Sunday, March 31, 2013

Weekly Achievement Report - March 30, 2013

This week's gaming was similar to last week's, where I was primarily focused on a small number of games.

Tuesday's big release, BioShock Infinite (review forthcoming), took up most of my gaming time this week.  I completed the campaign on Hard, earning the related difficulty achievements.  Many of the non-collectible achievements come pretty easily, so long as you take note of them: The weapon-specific achievements aren't bad if you stop using a particular weapon once you've gotten enough kills, and the Vigor achievements are similar.  Getting 20 kills with possessed machines was tough on Hard, but I think that is mainly because the enemies are able to destroy the machines before any of them die; it'll probably be easier to farm on easier difficulties.  I had similar difficulties with the Sky-Line related achievements, so I think those will be easier to farm on easier settings, too.  The collectibles aren't too bad, particularly considering that there are already a number of collectible guides floating around the 'net.

All-in-all, I think the achievements in BioShock Infinite are pretty straightforward with one exception: completing the game on 1999 Mode without purchasing anything from a Dollar Bill machine.  The Dollar Bill machines sell ammo and healing items, and 1999 Mode is quite a bit harder than even Hard; I'm expecting the big battle near the end of the game to be a serious pain to complete.

With some careful planning, you can probably earn all the achievements in BioShock Infinite in a single playthrough (you can apparently unlock 1999 Mode from the main menu, so you'd only need one run to get that), although two is probably a safer, more comfortable bet, and two-and-a-half might be even better, giving you a nice chance to farm kills on lower difficulty settings.  With a campaign that takes somewhere around 15 hours to complete, a full game completion seems reasonable in about 30 hours.

I also picked up Wednesday's new XBLA title, Terraria.  It's an amazingly addictive game, but the achievement list is brutal - defeating all the bosses and collecting all the armor is going to take a lot of time.  As I haven't made a whole lot of progress on the achievements (after about 15 hours), I'll refrain from any more comments, but it's clear at this point that it's definitely worth the purchase and the achievements truly are achievements.

I managed to complete my next Avatar of Jarlsberg ascension in the Kingdom of Loathing, too.  Nabbed that one right before rollover last night (which is part of the reason this post was so delayed), and even with the distraction of Arrrbor Day, it was an 8-day run.  I think that puts me pretty solidly in the under-a-week region, so I should be able to start churning out AoJ ascensions in the coming weeks.  I'm excited for that.

Aside from the above, I haven't done much gaming in the last week.  I played a few multiplayer matches in Tomb Raider and StarCraft II, but there hasn't been anything really noteworthy there.  I don't think there are any really exciting releases on the horizon, so I'm hoping this next few weeks will be pretty epic in terms of both achievement completion (I'm going to keep working on Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite, and Terraria) and in raw numbers (so I can overcome the deficit that will come with decaying TA Ratios for newly-released games).  Hopefully Team Lazy Eye can keep from getting eliminated this week...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday Magic - An Attempt at a Blue-Black Milling Deck

After my first loss to a mill deck, I have been intrigued by the idea.  I always like looking for new, different ways to solve puzzles or complete challenges, so alternate win conditions in Magic are quite appealing.  I put together a decent mill deck a few years ago, but I haven't kept up with the newest cards that could find a home in a mill deck.

I have therefore decided to scrap the old deck completely and start anew.  This time, I'm inspired by Gatecrash's Mind Grind and the possibility of using cipher to mill my opponents, so I want to try to make a blue-black milling monster.  What follows is the first iteration of this proposed deck.

Mind Grind is brutal, and the grinding mechanic (revealing cards from a player's library until they reveal a land card, then dropping all those cards into their graveyard) can be potent.  I'd like to focus on grinding my opponents out, as that seems to be the most efficient way to do it, but there aren't enough grinding options to make a full deck at this point.  I also want to avoid cards like Undercity Informer, because I don't want to divide my efforts between grinding and creature generation, which further limits my grinding options.

So, as it stands, my best bet is probably to sprinkle some grinding cards into a deck, the primary focus of which is Jace's Erasure and card draw - I can mill using Erasure and deal the killing blow with Mind Grind.

That said, one tricky thing I'd still like to try is combining Balustrade Spy with Deadeye Navigator.  It's a nasty two-card combo with near unlimited grinding potential, but it's a bit expensive to get off the ground (4UU for the Navigator is rough).  Still, if I can set it up (and keep both creatures alive), it becomes a good "1U: grind" ability.  I'd like to see how reasonable it is to get this combo up and running, so I'll give it a shot in this first attempt at the deck.

So, here's the current version of this deck:


1 Invisible Stalker
2 Hover Barrier
1 Wall of Frost
Balustrade Spy
1 Giant Oyster
Deadeye Navigator


2 Power Sink
Thought Scour
2 Counterspell
2 Mana Leak
2 Crippling Chill


2 Ponder
Mind Grind
2 Paranoid Delusions
2 Divination
2 Last Thoughts
2 Sleep


1 Grindstone


Jace's Erasure
1 Mind Unbound


3 Dimir Guildgate
15 Island
5 Swamp
1 Watery Grave

Invisible Stalker is there for recurring drawing and milling with Last Thoughts and Paranoid Delusions.  The walls and Sleep are purely defensive, while the counter spells give me some power to control the battlefield.  Giant Oyster aids in the lockdown and can slowly destroy my opponent's creatures.  Everything else works towards the milling in one way or another.

My biggest concern here is getting trapped halfway between my milling options.  If, for example, I end up with a bunch of card draw but no Jace's Erasures (not too likely), I'm pretty much screwed.  Similarly, getting Mind Grind and a bunch of counterspells screws me, too.

What I really need is a full playset of Invisible Stalkers - play Invisible Stalker, cipher everything onto him, and then cast eight spells each time he deals damage.  Paranoid Delusions mills directly, Last Thoughts mills through Jace's Erasure, and Hands of Binding locks my opponent's creatures down.  It's a beautiful concept, but I only have one copy of Invisible Stalker, so this is the best I can do...

