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8:07 AM on 10.22.2009  

Why Love and Fightans Don't Mix -- A Musical Lament




Here's a little tune we whipped up for grins over the past few weeks -- we were happy with the results, so we thought we'd share it with you, Dtoid!

It's a silly "sad" song about leaving a woman who cheats in love and in Street Fighter. . . it's called Rage Quit.

This was a interstate Dtoid effort -- I recorded my parts here in Austin, and through the magic of technology, Kauza pulled it all together with his recording in New Mexico.

Kauza -- Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Backing Vocals, Editing
walkyourpath -- Lyrics and Vocals



Lyrics

I always thought your moves were cheap, but I was blinded by the "perfect" in your eyes.
Well, you crushed my dreams and self-esteem, just like you crushed my Ken with Chun-Li's thighs.
When our love experienced latency, I tried to start our story mode again.
I jumped to cross the gap, but baby, you just kept on spamming -- hadouken, hadouken, hadouken.

I guess it's time to ragequit.
I'll toss my joystick, smash it all apart.
Because it's time to ragequit.
You broke my combos like you broke my heart.
And now it's time to ragequit.
I'll toss my joystick, smash it all apart.
So now it's time to ragequit.
You broke my combos like you broke my heart.

Well, when I found you were untrue, it hit me like a hundred-hand-slap to the face.
You said you loved my yoga style, and that my "sonic boom" could never be replaced.
So now I'm turtled in the corner, playing defense, crouched and cowering in fear.
You were my favorite Player 2, but baby, now all that is through -- I need a lover from a higher tier.

I guess it's time to ragequit.
I'll toss my joystick, smash it all apart.
Because it's time to ragequit.
You broke my combos like you broke my heart.
And now it's time to ragequit.
I'll toss my joystick, smash it all apart.
So now it's time to ragequit.
You broke my combos like you broke my heart.

<solo>

My heart's win loss ratio -- has never been this low,
how to counter, I don't know -- feels just like I'm fighting Daigo
hadouken
hadouken
hadouken
<uncontrolled sobbing>

If you liked it, you can download the MP3 here!


Our imaginary label . . .


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10:27 AM on 09.28.2009  

Somebody's Got a Case of the Mondays




Dear Mindless Repeater,

It has recently been brought to the attention of the executive management team by our insurance providers that video game related violence is on the rise. In an effort to curb growing benefits and health-care related costs for the company, Human Resources has been asked to develop a series of addendums to the Employee Handbook to assist those unfortunate souls who are attempting to balance their professional career with self-destructive gaming habits.

Playing video games is a habit that reduces productivity, limits your career growth, contributes to aggressive behavior, and is generally indicative of a rebellious and independent nature -- something that we here at Mindless Repetitions, Inc. frown upon in anyone below an unspecified pay grade.

It is our hope to reduce the number of video game related fatalities and injuries to ensure that our profit margin remains intact by limiting overhead expenditures, and also to demonstrate our genuine care and concern for those of you toiling on the front lines that we will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever deign to meet in person.

So, turn off the consoles and turn on the confidence -- with our undeserved positional advantage and your hard work, we can make this our highest earning year yet!

-- Your Beloved Board of Directors





Introduction

Separating video games from reality is the responsibility of every employee at Mindless Repetitions, Inc. Although we can't legally prevent you from playing games in your personal time, we can look down on gaming as an unprofessional hobby to participate in. Failure to separate video games from reality can result in corrective action, up to and including termination (of employment, not your in-game avatar).

Here are this week's helpful hints to ensure that your co-workers will remain unaffected by your socially maladaptive influence and irrationally violent behavior! This week's topic is : Meeting Etiquette. We hope that these help you to become less of a social pariah in your work environment and that you do not exactly bloody vengeance on us for any perceived slights you may have received while on the premises.

Wishing you a happy and productive work-week!
--Human Resources





Meeting With Co-Workers

Gamers should strive to control their murderous/selfish impulses throughout the meeting. Here are some common triggers and pitfalls to be avoided.

-- Coffee and donuts need to be evenly distributed amongst all meeting participants. Hoarding these items as you would in a competitve online match will be frowned upon. Think of the meeting like a campaign in Left 4 Dead; if you use all the med-kits yourself and your companions die, you will rarely survive to the next safe house. Donuts are medkits. Coffee is the same as pills.

-- The use of "?", "!", and "..." are not responses well suited for the meeting room. This does not apply, however, when meeting with the salarymen from our Tokyo branch.

-- Referring to the laser pointer as a "n00b-tub3" during a presentation will not generate a favorable reaction from your fellow participants.

-- Being late to scheduled meetings will not be excused on the basis of being "sucked into a random encounter" on the way to the conference room. Being "laggy as hell" is also not considered as a valid reason for tardiness.

-- There is no fast-forwarding through dialogue during meetings. Consider your meeting an unskippable cutscene for which you are required to take notes. The information you gather may be relevant to later gameplay.

-- When the door slams shut in a video game, it usually will not open again until the player has slaughtered every living inhabitant in the room. This does not apply in business meetings. The start and stop time listed on the official agenda remains constant regardless of how many co-workers you murder, so not killing them remains our policy.





Meetings With Potential Customers

-- Don't jump straight into business discussion. Develop a rapport with the prospect before attempting a sale. Many gamers scare off a possible client by immediately opening their trenchcoat and yelling "WHAT ARE YOU BUYING?" or "BUY SOMETHING, WILL YA?" before determining the prospect's needs through the use of discovery questions.

-- Do not refer to their objections or information gathering inquiries as "combo breakers".

-- While most gamers are used to the unrestricted killing of prostitutes in their day-to-day virtual lives, this behavior is strictly discouraged at Mindless Repetitions, Inc. Only the prospects should be allowed to kill prostitutes. This places you, as the salesperson, in a position to maximize each sale in exchange for covering it up and keeping quiet about the whole sordid affair.

-- When encountering sales reluctance, do not offer to throw in a charizard to "sweeten the deal". Your prospect is likely not aware that he is supposed to catch them all.

-- Avoid using terms usually heard in XBL chat* during intense contract negotiations. Examples include : "I feel like I made an extremely reasonable offer, Steve. Frankly, your counterproposal is totally gay." or (in a restaurant setting) "Steve, quit spawn-camping the breadsticks, you fucking fucktard."

*Avoiding these terms even in XBL chat would also be advisable for anyone of moderate maturity and intelligence.



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10:37 AM on 09.24.2009  

Instant Karma : Tales of an Omnipotent Public Servant, Part 4

This is the fourth installment of the Tales of an Omnipotent Public Servant (TOPS) series, written by a Dtoider at the behest of his fellow Dtoiders! If you missed out on previous episodes, you can always take a gander at TOPS -- Part 1, TOPS -- Part 2, and TOPS -- Part 3!





"Well, well, well! You must have a great hunger for gaming history if you have returned to me once again to be transported into the annals of Britannian lore, my welcome guest! I am happy to serve as your guide once more -- but even an ex-Game Master's services must always come at a price. Have you brought me a tribute? A token to remind us of that point in time so I can focus the required energies?

I don't believe it! A Koosh ball? You have done well, shrewd traveller. These relics once flooded the great halls of Origin Systems. It should be sufficient to summon the time portal to Ultima Online once again. Step inside the circle and brace yourself for visions from that ancient era -- the initial airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- the deaths of Princess Di and the Notorious BIG -- Deep Blue defeating Gary Kasparov at chess for the first time. I remember this one instance when. . . "




My other car is a TARDIS.


The Fall of the Reservoir Sharks

Social structures often adhere to guidelines similar to the laws of physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Griefers used to make a habit of preying on the weak and naive on my servers. However, they weren't the only strong players out there. The group of griefers I referred to as the Reservoir Sharks in TOPS #3 finally discovered that you can only push a community so far before they finally begin to push back.

A group of players decided that enough was enough and that someone had to clean up the shard. They all created alternate characters and trained up their skills in secret. They never visited towns or interacted with anyone as their alternate characters. In a short period of time, a group of 8 players built up their characters into grandmaster mages, and hatched a plot to finally give the griefers a taste of their own medicine.

One evening, I get a page with a cryptic message from a character whose name I didn't recognize -- "Come and watch if you want to see true justice in action."

It being a slow evening and my curiosity aroused, I finished up the other pages in my queue and teleported invisibly over to the location of the paging character. I found myself outside the Britain bank, where a group of 8 players were milling around. They looked like utter newbies; half of them were in loincloths, while the rest were only slightly better equipped.

The players were asking passers-by for help in becoming strong fighters, basically begging for information and equipment. What I didn't know at the time was that they were the ultimate anti-griefers -- both the bait and the trap for the unwitting Reservoir Sharks.




Now witness the power of this fully functioning group of grandmaster mage vigilantes!


If you throw enough chum in the water, eventually the predators will show up. Like clockwork, Mr. Orange eventually sauntered up to the group and immediately pegged them for a bunch of marks. The motley avengers played along as Mr. Orange offered to "help them out" and proceeded to lead them out of town and through the wild to the Sharks' lair. Expecting a herd of lemmings, four Sharks lazily positioned themselves around the group and began to "welcome" their new members.

