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    SimCity 2013: The Phantom Menace – putting the “limited” in Limited Edition


    2013 - 03.21

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    So I wrote a little blurb shortly after the launch of Simcity, but the news on this game has been evolving so rapidly that what I’d written felt irrelevant before I could even publish it.  It’s been a strange tale.  I haven’t actually bought the game yet, and that turned out to be the right call.  As I’ve observed the commotion, my feelings on the game went from major excitement, to pessimistic disappointment, and eventually to my current ambivalence.  The pre-release hype made it seem like this was going to be a return to the glory days of one of the best franchises in all of gaming, and then the reality set in at launch: servers were crushed under the initial load, then once people finally did get started playing, the gameplay was revealed to be broken on multiple levels.  I was super excited about this one for months on end, and now I wonder if I’ll even get it….

    I won’t even begin to chronicle the plain-out-weird tale of corporate-newspeak from EA/Maxis and their apologetics for why the game absolutely had to be online-only.  That story will probably go down as a textbook example of how not to handle a PR meltdown.  The superbly-written and eminently-thoughtful gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had unbeatable coverage of the whole fiasco, which is certainly worth perusing, if you’re interested.  Besides, they’re the best PC gaming blog in the biz today, check em out.

    A couple weeks in, it sounds like most (but not all) of the server-related killjoys have been addressed.  But perhaps more nefariously, the game’s underlying AI seems to have deep problems with pathfinding.  Epic traffic jams that span whole highways between city.  Fire trucks stuck in the station, or simply never arriving.  Pedestrians wandering in circles endlessly around the same intersection, blocking all traffic.  Trade frozen.  Bus pileups as far as the eye can see.  Once your city gets big enough, these unfixable problems begin to break it. 

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    There are other weirdnesses that make no sense: it’s possible to build nothing but roads and residential zones, and end up with a 60k population… in spite of the fact that your city has no commercial zones, industrial zones, power, water, sewer, trash, police, hospitals, etc etc. 

    People have have also lamented that city size is much more restricted than it ever was in SC2k and that disasters cannot be disabled.  Those are overshadowed further by the downright baffling design choice that you can’t even save a copy of your city… which used to allow experimentation with the freedom of restoring to an earlier save-state.  Your city data is not stored on your local computer, apparently?  You have no possession of the content you create now.  That’s just… deeply unfortunate. 

    In spite of all this, odds are I’ll end up buying this game in good time, assuming they can fix the worst of the pathfinding problems.  I’m glad to be reading all this trash-talk before I ever touch the thing.  No game has a soft spot in my personal Venn-diagram of nostalgia/videogames the way Simcity does.

    I remember as a grade-school kid, staying after school for hours to play the original Simcity in the computer lab, since home computers were a rarity in those days.  One time no one knew where I was, and it even prompted a moment of panic until they found me at the PC, just building my city again.  Then when my best friend got Simcity for his SNES we played the dickens out of that, even with lots of other games vying for attention.  We would take turns building and strategizing, laying on the living room floor for hours while his parakeets cheeped and that same music looped over and over.  SimAnt was another addictive one for me when we eventually got our first home PC.  Taking over the whole yard and eventually forcing the humans out of the house was strangely gratifying, and the game somehow made ant-trivia fascinating.  Then fast-forward to junior high when Simcity 2000 (aka SC2k) came out… whoooo, I don’t even want to know how many hours went into that.  One of the all-time top-10 on all platforms, if you ask me.

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    So it’s tough not to approach a new Simcity with giddy overenthusiasm, reminiscent of how I probably felt in the theater watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace for the first time.  Sure, all your favorite tropes are here, but uhhh, you’d better tame those expectations: childlike wonder is by no means guaranteed!

    And how could it be, really?  Part of what made Simcity 2000 such an amazing powerhouse was the fact that I played it at a point in life where I was old enough to grab my bike and ride off to any part of town, yet too young to be expected to work; a moment in life when free time was endless, and the relatively-new world of 3D videogames was a fascination with few rivals.  There was all the time in the world to build that perfect masterpiece, then realize all the oversights you’d made in dreaming it up, tear it all down, start over, and build the real masterpiece this time… ad infium.

