Northern Beholder

Where history and gaming collide.

Why Company of Heroes’ single-player campaign works, and the sequel’s doesn’t.

The same studio, making the same sort of game, using broadly the same mechanics, produced two very different campaign experiences, with the well-constructed if slightly cliché experience from the first game giving way to a muddy, disorganized and narratively criticized experience in the second.  What went wrong?

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In Memoriam

This is Scotty.

He is a 14-year-old Newfoundland/Labrador mix and my best friend. He is dying.

My family adopted him thirteen years ago from the humane society. I was a snotty teen at the time and didn’t appreciate him at first, but we bonded quickly. He has been a wonderful pet and companion; intelligent, affectionate, playful, and just disobedient enough to be endearing without becoming annoying. He has always been a lovable goofball, getting himself into compromising positions or situations in his pursuit of food, toys, or simply attention.

Scotty at the cottage, 2012.

Over the last year he has begun to lose the use of his hind legs due to arthritis. His condition has been slowly deteriorating despite multiple and expensive therapies, all of which have managed only to offer him comfort during his decline. He can no longer stand unaided and is only capable of short walks before exhaustion and pain compel him to turn for home, and he occasionally loses strength in one or both hind legs and falls.

Despite a regular diet of painkillers and other prescriptions over the last week he has begun exhibiting signs that he is in constant pain. A trip to the vet today confirmed that his arthritis had become critical and that he had a torn ligament in his left hind knee, likely caused by one of his falls. She has offered to increase his pain medication but will not perform surgery on him at his age – he would not recover.

I have been expecting this since January when he started having difficulties, but hoping with all my heart that he would last long enough to visit the family cottage on the east coast one last time. It has always been his favourite place, the highlight of his year, to go on the long car ride to Nova Scotia, run unleashed through the grassy fields, sprint across the sand, play mountain goat on the rocky bluffs and swim, swim, swim himself to exhaustion in the Atlantic.

This is not to be. The vet has said the stress and physical strain of the two-day journey would severely aggravate his condition, and even if he made it to the cottage, would be unable to stand, let alone walk or run, on the beach, nor would he be able to swim. He would not even be able to go down the stairs to the shore, or likely the steep steps to the deck and front door.

She offered to prescribe more powerful pain medication, and I was tempted so strongly I cannot put it into words. But I know that would be selfish, and I would only be prolonging his suffering because I don’t want to let go. Scotty has given me thirteen years of unconditional, uncompromising love and companionship; I can ask for no more from my loyal, amazing friend.

He is being put down next week.

I love you, Scotty.

Goodbye.

Historical Game Spotlight: Expeditions Conquistador Follow-Up

Quite some time ago, I wrote a preview article on Logic Artists’ upcoming game, Expeditions: Conquistador.  More recently, though still in the rather distant past, the game itself was released.  I played it quite extensively before other demands on my time required me to put it away, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it.

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Build a Better Monster: Human Pikeman

Sometimes you just need a generic soldier, whether they’re part of the city guard, the royal army or just a sword-for-hire.  However, ‘generic’ doesn’t have to mean ‘unthreatening’.  Through use of Pathfinder’s Combat Maneuvers system, these CR 2 humans are an effective addition to any encounter, even against a mid-level party.

The combat maneuver system is another process Paizo adapted from the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons, streamlining the sometimes complex and cumbersome mechanisms to make resolving the maneuvers much quicker and easier, allowing GMs to keep the pace of combat going.  However, because they require taking at least two feats to use with reliable effectiveness (the ‘improved’ version of the combat maneuver, and the prerequisite feat, which is either Power Attack or Combat Expertise depending on which maneuver you want) many players choose not to pursue them, even when playing Fighters, the class with the most opportunity (thanks to its bonus feats) and the most to gain.  As such, they can often be surprised by having the feature used against them.  It’s an easy way to make lower-level creatures effective, as any given player character’s Combat Maneuver Defense is almost always guaranteed to be lower than their Armour Class, a difference that will only grow as they acquire more powerful armour or defensive spells to further boost their AC.

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Build a Better Monster: Skeletal Hoplite

This week’s creature is demonstrating taking advantage of two key elements of Pathfinder: Class Archetypes (that is, alternate class bonuses, typically allowing greater specialization) and Teamwork Feats (feats that must be held by two or more creatures working together).

