Joined 12/20/2012

If you're leaving scorch marks, you need a bigger gun.

14 Posts

Final Fantasy VIII was one of my favorites in its era. If you had asked me about it last year, I'd have said it was the last "true" Final Fantasy; Final Fantasy 9 was a fond retrospective of the era and Final Fantasy X began the decidedly inferior era of "modern" Final Fantasies. I'd have also contended that "as goes Final Fantasy, so goes the RPG industry," so to say True Final Fantasy is tantamount to saying True RPG. What makes a True RPG? Here's what I'd have told you:

A True RPG uses stats-based combat, and player skill is represented only by strategy in selecting orders.
A True RPG gives you choices in where to go next. Corollary: the tutorial phase of the game is only over when you can meaningfully choose where to go next.
A True RPG rewards curiosity and exploration; some of the game's finest treasures will be had by finding something secret.
A True RPG has a compelling story; you should want to finish the game in the same way you want to see the end of a movie.

There are more (I've got opinions), but these are the interesting ones for the purposes of this writeup. These are some of the ways I'd have insisted that FFVIII shines.... but on my last playthrough, I realized that the game actually fails to deliver on all counts.

I've often derided FFX for being an "RPG on Rails" - until the very end of the game, your path is literally one-dimensional; you can go forwards or backwards. Same with FFXIII. I couldn't shake the feeling that "tutorial mode" persisted right up to the end of the fourth disc. But FFVIII does the same thing - you don't actually get a choice of where to go next until the middle of disc 2, and once you *are* given that choice, you really only have two options: sidequest city that you have NO REASON TO KNOW EXISTS, and next plot point. You can also find a Chocobo Forest, which doesn't help you because by the time you get there you have land transportation covered.

Rewarding exploration? Not so much. You can find magic draw points, but your magic caps out pretty quick. Or, you can get cards, which refine into items, which refine into magic. There are a couple of Guardian Forces you can find in the wild, but they're either obvious or they're so hidden as to nearly be easter eggs; they don't reward exploration nearly as much as they reward buying the official strategy guide (which was the thing you did Back Then™).

As far as the story goes, it's obviously a subjective call. All I can really say is that if your story hinges around a high school that teaches its students to fight with personally styled weapons, the heroes all have amnesia and the villainess is a time traveller, then you'll have an easier time impressing 19-year-old Mark than 33-year-old Mark.

Ultimately, I think I was really playing the game I expected it to be, and not the game as it actually was - like, I believed that I could explore, so I didn't notice I couldn't. I'll be interested to see how Skyrim holds up for me in 15 years. Has anybody else here experienced this kind of thing? I'm curious how common this actually is.

My wife and I have very different approaches to gaming in general. I favor tactics, strategy, and cunning: if I can defeat you before you know you've lost, that's a good victory; if I can defeat you before you know we're fighting that's a great one. One of my proudest adventures in Skyrim was clearing a cave full of bandits: not because I fought hard or against valiant foes, but because you could raise every bandit from the dead and there would still be no witnesses to the deed.

Beth, on the other hand, favors raw power and force. If there is nothing left of her opponent, that's a good victory; if there's nothing left of the battlefield that's a great one. She punishes you for daring to face her in the most extreme manner possible; she never maims when she can kill and she never kills when she can obliterate.

I had played through Dragon Age Origins with my usual assassin-type build, and enjoyed it thoroughly, but was wondering how the game experience is different between classes. Beth came to a plot quest that I had been curious about since my own play-through, because I talked my way past it and I wondered what I had skipped.

Beth, upon meeting the fellow with whom I had dealt in treachery and deceit, immediately pissed him off then caved his head in to illustrate her point. When she was finished playing whack-a-mole with his minions, she went to the valley beyond, where a big dragon flew overhead, perched on a cliff, and roared like hell.

I hadn't anticipated a dragon actually showing up, and was super curious to see how the game would handle this - was this meant to be a fight, or was talking my way out of it just one of several ways to walk past this thing? I started looking for options, a way out, but Beth had already charted her course.

You see, she had found a gong.

She rang the dragon's goddamn dinner bell, pulled out her sledgehammer, and yelled "GET YOUR ASS DOWN OFF THAT CLIFF AND BRING IT, BITCH."

She lost that fight. And the next one. And the one after that. Realizing that Operation Dinnertime was probably the only tactic I'd get to see here, and since it seemed unlikely that the dragon would choke on the dwarf trying to swallow it whole, I went to my office to futz around. About an hour later, Beth came bopping in and proudly announced that she'd beaten the dragon. "Oh, wow!" I said. "How did you do it?"

