Refreshing

Posted in Academics and Education on February 18, 2009 by zolthanite

Normally I have a very dour view of the professoriate.  I’ve had my fair share of complete, self-centered professors who believe in their own theories and methods as The One True Path and ignore the job they have as academics which is, equally important to research, teaching the future.

So it’s nice to see this for a change.

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Where Our Hero Is Slain

Posted in Games with tags on February 17, 2009 by zolthanite

I have no idea why, but I’m going to finish Gears of War.  I really don’t like the game all that much (Well, campaign anyway) and the way you just seem to die constantly from torque bow shots and boomers is just… wow.

I think it’s preparing me for braving the horrors of Fallout 3 again.  I just hope I can get my save for the PC again.

RTS on a Console

Posted in Games with tags , , , , on February 17, 2009 by zolthanite

I played some of Halo Wars demo yesterday and found the controls to be decently intuitive.  A few things missing, but I figured I could live without them.  But as I always do I started thinking of ways to try and improve upon them.  What did other games do?  How did it function?  Fortunately, my roommate has a copy of Command and Conquer 3 for the 360, so I decided to give that a whirl.  Pending giving LotR: Battle for Middle Earth a go, this is as good as I’m going to get for free.  So, on to the controls*.

*I want to write this down now, before I forget.  I’ll probably write a little bit more of what I thought about the rest of the game later, but this is a big one for me as part of the “RTS and FPS, PC4LYFE” crowd.

 

Play Experience

Halo Wars:  Since I was playing the demo, I went through the first two missions of the campaign and did a skirmish with each side (USMC and Covenant), replaying the second mission and setting the second skirmish on Heroic (Hard) difficulty.

CnC3: I have already beaten the GDI and Nod campaigns on PC, so I’m not likely to repeat that.  Still, I sat through the tutorial (Hi, Cameron!) and did a simple 1v1 skirmish using GDI.  To be fair, I did do the skirmish first, but it doesn’t affect the outcome of what I’m about to say so much.

 

Unit Control and Selection

As far as unit control they both pretty much swing the same way.  ‘A’ selects units.  Then there’s a button for moving, a button to cancel, and that sums it up.  Similarities end there though.

Multiple Units:  CnC doesn’t get the drag boxes.  Instead, the shoulder triggers are dedicated to “select all onscreen units of this type” and “select all onscreen combat units”.  Halo Wars gets a “select all onscreen units of this type”, “select all units globally” and a “select all units onscreen”, but also has a semi-hidden, drag-box function.  Basically, you get a small circular area in the center of the screen that will add units to your control as it overlaps them (Moving the circle off of the unit keeps them selected, however).  I say semi-hidden because the game doesn’t tell you about it and in order to get the circle you hold down ‘A’, instead of a normal button press.  It’s nice, but you don’t really need it for reasons further below.

Neither seems to have a group-append similar to Shift+Select on PC games.

Control Groups: Halo Wars has no squad control in the sense any RTS fan is used to, which is in stark contrast to CnC’s number groups.  After playing it for a bit, I’m fairly certain that’s because it largely doesn’t need to.  Most of the game is extremely low unit count activity, so control groups are wasted in effectiveness.  Even with a 40-unit count, you’re using a lot of that in vehicles, of  which you would only have a max of 20 if you did a single-unit built.  

What it does do, however, is give you the ability to select all of your units on the screen globally and locally, while giving a button to select the subtypes of units (Similar to how most PC games allow you to tab through unit types).  Unlike PC RTS, giving unit move and attack commands in this mode only applies it to that unit type.  It also lets you cycle through implied groups based on army region (So if you have split your forces to 3 different map locales, you can cycle through all three, selecting each as it’s own “group”.  It’s really as much granularity as the game needs.

CnC3 has the group tabs mechanic, which is, for lack of a better word, horrible.  However, it is completely and 100% saved by the ability to have the game auto-assign a group number to your selected units AND cycle through them with button presses, so you never have to use the godawful interface tabs if you so choose.

