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Monday, October 15, 2012

Game Play: XCOM Enemy Unknown

I know I haven't been blogging much on Cathode Tan, but you had to know I would write about this game.  The original XCOM (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown)  is almost certainly my favorite game of all time, and I've played it on an Amiga, a PC, a Mac and PlayStation.  Even as emulators brutalized the experience, I found it irresistible to return to the fight against the alien threat - usually resulting in the lethal reduction of my own forces.

The allure of the original game is difficult to overstate.  One might think that the game's mechanics are so old school that the strengths would be self-evident, kinda like saying "Pac-Man was addictive".  However, the real test at how subtly the original XCOM balanced the core design between management, turn based strategy and war strategy is more evident in the string of failed XCOM sequels.  It seemed that nearly any change to the formula, be it simplification, complication, adding real time movement, or even changing out the types of enemy - would throw the whole thing off.

So it is pretty fair to say that the job Firaxis had before it was a daunting one ... the original was already an incredibly complicated game with a winning formula and a completely rabid fanbase.

As a member in good standing in that rabid fanbase, how did I think they did?

Best Remake Ever

No joke, this game is incredibly impressive in updating the design of the original game for the modern age.  What has been streamlined should have been streamlined, what has been kept should have been kept, and what has been added should have been added.  Everything done under Firaxis' hand feels like the intentional stroke of a surgeon - not some sloppy edits or cuts made to fit a similar experience under some budget or time constraint.

Let's take a specific example: you only get one base.  I can't imagine how controversial of a decision this one piece of design alone might have been for the team.  In the original XCOM, starting up new bases was a core mechanic - it allowed you to spread your coverage out, swap resources around, attack UFO's more effectively.  It also felt realistic, as if you had to keep your strategy broad and wide to stretch out the entire globe.

So what does forcing one base do?  It greatly simplifies the base management mechanics, however since there are strike bases already setup around the globe ... you lose practically nothing from the overall base mechanic.  And with one base, Firaxis is able to consolidate a lot of menu and UI choices that otherwise felt like a burden.  I am glad not to have to check ammo supplies at every single possible turn just in case that HE heavy I rely one would go out useless on the next mission.

Memorial Wall

In the past, I used to say that I didn't really care how someone updated XCOM ... make a shooter, an RTS, a board game - don't care.  Just make me care when a soldier dies.  This was one of the most incredibly impressive parts of the original game - you got attached to soldiers who fought well.  It took time to train those people, and when got their head chopped off by a Chryssalid - you really felt it.  Firaxis clearly understood this - and they warn you early on that losing squaddies is probably going to factor into plenty of missions.  While I think a lot of the streamlining on the base management works very well, the true test of an XCOM remake is how you, the commander, interacts with the squad.  I'm actually willing to say that the RPG style ability tree introduced here is a real improvement - it clearly identifies the growth of a squad member from rookie to Major and adds even more attachment for the player.

So it's perfect then?

From a purely mechanic or game play point of view, I have only a few complaints.  Probably my biggest one is that while scientists seem to have equal footing with other aspects of base management, I think they're actually hugely devalued in the game (at least on normal difficulty).  I didn't once need to construct another laboratory or seek out additional scientists and I frequently had no research projects to work on.  This seemed a striking difference to the original where trying to balance between being able to research and being able to build was always difficult.

Also, I wish there had been more emphasis on the narrative in general.  Especially towards the end.  The end cinematics kind of feel like just an excuse to roll some credits with no real emphasis on epilogue.  Plus, as an extremely specific example - I think the climatic end battle feels a bit lazy ... particularly the very last one which seems to suffer from the old Dungeon Master "screw it, I'm making this interesting by making it three times as hard" to it.

The wrong kind of bug hunt

But those are small, specific critiques - the biggest problem with XCOM is the number of bugs apparent in the game.  I stopped producing tanks, one of my favorite tools, because of the number of times they would not be able to be added to a mission.  I had one mission where the wrong textures were loaded, creating a weird trippy LSD experience.   I had squad members disappear and at least one mission completely lock up the game.  These aren't small bugs, they were ones that were really impacting the game in general and I really hope Firaxis is hot on a fix for them.


But still - best remake ever.  Highly recommended, for everyone.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Notes from Management: We'll be back. Sort of.

So many of you may have noticed that posting on Cathode Tan has been reduced to an extremely random affair.  This is largely because for the last couple of years I have a job which actually wants me to write, which means that writing is less of a stress reliever than it was when I would just keep a tab open most of the day to jot down notes which would eventually get turned into blog posts.

I can't say this is going to change anytime soon - I really enjoy the job, and the writing ... so I can't really say "well, I'll probably be devoting more time to Cathode Tan real soon".  I have noticed that I am microblogging more, though so I'm considering revamping Cathode Tan into something more personal.  A sort of output of a Venn diagram consisting of the other things I put out in places, but keeping aside the things which are overly job related or too personal.  I.E. there might be more politics and vacation pics at some point.

Anyway, it's a side project I'm considering - writing a framework which makes it easy to coordinate in between all the other writing/blogging/tweeting I'm doing ... but nothing will happen for a couple of months.

In the meantime, I've been playing the hell out of Dragon's Dogma so expect a post on that at some point.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Diablo III And The Age Of Always Online

For at least the moment, I'm not going to actually tarry on with yet another Diablo III review.  I think I might have a purely mechanics based review later, when I've beaten the game at least on normal.  Instead, I think we can focus on one of the more controversial aspects of the game - the fact that it requires an net connection to play.

For Blizzard, this might not actually seem like much of an experiment.  After all, they are responsible for one of the most popular games in video game history, World of Warcraft, which is the grand-daddy of requiring a net connection to play. Most gamers, however, easily distinguish between the action RPG genre of Diablo and the massively multiplayer RPG of WoW - after all ... it is right there in the genre title. Massively.  Multiplayer.

For Diablo III players looking to solo - the always online requirement is nothing but a burden.  There is very little benefit aside from the credibility of the Auction House being maintained.  The big problem here is that the Auction House doesn't seem to really be taking off.  Sure, some people have gotten far enough ahead and they're already farming legendary items for decent amounts of gold - but for the common player there just isn't much action either in selling or buying items.  It's decent enough, but I think if you had asked solo players if they wanted the ability to play their game whenever they wanted or if they wanted access to the Auction House ... you would have gotten a nearly unanimous vote for the former.

For players with solid friends or those who like to do Pick Up Games (PUGs) - the requirement is far more of a mixed bag.  If there is one place Diablo III shines in this regard, it is the lobbying and matchmaking system.  Want to solo?  Just resume your quest where you left it.  Want to pick up some players a half hour later?  Just open it to the public - you'll get some new players nearly instantly.  Want to PUG right away?  Just look for public games, you'll be in a game very quickly.  Want to send a direct message to your friend to see what class you should play?  Just a few clicks away.

