Steam Summer Sale 2016: A New Approach to Buying

It can neither be confirmed or denied – but we are all as sure as shineola – that the Steam summer sale will begin on Thursday of this week.

Steam has altered the way it handles these sales over the past two years, opting for a more straight-forward approach to providing discounts without all those ‘micro deals’ ala, daily deals, bundle deals, flash deals; the discount that is assigned to a game on the first day is the discount that shall remain for the duration of the sale.

This approach is definitely not as dynamic or, perhaps, as exciting as the hustle-and-bustle sales, and this trend seems to show that discounts aren’t generally as steep, either. I pooh-pooh’d this at first having found favor in the excitement of waking in the morning and checking what flash deal popped up while I fitfully slept and dreamed dreams of backstroking in all pool filled with all those green discount tags. Likewise, I relished in the opportunity to snatch up the deep, deep discounts, regardless of whether or not I really, truly wanted the game. And let us not forget the ‘encore’ sale when it was that last day scramble to scoop up everything on your wishlist now that the possibility for flash deals and daily deals are gone. Indeed. Steam sales were a time of a weird kind of methodological indulgence.

SteamNO

I have since reversed my opinion of this new, more temperate Steam sale setup because it coincides so nicely with a personal decision I’ve made concerning acquiring new games. The rule I’ve made for myself is thus: I shall buy a game when, and only when, I am prepared to immediately devote the time and attention to striving to complete it or have my ‘fill’ of it.

It is a simple rule and one that I hope will be effective in preventing me from making impulsive, money-dumping, backlog-bloating purchases. And now that Steam sales are more streamlined, I can adopt a different kind of methodology when it comes to buying, one where the games are in charge, not the discount tags.

Steam sales, however the setup, are traditionally about two weeks long. Two weeks is quite the chunk of time, especially when it comes to playing video games – there is the potential of significant turn-around. I foresee my gametime during the two weeks of this summer sale to be akin to a sort of 3-part stage production, and the players – the dramatis personae, if you will – are a select few items from my Steam wishlist whose purchase will be methodically timed based on what type of game it is. This way I can still take advantage of the succulent discounted prices but still hold true to the golden rule that I have set for myself.

ACT I – Nuclear Throne

Day one of the sale will begin with a BANG as Nuclear Throne blasts its way into my Steam library. I am in need of a new game with some gritty crunch. For a while there I was embittered in the Nuclear Throne vs. Enter the Gungeon debate. The former is more appealing because it places precedence in firepower over exploration, which the latter handles inversely. Nuclear Throne sounds like equal parts fun and enraging, but a game where player skill waxes strong with every failed run – signs of a true roguelike. And, like a roguelike, there is the possibility that the game will consume me, or the very real possibility that I will throw my hands up in exasperation, never to return. What better way to kick off the Steam summer sale by playing a wild card?

ACT II – Renowned Explorers

Whatever modicum of exploration sidestepped by choosing Nuclear Throne in the first act will be more than made up for with Renowned Explorers. This looks like one charming little exploration game, one whose obstacles are fun to overcome. I find much appeal in how many variables there are in just about every aspect of the game – from party composition to enemy encounters. Decisions need to be made on the fly. The historical setting is also a personal plus. The whole game looks upbeat and colorful. It might be one that I play with my 8-year old son. Depending on how well I recieve Nuclear Throne, Renowned Explorers may likely take up the bulk time of the Steam sale.

ACT III – Offworld Trading Company

Offworld Trading Company sounds fascinating. Certain games in the grand strategy or 4x genre may have various victory conditions, ways to win other than painting the map your color. But, let’s be honest: These other ways aren’t nearly as much fun. OTC grabs hold of these ‘other’ ways and runs with it, making non-military your only way of winning. Indeed. Victory comes by buying and selling, sabotaging and dominating the central goods market. And from the sound of it, matches have the potential of being fierce, intense and brief. I like this idea. The game sounds like it requires practice and intuition, especially in multiplayer. This is the perfect type of the game to carry me onwards after the summer Steam sale has ended.

There is also the very real possibility that I will pick up a handful of DLCs during this sale. This is an exception to the golden rule stated above since I have already put the time into the base games required for the DLCs. Most notably I will pick up a few for Dishonored and the “Shifters” expansion for Endless Legend. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch up on some Crusader Kings 2 expansions, but I’m honestly just a little burnt out from Paradox games – we’ll see… Steam sales do strange things to otherwise lucid and logical people.

Weekend Gaming – Grim Fandango

I need a break of Paradox games. It feels like these past three months have been exclusive to either Victoria 2 or Hearts of Iron IV. I am a weary of clicking through menus and moving sprites around from province to province.

… and don’t even get me started on diplomacy. I have always bristled at diplomacy in strategy games, just in a general sort of way. Sometimes this bristling is more severe than others. In my most recent HoI4 campaign as Germany, I became full-on aggro porcupine.

In what I called the West vs. East campaign, I had the idea of starting as fascist Germany then going democratic, joining the allies and facing off against the Soviet bear. I needed some diplomatic savvy to accomplish this, and Germany, out of any other country on the map, has the political power to do so. But, instead of diplomacy being another avenue of strategy, In HoI4 it often feels like hurdles, obstacles that we need to work around. My plan to reform Germany and join the good guys was stopped cold by every ally nation having an unpurgeable ‘Base Reluctance’ towards me, healthy positive opinion towards me be damned – do you not see that I have dethroned Hitler and given power to the people, UK? Do you not see my firm stance against the wall of communism just east of my borders, USA? Do you not hear me barking these rhetorical questions at you, game? C’maaaawnnn!

