So I thought to myself, what’s more fun than doing a video/screencast review? The answer: waiting for about three hours while the video encodes in Windows movie maker and still doesn’t have the decency to register on youtube as HD compatible. Seriously, before I do one of these again, I am going to have to invest in some better software for video editing. At any rate, I present you with my first ever video review. Up on the block is Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine.
I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much; however I will say here that this is a top-down stealth/heist game from indie publisher Pocket Watch Games.
And do feel free to leave me some comments on what I could have done to improve on this review. I already have some thoughts in mind on what I might do differently for my next video review.
Welcome back for this, the fourth installment, of Adam versus Steam Greenlight. For anybody new to the website, this is a monthly feature where I pull three games out of my Steam Greenlight queue and answer the quintessential question of Steam Greenlight, “Would you buy this game if it appeared on Steam?”
This month, however, I decided to do something different. Rather than taking the top three games in my Greelight queue, I pulled out the first three fantasy themed games I could find. Let’s see how it turns out.
Legend of Dungeon by RobotLoveKitty
Release Date: March 2013
Robotlovekitty’s website describes Legend of Dungeon as, “part Beat’Em’Up, like those awesome old-school 4 player arcade games (it plays a little like TMNT and X-Men) and it’s part RogueLike, in its setting and content generation.”
Here’s the trailer.
It seems like yesterday when FTL: Faster Than Light hit the market, and with it “Rogue-like” returned to the common gaming parlance. Now nary a month goes by without a new Rogue-like game is cropping up from indie devs and big studios, alike. Personally, I think this is a great thing. There’s a certain allure to the un-winnable game, at least for gamers who grew up with weekly (or daily) trips to the video arcade.
A quick look at the trailer for Legend of Dungeon immediately puts me in mind of a side scrolling Gauntlet. The game’s primitive aesthetic hints at a considerable retro charm paired with modern design sensibilities. What’s more important is that I could actually see my friends and I playing a few rounds of this in between big games at a LAN party.
Verdict: an enthusiastic yes.
Click here for Legend of Dungeon’s Greenlight page.
Legend of Eisenwald by Aterdux Entertainment
Release Date: April 2013
Here’s the official rundown on Legend of Eisenwald
A unique mix of RPG and strategy set in a realistic medieval world, Legends of Eisenwald combines dynamic campaigns with fast-paced, yet strategic, turn-based combat.
Take on the role of a baroness, a knight or a mystic as you liberate or rule over the world of Eisenwald. Against a backdrop of danger and intrigue, you will complete compelling quests and fight in fierce battles that will change the outcome of your story.
When we go to the trailer the game seems to deliver what it promises.
Now I love a good fantasy game as much as the next guy. I’ve sunk a positively embarrassing amount of time into Dragon Age over the last couple of years. Despite that, I have some reservations about this title. From the trailer alone, this game looks a lot like King’s Bounty.
King’s Bounty was the sort of game which worked well in concept but fell short in execution. For an ostensibly non-linear game, it used “high level” areas to build an artificially linear experience. After five hours of hex based “army” combat, the game’s core mechanic began to feel as exciting as watching two AIs play Battlechess.
That’s not to say this game will be the same. Eisenwald’s graphics engine seems impressive enough. As well, the presence of a skill tree hints at a bit more depth than King’s Bounty ever offered.
I suppose this one would come down to price point for me. Aterdux’s website lists a pre-order price of $15. If it stayed at that cost upon releasing on Steam, I might roll the dice. Were it more expensive, I don’t think I could get past my King’s Bounty phobia.
Verdict: a hesitant yes.
Click here for Legend of Eisenwald’s Greenlight page.
Mage’s Initiation: Rage of the Elements by Himalaya Studios
Release date: Q1 of 2014
We wrap up today’s fantasy themed AvS with Mage’s Initiation: Rage of the Elements. Here’s the quick rundown.
Mage’s Initiation is a 2D Point & Click Adventure Game / RPG hybrid, set in the fantasy medieval land of Iginor. In the tradition of Sierra’s classic “Quest for Glory” series, you may choose to play as one of four character classes (Fire, Earth, Air, or Water Mage), each with unique spells, abilities, quests, and puzzle solutions!
First reaction: Oh, well that seems interesting enough. I do like me some point and click adventure games. Then I watched the trailer.
Post-trailer reaction: Holy shit! That was an amazing trailer. Do I really have to wait a year to play this game?
As somebody who completely missed the Quest for Glory series (hey a guy can’t play everything) this looks absolutely amazing. Moreover, the trailer has bestowed upon me the rarest sort of moment when I realize I’m lusting after something I never knew I wanted. I loved the Space/Kings/Police Quest games. I also love role playing games. Never has it occurred to me that the two of them could work as an effective mash-up. Well done, Himalaya Studios.
Verdict: Shut up and take my money.
Click here for Mage’s Initiation’s Greenlight page.
Three fantasy games and three up-votes. I think I should do themed editions of AvS more often.
Some months ago Steam Greenlight appeared on Valve’s digital video game distribution service. This community driven feature quickly became the answer to the question I asked game developers when I started writing The Page of Reviews: who do you have to kill to get your game on Steam? The developers’ answers would often include words like “Pagan Rituals” and “blood pact with Gozer the Gozerian.” Perhaps taking its cues from the democratization of game development through crowd sourcing, Steam Greenlight allows members of the Steam community and general public to vote on what upcoming games should be included in Steam’s catalogue.
