Thursday, July 30, 2009


Every once in a while, a developer comes along making such outlandish claims about their upcoming title that no one can take them seriously. And on even rarer occasions, that company simply sticks the title on the floor of E3 and lets game do its own bragging. Scribblenauts is one of those games.

5th Cell has cooked up a creation that is limited only by your imagination, or so they claim. And the videos taken by random testers on the floor of E3 2009 absolutely back up those claims. In a nutshell, you complete levels by having random items dropped into the game that your avatar can use to navigate past any obstacles. So, where do those random objects come from? Your imagination. No, really. Write down the name of what you want, and if the game knows what it is, it appears on the screen ready to be used. Coming in September, this is certainly one of the most creative games ever made for the Nintendo DS.

And this is a game that proves once again that anything can be turned into a game so long as it brings the fun. Scribblenauts will not win any awards for amazing art or super realistic physics simulations. Thats ok. It's a simple idea executed in a fun way with attention to playability and the fun factor. It is exactly what a good indy game should be. And some of the major studios could learn a thing or two from it as well.

Of course there is no guarantee that Scriblenauts will be a market success, or that 5th Cell will still be here two years from now. Thats the price of producing in the middle of a recession. Regardless, the Scriblenaut sets a standard for would-be indy developers everywhere. Don't worry about flashy graphics or corporate tie-ins. You don't need them. Make the game fun, and the press will find it. Make it fun, and the praise will come. Above all, just make it fun.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Clearing the Clutter: Beyond Gamestop

If you have been a gamer for very long at all, you have a stack of old games you just don't play anymore. If you don't yet, you will. So, what can you do about it? A bonfire might be fitting, illegal in some areas and resulting in a giant mess anywhere, but fitting. Garage sales never seem to make much money unless you live in one of those 'reality' shows on daytime cable. If you have a younger sibling / niece / child, just giving the old stuff away could be tempting. But... if you can get money for the old stuff, why not?

And so we come to the obvious answer. Thousands of gamers every month truck their old games to their nearest Gamestop and allow Gamestop to make billions. Compare the amount Gamestop buys old games from you to the price they sell those games to other gamers. Consider that nearly half of their corporate profits comes from used game sales. If thousands of people are willing to buy a used game from Gamestop for $5 less than the brand new price, why on earth would you want to sell Gamestop that same game for less than half that price? If we can find a way to skip the middle man and move a game directly from you to He Who Wants To Buy, we could potentially double the return. Ideas anyone?

Friendly local, independent game store? Awesome. If you are lucky to still have one of these, treasure and cherish that relationship. You are likely to get more for your old games and spend less on used titles than at Gamestop. These little businesses may not give you the best money for your games, but when you consider that the local neighborhood gaming store probably hosts a number of gamer-centric activities each year, that lack of dollars is made up in other ways. Sadly, most of America has no friendly local neighborhood gaming store. I've lived in five cities across four states, and I've only had one. So, for those of us not so lucky, what else can we do?

Online auction? Interesting. Ebay is The King of this market. There are major advantages to Ebaying your used games. Ebay draws millions of visitors a year and hosts an obscene amount of auctions. This can work in your favor, if you are lucky enough to be one of few people selling a sought after title. More likely, this huge crowd will never see your auction.

Video games, particularly used games, are not destination shopping items. Sure, we all buy some games because we set out to find and buy that one particular title. But how many games have you bought just because you were browsing through a shelf of boxes and something caught your eye? Ebay is horrible for that sort of browsing. And as a result, unless you just happen to be selling what people want, you are not likely to get many interested buyers, and that means lower prices. Not to mention Ebay will eat up to 15% of what ever money you do get from the sale.

What we need is an auction site like Ebay so we can sell our used games directly to people who want to buy them. But unlike Ebay, we need a site that won't bury us with fees and that makes it easy for our fellow gamers to browse the selection and find our game. In other words, we need an auction site dedicated to video games and game products that is visited regularly by thousands of gamers.

And Chase the Chuckwagon fits the bill. The fees are low, so we really can maximize our return. Since the site is dedicated to games, you know actual gamers will be seeing your listing. When you factor in the thriving community, you could almost think of Chase the Chuckwagon as the internet equivalent of the friendly neighborhood gaming store.

