Category Archives: Games

The Doom That Came To The Doom That Came To Atlantic City

I’m 9 for 10 on backing Kickstarter projects, and thus far I’ve been pretty lucky as far as reward fulfillment goes: I reserved my Ouya username, received some Goon digital comics, my copy of Project Ninja Panda Taco is on a bookshelf upstairs, Matthew Wayne Selznick’s Pilgrimage is on my Kindle (I expect my physical copy to arrive any day now), and Shadowrun Returns should be installed on my PC by this time tomorrow.

One more project has promised reward delivery this year and then I’ll have to wait until various points in 2014 and beyond for the other three.

Promotional sticker for The Doom That Came To Atlantic City
Promotional sticker for The Doom That Came To Atlantic City

Hopefully, none of them will turn into the train wreck that is The Doom That Came To Atlantic City!, a board game that not only met its $35,000 funding goal, but more than tripled it. More than 1,200 backers pledged over $120,000 to this Cthulhu/Monopoly mashup a year ago, and yesterday the campaign creator ((Actually would-be publisher The Forking Path. Keith Baker and Lee Moyer, designers of The Doom That Came To Atlantic City!, did not create the Kickstarter campaign.)) announced that the game had been canceled.

The backers—some of whom were surprised that their money was spent on an ill-fated attempt to “launch a new board game company” rather than simply covering manufacturing costs of a game that had been in development for the better part of two decades—are understandably upset. The video and all other material on the Kickstarter campaign page focus on getting The Doom That Came To Atlantic City! printed; nowhere is “launch a new board game company” mentioned. The comments section of the “Terminus” update is filled with information on how to file a fraud complaint depending upon where you live.

More than 400 people pledged $100 or more to fund The Doom That Came To Atlantic City! Updates from The Forking Path in late 2012 gave the impression that the game was at the printer in China. What went wrong? The details are vague, to say the least, but Erik Chevalier, who appears to be the sole voice of The Forking Path has promised a detailed post-mortem and has made a pledge to return backers’ money out of his own pocket. Rights to The Doom That Came To Atlantic City! have reverted to Baker and Moyer, who have offered (in a statement on Baker’s blog) to make a print-and-play version of the game available to Kickstarter backers as soon as possible.

I didn’t back The Doom That Came To Atlantic City!, but thanks to its implosion I am now more aware than ever of the $120+ “investment” I’ve made across four projects that, collectively, raised more than $5 million and hoping that the next update I see in my inbox won’t be one of those trains derailing.

One failed project (no matter how spectacularly or heinously it fails) doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on Kickstarter as a whole (they’ve gotten some other less-than-wonderful press in the past couple of months), but that won’t stop me from thinking long and hard the next time my cursor hovers over that “Back This Project” button.

Situation Report: Fall 2009

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things…

—Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and The Carpenter” (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There)

There may not be a whole lot of activity here in my little corner of this here series of tubes, but life does not stop when a person fails to update his blog regularly. To wit:

The Secret Lair

The Secret LairThe podcast is still going strong, with a new episode appearing every few weeks or so, and a new installment of our webcomic appearing only slightly less frequently. In the most recent illustrated adventure, which I shall henceforth refer to as the Irradiated Arachnid Incident, the side effects of a spider-bite are not what you might expect. Meanwhile, Chris and I managed to convince our wives (yes, there was alcohol involved) to join us in a discussion of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, that book they made into that movie with that one guy. We also sat down with Mick Bradley, with whom we have had dealings in the past, to discuss that most mysterious and misunderstood style of roleplaying, the story game.

Recent episodes of the podcast have featured staff reports from some creative (and incredibly generous) folks we are fortunate to call friends, those being Dr. John Cmar, Jay “Kingfish” Lynn, Natalie Metzger and Ken Newquist. These reports speak of schemes of ever-escalating complexity and crackpottedness, with a smattering of bizarre truth thrown in to blur the line between the real and the surreal.

Game Night

Approximately every two weeks, the gamers descend upon the International House of Johnson for one form of interactive entertainment or another. We’re currently in the middle of a Savage Worlds campaign run by Chris Miller, but last night we took a break from polyhedral dice and roleplaying to rock.

Live at the International House of Johnson - Photo by David MeadArmed with fake guitars, fake drums and a very real microphone, we took to the virtual stage in Rock Band 2 on the Xbox 360. Four adults and the aforementioned fake instruments do not fit particularly will into the area around our “entertainment center”, but that didn’t dissuade us in the slightest. Some of the songs we rocked out to:

  •  “Re: Your Brains” and “Skullcrusher Mountain” by Jonathan Coulton
  • “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • “Here it Goes Again” by OK Go
  • “Take it on the Run” by REO Speedwagon
  • “The Best Day Ever” by Spongebob Squarepants (featuring guest vocalist Kyle Abraham Johnson)
  • “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull (featuring Chris Miller on vocals and no one on the fake flute)

After the out-rocking concluded, we gathered at the dining room table for Monty Python Fluxx, followed by Fist of Dragonstones, the latter of which I thought was woefully underappreciated.

Olde Fartz

After a bit of a late-summer hiatus, the Olde Fartz Distance Learning Center is back in session. Our favorite game of late has been Half-Life 2 Deathmatch, though we did return to our roots for an evening of WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos a few weeks ago. There’s also talk of playing some Team Fortress 2 and Dungeon Siege, and P.G. Holyfiend keeps yammering about Sins of a Solar Empire, too. Yammering, I tell you. Enrollment in the Olde Fartz has increased to the point where we have abandoned Skype voice conferencing in favor of a TeamSpeak server. If you’re interested in joining the fun, drop me a line and I’ll take your application to the admissions committee.

Con on the Cob

Con on the CobLast year I managed to attend all four days of Con on the Cob, a local gaming, art and general geek convention. This year, Laura and I only attended on Saturday, but we still had a lot of fun. We both bought new dice (practically a con requirement) and I bought Dominion, an excellent card game from Rio Grande Games. ((Laura and I have played several times since the convention, but the four-player limit means it’s tough to include at Game Night (when we typically have six or seven people). There’s one expansion to the game (Intrigue) with a second (Seaside) on the way, both adding cards and allowing for additional players, so it might just grace the Game Night table someday soon.)) We watched a bit of the Iron Artist competition, then briefly fled to a nearby restaurant with Chris Miller and Rachel Ross for dinner, then it was back to the con for a couple of games of Dominion. Next year, I think we’re going to shoot for attending on both Friday and Saturday so we can do a little more gaming and maybe record an episode of The Secret Lair on-site.

Alas, I have no convention photos to share this year, as the battery charger for our Fujifilm Finepix J10 went AWOL right before my sister’s wedding. ((Did I mention that my sister got married? And we drove to Chicago for the wedding? And that Kyle wore suspenders? And that the bride and groom were joined “by the power of the Internet”? No? I should have. Sorry.)) A new charger has been purchased and will hopefully be delivered in time for Hallowe’en costume photos.

NaNoWriMo vs. NaBloPoMo vs. HoNoToGroABeMo

I have no intention of attempting to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days come November, nor will I make any real effort to post at least one blog entry a day in the same time period. On the other hand, I fully intend to shave off my beard on October 31st and then spend a month failing to grow anything resembling a manly face-mane. That’s right, for the third year running, How Not to Grow A Beard Month will return. Mega-kudos once again to The Cynical Optimist for creating and maintaining the website.

The Great Superhero Movie Project

Despite a general dearth of new reviews, I have been watching and rating various superhero movies over the past few months. There are currently 112 movies on the list (with more to be added soon); I’ve seen about 90 of them, rated about 60 and reviewed a paltry 11. Yeah, I have a bit of catching up to do in the review department.

Gamestuff: Left 4 Dead

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When I first heard about Left 4 Dead I didn’t think it would be a game for me. Zombie survival? Please! I want to shoot Nazis and aliens! ((Notable exception: Arcade shooters. Especially House of the Dead. It’s different when my involvement in the game is limited strictly to shooting stuff with a big gun and the whole “moving around” business is conveniently handled by the game.)) I’m the guy who loved all of the “realistic” missions in Return to Castle Wolfenstein but turned on “God mode” as soon as the lightning-launching Frankensteinien horrors showed up. Sure, I’ve played plenty of Half-Life in my day, but those things shambling toward Gordon Freeman aren’t zombies, they’re alien-infested humans that just happen to act a heck of a lot like zombies. That distinction makes a big difference, right? ((Yes, the resistance fighters in Half-Life 2 refer to humans controlled by headhumpers as “zombies”, but they’re wrong. Wrong, I tell you!))

Left 4 DeadEnter Left 4 Dead. Sure, I’d heard about it on The Video Game Show, but I only listen to that podcast because I work with one of the hosts; I don’t actually care about their opinions! ((I kid. It’s a good show. In fact, it’s the only video-game-related podcast I listen to.)) But then P.G. Holyfiend started hinting (subtle fellow he is) that the Olde Fartz try a little zombie survival some Thursday night. Hey, we might like it! I gently rebuffed P.G., because Left 4 Dead is one of them new-fangled games ((With graphics and everything!)) and the whole point of Olde Fartz is to provide an opportunity for those of us who can’t afford a new gaming rig every six months to get together on a regular basis and play some of those not-so-new-and-shiny games we love. ((Like WarCraft III and Neverwinter Nights.))

Never mind that I rebuilt my PC last summer and it kinda-sorta meets the requirements to play some of these new-fangled games.

The final nail in the coffin was driven by my fellow Evil Overlord, Chris Miller, ((He has a special hammer just for driving final nails into coffins.)) who—out of what passes for some sick, twisted facsimile of “kindness” that lives in the sick, twisted flesh-pump that passes for his “heart”—gave me a copy of the game on Steam. ((When the man wants to be entertained, he will be entertained. Money is no object.)) And so it came to pass that one Saturday night I was drawn into the world of zombie survival with Overlord Miller and Air Commandant Moore, and we—along with an array of projectile weapons and no small number of improvised explosives—battled our way through a shambling (and often not-so-shambling) horde of the restless undead.

And we did the same the next night; at least until Miller said something about having to get up for work in about as many hours as there are fingers on one of his hands. ((Hint: less than six. Well, on the right, anyway.)) Our merry band…well, disbanded, ((Temporarily.)) but I’d not had enough of the zombie-killin’, so I played through the first mission in the single-player campaign, which turned out to be nearly another two hours and no, we don’t need to discuss what time I went to bed that night and that will be quite enough out of you, say please and thank you.

The game was a lot of fun, but it ran a bit slow on my PC. I attributed the less-than-stellar performance to my on-board video adapter. ((An nVIDIA 7100 to which I’d allocated 512MB of system RAM.)) So, the first thing I did after we finished playing that Saturday night was get on and order a new EVGA GeForce 9400 GT PCI-express video card w/1 GigaBoogle of RAM. Hey! It was on sale! Don’t you judge me!

As I predicted, ((I’m an amateur technomancer.)) game performance increased dramatically with the introduction of the new video card, and I decided to put these new, fancier pixels through their paces by playing through a couple of the single-player campaigns. What I learned is that Left 4 Dead is a different game when I’m not following in the wake of an experienced player.

For one thing, it takes me about twice as long to complete a mission. I tend to proceed with caution, exploring every nook and cranny of the level, using the echoes of my shotgun blasts to build a complete, three-dimensional sonar image of my surroundings in my head, like a 12-gauge Man Without Fear who never went to law school and isn’t acquainted with anyone named Foggy.

Left 4 Dead: No Mercy Campaign
The cooperative multiplayer mode in Left 4 Dead is the Campaign. Each Campaign is broken down into five stages; each stage consists of making your way from one safe room to another, fighting off wave after wave of undead horrors until you find someone to get you the hell out of Dodge. ((In other words, it’s exactly like Senior Prom.)) Between safe rooms, you may be running through a railyard or the main street of a small town or ducking in and out of the various buildings that make up a typical urban landscape. The goal for the first four stages is always the same: survive until the next safe room.

Safe rooms bring only a brief respite from the zombie apocalypse; a few minutes to gather your wits about you, heal your fellow Survivors (always four, there are: Bill, Francis, Louis and Zoey) and stock up on ammo. In some cases, there may be better weapons stored in the safe rooms, too, but they are all alike in one respect: none of them have a rocket launcher.

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Once all of your boo-boos are bandaged and your guns reloaded, it’s time for another mad dash to the next safe room. Along the way you may find pipe bombs and molotov cocktails, both of which make satisfying kabooms that don’t quite make up for the total lack of rocket launchers. There are also opportunities for improvised explosions from gas cans as well as propane and oxygen tanks. These can all be picked up and moved around, so as to lay traps for the feckless undead. Simply drop a gas can in a doorway and when the next wave barges through, one well-place pistol shot will set the whole gang aflame.

In some areas, the only way to move on is to trigger an event (lower a bridge, raise a platform, open a door, etc.) that will unleash a multi-pronged zombie attack. There is ample warning that the trigger will unleash the horde, so the Survivors have an opportunity to find the best vantage points from which to see (and shoot) the incoming zombies, lay traps, and stock up on deadly, deadly bullets (there’s almost always an ammo dump near the trigger point).

To make things more difficult for our heroes, there are special zombies. Yes, there are seemingly endless waves of your standard moaning, shambling, and sometimes sprinting undead, but there are also Boomers, whose vomit is a potent zombie aphrodisiac; get any on you and every zombie in the area will jump your brains. Then there are Smokers—so called because they hack and wheeze constantly and explode in a puff of noxious smoke when killed—who snare Survivors with their long, frog-like tongues, dragging them kicking and screaming to a gruesome end. Hunters are hooded hooligan zombies who skitter around on all fours and then pounce, pinning unlucky Survivors to the ground and wailing away at them until someone comes to the rescue. The Tank is a huge, grotesque zombie that throws chunks of concrete, plows through parked cars and has a wicked, wicked backhand. Then there is the Witch. When you hear her crying, don’t try to console her—she is emo, and for her, undeath is filled with pain that you could not possibly understand—just turn off your flashlight and tiptoe around her. Do not startle the Witch. She will, given the slightest provocation, seek to deliver her pain unto you tenfold. ((I know what you’re thinking, but it’s a fool’s errand. No boombox or portable MP3 player can deliver enough of The Cure to soothe the Witch once she is startled.))

Survivors who are pinned by Hunters, snared by Smokers or just generally incapacitated can be assisted by their fellow players. Shove the Hunter, Shoot those Smoker (or even just his long tongue, though this means he’ll live to lick again), or simply give your buddy a hand up. You can also dole out pills (which provided a temporary health boost) or administer first aid (though someone will have to watch your back, as this takes a few seconds).

All of this—shooting and running and healing and shooting and ducking into safe rooms and shooting some more—leads up to the fifth stage: the final showdown, which usually involves contacting a rescue vehicle (helicopter, boat, ATV, etc.) and then having to hold off a tsunami of zombies while the Survivors wait for the vehicle to arrive. If you’re lucky, you’ll live to fight another day. If you’re not so lucky…well, maybe you’ll wind up on the receiving end of a shotgun blast in Versus mode.

Ah, Versus mode. It’s all well and good to cooperate with three of your friends as you battle waves of zombies that gently lap at your brains, but there are times when cooperation just doesn’t cut it. ((Not something you’ll likely hear David or Susan admit on Sesame Street.)) Sometimes, you just gotta shoot your friends in the face or eat their brains. Versus mode separates your foursome into two groups of two: ((Just like God intended.)) a pair of Survivors versus a pair of special zombies. [EDIT: I’ve been informed by sources of dubious reliability that Versus mode can be played four-on-four. I’m going to blindly accept it as fact and report it here.] The Survivors attempt to make it to the safe room while the zombies use their dirty tricks to stop them. With the exception of the Tank, the special zombies can be killed without much trouble—the Witch, whose hardiness is rivalled only by that of the Tank, is not playable in Versus mode—so the zombie players can respawn in a location of their choosing as a random special zombie a few seconds after they’ve been killed. Once all of the Survivors have either died or made it into the safe room (or a combination of both), the game resets and the roles are reversed. After both teams have played the Survivor role, each team receives a score based on how well they performed as the Survivors and a winner is declared.

The final game mode is Survival, which—as of this writing—I have yet to play. My understanding is that Survival mode replaces the “get to the safe room” objective with “just survive as long as you can against an unceasing flood of zombies”. I’ll update this post once I’ve had a chance to play.

The game I envisioned when people talked about Left 4 Dead and the game I wound up playing are pretty much two different beasts. The latter is much, much better. Which means that other people suck at describing awesome things. Heck, I probably do, too. It’s a fun game. Not for the kids. There are gallons upon gallons of blood and the language is pretty rough, so if that’s not your bag you probably want to avoid Left 4 Dead.

But if that is your bag, you may be able to find us on Steam, and we may need a fourth gun some evening, and we’d love to have you. Because, quite frankly, I am sick to death of being consistently one-upped by an AI player. Honestly, it needs to stop.

