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Civilization – The End of the Mongols and the Coming Conflict April 16, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games, Strategy Group.
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Friday night we got ourselves together in the designated Google hangout in order to return to our game of Civilization V.

Mattman, Potshot, and I were ready to go, but Loghound had some guests to evict or some such, so we got the game warmed up and ready while he set about pointing people towards his front door.

Potshot restored the game from the previous week and Mattman and I were able to join just fine, so things looked good.  Loghound just had to join and we would be set.

And then somebody else showed up in our game.  Potshot kicked him.  And then he returned, taking one of the AI seats.  He got kicked again.  Somebody else showed up, just to be kicked.  Potshot fiddled around, changed himself to one of the AI seats, couldn’t figure out how to get back to the Ottomans again, and we all had to leave and restart the game.

While setting things back up, Potshot ensured that the game was flagged as private.  We joined back up.  And the parade of strangers continued to flow into our game, just to be kicked.

Join our game? That's a kicking.

Join our game? That’s a kicking.

Later we figured out that if the leader clicked the not-very-obvious ready button, it locks down the computer players and then people can no longer just appear in your game.  Until that point we were kept busy calling out people to kick.

Finally, Loghound secured his domestic situation… or abandoned it, I am not sure we actually heard what came to pass… got into the game and we were ready to pick up at turn 101.

Our first order of business was to destroy the Mongols.  Our discussion in the hangout revolved around Loghound, having started as a close neighbor of the Mongols, being involved in a protracted and bloody conflict with Ghengis Khan to the point that he was falling way behind us in almost all civilization measures.

So we resolved to all declare war on the Mongols.  Potshot, Mattman, and Loghound were all in the vicinity of the Mongols, while I was somewhat out of the picture.  I knew where one city was, so I sent some archers there, though who they eventually sided with isn’t clear.

The Mongols as I saw them...

The Mongols as I saw them…

I managed to get a couple of shots in and even managed to capture a Mongol civilian.  When informed that it had, in its turn, been captured from Japan (Loghound), and asked if I wanted to return it, I clicked “no” and remained quiet when, later, Loghound was wondering aloud where his captured settler had ended up.  Well, it was only a worked when I got it.

The Mongols were destroyed and the spoils of their civilization was divided up amongst the chief participants in the war.

Spain, the Ottomans, and Japan remain

Spain, the Ottomans, and Japan remain

I got nothing… except that worker.  Though, with the war taking place decade of travel away from my territory, I didn’t exactly put my economy on a war footing either, choosing instead focus on building infrastructure and the occasional wonder.

And then we moved into the period of the long peace.

Well, for some of us.  Loghound felt he was far enough behind that he needed to continue his martial ways in order to play a role in world affairs, so remained in almost constant conflict with the Mayans or one of the city states throughout the evening.

Religions were founded.  I spread the word about Neo-Zoroastrianism to my protesting neighbors, leaving my pamphlets wedged into their door jams when they refused to answer the door.

Otherwise I was in a bit of a tight spot.  While I came out of the war flush in gold and happiness, with a booming economy, an efficient education system, and a culture that was the envy of all the neighbors, I was pretty much boxed in to my own little corner of Pangea.  I eventually found a place to plant an additional city, but that was about the extent of my expansion.  All of the other civilizations had more cities than I, and in the fullness of time I expect my little empire will be eclipsed.  Even Loghound has more potential at the moment.  His cities will grow, if he lets them.  Mine are already reaching their capacity.

As we wrapped things up at turn 175, which put us at midnight, my little corner of the world looked like this.

Germany needs Lebensraum

Germany needs Lebensraum

The demographics chart showed me out in front in all but one key category, land area.

Demographics at Turn 175

Demographics at Turn 175

I am efficient, productive, technologically advanced, well armed, and trapped in a small area.  What does Germany usually do in such situations?

Plus, just playing Sim City in a group setting isn’t exactly thrilling.  It might be time for some conflict.  I hear Hong Kong is lovely this time of year.

Birth of a Civilization April 9, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games, Strategy Group.
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The Strategy Group got together last Friday night for our first run at Civilization V.

We managed to browbeat Potshot into upgrading to the Gods and Kings and Brave New World expansions, which I understand was cheaper than trying to just get Gods and Kings, which was our target content.  That gave us religion as an aspect of the game, though tourism was not yet within our grasp.  We all got into our Google+ hangout, got ourselves a bit ogranized, and

As we did in our test run last week, Potshot hosted and select the game options.  We went with the Pangea map in order to make sure we were all on one landmass.  All victory conditions were allowed.  Barbarians were on, but not extra raging.  Difficulty level was Prince for all of us.  We threw two computer controlled civs into the mix.  We elected to go with random civs.  And off we went.

Certainly at the start it felt very much like a single player game.  Well, the turns took a bit longer than an early game, as we settled down into the routine.  There was some getting used to the fact that you have to click “next turn” or hit return to end your turn, and after a couple of fumbles and “wait, is everybody waiting on me?” moments, we all finally figured out that if you select “next turn” and then go back and do something, the “next turn” state is abandoned.

For me the game started out poorly.  I was in one of those positions where I might have just started over had it been a single player match.  I used to do that a lot with Civilization II, running through starting positions until I got a decent one.  I do that less so with Civ V because it is still new enough to be slow starting up.

Anyway, I ended up with the Germans, which was pretty good.  I was stuck in a strip of land between the coast and a mountain range, which did cover my flanks and seemed pretty safe at first.

Berlin founded, exploring

Berlin founded, exploring

However, that feeling of safety quickly faded as multiple barbarian camps formed up at either end of my stretch of territory.  I spent something on the order of 2,000 years battling barbarians as they attempted to swarm my city.  They captured an early settler and I ended up having to put production into full military mode for a while in order to suppress these uprisings.

They weren't even set to raging...

They weren’t even set to raging…

And the kicker was that I didn’t even get the benefit I expected.  One of the German special features is that barbarians will sometimes convert to your units when you defeat them.  I didn’t get a single one when I needed it, though I did finally pick up a couple at the very end of the battles.  And I did recapture my settler, which was good fortune.  I was eventually able to get that second city going.

