Friday, July 31, 2009

Stuff I’ve Been Playing Lately

I swear, at some point, I’m going to start writing more again. I suppose, under the circumstances, the fact that hammering keys down on a keypad seems a herculean task the past couple months shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve always had a healthy fear of the blank page, but of late, getting any kind of signal to go from my brain, to my fingers, to the keyboard’s clickety keys just ain’t happening the way it used to. Most likely I just need to suck it up and get back in the habit, which I’ll endeavor to do as the summer finally, mercifully, starts to wane. (Have I mentioned my daughter starts kindergarten a week from next Tuesday? Yowza!)

The good news is, after a couple months of hardly gaming at all, I’ve started playing a bit more again. Here’s a quick recap and some thoughts on some of the titles with which I’ve been messing around:

Guitar Hero: Smash Hits: Blah. Ugh. Blah. Seriously, the only reason to get this is if you have to play some Guitar Hero 1 stuff and don’t have a PS2 or if you just have to have the drum and vocal tracks for the included songs. I still hate the guitar note charting in this franchise (they absolutely murdered Freebird) and there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for these tracks not to have been offered as downloadable content or at least be importable into World Tour. Bill’s got my Gameshark review of this one in hand and may, one day in the distant future, post it. In the meantime, save your cash for Beatles Rock Band.

Red Faction: Guerilla: Not the revolution in gaming that some folks want to trump it up as, but even a grump like me can’t deny the fun to be had in just knocking shit down. It’s the same feeling all young boys get when building a tower of blocks just so you can see it go kerplooey. Great stuff, but I think the notion that this whole completely destructible environment thing is going to change everything is being overstated just a wee bit. It’ll have its influence on games going forward, to be sure, but this isn’t going to change the way all shooters are made, nor should it.

Right now I’m just in the second of (I think) seven regions (Dust). I’m having fun with the carnage, but I really want to see more story and characterization. I can’t help myself. I’m a story and character guy. The world and characters revealed in the game’s first ten minutes are interesting enough that I want to see more of that between missions. Right now, though, it’s just get a vehicle and find a mission to complete or a building to knock down; rinse and repeat. To be fair, though, I’ve been doing almost nothing but guerilla side missions so far; maybe once I do some more of the primaries it’ll kick the game’s narrative into gear. (I’m not holding my breath.)

Blood Bowl: I wrote up some thoughts on this already. At this point I’ve pretty much forsaken the single player game in favor of our online league, though that’s more due to the fact that I’ve been playing other stuff than an indictment of the game. I’ll probably go back to it at some point.

Last night I had the pleasure of playing a match against Troy Goodfellow’s squad of Goblins. (Be sure to check out Troy’s recent reviews of East India Company and Dawn of Discovery, btw. Great stuff.) I’d never played against goblins before and my inexperienced showed at various points. I kept trying to bottle him up and it just wasn’t happening. He was up 2-1, early in the second half, but owing to some very fortunate die rolls and the fact that he only had five men standing by the last couple of turns, I was able to eek out a 3-2 win (scoring on my very last turn, following a failed pick up roll on a kick off). As an online game, Blood Bowl is great fun.

Out of the Park X: Bill already pimped my review, but I’ll do it again, as it says more than I’ll get into here. Short version, it is still the best at what it does and this year’s version is the best the franchise has done. I love the fact that each pitch in a pitcher’s repertoire is individually rated. On the other hand, I quite simply hate UI. Hate it. Our recent inaugural draft for our online league really illuminated how needlessly difficult it can be to manage information. For example, say there are five players I want to add to my shortlist. Why on earth do I have to add them one at a time instead of being able to select each of them and add them as a group? The UI tries to do all the same things you can do in Windows or MacOS, but in trying to re-invent the wheel it leaves out simple thing like Ctrl+Click or the ability to open multiple windows. And the things it can do, it simply doesn’t do as well as OS-native objects. It’s frustrating.

As for our actual draft, I’d give my team a B. It was my plan not to be overly enamored with youth. Everybody wants to get guys in their mid 20s in these things, but there’s only a handful of really good players in their prime and I was picking 29th. Consequently, stars in the 30-33 age range, who still have between four and eight good years left in the tank get passed over. It was my intention not to pass on these players. And I didn’t. For about three rounds. Then on my fourth pick I bit on a starting pitcher who is currently, at best, a fifth starter, but has 5-star upside. Then I bit on a 20-year old LF who has huge upside and looked to be an adequate major leaguer already. The problem is scouts in this game, even on high accuracy, are lousy at judging young talent. These guys, whom I used my fourth and fifth picks on when there was plenty of major league ready talent available, are guys who can probably play now, but not not nearly as well as guys on the board at the time. This is what I do; I have a strategy, but I fail to stick to it during crunch time. So, what I’ve got is a team where half the guys are in the 30-34 range and the other half are 20-24. If I fail to win the division in these early seasons it’ll be because I built a team that’s caught in between being a crafty veteran lineup and an upcoming youthful one.

Still, the draft was a hell of a good time and I’m looking forward to getting the league underway.

Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword: I just cannot leave this game behind. I might go six months or more without playing it, but it always lures me back. I’m finding that the meager strategic skills I could once claim have eroded, though. I used to be able to at least be competitive on Prince difficulty, but in my latest go round with the game I’ve had to drop back down a notch (to Noble, I think). For one, I just don’t have the eye for micromanaging detail that the higher difficulty levels require. But also, like the OOTP draft, I just can’t seem to stick to a strategy in terms of research and building. I end up going all over the place, which is a bad way to play. I am trying to force/teach myself to be more disciplined in my current game, though. We’ll see how it turns out.

What really amazes me is how unbelievably well this game has aged. It first came out in 2005 for crying out loud and it remains a beautiful, finely balanced game to play. At this point I don’t even want a Civ 5. There’s no need for it. I just want to keep playing this one.