Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Brutal Legend

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Champions Online free for haloween weekend

From over at kotaku

From Friday October 30th to Monday November 2nd, Cryptic is opening up Champions Online to any and all who want to come try it out. Simply head over to the free play promo page, sign up for an account, download the client, and then wait. Perhaps you could make a sandwich or something.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Cost of Gaming Addiction @ Kotaku

There's an article up on Kotaku where one of the contributors talks about his early 2000s addiction to Everquest, and how he ruined his life with it (thankfully not irrevocably). The article is here. It really struck a chord with me, because I, too felt the narcotic tug of Everquest in 99-01, and I'd be lying if I said my time spent in Norrath didn't affect my job performance and severely hamper my relationships with people I knew in "real life."

So take it as an all-too common cautionary tale for the generation of 20 and 30somethings today - Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to play MMOGs.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review: Tropico 3

"Power doesn't corrupt people, people corrupt power." - William Gaddis

I often thought I might like to play the first two Tropico games, but I never got around to it. When Tropico 3 came down the pipe, I snagged the demo and was immediately hooked. So I had to get the full game. It's right up my alley - an economic/political simulator with a sardonic flair for depicting Caribbean banana republics with a tongue that never strays far from the cheek.

The game places you in control of a small island nation in 1950, and depending upon the map you are playing and the difficulty options you have set, you have until anywhere between 1980 and 2000 to turn a small collection of huts and farms into a thriving modern city-state. Along the way you will be beset by rebellions, military coups, worker strikes, earthquakes, hurricanes, political unrest, humanitarian crisis, imperialist foreign superpowers, assassins, elections, protests, national debt, slovenly tourists and lazy workers. A multitude of variables will affect your play session, ranging from the selection of natural resources on your island to the particular aptitudes and personality flaws of your avatar Presidente.

You can choose from a list of famous historical presidents and dictators, or you can custom design your own. I recommend designing your own avatar, because then you get to pick the bonuses and penalties you get that will most compliment your playing style. Every Presidente has an "origin story," two positive traits and two flaws, which will affect the productivity of your citizens and alter their view of you as a leader - for instance, the "Administrator" trait will increase productivity in your factories, the "womanizer" flaw will decrease your popularity with educated women and those of a religious nature, and the "Generalissimo" origin story will increase your popularity with the militarist political faction.

The duration of your administration will be a balancing act between the financial needs of the island, the various political factions of the residents, and of course your own need to pad your retirement fund in a swiss bank account. An easy and cheap investment early in the game would be to build a lumber industry, later maturing with addition of a furniture factory, but this would upset the environmentalists in the population. Agriculture is, of course, an important component of feeding your populace but the financial allure of exporting tobacco, sugar and fruit makes for a compelling option as well, and being on an island you have very limited space in which to conduct agriculture. The communists in the populace want cheap housing and health care, the capitalists want upscale entertainment and high wages, and your appeasement of one or both of them will affect the attitude of the two global superpowers, governing how much foreign aid money you receive from them... or how likely they are to invade!

Space on the island being limited and the ground not always being ideal for construction make building and expanding an often challenging prospect. Everything you do takes up space on the map, and some endeavors (such as farms, ranches, logging camps etc) even need to be in proximity to a large amount of undeveloped territory which is suitable to their purpose, further limiting your ability to build. Additionally, you have to plan and construct roads between distant parts of the island, copiously supplied with parking garages - because time spent travelling between buildings is time not spent being productive.

You can also spend money to issue edicts that alter the variables of the game. These edicts can run the gamut from providing social security to the unemployed and retired, to promoting literacy, to enacting martial law or instigating book burnings. You can also praise a superpower, garnering goodwill from the one while hurting relations with the other, organize trade missions to increase revenue, or even allow nuclear testing around your island for a payoff. Every edict has its cost and its payoff, with those with the largest beneficial effects also incurring the largest costs or penalties in other areas.

As for the little people, the citizens themselves, you can micromanage them as much or as little as you care to do so. Each individual "Tropican" has their own priorities (some want a good job, others want good housing, others still think access to good health care is what is most important, and some even cannot be happy unless they have a leader they can respect, etc). You can click on any person living on the island to see "need" bars, much as if this was a sims game, to gauge how well his needs are being addressed. You can fire or evict people from any building you choose, you can listen to the thoughts of your citizen in real time for clues about how to make them happier or more productive... or you could just ignore them like the ants they are and continue to govern from an ivory tower, because sod the plebes, YOU know what's best for them.

