplay-wise. It’s as addictive as the old game—I’ve already completed the first world and made my way through part of the second, at a time when I really shouldn’t be playing games (or writing reviews of them).

The one niggle I’d point out? Although the side routes in each game world do offer different challenges akin to the mini-games of the first game, there’s no way to tell which one is which from the isometric world map. It’s a bit of an odd design decision, and one that I suspect will be fixed in further updates. If nothing else, Popcap’s reputation breeds confidence in the fact that this will be a well-supported game for a long time to come.

Recommending this game is a no-brainer (ahem). For no money at all, you get the same great gameplay of the original PvZ, and you can happily play through it without spending a penny. My only worry is that a lot of people will do just that, and that PvZ2 won’t be the financial success it deserves to be. Because, honestly, we could all do with more games like this.

(A quick reminder to clarify: the Android version of PvZ2 isn’t out yet, but it isn’t likely to differ too much from the above.)