If Diablo III has any defense for being always online, outside of the the technical bits about piracy and cheating (more on that later) - it has that it has managed to create an action RPG with a lot of the best trappings of an MMORPG without the hassles of an MMORPG.  There is no monthly fee, you don't have to stand around an area like a tart for an hour flashing "LFG" (Looking For Group) to get into a PUG, you don't even have to feel guilty about ditching that group ten minutes later when your pizza arrives.  However, you do get the team mechanics, proper loot sharing, and the ability to start forming a community.  You might not be able to build a guild house - but the online components of the game are fairly compelling and so tightly integrating that it begs the question as to whether there is any point in playing Diablo solo at all.  There's no griefing, it's simple and easy, and you get better loot.

The real problems come with being directly tied to  If you have time to play, but there's a maintenance window - tough luck.  Lag seems to occasionally pop up and it can be difficult to tell where the cause is - but lag can be incredibly deadly when the hordes of hell are on your heels.  Of course, the Diablo III launch itself is now infamous for having about an entire day of downtime ... meaning Diablo III didn't really launch when it said it launched.  It launched when it was finally ready for players.

And of course there is the one main reason to solo: you're simply without a net connection.  On a plane.  On a train.  In a random room with not net connection.  Gaming powered laptops are becoming more and more commonplace and there are lots of Diablo III gamers on the go.  Blizzard should know this - it has been true for WoW players for years.

So the real question comes down to: does all of the MMO mechanics which are baked into Diablo III offset the fact that you simply cannot play whenever you want?  It's really a very tough call - but it is a question I think gamers should keep in mind.  I think it would be foolish to assume other game publishers aren't eyeing Diablo III to see how it all works out for Blizzard.  Forcing an always online requirement is a dream for game publishers as it neatly puts piracy, cheating and griefing issues into a neat little box for them.  If Diablo III players are willing to give up the right to play their game whenever - you can bet that other publishers will be looking to see what features they could put into their games to have them do the same.

For the time, even though I myself had a rage post on the whole launch thing, I'm still giving Diablo III a big thumbs up - but that is mostly because it is a neatly evolved product of the action RPG genre and less that Blizzard can simply pull the game out from under you whenever they want.  However, I wouldn't be surprised if always online is the next thing from publishers to come under the crosshairs of gamers (right next to day one DLC).

Fun Fact! While writing this post, Diablo III was offline from 3AM PDT to 11AM PDT for the 1.02 patch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

[Mass Effect 3] Oh, Dear Yahtzee

I've been somewhat amazed at some of the aggressive response against the Mass Effect community's desire to see a different ending for the epic franchise.

Then I read this ... and yes I know I'm like a month late to the party, but I've been travelling.

"But I doubt the fanbase of Mass Effect were dismayed because they wanted an appropriate ending to the story. Rather, they wanted some kind of appropriate closure for the many-storied and I would argue unnecessarily lengthy process up to this point. Perhaps some epilogue where we get to see what all the characters we met along the way got up to after the events of the series, which I imagine would be easier if they hadn't pretty much all been killed off. I've been given to understand that Bioware are talking about changing the ending under the massive pressure from the idiot fanbase, and I hope like hell they're just talking about doing something like that, an epilogue appendix style thing just to square away the subplots.

Because it would set a horrible precedent if they're serious about actually changing the ending in line with some kind of democratically agreed upon alternative, rather than merely expanding or adding to it."
-- Mass Effect 3 Gets An Ending

At this point, I should probably warn that this post will have some swearing.

Yahtzee ... you can bite me. To try and mount an argument by reducing a very large group of people with a shared and reasonable opinion about what might possible be the most disappointing ending to what could have been a crown jewel of gaming writing as the "the idiot fanbase" absolute devalues anything you might have had to say in a two page article. That you end the article also referring them as "cockheads" who "are just going to have to accept that there are people who know better than them" and by association I'll just have to assume, you mean yourself ... you've clearly devolved from a somewhat unique entertainer to your typical Internet troll with an atypical megaphone by which to broadcast your trolling.

The fanbase of Mass Effect, or at least a large contigency of it, is dismayed not because they wanted one specific thing or another, or that they would have preferred character X had story ending Y, or that they wanted an epilogue which neatly ties everything together, or that they're a bunch of entitled whiners or pretty any of the other theories that I've heard assembled out of thin air and then wailed against the objecting fans.

Since you don't have (according to you) have a cock for head, it shouldn't really be that hard to grasp. But since it seems to be, and it seems to be beyond a lot of games journalists to be bothered to actually try and read through the Bioware forums to ascertain what the gamers are actually complaining about - let me put it into troll terms for you.

Gamers are upset about the Mass Effect 3 ending because the Mass Effect 3 ending was pure bullshit.

100% low quality pure bullshit. It stinks of being written, produced and delivered under concerns related to budget and timelines and showing absolutely no evidence of having any concern for the actual integrity to writing that the rest of the series has been known.

That any gamer is fine with the ending is less of an indication of the possible merit of the ending, or even a any insight into the mind of said gamer, and more of a reflection on the otherwise low quality of gaming writing in general.

That there are now reams of prose being spouted out about how changing the ending in a way that might actually reflect the quality of the rest of the series is a "dangerous precedent" set by "gamers which have no rights to request it of game publishers" is absolutely nothing shy of simple fearmongering and absolutely unqualified and unjustified devotion to the game publishers. You suggest that if Bioware were to go back and rewrite the ending that it would effectively have no ending.

Are you fucking kidding me? Did you actually write that and publish it?

If Bioware changes the ending, according to your non-cock ridden head it will effectively have no ending because the "sanctity of the creator's original intention is made meaningless".

Are you that full of yourself? You're willing to snap logic in half to make the point?

Again, let me put that in terms that a troll will understand.

Let's say you are at a play. And the play is going pretty well. Good lighting, good acting, good writing.

Then in the last ten minutes, the grand finale of the play is one of the actors taking a dump in your lap.

No! No! Says Yahtzee! You don't understand ... despite how utterly shitty this situation is, I am fine with it. For I must preserve the sanctity of the creator's original intention. I AM YAHTZEE.

Well, good for you sir. And how dare anyone else have an opinion that might differ. Surely that an ending might be so bad that it could result in nothing less than a full on player revolt, players who are willing to spend not just energy and time into expressing their opinion ... but money as well. And the movement has been a surprisingly positive one for the most part, despite being attacked by most of the mainstream (if there is such a thing) gaming press and non-cock crowned individuals like yourself.

There are two things that would occur if Bioware changed the ending to any degree, including a complete and utter rewrite (which is what I believe it deserves).

  1. A new ending would be available to players who download the DLC.
  2. For players who don't download the DLC, nothing would change.

And that's it.

That's fucking it.

Game writing isn't going to take a blow or be horribly disfigured. For one thing, that's kind of like saying that the chopped up corpse in the freezer might be inflicted with some frostbite. By pretending that game writing has achieved some kind of high art which must be defended by the idiot rabble at all costs, you've only proven that you are completely blind to the fact that most games still have pretty awful writing.