Movement: CnC still has the Forced/Attack Move distinction, by single or double tapping the Move command respectively.  Halo Wars doesn’t have the ability to make the distinction, and does not seem to do Attack Moves (Testing it with USMC marines at the moment).

Special Commands:  Most(All?) units in Halo Wars have secondary abilities.  These are activated by simply hitting ‘Y’.  CnC requires the use of the interface tabs on the unit, which means the following:

  1. Hold R
  2. Move your hand from the Camera Pan stick to the D-Pad
  3. Move over to the desired ability
  4. Move back to the Camera Pan
  5. Hit A

In short, I hate it.

 

Base Management

Resources: CnC-style refineries vs. the Dawn of War requisition method.  Both have a single unit for currency, not much else to say.

Building Placement:  For people who are used to placing buildings with a mouse, consoles are as bad as you think they are.  CnC still has the same placement strategies as before, with building rotation performed via camera.  Halo Wars opts for the highly simplified, yet much easier “Pod Base” construct, where your base has limited slot expansion, but can build anything you have access to in those slots.  

Building Buildings/Units: Halo Wars is a simple “Select, Point, ‘A'” which ensures that anything you want to build is only three button presses away.  CnC  uses the tab interface which activates by holding the trigger, but requires you to manually select things using the D-pad on a linear list of constructions.  For the construction yard, you’re doing a lot of mousing.  Building a crane also requires you select the crane from the map, preventing you from doing any form of queuing.  And that’s assuming you don’t need to reposition, which requires additional camera rotation.

In short, it’s annoying as hell, and I’m not sure if any amount of practice would make it any more intuitive for me.

The interface DOES allow you to queue units without going back to the base, unlike Halo Wars.  But Halo Wars gets around that by allowing the cycle-army-base buttons to move you camera as you go.

Waypoints:  CnC maintains the “waypoints per production building” mechanic, with the ability to set the default production structure for interface-based construction (That probably means the multi-building unit queues are not in the game.  Shame, really, since that was the best thing to have).  Halo Wars has a single waypoint per base, so no separating based on unit type.  It also gives you the ability to set global waypoints so all bases send units to a specific part of the map.  Awesome?

 

Summary

Halo Wars has an advantage in being able to tailor the game mechanics to fit a console, and get rid of a lot of the stuff that plagues Command and Conquer as a result of being a PC-port.  What’s annoying is that the Halo Wars control scheme could be adapted to CnC fairly well, and would improve a lot of the problems I had with it.  It has a fairly simple control scheme suitable for the game.  CnC is a nice effort, but it loses out on some key PC distinctions that make playing the game no where near as enjoyable.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Halo Wars is a must-buy for anyone.

Food Review #1: Health Potion, Chicken Battle, and A Surprise

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on February 15, 2009 by zolthanite

Today I went to Fry’s to pick up some solder, some wires for my breadboard, and… a health potion.  Curiosity made me part with almost $4 to try a 50mL an energy drink when I don’t even drink Red Bull.

Then on my way home, I thought to myself “Self, who has the better chicken sandwich on a value menu:  Jack-in-the-Box or McDonalds?”  I say on the value menu, because nothing beats Chick-Fil-A.  

Then, while swinging by McDonalds, I noticed they have sweet tea for a dollar.  A soda-sized, large sweet tea.  I’ve been stuck in this godforsaken west coast with no hint of Southern anything nearby.  Even the “homestyle cooking” out here is organic and comes no where close to Cracker Barrel.

Curiosity is going to get me killed one of these days.

So without further ado, the results of the Trials Three:

Health Potion

I only took a sip, as I wasn’t trying to burn any midnight oil or have a heart attack.  Basically, it tastes like a thin, cherry-flavored cough syrup.  It’s not…  bad.  But it certainly isn’t something you’d drink for the taste.

Chicken Battle

The big one.  So break it down by part, since they are both mayo, lettuce, and chicken.

