Thursday, April 29, 2004

City of Heroes (PC, *****)

I'm recovering from staying up till 12:30 AM playing City of Heroes, then got up to play it again from 7:00 to 8:30. What can I say? I'm hooked.

I hooked up with my friend Jeff, who was in the beta and plays "Captain Liberal". (Basically his origin story is nearly identical to that of Captain America, except that he was created in the 50's to fight McCarthyism rather than Nazis in the 40's.) As the newly created character "Seculo", I spent a tremendous amount of time designing my cosume, then went through the tutorial, and finally hooked up with Captain Liberal to fight bad guys in the neo-Nazi district.

If you have the chance, it's definitely a good idea to start playing the game with a higher level friend who can show you the ropes. Your first few levels will probably go more smoothly.

Costume creation

Before you start playing, you get to build your character, starting with height and build (a slider from "burly" to "athletic" - meaning "skinny"). You will also be choosing what kind of origin your powers have: magic, mutation, science, technology, or natural. Seculo is recovering from being an evil lawyer, so I chose a natural origin -- meaning he wasn't born or mutated into powers, but trained himself up like Batman. I made him kind of short and wiry, with glasses and a goatee. Then I gave him a blue and gray themed costume, with a "scales of justice" symbol on the front. The only major flourish I put on his costume was a striping style on his boots that the game described as "tiger", but since they're mostly gray, they just look like slightly funky boots.

My future heroes may have a wilder style, and there's lots of variation to choose from. You can be enormous and lumbering, like the Hulk. You can be bare chested, or your clothes can have all sorts of crazy patterns on them, or fins, or whatever. Your skin can be any color; and it can have blood veins all over, or robotic circuitry, etc. Your face can have features like a cat, or goth eye makeup, or even clown makeup. (Super Gene Simmons to the rescue!) I even saw some superheroes running around who looked like nebulous glowy things. Think of, I don't know, Electro after he lights up.

You can make all kinds of changes to your costume and body, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that you can be absolutely anything you can imagine. The logos are chosen from a list, and although there are a whole lot of them, I was disappointed that you can't design and import your own from Photoshop or something. Also, there didn't seem to be very much variation between face styles, though of course you can customize your hair (mohawks! bald guys!), facial hair, helmets, and glasses or visors. You can also choose to have a permanent grin or grimace plastered on you.


I'll describe how the power and levelling systems work after I tell you about how my game went.

After finishing a quick tutorial and customizing my character's powers (more about that later) I left the training area and went to meet my first "contact". This guy is your Commissioner Gordon, if you will. He says "Hi Seculo, can you go beat up five 5th Column bad guys?" or "Seculo! We need you to investigate this old abandoned warehouse and get some information off the computers!"

Your contact and your preferred enemies depends on which origin you chose. As a "natural", I met with a plainclothes crimefighter who is most interested in having me fight the 5th Column, which I mentioned is a neo-Nazi group. There is one gang of villains for each origin, so magic heroes will be fighting "hellions", which are a demon gang, and science heroes will be fighting robots, etc. At least at first, the contact will usually tell you to go to an area where there are a lot of enemies to match your origin, although you are also free to go wherever you want.

But before I even talked to my guy, I messaged Captain Liberal to let him know I was ready to join him. He said "I'm on a mission, I'll be with you in a few minutes." I waited and familiarized myself with the area. Then he messaged me: "I'm out... I'll come join you." I wondered how, so I right clicked on his name and I got a menu that included the command "follow". Even though CL was halfway across the map, when I clicked follow my guy started running in the right direction and a little arrow appeared indicating that CL is 800 feet in the direction I'm going.

The homing interface is really handy. You can pick your own target on the city map and the target will always be shown on the main screen, and so will the current mission. The game has many different zones where you can go, and you'll only see a target or friend if it's on the same map as you.

Anyway, meeting up with CL was really easy, and we immediately joined up to form a team. Then he led me to meet my contact and get a mission. This then became the team's mission, and he could see my current mission as well as his own. The mission led us to another area of the city, so the Cap'n showed me the way to a subway system. All you have to do is click the subway, choose which zone you want to go to, and your character will hop on the next available train and poof, you're there.

