A Death at Chaos Manner

Jerry Pournelle is dead.  He died recently in his sleep according to his son as posted on his website.  I’d love to say I was a huge fan of his sci fi, but really, I think I’ve only read Lucifer’s Hammer.  That was pretty much because I was a Larry Niven fan at the time.  I’ve read some of his short stories.

No, Chaos Manner was the reason I loved Jerry Pournelle.  As a geeky kid reading Byte magazine, his Users Column took me away to a place of amazing computing power and gadgets.  If he said something worked well, it was gold.  Many of my early tech purchases and even recommendations came from info from Chaos Manner.

This was from a time when barriers to entering computing were high.  The costs were often geared towards businesses.  The technical knowledge required to get started was significant especially compared to today.  Many times compatible standards were a pipe dream that might happen in the future.

Jerry was our guide through this labyrinth of technology.  Through all the years he never lost his excitement and enthusiasm.  When the print edition of Byte died, it felt like I’d lost a friend.  Much of that feeling was due to Chaos Manner.

Here’s a little taste from an old issue of Byte (Sept 1992) that I found lying around:

“The first thing I did when I got things set up at the beach house was to install Windows 3.1, updating the previous Windows 3.0 installation that came with Moby Brick.  That worked just fine.  However, when I tried to convert the screen from 640 by 480 pixels to my usual 1024 by 768 pixels, I couldn’t do it.  I suspect I don’t have the right drivers for Windows 3.1.  I’m not compaining: on a 15-inch screen, 640 by 480 pixels is actually good enough.  It’s all I get on a laptop, and indeed about half the Windows-using computers in Chaos Manner are set to 640 by 480 pixels.”

That takes me back in so many ways.  The whole column was spread out over more than 10 pages. It included a list of items discussed that totaled over $25,000 for that month. Each item had a price, physical address of the company, phone (and usually fax) numbers and a number to circle on the inquiry card.

That card was like a Christmas list that would never see any purchases.  I never had the money.  Jerry, you gave me the dreams.  Thank you for that.  Rest in Peace, Dr. Pournelle.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2017/09/a-death-at-chaos-manner/

Final Fantasy XV

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I just finished playing Final Fantasy XV.  By finished, I mean that I’m done.  I completed the main story a little while back and have been exploring the post game quests and dungeons.  I finished the legendary weapons quest line, but I only made it through three of the bonus ‘menace’ dungeons.  I’ll get into that later.

I don’t need to relate the story of the game’s long and somewhat troubled development.  At times it feels a bit disjointed in gameplay and storytelling.  You also have a story that’s broken up over a movie (Kingsglaive), a YouTube series (Brotherhood) and the game itself.  I have yet to see Kingsglaive, but I can see where it would help fill in the gaps.  The political situation and area names seem a bit murky at first, but by the end, the themes and motivations are about as clear as they ever are in a Final Fantasy game.

The gameplay is interesting since it changes based on where you are in the story.  Most of the time, it’s an open world party based RPG with occasional branching dungeons sprinkled in.  You’ve got story missions, side quests and hunts along with navigating the local wildlife.

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Later on, it starts to feel like the successor to the Final Fantasy XIII series for better and for worse.  There are long slogs in the dark, in tunnels or abandoned buildings.  There’s even a wonderful section where you’re separated from your friends.  Thematically, I can see the need, but it still doesn’t make it any more fun to play.  Still, the story picks up its pace and gets quite a bit more interesting.

Content depth is a good thing but unfortunately the main characters run out of fresh banter and dialogue far too early.  That’s too bad since most of it is interesting and character or world revealing.  I’d imagine if you just raced through the story, it would be a very tough game, the story would hang together more, and you’d have a pretty good feel for the team.  You also would have missed most of the content the game has to offer.

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I think Final Fantasy XII had my favorite combat system (and I am looking forward to the remaster).  This one comes in just behind it after you get over the initial learning curve.  Battles feel dynamic.  A well balanced fight is a sight to behold.  It’s a blend of teleporting attacks, special abilities, magic and the occasional summon.  The fact that you have limited control over some of these things makes the whole thing feel a little wild.  Of course, when it doesn’t work out that can be quite frustrating.

