Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mass Effect 2

I'm sure everyone in gaming is going to do a review of Mass Effect 2, but I'm still going to toss out my opinion as well. The short version is that this is a great game with very few flaws. It's got good game play (with one exception), a great story, good graphics, good voice acting, interesting characters, pretty much everything you need to make a good video game. If you want a detailed analysis of all those factors, then go elsewhere. I'm just going to cover the high points and the low points of the game as I see them.

First a little good news/bad news. The good news is that the most annoying mini-game from ME1, the driving around on planets bit, is gone. The bad news is that they replaced it with an equally annoying mini-game that forces you to scan planets for resources from orbit. This scanning is tedious and boring and unfortunately necessary in order to upgrade your gear. This factor is the only thing keeping ME2 from being one of the most re-playable games in recent memory (edit: see below for more info).

Fortunately, that's about the only bad thing in the entire game. There's a couple of minor quests that can take some effort to finish, but the solutions are out there on the web already if you don't want to waste a lot of time. There's also a couple of bugs, but nothing major, like one minor quest that won't clear from your log even after you complete it.

The biggest plus with this game is something that I can't praise enough: the autosave. Finally, someone figured out that pausing every few minutes to save the game isn't fun. This game autosaves seamlessly before every combat, and even between waves of many combats, to the point that I almost never felt the need to save my game for fear of having to run through the same series of combats again and again.

Of course, the autosave itself is not a new concept, but I've had so many experiences in other games where I get through a series of tough fights, barely making it, and then one more enemy pops out from an unexpected direction and kills me, forcing me to go all the way back to the beginning of the series of fights because that's where the last autosave was. That never happened in ME2.

Sure, there were some tough fights, and I died a few times, but I never had to go back and fight through hordes of enemies that I'd already defeated once just to get to the fight that I was having trouble with. The autosave almost always brought me back to the beginning of the fight I was having trouble with rather than forcing me to go through all those previous hordes again. At worst I had to go through one previous wave before getting to the hard one.

I hope every game designer out there is taking notes, because this implementation of autosave is pure awesome!

The rest of the game is pretty good too, and I highly recommend it, although I recommend the PC version if your system can handle it, if only because the planet scanning mini-game is slightly less annoying using a mouse than it is using the Xbox controller. At least it is if the comments from my friends playing it on the 360 are anything to go by.

Edit: I got around to starting a new character, and it looks like it gives you a rather large starting bankroll of resources, which may make playing the scanning mini-game less necessary. I haven't played too much into it yet, so can't tell for sure, but if so this would give the game far more replayability.

Second Edit: A friend of mine who has played further into his second game says that the starting bankroll of resources is nice, but there's not nearly enough to avoid having to play the scanning mini-game quite a bit during his second play through.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

King of RPGs

I recently read the first volume of the American manga "King of RPGs" after seeing it mentioned on a couple of gaming sites. I thought it would be worth doing a review here.

It's been a while since I read any manga. I still watch some anime, but there really isn't much manga that makes it over here that interests me. There's plenty of manga written for men my age over in Japan (and I don't mean the pornographic stuff), but the manga that makes it over here is pretty much just the stuff written for teenagers. Admittedly, I haven't looked that closely at the available selection in a while, mainly because if there's one thing that makes me feel like a dirty old man it's hanging out in the manga section at the bookstore, so there may be some stuff that I've missed.

I decided to give King of RPGs a try because of the gaming connection. I'm glad I did, because I like it, but it isn't quite what I was hoping for. The big issue I have is how over the top everything in it is. Over the top slapstick humor is a staple of a lot of manga, but it's not a requirement. It's certainly not inappropriate to the genre, but it isn't a part that I appreciate all that much.

An example that shouldn't spoil any of the plot is the appearance of "the pit of commons" which is a basement of a game store filled with worthless CCG cards honed to "razor sharpness" due to friction over the years. Things like this only serve to take me out of the story due to their ridiculousness.

One other factor of the story bothers me, and that's the police officer who hates gamers and gaming. Checking the author's bio, I see that he's only a few years younger than me, so he probably remembers the bad old days when roleplaying was the chosen bogeyman of various authority figures. The problem is that those days are over. Including it is about as timely as including an authority figure out to stop that "devil music" that is rock and roll. The target of today's crowd of clueless authority figures is video gaming, not pen and paper RPGs.

