Category Archives: Other PC Games

Steam Winter Sale 2016 Results

Another Steam Winter Sale has come and gone.  I think it was “Winter” this year, and not “Holiday,” as it has occasionally been in past years.  I didn’t take a screen shot of the banner.  Whatever, you know what I mean.

The usual array of things happened.  There was opening day pricing comedy.  There was an event in which to participate, in this case the first ever Steam awards.  There were cards to earn by voting and by reviewing queues and badges to craft when you collected enough cards.  And, of course, stuff was on sale, with price marked down anywhere from a milquetoast 10% (looking at you Civilization VI) to a riveting 75% and beyond.

I will take those topics in order.

Pricing comedy this year, as every year, happened just as the sale launched.  This year’s twist was things appearing in the wrong pricing category as opposed to the usual absurdly low or even negative pricing that has happened in past sales.  That was all fixed pretty quickly, but not quickly enough to keep me from getting a couple of amusing screen shots back when the sale launched.

The event, The Steam Awards, was an attempt at…something.  The categories were presented before the sale and people were asked to nominate titles for them.  Then the top nominees were presented, one a day… except for the last day of voting when we got three… for people to vote on.  For each vote you got an event card.

The problem with the whole thing is that, in allowing community nominations and voting, I am not sure they can replay this as an event again next year… unless they radically change the categories.  Fans of certain games will persist in being fans and will nominate and vote for the same thing every year if you let them.  Anyway, the winners were:

  • Villain Most in Need of a Hug – Portal 2
  • I Thought This Game Was Cool Before It Won an Award – Euro Truck Simulator 2
  • Test of Time –  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • Just 5 More Minutes – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
  • Whoooaaaaaaa, dude! – Grand Theft Auto V
  • Game Within a Game – Grand Theft Auto V
  • I’m Not Crying, There’s Something in My Eye – The Walking Dead
  • Best Use of a Farm Animal – Goat Simulator
  • Boom Boom – Doom
  • Love/Hate Relationship – Dark Souls III
  • Sit Back and Relax – Euro Truck Simulator 2
  • Better With Friends – Left 4 Dead 2

You can see descriptions of the categories and the other titles nominated at the official Steam award page.  As you can see, there are some dupes in winners and some titles a that are a bit long in the tooth.  You expect that for the Test of Time category, but maybe not for so many picks.  I would have to say that the most fitting winner is probably Goat Simulator, while the biggest travesty is that a Civilization title didn’t win the Just 5 More Minutes category.  But then, I don’t play CS:GO.

On the card front, I collect many cards, voting and running my two queues every day.  I actually managed to craft one badge but that was it.  Going through the queues I did add a couple of more titles to my wish list, so op success for Steam on that, though I am note sure they needed to send me an email about every single item on my wish list that was on sale.

Then, finally, there were games on sale… and unlike the last couple of events, I did actually buy a few items this time around.  Here is what I picked up:

Dirt3 Complete Edition  – $2.99

dirt3completeedition

Probably the best value of the sale for me.  An older title, it looks good and plays well on my system.  While it clearly believes you should have a game pad to play, I managed to make to with the keyboard controls.  In casual mode you can do the tour and steer while the game limits your speed to what will keep you on the track, so you can pretend you’re instantly good at the game… just don’t turn off some of those helpers or you’ll find out how bad you really are.

You get to drive lots of different cars, including retro models (70s, 80s, and 90s) like my old friend the Lancia Delta.  I like the rally courses a lot.  Not too keen on the gymkhana drifting and tricks aspect that are a mandatory part of the tour mode.

It also has a decent replay mode that lets you watch your race again from various angles and will allow you to upload the video to YouTube directly should you so desire.  I have yet to so desire.

Atari Vault – $7.99

atarivault

And impulse buy.  I actually have an old copy of the Atari classics that probably dates from 2000 or so that still sort-of works when I have a burning desire to play Adventure or remind myself just how bad some of the Atari 2600 games really were.  But I figured I wouldn’t be amiss getting an updated version.

