Stellar Relic

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Screenshot Saturday: Expansive Worlds

METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN_20150912162304

Videogames are confusing, beautiful, complicated messes, and the best way to convey that is through screenshots, whether they are beautiful, informative, or goofy. Each Saturday we bring you one screenshot each from a game we played. It’s Screenshot Saturday.

METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN_20150912162304

Dave: I’ve easily played – really played, not idled or AFKed – a solid 20 hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain since last weekend. And I’m at 7% completion. I’ve barely made my way through any main story missions, as the open world, the combat, the reconnaissance, and the base building involved in the game are so satisfying. As a newcomer to the Metal Gear franchise who, nonetheless, heard a lot about the games in the past – I’m shocked. I thought Metal Gear was all cutscenes and snakes?

Decarabia and Haagenti

Thomas: The past few weeks have been busy. If I had the time, I’d be plowing through Shadowrun: Hong Kong and Pillars of Eternity right now. I don’t. What I do have time for is turn-based play-by-email games, and Solium Infernum is one of the best around. My fellow demons and I are vying for the throne of Hell, and I’ve built my avatar around Praetor combat. A Praetor a sort of Satanic lieutenant-cum-prize-fighter, and disputes between Hell’s aristocracy can be settled by their duels. As you can see, Praetor combat is a glorified rock, paper scissors. Also, I am terrible at it. My Haagenti was one the best duelist Praetors in the game, with a full 14 hitpoints, and my rival’s Decarabia nibbled him to death. This is when the game started to turn, and I knew I’d have to take my plotting in a different direction. Satan’s abandoned throne will not be secured in an honorable duel.

madmax

James: I’ve been spending most of my time in mad Max the past few weeks. It’s a hard game to recommend, honestly – it has split ambitions and never really seems to pick a design to stick with – but it has a satisfying vehicular combat system and some of the best-designed environments I’ve ever seen in an open world game. Also, you can pause the game at any time and take free camera photos of cars exploding while you punch people, so that’s pretty great too.

Screenshot Saturday: Blood and Glory

SRHK

Videogames are confusing, beautiful, complicated messes, and the best way to convey that is through screenshots, whether they are beautiful, informative, or goofy. Each Saturday we bring you one screenshot each from a game we played. It’s Screenshot Saturday.

WoWScrnShot_082215_132529

Dave: I’ve been falling down the World of Warcraft rabbit hole again this past week. It started with a trip down memory lane not too long ago; then, I moved on and experienced some vanilla WoW thanks to a couple of private servers, which I’ll talk more about later. Eventually, though, I found myself back with my own account once more, looking at UI options and gear options and so on. Here’s the UI I ended up with (at least for now – it still needs some tweaks). It’s called RealUI and is super minimalistic – this is with the UI shown, out of combat. Once in combat, action bars appear, but when you’re not busy killing stuff you can enjoy as much of WoW as your eyes can take in. Pretty sweet!

SRHK

Thomas: Shadowrun: Hong Kong came out! I actually pre-ordered it, which is an insane thing to do, but I don’t regret it in this case. (Other pre-orders I have not regretted: X-Wing Alliance. End of list.) So far it seems very similar to Dragonfall in both mechanics and story. I love the gunplay and the XCOM-style cover system. The storyline is serviceable enough so far. And cyberpunk Hong Kong is pretty cool. This screenshot doesn’t have any action in it – I just really adore the environment art. Look at those lanterns, the lighting, the flowers, the little details! It’s lovely.

2015-08-22_00001

James: Planetary Annihilation’s expansion pack, Titans, released this week, and it was just the thing necessary to get me back into blowing apart planets and looking at colorful little bots. It’s not even the titans that drew me back, although they are definitely nice; it’s the changes and optimizations to the core game that pulled me in. From better performance to a smoother interface to terrain changes that allow for elevation differences, Titans brings many quality of life features that make Planetary Annihilation much more of a joy to play. All we need now are multiplayer Galactic War instances and flat map projections, and we’ll finally have the Total Annihilation successor we really deserved.

The Iron Chalice, Part Two: Under Attack

ironchalice

In the last installment of The Iron Chalice, I introduced Davelandia to the world. We installed a regent, gave him a bride, and set them to the all-important task of making babies. The chalice itself was given the task of coming up with a health potion drink thing and everything was okay in the world. Five years had passed since my elevation to impotent godhood. Seven more would pass before the reality of Davelandia’s plight as the last bastion of humanity would rear it’s ugly head. Before we get to all that, though, GOOD NEWS:

Also they cost you a fortune until they leave the house

Sure she looks cute but have you ever seen a poopy diaper?

