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Ninja Blues: I’m writing there now!

Alright, I’ve got good news and I’ve got weird news.

The good news is, I’m writing about games again! The weird news is, I’m not posting it here anymore.

If you read this site, chances are you also know about my buddy Jarenth and his site Blue Screen of Awesome. He does his weekly column Indie Wonderland, and he’s managed to stick with his weekly routine while I sort of dropped off the face of the blogging world.

So, why did I drop off the face of the blogging world? Well, when I started out I was also sticking to a weekly schedule — a post every Friday. Once I picked up some regular readers I got motivated to post more often, and so I tossed the schedule out the window. Since I was posting on days other than Friday, I didn’t feel the need to post on Friday. Then eventually a week went by without me posting. I felt bad about it, but oh well. Eventually I hit two weeks. Then three. Then four.

As most of you probably know, I suffer from clinical depression. Depression is kind of like an emotional bully that stands behind you all the time, constantly whispering into your ear about how much you suck. When I saw that I hadn’t posted in awhile, my depression told me I was failing all my readers by not posting anything. I felt immense pressure to start writing again, but I felt like my posts had to be really good to make up for the time wasted, and most of the time I was too afraid to pick it back up.

Jarenth originally intended for BSOA to be a collaborative effort between him and his friends, but his friends all dropped off the site, one by one, and it eventually became a solo effort. He and I discussed both of our blogs, and we came to the conclusion that I would feel less pressured if the site I posted on was still getting posts without my constant input. And he was still keen on the idea of a collaborative site.

So, since neither of our individual sites went according to our plans, why don’t we pool our efforts into a new site?

Spoiler: We did exactly that! So feel free to visit ninja-blues.com. Jarenth will continue to write Indie Wonderland posts there, and I have my own column called Talk of the Ninja. (Get it?!) We even commissioned my wonderful and talented girlfriend Val to make the artwork.

I’ve already written two posts (one about Plants vs. Zombies 2, which you should totally play, and one about the prospect of a game about a loving and fulfilling relationship, because it was Valentine’s Day and wouldn’t you know I’ve been feeling lovey-dovey lately.) I have more posts queued, and I have plans to make content of a sort you haven’t seen from me before.

What does this mean for Ninja Game Den? It means the site will continue to do what it’s been doing: collecting Internet dust. But assuming you follow this site because you like my writing, rather than because you like the Ninja Gaiden pun in the blog’s name, then you’ll find what you’re looking for at Ninja Blues. I guess what I’m trying to say is: The good news is that I’m writing again, and the other good news is that my work is sharing a home with that of another video game blogger you might be interested in.

Recent Internet stuff I’ve made

Alright, so I haven’t been posting here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been releasing any content online. I figured I’d let any people that might still consider themselves “fans” of this blog to know three recent things I’ve done:

1. My friends and I have started a Youtube gaming channel!

Oh, you mean Insert Game Here?

No. We decided to scrap IGH and start a new one. We stopped uploading videos on it awhile ago and when we all gathered around to start again, we didn’t like what we had. We didn’t like that we tied ourselves down to a full playthrough of a super-long game, we didn’t like that having all four (and even five, later on) of us present at once made the commentary a clusterfuck, and we didn’t like that we tried from the start to use our “usernames” rather than our actual names.

So we’re just going to pretend we never made any of that shit, and now we’ve started up a new channel called Self Checkout.

Self Checkout? Why’s it called that? I thought this was supposed to be about video games?

Here, our intro video sort of explains it:

Note: I’m the one in the Hawaiian shirt and straw hat. Yeah, my name’s Justin. That’s the J in JPH.

We’ve posted two videos so far, I believe. I’m not in either of them. We’re going to mostly play games in groups of two or three; the four of us will probably only be together during party games like Smash Bros. I have my own plan for a solo LP, and our new capture card just might allow me to follow through with it.

2. My partner-in-crime Val and I have started a podcast that’s actually not about video games!

You do stuff that isn’t video games?

I know, right? It surprised me too. The podcast is called Read It And Gripe, and in it we read and criticize the hell out of poorly-written young adult fiction. Here’s our first episode:

We read the first chapter of Evermore, which is presumably a hilariously stupid romance/melodrama/tragedy novel, if the hilariously stupid first chapter is anything to go by, but it’s also a playground for nitpickers like us.

We’ve already got a list of shitty books to read the first chapters of, but if you’d like to suggest one, feel free!

