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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Acquiring the Taste.

“Give it a chance. If you can get past it, you’ll really enjoy yourself.”

I’ve been hearing this a lot lately. It is the argument that people who enjoy something use to persuade people with different tastes that those tastes are wrong. Most recently in reference to Final Fantasy XIII. I am frequently told that once I get past the hokey characters, or the fact that you have to read a novella buried in the options menu to know what’s going on, or the thirty-plus hour long tutorial, that the game is really awesome. All I have to do is really commit myself to liking it.

I heard it a lot with Bayonetta too. I was told that once I got past the misogyny, and the ‘shroom enhance storyline, and the borderline pr0n presentation of the magical stripper that is the protagonist, that the game was a lot of fun.

I am generally skeptical of this sort of argument. Usually it means “I don’t have a problem with (element X, Y or Z) and therefore nobody else should either.” Which is bunk. (Though I must admit I’m not wholly innocent of doing the same thing myself, but at least I admit that the things I like aren’t necessarily any good, they’re just things that I like)

Other times it means that the game caters to an acquired taste, or that it is an acquired taste all unto itself. Like Coffee. Nobody likes the taste of coffee. But they’re told by other people who drink coffee how awesome it is and so they force themselves to drink it until they like it. All you have to do is get over the bitterness (or mask it by adding things to it until it ceases to be coffee) and the fact that you won’t be able to face the morning without it after a while.

Which seems like a colossal waste of money to me. Putting aside the health issues attendant to caffeine dependency, a small coffee (sorry; “tall” coffee) at Starbucks is between two and four dollars? Let’s say I made myself like coffee enough to drink one of those per day. That’s up to $28 per week if I go on weekends. I could buy a new video game every other week of the year for any system on the money some people spend to drink something they didn’t like in the first place.

Oysters are the same thing as far as I’m concerned. They look like the product of what doctors call a “productive cough,” yet people spend a lot of money forcing themselves to eat them in spite of how they look. Oh I’m sure they’re delicious, if I could just get past the fact that they look and feel like refrigerated mucus from an 80 year old man with bronchitis.

Bringing it back to video games, consider MMORPGs. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about one holds two opinions about them: 1) Grinding sucks and 2) MMORPGs are really fun and worth the time. Now, this is a gross oversimplification because there’s more to an MMORPG than just grinding. There are, for example, raids which are social grinds, which sounds really fun until you realize the only person playing WoW that looks like Felicia Day is Felicia Day, and she’s not in your guild, at which point it just sounds like you’re doing a Phreak dance with Peter Jackson.

And let that mental image be a lesson to all of you who had ungentlemanly thoughts about Felicia Day.

But forgetting that, there are two ways to reconcile the two opinions. Well, three if you allow me to dust off my Abnormal Psychology textbook from college, but let’s ignore that one. The first is that the game has some appeal to the fans that transcends the grind (which is to say, they can get over the grinding) or that they’ve acquired the taste for the game in spite of the grind. Either one is a perfectly valid reason to play and spend money on a WoW account, but they both involve work that I’m not willing to dump into my hobby.

As a husband and father with a new house to maintain, I don’t have time to waste forcing myself to like something I don’t like. Of course, I realize that nobody is telling me I have to. Still, it’s frustrating when one voices an opinion about a given thing only to be told that if only I could get past the thing I don’t like, I would really like the thing.

It’s kind of like telling a die-hard Star Wars fan that if only he could get past the writing and direction of George Lucas, Episodes One, Two and Three are really quite fun. You can say it. You might even believe it. But you’re not going to convince the Star Wars fan.

And why would you try?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movies you’ve never heard of 4: Clue

And continuing in our special election year series of farces, I offer for your consideration Clue.

Based on the venerable board game, Clue features an ensemble cast that includes Martin Mull (Col. Mustard), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), Madeline Kahn (Ms. White), Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlet), Tim Curry as Wadsworth the Butler and Lee Ving as Mr. Boddy.