In Valve’s own words…
Steam Greenlight is a system that enlists the community’s help in picking some of the new games to be released on Steam. Developers post information, screenshots, and video for their game and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution. Steam Greenlight also helps developers get feedback from potential customers and start creating an active community around their game during the development process.
As I looked through my Greenlight queue, judging future games based on screenshots and trailers, I thought to myself, why not do this right? Why should I limit debate to my inner monologue when I can draw some public attention to developers who have put the fate of their product into the hands of a fickle gaming community?
Gather round then, good citizens of the boundless digital empire. Cast your eyes upon these three games which would prove themselves worthy of your love and coin.
Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold Episode 1 by Replay Games
Replay Games describes Fester Mudd as “a three-part comic saga of exploration, reunion, and redemption…and a love letter to the classic adventure games of the 90s.”
Let’s go to the video.
With a projected release date of Q1 2013, I think we can assume Fester Mudd is a finished game looking for a home. I like that the devs took it upon themselves to make an actual Greenlight trailer, rather than going with something generic to show off the game. As a guy who once went to school dressed up for Halloween as Roger Wilco, hero janitor of the Space Quest games, there’s really no way I could not want to play this game. The interface looks good. What little we see of the script and overall aesthetic seems appropriately light hearted and clever. Perhaps most importantly, Fester Mudd represents a niche of the gaming market that is due for a renaissance. Since I can’t see a lot of big publishers optioning a game style older than their target audience, Fester Mudd seems perfect for release via steam.
Verdict: Unequovical thumbs-up. If you’re a gamer whose old enough to buy their own alcohol, or somebody who likes Community then you would do well to pay attention to a game which draws its sensibilities from greats like Sam and Max, Full Throttle, and Space Quest.
NB: After giving my thumbs up to Fester Mudd I discovered that Replay Games is the studio responsible for the upcoming rerelease of the Leisure Suit Larry series.
MaK by Verge Game Studio
Verge calls MaK a “…physics playground – A sandbox world with engaging game modes built on top of it. We wanted to make something that gives you a sense of discovery and wonder – where creativity is king – a place to explore and experiment – to compete and cooperate – with your friends. The major features that define the game experience, so far, stem from these concepts.”
MaK’s Greenlight page offers five videos that showcase the game in its current pre-release Alpha build. Here’s one of them…
I won’t deny this game looks cool. From the footage alone it is obvious MaK does some interesting things with gravity. Despite the sandbox feel, the developers are promising multi-player support as well as a “… non-linear campaign that wraps around an intriguing central plot.” However, I’m not getting a “shut up and take my money” feel off of this game.
Since the success of Minecraft a lot of indie studios are working with variations on said theme. Certainly MaK is charting its own unique direction, but from what I’ve seen I don’t know if it’s quite my style. Personally, I’d rather build a castle than a dancing robot.
Verdict: Thumbs Down. I think this is something a lot of people could have hours of with, but I don’t know if I’m one of them. When the essential question is “Would you buy this game if it were available on Steam?” my answer is a hesitant “only after I read the reviews.” That said, I’d be happy to review it, but I just don’t think I would buy it based on what I’ve seen so far.
MaK is scheduled for release in Q4 of 2013. Check out MaK’s Greenlight page and you can tell me how wrong I am about this game in the comments.
Haunt by ParanormalDev
This is the initial description on Haunt.
Haunt (originally named Haunt: The Real Slender Game) is independent adventure/horror game project inspired by Parsec Productions “Slender: The Eight Pages”, which was based on Victors Surge “Slender-man” idea.
Apparently I don’t run in the right circles on the internet because I have no idea what the Slender Man is, or why it has led to ParanormalDev doing their own take on another studio’s game, which at the time of this post is still in beta. Let’s go to the trailer.
So walking and a flashlight…is this another Dear Esther? The Greenlight description frames this game as “First Person Horror”. However, the trailer gives me the distinct vibe of a game intent on coming up with various ways of yelling “boogie boogie boogie” at me in an attempt to startle me out of my crappy Ikea desk chair. Games like that have never really been my scene; seriously, I didn’t even bother to finish the first Silent Hill. I don’t scare easily, and I’m often too cynical/clinical to buy into the underlying ghost/paranormal mythos that drives games of this spectrum.
One other paragraph within the game’s description caught my attention.
More important thing is that “Haunt: TRSG” that uses slender-game gameplay has become some kind of prototype for much more bigger project, that will provide unique story, gameplay elements, environment and will be inspired by many paranormal activities that appeared in our world. Yes – we will do anything to keep it free – even in case of Haunts successor. It is all in your hands!
Two things: first, you guys at ParanormalDev should call me the next time you do a press release, I’d be happy to do a pro bono copy edit; second, the game is free. Free is good, especially in the case of games which seem highly experimental.
Verdict: Thumbs up to Haunt. Since the developers are dedicated to keeping this game free, as well as using it to build a larger project, which too will be free, there’s really no reason not to up-check this game.
