Microsoft….does the right thing?!?!

Microsoft introduced a point system for purchases when they introduced the xbox (or 360? I forget when it began), a system that was mostly reviled by gamers. They announced over a year ago that they were ending that system in favor of straight cash purchases for their online stores, just like most everyone else uses (ie Amazon, Apple, Google Play, etc).

Both Sony and Microsoft sell debit cards at retail for making purchases in their online stores, so kids without credit cards can buy games online. Retailers periodically run specials on those cards, especially around the holidays, so you can get $50 for $40 or whatever.

Several Christmases ago, I stocked up on these cards when Target ran a $50 for $30 sale or something along those lines. I added those credits to my respective accounts, and then my Xbox 360 promptly died. My $50 of Microsoft credit has been sitting in limbo ever since, as I had no plans to replace the 360. Imagine me shaking my fist in irritation at Microsoft. Then imagine me bemused to receive an email from Microsoft letting me know that my points have been converted back to actual cash $$$ – I’m now sitting on $49.15 in credit for Microsoft’s stores. Bully for them for doing the right thing and me for getting my funds back.

Next, imagine me shaking my fist in mild irritation again when I discover I can only spend these funds in the Windows 8 and Windows Mobile stores, which I do no business with.   :-/

Friday fun link – Quake III in your browser

If you don’t work in web development you may not be aware how far things have come with browsers and especially Javascript. Today’s example demonstrates this while also bringing you some awesome nostalgic first person shooter action. Check out quakejs, which runs the full quake III engine in your modern web browser. It worked great for me on a medium tier Mac running the latest Chrome – your mileage may vary depending on which browser you try it with. Pretty amazing stuff.

Game Finished: Tomb Raider (2013 edition)

Summary: Tomb Raider is a fantastic reboot of the long-lived and somewhat uneven Tomb Raider series that’s worth a playthrough if you’re a fan of character driven action games.

The good: Great graphics, imaginatively realized setting featuring grand sense of scale, workmanlike but serviceable plot, good voice acting. Strong combat and exploration gameplay systems. Game engine is impressive technically and the PC port is solid.

The bad: More Uncharted than Tomb Raider – didn’t bother me, might bother you. Puzzles are mostly trivial, in part thanks to lots of hand holding. Normal difficulty is pretty easy. Occasionally feels like you’re playing through beautiful cut scenes that require minimal player input.

Graphics and sound: The graphics and sound are both top notch. The graphics in particular shine here, especially the huge vistas. Audio and voicework are both good. Some nice weather/wind effects, good use of lighting and motion blur effects as well.

Everything else: Before I get started, a word about the controversy surrounding the game when it was released. Much was made of how many graphically depicted awful things happen to the game’s protagonist. Lara’s a woman, and there were allegations of misogyny. My take is that, first of all, awful things, truly awful things, have been happening to Lara since the first game (death by lion maw, bear paw, boulders the size of a compact car to the head, gunshots to parts various and sundry, spike traps to the legs,and falls from great heights onto granite floors all featured in the first game alone), and the only thing different in this game is how vividly they’re depicted thanks to a modern game engine. Second of all, videogames in general, not to mention popular cinema and television, all feature horrific violence, often quite graphic. Using the game’s release to have a conversation about the broader issue of depictions of violence in popular culture seems fair enough; calling out the game for somehow being outside the norm, or unfairly beating up on a woman, do not. Male protagonists, more common in games by many orders of magnitude, suffer all Lara does and worse, and videogame producers are frequently criticized for failing to offer up female protagonists. Then someone does, and they get beat up for…beating up on her the way they do on male protagonists. Most of the criticism I’ve seen wasn’t speaking to the broader cultural issues, it was criticizing Tomb Raider specifically. They created a game featuring a heroine who overcomes a bunch of horrific stuff, finding her inner strength whilst triumphing over evil and saving the day, and their reward is to be labeled misogynist bastards. Clearly they should stick to games with male protagonists, because daggers to the ear are ok, if it’s a guy’s ear.

[in other words, I call myopic hypocritical bullshit]

That said, about the game: I loved it and played through it in less than 2 weeks, which is almost unheard of for me. I can quibble with some of the design choices, and agree with critics who say there’s not as much player agency available here as one might want, but my complaints pale in comparison to the game’s virtues. This is an entertaining, well crafted game. I can most easily describe it as Tomb Raider meets Uncharted, with a side helping of rpg-lite. It’s a reboot of the long running series, and begins with a young Lara with friends and colleagues on an anthropological vessel searching for a lost culture. Things quickly go bad, and soon Lara finds herself in harms way, questing to save her friends and get to the bottom of why they find themselves unable to escape a quasi devil’s triangle scenario. Gameplay features a really well paced mix of plot exposition via cutscene, exploration and physical puzzle solving, cover-reliant gunplay, hand to hand combat, and light role playing mechanics.

