Sunday, June 30, 2013

Game Review - DarkStar One: Broken Alliance (Xbox 360, 2008)

During my formative years as a gamer, I would gobble up any game I could get my hands on, good or bad.  I spent untold hours exploring dozens of virtual worlds, but as the gaming industry evolves, some genres become less common.  A great example is the flight simulator; I loved the X-Wing series of games, but I haven’t seen a really good flight sim in well over a decade.  I jumped on DarkStar One: Broken Alliance for just this reason, but it sadly doesn’t break that trend.

DarkStar One puts you in the Kayron’s jumpsuit and follows the eager young pilot’s first excursion.  Driven by the discovery of unusual circumstances surrounding his father’s death, Kayron’s quest to find a saboteur takes him across the galaxy and, as tends to happen in RPGs, draws him into every conflict he encounters.

The melding of flight sim and RPG elements is pretty cool.  Instead of progressing linearly through a series of missions, you’re able to explore different systems and sectors at your leisure, with the main quest making up only a small portion of the available content.  You also get RPG-esque upgrades for your ship, making leveling up an integral part of the gameplay.

But that’s basically where the coolness ends; everything else is disappointing.  Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.

The control scheme is terrible.  It’s pretty clear that this title is a console port of a PC game, as the complex controls you might expect while piloting a spaceship are severely limited by the relative lack of buttons on a console controller.  For thurst, you have three options: forward, backward, and stopped.  Those three options alone wouldn’t be problematic, except that you also have the option of matching the speed of your target, opening a ton of other velocities.  Your control over your speed is limited in a fairly silly way.

Combat is also annoying because you can’t do a whole lot.  Standard flying maneuvers like barrel rolls are extremely awkward if they’re even available, so I found battles would reduce to stopping so I could more easily target the highly evasive fighters I encountered. There are a few fights involving larger capital ships, but those are also heavily fighter-centric.  Every battle ends up playing out the same way, which gets incredibly repetitive.

One saving grace is the element of exploration.  There are over 300 systems to explore across several alien factions, so DarkStar One offers a large galaxy for you to discover.  Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no incentive to venture too far off the path – each system consists of a trading station, some neutral trade ships, and possibly an asteroid field and research station (which won’t interact with you at all), and lonely empty space.  That’s it.  Aside from admittedly beautiful planets floating in the distance, there’s nothing to see or do in the majority of these systems.

To make matters worse, pirates will ambush you a lot, and you can’t do much of anything (like docking with trade stations of hyperjumping to a new system) until you kill them.  Bouncing from system to system becomes a tedious exercise in killing a handful of pirates and visiting the trade station before moving on to the next one, and there are very few rewards for doing so.  It feels like a pointlessly big galaxy, with lots to explore but nothing to discover.

Quests are rather repetitive, too.  Despite having a number of different objectives, nearly all of them reduce to “go here, kill this, come back.”  Main storyline quests are a little bit better, as a few will send you to the surface of a planet for a somewhat different experience, but those missions have a different problem – a couple of those missions lead to disorienting and borderline nauseating areas, so they lose whatever benefits the diversity provided.

And there are no compelling reasons to complete those storyline missions.  The narrative is incredibly boring; I felt no real desire to see it through after a couple hours of play.  Perhaps more damning is the fact that it hints at intriguing complexities by mentioning bitter wars and political conflicts between races, but it never develops the history of this galaxy.  You’re left with an “everybody hates everybody” scenario with no justification, making for a very shallow experience.

Despite the dated animations, the presentation is decent.  For most of the game, you’re dealing with distant ships and planetary backgrounds, the lack of small details in which is pretty hard to screw up.  The cinematics are clearly using less-than-modern graphical capabilities, but they’re still solid.  Voice acting is a little awkward, but it’s also not horrible.  The fact that the rather mediocre presentation is overall the best part of the game says something rather disappointing about the game as a whole.

To be fair, I enjoyed the first couple hours of jumping from system to system, recklessly dispatching pirates.  It wasn’t until the lack of depth became apparent that I started to get frustrated with it, and then the game continued for another 10+ hours.  Completing this game is far more a test of stamina than an entertaining romp through a sci-fi universe.

DarkStar One: Broken Alliance starts relatively well but rapidly fizzles.  It becomes incredibly tedious and generally uninteresting, leading me to find it hard to recommend it to much of anyone.  If you’re desperate for a flight sim, it’ll help satiate that need, but your time and money are still probably better spent elsewhere.

My Rating: 2/10 – terrible.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Achievement Report - June 29, 2013

This week was not nearly as frightening as last week.  Our team pulled out of the gate pretty strongly, securing a safe position early on.  Still, I had a respectable showing throughout the week.

On another note, I started writing a review for DarkStar One, and I discovered something interesting: I actually have a hard time talking about games I don't like.  I know a lot of people find it easy to rant about bad games and rave about good ones, but it seems like I'm a little lacking the ranting skill. I'll see if I can work on that one.

Following last week's progress, my first accomplishment this week was completing DarkStar One.  As I mentioned last week, the achievements are incredibly tedious and generally very boring, so this wasn't a hugely entertaining process.  Now it's done, though, so I'm thankful for that...

The only other game I really played this week was Wednesday's new XBLA release, Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014.  Being a Magic veteran, I had no problem blowing through the campaigns on the highest difficulty setting, spending only about 10 hours in-game to earn all the achievements.  For players new to the game, I imagine that the learning curve could be pretty high, but I would still think that it wouldn't take more than 15 hours to complete.  Plus it's pretty fun, so I highly recommend it for achievement hunters.

Kingdom of Loathing
I'm chugging through my latest Bad Moon run.  It's going pretty slowly (as expected and by design), but it may start speeding up a bit in the next week, as I've spent a fair amount of time leveling.  Either way, it'll probably be a couple more weeks before I move on to something else.

