Saturday, May 03, 2003

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (PC, *****)

Bias warning: I'm a TREMENDOUS fan of Blizzard Entertainment. They are my favorite game company, and have been since shortly after I discovered Warcraft II in 1996 or so. I was tutoring a kid in programming, and I went to his house one day and he was playing online with his friend. All these colorful cartoon characters were running around the screen hitting each other, and the thing that most caught my attention was how when he clicked on something, everything had different lines of funny dialogue. I downloaded the demo, and bought the game the next day.

Since then, I have bought every Blizzard game I could within a week or so of its release -- Diablo, Starcraft, Diablo II, Warcraft III, and all the associated expansion packs. The release of a new Blizzard game is one thing I really look forward to and keep an eye out for its release.

So I chose to go to a special midnight sale at GameStop on the night it was released, July 3, 2002. GameStop was a madhouse. I expected five or ten die-hards milling around the store. Instead, there were about thirty or forty geeks waiting in an agonizingly slow line, clutching their pre-order receipts. I even ran into some friends there, a couple with whom I played Diablo in the past. Collector's Edition for him and regular for her.

The biggest thing new players will notice is, of course, that the game is in 3D. The models look good, especially considering that there are often dozens or hundreds on screen at once. The game loses very littlein translation from 2D sprites, they are still the same cartoon figures that we have come to know. Only now you can rotate and zoom the camera a bit to get a better look at them. When you click on them a bunch, they still make annoyed comments. Orc grunts say "Hey, are you poking me AGAIN?" And after that, "Actually, that's starting to feel good."

The other major change from previous games is the emphasis on heroes. You can have up to three of them, although new players will want to limit themselves to one until they are more comfortable with the micro-management aspects. Heroes gain levels and powers as the game goes on, so eventually they are far more powerful than any standard unit in the game. This totally changes the game dynamic from that of Starcraft, where the focus was "Make a million units and throw them at the enemy", instead forcing you to get experience for your own heroes and tactically decide how to fight the opponent's heroes.

The plot begins right in the tutorial, so first time players may want to play through the tutorial even if they feel like they know what they are doing. At first the game centers on Thrall, an orc hero who was supposed to be the main character in Blizzard's cancelled adventure game, "Lord of the Clans". Players also initially meet Grom Hellscream, who doesn't have quite the same funny screechy voice as in Warcraft II. After completing the tutorial, players switch to the new character of Prince Arthas, a human Paladin. I won't mention what happens to Arthas, as that would be a large spoiler for the game's pretty well written story, but I will say that Arthas will figure in as a character in more than one campaign.

By focusing on heroes, Blizzard made the game more personal. You can't relate to a group of 24 marines facing off against 48 zerglings; but you can feel a personal stake in the lives of your heroes in the game. The Starcraft campaigns had heroes like Jim Raynor and Fenix, but these "heroes" could not be brought back once dead, so they had to sit in the back of the base or fight on the flanks of your army all the time. By contrast, Arthas can be resurrected at the altar of kings; he is a valuable spellcaster; and he improves the more he fights. Arthas actually feels like he is your hero, who leads your army, not a wimp who needs a bunch of bodyguards to do the dirty work for him.

The cinematics are standard fare for Blizzard, which means "Better than anything appearing in other games, and on par with the CGI in many movies." When you first watch the movies, you should notice how detailed people look. King Terenas has beard stubble, jowls, and a very distinctive haggard expression. In close-up views, people who haven't seen Final Fantasy (the movie) will probably marvel and say they've never seen such life-like humans.

As far as gameplay goes, it's the little interface interface tweaks that push this one over the line from a good to outstanding game. Like the way you can order one unit to cast spells while still keeping a large army selected. The way you can cast spells on your own units using the portrait interface. The ability to hotkey multiple buildings and rally them all on your heroes, so troops run straight to the battle as soon as they finish training. Spells with autocasting that can be switched on and off. Small touches, but important.

The system is quite different from what Starcrafters are used to. You don't get a long list of game names to try your luck on. Instead, the game features automatic matching. You choose what kind of game you want to play -- map name and style (1v1, 2v2, etc). Then it searches for a game that meets your specifications.

