29 January 2014

Magic Revisited: Duels of the Planeswalkers First Impressions

So here's a series of events.

1. Last autumn, the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel premiered Spellslingers, a show featuring Magic: The Gathering. I wrote a blog post about it, and other competitive games, back then.

2. That show introduced me to Sean 'Day[9]' Plott, who has his own YouTube channel, focused on StarCraft II, but also featuring other video games.

3. In a moment of boredom, looking for random content on YouTube to watch, I ended up watching some videos on Day[9]'s channel. Some of the most interesting I found to be his videos of HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft. This, as you might know, is a collectible card game video game spin-off of World of Warcraft by Blizzard (jeez, what a sentence). As far as CCGs go, it looks like a fairly fun, light, fast game.

4. Of course HearthStone won't run on any of my devices, me being a die-hard GNU/Linux user and console gamer. But, strangely enough, I found myself curious about the genre. This often happens when I'm exposed to things, even if, on some level, I know it's really not 'my thing'.

5. The ultimate, the original CCG is, of course, Magic: The Gathering. Like I wrote in the blog post I linked above, I played a little back in the 90s, but never really got into it. But looking at potential CCG style video games, one that popped up was Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers. I eventually decided to give the latest game in the series (Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014—the fourth incarnation of the game to date) a shot. (The fact that it had a free trial for PS3 helped that decision along, somewhat. But I bought the game pretty soon after trying it.)

OK, so on to the main part of this post, my first impressions of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014.

One of the first things to note is that, unlike its material world counterpart, Duels of the Planeswalkers isn't really a collectible card game. You play with preconstructed decks. As you play, you unlock new decks to play with, and also new cards for the deck you're playing with. But overall your options are relatively limited.

Going in, I was a little sceptical about how playable a sophisticated card game like Magic: The Gathering would be with a game controller. But I must admit I was a little surprised by how intuitive the controls were in the end. Just use the left analogue stick to pick cards (switching between only the relevant set of cards, like your hand, or your creatures when you're attacking/blocking), use a shoulder button to zoom into a card, cross button to play it, etc...

Some downsides to the game too, though. I think a card game should be something you can jump into quickly and easily, to just kill a little time with. Playing the game on a console somewhat defeats that purpose. Having to start up your console (and TV) means it's not really something you do on a whim. And even after that, this game is incredibly slow to start. Like, seriously, one of the slowest loading games I've ever played on the PS3. And it's a friggin' card game, hardly the most visually impressive thing out there. Not that it doesn't look pretty decent, there's a lot of cool card art prettying up the load screens and such. But still. Also, the game only runs in 720p. You'd think that with a game that's relatively simple visually, but contains a lot of text on cards and stuff, they'd want to make it as crisp and clear as possible...

There's a relatively short single player campaign, with a very superficial storyline. Better than nothing, I guess... I'm still working my way through it, though I've only got a few matches left. I'm not sure how much longevity the game will have after this. I've never been interested in online gaming. I'm pretty convinced I would just lose all the time to non-AI opponents. 'Cause, seriously, I'm just crap at anything requiring serious skill or fast thinking. It is, however, a relatively affordable game, so I can't really begrudge the somewhat limited content.

It is, I must admit, kinda fun to be playing Magic: The Gathering again after all these years. It is, after all, one of the truly classic geek gaming franchises out there. Something of a change of pace, too, after the action games and RPGs I mostly play. If Duels of the Planeswalkers only captured the collecting aspect of the game a little better, it could be a real gem. But for its price, it's not a bad game. There's still some interesting stuff to come, game modes I haven't tried and such. I'll just have to see how long it can keep up my interest...

20 January 2014

A Passion of a Lifetime: 40 Years of D&D and the Role-Playing Game Industry

It is the 40th anniversary of the publication of the mother of all cult games, Dungeons & Dragons!

Well, not today per se, but now-ish. There exists, to the best of my knowledge, no precise date recorded for when the game first went on sale, but it's believed to be around January 1974 (see, for example, this blog).

D&D, of course, kick-started the whole tabletop role-playing game phenomenon. The impact this had on geekdom in general, and for me personally, has of course been, well, phenomenal. So the anniversary is about much more than a single game, it's about an entire hobby and industry.

