Yay Steam sales

I played through Hydrophobia Prophecy again, on normal difficulty, which chiefly affects… I have no idea what it affects.  Enemy danger, I suppose, but the terrorists can still be two-shotted with the sonic blast.  I still like this game, but once you’ve acquired the skill set its replayability goes way down.

I picked up Sam & Max season 3, The Devil’s Playhouse.  They’re often quite funny, they capture the particular Sam & Max surrealism well, and models are pretty expressive now.  They’re worth trying out just for the ingenious gameplay mechanisms, though.  The conceit of the season is that Max has psychic powers linked to toys– different ones each episode.  In ep 1, for instance, he can look at people or objects and foresee their future.  This effectively serves as a hint system, but it’s awfully clever.  Plus the opening tutorial, which is in medias res, is out of control insane.

The second episode focusses on Sam & Max’s great-grandpas; the main trick here is that there are four reels and Sam can switch between them.  In effect you play each reel till you run into a problem the duo can’t solve; the clues or tools to solve it come from watching the other reels.  So you are kind of advancing all four reels at once until they’re all correct… a really unusual and interesting mechanic.

The plus and minus of the episodic format is that you have so little inventory that you can almost stumble into solutions.  On the other hand, you can get stuck because the solutions are often completely bizarre.  (Ep 1 works better because of the predict-the-future mechanism.)

And for something completely different, I picked up Far Cry 2, where you play a hired killer in a war-torn African country.

The atmosphere is very Third World… lush country, nasty problems.  Your personal problems are generally solved by going and shooting people, though as in GTA IV you also spend a fair amount of time driving vehicles.

It’s an open world, meaning you can do missions all over the place.  My first mission was to go fix a car; this done, my new boss asked me to go shoot some people.  I guess I showed him where my talents lay, because I haven’t had to fix any more cars.

You can play one of about half a dozen mercenaries; whichever ones you don’t pick become your buddies, people who will occasionally save your hide, and more often offer an alternate route to completing a mission (apparently always a more complicated route, but it offers some perks). 

One minor pet peeve: the game is exquisitely rendered, and uses clever tricks to not break immersion (e.g. the in-game map is held in your hand), but then it breaks immersion anyway because you just can’t interact with too many things.  You can’t examine the newspapers or sit in the chairs or climb the trees or change your clothes.  I know, it’s a shooter.  But the more open-world a game is, the more I expect to be able to explore and just noodle around.  Bethesda gets this… if you want to collect a tin can from every ruin in the Wasteland you can.  If it’s going to be mostly shooting, well, the best way to make that reasonable in-game is to make it more linear.

I’m still in the middle of both games, so more on both later…

IRA wins, al-Qaeda loses?

Fascinating article by Gary Brecher arguing that the IRA had a near-perfect guerrilla strategy, while al-Qaeda is a bunch of losers.

The nub of the argument: according to Brecher, the IRA avoided attacks on civilians in Ireland and took the fight to England, mastering the skills of causing massive property damage with minimal civilian casualties.  This, he argues, was the most effective way to stay active and erode British support for the Protestants.  Al-Qaeda, by contrast, provoked enormous attacks on itself and thus jeopardized its existence as a movement.

And then read the comments, where various people rip Brecher a new one.  A few are loons, but there’s plenty of room to doubt whether the IRA was as smart, as non-violent, or as single-minded as Brecher has it, and above all whether it ‘won’ or not.   Certainly it didn’t achieve union with Ireland.  It made a place for its peaceful political side, but arguably it could have achieved the same end earlier without the violence, and the whole dispute looks slightly pointless anyway now that both countries are EU members.

Al-Qaeda looks like a success or failure depending on what you consider its “real goals” to be.  It’s certainly no closer to establishing a caliphate, but it certainly was able to recruit followers for a long time.   At the moment it looks blindsided by the Arab Spring, which gave the initiative back to the moderates; none of the long-term players, including al-Qaeda, saw that coming.

Where’s Act IV?

In my post on Hydrophobia: Prophecy, I almost said “I’m only on Act III.”  Only, um, there are only three acts.  I played through the whole thing in about eight hours. 

I gather Dark Energy is a small studio, and the smallness shows mainly in the level design.  Still, what’s there is pretty polished, and the fluid physics are very well done.  It’s normally $12 and is still on sale for $4– it’s worth it at either price.

Bad chick gets what's coming to her

Not that there aren’t missteps; the major one is that you get some awesome water control powers right at the end.  You literally have one puzzle and one corridor of baddies to test them out with, and then you’re at the final boss.  This is hiding your light under a bushel, Dark Energy. 

It could use more enemies, or more varied ones; they’re really only challenging when you can’t see where they are, or they’re swimming.  There’s also an intense fight in an open plaza that’s fun simply because there’s so many of them. 