I do, however, have a couple gripes about the game, as enthralling as it is. I don't know if it is because the game is supposed to simulate dictatorships exclusively, or if it is satire, or if the designers just didn't know any better, but the entire game's mechanics function in a manner that belies a hard leftist's understanding of the world around him. Even though everything else about the game is configurable and has a price, food, health care, higher education and transportation are all provided free to the people, entirely at government expense. While you can set wages for individual buildings, entire career types, or entire levels of education, you can't actually set wages individually or based upon merit, effectiveness, experience or productivity - it doesn't matter to the game whether the people working in your factory are new and untrained, or 20 year veterans with triple working speed, everybody in the building gets paid THE SAME. Setting wages is really only used to incentivize people applying for jobs that are vacant or to increase general happiness. Every depiction of communism is that of championing the people (they want housing and health care, remember?), while every depiction of capitalism is of excess or misanthropy - they want fancy houses, expensive entertainment, and high economic disparity (though no mention is made of the capitalist benefit of high economic MOBILITY, which is so taken for granted in our culture that even in this game it exists as a matter of course which has no bearing or influence on anything else in the game).

There are other less abstruse annoyances in the game as well - and at the top of the list of "things that will irritate everybody" is the grating repetitiveness of the in-game radio announcer. If you go more than 2 games without going into the options to find out how to shut Locutor Juanito up completely, I'll be surprised. Another source of displeasure is the shortsightedness and seemingly limited attention span of the two most crucial workers in the game - the construction workers and teamsters. If a building site isn't within easy walking distance of your construction office, often it will often go untouched by your construction workers, even though the office has a built in garage for driving to distant construction sites. Often the only way to overcome this is by either micromanaging to raise the priority of the job (though, if EVERYTHING is top priority, doesn't that really mean NOTHING is?), or building extra construction offices until you have a triple redundant workforce... that STILL often enough won't drive a quarter mile to build an apartment without it being micromanaged into "top priority" status, and sits around soaking up wages when there's no construction work going on. Teamsters suffer from much the same problem. They have a garage in their building, so they should be able to drive to anywhere quickly, yet often enough materials will not get hauled from one place to another, or finished product won't make it to the dock in time for export, which directly hurts your bottom line.

And speaking of problems with driving around, the representation of vehicularized transport in Tropico 3 is downright surreal. Nobody actually owns a car, they are just all communally supplied at no charge from parking garages or from the attached motor pools of specific buildings. Furthermore, every trip by auto is one way - a teamster traveling to a factory to take a shipment of goods to the dock will be driven to the factory by a truck from the teamster's garage... but the truck will drop him off there and head to the nearest parking garage (or if one is not built yet, just go right back to the teamsters office). It is, for some reason, incapable of waiting the 15 seconds it takes for the teamster to walk into the factory and come back out with a wheelbarrow full of stuff. He then has to either go to a nearby parking garage to pick up ANOTHER one-way-trip vehicle to the docks, or just walk there overland with his wheelbarrow. Even more confounding is this also happens at buildings with attached garages - the teamster getting ore from a mine will not be able to get a car from the mine's attached garage, presumably because those vehicles are only usable by miners. So really, a mine may as well not even HAVE an attached garage because you're going to have to build a parking garage near it ANYWAY for the teamsters to use.

And I have one more peculiar observation of perplexing paradigms - gender identities in Tropico 3 are a little arbitrary. Sure, only women can get pregnant and have children... but for some reason, the game enforces certain gender roles for certain jobs. Despite the fact that either men or women are capable of being construction workers or work in factories, only women can be high school teachers, journalists, engineers (who work at oil refineries and power plants), bureaucrats or cooks. Meanwhile, only men can be teamsters, police officers, or college professors. Why can't a woman instruct at a collegiate level? Why CAN a man, despite his inability to teach at the high school level? I could see being indiscriminate about gender in the name of political correctness I suppose, but this just seems random.

