The Steam sale has pretty much reached its conclusion, and has saved many lives. After all, bees can kill with their stings, eating outside is a good way to attract ravenous bears, and have you ever taken a soccer ball to the face? Damn. That’ll mess you up. Never happens when playing Steam games.
My first order of business during the Steam sale was to round out my PC’s version of The Orange Box. I finally got my hands on the full version of Team Fortress 2. User-made maps, Valve’s great updates, the works. I fired it up on the X-Box once later, and really, it’s not the same. You never find anything cool as you play, you only have a few generic achievements to pursue and you’re limited to about five different maps. Boring. I’ve been playing on the PC exclusively ever since. Along with Half-Life 2 Episode 2, I also downloaded Garry’s Mod at the same time. I haven’t played with it much yet, but the idea of a sandbox with a physics engine and a fully-functional programming language for me to play with is very appealing. It’s a back-burner, percolating thought. I’ll get back to it later.
Left 4 Dead and its sequel is a great deal of fun. The idea of being one of the last few humans alive fighting against a slavering horde of one’s former fellow man is both harrowing and kind of exciting. Especially if there’s plenty of ammo & pain pills laying around. The best part of these games, though, is playing with friends. There’s nothing more satisfying than shooting zombies off of a friend, and nothing more terrifying than getting knocked down and wondering if the undead will tear off your head before your buddy can come to your aid. I’m looking forward to playing more of it.
My next likely fodder for a game review, however, is The Witcher. Being an old hand at role-playing games, and having played through the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, this game seems right up my alley. I do still need to finish Dragon Age’sexpansion, so it’s almost a race between it and The Witcher, and Awakenings has a head start. Of course I need to take time away from World of Warcraft to play either of these when I want an RPG fix.
There’s plenty of writing to do, as well. The holiday weekend is meant for recharging my batteries, as is the upcoming family reunion in Mystic. But for now, in terms of gaming, it’s full Steam ahead.
Summer is here. To celebrate, Steam is having a mind-blowingly brilliant sale. They’re offering discounts on many of their packages – titles from publishers like Valve, Square Enix, Atari, Rockstar, etc. But it doesn’t stop there. Every 24 hours or so, they slash the prices on a few titles. So while normally a game that may interest you may be a bit on the pricey side, if you can catch it during this sale you’ll save a ton of cash. But why spend money on games at all? I mean, sure, you can pick up Torchlight for $5 and have Diablo-flavored fun with fresh graphics and an adorable animal sidekick while you’re waiting for Diablo III to emerge from Blizzard, but why do it through Steam instead of GameStop, for example?
I’m glad you asked.
This has less to do with Steam specifically than it does with PC gaming in general, but for me, the control scheme of keyboard & mouse is superior than those for consoles. By this point, yes, I’ve gotten used to moving one thumb to push my digital avatar forward while the other thumb lets me look around. But when I return to a game like World of Warcraft and have more than a couple buttons at my disposal, the result is actually more immersive and has a great deal of potential for flexibility.
Take Team Fortress 2, for example. On the X-box, one of your precious few controller buttons calls for a medic, another does a taunt. You can hook up a headset to use voice chat, but unless you want your team hearing what you’re yelling at your spouse, you’ll need to move your hand from the controller to flick the mute switch. With the keyboard attached to your PC, you have a lot more options for communication. Many more voice commands are available for your character, and if those aren’t enough, the voice chat option operates with push-to-talk functionality, rather than being on all the time. And all of these are at the fingertips of one hand, while the other controls your viewpoint, combat commands (shootin’, etc) and weapon selection. It just makes more sense to me, but then again, I’m a crotchety old man set in my ways.
What is this DLC you speak of?
Another big difference is that not every developer wants to nickel & dime people for DLC. To Valve, DLC is called ‘updates’. None of the new maps, weapons or headgear available to players of Team Fortress 2 on the PC are accessible on the 360, because Valve doesn’t charge money for them, and they aren’t going to. Those games that do charge for DLC – Borderlands for instance – can do so via Steam if they choose, but it’s not a requirement. This again points to Steam being a more flexible and open-ended engine for content delivery than, say, X-Box Live.