She looked at me like I was nuts, and said "I hit it with my hammer until it died."

My experience as an Xbox player was atypical, to say the least. I was months behind on game releases, and tended to play single-player games, so when some of my coworkers invited me to join them for a few rounds of Halo 2 online, I was slightly concerned that I'd repeat my performance of the original Halo (see

But, since it was competitive, and nobody could *actually* see my screen, I figured that while "competent" might be a bit of a stretch I might be able to avoid becoming a legend. What I didn't realize is that I had gotten good enough at the Xbox family of FPS's that I could play on my tactical strengths, and I became a legend after all.

One of the modes we played was Juggernaut - one player is the Juggernaut, who gets a point for every other person they kill. Everyone else has the job of killing the Juggernaut. Kind of like "tag", but with high explosives. One of the cool features of the game mode was the radio system - hold down your talk button, and you could send radio to all the other non-juggernauts, but the juggernaut wouldn't hear.

We were about halfway through the match, and I'd gained a reputation for being dangerous with a rocket launcher. I had just started to figure out the map layout, too, so when I became the Juggernaut I knew exactly where to go to gain positional advantage. I snuck up behind two of my coworkers, who were chatting... at which point, I realized the game has *two* talk modes. Radio... and proximity. If you're just talking into the microphone, players near you will hear the conversation.

They're chatting, and scanning the horizon. "Do you see him?" "No. And if I did, I couldn't hit him." "Yeah. Mostly I want to see where he's going so he doesn't sneak up on me." Meanwhile, I'm sneaking up on them, and trying really, really hard not to laugh and give myself away. I melee bashed Joe from behind, doing the instakill, and I backpedalled to get ready for a shooting match with Chris.

He didn't notice.

He stood there, scanning the horizon some more. "Where do you think he is?" I aimed my rocket launcher, and said "Oh, I bet he's pretty close." I waited for him to turn around, ready to time my shot juuuust right.

Chris didn't hear the difference in my voice. He thought he was still talking to Joe.

"You think so? Shit, maybe. I don't see him anywhere."

"Yeah, if I were him, I'd be around here somewhere."

"Aw, hell. You don't think he picked up the rocket launcher again, do you?"

I said, "You tell me," and squeezed the trigger.

My only regret is that I wasn't on the non-Juggernaut radio channel after that - I'm led to understand that Chris was upset that Joe wasted time talking about my rocket launcher instead of shooting at me, and Joe explained via very short words that Chris was a goddamn idiot.

Later, we played Oddball - the deal there is that there's a skull on the map, and the player holding it can't use any weapons and runs a little slower than everybody else. You lose the skull by dying. The goal is to be the first person to hold the skull for more than some number of seconds. Kind of like "tag", only with heinous mob violence.

At one point, I had grabbed the skull, and was running down a winding corridor. I could hear Rob chasing me down the hall, and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to weasel my way out of this problem, when I discovered that while you can't use any weapons, you can make melee attacks with the skull. Figuring that anything was better than running, I hid in a corner, turned around, and waited.

Sure enough, Rob came running around the corner, not expecting to find me there - it was like a fox chasing a rabbit, only to find that the rabbit has stopped to scratch its ass and take in the scenery. I ran right into him and started swinging the skull, while he started trying to hit me with his machine gun. THUD ratatatatat THUD ratatatat THUD ratatatatatat THUD ratatata SPLAT

... splat? Somehow, during the fracas, I had gotten behind him, and once again - melee attack from behind for an instakill.

I just waited, standing in the hall. I figured that either way I ran, I'd be heading toward an enemy, and I didn't think that trick was going to work twice - but no one came. A few moments later, I had racked up enough time to win, and we were dumped into the chat lobby. I guess the conversation had already started over the not-it radio channel, because I came in to this:

Rob: "Rocket launcher? Bullshit, rocket launcher. Any asshole is deadly with a rocket launcher. This dude killed me with the SKULL BALL. OK? I had a gun, he had a dead guy's head for a football, and he beat the *shit* out of me with it, and then he won cause none of *you* assholes wanted to fight him with *your* guns, and there weren't no fuckin' rocket launcher anywhere in the damn room."

Joe: "Well, *technically* he killed me with the rocket launcher, but he didn't shoot me. He just bashed my head in with it."

Chris: "He shot *me* with it."

Joe: "And I had to explain that to you, ya jackass."

