Sunday, June 30, 2013

More problems & War of the Suits

Due to further personal issues, I will not be able to make my regularly scheduled post. I've spent a lot of this past week writing essays, making phone calls, and spending time with my family, while I try to figure out what I should be doing with my life, or rather, what the best path is to get there. Instead I'll post one of those "essays", the rules for a card game I've created, which uses a normal deck of playing cards. Read the whole thing because it's an evolving set of rules.

This game is for 2 players. Each player has a sheet of paper. The paper is divided into 3 columns, which we will refer to as “characters”. Each character receives 25 HP, and should be marked in such a way as to allow plenty of room for addition and subtraction beneath. Each player is given their own deck of cards, shuffled thoroughly, with jokers included.
Each round, both players draw a card. If the player draws a red numbered card, they attack a single character for that much damage. If they draw a black numbered card, they defends against that much damage. You do not choose which character to attack/defend/heal until after both players have drawn their cards.
Example A: Player A draws an 8 of Hearts, and Player B draws a 9 of Clubs, all damage is defended against. (8 damage – 9 block = 0 damage)
                Example B: Player A draws an 8 of Hearts, and Player B draws a 6 of Spades, Player B receives 2 damage. (8 damage – 6 block = 2 damage)
                Example C: Player A draws an 8 of Hearts, and Player B draws an 8 of Diamonds, both players receive 8 damage.
If both players draw a black number card, health is restored by the amount that the opposite player has drawn.
                Example D: Player A draws a 3 of Spades, and Player B draws a 5 of Spades. Player A is healed by 5 points, while Player B is healed by 3 points.
A Joker will reverse the two player’s health, and the attacker gets to choose which two characters are in play that round. In the event that both players play a joker, then they must choose separate characters. The effect of number cards takes place after the switch, and black cards heal instead of defend.
If the player draws an Ace, King, Queen, or Jack, they must put that card aside and draw another card. These cards are the strategy cards, which can be played any time the player holds them. In order to be used, they must be played BEFORE any card is drawn. Their effects are as follows:
                Jack – All number cards heal your character. If a Joker is played, this effect occurs AFTER cards are switched. (e.g. 3 of hearts and 5 of spades = + 8 health.)
                Queen – The effect of your number card is doubled. (e.g. 4 damage becomes 8, 3 defense becomes 6.) Any excess defense is discarded.
                King – You are healed by your card in addition to its effect. (e.g. 6 of Diamonds does 6 damage and heals for 6.)
                Ace – Allows for two cards to be played. If a red card is played followed by a Joker, you attack, and then switch. If a joker then a red card, you switch and then attack. If two attacks are picked, then you may attack either just one character, or two separate ones. If two defends, any extra defense is turned into healing.
In order to kill a character, their HP must hit 0 or below. Once a character is dead, they stay dead, and cannot be revived. Characters can heal above their original 25 points, but having one character with a considerably higher amount of health makes them a target for Joker attacks.
The game is won when all of one player’s characters have a health of 0 or below.