Speaking of arbitrary, there's an overlay in the game that enumerates the "scenic beauty" of every square inch of your island. This "beauty" variable is important to many buildings intended to cater to tourists (beach resorts, botanical gardens, etc). But confusingly enough, this "beauty" doesn't seem to have any actual connection to the topography of the island. Oh, certainly heavily wooded areas are always very beautiful, and crowded urban areas are always ugly, but the most bewildering thing happens on a beach. A certain square meter of beach can be rated absolutely gorgeous, while it sits immediately adjacent to a square meter of beach that is apparently the most hideous thing since cystic acne, despite that with the overlay turned off there is actually no discernable difference between the two spots. And frankly, I think the whole "beauty" dynamic is overdone. Any tourist who lays eyes upon a poor tenement on your island is apparently going to burst into flames and write scathing letters to every travel agency in the world - but I've been to a couple Caribbean places myself, and despite the proliferation of ramshackle huts and dirty tenements I saw in, say, Progreso, I would still rate it an extremely enjoyable place with a great tourism industry... though perhaps that is because of the copious amounts of extremely cheap booze available there.

All that aside, the game is still very addictive to people who like economic or political simulators. Replayability is very good, as there are both sandbox and campaign modes, with the "campaign" consisting really of a large selection of islands, each of which has its own permutations to the game's setup to make it a unique challenge (island A has no farmland, and has to rely on fishing and mining, island B is oil rich but politically turbulent, etc). Multiplayer doesn't really exist, but there is a "challenge" mode where you and others online can compare scores against each other after playing identical scenarios. The graphics are detailed, bright and colorful, and the game's soundtrack consists of 15 jaunty latin tunes that really set the atmosphere (though you may get tired of them after a while).

All in all, despite its flaws the game is an enjoyable addition my collection, and one that ranks up there with some of my other favorite economic/management sim games such as Startopia or Dungeon Keeper.

Grade: B+.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Wet

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Zero Punctuation Reviews: Scribblenauts

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Review: Darkest of Days

A guest review this time, once again from occasional contributor Psyclone -

If there is anything both incredibly sad and unfortunately common in the gaming world, it's wasted potential: games that look promising only to be ruined by rushing towards a deadline, ideas that sound good on paper but just don't translate well into an actual game or developers that have great ideas but not the talent or resources to create a game that does those ideas justice. Darkest Of Days, the debut game of Iowa based developer 8monkey labs, seems to be all three of those things; a game with an amazing premise that manages to fail on pretty much everything else.


You play as Alexander Morris, a soldier fighting in General Custer's army in the Battle of Little Big Horn. After you get an arrow to the leg, witness Custer's death and are just about to bite it yourself, a portal appears and a guy in a fancy space suit "rescues you" (it's kind of confusing: the guy gets an arrow himself, tells you to hurry and you suddenly go into the portal despite being paralyzed a few moments ago, but never mind), whisking you away to the 22nd century. You awaken in the (apparently one room) HQ of an organization called KronoteK. See, due to a paperwork issue concerning an early transfer, Morris was considered an MIA in the conflict, and KronoteK seeks out these MIAs due to their "recruitment" having a minimal impact in history and thus can be given a second chance at life researching and protecting history. As soon as Morris in brought up to speed by KronoteK higher up "Mother" (shown only as a pair of eyes in a computer monitor); the latter informs him that the organization's founder, Dr. Koell has gone missing and at the same time, disturbances has been appearing all over history, placing vital individuals in harm's way, requiring Morris and his new partner/mentor, Agent Dexter to aid in resolving the situation. It is also quickly established that said disturbances seem to be connected to another group of time travelers, known only as "The Opposition"...

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, that constitutes about 70% of the story and the rest goes downhill from there. While the premise would allow immense variety by featuring several individuals to save all across history, the vast majority of the game (about 3/4 to be precise) involves you rescuing TWO guys, one from WWI and another from the American Civil War. Apart from two missions in Little Big Horn, one in World War II, and one in Pompeii the entire game (consisting of X missions) takes place in these two time periods. The plot justifies taking so long to rescue these two idiots by throwing an enormous amount of plot bullshit your way, ranging from beaming in several kilometers away for some reason, the two guys being needed to deliver vital-to-the-success-of-the-war stuff, to mistaking the person you're meant to rescue for his twin brother. To make matters worse, until the very end, we are never even TOLD what significance to history these guys have, making you feel like you're going on a wild goose chase.