Aoife O Nuallain is our very first born-and-bred Davelandian superhero! Isn’t she cute? That cuteness is helped in part by Davelandia’s top ranked Department of Eugenics; hawkeyed, strong as a bear, and hearty as a lumberjack, Aoife is evidence that our mating policy is a good one. She is also my first Brewtalist, which I’m still not sure is a ranged or melee class, or even what it does. We’ll find out in 15 years though, I’m sure!

Shortly after baby Aoife’s arrival into this apocalypse-in-progress, the Massive Chalice informs us that the health potion research has been completed! It only took a few years to figure out what to put with the whiskey, apparently. That out of the way, I commission the building of another Keep, as that is the only way more babies can be produced. Survival through superior birth rate should be Davelandia’s motto. Actually, since I’m the demigod around here, I’ll just go ahead and say that’s exactly what it is now. Put that on the national seal!

The next keep will take 9 years to build, a substantial amount of time by mortal reckoning but in the weird immortal state of being I share with the Chalice, this is considered ‘Fast’. Ebbot Marsh and The Cinderlands both carry class-specific bonuses, so I write those off immediately. It comes down to the Salt Flats and The Pale Sea in terms of outer-region candidates, but The Pale Sea kind of wins by default as it carries a Reduced Construction Time bonus. Construction begins immediately and proceeds uninterrupted for 2 years when:

Naturally, the Cadence choose to threaten the only completed Keep I have.

Both The Augurs and Ebbot Marsh are threatened by the Cadence, but in this game of false choices I can only defend one (in reality I have more than enough superheroes to field two full Vanguards but apparently that wouldn’t be very fun). As The Augurs contains my one and only completed Keep, I choose to defend that. Should I successfully repel the invaders, I’ll be the recipient of a brand spankin’ new baby boy, fresh off the assembly line. Time to turn on the Bat Signal – next time on The Iron Chalice.

 

 

Rising Thunder Impressions: Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots

rising thunder

The biggest barrier in fighting games is execution. If you intend to enjoy fighting games at a level beyond mashing your hands on every button like a grubby spoiled infant, you have to learn complex maneuvers like quarter-circles, holds, full circles, and (rarely) random button combinations. This executional complexity isn’t even the point of fighting games; the intention is that you learn how to predict and outplay opponents, not who can press memorized buttons the best.

Seth Killian, who I’ll fondly call “the dad of the fighting game community,” knows this better than most. As a professional fighting game player, developer, and commentator, he’s directly exposed to all of the problems inherent to executional complexity in fighting games. Thus, he teamed up with a development studio to create a free fighting game that strips most of that complexity out. The result is Rising Thunder, the most accessible and mind-game focused fighting game I’ve ever played, and already one of my favorite fighting games period.

Rising Thunder is very simple. You have eight buttons: three are your normal attacks (light, medium, heavy), three are your special moves (which vary per character, and which can be switched out between games), one is a throw, and one is your super. The most complex input you will ever perform in Rising Thunder is holding in a single direction and pressing a single button. While combos are present, they are very lenient and dependent upon understanding how your special moves use screen space, rather than on intricate timing or complex motions. The end result is a game that requires only the most basic of hand-eye coordination to play.

There are two relatively advanced concepts, but they are extremely easy to grasp. First, you can cancel most normal moves into specials, and most specials into your super. This canceling is extremely forgiving, which means you’ll start to pick up the basics of combos and juggling right away. Second, you can cancel any move except a super into any other move by using “Kinetic Advance”, a gauge that builds up as you fight and which is used by holding up or dashing at the end of a move. Much like normal combos, the timing is extremely forgiving, which is unlike Street Fighter 4’s irritatingly rigorous dash cancels. You can hammer away at the appropriate direction to dash cancel, and it’ll always come out; no practiced finesse required.

The first time I played Rising Thunder, I fiddled around with my special moves (I play Dauntless, a robot with explosive punchfists piloted by a teenage girl) to learn how they affected my opponent. Within about 15 minutes, I was pulling off combos I’ve never managed in a Street Fighter game. Granted, I also understand what combos are and how to perform them in general, even if my execution is off, so brand new fighting game players will probably have a slightly steeper learning curve; maybe thirty minutes to an hour, if they focus on the game and look at some combo videos. Still, this is exponentially better than the dozens or hundreds of hours required to master the execution of games like Street Fighter, and allows players to focus on what really matters: predicting opponents and playing mindgames.

