Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Earthbound, by Ken Baumann

Back in June, I backed a Kickstarter from Boss Fight Books to produce a series of longform essays slash retrospectives slash something something video game books about a few specific titles. I did this primarily because Anna Anthropy, one of my favorite game developers, was slated to write a book on ZZT, an ancient, strange little adventure/creation game I have fond but vague memories of.

BFB's first released title is Earthbound, based on one of my favorite games of all time. For those who haven't played it, Earthbound is a quirky RPG released on the SNES. You play as a quartet of children traveling through a fucked-up version of Everytown, USA to kill an evil alien invader ... or as some have interpreted it, travel back in time and abort the evil alien invader. Yeah. It's a weird game.

So I was excited and curious to sit down with Ken Baumann's take on the seminal title. Curious because I had no idea what to expect. Would the book be a simple, longform review? A deep exploration of the game's themes? A history of the game's development? A dissection of the game's mechanics?

Well, there's some of that. Mostly it's a personal essay connecting the author's life to the events and characters of the game. And that's cool -- we have a lot of writing on games themselves, but not a ton on what they mean to the people playing them.

The question, then, is does it work and is it worth buying? And the answers ... mostly, and yes. I say mostly because there are some life events that Baumann seems to try a little to hard to connect, and those sections end up feeling more like the author thought "Oh, I need a memory to fill in this section" rather than "oh, traveling through Threed really makes me remember x, y and z." The ending is legitimately poignant, however, when (without giving too much away) Baumann relates his own near-death experience to the climactic battle where the four youths must fall on their knees in prayer, placing their faith in the people they've met on their journey.

Earthbound is a great start for Boss Fight, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they produce next (lucky me, my backer status means I've already preordered them!). Next up in the series is Galaga, which produces a hilarious image in my mind of that books author Michael Kimball trying desperately to relate the mechanics of a top-down shoot-em-up to his life ("The clone ship that attaches itself to my wing reminds me of my twin brother...") I suspect Galaga's format will be somewhat different from Earthbound's, which is even cooler, as it means the series is unlikely to become formulaic.

I recommend Earthbound, and I highly recommend keeping an eye on Boss Fight Books. Complex, thought-provoking writing surrouding the world of video games is desperately needed, and I'm hoping BFB can be one of the fishes in that ever-expanding pond.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Impressions

Like many others, I've recently been accepted into the beta for Blizzard's new game Hearthstone, a collectible card battling game based on their popular Warcraft series. For those not familiar, the game is similar (VERY similar) to Magic: The Gathering, with a few twists. While it can be played in single-player mode against a PC, there's no story progression or anything, and the online ranked play is the primary draw, along with an Arena mode where you're tasked with building a deck on the spot from random cards. It's a lot of fun. But it could be a lot more fun. Instead of giving a huge runthrough or even a stream (there are literally thousands of those online already, if you're interested), I thought I'd just give some quick impressions.

What I liked:

- The aesthetics. Hearthstone is a really pretty game. The art is great to look at, the music and voices are wonderful and the UI just works. I never found myself wondering how to play cards or check text. In fact, as a former Magic player, everything worked incredibly intuitively.

- It's easy on the Pay 2 Play stuff. Card packs and entry tickets to Arena mode are available for real money, but they can also be purchased with Gold that you earn in-game. You earn gold simply by completing daily quests, and I've found that I can buy a pack about every two days, or enter the arena (which guarantees a pack as a reward, or more if you do well) every three. That's not bad, as each quest can take anywhere from 3-6 battles to complete, and I don't play any more than that anyway. The bottom line is that casual players will find no need to invest chunks of money to Keep Up With the Joneses.

- It's very casual friendly. Aside from Blizzard's classic ranking system that tries to ensure you win about half the games you play, the cards and decks are constructed in a way to make it very easy to construct a competitive deck even with basic cards. There are no monumentally unbeatable combinations, and while it is possible to make something that just doesn't work, even a modicum of thought will get you a deck you can win with. This, of course, leads to the conclusion that wins are due more to player skill and luck than deck construction, and in my experience, it's more of the latter. Depending on the type of person you are, that is a good thing or a bad thing.

- The computerized nature of the game takes a lot of headache out of playing. There's no "Okay ... does that affect apply before or after I take damage?" stuff. The game takes care of it.

I'm at the bottom, losing horribly.

What I Didn't Like:

- It's missing a lot of Magic -- pun intended. In their efforts to make the game casual-friendly (which I support!) Blizzard has also robbed from Hearthstone a lot of what made MtG great. The primary culprit is the lack of cards, meaning that everyone's deck is the same. Some people will point out that this is often true in competitive MtG as well, but that's not the point. The point is that in casual MtG, there are a WIDE variety of decks to make. Heal deck, burn deck, equipment deck, goblin deck, suicide black deck, etc. The list goes on and on.

In Hearthstone, there are 8 character classes, and each class gets a set of unique cards the others can't access. But that's as far as customization goes. Yes, priest will have some healing cards, warlock will have some demons. But we all have the same 1-mana creatures. At turn 7, we're all going to play the Stormwind Champion, a heavy-duty creature that increases the power and defense of all other creatures.