These are two elements not always exploited by players, especially teamwork feats; it’s rare enough to get two characters filling roughly the same role, let alone class, and so typically they will eschew teamwork feats (which require them to coordinate closely) in favour of the more traditional feats that enhance only themselves.  As the GM, however, you are already having most of your creatures coordinate and work together, and so teamwork feats can greatly enhance the effectiveness of those groups – as long as they’re intelligent enough to justify it.

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PF: Build a Better Monster

As a gamer, I’m not interested in just the realm of virtual entertainments.  Beyond the bountiful fields of modern PC gaming there lays the wild and untamed wilderness of the tabletop RPG.  Computer gaming can certainly be more convenient, not requiring you to coordinate the schedules of three or more people for several uninterrupted hours plus commute time. However, the great advantage – okay, one of several advantages, but for my money the most important – that tabletop gaming has over the computer-powered alternatives is the fantastic openness it offers to the players.  You can quite literally go anywhere and do anything, with the aid of a robust ruleset and a clever and adaptive GM (Game Master; the one controlling the world around you).  You won’t always succeed, but you can try, and that’s the key.  As much as computer RPGs may try to advertise open worlds or affecting the course of the story, the experiences are ultimately narrow because the developers just don’t have the time or money to write, voice and code every possible outcome and every outcome of the choices that are born out of the previous outcome and so on and so forth branching out into infinity.

Conversely, this means the GM has a tough job keeping up with story, guiding the players along a path that doesn’t rush them out into the realm of “We’re done for the week so I can fill in the blank part of the map you’ve gone to” and, especially as the players grow in power and skill, providing an interesting and challenging array of opponents for them to face off against.  While most game systems (including Pathfinder, my current system of choice) come with a pre-built selection of creatures, these don’t always fit the setting or plotline that the game is currently running through.  Pure Gygaxian “The random encounter table has given you a basilisk. Deal with it” solutions only go so far when you’re striving for a particular theme or coherency amongst the opposition, and for my money, crafting a custom-built array of enemies to fit your needs exactly is far more rewarding.

This series, then, is about the art of making more with less; building the right opponent with the right feats and skills to give your players a challenge, without brute-forcing matters through overwhelming stats, levels or gear – especially gear, because if you try to make an array of enemies more dangerous through magical items, you might start inflating the party wealth beyond what’s healthy far too quickly.  What your monsters wield, players acquire, so for truly deadly foes as the levels climb, the bestiaries are your best bet – dragons, planar creatures, aberrations and so forth.  With the exception of the Big Bad and their lieutenants, humanoids are best kept as low- to mid-level foes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective or at the very least exceptionally annoying.  Good use of class levels, teamwork feats and combat maneuvers can make even the lowliest mook a thorn in the side of the players.

Next time: Hoplites!

Perfect World Drops the Banhammer

Perfect World Entertainment (PWE) is a media conglomerate that owns a number of game studios, prominent among which is Cryptic Studios, makers of MMOs such as Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and Neverwinter.  As with any MMOs, they’ve got problems with gold sellers peddling chunks of in-game currency for real-world cash, upsetting the virtual economies.  They’ve also got some home-brewed problems of their own primarily caused by slipshod coding and QA, such as the recent Neverwinter exploit that allowed players to purchase items from the in-game auction house for negative amounts of currency, which resulted in giving you both the items and however much currency you bid.

In response to these money troubles, PWE is implementing increasingly draconian preventive measures.  Most recently, they’ve introduced scripting that scans the chat channels across all their games for certain keywords typically used by spam accounts that advertise game-currency-for-cash services, and instantly bans any offenders caught uttering the forbidden phrases.

See the problem here? If so, you aren’t in a position to make policy at PWE, because they’ve rolled right on ahead with it.  As anyone with a grain of foresight could have predicted, there’s been a growing flood of legitimate customers who have been kicked from the game and banned without so much as a by-your-leave.  Some of them were grousing about the spam mails with friends. Some of them spoke the forbidden words in an entirely different context.  One person – allegedly – was banned for speaking about his DIY carpentry project, the shorthand measurements evidently too close to monetary amounts for the liking of the banbot.  Their accounts, if they are restored at all, are done so without apology and often days after the fact.

PWE’s representatives have claimed that all bans are preceded by a detailed warning telling the player what they did wrong and not to do it again lest they face dire consequences.  Predictably, the banned persons are, in unison, chorusing that not a single notification was received.  As someone who’s suffered through this myself (I play Star Trek Online, and got banned halfway through a mission for, as far as I can tell, reminding a team-mate to match level with us) I can confirm that I received no messages at any point prior to the banning informing me of my wrongdoing, unless they arrived roughly half a second before their banbot booted me from the server.

If you are among the affected, PWE’s community manager, Branflakes, suggests submitting a ticket and then contacting the GM team directly, ticket number in hand.

UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after referring my issue to PWE’s community manager directly, my ban was lifted.  However, I was given no notification of this, and found out simply by attempting to log in (and succeeding).  There has also been no explanation offered for why their scripting banned me to begin with.

Kudos to PWE for a swift response, but the points are lost again for the utter silence in which they executed it.

The Greatest Game Mod Ever Made

There are, in my mind, two truly landmark first-person shooters.  The first is DOOM, the granddaddy of the genre, the original hyper-fast and hyper-violent demon-slaying simulator that took the world by storm in the early ’90s, setting the tone for years to come.  The second is Half-Life 2, which set the bar for the new generation of more linear, narrative-driven through spectacular environmental storytelling and expertly crafted level design that gave the illusion of player agency while keeping you funneled along what was in truth the only available path, without ever seeming overly forced or contrived (something that’s apparently really hard to do for some developers).

The Greatest Game Mod Ever Made, then, is gmDOOM. The mod, created by one Ghor, adds DOOM resources, including weapons, sound effects and UI, into the Half-Life 2 game engine, via the medium of Garry’s Mod.  The DOOM and Half-Life 2 game elements are fully interactive with each other, as demonstrated by this awesome video, which means this mod lets Gordon Freeman and the Doom Guy fight side-by side.  It also handily demonstrates just how lightning-fast DOOM movement is compared to the relative plodding of more modern games (and Gordon is a world-class sprinter compared to the lumbering pace you get in the morass of military manshoots).

Okay, that’s getting into a tangent. Complaining about the state of the modern FPS is another article.  The point is, gmDOOM is a wonderful callback to the halcyon days and meshes together two of the finest shooters ever made into a wonderful new playground, and I’m superbly pleased it exists.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Public Relations

Just recently I took EA to task over their terrible SimCity release, pointing out that all the money they wasted on server infrastructure and so forth was bringing them no gain and just causing bad press.  Included in that wasted money was the cost of coding the game to run half of it on EA’s servers rather than locally – that being EA’s justification for always-online DRM.

Well, guess what’s not true.  Turns out the servers don’t actually run any of the sim calculations at all, despite what EA said, and only handle cloud saves, region interaction (i.e. trade between cities) and of course regular authentication checks, because god forbid someone pirate this buggy mess of a game.  Even the simulation aspects, which were loudly touted pre-release and initially received praise, don’t hold up to scrutiny.  After several hours of gameplay, it becomes clear that what appears slick and intricate on the surface is only a thin veneer covering up a system of random choices, shortest-route pathfinding with no option for problem-solving (like taking a secondary access road to avoid a traffic jam) and ‘phantom sims’ created to swell the population with movements determined by extrapolation from the tiny pool of actual agents.

EA’s not just shooting themselves in the foot with this fiasco. Lies about core game features, lies about server structure, delivering an unusable product and threatening Origin account bands over refund claims?  They’re pumping out the whole magazine and calling for reloads.   And they’re doing it while standing on poor Maxis.

EA Keeps Digging

Last year I finally got fed up with Electronic Art’s cavalcade of stupid press releases, especially their decision to gut singleplayer in all future releases. I went so far as to predict EA’s death, as their abandoning of single-player was the equivalent of digging their own grave. Now EA has released the latest iteration in the SimCity series, and it seems they’re still shovelling as fast as they can. So fast that I need to talk about it before leaning back towards something vaguely history-related. Vaguely.

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