Meanwhile, I had also spotted Potshot and his Ottomon empire to the south of me.  I set to trying to block off my coastal plain and catch up on the expansion.

Ottomans spotted

Ottomans spotted

Potshot and I establish diplomatic relations and kept a wary eye on each other as I tried to get another settler up front to keep myself from being boxed in.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the map, somebody was having a serious run-in with the Mongols.

We blame Potshot for having that Mongols DLC.  This is the second time they have shown up and been an issue.

But for the most part we spent our time expanding our empires and laying down the foundations for the rest of the game.  I managed to come into contact with Mattman eventually and established diplomatic relations with him.  I never saw Loghound or the Mongols, who were beating the tar out of him at one point.  And somewhere out there the Mayans are hanging out.  We ended up calling the game at turn 100, which put us at about midnight real time, and just past 800 AD in the age of the game.

What I could see

What I could see

It took me 4,800 years to develop that far.

The game was saved and we plan to pick it up again some time this week.

All and all it seemed to be a satisfactory start.  There wasn’t much contact between the four of us, but we are now growing in size that we will be right up against each other soon.  And then there are the Mongols.  We did have one disconnect incident during our time, but we were able to restart the game and bring everybody back and carry on without issue.

I will note that, checking on Steam throughout the weekend, all four of us ended up playing quite a bit of Civ V.  We should be warmed up for the continuation of our joint game.

A State of Civilization April 3, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games, Strategy Group.
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The… well… I am not sure what to call our Age of Kings group, especially since this post will be about us not playing Age of Kings.

I suppose I will call us the Strategy Group, lacking any other ideas.  We seem to be picking titles in genres where strategy is the common denominator.  And I will have to make a tag or a category or something, since this appears to be an ongoing endeavor and not just a flash in the pan.

Anyway, the Strategy Group has been growing less enthusiastic about Age of Kings.  It started with a burst of nostalgia, developed through recalling how things actually worked, and then landed in that pit that has so often been the downfall of RTS games, at least for me, where we remembered that once you have things sort of nailed down, every game starts to seem the same.  There is the build order, the harvesting, the scouting, the building up of the economy, the timing of the ages, initial defenses, the military build up, and so on down the line.

Sometimes that can be okay.  Sometimes honing a skill or really optimizing a routine can be its own fun.

And sometimes you’ve been down that path already and maybe this time around it isn’t so fun.  And maybe we’re old.

So last week the group started talking about trying another game.  (I mentioned this in the month-in-review post earlier this week.)  I was out for that session, but Potshot got me up to speed.  The first alternative on the list was Civilization V.

For me, that was a fine choice.  I have Civ V in my Steam library… I am going to guess it was a choice because we all happened to have it in our Steam libraries… I have enough hours in to be familiar with the game, though by no means an expert, and I am upgraded all the way to last year’s Brave New World expansion, which I quite enjoyed.

On the other hand, in the last 20 years or so since I played the original Civilization, I have not once played a multiplayer game.  Never.  In fact, given how turns tend to go, expanding in duration as the years pass, I wondered at times how viable a multiplayer game the Civ series might make.  It always seemed an unlikely candidate for multiplayer.

Now was our chance to put that to the test.

Potshot and I actually got to give it a pre-test.  The instance group… now that we have two groups, should I capitalize the names of groups?  Anyway, the Instance Group was having a night off last Saturday, so Potshot and I decided to give things a test run.  So, for the first time ever, I went to the multiplayer menu in Civilization.

The Menu

The Menu

We went with the Standard option.  Hot Seat clearly meant multiplayer on one computer… possibly the worst of all possible worlds for a Civ game… and I am still not sure what the Pitboss option really entails.  Something about the game running on its own server.  Not for us, not yet.

As with Age of Kings, the integration with Steam made getting us together in the right start screen easy.  Potshot created a game and then was able to invite me in from his friends list.  From there he setup a 4 player game, with the two of us and two computer opponents.

Setting up the game

Game starting in 6 seconds…

Some of that was easy enough, selecting landmass, size, pace, difficulty, and level of barbarian rage.  Other aspects were a bit more… interesting.

There is a timer for turns.  We talked about that for a bit, and then left it set for two minutes.  Early in the game no turn should take anything close to two minutes, but I began to wonder how things might play out as things got more complex.  As it turns out, that never really became an issue, but we’ll get to that.

And then there is the “who has what version of the game?” issue.

As it turned out, Potshot only had the original release of the game… and the Mongols DLC for some reason… while I had both expansions.  The game, however, will reconcile this for you and show you what your options are.  In this case, we pretty much had to play the original rules version of the game, with the Mongols thrown in, because why not.

So Potshot kicked off the game and off we went.  I ended up as the French, he got the Russians, while the computer ended up controlling the Chinese and… of course… the Mongols.  I ended up with my settler in a decent spot, so I did not have to engage in the debate about moving my settler.  There is a school of thought that you should never even waste a turn of production, but just build that first city and get going.  I, with an eye towards optimization, tend to move a hex or two if it will substantially improve my access to resources, though that has come back to bite me at times.

Paris is founded

Paris is founded and expanding

In that picture you can see a couple of aspects of multiplayer.

At the bottom of the screen is the two minute turn timer.  Turns are taken simultaneously, so that timer is for everybody at once and no turn can take more than the allotted time.  This is a very good thing.  Everybody moving on the same timer, as opposed to everybody getting their own two minutes, will speed things up dramatically.

And in the upper right corner there is a scoreboard that shows everybody’s basic relative standing.  That should be an amusing barometer for our match up.

As for playing the game… it was odd.  Well, it was odd for me, because I haven’t played the pre-expansions version of Civ V since before the first expansion, Gods & Kings, which gave us Steam Workshop mods, performance updates, and spies.  That was nearly two years back.  So I had to stop looking for bits of the game that were not there originally.

The game itself wasn’t a dramatic success.  I got dropped on an island with the Mongols and the Chinese who boxed me into my little corner of things pretty quickly, helped by some serious raging barbarian hordes, which put my expansion on hold for a while.