Train Valley – $3.39

trainvalley

Purchased on something of a whim, this did not turn out to be quite what I expected.  There was a promise of sandbox play and I had dreams of large rail empires… I mean, look at all that track I have laid in Minecraft.  But the game itself seems limited to one screen of area on which you are allowed to play, so your layouts cannot get too sprawling.  Meanwhile, the sandbox mode is more in the vein of a developers sandbox in which to experiment as opposed to what you might think of as a sandbox in the MMO world.

Simple track layout

Simple track layout

Still, it is a fun little game in its own right and I spent a few hours playing it so far… and as I made it through various challenges I did manage to get more than my fair share of head-on rail collisions.

Prison Architect – $7.49

prisonarch

I did not buy this for myself but for my daughter who, upon learning of the Steam sale, put a few titles up on her wish list and then came over and mentioned this to me.  So I bought her this, and she actually played the hell out of it over the holiday break from school.  It looks pretty good and is one of those systemic process models where feeback loops (positive or negative) quickly make themselves apparent.  So I watched over her shoulder as she built cells, suppressed riots, and tried to figure out why the inmates inexplicably refused to the dining hall.  This has been on my wishlist and I might pick it up for myself the next time it goes on sale.

Stardew Valley – $9.99

stardewvalley

Another one for my daughter, whose wish list is limited by the fact that she has an iMac.  I was actually a bit surprised to find this title was available for MacOS.  I’ve heard lots of good things about it and it made the Steam Top 100 for 2016, a list based on sales revenue, which isn’t bad for a game with a $15 base price.  My daughter started playing it and got into it right away, though she was still feeling the draw of Prison Architect, so went back to that.  But she enthused enough about it that I bought a copy for myself before the end of the sale.  I have yet to launch it, but it is now in my library.

So that was it for the Steam sale.  I was going to buy Doom, which was 75% off, then totally forgot to on the last day and found it full price when I looked back to do it.  Probably for the best.

I did actually buy a few things this time around, but didn’t splurge.  I tried to keep it to just a few items so that I would play them rather than simply collect them.

Starting Stellaris

A bunch of people are talking about Civilization VI, which launched this past Friday.  The reviews seem to be very good and the usual gamut of launch day issues do not seem to have hit this release.  It is almost like Sid Meier’s team learned something along the way with all these Civ and Civ-like releases.  Maybe leaving the Mac OS version for later helped.

Anyway, with so much talk about Civilization VI I took it as a sign that I should… go buy Stellaris.

See, it says Stellaris right there

See, it says Stellaris right there

It was on sale… half the price of Civilization VI… and had been on my Steam wishlist since before it launched.  Still, I was a bit hesitant to buy it.  The problem is that it comes from Paradox Development.

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with Paradox Development or that they are bad people like the senior management of EA or anything.  They are, in fact, my favorite development studio when it comes to creating games that make me feel like a drooling simpleton.  I must own almost half their catalog of games, purchased over the years, and yet my combined total play time for all of those titles is still probably less than my play time with Civilization V.  Fortunately I think I have purchased most of them as part of Steam sales at this point, but still.

Paradox games are deep… as in fall in, founder, and quickly drown levels of deep.  There are always lots of moving parts that influence each other that you have to keep track of so that the initial experience for all of their games seems to be getting totally lost in a morass of details thrown at you in rapid succession that quickly leads to overload, exiting the game, and rarely, if ever, returning to it.

And while I hate to point fingers at the tutorials, because tutorials for complex systems difficult to do at the best of times, they do often come off in the same way that a lot of technical documentation can.  Which is to say, it was created by somebody who already knew how to do what they were trying to tell you to do, so the effort tends to have gaps because some level of knowledge is assumed.  Things like navigating the UI, or even where a UI element is or how one is supposed to interact with it can go missing.  And even when that is there in sufficient detail, tutorials can often devolve into lessons in “what” and not “how.”