It could just be a matter of perception, but based on my experience, the community around Steam seems more constructive and geared towards fun than that of X-Box Live. There’s nothing wrong with a spirit of competition, but getting yelled at by twelve-year-olds who have nothing better to do than polish their console shooting techniques in preparation for the next Halo title isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. You’ll get the occasional loudmouthed loser on Steam, as well, but at least the admins of those servers can kick said loudmouths with a quick keyboard command. Good luck doing that with a console.
No Motion Controls
I think it’s going to be a long, long time before we see anything like Garry’s Mod hit consoles while developers are so hung up on things like motion controls and 3D. To me, gameplay innovation should about what can be done with the games themselves, not how one sees or controls them. Does nobody else remember the Virtual Boy? Am I the only one who thinks that adding extraneous peripherals to gaming consoles is a path leading to a dead end in development? I guess while everybody’s flailing around their living rooms trying to find ways to make that fun and unembarrassed, I’ll be playing with rag dolls in a physics engine. I’ve even had a couple of series ideas.
So yes. When I’m not writing, watching movies with my wife or playing World of Warcraft with her, I’ll be Steaming things up. Unless something exclusive to the consoles hits, like War for Cybertron. I mean, come on – from what I understand, somebody finally brought back what made the Transformers awesome in the first place.
I’ve been accused, in the past, of being something of a care bear when it comes to PvP content in games. Thankfully, there’s help, even for someone like me. I’m slowly rediscovering what it means to take joy in the misery of other players, thanks to my return toTeam Fortress 2. Along with a resurgence of a competitive nature that more often than not takes the form of a stream of expletives, as 2Fort is SRS BZNS*, it’s given me cause to think about what makes good and not-so-good PvP content in both tabletop and on-line games.
In single-player games, it’s good to have a single villain or a group of antagonists that clearly stand between the player and their objective. And straight-forward dungeon crawls often benefit from pitting multiple players against a single intelligence, be it a human GM or a programmed AI that respawns enemies as you click your way around the dark tunnels. As much as the Steam game Torchlight evokes the nostalgia of hours spent exploring the many and varied underground demon-guarded caches of loot in Diablo II, it misses the benefits of many people diving into the game to face more powerful enemies in the name of grabbing shinier equipment. But I’m wandering off my point, which is that in those cases, it’s good to have a single bad guy. But what happens when your potential player base expands beyond a handful of intrepid adventurers?
Sometimes, you just have to pit one group of adventurers against another. There are a few ways to do this.
1. Always Evil, All The Time
In the old World of Darkness, most notably in Vampre: The Masquerade, factions were a completely player-based thing. While the threat of the Antideluvians coming back to life and consuming their children in an orgy of blood-fueled Armageddon was an ever-constant threat, most of the night-to-night problems were caused by one group of vampires (the Camarilla) fighting against the other (the Sabbat). What was the cause of this conflict, you ask? The Sabbat’s evil.
Now, no vampire can really be described as 100% “good,” no matter what Team Edward might say. Even your most approachable and human-friendly blood-sucking fiend is still a blood-sucking fiend.
But if the Camarilla are vampires who talk nice to their cows before killing them in a humane way in order to carve them into delicious well-made marinated steaks, the Sabbat laugh as they kick the cows mooing into a giant meat grinder to churn out the greasiest, nastiest, cheapest “heart-attack-on-a-bun” burgers possible, selling them to the public at $10 US a pop as ‘classic American hamburgers’. There may or may not be babies in there, too. Baby cows, hopefully. Though I wouldn’t rule out kittens.
This conflict is built into the core game. There’s no ambiguity or much room for interpretation, one side’s less evil and more amenable towards humanity, while the other is thoroughly nasty and definitely not family-friendly. While it can be fun to be the bad guy every now and again, having your entire motivation be puppy-punting grandma-incinerating nastiness all day every day gets a bit old after a while. Which might be why that game ended.
Anyway, future iterations of the World of Darkness would see factions be more ambiguous in certain ways, and rather than saying “X and Y are locked into AN ETERNAL STRUGGLE FOR SUPREMACY UNTIL KINGDOM COME,” it’s much more “Here are some factions you guys can play in. Decide for yourselves how they get along. Have fun!”
2. Affably Evil, or Evilly Affable?
Team Fortress 2 is a bit like that. Neither RED nor BLU is clearly defined as being on one side or the other of the “Good/Evil” scale. Leaving aside the role the Announcer may or may not play in the conflict, the motivations of the teams pretty much boil down to healthy competition. With live ammunition and sharp objects. Not to mention explosives.