In fact, the beginning of the game feels a bit like managing frustrations. You literally start by pushing your car to the repair shop.  You have limited combat ability, resources and equipment.   Your car is also surprisingly slow.  Through the game you overcome all of these.  Along the way that feels either brilliant or stupid. Still, I never wanted to stop playing until the end. Highly Recommended.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2017/02/final-fantasy-xv/

Rebel Galaxy (PC)

Space Battle

Broadsides hit

The space genre was dead for many years.  Now, all of a sudden we’ve got Elite: Dangerous, and No Man’s Sky and, perhaps, Star Citizen.  That might be a weak line up for shooters, but it’s a renaissance for the space sim.  In to this comes Rebel Galaxy.   It’s sort of a cross between Wing Commander: Privateer and Independence War.

You’ll be flying around fighting, shipping and mining in whatever combination you choose.  However, you’ll only be flying capital ships from corvettes up to dreadnaughts.  You’ll also be limited to flying in a 2D plane like naval battles or Starfleet Command.  There are small starfighters that can be hired by you or other ships.  They circle above and around the big ships stuck on their plane.  This can make targeting them more difficult, but they never go soaring off high above or below the plane.

This may sound limiting, but once you adjust, you no longer notice it.  Each star system is a huge place with a central star, many planets, asteroid and ice belts.  There are a dozen or more systems.  You’ll always be docking at space stations each driven by their own economic needs.  Depending on your actions some may turn hostile.

Here’s what you won’t be doing.  You won’t be finding a landing pad inside a huge space station.  You won’t be landing on planets.  You won’t be having any first person phaser battles or romances with strange aliens.  You won’t explore the interior of your ship.  This is an adventure RPG where your ship is your avatar.

You can control any weapon on your ship directly, but only that one.  The system AI will handle the rest.  Most of the time that means you’ll be firing the main broadside cannon.  It’s such a large percentage of your firepower and requires the most finesse to maximize its effectiveness.  As you move up to bigger ships, they have more broadsides cannon.  So even the same weapon gets more effective. The net effect is that in a harried, active battle, you feel like you’re just in control.

This is a small team developed game that uses some smoke, mirrors, and intelligent game design to feel bigger.  Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. The gameplay is fun.  There’s plenty to do, but the game doesn’t wear out its welcome.  The price is right for the size.  Most of the time I was zipping around their universe with a big smile on my face.  Highly recommended.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2016/10/rebel-galaxy-pc/

Game of the Week: Infamous Second Son

I still think Infamous was better than Prototype. There were a lot of cool things in Prototype, but throwing them all together didn’t create a great game. Of course, I might be bitter that we got Prototype instead of a follow up to Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Infamous had its share of problems, but it managed to be more than the sum of its parts.

The sequel improved on nearly everything with more powers, a better setting, less frustration and a surprisingly great halloween expansion pack. Despite some occasional frustration, it no longer felt like you were fighting the controls as much as enemies.

Here we are with the next generation debut of the series with Infamous: Second Son. As the title implies, we have a new hero. Cole’s sacrifice at the end of Infamous 2 (good ending, canonical) apparently launched a chain of electronics stores. We now have Delsin Rowe, Native American troublemaker and brother to the local sheriff. Most conduits have been rounded up and shipped off to a high security facility for their own protection.

As the game begins, a conduit prisoner transfer goes awry. Three escape. One runs into Delsin who discovers his latent conduit power to copy the abilities of conduits he encounters. We soon encounter our antagonist. She has the wonderful property of being instantly dislikable.

It’s hard to say what makes Second Son so good. Sure, the graphics are impressive. In fact, it took a patched in photo mode to help us realize how much there was going on in each frame and how good it looked. The controls are much improved. The city feels more alive (though it’s clear we’ll see much better later in this generation). Animation and AI are much improved.

