Friday, October 29, 2010

Good Thing I'm Bored At Work Right Now...

...or this post would likely not get written.  I haven't consciously been writing here less frequently, it's just that I've been pretty busy.  I do write these posts at work pretty often, and my job has been keeping me a lot busier the last few months, but no, the primary reason this entry would not get written at home is Civilization V.

It's super addictive.  I bought Civ IV on the cheap once, and booted it up once or twice, but it just seemed impenetrable, and I never managed to work up the desire to get in and figure it all out.  Before long it was known that Civ V would be coming out, and not only did it look a lot nicer graphically, but it was being touted as simplified, more tactical, more user-friendly, and just in general re-tooled to be a sleeker, purer experience than the games before it, which had seemingly evolved and become convoluted over time.  I decided I'd wait on V to come out before jumping in.

I'm pretty happy with that decision, with what I know now (and continue to figure out little by little).  First off, the game is pretty nice looking.  It actually seems to tax my GPU (the weakest link in my system) more than I'd expected.  I'm having to play in DX9 to get rid of screen tear, get rid of other odd graphical glitches, and get FPS I want, but that may just be a quirk of my 4850, as Far Cry 2 looked messed the hell up in DX10, also.  Another facet of Civ V I like is that military units can are one to a tile.  Apparently in prior games you could stack  units on a tile and move gigantic forces around that way.  I prefer the more "tactics" style of having a large force occupy a large area, which makes sieges and warfare in general a lot more interesting.  Lastly, in comparison to what I've seen of Civ IV and Civ Rev, I overwhelmingly prefer the interface of Civ V.  Tooltips are helpful, the layout is pretty intuitive, and artistically it is just gorgeous in a early 1900's, Chrysler Building sort of way.  Maybe that just strikes me, as an American, as a perfect motif for advancement of civilization.  I was wondering in the car today if someone from India or Japan playing the same game would get the same feeling from the UI, and I kind of doubt it.  It would be interesting to see what sort of UI the game would ship with were it developed in another country and culture.

As for actually playing the game, I went through the tutorial first, which just puts you on a small Pangaea style map versus one opponent to teach you the basics.  I was randomly rolled as Babylon and put up against Aztec.  I wrapped that game up in 144 turns just by taking Montezuma's capital, and then began my first real game as Japan (Oda Nobunaga), because I wanted to dominate using Samurai and Bushido (which is a trait in game that makes wounded units fight just as hard as units at full strength).  That game I ended up winning by points after 500 turns.  I want to mention here that I think cutting the game off at an arbitrary limit based on time, and determining a winner based on an equally arbitrary score system seems like bullshit.  I lost my next game as Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar) in which I was trying for a science victory, because at the 500 turn mark I was low on points due to some mismanagement and bad decisions in early eras.  

From now on, I'm turning off the time/score victory condition, and shit will be settled the real ways, i.e. Domination, Diplomacy, Science or Culture.  You either bully, cajole, research, or shmooze your way to success in real life, and that's how it's going to be in my Civ games, by George.  I just love the fact that I have the option to do that.

Speaking of options, this game has a million different settings you can play with for setting up games, from the number of opponents all the way to the age of the world you are playing on (3,4, or 5 billion years), and everything in between.  It is addictive as hell.  

I'm currently set on achieving a Science victory by being the first civilization to build a space ship and launch a colonization effort.  I'm going to play Babylon until it happens, because they're the only civ in the game that has an innate bonus that relates to science and tech upgrades, which I need to happen as soon as possible.  The question is what else to stress in management of my civ from the ancient era up to the future era.  Based on my experience in my last failed game, I'm going to de-emphasize military for the most part, and focus on making money and getting the most out of my lands in terms of resources to help the science initiative.  I fucked up bad last game by losing units early to barbarians, and then later again in an ill-fated attempt to war on Montezuma at the request of Washington.  I've been impatient all day today to get home and have another go.

Otherwise, I've been playing a little Demon's Souls the past couple of weeks, trying to get back into that.  I'm working on 4-2 and trying to level my guy up a little bit.  I got my first experience as a black phantom recently, and that was pretty enjoyable.  I think I need to finish the game at least once to be competitive in real  pvp, though.  And, in what has become a weekend ritual, I've been playing more League of Legends after recording the podcast, and at other random times throughout the week.  I'm still learning my character of choice, but I think I've improved considerably from when I began.  I've got much further to go, however.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mercury Steam Has Vanquished The Horrible Night

I'll just go ahead and steal the title of the NeoGAF official thread for my Castlevania: Lords of Shadow post, because that is exactly how I feel.

Now that I've had a couple of days to let the game and the ending sink in, I have to say, well done, Spaniards, well done, indeed.  I don't know that I've seen a franchise overhauled in such a dramatic and successful way.  Maybe Metal Gear with the first MGS, or maybe if you count Final Fantasy's occasional flashes of brilliance amidst it's normal (since VI, anyway) mediocrity.  Regardless, Castlevania was really in need of this reboot.  Prior 3D games were average at best, and the Metroidvania formula was stale almost the moment they started them on the GBA.  I'd almost given up hope that we would ever see one my my favorite franchises make the leap from retro greatness and more modern soulless tedium to something with all the glitz of HD and great playability of it's forbears.

