I remember Donald Pleasence screaming. He’s trapped. A white blood cell is bearing down on him. He’s been shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a human body. It’s the movie Fantastic Voyage, from 1966, and the white blood cell is descending slowly and inexorably toward Donald Pleasence. It oozes over his head and he’s screaming and he dies a terrible death. The special effects at the time, all very practical and weirdly theatrical, presented a white blood cell as basically bubbles from bubble bath. Donald Pleasence screams as a stagehand pours bubble bath bubbles over his head. I mean, that’s how it looks to me now. But at the time, it was utterly horrific. Donald Pleasence screaming as it consumed his head.Continue reading →
Allow me to introduce you to Ramiro Vazquez. Reader, this is Ramiro. Ramiro, reader. Ramiro is a member of a small nameless organization hidden deep underneath the machinery of government, yet profoundly involved in the affairs of state. A “deep state”, if you will. Our secret brotherhood pulls the strings that run the world. Yes, it’s a brotherhood. We don’t allow girls into the club. This is the 1600s. Think of it as a pre-Kassandra Ubisoft game.
Let me show you what Ramiro can do.Continue reading →
Heavy Metal was a 1981 anthology of very R-rated short animated films based on the sci-fi/fantasy magazine. It was infused with enough nudity, gore, and profanity — albeit animated — to keep a 15-year-old boy riveted. But after the titillation wore off, the part of Heavy Metal that stuck with me the most was a segment called B-17, about the ill-fated crew of a World War II bomber. I was really into B-17s. I had built models of them. Sure, I was partial to the B-25 (remind me to tell you about a solitaire boardgame called Enemy Coast Ahead), but the B-17 was a legend. It was an icon of American resolve and fortitude.Continue reading →
Valorant, the new free-to-play team shooter from Riot makes me feel all of my years. I’m 49 now, so I’m not so old that I feel like a senior otherwise. I exercise. I binge stream. I’m hip with the kids. Sure, I played the Atari 2600 and I remember when arcades had pinball machines that did not have movie licenses, but I’m down with the tweets. I am old enough that I feel out of step with just about everything in this game. Playing Valorant is a grim reminder that with each passing day I get one step closer to my match ending permanently. It makes me feel old. And not for the reasons you may suspect. I’m not too slow. I don’t have trouble seeing the enemy players. I get all the rules.
Nevertheless, it’s a game for younger folks. Here, then, are all the ways Valorant makes me feel like an old man.Continue reading →
There are a lot of reasons to stop playing Shadow Empire. I’ve hit many of them several times over. The most common is that I don’t understand how something works, but I didn’t realize I didn’t understand until it was too late. Maybe I built some expensive structure that took several turns of saving up resources, and then several turns of actual building, and now it doesn’t work like I thought it would. Maybe I move my armies into position for an attack, and now they’re decimated because the supply rules are impenetrable. Maybe I get into a sudden economic death spiral when I didn’t even realize why I suddenly ran out of food. Who’s eating all my food? Maybe I simply can’t figure out how all these numbers are supposed to line up. Why are these numbers here if I’m supposed to simply take them on faith without even understanding what they mean?
Among other reasons to stop playing Shadow Empire are the torturous interface, the primitive graphics, the slow turn processing, and the uneven documentation.
But there are also lots of reasons to start playing Shadow Empire again. Most games that are easy to quit playing are also easy to not play again. That’s not true of Shadow Empire, an (overly?) complex combination of hardcore operational level wargame, intertwined with a King of Dragon Pass style leader management game, played atop a sci-fi 4X. Every time I’ve quit playing, I’ve picked it back up. Here are some of the reasons:Continue reading →
You can tell a diver whose mask doesn’t fit by the ring pressed into his face after a dive. The angry red crease along the shallow skin of the forehead, then down around the outer edges of his eyes, into a furrow through the soft flesh of the cheek, and finally cupping the nose to bisect the philtrum. If it’s a guy, and he shaved that morning, and you’re all on a salt water dive, he’s really feeling it. He’s feeling the burn on his upper lip even when the mask is off, and especially when it’s back on. That maddening chafe, and more maddening still that the water kept getting in, up his nose, into his eyes, no matter how tightly he pulled the band at the back of his head.Continue reading →
There are lots of issues with Doom Eternal, but only one has been a deal-breaker. It’s probably not even the one you think.Continue reading →
I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about Tapestry. I guess I could say the artwork is cute in some places. Okay, that’s that. Let’s get on with the rest.