Since its release, FTL: Faster Than Light has become something of a darling in indie publishing, and perhaps with good reason. As stated in a recent Penny Arcade editorial, FTL is one of the first PC games to go from kickstarter campaign to finished product. This fact alone makes FTL a noteworthy achievement. Yet it just so happens that FTL is also a fantastic game. In fact, what really sold me was a realization that occurred ten minutes into my first play through. Therein, FTL is almost exactly what I imagined for myself the first time I turned a refrigerator box into my own personal starship.
In simplest terms, FTL is a rougelike starship simulator. Players take command of a ship, enter a procedurally generated universe, and must get from point A to point B lest the Federation fall into rebellion. As is the case in most rougelike games, death is a permanent thing. More often than not your ship’s crew members will die, and your ship itself will quite likely explode. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A single start to finish sitting of FTL takes about two hours. I’ve managed to log about twenty hours into the game, and in this time I’ve never yet managed to save the Federation. Oh and did I mention I am playing on easy?
FTL revels in denying a player easy victories, and believe me when I say this is not a bad thing. FTL doesn’t cheat per se, rather as a game system it is indifferent to a gamer’s success. Random encounters within the game are governed by chance as much as they are strategy. Case in point, rescuing a mentally unstable castaway on a planet might result in him killing one of your crew members. But on another day the same scenario could lead to him joining your mission. Many a time FTL has made me pound my fist on my desk for its seeming lack of fairness – an enemy ship jumps away with two of my crew aboard, my mechanic gets ganked by an invasion of space bugs, a lucky missile takes out my ship’s door controls so that my pilot is left to die from a hull breach. And as I watch my ace shipmaster’s life trickle down to nothing, a voice in the back of my head reminds me, “Life’s not fair.” Chance can often undermine the best laid plans of a would-be captain. Hear me now when I say that if you are the sort of gamer who can not handle losing, you’re probably not going to like FTL.
Amid all the responsibilities and consequences that go with commanding a starship, FTL is also about resource management. That may not sound particularly fun. However, FTL draws on some classic game mechanics to ensure upgrading the sensors, a seemingly inconsequential act, is a weighty decision. This design aspect is very much in the spirit of an old tabletop starship combat game called Leviathan. One of the core rules to Leviathan states a ship will never have enough power to run all its systems at the same time. Such is the case in FTL. There’s no way to maximise everything and create a Death Star. Spend too much scrap, the game’s main resource, on upgrading the ship’s components, and there won’t be enough left for weapons and ammunition. Want to have a fully powered cloaking device and three sets of combat drones in simultaneous play? Then I hope you enjoy sucking hard vac because your shields will likely be paper thin. As is the case with the rage gamers, short sighted min-maxers need not bother with FTL.
Beyond weighing consequences and scrounging for resources, lay the game’s greatest strength: its nature as an incubator for a player’s internal narrative. The reason people play something like X-Com twenty years after its release is the fact that it lets gamers create their own story. FTL does the same thing in a similar manner. Naming a ship and its crew members may not sound like much, but doing so knowing said ship and crew may die forges a sort of familiar agency. As crew members gain experience in their shipboard duties (weapons, piloting, shields, engines, repairs, hand-to-hand combat) so too do they become more than throw away props.
On one of my recent missions the HMS Archon nearly defeated the enemy flagship, thus saving the Federation. Ultimately though, the battle became a standoff which saw neither ship able to deliver a knockout blow. In managing ship board fires, raiding missions to the enemy ship, and more hull breaches than I could count, I lost six out of my seven crewmen. Brave Captain Shaftoe was the first to perish when a missile hit the cockpit. First officer Hudson Hawk perished trying to manage a fire in the weapons compartment. The Rock monster twins died en route to sick bay after beaming back from a raid to the enemy flagship. In the end, half the ship was depressurized, due to hull breaches and my decision to blow the airlocks as a means of coping with fires; the remote door controls were destroyed, so the airlocks were stuck open, and only Chief Engineer Wil Wheaton remained alive. He died on a suicidal run to repair the cockpit so that he might jump the Archon back to base. And there I had it: game over. Until I started a new game, with new characters, and began a new story. In this, FTL harnesses the pure creative joy that comes with turning a refrigerator box into a Star League Gunstar, a Rebel X-Wing, or a Constitution Class starship.
There are a couple of minor things I would want to see in subsequent updates to the game. An occasional option to plunder a captured enemy ship’s equipment would be helpful. Additionally, I’d like the chance to rename crew members when they join my ship. But beyond those two very small details, FTL is a well balanced (in so much as any game that is out to kill you can be) and magnificently polished title.
The two-man team of Justin Ma and Matthew Davis has created something genuinely fantastic in FTL. The game is accessible enough for anybody in terms of interface and controls. Yet given its focus on consequences, command decisions, resource management, and permadeath it is likely to attract a certain type of mildly masochistic gamer. At the same time, FTL is equally a conduit for the sort of creative energy most people pack up with their childhood.
Now if anybody needs me, I’ll be in space.
FTL: Faster than Light was developed and published by Subset Games. It is available on Steam and in DRM-free format on Gog.com
NB: For those who missed it, click here for my “First Hundred Turns” review of Endless Space.
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, a little studio created a game that would become a phenomenon. Who knew that Master of Orion and its sequel Master of Orion II would become the gold standard against which all other 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) strategy games would be measured. In the intervening years, a slow trickle of games have attempted to recapture the Master magic; with relatively few exceptions, these games have been terrible. In Endless Space strategy gamers can finally rejoice in a title that gives the genre’s progenitors a run for their money.