The different power sets feel distinct and useful. The key characters are interesting. The city is an interesting place to explore. All that is good, but the game is more than the sum of its parts. There’s enough going on that there’s always something compelling to do. You grow in power, but you never stop feeling vulnerable. Stupid or overly aggressive play will be punished.

There are some problems with the writing and character development. The boss battles don’t work as well as the rest of the game. As with any open world game, there can be too much repetition if you want to complete everything.  I ended up caring about the defeat of antagonist more than the heroic or antiheroic arc of Delsin.

In the end, none of that mattered.  I had fun moving.  I had fun fighting.  I had fun exploring the world.  I had fun building up my character.  I played the whole game and even enjoyed the Last Light expansion.  It was better than any but the best superhero games and did it without a famous tie in.  Highly recommended.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2016/06/game-of-the-week-infamous-second-son/

Mad Max

Mad Max 01Mad Max is an open world action adventure game set in the wasteland world Max inhabits in the movies.  Though it has some locations and links to Fury Road, the story is not from any of the movies.  It’s another odyssey on Max’s journey to find peace.  Of course, it’s bleak, violent, cruel and post apocolyptic.  That may be the best thing about this game.  The world fits in with the activities and settings found in many action games today.  It’s a game where your character’s psychopathic tendencies are explained by the situation he finds himself in.  Despite Max’s torrent of bloodshed, he still ends up being one of the nicest characters in the game.

The combat is inspired by Batman’s Arkham series.  The driving has a touch of Burnout.  The story is all Mad Max.  The combination shouldn’t work unless everything was polished and neatly interlocking.  I can’t promise anything like that.  The combat is loose, chaotic and frenetic with some animation and camera issues.  The driving is wobbly and wild in all but the best handling cars.  This ok in the open desert, but trouble in tight canyons and murderous for city driving.  Of course, one of the key races takes place in a narrow death track in the city.

It should be a mess, and, at times, it is.  Most of the time, it’s just fun.  You might be tearing through a camp to secure some supplies needed for a local stronghold.  You’re running out of water and are beaten up.  You grab the supplies and run out of the camp.  Just as you jump in the car, a bunch of scavengers arrive in a cloud of dust.  While you peel out, jumpers leap on your car trying to punch or stab you.  You fling them off by slamming into the lead car pushing them into the side of the ravine as the bodies fly.  You quick aim your harpoon at the front tire of the second.  A moment later the tire is flying and the car disabled.  The third car swings around in front of you.  Right as you start to line up a nitrous powered ram ram into their rear bumper, they start dropping mines.  Crap!  You avoid the first but slam into the second.  The engine is smoking.  A quick shotgun blast blows their minelayer’s rear tire, spinning them out.  You hit the nitrous anyway to create some space.  Then you see your escape, there’s a jump across the left ditch just ahead.  You swing wide to line up the jump, one more quick boost and you soar gracefully through the air while your pursuit spins out or plunges into the depths.

It’s that fun level that sets the game apart.  Everything about Mad Max screams mediocre sandbox game.  Except the fun level.  That’s what raises Max above the sum of its parts. It’s not for everyone, but you probably know if it’s something that would interest you.  It’s worth the risk if that’s you.  Even better if you can find it on one of the great sales it’s already been on.  Recommended.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2015/11/mad-max/

Zen Pinball Announces Iron and Steel Tables

western_castlestorm_key_art_sNo, it’s not the Shaq superhero table.  It’s Wild West Rampage and Castlestorm tables.  The double table pack will be available this coming week for all platforms except Wii U.  Here are the descriptions from Zen:

YEEEEHAAAW! The Wild West Rampage table stars Cindy, a bold bounty hunter who arrives in the western town of Rackton Point with a bone to pick with the town’s crooked Sheriff Evans. Cindy has her sights aimed on defeating his men and ruining their crooked plans to control the town, but it definitely won’t be easy to loosen Evans’ stranglehold. Hit the trail and experience an exciting Western-inspired playfield complete with a rolling 3D steam engine, swinging saloon doors, a six-shooter ball locker, and duels with members of Sheriff Evans’ posse!