Knowing that the Sharks always struck shortly after saying "Welcome to the guild.", the motley avengers had the drop on the bad guys. Outnumbering the griefers two to one, the grandmaster mages, wearing nothing but their skivvies, unleashed a legendary barage of magical retribution and dropped the entire team of griefers in one fell swoop. They picked the bodies clean and stripped them of their most valuable possessions.

From that point on, whenever Mr. Orange plied his trade in the town squares, there was always a helpful samaritan or two in diapers willing to tag along or give the newbies a helpful word of advice. The motley avenger was right -- I got to see justice in action.




They didn't think their names through -- the Reservoir Dogs almost all die at the end.


The Iron Crisis of '97

Ultima Online wasn't just a game about adventuring and spellcasting. There were players who devoted their time to making their characters into artisans and smiths. Some of the best equipment in the game was not found, but rather crafted by grandmaster blacksmith players. In order to make these weapons, they required raw materials.

Miners would make the trip to the mountainous areas and bring back the raw metal ores required for the smiths to do their jobs. The smiths would pay handsomely for the convenience of avoiding dangerous travel and saving time to keep their smithing skills at grandmaster level so that they could charge top gold for their wares.

A properous economy developed between miners, smiths, and the adventurers who bought the final products. But human greed, as it is wont to do, eventually ruined the arrangement. The game placed a cap on how many resources could be harvested in a given time frame, and in one particular month the miners overworked all the rich deposits trying to score easy gold.

Panic struck. Miners were forced to charge more for fewer ores, which meant smiths had to charge more for their weapons and armor. Some adventurers who couldn't afford the top tier equipment took to attacking miners in the wild for their ore. Others were hired by miners as protection from these bandits. Eventually the resources reset and things returned to normal. Only this time everyone learned a lesson. You can have too much of a good thing.




You guys made Iron Giant cry, you jerkfaces.


Jester For Hire

One of the most interesting "professions" I ever encountered in UO was a character who rented himself out as a fool for hire. The only skills he had built up were in tailoring/dyeing, so he always had on an appropriately outrageous outfit. He would crack jokes, and keep adventurers company for an exorbitant fee.

I never understood why other players would pay such large sums of gold to have this guy along, so one night I tagged along to see what the big deal was. He did make funny jokes and spouted silly rhymes; well role-played and in an appropriately classic style. But that wasn't his value to his employers.

The fool's main job was to minesweep for adventurers. If a huge monster or player-killing griefer came onto the scene, the fool would spring into action. Like a medieval rodeo clown, he would run towards the danger until they targeted him and then run away, leaving a safe path for his employers to escape. Sometimes, he would run around in circles with some variety of enemy chasing him while the other player attacked the creature from behind. Very entertaining.

I had always heard it said that a fool and his money are soon parted, but Ultima Online proved to me that playing the clown can sometimes be as good as gold.




You try riding a manticore for 8 seconds!

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1:32 PM on 09.16.2009  

The Good, the Rad, and the Lovely



Me with my Red Dead swag shirt (center), the Outlaw ScottyG, and my wifey Calamity Dawn.


When it came to the PAX '09 show floor, the big names of the fall were the belles of the ball. Games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Borderlands had huge lines of nerdy stalkers waiting hours outside the windows of their objects of obsession. Rightfully so -- those games and more looked and played amazingly. It seems that this holiday season has a lot of awesome in store for the gaming masses.

I, however, was not so interested in the fall/holiday lineup as much as I was games coming up in 2010. Prior to PAX, I had already done my homework and decided where my hard-earned monies were going to be spent for the rest of '09. I just didn't see anything on the showfloor that flipped my decision from buy to not buy, or vice versa. Mostly, the games on display just served to push the slider a little farther in the 'no' or 'go' directions for me. However, I did get a glimpse at a few games coming up next year that piqued my interest.

Tucked away in a remote corner of the exhibit hall was the Rockstar booth. They were there mainly to promote the upcoming Episodes from Liberty City and their do-it-yourself DJ simulator, Beaterator. I didn't have much interest in the DJ game, but you have to give them +1 internets just for making a game called Beaterator, don't you?

At any rate, my wife and I were walking the floor when my psychic swag-sense kicked in, and I spotted a pile of Red Dead Redemption t-shirts on the side of the Rockstar booth. When I asked how I could acquire one, the lady at the booth informed me that all I needed to do was see the live gameplay demo for Red Dead Redemption. I didn't even know that this game would be at PAX (other than the shirts, there was no signage for Red Dead at the R* booth), so I immediately dragged my incredibly understanding wife into the line, and we were the last two to make it into the next showing.




Red Dead 'staging' a coup for 2010? Don't worry, I'll slap myself for that pun.


Red Dead Redemption is the sequel to 2004's Red Dead Revolver, which was one of the few shooters I truly enjoyed out of the last-generation. When I heard that a sequel was being made I was naturally interested, but I have to say that after seeing the gameplay demo at PAX this game has moved from being a "keep an eye on it" title to my second most anticipated game of 2010 behind Heavy Rain.


Differences

Redemption shares a few things in common with its predecessor, but mostly it's a horse of a different color. While Revolver was a level-based TPS western, Redemption is an open-world game built with the same RAGE framework and Euphoria middleware used in GTAIV. Revolver had a cast of playable characters, whereas Redemption follows the story of one character -- John Marston. Also, while Revolver was squarely set in the untamed Wild West period, Redemption takes place at the turn of the century when both the government and technology are beginning to take over the West.


The Mission

The gameplay demo was centered around a rescue mission in an old ghost-town. Bad guys had captured one of Marston's friends and strung her up, and it was up to Marston to come in guns blazing and save her before the life was choked out of her. Combat looked very satisfying, with an appropriate level of blood and guts for a western setting. Combat animations looked more fluid and varied than in GTAIV, which was a good sign to me that this game isn't just a Wild West re-skin. Returning to Redemption is the "deadeye" mechanic present in Revolver, but in the new iteration it will be useable throughout the game in all firefights instead of only boss fights. Also present was the classic slide through the dirt into cover move from old western movies, which got a great reaction from the screening group. Eventually the outlaws were mopped up and the friend saved, and the demo moved into a more general demo of the game world.


Exploration

One of the biggest draws of Fallout 3 (Oblivion as well to a lesser extent) to me was the exploration aspect of the gameplay. There was always something to discover or stumble into, and the vastness of the gameworld really gave you that lone warrior feeling that kept me coming back for more. Red Dead Redemption looks to have a similar draw, but in the western milieu. There were some impressive vistas shown off during the gameplay demo, and the game promises to be expansive -- the demoers said that the land mass in the game exceeds that of GTA San Andreas, which put me squarely in squeeeeee-mode. The idea of having that much to explore in a western setting has me very excited.




I think I'll name you. . . . Horsemeat!


The demo also showed off one medium sized town. In the larger towns, you will see "modern" technology's influence (there are telegraph lines in the bigger settlements), while other areas maintain a frontier feel. All the buildings in Redemption can be dynamically entered with no load times, which is an improvement over GTAIV which had to be selective due to the sheer volume of buildings. Also like Fallout, there appear to be many things available to stumble upon in the wild. Find another cowboy camped out? You can sit down and share the fire and talk to him or put him down in cold blood and loot him. Run in to stagecoaches or outlaws and deal with them as you see fit.


Ecology

The integration of animals into the gameworld was impressive. Firefights will quickly attract vultures to the area who will start circling, and eventually land and start feasting on any outlaw carcasses there. Rabbits, mountain lions, and even bears can be encountered, killed, and skinned for their pelts which can be sold. Horses, which are the main mode of transport for the game, will be realistically spooked by gun fire and bolt for safety. Wild horses can be encountered, lassoed, and tamed.


My Concerns

There was a lot to be excited about in the demo, but with an early 2010 release date, Rockstar North still has plenty of work to do. The usual texture-popping present in large open-world titles was definitely present in this build, and I'm hoping that the open rural environment makes it easier for them to polish the visuals over the next 4-6 months. Red Dead Redemption is currently set for a Q2 2010 release.

There was no story present at any point during the demo other than what the presenter narrated going into the mission. There was no voice-over integrated, and cut-scenes were choppy and unfinished. Knowing Rockstar's track record for solid dialogue and voice-over work, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one and trust that they will do right and deliver a presentation worthy of the lone gunman western theme present in the game. I'm really hoping they move away from the more cartoonish characterizations from Revolver and towards a mature story. I'm crossing my fingers for some Deadwood style dialogue and story. God, I loved Deadwood.




None of this.


Conclusion

Even wifey walked out of that well obscured demo room excited for all the different activities on display in Red Dead Redemption. It's looking sharp for the stage they're at in development, and the gameplay looks improved and more varied than GTAIV. Plus, no annoying cell-phone calls to get in the way of the story or just jacking around the countryside. I'll be looking for a playable build at PAX East to see if it'll give me that genuine High Plains Drifter vibe I've been waiting for in a video game. With a larger game world than San Andreas, I personally can't wait to get my hands on this li'l filly and see how she rides.

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5:55 PM on 09.09.2009  

My Incredible PAX Adventure, and how Kauza's avatar ruined it all.




