games


Yes, I know they just released American Truck Simulator. That’s very exciting news for Europeans, for Jean Baudrillard, and for Nevadans who would like to see their state represented in a pre-apocalyptic condition. I’ve driven through California and don’t care to simulate it.  But driving through Europe sounds interesting.

So, what’s Euro Truck Simulator 2?  It’s a sim about driving.  Driving a truck.  In Europe.

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Do you remember those missions in Saints Row 3 where you’re under cover, so you have to get somewhere while obeying all the stoplights and not killing anyone?  It’s not absolutely totally unlike that. You take a shipment of stuff from one city to another and get paid in euros. You do not get to shoot anyone, though you can beep the horn at them.

Thankfully, you do not have to drive with WASD as in almost every other stupid PC game with driving.  You can use the mouse to steer, which works great.  The roads are pretty curvy, so you will be making adjustments all the time.  If you have a wheel controller, which I don’t, it will work with that too.

Besides the traffic laws, you have to watch out for your trailer (make wide turns!), avoid other cars and trucks (they are almost but not entirely much better drivers than you), and watch your speed.  It’s embarrassing to barrel too fast down a mountain road and end up upending your truck.

When you’re actually underway, what reminds you you’re in a truck is mostly the sound effects.  You get all these deep bass sounds from the engine, and the distinctive sounds of the air brakes.

The most challenging bit is a little unexpected: the last 120 seconds of every job. You have to back your truck up to the dock, you see.  For the most part driving the simulated truck feels like driving a car… except when you’re backing up.  Then the trailer seems to develop a mind of its own and never go where you expect it to.  I had to look up guides and videos on this… the secret is to go really slowly, watch your trailer in the rear view mirrors, and turn opposite the way you want the trailer to go.  That is, to move it right, you turn the wheel left.  Also, you can’t just shove the wheel left and keep it there, like you’re driving a Borderlands buggy; you have to turn left, straighten out, go back for a bit, turn right.

Look, if you need to know, watch this video.  The overhead view (press 3) is also really useful for truck n00bs like me.

Now, overall the game is definitely oriented toward people who start to slowly rub their crotches when they see things like this:

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There is a wide range of trucks you can buy and upgrades you can apply. You can cam around your truck and the interior of the cab.  You can buy DLC that adds new paint jobs or dashboard ornaments.  You can spend some time moving your seat up and down or left and right.  (This changes your view of the road.)  You can switch to manual transmission so you have to properly handle your 12 gears, and then test your skills by driving through the Alps. I don’t grok most of this, but I respect the game for taking its truck nerdery seriously.

Almost as lovingly detailed are the roads themselves. The road numbers are all correct. They’ve carefully created roads of various speeds and sizes, highway interchanges, bridges and tunnels, ferry crossings. The pavement doesn’t always look the same– there are different colors and degrees of wear.  Here and there you will have to slow down for road construction or a train crossing. The signs all look authentic and are in the right languages.

What’s less well rendered are the cities.  They’re basically a few blocks of industrial park. Admittedly this is exactly where you would expect to go to pick up cargo, get gas, buy trucks, and so on.  Still, this is my one area of disappointment.  The game does feel like you’re in Europe; but there’s very little sense of place within Europe.  The buildings, roads, trees, and houses all look the same whether you’re in Scotland or France or Germany or Italy. (There’s a little local color, but not much. About the only geographical thing that gives a sense of place is the mountains: you know when you’re crossing Austria or Switzerland.)

Edit: The day after I wrote this, the developers announced that they’re doing an expansion of the French part of the map, and showed off some screenshots that actually look French. So I suspect they’re aware of this problem.

There’s a day-night cycle to add some variety to your experience.  It can rain.  There are little things to see– a hot air balloon here, flocks of birds there, a working airport over there.  And if you mess up, interesting things can happen. For instance, reaching a toll plaza, something happened, I couldn’t at first tell what.  I couldn’t move forward or backward, yet everything looked OK.  Finally I used the roaming camera (2, then right mouse), and found the culprit:

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Yeah, there’s not supposed to be a car underneath your trailer. (I didn’t get a crash violation notice, so this might be a glitch.  I had to exit the game and restart to get rid of the car.)

