XCOM Impressions

Even with my backlog, I wasn’t going to be able to resist Borderlands 2, Torchlight 2, Carrier Command, Dishonored, and XCOM releasing in short order. I played a little original Borderlands (anyone else think about ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ every time they see that title?) to dull some of the desire there. Carrier Command sounds a bit buggy at launch (from Bohemia? I’m shocked). Dishonored might have to wait until I get a new rig. So I was choosing between Torchlight 2 and XCOM. Despite the price differential, my love for the original series won out, and I got XCOM.

Of course, the new release got me thinking about the original game. The early 90’s is ages ago in games terms. Back then X-Com: UFO defense was a revelation. Despite nostalgic temptation, it wasn’t a perfect game. Certain random events could ruin your game. The aliens could sometimes decimate your team before you even debarked the skyranger. The alien movement phase sometimes showed too little or too much. Your odds of making the amazing clutch shot always seemed much lower than the aliens. Then, the game was often brutally hard at the beginning and the end.

However, the original X-Com did so many things right that it earned its place as a classic hall of fame game. The over game (or meta game or whatever you want to call the global strategic part of the game) constantly had you balancing your radar coverage, troops, research, production and facilities to keep your benefactors happy and your budget in the green. Research combined story with technological developments that unlocked new tools, weapons, armor, facilities and even weapons platforms. But if you didn’t balance your budget, you wouldn’t be able to afford all those new toys.

All that work fed into the tactical game where your team actually fought the aliens. Better weapons and armor tended to lead to better results, but only if you employed sold tactics. X-Com didn’t have the nuance you’d expect from a tactical game today, but it was pretty amazing with multiple elevations, solid line of sight detection, cover, stances and environmental destruction. Not bad for a 2D sprite based game. In short, it was amazing for the time. It did many things I’d never seen before and many I wouldn’t see again for years.

That’s quite a legacy to live up to. So how does the new XCOM fare? The first thing I should say is ‘Go buy this game!’ It looks like an updated X-Com, but more importantly it feels like it. It adds enough modern flair and UI enhancements to make it feel current. So let’s break it down.

The graphics feel inspired by the original game without being needlessly bound to them. Different enemy types are easy to identify. The dreaded chrysalid is appropriately menacing. The environments are largely interactive and look nice generally without obscuring the action. Sure, more assets, especially for different parts of the world would be nice. I had far more wow moments visually than any noticed disappointments.

The controls are pretty good especially since they had to design for both keyboard and mouse and a gamepad. Deaths only come from tactical errors or bad luck. XCOM reminded me why I miss turn based tactical combat. You always feel in control of you team and their abilities. That’s so far removed from the spray and pray of too many modern games. I will readily admit that my twitch reflexes have atrophied a bit over the years not that I was ever good at rocket jumping in Quake. The only problem is that while the internal rules are consistent, it’s not always clear why an option is greyed out. Once you learn the rules, it’s not a problem, and there are ways to find out, but it could be clearer.

The sound is great. It provides the proper atmosphere. It can be quite creepy and paranoid at times which is just perfect. You can identify enemies and weapons by sound. Ambient sounds are nice and appropriate, but could use more localization base on the mission’s area of operations.

So how is the AI? I didn’t play around with all the difficulties, but you won’t win without caution and sound tactics even on the easier difficulties. If you want a cakewalk, you probably want a different game. Enemies are aggressive, use their abilities well and don’t hesitate to press their advantage. Yes, it can feel unfair on the harder difficulties. You are taking on a battle hardened enemy wielding superior technology. With research the playing field levels out a bit.

In summary, the parts of the game come together to make something greater than the sum of the parts. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to fans of the original or the genre. Like I said, go buy this game.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/10/xcom-impressions/

A Few Updates

I’m sorry I’ve been away for a while. It’s been busy lately. Combine that with my wife being away on business trips and the stomach flu, the site has been neglected lately. I did want to give you some updates.

First, Planetary Annihilation was fully funded with all stretch goals. That means that Galactic War is coming. I’m not going to hold my breath that they’ll make their exact release date, but I’m glad their full vision will see the light of day. I’m old and jaded enough to realize that this is the best part of game development for the fan. We have just enough information to get excited and fill in the rest with our imagination of the best game possible.