I will obviously tweak the deck after playing with it a few times.  I'm mostly looking to see how the mana curve and card draw pan out; if I'm able to draw into my power cards pretty easily, I may try to shift more towards emphasizing the Mind Grind by including some mana ramp of some sort (Keyrunes might work out well).  If I'm having trouble drawing the cards I need, I may remove the Oyster, Stalker, and all the cipher cards and try to focus more on triggering Jace's Erasure.

I think a blue-black deck with Invisible Stalkers, cipher cards, Balustrade Spies, and Mind Grind, filling the rest of the deck with control, removal, and card draw spells could be really strong, but it's not something I can manage just now.  Maybe if I can come into a few more Stalkers...

Still, this deck serves as a test of a weird concept given my collection.  It has some potential, but I need to see how it works out in practice before making any further modifications.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Game Review: Tomb Raider (Xbox 360, 2013)

In an era of gritty reboots, few franchises deserve reimagining more than Tomb Raider.  Series heroine Lara Croft has been the punch line of many jokes since her debut in 1996 on account of her over-sexualization, so a new perspective on the character stands to propel the series back into relevance in today’s market.  And the new Tomb Raider has many of the elements necessary to do just that.

Tomb Raider serves as an origin story of sorts, introducing us to Lara Croft, a young and spunky archaeologist, as she travels with her mentor and their colorful crew in search of the lost Japanese city of Yamatai.  As tends to be the case in this sort of story, the crew ends up shipwrecked on a small island in the Pacific and must then fight for survival as they try to make their way back home.  Along the way, Lara explores ancient ruins and struggles against deranged foes.

The overall presentation is fabulous.  A lot of the narrative is given in collectible documents, coming in the form of letters or journal entries, so it preserves the feeling of isolation while revealing fascinating backstories.  This interesting story is enhanced by beautifully rendered cinematics and a number of gorgeous vistas throughout the game.  The sound quality is similarly high, with engrossing ambient sounds and a few themes that amplify the emotional tension and fear of many of the game’s scenarios.

And it all supports one of the most compelling gaming protagonists in recent history.  Lara is surprisingly well developed, primarily through realistic writing and small details that make her seem like someone you might actually know.  Even though the game doesn’t spend too much time exploring her relationships with the other survivors, the brief interactions you get to observe make the status of those relationships quite clear.  This development culminates in a powerfully emotional adventure, where you can’t help but feel Lara’s fear, grief, and elation as the plot progresses.

The gameplay mechanics are divided pretty evenly between jumping around like a monkey and shooting arrows into people’s faces.  The platforming stuff is great; scaling cliffs, crossing rooftops, and looking for the next handhold are all smoothly integrated into the basic movement controls.  This somewhat acrobatic system combined with the open, beautifully detailed environments gives Tomb Raider a fantastic feeling of exploration.  It’s exciting to search new areas for hidden goodies and see the wonderful world that’s before you, and the intuitive controls make it hugely entertaining.

The combat is surprisingly similar to good third-person shooters.  Over-the-shoulder aiming with several available weapons is a familiar concept for many gamers, and the implementation here is about as good as you could hope for.  Lara’s pretty squishy, though, so she can’t take much abuse; instead, the game incorporates some nice stealth features, too, as you’re usually better off killing enemies silently from a distance than rushing into a firefight.

My only complaint about the gameplay (really the game single-player game in general) is the fact that distractions don’t work very well.  Early in the game, you are told that shooting an arrow into the wall behind an enemy will distract them, allowing you to kill them from behind or sneak past while they’re investigating the sound.  The only time this technique worked for me was immediately after that tutorial; I was never able to distract anyone again.  It’s not a big deal, as distractions are never really necessary, but it was annoying to have it pointed out, only to be unable to make it work later.

But that’s a minor flaw; the overall experience is amazing – great controls, awesome world, and beautiful presentation make Tomb Raider a stellar game.

And if it had stopped there, I’d say that it is an incredible package all around…

In another instance of “unnecessary multiplayer,” Tomb Raider includes competitive online modes that embody just about everything that’s terrible about online gaming in the modern age.  The basic mechanics aren’t anything special, but they’re also not hideous: deathmatches and a couple objective-based team modes pitting shipwreck survivors against island inhabitants put the single-player combat and platforming to reasonably good use.

Like many games these days, the online component of Tomb Raider has multiplayer levels, earned by competing in online matches.  Unlike many games these days, the multiplayer levels in Tomb Raider are almost explicitly rewards for time spent, not measures of skill or success.  You get XP for damn near everything in this game, including dying three times in a round or by being killed by the same enemy five times.  You’ll still progress more quickly if you’re successful, but the game grants an alarming amount of XP for failing miserably.

To make matters worse, higher levels unlock more powerful weapons and perks.  These unlocks, in turn, make it easier to annihilate your enemies, which pose a huge obstacle for new players, especially when combined with experienced players’ familiarity with the trap-laden stages.  The matchmaking system doesn’t help, as you can easily change teams in the lobby, allowing you to stack teams with no problem.  As such, high-level players can easily and repeatedly dominate their low-level opposition.

It all creates a terribly hostile environment for new players.  Of course, if you can push through the oppressive lower levels and gain some familiarity with the battlefields, there’s a fun multiplayer game underneath.  It only really appears if you get into a game full of players on your skill level, and the matchmaking does absolutely nothing to help find such a game.  I find that maybe one in every five matches is really fun, due primarily to the glaring design flaws mentioned above.

As a single player campaign, Tomb Raider is one of the best adventures out there, and I’d say it’s one that every gamer should experience.  As a complete package, though, Tomb Raider falls a little short because the multiplayer is so full of frustrating design choices that it’s not worth exploring unless you’re willing to invest a lot of time.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Weekly Achievement Report - March 23, 2013

My achievement hunting this week has been limited to three games:

The recent Tomb Raider reboot (review forthcoming) has taken up most of my time.  I still have several time-consuming multiplayer achievements to mop up, plus a couple story mode things that I missed, necessitating another playthrough.  Most of the story mode achievements are pretty straightforward, but the multiplayer is quite a grind, requiring many matches to reach the necessary rank.  I'll try to clean it up in the next couple weeks, but I think the multiplayer is going to take a long time to finish...

