Half-Life 2: Episode 1 - The Elevator of Doom

After delving back into the world of Half-Life with Episode 1 recently, I got stuck in the first chapter on possibly the most frustrating gaming section of recent memory. There aren't even any enemies involved, just deadly, falling objects.

Near the end of the first chapter, as you try to make your way to the core of the Combine Citadel, you come across a powerless elevator that looks like it descends to the core. So I casually turned the power on for the elevator, and as it started moving, waited patiently for an expected Combine assault. After all, on a similar elevator ride in Half-Life 2, Combine soldiers fired on me the entire time. Unfortunately, I was dead wrong.

The Citadel core was unstable, and threatening to blow up the entire place. Thus, the walls had been constantly shaking. On the elevator, Alyx Vance, your indefatigable AI partner, warns you to "Look up" and "Watch out!" The danger in this section of the game was not soldiers or bullets, but huge falling chunks of debris from the unstable building. What made this section so annoying was that it only partially depends on the player's skill; there's also a significant luck factor involved. Combine this with 15-20 seconds of loading each time you fail and die, and you have a tedious exercise in figuring out how best to approach the situation.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that your elevator, in this high-tech, futuristic fortress, is made of frickin' glass!? Are you telling me glass is the most stable, strong building material the Combine had available? What this means in practical terms is that if a single large piece of debris hits your elevator: Boom, Crash! - instant death, load, wait, retry.

Granted, during this section, although you have no traditional weapons, you do have the super-charged gravity gun. One option is to use it to simply repel the 4 or 5 pieces of debris away from you. Apparently my timing isn't good enough, because that method just didn't work for me. The other option is to grab energy balls lining the walls and fire them at the debris to knock them off course. After dozens of hours of playing Half-Life 2, I'm pretty decent at aiming my guns, especially at large objects. But where the luck comes into play is that even if you hit the piece of debris with an energy ball, that's no guarantee it won't still crash into the elevator. The physics and gravity modeled in the game may still pull the debris right into you, or it might bounce off the wall and ricochet into you. Since this is a one hit death that is only partially within your power to prevent, it was incredibly frustrating. I must have played this short segment for nearly an hour before finally getting past it. I even had to make a quicksave halfway down the elevator shaft to give me a decent shot of making it through.

I suppose it wouldn't have been so bad if the loading time wasn't so long between retries. Usually the loading between sections isn't a big deal, because it loads a large area of the game and I don't die all that often. This is the closest I've been to hurling a controller across the room since the original Super Mario Kart. Thankfully, I made it past, and am now in the core battling the more forgiving Combine soldiers. Phew!!!

Did anyone else have a similar experience during this section of Episode 1? Was it just me? What other games have you become frustrated at in unexpectedly difficult/unfair situations?


Turn-Based or Real Time RPGs?

After having played so many turn-based RPGs over the past year or so, I've noticed quite a few differences with Final Fantasy IX. Most recently on the DS, I played Dragon Quest IV, but I also played Persona 3 and Final Fantasy III relatively recently. I must have a strategic mind because I greatly prefer a turn-based system of battle, versus an active system such as in any Final Fantasy after number 4. I just don't like the idea that if I don't act quickly enough, the enemy will get to go before me or even sneak in an extra attack. This might be why I liked the strategic battles of Final Fantasy X so much: every enemy had a weakness I could exploit, and I always knew the exact turn order of all characters and enemies.

Back to Final Fantasy IX, it continues the FF tradition of employing a real-time battle system. Each character (and enemy) has a timer that fills up at varying speeds. When the gauge is full, that character can take an action. However, in practice, this system still largely replicates a turn-based system. At the most active setting, if you can input your commands without thinking too long, the characters and enemies will pretty much stay in the exact same turn order. So, for example, if the battle order is Character 1, Character 2, Enemy 1, Character 3, Enemy 2, and you don't waste any time picking your actions, that order will remain the same.

Of course, I'm still only partway through disc 2 (of 4). I would expect the real-time battles to get more complicated as the game goes on and you have more skills and abilities to choose from. But maybe not, if the fighter attacks, the thief steals, the mage casts his strongest spell, and the healer waits to heal. In typical usage, FFIX's active battle system is no different than a turn-based system. This may also change later as fast characters get faster, and may start to gain extra turns.

Plus, due to my turn-based preference, I set the battle speed to "Wait," so that the battles effectively pause as I think about which spell to cast. I'm not trying to make the game easier, I just like to have plenty of time to choose the best action.

Otherwise, Final Fantasy IX is going great. The first disc and a half have been largely story-based, with my party moving quickly from location to location, at the mercy of the plot. But I think the game world opens up a bit more on disc 3, and I have more freedom to roam around and go where I will.

I really like how each character has a predefined role or class. I much prefer these types of RPGs to the ones where characters are blank slates and all end up being copies of each other. In FFIX each character is unique: Zidane is the nimble thief, Vivi is the powerful mage, Dagger is the healing white mage, and Steiner is the brute physical attacker. I find unique characters preferable to a game like Final Fantasy VI, where each character can learn every spell in the game, and by the end they mostly are all identical except for a few special abilities.

