Holiday Gaming Annoyances

January 1st, 2010 by Potato

I’ve been taking advantage of a little bit of time off to catch up on some gaming here. I have had surprisingly little time to game over the last year or two, so I’ve got a fair number of games on the pile already, in addition to all the games I don’t own that I haven’t played.

For the Wii, I got Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Zelda: Twilight Princess shortly after getting the console itself. Although I’ve picked up (and finished) new games since then, like Force Unleashed and Mario Galaxy, I never finished those two, which I had such high hopes for. So I put them back in to see if I could finish them off.

Unfortunately, I’m just stuck at a point in both games where I’m frustrated and sick of them, and I have to say it’s due to poor game design in both. Zelda is the lesser of the two evils in terms of brick wall of difficulty: I was just getting frustrated at one point (actually, many points) where you’re running around and these bat-like things would come down from the sky to attack you. But, you couldn’t look up to take them out until the scary music was playing and they were almost on you. It was annoying, and I just wasn’t finding the plot or the rest of the gameplay for this Wii entry to Zelda to be engaging enough to put up with it, so I shelved the game. Metroid I found (to my surprise, since I was expecting to love Zelda) was a pretty fun game, one of my favourite “serious” games for the Wii (Sports and Play and Fit are fun toys that are characteristic of the Wii, but not “serious” games) and I got used to having to point the Wiimote at the screen to play. However, I got to one point where what was a “casual” FPS suddenly turned into an impossible, frustrating challenge. It was the second AA gun on Bryyo — you can Google it to see that I’m not the only one who thought that spot was ridiculous. You have to flip these 4 levers in the game, and enemies will spawn to attack you and flip the levers back. However, they respawn in pairs virtually instantly after you defeat the last pair. And, they’ll prioritize flipping the levers you just flipped back over staying in your vicinity. It was just too annoying to try to shoot these guys down from across the area to keep them from undoing the work I’d done to continue with the game. I just spent another hour or so trying to pass this stage and I just can’t do it. Really poor level design, IMHO. Even a 5-10 second delay in the respawn would give you enough time to flip a lever while they were dead if you were quick, then it would still be challenging (but doable) to kill the next pair before they undid your work.

Speaking of respawn, it’s one element of Borderlands that I am not digging. It’s a single player (or small group) game. There really isn’t a call for respawn, and certainly not the amount of respawn that we’re seeing. I’m loving the fact that it’s a co-op “post apocalyptic” RPG/shooter. I’m thrilled that Wayfare likes it too so we have a game to play together, but the ~10 minute respawn is really ruining it for me. Much of the time the game feels like playing a MMO without all the other people as there’s been a fair bit of just grinding going on to clear an area to finish a quest, and then clearing it again to get back out.

Ghostbusters is cute and light-hearted, and features the voicework of the original cast. However, I’ve been getting annoyed at its game design as well, since there are a lot of points where the ghosts you’re hunting/zapping disappear. I know, that’s what ghosts do, but what’s the point of wrangling them with the proton pack if they’re just scripted to run into the wall and disappear into another part of the building on you? The game just feels too much like they couldn’t decide whether to make a Ghostbusters 3 movie or a game where the player actually has control. When the ghosts are behaving themselves, it’s not particularly challenging.

I finally managed to finish Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was a good bit of fun. Just as I was getting fed up with the trippy Scarecrow sequences, Batman finally did him in, which worked well. I’ve also been trying to work my way through some of the challenges, which is a good way to extend some of the better points of the gameplay (the sneaky assaults on armed thugs, and the giant slow-motion melees). I think that speaks volumes as to the quality of the experience.

Netbug’s Xbox Live account expired this month. Mine will expire in February. I have no plans to renew it — I’ve had trouble enough finding time on my own to game, let alone coordinating a multiplayer session over Live. The last time I actually played online was in October when Borderlands first came out; before that, April-ish. I also can’t understand how microsoft can get away with charging what it does for access to the multiplayer gaming service when pretty much all competitors (most PC games, as well as PS3 and Wii) are free.