Still, they’re starting from a good point modeling on Total Annihilation and SupCom. I always like the idea that no base is impregnable. Beyond that I’m looking for frantic battles and fast action. Generally, I prefer games where initiative is rewarded though I don’t like victory going only to the highest Actions Per Minute (APM). As you might guess, I like sound strategy, use of tactical advantage and mass, combined arms, good supply lines and initiative over pure APM. As long as I get to blow up some planets, I’ll have fun.

Next, I did get FTL (Faster Than Light). I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I might be getting old, but for me, easy feels more like normal than normal. Perhaps if I get better I’ll move up. I’ve unlocked a few ships and each seems to offer different battle strategies. There rarely seems to be an optimal build order that works for each game.  And, in true rogue-like fashion, you depend on the random drops and shop selection to deal with the randomized (but steadily tougher) enemies.  I die a lot, but feel like I’m getting better each time.  That’s what I look for in a rogue-like.  The scifi trappings are just icing on the cake.

Finally, both iOS and Android offer pretty nice apps for updating the blog.  Of course, you can’t do too much text on the touchscreen.  Dictation is somewhat spotty and not always practical in noisy environments.  So I figured I needed a bluetooth keyboard.  I was impressed with the sheer number of recommendations for the Apple version.  While I like the stylish appearance, I didn’t like the chiclet style and shape of the keys.  I also wasn’t thrilled by the price.  I ended up going with this one.  Yes, it’s from Microsoft, but they’ve made some surprisingly good hardware through the years (the early Xbox 360’s not withstanding).  I really liked the ergonomic shape of the keyboard and keys.  There are some things I’d change on it, but the feel of typing on it is a dream.  That’s exactly what I wanted, and the price was significantly cheaper than Apple.  Here’s a picture if you’re too lazy to follow the link.

Microsoft Bluetooth KeyboardThanks for the patience and understanding.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/10/a-few-updates/

Working at Wolfram and Hart

Memes die. That doesn’t mean they’re forgotten. They’re just not propagating anymore. So if I say ‘dancing baby’ or ‘wazzup,’ many people still know what I’m talking about. While I’m not here to call for the death of Call Me Maybe parodies, I can still hope for a sudden end. No, I want to dredge up ‘jumping the shark.’ Even with Shark Week just passed, the Jumped the Shark website is barely above here in web rankings. (Side note: one of the top queries to this website is ‘crash to desktop’) So while the phase is clearly self referential now, there’s one question I haven’t forgotten, what is the opposite of jumping the shark?

You may argue that such a thing doesn’t exist. It’s true that once most shows go into decline they never return to form. Often talent has left and premises may only be used so many times. More importantly, once viewership drops everything tumbles towards cancellation. There’s little time or resources for a renaissance. However, it has happened, so I’m pressing forward.

This year I rewatched the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV series. Even though I own the disks, I watched them on Amazon Prime for the convenience. The down side was that I didn’t get any of the bonus features. The up side is that I wasn’t slowed down by those features and actually finished watching. I was even pretty good about interleaving the crossover Buffy/Angel episodes.

Most shows that I go back and watch seem worse or much worse for time passed. Some of the stuff I watched as a kid is just awful (Hello, Knight Rider). Fortunately, Buffy and Angel don’t fall into that category. I can’t say they’ve gotten better with age, but they would still be some of the best TV on the air if they were running now. I will say there are many clever things you miss when you watch the first time. I also can’t deny that some of the jokes and pop culture references don’t work if you don’t remember the time when the series originally aired.

I might go into my favorite things about the two series at some later date. Now I’ll just try to stay on topic.

There’s some debate when (or if) Buffy jumped the shark. Buffy dies (again) and Dawn are solid choices. There are some classic episodes after that point, Once More with Feeling jumps to mind, but Buffy never consistently regains the mid series form.

Angel is a little different. Whether you choose teenage Connor or just season four, it’s clear that Angel got so dark for so long that it turned off a lot of fans. However, that all turns around at the beginning of season five as team Angel starts working at Wolfram and Hart. Ok, technically they signed up at the end of season four, but the fun didn’t really begin until season five.

I could list over half of season five as great episodes. However, I’ll just give you some of my favorites. It should be noted that bringing Spike over from Buffy added a lot to the fun.

