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Diablo III is a hellish disappointment

20 May

Growing up I loved the Diablo series. Diablo II is actually where my name “Godless Paladin” Comes from. The paladin in Diablo II was holy warrior-super knight, clad in heavy armor, that waded into combat laying waste to hordes of minions.

I had an affinity for tank like characters, and so I picked him. Years later when I became an atheist and started this blog, I still was into medieval stuff, had a suit of armor of my own, and still loved the paladin, yet was now godless. The image of a righteous paladin without gods and masters came to mind. It was the best thing I could think of at the time, and so I ran with it.

But back to the game.

Diablo III was a game 11 years in the making. Production started in 2001, while Diablo II was still in the market. I have a theory that after a game’s development time passes around the 3-4 year mark, it’s going to be a really shitty game. Why? Well because it’s at that point that I imagine most of the delays to be originating from too much producer and executive input.

Creative people and programmers can come up with an idea and put it together. The speed at which they do that depends heavily on how much resources the company can allocate to the project. Blizzard is a massive company with almost no end in funds, with an extremely solid production history, so why the hell did it take 11 years?

I can only imagine that the producers kept trying to control how the game turned out, instead of giving the creative people room to be creative. That’s at least how the game feels.

The first thing that sticks out are the graphics. To some people, graphics don’t matter, they let their imagination do the work, but to people like me, they matter a lot. A beautiful game is really important to creating a feeling of immersion, the sensation that you’re there, and after all, that’s what gaming is all about.

At the time of writing this, Battlefield III is one of the PC gaming industry’s graphical benchmarks for excellent graphics.

Diablo III’s graphics look like they’re stuck in 2006. I know that Battlefield III and Diablo III are fundamentally different games, being played from different view points, but the issue that I’m trying to get at here is that the technology exists for Diablo III to make use of much better lighting, shading, shadows, textures, and particle affects. Instead we get something that looks cartoonish and borrows heavily from Blizzard’s other flagship series, World of Warcraft.

In the process of doing so, Diablo III loses a lot of the gritty, gory, hellish feel to it that Diablo II had. That loss really cuts at the essence of what this game is supposed to embody. Further example, examine these two screenshots. First from Diablo II, then Diablo III.

The next thing that struck me as a let down in Diablo III occured to me after I realized I had just played the first three hours of the game single handed. That’s right. The entire time I was playing, I was playing and winning with only my mouse hand, and winning easily. I feel Diablo III lost a lot of the challenge and strategy that was in Diablo II, that the game had been dumbed down. As I’ve been playing more, I’ve started to use the hotkeys on the keyboard, but only sparingly.

The game feels like I’m just clicking on things until they die, and they always do because as a witch doctor with a rapid fire long range blowgun, I mow enemies down before me with a few rapid clicks.

On the bright side, at least I can hold my drink in my other hand while playing.

Over the past few years, voice acting has taken on a much greater prominence in gaming. Games tell a story after all, and it is important that they tell that story well. Bethesda Studios is famous for their voice acting, and so is Bioware. Both studios put a lot of effort into crafting a good story, and then having good actors give voice to those characters.

Blizzard fell short with Diablo III. The voice acting is cheesy and the lines are cheesy. I feel like the characters have the minds of 13 year old kids. Their attitudes towards fighting, glory, valor, evil, and fear are all very naive and innocent. To make matters worse, it is as if they recorded six lines of dialogue for each character, and I keep hearing them over and over again. The attack noises are pretty annoying as well. One attack, for the witch doctor, involves flinging frogs at the enemy. The frogs so far have proved useless, but the thing that is most annoying is the sound the witch doctor makes when you fling them. It’s like shocking a cat with a taser. When you’re rapid clicking in order to spam frogs, it’s extremely annoying.

I ended up just muting the game and listening to my audio book while clicking through one handed. Not a good sign.

The next major issue I wanted to discuss was character customization.

Diablo III is supposed to be a Role Playing Game (RPG). In a RPG, you create a character and then customize and improve them throughout the game. The majority of the excitement comes from getting new items to improve your character how you want, trying new strategies, and altering the look of your character.