This very specific and contextual situation was enough to prompt me to take a gigantic step back and, seeing how much Paradox-ing I’ve been doing, realize that I need to shift my focus to something entirely different… and praise be to an industry with the options and flavor and history to accommodate such a decision!

The last time I played Grim Fandango I had to put the compact disc into a plastic casing and then insert that into the CD-ROM. So, that was, what, a million years ago?

GF
So much time has passed since then that I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly what makes Double Fine’s remaster a remaster – certainly not the cut scenes! Despite this, the game has aged well due mostly to its unique (mesoamerican meets film-noir) setting and the strong story and voice acting. Grim Fandango has a singular charm that makes it both fun and engaging. The key to this game, from what I can remember, is to talk to everyone about everything, to parse those dialog branches down to their very barebones – to get to the point where initiating a conversation with another character immediately and automatically leads to leave-taking.

Luckily, like I said, the story is fantastic and the voice acting is superb. So the process of developing a conception of its afterlife world is never dull and is critical to cluing you in to what exactly you’re supposed to do with all those items your skeletal protagonist has stashed in his suit jacket. Grim Fandango is one of the very, very rare games where I kind of, sort of, care about the story and setting in equal parts to mechanics and gameplay. And I kind of have a thing for art deco. Neato.

What are you playing this weekend, Menso?

Weekend Gaming – Hearts of Iron IV

Hearts of Iron IV is the first Paradox game that I plan on following from the get-go. Historically, with most other PDX releases, I show up late to the party and then decide which group to mingle with. I delay my arrival just enough so that the party can establish itself, reach a sort of self-sufficiency, and attract other interesting elements. That way, when I get there, the awkward part has long since faded, the munchies are out and the beverages are frosty.

DasPanzerJA

In other words, I waited to buy, for example, Crusader Kings 2 until 1) It was on sale, and 2) there were a few expansions and patches to smooth things out and add variety. I’ve done the same thing for EU4, Victoria 2, and EU3.

… but not with Hearts of Iron IV. Something about this game pricks me more than any other PDX game – and I am pretty smitten with Vicky2. It is the only matter in recent memory that I allowed myself to get hyped about (My cynicism can become rather crippling sometimes). Months before release I made the conscious decision to be apart of this game, to go along for the ride, and so far the price of admission has been well worth it. Following the message boards has been an absolute ride. I anticipate fantastic improvements and additions, aka, a little more depth in certain areas of the game, aka, stronger and more real numbers. Plus, any reason to not immediately rush fascism would be pretty not stupid as well.

For this weekend I plan on building my East Vs. West campaign, to see how many nations I can get away with annexing as fascist Germany before turning coat, going democratic, joining the allies and bulldozing the Soviets and Chinese into the Pacific. At this point I’m unsure about what to do with Italy. If they remain Axis, perhaps just let the UK sink the entire peninsula. We could turn them into Allies as well but I don’t think we would have the timeframe for that. Or maybe we’d just let them be an additional front that the commies would have to deal with. Decisions. Decisions.

What are you plaything this weekend? Decisions. Decisions.

Hearts of Iron IV, review of.

Hearts of Iron IV is like a phoenix rising into a new era. As cliche and perhaps cringe-worthy as the analogy can be bear with me as I declare that it is an appropriate and evocative representation of what the game is and where it is coming from. It is a whole new entity, billowing fresh ideas and approaches into a strategy game setting that so desperately needs it. It is rising from the ashes of its predecessors who are obtuse, demand hard numbers and are sticklers for historical accuracy… and they still seem to have an influence, which in and of itself is not a bad thing.

The game provides the opportunity to be an active participant in the largest war known to man. And, dadgum, is it exciting to be apart of. Despite running its course during the relatively small time frame of 1936-1948, it is likewise surprising just how involved preparing for war can be.

Built from the ground up, Hearts of Iron IV implements some interesting design elements using mechanics that are already familiar in war strategy games. Some work elegantly to give the player some elbow room to work. Others are a little harder to conceptualize or even seem to work against the player. This type of conflict in the mechanics, this uneven approach to numbers, seems to thread itself throughout all of the game as it tries to define itself, trying to decide whether it is a WW2 simulation like its forebearers or a sandbox grand strategy based in the WW2 era.

The research trees provide advancement in highly effective military doctrine, upgrades to units, and increased industrial efficiency. The time needed to complete research varies and can be shortened in many ways. Conversely, penalties to completion time are applied whenever you strive to research beyond the yearly timeframe. All of this is nothing new to strategy games.

Hearts of Iron 4 provides an additional research-like function that aims to orient the grand designs for your nation: National Focus. Constructed similarly to the research trees, though far more elegant and involved, National Focus is a central step-by-step plan to easing your nation’s progress to color history.

It is what makes your nation, and every other nation on the map, one massive variable to the writ of history. While there is a ‘generic’ National Focus tree for most of the nations, which is admittedly quite underwhelming, the eight major powers have their own specific trees, particular to their place and status in 1936. The possibilities here can be quite compelling:

Germany sets out to reclaim what of theirs was lost… and then some. The Soviet Union is playing catchup, exactly how this is accomplished and who this exploits is a giant question mark. Italy is striving to extend beyond the center of the earth, which direction they go is uncertain. France is the wild card possessing the weight needed to sway global ideology. USA is isolated and recovering from an economic depression and must decided which cause to put its abundance of resources. The UK has much to consider with its global empire, which, if not handled properly, may very well be the nation’s downfall. Finally, Japan may turn its focus inward to find a spiritual center and decide which military aspect to preemptively thrust forth.