I've also been playing a lot of StarCraft II, although that one doesn't help my team with the Great TrueAchievement Score Challenge.  I'm slowly approaching the elusive 1000 wins achievements (one for each race option in both solo and team multiplayer matches), and I'm inching towards the maximum level for each race in Heart of the Swarm.

Also, in the Kingdom of Loathing, I finished my second Avatar of Jarlsberg run and started my third.  It's going quite well, now, with that second run down to 9 days.  The next should be better, as I've had access to  a much better diet since day 1.  I'm hoping for something in the realm of 6-7 days, so we'll see.

Not really a whole lot of achievement progress this week, but enough to be (somewhat) respectable.

See you next time.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Monday Magic - I Love the Smell of Simic in the Morning

After successfully drafting a pretty successful Simic deck, it seems like a good Simic constructed deck may be in order.

My goals with this deck were pretty simple: I want lots of ways to get +1/+1 counters on my creatures, and I'd like to be able to manipulate those counters for some useful purpose.  The big combo I was looking for was Ooze Flux; if you can get three smallish creatures with Evolve (and counters), Ooze Flux is suddenly 1G: get a 3/3 creature, as the ooze creature entering the battlefield can re-evolve all your dudes.  Another nice one is Zameck Guildmage, who can convert those counters into card advantage mighty quickly.

I also have a copy of Biomass Mutation, which is disgusting with counters - setting creatures to X/X happens without considering the counters on those creatures, so Biomass Mutation can get silly pretty fast with some decent board presence.  It's an instant, too, so it serves as a pretty nasty combat trick in a pinch; instead of being a 1/1 with 3 +1/+1 counters on it, my attacking Experiment One is now a 4/4 with all those counters!  Combine that with Ooze Flux's relatively easy way to generate a bunch of creatures, and Biomass Mutation is a brutal win condition.

Another nice combo is to use Ooze Flux or the Guildmage alongside creatures with Undying.  Continually throw an Undying creature at your opponent, then when it dies, you just remove the counter and keep at it.  As an added bonus, the Undying creature can trigger Evolve each time it returns from the dead, giving yet another near-endless supply of +1/+1 counters.

Here's the current form of the deck:

3 Cloudfin Raptor
3 Experiment One
1 Gyre Sage
2 Nimbus Swimmer
1 Primordial Hydra
1 Strangleroot Geist
1 Zameck Guildmage
3 Crocanura
2 Elusive Krasis
2 Crowned Ceratok
1 Fathom Mage
1 Vorapede
1 Sapphire Drake

1 Biomass Mutation
2 Counterspell
3 Simic Charm
2 Mystic Genesis

2 Increasing Savagery
1 Tezzeret's Gambit
1 Blessings of Nature

2 Ooze Flux

1 Alchemist's Refuge
1 Breeding Pool
13 Forest
9 Island

Alchemist's Refuge is there to allow for some defensive Evolve tricks (Increasing Savagery is a fun one, too), and all the creatures are either good for generating counters or enhancing/manipulating those counters.

The biggest weakness of this deck is its general inability to deal with aggression.  There are a few Counterspells to keep big, nasty creatures away from the battlefield and the Simic Charms have a nice variety of uses, but the Charms are the only removal in this deck.  The goal is to overwhelm your opponent, so it's in trouble if they overwhelm you first.

Still, the few times that I've used this deck, it's a lot of fun.  The Evolve mechanic can get really annoying for your opponent, and it's one of my favorite mechanics to play with, so I really enjoy this deck.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Game Review: StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm (PC, 2013)

After nearly three years, we finally have StarCraft II’s first expansion, Heart of the Swarm (HotS), and it is glorious.  Picking up where Wings of Liberty left off, HotS gives us the next chapter in the continuing struggle between Terran, Zerg, and Protoss forces, this time focusing on the Zerg swarm’s side of things.  Also introducing several new multiplayer units and a number of new features and interface changes, HotS is a significant upgrade to StarCraft II.

The campaign gives you 27 missions to explore the Zerg swarm’s dominance of the Koprulu Sector.  A number of great features from Wings of Liberty return: There is some quasi-nonlinearity, in that there are a few places where you get to choose which missions you’ll embark on next, affecting the units you’ll have available to you.  A number of between-mission upgrades are available for making the swarm stronger, but this time you can change which upgrades are active any time you want (they aren’t permanent choices like they were in Liberty).  You’ll also see several stunning cutscenes and fantastic storytelling, making for the most cinematic StarCraft outing yet.

The cutscenes are fantastically animated.

Speaking of the story, HotS has a pretty compelling plot.  Following closely on the heels of the final moments of Wings of Liberty, HotS gives us a much more focused storyline, showing different elements of Kerrigan’s rise to power (again) rather than the disjointed mission sequences that we had in Liberty.  We accompany Kerrigan on her quest for revenge against Emperor Mengsk, and every mission and cutscene contributes to that plot.  I was a little disappointed with the romantic subplot, as it was used as an unnecessary crutch at times, but even that felt like a natural development for these particular characters.  It’s a really tight narrative, which makes it that much more exciting.

HotS also introduces some exciting new features to complement its exciting storyline.  The most obvious is the fact that you get to control Kerrigan in many of the campaign’s missions.  She behaves very much like an RPG character (or the heroes from WarCraft III), gaining levels and learning new abilities as the game progresses.  It’s cool to have this powerful hero evolve under your command.  You also have the modified upgrade system mentioned above, as well as variety of missions and mission objectives.  It comes across as a diverse game.

A considerably less exciting feature that comes with Kerrigan’s RPG tendencies is the presence of hero-centric missions.  These missions give you control of only a handful of units, including Kerrigan, akin to the “facility” missions of the original StarCraft.  Your goal is to infiltrate a base or escape some area with this small task force, which feels a bit out of place in a real-time strategy (RTS) game.  What makes these missions feel like they’d be much more at home in a Diablo game is the fact that there are occasionally big boss battles.  Rather than trying to overwhelm some powerful army, you have to utilize Kerrigan’s skills to eliminate some big baddie.  It’s kind of cool the first time you see it, but by the third boss, it definitely loses its charm.  I would much rather have had more hardcore strategy missions.