This is also the first PS1 game I've played on my PS3. I'm not certain, but I think it looks better and loads fast than when played on my PS2. I'm not going to time the load times or anything, but it certainly seems to be pretty speedy. I've also been able to play quite a bit remotely via the PSP, which has been really nice for when my girlfriend would rather watch The Bachelor than me play a classic PS1 RPG.

I'll press onward in my 4th attempt or so to actually finish FFIX, although I will be slowly delving into Half-Life 2: Episode 1 soon. This should provide a nice contrast of games and playing styles.


Half-Life 2: A Stressful But Satisfying Experience

As part of my effort to expand my gaming horizons, I've been trying to play games in genres I normally avoid. One of the biggest gaps in my gaming knowledge is First Person Shooters, which is why the first game I bought for the PS3 was The Orange Box. On Wednesday I finished my 2nd ever FPS, Half-Life 2 (the first was the original Halo.) I know that Half-Life 2 isn't the most difficult shooter, and that in the grand scheme of things this isn't the grandest of accomplishments, but for me it's pretty significant.

When I first started playing Half-Life 2 several months ago, I found it very stressful and a little unsettling. I wasn't used to the fast pace, enemies jumping out of corners and dark spaces, and constantly being shot at from myriad locations. But over the last few weeks, as I played the game more regularly and eagerly, the tense shout-outs became almost normal. While they were still a little stressful, they became more exciting and I actually looked forward to discovering what new scenario, set-piece, or battle lurked around the next corner or down the next tunnel. I don't think I'll ever become a hard-core shooter fan, trying to play all of them. My successful completion of Half-Life 2 shows that with a little dedication, I can delve into genres other than RPGs and strategy games and come out unscathed, probably all the better for it.

Just as with any type of media, it's important for consumers to be able to experience and appreciate different types within that form. I may not like very many romantic comedies, but I can understand what others see in a particularly well-made film. Similarly, I don't desire to play very many shooters, but I certainly see why they can be so appealing. There's a distinct thrilling from encountering a group of enemies and having full control over your character's capability to engage them and remove them as a threat. It's exciting and makes you feel very powerful, especially in a game as well-made and with such beautiful combat scenarios as Half-Life 2. My successful completion of this game gives me heart that other shooters are not beyond the realm of my capabilities. Bioshock will, I think, be even more intimidating as it subscribes to a freakier/creepier cast of enemies, but I know it will be well worth the journey.

In the meantime, before acquiring other PS3 games to expand my library beyond the single game I currently possess, I'm going to take a short break from Half-Life 2. Although I beat the game, The Orange Box also includes Episode 1 and Episode 2, each of which are about a third as long as Half-Life 2 and directly pick up the story. I believe these 2 episodes, along with the as-yet unannounced Episode 3, serve as a sort-of unofficial Half-Life 3. I'm going to take a break from shooting things for a little while, just to give my nerves a rest, and so my girlfriend will stop thinking she lives in the middle of a war zone.

Of the multiple console games I have yet to finish, the most likely games to work on before becoming a shooter aficionado again are the first disc of Final Fantasy IX, the first character of Odin Sphere, or figuring out where the heck I am in Jak II. I'm leaning towards FFIX as a way to continue using my PS3 and not have to switch around cables. Before my shooter hiatus, I should have one more post about Half-Life 2. For an inexperienced FPS gamer such as myself, it was pretty incredible and jaw-dropping. Except for the zombie infested Ravenholm section. That scared the pants off me.


A Newly Discovered Feature of the PS3

I'm still discovering new features of my PS3, after owning one for about 4 months. Some features I am aware of, but can't fully take advantage of. For example, I can't play any games in high-definition because I do not yet own an HD-TV. Likewise, while I have rented one Blu-Ray movie, I don't really see the point until I have a better TV. After all, without an HD-TV and an HDMI cable, the picture doesn't really look better.

What I've recently discovered about the PS3, though, is an interesting little feature: the Remote Play ability to control your PS3 via a PSP. I don't know how many people actually own both of these devices, but their connectivity is pretty simple and, well, powerful. First you connect them via the USB cable, which basically registers your PSP with that particular PS3 system and lets them recognize each other. Then there are a couple of ways to get into controlling the PS3 with the PSP. The slightly more convoluted way is to power on the PS3, go to Network icon on the XMB, and set it manually to Remote Play. Then, do the exact same thing on the PSP and you're all set. What I think is the cooler way is to change the PS3 settings so Remote Play also enables a remote start. This way, if your PS3 is in standby mode and the TV is in use, you can turn it on and use it with the PSP without messing with the TV.

Ok, so you can turn on the PS3 with the PSP. What else can you do? Perhaps one of the best uses of this feature is watching video clips stored on the PS3 remotely. This is pretty good for me too, since I'm not really losing much quality because I only have a standard-definition TV. Less significantly, you can use the PSP's mobility to watch videos away from the living room (or wherever the TV is). I'm also not certain, but I believe a handful of PS3 games allow for Remote Play. I'll have to check on that.