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    Looking at the screenshots of people’s creations (those who have been able to play) brings back a wash of fond recollections of the old Simcities.  This series is sort of the original and greatest “sandbox” game.  One with no win or lose condition, no time limit, no missions to complete, just your imagination.  I really look forward to spending some time in Maxis’ latest iteration of that wonderland I used to get so lost within–I’m just tamping down my expectations.  This is Simcity: The Phantom Menace.  And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can’t actually BUY it.  You can only RENT it from Electronic Arts.  That is, when they decide to eventually shut down the servers for good in some years time, that’s it, everyone’s done.  There will be no dusty box in the closet with a CD in it that will allow you to reinstall a working copy.  Nor will there be a stack of 3.5″ floppy disks that got lost for years, only to be found under the bed one day, allowing some magical time warp back to your old experiments, quirky half-successes, and weird ideas.  Those save games kept that time portal open, in a way that few toys could–your LEGO creations could never rebuild themselves into a badass spaceship you created that one time, and the particles in the real-life sandbox of your backyard can never reassemble into the sweet castle your pal Jake made with his tower-shaped bucket.  There is a euphoria in rewinding.

    Those days are gone.  The future is here, and what’s new isn’t always better.

    Instead of a sarcastic “Thanks EA” I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy Simcity 2013 at face value.  It’ll never be able to touch SC2k in terms of pure addictive thrill.  And when it’s over it’s gone forever.  I’ll make a point to enjoy it in the moment, going in knowing that’s a very pretty, but ultimately much smaller, more limited world than my nostalgia wants to paint it.

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    Very much looking forward to the next SimCity


    2012 - 10.11

    I spent a straight-up disgraceful amount of time playing SimCity 2000 back in the day… “reticulating splines…”

    So yeah, I’m excited about what they show in this gameplay trailer:

    Looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a great year of strategy/simulation

    A Red Letter Day: Black Mesa Source, playable for free


    2012 - 09.30

    Of all the games out there, the original Half-Life remains one of my all-time favorites.  Iconic.  A landmark in video gaming.  Seminal.  Just this last week, the fan-made complete 100% remake called “Black Mesa Source” was released, for free.  If you have a PC and you’re not playing this, I honestly don’t know what you’re doing with your life.  I really don’t.

    I’ve been waiting for this thing for years on end and it has been delightful, nostalgic, thrilling, and a pitch-perfect re-imagining of the world of Black Mesa.  Playing the intro-sequence was so sweet.  These guys have hit it out of the park.  Absolute must-play.

    “There waiting for you Gordon.  In the Test.  Chamberrrrr.”

    Planetary Annihilation? Yes, that sounds cool


    2012 - 09.13

    This game looks really sweet. You get to blow up planets and have wars on the scale of galaxies, all using killer robots. Awesome:

    Games I Like: 3D Dot Game Heroes


    2012 - 08.29

    For whatever reason, it seems like 2012 has been a drought when it comes to awesome new videogames. There just really hasn’t been much that’s caught my eye. Maybe there are newer titles coming out that I’d be into but I’m simply unaware of them. In any event, I’m using this stretch to go backwards in time and play some of the sweet titles that got glossed over. One of these gems worth experiencing is 3D Dot Game Heroes.

    Basically it’s Zelda in 3D, built using very retro 8-bit looking blocks called voxels. This blatent homage is a continual theme throughout the game and all the classic tropes are here; boomerang, bombs, bows & arrows, empty bottles & potions, temples with small keys & boss keys, maddening puzzles, harsh punishments for mid-dungeon screw-ups, and yes, chickens……  when my buddy Vincent saw the game he quipped “man, these guys don’t mess around when they rip off Zelda, do they?”  No they do not.

    This game came out in 2010 and despite the fact that I bought it immediately upon release, I never completed it, thanks to a series of other awesome games which came out right around the same time. That, and this game is, in every single sense, unabashedly old-school; like those retro Nintendo games, when you hit a wall, the game’s not going to hold your hand until you figure it out. You’re on your own to solve the puzzle, or retrace your steps through a massive dungeon in order to find that one key you just didn’t notice.  I originally got stuck somewhere in the aqua temple and as there were no walkthroughs at the time, I hit the wall, got frustrated, and said screw this, I’ve got twenty other awesome games to play right now. As much as I am harping on this thing for its occasional opacity, there is a lot to love here. Especially now that you can just look up the answer online if you get really stuck.

