Australia

I feel like there should be a longer silence for mourning, but Ravious was also the guy who mixed a game review into his announcement that he had terminal cancer. Keeping the blog going seems like a better tribute than letting it die, too. On a related note, I still miss Jeff Freeman.

My most recent game has been Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, continuing my trend of bringing you the latest news on games from several years ago. This one comes from a development studio that does not even exist anymore. I am not yet to the halfway point of the game, but I wanted to talk about it because of convergent events. So far: if you liked Borderlands 1 or 2, you will probably like this. It is not going to be the strongest game in the series, and I may list a few likes and dislikes after I am done playing, but the basic gameplay is the same with a few minor variations. The bandits you have killed a thousand times have a totally new name and skin, bonus points for calling the psychos on the moon “lunatics.” If you wanted more of the same with a little variation, here you go.

What I am especially enjoying so far is the Australian-ness of it. The Pre-Sequel was made by 2K Australia. They are not hiding it. The NPCs have a range of Australian accents. They use Australian slang. I do not get all of the cultural references, and several that I do get, I recognize that I do not fully appreciate them. As an American gamer, having games not made for me (or Japan) is a nice bit of jarring. “Oh right, other cultures exist, including other English-speaking cultures.” I like seeing games that assume their home cultures in ways that likely inhibit their global appeal, like using myths from eastern Europe without trying to translate them into Greek gods or faux-Tolkien. I see more of that in indie games, so a very Australian AAA game is to be cherished.

The convergence I mentioned is the Humble Bundle. There are two game bundles going on right now. One is the Humble Down Under Bundle of games from Australian developers. The other is the Humble Endless RPG Lands Bundle, which includes all three Borderlands games, in case you were curious but never picked them up. $1 to try the first one, $10 for them all (and some other RPGs like the Guild of Dungeoneering). You too can experience yesteryear’s top games.

: Zubon

Theme Parks

We went to Walt Disney World last week. Disney has in many ways achieved what Guild Wars 2 was (is?) trying to with zoos.

By that, I mean that you have a mix of fixed, sporadic, and mobile attractions. The theme park elements are always there and always running. The Haunted Mansion has doombuggies moving continuously on a treadmill, and Mickey Mouse will always be posing for pictures. Around that, there are scheduled shows that happen periodically, along with parades (by metaphor: world raid bosses on a rare spawn). There are both large shows with highly visible scheduling and smaller shows that look more like something is just happening, a 5-10 minute affair staged outside. An example of the former is the Hall of Presidents; an example of the latter is the newer “The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History.” which happens outside less frequently and with more variation. Animal Kingdom and Epcot always have some sort of performer somewhere in the “streets.” And then there are wandering characters and performers. For example, my wife was thrilled to get her picture with a suffragette on Main Street USA, and we caught Mary Poppins posing for pictures between events. Live interaction with guests, not just fixed shows!

Some of these even have the same Guild Wars 2 effect whereby one event moves to another. Before the “Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away” show, the characters parade from Star Wars Launch Bay; the end of the “March of the First Order” show is the march of the First Order through Hollywood Studios.

This is something I really liked about Guild Wars 2 and a reason I have trouble going back to any MMOs. It may be a thin veneer of “world” in your game world, but there is a sense of place, that there is a living world around (even if it is all on a schedule). Things are going on, there are variations instead of the exact same thing every time, and there is a sense that you might see something new this time. Over time, you will likely see all the variations, or maybe they will introduce new ones faster than you can exhaust them (unlikely in an MMO, likely in a real theme park unless you have an annual pass).