The plot and exposition is the weakest part of the mix, but it’s better than the majority of videogame offerings. There’s a diverse collection of characters, a few of whom actually emerge as believable, and the plot itself is a decent hash of action adventure film tropes with a dash of the occult. Lara and friends end up shipwrecked on a mysterious island and soon discover something’s keeping them from leaving. Not only that, the island hosts several factions of previous shipwreck victims, some of whom may be up to cultish no-good, and most of whom end up chasing after or being chased by Lara. Plot exposition is conveyed via non-interactive game engine cutscenes. I usually hate this model, but found I enjoyed this more than most and rarely wanted to skip through them as I often do in lesser games.

The exploration and puzzle solving is engaging and looks fantastic. It’s a bit on the easy side though, particularly compared to the (admittedly fiddly) original Tomb Raider games. Lara quickly becomes more agile than a rhesus monkey, and it’s rare for her to fail as she clambers, slides, leaps and otherwise maneuvers through the game’s environments. And oh, those environments. There’s some really stunning stuff on offer, from asian temples dotted along steep, forested cliffs looking out over the sea, to smoky cavern systems populated with things that go boo in the night, to a you have to see it to believe it WWII-era shipyard suspended in the sky via steel cables. The environments are full of hidden areas and a variety of types of discoverable objects, many of which contribute experience points Lara can use to enhance her weapons and skills. Puzzles are really simple, often featuring physics challenges like ‘to get past this wooden door, I have to swing this metal bell that’s conveniently hanging right next to it till it bashes through’. To make it even easier, that bell will glow whenever you push the ‘environmental cues’ button, aka the ‘give me a hint button’, which you can use whenever you like. Did I mention the puzzles were easy? There are also innumerable ‘explore area, jumping, climbing, sliding, crawling, etc, poking nose into every nook and difficult to reach cranny in order to pull the lever/push switch/disable door lock to open access to the next area’ style puzzles which have been standard for this series since the beginning. These occasionally feature simple QTE (ie push the right button at the right time) challenges, but it’s always the same button with the same timer, so they become trivial after the first couple of them.

The combat is a mixed bag. It’s competent, moves quickly and fluidly, and looks great, but it’s also really easy and for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on feels a bit…dry. It’s a third person cover-based shooter at heart, much like Uncharted but with not as much emphasis on hand to hand combat. There are only a handful of weapons in the game, all of which can be upgraded using experience points Lara accumulates over the course of the game. By the end all of them are so powerful that only bosses stand a chance against them, and that’s because they’re mostly immune to them and use similar easy to time QTE challenges some of the exploration challenges feature. On balance, I enjoyed it but found it a bit lacking.

The rpg elements are pretty linear and trivial. As you explore the game’s environments you find and accumulate material which you can use to enhance Lara’s equipment. Periodically you also find blueprints which allow you to raise specific pieces of equipment to a new more powerful tier, so for example your simple bow made from a stick and some vine that you start with has become a sophisticated compound bow that can fire fire or explosive tipped arrows with great speed and accuracy. You can similarly upgrade Lara’s skills in a few areas, like mobility, speed of climbing, and the efficacy of her ‘environmental cues’ skill. I didn’t dislike this element but it didn’t feel fully fleshed out.

I should note there’s also a multiplayer component to the game. I haven’t even bothered to try it, mostly because I’m well stocked on excellent PC multiplayer games (Team Fortress 2 and Planetside 2 are both getting played by me a lot these days) and don’t need another one. I find I’m generally in the camp of gamers who don’t believe you have to tack a multiplayer mode onto every game you release – focus your resources on making one or the other really well. It’s easy to forgive here because the singleplayer is so fun.

I recognize I seem overly critical above, but the bottom line is despite all my quibbling, I had a great time playing through this game and look forward to new entries in the series.

Recommendation:

Tomb Raider is worth the full retail price, even if you don’t care about the multiplayer.