Bun:  The McChicken has a smaller bun.  They are both exactly the same otherwise though, which is really odd (Tie)

Mayo:  McChicken has a glob of mayo, since the bun is so small.  The Sandwich seems to have more mayo, but it’s spread out over a larger area because the bun is larger.  So unless you’re the kind of person who loves mayo, Sandwich is the better of the two because you don’t eat as much per bite.  It’s actually a condiment.  (Winner: JB)

Lettuce: Sorry McChicken, but a few shreads of lettuce has nothing on an actual leaf of lettuce folded over.  (Winner: JB)

Chicken:  The part that matters: The McChicken patty I had vs. the Sandwich was superior in every way.  It was bigger, thicker, better seasoned to taste like… something (Neither taste like chicken, let’s be honest).  And because the Sandwich outclasses the McChicken is every other size category, it makes up a higher percent volume of the sandwich. (Winner: McD)

Seriously though, I’d eat a Chick-Fil-A Chicken Sandwich over these two things any day of the week.  And I ate two completely worthless sandwiches in comparison.  (Loser: Me)

Sweet Tea

I really hate saying this, but…

McDonald’s actually got it right.  The tea was Southern Sweet.  Not slightly, not unsweet, not Splenda.  Sugar, sugar, and more sugar.  Amen to you golden arches, amen.

 

Back to colossi.  I’m on… #14?  Maybe?

Wow, that was fast

Posted in Games with tags , , on February 12, 2009 by zolthanite

So in my Mass Effect review I wrote that it would have been more enjoyable to break ME up into two games, since: 

The sheer variety in deciding your character’s backstory at the very beginning implies there is a lot more room to have those details fleshed out in the course of a CRPG-like campaign, which would really give a shot of player attachment right into the arm.  The other bonus, possibly the more important one, is that in serving as a soldier, you are effectively experiencing the world at large directly, without the need for plot-driving set pieces for the epic story.  

I think someone must have had the same thoughts that I did.

Online Communities: Financially Dubious

Posted in Business with tags , , , , on February 12, 2009 by zolthanite

Today is a sad day.  Jalopnik is losing one of its regular weekly writers to weekends.  And it’s because of money.  This isn’t the first time this has happened on the Gawker domain.  Valleywag went from five people to a single editor merged into Gawker, Kotaku lost Maggie, Deadspin lost pretty much its entire weekend crew of good natured commenters and live-bloggers that would do posts, and god knows how many people the other domain sites had to let go.  Hell, Consumerist had to lay off all but two people, almost all of whom were rehired once they were bought by Consumers Union and left the Denton Empire.

And herein lies the problem:  The people that get axed are loved by people who only pay attention to those unique, individual voices.  Take Kotaku:  Leigh’s monthly post on culture in gaming is the only consistent source of real-world engaging, game-related articles.  Maggie would frequently bring in the study of Chinese history, cross reference posts from BrainyGamer, and actually provide some non-journo, intellectual posts.  Not to say Kotaku is bad, but they lost a fairly unique voice in a roughly homogenous group of people.  Jalopnik is no different with Murilee, who is pretty much the only source of older car articles (Down on the Street and Project Car Hell) in an otherwise modern car trend blog thing.  And now that is looking like mostly a weekend-only gig with the other editors filling in as best as Wert can manage.

The problem as I see it is this: You have a set of blogs that are only as good as the people writing them.  The strength of those sites is not the readers, its the bringing those readers together under the collective of different banners for the same goal.  The unique quality of all of these writers is the same thing that makes Top Gear special: snarky writing with a group of fairly heterogenous people who love what they do.  Everyone who watched Top Gear probably has one presenter they would totally nail for free (Although I love Clarkson, mine would probably have to be Captain Slow).  If you were to replace Hamster with Jay Leno, you would completely break Top Gear.  The fanbase would shatter, because then you’d have a guy that is pretty much an American James May, and the chemistry would be gone.  The Gawker Media sites are no different.

