Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Civilization 5 and Its Artificial Unintelligence

So, if you’ve listened to this week’s Jumping the Shark podcast you got a plateful of Civilization 5 thoughts. At that point I had about six hours or so in the game and had a generally favorable impression. Now that I’ve had a full week with it (and about 20 hours), it has soured somewhat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going back to Civ IV (yet). There’s a lot of stuff I like a great deal and, if I don’t get lazy, I’ll write about that too, in a later post. That said, I’m really distressed by the level of incompetence I’m seeing and reading about with regards to the AI.

Here’s the thing. I really want to be sympathetic about the game's AI issues given that the combat model is a total revolution (no pun intended) in the Civ series design. But I can't. This is something where Firaxis knows they're making this big change -probably right from the beginning- and they have to *know* that military AI will have to essentially be re-built from the ground up. That's something they have to get right. A few holes is one thing (and inevitable), but this isn't a game that, long term, can absorb having a toothless AI against an experienced opponent. And it is toothless. It apparently can't conquer a city state without a Herculean effort. How is it going to beat a human player once said player has grown comfortable with the rules and mechanics?

It would be one thing if the AI itself got better on higher difficulties, but from what I'm reading it really doesn't. It just gets bigger and better bonuses. (That’s a totally unverified assertion; your mileage may vary.) If what you see with the AI at the Prince level (where the playing field is totally level) is what you get, then they really have some work to do.

In my first game, played at Prince (4) difficulty, I achieved a science victory by 1985 (not totally unreasonable at that level), while the AI was still floating around in frigates and finding out gunpowder was kinda neat (way too inept at a level where the playing field is supposed to be level). Militarily… well, here's an example from that game, which I completed last night:

I'm (as the Americans) on a continent with the Persians and Greeks. I take out the Persians pretty early on. They never had more than a couple of military units and they threw them away by attacking the teeth of my invading forces (composed of archers, chariots, and spearmen; no siege units at all). With no siege units, conquering their two cities took a bit of time, but it was a speed-bump since Darius could not defend himself.

Later I went up against the Greeks, who were of equal or greater size to my civ, but were less advanced (later on, significantly so). I fought them, basically, in three stages.

The first phase of the war was fine. I attacked him where he was over-expanded and at his weakest. (He plopped two cities in a line, bisecting my empire in two.) No big deal that I easily won that confrontation. I should have, given my tech advantage and the fact that I had horses and Darius did not.

The second phase is where it was obvious the AI just didn't know what it was doing. When I started up hostilities again, Alexander had been picking on two city states (Stockholm and Venice). He'd mostly given up on Stockholm because I went in and positioned my own units around the city to protect them, so he appeared to have turned his full attention to Venice. And when i say “full attention,” I mean very nearly that. He left a couple of military units behind, but not nearly enough to protect his turf. So when I moved in, I basically had free range to roam his countryside and position myself around his cities however I liked. Bear in mind, any human player would have seen this coming. I had units all over my border with him.

Now, he's got at least four military units up to the north, basically laying siege to Venice, which was on a peninsula, sans actual siege units. I did not go to his capital straight-away, so even discounting my invasion was telegraphed a good five to ten turns ahead of time, he still had time to bring his forces back. Maybe even heal them up a little. As I took out my initial target (Sparta) he did nothing of the sort. I ended up taking his capital with nothing there to defend it because he was all about Venice. Again, I didn't even need siege units of my own. I just relied on my, now huge, tech advantage that had me running over his turf with Knights and Muskets.  (I couldn't build trebuchet's if I wanted to, since I lacked iron.) He did eventually pull units back as I moved north, but once his capital fell it was beyond too late. Once I had conquered all but two of his cities I took a peace deal so I could deal with unhappiness from all these new puppet states.

The third phase was just mop up. Alexander had no means to build enough units in ten turns to mount any kind of defense.

Ignoring my ability to build a big early tech lead despite not yet being familiar with all the new gameplay concepts, what really bugs me is that it seems clear the AI is incapable of moving to defend itself, even when it has the means to do so. This is not the kind of thing that can be justified by, "well, it's a new combat system."

Alexander focusing on a city state while he’s got hostile forces marching on Athens is just not acceptable. Also, just to be clear, I'm an experienced player, but not a particularly good one. And that’s an important distinction because you don’t have to be one of the savants at CivFanatics to badly exploit this game. You just need enough experience with the game to understand how the different mechanics work. That’s just a function of time.

