My Magic: The Gathering playing days are long gone and even if I do sometimes cast a nostalgic eye on an exciting new release like the recent Shadowmoor, I know in my heart of hearts that I will never again have the patience and freedom to buy entire boxes of boosters for the thrill of opening them one by one, build up networks of friends to trade cards and play games with and spend countless hours fine-tuning decks and analyzing strategies. So when I bought my PSP, it was with the knowledge that there are a number of well-received collectible card games available on the platform, and the Marvel Trading Card Game was at the top of the list to try out.
The Marvel TCG is a direct adaptation of the card based equivalent that uses Upper Deck’s Versus system. I’ve heard of this system but I’ve never actually learned to play it before this, so I had to go through the included tutorials not just to learn the interface but to understand how the system works as well. The tutorials do a decent job of teaching the fundamentals, but it’s likely that the average player will still need to actually jump into a game proper and learn about the quirks and subtleties of the system by playing the game and observing the available options.
Continue reading A Game: Marvel Trading Card Game (PSP)
I’ve gotten my Streamyx service up and running, so hopefully I can be online more now. To start with, this is what I’ve been gaming with for the past month. Since I expected to be in Malaysia on holiday for only a month, I knew it wasn’t feasible to bring back my main gaming PC all the way from the Solomon Islands. So in order not to become bored silly while on holiday, I bought a PSP. As my wife will readily attest, I’ve been making noises about buying one ever since it launched, but the higher price and the limited games library available then didn’t make it seem like a good buy until now.
The really funny thing is that while I originally intended to buy the PSP to play “deep” games that I’ve heard so much about, such as Monster Hunter and Armored Core: Formula Front, I actually ended up spending most of my time on it on more arcade-style action games like God of War, Wipeout Pulse and Tekken: Dark Ressurection. I have to admit that between the handheld format and the clunky English translations (and the severe lack of them in many places) I just couldn’t summon up enough enthusiasm to really understand how the deeper games work.
Continue reading What I’ve Been Up To (Part 1)…
Getting to the top of the bestselling PC games list and beating out heavy hitters like Call of Duty 4 and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, even for a few short weeks, is a remarkable achievement for a niche title by an independent publisher without the benefit of a familiar brand name or a worldwide marketing campaign. Yet this was what Sins of a Solar Empire managed to do, and its success, which came as to surprise even to its publisher Stardock and its developer Ironclad, is proof that innovative games with relatively small budgets can still stand out even in a gaming market that is saturated by sequels of familiar franchises.
Unlike most of Stardock’s previous games and in spite of marketing blurbs calling Sins of a Solar Empire a 4X game, this is ultimately still a real-time strategy game, albeit a very slow one with many elements reminiscent of turn-based strategy games. Combined with a nifty interface and a design that emphasizes strategic level decision-making rather than the micromanagement of many other RTS games, it’s a pretty unique beast in the gaming market and deserves every bit of the success it has won.
Continue reading A Game: Sins of a Solar Empire
I have many fond memories of Space Hulk, of both the original and now out of print boardgame by Games Workshop that I played while studying in France in a game shop called Le Temple des Jeux in Tours and the PC adaptation of it by Electronic Arts (before it shortened its name to just EA). So it was with some excitement that I downloaded this new and free Space Hulk.
This one is a straight up adaptation of the board game, not the video game, and is single player only. It’s set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40k universe and the player controls one or more squads of Space Marine Terminators on a mission to a Space Hulk, a huge derelict spaceship. These hulks now harbour the ferocious Genestealers, multi-limbed aliens with nasty claws and teeth that were probably inspired by the movie Alien and its sequels. The versatility of the original board game was that the “board” was actually composed of tiles that could be connected to each other in many different layouts according to the scenario being played. Each scenario has a different objective, varying from simply killing a set number of Genestealers, to retrieving an object from the hulk, to using your flamer to flame a specific area on the map.
As fun as the original board game was, I have to say that this version of it is sadly lacking in many important aspects. The interface is tricky to work with and the small size of the window and graphics make it hard to see what’s happening and where everything is. This is important because as the Space Marine player you need to calculate moves and distances very carefully to anticipate at what point the Genestealers will be able to rush you. And of course, let’s face it, a big part of the appeal of the board game was the sheer delight of working with the colourful tiles and moving the Space Marine and Genestealer miniatures around on them. It’s also fiendishly and unforgivingly hard. So, try this version if you’re wondering what the board game was all about or you’re feeling nostalgic for it, but otherwise, don’t bother.