You start the game driving other people’s trucks; eventually you can buy your own truck. And later on, you can buy more trucks and hire drivers. Still, the focus remains on the driving. You also have to watch your gas level, your own fatigue, and the condition of your truck.

I kind of wish there were more goofy things to do. You can stop the truck but you can’t get out for a walk.  You actually have an avatar (you can see mine, in her stylish pink shirt, in the second picture above).  I think it’d be fun to be able to walk around your garage, pose by your truck, or stop somewhere to eat.

Is it fun?  As a game, it’s sufficiently challenging for a surprisingly long time. I’ve been going through a phase where I try out games and don’t go back to them, so it’s significant that I’ve put 21 hours into it so far. Many reviews describe it as “relaxing”.  That’s on the right track.  Though you have to pay attention, it’s certainly not a high tension game.  Mostly you steer, check for hazards, and watch the pretty scenery going by. It’s strangely motivating to try to get to all the cities, or see your balance in euros grow.

And then there’s the radio! You can stream a wide variety of European radio stations as you drive. That goes a long way to making the driving fun once you’ve mastered the basics.  Plus, you can improve your French, German, Dutch, Czech, and so on!  Or add new radio streams of your own.

 

 

 

This has probably been done before, but here’s a consolidated map of Gotham City as depicted in the Arkham series.

Arkham-Gotham

(WordPress used to automatically make a link to a bigger version, but now it doesn’t, so click that link to get there.)

Weirdly, Arkham Knight (which we have to assume is Rocksteady’s last word on the subject) tilts the Arkham City portion of the map by 45°. If you don’t believe me, check the in-game map! You can identify the courthouse, the Peabody Institute, Wonder Tower, and the steel mill, and clearly see that the street grid is tilted relative to Miagani Island.

Arkham Origins gives the location of Wayne Manor and Blackgate.  The Origins portion of the map may be oversized here.

Seagate is from the Matter of Family DLC for Knight; its location relative to the city is not given.

The inset (bottom left) gives the Arkham City map; it has a little peninsula that doesn’t appear in Origins, and also makes downtown Gotham much closer than in Knight.

As a bonus, here’s a comparison of the same view in Arkham City and Arkham Origins.

Arkham-Ace

Not everything matches up, but a lot does. What you chiefly notice, I think, is that even with the snow effects, City was much clearer. Origins has way too much fog.

This is a thoroughly charming game, and it’s just $10… if you haven’t picked it up yet, why not?

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Valeting: Unsurpassed

It’s based of course on Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, first published in 1873. It’s not technically sf, but it’s in the ballpark– it’s like a 19C Wired, besotted with the transformative power of technology. Phileas Fogg is able to make his tour thanks to three recent events: the opening of the Suez Canal and the completion of railroad routes across India and America.  (I just re-read the first few chapters of Le Tour, which are amusing in an arch 19C way.  Passepartout signs up with Fogg because he is the most dependable, boring rentier in London… and only a few hours later Fogg returns with the news that they are departing that very night for Dover.)

Anyway, the game!  I’ve been marveling at the cleverness of its gameplay. It’s literally an open world– you can get to every part of the globe– but most of the cities and routes start out hidden. Knowledge becomes the hidden treasure of the game: as you explore and talk and buy and sell, you discover new routes, as well as new reasons to go to the places mentioned.

I’ve played the game through twice– each playthrough taking about 2.5 hours– and each was entirely different, as I took different routes.  Which is another enormously clever bit!  I’ll play a really good game several times, but usually it’s almost exactly the same experience.  Here, nothing at all need be the same, and it makes sense… of course a trip through Europe and Russia will be different from one through Africa and Oceania. There are 169 cities total, and it’s hard to visit more than about 30 in one trip, so the game is highly replayable.