Media:

Friday Fun – every issue of Dragon Magazine, for free

Polyhedron too. This is apparently controversial and violating some copyrights, so follow your own conscience, but examiner.com has this piece outlining the issue and linking to the specific archive.org repositories for these. This is a pretty amazing walk down memory lane, and a nice workaround to the impossibility of otherwise acquiring this material. TSR or someone they licensed to do it actually sold a physical media collection of all of this, which I used to fondle in the gamestop at the Maine Mall now and then. It was north of $50, which was a lot of money to me back then so I never ended up with it, though had I known it would end up being worth hundreds because of how hard it is to come by a copy I might have found a way to come up with the money. Anyway, enjoy a little nostalgic tour of pen and paper RPG history if you’re so inclined. If you don’t want to read the piece itself, the Dragon Magazines are here and here’s the Polyhedron repository.

 

[edit: links removed. No more controversy – they had to remove this material. Evidently it was violating copyright]

Test your classic gamer cred

Try the DOS Games Screenshot challenge. Bet you can’t beat my score, I got 38 out of 50, which surprised me. I’ll confess I got lucky with a number of them (was that Wing Commander 1, or 2? I couldn’t have told you for sure, but I got it right), and several were easy because of process of elimination, but still, I recognized most of the games from back in the day. How about you?

Game finished: The Darkness II

Summary: The Darkness II is a 1st person shooter with light rpg elements set in a modern day metropolis. I played through it on the PC and did not try the multiplayer.

The good: Solid gameplay mechanics. Cheesy but well written and fun ‘mafia crimelord with demonic powers’ storyline. Doesn’t overstay its welcome. Decent variety of powers you can acquire via a skill tree.

The bad: linear ‘combat encounter box connected by corridor, repeat’ level design. Over the top gore. Normal difficulty level too easy, particularly by the end when you’ve added a bunch of powers from the skill tree.

Graphics and sound: The Darkness II is a decent looking and sounding game that features above average voice acting. The overall visual appeal is let down a bit by it’s obvious console-first focus, with small, short, linear levels, invisible walls, mediocre textures, and occasional low poly/poorly lit skyboxes, but that makes it sound worse than it is – overall it’s a decent if unexceptional looking game.

Everything else:

I had good fun with The Darkness II. It was easy for me to forgive its sins (very short, repetitive, average looks) because they were outweighed by its virtues and because I only paid $7.50 for it. The game tells the story of Jackie, a mafia crimelord who’s inherited demonic powers, and follows him through a series of adventures that mostly involve him killing a bajillion rival mafia hoods. Somewhat unusually, the game also features periodic interactive cutscenes used to convey major sections of the story. I usually hate this sort of thing, but I ended up liking them more than I would have expected. That’s because they feature decent voice acting, they generally weren’t very long, and the game has an unusual story to tell. The core gameplay mechanics are the game’s greatest strength, combining well implemented but pedestrian run and gun gameplay with demonic powers Jackie can acquire over the course of his adventure. This begins with Jackie being able to sprout powerful demonic arms from his back whenever he’s in the dark. One arm can grab things and one can smash things, and the two can be combined for all kinds of violent mayhem and puzzle solving. The mayhem can get pretty gross (did…did I just grab a dude by his ankle and pull his innards out through his butt? Oh yes I did…), but if you turn your brain off and go with the combat flow, running into a room and going batshit on the collection of mafia hoods collected there trying to kill you is a blast. It gets more fun as the game progresses and you add powers – additional killing techniques for your two arms, enhancements to the ways you can use objects you pick up, the ability to disorient or damage foes from a distance (hey, I just vomited poisonous stinging gnats onto those dudes, lookit em wiggle!), enhanced power, ammo and so on for your firearms, and more.

It’s good that the mechanics are solid fun, because the game is super repetitive. New enemies are introduced as the game progresses (look out, these dudes have flashlights! That one’s got a shield you have to bash apart before you can hurt him, and so on), and the additional powers you acquire help mix things up a bit, but it’s pretty repetitive stuff – walk down corridor, maybe taking a short side jaunt to find a hidden object or two, solve some usually trivial puzzle (I can’t approach the door to the next area until I get the lights off – hrm….I know, I’ll hulk smash that nearby generator with my demon arm!) then enter a combat arena (a room – an intersection in NYC, a warehouse, the lobby of a condo, etc), figure out how to take out the opposition, then head off down a corridor to the next similarly designed encounter. It’s also good that the game is as short as it is (I completed it in under 7 hours), because by the end it was starting to wear out its welcome, and I had become so powerful that I was tearing through everything without any trouble, ultimately including the final boss.

Recommendation:

I had enough fun with The Darkness II to recommend it to anyone who enjoys a violent, well crafted first person shooter, so long as they can get it for $10 or less.

Media: