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3:37 PM on 08.02.2013

Selective logging: Half-life 2

If you've been following along, I'm going through my backlog to see what games hold up in brief play sessions. This week I tried Half-life 2.†

I chose it based on a suggestion in a comment and a coin flip. It was a good choice.

I have played Half-life through to the end of Nova Prospekt a couple of times, but haven't touched it in years. What a mistake.

Back in the Swing
After updating the file format in Steam (which took forever on my old mac), I started it again and found that some of my old saves were missing. My most recent save was in 2010 in the middle of the underside of that giant bridge on Highway 17. I had no idea where to go and I had to fall to a sandy and occasionally watery death a number of times to remember how Gordon Freeman slides a bit. With that under my belt, I got shot in the head.

The game is harder than I remember. I didn't recall the Combine being so smart. I certainly didn't recall all the headcrab scares and how fast the fast zombies were. With a couple bad battles under my belt, I was back in the buggy and blasting along, until I got hit by a train... a couple of times. But from there on, it was good.

You're Special
The game is still special. The graphics are a bit rougher than what I play now (partly because of the old Mac) and the weather is sort of dull, but the game has a real sense of space. The continuous nature of play makes it organic and immersive. The lack of arenas of shoulder-high crates also helps. It makes sense that there is a garage there, a lighthouse here, and an isolated prison over there. It flows and doesn't seem like I'm going level to level.

The gameplay also flows. It is paced very well and makes a wide use of different mechanics. Driving, platforming, strategic sniping, rushing into battle, there's so much more variation than most games I've played recently. The variety kept me engaged.

Thirty Minute Bite
In thirty minutes, I managed to start the game, get used to the controls, fight several battles and get my buggy way down the highway. Without the use of levelling mechanics, I felt like I had progressed. More importantly for my tastes, it was an escapist experience. Despite the sci-fi setting, the lack of realism in how many weapons you carry, or the premise, the game manages to create a compelling world in a brief amount of time. That goes back to the sense of place and pace. It feels like somewhere and the game drew me in.

VERDICT: High quality lumber. Play it again, Sam. Delicious game-snack.

As a matter of fact, it drew me in enough that I'm going to go back. I'm still planning to do different 30 minute reviews over the next few weeks, but I will also be playing Half-life 2 to finally finish it.

Here's the list for next week:
a) Awesomenauts
b) A.I. Wars
c) Bioshock
d) Driver: San Francisco, and
e) Valkyria Chronicles

Let me know what you think I should play next, if you have any suggestions on these reviews, and I'll see what I can do!   read

6:36 PM on 07.24.2013

Selective Logging

So now that I have committed to reviewing games from my backlog to see how they fare for occasional and irregular play, I am going to have to pick one to start with. Perhaps you could help.

Here are the five that Iím considering:
1. AI War: Fleet Command
2. Cave Story +
3. Gratuitous Space Battles
4. Half-life 2
5. Torchlight

Let me know where you think I should start in the comments.

Hereís a refresher and refinement on how I plan to review:
a.) They have to be games I own that I havenít completed (this definition allows me to buy more games);
b.) I am rating them on the experience that they provide in two distinct settings: brief bursts of no more than 30 minutes, or the occasional one to three hour sessions (occurring roughly every other week);
c.) The ďexperienceĒ that I am trying to rate/describe is how much quality fun you get out of those sessions;
d.) ďQuality funĒ is obviously a subjective term, but hereís what Iíll be considering: how easy it is to pick up again, how engaged I am in the gameplay, whether I want to keep going or feel like I should be trying something else in my collection, and (hereís the quality part) the depth of the experience (e.g., tic tac toe vs. Risk); and
e.) Reviews arenít just about the quality of the experience, but also what sort of niche they fit into for the busy gamer, like:

Time Over Ė not for the busy gamer (e.g., Skyrim, WoW, Tales of Symphonia)
Empty Distraction Ė simple but empty (e.g., Candy Crush)
Pleasant Diversion Ė simple and satisfying (e.g., Terraria)
Long Weekend Ė complex and engaging (e.g., Infamous 2)
Hobby Ė complex, engaging, but no defined end (e.g., DiRT, Mortal Kombat)

What this means is that even if a game has fantastic reviews, I may still score it poorly if the thirty-minute bite is dull.