As an example, I work on a development environment for creating speech applications.  The documentation for the IDE is hundreds of pages long and goes into detail on every aspect of the product.  If you memorized it completely, you would know the function of every menu item, check box, tag, and attribute, but you still wouldn’t know how to build a speech app.  Nobody wants to put more documentation on the schedule, so when a dev wants to know how to do something we write it up… or build a sample app… and save that away in case the question comes up again.

I have had problems with both of those things with Paradox games, learning all the details (information overload) and fitting all that information into a bigger picture (why do I want to do that and what does it really affect?)

And I ran right into that again with Stellaris.  The game runs on the Clauswitz Engine, which underpinned Europa Universalis III and all their games since, so Stellaris has a similar vibe to it.  And, like other titles on the engine, it is not turned based but runs… I hate to say “real time,” but things move forward continuously unless the game is paused.

The Stellaris tutorial reminds me very much of our documentation, in that it is very active in telling you what things are, but doesn’t do very much to build the bigger picture, and in a game of galactic empires, the big picture and how things fit into it is literally everything.  Meanwhile, stuff it happening… unless you pause, at which point nothing is happening.

After a couple of unsatisfying runs I decided to turn off the trivia tutorial, which at times was less helpful than Clippy, who at least wanted to help me accomplish tasks, and just try to learn bits and pieces of the game.  The tutorial voice said I would be sorry as I hit “NO TUTORIAL,” but it was wrong.

Off you go!

Off you go!

Here I put out my plea for the makers of complex strategy games to include a push-over AI mode/setting.

Last Friday’s post about Civilization VI included a list of my favorite games from the series, with Civilization II at it usual top place on the list.  One of the reasons it is there, that I played so many hours of it, that I could play it at its hardest setting, was because I was able to learn the mechanics of the game at the easiest setting in a real game where the AI wouldn’t trouble me so much.  Investing time experimenting with cities at chieftain level let me win at deity level.

Getting there one step at a time

Getting there one step at a time

Stellaris, like many strategy games, eschews the idea of easy.  Their difficulty settings are “Normal,” “Difficult,” and “Insane.”  If you wanted easy you wouldn’t buy games from Paradox I guess.  Still, I managed to tinker with some of the other settings to take a bit of pressure off so I could play to learn.

Somewhere on Saturday afternoon things started to click a little more.  I played a couple of games where I focused mostly on learning space related things along with resources and at least trying to speed up tech research.  Of course, that focus ignore planetary economies, which eventually hamstrung me on each game, but I got one aspect settled.  Sunday I played with tech, and over the week I started tinkering with planetary populations.  With each step I folded in a little more knowledge.

And so I reached the point where I actually felt like I was playing the game rather than struggling with it. (Something that might have gone a bit more quickly if I had found their wiki with its Beginner’s Guide earlier.)  And, now there, I am beginning to appreciate how good the game is.  I expect I will spend quite a bit more time playing it.

Of course, one of the things I like about it is the ability to create your own factions.  While I am not a huge fan of mods, I do like the ability to personalize things.  So, of course, I created a familiar faction.

Vying with a neighbor on the galactic map

Vying with a neighbor on the galactic map

In something that hearkens back to the old days of Civ II, the naming schemes for civilizations are all in text files.  In Civ II I got tired of my sprawling empires running out of names, so I found the text file where they were stored and added more.  Then I started making up my own empires.  It looks like I will be able to do the same with Stellaris.  Or maybe I will grab some of the fine mods available in the Steam Workshop.

Can I mix the Lovecraft with the cats mod?

Can I mix the Lovecraft with the cats mod?

All of which doesn’t mean I am not going to buy Civilization VI.  I just have Stellaris to keep me occupied until the time is ripe.  And since I have gotten past the initial steep learning curve and am enjoying the game quite a bit now, that purchase might be pushed off further than I thought.  Space is fun.