I have never once felt the feeling of "Oh! Wow!" when faced with a card I've never seen before. I've never been surprised by a combo or synergy or deck strategy I hadn't thought of, because there are very few deck strategies to play around with.

Now, maybe I'm being unfair comparing a brand new card game to one that's been around for 15 years, with all the card types that entails. And maybe a loss of diversity is worth being friendly to more casual players. But in Magic, I was constantly wanting to tinker my deck in response to things I saw played against me. I was constantly thinking up new strategies. In Hearthstone, the deck constructions for each class are pretty obvious, with only a few choices to be made. And even then, there's a lot of luck involved. Simply put, Hearthstone is not as enthralling as MtG.

- To give you a specific point, I feel like Hearthstone's lack of Instant cards takes a lot of strategy out of the game. In Magic, there were certain cards you could play during your opponents turn to mess with their strategy. It required complex thinking from both you ("Do I play a creature, or save my mana so I can use a counterspell?") and your opponent ("Did he just have extra mana, or does he have a card up his sleeve?") Hearthstone tries to compensate with Yugioh-esque trap cards, but there are so few, and they're almost all a version of "If a creature attacks you, it dies," they don't seriously affect the metagame in any way.


Is Hearthstone ready for primetime? Well ... yes, and no. As I said, it's amazingly polished for a game in beta, and I suspect they could release it today and make a ton of money. The gameplay, however, is not currently something that I'd sink any real time or money into. A game or two a day for a little while, probably, but not something I'd seriously engage with. I suspect that won't change. The sorts of gameplay improvements I outlined above are MAJOR changes. Even introducing Instant cards would require a complete rejiggering of deck balance, so what I'm seeing is probably what we'll get.

If it ends up being free to play, though, it's certainly worth trying out, especially for hardcore card game fans.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wonder Woman demoted from superhero, now a sidekick

So there have been a couple of news stories in the past few days revolving DC's movie universe, and it looks like we're soon going to see Wonder Women herself on the big screen. Great news, right?

Well, hold on a second. Turns out she's not getting her own movie. Nope! She's being thrown in as a cameo in the Superman vs. Batman film, leading to the inevitable Justice League movie. What do you think she is, the world's most famous superheroine and one of DC's iconic superhero trinity? Come on now!

I won't rehash all the tired excuses over why a Wonder Woman movie won't work. Okay, how about just one -- "Her villains aren't iconic!" Because moviegoers worldwide were OH SO FAMILIAR with Thor's triumph over the Ice Giants of Jotunheim. Okay, I'm done.

It's clear from this move that WB, and to some extent DC, has no faith in the Wonder Woman character. She'll show up at the end of Bats vs Supes, shake her inevitable star-spangled panties (because you know it would betray canon to change her costume, not like we've ever worried about that with male superheroes!) and expect us to cheer.

And that won't be the end. There will be no fucking Wonder Woman movie. There will be no Wonder Woman origin story. The followup to Supes vs. Bats is clearly Justice League, where Wonder Woman will be relegated to an also-ran along with Aquaman and Hawkman or who the fuck ever the put in to round out the cast, when Superman and Batman will be doing the brunt of the dramatic work.

Fuck everything about this. Fuck WB. Fuck DC. Fuck Zack Snyder. Fuck this shitty, cowardly move.

As if that wasn't enough, look at their other announcement this week: DC has already decided to dip into their second-tier heroes to try to expand their cinematic roster. That's right. Booster Gold and the Suicide Squad are getting movies before Wonder Woman.

Let me repeat that.

The Suicide Squad is getting a movie before Wonder Woman.

I'm probably being hyperbolic, but it's hard to come to any other conclusion than that DC simply has no respect for its female characters. It's shown this time and time again. It's sad, disappointing and infuriating that such a powerful feminist icon (really, one of the few powerful feminist icons that exists in pop culture) is held back by such myopic asshats.

As for the casting itself: I'm sure Gal Gadot will be fine. Whatever. I'm not familiar with her work, but she looks the part and by all accounts she's a pretty tough woman. But the fact that she's not a bankable star in the same way Christian Bale, Ben Affleck or even Henry Cavill (a main actor in a long-running, popular TV show) were makes me think it's fairly unlikely that the producers have pegged her to headline her own movie franchise.

Is it possible that I'm exaggerating this, that Wonder Woman's cameo will be tasteful and well-received and will lead the way for a superbly-written, power, feminist Wonder Woman solo film? Uh, sure. Is it less likely than a Texas snowstorm in July? Yeah, I think so. Especially, as Charlie Anders so deftly points out, with Zack Snyder at the helm (though I'll point out I disagree with her about Wonder Woman being substantially harder to adapt than any other hero).

All the more reason for me to finish editing that Wonder Woman script that's been lying here on my hard drive. Not to prove how awesome I am, but to prove how goddamn easy it is to make a compelling Wonder Woman film, if people would just pull their heads out of their asses.