In CastleStorm pinball, players will team up once again with the heroic knight Sir Gareth as he returns to protect the Kingdom from the relentless hordes of vicious Vikings and their raging leader, Chief Ramhorn. The table features single and multiball game modes set within a Viking stronghold, an enormous fire breathing dragon, an armored troll, and even a charming donkey!

This is a clear answer to those calling for more original Zen tables. There are table shots at the link. I’ll post some impressions after I play them.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2015/02/zen-pinball-announces-iron-and-steel-tables/

Steam New Releases

steamThis used to be a dead time of the year for game releases.  We’d have a couple that just missed the Christmas window releasing in January and then nothing until the end of the first quarter.

Medieval Engineers — Early Access — From the Space Engineers company only more grounded.  It’s sounds like it’s still in a raw state, but if you’re interested in helping to shape the game, it’s 25% off for launch.

Frozen Cortex — I mentioned this one, and it’s a full release.  It’s from the Frozen Synapse team and brings you the sport of the future.  It’s not American Football (really).

Total War: ATTILA — I’m not sure why Attila must be all caps, but you can guess it’s about the fall of the Roman Empire from Creative Assembly.  Hopefully a bit less buggy this time.

Offworld Trading Company — Early Access — Soren Johnson made Civ IV.  He gets a lot of leeway from me.  It’s like the classic trading empire games only it’s set on Mars.

Sunless Sea — The tag line is: Lose your mind.  Eat your crew. Die. It’s a Victorian, Fallen London, Lovecraftian, steam ship, trading and exploration game.

Deathtrap — Neocore takes the Tower Defense section from Van Helsing and spins it off into its own game.  It also has a strong Coop component.

Darkest Dungeon — Early Access — It’s a gothic roguelike RPG that has a strong Lovecraft influence.  It’s hard to succeed when your party is going insane.

Grey Goo — What? An actual RTS release that’s not Tower Defense or from Blizzard?  It’s true.  There are three factions that play decidedly differently.  It’s also a bit more focused on the big strategic picture than on micro.  Of course, I’m a sucker for Petroglyph games.

There were also a bunch of HD remakes released that I’ll pick up someday  They include Farhenheit, HOMM III, Seven Kingdoms II, and Grim Fandango.  I guess it’s a great time to be a gamer.  I just wish I had more time to play.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2015/02/steam-new-releases/

Technical Difficulties Part III

How loathsome are hackers? Even when they’re not directly attacking my site, they exploit code for any vulnerablities. Any code base not actively being supported is considered too dangerous to use. So apparently my previous blog theme used some PHP code calls restricted to version 5.2. So when my host stopped providing support for 5.2, I had to upgrade which broke the site.

As you can see, we’re back up after a fashion. I’ll be tweaking things to get them working and looking the way I want. Let me know if you experience any problems. I might be experimenting with a few more themes. Don’t panic if things look weird temporarily, but do let me know if you find anything that’s broken. Thank you for your patience. I hope to get back to regular updates shortly.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2015/02/technical-difficulties-part-iii/

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor Impressions

1280Mordor4I briefly touched on the fact that Shadow is a fun, compelling game. There are bugs and flaws, but he total experience rises so far above them that they seem inconsequential. The game realizes its goal of making you feel part of an epic adventure and tied in to the saga of the rings.

So what kind of game is it? It’s an open world action adventure with stealth and army building components. That sounds a bit dry. Essentially, you’re on a vengeance quest. You and your family have been sacrificed in an arcane magic ritual. Somehow this ritual has gone wrong and trapped your body and soul and tied them to the spirit of some long dead elf. This makes you an undying wraith, but also places you at the center of a power struggle for control of Mordor.

Most descriptions have it as an Assassin’s Creed game set in Middle Earth using Batman (Arkham) combat with a healthy dose of magical powers. That’s true as far as it goes, but the game is more than that. It’s a RPG with steadily building powers. Later in the game it clearly becomes a power struggle where you can change the course of events. There’s also a bit of hunting and wildlife simulator going on in there. It’s like movie magic that continually convinces you that this artificial world is real and alive.

