The Operational Art of War IV (Steam Release), Review of

Operational Warfare could be considered the median level of wargaming. In terms of scope, one could place it in between grand strategy and tactical. The scope of operational wargames is broad enough that you can command one or more armies of 10-of-thousands, while small enough that you are still concerned with the topography and tactical positioning of these groups. It is objective-based gameplay that can have a limitless variety of flavor and scenarios.

This variety is what The Operational Art of War 4 seeks to make available to the player. It utilizes an engine with an insane amount of customization and parameter-setting along with a unique, though conceptually challenging, time management system so that the power is in the community’s hands to create dozens upon dozens of historically sensitive scenarios in addition to the dozens upon dozens of scenarios that are included with the game. And now that TOAW4 is available on Steam, and therefore to potential newcomers with access to Steam Workshop, the way is open for TOAW4 to blitzkrieg its way to becoming a fixed presence in the wargaming universe.

Starting Conditions for Plei Mei, 1965

The scope of TOAW4 is what exactly gives the game its variety of settings, and it is this variety of settings that the game does so well. The strategic concern is not all-out victory of an all-out war; the scenarios instead focus on specific battles. Specific battles equates to specific dates at specific places with specific armies utilizing specific technologies to achieve specific objectives. And with a range of pre-WWI to modern day conflicts, there is no shortage of stuff to do…

One scenario puts you on the isle of Crete in 1941, pitting axis against allies – pick whichever side you want to play as (or play both!) – elite paratroopers vs. entrenched defenders. Another scenario has you flushing out guerrilla militants out of afghan mountainsides. TOAW4 even has a hypothetical directory where the player can fly off the rails of history by asking ‘what if…’.

Each scenario differs from the others in terms of size, complexity, turn length, and game length. But the creators also provide plenty of optional documentation to pore through which orients the player in historical context and the initiatives of both sides. Hindsight being 20/20, many scenarios also have scripted events that can dramatically alter the course of attaining your victory conditions.

TOAW4 is not just a matter of scope, where the ‘focus’ is dialed into on the zoom. It is also about time management. TOAW4 uses a unique turn-based system that is essentially a layered turn-based approach. These sub-rounds are slices of time, so to speak, of that particular conflict in that particular hex. Time Stamp values are then assigned to hexes in an effort to reduce gamey exploits of the turn-based system that was present in TOAW3. For example, if a fresh chit with maximum round-count enters a hex where an engagement has already occurred it suffers a penalty in rounds because it has thus entered that slice of time where the passage of time has already progressed X amount of rounds, thus, potentially postponing the attack until next turn. This, in turn, promotes logistical planning on the part of the player, considering all the factors (for there are many) that have and will contribute to a chit’s efficacy and its place in the overall war machine.

Sevastopol, 1942

Time stamps, temporal shift penalties, rounds within rounds. If it sounds menacing and engaging and god-awfully clunky, that’s because it is. Many aspects of TOAW4 require some diligence not only to learn ‘how’ but to eventually determine ‘what’.

The game’s UI isn’t exactly the most pleasing to look at and use, thus getting in the player’s way of learning the ins and outs of the complexities and inner workings. The main menus are abysmally sluggish – not exactly creating a stellar first impression to newcomers. Many of the scenario descriptions and in-game battle reports tend to be nothing more than walls of text. But, those who persist and take one’s time will learn where everything is and will learn what information and commands are important to his decision-making…

Yes. After a while I began to see the game in a whole new way. The chits display more than just stats; they become a representation of a living mass of soldiers and specialists dedicated to the cause. The topography revealed more than just movement penalties; it tells the story of the place, the hardships and sacrifice that happened there. The END TURN command is the passage of time in this particular orb of history, and with it, events and situations that can alter not just the way you play toward the objectives but to also take a step back and consider the real-life historical implications.

Indeed. TOAW4 is an incredibly nuanced and historically-detailed game. No matter the scenario, no matter the objectives, no matter which side you choose, the same flexible game systems are in place. Even more remarkable is how the Scenario Editor puts these machinations into the player’s hands. Less remarkable though is that TOAW4’s Steam Workshop integration is not yet operational; you’ll have to dig through the Matrix/Slitherine forums for user-scenarios. The game also offers a universe of customization and advanced rule-setting – catnip for all you tweakers out there.

These gripes – the clunky,unhelpful UI, the uglyass appearance, zero Workshop integration – are merely that: Short-term, fussy complaints about QOL matters that will be ironed-out over time. What is solid – what does matter – is that TOAW4 has an operational wargame-generating system in place, which is now available to a much wider audience. The game will pistol whip any player without the patience to learn and will reward engaging, exciting, detailed and varied gameplay to those who are willing to jump into the muck and get his hands dirty.

