Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In the darkness of Dishonored

I put some time in to Dishonored over the last couple of weeks.  While not an MMO (or even multi-player), it has the sort of compelling story-line I enjoy.  It is somewhat darker than I like, but the world had a gritty reality to it that hooked me.  In my opinion, the backdrop was more interesting than the actual story.  The story is an un-original "avenge the murdered Empress and save the young princess" cliche.  Which is too bad as the whole rest of the game is one of the most original I've played.  I actually put off buying this title for months because of the dull premise.  I'm glad Steam finally had it up for $10!

The backdrop is a sort of steampunk world based on whale oil.  The city of Dunwall is on a harbor where one can frequently see the whaling ships come in with their still living harvest held suspended over the deck.  Technology is a blend of what looks like whale oil diesel and Tesla-inspired electrical fields.  Dunwall is suffering a massive plague, flooding, and internal corruption.  There isn't much hope in this story.  The game starts with the Empress of Dunwall murdered in front of you and her daughter.  The rest of the game is bringing those responsible to justice and rescuing the princess and here is where Dishonored shows a bit of uniqueness.

While many games have different outcomes based on decisions, in Dishonored the story alters based on body count.  If you work your way through the game murdering anyone and everyone in your path to ultimately eliminate a major target, then the game plays along a path of "high chaos" and the already dark story gets darker.  There will be more rats, more plague victims, and NPC's mutter darker phrases in your presence.  Alternatively, you can choose to knock opponents out or avoid them completely to achieve a "low chaos" victory.  The epilogue for each is different while the quests on the way are exactly the same.  The variation is subtle, but well done.  It isn't a radical story shift in either case.  In the end the bad guys are dealt with and the princess restored.  Still, I was left wondering what happened to Dunwall.  The epilogue hand waves over it, but I wanted more.  I wanted to see such a dark place become brighter.  I wanted to see more positive impact of my actions instead of merely avoiding the worst outcomes.  Justice never quite seems to be served.  Any story that can make me wish for such things has in my definition become worthy of recommendation.  It's a good journey with some interesting questions.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Interface Zero: Upgrade

In order to keep the creative mind active, I've started working more frequently on tabletop gaming and story building.  I use these sorts of things a muse to keep my mind in a particular world where stories happen.  My latest tool for this is Interface Zero; a campaign setting for either d20 Modern or Savage Worlds.  Since I've been keeping my eye on SW for a while now, I figured I'd give the system a shot.

IZ is a cyberpunk setting which attracts me as I see cyberpunk as a step in to transhumanism.  Transhumanism has less "humanity is in decay" and more "humanity is evolving and adapting".  So let's chat about Interface Zero and Savage Worlds.

SW is (in my experience) a step between the utter simplicity of True20 and the more common complexity of D&D 3/4 ed.  There are no levels, but rather "Advances" where you qualify for an upgrade to a stat, skill, or power.  This allows for great character flexibility.  The fundamental mechanic is based on the love of dice.  Traits like Strength are assigned a die type like d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12.  When making Strength checks the player rolls the die type they bought for Strength.  Most target numbers are just 4 so using a d12 makes such checks pretty easy while having only a d4 makes it harder.  When you roll the max on your die type, it "explodes" allowing you to roll it again and add the new roll to the first.  Thus you can pull off incredible acts of success.  Every time you beat a target roll by 4 points it counts as a "raise" with some bonus effect like extra damage or maximal effect.  Raises can stack so beat a number by 8 points and get two raises.  Everything works on this mechanic.

Damage to characters is handled by a wound system where by if your personal toughness and armor are exceeded by the damage dealt then you are shaken and/or wounded.  Incur three wounds and you are incapacitated.  Combats are short once one side gains an advantage.  For its simplicity, SW still contains a lot of nuance that can make every encounter different (players, read the damn rules).

Interface Zero is the setting on top of the system.  David Jarvis of Gun Metal Games (www.gunmetalgames.com) has fronted this system and scored 7 "raises" on his Kickstarter campaign to fund the second edition printing.  He landed $84,000 in funding for a $10,000 project.  The new beta versions of the setting are just starting to roll out and they look pretty darn cool.  Unlike more "traditional" cyberpunk, IZ pierces space to introduce colonies and space stations.  It also has "gollemechs" and of course augmented and virtual realities.  I've been daydreaming this world for about 5 years so it is fun to see some game mechanics behind so I can actually play in this world.  See you in my own universe...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Federation, Klingons, and Romulans... OH MY!