Facing Mongols and Chinese

Facing Mongols and Chinese

Meanwhile, Potshot was on another island with a couple of city states.  We didn’t come into contact for quite a stretch.

I started trying to tech/culture my way out of trouble while trying drop at least one or two more cities.  Not being in contact with Potshot meant that there wasn’t much to talk about, and having a plan meant that I wasn’t spending a lot of time on turns, so I was often reading the news on my iPad while waiting for the game to alert me that another turn had come.  I started thinking at about the one hour mark that we ought to cut our experiment off, but the “one more turn” obsession kicked in, even with a game where I wasn’t really getting anywhere.

About 90 minutes after I figured we ought to stop we actually did try a stop to test out ability to save a game and then resume it.  As with creating the multiplayer game, this seemed to work pretty well.  Potshot saved and left, then was able to restore the game and invite me back into it.  There was an awkward “I’m alone so what is the situation?” moment when he left and I was still in game, but after I bailed and then got back into the restored game, things were okay.

After that, I bought off the local city states to make them allies and declared war on the Mongols.  I managed to drive off their initial assault on my territories in something of a Pyrrhic victory.  Then he destroyed two of my city state allies in quick succession and bought off two more who quickly sued for peace, leaving me with Kuala Lumpur and not much of an army facing what could be correctly described, both literally and figuratively, as the Mongol hordes.

It was time to call it a night.

As a test run, things went fine.  We were able to create a game, play, save it off, and restore it without issue.  Waiting for turns wasn’t too onerous.  We just have to come up with something like an optimum settings mix so that the four of us are playing and engaged with each other.  We might need to go with a single continent and maybe just one or two computer players.

I also started mocking Potshot in our Google hangout, which is the base of operations for our games (Because why not add yet another peer to peer interface to the mix?), for only having the base game… plus the Mongols.  This may backfire on me though, as I may be the only one in the group who is up to date on the expansions, flagging me as the one they had best gang up on.  They probably aren’t going to fall for things the way they did for the first game of Age of Kings.

We shall see how it goes.  Suggestions for settings… or for other games we might consider… are welcome.

Mere Knaves in an Age of Kings March 20, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games, Strategy Group.
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I mentioned in February’s Month in Review post that Potshot and a couple of his old college pals had pick up Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings HD on Steam.

I had been interested in getting some games together with the new-ish HD version that became available on Steam about a year back.

AoK450

Potshot and I have brought up the idea now and again, but only in the last month or so has this become a thing.  Four of us now try to get together and play a match or two once a week.

All of us played the game back in the its heyday… which I guess would be back in the 20th century if we want to get technical… and remember it fondly.  however, in our first match it became clear that some of us (me) had been tinkering with it more recently than others.

Okay, and with a week’s warning of our first match, I put in some time to get warmed up by playing at least one game against the computer nightly.

So when it came to the first game, things played out badly for some.  And the fact that I suggested that we all start on different teams ( including a computer opponent to mix things up) and lock teams, it might have been influenced by a fear of everybody turning on me if I got too far out in front.  *cough*

Actually, I wanted to computer player in the mix as the CPU usually goes after the most advanced player.  I thought that might moderate any advantage I might bring to the game.  Only the computer started far from me and we left the setting on “easy,” which meant that, if left alone, it might make it to the Castle Age in a few hours.

So I managed to win the first outing by beating down everybody else and then building a wonder, because we’re the type of people who won’t resign even when we’re down to one villager.

Totally This

Totally This

I built a large cavalry to sweep the lands and purge and resurgent force seeking to take down my wonder, successfully holding of the remnants opposing me until the timer counted down to zero.

That outcome, pointing out the imbalance in skill/knowledge/memory/whatever put our head-to-head matches on hold for a bit as we tried to get everybody up to speed.  The game now records matches by default, so while I was free in sharing my own build order and what not, everybody could watch and see what I really did.

But we were otherwise impressed with how the game held up after close to 15 years, with the integration into Steam’s match making and game hosting mechanism basically filling a major gap that has existed since official Microsoft support of such faded years ago.

Yes, we managed to close that gap with Game Ranger at one point.  But while I appreciate Game Ranger and what they do, having the game and the match making all built into Steam is simply easier to deal with, especially since Hidden Path Entertainment, who did the HD revamp, build the hooks right into the game interface.  (The downside is that there is no multiplayer without Steam.  But we’re good with that for now.)

So we were good with the game and started playing matches against computer opponents in order to share ideas and to close the skill/memory level between us.  We play random civilizations and random map types just to keep things changing.  While some of the game was clearly as I remembered it, at times there were oddities.  There was at least one map where I seemed to run into a LOT more sheep than I recall ever seeing.

Sheep I found AFTER my local sheep

Sheep I found AFTER my local sheep

We warmed up slowly, finding that computer opponents set to “hardest” were indeed a challenge to us.  When you decide your only hope is to go for a wonder victory against the computer, things are not going your way.

Just keep the wonder alive a little longer

Just keep the wonder alive a little longer

And when the computer wins anyway… well…

The wonder, the wonder...

The wonder, the wonder…

But we kept on until we found that we could at least take down an equal, or even a greater number, of computer opponents set to “hard,” though “hardest” still bedeviled us.  At one point two computer opponents set to “hardest” managed to beat the four of us on the Black Forest map by building a wonder of their own.  We were pretty much defeated by the computer’s ability and willingness to sacrifice villages to rebuild wall breaches.   We would build up forces, force a breach, only to have one villager slip through and start enough of a wall to stop us part way though again.  We could never get enough of a concentration of force through the gap, and since Black Forest is a map all about fighting over tight roads through the forest, there wasn’t a way around. (The fact that fully upgraded onager siege weapons can tear down forests had been discussed right before the match, but by the time we could bring that idea to bear it was too late to get through.)

But we had started to hit a point where we were all feeling like we had come to grips with the game and that it was time to step it up a notch.  So, when game time came around last Friday… we always form up via a Google+ video hangout, where I am the odd man out since I haven’t had a webcam since the days of the Connectix QuickCam… there was a question of how we should proceed.  The idea was put out there that the three of us… Potshot was away for the weekend, happy birthday to him… should form up an open match, with us on one team taking on whatever three people happened to join our game as the opposing team.