In most cases, when a community is “tightly-knit” it also means the community is less welcoming to outsiders than a Baptist congregation to a group of vampire LARPers. Yet, for every rule there is an exception and unsurprisingly, Destructoid is that exception.

My initial expectations going in were to see some games, see a bit of the city, and hopefully get to meet a few of the people I had grown so fond of over the interwebs. 4 days of debauchery, nerdery, and revelry later, and I still hadn't met all the Dtoiders who showed up. No exaggeration, every single Dtoider I plucked up the courage to meet was friendly and welcoming – I've never seen such love before in my life, let alone from a community where people interact primarily over the internet.

My wife doesn't play very many games, but as a nerd herself she wanted to see what PAX was all about. She expected to just lurk in the background, but every time I turned around she was in a conversation with another Dtoider. Many thanks to all of you who took the time to get to know her and make her feel welcome – she had an awesome time.

The staff was so approachable and friendly – I got to meet Ashley, Samit, Dyson, Grim, Aerox, Colette, and even Niero himself. The way this team interacts with the community is nothing short of astounding. Special props go out to Hamza, who in addition to being a hella-cool shark (seriously, he's a snappy dresser) also worked his ass off to make sure that everyone got together and had a good time. He was constantly coordinating or informing and making the newbies feel welcome all the while!




Disproved by Destructoid.


From meeting the bad-ass members of Dtoid Texas, to being one of only 2 Dtoiders to actually sing karaoke on karaoke night (ScottyG was the other brave soul on the scouting party), to seeing a live gameplay demo of Red Dead Redemption (now my second most anticipated game of 2010 behind Heavy Rain), and many other happy memories, PAX is an experience I will never forget.

I could go on and on about all the amazing people I met, but I'll just close this part of the blog by saying you have got to find a way to get to the next community meetup – whether it be PAX or another con or your nearest NARP, you will not find a more worthy use of your time than getting to interact with this fine community face-to-face. I not only feel like a true part of the community now, but a part of the family. Whatever is standing in your way (money, time, shyness, etc.), start planning now for how you're going to overcome that obstacle for the next event, you'll be ever so glad you did.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Guns and Roses said it all so much more eloquently than I ever could, but I do have to reiterate that every story has a dark side. PAX wasn't all rainbows and kittens for me. Before I left, I promised my good interwebz buddy Kauza that I would take his avatar with me so that he could be there in spirit since he couldn't make it. Little did I know the trouble that would follow from such a simple gesture.

I had an inkling that things might be a little off when Kauza's avatar proceeded to get absolutely hammered on the plane. I think being 2-dimensional makes you a pretty cheap date.





The convention was fun, but Kauza's avatar didn't make it easy. I promised Kauza I'd take good care of his avatar for him, so I didn't want us to get separated – so when he demanded to hang around and stare at Mr. Destructoid's ass for 20 minutes I was forced to oblige.





I thought he could help me out at the Star Wars : The Old Republic Demo. When I let him out of the messenger bag he proceeded to immediately turn to the nearest woman in the crowd and said, “C'mon baby – I don't want to go Hand Solo tonight!”





After threatening to lock him up in the Hello Kitty demo box, he calmed down and even offered to take some notes for me. So I relaxed and enjoyed the demo thinking he had me covered -- so much for turning over a new leaf.





Kauza's avatar tagged along to the Elephant and Castle one night, and it wasn't just the nerves from flying that made him drink before – he really is a lush.





My wife and Aerox were trying to have a conversation about the Discworld novels, but Kauza's avatar kept butting in. Also, I was beginning to get a little bit uncomfortable with how close he was getting to my wife.





Before long, he was passed out right in the middle of the patio.





At the end of the night, all I wanted to do was sleep, but Kauza's avatar made that impossible. We barely got upstairs before he announced he was about to “de-frag his stomach's hard drive”, and asked if I would hold him over the toilet. Given that the alternative was him tossing his cookies in the hotel room, I had little choice.





What has been seen cannot be unseen. What took place in that bathroom defied the laws of physics.





You'd think after a night like that he would learn his lesson. The next night at the E&C he was right back to his old tricks. Having scared away all other prospects with his drunken misogynistic demeanor, he sunk to new depths when he asked my wife if she'd like to “ditch old 'kissyourass' over there and go back to the room with a real man”.





Well, my amazing wife was having none of that. She was just about fed up with Kauza's avatar anyway and the proposition was just too much. She took matters into her own hands.





Oh, the humanity!





Moral of the story : A person's avatar often does not reflect their true nature. Also, nobody, and I mean NOBODY fucks with wifey.



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11:01 AM on 08.31.2009  

Mazes and Monsters : Anatomy of a Scapegoating

The enemy. There is no single greater motivator in human history than having an antagonist. The US would have taken years if not decades longer to land on the moon without the threat of the Russians getting there first and setting up a giant mind control device to turns us all into Marxists.

Somewhere, at this very moment, there's a defense laywer sweating bullets. Out of options and out of time, he does what many others of his ilk have resorted to --

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant is not a murderer. He is a victim of our modern technological age. His involvement with the game Grand Theft Auto has stripped him of his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality."

Elsewhere, a newspaper writer is feeling the heat from her editor. The readership is falling due to the rise of internet news outlets, and everything she writes needs to grab eyes and move units off the newsstands. With the slider slowly creeping from objectivity to sensationalism, she writes her next headline --

A Digital Tragedy : Suburban Family Victimized by Video-Game Playing Son




Old tricks are the best tricks, eh?


When it comes to confronting our own demons, be they societal or individual, it's always a softer option to project our own fears onto the outside world. If we can identify an enemy that doesn't lie in our own mind or heart, then we can comfortably forego the decidedly more difficult task of looking inward to affect change. It is a seductive form of passing the buck, and most times we aren't even aware that we're engaging in it.

A successful projection requires two things. One is a target which can be sufficiently demonized without the target having the ability to adequately defend its own image. The second necessity is a way to convince others to engage in the same rationalizations. This means propaganda.

All in the name of righteousness, many activities have been attacked over the years. In the past, everything from dancing, to jazz, to alcohol, to heavy metal have been blamed for the degradation of moral values and the collapse of modern society. The problem with this tactic is that eventually enough people get to know the scapegoat in question, and when people truly understand a thing it is no longer possible to demonize it.

Video games have not yet reached the level of Public Enemy #1 despite their growing popularity as a scapegoat, but it's gotten me thinking about what the coming years may have in store for our favorite pastime before the world at large really gets to know it like we do. Let's take a glimpse at what video games might be in store for by looking at some of the propaganda attacking the last form of games to feel the wrath of a society looking to blameshift -- Dungeons and Dragons.




As a Level 26 Nimrod, you gain access to the spell Warp Reality.


When I was in 4th grade (1984), I had been playing D&D for about a year when a "concerned individual" began passing out some literature at our school. They were small comic booklets, designed to inform us of the evils of role-playing games and how we could break free of their Satanic influence. In this case, the scapegoat was literally demonized.

I never thought I would find this comic again, but when I googled D&D propaganda, it was literally the first result to pop up. The comic was entitled Dark Dungeons, and inferred that D&D was responsible for teen suicide and prepared players for recruitment into real life occult groups where actual magic and witchcraft were practiced. I encourage you to click the link and check it out -- it's a real mind trip.

The end message of the comic was that redemption through Jesus was the only way to overcome D&D's insidious influence, and that all D&D materials should be burned. Burned. The last cell of the comic shows the preacher standing in front of a raging bonfire of D&D manuals (he must really prefer v3.5 rules, ba-dum-tish!). The Nazi regime was also well known for book-burning, and they were the most egregious blame-shifters in history.

Now, I don't want to infer that the message of this comic reflected the views of all or even most Christians out there. However, I feel it is worth noting that the fantasy elements present in D&D such as spell-casting and polytheism, among others, would not have been so open to such revulsion in a culture not saturated with a Judeo-Christian worldview. It is important to note this because a significant percentage of the video games we play have similar fantasy elements, and this may explain at least some of the knee-jerk reactions that our current hobby seems to garner.




Roll a wisdom/lore check to successfully communicate with volleyballs.


I recently watched an old movie about the perils of role playing games and, in-between fits of unrestrained laughter, I found myself with a lot to think about. Mazes and Monsters was a movie made in 1982, starring a 26 year old Tom Hanks. He plays a college student who begins to lose grip on reality and permanently takes on the persona of his Mazes and Monsters character, eventually leading him to attempt a leap off the top of the World Trade Center.

It was based off of the book of the same name, which in turn was (inaccurately) based on the story of the disappearance of a Michigan State University student named James Dallas Egbert. Egbert was reported in the press to have died while playing D&D in the steam tunnels underneath his school. It is true he was in the steam tunnels; not to play D&D, but rather to commit suicide. The fact that D&D materials were found among his possessions led people to infer that D&D was the cause of his disappearance.

This is the primary weapon of any propaganda : the blurring of the lines between correlation and causality. Logic dictates that just because two trends are found together does not mean that one caused the other. If that were true, then you could just as easily argue that the underwear they found in his room was responsible for his death.