I also love that PS1 games, as well as at least one PlayStation Network title, can be played remotely. I tested PixelJunk Eden, since it's the only PSN title I own, on the PSP. While it doesn't work nearly as smoothly or look as good as on a TV, it's still more than possible to play it. Remote Play is also particularly well-suited to playing old PS1-era RPGs. I've had an itch recently to play through Final Fantasy IX, which is one of the few Final Fantasy games I've neglected. The slower pace and lack of intense action makes games of this type easier to play remotely than more fast-paced games.

Which brings me to my biggest complaint about Remote Play: there is a noticeable lag when accessing the PS3 through the PSP. Since you're not using the PS3 directly, but instead over a wireless network, it's inevitable that a little of the finesse, of the near-instantaneous response time will be lost. This is why games like FFIX work so well remotely, while a 2D fighter might be a little more difficult. A second minor problem is that the PSP battery life was short enough on its own. By using the wireless connectivity constantly during Remote Play, it just runs down that much faster. So you can't expect to use this feature for an exceptionally long stretch of time.

This is a nice little addition to the PS3's feature set. It feels more useful than other handheld-console connections (such as GBA-GameCube), perhaps because the feature is not tied to a specific game. Instead, you have full access to the PS3, and can do pretty much anything you would normally. It's also very advantageous if you live in a household where the television is shared. If someone is watching a TV show, but you really want to play through the next dungeon in FFIX or start downloading a new demo, you can still do it peacefully. Just set the PS3 to standby, boot up the PSP, and go to town. Remote Play may not be perfect, but in certain situations it feels just right.


PS3 Trophies: What Are They Good For?

As a kid, I collected many things: baseball cards, action figures, anything with 'Star Wars' written on it. Most of these items didn't have much value, but they meant something to me at the time. Especially regarding my binders full of baseball cards, most were not worth any money. Yet I cherished them because they represented larger than life personalities. And stumbling across a popular player in a fresh pack, an uncommon event, was pure joy. In some ways, Microsoft and Sony's inclusion of Achievements and Trophies (respectively) in this hardware generation reminds me of my earlier childhood hoarding tendencies.

I'm conflicted, though, in that I think trophies (I'll speak of them since I don't have a 360, although my thoughts should largely apply to Achievements as well) are both a welcome evolution to video games and an unnecessary burden. Much like with my baseball cards, I feel strongly compelled to collect as many trophies as I can, just because they exist. Similarly, I try to complete games I own as much as possible. This why Fire Emblem (GBA) still sits in my unfinished pile, because I still need to re-finish the game with another main character, Hector. So with the two games I have played that feature trophies (Pixeljunk Eden and LittleBigPlanet), I try to gather as many as I can.

Trophies work best for me when either the game itself is not excessively challenging, or when the unlocking of the trophy can be found through a mostly normal play through. For example, Pixeljunk Eden has a trophy for collecting all 5 Spectra in each garden, a reasonable and worthwhile request. Similarly, LittleBigPlanet has trophies for completing each main level or gathering all the stickers in each level. These trophies make sense within what the games set out to accomplish. Pixeljunk Eden is about repopulating and rejuvenating a large garden, thus capturing all the Spectra both furthers that goal and your sense of purpose within that world. LittleBigPlanet, while it includes numerous developer-created levels, is really about sharing and interacting with other users. Thus, the trophy for collecting all the stickers can only be earned by playing with others, either online or off, since some stickers require 2-4 players.

However, trophies are at their worst when they require you to go far outside the realms of normal activity within a game world. Sure, these types of achievements might be cherished by regular gamers seeking an extreme challenge from their tired old games. But I'm more of a Tourist/Completist, so events that force me outside the normal arc of a game don't interest me much. For example, one trophy in Pixeljunk Eden is rewarded for finishing a garden without missing any pollen. For those unfamiliar with the game, when your avatar swings into an enemy, they release a certain amount of pollen, which appears as a burst of numerous, extremely tiny drifting dots on the screen which disappear after a short time. Fail to grab even one of these, and you might as well start over. With so many games to play, I have no time for such tedium.

At the same time, the value of some difficult trophies is purely dependent on the characteristics of the player, and of the game itself. In LittleBigPlanet, I was immensely proud when I finally earned the Play trophy, for beating all the main story levels without dying. This was quite hard, because some of the later levels are long and reasonably nasty. But I didn't mind retrying levels until I earned this trophy, because the mechanics were relatively simple and restarting a level was quick and seamless. I didn't need an extraordinary amount of skill to earn this trophy. I mainly needed patience, and the ability to remember where I made mistakes and correct them the next time.

So my general attitude toward trophies is that the best ones are acquired through the normal course of play, or when the game is so compelling and fun in its own right that you don't mind replaying part of it repeatedly to earn one digital award. For me, they are also at their worst when they are excessively and purposefully beyond the realm of normal difficulty or expectations. I have so many games I want to get through, that trophies that are too tricky to earn aren't worth my time.

