Friday, November 5, 2010

I Have a Cold

Since I take immunosuppressants, cold and flu season can be particularly unfun for me; and so it is right now. I thought about plowing through and just sharing my deathless thoughts on Reckless Racing, but all the words in in my head sound like ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. If you learn afterwards that I was sucked into a interdimensional void by minions of the Great Old ones, for God's sake don't speak the unholy incantations!

Anyway, I was going to review Reckless Racing as the App O' The Mornin', and still will when I return from by guaifenesin-fueled journeys with Randolph Carter into the majestic sunset city. 

Short version: Two thumbs up! Buy it while it's still only 99 cents! Best racing game in the app store.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

REVIEW: Small World: Be Not Afraid . . .

Grade: A
Price: $20

I've been on a Small World kick lately, so along with testing out the new Necromancer Island expansion, I've been putting some time into Be Not Afraid. It adds 5 news races and 5 new powers, as well as a nifty new tray to store all the expansions to date.

Here's how the additions shake out:

The good news: they get 9 troops before they even add troops from their special powers. The bad news: They can't redeploy at the end of a turn. The idea is that they make up in numbers what they lack in tactical finesse, and I found this to be a pretty good tradeoff.

Although they have my favorite art to date, I'm not that smitten with the Homunculi. Their bonus is kind of weak: every time they are bypassed, you add a Homunculi token as well as a coin to the race banner. These tokens become bonus forces when you draw your troops. In larger games of 5 or 6 people, I can see this maybe being appealing if players allow a lot of tokens to accumulate on the race banner.

We already know they're magically delicious, but they also place a pot o' gold token worth 1 coin on each conquered region. If the Leprechaun player still golds that token at the end of their next turn, they take it. If someone else conquers them before that, the conquerer takes it. This is a nice addition, and creates some interesting tension on the board as people have to consider how to conquer and defend using their Leprechauns. The deploy 6 tokens.

Yoinks! Pixies deploy a whopping 11 units from their race banner alone. On the other hand, they withdraw all but one of these units during redeployment, leaving conquered territories vulnerable. This creates an entirely new kind of swarming strategy, with quick conquests and equally quick defeats. It takes some skill to manage the Pixies, but their sheer force of numbers can force opponents to adopt new strategies.

For each Pygmy unit lost, you roll the reinforcement die and take a number of units equal to the number rolled. This creates some chaotic force fluctuations that should appeal to players who like to think on their feet. They start with 9 tokens.

This a good money pump, providing 3 bonus coins every time your troops occupy fewer than 4 regions at once.

The Catapult token is deployed in one of your regions, making it impervious to attack as well as to race or special powers. In addition, you can use it to reduce the conquest cost of any region that is 1 region away from the catapult. That region can be conquered with 1 less token. The strength of the catapult lies primarily in  its ability to create an impregnable region which can be used as to provide support for further conquest. In this way, it's just powerful enough to be useful without unbalancing the game.

Turn those losses into cash! Each time someone conquers one of your regions, they have to pay you 1 coin. Match this with Pixies and watch everyone squirm.

Imperial races get 1 bonus coin for having 4 or more regions, and 2 coins for having 5 or more. This power plays well with anything that allows or fast conquests.

In the right hands, the Mercenary power can be pretty useful, since it allows you to pay 1 coin to reduce your conquest cost by 2 tokens. Since you'll get that coin back by the end of the turn, that's not a bad deal.

We're enjoying this set a lot. Some of the units can really mix up a game. To date, we haven't had any combinations that appear to be "spoilers," meaning they're unbalanced enough to ruin a game. Some of them are better than others, but those variations are built into the design: they're precisely what makes Small World so much fun.

App O' The Mornin': Doug Brown Review

Grade: D
Price: $1

A good rule of thumb when creating a puzzle app is to avoid puzzles that make the user want to poke a hole through the screen in frustration and/or irritation. The creators of Doug  Brown: Truth Behind the Darkness forgot this rule, or maybe they just don't have thumbs.