3. I wrote a guest post on friend Jarenth’s blog Blue Screen of Awesome.

It’s about a recent indie game called Rogue Legacy, and the post is pretty much the sort of thing you’d expect to read here. I sent it to Jarenth instead because he’s been too busy doing science stuff in the States to write his own weekly post.

So yeah, that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I have a lot more project ideas, but inspiration is hard, damn it.

The Resistance vs. The Game of Life

BEFORE WE START: I’m not going to pretend that this will mark the return of regular updates from NGD. As I said on my other blog, I have neither the need nor the inclination to post every week like I used to, so I’m just gonna post whenever I get the sudden urge to write a big thing like this. No empty promises this time. Here’s one post.

boardgames

Board games have, for over a century, been commonly used for family nights. You know, the parents and the kids sit around the table, roll some dice, share some laughs, and the little one will probably end up flipping the table in the end? Fun for everyone.

But as Geek & Sundry’s well-received show TableTop aptly demonstrates, board games also have a lot of potential for use at geek parties. And with the internet being an invaluable tool for advertising and purchasing products, we’ve seen independent developers flourishing lately with all sorts of interesting and inventive games.

Last night was my friend’s birthday party, so some friends and I came to her house and played two board games: The Resistance and The Game Of Life. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of that first one.

This was my first time playing The Resistance; all I knew going in was that it paved the groundwork for the greatest TableTop episode ever:

(Seriously, if you have a spare half hour, watch that episode. It’s solid gold.)

So, here’s the gist of The Resistance. You’re all part of a resistance against an evil authority figure, but the catch is that a small number of you are actually spies from the government sent in to sabotage the Resistance’s plan. (In the TableTop episode there were two spies out of five players. In our game there were three spies out of eight players.) The spies are chosen randomly by drawing cards and no identities are revealed. At the start, the rest of the players have to keep their eyes shut while the spies get to see who they all are. Then they shut their eyes, everyone opens their eyes, and the game begins.

Each round one player is deemed captain, rotating in clockwise order, and that player chooses who will go on the mission. Here, let me show you this:

resistance-the-2nd-edition_24005_500

See that board taking up the bottom left of the picture? That board shows each of the five missions that play out during the course of a game. The number on each one indicates how many players have to go. So, three players have to go on the first mission, four on the second, etc. Once those people are chosen, all players have to vote on whether to approve the mission or reject it. If the majority votes on approving, the mission goes on; if it’s rejected, the mission is cancelled, the captain’s chair moves to the next player, and that person gets to pick for the mission.

Once it’s approved, each player on the mission gets a Pass card and a Fail card. The Resistance members have to choose pass, and there’s no reason for them to choose otherwise anyway. The spies can choose either to pass or fail. And the real kicker: other than the fourth round, all it takes is one Fail card for the mission to bomb.

If three missions succeed, the Resistance wins. If three missions fail, the spies win.

Let me give you a rundown of how our game played out. Bear in mind that to tell this story properly, I have to explain how the game works. If that seems like it’d be boring to read, skip to the picture of the gorilla and the shark.

I am an incredible MS Paint artist.

I am an incredible MS Paint artist.

Person F was the first captain. She picked herself, me, and C. Everyone approved, and the cards were put down, shuffled and revealed. One of them was a fail. First mission failed! At least one of us three was a spy! I told them I wasn’t a spy, but they didn’t listen to me. Of course, none of us listened to C or F when they claimed they weren’t spies. I squinted at C and came to the conclusion that she was totally a spy because she made a weird face. I told her this, and she made more weird faces at me.

G was second captain. He picked himself, D, A, and E. We all approved, and this time two of the cards were Fail! Two failures in a row! That meant the Resistance had to succeed all three other missions in order to win. I thought we were screwed right then and there.

But then A pointed out that this gave us a lot of information. By playing so aggressively, they showed that all three spies have been in a mission so far — this meant we knew that B was absolutely not a spy. This also meant that only one person out of F, C and I were spies. I had to use this knowledge as captain of the third mission.

I picked myself, since clearly I’m not a spy, I mean come on, I keep telling you I’m not a spy! I also picked A; since he was pointing out so much useful information about who may or may not be a spy, I figured he couldn’t possibly be one of them. I picked B, because as previously established, he was 100% trustworthy. As for the last one… I had to pick E as an estimated guess based on body language. He just didn’t seem like he had anything to hide.

