A few years ago, Blizzard Entertainment tried their hands a trading card game version of World of Warcraft. I was into it, for a while, as were quite a few other fans. It coupled the familiar themes and powers of the MMO with excellent art and an interesting mechanic for getting cards into play that sought to reduce some of the problems inherent with a TCG’s necessary randomization. While I no longer play it, it seems to still be going, if the shelves at Target are to be believed. And now, Blizzard seems to be working on bringing that sort of turn-based strategic and collectible experience to their PC fanbase with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, currently in closed beta.
The game behaves like most TCGs: you acquire a starter set of cards, assemble a deck, and do battle with other players. Every turn within a game session, you receive a mana crystal with which to cast spells or summon minions from your hand, ensuring you never get shorted on the resources necessary to play. The goal is to reduce your enemy’s hero to 0 health while keeping yours alive. There’s a hero for each of the nine basic character classes in World of Warcraft, from ancient legends like Malfurion and Gul’dan to relative newcomers like Valeera and Anduin. Each hero has some class-specific cards, and a general pool from which they can gather other minions. The game is certainly not rocking the boat when it comes to traditional aspects of TCGs, and as with most things, the devil is in the details.
There’s an astounding amount of detail in Hearthstone‘s art and sound design. The play areas themselves are interactive, every minion has a unique voice, opponents slam into one another with resounding cracks to the cheers of the onlooking crowd – it all leads to a greater sense of immersion. The minions’ abilities are varied quite nicely, opening up multiple avenues and playstyles as they are added to decks. Each hero has a power to which they always have access, meaning that a player is only rarely entirely out of options. There are two play modes: regular or Constructed, in which players assemble their decks from their personal collections before doing battle, and The Arena, where a brand new deck is constructed from a pool of random cards and runs are more limited. Both modes offer up rewards, as do Quests which are distributed once a day, most commonly in the form of gold which can be used to enter The Arena or buy ‘Expert’ packs of cards. And if you don’t need some of the cards you get, you can ‘Disenchant’ some, breaking them down into Dust which is then used to assemble different cards, from Common cards all the way up to Legendaries.
As much as I like Hearthstone, I recognize it has some flaws. There’s very little to do on an opponent’s turn. There are ‘secrets’ which are cards that activate on certain triggers from an opponent, but only a few classes have them and they’re not that difficult to deal with. A couple classes feel a little unbalanced (looking at you, Priests) and it can be difficult to assemble an effective ‘theme’ deck. There are some glitches here and there, but the game is still in beta and that’s par for the course. Finally, the game can be a bit stingy with its in-game currency and rewards, and while the nature of its systems keep it from being a ‘pay-to-win’ style game outwardly, I feel like higher quest rewards or more Dust from the Arena would be better incentives to keep playing.
That said, Hearthstone is a rock-solid implementation of a good premise for an extension of one of Blizzard’s longest-running franchises. I am enjoying the beta, and continue to sneak matches in around writing sessions and bouts with longer games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft. It scratches the Magic: the Gathering itch quite well and, flawed as it is in places, I’m curious and eager to see how it behaves in its final form.
I’m finding more and more that the games that I truly enjoy playing with other people aren’t necessarily straight-up competitions. Oh, I still enjoy a good game of Magic, don’t get me wrong. And Blizzard’s collectible game Hearthstone scratches that particular itch while having a purchase system that makes you want to buy packs to both explore and collect, not just to “buy power” as you can in other free-to-play games. But with JayCon approaching, I figured I’d gather up the games I plan on taking which might get played, and I noticed that all of them have at least some level of cooperation.
Both Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Elder Sign are fully cooperative, with players rolling dice together to overcome the obstacles presented by the game. Elder Sign is perhaps best described (if somewhat derogatorily) as “Arkham-themed Yahtzee”. Players are investigators in an old museum whose exhibits are making it easier for some sort of horrific elder god to awaken. The investigators must gather the mystical signs and defeat monsters to prevent the end of the world. There is a ticking clock, and investigators have limited amounts of stamina and sanity. Escape, on the other hand, is a game played in real time. Instead of taking it in turns to explore the temple, battle its curses, and unearth its treasures while looking for the exit, players move and act as fast as they can roll their dice. The game comes with a soundtrack, which both provides atmosphere and audio cues as to when players must race for the safe room before losing one of their dice permanently. It’s a great, intense little burst of fun and adventure that only takes ten minutes to play, and it’s even fun to take on solo.
I’m sure some people are tired of me going on about The Resistance: Avalon and Battlestar Galactica, cooperative games with hidden threats. Player cooperation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the fact that one or more players are intentionally deceiving the others adds an entirely new wrinkle to the gameplay. It’s entirely possible that two completely different levels of cooperation are going on simultaneously, all without direct communication, and that makes for a great time with friends who you may end up resenting because they were so good at fooling you. But perhaps the game I’m most eager to play (or play more of, I tried it out Tuesday night) is Archipelago.
I don’t have enough experience with the game to write up a full review, but the game is fantastic. It takes a series of various game mechanics – player bidding, worker placement, card drafting, and so on – and chains them together into a rotating arrangement of ever-evolving depth and complexity. From a relatively simple starting point, just a couple of turns in, the game explodes with choices and challenges. Each turn sees a problem on the islands that must be overcome through a combined effort of everyone involved… but not everyone has to participate. In addition to all of its other systems, Archipelago gives each player a personal, private objective. This could be as simple as having the most money or building the most churches, but it could also be supporting the natives in a war for independence. The fact that the players do not know what each other’s objectives are, and can interpret the actions of an obstinate player in multiple ways, lends even more depth and nuance to a game that is already keeping several plates spinning at once. I’m very curious to see how the game players with more than two players, especially if one is aggressive and ambitious, or if one is manipulative and keen to whatever fears may be sweeping the islands at any given moment.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to this weekend. Be it rolling dice, dealing cards, or buying local beef to export pineapples to Europe, it’s going to be a great time at the tables.
Telltale Games has a lot going for them. Their Poker Night games demonstrate some pretty solid design choices, while The Walking Dead is one of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had gaming in recent memory. Adventure games, to me, remain a charming and underrated way of combining gameplay with story, ensuring our actions and choices define the outcome of what’s happening in front of us. I was looking forward to trying out The Wolf Among Us, and recently finished its first episode, “Faith”.
The Wolf Among Us introduces us to the world of Fables. A series of graphic novels from DC’s always-interesting Vertigo studios, Fables are literally fairy tale characters who live in our world. Having emigrated from their original settings, these legendary characters do their best to live among normal humans, with the less than human-appearing ones needing magical spells to pass as everyday people. They live in their own little corner of New York City, dubbed ‘Fabletown’, and order is kept thanks to an unlikely sheriff in the form of Bigby Wolf. He’s our protagonist, but he’s not much of a hero.
In fact, in the past, he’s played the villain most often. As the Big Bad Wolf, he’s gone after and devoured pigs and little girls alike. However, that was the past. The character we see in The Wolf Among Us is much more reserved and far less malevolent, though he still has a surly attitude and is more than capable of beating down someone trying to put a hurt on him. He’s trying to make things better, for himself and for Fabletown, so he tries not to ‘wolf out’ or abuse people. He’s complex and magnetic, a great lens for us to experience Fabletown through, and like all Fables, he’s very hard to kill – this is, after all, a character that once has his stomach filled with rocks before he was thrown into a river. And yet, The Wolf Among Us is something of a murder mystery, meaning Bigby must use skills other than his ability to punch people really hard.
The combat in The Wolf Among Us is an improvement over that in The Walking Dead. Movement keys prompt dodging, the mouse helps Bigby use the environment or strike key portions of an opponent, so on and so forth. Prompts from the environment are also improved. If I had a complaint about the game, it’d be that the on-screen prompts from the environment make puzzles a bit too easy to solve. I’m not sure if you can turn this feature off or not – I’ll just have to play again to find out!
