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SpeakGeek: Video Gamer at Heart

It’s Speak Out With Your Geek Out week, encouraging bloggers to get out and talk about those hobbies that people might find a bit geeky, and I have oh so many little things that qualify.

The most obvious to anyone following this site is that I love to play video games. I talk about them, give quick reviews and impressions, and laud those few games I find tremendous.

My history with video games goes back to the seventies when my parents purchased both a TRS-80 system as well as an Atari 2600. The TRS-80 had a magnetic tape drive so we could load and write to a tape. Many of the little programs my brother and I wrote were more along the lines of:

10 PRINT LOOK AT ME!

20 GOTO 10

We got a bit more advanced and added IF/THEN and FOR/NEXT commands, but we enjoyed playing games like Oregon Trail, a Pong clone and others lost to memory. It was our first dip into computing.

With the Atari 2600, we had  a few cartridges we enjoyed playing. Combat came with the system, notable for being the first joystick game anyone played at home in the late 70’s. Our family didn’t have a lot of money so the cartridge purchases were few, but the occasional cartridge swap with friends helped round out the game library. Among the games played were Circus Atari, Yars Revenge, Pitfall, Pole Position, Pac Man, Asteroids, Defender, Jungle Hunt, Moon Patrol, Pele’s Soccer, and about a dozen I’m forgetting.

Two notable games: my brother and I played Space Invaders to an obsessive degree. We once played the game with the intention of rolling the score over back to zero. Hours of playing, switching at points between levels to give each other rest, we finally accomplished our goal…well after our bedtimes, but dammit, we succeeded!

Secondly, I think we were one of the few families that bought E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, infamous now as one of the worst video games ever created and the game that bankrupted the once mighty Atari. It was an awful game, really bizarre, but for some reason I played it with some regularity. Once you knew how to avoid the Feds, the game became maddeningly simple.

When not at home, the arcade was my favorite hangout. A five dollar bill would get me twenty quarters (or twenty four tokens if we were someplace special) and my chance to play games like Spy Hunter, Elevator Action and Gauntlet. My brother became a very good Galaga player. Five dollars was also easy babysitting for my mom and dad when we’d go shopping as a family.

As arcades lost ground to better and better gaming on PCs, I followed along with my 386 SX, then a number of custom built PC rigs. I may have justified the construction of those PCs with helping me do homework and the like, but I always tried to make sure I could play good games. I was never in the financial position to get a top end rig, but I wouldn’t be far off of the recommended build.

Online gaming became more and more popular, LAN parties were occasionally attended and my love of video games continued. I got involved in competitive WAN gaming with Tribes, a first person shooter which used jet packs to really create a more nuanced strategic FPS when you have to consider death from the sky.

I was a bit late to the MMO party, completely passing on Everquest, but hoping on for Dark Age of Camelot, where I learned that not playing six hours a day, seven days a week would quickly get me behind the rest of the group, unable to play with others in much higher zones. Then came a stint with WoW, which I eventually gave up on because of leveling issues and no longer able to play with friends again. I picked up EVE Online and after four years, I still play.

But I don’t limit myself. I’ve found that I pick up some games that are more casual in nature (The Sims series), funny (Deathspank), classics (Half Life and it’s sequels), puzzle games (Portal, Portal 2), and a wealth of indy games like Magicka, World of Goo, and Kerbal Space Program.

Okay, so I’ve done the background, but why should you enjoy a video game today? There are video games for every taste. From the hard core to the casual, video games are there to entertain. Looking for a good zombie game? Left 4 Dead 2 is excellent (and plus there are a ton of zombie games on the market, L4D2 just happens to be the best). A puzzle game to stretch those mind muscles? Space Chem will make you think about fake chemistry and inventive pathing. Want a fun, amusing click adventure? Machinarium is a brilliant little game with an expressive hero who doesn’t say a word. Perhaps you are in the mood for an 8-bit looking adventure? Minecraft will give you a bit of this as well as tweak those creative muscles when building. And as I’ve said here before, you’d be hard to go wrong with Portal or Portal 2 (just wonderful games). Most board games have gone online as well, including ports of games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassone.

What games do you like?

Why Earthrise Got It Wrong

I’ll state right off the bat, this is my second swing at writing this. My first attempt ended up being a 2000+ word rant about the shortcomings of Earthrise, a relatively new Sci-Fi MMO game. I wrote it late on March 31st and thought about publishing it. However, I had no desire to release it on April Fool’s, so I withheld it with the intention of putting it out there April 2nd. In the meantime, I realized how little it meant to spend so much time kicking a game that’s already down. The result is this post, a quick overview of the parts it got wrong and what it takes to launch something in the ever-increasingly tight MMO space.