At heart, the game is a text adventure.  Wait, come back!  This is actually a good thing.  It allows far more imagination and variety than could be done in 3-d models or even drawings.  In form, you get short descriptions (rarely more than a screenful), and choose the continuation. You can choose to be adventurous or fearful, friendly or disdainful; often you can stay out of trouble if you wish, sometimes you can’t. (You are Passepartout, not Fogg; Fogg will offer clues but he’s generally barely functional as a companion.)   I should also add that the game makes good use of the map and illustrations of your inventory, conveyances, cities, and traveling companions, so there is plenty of visual interest.

You get ‎£4000 to start with, but fares and hotels cost money, and you’ll need more. There’s a nice mechanism for this: you can buy items in various cities, and sell them for a profit later on, usually in a specific city.  Items may also be acquired to make the journey easier, to make negotiations on departure time easier, or to reveal routes.

Fogg is delicate and suffers through travel, so another mechanic is keeping him healthy.

My first playthrough went swimmingly: I got back to London in 66 days, and made enough money to afford a £5000 steamship ride back home. Highlights of the trip included getting engaged and delivering a baby (not to the same woman).  My second playthrough was a much closer shave: 76 days, and I almost ran out of money in Portugal, tantalizingly close to the final destination.  The trading had not worked out well on my route; I had to sell everything I had and do some extra work in the hotels, and we made it back with £31 in pocket.  (It’s possible to get emergency funds from banks, but this takes extra days. I also learned afterwards that you don’t have to sleep in a hotel.)

The writer,  Meg Jayanth, deserves a lot of credit for making every route interesting. You are of course not restricted to the route from the book. You’re also not restricted, well, to our reality. Realizing that the frazzled citizens of 2015 are not as enthused as those of 1872 by steamships and railroads, the developers have gone full steampunk… plus it’s a revisionist steampunk where Zulus, Haitians, and Maoris are as likely as Europeans to be building massive steam contraptions, walking cities, automata, and so on.  And why not?  If you’re going to upgrade the technology, you’d might as well downgrade the colonialism.

There’s reams of adventure created for the game, but there are also nods to Verne’s other novels… on my second playthrough, where I tried to keep to the southern hemisphere, I ended up being abducted by Captain Nemo.

I can’t even think of anything to complain about. There are times I didn’t end up where I expected to go, but that’s fine– it wouldn’t be true to Verne if the unexpected never happened. The game is just challenging enough (as my almost-failed 2nd playthrough showed), but it’s also not very punishing, so you can take chances and explore.

 

 

 

 

I think I may be done with League of Legends.  I haven’t picked it up in a couple of months. Part of this is that Arkham Knight and Fallout 4 have louder voices. Part of it is that, due to schedule changes, my friend Ash is no longer available for late-night games.

But the biggest reason is just that I’m not very good at it. I’ve put more than a year into it, I know the basics, I’ve played a ton of ARAM so I’ve played most of the champions.  I do well sometimes, and a few times I do really well. But I still have trouble staying alive, I lose more games than I win, and the learning curve seems as steep as ever.  I never even got into Ranked; the one game I played with friends was a disaster.

Millions of people love League, so I can’t really criticize it, but I think it has a few design problems.

  • You’ll enjoy it best if you play with friends, preferably over voice chat. But if you’re low level, you basically can’t play with high-level friends. They may mentor you a bit, but the game is too different at different levels. If you play with them, you’ll get a higher class of opponents and it’ll be worse for you, not better.

    (This is mitigated in ARAM, which is why I could play with Ash at all.)

  • The game could use a fourth level of tutorial bots.  It’s still too much of a leap to go from the bots to humans.
  • The game avoids voice chat for good reasons… jerks can be bad enough in text. But it means that mentoring usually doesn’t happen. (I appreciate it when it does occur, but it’s easiest to do in voice chat.)
  • The games are long. A bad TF2 round ends in five minutes, and then you can start over.  A bad SR match can take 45 minutes (even if your team surrenders, it’s 20).  If the problem was a bad team comp, a player who messes up, or a bad laning phase, that’s a long punishment for a short mistake.
  •  All the items and champs and strategies that make it a great e-sport make it, well, a grind to learn, except for you teenage and college whippersnappers. And it just keeps getting worse as they add more champs and items.