Because there are lots of different servers and many zones within the server, you usually won't randomly meet a lot of other players unless you're specifically trying to find them. Champion City is populated with tons of NPCs, most of them just walking down the street going about their business. But as we travelled toward the mission, we would occasionally see little word balloons appear near us saying things like "Help! I'm being mugged!" or "Quick, finish da job before some heroes show up!" Helping out is optional. You can run toward the sound and fight the bad guys. When you start attacking, the victim will run away. But once you finish off all the guys in a group, the victim will return and say "Thanks!" or "Wow, you saved me!" or "Nice costume!" When that happens, you win influence points, which I'll talk about later.

When you fight somebody, the game automatically targets one of the bad guys and all your attacks are directed at him. You can switch targets by clicking on someone or hit tab to cycle through nearby baddies. Once you have targeted someone, you press number keys to throw a punch or use a superpower. Every action takes some time, and also has a cooldown time, so after you punch somebody you can't punch again for a couple of seconds, but you CAN use a different power right away.

Seculo specializes in mentally blasting people. Currently I have two types of mental attacks, so I switch back and forth between them when I fight, or occasionally punch people if both my blasts are in cooldown. Captain Liberal is a melee brawler and Seculo is mostly a long range supporter, so we complement each other pretty well in a fight.

When you target a bad guy, you can see what level they are. They also have have color coded names, so you can usually tell how you'll do in a fight. A green name means you will beat them handily; red means don't bother fighting them without a huge team.

The Mission

We get to the mission site and go inside. It's some kind of office building, and we're the only ones inside except for lots of bad guys. The game automatically creates a private area for you and your team when you go inside, so you won't be getting in the way of other players to "camp" spots where monsters are supposed to be. The building was a small maze with generous helpings of enemies, some tough and some not. As I've read, the game automatically customizes the enemies in a private zone so that they'll be an appropriate challenge for the level of your team.

I got some levels and items, and then we met the objective and I had to go back to my contact and get credit for winning the mission.

Character building continued

After you create a costume for yourself, the next thing you'll do is choose 1. origin, 2. hero type, 3. skill sets.

The origin does not affect what kind of powers you have, only what kinds of enemies and contacts you tend to meet. The hero type is everything.

There are five classes of hero:
* Scrappers are for players who like to go solo; they have a decent balance of attack, defense, and crowd control. If you made a hero based on Jackie Chan, you would be a scrapper.
* Blasters are ranged, high damage, low defense powerhouses. They can dish it out but can't take it. Guys with guns or energy blasts are blasters.
* Tankers are high defense, high power, but slow. The Hulk would be a tanker. Captain Liberal is a tanker.
* Defenders are your support team. They give buffs and healing to your party, and debuff enemies. In a more traditional game, defenders would be paladins. Seculo is a defender.
* Controllers are heroes who mess with people's minds. Professor X is a controller.

But wait, there's more. Each hero type has six, count 'em, six categories of PRIMARY powers, and six categories of SECONDARY powers. You choose one primary category and one secondary category, and you're stuck with that set of powers for the entire game. Each category has different levels of powers which you can buy after you level up. Presumably no category is useless, or so you'd hope.

A defender's primary powers are mostly about boosting their teammates, and secondary powers are for attacking and debuffing the enemy. Seculo specializes in healing (primary) and psychic powers (secondary). Within each category, there are something like ten powers. So that's five hero types, times six categories, times 10 powers, so I think that's 300 powers in the game, although it's probably a bit less because some types have overlapping skill trees.

Equipment and character advancement
The terminology used in the game is a little bit unusual, but once you get used to it you'll easily see how to make analogies to other RPGs. Here's a quick glossary.

Security level <=> level
Super powers <=> skill points
Super power enhancements <=> equipment (armor, weapons, etc)
Insights <=> potions and scrolls
Influence <=> gold

So here's how it works. By fighting enemies you get experience and influence (money). Get enough experience, and you can level up. On even numbered levels, new powers will be available to you from your primary and secondary trees. On odd numbered levels, you will get enhancement slots for those powers.

Each power has a number of little bubbles below it, like sockets where you can stick enhancements. When you fight, enhancement items will also occasionally pop into your inventory, usually after winning a tough battle. They aren't actually used until you "spend" them by popping them into a socket. Your enhancements can go into any appropriate power; an enhancement that increases flight speed only affects the flight power, and an enhancement that increases healing can only be used on a healing power. There are also all-purpose enhancements that do things like increase a power's damage, decrease cooldown, reduce the amount of energy it takes, and so on. The higher your level, the more powerful are the enhancements you can use.