‘Faith’ is a great start to this new series of Telltale episodes. Fabletown is full of great characters, who both maintain the aspects that made them timeless and present them in a new, modern way that smacks of a noir classic. I’m a sucker for the blending of genres in general, and this particular mix is right up my alley. I’m very much looking forward to coming episodes. The Wolf Among Us offers a ‘season pass’ on Steam for all five of its episodes, and you can get individual ones on the console of your choice. It’s definitely worth your time to check out.
Slasher movies and torture porn will always have their place at Halloween and in the hearts and minds of horror fans. For me, effective and lasting horror does not necessarily have anything to do with buckets of blood or how stomach-turning the visuals are. Sometimes, the most penetrating stories of terror have less to do with what we see, and more to do with what we don’t; less about the delivery of lines, more about what’s left unsaid.
In terms of visuals, one of the most effective and haunting horror games I’ve ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A little indie gem from a few years back, Amnesia remains a game I have yet to finish. Some horror games like to throw their monsters directly at you in as loud and visceral a way possible, but Amnesia plays things with more subtlety. With no means to defend yourself, a limited amount of lighting in a game defined by darkness and shadows, and the addition of a sanity meter that makes things even more difficult if we’re alone in the dark for too long, when monsters appear (or don’t, but you know they’re there) it’s best to just run and hide. It’s frighteningly easy to lose track of where you’re going and what your goal for the moment is when you hear a moan or a scraping sound and you pretty much crap yourself in terror. The sensations created just through sound design and good use of the environment are, in a word, creepy.
Endermen in MineCraft also qualify. Dark-skinned creatures that appear in dark areas, Endermen are unique in that they won’t attack you right away. They’ll blink around with their teleportation powers, move blocks here and there, and stare at you. If you stare back, though… that’s when they become hostile. They scream. And they teleport directly behind you to attack you. Quite creepy.
Sometimes, though, the visuals and triggering mechanisms aren’t what stick in our minds as something that creeps us out. Sometimes, a person or object can appear completely normal, yet project that aura of vague discomfort that’s impossible to shake. This happens a lot when a character appears normal, but talks and acts in a way that hints that they’re not quite human, and perhaps only learned about humanity from reading a pamphlet or taking a correspondence course. The Observers in Fringe apply, especially September in the first season. The G-Man from Half-Life also springs to mind – courteous, polite, well-articulated, but… there’s definitely something wrong with him.
Stanley Kubrick is one of the best film directors to convey this sense of unease. Many of his shots in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange are off-putting in their framing, length, and presentation, even if the conversations within could be considered entirely mundane. But for me, one of the creepiest things he’s ever brought to life is the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faceless antagonists range from Doctor Who’s Daleks with their stilted, loud voices and monstrous appearances concealed by armored throwbacks to low-budget sci-fi, to Michael Meyers and his silent, towering, knife-wielding menace. But HAL is unique. He’s not overtly malevolent, nor is he outwardly psychopathic. He is a computer. He is a construct of logic and reason. His actions, given his programming, make sense, when you think about it. And he never raises his voice, never swears, never even speaks ill of those he wrongs. This calm, even manner of speaking coupled with the unblinking gaze of his multiple cameras and the amount of control he exerts over the crew of the spacecraft Discovery make him one of the creepiest characters ever created.
What’s creepy for you? Who’s your favorite creepy antagonist?
Dayjob demands have put me way behind in several ways. As I struggle to recover & catch up, here’s an entry from last year that I feel is still relevant.
One of these soldiers is likely to die.
There’s just something about a game, or story, that doesn’t pull its punches.
I get a feeling for that something when I play FTL or the new XCOM. A ship exploding under my intrepid crew or a favorite soldier getting their face melted off by plasma fire carries a bit of an emotional wallop. I’m tempted to keep the autosave feature of XCOM turned off to heighten that feeling and maintain the game’s edge. And that edge comes from choices having consequences, and those consequences sticking.
When games present their players with choice, the experience is improved when those choices mean something later on. One of the strengths of the Mass Effect series was that who you spared and who you left to rot does come back in one way or another, even if it doesn’t play too much into the overall story. While the consequences of those choices only really mattered in a minor sense, it felt like they mattered, at least to me.
In the aforementioned games, the choices really do matter, and a wrong choice means death. It’s not telegraphed or presented in story terms, either; they’re the little incidental gaming choices we make, like having a soldier cover a civilian’s retreat, or picking one class of weapon over another, or choosing the destination for your vessel. It is nearly impossible to predict which choices will lead to total victory and which will lead to bloody doom. That is what makes these games challenging and fun to play.
Similarly, some of the best stories out there have characters who make choices that lead to either their deaths or the deaths of others. It happens to men and women in command all the time, sure, but others are simply doing what they feel is right or trying to protect someone or something they love. George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, and Chuck Wendig have all done this – a character we like makes a decision, does all they can to back that decision up, and it explodes in their face. Someone close to them gets hurt or killed, and their own life may come close to ending before the story’s done. It’s tragic, it’s harrowing, and it’s great storytelling.
Make your character’s choices matter. Make those deaths mean something.
Probes aren’t just adorable – they’re essential.
There are really only two games I’d consider playing competitively on a regular basis. I don’t think I have the skills to play a first-person shooter anything but casually in multiplayer, and while I used to play CounterStrike in university, I can’t see myself devoting the time necessary to the game now, let alone coughing up money every year for the latest iteration of the best “spunk-gargle-weewee” game around. I’m also not one for fighting games like Street Fighter; again, I’m much more casual with that sort of game, and Divekick is more my speed with that sort of thing. The two games I look towards as a true test of my skills and that engage me enough to drive me to improve constantly are Magic and Starcraft. While I still want to return to Legacy in Magic, Standard will be more economical, but that’s a post for another time. Even more economical is StarCraft 2 - unlike Warhammer or Warmachine, there’s no miniatures to buy or paint, and no need to find a table big enough to play on. The only investment required is time. And lean tissue in the brain.
Getting back into StarCraft 2 after a long break isn’t easy for anybody. Heart of the Swarm has hit since I last played on the ladder, and that may have changed things up drastically. My only recourse is to change with them, and that means starting over again, from scratch, to build myself back up into a better gamer. What I like about StarCraft as opposed to say, Magic, is that the random element is minimized and, on higher levels of play, non-existent. It’s entirely skill and strategy. But before I can get anywhere near that level, I have to get my bare bones basics nailed down. And that means mechanics. That means making workers.
Building workers is pretty much the foundation of any future play. It’s the fuel that runs a player’s engine in StarCraft. It’s the mana of Magic, the production certs of Axis & Allies, the planetary resources of Twilight Imperium. I can’t spend any time worrying about build orders or army composition counters or even the meta-game at large. Not yet, at least. As much as I love to tie my strategic and tactical gameplay into a greater philosophy or Sun-Tzu or something, there’s a reason soldiers start at boot camp and aren’t just shipped into combat. Eren in Attack on Titan doesn’t strap on the Three-Dimensional Maneuver Gear and get right to titan-slaying without some serious training. That’s the way it has to be for me, as well.
So I’ve looked up some notes on the changes to the game, watched some videos by Filter, and started drilling against the AI. Not to practice tactics, not to ensure wins, not to nail down build orders. I’m just making workers and basic units, focusing on the workers. So far, Terran and Protoss are going fine. Zerg, I’m struggling with. But I’ll get there. And when I do, at that point I’ll jump on the ladder and start fighting live opponents. Though ‘fighting’ may be a bit of a stretch, as all I’m likely to do is bunch up all of my basic dudes and lob them at the enemy with no real tactics involved.
Then again, I don’t think many people at Bronze level will know what to do when 50 Marines or 30 Zealots or 40 Roaches come knocking at their door en masse 10 minutes into a game. I guess we’ll see once I have my benchmarks nailed down.
