31 December 2012

#2LR Civilization Retrospective Gala - Civilization II

Thanks to Reddit, Civilization II hit the news in June of 2012, almost twenty years after it was released.  It was entirely due to this longevity that it managed to hit the news in June of 2012, because one intrepid Redditor decided to play a game lasting literally ten years in real life, picking up the same save-game and transferring it to different computers when necessary.

As I watch my son play a game of Wii bowling that is over in five minutes tops and forgotten in six, that strikes me as quite a bit of commitment.  People grasped onto the story, and major media outlets grasped onto the story because it just could be plausible... after all, the game situation consisted of three major powers that faced off against each other in a wasteland of multiple nukes and no real arable land... which mirrored George Orwell's 1984 at least partially, and in some situations it serves as a cautionary tale to what may happen if humanity stagnates at 2020 technology and decides to fight each other for the next two thousand years.

But... seriously, this is Civilization II.  This isn't the Mayan calendar or anything.  In a year dominated by Mayan calendar jokes, I suppose it made some people happy to know that we may still live to the year 3991, even if it was as a stalemated semi-existence.

I had heard the story, even saw the challenge that the Redditor posted ("Win my game through conquest and save the world through transformation!").  That still didn't inspire me to try to resurrect my copy of Civilization II though, his situation matched situations that I've dealt with in Civilization II as well.  However, doing these retrospectives gave me the inspiration to unearth each and every Civ game I own, which all happen to still be on CD-ROM.  Installing this game was extremely difficult, but I managed to accomplish it... for you guys!

To get the "good stuff" out of the way, Civilization II improves on the original more than a bit.  More civilizations are available, more governmental types are available as well.  The game makes the first acknowledgement that settlers aren't exactly equipped to build massive irrigation projects, providing a late-game upgrade to "engineers" (though engineers are still the unit that builds new cities in the late-game stages).  There are more Wonders in the game too, and the game gives some ability to upgrading sea tiles with the harbor and offshore platform buildings.  There are penalties for changing your project, though only if it is not the same type (going from building to building is fine, but building to unit is not).

However, the big failing and issues with this game remain the zones of control and the diplomacy.  Going through another playthrough, I remembered how frustrating Civilization II was because cities could be built anywhere by any country... which resulted in too many occurrences of the computer players putting cities in places that I already had a city next to, and because of the city's zone of control that meant that my roads/railroads were instantly ruined.  Additionally, there's no real limit to the computer players working together against you and breaking agreement upon agreement, as well as no real way for you to tell another country to get their caravan out of your railway except through military action.

Last note, I have a special shout-out to the adviser screen in Civilization II, which has become the source of more than a few jokes and a meme.  I know that everyone likes the Entertainment advisor Elvis, but my favorite was the Kevin James-ish military adviser.

As far as the ten-year Civilization II game, don't ask me to even try.  Megane 6.7 and I still write MSTings, we've been doing this for twelve years.  I've had the blog for seven... but the happy part is that things change.  While we'll still trot out our A-Team references, thankfully there's been all sorts of media since 2000 (Harry Potter, Twilight, Lady Gaga, etc.) that allows us to keep our references at least semi-fresh, and new fiction all the time to find out where it goes.  I tried to play a Civ II game from start to finish for the article, and I managed to make it through the Apollo Project, built somewhere around 1840.  (Note: I love Civ time, it's so funny to start building your railroad in 1745)  However, the diplomacy and the zones of control issues are both too much for me to overlook, and handled admirably in later versions of Civilization.  Civilization II, for me, belongs in the same category as Civ I -- fun for retrospective reasons, fun to reminisce for old games and times spent playing what was then a revolutionary game... but overall, not replayable to the point of a ten-year consuming game.

29 December 2012

#2LR - Civilization Retrospective -- Colonization

And you thought I'd go on to Civilization 2 first?  Not hardly!  At the time, as I recall, Colonization was billed as the sequel to Civilization, long before the Roman numerals became a part of the series, and was Sid Meier's follow-up to Civilization... which is why it gets to go before Civilization 2.

Colonization included a lot of the aspects of Civilization, where settlers build cities, are transported on ships, and there are military units involved.  However, it was a departure in some regards from usual sequels because there were so many different aspects between Colonization and Civilization too.  For instance, in Civilization, you could assign a citizen to produce from a plot of land, but that citizen would produce exactly x number of shields, x number of food, and x trade arrows every time.  There was no change.  However, in Colonization, if you directed a colonist to produce on a forest square, they could produce lumber, or they could produce furs, or they could produce food, or they could produce cash crops (tobacco/sugar/cotton).