Rising Thunder is only in alpha, so there isn’t a wide selection of characters to pick from. Despite this, it represents each character archetype fairly well, and each robot is definitely reminiscent of other robots and fighters. Dauntless, for example, is clearly inspired by Rival Schools’ Batsu, and Crow looks very similar to an EVA unit from Evangelion. Rising Thunder is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve, and that’s not a bad thing.

You can sign up for Rising Thunder on the official site, as it’s now in open alpha.

Floating Follies: Rule The Waves AAR Part 1

from Puck Magazine, September 1909

Rule the Waves is a game about building, maintaining, and commanding a great navy in the age of the dreadnought. In peacetime, you design, construct and deploy your ships, handle your budget, respond to events, play politics, and exert some influence on other areas of policy. In times of war, you do all this and additionally play out the naval battles yourself in the tactical layer.

I initially wanted to review this game for Stellar Relic, but Tim Stone already said almost everything I would say. Here’s an abbreviated version of my review: I love this game dearly. The best way to explain why is to write up a playthrough and show you some of the amazing emergent storytelling that this 1990s-looking oddity can produce. That’s what this is.

So! What nation shall we play? There’s a lot to choose from – all the European Great Powers of the turn of the century, plus Japan and the USA. The two included “custom nations” are Spain and the Confederate States of America.

Nation Select: Germany

I’ve gone with Germany. A game of Britain would be too easy. France and Italy are fun but I’ve played them a lot, and I’m a little tired of the Mediterranean. Austria-Hungary’s economy is too weak to be much fun. Germany, now… large economy, good technology, research advantages galore. It should be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. I’m excited to see how I might stack up against Russia or the UK.

details

Tirpitz? No, we’d like Grossadmiral von Howell, please. I check the “manual build of legacy fleet” box and go for it.

Worth class Battleship

Every nation obviously has to begin with a navy when the game starts – it’s not like someone came up with the idea of putting guns on boats in January 1900. Normally, this “legacy fleet” is automatically designed and generated by the AI; “manual build of legacy fleet” means I get to throw it together myself. As technology unlocks, I’ll be able to build better ships, but the legacy fleet is limited to baseline tech. Above is me designing the current pride of the Imperial German Navy: the Wörth-class battleship. I’ll go more into ship design in the next post, but for now, it suffices to say that it’s not as complicated and terrifying as it appears.

Starting Navy

Here’s what the High Seas Fleet looks like I’m done: a core of six pre-dreadnought battleships (“B”), five armoured cruisers (“CA”), eight light cruisers (“CL”), and a hungry pack of 500-ton torpedo boats. They’re all fairly reasonable, balanced designs for their tonnage. Nothing crazy yet! This is just the legacy fleet. Oh, and I threw some cash at building bigger docks, too, so I can construct larger vessels in the future.

Research

There’s a research component to the game, as well. I bump up my budget to the maximum 10% and prioritize ship design, armour development, and damage control, while deprioritizing submarines and a few other subsystems. This is a bit of a gamble, but I’ve decided to focus on Germany’s strengths. The Kaiser’s fleet will be tough.

worldmap

The world of Rule The Waves is broken up into various zones. The vast majority of the German fleet is in Germany, of course, but I do in fact own colonial possessions that need protecting in Africa and the Pacific.

carolines

I decide to build up my defenses in the Pacific, improving the base in the Caroline Islands. I don’t expect to get in a war with Japan or the US (the great Pacific powers), but it’s nice to be prepared, and I can use the Carolines as a base for long-range raiders on other powers.

So: most of my preparations are done. I’ve advanced the game a couple of the monthly turns at this point, and since I’m not constructing any ships right now, the German Navy is flush with cash. I’ve got a decent battleline, I’m improving my bases, and with the benefit of hindsight, I’m ready to jump on any breakthrough in ship design.

In September 1900, my first three key technological advances are made.

breakthroughs

With these research improvements and a massive $76 million budget surplus that needs to be spent, I decide it’s time to build the next generation of German battleships. And maybe start poking the Russians a little. I suspect a nice, easy war with the Tsar will help my the Imperial Navy’s prestige immensely. My intelligence budget is jacked up to the maximum and a wave of German spies are dispatched to the Slavic empire.