Example of the Italy national focus tree.

Example of the Italy national focus tree.

Progressing through the National Focus tree is not required. But each focus is a tremendous asset to your campaign; omitting them from your strategy will only do you harm.

At this point I would be remiss if I do not declare the following: The National Focus trees do not railroad your campaign. They are constructed in a way that is flexible but still involve careful consideration and outlook. Becoming familiar with the layout of these trees, especially for the major nations, is critical in your approach to each and every history-smearing campaign you play.

Hearts of Iron 4 certainly provides the outlook and opportunity with the national foci. The real work comes with logistically making these crazy plans a reality. Sure, you have armed forces to do the talking for you. But getting boots onto the field and planes into the sky is half the challenge. In part because of some of the game’s rather particular and, if anything, shaky design choices when it comes to infrastructure.

You have no national treasury, there are no tax sliders to futz with. Your currency does not come in yen, pounds or dollars. Your nation’s war machine is funded by natural resources, supplies made from these resources, military experience, and political power used to boost your own infrastructure through very effective advisors or to exert your influence on other nations.

Concerning industry and production, there a few conceptual hurdles that a new player will have to overcome – Strange blips of logic that, in a sim-like game, either overlook hard, real numbers or deprive you of strategic opportunities.

The first example is how the game handles trading. Chances are well enough that your nation will not have sufficient of the game’s six natural resources in order for your production lines to run optimally. To overcome this shortage you can set up a trade with a nation that produces the desired resource. For the cost of one factory/8 units of a resource, you can then acquire what you need. This ratio cannot be adjusted.

The problem comes from the fact that the quantity of these resources are not logically assigned. In a game where divisions of troops are numbered in the tens-of-thousands, naval units have a water displacement rating, and defensive bunkers take two weeks and three days to build, it is curious that, for example, Denmark has ten aluminum. Ten… tons? Ten… extraction points? Ten… of what exactly? What is the quantifier here? Ten, let’s just stick with ‘units’, I suppose. This is a figure that is just kind of assigned to your nation…

And this is not some asinine, nitpicky observation. Because these numbers are so finite, they are that much more precious. But short of a ‘closed economy’ trade law, which no nation I have played begins with, there is nothing stopping any other nation from brokering a trade deal with you. Making matters worse, you have zero say in how much of what goes to whom. To say this is a setback would be an understatement.

Currently, the trading system is a type of automation that, playing as a major nation or not, simply doesn’t fly with me. A nation’s factories are critical and should not be flung around all willy-nilly like. Likewise, trade deals could be much more engaging if diplomacy were more directly involved. And if the quantities of resources were more ‘real’ you could broker bulk deals or trade resources for equipment and armaments.

The design for production lines is logical and rather elegant. Each production line uses the natural resources on hand to manufacture its assigned product. The longer one line produces, say, tactical bombers the more efficient that that line becomes at producing them. When you complete the research for an upgrade to that particular tactical bomber you can assign it to that production line at a fraction of an efficiency stab. If you begin that upgraded model in a new line or swap it out with another production line the efficiency stab will be far greater when compared to the aforementioned production line. The process is streamlined and intuitive. This is another successful design example that Paradox uses to encourage thoughtful, deliberate planning – planning which can include creating variants of gear that has already been researched! Waste not. Want not.

Example of starting USA production lines

Example of starting USA production lines

On the other hand, there is a massive design oversight concerning what happens with the products after they roll off the production lines: Your national storage.

Firstly, let it be known that you do not stockpile natural resources. Any excess resource not plugged into your production lines are essentially wasted.

Stockpiling occurs when products, such as infantry equipment, roll off of your production lines. If your fielded troops are already armed, the infantry equipment are then stashed into your national stockpile. Unlike natural resources, the stockpile deals in much bigger and more realistic numbers. Stockpiles can be in the green by so much as tens-of-thousands in supplies, planes, tanks, et al.

The next logical line of inquiry can be as such: Where is the stockpile? What physical location on the map houses all this precious surplus gear? Where are my enemy’s stockpiles? The answer: It doesn’t exist.

Any surplus gear is magically stored in the aether, it only exists as a number – much in the same as the natural resources. A surplus in stockpile will materialize only when upgrades are needed in the production lines or reinforcements are called upon. This almost seems like an exploit, a gross oversight. In a game where you can assign planes to bomb factories and dockyards – hampering your enemy’s war machine – what logic is there in not being able to scout out your enemy’s cache and target it?

This strange intermingling of elegance in design with plodding automation and gratuitous oversights seems to be the result of Paradox continuing in the effort to ease micromanagement involved in a grand campaign. It is a work in progress.

Luckily, once we move past the infrastructure and begin composing and commanding martial forces, we see what makes Hearts of Iron 4 really shine.

In order to realise any of the plans you make, any radical, world-inverting idea you may have, your nation needs a military. Comprised of Air, Naval and Land units your military is the muscle of your nation. Each branch has its own distinct units with their own uses as well as an experience counter whose function we’ll get to in a moment. Paradox is not looking to reinvent the wheel with these units: Infantry is your meat shield; Engineers entrench; Tanks blow up tanks; Bombers drop bombs on stuff… except national armament caches.

Unlike training and deploying individual land units in other strategy games, HoI4 provides you with its Division Designer. The idea here is to eliminate another element of micromanagement that so often plagues strategy games. Indeed. Instead of training a single battalion and having them appear on the map, you instead spend accrued army experience and assign them into a division template along with other battalions. The compositions created in the Division Designer are saved and are then ready for training and supplying whenever you deem necessary. You can have any number of Division templates saved.

