Sunday, July 05, 2015

Valkyria Chronicles

I have been enjoying this Japanese RPG with turn based tactical combat since picking it up in the Steam sale.

The game has an excellent story with well developed characters and plenty of background details all told with very cute anime graphics in a storybook format.

The turn based tactical combat feels a bit like XCom but it has several interesting differences. For example rather than each character getting one move each round you get a limited number of action points to spend on whichever characters you chose. Action points are precious so choosing the best characters each round is an great tactical twist. Also surprising is the fact that characters can move after they attack unlike the majority of turn based games that I have played. This means that it is possible for a character like a sniper to pop out of cover take a shot and then pop back into cover. The usefulness of this is somewhat constrained however by the abundance of reaction shots in the game. Most characters get a free reaction shot after you attack them and before you can move. Also they automatically fire at any exposed character  for the duration of that characters turn. There appears to be an accuracy penalty but you can easily be killed just standing around or moving out of cover. It is no exaggeration to say that more bullets are fired this way than through deliberate shots so positioning your units to get good reaction fire is a key element of tactics. It also introduces a sense of urgency to turns because you cannot afford to linger if a character is exposed.

I have read criticism of the mission grading system in Valkyria which prioritises speed over everything else if you want to get the most XP. This is not a game breaker for me however because even though I like taking a slower more tactical approach there are repeatable skirmish missions that can be used to cover any deficit in XP. Also if you are playing more tactically you don't need to maximise your stats so XP is less important.

Friday, July 03, 2015

I really hope Reddit survives

For a couple of years now I have relied on Reddit to keep my middle aged self somewhat current on what is going on on the internet. Prior to this I had already given up on the tardiness of mainstream outlets, the insufferable social graph of facebook, the chaos of twitter and the overwhelming triviality of Buzzfeed.

I will admit that I was initially put off by Reddit's reputation as the home of some of the worst scum and villainy on the internet and it is true that Reddit is host to a lot of very objectionable content and even more objectionable users. Misogyny, discrimination and racism are easily found on the site along with a generous doses of innocent and not so innocent pornography. Reddit has it's own history of outrages such as the awful trial of an innocent by social media that occurred after the Boston Bombing. Yet Reddit is so much more than this.    It is also home to terrific scholarly material on history, science and other subjects. It is perhaps the only  place on the internet where a comment on a book by an ordinary user might be answered by the author himself or a film star or even a president. Best of all the subreddit structure allows you to tailor your Reddit experience to your own interests and likes.

Reddit is also a very current source of news. Breaking news invariably shows up on Reddit long before it hits facebook, Buzzfeed or the established news sites. Indeed you only have to browse Reddit for a few days to realise how much those tardier sources have come to rely on Reddit for their content. It is somewhat galling to hear mainstream media commentators adopt a holier than thou attitude to Reddit when you realise just how much of their own material is lifted from the site. Reddit may not be the most current source of news on the internet but the sites which  regularly beat Reddit to a scoop live in  murkier corners of the internet, places that most of us dare not go. Reddit has become the established portal for the more inspired creations and discoveries of those murkier corners to bleed over into the respectable internet.

Anyway the site is currently going through upheaval and the volunteer moderators and posters who actually make Reddit what it is are very unhappy with the direction being taken by the sites management and administrators. This discontent has been brewing a long time but the flashpoint happened when former Reddit employee Victoria Taylor was let go. Victoria is legendary among the community for co-ordinating and facilitating the AMAs (ask me anything) that have become such a feature of Reddit.

I don't understand the full implications of what is happening here but this feels like a serious rift,  one that ultimately may not be reconcilable. If the management want to pull Reddit in a direction where the volunteer moderators and posters do not want to follow then the future for the site is bleak. I do hope this is not the end of Reddit as we know it. I mean where else could you find a man with two penises vying for top billing with Barrack Obama and Bill Gates?:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Just watched "The Appartment" with Jack Lemmon, Shirley McLaine and Fred McMurray

This 65 year old black comedy still hits the spot today. Lemmon plays a likeable minion in an enormous 1960s office building who  is bullied into allowing his superiors borrow his bachelor apartment for illicit sexual liaisons. Complications ensue when he falls for one of the girls who is being led along by a senior manager. The the story is very black and very clever. The acting is terrific and the period setting is reminiscent of some of the earlier episodes of Mad-Men.