Neither my time nor new games are cheap, so I'm hoping to make the most of what I have.   read

9:56 PM on 07.21.2013

Getting the Most from Part-Time Gaming

The Problem
Mildly hung-over at 9:30 in the morning, I was recognized as a Peggle master. A unicorn, a pumpkin, and the other Peggle Guides welcomed me into their fold and my achievement was recognized. It was a unique achievement for me- something I never planned on, never aspired to, and will never proudly proclaim. My girlfriend, fast asleep next to me, had no idea that I was suddenly that much more accomplished. Hopefully, she never will. I wish that I hadnít actually played Peggle.

The problem isnít that I donít have other games. I have lots of other games. The problem is that I have limited time and I donít know where to start. Peggle is easy. Itís there, you can be playing as soon as you activate your device, and you can stop in the middle at the slightest interruption. Itís the perfect unplanned distraction and thatís why my victory was so hollow Ė thereís nothing to Peggle, so finishing the game really rubs in the fact that your life has only been changed by a loss of that time and a dubious mastery.

Some would argue that any time spent playing games is time wasted, but that argument commonly relies on premises like ďgames are worthlessĒ or possibly ďall diversionary activities are worthless.Ē Both arguments seem way too Puritan to take seriously.

That said, there are games that provide a richer experience than others. Games can add to your life by telling stories, cultivating friendships, and more generally being really engaging entertainment. As reviews show, there are lots of games that do that, and, as my collection shows, I own a lot of those games, so why was I playing this casual nonsense?

When you donít have much time, the 20-40 hour game that provides a deeper experience seems daunting. Youíre probably going to have to learn a control scheme, an inventory system, a range of characters, several maps, and pick up pieces of knowledge that are only useful for that game. Even if your NPC companions are yelling ďFire works best on goblins!Ē you need to remember where the map is and how to give a goddamned potion to that glass cannon of a mage that keeps running into the middle of the fray. If I know I have thirty minutes to kill, spending those minutes trying to recall exactly what I was supposed to do with a glowing elixir just donít seem like immediate fun.

What Makes it Worse
The problem is made worse by the all too common first world problem of a backlog. Many of us picked up a gaming habit when we had more free time and less disposable income. Even though you may have less time to game now, games are better than ever, cheaper than ever, and you probably have more disposable income. Thus, the backlog Ė that collection of games that got an 80% or more on Metacritic or were recommended by a buddy or scratch a nostalgia list that youíve really been meaning to get around to. So now that youíre confronted with a free thirty minutes, which of those gems do you start up? †

What Hasn't Been Helping
You would think that reviews would help. Some of them do, but most of them donít. Thatís not because the reviews are fixed (though some may be), or the grades are meaningless (though they often are), or the reviewers donít have the same tastes as you (though they might) Ė but itís because the reviewers are in a different situation than you. Theyíre paid to review and they can and often must devote hours at a time to playing a game to get the review out on schedule. Their experience of the game will be fundamentally different from yours because they are experiencing the game in a fundamentally different way. So while they can tell you that the game may potentially be an A or 5 stars or 95%, that doesnít matter. Itís like a foodie has told you that you should have lobster for dinner, but youíve got to be out the door in the next thirty seconds. While itís objectively true that lobster tastes better than that stick of pepperoni that you grabbed, the lobster isnít even an option.

What I Propose to Do
I need a different review and, if your constraints and backlog is like mine, you may as well. Iím going to try reviewing games from the distracted gamerís perspective. One where the system isnít turned on for weeks at a time, where the most frequent chunk of time available for gaming is thirty minutes and you feel completely overjoyed when youíve got an hour to yourself every other weekend. These reviews will try to help get the most out of that limited time by taking into consideration things like: time needed to get to gameplay, familiarity of control schemes, ease of saving unexpectedly, and the sheer enjoyment you can get out of a small amount of playtime. More importantly, I'm going to be revisiting the good games that you probably have or see on sale in a bargain bin but don't know if you should start. I hope that youíll find it useful.   read

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