We’ve got a group on Steam: The Secret Lair Fragfest. If you’ve got a Steam account, join us. Even if you don’t have Left 4 Dead, ’cause we might play something else. ((Like Half-Life 2: Deathmatch.)) There’s always a chance. It could happen.

Portions of this post originally appeared on The Secret Lair forums.

Star Wars: My Chinatown Moment

I had a Chinatown moment recently while watching one of the Star Wars movies with Kyle, my three-year-old son, and I realized that George Lucas is the Jake Gittes to my Evelyn Mulwray. ((If you haven’t seen Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray, you should; this analogy makes more sense if you have. Go ahead: put in in your Netflix queue or run down to the corner video store. This blog will be here when you get back.)) It’s not that much of a stretch, is it? George delivered three prequels like so many slaps to the face of die-hard Star Wars fanboys like myself, and they hurt.

Before Kyle was born, I banished the prequels from my home. Even after I began his training—introducing him to the space opera by way of the LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy video game on my old Xbox—I was determined that the prequels would not sully my DVD player. We played the entire game together, and he experienced Tattooine, Yavin IV, Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City and the forest moon of Endor in a multitude of interlocking bricks. When I upgraded to an Xbox 360, Darth Elmo I decided that there was little harm in upgrading to LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga as well. I’d played through the prequel trilogy LEGO game before my son was old enough to pick up a controller and found that (surprise!) it’s much more entertaining when there’s no intelligible dialog.

A few months ago, we graduated from the video game to the movies. Despite a few bumps (he’s not terribly fond of the Wampa ice creature in The Empire Strikes Back; ditto for Luke’s encounter with Vader in the tree-cave on Dagobah and Jabba the Hutt’s menagerie in Return of the Jedi) the movies are a big hit at the International House of Johnson, and I get requests to watch them on a daily basis.

Then a couple of weeks ago I decided to lift my ban on the prequels. I realized that as much as I reviled them, the prequel films would be right up my son’s alley. He’d already been inoculated: he loves Yoda in all of his puppety glory, pretends to be Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, ((I have yet to convince him to pretend to be Lobot.)) refers to a Belle (Beauty & The Beast) PEZ dispenser as “yellow Princess Leia”, runs around the house yelling “Open the blast doors!” and “Oota goota, Solo?”; he even knows who is “in Darth Vader”. But there was an entire trilogy’s worth of characters that he’d only ever seen in LEGO minifig form.

So I borrowed Star Wars: The Clone Wars from the local library. He’d seen the endless advertisements for the series on Cartoon Network and would often strike a Power Rangers-esque stance while yelling “Star Wars the Cone Wars!”—he’s not so good with the letter L just yet—so I thought we could ease into the prequels with the animated adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. The reaction upon seeing the Star Wars logo was pretty much what I expected—an explosion of ecstatic joy—but the movie didn’t really hold his interest beyond a few oohs and aahs during one of the lightsaber battles.

I suspected that my son would be more interested in the familiar characters and situations in The Phantom Menace, so I picked up the DVD from The Exchange, my local used music/movie/video game store. We watched the movie together and I saw everything that made me hate it: Jake Lloyd’s horrible acting, Natalie Portman’s inspired impersonation of a woodcarving, the utterly ridiculous Trade Federation droids. ((“Roger, roger!”? What kind of nonsense is that? If the droids are all controlled by a giant ship in orbit and every last one of them shuts down when that ship is destroyed, why do they need to communicate verbally with each other at all, much less in an idiotic homage to Gomer Pyle?)) All of it.

And my son loved every last minute.

I’ve watched bits and pieces of The Phantom Menace three or four times since then, and it still makes me cringe to hear Anakin Skywalker ask Padmé Amidala if she’s an angel. Something screams inside me anytime midi-chlorians are mentioned. ((Riddle me this, George: If the Jedi believe the Sith have all been wiped out, do they not understand that one who will “bring balance to the Force” is going to have to kill a cubic buttload of Jedi? Why would any Jedi in his right mind want to find such a person?)) And when Yoda appears, his face swollen and his features distorted as though he’s in the midst of a horrible allergic reaction—possibly to a gundark bite—I just shake my head.

But it’s still Star Wars, and my son loves it. And while we were watching it together one night before bedtime, I suddenly felt like Evelyn Mulwray.

I love it!


I hate it!


I love it!


I hate it and I love it!

Lucas has always maintained—despite the froth and fury of fanboys like myself—that the prequels were geared toward children. Watching my young apprentice’s reaction, it’s clear that Lucas wasn’t just blowing smoke; I am a generation removed from what passes for Star Wars these days, but experiencing them with my son has brought an unexpected appreciation for something I was convinced I loathed.

This was originally written for Whateveresque, a web forum maintained by author John Scalzi. It is reprinted here—in a slightly altered form—at my wife’s request.

HOW-TO: Make Video Game Movies Better

John Scalzi, a science-fiction author whose works (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream) I’ve been enjoying over the past several months, has a column over at AMC’s SciFi Scanner section. Today’s entry is entitled “Doom for Dummies or How Hollywood Makes Video Game Movies“. ((I don’t want to spoil the column for you, but if the title were a question (a la, “How babby is formed?”) the answer would be “badly”.))

Now, there’s been some debate recently about whether slavishly reproducing the original source for movies adapted from other media is good or bad. Movies like Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and, more recently, Watchmen, tend to hew very close to their source, whereas films like The Lawnmower Man and Blade Runner bear very little resemblence to the works from which they are derived. Video games tend to fall into the latter category, as what’s ultimately delivered to theaters (or straight to the shelves at Blockbuster) often shares little more in common with the game than the name. For a fine example of this, see In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. ((Actually, don’t. Really. Skip it. You’re better off not knowing.))

