Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Starpocalypse Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/starpocalypse-review-584dd4253d9b

I've been a big fan of SMBC Theater for a few years now, and I have loved every minute of it. Last year when they announced that they would be focusing on one project for a while instead of coming out with regular sketches, I was simultaneously excited and bummed out; on one hand I wanted to see what they could do with a longer production time and a budget, but I would have to go a year without their comedy sketches. When announcements about Starpocalypse started popping up on the webcomic, my excitement was rekindled.

Starpocalypse is a 40 minute comedy epic about the human race abandoning religion, philosophy, and art; an alien who thinks she is god; and orgasms. I was looking forward to more of SMBC Theater's fast-paced, intelligent humor (like in Problem Solved and Dating Solutions) but it was all overshadowed by sex jokes. There were good moments, but when watching with a group of friends who haven't really seen much SMBC, it gets a little awkward. The orgasm button gag could have worked well in one of their five minute sketches, but 40 minutes of revisiting that and similar jokes was too much. I don't blame SMBC for this; after all, this is the first long-form production that they have done.

I was pretty worried at the beginning that they were just going to be making fun of religion throughout the whole thing. Fortunately this is not the case as they quickly turn around and make fun of the society that has abandoned religion as well. Basically nothing in this production is sacred, and that's a good thing.

If I could pick between having Starpocalypse and having a year's worth of SMBC Theater sketches, I would definitely pick the sketches. I love their sense of humor, but it is best digested in smaller chunks. I think it will be a while before I go back and watch this one. If you are already a fan of SMBC Theater, you will enjoy Starpocalypse. For everyone else, go check out their YouTube channel and watch some of their sketches. I guarantee you will love those.

Assassin's Creed IV Review

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When I finished with the disappointing Assassin's Creed III I vowed that the only thing that could get me to buy the next one is if they made it almost entirely naval battles. Looks like Ubisoft was listening. I'm very happy to say that Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag may be my favorite Assassin's Creed game of all time. It is certainly the one I have spent the most time playing, at almost 60 hours. It's competition is of course Assassin's Creed II, which had a great cast of characters and a story that spanned several decades. Black Flag's story is not as strong, but there are plenty of great characters and tons of open-world activities to entertain you in the meantime. It also doesn't hurt that pirates were one of my minor childhood obsessions.

The key to including side activities in a game is to make them enjoyable. Black Flag succeeds so well in that area that I focused most of my time plundering ships, taking over forts, and doing assassin contracts rather than advancing the story missions. This lead to several amusing moments where I played story missions clearly intended to teach me how to do a side activity (take over a fort, for example), only I had already done that activity several times on my own. Some side activities are better than others; attacking and boarding ships never really gets old, but I only hunted when I absolutely needed a particular pelt to craft a piece of equipment.

The downside to making an ambitious open-world game like this is that it may have been a little too much for the developers to handle. There were numerous times when my movement would be impeded by invisible obstacles, and there were occasional objects getting stuck inside walls. None of this was a game breaker, but it is something you notice. My favorite was in a scene where Blackbeard was being very menacing, very serious, and then a bug changed the tone of the whole scene.

If you play Black Flag simply for the story, you probably won't think it is an amazing game. It's biggest problem is that it lacks direction. It tried at the end to bring everything together with a fairly emotional scene in which Edward reflected on all the people he had lost on the way, but it didn't feel like enough. The real magic happens while you are just having fun sailing around, fighting royal convoys and pirate hunters, getting caught in storms, and listening to your crew sing sea shanties. Speaking of which, the soundtrack is once again wonderful, and it keeps getting stuck in my head while I am away from the game.

I have read a lot of people complaining about the modern-day story that the game advances every once in a while. I didn't mind, but I think that may have to do with my unique perspective: I'm a computer science student, and Abstergo Entertainment is somewhere I could totally see myself working at in a couple of years. I enjoyed just walking around looking at all the nice equipment they have.