Enough with what I don't like. There's a lot here that I do like as well. The characters are a fairly interesting mix. Another manga tradition is an ensemble cast where it's sometimes hard to tell just who is the main protagonist, and we have that here. The two top candidates are Shesh Maccabee, a recovering MMOG addict with a multiple personality disorder, and Theodore Dudek a wannabe "great gamemaster" who apparently hasn't ever actually done much gamemastering, but has spent his life collecting RPGs and learning gamemastering techniques (yeah, I can identify with both these characters, except for the multiple personality part...).

The supporting cast includes the MMOG addict's best friend, a fan of anime and anime games, including dating sims; a tomboyish girl gamer with a thing for ren faires; and a "gamer" girl who Theodore pays to play in his games to attract other gamers (and who is hinted to possibly hire herself out for other reasons, although I may be reading more into that then the author intended). There's also a number of characters that you'd expect to find in a college dorm or around a game shop that get a line here and there.

Antagonists include Gavin Slane who is only into games in order to make a profit off collectible items, and the aforementioned police woman who hates games and gamers. All of these main characters and antagonists are college aged, including the police woman who is apparently some sort of student trainee.

There are some great scenes, like when Shesh plays Gavin in a CCG and goes into "crazy RPG player" mode and we see the whole game go down in a narrative format with Shesh roleplaying his side of the game in his head. Similar scenes of the actual RPG sessions are equally entertaining.

There's lots of good references and in-jokes to gaming and gaming culture both in the dialog and the artwork. One such reference is to a rather infamous trick using the Chaos Orb card from the original Magic the Gathering release. The card was an extremely rare card that you used by throwing it up in the air, and any card it touched on landing was destroyed.

Speaking of the artwork, it's good. The artist handles both the "real world" and the fantasy scenes well, and packs a lot of good detail into many of the panels. The characters are well and consistently drawn, and have been designed in such a way that I never have any problems telling who is who.

Despite being a long time gamer, I don't think I was the exact target audience of this book. I think someone more into manga as well as gaming would appreciate it more, and I'd recommend it highly to any gamers who also consider themselves manga fans. Even with my reservations, I still plan on getting the next volume when it comes out.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Uncharted Seas - First Game

Dragon Lords vs. Shroud Mages 1/25/10
We had our first game of Uncharted Seas tonight, and it was fun, but I think I have an issue with the basic scenario.

It was my Dragon Lords vs. Jonathan's Shadow Mages in a "turn up and fight" scenario which is an equal point value matchup where the last man standing wins.

I scored first blood by getting a lucky critical early on against one of his cruisers, but it was downhill from there for my poor elven overlords.

We did have some cool incidents with the highlight being a great little fight where he crashed two of his frigates into one of my cruisers. One frigate sunk, but the other survived, and in the ensuing boarding action managed to achieve mutual annihilation, leaving both ships as derelicts for the remainder of the game.

Another cool incident came a bit after that when my last remaining frigate swooped into range of his battleship and set off a spell that left two fires raging on it. Unfortunately, the fires ended up doing little damage, but it was still cool.

It was at this point that I was pretty much out of the game. After the last frigate was duly dispatched for its impertinence in challenging the enemy battleship, I was left with two ships, both damaged, one of which only survived another turn before joining its companions at the bottom of the sea.

This was where things got boring for me. Knowing I was going to lose was not an issue, what was the problem was that I had nothing left to do. My opponent still had three squadrons left, and a total of five models. I had one squadron of one model, and it had already taken enough damage that I couldn't afford to split my fire. My turn took about two minutes to my opponent's ten at that point, and the game went on for several more turns before my last ship finally went under.

As it turned out, I was able to do some damage, and by the end of the game my opponent only had three ships left, one of each class, but that makes it sound closer than it was because his battleship was still nearly undamaged.

This lack of things for me to do for the latter third of the game is a problem with the scenario. The last man standing victory condition looks like it's going to result in this ending most of the time. Fortunately, there are other options. In addition to a couple of ideas in the rulebook, Craig Gallant over at the D6 Generation has come up with a few ideas on his site. I'll probably steal one of them for our next game.