One oddity: there’s a bit where you have to dive really deep, then swim through a tunnel, then go up a stairway… and for some reason the water level there is much lower.  Huh?

I mentioned the annoying lack of saves; it turns out you can replay an entire act.  But as each one is a couple hours long, that’s not much of a help.

The game basically tells you how to fight the final boss (SARA), but I had to watch someone’s video to really figure it out.  

  • The key bit is not to seek cover.  If you’re moving, the machine gun won’t hit you.  The big laser burst is the key.  Often you can dodge it; if not, no matter, just pick yourself up and proceed to the next step.
  • Right after the burst, it’ll sit there with its vents open.  One shot with the energy gun will stun it. 
  • Then, use your water powers to lift an explosive barrel, then throw it at the boss.  (The barrel need to be at the top of the tower of water, so don’t rush this.  You only need one hit.)
  • You’ll repeat this three times; in between some terrorists will be released.  Clear them out; for style points, get close enough to them that SARA fires at them.

The first time I tried the fight, I kept trying to stay in cover, and then the boss fires nasty mines at you, and rarely opens its vents.  This was quite frustrating.  It’s faster and easier to keep moving.

Also, the first time, I lost the explosive barrels… if I stunned the thing, I just wouldn’t have any nearby.  The solution is to use your movement: make sure you’re close to some barrels before stunning the boss.

The backstory is kind of dumb.  The terrorists are just Totally Evil, and my heart sank at all the cutscenes underlining this.  We get it, they’re bad.  There’s some idea that the ship is the only functioning bit of industrial capitalism remaining in an apocalyptic world, which doesn’t make any sense… where does it get its raw materials?  Does it really manufacture all that shiny metal and plastic and electronics on-board?  Also, sorry to get all realpolitik, but if industrial civilization has really collapsed, won’t the population crash without any help from terrorists?

Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, as the game is really about moving through the ship, solving puzzles and offing enemies.   I think it’s fun and I look forward to a sequel.

Hydrophobia: Prophecy

I picked up this game at the amazing price of $3, and so far I’m digging it.  You play Kate Wilson, an engineer on an immense ocean liner attacked by terrorists. 

You start in Kate’s apartment, which is really pretty… the game immediately urges you to leave it, but I wanted to stay there.  There’s not too much to do inside, though a nice touch is a working treadmill.

Kate apparently only owns one outfit

HP falls into the category of games that might be called “Shooters with one big fat Neat Gameplay Thing.”   In HL2 it’s the gravity gun; in Dead Space it’s the limb dismemberment; and in HP it’s water.  They have a fancy engine for rendering water effects, and it affects everything… sometimes you have to wade through inrushing water with big things floating in it, sometimes you have to swim, sometimes you release water into an area to put out fires or just be able to swim somewhere you couldn’t reach.   You have to watch out for electric wires in the water;  you can start fires and burn or drown enemies.  All this is pretty fun and definitely a unique element to the game.

This was supposed to be a luxury cruise!

A lot of the gameplay so far is puzzle-oriented, figuring out how to get to some area that at first seems inaccessible.  That part is reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge (the pipes are even red), and I’m happy that the game addresses one of my pet peeves, games that restrict you to walking on flat terrain.  Kate can jump, scramble up pipes, and I even discovered a novel use of crouching– in the scene above I was able to get past the jet of flame by crouching in the water. 

The rest of the mechanics remind me a lot of Dead Space.  A voice in your ear keeps giving you engineer-type tasks… your journal accumulates weird objectives like “get the frequency key that will allow you to download the cipher that will open the doors to the cyclotrons.”  The obvious route is always blocked, and necromorphs, or rather terrorists, pop up to get in your way.  And as in Dead Space, you’re kind of limited in weaponry.  You have a sonic gun with infinite ammo; in Easy mode it takes two shots to down an enemy, which is challenging enough if there are several enemies or they’re in the water… I’ve had plenty of anxious moments trying to figure out where the damn terrorist is shooting from.  There are explosive canisters around, and often they’re obliging enough to stand next to them.  You also get other types of ammo, which are rare enough that you learn not to rely on them. 

You can try to be stealthy, which is fun… though the terrorists, unlike the thugs in Arkham Asylum, have no personality and don’t react as their pals get knocked off.

I had to turn on the HUD target indicator; this is less challenging, but using the map was tiresome.  Something in between, like the single key-press “where’s my trajectory” in Dead Space, would be nice.

A major annoyance is that, so far as I can see, you can’t save the game and can’t restart at an arbitrary checkpoint.  I don’t understand why game designers do this. 

Girlfriend, we need to talk about your hairstyle

One nice touch: Kate occasionally freaks out a little (notably at a moment when the voice in her ear, her boss, disappears for awhile).  Though people may rise to a crisis, they’re not always going to be as imperturbable as Gordon Freeman or Commander Shepard.

Edit: thoughts on finishing the game.