Nonetheless, these types of achievements are by and large an addicting addition to PS3 and 360 games when implemented with thought and care. But they are also easy to abuse, and developers can simply add them haphazardly because they are required to by Sony and Microsoft. But the good outweighs the bad. And it's now even easier to show off my collection than when I was a child. No more lugging around heavy binders of baseball cards. Now, all we need to do is exchange our user names.


A Final Mystery: The End of Persona 3

What a week! Here in Kentucky we had a major ice storm last week. Several hundred thousand people were/are without power. Some won't even get power for a few more weeks. I was lucky, in that I only lost cable and Internet for a few days. Not such a big deal, when you consider that some people were unable to stay in their homes. But I'm back online now, and the city's slowly getting back to normal.

In gaming news, after returning LittleBigPlanet (bloody brilliant game!) I switched gears full forward into finishing off Persona 3. The lack of cable and Internet really helped quicken this goal. With no television, Internet, or ability to look for jobs, I had lots of free time to delve deeper into Tartarus. Mission accomplished! I beat Persona 3.

Ah, but I forgot to mention that I actually own Persona 3: FES, which is the special edition of the game, released several months after the original. What this means is that while the original, main storyline is the same (except for some added items and social links) there is an entirely new addition to the game. This mode is called The Answer (as contrasted with The Journey). It's supposed to expand upon the plot of the main game and explain what happened afterwards.

I have a couple of problems with this. First is that I just finished playing an 80 hour RPG. The last thing I want to do is now wade into a 25-30 hour extension of the game, which is largely a humongous dungeon crawl. Granted, the hearsay on the Internet seems to indicate that the story in The Answer is amazing and well worth the time. But I ask you this, Internet: is it amazing by universal narrative standards, or just amazing by the generally dull video game standards?

Second, what is the point of this extra chapter? I didn't feel like there were any loose ends left over at the conclusion of Persona 3. Maybe I missed something, but I now understand why Tartarus existed, where it and the Shadows came from, and why it had to be destroyed. I even think I have a tenuous grasp on the general theme of the game: Death. What is there left to add? One of my biggest pet peeves is when DVDs are released as unrated or with extra scenes added in. Except in very rare cases, I want to see the movie as it was originally released and intended to be seen. These additions rarely add anything, and usually detract from the overall worth of the film.

Does a similar concept hold true with video games? Admittedly, most video games are only released in one version. Very few receive updated releases. One notable example was Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, which added better, more fluid controls and an online component to the original game. But releasing an addition to the story is quite different to improving the controls or fixing some bugs. The new Prince of Persia is similar to Persona 3 in this regard in that they are planning to release some DLC that tweaks the difficulty and adds on some more story segments at the end of the main game. In general, I think these kinds of additions are completely unnecessary. If the story is understandable and 'complete', it doesn't need further explanation. It's redundant.

Specifically with Persona 3, I think the game is fine the way it stands. It doesn't need an extra story to plod through just for some added insights. There are no loose ends, and everything fits together pretty well. That being said, I would like to play through The Answer and see if it really is as interesting as everyone says it is. Just not right away, because I am extremely burned out on Persona 3 and long RPGs in general. Since my PS3 has been neglected for the past few months, other than LittleBigPlanet, I'm going to return to Half-Life 2. A fast-paced shooter will be a nice change of pace. I can't wait to get back to tossing things around with the good old gravity gun!


LittleBigPlanet: The Smile Maker

LittleBigPlanet is the most fun, charming, entertaining experience I've had since childhood.

Being currently unemployed and therefore on a very tight gaming budget, I rented LBP last week, largely because I was unsure if it would be able to sustain my interest over a long period of time as a purchased title. After five days, I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it could keep me entertained for months. My only hesitancy is that since I'm not interested in taking the time and intense effort to create a decent level to share, what's the point of purchasing a game when I miss out on 1/3 of what it has to offer? Now I know that the other 2/3's, playing through the Media Molecule-developed story levels and sampling the wide variety of community-developed levels, provides more than enough engaging content.


The 25-30 levels Media Molecule created as the Story levels in LBP are brilliant fun. They slowly but surely introduce new ideas and types of play. First, you just run and jump. Soon, you kill enemies, including giant bosses, navigate deadly traps, and work your way through very complicated scenarios. However, while these levels are fun and interesting in their own right, they become even more fantastic when I remember that they were completely created using the in-game level creator. Every tool and technique Media Molecule used to make these levels can be borrowed and replicated by any player around the world, provided they have the patience to create an equally complex level. Part of the genius is that for playing through and thoroughly scouring every nook and cranny of the levels, you are constantly rewarded with new costumes, stickers, and building materials that can then be immediately put to good use in the level editor. Playing through the story levels is not a waste of time. In fact, it's completely necessary if you want to maximize your productivity when creating levels of your own.

While the story through most of the developer-made levels is largely forgettable (I couldn't tell you the plot in most of the areas), the ending is simply brilliant. It reminds me of Portal, in the sense that there is a satisfying ending to the story levels that is nothing like what you expect. The best praise I can give the ending is that I couldn't help but smile at the charm of it all! Media Molecule actually managed to ground the mythos of LBP in the real world. It's just amazing.