Blizzard takes all of this away in Diablo III, and it’s a deal breaker.

When you “level up” in Diablo III, the game unlocks new abilities, but you have no say in what abilities it unlocks. Blizzard decides for you. This leaves every character more or less the same in spell abilities. A level 10 witch doctor is going to have X spells. A level 15, X, Y spells. A level 20, X, Y, Z spells. The only possible difference is the equipment, but even that has flaws which I’ll get to later.

Your character is no longer your character. You have no say in how they evolve, what areas they focus on. It’s all decided for you and it destroys the fun.

I mention that equipment differed slightly, but not really. While equipment might have certain small affects on your abilities here and there, you have no way of customizing the look of your character. You will inevitably go for whatever equipment gives you the better boost, regardless of how it looks. The end result is something akin to a color blind toddler trying to dress themselves from a random barrel of clothes. You look disjointed and like an idiot.

This is further compounded by the “Pay to win” system Blizzard has implemented in the “Real money auction house.”

Blizzard legalized a system for using real money to buy better equipment in game. This means that those who spend more than the original $60 will have an easier time beating the game, and will have an even easier time killing other players who can’t afford to shell out more money for better items.

The other fun part of the fun of an RPG besides customizing your character is finding cool equipment to customize your character with. What’s the point if I can just buy the best equipment and walk straight through the game, ignoring every chest and dead enemy, knowing I already have the best equipment? This further hollows out the game.

The final issue I want to address is the copy right protection on Diablo III. Instead of making a better product and hoping people buy it, and instead of crying over “lost sales” from people who pirate because they don’t have the money to buy in the first place, game developers are more and more moving to make paying customers jump through ever increasing hoops to play the game they bought.

This only serves to increase player frustration and spur on piracy. It’s bad enough that the game you own isn’t really “yours” to do with as you like (ex: some games can only be installed on certain computers, and only a certain number of times), but now Blizzard has set the precedent of requiring constantly on internet connection. The idea is, while it’s easy to crack the protection on a game that doesn’t require internet, it’s not easy to hack Blizzard’s servers and play an illegal copy of the game.

Yes, just about everybody has internet now, but at different speeds, and at different prices. I have discovered that lag is a significant issue. If your internet connection is slow, the game will often lag, causing your character and the enemies to jump all over the map, or for you to suddenly die because you were being attacked and couldn’t move. Whenever this happens it makes the game uplayable and I end up just quitting till the internet improves.

The launch of Diablo III exposed another major flaw in “always online” gaming: it relies on servers.

Diablo III was supposed to go live at 3am EST on May 15. I, along with thousands of other loyal fans who had grown up with the series, stayed up late to play.

But the servers crashed.

It would be one thing if this was some other company, but Blizzard is the company behind World of Warcraft, a massive multiplayer online RPG. Servers should be their bread and butter.

People couldn’t log into their games. People who did were kicked off the servers. It was a grade A clusterfuck. When the servers finally did slowly come one line, others were forced to wait in queues in order to play the game they bought. I ended up just going to bed. 14 hours later and the game was still having issues letting people on.

The whole launch night experience is summed up very nicely in this short video:

I’ve been able to get on since, but the precedent is unnerving. There has been a trend in the technology and gaming industry over the past several years, a trend towards not allowing customers ownership and control over the things they buy. You’re not so much buying a product like you would buy a house, you’re buying a license to use a controlled product, one not controlled by you.

Diablo III reeks of this loss of control.

The creative people lost control of the product to producers and executives seeking to cash in on a beloved franchise after 11 years.

The player lost control over the development of their character, how they play, and when they play.

The game lost its soul of dark demonic combat and the thrill of exploration.

The whole thing is just a sad let down.

Roleplaying as a woman

14 Nov

Whenever I get the chance to roleplay, I enjoy being a female character. I’m a straight male and I’ve very comfortable in my gender and sex; I just enjoy exploring different gender dynamics. Roleplaying as a woman also gives me a chance to escape the default male privilege and experience a world through the opposite gender. I’m aware of male privilege in this world, and I recognize when something like a commercial or product is constructed in a way that assumes a male consumer, but most of the time all I can do is recognize it; playing as a woman lets me get on the other end of it.