Upon first test of the game, it’s apparent there are severe issues. Not a single character is dead after going through the whole deck, and both people have a large collection of strategy cards pulled to the side. Most characters have more HP than they started with, and the only exception still has double digits. The largest has nearly 50 points.
An on the fly rule change forcing both players to play a strategy card every round, and always the last drawn one, proved a little more effective, but overall HP continued to go up instead of down.
During Play through 2, we changed the rules slightly. Jack no longer heals, and instead turns all number cards into damage against a selected enemy character. Also, only the last drawn strategy card is kept, and the previous one is discarded, though they may be used at any time. Lastly, when an Ace is played, extra defense is discarded rather than turned into healing.
The rule change improved the problem, but not enough. At the end of a deck with modified rules, Player A lost one character and was close to losing another. Player B was better off, but all 6 characters were below their starting HP.
For Play through 3, we got rid of all healing rules altogether, otherwise maintaining the rules provided in Play through 2. In order to keep the King relevant, he blocks all incoming damage for one round, and is kept “active” until the other player attacks. If a black card is played while the king is active, it is treated as an attack.
Play through 3 resulted in a win with nearly half the deck to spare. However, it was ultimately felt that any strategy through the use of secondary cards was greatly reduced. We also were met with a first time consequence, where a Joker forced a player to switch his own characters HP for that of a lower HP enemies. This was intentional, and gameplay worked exactly as intended.
To bring the strategy back, Play through 4 introduced a revised Queen and Jack Strategy. These two cards can now be placed in an “active” pile along with the King. Only one of these cards can be active at a time, but you can now choose when to use the active card. If the two cards are not to your liking and you preferred to hold on to that King, Queen, or Jack for the next round, you are allowed to do so. This resulted in granting the players a feeling of strategy, while maintaining the overall outcome.
There was a certain level of chance involved, but strategy was not altogether forgotten. What we both realized fairly early on is that the rules could be altered slightly to account for a variety of games. Having the “active” card turned face down would result in players being able to “bluff”, and turn the game into a form of poker. One player could be turned into a “dealer”, give his characters extra HP, and it could turn into a “one against all” style game similar to Black Jack.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A quick update

I was unable to post on Sunday because of unforseen problems. I was out of town at a wedding, and I was supposed to return Sunday afternoon. Due to the thunderstorms around Denver, it was nearly 2 am on Monday before I arrived at home. Posts will continue next weekend as usual, and I'll try to get some new reviews up during the week.

Monday, June 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a great but ultimately flawed game. It sits in a somewhat uncomfortable space of showcasing where the industry can go, but then turns around and falls back on the more familiar aspects of gaming. Its narrative is never fully sabotaged by the gameplay, and more often than not is aided by it, but at parts it does tip toe the line.
The end of the world in this game is brought about a special strain of the real-life cordyceps fungus. People infected with the fungus become beings of mindless aggression, not too dissimilar from a zombie. In addition to the usual sort of zombie, or “runner” as they’re called here, we are introduced to “clickers” and “bloaters”. These two types are older, and the fungus has begun to sprout from their heads, leaving them blind. They only listen by sound, making it entirely possible to sneak past them in plain sight.
The story follows Joel, an older man (in his 50’s) who experienced the apocalyptic event first-hand 20 years before, and Ellie, a 14 year old who grew up in the quarantine safe zone of Boston. Joel is tasked with smuggling Ellie outside of Boston, and meeting up with a resistance group known as the “Fireflies”. It’s almost a coming of age story, as we see Joel come to terms with his past, and we use Ellie as a window into what the world has become.