Monday, June 15, 2015

HomeWorld Remastered

I picked up a copy of Homeworld remastered in the Steam Sale. It wasn't strictly necessary because I still have all three original games (HW1, HW2 and HW Cataclysm) and I have even played them within the last five years on a Windows 7 PC. Nevertheless Homeworld was a stunning achievement of gaming and I am happy to support Gearboxes re-release of the series.

A nice thing about the package is that you get Homeworld 1 and 2 remastered as well as the orginal Homeworld 1 and 2 all in one package. Cataclysm sadly is tied up in licensing limbo so that couldn't be included. 

I have played about five missions in HW1 remastered so far and for comparison I also played a couple of missions in the original Homeworld. The good news is that the remastered version sticks very closely to the original but with better graphics. The bad news is that the sound and music are a lot less atmospheric to my ears. This is a big deal for me. Homeworld had awesome atmosphere and the haunting sound track was a huge part of it. The new game just doesn't seem to hit the same note. To be honest I find it more enjoyable to play the older game with poorer graphics and better sound. The controls are a bit better in the new game which might appeal to a new player but I am not sure you get the full effect without the awesome sound track. EDIT: This entire paragraph may be wrong. on second look I am no longer sure that sound and music is the reason why the game feel so different. It may be more to do with pacing. The remastered game is much faster with more resources and more ships all round. 

At least the collection gives you the choice so I still recommend it.

Edit 1: I played a bit more Homeworld last night and I have come to realise that there are significant gameplay differences between the original game and the remastered game as well as the change in soundtrack. Frigates for example seem to be less durable in the new game that the original version. Perhaps the biggest difference though is that the resource economy seems to be far more generous in the new game. The prices of ships are different so it is hard to directly compare but I seem to build up a huge surplus without even trying in the new game while I regularly run out of resources in the older game. This makes a big difference to game play because in the older game you must start each level with a desperate hunt for resources. In the new game I find that  I usually have a big enough buffer that I don't need to scavenge until after the fighting is done. My initial thought about the impact of soundtrack on atmosphere have also been reinforced by a longer playthrough. It isn't just the big set pieces it the timing of incidental sound effects too. Everything in the original Homeworld is exquisitely choreographed. In the new game feels like much less attention was given to the detail of building and maintaining game atmosphere.

Edit 2: I finished the Homeworld campaign (hurray) so I am going back to look at the remastered version again. I am no longer convinced that the sound and music are the reason why the atmosphere seems different. I think it may be more to do with the pacing of the game. The remastered version seems much faster paced.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mafia: My Rose Coloured Glasses Exposed

I am replaying Mafia City of Lost Heaven, a game I fondly remember as having one of the most atmospheric cities in gaming and one of the best story lines but is the reality really as good as my memories?

Well first the bad news: Combat is awful and clunky. Camera angles when driving are frustrating.  The level design is often cruel with long difficult levels having few save points necessitating frequency reloads. I did remember that the game had an infamous unskippable race level which caused many players to quit and yes it is still a frustrating hurdle. It took me about twenty attempts on the humiliatingly titled "easy mode" before I got through. Spare a thought for those poor players who tried to play the game before a patch added  "easy" mode to the race. Some of the levels are so unfair that  wonder if was deliberate cruelty on behalf of the devs. Consider a mission where you must  shootout with a much of hoodlums in order to retrieve a payment for your Mafia boss. The clunky combat controls pretty much guarantee you will take damage but just when it looks like you have killed the last of them you get jumped not once but twice. The second of these pop up assailants grabs a car and drives off with your money so you must give chase. He is driving a powerful sportscar and you have a jalopy. Your only hope of catching him is to shoot out his tyres before he leaves you in his dust. If you do finally manage to force him to stop  (after several restarts most likely) then he jumps out and starts shooting at you. This is when you realise that you are extremely low on health and the game autosaved at the very end of the initial gunfight when you health was at its lowest ebb with no opportunity to regain health. Arggghhh ...

Happily I can report that the city is still wonderful. It looks great and it sounds great and it feels like a 1930's city. The cars are slow and awkward but that is OK because it is the 1930's. Cars should be slow and hard to drive. You can get out of your car and walk or take public transport. The other good news is that the story is still good with strong characters and a good plot.

So are my fond memories of the game invalid? I would say not. The things I remember fondly from the game are still very good. It is just that I somehow forgot how bad the bad bits were. I am not sure I can still recommend a modern gamer to try the game any more though (not that that is easy to do anyway as no digital download is available).