Earth is Safe

google earthLookout is the antivirus software on my android phone.  It scans in the background, but it also scans any time an app is updated.  Most of my apps are ‘trusted’ apps and allowed to update on their own.  Every once in a while Google updates Google Earth.  Once it does, Lookout scans it.  Then I get this alert on my phone:

Scan Completed:  Earth is safe

It makes me smile every time.

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Game of the Week: Fantasy Empires

Small FE CoverI could write a book about the golden age of SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.).  What a great name.  If you’re at all like me, you’d just want to support a company with a name like that.  There are several games I bought on the strength of that brand alone.  Fortunately, I was rarely disappointed, hence the golden age.  The first SSI game I played was Kampfgruppe which was way beyond my then thirteen year old mind.  Shortly afterwards, I played Phantasie.  That was much more my speed.  Then, I had a lot of fun with the AD&D games.

Eventually, I came across a game called Cyber Empires by Silicon Knights.  It was a neat mix of strategy and action set in a world of warring giant robots.  Looking back, it might have been a bit shallow, but I loved it.  When I heard that a sequel was coming, and that it would have the D&D license, I was ecstatic.  That sequel was Fantasy Empires.  I played it for a long, long time.

The story is wonderfully cheesy.  The Dungeonmaster is tasking a group of warlord challengers to battle to unite the world of Mystara.  They must conquer the world one territory at a time, building their armies, magic and heroes to conquer lands, one another and eventually the world.

Effectively, there are two parts to the game.  You have the turn based world map and real time action of the battles.  This was years before the first Shogun: Total War.  Here’s a look at the strategy screen:

Small FE Strategy Screen

The images are taken from my old paper manual.  It’s a bit dog eared from my constant flipping through it.  Sometimes I miss paper manuals.  Anyway, as you can see, most of the screen is dominated by the scrollable world map.   That’s the Dungeonmaster on top.  He has some neat animations that add to the game.  There are three orbs representing your current levels of Druid, Cleric and Magic User power respectively.  Those allow you to cast spells that affect an entire region.  Below the orbs is your gold piece total.  You’ll spend that quickly building your empire.  In the middle, below the Dungeonmaster, is the end turn button.  Across the bottom are the buttons you’ll use to build and manage your empire all framing the minimap.

Here’s what you can build in the game:  Keeps, castles, armories, temples, towers, armies (dwarves, elves, shadow elves, halflings, undead, orc and human fighters), heroes (elves, magic users, clerics, druids, fighters, and dwarves) and siege weapons (catapult, ballista and battering rams).  You’ll need nearly all of them to conquer the world.  Heroes, in some way, are the heart of the game.  They start off weak, but through battles and quests, they can grow quite powerful.  This is important in combat section of the game.

In combat, Fantasy Empires doesn’t give you tactical control of your troops like Total War.  No, you’re launched into a massive game of Gauntlet based on the units you brought to battle.  You do have the opportunity to set your battle lines before the battle as well as cast spells if your heroes have the ability.  You’ll have direct control of one of your units, usually the most powerful hero you brought to the battle.  You can also take control of any other unit on your side, but this leaves your heroes vulnerable so it’s often best just to use the hero leadership ability to maneuver troops around the battlefield.  Your hero only has attack and block buttons, but they’re quite powerful and can turn a close battle.

Castles and siege weapons add a bit more depth to these action oriented affairs.  The attacker can’t win without taking the castle.  To do that they’ll need to breach the walls either through magic or sheer force.  The magic can be through a global spell like earthquake or your magic users fireball attack.  Force is your catapults breaking down the walls or your battering rams breaking through the gate.  There’s just enough control to make you feel like you always have something important to do in a battle.  After the battle, heroes gain experience and regular troops can gain veterancy.

Between battles heroes go on quests.  Many times they die on those quests.  If they return, they come back stronger and may bring magical loot.  Some of it is equipment for them.  Others are might magical items stored in your vault to increase your power.  Most of these allow extra uses of global spell without draining your mana.  Some have other game changing powers.