I’ll talk about the story more in length later, in a specified Spoiler section.
Gameplay here largely focuses on stealth. You will sneak past groups of not only the infected, but normal humans as well, who are referred to as “hunters”. The game is generally about killing all the enemies, by any means necessary, but your best bet is to be stealthy, due to the lack of ammo and your own characters awkwardness in combat. If you are seen, you can run away and hide, and the enemies will explore your last known location.
One of the more common complaints about the game is the immersion breaking AI of your allies. As you’re sneaking up on an enemy, your companion will be running around behind you, or standing in the open, or otherwise taking cover in such a manner as they should be seen by the enemy. This often happens while they are telling you to be quiet, which is also usually said loud enough that it should draw attention. The good news, from a gameplay perspective, is that the enemy won’t notice them. It does draw you out of the action considerably. It’s kind of a catch-22, however, because your ally needs to remain close in order to assist you in melee combat.
I also have to point out the game has a few clipping issues. While nothing major, it did come up on a regular basis that my ally would take cover near me and we would partially clip through each other. I also had the issue where, when I was choking out an enemy, my character would clip through the wall. It’s a minor complaint, but it’s there.
The game is also full of plenty of low resolution textures. It’s hard to say what’s to blame there. The PS3 is an aging system, but part of me has to wonder if the development team didn’t just cut corners in a few place. I wouldn’t call this immersion breaking, or really even having much of a bearing on my enjoyment of the game, but I noticed it early on, and by the end I no longer noticed.
The gameplay is solid, but where it ultimately fails is in areas where you are forced into a fairly straight forward fight. Unfortunately, this makes up the bulk of the action parts of the games second half. Sometimes you can manage to escape and lose the enemy, but a number of times, it’s not an option, and you have to resort to gunplay. You eventually get more and more weapons, and I found myself wishing it had kept it simple. It really drags down the second half, and it pushes the line of sabotaging the games narrative.
During one scene in particular, I found a group of enemy infected, wandering at random throughout the area. I spent several tries attempting to sneak around and kill them one at a time, but never managed to get a single one. Every time I got near an infected, they would turn around, scream, and all the enemies would swarm me. I’m still not entirely sure if this was a glitch, or if the game was specifically designed to make my style of gameplay impossible here. I tried multiple times, hitting different infected at different places, and once even making a sincere attempt to sneak past them, but the end result is that I had to lure all the enemies out and shoot them.
I also grew kind of tired of the fighting arenas. There were multiple occasions, particularly at the beginning, that I could point out where I would be fighting enemies, because of the appearance of chest high walls. Particularly the first area, I don’t think there had been a single chest high wall in the game yet, and now all of the sudden the game opens into an area full of cement dividers and cars. (Which begs the question, where are the SUV’s and trucks in this world?) It’s a little too obvious, and it doesn’t serve the game.
The last thing I want to say before getting into the spoilers is to talk about a glitch I got involving the save games. No, this is not the glitch where people are losing their saves, which Naughty Dog has already fixed. On a few occasions, I got to an area, was seen, and reloaded the last checkpoint. Instead, the game pushed me forward, as if I had killed all the people in that area. Other times, in a similar issue, it pushed me back, to an encounter I had already completed. It was strange, and kind of annoying when it made me replay an encounter that took a good 10 or 15 minutes.

SPOILER ALERT: From here on out, full story spoilers will be discussed, in chronological order. If you want to avoid them, skip to the rating.
The game starts out with Joel and his daughter in their home, pre-apocalypse. Joel is having issues at work, and he comes home late. Once it becomes obvious that the man we’re seeing is our main character, and the girl is not Ellie, it becomes of a question of WHEN this girl will die. Our first opportunity is when the girl wakes up to a panicked phone call from her uncle, and we take control of her. She explores the house, while there are explosions in the distance and cop cars racing by outside. I was fully expecting an attack here.
Joel appears instead of an infected, and kills a zombie before rushing out to the car with Ellie. What follows is an introduction to the game world, similar to what we’ve seen in the Half-Life games. Joel and his brother give us exposition, and it’s obvious nobody knows what is going on. As they try to leave town, they run into traffic, which is attacked by the infected. In an attempt to escape, they crash the car. I figured this may be a place to end it, and have his daughter dead in a “cliffhanger”.
I was wrong. His daughter was injured, and unable to run, but still alive. He picks her up, and his brother covers them as they make their escape. You view the world around you literally falling apart. Cars crashing, telephone poles collapsing, and electricity outages. To escape, you head down a back alley, with infected pouring over the walls behind you, and into a bar. Here you have to leave Joels brother behind, as he holds them off to let you escape.
As you run away, out of the town into the forest, a handful of infected stay on you. You come across a lone soldier, who seems afraid of you. It’s here that we all know what is going to happen. The soldier opens fire. Joel is saved by his brother, who kills the soldier, but it’s too late, his daughter has been shot.
Part of what makes this intro so good is that, while carrying Joels daughter, you CAN’T look back. Joel will turn around, and he slows while back pedaling. Doing so means you will be grabbed, and killed, by an infected. So, you’re running, and not really any idea if or how close behind you any enemies are. You’re just running, trying to get away and hoping you don’t hit a dead end.
Skip ahead 20 years later, we find Joel and his partner Triss as smugglers in the quarantine safe zone of Boston. The safe zone looks remarkably like City 17 from Half-Life, only not as clean. That actually brings me to another point. Why do post-apocalyptic settlements always look like garbage dumps? This settlement has been there for almost 20 years, why has nobody bothered to patch up the ceiling and toss out that pile of trash in the corner?
Skipping ahead, you meet Ellie, and smuggle her out of the city. After being discovered while trying to exit the city, you evade the military, and head into the city. The first stop is a building which is partially collapsed and leaning against another. The game really gives no satisfactory explanation for why you are entering this building. You eventually discover that it’s crawling with the infected, so of course you head in, instead of walking around the building. It was kind of awkward, and wish they had come up with a good explanation for this.
You leave the building, and see the Capital, your destination, off miles in the distance. You walk across the street and inside another building, climb it, and suddenly the Capital building is only a hundred yards away. Again, awkward, because we didn’t travel any ground distance to get closer.
Later, in a different city, you meet other survivors. Together you explore a sewer system, which is where the example I used above about the game forcing you into a shooting gallery takes place. It’s sad, and it’s really just part of a series of forced firefights. It’s here the game begins to drag a little.
A while into the game, it occurred to me that this may be the first game in a while that I’ve played that hasn’t had Steve Blum as a voice actor. WHOOPS, spoke too soon. You find audio logs left behind by him. Look, I have no real problem with Steve Blum, other than he’s over used. His voice is distinct enough that the only way I actually enjoy him is when he does a parody of himself, such as in BulletStorm.
Around the same time, Joel and Ellie get separated. We use Ellie to draw hunters away from an incapacitated Joel. She gets through them, enters a lodge, gets forced into a firefight due to an abnormally static enemy, and then after killing all the enemies, she gets grabbed from behind and captured. I hate this gameplay mechanic. What’s the difference between getting captured where I did as opposed to 10 feet back? We’ve seen this in other games, like Modern Warfare 2, where you failed if you got killed, but if you move forward 10 feet, you get killed anyways for the story.
The game ends in an interesting manner. After finding the Fireflies, you discover that the only way to get the cure from Ellie is to harvest her brain. Their leader explains her death as a necessary sacrifice, before putting Joel under armed guard. Joel, breaks free, kills everyone between him and Ellie, and then kills the leader in a cutscene.
This all wasn’t sitting well with me, and not just because of the forced firefights. There’s a deeply ethical question there. Is it wrong to kill a single teenage girl in order to save what remains of humanity? Joel never stops to ask this question, and we’re more or less presented with the idea that you’re “the bad guy” if you do.
What makes it interesting, however, is that, when you meet up with the leader, she makes the point once again, and even throws in a “it’s what Ellie would want”. Joel kills the leader, and they head back to a safe area. On the way back, Ellie stops Joel, and tells him how she found out she was immune. Her friends were attacked alongside her. Once they found out they were infected, they made a pact to all go crazy together, and they did. Everyone except her. She believes Joel is lying to her, by telling her the Fireflies had given up on trying to find a cure, and she needs to know the truth. Joel then lies to her again, telling her that the Fireflies had other immune people and no cure had been found. And then the game ends.
It’s a pretty great ending, because it very much presents Joel as kind of the villain. Yes, he’s just a man trying to do what he thinks is right, but as the Firefly leader said, Ellie would gladly have sacrificed herself to find a cure. He robs her of that, and humanity of a cure, because of his own issues with losing his daughter.