Endless Space keeps quite true to the established 4x formula. Players can choose from one of nine playable factions or construct their own custom species. From there, they have one planet, one colony ship, one scout, and the freedom to play as they like. Conquer the galaxy, unite it under a common purpose, or transcend the petty matters of corporeal beings; the choice is yours. This may sound like a complicated task. However, even the greenest of stellar despots need not fear this game’s learning curve. Endless Space boasts is a comprehensive tutorial system that explains about 95% of the game’s mechanics as players naturally work through the ins and outs of galactic governance. Additionally, most points of confusion can be answered by zooming in on the galaxy map or hovering a mouse over the confounding element.
Not only is Endless Space’s interface as intuitive as it is subtle, but it’s also the key to some stunning artwork. From the main screen, players can scroll back to view their procedurally generated galaxy as a boundless collection of stars. Zooming in closer shows star systems with their connecting space lanes and wormholes. Zoom in further still to glimpse fleets and a given star system’s construction project.
Everything you need to know to manage your empire can be found on one easy to read screen.
Clicking a star brings the player to a system overview screen. Endless Space finds the perfect micro/macro management balance in focusing the health of an empire around star systems rather than individual planets. Though there are always a number of planets orbiting a given star, improvements to food, industry, science, and dust (the game’s currency) apply to all colonized worlds within a controlled system. The only choice a player has to make with respect to individual planets is if they should focus on agriculture, production, research, or commerce. This brilliant decision on the part of Amplitude Studios allows for at-a-glance evaluations of a system’s role within an empire. The other benefit to this management mechanic is that the late game need not become a dull process of turning planetary development over to the AI – an option that remains available if you are so interested, but you probably won’t be.
Speaking of AI, if ever there was something that might turn into Skynet…
Protip: Add two levels of conventional difficulty on to whatever the game says you are playing. Even on “Normal” Endless Space’s virtual foes show no mercy. The AI is methodical, but also sensible. Sensible in what way you ask? In many other 4X games an AI will start to make outrageous demands of its allies once the galaxy fills up. In refusing these demands, a human player will sour the relationship with their AI counterpart until the negative feedback amounts to a suitable pretense for war. Endless Space’s AI is smarter than that. So long as the computer controlled race’s alignment matches up with the player’s, the AI won’t sabotage an alliance for the sake of a military win. Instead the AI might shift its tactics toward a diplomatic or scientific victory. Failing that, it will just use the alliance as a means of running up its score. PS: to the devs, please give us an option to play out a game to the bitter end rather than a 350 turn cap.
Combat, an essential part of the 4X experience, is something to behold in Endless Space. On the surface, it may seem like a particularly cinematic rock/paper/scissors experience. As fleets close on each other they pass through ranges where each of the game’s three weapon classes are most effective. Yet the long/medium/close ranges only add bonuses to missile/beam/kinetic weapons. Endless Space demands either balanced ship loadouts or mixed vessel fleets for long term success. Adding another layer of complexity to the combat is a card system. At the start of each battle phase a selected combat card will buff a player’s fleet or hinder the opponent. There are some scenarios where one card will outright cancel another. Defence cards, for example, will balance out attack cards, but a sabotage card will actively counter attack cards. As fleets gain experience and an empire’s technology improves, more combat card abilities become available. The only trouble with this system is that you might spend a little too much time watching the utterly majestic ship battles and forget to assign a combat card. So Endless Space might not have the Lego block ship customization of Galactic Civilizations, but it more than compensates with a genuinely unique combat engine.
Remember to pick your combat card before watching the fireworks.
Hero characters, which can serve as either fleet admirals or system governors, add yet another twist to the game. As these characters level up, they unlock a variety of abilities that can influence a system’s resource production, citizen happiness, the ability of a planet to resist a siege, or range/damage bonuses in combat. The catch is that as heroes evolve they become more expensive to maintain. Additionally, even the most fantastically wealthy faction has a limited number of heroes at their disposal. Finding the balance between civil development and military command can be a key to success.
Even Endless Space’s multiplayer, a feature not generally well done in 4X games, proves to be a rewarding experience. Matchmaking is simple enough: either host a game on your own or join somebody else’s. Though a full game with eight players in a large sized galaxy would probably require an afternoon’s investment in time, the AI is able to substitute for any human players who drop the match. It will even go to the trouble of maintaining pre-existing alliances and strategic plans. The vacant seat can also be filled by someone willing to join mid-game. The only obvious shortcoming to the multiplayer is that there’s no private chat between empires. Any wheeling and dealing has to be done through the in-game diplomacy menus or a public chat. The prefixed diplomatic options are suitably robust for player vs AI matches, but lack the subtlety necessary for crafting complex intrigues.
The only shortcomings with Endless Space are the sort of sundry things that could quite easily be patched in future updates. There are no real options for inter-empire espionage or sabotage. The former only becomes an acute issue due to the game’s scoreboard. At any point a player can see how their empire is shaping up against all the others in the game, regardless of if those other civilizations have been discovered. When military might, colonial holdings, wealth, and technological progression can be distilled into a score, the importance of diplomacy is somewhat devalued. An option to turn off this scoring would enrich both the multiplayer and single player games. Building in an espionage system to replace the score board would be even better. After that, the only other thing that stands out as an oversight is that random race selection in single player can often lead to duplicates of the same faction. If I order up an eight player game, I don’t want to see three different versions of the United Empire.