Star Trek Online remains a common favorite.  You just can't beat free and as far as "space combat" goes, it doesn't get much more painlessly fun than STO.  So what's new with good ol' STO? Romulans, of course.

This "season's" expansion is Legend of Romulus and features the lesser known pointy eared space elves.  Let us review the timeline...

The Star Trek that original fans remember officially ends when Spock is thrown back in time in the JJ Abrams reboot.  From that point we were on a new timeline and we have seen two movies of the "new" Star Trek starting back in the early days of James T. Kirk.  So what about the original timeline that Spock left?  Romulus was destroyed and Spock had disappeared.  Those days were fairly far in the future of the to the original timeline and many of the old characters were retired or dead.  This is where Star Trek Online takes over.  STO is the original timeline told well after Romulus has exploded.

In this season, we see the Romulans attempting to rebuild their home on a new planet while the politics and warfare of the galaxy continue around them on all sides.  This is one of my problems with the STO game is that it turns Star Trek away from its roots and squarely back in to the space combat genre.  I lament this track, but I do actually enjoy space combat so I'll forgive it.

LoR does some pretty cool things with characters.  Besides adding Romulan as a fully playable starting race with its own storyline, the Klingons are also being given their own storyline starting from 1st level.  This is new ground for STO where Klingons were only playable *after* you had run a Federation character to 24th level.  While awesome! I also find this really annoying.  For years, Dan Stahl, the lead developer for STO has said he isn't developing the Klingons as a fully playable faction because "most of the players wanted to play Federation."  Well if that really is true, Dan, then why create a 3rd non-Federation race?  I'm glad of the change of heart, but I'm not sure what to believe out of you now.  Either your numbers were really bad or this was just the best thing you could come up with.

Anyways... There are new ships, new worlds, and graphics improvements across the board.  I personally saw less bugs than usual for STO, but the whole system has been suffering beta disease with daily outages and multiple patches.  This is partially due to Cryptic Studios also deciding to beta launch an entirely new title, Neverwinter.  Two betas at the same time... Really, Cryptic? Kudos for bravado if not brains.

The missions are good, the visuals are good and there are enough buttons and knobs to have fun with it.  There are some annoying bits... Free 2 Play doesn't mean free of course.  The developers count on gaining some revenue which I fully support.  In STO this comes in the form of buying access to ships and convenience items (like more bank slots).  These purchases are often tied to each individual character and thus would need to be purchased many times if one were to make many characters.  A theme of Cryptic game design is the encouraging of creating many characters... Cryptic games have lots of options locked in to the classes you pick and level quickly.  It is designed to create alts and each alt requires some revenue... that gets a bit annoying when you look at the total spend on a game.  Federation ships purchased are not available to Klingon characters for example (or visa versa).

The expansion is well worth a look for the price (free!).  I do love the ship combat.  Ground combat needs some work (still).  Overall there is easily a month or two of content in STO worth exploring.  PS: the picture is Masada as a Lethean... Game ON.

WhatEVEr Happened to...?

Eve Online? Well it is still out there and still cranking out updates and changes.  The latest release is Odyssey.  There are many full and better reviews out there so I won’t attempt an exhaustive list of features, but I can comment on what my experiences have been.

When last we left our intrepid pilot, Masada, he was deep in Providence with the CVA alliance.  While I always try to keep tabs on general events in Eve, I can’t always keep up with the actual personalities involved.  Eve is still a full monthly subscription game and that makes it prohibitive to play compared to free titles like Star Trek Online or Neverwinter, but something is still compelling about the silent expanse of Eve.  

When I returned, Masada was right where I left him and even in the same alliance and still in a friendly station.  This is something that can actually go wrong in nullsec regions like Providence.

I reconnected my Planetary Interactions (basically planet side manufacturing), tweeked my ship configurations a little bit and bolted out in to our home pocket to do a little ratting.  Everything worked about as I remember and then a drone got popped and another was almost dead.  WTF? Mobs almost never locked drones before.  I thought maybe this particular combat site must be special, but nooooo.  As I ran more Cosmic Anomalies (randomly spawning combat sites), it became clear that drones were definitely first on the mob menus.  My ratting Dominix battleship was vastly diminished.  I could tank forever, but I couldn’t keep my drones alive long enough to clear a site.  Replacing drones is expensive and time consuming.  A Heavy Assault drone in Providence can cost 2 million ISK a pop and are often many warp jumps away.  Dejected I clone jumped back to Empire to try some missions.