There will be a next game. I like the system, I think it just needs better scenarios. It possibly also needs better terrain. I'd like to get some bigger islands made up for this, along with some other types of terrain.

It's also possible that a simple turn limit might do the trick, although I'm afraid that a fast fleet might be able to get in an early kill and then just play keep-away for the rest of the game. We might have to try it though, and see how it works.

Dragon Lords vs. Shroud Mages 1/25/10

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dragon Lords

Dragon Lords Cruisers
As you can reasonably infer from my lack of posts about it lately, I haven't been doing much painting. Fortunately, I have a game of Uncharted Seas scheduled for Monday, and my opponent has already fully painted the fleet that he just received less than a week ago. That's spurred by lazy procrastinating ass to get busy on at least one of the three fleets I have had for over a year. Since my opponent has a Shroud Mages fleet, I decided to save my Iron Dwarf fleet for later, mainly so that any observers don't think that the game is only about ironclads. That left either my Dragon Lords or my Orc Raiders. Since the Orcs aren't assembled yet, it was an easy choice to go with the Dragon Lords.

I've always known that I wanted to do the Dragon Lords in bright colors, preferably reds given that I rarely work in that part of the color wheel. I also wanted to keep things simple since I only had a couple of days to finish the project if I wanted them ready for the game. Beyond that I really didn't have a plan going into the project. The end result is a bit of a fortuitous accident, but I'm quite pleased with it.

I started with the primer, a standard ruddy brown that I acquired specifically for this project some time ago. I originally thought that I might just primer the model, add a few details, and then give it a wash, but I decided to put a bit more work into it, and am glad I did. I ended up doing a natural wood color for the hulls almost by accident, using a brown that I thought might be a bit more reddish than it turned out to be. I then used a standard red for the sails, and washed it all with a dark brown wash after adding a few details.

The entire project only took three days. Primer was applied Friday morning. Friday evening I did up one frigate to see how it looked, and did a little work on a couple more. The bulk of the painting was done Saturday afternoon and evening, with everything done but the sealing by the time I went to bed. The only thing done on Sunday was to apply the sealer.

The paints I used are as follows:

Primer: Krylon Ruddy Brown
Hull: Vallejo Game Color 42 Parasite Brown
Sails: Vallejo Model Color 947 Red
Ballistae: Citadel Foundation Iyanden Darksun
Cannons: Vallejo Game Color 1 Chaos Black (I think that's what it's called, the bottle I'm using actually has a blank label)
Cabin Windows: Vallejo Model Color 915 Deep Yellow over Citadel Foundation Iyanden Darksun
Wash: Citadel Wash Gryphonne Sepia

Dragon Lords Starter Fleet

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I'm a bit late to this party, but I finally got around to seeing Avatar. I saw it in a regular theater in 3D. Maybe it's because I went into it with lowered expectations because of all the negative nitpicking I've seen over the past couple of weeks. Maybe it's because I never saw Fern Gully or Pocahontas, just Dances With Wolves. Maybe it was because it was a movie with good pacing, decent acting, a decent story, good implementation of 3D effects, and the most incredible special effects ever before seen on the screen. Whatever the reason, I liked it. I liked it a lot.

I have to question whether the people nitpicking it to death haven't lost their sense of wonder. Yeah, the story has been done before, but it's a pretty good story. Shakespeare has been done before, but no one complains when a new movie based on King Lear comes out. They usually use it as a selling point! Yeah, "unobtainium" sounds like a silly name, but it's also a term actually used in scientific circles, and it's actually quite believable that it could find itself attached as the common term for some rare element that suddenly becomes practical to commercially harvest. Yeah, the efficacy of Na'vi arrows seems to have improved dramatically just in time for the final battle, but there are reasonable explanations for that as well (I'll discuss them more later).

The fact is that this movie is a big deal. Years from now some people will look back and go "meh, not a big deal." Today many look back at Star Wars and go "meh, not a big deal." This movie is likely the first Star Wars of the 21st Century. Cutting edge special effects married to a story that can be either cut apart or examined deeply depending on your personal take, but which on its surface simply offers up an entertaining film in a new way.

