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Resistance is… Probably Not a Good Idea.

My (probably futile) attempts at conquering the Gratuitous Space Battle campaign mode continues. After looking at the available ship options, I decided to change races to the Empire. Some of the different races get access to unique weapons or ship layouts, but for the most part everything is the same. Except maybe not for the Empire. Most of their ships look like space stations, and come with a ridiculous number of standard module slots to match.

That and basically everything else likely means nothing to you, but just roll with it for now.

So my fleet composition looks something like this. First, the I-Point, which is essentially a damage-soaker featuring multiple shield generators and power plants to match. Under most circumstances, a ship will likely have ~200 shield HP, but the I-Point has 800+. It has a few weapons, but it’s orders are simply to close to EMP range and otherwise take the hits. Stuck in rigid formation behind it is at least one I-Help, which is a Frigate whose sole purpose is to use the Empire-specific shield-mending beam on the I-Point and on anyone else  nearby. Tank and heals old-school style.

The big surprise, at least as far as effectiveness goes, came from the I-Battery. This ship design is fairly unique in what I have seen thus far, with it capable of housing 8 weapons in a Frigate hull. As tempted as I was to put missile launchers in every slot, I decided that I would instead go with the almost-as-good ranged Plasma Cannons. Cost-wise, the I-Battery were surprisingly cheap, which gives me leave to build 1-2 of them each turn.

Finally, rather than replace any of my Plasma Cannons with anti-fighter laser weapons, I decided to simply field a bunch of fighters myself, flying Escort mode around my I-Point. They are not as powerful as the fighters of other races, but they are the fastest in the game.

I was undefeated for a while, conquering planets at a pretty good clip under my balanced doctrine… until disaster.

Hey, this looks familiar.

Hey, this looks familiar.

With a full fleet that was poised to take over a few isolated systems, I was instead attacked by a six cruiser complement of one of the DLC race ships. Their loadout? Missiles. ALL the missiles. I took special care in putting at least one Guidance Scrambler on each one of my ships, and their combined effort up to this point was usually enough to clear the sky. Not these missiles though, and not in this volume. I was annihilated by a specialized force – a missile force – and thus came full circle.

I did not give up yet though. Oh, no. I made an I-Screen ship, with Point Defense Mk 2 in every weapon slot to shoot down enemy missiles and nothing else. Remembering my failure with the fighters last time, I nevertheless fielded four squadrons of 16. And this time, I also made special orders for all ships to follow Vulture orders, e.g. always target the most damaged ship in range.

Remember me now?

Remember me now?

The result was almost comical. I don’t know whether it was the Vulture orders or the extra squadron or something else, but my fighters blew two of the ships up and crippled two more before my cruisers even got within range. The I-Screen largely turned out to be useless, as the range of its anti-missile guns was too short to prevent them damaging the shields of the I-Point, and yet it was too fragile to place in front (defeating the purpose of the tank). In any case, the revenge was sweet.

But it would not last.

Misty remains of Judgment.

Misty day, remains of Judgment.

Riding high on my prior victories, I was complacent until a nest of vipers landed in my lap in the form of five Parasite cruisers. It almost didn’t seem fair… for them. I had a slightly bigger fleet than before, after all. As it turns out, the Parasite race has access to an AoE flak cannon that simply shredded my fighters like so much tissue paper. Even with the combined might of my fleet, I was not able to collapse even one shield amongst their ships. Instead of the normal Guidance Scramblers that deflect missiles, they have a version that turns the missile around and causes it to hit you, all with a greater range.

My fleet destroyed once again, I attempted to mount a counter-offensive with a new fleet after 10 turns. The result was even worse than before. Then, they captured my only planet with a shipyard, effectively ending the game.

There is no reloading saved games in GSB. One’s failure is absolute.

_____________________

I should note, in passing, that the most frustrating aspect of GSB campaign mode is also one of its most novel. You see, 100% of those fleet compositions I talked about are player-generated. In the vanilla game, you could submit your own fleet as a sort of “puzzle” (aka Challenges) that other players could battle and then rate. I played a few of these maps, but it all felt a bit pointless after a while, especially when it didn’t reward Honor (the in-game currency for unlocks). Wrapping this all up in a cloak of purpose via campaign mode though, did indeed breathe life into the concept as evidenced by my repeated head-banging.

Of course, this also means campaign mode operates with no rhyme or reason, as you charge headlong into truly random and insipid battles that you cannot hope to prepare against. Specialization beats Generalization every time, but the player is never afforded the luxury of anything else. It reminds me of the great debate of Critical Hits in paper D&D. On the one hand, rolling a 20 and getting double-damage feels awesome. On the other hand, the players will always face hundreds more dice rolls against them than they ever will roll against individual mobs. Ergo, players are more penalized by critical hits than they benefit, increasing the chances of a Total Party Kill… unless the DM fudges the rolls behind the screen.

