It's Sunday. There are fewer than 20 hours until your final exam. You've spent the week strung out on modafinil sleeping in two hour shifts to maximise studying time. Yet, with the end in sight you can start planning your victory game. If your sleep deprived brain is lacking game ideas this is what we've been up to this week.
Paul Dean: Thomas Was Alone
I know I’m just going to be singing the same tune as anyone else, and many months too late, but isn’t it great that independent games designers can offer players such a wealth of original concepts and fresh, new takes on gaming? Thomas Was Alone is just one fine example of this. As I’m sure many of you know already, it’s kind of a platform game, kind of a puzzle game and a little like a cross between Tetris and a soap opera.
You control a team of different shaped polygons who must all work together to reach the end of a series of levels, each of which is laid out like a puzzle. The very shape of these different polygons is the key to solving each puzzle, as one floats, another crawls through small gaps and a third is able to jump very high. Sometimes they need to split up to get to where they want to go, other times they have to climb on top of each other to reach their goal.
All this would be (and is) a decent puzzle game by itself, but there’s also the ongoing narration that runs throughout the game, and it’s through this narration each of these polygons is given a personality, a history and an outlook on what is happening to them. The narration is sometimes very sparse, occasionally being only two or three lines per level, but it really changes your experience of the game, giving things context, colour and character. It’s such a small addition to make, such a simple thing to add, and yet it brings so much. It’s had me thinking about how, very often, it can be the small things in games that make the big difference.
I’ve also really binged on World of Tanks this week. I may have developed an addiction.
Rob Zacny: StarCraft 2 and Far Cry 3
I don’t have much more to say about Far Cry 3 at the moment. I just hit the second island and the game is getting steadily more ridiculous. On the other hand, I’ve also gone full Predator, and am driving from mission to mission killing everything in my path, like in Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”.
I’ve also gone back to StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty to practice against the AI more. Playing the Heart of the Swarm beta, it just became clear how much I’d forgotten and I wasn’t improving enough against other human players. For whatever reason, I find I become very inhibited playing online, whether in a ladder match or not. I tend to avoid experimenting and trying to execute on risky tactics that I need to master. But while my early game builds have become decent enough to stand off a rush or two, I’m getting chopped to pieces when I push out into the map.
So I’m spending the weekend in Wings of Liberty just getting used to managing three bases and mixed armies. It feels almost like learning piano did, so many years ago, where I’d spend hours and hours playing scales and chords before moving onto whatever were the trickier pieces of music I’d be trying to learn. As with piano, the trick with StarCraft is going to be sticking with it. Writing about games and being good at a given RTS are often mutually exclusive goals.
Jeremy Peel: Iron Brigade
This is as good a weekend as any to become a Double Fine fan. Thanks in no small part to angel investor and “fan with money” Steve Dengler, the last 18 months have seen the vast majority of Schafer’s studio’s back catalogue capably ported to Steam. You can net the lot and sling it over your shoulder for £30, and pre-order Ron Gilbert thingy The Cave over on GMG for £7.50.
I’ve started with Iron Brigade - an uncharacteristically hands-on tower defence game. If you’re like me, though, that offhand summary won’t do anything for you - you’ll be far more tickled to hear that it belongs to a (mostly spiritual) lineage stretching from Shiny’s Sacrifice to Double Fine’s own Brutal Legend (as yet absent from Steam), via the forever-under appreciated Giants: Citizen Kabuto.
All of these games have at one time waved a ragged flag for what I’d probably dub the oddball third-person action RTS genre. Each was a peculiar mesh of odd compromises, necessary innovations, and whatever that expression is you make upon realising that something awful has been happening in the middle of your base for far too long.
Unlike any of those games, Iron Brigade doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it, designed as it was for small-game haven XBLA. The scene for its pulpy endless Great War setting is swiftly set, and you’re dropped unceremoniously into battle atop a mobile trench, whose nearest pop culture cousin is the common mech. You’re tasked with defending a barracks, hospital or public latrine from waves of varied beasties, and equipped with plantable turrets, repair stations, and as many big guns as you can fit about your person.
What follows is fire, flak and fury, interspersed with regular (if brief) pauses to consider where your next mortar cannon might be best landed. While you and your trench are afforded plenty of last minute agency to see off the blighters who spite the artillery, enemies are of the rock (quick-footed, explosive), paper (aerial), scissors (plodding, fortified) variety. That means a frustrating map is more often better tackled with a cup of tea and a rethink of your turret set-up than with a blaze of glory.
Stats are totted up as your ears are still ringing at the end of the fight, and a CoDish reward system sees new levels and upgrades fly in at an agreeable rate. And you know what? It all equals a real good time. Plus, the whole thing can be played in a co-op mode which promises 2x deathplosions and, consequently, twice the fun. That’s just maths.
Nick Wilson: Shogun 2
I woke up one morning and said to myself “I’m going to learn Japanese!”.
So Shogun 2 isn’t exactly effective at teaching someone the language, It does help with my immersion based learning. I’ve been mainly playing a co-op campaign with a friend, after begrudgingly fixing the glitchy sync issues with our saves. When it does work however it’s a load of fun, even if my friend takes an ungodly amount of time with his turns.
But seriously Tom, I shouldn’t be alt tabbing to another game entirely when you want to meditate on how you’re going to deal with a Christian rebellion.
A fun feature is the ability to gift one another units, on and off the battlefield. This way I can give my ally a unit of cavalry to go and play havoc with the enemies flanks. Although caution, if you loose units that don’t belong to you, be ready to be the bitch in the relationship.
I’m 40 hours into Shogun 2 and we’ve only just acquired half of the map. Now is the perfect time to deploy my secret army made entirely of Hanzo Ninjas. After all : “Shapes in the shadow; a glint of steel; the silence steals my happy life.” - Japanese Death Poem