Subtlety can be underrated in video games. A great deal of them rely on glitzy graphics or bombastic action to carry their experiences. Rock-solid gameplay that relies on things other than frenetic twitchy skills, a unique world with a lived-in feeling, and an interesting story with characters that have depth and complexity all contribute to a game rising above the average. In the case of Dishonored, two out of three ain’t bad.
Corvo Attano had it all. From his birthplace on Serkonos in the Empire of the Isles, he rose from obscurity and a mysterious past to become Lord Protector of the Empress and her daughter. Unfortunately, he did not foresee assassins bestowed with a dark power storming Dunwall Tower and assassinating the Empress. Framed for the murder and on the run, Corvo is on the run with few options – until the same power approaches him with an offer to help him get his revenge. Even as a plague ravages the streets of Dunwall, Corvo finds his way to a Loyalist group willing to back him up, directing him where to point his deadly dagger.
As I mentioned in the intro, world-building goes a long way in making a game both worth your time to play and memorable after. Dishonored‘s Dunwall is one of its main draws. The city seems to have a very unique mix of Victorian-style architecture and dress while things like the Tallboys and Walls of Light have a somewhat dystopian electropunk feel to them. Graffiti, conversations, artwork, and the variety of items to pick up all work together to provide a sense of immersion in the world through which Corvo will be sneaking from target to target.
From its canals to its adverts to its balustrades, Dunwall looks amazing.
Much like Deus Ex and Thief, the sneaking and the possibility of bypassing combat entirely instead of being shoved into it the way you are with other first-person games is what sets Dishonored apart. No enemy, from the standard street-walking mook to what would qualify as boss fights, needs to be confronted directly. You always get a clear indication of how aware guards are to your presence, you’re agile enough that running on rooftops is always an option, and you don’t dissolve in water so swimming can work, too – provided the vicious barracuda-like fish don’t have you for lunch. Your gadgets and powers are a big help, as well. Even the lowest level of the Dark Vision power lets you see guards through walls so you can better plan your routes, and Blink, a short-range teleport, lets you cross open areas and even lines of sight without raising the alarm. Couple these powers with the option to choke folks out and a sleep-dart crossbow, and you have the opportunity to prove that assassins don’t have to kill to be effective and feared.
This leads me into talking about some of the drawbacks to Dishonored. The number of dead bodies you create and the degree to which you use certain powers contribute to what’s called Chaos, a mechanic that functions a lot like morality systems in other games. A high Chaos rating alters the last mission of the game, and the game has multiple endings based on it, meaning that if you want the best ending, you need to be as non-lethal as possible, even if it’s more organic to silence a guard with a quick stab or you’re just fed up with a section and want to blast your way through. On top of that, the characters you encounter, especially your erstwhile Loyalist allies, are very flat and not terribly emotive, many of them having the creepy unblinking constant-eye-contact problem NPCs have had since Oblivion. I almost would have preferred text screens between missions or, even better, a voice-over from Corvo so our protagonist could have a little more personality of his own. Deus Ex (especially Human Revolution) and Thief games benefit greatly from their heroes not being silent.
“Fly, my pretty ones! FLY!!”
Still, none of these problems can prevent me from recommending Dishonored. For all of its faults, the game plays extremely well and feels rewarding when you pull off the right combination of teleporting, sneaking, distracting guards, and finding your unique route to your target. The world is rich and well-realized even if it is populated with stiff characters lacking true depth, and the visual and sound design pull you into Dunwall every time it loads up. A little characterization here, a touch of personality for our hero there, and removing the Chaos issue would make the game damn near perfect. As it is, it’s simply a very good game that fans of stealth, assassination, and games with a stand-out look and feel are bound to enjoy.
It’s been a few months since I’ve even considered looking for more than a few minutes at truly competitive gameplay. There’s been a lot going on, and I haven’t really taken the time to consider how that could be helpful to me. Things like constructing a deck in Magic and building efficiently in a RTS game are good structural exercises for my mind. Taking those skills into a competitive environment keep my attention sharp and teach me how to be a more gracious loser. Because I know I won’t always win. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try, dammit.
For the better part of a year, I haven’t seriously tackled the Magic: The Gathering format of Legacy. I was considering a few potential decks a while ago, but most of those plans fell by the wayside. After the release of the Modern Masters set, and some prompting from a friend, I’ve come back to the notion of putting a deck together to take with me to official events and the occasional Saturday night at my friendly local gaming store.
Legacy isn’t the only format out there, though. Between it and the ever-changing Standard is a format known as Modern. There are a few decks out there that have cards that span both formats. The one that appeals to me the most is called ‘Affinity’. I’ve liked artifacts for a long time, because they’re not dependant on colors and can get around a lot of obstacles if played correctly.
I tried putting together a list that didn’t subscribe to most common color combinations for the deck. However, a few suggestions and lists introduced me to Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. An ambitious and cunning artificer, Tezzeret has always been friendly to metal decks. As an agent of resident big bad dragon daddy Nicol Bolas, he’s slightly more insidious. The deck takes some of the basics of other Affinity decks in terms of creatures and mana sources, which gives me a few options.
|// Creatures (22)|
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Vault Skirge
3 Etched Champion
3 Steel Overseer
// Spells (4)
// Planeswalkers (4)
4 Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
// Artifacts (15)
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Mox Opal
4 Cranial Plating
3 Springleaf Drum
// Lands (15)
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Ancient Tomb
|// Sideboard (15)|
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Ethersworn Canonist
3 Tormod’s Crypt
The deck can push damage past defenders with the Etched Champion or fly over them with Ornithopter or Vault Skirge, any one of them benefiting from carrying Cranial Plating. However, the deck also has a win condition that has nothing to do with creatures. Tezzeret can drop very early in the game, and his ultimate ability syncs well with artifact lands, 0-cost cards, and other low-cost options. Remember, X is twice the number of artifacts. So, if I have 5 artifacts in play, I gain 10 life and my opponent loses 10 life. That’s a 20-point swing, which can be difficult to overcome.
The deck is, of course, not invulnerable. It has no counter means save for Chalice of the Void, creatures can trample over the Champion no matter how much protection he has, and faster decks like burn can probably beat me to the punch or take wind out of my sails. Still, I think it has a lot of potential, and that potential doesn’t stop with Legacy. In Modern, the Chalice goes to the sideboard and illegal cards like Perish and Tormod’s Crypt have to go. Still, the play of the deck will be largely unchanged. I’m looking forward to putting it together and seeing how it plays.
Games are meant to be fun. In general, they are distractions from the tumult and tedium of our daily lives, and interesting exercises in thought and interaction. You play them with your friends, to share an experience and grow closer. For the most part, at least. Some games, though, pit you mercilessly against your friends. Some games make you suspect your friends, your trusted companions, are capable and even willing and eager to stab you in the back. Some games make you feel like Caesar on the Senate floor as Brutus and Cassius approach with long knives unsheathed. The Resistance is one of those games.
In the original version of The Resistance, between 5 and 10 friends gather around a table as members of a covert cell of freedom fighters, dedicated to toppling the oppressive near-future government that has clamped down on individual liberty and thought. The members take it in turns to lead missions against the government or its lackeys, choosing team members from those gathered. The missions themselves are formless and ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that some of those around the table are actually government spies, traitors who will stop at nothing to sabotage the efforts of the Resistance. The game, then, is figuring out who the spies are, and succeeding in enough missions to win the day despite their dastardly efforts.
This game is relatively light on rules, but deep in its nuances. At the beginning of the game, the spies reveal themselves to one another in secret. Each knows who the other spies are, but the other members of the Resistance have no idea who could be a spy and who is loyal. When the leader for the turn chooses her team, the rest of the Resistance votes on if the team should proceed or not. If you’re loyal to the Resistance, and you suspect one of the members of the team is a spy, you can vote against the mission, but be careful: if too many votes fail, the spies win. If too many missions fail, the spies win. The loyal members have to rely on deductive reasoning and clear heads to prevail, while the spies must use deception and undermining of the truth to win.