Asides:

  • Contrary to the linked post at the top, I find Animal Kingdom to be more zoo-like than the local zoo. There is not the same experience for every guest,
    and the animals are not (all? mostly?) in small enclosures. This is best seen on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which covers an area larger than the Magic Kingdom.
    Within a day, you probably get a similar experience between tours, as the drivers know where the animals are out that day. But we have been to the park before, and the experience differed this time.
  • If you have the chance, the limited attendance evening events at the Magic Kingdom are a better buy than the normal ticket. We went to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, and even if you have no interest in the Halloween content at all, the chance to ride the most popular rides with a 5-20 minute wait (instead of up to an hour) is great. “Disney After Hours” looks like a similar experience, with more rides open and no special content. I expect that the “zoo”
    aspect I just talked about is not live during that, but it is extra big for Halloween.
  • Hollywood Studios has the weakest reputation, especially while building its new areas, but I found it one of the better parks for having a lot of zoo, along with live content (but very weak on normal theme park content). The Frozen singalong was surprisingly great. Limited, but everything was better than I remembered from a few years ago.
  • I am still interested in working at Disney Parks and Resorts, if we have any readers with whom I could network. I do project management, strategic planning, and technical development. It’s hard to get your foot in the door.

: Zubon

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! updates

I took the rare step of buying Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! on its release date at full price because (1) I expected it to be worth it and (2) I intended to play it immediately. That’s a common Steam rule, right? “Don’t buy it for more than $5/75% off unless you are going to play it today”? Yeah, I logged several hours that first night, as promised. I feel like I owe you an update to that edited note of “you may or may not want to wait.”

I found the game playable and enjoyable at launch, with some limits. There have been three updates in the week since the game launched. In addition to bug and stability fixes, it added mouse support to menus, which is probably a sign that it shipped before being quite done. Additions included some rebalancing, more achievements, cloud saves, and decorative options. Nothing huge. The bigger update coming next month will add a sandbox mode and a mode more like the original Cook, Serve, Delicious!, without changing the two modes that currently exist. That seems to be catering to returning players, without wanting to take away from players who like the newer approaches. The big change that I am looking for, customizable keys for ingredients, is also projected for that update.

Without that feature, I am enjoying a subset of the game. I have found areas I will not enjoy without customizable keys. I am playing with a keyboard, and some of the default keys are absurd. The best simple examples come from the dessert restaurant: sprinkles are P on ice cream and S on cannolis, while chocolate sauce is usually C but O cannolis; Taiwanese shaved ice has mango ice (A), mango sauce (also A, on another page), and mango fruit (M, not A, on the third page); Taiwanese shaved ice also does exciting things like abbreviating “jelly” and “boba” differently between ingredients and giving blackberry boba pearls the letter E, which is not even present in the abbreviation used (“Bo.Blk.Bry”). These are whiny details, but there are a lot of whiny details across 180 foods, each of which can have more than a dozen ingredients, and the whole point of the game is to hit these keys quickly and consistently. When your time limit per customer is counted in the seconds, and you need perfect days to unlock medals and new foods, pausing to check that Texas tea is X not T can be enough to lose your gold medal.

That said, I have been enjoying myself. I am avoiding restaurants and foods where I strongly want to rebind keys. I do not need to pursue all the Chef For Hire levels (yet!), and I can pick whatever foods I want in my restaurant. Those levels range from trivially easy chances to learn recipes to ridiculously difficult. That is intentional. One of the design goals of CSD2 is to let the player pick the difficulty. You can get a fairly even difficulty curve going through the Chef For Hire levels and leveling up. The upcoming modes will provide more customization opportunities. If you have ever wanted a game that will let you pick your own degree of difficulty consistently, CSD2 will do that, while delivering the original game’s fun of very hectic cooking and serving (or you can dial down the hecticness).

I will not consider it fully ready until version 1.1, but it is certainly playable and enjoyable now. And then there will be more updates after that.

: Zubon

The Swapper

The Swapper is a puzzle game with the mechanic of creating clones of yourself and swapping between them. You use that mechanic to deal with the expected obstacles like standing on pressure pads and getting around areas that block cloning/swapping. The story deals with a mysterious space station, which is apparently key to saving humanity but mostly abandoned and home to telepathic alien rocks. I assume more of that is explained later. I have been enjoying it so far, and it is apparently not terribly long. The puzzles may or may not stay sane.