Visually Black Flag is a beauty. My biggest complaint about Assassin's Creed III's graphics was the resolution of their textures, and that problem has definitely been fixed. I suspect that the new generation of consoles had to do with that.

Assassin's Creed is the only annual franchise that I have been able to get behind, and I think the key is variation. The unifying element is freerunning, but there have been many twists and additions to it that help keep each game feeling fresh. Couple that with the fact that there are many different settings for them to choose from, and I predict that this series will continue on for quite a while.

$60 is definitely a reasonable price for this game, and I also feel comfortable recommending it as a jumping-in point to the series for those of you who have missed out on it until now.

EDIT: you can now read my review of the Freedom Cry DLC.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dream: Computer Science Students on a Ship

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This dream is clearly a mashup of several things that I have been thinking about recently; namely, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, Computer Science, and summer jobs.

In my dream the Computer Science department here at the University of Minnesota Morris has a summer job training program. The only option in the program is to crew a sailing ship with a bunch of other Computer Science students. I am fairly certain that most of my classmates were there and +Nic McPhee was the captain, but I don't remember clearly. What I do remember was sailing around trying to find good places to harpoon the sea animals we were after (note: I do not condone hunting sea life, but it is one of the things you do in AC4, so it was on my mind.) We found a big group of seals that somehow looked exactly like the big dogs in Dragon Age: Origins. We caught a bunch of them and went on our merry way. We also sang a lot of sea shanties, which I now realize has a lot of similarities to camp songs: they are all call-and-response, and singing ability matters a lot less than volume and gusto. Sailors are such children.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dream: An Epic Staring Contest

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In my dream Hawkeye was training someone on how to fight with a knife (it was just like that scene in Secondhand Lions). Hawkeye started talking about how good his eyesight was, and he brought up this city in the sky that only he could see. Obviously he was talking about Asgard. To prove it, he looked up at Asgard, and at that exact moment Heimdall happened to be looking at Hawkeye. Their eyes locked...and the most epic staring contest of all time began.

Personally I'm betting on Heimdall.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Day of the Doctor Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/the-day-of-the-doctor-review-f13db857eb4

Before I start getting into things that people could categorize as spoilers, here is my overall impression of The Day of the Doctor. It was a very very good episode, and well worthy of its status as the 50th anniversary special. David Tennant and Matt Smith are amazing together; their collective silliness is one of the things that I love so much about the show. But their characters would probably never stop talking if John Hurt wasn't there to keep them grounded. There was a wonderful moment when he questioned their apparent need to talk like children (timey-wimey) and I thought that was a brilliant bit of social commentary about internet culture.
Now who should watch it? It is well suited to anyone who has been watching Doctor Who since they started it back up in 2005 (aka New Who), but obviously fans of Classic Who will get even more out of it. I'm happy to say that this episode has reinforced my desire to get into Classic Who even more.
I dragged +Kaelyn Olson along and afterwords asked her how it was from the perspective of a non-Whovian. She told me that as long as someone has the basics of Doctor Who (regeneration, Daleks, etc) they should enjoy it. That being said, this probably isn't a great jumping-in point for newcomers. If you are going to introduce someone to the series, either start at the beginning of New Who or wait until the upcoming Christmas Special, when the Twelfth Doctor will be introduced.
One issue we had was that apparently BBC's idea of "simultaneously broadcast in all regions" doesn't include an online live stream. Couple that with the fact that my campus doesn't have BBC America meant that we had to go and find an alternate source to watch it from. Seriously, BBC, you're only hurting yourself by not making this available online. Think of all the ad revenue you miss out on when people try to get it legitimately and then discover that they have to go with the shady route.

