Archive for July, 2011

Dragon Age II is the second (mediocre) EA effort to disappear from Valve's Steam store. Good riddance, I says...

Vaporware

Recent reports seem to indicate that Electronic Arts is pulling some of its titles from Steam, namely Crysis 2 and Dragon Age II to start, with others potentially pulled in the future. While according to EA this is due to Valve imposing restrictions on how EA may market DLC to customers, there is quite a lot of grumbling from the ranks about how this is simply a way for EA to beckon users to their new Origin service, which is essentially their own version of Steam that only sells EA games.

To start, I’ve had dealings with the problems of EA’s DLC with Mass Effect 2 (still on Steam, by the way). Rather than have the DLC available through the Steam service, EA thought I would like it more to have to go to BioWare’s site, sign up for an account on their forum and then purchase points, and then use those points to purchase DLC (oh, and the transaction took about three days). Frankly, I don’t like the “points” systems that Microsoft and EA offer. Having to purchase DLC from a source different from the one I purchased my game from? Ridiculous. Having to purchase packs of points even though I only want to buy one item? Well, I’m either going to have some left over or have to spend it on something else. I’ve still got 100 Wii Points sitting unused since nothing in the Wii marketplace costs that little.

In the common tongue, this is what is referred to as a “massive pain in the ass”.

In my opinion, it’s a better idea to have your game and additional content available for purchase all in the same place, which I think is what Valve is going for. I’m guessing that what EA wants is to be able to direct gamers to their own sales services, which I think Valve is within their rights to refuse. Steam is, after all, Valve’s proprietary virtual sales floor. I don’t imagine Best Buy would be too pleased if you went into their store and tried to persuade customers to go to Fry’s to buy CDs.

The chief problem with EA’s Origin service to me is that, if successful, it could create a very different and very bad environment for PC gamers. If every game company decides to open their own online stores and dictate their own prices, then we’re largely in the same boat as console gamers. Steam has won over the PC crowd through things like its excellent service, its openness to smaller independent games, and its frequent sales. Valve is a business as much as any other, but they have won the trust of their fans through quality products, services, and fair prices.

I’ve seen EA make both questionable and way-too-safe decisions too many times to think that Origin will amount to much. Whether it’s yearly Madden rehashes, the gradual destruction of the Command & Conquer series, or…the Sims in general, EA has shown that they are not ones to take risks. In fact, it comes off as kind of hilarious in hindsight that they’re so concerned about restrictive terms, considering their DRM debacle with Spore and other titles. They’re simply jumping on the digital distribution bandwagon because they stand to profit slightly more than they do when operating with Valve as the distributor/middleman.

It’s all well and good for a business like EA to try and make money (like George Lucas, enough to fill the Grand Canyon with one dollar bills is not nearly enough), but they’re also pretty much digital distribution virgins. Valve has been doing this for years, and they’ve ironed out most of the burrs. If Origin is the only way to get Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but the way I see it, Electronic Arts is going to have all their games (even crap like Dragon Age II) back on Steam within the next year. I think they’re jumping into a marketplace they don’t fully understand and have little to no experience with. In any case, Steam still has 2K, Activision, THQ, and a bevy of other publishers on hand. It’s in no danger of going anywhere.

We’ll just have to wait and see how long until EA comes back.

A third collection of great indie titles is now available from http://www.humblebundle.com/ . As with previous Humble Bundles, this collection will allow you to decide where to allocate your money – to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Child’s Play Charity, or to the game developers in whichever order you wish.

The bundle includes a whopping five games – Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, VVVVVV, Hammerfight, and And Yet It Moves. The bundle will be available for the next two weeks (until 9 August, 2011).

Hail and Well Met, Adventurer!

Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls is a satisfying game with old-school charm and gameplay to match. However, it doesn’t hold your hand at all. It pretty much just hands you a dagger and says “good luck”. So I’ve taken it upon myself as an experienced explorer of dungeons and prodigious killer of kobolds to provide a guide for the novice sellsword! In other words, these are hints to keep you alive as you delve into the depths of the latest Wizardry’s dungeons.

