Gaming trials, tribulations, observations, and revelations

11Apr Fallout New Vegas: A World of Mods (Part 1: Guns, Guns, Guns)

As I mentioned in my earlier post on Fallout: New Vegas, one of the the most important features for me was the game’s comprehensive and fairly easy-to-use modding tools.  Like other games before it in the same engine, the ease of modding has resulted in communities that release truly amazing mods that change a wide variety of aspects about the game, expanding it with everything from new weapons and armor to new storylines that are at least as comprehensive as those created by the original designers.  These mods have added an incredible amount more gameplay for me, and they’ve definitely conspired to make FNV one of my most-played games of all time.  So, for those of you who are interested in expanding this game, the following is a write-up of many of the major plugins I’m currently using with the game, and what I think makes them an important, or at least interesting, addition to the game.


Part 1: Weapon Mods

Classic Fallout Weapons New Vegas

CFWNV is perhaps one of the most comprehensive weapon addition mods for New Vegas (at least, until the port of 19th and 20th century weapons is complete).  It takes a wide variety of weapons from previous Fallout games, including a good amount of what would be considered “modern” weapons.  Essentially, it takes the already good selection of weaponry in New Vegas and adds a much wider variety in almost every category, everything from crowbars to the Pancor Jackhammer riot shotgun.  This addition makes the gameplay a bit more varied, and as it adds weapons to the various factions you encounter, means that you’ll come across a lot more interesting equipment in your travels.  Additionally, it also uses CaliberX (, an ammo support library, to pair the weapons with a huge variety of accurate ammunition.  All in all, if you had to choose one additional weapon replacer, this would be it.

Book of Earache Vegas Edition

This is another mods that adds a lot of weapons, most of which look rather amazingly hi-res when compared to the original weapons, and primarily focus on modern weapons with all the trimmings.  Want to play around in the wasteland with a WA2000 semiauto sniper rifle or an XM8?  This pack’s got you covered.  It focuses mainly on guns, but provides an impressive selection to choose from, and many of them can be modded as well.  It also includes an optional add-on that swaps out the models of many of the regular FNV weapons, and replaces them with modern weapons, which in my opinion is quite an improvement.  Additionally, it packs a few other interesting features, including persistent shell casings (when firing in third-person mode, at least) and a new, fully-equipped player suite with integrated weapons shop at the Lucky 38.

Exciter Guns Mini-Pack

This weapon pack focuses mainly on carbines and assault rifles, but has some pretty nice models and a good variety of M16/M4-style weapons.  Previous versions had some issues with shaky animation, but this one has been pretty solid, and most of the guns are pretty detailed, with a variety of attachments, and a fairly decent selection of weapon mods as well.  If you like carbines, this is a good one to round out your weapon selection without adding quite as much as the more comprehensive packs.

ZL Armaments

This mod adds a weapon shop in the general direction of New Vegas, with a small living space as well as a half-decent variety of new weapons.  With this mod, once you earn a safehouse from any of the factions, you also get a key to the shop (although I modified my version to award a key upon starting a new game).  One thing this pack offers is a nice choice of silenced weapons, including a silenced sniper rifle, assault rifle, and MP-10SD submachinegun (in addition to straight MP10 and MP5K variants).  It also adds a multi-role ACWS (advanced combat weapons system) that can be modified to serve a variety of roles (in its various forms, it can serve as a replacement for the assault carbine, marksman carbine, and sniper rifle, respectively).  Although, if you’re interested in ACWS, you can also check out Exciter’s Masada ACWS pack (, which features a similar system, with the additional benefit of using the SelectFire system ( to provide weapons with auto/burst/semi functionality.

Stalker Weapons Pack

I haven’t used this one extensively, but I’ve used individual weapons from this pack, and they’re generally pretty decent.  It’s a good, diverse pack, from pistols to machineguns, including many popular weapons (with multiple packs there’s bound to be a little overlap).  This pack has some good pistols, and I especially like the PKM light machinegun.

Darkfiregaming Mod

While this mod primarily advertises itself as a T-shirt clothing mod, it actually contains a tactical weapons pack featuring a variety of weapon variations with pretty much every modification under the sun, including a heartbeat monitor (unfortunately, a non-working one).  Mainly features H&K weapons, along with a pretty good M14 (although I slightly prefer the version from Book of Earache).

Nordic Firearms

A medium-sized weapons pack with a variety of fairly unique-looking guns, all of which have a good variety of weapon mods.  This is another one I haven’t played around with a lot, but the weapons look to be pretty good so far, have decent sounds and are reasonably heavy-hitting.

Those are the main weapon packs, but there are also a lot of other interesting individual weapons you can load up, a few of which are listed below:

-Glock 18c and 20 (

-Mk. 23 (

-Springfield 1911 (

-Dan Wesson PPC .357 (

-COP .357 Derringer (

-M-2081 Plasma Revolver (

-Beretta Samurai Edge (

That wraps up Part 1 of many – still to come are features on player houses, gameplay changes, armors, new content packs, and much more (as of this writing, I have about 125 active mods for FNV, so there’s a lot of ground to cover).

10Feb Test Drive Unlimited 2: A Textbook Recipe for Frustration

It is always disappointing when a game that you have looked forward to for quite some time fails to live up to the hype.  This is especially true when the first game in the series has already become one of your favorites.  In this case, I’m talking about the driving game Test Drive Unlimited, and its very recently-released sequel.

The original TDU was perhaps the quintessential driving game – not racing, exactly, but driving.  It allowed you to drive across a fairly decent-looking recreation of Hawaii in a huge variety of expensive sports cars, and the driving really was half the fun – exploring new areas, taking in the scenery, enjoying the feeling of speed.  In essence, it let you recreate the feeling you see in many car commercials – a luxury car driving deftly through a beautiful landscape – that is nearly impossible to experience driving a real car (well, legally, at least).  Yes, there’s racing as well, but in general it’s a game that seems to encourage fun and exploration, and it has fast become one of my favorite driving games, despite being a bit dated.  In fact, it was mainly due to my love of that game that  made TDU2 one of the few day-one game purchases that I anticipate this year.

Now, unfortunately, I have to get to the disappointment.  On its surface, TDU2 is quite similar to its predecessor, but starts out a bit different – instead of a rich thrill-seeker jetting to the islands to buy fast cars and race around in them, this time you’re a parking valet with dreams of racing glory.  Luckily, the introduction finishes fairly quickly, and you’re left with a starter vehicle and the island of Ibiza to explore.  However, to get much of anything more in the game – better cars, actual racing events, access to the redesigned Hawaii area – you have to first get through what the game calls “racing school.”  This, unfortunately, is where the game rapidly deteriorates into a morass of bad game design and keyboard-smashing anger that I would term “a textbook recipe for frustration.”

To sum it up, the “racing school” is a set of six test tracks that you have to successfully complete in order to actually unlock any of the racing events.  These test tracks are made to simulate an actual driving school, but are far more demanding – plus, while you can use full driving assistance elsewhere, in this mode a lot of it is turned off.  Plus, the tracks aren’t just about completion, they’re also timed – with ridiculously tight time points that seem unlikely to be met by anyone outside of the people who designed the courses, or the truly hardcore racing gamer.

For reference, here’s my progress so far (and keep in mind, out of the many races I’ve completed successfully in the original game, only one race took me ten attempts to get a first-place finish):

Racing School Step 1: 2 tries
Step 2: 3 tries
Step 3: 3 tries
Step 4: 10+ tries
Step 5: 25+ tries (attention developers:  this, right here, is a really good sign your game is broken.)
Step 6: at least 10 tries, the closest I’ve ever come is within 7 seconds of the “pass” benchmark.

So, the first problem with this exam is the fact that it’s almost impossible to complete, and that’s for someone who is at least halfway decent at racing games, including the first game in this series.  I can’t even imagine how frustrated someone must be who goes into this game with even less skill.  I mean, it’s pretty simple to me – if someone’s gone through your course twenty times and is still struggling, simply putting up a pat “practice harder” isn’t gonna cut it.  An intelligent game designer would, after a while, offer to skip the problematic track, or slowly roll the race benchmark back after a certain number of failed attempts.  To have such an inflexible system, in a “training” area no less, is basically unforgivable.