For me, this is the least interesting mode of LBP. Granted, it's vast and allows you to build, create, and set-up nearly any type of object or experience you can imagine. However, my personal tendency is to play through levels rather than create them. I've tried messing around with level editors in the past, and it never lasts long. I will make the effort of creating a level or two at some point, just to fully check out what the editor is capable of, but that will have to wait until I buy the game. My rental is due back today at noon. : )

I'm not sure what Media Molecule expects out of the average user. Traditionally, very few people mess around with level creation. And of those who do, an even smaller percentage are even moderately decent at level design. So while some amazing levels have been created, a lot of them are pure garbage. It's too much to expect everyone to suddenly become a game designer, but the tools available do allow certain types of people to really put their creativity and imagination to good use.


With only a five day rental period, I have barely scratched the surface of checking out what user-created levels are available. I've played quite a few based on Shadow of the Colossus, the famous Azure Palace and Little Big Calculator levels, and even a few reproductions of Super Mario Bros. that somehow have not been removed. I also plan on looking at levels focusing on pirates, ninjas, and Japanese themes before I take the game back. The ability to search for levels has been greatly improved with a recent patch, with levels being searchable by several different criteria. The ability to rate and comment on each level after you play it really helps to keep the community involved in the game, having total control over which levels and authors rise to fame and which sink to the bottom of obscurity. The variation and creativity of the user-created levels is seemingly endless. They could keep me entertained for a long time to come.

I am fully convinced that LittleBigPlanet is one of the most endearing, entertaining, and just plain fun video game experiences I've had in a very long time. It really makes you feel like a kid again. In some ways, LBP is more of a sandbox-style game than an open-world game like GTAIV. You can do, build, and play anything you want to. There are no serious punishments, or even a "wrong" way to play a level. You are encouraged and expected to explore each level as fully as possible. Jump and run around. Have fun. The world really is your own personal playground, and we're all better off for it.


(In)Consistency in Persona 3

Ok. I know have complained a lot about Persona 3 recently, and how I grew tired and bored with its slow pace and plodding narrative. Now that I'm into December (when the game ends in January, I think?), the narrative has really ramped up. As such, I'm a little more involved in the story, and actually look forward to reaching the next full moon as quick as possible in order to see what happens next. But this renewed interest in Persona 3 doesn't mean that other aspects of the game don't stand out to me as problematic.

Since the beginning of the game, in fact since the first time my character died and I had to reload the game, one glaring flaw of the battle system has annoyed me to no end. When a character dies in battle, there a re a couple of ways to revive them, usually by using either a Revival Bead (item) or the spell Recarm. Then, the character is revived with some amount of health, and you hope they survive until you can heal them. This is a standard revival technique, found in nearly every RPG in some form or another. And it works very well, usually. Unfortunately, in Persona 3, the only character that cannot be revived, at all, is the main character, who also happens to be the only one you directly control in battle.

If the main character (MC from now on) loses all his health, he dies. Game over. No chance to revive him in the same battle. You then must spend several minutes watching scene, going through the title sequence, reloading, and backtracking. This is particularly annoying if you are stuck battling a difficult boss or guardian. Perhaps the reasoning for this aspect of the battle system is that since the player does not have direct control over his teammates, if the MC dies, it's Game Over because you can't bring yourself back from death. However, all of your teammates are capable of using items in battle, including Revival Beads. I've seen them revive each other before. At least one character, who usually serves as my party's healer, has the Recarm spell. Why, when the MC falls in combat, can one of the other characters not revive me? If they can revive each other, it makes absolutely no sense that they cannot revive me also?

Each party member can have a battle tactic assigned to it. So, for example, I could assign my strongest attacker to go all out attacking an enemy, or have another character target an enemy's weakness. If I have programmed all my teammates to attack, then I understand that they might not revive the MC. However, if, as I regularly do, I have assigned one character to always heal the party, why would that character not be given the chance to also revive the MC? There's no reason not to. When a simple stroke of bad luck (such as one of the frequent instant death spells being successful) conspires against you, it's not only unfair to instantly have to restart, but it makes no sense within the logic of the game world.

Finding myself very near the end of the game now, I find this inability to revive the MC a particularly glaring fault as I learn more about the themes and point of the narrative. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the theme of Persona 3 revolves around death, and seems to be focusing on the characters' ability to accept and understand death. Perhaps, when I finally complete the game, I will be able to come up with some thematic reason as to why the MC is so fragile and able to be permanently killed. Until that point, it just adds to the tedium that sometimes pops up in this game.

I wonder if Persona 4 addresses this problem. I know that game gives you full control over the entire party, so perhaps the death of the main character does not lead to an instant game over. Does anyone know? I'd be very curious to find out.

I'm near the end, so my ranting about Persona 3 should come to an end soon, and I can move on and complain about something else.


Sometimes I Feel Like an Open World Game, Sometimes I Don't

If there's one consensus among those who write about video games, it's that most of the top games of 2008 were characterized by their open ended nature. Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Fable 2, GTA IV, LittleBigPlanet. These games want you to believe you can do anything and/or go anywhere. I often find these type of open ended experiences overwhelming. With so many options of what to do next, I often freeze up and find myself unable to continue at a solid pace. Sometimes, I don't even feel like starting up such a large, open world game. This causes me to spend way too much time thinking about what game to play, or what I should do next in that game, than actually playing a game.