System Crash, review of.

Successfully passing through Steam’s Green Light gauntlet, System Crash is a single-player CCG with a story campaign that takes place in the cyberpunk neo-future city of San Angeles. You, as the player, assume the role of a capable hacker conspiring with other characters as you all strive to undermine and bring down powerful and corrupt mega-corporations. Each match in which you emerge as the victor progresses the narrative branches of both the main quests and side quests, and also has the potential of adding a new card to your library and/or a few extra credits to add to your cyberpiggy bank.

Welcome to San Angeles

It is through the dialogues in between matches that the world of System Crash develops. The game wears its inspiration on its sleeve, some of the characters even donning familiar outfits seen in the movies. The soundtrack is future-fantastic and evocative.

The story and characters don’t necessarily reinvent the cyberpunk wheel but what is worthwhile is that nearly all of the characters and items in which you read about during the dialogs also have their own respective playable cards. The attributes of these cards are designed to befit the attributes of these components of the story. This approach adds some diversity to System Crash’s overall available card library, which I will give more detail later on.

The driving force behind the setup of each match are the branching objectives of the campaign. New points of opportunities will pop over San Angeles as you complete missions, new and familiar characters sanctioning your l33t hacking skills to further the overall goal of toppling those huge corporations. You will click through dialog choices, of which, at least from my experience, feels like there is little divergence in story or alignment based on how you respond; the end result always seems to be the new objective points revealing themselves on the map.

A strong point in System Crash’s overall design is that it doesn’t bog itself down in presenting the story; it remembers, thank the neon mohawk gods, that it is a card game. The dialog stays light and the characters memorable so that story objective/match selection is quick and effortless. System Crash wants to beckon you deeper into the seedy avenues of neo-future San Angeles, but it wants to do it through its card game.

C:\User\DeckNameCypher\Jack_in.exe

20160801122929_1

The card game itself is simple in setup and works in the traditional IgoUgo sequence. Each card has a credit cost. Matches begin with each player at 1cr, which increases by one at the beginning of the player’s turn. In addition to this, the orange card slot is a match modifier, which varies and is typically dictated by the narrative setting of the objective.

There are four slots in the center of the board to place agent cards, who are the primary damage dealers. Each agent faces-off against the agent who oppose it until one of the cards runs out of health and is then removed from the board. If the opposing slot is empty, the attacking agent collects Operation Points based on its attack value.

Operation Points (OP) are your bread and butter. They are what you need to amass in order to win the match. The required total of OP for victory varies from match to match, though levels out eventually at 50.

Agents come in different flavors and are characterised by their role in the story. Mecs, for example, is a class of agent that have decent attack but tremendous armor health and armor. MetroSec cops are inherently unimpressive, but are given a buff based on how many other Mec agents are in play. Assassins cannot one-shot mecs, but can make chop suey of anyone else. Hackers generate OP at the beginning of your turn, while other agents reduce the OP collection of your opponents. Etc. etc.

Behind the row of agents on the board are three slots available for tactic cards. Tactic cards may buff your agents in varying ways or help with card draw or generate OP at the beginning of your turn. Along with these cards, there are event cards and other individual modifier cards that can assigned to de/buff individual agents.

Similar to Agent cards, each of the cards described above belong to a classification and sub-classification.

Cardz

Synergy is very possible – and necessary, as sometimes a new deck must be built to counter a specific and rather challenging objective. For example, if facing a pack of aggro’d Neonmonger gang members (again, this is why there is value in reading the well-written dialogs!) it may be ideal to stock up on mecs to bear the brunt and let your tactic cards do the scoring for you.

Which side of the console are you?

The variety of classifications is a bit shallow. As it stands now there are a few classifications that just do not have sufficient representation to build a deck around. But the dis/favorability seen in this is lack of granularity is truly in the eye of the beholder. I, for one, find it to be much more manageable, not only in deck-building but in card acquisition as well. If anything, I would like to see existing classifications added upon before new ones are introduced.

System Crash adheres to the Living Card game model – meaning, there are no microtransactions. No booster packs. Every single card is available for purchase or sale from the get-go through the San Angeles’s black market… for a price, of course. So, if your random card winnings still don’t make the cut, if they aren’t giving you the edge against the AI, take your hard-earned coinage to the dark places of the black market and see how best to fill out your card library…

… Because the AI will hurl a storm of badass cards at you regardless of what is in your deck. In the early objectives the AI has a relative handicap in required OP but it has a maddening advantage in card selection. And yet, it uses these cards competently enough. One of the very first observations I made about System Crash is how well-coded the AI is. It will sometimes make questionable moves, and quite often needlessly empties its hand, but for the most part, it is a sound opponent in jockeying for OP. I would like to lob a small gripe towards the game’s absence of an in-match battlelog.

