Galactic Arms Race has its gimmick… but it needs more to keep me coming back

July 14, 2009

FROM JASON’S LASER BEAMS — Look, this is a pretty old story and you know it by heart. It’s all about the grind. You kill things and you get credit for it, until you get enough credit that you can achieve a higher level.

That’s the way of World of Warcraft, of Dungeons and Dragons, of Final Fantasy. It’s how repetitive games progress. Everything else is embroidery.

That embroidery is what sets one grind apart from the rest… just not by much.

In the case of Galactic Arms Race, the freeware space shooter, the gimmick is the AI that constantly mutates new weapons based on an algorithm called cgNEAT.

To reduce it to Atari-speak, GAR is basically a fusion of Asteroids and Solaris with PvP and RPG mechanics thrown into the mix. You fly (solo or multiplayer) through a network of star systems taking on aliens, pirates, and space blobs while gaining experience and pumping up various armor and weapons stats. It’s got all the laser-filled shmup-ability of Japanese shooters with the same “just one more level” carrot offered by WoW.

GAR‘s the kind of DLC you would have killed to find back in 1995 — quick, resource-friendly, set against beautifully rendered space dust, and with constantly evolving (to a point) content. But when boiled down to its fundamentals, GAR is more a toy than a game.

What I mean is that no matter how many different ways the game finds to fire weapons (which so far are all variations on a very narrow theme), the shoot-and-level game idea has pretty much reached a dead end. For three decades, shoot-em-ups have been repackaging of the old tenets of Galaga.

What could move GAR further away from the realm of Galaxian et al would be a hybridization of mechanics. It would benefit tremendously, for instance, by incorporating trade or cargo-hauling, wreckage salvaging, mining, or some other similar components. The relative monotony could also be lifted by introducing personalities or (who knows) political interaction with the various enemy factions, or possibly a combination that could allow a control-the-map strategic element similar to RISK.

For now, that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan, and that’s okay if you want a few hours of mindless blow-shit-up-and-get-more-powerful fun. But that old chestnut gives dimishing returns on replay… especially when you’ve hit level 62 and start to get sleepy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like GAR, or I wouldn’t have put about six hours into it over the past few days. That’s why it’s worth talking about. It really is a terrific effort, especially for a university group project. I just need a little more meat, that’s all.

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Wallpaper of the Week: Team Fortress 2

July 11, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — Admission time: I am not good at first-person shooters. I’m just not. My synapses are better suited to slightly slower-moving games. And I get irked by insta-deaths that I couldn’t see coming.

That happens a lot in Team Fortress 2.

So I resisted picking up Valve’s update of the classic MMOFPS for the longest time, at least until Steam lowered the price for a weekend deal to a paltry $9.99 a month or so back.

Since then, I’ve spent the better part of 40 hours getting fragged in every way imaginable: flamed, riddled by shotgun shells, darted to death, mowed by machine gun fire, rocketed, proximity bombed, caught unawares by a sentry, napalmed, arrow through the head — you name it.

I’ve took a few lives myself.

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The engineer is my man. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting a sentry gun just out of sight around a high-traffic corner and watching it take out four or five opponents before it’s demoed.

I do have some complaints, though. The engineer needs more traps. What about pitfalls, tripwires, and logjams? For that matter, why can’t he build energy shields or barricades? And he’s not the only one who’s under-powered. C’mon, Valve, the medic deserves a better gun — one that doesn’t take 400 direct headshots to bring down a scout

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I’ve spent more time playing those two classes than all the others combined, and I’m all thumbs when it comes to the spy (average lifespan there is about 12 seconds). And I’m just getting into the groove with the demoman, who I believed at first to be completely useless and now understand to be the perfect anti-engineer character.

I’m also coming into my own with the sniper, as long as there is sufficient cover to be had; he’s almost as good with a submachine gun as a rifle scope.

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So I went looking for TF2 wallpapers and found a lot of very lame ones, sporting poorly-done  fan art and little charisma. What I decided is that expertly-timed screen caps of in-game action make for the best desktops — especially when they show imminent doom for our players. Enjoy these 1024×768 beauties, and as always, click to embiggen.


Wallpaper of the Week: More Left 4 Dead

June 9, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Saying no to progress just doesn’t make sense.

So I don’t really understand the pathetic whinging some players are doing this week after the announcement that Left 4 Dead 2 will hit Steam this November. Some idiots who take themselves far too seriously are even trying to push a boycott of the new game, and have written a “manifesto” touting their lame opposition.

It’s laughable. And it’s not logical. For some reason, they thought Valve — a for-profit company — was going to endlessly give away free downloadable content, expanding the L4D universe for nary a nickel.

