Category Archives: Other PC Games

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.

Trying to Remember Starsiege: Tribes

The launch of Overwatch got me thinking about first person shooters that I have enjoyed over the years, a list that is pretty short relative the number of titles in the genre.  In fact, I can only really come up with four titles that I was ever really into in any significant way.

At the far end of the list is Marathon, the classic from Bungie, now more than 20 years old, which we used to play on the network at the office after hours… back when companies let you play video games after hours and issued employees machines capable of running them.

Maybe I just work for the wrong company these days.

At the near end is the Desert Combat, which isn’t even a game, just a mod for Battlefield 1942, which is more than a decade away in time.  Yet it was a hell of a mod.  Just listening to the music from the opening credits brings back memories.  That is not the last FPS I played, but the last one I really enjoyed.

And then there were two just about in the middle of that range.  One was Nova Logic’s Delta Force, which I have written about already.

And the other was Starsiege: Tribes.

Tribes

Tribes

The problem is that Tribes came out during a time when I was playing a lot of memorable games.  Diablo and Civilization II were still hot properties, while their successors were being actively discussed.  I loved me some Total Annihilation back then.  We were playing StarCraft and Age of Empires at the office a lot.  Sojourn MUD had become TorilMUD and was about at its peak.  The aforementioned Delta Force was on the scene and we were trying to play that using Roger Wilco, and early gaming voice coms package.  And, of course, EverQuest was looming, soon to launch and steal away all my play time for a year or two.

And in the midst of all of this, I played Tribes.

I cannot recall considering buying it or having somebody suggest it to me.  Some part of me thinks I must have read about it over at Firing Squad, the gaming site of Dennis Fong, who later went on the create XFire and then Raptr, but only because I used to read the site regularly.  I could have heard about it on GameSpot for all I know.

I cannot even remember if I actually bought the game.  I don’t have the box any more, but I have tossed most of my game boxes over the years.  I have an old Memorex CD-R with “Starsiege Tribes” written on it in Sharpie, so I suppose I could have pirated it.  But that would have been unlike me at the time as I had a good job and the mortgage on my soon-to-be wife’s condo was what one would call laughably cheap these days, so I wasn’t skimping on expenses.  That would come later when my wife stopped working and we bought a house in a good school district.

Besides which, I used to make backup copies of most of my game CDs back then.  I still have copies for StarCraft and Diablo II along with the original disks still in the jewel cases.

And I can barely remember the game itself.  On the list of things I don’t have left from the game is any screen shots.  Looking at the Wikipedia linked article above yielded several, “Oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.

At one point I was convinced that Tribes was the reason that I bought that Voodoo2 3D graphics acceleration card for my computer.  I had the card when I bought EverQuest at Fry’s back on March 16, 1999 (that disk I still have, along with the receipt) so something prompted me to buy it.

But then I found the specs online and saw that it didn’t actually require that.  Plus the name “3dfx” sparked a memory about Blizzard’s early announcements about Diablo II saying that to get the full graphical experience, players would need a card that supported 3dfx’s Glide API.  I am pretty sure that is the reason I got the Voodoo2 card, though by the time Diablo II came out 3dfx had ceased to be the dominate player in the 3D accelerated video card market and Blizz was obliged to support a more universal API. (Open GL if I recall right.)  That is all pretty fuzzy though, and I could have bought the card to speed up Delta Force, only to find out that its voxel based engine could not/would not take advantage of 3D acceleration.  Maybe.  Or maybe that was something that annoyed me later, when Delta Force 2 came out.  Getting old and the persistent march of time sucks.

So what the hell do I remember then?

I remember the rattle of the Gatling gun as it spun up when you tapped the trigger.

I remember the 3D terrain with low res texture mapping, though that memory starts to bleed in with EverQuest memories a bit.  Am I imagining Tribes or West Karana in my mind?

I remember shooting the disk launcher into the fog where I had just seen somebody disappear, hoping for a lucky hit.

I remember the idea of “skiing” as a scout, using your jet pack to essentially glide at very high speed if done right.

I remember that map with the bridge overhead between the two bases, the distance being shrouded in mist.  Though, if I concentrate, I can’t really tell you if that was Tribes or Tribes 2, which I remember even less of, aside from the vague sense that I owned and played that as well.

Mostly though I just have this feeling that it was a really good game for its time.  But then EverQuest came out and eclipsed it.  Was it as good as I remember it, as good for the time?

I suppose I could grab the game and find out.  Hi-Rez Studio made it and its companion games available for free on their Tribes Universe site.

However, I suspect that doing so would burst the bubble.  It is difficult to bring your 2016 sensibilities back in time to look at an older game.