Now, having recently seen Watchmen, which is a movie adapted from a comic book mini-series, I’m of the opinion that sticking as close as is reasonably possible to the source material can result in a pretty good film. On that basis, and that basis alone, I am recommending that filmmakers attempt more faithful recreations of video games when adapting them to the screen. There are some elements that simply won’t transfer well—such as the character’s health bar and the fireworks display any time he or she levels up, or the constant chugging of mana and health potions—but I think there’s one common video game element that filmmakers consistently overlook when adapting from console to screen, an element that is well within a director’s ability to recreate faithfully, a nod to fans that is both simple to accomplish and will be instantly associated with the source material.

I’m talking, of course, about crappy camera angles.

If Lara Croft were, in the midst of a potentially deadly encounter with one of the many dangerous creatures one comes across while raiding tombs, suddenly obscured from view for several seconds because the camera swooped behind an outcropping of rock for some damn reason, anyone in the audience who had actually played the game would instantly identify with the moment.

Cave Chao Lan Reservoir Khao Sok National Park. Photo by René Ehrhardt. Released under a Creative Commons license.
Lara Croft battles a giant, fire-breathing salamander in the latest Tomb Raider film.

If Max Payne were to duck down an alleyway and disappear because the camera didn’t follow him, only to be brutally attacked by a hidden, hellborn beast that the audience couldn’t see because why the hell isn’t the camera moving? I can’t see what the hell is happening! the audience would know beyond a doubt that the original source material had been treated with kid gloves. “Yes!” they would cry. “Yes! At last, here is a filmmaker who understands the video game experience!”

The only way to further immerse the audience into the events unraveling on the screen would be to give them controllers to throw at it.

Gamestuff: February 2009 Xbox Update

Xbox Live AvatarHere’s a rundown on the latest crop of Xbox 360 titles introduced to the International House of Johnson. Some (The Orange Box, Ninja Gaiden 2) were borrowed from friends, some (Braid, Catan, Marble Blast Ultra) purchased on Xbox Live Arcade, and the rest were previously-owned (or “gently-used”, if you like) titles I picked up at The Exchange, an awesome local store where I traded in my Xbox Classic and several of my old games.

  • LEGO Star Wars: The Complete SagaLEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. This game is currently king at the International House of Johnson. When I realized that my young apprentice was completely obsessed with LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy for the Xbox Classic, I decided that it was time to upgrade. Not only is there twice as much lightsaber-swinging, brick-smashing action, The Complete Saga includes Achievements, so the hours (and hours and hours) we play together have resulted in a 450-point increase in my Gamerscore.
  • The Orange BoxThe Orange Box. I liken this title to the can of frozen Minute Maid juice tucked away in my freezer: concentrated orange goodness. The Orange Box is actually five games on one disc: Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2 Episode 1, Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Portal and Team Fortress 2. To be sure, Portal is a very short game—I played through it in a single marathon session that concluded at 4am—and Team Fortress 2 can only be played online, ((I have yet to play any of my games online, mostly because I haven’t scheduled anything with my circle of friends and I’m not at all eager to play with random strangers.)) but the other titles appear to have some serious content and I’ve totally been sucked in to Half-Life 2. ((How sucked in? Up-until-3am-last-night sucked in.))
  • Grand Theft Auto IVGrand Theft Auto IV. The GTA series, beginning with Grand Theft Auto III, proves time and again just how easily distracted I am. I start the game in “mission mode”, intent on advancing the storyline, but inevitably I wind up running rampage through the streets of Liberty City (or Vice City, or San Andreas) trying to concoct new ways to get myself killed.
  • CrackdownCrackdown. I tend to think of this game as Grand Theft Auto plus superpowers minus the story. There’s a lot of the same freestyle play and off-mission challenges that make the GTA series great, but the main character (a genetically-enhanced Peacekeeper) has absolutely no personality whatsoever. There are no cinematic cutscenes to draw the player into the world, but it’s still crazy fun to wreak havoc on four separate criminal factions with guns, bombs and a roundhouse kick that can flip a speeding car.
  • Marble Blast UltraMarble Blast Ultra. I purchased this Xbox Live Arcade title because Kyle got a kick out of the demo. Think Marble Madness on steroids. Unfortunately, the difficulty ramps up fairly quickly and there are only a few levels that Kyle likes to play. Actually, the difficulty gets downright annoying after a while, so I don’t play this one much.
  • Far Cry Instincts PredatorFar Cry: Instincts: Predator. This first-person shooter is a sequel to Far Cry: Instincts, which was a console port of the PC title Far Cry. Predator is essentially the same game with a second chapter, or so I’m led to believe. I tend to prefer the keyboard/mouse control scheme for FPSes—I purchased Far Cry on Steam, Valve’s digital distribution platform for the PC—but the allure of more tropical island butt-kicking was too strong to resist.
  • Marvel Ultimate AllianceMarvel Ultimate Alliance. I played this game all the way through on the Xbox Classic, but I felt that there was enough replay value to warrant picking it up for the 360. Plus, it gives me a chance to play as someone other than Captain America. As an aside, Clive Revill, who provided the original voice for Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back, lends his talent as the voice of the nefarious Doctor Doom.
  • BraidBraid. This platformer is an Xbox Live Arcade title that borrows elements from both Super Mario Brothers and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. In the case of Super Mario Brothers, “borrow” is probably an understatement, as the story (not to mention some of the gameplay) is pretty much identical: rescue the Princess from the castle. Whether you call it an homage or a ripoff, Braid puts a very clever twist on the classic platformer and adds an absolutely haunting soundtrack to boot.
  • CatanCatan. A port of the wildly popular boardgame, Settlers of Catan, this Xbox Live Arcade game is a steal at 800 Microsoft points ($10 US). I don’t think the implementation is quite as smooth as Carcassonne (which, admittedly, is a much simpler game), but the ease of play versus setting up the actual board (not to mention finding someone to play with) makes it a bargain.
  • Ninja Gaiden 2Ninja Gaiden 2. Blood, blood and more blood. I haven’t played much of this game, but what I’ve seen has been incredibly gory. Needless to say, this is a title that doesn’t get played until after Kyle goes to bed. The fighting is intense and the stunts are a lot of fun, but the rails are painfully obvious, especially when your uber-ninja—who can run along walls and perform elaborate, fliptacular airborne attacks—can’t jump over a low fence or other seemingly-insignificant obstacle.

