Oh! Be Joyful.

Okay, before I go anywhere, I would like to say sorry for not being on here over the last month. In short, wordpress were being mega douches and I hadn’t been able to log in to do posts. But now I’m here. Oh! Be joyful.

A couple of weeks ago it was the 150 anniversay of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. For all non-Yankees (or non-Rebs) out there that means it was also the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.

There’s been some brilliant work online about this, most notably the New York Times’ Disunion blog, which started earlier in the year, and seeks to chronicle the entire war, day by day. As it happened.

It is, frankly, a scholarly triumph in bringing history sharply into focus. Suddenly you see the context in which disparate events that exist in the American consciousness exist. Recently it has detailed the northern reaction to the fall of Sumter. New York Firemen immediately formed a regiment and headed to Washington to help fight the Rebels. Washington DC itself, amazingly, was undefended at this point, and in fact the Confederacy had more volunteers in uniform than the Union.

Over at Flash of Steel, Rob and Troy discuss the war in games, and why it is such a compelling calling for so many non-Americans. At RPS, Tim Stone has written a piece on Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, with a minute-by-minute account a battle as he wheels the old girl out and flexes his creaking, tactical headbrains.

The whole kurfuffle has made me think about why I’m so drawn to the history, and to be honest, it’s just a great yarn. It has the generals, the tragic presidents, the titanic battles, the evolving technology, the overarching quest to Make All Men Free. And as well as that it has ironclads (awesome), submarines (I shit you not), Ketchum grenades, reams of fantastic quotes, and a supporting cast in the thousands including Walt Whitman, William Seward, Arthur Fremantle, William Russell, Frederick Douglass and others. It also has some great tunes. Oh, and it has this guy.

But one game that has not been mentioned at any point, is in my opinion the best tactical civil war game available- Scourge of War. I’m going to go over this in my next proper post, but there are some obvious reasons why this game has still not made a massive impact on the games community. But I’ll hold off for another time. In meantime watch Frenchy here play it.

P.S. I’m still editing the latest podcast. It is huuuuuge. Hours and hours of footage to go through. And all the while, there’s RL nudging me in the back, barking ‘Go to work’ and ‘Pay the bills’.

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Kieron Gillen explained how to abuse the games press.

Between earning money and editing the mammoth that is the new East Pillage podcast I find myself visiting RPS pretty much every day now, and increasingly finding it the most relevant British games site around. Perhaps it’s because between the core writers and a few contributers they keep the articles appearing steadily every day, but I think mainly it’s because they have the purest agenda, which is simply to spread the word about games they like. This means championing indie games when they deserve it, and highlighting other people on the cyber-webscape who also have valid things to say, like Troy Goodfellow.

Anyhoo, Keiron Gillen, in his trademark writing style (deft insight born from years of experience and evident gaming wisdom written tempered with some truly inexplicable grammar) knocked out an article (some time ago, granted) of seven rules to use when courting the press as an indie gamer. They’re all going in my file of ‘things to do once my first game is actually finished’, which I will begin once I’ve finished ‘things to do to stop being in my overdraft’.

The fact is that if nothing else, us gamers are sharers. We also never shutTF up, and there’s a wealth of guides, advice columns, blogs and forums filled with info on how to do this whole game development thing well. And just like anything, you need to keep looking, and you can’t ever stop doing.

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The New Podcast Is On Its Way.

We just recorded a couple of hours of spiel from our guest this week and now I have that alongside 6 hours of recording to sift through and edit into, do intro and outro, exposition and boom done. Expect some Eldritch Cyclops in the next few days.

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Total War, Part 1: A Chequered History.

The Total War games are my single favourite game series of the last decade. That is saying something considering I wasn’t crazy about Rome (which is the last thing you’d say to TW diehards, but hey), and I’ve never even played Napoleon. Below I’m going to express my heartfelt views on Shogun 2 thus far, in light of its older siblings.

It can be agreed, I daresay, that the weakest entry in the Total War series was Empire, a game set over the 18th century and spanning continents. I’m inclined to ignore Napoleon entirely for this article, if only because I cannot speak with any authority on it. Empire left me with a sour taste, and it turned me off the series even if it was eventually de-bugged a few months after going gold. Through all this, one can usually rely on wily little modders to bring out the best in the game, but support from Creative Assembly for modders for Empire was almost non-existent. Even at the time it was pretty clear why, and it’s also partly the reason Empire felt so incomplete.