Unfortunately, propaganda does not aim to appeal to reason. Rather, its goal is to elicit an emotional reaction, and pointing out the correlation of two things is enough to insinuate that one caused the other without having the bothersome nuisance of providing proof. Like the comic book, all that is needed is to put the image of the scapegoat next to the image of any number of negative consequences and let the inferences do all the work from there.

You've probably already thought about any number of recent news stories where correlation was used to suggest causality between violence or deviant behavior and video games. Our media is saturated with this kind of faulty logic. The Columbine shooters played Doom, ergo Doom causes you to shoot people. The 9 yr. old child was killed by a teenager and her boyfriend who were supposedly re-enacting a move from Mortal Kombat, therefore Mortal Kombat makes you kill children. (I also love how the fact that these two teenagers were shit-faced drunk was conveniently left out of 95% of the coverage, because it was obviously Mortal Kombat's fault)

The list goes on and on.




Glenn Beck failed his saving throw vs. sideboob.


It's a hard world out there sometimes, and none of us are perfect. It's comforting to think that there's something concrete outside of us that's the source of our problems. It's the government, or the heathens, or the corporate office, or those damn video games.

Why do we as a society fall into this trap over and over? Because deep down, we just don't want to admit that most of our problems are actually caused by our individual ignorance, or prejudice, or laziness, or unwillingness to really connect with our children. It's easier to burn a book than it is to find ways to take personal accountability for the world we live in.

So how do we as gamers weather the storm yet to come before our beloved gaming comes out on the other side like heavy metal and D&D? How do we keep the chanting of the blameshifters from hypnotizing the majority until the mob moves on to a new monster?

The answer is simple. Propaganda relies on demonizing its target. When people begin to understand something, they can no longer match-up the evil caricature they're being presented with to what they know to be true in their minds. Then the propaganda loses its power to persuade.

The most important thing we can do is to keep our side of the debate civil. Since we're up against propaganda, when we respond with hatred or irrationality, we play right into our opponents' hands. Those attacking video games can say, "See? Look at the anger displayed by people playing video games. Video games therefore promote violent behavior."

When someone uses such blatant falsehood to attack something you care for, you're bound to have a negative emotional response, that's just human. However, when you choose to calmly share your passion and your reasons for indulging in our amazing pastime, then people will be open to listening and begin to understand. That's when the masters of self-delusion and mass-deception will have to find themselves a new patsy.

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1:34 PM on 08.18.2009  

That One Pretentious iPhone Guy Reviews : Zenonia

Bienvenidos! That means "Welcome!" in Spanish, you know. I just got back from a quick jaunt over to Paraguay for business. The locals are so quaint -- real salt of the earth people, you just have to go sometime.

Aaaaanyway, when I wasn't out looking for undervalued land to invest in or chasing away children trying to sell me handmade twine bracelets, I just couldn't keep my hands off my new toy. Have I shown you? It's the iPhone 3GS 32GB. Oh, you only have the 3G? Well, you just have to upgrade!

It's perfect for listening to all the latest independent music I read about on the internet. I just detest mainstream music. It's so . . . (sipping a Starbucks Venti Caramel Macchiato) . . . corporate.

Aaaaaanyway, I'm trying to keep up with the 15-to-30 demographic these days, and that means learning about video games. Well, the talk around the water-cooler is that "retro" is the latest big buzzword. So, when I was surfing the app store for the latest, what's the term they use? Oh yes! "leet". I came across a delightful little leet retro title called Zenonia! Sit down and have a bite of this whole-grain cranberry walnut muffin and I'll tell you alllllllll about it!




Zenonia (iPhone)
Developer: Gamevil
Publisher: Gamevil
Cost : $2.99


Story and Presentation

Zenonia is the story of an enterprising young boy named Regret (how postmodern!), who discovers that he has the seed of chaos inside of him and must struggle against his demon nature. He ultimately must choose whether to fight on the side of the Holy Knights or the Dragon Clan to determine the ultimate fate of the world. Quite thrilling.

When I showed Zenonia to the barista to see what the service-industry demographic thought about the game, he got very excited. He said it reminded him of one of his favorite games from childhood, The Legend Of Zorba. Apparently, Zorba was a very popular game that put what he called "action RPGs" on the map.

Well, I found Zenonia to be absolutely charming. Not only did it evoke the look and feel of an old action RPG, but it also managed to have a wonderful sense of humor about the whole affair. The developers included a lot of self-deprecation and poked fun at the common tropes of the genre, which made the retro gameplay and cookie-cutter story work.

One side quest began by a villager stating "I know I'm just an NPC, but will you help me?". A tip on the one of the loading screens said "Too much gaming time will ruin your social life." Just priceless! Breaking the fourth wall is so now.


Gameplay -- Touch Controls

Now, I have very delicate hands, so the touch controls were of the utmost concern to me. I simply can't be bothered to get a manicure every time I play a game. Luckily, Zenonia controlled better than my new BMW Z3. The D-pad was large and responsive, and once I got used to the handling, I had Regret speeding through the landscape. Also, the attack button worked perfectly, I never had to go searching for it like I do for a waiter at the Four Seasons.

Unfortunately, my discriminating nature simply wouldn't let me finish without mentioning the skill and item slots at the bottom of the screen. They were much smaller and more difficult to activate, which I found to be very tiresome.




Oh, I DO wish they would come out with a hybrid model.


Gameplay -- Classes and Skills

As a modern go-getter, I simply cannot be boxed in to just one style of gameplay. In an update to the old RPG formula, Zenonia offers 3 different classes to chose from, each with their own strengths and skill trees to upgrade.

Skill trees for all 3 classes offer both active abilities and passive (like Frank in Marketing) boosts, so there's a great deal of customization available. This helps keep the tedium of level grinding to a minimum. The one drawback, however, is that the touch controls for the skill slots reduces your ability to use them effectively in battle.

If you're looking for some insider info, I found that focusing on passive buffs (skills, not what my staff does to the car) allows you to focus more fully on combat. Level up maybe one or two really useful active skills and you'll be bounding up the experience ladder in no time.


Gameplay -- Combat

The responsiveness of the touch controls makes combat an enjoyable affair, simple yet robust like a '96 Napa Valley Cabernet. A wonderful upgrade to the old Zorba combat system automatically reorients you to attack the nearest enemy, even if you aren't facing them. This mitigates any mistakes you might make in working with the touch controls.




You really MUST take this game out for a spin.


Gameplay -- Mission Design

Playing through Zenonia is much like reading a Dostoyevsky novel. You appreciate it for what it is and how it must have been revolutionary for its time, but it can become rather tedious in spots. Level grinding is a must to advance through the story, and side quests offer little in the way of story motivation to complete them.

Just like in sports and business, if you want to be at the top of the game it pays to have a little help to put you over the top. Something to enhance your performance. You will find plenty of weapons, armor, and items to keep your character current, so don't waste your gold on equipment in the towns. Instead, discreetly visit a NPC named "Item Gal" who, for a reasonable fee, will give you a potion to boost your experience gain from each kill. Keep these fully stocked like I do my aged 18 yr. Glenlivet supply and you'll advance much more quickly.


Technical Execution

Zenonia simply runs like a dream. Loading times are minimal, and frame-rate hiccups were nearly non-existent. The game was patched since its release to smooth out any problems that were present at its release.

The patch also provides the ability to play your own music during the game, which is an added bonus for aggressive multi-taskers like myself. Now I can catch up on my indie music and experience excellent Zorba-style gameplay at the same time -- smashing!




I met Judge Judy at this benefit in Manhattan once. Delightful woman. . .


The Verdict

Trust me, I know quality when I see it. Even with my penchant for power-levelling, Zenonia offered up a sumptuous 20 hrs. of gameplay. I chose to fight on the side of the Holy Knights, so there could easily be another 15-20 hrs. there for those who want to experience both story paths.

Slick presentation, ironic self-referential style, and responsive controls all made this game much more enjoyable than that atrocious Jackson Pollack retrospective I was forced to endure at the Metroplitan Museum of Art last weekend. At $2.99, this game packs more value than the foreclosed estate in the Hamptons I got at a steal when the market went bust. Any self-respecting gamer of distinction would do well to put it on their buy list.

Zenonia warrants a delicious 8 out of 10 servings of Brie cheese.

Care for a pomegranate smoothie to go? I insist.

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1:43 PM on 07.29.2009  

A 100% Unique Red Faction : Guerilla Review

I recognize that with all the reviews of this game already available from reputable and talented writers, it's a bold claim to state that this review is, in fact, unique. Allow me to explain myself up front and assuage your doubts, good readers. . .

The reason for this claim is simple -- Red Faction : Guerilla is set on the 4th planet from our sun, and this, of course, brings the sweet temptation to indulge in any number of played out pop-culture references, as many have understandably done. As such, I hereby swear that this review is guaranteed to be entirely free of Total Recall, Ghosts of Mars, and Mars Volta references. It will take great fortitude and restraint to deliver on this promise, but I feel that we as the gaming public deserve it, so on with the review!