So start shoveling into that clutter of old games. But instead of just driving down to Gamestop, stop for a minute. Look around for an independent gaming store and rejoice if you find one. But if you aren't that lucky, consider bringing your used games by the Chuckwagon. And bring your friends with you. The more gamers buying and selling, the better for us all.

Monday, July 27, 2009

We Need a Sequel

We live in the age of sequels. The E3 press conferences for Microsoft and Nintendo this year were particularly full of sequels to darn near every decent game released on either platform. Some sequels are good, some sequels are bad, and there are some sequels that I would love to get my hands on that just haven't been made yet.

One that I have been eagerly awaiting for a decade is Alpha Centauri. Sid Meier and the amazing crew at Firaxis have put together a steady string of truly great games over the years. The Civilization series is the standard by which turn based strategy games are judged, and rightfully so. But in my mind, Alpha Centauri tops them all.

I have no idea what made this game so addictive. It was basically Civilization 2 with some tweaks, and Civ 2 never hooked me like Alpha Centauri did. Maybe it was the political model, or the vehicle customization, or well-reasoned but really-cool tech. Maybe it was environment. Honestly, I have no idea. And I'm ok with that.

Just so long Firaxis can recapture that magic in a sequel, that is. Alpha Cenauri, as much as any other game I've played, deserves to be brought back to life. A re-release via Steam or GoG would be a nice consolation prize, but I have my hopes pinned on a complete remake, Pirates style.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Controller vs Keyboard

In the thirty or so years that PC and console gaming have co-existed, apparently we have not yet reached the only possible solution to the controller vs keyboard conundrum.

The latest salvo was fired by none other than John Carmack himself. Rage, iD's latest venture, is being designed with a controller-first control scheme. Seeing as Rage will be coming out on consoles, I'm not entirely sure why this is a surprise. Games that are released on console and PC tend to have console centric control schemes. It is an old solution to an old problem and certainly qualifies as old news.

But it should not be that way at all.

Take, for instance, Oblivion. Bethesda's role playing master work was huge on both PC and XBox. The control scheme, however, was almost purely a menu-driven affair that was completely designed for the XBox. Playing Oblivion on the PC, while still an enjoyable experience, forced the gamer to spend unnecessary time navigating menus with the mouse and a few keys, while the vast majority of the keyboard went under used. Oblivion (PC) would have been a far better game had Bethesda taken the time to design a PC interface, and not simply assigned keyboard keys to the XBox controller buttons.

Meanwhile, we can also consider Assassin's Creed. This was definitely a console first title, and the control scheme on the PC suffered badly for it. Assassin's Creed also mapped controller buttons to keyboard keys, but while Oblivion actually did so in an intelligent manner, Assassin's Creed apparently pulled random keys out of a hat. The PC setup was painfully awkward, and it hurt the game.

It does not have to be that way. Certain game actions must have a user inputted command; that cannot change from platform to platform. Whether those commands are buried under menus, made available by individual hot keys, or triggered by some key/button combination really does not matter. In every game, the interface and control should be tailored for the best play experience on that particular platform. Sadly, all too often, this does not happen.

In the case of Rage, I'm not worried about this in the slightest. iD is too good of a company to make so basic a mistake as a butchered control scheme for any platform. Too many other developers, however, ignore this aspect the game play to all of our detriment. Neither PCs nor consoles are going away as gaming platforms. Shouldn't developers do all they can to optimize for both?

Monday, July 20, 2009

EA: They Just Don't Get It

Any dog knows not to bite the hand that feeds it, but EA just can't resist dousing its paying customers in steak sauce and munching away. It seems the overriding concern has been to avoid piracy, and I can appreciate that. Piracy is not good for any of us, gamers or developers alike. But how does one reason that piracy can be beaten by punishing those who choose not to pirate?