Save for what’s mentioned above and a few odd AI fleet names, there’s something particularly demoralizing to losing a space battle against a fleet called “TerranTemplate25-ver1”, Endless Space is a fantastically crafted game from start to finish. While the development team has pulled no punches in creating a challenging AI, they’ve clearly demonstrated a desire to bring newcomers into the 4X subgenre. Nostalgia may have inspired this team, but the game and its fascinating lore stand tall on their own merits. Endless Space is positioned to join a very elite club of 4X games that not only appeal to veterans of the genre, but also welcome in a new crop of players.
Endless Space is available via Steam for $29.99 USD. The “Emperor” edition, which offers some extra skins, a custom hero, and greater input in Amplitude Studios “Games2gether” program, is available for five dollars more. NB: There is NO difference in game play between the standard “Admiral” edition and the “Emperor”.
One hundred turns is not enough play time to offer a comprehensive review of Amplitude Studio’s Endless Space. There’s simply too much to do and too many game elements to explore. That fact alone should be a good indication of this title’s quality. However, gamers experienced in the sublime pleasures of the 4X space empire sub-genre are probably eager to know if this entry warrants their attention and money. With a full review slated for later this week, I humbly offer the history of my first hundred turns of galactic governance as a baseline for gauging interest.
I began my first earnest campaign in Endless Space as an offshoot race of Humanity called “The Pilgrims”. I opted for a medium sized galaxy with four AI controlled races, fully prepared to enter a real estate battle royale.
For the first forty turns my civilization was alone in the cosmos. This caused me to make an assumption that would later prove to be my undoing. Because I had not made first contact with another race, I assumed the Pilgrims to be the most advanced sentients in the galaxy. Without grounds for comparison, I expected to find my rate of scientific progress unparalleled. Birth rates were high on all my colonies. I ordered the construction of planetary improvements to generate wealth and prosperity for all. My coffers were perpetually full as I maintained a low tax rate and focused on a small fleet of state of the art ships. Even though I could have hired an extra governor or two, I decided to save my people the upkeep. At our height, the Pilgrim empire stretched out across seven stars and nineteen worlds.
Upon meeting the United Empire, the main branch of Humanity within Endless Space, I soon learned the meaning of hubris. While there is no mechanism for overt espionage within Endless Space, contact with the Empire allowed me to compare my overall empire score with their own. The numbers were not encouraging. The Empire had triple the value of my civilization. Despite my discovery of warp drive, a technology that allowed my ships to travel outside of the stellar strings that connect the galaxy, the Empire had me hemmed into a little corner of a spiral arm.
Repeated attempts to form some sort of diplomatic relationship with the Empire were fruitless. The AI seemed to respect the works of Sun Tzu in that it saw no benefit in establishing formal relations with a nation so much weaker than itself.
Weaker nation? I could hardly believe the words when they appeared on my screen. Though our state of cold war did not permit direct intrusion in the other’s territory, my ships had skirmished with the Empire’s in neutral space. I had won every single one of these battles. During the gorgeously rendered cinematic battle sequences, I watched my ships deploy beam weapons while the Empire’s ships were still mucking about with low grade kinetics. It turned out that those ships, which I so handily destroyed, were just scouts. The AI controlling the Empire centralized its advanced fleet around its core systems. When I finally snuck a warp driven scout ship into the Empire’s border regions, I discovered that their fleet outnumbered mine by a margin of eight to one.
With each passing turn I watched the Empire’s territory encroach upon my own. They didn’t even bother with a formal declaration of war. Why should they when the influence of their expanding frontiers would soon engulf my outer colonies; the very colonies that had cost me a fortune in spending programs to counteract the locals’ discontent at being on the periphery of Pilgrim space. There was only one answer to the United Empire’s growth. War.
Since meeting the Empire I had enacted a rapid ship building program. I poured half the treasury into quadrupling the size of my fleet. Setting my sights on the nearest two Empire systems, I threw my ships into battle. Annexing my neighbour’s worlds proved a more difficult proposition than I had expected. Subduing a system, planet by planet, takes time. Moreover, none of my ships were equipped with space to ground weapons systems. And then, as if the first few turns of my invasion were nothing but a joke, the Empire turned its attention upon me.
They had more ships than I could have imagined. That was the Empire’s real strength. Technologically, we were on par with each other. But where the Empire could afford to trade ships on a one to one ratio, I could not. At turn 109 my sieges were broken and my surviving ships limped back to Pilgrim territory.
Given the sheer size of the United Empire’s fleet, I have little doubt that they would have over run my colonies and captured my home system if I let the scenario play itself out.
To this critic’s eye, the mark of a good 4X space empire game rests in its ability to lend itself to a player constructed narrative. For example, I still remember my first game of Master of Orion. I remember coming to the Psilons aid when the Bulrathi invaded their colonies. I remember joining forces with the Mrrshans when, despite my best efforts, the Bulrathi conquered the Psilon homeworld. And I remember turning my fleets on the Mrrshans once the galaxy was cleansed of the Bulrathi threat. What can I say, I didn’t want to power share with a race of bipedal cats.