Now, balancing that is a host of stuff I really like. The Social Policy system is really interesting, even if I do think I like the old Civics system a bit better. I *love* that cities can now defend themselves to some degree. AI aside, I love the new military model. It’s so much better than the stacks of doom model of previous Civs. I like how culture works. I think I like the new global Happiness model that essentially replaces stuff like corruption and healthiness, although I’m not convinced it’s well-balanced yet. (Others seem to think there’s a lot of ways to exploit happiness, but this is probably more a concern for players more skilled than I. Still, Firaxis may have oversimplified in relying on that mechanic to dictate empire growth.)

And also, to be fair, I did see the AI do some things that were, well, if not especially smart, certainly correct. Long after I vanquished Alexander, Napoleon came trolling from across the sea. He surrounded the city state of Stockholm with galleons (I think). I was not looking for war with France, but I also did not want to lose Stockholm as an ally. So, I exploited my giant tech lead by gifting Stockholm with a destroyer. As soon as that ship was in Stockholm’s port, Napoleon wasted no time in pulling back, rather than fight an uphill battle. That’s good. (Also, there’s a perverse thrill to be had from launching a torpedo attack from your sub on a nearby frigate. BOOM!)

I think the take home is ultimately that this game is a load of fun early on where you're just learning how it's evolved from CivIV (or learning it for the first time). Firaxis took a lot of chances and tried a lot of new things with this game and I respect that *a lot*. That said, long term, it really looks to me like Firaxis has a ton of work to do to get this game balanced and running the way it needs to. Their history says they will, but until they get a legit patch in the field, you should buy the game knowing that long term enjoyment from the gameplay is probably limited for the foreseeable future. (And by long term, I mean in the 40+ hour range. I put about 15 hours into my first game on a standard size map and game length and am far from tired of it. I can just see some of the writing on the wall.)

Yes, you can up the difficulty, but personally, I don’t enjoy the game as much when I know I’m getting beat just because the AI has ridiculous production and research advantages. I like to be challenged on a level, or only modestly tilted, playing field. That’s something I got from the previous games that it looks like I’m unlikely to get here. I’ve started a new game on King (5) and we’ll see how it goes. I hope to be proved wrong.

OH-IO!

Just wanted to share this picture I took at the Ohio State / Miami game a couple of weeks ago.

Our seats were awesome -- and this picture was taken right at the climax of Script Ohio.

Not a bad pic for a Droid phone...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

FIFA 11 and Backbreaker

Been a while since I wrote anything not work related.

Sorry about that.

In the meantime, here's my take on FIFA 11. Good game. Really good, actually.

In other news, my back is killing me. Played in my Monday night hoops league last night and had a rough, rough night.

If you play sports, or played sports, you know that there are people who simply have your number. I played against my nemesis last night. Whenever this guy guards me, I struggle.

He's taller and faster than me and for a guy who makes his hay coming off screens and shooting three pointers, that's a tough matchup. The guy just refuses to let me shoot and he's tall enough to take on screens and still affect my shot, which forces me to do one of two things: step back and shoot particularly long threes, or try and drive past him, or simply not look to shoot and play as decoy. (where's the fun in that?)

This brings us to my ankles, which is why I rarely drive past anyone anymore.

Well last night, after about 20 minutes and a grand total of 3 points on about 1-6 shooting I decided I had to try and change it up.

In our league I am known for three things:

1. Realistic range of about 20 feet
2. An inability to play moderately good defense (thanks ankles)
3. A scoop shot that I have perfected over the past 25 years. I can get this scoop shot off from anywhere in the paint -- it drives big men INSANE because everyone wants to block that shot, but rarely do.

I don't go near the paint much anymore but when I do you can almost guarantee that a scoop is coming.

Last night, I HAD to try and get past this guy guarding me because I was basically taken out of the game. I come off a screen, reverse drive around the screen, which trapped the defender, and I make my way into the lane where a 6'5 guy is waiting for me and I flash the scoop at him -- but fake the shot, keeping the ball in my extended hand.

He's salivating because he wants to block this shot -- but as most big men are -- he' s a tad over anxious and not too bright (I kid, I kid) so he leaps expecting to throw the ball into the stands and lands--

on me.