I don’t know about you, but I never miss a Lee Ving picture.

With a cast like that, you almost don’t need a plot. Which is good, because Clue almost doesn’t have one. The movie basically plays out like a particularly good session of the game. The board is set up, the characters are introduced, the murder happens, and everyone wanders from room to room trying to figure out whodunit. A little more meat is hung on the skeletal premise to keep the viewer interested, but only just enough to set up the action. The butler (Tim Curry) has summoned everyone to his master’s (Mr. Boddy’s) mansion where it is revealed that Mr. Boddy has been blackmailing everyone with various secrets.

This results in Mr. Boddy’s death. Following the murder, the characters all try to figure out who did it. They all had means, motive and opportunity, and there were no witnesses. So they search the house looking for clues that might point to someone, whether that be one of them or some mysterious third party that nobody has seen yet.

Through the course of the movie, the characters will discover another six murders, bringing the total mortality rate to six. And no, that’s not a typo, nor did I forget how to do math. To tell you more, however, would spoil the endings.

Again, that’s not a typo. Long before Peter Jackson became synonymous with denouement infinitum, Clue shipped to theatres with several endings. Reportedly, moviegoers were asked before the denouement who they think did it, and the most popular answer was shown. The VHS edition of the movie showed each ending in sequence prefaced with a title card saying something like “That’s how it might have happened. But how about this?” The VHS version selected one version as the canonical ending, and it is entertaining in spite of the fact that there’s no way the canonical ending could have played out that way given what was shown in the previous reels.

And yes, I do complain about plot inconsistencies and continuity errors in the farcical telling of a story inspired by a board game. It’s what I do. I would likewise grumble at the pivotal role of zoning violations in a movie based on Carcassonne.

The DVD of the movie offers the viewer multiple options, ranging from seeing the VHS release to being treated to a random ending with each viewing.

For a movie based on a board game, there is a remarkable amount of fan service. All of the murder weapons from the game make an appearance, and all of them are used at some point. The floor plan of the mansion’s ground floor matches the board game exactly, right down to the secret passages connecting rooms on the corners. The canonical ending even closes the movie with the classic “X did it. In the Y. With the Z,” phrasing that just about everybody uses when they play the game.

Where the movie really shines, however, is in the acting. You don’t put together a cast like this one and fail to get something decent, and the quality of the writing only adds to it. Tim Curry is his usual flavor of awesome, and Christopher Lloyd plays what is quite possibly the most “normal” character he’s ever played. Of course, Madeline Kahn is superb, as she always was. It was a tremendous loss to Hollywood when she died.

There really isn’t much more to say about Clue that wouldn’t spoil the experience of seeing it for the first time. While it was originally released in 1985, it’s aged well; largely due to the fact that it’s a period piece. The humor has a good blend of puns, sight gags and slap stick, and it’s largely appropriate for all audiences, murder aside.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Knowing How To Pick 'Em

Apologies for the tardiness of this post. I lost track of how long my queue of posts was and didn't get around to posting yesterday as scheduled.

I have objectively bad taste in video game consoles. Name a console generation, and I probably bought the wrong system during it. And if I didn’t buy the wrong system, I bought at the wrong time.

It’s not that I am unhappy with the system I bought at any given time. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have enjoyed thoroughly the libraries I’ve amassed on every console system I’ve ever purchased, and I’ve never regretted not getting a system for more than a handful of games. That’s subjective, and in subjective terms I have chosen well. My needs were met, my tastes satisfied.

But if we look at things through the cruelly scientific lens of math, I have a long history of picking losers.

Let’s start at the beginning. I got the 2600 shortly before the American Video Game Crash of the 1980s, also known as Atari’s comeuppance for greenlighting E.T. (which, incidentally, I owned and beat). Good taste in systems, from a market share standpoint, but poor, poor timing.