It’s even more unforgivable when your training area intentionally turns off easier or more controllable game modes to complete, especially when coupled with cars that control rather poorly on their own, especially with keyboard controls.  In fact, I am fairly well-convinced that one of the tests (test 5 of the classic driving school) may actually be nearly impossible to complete using keyboard controls (while a controller has an analog stick with variable turning rates, the keyboard controls are not, and require incredibly fast tapping to steer incrementally – just the slightest extra tap, or holding the key just a tiny bit too long, send the car into a fishtail and make the race impossible to win.  I was able to win in a few attempts once I finally game in and plugged in a controller, but it is irresponsible to release a PC game that cannot be successfully controlled with mouse/keyboard at crucial junctures.).

The final aspect in this recipe of frustration, of course, is that this test is a requirement before you can compete in any other events at all.  Given that these events are a large part of the game, and are the part of the game that lets you advance and get the cash needed to actually get other cars to drive, being stuck at this racing school bottleneck means that there’s a lot of the game you just can’t play if you don’t complete it.  The game also has levels to complete, in order to get access to other areas (want to go to Hawaii?  you’ll need at least ten), in four categories.  One is competition, which you can’t do anything at all in until you pass the impossible racing school, and another is collection, which requires you to buy things with in-game cash, which you get primarily through the competitions you can’t participate in (yes, there’s a way to get cash just by driving around, if you don’t mind racking it up a couple of hundred dollars at a time to purchase $100,000 cars).  This means that you’re pretty much barred from doing anything else in the the game besides driving around the first island in your starter car until you complete the racing school.  Because of this, one or two frustrating test races turn into a stumbling block that locks out 90% of the game.  If it wasn’t a requirement, it wouldn’t be a big deal – in the original, when I got tired of trying that frustrating race, I simply moved onto another one, progressing elsewhere.  If the original game had also had this system, I probably would have dropped it early on and not even given its sequel a look – as it is, this mess has pretty much turned me off to the eventual TDU3.

Ironically, the fix to this issue is incredibly simple, and all you’d have to do is literally change a couple of numbers.  After five failed attempts, say, you add five seconds onto the race time you have to meet.  Five more failures, you add five more seconds, or maybe ten.  That way, you get people driving on the tracks and trying to improve, but if they’re only so good at one particular race, you don’t lock them out of the rest of the game.  In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of another racing game that I’ve played that locks you out of doing any races at all if you fail the initial tracks.   This, in my mind, is an irresponsible, game-breaking flaw put in place by short-sighted game design and obviously inadequate playtesting by an actual cross-section of their gaming audience.

Honestly, I would love to love this game.  Take away the ridiculous exercise in frustration that is the racing school, and this game has a lot of the promise of the original – a decently-detailed place to drive around with some truly beautiful scenes.  One saving grace is that while events are locked out, exploration is still wide open, and you can drive across Ibiza to your heart’s content, if you don’t mind doing it in a somewhat basic starting car.  Zooming along both on- and offroad is still pretty fun, and there was one beautiful moment driving along an offroad track right next to the beach, with the water lapping up on the shore, that reminded me of the promise this game could have.  It’s such a shame that some of that promise is taken away due to the game’s crippled design, but I still have some hope.  The game launcher checks regularly for updates, and all they need is one, perhaps a few kilobytes in size, with some new qualifying times that could alleviate quite a lot of frustration.

01Jan Linked: On The Media episode on the culture and future of games

While On the Media normally covers issues in journalism, they released an interesting show this week covering a number of topics in gaming:

The Influence of Gaming (listen to show via streaming) (download podcast)

While the whole episode was interesting, I was especially fascinated by the excepts from a TED talk given by game designed Jane McGonigal (which you can watch in its entirety here).  It talks about ways to combine the positive skills that are cultivated by gamers, including optimistically pursuing goals and ad-hoc collaboration with a high level of trust, and use those skills to work towards finding solutions for the future.  She mentions a prototype for this type of combination, a game called SuperStruct, where gamers worked to forecast future problems and came up with innovative potential solutions for them.  It’s a very interesting talk that sheds light on the promise that gaming, and game-cultivated skills, can have in other important realms.  If you have the time, I’d encourage you to check out the show and the TED talk, as they’re an interesting look into aspects of gaming you might not hear about otherwise.

(A tip of the hat to my brother Jonathan for sharing this podcast with me – thanks!)

01Jan Game Pricing: Cost vs. Value

Trying to talk about the cost of games is to invite a certain amount of controversy.  When I originally tried to tackle the issue of consoles inflating pricing, and console ports to the PC (and original PC games) being charged at an inflated price point while gaming technology has remained largely stagnant overall, it ultimately sounded more like a complaint than an argument against the practice.  After all, gaming is a free marketplace (at least on PCs, for the most part), and if a gaming company’s ultimate goal is (sadly) to maximize profit, it makes sense for game companies to sell their product for as much as the market can bear.  If the market can sustain sales targets even at a hair under $60, then it certainly makes sense from a business standpoint to go there.

From a gamer standpoint, however, I think there is a different valuation going on.  For a company, the selling price is determined by price versus volume – in the simplest sense, what’s the maximum we can sell our game at and still get decent sales?  For a rational gamer, the calculation is a similar balance of valuation: how can I get as much enjoyment as I can for every entertainment dollar I spend?  For most people, obviously, the entertainment budget is limited, a fairly low priority to be allocated only once other bills and necessities are met.  From that already limited pot, there are many different forms of entertainment all competing for those dollars.  Gaming is just one outlet, alongside music downloads, DVD/Blu-ray, subscriptions like Netflix, hardware and gaming accessories, and so on.

Because of this, the amount left for games might be limited, and when you start looking for a new game and see a $60 price point, that’s a bit of a shock that makes an average gamer wonder about value.  In comparison, that’s an amount equivalent to many hours of downloaded music, three full-length feature films on Blu-ray, or over six months of a Netflix streaming subscription.  Add to that the fact that you often can’t even try before you buy, making that $60 a gamble based on a handful of reviews that may or may not be biased, and getting a game on day one looks more and more like a risky bet.  In many cases, in fact, it actually is – many games at a $50-60 price point on day one are barely playable, or have a campaign that lasts less than six hours with limited replayability.  Eventually, after seeing this pattern repeat time and time again, a gamer begins to come to the conclusion that the games are overpriced, and not a good value for the money.

This has certainly been my experience.  In fact, this year I’ve purchased a grand total of three games at day-one prices: as I mentioned in previous articles, those games were Mass Effect 2 and Just Cause 2, along with the more recent acquisition of Fallout: New Vegas.  Not one of them was particularly a gamble, as I carefully considered each one, and only bought them after determining that I could expect to get a good value for my money (also, note that none of them moved above the standard $50 price point, and honestly, had they been $60 I might have waited even on them).  Certainly, I haven’t been disappointed in that regard – of these games, the cost per hour of entertainment ranges from a bit over a dollar to a fraction of a dollar per hour.  Two of these games were open-world titles that I anticipated would continue to engage me for quite some time, and the other one I already knew that I would replay the game’s campaign a number of times from different perspectives.  Linear titles going for full price got punted off onto a wishlist, where most of them still sit, waiting for a sale that brings their price into line with what I would consider reasonable for them.

Now, I admit I’m probably not in the majority on this, especially considering how many copies of COD:MW2 have sold at $60.  However, judging by the number of users that frequent various game bargain sites and threads, I’m also far from alone.  I do think it’s also true that every time gamers pick up an expensive title and get burned, they get a little more wary, a little smarter about how they spend their money when the next game rolls around.

Ultimately, it’s all about perceived value.  For me, that value is pegged at somewhere between $1-2 dollars per hour of entertainment.  For a full-price game, I’m going to pull the trigger only if I can reasonably expect to still be enjoying it more than thirty hours in – which almost exclusively means an open-world shooter or RPG, most likely with heavy mod support to expand playtime.  On the other hand, a game with more limited replayability might be a worthwhile buy, but at a much lower price point.  There are a number of smaller games I’ve only gotten a few hours of gameplay out of, but given that I was able to pick them up for $5 or so, it was still worth it for the price.

