Category: Gaming (page 1 of 72)

500 Words on Journey to Un’Goro

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Part of having more bandwidth for games now that I have gainful dayjob employment has included a return to playing Hearthstone on a regular basis. The latest expansion, Journey to Un’Goro, drops this week, and I’m quite excited to see what it will bring. It’s already had a bunch of coverage, some absolutely fantastic promotional materials produced, and a bevy of cute art accompanies the cards. As someone who both loves to build decks, and has an eye on competition, I already have some first impressions of what this set brings, and what it will mean to the game as a whole.

Adaptation

The Discover mechanic introduced in the League of Explorers adventure is one of the best things to happen to Hearthstone. Adaptation is an extension this mechanic. Allowing you to adapt to an opponent’s strategy lends a great deal of flexibility to your deck, much as Discovery has until this point. Hearthstone’s designers like to key into the notion of ‘delightful surprise’, and Adaptation is a great example of this.

Elementals

A new grouping of minions — known as a “tribe” in the parlance of this sort of game — is the Elementals. Like Dragons and Murlocs, Elementals synergize with one another in interesting ways. Shamans already had a couple of Elementals, but now there are so many that we may actually see Elemental decks that ramp up for huge finishes with big minions.

Questing

Questing is essential to MMOs like World of Warcraft, but outside of the player’s quests that reward gold or packs, this mechanic hasn’t been seen in Hearthstone until now. Each class now has a Legendary spell that lays out some criteria. Complete the task, and you’ll be rewarded with a powerful minion, a portal to another realm, or a spell that gives you an extra turn. As impressive and bold as these spells are, it remains to be seen what impact they will have on…

The Changing Meta

For a long few months, a scant few deck types have defined the meta of Standard play. It’s been difficult to try new decks or find new ways around very powerful, solid decks. With the new expansion and the change of available cards in Standard, it’s my hope, and that of other players, that the meta is finally getting shook up. But Standard is not the only mode…

More Wild!

I used to regard Wild as more of a ‘sandbox’ mode, focusing mostly on the Standard meta. However, with so many things being relegating to Wild, from staples of the last rotation like Reno Jackson to long-standing all-stars like Sylvanas Windrunner, I will need to play more Wild for sure in the Year of the Mammoth.

I will be cracking open my many packs of Journey to Un’Goro this Saturday, and I invite you to come with me on the quest for exciting new decks! You can find my Twitch channel here, and follow my Twitter for updates, thoughts, and shenanigans. I’m definitely looking forward to this!

On Fridays I write 500 words.

The Kerrigan Question

The Queen Bitch of the Universe, Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

“Girls don’t belong in games/movies!” This is the cry of “men’s rights activists” who point to things like Rogue One and female gamers & game journalists (Susan Arendt, IRL Jasmine, etc).

“What about Sarah Kerrigan?”

I suspect I’d mostly get blank stares. Maybe a bit of drool.

Here’s the background: Sarah Kerrigan is a major character in StarCraft and its sequel. StarCraft is a massively popular real-time strategy game that is played professionally as a multi-player contest & sport. Its single-player campaigns, while maybe not having the best writing, is still full of affecting moments — the rise of Arcturus Mengsk, the sacrifice of Tassadar, etc — but I would argue that the growth and arc of Kerrigan’s story is the beating heart of the narrative, though I admittedly haven’t played the last chapter, Legacy of the Void, yet. It’s a bit beyond my means at present.

I’m going to run down Kerrigan’s story for those of you who don’t know, and proceed to my point after.

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StarCraft depicts a large-scale conflict between three races: the Terrans (that’s us), the psionic and aloof Protoss, and the swarming, ever-evolving Zerg. Sarah Kerrigan is a Terran operative, a “Ghost” (read: psychic sniper assassin) who joins you early in the Terran campaign alongside rough’n’tumble backwater space cowboy Jim Raynor. They don’t get along at first — Jimmy’s initial thoughts are about how hot Kerrigan is, and she immediately reacts with revulsion and rightly scolds Raynor for a lack of professionalism. But, through the course of fighting for survival as the Protoss and Zerg clash with the Terrans in the middle, they grow to admire, respect, and appreciate one another.

Their partnership, both professional and romantic, was short-lived. In a callous act of sacrificing his resources for convenience and advancement, master manipulator and all-around bastard Arcturus Mengsk left Kerrigan to die as her position was overrun by the Zerg forces Mengsk himself had attracted to a Terran world to better secure his political position. Disgusted, Raynor left Mengsk’s service, and looked for Kerrigan, only for her to emerge some time later as a new weapon in the Zerg’s arsenal, the fearsome and deadly ‘Queen of Blades’.