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Questionable Space Battles

Sometimes I find myself inexplicably drawn to building spaceships and watching them explode. With Steam having a 75% sale on the Gratuitous Space Battles DLC this past weekend, it seemed as good a time as any to try and get that fix.

The problem is that I am having a hard time convincing myself that the game isn’t complete bullshit.

You can read my original review here, but suffice it to say, GSB is essentially a game about building spaceships and nothing else. I think one of the DLCs or patches gave you the ability to change orders mid-battle at the cost of high score tracking or whatever, but under normal circumstances you design ships, give general orders, and let’em go. I mentioned in the review that I quickly came across a strategy that essentially wins 100% of the time – basically missile spam with occasional target painter that makes missile 100% accurate – but it seems clear to me now that it has been nerfed to oblivion. Anti-missile tech existed in the vanilla game already, e.g. guidance scramblers and Point Defense batteries, although it seems much, much stronger than it ever was so many months ago.

It is fine having counters to things, whatever. When I was looking at alternatives to missile spam though, I kept running into problems with the ship building aspects. As you might imagine in these sort of games, you have to juggle each component’s energy usage, crew requirements, weight, and so on. Except… all roads lead to the same max-level components and heavy mixing of weapons. It feels… banal. If I want an all-beam ship, let me build an all-beam ship without gimping on shields or armor. The weakness of specialization is supposed to be being vulnerable to counters, not it being nigh-impossible to actually specialize.

Or maybe I’m just all sour grapes because this happened:

Was totally wiped out, killing zero enemy ships. They all had ~20% HP or less.

Was totally wiped out, killing zero enemy ships. They all had ~20% HP or less.

I will continue plugging along with Gratuitous Space Battles for a while longer, but in the meantime, if you have any suggestions for spaceship designing/battle games, let me know in the comments below. I was obsessed with an ancient game called Stars! back in the day, and spent 40+ hours most recently on Space, Pirates and Zombies; dunno if FTL really counts, but I spent a lot of time with that one too. It can be a 4-X game, it can be FPS, it can be whatever it is, as long as it has a ship-designing component. And, preferably, no bullshit.

It just can’t be EVE. I have little interest in experimenting resulting in the destruction of weeks of game time.

Reviews: Mirror’s Edge, SPAZ

Game: Mirror’s Edge
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: First-person platforming, parkour, novel videogames

More of this, please

I had somehow missed most of the other reviews out there regarding Mirror’s Edge, so when I booted the game up I was a blank canvas upon which the designers could paint a visually-striking first-person platformer that worked (far better than others, anyway). And while I have seen those other reviews in the time after having completed this game, their legitimate criticisms does not change my mind regarding badly wanting Mirror’s Edge 2.

It is difficult to say much more than “first-person platformer” because that pretty much sums up Mirror’s gameplay. You control a Runner named Faith, as she delivers packages and unravels a conspiracy in the unnamed City sometime in the (not so distant?) future. Most of your time is leaping from rooftop to rooftop, vaulting over AC units, scrambling over fences, busting down doors, shimmying up or down pipes, and basically making a circuitous path from Red Point A to Red Point B. Pretty soon, helicopter gunships and trigger-happy police officers are firing on you as you maintain an addicting sort of manic momentum and leaps of faith. Perhaps ironically, I felt more like a ninja in Mirror’s Edge than I ever did in Assassin’s Creed, despite this game being more realistic in terms of your ability to take falls and so on.

Unfortunately, the reviews are correct in criticizing the game’s split personality when it comes to combat. While you have the choice early on to simply run around the police you encounter, by mid-game you are frequently required to take on armed guards with your relatively ineffectual unarmed attacks. There is a disarming method that will take out a guard in a single button press, but the timing is so ludicrously short – even with your recharging slow-mo ability – that most times you are better off flailing at the guards until you or they go down. Once the first guy drops, you can pick up his gun and take out the others with however many bullets are left in the clip.

Ultimately though, when Mirror’s Edge is good, it’s great. Much like Portal 2, you will end up surprising yourself with the solution of “how the hell am I going to get over there?” – and managing to get a few stages correct the first time left me with a metaphorical runner’s high. Other times you will get stuck, shot, or take a flying leap off a building only to realize that wasn’t what the game wanted you to do. If you can accept the (minor) frustrations as the price of admission though, I highly recommend checking out the show.