That’s a whole lot of games there, but LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga really is dominating the console. The disc rarely comes out of the drive, and even when Kyle is in bed I’m probably trying to complete one of the chapters in “Challenge” mode or find the last mini-kit canister. I’m bound and determined to reach 100% completion on this title, and when last I checked I had 20.7% remaining. Must. Find. Canisters!

Comes the Bridegroom

I remember looking into her eyes as I slid the ring onto her finger. God, she was so beautiful; so happy. The very idea of spending the rest of my life with her brought an exhilarating rush of tumbling—sometimes conflicting—emotions, the most powerful being joy that threatened to burst my heart.

I remember hearing the words “kiss the bride” and bending to find her lips with my own. I remember how she smelled in that moment, before our first kiss as man and wife.

I remember pain and light and heat and noise and darkness. Darkness that was more than just the absence of light; darkness that shrouded not just my body, but my heart and my soul. Darkness that should have been eternal.

I remember killing them, the men who released me from that darkness. I reached out into the searing light and the deafening sound and my hand found metal and wood and I pulled. Thrust back into a world of pain, I lashed out, swinging the shovel without purpose and feeling the shock of metal against flesh, biting deep and finding bone beneath.

I remember their cries of pain and fear, and when they were silenced I found that I could see again. Two men—there may have been three; it was hard to tell—lay dead around the open pit that had once been my grave, their bodies twisted and ruined. The weight of the shovel felt right in my hand, so I didn’t let go.

I remember standing there for what may have been days or years or only a few seconds before the need stirred within me; the need to find her, where ever she may be; the need to be with her again and to destroy everything that stands between us.

I remember her eyes.

I remember her scent.

I don’t remember her name.

Gamestuff: The Next Generation

My Xbox AvatarIn reality, the “next generation” of gaming consoles is whatever the folks at Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Infinium Labs ((That’s a joke. Infinium Labs, now Phantom Entertainment, announced what promised to be the end-all, be-all of video game consoles way back in 2002. Many were skeptical of the rather bold claims made by Infinium, especially given that technical detail was entirely non-existent and the only “prototype” of the console appeared to be a computer-generated mockup. It came as a shock to almost no one when Infinium missed their announced launch date of January 2005, and the aptly-named Phantom console never appeared.)) have up their sleeves for 2010 (or maybe 2011). Despite the fact that the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii have both been on the market for two years and the Xbox 360 had its third birthday over a month ago, the phrase “next-gen console” still gets bandied about in relation to all three systems. Well, if that’s the way it’s going to be, then fine: The next generation of console video games has arrived at the International House of Johnson.

That’s right, my final Christmas gift—acquired on 02 January 2009—was an Xbox 360. That handsome fellow to the right (or above left, if you’re reading this in an RSS aggregator) is my Xbox avatar, the closest I could approximate how I look when I arrive home after a grueling day at work, ((Understand that I am using a very generous definition of the word “grueling” here.)) ready to kick back and play some LEGO Indiana Jones with my young apprentice. ((Kyle originally called the game “cowboy hat Star Wars”, as his favorite game on the Xbox classic was LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.))

Xbox 360My budget allowed for the Xbox Pro console, an extra wireless controller and a 12-month Xbox LIVE Gold membership, but there wasn’t much left over for games, which typically cost $50-60 new. Thankfully, both the console and the extra controller came with games, roughly 40 of my Classix Xbox games are compatible with the 360, and I have some very generous friends with some fairly extensive Xbox 360 game collections. As a result, here is what I’ve been playing for the past week:

  • LEGO Indiana JonesLEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures. Included with the console, this title has definitely gotten the most play. Kyle and I both loved the LEGO Star Wars games, so making the jump to Dr. Jones was a no-brainer. The “Original” part of the title means that there’s no Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I’m okay with that.
  • Kung Fu PandaKung Fu Panda. The second game included with the console is surprisingly enjoyable given that it’s a movie tie-in. I think I’m a little less than halfway through this one and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Unfortunately, it’s only a single-player game and a little complex for Kyle to handle on his own.
  • Hexic HDHexic HD. The final game included with the console was pre-loaded on the hard drive. Hexic HD (I assume HD stands for “high-definition”, though my television is incapable of confirming this) is a puzzle game similar to the insanely popular Bejeweled. Simple, fun and very, very addictive.
  • Viva Piñata: Party AnimalsViva Piñata: Party Animals. This one was included with my second wireless controller. It’s bright and colorful and Kyle likes the way it looks on the screen, but the gameplay is a bit out of his reach right now. Like most party games I’ve played (Fusion Frenzy, Kung Fu Chaos), Party Animals features a variety of short, fast-paced games, ideal for a quick pick-up game with a group of friends.
  • CarcassonneCarcassonne. The one game I did purchase separately cost me 800 Microsoft points ($10 US) on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. It’s an adaptation of a tile-laying game by the same name that Laura and I both enjoy. We’ve only played one game together, but I’m hoping for many, many more. Why play this on a console instead of a tabletop? One word: scoring. Having the computer handle the final scoring is much simpler than tallying it up by hand.
  • Gears of WarGears of War. Until the sequel was released last year, this was one of the must-have first-person shooters for the Xbox 360. I don’t mind being a version behind, because this game is so blasted cool and the graphics are like nothing my Xbox Classic could ever dream of achieving. Gears of War is on loan to the International House of Johnson from Miscellaneous G™.
  • Assassin's CreedAssassin’s Creed. Another title courtesy of Miscellaneous G™, Assassin’s Creed is a third-person, over-the-shoulder action game featuring lots of sneaking around and parkour. I’ve heard that the game can get rather repetetive, but I’m still in the “Holy crap, that looks so awesome!” and “I can’t believe I just did that!” phase of our relationship.
  • Call of JuarezCall of Juarez. The third title brought to me by Miscellaneous G™ is a Wild West shooter. My first impression of this game isn’t terribly favorable. I wanted it to be like Gun or Red Dead Revolver, or even Dead Man’s Hand, but the interface feels clunky and there are visual elements that make the game feel like it was rushed to market. I’m going to give the game another shot before I declare it a dud, but it had best turn around quickly, or we’re never going to get out of the “Holy crap, that looks so not-awesome!” and “I can’t believe I had to do that!” phase of our relationship.
  • Duke Nukem 3DDuke Nukem 3D. The classic first-person shooter and predecessor to the long, long, long awaited Duke Nukem Forever ((Any day now.)) has not been updated to take advantage of the exponential improvements in gaming technology. At all. And yet, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to play. This one is courtesy of a free download code, provided by one of the hosts of The Video Game Show.
  • Aegis WingAegis Wing. An action-shooter in the same vein as the classics R-Type and Silpheed. Aegis Wing was a free download from Xbox LIVE. It’s really meant to be played with multiple people, with Voltron-style hook-up action, and the single player missions (sans up-hooking) are rather difficult.
  • Dash for DestructionDash for Destruction. I feel a little guilty that I racked up 190 Achievement points ((More on Achievements in a later post.)) playing what is blatantly an interactive advertisement for Doritos, but there you have it. Dinosaurs chase Doritos delivery trucks; play as the dinosaur or the truck. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

I’ve also been taking advantage of my Xbox LIVE membership to play a boatload of game demos, including Braid (which has an excellent soundtrack), Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (the title is far cooler than the game itself), LEGO Batman (want!), and UNO (also want!).

Because the Xbox is connected to the Intertubes during play, anyone with a little know-how can find out what I’ve been playing recently. My Gamertag badge displays my current Gamerscore and the five games I played most recently, while 360voice uses the very same information to create a daily blog for my Xbox 360. A recently-added feature allows me to log in to my Xbox account from anywhere and queue up downloads of free content or even purchase games on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, which will automatically be downloaded the next time my console connects. Pretty slick.

Yeah, I’m gushing a bit, and about two years too late, but that’s the way it goes around here sometimes. Tomorrow, Microsoft will announce the Xbox 720 and a year and a half from now I’ll be the only person I know still slumming it with the 360, but it should be a pretty cool year and a half—until the inevitable Red Ring of Death, that is.

Gamestuff: Enter Ye Olde Fartz

Not too long ago, I rebuilt my PC, swapping out the old Intel 850GB motherboard and 1.7 GHz Pentium 4 processor for an ECS Elitegroup GF7100PVT-M3 motherboard and a dual-core Pentium E2180 2 GHz CPU. I also bumped my RAM up from 1 GB to 3 GB ((The onboard NVIDIA GeForce 7100 GPU commandeers 256MB of RAM, leaving the system with 2.75GB.)) and traded my tired, old Maxtor EIDE hard drives for a 500 GB Western Digital SATA drive. I eschewed the motherboard’s built-in audio in favor of  my Sound Blaster Audigy because I’d been using Firewire to synchronize my iPod and didn’t feel like digging around for the USB cable.

Thusly upgraded, I then proceeded to install a slew of games that ran just (or at least mostly) fine on the old PC.

  • Command & Conquer: Generals
  • Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
  • Freedom Force
  • Homeworld
  • Unreal Tournament 2004
  • WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos

WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (PC)When Sam Chupp got wind via Twitter that I’d installed WarCraft III, he suggested that we play online sometime. We played a game in which we joined forces against what we could only assume were two twelve-year-old boys and were soundly trounced.

The following week, we opted to stay away from the hordes of clearly superior yet entirely anonymous players and set up a private game. Thus were the seeds of Ye Olde Fartz sown. Soon we were joined by Jay “Kingfish” Lynn,  Gus (AKA The Bearded Goose) and (when he wasn’t too busy getting paid to play games on his Xbox 360) Ken Newquist. The WarCraft III game became a weekly event, a three- or four-player free-for-all battle between Orcs, Humans, Night Elves and the gruesome Undead.

After a few weeks of real-time strategy, ((Wherein I kicked some serious ass, most nights.)) Sam suggested that we try another favorite game of mine, Neverwinter Nights. And so, this past Thursday—after about an hour and a half of patches, critical fixes and reinstalls—Ye Olde Fartz began a cooperative roleplaying adventure. We’re playing what the kids on the Intertubes call the “OC”, or “Original Campaign”, but I know that Sam has something up his sleeve he’d like to try, so after we’ve cured the mysterious plague that is…uh…plaguing…the city of Neverwinter, we’ll move on to Sam’s home-brewed module. As Sam has significant game design experience, I have no doubt that the story he cooks up will be both memorable and fun to play. ((No pressure, Sam.))