There are other things I could talk about like the risks of sending armies by sea or the impact of range units in combat, but the most import thing to me is that this game started my love of the 4X genre.  Yes, even more than the original Civilization.  Highly, highly recommended (if you can put up with the dated graphics).  Here’s a map of the game world:

Small FE Map




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10,000,000 is Amazon’s Free Android App of the Day

tenm10,000,000 was a recent game of the week.  Now, if you have an android device, Amazon is giving it away for free today only (5/22/13).  I’d suggest grabbing it.  Here’s the purchase link.

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Kickstarter: Stonehearth

I think I was a bit burned out on Kickstarter for a while.  I have some sympathy for the founders of Kickstarter since they never planned it to be a game preorder site.  Of course, that’s not what it is.  It’s about microfunding development projects that are near to your heart.  It just so happens with games that the digital distribution costs are very low.  Giving the game itself as a reward just makes sense.

All that assumes that the project is completed and delivers in a reasonable amount of time.  Many of the early game Kickstarters not only haven’t delivered yet, but don’t plan to very soon.  It helps to keep the goal of Kickstarter in mind.  Many of my software purchases I consider to be votes for more games like the one I’m buying.  With Kickstarter, I’m just doing early voting in the development stage.

Anyway, Stonehearth is a new Kickstarter that caught my eye.  It takes the 8-bit inspired art style from 3D Dot Game Heroes throws in a bit of Dwarf Fortress style town building and management, and promises some D&D style adventuring as well.  I don’t know if they can pull that off, but I’m willing to support the dream.  Plus if they do pull it off, it’ll pretty awesome.

Check out the video to see if you might be interested.

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Add on Items

Back when Amazon Prime first started, I liked it for convenient shipping.  They’ve since added a lot to the Prime package.  I was initially worried that the shipping  combined with 1-click ordering would result in too many impulse purchases.  In fact, I didn’t turn on 1-click for a while after I subscribed to Prime.  It didn’t actually happen.

The flip side, back when Amazon listed Prime as on a trial basis, was a worry that Amazon would cancel the program because people would grab one cheap item at a time because it was easy with Prime and 1-click.  Amazon got much better about combining orders that hadn’t shipped yet.  After adding all these features to Prime, they couldn’t really just cancel it.  I suppose they could just remove the shipping features now, but that would be a PR nightmare.  Mostly they’ve managed the problem by limiting items eligible for Prime.  It seems like they’ve relaxed that in recent years.

Strategically, I find their new solution interesting.  Now, a bunch of smaller items have been labeled ‘add on’ items.  You can’t just purchase them alone.  There might be a secret back door way that I haven’t figured out, but the system is designed to get you to buy $25 worth of Amazon items before you can place the order for the add on item.  Obviously, third party items don’t count.

I’m not sure if it is a genius or stupid move.  On the stupid side, you’re making it harder to purchase some items and emphasizing the limits of Prime.  On the genius side, you’re stopping people from buying items that lose Amazon money and encouraging customers to buy more at once.  It will be interest (perhaps only to me) to see how it plays out.

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Game of the Week: Tomb Raider (2012)

tombraiderWelcome back Lara Croft. Or should I say hello to the new Lara since this is a reboot.  I know that much was made of how would Tomb Raider respond to the success of the Uncharted series.  Though both Drake and Croft share a lineage that includes Indiana Jones and Doc Savage, I always felt that Lara was closer to James Bond.  Maybe it’s just the British accents, but the world spanning adventures often thwarting a global conspiracy using technology and gun play always made the connection for me.  Lara had a few snazzy outfits as well.  The uneven nature of the ambitious adventures didn’t hurt the connection either, at least on the video game front.

I wasn’t reminded of Nathan Drake while playing the new Tomb Raider.  It actually was more reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed 3, especially the parts with young Connor.  You were working your way to becoming truly dangerous and powerful, but you were still vulnerable.  This new Tomb Raider feels like it dives into that part of Lara’s life. There are also some obvious parallels to the TV series Arrow even though almost all of work on Lara’s story must have been done before that series premiered.  Regardless, it makes for some good synergy if you experience both.