And then there are the endless illogical elements in the plot, of which the arrow thing in the beginning is only the first: if KronoteK is so worried about preserving history, judging by Mother's reaction to the Opposition's first attack, why do they allow your mentor to give you several future weapons, going so far as leaving one in a farmhouse full of hostile soldiers? Morris was rescued by having the time bubble appear ''right in front of him''. Why can't we do the same with the other guys? Why does no one pay attention to the Union soldier who seems to appear out of nowhere from time to time and obviously isn't part of the unit mow down Confederate soldiers with a weapon looking, sounding and firing like nothing ever seen before yet panic at the sight of people with the same weapons yet wearing space suits? Why is there a mission where you're accompanied by two redshirts who go missing after the zeppelin they are piloting crash and are completely forgotten about once Dexter tells Mother a fib about them being fine and sure to come back soon? Why does the leader of the Opposition occasionally kidnap you between time trips to tell you that KronoteK are the bad guys yet sends you back every time to mow down his flunkies by the dozen? Finally, why does all of this culminate in an ending so abrupt, pointless and anti-climactic that it makes you shout "What was the point of all this?" The mind boggles.


The core mechanics of the game are standard FPS stuff: no fancy cover system, you can only carry 2 weapons at a time along with grenades, and each one has a (rather weak) melee attack for close quarters combat. The first gimmick the game introduces is the use of weaponry appropriate to the time period of the mission you're on: therefore you'll be using stuff like the Mosin-Nagant rifle and the Mauser C96 pistol in WWI; and the Springfield Musket, Henry Rifle and Colt revolver in the Civil War, amongst other weapons. While the weapons of WWI and your brief jaunt in WWII (more on that in a bit) are pretty decent, for most of the Civil War portions you'll be stuck with the nightmare that is the Springfield single-shot musket. Yes, running around with a gun that only fires a single bullet before having to go through an excruciatingly long reload process is fun for a while but it gets old VERY quickly. And yet that is the gun that 95% of all enemies are carrying so you'd better get used to it. Add that to the terrible AI of the game and you have some hilarious moments, such as enemies standing in the middle of an open field shooting at you, then reloading for about 5 seconds while you take out your sidearm and shoot them in the head. Or, if you have no other weapon handy, get involved in the Civil War equivalent of a quick draw gun battle, where you try to reload before the other guy does. It's as ridiculous as it sounds. Then there's the future weaponry: every so often Dexter will give you a future weapon whenever there is the need to perform "numerical adjustment" (as he puts it) to opposing armies. As fun as this sounds, most of the time he'll give you the futuristic shotgun or the futuristic assault rifle, which despite looking flashy are your typical FPS shotgun and rifle. In certain missions you do get access to cooler weapons (such as a weird rocket launcher/artillery cannon hybrid, an auto aiming machine gun and an awesome sniper rifle), but these are few and far between.

Speaking of reloading, another thing the game introduces is an "active reload" system: every time you reload your weapon, a circular meter indicating your progress starts filling up and if you press the fire button when it hits a green section along the meter, the reload process is immediately completed. However, if you miss, the gun jams making said reloading longer. This mechanic ends up being a godsend for most weapons (especially the musket) yet appears to be slightly buggy: every so often, instead of getting the "jam" animation, your character simply holds the empty weapon making you having to switch weapons and back again to be able to fire, in a matter that is clearly a bug, not a feature.

The final gimmick is blue aura enemies. These are people that while not apparently as vital to history as the (gold aura) people whose rescue is the focus of the mission, are still important enough to keep alive. What this means in gameplay terms is that they must be taken down by either shooting them in the legs or using a bunch of pebble-like devices called "chasers" that when thrown seek out these special enemies and give them an electric shock that knocks them out. Unfortunately, every so often these chasers, despite being supposed to come back when thrown will get stuck or you'll be forced to run away from the place where you threw them so there may be times when you have none available. Not to mention they have some trouble seeking blue auras when not in a specific range, so you may have to throw them several times.

