From the ‘there’s always someone out there nerdier than you’ file:
I present: Radio Rivendell. 24×7 streaming music channel featuring high fantasy themed tracks. I kid in the headline – I recently found this and started playing it while playing Dungeons of Dredmor on my PC. Dredmor is fantastic and at $5 a steal (or less on sale, which it is frequently). Rivendel’s perfect when you’re looking to set that high fantasy mood, which of course lots of you are…right?
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.
Tomb Raider is worth the full retail price, even if you don’t care about the multiplayer.
Example of why Games for Windows Live sucks
This is not even close to the best example of why it sucks, or the worst experience I’ve had with it (I’m thinking of you, Bioshock 2), but it’s fresh in my mind so I’m going to share it.
I wanted to try the new free-to-play RTS Age of Empires Online. I had been following a ‘No more games that use Games for Windows Live’ policy ever since a set of really awful experiences with Bioshock 2 a year or so ago, but a free game from a studio whose games I’ve really enjoyed in the past convinced me to give GFWL another chance.
I downloaded and installed the game, but when I tried to login to GFWL, which I have to do in order to play, it wouldn’t let me. Tried on the GFWL website and was informed someone has been trying to login to my account with the wrong password so many times my password is invalid.
I reset password, a reasonably straightforward process, hurrah! I am pleasantly surprised.
Try again to login. I’m informed I must provide product key and am unable to login. wth? It’s a free game, and anyway, why should that block me from logging in? Confusion.
Examine email looking for product key. Find none
Examine spam folder looking for email with product key. Find none. Grossed out by contents of spam folder.
Examine Age of Empire Online FAQ and message boards looking for someone with the same problem. Find nothing.
Google this problem. Find nothing.
GFWL lets you specify a backup email address. Look there and in that account’s spam folder for an email with a product key. Find nothing. More hot spam folder grossout action.
Ponder. Wth? With these things you can always find someone with a similar problem via google, and eventually arrive at a solution. I can’t so…what does that mean? It’s unique to me? Seems inconceivable? What out of all the parameters in play would be unique to me? My password. I check. I’ve made a typo. Try to login using the correct password. Eureka! I’m in.
Why the FUCK did GFWL send me off on a 30 minute goose chase looking for a product key when its issue was I had an invalid password?
Because it’s Game For Windows Live, a product seemingly designed to put anyone who tries it off of gaming on windows.
Age of Empires Online is ok – it’s definitely worth a look if you’re into RTS. Pluses include fantastic art direction and a ton of content. Cons are incredibly bad unit pathing issues and a brain dead AI. Message me if you’re playing and want to connect. Meantime, I’m back on my ‘will not buy products which require the use of GFWL’ policy. Developers and publishers, please: spare your customers the agony of this entirely shitty product. There’s no money hat large enough to make this worth the bad mouthing your product will get. Look into steamworks or anything, anything at all*, besides GFWL. It’s shit.
*(Except the stuff Ubisoft is doing, and, err, EA’s Origin stuff…jesus. Software publishing is going to the dogs! Just fucking use Steamworks, they appear to be the only company that recognizes customer experience should be primary).
Made a donation to the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund
Their website does a terrible job if helping you understand why you might consider donating and what they’ll do with the money, but I still gave $20 to the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund this week. Gygax is one of the creators of Dungeons and Dragons, originally a set of miniatures supplements he wrote with his friends that grew into a global brand. He also founded one of the earliest gaming magazines (Dragon Magazine), launched what became and remains the US’s largest gaming convention (Gencon), produced a hit animated television series (Dungeons and Dragons), and more. Gygax’s games and company played a huge role in my middle childhood, and I still have a stack of his books and supplements tucked into my basement rec room’s game cabinet. The intent is to build a statue commemorating his life on parkland in downtown Lake Geneva, WI, where he lived and worked for most of his life. He deserves the recognition.
The memorial is going to be in downtown Lake Geneva, in this park.
- Help Memorialize Gygax at Gen Con Starting Tomorrow (tor.com)
- Be forever grateful to D&D’s creators (psychologytoday.com)
- Sculptor for Gygax Memorial Named (wired.com)
- Gary Gygax memorial in the offing (boingboing.net)
Just my luck: no functioning consoles
So my primary hobby is gaming, and I spend a fair amount of time and money on it. What are the odds that in the same timeframe Sony Playstation’s PSN service would go down for a month+ due to being hacked, and my just over 3 year old (read: just out of warranty) xbox 360 would Red Ring of Death? 100% likely as it turns out. Just a couple of days after the PSN network blew up, my Xbox died as I sat down to watch a movie on it. I’m especially pissed about the xbox because I intentionally held off buying one for several years because the RROD issue became well known and I decided to hold off for a hardware revision, assuming Microsoft would address the issue. They didn’t. Supposedly it’s addressed in the newest ‘slim’ models (I bought an Elite shortly after they came out), but at this point, having had my first generation xbox die and now my 360 die, I’m not so sure I want to buy back into the platform. It’s a real dilemma though, because I have literally dozens of games for the thing, as well as many peripherals (the controllers alone go for $50/pop and I have 4 of them), and selling everything off will earn me pennies on the dollar. Plus, I’m figuring my soon-to-be toddler would enjoy the Kinect motion control stuff MS is pushing these days.