Anyway, the point is that it’s up to individual players to fill in the blanks. It’s a straightforward, simple system that works well in on-line shooters. It could almost be considered the polar opposite of the strict pigeonholing of the old World of Darkness. When you get into on-line games involving more than a few dozen players, though, things get a bit more complex.
3. The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Enemy, Too
World of Warcraft and Aion have something in common. The players in these games select one of two factions, which are essentially flip sides of the same coin. They do fight each other, but larger external threats demand the attention of both sides and can sometimes lead to alliances of convenience (the Wrathgate in WoW for example). This allows players access to both PvP and PvE play styles, and interested parties can either strike a balance of time between both, or eschew one entirely in pursuit of excellence in the other. Or people can do what I used to do, which is fart around on dailies trying to earn enough money for a flying mount that’s only slightly faster than one I could build with my bare hands as an Engineer.
More on this when I discuss World of Warcraft more in-depth on Saturday. There’s change coming, and it might be good. Good enough to return to Azeroth? The jury’s still out.
Basically, when you want to engender player-versus-player conflict in your games, be it on the table or through the Intertubes, it’s best to let it grow on its own. Give players fields in which to compete and let them go at it. There’s really no need to give them motivations other than “they’re not on our side.” However, if you want to give the other side a nudge, just hit ’em with incriminating photos of a family member. Their mom, for instance.
My wife started playing Team Fortress 2 on my X-Box live account yesterday. She said she’d gotten some things done in preparation for our move on Saturday, and wanted something ‘quick’ to fill the time. She ended up getting sucked into the epic and pitched conflict between RED and BLU.
She’s discovered that she’d probably enjoy playing the Pyro most of all. She’s continuing to experiment with classes, but that seems to fit her requirements of speed, durability and fun factor. She just likes setting folks on fire. Anyway, we took turns, and while I was sniping people she looked up some of the advantages the PC has over the X-Box, specifically some of the unlockable weapons.
“Snipers get a bow?” she asked me at one point.
“Yep, it’s called the Huntsman,” I replied. She punched it up.
“Wow. If you’re playing a Sniper and I’m a Pyro, I can set your arrows on fire.”
“Seriously?” I had to look away from the screen to confirm this. I might have gotten backstabbed in the meantime. “That’s super cool.”
She looked at me. “We totally have to do that.”
As if I needed another reason to love this woman.
Now, granted, we can’t pursue this plan right away. We’re moving, as I’ve mentioned, which means bills need to be paid on a couple of fronts, our littlest furball needs some major vet treatment (and Spark could probably use a booster shot as well) and I would need to acquire or assemble for my darling a computer that’d run TF2 smoothly. However, I know a lot more people using the PC version of the game, the controls are likely a bit better, and there are the aforementioned unlockables.
More on this as it develops, but suffice it to say my geeky heart was aglow pretty much all night last night. Other than that I’ve been doing a lot of running around getting the move arranged, keeping things somewhat sane at the dayjob and plowing forward with Citizen in the Wilds. Yes, that’s the title I’m going with for the Project unless something better comes along. I guess I could have blogged about that instead of gushing about how awesome my wife is.
In addition to doing a little writing (less than usual, I’ll admit), I thought I’d try a little experiment.
I recorded a little audio related to my Portal review while I had the room to myself this past Friday. I brought that audio into a program called Melodyne which, I understand, is the same software used by Valve for voice editing. Someone on YouTube had already played around with it to do the sort of editing required to make Ellen McLain sound like GLaDOS. Following those instructions yielded some interesting results.
Unwilling to post just another snippet of audio, and also wanting to make another attempt at doing something with AfterEffects, I started dropping in the results of Google Image searches for things like ‘Portal gun,’ ‘Chell’ and ‘Testchamber’. A few areas of text here, some interesting other images there, and suddenly I had a video presentation slightly more interesting than your typical corporate PowerPoint offering.
I added a little bit of Portal’s music as a last touch, but my hard-drive space failed me due to a bunch of old crap floating around the data section. So, while getting some Monday morning mundanity out of the way, I rendered the video from AfterEffects and then compressed it via Premiere.
Here’s the result. Let me know what you think.
As of 12:40, YouTube says it’s still rendering, so we’ll see how it looks once that process is complete.