Game reviews

I don’t want to tell you why Hades is so good

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[Editor’s note: Among the many things that I found deeply confusing in the 70s was the commercial for Life cereal. Two boys are given a bowl of Life cereal and told it’s healthy. Of course, they want no part of it. They’d rather have Sugar Pops or Froot Loops. But then one of the boys gets the bright idea to give the cereal to Mikey, because “he hates everything”. The other boy enthusiastically agrees.

I do not understand their reasoning. Why would they give it to Mikey if he’s just going to hate it? What do they hope to accomplish? I know what the commercial is trying to accomplish. It’s trying to sell viewers on the idea that Life cereal is so good that even kids who hate everything will like it. But I don’t understand the character motivation of the two boys. The fundamental premise of the commercial, the inciting event for the dramatic reveal, is flawed. Nonsensical, in fact.

I bring this up because it explains why I told Bruce Geryk that Hades was “not for him”. It’s not because Hades isn’t good. It is. It’s excellent. But I told Bruce Geryk that Hades wasn’t for him because I’m not someone who would foist off a bowl of Life cereal on some kid who hates all cereal. I would no more tell Bruce Geryk to play Hades than I would give Mikey a bowl of Sugar Pops or Froot Loops, much less Life.

But Bruce Geryk, ever the surly contrarian, ignored my comment about Hades being “not for him”. What’s more, he didn’t just play it; he played it a lot. He emailed me about it a lot.  He even wanted to review it, which accounts for what you’re about to read.  So while I’m still deeply confused about the choice the boys make in the Life cereal commercial, I can at last understand their surprise and delight by the end of the commercial: “He likes it!  Hey, Bruce!”]

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An open letter to whoever found my Godhood notes

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Dear sir or madam,

I am writing to you concerning the legal pad you found somewhere in the vicinity of Pasadena, California, on or about the date of September 12th, 2020.  The pad contains several pages of notes in cramped and somewhat messy writing.  Surely you can appreciate the time that was spent writing them.  Surely you can tell that the pencil was kept sharp.  Surely you noticed that entire sections were erased and rewritten for better formatting.  Surely it’s obvious there is some esoteric and deeply detailed subject at hand.

You might have inferred from what is written that these are the notes for a sermon, or perhaps someone’s theology homework.  But then you get to the references to nudism, cat worship, lust priests, and virgin sacrifice.  Perhaps you wondered if this might be some strange cult manifesto.  Maybe you have stumbled across the plans for a doomsday.  Maybe you should turn it over to the police.  

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What’s a nice shoggoth like you doing in a game like Carrion?

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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.

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Let’s meet Secret Government member Ramiro Vazquez

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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.

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I wish Dan O’Bannon were here today to see Zombie Army 4

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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.

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Let’s count the ways Valorant makes me feel old

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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.

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Seven Reasons I Keep Trying to Play Shadow Empire

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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:

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The torturous tragedy of Solium Infernum

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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.

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Entropy and empires collide in Sunless Skies, the best game of 2019

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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.  

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Volko Ruhnke’s Nevsky is a fiddly that has its own quality

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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.

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The 3rd best game of 2019: One Finger Death Punch 2

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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.  

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The 4th best game of 2019: Void Bastards

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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.

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5th best game of 2019: Age of Wonders: Planetfall

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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?

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