The Spore debacle is well documented. Spore should have been a landmark game. It should have been a harbinger of a new generation of games that bring the gamer into the development process in new and exciting ways. Instead, it became one of the most pirated games of all time and spawned a class action lawsuit against the publisher, EA. Now when we think of Spore, we think of rootkits, intrusive digital rights management schemes, and a company that punishes its customers in the name of fighting pirates.

EA learned nothing from Spore. Last week the company proudly confirmed that we will have to be connected to the internet in order to play Command and Conquer 4. The interesting part is that CnC4 is a real time strategy title that will include a large single player campaign. The logic behind requiring gamers to be constantly connected to the internet to play in single player mode? EA has made vague statements about including MMO-esque features into CnC4 that will allow for the tracking of individual player progression. Because goodness knows we all want to advertise to the world that we failed the 9th mission 5 straight times before giving up and looking for strategies online. Other than mentioning player progression tracking, no reason has been given.

It seems far more likely this decision is another misguided EA anti-piracy measure. Not everything must be multiplayer, online, or include social networking features. Nor does everyone do all their gaming in a fixed location, or a location with stable and free wireless internet. By forcing all copies of CnC4 to be online at all times, regardless of what the gamer is doing, EA has simply guaranteed that CnC4 will be cracked and pirated. Offline gaming is a standard feature that many strategy gamers want, and if EA does not provide that feature, the pirates will be more than happy to oblige.

With Spore, if you did not want something akin to a rootkit infesting your computer, you had to pirate a copy of the game, even if you did buy it. With CnC4, if you want to play a truly single player game without being constantly online, you will have to pirate a copy of the game, even if you do buy it. Instead of reducing piracy, these moves simply provide incentives to the pirates. Just like with Spore, the end result of online requirement will not be a reduction in piracy, but an increase. Sadly, the ones hurt most by EA's efforts to punish the paying gamers are the developers who make the games. Gamers can and will turn to the pirates to get copies that are not artificially crippled. But the developers have no where to turn for the revenue they lost when those would-be customers turned to the pirates.

At the end of the day, EA's anti-piracy efforts are only angering their customers and hurting the revenue of their developers. When EA fights pirates, only the pirates win. And that isn't good for anyone. Giving incentives for piracy is no way to get rid of it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Games That Need To Be Made: Ender's Game: Battle School

There are some books that are just destined to be converted into movies. Sadly, such conversions are often awful, but that is a completely different article. In the same way, some books and movies are destined to be converted into games and sometimes game franchises. Lord of the Rings is one such book that has made the jump to the big screen and the computer screen in several flavors. Star Wars continues to spawn new games, and even Sherlock Holmes has gotten in on the act.

But some stories that beg for quality game treatment just haven't yet made the jump. One such potential gem is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. More specifically, Battle School.

Ah, Battle School. How has this not been brought into gaming yet? It could well be the absolute ultimate in competitive PvP. Take two teams of 40, each wearing special space suits and carrying a light gun. Place them in a large cubic room with no gravity. If you can hold the beam of that light gun on an opponent's suit for a few seconds, you freeze that part of the suit. Freeze enough of the suit, and you've basically turned that opponent into an object lesson in Newtonian Laws of Motion. The goal is to freeze the other team while keeping at least five members of your own team active, four to activate your team's goal and the fifth to pass through the goal for the win. Oh, and feel free to toss as many or as few obstacles into that gravity-free chamber as you like.

Easy to learn, yet difficult to master. Obvious professional and amateur league play potential. I do not think it is an overstatement to say this could be the digital equivalent of basketball, and the tech exists to do it right and to do it right now.

So let's get on it! Hopefully any copyright issues can be resolved quickly and a developer can be found who would not feel the compulsion to sully Card's masterpiece of competitive simplicity with extra junk. Let individual skill and team strategy shine. There are no balance concerns, no classes to learn, to complex objectives that change with each map. The rules are simply, the objective is obvious, and the game play would blend the strategy of chess with the speed and power of hockey. This is a gold mine just waiting to be tapped, and I have to think somewhere in the industry is a publishers willing to tap it.

Some games just beg to made. Let's hope for Battle School, the time will come soon.