For a game set in the sprawling 18th century, Empire seemed curiously distracted. The new gun-based combat and gunboat diplomacy was there, but the context felt half-hearted. Info boxes that popped up each turn anachronistically featured figures in top hats and 19th century garb. The tech tree seemed preoccupied with steam power, and sidled quietly past the great advances of the Age of Reason. Blurbs from the developer mentioned being able to get Napoleon as a junior officer and play out the French revolution. In short, the game resembled a beta for some Napoleonic-themed game that CA were still making. And then, barely months after Empire appeared, they announced not an expansion, but a whole new title, and everything made sense: Empire, for all its ambition, was Napoleon‘s failed older brother, and here was the game CA had been making all along.

It’s perhaps unfair to judge Empire‘s veracity against something as hard-edged as history itself, but I love the 1700s, or at least I love how the 1700s have been portrayed and celebrated previously in popular culture, and there was so much colour and character that the game seemingly overlooked in its haste to get to 1776. Where were the flouncy costumes and perukes of Louis XIV’s court? The jaunty typefaces? The baroque music? The soundtrack sought to be more, well, soundtrack-y than historic, which is fine, but here is where Empire‘s other failing comes in. It’s not something fanboys on forums fumed over (that was the lack of AI sea invasions, FYI). It was, for me, the GUI.

I was forwarded an advert for a GUI artist at CA a couple of weeks ago, and the thought actually struck me that “here’s my chance to get in there and show them how they got it wrong”*. You see, the TW games are filmic. We can assume that this has been their aim from day one, because Shogun came with a ‘make wide-screen’ option which letterboxed the view and seemed to say “yes, we’re thinking of Ran too”. As Jim Rossignol says over at RPS, there are a lot of reasons why TW games aren’t interesting. But one reason they are is because you can see your wall of steel crashing into the enemy’s, and for a few seconds, forget you’re commanding a digital army of wee men and enjoy the spectacle.

I could write a whole other article (and I probably will) on why I love and still play Shogun 1. But when you compare a game as late as Medieval 2 with Empire, you see a worrying sea change. The UI in Empire is everywhere, inescapable and overbearing; you now have arcs of fire helpfully showing exactly where your men can shoot their men; all 200 or so soldiers in each unit light up like fucking Christmas trees when your cursor passes over them. All manner of graphics and imagery are flung at you when before a couple of simple words sufficed.

Ultimately much of it is superfluous and in short, you are constantly aware of the artificial machinery governing the combat; you can no longer lose yourself in the game as easily. Compare the behemoth that is Third Age: Total War (frankly a triumph of user-made entertainment) to Empire and it’s not only the former’s movie heritage that makes it so welcoming to the strategy escapist. M2TW’s front-end doesn’t do fire arcs, or highlight bullets as white streaks in flight. The cursor goes green when it hovers within your missile range, and that’s all we need. Players aren’t morons, and missile troops fire automatically anyway so what’s the deal?

Shogun 2 is, certainly, a masterclass of compromise. It has shaved off much of the scale and size of its predecessors and gone back to the rock-paper-scissors dynamic that made the original so streamlined. This will definitely feel like a regression to players of Empire and Napoleon, but bare with it – it’s for the best. Gone are the hundreds (and hundreds) of units which made up Empire‘s arsenal (and were, honestly, samey). Now we have spearmen, archers and cavalry. That’s pretty much it- one is effective against another, and vulnerable to attack from the other. CA have added a bunch of special units and abilities to the game, like Monkz with Gunz, which seem fresh and arcade-y but are in reality the natural culmination of tweaks and ideas ventured in the previous games.

The campaign map is again a coup in the name of compromise. The original game took place not on a living world a la Empire, but a hand-drawn paper map, presumably in your clan stronghold, where you moved figures that made satisfying plonk sounds when you set them in an enemy province. This was more immersive than later games, but also hamstrung by the tropes of any Risk-based system. The drawbacks were finally remedied with Empire in which aggressive defence was preferable over waiting inside your castle, and an army could no longer bypass an enemy, with the introduction of zones of influence.