DevDes

The Division Designer is a pretty great idea, and one that is implemented very well. The game does a great job of breaking down the makeup and equipment cost of each division, making it easier to spot deficiencies, which is a boon because there are a lot of stats associated with a even a single division. From here you can also manage which divisions have dibs on upgraded gear. The grid also helps in visualizing the composition of each division – admittedly making it easier overstuff the divisions and therefore overtaxing the supplies needed to equip them. Due to its connectivity with your production lines, the division designer is an effective central location to manage the deployment of your land forces.

Once on the map, you can select any number of divisions and assign them as an army. You then give these respective armies a leader who possesses attributes that, ideally, complement the divisions’ composition. It is possible to manually control each division within an army, to place them at the front line or advance them into enemy territory. Or, you can use Hearts of Iron 4’s built-in Battleplan system.

Another mechanic built from the ground up, The Battleplan is a plan of engagement (or tactical retreat!) that you literally draw onto the map. Each army comes equipped with a toolbox for drawing such plans. As a simple example, let’s say that as Germany you plan on storming into Poland in six months and are waiting for supplies to reach your troops.

Now would be a good time to draw up your battleplan. With an army selected you create a front line, most commonly on national borders. Looking deep into enemy territory you draw an offensive line that the divisions will push their way to. Automatically, the divisions will toe the line and await your signal to advance. The longer a battleplan is in place before initiation, the greater the attack bonus the army receives. And when you make the call the AI will then make the best effort in slogging its way to the offensive line.

Your battleplan toolbox

Your battleplan toolbox


… And it works. The AI actually does an admirable job of handling your divisions on the fly. Even in a nation with varied terrain, it will for example, keep your infantry out of the mountains and your mountaineers out of the plains. During heavily-contested advances the AI will keep divisions behind in claimed territory to act as a temporary garrison, since the game has no ‘besieging phase’. Divisions will retreat automatically. They will rejoin the fray when rested and resupplied.

Sometimes you need to make manual tweaks to division positioning, especially because drawing a battleplan in tight spaces can get a little cumbersome and, frankly, kind of messy. My battleplan into Greece when playing as Bulgaria looked like a jumbled mish mash. However, in a grand campaign as a major power, with multiple fronts to handle, multiple swaths of territory to manage, the Battleplan system is a wonderful easement to your command, especially during the peak of the War, which is truly a sight to behold and thrill to be apart of.

Overall, before your severe knee-jerk reaction to AI-handled military shatters your incisors, know that the success of an offensive battleplan is largely dependant on the makeup of the participating divisions. The AI has no part in your Division Designer. Sending an army of ill-equipped puissants into your battleplan will certainly turn them into gore soup. Plan ahead. Plan accordingly.

BattlePlanAction

As it stands currently, land forces have an elegant and involved method of creation and management. Navy and Air forces conversely, have a kind of set-it-and-forget it feel.

After aircraft roll off the production line, you assign them to pre-set air zones. Within the air zone you assign certain missions based on the planes’ capabilities, i.e. Fight other planes, bomb boats, provide ground support. After that, they just kind of hang out in the air base or naval carrier until war begins when they can fulfill these missions. The player has zero (0) control over the planes other than stationing them, though you can automate at which period during the game’s day/night cycle that the missions should be carried out. I’d like to see more opportunities to use aircraft outside of war. Recon, primarily would be pretty awesome.

Naval forces are likewise just a list of ships broken down into player-assigned fleets that sit in port or naval zones until war breaks out. Fleets are given orders the same way air wings do: Select a mission such as trade disruption, convoy escort, search and destroy. Then pick a naval zone. Then wait… I guess. Unlike air wings, you can directly control fleets and engage them in naval battles. Oftentimes Naval and Air units will clash on the high seas, which is an awesome spectacle to consider and visualize in your mind’s eye.

I had higher expectations for the naval game. Similar to aircraft, I’d like to see more from my naval units outside of war. They especially can be a way of accomplishing aggressive, opportunistic goals while subverting the world tension mechanic.

Yes. Let us speak of World Tension.

Closely tied to the game’s factions and their ideologies, world tension is the barometer of war. I like this idea and believe that it can be utilized and exploited to a greater degree. At 0% world tension, the world is pretty quiet, ideologies pricking at the hearts of nations. At 100% world tension, factions have been created, sides have been picked, stakes have been pulled – the world is on fire. How the world gets from 0% to 100%, and how quickly, depends primarily on the interactions between nations.

A breakdown of the jerks responsible for Armageddon.

A breakdown of the jerks responsible for Armageddon.

Costing accrued political power, certain diplomatic actions bump up the tension in varying degrees. Rushing to become fascist will eke it up by a fraction of a percent. Declaring war on a minor nation will have a greater effect; Joining the Axis faction even more so. Declaring war on a major nation as the Axis coalition causes a spike in tension and will freak out the Allies which in turn will trigger a retaliation which kicks up the tension even further and onto the point of no return.

… And this is just one international scenario out of countless others. This is an effort that Paradox seems to be taking in making Hearts of Iron 4 less of a WW2 sim and more of a sandbox based on the WW2 era.

The game provides opportunities for all nations, even the majors, to shift out of their historical ideologies. USA can go communist. France can go fascist. At this point, though, being in the allies doesn’t seem nearly as fun – something that I hope will be addressed in later DLC, perhaps? Picking a faction is just as important as designing the correct type of division. It largely determines your involvement in the war.