I've recently been playing a lot of Civilization Revolution, which while open in terms of having numerous civilizations to play as and choices to make, provides a relatively short, clear game experience. More relevant is that I've also been reading a lot about and delving into Civ IV, which is an absolutely huge game. You can tweak the map settings, difficulty, starting civilization, and opponents any way you like. Games span hundreds of turns, maybe 20 hours of real-world time. There's always something new to see behind the flashing prompt, which reads "Press Enter to End Turn." Getting a handle on Civ IV, and playing it enough to feel semi-competent, is a tall order for many gamers.

That being said, it almost felt like a relief returning to Persona 3 last night after many months away from Gekkoukan High School and the random dungeon Tartarus. I know I've complained previously about how slow and plodding Persona 3 can be at times. And I think that complaint still stands. But after all the Civ IV decision-making I've been doing the last few weeks, the relative simplicity of Persona 3 was a joy to behold. What personas to fuse, what characters to spend time with after school to increase social links, and just keeping track of my daily schedule seemed simple in comparison. Plus, I had last saved just one week before the next major boss, so I quickly found myself facing an exciting, story-based segment. Since this was near the end of the game (finally), I witnessed several intriguing revelations.

I always like to have a couple of gaming options at my fingertips at any given time. I'm not always ready for the time commitment to a massive Civ IV session. Nor do I always want to slog through several more days of Persona 3. Even though spreading my gaming time amongst several games slows down my overall progress, the options help keep my sanity and enjoyment intact.

Plus, sometimes I just want to play through a few quick levels of New Super Mario Bros. You can't beat playing a game with such a classic, quick design. I love playing video games. I just don't want it to feel like a chore.


To Those Who Make Civ IV Seem Easy

Civilization IV is a hard game.

And I don't mean hard in the sense of trying to make a difficult jump in a Mario game. I mean hard in the sense that there are dozens of different variables you need to keep in mind at any given time. I'm about 170 turns or so into my first game (out of 500 on normal speed, I think?). After a couple of brief wars, which I spectacularly failed, I have seven cities. In those cities, I need to regularly decide which units and buildings to construct, constantly monitor my workers to make sure they're doing the right jobs, make sure I produce enough research to advance technologically, make sure my empire's not going bankrupt, keep track of the AI personalities so they don't overrun me, and try to maintain a formidable military presence while also building infrastructure and wealth. Civilization IV is huge and extremely open-ended, and is proving to be more than a little overwhelming.

Which is why I greatly salute players like Sulla and Kylearan, who play this game all the time. In my constant reading about Civ IV, I regularly come back to their websites to read reports about games they've played, most of which were challenges on higher difficulty settings. They make it seem so effortless, yet I make many mistakes and stall out attacking a weaker civilization on the most average difficulty setting. Most of their posts are older, of challenges from a website called Realms Beyond Civilization. I don't know if they still play regularly, or will ever post commentary on their completed games again. But I really enjoy wading through their dense play-by-play walkthroughs of past victories. I don't know that I'm learning much myself, being such a novice, but it's pretty exciting and interesting to watch a pro take a fledgling civilization and turn it into a globe-spanning empire.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I've taken to heart so far is that the Civilization games are at heart economic simulations. If you understand that aspect of the game, you can be successful at the other parts. A successful economy in Civ leads to faster research, faster production, and even the ability to buy upgrades, units, and favors. It's a very powerful aspect of the game. Unfortunately, I'm mostly stumbling through everything, even though I feel like I understand the game in principle.

The learning curve on Civ is extremely high, perhaps more so given that I installed the main game and both expansions at the same time. This means I have numerous map options and settings to choose from, difficulty levels to master, scenarios to conquer, and a grand total of 34 civilizations and 52 leaders to choose to play as. Overwhelming is an understatement.

That's why I'm glad such a passionate fan community exists around Civilization IV, even more than three years after its initial release. Perhaps the best site for general information and strategies is Civfanatics.com. The community and forums are still very active, and there is a mountain of helpful information to search through. Sites like Sulla's and Kylearan's, despite being older and infrequently (no longer?) updated, inspire me with visions of the high peaks of success that are possible with this game.

Civilization IV is dense, complex, long, and utterly engaging. I may get tired of it quickly, and move on to other, more instantly gratifying games. But if I stick with it, I know that there is a small army of dedicated players out there willing to provide advice on my amateur tactics. Civ IV is a different beast from Civ Revolution, like comparing Mozart's Requiem to Mary Had a Little Lamb. Both are fun, but one makes me want to wail in confusion while the other makes me feel like a king.

Sulla and Kylearan, and others who have mastered Civ IV, I give you a tip of my hat.


Montezuma: How to Conquer the World Without Really Trying

(The following are extracts taken from the diary of Emperor Montezuma of the Aztec civilization.)