Mass Effect was supposed to be the game that bucked that trend.

Mass Effect was supposed to be better.

Hell, 99% of Mass Effect was better.

But what we got was a nonsensical ending with a color shift cutscene which looks potentially cobbled from footage left unused from other portions of the game. If that was Bioware's precious "original intention", it doesn't deserve to be defended. It deserves to be shot in the woods and left for dead.

People have made a lot of assumptions about gamers being unhappy because the ending is too bleak. You suggest that it is because they wanted multiple endings - which is kind of odd since one of the most common complaints is that the multiple endings are lifted directly out of Deus Ex, only handled far more miserably from a narrative point of view and displayed with some very shoddy cutscenes.

Personally, I would have been fine with a singular ending where the entire Earth exploded, taking with it the Reapers and even the crew of the Normandy - but the final cutscenes are of the other races taking back their homeworlds.

And if you don't think that's more suitable than the current ending to the themes presented in the game ... then I'm not sure you've really been paying attention. But that's not the point.

You, and many other professional game writers, pundits and cartoonists seem to think the point is this:
Fans of Mass Effect do not deserve nor should they have any avenue to rewrite the ending of Mass Effect 3.

The thing is - like most trolls, you fail to realize that nobody is actually arguing that point. It was never even up for debate. The point is this:

Fans of Mass Effect 3 deserve Bioware to go back and rewrite the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Because any cockhead can see that they did poorly, on the cheap and by ripping off a game published twelve years ago. That some gamers are fine with that ending is, again, not any kind of poor reflection on them. It's just proof of the awful low bar we have set for writing games, the very bar you have now so passionately defended. If you and I went to the same play, apparently you will defend the original vision whereas I will simply state it was fine for a few acts before it turned literally to shit.

Anyway, I just wanted to write and say that it had been a few years since I've seen an episode of Zero Punctuation and having read your opinion on Mass Effect fans, I'm rather glad for it.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Most of the Next Gen Console Rumors Are Probably Wrong

It's that time of the year again.  Or more specifically, that time of the gaming console cycle when it seems credible enough that the next generation of devices might be in some kind of hardware prototype form that it seems perfectly reasonable to float around rumors about how they'll play (pun intended) out.

Which also means it is time to go visit some old friends.  Take a quick glance back at the news reporting about the PlayStation 3 before it debuted.  We're going to see some similar themes: leaps to conclusion about disc storage and of course, the old ghost about playing used games.  Let's not even worry about these from a Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo stance, just as pure speculation.

No more used games!

We'll start with the real money-maker.  And when I say money-maker, I mean this is essentially the online equivalent of trolling for a news source.  There's no doubt that the concept of having a game console block used games will drive page views and comments - gamers love their used games.  The $40-60 price range of most new titles is painful enough to have many gamers think twice before purchasing and the so called "grey market" that keeps GameStop in business is a handy way to purchase for many gamers.

This was widely reported as pretty much factual for the PS3 before it arrived, with some news outlets even suggesting the PS3 would physically notch your disc to make your game its bitch.  But it just doesn't add up.

Problem is: The used games market hits publishers in the money belt, not console makers.

Probably the biggest problem with this meme is that it supposes that the big three have a huge financial stake in it.  However the real profit loss for the console makers is subsidizing the console hardware, not in licensing software.  While they would surely like to see the "white market" sales go up, even Microsoft managed to turn the 360 into a huge profit machine this generation.  Publishers and studios are the ones who potentially go into the red when they spend money on game development, not the hardware makers.

Worse, such a move could potentially hurt console makers where they are actually vulnerable - selling actual consoles.  Analyst Michael Pachter has guess that blocking the sale of used games would probably lead to a bricks and mortar lead, gamer followed revolt.  I think he's completely right (and I don't always think that about Pachter).

Finally, I still say that the technology isn't quite as solid to pull this off as some other people do.  If you accept that gamers will still have an offline, disc-based experience ... there's no real way to pull this off.

Course, that brings us to...

No more disc-based games!

This one has an awful lot of credence behind it, considering the number of people who are now used to buying games - be it for the PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, PS3, 360 or other abbreviation, via the Internet.  Steam, app stores, and console networks are big business these days and with some games only available via electronic means (think Minecraft), surely it makes sense that the next generation consoles would follow suit, right?

Problem is: many, if not most, living rooms are still not on the information highway

While wi-fi is largely domesticated and the concept of "high speed bandwidth" is becoming rapidly redundant - there's still a very healthy percentage of gamers who play 100% offline.  And we're not talking about the casual or senior citizen crowd here - we're talking normal if not hardcore gamers.  While  a decent percentages of gamers in 2011 use their console for online activities, it is by far not the majority.  I know it is anecdotal - but I'm constantly getting into conversations about gaming which quickly get confused because I assume they are playing the most recent patch (see Skyrim).

For more evidence check out the OnLive Console.  Did you even know there was such a thing?  While OnLive has exceeded my expectations for what can be done with streaming games - their hardware sales haven't exactly pegged them as "the fourth console maker" yet.  The truth is that the living room is still new frontier for certainly having high-speed access and many consumers don't yet associate their console as an online device.

But if we must have discs, then...

This XYZ console will use XYZ format!

Will Sony keep Blu-Ray?  Will Microsoft adopt Blu-Ray?  Will Nintendo use flash cards?

The problem with this speculation is that it is probably one of the last decisions the console makers need to make.  While architectural decisions about memory, bus speeds, processors, GPU, and other tightly integrated board components have direct impact on how games are actually coded - storage format fairly uniformly decides two things: capacity and load times.  It makes a big impact, for sure, but certainly not as much as how much system memory can be dedicated to textures or the like.

My guesses are: Sony will keep Blu-Ray, as keeping the Orbis a Blu-Ray player fits in their living room strategy and is cost-effective for them.  Plus, Blu-Ray is probably still the best option technically for games thanks to the large capacity on the discs.  Nintendo and Microsoft will probably use some kind of mutated version of HD-DVD because they can own the experience outright without licensing anything to Sony and still rival the size of Blu-Ray.  They might miss out on being a DVD player (but also might not) - but I'm not sure being a DVD player will be a serious game player in the next generation outright.

The problem with the flash card rumor is cost.  Flash cards offer a lot of versatility to developers (and probably the best option if anyone really did want to kill the grey market of used games) but are really only viable for mobile games where the footprint is small enough to keep costs down.  Look at this way - solid state drives have gotten to a point where they are essentially superior to traditional drives, but expect the makers to opt for the latter so that they can sell a "300GB" model instead of a "150GB" one for less price.

Bottom line: the speculation here is fun, but it is way too early to guess right now.