Red Faction : Guerilla (abbreviated as RF:G from here on out) is actually the third iteration of the Red Faction IP, which is set approximately 50 years after the events of the previous Red Faction installment. Since Red Faction II was released 7 years ago on the XBox and PS2, this lends further weight to my theory that game studios do, in fact, measure their development time in dog years,

Volition had a solid foundation to build upon with the modest success of Red Faction's first two installments during the previous console generation. Does RF:G herald a revolution in current-gen gameplay, or does it find itself coming apart under the constant impacts of gamer scrutiny?



Red Faction : Guerilla (XBox 360, PS3)
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Publisher: THQ


Story

The plot of RF:G is a plain and simple construction, much like an origami crane. In the same spirit, I offer you a summary of the game's plot in haiku form. Think of it as an O HAI-ku.

O hai there, Mason!
Break that with sledgehammers, please.
Mars is now free, thanks!

Now that we've explored the entirety of the complex wonder which is the literary backdrop of RF:G, let's get to the real meat of the matter. Flippant commentary aside -- while an immersive story will always add depth and enjoyment to an already solid video game, its absence can be easily forgiven if the core gameplay is well crafted and fun. RF:G delivers that in spades.


Gameplay -- Weapons

In most open world shooters, the player begins the game with a lame, generic weapon like a under-powered pistol or knife. In RF:G, the weapon you begin the game with, the sledgehammer, is in many way the best weapon of the enitre game.

Oh, the magnificent glory of the sledgehammer! Its uses are myriad and joyful. Even when out of ammunition for all your other toys, the trusty sledge is always there to help you bring down a building or knock out the supports from a bridge. It is incredibly satisfying to crunch the extremely Overwatch-ish in appearance EDF soldiers with it. If Gordon Freeman didn't have the physique of a theoretical physicist, he would have dropped the crowbar in a heartbeat in favor of swinging this sweet baby around.

As the game progresses, you earn salvage from completing missions, guerilla actions (side missions), and also from destroying enemy structures. Salvage can be used to purchase new weapons and upgrades from Red Faction member "Sam" (short for Samanaya) who is extremely impressive due to her ability to anticipate which safehouse you will be travelling to and to be waiting for you when you get there.

There is a good selection of weapons and upgrades to work with -- their look and feel are appropriately scrapped together and bad-ass. Without spoiling too much for those who haven't played this game yet, the Nano Rifle was one of the few weapons I've used in a game in the past year that made me go "Swweeeeeeeet." when I fired it off for the first time.




This doesn't count as popular culture -- No one watches music videos anymore!


Gameplay -- Destructible Environments

If there's one element that sets RF:G apart from its contemporaries, it's the tech that Volition created for managing environmental damage to buildings. Almost every structure in the game can be razed to the ground by either explosives, your faithful sledgehammer, or ramming a vehicle into crucial supports.

Now, while many games have featured similar gameplay, they have relied mainly on canned animations to depict the destruction. RF:G allows for dynamic destruction of buildings through the physics engine. When you destroy all the support beams on the left side of a structure and the whole shebang finally comes down, it will come crashing down to the left. Taking down structures makes logical sense in RF:G, which is a refreshing change of pace from the "if buildingHP=0, then play buildingfalldowngoboom.avi" model of destruction used in other games.

The most memorable experience I had from this entire game was when I was scouting an EDF structure which needed to be destroyed. As I was looking around, I began to take fire from a sniper on an adjacent building. Not having a sniper rifle equipped myself, I couldn't pick him off, and I knew I couldn't close the gap on foot before I was dropped like Firefly. So I pulled out the trusty rocket launcher, and proceeded to fire 5 rockets into the base of the building, aiming for supports and retaining walls. Due to my judicious placement, my rocket blasts destroyed just the right bits, and I watched as my foe slid off the edge of the falling building only to have it land on top of his sorry ass once he hit the ground.

Taking out that sniper by taking out the building under him and burying him in rubble was a completely original experience for me in gaming, and that just doesn't happen to me very often. While there are other ingredients and layers, destroying buildings is really the chewy nougat center of this gameplay candy bar.


Gameplay -- Combat

While the weapons and destructible environments in RF:G ensure the fun factor for the duration of the game, the combat leaves much to be desired. Fighting, both on foot and in vehicles, feels both floaty and spastic. I was reminded instantly of the gameplay in Mercenaries 2.

It's difficult to get a bead on your opponents in this environment. Unless you're picking off the EDF from a distance, you'll find yourself running crazily like a conservative from health-care reform. Circle strafing or relying on explosives for area damage rapidly become your go-to strategies for medium range combat. Unfortunately, this makes it almost impossible to avoid killing off friendlies in a firefight, which feels both frustrating and cheap.

As mentioned before, closed-quarters combat does feel great with the sledgehammer, and I found myself abandoning medium range combat to charge in instead to turn EDF heads into Play-Doh.

Despite my complaints, there was really nothing broken about the combat in RF:G for me -- but there was nothing that made it stand out either.




Combat -- More like Red Faction : VANILLA!


Gameplay -- Mission Design

RF:G did a stellar job overall in the realm of mission design. Story missions had a variety of objectives, and allowed for a wide range of strategies to be successfully employed. I had equal fun with picking off EDF one by one and slowly working my way in, just blowing up everything in my path, or driving a vehicle frantically through enemy lines to make a surgical strike on a vital target.

Volition really did a good job with their version of side quests, called Guerilla Actions. There was a broad spectrum of activities that you could take part in -- from demolition challenges, to transporting vital data, to defending or attacking structures, to rescuing civilians and more. My personal favorite was riding in a turret on the back of a modified motorbike, taking out targets to cause maximum monetary damage to the EDF.

You are able to advance throughout the game without having to do very many Guerilla Actions at all, but they tend to be short and fun, and completing them will unlock new weapons and upgrades. They also provide much need salvage for purchasing said weapons and upgrades.

I did come away with a few nitpicks in this area. Some story missions suffered from an inadequate checkpoint system; it seems that other open world developers have not yet learned the lessons taught by the shortcomings of the GTA series in this regard. Many failures were accompanied by having to drive across Mars to reach the objective all over again.

Additionally, whereas most of the missions contain a finite number of enemies, I would periodically encounter areas or structures in missions where EDF soldiers continually respawned. This is a huge pet peeve of mine, as it dramatically changes you approach to accomplishing an objective -- I shouldn't have to run out of ammo for my weapons trying to figure out which areas are respawns vs. ones where there are just a lot of baddies.




EDF troopers were injected with salmon DNA in some areas for infinite spawning ability.


Gameplay -- Multiplayer

You'd think that in an open world TPS game with average combat that the multiplayer would be thoroughly underwhelming. You'd also be vey wrong in the case of RF:G. While the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch type mode are just as bland as you'd expect, other team based modes take full advantage of the destructible environment tech to provide maximum fun.

Capture the flag becomes really interesting with the inclusion of the backpacks, which equate more or less to an interchangeable class system. Rhino packs allow you to charge through walls and people. Stealth packs allow you to get your creep on and give your opponent the one-hitter-quitter treatment with your sledge. Rocket packs, speed packs and more give a lot of strategic variety in this mode, and well coordinated teams can take full advantage.

Demolition, Siege, and Damage Control modes focus on teams defending or destroying structures, and were the most enjoyable modes I played during my time with multiplayer.

It is frustrating to note, less than 2 months after its release, that this game doesn't crack the Top 10 Xbox Live games in terms of multiplayer traffic -- finding a game in one of the more interesting modes was often a time-consuming affair.


Technical Execution

RF:G, like most games in the sandbox genres, has its share of technical issues which are noticable, but ultimately forgivable. Occasional frame-rate hiccups during building collapses and pop-in while driving were present, but weren't a hinderance to the overall experience. Multi-player matches ran like butter for me.

The graphics were scaled well to meet the needs of an open world environment and, limited Martian color palette aside, impressive to look at. Much like the combat, they weren't a point of contention for me even while being nothing to write home about.




Your sentence? Trade me that sledgehammer for this baseball bat!


The Verdict

Red Faction : Guerilla flew well under my radar until I gave it a spin recently due to what I was hearing about it from peers and the internet. I never fully buy into the hype surrounding a game until I've played it for myself, but I'm overjoyed to discover that all the feedback about this game was right.

The technology used for destructible environments in this game were impressive from top to bottom, and when we're reviewing similar games 5 years from now, we'll be referring back to Red Faction : Guerilla to point out where the jump in gameplay took place.

RF:G was a great deal of fun to play in both single and multi-player modes, and its flaws were easily outshined by the things it did very well. Along with Flower, this game was one of the year's most pleasant console gaming surprises for me. Red Faction : Guerilla gets a strong walkyourpath recommendation -- it is a worthy addition to any gaming collection.

And this last image? Please, I implore you, just ignore it. . . I can't resist the temptation much longer!!!!!



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11:15 AM on 07.23.2009  

Austin, Texas : A Gamer's Field Guide

Let's begin by admitting a grim reality, shall we? Texas pretty much sucks. Texas is characterized primarily by blistering, unbearable heat and the fetid stench of oil refineries, punctuated briefly by sprawling, smog coated cities choked to the gills with mobs of angry, dishevelled businessmen driven to madness by the punishing sun.