We approved the mission, played our cards, and… Four successes. Okay, phew. We absolutely know now that all four of us are legitimate Resistance members; after all, if one of us was a spy, he’d have just played the Fail card and ended the game right there.

The fourth mission, as I mentioned earlier, requires two fail cards in order to bomb. It was A’s turn, and he obviously picked the four of us guaranteed non-traitors. He had to pick one more. After a moment of thinking, I pointed out that we knew for a fact G and D were spies; out of the four from Mission 2, we already established A and E as non-spies. So he picked Person C — again, estimated guess. Not that it mattered a whole lot; we were guaranteed to win that round because four of us were clean.

Approvals all around, and five success cards played.

A: “Okay, so now we know who’s good. Just pick the same people again!”

Me: “No, no, no! She might have just played a success card to get on our good side so we’d pick her to make us fail this round!”

A: “Oh, shit. You’re right. She might be a spy…”

C: “I’m not a spy, stop calling me a spy!”

It all boiled down to this: C or F. One of the two was a spy, and B had to figure out which one.

Me: “I think it’s C. She’s been making weird faces!”

C: “YOUR FACE IS WEIRD!”

Me: “It’s clearly her. I mean, look at F, she just looks all normal.”

A: “Actually, F has been sitting quietly in her chair trying not to attract attention this whole time…”

Me: “No, it- actually, you’re right.”

A: “I think it’s her.”

Me: “It’s totally her.”

F: “What?”

Me: “Pick C! She’s not the spy!”

C: “I KNOW! THAT’S WHAT I SAID!”

B picked himself, me, A, E, and C.

Approved.

Cards passed down…

Drumroll please…….

Successes across the board!

High-Five

We came to the conclusion afterward that we won mostly because of how aggressively the spies played early on. It gave us way more information than they intended.

So I hope this has given you an idea of why I had an absolute blast with The Resistance. By the standards of most board games it has very simple mechanics, but those mechanics are finely tuned and calculated to make the perfect storm of teamwork, uncertainty, suspicion, and deception. Person A and I put on our thinking hats and analyzed the situation from top to bottom and that gave us a huge upperhand, but it didn’t make us win outright — we still had to observe how each player was acting and come to conclusions based on subtle cues.

Also: Person C was the Birthday Girl. And I accused her of being a spy almost the entire game. Yeah, she was pissed about that.

Anyway, after that we played The Game Of Life.

gameoflife

I won’t go into great detail explaining the systems underneath The Game Of Life (or LIFE, as it’s come to be known), since it’s far too complicated and you’ve probably already played it anyway. The short version is, you randomly draw a “career” card and a “salary” card and then take turns spinning a wheel to determine how many spaces you move each turn. The salary cards determine how much money you’ll get at each regular pay-day space, and they vary from $20,000 to $100,000 — considering the winner is the person to accumulate the most money by the end, whoever gets the $100,000 card is going to have a huge advantage, simply because of luck.

Then again, almost everything else in the game is based on luck as well.

Most of the game you just spin the wheel, move your piece and either gain money or lose money based on the tile you land on. There are rare occasions in which you get to choose which direction you move on a brief branching path, but other than that, you’re just spinning and hoping for the best. There are many games that factor in dice-rolls or other forms of randomness to add uncertainty, but these games usually at least involve the player in some way. In LIFE there’s practically no strategy, skill or thought involved at all. After a certain point I almost felt like letting Person A spin the wheel for me on my turns, since I clearly wasn’t an important factor in whether I would win or lose.

I don’t know if this is intentional or not. It’s been said by many that Monopoly was designed specifically to be frustrating to play because it was supposed to be a biting commentary on unrestrained capitalism. Maybe this game is a commentary on how random and luck-based real life is? If so, it does a great job of conveying how much life sucks. I’ve also heard the excuse that the game is “meant for kids,” and that excuse I don’t buy, because I remember hating loss based on random chance even when I was little. If I lose, I want to know it was my fault and why so I can work on it in my next attempt.

Between the two games we played, I can’t see how LIFE could be construed in any way as better. As I said earlier, The Resistance is simple, but every mechanic, every aspect of it exists for a specific and important reason. From the number of players per mission to the voting system to the two-fail requirement on mission four, it’s all carefully designed around a gradually increasing sense of tension that almost always raises to a thrilling finale. LIFE, on the other hand, is a giant pile of random elements that either give or take points for no discernible reason other than because you spun the thing and a thing happened.