Rather than waste more drones, I went ahead and fit a modest Raven battleship.  The Caldari ships focus on missiles which have gotten a lot of love from the Eve developers in the last year or so.  Missiles now have fully animated launch sequences and leave these awesome vapor trails as they smash on to targets with new explosions.  It was very satisfying.  Many ships (like the Raven) have seen some changes to help balance them out.  This makes the "lower" end ships like the Raven better while shaving a little off the top of the "higher" end ships like the Rokh.   I made some isk and had fun chatting up my new corpmates in the same alliance.  Without putting in long hours I was making isk and enjoying the pretty stars (and explosions).

About this time my son decided he wanted to trial Eve so I helped him get started and then sent him a few million.  After figuring out the new mob mechanics I decided to jump Masada back to Providence to continue ratting and to poke at exploration.  I didn’t want to leave the boy all alone in Empire so I activated my 2nd account.  I figured I’d leave my alt with the boy to help him figure out mining and running missions and when he wasn’t online, I could run Masada in Providence.

So far it has all been working out nicely.  I give the new release a big thumbs up.  It is a good expansion on top of a decade of developed mechanics.  Eve continues to be a beautiful game with a lotta buttons to play with.  For me it is still a slow game—easy to keep up with—but it sure doesn’t have to be.  PvP remains fast, furious, and pulse pounding.

Will I be in space every day? Oh, I dunno.  I tend to think no, but it is fun for now.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Scarlet Blade: The Strip Club of MMO's

Scarlet Blade… wow.

Okay, I’ll deal with the female avatars later.  First let’s just do a quick once-over of the game ignoring the models.  The TL/DR version is Free 2 Play MMO, classed level advancement, targeted combat, grind questing, with auction house, microtransaction store, limited crafting, limited gear options, skill trees, and giant robots.

SB shows the finesse of an Asian game engine with high detail and a huge portion of pleasing ascetics.  I love a good sci-fi game and this one has a great girl-merges-with-robot feel.  The start zone is a nudge big and can take (IMO) too long to travel from quest to quest even with the monocycle you get for free at 10th level.  The game contains a “good” feature whereby you can just click on the quest object linked in your quest log and your avatar will auto-run to it.  Most of the critters in the start zone are passive so you don’t get a lot of agro.  While convenient, it gets boring as you don’t even need to look at the map.  The map is also pretty crap—being too small and non-intuitive about where you are in relation to your objectives.  It’s functional, but I’d call it below average.

There are 6 classes and 2 sides.  The two sides have no differences—one is “good” and the other is “evil”.  On my server there were a lot more evils than goods.  The 6 classes are totally predictable with a sliding scale of DPS, tank, and healer.  I played Punisher (ranged DPS), Sentinel (faster ranged DPS), and Medic (healer?).  The Medic is, of course, a healer class, but as far as I could tell you never need it… so what’s the point?  Class selection seem mostly a choice of which avatar you find prettiest and combat style (big guns, pistols, whips, or melee).

The quests are 100% “go here and kill X bad things”.  The quest dialog banter is laughable and sexist without even being intelligently flirty which I suspect as the Producers intent.  However, you don’t need to read any of the text as you just need to accept the quest and then click on the auto-run to zone link.  Thinking is not required.  While grindy, it wasn't heavy grinding.  The scenery is pretty and mobs are interesting.  Nobody I fought had any unusual traps or tricks in combat.  Fighting was all just button-smash all your powers in a timed sequence.

There is an auction house, but with no alternate gear options, the AH is pointless.  All your gear is presented from questing.  You can’t use the gear or get the quests until specific levels so there was initially no variation between characters (up to 20th level).  It takes a few days of casual play to get to 20.  The same limits apply to the skill tree.  There are not a lot of options in the skill tree.  There doesn't seem to be any way to create meaningful variety in builds.