So for those scoring at home - for the top rumors about the next gen of consoles it is: no way in hell, almost certainly not, and way too early to even care.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

[SPOILERS] Mass Effect 3's Ending From a Narrative Stance

The whole controversy over Mass Effect 3's ending is picking up a feverish pace at this point.  One of the things I'm finding interesting is that many players are finding wrong with nearly the exact same things, which I went over a subset of yesterday.   Usually when fans get upset about storytelling in games, you'll get a host of things they thought were wrong.  A more literary example - ask a hardcore grumpy Tolkien fan what they didn't like about the movies, or what should have been in them: you'll almost always get "Tom Bombadil" ... but also fifteen other random things.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, the fans are all noting the exact same things: including plotholes, lack of closure, deus ex machina character, overall similiarity despite previous choices and a depressing outcome.

Was that really Bioware's intent?  Or did they just completely mangle the message by spending too little on producing the end cutscene?

Instead of focusing on in-game elements, which the more I think about it when those elements include the ability to alter the DNA of every living creature in the galaxy with a green energy cloud ... which supposedly solves all the Reaper's issues and yet they didn't try that like 10,000 years ago because killing is so much more fun ... well, it occurs to me that debating the finer points of things like what happens after all the relays explode might not even be possible - so instead, let's look at just the narrative tools Bioware used to bludgeon their own ending.

1. Deus Ex Machina
Yeah, let's start with the big one that everyone is calling out.  Deus Ex Machina, or "God from a machine",  dates back to plays and operas where exactly that would happen - when all the actors on the stage were in terrible peril, they would get someone dressed up as Zeus or Poseidon or whomever and pulley them down to save the day.  

How did they get out of that mess?  Zeus did it.  We get this here, but instead the question is: "How did we get into this mess?"  Well, apparently The Catalyst did it and has been all along.  And so he's also capable of doing anything else ... like a "synthesis DNA explosion".

The problem with this mechanic is that it is so transparently lazy.  The viewer has no context or setup for the core feature of the ending and is hence forced to simply accept it on faith or be left bewildered.

Clearly, a lot of fans are in the latter camp.

2. Simple explanations happen off-screen
Why is Joker fleeing Earth?  How did your squad get away from Harbringer?  How does Shepard survive being blown up in outer space?  You'll never know.  You can imagine a whole host of possible explanations, and while that might highly entertaining for some fans ... the amount of information left up to the viewer is pretty staggering in this case.  It's also very different from the style of storytelling the player has been offered up until this point.  I spend how long in nuanced dialogue to determine tidbits about the story, but you can't tell me why one of my best friends just abandoned me to die?

3. Important (possibly good) things happen off-screen
Perhaps even more important is that if Bioware wanted some of the endings to be "better" than others, they take absolutely no time to make that apparent to the player.  Does controlling the Reapers mean that the Mass Effect relays might be re-built?  Or at least can everyone stuck on Sol get a lift home?  Does being a hybrid mean anything other than having glowing bits?  Does your love interest live happily ever after on a remote planet, or do they die of space malaria?

You'll never know.  Bioware doesn't even illustrate whether the destruction of the relays causes supernovas across the galaxy, which has been previously established as a possibility, or if more than five people are likely still to be alive anywhere.

4. The destruction of the relays overplays the hand
I get the impression that destroying the relays was somehow important to Bioware, perhaps for setting up the next game in the series.  But especially with #3 above in perspective - it in of itself is such a serious catastrophe to the state of the galaxy that the player is left with nothing but questions and the high probability that instead of spending this time saving Earth and the galaxy in general, the galaxy has been sent back to the stone age.  

Take into consideration if the relays had only been destroyed under the "Destroy" option.  First of all, this makes sense - the relays are Reaper based tech, and the Catalyst clearly says all advanced technology will be destroyed.  If any of the other options didn't have this event - those options would have been clearly determined as "good" by players, and the ending wouldn't have been so depressing.

If Bioware really felt the need to destroy the relays, they could have at least shown what happened across the galaxies.  Krogan babies, healthy quarians, new Asari monastaries - whatever.  

In short, Bioware's failure here was a lazy setup, an execution which doesn't do anything but raise completely inane questions and a payoff which doesn't offer anything good associated with what the player has been working for across three games.

Personally, I think a patch to give players three extended cutscenes is certainly in order here.

P.S.: Also consider GameFront's article on this, which is quite excellent.

Monday, March 12, 2012

[SPOILERS] Mass Effect 3's Bizarre (and bad) Ending

See - it's right there in the title. Spoilers.  Big time.

First (and to give those who are still parsing the whole "spoiler" bit a second) - I want to say that the Mass Effect series is still an amazing achievement and hands down my favorite BioWare franchise to date.  I don't know if a full review is really helpful from Cathode - easy to say I highly recommend it.  I have a few nitpicks with it - like the fact that in the far future I have a holographic glove which can unlock doors, repair items and kill people ... but I can't check my email.  Or that once again, BioWare managed to put in a boss fight which suddenly jumps the difficulty (and when both your squad mates die when walking in the room, don't cry "strategy" to me).

99% of this game is gorgeous, plays great and tells a wonderful story.

Until the end.  And I don't think anyone will ever really know what happened here.  Here's five reasons why Mass Effect 3's ending was just plain wrong.

And no, it's not because Shepard usually (and probably) dies. (spoilers!)

1. You don't save the galaxy.
I'm not sure what the definition of saving the galaxy would be ... but let's recap here:

Option 1: Destroy the Reapers and all the mass effect relays.  Destroying the Reapers also destroys all the important technology in the system, totally wiping out both the quarian and the geth and possibly doing untold damage to the other races who have already been decimated by the Reapers.

So in every cycle, the Reapers come and wipe out the dominate species and leave the remaining ones intact to evolve and be harvested later.  So while not the usual plan here - I'd still score this one pretty solidly in the Reaper column.  Most of the galaxy is destroyed, and what isn't has been tossed back to some kind of stone age.

Option 2: Die and control the Reapers.  Which is the first of the three options which starts to leave logical thinking aside.  I'm dead ... but I'm in control.  Worst.  Promotion.  Ever.  There's no indication of what this odd paradox of being both deceased but in control actually means - you're just left to assume.  It doesn't help that every end cutscene is 95% identical except with a few edits and color changes.

For the record, this is the only ending which seems even passable to me.  If I assume Shepard is now some kind of free-floating Reaper god child (seriously, wtf) - then I can assume enough technology and power remains that maybe everyone I just spent all that time fighting for might have a chance to live.

Option 3: Modify the entire galaxy into some kind of organic-synthetic hybrid.  Or as I like to call - what the frak are you talking about? How...   what.  Huh?  I mean, you stick a circuit into Joker, and put some dermal patches on EDI ... wait ... that's all the Reapers really wanted?  They just wanted organics and synthetics to get along?

But I did that.   It's possibly to have the geth and quarians living happily side by side, without any bullshit cutscene or mass genocide.  And since all the mass effect relays exploding still killed the vast majority of life in the galaxy ... I'm still not entirely calling this "saving the galaxy".  Not to mention, oh little glowing god-child of my dreams .... but a synthetic-organic hybrid could still make synthetics which could kill all the synthetic-organics.  And according to you, it's inevitable.  And now the Reapers are on vacation from "saving us".  So the synthesis doesn't really solve anything that controlling option did, except for altering all the DNA in the galaxy.  Everyone is still pretty much doomed, but they get new glowing bits.