Three Red Rings of Death - A "Poem"

Three Red Rings of Death
Blinking in the dark
Shining from my Xbox faceplate
Like a bloody, smiling shark

My 360 is on the fritz
For the second time, oh joy!
Microsoft you naughty devils
You broke my next-gen toy

How I love my pricey lemon
Or I wouldn't give a damn
Fantastic games and online fun
Cover the hardware scam

Three Red Rings of Death
I shipped my 'box in for repair
Until it's fixed I'll twiddle my thumbs
and pretend that I don't care.

-That is all. Have fun you lucky 360 gamers!

David 'Two Hammers' Moore

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Competitive Gaming, Take Two!

PvP tournaments are old news these days. The professional gaming circuit has its own official league, is sometimes seen on such mainstream networks as ESPN, and has generally become accepted as commonplace in the gaming world. Amateur tournaments are no longer the exclusive domain of private LAN parties, but are held in bars and gaming stores around the country. If you haven't seen one in your area yet, look harder. PvP tournaments are fairly commonplace these days.

PvE tournaments, on the other hand, almost do not exist. Player vs Player gaming lends itself naturally to competition, but not so much for Player vs Environment gaming. Just about the only realistic way to run such a tournament would be to have players (or groups of players) clear a portion of content while being timed. Think of it as the gaming version of skiing's giant slalom, only with better graphics and no frostbite. I strongly suspect there is a market for such tournaments. Anything we enjoy doing we also enjoy paying to watch other people do better. See NASCAR and Major League Eating if you don't believe me. That's not to say that PvE tournaments will be come as popular as a high speed exhibition of the fine art of making left turns, but there is likely a market that would be interested in competitive PvE, could such a beast be tamed.

And the taming may have begun. A game convention in Germany later this month will include a timed run of Ulduar, the newest and hardest World of Warcraft dungeon. The competing guilds will not be running the most difficult version of the dungeon, but when was the last time you saw a giant slalom set up on an extreme slope?

Quite frankly, I don't care who wins this tournament. I don't care how they win, or what the time will be or what strategies will be used. What I am waiting to see is the popularity of the event. Am I right in thinking there is a market for competitive PvE? We'll get an inkling of the answer later this month.

The Arcade is Back!

Ah, how I wish this were true. I know, I know arcades are still around here and there. We have Dave & Busters, Chuck E. Cheese and a slew of smaller arcades in shopping centers and strip malls. But these are only shadows of what were the glorious arcades of the 70's and 80's. These newer "arcades" are missing a lot of the ambiance and soul of their predecessors. Instead of dimly lit, music thumping, snack-bar smelling, neon caves we have bright lights and bare walls. Instead of a large variety of gaming genres we have shooters, driving and dancing games. Oh, and ticket redemption games. Ugh.

But for a couple days each summer the Arcade is back. And I mean back in a big and bad way. You see every summer old school arcade gamers are treated to the largest arcade ever. And, with a couple hundred arcade games and pinball machines all set to free play. Yes, I said free play. This would have been like heaven back in the early 80's. Something that kids everywhere dreamed about. Add to that a bunch of unreleased prototype games and rare arcade games, it feels like you are experiencing these games for the first time, much like it would have been back in the day at your favorite arcade when they featured newly released games. Remember the first time you saw Donkey Kong or Pac Man? I had a similar experience this weekend seeing Teeter Torture and Atari's Firebeast.

California Extreme, or better known as CAX, just wrapped up it's 2009 expo in Santa Clara, CA this past weekend. It was held at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara Convention Center and was truly a show floor to behold. I spent two days meeting with other gamers and playing tons of arcade games and pinball machines from my youth. It was also amazing to see the number of small children enjoying these gaming relics and truly having as much fun as they would by pulling off insane combos on DDR. It was an opportunity to play many games that I never had the experience of playing way back when. Growing up in Nebraska, we did have a good selection of arcades, but even then, there were many games that for one reason or another were no-shows on the arcade scene.

Arcades will never exist like they did before. But for one week in July the Arcade was alive and well. And with this, it will have to carry me for a year until I can once again step into the arcade of my dreams. Wakka Wakka Wakka.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Robot Renaissance

Continuing the recent trend of selling old but good games for very low prices, the announcement was made late yesterday that MechWarrior 4 will be released for free. Playing one of the greatest robot war-machine games ever might be the perfect way to purge the bad taste of Transformers 2 out of your mouth. And it is hard to argue with free.