The app store description of Doug Brown claims the game is a "thrilling ride through gritty detective fiction." Right: we all recall that part in Red Harvest where Dashiell Hammett offers a paragraph of mediocre and pointless prose before he has the Continental Op ... drive around and around in a circle using unresponsive controls, or jump over soot balls, or collect stars.

The "immersive, hard-boiled storyline" touted by the developers is borderline illiterate, with grammatical problems, clich├ęd writing, and tired and confusing plot. I've read better writing in Star Trek slash-fic.

The puzzles begin to repeat fairly quickly, and the variations don't make them more interesting, only more annoying. These are really one of the most banal selections of puzzles I've seen to date, with finicky controls and generally poor design.

The only good thing you can say about Doug Brown is that it has an appealing visual style, combining bold black lines with sepia tones. It's a pretty nice looking game in places, and butt-ugly in others.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

PUZZLE: Family Connections

Here's one from Lewis Carroll's A Tangled Tale. (This one is easier to solve if you use a chart like a family tree.)

The Governor of Kgovjni wants to give a very small dinner party, and invites his father's brother-in-law, his brother's father-in-law, his father-in-law's brother, and his brother-in-law's father. Find the smallest possible number of guests.

App O' The Mornin': Revolt Review

Grade: A
Price: $2

Dual-stick shooters are tough to do well. I’m still not sure the Apple touch screens are quite responsive enough for the fine degree of control that a good action game requires, but I’ve been intrigued with all the attempts and variations we’re seeing in the app store. In the hands of a skilled developer, the format has a lot of potential. (In any case, we shouldn’t be categorizing games by control schemes. We don’t call PC games “mouse-and-keyboard shooters.” )

Thus far, I’d have to say Revolt comes closest to making a top-down shooter that transcends the limitations of the app format. This is good design, with plenty of features and a lot of room for expansion.

There’s a premise and even a stab at a narrative threaded throughout the entire game: something about a resistance fighter name Guy who needs to shoot robot hordes repeatedly in the face until they explode. I really wasn’t following it very much, because I mostly like the parts where things go boom.

And Revolt does a pretty good job of going boom. You begin the game with a rifle, pistol and a couple of kinds of grenades. From these little acorns mighty oaks of chaos shall bloom, as you gather scrap metal in order to purchase more and better weapons. Once you gather enough scratch, you can purchase a rocket launcher and a heavy machine gun, as well as well as weapons and armor upgrades.

The levels themselves a little mazey, but they suit the game well enough. Graphics are top notch, particularly for an indie project, with fluid animation and some good lighting effects. These aren’t levels bathed in darkness, like Aftermath: they’re detailed and look good, with plenty of tactical environmental elements (that’s a fancy way of saying “barrels that blows up real good”) scattered about. 

Revolt mostly nails the control scheme. I still find the dual-stick a bit sluggish and imprecise, but the aiming system is forgiving and it doesn't effect the gameplay. A roll button is also on the screen, allowing a defensive roll that allows you to bypass energy barriers and remain impervious attack for a second. The only iffy part is the grenade control, which is in the upper right corner and a bit out of the way.

The main games links 8 “story” levels together in a touching narrative about a guy shooting barrels and robots. Another 20 arena levels are also included.

I get the feeling this isn’t the last we’re going to hear of Revolt. This looks like a game that has legs, and there is plenty of room for expanded content, with more weapons, enemies, and levels, as well as maybe multiplayer.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

REVIEW: Small World: Necromancer Island

Publisher: Days of Wonder
Grade: A
Price: free with purchase

I made a serious mistake when I first started playing the Necromancer Island scenario for Small World. I assumed it just added a unit with a very special kind of power. It took a few turns to realize that it’s a complete game-changer.