A boss battle, in my RTS?

In fact, the biggest flaws of the HotS campaign come from a general lack of hardcore strategy missions.  The number of missions (27) is a bit deceiving, as 7 of those missions are really simple evolution missions.  The evolutions themselves are a cool idea – at certain points in the campaign, you get the chance to evolve one of your basic units, changing its fundamental features (for example, one zergling evolution allows them to jump up cliffs).  The evolution missions let you try the available options in action before deciding on one of the mutually exclusive evolutions, but that’s all they do – they are really short and are very easily completed.

On top of the number of disappointing missions, the campaign is pretty easy.  I had no trouble blasting through everything even on the hardest difficulty, so it’s not much of a challenge.

Kerrigan shows her proficiency with force lightning while destroying a Terran base in the campaign.
Despite the flaws, the campaign is quite fun.  The basic StarCraft mechanics are definitely there, making the missions enjoyable, and the presentation definitely conveys the urgency and scope of commanding the totality of the Zerg swarm.  It’s a lot of fun building a powerful army and smiting your enemies, and the programming (unit AI, controls, etc.) is fantastic.  I never felt like my units weren’t doing what I had intended them to do, and the units seem quite balanced, so it’s a damn good game.

Of course, there is a vast multiplayer community in addition to the HotS campaign.  New units for multiplayer matches mean new strategies and new metagames.  A new online leveling system gives players something to strive for, as you can unlock additional portraits and unit skins by playing as your favorite race.  The interface has changed a lot since the launch of Wings of Liberty, too, making it much sleeker and easier to navigate.  The changes to multiplayer all make it more accessible and addicting while still maintaining the competitive nature that defines online play in StarCraft.  Even better – you can easily switch back to Wings of Liberty to play under the old multiplayer system (or the Liberty campaign, if you like), so you don’t lose anything by adding in the expansion.  The active multiplayer community means that you'll never have to wait too long to get a match - HotS can easily keep players entertained for the next three years.

My base getting destroyed in a 3v3 multiplayer match. That happens a lot...
All things considered, Heart of the Swarm is a fantastic expansion.  It adds some quality missions and chronicles the next stage in the StarCraft saga beautifully.  Although it is a little on the easy side and has some odd missions, the fundamentals are solid, and it’s hard to stop playing once you start.  Add in some nice customization options and a deep multiplayer experience with an impressive community, and you have an all-around fabulous RTS experience.

My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Achievement Guide - Seriously Unstoppable in Serious Sam: Double D XXL

This post is a little different from any of the others that I've written because it's a (somewhat) detailed guide for earning an Xbox Live achievement.  The achievement in question is "Seriously Unstoppable" in Serious Sam: Double D XXL, which I'll get to in a moment.

Before then, though, I'll mention that I won't be doing an Achievement Report this week, as the GTASC was suspended while TrueAchievements updated its formula for calculating DLC TA Scores.  It led to many big fluctuations in TA Score that weren't related to earning new achievements, so the powers-that-be opted to delay a week and eliminate six teams next Saturday.  Anyway, I didn't earn any Xbox achievements this week because I was focusing on other stuff.

Now for the achievement guide:

To get this achievement, you first have to unlock all of the challenge levels by finding all the MBG pies throughout the story mode.  Then, you actually have to complete each of the challenges, which is undoubtedly the toughest part of the game.

MBG Pie Locations:

First up is the list of pies and brief explanations of how to find them.  It’s structured as:
“Challenge name – Level containing the pie – explanation.”

The list is arranged according to the order on the challenges page, not the order in which you can actually find them.  If you’re missing a few, look at the challenges you have available and find the missing ones in this list, choose to start at the appropriate level, and work your way towards the pie.

Kleer Karnage – Pyramid Looting - near the beginning of the level, there’s a room where the path splits: you could go down to the right (towards a switch that opens a door) or climb up a series of platforms.  Go up the platforms and into the little alcove on the right side, walk through the wall, and there’s your pie.  (It’s right across from the Secret Gunstacker Stash.)

Gnaarmageddon – Egyptian Assault - in the middle of your path in the level, shortly after seeing the Kamikazes for the first time.

Dino Destruction – Flying Reptiles – this pie is hidden right above the Secret Rock ‘n Hard Place Connector (it’s to the left after dropping down a long shaft with several flying dinos and logs).  Use the jump pad to wall jump up the hole in the ceiling, and you’ll get your pie.

Caterfighter Chaos – Pompeii Pyromania – this pie is in the Red Light District secret area.  After leaving the underground area and passing a shop, drop straight down, and you’ll find the secret area and this pie.

Biomech BBQ – Dinoo Switcheroo – right in your way during this level, immediately after the second time you have to climb up a bunch of missiles.

Vuvuzelator Vendetta – Dark Harvest – it’s the reward for surviving Mental’s Secret Closet.  It’s right after seeing a vuvuzelator for the first time; instead of climbing up to the vuvuzelator, continue to the right and you’ll find the closet.  You’ll have to survive against a series of Kleer skeletons in a small room, which can be tough, but if you come back after getting more powerful weapons, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.  The pie will be right in front of you as you’re leaving the area.

Kamikaze Kill-fest – Jurassic Reckoning – when you first see the kitten enemies, continue walking right (instead of dropping down).  After a Rejuvenative Flask, there will be a log covering a gap; drop into that gap to grab the pie.

Monkey Mayhem – Amesthystine Depths - in your path near the beginning of the level, before you encounter any enemies.

Skyline SpeedrunTube Town – while not particularly hidden, this pie is tricky to get because the level is so complex.  If you follow the path near the ground, you’ll come to a place where a blue tube is angled up to the right at about 45 degrees.  Under that tube is the pie.  It’s almost directly below the Secret Celestial Connecter area.

Volcanic Violence – Vesuvius – in your path halfway through the level, right before a shop.  I don’t think you can miss this one.