Granted, this amounts to little more than a publicity stunt to drum up press for the recently announced brand new MechWarrior title. And, hey look, it worked! Regardless, it is always a good thing for the great games of yesteryear to be made available for free or on the cheap. These games are not any less fun for being old. MechWarrior 4 still has a lot of play left in it.

There are still some answers to be given on this release. While I assume the free version will be tweaked to make sure it plays well with Vista, I cannot confirm that yet. Even if the free version is just chucked online as is, though, I do not imagine it will be long before the community hacks any Vista bugs out of it.

No firm word on release date, but it is said to be soon. In the meantime, let's hope this trend continues. There are a lot more great old games out there that could use a new and cheap release.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mud Like Wine

Once upon a time, a long time ago, 16 bit color was considered advanced graphics. In this strange and distant time, bandwidth was measured in bytes and "mega" was reserved for physical storage. It was a digital world almost, but not quite, completely unlike what we see today. And yet, like a dinosaur that just won't go extinct, something from this far distant past is still with us right now. Not only with us, this ancient relic has a powerful effect on the gaming landscape today.

The living heirloom? Muds. Multi-User Dungeons are the early predecessor to the modern MMOs. And yes, many of them are still around with regular players and active communities. Muds are intimidating to the modern gamer, and that may be unfortunate. Every modern RPG has within it the soul of a Mud. Strip away the impressive visuals and the user interface, and you are left with something that would be right at home in decades past.

The play experience of a Mud, like any modern MMO, largely depends on the control scheme. Like any modern game, the player operates within the game world by means of commands. In a modern game, those commands are largely entered with the mouse or keyboard hot-keys. In a Mud, those commands are typed. This isn't as bad as it sounds at first. Once you master a basic command vocabulary, and the world is pretty much yours.

Why bother? Why not just stick with modern MMOs? Two main reasons, I think. First, nostalgia. Rather than spending thousands on a restored '57 Chevy, you might reconnect with the past by spending a few months online in an old school Mud. But beyond the quasi-emotional allure of yesteryear, consider the low barrier to entry for both developer and gamer.

For developers, the Mud might be the easiest multiplayer game to make. So long as there is a good fictional world to explore and some good stories to tell, the Mud can be born. No need for artists or advanced particle modeling or complex UI designs. Muds, then, are ideally suited to the needs of hobby game designer or closet story teller. For the gamer, there is no such thing as computer that cannot run a Mud. Even netbooks can get you into the game if the operating system in question can manage a Mud client. And with many Mud clients being Java-based, even that is not much of a problem. With a Mud, online gaming can hit the road in a way modern MMOs just can't.

Getting started is surprisingly user friendly as well. There are websites out there dedicated to the Muds among us and to getting new Mud-ers into the game. Mudconnect is one such place. When picking a Mud today, I would suggest you make a stable community one of your highest priorities. After all, like any MMO, a Mud is as much about its people as anything.

Classic Arcade Game of the Week (7/6/09) - Aliens Vs. Predator

This week's classic is none other than Capcom's "Alien Vs. Predator," the 1994 coin-op that represented a pinnacle in the two-dimensional fighting game genre. By 1994, Capcom had become a specialist in this style of game, as its other titles such as Final Fight, Captain Commando and Knights of the Round were popular predecessors that used the same formula.

What then, made AVP stand out from the pack? Great, anime-stylized graphics and character design, that's what! Add a deep fighting system and a slavish attention to detail to both the Alien and Predator film franchises, and you've got the makings of an unforgettable action title. I've always maintained that this game is the best AVP game of all time, despite other gaming studios making lackluster 3D first-person shooters out of the property.