Well, in a way, they already have. They gave us survival mode and new versus maps in May, and released the Source SDK for the game. What more could you ask for? Already, a modding and mapping community has sprung up, offering enormous and rather professional campaigns that are easy to install and use.

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The most complete, atmospheric fan-made maps I’ve found so far are Death Aboard (the shipyard is a lot of fun with a sniper rifle) and Dead City (the drawbridge, especially).

Given the short time since the SDK release, these campaigns are almost finished and still a little rough around the edges, but they tend to be A) larger than the official levels, B) just as inventive, and C) filled with far, far more zombies to blast into motionless corpses.

I’m also rearing to see the completed Death Knell, which is so far spooky as hell, and Brain 4 Dead, which has far more open space and novelty settings than some of its contemporaries.

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Sure, these DYI projects have their little failings; they tend to be a little too claustrophobic and maze-centered, with not much in the way of alternate routes. Sometimes they put ledges or jumps at just the wrong distances, causing undue frustration during horde-rushes. The designers can also can be obsessed with setting up dubiously convenient sniper posts and safe-platforms, which can take some of the fun out of the hunt.

But not much.

I don’t care. As much fun as the SDK-made campaigns are, I’m ready for L4D2: Electric Boogaloo, which supposedly sports chainsaws, frying pans,  axes, and incendiary ammo. It’s all about the add-ons, the new mechanics that will add a whole new gameplay depth (not to mention replayability).

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There are, as you no doubt have already read from E3 coverage, three more special infected planned, with one already revealed as the Charger, a sort of mini-tank. The regular infected are getting a little heartier this time around, and some are even clad in Haz-Mat suits to resist your molotovs.

So I’m excited, not only for what’s available right now, but what’s coming. And those L4D2-haters can get the bird. That’s why I went scrounging for some more L4D wallpapers to share this week. Enjoy.


Big Windup: Wait, is there really this much crying in baseball?

June 1, 2009

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bwlogoFROM JASON’S FANSUBS — When I typically sit down for a new anime, I expect — no, I demand! — mecha, evil reptiles, psychic samurai, or space pirates.

I’m looking for an escape from reality. So when Andrew put Big Windup in front of me, I wasn’t optimistic.

It’s ostensibly a baseball anime, totally destituteof laser battles or acid-spitting mutant biker girls. It doesn’t even sport jiggling breasteses or upskirt shots, so I’m not even sure it fits the definition of anime.

This one’s all about psychology, game strategy, and building character. And in the first seven episodes, a good chunk is dedicated to crying and/or getting our hero, Mihashi, to stop crying. He’s kind of a pussy.

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Honestly, I would have stopped watching after the fourth bout of crying if Andrew hadn’t promised to watch Gurren Lagann if I watch Big Windup.

The tears wear pretty thin, and they all stem from crippling self-esteem issues. Folks, you have to wonder what kind of everyday soul-crushing is going on amongst the Japanese youth with all these shows about abashed teenage boys bereft of self-worth. There just seems to be so much paralytic social awkwardness and self-doubt running amok in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Don’t get me wrong — I like the show so far, even though there are flaws. The animation is not top-notch (there are a large number of pans over stills), and the pacing drags just a bit. But I want to like it. I like baseball. I like Japan. I like cartoons. That should add up to winning numbers for Big Windup.

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What I like best isn’t actually the character story (which is rare for me; that’s usually what I put a premium on), but in this case I’m more obsessed with the baseball strategizing. There’s a lot of analysis of form and mechanics, as well as situational tactics, adaptation, and signaling. Maybe that’s the American in me fawning over his national pastime.

That’s the high point for me, though: watching the players obsess over strike zones, which breaking balls to use in different scenarios, how to load bases, how to shake a pitcher’s or a batter’s confidence, even a speech on how brain chemistry affects play (I’m not sure how pseudo-scientific the coach’s diabtribe was on thyrotropin, corticotropin and dopamine).

There’s just one nagging problem topping it all off: It’s a bit shonen, falling victim to what I’m going to label the “Bleach Syndrome.”

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For example: It takes three episodes to get four innings into a single ball game. That’s too long; it might as well be an epic showdown between Ichigo and Byakuya. It feels like our heroic pitcher is slowly leveling up, gaining the spiritual strength necessary to release his next big power-up move.

In this case, it’s just a special type of throw rather than some mystic energy release, and the show is “realistic” instead of fantasy.

Regardless, I’m probably going to keep watching Big Windup. At the very least, it will give me a little more insight when the wife and I go this summer to watch the Indians play. Go Cleveland! Please don’t suck!


Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.


Wallpaper of the Week: Left 4 Dead

January 9, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — I picked up Left 4 Dead with some Christmas cash and have been playing it a couple hours a day ever since. It’s incredibly smooth, and the game mechanics are based more around ease of play than depth of play.

That doesn’t mean it’s a cheap game — each of the campaigns offers many ways to slay the zombie hordes, and incorporates enough strategery to make Sun Tzu proud. There are height advantages, bottlenecks, use of flame and environment, and defense towers.

If you hook up online with a squad familiar with tactics, or with any knowledge of SWAT or military procedures (like clearing rooms before moving on, or how to tag-team corners from different angles to make sure a new room’s covered), then it makes slicing through the waves of undead even more fun.

That’s why I like the game so much, I think. Jack-asses who rush ahead like they’re still playing Doom II, leaving the rest of the group behind in the process, always fail. One man might get lucky and win a round on his own once in a while, but mostly the campaigns are designed to absolutely require at least three survivors to cooperate.

It’s a mechanic that makes Left 4 Dead about playing smarter, not stronger.

For example, you could go into a room with four windows and put a man in each, hoping to hold back the zombie legions as they stream in. Or you could put two men in a closet at the top of some stairs and two men in a corner in back of the stairs and bullet-grind the horde as it lurches up single-file.

Which do you think is going to work better?

My favorite ploy is to get in two ranks at the back of a dead end, then explode containers of gasoline in the mouth as the zombies pour through. If you do it right, you’ll barely waste any ammo at all while the bodies burn.

This is the most excited I’ve been about a third-person shooter in a long while, so I went hunting for wallpapers to celebrate.

Most of the Left 4 Dead walls out there so far are pretty corporate, so when I stumbled on this slightly off-cannon rendering of the protagonists, I just had to have it on my desktop.

Click the thumbnail up top or here to get the 1024×768 image.


Are you smart? A love for ‘Jeopardy!’ is mandatory

January 7, 2009

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FROM JASON’S CHANNEL 5 — What is the Chang Jiang River? What is Zorba the Greek? Who was Jose de San Martin? What is the square of the hypotenuse?

I think, looking back, that it’s very possible I learned more from Alex Trebek than any other single teacher through high school. The man shotgunned bullets of information into my head, one every 10 seconds or so, 22 minutes a night, five nights a week, for most of my formative years.

Watching Jeopardy! wasn’t exactly mandatory in my house, but there was rarely a reason good enough to miss it (until I started to notice boobs) or the competition it brought into my living room. Ever since I was able to read, I wanted to soak up information. I pored over the Golden Treasury of Knowledge and  a used Encyclopedia Britannica set found at a yard sale.

Those heavy volumes opened my mind early to how to receive and retain information — so I was ready for Jeopardy!’s perfectly empirical, entirely apolitical, soundbite-sized lessons on everything.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently discovered my friends in England, the Continent, and Australia have never seen Jeopardy!.

This blew my mind. It’s a core part of my education, a nightly ritual, and an infallible father figure (in Trebek, although you could say he’s not perfect because he’s Canadian — that dig is for you, Kevin). This is a show that started in 1964, running continuously in its present format for 25 years come September 2009.

Finally, I found an American product I’m proud to export to the rest of the world.

Now, there are some out there who would insist watching Jeopardy! is a geriatric pastime. That is just not true, and I think it’s based solely on the 7 or 7:30 p.m. time slot in which it runs in most markets. But if you can get past the Geritol and Polydent commercials to the meat of the show, you’ll see that if you are to rank anywhere above “Invertibrate” on the Jason Scale of Relative Intelligence, then you need to love Jeopardy!.

What I like best about the program is it’s pacing. Unlike every other game show ever aired, its success lies in the rapid-fire format, the complete opposite of quiz-the-idiot shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

I never got the feeling that I was actually playing along with Wheel of Fortune because the contestants refused to call the letters I would scream at the television. With Jeopardy!, the contestant’s success is irrelevant; it’s all about whether I get the right answer. And that benchmark can be measured every few seconds.

I also like that it’s a pure meritocracy. You either know the answers or you don’t, and you are awarded dollars based on skill, not blind chance. Three people compete; one of them is the best not because of the spin of a wheel but because they are interested in the world around them.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then I have to say we have very different value systems.

So this is my appeal to you, non-American, non-Canadian readers: Be my friend. Prove it by watching the old-ish epidode I’ve posted before. Become a trivia-phile. Love the Trebek like you would love the Shatner. Show me how much you love to learn for learning’s sake. Be awesome.