Bringing a wrecking ball to a haxx0r fight

The card attributes themselves are also rather heavy-handed, which works both for and against the game…

Indeed. These suckers hit and tank hard. Even some 1cr, opening move cards feel obscenely unbalanced. Whatever the credit cost of cards, this wonky feeling then ripples outwards, making it therefore difficult to craft intricate, granular decks.

Conversely, playing with ham-fisted cards is exactly what makes playing System Crash so tense and exciting. The AI could enact a devastating wipe to your side of the board. However, you have access to the exact same armory of cards and can set yourself up to repay the offense, and then some, all within perhaps a single turn or two. Or there is always the enraging possibility that you may never be able to recover. There is a modicum of control that must be set aside when booting up the game.

System Crash may not be delicate in its gameplay, but it still requires thoughtful and deliberate placement. Within two or three turns from the onset each turn played feels monumental. It is all about cutting your losses and not being afraid to take a punch or two or fifteen.

True to the setting of the game, the matches are bombastic; the fighting is dirty and maybe just a little bit rash. With a single card placement your mood can swing from desperation to adrenaline-fueled elation.

System Crash takes you to a grim future where you may or may not be apart of the solution. San Angeles is bursting with opportunities to test out your resolve in digital guerrilla warfare. The deck-building may not be deep enough to satiate some players, but for others, like myself, it is the perfect start. I can only hope that the future of the game may not be so grim as the city in which it takes place.

System Crash is available today on Steam.

FTL: Faster Than Light Review [PC]

“Captain!” shouted Commander Woolf through crackling of the on-board communications system. “Multiple hull breaches in the rear compartments and I think we’ve got hostiles in th–”

An explosion erupted from the communications console throwing metal bits into the cabin and interrupting the Captain’s first officer. Cursing to himself the Captain flipped a few switches in an attempt to regain access to the sensor array.

It was no use, the system was gone and he was cut off from the rest of his ship.

His environmental systems had been destroyed venting O2 into space. His weapons systems were disabled and his shield generators were fried. The captain knew his situation was grim.

He looked down at the console splayed out before him. The lights were flashing every warning available but he didn’t care about any of them save one. That particular light flashed the ominous warning that signaled the end of his mission and the end of his life.

INCOMING MISSILE

As he looked through the clouded cockpit glass at the rocket heading his way he thought that he should be seeing his life flash before his eyes. His triumphs, his failures, his loves, and his family.

Instead he only saw the future of his people. With his destruction came the demise of his mission and the only chance this intergalactic war would end.

His last thought was of a single grim reality.

There would never be peace.

The missile found its target and all became quiet in the vacuum of space.

The Mission Ends

The Mission Ends

 


 

This is how most of your playthroughs of FTL will end: the complete and utter destruction of your entire crew. Yet for some reason the game compels you to continue sending them to their doom over and over again.

The Jump Selection Screen

The Jump Selection Screen

FTL is a superb “Roguelike-like” game that puts you in command of a starship tasked with the mission to cross the interstellar expanse to deliver a message that will end the rebellion and bring peace to the Federated galaxies. Each playthrough can take anywhere from a couple minutes to about an hour and a half.

The game follows a simple pattern. You choose a star system to jump to where a wide variety of random events occur.

Some are good. You can happen across shops that will repair and upgrade your ship for a small fee or you can stumble across a civilian ship that rewards you after you rescue it from certain doom.

Many are bad. The universe of FTL is a hostile place filled with aliens that want to destroy you and pick your spaceship clean of any materials they can find. Pirates will raid you, slavers will bombard you, and aliens bent on destruction will fill your hull with holes.

Your ship is controlled by energy which you can allocate throughout the ship to power critical systems. If a section is damaged you can reroute that power to other systems while your crew work to repair the damage.

You can find new crew members along your journey to help control your ship and there are a handful of races that have unique abilities. Some have a large amount of hitpoints, some are weak, some produce an energy that charges a single system.

Engaged in Combat

Engaged in Combat. It’s more exciting than it looks!

A large part of what makes FTL so satisfying is that while you may come across similar encounters no two playthroughs are exactly the same. The combination of all the elements mentioned really give you an authentic starship command experience.

The nerve-wracking tension brought on by the “Game Over” screen that roguelikes are famous for really encourage you to try and try again until you beat the game by making it to the end of the galaxy.