To sum up, here’s a small chart that I did that represents what I think are reasonable price points for games, along with some examples:

$50-$60: open-world game with replay options and mod support (Fallout: NV)
$40-$50: open-world game or RPG with more limited modding/replay (Just Cause 2, Mass Effect)
$30-$40: game with some decent replay options and/or decent multiplayer (HL2, TF2 at release)
$20-$30: game with a decent-length single-player campaign, limited replayability (Crysis, Prey)
$10-$20: casual game, game with shorter single-player campaign, limited replayability, sometimes worth taking a risk given the inexpensive price (Madballs, GSB, Shatter)
$5-$10: very short or casual games, inexpensive enough to take a risk on even if you’re not sure how much you’ll get out of it (Pyroblazer, Caster)

Finally, remember that when it comes to games, patience pays off, and if you can wait on titles, you can get a much better deal – wait a year or two after a title comes out, and you can pick up the game, plus all its expansions and DLC, for a fraction of the price the base game sold for at retail.

18Dec Dragon Age Origins: Your first quest is to get the game to work in the first place

Update 4/18/11: Months later, and there are more issues.

So, what’s the process for starting up your brand new game once you install it?

Other games:

-Download game files in Steam.
-Click Play button.
-Wait while game installs DirectX, etc.
-Play game.

DAO: Ultimate Edition

-Download game files in Steam.
-Click Play button.
-Game does preinstall check, sends you to Bioware website to log in to register game.
-Enter your EA login from previous games on Bioware site.
-Site says login is invalid.
-Try multiple times, login is still invalid.
-Request password change email.
-Receive email.
-Change password.
-Go back to Bioware site, try to login with new password.
-Password is invalid.
-Try multiple times, login is still invalid.
-Give up, register new account with another email address.
-Realize that you’ve had to go through this stupid thing with every single previous Bioware game you’ve installed, and are now out of new email accounts to use.
-Create new free email account.  Use “EA is incompetent” as the username.
-Go back to Bioware site and create new account.
-Finally are able to log in to website.
-The steam game provides two CD keys – one for the main game, the other for the DLC.  DLC code reads as invalid, but game registers.
-Start up game.
-Log in to EA account in-game to authorize the DLC content.
-Login fails with generic system error.
-Go to EA help site to diagnose problem.
-Learn that you can’t login in-game because the in-game login CAN’T HANDLE SPECIAL CHARACTERS IN PASSWORDS.  In 2010.
-Log back into the EA site and change the password.
-Finally login in-game.
-Even though logged in, DLC still won’t “authorize” so that you can actually use it.
-Try to figure out how to authorize DLC, hunt around on help site, to no avail.
-Poke around the Bioware site looking for any helpful link.  Try registering the DLC cd key again, but no link to enter new CD keys for Dragon Age.
-Come across an option to “Enter Promo Code.”  Having nothing else to try, put the “cd key” for the DLC in here.  Surprisingly, it actually works.
-Finally fire up the game and get ready to play it after almost a full hour of teeth-gnashing frustration due to EA’s incredible incompetence.

Now, perhaps I shouldn’t complain as much about this, as I got the “kitchen sink” edition of the game on Steam for a pretty cheap price.  However, it’s still a lot of hassle to go through just to play a game, and it feels even less tolerable in a full-priced, day-zero release (I’m looking at you, equally awful login system in Mass Effect 2).  In fact, honestly, it seems even more ridiculous in this case.  I mean, we’re not talking about a new-release game worried that piracy is going to cut into the high-margin early profits.  We’re talking about a GOTY edition already reduced to half-price.  At this point, isn’t it more cost-effective to just turn off the broken activation DRM and just let the people play the content that’s already on disc?  Seems simple enough, right?  Plus, with PC games, especially downloads (not exactly big resale risks), this sort of DLC activation is a hassle to end-users with no benefit to the company.  Every time someone has to go through this level of hassle to play a game, it makes them that much less likely to seriously consider the next one, knowing what they’ll have to go through in order to play it.

In fairness, I suppose I should mention that were it not for the DLC, the setup would have been slightly less onerous.  However, compare this to my GOTY edition of Oblivion, for instance – everything’s there, no additional accounts or activation hassle, just jump right in and play.

Make up whatever reasons you want, but there’s really no excuse for creating such a broken system, a system that has been broken for over a year since the release of your game (in fact, pretty much broken since at least two games before that).  The notion that I need a new EA account (and an new email account) each time I buy a game from them should immediately be recognized as absolutely absurd.


In summary, the problems:

-EA accounts and Bioware Social accounts are not strictly identical, or do not port password changes between sites, despite being theoretically the same account.
-EA’s login system cannot accept special characters, an amazingly glaring flaw and a sure sign of lazy coding.  Despite this, they mention that restriction nowhere on the site while creating the password for the account, and mark it only with a generic, cryptic error message when the login fails, requiring a fairly in-depth search of EA’s help site to even find the problem.
-The DLC code on Steam is listed as a CD key, when it actually has to be entered into the “promo code” section of the site.  This is never clarified either on Steam or Bioware’s site, leading to someone having to guess that that is the correct place for the DLC code.
-As a composite edition, everything should have been activated simultaneously, or not at all, rather than having to activate two different things in two different places, with no instruction as to which is which.

25Oct Fallout New Vegas: First (and second) Impressions

Considering how much I liked Fallout 3, I suppose getting Fallout: New Vegas was something of a no-brainer, despite my earlier hesitation and quibbles about the pre-order nonsense (admittedly, I became sufficiently obsessed with it that I was playing the game within an hour of its midnight launch).  I’m about 10 hours in now, and here are my first impressions:

-The first feeling I got from the game was how much the developers may have been influenced by all of the innovations that modders added onto the original Fallout 3.  Some notable mod influences I immediately saw were the inclusion of add-ons for the various weapons, a super-mutant-run radio station, and various creatures from the original set of games that were introduced to Fallout 3 by Mart’s Mutant Mod (in fact, the gecko model and skins from the mod put the ones included in New Vegas to shame).  In many ways, it feels like the developers saw what people were doing with some of the mods in Fallout 3, and included them as official features this time around.  (Additionally, there are plenty of new guns in the game, many of them more closely mirrored to actual modern weapons.  I can certainly feel the influence of the 19th and 20th century weapons pack on a lot of the new additions – for example, the silenced .22 follows on from the Ruger Mk. II in the mod, the silenced SMG from the American-180, etc.).

-VATS is, thankfully, mostly functional again in this version.  The battles tend to be quite frantic at times, so it definitely comes in handy.  Still waiting on a bullet-time mod, although I’ve heard there’s a consumable that does this as well, which I’m trying to track down.

-The combat seems a bit tougher this time around, even on the easiest difficulty setting.  This is partly due to the fact that decent armor is tough to come by in the first parts of the game – it took me about 7 hours before I saw something akin to the regular combat armor from Fallout 3.  Also, about the only thing that insta-heals now are stimpacks (and not even that in hardcore mode), all the other consumables heal over time.  Enemies also seem slightly more aggressive, moving in faster.  Also, armor now suppresses a lot of damage, and unless you have special ammunition, your bullets are barely going to faze certain uparmored enemies (especially in the early game, unless you’ve happened upon some AP ammo, radscorpions are especially tough – and surprisingly fast).

-As far as I can tell, you don’t get access to a player house until you reach New Vegas itself – about eight hours in on my playthrough.  This means that you can only hold on to so many supplies at once, with no place to save anything you might want to hold onto.  If you like collecting certain things in-game, like me, it quickly becomes a juggling act between various items, and I had to discard some things I wanted to keep for lack of space.  Contrast this with Fallout 3, where the first quest, however you resolved it, resulted in a safe place to store your stuff.

-The music selection for the radio stations is, in my opinion, not as good as Fallout 3.  If I have to hear “Johnny Guitar” one more time, I think I might just go Super Mutant on anyone nearby.