A leisurely BM run gives a great opportunity to grind some things out.  I spent a bunch of extra turns in A Large Chamber to earn the Evil's Okay in My Book trophy (although I haven't purchased it yet), and I'm using this run to do a 100% Blood-Faced Volleyball run (which I screwed up the last time I tried it).

A trophy quite a bit out of the way of a normal ascension run.
An intentionally slow run is great for accomplishing secondary KoL goals, like tedious trophies or earning swagger for usually non-PvP players (Hardcore runs are great for that - break your Hippy Stone early in the run, then stockpile fights until you hit the limit or approach the end of your run; that way you'll minimize the effect on your play, and because you're in Hardcore, you don't stand to lose anything in defensive fights).

StarCraft II
I played a bunch of StarCraft matches this week, working primarily on two particular achievements:

So. Close.
I've worked towards the 250 Terran wins vs. AI, bringing myself within 30 wins of earning that achievement.  Once that one's done, finishing the wins vs. Elite AI achievement (I need 106 wins for that one) won't be quite as annoying, as I don't hate playing the other races as much as I hate playing Terran...

Chug-chug-chugging away!
When I play big team games (3v3 and 4v4), I tend to play random to make progress on this achievement.  I find that the big games are a little less strategic and a little more cheesy, so I don't think I have nearly the disadvantage that I'd have when off-racing in 2s or 1s.

I'm making good achievement progress in SC2, currently sitting at 5520 achievement points overall.  Of course, there's still a lot to do (I have barely touched 1v1, for example), so I wonder if I'll be able to earn all the achievements, even after Legacy of the Void...

I also signed up for ggtracker to get some detailed analysis of my play over time.  The site requires you to manually upload replays (I haven't seen any obvious options for automatic uploads), but it spits out a number of cool stats and it's prettier than sc2gears (plus more easily shared).  I don't see any point in uploading vs. AI replays, so my profile is a little sparse right now, but it could be a pretty cool tool in the future.  I'm excited about it.

And that does it.  This coming week will be interesting for gaming, as there's a holiday and TrueAchievement's annual Bean Dive phenomenon.  The Bean Dive is an incentive for players to pop an achievement in every game they own but haven't played.  Named for the resulting dip in completion percentage, it's a great opportunity to find really exciting games that might otherwise stay on the shelf for a few more months.  I like it, and it probably means that I'll be playing a wide variety of games before next Saturday.  Until then, tschüss.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Monday Magic - Possibility Storm Revised

I've had several chances to play with my Possibility Storm deck, and I've identified a couple major flaws.  The biggest is that my deck is terribly weak against strong ramping abilities leading to massive creatures or spells.  If you can sneak a Darksteel Colossus or a similarly big creature into play before I can get the Possibility Storm/Curse of Exhaustion combo running (usually turn 4 or 5), I'm pretty much screwed.

I went up against a nasty Elf deck that managed just that, and I think biggest flaw is that the low end of my mana curve was designed to deter creature aggression or set up profitable trades; if my opponent's not attacking with his or her creatures, mine can't do anything.  As such, I have replaced some of the low-costing creatures with more burn spells so I can stop a player from sitting back on tricky creatures in the early game.

Another problem was generally running out of gas.  I had one game where I managed to get my combo off, but my opponent's board state was slightly better than mine, and he was slowly able to whittle me down.  The above changes will help (more burn will help me clear the board or end the game), but I've also dropped some of the ramping spells I had before.  The ramp never really seemed necessary, and it just gave me crappy spells to grab with the Storm, so they've gotta go.

One more problem is the fact that my enchantments become dead weight once my combo is on the board.  I'd love to play a couple copies of something like Faithless Looting so I can cycle my enchantments out of my hand, but I also want to keep the total number of spell types low to keep from getting caught with only one card of a particular type left in my deck (which means Storm will prevent me from ever playing it).  It may be worth inserting a few Sorcery burn spells and Faithless Looting, but for now, I want to stick with Instant-speed burn and see how that matches up.

I also had the fortune of getting a few extra Curses of Exhaustion from a friend, making the total shutdown combo a bit easier to pull off.  All in all, I think the Possibility Storm deck is becoming a powerful option.

Anyway, here's the current form of the deck:

1 Ashmouth Hound
2 Blistercoil Weird
2 Burning-Tree Emissary
1 Chancellor of the Forge
2 Goblin Arsonist
2 Melek, Izzet Paragon
1 Mercurial Chemister
1 Nivmagus Elemental
1 Somberwald Vigilante
1 Utvara Hellkite

2 Annihilating Fire
4 Incinerate
2 Lightning Bolt
2 Punish the Enemy
2 Thunderous Wrath

2 Boros Cluestone
2 Boros Signet

Curse of Exhaustion
3 Possibility Storm

2 Boros Guildgate
4 Island
13 Mountain
2 Plains
2 Sulfur Falls

I can't wait to see this newest version in action!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Achievement Report - June 22, 2013

Oh boy.  I've been rather busy this week, so I haven't had as much time for gaming, and our team faced elimination going into the final hours of the GTASC.  Fortunately, a couple of us were able to snag several hundred points in the last few hours, so we managed to survive, putting us in the top 50 overall.  Here's what happened:

Most of my gaming this week has been focused on DarkStar One: Broken Alliance.  While the basic setup isn't too bad, the game itself is terribly, terribly tedious and repetitive.  The achievement list adds further pain by requiring you to visit several hundred locations (about half of which will great you with a small group of hostile pirates), and you'll engage in the same little skirmish every time an enemy shows up.  It's also setup so that you can't easily run from battles, so you have to go through with every one of the mind-numbing fights.

I've spent a total of about 20 hours on the game, and I'm still probably 5 hours or so away from finishing it up.  It's not hard, just terrible.