Then again…

We talked about each game as we were playing through LIFE, since we clearly didn’t have anything to talk about regarding what was happening in the present moment. I pointed out how much less fun I was having than when I was playing Resistance, but Birthday Girl said the opposite; it turns out while Mr. A and I were analyzing the situation and weighing options, C was getting bored of the talking and just wanted to go on with the game. We pointed out that talking and figuring it out is the whole point of The Resistance, and she essentially responded with, (paraphrased) “Well, yeah, but I was getting bored. I just wanted to hurry up and play it, you know?” Person F expressed similar feelings.

I suppose that while The Resistance is undoubtedly a triumph of minimalist game design, it’s also true that not everybody is an over-analyzing, metagaming nerd like me. I still think that LIFE is an over-bloated mess, and I won’t be bringing it to the table if/when I’m a father, but I can acknowledge that it has its appeal for some people.

Different people play games for different reasons.

Insert Game Here

My clumsy adventures into Let’s Play territory continue! A few personal friends and I have started a Youtube channel called Insert Game Here. The first game we’re covering is Super Mario Sunshine. Here’s episode 1:

And here’s episode 2.

Yes, I know the audio for our voices isn’t great. What I don’t know is why episode 2 is so much quieter than episode 1. Bear in mind that I’m not doing the editing this time.

We haven’t decided on what sort of release schedule we’re going for, and we don’t know what we’ll be able to keep up with until we turn this into a routine. Our own work/school schedules tend to conflict with one another, so we don’t know how often we can record episodes. I guess we’ll find out. The important thing to note is that since I’m not editing or uploading the videos, you don’t have to worry about me being lazy and putting off episode uploads for long periods of time.

Alright, now I want to explain what I was talking about with regard to moving platforms in episode 2. I was hoping Aeroguns would add a diagram like I suggested, but he didn’t. In a nutshell, most game devs haven’t figured out how to incorporate the law of inertia into their physics engines yet. The law of inertia states that an object will maintain its velocity until acted upon by an outside force. When I started talking about an airplane and making hand-gestures you couldn’t see, I was talking about this:

If someone or something were to drop out of a moving plane, it wouldn’t just dive straight downward; it would begin moving in the same direction as the plane, and then gravity and wind resistance would gradually turn its direction downward. The same applies if you jump in an elevator, or off the roof of a car as Aeroguns suggested. (Don’t try that at home, kids!)

But in a game, when you jump off of a platform or in an elevator, your momentum isn’t preserved at all. If you jump in an elevator moving down in a typical FPS, you’ll suddenly fly up to the ceiling, and then slowly glide back down to the bottom, and then take falling damage when you land. That’s not how physics works.

Anyway, in other news: Holy shit, has it actually been almost two months since I last updated this blog? Geez. Sorry about that, guys. I got a new job last month, but that doesn’t explain all of the inactivity. I’m gonna try to post more in the near future.

It isn’t too late for a Games of Note 2012, is it…?

LPing is Hard

Hey, do you guys watch Game Grumps? I do. I love JonTron, I love Egoraptor, and I think their Let’s Play show is great so far. I’m especially loving their playthrough of Sonic 2006. I had no idea how bewildering the game is. It’s like every single level has at least one thing horribly, hilariously wrong with it.

Recently a lot of Game Grumps fans have become frustrated by the Sonic ’06 playthrough. I’ve noticed many comments on Youtube and the GameGrumps subreddit complaining about them missing obvious hints about where to go and what to do, and then getting stuck. Here’s an example from today…

In the episode they don’t know what to do when they get to the water. They know Silver (the character they’re playing as) has telekinetic powers, but they don’t know how to use that to get across a very long jump. They try lifting a crate and moving it across with them on top, but it wouldn’t go far enough, and the crates don’t float above the water, so they just die as soon as their power runs out.

When you first reach that point, Silver says “I think I can knock that structure down.” He says it once, without warning. He doesn’t repeat it unless you die and get to that point in the level again. This happened. I think it popped up a total of three times. What this means is that you’re supposed to throw a crate at the wooden structure-thing far ahead of you, which will knock it down so you can jump onto the platform.

So people on Youtube and Reddit tell them they’re idiots for not noticing it.