After you get the feel for The Resistance and how it plays, you can throw more variables into the mix. These take the form of Plot Cards, two of which are drawn by the leader for the turn and given away to other team members. These cards allow players to see the allegiance of others, take control of the team, or voice their opinions before anybody else does. These are powerful tools for both sides, and more often than not reveal information regarding loyalty and motivation. As such, they tend to give the Resistance an advantage over the spies. This isn’t always the case but it happens more often than not.
Recently, Indie Boards & Cards have started changing things up. A variant has been released simply called The Resistance: Avalon. Instead of the near-future and Plot Cards, the game takes on an Arthurian theme and features particular roles. Loyal servants of Arthur are assisted by Merlin, who knows the identities of the traitors, here called Minions of Mordred. However, one of those Minions is the Assassin. If the Assassin can name Merlin after the loyal knights and ladies complete three quests, the bad guys still win. This means that the loyal servants must conceal information almost as much as the Minions do. Other roles include Percival (who knows who Merlin is), Morgana (who appears as Merlin to Percival), and Mordred himself (who is unknown to Merlin). These roles add more mystery and intrigue to the game than the Plot Cards of the vanilla game do, and I’d have to say it causes me to lean more towards the Avalon variant than the base game. Not that I’d turn down a game of either…
If The Resistance has a flaw, it’s that playing it multiple times with the same group of people leads to deductions based on previous patterns rather than in-game behavior. I’ve discussed this previously, and while it’s certainly not a deal-breaker for the game, it does point to an advantage players might have if they can pick up on the behaviors of others in a short amount of time. In other words, if you’re good at poker, you’re probably going to be pretty damn good at The Resistance. And if this is the only flaw the game has, the only thing I can say I really don’t like, it’s clear that the game is a winner.
Indie is not quite done with this game, as they recently held a successful Kickstarter for a variant based on the deception & bluffing game Coup. I’m curious about it, but I guess I’ll have to wait for them to do another run of it before I can pick up a copy. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be playing more of The Resistance during lunch breaks and gaming get-togethers, and if you have a group of friends interested in a game that requires no dice, no grand strategy, no big time commitment, and a willingness to stab your friend in the back, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed games like Deus Ex and its sequel Human Revolution is due to the stealth elements. I’ve dipped my toe into Thief, and I also got a charge out of both of Rocksteady’s Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). Stealth-based games need a few things to work well: clear indicators of how easily the enemy can detect you, multiple routes to your objective, and an atmosphere of tension generated by foes and situations that present you with puzzle-like ways to overcome their deadly obstacles. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja has all of these things, with the added bonus of appealing to aficionados of the legendary spies and assassins of feudal Japan.
For centuries, the Hisomu clan has defended its secrets and maintained its traditions. Without warning, the diabolical company Hessian Services storms their dojo and makes off with those secrets. Our hero is awakened from his recovery from an extensive tattoo (the titular ‘Mark’) to rescue his master, and embarks on a path of revenge and assassination. However, the Mark that allows him to move undetected and leap superhuman distances comes with a price: before it drives him mad with power, he is expected to take his own life.
Klei Entertainment previously made the Shank games, somewhat over-the-top side-scrolling action games in the vein of Mad Max or some of the nastier, in-your-face encounters of Borderlands. The designers have traded frenetic, button-mashy action for a more quiet, measured approach. Like the good stealth games mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is built around smooth motion and wide-open level design. Moving around the maps feels natural and intuitive, and you think less about button-presses and combos than you do about guard search patterns and the locations of fuse boxes and lights that ache to have darts thrown at them.
The cutscenes are like something out of Gargoyles.
Adding to the atmosphere is the art style, steeped in darkness and flowing like ink from a brush. While the faces of the characters may be a little cartoonish for the game’s occasionally violent content, it definitely works within the context of this game’s world. When the game plunges into darkness, be it due to the environment itself or your darts shattering lights above the heads of hapless mercenaries, it becomes clear the art style was more than just an aesthetic choice. Your character becomes a shadow of his former self, literally, with only the ink of his mark visible to us as we sneak from one hiding place to another. It lends the game incredible atmosphere and tension all on its own.
Sooner or later, though, you will encounter your enemy. The decision must be made if you will dispatch them or try to sneak past. Killing guards does make it easier to make it across the room, but at the end of each level, if you manage to avoid killing anyone you get a substantial bonus to your score. The game also rewards you with Honor, which can be used for upgrades. Paradoxically, your upgrades make it easier for you to kill people. It’s hard to say if the trade-off is substantial enough to prevent you from doing fun things like hanging bodies for other guards to find, or picking off a room full of enemies one by one just to see how scared the last one gets.
“Hmm. Where does one stab a laser?”
Let me draw your attention to the screenshot used above. Pretty dark, isn’t it? As much as I’m uncertain as to how well-balanced the game is in terms of sneaking versus killing, I want to reiterate how lovely the game is and how well its art style informs its gameplay. Being reduced to a dark silhouette against a dark background, especially when it happens just as a guard turns to face your direction, never stops producing a sadistic little grin and the desire to jump on the big dumbass to give him a wedgie. Unfortunately there is no “wedgie” option, and we’re back to deciding if we want to try and move on in spite of the challenge or if we take the quick and easy path of murder.
As much as I like Mark of the Ninja, I haven’t gotten too terribly far with it, which may make this more of a “First Impressions” write-up than an actual review, but the flow of gameplay is so smooth and the storytelling so organic I can’t help but recommend it. Scaling a tower to close in on an enemy feels like an achievement in and of itself, the challenges the game presents provide incentive to be even more inventive and careful, and there’s something inherently badass about a game featuring a ninja behaving in this way. When was the last time Ryu Hayabusa actually snuck up on someone? I think it’s been a while. Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and XBLA, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
I have a lot of fun with Commander (EDH if you’ve been around a while). It seems to be my father’s preferred format for Magic, and my siblings always have decks with them. It’s been made clear to me that some of my decks have significant chinks in their armor. Both my Zedruu deck and my Jaya deck are very feast-or-famine, it seems, relying on combos that may or may not appear fast enough to respond to threats adequately in some situations. I’ve started to think more tactically about these decks. I want to build decks to have fun, but I also would like to not get completely blown out as often as I have been lately.
Enter Sun-Tzu. The philosophy in The Art of War emphasizes the flexibility, strength, and speed of a successful fighting force. I’ve looked at my current roster of Commander decks, and how their colors and theme and signature creature provide those three points. Sharuum (One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.), Karthus (Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.), and Ghave (Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.) all seem to be winners so far. As much as I like Zedruu and Jaya, their decks often have me quickly devolving into “top-deck” mode, just hoping they yield the exact card I need to get myself out of whatever terrible situation I’ve found myself in. They are also comparatively slow (a shock considering Jaya is mono-red) and Jaya has little synergy with the rest of her deck. So where do we go from here?
I’ve been looking towards the recently completed Return to Ravnica block for ideas, and I have at least a couple potential decks I’ll be assembling and testing in the coming weeks.
Speed is the essence of war.
While Zedruu can facilitate a great deal of card draw, making it more likely to pull an answer to a problem I’m facing, it can be difficult to get a donation to an opponent that lasts long enough for Zedruu to bring in the rewards. I have many methods of drawing cards and benefitting from those draws, and a general who gives me a direct, relevant, and reliable benefits from drawing is my old friend, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. I’ll have to dismantle both of the above decks to give Niv-Mizzet the tools he needs to blast my opponents, and there’s plenty of room for a variety of planeswalkers, time shenanigans, and even the synergy of Niv-Mizzet working with… um… Niv-Mizzet. Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, to be exact. I’ll probably be assembling this exciting and somewhat frightening lightning-powered engine of destruction this weekend.
Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without having to fight.