Our first match against live opponents!

Which brings up one of the problems of the way I often play such games.  I tend to like to play with/against friends.  So, all told, in the last fifteen years, I might have played with as many as 20 different people, many of them repeatedly.  That is a pretty small competitive ecosystem in which you tend to learn to play against specific people.  If you get good, that level of good is only relative to a very small set of possible situations.

So, while my fifteen year old build order through the first 20 minutes of the game gave me a clear advantage against our little group in that first game, things went less well when exposed to people who had clearly faced a wider range of competitors.

Basically, we got slaughtered.

The timeline

The timeline

I am not sure if the random map helped us or hurt us.  We ended up with team islands, where each team has its own large island and you have to invade.  That protected us from early harassment, but it also kept at least me from doing any early harassing as well.  Basically, they divided up efforts, with one concentrating on a navy that swept us from the seas and harassed anything in range of the shore, while the other two slipped over and built a barracks, some towers, and eventually a castle just out of line of sight of my town.

You can see the bump in my troop levels as I had my “oh crap” moment upon discovering MoronHunter was massing for an assault on my town.  That did not go well and I had to relocate to the far end of our island to start again.  And since I was, at least economically, out in front on our side, the cascade fail began.

We did what we could to hold them off for as long as possible, but with the enemy on our island, the issue was never in doubt.

On the bright side, our foes seemed happy enough to simply destroy us without telling us how badly we were doing, though I have to admit being so trounced by somebody with the name “MoronHunter” might be rebuke enough.

After our defeat, the question came as to what to do next.  We usually play two games.  This time around though, we decided to replay our first game.  As I mentioned, matches are recorded by default, so we went back and ran through the match together, watching how our opponents started off the game and built up their economy.

My own ideas on that front are from about 2000, when a good plan was to build up 20 villagers before advancing to the feudal age.  That idea seems to have changed.  Our foes held off some, pushing for 30 to 35 villagers before starting the climb to feudal.

There was also a clear difference in gathering for that push.  Back in the day, the default plan for food was to harvest sheep, boars, deer, and then start on farms and berries.  Again, our foes debunked that idea, ignoring boars… and in the case of Lolus even sheep initially… going straight for farms after putting a lot of early villagers on wood.

As a team, we also suffered from the usual problem of limited scope.  We tend to build just ONE of each troop producing building.  There was an early fight for the sea lane between the islands which I ended up losing because I was producing ships out of a single dock while chip_xx was using three.

We can at least say we had an educational night, and I expect that our next round of play will include experimentation with the build orders we observed.  Maybe we can master the “hardest” setting now.  Potshot will probably come off the worse for wear, having missed the match.

And then there was the Forgotten Empires question.

A little over a year ago, a group of player finally finished up an unofficial expansion for Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings called Forgotten Empires.  The team that put it together adapted it to the updated HD version of Age of Kings on Steam, and it is now available for purchase as DLC under the name The Forgotten. (Though there is a question about who is getting the money from it, along with the usual community bitching about having to pay for something that was free at one point.)

The question is, “Should we buy it?”

I tinkered with it a bit back when it came out.  The new empires are not that big of a deal to my mind, nor are a couple of the enhancements, while the graphics were not so great.  But the new AIs that come with it might make it worthwhile, and the conversion to the new HD format might help.  Another item for the group to discuss.

Delta Force – A Memory of Voxels August 7, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Ancient Gaming, entertainment, Other PC Games.
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7 comments

I wish I could have seen the expression on my own face when, at the EverQuest Next reveal, they first said the word “Voxels.”

I am pretty sure it would have been a dubious frown, that serious look I get when things do not add up.  My lips disappear as my mouth forms a tight, inverted U.

And that is all related to a game called Delta Force.

Delta Force

Delta Force

NovaLogic brought out Delta Force back in the late 90s and it was something of the pinnacle of pre-3D accelerated shooters.  It had a single player campaign, not terrible computer AI, and offered online mulitplayer matches that we have come to expect from shooters.  But its big bragging point was terrain.

It launched at around the same time as Starsiege: Tribes, another game I loved, and which became something of a cult classic that got played for years beyond what one might expect.  Tribes, building on the ideas of Quake, attempted to create an outdoor multiplayer shooter using the 3D technology of the time, which was giant polygons with textures that looked like you laid bad linoleum in the forest.

Cyclops Attack! Run!

Not Tribes, but you get the idea

So its world was often a lot of flat planes laid out.  And, of course, you needed a 3D accelerated video card of some sort… probably a 3dfx model if you were like most people… in order to play.  And such cards were reasonably rare at that point.

Meanwhile Delta Force used a voxel based engine that used all those volumetric pixels, from which the word “voxel” is derived, to create an ugly (by today’s standards) but much more realistic terrain.  There were all sorts of places to hide, shallow depressions, rises, outcrops and such which, when combined with the positional abilities of the game… you could stand, crouch, or go prone, which was also somewhat uncommon at the time… allowed all sorts of tactical flexibility.  Plus the environments were huge compared to other games.

Looking out on an Uzbek land

Looking out on an Uzbek land

But the key to the whole package was that NovaLogic’s engine gave you all of this without requiring a 3D accelerated video card.  Absolutely the right move in 1998 when the game shipped and undoubtedly one of the factors leading to its popularity.

One of out IT guys brought a copy into work to show us and I am pretty sure that most of us bought a copy of the game on the way home that night.  There were some attempts to play as a group from home, which lead to my first voice coms experience when we tried using Roger Wilco.  That went okay.  But it was when we all brought a copy into the office and found that it played well enough on the standard 200MHz Pentium Pros that were common at the time that the real fun began.  Over the local network, using the phone system for coms, battles ranged.

NovaLogic followed success with more success, bringing out Delta Force 2 and so forth, creating a whole series of games.

But time was not on their side.