Here’s the thing. I used to get angry about stuff like this too. I used to get so frustrated whenever (say) Josh on Spoiler Warning made some stupid mistake or couldn’t tell where he was supposed to go even though it was obvious. It used to make my blood boil. “I know he’s a smart guy, how can he not see this shit?!”

Then I tried making my own LP, and I realized that it’s harder than it looks to us viewers. As a viewer, all you’re doing is watching and listening. Jon and Arin are watching, playing the game, having a conversation with a friend, and making sure they aren’t being too boring for the show. You have to divide your attention between your game, your friend, and your show. If you focus on the game, your show will be boring. If you focus on providing entertainment for your audience, then, well, you’ll make stupid mistakes in the game now and then, as Jon and Arin do.

This is harder than it sounds. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. I have, and I can attest that it requires a lot of practice to make your show anywhere near watchable while also not completely fucking up in the game. But if you’ve never done it, it’s impossible to tell from watching.

Now, as for this particular problem Jon and Arin ran into, let’s consider the following:

  • As I said before, Silver only makes the comment about “knocking down a structure” once. Well, once per life spent.
  • Most of the tips in Sonic ’06 are vague at best and flat-out useless at worst. And if we’re talking about what Sonic (or Silver, or any other player character) says out loud, well, I can’t tell you how many times he says something stupid and unhelpful. It’s no use!
  • This is the first time the game has ever required you to knock down any structure whatsoever.
  • The structure is pretty damn far away from the platform you’re on, and it doesn’t really stand out. Hell, I saw Silver’s “hint,” and I wasn’t even sure what they needed to do until they spent several minutes trying to figure it out.

So yeah, if anybody is willing to say this is completely Jon and Arin’s fault rather than the game having bad presentation and horrible design, then I’m not sure what to say to that.

As I said at the beginning, I’m a fan of the show, and I’ll admit that that probably affects my reaction to all this. But I’m also speaking as someone who’s tried his hand at LPing, and I can tell you it’s tough work to do well. It’s easy to think someone is an idiot because he made some stupid mistakes in his LP, but remember that playing a game for a co-commentator LP is very, very different from playing a game by yourself, for yourself.

Also, merry Christmas, I guess.

Ninja Blues – Castle Crashers ep. 2.2: Accidental Guest Stars

So, uh, we kind of accidentally had Shamus and Josh from Twenty Sided show up at the 2:26 mark. We’d forgotten we were sitting in their ventrilo server doing nothing.

For some stupid reason the last four minutes of the video got chopped off during the uploading process. I blame Youtube. Sadly, this means you don’t get to see Jarenth lose against the boss, and then against me in the arena. Yeah, I totally beat him in the arena. Twice. Though the first time wasn’t exactly fair (I jumped on a horse).

Also, I know why my voice audio comes before Jarenth’s; it’s because internet lag is a thing. What I’m wondering is why my voice audio comes before the in-game video and audio. If you pay attention you’ll notice that I talk about things a second or two before they happen, or as they happen. It’s something to do with Fraps, I’m sure.

Anyway, this is the last episode we recorded right at the start. Now we actually get to play it again! Stay tuned.

Borderlands 2

I want to talk about Borderlands 2, but first, for the sake of not feeling sleazy, I have to offer a disclaimer.

Earlier this year, I interned at Gearbox Software.

It wasn’t a long internship; I was only there for a week. I’d tell you about what things I did or what my experience was like, but I’m legally obligated not to.

I’m telling you this just in case of the possibility that working for Gearbox has made me biased with regard to their game. I don’t really think it has, since I can wholeheartedly say that I’m not looking forward to Aliens: Colonial Marines, that I don’t care even slightly about the Brothers in Arms series, and that the dev team unofficially calling an easy-to-use skill tree in Borderlands 2 “girlfriend mode” is nothing short of disgraceful.

But you’re free to conclude for yourself whether or not I’m “biased,” I suppose.

Anyway, now to talk about Borderlands 2.

Actually, no; first let’s get everyone up to speed. As I’ve said before, Borderlands was a game I both loved and hated. The most novel aspect of the game was easily the gun variety. There were so many guns ranging in varying aesthetic styles, from the old-fashioned Jakobs six-shooters to the sci-fi themed Maliwan elemental blasters to the military-esque Dahl weaponry. And more importantly, all these guns had different attributes that really affected gameplay in meaningful ways.