So end result of any of this: nearly everyone on in the galaxy is dead, and those that aren't are likely marooned and about to die in the wake of the single most technological disaster in history.

But at least the Reapers were dealt with.

2. Your choices don't really matter.
BioWare did a great job of making me actually care about choices I made throughout both ME2 and ME3, and I felt that ME3 was building off some of my ME2 experience.

Until I got to the end.  Remember all that time you spent wondering if the geth should be given a chance for free will, even though you knew it might turn into another geth war when you really didn't need one?  Well, doesn't matter.  Your choice here is reduced to a bonus "military readiness" and the fact that in one ending, they're all dead - and in the other two they're either altered so that it wouldn't have mattered what you chose (because we all know that if geth just had a real heart to begin with, then ... no wait, that's Wizard of Oz) and then in the other there's actually a strong likelihood they'll probably take over what remains of the galaxy anyway.

More to the point: there's no real epilogue here.  If I sacrificed myself for the galaxy, can I at least know that my significant other got his or her dream of a white picket fence at some point?  Did the Krogan actually succeed in reproducing and hence becoming a threat to all the galaxy again, or did Wrex live up to his word?

You get to make a lot of interesting choices in the Mass Effect series - but at the end you just get a differently colored cutscene and absolutely no resolution or closure whatsoever.

And no, dude and dude's son on some future planet don't count.

3. Last minute premise which makes no sense
Wait, so the Reapers (who are synthetic) were just being controlled by some kind of AI or VI (also, synthetic) in a the longest running campaign of genocide ... in order to ... save organics from synthetics?  Why not just bring down the full bear of that power on ... rogue synthetics?  Couldn't they have just wiped out the geth in ME1 and saved us all that murder and mayhem?  This is like the worst project plan in the history of project management.

Goal: Save organics from synthetics.
Solution: Use synthetics to destroy organics.

And nobody raised their hand at that meeting?  If anything, the history of the Reapers and geth show that they were going to try to keep organics from destroying synthetics.  The whole spin here seems a last minute explanation to frame the "destroy, control or integrate" outcomes.  It wasn't needed either, I didn't need the sudden inclusion of a "Reaper master" to explain how they were tools all along (Sovereign didn't seem to agree with that, but whatever) or a concise description of their motives.  I was pretty good with "evolution going unchecked leads to chaos, we hate chaos" and going from there.

4.1 Worst plot device goes to: Synthesis Ending

I originally wrote the following section as "worst plot device".  I recant.  The more I think about the synthesis ending, the more I hate it.  It's the ultimate cop-out.  It explains nothing, allows for everything and anything.

Maybe Nano-Tali can eat Nano-Leaves because the green explosion made things work that way?  Maybe Nano-Joker can have man-babies with Nano-Jarvik, because now they are all the same species and sex and there is no more war!

Someone on the Bioware forums asked quite astutely about EDI's fate in a post-Normandy world (which is quite grim if you think about her nature). But the synthesis ending offers a clear possibility: THE NORMANDY IS NOW ALIVE.  The synthesis gave it organic parts and now it will just grow into the Nano-planet and it will never die and EDI will always be fine and can have lots of Nano-Babies with Nano-Joker.

Seriously?  Stupidest plot device since midichlorians.

4.2 Second worst plot device goes to: indoctrination
So Reapers can apparently send out a field which causes organics to fall under their control.  This is often done behind the scenes during the franchise and works kinda OK that way - because it just allows the explanation of key betrayals and whatnot.

But then you have the Illusive Man on the Citadel - himself indoctrinated, and with very little effort making two people be puppets to his will and you start to wonder ... how the hell are the Reapers even remotely losing this war?  It was one thing when there was like ... one of them, or that they were all in deep dark space or whatever ... but if Martin Sheen can play this trick after just learning how it works, why aren't the Reapers just brainwashing the whole galaxy into submission, then killing them off at their leisure while afterwards going back for some brews?

The whole Cerberus angle in ME3 feels a little weird, but the ending just killed it for me.  The Illusive Man is no longer interesting - he's just a tool with some new H.R. Giger makeup setting humanity up for a fall.  And instead of having Shepard and Anderson just shoot each other ... he does what every other garden variety villain does .... he talks them to death until his own demise.  Gee, I was so shocked.

Edit: More evidence - many people want to explain the ending by declaring that Shepard was indoctrinated.  Any plot device so free-form that your reader/player/user introduces it to explain away things which don't make sense - you've just created self-fulfilling plot holes.

5. They stole all this from Deus Ex.
It took reading some forum posts to make this click - but damn I thought this all felt familiar.  And here's why: this is the exact same kind of choices from the original Deus Ex.  You can either become a god-like AI in control of technology, you can send everyone back to the stone age, or you can integrate with technology to "better understand".  Control, destroy or integrate - and even the outcome is more or less the same.

At least in Deus Ex, you got three completely different cutscenes to describe what happens - not just a different colored filter.

OK, that's all for now sports fans.  Look, I still loved the franchise.  I don't know if I'm in the boat to go back and play ... well, any of it, again - and the ending is definitely a reason for that.  But it was a great ride, and I got a lot of great moments out of ME3 even if the ending felt like it was finished by the Korean Animation Studio:

Cheers, everyone.  You might also check out the next post, on how Bioware failed from a narrative point of view.

P.S.: Also consider GameFront's article on this, which is quite excellent.

Friday, February 10, 2012

[Game Play] Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (vs. Skyrim)

Reckoning is, if not anything else, an excellent freshmen attempt from a freshmen studio.  Sure, it famously hails Ken Rolston of Elder Scrolls fame - and that is probably cheating on the "freshmen" front, but this doesn't change the fact that it is a brand new franchise with a brand new engine.

Partially thanks to the Rolston connection, many comparisons were lined up between Reckoning and Skyrim.  I first heard about Kingdoms of Amalur in the midst of forum chatter about Skyrim, the theory being that Reckoning might be a Skyrim experience without the numerous bugs of Skyrim (did I mention this was a PS3 forum?  Yeah....).

I've clocked about 10 hours into Reckoning, so this is probably not an overly comprehensive review - but I'm now walking down the path of thinking that the games are far more different than similar.  Skyrim strives for a dense, realistic world and favors a first person narrative.  Reckoning is a fast paced third person affair with cartoon-like graphics.  Despite their similarities, Skyrim reminds me of old school games like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master, where Reckoning reminds me strongly of Diablo and World of Warcraft.

Reckoning also sports a storyline by R.A. Salvatore - a rather famous author in the Dungeons and Dragons line of fantasy.  Salvatore's backstory seems to give Reckoning a certain edge, but the familiarity of the world with immortal fae, kobolds, trolls, and the like ... does it no favors in making Amalur stand out or seem particularly gripping.  Some of the dialogue and characters are interesting, but largely lacks any emotional impact.