Not a bad looking game in places

To start off, let’s list off the good and the bad. First the good:

  • The visuals weren’t bad.
  • The music is not bad either. I had a couple of issues of music cutting off when I hit a different zone, but not a bad thing.
  • Crafting is pretty deep and if the economy gets a chance to develop, might be one of the strongest points in the game.
  • Customer service can craft a friendly email. More on this later.

Not present here: swaths of online gamers

    There were some elements that were just off, like the swaying of the trees which moved not in a way that normal trees sway, but much like how a drunk would sway his arms while being held erect by two friends as they were all moving through a crowd and jostled by weary onlookers. There’s an uneasiness as the trees move and it doesn’t look quite natural. And the sound effects were largely unimpressive, but serviceable.

    But the bad list. Well, here it is:

    • The user interface was clunky and eschewed standard configurations without good reason for doing so. It seemed like this PC only release initially was slated for a console and they forgot to redo the key assignments.
    • MOB behavior is still broken in many ways.
    • Training goes on for too long, covering too much distance to essentially do the same thing four times and then run between stations.
    • Game performance is still sub-par. The game still has near constant hitching, latency issues and other hiccups which make some PvE combat beyond difficult.
    • A story line that already feels stale and pointless.
    • Vast expanses of completely empty area.
    • Long initial loading times.
    • Areas with bad shadows.
    • No battle log to find out which enormously high character just ganked you.
    • Dead population areas.
    • Basically, the server has few players and seems empty. Even global chat is virtually static.

    Early in the game, literally a portal to nowhere

     

    As for the PvP part of this game, the main selling point…well, it can only go so far. I like PvP when it’s done right. I think games like Global Agenda did it right, where even as a low end character, you could still be a positive force on your team even though technically you are out-gunned. EVE Online can get you in a tackling frigate within a couple of hours of playing, a vital part of successful PvP fleet engagements. Earthrise didn’t seem to have anything like that available. Within hours of playing for the first time, I was gunned down by another player as I was shooting rats. No joke. Another time, I was trying to get to one of the two main faction cities when I got ganked and killed in two quick, successive shots. There was nothing I could do and I barely knew where the shots came from or indeed, who killed me at all. At low levels, it’s no fun. There’s barely any skill involved, it being a cheap kill. I won’t say that I haven’t been at the wrong end of some quick kills in other games, but I knew I had at least either a chance or the guy on the other end was pretty skilled. Neither was the case here.

    Although I’ve not seen anything confirming this, there are rumors floating about that Masthead studios released the game under pressure because they needed the money infusion a launch would provide. If true, the players currently there are essentially playing a beta and paying for it. Not cool.

    I have to admit, this area was pretty cool

    Part of me wanted to write this long post just ripping Earthrise a new one because it’s simply not ready. As much as I complained last year that Star Trek Online was a half finished game, Earthrise made STO’s launch look silky smooth. There’s a paucity of good science fiction games, even fewer that are MMO games. There was every reason for me to want Earthrise to succeed. I just don’t see it doing so in it’s current state.

    The problem with Earthrise is that it tried to infuse a MMORPG concept with some first person shooter elements. This was obvious in the first couple days of launch as the first time you used your weapon, you could actually see the hitbox displayed. A game like this might succeed but in a single server environment, you have some incredible technical hurdles, most of which they simply have not been able to solve.

    There are a few things that would make Earthrise succeed. A completely revamped player introduction, more PvE, better storylines (killing x-number of y-mob for z-reward got really, really old), a better handle on the hitching  and latency problems, and lastly, I think a smaller world would do them wonders. Hell, just start to take care of your players and good things start to happen.

    Not really a metaphor. The server was pretty devoid of players.

    Let me relate how they can better serve their players. I started on the first day of launch and got thoroughly discouraged, set the game down for five weeks. Upon relaunching the game, I had to update it. The update got bugged and got caught in a repair loop, essentially forcing me to reboot the computer. Uninstall, reload, repatch. After getting this far, I couldn’t remember the password I had set up five weeks earlier and began my attempt to recover the password. I was able to reset my Earthrise forum password, my Earthrise support account password, but not my actual Earthrise game account  password. No, for that I had to submit a petition and then was informed it might take up to twelve hours for them to respond to the petition. Twelve hours! I can have nearly any password I have reset within minutes, usually automatically. To have to wait so long to have a game password reset smacks of bad service to the players. I understand they may be severely short staffed, but this cannot bode well for the game.

