The Reviews I Wrote in 2015

So in the Year of Our Lord 2015, I got to write about video games in exchange for actual money. It’s kind of a strange thing to be doing, and it’s highlighted every time someone asks me what I’m “up to” these days (that always means, “do you have a real job yet”).

Anyway, here are six of the reviews I wrote this year, collected for your reading (or possibly, your ignoring) enjoyment.

Might & Magic Heroes VII

“[W]arts considered, Might & Magic Heroes VII isn’t enough of a refinement over VI to justify purchase if you already own that game. It’s unfriendly to newcomers to the series, with nothing that qualifies as a tutorial included out of the box. And fans of the old games may find themselves put off by all the unnecessary visual flash.”

Having loved the early titles in the Heroes of Might & Magic series, I really wanted to love this game. VI was hard to get into, though, and I held out very little hope going into this outing. Turns out, I was right. They made baffling decisions about how to present the game, and while it’s still recognizable as an heir to the series, I think it’s gotten so far off track at this point that I’d be very surprised if it’s ever revisited.

Assault Android Cactus

“[A] very unpretentious game that’s mostly about having fun. There’s the bobbleheaded, space marines-via-Funco Pop design of each character, the bumping soundtrack, and the androids’ distinct voices and senses of humor. Its charm and sense of fluidity and flow make it perfect for short, intense sessions – say 15 to 30 minutes during a quick break.”

Despite having heard murmurs about this game after its appearances at several gaming conventions over the last couple years, I was still surprised at how much fun I had with this game. There are a couple boss fights that seem pretty bogus, but ultimately it’s a very pure bullet-hell score attack game that has tons of Dreamcast-era charm.

Grand Ages: Medieval

“[W]here Crusader Kings II kept players close to the reality of history, Grand Ages seems to use it primarily as window-dressing for its essentially context-free lesson in basic supply and demand economics.”

Other than the fact that they ported this to PlayStation, I have no idea who this game is for. It’s shallow, its systems are oblique without offering depth, and the combat is about as complex as a game of Pogs. To top that all off, the game is ugly as sin.

Armello

“Armello is a remarkable achievement. Instead of simply transferring a board game experience to the TV or computer screen, developer League of Geeks has managed to escape the boundaries of the board game format using modern innovation. Arthur C. Clarke suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and in that light, Armello is quite definitely magical.”

 What Armello lacks in depth and consistency, it more than makes up for in utter charm. My main problem is that as formulated, the game doesn’t lend itself to couch-co-op, meaning that the best part of Settlers of Catan — the bantering back and cross around the table — is utterly absent. Even with this out of the picture, it’s still a great experience, and sessions last around 45 minutes to an hour.

Armikrog

From start to finish I spent about four hours playing it, and although there are evidently secrets to find in the game, I can’t imagine I’ll be going back to it now that I’m done. The music and visuals are completely charming, but the game mechanics are broken and the puzzle designs are lackluster.

 Having loved the ClayMation features I grew up with in the ’80s, I was fully prepared to love this game, despite its point-and-click adventure format. There’s something to be said for a sense of artistic style and the raw craftsmanship that goes into realizing it, especially in an interactive format like a video game. But all of Armikrog’s charm wears thin within the first hour of play, as you realize there’s really nothing about it that is actually fun, other than to look at the plasticine figures and wish it was a Gumby short.

 Dropsy

“Dropsy is a real innocent, a modern “ugly duckling,” and as the game progressed I found myself less and less put off by his appearance and more and more sympathetic toward him.” 

I played quite a few point-and-click adventure games in the ’90s, but not because I liked them — it’s because Sierra titles like Kings Quest was for a while all we really had available. It’s a terrible format that I’m glad has mostly died off (despite TellTale’s efforts to bring it back).

Which makes it doubly strange that I loved Dropsy so much, being that it’s just this kind of game, and stars an amoebic clown with a rictus grin, looking to give sweaty hugs to everyone around. But love it I did — Dropsy has an amazing amount of heart, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and features a terrific soundtrack. Play it.

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Dusting this old thing off again

No sense in denying it, I pretty much abandoned this blog. But I’d like to revive it again, since I’m going to be doing more games writing in the future, and it’ll be handy to have a place to work thoughts out on a day to day (well, so to speak) basis.

Some housekeeping is in order!

First, I’m signed on to do games reviews for Bitter Lawyer, which will have its official launch in the near future. It’s already up and running, though, and you can check out my first couple contributions:

Make A Little Birdhouse In Your School And Play This Pigeon Dating Game

Shadow of Mordor: Orc Murder Simulator 2014

I’ve submitted a review of Alien: Isolation as well, so keep an eye on the site for when (assuming my editors like it) that goes live.