RPGs have, of course, come a long way since those original D&D rules (as has D&D itself). The variety out there for gamers to choose from is simply staggering, from highly technical miniatures based games to creative, free form storytelling games. But they all can be traced back to this one box and its three little booklets of rules.

Who would I be without RPGs? I honestly have no idea. They have been one of my most important hobbies, if not the most important, since I was a teenager. Particularly important is that it's a social hobby. I, as an introvert, have precious few social outlets in my life that I feel comfortable with. If it weren't for RPGs, I'm not sure I'd ever really meet anyone face to face.

I game mastered one of my own campaigns just yesterday. Next weekend I'll be playing in a friend's long running campaign. Neither is a D&D game, and stylistically probably pretty far from the early days of the game. But in a couple weeks I'll be running my Pathfinder game again as well, which is of course a direct descendant of those original rules. Variety is the spice of life, they say. And there are few hobbies with more potential for variety.

I know I'll be playing RPGs for a long, long time to come. Thank you, Gygax and Arneson. It was indeed, as Gygax once wrote in a letter, 'a reallu superp game'.

6 January 2014

That Time I Took Mass Effect on the Road

Oh hey, so 2013 happened. Not a whole lot to say about it. No really dramatic changes in my little universe. Did a reasonable amount of gaming (though probably could've done more, if I wasn't such a lazy sod).

For me, it was, perhaps most of all, the year of Mass Effect. Technically it begun already in late 2012, but over the last year I played a lot of Mass Effect, and enjoyed other related activities, as documented in this blog. But here's one more entry to add to the list.

I bought the mobile game Mass Effect: Infiltrator already last summer, in preparation of several weeks spent away from home (and my dear consoles), but I never got around to playing it. I just spent a week at the family's country house again, and, particularly as I'm currently re-playing the Mass Effect trilogy on PS3, I figured it was about time I gave it a try. (And oh yeah, 2013 was of course my first year with a smartphone. How did I ever survive without one?)

Randall Ezno is a operative for the shady paramilitary organization called Cerberus. He returns from a mission to find things at his base are amiss, and... Well, I won't spoil the plot. There's not really a whole lot of it. The 'proper' Mass Effect games are famous for their plots and dialogue, but Infiltrator is more of a straightforward action game. You don't get much choice about the main character or how the story develops. It's not a lengthy game, either. I easily played through it over my holiday week, and while I can't quote an exact time, it's not like I spent hours gaming every day.

The action emulates the style of the main games, of course, meaning it's a shooting game with emphasis on the use of cover, except you don't have any support from squad members. You don't get experience points, but you get credits you can use to improve your weapons and special abilities. And you can replay earlier missions in order to get more credits, which was handy as a few fights a little way into the game proved kinda tough for me.

The touch screen controls were... OK, I guess. Took a little getting used to, obviously. You target enemies simply be tapping on them, and move between covers by swiping in a particular direction. Actual running around using touch controls is a little awkward, of course, but since you spend much of the time behind cover, it's not as big an issue as in some mobile games. One thing I noticed, however, was that after an intense session my hands and wrists would be aching pretty bad. I do much prefer a decent traditional game controller.

The graphics looked pretty OK for a phone game, in my mind, but it still ran fairly smoothly on my no longer quite state of the art Galaxy S II. When it ran, that is. The game crashed multiple times over my playthrough. Which is never good, of course. And there were occasional other glitches, too. Like in one boss fight, a large portion of the boss kept disappearing, rendering it incapable of either damaging or being damaged....

Battery life is always an issue with mobile gaming, and this game was no exception. It's not something you actually want to do while literally 'on the road'. You want to know pretty well when and where your next opportunity for a charge is.

Overall, I didn't think Mass Effect: Infiltrator was a particularly great game. It didn't have a great deal of depth, the battles and environments were kinda repetitive, it was fairly short, and there were numerous crashes and glitches. But for a phone game, I guess it's a decently entertaining title. Certainly there is space in the Mass Effect universe for many more stories than what the main trilogy tells, and, despite all its simplicity, Infiltrator is still a Mass Effect game. Now that I'm back home, however, I can't wait to get back to my playthrough of Mass Effect 2...