After one hundred turns, I can say that I will not soon forget the story of my first foray into Endless Space. Everything about this game, from the truly cinematic space battles to the innovative micro/macro empire management balance, is built around allowing players to add their own back story to the game’s over arcing mythos. Rarely does a game place such trust in its audience. For devotees of 4X gaming, Endless Space is a must have. For everybody else, stay tuned for my full review coming later this week.
Summary Judgement: A perfect fit for anybody who loves strategic starship or naval combat.
Space combat games are few and far between these days. So when the good folks at Tindalos Interactive, Headup Games, and Meridian4 gave me a chance to review Stellar Impact, I jumped at the opportunity. The easiest comparison, but not quite the most accurate, would be to say that Stellar Impact is a space battle analogue to Defence of the Ancients or League of Legends.
As an exclusively multi-player game, Stellar Impact sees two opposing fleets battle to control resource points on a map, before blowing up the other team’s starbase.
Each battle begins at the ship yard screen. From there players can review their ships, the various experience points attached to those vessels, and any loot that they earned in previous battles. Believe me when I say that ship customization is at the core of this title. Each of the game’s five core ship classes (eight if you buy the two dollar DLC pack) have twenty-five active abilities. Each ship can have five abilities selected at a given time, and the class of the ship dictates how many abilities can be loaded from specific sub-categories. For example, a destroyer can equip a maximum of three “attack” abilities where a corvette can only have one.
A boy and his destroyer
If that’s not enough modification, each completed battle awards loot in the form of hull, weapon, ammunition, and crew upgrades. The crew upgrades alone add another twenty-five passive buffs to a given ship. Then there are all the in-game buffs you can give to your weapons, armour and NPC units as your fleet collects command points and collectively levels up. So if you’re the sort that likes to tinker, then you’re probably going to find a lot of room for experimentation with this game. At the same time, none of these options feel too overwhelming. On the complexity scale, Stellar Impact falls somewhere between Wing Commander: Privateer and an Armoured Core game. There’s just enough customization to make tactical load outs a matter of some thought, but no real way to break your ship and subsequently ruin the game.
At present, Stellar Impact offers two game play modes, “conquest”, which is the DOTA-esque action I’ve been talking about thus far, and “battlefield” scenarios that focus on ship-to-ship combat without any capturing or base defense. Conquest boasts ten maps to choose from, all of which support 6v6 competition, and Battlefield offers four. The game play itself, in either mode, is quite good. The sound quality is great. The visuals are slick. I’ve yet to notice a serious frame rate drop.
If only immersion were a guarantee of success in battle, I’d be a much better commander. It took me about four or five battles before I really learned the finer points of ship handling and weapons management. It’s not that either are particularly difficult; the game’s tutorial offers an effective overview of commands, navigation, and the UI. The thing of it is that even the smallest ship in Stellar Impact manoeuvres like the massive weapon of war that it is.
Navigating hazards, maintaining formation, and keeping turrets directed on the enemy of choice can be a little challenging to a newbie captain. Even now when I’m piloting a corvette or frigate, I occasionally misjudge the distance I will need for a turning arc and ram into an asteroid. Yet those moments are trumped many times over with the sublime pleasure that comes in tearing through an opponent’s shields with a missile salvo before laying into them with a full broadside from my plasma cannons. It is so rare to see a game that makes capital ship combat feel like the methodical dance that it ought to be, while retaining a level of accessibility that is challenging without being punishing.
One of the reasons I was reticent to immediately lump Stellar Impact in with the likes of DOTA is that where the latter is filled with dickbags and trolls, the people who play Stellar Impact are about as helpful and friendly as can be. Even folks on the opposing team were offering my hapless captaining a bit of constructive advice during my first couple of battles. The game’s general chat room offers a maturity that is almost impossible to find in today’s online gaming world.
We're going to need a bigger boat...
While my overall experience has been a positive one, I can see some room for improvement. Stellar Impact’s match making system is almost painfully primitive. Once a player joins a game, they are taken to a fleet screen where they select the ship they want to command. Problems occur in that there’s nothing to stop the opposing force from picking a fleet of heavy ships to meet your team’s mixed unit fleet. Lighter ships are great for ninja capturing control points, but other than firing a few pot shots before running away, there’s not a lot they can do against a destroyer or cruiser. On a few occasions my team has readily surrendered once it became obvious that our fleet was simply out gunned. Arguably, sound tactics could get around that problem. However, I would love to see an option that limited fleet values so not everybody could have a dreadnaught. Further, a forced auto-balance between the teams in the pre-battle lounge would seem like a natural thing to include given Stellar Impact’s impressive player ranking system.
I’d also like to see some better descriptions on the loot. Other than looking at the trade in value, the colour coded ship parts don’t do a great job of differentiating between common/uncommon/rare/epic items.
As I mentioned earlier in this review, Stellar Impact offers a DLC bundle that adds three additional classes of starship to the game: the carrier, the support ship, and the artillery ship. Now don’t freak out on me here; none of these ships are essential to enjoying the main game. I repeat, you lose nothing by deciding not to buy the DLC package. However, the DLC ships are unique enough to add some significant tactical options to your combat experience. On that note, I would deem them a good investment. There’s also the fact that the difference between Stellar Impact and Stellar Impact + DLC is a measly two dollars. Consider the DLC good karma toward indie devs, if nothing else.