Gearbox took the old dungeon crawler template of providing a bazillion different weapon drops of varying stats, but instead of the usual “critical hit chance,” “arcane resist,” “dexterity” and whatever other small numbers that mean nothing to me in terms of running around and hitting bad guys with a sword, these weapons affect things like reload speed, weapon capacity, and accuracy. Yes, both of these hunks of metal are shotguns, but while that shotgun deals more damage and reloads more quickly, that shotgun has far more accuracy so you can deal more damage from a distance.

What this means is that different weapons will appeal to different people based on their own individual playstyles. As you’re looting all these guns, you have to look at them not in terms of which has the highest damage per second, but in terms of how you would use it. This made weapon choice feel more important and more interesting than many of the Diablo-style murder-a-thons that Borderlands took inspiration from.

Unfortunately, while constantly looting guns and swapping them out to find the one that was just your style was a blast, the rest of the game felt rather stale. The environments were samey, the interface was messy, it was plagued by a multitude of bugs, and worst of all, the narrative felt like a total afterthought. The plot was so simplistic it was practically nonexistant, and the NPCs never moved or did anything interesting while on screen, so the game never felt like much more than an endless cycle of shooting dudes, looting corpses and trying out guns.

If you got some friends to play with you, the social experience combined with the gun variety made it just enough fun to overlook all that. I played through the game four times, but I never really felt satisfied with it.

Now that I’ve finished Borderlands 2, I can say that I’m still feeling the love, but I no longer feel the hate. Unlike its predecessor, I feel it’s safe to say that Borderlands 2 is unqualifyingly really damn good, even in single player. And I’ll tell you why:

This man is why.

Anthony Burch, the guy behind Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? He’s who they got to handle the writing for Borderlands 2, and he did a brilliant job.

I think the best example of how well he handled the material  is with Claptrap. Like many others, I hated Claptrap in the first Borderlands. They tried to sell him as a cute, helpful little robot friend, but he didn’t fit that role. He was so irritating, noisy and intrusive that he’s become infamous among gamers. Even fans of the game generally found him detestable.

Having said that: I love Claptrap in Borderlands 2. And he wasn’t replaced with a different character who also happened to be named Claptrap, like Shaundi was in Saints Row 3; all they had to change was the way he’s perceived by the rest of the world. In this game, Claptrap isn’t presented as a cute robot friend; he’s treated as the annoying friend that nobody else in the group really wants to deal with. Nobody is outright cruel to him, but they don’t respect him either. They treat him like what he is; a necessary nuisance. He has good intentions, but he’s irritating as hell, and this time, everybody knows it.

He’s still the same character, but this time he’s endearing and funny. He managed to make me genuinely laugh more than once, and he’s not the only character who did so. This is the biggest improvement upon the original: the writing, and more specifically, the characters. The people in this game are varied, charming and funny, and they interact with one another in great, memorable ways. This is because Gearbox went out of their way to get an actual talented writer (Anthony Burch) who knows how to write solid characters for a comedy.

The most memorable character in the game has to be Handsome Jack, the antagonist. He’s a completely caricatured Saturday morning cartoon villain who goes out of his way to tell you that you suck and he’s totally going to kill you. He’s rich, he’s smug, and he wants to rule the world through ruthlessness, imperialism and money. Here’s a few lines of dialogue near the beginning of the game…

Stuff like this is all over the game. It’s great.

What surprised me, though, is that there’s actually a character underneath the humor. Without spoiling anything, he actually does have cares besides money; there actually is a human being underneath the evil. He is an undoubtedly evil character, but he’s fairly three-dimensional. And that goes for a lot of the main cast. The attention to detail with the characters and dialogue is impressive. And I think part of why the main supporting cast members are appealing is because they actually join you in a few missions, which makes them seem far more real than the MMO-style Borderlands 1 NPCs. It makes you feel like they’re actual people who care about what’s happening in the world.

The story is also a lot more involved and a lot more detailed than that of Borderlands 1, though I suppose the bar wasn’t set that high. It isn’t extremely complicated or profound, but it’s certainly competent. Your goal is established effectively at the start — Handsome Jack took control of Pandora using the riches of the Vault from the first game, and you want to stop him from being an evil jerk. The good guys are introduced, and you’re given adequate motivation to want to protect them.