Some other relevant bits of news – After a bit of timely contract work, I was able to plunk down some cash and build a pretty fantastic gaming PC. For specs, I’ll create a separate page or entry on this blog so I can link back to it. (Edit: Here’s the page.) For now, though, it has a nice Intel i7 quad-core sitting on a very pretty MSI motherboard that houses lots of RAM and a graphics card that looks capable of vertical takeoff and landing. It’s far more powerful than the new-gen consoles, so it should be more than enough for the next few years’ worth of triple-A releases.

Moving on…

When I started this blog up, I picked “culturegamer” because I wasn’t feeling very original and I wanted to talk about the intersection of culture and video games. Now that the internet shitstorm known as “gamergate” is still in full, noxious swing, I’m going to have to take a stab at talking about that. In the meantime, though, several sites have written “explainers” about the phenomenon that can at least help contextualize the insanity that at the time of this writing shows no signs of slowing down:

The Washington Post’s The Intersect: The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read

Deadspin: The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate

Gawker: What Is Gamergate, and why? An explainer for non-geeks

Anyway, stay tuned. More to follow.

Culturegamer reviews — Sword of the Stars: The Pit

Long before there was the “Free to Play” model of Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2, there were free games available on the frontiers of the Internet. “Roguelikes,” they were called, named for the formidable Rogue. Initially released in the early 1980s for UNIX systems, Rogue was a procedurally-generated dungeon full of monsters and traps that wanted to brutally end the life of the ASCII character that represented you.

The appeal of roguelikes has persisted perhaps longer than any other video game format. Sure, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll find in a banner title like the recently-released Tomb Raider reboot, but it’s been around for a long time and has quite the pedigree. In the ‘90s, games like Nethack and Angband rekindled the roguelike flame. My own first experience with them was on an obscure game I found on a 5.25” floppy disk called Evets: The Adventure, probably around 1987.

Sword of the Stars: The Pit

Giant green slime monsters will grab and poison you. It’s fun.

So it’s heartwarming to see a little game like Sword of the Stars: The Pit (Kerberos Productions, distributed on Steam) come along and challenge players to the same unforgiving random dungeon environment again.

Sword of the Stars, I’m given to understand, is the name of a universe in which a couple existing 4X-type games have already been set. There is a story, too, about some plague that has beset a planet. None of this really matters, because Sword of the Stars: The Pit uses the exact same formula that made games like Angband (and its many, many variants) so popular. To wit: You pick a character class and descend through increasingly difficult levels of a dungeon, finding equipment and horrible monsters along the way. The action is turn-based; your “speed” stat determines how often you may move and what actions you may take before enemies take their turns. Different weapons have different effects, and different enemies have different abilities (like “grabbing”) that can hinder your progress or, quite likely, kill you. And – in true roguelike fashion – once you’re killed, there’s no checkpoint to return to or savegame to load. You’re dead and have to start over on a whole new dungeon.

All of this is delivered rather delightfully via a retro-esque graphics presentation. Replacing Rogue and Angband’s ASCII characters is a very engaging, colorful tileset reminiscent of games like Albion and the older Phantasy Star titles. The tileset changes as you progress down through the dungeon, searching for better weapons and armor more than you are for the cure to the ghoul-inducing plague (if we’re being honest). The sprite-based character art is cartoony, but it clearly lets you know what kind of monster you’re facing, and even what kind of armor or weapon you’re using (the fact that Dungeons of Dredmor did not do this was a constant annoyance for me).

Stats play an important role in the game, as they’ll determine your likelihood of success in tasks like picking locks or activating old computer terminals. In a departure from most other roguelikes – and more in line with the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series – actually performing tasks can help you get better at doing them. Patching yourself up with a mobile surgery unit, for instance, will improve your medical skill. It’s also possible to boost skills, Fallout-style, when you level up – you’re given points to put into your three main attributes of “Might,” “Finesse,” and “Brains,” and more to add to abilities like lockpicking and deciphering – a skill that makes its importance known when you begin downloading alien data from locked or broken computer terminals scattered throughout the dungeon.

Without conserving ammunition and food, you will quickly find yourself unarmed and starving in a dark corner of a low floor, worried to make even a single move in any direction lest you wake the robot guardians and blob creatures that inhabit The Pit. It’s that “Game over, man” moment from Pvt. Hudson in Aliens, and while you can technically still use your fists to assail your enemies, you know you doomed yourself for ditching that combat knife to free up inventory space several floors above.

There could be a few minor pitfalls to mention. The sound design is fairly forgettable, but certainly appropriate for the game (although the similarly-roguelike FTL shipped with a pretty stunning soundtrack).

And if roguelikes definitely aren’t your thing, Sword of the Stars: The Pit is probably not going to change your mind. However, if you’ve so far managed to miss this wonderful and strange genre, it certainly could be the one to make you love it.

85/100

I finally finished Wings of Liberty

After owning the game for about a year and a half, I finally beat the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign Tuesday.