You can also obtain or buy a limited number of "insights" such as rage, luck, energy recovery, and so forth. They act as potions which give you short term boosts. You can quickly consume them using the F1-F4 keys.

Production quality

As I always point out, this is the very first MMORPG I have played since I quit Ultima Online. So I don't know how this compares to Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot, but I really like the interface and visuals. The game takes place in a fully rendered 3D city, but it isn't a big network of generic identical streets and alleys. The map is very carefully designed and most of the places I've been so far stand out on their own. A short little riff of ambient music will play when you enter a new area, but otherwise there is no background music, just background noises.

There are also gigantic statues of legendary heroes throughout the city. I mean, like, statue of liberty sized. You walk up close to one and you're at eye level with the feet. And they're everywhere.

Sorry, I just have to digress and note something amusing. When you rescue a citizens from being mugged, one of their stock phrases is "Wow thanks, I've never met a real superhero before!" I want to smack them and say "What? The place is called Paragon City, the whole economy seems to revolve around heroes, there are giant freakin' statues of one on every block, there's an entire plaza full of heroes just two streets away, and you've NEVER MET ONE?"

Okay, got that off my chest.

Here's another cool thing: lots of preprogrammed animations you can go through. Bow, cheer, laugh, grovel, sit down and do yoga exercises, flex. There is also a "decision" menu which includes options like rock, paper, scissors, roll dice, flip coin.

Anyhow, I tried going solo a bit in the morning and didn't do so well. I think the game is definitely designed to make it easy on teams and tough on individuals. They give you lots of ways to hook up with people, in fact you can ask the game to automatically search for teammates and then other people who are near your level can find you. So far I'm only playing with Captain Liberal or alone. But this morning I was fighting some tough villains, and suddenly another blast of mind-rays came from behind me. Some midget girl came running up and joined the fight with me. Then I said thanks and healed her. That was neat. I know some people have complained that there isn't any PVP action, but the result of that is that everyone is really friendly and helpful to each other. I can see that it won't be much trouble to hook up with other players just to go for a short spin around the city.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Goblin Commander (GameCube, ****)

On a whim, I rented Goblin Commander this weekend. I played many hours, which is basically a positive review for me.

Goblin Commander is a real-time strategy game that has put in a heroic effort to overcome the inherent problems of controlling an RTS with a joystick. Unlike Starcraft 64, which used a PC interface and simply used the joystick as a substitute mouse, Goblin Commander is meant to be played on a console and the gameplay was designed to minimize unit micro-management and fast clicking.

Instead of controlling individual units, you can control up to three "clans" which can contain ten units each. Clans always move together in a group, and they operate on a one button interface. You use the joystick to zoom a cursor anywhere on the map (nice fast scrolling, you can cross a typical map in a second or two) and then you press A, B, or X to move the clan of your choice. Clans automatically "attack move", so they will fight anything that gets in their way.

You can also take direct control of any clan with the Y button, which allows you to move a group of units as you would control any other console character. While in direct control, you can also order other clans to follow you, and they will automatically help fight anything you choose to attack. This is a handy feature, because it allows you to run away. A clan that is fighting will ignore movement orders unless it is under direct control or following another clan that is under direct control.

There are two kinds of resources in the game: gold and "souls". Basically, souls are used to get troops and gold is used to upgrade them. Like Warcraft III with its greatly reduced unit limits, upgrades are extremely important because you want to keeping small numbers of troops alive for a long period of time. To get souls, you capture a soul well on the map by standing next to it with no enemies nearby. Wells provide you with a steady supply of souls as long as you own them, but the rate they give you decreases over time, so you need to capture more wells to keep troop production up, but you don't need to manage them.

Gold, however, requires lots of management. You get gold by smashing rocks and machines lying around the map. This is, of course fun. (Among the most important rules in gaming: smashing stuff is cool.) It does, however, require a lot of work. Your goblins will not automatically target smashable objects, so you need to spend some time clicking on objects or attacking them while a clan is under your control. Of course, the time you spend collecting money is time you are not attacking your opponent or managing your base, so there is a constant tradeoff between searching for money to buy upgrades and just making do with what you've got.

Luckily, base management is also very minimal. There are no build times, there are no research times, and there is no tech tree to speak of. Each clan has five unit types, but only two -- generally one ranged and one melee troop -- are available at the beginning of a game. The rest are locked away, and you can only access them by making an initial gold investment. After that, you can buy up as many available units as you can afford (in souls) and they join your army instantly.