Maybe I'll think differently when I've had more time to reflect on the movie, but that's my opinion now, and I don't think it will change too much over time.

Now, for some of the nitpicks. First, the arrows. We see the arrows sticking out of tires, obviously ineffective, in an early scene. At this point the Na'vi aren't really trying. They're probably not doing much more than the equivalent of counting coup when they shoot at the construction vehicles. The humans are annoying, but not a real danger to them.

More important is the ineffectiveness when used defending the home tree, later in the movie. The thing is, the only arrows we see used in that scene are being fired from the ground at a flying target. I'm not an expert at physics, but I know that firing an arrow at a higher target causes that arrow to be less effective, and this would be true even on a lower gravity world, especially since it doesn't appear to be that much lower a gravity than Earth.

In the final battle the arrows are being fired at the same flying vehicles with much greater effect. The difference is that they are now being fired down at those vehicles, and from the backs of creatures that already appear to be doing 35 or 40 miles per hour. Those arrows are going to have a lot more punch. I don't know, but I suspect that at one time there was a scene written where this was explained, but that it was cut for time.

Another nitpick is the concept that "the Na'vi are toast when the humans return." The problem with this assumption is that Pandora appears to be self aware. It has the memories of a human scientist and therefore not just her scientific knowledge, but more importantly a real insight into how humans are likely to react. It probably has access to the base's database, as it doesn't look like the base personnel were given an opportunity to demolish things before they left. Finally, it has 10 years to prepare.

If the humans can achieve their goals by nuking the planet to a lifeless ball from orbit, then they can probably win. If they think they're going to stage a hostile landing, then I think they'll be unpleasantly surprised.

Of course all these are issues brought up by people who are fans of science fiction, or otherwise of a nerdish inclination. There's also a huge amount of criticism from people finding fault with the alleged politics and religious views to be found in the film. I'm not going to go into detail about these types of criticism, or attempt to refute them. I am going to say that their very existence is proof that this is good science fiction: it's challenging people's beliefs and making them think, even if only about how to condemn it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Roleplaying Night - Round 1 - 3:16

We had our first RPG night tonight, and overall it went pretty well. Our first game was 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars. I picked this game because it was an extremely simple system requiring minimal GM preparation, and looked like a perfect way to get my feet wet after over a decade since running anything with more than a single player. It worked just about as well as I'd hoped.

There were a few things I'll do differently if we come back to it again. I should have planned out a couple more encounters so that they weren't quite so similar. I had come up with an initial encounter idea, and an idea of where I'd probably end it, but decided to leave it up to the players on how to get there. It worked, but probably would have worked better if I'd done a little more prep work so that the encounters felt a bit more varied.

The game itself ran very quickly, taking only about two hours. I'm reasonably sure that at least three of my four players enjoyed the session. The fourth claimed he did, but I don't know him well enough to tell whether or not he was just humoring me. I still think the game was an overall success based on the reactions of the other players. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in running a simple game focusing on a straight up bug hunt in the style of the movie version of Starship Troopers.

I'm now looking forward to giving Dogs In The Vineyard a try, hopefully in two weeks.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Why Monopoly Sucks

A friend of mine has suggested that Monopoly really isn't a bad game, but that it's the house rules that people play by that make it bad.

I disagree. It's certainly a better game without the house rules, but it still sucks.

It goes on forever even with property auctions and no free parking money, and once one player gets ahead the outcome is nearly always inevitable. The worst part is that one player often takes the lead as early as the halfway point, or even sooner! That's a lot of time wasted finalizing a result that has already been determined.

There are worse games out there, but none with the immense visibility of Monopoly. It's often described as the 'best selling' or 'most popular' game, which makes people think that it must be the pinnacle of board game design, and as a result they don't even try other games.

This is only now starting to change, a decade after eurogames started to penetrate the US market, and even now it's only changing in small ways. Pretty much every article in the mainstream press about board games starts with some variation of "there's more to board games than just Monopoly!" The fact that is still necessary speaks volumes about how the damn game holds back the entire genre.

Not that I have strong feelings about it or anything...