Empowered by Zerg evolutionary strains and determined to unlock her own full potential, Kerrigan proceeded to align both her former Terran comrades and several Protoss factions against the Zerg Overmind who’d had a hand (or, rather, tentacle) in creating her. Her plan succeeded, and she thanked her erstwhile allies by betraying them. Some of these allies were Protoss warriors Jim had come to trust as friends; when they were killed, he swore he’d avenge their deaths, and be the one to kill Sarah. Laughing off the threat, Kerrigan wiped the floor with what was left of the Terran forces and retreated to her own corner of the sector.

After the so-called Brood War that’d seen Kerrigan triumphant, she began to hear whispers of impending doom. To arm herself and her Swarm to face it, she invaded Terran space to find more powerful weapons. Raynor set off to oppose the Zerg invasion, seemingly still driven by his vendetta and supported by an old friend from his previous life. Things got complicated when a Protoss warrior, one of the few Raynor knew from the Brood War who hadn’t been killed, told him that Kerrigan needed to live to fight what was coming. The Terrans used the very weapon Kerrigan had sought to claim to rob her of her Zerg enhancements and leave her vulnerable. Conflicted, Raynor decided to save Kerrigan’s life at this moment, choosing to give her a chance for redemption rather than letting his friend shoot her.

Kerrigan was held for experimentation, with Raynor keeping an eye on her, and her memories as both Mengsk’s assassin and the Queen of Blades haunted her and made her question her morals and sanity. While previously Kerrigan’s ambitions had been aimed towards conquest and victory for her Swarm, her restored humanity narrowed her focus to revenge on Mengsk. The facility were she was being held was attacked by Mengsk’s forces, and in their escape, Kerrigan and Raynor were separated. While Kerrigan was able to escape, Raynor was reported to be killed, much to Mengsk’s delight. Consumed by her need for revenge, Kerrigan turns to the Zerg, returning to the Swarm to regain her former power.

Kerrigan returns to the homeworld of the Zerg and seeks her own path to evolve along instead of having it imposed upon her. In doing so, she comes to understand the Zerg on a far more fundamental level, and in doing so, not only guides it to great success, but forges it into a far more powerful force than it was before. With a renewed Swarm and her powers and memory finally under her control, Kerrigan tears across the sector towards Mengsk. Along the way, she finds Raynor alive, but her rebirth as the new Queen of Blades puts an incredible chasm between them; Jim can’t let go of everything she did as the Queen of Blades, and as much as she wants to repair that breach, since she was not the creature she was before, Jim can’t bring himself to meet her halfway. He can’t kill her, either, but joins her to kill Mengsk.

Having joined forces, Mengsk’s defenses folded under the assault of Raynor and Kerrigan. They work together to bring down the tyrant, Kerrigan saying Mengsk had “made [them] all into monsters” before blowing him up Scanners-style. With their nemesis dead, Kerrigan leaves to turn her attention back to the doom that had brought her back in the first place, leaving a conflicted and emotional Raynor in her wake, looking up at where the woman he loved (and perhaps still does) disappears.

This isn’t the end of the story, but it’s all I know, since I’m avoiding spoilers for Legacy of the Void.

The essence of Kerrigan’s story, to me, is that after getting betrayed and turned into something awful, she took control of her own destiny. She seized control of a massive, powerful alien force, just because she could. When she caught wind of something bigger coming to destroy everything, she set out to stand up to it, no matter what it cost. And after everything that happened to her, she decided to recreate her power on her own terms in order to either rescue a dude important to her or avenge herself on the bastard who’d betrayed her in the first place. To me, that speaks of self-actualization, independence, and empowerment.

I can see some counterpoints to this perspective, but the fact remains that she is a major character who becomes a protagonist in a major sci-fi gaming franchise, and yet, insecure man-kids haven’t brought her up as an example of something that doesn’t belong in their games. So is it because she’s not as prominent as the leads in Rogue One or The Force Awakens, or is it because they felt some sort of satisfaction in what happened to her when she was disempowered? I’m not sure; it’s a headspace I have a lot of trouble getting into.

I’m just going to toss this out for potential discussion. What do you think of Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, as a character? Is she a positive or negative influence on female empowerment in science fiction? And does Legacy of the Void go on sale regularly, so I can finish the story and also get some awesome, shiny Protoss action? Let me know!

Mondays are for making & talking about art.

Hearthstone For Beginners

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has been my go-to CCG for some time, now. I’ve coached by pros, and I have blatantly netdecked to gain ranks in the ladder. While I continue to chase the dream of achieving Legendary rank and possibly participating in tournaments, I’m happy to say that I’ve learned a great deal about playing competitive games in general and Hearthstone in particular. Hopefully, these tips will be helpful if you want to get into the game, play at a higher level, or just have more fun. By the way, most of these tips apply to Constructed play; I’m not a very good Arena player. I need a lot more practice, there.