I have no idea how stupidly arrogant I’m being. Join me next time to find out!

The Genius of War Thunder’s X-Ray System

war thunder

War Thunder and World of Tanks are fairly close in terms of playerbase. While World of Tanks has a lead – and thus more players – War Thunder is expanding extremely quickly, buoyed by constant updates and Steam integration. However, between the two, War Thunder has the better tank mode by a long shot.

Why? The X-Ray system.

The Basics

The X-Ray system in War Thunder is extremely simple. Whenever you shoot somebody, a picture-in-picture window pops up and shows you how your round hit the tank, how it deflected or spalled, and how that affected the tank internals. Whenever you die, it does the same thing, but in reverse; you are shown how the shot that killed you blew apart your ammo reserves or ripped your crew to shreds. This system appears independent of player input, so all you have to do is glance at the side of the screen to see it.

Each of your tank’s internal components is modeled, from the ammo dumps to the tread motors to the gun loader to the entire crew, and is represented by semi-transparent texture-less grey models. It’s a very easy system to understand and get used to, and is really quite pretty; seeing the destruction of an enemy tank both in the main screen and through the play-by-play side window is an exhilarating feeling.

The only downside? It’s not in plane mode, probably because planes are more about continuous MG fire and less cannon shells exploding inside enemies.

Get To Know Your Tank And Crew

Besides being fun to look at, the X-Ray system offers something that you can only intuit or read a guide on in World of Tanks: where to hit an enemy to cause maximum damage and how to angle your tank to take the least amount of damage.

A big part of playing any multiplayer game is the feeling that you’re getting better as you play, either by understanding mechanics better or by improving your reaction times, decision-making skills, or other personal points of interest. World of Tanks has a problem – the problem that made me stop playing it, in fact – in communicating just what you’re doing wrong in a match. You can stick with your team, outflank the enemy, and shoot shells into their side all day, but if you don’t understand the principles of armor deflection and weak spots, you’ll get nowhere. While World of Tanks does explain this in the tutorial, it’s woefully silent on how to spot weak points and how to learn from your misfires.

By implementing the X-Ray system, War Thunder gave players a path to learn from experience, rather than from a tutorial. You can see in real-time the mistake you made – maybe it deflected off the front armor, or the spalling didn’t connect with any vital parts – and adjust accordingly. Of course, you’re usually dead by then, but hey, next life, right?

These are important tank warfare concepts that are not particularly intuitive to grasp. Telling someone sloped front armor has an actual thickness of 90mm and an effective thickness of 120mm (this is a hypothetical, don’t yell at me!) means nothing to the average person. While you can tell them why this is the case, only experience – the skills and knowledge gained in battle – will properly teach a player what exactly that means for the game.

As for the other way around, it teaches you how to better use basic defensive tank concepts such as presenting the proper side (or “sidescraping”) and using defilade. After all, you can see exactly the carnage your crew goes through whenever you take a SABOT round to the side. Also, let’s be honest; it humanizes the crew a little bit, even if it’s just as weak points in your tank. You learn which crewman goes where, which crewmen are expendable, and how you can minimize injury to essential personnel. It’s not the warm fuzzy emotional personalization of a Pixar film, but it definitely makes you understand your tank and crew more.

Nothing Is Perfect

War Thunder has plenty of problems. The arcade mode feels super restrictive on spawns, maps are way too large in many cases, and matchmaking feels off – getting one-shot by a tank two tiers higher than you, when you’re at tier 1 or 2, is not entirely uncommon. Still, the X-Ray system is not one of them. It’s an absolutely genius method to communicate mechanics, and more games need to incorporate such a system.

Screenshot Saturday: Pikes and Pillocks

besiegecropped

Videogames are confusing, beautiful, complicated messes, and the best way to convey that is through screenshots, whether they are beautiful, informative, or goofy. Each Saturday we bring you one screenshot each from a game we played. It’s Screenshot Saturday.

screenshot saturday besiege

James: Besiege is one of my favorite games to act like a complete dunce in. You are tasked with building complicated machines out of medieval parts, and then taking those machines out to annihilate camps of enemies, castles and anything that gets in your way. It’s great fun because you end up, more often than not, ripping your machine apart in some miscalculated use of springs. Or an enemy soldier gets jammed in your wheel and rips it out of its housing. Or the bomb you tried to throw didn’t go very far and exploded in your face. It’s a game of delightful chaos and destruction, even when you’re floundering, and that’s something special. Oh, and it has workshop support, and the creations which range from “totally serious medieval catapults” to “Metal Gear RAY”.