Time to talk about more specific things from the episode! If you are hardcore about not knowing things before watching something, stop reading now. I'll try to avoid talking about things that I would consider spoilers.
I haven't appreciated a lot of the big, sweeping, universe-changing things that Steven Moffat has done with Doctor Who since he came onto the scene; it started with the changing rules on how the Weeping Angels work in The Time of Angels, continued with The Wedding of River Song retconning a fixed point in time, and the last straw for me was the finale of season 7 when Moffat shoehorned Clara (a character he created) into the rest of the Doctor's existence, going all the way back to the First Doctor. He seems to think that upping the stakes and blowing our minds by breaking established rules of the series is a good substitute for meaningful character development and relationships.
That being said, I really respected how he handled bringing multiple Doctors together and dealing with the ending of the Time War, something that we have heard a lot of vague statements about, but not much that was concrete. I can't think of anything else that would have been appropriate, given that it is the event that separates Classic Who and New Who. Moffat didn't make up new rules, but cleverly used the situation of having three Doctors from different points in their timeline to solve the obstacles presented to them.

I'd say my message here is pretty clear: if you don't watch Doctor Who, get going now! And if you are already into the series, watch The Day of the Doctor as soon as humanly possible!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Contrast Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/contrast-review-9f0006ac20a

On paper Contrast seems like a really cool game: a puzzle platformer where you can switch between being a physical person and being a shadow on the wall, using the shadows of other objects to get where you need to go. Couple that with a jazzy nightlife setting, and you can't go wrong, right?

Unfortunately that is not the case. The platforming was often really frustrating and the game was fairly buggy. I found a few places where I could melt with a wall or I would have to jump three or four times to make it onto a ledge that was well within reach.

The story was alright. You play as Dawn, the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi. Didi's parents are separated and she sneaks out in the night on a regular basis to watch her mother sing at a club. Dawn helps Didi to progress past obstacles and fix things, and hopefully eventually to reunite her family. Dawn and Didi are the only ones who appear as three dimensional people in the world; everyone else appear as shadows on the walls, and are often parts of the platforming that the player has to perform.

In a lot of ways I am glad that the game only took three hours. I wish I could recommend Contrast because it has the makings of a cool, unique indie game. But it just wasn't made well at all. Don't buy it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Burial at Sea Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/burial-at-sea-review-55f8f14d9bb0

Bioshock Infinite is still my favorite game of 2013, and I'm not expecting that standing to change anytime soon. So believe me when I say that I've been looking forward to a story-based DLC for the game since I preordered the season pass.

Burial at Sea takes Elizabeth and Booker to Rapture, which is familiar to those of us who played the first two Bioshock games and made a brief cameo in Infinite's main storyline. Speaking of which, you absolutely have to finish the main game before playing this DLC because it doesn't make sense without a lot of information from the end of the main game.

Many of the same themes abound in this DLC- Elizabeth talks about settling debts, they are searching for a girl, etc. Much like in the main story you have the opportunity to walk around the city and listen in on conversations before you're forced to go on a bloody rampage. Luckily this time you do all of your rampaging in an area of the city that is uninhabited except for Fontaine's outlaws who have been trapped there, Arkham City-style.

All of the citizens seem interested in talking about the power struggle between Ryan and Fontaine, but the artist Cohen is the major player from the first game who makes an appearance in Burial at Sea. And he is every bit as off-the-wall as he was back in 2007.

Hi there.

The combat is more similar to Bioshock Infinite than the original, though with far fewer weapons and plasmids available. They even brought back the skyhook, though in Rapture it is called an air grabber.

It took me about 3.5 hours to play through the whole thing, and I would be surprised if anyone varied too much from that- there isn't a whole lot of exploration you can do.

If you want to know if this DLC is worth $15, ask yourself this- how did you feel about the ending of Bioshock Infinite? If you thought it was deep and thought-provoking, go buy this DLC right away! If you thought it was utter crap, you won't appreciate this DLC. Personally, I enjoyed it a ton and I can't wait to see what they have cooked up for Episode 2.