This gets a mention mostly for being the greatest existential horror game I have ever seen, just based on the mechanics. The game has falling damage (instant death), but you get around that when rising/falling great distances by creating clones of yourself, swapping with them, and letting clones fall to their deaths. Just keep killing yourself, it’s fine. I want to make a movie reference, but even telling you the movie would be a spoiler. Spoilers allowed in comments, if anyone wants to chat about it. Non-spoiler book reference: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

I have been warned that the achievements are utter BS. They are hidden terminals with nothing to note their existence, where you need to do things like travel through what look like solid walls or make jumps of faith. The game does not even mention their existence, except for numbered, completely unexplained achievements. They also apparently hold some of the story of what is going on with the human race in this setting. If I enjoy the game enough, I might borrow a guide and get to them, or I might just look up what the bonus 10 pages of story are.

: Zubon

Sproggiwood

A cutesy roguelike. Decent but not great.

On Normal difficulty, it is a very short game. You should have little trouble rampaging through the levels, especially if you repeat some levels with the classes you unlock and get the extra gold. It has some amusing mechanics like the magic doors that appear late in the game and whenever you use a Scroll of Wonder. Those get you things like pastel sheep and mirror farmers that throw teleporting pitchforks.

On Savage difficulty, the game is subject to the usual roguelike nonsense where information is hidden and not everything is possible. The difficult is not necessarily unreasonable, but it can become a war of attrition in which the game may not give you any health refills, or where the equipment that will help you get through a level will get you killed against the boss. Savage difficulty does create some truly interesting situations by mixing up what the monsters do, like having exploding monsters fire in all eight cardinal directions instead of just the usual four. Sometimes those interesting abilities become a problem, because you may run into a combination of them that you cannot beat with your class and equipment, or even escape. And because it is a roguelike, that is randomized, and one of the game’s explicit goals is to defeat every level with every class on Savage difficulty.

That constitutes half the achievements in the game. The other half is basically “play through the game on normal difficulty,” plus a couple of oddities.

It is hard to get angry at the usual roguelike nonsense when it is hidden under cuteness. There are still times when randomness is more important than your decisions, but I found that I did not care as much. That led me to asking whether I actually care, and why would I play if I don’t care? And done with Sproggiwood.

: Zubon

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! is now available

steam message announcing the release of Cook Serve Delicious 2 If you’ll excuse me, I need to focus intently on my computer for the next day or four. I have a wedding to attend. I might miss it.

ETA: If you are not mad hyped about CSD2, you may want to wait a few days for bumps to get ironed out. The opening note says that a few features were pushed back to make the launch date. There is a bit of clunkiness. Still, CSD2! If it is mostly as good as the first one, it is worth full price.

: Zubon

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

Once again, bringing you timely reviews of the hits of 2009! … wait, really, 2009? I must have gotten this in a bundle. I apparently have the “Grand Master Collection,” which I know I didn’t pay $80 for. I only went as far as the single player campaign; if online ranked play is still ongoing, I don’t really need those achievements.

It’s fun as a small squad RTS. You do not have the usual RTS economic aspect. You just have four hero units, most of whom come with grunts that you can refill at beacons. It does not seem incredibly deep. It felt like the same thing across missions, without a big, visible difference between enemy factions. Maybe the differences are more apparent if you play as them.

I played on normal (“Sergeant”) difficulty. It was rather easy. The ability to pull back and refill your units, costing only time, makes it very difficult to fail. And there are no time limits. I followed a recommendation to clear the map, rather than race to completion, because that gives you optional objectives and advancement is based on xp (kills) and loot (which can be cashed in for xp). That was presumably part of the ease, staying ahead of the leveling curve. The game has another snowball mechanic: do well to get more missions per day, with a side objective that increases your score there. Always do your first mission on Calderis, with that maximum side objective bonus, and you get enough missions to never worry about catching the defense missions before they expire.