TL:DR; FTL is worth the price at 10 bucks and it’s a quick download. It’s a great game you can jump into and jump out of anytime. Give it a go and send that crew to their doom again and again and again and again…

The Liberation of Roma Has Begun: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

How do you take a powerful character in a video game and make him weak again? The usual trope is to remove weapons (and possibly skills). Ubisoft did that with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, but they take it one step farther. They changed the combat.

I’m going to start with what I don’t like about the third game in this excellent franchise. I have never played a game a felt so conflicted. Love it? Hate it? I wish I knew how to quit it.

Combat. The changes to the combat in the game have been getting a lot of praises in the mainstream press. They love it. Certainly, it moves quicker and the “execution” animations are very cool, but I didn’t think the changes were all that necessary. Apparently, I was one of the few who liked the combat in the first two games and was able to master it. It took me a long time to unlearn all those skills and button combinations. Instead of a counter-attack type of affair, it’s become either counter, dodge, or kick with the order of the three listed from least to greatest. You’re going to kick—a lot. “Knee to the gut. Knee to the gut. Knee to the gut. Is he weak enough yet? Nope. More knees to the gut. He’s down? Oh, now I can use my weapon.”

Story.
This is a mixed bag because Ezio’s journey is not all that epic, but Desmond’s is pretty important. If anything, it’s a heavily glorified epilogue to Ezio’s story. He was powerful at the end of AC2, but not as much as you thought. Leonardo is back and he’s pretty much regulated to strictly weapons manufacture and destruction. He’s basically a store. All that cool stuff you worked hard for in the second game? Easy pickings here. Got the moolah? Ca-ching, it’s in your inventory. As for Desmond, I cannot say much because you do play a lot more as him and I enjoyed every minute of it.

100 % synchronization. HATE. Of all the things that Ubisoft added this is the one I dislike the most. Many of the missions have an added bonus requirement that range from incredibly easy to absurd. You can still complete the mission, but you won’t get 100% synchronization (completion) of the memory. Many times I would get within seconds of completing an objective, and I would be spotted by a guard (when normally not) or run out of time. After about 1/3 of the way through the game I basically said “forget it” and just went for mission finishes. (There went hopes of 100% total completion of the game.) Totally demoralizing.

Game progression.
Here’s a synopsis of my evolved thoughts as I played through the game: Neat -> Yes? -> Yes! -> Amazing! -> Game of the Year! -> Huh? -> WTH? -> Not again! -> No! -> Just finish the dang thing. There are a few missions towards the end of the game that take the established game rules and throw them completely out the window. Hyper-alert guards and bosses, Timed runs, and those incredibly stupid synchronization requirements. There’s an endgame weapon that should be the most amazing thing ever and ends up becoming and trial and error device. You have your other weapons on you but you are not ALLOWED TO USE them one bit. A few missteps towards the end diminished my enjoyment a little. The previous titles did rely on trial and error. Why do so now?

Even with all that, I still consider Brotherhood to be one of the better games of the year. Here’s what Iiked:

Mission variation. Even though it is set in one city, this game is HUGE and there are a large number of mission types. It’s never a dull moment traveling from place to place.

Recruiting assassins. Nothing is more pleasurable in this game than whistling while near an enemy and seeing your fellow assassins come from anywhere and stealthily take out a few adversaries. You recruit them, train them, and guide them to being a full assassin. They can die, however. Once an assassin reaches level ten there is a ceremony in your hideout. I had a problem with mine. My first one to do so, reached it during the endgame. A message constantly kept popping up saying I should go there and reward him. However, those endgame missions are closed. You play to the end. In the meantime I used him for one of those absurd missions for help and he died. No problem, I’ll just die and start over from the checkpoint. No freaking dice! I start from the beginning and he’s gone. All that work. Gone. Apparently when an assassin dies it remembers it even before a checkpoint. In the end it’s not a real biggie. Just train more. It’s fun.

Borgia towers.
Climbing towers is a a great mechanic for surveying the terrain. Ubisoft added this neat twist by having some of them be heavily guarded and with soldiers and led by a captain. You must assassinate the captain and then torch the tower to claim it. The ending animation for each one was an awesome stroke of badness as Ezio tosses a torch into the tower and jumps off the top. One caveat. The game has a tendency to show you the towers but then block you off from getting to them. You dies constantly due to going out of bounds of the play area. It’s confusing, especially when there are missions near those towers and you have to go around on an undefined map to get there.

Multiplayer. I think Ubisoft really hurt this title by focusing primarily on the online play in their marketing and interviews. It’s actually a small component of the game. The singleplayer dwarfs it by a longshot. However, In some cases Ubisoft was justified in mentioning it. It is a blast. Basically, it’s stab and be stabbed. It’s slow and methodical and a fine counter to all the twitch multiplayer titles.