I’ve wanted to put together a vampire EDH deck for some time, now. The good thing about pairing the fiends with Orzhov’s Extort mechanic is that I do not need to engage in direct confrontations to get an edge over my opponents. I was initially torn as to who should take control of the alliance, as I have a soft spot for Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts. However, after some consideration, it seems that Obzedat, Ghost Council is slightly faster and has more synergy with the Extort within the deck and lifelink-equipped vampires. I’m looking forward to putting this deck together, as it’s been an idea I’ve had for quite some time.
This leaves me with another slot in a fat pack box for an EDH deck. Perhaps another mono-color deck? I’ll have to contemplate that.
There are many board games where all of your information is public. Monopoly players can see just how badly they’re boned with a glance around the table. Many other games prefer to keep a player’s information hidden. In any classic card game, from poker to rummy, it can be difficult to determine how good or bad the hand of an opponent is at any given time. Some games mix an element of the unknown into their gameplay. Lords of Waterdeep keeps the true identity of its players hidden until the very end, as does Archipelago from what I understand. And then there are the games where hidden information and deception are a focal point of gameplay, a system without which the game could not operate at all.
I’ve recently been playing Mascarade at lunch with the dayjob crew. Technically a party game, Mascarade distributes a number of role cards to its players, each with an ability to earn gold coins from the stockpile in the middle. Some, like the King and Queen, generate wealth on their own, while others, such as the Bishop and the Thief, take that wealth from other players. Not only are these roles hidden from all players, but the main action of the game is in swapping roles. The swaps happen out of sight of all players, as the swapping player must execute the swap under the table. A player may not know what role they have until they either spend their turn looking at their card, or get challenged by another player when they try to use their assumed role’s ability. In addition to requiring deductive reasoning and a decent poker face, it’s a good test of memory skills as well: did you actually swap your Witch card for that guy’s King card, or did you lose track of which card was which while they were under the table?
I’ve mentioned The Resistance: Avalon here before, and it’s still a favorite of mine. Another game of hidden roles and deductive reasoning, Avalon‘s sole focus is on making the most of scraps of information gathered through observation. You have to pay attention, actively, to what other players are saying and doing, to either determine who among you are the traitors, or shift and deflect blame like some form of deceptive judo. Avalon adds the roles that The Resistance lacks to give the game an additional layer of deception and deduction: if the traitors can determine who Merlin is, they will win even if the loyal players succeed in their missions. It requires a great deal of concentration.
I think the pinnacle of this use of hidden threats may lie with Battlestar Galactica‘s board game adaptation. The game is, essentially, cooperative: players take on roles of the Galactica’s crew and characters, from hothead Viper pilots like Apollo and Starbuck to well-reasoned leaders like Adama and Roslin. Every turn, players will face a crisis that either requires them to work together, presents the active player with a choice that could sap the group of precious resources, or places Cylon forces on the board that must be fended off while the Galactica prepares to jump to the next system. The game could function well enough with just this system, but on top of this is the fact that one or more players around the table could be Cylons themselves. At the start of the game and at about the halfway point, Loyalty cards are dealt to each player to tell them what side they’re on. A player can reveal themselves as a Cylon at any time, activating a special power that can cripple Galactica or cause other kinds of trouble. However, an effective Cylon will remain hidden for several turns, perhaps working to sabotage a crisis here and there to make victory all more the difficult to attain for the humans. Savvy players must then try to discern who at the table might be a Cylon at the same time they’re trying to keep the civilian population safe and the Galactica’s supply of Vipers repaired, all while searching for the route to Earth. I’ve only played the game once as of this writing, but given how much fun I had in spite of the rules confusion and other factors, it’s safe to say I will definitely be playing it again.
More than a few video games that provide a multiplayer experience also have single player campaigns. In fighting games and others, this is referred to as ‘story mode’. The quality of these stories can vary wildly, but the pitfalls and perils of storytelling in video games is much better covered by other sources, and it’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because relegating “story mode” to single player play feels like a misnomer, even in something as simple as a fighting game or a first-person shooter. Whenever more than one person is involved in play, I feel there’s massive potential for storytelling.
Some systems better facilitate this than others, of course. Eventually, in a fighting game, you’ll stop contriving reasons your character gets up after having his or her spine ripped out or all of his or her ribs broken. Games set up for multiple players that lean towards story construction, from MMOs to your typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, have plenty of tools to keep things moving. But those games tend to come with a lot of systems and rules that can interrupt the flow of the story. I enjoy them thoroughly, don’t get me wrong, but some games have a fantastic way of keeping the game aspects simple and letting the story aspects shine.
Consider Fiasco, by Jason Morningstar. Much like a role-playing game with the tables and systems stripped down to the bare minimum, Fiasco is “a game of high ambition and low impulse control.” Inspired by caper films like Burn After Reading, Snatch, Fargo, and A Simple Plan, the game puts players in relationships with one another and gives them each goals to try and achieve. The systems are there simply to set up the tapestry of the situation, from who knows whom to what’s desired and why, and to let you know when things are about to go horribly, horribly wrong. In the end, the dice are an impetus for the tension, drama, fun, and laughs, rather than encapsulating those things themselves. It’s a brilliant game and a great way to tell stories with friends, especially if one hews to Rogers’ Rules:
1. Who Wants What?
2. Why Can’t They Have It?
3. Why Should I Give A Shit?
Shock: is a similar game by Joshua A.C. Newman, where players work together to create a sci-fi world in the vein of Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick, populate that world with their ideas and characters, and go nuts from there. Everybody around the table contributes to the aspects of the universe created, from the nature of the planets to the motivations of both protagonists and antagonists, and the ruleset, like Fiasco‘s, keeps the story central while offering support to keep things moving and keep players interested. It’s a fascinating approach to both gaming and storytelling.
As impressive and fun it can be to see what enjoyment can be wrought from a big box full of wooden components, cards, boards, and tokens, there’s something to be said for the sheer power of a story well-told with friends. Collaboration gives rise to ideas that could never have taken flight on their own, and when everybody’s helping tell the story, everybody has a stake in seeing it through to the end. That’s what makes games like Fiasco and Shock: so brilliant. It’s not about the components or the systems or anything the game actually provides; it’s all about the people around the table.
Courtesy Theology of Games
For those of you who don’t know, Shut Up & Sit Down is an excellent show about board games. Most of them are reviews, but there are a few Let’s Plays and specials sprinkled in. Paul and Quinns are great hosts, breaking down game mechanics and thematic elements in concise and entertaining matters, and games feel truly reviewed, not just discussed. They are also, however, horrible bastards. There are a few games out there I simply have to acquire in the future, and I blame them entirely for making me aware of said games.
I unfortunately have not played NetRunner in some time. As it is a two-player game, it can be difficult in my situation to nail down a convenient time for myself and another person inclined towards asymmetrical living card game play with a dystopian cyberpunk theme to throw down. However, it still very much appeals to me, and more expansions have been added since I last played. I want to experiment with these new cards and find both the most fun and subversive Runner deck and the most obstinate and dastardly Corporate deck I can build. I like deckbuilding, I like Blade Runner and Snow Crash and Deus Ex, so NetRunner remains a winner.
One of SU&SD’s most recent reviews was Tales of Arabian Knights. I’m a great fan of storytelling, especially in a collaborative setting, and Tales seems particularly inclined towards creating new tales with fun and interesting twists. The fact that the game is pure cooperation like Arkham Horror but with more chances for your friends to be directly involved in your actions is also an idea I like. I like games where players are encouraged to work together, even if there can only be one ultimate winner. It seems to me that, in Tales, everybody wins if the stories told make everybody laugh or keep everybody interested.
So that’s a co-op game. But what is this “semi co-op” distinction I’ve heard? Archipelago is such a game, according to the boys, and it centers around representing colonialism in a very thematic way without referencing direct historical events. The game begins with exploration on the open sea, and players travel to new undiscovered islands to expand their holdings. The land must be exploited to get ahead, and while there is no true extermination to make Archipelago a true 4X game on a board, it feels so close to the likes of Civilization and Master of Orion that I’ve nearly bought it a couple times already. You and the other players do need to prevent disaster and uprisings to keep the game going, but in the end, only one of you will acquire enough victory points to be the winner.