I suppose they did sucker me into paying $60 for a one-year membership, but now I clearly see that the value proposition isn’t there…

Anyway, I hope everyone has a happy new year, and that StarCraft 2 makes the year an awesome one!

Olson Reactor 2 Curling Broom

December 18th, 2009 by Potato

As a semi-serious curler I take pride in having good equipment, and one of the items that has gone through a lot of changes over the years is the broom. From corn husks and horsehair to various synthetic pads; push-brooms to swivel-heads, and getting lighter all the time — especially now with these carbon fibre shafts. I’ve used a lot of different push-brooms over the years, and I have to say that I like the new swivel-head ones a lot better, but I really only have experience with the Olson ones. I notice that a lot of players with swivel-head brooms tend to grab a club broom for throwing since the downside of the swivel action is a lack of stability when leaning on your broom. The Olson brooms fix this with a tension adjuster, so you can lock your head in a good position for sliding, and loosen it up for sweeping (or, like I do, just find a happy medium where it will move stiffly, giving enough stability for the throw while offering flexibility for the sweep). Plus with the fact that it’s really super light you can sweep so much faster, which really does seem to make a difference both to the rock and to the quality of the cardiovascular workout you get.

In short, I love my Reactor 2, as you can surely tell by the fact that I just got my 3rd one in as many years.

Yes, they definitely have a reliability problem. They’re one of the most popular high-end modern brooms at our club (due in large part to the choice selection at our pro shop). I play twice a week, so I see roughly 100 curlers on a regular basis, and I’d guess that maybe 30 of them have a Reactor 2. I have personally witnessed 5 of these brooms fail (including the 2 of my own I’ve been through). That is a terrible reliability record. For the most part, the point of failure has been the plastic connector between the brush head and the shaft, in fact, all but the broom I just turned in today failed that way. I had hopes when I got my new one this year that the problem was fixed because they changed that bit of plastic. It used to be a matt black piece, and this year the brooms are sporting a grey plastic bit that has a bit of marbling to the colour, so I was hopeful that they found a new (hopefully stronger) plastic compound to use. Unfortunately, the shaft (the carbon fibre shaft) cracked on me in less than 2 months — given the timeframe (and how little the broom has been through in that time) I suspect it may just be a manufacturing defect. They did replace it for me free-of-charge, so we’ll see how the new one holds up.

It almost makes me wonder if curling is going down the hockey road. I remember as a kid playing hockey I had one stick. I only got a second when I got too tall for the first one. These days, my brother buys his in packs of 3 because they seem to break all the time (though the bigger kids sometimes fight with theirs and do all sorts of other uncouth things that wouldn’t be tolerated on a curling sheet). I don’t mind too much — even at $125 for the broom, if it’ll last 3 or 4 years the broom’s a pretty minor expense compared to the ice fees, and it is a considerable improvement over the old fibreglass brooms (which started to crack on me after about 10 years of use). Longevity could also be the cost of shaving a few hundred grams off.


October 24th, 2009 by Potato

“LOL. Buy a new TV, newb.” — Microsoft.

I got Borderlands for my birthday, and it is a fun game. I can’t wait for some of my friends to pick it up so we can give this co-op mode a whirl. Indeed, that’s the part I’m looking forward to the most: I remember playing Fallout 3 and wishing the whole time that it had a multiplayer component. I was all keen on Borderlands for that very reason. I even got it for the 360 instead of the PC because I figured there was a higher chance that my friends would go for the 360 version.

There isn’t as much depth as with Fallout — instead of a nearly infinite number of possible player character attribute combinations, caught deep in the uncanny valley, you have your choice of 4 characters, each with 3 talent trees (WoW players will be very familiar with this levelling scheme). Each character is pitched as having a preferred set of weapons, but so far it seems that once you get past the first little bit of the game, everybody can pick up whatever weapon they want and it works equally well in their hands.

The game so far is a lot of fun: set on a barren, nearly abandoned planet, you seek out treasure and infamy amongst the rusting remnants of civilization. It’s got a fun post-apocalyptic vibe to it, though it isn’t as tongue-in-cheek as Fallout. For the most part it plays like a first-person shooter, and there is a lot of shooting to be had.