Hell Bound — A non-corporal Spike must take on a powerful ghost while fighting the pull from Hell.

Life of the Party — Lorne takes on the task of throwing the best Halloween party ever at Wolfram and Hart, but something is wrong.

Harm’s Way — A look at Wolfram and Hart and team Angel from the outside as Angel’s secretary tries to plan a conference and clear her name at the same time.

Why We Fight — A look at Angel durning World War II that raises the question of what it really means to be a vampire with a soul.

Smile Time — The magic from an evil kids tv show turns Angel into a puppet.

Not Fade Away — the series finale leaves team Angel where they started fighting the good fight even though they can’t win simply because it’s the good fight.

And my personal favorite:

The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco — It must be watched to be appreciated, but it does have Angel asking the question, “Did you ever hear that the devil built a robot?”

I think the season was helped by the fact that there was more of thematic feel rather than a particular big bad to fight. That meant that threads could run through one off episodes. Characters could come and go as needed. Incredibly, in the end, almost all the loose ends from the series are tied up while the characters reveal their true selves under extreme duress.

Season five ended up being the best of the series even though they knew towards the end that they were being cancelled. So what’s the opposite of jumping the shark? My answer is working at Wolfram and Hart.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/10/working-at-wolfram-and-hart/

Galactic War

Update: The kickstarter achieved $1.8 million last night so the Galactic War is on.  The next stretch goals are an orchestral score and a documentary about the making of the game.

Original post:

It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have $350,000 to spare.  Otherwise, I’d be making a huge investment in Planetary Annihilation.  As it is, I only upped my backing level a few notches.  There’s nothing stopping me from encouraging you to do the same or to jump on the bandwagon for the last few days of the Kickstarter.  In short, Galactic War is their vision for a single player campaign while trying to avoid the expense of a scripted campaign.  It has me excited, but I’ll let them explain.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/09/galactic-war/

Ipad Apps Stuck on Waiting

I’m not a big Apple user. In fact, the new Ipad was my first Apple purchase for myself in years. More on that in a minute.

First I’d like go over the resolution to a problem I had with the app store. Normally when you purchase an app in the store, you select buy and enter your password. The store verifies your password and takes you to a home screen where the icon appears with the text waiting. Then waiting turns to loading then installing, and then your app is ready to use. I ran into a problem where the process hung at waiting. It would hang for whatever the timeout period was (15 minutes?) then ask to retry or cancel. If you retried, you would enter your password again and go back to waiting. It would never start loading.

Of course, eventually I had to cancel the download. Restarting the process gave the same result. I tried rebooting the ipad and got the same result. After verifying it wasn’t a connection problem, I hit the internet. Most of the solutions seemed to indicate that itunes songs or podcasts were having problems downloading resulting in the background downloader locking up. Clearing the queue in itunes or podcasts would solve it. Unfortunately, for me, my queue was clear already.

Anyway, here is the solution that worked:

1. Cancel all downloading apps

2. Go to the app store on the device and sign out

3. Reboot device

4. Go to app store and sign in

After that, everything returned to normal. Hopefully that might help someone else who’s stuck on waiting.

Anyway, I wasn’t sold on Apple due to the whole ‘walled garden’ argument. However, I’m a gamer. Despite Android’s huge success in number of devices and apps available, many new and interesting games were still coming out first or only on iOS. I’m sure momentum is behind part of that. I admit that there’s also a creative culture that Apple has fostered. So, in short, I didn’t want to miss out on those games. Hence, the Ipad. I certainly haven’t regretted it.

I am going to take this opportunity to plug a couple of my favorite mobile gaming sites. First is Pocket Tactics. They cover strategy and tactical games for both Android and iOS. There’s almost always something there I want to play on the front page. Next is iPad Board Games. You’ll never guess what they cover. Actually, what you’ll never guess is how many great board games there are out there for the iPad. You can also vote for your favorites. Please check them out.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/09/ipad-apps-stuck-on-waiting/

Games I’m Looking Forward To

Most people do these lists at the beginning of the year. I’m doing mine before the fall rush. Of course, I’m not limiting myself to games that are releasing this fall. In fact, I’m not really limiting myself at all. Heck, I might even throw in a game or two that been released, but I haven’t played yet.

