Sunday, October 23, 2016

Soothing explosions in Evochron Mercenary

Evochron Mercenary

The Basics: Open-Universe Space Flight Simulator

Previous Time Spent: 10 minutes
Expectation of learning Curve: high
Why I bought this: Escape Velocity Shaped Itch in my heart

First Impressions: Evochron is a very good looking game for how old it is (2010) and how little disk space it takes up.  Space looks great, and there are promising looking planets, and a great pilot selection interface that reminds me of tie-fighter. In the beginning, you are tasked with selecting a name, and a general role for your pilot, between mercenary, trader/miner, combat pilot and racer. In my 3 hours of play, I tried out the mercenary, combat pilot and trader/miner roles, and found myself liking the miner/trader the most. Other first impressions: space seemed appropriately big (while not as crazy as Elite Dangerous), and there seems to be a well-thought out world of individual factions. 

My 3 hours: I spent my first hour with Evochron Mercenary setting up my first character, a mercenary pilot by the name of Blaze (named after the asshole/constant love interest from Burning Love). I like to imagine that like the Onion article from a few years back, Blaze is some kind of grizzled future mercenary, and obviously vapes inside the pressurized cabin of his little starter space-craft. 

Highlights of hour one included generally figuring out how to control my vessel (and it handles pretty well with the mouse and keyboard), approaching a planetary surface and then blowing up while trying to leave, going into hyperspace and blowing up. I continued the theme of explosions when I took on a contract to blow up asteroids for a company, this time inflicting the explosions on inanimate space-rocks.  

In hour 2, I attempted to figure out how to leave the star system, and found that my initial craft, while capable of traveling great distances within seconds, wasn't capable of interstellar travel. So, I started working to earn the space-bucks necessary to buy a more capable drive-system for my craft. Before I could get far with this, I was faced with the emergency of running out of fuel, necessitating a trip to a space-station, which I ended up drifting around the interior of, due to my confusion with the controls.

 I managed to avoid blowing up, and continued asteroid mining. This was a bit of a grind, but between the soothing music and the eventual goal of traveling further, I quite enjoyed it. The cost of fuel is high enough that earning profits was kind of slow, but I appreciate not being coddled. The last thing I did in hour 3 was randomly attack a fellow miner in order to check out how ship to ship combat actually works. I was surprised to find that when I attacked this hapless vessel, a bunch of space-cops jumped into the battle on my side, leading to a really sad and one-sided victory. Still thrilling to fly around firing lasers into the void though. 

In hour 3, I spent more time tooling around space and tried out a couple other roles. First off, I approached a blue-green planet that looked like Earth with a ring-system around it. I entered a close orbit, and carefully flew into the atmosphere, checking out breathtaking vistas of seas and the rings themselves. Beautiful, but the planet approach necessitates caution (due to heat), so I eventually got bored and blew myself up by accelerating too quickly. 
It was after this explosion that I decided to check out flying as a combat pilot and a miner/trader. The combat flight was a little bit beyond my skill level, and after getting blown up a couple times, I tried out the miner/trader vessel. That was when I really started having fun with the game, and imagining myself accumulating the space-dubloons to really make something of myself. It was there in the third hour that I figured out more about fuel-management and ways to consistently make a profit (and avoid blowing myself up). 

My Highlight:  Realizing that my jump-drive/short range FTL eats up less fuel (or maybe basically none) than my afterburner, and figuring out how to make serious profits on contracts. Either that or coming close enough to a planetary surface to see plant-life, etc. 

My Verdict:  Evochron is a satisfying way to scratch the sort of itch that Escape Velocity did for me when I was younger. It requires some patience, so I can't say I'd always be in the mood for it, but I'm very pleased that I spent $4-7 on it some 5 years ago. I'd recommend it if you're looking for a less demanding (on your system), slightly calmer and less-simulationist version of Elite-Dangerous. 

Next post will be on October 23rd, where I'll be reviewing Fez

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Trying to find the end of Endless Space...