Shogun 2‘s diplomatic machinery has benefited from the advances made in Empire. The key to success now is honour. In Shogun 1 treaties and alliances, what few there were, were simply opportunities to delay war with one faction while conquering another, at which point you would turn on your unsuspecting neighbour and butcher them also, at no detriment to your standing amongst the other clans. Now, such ‘dishonourable’ behaviour, (which also includes getting caught using ninjas, becoming Christian and being too soft on your underlings) directly affects how other daimyos see you and treat you. A very similar system was present in Empire and rightfully punished the expansionist player by withering diplomatic relations with competing powers. The idea, again, didn’t truly blossom until modders fine-tuned it.

Shogun 2 also brings back the ninja videos in force, which were immensely entertaining and cranked up the tension by cleverly featuring several videos which were almost identical save for a missed dart or a suspicious guard in the last few seconds. I have to admit that so far I haven’t played multiplayer, but if I’m being honest I’ve never played multiplayer in TW, so I have little to compare it to. The sea battles have also seen a sensible revamping which pays tribute to the era while also making them a lot less boring, more rewarding and more fun, even if they still come down to a matter of quantity over generalship.

The music has gone back to the original’s dynamic scoring, which is welcome but certainly no deal-breaker. The voice acting is strong and varied. The fact that the units yell in Japanese reduces the chance of it becoming grating than the voices of previous games. I sense attention spans waning so I’m going to save the rest for part 2, which probably won’t appear until Shogun 2 is actually out. Until keep your eyes right here for other stuff and tings.

*That’s assuming I have enough UI work in my folio, which is unlikely…

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10,000 photo fan game.

Dong Dong Never Die is a fan-made homage to classic beat ’em ups that borders on the obsessive. It resembles a Tim And Eric sketch, and I’m not sure if we should be laughing with the developers or at them. It’s stupid, but impressively stupid.

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Hawken Looks Nice.

It’s powered by the Unreal Engine, which has been one of the indie go-to engines for the last few years. Developer Adhesive Games promise various multiplayer game modes, in what looks like one sprawling urban arena. But doesn’t it look pretty?

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Reasons to be Cheerful in Twenty Eleven.

First up: The Secret World. I was definitely interested in this from what little I had seen last year, but a new trailer has just come out and we can finally see something of how this MMO set in the modern world is going to work. I find it rather strange when developers insist on appearing in their game’s trailers, but that aside, we may be looking at, if not a WoW-beater, at least a WoW peer. The manthings in the trailer talk about total freedom and ‘doing what you want’ in a Scandinavian accent, but what that actually means remains elusive.

Next up: Bastion. It’s all coming together for developer Supergiant, as Warner Bros are onboard to release and promote their nascent indie title. This makes me happy. This game deserves to be big. Its aesthetic borrows from a bunch of hallmark games that shaped the action rpg genre in the 90s, and yet it still feels like its own beast. Of course, there’s the narrator who accompanies you throughout the game, which is neat. I want to see how that hangs together over the course of the game; if he becomes a character himself. I still beat my chest and say that a dev can throw all the pretty visuals they like at a game, but good voice acting, or a lack of it, is so often the deal-breaker.

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Oregon Trail, now ruining your life on facebook

You read correctly: The Oregon Trail is now playable on facebook, so that we can all enjoy ignoring our RL children while starving our virtual family to death and dying of piles. Anyone spending too much time on twitter today may have noticed it in the ‘most tweeted’ list, above, may I say, the White Stripes or something.

If you’re a no-good, two-bit, apples n’ pears limey like me you likely will not be familiar with this particular game. For yankees however, it was compulsory playing in ‘elementary’ school, right about the same time we were learning about the fucking Romans, our rustic colonial brethren were learning about the 19th century pioneers who took their kin in covered wagons to start a new life out west. I was about to try and explain it without waffling and then I found the video below which sums it up pretty well.

It has a certain special place in the twenty/thirtysomething American consciousness, partly because it meant you didn’t have to work, but also for a lot of kids our age the educational games we played in school were our first experience of computer games. For the girls at least. How times change. Quit yackin’ ol’ man.