If anything, I think this highlights a very strong suit of Skyrim.  The player manages to feel connected to the NPC's and hence, to the story itself.  In that game, I joined the assassin's guild out of an attempt to betray them (which failed, because you apparently only get one chance to do that...) - which is a pretty complex plot for a computer game that had nothing to do with any of the code.  I don't see anything like that happening in Reckoning.

The world and the story is a solid backdop for the game, and the designs by comic artist Todd McFarlane likewise gives everything you look at an extremely competent feel to it ... but there are rare instances when the design will really give you that "wow" feeling.

At this point, Reckoning would be set for a solid B if it weren't for two factors.

The first is the combat.  It's been noted in every review for the game, but it can't be mentioned enough.  These combat mechanics are through the roof good.  It's not just the way the auto-lock system flows easily without any real user interaction or input.   It's not just the highly stylized combat moves and the pure joy of unlocking new moves and figuring out how to best incorporate them into your fighting strategies.  It's not just the well factored physics and NPC reactions to your moves - enemies "feel" like they go down when they should, and keep charging when they should.  It is how all of that works together.  Rolston, Salvatore and McFarlane made sure that this game had a solid base when it comes to design, but I think the most noteworthy aspect is that the real star of the game had nothing to do with those big names ... it's the technical brilliance behind the most core aspect - beating up monsters and taking their loot.

Back when I modded Unreal, I realized the most important thing to keep right was the quality of deathmatch itself.  Because deathmatch is still the core of any other FPS game.  The Reckoning team clearly understood this rule and have delivered possibly the most awesome action of any action RPG in the history of the genre.

The second factor is simply a credit to the Big Huge Engine.  After a demo which left some players wondering if the game would crash or be full of graphical glitches - the final product is remarkably solid.  I've had occasional frame rate glitches, but nothing which has impacted gameplay.

It's only been 10 hours, so I'll wait to see if things degenerate - but so far I feel no need to have multiple save games.  No need to save intermittently.  No worries about things locking up after clearing a dungeon.  No soldiers drinking beer in mid air or creatures suddenly returning to a default 3D model pose after being beheaded.  Everything just works.  And it works well.

This actually impacts my gameplay.  Since I don't have five old savegames around, I don't reverse time when something goes wrong.  Probably the best "RPG" moment I had in the game was when an NPC in a quest got killed - which doesn't normally happen, and I was supposed to defend him.  It kinda sucked, because I got that "Quest Failed" message - but it had some emotional weight.  Especially when I then got a follow up quest for his dead wife.

I wish Reckoning had more of that kind of complexity, but I'm more happy to play an expansive RPG without all the technical issues that Bethesda ships with their games.  I hope Reckoning can now be a counter-argument to the nonsensical "all big games ship with big bugs" theory defending titles like Skyrim and New Vegas.  It's really just big games shipped and developed by Bethesda.

So short version: a very solid A-.  It's not a dense world, and you aren't going to find a gripping storyline here.  There is much about Amalur which is pretty but kind of vapid, but if you're a Diablo type of RPG person where the storyline essentially just connects you between points of having a lot of fun hacking things apart, Amalur promises hours and hours and hours of doing just that.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

[Game Play] The Problem with Catwoman

Arkham City has a lot of things going for it and for those things has earned plenty of accolades and inclusion in Game Of The Year discussions.  I'm not really going to to go on here about the improvements to the combat, or how the open world plays well with the Zelda-esque handling of the adventure genre in general.  Instead, we're going to talk about Catwoman.

The used games market is something of a villain for the games publishers in general and the reason why you now usually will need to enter in some kind of code to do things like play online.  The publishers are infuriated with the numbers stores like Gamestop make in repeat sales of their products without the publishers seeing an additional penny.

For gamers, the so-called "grey market" can be a huge boon.  By waiting for titles after the (insanely important to the publisher's PR) release day they can get increasingly better deals on titles and by trading in their recent titles they can see even better discounts on completely new titles.  This reason alone is probably why we shouldn't read too much into reports about game console X banning used games anytime soon (especially with said rumors reporting on extremely vague technology in order to accomplish said feat).

However, we should expect developers and publishers to continue to find new and inventive ways to force people who buy used games to give them money.  In fact, I just entered a code for the online pass for Kingdoms of Amalur.  This is notable because Amalur has no online mode.

For Arkham City, Rocksteady decided to include a code to unlock what could essentially be considered first day DLC - meaning that it was additional content outside of the normal gameplay which could otherwise be purchased separately - but Rocksteady decided to give people buying the game new a bonus of having the DLC right away.

At face value - I don't have any real issue with this strategy.  An argument could be made about what is truly "DLC" and what is simply normal content that is being intentionally divided out for an extra fee.  It gets particularly contentious when gamers discover this "DLC" was actually on the disc they paid for all along and the "download" is just a key to unlock it.

I'm honestly on the fence on that one - just can't bring myself to feel too strongly about it.

No, none of that is the problem I had with Catwoman - the star of the DLC for Arkham City.  The problem I had with it is all the ways Rocksteady made sure to shove the leather clad whiptress in your face.  It started with every single time I started a game, getting a reminder that Catwoman existed and I hadn't entered in any code to unlock her and am I sure I want to continue without doing that?

She also gets her own icon on the main menu, again reminding you if you haven't unlocked her that maybe, just maybe you should?

And of course, she gets a leading role in the first part of the game because if you didn't remember already, Catwoman is totally in this fucking game.

Now at this point I found the above mildly annoying.  Annoying enough that I eventually just entered the damn Catwoman code even though I had no intention of trying her out until I was completely done with the main Batman material.

Oh, how wrong I was.  Now remember that Batman is one of these non-linear designs with tons of side quests.  But it isn't open so much as branching - which means that some parts of the side quests until you get the right gear or whatnot.  Which is fine - and I didn't even think it was weird when late in the game I wasn't allowed to pursue side quests because "so-so is in trouble".

But that mission finished the main storyline.  And once you finish the main storyline, and you have unlocked Catwoman: Rocksteady forces you to play Catwoman.

Let me repeat that in bold, Rocksteady forces you to play Catwoman.  Continuing your existing mission will start as Catwoman.  Starting a New Game Plus starts as Catwoman.  Why "New Game Plus", which traditionally means starting completely over but with more difficult settings and more interesting bonuses - starts with supposedly completely optional content and no other options I am completely and utterly baffled.

Supposedly, the appeal of New Game Plus in Arkham City is starting with all your gear.  Which would be cool, except that Rocksteady forces you to play fucking Catwoman.

And Catwoman?  She kinda sucks.  Towards the end of the game, Batman is tricked out with all kinds of gear and Catwoman has squat, crap and a whip.  So being forced to play as Catwoman is exactly like having all of your toys taken away.