Necromancer Island isn’t for sale, but is being given away with purchase of the Small World game or expansions, online or from authorized retailers. (Days of Wonder automatically adds it to orders for the Be Not Afraid expansion, which I'll write about soon.) It demands a significant shift in strategy that requires some experience with the way the nuances of the game.

In the scenario, one player becomes the Necromancer, who sends forth Ghosts from his impregnable island redoubt at the center of the board. The Necromancer begins the game with 1 Ghost on his island, 13 Ghosts in reserve, a Well of Souls marker, and 6 random Powers. (Cursed, Spirit, and Stout Powers cannot be used by the Necromancer.) He chooses 1 of these 6 Powers at the start of the game, and leaves the rest in reserve.

The Necromancer builds his army from the bodies of the fallen. Each time a Lost Tribe or Race token is defeated in battle, it goes to the Well of Souls. The Necromancer can exchange 4 of these tokens for 1 Ghost token, which is then put into play.

A Necromancer may also spend coin to buy a Ghost or to buy an additional Power from his reserve. The cost either of this is equal to the number of Powers he has in play plus the number of Ghosts deployed on the board. For example, if the player has 2 Powers and 6 Ghosts, an extra Ghost or an additional Power would cost 8 coins.

The creates some vital shifts for the players in the game. For starters, I cannot imagine how a Necromancer can win a money game unless it’s through stacked powers that generate quantities of coin. The problem with the Necromancer is that he gets off to a very slow start. He has an ideal spot at the center of the board, but it takes time to even deploy a single unit, and the game may be half over before he starts sending out Ghosts in any quantities.

And Ghosts don’t die. When a Ghost region is conquered, one Ghost goes into the Well of Souls and all the others go back into the player’s hand for redeployment.

Because of this, the Necromancer has a special victory condition. Once he deploys all 13 of his Ghosts, he wins. This forces the other players to weigh carefully any attack they make, because every unit killed in conflict makes the Necromancer that much more powerful.
The ability to stack powers creates some potent combinations, and I imagine some of them are probably unstoppable. The cost for powers goes up steadily, and their benefits seem well balanced against the limitations of the Necromancer rules.

Meanwhile, those playing with standard races must weigh expansion and conquest against any benefit it might give the Necromancer. Is it worth taking an extra territory if it put another Ghost into play? Late in the game, players nervously watch as the Ghosts in reserve are steadily depleted, and gauge their moves accordingly.

It's a terrific twist on the usual gameplay, and it will definitely force experienced Small Worlders to rethink their strategies. Because of its unique dynamics, it's playable by up 6 people, which is nice. 


This week I'm discussing the Games 100 awards issue, which is found in the December issue of Games Magazine

We came thiiiiis close [I'm holding my fingers approximately 1/4th of an inch apart] to giving this one to Civilization V. The problem: we didn't have final code for Civ 5 in hand.

Let me explain why I'm so particular about only covering finished product. I spent years covering PC games, which could be remarkably fluid things that looked good when they ran on one system, but completely broke down when run on another. In addition, we often had access to beta code, which is not the completed version of the game.

One would think that the completed version of a game would be better than the beta, or at least not worse.  One would be wrong. I found errors being introduced post-beta, and other problems that were unique to the final product. These could include mastering or copy protection problems that could render a game unplayable. Early on, I urged PC Entertainment, and then PC Gamer, to establish an official policy of only reviewing final box copy: not beta, and not post-release patches. This wound up being how we functioned in the very early days, though that policy eventually became a bit fluid under the pressures of producing a print magazine with timely content.

Nonetheless, it's a policy I still practice. I don't even look at beta code unless I feel the need to do some kind of preview coverage. And Civilization V missed the mark by about 2 weeks.

If we had Civ V and StarCraft II in hand at the exact same time, would the award have turned out differently? I don't think so. At the very most, they would have tied. Both are excellent examples of extremely professional, expertly designed, and well-produced PC games. They are each at the pinnacle of what PC gaming does best: deep strategy gaming with fine levels of control.