Game: Space Pirates And Zombies (SPAZ)
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 74
Completion Time: ~38 hours
Buy If You Like: Overhead view spaceship pseudo-RPG action games

Amazing visuals for a 2-man indie game.

Originally, I pooh-poohed SPAZ based on the demo not being not particularly impressive. Having acquired the full game as part of an indie game deal, I decided to give the game proper another shot. And what I discovered, 38 hours later, is both a deeper, more impressive game… and one sorely in need of a larger-than-two-developer crew.

The basic structure of the game is destroying other spaceships, reverse-engineering their designs so you can build them, collecting Rez to build said spaceships, and basically having around seven different excuses missions to destroy said spaceships. In many ways, SPAZ is sort of like Gratuitous Space Battles aside from being able to control the ships flying around. The underlying problem with the setup though, doesn’t creep up until around hour 10-15: pacing.

The early game is extremely exciting with each new encounter resulting in new ships to pilot, there being many new components/weapons to try out, and so on. Unfortunately, the game becomes considerably less fun when you are piloting the same exact ship you were dozens of hours ago. Then, when you finally get towards the endgame and unlock those capital ship designs, the game’s difficulty evaporates as you steamroll them with a clearly overpowered design. I defeated the last boss in literally 20 seconds of holding the left mouse button down while stationary.

Overall, it’s tough to be too critical though, especially considering the game held my attention for 38 hours. There is a lot to like about the things SPAZ accomplishes well, and rather than being disappointed with some of its failings, I simply wish MinMax Games had the additional resources to polish up on its potential.

Reviews: EYE: Divine Cybermancy, Gratuitous Space Battles, Hard Reset

Game: E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 60
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: Half-Life 2 meets Deus Ex meets Warhammer 40k meets mostly hollow FPS frame

Welcome to the future.

Everything you need to know about E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy (hereafter EYE) are the first two lines from its Wikipedia page:

E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy is an indie action/role-playing first-person shooter video game created by the 12-person French development team Streum On Studio, and built using Valve Corporation’s Source engine. It is a cyberpunk themed game based on the role-playing board game “A.V.A.” developed by Streum On Studio in 1998.

In other words, yes, this is a FPS built in the Half-Life 2 engine based on a board game and designed by 12 French guys.

The funny thing is that EYE plays exactly how the Steam gameplay videos look, e.g. cool. After character generation, you start out in a weird dreamscape area before jumping through a Martian gate and waking up in a cave. From here, the game takes you through impossibly large Blade Runner-esque settings, and has you kill (usually) never-ending waves of AI bots on your way to completing various objectives in – have I mentioned impossibly large? – locations. Despite the AI bots behaving very obviously like AI bots, the combat in EYE nevertheless remains deeply satisfying for reasons I cannot express.

The problem is that you can never really shake off the vague sense of hollowness that pervades the entire game. You gain XP for kills and damage, and as you level you spend skill points raising stats that allow access to either better weapons, better tech, or better PSI powers. You can upgrade your various implants by spending Brouzouf, the games currency, or you can spend it researching various technologies that may grant you additional stat points or unlock other items (or be a total waste).

And yet… none of it really matters. The game’s plot is the most convoluted, strangely localized mess I have ever seen. And despite “branching paths” the story very clearly was never meant to drive the game in any particular direction. I mentioned earlier that all the enemies behave like AI bots and I meant that – there is never any sense of scripting in the encounters you face, it very much feels like a Counter-Strike match against bots. Each map you complete can be played again as a “secondary mission,” where you are given three random objectives and placed in the middle of a never-ending firefight on said map; ironically, these secondary missions usually end up being more coherent and fun than the plot itself.

All that being said, I actually stuck through EYE to the end and found myself replaying the secondary missions quite a few times. I realize now that my experience is probably colored by my love of the sort of Deus Ex/Warhammer 40k/Half-Life 2/Blade Runner zeitgeist of the game, but I certainly did find the game more amusing than a 60 Metacritic score would seem to suggest.

If you find yourself gravitating towards cyberpunk games regardless of quality, you cannot go wrong with EYE… provided you find it on sale.

Game: Gratuitous Space Battles
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 72
Completion Time: ~7 hours
Buy If You Like: The modular unit-designing of space games, without all the pesky gameplay

You have no chance to survive make your time.

Gratuitous Space Battles (hereafter GSB) is one of those indie games that is so ballsy that I am almost inclined to overlook the fact that there is no real game to speak of. Straight from the Steam description:

Who needs backstory? Who needs resource-gathering? Diplomacy is so last year. Gratuitous Space Battles cuts right to the chase of sci-fi strategy games, and deals with large, completely unjustified space battles between huge opposing space fleets.