Nations do not ally nations; Factions ally factions. I do not bemoan this. Ideology is a legitimate determiner of world war in either initiating it or striving to prevent or end it. Ideology is what hardens a people, unifying them, making them more difficult to defeat – one of the reasons atomic weapons are available for research!

This is where I think a little more effort could have gone into deepening the diplomacy game. Because my mind keeps going to the small nations. The ones with the generic focus tree. The ones who begin the 1936 campaign most likely unaffiliated in ideology and, therefore, faction. The ones with only two or three templates in the division designer. The ones with a completely inadequate navy. If the diplomacy game were stronger, if the game were more willing to go off the beaten path, these nations too would have a fighting chance in coloring history.

The blue piece of the ideological pie means that a democratic Germany is all too possible!

The blue piece of the ideological pie means that a democratic Germany is all too possible!

HoI4 does in fact give you the opportunity to create your own faction. This is made available even to the non-major nations. But this course of action does very little in the grand-scheme of things. Sure, you created the legionaries fascists of Guatemala. Unless you’ve managed to seed this ideology anywhere else in the world or even just in your region, by 1939 nobody will want to join and your nation will be just a pimple on the geopolitical map.

Indeed. You may fly off the rails of history but chances are the AI won’t, which then severely inhibits your own national exploits all the more. Not without more diplomatic, or even duplicitous, options for the player, or an earlier start date – even if it is just a single year – will we see anything resembling the sandbox Hearts of Iron 4 feels like it wants to be.

At the foundation, the game seems to be conflicted with itself as if in a state of flux. And that confusion translates into how it works for the player.

There are two starting dates available: 1936 and 1939. Choosing 1939 places you closer to the throes of war. Choosing 1936 gives you more time to make your preparations, to contemplate your grand history-smearing designs. The problem with the earlier start date is that there seems to be quite a bit of faffing about, when there really shouldn’t be – as I hope I’ve been able to express thus far in this review. There really only seems to be two modes in Hearts of Iron 4: Wait for war; Fight the war.

Despite some of the underdeveloped and confusing aspects of preparing your nation for war, the thrill of thrusting your nation into the international fray is still worthy of critical praise.

There is an undeniable sense of anticipation and/or anxiety as the world tension cranks upwards, often snowballing to 100% – Even more satisfying if you are the one causing it to spike, catching your enemies totally unprepared for world war. There is a rush of excitement when you witness the realization of your battle plans as the AI-run armies push your meticulously designed divisions forward to their objectives on their respective fronts; and just as horrifying when you witness them fallback and get chewed to bits after a successful counter-attack. The relief you feel when friendly faction reinforcements arrive… the trail of icons denoting victorious naval battles… notifications of destroyed ports… the roar of airwings battling for superiority punctuated by the rata-tat-tat of automatic fire… It is all happening right there on the map. The battle plans, the animations, the sounds – for the first time a Paradox map truly feels alive! And I’m glad to be apart of it.

Weekend Gaming – Duskers

Duskers and I continue to have a hot and cold relationship. I followed the game’s development for a while and made the purchase on its release day this past week.

In Duskers you remotely control a team of drones who explore derelict spaceships, space colonies, space stations. You’re looking for scrap and salvage and other drones to bring back to your ship in order to further the investigation into why the universe is seemingly devoid of humans. But each location is also occupied by various baddies, or ‘infestations’, that will, without hesitation, immobilize or outright destroy your deployed drones. Progress is deliberate, positioning is important and decisions must be thought out. And of this is accomplished by a command line. /line

Duskers

It’s an interesting concept for a game, one that is fairly well presented. I love how it intentionally has zero (0) music files in order to maintain the dark and dangerous setting – Especially so since the drones’ video feed is unreliable; one must place equal emphasis on listening. I love that. I get that. Upon noticing there is no music in the background, the thought of loading up my own iTunes library never even came to mind. The setting is very real and very present.

Generally, my main issue is the command line. I appreciate that Duskers is going for a neo-retro feel, and a command line interface not only compliments this but it necessary to maintaining that feel. But too often I think, ‘what I am doing now – these commands that I am giving – can still be accomplished by using a mouse.’ The basic commands of opening a door, moving a drone, rerouting power, – basically, a majority of what you do in Duskers – by command line becomes rather arduous to me overtime. This feeling is only amplified when the takeaway loot from a particular ship is piddly.

I want this game to be more tactical. I want to set up a command sequence (not just order, lets get some booleans up in here!), press enter, and watch my plans unfold from room to room. Sure, you can go a little deeper with the capabilities of the command line, but I still want to be able to do more with them and, perhaps even more so, with the loot that I find.

Despite my grumbles, I am sensing that Duskers is a slow burn, revealing itself overtime. This is why I haven’t walked away from it already. My approach to it has been in bursts. Much the same as it is whenever I play Invisible, Inc (which shares many attributes with Duskers): When I’m not into it, I’m not into it; When I am into it, I am very, very much quite into it. We’ll see how our relationship fares over this weekend.

D-28: Or, Looking Forward to Hearts of Iron IV

With absolutely nothing else of interest going on at Paradox Development Studio today, we can calculate that at this very moment here on 9 May 2016, Hearts of Iron IV will be upon us in exactly 27.84 days. Paradox took a week-long hiatus from their “World War Wednesday” Twitch streams last week in order to, I can only assume, convene into the company’s war room to develop last minute designs for the game and to advance, with what will certainly be, a bombastic marketing campaign that will rely on the primacy of the game’s setting and not, say, cheap and flimsy SWAG.

