Friday, November 12, 2010

Shopping at Amazon

Amazon's Associate program is the only financial support this site has. (Yes, there are also Google AdSense banners on the page. I expect those to generate some actual income around the time the sun finally gutters out and the last man on earth is left staring into the lonely void.)

If you plan to shop at Amazon for Christmas or Hanukkah this year, please consider accessing the Amazon site through my links, such as the one below. It doesn't cost you anything extra, and I get 4%-6% on each sale just because you click through from this page.



Role-playing and adventure games each used to have their own category in the Games 100, back in those crazy days when Roberta Williams roamed the plains and gold boxes stuffed with floppy treasures and code wheels were stacked on every shelf. 

I'm pretty sure I remember my predecessor/boss, Burt Hochberg, even having separate categories for different kinds of adventure games, such as "humorous" and "science-fiction," but the again Burt was always pretty specific about his game categories. This may merely be a gin-induced false memory, but I swear I remember him asking me once, "Tommy my boy, do you think we should give an award for Best Puzzle Game Played With Marbles"? (In my memory, Burt always sounds like Jackie Mason for some reason.)

Well, "RPG" has become a remarkably fluid category. It's almost de rigueur for action games nowadays to have some element of role-playing (achievements, skills, leveling), thus blurring the lines. Meanwhile, the graphical adventure genre cratered about a decade ago and never really recovered, no matter how hard Telltale Games keeps trying to bring it back. I have so few in each category that they wound up being combined. 

Meanwhile, "Action" games have grown like the giant fungal mats of Oregon. RPGs are becoming more actiony and action games are becoming more RPGish. What is Red Dead Redemption? Clearly there is a role-playing game at the heart of it, but the part of me that finished every Gold Box, Baldur's Gate, Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardy game balks at calling RDR a real RPG. It's just ... not. 

My dividing line is usually stats. If a game is has character building, races, classes, stats, skills, experience points, leveling, narrative, and questing, then it's an RPG. If it's missing any of those features, then it's probably not an RPG. Unless I think it is. It's pretty confusing. 

Well, this year was kind of a no-brainer for the RPG award. BioWare is one of the finest purveyors of RPGishness around, and Mass Effect 2 is a wonderworld of riches. The second outing sharpens the gameplay, expands the universe, and delivers a new, even more compelling storyline. Although the original had the look and control of a third-person action game, it was an RPG in its particulars. The sequel streamlines the combat and pushes it a little more to the forefront, but does so without sacrificing any of the character and narrative depth that made the original such a hit.

2010 was also the year I got serious about digging deeper into DragonAge, and I have not yet reached the bottom. It's a truly beautiful piece of work.

App O' The Mornin': Flight Control Review

Grade: A
Price: $1

If, like me, you hadn't pick up Flight Control because it looked like a boring traffic-pathing game, go ahead and rectify that error right now by springing for the1-buck download. You will not regret it. You can come back and finish the review later.

Flight Control might not seem like a hot purchase, since it appears to nothing more that a dry air traffic control game. Although it is an air traffic control game, there's nothing dry about it. Everything is crisp and professional, from the appealing graphics (done in the style of those hilarious Emergency Landing Cards that inform you of the most comfortable position in which to meet your fiery doom) to the cocktail lounge soundtrack. I'm not sure where the developers, Firemint, came from, but they sure now how to make a game.

The gameplay itself is so perfectly wedded to the touchscreen format that I can't imagine it existing on any other platform. The games is based around 5 different single-screen landing field layouts. Planes and helicopters of differing sizes, speeds, and colors enter the map, and must be sent to the correcting landing spot without plowing into any other aircraft. This is done by drawing a path, which the aircraft will follow.

The action starts slowly, but soon gets fairly tense as the skies crowd and different kinds of planes enter the patterns. You'll have to juggle intersecting paths and suddenly-appearing aircraft while trying to get everyone lined up and on the ground safely. If two planes crash into each other, the game ends. The goal is to land as many planes as possible before this (inevitably) happens.