While ignoring 3D video cards was a good plan in 1998, by 2000 things had changed.  The introduction of nVidia’s TNT2 chipset, made reasonably priced and performing accelerated 3D video card readily available.   This alone pretty much killed 3dfx, marginalized Matrox and S3 in the consumer market, and could be said to have started the trend that eventually sent ATi into the arms of AMD.  It also made 3D configurations so common that the NovaLogic forums were often full of questions and complaints about why somebody’s brand new TNT2 card did not improve Delta Force‘s performance.  No 3D support became a burden.

That was the end of NovaLogic’s dominance.  They did okay with Joint Operations, which continued their traditions of lots of players on big battlegrounds, but other franchises did better.  MODs on Battlefield 1942 made it more exciting.  And other titles stepped in, so that every year we hear about another Call of Duty when it comes to shooters, but nobody mentions NovaLogic.

Years passed.

Then there was the EverQuest Next reveal this past weekend, and the word “voxel” and a flood of memories.  Included in that was “voxels = bad,” which was entirely built on my distant memories of the Delta Force franchise aging badly.  Voxels are good, or good if you want to create landscapes that are not made up of polygons.  It was NovaLogic’s engine that did not stand the test of time.  Or such is my memory.  As usual, the freshness, accuracy, and reliability of all memories older than 30 seconds on this blog are not guaranteed.

So I decided to see if NovaLogic was even around still.  First I looked at Steam.  There I found that not only did NovaLogic appear to still exist, but all of the Delta Force games were apparently up for sale on Steam.  Delta Force alone was listed for $19.99, which was too much for me to spend on nostalgia, but it made me go check out NovaLogic’s site.  There I found I could get Delta Force for just $4.99.

That was a nostalgia compatible price, so I bought a copy, downloaded it, installed it, and much to my surprise, it actually ran.

Of course, I was immediately reminded of how far we have come.  The game wanted to play at 640×480, which on my 1600×1200 monitor ends up being very blocky in full screen or a very small in windowed mode.

Shooting a distant tower guard

Shooting a distant tower guard

And there were even tinier settings.

Delta Force Settings

Delta Force Minimal Settings

I recall there being a school of thought for the game that had you play at the minimum setting with the minimum color because your responsiveness was greatly improved.  You ended up just shooting at what amounted to single pixels when sniping, but it worked for some.

So I loaded up the game and played a bit.  And it played quite well.  I had to go fix the controls.  I have raged in the past about EverQuest at launch having not grasped the WASD movement standard, something the went back as least as far as Lode Runner.  But here was Delta Force thinking I would use the arrow keys for movement.  I had to swap that over to WASD first thing.  But after that it was fun.

I ran some missions, which were harder than I recalled.  The AI did well enough to make me keep my head down.  I have memories of completely broken AI, but I think that came in with later installments of the series.

Then I downloaded and installed the latest patch for Delta Force, which promptly broke the game so that it would no longer let me play single player.  And the likelihood of playing multiplayer seemed faint at best.  As much as I would like another such opportunity, I don’t think there are any more internet hosted games out there.

So I uninstalled the game, cleared out the folder, and then installed it again and was off and shooting.

The default weapon is fun, the M4 with a scope.  But the real good times come with the big sniper rifle, the Barrett Light .50.

The game itself holds up pretty well after all these years.  Graphics, not so much.  What was described as sacrificing “looks for game play” makes the screen hard to look at some times.  And playing sniper at long ranges, even with the video cranked up to 800×600, you still end up shooting at stacks of pixels.  But it gave me an evening of fun and I might go finish out the campaign just for kicks.

And I found that, while the individual game price on Steam is pretty outrageous, they do have a bundle that seems reasonable if I feel like a full round of nostalgia.

Prices calculated in 1950s dollars

Prices calculated in 1950s dollars

Save $260 on that bundle!  Such a deal!

If you are interested in pictures of the game in action, there are more after the cut.

Unless you have a tiny monitor, they will all show as full size in the gallery viewer.

Included are some of the game screens and me using a few of the different weapons.  You will see the scope mode over and over, which is interesting in this day and age.  They tried to combine the scope view while keeping your wider vision available.  The “two eyes open” scope method.  It can be confusing at time to have two aim points.

Also, in a few of the pictures, you can see the tracers.  Red tracers are the bad guys, blue tracers are friendly.  Though they all hit just the same.  In open multiplayer a lot of people favored games with tracers turned off, as they were very obvious pointers right at your position as soon as you opened fire.

And the terrain itself.  It looks blocky.  In fact, it looks like I am playing on oatmeal world when full screen on my monitor.  But it works as advertised, being huge with lots of varied features in and around which to hide and shoot.  We shall see how EQN fares with its voxel based engine.

(more…)

Brave New World Brings Back Old Civilization Features July 10, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games.
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4 comments

Yesterday saw the launch of the Brave New World expansion to Civilization V.

CivVBNW

I had it pre-ordered on Steam and downloaded the update as soon as I got home last night.  MMO gaming was out the window as I tried out the new expansion.

There was the usual spate of items included in the expansion.  New civilizations are included, though I cannot see that as a big thrill unless you are looking for some more “Win a game as…” achievements or want to see what the city names are.  Some new scenarios were added on, though I must admit I rarely play those, preferring the traditional long game.  And, of course, there were some new wonders thrown in.

As always, you must remember I look at this through the lens of Civilization II, which remains one of my favorite games ever.  So I used to create new civilizations by editing the game data, which was stored in a text file.  Notepad is ever the most basic tool in software development.  Achievements were barely a thing, and only if you count the high score list.  Wonders were much less numerous, and many of those that were there had a much bigger impact on the game.  And…well… I still preferred the long game back then as opposed to scenarios.

But it is that bias towards Civ II that made this expansion a must have for me, as the Firaxis team brought back two aspects of early versions of the game and integrated them into Civ V; ideology and trade routes.  Eager to see those in action, I started a standard game on a big map.  I played as Morocco, which I only noted was one of the new civilizations a ways into the game, showing how much I pay attention to those sorts of things.