Blizzard has a *lock* on Grinder games. To whit: Diablo and WoW. Diablo is a complex loot-aggregation simulator, and you know you've gathered enough loot when you can survive the next level of the dungeon, and you know you've won when there are no more levels to go. Of WoW, it's said that the game doesn't even *begin* until you've maxed out your level, and the whole way up is one epic grind.

Enter Hearthstone. The game itself is not super interesting - it's simpler than Pokemon, and not in an awesome way. There is some strategy involved, but I've not found any of the matches to reward too much thinking. This is another grinding game from Blizzard, which by itself is not a complaint. I've played grinders before. Sometimes they're entertaining. Other times, they're Hearthstone.

So, heres how the grind works in Hearthstone: you play against other opponents to earn gold. You use gold to either buy packs of cards, or to buy entrance to the Arena. It's important to note that you *cannot* use your own cards in the Arena; you are drafting a new deck from random cards every time. So you can either spend your gold getting cards, or using a whole mode of gameplay that is otherwise inaccessible and which also rewards you with new cards; it's not exactly a tough decision.

While you're doing all this, your selected "hero" is gaining levels that don't matter in the Arena and which barely matter outside of it. You're also earning a rank as an online player which helps match you up to other opponents, so grinding for gold always stays about the same level of difficulty no matter what you do.

To recap: your online matches get you gold for access to the Arena, but don't change anything therein. The Arena lets you win cards for your non-arena deck, but which don't actually make it easier to grind for gold - it just changes the caliber of player you're matched against. Nothing you do in any part of the game helps you anywhere else. It's a perfect symmetry of pointlessness.

So, why did they call it Hearthstone? Simple: in WoW, you grind your way to the top-level raids; in Diablo, you grind your way to the bottom of the dungeon. In Hearthstone, no matter how much you grind, you will find yourself dumped right back to where you started - which is exactly what a Hearthstone does.

So, I've been beating the Cardhunter drum for a while now, and I thought I'd take a few moments to explain why it's been absorbing 95% of my gaming hours.

First up, it's a genre-bender. We've got a grid-based playing field and turn-based play flow, like many strategy wargames. We also have a deck-and-card element ala Magic: The Gathering, and we have characters, classes, and levels like any classic RPG.

When your characters start out at level 1, they have a few equipment slots - a warrior, for example, will have slots for two weapons, and one pair of boots. Each piece of equipment represents a number of cards in your deck, and when you place a piece of equipment into a slot, you get the cards that come with the equipment - a dagger, for example, might have a few low-damage armor piercing cards on it, while a hammer would be more about bludgeoning and bashing cards.

Also, more powerful items require "power orbs" to equip - you earn power orbs as you go up in levels, and they come in two flavors (blue, and the more powerful gold). But, you can never earn enough power orbs to slot everything on your character - about half of your orb slots will go unfilled, and therefore you'll be wearing at least some equipment that has a less powerful set of cards.

Already, this is a pretty neat concept - in just about any other deck-building game, when you find a great card, you put the maximum number of copies in your deck. The next time you find another copy of that card, it's useless - so the only way to keep collecting treasure you care about is to keep having cards that go up in power. This is a self-escalating problem that requires incredible game system management or will certainly implode. Cardhunter elegantly eliminates that problem by making every equipment decision a tradeoff. Weapon A has a single powerful attack card and a bunch of wimpy hits, Weapon B has no killer card but just a bunch of solid hits, Weapon C has some good offense and some blocking / defensive cards, Weapon D has some really neat attacks but needs two power orbs... I could go on at length. It really makes deck building fun in a way I've never seen before.

Character generation, likewise, is pretty slick - you get three characters, and you get to select a race and class for each. Each race has a different "default move" card (a mechanism that ensures you can move each character at least once a turn, but also allows for multiple moves), with elves being faster and dwarves being slower than humans. Each race also gets a special racial skill slot (humans are more about battlefield control, elves are about moving / scouting, dwarves are about holding positions). Classes are well-done, too; primary responsibilities are informed by equipment selections - fighters get weapons that have strong, close-range hits, while wizards get staves that have weaker, longer-range hits, and so forth. I've played through the campaign about six times now, each time with a different party makeup and each time the game is interestingly different.

Every time I play the game, I'm struck by the expertly thought-out system. Most of what happens is very intuitive, and the few areas where things get complex it's easy for me to see why the game decisions were made the way they were. I guess I'm saying that this is not your typical "hey, dudes, we should totally make a game" kind of arrangement - the folks who put this one together know what they're doing and it shows.