The five clans specialize in different attributes, and their units and upgrades are tailored for that attribute. For instance, the rockcrusher clan has only one weak ranged troop, but it has three types of melee troops -- basic, medium, and heavy. They also have three levels of armor upgrades (bought with gold). On the other hand, the hellfire clan has one useless melee troop and basic, medium, and heavy ranged troops. They have no armor upgrade, but they have range upgrades. So if you have both clans under your control, you'll want to make heavily armored melee troops with the rockcrushers and long ranged, high damage shooters from the hellfires, and keep the two clans together for support. One clan has speed upgrades, another has a lot of spellcasting units that get health upgrades.

In addition, each clan has one type of support unit that provides additional benefits, such as scouting vision, healing, or armor bonuses. You can only have one support unit per clan at any time, and the supporters usually last a long time, so they don't get targeted.

Finally, some levels allow you to purchase "titan" units. Titans are extremely expensive but very powerful and generally have some kind of area attack ability that decimates weaker enemy armies. The catch is that you can ONLY move your titan via direct control. In other words, if you have a titan, you must micro-manage it all the time. If you stop controlling the titan, he flops down like a discarded puppet and takes a couple of seconds to get moving again when you come back. This means that going back to your base to purchase additional upgrades and troops is quite risky unless you are not under attack, or you have lots of armies guarding the titan. It is also a pain to get the titan from one area to another. Unlike regular armies, you can't just click a spot and then go do something else; you have no choice but to very slowly walk your titan from one place to another.

On the whole, the gameplay works pretty well. Because there is no building time, you can lose your entire army and still be in the game -- as long as you have enough souls to buy more, you can pop out a full set of reinforcements in seconds. However, you need SOME troops just to protect any soul wells that might fall to the enemy, because if you lose soul income then you're really in trouble. Gameplay alternates between battling the enemy and seeking out breakable objects to get gold from. However, fighting the opponent carries additional benefits. You also get gold for smashing enemy bases, and you get a portion of the enemy's souls when you kill their troops. So if you have a strong attacking force, it's definitely a good idea to press your advantage.

A few minor gripes I have about the game mainly involve the fact that it's hard to figure out what's what on the landscape. Searching for breakables can be frustrating on an unfamiliar type of map, because some of them just blend in with the landscape. Often the best thing to do is take control of one ranged clan and wander around the map pressing "attack" until they see something they want to target.

Also, the mission objectives in the campaigns are not always clear. For instance, they'll tell you to capture four soul wells, but finding them all is arduous. Even after the fog of war is lifted, it can be hard to see where the wells are without manually inspecting every inch of the map yourself. In one level, the object is to destroy all the trees in a certain area. There are a lot of them, and they can be easy to miss.

I don't know how multiplayer looks, since none of my local friends play this sort of game. I believe there is a split screen skirmish mode, and the X-Box version likely has an online game. The computer is very friendly to you in the campaigns; it does not break objects in your area or steal powerups that you leave lying around. As is standard practice in many strategy games, the computer makes up for weak AI by getting a large head start in army power for most missions.

Goblin Commander isn't the best game I ever played, but it is on the whole a positive step in proving that you don't absolutely need a mouse to have addictive RTS action.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Air America Radio

I've been listening to Air America Radio at various times since it began. In case you hadn't heard Air America is the new privately funded liberal radio network that is meant to compete with all the right wing talk shows. It's on radio stations in five cities, as well as XM radio. I live in Austin, TX, which is not in one of the sweet spots, so I have to go listen to it via RealAudio on their web site. Al Franken, former Saturday Night Live Veteran and author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, is host of "The O'Franken Factor" at 11:00 (noon eastern time), a title intended solely to piss of arch-rival Bill O'Reilly. I try never to miss an episode of O'Franken when I'm at work, and I occasionally catch bit of other shows, particularly The Majority Report with my favorite underrated movie babe, Janeane Garofalo.

Quite honestly I think Al started a bit weak but ramped up very quickly. On day 1 he felt a lot like he was relying too much on rehearsed material and an awfully large percentage of his jokes fell flat. (Except when he brought in Bebe Neuwirth -- "Lilith" from the show Cheers -- to play Ann Coulter. That was a riot.) But each day has been exponentially better than the last, and I know that Al will make a great host in the long run.