In the last couple hours of this week's scoring period, I switched over to Home Run Stars in an effort to maximize my TA Score to time ratio.  A little over half this game's Gamerscore isn't too bad, as you'll get a bunch of it just for completing the game (which can admittedly be pretty challenging near the end).  Earning gold medals and completing all the game's FameStar challenges seem like they'll require some dedication, though, so the second half will be a bit more demanding.  Still, I estimate that a full completion will take fewer than 6-8 hours, so it doesn't seem too bad overall.

Kingdom of Loathing
My original plan was to complete a quick Way of the Surprising Fist run to grab the Good Will Punching trophy, but I overestimated the total value of random crap I'd accumulated for that purpose.  After dumping 300 dense meat stacks, nearly 100 massive gemstones, and a ton of other stuff, I still hadn't earned the trophy.  I ended up spending a couple extra days farming GameInformPowerDailyPro magazines to get it done, but I've now officially earned all the trophies associated with Surprising Fist runs - I probably won't ever do another one.

My six most recent additions.
Given that the next few weeks will likely be hectic for me, I opted to transition into another Bad Moon run (this time as a Turtle Tamer) so that I'm not hurt nearly as much if I miss adventuring for a day or two.  I may use my schedule for the upcoming weeks as an excuse to do a couple of these Bad Moon runs, depending on how things go.

Aside from the above, I haven't done much gaming.  I played a few StarCraft II matches, but no more than five, so they're not really worth describing in any detail.

Like last week, I may not have a whole lot of gaming time this next week, but I've already made a good dent in serving my team for the GTASC by continuing DarkStar One.  Still, I hope I'll be able to make significant progress in some of my gaming goals by this time next week.  Until then, tschüss.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Monday Magic - EDH with the Dracogenius - Niv-Mizzet as Commander

Following my last EDH blog, I was excited to start concocting another deck.  I wanted to avoid any color overlap with my existing deck (Varolz, the Scar-Striped, black and green), as it already had most of my good EDH-worthy cards in those colors and I don't want to have to switch cards between decks if I can help it.  Those restrictions ultimately brought my choice down to two creatures: Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius and Isperia, Supreme Judge.  I ultimately chose the Dragon over the Sphinx because he gives a more reliable (and safer) way of asserting card dominance.

The deckbuilding proceeded essentially as before: I included all the big nasty rares that likely would never see regular constructed play, and I tried to maximize the use of spells that affect "opponents" or "opponents' creatures" to get the best possible results.  I tried to stick to the card drawing theme by including a bunch of spells to give me tons of options (Mind Unbound and Enter the Infinite being the biggest ones), some spells to restrict my foes (Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur), and a few things to help me abuse those powers (Beacon of Tomorrows for extra turns, Elixir of Immortality to keep from milling myself to death).  Throw in the most annoying counterspell in Magic (Time Stop), and you have a pretty reasonable EDH deck.

Here's the setup:

Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius

Diluvian Primordial
Djinn of Wishes
Flameborn Viron
Flayer of the Hatebound
Harbor Serpent
Hypersonic Dragon
Invader Parasite
Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
Keiga, the Tide Star
Kuldotha Ringleader
Mindclaw Shaman
Molten Primordial
Myojin of the Seeing Winds
Nivix Guildmage
Rage Nimbus
Ripscale Predator
Scourge of Geier Reach
Slumbering Dragon
Sphinx of Uthuun
Stormtide Leviathan
Tyrant of Discord
Valakut Fireboar

Cyclonic Rift
Essence Backlash
Rock Slide
Street Spasm
Time Stop

Alpha Brawl
Beacon of Tomorrows
Cerebral Eruption
Cone of Flame
Devastation Tide
Enter the Infinite
Fire Tempest
Into the Maw of Hell
Lava Burst
Meteor Shower
Rolling Temblor

Dreamstone Hedron
Elixir of Immortality
Feldon's Cane
Izzet Cluestone
Izzet Keyrune
Izzet Signet

Curse of Echoes
Mind Control
Mind Unbound
Numbing Dose
Volition Reins
Warstorm Surge

Ral Zarek

18 Island
Izzet Guildgate
19 Mountain

I was able to play one game with this deck a couple weeks ago, and although I think it ended up a bit weaker than my Varolz deck, I like it a lot more.  Instead of just being built out of a solid mechanic (Scavenge), this deck makes sillier plays throughout the game, making it more fun to use.  That's based on only one test run, though, so I'll need to play with it a few more times before I really settle on an opinion of it.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Game Review - State of Decay (XBLA, 2013)

A little over 17 years ago, Resident Evil made survival horror a mainstream gaming genre.  As the underlying technology has advanced and games have become more sophisticated, I’ve gotten more and more excited about a true survival game, one that focuses more on staying alive than the classic horror elements that usually accompany them.  I imagine a game with RPG elements, as the initially out-of-shape protagonist “levels up” while developing the skills necessary for surviving the post-apocalyptic world.  Many games have captured those RPG features quite well, but I’ve never seen those features embedded effectively in a survival game.

Until I played State of Decay.

State of Decay is a true survival game, where gathering supplies is (almost) as important as fighting off zombie hordes.  Members of your ragtag group of the living will hone their skills in the process, becoming more proficient fighters, marksmen, scavengers, and all-around athletes as they struggle to survive.  It’s a really neat system, as you’ll have to make time to find more food or medical supplies between excursions to eradicate particularly heavy zombie infestations or make deals with neighboring groups.

It also features a particularly interesting (and I think realistic) emphasis on the community.  There’s not really a main character per se, but rather a group that evolves as new survivors are brought in or old members are torn apart by the undead.