This is young Lara out on her first adventure.  She starts out injured and unarmed with minimal skills.  By the end she’s a machine of rolling death that even the slow witted antagonists start to fear.  I actually think they could have gone further with this.  She’s done so much that it would have been rewarding to see some enemies break ranks and flee once they realize SHE’S attacking.  I guess that means I was invested in the journey and development.

There’s a pretty good story here, but it’s bound to be controversial.  It’s not due to need to protect Lara.  It’s that the story is a puzzle that the developers let the player piece together as they as they find journals and artifacts.  In other words, you could miss most of it if you don’t go searching for all the collectables.  It’s a good idea in that you’re right there with Lara trying to piece together this mystery.  Again this could have been taken further.  There are several cut scenes that were written to be clear regardless of how much information the player had uncovered.  It would have been quite effective if they could have tailored them based on the player’s collection success.  It probably wouldn’t have made financial sense though.

The action is solid and the combat rewarding (especially if you concentrate on the bow).  You don’t have the freedom of movement of an open world game.  Everything is signposted and restricted in true metroidvania style.  It is more fun to play around old areas once you have all the gadgets.  The two big areas of success are pacing and sense of place.  The island feels big and hostile and alive.  You definitely feel like a raider even if the tombs are short, few and far between.  You also feel that everything is building towards a climax.  Your skills, equipment, the characters and the story are all soaring upward like the rockets from a fireworks display.  When the explosion hits, it’s satisfying and worthwhile.  I even appreciated the little head fake they gave us toward the end.

In summary, there are many things you could nit pick about Tomb Raider, but the game much more than the sum of it’s parts.  In the end you feel like you’ve been part of Lara journey from a young woman to the beginning of a legend.  Highly recommended.


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The Old News Section

Some of you may have noticed that is down again.  It’s been hacked twice in the last three months.  I’ve been working on trying to convert the data to a more secure content management system.  Thus far I’ve failed.  I can’t really leave it up as a virus risk to people who wander by.  So it will be down at least until I get some kind of fix.  If anyone has suggestions on converting an old postnuke site to something more secure, I’m all ears.  I know I could hire someone to do it, but this task is just beyond my level of expertise.  That means I need to bang my head against it for a while before I give up.

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Game of the Week 10,000,000

tenm10,000,000 or ten million is a combination endless runner, match three puzzle and roguelike RPG.  It’s odd and a bit brilliant. It’s available for iOS, Android and Steam.  It’s graphics are reminiscent of an early roguelike.  You could either call that inspired or ugly.  I wouldn’t argue with either.

The premise is very simple.  You wake up in a cell deep in a dungeon.  To unlock the exit, you have to score ten million points in a single run.  Don’t let your paltry first score scare you.  You’ll constantly be increasing your score multipliers.   Mine was somewhere over 120 when I escaped.  Your avatar starts running towards the right when you begin a new run.  He is stopped by doors, chests and monsters.  Doors and chests have locks that can be opened with keys.   Chests grant inventory items.  Monsters must be defeated with weapons or magic.

The real action happens on the puzzle grid below your runner.  You have to be constantly matching three.  You want to match swords or wands when facing monsters.  You match keys to open locks.  You match wood and stone to build up your resource stockpiles.  You match backpacks to gain inventory items.  Inventory items include single use attack items, keys and healing items.  These can be selected whenever you need them though you have limited slots to hold items.

Ideally you are constantly making progress to the right.  You match attack items as soon as you hit a monster. Kill it grab their gold and keep running.  You match keys as soon as you hit a lock.  You are matching resources and backpacks between obstacles.   You stop at obstacles and are pushed left by monster attacks.  The stronger the attack, the greater the knockback.  Once you are knocked back to the left edge of the screen your run is over.

Then you find yourself back at your cell.  Now you have some resources.  You can use your wood, stone and gold to upgrade the shops around your cell.  In the shops you can buy upgraded weapons, magic staves, potions, armor, etc.  Each upgrade makes you a little stronger, letting you run a little farther, scoring a little more.  The further you get in the dungeon and the higher you level, the tougher the monsters become.  So you are constantly balancing your equipment, dungeon level and potions.  Did I mention that potions always have a positive and negative effect?  This allows you to focus on what you need most.  So you might get extra gold and no experience or vice versa.