First and Foremost- Use Your Map!

You can access a map of your current floor with the square button. You can purchase maps for the top floors of each dungeon at the item shop, and as you delve into the depths you’ll likely discover maps of the lower floors. If you manage to make it to a floor you don’t have a map for, don’t panic- the Arcane Map spell in the mage’s spellbook will cover you until you can find a map. The map can be absolutely necessary to navigate Dark Zones and hazards like moving tiles.

While the automap takes care of the grunt work for you, if you find something interesting (say, a treasure chest that you don’t want to open until you can bring your Thief in to disarm the trap), check your map and take down the coordinates. This will save you time when you come back looking for it.

Re-rolling for Initiative

When you first create a character, you might want to hit the back button and keep selecting it until the BONUS on the character creation screen is higher. It’s usually around 8-10, but after a little effort will hit from 19-30, and can even go as high as 44. These are points that can be distributed to your starting stats and open up your class options considerably; as well as giving you more power early on. For example, if you’re rolling a Fighter, you can distribute those extra points to strength and constitution, which will make you hit harder and give you extra hit points.

Know Your Rows

Your party is divided into two rows (front and back) with three characters in each. In most cases, you’ll probably want to simply put your tougher characters (i.e. Fighters and Samurai) up front while your magic users and finesse classes (Thieves and Ninja) tag in the back row. However, there are situations where you may want to change this up. If you’re facing faster enemies you may want your Thief up front to deal a quick attack to an enemy that’s adept at dodging; or if you’re using the Bishop’s Magic Wall ability you may wish to put the Bishop in the second or third slot (I started doing this in the lower levels when the enemies would strike all my characters, and it paid to keep the fragile ones protected by the wall).

Class Warfare

Fighters are your front-line troops. They can use almost any weapon or armor, although their only special feature is their ability to use a “Trick Attack”, which takes a turn to charge. This ability isn’t all that useful.

Samurai are somewhat more specialized than Fighters. Their weapons and armor are far more restrictive, and finding good equipment for them could mean a lot of grinding. However, they also have the bonus of learning selected mage spells and have a special skill that can damage an entire row of enemies.

The Thieves, while not the heaviest hitters, are nonetheless essential members of the team. They are capable of disarming trapped chests, picking locks and will eventually gain the ability to hide, which allows them to backstab and steal gold from enemies. With the right equipment, they can be surprisingly effective support troops.

Priests are typically going to spend most of their time casting spells rather than swinging their rather pathetic varieties of weapons (although there are a few decent maces for them, but they are pretty rare). While they primarily heal, they can also use several holy offensive spells, buffs and noncombat skills (such as Torch Light) and can also use Turn Undead, which will essentially wipe out entire rows of undead enemies.

Mages are essentially your choice offensive spellcasters. They also have useful out-of-combat spells such as Levitate, Arcane Map, and Free Warp, which allows you to go anywhere you’ve already been in the current dungeon (this includes floors you are not currently on). Their special skill is Spell Boost, which doubles the power of their spells.

Bishops have higher class requirements than either Priests or Mages, but they make up for it in versatility. The Bishop learns both the Priest and Mage spellbooks, and as well can learn the Magic Wall skill in combat, which will absorb the brunt of (typically about three) enemy attacks. Perhaps most importantly, they have the Appraise ability so you can identify items without having to pay Ironhand’s exorbitant fees. This makes them an essential addition to any team.

Lords are a prestige class – they have the highest stat requirements of any class, so unless you roll very high, you’re going to have to change to Lord from another class. They learn several Priest spells and have some powerful exclusive weapons and armor. In addition, they also have the Big Shield skill, which allows them to protect party members (similar to the Knight’s “Guard” ability in Final Fantasy V), but since they tend to be front-line attackers, this is not as useful as it could be (in my experience).