Roleplaying as the opposite gender, while fun, can be challenging. When I first started trying this, my ex, an experienced roleplayer, warned me that she’d often seen guys try to play as the opposite gender, only to descend into very heterosexual male fantasies about lesbians. The characters they are playing are female, but the players and their actions were most definitely male. I try my best to avoid this, even creating relationships with male characters, but I’m not perfect. From time to time I’ll see an attractive female NPC and think “dang, she’s good looking, wonder if….oh wait…” I’ve also noticed that male players who play female characters often have their characters fall into one of two stereotypes: cold bitch or temptress slut. I also avoid this as I feel it is a misogynistic generalization of women, damning them to two equally unfair and unrealistic archetypes.  Trying to get inside the head of a character of another gender is really hard to do, but I feel it is a lot more interesting than just playing your normal self with all your gender specific baggage.

Currently I’m playing Fallout New Vegas. My character is an independent drifter woman named Afya. (Afya is actually a character I’ve played for a while before, but in another roleplaying game. She’s always been chaotic good)


Normally I don’t care much for very gender deterministic clothing like this pink dress, I just liked the contrast between the inferred domesticity and the huge fucking missile launcher.

Do you live life like a game/movie?

13 Nov

Earlier today I was watching a short lecture clip discussing media’s impact on sexual fantasy. The hosts were discussing how the advent of images and film changed how we think about sex. One of the hosts pointed out that our very language is stuck on the technology: “The movie in my head” or “the sex tape.”

I’m not exactly sure how my brain made the transition, but this got me thinking about how computer games, along with movies, affect how I view the world. It didn’t take long for me to think of all the instances in which games and movies directly affect the way I think. This isn’t surprising. I grew up with video games. The first video game I ever got seriously into was Age of Empires. I was in the 4th grade and I became addicted to this real-time empire building strategy game. I played it constantly. When I wasn’t playing it I was imagining I was playing it. I distinctly remember having dreams that I was playing, only to wake up and realize I was simply dreaming…and I was doing so well! It was not until the second Age of Empires game came out, Age of Kings, that my life was changed. Age of Kings was set in the medieval era. I fell in love with the time period, joined a medieval re-enactment group at age 12, built a trebuchet, my own suit of armor, learned how to fight with a longsword, and went to college to major in history…all because of a game. (Well, no, the game was the gateway, I became interested in everything despite the game, but still, the game was the gate way)

Those strategy games influenced how I thought about the world. I guess I was frustrated at times growing up because the world’s mechanics didn’t match the game’s.

At the same time I was discovering games, I was discovering film. Throughout my teen years my friends and I were constantly working on film projects. I started to think of life like a movie. I started to look at things as “scenes” and people as actors. I wanted my life to be a perfect script. This was most evident in my romantic life. I my dates to be picture perfect. I’d work for hours before she came over to fix up the house, to make sure everything was set just right. I wanted what I said in romantic moments to be movie perfect too, like I was reading from a script, yet genuinely felt what I was saying.

For the longest time I viewed myself as an actor in a play. I was very upset because I felt that the story of my life was being told as if I was a secondary character in someone else’s  story. I always felt everything was about other people, never me; that they were all staring in their own movies and I was just an extra. I felt powerless to change this. I didn’t know how to wrestle the spotlight away from them so my life could be about me for a change. (I don’t mean that I wanted attention, I’ve never liked being the center of attention; I just felt I was always doing things for others, never for myself. I never did anything because I wanted to do it. Whenever I was in a group with my friends, we always did what my friends wanted to do.) Thankfully I’ve grown out of both this and the romantic movie scripting, but games and movies still affect my life in other ways.

One of the perhaps more normal ways they affect my life is with music. I love going places or doing things with my ipod. My ipod allows me to put a soundtract to my life. In fact, when I think back through the history of my life, I have a play list with a song for each period of struggle or triumph. My ipod lets me pick a soundtrack depending on my mood. When I don’t have it with me, I still play songs in my head.