Ideology used to be an incredibly important aspect of the game in the Civ II days.  Of course, it used to be a bit of an exploit as well.  If you could research democracy early in the game and build the Statue of Liberty wonder, which was a mid-game wonder that gave you access to all of the various government ideologies, and then swapped to communism, you gained a pretty steep advantage.  And it also eliminate the period of anarchy when changing ideologies.

In Civ V, ideology is now an aspect of the game, but it is limited to the modern age or after you build factories in a certain percentage of your cities.  So you can not longer have a pre-industrial dictatorship of the proletariat.   Unfortunately I did not make it to the modern age in my first game out with the expansion.  Instead I got involved with a bloody little three-way war with the Celts and Portugal, who both came at me at once, with the Greeks weighing in now and again, in one corner of the map that left us all poking each other with spears and lances well into the 19th century.  Of course, that was plenty of fun, despite not being a winning game, but I wasn’t building many universities in the middle of the war.  So that aspect is left to be explored.

And then there was trade routes.  I like what they did with this.  In Civ II trade routes were pretty simple.  You built a trade caravan unit that represented one of the items your city had to offer and, ideally, sent it off to a city that wanted that item and which, in turn, offered up something your city desired.  When the caravan arrived, the trade route was established, and that was that pretty much.  And even if neither city had the right items, some sort of trade would be established and would still be better than no trade at all.

In Brave New World, trade routes are also established by building a caravan or, for sea trade, a trading ship.  Once built, you are given a pretty detailed list of the places with which you can trade and the benefits they will give.  You select one and off your caravan goes.  But once it arrives, the unit then returns and then goes back again, and so on, actually representing the trade route in game.  And the unit is vulnerable to attack.  If it is destroyed, the trade route is broken.  So you have to actually protect your trade routes.

In my dirty little war with Portugal and the Celts, I had cavalry in their back field expressly going after their caravans as well as triremes afloat to intercept their trade on the high seas.  And during a period of peace when I was trying to annex a captured city and was facing a lot of unrest due to unhappy citizens, the uprisings managed to destroy almost all of my own trade routes, putting me in the red on both happiness and finances.

Fun stuff.

There are also some enhancements to the cultural victory aspect of the game, including tourism and great works which, in the midst of a war, were largely left unexplored by me.  But it looks interesting.

One of the downsides of the expansion is that Firaxis did not seem to spend much time on performance enhancements this time around.  That was one of the things that the Gods & Kings expansion offered, a boots to performance.  So as the game progressed, I again found myself spending a lot of time waiting for the game.  Of course, it doesn’t help that I like big maps and the marathon pace, but I still contend that my system is beefy enough on the processing front that anything that bogs it down has to be pretty fearsome code-wise.

And the team did not appear to spend any time on some of the minor annoyances.  The game still seems to delight in showing me messages out of order order.  And it always seems to jump straight to the “Next Turn” button before allowing that, just maybe, I might still have some units that need orders.  I suspect that the code has been written to show “Next Turn” right away because it is prone to getting stuck elsewhere and that button at least sends things on their way.

All in all though, I am happy with the expansion so far.  It will no doubt keep me busy for some time and make it less likely that I will buy a bunch of games when the Steam Summer Sale finally shows up this year.  Rumor has it that the sale starts tomorrow.

Waiting for Civilization May 13, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games.
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6 comments

Last week my focus was a huge game of Civilization V.

Early in the week I started a few games on the largest map size (going with the Lakes option, so lots of land warfare) with a dozen competing civilizations and the usual complement of city states until I got a situation that looked good.  The first time out I was wedged in a corner between the Huns and the Mongols, which did not bode well.  The next time I was the Huns, but I managed to get into a war of annihilation with three other civs very early in the game, and while I managed to get to peace while still holding on to my capital, I was set back so badly that any rematch was going to go badly for me.

The third time out I drew the Germans which helped me build up my military quickly and avoid getting penned in early.  The Germans have a somewhat imbalanced attribute that allows them to recruit barbarians to their side a certain percentage of the time when they defeat a barbarian camp.

Loading... still loading...

Loading… still loading…

I actively went after barbarian camps, which allowed my city production to stay focused on buildings and wonders.  You don’t get the best units that way, but you get a lot of them.  My barbarian strategy actually ended up yielding too many units and some points, though I was able to gift them to city states in return for influence.  The Germans also pay less for land unit maintenance, so that helped with the budget.

I ended up playing all the way into Sunday evening in sessions of an hour or more.  In the end it was down to five civs, all of whom feared my military might and all but one of which, the Carthaginians, who were my game-long ally, I was chipping away at, declaring war, taking a city, getting another city as part of a peace settlement, and then turning to the next in line.

However, my enthusiasm for conquest was starting to wain, so I decided at around turn 1,100 to just go for the cultural victory and end it about 30 turns later.  I saved before I started, so I could go back and continue the military victory… or the political victory… or the religious victory.  All were still viable.  But I was tired of waiting.

I was tired of waiting because, in the last 500 or so turns, that was what I was doing most of the time; waiting.  I would make my moves, update production, tweak some improvements, then end my turn only to wait and wait while the computer handled each of the other civilizations, the city states, and finally the barbarians.  Then the game would come back to me.

It is a truism of the Civilization series that each version is launched at a time when they really need the next generation of CPUs to run them effectively.  I remember getting a new computer and seeing the time it took to play a game of Civ II drop dramatically.  I recall writing a note to Firaxis about the slow performance of Civ IV back when it launched, at a time when I had a pretty high end machine in terms of processing power.  Their response was quite snotty in my opinion and could be summed up as  “play smaller campaigns if performance matters to you, there is nothing wrong with our game.”

So I am left wondering when we will reach the point where average CPUs will be up to the task of speedy turns in Civ V and where the bottlenecks really lay.  The game appears to at least be multi-core aware.  Looking at Task Manager, at least four of the eight cores in my CPU look like they are in use, though none of them are capped out or even showing usage beyond 50%.  So the game doesn’t seem CPU bound.  RAM appears to be available, so it isn’t like the game is paging out constantly… or it shouldn’t be in any case.  And while there appears to be some issue with I/O… the game takes me four long minutes from launch before I can resume a game already in progress… and four minutes might not seem like much time, but try sitting in front of your screen waiting, clicking to skip through any video possible, and listening to the required speech about your civ and its leader, then it is the “watched pot” scenario… I cannot imagine that they are doing much of that for each turn.