Ninja are the final prestige class, and are overall quite similar to the Thief, with somewhat different weapons and armor available. They aren’t a bad alternative to a Thief if you prefer a more offensive-oriented finesse class, as their special skill is Assassination, which can one-shot enemies.

The Trading Floor

In the Guild, you can find the “Trade” option. Here you can swap items from your inventory for other, sometimes better, items. While you’re unlikely to find anything terribly amazing here (I think the best thing I found here was basic Plate armor and the Dragon Slayer sword), it is a pretty reliable place to get decent gear early on in the game.

Resurrection Blues

Chances are good that once in a while, the perils of the dungeon will be too much for your characters and they’ll die. In this case, you can use either the Temple in town or an upper-tier Priest spell to resurrect the character. But be wary of doing this too often, as the character may lose a point of vitality in the resurrection. In addition, it’s possible (although fairly rare) that the resurrection will fail. The first failure will turn the character to ashes, the second will eradicate them entirely. So it might be a good idea to save before raising the dead.

These are just a few tips to get you started. Take heed of my notes, and then get out there and start adventuring!

It seemed like every summer growing up there would be THAT ONE GAME that ate up all of my time. In 1998 it was Final Fantasy VII (yes, I was late to that party) and in 1999 it was Falcon 4.0. In 2000, that game was Atlus and Quest’s epic tactical RPG Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Where FFVII held me in with its storyline and Falcon kept me working to become a better pilot, Tactics Ogre was a different kind of animal(or Ogre) from anything I’d yet played. While I was familiar with turn-based strategy and had previously rented Final Fantasy Tactics, I’ll admit that I wasn’t prepared for the challenges that awaited me when I picked up the Tactics Ogre disc at Funcoland.

Within about 30 minutes I knew: this was a game that would take some dedication. Difficulty-wise, this was less like Final Fantasy and more like X-Com. This game did not muck about.

Canopus is about to do something cool, but then...that's kinda what he does.

Come to Ogre Battle…FIGHT!

A sequel to the SNES cult classic Ogre Battle (all the Ogre games are fairly obscure), Tactics finds the player (personified as the hero character Denim, who I mercifully renamed my typical RPG moniker of Revion) leading a force of freedom fighters in the kingdom of Valeria. From there, battle, political intrigue and various war crimes ensue, ensuring that this isn’t your run of the mill adventure of teenagers with mismatched outfits against an unquestionably evil empire. There are choices here!

But that’s just the fluff. The meat and potatoes of the game is in two areas: combat and recruiting. While most of your characters start as basic Soldiers or Amazons, as they level up they can advance to better prestige classes. Naturally, this is easier said than done, as the FNGs are always the first to fall when the archers open up. To have a hope of surviving, you need to take your soldiers and have them fight skirmishes against each other. You might think, “Oh, well if they die I can just raise them from the dead or drop a Phoenix Down on them, right?” HA! The gods of Ogre Battle mock your misplaced confidence. In Tactics Ogre, dead is dead. Accidentally lead your Exorcist into an Archer’s line of sight? Well, enjoy not being able to turn undead for the rest of the game.

Hell Gate? In the Month of Fire? Why don't we ever go anywhere NICE?

Of course you can choose to forgo training and let your meaty pincushions march into battle against your enemies, but doing this is a fast track to the morgue for both you (as your player character personally attends the battles, good field commander that he is) and your troops. So remember. Superior training! Superior weaponry! And if you’ve had a particularly unpleasant battle where one of your soldiers was the squeaky wheel, feel free to let your soldiers unload all that aggression on him during a training skirmish. Sometimes it’s important to let your inner sadistic drill instructor out. Trust me, it’s good for your troops AND their stats!