I had a restaurant job as a teenager clearing tables and bringing waiters their food. I absolutely hated it, but one of the ways I made it somewhat fun was to imagine it as a game, or a movie. As dorky as this sounds, I used to imagine that we, the staff of the restaurant, were fighter pilots locked in deadly combat with the food and customers. We were constantly rushing around, weaving in and out of tables, swooping down to clear tables, running to refill drinks. Sometimes a waiter would be overwhelmed and would call for backup, at which point we would dive in to the rescue. Set to a high-energy soundtrack in my head, it was actually thrilling.

This fighter pilot game imagery carries over to other aspects of my life. Growing up in a navy town, on a street full of fighter pilots, I really wanted to be one as a kid, but my fear of heights, the falling sensation in my stomach, and my poor eyesight means the closet I will ever get is driving my car.

Driving is another activity that has really been affected by movies and games for me. Again, this might sound really dorky, but sometimes I like to imagine a fighter jet/terminator style HUD display when driving. Instead of a weapons targeting system, I’m tracking the curves of the road, the other cars, people on the sidewalk. When I come to a yellow light and I can make it in time, I imagine Peppy Hare from Star Fox telling me “Use the boost to get through!” (I know it’s silly, but it’s the little things in life…)

I also like to think of the car as an extension of my body, just like a character in a video game is an extension of myself. If you think about it, it’s just another layer for your brain to transmit information through. Normally when moving your body your brain sends the signal to the muscles which move you. In a game or driving you simply add the layer of physical controls, be it the mouse, controller, or steering wheel. When you are really in tuned with a game, or driving, you lose sense of your limbs interacting with the controls to make the character do something. You become that character or that car. You think and it moves, just like your body normally would. It’s an amazing feeling, especially in a car on the highway. To have the car as your body, to pull out into a lane, hit the accelerator,  feel the thrust as you lunge past another car, it’s exhilarating.

The last way gaming really effects how I think deals with objects and interacting with people. ( I know that sounds really vague, I’ll explain)

I think about things I have the same way I think of a role playing equipment list. Picking equipment has always been a favorite activity of mine since I first played Oregon Trail as a kid, having to pick what supplies to buy for the journey. I always like to be prepared. In college I viewed my dorm room as a colony from my home. I wanted to be self-sufficient, so I brought a lot of things with me. Whenever my housemates needed something that they didn’t think to bring, I usually had 3 of it. (You’re not going for a weekend sleep-over, you’re living there!)

In my car I would pack a variety of equipment I might need: an extra pair of clothes, a towel, a crow bar, 50ft of rope, a flash light, medical supplies, blankets, a fire extinguisher, emergency food rations, and my longsword. (I don’t know what events I had in mind, but I wanted to be ready for anything)

I also like to think of things in terms of abilities and spheres of influence the same way a character in an RPG would have abilities and spheres of influence. Again, it might sound silly to use game terms to describe it, but I have a repair ability, a research ability, a cooking ability, and a longsword ability. ~_^  (among others) I like to think of other people’s talents and skills in the same way you would an RPG character.

As for spheres of influence:  Your sphere of influence is you immediate surroundings along with as far as you can travel. For example, if I saw a stranger being attacked I’d help them in a heartbeat. My ability to help is obviously limited to my immediate line of sight, or sphere of influence. The people who I see while walking on the street don’t know that while they’re in my sphere of influence I would come to their aid if they were in distress, but nonetheless they would be helped. My secondary sphere of influence is as far as I can get in my car with the money I have for gas.

I realize I’ve kinda meandered all over the place. I hope this makes sense. Does anyone do something similar? Or should I check myself into a mental hospital? ^_^