Endless Space

The Basics: Turn Based 4x Space Strategy Game

Previous Time Spent: 15 minutes
Expectation of learning Curve: medium
Why I bought this: Super-cheap steam sale, reviews, art style

First Impressions: Endless Space has lovely art and interestingly thought out factions full of intelligent beings of different mindsets and abilities. I found myself lingering over the various sliders that come with starting a game, including galaxy size, relative connectivity of star-systems, and the age of the galaxy. I was also taken aback by the differences in the groups, and found myself settling on "The Cravers," a group of cyborg-insects, which bore a strong similarity to the Borg, and seemed like an interesting start. Everything looked cool, and the first few turns seemed to provide interesting choices and goals.  

My 3 hours: I spent my first hour with Endless Space trying to learn, following through in-game tutorials to make sure that I understood the systems involved in the game. I played as the Cravers for my first hour, and spent some time tooling about the galaxy and focusing on trying to colonize other worlds. I had set up the galaxy so that spreading out was fairly challenging, and my ambitions of spreading like cyber-locusts and darkening the skies of the entire Galaxy were ended when a heroic space pirate set up a blockade around my home system, effectively preventing construction and further growth. With that, I scrapped my first game, and first hour within the game. Overall, I found myself liking the feel of the game, and finding the basic systems well-described, but frustrated by a lack of external benchmarks for my performance. 

In hour 2, I excitedly restarted the game, this time taking on the role of some kind of birdlike warrior race (think Goose-Klingons or something), and I ended up in a less doomed starting position, but ultimately not getting very far. This came down to the barren galaxy I had chosen  to set up, and what seemed to be a relatively non-transparent system for colonizing. There are a variety of technologies needed for colonizing non-earthlike planets, and I focused too much energy on learning how to colonize fairly exotic planets, instead of covering the basics. This led to the area around me getting taken over by more pragmatic aliens, and a lot of lessons learned.

In hour 3, I restarted once again, this time as a species of friendly space Amoebas. My goal here was a focus on mostly peaceful expansion throughout the cosmos. I knew the systems far better, and was this time able to concentrate on gaining the ability to colonize actually useful nearby worlds, creating a small foothold in my galactic neighborhood. I also experienced some mild conflict with my neighbors here, without ever escalating into a declared war. 

This allowed me to see the way the game handled combat, which I quite liked. When a battle is about to commence, you as the player don't get to control your fleets directly. Instead, you have something like a deck of tactical cards, built up by your technology and other special abilities, and play one card per combat phase, which generally dictates what your assembled fleet will do. There's a bit of a rock paper scissors match to this, with some cards effectively countering eachother at various phases. I'd like to see this in more detail in the later stages of this game, with higher technology and fleet sizes, but for the scale I saw it in, it was great fun.
My Highlight:  Testing out if an opponent would be willing to declare war after I chose to destroy one of their scout vessels that had been trespassing far into my territory and threatening an area I was eyeing for colonization. I got to feel some legitimate fear as I entered combat, crushing their ships, and waiting for a diplomatic response. Realizing that my foes were too smart to be baited into war by one hostile act was exciting to see. 

My Verdict:  Endless Space is a game with a lot of character, and some great writing. But, ultimately, I don't see myself returning to it in the near future, as once I had the basic systems down, I more or less felt like I was clicking through turns, waiting for things to happen. I think if I had more time on my hands, my verdict might be very different, but for now, it's not for me. 

Next post will be on October 23rd, where I'll be reviewing Evochron Mercenary

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fish sound fish sound, punch punch jump.... ELDRITCH


The Basics: Lovecraftian 1st Person Rogue-like

Previous Time Spent: 45 minutes
Expectation of learning Curve: low
Why I bought this: Super-cheap steam sale, reviews, lovecraftian elements

First Impressions: Everything looks super blocky, giving it a minecraft feel, movement is quick and feels pretty floaty, and everything is fairly deadly (including the player, I managed to kill myself at one point by throwing a rock at something and having that rock bounce back into me). Monsters are a bit corny and predictable in their behavior, but the fragility of the main character makes any encounter with them a little terrifying. Lastly, this is a very vertical game, and it expects you to be thinking in 3 dimensions, looking for ways to get down, etc.