For celebrity gossip blogs like Gawker, the impact probably isn’t that large.  But for semi-niche enthusiast sites like Jalopnik, you have a problem.  The fanbase isn’t based on appealing to some lowest-common denominator, it’s appealing to a very specific subset of people who care about whatever is going on.  This set of people is not that large, and ripples in the pond cause major percentage changes in population, and subsequently page views.  People who live in the SFBay would read Valleywag, but it probably doesn’t matter to the average housewife.  For a financial model based on ad revenue, you are basically asking for trouble here.  You need to maintain high, daily page views, but you can’t do so without having more editors to have your readers check the site more than once daily.  More editors mean more money.  But with those editors comes new people, new voices, new contributors.  And cutting those new voices out is going to cut into the people that found that voice worth listening to.  It’s an evil Catch-22, because you ultimately need the community to grow and thrive to make money, yet you can’t do so without forking over even more money to maintain a cache of writers that appeal to as broad of a demographic as possible within your enthusiast niche.

By numbers:  Gawker Media had a round of layoffs in October, firing 19 people across all of the websites and a few internally.  Consumerist was forced to lay off half its staff, except for Ben and Meg, a month before being put on the auction block.  It was sold in January to Consumers Union, which was immediately followed by hiring another four editors, two of them coming from the prior layoff (extremely popular editors too).  The result is a fairly substantial increase in monthly page views, with February looking to at least match December’s numbers.  Contrast that with Valleywag, which fired 3 of the 5 members on staff in October, released the 4th after Thanksgiving, and merged the last with Gawker while still keeping separate stats, so as to gain the Gawker community on Valleywag for free, as it were.  Even though the numbers are ridiculously small, especially compared to the page views of the site it merged with, the impact of the merger doesn’t seem like it will affect the numbers of Valleywag all that much.

The problem of monetization is a serious one for people who YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and run all other forms of social networking/communication-based web services: How do you get money from people talking to each other?  IMVU is doing a fairly good job at that, but it isn’t reliant on ad revenue.  Facebook, as much as any other website, is completely unsustainable without having a massive user base to pull ad revenue from, and all it needs to do is have more people add more friends who will use it.  If you’re Gawker, you have the same problem as Facebook, but now you need to bring people in.  And that takes much more money than you’re probably going to get for some of the audiences you would be trying to attract.

Will Gawker go down in flames?  Hardly.  The websites are (supposed to be) largely self-sustaining, so that wouldn’t be too much of a problem.  But when it comes to large-scale growth, the current city-state model probably won’t allow such a thing to happen in a meaningful amount of time.  And that is a problem, because Gawker Media is a business, it is expected to grow, and it probably won’t be able to do it effectively.

Choose Your Own Effect

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by zolthanite

I started up Mass Effect completely enamored and thrilled to be alive.  By the end of the game, I wasn’t nearly as high on space life, but it was still a good game.  However, the hype machine and the players gushing “incited me to rage” as it were.  This is saying something because this and Bioshock were the first games I had ever taken on solo on a 360 before, as I didn’t own one at the time because of my pure hatred of everything Microsoft (I still don’t have a Gold membership to XBL.  I’ll let someone else pay for that).  It also didn’t help that I was playing this on a 40+” CRT TV that was fuzzing out on the edges, preventing me from reading any relevant info like the number of grenades I had.  So, onward and upward.

Legitimate Reviews:

Kotaku: Honestly, I can’t call this a review because it only addresses the dialogue system at length.  Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue system AND the quality of your choices is the best I have ever seen outside of Black Isle Studios, and I commend them for it.  But there’s a reason why.

Zero Punctuation: Yahztee basically shares my biggest issues with the game and doesn’t elaborate on them at all, instead opting to talk about the skull-crushing amount of text.  I expect a game to, you know, be a game.  The actual “game” portions of the experience are half-assed and half-baked, which was disappointing to me.

Personal Thoughts

To understand where I’m coming from, two things to note:

  1. I love to read.  No really.  I don’t get a chance to do it often, but I’ve plowed through the entire Harry Potter series, the memoirs of Joseph Wilson and Alan Greenspan, and read The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight Returns purely to see where the origins of the latest Batman came from.  I’m equal opportunity, and a lack of books is barely replaced with obsessively  reading news sites and blogs.
  2. The first Mass Effect novel came out a few months before the game came out, with the author for the book serving as lead writer for the game.  