Story. Even though I disliked it, I also liked it. (Figure that one out). This game does set the stage for Assassin’s Creed 3 and it’s going to be epic. Do I want to visit Ezio again. No. He’s awesome and my second favorite video game character of all time, but it’s time to move on before he becomes a caricature of himself. Desmond is going to rule.

Final thoughts.

I had more fun playing AC2 than I did this title. I was still thrilled but somewhat disappointed. However, it’s still one of the best titles that I’ve played this year. I had the chance to play it on my Acer XB and on my friend’s BenQ XR, these are the best gaming monitors.  I believe it to be a must buy, but be warned—especially if you were in love with the previous titles. It is different in some ways. There is nothing like the mythos of this series in video games. It should be experienced.

I played the PS3 version to completion at just around 26 hours. This has got to be the most disjointed review I’ve ever written. My thoughts are still mixed. Awesome but flawed. Flawed but awesome.

A Shattered Experience [Silent Hill: Shattered Memories Review]

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii is an interactive book you cannot put down. At times, it’s a book you want to throw against the wall.

A re-imagining of the original Silent Hill, Shattered Memories pits you as Harry Mason. He’s just experienced a car accident outside town and is now looking for his young daughter Cheryl.  With a flashlight and cellphone, Harry traverses the city to, well, wander. This is not a bad thing, per se, because this game is all about atmosphere. The music, graphics, and excellent voice acting add to it.

The city of Silent Hill is seemingly deserted due to an incredible snow storm that is blanketing the area. Harry runs into no one. Well, almost no one. There are a few souls stuck in the snow as well. In an almost linear fashion due to some well placed snow banks, Harry goes from building to building searching for his daughter. Along the way he comes across clues not about Cheryl’s present whereabouts, but more from her past or his past or his wife’s past or some total strangers. (Good luck figuring it all out).

All this confusion is one of the driving forces behind the game. The narrative is superb and the ways the developer used to tell it is probably the best use of the Wii controls to date. Harry’s cellphone is essentially the Wii remote. All the phone calls come through the controller’s speaker. This add an uncanny sense of realism, and just like a real cellphone, it texts, takes pictures, has a GPS, and a contacts database.

HINT: Call every number you see in the game. They are all worth it. Some are pointless to the games progression, but add a lot of life and detail to an empty town.

The remote also acts as a light for Harry. It’s so intuitive that if you can operate a flashlight, you can play this game. Point where you want him to shine the light and it literally works.

As Harry walks around the city in some places a faint trace of static will sound on the controller. Get closer and it gets stronger. Eventually it gets so loud it will squawk and a paranormal event will happen. The game calls these “echos”–traces of something important that happened in the past. On some of them, you can use the camera to take shots of the scene and a ghost will appear in the images. It’s a creepy effect that works.

what a nightmare
With a game like this, there cannot be a sense of danger and in each area Harry experiences a nightmare. The landscape changes, freezes over, and everything turns dark. Harry must then navigate his way out of the area while being chased by humanoid creatures. If they catch up with you, it’s waggle time. The player must shake the remote in the direction the creature is hanging on you.

This really stinks. Many times a player can be overwhelmed by the creatures or end up running in circles by taking numerous dead end paths. Harry never dies, but the sequence starts all over. Get ready for replay city. There were two times in the game I had to walk away from playing for a day or so because it was too much. I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I wanted to get going. I hardly ever consult a walkthrough, but I ended up doing it on both those nightmare sequences. It’s a huge narrative-breaking bummer. The developer should have chosen to continue the narrative with the consequences of being caught in the nightmare as part of the game play. (See Heavy Rain.) They did with every other choice Harry made.

NOTE: The last nightmare sequence is brilliant and what all of them should have been.

this game will profile you–seriously
The major scenes of the game are introduced by the player meeting with a therapist. He’ll ask you questions about violence, sex, gender issues, integrity, and other such areas. This allows the game to profile you and actually changes parts of the game based upon your personality. It also effects a lot of details in the end of the game. (There is one main ending with four minor results–and a traditional Silent Hill goofy ending.) The game even warns you of this at the beginning. It adds a foreboding touch that’s unparalleled in gaming.

It works really well, and I’ve got to admit my ending was really satisfying. A lot of critics lauded this as one of the best endings in a game for 2009. I’d have to agree. Saying anything more would spoil it.

Final Word
This is a game you should play. However, some of the nightmare sequences were almost deal-breakers. Fortunately, if it wasn’t for a walkthrough, I would have never finished it. If this had been played it in 2009 (its release), it would have been in one of my top five titles for that year.