My 3 hours: Like many roguelikes, this game presents a world that changes slightly each time you die, not allowing for memorization. Eldritch is centered around some kind of mystic library, in which our protagonist enters different worlds through books. The end goal of each book is to travel down several levels and find/grab the soul of a mythos god. This entails exploring a minecrafty map full of Lovecraftian themed monsters, think cultists, fishmen, old ones, and giant penguins. As you go deeper in each world, things get noticeably stranger, with the air being replaced by some kind of breathable fluid, and monsters getting far more terrifying.

In these worlds, the player is aided by a mix of mundane equipment and magic powers which feel very close to the powers in Dishonored. The mundane equipment runs the gamut from the humble rock, dagger and revolver to the more exciting grappling gun, dynamite, or lockpick set. The magic abilities are great, and are bestowed to the player through statues of the great Cthulhu himself. In Eldritch, a player can only have 1 magic power at a time, and there is no way of knowing what you'll acquire from a new statue, so there's an interesting choice to be made any time you run into a statue in the cyclopean depths. I ran into the following powers in my playthroughs: teleportation, super-jumping, shoggoth summoning, and monster charming.

Over the three hours that I played, I only managed to consistently finish one of the three settings open to me, and capture the soul of Dagon. I spent a decent amount of time in a Mountains of Madness themed setting, and an ancient Egyptian/Nyarathotep themed map. Both of which were weird and challenging, although I'll admit to having enjoyed my seemingly endless delve into the penguin and shoggoth filled ice-caverns of death the most. 

My Highlight:  Gaining the ability to teleport, and finding myself actually caring about my character's survival. Finishing the Dagon area with this character before diving into the Mountains of Madness, and eventually dying in my retreat from a Shoggoth in some kind of icy trap.

My Verdict:  Eldritch is a game with simple core systems, a decent amount of challenge, and enough variety to eat up a number of afternoons. I'd recommend it if you don't mind slightly loose movement.

Next post will be on October 9th, where I'll be reviewing Endless Space, a 4x game. produced by the same folks that made the celebrated Endless Legend. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Age of Decadence

The Basics: Challenging Roman Themed RPG with old-school (Falloutish) sensibilities

Previous Time Spent: none
Expectation of learning Curve: medium
Why I bought this: Online reviews, (but what really sold me was someone's description of their experience playing as a grifter and totally avoiding combat)

First Impressions: I was blown away by the evocative art for the opening menu, depicting a wasteland watched over by some kind of Roman Centurion, and then very impressed by the options presented in character creation (and of course chose to play a grifter). After playing for an hour or so, realizing that I hadn't drawn a drop of blood, and had weaseled my way through things, I felt like the game was living up to it's potential and was suitably impressed. 

My 3 hours:I played through the beginning of the game as several characters, starting with the aforementioned grifter, and also attempting as an assassin and a mercenary. In doing so, I tried out a few of the main systems of the game: exploration, conversation, choose your own adventure quest bit, and combat. Exploration was pretty well handled, with a decently labeled minimap, and a clear sense of traveling around cities that felt lived in. Conversation was quite detailed, with well written characters, who react to different PCs very differently, giving a sense of interacting with human people with goals instead of static quest givers. 

The game was fairly challenging, as best shown with combat and choose your own adventure style quest lines. As I was warned before trying this game, combat was consistently pretty challenging, and even a trained combatant could pretty easily die when faced with multiple opponents or just by bad luck. This led to a lot of reloading for me. Additionally, many of the quests/situations in the game are handled by choose your own adventure style dialogues which present choices keyed to your character's skills. It looks like the game then tests against skills in the background, and moves the story forward. These could lead to deadly situations very quickly.

I found my character unable to succeed a lot of the time, and eventually feeling like I had to do certain things just in order to survive. I'm of the opinion that this is a feature and not a bug, trying to buck the trend of computer roleplaying game characters who are able to solve any problem that they come across. These characters capabilities are quite limited, and the increasingly poor choices that they have to make in order to survive drove the story along for me. 

My Highlight:  Realizing I had played over 2 hours of a video game without having my character personally draw a single drop of blood. (Which is to say that at some point I'm going to have to finish out the game playing as my grifter).