The humans vs. eldar vs. tyranids story feels a lot like Starcraft, even after throwing in “vs. orcs, too.” I am well aware of which IP came first, but it is hard not to see it. Can you imagine how much happier it would be to be Games Workshop if Warcraft had been a Warhammer game, and then Starcraft had been 40k?

The pack I got also had “Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II – Chaos Rising” and “Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II – Retribution,” with bonus name length and punctuation. It looks like the game got up to six races by the end, any of which can run the campaign. Keen!

But my overall feeling after the original space marine campaign was that the game was worth a few missions but not a whole campaign. The basic play was familiar and basic, and the fights did not have much variety to them. Again, they probably did with closer examination, but “attack move to shoot and smash things” covered most of the game, with some strategic redeployment and use of abilities. I ran the first few missions with the stealth hero in my squad, working on careful deployment and use of abilities. Then I realized that I could just smash through the enemy without much thought.

If you like small squad RTSes, this has a lot of enemies to smash. This is your good grind.

: Zubon

Gaming Tables

Every time I go to Gen Con, it restores my resolve to buy a gaming table, although that always remains in the “after the next time we move” category. And I haven’t moved in a while. And Geek Chic shut down this summer after their deal on Shark Tank fell through. It’s a shame; I cannot speak to the market for high quality, high margin, low volume, niche market luxury products. Last year’s Gen Con post will direct you to competitors like BoardGamesTables.com and Caroline Game Tables.

Let’s talk about a few new entrants into that space. In honor of last year’s theme of “everything seems to be on Kickstarter,” all three are Kickstarting right now. Crowded market all at once, but “just after Gen Con” is either the best or the worst time to catch tabletop gamers.

  • Transforming Designs had a Game Anywhere Table campaign, now running a sequel campaign for more versions. Their gimmick is the portable nature of the table, which folds up, along with a variety of magnetic add-ons like card holders and “player pockets.” Portability is nice, although I am not sure how often I have needed a portable gaming table. It also has a bit of that folding table feel and is built around an assumption of four players. Much less expensive than the more permanent tables, $400 versus more than $1000. At which point you may have an uncomfortable comparison versus the cost of a non-gaming folding table, which is closer to $20.
  • The Gaddis Gaming TableTopper 2.0 is also a follow-up Kickstarter, this time to a project from two years ago. Their version is also portable and, as the name implies, is a topper to covert existing tables to a gaming space, intended for miniature wargaming. Their new project is for adding customizability and options, like finishes and modular components for larger and smaller gaming spaces. It is made of foam, which helps with the carrying and floating. In case you have ever wanted to do some gaming while swimming. The Kickstarter is already successful, but it seems far less popular than the actual tables, which has a lot of reasons behind it: foam, built for the even more niche wargaming market, not actually a table, rails on only two sides, fewer options, cost comparable to the lower-end Game Anywhere Table.
  • The Table of Ultimate Gaming is a more traditional table and then some. They have fewer options than BoardGameTables.com but are much more competitive on price, capping at $1000 as a Kickstarter price where others start above $1000. They have two sizes, three heights, and a few colors, which must help with keeping down some complexity and cost. They add complexity back in with the sort of modular add-ons that Geek Chic and the Game Anywhere Table have. They have decoration packs in case you want to advertise it as a gaming table rather than disguise it as a standard dining room table. What I found most interesting was modular tables sizes. The sides are removable, so if you want a bigger table (now or later), just get a second table put them together (I am unclear on whether anything would hold them together except gravity and friction). Downside: assembly is required, and the lower surfaces of the table make that apparent. Compare these corners to these ones from BoardGameTables.com. The latter advertises hand-crafting, whereas this advertises laser-cutting. You get a bit more of an Ikea experience here, at a much lower price. Having power outlets in the table is nice for some options. I am unclear on what the “play mat” is made from.

Thoughts? Comments? More information or other recent entrants into the market?
: Zubon