However, for the persistent and discerning gamer, there is a hidden jewel buried deep in the hill country of central Texas. Forget Houston, forget Dallas, and forget San Antonio, my friends. Place a marker on your mini-map to guide you to where I live -- an oasis of fun, smart, and cool marooned in a barren wasteland of fail. Your objective, my fellow freaks and geeks, is Austin, TX. Join me for a tour of the most gamer-friendly town in the Lone Star State!




I know I'm doing my part!


Austin is home to the University Of Texas, with one of the largest student bodies in the country. It's a proven fact, where there are college classes being taught, there are also students skipping those classes to play just one more deathmatch or grind for just one more piece of epic loot. It's also impossible to go into a Best Buy here without seeing the latest NCAA Football game being demoed (playing as the Longhorns, of course!) on a HDTV and console.

Austin is a hub for many high-tech companies, and much of the town's economy is tied into both the large computer / microprocessor manufacturers (such as Dell) and the smaller software/hardware developers.

Austin is ranked in the top 5 cities in the U.S. when it comes to free wi-fi access. Whether you're playing WoW on your laptop, browsing for new games on your iPhone, or downloading Patapon 2 onto your PSP, Austin has an abundance of places you can do it for free.

This bounty of wi-fi exists mainly because of the excellent selection of indie coffeehouses here. Fuck Starbucks. The smaller coffeehouses here let you ride their signal for free, and their coffee is better, too!

My recommendations for coffee and wi-fi gamers are as follows : Bouldin Creek is in south Austin, where you can order a Leveller (pint of Guiness with a shot of espresso and chocolate syrup, hells yes!) as you're levelling. Spider House is in central Austin, which is near the UT campus and often has live performance to go along with the cool atmosphere. And if you're in North Austin, I suggest a trip to Epoch, where hippies and yuppies alike converge to surf the web and worship the bean.




We got shenanigans!

ABOVE : True story -- back in January, some CoD : WaW fans got their haxxors on with road-signs on Lamar Blvd here in town, programming them to warn people of the undead pandemic with messages such as "Beware! Nazi Zombies!"


You want industry? We got your industry right here! Most people aren't aware of how large an gaming presence we have here in Austin. This city has turned into somewhat of an MMO Mecca over the years.

I participated briefly in this transformation during the game boom over a decade ago, as Richard Garriott turned his highly successful Ultima series into the revered Ultima Online MMO. Currently, you can find his baby NCSoft here working on City of Heroes/Villans, AutoAssault, and Guild Wars.

Bioware is here working on the Star Wars MMO that should have been KOTOR 3 (sorry, couldn't help myself). SOE is here supporting Star Wars Galaxies, and working on the DC Comics MMO. Vigil Games, under THQ, is here working on Darksiders and the Warhammer 40K game.

You'll also find smaller up-and-coming game houses working on card-based games, or iPhone and Wii games, such as Challenge Online Games and Mock Science.

Those are only a small sample of the game companies represented here.




Don't go back there, young Padawan -- that's where Tabula Rasa is buried.


If I mention the SXSW (South By South West) festival, most people will immediately think of music. Every year, a legion of hipsters of all shapes and sizes make the pilgrimage and crash the 3G networks, since every one of them is apparently issued an iPhone when they start listening to indie bands.

There is another side to the festival, however, where nerds like us can feel a little more at home. The SXSW Interactive Festival runs concurrently with the music events, and offers many gaming related functions, such as panel discussions, tech-demos, and even some hands-on gaming with their Screenburn event. It's no E3, but there is plenty of meat there for gamers looking to learn more about the craft. I plan to cover the event next time around.

Since I know the two demographics often overlap, tabletop gamers and comic book nerds have several excellent sources of crack here in our town.

Comic book and manga afficionados will find much to love at ABC (Austin Books & Comics), where the claustrophobically arranged shelves stuffed to the hilt with inked goodness will make them feel right at home.

For those seeking anime, manga, minis, tabletop games, role-playing gear and more to go along with their comics, you'd do well to stop by Dragon's Lair. They host regular tabletop gaming sessions/tournaments and are in general a safe haven for our kind.




"Now, which way do I go to get to Austin?"


And finally, I would be remiss to end any gamer's guide to Austin without mentioning the excellent local arcade. Not long ago, there were three excellent arcades on The Drag (Guadalupe St.) near campus -- Le Fun, Einstein's, and another arcade in the Dobie mall.

In the span of a 1-2 years, Le Fun was forced out of their location because the Scientologists next door wanted to expand and outbid them for their lease (damn you, Xenu, DAMN YOU!), the owner of Einstein's moved on to other ventures, and the proprietor of the Dobie mall arcade passed away.

There was plenty of interest in arcade gaming left in Austin, but nowhere cool to do it! So, former employees and partners from these previous arcades banded together to open the latest venue, Arcade UFO.

They're serious about their cabinet gaming there, as they recently hosted a U.S. Tougeki - Super Battle Opera Qualifying tournament, and will be sponsoring the 6 winners when they travel to Tokyo to represent for us Yanks. Check it out if you're a serious arcade vet who wants a challenge, or a curious gamer like me who just like getting slapped around!




The mating call of the hard-core gamer.


So for gamers, there's a lot to love about Austin. From top to bottom, it's a nerd's paradise, and I hope that you enjoyed getting a glimpse into the town that I call home.

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3:33 PM on 07.16.2009  

Putting A Twist On The Curve : Difficulty In Games

Literature and cinema have the whole difficulty conundrum figured out.

The movies know better than to have Luke fight Vader before he's even learned about the Force. Why? Because that way, the Emperor wins in 20 minutes flat and there is no restarting at the last checkpoint for the Rebellion. It makes sense for Luke to grow in confidence and power, and face progressively greater challenges before the final confrontations occur.

I suppose you could say that some books have a checkpoint system, like those bad-ass Choose Your Own Adventure books. For those, every finger or bookmark is a save slot. On the whole, however, books also only have one shot to get it right.

This sense of "challenge either matching or driving capability" is a given in those two mediums, seeing as how people throwing hardcovers or theatre seats around when the protagonist dies an untimely death is hardly practical. Controllers are more aerodynamic and are properly weighted for the endeavors of fiery tantrum throwing.

The problem with applying this narrative arc to games is that the player who guides the protagonist is a large set of variable where each variable may cover a huge range. Developers must take many dimentions of player ability into account : twitch reflexes, strategic thinking, problem-solving, and more all must be considered.

Let's take a look at some of the strategies that developers commonly apply to difficulty in games and their effectiveness.




"No! That's not true! That level's IMPOSSIBLE!"


Strategy #1 : The Texas Toast Approach.

Texas Toast was created with the following logic in mind : "If toast is great, then if we make it bigger, it will therefore be extra great."

Applied to games, this simply means that if you want to increase the difficulty of a game, simply increase the value of an attribute that contributes to difficulty. This often boils down to 1 or more of 3 usual suspects; enemy damage, enemy hitpoints/health, or number of enemies.

This is the most commonly used strategy for difficulty scaling in my experience, and in most cases it reeks of either laziness or lack of imagination. The FPS and TPS genres are the most blatant abusers of this technique. The difference between Easy, Normal, and Hard modes is usually only EnemyHP x 1, EnemyHP x 2, or EnemyHP x 3.

Uncharted : Drake's Fortune is one of my favorite games of this console generation, and yet even it falls into this category. The damage-soaking ability of the enemies in that game were well documented as a point of contention for many gamers. When a game's challenge is defined solely as the number of times you must shoot a baddie or can be shot by one, the difficulty curve becomes annoyingly one-dimentional.

Now, I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so it must be noted that there are some games and genres where this is appropriate. Shmups come to mind here. From R-Type to Ikaruga, spamming enemies, bullets, etc. . . is an effective means of difficulty scaling, because twitch reflexes are the foundation and sole focus of the gameplay.



Butter & Syrup Soaking > Damage Soaking


Strategy #2 : The Populist Approach.

Just as in politics, the populist approach dictates that all enemies in a game's eco-system should have an equal chance of eating your lunch. In this scenario, the system provides weaker enemies with a boost in power as you advance so that they can still provide you with a challenge. It's a nice idea in theory, but in practice leaves much to be desired.

There is a sense of accomplishment that arises from just decimating enemies you fought on even footing earlier in the game. There's nothing quite like casting a Tornado of Instantaneous Disintegration at a lone kobold with a wooden club to pay them back for all the times they caught you by surprise and made you reload a save. Scaling enemies robs you of this feeling. This was a major issue for many who played TES : Oblivion; an unnecessary bleminsh on an otherwise excellent and enjoyable title.

It looks like developers are beginning to recognize the issues inherent with this approach. Discussing difficulty scaling in Oblivion versus their strategy for the upcoming Borderlands, Randy Pitchford of Gearbox was recently quoted as saying, "We don't have that approach at all. If you're a level 1 and you're in an area that's tuned for level 1, that might be an even challenge. Later if you come back when you're level 15 you're just going to own that place and that's cool, that feels really good, that proves to you the power you built."

I have yet to play a game that I felt benefitted from the scaling enemies approach.




That's not quite what I meant by a smooth difficulty curve, Randy.


Strategy #3 : The "Bring Out The Gimp" Approach.