There's a WiFi/Bluetooth mode that lets you handled the traffic duties with a friend, as well as a number of special achievements, such as keeping an aircraft airborne fore 5 minutes straight.

Flight Control is on the short-list of must-have apps for any serious app gamer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The flu interrupted my ongoing series about the Games 100 issue, which is an annual supplement in Games Magazine dedicated to the best games in any given year.  The first two entries were on Action Game of the Year and Strategy Game of the Year.

Sports and Driving are two genres that leave me cold, so I usually rely on my crack team of advisors, led by Lawyer to the Stars Eric Neigher, to steer me right. You can tell I really respect sports and racing games, because I shoved them into a single category and limited them to 10 or fewer titles per year. 

The reason for this is simple: they are almost always repetitious iterations of previous games with annual changes that are of interest only to people who follow this sort of thing religiously. I've worked on this guide for years, and I have run out of interesting ways to say that Madden Umpteen-Umpty-Ump has new rosters, slightly improved graphics, and a fresh control system that allows the midline field rule to be applied to the puck while in motion, or whatever it is these people do in between grunting and sweating.

As is now probably obvious, I know nothing about sports. I cannot think of an area of popular passion that is of less interest to me, other than Lady Gaga's wardrobe, or perhaps that new band you like, the one with that video. The only exception, oddly enough, is golf, which I know pretty well and covered from a gaming perspective for many years. Heck, I even wrote a museum exhibit about golf sims for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Since I understand that golf is considered the most unwatchable game on broadcast television, I'm sure this says something awful about my peculiar psyche. I just don't know what. 

On the positive side, it means I've had tea in the private dining room at Royal St. Andrews--the one overlooking the first hole--and actually touched Sean Connery's locker. (His golf locker. Man, you people have filthy minds.)

But I digress.

This year we rolled out the usual allotment of notices for NFL, MLB, UCF, MILF, and whatever other annual $60 patches made the cut. We considered the professional sports field quite seriously ... and then gave award to Split/Second, a driving game in which an airplane lands on your car while your incredible drifting skillz make you so powerful you can literally make the track explode.  

Top that, Madden.

App O' The Mornin': Scrabble Review UPDATE

Update: 11/10/10
EA rolled out a big update for their Scrabble app, adding some new features and redesigning others. How does it measure up?

Well, it still loads like sludge, but at least now it supports multitasking, so you don't have to keep doing a reload every time you move. That's a huge time-saver for people who keep multiple games going throughout the day, and the prime improvement I would have asked for.

The menu system has been given a complete overhaul, providing a more stylish look and sleeker design. It's simply easier to get games started and customize features. Heck, the redesign even reminded me of features I'd forgotten about. (I don't recall ever noticing that you could choose your own music.) The layout of the solo setup, in particular, is much more natural. 

After a quick read of the update reviews in the App Store, I see a lot people disagree with this, and think the new look is ugly. Since App Store reviews are to quality commentary what Budweiser is to quality beer, I won't let this trouble my sleep much.

The "teacher" mode is now available for all play modes, but I admit to being a little iffy on the idea. It's certainly a nice way to improve your game, but I've always found that its availability in multiplayer mode makes it a tempting way to cheat. (It can you show you words with letters you still have on your rack at the end of the turn, allowing you to use that word next turn.)

The bad news? There's still no retina or Game Center support, pointless sound effects have been added (and can be turned off), and the scoring bug doesn't appear to have been fixed. People are lining up in the App Store to protest the lack of retina support with the mightiest arrow in their quivers: the Fearsome 1-Star Review. Because, you know, nothing demands cutting edge graphical blandishments like a game designed to played with cardboard and wood.

It's a good update, and would have been worthwhile if only for the multitasking.