My back goes "pop". I'm now the one feeling stupid.

And old.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Brandon's Weekend Sports Wrap-Up

All hail the beginning of football! And not college football. Please. I went to a hockey school. I think we had football. Wait, I'm sure of it. Yes, their hallmark rivalry was with a team they played for a pair of shoes. Yeah I don't get it either. Bill and Todd handle more than this blog's fair share of college football complete with busing up some poor team from East ByJesus U to get their ass whipped on booster weekend all before dozens of bored sports reporters vote on who the best team is.

On second thought, that game for the shoes is beginning to make more sense.

No, I'm a professional football fan, namely a Washington Redskins fan which is funny because the Redskins haven't been professional for years.

So, did I watch the Dallas game on Sunday night? Hell to the no.

First of all, I'm old and old people can't stay up late. Second of all I get up very, very early and I already stay up late one night a week for the podcast. Two nights a week, one of which at the beginning of the week would very likely kill me. Third of all, this is the Redskins. Against Dallas. Had I watched I would have stayed up late, become very tired and all for some dumbass botched call and some last minute score that gets taken away by an equally last minute penalty.

You can imagine my surprise when I watched the highlights on SportsCenter this morning (for the record, I had no idea how to even find SportsCenter on my cable box so little do I watch ESPN) and that very same mix of shitty decision making and drive killing penalties happened only not to us, but to Dallas. Given the number of near heart attacks I had in that three minute game recap, had I watched the whole thing I probably would have died on the couch.

So here's how my football weekend started and ended: with me on my knees in my bedroom having just watched Dallas implode in our house and saying to my wife "I can't believe we beat the Cowboys." She's used to it by now so I think she said something to the tune of "That's nice dear. Now put on some pants."

So for the next week I'm going to enjoy being on top of the NFC East because based on our schedule we won't be there for long. The schedule makers at the NFL must have transposed our wins and losses from last year because our schedule looks fairly difficult unless Houston's rush-a-thon over the Colts on Sunday ends up being a fluke. Then we have Rams, Eagles, Packers and then the Colts. The Rams may suck but that has never stopped us from losing before. The Eagles are questionable and the Packers and Colts will be difficult when you can't put more than six offensive points on the board. That's not a stretch of games I'm looking forwards to, especially considering that the next three are 4PM games which means I can watch the games, for better or for worse.

Still though, we beat Dallas, in Washington and Tony Romo doesn't have TO or Jessica Simpson to blame it on and that's worth quite a bit. I plan on enjoying it while I can.

My Weekend Sports Wrap Up

I was at the OSU/Miami game. Seats at the 40 yard line, C Deck with a view of the entire field. Perfect seats, really.

We had to suffer through a few bouts of rain, but it was well worth it.

It's a rite of passage for me and my father to attend an OSU game every year, and we aren't going to do it sitting in the corner of the end zone. We were at the Texas game and the USC game, which didn't work out as planned. But we were also at the 2002 and 2005 Michigan games, the 2002 Washington St game, the 2003 Washington game, and many, many other games where OSU rolled on to victory.

Saturday's game was one of the strangest games I have seen in a long, long time. 36-24 OSU and it could have been closer than that OR could have been a blowout for the Buckeyes. Miami returns two kicks for touchdowns, OSU picks off 4 passes, settles for 5 FGs -- 4 of which were red zone field goals and had a TD called back on a hold.

It was a huge win for OSU as the Bucks needed to get that early season OOC match up monkey off its back. That won't stop Mark May from calling OSU too slow to compete against teams from the south..or the east or the far east, but whatever. He's a tool.

Oh, yeah, the Browns managed to lose another 2nd half lead. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

NCAA Patch #3. Oh Yes!

Currently out for PS3, 360 coming soon:


Title Update 3 (TU3)

* The pump fake exploit was resolved. The entire defense will no longer rush the QB after a pump fake.

* Resolved an issue with setting SS/ FS to QB Spy and then blitzing, virtually unblocked.

* Increased the Overall rating for incoming freshman. This resulted in one and two star freshman coming in at a higher overall rating.

* In Season Progression is back! Players once again have the ability to get a slight boost to their ratings during the season.

* There was an issue with Hawaii's home schedule causing conflicts with particular teams. This has been resolved. In particular, teams in the Pac 10 and the WAC will now have the correct number of conference games.