For all the points of the compass, there is only one direction. And time is its only measure.–Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
The eye has a powerful thirst. It will drink greedily and without reservation whatever pictures you put in front of it. But words sneak past the greedy eye with their own secret pictures. Pictures that no one showed you, that no one else can see, that no one else will ever see. You, and the author of the words, and the words themselves conspired to create these secret pictures out of emptiness. The words are the breath breathed over the face of the black waters and what happens next is no less than the act of creation.Continue reading →
Wargame design has developed so profoundly over the past four decades that a collection spanning this era almost feels like a series of geological strata. From the perfunctory Nixonian arithmetic of military integers dressed up as history in early SPI games, to the multilateral multi-impulse area movement Avalon Hill games of the first Bush Administration, to the Clintonesque triangulation of the card-driven games that moved history from the rulebook to a little story you held in your hand, the chase of verisimilitude has seen a steady stream of devices meant to get us to that ultimate grail: to touch history. Modern designers have an impressive arsenal of mechanics to assist them in this quest. Yet the goal too often, for one reason or another, eludes them.Continue reading →
Fighting games are a form of puppetry. You pull the strings, an insensate doll animates, videogame violence ensues. Most of the puppetry has gotten really complex because most of the puppeteers have gotten really good, and therefore more demanding. They expect long deep learning curves and literal split second timing. Those learning curves get deeper and that timing gets more precise as brawlers like God of War and Devil May Cry lure away the more casual players like me.
But One Finger Death Punch believes we should all be puppeteers.
Sometimes when you’re playing The Swindle, a steampunk heist game with cool steampunky progression to pull you through procedurally generated heists, you get a gimme. A lightly defended computer stuffed with cash, right next to the entrance, with only a couple of robot guards strolling by on their preset patrol paths. Knock out the robots, hack a couple of thousand quid out of the machine, and beat feet back to your airship pod. With that kind of gift laid at your feet, there’s no question of pushing the risk/reward calculations any further. With pockets that full, why risk running deeper in to scoop up whatever change is lying around on the floor?
But other times, you get a network of defenses sealed tight behind brick walls, swarming with guards, festooned with landmines, eyed jealously by overlapping cameras wired to alarms. No point bothering. Make do with the scant money you found in the foyer and call it a day. The procedural generation giveth, the procedural generation sometimes don’t giveth.
It’s been 25 years since I was captivated by Simtex’s Master of Orion and Master of Magic games. Since then, no one has understood Simtex’s appeal to my imagination as well as Triumph Studios with their Age of Wonders series. After wallowing luxuriantly in rich (if somewhat generic) fantasy, hammering away at their design like a dwarven smith banging on a mithril battle axe, they’ve pivoted to science fiction. With Planetfall, they’ve given me everything I want in a 4X, but this time with robots, lasers, alien bugs, hovertanks, extradimensional threats from beyond the galaxy, all that jazz.
But this isn’t science fiction among the stars. It’s planet-bound, and to Triumph’s credit, that’s clear in the name. This is hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, itself a vividly reimagined science fiction version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. You won’t be mastering Orion because Orion is a star. You will instead be mastering Ringworld, Hyperion, Hoth, Pandora.
And Triumph makes it look easy, because they understand how simple it is to make a great 4X. Just put interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place. That’s all there is to it. I mean, duh. Right?
As soon as you boot up Field of Glory: Empires, you can tell what you’re getting. Just look at that patchwork map with those little armies standing around. Look at all those numbers and tooltips and region labels. Looking at the adoringly historical spreadsheet propping it all up. This is a clone of a Paradox game.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Almost all strategy games are based on either the Sid Meier’s Civilization model or the Paradox spreadsheet model. Consider Aggressors: Ancient Rome, which covers the same part of the world during the same time period as Empires (the ancient Mediterranean is a popular playground second only to World War II). Aggressors hews so closely to the Civilization formula that it can feel a bit like Civilization, but with an arbitrary cutoff date before you get to the fun stuff with caravels, gunpowder, and railroads. It raises the question, “Why aren’t you just playing a Civilization?” The answer, of course, is that you want more historical specificity, and that’s what Aggressors has to offer in its Civilization-shaped package. But will that answer work for Field of Glory: Empires when Paradox already has games with the same historical specificity?
You can play X-com for the first time exactly once. And what a precious time that once. All the mystery and uncertainty, the danger, the discovery, the horror of what those weird little aliens were doing to our cows. Our innocent cows! What else were they up to? What would you reveal when you finished researching this thing that you found? What startling discoveries would you make on the UFOpedia? What new powers and weapons would your soldiers carry down the ramp of the Sky Ranger? What horrific things would happen out in the field? What was out there, in the darkness, just outside the range of your flare? And what is that? You’ve never seen one of those before!
Even after Firaxis picked up the mantle and applied lessons learned from a decade or so of game design, it was a reboot of some of the same mysteries, the same settings, the same aliens, the same weapons. It was familiar territory, which is partly the point of a reboot. UFOs invading Earth is old-school comfort food, familiar and delicious. Even XCOM 2’s slightly forced concept of a rebel uprising against conquering aliens was mostly familiar. New words for the same concepts.
Then there’s Phoenix Point.