Overall, I expect that Stellar Impact is going to find greater appeal with a certain type of gamer rather than among the general gaming public. If you’re the sort of person who enjoyed the Starfleet Command series, the Renegade Legion: Leviathan tabletop game, or any sort of naval combat RTS, then you are likely among the target audience. Still, there’s nothing in this game that would alienate people from outside that demographic. What Stellar Impact lacks in game play variety, it makes up for in ship customization. While the community playing this game is small, they are very dedicated and the exact opposite of every negative gamer stereotype in the book.
If you love starship or naval combat, then this game is a definite buy.
Summary Judgement: Think of it this way, you’re not paying for a “game”, but rather admission into an avant-garde art installation.
Developed by: The Chinese Room
*Caution* I don’t know that it is possible to spoil this “game” in the traditional sense. However, I will be talking about certain aspects of Dear Esther in detail. Then again, if you’re reading this it means you got past the part where I said “art installation”. So I’m willing to bet that you’re not the type of person for whom an ending is the most important part of the story.
Dear Esther began as mod to Half-Life 2 back in 2008. Working out of the University of Portsmouth, project lead Dan Pinchbeck produced the title as a means of exploring experimental game play and storytelling. Since then, the “game” has enjoyed several major graphics overhauls and the addition of a custom soundtrack. So, what the hell is it, and why do I keep putting danger quotes around the word “game”?
In my estimation, Dear Esther isn’t a game. Some reviewers have taken to calling it an alternative first person shooter, but there’s nothing “shooter” about it. Like life, Dear Esther is a first person walker. There’s no gun play, running, jumping, or action of any sort other than looking and walking. People engaging with this title do so through exploration, contemplation, and self-reflection. There’s no winning, losing, or dying, well except for the existential ending but that goes more toward the aforementioned introspection than anything else. I should also mention that, like life, Dear Esther is beautiful, sublime and a disquieting.
Other attempts to classify Dear Esther have put it in the realm of a mystery game. Once again, I beg to disagree. Yes, “players” engage with a mysterious story that is larger than the “game” itself. And yes, there are “clues” scattered about the island. There’s also a narrator that recites semi-randomized lines from a book. But a mystery implies a puzzle that can be solved through reason and deduction. In the tradition of games like Myst and Riven, mysteries generally offer a game play mechanic that brings everything together. Yet none of those elements can be found within Dear Esther. Understanding the chemical diagrams, circuit charts, and bible verses scattered throughout the island is a purely internal affair.
Which brings me back to my original point; Dear Esther is less a game and more an art installation. For me, the fundamental questions of this experience aren’t about level design, draw distance, or AI quality; they are about the intentions of the creator as well as my reaction to what is being presented before me. There’s a temptation to fixate on the story, as video games have become a medium for narrative transmission that have in some ways superseded television and film. Yet attempting to force a linear order on Dear Esther’s story is to ignore the “game’s” invitation to answer “why” rather than “what”. Once the line of inquiry moves in that particular direction, it’s hard for me to see Dear Esther as anything other than very experimental art.
Dear Esther at night
So in the seventy-five minutes that it took me to walk through this installation, what did I take away from it? Sadness. Loss. Regret. The banality of broken car parts. Obsession with things that can’t be fixed. The empty comforts that the world offers us in the face of tragedy. I think, a lesson on aging. The agonizingly slow pace at which the character walks put me in the mindset of an old person who has grown tired of the world. Perhaps the whole thing is even a metaphor that probes the futility of attempting to tie together the vignettes of life into some sort of capital-M meaning.
Art, like most things, is often in the eye of the beholder. Maybe there is nothing more to this “game” than walking through a big open space for an hour and looking at some pretty scenery. Considering Dear Esther’s $10 price of admission, I don’t think anybody with half a brain could go wrong attempting to answer that question on their own.
The big news in the gaming world comes out of San Francisco where Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine Productions have announced their plans to make a modern point and click adventure game. Even if you haven’t heard of Double Fine, you are likely familiar with their work which includes such notable titles as, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Iron Brigade. Schafer, who founded Double Fine in 2000, previously worked on the LucasArts classics Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. What’s unique about this upcoming title is that Double Fine is funding the entirety of this production through a kickstarter campaign. The project met its $400,000 goal in less than eight hours. At the time of this post, they had raised an additional $300,000.
In taking this step, Double Fine follows in the fashion of indie titan Mojang who funded their now mega-hit Minecraft through selling discounted copies of the game when it was in alpha and beta development. According to Double Fine, their new title is about much more than alternative models of funding…
The world of video game design is a mysterious one. What really happens behind the closed doors of a development studio is often unknown, unappreciated, or misunderstood. And the bigger the studio, the more tightly shut its door tends to be. With this project, we’re taking that door off its hinges and inviting you into the world of Double Fine Productions
Double Fine’s philosophy of transparency stands in stark contrast to the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” attitude of studios such as Valve and Blizzard. There are times when it seems like Valve is going out of its way to troll its customers over the status of the next installment of the Half-Life series. Brilliant as it will be to live as a fly on Double Fine’s walls, I think their success speaks to a larger story on crowd sourcing.