This might not be all that striking to other players. It’s not like I completed the campaign on a high difficulty setting – just “Normal,” which barely warrants an achievement on Battle.net. So why did it take me so long?

The first problem is that I’m easily discouraged, enough at least that I’ll look elsewhere for entertainment if things get too difficult or require too many tries to get through in one game. I put StarCraft II aside several times: once during an early mission called “Safe Haven,” where Raynor’s Raiders have to stop a Protoss mothership from leveling a terran colony after detecting Zerg infestation. The mission introduces the Viking unit, an air-to-air fighter that can transform into a ground-to-ground walking mech. There’s a timing element to this mission, as the Protoss ship will make its way to different outposts around the map, and the Protoss also periodically send sorties to attack your base. It’s one of the first missions where you’re forced to attack and defend on several fronts at once. It also takes quite a while to complete, and after failing a couple times, I threw my hands up and played something else.

Another mission I “gave up” on was later in the game, where you’re introduced to another air unit, the air-to-ground Banshee. Here again you’re pitted against the Protoss, and a special mission gimmick again forces you to act quickly – “supernova” fire creeps across the map from left to right, forcing you to pick up your base and relocate regularly. This requires building up an assault force and taking out Protoss encampments that you can move into and grab resources to make your final attack.

But two things happened that made me start playing with gusto again: one, Nvidia released new drivers for the graphics chip on my middling laptop, and I found a terrific game-boosting app from Razer. Between these two factors, my framerate in StarCraft II went from around 22-24 fps to 55-60 fps. I’ve never really understood PC gamers who insist on super-high framerates, but now I get it. The difference is incredible. It isn’t about the game looking better; it’s about how quickly you can react to what’s happening on screen.

Returning to “Supernova” after the upgrades, I found I was able to complete the mission with ease. In the remaining missions in the game, I only had to restart missions twice, including once on the final, campaign-ending mission.

So performance matters. Probably obvious, but it’s still pretty amazing to see first-hand how important framerates can be.

After finishing the campaign and dealing with that “end of a novel you really like” feeling, I picked Dawn of War II back up, since I had the “Chaos Rising” expansion campaign to work on. I was immediately struck by how it’s the inferior game to StarCraft II – not because it’s a bad game, but just because StarCraft II is so good. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the Chaos Rising and Retribution content for Dawn of War II, but they’re not about to supplant Blizzard as king of the RTS games.

Dark Souls diary 2 – I swear I’d never say it

…but yeah. Praise the goddamned sun.

According to this very blog, I’ve been rooting around in Dark Souls’ Blighttown since September. It hasn’t been constant — again, I hit one of those “I’ve had it” walls as Blighttown’s relentless poison, vertical drops, and overall misery finally overcame me and I looked elsewhere for fun (in the interim, I completed — I mean, 100 percent completed – Rockstar’s incredible Red Dead Redemption). I had made it as far as Blighttown’s bonfire, and had only further down to go.

Again note: this post will contain spoilers, so avoid it if you’re planning on playing.

Most of Blighttown’s indigent enemies aren’t really all that bad in a one-on-one fight. The toughest baddies are the ogres you find guarding the entrances and the boss’ lair, but they’re slow and can be easily circled after their clumsy (but powerful) attacks. The thin cave-dwelling humanoids fall to couple swings of the sword (but learn to avoid their lunges, as they’ll eat your face), as do the poisonous giant mosquitoes and fire-breathing crag spiders. But since this is Dark Souls, the odds are still rarely in your favor.

Although they’re weak, blowdart snipers are placed around the nightmare treehouse scaffolding that makes up Blighttown’s upper levels. They normally have a long time during which they can hit you with impunity, since it’s usually unclear at first how to reach the platforms they’re on. Their darts have a particularly potent that builds up quickly, making the fighting you have to do to reach and dispatch them much deadlier.

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Launch

So here’s my little gaming blog. I’d like to use this to discuss the gaming-related stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit in my normal blogging digs.

Video games are now part of culture. Not just American culture, mind you. They’re shaping culture around the world. Almost ten years ago, I was stationed in South Korea with the U.S. Army, and there were two television channels devoted to Starcraft.

Here in the states, if you’re under the age of forty, you grew up knowing words like “Mario Brothers” and “Zelda” and “Asteroids” and “ColecoVision.”

If you were born after 1980, video games are – even if you didn’t play them – part of the tapestry of your youth, and they’ve only gotten more significant since the heady days of Commander Keen.

Games, I think, can tell us something about what’s important to us. Good games can help us learn and grow, and bad games remind us of what sucks about modernity. There are lessons to be learned here, and what I hope to do with this blog is to chronicle my own ongoing journey within that sphere.

So, without further ado, here are the games I’m playing now:

I have others, of course, and I’ll be adding to this list. But I’d like to use this blog to talk about my experiences with what I feel are important games, and how those experiences are shaped by, and shape, my own understanding of culture.

Stay tuned.