With the addition of the "upkeep" concept, Blizzard changes the dynamic of multi-player gameplay as well. Keeping a large army on hand costs you an "income tax", so if you keep many troops around for a long time, you will wind up far behind on resources. The strategy of "turtling" in your base and building up to maximum army size is no longer viable. Because of this, the focus of the game is much more on strategic attacks, and the role of heroes is emphasized, because the heroes tend to be exceptionally powerful in the late game, while armies are proportionally less powerful. The rule of the game is, don't stay in high upkeep: "spend" those soldiers and go fight your opponent.

Single player levels are many and varied. About half the episodes are standard "build up a base and destroy your enemies" type levels. The rest are levels with small armies and no bases. Ordinarily I hate the latter, because I like to build. But having heroes with constantly improving abilities keeps it interesting, and they really feel like RPG quests. The quests themselves differ widely; there are stealth levels, levels where you simultaneously build a base and scout out adventures with a hero party, levels where you have to escort NPC's to a safe location; levels where you get computer-controlled allies, etc.

Overall, Warcraft 3 is a fine strategy game and will give many months of enjoyment.

Score: ***** out of 5.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

The Hacker's Diet

This is absolutely required reading for overweight computer nerds.

Health and diet is something I've never been particularly interested in, but the Hacker's Diet has done a pretty good job of breaking through my wall of boredom and getting me recognize why I should care. Even though I had two years of college physics, I never really understood this relation between calories and weight. I exercise, but it's sporadic at best. What John Walker did is take the complicated stuff at make it really simple and quantifiable. I love the rubber bag analogy. And I get it now that total calories =~ total weight, so eating x-y calories instead of x calories will cause a loss of a measurable number of pounds over time.

All this must be trivially, stupidly obvious to anyone who's ever thought about it, but I never have. The idea that you can actually quantify it and put numbers on your eating habits that directly correlate to weight movement is interesting. It's an important principle for investors too -- the idea of measuring your progress and making yourself accountable to a bottom line.

I'll admit, I balked when I read that you have to plan your meals. But then I read about the feedback loop, and I relaxed. Why, if I have a good feedback loop, then I don't have to perfectly measure the number of calories I eat. I'll learn to eyeball the right amount of food, and then if I am consistently overestimating how much I can eat, the chart will tell me within a week. All I have to do is pay attention to the number of calories in the kinds of things I eat, until I can get an intuitive feeling for how much is the right amount.

16 days ago, I downloaded the Palm Pilot tools with the intention of measuring my weight. I had a wildly inaccurate scale that gave nearly random readings, so I went and bought a decent one. At first I didn't change my eating much, but as I saw the little calorie readings on my graph, I started treating it like a game (how many big negative numbers can you generate?) and action followed naturally.

I don't know for sure if it's working yet. When I bought my scale, it moved my average weight down by a few pounds, so my previous readings are all wrong. But I DO know that I'm eating less. Just paying attention to what goes in makes a huge difference. I mean, geez, did you know that a double cheeseburger, fries, and a drink is nearly 2/3 of what I should eat all DAY? Even though the book says you don't need to stop eating the kind of foods you're used to, I'm gaining an appreciation for eating healthier. After all, if I eat food with fewer calories, I can eat more of it and feel full while still knowing I won't increase my weight. Not only that, but it's cheaper. If I bring light lunches from home instead of buying fast food most days, I get to keep more of my weekly pocket money to buy gadgets. Who doesn't want that?

I also finally started the exercise ladder. I've been doing it reliably for four days. Moved up to level two yesterday. I plan to go up pretty quickly, since I'm not in such terrible shape right now.

This morning, my wife suggested that maybe I should read another book on health, which she's been trying to make me read for years. She said "I think that it's a great step you've taken by eating fewer calories, but maybe the idea that it doesn't matter what kind of food you eat is a little more simplisitic than it should be."

To my surprise, I said "Okay." See? All of a sudden, I'm interested.