Unlike Borderlands 1, the story has various twists and turns that make the journey more compelling, and unlike Borderlands 1, you actually know what the hell is going on. The first game’s story is so simplistic and yet there was so much left unanswered; most notably, who was that “guardian angel” character, and what was her motivation to help you reach the Vault? Again, without spoiling anything, those questions are thankfully answered in the sequel.

Most of the other problems with Borderlands 1 have also been fixed. The environments are hugely varied; you start off in a snowy, icy region, and throughout the game you travel through grassy plains, swamps, deserts, caves, industrial complexes, and an urban city. This makes progressing through the game much more engaging. There’s also more enemy variety, which makes the combat feel less samey. The weapon proficiency system has now been replaced by a “Badass Rank” system that works entirely differently, so you don’t feel compelled to restrict yourself to one weapon type anymore. The interface has been cleaned up a fair bit, so you won’t have quite as much clicking in the menus.

And to top it off, the PC version doesn’t feel like a sloppy port this time around. A great deal of effort was put into making it feel like an actual, you know, PC game. Matchmaking is integrated through Steam instead of Gamespy, you can skip the stupid splash screens at the start, and it gives you all the options you’d expect. Hell, it lets you adjust your field of view. How many PC games give you that option these days?

When the game first came out I was shocked by how many reviewers called it “Borderlands 1.5″ and claimed it just felt like “more Borderlands.” I can only see that attitude applying if you pay absolutely no attention to the narrative, and even then, there’s a great deal of environment variety and enemy variety we didn’t see last time around. Borderlands 2 isn’t Borderlands 1.5; it’s Borderlands 2: The Awesome One. It’s what Borderlands 1 should have been, and I’m glad to see Gearbox learn from their mistakes.

If you really, really disliked Borderlands 1 down to its very core, then I guess you won’t like this one either. Like Borderlands 1, you spend a lot of time gunning down bandits and monsters, looting their corpses and picking which guns to use in the next fight. Like Borderlands 1, the game’s fairly buggy. And like Borderlands 1, the ending is an anticlimactic cliffhanger. (Though it’s considerably better this time because you actually understand what the hell happened.) But if you thought Borderlands 1 was a neat concept with a lot of rough edges like I did, then I think you’re gonna love Borderlands 2, and I’m pretty sure I don’t just think that because my name is in the credits.

Ninja Blues – Castle Crashers ep. 2.1: So Much Poo

After a long delay, here’s episode 2, part 1.

As you may gather from watching the first five seconds, this episode was recorded immediately after our first one. (It took so long because my upload speed sucks and it takes something like five hours to upload a bad-quality ten minute long video, and because I’m lazy and don’t want to do that.)

In this video and the ones preceding it, my voice is picked up before Jarenth’s. This is because my voice is picked up directly through Fraps, while Jarenth’s is delayed because internet. This is why it sounds like I’m constantly interrupting him. I figure this has to do with us communicating through the Castle Crashers built-in voice chat, because I don’t think Ventrilo has the same delay to it. We would just disable Castle Crashers voice chat and use Vent, if the game would let us do that, but it doesn’t, so for now I think we’re stuck with this.

Also, like the stupid that I am, I wrote in my previous post about how this game could be interpreted as sexist, and forgot that I brought that up in the very next video. Whoops.

Also, how about them buttfaces, huh?

As usual, insert hyperlink to Jarenth’s post here.

XCOM: No Medkits For You

Several days ago, a kind soul who goes by the name of Duneyrr gifted me XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s half turn-based strategy, half management sim, and all-around a really good game. I’m impressed by how absorbing and challenging it is while also being very accommodating to newcomers. Maybe someday I’ll sing its praises, but right now I want to talk about a serious problem I have with it, a problem that’s made me rage-quit more than once.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did name her Felicia Day. And she ended up being my first Colonel, and my first Psychic. I think the game is trying to tell me something.

In XCOM you get a lot of soldiers. There are four classes (Support, Heavy, Sniper, Assault) and each soldier’s class is determined at random. Each soldier can equip one item for each battle. (Well, except for high-level Support troops who can carry two, but I digress.) “Items” include things like scopes that improve critical hit chance, grenades, protective vests, and importantly, medkits.

When a soldier is shot down in the field, he has a chance to become critically wounded instead of immediately dead. A critically wounded soldier is disabled and in three turns, he will die. In that time you can save him by either eliminating all hostiles and completing the mission, or having another soldier reach him and use a medkit to stabilize him.