    Most obvious, the art style is super duper hip. There is a super cool effect anytime you defeat an enemy where they disintegrate into a bunch of little 3D pixels; that never gets old.  The game also uses simulated depth of field extensively and shamelessly, to great effect I think.  I would love to see more titles that used this same retro/8-bit graphical approach.  3D Dot Game Heroes is a fascinating manifestation of that style. It’s fun to simply traverse the map, fighting minor baddies and scooping up coins from the bushes.  Just like the Zeldas of yore, there’s a whole huge inventory to fill and many dungeons to conquer.  Some of them are no joke.  If you want to dig even deeper into it, there’s a fair amount of collectibles and side quests too. The game has a grueling 24 different swords in it. I think I might make an effort to gather up some of the oddities although going for 100% completion here is out of the question for me.

    One immediately noticeable thing about 3DDGH is that it features comically oversize swords, parodied to hilarious extent in their pre-release trailer for the game called natural sword enhancement.  Pfffff.  A unique game mechanic that goes along with this, is the fact that your sword is only huge (and only has it’s unique abilities) when you have 100% health.  That strongly encourages the player to aggressively seek health (apples) and try to use the shield a lot, even when fighting minor enemies.

    In brief, it’s like a trip down memory lane, only with some 3-dimensional twist to it that breathes in a new life to the retro mileu. It’s also sprinkled liberally with old school gaming references and intentional bad translations which add to the quirky humor of it all. Definitely an experience worth the investment of several evenings’ worth of free time, and one that probably got glossed over in a sea of AAA releases. If you’ve got fond memories of Zelda, pick this one up, you will not be disappointed!

    a New LEGO MMO


    2012 - 07.15

    I’ve got a Level 7 Battle Axe to grind when it comes to Orcs, Paladins, or Wizards, and it don’t have no +5 to lameness tolerance.

    For whatever reason, I just can’t get into fantasy. I mean, I think dragons are sort of cool, but that’s about as far as I can get. Anytime people start talking about trolls or mages I just start to yawn. I thought Lord of the Rings was totally like 50,000% overrated. And while everyone else raved about Skyrim and World of Warcraft, I stuck to GTA and Red Dead. I don’t know what it is. I look at those worlds and say, wow, it’s amazing how rich and detailed they are, how much effort people have put into meticulously crafting them. And then I think, yeah, but this is all somehow still… BORING.

    And for whatever reason, it seems like all the major MMO games are fantasy games. I’m intrigued by the idea of MMOs; persistent worlds filled with other humans to interact with. So I was pretty stoked a few years back when an MMO was announced that was barking way up my particular nerd tree: LEGO Universe.

    As good fortune would have it, I was lucky enough to get a beta invite to test out the game before major release. The developers had a nice forum setup too where people could voice their thoughts on the progress. I definitely rocked the beta whenever I was home and the servers were online; and it was pretty fun. In my eyes though, it sadly fell pret-tay, pret-tay short of the hypothetical game it could have been. There were myriad reasons why, but really it came down to one thing: all content was created by the game developers and not the players.

    There’s something about LEGO that has captured the imaginations of minds for decades. Obviously a big part of that is the simple fact that you can take things apart and rebuild them however you see fit. So then, if you’re making a game that’s built primarily around LEGO, the logical thing to do would be let people build things. LEGO Universe did have that, but it was more of an if-you-want-to, off-to-the-side kinda thing. In my mind, the developers should have been spending their time doing two tasks: making the graphics engine look nice, and then releasing a huge variety of different bricks. If there’s one thing that Minecraft has conclusively proven about humanity, it’s that there are many, many folks out there with 1. copious amounts of free-time, and 2. the willpower to build incredibly intricate and detailed worlds for nothing more than their own amusement. Any LEGO MMO worth its salt should take advantage of that as its central philosophy.

    I think LEGO Universe could have been the most incredible game ever, if all it did was turn people loose with huge numbers of LEGO bricks and then let other players explore those worlds. You could easily sprinkle quests, events, enemies, and unique items over those worlds which were well made. I mean, Valve does a lot of the same type of thing with community-made maps in TF2. Take advantage of your passionate, inspired user base. That should be, like, enshrined into game-making law.

    So I’m raising a skeptical eyebrow at the announcement of a NEW LEGO MMO this month. It’s very thin on details. Like essentially all we know is that it exists. I would really hope that any new attempt at this concept would learn lessons from the failure of the previous one. A big shortcoming of LEGO Universe was simply the lack of content. It didn’t take long to finish it. And what content they did have really didn’t draw at all from LEGO lore. I wanted to see the Pirate sets I played with as a kid. Or city. Or Space sets like Blacktron and Ice Planet. A passionate userbase that is allowed to create their own content would solve all those problems.

    As an aside, I recently saw that there is apparently a LEGO Star Wars TV show now. It’s quite cheezy and laden with slapstick, but hey it’s meant for kids. The computer generated graphics in it are incredible though… its definitely LEGO come to life like you’ve never seen it. Watching that made me wish for the super-cool LEGO MMO that never was.

    So I’ll be watching that one, in hopes that it lets people build things as a main attraction. Because if you can’t build, is it truly LEGO? Not in my book!

    Games I Like: Mass Effect


    2012 - 07.05

    So a non-insignificant contributor to the lack of posting on here recently has been the fact that I got my hands on a copy of Mass Effect 3. This superbly made space opera, spanning the Milky Way galaxy, has eaten up a 30-some hour chunk of free time. Since this is a major release title, I’m not going to do an in-depth breakdown of what makes the game cool. Instead I’m just going to lay out a few observations and thoughts upon my playthrough.

    #1: Our Galaxy is Awesome.

    As I was chatting with my ladyfriend in the kitchen and the map of the galaxy was up on the screen she commented, “it’d be really cool if someone made a game where the objective was simply to explore the galaxy.” She was implying the *actual* Milky Way, based upon what we factually know about it. And yes, I would play the shiz out of that game, if someone made it. I said to her, well, out of the games I’ve played, this is probably the closest to that.

    There’s many star systems you can travel to in Mass Effect and each one of them has at least a few planets to check out, all with individual descriptions of the histories, inhabitants, and resources that make them noteworthy. Although fictional, it’s still very cool to browse through an imaginary atlas of the galaxy and search for random points of interest. And when you travel between the stars, you fly across 3D depictions of badass nebulae, like the horsehead. I really dig the music they play as you cruise among the stars; they used it in ME2 as well, and it sets the tone quite nicely.

    But yeah, it’s just rad seeing a slew of odd terrestrial planets with cratered surfaces, ringed gas giants being mined for their helium-3, random space stations, asteroid belts, and the occasional red giant with only shards of rocky debris in orbit. Indeed, the final showdown begins in such a system, where a small space station is easily concealed among the massive firery outbursts of a giant red star. These places are all imaginary, but it’s sweet to play a game that throws you into them. Of course our real galaxy is littered with fascinating star systems of all exotic types. Humankind won’t get to truly explore them for many epochs… but it is fascinating to submerge yourself in a fiction that conjures up all this imagery of what it must be like.

    #2: This Gun is Awesome.


    It’s called the M-13 Raptor and it’s described in the game as “a turian weapon developed for conflict on the low-gravity world Amar. Fighting at longer ranges than expected, the turians optimized a low-recoil, semi-automatic rifle with a scope, and issued it to their infantry, creating a hybrid weapon that was half assault-rifle and half sniper weapon.” Effectively, it’s a medium range weapon. I found it early in the game and combined it with a modification that slows down time by 15% when you look through the scope, which happens to be only 2 or 3x. I’ve played a whole lot of first person shooters in my time, and this gun fills a niche that is almost always left unoccupied: the medium range weapon, where a sniper scope is too powerful to track a fast-moving enemy, but that enemy isn’t yet close enough to make effective use of machine gun or shotgun. I wish every FPS had a gun like the Raptor in it. Fun.

    #3: Martin Sheen is Awesome.

    His voice, for the long-running character of “the Illusive Man” really lends a captivating touch. His character takes a page from the G-Man from Half-Life, or the Smoking Man from X-Files. It’s a device that just doesn’t get old: some powerful dude is behind the scenes pulling strings. He knows an untold number of secrets and he’s always one step ahead. He himself is a weakling, but his knowledge makes him immensely powerful. I’m a sucker for that character. Martin Sheen’s voice is perfect for the role. Also, I wish my computer desk looked like his:


    Playing the Mario banner


    2012 - 04.09

    So as some of you may have noticed, there’s a new banner which randomly appears on the desktop version of this site with a mario theme. I built it using the level editor in Super Mario X, and oh man, it’s actually really hard. Have a look at the below video of me dying once, then trying again and beating it. What you don’t see are the 10 takes before this one where I screwed up and died repeatedly. SHEESH!

    Games I Like: Deus Ex Human Revolution


    2012 - 02.15

    Okay, I wrote this like last September but never posted it for some reason.  So it’s behind the times, but I decided to post it anyway because my good man mister nine tenths shavin powda is playing through it.  Still relevant!

    Man it’s been like… FOREVER since the first one came out. “In the year two-thousaaaaand!”