However, even with proper training your battles can go south if you aren’t prepared. The missions are varied, from simple “slaughter everyone” and “slay the leader” to “get to character x and protect them before force y murders them”. This can force you to think long and hard about how you want your units to fight – will they be slow but sturdy Knights, powerful but relatively unprotected Berserkers, or fragile but speedy Rogues? Since you can only take so many soldiers to each battle, it pays to work with them and to recruit a variety of troops so you’re always prepared. And then have them take the high ground. Luck favors the prepared, and if you’ve done a decent job preparing…you might survive. No promises, though. And much like X-Com, when your soldiers have survived a lot of battles you get rather attached. You mourn fallen troops and vow revenge on the curs that felled them.

I Challenge the Mighty Titan and His Troubadours!

The thing about Tactics Ogre, and in my opinion what makes it so damn satisfying is that every battle is a hard-fought battle. The game is programmed to kick your ass and relish the act, and when you conquer an overpowered enemy without losing a single man, you feel incredible. It’s a game that never holds your hand, unless it’s going to yank your arm and push you into the mud. The game is difficult (and lengthy, I think my playthrough was somewhere around 80 hours), but in this case, it’s a game where the toughness makes the end of a long day’s warfare all the more sweet.

Ultimate satisfaction is at hand! TIME TO TRAIN!

Hitting the Fan

2K Games president Christoph Hartmann, in an interview with UK games industry trade publication MCV stated:

The ‘90s generation of gamers all love Xcom and we own the IP, so we thought OK, what do we do with it? Every studio we had wanted to do it and each one had its own spin on it. But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary.

I use the example of music artists. Look at someone old school like Ray Charles, if he would make music today it would still be Ray Charles but he would probably do it more in the style of Kanye West. Bringing Ray Charles back is all fine and good, but it just needs to move on, although the core essence will still be the same.

That’s what we are trying to do. To renew Xcom but in line with what this generation of gamers want. The team behind it is asking themselves every day: ‘Is it true to the values of the franchise?’ It’s not a case of cashing in on the name. We just need to renew it because times are changing.

Oh boy. Of all the dumb…First, before I get started, I want to thank you, Mr. Hartmann. I’ve been looking for a stupid, off-hand remark regarding X-Com to take out of context and twist to my own purposes, but you sir, have done me the favor of giving me a moronic quote that’s completely in-context. This is a beautiful moment. This is like a dream. This is that fabled moment when a TIE Fighter pilot wipes Wedge’s X-Wing off the runway while it’s just sitting there.

But anyway, enough gloating. Time to put on my desktop general…er, second lieutenant (I know I’m the lowest of the low) beret and get to work blasting his quotes to smithereens.

Begin Interception

So…strategy games aren’t contemporary? Just assuming for the moment that he’s talking about turn-based games like the 3Ds’ Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, PS3’s Valkyria Chronicles, and 2K’s own Civilization, his article doesn’t hold a lot of water. They may be niche titles, but they do respectable business. And this is without mentioning popular RTS titles like StarCraft II or Dawn of War II.

What I think he means by contemporary is “doesn’t fly on consoles”.  (And, sad as that statement may be for the PC gamer at heart, consoles are where “the money” is these days. Although not the WoW or StarCraft money.) And this doesn’t quite make sense either if he’s talking exclusively about turn-based games. Yes, real-time strategy games can be a pain in the ass with control stick and a lack of hotkeys. But turn-based? The strategy-RPG genre has turned out some exceptionally popular titles, not the least of which is Final Fantasy Tactics, and some of my personal favorites like Shining Force, Tactics Ogre and the Front Mission series. The first two X-Com games were also ported to the Sony PlayStation, and the results were pretty good.