-Holy crap, some of the faces are terrifying.  Fallout 3 didn’t exactly have a lot of good-looking people, but seriously…  the girl you meet for the tutorial, for example, looks kinda like Moira from Fallout 3, in the sense that it looks like someone scalped Moira, stripped the skin off of her face, and stretched it around a cold, emotionless android with clouded, pupilless eyes.  Some of the other ones are a bit better, but don’t get your hopes up.  If any of the characters in this game (including the strippers) actually manage to get any emotional response out of you, you have a surprising knack for navigating the uncanny valley.

-Somehow, everything feels smaller this time around.  The world in general feels smaller, it seems like the distances between things are shorter.  Whether this is true or not is hard to tell, maybe it’s just that the topography this time around blocks more stuff off, leading to a smaller sense of scale.  From the very start in Fallout 3, you walk out of the vault and are met with this incredible vista of the wasteland – here, you empty out into a ramshackle town, at ground level, and nothing really tends to look as impressive.

-The wasteland doesn’t always feel all that alive, and there are a fair number of times when I’ve been hiking around, with nothing of interest around to see or do (or shoot at), and wondering why I felt so much more bored than in similar spots in Fallout 3.  I guess F3 had a certain ambiance to it, that really strong feel of walking through a radioactive wasteland, while this feels like walking through a slightly dusty stretch of, well, Nevada, with nothing much else to commend it.  You start to feel thankful just to see one of the sparsely populated retro billboards.

-There’s also less of a sense of interest in the quests, especially the main story ones.  Fallout 3, while cheesy at times, did develop a story that you could connect to from the very beginning.  The story to this one is this (and it happens right at the beginning, so not much of a spoiler): You were sent to deliver a package.  Some asshat shoots you in the head and takes it.  You live, and vow to shoot him in the head as revenge.  Of course, once you track him down, things get more complicated, and a little more interesting…  but for quite some time, there’s not really that much to keep you interested.  Even the main quests often feel like uninspired fetch quests – pass these skill checks, or go get these items, or go kill X enemies.  One mission a few hours in, especially if you’re the type to play nice, is pretty much an unending, tedious series of time-consuming and even costly fetchquests – however, you’ve got to go through them all if you want to progress on the main storyline (think Three Dog’s quest extortion, multiplied by ten).  I think on my next playthrough, karma or no, it’s gonna be cheaper, and less aggravating, to just shoot them all.

-Once you give it some time, things do get a bit more interesting, although weirdly telegraphed.

-The strip itself does look quite nice.

-There are the occasional glitches.  Once, I saw a dog decide to move in a new direction by rotating itself seamlessly around its own central axis – occasionally, people glide across the road without moving their legs.  One time, I walked into a certain area, and two “friendlies” suddenly became hostile and came after me, while all the other ones nearby didn’t seem to notice.  The game’s autosave feature is also somehow bugged – while it claims to save, the autosave file is actually stuck on a save exiting a building back in the starting town, circa an hour or so into the game, and so all saves have to be done manually.  The game also crashes on occasion, and continuously crashed after the day-two patch (although this was due to a corrupted file, and worked again once the file was re-downloaded).

-If you’re a gun kinda guy, I hope you’re fond of the 9mm pistol in the game, as you’re gonna be using it probably far more than you might have imagined – and so is just about every other character in the game.

-Yes, there are actual iron sights in the game.  I’m still mixed as to whether they’re particularly useful or not.  Accuracy is still determined by skill points, so it’s not quite as easy to run and gun, especially early on, and your shots seem much less accurate and do less damage than the equivalent shots done in VATS.

-Supposedly the companion system has been revamped and is much easier to use (and companions don’t bite it at the first taste of combat, unless you’re in hardcore), however, I ahve yet to actually encounter anyone yet who’s willing to tag along.

Overall, New Vegas doesn’t quite pull off the magic and ambiance of Fallout 3, and honestly, Fallout 3 with a good selection of mods is generally a better game.  However, it does have some certain charms to it, and if you put in the time on the front end to get up to the Strip, things start to unfold in a more satisfactory fashion.  Up to that point, it can be a bit trying, and while it does add a number of things, they’re not always for the better.  Ultimately, I think if you liked Fallout 3, you’ll like this, albeit while occasionally considering going back to the original for some more playtime instead.


Okay, so that was with eight hours into the game.  Now, add 6 more hours to that, and here are some more impressions:

-I take back a lot of what I said earlier.

-Seriously, I think when you’re talking about the game, it almost makes sense to talk about it in two parts: the leadup to reaching the strip, and the game after you’ve gotten there.  The initial part of the game really doesn’t showcase what makes this game interesting – with few exceptions, it consists of not hugely interesting locations, fairly boring quests, and not a whole lot of plot or intrigue – move along a preset path to vegas, do various fetch- or kill-quests to move the linear plot forward, and on you go.  Couple this with a small handful of available weapons, a lot of long, sparse trips across stretches of fairly barren terrain, and you get my first review – not a whole lot to get you excited about the game.

-Once you get to New Vegas, though, the plot goes from a trickle of information to a torrent in a matter of moments.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but from just about the moment you head into the strip, a number of huge reveals come at you, one after another.  All of a sudden, the world opens up, and there are a ton of things to do.  Also, this is where the other factions really come into play, and suddenly you’re no longer a bit player that nobody cares about.  You’re directed to go to much cooler locales, with a ton of other things to do, including at least one fairly impressive set-piece.  Better weapons and armor also appear, allowing you to survive better off the beaten path.  Overall, there’s just a sense of the game suddenly opening up, welcoming you to get into the real, interesting part of it.  Of course, the question then should be: why didn’t the writers try to keep things interesting from the start, instead of stepping people through an eight-hour introduction to the fun part?

-Having a place to store your loot is much nicer.

-Rad-away and rad-x seem much more rare, but then again, so are sources of radiation, for the most part.

-You have to give Obsidian some credit – the game’s been out for less than a week, and they’ve already patched it twice, fixing a number of issues, including the autosave one mentioned earlier.  (this is a nice thing about steamworks integration: you can quickly roll out patches and fix things sooner rather than later.  Be nice if other devs were as committed – but then again, there’s also something to be said for not releasing something in a bug-ridden state in the first place.)  Also of note is the fact that a New Vegas version of the GECK (i.e. TESEdit) modding tool was released only two days after the game itself, which means that if there’s something in the game that aggravates you, the tools are already in hand to start tweaking things yourself (something I’ve already started on, with a few basic tweaks similar to the ones I instituted for Fallout 3, which makes the game a bit better for the way I like to play it).  This is also another good lesson: prompt release of mod tools and good mod support = a better gaming community = more gameplay modes = far better replay value, and a much better value for money.  Knowing this, I feel better buying the game at day-one retail prices, as I’m reasonably sure I’ll get my money’s worth (games that love DLC and forbid modding, take note: unless you’re truly amazing, you’ll only see my money once you reach the bargain bin).  Ranting aside, though, it is nice to see a commercial game actually get some reasonable support out of the gate.

-Another gun that seems pulled from the 19th and 20th century weapons pack is the 40mm grenade launcher.  However, that being said: BOOOM!  Much more fun than throwing frag grenades, to be sure.  Watch those raid- I mean fiends bounce!

-I’m pretty sure the CAR-15 was never chambered for 5mm caseless, but hey, plasma pistols don’t exist either, so go figure.  That being said, definitely enjoying the fact that there’s a bit more variation in guns in the stock game this time around, even if it does take a while to find them (oh, and that revolver reloading animation?  Very nice).  I think there’s even a laser carbine, but I have yet to test it out.  However, a few more available gun mods might be nice (really do have to check out the new crafting/reloading benches to see what can be made there, but the ones available in stores seem a bit few and far between).

-Still haven’t seen a whole lot of odd stuff with the wild wasteland trait – here’s hoping…

-In any case…  yes, I have quibbles, and the start of the game is slow, at times painfully so, and there are still a few too many uneventful long walks…  but ignore all that and play on anyway, as there’s a lot of fun to be had once you really get into it.  As much fun as Fallout 3?  Jury’s still out on that one, but after a while, the improvements over vanilla F3 are becoming quite apparent.  It still doesn’t beat my heavily modded version, of course, but at some point New Vegas will probably also have that level of mods…  the obvious solution, of course, is to play both!  Both are good, both have a lot of promise, and you really shouldn’t miss either one.