    I’m not going to get like, super deep into this game because as mainstream as it is, someone else has already said it, and probably said it way better than I could.

    But let’s talk about what makes this cool: choices! An excellent example of the kind of options this game offers the player is when you need to examine some evidence being held within the Police Station. Being a former cop yourself, you may walk through the front door and use your conversational skills to persuade them to simply let you through. I tried this, but since I hadn’t purchased the SexyTalker upgrade, I totally got shot down. Okay, plan B? You could go down into the sewers and find a secret back-door entrance that will require some hacking skills to get open–I actually discovered that route later in the game. Or plan C, the route I took, navigate a series of alleyways, find the right fire escape, climb to the roof, and sneak in through an air duct!  Gordon Freeman style in the airducts bitches!  When will computer bad guys realize how easy it is to sneak inside ANYTHING just by climbing through the ventilation system?!

    As I alluded to earlier, if you want certain avenues to be open to you, that means you need to develop the corresponding abilities. As the game went on, I pumped up my hacking ability, which was definitely the right move; tons of hidden ammo caches can be found by hacking into storage units, and alternate paths open up, allowing you to circumvent guards that otherwise would have required a firefight.

    Another super cool benefit of hacking is the ability to shut down security cameras, and turn the automated turret/robot defense against your enemies. SWEET. There was one level, set in a shipping port, where I actually avoided almost all shooting, and just snuck from storage shed to storage shed, until I found the one with the high-level security terminal. The sounds of robotic defenses opening fire on the surprised guards was so worth the effort. I laughed an evil hoo hoo haa haaaa while watching it all happen over the security camera feed!

    As with the original Deus Ex, you also get the power to choose your own ending. While the conspiracy theories aren’t QUITE as thick, you DO get to effectively decide the fate of the world. The actual ending itself is one of four versions of stock footage set to a dramatic score and a nicely-done voiceover. It works very well! Human Revolution had one of the more memorable video game endings that I’ve seen in a while.

    Last thing I’ll note is that the musical score is top notch. The first one had a decent score, but I think they clearly surpassed it here. In fact, I’d say this game, at least for me, surpassed the original in a lot of ways. It’s a page-turner, plot-wise, and it was just… FUN! Except for the boss battles. Those sucked.


    Get Fired UP: GTA5 trailer one.


    2011 - 11.04

    There’s a NEW Grand Theft Auto! And it’s going to have stuff in it that’s never been in those other GTAs before! OMG!

    Alright, but seriously. Wait… I’m still not over it yet–Oh. My. God.

    Just check out this trailer.

     

    Aw man, GTA, how I adore thee.

    One thing I definitely look forward to is the launch night. For the past two releases in the series me and my buddy Roberto have made an occasion out of this with an all-night GTA binge. Last time this happened, we were so excited to go pick up the game that on the way out, I forgot to grab my keys… which I then realized after we were locked outside of my apartment building. And my apartment was on the 2nd floor. Rob was like, did you lock your balcony door? Answer: No!–and a high five! Boosted him up with my hands and he climbed over the railing, then came running down the stairs roaring triumphantly. I asked, “So did you get the keys?” and he was like, “Ummm, actually no. I thought I just had to let you back in the building door??” (my apartment door locks behind you!) Solid laughs right here. “So rinse and repeat on the infilitration routine, then?” Good times.

    Another amusing thing that we did was to set our own goals and just forget about the game storyline. For example, when San Andreas came out, the first place we wanted to go on the map was Las Vegas (aka Las Venturas). Sadly, this area is locked at the beginning of the game, inaccessible to even the most obsessed motorist due to barricaded bridges. Hmmm, what to do? Undeterred, we hatched a plan so crazy it just might work: find a tall truck, park it next to the barbed wire fence at the airport, climb the truck, jump the fence, and steal a learjet which we could then fly to Vegas!

    It took many tries. Every step of this process turned out to be more difficult than we’d anticipated. Including the unexpected twist that there were fighter jets that will shoot you down if you stray into locked parts of the map, which we had to evade! But lo and behold, after hours of trying and against the handicap of inebriation, we totally crashed a learjet into the Vegas strip. And it was pretty amazing really.

    It made me pretty excited to see the learjet at the end of the first GTA V trailer, just because it makes me remember our crazy, successful plot to cheat our way into places we weren’t supposed to go. And I also know that stealing this jet is also going to be one of the very top objectives when we get set loose in GTA V!

     

    If this article interested you, check out my winding yarn about what makes GTA so great.