The Soulless Corporate Executive Blues

And his Ray Charles comment was…strange. Very, very strange. What he’s saying is that Ray Charles would have ripped off someone else’s style because it’s popular? To extend the same metaphor, would Tolkien be copying J.K Rowling and writing stories about a wizard boarding school, and would Orson Welles be making Transformers 4 (yes, I know he was Unicron)? The original X-Com essentially invented the turn-based tactical subgenre, yet Hartmann thinks it’s appropriate for the game to follow the leader and go with a shooter, a genre that’s so crowded that the chances for the new XCOM to make any kind of impact are slim. He basically said he wants to jump on the bandwagon.Front Mission 4 Screen

Remember, Kids: Don’t Give in to Peer Pressure

However, there is a bright spot in all of this, and by bright spot I mean hilarious statement that spells doom for this new X-Com game in an “if these events don’t change, Tiny Tim will die” sort of way. When asked why BioShock 2 didn’t sell well, he gave the reason that it was because the game released two weeks after Mass Effect 2. Oh, Hartmann, you poor, deluded bastard. Don’t you know that XCOM is slated to release the same day as Mass Effect 3? I’m afraid you’re going to have a hell of a month come March when your in-name-only sequel debuts the same day as the conclusion of a much-beloved trilogy that has foiled you before and is coming right back to bite you in the ass again.

In any case, there is a spiritual successor, Xenonauts, which is being developed independently. I’ve got my eye on it, and am hoping it turns out well.

What, me worry?

Error Dot Com

While the Call of Duty/Modern Warfare franchises have in recent years led the market in the military FPS genre, it looks like someone has pulled a classic bit of subterfuge. The ModernWarfare3.com domain name was registered in 2009; and when typed into you address bar it will lead you, surprisingly, to rival military shooter Battlefield 3‘s website. Whether this is the work of dedicated Battlefield fans or Electronic Arts themselves is unknown.

The Battlefield 3 vs. Modern Warfare 3 conflict is set to be a big one. Will Battlefield be able to topple the seemingly invincible Call of Duty marketing machine? Since it’s EA vs. Activision, this will truly be a clash of the titans.

Simon Belmont pre-emofication.

When you hear the word “barbarian”, the first name that probably springs to mind is Conan. Whether from the comics, the popular movie, or even the cartoon show (yes, it existed), he is the archetypal barbarian hero in popular culture. And the influence of Conan is far reaching in the videogame world; Rastan, Golden Axe, and the initial appearances of the Belmonts in Castlevania, all drew on popular depictions of Conan; and the archetypal features of the character can be seen in characters like Kratos from the God of War series, as well as the barbarian classes in the Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo, and Elder Scrolls games.

But Whence Came Conan the Cimmerian, Legendary Champion of the Hyborian Age? I Mean, Other Than the Obvious Answer. You Know… Cimmeria.

Conan was born in the mind of prolific 1930s pulp writer Robert Ervin Howard. While he sold stories in a variety of genres, he was best known for his tales of adventure and fantasy. Although Howard created numerous heroes who were wandering adventurers (among them Kull the Atlantean and the Puritan swashbuckler Solomon Kane), he didn’t really strike it big among the readers of Weird Tales until he published the first Conan tale, The Phoenix on the Sword. Howard’s portrayal of Conan and the brutal age he inhabited made the stories quite popular among readers, essentially giving birth to the Sword & Sorcery or “Low Fantasy” genre. The Conan of Howard’s stories was no brainless brute, but a well-traveled, brooding outcast skilled in combat as well as thievery. To compare him to the Westerns of the time, Conan was closer to an anarchic, wandering mountain man seeking fortune and fame rather than a white-hatted hero who acted entirely out of altruism. While the original Conan stories ended with Howard’s suicide in 1936, they had found an audience, and like fellow Weird Tales author HP Lovecraft, that audience continued to grow.

Conan then found his way into other venues: Marvel published the popular Savage Sword of Conan comic books, and Frank Frazetta gained fame by painting the covers of the Conan novels. However, perhaps the most well-known adaptation is the 1982 John Milius film Conan the Barbarian, which propelled a little-known Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom. This film, for better or for worse (and I do like the film), is probably what most people think of when they imagine Conan. And for some reason, most people just remember him punching out a camel.