The start of another space empire

The start of another space empire

TL;DR version: Deep. Not as hard to get into as some Paradox games, but still takes effort.  Space made it more approachable for me.  Looks cool, plays great.  Instead of “just one more turn” it is “just let me get that next tech” or “my fleet upgrade is almost done” or “my science ship needs to explore another anomaly” and suddenly you’re up way past your bed time.

[Also, while the Steam sale ended, it is still on sale for the moment at the Paradox store, and since you have to activate it on Steam, you end up in the same place.]

Civilization VI Launches

Today is the official launch day for Civilization VI, though I understand if you pre-ordered on Steam you got access last night, the next chapter in Sid Meier’s now quarter century long attempt to make the perfect 4X strategy game.

Come and get your 4X

Come and get your 4X

The whole thing began with the launch of Civilization back in September 1991.

I do not remember exactly when I bought my copy of the first Civilization… early 1992 I think… but since then I have purchased most of the series on the earliest possible date I could get my hands on a copy.

However, I do not have a copy of Civ VI in my hot little hands today.  I don’t know if it is aging or ennui, but I am not impatient to pick up a copy just yet.  Certainly, some of it is experience.  Civilization games tend to be a hot mess on day one.  Early versions usually needed the next generation of processors to show up in order to make them playable, while later releases you were probably not going to be able to play reliably until the first patch landed.  Back in October 2010, I was complaining about how Civilization V was crashing on my machine day one.

So I am not buying a copy today.

I will buy a copy at some point though.  I will just let things settle down a bit first, watch reactions to the game, maybe wait for that first patch.  And we all know it will be marked down a bit for the Steam Holiday Sale anyway.  I will probably get it then.  I certainly have to get it before the first expansion.  If it is anything live Civilization V, each expansion will change the game so much it will be like a new game.

Meanwhile, here is the usual stack rank of Civ titles ordered by how much time I spent with them, which is generally a sign of which ones I liked best.

  1. Civilization II
  2. Civilization V
  3. Civilization
  4. Alpha Centauri
  5. Civilization III
  6. Civilization IV
  7. Beyond Earth

I’d play some more Civ II except I lost the damn CD again.

I see there is already a look at Civ VI over at Nomadic Gamers.

Hero’s Song Returns to Crowdfund Again

You might remember Hero’s Song, the John Smedley/Pixelmage Games project in development, which launched a rather poorly thought out Kickstarter back in January of this year.  The flaws in the campaign were manifold, and by the time I wrote a list of them up the campaign had been cancelled.

Hero's must face turmoil, it is what makes them heroes, right?

Hero’s must face turmoil, it is what makes them heroes, right?

The team found other funding and carried on development of Hero’s Song, which is currently described as:

Hero’s Song is an open world rogue-like fantasy game done in a beautiful 2D pixel art style. Create epic fantasy worlds uniquely shaped by your choices, the power of the gods, and thousands of years of history. Become a legendary hero in a dangerous and mysterious world of magic and monsters. Explore endless dungeons and ancient cities in long forgotten lands in search of knowledge, treasure and the power of the gods!

Well, as the title of the post says, Pixelmage is back with a new crowdfunding effort.

This time around they the goals are more modest, the pledge tiers are better, the details are expansive, Smed isn’t using the word “hardcore” all over the place, and there is a somewhat more realistic timeline for the project.

Dates quoted for truth... again

Dates quoted for truth… again

I still think that schedule is optimistic, but more than 25 years in software development has made that my knee jerk reaction to any schedule I suppose.  Still, it is better than the last one (shown in this post), which had launch in October of this year… so I was right in calling it out on optimism that time at least.

Also different this time around is the platform they chose to run their campaign.  Rather than going with the perennial favorite, Kickstarter, PixelMage chose to go with Indiegogo.