Limiting what a player can do is another common means of addressing difficulty. For example, winning the heart of the woman of your dreams is a satisfying challenge. In this approach, a game developer would look at that scenario and say, "OK, then when they switch to Hard mode, they'll have to do it, but with no job and no car."

The survival horror genre uses generous helpings of this technique. By limiting what the character can do, it increases the both the difficulty and the tension present in the game. This works with varying degrees of success. For example, RE5 in particular received an ass-ton of criticism for limiting the player's ability to move while firing.

Now, while the success of this mechanic is debatable, it's interesting to note that almost no one complains about the equally gimping mechanic of limiting ammunition/healing items that is a mainstay of this genre.

It's my opinion that limiting ammunition is a much more organic means of nerfing a player, which lends itself well to the necessary suspension of disbelief that makes a good horror game fun. I also found the blackout zones in Infamous to be an excellent twist on this technique, providing nice variation in difficulty without being overtly frustrating.




This is how Capcom wants you to feel.


Strategy #4 : The Cheap Shot Approach.

Oh, this one drives me crazy. It is usually found in JRPGs, and is when a boss or enemy has an unblockable, undodgeable, unpredicatable attack that instantly atomizes you and your crew regardless of how much you've power levelled. This is a really annoying way to keep players who grind before advancing from waltzing through certain areas or confrontations.

If I've put in the work prior to defeating an enemy to build my party to the point where they are an ultimate fighting force, as a developer, you're basically telling me that I wasted hours of my life if that super-party can be neutralized at some random moment in a boss fight, when they wake up and realize that they conveniently know a "Death To Party" spell.

This is really just a horrible way to elongate the length of a game by adding an element of arbitrary failure. You studied really, really hard for that final exam? Well that's great! 15 minutes before the exam is over I'm going to rip up your essay and have you take the test over again! Have fun!

Unspottable snipers in shooters also fall into this category, among other examples.




"For death awaits you all! . . .with nasty, big, pointy teeth!!!!"


Approach # 5 : The "No, Really, Combat Evolved" Approach

I wanted to close with what I find to be the most satisfying means of creating a difficulty curve, and that is by scaling the level of strategy required to be successful. It doesn't matter whether a game is focused on combat, puzzle-solving, platforming, or tactics. Forcing the player to adapt their playstyle or use the tools given to them in a new way is a rewarding means of creating a smooth difficulty curve.

Diablo I and II start by sending mobs of a single type of creature at you. At first, you can just spam your way senselessly through them. Later, they mix up the enemy types so that some are resistant to physical attacks, while others are resistance to magic, which forces you to use different types of attacks. Or, they add in an enemy shaman that can resurrect it's brethren, forcing you to rethink the order in which you attack your foes.

Good RTSs also use this approach by varying the different tactics available. For example, I'm a turtler by nature. If I can, I will set up a defense perimeter and not venture into enemy territory until I have a vast host of destruction at my fingertips. While it can be a successful (if somewhat boring) strategy, some factions and tactics can overcome the turtle easily by focusing on outproducing it. Unless the player adapts and realizes that a quick strike to disable enemy production is the only way to ensure long-term victory, they condemn themselves to a slow and painful death inside their shell.

There are plenty of other examples of this approach being used well for a wide variety of games, so feel free to share your favorites in the comments!




He never did figure out that anti-Semitism was a losing strategy.


I personally feel that the last approach has the most room for application in game design. It is flexible, fair, and easy enough to implement once it has been properly planned. The downside is that it does take a good amount of forethought and imagination to come up with new ways to stretch the minds of players to make the difficulty curve an enjoyable experience.

I'm always looking to support games and developers who force me to stretch my mind as I play. How about you all? What approaches to difficulty are the most rewarding to you? Are there any approaches I've left out?

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10:00 AM on 07.06.2009  

Fighting The Fanboy Empire : Reclaiming Our Word From The Console Crusaders




Cursed to walk this earthly life as an incurable word nerd, I often find gamer language both facinating and disturbing. Between leet-speak, internet shorthand, and gamer forum terminology, there's no doubt that the English language has taken a pummeling when it comes to discussing video games. Now, some of these developments in creative linguistics can make discussing games easier and more fun. For example, simply add an adjective in front of the noun "sauce", and you now have an elegant way to praise or denigrate games/internet content that makes you seem both hip and in-the-know, even though you are neither. (Full Disclosure : This author is neither hip, nor in-the-know)




First rule of the internet : Everything's cooler with a "z" in it.

However, the evolution of language is often like biological evolution -- the process consists of endless numbers of small mutations which, over time, lead to large changes in anatomy or function. When these mutations are positive, the changes will persist and are used as a springboard for further evolution. When they are negative, the changes are wiped out by a harsh and competitve environment. One would be hard-pressed to deny that the gaming community as a whole is anything less than predatory when it comes to expressing one's opinion. Memes that flourish and multiply one day are snuffed out by cruel, Darwinian currents of gamer derision the next.

Please read the following sentence in your mind in a low bass voice like a movie trailer announcer -- "The internet gaming community is a digital Serengeti where your comments are both the hunter. . . and the hunted."

But it's not all cut and dried. Evolution is not a perfect system. Sometimes, a mutation will persist even if it provides no adaptive edge to the organism. At other times, a mutation will persist even if it is a disadvantage to the organism. So we end up with creatures like the platypus -- horrible, mishapen beasts who continue to flourish despite the fact that they obviously deserve to be scoured clean from the face of the earth.

Shifting our focus back to gamer language, we can see parallels in linguistic evolution. There are mutations of verbiage that add absolutely nothing positive to the aggregate discussion of games. Like the platypus, they waddle uselessly and lay their vile eggs in blogs and forums all over the interwebs, spawning generation upon generation of ignorant bile into the comment thread ecosystem.

There is no single word in all the gamer lexicon more maligned and maladapted than the dreaded "F" word -- fanboy. It is hoarsely squawked from deformed, duck-like bills on every gaming site in existence. It is the platypus of the gamer's world.




Image courtesy of National Geographic


It wasn't always like this. In the beginning, the word fanboy was a benign way to proclaim your love for a thing -- comics, books, movies, games, people or characters. It was a way to raise your freak flag in the service of something you loved. (I, for example, am a Tolkien fanboy. I've probably read The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy at least 10-12 times over the last 20 years alone.) It was a way for nerds, geeks, and misfits to bond over shared loves looked down upon by the population as a whole. As such, the word fanboy was a positive adaptaion that allowed communites of nerds to recognize one another, bond together, thrive, and propogate.

At some ill-fated point in gamer history, the word fanboy underwent an unholy alteration. The precise reasons for this mutation are currently unknown. It's possible that it occured due to the intense inbreeding that occurs in a closed-off gene pool of gamers who were unable to bring fresh variation into their vocabulary. An alternate theory is that as IT professionals came to a position of prominence in the workplace and society, and were able to attract mates due to their affluence, that the term was no longer necessary to ensure the survival of the nerd species as a whole. So the term fell into disrepute, shrivelling and falling off -- the prehensile tail of the gamer legacy.

Whatever the exact scientific cause, this mutation has taken a once benign term used to positively define one's self, and warped it into a way to argue with another gamer without having to provide any logical or factual basis for one's position. Where once there were beautiful debates, we now replace the letter S with a $ symbol. When once someone would provide a compelling arguement for why your favorite game or console might not be perfect, it is now acceptable to simply dismiss a fellow gamer with a single clucked word. Just call someone a fanboy, and there's no need to apply reason or eloquence. It is a perversion of all that we once held dear in our hearts and minds. It has become a sword and shield for the hateful, the insecure, and the uninformed.




Fanboys do whatever it takes to win!


Still, in the shadow of this dark facepalm of the soul that we find ourselves cowering weakly beneath, a spark of hope remains. It's not too late to divert the river of gaming language back into its natural channel. There's only one solution : we must exterminate the platypus. We must reclaim our linguistic heritage and return the word fanboy to its rightful place in gamer discourse. We must burn the hate from this word, baptise it, and let it be reborn in the love which is its birthright.

To rescue the word fanboy from the digital hell in which it currently resides will take courage, perseverance, and the wise application of language. But it is possible, my friends and comrades, to accomplish this goal. Together, there is nothing that a well-meaning community of nerds cannot accomplish. So I ask you -- nay, I beg you. Join me now in this holy quest. We must refuse to live in shame any longer -- we must proudly proclaim our identities from the keyboards of the world. . .

My screen-name is walkyourpath. . . and I am a fanboy.


DISCLAIMER : walkyourpath does not advocate the genocide of platypuses. No platypuses were harmed in the creation of this opinion/editorial.



P.S. -- @ZombiePlatypus : my condemnation of platypuses does not extend to the undead varieties of the species. You're cool in my book.

P.S.S. -- @ Elsa : I consider fanboy similar in usage to mankind, inclusive of both genders. I know you're a fangirl for a few things!

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4:33 PM on 07.02.2009  

Get Your Sauron On, Again -- Overlord II Review

Overlord II (XBOX 360) Review

Half the fun of some of the licensed Lord Of The Rings games that have come out over the years is the ability to play as the forces of evil. Slaughtering hobbits, burning ents, and wiping the smug grins off of those pretentious elves has always been a big draw for gamers, and it is this premise that the Overlord franchise is built upon. Overlord II, like its predecessor, makes its name by offering a different kind of moral choice -- not "will you be evil?", but rather "what type of evil will you be?"