SOCAL4LYFE

Dave: I already have over a thousand hours in Crusader Kings 2, the majority of which went towards unmodded CK2. However, thanks to Thomas, I may have found the only way I’ll ever play Crusader Kings 2 again: the ‘After the End’ mod. I played it ages ago, back when it only consisted of the eastern seaboard, and found it an interesting but not very compelling mod. Now, though, the whole North American continent is up for grabs – and I, the King of Socal, shall be the master of it all. Or at least Barstow. The fidelity to current day America (the existence of La Mesa, El Cajon, Camp Pendleton, and more locations from my local area) and the easter eggs laced throughout (Humphrey Bogart is current Lord Mayor of Los Angeles) compel me to play on a level that Europeans must feel towards the base game. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there is also a significant element of comedy.

Pike and Shot: Campaigns screenshot saturday

 

Thomas: I’ve been putting some time into Pike and Shot Campaigns, and I’m pretty pleased with it. The initial Pike and Shot release was fine enough – I really loved the setting and the well-represented weirdness of early gunpowder warfare, but the battles just weren’t engaging enough on their own. The addition of a Total War-style strategic layer has really turned my opinion around. Here, my Parliamentary army engages a Royalist force in the English Midlands. My musketeers and pikemen are doing pretty well – we’ve successfully seized the little hamlet in the center of the battlefield and Fragmented and Disrupted two Royalist foot units. Less promising: off to the right, my horse are getting mauled by Royalist Cavaliers. It’s messy, obtuse, and fun, and now it has consequences. If I lose this battle, Charles could march on London…

 

Games and Symbols of Hate

sowgb

In June, Apple briefly removed nearly all games that featured the Confederate Battle Flag from the App Store. Controversy ensued, with much denunciation of Apple’s move – not all of it in good faith. Apple almost immediately walked back their blanket ban and reinstated apps that Apple perceived to be including the flag for “educational or historical uses”.

So: a relatively short-lived controversy, now many weeks in the past, and almost immediately resolved to the satisfaction of most rational people. Why am I writing about it? Well, I think there’s still a number of issues worth digging into here.

Intention & Ignorance

Firstly, let’s not kid ourselves about Apple’s motives. They are a big corporation that chases the mainstream political zeitgeist in order to be more palatable to their customers, not out of some moral certitude. They didn’t pull any games with swastikas in them back in June. They reversed their decision because they were criticized, not because they’d seen the error of their ways.

There were plenty of people angry about Apple’s action for the right reasons. There were reasonable people genuinely torn about it. There were folks, like the GamerGaters, operating in bad faith – not particularly interested in free speech or education, but in advancing a regressive political or social agenda. And then there were the people who were flat-out ignorant of historical reality. These are the people who have rainbow-ified their Confederate Flag avatars on Facebook and see no contradiction, as though Stonewall Jackson would have been fine with boys kissing boys. These are the game devs who decried the Apple decision by complaining about the “real racists”.

“Heritage, not hate”, these people say. But they don’t understand their heritage. Games can help remedy this.

hoo boy this is awkward

Thanks for the tips, Cromwell. Did you know that some historians consider you a “proto-Hitler”?

History’s Value

Let’s zero in on the historical aspects, here. It is the undermining of history that leads to this sort of thinking, whether through deliberate obfuscation of facts or misplaced romanticism and nostalgia. Misunderstanding, whether deliberate or not, leads to the same result; ignorance is only slightly more excusable than malice. Here are some facts regarding controversial conflicts that games deliberately avoid addressing.

The Confederate States of America was a traitorous insurrection founded on slavery. The war was started by the CSA to preserve slavery. Slavery enabled the Confederacy’s armies to remain in the field, and accompanied them to the battlefront. An educated person cannot, in good faith, create a game about the Civil War that does not at least touch on slavery.