I'm happy to have a real liberal media for a change. I hope a station will open in Austin soon. Years ago when I first moved here, there was a fun, witty, slightly left of center host named Shannon Burke (a guy) on one of the local AM stations, sandwiched between Dr. Laura and G. Gordon Liddy. One day without warning, the whole station got shut down and changed overnight into a crummy oldies station. As far as I know, the poor guy just showed up for work one day and they told him, "This station doesn't exist. Go home."

One thing that has been a real downer for me is trying to find a place to discuss the show. When I like something, I want to get together with like minded people and just chat about it. However, finding a place to discuss the show on the net has been tricky, because every conversation quickly gets loudly commandeered by conservatives presenting such deep and well-thought out arguments as:

  1. He sucks.
  2. He's not funny.
  3. Ha ha, liberals don't get it.
  4. I give it six months, tops.
  5. It will be so sweet when George Soros loses all his money.
  6. U suck.

Of course I expect a certain amount of discussion on this level. It's the internet. But in this case, the focus of right wingers is so strident that you'd think it was the Second Coming of Clinton or something.

I'm a long time member of the Motley Fool message boards. The main place where people talk about Air America is on the appropriately named "Political Asylum" board, where half the contributors are screaming raving Bushies to begin with. And a quick search for "o'franken" on Google Groups will quickly reveal that the place where Al discussions are MOST popular is Nuff said, right?

I know this is how modern conservatives operate. As Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, the Dixie Chicks, and Valerie Plame will be the first to tell you, ever since Bush took office the first order of business for dissenters is to shout them down. It's not "I respectfully disagree with your opinions," it's "HOW DARE YOU talk back to me when I'm telling you the way things are?!?"

The comical thing about all this is that after years of angry blowhards on talk radio, the number one comment you hear about Air America hosts is "They're SO NEGATIVE!"

A close second is "What these lefties just don't get is that you can't just have a popular radio show for your agenda... you have to be ENTERTAINING." This bit of brilliant advice is usually delivered by competing radio hosts in a wise tone of voice that indicates they've just revealed to you the meaning of life. Yeah guys, no shit!!! And here I thought that Air America just got on the air so they could broadcast policy discussions on tobacco imports from Zimbabwe.

There's actually two funny things about this claim when it comes from conservative talk show hosts. The first is that people like Limbaugh, Hannity, and O'Reilly are RARELY funny to anyone who doesn't already agree with them. Their idea of highbrow humor is "liberals suck", followed closely by pointing out that some liberal woman is not terribly attractive, if you know what I mean. Most consistently unfunny comic strip? Mallard Fillmore. When you think of the comedy greats, who generally pops to mind first? Monty Python? Lenny Bruce? George Carlin? One key element of comedy is a certain irreverence for society's sacred cows. That DEFINITELY does not mesh well with right wing ideology.

The other silly thing about the claim that "You can't set up a radio network just because you have an agenda" is that this is EXACTLY what conservatives did when they set up their media empire. Rupert Murdoch didn't just wake up one day and say "Hey, I'll start buying up a whole lot of TV and radio stations and newspapers, and maybe a few of them will just happen to promote a right wing message." Limbaugh was nothing before he started getting backing from political groups like Capital Cities and ex-Bush adviser Roger Ailes. So I just don't buy it.

Nevertheless, it's hard to listen to all the slams on Al and Air America and not get a little pessimistic. I want this station to do well. I want to be able to turn on my radio and be able to hear something that is neither Rush nor a RushClone. It worries me that this effort will actually fizzle for whatever reason, and it will be even harder for anyone else to ever attempt such a thing again.

And finally, I don't believe any of the other stereotypes about liberals that are suddenly popping up in the wake of Air America's launch. You know... liberals are too policy oriented, and they don't care about entertainment. Liberals are a bad target market. Liberals don't listen to talk radio.

If I myself am any indication, liberals like to laugh. And we DO have an interest in talk radio. It's just that we've been listening to Limbaugh and Hannity for years -- in small doses -- because there's NOTHING ELSE ON. Sometimes I do, in fact, listen to the above just to get myself irritated. But don't think for a moment that this means I wouldn't rather listen to somebody who's right. Nevertheless, I will not be at all surprised to find that a large part of Air America's demographic is conservatives, for the same reason that I listen to Limbaugh (when I can stand it).