Lava Death Race – Fireball Fury – visible on a ledge after traveling under the first Flea.

Tomb Stone - Long, Hard Road – in the Secret Lasergun Left Under a Building area; when you first exit the cave and start running over rooftops, continue to the right.  The pie is in a little alcove at ground level on the right side of this area.

Challenge Level Tips:

Once you’ve found all the challenge pies, you’ll have to complete the challenges.  In each, it’s important to get a feel for how the challenge works – what stacks you have, what enemies you’re up against, and how the stages are set up.  In some challenges, just playing through them a couple times may be enough to get it done.  If not, here are some additional challenge-specific tips:

Kleer Karnage: Start by jumping up to the ledge to the right with the yellow armor.  This challenge isn’t timed, so you can sit up there comfortably killing enemies as they gather on the starting platform.  When you need more ammo, run to the opposite ledge on the left side and grab some.  If the enemies stop spawning, you’ll have to jump down and kill some that are running around the lower levels of the stage.  Stay on the starting platform and shoot down and retreat to the upper right again if dudes start to swarm you.  Be careful not to over-extend yourself; hold back and keep grabbing armor if your health is getting low.

Gnaarmageddon: Your biggest threat here are the beheaded soldiers.  Keep sweeping the chainsaws around to kill Gnaar, and focus on chasing the beheaded down, dodging their shots as you go.  Run back and forth across the bottom of the stage to line the enemies up behind you to make it easier to mow them down.

Dino Destruction: This is a survival challenge, so don’t worry so much about killing enemies.  I stick with the rocket launcher stack, killing dinos until there’s a nice pile of corpses in the middle of the arena.  When the pile gets high enough, you’ll start seeing some flying dinos – if you can get on their backs, the others can’t reach you very easily, making it a lot easier to survive for two minutes.  If not, you may be able to build a corpse wall on one of the sides; if there’s a big enough pile of bodies, you’ll be able to hide at the bottom beyond the reach of the dinos (they’ll be on top of the corpse-pile).

Caterfighter Chaos: This challenge is undoubtedly the hardest of the bunch.  My winning strategy was to drop down to ground level but stay in the middle of the area (so you can jump up and grab more ammo as needed).  The real problem here is the rocket-launching spider, so you need to position the laser shields to block those missiles.  I would alternate shooting right and left, trying to place the shields up angled at about 45 degrees.  Moving slightly to the right when shooting to the left and slightly to the left when shooting the right would give me a little shield wedge that I could stand under to protect against those missiles.  It’s really frustrating, so you’ll need a fair amount of luck to get past it, so just keep at it.

Biomech BBQ: Your biggest asset in this challenge is the fact that the flamethrower blocks enemy fire.  Constantly hold the trigger, sweeping the flamethrower around to protect yourself from the lasers and missiles from the biomechs.  Make that your focus – survive and you’ll get the necessary kills in time.  To make things easier, head to one side of the map so you can only get attacked from the other direction.  When you get overwhelmed with numbers, run to the other side (and grab more ammo along the way).  If at any point you don’t need to block shots, try to cover the ground with butter; knocking the biomechs down is always advantageous.

Vuvuzelator Vendetta: This one’s like Kleer Karnage – jump up to the highest level of the stage and kill vuvuzelators until no more are spawning around you.  Then, drop down until you find where they’re all getting stuck (probably the lowest level), and wipe them out.  After that, you’ll have to maneuver around a bit to keep from dying, but try to stay alive while getting back to the top to repeat the process.

Kamikaze Kill-fest: This challenge is surprisingly simple.  Run to the right and into the little alcove on the side of the stage (go into the middle one, not the highest one).  If you chill out in there, kamikazes will gather in the area below you, where you can quickly jump out and kill them.  A bit later, femikazes will actually do all the work for you, killing the kamikazes and bringing you closer to your goal.  As with the other challenges like this, you may need to jump out and find more kamikazes to kill if they stop spawning near you – I found that they tended to collect on a ledge on the left side of the stage.

Monkey Mayhem: This one will come pretty naturally if you keep moving.  Make sure to avoid kamikazes and try to stay away from exploding monkeys, and you should be fine.

Skyline Speedrun: The goal in this challenge is just to reach the end line. You only have one machine pistol, so you won’t be able to kill very much.  It does come equipped with Air Buffer, though, so use that to float along when you can.  Jump on monkeys whenever possible and try to get as high as you can and just float off to the right.

Volcanic Violence: Start by braving the lava and heading to the next platform to the left (it has an ammo backpack, which is really important).  Then, switch to the laser stack and use it indiscriminately.  One of the lasers will heal you, you’ll get automated turrets and rockets will lift enemies off the ground.  Grab the backpack when it appears and you should have an easy time finishing this one.  Watch out for the lava monsters, but otherwise it’s pretty smooth sailing.

Lava Death Race: Don’t worry about the enemies or even the lava in this race, just hop along to the right.  If you shoot continuously angled towards the ground, you’ll be able to incapacitate the enemies by lifting them, and you might be able to give yourself some impressive air if timed well with your jumps.  Try to grab ammo and health as it comes along, and you should be able to sail through this race.

Tomb Stone: Yet again, the best strategy is to head to the top of the stage.  There’s plenty of ammo and healing up here, so you should be set.  Switch to the second stack (the one with the laser) and just keep shooting.  Focus on taking out the spiders and dodge the missiles and you should survive for several minutes, finishing this survival challenge.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Monday Magic - A Little Boros Draft

We had another casual Gatecrash draft over the weekend, and I ended up going the Boros route this time.  There were 11 people in this draft, so it was huge, which gave it a totally different feel.  You basically never saw the same pack twice, which was exciting in itself.  I don't know that I'd really want to do such a big draft again anytime soon, but the novelty of it was quite fun.

The rare in my first pack was Legion Loyalist, which has the potential for some nasty aggro. Raging Goblin's steroid-addicted older brother can get in some early damage, but he can also make an attack into a brutal stomping for one mana.  His crazy Battalion effect is almost like Bloodrush for the team, given his haste.  It was a natural pick for me.