The result?  I did not finish any of the side quests.  I did not finish the so-called Catwoman DLC.  I didn't do anything because I found being forced to play as Catwoman to be such a dull, that I simply exchanged the game for Kingdoms of Amalur when my pre-order came up.

Rocksteady.  If you're reading.  Hear this: I will not play your boring DLC to get back to my main game.  Forcing your DLC down my throat does not make your DLC more important, it makes me annoyed and your game an early contender for the very used game market system you apparently so despise.

If you want to have used game buyers buy DLC which was free for new game buyers - fine.  But, sweet Jeebus, Rocksteady - keep Catwoman in your pants.  Featuring her in all the promo gear, flashing her in my face on every new game, putting her in the main menu and then shoving her down my throat when it comes to the game does not make her compelling.  Giving her truly new compelling gameplay would make her compelling.  All you did was make her annoying, me annoyed, and your game sold for $23 to be resold for ~$50.

I sent some tweets to Rocksteady to explain why supposedly optional DLC suddenly became my only option.

They have yet to respond.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

[Logically Speaking] Santorum vs. Gay Marriage

I generally try to keep politics out of Cathode Tan, but sometimes politicians just say things which are simply an affront to logic itself.

And yes, I'm talking about Rick Santorum. Faithful Cathode Tanners also know that I'm a fairly staunch advocate of gay rights - though I generally just consider it advocating human rights. Anyone who has actually spent time with a loving, faithful gay couple and walks away with the thought that "we should totally ban that" ... well, I just can't see how it doesn't come from a place of fear and ignorance.

When the politicians use logic to cover up that fear and ignorance - it requires logic to set that right.

When Santorum is asked about gay marriage, he often applies the "slippery slope" argument, that for instance legalizing gay marriage would in turn open the door to legalizing polygamy.  Here's Santorum laying out his so-called argument:

Rick says that if we are going to have a conversation about one, we have to distinguish the other for him.

So let's do that.

Let's outline Rick's logic.
  1. All people have the right to be happy.
  2. Because gay marriage would make some people happy, it should be legalized.
  3. However, marrying multiple people would also make some people happy.
  4. Therefore, if we legalize gay marriage - we will need to legalize polygamy as well.
This is a classic straw man argument.  The formula here goes:
  1. You have proposed X.
  2. I can prove Y is similar to X.
  3. Y is undesirable.
  4. Therefore, X is also undesirable.
The problem is, of course, that X != Y.  It's a substitution for a real argument when you lack the facts to actually distinguish X from Y.  This is why it works for Santorum as a stump response.  The potential voter is prepared to talk about gay marriage, not polygamy - and so is placed in the same camp of not really being able to distinguish X from Y.

The first fundamental problem comes from Rick's first statement.
  1. All people have the right to be happy.
Which is a) not the original argument and b) isn't factual.  We have a constitutional imperative, as it were, to the "pursuit of happiness" - but we have laws in place because if being a serial killer makes you happy the state still has the right to track you down and place you in the electric chair (your state laws may vary).  So no,  not everyone has the right to be happy.

A more factual opening statement would be:
  1. The state should not create laws which impede a citizen's pusuit of happiness without proof of harm to the state or citizens.
At this point we don't need to worry about introducing ridiculous arguments like I can kill people because it puts a smile on my face.  It should also neatly remove equally ridiculous arguments like "legalizing gay marriage would open the door to bestiality or pedophilia" since proof of harm in such cases easily fall under sexual and/or physical abuse.   So let's continue with this as our opening statement (we'll lump citizens and state into one here as well).
  1. The state should not create laws which impede a citizen's pursuit of happiness without proof of harm to the state or other citizens.
  2. There's no evidence which shows gay marriage causes harm to to the state and therefore should not be made illegal.
  3. However, there's also no evidence that polygamy causes harm to the state and therefore should also not be made illegal.
  4. Therefore - if we legalize gay marriage, we should legalize polygamy as well.
So ... that's a more realistic framing of Santorum's argument.  And there's one problem, at least for Santorum.  In this state, it actually holds water.  Without proof that polygamy causes harm - perhaps it as well should be legalized as well.

You read it here first: logically speaking - Rick Santorum supports legalizing polygamy.  Once you remove the moral panic aspect of it, at least.  Of course, Santorum's biggest stock is moral panic.  If he's going to try to attack polygamy as well as gay marriage - he should really get some facts on both first.

The case against polygamy is rather complicated and gets very quickly wrapped into cultural specifics like child marriages.  However, existing laws in place should provide the protection of children.  Probably a more utilitarian issue also provides a segue into a core issue of the rest of the debate - legalizing polygamy could likely tear a hole in our tax and estate code that current lawbooks aren't really willing to deal with.  It's not the definition of marriage which causes an issue here, it's the fact that you've now compounded the possibilities of what was previously defined. "1 Man, 1 Woman" simply makes for an enforceable tax code - far more than "X number of men, and X number of women."

The ramifications on divorce alone would keep the lawmakers busy for years.  So we can leave whether polygamy would result in direct societal harm and state that our current legal structure isn't yet equipped to deal with it.

You know, kinda like how lawmakers are currently handling the Internet and plenty of other technological issues.

Since gay marriage is clearly a different issue than polygamy and we've laid out a case for why polygamy should not be (currently) legalized which does not effect our case for gay marriage, our argument now looks like this:
  1. The state should not create laws which impede a citizen's pursuit of happiness without proof of harm to the state or other citizens.
  2. There's no evidence which shows gay marriage causes harm to to the state and therefore should not be made illegal.
  3. Therefore we should legalize gay marriage.
We can remove polygamy completely as it has no bearing on either the original statement nor the outcome.  The only real issue at stake here is our second statement.   There are now studies which show that gay marriage raises well adjusted kids, some evidence that lesbians may be better parents than their heterosexual peers and even some that state it is good for the economy.  Also, statistically speaking - even if gay marriage were to become legal in every state ... the overall percentage of gay marriage would still be extremely small - so any impact on society (good or bad) would likely be minimal making our second statement fairly safe.

The problem Santorum has from a logical perspective is that the slippery slope began not when people began to propose gay marriage - but rather when the federal government got into the business of defining marriage in the first place.  By placing this definition on the books, it clearly opens the door for changing said definition down the road.  If Santorum and his ilk really want to "defend" the nation from gay marriage - the only logical method would be to bar the government from legalizing marriage at all.  Remove the federal definition, and you remove any chance that the government will "permit" it.  By insisting on a definition is to invite a debate on changing that definition - that's simply how our government works.  This would in fact be the most direct route to get what the far right wants - a definition of marriage organic enough to be bound by local laws and morals.

Of course - this would also remove the benefits of formalizing legal marriage.  Tax benefits, a legal framework for familial issues and a definition for estate laws all directly benefit society.  In other words,  all the reasons why legalizing polygamy would be inherently difficult (if not undesirable) are justifications for creating a legal framework for marriage.