We, the ranks of HoI4 recruits – We, too, have much to prepare. While other Paradox players on this day are otherwise occupied by lesser things, we must steel ourselves, sharpen our focus. We must unroll our terrain maps, the corners weighed down by our miniature Panzer models and artillery shells. We must crack open the tomes of military operations. We must study this original history. And as intelligence is added upon we can therefore ask ourselves, ‘what if…’ Thereby, the spirit of HoI4 can be made manifest.

Yes!

This is more than just expansion and extermination of the enemy. This is not some half-assed broadstroke over a massive interstellar expanse. This is about digging deep, of taking the initiative to color history, to become a sort of reflective historian. To this end, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel explains: “Here the main thing is the elaboration of the historical material, which the historian approaches with his spirit… Especially important are the principles the author sets up for himself, based in part on the content and goals of the actions and events [of history], and in part on the way he constructs history.”

What a marvelous opportunity HoI4 will give us: To give us this orb of history, of this specific conflict and allow us to interact with it on so many different fronts. The game’s setting is recent enough that we can impart our own principles, as Hegel states, in how we go about playing. How big are the ripples we can create. How altered our modern world can become. How twisted or righteous will the geopolitical landscape turn out to be? How engaging can we make our end game screenshots!

… We have but 28 days to find out.

HoiSoon

Weekend Gaming – TBD

I’ve got a Steam backlog – not as robust compared to other users but it’s there, all right. It doesn’t haunt my thoughts or give me pangs of guilt or remorse or shame. But, still, it’s there. And I am mindful of it. I was prompted by this particular forum thread over at Gamers With Jobs this past week to add the prices paid for my unplayed games and the sum was enough to give me pause. Again, my reaction didn’t result in some kind of staggering existential crisis, but that monetary figure was heavy enough for me to ask myself ‘Is it worth it?’

I related this experience to Sir Tony ButtonMasher who suggested that just in even asking myself this question there may be ‘something more’ to this problem. Perhaps this isn’t a concern about money spent but moreso time spent or that the time and money could have be spent elsewhere.

No. That wasn’t it. Gaming is a hobby which I consume in measured increments. I have never ever felt the need to justify the time and money spent. It is enriching and not just a distraction. The video game industry is growing and maturing, becoming, I think, a legitimate focus of critical thought. And I think that is fascinating, a cause for celebration. To me gaming is not just passive consumption, hence one of the reasons I enjoy writing about it and, when I can, streaming it.

I arrived to the conclusion that by asking ‘is it worth it?’ I wonder what I’m missing in my own library. Games genres are vast and multiplicative, they morph and cross-pollinate. Yes. Video games do not just appear from a puff of purple smoke. There are people behind these damned things. And whatever the result, however (un)successful a game is, however large its impact, there was, at the very least, an effort made, time spent, in transducing it from the theoretical realm. And the very least that I can do is make the effort to interact with these efforts.

So, here’s what I did: I created a new category in my Steam library. The ‘Pick List’ is a curated collection of games that are either Humble Bundle B-sides or whose discounts were so steep that I bought them just because. Sprinkled in there are ones I dabbled in but am now judging worthy of a revisit. A few titles that populate the Pick List are as follows: Banished, Eufloria HD, Grim Fandango Remastered, The Last Federation, Penumbra:Overture, Sacrifice, Teleglitch: Die More Edition.

The angle, here, is selection. I will not even make the attempt. Curated custom list or not, I’d still feel the same analysis paralysis. No. This task will fall to my wife who is about as removed and disinterested from video games as one can fathomably be. I will sit her before the Pick List and it will be Greek to her. I will instruct her. I will say, “Honey Bunny Darling, I’m going to turn around. You will click on one of these mysterious titles. You will say nothing about which you are picking! After you click on one of these mysterious titles, you shall then click the blue ‘PLAY’ button”. I will then play this game, make the effort to give it my due attention. Perhaps I will be engaged, perhaps not. Regardless, it is here, where once it was not.

Sifting the Chaff: Paradox and the Next Generation

Paradox Development Studio is coming at us on two fronts. They’re flanking us!

The most immediate approach is Stellaris, their intergalactic grand strategy game – due out May 9 and is now available for pre-order. I’ve been skimming the dev diaries and youtube videos, and am generating marginal-to-lukewarm interest. Paradox will be implementing some very interesting ideas about the structure of every playthrough, but overall what I am seeing doesn’t really blow my skirt up. (In fact, if to the stars we must go, I’m actually leaning towards taking the Distant Worlds:Universe route.)

However, I will be following very closely the game’s reception upon release. Scrutinizing, even. (There is an overarching purpose for this course of action which I shall explain later.) What I will be looking for is this: How complete is Stellaris? By saying ‘complete’, I do not speak of game-stopping bugs or graphical spasms. I want to know how fulfilling is the gameplay? Does it seem like there are voids that future DLCs will gladly and conveniently fill? How will the UI – admittedly not Paradox’s strongpoint – withstand the use and abuse of a broader gaming populace? In other words: How sound will Stellaris be and how badly will players bounce off of it?

The future of the company requires that Stellaris be rock solid. Not only is the hype through the frigging roof, but now that Stellaris is available for pre-purchase, if there is anything less than smooth-sailing the backlash will be severe and demoralizing. Bitter nay-sayers will pistolwhip Paradox, citing the company’s history of ugly new releases and will identify the mountains – and hundreds of dollars worth – of DLCs that are available for Europa Universalis 4 and Crusader Kings 2, claiming (somewhat erroneously, though not completely) that each expansion is just another patch job that gamers should not have had to pay for. The peasant rabble will swell and be foolish to ignore.