    As a preemptive reply to those die hard supporters of the game who have berated other people with comments like “go back to WoW” and “I guess you’re not used to true sandbox games” and the like, let me say this. I’m not going to run down all the games I have played in my many years of gaming. But MMOs live and die by not just the strength of their user base, but the numbers as well. If Masthead doesn’t at least try to make it easier for new players in the game, this game will die. I get that you want a hardcore PvP game where the rules and ways of doing things are arcane to everyone else not in the know, but if the subs don’t start picking up, Earthrise could go the way of APB, Matrix Online and Tabula Rasa. And then you can hope for the next hard core science fiction world to get developed and pray it doesn’t make the same mistakes Earthrise has so far made.

    Why I’m Not Playing DCUO

    In one of my last posts of 2010, I discussed six games that are on my radar this year.  In the comments, I was twice recommended to think about DCUO (DC Universe Online).  To be sure, there’s something about a super-hero game that has that aura of cool radiating.  When I played City of Heroes long ago, I enjoyed it for the most part but had difficulty because of the game’s eventual failings.  DCUO is tempting, but I’m going to list off some pros and cons and attempt to explain why I’ll be taking a pass on this game.

    First of all, the pros.

    1. DCUO is a game in a recognizable universe.  Superman, the Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the villains Lex Luthor, the Joker, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze…the list goes on and on.  These are superheroes and villains that you don’t play (except in certain arena settings), but they are there to set the mood.  You know who these guys are and their general histories.
    2. Top notch voice talent.  Mark Hamill (Joker), Kevin Conroy (Batman), Adam Baldwin (Superman), Gina Torres (Wonder Woman), James Marsters (Luthor), Jennifer Hale (Zatanna), Dwight Schultz (Flash), Wil Wheaton (Robin).  That’s a damn good list.  Hamill and Conroy themselves are a huge win (Hamill’s Joker is brilliant).  The rest of the cast looks pretty amazing and from my small interactions with the game, used very nicely.
    3. Some unique gameplay involving PvP.  Not that I particularly like PvP in games like this, but DCUO had some interesting takes on what you can do and what their customer base would like, which I have to say I liked.
    4. Movement powers immediately at start.  One thing that was quite annoying in CoH was the fact that before you could get your top level travel power, you needed to get up to level 20.  And the first several levels, you’d be hoofing it until you got your first underwhelming travel power.  For example, if you wanted to fly, in CoH you’d first get this power which was a weak form of levitation, useful for having to not take the stairs but worthless as trying to get anywhere as running was almost certainly faster.  Then you got a second slightly more useful travel power several levels later before you could max it out.  DCUO avoids this.  You have a travel power right off the bat.  Very nice.
    5. It’s possible that some good friends of mine will play this game, which is always a nice incentive.

    How about a short list of middling things?

    1. Sony announced that there will be monthly content updates.  But there’s so little actual news coming out of Sony that the question is will this be another empty promise?
    2. I’ve read on a number of forums that the game has changed significantly in the last few weeks in terms of gameplay.  Beta is a time where you usually hammer out the bugs or start to balance the classes a bit, not make wholesale changes.
    3. No crafting to speak of.  Not a huge problem for me, but some people like it.  Star Trek Online’s crafting was so poorly done it was a waste of time to even try, so maybe not having crafting is not so bad.  However, you can’t say that it won’t drive people away.

    Here’s my list of cons for the game.