4000 BC
The soon-to-be-mighty city of Tenochtitlan was founded today. It's not much to look at yet, but on the coast it will soon be a mighty city indeed. But before I can lead the Aztec people to world dominance, we're going to need some strong Jaguar Warriors.

3700 BC
The first (of many) Jaguar Warriors finished training today and set out to explore the wilderness. His instructions were as follows:
  1. Explore the murky terrors of the unknown.
  2. Seek contact with other people. If you meet someone, kill them!
  3. I would like a nice gold bar, or maybe some spices, for my wife. See if you can find some.
2500 BC
Tenochtitlan is growing nicely, with thousands of citizens at my command. Two more mighty Jaguar warriors joined with the first, forming a mighty army. Being blessed by the gods, I gave them the ability to heal after battle. Now no one will be able to harm them! Hahahaha. Unless the enemy has tanks or something. That would be very, very bad.

My Jaguar Warrior Army headed towards nearby Kyoto to send a message to the puny Tokugawa that if you settle too close to the Aztecs, you're going to get burned.

1900 BC
Unsurprisingly, Tokugawa possessed no tactical finesse whatsoever. His capital was defended by but a duo of archers. My Jaguars had slaughtered countless barbarians, and were veterans of the battlefield. Kyoto soon became an Aztec colony.

Oh yes, and Kyoto was the Japanese empires' sole city. Thus, they have been completely annihilated. Good bye.

0 BC (0 AD?)
The last 2000 years have been largely peaceful for the Aztecs. Settlers founded three more cities to expand my empire, and scouts revealed that we have complete control of the entire western half of the continent. Unfortunately, upon discovering the mangy Mongolians and evil Egyptians on my eastern borders, my Jaguars are not strong enough to overrun them. Thus I sacrificed them and called my many scientists to my throne room and spoke, "The Mongolians are a blight to my eyes. You must create a weapon that can bust down their stone walls. Perhaps some type of device that throws rocks at very high speeds." So began the age of the catapult.

600 AD
With but two tiny cities crammed in a corner of the continent, Genghis Khan and the Mongolians have been eradicated, and the cities were welcomed into the mighty Aztec empire. Now to go after Cleopatra and the Egyptians. I am not ashamed to admit that they are very strong, with many strange technologies that I do not understand. Instead of bows, their archers carry long pointy sticks. No matter. My catapult armies can throw rocks very fast. Smash, smash, smash!

700 AD
At Cairo, the gods punished me. For my arrogance? No, for not building a sufficient army. Cleopatra is very smart and crafty. Her "piighkemen" easily kept my catapults and Jaguars from getting close to the city. They even had a strange shiny man on a horse with a sword. He terrified me so very much, he must be the devil. I ordered my scientists to make me a "nite," as I heard them called. Many citizens have been sacrificed to please the "nite" gods. They will be mine soon.

1400 AD
I am growing older, but my hatred for Cleopatra burns only the hotter with each passing year.
Many centuries have passed since my deal with the devil, but I have now amassed many armies of Knights on the outskirts of Cairo. Dark-robed spies are waiting to sneak in and destroy defenses. The Egyptians have no light at the end of the tunnel.

1425 AD
The Egyptians no longer walk the face of this Earth. Cleopatra begged for mercy, but I snubbed out her light myself.

1450 AD

A scouting unit has revealed Emperor Napoleon's French to the east. I know I must annihilate them. The blood lust of the gods demands it. My son urges me to seek peace. But I know I cannot. I am growing old, and have but a few years to make my mark on history. Napoleon, make your peace with the world. There is no hope, and there will be no mercy.

1700 AD
What have I done? Millions have been slaughtered, forests cut down, cities demolished. And I, the sole Emperor of the World, the Universe, and Everything, sit atop it, seeing all, trusting no one. Was it worth it? What use is it to rule a world scorched by flames, scarred by warfare? Perhaps next time will be different. I won. But at what cost?


The Shortcomings of Civilization Revolution DS

Despite the many things I enjoy about Civilization Revolution, as with most games there are a number of issues that could be addressed to make the game a little smoother. So I'll start this series of posts with a look at where Civ Rev falls a little short. Although I'm talking about DS version, I believe most of my comments probably apply to the PS3/360 versions as well.

One of the biggest problems with Civ Rev simply involves the interface. There's no map in this game. This is no problem at all in the early stages of the game when you're still exploring. Most of the area can be seen without scrolling at all. But later in the game when all the land and the other civilizations have been exposed, it can sometimes be a real pain to slowly scroll to the city or location you want to examine. The fastest way I've found to traverse the world is to go into the city view mode and keep hitting 'R' to go to the next city.

Another interface problem involves the city management screen. From here you can decide what your city will build next, and also determine how to allocate your workers. There are buttons to set your workers to focus on gold, production, science, food, or some combination of those. Unfortunately, most of the presets rarely are adequate for how I want to run my city. While there is a customization button, it becomes tedious to go into this customization menu and manually set your workers on the right tile every few turns. Here's where Civ Rev could have benefited from Civ IV. In Civ IV, you manually set your workers on the first screen when you opened the city maintenance screen, unlike Civ Rev where it's buried a layer deeper. I see no reason I could not also customize my workers, which is usually optimal, from the main city screen. This is a minor gripe, but in a game whose existence is based on being streamlined, fast, and accessible, I think an opportunity was missed.