Lords of Shadow succeeds for me on three essential levels. First, it extracts the essence of Castlevania for this new entry, leaving behind the messy continuity and all the baggage of the series to this point.  The window dressing for a great CV title is gothic architecture and decor, traditional European horror monsters, and a brave warrior wielding a whip, or a sword in a pinch.  Second, Lords of Shadow nails the transition from 2D into 3D.  I've thought about this a lot over the years, and the only really viable way to recreate CV for the modern era is basically to make something very much like a God of War game, in many respects.  Mercury Steam has pulled this off, and even made it work better than it sounds by making combat more about patience, defense, and reading your enemy than your typical GoW or DMC game, which tend to be more about how long your combo can get without an iterruption.  The third aspect of LoS that resonates the most with me is just how much of an epic journey the game is.  I played far, far more of Castlevania II and III growing up than I did I or IV.  If you're not familiar, II and III had just as much, if not more, of their stages set outside Dracula's Castle, in the Transylvanian countryside, than within.  Simon's Quest was entirely in the countryside, and had no castle at all, as I recall.  Gabriel's path in LoS takes him from one end of the map to the other, traversing rural villages, haunted forests, ancient ruins, abandoned fortresses, frozen wastelands, an absolutely huge castle, and other realms of the dead before it's conclusion.

The game is long, too.  By the end of the journey, you'll have been through so many places and so many challenges, that you'll be as worn out as our hero is.  I played the game on Knight difficulty, one notch up from the default, and the hardest setting available the first time through.  I clocked almost exactly 20 hours on it.  I would actually recommend Knight, because you'll be forced to really learn the combat system to succeed, and  it's much more fun when you know what you're doing in challenging encounters, even outside of the game's awesome bosses.  3 sword masters at a time, or 3 greater lycans, or any encounter mixing 3 or more skeleton warriors with other types of monsters were enough to have me stuck for 5-10 attempts with regularity.

This brings me to some of my complaints with the game.  First off, one of the most annoying, is that occasionally you will be dealt damage from an attack before the animation has gone off.  This seemed to happen more when fighting the game's larger foes, bosses in many cases.  I believe it to be a case of the game shortcutting to your death when it has calculated that you're dead anyway, but I'd feel better about it if I at least saw the killing blow before dying.  Next up is the music.  It's not bad, it's just not outstanding.  Castlevania has always had outstanding music.  The rest is either technical or design issues that, while bothersome, ultimately take away little from the overwhelming helping of awesome that the game serves up.  I'm a longtime fan of the series, and I already love what Mercury Steam have done here.  Fix up some of these little things, and the sequel should be amazing.

Now about that sequel...  going off the ending to this game, there are a couple of ways they could take it, and I am dying to see what they're going to do.  If internet malcontents complained about this game not being Castlevania for whatever reason.... Bloody Tears, indeed.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My Next Post

In which I talk about how League of Legends is played.

Imagine taking your guy from a Diablo style game, and plopping him down on in the middle of an RTS map where two people are currently playing against each other.  Your job is to take your one guy, and together with the might of an army that you can't control, but whose actions you can use to your advantage, and help one side win.  Yours is a hero unit capable of slaying mass numbers of the ordinary units of either side, and you act as the tie-breaker in this struggle, taking out defensive turrets and clearing the way for your side's army to infiltrate and destroy the enemy base.  Your hero has several active abilities and can purchase equipment at a shop with gold found on felled enemy units, a lot like they might in a Diablo style game, and together with your team of other action-RPG refugees, you are a force to be reckoned with.  The other side of the conflict also has such a team.

...and that's League of Legends (and DOTA, Demigod, and Heroes of Newerth).  It's pretty cool.

I polished off FFT: TWotL last night.  I've started games of it a few times since finishing it for the first time on the PSX, but had never actually followed all the way through to the end again until this time.  I have to admit that I trucked it through the last quarter of the game in order to finish before an imminent release, but I enjoyed the hell out of this game.  It was so great to read through a not only competent, but extremely well done localization of what is without a doubt the best story to ever carry the Final Fantasy name.  It also happens to be the game in the series with the gameplay that best holds up a number of years on.  Maybe that is due to being in a small and sparsely populated genre, but a few niggling things aside (really, no option to quit to the main menu from a battle gone awry?), this is all the game and more that first graced us over a decade ago.  And to throw one more wrench in the works, I noticed something in the final scene which I didn't back in 1998, and has redefined the entire ending for me.  Mind blown.  Do yourself a favor and play this game if you own a PSP and have not yet.  If I might offer some advice: keep your army as small as possible, and cross train them in as many jobs as possible.  I tried to have one guy in every job slot, and not only was it impossible to keep everyone leveled up, it was a major pain trying to outfit everyone with good gear, too.

The imminent release I mentioned just now is of course, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, which I have beside me now, and which I will begin tonight.  I don't think I've been this excited for a new release since Mass Effect 2.  Here's hoping we've finally gotten the Castlevania we've all been waiting for!