The choice of Indiegogo gives them at least one advantage; there is no minimum threshold to allow them to collect some money.  Unlike with Kickstarter, where you have to make your goal to get paid, even if PixelMage does not make it $200,000 stated target, they get to keep any money pledged at the end of the campaign.

If you pledge it, they get it

If you pledge it, they get it

There are, however, some downsides.

First of all, while Indiegogo isn’t exactly unknown, it still isn’t Kickstarter.  Kickstarter is more famous and, I suspect, more trusted when it comes to giving them payment information.  I mean, Kickstarter has been around a while, to the point that the verb “to kickstart” has practically acquired a new meaning largely associated with them.

NOT the official drink of Kickstarter

Verb also used for motorcycles and energy drinks, which is pretty powerful

The second downside, for me at least, stems from one of the advantages, the fact that PixelMage gets the money pledged even if they do not make their stated goal.

I mean, that is GREAT… for PixelMage.  But how great is it for those pledging money?  If a company says they need a given amount to complete a project, and they only get, say, 25% of that amount, what does that mean to those who kicked in?

Now, in the case of PixelMage, I suspect that, at worst, it will mean some delay in the schedule.  I have no doubt they will deliver the game whether they make their goal or not.  But, in general, I guess I have become accustomed to the Kickstarter method where you only get your funding if you can raise the amount of money you said you needed for the project.  There is a certain logic to that.

Finally, as something an adjunct to the previous item, the lack of a hard “must meet” funding goal also takes a bit of the edge off of the campaign.  Not having an “all or nothing” goal mutes any sense of urgency.  Let’s look at where the campaign stands today, a couple of days in:

September 9, 2016 - Morning status

September 9, 2016 – Morning status

The campaign is 23% of the way to its goal… which seems to be okay.

I have to say that among its disadvantages, Indiegogo doesn’t have the range of external trend and activity tracking tools that Kickstarter does, and also seems to be a bit coy with things like the actual end date.

Anyway, Hero’s Song seems to have made my rule-of-thumb metric for campaigns, which is that if you haven’t hit 20% of your goal in the first 48 hours, you aren’t going to make it.  However, they are going to get that money whether or not they get to $200,000.  The goal is just a line in the sand, more of a “we’d like” rather than a do-or-die proposition.  You can’t really call for a last minute surge if they are short of their goal because they are still going to get something.  And even the stretch goals seem like you might get them anyway, so why throw money down now?

Races and housing

Races and housing

But that might just be me.  I am ever the cynic and/or critic.

Then again, Bree over at Massively OP put it this way in the comments of a post over there:

They get the money even if they don’t get to the soft target. They are plainly using Indiegogo as a preorder system and publicity stunt; there’s no way the “we need 200k more” thing is legit (plus they really want more than that for the hardcore housing feature).

And I think I am a cynic!  The again, there is the “Smed factor” I mentioned when the Kickstarter campaign was going.  He has a lot of history and not everybody likes him.

Anyway, the Indiegogo campaign is on and running for… a month… again, end date on that?  You can check it out here if you are interested, pledge if you want to pre-order and get a T-shirt (or limit Smed’s diet), or wait until it hits Steam about this time next year. (My needlessly pessimistic prediction there.)

Or you can go to the PixelMage site and read up about the project itself.

Honest Gamer Trailers – No Man’s Sky

I hadn’t been paying too much attention to No Man’s Sky.  However, a bunch of people seemed to be excited about it before it launched… and upset about it when it was delayed… and have jumped onto the bandwagon such that it is.  And while some people are happy, I have also heard a lot of griping about the title

And if that isn’t enough for you, in this past week’s Zero Punctuation Yahtzee takes on the game and comes up with a very similar list of flaws.  I mean sure, Yahtzee is hard on every game, it is part of his shtick (Honest Game Trailers as well), but he is also good about bringing up bits he does like about a game, and he didn’t get very far on that front.  Plus, both videos seem to echo a some thing I had already heard.  Comparisons with Spore and it promise versus what it delivered keep cropping up, which along with the who refund thing, has put a damper on the title for me.