So now our argument looks like this:

  1. A legal framework for marriage benefits society.
  2. Excluding gays from marriage benefits fewer people than inclusion.
  3. Including gay marriage into the legal framework will increase the benefits offered from the marital legal framework.
  4. Therefore, gay marriage should be legalized.
Any questions?  If you're going to respond in rebuttal, please:
  • Don't use religion as justification.  This is why we have separation of church and state.  Leviticus quotes may simply get deleted.
  • Same goes for gay bashing.  Take it elsewhere.  Or preferably, nowhere.  Insults and the like may also simply get deleted.
  • If you're going to quote studies, please link to them.
  • As a warning - beware of editorials which can't prove causation.  Yes, I've read them.

Friday, January 27, 2012

[In The News] The Old "Consoles Will Block Used Games" Returns

Long time readers of Cathode Tan might remember back when the PlayStation 3 was about to roll out, we got tons of interesting news posts of very dubious quality, not the least fervent that the PlayStation 3 wouldn't play used video games. It started with a rumor based on a patent, got twisted, add a big of blog phone game and then the Guardian was reporting the rumor (only to get it later vetted and pulled).

Well ... it's baaaack. Via Kotaku:

But that disc detail could be far less impactful to the next generation of game consoles than the assertion I've heard from one reliable industry source that Microsoft intends to incorporate some sort of anti-used game system as part of their so-called Xbox 720.

It's not clear if that means that the system wouldn't play used games or how such a set-up would work. Obvious approaches—I'm theorizing here—like linking a copy of a game to a specific Xbox Live account could seemingly be foiled by used-game owners who would keep their system offline. My source wasn't sure how Microsoft intended to implement any anti-used game system in the new machine.
-- Sources: The Next Xbox Will Play Blu-Ray, May Not Play Used Games (And Will Introduce Kinect 2)

Emphasis mine. First, let's set aside the notion that the next gen Xbox will use Sony's Blu-Ray for a whole other rumor-busting post. Let's focus on the concept of reporting something based on an anonymous source who can't provide any actual details on how this might work. If you can't detail how this might work - I don't see what the point is in reporting it at all. How this would work is the story. Last time, people were actually thinking the PS3 would scratch a notch into the disc to determine if it had been played.

We'll also set aside the questionable grammar of describing obvious approaches and only describing one approach and instead focus on the notion that the theory is hypothesizing using Microsoft's paid online service for punishing used game owners.

Because yeah - that sounds like a decent business strategy. Hey, I finally signed up for Xbox Live. Why aren't my old games I bought at GameStop playing?? Unsubscribe.

So not so much obvious, more like ridiculously bad customer trust.

Look people - the games industry might see the used games market as some kind of "grey market" area where they don't see any revenue while GameStop sells a $59.99 game once for $59.99 and then again for $56.88 ... but Microsoft's (or Sony's) role as a game publisher isn't going to override their need to sell consoles and XBox Live. And any strategy down this general direction would do just exactly that.

And that's aside from the point that I've yet to hear anyone give a technical method which would actually work. Bad business and sketchy technology? Not buying it. Let's wait for some real 720 news.

Which out of the original article is ... uh, yay! Kinect 2!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

[Gratuitous Plug] To Trust The Wolf

So my brother wrote a book which you can grab from virtually every e-service on the planet.  The summary:

As the mundanes riot against the control of the witches, threatening to tear the fragile realm of Raioume apart, the Gran Mater of the Coven races to defend one little girl who holds the key to mankind's future, only to find her beset by ancient demons the Gran Mater had assumed long vanquished.

So begins the story of Perdita Perrault, an awkward but precocious young witch who struggles to find her place in the world, a path which ultimately leads her to the Gran Mater's greatest enemy, the vicious and blood-thirsty Wolf King, Lupus Rex.

To Trust the Wolf is the first book of the Little Red series of novels, set in a land filled with political intrigue, governed by a matriarchal society led by a martial order, the Red Cloaks. The story of the Gran Mater, Perdita, and Lupus Rex weaves a dramatic thriller against a backdrop of magic, witches, and wolves that will captivate and enthrall. 
-- Smashwords

You can buy it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I've got my copy on Kindle on the trusty iPad - to be read soon during business trips when I once again forget how heavy the volumnious hardback edition of 1Q84 is...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Game Play: Kingdoms of Amalur Demo

It's been about a month, faithful reader (or both of you - if the other guy is still around) ... the holiday drag is now nearly officially over and the gaming hangover which has been the survival of all of those November releases is behind us.

I could tell you about Uncharted 3 - which is simply one of the most technically impressive games on any platform to date.  It's just so ... so ... insanely solid.  The writing, the animation, the graphics, the inner mechanics - everything just clicks.

But you probably already knew that.  You might not have known about the Kingdoms of Amalur demo which just dropped on PSN and XBLA.  It's gotten some legs in the press because of Ken Rolston, of Morrowind and Oblivion fame, coming out of retirement to help retire it.

The main feeling on the net, even before playing it, is that the game is a mashup of Skyrim (or more generally, The Elder Scrolls in general) and Fable.  There's a little truth to that - but I think either comparison is dangerous.  Rolston's stamp is certainly all of this game - in the latter portion of the demo you can essentially go and do whatever you want.  So I tried to steal from a store, got caught, busted out of prison and went on a killing spree on the townsfolk as they tried to reign me in.  And that was all in like twenty minutes.

But the world design feels more like World of Warcraft, or I suppose Fable - if Fable was far less linear.  You don't quite get that "what is over that hill" feeling you get in Skyrim - but that doesn't mean the world isn't open to explore.  The combat mechanics are very difficult to describe - they easily transcend the usual button mash + power attack of most action RPG's by forcing players to dodge and defend themselves ... as well as pay close attention to the tactics of the enemy which change impressively from one type to the next, but I certainly wouldn't call it "strategic".

The thing is - Amalur is so clearly utilizing the playbooks of other games that describing it without making comparisons is difficult.  The problem is if you were honest - you would be making comparisons not just to Rolston's previous games, but WoW, Fable, God of War, most Bioware RPG's and probably wear yourself out by the time you remembered Nethack.

What Amalur has going for it is some excellent design and mechanics.  Unfortunately the demo appears to be plagued by more than a few bugs - I noticed a few "hall of mirrors" ... a graphics glitch when the rendering engine doesn't know what to render.  Other players have reported crash level gltiches.  As anyone who has read Cathode know, I've beaten on the rotting corpse of the horse which is Bethesda's miserable QA process in the past ... and hope Amalur won't have such issues.

One thing that I noted: I don't know if the lack of specific save is because it is a demo, or will be part of the game.  Not being able to have multiple save points would give the game a sort of permadeath like quality (not really, but actions would have consequences you can't take back ... like murdering a whole town).  I'll be curious to see what the full version has in the way of save game control.

Full version comes out Feb. 17th - very much looking forward to it, if it isn't too crash-laden.