Making games more like life

15 Sep

Lately I’ve been playing this game, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is the last in the trilogy of STALKER games. The graphics are pretty nice, but the interesting thing about this game is how it tries to mimic real life, not only in terms of looks, but in terms of play. Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation gave a nice review of the first game in the series “Clear Sky” where he pointed out that while ” in most FPSs the player is some kind of hybrid of man and refrigerator, able to take entire munition dumps to the face, while the enemies all have armor made out of whipped cream and skulls made of cake, it seems going into this game everyone got their character sheets mixed up…” You see, in the STALKER series there are several mechanics that attempt to make the game more life-like, despite the horrific radioactive, monster filled setting. When you look through the scope of a weapon, your weapon wobbles slightly, as you fire on full auto, the gun kicks up, you become exhausted very quickly after running for a long time and need to stop to take a breather, you get hungry if you don’t eat for a while (which depending on how long you’ve gone without food, will greatly affect your energy regeneration), when you get shot, not only do you really get hurt, but there is bleeding to worry about, (same with all wounds, you need bandages to stop the bleeding that will slowly sap your health), weapons wear down quickly and start to jam more and more often, NPCs don’t like it when you walk around brandishing your weapon, and most importantly: the environment will quickly kill you if you don’t pay attention to your Geiger counter. I would argue that it’s mechanics like this that really make a game more immersive than just graphics alone, but graphics have come a long way. Check out this demo for the CryEngine 2 from Crytek. The graphics are three years outdated now, and the engine is being replaced with a more advanced cryengine 3, but it’s still amazing and highlights some of the graphic advances that go into making a game more immersive:

Now I enjoy that and I wish I had a computer that could run that, but it got me thinking. If the goal of game developers is to make games more and more lifelike, theoretically we’re eventually going to get to a point where video game graphics and game mechanics are indistinguishable from real life. How does that fit with the idea that games are an escape from real life? Will real life lose it’s appeal?

As I’m writing this I’m starting to have second thoughts about what I originally set out to write. I don’t think the fact that games are becoming more and more lifelike will eventually become counter intuitive. After all, while the mechanics and immersion will start to bring games closer and closer to the world we’re trying to escape, at the same time the settings and events played out in those games will still allow us to transport ourselves from our current reality.

Unlike some Sci-fi I don’t foresee a world where everyone abandons real life in order to play video games. I feel this way for a host of reasons but mainly because some people will just not be interested, and other will be too busy with life, like feeding their families, to be able to indulge in devoting large amounts of time to virtual space. Plus, I think there will always be a niche of people who like to play “old school” games, regardless of the medium. I realize I didn’t really take a position here in this post, or discuss in detail the deep philosophical questions, but I guess that’s because I’m still unsure myself. If this topic interests you, I highly recommend you take 20 minutes out of your day and listen to this talk given at TED. It’s pretty thought provoking.

New sci-fi games, same old motifs

3 Aug

Recently I purchased a copy of Blizzard’s new Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty game. I love playing it and enjoyed the story, but something occurred to me: this is the same motif every sci-fi space game uses.

Here is the formula:

  • Human-ish space marines of some flavor
  • An advanced alien race, usually religious fanatics of some kind
  • Some type of infection or bug alien that is threatening the universe

The player (usually as a human space marine) starts off by fighting the advanced aliens, only for the third party (bug/infected) to enter onto the stage, where by both the humans and aliens form an unstable cease fire to fend off this greater threat.

The similarities even bleed over into the look of the units:

Space marines: From left to right, Mass Effect, Halo, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k

The aliens: (again) from left to right, Mass Effect, Halo, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k

The bugs/infested, again, from left to right, Mass Effect, Halo, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k

The stories are pretty much the same:

Mass Effect: Human must build an intergalactic team to fight off the Reapers who are going to wipe out all life in the galaxy…again. (Reapers use husks, infected like zombies)

Halo: Lone space marine Master Chief must fight first the Covanent, a group of aliens on a space crusade, and then the flood, infectious spores with a hive mind that tries to wipe out all other life in the universe. (Halo rings designed to kill all life and starve them out)

Starcraft: Terran (humans) fighting Protoss aliens from time to time, but then the Zerg, a ravenous swarm controlled by a hive mind, tries to kill everything in the universe

Warhammer 40k: (Ok, this is a lot more complex, but in Dawn of War II, the space marines were fighting advance aliens, Eldar, and then the Tyranids (almost exact copies of Zerg) show up.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these stories, they’re fun, but for crying out loud, can we mix it up a bit? I’d like to see some other threat besides a giant swarm of infected/bugs moving through space and/or an advance mysterious group of aliens, otherwise known as space elves. (Have you noticed that? They’re always space elves! Sleek and beautiful, often relying on ranged attack and cloaking.)