My Verdict:  If you're a patient nerd with roughly my set of sensibilities (including an abiding love for Ancient Rome as a setting, and a fondness for Fallout 1, 2 and Planecape Torment), and are willing to endure a lot of trial and error, you should definitely give this game a shot on the next steam sale. 

Next post will be on September 25th, where I'll be reviewing Eldritch, a procedurally generated game with Lovecraftian leanings

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Enhanced sinning or enhanced divinity with: Divinity Original Sin: Enhanced Edition

The Basics: Action RPG toybox with complex systems

Previous Time Spent: 30 minutes
Expectation of learning Curve: high
Why I bought this: Rave Reviews, especially from Rock Paper Shotgun

First Impressions: The game opens with character creation for a couple of travelling adventurers and gives me a sort of World of Warcraftish feel with big hands, big characters, and a sort of cartoony, larger than life feel. There's a traditional display of D&D derived classes, with a clearly complex and interesting skill system. Me being me, I chose a fire and ice wizard, and got started. My first impression of gameplay was sort of Baldur's Gate meets Diablo in a very colorful tropical setting.

My 3 hours:I played through a sort of tutorial dungeon, and then moved on to just scratching the surface of the main plotline before hitting the three hour mark. 

I really enjoyed the tutorial dungeon, and found it to be a great example of the sort of goofy interplay of systems that makes this game tick. There were plenty of environmental puzzles and traps that corresponded to various types of magic, and could be countered using spells or objects found in the environment. Objects can be moved and destroyed, and there's a gleeful sense of experimentation and hijinks to the whole thing. Generally I felt like if I could think of something to do in the system, it had a response. 

Once I was out of the tutorial dungeon, I'll admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed by choice, which is ultimately a mark in the game's favor. I spent some time investigating main plot stuff, some kind of murder, some problems with the undead, etc. I found myself struggling a bit when it came to these systems, and being happy that this game allows a lot of choice and doesn't hold the player's hand as much as I'd expect in a fairly modern game. I got the sense that I was just scratching the surface of the game system, and that if this had come out during a summer break in my teen years, I'd have dedicated countless hours to mastery. 

My Highlight: Wandering out of the starting town, expecting standard low-level foes, and running into fights that grew to overwhelm me. The need to actually consider fleeing is not something that always comes up in modern games, especially RPGs, and it warmed my crooked little heart to see these cartoonish/beefy heroes falling to overwhelming odds.  

My Verdict: Divinity Original Sin is great, but probably not really in my purview due to it's complexity. I'd recommend it for someone who wants to learn the intricacies of it's system, and see the bizarre antics that can come out of the interplay of magic and other factors. 

Next post will be on September 11th, where I'll be stepping out of my schedule to review Age of Decadence, a Roman themed RPG in the mold of Fallout 1 and 2. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Zombie Carnage in: Dead Pixels

The Basics: Retro Art zombie survival with RPG elements

Previous Time Spent: 10 minutes
Expectation of learning Curve: low
Why I bought this: 2011 zombie craze?

First Impressions: This game is in love with a sort of grindhouse aesthetic, and opens with a film-grainy, retro looking production company logo, before settling into a sort of top down, zombie shooting/beating action rpg. This was clearly released at the height of the low-res/retro indie craze of the early 2010s, so all of the zombies and the main character have a blocky vibe remniscent of something from the NES. And my first 10 minutes gave me a sense of comforting, gory and fairly stupid fun.  

My 3 hours: I played through the intro campaign for my 3 hour test-run with the game, consisting of 20 levels in a forgotten and zombie plagued US city in the 80s or 90s. It opens with a standard-issue b-movie explanation for the zombie apocalypse and gives the main character a clear goal, reaching an encampment of survivors who are 20 streets away. In the parlance of the game, a street is a level, which appears to take up some 5 or 6 city blocks , and includes a slowly escalating zombie threat, houses to loot, and a trader who sells weapons, ammo and medical supplies. Additionally, the trader seems to be the only place you can save, so reaching the trader in each level feels like a bit of a milestone.