* Resolved an issue with the Rush Defense slider where they were only impacting defensive line special moves. They have been adjusted to also impact win/loss chances for blocking.

Live Tuning Pack 3 (LTP3)

* Kick Power/Kick Accuracy progression for Kickers and Punters was adjusted to be in line with the new incoming freshmen. Kickers and punters will now progress in line with other players, but will start with a higher average overall due to the improved recruit ratings in the patch.

* Increased Awareness progression for all positions.

* Increased progression slightly for Elusiveness, Spin Move, and Juke Move for Wide Receivers.

* Increased progression of the Tackle rating for Corner Backs to be in line with WR skill ratings (Juke, Spin, and Elusiveness).

* Reduced the frequency of defenders successfully jumping the snap. Also adjusted how frequently they would jump early when the offense performed a fake snap.

* Tuned Man Coverage so defenders will not jump in front of routes so early. They will still jump the route, but not as early, or frequently, as before.

* Adjusted in season progression to be in line with higher rated incoming freshmen.

* Tuned Incoming freshman to better match the spread on the default rosters.

* Tuned team prestige progression to be in line with the changes to incoming freshmen.

NHL 11

Is pretty damn good.

Boise St...

... is why you can't take college football too seriously until there is a playoff format. Just have fun with it. But take it for what it is--a terribly flawed, uneven system setup by people with no sense of fairness or purpose outside of lining their own pockets.

In many ways, I suppose college football is like life.

After their win over a very overrated VTech team, Boise's road to a national championship game now runs through the mighty Oregon State Beavers.

Can this Boise St. team play with the "big boys?" Of course. They have proven that more than once.

Is it easier gearing up for two big games a year with the rest of the schedule filled with Power Puff Girls?

It kinda is, yeah.

Give Ohio State, Alabama, or hell even Michigan that schedule and watch as the Wolverines rattle off a 9 or 10 win season.

But congrats to the Broncos. They are half way home now to a potential title game appearance.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Digesting the Michigan Game

So, I’ve spent a couple days digesting the Michigan game. I went into the year unsure of what my expectations should be. In general, I expected that Michigan would have an offense that would rank in the upper half of the Big 10 and a defense that would remain in the lower half.

What I saw on Saturday was *really* impressive. It’s easy to just say, “Well, it’s only UConn,” but 48 hours ago a lot of people, both on TV on and off and including myself, thought the Huskies had a legitimate shot of coming to the Big(ger) House and walking out with a W. It would be par for the course after three years of The Horror (Appalachian State), Utah, Toledo, etc.

There’s plenty of reason for concern, no question. Bill’s right. Denard cannot carry the ball 29 times a game on a Big10 schedule. I was starting to get upset he was still in the game into the fourth quarter. I was also really pissed that when Denard went out in the 3rd after dinging his hip that true freshman Devin Gardner came in. The game was still potentially in doubt and we’re running out a guy who’s never taken a college snap instead of the guy who started and played most of 12 games last year in Tate Forcier. Just how bad must this kid’s work ethic and attitude have been this past off-season for him not to have seen the field after being a reasonably effective freshman quarterback last year (given he played half of it injured). And, frankly, if UConn had shown any competence whatsoever in the passing game this turns into a shootout.

Now, to be fair. I think you have to give the Michigan D some credit for being disruptive. There were a lot times when the Dline put pressure and hits on the UConn QB (Frazer?). Also, for all the times UConn tossed an errant pass or dropped a ball, there was also a young player in Michigan’s secondary breaking up a pass or causing a fumble. If  you’re going to point out a dropped third down pass in the first quarter that would’ve given UConn a first and goal, you also have to point out their second quarter fluke passing conversion on third down that did lead to a late touchdown. The game could’ve just as easily been 30-3. Good teams with experienced quarterbacks are going to shred that secondary this year. No question. I’m just saying it wasn’t all a fluke in M’s favor.