So what happens if a character holding a medkit is critically wounded? “Surely,” I hear you wondering, “it would be logical for another soldier to reach her, take her medkit from her disabled body and use it to stabilize her?”

“Well,” I bitterly reply, “I guess Firaxis thought that would be too easy, because instead the answer is that you can’t do anything about it. If you don’t have someone else with a medkit, you’re pretty much fucked.”

“But there’s a logical explanation for this, right?” you inquire.

“Nope.”

The metagame reason for this is because items cannot be exchanged in the middle of battle. A soldier’s item(s) is/are glued to her. From a design standpoint, this makes things a lot simpler to program, and for the most part it’s never a big deal since you always give each soldier the item that best suits her role. (Scope for the sniper, medkit for the support, etc.) But in this particular situation, there’s obviously a very valid reason for why you would want one soldier to take a medkit from another.

You can argue that this is the designers’ way of providing an added challenge for the player. You can say that this forces you to be more careful about who you give the medkits to and how you use your medkit-carrier on the field. (I’d say that there’s already so much challenge for you if you play on the higher difficulties that it doesn’t really need this layered on top, but whatever.) But this is sidestepping the real problem, which is that there’s no explanation for why you can’t do it in the logic of the game world.

If they weren’t being lazy and actually intended for this to be a deliberate feature, they could have acknowledged it somewhere. They could have had an NPC explain that the medkits aren’t handheld objects and are actually attached to the armor of the user. Or something. It’s not that far-fetched, since some of the items clearly are things you can’t easily pick up and give or take, like the protective vests. As it stands, there’s just a black void where the answer should be.

See, this isn’t necessarily a problem with regard to game balance; this is a problem with immersion and cohesion.

Allow me to get off-track for a moment. There’s this show called Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, where a guy talks about in-depth concepts in video game storytelling and world-building. Here’s my favorite episode:

In the episode he talks about how a multimedia experience like a video game can become something much greater than the sum of its parts when all those parts work together to create a cohesive, effective whole. You see, XCOM isn’t just a turn-based combat sim. The combat is part of something much greater. XCOM creates a big, organic, adaptable story about you trying to save the world from an alien invasion. For the most part, all the different parts of the game (the research, the engineering, the recruiting, the fleet commanding, etc.) all fit effectively as part of this.

The combat is probably the most important piece of the puzzle, since it’s what you spend a huge amount of time interacting in and how you handle the combat greatly affects how well you succeed or how horribly you fail in your overarching mission. And while turn-based combat is obviously not meant to accurately portray how a real combat scenario would look, it symbolizes real combat, and it’s important that the metaphor is consistent with itself.

And in this case, that metaphor falls apart. I can see what the medkit item looks like. It looks like a handheld object. And every soldier knows how to handle medkits; this is a fact established by the game. But for no apparent reason, one soldier can’t take a medkit from another incapacitated soldier. This breaks the illusion of the combat, which breaks the illusion of the game. You might call this a nitpick, but it comes to slap you in the face whenever one or more of your support troops goes down. (And if you play XCOM, you’ll know that this sort of thing happens a lot, whether you want it to or not.)

So, there’s my gripe. An unfortunate flaw in an otherwise (mostly) great game.

Ninja Blues: Castle Crashers ep. 1.2

New half-episode! The opening frame montage thing still isn’t working properly. I tried adding a filler frame before Jarenth’s, on the hopes that it just cuts out the first frame, but it cut out both.

So the monsters kidnap a bunch of helpless princesses, the dudes come kill the monsters, and then kill each other over who ‘gets’ the princess. And then she kisses the winner.

Surely I don’t need to point out what is sexist about this.

You can defend it by saying, “Oh, well, it’s an homage to classic tropes! It’s the hero rescuing the lady, etc.!” or “Well this game shouldn’t be taken seriously, it’s just trying to be silly and funny!” And maybe I’d buy either of those defenses if we weren’t seeing the same trope(s) everywhere else. That’s the thing about games with sexist tropes: They don’t exist in a vacuum. They offer sexist concepts to their audiences. Of course Castle Crashers alone won’t convince me or anyone else to be sexist and think of women as objects for us men to obtain; it’s the fact that so many stories that we consume carry that same message.

Am I saying Castle Crashers is bad because of this? No. I’m saying we should be wary of these tropes and the effect they have on our community.

Anyway, sorry for being That Guy. Here’s Jarenth’s post about the episode.

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