Unlike the Metal Gears, where the plot is fairly complicated so there’s a lot of exposition and cutscenes, Mass Effect has a simple plot with a lot of atmosphere to understand.  Playing Mass Effect is a a weird experience for someone who reads books regularly (especially sci-fi) because, for the most part, it feels like I’m having a 400-page book being read to me all of the time.  What was weird was I felt this way before I found out the novel actually existed.  Most of the dialogue you don’t need, but then you lack basic context for what is going on in the world around you and why you should care (The best example is Wrex, because the Krogan genophage is a key event you really need to know about, but I don’t remember how much of that comes up without taking the time to talk to him between missions).  The key climactic moments in the game were beautifully done, however, and Mass Effect does a much better at interactive storytelling than the Metal Gear Solid series.  But what absolutely kills it is the game itself.  The load screens, interfaces, everything that make it a game, felt so ham-handed and unsatisfying it eventually broke the enjoyment I had for what was otherwise a great game.

Instead of releasing a series of novels (There’s currently two out, but I don’t know where the second falls chronologically), Mass Effect really should have been broken into two games.  The first game would effectively “create” Shepard up until the point where the player actually becomes a member of SPECTRE, whereas the second would focus on the “Saren Conflict” and the DLC missions.  The sheer variety in deciding your character’s backstory at the very beginning implies there is a lot more room to have those details fleshed out in the course of a CRPG-like campaign, which would really give a shot of player attachment right into the arm.  The other bonus, possibly the more important one, is that in serving as a soldier, you are effectively experiencing the world at large directly, without the need for plot-driving set pieces for the epic story.  

Unlike  Metal Gear, which has an already-supplied world (Modern politics) with a few footnotes for molding the planet, Mass Effect starts you fresh.  So from a narrator’s perspective, you have to understand the entire world around you before you can create an effective story in that world.  Otherwise, the sheer magnitude of scope is burdensome on the storyteller, and crushing to the reader.  The Simarillion could never be ingrained into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Mass Effect is determined to do just that through the creative use of optional dialogue and logs.

Added bonus if BioWare had a way to import the story and choices from Part I into Part II.  That would be incredibly sexy.

My Prior Review

So after I  finished the game, I made this post on my local gaming community forum.  Like I said “incited rage”.  As an added note to this, I hear the PC port made a much better use of the controls, which seems to be standard for them given the existence of Jade Empire Special Edition.  Shamus Young also made two Stolen Pixels comics, one of which I’m adding to the appropriate places in my otherwise link-free rant.  

I have no clue about the problems I had with loading though, which I surprisingly didn’t seem to address.  The short of it is, the middle of the galaxy map and the Normandy were two areas where there shouldn’t be load times, because they are extremely small, localized areas.  The loading hiccups every time I went to the lower bay for supplies and selecting systems to travel to drove me absolutely insane.  Surprisingly, I didn’t hate the elevators at all.:

===========

My initial impression after about 5 hours was “Oh my god. A non-JRPG that I actually enjoy. Sweet Jesus this will be great”. I just finished the game after about 20 hours of playing, much to [my brother’s] dismay as the 360 is the only point of entertainment in the house.

Seriously guys, put your pants back on. Yes it’s a great game, but for the love of god it isn’t [Extreme statement better left unsaid].

Things that are well done:
– Graphics, even on my non HD TV
– Dialogue
– Storyline progression
– Character development

That being said, Mass Effect seems more like a game that was designed to tell a story, not be a quality video game, and that is the single reason why I don’t think this is “Game of the fuckin’ year!!!111” or any of the other extreme awards designed for it. It’s a good game, don’t get me wrong, but in the end I really feel like I spent $50k on a Mustang or Vette as opposed to a 7-series BMW or a high-end Mercedes. Sure the exterior is completely sexy, and way more extravagant than the subtle Germans, and will make most people wet their pants. But the love of the whole isn’t there and I’m stuck with substandard internal systems and lacking all of the random things I never knew I needed like programmable seat positioning and auto-adjusting wipers and headlamps.