Of course, the puzzle board and monster appearance order are random, as are the items you stuff in your backpack.  It means each run feels different and you’re always making interesting choices.  At $2, this one is pretty much a no brainer if the subject matter interests you at all.  Highly Recommended.

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What is real, Snuffleupagus?

My daughter was watching Sesame Street. I suppose it’s good with its computer graphics and parodies of recent pop music hits.  Sometimes it makes me feel old.  I remember when Mr. Hooper ran Hooper’s Store.  I remember when the Twittlebugs were just a composite shot to establish their size.  I remember Super Grover before version 2.0.  I remember when Kermit the frog reported live from Sesame Street.  Mostly though, I remember Mr. Suffleapagus.  I remember when everyone thought he was Big Bird’s imaginary friend.  None of the adults ever saw him.  It was like our own secret club that knew Snuffy was real.  Yep, sometimes it makes me feel old.



Image from James Hance.  Buy some of his stuff. He’s a pretty cool guy.

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Game of the Week: Assassin’s Creed Revelations

AssnCdRevIf  you’re going to call your game Revelations, the actual revelations should be pretty darn good.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it adds to the overall feeling of jumble that is this game.  Simply put, there are too many ideas in this game.  Everything is just sort of put together and where it doesn’t fit, they just shoved harder.  You would think this results in an unplayable mess.  At times it feels that way.  However, the core gameplay loop is just so good it’s able to overcome all that and be an enjoyable game.

It’s not a new gameplay loop.  It’s the continuation of the refinement that began in Assassin’s Creed II and progressed in Brotherhood.  There are a few dead ends in their quest for progress this time.  I don’t know who thought the carriage chase sequences were so good that we needed more.  The one at the end is so ridiculous that is almost verges on parody.  Really though, when it gets silly, it’s actually more fun than the beginning.  I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.  Don’t even get me started on the mess that is lair defense.  I’ll just say that using your highly trained assassins as cannon fodder seems to go against the whole philosophy of the rest of this game and the others in the series.

Once you’re actually on the loose in Istanbul (not Constantinople), that loop really kicks in.  Yes, you have to collect the five magical macguffins one of which is being held by the evil whozits.  Now you have freedom again and can start to feel more powerful.  Of course, you’ve been stripped of nearly all your cool armor, weapons, tools and money.  Did I mention that Istanbul (and surprisingly all the Mediterranean is Templar controlled territory?  It’s time to start building up again.  Naturally, as an assassin, doing that involves rivers of enemy blood.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the early game is the tension in the city.  The Ottoman Sultan rules the city.  His guards and Janissaries patrol it.  The Templars run sections of the city that you haven’t liberated.  These two groups don’t like each other.  You can exploit this for fun and profit.  For instance, killing a Templar roof guard and throwing him down in a crowd between Ottoman and Templar forces will cause a commotion and a fight.  This can be useful for sneaking past or just thinning out the opposition.

You also get a few new toys.  You get a hook blade that can be used to make city traversal more fun especially when combined with high launch points and parachutes.  You move beyond the basic smoke bomb into advanced grenade territory.   You have lethal, tactical and diversionary variants for four different types of shells.  Theoretically, you can lay elaborate traps or isolate targets.  Mostly I used them to thin crowds or discourage pursuit.

The story isn’t that great.  Few of the characters are memorable.  The revelations are underwhelming.  The Desmond memory challenges have so many awful decisions in them I’m already trying to scrub them from my memory.  Yet, when you’re just on the loose in Istanbul completing missions, taking over territory and eliminating high value targets, it’s a great game.  Overall, recommended for fans of the series.  It does get big bonus point for not forcing you to repeatedly do things you don’t enjoy just to complete the game.  You can literally ignore whole systems of the game if you don’t like them.  I wish more games were like that.

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