Original Review: 8/18/10
With the demise of the unofficial "Scrabulous," the official EA/
Hasbro version of Scrabble became the only online version of this classic game. It's already a huge hit on Facebook, and has also made a successful jump the the App store, featuring multiplayer support that is among the best for any turn-based game.

The support for play across multiple platforms is, in my experience, unique among Apps. (And, no, I am not counting Farmville and Mafia. If you consider those “games,” you’re probably at the wrong blog.) I can start a game with the App, invite players via Facebook, and then anyone playing can continue the game either via Facebook or the App. This is a fantastic feature that needs to be implemented in more games. Unfortunately, there's a scoring bug that deducts the same amount of points from both sides, and can declares the wrong winner.

The software passes the new moves fairly quickly, and App connection failures are rare. (The Facebook side of the equation is a little more fussy, often requiring repeated screen reloads.) This kind of offline multiplayer is ideal for mobile devices, since it allows people to make moves at their own pace. Because of this App, I now play Scrabble every day, and it’s so easy to use that a move never takes more than a minute or two.

On the downside, it could use a more diverse set of customization options and faster load times. Although the app will send push notifications when a new move from an online opponent is received, you have to restart the app, sit through the logos, and wait while it finds your games. Updates seem to have improved this since the initial release, so we can hope that it will get even better.

Those reservations aside, it’s still a fine implementation of Scrabble for $5.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Summa Contra Sims

Sims 3 just made a nicely symmetrical leap to PlayStation 3, so now PS owners can relish in the tedium in HD. Me? I'd still rather play Prototype, which is now available as one of 360's Platinum Hits for only $30, and it's still worth a look. Here's a spot I wrote last year about both games, and my remarkable indifference related to all things Sims. 

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that The Sims was designed for Someone Else. I don’t know who. Hottentots, perhaps.

I played through The Sims 3 with awe, respect … and profound boredom. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and if God is kind I’ll never have to play it again this side of Purgatory.

Meanwhile, I’ve been returning to Prototype. I like Prototype. I also liked it when it was called Spider-Man 2 and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. If a game is worth playing once, it’s worth playing two more times with different character models.

Games are all about wish-fulfillment and power fantasies. Some people are content to wield their mighty power to get three gems in a row. Others would prefer to jump ten stories in their air and punch a helicopter out of the sky. If you have the opportunity to do the former, I have no idea why you’d choose to do the latter, but people are strange.

Adult male gamers tend to follow the groove of their childhood fantasies into adulthood. As a kid, my daydreams ranged toward Conan, Professor Challenger, the Six Million Dollar Man, and G.I. Joe. (Also: I wanted a pet werewolf.) If someone makes a game in which a muscular Cimmerian gets fitted for a cybernetic arm with kung-fu grip and leads his Adventure Team into a jungle swarming with dinosaurs that time forgot!, I’d never leave the house. Until then, Prototype will do fine.

My childhood fantasies never ran toward being, say, an interior decorator, or a guy who humps his way to a crummy job and home to a barely furnished tract house every day. That’s actually the polar opposite of “fantasy.” Some people call it “reality,” or perhaps just “life.” Others call it The Sims 3.

I’m baffled when people deride a certain piece of art or entertainment as “mere escapism.” What the hell else is it supposed to be? You may escape into high-minded flights of the intellect or emotional insight, or into a place where a man in a loincloth chokes a T-Rex with his mighty pneumatic hand, but you are escaping. I’d rather not spend those precious moments of escape redecorating someone else’s make-believe house.

App O' The Mornin': WackyLands Boss Review

Grade: B
Price: $1

Although it's saddled with a flaky control system, WackyLands Boss still managed to pack plenty of fun into its hero-stompin' gameplay.

We've all spent way too much time fighting boss battles, so WackyLands Boss turns the tables and puts you in control of the Big Bad. Your boss is incredibly customizable, with even more options unlocked as you progress through the game. You can change eyes, limbs, torso and accessories to create the custom boss o' your dreams, and then equip him with a stone fist, chain mail, and a pretty bow in his hair.