Casual Mode Is Your Friend

If you’re aiming towards the higher rungs of the ladder, you may think that you should be playing Ranked mode as much as possible, all day, every day. However, I have found that this is not the case, nor should it be. A great deal can be learned from Casual, as well. Since it’s more of a melting pot, you’ll be up against all sorts of opponents, all sorts of decks, and it’s harder to predict what your opponent is going to do next. You learn to anticipate the unexpected, trust your own decks, and take failure a bit less seriously. And it’s a great place to try new decks. Speaking of which…

Don’t Be Afraid To Try New Decks

I’m guilty of having favorites. Paladin is probably my favorite class in Hearthstone, even though my corresponding character in World of Warcraft isn’t max level. My highest character in Azeroth is a Hunter, but Hunter tends to frustrate me in Hearthstone since so few Hunters play anything but decks that aim to beat face as quickly as possible. Anyway, my point is that even if you have a favorite class and a deck whose concepts you love (for example, my Rofladin deck that uses [Hobgoblin] and a bunch of adorable little minions), you shouldn’t be afraid to try out a deck in another class, even if it’s a class you don’t necessarily like for whatever reason. With the mutable nature of the meta-game, in terms of what decks are more efficient at producing wins, not to mention new cards you might earn from packs or solo adventures, it’s almost always a good idea to try something new. Take it into Casual and see what happens!

There’s No Shame In Netdecking

Especially when it comes to clamboring up that ladder, I would refer to the post I linked above when it comes to looking up decklists online. Inspiration and experimentation make for some very interesting and fun decks, to be certain, but if you’re looking to get yourself ahead, it’s good to remember that folks have been there before. My experience with using online resources for new, meta-friendly decks in Hearthstone has universally been a good one. HearthPwn user Sigma put together a fantastic Warlock deck that I love to play, but control decks can be hard to manage at lower ranks when everybody’s playing Face Hunters. Thankfully, Sigma also made The Angry Chicken is pretty much the go-to podcast about the game. The hosts are agreeable and knowledgeable, the information is up-to-date, the debates are intriguing, and the transitional audio cues are fantastic. I love tuning into that podcast. I think you will, too, if you’re into Hearthstone at all.

Sean “Day[9]” Plott has long taught people to be better gamers, with his exemplary attitude and informative commentary. He tells great stories, has a bunch of experience commentating and streaming games, and did I mention he’s a great Hearthstone player? You should absolutely tune into his stream, or catch up on his YouTube channel.

Hafu is another great Hearthstone streamer. She plays more Arena than Constructed, but her attitude is great and I love seeing more represtnation among gamers. I plan on tuning into her stream more often, and subscribing once I can afford to do so!

That’s about all I can think of in terms of getting the most out of your Hearthstone experience. If you want to see me playing the game, talking about how I play and (hopefully) applying all of the above, you can do so over on Twitch. I hope to see you there!

The Call of the Nexus

When I got notice that I’d finally been chosen for the beta of Heroes of the Storm, I was pretty excited. As much as they ply their customers for ever-increasing amounts of cash, I am a fan of Blizzard Entertainment and their games. Sure, occasionally I will balk at their asking prices for things like cosmetic items that serve no purpose other than looking cool, but they have proven that their work is always of high quality in terms of presentation and imagination, and they do listen to their players. It takes a while, sometimes, but they do listen. Look at the whole Diablo III debacle.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Anyway, Heroes of the Storm. It’s the sort of game that is actually born of one of Blizzard’s earlier products, Warcraft III. A mod for Blizzard’s landmark real-time strategy game allowed players control of a single heroic character, pitted in team battles against one another. This formula is the basis for games like League of Legends, an experience with which I am relatively well acquainted. I haven’t played it in a long time because it became increasingly apparent to me that the arithmetic required to optimize a character is more important than which character is the most fun, especially when a good portion of the player base would rather berate a teammate for falling behind on the kill/death ratio than looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opponents. In spite of funny or cute alternate skins, it feels like League and its ilk are missing a crucial component in keeping “casuals” like me coming back for more.

Heroes of the Storm has it. Heroes of the Storm is fun.

For starters, Heroes does not restrict its “hero brawls” to a single map with the same lanes and same jungle every time. There are, at time of writing, seven distinct maps, each with unique geography, baked-in challenges, and a personality that praises, cajoles, or gently mocks you for your performance. This is honestly one of my favorite features of the game: Blackheart’s Bay makes me grin because the undead pirate captain is so jolly, while Sky Temple makes me grin because the spirit controlling the temples is so irritated that we’re on his lawn.

Then, there are the heroes themselves. Drawn from the various franchises of Blizzard’s games, they have categories veterans of similar games will find familiar: tanks to initiate combat, assassins to deal damage, supports for healing, and specialists to debuff, confuse, or frustrate the enemy. The models for the heroes are well detailed, the voice acting is peerless, and they interact with one another in the middle of gameplay. I find it delightful that when opponents within a franchise end up on the same team, and they take the time to verbally jab at one another before the battle begins. It puts me in the mood for fun. It primes my mind for a good time. It makes me want to play.