Miscellaneous
—————-

The Mako exploration, after a certain point, is the exploration equivalent of grind. I began to hate doing any of the non-storyline planets with the Mako purely because I hate trying to figure out how to climb out of a series of sheer wall faces because of the general ambiguity of the planet surfaces when you need to get from point A to point B on some of the planets. If there was more squad combat, throughout the game, on the level of the last mission as opposed to a series of short confrontations where I end up one-shotted by rockets on occassion, and less Mako nonsense, the game would have been way better.

The autosave feature is fairly silly. It only triggers in the most extreme situations, but for things that are pre-cutscene initiatives, that really should be able to function during the scene itself without locking down the whole system. But this, along with the random “loading” is a fairly minor gripe compared to the two things that really annoy me.

I don’t get why the galaxy map has to load at each system junction like that. It’s kind of annoying, because there’s nothing graphically crazy going on, it’s just dropping another tier of detail.

Controls
———-
The control system is decent, but it could have been way better. For starters, controlling anything more than my Infiltrator’s own biotic powers is completely not worth the effort. On top of that, the fact battle has to pause to use the abilities kinda kills the fun of doing the real-time fire fights. For the way the combat was designed, they should have used a PSO-like system that would turn RB into a shift button of sorts, remapping at least two of the color buttons custom abilities.

Grenades are completely annoying, as they are not only weird to come by, but the button to use them is completely inconvenient. The fact you have to reach over to use them makes them extremely hard to aim well, and I would imagine a liability at times. It would have been much better to map the button to X when your weapon is drawn, as the button is completely unused otherwise. That way I might actually be able to lead running targets and hit things. You know, in case I don’t need to shoot to kill.

Menus and Inventory
———————–
What the fuck.

Seriously, this is an RPG. A RP fucking G. If you’re not spending your time in dialogue or combat, you have to mess with your inventory and menus. And this game is written as if the concept is completely novel. I can’t sort anything by any parameter, as it would seem like the only thing it cares about is tier. Shit, even the NES RPGs had manual sorting abilities.

Want to sell enough Cryorounds so you have just enough to cover a weapon or two per character for situational use? Tough shit, you have to sort through every single tier of mod, weapon, armor, ad amplifiers, starting from tier 1, because the sell menu won’t let me sort by mods so could at least lessen the amount of garbage I have to travel through.

Want to go to the shop in the Normandy and buy gear for your squad? Tough shit! Unless you’ve memorized the details on your squad’s weapons and armor, you have exactly zero way of knowing what anything your crew is wearing because they are not part of your team. Instead, you have to go to the locker, and figure it out. And god help you if you forgot what weapons and armor your crew is skilled in, because then you have to check your squad menu. Which you can only do when you are deployed.

And why the hell is the “Non-human armors”, “Unique items”, and “Standard items” subsets for shop items accessible only through the initial dialogue? Why isn’t it a sub menu in the shopping screen itself? Why do I have to cancel out of everything, reinitiate the dialogue sequence, and let the game reload inventories just because I want to see everything the guy has to offer? 

—–

What really chaps my ass is that for all of the attention to detail, to subtle eye motions when Shepard is making a decision, the blinking, and responses and acting in every single aspect of what this game is, they didn’t put anywhere near the same amount of work in the actual interface of the game. The stuff I have issue with is completely textbook stuff that has been done in so many damn games before it it’s not even funny, and they boned it.

This game isn’t a 9.5 or a 9. This is a solid 8. It’s an amazingly epic story, but it is a fairly simple one by RPG standards, and the ending is way better than Bioshock (Seriously, that was completely anti-climactic and completely contrived). But Bioshock is still the better of the two games, even if given the choice I would end up playing this again over Bioshock.