The gameplay is simple side-scrolling combat, as you meet and destroy wave after wave of tiny enemies who seem to think they're "heroes" such as nights and archers. Once in a while, a princess in pink will come fluttering helplessly into the scene. This is your chance for a quick frilly snack, which also helps restore health.

The control scheme for all this would seem to be pretty straightforward, but it doesn't work so well in practice. Everything is done with swipes and taps: hold left or right to move that direction, tap for a light punch, swipe across for a heavy punch, swipe up to grab an object or princess, and swipe down to roll. That's all very nice, but the game moves to fast and simply doesn't correctly interpret your input. These leaves you fighting the interface rather than the enemy at certain points. It's not a consistent problem, but it's enough of a problem to cost you a few losses.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of gameplay here, with a number of levels and some minigames to stretch things out. It's possible to get used to the erratic interface, and the payoff is fun little bit of monstrous payback to all those nauseating little heroes.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Heroscape: 2004-2010, R.I.P.

Here at Casa McD, we're big Heroscape fans. It's really one of the great gaming systems of all time, allowing players to create wonderful custom playing surfaces using interlocking plastic tiles, and then fight battles with miniatures representing various historical periods and fantasy settings. Thus, you may find a Roman Legion and a dragon facing off against lizard creatures and samurai. The combat system is quick and easy, but with enough details and special abilities to provide interesting tactics. It's highly collectible, wonderfully entertaining, and dead.

That's right, Hasbro/Wizard of the Coast pulled the plug on the Heroscape line. Here's the official statement:

After a thorough evaluation, we have made the decision to discontinue our Heroscape line in order to focus our efforts on our core brands. While this decision means that we will no longer be developing new content for the game, existing Heroscape products will still remain available from Wizards of the Coast and sold in the hobby game channel while supplies last.

The next and final Heroscape expansion, Moltenclaw’s Invasion, will be released on November 16, 2010. This final assortment, which is playable with the Heroscape D&D Master Set, will include the best and most iconic creatures from the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. Orcs, bugbears, dragons and frost giants will all come together to join the greatest battle of all time. 

It's a shame to see the series going away, and I hope someone snaps up the rights to it. Scoop up those remaining set while they last. Once the stock is gone, that's it.

Ecarte: Poe and Doyle Play Cards

"The game, too, was my favorite écarté!"
Edgar Allan Poe, "William Wilson" (1839)

Card games have been such a popular pastime for so long that it's not at all unusual to come across references to specific games in literature, such as Ombre in Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock, or Speculation in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

In Edgar Allan Poe's classic doppleganger tale "William Wilson," a major plot point turns on a card game in which the narrator is caught cheating. The characters are playing a French game called Ecarté, and although it's no longer popular, it was a common gambling and casino game in the 19th century. Observers, as well as players, often bet on the outcome.

There is no solid evidence that Poe was a serious gambler. Biographies usually only mention a single period of his life, when he was in school and near-penniless, when he turned to gambling to supplement his income. That he was able to do this shows he had some skill with cards, but of the many sins (both real and imaginary) laid at the feet of Poe, card-sharping was not one of them.

Nonetheless, he showed a ready familiarity with certain cheating techniques, as William Wilson explains when he is exposed during a game of Ecarté:
In the lining of my sleeve were found all the court cards essential in ecarte, and, in the pockets of my wrapper, a number of packs, facsimiles of those used at our sittings, with the single exception that mine were of the species called, technically, arrondees [rounded]; the honours being slightly convex at the ends, the lower cards slightly convex at the sides. In this disposition, the dupe who cuts, as customary, at the length of the pack, will invariably find that he cuts his antagonist an honor; while the gambler, cutting at the breadth, will, as certainly, cut nothing for his victim which may count in the records of the game
But the literary pedigree of Ecarté doesn't end with there. The works of Arthur Conan Doyle contain at least 9 references to écarté in various stories and novels.

In Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Watson remarks:  "Mortimer had stayed to dinner, and he and the baronet played écarté afterwards." 

Doyle's Brigadier Gerard stories are full of Ecarté references. For example, in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, the narrator says: "I took up the cards from the table where Morat had left them, and I tried to work out a few combinations at écarté. But I could not remember which were trumps, and I threw them under the table in despair." (This passage doesn't really make sense.)

And that's not even the end of it. A quick keyword search of just the books on my Kindle show écarté popping up multiple times in the writing of Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Andrew Lang, J.S. Le Fanu, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, W.M. Thackery, and Mark Twain.

In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers filmed a short which shows two Frenchmen playing a five-card trick-taking game. Given the time period and the fact that it's a two-handed game, they are probably playing Ecarté. This is interesting for a simple reason: it's the first time a card game appeared in a motion picture. You can see the clip as part of the Lumiere compilation here.  It begins at the 3:40 mark. 

One of the fascinating things about the clip is the speed with which the old men play. The onlooker doesn't even finish pouring the drinks before the game is over. This speed is what made it a popular game for people to watch and wager upon.

How to Play Ecarté
Ecarté is a simple trick taking game with a unique scoring mechanic. It's related to Euchre, and descended from the French game Triomphe.

The game is played with 32-card deck, with all the cards from 2 to 6 stripped. (This is your basic Piquet deck.) 

The rankings are K, Q, J, A, 10, 8, 9, 7.

The cards are shuffled and dealt 5 to a player. The standard deal is in packets of either 3 + 2, or 2 + 3, but any agreed-upon deal is fine. Stock is placed between the players

One card is turned face-up as Trump. If the card is a King, the dealer immediately scores 1 point.

Non-dealer can request an exchange of a certain number of cards. The dealer may refuse this request. If the dealer refuses the card exchange, then he commits himself to making 3 tricks and play commences. The non-dealer may come back with another request to exchange a different number of cards, with the same conditions: if the dealer refuses, he must earn 3 tricks.

If the dealer accepts the card exchange, the player discards the agreed-upon number of cards and draws replacements. Dealer must discard and replace at least 1 card.

Play is straight trick taking, with high-card or high-trump winning. 

If either player holds the King of trumps, he may show it and score a point before playing the first trick.

Players score 1 point for taking 3 or 4 tricks, and 2 points for taking all 5 (this is called a vole).

However, if the dealer refused the exchange and then failed to win 3 or more tricks, the non-dealer does not score his own tricks. Instead, he earns 2 points automatically. 

Play continues to 5 points. If the loser only scores 1 or 2 points, the pot is doubled. If he scores no points, the pot is tripled. 

App O' The Mornin': Floop Review

Grade: B
Price: $1

Floop is an uneven physics puzzler that isn't always easy to love. The goal is to get an object into the mouth a critter on the opposite side of the level. At the beginning, the critter in question is a squirrel, and the object is an acorn. As you earn earn stars you also unlock a mouse with his cheese, and a gorilla with his banana.

The control is a simple touch/pullback combination. When you touch the object, a line shows the path it will follow. Draw your finger back further for a more powerful, set the angle, and let 'er rip. It's a pretty common ballistic mechanism, and it works fine.

The puzzle element comes from a combination of the environment and the physics modeling. There are plenty of obstacles and environmental modifiers. Some are fixed, and some can be slightly repositioned when hit by the object. Some surfaces slip or cause modest chain reactions, while others destroy your object.

The weirdness comes from the behavior of the objects, which feels kind of wonky. Everything is a little too bouncy, with reactions akin to Jelly Car. This is not really a problem, but it takes a little time to get used to the way each item behaves in the world. Adding to the challenge is the fact that each object behaves differently depending upon its shape. The cheese is square, the acorn is kind of oblong with a hat, and the banana is ... banana-shaped. The shape effects the way a shot will bounce and roll, and creates a different dynamic for each level.