I think I could maybe go for a League Lite.  Something more complicated than TF2, but far less than pro LOL.  Maybe something with 30 champs instead of 128, no items, and start each game at level 3.  Maybe even an option to switch out champs.

(ARAM is almost a League Lite, but the problem I have with it is that it doesn’t prepare you for SR.  You do learn the champions, but they play differently in SR, and ARAM doesn’t teach you the teamwork, the laning, or the overall strategy.)

If you’re considering League, I don’t mean to put you off.  I’m not sorry I tried it, and you might do better at it than I did.  I might even go back for ARAM once I’ve put down the Institute. Though I hear the new Tomb Raider game is next month…

I mostly finished Arkham Knight.  (See the first part of the review here.) That is, I defeated Scarecrow.  I’ve locked up a bunch of supervillains, but there’s a few more to go, and approximately one gazillion Riddler trophies.

Let's test your graphics card with particle effects

Let’s test your graphics card with particle effects

Overall: I have some major reservations, but it’s mostly good.  There’s a conceptual unity to the story that I have to respect.  The other Arkham games were dark but comic-bookish: a really long and difficult night for the Bat, with not much indication that his career choices ever get him down.  He’s dour and a he’s a bit of a dick to Robin, but that’s as far as it goes.  In AK piling on Batman’s weak points isn’t a joke or a side issue, it’s the main thing. It’s a relentless exploration of the idea that Bats needs his friends, pushes them away because of the danger, and gets them in trouble anyway.  And it all comes back on him in one night.

You can quibble with this story or its resolution, but it’s clearly the story Rocksteady wanted to tell… it’s not really useful to say you wanted a different story. There’s a million Batman stories out there, take your pick.

There may be spoilers from here on out; run away screaming if that’s what you need to do.

Storywise, I wasn’t sure I liked the reappearance of the Joker, but in retrospect I see what they were doing. He may be a delusion caused by Joker blood, but the idea that he could take over under the influence of Scarecrow toxin is clever, and pays off very well at the end. Plus, heck, it’s fun to hear Mark Hamill again, and way more fun than the other two villains’ taunting. (I guess you have to have a lot of self-confidence to be a supervillain, but don’t they ever learn that boasting about how dead Batman is going to be starts to sound hollow as the night goes on?)

Will you like the big reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity? I dunno; I have to confess that I don’t know enough Batman lore to have guessed, or to be bothered or impressed.

In terms of gameplay, there are a number of What Were They Thinking? problems.

First: the goddamn car. There was one sequence I could barely get through– Arkham Knight and his excavator. You have to get the excavator’s attention, then drive like a maniac down a tunnel, avoiding various obstacles, and if you screw up by a microsecond you’re toast. It’s not fun and it doesn’t fit with either the combat (which rewards careful, non-panicked attacking) or the predator bits (which reward patience and opportunity-seeking). It’s like a twitchy Mario level snuck into the game.

One of the Riddler challenges is just as bad; I haven’t beaten it and I don’t know if I will. It involves driving on the wall with precise positioning and split-second button presses, and it pisses me off. It doesn’t help that the Batmobile handles terribly, and the wall-driving thing is incredibly sensitive to the path you start on, so if you almost get it on one try, your next try is likely to be way off.

Edit: I did get this one, and freed Catwoman.  Still, my feeling is “I’m glad I don’t have to do that again” rather than “That was fun, let me see if I can shave 5 seconds off my time.”

There are also endless tank battles, and they just pile on the tanks and missiles to make them harder. The only ones I ended up liking are the Cobra battles, where you have to drive up behind the tanks to take them out. It’s tricky but it at least rhymes with the predator challenges.