    1. I did manage to get a beta on a PS3 and try out the game.  It is awful on a console.  Graphics are sub-par, the controls are clunky which turn the game into little more than a button masher, there’s a general lack of responsiveness in the controller, menus are not intuitive to navigate, travel power activation is inconveniently located (I kept on activating my flight power when moving around one of the joysticks), it takes forever for the game to start, game updates took hours to download…it was just a rotten experience on the PS3.  As an MMO player who is used to the immediate responses of a keyboard-mouse combination, it was a complete failure to try and create a limited control system.  Plus, how are you going to do chat with a PS3 controller?  Basically, I couldn’t help but feel I was experiencing a gimped version of this game on the PS3.
    2. PS3 notwithstanding, I was not impressed with the character creator.  Honestly, aren’t we past the ala-carte selection methods of creating your character?  I had assumed that the technology was there where you could change items through the use of sliders and not a pick and choose method.  Not that I was expecting a brilliant character creation experience, but come on, do better than what they currently have.
    3. Menus are not very intuitive themselves.  It took me a long time to learn how to change the color of my pre-picked costume and get it to save properly.  Why should this be hard at all?  Why does the UI feel like it was tossed together by a monkey?
    4. Initial missions were predictable.  Kill/defeat x number of villains, collect x number of so-and-sos, report back to quest giver, upgrade items.  I know, I know, it’s the typical MMO formula but it’s not working for me here.  I got bored very quickly.  Once you found a winning combination of button mashing, there was little else to worry about.
    5. Character power setup is underwhelming as well.  And it also fits into the familiar tank, DPS, healer, controller classes.  There’s nothing remotely new about this formula.  Sorry if I feel like I should desire something new in a game.
    6. Sony doesn’t exactly have the best track record lately when it comes to MMOs.  Everquest is likely an exception because it was on the vanguard and it seems they didn’t fiddle with the formula to much until WoW came along and took over the big boy on the block crown.  Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, Matrix Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea…each of them had their issues.  The NGE patch for Star Wars Galaxies is one the biggest controversies that happened in all of the MMO world.
    7. No chance I’ll get Melanie to play with me.  That’s a bigger factor than you would think.  Having said that, no Mac port either.

    I want to like this game, I really do.  I like the whole superhero concept as an MMO, but I’m feeling this isn’t the one for me.  Maybe it will change in the future, but I think I’ll need to have a trial of the game again before I drop any actual money on what seems like a poor MMO experience so far.

    Game Number Seven for 2011

    I did not expect this.  Just last week I posted my Six Games for 2011 which I was looking forward to playing and then one of my favorite game companies, Bioware, releases the following trailer at the Video Games Awards ceremony recently.

    And my reaction is “are you kidding me, Bioware?” but in a good way.  I salute their tenacity and aggressive release schedule (are you taking notes, Valve?) and I am actually shocked that they look to have three major releases next year.  Just. Stunning.  It makes me a happy camper, to be sure, but it’s ridiculous.  How am I going to find even more time for a plethora of game goodness?

    Just a quick note on DCUO as well.  I’m still forming an opinion of it, but I have to admit that it looks fun.  However, I am really wary of MMO games that are released simultaneously to console and PC as I feel that mechanics are often dumbed down for PC players and eventually feel lacking in depth.  It’s a huge difference when you have to cobble together button combinations for a controller versus a keyboard where you have so much more control.  That said, if there’s a trial available, it would definitely be worth a go.

    Six Video Games for 2011

    2011 is fast approaching and one thing I always look forward are the game releases during the year.  I’ve been looking forward to putting this list together and sharing it with people.  In comparison to 2010, next year looks more exciting.  Where 2010 had the great releases of Mass Effect 2 and Rock Band 3, next year easily has six games I’m already itching for as well as a handful of games that have certainly piqued my interest.  Let’s get to the list.

    1) Star Wars: The Old Republic

    Star Wars: The Old Republic

    Star Wars: The Old Republic

    Anyone who has been following me in the last year knows that SW:TOR is something I highly anticipate.  Some people have lamented that this game isn’t going to be very good and spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about it.  The sheer desire of a good Star Wars game brings out an absurd level of expectation and negativity from people with specific desires naturally follows.  With each news release, people have spent a good amount of time complaining about the graphics, the gameplay, the lack of free roaming space combat and a myriad of other perceived problems.

    The only thing I can say to these complaints is this; if you’ve enjoyed Bioware’s other titles as I have, SW:TOR is likely going to be fun.  If you’re looking for anything else, you’re going to be disappointed.  This is not going to be an X-Wing/TIE Fighter game any more than it’s going to be a rehash of the Jedi Knight series.  It’s going to be a storyline based MMO in the tradition of Knights of the Old Republic.  I really liked that game and can’t wait to see what they do with this one.

    2) Guild Wars 2

    Guild Wars 2

    Guild Wars 2

    Ever since Lord of the Rings Online went free to play, I’ve been looking for a good replacement.  Guild Wars 2 may just be the ticket.  First of all, it is unique in that you buy the game once.  There are no subscription fees.  That in itself is unusual in the MMO gaming community.  But GW2 promises so much more as it wants to emphasize a changing world and the ability to join in a battle without necessarily going through the drudgery of trying to pick up a group.  You join the battle in progress.  Quests happen on the fly.  The team at Arena Net wanted to keep you in the action and not going back and forth between quest givers or killing an arbitrary number of monsters or enemies to hit some strange goal that resets when you turn it in.  Such efforts sound promising to me and make this a title worth playing.

