Tag: strategy (page 2 of 2)

First Impressions: XCOM Enemy Unknown

Courtesy Firaxis Games

The road that brought the alien defense series X-Com back to us has been a winding one. Rumors of an update or remake were never far away, and at one point, a game with that title appeared but was something more along the lines of BioShock, with first-person shooter gameplay and heavy influences from Fallout, which did not endear the previous games’ fans to the notion of a remake. However, after years of subsisting on the original UFO Defense, it appears that Firaxis games have finally gotten it right with XCOM Enemy Unknown.

A playable demo is available on Steam, and after playing it through twice, I can say this is more than likely the game fans have been waiting for. The situation is the same as the original game: aliens are invading Earth, abducting or flat-out slaughtering human civilians unchecked. To stop them, a multinational council is formed to fund and oversee XCOM, an elite paramilitary force dedicated to preventing and investigating these attacks. With a handful of rookie soldiers, very little funding to begin with, and only a single base to protect the entire world, you as the Commander of XCOM start in a very unenviable position. Oh, and if you screw up, you may lose your funding, to say nothing of letting the world get conquered by malevolent extraterrestrials.

Courtesy MicroProse
Courtesy Firaxis Games
Old vs. new.

At its heart, XCOM appears to be hewing as close to the original formula as possible: go from broad real-time base-building and research to turn-based tactical isometric combat. Technology has advanced, of course, so XCOM employs the Unreal engine for its rendering. I’m sure there will be purists who miss the stylized, cartoonish art of the original game, and while I admit that style gave the original a lot of character, the new models and animations make it clear this is an XCOM game, not just another futuristic shooter dressed up as an old favorite.

The maps and character designs are colorful and varied, tossing out the grayish-brown aesthetic of certain other action games with guns. Instead of mucking about with time units, each soldier gets two actions, which can be used either for movement or for shooting. Some weapons, like the sniper rifle, require you to not move on your turn, while others allow you to shoot then move, or move before shooting. In addition to these basic aspects, each soldier now has a specific specialization, with assault troopers being able to “run and gun” while heavy weapons guys carry rocket launchers. The engine even breaks up the turn-by-turn movement with occasional dynamic zooms and pans, giving you a very “in the thick of it” feel for the action.

Courtesy Firaxis Games
Mary the sniper lines up a shot.

The demo doesn’t show much of the new base mechanics, but instead of an overhead view, we see it from the side, with soldiers relaxing or training in the barracks while scientists consult their research in the lab. Characters now have distinct voices and personalities, and the international nature of XCOM is emphasized. The promise being made, or at least implied, is that research and fabrication between missions will remain important, as your soldiers still only begin with the most barebones of equipment.

All that said, I think the interface is a bit dodgy in places. It was difficult, at times, to adjust the map properly to see where and how to move my soldiers into better firing positions. As neat as the dynamic events are during combat, once or twice the camera didn’t seem to fit into place properly and I ended up looking at the barrel of the gun instead of at my soldier as they fired. Finally, and this is purely an aesthetic thing, I can do without the initial assault rifles of the squad being roughly the size of a Smart car. They’re just ridiculously big.

However, playing the demo has definitely brought back good memories and whet my whistle for this newest iteration of XCOM. If the promise of the base layout delivers, and combat within the game evolves as it did in the previous titles, this is a sure-fire winner. XCOM Enemy Unknown releases on October 9, and can be pre-ordered on Steam.

The Art of Thor: Introduction

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.

I want to be a better player of StarCraft 2.

The first step in achieving a goal is having that goal in mind, stated as simply as possible. I’ve managed to get where I am today by keeping such goals simple and doing my best not to lose sight of them. I want to be a bestselling (or at least decently selling) novelist. I want to hold down a decent job in a good town. I want to not eat frozen pizza, ramen and PB & J every day.

