Blue Line to Venus: The Subway Map in Destiny

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If you ever find yourself in the Ishtar Collective on the planet Venus sometime in the far future, you can rest easy that you have several mass transit options available, at least according to Bungie‘s new console game, Destiny.

Destiny Subway Map

A hybrid first-person shooter/role playing game with a shared online game space set in the future, Destiny visits several close-in planets during its twenty-odd mission story campaign, including a terraformed Venus where subway stations apparently don’t need to have names. Computer games, particularly shooters, often use subway maps as set dressing in order to suggest a deeper, wider world, creating an illusion of depth and breadth beyond the narrowly confined channels the developers want you to walk down. A subway map drives home the point that, though now gone, people lived and worked here.

Rather than feeling a sense of a wider world, though, seeing the map just confirms how small and lifeless the game’s world really is. The map serves as a metaphor for the game itself. There’s no subway station nearby to explore, no tunnel network to search through. (A later game level, set on Mars, does have a constrained transit station.) There are hints of more to come in Destiny, of detail under the surface, but it’s just not there. The game simply provides a series of set piece locales with a varied—and quite often beautiful—mise en scène in which to fight aliens and other players. An odd complaint, perhaps, to make of a game billed primarily as a first-person shooter, but it speaks to my slight disappointment with the game, as I wanted it to be a more engrossing and detailed exploration experience than it turned out to be. I was hoping for a faster-paced Fallout 3 rather than a Halo re-skin with random loot drops.

Fallout 3 Subway Map

Fallout 3 provides both a subway map (loosely based on the real Washington, DC, Metrorail map) and the ability to travel to quite a few of the stations via the subway tunnels themselves, but then it is a role playing game with shooter components rather than the reverse. Fallout’s structure encourages such exploration, whereas Destiny herds you from objective to objective. I can’t fault Destiny for not being the game I wanted it to be; I just hoped that the creators of the Marathon series could find a way to combine a cutting-edge first-person shooter with a captivating world that rewards exploration via something to find rather than new things to shoot. Marathon and its sequels, though purely first-person shooters, told a story to those willing to look for it in way Destiny, twenty years later, does not.

Still, I’m enjoying my time with Destiny, even if I can’t get hopelessly lost in the imaginary tunnels of the Venusian Green Line.

You Always Remember Your First Vault: Fallout

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The first time my computer-controlled companion Ian accidentally shot me dead with the sub-machine gun I had given him, I just shrugged. It was my fault for standing too close to the radscorpion, blocking Ian’s line of fire. Even though I hadn’t played in over fifteen years, I remembered that these types of mishaps could occur in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Interplay/Black Isle’s Fallout (1997).

Isometric Zombies! Well, ghouls, actually, but close enough.

Just load up the auto-save and we’re good to go. Except, there was none. And I hadn’t bothered to save once the last ninety minutes. I mean, who dies in the first two hours of a computer role playing game? Come to think of it, there hadn’t been a tutorial, either. Sure, there were some rats to beat up on, for practice, but none of the hand-holding I had gotten used to with the games of the last ten years. Even the generational successor to Fallout, Fallout 3, took you step-by-step, literally starting you off as a baby learning to walk (or WASD, as the case may be). But here, with Fallout? Nope.

Undaunted, I started over, happy to have a chance to tweak some set-in-stone starting characteristics. I fought through the rats again and ventured forth into the unknown. And promptly died again to a random event far too overwhelming for a first level character. Yeah, I didn’t save this time either. Who dies in the starting area?

Rats of Doom

This plan of mine to replay Fallout in light of the progress being made on Wasteland 2, the rumors of Fallout 4’s production, and, fortuitously, the generosity of Good Old Games in giving away a free copy in a recent promotion wasn’t getting off to a very good start. But I persevered, and even read the manual, which counseled saving early and often, a tip I took to heart.

Fallout, much like the game that preceded it ten years earlier, Wasteland, allows freedom of choice and action with concomitant consequences. Give Ian that big gun, the better to mow down super mutants and uppity rodents, and he’s just as likely to accidentally hit a bystander, turning an entire town against you (and wiping out vast numbers of potential quests from said town). Fallout even contains a time-sensitive quest, anathema in this era of gamers wanting to complete every possible quest at leisure, regardless of choices made. You’ve got 150 days to save Vault 13 from doom, and the game conspires to use up those days. Show up in a little village after dark? Everyone’s asleep, come back in the morning. Want to visit another town? That’s a week of travel right there.

Suffice it to say, they don’t really make them like this anymore. Sure, Fallout 3/New Vegas contained pseudo-morality systems that forced particular quest branchings, but you never felt under pressure, forced to make really tough choices. If you want to spend a ton of time walking all over the map, the main quest in Fallout 3 will wait for you. And I confess that I’m not a big fan of time-sensitive quests—this Fallout playthrough, I bee-lined right for the solution once I had gained sufficient resources to solve the problem, a resolution I somehow remembered over the years, so that I could play the rest of the game at a leisurely pace.

As a journey of exploration, my replay of Fallout has been enjoyable, but it lacks that tension inherent in the first play, when I managed to save the Vault with scant days to spare. That was a gaming experience I remember to this day, and they don’t make many of those these days, either, which is why I always give Ian the SMG every chance I get.

A Game by the Fire: Blizzard's Hearthstone

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Several months back, when World of Warcraft studio Blizzard teased their new game, everyone was thinking big. Way big. New MMORPG, perhaps? Another real-time strategy game? Something even more amazing?

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t big, but it was, in its own way, amazing. Blizzard unveiled Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a, um, digital collectible card game.