Just as slavery was critically important to the Confederacy’s ability to prosecute their war, so the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are inextricably linked with Germany’s part in the Second World War. Slave labor helped to fuel the Nazi war machine. Anti-semitism, both by driving out some of Germany’s most intelligent and productive citizens (see: Einstein, Albert) and by the huge diversion of resources and rolling stock necessary for the Holocaust, probably expedited Hitler’s defeat by months or years. An educated person cannot, in good faith, create a game about the European Theatre of WWII without at least mentioning the real consequences of Nazi ideology.

And yet: most games about the Civil War or WWII don’t do this. They not only fail to educate, they deliberately avoid facts that could be seen as controversial. It is, admittedly, difficult to tackle these sorts of issues. Nobody wants a game about the Holocaust, unless it’s about escaping from it or undermining it. Decent human beings are not interested in some kind of Eichmann Simulator, and people who are interested should not be allowed to have it. Still, there are ways to educate players about the more troubling aspects of our past without forcing them to play-act war crimes.

Take the Pacific Theatre of WWII, which is terribly underrepresented as a historical setting in AAA games, was one of the most brutal conflicts ever, and full of both American and Japanese war crimes. Perhaps that lack of moral clarity is why developers prefer to turn to Europe. It’s a shame. I’d rather enjoy fighting over the Kokoda Trail or in the Battle of Shanghai  – as opposed to invading Normandy for the umpteenth time. There are complicated questions of morality and race here. What do you do when your comrades gun down unarmed prisoners? Such a game could educate players on issues of race, as well. What if the player was a Japanese-American interpreter? There’s so much to work with in history that has been left untapped.
The selected unit is the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler'.

The selected unit is the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolf Hitler’. There are no swastikas in Unity of Command, either.

The Symbols

Let’s circle back around to the Confederate Flag and the swastika and their ilk. Do these symbols add meaning and value?

Well, yes. From a game developer’s perspective, symbols have value, even in the hatred they inspire. One of the main draws of games with a World War II setting is the chance to slay Nazis. Players know that the swastika is a symbol of evil. It reminds us of Nazi ideology and its resultant bloodbaths and atrocities. This principle applies to other forms of media, as well. Tarantino’s last two films (Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds) rely heavily upon it.

There’s a negative argument in favor of including these symbols, too. Look at what happens in their absence. In Paradox’s WWII Hearts of Iron series, there are no swastikas. There is no mention of the Holocaust or war crimes or massacres. The end result is to suck the morality out of the game. The Nazis become just another nation to play. The Waffen-SS are portrayed not as murderous thugs, but as elite supertroops. In Hearts of Iron III, the tutorial is narrated by Hitler. This is the logical end-result of the Paradox mentality: games that run so far away from history that they become divorced from reality in a disturbing way. Mentioning something like the Holocaust becomes seen as sour grapes and responded to with accusations of “whining” or “that’s not what this game is about!”

Even when media effectively claims a historical setting but fails to include the relevant symbols, things can feel a little defanged. (Remember the idiotic doubled-armed Nazi salute used in the first Captain America movie? I’m sorry, the HYDRA salute.) I won’t wade into the controversy over the Wolfenstein games in Germany here, but similar thinking can be applied.

Of course, there are also games that traffic in and appropriate these symbols to cover for their own creative and narrative failings – with no sign of the victims of said evil. This is part of why the most recent Wolfenstein title was such a breath of fresh air: the Nazis weren’t just bad because they put swastikas everywhere. They did the awful things that Nazis do. This ups the narrative stakes and educates players. It’s good for everyone!

There are limits to this line of thinking. Most symbols are ambiguous, and some are basically unimportant. The swastika and the Battle Flag are uniquely charged with meaning. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for including the Italian flag in a game because of Italian war crimes. But we can say “hey, wouldn’t a strategy game based on the second Italo-Ethiopian war be cool? Let’s make it, and be sure to include the use of chemical weapons – it’d be disrespectful to whitewash history for the sake of a modicum of mainstream acceptability.”

Well, the trains guy doesn't like me, but at least I'm on good terms with Hitler.

Well, the trains guy doesn’t like me, but at least I’m on good terms with Hitler.

Myopic Accuracy, Educational Dissonance

Above is an interesting screenshot from the upcoming Decisive Campaigns game. How should I feel about having a “Good” relationship with the most infamous man of the 20th century? Um, probably not great! And that’s good! If you’re playing as a German officer in WWII, you should feel the dissonance of winning for evil. Only STAVKA-OKH has managed this.