    3) Portal 2

    Portal 2

    Portal 2

    When Portal 2 was announced, you could almost hear the cries of delight from the gaming public.  The first Portal game was damn near perfect and still remains one of my favorite games.  What was meant as a little side addition to the Orange Box which released a couple of Half-Life episodes and the long awaited Team Fortress 2, it became a sleeper hit and racked up a number of glowing reviews.  The good people at Valve have taken that game and fleshed it out a bit, promising the return of GLaDOS and a myriad of brain puzzles even more fiendish than the first game.

    Not very much is out about this game right now, but early game play videos look really good, still seeming to have those brain teasers and a healthy dose of black humor.  Valve’s game offerings have been consistently good and they never seem to release an unpolished game.

    4) Little Big Planet 2

    Little Big Planet 2

    Little Big Planet 2

    What?  Another sequel?  Well, yes.  LBP is a fun game which used the talents of its users to offer loads of content and add to its replay value.  It scores high in area of being able to play this game with your kids, playing up to four people at one time and being a clever platform game with puzzles to solve and fun to be had.  You can customize your little sackboy (or sackgirl) to your hearts content, have fun in groups and if so desired, create levels and offer them up to the public.  LBP2 offers all of this and more.  In fact, it gives users to create their own games, whatever that really means.  What it means to the ordinary player though is more fun.

    5) Monaco

    Monaco

    Monaco

    I truthfully do not know if Monaco is coming out in 2011.  You may not even have heard about this game as it’s an indy project and not one of the big players that I’ve mentioned up to this point.  But it’s a game that I’m keeping an eye on because it’s got a certain buzz about it.  It’s billed as a cross between Pac Man and Oceans 11, a heist game where you can play co-operatively with up to three other players.  It’s an old style, top-down game where each player has their own special talents and the idea is to pull off the heist without getting caught.  The one word I hear constantly with this game is “fun”.  Isn’t that why we play?  Plus, I’m a big believer in supporting independent game creators who focus not on machine crippling graphics but on the enjoyment factor in a game.

    6) EVE Online: Incarna

    EVE Online

    EVE Online

    Okay, a bit of a cheat here as EVE has been around since 2003, which makes it a venerable, old game.  But one of the unique things about EVE since inception is the release of two game content updates every year.  It has done a number of graphical updates and keeps getting better looking as time goes on.  It is the only MMO game which exists as a single universe rather than one broken into server shards (unless you want to count ST:O and their laughably inane concept of “single server”).

    The winter update this year lays the groundwork for something long planned by CCP which they’ve dubbed Incarna.  Incarna comes out next summer and for the first time, player avatars will not be the ships they are currently flying, but fully human avatars who will be able to walk in the stations.  Because of this, there’s a lot of grousing about the dumbing down of the EVE universe amongst some of the player base.  Players have enjoyed EVE’s reputation as having a notoriously difficult learning curve and see the move as catering to the casual player base.  But then again, any change in the game leads to someone complaining about it.  Me?  I’m looking forward to it.

    The game play videos and the graphical screenshots CCP has offered up look beautiful and may actually inject some new blood into the game.  Although subscribers have increased slowly but steadily, this addition may provide a good jolt of new players which is only good for a game of this nature.  EVE Online is not a game for everyone, but Incarna may be worth checking out for those who have sat on the fence, put off by the lack of an actual avatar.  If nothing else, it will offer areas of new and different gameplay, especially when you’re trapped in station with nothing else to do.

    Keeping my eye on:

    There are a couple other games out there that I thought might warrant some attention as well.

    Max Payne 3 is coming out.  I have no idea what it looks like but the game that took full advantage of bullet-time might be worth a gander.

    Duke Nukem Forever might actually be released.  This long cursed title and often mocked for it’s vaporware status may actually see the light of day.  Whether it’s actually any good is another story.

    Dragon Age II is scheduled to hit the shelves.  It is amazing that Bioware can put out two top notch games in 2010 (Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins) within weeks of each other and still have DA2 and SW:TOR come out in 2011.  Still, Bioware seems to do the impossible on a regular basis.

    Diablo III should also be available.  I’m not terribly excited for this one but I remember the original Diablo being fun.

    And that’s it.  There are likely other games coming up in 2011 that will merit attention, mostly indy titles which fly under the press radar until release.  If you feel I’ve missed something, feel free to leave a comment.

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