So in no particular order:

1. Dishonored — I haven’t been a huge Arkane fan, but this one looks to have some of the old Thief magic to it. That plus the amazing art has me intrigued.

2. Bioshock Infinite — On the other hand, I have been an Irrational fan. They combine story and gameplay that make your agency seem important. I’m excited.

3. Borderlands 2 — More guns than you can shake a stick at, solid gunplay in a colorful coop shooter just about define my idea of tactical fun. When you add in the RPG lite levels and ability trees, I’m in heaven.

4. Torchlight 2 — I enjoyed Diablo III a lot, but Torchlight is moving in a different direction in the same space. That’s exactly the kind of competition I like. And I enjoyed the first one.

5. Company of Heroes 2 — I own and enjoy all the CoH games. I still don’t think I’ve given them nearly a fraction of the time they deserve. The next generation looks like more and better. Thank you Relic.

6. Simcity V — I think they’re just calling it SimCity, like a reboot. I think I first played SimCity in 1990 on a friend’s Mac. Now they’re finally taken the step I’ve been waiting for with individual Sims going about their virtual lives in the city I build.

7. Elemental: Fallen Enchantress — I liked the thought behind (though not the execution of) Elemental. Mostly I’m excited because the mind behind the excellent Fall From Heaven mod series is working on fixing the kinks and creating something even better with Fallen Enchantress. Hey Kael.

8. The Witness — Yes, Jonathan Blow will probably bring us something different and challenging. Will it be fun though?

9. The Last of Us — Yes, it’s another zombie apocalypse. But Naughty Dog looks to bring some real storytelling and a human element to this adventure. Plus they’ve earned my respect over the years.

10. Assassin’s Creed III — I enjoy the series. I’m a bit of a history nut for the American Revolution. So this is looking good. I just hope they don’t get too wacky with American heroes.

11. XCOM: Enemy Unknown — I’ve only been waiting for good follow up to the original games since the mid 90’s. I even played the space shooter one. Please let this one be good.

12. LittleBigPlanet Karting — This is mostly about playing time with my son. He loves ModNation Racers and LittleBigPlanet. So we’re both looking forward to this one.

13. Carrier Command: Gaia Mission — This one is all about nostalgia for the original Carrier Command. The only thing close to it since is Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising (with excellent Tom Baker narration).

14. Starvoid — I admit I don’t know much about this one, but it sounds like a cross between Starcraft and World in Conflict, both games I love.

15. Ascend: New Gods — The team behind Toy Soldiers is trying to create something new by stealing bits from games I enjoy.

16. Kingdom Under Fire II — We’re approaching release for, what, the fifth time? I really enjoyed the Hack and Slash meets Strategy mash up when it was on the old Xbox.

17. Sins of a Dark Age — Sins of a Solar Empire was good enough to make me pay attention to anything Ironclad does next. Fantasy Strategy? Good enough.

18. Defenders of Ardania — Warlock surprised me by being better than expected. Perhaps the next game in the Majesty universe will as well. Just don’t give me a by the numbers tower defense.

19. Hand of Odd — I don’t know if this will be made this time around, but I’m intrigued by a strategy game in the Oddworld universe.

20. Mechwarrior: Tactical Command — I loved Mechcommander back in the day. I’ll gladly take a new version on the ipad.

21. FTL: Faster Than Light — A roguelike on a spaceship in a hostile universe? I just know that I was sorely disappointed when release got pushed from August to September.

22. Total War: Rome 2 — I probably spent more time with Rome than any of the other Total War games. It just seems to fit the model so well. So yeah, give me some more.

23. Prison Architect — I really like the Introversion team. This may not be Subversion, but it does look interesting. I don’t know if it will be more fun to build the perfect prison or see things spiral out of control.

24. Scrolls — Minecraft isn’t really my cup of tea. I respect everything Mojang has done, and I love some of the creations users have built. I just enjoy other types of games. On the other hand, Scrolls is a strategy/board/card game. Right up my alley.

25. Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine — Who knows if this will work out? But a coop grand heist game that sounds like more of what I expected when I first heard of Payday: The Heist.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/08/games-im-looking-forward-to/

Planetary Annihilation

It’s no secret that I love strategy games. I even enjoy the ones I’m not that good at. I may eventually slow down enough that I have to retreat to only turn based strategy, but for now, I still enjoy a good RTS. Unfortunately, there haven’t been many releases in the genre lately. Sure, there was Starcraft II. And you’re doing fine if you want a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) like Defense of the Ancients 2. And I can’t forget tower defense games. I’ve played some great ones, but when I think of RTS, I tend associate games like my first RTS, Dune II. So Command and Conquer is going free to play online. Somehow, I don’t think that will lead to great single player campaigns or coop comp stomps. Did I mention that I’m not the greatest RTS player online?

So if someone is going to offer me a chance to get a game with battles spanning an entire solar system, who am I to say no? Planetary Annihilation is the new kickstarter from Uber Entertainment. Yes, it’s clearly related to Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. That’s a good thing since we’ve got two more expansion to go for Starcraft II. Who doesn’t want to smash giant asteroids into your opponents main base? Check out the video and see if you think I’m being a sucker for backing it. They’ve got 22 days left and have passed two thirds of their goal.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/08/planetary-annihilation/

Hack Attack

Update: Apple has suspended phone password resets for the time being. Amazon and Google are emphasizing security in the same article. I guess words do matter.

Original Post:

I’ve had the site hacked a few times over the years. It’s always painful and frustrating. That’s part of the reason sections of the site are locked down. I’m sure a determined hacker could still get in, but the casual roaming hack bots of destruction will usually move on to easier targets. I’ve learned the dangers of being on the web since I started this site years ago. That’s why I’m a bit nervous about cloud computing.

On the one hand, I can see all the glittering towers it promises. As a gamer, I like saves that move with me from device to device seamlessly. I like the idea of restoring my phone or tablet with a simple login or two. Then something like this come along. This poor guy, a seasoned tech writer, had his digital life wiped because (allegedly) someone liked his twitter handle.

I’ve lost hard drives, so I try to back up my data. I even try to keep some at a remote location. Still, I wouldn’t want to go through that. I wish him the best and a quick, smooth recovery.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/08/hack-attack/

Match and Magic Kickstarter

Thanks to Tim Schafer, most gamers know about Kickstarter. Now there’s a new game along the lines of Puzzle Quest looking for backers. The game is largely done, but needs money for polish and additional artwork. This might not have caught my interest if Bill Harris, hadn’t fallen in love with the game.

So if a roguelike crossed with Puzzle Quest catches your fancy, send Jeff a few bucks. If you’re not sure, there’s a demo available.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/04/match-and-magic-kickstarter/

Ex Early Adopter

The momentum is building for the PS Vita launch. Reviews are coming out for the system and the launch games. The fans are getting hyped up. The early adopters are awaiting their tracking numbers or calls from the their game store. It doesn’t look like there will be long lines for the Vita or a huge scarcity at launch, but all signs point to a positive launch.

So why am I so ambivalent? The short answer is that even though I like the looks of the new handheld, I just don’t think I’m an early adopter any more. I’ve realized that the thrill of new hardware can come at any time in a consoles life span. However, hardware and software bugs, limited libraries, launch bundles and high prices are front loaded. The DS Lite and the PSP 2000 and beyond were better and less buggy than the launch models. Microsoft eventually got a handle on the red ring of death. Now the 3DS has had a major price drop and filled in the holes in its library. If you’re cynical, you can see if a console is doomed by a bad launch or early sales figures.

I’ve come to realize that I like stable, refined hardware and software more than just having the cutting edge. I love my third generation kindle. Even the new touch doesn’t dampen my enjoyment of it. If I get an iPad, it will probably be this third generation. The old Windows rule of waiting for the first service pack to upgrade seems more generally applicable than I thought.

Mostly it has to do with limited time. I have many good games in the backlog. I have many systems to rotate through. Then I’m also distracted by the new hotness on my phone. The Amazon free app of the day doesn’t help either. Without a group of peers that are early adopters any more, I’ve lost that fire (or perhaps the masochism).

To everyone excited about the Vita launch, I’m happy for you. I hope the system exceeds your expectations. If I may make one request, please test everything, log every complaint, and sift the gems from the detritus. Those of us coming along later will benefit from your efforts. I’d like to thank you in advance for the better product I’ll eventually get.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2012/02/ex-early-adopter/