So when will we be set on this front?

I hope that the next Civ V expansion, Brave New World, will include performance improvements like those that came with the Gods & Kings expansion…  yes, performance was even worse at launch… because CPUs not only are not getting faster in the ways they used to back in the day, but the CPU doesn’t seem to be the limiting factor at the moment.  A long campaign like last week’s, where the last third of the game was mostly me waiting on the computer, puts me off the game.

But it does make me want to dig out my Civ II disk, which is still lost somewhere in my office.  The game isn’t as sophisticated as Civ V, though there is some appeal to its sometimes crude simplicity.

A simpler time...

A simpler time…

But the game itself runs like a dream, the AI zips along, and most of any match is spent doing rather than waiting.  There are many reasons I always go back to that game, and speed is certainly one.  Yes, you can get mired into epic stalemates, but at least the turns move quickly.

Age of Empires II – HD Edition, That’s What I’m Talking About April 10, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games.
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7 comments

The Age of Empires II – HD Edition went live on Steam yesterday, and is a perfect example of what I meant when I wrote about games I would like to see revamped.

AoK450

It offers up what I would call “quality of life” improvements such as:

  • Re-mastered for high resolution displays 1080p+.
  • Enhanced visual engine with improved terrain textures, water, fire and ambient lighting effects.
  • New Steamworks features: Achievements, Leaderboards, Matchmaking and Cloud support.
  • Share user created content with Steam Workshop support.

without changing the core game play.  I have been anxious to try it out since it was announced last month.  And given its position on the Steam Top Sellers list, I am not alone.

Top of the Chart

Top of the Chart

Granted, it is modestly prices compared to a lot of that list… just $20… and this is a mid-week reading, but that still shows there is some support for the game.  And it has actually been on that list for more than a week now, with people grabbing the pre-order version which offered a $2 discount.

So last night I was able to download the game and take it out for a run.  And it was good.

Smiting my foes

Smiting my foes

The graphic updates are small but effective.  It looked good full screen on my 1600×1200 20″  monitor.  And one of the first things I saw in the Steamworks mod library were replacement icons for the resources, to change them back to the old ones people are probably used to at this point.  I must admit, I looked at those and kept thinking, “Is that gold?”

All is not perfect in the world though.

The launcher does not draw correctly on my system.

Funky Launcher - Their Term

Funky Launcher – Their Term

There is actually a link at the bottom of the of the launcher that says, “My launcher looks funky?” which actually shouldn’t be a question because my launcher clearly looks funky. (Might I suggest “Does your launcher look funky?”)

Clicking on that link brings up a page… explicitly in Internet Explorer because Microsoft is involved with this.. that say that if you have your desktop text size set to anything besides 100%, the launcher gets screwed up.  I have mine set to 110% because I need the text just a little bit bigger on my monitor to be able to read things comfortably without getting out the reading glasses.  And, frankly, I am not going to change that… it requires a reboot if I recall right… just for a game.

Fortunately, it is just the launcher than has this issue, and I only see that for a brief time.  But this is not the first time the desktop DPI setting has caused problems with a game.  I got into the End of Nations beta at one point and the game threw an error and would not launch if your setting was anything but 100%.   That made it “end of beta” for me.  Damn young engineers and their good eyesight.

Also on the iffy list are achievements.  They do not appear to be hooked up correctly.  I played through a couple of quick games last night which, if I read the achievements right, should have netted me a couple.  But none were awarded.  Plenty of time for that later I suppose.

The game also seemed to be confused as to whether it should use the name I entered in the game, Wilhelm IV, or my Steam user name, Wilhelm Arcturus, when playing the game.  It seemed to use one or the other at various points.  I might not have noticed this except for the fact that the in-game name field won’t accept a name as long as Wilhelm Arcturus.

And, not really going out on a limb here, I am going to guess that unless you already have an account, that this being a Steam only game is probably an issue for some.

Still, for me, none of those got in the way of playing the game.  Now I have to get Potshot to get a copy.

I do wonder what the impact of this game will be.  For example, there was a group that created an unofficial expansion for the game back in December.  Will they forge ahead separately or will they embrace Steam and move what they can into the Steam Workshop?

And what about Game Ranger, the service that basically picked up the slack for Microsoft on the internet game play aspect of things.  Age of Empires II and its variations look to be the most popular game played on their service.  Will this hurt them?

And what will success on this front mean in the gaming industry?  The current fad is to remake old games in a new image, something that has not been wholly satisfactory.  The people who played the original often balk at changes.  Would we better served with efforts like this that leave the core game play alone and merely polish things up so that the game plays and looks good on current systems?

And do game developers even want to do that sort of thing?

I recall being in college back in the 80s, back when the Japanese were going to take over our tech industry.  They had conquered manufacturing and were producing software engineers at such a rate that they would clearly destroy the US software industry next.  A professor, who wast gamely trying to teach us Pascal, stated that this would never happen.

His evidence was a then recent survey of computer science grads and what sort of projects they hoped to work on in their career.  The survey showed that a vast majority of the Japanese respondents wanted to go on to established projects and help maintain and improve them over time.  The US respondents went completely the other way and mostly wanted to work on new projects.  That desire to strike out into uncharted territory, he said, was they key to ongoing success.

Now, I do not know if that actually played into things, but the Japanese clearly did not take over US software development regardless of how many Japanese cars there are in Silicon Valley.  However, that survey remained in the back of my mind for all of these years because the desire to work on something new and interesting seems to be quite a common thread where ever I ended up.

And reworking old games to bring them up to current standards doesn’t seem to fall into that category.

Does that have any influence on how often these sorts of revamps get done?

What do you think?

Was Anything Learned from SimCity? Should Anything Be Learned from SimCity? March 27, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games.
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17 comments

…and remains one of the top 10 highest Metacritic-rated MMOs.