The final thing that I believe makes Heroes of the Storm a better experience for those players more interested in a fun, pressure-free online brawl is the emphasis on teamwork. Sure, you can track your takedowns in comparison to your deaths if you really want to, but the maps are designed in such a way that you have to work with your team to succeed, rather than focusing on your own efficiency and accuracy. While one player gets to possess a mighty dragon knight on one map, it takes the team to guard the shrines that bring said knight to life, especially if the other team is hot to trot for that draconic action. The rewards for this are a unique selling point: breathe fire on your enemy’s forts. Curse their minions and defenses. Summon super-minions to supplement your assaults. You win or lose as a team. That, to me, is a big difference from the competition.

This isn’t to say that Heroes of the Storm isn’t without flaws. While free to play, with a rotation of free heroes and gold that can only be earned by playing, the dollar price for things like skins and mounts can be a bit steep. This is somewhat par for the course with Blizzard, and is mitigated by frequent sales, specials, bundles, and bonus weekends. Since the game is free to try, most people will know pretty quickly if the experience is worth the investment of time; and, I think in most cases, those who enjoy it will be willing to pony up a bit of cash for a favorite hero. It’s kind of like getting guacamole on your burrito at Chipotle – you know it costs extra, but it’s completely worth every penny.

The other factor that may turn some gamers off is the relative simplicity of Heroes of the Storm‘s design. Players do not need a copious amount of skill or an arcane knowledge of skill interactions or combinations to play the game. There are no items to purchase during the battles, and a hero’s talents are limited when a player first picks them. The player and their heroes gain levels through play, unlocking more talents from which to choose once you’re used to the basics. The learning curve on Heroes is much more gentle than in other similar games, and those players looking for a close alternative to the likes of League of Legends may find this something of a letdown.

For those like me, though, Heroes of the Storm has a ridiculous amount of appeal. Seeing old favorite characters in this new environment tickles my nostalgia centers. Hearing the in-game banter makes me smile. Unlocking new talents that spark my brain into planning tactics encourage me to work with my teammates. It is very difficult to do something “wrong” in Heroes of the Storm. That counts for a lot, if you want to have fun with a game without worrying over things like efficient play or individual achievement.

I heartily encourage Blizzard fans to give the game a try, now that it’s been released. The game is polished, the play is fun, the characters are nicely varied, and the maps will keep you coming back for more. The Nexus is calling you, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it a call worth heeding.

500 Words on Free-To-Play Games

Courtesy Supercell

I know there are a lot of people who consider “free to play” a dirty word. Or a dirty series of words. A dirty turn of phrase? Anyway, they don’t like it as a concept. And I can understand why: it sounds like a bait-and-switch. A game like League of Legends or Hearthstone or Jetpack Joyride or Clash of Clans is free to download, sure, and yes, there are ways to play that require zero financial investment. But to really compete, or even enjoy the game? Only the first hit’s free, friend.

There are a few instances where this is true. However, not every free-to-play game is pay-to-win. A bunch of folks on message boards will certainly contend that idea. “So-and-so is just pay-to-win bullshit,” regarding some of the games I’ve mentioned. But are they really? I can only speak to gaming experienced I’ve had personally, or am having, but I’d like to think that even with my own experiences, I can contend the points being made by others in a professional, semi-objective manner, without degenerating into name-calling and insults regarding someone’s mother.

League of Legends, and to a similar extent Heroes of the Storm, alleviate their barrier for entry (i.e. paying for the in-game characters players want to use) with a rotation of free characters that changes from week to week. On one level, this means that folks unwilling or unable to invest in the game always have something to try out. On another, it allows those with discretionary spending habits to try before they buy. One of the things I like about the store in Heroes of the Storm is that quick, helpful descriptions of each hero appear when you select them, including what role they fulfill, how they do their combat, and a general level of difficulty in playing them. It makes me more inclined to play the game, actually, since I have a notion of what I’m in for when I try someone out.

Hearthstone is happy to provide you with a brace of basic cards as soon as you get into the game for the first time. And while you might not think it possible, you can put together decks with these cards that actually win games, at least well enough on the ladder to earn you the monthly card back. Decks that have been constructed with Legendary minions and following guides do, in fact, lose to decks built with basic cards from time to time. Such is the nature of a card game with randomization elements like, say, shuffling.

As for the mobile games I’ve mentioned, money tends to get you acceleration rather than outright wins. You can achieve your goals for free, but it takes a long time. It’s more a test of patience than anything else. While I have yet to spend a dime on Clash of Clans, I’m also to a point that I want things like upgraded Barbarians and Wizards NOW, dammit. Blast you, Clash!

I totally blame Liam Neeson.

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