Such goals are oriented towards changes in career, income and lifestyle. We also set goals for ourselves in our leisure, or at least we can. Sitting through the entire March Madness tournament is a worthy goal for some, while for others it’s beating the pants off of a beloved family member in chess or checkers or Magic or hold-’em poker. For me, delving more deeply into the underlying mechanics and strategies of StarCraft 2 has given me the motivation and desire to become a better player.

First and foremost it’s because I really enjoy the game. Even when I lose, I can see how an opponent stopped my offensive dead and came out of nowehere to gut my economy. Sure, it’s frustrating to lose. But as my goal is to become a better player, not necessarily to win, I use that frustration to teach myself. It’s a subtle difference. Instead of walking away and doing something less irritating, I make myself watch the replay, look for flaws in my play, see what the opponent’s up to and what they’re thinking.

Enemy psychology comes into it more than you might think. Not just their strategies and methods of play, but our means of anticipating, reacting to and, eventually, manipulating them. It may only be computer simulation of science-fiction armies blasting the snot out of each other on distant planets, but it’s still warfare. And Sun-Tzu has a few things to say on that subject.

I played the original StarCraft and its expansion, and while I liked the mentality and characters of the Terrans, there was something missing from their army list I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. I opted to play Protoss more often than not for the short time I was involved with multiplayer. But I never really committed myself to being a better player – I simply had other things on my mind at the time. StarCraft 2‘s Terrans have quite a few new tricks up their sleeves, from the hulking Marauders to the transforming Vikings to the mighty Thor. It’s such a signature Terran unit – covered in angular armored plate, tough, versatile and most of all, really big and really loud.

So as I progress and continue to improve my StarCraft 2, I’ll reflect on how the observation of both success and failure will contribute to both my enjoyment and the evolution of my playstyle. Due to a lucky break in my placement matches, I’m a Silver League player, better than Bronze but not as good as Gold. I want to get to the Gold level at least, and ideally move on to higher levels. I’ll apply Sun-Tzu’s teachings where I can and I’ll be sticking with the Terrans. I do like the other races, but this time around the appeal of the cowboys in space is undeniable and while every strategy may not involve a Thor, I have one or two in mind that I hope to refine as time goes on.

Hence… The Art of Thor.

Not to be confused with the upcoming movie from Marvel Studios.

I may post video supplements to go with the lessons I learn, and I’m going to be reading a lot of the Team Liquid wiki & forums as well as watching TotalBiscuit and Day9‘s videos on the subject. I highly recommend anybody interested in being a better player do the same, as well as watching this space. Even if I only do it in screenshots, I’ll be showing the impending and quite possibly painful process of learning not to suck at StarCraft 2.

Ghoulish Games III: X-Com UFO Defense

Courtesy MicroProse

The first game I discussed for this holiday dealt with the experience on a personal level, free of monsters. The second focused on a particular monster. Now, let’s talk about an overall game that actually captures an atmosphere of dread. The situation in X-Com: UFO Defense is as follows:

Aliens are attacking human cities. They land in the town, blast civilians and leave. The multi-national community has created X-Com to investigate and prevent these attacks. They get a couple jet fighters with missile launchers, a transport to carry a squad of around a dozen troopers, some scientists to research alien technology and a workshop to build new equipment based on those discoveries. If X-Com does well, the nations of the world will keep giving them money. All you have to do, as the leader of X-Com, is at least keep your soldiers from dying.

It’s turn-based squad combat, and mechanically it isn’t bad. Every solider has a set amount of time units to use every turn, and if you’re out of time units when the enemy turn comes around, you can’t shoot back at them when you see them. So you need to plan the moves and position of your squad carefully. Add to this the fact that you start with just over a half-dozen volunteers with the combat experience of a weekend’s paintballing, armed with weapons purchased on a budget and multi-pocketed jumpsuits for armor, and the result is a surprisingly tense scenario in which a wrong move will have the aliens blasting your so-called professional alien hunters with glee.

The idea of putting humanity at an initial disadvantage worked in Independence Day and it works very well here. With limited funds, there’s only so much you can do when you start out. To get ahead, and gain any sort of tangible advantage on your foes, you need to meet them in combat, disadvantage or no. The combat in underscored by a minimalist, menacing theme that captures the tension perfectly, and night missions are particularly terrifying.