I understand why space elves and bug swarms are so popular, they’re easy to do and to give them a motive for destroying everything, just play the religion card (hey, works here on earth) or say “because they’re hungry and they need to feed….on everything”. Done, motive set, hero can swing into action. What else could you save the universe from? It has to be something living is. For example, it wouldn’t be much of a fun game if the thing threatening the universe was a natural phenomenon.

But maybe there in lies the heart of the problem. “Save the universe!” limits you to only a hand full of things that could possibly threaten an entire universe. Maybe the games need to lower their sights a bit in order to open up more possibilities. This would in no way be less interesting. Drama is drama, whether it is played out on an inter-galactic stage or between 2 people. If done right, it can be interesting regardless of the scope. What about sci-fi politics? We have plenty of games about past wars, why not make some up about future wars? How about stuff like colonies breaking off from the home world for their freedom; space civil wars. What about evil corporations in space? Space trade wars? If we brought it down even smaller, space bounty hunter games, space mafia, etc, there are as many possibilities in space as there are here on earth, regardless of the scale. The possible content is endless, unless you go for the ultimate “save everything” story that’s been done to death.

Hell, here’s an idea, why not play as space bacteria on an asteroid, battling other space bacteria while trying to burrow deep enough into the asteroid so you don’t burn up in entry to a planet? That might sound boring, but use your imagination, you could turn it into an RTS or a first person shooter. That’s drama on a microscopic scale. Throw in a bacteria love story and you’re golden. ^_^ (Don’t worry, the idea will grow on you)……..sorry.

Oh, and one last thing about scale. I understand that levels in a game can only be so big before they become very impractical, but why is it that events happening on one small part of a planet decide the fate of the entire planet? Think about this. One of my favorite tv shows, Stargate SG-1, had this problem all the time. They would travel through the stargate to another world, billions of light years away, and never go to far away from that gate. While in that one spot they’d make blanket judgments about the planet, including climate, people, politics, religion; everything from one little town. Could you imagine someone trying to generalize the earth from one small town? What if it was a town in Morocco? Japan? Sweden? China? Mexico? Any change in location would give extremely varied results. Yet despite this, sci-fi games continue to generalize an entire planet from one location. Take starcraft II for instance: On the last mission I land on a planet to confront the boss. Of the entire planet, I manage to land in exactly the right place despite being ambushed and all the ships going down in flames.  How does the battle that takes place on this one spot of the planet then decide the outcome on the rest of the planet? That’s like coming to earth, coincidentally landing exactly where  you need to be to do something, say a small town in Idaho, and then after completing whatever you needed to do in Idaho, declaring victory over the entire planet…. <facepalm> I understand that it’s like this because of TV show set limitations, or the limitations of a game level, but it still bugs me.

Video games are unproductive?

27 Jul

I’ve heard some people complain that video games are unproductive, a waste of time, rot your brain, etc… Usually these people never really played video games so they don’t understand the allure. To them the term “video games” probably evokes images of a child making Mario hop around a fantasy land doing abstract things that don’t really make sense. From that reference frame, yeah, watching somebody sit in front of a screen for hours doing something you imagine only children do would seem useless and unproductive.

A person like this might say “go read a book, because at least then you learn something.” Well, not all books are non-fiction. Would this person have the same objection to reading a fiction novel, be it romance, mystery, horror, etc? What about watching a movie? Even sports could be considered unproductive is this strain of “logic” is followed. The problem is, the person never really defines what “productive” is.

When asked they might say something like “cut the grass, or building furniture, or painting the fence”, or any number of errands or chores that need to be done. In effect, being productive is anything that achieves an end. In the case of the above listed activities, they are productive in the sense that they take care of things that need to get done. But what if those things are already done? What if the end goal you’re trying to achieve is relaxation, entertainment, enjoyment, or exploration? Well, in that case movies, books, and video games are very productive.