There are a number of points that bug me though:

– The fonts are way, WAY too small. It’s like Microsoft is sitting there telling me to buy a new TV. I know, the Xbox was designed to take advantage of high-def, but there are still at least a few people out there like me with old TVs trying to game. They could have the fonts scale if the Xbox is set to output standard def… but even then, I think the fonts should be bigger: even with a better TV, I’d still have to squint to see what’s on screen. There are some things that I simply cannot resolve on my TV, and so even if in high def those at least become theoretically legible, it’s ridiculous to give people that much eye strain when they can just have bigger text and have the windows scroll…

– Speaking of scrolling, even with the tiny text, the mission description windows still have to be scrolled through. And what buttons did they choose to use to scroll? Not any one of the three direction pads, nor the “A” and “Y” buttons which are in an up/down configuration… no, they chose the most unnatural, unintuitive pair: left and right trigger. What were they thinking? [maybe this wouldn’t have been so bad if we could read the instructions that say to use the left and right trigger on our TV]

– Similarly, there are a few button choices in the control scheme that make me shake my head, and wish there was the option to reassign buttons. Melee attacks — something I find I have to use far too often, given that many of the beginning enemies have a bite attack, and thus like to get to close range — are activated by clicking the right direction joystick. That is one of the hardest buttons to mash with any kind of accuracy. Meanwhile, changing guns gets two buttons assigned to it — “Y” and also the direction pad (similar to Gears of War in that respect). “Y”, or one of the other four lettered buttons, could easily have been an acceptable melee attack button.

– The four lettered buttons are arranged in a cross: up, down, left, right (Y, A, X, B). Quick: what’s the button for duck? “A” you say, the one in the bottom of the cross? No, sorry, that’s jump (rather than “Y”, at the top). Duck is “B”. I’m fine with reload/grab as “X”, but I really think “A” should be duck, “B” should be melee, and “Y” should be jump. This isn’t that much of an issue, but I really think that the weapon change should only live on the direction pad, and melee should get a real button or the option to auto-melee with the triggers (or hey, RB could be melee, and “Y” or another letter could be grenade throw).

– Perhaps because the game was built to do co-op all the way through, it does not pause when you check your map, talk with an NPC, or use a vendor. I found that to be a nasty surprise when I was at a vendor and the screen started shaking. Turns out some nasty biter had run into town and was merrily chomping on my ass while I browsed for goods. It would be nice if the game informed me of this beyond the subtle screen shake and the depleting health bar.

Anyway, it is a fun game, once you get past the lengths the designers seemed to go to make the controls unintuitive. Even Wayfare likes it, and she can’t stand first-person shooters.



May 25th, 2009 by Potato

I don’t know where I saw it mentioned, but at one point in my random reading a few weeks ago someone mentioned XCom and how awesome it was, and I just had to get around to re-playing it after that.

This involved installing a DOS emulator, which is just going to open a whole world of trouble as other classic games demand to be played as I continue to age backwards (mentally).

Anyhow, XCom is a classic turn-based strategy game where you hunt down alien invaders in various environments, including multi-level buildings, steal their technology, and sell their corpses to rednecks (it’s not actually made clear in the game who you sell the corpses to, but someone pays top dollar for that dead alien). You have to manage a tight budget to keep your interceptors flying and your crew stocked.

I never actually played XCom though, instead back in the mid-90’s I got the sequel: XCom 2: Terror from the Deep. TFTD is pretty much the same game as XCom: laser weapons were renamed Gauss, plasma became sonics, but aside from tweaking a few stats here and there it was pretty much the same (same damage, accuracy, cost, time to build, etc., for most things in the game). TFTD added some cool, creepy underwater environments and slightly larger maps, as well as some two-stage missions. The biggest change from XCom to TFTD though is that the game became impossible. I’ve heard TFTD described thusly:

“What a great design! The punishing difficulty stopped you from noticing the crippling bugs!”