Yes, historical wargames have an obligation to remind the player that war isn’t a game. Historical shooters have an obligation to teach us why we’re shooting. War is as much about moral choices as it is strategic or tactical ones. This is something the Total War games (which I’m generally not a fan of) do surprisingly well, in oblique ways. When a city is captured, the player must choose whether to Raze, Loot, or Occupy it. There are benefits and downsides to all three options, but it is made clear that by clicking the “raze” and “loot” buttons, you are effectively condoning the murder of civilians. I could never bring myself to do anything but Occupy, but the fact that the choice was there made me morally aware. It helped educate me about the stakes and consequences of conflict.

When you win Sid Meier’s Antietam or Ultimate General: Gettysburg, you should have a sour taste in your mouth, because you haven’t just won a battle, you have defended and extended the practice of human bondage. This isn’t preaching or moralizing – this is accurate. Not the myopic accuracy that enables a game like War in the East to model every aspect of the Nazi war machine, every piddling variant of Panzer, without acknowledging the monstrous actions of both sides of the conflict (and the flag that flew over one of them).

Yes, seeing the Confederate Battle Flag or the Nazi swastika right there on my screen makes me uncomfortable. It should. It makes me question my actions and contemplate history and morality in this video game. That’s good! That’s education. I’m advocating for cognitive dissonance, to push people to think, even though they could just be entertained.
It might not always be the best design decision – but it is the only morally viable one.

After The End: CK2’s Best Mod?

the west

The year is 2667, and North America is just starting to recover from the end of the world. Feudal societies and strange religions dominate the continent in its neo-medieval age. This is the setting for After The End, one of Crusader Kings II’s most popular and comprehensive total conversions.

Inspired by (among other things) the 1960 post-apocalyptic scifi novel A Canticle for LeibowitzAfter The End welds a convincing Fallout-style America to the Crusader Kings 2 mechanics. The initial release included only the East Coast, with the modding team gradually working west. After a surprisingly short period of development, Calfornia is playable and the entire map is filled out, from Bermuda to Seattle, the Arctic to Guatemala.

california

The actual event that caused the downfall of the United States 600 years before After The End is only hinted at – it could be plague, or nuclear war or something else. What is known is that it massively depopulated the continent and set civilization back thousands of years. Only by the 2600s is the recovery truly underway.

After The End’s developers milk their fantastical setting as far as they can, filling the map with great flavor. My personal favorite is the work they put into the religions. The various forms of Christianity form a plurality, of course, though with some tweaks and oddities (ask Pope Praised-Be, who reigns in St. Louis, for more details). But the fracturing of society means that more fringe beliefs have exploded in popularity. There are the Rust Cultists, who scavenge for old-world relics and prize the technology of the ancients. Consumerism is a radical new belief whose adherents worship the Almighty Dollar and tirelessly perform the ritual of Shopping.

themouse

My favorite might be Americanism, which worships the Founding Fathers as gods and includes the President as a sort of democratically-elected Freedom Pope. Players who run for president can spend their ducats to hold opinion polls and launch attack ads dispatch Attack Heralds to demonize their opponents.

americanism

Also quite fun to play are the Atomicists of the Southwest, who hold holy the relics of the nuclear age. Those who receive the Blessing of the Atom earn the respect of their brothers in the faith – and also, probably, radiation sickness.

atomicists

Of course, it’s not just the former United States featured in the mod. In Canada, Ursuline Catholics, High Church Anglicans and neo-First Nations groups like the Haida battle for dominance, all the while contending with the piratical Brethren in their lairs along the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Mexico mostly follows the mystical Catholic-derived Sagrado Corazon religion, though neo-Aztec beliefs are spreading in the south.

mexico

Part of the fun is something that Europeans have enjoyed about CK2 for some time: digging around, finding your home county, and turning Podunk City into the capital of a sprawling empire.As an example, my home of Oklahoma is a divided, multicultural land, with white Texan and Dixie cultures ruled over by resurgent Comanche and Cherokee tribespeople. Local sports teams are often reincarnated as mercenary bands. Look out for the cavalry charges of the Brave Men of Atlanta, or the California-based Cult of the Apple.

dennis

The mod is loaded with easter eggs and references from American history, pop culture and folklore. This Reddit post compiles many of the best, and players can almost always spot a new tidbit of local flavor. Look for Kate Beaton in the Maritimes, the Always Sunny crew in Philadelphia, and Lovecraft references galore in Occultist New England.