Taking into account all of the design and production elements, I'd have to say StarCraft II would still have emerged on top. Oddly enough, it would not have been my personal pick based on the X-factor of "Game I'd Like to Play When I Have a Spare Hour." In that case, I'd probably pick Civ V because I enjoy the series so much, even though I have reservations about individual design decisions in Civ V.

But, Games Magazine isn't my personal blog. I take other opinions into account and pick the game that is objectively the best achievement in its given category, and StarCraft II is just a better-made game. I felt that some of the features in Civ V were wonderful, particularly the new hex design and more satisfying combat. On the other hand, I found some parts less appealing, particularly the handling of diplomacy, religion, and social policy. Control of these elements is unsatisfying to anyone who has put a lot of playtime into this series.

Civilization IV represents the summit of the Civilization design. While Civilization V improves upon it in many ways, it also changes fundamental elements of the formula in ways that diminish the appeal for me. I understand why they did it--it's a new kind of Civ for a new generation--but I miss some of the old-school gameplay.

I can't say the same for StarCraft II, which is a brilliant version of a classic kind of RTS gaming. Even though I'm a bit played out on the whole RTS format, I can spot a top flight piece of design when I see one. Blizzard just makes a darn good product.

App O' The Mornin': Nude Runner

Price: your dignity
Black bar added by me.
Grade: Is there something lower than F?

Are you kidding me? Seriously, Apple? Did you even look at this one? Did the absence of visible genitalia lead you to believe that it was just a harmless bit of fun, and not a misogynistic/pedophile rape fantasy in app form?

Because, really: that's what Nude Runner is. It's a game in which three hulking men attempt to capture a naked girl or boy, and in the end they always win. The R-rated bits of anatomy are carefully covered, but not that much. (I added the black bar to the photo that accompanies this review.)

Gameplay isn't worth the words it will take to explain it. Three beefy, frightening men travel around a single screen.  You control a naked person  in an attempt to avoid them. The goal is to keep from being captured for as long as possible by evading the rapists.

Because, really: that's what they are. There may have been some intent to make this a game about grabbing a streaker at a sporting even, but something got lost in the translation. When you lose, the scoring screen shows an image of a boy or girl being captured, and it's not a pretty picture. In the male version, the victim appears to be a prepubescent boy in the iron grip of a kidnapper. The girl app is even more grotesque, because she actually appears to be in pain. It looks like nothing more or less than a woman being captured and dragged off to her rape.

The "Boy" and "Girl" editions are separate apps. The Girl version currently squatting at the top of the free app bestseller list. The Boy version doesn't even crack the list. Apparently, women have a little more dignity and common sense.

Monday, November 1, 2010

RROD'd ... again

The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
                                   J.R.R. Tolkien on the Eye of Sauron

Yes, I have now gotten my second Xbox 360 Red Ring of Death in 2010. That horrible red ring, like the Eye of Sauron, is indeed a window into nothing.

My first 360 lasted 5 years under the heavy duty workload of a fulltime professional game reviewer and magazine editor. Microsoft kindly replaced it. The replacement unit lasted ... 3 months.

O/T Post: Oliver Cromwell's Election Day Message

Cromwell Dissolves Parliament
Tomorrow is election day here in the US, and it's going to be one of our semi-annual "throw the bums out" moments. Good. I'd like to see them all go so we could start over. The body politic needs a regular application of emetics to remain healthy.

Our political situation is not unique. Oliver Cromwell captured heart of the problem in a speech given when he dissolved the English Parliament on April 20, 1653. Now, Cromwell was a deeply wicked man, and no Irishman is allowed to even say his name without crossing himself thricely. But his rant against the Ruling Class (and that is what politicians of both parties have become) echoes down through history to our own day; eternally true, eternally relevant.