In spite of the loss of software support, I continued playing my 60+ title library until well into the 1980s. When the Famicon came to American shores as the Nintendo Entertainment System, I was still playing Pitfall and Moonsweeper. I procured a Nintendo Entertainment System, only to learn less than a month later that the Super NES was due out in less than a year. Nintendo’s promises to maintain support for the NES rang hollow.

Again, good taste, bad timing.

My next console wasn’t, in fact, a console. It was a handheld. Sega’s handheld; The Game Gear. And here is where we start to see my tastes in systems deteriorate. Given the choice between the Game Boy and the Game Gear, I bought the Game Gear. With my own money. That I saved for months on a $5 per week allowance.

And I didn’t even buy the system bundled with Sonic the Hedgehog, because I wanted Mortal Kombat. Which didn’t even have my favorite character (Kano).

I carried on with my Game Gear and NES until College, at which point I decided it was time to upgrade. So I did.

You want to know what I bought? An Atari Jaguar.

That’s right. And I went whole hog on it too. I even bought a custom fitted foam insulated suitcase for carrying it to and from college. Heck, I even bought a second one so my father and I could play Doom deathmatch.

I still maintain that Alien Versus Predator on the Jaguar is one of the better sprite-based FPS games I’ve ever played. And yes, I did enjoy Zuma, gosh darnit!

I won’t defend Double Dragon V, though. That game was just terrible. It was a crap sandwich with poop mustard and a turd instead of a pickle.

After about two years of that, I rented a Nintendo 64 and was so impressed that I bought one of those. Yep. Given the choice between a Playstation and a Nintendo 64, I went with the 64. Because Solid State was the Wave of the Future!

When I graduated college, I graduated to one of those new fangled optical game systems. That’s right; I traded in my N64 and bought Sega’s Dreamcast.

(Sighs wistfully)

Sega died in the early 21st century, followed by my Dreamcast, by which point Sony’s Playstation 2 had been on the market long enough to ferret out the bugs that cropped up after launch, because 21st century console developers think that Early Adopter = Beta Tester.

With the Xbox and Gamecube coming out soon, I opted for the Playstation 2. For once I picked the winner of a generation. Was the streak broken? Oh, I think you can guess the answer to that.

In 2003… or was it 2004? I can’t remember… I decided to supplement my library with a handheld system. The DS had been freshly released, so naturally I bought… a Game Boy Advance. Within what felt like a month, the only purchasable titles for the GBA were used.

In 2005, after getting married, my wife and I took some money we’d received as a wedding gift and bought (drumroll please!) a Gamecube!

In 2006 I decided, once again, that I could be happy with only a handheld system instead of a proper console. And what handheld do you think I picked when faced with the choice of the DS and the PSP? That’s right, I bought the PSP.

And I will state and defend as necessary that Every Extend Extra is a vastly underrated game, and that Chile Con Carnage is the best implementation of a third person shooter on a portable system.

The fiction that I could be satisfied with a handheld system was broken in a few short years, and in 2008 I bought a Playstation 3, which we can all agree is the loser of the current generation’s console war. I can hear some of you grumbling out there, but look at the NPD numbers. Third place in a field of three = loser. It’s true in Mario Kart, it’s true in life.

Now, I’d like to reiterate that I’ve never been unhappy with a system I’ve purchased. I’ve had fun playing the games on every one, and the only system that didn’t outlive its usefulness was the Dreamcast, which suffered an optical drive failure shortly after Sega announced they’d no longer support the system. My NES still works, and both of my Jaguars are still functional. My PS2 is, thankfully, still in working order because it’s the only system that runs my two favorite games of all time: God Hand and Gungrave Overdose. My Game Gear will be a gift to my children when they’re old enough to handle a handheld system, and my kids will be cutting their gamer’s teeth with the GameCube library I’ve stockpiled.

So from my perspective, I’ve chosen wisely. The point of this post isn’t to lament how horrible my choices have been, but rather to ponder whatever quality it is I possess that puts me so firmly outside the mainstream of gamerdom.