The main challenge in the game comes from resource management and crisis aversion. Much of the time, you'll be encountering small groups of zombies, but as levels go on, they form larger and more dangerous mobs. Knowing when to slowly take them out with melee attacks, and when to use firearms to take out larger groups more quickly seems to be the key to success here, and it provides a pretty satisfying sense of continuity to the longer campaign. I found myself constantly tempted to use melee, and by the end of the game had a crazy stockpile of ammunition (but had taken a pretty large number of hits). I think there are probably other legitimate strategies to be used. 

Character advancement adds an additional layer here, and allows you to figure out styles that work fairly well for you over time. Based on my playthrough, a player earns enough points to upgrade several, but not all skills up to their maximum. The upgrades that I took early on significantly changed the way I played the game, allowing me to be quicker, and better at melee takedowns. When I reached the waves of zombies in the final level, I felt like I had earned the ability to blast my way through hordes of zombies and reach my eventual goal. 

My Highlight: The game really came together for me when I had a huge stockpile of ammo, the ability to move quickly, and a shotgun with a high rate of fire. Being able to decide to shred my way through hordes of the undead and then mop up with melee felt pretty satisfying.  

My Verdict: This is pretty satisfying for mostly shutting down the brain and getting out some violent urges in a cutesy retro world, so I'd recommend it for a steam sale purchase.

Next post will be on September 4th, covering Divinity: Original Sin  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

NYC Disaster Porn: Crysis 2

The Basics: Very pretty disaster porny first person shooter with a cyborg suit

Previous Time Spent: 27 minutes
Expectation of learning Curve: low
Why I bought this: Extremely cheap steam sale (long enough ago that I don't remember it)

First Impressions: This is a good looking game, but my first impressions were marred by expecting it to be fairly boring/boilerplate. I found myself frustrated by the long, live-action CNN/Fox News intro, and the standard tutorial which slowly unlocks controls. I did find the submarine escape in the beginning kind of thrilling, but I ultimately found it to be more annoying due to loss of control than anything else. For a game that seems to be really about a cool cyborg killing small squads of soldiers, it spends a lot of time pretending that the audience is interested in it's story.  

My 3 hours: I spent the entire 3 hour playthrough in the singleplayer campaign, figuring that a game this old would probably end up not well-supported on the multiplayer front. The game takes place in 2023 in NYC, with the main character as a marine who takes on the mantle of a crazy cyborg (nanosuit) suit of power armor. This power armor confers a bunch of special abilities to the player, including cloaking, resistance to damage, and seemingly extreme strength. In a lot of ways, it plays like a more violent, sprawling version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. 

Much of the gameplay is focused on advancing from checkpoint to checkpoint while dealing with environmental hazards and squads of soldiers. These challenges escalated in a pretty satisfying way during my 3 hours with the game, and did a fairly good job of introducing the player to new tactics/ideas in order to surpass them. The bread and butter of it is often finding cool places to hide/shoot soldiers from, while taking cover when appropriate, and sometimes turning invisible to feel like the Predator. The main character feels extremely powerful in the suit, bringing me back to old-school shooter games and the feeling of being a one man army. 

The story that's told in the game is one of an alien virus and a harsh crackdown, and much of it feels pretty standard issue, but some of the environmental storytelling great. The scene that immediately follows the opening, allows the player to slowly acclimate themselves to a New York city that appears to be under martial law, between audio records on laptops, and the horrible remains of living people. It then allows the player to slowly make their way from Battery Park and head north. The game is at it's best when it's providing interesting combat challenges, or allowing one to feel like a tourist in a believable near future New York.   
My Highlight: For me, the greatest joy I had with the game came fairly early, and is pictured above, a mix of combat and infiltration set in Castle Clinton, bringing me back to one of the early missions of my beloved Deus Ex. As you can see above, the historical marker is even legible, and the attention to detail shown in the environment conveys a clear sense of place. The game introduces the stealth mechanic there, which is pretty fun, and allowed me to feel like The Predator.  

My Verdict:I generally kinda liked this game, but much of the joy I got out of it, I think I got because it reminded me of things I liked better. It made me think of Deus Ex and Half Life 2 the most, between the sprawling levels, the near-superpowers given by nanites, and the environmental storytelling. I can't strongly recommend it, but I think it's a game that is good at what it intends to do .