Offensively, I really think those guys are for real this year. Yes, Michigan leaned too heavily on Dilithium Robinson racking up a single-game QB rushing record 195 yards, but the man was also something like 19-22 passing on Saturday. That’s absurd even if it’s a low per pass average. Every time he threw the ball it was at an open receiver or put in place on the numbers. There were no flukes. If it turns out this guy can be an effective passer on passes over 10 yards, which he was on multiple occasions yesterday, what are you going to do as an opposing defense? You can’t stop the conventional running game (which, granted, ended up underwhelming a bit after a good start), the passing game, and the Shoelace. Also overlooked yesterday is the offensive line, which is now experienced and has Molk back. They were was superb against UConn. Barring injury, Michigan is going to score points this season.

So, belated prediction time, now that I’ve had a chance to see this team play for real. You’re gonna say I’m a homer and that I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. Maybe I am. But I think *if* you see this team win at Notre Dame next weekend you’re going to see them get off to a 6-0 start (UConn, at ND, Mass, Bowling Green, at Indiana, Michigan State). I’m probably underselling MSU, but let’s be honest, that team exists to disappoint its fans. After that, I think they win two of the remaining mid-season games (Iowa, at Penn St., Illinois, Purdue) before dropping their last home game in Wisconsin and, of course, getting beat in Columbus. That would be an 8-win season that all but ensures Rodriguez is back next year.

The big question in that is whether or not the defense improves as the freshmen in the secondary gain experience. If they do, Michigan will get tougher to beat over the course of the year. If it turns out other teams get better at exploiting them, then it gets dicey. ND and MSU could easily end up as losses and that could prove disastrous.

Is the ship finally about to be righted? Dare to dream.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Is Michigan Back?

I must say that I am happy for a little college football sunshine in Todd's life. The man needs it.

Michigan played its best game in years yesterday, with a QB that runs the West Virginian's offense to the letter. What an amazing game by Robinson.

I have thus revised my prediction from a 5-7 season for UM to 7-5. I have no idea if 7-5 saves the man's job, but I do see 7 wins on that schedule. (UCONN, ND, UMASS, IU, BGU, Illinois, Purdue)

I think with Tater Tot playing UM may very well lose that game vs UCONN, and I think they beat ND Saturday, I really do. And hope they do.

The issue?

Robinson is going to get killed, eventually. I hate offenses like this because physiology tells you that if a kid takes THAT many shots something is going to eventually give. He got nicked up yesterday and as the season rolls on that's only going to get worse -- and *everything* hinges on this guy for Michigan to succeed. Even if he's not "injured" will this be the same guy in week 7 as in week 1? The grind of the Big10 is brutal, and Robinson doesn't have Slaton/Devine to take the pressure off. And the defenses in the Big10 are better than what WVU faced in the Big East.

I still think that defense sucks. UCONN failed to take advantage of plays that better teams will not miss out on -- UM matches up extremely well with a team like that. UM started 4-0 last year, too, so before you start punching Rose Bowl tickets I would advise some caution. But I am a firm believer that the Big10 is better when Michigan and OSU are both elite level teams, so congrats to UM for getting out of the gate.

A question: Was RichRod playing cat and mouse by not declaring Robinson the starter earlier? Or is the guy that poor of an evaluator? What took so long to give this kid the keys?

Friday, September 3, 2010

More Elemental

If you have been following/playing this one, you need to read this.

Reason #876 ESPN Sucks

College football kicked off last night which means all is yet again right with the world.

What was the story last night?

Let's play Pick the Website that has this as the lead :

1. "Looking for the first upset of the season? Look no further. Jordan Wynn throws for three TDs as Utah beats No. 15 Pittsburgh 27-24 in OT."

2. "Immediate Impact: Utah Edges #15 Pitt"

3. " Buckeyes, Canes ready for each other - The start of college football is here at last, but it doesn't provide much of a test for Ohio State or Miami. That challenge comes next week when they face each other."

4. "Off And Running USC opened a new era by hanging 49 on Hawaii"

These headlines are taken from SI.com, The Sporting News, CBS Sports line, and ESPN.

Which one is from ESpin?

If you chose 4, you realize how embarrassing ESPN is to the sports world.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Elemental

Troy's take was posted yesterday.

It's such an odd game -- and I agree with Troy's opinion pretty much right down the line. It was released way too soon, has incomplete and undocumented features and an AI that simply doesn't put up much of a fight.

This genre is in my wheelhouse, and I'm shelving it until most likely this winter, when Stardock manages to finish what they started.

What I REALLY want to talk about is NHL 11.

But I can't.

But I really want to.

I love this game.