Mark Jacobs, in reference to Warhammer Online

I could list any number of reasons why I did not buy the latest SimCity.  I could go on about EA itself, or the Origin store, or the price, or always online issues, or the estimated lifetime of server support.

SimCity in 2013

SimCity in 2013

But in reality, when the game was announced, I realized that I have never quite gotten around to purchasing its predecessor, SimCity 4.  Despite having spent many hours with the first three versions of the game, I think it was clear that I was no longer as big a fan of the idea as I once was.  So I was probably not going to buy the new version in any case.

However, a lot of people did buy it.  It is (or was, or might be again) a huge and popular franchise.  And the pre-release reviews were overwhelmingly positive.  This was a game to have.

For example, there is the review over at Polygon.

I am going use their review, because they are pretty up front with how things played out.

Great Game – Score 9.5

Their initial, day before launch review, based on pre-release play time review gave SimCity a 9.5 out of 10.  The review praises the game mightily.  Addiction is mentioned in the opening sentence.  And the only real caveat about online play was a side bar that had to do more with the reviewers home router configuration than the game.  There was a caution that you needed to have a reliable connection to the internet to play the game.

Good Game – Score 8.0

Then came launch day.  Polygon, to its credit has a review policy that allows them to update review scores.  The old score remains, but an update gets added with a new score if something changes.  And the change was that a lot of people who bought the game couldn’t log on to play, even those with reliable connections to the internet.  And since there is no offline play option, lots of people were unhappy.

Due to these first day problems, Polygon changed their review to 8.0 out of 10.  The issues were likely temporary, but they felt that they could not keep the 9.5 score.

Bad Game – Score 4.0

Two days later, things had gone from bad to worse.  EA was behaving like a real city government and turning off what it deemed as non-essential services.  Leaderboards and cheetah mode were gone.  Yet there was no change to how the game was behaving.  So Polygon again updated their review.  SimCity was now rated as 4.0 out of 10, which I am pretty sure we all recognize as a “do not buy” recommendation.

Which, of course, was too late.  Part of the problem was that too many people had already purchased the game… well, too many people relative to the EA server infrastructure at least.

And there the review stands nearly two weeks later.

Meanwhile, EA began to consistently and repeatedly piss people off.  It told players they could ask for refunds, failing to mention that their policy is not to issue refunds for products purchased via digital distribution.  No refunds for Origin customers.  EA danced around issues like how long server support for the game was likely to be around and whether always online was just a DRM ploy.  And they outright lied about why online only was a requirement and that significant engineering would be required to allow the game to be played offline. (Even mainstream media is on their case about this.)

Meanwhile, the more hardcore fans were discovering that the simulation itself was not all it seemed on the surface.  Sims seem somewhat dim, and the depth of the game doesn’t seem to be up to past standards, not to mention the simple things, like saving a city then unleashing disaster to see what happens, while still being able to restore and return to your city, are no longer an option with the online model.

And amidst this, EA’s Maxis Label General Manager Lucy Bradshaw came out to tell us that in many ways they had built an MMO.  I guess if you consider an asynchronous experience like FarmVille an MMO, then SimCity fits the bill as well.  Or if you just want to count bad day one experiences as part of the MMO experience, it certainly fit in that regard.

So it was a disaster.  The Metacritic score sits at 65%, and is only that high because they only take the first review score and not revisions.  So Polygon, as an example, still shows as a 95% score on the list.  But enough sites waited that at least it won’t be the same situation as I quoted at the top of this post.

Amazon, where the game has a 1 star review average, stopped selling the game and has not resumed as of this time.  EA issued a directive to its sales and marketing channel to stop promoting the game.  EA ended up offering people who purchased SimCity a free game from their back catalog… which really costs them very little… but it was something.  The best bit or irony in that though was SimCity 4 appearing on the list.  There is your offline experience.

Well, there was one part that wasn’t a disaster.  The money part of the equation for went well for EA.  More than a million people sunk $60 (or more) into the game to play it.  So, financially, EA probably did pretty well.  And since all they need to do is sell the box to make their first big financial gain, there seems little incentive for EA to spend much right away on fixing issues.  As Lucy said:

We’re hoping you won’t stay mad and that we’ll be friends again when SimCity is running at 100 percent.

Whenever that is.  Because at that point I am sure EA will have some DLC to sell you.  Like the definition of MMO, I am not sure that Lucy is using the same definition for the word “friend” that I do.

Of course, I am not Lucy’s friend in the first place, since I did not buy her game.

All of which leads me back to the headline.  Was anything learned?

Does anybody think that the launch of the next big single player, always online game will be anything less of a disaster?

Will anybody think twice before purchasing that game if it is the next title in a big franchise?

Will reviewers hold off on their reviews for such games until any first day issues are apparent?  Or should such issues even be considered?  And should reviews change as they did at Polygon?

What should we take away from this event?

What will people take away?

What, if anything, should change?

Addendum: Another input. You can log in and play now, but is it worthwhile?

Age of Empires II – HD Edition March 8, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Other PC Games.
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3 comments

Keen tipped me to an announcement today that Hidden Path Entertainment is working on an updated version of Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.  It is called Age of Kings II: HD Edition.

AoK450

The game will include both the original content as well as The Conquerors expansions and will add the following features:

  • Re-mastered for high resolution displays 1080p+.
  • Enhanced visual engine with improved terrain textures, water, fire and ambient lighting effects.
  • New Steamworks features: Achievements, Leaderboards, Matchmaking and Cloud support.
  • Share user created content with Steam Workshop support.

All of which is curious timing because just last week I posted about Age of Kings getting an unofficial expansion.  It will be interesting to see if the team at Forgotten Empires will be able to (or even want to) include some of the changes they have done to the game via the Steamworks user content option.

This is such big news that Microsoft even has a page up about it.  Maybe this means that they will update their ancient Age of Kings page.  It still has ads from 2001 running on it.

Anyway, I have no doubt that Hidden Path, who made one of my favorite tower defense games, will do a good job bringing this classic into the 21st century.   But we will find out in about a month, as it is slated to ship on Steam (and only Steam I gather) on April 9, 2013.