But let us have hope. The company has grown and matured these last few years. And, at least in respect to the condition of newly-released games, matters have improved since the days of yore. EU4 and CK2 were, for the most part, able to stand on their own two feet. Let us hope that Paradox has learned from history as they plan to move forward…

Indeed. The time has come for the company to pass the torch. Stellaris is one of the newcomers. It is garnering tremendous attention. Message board and comment sections are buzzing.The hype train is real. Paradox seems to be capitalizing on the fact that this game breaks the traditional Paradoxian mold. The marketing has been tasteful… and fun! Space aliens and pew-pews have a broader acceptance compared to hard historical settings. And now, in this, the new generation, it looks like Paradox will have both.

Which brings us to the discussion of the second – more important – newcomer: Hearts of Iron 4.

Where Stellaris looks to the stars and is dictated by scope, campaign structure and a dash of RNG, Hearts of Iron is very much grounded, very much logistically detailed, and very much akin to the mold of a Paradox game.

The Hearts of Iron series – three titles in all, each with varying number of expansions – is known for being notoriously complex, dense, and difficult for newcomers to take on. Despite this, the framework for the games is interesting. They operate in the narrow window of time that leads up to and plays out through World War 2. Conquest isn’t always the goal. Because the time frame is so short and the details are so concise, objectives can take on a more ahistorical flavor. Knowing that a world war will break out, the player can build a campaign around this determination.

Hearts of Iron 4 looks to intend to follow this same formula but with a greater emphasis in streamlining the in-game logistics. I’d say ‘simplify’ but that would send tremors down the spines of veteran players. But it kind of looks like this is what Paradox is doing: Cutting the crap and interconnecting many of the mechanics. The process has been a slow and deliberate one. HoI4 doesn’t have the luxury that Stellaris currently has; It can’t get too wieldy with (re)defining itself.

And come June 6, the game will have all sorts of players shoring up, with many others reconnoitering from perhaps their empires in Stellaris.

That’s the rub: How do you gently onboard new players to this game with a reputation without turning your back to the veteran players of the franchise?

There has already been talk of streamlining and creating, essentially, mutually exclusive military profiles. This method seeks to focus the player’s attention to certain aspect of the game and not just throwing a wall-of-game at him. Another way to onboard new players has been put in effect already. Paradox sponsored a 3-part video series at the Extra Credits youtube channel. This series gives an overview of the economic and industrial factors behind WW2. It is a great attempt to, at the very least, orient new players to the historical goings-on that are at the foundation of Hearts of Iron 4.

But to veterans of the HoI series, the historical goings-on of WW2 is old news. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. Because of this, there’s a good chance that many of them will chafe against all this talk of streamlining, favoring the wall-of-game of previous HoI iterations. So, to ease the low-level player rumble, Paradox, sticking to a proven game design model, is basically coding the game to easily facilitate modding. Paradox is leaving the game wide open and is practically daring modders to have at it. Nary a ten minutes will pass in the preview/gameplay Twitch VODs when a commentator will make an observation or answer a question from chat and respond with, “I’m sure someone will mod that in”.

Whoever that ‘someone’ is could be someone who has followed the Hearts of Iron series from the very beginning or it could be someone who is new to the Paradox fold, perhaps even drawn in by Stellaris. And that is exactly what has me so excited: To see just what can materialize when this motley crew of players coalesces upon Hearts of Iron…

And that is exactly why the initial release of Stellaris needs to be a smooth one. The next phase of Paradox is hinged on this. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the newcomers from Stellaris also make the leap into HoI4. Even more so, how many of these actually stick around. Hearts of Iron 4 has the potential of not only being a great game with a diverse player set who may or may not mod the shit out of it, but it also provides many philosophical and theoretical platforms to explore – And that, in and of itself, is reason enough to stick around.

Paradox is taking a rather aggressive stance with flanking us with two strategy games that are nearly polar opposite. But I see it as quite an adroit maneuver: reap a huge audience with Stellaris and let Hearts of Iron 4 sift out the chaff, so that a new player base, tempered by wisdom yet eager to move forward, may carry the company into this next generation.

Weekend Gaming – Victoria 2

I can’t stop thinking about Victoria 2. I can’t. I just can’t. The game is just so interesting and logically constructed! Part of the joy in this game is figuring out how all the systems work and work together, and I learn so much with every passing campaign.

So, check it out:

My first campaign was as the U.S. I clicked on a few things here and there and was then promptly overwhelmed. After which I abandoned ship.

My next attempt was as Belgium. It is smaller and a little more manageable. I clicked a few more things here and there and gained a rudimentary understanding of just what the devil I was actually doing.

Like a Sir

Like a Sir

Next, I gave another shot at playing the USA because, you know… ‘Murica. Acting from what I learned as playing Belgium, I set off to create a solid infrastructure through my own resources as well as tapping into the global economy – easily one of my favorite aspects of the game. It was during this campaign that I learned the intricacies of influencing the political leanings of the populace. My people never really seemed to recover from the civil war and rebels were popping up everywhere all the time. And that, as they say, was that. Campaign = Over.

Learning what I learned. With what little wisdom I had firmly in my pocket, I gave Italy a shot. Technically, started off as Two Sicilies but with the intention of forming Italy. I learned about quick ways to rise to Great Power status and what is available once you attain that position. Not to mention, I also drank from the bitter cup and experienced what happens when you are surpassed by another rising nation (JAPAN!) and are pushed back to Secondary Power status – of which includes the inability to FORM ITALY!