Another problem our hypothetical nay sayer has is that they don’t really understand what video games do. They look at video games in the most superficial sense; they only see colors and mindless motions. What they fail to realize is that the majority of video games are mentally engaging, more so than books or movies. Other types of media are passively consumed, video games on the other hand, require active participation. Often players encounter puzzles or challenges they must think their way through. It’s like the nay sayer’s morning crossword puzzle, but on steroids.

Take the Tomb Raider games for instance:

While on the surface these games might look like just a hot woman jumping around and shooting things, they are actual about puzzle solving. In each level the player must figure out what sequence of actions to complete in order to finish the level. It might require jumping, climbing, pull lever, and fending off an attacker. A player does all this to advance the next bit of story.

Take another genre game, the Real Time Strategy game:

While on the surface it might just look like mindless battles, Real Time Strategy games are all about mastering resource management. Players have to figure out how to gather and spend resources efficiently while trying to attack and fend off other players.

Even shooter games have a mental side to them. While they may just seem like games about shooting things, take Valve’s Half-life series for instance:

A large part of Valve’s Half life series is puzzle solving.  Players have to manipulate objects in order to proceed. In this picture the puzzle is a see-saw. The player has to move heavy blocks to one side of the plank in order to get up on the ledge.  But even some more action based shooters are not completely without mental challenge:

While these games are primarily about quick reactions and steady fingers, it is important to know what equipment is good against what and what weapons to use for various situations.

Our hypothetical naysayer might also feel that video games are very anti-social, that they lock people up in a room alone for hours on end. This might have been true in days before the internet, but it is no longer so. While there are plenty of games out there that are single player only, there is an ever growing list of games that are multi-player. Gaming is now a very social experience. Rock band is the classic example:

Get a bunch of friends together and rock out. The internet has turned games that might physically be played alone and made them social experiences. Any game with an online multiplayer option lets players connect from all over the world and play together. While I was playing Age of Empires 3, I would often get online, meet people, and play with them. We would do this often and some of us even became friends outside of the game, despite never meeting each other in real life. It was amazing; through the game I was able to interact with people from thousands of miles away, people who lived in different countries, spoke different languages, and yet we came together to relax and have some fun. But that’s not something our naysayer considers.

But perhaps the biggest allure to video games is the escape. It’s a chance to immerse yourself in another world for a while; but unlike a book or a movie, or anything else you passively consume, video games allow you to take an active role in that other world, shaping it, living in it. They let you engage with that world in a way nothing else can. (except for perhaps for roleplaying games) They also give you the satisfaction of instant results. You see immediately if what you’re doing works or does not. You get the feeling of importance, or making a difference, of being somebody special. Yeah it’s an illusion, but at the end of the day it’s a great escape from life as usual.

Dawn of Discovery, Anno 1404, the year of freakin awesome

23 Jun

I have just discovered my new favorite game. Dawn of Discovery, or Anno 1404 as it’s called in Europe,  is a 15th century city sim game, and it is beautiful! Just look at some of these screen shots:

There is so much to this game, describing it will be difficult, but here it goes: Every map is an archipelago. You start off on an island with the rest of the map hidden except your “boss” island. Your boss island is inhabited by

“Lord Richard Northburgh” who claims to be the close cousin of “the emperor”. He is your basic in game advice guy who will give you tips along the way. You can also trade with him and buy needed items that might not be on your island starting out. There is also a host of other NPCs who are all comical knock offs of actual historical figures. (bonus points if you can name who they are based of off)

There is one big problem with the game that will become evident as I describe the features: the difficulty curve, it’s as steep as a castle wall. There is so many options and things you need to keep track of in this game, it’s taken me over 40 hours of play to finally start to wrap my head around it. There is no tutorial other than the campaign, but even that leaves a lot of things out.

The main focus of the game is managing your town’s economy so that it grows. You start of with peasants who have X needs. Once X needs are met, they will advance to citizens. Citizens allow you to build more buildings to further expand your settlement, but they also have Y needs. Once all of a citizen’s needs are met, they can advance to patricians, who again bring a whole new set of building options along with more needs. Then from patricians come nobles, again, more building options, more needs. This may seem simple, but it’s immensely complicated.