So…what to do. I can’t decide. I’m sitting pat for now. E3, the biggest gaming industry trade show, is next month, and I’m going to see what comes out of that before doing anything. I should note that while the PS3 still works, mostly, aside from multiplayer, I’m worried trophies won’t sync correctly when the network comes back up, so I’ve been staying off of it. Meantime, it’s back to gaming on the PC primarily.
Friday fun link: Glorg
Glorg is worth checking out simply on the strength of its design. It’s a minimalistic one button rpg inspired by roguelikes with great art design and music. This isn’t a deep experience, but it’s perfect for your friday lunch break. Pay attention to the timing on your mouseclicks – it’s not obvious at first that timing plays an important role. A video is below:
Friday Fun: Super Crate Box
Super Crate Box is a windows-only blast from the past that I could imagine playing on my Atari 2600 back in the day. Collect boxes to score, shoot or avoid baddies to stay alive. The more boxes you collect, the more weapons you have access to. Frenetically paced and harder than it looks, this is a perfect friday fun link. The trailer:
Super Crate Box from Vlambeer on Vimeo.
Game Finished: Ratchet and Clank Future: Quest for Booty
I’m on a roll thanks to one of my New Year’s resolutions. I finished Ratchet and Clank Future: Quest for Booty earlier in the week. It’s a short coda to the previous game, Tools of Destruction, and explains how Ratchet figures out where Clank is after he…disappears at the end of Tools of Destruction. I scored the next game in the series, Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time on sale over Christmas and I wanted to finish this game so I could move on its sequel. This is the 8th (!!!) Ratchet and Clank game and it doesn’t bring much new to the table. There’s more of a focus on puzzle solving than in the previous games, and it’s really short, maybe 3-4 hours long, but it’s still got the trademark Ratchet and Clank humor and I enjoyed it well enough. The series features run and gun arcade adventure with some light puzzle solving, a lot of saturday morning cartoon humor, and generally great graphics. I’ve played all of them and solved several of them, including this one, but if you’re going to skip one, this is the one. Counterbalancing that is it’s cheap – I got it for $9.99 from the Playstation store as a download. Below is an ~8 minute video showing off some of the gameplay. Bottom line, if you’ve played the previous games and enjoyed them, you’re likely to enjoy this one as well.
New Year’s resolutions
I’m a bit behind, granted. I have a good excuse – came down with pneumonia and it really knocked the stuffing out of me. I’m just starting to feel myself again after fighting this off for three weeks, and I’m still fighting a cough and dealing with fatigue issues. Anyway, I made two resolutions this year: To get back on track with my diet and exercise regimen, and to follow an example I set myself several years ago with my buying habits.
The diet and exercise resolution has turned out to be easy thanks to the bout of pneumonia. My weight had been creeping up and by this fall I was over 180 for the first time in a number of years, something I had begun to worry about. Stomach issues and a generally slacker attitude to exercise had me off my regimen for almost all of the summer and fall, so I figured, time for a new years resolution to address it. Pressures off now though – I’m down under 170 for the first time in at least 4-5 years. I just need to keep it off. As soon as my stamina is back it’s back on the exercise regimen, possibly adding in running, which I haven’t done regularly since I left Maine.
The second resolution is inspired by a successful resolution from years ago. At that time I had gotten addicted to buying books off of Abe books, ebay, and Amazon, and my to-read pile was growing faster than my read pile was decreasing. I resolved to only buy a book after I had finished at least one, and to generally focus on bringing down the number of books in the to-read pile. It worked. I still have a huge to-read pile (>20 books) but it no longer grows and it’s no longer close to 100 books. This year I’m applying these principles to videogames, because my to-play pile is like 15 games at this point and maybe higher. I’ve resolved to not buy a new game unless I finish one, and to focus on finishing off games I’ve left partially completed. I have this terrible habit of starting whatever new game I acquire, playing it obsessively for a week or two until the next game comes, then moving on, rarely finishing anything. No more! I’m working my way through games at a rapid clip, and not opening anything still in the shrinkwrap until I knock games off the list. So far it’s working – I’ve finished 4-5 games since the year began, and this was with me unable to play games for two weeks thanks to the pneumonia.
I’m such a hopeless nerd.
I’ve also put myself on a budget. Mint.com rocks for helping you see where you spend your money. I spend too much of mine on games, and that’s stopping as well.
Anyway, to sum up a rambling post, figure on a lot of ‘Game finished’ posts from me, especially over the next couple of months, as I focus on a game at a time instead of flitting from game to game.