EDIT: you can now read my review of Episode 2.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Plug: UPS

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/plug-ups-15f7d80816fe

This week I've been walking on air because the Nexus 5 that I ordered was shipped on Sunday. UPS received it Monday morning, and since I chose two-day shipping I was expecting to get it on Wednesday. I obsessively refreshed the tracking page about once every half-hour, and it became evident that I would probably get my phone a day early on Tuesday.

So on Tuesday I started refreshing the page every ten minutes, and I hung around the University's mail room waiting for that little slip of paper that said I had a package. It never came.

Right before my 2 o'clock lab the tracking page suddenly changed to yellow and said: "Exception: Invalid Street Address." At first I thought that the system was complaining that I was using a PO box. A lot of shipping system complain about that, but the University always makes it work.

Then I looked at the receipt I had from Google, and realized that I had done a stupid. I put my home zip code at the end of my University address. So the package was wandering around the Twin Cities looking for a Morris address. Not good.

The tracking page said I should contact the sender and have them change the address, but Google said that they can't do that for security reasons (to be fair, I totally understand that and they responded in about two minutes flat.) So it was up to UPS to do the right thing.

I started a live chat with one of UPS's support people, and they made the necessary changes right away. They did have someone from the warehouse in Minneapolis call me, but I didn't have to provide any extra information.

The most amazing thing about this is that the package was relabeled and sent to Morris during the night, so it is arriving today (Wednesday) which is when I was expecting to get it in the first place. UPS, I give you serious props for your efficiency and your quick and easy customer support.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Game Cinema: My New YouTube Channel

I've started a YouTube channel for the purpose of recording story-based games and posting them in an episodic fashion for my non-gamer friends. To explain my thoughts behind this project, here's me from half an hour ago:

I've had this idea for quite a while, but I was waiting for Nvidia ShadowPlay to come out, which allows me to record gameplay without taking huge performance hits.

The first game I am televising is Telltale's The Walking Dead. And here is me from 15 minutes ago to tell you about it:

I'm expecting my videos to be a little raw at the beginning, but it's a part of the learning process right? For example I have learned that ShadowPlay records in 3D when I play in 3D, so I have to turn that off if I want to be able to edit it at all. It also records Steam popups, so I need to remember to go offline in Steam before recording from now on. This won't stop achievement notifications to pop up though.

Of course I want to make sure that I televise games that you guys will enjoy! So go pick out a game you would like to see next! Obviously it helps if it is on PC, and it would be best if I already own it.

Oh, and as all the YouTubers say, likesubscribefavoriteshare. Seriously though, subscribing is a great way for you to make sure you don't miss any episodes, and please do share with any friends who would be interested in this kind of thing.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Gone Home Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/gone-home-review-690e4201cd02

There has been an incredible explosion of first-person games that have absolutely no shooting or combat lately. Dear Esther, Proteus, The Stanley Parable, and Gone Home are probably the best-known games in that category. Luckily they are actually quite different, so once you've seen one you haven't seen them all.

You play as Katie, a young woman who has been traveling Europe for the last year. During that time her family has moved to a new house, and when she arrives there is nobody home. You spend about 2.5 hours exploring the house finding clues about what has been going on in everybody's lives over the last year and where they might be now.

The character you get to know the most is Katie's younger sister Sam. In addition to the notes that you find that reveal more about her, Sam's voice will read an entry from her diary at certain points in the game. Sam's story starts as one of struggling to find friends in a new school setting, to a teenager in rebellion, to a girl discovering her sexuality. It's rather odd feeling most connected to a character who is not the player character, but Katie's role is really to serve as a vessel for the player.

Katie's parents also have stories of their own, but they are not nearly as long or fleshed-out as Sam's. Katie's dad is a struggling author, and her mom works for the Forestry service.

The map was very carefully designed to guide you along a path so that you would discover items in the order that they would add to the story. In that regard they did a very good job, as there were only a couple of spots that I discovered out of order. There was one storyline that turned out to be a red herring, and a couple of moments that made me jump a little, but they turned out to be harmless. Talk about playing with my emotions.