Production was handled far differently too.  Civilization had shields automatically generate which turned into buildings.  In Colonization, basic buildings could be built by cutting timber from forest, then having a colonist spend time in the carpenter's shop, generating hammers.  More advanced buildings required tools, which took ore and time spent in a blacksmith's shop.

The interesting part with Colonization was that you could ship raw materials (ore, furs, sugar, etc) or you could have a colonist process them into finished goods (tools, coats, rum).  It was a balance to figure out how to make money, whether to put in the extra work to get presumably more money for the goods.

Unlike Civilization, there is no tech tree and there are no Wonders of the World.  There are different units, ranging from inexperienced soldiers to veteran soldiers, mounted soldiers (and veteran mounted soldiers), and cannons.  Taking an established city is far harder than it used to be, especially as the cost to outfit an army becomes higher and higher.  The tech tree and the Wonders were replaced by Founding Fathers, historical figures that you could obtain through making a colonist into a statesman, similar to a politician.  Each Founding Father would have a benefit, such as extra ship movement, free city defenses, etc.

The biggest change is the start position.  In all other Civilization games, you start with a land unit and have to build a city nearby.  In Colonization, you start with a transport ship and two settlers; you have to first explore to find a good starting position.  Exploration is an extremely important part of Civilization in all incarnations, but paramount for Colonization if you want to give yourself the best chance.

It's almost as if the programmers (Sid Meier & company) decided to challenge themselves to make a new game.  It took me quite a while to get to the point of having a good enough strategy to win on moderate difficulty; for the longest time, I worked at easiest level and still had problems.  I have since figured out a few tactics and strategies that work fairly well, and can beat Colonization on medium most of the time.

It could be because I managed to find a good balance, or just that the dynamics of the game are so different, but Colonization is a game that I can pull out and enjoy almost twenty years after it was first published.  The biggest problem I've had is to find ways to continue to play Colonization long after Microsoft has determined that old software shouldn't be run on new computers.  Unlike Civilization, I still quite enjoy playing Colonization for more than just nostalgia's sake, and even though an update to this game was published using the Civilization 4 engine, I am more than happy to continue to play the original.  If you happen to find a good copy of Colonization, I suggest DosBox for running it.

The series will continue with Civilization 2, both the challenges in installing the game as well as the ways that the Civilization series was made better, along with the challenges that the programmers continued to face.

27 December 2012

#2LR - Retrospective of "Civilization" -- Civ I.

For Christmas, I received the expansion pack for Civilization V, "Gods and Kings".  I am still going through it, and I am sure that I will have some comments about it when I get to that point.  It made me realize, though, that the Civilization series has been a large part of my computer-gaming life ever since the first one popped up in the early-90s.  So, I thought that I would go through the series with some reminisces and whether or not the game holds up.

Firstly, my memories of the series are inextricably tied to Windows.  The first computer that I cut my teeth on was an old Apple II+.  It ran on floppy disk, and it was a big flipping deal when my dad got a chip that expanded the Apple II+ to... 64.  Dang, I can't even remember what.  Good ol' Wikipedia tells me that it was 64KB of RAM.  Wow.  Anyway, the floppy disks -- 5.25 inchers that were really floppy -- all had games on them, and I learned how to program in BASIC on the Apple.  I had friends that had an IBM, with the 3.5 "floppy" disks that were really hard, and the graphics were just as bad... and the games just as texty.

In middle school, my parents bought our first IBM-type PC, and we had Windows 3.1 installed on it.  It was wild, having to use this new "mouse".  I knew of Sim City from disks at school that we would install on our brand-new Macintosh computers (1992 FTW!)  As a result, Sim City was one of the first games I played that had actual graphics.  Game #2 was "Darklands"... and that thing was WELL ahead of its time.  That will get its own blog post at some point, I'm sure.

With all that intro though, I wanted to make it extremely clear that when I played the Windows version of Civilization... I was floored.  This was the perfect thing for a budding anti-social nerd in the 90s, a board game that you didn't have to ask someone else to play!  And it had actual graphics.  The DOS version has... well, DOS graphics, but the Windows version was a clean version that worked well at the time.

This was a game that took a learning curve.  You had different units, like the settler to build new cities, the soldiers, the boats, and the planes.  Technology trees filled with advances to help your army and new buildings for your cities.  All of the esoteric concepts like corruption, government styles, Zones of Control... it was a lot to absorb, but if you have the time it's possible.