This setup leads to one of the most exciting features of the game: as you control a character, they will eventually get fatigued and taking excessive damage leads to more permanent injuries, both of which reduce that character’s effectiveness.  A fatigued and/or wounded character needs to take a break to recover, which can be accomplished simply by switching to another active character for a time.

Characters will also bring specialized skills to benefit the whole team; for example, a good cook can prepare better meals for better bonuses (assuming you have the food supply), and someone with medical experience can help treat the wounded more effectively.  Combined with the characters’ gradually improving skills, this feature sets the stage for the game’s focus on realistic and challenging survival.

Another consequence of the group-centric play is the fact that a character’s death is permanent, and you might even need to take a mortally wounded ally to a secluded spot to prevent them from becoming a zombie.  To hammer these impacts home, the game automatically saves your progress and doesn’t give you the option of maintaining multiple save files; a character’s death is immediately saved and can’t be undone without restarting the game completely.

Unfortunately, the biggest flaws in the game come from an incomplete application of the challenge of survival.  First off, with the right items, it’s possible to prevent a character from ever becoming fatigued, so you can run around with the same dude for days with no repercussions.  Furthermore, as a character’s skills reach their highest levels, he or she will become incredibly efficient at slaying zombies.  As a result, the last third or so of the game abandons the tension of sneaking by a group of zombies to loot a convenience store, instead allowing the player to eliminate all zombies in the area with ease.  It undermines what I’d say is undoubtedly State of Decay’s strongest feature, which is terribly disappointing.

The emphasis on community also falls a bit short because it fails to capitalize on emotional tensions.  Despite a generally well-written script and great voice acting (I’d say that one of the primary characters is one of the best-presented characters I’ve seen in a game), the characters are surprisingly unfazed by their friends and loved ones dying.  If you lose a character, you’ll hear a few bland platitudes, but none of the emotional breakdowns that I’d expect.

To be fair, these facts are only disappointments because the game does so well with so much – the survival-based gameplay is compelling, the characters and their interactions are realistic, and it’s generally a clever game.  It just doesn’t hit all the high notes, and the last 6-8 hours of an 18ish hour campaign get awfully repetitive.

As for some other details: State of Decay won’t blow you away graphically, but it doesn’t distract from the gameplay and it does have a few nice animations (watching characters jump into the back of a pickup, for example).

Sound quality is pretty darned good, too, with zombies sounding appropriately squishy, and phenomenal voice acting, as previously mentioned.  One complaint on the sound is a relative lack of voice actors; with a constantly-evolving game world and random new characters appearing at times, it’s no surprise that voices will be reused, but it seems like there are a total of four actors for the entire game.  It gets a little tiring.

The open-world setup is used quite effectively, giving the player the freedom to explore the world as desired.  New infestations and neighboring strongholds will appear from time to time, so it doesn’t feel like a stagnant world; it’s a little different every time you play.  The randomly generated side quests aren’t terribly interesting (they’re always effectively “get this thing” or “kill zombies here”), but they’re pretty fun until the fourth or fifth time you’re asked to do the same thing.

State of Decay is an exciting game with a lot of promise.  The first game I’ve played that uses RPG elements to provide compelling survival-based gameplay, it’s an interesting and enjoyable game.  It has its flaws, but I think it’s a proof of concept for true survival games.  I’m really excited to see where this genre will go in the future.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.

Achievement Report - June 15, 2013

I diversified my gaming a bit this week (at least compared to last week), with one notable completion.

This week's GTASC offerings started with some relatively simple achievements in both Nier and Rhythm Party.  I spent a fair amount of time grinding for crafting materials in Nier (as well as working towards growing a White Moonflower), but I still have a fair ways to go on both of those achievements.

I played a few matches of Happy Wars, too, but that title update is proving to be really slow going.  I think I'll be happy if I can get it done by the end of the year...

The big highlight in this week's Xbox gaming was last week's State of Decay (review forthcoming).  I managed to snag all the achievements in a little under 25 hours of play time, so it's not an excessive time investment.  None of the achievements are too difficult, and it's a pretty fun game, so it's a pretty low-stress completion.  State of Decay is a good choice for achievement hunters.

Kingdom of Loathing
Although I missed a couple days in the Kingdom this week, I did manage to complete my first BIG! run.  As an added bonus, I made it a 100% Baby Gravy Fairy, bringing my 100% familiar run count to a whopping 17.

9-day BIG! run.  Far from optimal, but I'm glad to be done with it.
I really disliked the BIG! challenge because it ended up displaying the concerns I expressed last week.  On the bright side, it'll be easier to do 100% runs (because stat gains aren't important) and it's a good starting point for excursions into the Sea or telescope runs, as it puts you at a pretty high level once you're done.  As such, I'll probably end up doing a few more BIG! runs while they're in season, but I definitely won't like it.

My next step, though, is is another Way of the Surprising Fist run (softcore) to get the Good Will Punching trophy.  I underestimated how slow the beginning of the run would be (it's the first semi-normal run I've done in ages), and I totally forgot to prepare pulls for the first couple days, so this run is going to take a while.  I'm trying to make it another 100% run (this time with a Sleazy Gravy Fairy).  I certainly hope that I can move on to bigger and better things by the end of the week; we're probably looking at a Sea run to start working towards the new equipment that the recent Sea updates introduced.

StarCraft II
I actually played a bunch of games this week, playing my 1v1 placement matches (for the first time in a few seasons) and several arranged 3v3 games.

I ended up being placed in the Gold League for 1v1, having only lost one of my placement matches. My loss was a ZvZ, which I hate anyway, but I got screwed by early banelings and no good way to defend against them.  My wins were two ZvZs, and one each of ZvT and ZvP.  I didn't feel really pressured in any of those games, so I think I can probably move up to Platinum pretty easily with some additional practice.