But I Can Hear You, Reader. Enough Prattling on History, Get to the Games!

Crom, I have never prayed to you before; I have no tongue for it. No one will remember if these were good games or bad…oh wait, yes they will.

GLORIOUS.

Conan’s first digital adventure (barring any fighters that might have had the name in early RPGs) was Conan: Hall of Volta, which was released for the computers of the era. The game was an action-platformer which featured Conan invading the fortress of the (evil sorceror?) Volta and hacking his way through some rather pedestrian enemies like scorpions and bats, and some more fantastic ones like dragons. The Apple II version had an advantage due to its use of the 2-button joystick available for the system; however, it lacked the rather complex musical score available in the other versions. Also you had an ally to help you through the stages. It was called an “Avian Ally”. And it was a duck. I’m not kidding.

A DUCK.

And then…there was Mindscape’s Conan: Mysteries of Time for the NES. Sidescrollers were big at the time. OK, Conan would make a pretty good sidescroller, right? Taito made it work pretty well with Conan with the Numbers Filed Off Rastan. Well, don’t believe for a second that Mindscape is as competent as Taito. The NES Conan is best described as a half-assed Prince of Persia clone. No, that’s giving it too much credit. This was a quarter-assed Prince of Persia clone. At least when it wasn’t being a Rush’N Attack clone where you run to the right stabbing things. In any case…this is one of those games where you press  UP on the command cross to jump instead of tapping A or B. That should tell you all you need to know.

Even though Conan is kicking that skeleton in the groin, the skeleton has more dignity than the game he’s in.

Mindscape Must Ponder Their Sins on the Tree of Woe

So it’s with disappointment that most of the 1990s passed noticeably free of Conan. It wasn’t until 2004 that he appeared again…in some game published by TDK that I don’t know much about. However, in 2007, THQ put out a game simply titled Conan for the PS3 and Xbox 360 . A hack-and-slash actioner in the vein of God of War, Conan did a lot of things right (as recursive as that is). It featured a great combat system, excellent music, and featured the voices of Ron Perlman (Hellboy!) and Claudia Black (rowr). On the other hand…there were some issues. The characters look good in combat. But in the cutscenes…ugh, they just don’t look good close-up. Maybe I’m spoiled by stuff like Witcher 2 and Mass Effect 2 where close-ups on character’s faces look identifiably human, but the faces tend to cross into the uncanny valley. As well, there’s a bit of platforming that just doesn’t gel like it should. Luckily, there isn’t much of it. But overall, I like this game. The fights are brutal, and the fact that you chuck barrels and push over columns really gives you a sense of Conan’s strength. Most of the boss fights – including a dragon, a giant squid, and a big dude with a club – are also very cool and satisfying. The game has good atmosphere too, with  tense and gory battles, evil to conquer, and damsels to free. The final boss is an ill-advised exercise in cheap hits and tedium, but hey, if you see Conan for the PS3 or 360 and it’s cheap, I advise you to check it out. It doesn’t suck.

It’s far from perfect, but it isn’t a bad game.

And then there’s the MMO, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Now I haven’t played this one, but it’s quite popular and I’ve heard that it’s pretty fun. And since it’s free to play, I’ve decided to give it a shot. Not kidding, it’s actually downloading at the moment.

Crom smiles on Rastan.

So instead, I’m going to talk about the best Conan game ever: of course, it isn’t actually a Conan game. It’s Taito’s Rastan, as mentioned earlier. It’s pretty much what a sidescrolling Conan game should have been. The game shamelessly rips off the 1982 film. And honestly? It pulls off the Sword and Sorcery hack-em-up style perfectly. It’s just you alone as a barbarian hero fighting through monsters in excellent-looking environments while listening to killer tunes. It’s one of my favorite arcade games ever, and if you can pick up one of the Taito collections or find an old arcade machine…get it. This is, in spite of the name, the definitive Conan experience.