Forgive me if this post reads like a dry history lesson, but it is hard for me to contain my enthusiasm for how Victoria 2 is framed and constructed. The game operates within a relatively narrow window of history (the Hearts of Iron franchise has Vicky2 beat. More on this in a later post) and it seems like more opportunities arise in closer succession. This is because the world between 1835-1935 was in fact a time of change and of opportunity. The world was becoming more global. As a player, I take a step back to see how that works. And I see that that is really cool!

This weekend, I reckon I shall give another shot at playing a secondary power with the intent of unification in some manner.

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Awesome News is Awesome: Hand of Fate 2 is Happening

Gaming news has not really been part of the regularly scheduled programming here at ButtonMashing – or, for that matter, neither has regularly scheduled programming.

But this news is too great to pass up.

Defiant Development recently announced the existence of Hand of Fate 2, sequel to their 2015 deckbuilding-RPGish-brawler hybrid. It is projected to be released around this time next year. Details are scarce at this point, but what is known sounds very, very promising.

Destructoid speaks of things like new weapon types, an improved success-fail card draw sequence, new opportunities and limitations in deck building, companion warriors.

Kotaku was privy to a few more juicy details. Here we read about a greater emphasis in varied deck building, as opposed to min-maxing your way to the top. Defiant plans to address the brawl sequences hoping to make them far less buttonmashy as the first game’s – as they, admittedly, can tend to be. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, in speaking of game director Morgan Jaffit, explains: “The impression Jaffit gave about the game is one of improvement rather than reinvention.”

Further investigation shows that Defiant are focused on the right things.

Indeed. Both of the above links, in varying degree, touch upon an improvement that I am most excited for. As a primer to this, I draw your attention to the trailer below.

Yes. The Dealer is back from the abyss from whence you’ve banished him. Half a scared face is evidence of his determination – “… to this mortal realm,” he spats. The table has changed as has the setting. Whereas before, the two of you sat inside a grand hall, light failing to reach the distances of the corridors that surround the table. Now, the setting is a little more cozy, perhaps as humble re-start to the dealer’s efforts of flaunting life & death. I mused in a previous post about the dealer’s steely eyes looking into mine, how mine compared to the others who have sat in this player’s chair. Now, it seems the player may have the upperhand; we may gaze into his eyes and see glares of defeat, of spite, of vengeance.

Hand of Fate’s presentation is remarkable. The setting. The dealer. The music. It is a mysterious place I loved being inside. The themes of games, life, death, and power permeate in nearly everything you do, punctuated by the dealer’s own quips and criticisms – if he is not directly dealing you cards or handing off tokens, he is in the shadows spectating your every move. Hand of Fate operates on different planes of reference, some more obvious than others, all of which may or may not cycle through each other. There is an undeniable presence of mysticism. And then there are the fundamental questions such as: Who exactly is this dealer? What was that vortex that swallowed him up at the end game? Why does he spite this mortal realm so? Is he a slave to it or the fabricator? Or both? What exactly is at stake?

Who is the dealer? What is that vortex? And where is the Vortex leading to?

Who is the dealer? What is that vortex? And where is the Vortex leading to?

Plus, I would be absolutely remiss if I do not mention the fantastic compositions of Jeff van Dyck. The music is a primary element to the setting of Hand of Fate. Tracks can elicit sensations of contemplation, thoughtfulness, foreboding, wonder, determination. The music works in fluid harmony with the rest of the game, enhancing the situation through atmosphere or a driving tempo, and never overextends itself.

All these things considered, the game is a compelling experience in that there could be so much more under the surface, in the shadows, in the words left unspoken..

… Or not.

And that uncertainty is, at least in my head, utterly intoxicating.

Unfortunately, the journey that the player takes in Hand of Fate does little for the game’s setting. Though there are distinct storylines buried in the cards, each with its own affects and rewards, there is a definite lack of cohesion between these stories and the one-off situations that may be drawn.

The improvement mentioned, in varying degrees, in the Kotaku and Destructoid links that has me most excited is the proposal of quests and storylines. There seems to be planned a more call-and-response approach to the player’s actions and decisions, instead of the player just hopping from one downturned card to another. Totilo explains, “… Defiant Development can tie the different possible outcomes of those battles to different branches of a mission.”

The cards of Hand of Fate 2 may have that longed-for cohesiveness in line with the mysteries of the game’s tiered setting. Each card may a vignette that could either answer some of these essential questions listed above, or, more preferably, enlarge the cloud of mystery – to answer a question with a question.

I could very well be flying off the rails with all this pondering. Again, as stated above, there could be more to this mystical setting or there could very well be not. But, Jaffit explained something to Kotaku that I find tremendous comfort in. When speaking of intended improvements, Jaffit gives an example whose implications tell me that Defiant’s thinking is on the right level.

Some of Jaffit’s ideas for changes are charmingly specific. It bugged him, for example, that players of the first game could buy cards in the stores that they could encounter from turning over a shop card while playing through a deck. “The shop system is wrong,” he said, “not that anyone has called on it.” Since the game showed the player’s character walking into the shop, players were essentially seeing something from the card level come to virtual life, as they did the cards that spawned real-time battles. By that logic, he lamented, there shouldn’t be cards within the shops. There should be rendered items that the cards would have represented. “It’s the wrong philosophical layer of abstraction and it actually bugs the crap out of me.” It sounds like he’s going to address that with his team in the sequel.

This is not a ‘charmingly’ specific attention to detail. I perceive much more gravitas to this example than it being merely charming. It shows that Defiant see the necessity of creating a multi-layered setting with stronger, more convincing continuity. And I can only hope that this line of thought extends out to the quests and storylines.