(and a very quick third impression, now 25 hours in – the plot really does get interesting!  Fallout 3’s main plot was pretty good, but pretty linear, and it’s generally clear which side everyone expects you to be on.  Once the plot starts branching out, you’re suddenly in the middle of a multi-faction tug of war for power over the region, with you in the driver’s seat.  Saying any more would probably risk spoilers, but suffice it to say, it’s nice to see a plot with a bit more moral ambiguity, and meaningful choices with a number of different outcomes.  Things just keep getting more and more interesting, and I’m hoping that’s a trend which continues all the way to the endgame, and post-endgame world.  Oh, and also: we’re now talking about a game offering over 4 times the length of your average COD:MW2 single-player, with no end in sight, and near-endless modability… for $10 less at retail release.)

02Sep Minecraft: The First Four Days

In a previous article, I mentioned Minecraft, a retro-styled independent sandbox game which is quickly becoming a bit of an internet sensation.  I recently started playing it, and I’ve been writing an account of my experience starting out in the game.  The following chronicles the first four days (and nights) of game time, and my character’s adventures therein.


Minecraft, Day 1

I appear somewhere along the coastline.  In the distance, hills, mountains, and majestic cliffs appear, some apparently floating in midair.  Everything is blocky, to be sure, but expansive and new – a whole world to explore, full of potential.

For some reason, though, I start out along the coastline, walking along a nice natural peninsula.  There are copious amounts of sand, formed, of course, in varying stacks of blocks, but they crumble easily with a few short whacks of my admittedly blocky fist.  Once broken, they are quickly collected, appearing in my inventory to be resurrected later.  Only a few minutes in, and I have my first tools of creation.

I collect a few flowers in similar fashion, then proceed down to the waterline, going for a quick swim.  I notice that the sand next to the water is barely containing it, and I wonder what would happen if I broke it down…  sure enough, water begins to flow into the now-empty space, and in a few short minutes I manage to create a miniature stream flowing along a short, sandy beachside cliff.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recall some of my minecraft “basic training” – exploration is all well and good, but to get much further, and to work with things more complex than sand and dirt, I’ll need some sort of equipment, and for that I’ll need wood.  However, I don’t want to go wandering away across the expansive landscape and lose track of my miniature work in progress.  So, I do what any reasonable person would do – I build a large spire of sand next to it, a monument that should be hard to miss from any observation point along the shoreline.  A world in Minecraft is a truly expansive thing, with a hugely varied landscape – the downside is, of course, that unless you pay very close attention to the landscape and mark points of interest, it’s quite easy to head off exploring, get disoriented, and have a very tough time trying to find your way back to what you were working on.
Luckily, though, the trees are only a short ways away, and while they’re a bit more stubborn than sand, they eventually fall to the might of my seemingly untiring, unbruising fist.  There are also
a few animals milling around – I take a moment away from my lumberjacking to pound one of each into submission with my fists, but they don’t seem to do much interesting besides running away, or poofing into nothingness when vanquished.  As they do, though, I notice the trees have sprung up some saplings nearby, so I harvest those as well.

Now I have some wood, though, and it’s a relatively simple matter of popping into my inventory and doing a bit of amateur carpentry.  Apparently, that blocky fist of mind also doubles as a half-decent saw, as in no time at all, I’ve reduced the raw sections of tree trunk into a handful of planks and sticks, some of which I use to pull together a workbench, which can be used to build the actual tools that I’m looking for.  Of course, once I plop the workbench down randomly atop a small cliff overlooking a calm lakeside valley, I realize that there’s no real way to pick it back up again.  No matter, though, as it builds things fine wherever it happens to be, but just in case, I make another spire of sand nearby so that I can actually find the thing again.  I start playing around with various wood derivatives, and end up with a wooden hoe and pickax – not the sturdiest things in the world, but it’s a start.  With a pickax, the mining part of the game can actually begin, as harder things like stone are now mine for the taking.  Except…  as I build things, the background seems to be getting dimmer and dimmer…  night is beginning to fall, and I’m out here in the middle of nowhere, completely exposed.  While the pigs and ducks are probably heading off to sleep, I’ve heard that other, nastier things come out at night – visibility is quickly dropping, and here on a flat plain, things could come at me from any direction.  But where to go?

The answer quickly becomes obvious:  it’s time to go back to my spire on the beach.  It’s up high, with a good line of sight all around, and only one real angle of approach – the rest is bordered by the ocean, and too high for land-based creatures to reasonably jump.  I quickly hop up the blocky staircase to the top of it, just as the light fades the rest of the way.  It’s night, and I’m relatively safe, marveling at the pixelated stars and blocky moon as they emerge in the sky.

I spend the night digging up a bit more sand, and adding some more altitude to my spire.  Overall, though, the night is calm, and nothing comes to assault my makeshift tower, leaving me to await the dawn, taking in what I can see of the panorama spreading out around me.

Day 2

Once dawn has arrived, though, I realize that I don’t much like the dark.  It’s time to go looking for something to alleviate that – an area made out of stone, which might just have some deposits I could use to shed some light on the situation, as it were.

I start out by exploring the little valley with the lake, next to where I had placed my workbench.  It’s mainly unremarkable, but there are a few more animals in it now, and I notice that there are plenty of trees around – which I make sure to harvest.  On the far side of the valley, though, the cliff leading up is mostly dirt – but some stone as well.  I jump up along a natural staircase at the top, but once I make it over, I miscalculate a jump – and fall into a rocky cave.

No problem, though, as I’ve got my pickaxe – it makes relatively short work of the stone, which I collect, and I pile up a crude staircase of dirt to climb back out.  The only problem is, there’s just stone in the cave, apparently nothing else – still, the stone should help at least a bit.  I notice, though, once I’ve climbed out, that there’s a good-sized stone cliff nearby, so I head over to investigate.

I jump my way partway up the surface, gathering a bit more stone, but nothing else interesting appears, aside from gravel.  Then, I round the corner, and see a truly amazing sight – a huge stone cave, open almost to the top of the entire mountain – even though it’s just made of blocks, it’s still one of the most impressive geographic features I’ve ever seen rendered in a game.  I take a moment to marvel at the grandeur of it, but upon closer inspection, there seems to be nothing but stone here as well.  It also looks quite dark towards that back, and even during the day, bad things lurk in the darkness…
Eventually, I move on, and int he next cliff over, I strike pay dirt – hidden in the rock face is a nice, big vein of coal!  My pickaxe makes short work of it, although it’s looking a bit worse for wear, but on the upside, I now have a number of lumps of coal.  And while that might seem like a bit of a consolation prize in any other context, it is, in fact the key to producing light.

I begin to head back, getting a bit disoriented, but once I find my way back to the coast, it’s easy enough to get back.  As I head back to my spire, though, darkness once again begins to set in.  Not a problem, though, because I now have torches!  Coal and sticks (and some unseen method of ignition), and my spire is quickly lit, a beacon of light fending off the darkness.  I climb back to the top, taking in the much more visible view, and getting ready for another long and relatively boring night.

Boring that is, until something hits me, and I tumble from my tower into the water, losing half my health.  I turn to look around, and I’m hit again.  Then I see it, standing on the sandy cliff above me – the crude, blocky grey visage of a skeleton, faintly illuminated by torchlight, shooting arrows at me.  I try to evade them, but the current is too strong, and I’m a sitting duck.  In one short, sharp encounter, it’s all over.

I respawn (luckily, the game allows that) where I first started out, a ways down the beach from my spire.  All of my stuff is gone, though.  I notice it, though, scattered about where I last perished.  And there’s the bloody skeleton – somehow, it’s fallen off the cliff and into the man-made river that I created before, trapped just like I was, hopping mad and still spitting arrows.  I try to pummel it into submission with my versatile fist so I can retrieve my stuff, but it arrows me down before I can get more than a couple of hits in, and I’m back at respawn.  This stalemate continues over a few more lives as dawn finally breaks.