But what happens if you kill these people? Well, sometimes (this was probably supposed to happen every time judging by the trailer. Yup, yet another bug) this causes a bunch of Opposition mooks to warp in, which, due to their better weapons and body armor, often cause your survival chances to drop. Not killing blue auras also gives you a bonus to upgrade points you receive at the end of each mission to upgrade your weapons (in clip size, reload speed, accuracy and rate of fire). Why these upgrades carry to every weapon you pick up is never explained but whatever. Time travel.

Now you must asking: is all this stuff placed inside a decent game? The answer is no: 80% of gameplay resumes to "Go here" and "Kill these guys". Sure, every so often you have to protect those ever-so-important NPC characters, but since they seem to be not only bulletproof but also have the ability to teleport near you if you go too far away, those "escort missions" end up being exactly the same as the afore mentioned "Go here" and "Kill these guys" objectives. Apart from a few decent set pieces (such as a jaunt on a zeppelin and a really atmospheric mission in a Nazi POW camp, the game's definitive high point), you have one of the most barebones shooters ever.

And if that wasn't enough we have some utterly bizarre design decisions: in one mission in WWI, mustard gas is released and you put on a gas mask. The mask ends up covering more than half the screen and judging by it's placement, you'd think they either didn't put the eye holes in the right places or that Morris is a cyclops. And then when you bring up the map, said map ends up being almost completely covered by the mask. That caused me to wander blindly for at least 5 minutes before realizing that the place where I was supposed to go to was the opposite direction of the way I was facing initially, which I could have easily verified if I could look at the map!

And then there's the invisible walls. Not only is there a game developer with the audacity to use invisible walls in this day and age, said walls are all over the place: not just the borders of the map, there are invisible walls around lakes, invisible walls around cliffs (despite the game having both swimming and fall damage), invisible walls around cliffs that you could easily climb otherwise, invisible walls in the middle of nowhere, etc. It seems that the only way to get around without bumping into an invisible wall is to strictly follow what the map defines as a road, in essence reducing the area show in your map to about 1/9th of the size.

And in the moments where you're actually shooting people? Most of the time it's pretty standard until the several times when the game throws a crapton of enemies at you, all of whom are capable of shooting you from really long distances without you knowing where the hell they are. Sometimes it gets so irritating that it just makes you give up and try running towards the next objective. And it works too, though it can bite you in the ass sometimes (one particularly embarrassing incident occurred when I, armed with only a Colt revolver and facing off against 30 Union soldiers made a break for it...only to face off against two armored Opposition members armed with machine pistols). As you can imagine, all of this makes for a very aggravating gaming experience.


There's really not much to say here. The soundtrack is pretty generic and repetitive, and the weapon sound effects at times make you feel as if you are firing BB guns or lighting firecrackers. instead of actual firearms. The voice acting is all over the place: the NPCs have pretty flat dialogue, Mother's voice keeps changing between accents, Dexter does a good job but his voice is COMPLETELY wrong for his character: he is supposed to be a New York firefighter who went MIA on 9/11, but he sounds more like a cowboy mixed with an Army veteran.


The developers have bragged in press releases and the like of their "Marmoset Engine", which allows them to render "Hundreds of enemies at once". Well, I can't fault them there: we do get a lot of enemies on screen at once and without any slowdown even on a mid-range machine. Of course, when the rest of the game looks like a PS2 title and all the enemies look the same with only a few different models here and there, that isn't much of an achievement. The textures are high-res but really repetitive. The level terrain looks incredibly dull and with hardly any points of reference, so you'll be stuck looking at your map most of the time (usually only stopping when someone is about to shoot you). The only exceptions to this are the aforementioned POW level and the final level set in Pompeii, which look rather neat but that ends up being too little too late. And even those levels end up being ruined due to the repetitiveness of the models: all of the great ambiance of the POW camp goes straight to hell once you find the guy you were sent to look the middle of a crowd full of models looking exactly like him.


Darkest of Days has some high points, but its merits in no way outweigh its flaws. It's quite simply a terrible game. It's so bad it's not even mock worthy: if there was an MST3K for games, this game would be the equivalent to Monster a Go-Go or The Beast Of Yucca Flats, in the sense that not even riffing can make it bearable. I know this is a debut game, but there is such a thing as aiming your sights too high and this what happens when you do. Recommendation: stay the hell away from this game. Darkest Of Days, indeed.

Grade: D.

Psyclone has, in the past, also reviewed Burnout Paradise for GBG.

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