It also proves that they really could do insults well in those days. You have to admit that having someone rise to the podium of the House and call the Rt. Honorable Gentleman from the fine state of Wisconsin a "sordid prostitute" who has "no more religion than my horse: gold is your God!" would sound damn spiffy on C-SPAN.
It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.
Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?
Ye sordid prostitutes, have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you who were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! 
So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.
In the name of God, go!

Action Game of the Year: Red Dead Redemption

The decisions that went into choosing Game of the Year and the various "category winners" in the Action, RPG/Adventure, Sports/Driving, Strategy, and App categories were tricky this year. At any given point, some of the category winners could have been Game of the Year.

This is made even more challenging by the fact that Fall titles comprise the big releases for any given year, but we often don't get these in time for the issue. In order to account for this, I created a category called "Hot Winter Titles," which are games shipping in 2010 that look good in previews or betas, but aren't eligible for awards because we don't have final copy in our hands.

Red Dead Redemption was a finalist for Game of the Year, but it doesn't quite fit our audience. As it is, I'm glad to finally be able to play a Rockstar game that doesn't require me to take a shower after each gaming session. If the awards were based on the game I played the longest this year, it would have gone to Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which still managed to net a runner-up slot along with Splint Cell: Conviction.

Pick up the December issue of GAMES Magazine to see what else made the grade

Red Dead Redemption
Formats: 360/PS3 ($60)
Rated: M

The wild west has never been a particularly large wellspring for video games. Except for a few titles such as Outlaw, Gun, and Call of Juarez, there have been precious few forays into the old west, and that seems rather odd. Westerns dominated pulp fiction, movies, radio dramas, and television shows for years, making videogames the only new media of the 20th century that didn’t walk to the beat of spurs and sixguns.

The Call of Juarez games started to turn that around, and now Red Dead Redemption lays out a rich banquet of western wonders that sets a new gold standard for the genre. This is Rockstar Games doing what they do: vast, open environments to explore, plenty to do, and every decision in the hands of the gamer.

Rockstar made their name because of two things. First, they pioneered and developed one of the great “open-world” gameplay systems, offering gamers an entire landscape to explore at will. Make no mistake: they are masters of technology and design. Few are in their league.

Unfortunately, the second element contributing to their fame is the appalling content of many of their games. Grand Theft Auto began as little more than a carjacking simulator, and grew to encompass all manner of deviant behavior.

Red Dead Redemption takes the Grand Theft Auto IV engine and design and transplants in to the old west, and in the process finds a bit of morality. In a surprising change of pace for Rockstar, you play as John Marston, an upright man with a chance to be a noble knight of the west. His quest to capture his former partner in crime takes him to a large (albeit imaginary) swath of border territory called New Austin, where he can help the beautiful rancher’s daughter, rope wild horses, round up the cattle, hunt varmints, bring in wanted desperadoes, and assist the law. The game maps a diverse chunk of this environment, including a piece of Mexico and the plains to the north.

Marston is a good character, and as the drama follows him through the three main acts, you get to steer his growth, allowing him to be a paragon of virtue or just another old west thug. Morality systems—gameplay elements that gauge whether a character is good or bad based upon his actions—are in vogue right now, and Rockstar has done an excellent job of implementing one. Marston can certainly hold up the bank, rob the train, kill the sheriff, ignore the damsel in distress, and shoot the old drunk in the back, but he’ll have an easier time if he doesn’t. An upright man gets discounts in stores and spends less time and money evading the law.

Like the Grand Theft Auto Games, Red Dead Redemption is a series of mini-games stitched into a dynamic universe populated with characters and narrative events. Roping a wild horse, for example, involves lassoing him, then “breaking” him by using a simple balancing mini-game. Gambling opportunities abound, including complete versions of poker, liars dice, “five finger fillet,” and other games of chance. All of these mini-games simply add to the fullness of the experience.