Day 3

Somehow, I manage to get the skeleton to run into one of the torches I’ve placed, and it runs around on fire for a bit.  Finally, it’s weakened enough that I’m able to finish punching it out – oddly enough, or perhaps not, its body pulverizes into arrows, which I duly collect, although without a bow, they’re not of much use.  I manage to salvage a few additional bits of equipment, but everything else is lost, so I head off once again in search of materials and equipment.  One thing I realize, though, is that as neat as my sand spire is, it’s still quite vulnerable.  I need a place that’s more defensible, more enclosed, or I’ll be easy target practice for the next skeleton that happens upon it.

I head back out to the caves beyond the valley, digging out some more stone with my close-to-failing pickaxe.  I head back and fashion some better things, this time out of stone – a better pickaxe, and a basic sword, which will hopefully fare better than my bare fists if I encounter any more enemies.  So far, the game is living up to its name – I’m doing plenty of both mining and crafting.  By the time I’ve done all this, though, it’s getting later in the day, and I know I need to come up with a better living space soon, or its back for another long and dangerous night on the spire.

At the other end of the valley, the cliff is more dirt that stone, so I start digging into the cliff face, carving out a small room.  I can’t go too far, though, as the cliff isn’t that far away from the sea, and I realize that if I go too far, my newly carved room could quickly be underwater.  Still, it’s cozy enough, and reasonably protected.  I put up a makeshift door that I constructed earlier to keep the baddies out, and build a small shelf in the corner.  It’s getting dark, so I toss a couple of torches on the wall, slam the door shut, and hunker down.  For the first time, night has fallen, and I’m actually somewhere safe.

Day 4

It’s time to improve my initial dwelling, but first, I’ll need some more materials.  So, I head back over to the cliffs.  There’s plenty of stone there, and those ever-elusive coal deposits – between the spire of brightness and my new dugout dwelling, I’m fresh out of torches.  The trip to the cliffs is uneventful, as I mostly know my way by now, and I pick up some more stone and coal, as well as pestering the odd animal I encounter along the way (by which I mean punching them to see if they turn into meat, which for some reason they don’t – not that that would normally make any sense, but hey, games made of blocks don’t always need to).  Chuffed about my reasonably easy success, I turn around to head back – and promptly fall into another random cave.

I manage to climb my way back out, but I’ve somehow gotten turned around, and don’t recognize the landscape.  I wander around for a bit, and eventually cross a ridge, and see what I think is the ocean – and I know that once I reach that, I’ll be back on track.  Instead, though, it’s a series of lakes in a huge valley, and I realize that I’m even more lost, stuck in a suddenly alien landscape as my precious minutes of daylight leak slowly away.  It’s a totally open valley, and there’s no really good place to hide.

There’s a high spot nearby, though, not quite a mountain, and if I can get my bearings from there…  I quickly hop up the side of it, and scan around into the distance, and think I recognize one of my sand towers off in the distance, near what must be the coast.  Heartened, I quickly traverse the terrain, only stopping to harvest a bit more wood, and realize that I’ve made it back with time to spare.

I realize that having more visibility is a good idea for my main base, so I build yet another big sand spire above my dugout.  Doing so, though means digging for sand along the beach, and I stupidly dig the patch of sand beneath my feet… and fall into yet another cave.  Oh well, it’s still light, so I’ll get a bit more mining in, I think, and set off to mine some more stone – forgetting just how close I am to the water.  I dig through one block, and all of a sudden, water pours in, and I’m quickly thrown deep into the cave system by the torrent.  I manage to free myself from the water flow, but I’m now in the middle of a cave, and it’s getting pretty dark.  I climb towards the light, mining through whatever blocks might stand in my way, but I’m still too far in, and the light is beginning to fail…  luckily, though, I’ve got plenty of dirt and sand left over from my earlier excavations, so I’m able to build yet another hasty staircase to escape before the cave gets too dangerous.  Then, it’s back to my dugout, and I seal my door just as the darkness fully arrives.

For the heck of it, I build a furnace, and give it some fuel, solidifying some of the stone I’ve harvested into… some type of harder stone, apparently.  Looking around, though, I realize that the tiny room is getting a bit cramped.  Well… time to expand, then.  I dig a bit further back and see… starlight.  Well, that’s no good – I hurriedly seal it off before anything can drop in.

Well, if I can’t go out, maybe I can go down.  I pick a place towards the back and start drilling down, going through dirt into stone.  I remember not to dig out any of the places I’m standing on, though, and luckily so – I only dig down two squares before I realize that I’ve just drilled through the ceiling into yet another cave system below…  one containing some crazed green monster trying to jump into my house!  I put that stone back quickly indeed.  Probing around, I discover that the whole house is pretty much on top of various cave systems – expanding down or in either direction ends up in new caves filled with beasties, while the other two directions lead into the lake and the ocean, respectively.  I resign myself to the tiny burrow for now, putting up a small storage chest as well, while realizing that once daybreak arrives, it’s probably time to find a roomier, less limited location.


If you’re interested in a more visual experience of playing through Minecraft, there are various videos available on Youtube, or you could check out the game directly.

02Sep Voting with your Wallet

This is a story that begins with a bit of disappointment, and ends with hope, mostly.

After somewhat of a drought in 2009, the anticipation was that 2010 would be a banner year for games, with many first-party, big-name titles being released.  As a result, I decided to make sure I had enough room in my budget to pick up a good number of them.  Fast-forward to August, and I’ve bought a grand total of 2 at day-one prices: Just Cause 2, and Mass Effect 2.  (Another anticipated title, Supreme Commander 2, somehow got stuck on the back burner, only to surface just a couple of months later at 1/5 the release cost).  And looking forward to the holiday season, there are maybe 1 or 2 more that I’m still anticipating, if that.

How did it happen?  Hard to say, but I probably should have considered how prescient a certain event in 2009 was in terms of my perception of first-party games: namely, the debacle surrounding the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 (y’know, I’m noticing an awful lot of 2s showing up in titles… original IP, anyone?  But I’ll get to that in a bit…).  After playing the first one and enjoying it immensely, it seemed like a no-brainer to pick it up, but in the intervening months, through a series of horrible decisions about the game, I actually went from having the perception that the game was a must-buy, to refusing to touch it at any price.  I certainly wasn’t the only PC gamer who was disappointed that the game ended up turning into a warmed-over console port with botched multiplayer and no customization or mod support whatsoever, but as a console game, it sold well…  only encouraging publishers to follow suit with other limitations on other games.  Perhaps I should have anticipated similar shenanigans in 2010, but, naive or not, I still held out hope.

But then 2010 did roll around, and the issues started rolling in.  Bioshock 2 drops to widely varying reviews, plagued with a DLC-on-the-disk scandal, and despite my love of the first game, I pull a MW2-style perception flip and decide to wait on it – and I’m still waiting.  Ubisoft rolls out their horrid online-only DRM system, causing me to write off their entire catalog of games indefinitely.  The mod support and other features in Starcraft 2 get scaled back, along with my enthusiasm, and on and on…  Game after game comes out, but broken or deficient in some way, and I have no desire to pay full retail price for it (especially with the ridiculous bump of a number of games to the $60 console price point, despite the lack of license fees on the PC platform that might lead to such an increase).  Even looking forward, towards upcoming games, Fallout: New Vegas is playing around with preorder DLC, and Test Drive Unlimited 2, aside from the preorder nonsense I mentioned earlier, was rolled back to at least January of next year (or possibly March, if Steam’s release date is to be believed).  If I didn’t know better, I’d almost swear that first-party developers were actively trying to discourage PC users from buying their games, at least on day one.

However, first-party game developers and publishers, while they may dominate most of the market, aren’t the only show in town – there are plenty of independent developers working on a wide variety of different types of games, many of them innovative new ideas, or at the very least, refreshing takes on played-out or underappreciated genres.  Of course, to be able to actually take on these sorts of projects, especially if they’re a bit more advanced than you’re average casual game, you need a way of funding the initial game, which you can then sell, and use the profits to produce more.  That, of course, is the sticking point, and one of the reasons for much of the first-party gaming shenanigans and lack of creativity that had so turned me off this year: big games need big investments, especially for AAA-quality titles with the latest graphics, and publishers don’t want to commit to investing in a game that they can’t guarantee sizable profits from.  Because of this, no one takes much in the way of risks, and the titles with 2 or 3 after their names greatly dwarf the amount of completely new ones.