(Oops, it looks as if downloads of the game have been discontinued because Games Workshop decided to throw a fit over it and the game proved to be more popular than the creators anticipated and the massive number of downloads have overloaded their hosting account. It seems that they’re trying to come to some agreement with Games Workshop so you might want to check on the site again from time to time.)
As with Episode 1, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 picks up directly where the last game left off and for the first time in the series, I found myself awed by the visuals. After you extricate yourself from the train that crashed at the end of Episode 1 and reunite with Alyx, you’re confronted with the spectacular sight of what used to be the Citadel. As you soon learn, the Combine is opening a massive superportal to call in reinforcements, and you need to head to the Resistance base at White Forest to warn them and help to shut down the portal.
Again, Alyx Vance accompanies you throughout most of the game, except for an extended sequence when a Vortigaunt fills in for her. They supply much needed commentary since as usual Gordon Freeman is conspicuous in his invisibility and silence (even from the opening cutscene that recounts the story so far such that it ends up looking like the Adventures of Alyx Vance instead). Valve’s storytelling magic is still here and the good news is that this time it’s backed up with great gameplay.
Continue reading A Game: Half-Life 2 Episode 2
Since even Half-life 2: Episode 1 is two years old now, it’s probably not fair to write a proper review of it so I’ll just jot down some of my thoughts on it. Its graphics are noticeably better than that of the original Half-Life 2, but still some way short of current standards. The most confusing thing about these episodic sequels is that they’re named Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and so forth, when as even Gabe Newell has said, it would make more sense to name them Half-Life 3: Episode 1 etc. Still, wholly brand new sequels are usually a lot more ambitious than Episode 1. The improvements, while noticeable, aren’t spectacular, and the way the story continues immediately after Half-Life 2 makes it feel like you’re playing new chapters of the original game rather than something completely new.
Episode 1 continues with Valve’s tradition of telling stories without cutscenes, choosing instead to keep the player in control in a tightly restricted environment to give for the NPCs to finish their canned speeches. It does work well, thanks to decent writing, good voice acting and, as before, Valve’s impressive technology of enabling the NPCs to have realistic facial expressions. But the way the game keeps locking you in rooms that can only be unlocked by an NPC after finishing a speech does get a bit too transparent.
Continue reading Half-Life 2: Episode 1
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected these answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose RAPTURE.
– Andrew Ryan, founder of Rapture
Bioshock has been named by multiple sources as the best PC game of 2007, so it was some trepidation that I picked it up, hoping that all the hype wasn’t totally unfounded. As the much heralded spiritual successor of System Shock 2, also written by Ken Levine, Bioshock has always had a lot to live up to, and judging at least by its unexpected commercial success and the near universal acclaim of game critics, it has largely succeeded at that. To me, there’s no question that Bioshock is a pretty much a unique gem, there’s nothing else quite like it in the market, but at the same time, I’m painfully aware that a lot of the hype is undeserved and the thought of what Bioshock could have been, if the designers had just been a little more ambitious and daring, is positively agonizing.
That Bioshock is a triumph of aesthetic design and storytelling goes without question. The opening FMV of the protagonist sitting in a plane, reading a mysterious handwritten message, segues seamlessly into the first scene as the player takes control of the sole survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Flames rage on the surface of the ocean as you, confused and exhausted, swim through a gap in the burning debris of the plane to the shelter of a lighthouse that stands, incongruously, on a lonely rock in the middle of nowhere. You push through the gilded double doors and suddenly it’s like walking into a different world. A banner proclaims, “No Gods, No Kings. Only Man”. Music wafts in from an unseen source. Plaques on the walls valourize the virtues of “Art”, “Science” and “Industry”. The grand stairs lead down to a roughly spherical pod sitting in a small pool of water, a bathysphere. You step inside, because there’s nowhere else to go. Then you settle in your seat as it takes you to the bottom of the ocean. The year is 1960. Welcome to Rapture.
Continue reading A Game: Bioshock