Now if I can just convince them all to play Crimson Skies

Video Game Roundup – Summer 2008 Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about video games, largely because I was going through a bit of a dry spell in that arena. That all changed about a month ago when, after about three years of nagging from a friend, I reinstalled City of Heroes. ((This is not an exaggeration. I had characters that were inactive for well over 1200 days.)) Well, technically, I installed City of Villains, but the fine folks at NCSoft bundle the subscriptions to both, so “upgrading” to City of Villains got me 30 days of free play on both games.

Now that I’ve got my game on again, I’ve taken a belly flop into the pool of pixelated entertainment. Here are the games I’ve been playing over the past couple of weeks:

  • City of Heroes (PC)City of Heroes/Villains (PC) I’ve only played three Massively Multiplayer Online Games, ((The other two: Earth & Beyond and the original iteration of Star Wars Galaxies.)) but City of Heroes is by far my favorite. A friend at work has been trying to get me to join the cult of World of Warcraft for several months, but elves and orcs don’t appeal to me as much as capes and cowls. I meant to create a few villains during my 30-day “trial” period, but was having so much fun with my cadre of heroes that I never bothered.
  • Destroy All Humans 2 (Xbox)Destroy All Humans 2: Make War Not Love (Xbox). Long-time readers of this blog will undoubtedly know that I’m not especially good at completing video games. I once lost a bet because I couldn’t finish two games in a year. Every once in a while, though, a game grabs hold of me much in the same way a crocodile siezes a wildebeest, its jaws clamping down on the unwary ungulate’s throat until the final twitch is twutch. Destroy All Humans 2 had all the elements necessary to be that game, plus I began playing just when Laura and Kyle fled to Florida for a week, leaving me free to play and play and play some more with no one wanting to watch The Wonder Pets! or (worse)The Closer. ((Seriously, Kyra Sedgwick’s accent drives me up the wall. I’d much rather hear Ming Ming duckling say “this is sewious” than listen to Mrs. Kevin Bacon drawl her way through another interrogation. That’s why she’s so good at what she does: five minutes in a room with her is enough to make even the most hardened criminal confess to anything as long as she will just shut up, fer crissakes!)) The story takes place in 1969 and follows Cryptosporidium-138, an alien invader who (in the first game) managed to infiltrate the White House. Now, however, the Russians have destroyed his mothership and he’s out for revenge, uncovering a vast conspiracy (and meeting a dangerously enchanting female KGB agent) along the way. The dialog is amusing (rife with innuendo and not at all appropriate for young kids), the missions are challenging but almost never frustrating, and the variety of weapons that Crypto acquires for himself and his flying saucer as the game progresses make destroying humanity fun for the whole family. Except the kids. And probably wife.
  • Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC)Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC). I own this roleplaying game for both the PC and the Xbox, ((But not the Game of the Year edition that includes both the Tribunal and Bloodmoon expansions. No, that would be too convenient.)) but I’ve never really taken a character beyond Seyda Neen (the village in which the hero begins the game). Once upon a yesterday I named Morrowind as my “Island Game”, the single title I’d take with me if I were stranded alone on an island and somehow miraculously had both a computer and the electricity necessary to play games all day (instead of building a raft or a signal fire, I guess, which seems very typical of me). I’ve heard so many good things about this game (and even better things about Oblivion, its successor) that I’m determined to play it through, come hell or high water.
  • LEGO Indiana Jones (PC)LEGO Indiana Jones (PC). Having enjoyed both LEGO Star Wars games immensely on the Xbox, I was disappointed to learn that LEGO Indiana Jones would only be available for “next generation” consoles. ((Please, for the love of Adam Sessler’s anime-inspired hair, stop calling the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii “next generation consoles”! They’re here, for cryin’ out loud! They’re current generation! Just…knock it off…really.)) So, when I was wandering through Best Buy and found myself reading the system requirements for the PC version, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my aging desktop computer met those requirements. Alas, the recommended system specs were considerably higher than the minimum specs, so the game ran rather poorly, at least until I upgraded my PC. Even so, the keyboard-based control scheme in the PC version is sadly inferior to the Xbox controller setup; so much so that I may put this game aside until I can buy an Xbox 360 controller. ((For those who may not know, wired Xbox 360 controllers are USB devices and compatible with Windows.))
  • Homeworld (PC)Homeworld (PC). I blame Sam Chupp for this one. He casually mentioned that he couldn’t stop playing Homeworld and I suddenly developed a nervous tic that wouldn’t go away until I dug out the install CDs for not only Homeworld, but Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld 2. This 3-D realtime space simulator has everything: beautiful graphics, compelling story, intuitive interface, engaging gameplay, and some of the best sound effects and music I’ve ever heard in a video game. Very few games have been able to pull me so completely into their universe, but Homeworld is definitely one of them.
  • Command & Conquer Generals (PC)Command & Conquer Generals (PC). Ah, the alphabet. Because I have my games arranged alphabetically, I stumbled across the Command & Conquer Generals discs in my hunt for Homeworld and then next thing I knew I was installing the game. Generals never really ran well on my PC, but it’s beautiful now that I’ve upgraded. I have never finished an RTS (though I came close with StarCraft and Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos), but there’s a first time for everything, or so I’ve heard.
  • Freedom Force (PC)Freedom Force (PC). Now here’s a game I have finished. In fact, I finished the sequel (Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich) in about a week, which was (at the time) entirely unprecedented. I need to scratch my superhero gaming itch, and this is definitely the game that’ll do so. The first time I played through I was only concerned with completing the story, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Destroy All Humans 2 it’s that completing one hundred percent of the game—leaving no stone unturned, no objective unaccomplished and no shiny ungrabbed—is immensely satisfying. My goal with Freedom Force is to complete every secondary objective of every mission; no mean feat, as usually the secondary objectives are only revealed after the mission is complete.