Of course, there are some signs of hope.  A number of the major publishers have hosted indie game competitions, or started partnership programs with indie studios to help produce more games, but these agreements often come with their own drawbacks, such as the publisher taking all rights to the game in return for their investment.

I did read with more interest, though, about the creation of the indie fund, a coalition of already successful independent studios creating their own investment group to direct funds toward promising indie games, helping them get off the ground without demanding onerous profit arrangements or IP ownership.  Unfortunately, as far as I’m currently aware, there’s no way for individuals to become involved with that project, but I did discover that there are also a number of indie studios that let you do something similar.  Essentially, you preorder the game, which gives the company the working capital they need to continue development.  In return, in addition to getting a full copy of the game upon its release, you get to play around with the game as it’s being developed, trying out new features as they’re implemented, and often having an unprecedented amount of communication with the developers.  It’s really quite a different experience – instead of paying for a game from a big published who couldn’t care less what you think, you get to actively put your money towards getting the games you’re most interested in published, while at the same time getting an inside view of a game as it comes together.

So, long story short, I decided to take a different route with at least part of my gaming budget – given my disappointment with first-party games this year, I would instead take some of that money and put it towards some of these independent, self-funding games that I want to see built to completion.  I’ve found a few so far that are definitely worth mentioning, especially as they’re quite a bit more than investing in an unproven idea – all of the games that I’m going to talk about here have, at the very least, some sort of playable preview.


Overgrowth – by Wolfire Games

Wolfire Games first came to my attention with their sponsorship of the much-loved and often-imitated Humble Indie Bundle, a promotion featuring a half-dozen games by independent developers in a pay-what-you-want format, along with the ability to allocate some or all of the payment to charitable organizations.  One of the games included was their own production, Lugaru, which is a rather impressive third-person fighting game, a genre that seems very rarely implemented these days – in fact, before Lugaru, the only other PC game with that sort of beat-’em-up style of gameplay was Oni (which, as I’ve probably mentioned before, is one of my all-time favorite games).  Currently, they’re working on the sequel to the game, Overgrowth, as a self-funded venture, both from their own sales as well as preorders.  That preorder, though, gives you direct access to the game as it develops, including frequent developer builds that let you try out all of the new developments as they occur.  It’s still very much in alpha, but you can already explore a number of nice-looking maps in the game engine (or even create your own), as well as explore them using a test character.  It’s been an interesting experience so far, and if you like that style of game, I think it’s definitely worthy of support.


Minecraft – by Mojang Specifications

If you’ve been looking at gaming-related stuff on YouTube lately, you’ve probably heard about this one already.  It’s really quite a deceptively simple, yet amazingly complex, game concept: essentially, a character spawns in a dynamically-generated world constructed entirely of different types of blocks, which can be collected, placed, and crafted in near-infinite ways.  The only goal: do what you need to do to survive in the world, and beyond that, you’re pretty much only limited by your imagination.  It’s a sandbox game in the most literal sense, in that pretty much everything in the world can be changed, modified, or reconstructed to your liking.  I’m always hesitant to use the phrase “emergent gameplay,” but in a game like this, you really can make your own fun, and I’ll probably discussing that part of it in quite a bit more detail soon (I already have another post in the works detailing my first experiences with the game, and how it can quite easily veer off in interesting and unexpected directions).  The preorder is amazingly inexpensive (probably even more so if you’re in Europe), and in return, you get access to an alpha build of the game that is already quite stable and mostly feature-complete, at least for the singleplayer version (the multiplayer is apparently a bit less further along), and the game is receiving regular updates that add even more features as it proceeds towards its beta release.  Despite the seemingly retro-looking graphics, this is a game with incredible potential, and even in alpha, is already rivaling most AAA games in terms of value for money.  I like this game quite a lot, and I hope it succeeds – given how successful it’s been so far, I don’t think that’s much of a stretch.


Interstellar Marines – by Zero Point Software

This one is certainly an interesting project, despite the fact that it is taking on a somewhat tired genre and trying to do something a little different with it, or at the very least, a bit more polished, with an interesting environment and keen attention to the way it feels to actually play the game.  The developers claim that they’re trying to produce a “AAA Indie” game – basically, a game that can measure up to the major first-party titles in terms of graphics and scope, but more independently funded, with some funding coming from preorders of the game.  However, at the moment, this one’s a bit more faith-based than the others.  Trying to go AAA does require quite a bit more cash, with budgets ranging from one to many millions of dollars – based on their own released preorder figures, though, my back-of-the-envelope calculation makes it look like, with the most optimistic estimates, that funding from individual players probably comes in at a bit under $100,000.  Because of that, they appear to have slowed development as they look for other investment partners, and full development seems a bit less certain at this point.  However, they definitely have a viable product – they’ve already released a trio of previews for the game, with pretty professional-looking graphics and gameplay so far, and all of them are playable directly in your web browser.  Based on those previews, if they are able to figure out how to get a funding model that gets them the resources they need, they seem to have the underpinnings for a very solid shooter, with more web-playable previews coming out to allow players to see more and more of the game, until its final release.  As with any of these preorders, there’s some risk of never seeing a final product, and this one makes me a little more wary as you don’t seem to get to download the previews directly, so if the site goes under, you don’t even have the previews to play around with.  However, if you can tolerate that risk and want to support an ambitious indie project trying to play with first-party publishers on their own turf, a not-too-expensive preorder will net you the first game on release, as well as full access to all of the previews as they arrive, as well as various bits of insider access – pay a bit more, and get a preorder for their entire planned trilogy of games.  I haven’t actually bought into this one yet, but I’m definitely intrigued by it, especially after seeing just how solid they’ve got the mechanics of the game down in the previews they’ve released so far.


If you’ve read the comment threads on many of the PC gaming furores that have erupted this year, you’ll inevitably see someone making the comment to vote with your wallet: if you don’t like what the game has to offer, don’t buy it anyway, and don’t threaten to pirate it – just don’t buy it, and use your money to get the games that you like, and support the studios that you think are deserving of your business.  While I may not make a huge difference as a solitary consumer, this year, I think I’ve been doing just that – shying away from games and publishers that are doing things I don’t approve of, and steering my money towards the games I’m really interested in, and developers who I’m happy to support.  There are more options for PC gaming than ever before, and it’s truly heartening to see things like the indie fund and successful, self-funded studios being able to thrive alongside the more mainstream competition.

15Aug The Cost of Consoles, Part 1: Checkpoints

As you may know, I am primarily a PC gamer, largely by choice – the only console I own is the Nintendo DS handheld, and that’s primarily because a full-fledged computer won’t fit in my pocket.

Generally speaking, I don’t talk about consoles, primarily to avoid the heated debates on the virtues of specific console systems from their zealous advocates, but also because I used to think that, for the most part, consoles didn’t affect the way I wanted to game.  PCs and consoles are different, and cater to different needs, and I’ve never been interested in debating which one is superior – if the device you’re using works for you and suits your needs, then it’s none of my business to dictate to you what I think the superior system is.

However, in recent years, the line between consoles and the PC has begun to blur, and as a result, decisions that are made on the consoles are bleeding over into the world of PC gaming as well.  Many PC games are ports originally programmed for consoles, and occasionally vice versa.  This makes sense, as PC and console hardware is not all that different, and so developing for multiple platforms at once is generally more efficient.  Unfortunately, it does mean that games which are ported from console to PC often carry the limitations of console games along with them.

To address these issues, I’m starting a series of short articles where I discuss some of the issues that I see with the “consolization” of games being ported to the PC, why I find them to be concerning as a PC gamer, and (hopefully) brainstorm some solutions.


To start with, let me address one of the most immediate differences between many console and PC games, and perhaps one of the most glaring for PC gamers: the use of checkpoints to save progress in a game, rather than a global save/load game command that allows for the saving of current progress at any point in the game.  I have discussed this a bit previously under frustrating game design, so please bear with me if you’ve heard some of this before.