As the packs came around, I was able to grab a bunch of pure red cards - Massive Raid, Skinbrand Goblin,  Firefist Striker.  None of the people to my right were drafting red, so I felt pretty confident in my starting pick.  By the end of pack one, I had several Boros cards on top of the pure red stuff (Martial Glory and Wojek Halberdiers), so I had definitely made up my mind.

Pack two settled the issue completely, as my rare was Angelic Skirmisher.  I kept grabbing red cards, trying my best to balance removal with a bunch of cheap creatures.  The guy to my left even passed another Legion Loyalist, so I felt like I was in pretty good position.

The third pack was initially a downer, as the rare was Biovisionary, a card that had absolutely no place anywhere near my deck.  I was kind of disappointed as that meant that my only real bomb was the Skirmisher, and I didn't have much aside from a bunch of 1- and 2-drops.  Then the guy to the right passed me a Hellkite Tyrant.  The Hellkite's artifact-related ability isn't much use, but as a 6/5 flier, he was an awesome addition to my deck.

In the end, I think I came away with a surprisingly focused Boros deck.  I was fortunate to be surrounded by people passing the red stuff, so there were many times that I was able to choose from 3 or 4 red cards.  It was a fantastic position to be in.

Anyway, here's the deck I came away with:

Legion Loyalist
Skinbrand Goblin
Firefist Striker
Wojek Halberdiers
1 Ember Beast
1 Assault Griffin
1 Cinder Elemental
1 Scorchwalker
1 Viashino Shanktail
1 Nav Squad Commandos
1 Towering Thunderfist
Angelic Skirmisher
Hellkite Tyrant

2 Martial Glory
Pit Fight
Massive Raid

1 Mugging
1 Act of Treason

1 Madcap Skills

1 Boros Guildgate
10 Mountain
5 Plains

A couple of notes:  I was only running 16 lands, which was a little risky, but I justified it by seeing that the majority of my spells required only 1 or 2 mana, so I was mostly interested in getting lots of little dudes into play.  I think my biggest problem was the removal - Massive Raid is really circumstantial (it only works if you have enough creatures), Pit Fight is similarly limited, and Mugging is just sorcery speed, so I couldn't use it for any tricks.

This deck didn't perform as well as I had hoped.  I went 2-2 in best-of-threes, readily defeating other aggressive decks, but losing the long game to stalling decks.  In those matches that progressed to the late game, I didn't have anything to build up.  If I could get the Hellkite or the Skirmisher into play, they'd just be removed with something like Angelic Edict, and I'd be back where I started.

Still, it was a lot of fun, and it gave me some ideas for a Boros constructed deck.  We'll see when I get that put together...

Monday, March 11, 2013

Game Review: StarCraft (PC, 1998)

StarCraft is a genre-defining game, it’s effectively the national sport of South Korea, and it was the beginning of a phenomenon unlike any other.  Although it was released nearly 15 years ago, the upcoming expansion to its sequel prompted me to revisit its roots.  What followed was a 14-hour journey through one of my childhood favorites.

For the record, I don’t think it’s worth reviewing games given their contemporary world, instead opting to review a game based on my thoughts as I play it – in the case of this StarCraft review, that means I’ll be looking at it through the eyes of a gamer in 2013 instead of 1998.  Sure, this approach means that my reviews will lose something over time, as “timeless” features may become obsolete and nostalgia fluctuations may give classics different spins, but I think it’s a more honest approach.  I can’t accurately convey the excitement of engaging the Zerg swarms for the first time in the late nineties, and no gamer will be able to experience that rush again given the evolution of the industry in the last decade-and-a-half.

So, for better or worse, fair or not, here are my thoughts on the original StarCraft on the eve of the release of Heart of the Swarm:

First the basics: StarCraft puts you in control of a military outpost and tasks you with harvesting raw materials, developing technology, and raising an army to crush your foes.  It’s a real-time strategy (RTS) game, meaning quick decisions and quicker reflexes are necessary to outsmart and outmaneuver the opposition.

Through the campaign, you’ll control one of three species – the cunning humans (the Terrans), the viscous swarms of the Zerg, or the technologically superior Protoss.  Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses, giving different experiences and requiring different strategies.

The single-player mode is divided into three parts, with one 10-mission campaign for each of the races.  Starting with the Terrans, you’ll learn the basics of each race and get a chance to deal with each possible matchup.  Although the story of three campaigns are chronologically ordered, you do have the option of jumping to the race you want to play and skipping the other campaigns, if you want, which is definitely a nice feature.

These days, the StarCraft mythos is pretty complex, but only a portion of that complexity is available in the original game.  We see examples of political intrigue and bitter enemies, but the majority of the game’s exposition happens in the first act (the Terran campaign).  There are details about harsh political struggles within the Terran Dominion and how the Terran leaders are dealing with the sudden arrival of two sentient (and hostile) alien species, and we learn a lot about the StarCraft universe in those first 10 missions.

In the other two campaigns, there’s a lot less detail and a lot more repetition.  We don’t learn as much about the internal workings of the Protoss civilization or the Zerg hierarchy, and what little we do hear happens several times.  To make matters worse, there are hints at some awesome backstory that is never explored.  The lack of detail in what are arguably the more interesting campaigns is disappointing.

On the other hand, each of the campaigns has a self-contained story arc.  The later campaigns build on the earlier ones, using the other campaigns’ events as a backdrop for a new conflict, but each campaign focuses on a particular struggle and follows it to its conclusion.  It’s great to be able to see the StarCraft universe from three different perspectives, each with its own biases and goals, and the end result is some knowledge of the inner workings of each of the races.

While the voice acting is pretty darned good (the script isn’t always stellar, but it’s never really cringe-worthy, either), and some of the sound effects are iconic, the graphical style hasn’t aged very well.  Pre-rendered cutscenes are obviously very dated, and although they’re not terrible, they’re not quite as good at conveying the tone as they could be.  In-game graphics are similarly old-school, using blocky sprites and jagged animations, but the graphical quality never affects the gameplay itself, so it’s not a serious problem.