Do you know in space-sim games when you are designing new hulls? You know, fitting components in the empty slots, trying to balance power/crew limitations while keeping costs under control? That is basically all you do in GSB: design space ships, place them on the left-hand side of the screen until you reach the resource cap, edit their orders a bit (ignore fighters, keep in formation, escort the cruiser, etc), and then press Fight.

Now, I will admit there is something deeply satisfying about watching epic space battles and see shit blow up. The very fact that it is impossible for you to influence the battle once it has begun is oddly comforting in ways that is typically impossible in RTS games.

But… that is the entire game. Design ship, place, watch result. There are 14 “levels” counting the tutorial and two endless modes, but the only difference in levels is the resource cap and occasionally the “anomalies” that might prevent fighters from being placed, reduce max engine speed, forbid shields, and so on in an effort to shake up otherwise unassailable strategies. And believe me, by the 2nd map I had a fleet composition that was basically impossible to defeat.

The ballsy part is how the base game costs $19.99 and there is currently $36.94 worth of DLC. A casual look reveals most of it consists of different races with their own unique hull components, and then a $6.99 DLC that turns the title into a full strategy game. If you are as disinterested in that as I am, the base game will take you about 7 hours to beat with the default race. There are two other races you can unlock to stretch that further, and you can always download player-generated scenarios to pit your fleet against theirs. Since there is zero rewards in doing so though, it is debatable as to why you would bother outside the novelty of the thing.

Game: Hard Reset
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 73
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Cyberpunk FPS meets Devil May Cry

Cyberpunk hard-on: engage.

Hard Reset is one of the best-looking, most frantic, disappointingly short, unforgiving FPS games I have ever played. Set in a dystopian Blade Runner meets Matrix future, you control Fletcher as he mows down huge waves of robotic enemies using two highly moddable gun types and a cornucopia of destructible environment set pieces.

Starting out with a machine gun and a plasma rifle bound to the Q and E buttons respectively, you can upgrade them by collecting currency hidden around the levels or as drops from enemies. The machine gun can turn into a shotgun, a grenade launcher, a mine-layer and so on; the plasma rifle gets an AoE electricity mode, a rail gun, a Smart Gun mode that can track enemies through walls, and so on. The key to surviving robot attacks usually comes down to a combination of moves, such as launching a Gravity Grenade (unlockable secondary fire for grenade launcher) to trap a bunch of small bots next to an exploding barrel or what have you, and then launching a normal grenade at the pile.

Er… so yeah, that particular “combo” is fairly straight-forward. And I suppose that leads me to the disappointing aspects of the game: namely the wildly oscillating difficulty.

When you can use the One-Two grenade launcher combo, the game is actually depressingly easy; although bigger bots won’t die instantly, the gravity grenade works on everything but bosses. If one or two little bots escapes the gravity well, or spawn only after the first group blows up in spectacular fashion, watch out. The sheer density of exploding set pieces means you will frequently backpedal into a deathtrap a mere buzz-saw attack away from taking your life. That is when you experience the bizarrely out of place Checkpoint save system (no Quicksaves here), which probably sends you four waves and an upgrade into the past.

The game is also, as previously mentioned, disappointingly short. The story is not nearly as bad as other reviewers have stated, but right as it appears that the game is ready to head in a new direction while tying up some loose ends, the game… well, ends. The brevity of the game is such a hot-button issue that the developer has a passive-aggresive thread on the Steam forums called “Official announcement about GAME LENGTH” that starts out with:

Ok let me make some things clear.

You can finish Quake in 11 minutes.
You can finish Super Mario in less than 10 minutes.
You can finish Doom in less than 30 minutes.

They are still good games.

You can’t finish Call Of Duty in less time than the developers wanted because it’s heavily scripted, with all the cutscenes, NPC preventing you from going somewhere etc.

Hard Reset was designed to be an oldschool game.

In spite of the truncated narrative, in spite of how it’s sometimes difficult to tell that you are actually dealing damage to robots with some weapons, in spite of how I would have preferred a cyberpunk FPSRPG over a Devil May Cry Arena-style FPS, I still find myself having enjoyed the (few) hours of Hard Reset immensely. There is reportedly a sequel or expansion in the works, and if the forum poll results are any indication, the team is well aware of how their nascent fan base feels about the necessity of Quicksaves, new story arcs, standalone single-player levels, level editing tools and mod support, and all sorts of other fantastic goodies.

If even half of the list makes it in, I personally can’t wait for Hard Reset 2.0.