I’m of two minds when it comes to financing projects through websites like Kickstarer, Indiegogo, and the like. Some days it seems like a great way to collect money for projects that would otherwise go unnoticed. Other days it seems like the 21st century’s answer to wholesale digital begging. While I’m hesitant to make sweeping declarations on what should and shouldn’t be worthy of crowd funding – at the end of the day if it appeals to the masses it’s going to get money – I think there should be a general expectation that if a project that wants advanced funding from its audience, it should be doing something that exists outside of the usual fare.
For example, a friend of mine wanted to crowd source what he called a “multi-media novel”. In addition to being a proper novel, the project included still pictures, video, power points and audio logs. Since selling something like that to mainstream publishers would be a little difficult, crowd sourcing an independent run seemed a good idea. But for every Avant-Garde project, there are the others.Democratization is generally a good thing, but the ancient Greeks knew that when something is opened up to the masses it invites the lowest common denominator.
I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that Double Fine’s use of kickstarter adds a significant amount of legitimacy to the process of crowd sourcing. If Minecraft was the first domino, then this might be the second in a sequence that ends at a studio whose primary business model is “You want it, give us x to get it started”. To invoke the language of philosophy, games could be made through a general will that sees the studio as sovereign and customers as the body politic. In such a relationship, the former would have a harder time acting against the latter as all parties have agreed to certain conventions before contracting with each other. Or in the language of business, gamers become stake holders in individual titles rather than a company as a whole. In that scenario the transaction between studio and gamer is less a licensing agreement and more a sale of non-voting stock.
So who wants to help me track down the Two Guys From Andromeda and get a new Space Quest game? Despite hitting their goal, Double Fine’s kickstarter campaign continues for another 33 days. Here’s the link if you are interested in getting in on the ground floor.
UPDATE: As of about 6:45 Eastern, Double Fine’s campaign crossed the million dollar threshold.
Summary Judgement: Forget about being just an “indie” darling, this is a fantastic game, period.
Game by: Locomalito
Soundtrack by: Gryzor87
I don’t want to over play my hand, but it’s hard to look at Hydorah and see anything other than a near flawless title. On the surface it looks like a standard side scrolling shooter. Peel back the layers a little and the game presents itself as a homage piece, nay, a renaissance piece dedicated to a long since passed era where game designers had the nerve to challenge their audience. You see, I’m of a mindset that games have trophies and achievements because they are too easy. Nobody had to give me +10 gamer score for beating the level 5 boss of Legend of Zelda. I got a piece of the triforce and went on with my day feeling a little more chuffed up. Now, a culture of blasé level design has yielded a crop of games where beating the single player campaign is no big deal. Case in point, nobody is going to earn any gamer cred for beating Halo 3, even on legendary. However, beating Contra is something worth talking about. Hydorah takes its cues from the latter, though perhaps a little more forgiving in its execution, as it offers a gaming experience that puts a premium on achieving something that is brag worthy.
Before the game even begins, Hydorah proclaims itself a throw back to 80s arcade shooters. Much like Sergeant Hartman, it’s tough but fair. Putting that into context, if, on a scale of one to ten, Space Invaders is a 1 and UN Squadron is a 10, Hydorah is probably a 7 or an 8. So there’s no doubt that the game is challenging. Yet there’s also an expectation of perfection within each level.Finishing a stage without getting blown up yields a promotion and a significant score bonus.
Even in 16-bit format, Hydorah looks and sounds amazing. The soundtrack, composed by Gryzor87, perfectly captures the retro spirit that permeates this game. Battling from planet to planet requires navigating through sandstorms, asteroids, creeping vines, exploding plants, and no shortage of actual enemies. To its credit, Hydorah avoids one of the dubious hallmarks of the side-scrolling genre: frame rate drops due to too much stuff on screen. Every level is nice and consistent from start to finish.
Progressing through Hydorah’s sixteen levels is a somewhat linear affair. A Starfox-light level selection offers players a bit of freedom to chart their own course. Some paths through the game are easier than others, but increased challenge offers greater rewards in the form of different primary and secondary weapon unlocks. As well, there’s a “secret item” system within the game. I’d like to say that I know what happens when you find one of these items. Sadly, I’ve yet to snag one.
Remember how I said that Hydorah is a game that encourages perfection? Well, the game also punishes failure. Each death causes weapons and engine upgrades to decay. Despite the relative ease with which extra lives are earned, rapid successive deaths will make completing a level infinitely more challenging. To give would-be saviours a fighting chance at finishing the game, Hydorah includes a save game function. Be forewarned, the game limits players to three saves over a campaign that, depending on your route, is at least 10 missions long. Of course, if you want a real challenge you can ignore the saves and treat Hydorah like a proper arcade game.
What makes this title all the more interesting is the fact that the designer is giving it away for free. It’s a fully realized game that costs nothing. No catches, no “free to play” bullshit, it is as free as the air. Make no mistake though, were it to appear on Steam, I would buy it without any reservations.
There’s no doubting that Hydorah can be frustrating at times. The joy of this game, however, is in the deep satisfaction that comes with overcoming level design that seeks to capitalize on a player’s mistakes. When I make my basement arcade, and trust me that day is coming, I will beg, borrow or steal the fabrication skills necessary to build a stand up case around Hydorah. It’s smart, fun, challenging, simple, and elegant.