The plot of the game is nothing to write home about - just your typical, flimsy setup for some chaotic, butt-kicking action. The fictional Californian city of San Drad (LOL!) finds itself under assault by legions of vicious aliens. Lt. Dutch Schaefer, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character from the first Predator film, has teamed up with partner Lynn Kurosawa in an effort to destroy them all. However, they soon find themselves outnumbered. Just as all hope is lost, predators arrive on Earth to hunt the aliens down. A temporary, uneasy alliance is formed between predators and humans, and an assault on the alien nest begins.

The game offers players the choice to play as one of four different characters, two of which are predators. Dutch is the most powerful character, but is slow as molasses. Lynn is the weakest, but is the fastest when it comes to reloading her pistol. Players will find the firearms in this game to be vital tools that keep hordes of aliens at bay. The predators themselves both have great power, but have average speed and even slower firearm recharge times. Capcom really gave the characters extra personality by giving each of them unique weapons. Lynn uses a Japanese katana to deliver finishing blows, while the predator warrior uses a sharp spear. Dutch wields a huge, cybernetic arm equipped with a machine gun, and the giant predator hunter uses a giant, dual-bladed pole arm.

In the course of a game, players can pick up multiple weapons and healing items to aid them in their adventure. Pulse rifles, assault rifles and grenades seen in the Alien films appear, as do the razor-sharp predator "frisbee" discs which can be thrown a nearly unlimited number of times - players just have to make sure to catch them on the rebound! The flamethrowers used aboard the Nostromo also show up, as do generic survival knives. Often, so many pickups are scattered on the floor, it becomes difficult to grab the exact one you want, leading to some frantic, frenzied battles. Vital health restoration items take the form of sumptuous meals like lobster platters, hoagies and pizzas. An all-powerful medical kit restores all of a character's health meter, making it one of the best finds in the game.

As mentioned earlier, the title offers a deep fighting system. When properly utilized, it allows players to advance deeply into the game. The arcade controls consisted of an 8-way joystick and three buttons. One button was for jumping, another was for firing the player's secondary weapon, while the last was for hand-to-hand combat. In the course of unleashing hand-to-hand combos, quick joystick thrusts to the left or right would allow for powerful "lunge" blows. If timed correctly, players could grab enemies, choosing to pound them repeatedly or to sweep the joystick 90 degrees to nail them with a powerful, jumping uppercut. If timed just right, players could grab an opponent while in the air for an over-the-shoulder toss. Downed enemies that were groaning on the ground in pain could be finished off with bursts from a player's secondary firearm, making bullet conservation key.

Fans of the Alien and Predator film franchises will find a lot to love about this game. The aliens and predators are detailed and accurate. Even the various species of alien xenomorph created specifically for the game look and feel as if they could truly be from the alien canon. The alien queen, eggs, facehuggers and chestbusters all appear in the title, giving fans something to cheer about. Another nice touch is forcing players to fight infected humanoids, who lumber around like zombies.

Weyland-Utani, the villanous corporation from the Alien films is revealed to be the culprit behind the mayhem, and its logo appears everywhere throughout the game's second half. Even the backgrounds have nice references to the movies. In the screen shot below, the Weyland-Utani atmosphere processing tower from Aliens can be seen.

The weapons are film accurate, right down to the sound effects made when they fire. It's clear that Capcom's designers studied each film in thorough detail to give the game a level of fan service players could get excited about. Even the continue screens are an homage to the films -faced with "Game Over," players who chose to be predators are shown a screen showing them about to activate a nuclear self-destruct wristband!

The gameplay is standard beat-em-up fare, taking players through alien hives and creepy passageways in a hunt for the almighty queen. At the halfway point of the game, players are confronted by Weyland-Utani soldiers, who seek to use the aliens for their own evil ends. Killing human soldiers adds some welcome variety to the goings-on, as they tend to drop lots of laser rifles and grenades. An occasional bonus game or bonus level breaks up the fighting stages, keeping the proceedings from getting too stale. One memorable mini-game forces players to destroy an elevator control panel gone haywire, before they are smashed into the ceiling at high speed.

The bosses in the game are challenging and memorable. There are giant aliens that serve as members of the queen's royal guard that can be ferocious and intimidating. Ripley's power loader makes for a tough fight, only this time its being manned by a Weyland-Utani goon. The alien queen is an awesome final battle. She impales players on her barbed tail to inflict significant amounts of damage. It must be noted that the player who lands the death blow on any particular boss gets a sizable point bonus. This made for some fun smack-talk in arcades where two player co-op was commonplace.