Stopping a terror attack means landing in the city and hunting building by building, room by room for the aliens. On their turn, the aliens blast any civilians they see, but you can’t see it. Their movement is hidden unless your soldiers can see what’s going on, so for the most part you’ll hear the fire of plasma weapons and the screams of the dying. Not only is it chilling in and of itself, it reinforces two key points of the scenario. If you don’t hurry, there won’t be any civilians left to save; and if too many of them die, you’re going to piss off your investors.

The terror in attack an alien craft or base is a different sort. Sometimes you shoot down a UFO over land, sometimes it lands on its own for some unknown purpose, and on occasion you’ll find a base they’ve established on Earth. In all these scenarios, you’re taking your team into an environment where you are at an even more severe disadvantage. In the case of a crash, they know you’re coming and are waiting for you. Just getting off of the transport can be punishment, as the aliens helpfully assist you in reenacting the Normandy landings. Even if you survive the initial encounter, getting into the UFO or alien base means going into a confined space with which you’re unfamiliar but the enemy knows intimately. Be prepared for ambushes, booby traps and unforeseen consequences. You might have your squad kitted out with flying suits, repeating plasma blasters and remote-controlled rocket launchers, and you still may find yourself biting your nails in nervousness as they open a new door in an alien stronghold.

This is why X-Com: UFO Defense holds up after many, many years of innovation and progression in the realm of game design. It’s straightforward presentation, atmosphere of dread and unrelenting challenge make it a lot of fun to play even today. It’s also pretty damn scary, to the point where you can almost find yourself sympathizing with the stereotypical swaggering platoon leader who freaks out when the soldiers actually come into contact with the enemy. In other words, you almost feel sorry for Gorman from Aliens. Almost.

Four Ecks

Courtesy MicroProse
Espionage and fabulous cloaks are the Darlok’s specialities.

A lot of my friends and co-workers have been losing quite a bit of free time to Civilization V. Had I the free resources, I’d be very likely to join them. Civ 5 is the latest in a very long and storied tradition amongst computer games, one I grew up with. The best way to describe these games beyond a generic moniker like “turn-based strategy” is to call them “4X” games.

The term was first coined by Alan Emrich back in ’93. “4X” or XXXX if you’re feeling saucy stands for eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination. Basically, you explore the map presented to you in the game, expand your territory as much as possible, exploit resources and technology to get ahead and exterminate your competition, through canny diplomacy or straight-up explosions.

Emrich used this term in the preview of the game Master of Orion. It was the first 4X game I really latched on to, mostly due to my nerdy interest in sci-fi during my formative years. Playing it now, through the wonders of DOS Box, it still holds a lot of the addictive qualities I remember – straightforward gameplay, interesting races and plenty of technology to research. The MIDI music, graphics and combat systems are a bit dated, to be sure, and I’m glad that the sequel did some different things with ship designs, the interface and diversity in systems and events.

Playing these older games is satisfying the urge I have to try out the new Civilization, which I still might do when I have the means to pick it up while still keeping the lights & heat on.

Did you catch the Civ V bug? Have you played 4X games? If so, what’s your favorite?

Game Review: Brütal Legend

Courtesy Double Fine
What isn’t awesome about this artwork? NOTHING THAT’S WHAT.

I, like Yahtzee, love Tim Schafer. We’ve taken turns talking about how great he is. I grew up on games like Day of the Tentacle and I adored Full Throttle. Psychonauts quickly grew on me (after my fingers healed up) and when Tim finally returned with Brütal Legend, I was very excited. Having played the game, I still think he’s a genius. The game, on the other hand, I’m a bit less passionate about, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun playing it.