The first few times I played it, even on beginner difficulty, I was just wiped out in my first mission. The aliens can see farther, shoot more accurately, and snap fire more often than your band of rookies, who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, and if they did, it still takes two shots to down an alien with your opening weapons. I quickly gave up on TFTD the first time around, but my defeat always kind of haunted me, so I tried it again this past weekend. It’s still hard, but starting right off with the only strategy I figured out from back then helped a bit: use high explosives early on so you just have to be close. I picked up some other tips from the Internet, such as just sacking rookies who showed up with sub-par base stats: it’s cheap to replace them. Most importantly, that most of your money does not come from the governments ostensibly supporting you, but rather from manufacturing and selling your advanced technological goods. That helped me get through the first dozen missions or so… and then the lobstermen showed up. I don’t know who designed them, but they make the game just ridiculously hard. They can still one-shot your troopers, but take 3-5 shots to bring down themselves. There are some techniques to try to manage, but I was just so frustrated I gave up again: a game with 5 levels of difficulty just shouldn’t be that hard on the easiest setting.

So I found the original XCom and tried that out. While virtually the same game, it’s much more reasonable in terms of balance. Right off the bat you’re a nearly even match for the aliens, rather than starting at a substantial disadvantage. The harder encounters ramp up a little more slowly, and there are no ridiculous lobstermen. It’s still a challenge, even on beginner, but so far it’s not impossible. The alien mind control is annoying me, but I’ve got my scientists on that one and hopefully I’ll only have to suffer through losing half my squad to mind-controlled friendly fire for another mission or two.

Aside from indulging my nostalgia and marvelling at how well a game that only has 16 colours holds up to the test of time, it made me realize that there really haven’t been any kind of decent turn-based tactical games in a long time. There are a few turn-based strategy games, usually of the 4X persuasion (Civ IV, GalCiv), but all of the tactical games I can think of have gone RTS (and from there to FPS, though I hear Halo is going the other way). Turn-based tactical games seem to be relegated to browser-based flash these days.

Anyhow, if you find yourself feeling the need to stay up until dawn playing a game from the 90’s and destroying your eyes with 256-colour sprite graphics, then give XCom a whirl (now on Steam, believe it or not!).


Fallout 3

March 4th, 2009 by Potato

I really enjoyed Fallout 3. So much so that I think I’m going to reroll a new character and play through it all over again. So even though I may be my own critical self and focus on the parts of the game that freaked me out, I did really enjoy it.

First off, you might as well start by watching the Yahtzee review at the Escapist since he is a professional.

Right, so first off that part about the characters being in the uncanny valley… well, it gets worse. Not only do they stare at you weirdly rigidly when talking, and not only is everyone covered in a layer of itchy-looking, radioactive grime, but they glow. If you talk to a NPC in a dark area you’ll see that their eyes and mouth are self-illuminating. I wasn’t sure if that was a way of trying to make them look more life-like in the regular lighting, or a product of the radioactive fallout, but it was pretty creepy. Plus as photo-realistic as the broken terrain is, the characters don’t seem to ever quite touch the ground.

Ok, to start a little closer to the beginning: Fallout 3 is a hybrid between a role-playing game and a first (or third, depending on your camera preferences) person shooter. You level up, assign skill points, rummage through things, and go on quests like an RPG, but also can fight it out and go for headshots like a first-person shooter. The game takes place in the area around Washington, DC sometime around 2277 — about 200 years after a nuclear war broke out. Things are, to put it succinctly, post-apocalyptic.

My faithful readers will recognize that I have a soft-spot for post-apocalyptic fiction, and Fallout 3 snuggles up in there quite nicely indeed.

The world is broken and everyone is focused on survival, except for the vault-dwellers, who live beneath the ground in massive fallout shelters, largely ignorant to the plight of the world outside after generations of electricity and safe water. Of course, things are starting to run down beneath the ground too, and throw in a bit of a political crisis when your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) does the unthinkable and leaves the vault. Forced outside to find him (and escape the insanity of the vault’s overseer) you have to survive in the ruins of DC. The game takes itself fairly lightly, with lots of humour around and cutesy 50’s-style cartoons and billboards (and cars with fins), and home-brew steam-powered teddy bear launchers. Highly advanced nuclear powered levitating robotic butlers are controlled by monochrome text-entry computer terminals. There are numerous entertaining small touches to be found throughout the game world.