It takes a bit of time to warm up to Floop, and there's a random trial-and-error element that I don't usually like to see in my puzzlers.

Also: I don't know why, but I don't like angry-looking animals in my apps. I like cute. I like Kiko and Starcat. I'm sure this was attempt to capture the Angry Birds vibe, but it doesn't work here. That squirrel looks like he's about to foam at the mouth, run up my pants leg, and do something awful to me. (By the way, squirrels? Not cute. Squirrels are lawn rats, and no amount of Cute Overload pictures will convince me otherwise.)

That said, I did wind up kind of liking Floop. It has plenty of levels and decent production values, and it certainly offers plenty of gameplay for a buck. If the notion of a ballistic puzzler with Jelly Car physics sounds interesting to you, then have at it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

PUZZLE: The Pebble Game

This is a classic from Henry Dudeney:

"Here is an interesting little puzzle game that I used to play with an acquaintance on the beach at Slocomb-on-Sea. Two players place an odd number of pebbles, we will say fifteen, between them. Then each takes in turn one, two, or three pebbles (as he chooses), and the winner is the one who gets the odd number. Thus, if you get seven and your opponent eight, you win. If you get six and he gets nine, he wins. Ought the first or second player to win, and how? When you have settled the question with fifteen pebbles try again with, say, thirteen."

Turns Out It Wasn't a Cold...

... it was the flu. If a cold on immunosuppressants is unfun, then the flu on immunosuppressants is double-super-plus unfun. I'm going to be going slow this week, so thanks for your patience. I managed to get an App review up this morning, but since my head is all floaty and woozy, I may well have said that Reckless Racing was the best aardvark gromit mowing fish of 1989.

So, hey, maybe this will be a fun week for readers after all! Watch the loopy writer try make sense on heavy medications.

App O' The Mornin': Reckless Racing Review

Grade: A
Price: $1

I waited to pick up Reckless Racing until the price dropped, and for a very good reason: I'm cheap. At $1, Reckless Racing is a steal, but even if the price goes up you should grab this one.

Even if you don't normally like racing games, you may well like Reckless Racing, since it's not your ordinary racer. The top-down perspective gives you a wide view of the track layout, which makes it almost like playing with slot car racers. I'm not a big fan of 3D racers, but there's almost a puzzle-like quality to top-down racers.

Visually, this is one of the best apps in the store. The races play out across detailed terrains with great lighting effects and animation. There are five tracks total, and each one has a reverse version that can be unlocked. It would have been nice to a see a little more diversity in the track style and layout, but that's a pretty small problem, and may well be rectified with updates.

The game allows for 3 kinds of control: standard (left, right, gas, and break buttons), tilt, and tank (autogas with left, right, and break buttons). All of them are responsive, and the game controls quite well. Is it a realistic racer? Great Uncle Jessie's Ghost, boy! What are you talking about? This is a Redneck Racing kind of game, channeling the spirit of Bo, Luke, and the General Lee. You drift around corners, spin through mud puddles, ram opponents into the river, hit randomly-placed ramps, and then move along.

The main game is a standard dirt rally against 5 other AI racers, who all seem to be on guide-rails. Or lithium. Or both. The hot lap mode is a nicely executed solo race that records each turn around the track and then lets you race against a ghost version of yourself. Delivery is a fun mini-game in which you pick up and drop off various objects around a track.

Even more impressive is the multiplayer, which has completely integrated internet matchmaking support. It only takes a few seconds to log in and start racing against other gamers.

The entire game is steeped in deep south cliches, and people who are offended by Southern stereotypes should probably give it a pass. The only thing it's missing is Boss Hogg and Cooter.

That's about the only caveat that I'd give with Reckless Racing. This is just a good little game, even for people who don't normally like racers.