This wonderful, engaging setting is welded on to CK2’s already excellent gameplay. The latest versions of the mod take advantage of the new Horse Lords mechanics, with Tribal and Nomadic governments roaming the northern Great Plains, and Silk Road-style trade routes splayed across the continent.

There are a few flaws and bugs that occasionally crop up, as you’d expect for a mod that is constantly in development. Still, I can’t help but be honest about this: I have genuinely enjoyed After The End, and plan on playing it quite a bit over the coming weeks. If you’re interested, the places to check out are the CK2 modding forum thread and the Github repository.

Expect to see After The End streamed on our Twitch sometime soon!

The Seven Essentials of No Man’s Sky

nms-title

There are a lot of questions left to answer about No Man’s Sky, even after multiple showcases at various events and a whole month of information that came out of IGN following E3 2015. The release date remains unknown, the story of No Man’s Sky (the central narrative we keep hearing about) is unknown, why there is a GTA-like Wanted level system is unknown – the list goes on. However, out of those showcases and those videos and all the things in between, what No Man’s Sky really is begins to take shape, both in practical and existential terms. What follows are the seven things I find most appealing and most important about No Man’s Sky.

Procedural isn’t just a buzzword

Procedural generation is not random generation, nor is it just a buzzword. We have seen procedural generation at work before, but rarely on the scale of No Man’s Sky. Here, an entire galaxy has been reduced down to (a probably not insignificant amount of) code. Code that governs the creation of stars, planets, orbits, the dispersion of elements, how those elements form together to form resources, and life both sentient and not. It is reality-lite. And while there are elements of randomness within the code, there is always a plan. This is a game without skyboxes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sky.

And yes, it all comes on the disk

This is no doubt going to be a difficult concept to fully understand, but that entire galaxy can indeed fit on your hard drive. This is due to the fact that said planets, moons, stars, and dingo-like reptiles or whatever else we might come across in this galaxy are generated on demand, according to the code. Once the master seed is set – the numeric string that serves as a key from which all randomness springs – the game will always render Planets 1 though 18 trillion (or whatever the actual number is) in the same way, as the code executes and brings things into life. The downside to this is that should you leave Planet 1 to go visit Planet 40, Planet 1 as you left it ceases to exist; upon your return, it will regenerate as it was the first time you met it.

This planet looks pretty fuckin rad

You can play offline

This is a biggie for me personally. Not that I intend to disconnect my PS4 from the internet any time soon, but rather due to the fact that server infrastructure has not yet reached 100% uptime. The Playstation Network goes down with disheartening regularity, more so when major titles launch and random script kiddies get a hair up their ass. Thankfully, NMS will not require a connection to play; a connection will only be required when trying to log new discoveries for the rest of the world to recognize.

I think this is a place to upload your info

There is history in this universe

Rival factions fight amongst the stars; crashed ships dot the landscapes of a million different planets. This galaxy is not brand new, but rather you are new to it. Discoveries are not limited to new star systems or new plant life; discoveries of old things will enable your character to advance in the game. Upgrading your technological ability will be one of the core tenets of the game and there will be plenty of ways to do so.

Looks like there might be a bit of a conflict here

One ship at a time

In NMS, you’ll only ever have one ship at any given time. You can upgrade that ship, or trade it in for a totally different model at one of the space stations that float amid the stars, but ultimately you’ll only ever have one. No space garages required. Purchasing ships will be transactions occurring in ‘units’, the NMS universe’s universal currency. Units will be earned by shooting pirates in space, uploading discoveries you’ve made, or selling resources you’ve harvested from the planets you explore.

Who's flying the other ship? No idea.

The universe is alive with life

Planets will be populated by animals, and mechanical Sentinels will seek to punish those that harm them. Space factions will war in space and trade convoys will dodge pirate patrols. Everywhere in the universe, even if the universe isn’t rendered on your machine, things will be happening. Day/night cycles will affect the behavior of animals and plants; supply and demand will affect market prices.

I will not rest until I find a dinosaur

Your story is your own to make

NMS is categorically not an MMO. Though no doubt many people will experience NMS, each of those experiences will be their own. With an entire galaxy to get lost in, the chances of ever coming across another living soul will be rare. Hello Games has stated that while there is an overall objective – to journey to the center of the galaxy – and a motivation to do so, there is no narrative. The narrative is what you make with your time in No Man’s Sky.