I remember having a blast with this game back in college, when it first came out. I'd often play with a second player, and wouldn't stop feeding the machine until reaching the conclusion. I suggest playing the game all the way through, especially after watching some Alien and Predator films to brush up. It makes the experience all that much more enjoyable. Until next week's game, check out and enjoy AVP! You'll be glad you did.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Few Hours of Nostalgia

Welcome to Fourth of July Weekend, when all thoughts of gaming take second place to fireworks, flags, grills, and sunburn. With all the time dedicated to loud noises and seared meat, it is likely we won't have any moments to spare for digital entertainment. Of course, by Sunday evening when we're lounging in pain and wondering why we forgot about sunscreen... again... a little light gaming might be in order.

So lets look back a few years for a title you may have never played, but absolutely should. Beneath a Steel Sky was released in 1994 by Revolution Software in the UK. By genre, it is a point and click adventure title, but a better description would be interactive graphic novel. Beneath a Steel Sky takes place in a quasi-apocalyptic future of powerful corporations that control the city via a rigid class structure and a powerful computer. The protagonist, your character, is kidnaped from outside the city in a cinematic-slide show that begins the game. With his trusty sidekick, Joey the robot, the protagonist navigates through several levels slowly figuring out the truth behind the city's situation.

The writing is phenomenal. The game is littered with clever banter, one-liners, and characters both comedic and absurd. If you imagine Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only at a slower pace, you'll have a decent feel for the type of humor I'm talking about. Talk to everyone. There are some gems tucked into of the way places you will not want to miss. The voice acting is also very impressive and timeless. While the graphics are obviously dated, it is fifteen years old after all, the writing and voice acting keep this game very enjoyable.

A short, but good, story line and a classic sci-fi comic feel make this a great game for anyone who enjoys reading Asimov, modern point and click adventures, or watching classic sci-fi. Best of all... it's free. You can find it in a few places around the internet, but I would recommend Good Old Games. Included with the download from GoG is a walk-through that doesn't give away the story, just in case you get stuck. All in all, Beneath a Steel Sky is a perfect example of games that stay fun despite their age and makes for a very light and enjoyable evening of gaming.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Browser Gaming: Fantastic Contraptions

Looking for still more ways to spend non-productive hours online? No worries, I've got another highly addictive, well produced game you can play in a browser for easy minimization when the boss pays a visit. Be warned: turn down your sound before you visit this web site. This game's one glaring flaw is that the music is just too loud.

Fantastic Contraptions, published by Orange County's inXile Entertainment, is a case of Rube Goldberg meets model car building. The rules are deceptively simple: move an object from zone A to zone B. You are given a small array of wheels and connectors to do this. Interfering with your efforts are various environmental obstructions... stairs, chasms, small rolling balls, huge rolling boulders... all manipulated with a fairly consistent attention to physics. In addition to gravity and balance, you will have to deal with friction, momentum, and the sheer frustration of watching your cleverly designed and meticulously constructed machine get hung up on a tiny pebble.

Like any good puzzle game, the levels are not so challenging as to cause you to chuck your keyboard out a window. Beat your head against your desk, yes. But in a good way. Success is tantalizingly close whether you spend ten minutes or two hours on a level. And you will likely spend two hours on some levels. Even after numerous repeated attempts, though, the levels stay fun. Its the sort of challenge you will find yourself thinking about as you drive home from work. Its the sort of challenge that will completely kill your productivity at work. Even better, its the sort of game that people will enjoy watching you play and want to try themselves, killing the productivity of your entire company.

For free, you can play through 21 levels. Depending on your amazing skill at moving objects with oddly shaped machines, this will probably be more than three or four hours of play. For many people, it will easily be twice that. Don't despair, though. For $10 you can make your own levels and play through levels made by other people. The potential for replay here is sky high.

The price is right, the game is fun, so give it a try. It could kill your productivity, but I'm sure your boss won't mind.