The 3v3s were the kind of crazy that's characteristic of large team games.  We were boosted up to Diamond, which is nice, but I don't think there's a whole lot of strategizing that will help us get better - at this point, I think we each need to develop better mechanics and be better able to respond to scouting information.  I would love if we could get up to Masters, though.

And that does it for this week.  I don't think I'll be doing anything too crazy in the next week, as I have a lot of work that needs to be done this week, but I guess we'll see.  Until then, tschüss.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Game Review - Nier (Xbox 360, 2010)

Video games offer a unique opportunity for emotional content among the various types of media.  The mere fact that the player is actively engaged with the game’s world instead of passively absorbing it sets up stronger emotional responses, even if the gameplay has no direct impacts on the narrative.  Considering that game designers are able to develop stories that can rival epic novels in length, video games are overflowing with emotional potential.

Nier is without question one of the most emotionally compelling games I’ve ever played.  It combines an intriguing and relatively understated story with good gameplay to form a great all-around experience.  Here’s why you should check it out:

Before you even hit the title screen, you know that Nier is going to be something different, because it greets you with a woman excitedly screaming “Weiss, you dumbass!”  She continues with a rant sprinkled with just enough profanity to make it seem like a realistic outburst.  You’re given no context for her rage at this point, which adds to the intrigue; it’s a fabulous way to draw the player into the game.

As you begin your journey, you’ll ultimately take control of the grizzled protagonist some 1,300 years in the future.  The world has clearly been shaken by some apocalyptic event, but the player character’s only motivation is to cure his young daughter’s bizarre disease.  A variety of ghostly shades stand in his way, adding to the mystery of the past.  And he becomes friends with a floating, sentient book; it’s a strange future.

Nier’s strongest component is undoubtedly the character interactions.  The main characters are generally standard RPG archetypes, but they have little quirks that make them more interesting than most (for example: the foul-mouthed lass featured on the title screen).  The dialogue is very well written and executed, and the somewhat unexpected use of profanity makes the characters seem more genuine and their conversations more compelling.

These believable characters serve as a catalyst for the game’s most emotional scenes.  Their relatable personalities and realistic reactions to events add weight to scenarios, causing many situations to be a bit more gripping than they might otherwise be.  Combining the characters’ evolution with gradual revelations about this world’s history leads to an interesting story from start to finish.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the end of the game isn’t the end of the story.  Proceeding through a New Game+ opens up new scenes and additional dialogue, all of which shed more light on the game’s events from different perspectives.  You start to see a complex web of information and relationships, enriching the narrative and making the emotional impact that much stronger.  Completing the game again allows you to start over once more, giving you the chance to see yet another set of ending scenes.  I found all this new content to be totally unexpected, as additional endings are fairly common, but additional cutscenes are definitely not.

The only downside is that this new content is sparsely distributed throughout the game, and a third has nothing new until the very end.  It hints at a totally new experience, but only delivers in short bursts, which is a little disappointing.  Still, Nier uses clever techniques to maximize the story’s impact.

Supporting this incredible story is a great audiovisual presentation.  Despite obvious graphical limitations, it looks good and successfully gets the point across.  There’s a nice variety of environments, but there’s nothing particularly outstanding in the graphical side of things.

The audio is undoubtedly amazing.  The voice acting is superb, contributing to the wonderful characters.  The real treat, though, is the soundtrack.  I was initially put off by the music because it prominently features vocal parts when I generally expect purely instrumental pieces.  I soon realized that the human voices add a lot, taking what might ordinarily be reserved for epic boss fights and playing it while exploring the field.  The music does a fabulous job of setting the tone, evoking very different responses for different areas.

Credit to SinnerFalcon on Youtube for posting this tune.

In short: Nier is beautiful.

Sadly, the gameplay isn’t quite up to the same standards.  At its base, Nier is an action RPG, with a relatively robust combat system.  You don’t get the opportunity to use a bunch of skills (most of the game’s magic spells have limited usefulness), but intuitive melee combat and dodging controls keep fighting fun.  There are also limited customization options; you’ll be able to buff your weapons and spells, but there are only a few buffs that are actually useful.

Nier does fail miserably in one common RPG feature: sidequests.  There are a number of sidequests throughout the game, and a few of them are quite interesting, but the vast majority of sidequests are boring fetch quests with no real point.  Limited rewards (many times the items you’re collecting are more valuable than the gold you receive as payment) and mundane requests make the sidequest system seem superfluous. It’s not compelling when it could have been a key feature of the game.

I was also very disappointed with the difficulty.  Early on, I had some trouble fighting some of the bigger bosses, but once I got the hang of what I was doing, it all seemed terribly easy.  I was never challenged in the second half of the game, and even the final boss seemed trivial.  Higher difficulty and a deeper combat system would have done Nier a lot of good.

It’s also relatively short for an RPG.  The world isn’t terribly big, with only a few major areas to explore, but the fact that you’ll return to those places a few times as the story progresses prevents it from feeling terribly small.  One complete playthrough can be easily completed within 20 hours, even if you’re spending time doing sidequests along the way.  Further playthroughs will take fractions of that time due to decreased difficulty, so you’re probably looking at 30 hours to get through all the relevant endings.  Not trivial, but not nearly the 100+ hour epic that some modern RPGs have become.

Still, I had fun with it.  Dodging attacks and dispatching giant bosses is entertaining, and it’s certainly good enough to support the amazing storyline.  It can get a little tedious in later playthroughs as the difficulty doesn’t change at all (so it’s even easier than the first time around), and completionists might hate it because you’ll need to do tons of grinding to upgrade all the weapons, but the gameplay is solid enough not to distract from the beauty of the story.

In the end, although the gameplay could have been more exciting, I can’t help but highly recommend Nier because of its awesome, emotional plot.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday Magic - Modern Masters and You

Last week saw the release of the highly anticipated Modern Masters set, which reprints a couple hundred classic cards from the last several years of Magic.  Priced more aggressively than a normal set, Modern Masters reintroduces some of Magic's most powerful and sought-after cards, which contributed to the hype of its release.