It’s not like I don’t do my research. Before I commit money to a system, I look at the current library and the upcoming releases to see if there’s anything that makes me really want to sit up and take notice. Back before the internet, I would read gamer magazines. Later I would go to IGN until their editorial choices cheesed me off enough to swear them off for good (seriously, I won’t even read FAQs that show up in google searches at IGN. If the only walkthrough for a game I’m having trouble with is on IGN, I’ll just figure it out myself) and I wound up at Gamespot, followed by Metacritic. I’ll hit Amazon to see what’s out, what’s cheap, and what’s coming. I’ll read forums and news sites to see how people fare with the console of their choice (one of the factors in my decision to buy a Nintendo 64 over a PS1 was the fact that I’d heard about a lot of optical drive failures on the PS1 and decided that solid state was the way to go).

So I do all that work, and I still end up choosing wrong. Why?

The reflexive answer is to say that the majority of people are idiots. After all, the majority of people didn’t watch Firefly. The majority of people didn’t play God Hand. The majority of people have never read a Discworld novel.

But I’m not the sort to call someone an idiot for disagreeing with me about aesthetics. And even if I were, the question only shifts from being “why am I different?” to “Why is everyone else so stupid?” That’s rhetorically comforting, but doesn’t get me any closer to an answer.

My wife has noted that I do have a stubborn tendency to do what makes sense to me in spite of any obstacles it throws in my path. In high school, I wore a fanny pack to keep my pencils and calculator in because I didn’t want them getting lost or broken in my bookbag. This opened me up to a lot of abuse, but I didn’t stop wearing it because it was functional and served my needs. This is pretty much the same thing, except nobody’s using rubber bands to shoot paper clips at my head. The only social ostracism I face now is the fact that nobody in the forums I frequent talk about the PS3 versions of a game that came out on multiple platforms. I can live with that.

Maybe it can’t be explained. Maybe my tastes are just wired different. After all, I seem to be the only person in America who thinks Seinfeld is vastly overrated, and try as I might I could never bring myself to enjoy The X-Files. The list of significant cultural milestones that I personally can’t stand is quite long. Why should gaming be any different?

Indeed, it isn’t. Even on the more accepted, successful systems in my history, my game library is less than well known. My two favorite games for the PS3 (God Hand and Gungrave Overdose) were not well received critically, and hit the bargain bin within months of launch. Nobody bought them, nobody played them, and nobody liked them. Except me.

And then, when the creative mind behind God Hand comes out with something that achieves some critical and commercial success, it’s Bayonetta: A game that I won’t have in my house for reasons that; in the interest of keeping the no-controversy promise from my inaugural post; I won’t go into in this post.

So my contrarianism seems boundless. I don’t think I’ll figure it out here, now that I’m over 1600 words into it. Maybe I read too much Calvin and Hobbes as a kid (the philosophers, not the comics). Maybe I read too much Calvin and Hobbes (the comic). Maybe my mother was frightened by a conformist when she was pregnant with me. Whatever the case, I seem to be doomed by my own predilections to pick the losers of any given console generation.

Savvy shoppers will want to take note of what system catches my fancy in the next generation, and but their competitor. You’re likely to be guaranteed years of solid software support.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Battle of All Time

I would like to take this opportunity to formally thank Wizards of the Coast for purchasing the rights to Hasbro’s light miniatures war game, Heroscape. You have done the world a great service by saving an excellent little board game from the ravages of garage sales and online auction houses.

Well, perhaps I should have put the word “little” in quotes, because Heroscape is anything but little. I daresay it is nothing less than Epic in scale. 29mm scale, to be precise.