One problem unique to the DS version is the lack of the Civilopedia. I know, this was largely unavoidable due to size limitations. After all, they did cram the entirety of a Civilization game onto a tiny DS cartridge. But with the removal of this resource that explains every single unit and feature in the game, I sometimes find myself unable to look up some information that the game will not tell me. For example, after creating a Cannon, I might forget the strength of that cannon a few turns later. The game won't tell me just by selecting the cannon, only when I'm preparing to attack another unit. I can also find out the Cannon's statistics by going into a city menu, going to the Unit Production menu, scrolling down to Cannon, and then switching back and forth between highlighted units until the statistics screen pops up. This is a small issue, but when striving for quick and easy access, this added time in every game does not help.

A few more minor nuisances:
  1. You can't customize a map type. You can only play on a random map, so every time the map is mostly similar. You can choose continents, Pangaea, islands, highlands, etc. as in Civ IV. I would assume this was cut due to balance issues. With only one general type of map it would be much easier to keep the game more balanced, although different map types force you to use different strategies with different civilizations.
  2. I've only finished 3-4 games, so this is a bit of a jump. But it seems like any civilization has a pretty decent chance to meet any of the four victory conditions, despite having civilization-specific advantages. You can play to maximize your civilization's inherent advantages, but you don't have to. In short, you can play as any civilization with any style you want to, and still have a good shot of winning any victory condition. (This could also be a compliment.)
  3. Due to the faster-paced nature of the game, games too often rely on aggression and warfare, with very little room for diplomacy beyond buying/selling technology and paying one rival civilization to attack another.
I wrote a lengthy list of criticisms here, but I'm not really trying to devalue the game in any way. I really enjoy it. It's just as fun and addicting as it's PC big brother, as long as you accept it's limitations. That "one more turn" mentality is just as prevalent here, maybe more so since there's a little less to manage in any individual game. I know I'll play many more matches. I'm currently only on the middle of five difficulties, and will probably play the next few games at this level. The next highest will probably be quite the challenge, as the A.I. gets some resource and speed advantages that I don't.

While the "revolution" in this adaptation isn't quite perfect, it's a lot of fun. The core changes to game play really do speed things up; my games typically take 5-6 hours since I micromanage a lot.

Next up: a more specific civilization post.


Back in the Saddle in the New Year

I've been away from the blogging game for quite a while now. Without going into too many details, it was largely because of a busy holiday time, my continuing search for a job, and general laziness. Oh yeah, and getting wrapped up in playing games instead of writing about them!

Even though I haven't written much recently, I have certainly stayed busy. The remake of Dragon Quest IV for the DS kept me busy through most of the Christmas season. As a long time fan of Japanese RPGs, it really scratched an itch I had neglected for far too long. One thing I like about JRPGs like DQIV is their repetition and relative simplicity. I know that typically a new town will lead to a new dungeon to explore. And if I'm not strong enough for a particular boss, I know I can walk back and forth in a room, level up, and try again. For me, (most) JRPGs are the comfort food of video games, an electronic macaroni and cheese.

As I've posted previously, I also spent as much time as possible on Persona 3, enjoying it but struggling to stay involved enough to see it through to the end. Not much news there, I have about three months of game time left, and at least three major bosses. The struggle shall continue, although it is getting easier.

Perhaps the biggest regret of the last few weeks is that I have neglected my PS3 almost completely, and I'm not sure why. One reason is that I want to rush through Persona 3 so I can play Metal Gear Solid 3, in order to finally play Metal Gear Solid 4. MGS4 is arguably the game I most want for the PS3, but I see no point in getting it until I play the third outing. My plan is to reinvigorate my PS3 attention by renting a game soon, ideally LittleBigPlanet or the new Prince of Persia. So we'll see how that goes.

Perhaps the biggest reason I'm not currently focused on the PS3 is that I'm completely engrossed in Civilization Revolution (DS version). It was next on my list after DQIV, after many months of neglect. I realize and accept that it's a simpler, streamlined version of its PC counterparts, and really enjoy it for what it is. It will probably be my game of choice for essays for the next couple weeks.

After starting Civ Rev, and seeing a holiday sale on Steam, I was immensely curious if the critically-acclaimed Civilization IV would work on either my or my girlfriend's computer. Unsurprisingly, it failed completely on my ancient PC, but runs quite smoothly on my girlfriends so far. Civ IV really is quite a beast of a game. There's so much to learn and do, I'm pretty sure it could be played forever, and would be my game of choice if I was stranded on a desert island (with electricity). Learning about the intricacies of Civ IV (as well as Revolution) has consumed my thoughts of late. There's just so much involved with both of those games.

Even though I've been somewhat lazy with the blog, I'm trying to rectify that in the new year. Here's to more consistent posting in the future!

P.S. I don't have a 2008 "Best of" list because I so rarely played any of the big games that were actually released last year.