The facebook version (which I’d link to, but meh) has all new visuals, because I guess, y’know, those original 1971 graphics aren’t so hot now. Also, while the original game made you hesitant about naming your group after friends, since most of them were certain to perish (I named my group after family members and got SO depressed), the facebook version allows you to put your actual fb friends into the game, so you can see them struggle across the wilderness, if only to completely trivialise their incessant bitching about how slow the buses are.

But I think I’ll still be playing old one – not for any nostalgic reason because as I said, I’m Briddish – but because less is so, so often, more when it comes to evocation. I’m a great subscriber to the idea that less information (and by implication, fewer visuals) spurs on the imagination, and improves any game as a result. But that’s a whole other post right there. So go play it, and then maybe you’ll get why like a million people think this is funny:

But do remember to feed your kids, not like that farmville idiot.

P.S. I just thought I’d throw this one in too ‘cos it’s well-intended:

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With Fire and Sword video

A spring release has been announced for the English version of the new Mount & Blade game, developed independently of Taleworlds, set in 17th century eastern Europe. M&B has always had a crazy-strong modding scene, encouraged by Taleworlds to the extent that improvements and features modded into the original game that prove popular are considered for the vanilla game itself. And so we’ve seen a more advanced management UI, marriage, better dialogue trees, more realistic AI and all manner of extra programming that was born in the community and embraced by the developer.

For me the most interesting add-on is the new multiplayer mode in which you can command your own force of NPCs, something that seemed obvious but was found wanting in Warband. The video above only shows some of the nice new settlements we’ll be able to visit rather than mano e mano deathfighting, but you can just smell the broadswords.

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Salem’s wish trial

Paradox Interactive is a game publishing house that has been championed online over the last couple of years, and has since become a company I respect, if only for their willingness to publish some of the most awkwardly obtuse games out there. They had a convention in New York earlier in the week, and reports are coming in from the writers who attended of the new games they announced. Among them was the add-on to Warband, called With Fire And Sword, which seemed to have disappeared from their release calendar so it’s good to hear that it’s definitely coming out this year.

But another game that has received interest is Salem, and it has nothing to do with these guys and everything to do with these guys. For me it reiterates the emergent practice of indie development, of taking concepts you like from the games of your peers and taking the ideas further, and in a new context. Two recent games that have got me fantasizing as to where future gameplay could take us are Love and Minecraft. The latter needs no introduction, and the former is of a similar vein, but notably brings a host of organised antagonists into the building/mining mechanic.

Love really nailed the feeling of being on a truly alien world, in which the natives are not too crazy about your encroachment. You and the other human players are forced to work together to expand your settlement, while the enemy tribes conduct punitive attacks on foraging players before melting Vietcong-style back into the jungle. When they have attained enough confidence, or feel that the humans have got too big, one or all of the AI groups will launch an all-out assault to try and wipe you out.

It’s the kind of imperfect indie concept project that got me thinking. Could you combine that new-world, pioneer-in-hostile-environment game with the building block, resource hunting and construction engine of Minecraft? Well it seems that some Swedish students had a similar idea and so we have Salem. I’ve embedded a video of one of those curious, staged interviews that publishers love to make with the developer, below. But to summarise the game involves colonising 17th century Massachusetts, and dealing not only with the natives, but also the ancient terrors that so stirred the original settlers’ imaginations.

I’m certainly excited by the ideas here. I love any game mechanic that compels players to take caution and think about the consequences of their actions, and with perma-death and the ‘scent’ feature mentioned above, players can’t just start griefing each other willy-nilly. And when a dev starts listing ‘Anglo-American gothic’ poster boys Lovecraft and Poe in his references, ain’t no bad thing. The idea of the land becoming darker, more mysterious and adversaries taking on mythical forms the further you stray from the colony is very intriguing.

But here we are left with something of an, ahem, paradox. As Rob Zacny explains over here, it’s easy for devs to spout their own pipe-dreams as future game features when the development process is nascent. From early footage of Salem, the game doesn’t exactly look mind-blowing, and I had hoped we would see a first-person view as opposed to the old MMO top-down thing. I want to aim those muskets.

So Salem could be empty promises, or another indie effort with noble intentions that falls short of realisation, but regardless I’ll be keeping an eye on its progress.

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