To those of you who think only of Monopoly when you think of board games, let me edumacate you a little bit. There is an enormous world of board games out there that have nothing to do with advancing a small pewter tophat around a square board in an allegory of the great depression. Some of these board games transcend the board, and become “tabletop games.” The difference between a board game and a tabletop game is subtle, but I think it has something to do with whether the game can be contained on a single board or must spill out over as much horizontal area as possible. Also, tabletop games tend to be a few orders of magnitude more expensive.

A well known, at least among geeks, example of this is the Warhammer series. Warhammer (and Warhammer 40k, which is like Warhammer except the Orcs ride motorcycles) is a miniatures based war game played out on enormous custom tables in the backs of stores filled with gawky, bespectacled teenagers and large men with neckbeards who smell of cheetohs.

I’m allowed to say that because I was once a gawky, bespectacled teenager and today I am just gawky and bespectacled.

Warhammer is, as they say, hardcore. There are enormous books filled with the lore of the Warhammer universe that players must at least be familiar with (my understanding is that deciding what army to buy based on the politics of the universe is a game unto itself), and the rulebooks appear to be sold by the pound. The miniature soldiers, elves and orcs used in the game come in plastic and white metal and must be sanded, assembled and painted before use. Or, at least, sanded and assembled, but if you walk into a shop named after an obscure Lord of the Rings character with an army of identical unpainted night goblins, you should prepare to be mocked. I recommend either A) being phenomenally good at the game or B) answering any insults or snickers with tremendously obscure or even fabricated references to the Silmarillion, which nearly everyone who’s read the Lord of the Rings trilogy owns but has not actually read.

This kind of thing is how geeks determine who is alpha.

Warhammer is played not on a board, but on a table. Movement is measured with a ruler instead of a grid, and attacks are determined by line of sight (the more enterprising use a laser pointer to determine if their soldier can see their opponents’ soldiers through the miniature terrain).

Heroscape is less hardcore. First off, the miniatures all come pre-painted. The game is played on plastic hex tiles that can be stacked and interlocked in nearly any configuration. Trees and rocks come in the game master set, which can be supplemented with expansion kits that have different types of terrain and structures. (I currently have two of the original master sets, and one of every subsequent one. My terrain tiles and features overflow an 18 gallon tote even when neatly stacked).

These modular tiles and terrain features like plastic trees or rocks are more than just cosmetic. Different types of terrain have different attributes that affords certain advantages or disadvantages. Attacking or defending from an elevated position gives the player an advantage in combat. Water tiles reduce movement, and lava tiles are instant death unless you’re playing as a fire-based creature. Trees, rocks and buildings provide cover and obstacles for units that can’t fly.

The armies of Heroscape are more eclectic than that of the Warhammer universes. (Amusing side note: Heroscape and Warhammer trip Word’s spelling checker, but it has no problem pluralizing universe. The only explanation I can think of for Microsoft’s acceptance of universal parallelism is that project Natal is actually used to co-opt unsuspecting victims in alternate dimensions, and the goofy movements you perform in game cause this victim to send Microsoft all of his money.)

Where was I? Oh yes, the armies. Heroscape features five different flags to march your army under. Each army has a theme, but the warriors in these armies are taken from across dimensional boundaries. The conceit of the game is that some rift in the space-time continuum has pulled together all of these warriors from across various times and universes. This is a thin veneer of plot provided only to explain why colonial minutemen are waging battle against gorillas with cybernetic implants and miniguns.

The gorillas tend to win a lot, which is why it’s a good idea for the minutemen to have an ice dragon and a wizard on their side.

Like terrain, armies can be expanded with add-on kits that come either in packs of basic units (have as many of this unit as you want) or in unique hero units (each game can only field one of these). Basic units are broken down into single, powerful soldiers or three to four weaker soldiers. For example, one unit card for the Lawful Evil army (Utgar) might have a single troll, three orcish archers, or four zombies. Unique heroes tend to be single soldiers with names.