Not all of the raw materials you need to satisfy a class’ needs can be found on your starting island. Thus you must colonize other islands. Not every island will be fertile to every crop you want to plant. Often you have to buy the seeds from either the orient or your boss if that island doesn’t support X farm. (And you can only plant a certain number of foreign seeds per island) Once you colonize an island you have to set up trade routes with ships to carry the goods. (And don’t forget building escort ships if you’re at war) On top of managing trade routes, you have to set the buy/sell prices of goods at your markets. Oh, and don’t forget fiddling with the tax levels for each class! You can’t just build anywhere on an island either, you need to be within a certain radius of a market or storage building.

Building placement is also key in the game. Each production facility will tell you at what % efficiency it is working at, same goes for trade ships. You have to link up roads as best you can and then wait for market carts to pick up the goods and take them to the store house. You can also upgrade the roads to make them go faster.

There is also the matter of the Orient. On top of managing your city, somewhere on the map is another small island where there is an Ottoman outpost. A certain percentage of the islands will be desert climates, and to settle these you need technologies from the orient. To get these you must befriend the Ottoman outpost. To do this you need to bring gifts which you buy from your boss island with “honor” points. (Lost yet?) Honor points can be gained through reaching new civilization levels or completing quests. Just like there are different class levels within your island, there are different class levels within the orient. Once you settle there you use “nomads” instead of peasants, and they advance to “envoys” instead of “citizens”. Effectively you’re playing two games at once. You can’t neglect the orient because some goods that your patricians and nobles demand only come from there.

While the game focuses mainly on economy, there is a little bit of military action, but if you’re mainly into the “build em up” games and not fighting, don’t let this deter you. Military only comes into play when you reach patrician level or higher. You can build a castle and from there you can train army groups which come in pre-assembled camps. They move around on ships or land and set up camp. From that camp they take over any building within their affect radius after a 3 minute timer. That’s all there is to it. Other enemy camps can set up right next to yours and then it’s a game of odds, but the fighting is pretty straight forward and limited.

So the huge array of things you must keep track of and manage aside, the true charm of the game is in the details. The loading bar for instance! Normally you’d just expect to see a blank bar with a color filling up, letting you know how close the game is to loading, or maybe the name of the files being accessed as the game loads, not with Dawn of Discovery! The game developers said “Hey, why have a boring bar? Why tell the player what files are loading? It doesn’t matter that they know “map seed 33179 is loading plant textures”, lets put something fun there! So they did. I just loaded up the game and the loading bar says stuff like: “Fill ocean, add salt to the water, plant trees, release the animals, bury the treasure, hide the orient, invite computer players, tidy up warehouse, launch ships, and finish the witches’ make-up!”

Another great touch are the animations. Normally in most computer games, the little NPC people have a small set of animations they do, over and over again. Nothing is really specific to what they’re doing and it’s rather bland. Not in Dawn of Discovery! There are hundreds of animations for each sim, and it’s constantly changing. What really took my breath away was the tournaments. You can build a jousting tournament ground and hold faires to gain honor points. I set up a tournament and zoomed in on the NPC knights jousting. To my amazement, instead of just the same animation over and over again, it differed. Sometimes one knight would strike the other, sometimes they’d miss. It was all randomized and effected the outcome of the tournament! (You got points either way, but it was just fun to watch) Also, the fog of war has a fun little twist on it. Instead of just a boring blank grey or black emptiness showing unexplored parts of the map, they laid out a cool little cartography effect:

Lastly, the game has this built in feature that reminds you every two hours that you’ve been playing for two hours and Lord Northburgh suggests “How about a coffee?” in his British accent. It’s a nice feature for helping you keep track of the time and to remember to take breaks, and you’re going to need it because the game is addictive.

In conclusion, the game is extremely difficult to wrap your head around when first starting out, but you’ll find that although it’s complicated, you’re still having loads of fun. I didn’t get my first patricians until almost a full solid day of playing. Despite this the came is constantly fun and there are so many thing you’re always working on to improve your settlement. The beauty and wonderful music score to the game only adds to it. All the minute attention to detail really give the game character. I’ve only been playing for three-four days and I’m sure there is plenty I have yet to discover. Go check this game out!