Second: why did they mess up the best part of the previous games, the challenge maps? In Arkham City you could take them on four times, for four playable characters, and sometimes I’d play ’em all night, ignoring the main game. In AK you get just four combat and four predator maps, compared to 12 each for the previous games.  You get just a few more if you spring for DLC.  And then you can only play each of them with one character. It’s just a stupid decision– “hey, let’s totally get rid of the most addictive and replayable part of our game!”

Edit: The latest patch adds the ability to play the combat and predator maps with multiple characters, which alone is enough to get me to put aside Fallout 4 for a bit.

And some of them are locked till you figure out the weird things that unlock them. E.g. there’s one where you are supposed to run off a roof and go immediately into a dive. I’ve tried it a dozen times, so far as I’m concerned I did just that, and no unlock, nor any indication of what I did wrong. I hate when games hide what they want you to do.

Third: the treatment of Catwoman and Oracle. There are a few bits of AK where you can switch to a different character, and it’s always fun. And again, it’s like Rocksteady decided, to hell with fun, let’s limit those elements. Why can’t we wander the city as Catwoman or Robin or Oracle?

Finally: you have to do all the side missions to get the full ending, yet they make it incredibly tedious to do so. Sometimes you can follow a marked route to get somewhere, which is fine. But often you have to just wait till you run into the element, and the city is big enough that scouring it in this way, for a dozen side missions, is no fun. Once I wanted to get all the militia watchtowers on one island. I’d gotten some, but there were 2 left. I found a walkthrough with maps, made a diagram, and checked out every watchtower location. And didn’t find anything. From playing later, it seems that some towers are added later in the game. Ugh.

I understand, I guess, developers’ resistance to providing map locations for everything right off. They want us to explore. But not knowing where things are is really not the gameplay funapalooza that developers seem to think it is. I’d be happy enough if there was a discovery mechanism that unlocks at some point, like the Collectible Finder in Saints Row 3, or even the Riddler informants in AC. (They’re back in AK, but of course they’re no help with finding the next militia point or whatever.)

Edit: Eventually you get ‘intel’ on missions, which gives you waypoints; Still can’t find two checkpoints, at 91% game completion.

A more minor complaint: you start with pretty much the same skills as in the earlier games, but then they add about a dozen new tricks and keystrokes on top of them. Honestly, I can’t even remember them all. On the plus side, I didn’t need most of them either.

I don’t know how many Riddler trophies I have, and I really doubt I’ll find them all.

Still, I ended the game feeling much better about it. What’s right with the game?

For one, there’s some really neat and gorgeous bits. When the Cloudburst appears, for one: it changes the look of the whole city, it looks awful and apocalyptic and yet somehow beautiful. The final confrontation with Scarecrow is also really well done. It has a nice callout back to Arkham Asylum, and it combines both the Scarecrow surrealism and the Joker crazy-murder into one package.

And despite my complaints, I appreciate that AK tried some new things– unlike Arkham Origins which was too much of a retread of the previous game. Some don’t work, but some do: having a place to accumulate arrested enemies; the remote hacking device; silent takedowns from a more forgiving angle; the medics; the fear takedown; quite a few neat levels and puzzles. Even the car, though I didn’t like it very much, represents an attempt to shake up the formula and try new things. And there are many missions that are genuinely fun, like the Nightwing ones, and stopping bank heists.  There’s also a couple of Chekhov’s gun moments I admire.

Arkham Knight tells me that I’m 42% done, so it’s time for an in-progress review.  By now you’ve probably heard about the overall setup: the Big Bad is Scarecrow, assisted by a very cocky Batmanlike named the Arkham Knight. You play as Batman.

I have to bring Robin along?

I have to bring Robin along?

Before we get any further you probably want to know: is it fixed? Mostly. It only crashes for me once an hour or two. Crazily, I have to play at high resolution but low everything else in order to avoid the AMD grappling gun crash. But it’s playable.