Terra Mystica has no co-operative elements whatsoever, but the elements it does have really appeal to me. In the review, it’s clear that progression is a balancing act, weighing the potential to win points over the speed of future expansions. In Terra Mystica, your fantasy race must transform the very land itself in order to expand its holdings, sort of like if the races of SmallWorld took up agriculture (…and sorcery and elemental worship and aggressive territorial expansion through real estate). I can see chess-like move-countermove action happening in this game, as well as unexpected twists like casting the right spell at the right time or the sudden rise of a cult. It’s one of those games where it seems no two games would be alike, and that is right up my alley.
Last but certainly not least is just about any game designed by Vlaada Chvátil. I’ve played Galaxy Trucker once, and I’d love to do it again, this time focusing more on my opponents’ misfortune than my own. It’s that kind of game; there’s just as much fun in a little schadenfreude as there is in building spaceships. Mage Knight has strong appeal due to its theme of powerful wizards striding across the world doing battle to win glory and power, and as intimidating as the rules might be, wrapping my mind around them seems like a worthy challenge. Then there’s Space Alert. I’ve heard it is an intense, challenging and ultimately hilarious game, much like Artemis for computers or Spaceteam for mobile devices. We shall have to see!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like board games. I like them a lot. I want to play more of them, and in fact, I’ve been contemplating some ideas of my own that may or may not get developed in the near future. My challenge is finding people to play with. I appreciate a solitaire experience as much as the next gamer, but sometimes, you want to share the game with at least one other person, and let strategy, interaction, laughter and the occasional verbal deluge of caustic profanity fill your evening.
At least, that’s what I want.
I’m no stranger to grand strategy. I grew up learning the ropes in old Avalon Hill wargames, and made the transition easily to so called “4X” games – exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination – on the PC. Master of Orion was perhaps my favorite of these games, mostly because it was set in space. It’s been a while since anything has come close to the experience that game provided, and while I do appreciate the occasional game of Civilization V, the look and feel of Endless Space made me very excited.
The universe is ancient, vast, and mysterious. Long before any of the Factions that currently seek control of the galaxy left their home worlds for the stars, there were the Endless. While these beings mastered all aspects of knowledge from time-space manipulation to the extension of life itself, they ultimately fell to internal conflict. All that remain of the Endless are their ruined temples, their legacy of expansion and exploration, and the substance known only as Dust. It is Dust that holds the secrets that gave power to the Endless, and it is Dust that the Factions of the galaxy seek to control and understand.
Not since the original Masters of Orion has a strategy game in space given me the dreaded and wonderful “One More Turn” syndrome to this degree. This affliction is most common amongst the players of grand strategy potentate Civilization, and Endless Space conveys that experience beautifully. The organic nature of the clean interface, the ease of moving from technology trees to empire displays to fleet construction, the clip at which notices come in for your attention, the layout of the map and the subtle, atmospheric score all add up to the sort of immersion that will consume your evenings and devour your weekends. You’ll colonize a new world, set up your next tech path, and just before you decide to save and quit, it’ll occur to you that your neighbor is breathing down your neck. So you decide to retool for defense and prepare yourself for a counter-attack, and the next thing you know it’s three hours later and the sun is going to be coming up soon oh bollocks.
It’s been said the map resembles the Mass Effect galaxy. This is not a bad thing.
As with many other 4X games, Endless Space does not pigeonhole the player into one form of play or another. Military campaigns, diplomacy, economic domination and scientific discovery are all viable paths to victory. If you choose to engage in combat, the game uses an interesting system of action cards for your fleets. You choose the tactics your admirals will employ, hoping that those tactics will counter whatever your opponents choose. While you can’t take direct control of your ships as you could in Master of Orion, the graphics engine still renders the battles elegantly if you choose to view the action. You can have the battle resolve automatically, as well, if you want to move on to your next task.
If I had a complaint about Endless Space, it would be that the game is a little austere. The interface is clean and well-organized, to be sure, but it also lacks a certain amount of personality. While the various screens and commands are not what I would call unfriendly or unwieldy, aspects like the nature of space combat and the diplomacy screens can make you feel removed from the experience. There’s nothing like the ‘conversations’ one had in Master of Orion; you don’t get to see an enemy Faction actually get pissed at you for taking a shot at their fleet. It’s just another notification on the side of the screen, to be read and processed before you move on. As much as it helps the game maintain a steady flow, it removes some of the personality the game could have exhibited.
That said, I feel confident in recommending Endless Space. I’d do my usual run-down at the end, here, but the fact of the matter is I need to play more of the game before I do that. As it happens, I seem to have played myself into a corner in my current game and it’s time for me to start over. As frustrating as this would normally be, I find myself looking forward to seeing what the new home system looks like, planning out my tech path, and preparing for negotiations and perhaps warfare with neighboring factions. All I need is one more turn. Just one more turn…
I’m postponing my review until tomorrow. This is too important not to share. Please watch the following, whether you’re a gamer yourself or you have one in your family.
Last night I was getting my foot looked at. I wanted to talk about tabletop games informing good thought patterns but ran out of time. So while I work on that, here’s my last really in-depth post on tabletop games as a means of comparison or something.
Also I’m actually running (or was before my injury) and lifting so you can kind of ignore the first paragraph.
I’ve put myself on a path to improve my physical well-being. Being more mindful of what and how much I eat, walking with the intent to start running, looking into a local gym, and so on. Mostly, I fear the atrophy that comes with a sedentary day job and an equally low-impact life at home, and if I’m honest, I’m unhappy with the amount of flab I currently have on my frame. However, making such a change is relatively easy. The body can adapt to adjustments in schedule and activity rather well, all things being equal, and it’s really a matter of establishing and sticking to habits than anything else.
But what about the brain? The most vital of organs also needs maintenance and attention as we age. It’s important to keep the mind engaged and not just feed it something distracting or shallow all of the time. I mean, I won’t begrudge people who really enjoy “Dancing With The Stars” or “Two And A Half Men”, some people do need to unwind with that kind of fare. I’m simply not one of them. As much as I like the occasional campy pleasure like Flash Gordon, more often than not I look to have my brain fed, to keep it trained, to present it with challenges it must overcome.
That, in part, is why I enjoy tabletop games so much.
It took me a while in my youth to really grasp how important it was to me to keep playing them. For a time, I simply enjoyed spending time with my dad, even if I would sometimes let myself get bored between moves rather than studying his strategy and planning my response. Nowadays I can’t imagine sitting entirely idle during an opponent’s turn, though I do occasionally get distracted. Not only is it necessary to pay attention in order to look for victory, it’s an exercise in putting yourself in another’s position, or imagining the other as a complex being instead of just someone to beat. That, to me, is just as important as winning.
I am quite fortunate to be in a place where I can spend time around other gamers who are engaging in this way almost constantly. My co-workers play and even design games on a daily basis. A fantastic store is within easy driving distance to present all sorts of challenges. My father lives a bit further up the road. When I get home, I have the option to play something like Civilization V, Magic: the Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, or Blood Bowl with other human beings. And on rare occasions, a game of Chez Geek or Cards Against Humanity might break out.
To me, the important factor in this is that other people are involved. No programmed response or solitaire experience really throws a wrench into your thought processes like another live human being. It makes the problem solving more complex, and thus more rewarding, even when you lose. On top of that, being in a situation with another person as your opponent builds character and social skills. Trite as it may sound, we learn more from losing than from winning, both about how we play and how we act. It’s one thing to gnash your teeth and swear at something like Super Meat Boy or Hotline Miami; doing so at a stranger or even a friend is quite another issue. Fun as it can be amongst people who know you to engage in name-calling for the sake of in-game banter, when it comes to playing with strangers or in a competition it’s important to know your limits and when and how to gracefully bow out of things, or the optimal way to accept and celebrate victory in front of those who’ve lost. You can only get that through this sort of play, and you learn it as your brain is trained.