Each unit has some basic abilities spelled out on the corresponding card: One for defense, one for attack, one for range, and one for movement. Range and movement are measured in hex tiles—a given character can attack from X number of hexes away, and can walk up to Y number of squares per turn. The attack and defense attributes call out the number of battle dice your character throws when attacking or defending. Attack dice are six sided dice with skulls to represent attacks, shields to represent defenses, and blank faces to represent how unlucky you are at dice games. When one player attacks, he or she rolls the number of dice called out on his card for attacks, and the opponent rolls the number of dice allotted for defense. Attacker counts the number of skulls rolled, while the defender counts the number of shields. Whoever has the bigger number wins.

Each unit also has a special attack or ability that lends some depth to the strategy. These will be spelled out on the card associated with that unit. Abilities range from the ability to fly for characters with wings or jetpacks, to the ability to influence units within a radius of the main unit, to a different kind of attack with its own range and attack ratings.

Samurai warriors, for example, have a special ability called Counterstrike, which means that if a unit standing adjacent to the samurai attacks, the samurai will bitch about lag issues and question the heterosexuality of whatever weapon you’re using.

Well, no. Actually, the samurai will roll defense as normal but counts every extraneous shield he rolls as an unblockable attack on his opponent. So if a troll with three hit points attacks and rolls two skulls, but the samurai rolls five shields, then the troll is dead.

A note for casual players: Fielding an army of all samurai warriors is a real dick move, and it will annoy your wife. Not that I have personal experience with this or anything.

The master set comes with instructions for building a few different battlefields and some scenarios to play out on them, but you can build anything you want. And if you have enough expansion sets, you really can build almost anything, and half the fun is coming up with a map and thinking of a scenario for it. The brilliance of Heroscape is not in the rote last-man-standing deathmatches, but in the more creative house-rule scenarios. For example, using the castle expansion set and a set of lava tiles in addition to the main master set, the Missus and I created a scenario based on the siege of the black gates in Return of the King. A wall stretched across one side of the battlefield, while the good-guy units were scattered across the battlefield as my wife saw fit. I had one unit card of three fast but weak marrow warriors, and the stipulation that I could not attack with them. My goal was to get one of my soldiers across the battlefield to the gate of the castle. If I could do that, the gate would open and a flood of powerful evil units positioned behind the wall would be alerted to the presence of the good-guy units and attack them. My wife’s goal was either to A) stop the scouts from getting to the gate or B) defeat the horde that would flood out of the gates if the scouts made it through.

I designed that scenario worried that the game would be too heavily skewed toward the good-guys, and that the game would be over in a nunce. Little did I suspect that I would actually get one scout through and that the ensuing battle would be so epic.

But don’t be daunted. The developers of the game have designed it to be accessible. There are two sets of rules included with the game: A basic set and a master set. The master rules use hit points, special abilities and has a round system for determining how long a game goes (there’s also a marker system for selecting which units will move in which order during a given turn, and a system of “glyphs” that can be put on spaces to confer special powers to whoever steps on them, but I’ve never used either in my games). The Basic set drops everything but the basic movement and attack rules, so a successful attack automatically kills the defender rather than wounding. This not only allows for less experienced players to dampen their pedal extremities, but it also makes for some frenetic games.

If you’re looking for a new board game, but are bored (see what I did there?) with typical Parker Brothers fare, Heroscape might be a game for you. Especially if you’re the type of person who’s cast covetous glances at games like Space Hulk at your local board game and geek shop, but didn’t want to pony up the $90-plus dollars to give it a try or herniate yourself carrying it to the checkout line.

This is not to say that Heroscape can’t cost $90. I have spent $150 on master sets alone, not to mention the tile expansion sets (Forest, glacier, lava and jungle) at $15+ each, or unit expansions starting at $10. But Heroscape uses the crack dealer method of pricing: your first master set will only cost you $30.

I recommend trying to find the original Rise of the Valkyrie master set, if you can find it. If not, the current D&D themed set is perfectly fine, even if the included scenarios are a little thin (though to be fair you can download new scenarios at playDnD.com)