I spent many hours starting and sometimes finishing games of Civilization in my teens.  There were quite a few concepts in the original Civilization that lasted many years through the series, including boat bombardment and the treatment of airplanes (fly out one turn to attack, must return in the next turn to refuel).  Cities, to this day, still develop the land around them and each person you have in your city works one square of land.

But there are so many things that have changed about the series for the better that it is just so difficult to go backward.  Civilization treated every single soldier as a travesty, if the soldier was away from his home city the home city would get mad, and you had to provide entertainment for the city.  In order to get away from this issue, there was a fun and extremely amusing strategy.  I would get one of my port cities to spit out two or three battleships, worth a ton of attack power.  Another town would spit out transport boats and settlers. You could bombard the cities with the battleships, typically taking out really weak units -- the equivalent to men holding spears and shields.  Once you finished defeating all those spear-and-shield guys with your advanced battleship, you could land a settler unit into the town, and voila!  Instant takeover.  The way that the maps were back in the day, it wasn't very hard to get a majority of cities on the water.

To be honest, I wouldn't play a game of Civilization I except for nostalgia's sake nowadays.  But I wanted to at least show my affection for a game that I played through many a weekend, which encouraged me to make small, local decisions with an eye on the bigger picture.  The game was revolutionary, being made and balanced so well so early.   The tweaks and changes that various programmers and companies have made the game so much better with each successive sequel, as well as all of the advanced hardware, but they all had something gigantic to stand on.  While its newer changes have made Civ I obsolete, it was absolutely a 4 out of 4 game for so many years in the 90s.

I wanted to share memories of the other Civ games, as well as pointing out two sequels that get almost zero love nowadays that I still drag out and play more than a decade later.  Please keep an eye on this space for the articles, as I hope to publish at least once a week going forward.

I know that this is coming late, but Megane 6.7 and I would like to wish everyone a warm and festive holiday season, whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's Day, or the Emperor's Birthday that is being celebrated.  Have a safe and happy holiday, and I hope to have better news for myself waiting for everyone when the New Year arrives.

11 December 2012

#2LR - Too Late Reviews: Game Review, "Final Fantasy XIII" Part 2:

One of the reasons I enjoy playing Bethesda's "Elder Scrolls" series is that the world is extremely immersive. You can imagine yourself partaking in all of the quests, going down to the minutae of squeezing out an extra three points of carrying capacity from enchanting, or possibly bartering to the very singular percent for all of your weapons and armor.  Or, you can just cast all reason to the winds, get your archmage robes on and start causing explosions of fire and ice all over the place, pausing every once in a while to heal.

Having a world at your fingertips, intensely connected to your controller, and so dynamic that people who are killed in dragon attacks sometimes end up staying that way, means that your mind is being engaged to its fullest... after all, you get to choose what you do next, and the game reacts and changes to your choices.

As intimated before, Final Fantasy is NOT that game.

Final Fantasy is more like taking part in a movie.  It's absolutely scripted.  The director will tell you where to go and what to do at all times, and the best you can do to change things in Final Fantasy is either to use up your potions/Phoenix Downs and go without a tightrope, or to use all your crafting materials on your weapons immediately.  You'll end up with a level 8 something, and it will be different if you reset before saving... but only in that situation.

On the other hand, the game throws its chips towards the plot and character squares.  Unfortunately, for Final Fantasy XIII, there have been similar plots in the past.  Final Fantasy seems to go all-in for the "young people starting a revolution" plot, because that allows the characters to basically be against the world.  After thinking about it a few times, the only Final Fantasy game that I can think of that I played that didn't try that plot was Final Fantasy X-2.  (Disclosure: have never played 8 nor 9, nor have I played the Japan-only 3 or 5).  It's not as if I'm asking for a political-thriller-type plot, I don't need to revisit The Phantom Menace, but this really feels like ground that's been packed flat by millions of footsteps.

This leaves the characters.  Through hour ten or so, there's five main playable characters.  Like in the beginning, they're STILL split into three teams (though they were brought together very briefly around Hour Four, and remained two teams for roughly another hour).  There are tons of cutscenes to flesh out the characters, and plenty of time is used to flash back, around, and through The Days Before It Started.  Final Fantasy thoughtfully provides a "datalog", but that requires lots of reading... not something I'll spend an extra two hours on a game that may last more than thirty.  You can immerse yourself in this plot if you care to, but whether or not you do is really personal preference.