While the old graphical presentation may be the most obvious flaw in the modern market, the most disappointing part of replaying a classic like StarCraft is the dated gameplay.  While the basic mechanics are the same as any good RTS game these days (even better than some), there are small features that really stick out as frustrating in the modern gaming world.

First is the fact that you can only select 12 units at a time.  In many cases, you’ll need to control 20 units or more simultaneously, which means that you’ll need to issue many commands, quickly switching between small groups of units, as opposed to a single command to one group as in modern RTS games.  This system presents an awfully high mechanical barrier for new players to overcome, encouraging strong defensive tactics until you can build an army of your race’s most powerful unit instead of making full use of the technology tree.  It’s frustrating to feel like the game’s control scheme is getting in the way, and that definitely happens in StarCraft on occasion.

Second, the unit AI is downright silly at times.  Pathing is generally terrible, such that units will follow long, winding paths to reach their destinations instead of the most direct route, and they will interact with each other in complicated (and almost always sub-optimal) ways, like pacing back and forth behind other units instead of moving around them to go forward.  It can be a huge pain to deal with these weird dances, particularly when one well-placed unit could mean the difference between a successful battle and a humiliating defeat.

Interestingly, these control flaws have proven useful for StarCraft as a really competitive game.  Truly skilled players can separate themselves from the rest by expertly overcoming these control hurdles, making for an exciting spectator sport, but it’s never good to alienate new players with clunky control schemes.

StarCraft also features an expansive custom game system, allowing you to play deathmatches against computer-controlled opponents, to challenge your friends online, or to play some silly user-made maps with custom triggers.  The map editor comes with the game, giving creative gamers a chance to develop something fun for others to enjoy.  It’s a really cool system, and the multiplayer gives the game a huge number of additional options, but the online community is ever-dwindling as StarCraft loyalists move into StarCraft II.  Even so, the custom map features are exceptional even by today’s standards.

StarCraft is one of the respectable elders of the gaming world.  The ideas contained within it have spawned numerous imitators, so much so that its name is almost synonymous with “real-time strategy game.”  Even though it’s growing ever closer to the age of consent, it’s still a fun, challenging game with lots of options.  Its flaws may deter new players, though, so if you’re not already a fan of the RTS genre or the StarCraft series specifically, you probably want to start with a different title.

My Rating: 7/10 – good.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Weekly Achievement Report - March 9, 2013

I am participating in the Great TrueAchievement Score Challenge (I'm the leader of Team Lazy Eye), so I've decided to provide a little report at the end of each scoring period (7 PM Eastern on Saturdays) of the achievements I earned and my thoughts on them.  It's kind of a series of mini-reviews of achievements, and here's volume I:

This week was pretty lean, as I devoted most of my time to completing Runner2.  The last few achievements (Completing all 90 Rewards and getting Triple Perfect+ on every level) are terribly time-consuming as they require you to go through each level at least three times.  It's not too hard, especially after completing each stage on Rather Hard, but it's quite a grind.  I had a little over 19 hours of playtime when I nabbed the last achievement, making it a pretty long completion for an XBLA platformer.

I picked up the Tricked Out achievement in Serious Sam: Double D: XXL.  I'm still one short of completing that game, but I can't even find the pie that unlocks the last challenge level, so I'm stuck for now.  I'm hoping that somebody will come up with a guide to show where all those pies are hiding, but until then, I think I'm going to table this game.

So that was this week.  I played a couple of fun arcade games, but not a whole lot else.

See you next time.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Game Review: Runner2 (XBLA, 2013)

Modern video games are amazing.  You can choose from games featuring epic storylines, intense action, and massive multiplayer battles.  But sometimes you just want to dodge obstacles to the rhythm of some funky music while bizarre creatures watch from the background.  Enter Runner2.

Formally titled “Bit.Trip Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien,” Runner2 is the sequel to the successful indie title Bit.Trip Runner, and as the name suggests, it’s all about running.  But while you’re automatically running, you’ll need to jump over, slide under, kick, and block obstacles on your way to each stage’s finish line.

Although it may not sound like it (and it certainly doesn’t look like it), Runner2 is really a music and rhythm game.  The soundtrack is pretty simple, but syncing your movements to the beat is the key to success, and each obstacle you successfully avoid will add a chime of some sort to compliment the background track.

Each of the game’s 100 stages will give you different combinations of the basic obstacles, sometimes stringing them along in complex patterns.  They will also present a number of score-boosting collectibles, and trying to grab all of them further complicates the acrobatics you’ll have to perform.  It’s a really simple formula, but it’s executed so well that it’s amazingly fun.  It can get pretty frustrating, too, as some of the stages are quite challenging, but it never feels cheap – your success is due to quick reflexes and precise actions; your failure is never the result of poor design or awkward controls.

Runner2’s art direction is also phenomenal.  It’s a goofy game, with five distinct and gorgeous worlds, each boasting expansive backdrops and stunning set pieces.  The music, while lacking in diversity (there are very few tracks throughout the entire game), makes quite an impression due to the way it responds to your in-game actions.  In addition to the complimentary sound effects from progressing through the stage, certain collectibles will intensify the tune, crescendoing to the conclusion of each stage.  All-in-all, the audiovisual presentation accentuates the game’s basic mechanics nicely.

Sadly, it’s not all good.  Perhaps the most noticeable flaw is the previously-mentioned short list of songs.  For a game with such a large emphasis on rhythm, I wish there would have been more music to accompany all the running.  Next, although there are three difficulty levels for every stage, there’s not a whole lot to keep you coming back once you’ve finished every level.  Sure, you can shoot for collecting all the items in each stage, or beating your friends’ highscores (there are leaderboards for each level), but it’s not as fulfilling after you’ve bested each stage once.

Despite the flaws, Runner2 is worth at least a good 10 hours of old-school platforming action, and its simplicity makes it strangely addictive.  It’s a lot of fun, and it’s definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of quirky indie games.