Boring as it may seem to some outside observers, when I’m engaged in a game like this, I assure you, I’m never really bored.
Very short one today, I’ve been a bit behind in things all morning long.
I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I stayed up later than I should have playing the closed beta of [GAME TITLE REDACTED].
I need to find others to discuss it with, as I like it but I have issues with it. Anyway.
Get more sleep, folks. Writers, gamers, whatever you’re doing, you need more sleep to do it.
Some of the big names in game development have been around for decades. It can be intimidating to look at a field long occupied by well-known names, and even consider the possibility of entering it. But it’s important to have fresh voices and new blood join the fold. Unique perspectives and provocative ideas are the lifeblood of any industry, game design in particular, and nobody can accuse Devolver Digital and Dennaton Interactive of not being unique and provocative. Of course, taking a glance at Hotline Miami, others may describe the designers as “batshit.”
The plot of the game is, on the surface, rather thread-bare. The protagonist is not given a name within the context of the game; he seems to be just some random dude in Miami during the heady, gratuitous days of the 80s. He gets calls on his answering machine, telling him places to be. He drives there in his DeLorean, and when he gets there, he starts bashing brains in. We’re not sure who his targets are, why he’s being sent there, or why he even started doing this. All we know is that we have a top-down floor plan of the target building, a bunch of folks with weapons intent on killing us, and the primary goal of killing them first.
I’ve discussed Hotline Miami previously, focusing on its gameplay, so I’m going to hit other things that make this game so interesting to experience. The aesthetic is both infused with the neon and garish juxtaposition of color that is thoroughly 80s, and flickering and pulsing in a way that can only be described as psychedelic. While we see buildings and cars, we see no roads or sidewalks that connect them. The houses and offices in which we commit our brutal acts of mass murder are disconnected from the rest of the world, isolated and afloat in the flickering sea of colors, which makes the entire experience at once unrealistic and searingly unforgettable.
You’ll see this message quite a bit. Get used to it.
As you play the game, you’ll unlock masks and weapons that increase your options for dispatching your fellow man (and the occasional canine). Here, again, the aesthetic and presentation of the game lead to a disconnect between the reality of the situations and our perception of them. While the focus of the gameplay is on the puzzle-like nature of the layouts, patrol patterns, and speed required to successfully avoid getting killed and clear the level at the same time, here again is an example where the art informs the story. Much like ourselves, “Jacket” (the main character) is disconnected from what he’s doing on a fundamental level. The presentation of the game’s core content not only encapsulates the violence as a challenge to be overcome, but also provides another layer at which we are witnessing the slow decent of a human being’s sanity into the dark depths of madness.
Before I elaborate more on this point, the game’s excellent soundtrack deserves a mention. Rather than going for popular tunes of the time, the developers tapped some very talented independent artists to lend their music to the experience. Sun Araw, M|O|O|N, Jasper Byrne, Scattle, and Perturbator are among the minstrels who pour their talent into make the experience of Hotline Miami incredibly unique. Subtle, low-key trance music playing while you bash someone’s skull against a kitchen floor is another level of cognitive dissonance that makes the experience of playing the game both surreal and unforgettable.
Does Jacket even understand what the concept of mercy is at this point?
As the game proceeds, events begin to change even as you witness them. People change before your eyes. Events become more and more disconnected. The pace of Hotline Miami coupled with its unique presentation and subtle use of the medium to convey a narrative on several levels makes it a work of mad brilliance. The longer you spend playing it, the deeper you get into its systems, the more it reveals to you in terms of unlocks, ways to approach the challenges, and a deeply satisfying play experience. I can’t think of a triple-A studio that would take the chances Hotline Miami takes, and it’s one of the many reasons supporting independent game development is in the best interest of anyone interested in this hobby and its growth.
Males of the Internet, I submit to you the following:
If you think you’re the target of misandry, you’ve probably done something to deserve it.
Before I elaborate, let’s cover some trigger warnings. I’m going to talk about misandry, obviously, but I’m also going to talk about misogyny, degradation and devaluation of women, acerbic Internet culture, racism, homophobia, defamation, and rape. Just so we’re clear before I start rambling.
There are some folks out there who would like to tell you that gaming culture has always been ‘a certain way’. The prevailing sentiment is that everything from teabagging in first-person shooters to calling someone a faggot for inadequate game performance is normal. You can tell someone they’re about to get raped or suggest they kill themselves or get cancer when they beat you, and it’s fine. That’s “just how it is”. “Oh, you know how gamers are.” “Don’t be a little bitch, learn to take a joke.” And so on.
Lately, some folks have been fighting back against this. Everything from Anita Sarkeesian’s series on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games to posts about sexism and misogyny in areas outside of gaming (like this great stuff from Chuck Wendig) has emerged to fight back against this rather callous and insensitive habit of men to use the defamation of women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community as a source for humor that reinforces their need for cultural dominance. And what has their response been?
The threats of rape, I get. That’s a knee-jerk, juvenile reaction from a knee-jerk, juvenile culture. It’s a three-year-old stomping their feet while screaming and maybe chasing the cat with a crayon intending to draw dicks in poor kitty’s fur. It’s as tasteless as it is pathetic and useless.
Guys saying they won’t watch/read/buy anything from the person again, also understandable. I’d even say that’s a reasonable response. Sure, it’s usually wrapped in the sort of puerile drivel I’ve mentioned above, but people expressing themselves with their wallets is legitimate.
But guys saying they’re victims of misandry?
How is this even a thing?
Let’s look at the big picture, here. Until the 19th century, in most parts of the world that were affluent enough to do so, it was perfectly acceptable for people to own other people. Most if not all of the time, the owners were white males. Democracies began to emerge around the same time, and guess who got to do all of the voting? White males. Before then, we had a lot of dictatorships and monarchies, and most of them were controlled by men. And then there’s the institution of religion, especially in the form of the Catholic church.
Looking at that, men have had it pretty sweet for centuries. White men, especially. As our global population and culture continues to grow, and barriers of communication and distance break down, it’s logical for more people of different races, genders, creeds and outlooks to become involved in every level of living life on this planet, from governing the populace to charming diversions. To try and hold onto a position that’s been held through intimidation, abuse, defamation, character assassination, and the myth of “tradition” or the excuse of “that’s how it’s always been” is selfish, childish, and pretty damn unfair.
I’m not saying that misandry doesn’t exist. I’m sure there are people out there who hate men vehemently and violently. What I’m saying is that misandry as a tactic to be used against the ‘traditional’ gamer culture (and entertainment circles in general) does not exist. There is no great movement to rain hatred and destruction on men in entertainment. There’s no feminist conspiracy to take your games away. Just like the ‘gay agenda’ that FOX News loves to bang on about in their little corner studio in the asylum, misandry in gaming and entertainment is a great way for guys to deflect the thrust of the main issue at hand, which is that as our culture changes and evolves, those participating in it as creators or audience need to change and evolve with it.
And some men are either too lazy or too scared to do it.
That’s right. This talk of misandry, these threats of rape against rational voices pointing out the flaws in our culture, the pedantic and obstinate words that continue to get thrown around the gaming table; all of this is born out of fear and sloth. I know I’m going out on a limb here a bit, and I won’t be correct in every case, but from everything I’ve seen and heard, for the most part, guys who continue to use these words, spew this hatred, make these threats and “jokes”, are too lazy, too scared, or too dumb to change their ways. They’re not as powerful as they’d like people to think they are. They’re cowards, frightened to be placed on an even level with women and people of color and folks born with orientations other than “heterosexual”, and every time they tell a female gamer to get back in the kitchen or talk about getting ‘gypped’ in a game or indulge in other racial slurs, they prove it.
Misandry, as a general mode of behavior, is a myth, gentlemen. We don’t hate you because you’re men. We hate you because you’re behaving like spiteful, scared little boys. This isn’t the schoolyard anymore. It’s time to put away childish things. It’s time to grow the fuck up.