Eddie Riggs is a roadie. He’s not a front man or a guitarist or anything of the sort. I mean, sure, the man can wail on an ax with the best of them and knows good music when he hears it – and cringes when he hears bad music – but he’s a roadie. He stays in the wings and helps a band look good. He can fix, build and do just about anything, but he never wanted to be in the spotlight. Until a spotlight fell on him, that is. Several spotlights, in fact, and a whole lot of set design. His near-death experience took him to another world instead of a hospital, a world of pure heavy metal imperiled the forces of darkness and the onslaught of screechy hair metal. It’s Eddie’s job to take command of the resistance and lead them to victory. The final goal of that victory, to liberate the world or blow it to smithereens, is kinda murky. Prophecies are like that.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

Courtesy Double Fine
“C’mon. Just three little words. Say it. ‘Nickelback sucks.'”

  • Unlabeled maps make the baby Jesus fume with rage. I’m not asking you to tell me exactly where everything is if exploration is one of your selling points, and I do love to explore. No – just tell me where things are after I find them. When I pass something, unlock a new area or catch sight of a landmark, jot that down on the map. It shouldn’t be that hard. Why am I only seeing Metal Forges and sidequests on the map when I bring it up? How does that help me?
  • Likewise the in-game tutorials aren’t terribly informative. I had no idea how to unlock the various draconic gargoyle statue things littered around the landscape until I looked it up on a fan site. Nobody in the game told me what they were for or how to free them, just that I had to. And I still don’t know how to switch around the faces on Mount Rockmore.
  • A lot has been said about the game’s RTS gameplay. As someone who’s played a variety of RTS games, from the original Command & Conquer to StarCraft, I had a few quibbles about it myself. The inability to see the battleground from above felt like a major hindrance, selecting individual units took longer than I felt comfortable with since most of the enemy was running up to pound my face into the nearest hard surface, and blending the third-person adventure controls with RTS controls felt hasty in its construction and shifting gears from beating ass to issuing commands broke the flow of combat somewhat. I don’t object to the existence of RTS in this game – just its execution.

Stuff I Liked

Courtesy Double Fine
“Dig the wheels, baby? I got ’em from this crazy mumbling dude in a dress.”

  • That said, I love the idea of being with my troops during the battle. When I first heard General Lionwhyte wailing away as he floated there on his hair-wings, my first thought was to run over to him and shut his pasty whiny ass up. And that’s exactly what I did! No need to sortie other troops, I just zipped over and started unloading on him.
  • The art direction of the world is pretty cool. It feels like the studio over at Double Fine is wallpapered with old Queensryche and Megadeth albums and that’s what the artists used to make this world feel awesome.
  • The riffs you learn to summon your car, raise forges and do other things is reminiscent of color-matching in Rock Band and are satisfying to pull off, especially in the middle of a stage battle.
  • I like Jack Black and I don’t care who knows it.
  • Switching between the melee and ‘magic’ attacks you have is very smooth, and it makes combat more interesting.
  • I like the characters. They’re not overly deep and complicated, but they’re cool and the voice acting is nicely done, which leads me to…

Stuff I Loved

Courtesy Double Fine
“It’s a fucking robe, you fucking prat!!”

  • Ozzy, Lemmy, Lita and Rob Halford. ‘Nuff said.
  • Oh, you want more? The soundtrack will kick your ass. It is awesome. I loved zipping around the landscape in the Druid Plow rocking out to metal. Dropping the Plow into the middle of a fight and kicking on a different tune to pump you up more helps get through some of the tedious bits of the RTS engine. It did for me, at least.
  • The bit at the beginning where you can choose the amount of swearing & gore makes me laugh every time. It would only be better if the censoring was in the style of Metalocalypse, laying guitar stings over the curses.

Bottom Line: Brütal Legend is one for metal fans and fans of Tim Schafer. Hardcore RTS fans, people expecting a sandbox game mixed with God of War or folks who can’t stand Jack Black aren’t going to enjoy this. I did, though. Rent it if you like badass music and a unique gameplay & story experience, buy it if you like the game after playing it.

And for the record, I was digging on the character of Lita more than Ophelia.

Courtesy Double Fine

I’m not entirely sure why. Just something about her.

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