Hearthstone's Field of Battle

I recently snagged a spot in the closed beta for Hearthstone, which still has no firm release date, and I’ve been cautiously pleased with what I’ve seen. Drawing art and sound assets from World of Warcraft, Hearthstone captures the feel of that game quite well, taking nine classes from WoW as deck archetypes. The card play itself is fairly standard—mana grows turn by turn, allowing the play of cards from your hand; creatures usually cannot attack the turn they are played; and the object is to whittle the opposing hero down to zero health. So, essentially, a very streamlined Magic: The Gathering, gussied up with particle effects.

The emphasis is on fast play. Interaction during your opponent’s turn is almost nonexistent. Indeed, you cannot even chat with your opponent beyond a few pre-programmed emotes. And, given my long experience with World of Warcraft, that’s a feature, not a bug. The AFK timer is rather efficient at burning through an absent opponent’s turn, too.

Hearthstone will be free-to-play, with Blizzard making money through the optional sale of booster packs and entry into a drafting format. One can earn enough in-game credit by playing other people to purchase a booster pack probably two to three times a week with regular play. The matchmaking engine thus far has done well pitting me against players of similar (which is to say, limited) skill, enabling me to get a fair number of wins. Play against the computer is possible, but quickly becomes boring. At a certain point, AI play is only good for testing a new deck.

As a collectible card game, there are quite a few cards to accumulate, both class-specific and neutral cards usable by any class, though once you obtain more than the maximum hand limit of two of any card, you can “disenchant” the extras to form a crafting material that can then be used to create cards you want. A slow process, but if there’s a card you really want, you can get it, eventually.

The card collection interface is unwieldy and looks designed more for tablets than computers, but then I have yet to see a really good digital collection interface.

Hearthstone Collection Interface

While the limit of nine constructed deck slots makes sense with the nine classes you can play, I do wish there were more slots for creating multiple decks of the same class. One hopes Blizzard will not monetize that particular feature.

On the whole, I think Blizzard has (yet another) winner on its hands with Hearthstone. The gameplay is accessible for people without prior exposure to the collectible card game genre, appealing to World of Warcraft fans, and fast playing enough to make up for the slight lack of tactical depth (at least as compared to Magic: The Gathering). Besides, you can summon chickens to attack your opponent. That’s a win right there.

The Past Remade: Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition

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Baldur's Gate CDBack in 1998, a gargantuan computer game burst upon the scene, stored on five CDs and taxing the modest hard drives of the era with its multi-gig installation. That game, Baldur’s Gate, matched its digital size with an epic role playing story based on the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset (second edition AD&D, more precisely).

Though it hid the complexities of its rules behind the screen, as it were, the game made no apologies for its complexity or its scope. This was gaming nirvana: hours and hours (and hours) of herding a party of adventurers through an intricate web of plots and quests and events, all told from an isometric perspective with pausible combat and the elaborate branching conversations that would become the hallmark of its developers, BioWare and Black Isle.

Baldur’s Gate spawned expansions and sequels and devoted fans, but eventually the isometric, text-heavy, detailed role-playing game would become the purview of independent developers like Spiderweb Software as the industry moved to shorter, more easily digestible (read: simpler, dumbed-down) games. BioWare would move on to more action-oriented role-playing games, but even in light of such successes as the Mass Effect franchise, they’ve never recaptured the glory of Baldur’s Gate.

Or perhaps I’m just seeing this game in a rosy, nostalgic light. Given that Baldur’s Gate has just been re-released in an “enhanced” edition, optimized for modern operating systems and generally cleaned up and given a polish, I’ll have the chance to see whether my fondness for the game stems from a general belief in the superiority of the ’90s to the ’00s or if the game actually is that good. It certainly was that good, but how it stands up to that proverbial test of time is a question I’m looking forward to answering.

You Got Your Mass Effect in My Doctor Who

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Image from Crabcat IndustriesIn the reality distortion field that is San Diego Comic Con, many lovely cross-fiction mash-ups spontaneously combust. Actors from one property mingle with fans dressed up as characters from another, and magical crossover pictures emerge.

Think Robert Downey, Jr. caught in a picture talking with someone dressed up as Agatha from Girl Genius, or Sir Patrick Stewart speaking with a child stuffed into a homemade R2-D2 costume, and you have the idea.

Or, for instance, this image of Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, wielding an Omni-Tool from the Mass Effect universe, provided by Crabcat Industries, a cosplay team dedicated to the Mass Effect series of computer games. I would typically be hesitant to link to a Facebook page, but this one is simply too sublime to let pass.

Strangely enough, an Eleventh Doctor crossover into the Mass Effect universe isn’t all that far-fetched, as IDW Publishing is publishing a Doctor Who/Star Trek: The Next Generation comic series. Somehow the Borg and the Cybermen have become allies.

Well, no one ever said crossovers needed to make sense . . .

(via Kotaku; image from Crabcat Industries)

Kickstarting the Apocalypse: Wasteland 2 in Development

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These days, computer games that perform even tolerably well in the marketplace are all but guaranteed a sequel. Indeed, my current pile of Xbox 360 games is all sequels: Mass Effect 3, Gears 3, NHL 12, Fallout: New Vegas, Forza 4, and so forth.

But in the heady days of actual floppy discs, when loading a game on your trusty Commodore 64 took five minutes and Electronic Arts was amazingly cool, sequels were few and far between. So it comes as a welcome surprise that one of the finest games of the late 1980s, Wasteland, stands poised to make a return. If you ever wondered where the Fallout series came from, look no further.

Combat in the Wasteland

Brian Fargo, one of the original creators of Wasteland, is spearheading development of Wasteland 2, to be funded as a Kickstarter campaign. I spent hours and hours with the original post-apocalyptic RPG, both on floppy and later via the magic of emulators (when I finally finished the damn thing), and I call upon all true fans of the genre to pony up some cash and fund this game!