Overall: it’s good, and I’m enjoying it, with some complaints. It’s the most gorgeous Arkham game yet, and it’s got Kevin Controy and Mark Hamill back. It definitely shows Arkham Origins as an inferior copy of Arkham City. Rocksteady isn’t afraid to mess with its own formula, adding new combat moves, new puzzle types, and of course the Batmobile.

I have mixed feelings about the wheels. Mostly, it doesn’t quite fit with Batman– playing it feels much more like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can run over pedestrians, destroy cars, blow up tanks, knock down just about anything that’s not a building… it seems way too careless for the Bat. (They put in handwaves to explain that he’s not actually killing anyone, but still.) It’s hard to steer, and even the expanded maps feel too small for the car. But, eh, it does add variety and it’s certainly not terrible.

Curiously, the combat feels mostly easier than Arkham Origins, and there seems to be less emphasis on boss fights, which is fine by me. Unaccountably, they’ve messed strangely with the challenge maps. One, it takes forever to unlock them– I bought some of the DLC packs just to have something to play. Two, you can only play them with the character they’re designed for, which immediately removes a lot of the replay value. Three, the combat maps come in just one round, and with most maps it seems extremely hard to get three stars. The one plus is that you can win special red icons for extra effort (e.g. surviving longer in the infinite-thugs maps).

There are a couple hundred Riddler trophies, of course. They seem strangely hidden though… in Arkham City you’d at least see them all over. There are a number of side missions. of course… my least favorite is chasing APCs, since I haven’t figured out how to reliably hit them.  (Ctrl key, but it’s not at all clear when you can fire it and if not, why not.)

Cute bit: you can’t see into (but can’t access) what was once Arkham City:

Look at the little courthouse!

Look at the little courthouse!

The first screenshot above is from DLC, the Batgirl + Robin adventure.  It’s a good meaty adventure, and I like their version of Batgirl; it’s a pity that you can’t play more Batgirl, even in the challenge maps.

Minor spoilers ahead, though nothing important.

The plot is a frenetic mess, but who cares, it’s what we expect from an Arkham game. One big misstep: the villains kidnap Oracle and Catwoman.  So, their best two female characters become damsels in distress, ugh.  I know it’s an old trope to have Batman’s allies attacked, but why the two women over, say, the five men among his close allies?  It’s particularly annoying in that there’s a model close to hand where both characters were used splendidly: Arkham City.

Part of the story is exploring some of Batman’s neuroses… however, so far they seem to be saying contradictory things: first, that people too close to Batman are endangered… second, that Batman foolishly keeps people from helping him.  Um, maybe #2 is in order to avoid #1?  But I dunno, the “Batman being a dick” thing made a great joke in Arkham City, but the comics usually make him a rather more empathetic (and talkative) character.  It makes no sense either in terms of character or gameplay that he trains Robin and then doesn’t use him.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

Finally got to this one.  It’s the second DLC for Dishonored, finishing the story of The Knife of Dunwall.

Not steampunk at all!

Not steampunk at all!

My one complaint about Knife was that it felt incomplete; well, Knife + Witches is nearly as long as the original game, and in many ways it’s far more interesting.  Daud is a better and darker protagonist; the witches make for an accelerating threat (unlike the end of the main game which just offers a shitload of guards), and there’s no attempt to whitewash the corrupt, nasty place that is Dunwall.

I played it all Low Chaos, a path which annoys the Outsider.  This game, I finally made use of the stop time ability… it’s often the best way to deal with the witches, who are far more formidable opponents than the guards. I clumsily used every one of my sleep darts on the final mission, but hey, nobody died.

The story is a little convoluted, as there are a couple missions devoted to finding a way to get to the Witches. But the missions themselves are good stealthy fun.

One weird thing: the last mission has coins and valuables scattered about… why?  You can’t buy anything…

Anyway, if you liked Dishonored and weren’t sure about this, go get it.  Then we wait for Dishonored 2

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