I’ve been playing poker for most of my adult life. It’s not a regular thing for me – mostly at family gatherings or parties thrown by friends – but I know the game well enough to not completely embarrass myself, usually. Practice makes perfect, though, and a couple years ago Telltale Games provided a means to practice my game with Poker Night at the Inventory, allowing me the opportunity to throw down cards and chips with some familiar Internet characters. Did it need a sequel? No. Did it get one anyway? Yes.
The doors of the underground gaming establishment open once again to allow for a no-limit high-stakes poker tournament involving some faces you might recognize. Instead of just gaming culture, however, the scope of the invites has expanded somewhat. From the animated series Venture Brothers comes none other than Brock Samson, a quiet but intimidating presence at the table. Balancing the taciturn bodyguard is Borderlands 2‘s Claptrap, who’s vocabulizer seems to be stuck on ‘snark’ mode. Ash from Army of Darkness gives the little robot a run for his money, though, in addition to having any number of catch phrases at the ready. And last but never least is Sam of Sam & Max fame, who replaces his homicidal rabbit buddy at the table. And your dealer, in the interest of computerized fairness, is GLaDOS, from Portal.
If that line-up isn’t enough to get you to drop $6 US on this game immediately, here’s more incentive.
Texas Hold ‘Em, while iconic in terms of poker tournament play, is no longer your only option. The game of Omaha is also available. In case you don’t know, Omaha plays very similar to Hold ‘Em except each player is dealt 4 hole cards instead of two. A player can only use two of those hole cards to make the best hand possible. I feel like this game option is a bit more forgiving to beginners, as you have more options and opportunities to create a good hand, yet at the same time it can be confusing if you’re dealt an attractive-looking set of hole cards but can’t make the right hand work with only two of them. It’s one of the things that keeps the game fresh.
Your fellow players have their particular tells, some obvious and some subtle. This isn’t new, but the ability to make their tells more obvious and their playing more predictable or exploitable is. How, you ask? Buy them drinks. The lovely Mad Moxxi of Borderlands 2 is tending bar, and if you spend some tokens, won from playing or winning tournaments, she’ll bring some booze over to your opponents to loosen them up a bit. It adds a layer of strategy to your gameplay: at what point do you buy Ash that drink so he bets bigger and stops waiting to win on the river? In addition to the libations, tokens also unlock felts, cards, and chip designs that are part of each franchise represented by the game. Unlock a whole set and you’ll change the entire look of the Inventory. The apex of success is the bounty challenges. A random set of them are laid out for you at the start of a tournament. If you complete them all, you get the chance to win an item from one of your fellow players. Winning the item unlocks prizes in the games Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands 2. All from playing poker with some iconic characters who engage in witty banter. What’s not to love?
Functionally, Poker Night 2 is pretty flawless. The AI of its various moving parts seems pretty well implemented. I’ve only seen the occasional clipping issue. As much as I’ll get frustrated when a winning hand turns to a losing one thanks to a lucky draw on the river, that’s down to the nature of poker itself rather than anything the programmers did. Some of the conversations tend to repeat themselves, but this can be minimized by only playing a few tournaments at a time. Like most diversions of this nature, Poker Night 2 is best experienced in moderation.
Still, for its bargain basement price, great execution, and hilarious writing, I’d definitely recommend Poker Night 2. If you’re a fan of any of the characters mentioned, enjoy a good game of hold ‘em, or just want the maximum bang for your entertainment buck, this is a fantastic deal.
Way back when I said I’d be benching Zedruu the Greathearted as a commander. My concern was that the relatively low speed of her deck would be a hinderance in the face of more competative, combo-heavy decks that accelerate towards turn 5 or 6 before creating some kind of infinite mana situation. However, a little investigation through Gatherer and other sources revealed something very interesting about Zedruu and how her abilities work.
Usually, when she gives control of a permanent I own to another player, that permanent leaves my field and goes to that player’s. For the most part, this means that a deck with Zedruu is looking to make other players miserable by bestowing hindering or useless cards. Not wanting to be “that guy” at the table, I wanted to find another way to use Zedruu, as her colors align with the chronomancy I’ve been wanting to use in EDH forever. That was when I discovered the wonderful truth about Auras.
Auras are enchantment spells that target other permanents. Each Aura has “Enchant ________” as part of its description. This is pretty basic Magic knowledge, but here’s the interesting part: changing the controller of the Aura
This isn’t to say that my new deck for Zedruu is nothing but auras. Knowing that I’m likely to encounter all sorts of decks, I put everything from counterspells to board wipes into the deck. While some staples of Zedruu are present, like Steel Golem and, my personal favorite donation card, Celestial Dawn, my goal in rebuilding this deck was to strike a balance between all the elements I wanted: “Tron” scenarios pairing Auras with Zedruu or other powerful creatures, Chronomancy, and a bit of control through donations, counters, and other little spells that would, hopefully, not make me a threat to other players before it’s too late.
So far, this strategy has paid off very well. In most of the games I’ve played with this deck, one of my donation cards has come up in the early game, locking down an opponent at least temporarily, and allowing me to catch up on any acceleration I’ve missed. The nature of the deck also allows me to assume a pretty powerful political position. Without infinite combos or a frightening-by-nature general, and armed with counters and removal, I can negotiate with others at the table to determine who the largest threat is and help combat it while building my own position. This, to me, makes the game even more fun to play.
You can check out the deck in detail here, and leave your thoughts or suggestions in the comments!
I’ve been writing a lot about failure lately. This is partially because I believe that we do learn more from our failures from our successes, and also because I know there are folks out there who like to know they’re not alone in the struggles they’re encountering. I am, admittedly, one of them. I continue to maintain that the important part is not the failures, but rather our reaction to them; does failure prevent us from moving forward, or inspire us to redouble our efforts? I often find a microcosm of this frustration and determination in video games, especially uncompromising ones like Hotline Miami.
For those of you unaware of the game, here’s a quick overview. It’s the 80s, an era infused with bright neon colors and oversaturated sound, and you are cast as a nameless individual taking job offers from your answering machine. They sound innocuous enough: babysitting, taking out the trash, and so on. But it’s all code for killing. You’re a contract killer and you walk into house after house, punching and bludgeoning and shooting your way to victory. You do so while wearing a rubber animal mask, just one of many indications that whoever you are, you aren’t right in the head.
What sets Hotline Miami apart from other games is the overall feel and timbre of the gameplay. You enter the homes of your targets from a top-down perspective, something not often seen in modern games, and everything is pixelated and vibrant in color, rather than rendered in 3D and drenched in modern, realistic palettes. This is probably a good thing given the level of brutality on display. People, human beings, are punched hard, have their bones broken, get their skulls smashed repeatedly against hard floors, and are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and sliced to death. They even get savaged by dogs. And more often than not, this will be happening to you, since you’re not going to get it right the first time. You’re going to fail.
Much like Super Meat Boy, the appeal of this game comes from the challenges it presents the player. Without hints, without cheats, without even a clear indication of how the player should proceed, the game sets up the pieces and lets the player have at it. I think this is part of the reason that the graphics look the way they do: the violence is not the point. Oh, it’s visceral to be certain, but reduced to this fidelity it verges more on goofy than disturbing. The true meat of the game is in its challenges, not in blood and bone and bullets. It doesn’t teach players to shoot people with different skin; it teaches them to keep trying even after you fail over and over and over again.
The message of Hotline Miami is not one regarding violence or madness or the 80s being even more fucked up than we remember. Those are just the trappings, the rails on which the story hums along. Within that story, through its mechanics, the game’s message becomes more clear: You’re going to fail. Keep trying anyway. Bludgeon the challenge the way you bludgeon that mook with a shotgun. Sooner or later, you’ll get it right, and it will feel awesome when you do.
I’m not sure what this says about me, but I’m okay with turning a few pixelated faces to paste to get that awesome feeling. And I know I’ll get it in other areas, too.