I found the game to be quite hard at first: resources were so scarce that I would quite often run out of ammo when exploring (and not all that far from town, either), which was doubly damning because early on my small arms skill was not very good so a lot of shots missed their target (for the min-maxers, I have to say that small arms is probably the most important skill to level up). Every half-full clip of ammo was a treasure. On top of that, the world is just run down: the vendors have very poor stock, and are themselves nearly broke, so even if you do manage to load up on vendor trash in your explorations, they may not have enough caps (bottle caps — the currency of the Fallout world) to buy it all from you. And even if you have the caps to pay for ammo instead of finding it, you may find the vendor only has a half-dozen bullets themselves.

Of course, by the end it was one-shot one-kill, and I had a mountain of ammo (though the traumatic experience of the early levels kept me paranoid so I never went anywhere without at least 3 guns that took different bullets and a melee weapon). I continued to play long after I hit the level cap of 20, partly to finish off the main storyline, and partly just because it was fun to explore the world, meet the quirky characters, discover the unique weapons, and set giant mutant ants on fire. It helps that the game world is very pretty (better than most of the characters), though this is also the first game I’ve played on my new PC (all settings were on max).

You can effect fairly sweeping changes in the game world with your choices, one of the biggest of which you face very shortly after escaping the vault (spoiler warning!): you come across a town built around an unexploded atomic bomb. You can choose to detonate it, destroying the whole city and leaving nothing but a radioactive crater behind, which was very pretty to watch. You can be nice and help those in trouble, or you can just bash their heads in and take their stuff. I haven’t tried murdering the characters central to the storyline, but no one else is sacred: you can go on a rampage and wipe out virtually any settlement you want to.

There are a lot of subway tunnels to explore, most of which are mandatory for the downtown DC area (which you will need to thoroughly explore for most quests, including the main storyline). Fortunately, once you’ve navigated the tunnels once, the areas appear on your map for fast-travel (which is a godsend). These parts of the game in particular were a little freaky, I found. Things can jump out at you, and if you find Dogmeat, then his growling in your ear does not help. The game can get pretty gruesome, with bags of skulls, bodies hung from the ceiling like meat, and cannibalism, along with the splatter and decapitation/dismemberment physics of combat.

The game is a little slow at the beginning when you’re in the vault, and then it whipsaws up to what I thought was the most difficult right after you get out: you go from being in this small, contained space with clear objectives to being in this huge, open, visually stunning world to explore, and no direction at all. You have essentially no resources, no “home base”, no allies, very little ammo, and only a few levels under your belt.

My biggest wish for the game is that it had a multiplayer co-op component, I think the world they’ve created would be a really fun place to rampage through with a buddy. Beyond that, I found some of the clipping and character animations immersion-breaking (at least the sentry robots were supposed to be robotic), and the difficulty curve wasn’t very consistent through the game, with few challenges left after hitting level 20 and having a full arsenal. I also found the big guns and energy weapons a little lacking: even in the end game I found very few uses for them (although ash piles were much tidier than gore splatters). The AI isn’t great, and seems to rely a lot on super-speed running if you catch it off-guard, though some (scripted?) encounters feature some enemies trying to flank you, etc. The teammate AI is even worse, they love to go charging in to any situation. I played through the first time without patching, and actually found it pretty stable, with the main exception being the VATS turn-based combat kludge (which I try not to use too often, except to score righteous decapitations or to instantly wipe out one enemy when faced with several). I got the patch and the Operation Anchorage expansion, and it’s been crash city since.

Anchorage is a fun little add-on, focusing more on the first person shooter aspect (you can’t even try to loot the bodies), and it was a neat storyline to play through. However, aside from the power armor and gauss cannon you get at the end, the content’s only good for about an extra hour or two of commie-busting fun. Since my main complaint is that I didn’t want it to end, I think I’ll be getting the Pitts expansion as well when it comes out.

The level editor/mod kit has also been released, so there might be some decent user-generated content coming soon. One thing I would like to see is a “rock climbing” ability — ruined overpasses and waist-high cliffs blocked my path far too often.