Most PC gamers are familiar with the standard save system:  when you need to save, pop back out to the menu, choose to save your game, and it’s saved – you can quit, come back, and load it up again, and you’re right back where you were before, with all of your progress saved.  Most console ports, on the other hand, do away with this system because it’s more awkward to navigate menus on a console, and so the less you have to do, the better – so, instead, they simply opt for the game to automatically save your progress at certain points.  This also has an advantage of making save files smaller, for consoles with limited storage space – all you need to do is store the players character stats and the checkpoint number, rather than the specific coordinates and geometry of a player’s arbitrary location, screenshots to identify the area of the save, etc.

However, the use of checkpoint systems carries a rather significant disadvantage: if you want to stop playing, you can’t simply save your game and come back to it later.  Instead, you have to keep playing until you reach the next checkpoint, or whatever progress you made past the last one is lost.  In certain games, this can set you back quite a bit – for example, if you’re in the middle of invading a regular base in Just Cause 2 and have to leave your game, your “save” will restore you at the nearest regional headquarters, often a good ways away from where you were, and you will have to travel all the way back to your objective and begin all over again.  And it can get even worse than that.  Take FUEL, for example: ostensibly a racing game, but with a huge explorable environment the size of an entire continent.  Problem is, if you do feel like exploring, good luck getting too far – every time you quit, you end up getting bumped back to your base camp location, even if it’s on the opposite side of the map – and unless you’re very good at the racing part, the available base camps are located in only one corner of the map, making exploration beyond that zone limited to the amount of time you can play at a sitting.

If placed properly, in certain games, checkpoints can just be tolerable – you still may have to play a few minutes more before you can quit out without losing any progress, but they can generally keep pace if they are placed well enough.  However, many games place the checkpoints quite poorly – for example, from one checkpoint, there’s a five-minute hike, and then two difficult, pitched battles, before the game saves itself again.  Fail either one of the battles, and you must begin all over again, including that long, monotonous walk.  With a proper save system, you could save after the walk, and before each battle, allowing you to jump back in quickly after each failure – take that away, and the poor checkpoint system can quickly become an exercise in frustration.

Another fault with the checkpoint system is that it is not particularly fault-tolerant.  Generally, only one checkpoint is saved, with the only other option reverting to starting again at the beginning of an entire level, or sometimes even starting from the beginning of the game itself.  Of course, this is a problem if the checkpoint saves at an importune time.  Say you’re playing an FPS, you’ve made it through one battle, but you’re critically low on health and ammo.  The checkpoint saves, and a moment later, an enemy pops out and finishes you off.  You can’t go back to an earlier save and try to conserve your rounds or retry the battle to come out of it in better shape – you just keep respawning at that checkpoint, with no time to recover, and get taken out again and again.  Essentially, the checkpoint save has trapped you in a situation where you are always doomed to failure, and since there are no previous saves to fall back on, you’re stuck at that point, unless you want to start the level or game over again, something that could represent over an hour of additional unenjoyable time just getting back to the point you were at before, with no guarantee of not getting locked into an impossible situation by a badly placed checkpoint once again.

From a PC gaming standpoint, being limited to checkpoints feels very restricting – it feels like a lot of the control you have over how you play the game is stripped away.  A good PC game allows you to play according to how you want, and a save-anywhere system is a linchpin of that flexibility, and when you don’t have it, the game feels much more limiting.  In a strictly linear game, you might not feel this quite as much, unless the checkpoints are poorly placed, but in an open-world game, the problems crop up rapidly.  I mean, imagine if a game like Fallout 3 was a checkpointed console port – you only get to save at each change in the level (entering a building/subway/etc), and if you get killed or have to quit while in transit, you start back at, say, Megaton and have to do the long and perilous hike all over again.  It would make for a much different, much more limiting, and much more frustrating game.

Ideally, the best solution would be to bring proper save systems back to PC games, including console ports.  Unfortunately, this is not always technically feasible, or the teams creating the games are not inclined to add that as a PC “enhancement.”  At the very least, though, gamers should be informed whether the game they are purchasing is restricted to checkpoint saves, so that they can consider for themselves whether the restriction of a checkpoint system, and the possible problems that it brings, is worth the price of the game.  For me, it generally is not – with few exceptions, games with checkpoint systems only garner my interest once they’ve been marked down into the virtual bargain bin.

02Jun The Travesty of Retailer Exclusives

In the past, I’ve talked about one of the difficulty problems that can result in certain types of games: that of restricting access to game content for players who are unable to play the game at the necessary proficiency.  However, a more recent trend is even more insidious, and affects game consumers regardless of their skill-level: the retailer-specific preorder bonus.

For those who are unfamiliar with this (and consider yourself lucky if you are!), this is where getting the game from any source will get you most of the content – but if you want a certain add-on, you’ll need to pre-order the game, in many cases from a specific retailer – and in some cases, different retailers have different bonuses, and so it’s impossible to get the complete game from any source at all, as each copy will be missing some part of the complete game resources.  Sometimes, those bonuses are released for all players months later, as either free or paid DLC, but in some cases, people buying a game from certain retailers will be left with an incomplete copy.

Now, in some cases, this is not a huge issue – if the exclusive content is, say, something purely aesthetic, like an extra character skin, this is less of an issue, as gameplay is not particularly affected if you get a package without the bonus.  In other cases, the bonus is something that does add to the game, but is relatively minor, so much so that you could play the base game without it and never get the sense that anything was missing.  Mass Effect 2 seems to fall into this category: I didn’t get it on preorder, so I didn’t get an armor set or something, but I never felt deprived for not having it, as there were many other armor parts available with different but comparable bonuses.  For something like that, it’s still irksome, but I wouldn’t consider it completely game-breaking, as aggravating as it is to me personally to not be able to access a fully complete game simply based on my choice of retailer.

However, game companies are getting pretty close to crossing the line – moving from giving out largely aesthetic bonuses to restricting potentially significant game features to preorders or particular retailers.  This post, in fact, is prompted by an email I received from Atari promoting their upcoming racing game, Test Drive Unlimited 2.  Apparently, one of the features, a player-accessible casino that serves as a social hub and offers playable casino games, is only available via preorder from a specific retailer, who I will not mention, because I want to do the opposite of help them make money for agreeing to such an unconscionable deal.  Even though the game is primarily about racing cars, not playing roulette, this seems like a rather significant chunk of game here, especially as it could be an important aspect of the multiplayer parts of the game – because of that, it is greatly concerning that it is restricted to a specific retailer, and will be absent from versions of the game purchased anywhere else, leaving them essentially incomplete.  I mean, think about it: we’re not talking about a sweet hat, or having 51 weapons at your disposal instead of 50, a la DOWII; we’re talking about a peripheral, but still significant, feature that should be in all copies of the game, but isn’t.  Given where this trend is going, imagine what the future could hold in store:  for example, restricting certain online game types to an exclusive preorder (in fact, didn’t this already happen to an extent with certain versions of Battlefield Bad Company 2?), or perhaps restricting multiplayer entirely, or making certain single-player missions exclusive, or…  actually, I’m not sure I want to imagine anything worse, because it’s possible that some publisher might decide it’s a good idea.

Quite frankly, I think the whole thing is a travesty to gamers, retailers, and developers alike, and smacks of the sorts of gimmicks many companies have been on the receiving end of government actions for in the past (see: Intel’s collusion with computer manufacturers to offer processor discounts to those who refused to use their rivals’ components, for one glaring example).  Hopefully, the retailers left out in the cold will eventually come to their senses, and sue the game distributors who trade in this nonsense for unfair competition.  Until that happens, though, people need to speak up, and let these companies know, in no uncertain terms, that selling a game, regardless of channel, means selling the full and complete version, with everything included.

Update: Further browsing of the official site turns up a little more info: the casino is apparently a standalone game that is separate from, but somehow integrated with, the main game, and as the retailer who shall not be named lists it as a bonus with a “$10 value,” this seems to indicate that it might be available as additional paid DLC later on.  However, there’s simply not enough information yet to tell exactly what’s going on with it, and I think my point still stands regardless – no matter how it plays out, it still represents a disappointing trend in game profiteering.