I met Friday's release with mixed feelings.  On one hand, since I had taken a long break from Magic, including the entire span of these cards' original printings, Modern Masters gives me a great chance to add some of these cards to my collection.  On the other hand, the increased cost and limited release (Wizards is strongly restricting the number of packs floating around the world) make it more difficult to get my hands on the cards that I'd like to include in some casual decks.

The Reasoning
To get the full picture, it's worth looking briefly at the official philosophy behind this set:

Wizards decided to reprint these cards precisely because many of them have become staples of the Modern competitive format.  New players will find it difficult to compete in Modern events simply because they don't have access to cards that can compete with some of the powerhouses of the past (a similar problem exists with the Legacy format, although it's much less extreme here).  Modern Masters puts more of these cards in circulation, opening the Modern format to a wider audience.

However, Wizards also feels a lot of pressure from collectors, as introducing new copies of older cards will naturally devalue those already in existence.  This pressure led to the modest release that we're seeing with Modern Masters.

Furthermore, the powers-that-be don't want these cards to become Standard legal, so the Modern Masters set isn't considered part of a normal Magic release cycle.  The restricted release and increased cost help in that sense, too - new players are less likely to pick up a few random packs and think they can use their newly-acquired cards in a Standard tournament.

The Frustration
I can certainly see that Wizards needs to worry about each of these concerns: They want to grow their relatively new competitive format (Modern), they need to keep the old guard happy (the collectors), and they need to keep things relatively simple for new players (Magic is already a relatively complex game for newbies to learn).  But this limited release seems like a half-assed approach to all three of these concerns.

Let's start with the devalued collections.  Yes, a limited release will have a smaller effect than a normal set would, but they're also appealing to a smaller audience.  If these cards aren't legal in Standard play, only collectors and Modern and casual players will care to buy them.  Casual players aren't likely to spend tens of dollars on single cards, so you're left with collectors and Modern players who determine the price of these cards, a group significantly smaller than the pool of all Magic players.  When dealing with a smaller audience, even adding a small fraction of the total copies already out there could have a noticeable effect on the secondary market.  Of course, we'll have to wait and see how prices stabilize a few months from now, but it seems like it has the potential to do more damage than they'd like.

As for growing the Modern format, I can't see this limited release doing a whole lot.  I imagine that there are two types of players approaching the Modern format - those who have been playing for the last decade and picked up several copies of these powerful cards in their heyday, and those who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to construct some competitive decks with older cards.  I find it unlikely that a limited release at a higher MSRP will bump many more players into one of those categories; I imagine that the only changes we'll see are more powerful decks among casual groups, not a considerable change in Modern competitors.

I think that the deterrent for new players will prove to be the most effective of these strategies, as higher admission costs will likely keep new players away, but the hype around the set ("some of Magic's best cards!") may present new players with an odd dilemma.  New players tend to be drawn to particularly powerful cards with crazy effects, so the overall strength of this set may overcome the increased cost for new players.

And caught in the middle of it all - the casual player.  People who like making fun decks with interesting cards, but not for competitive purposes, might miss out on these reprints due to the limited release.

To be fair, these concerns are primarily interested with constructed Magic formats.  One of the stated goals of the Modern Masters set is limited design - it was apparently put together with drafting in mind.  If the drafting is good, then all the constructed concerns can be reasonably dismissed as it's a set that supplements the usual release schedule, which by itself can maintain good casual Magic and draw new players.

The Draft
Having participated in a Friday Night Magic draft last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Modern Masters in action, and I am disappointed.  The biggest complaint that I listed above (that the set appeals to a smaller set of players) bears its teeth in drafts.

Yes, the set has much more powerful synergy than in most other sets, with much more tightly designed archetypes appearing here than in any other set in recent memory, so you could build a very powerful and coherent limited deck that might even rival some constructed decks.  Unfortunately, doing so requires that you draft very well.

Here's the problem: strong synergy also means weak flexibility.  If you're not careful with your picks throughout a draft, or if you get hit by a particularly barren third pack, you'll end up with a jumbled mess of effects.  Each card you include that doesn't fit with a specific theme brings an exponential loss of power, and trying to include two deck archetypes will undoubtedly hurt your performance.

So, the Modern Masters set seems great for high-level drafters, but it's awkward, confusing, and ultimately disappointing for less experienced planeswalkers.

I'll happily admit that my complaints may be skewed by the unusually flexible Return to Ravnica block, and maybe this increased difficulty is part of the plan (the set does have "Master" in the name).  Putting all these features together, though, makes Modern Masters a very frustrating release.

The Verdict
Modern Masters presents a drafting format that is tricky for anybody but the best drafters, but it is also the only way that many casual players will ever have access to some of Magic's biggest bombs for less than $20 apiece.  This setup encourages casual players to join drafts for a chance at opening a Tarmogoyf (which is currently going for over $100) or even something more modest like Doubling Season ($20), but their experience won't be nearly as good as if they'd drafted Dragon's Maze.  At the same time, those casual players are diluting the player pool, making the draft less competitive for the best players, which cheapens their experience, too.  Combine that with collector concerns and a potentially minimal impact on the Modern population, and I find Modern Masters to be a generally disappointing set.  I hope that Wizards hones their execution for any future "best of" sets.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Achievement Report - June 8, 2013

My gaming this week was skewed very heavily towards my Xbox...

Seeing as the title update achievements in Happy Wars are going to be time consuming, I hope to play a match or two each day to grind it out.  In my first session of the new week, however, I managed to get "The Godlike Swordsman" for 1000 kills as a Warrior, so that was a pretty nice start to this scoring period.