Is Overlord II is the good kind of bad, or just plain bad????




Overlord II (XBox 360, PS3)
Developer: Triumph
Publisher: Codemasters
MSRP: $59.99

Overview

The old Overlord is dead, and his Dark Tower lies in ruins. The energy from the shattered Tower Heart taints the land. (Yes, I said taint, let's giggle for a moment and move on, shall we?) This Chernobyl effect means that the first Overlord's former minions are now scattered across the land looking for a new person to tell them what to do and think, much like Fox News now that the Bush administration has gone.

It's been shown that many of the most violent and wicked perpetrators in history were often brutally bullied at a young age, and Overlord II lightly broaches this theme. Enter you, as the new Overlord in waiting. Growing up in the village of Nordberg is tough for a young hell-spawn with glowing eyes, and the taunts of "witch-boy" along with protracted snowball peltings from the other children eventually prompt you to not only get mad, but get evil.

This, in turn, draws the attention of the former Overlord's minions, who quickly rally to your infernal cause, as they begin to see in you the potential to become the master they've been missing.




"Master!" "Media coverage!" "FOR YOU!"


Story & Presentation

The first Overlord built its cult-classic following on stylized and exaggerated fantasy visuals, the theme of evil as the protagonist, the oft-coveted ability to get others to do one's bidding, and a healthy mixture of low-brow humor and subtle satire. Overlord II does not stray far from its roots in these respects.

While many games draw huge mainstream controversy and derision for themes of violence or cruelty, the Overlord franchise finds itself comfortably out of the cross-hairs of the family values police. Even the well publicized ability to bash baby seals and absorb their life-force in Overlord II wasn't enough to get PETA or religious fundamentalists up in arms as they often do when it comes to our favorite hobby. Overlord II gets away with these things where other don't for many reasons.

One is the cartoonish, almost Fable-esque art style that encourages you to relax into the diabolical objectives of Overlord II. For some reason, we seems to accept violence and even evil in our games when it's presented less realistically. This is no different than movies and TV.

The humor of Overlord II is another mitigating factor. Even the original Overlord was never I'm-gonna-pee-my-pants funny, but the franchise has maintained a frentic, slapstick sensibility that always seems to keep a smile on your face. Triumph made the choice to keep the Overlord mute throughout the franchise, and it's little wonder why. The minions simply steal the show.

I remember trying to send a small group of minions to attack an enemy right after letting them drink. Seeing one lone sober minion charge headlong into the fray, while the rest of his buddies paused for a bathroom break before joining in was my first indicator that Overlord II had lost none of the charm of the first.

Lastly, the great writing of Rhianna Pratchett helps balance the evil objectives with the comic style perfectly. It's one thing to choose evil when its all about slaughtering innocents, but Overlord II makes it so easy to take on the role, because the "good guys" in Overlord II are the kinds of people you really WANT to see killed.

Pratchett does an excellent job of exaggerating the stupidity and rural predjudice of the villagers in Nordberg, the hippie-dippie activism and snobbery of the elves, and the bullying and self-righteous attitude of the magic-hating Glorious Empire. Such a good job, in fact, that you really can't feel bad for them when the smiting is all said and done. It's a bit like watching Burke die in Aliens. He's human, yeah, but he really does deserve to get his face chewed off.




"We've lost contact with the colony on LB426. Oh, and I'm a dillhole."


Gameplay -- Minions

Not much has changed in terms of the core mechanics from the original Overlord. You still have the Overlord avatar who navigates the world, while controlling the minions Pikimin style. Minions still come in the same 4 flavors : Melee Brown, Ranged Attack Red, Ninja Green, and Healer Blue, which you slowly add to your team during the game. The Overlord sweeps these minions across the screen to attack enemies, destroy items and structures, and retrieve items and treasure to lay at their master's feet.

Overlord II adds a few new mechanics in that the Browns, Reds, and Greens get snazzy new mounts to ride with different abilities, while the Blues gain a blink ability that allows them to phase through enemies unharmed so long as you keep them moving. You can also take possession of your minions periodically throughout the campaign, to get into areas that your huge evilness can't otherwise broach. These additions are all interesting and useful, but you aren't given very many opportunities to take advantage of them throughout the game.


Gameplay -- Customization

The two evil paths, Destruction and Domination, were better delineated in this game than they were in the original Overlord, which really didn't do a good job of making you go one way or the other. The ability to control towns via slaughter or enslavement was an enjoyable addition, and I thoroughly enjoyed the benefit of going the Domination route and squeezing free gold, lifeforce, and minion upgrades out of my elvish sweatshop workers.

Overall, though, I was fairly disappointed on this front, as there's not much new here to distinguish Overlord II from its daddy. You can upgrade your helmet, armor, and three types of weapons, just like before. You can purchase furniture for your fortress to make it look sharper, or more importantly, snazz it up to get your materialistic mistresses to bed you. Buying stuff to sleep with your harem so that you can increase your gamerscore? That's a pretty literal interpretation of 'achievement whore', dont you think?




Your three mistresses are this, reskinned.


Gameplay -- Controls

For all the enjoyment and charm that I experienced, I still found myself very frustrated at many points due to the poor job Triumph did addressing the control, camera, and targeting issues present in the first game.

The developers did attempt to address the camera issues by giving the player camera control, but the camera still was wonky when travelling through tight areas, of which there are many in the game. In general, I felt the camera was positioned far too close to the Overlord, making it difficult to get the perspective you needed even with the manual camera control.

A mini-map helped with being able to tell where to go next, but it also was zoomed in so far that I found myself just pausing the game ad infinitum to look at the full map rather then try to suss it out on the HUD.

The devs also made a poor decision to map the minion sweeping and camera both to the right stick without a proper toggle. Basically, if you thumb the stick forward you begin sweeping your minions, while thumbing the stick to either side moves the camera. This results way too often in sweeping when you want to move the camera, and vice versa.

The minion selection was mapped to the face buttons + RB. The D-pad went unused the whole game. Why not map the minion selection to the D-Pad with no additional buttons needed, and then allow RB to be the toggle between sweeping minions and camera control? That this simple solution eluded the team during play testing was an issue for me.




Me, after dealing with the control scheme.


Gameplay -- Mission Design

I thought the mission design was a really strong point for Overlord II. Triumph did a good job of keeping things varied throughout the meaty 20-25 hour single-player campaign. The environmental puzzles were challenging without being fun-breaking. The minion possession segments added a nice spice to the levels. The mission to rescue the green hive in particular was tough but fair and interesting, so I felt a good sense of accomplishment when it was done. Town control side missions were an entertaining diversion, but I ultimately gave up on completing them.

Overlord II did expand positively on the first by building in a good deal more strategy in the combat and set pieces. In the first game, the only real challenge was to figure out which minion type worked against each enemy. In Overlord II, some enemy formations required co-ordination of 2 or 3 minion types in order to be successful, so you can't just spam your minions and charge in every time, although there are some times where it is both possible and a blast to do so.


Technical Execution

There was no noticable pop-in while moving or slowdown during combat, so overall the game exceeded my expectations here. There were a few issues with camera clipping, particularly in tight spaces, and the minion AI, while improved from the first, still got hung up from time to time, causing minions to get lost or drop items. The solid mission design helped mitigate this, as minion gates were plentiful in the levels, so you never had to travel far to get your full horde back.

Overlord II maintained a great looking front throughout. The graphics were a noticeable upgrade from the last iteration, but also nothing to set the world on fire either. They were more than adequate to carry out the heightened fantasy cartoon style. And let's be honest, if you're looking for a game to max out the processor in your console, you're barking up the wrong tree here.




Bailiff, do my bidding!


The Verdict

When someone tells me that a game has camera, targeting, and control map issues, I avoid it like the plague. When I find out a game is only marginally changed or improved from the last one, I usually don't enjoy it. Overlord II is the exception to both those rules for me. For every time the controls irked me, the minions made me chuckle twice. For every time I targeted an underling instead of a boss, the writing or the visuals or the pure fun of ransacking towns and dungeons more than compensated.

I didn't bother to dabble in the multiplayer for Overlord II for several reasons. First, the game stood on it's own merits for me with the single player experience, and I just didn't feel compelled to play the multiplayer. Secondly, I don't know anyone else who has the game! Thirdly, it just smacked of an obligatory add-on to a game franchise built on a solid single-player foundation. I will probably skip the mulitplayer in Bioshock II for the same reason.

Triumph did make some solid improvements to the gameplay, but they really neglected to fully address the issues present in the first Overlord. It's Rhianna Pratchett's writing, and the pure joy of pillaging that keeps this franchise moving forward. It's still funny, charming, and as engaging as ever. It even helped me to get my wife one step closer to joining the gaming fold!

If you didn't like the first Overlord, there's just not enough improvement here to push the second game over the line for you, and walkyourpath advises steering clear. If you've never experienced this franchise before, or you already swoon at hearing the siren song of "For The Overlord!", this game is a joyful experience, and provides a lot of value. Overlord II gets the walkyourpath recommendation!

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