Which is sort of a shame because it seems like a title I might be interested in.  I’ll put it on my Steam wish list and see if more has been added to the game by the time the next Steam sale shows up.

Addendum: MMO Fallout has a story about the refunds thing and a rant about honesty and promises in the game industry.

A Look Back at Half-Life 2

Every time I go read a bit of the web comic Concerned, I get the urge to go play Half-Life 2.

Actually, I really get the urge to go buy Garry’s Mod and try making my own web comic, but I usually suppress that urge pretty quickly, subverting it with the much more viable plan of simply playing Half-Life 2.  Down the web comic path lays madness.

I actually own the game, having purchased it at some Steam sale a few years back that included Half-Life 2, the two additional episodes, the original Half-Life, and a couple other items.

More unplayed Steam games

More unplayed Steam games

The thing is, I never quite get around to playing it.  I installed it at one point, so it has been sitting on my hard drive ready to go for a while.  But it has taken me a while to click “play” on the title.  In part, that is probably because of a bit of lingering resentment about the early days of the title.

That's me being beaten by the metro cop

That’s me being beaten by the metro cop

My resistance to accepting Steam for a long time was in large part based on personal experience, and Half-Life 2 is bound up in that.

But mostly I think it has been a matter of facing a game from 2004.  Not that I don’t play games from 2004 or earlier pretty regularly, but MMOs tend to get updated somewhat over time.  Stand alone, single player games tend to stay fixed in time.  And while I know Half-Life 2 has gotten some upgrades over time, I was still a bit dubious.

And then, last week, I hit a point where Blizz was still tinkering with invasion XP, no fleets were going out in EVE Online, and I had no project going on in Minecraft, so I started poking around in Steam for something to play.  And there was Half-Life 2 and I figured, “What the hell!”

In summary, it is still pretty damn good nearly a dozen years after being released.

While the game is extremely linear… there is no wandering off the path very far… it is still a game that encourages and rewards poking around in every nook and cranny available.  There is often a supply chest or some little note or marker there for the player to discover.

More watermelon for Lamarr

More watermelon for Lamarr

As my intent was more along the lines of a sightseeing mission, I started up a game in easy mode.  I didn’t feel the need to prove how bad I have gotten at shooters over the years, I just wanted to travel, solve the puzzles, drive the airboat, and… okay, shoot things.

Ready to roll out

Ready to roll out

The character models feel their age a bit, though if they are in a metro cop outfit you don’t spend a lot of time checking them out as you’re usually busy shooting them.

Easier to follow on CCTV

Easier to follow them on CCTV

The terrain and objects and occasional spectacle still seem pretty good.

The smoke stack drop

The smoke stack drop

The physics puzzles… well… they all seemed really cool back in the day.  Now they feel a little less thrilling as they tend to involve ramps or balances, which are at the simple end of the simple machines continuum.  Cinder blocks tend to be one of the bigger clues about what you need to do, though I still do like that one where you have to shove a washing machine off a ledge to get your ramp set.  The cinder blocks weren’t enough that time around.

I made it pretty far in a few hours.  Even set at “easy” the game doesn’t let you walk through unchallenged.  I left off at the gate in the wide open area with a chopper defending it that I do not seem to be able to shoot down with the now-armed airboat.

Choppers are a hazard

Choppers are a hazard

So I end up getting strafed or bombed to death… or I hit one of the exploding barrels floating in the water.  I don’t recall how I got past this one back in the day.

Anyway, I’ll have to see how much more of the game I feel like playing.  I am not even out of the canals yet, but I have gotten a good taste of the game.  It still seems to hold up pretty well after all these years… except the loading transitions… those still take longer than I think they should.