The coolest feature so far has been the robot form you gain at 15th level.  At first I was like “YES THIS ROCKS” and then my energy ran out.  You see the robot form drains “CP” as a resource at a constant rate.  CP isn’t used for anything else except robot form.  It depleted in about a minute and took about 10 minutes to slowly restore.  In robot form I gained access to a number of untargeted AoE attacks which were fun.  But the extremely short duration of the form and the really long recharge time detracted from the experience.

Overall, I’d rate the game as nothing special.  It’s okay, but nothing about the game play was unique, the writing was annoying, and most of the options were on rails.

Okay, time to deal with the giant 44 DDD’s in the room.  SB has no male avatars.  Each class as a static female form.  You can change the face and hair, but nothing else.  Every model is dressed in a thong one-piece swimsuit and all of them are impossibly endowed *except* the Sentinel model who is child sized… Nipples are barely covered *sometimes*.  Other times they are not covered or are clearly visible through translucent costumes.  A great deal of CPU is given to independent breast physics.

On one level, SB is a male gamer fantasy come true.  We have skin movies, skin magazines, skin websites so why not skin video games with giant guns and robots?  It’s not high-brow.  It is pandering to the same audience that might also like visiting a strip club.  It isn’t good for you.  It’s fattening as all hell, but curiosity draws you in.

From a feminist perspective, the game is yet another ridiculously biased title squarely aimed at the teen male market.  The only unique bit to SB is its complete sell out nature.  It doesn’t even attempt to hide the focus on naked women as robot pilots where those women are pretty sexual objects.  It is a naked anime game.  Typical of the sex and titillation industry the game makers hope you’ll spend extra money to see your avatar completely naked and dressed up in a small variety of sexier outfits.  Scarlet Blade isn’t trying to be a forward thinking title or an innovative game.  It isn’t going for good writing or an awesome story.  It is going straight up for sexy women/objects as a hook.  Playing feels a lot like visiting that strip club on the really bad side of town.  1 part sexy fun and 2 parts uncomfortable adjustment.  You know instinctively this isn’t “right”, but I guess we all make a trip to the Adult Bookstore at least once.

I'm not defending Scarlet Blade or the gaming industries wide-spread problems with inclusion and diversity.  SB is just another sexist title on a heap of sexist titles.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Not the Few, Butt the Many

Sexism in video games is a slippery problem because it isn’t a problem with one game.  The problem is with the trend or the mass of games in total.  Most of us spend more of our lives as adults than teens so it isn’t completely inappropriate for adults to want to play adult / playful games where there are sexy options.  If the ratio to sexy was some arbitrary number less than 80% sexy to 20% not applicable (i.e. games that don’t feature humanoids of any kind), then maybe we would be on the right track.  But honestly, every game that features a female character seems to make sure that character is sexy, objectified, or straight up abused.  A “good” game might only suffer one of these traits where a bad game just says “fuck it, slap that bitch.”  There are exceptions, but these shining gems numbering only a small handful.  This is the problem.  It isn’t that any one game can’t just be “good fun” or “just a game”… it’s that all of them are.   So we might have titles like Tera Online and that’s okay as long as for every one Tera there should be at least one Mass Effect (where even ME suffers Miranda Ass Syndrom).

The excuse that these are games marketed for men is bullshit.  The excuse that this is all that teenage boys want is bullshit.  The excuse that this is all that sells is bullshit.  I would buy, “We sorta suck at game design/writing so we put in a lot of boobs”.  This I would believe.  So get some better writers.  Follow some real world examples… We don’t have strippers on Wall Street.  We have a special section of town for that.  Build worlds with adult options in certain locations.  Make them age restricted.  Sure kids will get around it, but really if the kids want sexy online options, they have plenty.  What I want is a place where I can play “normal” and maybe go visit “Online Amsterdam” if I feel like it.  We can develop social values inside these games and we should.  We actually already are, we’re just not paying attention to what we’re developing.

So again… it isn’t that sex is wrong or sexy is wrong or any one sexy game is wrong.  It is that having sexy women in *all* games with no options to avoid it is wrong.  Not OMG it should be illegal wrong… but “Please, for the love of Mike give us some realistic options.”

I'll add one more easy to understand concept.... Simply let everyone pick all options.  If design requirements mandate separate modelling for female vs. male characters make sure that both genders can opt in to all the available options where some of those options should be not-sexy.  Let men where bikinis, let women put on full body coverage.  Options to be what you want instead of what the game designers want you to play.