The best trick may be your sense of mortality. Sure, you’re an undying wraith, but if you’re not careful, you’ll spend an awful lot of time dying. Obviously, dying is not an end state, but it does change the game world. Whoever killed you, assuming it’s not an animal, grows stronger and more prestigious. In short, the difficulty increases as a punishment to careless play. It’s a good motivation to learn the game systems and play to your strengths.

Some enemies are just tough. If you don’t exploit their weaknesses, they might kill you faster than you can kill them. Higher level enemies might only be vulnerable to one type of attack. If they’re invulnerable to ranged and stealth attacks, you have to fight them head on. If they have rapid attacks and poisoned weapons, you might need to lure them out of their stronghold, so you can narrow the odds before you fight them. Maybe you lure some hostile wildlife in to occupy some defenders. You’re never short of tactical possibilities.

That’s where the RPG progression comes in. While you can get a little tougher and stronger, most of your upgrades open up new options. I don’t want to spoil the fun of tactical exploration, but by the time you’re nearing the end of the skill tree, you feel pretty powerful dashing between attacks, stealth kills, stuns and dominations. You still have to be careful that you don’t leave too many ranged attackers or get surrounded by shield bearers. The game can get unfair, but only if you let it. Sometimes a temporary withdrawal is the smartest move. After all, if they don’t know where you are, you can go back to stealth attacks.

The game creates a good sense of momentum moving the individual fight to the tactical assault to the struggle for power within Mordor. While killing an individual orc won’t change much, it can open a path to your mission objective or assassination target. Setting off an alarm will have consequences. If it occurs in a stronghold, you will be met with escalating and eventually overwhelming force. That might be what you want if you need to draw out a warchief. In fact, the requirements to draw out certain warchiefs are some of the most interesting challenges in the game.

I suppose it’s a technicality that this is a game based off the movie series. A ton of effort went into trying to square the game story with the existing lore of Middle Earth. You can go all comic book geek on the power and type of magic in Middle Earth, but the game is consistent with the movies. Most of the background to the story is either stated or implied in the original works. If you’re willing to accept the premise at the start of the story, everything works and builds from there. Some of the characters may remind others from the movies, but that’s a hallmark of Tolkien as well. Overall, the story is most memorable for the themes it explores, evil, corruption, love, vengeance and redemption.

Shadow of Mordor exceeded my expectations on many levels. It has everything you want in an open world game. It has a good stealth system. I enjoyed the story far more than I expected. The combat systems are meaty, interlocking and satisfying.  Mostly, there’s always something interesting to do around the next corner (or over the next bluff).  Highly recommended.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2015/02/middle-earth-shadow-of-mordor-impressions/

PlayStation at 20

PSXThe Playstation Blog had a bunch of Sony bigwigs and developers list their favorite PS One games.  Just reading their lists brought back tons of great memories.  I thought I’d do mine quickly.

Battle Arena Toshinden — This is not a classic game like most of them on the list, but it was one of the first I ever played.  I was amazed that I was playing this in my apartment.  Until then, there had been a divide.  There were arcade games and console game.  Sure there were some arcade ports, but they were either a generation behind or a weaker version than the arcade.  Here was a game that looked better than what was available in the arcade sitting on my console.  It truly felt like the dawn of a new era.

Metal Gear Solid — This game was unbelievable in every sense of the word.  I felt powerful.  I felt weak.  I felt dangerous.  I felt vulnerable.  Even on one remote island, the variety of action felt incredible.  Of course it asked the question, “Can love bloom on the battlefield?”

Final Fantasy Tactics — I loved the scope and depth of Final Fantasy VII, but this game came along and blew it away.  Yes, the story was over the top but strangely captivating.  The battle system was nothing short of brilliant.  The beginning was a bit tough.  Once it opened up, you always had endless possibilities for any battle.  I still have my original disk.  It’s like a treasure I won’t give up even if I have prettier versions to play.

There are many more quality games that I could mention.  Even though the PS2 was the better console by every measure, I’m glad the Playstation drew me in to Sony’s world.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.talkstrategy.com/2014/12/playstation-at-20/