The last thing I want to touch on is the freemium model. Now, I've played a handful of freemium games, and i've seen myself how and why they quickly turn from actual games into money-spending competitions. I'm gonna come right out and say it - Cardhunter got it right. Here's the scoop: your "premium currency" (i.e., real dollars) can be spent on a couple things. You can buy gold, but gold isn't a great way to get equipment (you might use it to buy the One Neat Thing you want for your deck, but it's prohibitively expensive and the shops are randomized - you don't get to buy just whatever you want.) The second is that you can buy special "treasure hunt" maps, which are additional playable levels that guarantee at least one rare item as a reward for finishing... the first time you finish. After that, they're just regular campaign levels.

Finally, there's the membership, which is where I expect their bread and butter comes from. Membership is fairly inexpensive (at the time of this writing, somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 a month), and it improves your treasure hunting in a remarkably fair way: it's one more of the best category of treasure in a chest. That is, if a member opens a treasure chest that has three random items, and one guaranteed to be uncommon or better, their membership bonus is one more item uncommon or better. It's enough to be totally worth the membership, but it doesn't give me a serious advantage over the next player in line - and it doesn't give me access to anything exclusive.

I've been playing the game as a beta for about two months now. I'd have expected myself to get burned out on it by now, but so far, I'm still going strong. There have been a couple game balance tweaks and so forth, and it seems to me that Blue Manchu (the authoring studio) is really investing the time to get as much right as they can. I'm not going to put them on a pedestal or anything, but in an age of studios cheerfully belching out churnware, Cardhunter has a downright artisanal quality to it.

So, come join me in the beta! I can't remember the last time I was this enthusiastically happy with a game, and I'd like to hear the thoughts of my fellow gamers.


Cap'n Curry

I've been playing Card Hunter, to the exclusion of nearly all else, for about a month and a half now. It's a free-to-play, half-strategy, half-rpg kind of deal. It's a deck-and-card based game, but there's a really clever equipment-as-cards paradigm that prevents this from turning into a may-the-best-card-win kind of affair. The writing isn't exactly subtle, but if your childhood involved sitting around a table with your fellow nerdlings trying to figure out the practical difference between "ration, standard" and "ration, iron", then the game was written with you in mind.

Right now, there is a waiting list to get in on the beta, but I've got a single key to share with a fellow gamer. Three things to keep in mind about said beta key:

1. The game is in beta, and everything that implies - cards will be tweaked, game rules will be adjusted, you will find bugs, etc.
2. The game's database will be reset at least once more before the launch - everything you earn now will be gone on launch day.
3. The in-game currency of pizza slices is available for purchase now, and can be used during the beta. Upon each database reset, all of the pizza you've ever bought will be re-credited to your account for you to spend all over again, just as you please.

The One Key will be given to the first poster to ask for it. Cheers!

Microsoft has posted some details about how the Xbox One is going to function as a console, and on first glance, it's kinda crap news. Here's a link, if you haven't seen it yet. Go ahead and take a quick gander, I'll wait. :)

So, my first grumble grumble is about the inability to actually *loan* a game to a friend. But, I do have to say that Microsoft is trading a lot of other features that kind of offset that: the idea that I can play any of my games on a friend's console, whether I brought the games with me or not, is kinda cool. Most of the time I want to loan a game to a friend, it's because I want to share the experience in the first place; it's probably a net gain for me that I can always do that with all my games, even if I can't do it asynchronously anymore. I think I'm OK with the constraints here.

Second, the "always on" idea. On the one hand, my console has long been my last bastion of entertainment when the Internet goes out but the power stays on. On the other, I can't remember the last time I was without Internet for 24 hours. Hell, if push came to shove, I'm not too fancy to take the Xbox to a friend's house to borrow a cup of wifi. I like the updating-in-the-background concept. On the balance, I think this one's OK too - I'm not going to get heartburn if, during the console's 6-year lifespan, I'm blocked once or twice by a bad combination of long Internet outage and unwillingness to jump through hoops to solve.

Now, the used games thing - this is more troublesome. Publishers "may" authorize reselling of games via "participating retailers"? This is where we formally turn games from things you buy into things you license or lease. The publishers will say this has always been the case; while it may or may not be technically true it certainly wasn't the case in practice. I like going to yard sales and getting games; I like knowing that if my plate is too full today for Final Fantasy XIII, then at least I can look forward to snagging it used in a year or two. Now, I get to *hope* that publishers will allow me to do that, and that's a disappointing situation and a significant problem for me. But again, Steam doesn't support the Used Game paradigm, and my PC Gaming library has absolutely flourished.