Making good on one of last week's goals, I started Nier, and it instantly dominated my gaming life.  Although it's a beautiful game, the achievements are brutal, with several requiring hours upon hours of grinding.  I still sunk well over 30 hours in the game over the last week, and I'm still pretty far from getting it done.

And that was pretty much it.  I contribute 957 TA Score to my team over the course of the week, so it was reasonably successful (even if not quite up to the goals I set last week).

Kingdom of Loathing
The slow grind to level 30 got to me this week, so I started powerleveling.  It didn't hurt that somebody dropped a little under 500,000 meat in my store, which allowed me to fund some trips to Hamburglaris to take advantage of the scaling monsters and to farm some lunar isotopes (some to sell and some for epic food and booze).

My last two level 30 trophies.
Once hitting level 30, I made my way to Fernswarthy's Basement to get another telescope piece.  I was ultimately successful, and I began a new BIG! challenge path run.  I'm not too impressed by the BIG! path; starting everything at level 15 is a cool idea, but the general lack of new content is disappointing.  I think it would have been a lot cooler if it had a more interesting restriction (like every other challenge path - +ML across the board isn't clever or exciting), but as it stands, I don't think I'll be doing another BIG! run.

My fifth telescope piece!  Only 2 more!
This summer might be a good time to focus on aftercore activities on account of the disappointing challenge path.  I may venture into Hobopolis in the coming months.

The last couple days have been filled with many hours of Magic (which I'll talk about in this week's edition of Monday Magic), which combined with all my time on Nier led to never booting StarCraft or Guild Wars up.  Eh, I had a lot of fun anyway.

I also won't be giving myself concrete goals this week, as I'm planning to grind Nier and Happy Wars quite a bit.  Maybe I'll do something more exciting by the end of next week, but until then, tschüss.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Monday Magic - Golem Tribal FTW!

This week's deck is a little bit older than the others I've posted, but it was one that I had a lot of fun designing and playing back when New Phyrexia was the latest and greatest.

The inspiration for this deck comes from the fun mechanic introduced by Phyrexia's splicers - when a splicer comes into play, it brings with it one or more 3/3 Golem tokens, and the splicers buff all your Golems, making for a very powerful combination.

This overall plan made the deck construction pretty simple: include Golems, splicers, and a bunch of mana ramp (because splicers tend to be a bit on the expensive side).  The following was born of these ideas:

1 Adaptive Automaton
2 Blade Splicer
2 Darksteel Sentinel
1 Etched Monstrosity
2 Master Splicer
1 Maul Splicer
2 Phyrexian Metamorph
2 Saberclaw Golem
2 Sensor Splicer
2 Vital Splicer
2 Wing Splicer

1 Nature's Lore
4 Rampant Growth
2 Untamed Wilds

3 Manalith

2 Arachnus Web
1 Ice Cage
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Pacifism
1 Tempered Steel
1 Wild Growth

8 Forest
6 Island
8 Plains
1 Sunpetal Grove

There are a bunch of big nasty Golems (my opponents always squirm when Etched Monstrosity hits the field) and things that synergize directly with Golems (splicers, Tempered Steel), plus some ways to deal annoying stuff on my opponent's end of the battlefield.  Phyrexian Metamorph gives a little more flexibility (copying Master Splicer of Maul Splicer can end the game, while copying a Darksteel Sentinel can buy some time when I'm desperate), and Adaptive Automaton gets all the benefits of the splicers.  It's a pretty nasty combo, if it can get off the ground.

The biggest problem with this deck is the slow start.  Not being able to play anything for the first couple turns is common, and there aren't any drawing options to refill your hand once you've spent all the ramping cards.  As such, really aggressive decks can be a problem, and super controlling decks can be a pain, too, but this setup works pretty well for mid-range opponents.  Plus it's exciting to pull counters off Etched Monstrosity every once in a while (the Manaliths provide the extra colors).

I always find tribal decks to be pretty fun to play, and this one is no exception.  Crushing your enemies under tons of Golems is definitely an entertaining way to do it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Game Review - Pid (XBLA, 2012)

Very rarely do we get to see a game that is objectively fantastic in just about every way but still somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts.  Pid is one of those games.  Carefully and lovingly designed, Pid has all the pieces necessary for an incredible platformer, but the bits in between prevent it from being a truly amazing gaming experience.  Here’s why:

From the moment you first boot up the game, Pid’s unassuming presentation clearly indicates that it’s not going to beat you over the head with plot points or tutorials, as tends to be so common these days.  The simple title and menu screens set a very mellow and subtle vibe.  It’s quite refreshing, actually.

That vibe persists into the game itself.  Starting a new game gives you a brief, wordless introduction to the story, and then plops you down into the first gorgeous area.  The surreal art direction shows a beautifully detailed and somewhat stylized world.  The character models are a bit blocky, but that feature adds to their bizarre charm, and they’re supported by wonderful backgrounds that show miles of landscape.  The subtle ambient music provides an extra level of haunting beauty, as it always complements the visual style of an area and hints at an underlying sadness.

In short, Pid is a damn beautiful game.

And the story is similarly understated.  The protagonist, a boy named Kurt, is left in a strange world after he falls asleep on a bus, and all he wants is to hop on the next bus back home.  He soon discovers, however, that the busses haven’t been running – the first people he encounters have been waiting for years for the bus – so he embarks on a quest to find some way to get home.

The truly wonderful part of the story is the fact that it’s told almost exclusively through short dialogues with random characters you meet throughout the game.  There aren’t extensive cutscenes or painfully overt expositions; it’s all presented in a very organic way, which further emphasizes the game’s subtle beauty.  The plot itself isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s sufficiently interesting to make it enticing.

All these elements add up to a great passive experience for the player, but the gameplay makes it more than an interactive movie.