So... if it seems that I'm so negative about the game, why am I still playing around Hour Ten?  Well, I wanted to get to the sixth and last character, though I'm starting to lose some hope for that.  (Hope... HA!)  The level-up system has proven to be at least somewhat interesting, as you have the FF10-flavored discs with status or ability upgrades.  But the real reason is listed below.

The battle system is tweaked from previous games, and in my mind it does show an old gamer like me a new challenge.  In FF13, it's all about getting the enemy "staggered".  This is served by putting together the correct attacks in the correct order... if you go blasting magic at it immediately, it won't work.  You have to soften it up with either attacks or status weakening spells first.  It's extremely fast-paced, and you have to manipulate at least two menus with some deftness.

This battle system will NOT be for everyone.  As it is, I had to take some time to get used to it myself.  However, if there was one thing that I enjoyed about Final Fantasy, it is fighting around and levelling up... and for the battle system to be revamped into a bit more of a logic puzzle that takes some thinking and strategizing, that suits me right to the ground.  There's a million ways to dispatch people in Skyrim or Oblivion, but most gamers will gravitate to one method... have I ever told you how I can take down giants in Skyrim with one arrow due to all the status buffed armor and archery skills bought?

For the time being, FF13 remains my main television video game of choice, and as long as that is the case I will continue to blog about it.  Just be prepared, if for any reason FF13's battles get tedious or the plot sinks any further, you'll get a five-word blog post about me giving up on it going forward.

09 December 2012

#2LR - "Soul Eater" Review:

No change in status, though thankfully I am receiving some small amounts of feedback on my resume.  One interview is scheduled for next week at least, considering it's been only a week I will take that as a good sign.

It's a mixed bag... this gives me the time to watch more anime as well as to play more video games, but it's not exactly under the circumstances that I wanted... being able to play is one thing, but having motivation past the job search itself has been trying.

So, I'm summoning what I have left to give a review of "Soul Eater".

Through the first three episodes, we're introduced to the main characters, who comprise three rather odd teams.  See, there are "weapon meisters", people who wield the weapons.. and there are the weapons, which happen to be other people.  I know, sounds odd, but at the very least we're not subjected to massively long transformation sequences.

The main protagonists are Maka Albarn, your prototypical scythe-wielding high-school sophomore, and Soul Eater, your prototypical high-school sophomore that turns into a scythe.  One of the other two teams consists of Black Star (assassin who can't stay silent) and his weapon Tsubaki.  The other gets odder... the weapon meister is Death the Kid, which happens to be the Grim Reaper's kid.  His two weapons are a pair of sisters from Brooklyn, NY, who happen to turn into guns.  Heh.  And oh, by the way, Death is really a good guy.

So, you can probably tell that this series is half-comedy.  There are quite a few other characters to add to the mix, teachers Sid and Franken Stein, who both happen to be weapon meisters.  Maka's father, which is also a weapon himself.  Excalibur makes mulitple appearances as one of the most annoying characters you'll find almost anywhere... Excalibur's shtick is that while any meister can wield him, he has 1000 rules for being handled.  You can likely guess how arbitrary the rules are.

The other half is actually fairly decent action... even if sometimes it trends into the cliche slow-motion cuts and Death the Kid's massive attack, which typically gets shown three times each instance it's shown.  While the first battle between new participants usually throws a surprise attack or two at you, when they do the next battle it flows fairly decently.

They did a very good job of showing the characters at their worst as well as at their best.  All three characters had their weaknesses... Black Star's braggadocio and Kid's compulsiveness work against them at quite a few times.  Maka, for her part, loses her share of duels, to the point that even though the show doesn't physically mention it too many times, you wonder exactly why she's lead because it's not exactly a given that she'll win any duel.

If there is one other thing that this show does well, it's opening and closing theme songs.  I particularly enjoyed the songs in the second season, especially the funky-fresh ED3 as well as the rock song OP4.  The animations accompanying the theme songs were pretty cool too, to the point that I wouldn't automatically skip the opening or closing sequences.

Fair warning, not to ruin the whole show, but the epilogue is like ten seconds long... there's closure, but not like scads of it.

Overall rating: 3.2  I will watch this one again, and I will think of this show each time I groove out on the theme music in the future on one of my mix CDs.

Thanks again for your patience, I hope to have more reviews up through the next few days.

01 December 2012

Not quiet anymore...

Well, that was fun while it lasted...

On Friday (30 November), I found out that I have been let go from my position, so I am now on the employment market again --  more urgently than I was two years ago.  I am unsure how this will shake out for my current posting schedule.  I thank you for your patience and your continued support of the blog and I hope to keep providing content as my schedule (and my mood) permits.