SCORE: $80 Game (Buy the Special Edition!) I had problems with the game, but the honest truth is, I had a hard time putting it down. A 4 hour play session came naturally, and I always wanted to see what happened next. I put the game down in frustration once, and that’s at the time I’ve mentioned two other times now, with the forced firefight that didn’t seem like it would be one. It was absolutely worth the $60, and is a must own for everyone.
The special edition comes with a comic, 1 of 4, which looks to be the story of why Ellie is so important, and a large, hardcover artbook. I’m a huge fan of these art books, particularly when they include concept art. Sadly, the concept art is fairly scarce in it, but the art is spectacular. Anyone who is a fan of art books will be very happy they picked this up.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

EDITORIAL: Gender Issues Part 3 - Gender Equality & Takeaways.

This next topic is, without a doubt, the LEAST controversial, though my viewpoint about it may be. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it actively avoids controversy, to the point that, while a great concept, it ignores reality to a certain extent. This point of view is based largely on the concept that men and women are equal, and that they should be treated as equals in all things. Please note, I’m not saying that they ALL think the same things, just that this is the basic premise of the train of thought I’ll be talking about.
The concept here is basically that we should be gender blind. While this is not a bad concept, I feel it ignores reality. The most important thing that separates this from reality is that men and women are not the same. There are pronounced, biological differences. Aside from the obvious, men have a prostate, and women do not. Generally speaking, men have more upper body strength. Women are generally considered to be better at Art and English, while men are considered to be better at Math and Science.
The question as I see it becomes a big argument of nature vs nurture, but to me, there are certain aspects that men or women are just naturally better at than their counterparts. The honest truth is that there will always be more male firefighters than female, because the average female isn’t able to carry a large amount of weight, while a male is more likely to have that innate ability.
Even if America, or other 1st world countries, become “gender equal”, the rest of the world will still not be. The military has rules about women serving in active combat zones, largely because they face a different threat than their male counterparts. Gender equality is a great concept, until you’re staring someone in the mouth who doesn’t have the same views.
But the big question here is, how does this all apply to video games? I suppose the way that this would come in to play is in the form of characters who, it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. Honestly, one of the closest games I can think of that fits this bill is Gears of War 3. You have a squad for 4, with women put in there alongside the men. They aren’t just there as cannon fodder, or as a love interest. They are actual squad members, and are treated as such. There’s hints of romance a few times, particularly the ending, but it doesn’t define them.
We tend to identify characters as either male or female though. It’s hard to get around, because we as a society still make that distinction. Most games only have one protagonist, and that will be either male or female. It’s hard to make a case for Gender equality, when the majority of characters are grizzled, attractive white men, and when they aren’t, extra attention is drawn to the fact that they are women.
How do we get there, or do we even want to? Frankly, I don’t. I love a strong, female lead, but I don’t want to get to a point where we fail to identify her as such. I enjoy playing games where you have a female option alongside the men, but I think the idea of men and women being presented identically sounds incredibly tedious.
I believe that we should get more female leads, so I guess in that capacity, I believe in gender equality in the industry. I would like it to get to a point where we no longer feel the need to draw special attention to every major female lead. If strong women become the norm, rather than the exception, who could complain?

So where does this all leave us? What is the take away from the topic I’ve spent the past 3 weeks talking about? Well, for starters, it’s time to have more female leads. It’s shameful that I can count the number of female leads I can name on my hands, and the ones I actually care about on a single hand. It’s time for a Zelda game where we get to see more of her, and I’m hopeful that in the new game she’ll even be a playable character.
We need to be aware of how characters in the different genders are presented. Men don’t have to be the heroes, women don’t have to be story beats. While we can argue about the extent to which this effects people, why would we want to continue on the same path? I don’t want more of the same, I want games to grow and evolve. I’m not prepared to say that the current system is offensive, but it is getting boring.
There’s really no reason to not diversify. People can point at games with a female lead and say “games with female leads flop, look at Mirrors Edge”, but maybe the reason it’s failing is not because it had a female lead, but because the game had issues. The sample pool isn’t big enough to say for certain, particularly since we’ve never had a Call of Duty with a female lead (in fact, I have a hard time thinking of any female characters in any of the games).
Tomb Raider, however, proved that games don’t have to flop if they have a female lead. While apparently the company that made it considers it a failure, it sold nearly 4 million copies at $60 each. Metroid continues to sell, and despite the blunder of Other M, people eagerly await the next title. Put in more female leads, but still keep males. Put men in as the “damsel in distress” from time to time. Tell new stories, tell more varied stories. Not every game has to be a murder simulator, or any other form of “adolescent power fantasy”. It’s time for gaming to grow up.