Pid’s basic premise is that Kurt gets ahold of an artifact that allows him to create beams of light on nearly any surface that will propel him away from that surface.  He can only have two of these beams active at a time, and they disappear after nine seconds, which severely limits their overall power.

Still, these beams add a wrinkle to the basic platforming formula that makes it feel like a totally unique game.  Indeed, instead of being a simple platformer, Pid plays a bit more like a puzzle game, as your destination may be clear, but the arrangement of beams that will get you there is not.  As a result of the beams’ timed lifespans, you’ll encounter a number of obstacles that require both clever planning and quick execution to proceed to the next room.

The difficulty ramps up pretty rapidly, with an increasing need for precise jumps and beam placement.  Fortunately, the game is pretty forgiving; if you die, you’ll respawn almost immediately at the nearest checkpoint (and checkpoints are plentiful).  A few boss fights provide decent spikes in difficulty, so it proves to be a rather challenging game overall (I died a little over 250 times in my first run through the game, according to an end-game tally of my overall stats).

Furthermore, the gameplay evolves a bit over time, with new mechanics appearing as you progress.  These mechanics take the form of new items and enemies, but they always manage to keep the gameplay from getting stale.

Pid is all-around an amazingly designed game.  So why isn’t it perfect?

The most obvious flaw is undoubtedly the overall length.  It took me about 6 hours to complete the game, which is a little on the short end, but there is a bit of an upside: the hard mode you unlock by completing the game is a different experience altogether (it is much harder with more enemies and dangerous obstacles everywhere), effectively doubling the content, so it’s really not bad.

Pid didn’t strike me in nearly the way I would have expected given the amazing basis on which the game is built.  I think it ultimately comes down to one simple fact: the areas don’t seem to go quite far enough before introducing a new mechanic.  Although it is quite tough, Pid always seemed to transition into a new area right when successfully completing the challenges was getting really rewarding.  It was almost like the game presents difficult scenarios but then cuts you off right before you get the exhilarating rush of overcoming a brutal challenge.  This flaw, like so many aspects of Pid, is subtle, but it had a really significant impact of my enjoyment.  To be fair, it was still good fun, but it isn’t nearly as awesome as it seems it should be.

Pid is a beautiful game, and it’s incredible on paper, but a relatively minor flaw holds it back from being the best game in recent memory.  It is fabulous for platforming fans, but it’s unlikely to convert anyone due to a small flaw that undermines the game’s otherwise compelling gameplay.

My Rating: 7/10 – good.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Achievement Report - June 1, 2013

I had a number of specific gaming goals for this week; here's how they turned out:

My first order of business this week was to earn another simple achievement in Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City (PC) - Down Boy for killing 13 zombie dogs.  It's not much, but it's progress.

I then spent some time working my way through Pid, which is a really cute (and pretty tough) platformer.  Completing a single run through the game isn't too bad, but hard mode is a beast and some of the hidden items can be pretty tricky.  This one's another long-term investment for a full completion.

Rhythm Party was another source of frustration this week, as I struggled to unlock the last few achievements.   I still haven't been able to get a AAA rating on the last song, and I can't manage to maintain constant rhythm tricks throughout a song, so I have some more awkward flailing in my future.

Next I discovered that the title update for Happy Wars introduced several new achievements, so I downloaded that game again and starting grinding towards level 50.  I nabbed one achievement in the process, but it seems like it's going to take a while to complete this game again.

Despite last week's goal of earning 1,500 TA Score for my team in the GTASC, I held off this week because my teammates did an excellent job of keeping us in the top 30 for the week.  We were pretty safe from elimination, so I figured I'd save some achievements for future weeks.

Kingdom of Loathing
I didn't even come close to completing this week's KoL goal, only hitting level 25 this whole week.  Maybe I'll be able to bridge that gap this week...

It wasn't a total failure, though, as I managed to grab the trophy for using 40 4-d cameras.  One more down!

Professional Photographer is now on the shelf!

StarCraft II
I didn't play much StarCraft II this week, only winning enough vs. AI matches to get up to the 100 wins vs. Elite AI achievement.  I really can't wait to be done with the Terran race wins vs. AI, because all these Terran games are really wearing me down...

Playing Terran in every game is getting to me.

Guild Wars
This week saw a big jump in my Hall of Monuments rewards points, as I finally completed the Guardian of Cantha title and I acquired the last piece of Elite Luxon armor for my assassin character (which brings me up to three elite armor sets).  That gives me 24 of the 30 rewards points necessary to get all in-game rewards in Guild Wars 2, so I hope to be able to make that happen sometime reasonably soon.  For now, though, I'll just keep grinding away.

Remaining Guardian and Zaishen title progress.
I also completed the Ruins of Surmia and Nolani Academy missions on my new roleplaying character, thus completing both of my Guild Wars goals for the week.  Check out the VODs here.

New Goals
I found last week's specific goals to be a good correction to my usual aimlessness, so I think I'll continue throwing out an idea or two for each of the major games I'm playing:

GTASC: I've been playing a lot of Arcade games lately, so I think I'd like to mix it up this week and go back to one (or more) of the retail games in my collection.  Here's hoping I can get a completion or two this week.
Kingdom of Loathing: I think this week will sadly be more of the same, as powerleveling is going to be a lot more expensive for an Avatar of Jarlsberg.  Hopefully I can actually get those last five levels this week.
StarCraft II: I really don't want to come back to playing Terran exclusively for a long while, so I'd like to chip away at the 250 wins against AI as Terran - fifteen more wins this week ought to be reasonable.
Guild Wars: My next major goal is to complete the Guardian titles on my main character, so I think completing eight more missions on Hard Mode this week is doable.

So I have some specific directions I'd like to pursue in the next seven days; we'll see where I stand next Saturday.  Until then, tschüss.