I enjoyed the trip back to the '90s, which was a time that I don't remember very well (I was seven when we hit the new millenium.) Can somebody tell me if mixtapes were really that big back then? I doubt that this game would have worked as well in a modern setting, because nobody writes notes anymore. It's all on our phones and computers now. I also think that the game would have felt much less authentic if the family had not recently moved into the house. It would have been much harder to create a house that felt like it had been lived in for a long time.

All in all I really enjoyed Gone Home. It works much better than Dear Esther, which also attempts to convey a story through letters being read to you throughout the game. Dear Esther's setting was very disjointed from the story, and was difficult to understand. Gone Home on the other hand felt very real and relatable. It is best experienced in one sitting, as it would be very easy to forget important details.

A reasonable price for this game would be $10, which means you should wait for it to go on sale.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Stanley Parable Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at https://medium.com/@ianrbuck/the-stanley-parable-review-cb9765b120f1

A lot of people think that The Stanley Parable is a difficult game to describe, but I don't think it is that hard. It is a game about storytelling and player choice in video games. It is very aware of the fact that it is a video game, and there are many jokes about how games operate and the kinds of choices that you are allowed to make in them. As an avid story-based game player, I enjoyed the humor immensely. If this kind of meta-humor sounds at all interesting, go try out the demo. Even if you know you are going to buy the game, play the demo anyway because the content of the demo is not in the full game. Because this humor is really the core of the game, the more I tell you about the game, the less you will get out of it when you play it; it is best to discover everything for yourself. Therefore I want you to stop reading this review as soon as you are convinced to play the game. If you make it to the end and are still not convinced, then you and I have very different tastes and I don't know why you take my advice on anything entertainment related.

A voice narrates your journey as you play as Stanley, an office worker who realizes that nobody is in the office building today. The narrator will tell you the path that Stanley took, but you are often free to try another path. The narrator will try to convince you to get back on track. At first he tries to rationalize why Stanley went the wrong way in the context of the story he is telling, but it doesn't take him long to break the fourth wall and address the player directly. There are many different branching paths in the game, but don't worry; the game starts back from the beginning when you get to the end of any of them.

One of my favorite wall-breaking moments involved the broom closet above.
The first time I played through, I tried to open every single door I came across. When the broom closet unexpectedly opened, I went inside. The narrator said, "Stanley went into the broom closet, but seeing that there was nothing in there he turned around and got back on track." So I did.
The second time I went into the broom closet again, and the narrator said, "Seriously? I'm not even going to narrate this for you. Just do whatever it is you think is worth going into a broom closet for, and then let's get back to the story. I can wait."
The third time the broom closet was boarded up. I laughed for a good 30 seconds.

There were of course the mandatory jokes about office life, and how pointless meetings can be.

If you defy the narrator enough times in one play through, the game world will start to deteriorate and the narrator will panic. That was a really fun thread.

There is also a museum about the game and the creation of the game within the game. That was probably the most meta moment in the game.

Then there was the time that the narrator tried to improve the game by adding more choices and global leader boards. He even decided to show you some other games that he did not make, namely Minecraft and Portal.

Most of these are very silly, but some were much more serious and/or philosophical. In one Stanley thought he was in a dream, because that was the only explanation he could think of for all of the video game logic (he couldn't see his feet, the doors automatically closed behind him, etc.) In another Stanley died.

Achievement hunting in The Stanley Parable is an absolute riot. Only a couple of the achievements are obtained through traditional means. Others are found in the main menu, or require you to exit the game and come back to it, or play throughout a Tuesday. Yeah, they're pretty intense.

Seriously, you should go get The Stanley Parable, it will be the best two hours of your day. Even if you think the $15 price tag is too much for such a short game, you should at least check out the demo. You won't regret it.