My Rating: 8/10 – great. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Monday Magic - Avacyn Revised

Over the weekend, I had a few opportunities to test the Avacyn-centric deck I discussed last week.  The biggest problem I encountered was not too unexpected: it's just too damn slow.  Far too often I found myself sitting on 4 or 5 lands and still being unable to play the cards in my hand, or I'd draw a decent number of angels and lands, but not get any early creatures to keep me alive.  Either way, it's a clear problem with the speed of the deck.

(To be fair, against one deck I got smacked around because my opponent hit my angels (from Entreat the Angels) with a Detention Sphere.  The Mystical Tutor into Entreat the Angels combo worked really well otherwise.)

I think there are a few changes that need to be made:

First, the Eldrazi Conscription win condition isn't worth the gamble.  If I can survive to 8 mana, it's certainly a beast to get on the board, but I haven't been able to survive that long.  The combo with Bruna is powerful, but I don't have enough copies of either to make it a decent bet.  Sitting on Conscription instead of another 4-or-less drop creature just isn't worth it.

Second, Champion of the Parish fits much more naturally in an aggressive deck, so it's probably worth exchanging him for something a little more appropriate for stalling.  Some cheap walls would likely be a good replacement.  Removing some Humans makes Angel of Glory's Rise somewhat less effective, so a cheaper alternative would be good.

Generally, more removal options would be better, too, so a few more Counterspells or Vapor Snags might be worthwhile.

Here's the (slightly) modified version:

3 Doomed Traveler
2 Pride Guardian
2 Konda's Hatamoto
2 Tandem Lookout
2 Restoration Angel
2 Seraph of Dawn
1 Guardian of the Gateless
1 Angelic Skirmisher
2 Sunblast Angel
1 Angel of Serenity
1 Avacyn, Angel of Hope

2 Mystical Tutor
2 Turn Aside
4 Vapor Snag
2 Counterspell
2 Mana Leak

1 Entreat the Angels
1 Temporal Mastery

1 Detention Sphere
1 Angelic Destiny
1 Call to the Kindred

9 Island
12 Plains
1 Seachrome Coast
2 Terramorphic Expanse

There's still some tweaking to be done, of course.  I'll need to play a few more matches to decide on other changes, but I think it's becoming something fearsome...

Or maybe not.  I guess we'll see upon the next iteration.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Game Review: Serious Sam Double D XXL (XBLA, 2013)

The Serious Sam franchise is known for channeling old-school gameplay, and Double D XXL is no different.  This time, however, we’re seeing the over-the-top Serious Sam style applied to classic 2D sidescrollers, and the biggest flaw is that it’s not longer.

Old-school 2D shooters like Contra are classics because they combine tons of action with easy to pick-up-and-play mechanics.  There was virtually no learning curve, making those games widely accessible.  They had minimal stories and exposition, as the entire focus of the games was on running and gunning, so players didn’t have to invest several hours to get any real return.  Those types of games easily appeal to a wide variety of players, making them so well-known and enjoyed.

XXL embodies all of those characteristics.  You start the game with a brief (skippable) dialogue between two characters, but then you just run, jump, and shoot your way to glory atop a mound of enemy corpses.  Aside from one awkward default button assignment (which you can easily change), the controls are intuitive and fluid, so it’s easy to get started.

And the story is given in short bursts between missions, never forcing you to spend more than a minute or so waiting for your next chance rain death upon the world.   Some of the bits are genuinely amusing, though, so they come as a welcome break from all the destruction, even if other bits try too hard to be silly.

Despite a somewhat jarring menu system, the presentation is rather nice, too.  Colorful environments and characters along with smooth animations give the world a nice feel, even if the graphics are a little simplistic.  Most sound effects seem to be taken straight from earlier Serious Sam games, so XXL sounds like it fits in the Serious Sam universe.  The little bits of voice acting are great, too, giving the characters a realistic vibe.

Basically, XXL is a great game in the vein of old-school shooters.

But the developers took it a couple steps further.  In addition to the solid sidescrolling foundation, there are some exciting elements that set XXL apart:

The first is the jump pad.  You’ll acquire this item early in the game that bounces you higher than you could ordinarily jump.  You can place it on any surface (including bodies) and can quickly replace it.  This setup alone allows for some additional maneuvering, including a ghetto walljump, but the reason it’s a really neat addition is the fact that it works on enemies, too.  Clever deployment of a jump pad can completely change an engagement, launching your enemies into the air to clear some space.  It’s a cool mechanic, and it adds some depth to the otherwise straightforward gameplay.

The second and even more exciting addition is “gunstacking.”  Like with the jump pad, gunstack connectors are available early in the game.  These bad boys allow you to combine guns so you can fire up to six simultaneously.  To start, it’s not too impressive – firing three shotguns at a time won’t soil anyone’s shorts – but when you start mixing in rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and laser guns, gunstacking quickly becomes the coolest thing you didn’t realize your wanted (or maybe you did realize, in which case, HERE IT IS!).

Gunstacking adds some strategy, too, as you can mix and match guns and upgrades to make the perfect gunstacks for any occasion.  Mop up waves of enemies with four machine guns, a shotgun, and a flame thrower, and then switch to a stack of rockets, lasers, and grenades for big boss battles.  It’s hugely satisfying to see your character running around with a stack of guns taller than he is, and it’s even more satisfying to use those guns to smite your enemies.

Gunstacking makes XXL a stupid amount of fun.

The biggest flaw is that it’s all over much too soon.  With only three acts, the story mode is pretty short.  There are a number of hidden secret areas that are common in the Serious Sam franchise and several challenges to test your mettle, but you still run out of content much too soon.  Some other features (like local coop and an alternative single-player character to unlock, who comes with a whole new set of dialogue throughout the game) help to mitigate this particular flaw, but I still find myself longing for more to do.  In the end, though, I guess that’s a good problem to have.

Serious Sam: Double D XXL is a great 2D shooter, both as a throwback to the genre and as an incredibly entertaining experience in today’s market.  It’s goofy, way over-the-top, and terribly fun.  It’s a little lacking in content, though, so it may not be worth the investment for every gamer, but it’s still a damn fine game.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.