This is still a violent, sometimes absurdly bloody M-rated game. Make no mistake: you’re still killing people, dealing with criminals, and running into ladies of the night. But, for adults, it’s actually a lot of fun. As with all Rockstar Games, you don’t have to follow the story at all. If you prefer to spend all your time hunting for buried treasure, shooting rabbits, or trying to stay on a bucking bronco, that’s just fine. Even in some of these portions, Rockstar has to remind us that, well … they’re Rockstar. To make money has a hunter, you have to skin and animal and then sell the meet, hides, horns, or whatever. The butchering sequences cannot be skipped, and although the camera remains on Marston’s face, the little cut scene is accompanied by gruesome sound effects and great slashes of blood spraying across the screen.

Red Dead Redemption is rated Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs, and they mean it. The foul language is less than you’ll find in an average episode of Deadwood, but the violence is a major part of the gameplay. That said, there’s something quite appealing about a game that allows you to explore a giant, beautifully realized and populated swath of the old west at your leisure. This is a special achievement in gaming, and it’s fine to see Rockstar finally used their gifts as designers in something with a moral core.

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GAMES Magazine: December Issue

This is the big one. Our December issue every year includes a 30-page supplement called the Games 100. I've been contributing to it for about 15 years, and in charge of one half of it for about 12. There are 100 games listed in the Traditional and Electronic categories, for a total of 200 games spanning roughly the last year in gaming.The issue was put to bed in late August, which means some late arrivals are only represented by short preview entries.

I'm going to run through some of my picks for the Electronic Games 100 throughout the week, and talk a bit about how we came to some of these conclusions. I'll also talk a bit about some of the winners on the board game side of the list. I personally wrote about 11,000 words for this year's edition, which is just absurd.

The rest of the issue has the usual assortment of puzzles and news, as well as a really long article on gender and competitive gaming.

The cover puzzle is pretty easy, but it looks nice. Each block is a detail from a different letter, upper- or lower-case. You have to identify the letters.

App O' The Mornin': Topple 2 Review

Price: free (currently)
Grade: C

Since I wrote about the word game called Topple! last week, this week I'll make things maximally confusing by reviewing the decidedly less enthusiastic Topple and it's somewhat annoying sequel, Topple 2.

Topple is a game that actually has a reason for being called Topple since things actually, y'know .... topple. It's your basic stacking game, and as such it is a very good example of a genre I could completely live without.

Topple and Topple 2 are the mutant offspring born from a wild night of sweet sweet love between Tetris and Jenga. (We always knew those two crazy kids would get together some day.) You have your basic "stack blocks very high" gameplay, which is never, ever fun when played by sober people. Then you have your basic "line up weird shapes to make them fit" gameplay, which was fun for about 15 minutes in 1984. Put 'em together, and you have ... well, something I really don't want to play very long.

The stacking mechanics are fine, but block manipulation is simply awkward. The two-finger block-turning control seems to have been invented for someone with tentacles instead of hands, which makes precise input rather difficult for those of us who are not the spawn of Cthulhu.

The goal of each level is to stack the blocks up to a certain height, and then beyond that to score bonus points. In Topple 2, sometimes you stack "under water," which means from top to bottom, while other times you need to stack all the way up to an egg, and then destroy the tower slowly in order to bring the egg back down without breaking it. You can also tilt the device left or right to nudge a falling toward back into line.

Topple 2 adds some other new variants, as well as a nice little multiplayer mode. This allows you to play a level, and then send your results to a friend. Your friend can then track how well you did as he tackles the same level.

That's a nice little feature. Bonus points for multiplayer! But you also have to log in a Plus+ account even if you're just playing the solo game. Double-super-negative bonus points for mandatory login! I hate forced logins for single player gaming. They always start my icons a-jigglin'.

Topple is a mostly decent little stacking game. The art is excellent, and the quantity and variety of puzzles is quite good. If you like this sort of thing, then I can't think of an app that does it better. By the same token, I also can't think of anyone who performs a cover version of "Dancing Queen" better than Abba. Some things just can't be made any better.