All in all, it looks like the Xbox One has all the bad bullet points we were afraid it might. But, maybe those bullet points don't mean the end of Gaming As We Know It. What do you all think?
I've played something like a hundred FTL games. As of yesterday, I had won exactly once. Tonight, I had an FTL pairing session with the Cheerful Ghost himself, and we won. And not by a small margin, either - we picked up eight crew members along the way and lost none; our hull dipped into the red exactly once; our missile stock never got into the single digits.

Sure, we caught some lucky breaks, but nothing dramatically "wow". Our weapons bank was, by the end of the game, a small bomb, a burst laster I, a burst laser II, and a pike beam. Solid, but not world-shattering. Likewise our drones; we finished with a beam drone I and a defense drone I. Our final loadout was, by some standards, rather modest: while we did succeed in garnering 8 crew members, we didn't max out our shields, got just over halfway up the engine progression, and our augments were an FTL Jammer and a Scrap Recovery Arm. No, it was not our equipment haul that set this run apart.

What won us this game was our combined tactical and strategic prowess. jdodson, as a rule, pulverizes the enemy weapons bank before all else; I tend to focus on bringing down shields and engines - his strategy is the better one. I coaxed him into purchasing a cloaking device instead of fuel - we had a couple of close calls, but no fuel emergency, and the cloaking device saved our bacon more than once. When we got boarded by mantises, I turned our ship into a winding corridor of hopeless suffication; when we got boarded by drones he dispatched and managed a security contingent that dismantled the boarders with ruthless efficiency. In short, we were able to fill gaps in each others' technique that we didn't even know we had.

Beyond that, though, it was the most satisfying game victory I've had in recent memory. I went in to the last sector convinced we were going to fall just short of the mark. It wasn't until halfway through the battle with the rebel flagship that I truly realized how well we had all the bases covered between us.

jdodson and I invented FTL Pairing more or less on accident - I wanted to know what FTL was all about, and he offered to give me a demo via Google Hangout. I started asking questions about the ramifications of different choices, and he started talking out loud about what he was thinking - from there, we just naturally settled into playing the game as a pair. I think I'll be trying this technique with other so-called "single-player" games - not only is it a total blast, but it's the fastest way I've ever seen to learn a game (whether it's for the first time or the hundredth).

Many thanks to jdodson for hosting a stellar game of FTL, for showing me the true value of a shipful of mantises, and for building the event system that made it all happen. I, for one, will be scheduling my next adventure there shortly.
Just had a chat with an old friend of mine this evening, and whilst perusing Cheerful Ghost, I was reminded of some old friends I left behind in a video game once.

Baten Kaitos is a game with a couple of *really* unique mechanics. The first is that your items are stored in card format - everything from your armor to your weapons to your quest items are stored on cards. And I don't mean abstracted out for combat or gameplay, I mean the characters talk about needing to find a blank card to suck up the essence of something or other.

The second is that your cards evolve in real time. As in, if you pick up a card with a fruit on it (that you would use to heal someone in your party), and you stand around for an hour... that fruit will rot on the card. Likewise, ice melts into water, fire goes out, and peaches inexplicably turn into heroes called Momotaro after a number of hours (just leave the game running overnight).

But the third - and the one that really endeared this game to me - is that you're one of the characters. You, personally, the player. See, your title character Kalas has a link to a Guardian Spirit. This Guardian Spirit is a being from another world, who has a limited capacity to communicate and work with whoever's linked. Especially in terms of succeeding in combat and making pivotal decisions. You are the Guardian Spirit.

Now, this is a little meta and weirdly philosophical, but hear me out. With this Guardian Spirit mechanic, the characters are free to talk to you and about you without breaking the fourth wall. It's easy to think of your actions as more real, because you're not *controlling* the main character, you're just offering suggestions that he's all too happy to take you up on.

The net result was that I felt like I was actually part of the party, that I was role-playing a character who happened to be myself, and when I got my suspension of disbelief good and amped up, that the interactions between me and Kalas were governed not by the rules of the game but rather by the nature of the gap between our two worlds. At the end of the game, I found myself saying farewell to characters who had somehow become a kind of a friend. A week later, I felt like I should visit, so I played through the ending again.

Of course, this is a deeply personal experience and your mileage may vary. It might be that I played the game during a particular mental sweet spot that somehow let me recapture a six-year-old's wonder and imagination for one special round with a game.

Or... maybe there's something just a little bit magical on that tiny Gamecube disc.

Usually I'm not embarrassed or shy about the games that I play. But I picked up Candy Crush Saga for my iPhone and... well... yeah. This.