Destiny, or Why I Am All In for Bungie’s Latest

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So big news to no-one who is a gamer, the Destiny Beta just concluded a ten-day run across the Playstation and Xbox platforms. I was an eager participant during the four days Xbox users had access, and the entire experience only solidified my feelings about Bungie’s latest offering.

I’m all in.

I first ran across Destiny over a year ago. A new game universe promised by the creators of the Halo franchise? Featuring player-v-player (PvP) as well as co-play options? And a strong storyline threaded throughout, giving you solo play? All against an intriguing science fiction backdrop of humanity’s last stand?

It piqued my interest.

Initially due for release at the beginning of this year, I pre-purchased the game outright in the summer of 2013. Then it was the beta in January, with a July release date. And then, July would be the Beta with a release of September 9. With such disappointing news came other information about the game: it would have elements of an RPG; a diverse skill tree; varied terrain and even several planetary environments; small fireteams and large public events. Destiny was looking better and better, even though it was being pushed back.

Knowing how products can sometimes hit problems on the back end, I took solace in the knowledge that Bungie was doing its best to make the game as great as it could be for Day One (aka “Release Day”). Continue reading

Three Things I Like About: Lego Star Wars

Let's play Lego Star Wars

Lego. Star Wars. Individually, these are great brands. Together? A phenomenal experience. And when you blend them together into a video game, you get the introduction of Lego as a game series and a revitalization of the company.

As such, the series hits this month’s Three Things… It’s one of the first games I bought when I finally purchased an Xbox console, and I’ve enjoyed all three iterations. The game is so fun and enjoyable, I’ve purchased and played Lego’s Batman and Marvel Super Heroes series as well. It was also the catalyst for starting my renewed love for Legos in general.

So. Three things I like about the Lego Star Wars video game series:

It’s Lego

Let’s face it: part of the charm of Lego Star Wars is that it involves Lego. These colorful bricks have a charm all their own, and when used to build Lego versions of iconic and classic Star Wars vehicles and vistas, that charm skyrockets. Wandering through the L:SW universe is not just about diving into the known setpieces from the venerable sci-fi universe, it’s seeing how Lego re-interprets them. Many of the vehicles and sets that came out later as kits saw their initial creation as part of the game.

Indeed, one of the many things you can do in-game is acquire the hard-to-find components to build mini-kits that you can then use to tool around with on the main staging level or even in some free play areas.

It’s Star Wars

Because yeah, it’s Star Wars. This iconic science fiction phenomena remains an indelible part of modern geek culture. The L:SW series gives you the opportunity to play through each movie storyline – with the classic Lego humorous takes – and even the first two seasons of Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars show.

The games have minifigure interpretations for a few hundred characters, even the bit-part background ones. They are all useable in-game – usually in the free play zones after you unlock a chapter – and each has a special ability of a sort to make them useful.

The light-hearted take on the universe through the minifigs and the humor also makes the game less dependant on Star Wars lore, so even those only casually aware of the universe (like my wife) can play and understand the references in passing. Unlike some hardcore fans, the game never takes itself seriously but still honors the vast universe and its lore.

Disco Inferno

It’s Playability

One of the great things about the Lego video games in all their forms is the playability factor. Yes, it’s aimed at kids, but there’s enough puzzles and critical thinking elements that brings appeal to adult gamers as well. By making each chapter available first as a storyline and then as a free play zone, it encourages replayability.

The first playthrough uses a small selection of characters, with enough skillsets to accomplish the basic puzzles and situations to solve the level. Once completed, the level can then be re-entered as a free play zone, which has additional puzzles to solve through the use of additional character skills not previously available.

There are enough achievement goals for each game that can occupy a player for months. One of the more difficult is the one requiring a complete playthrough of either Episodes 1-3 or 4-6 within a strict time frame. It’s not a goal I ever came close to attaining, but it’s one of the more interesting among the usual fare.

The Lego Star Wars series really captured my attention because it was so different than other video games I typically play. The whimsy of the setting through using the Lego blocks intrigued me to the point that it factored into my eventual dive back into the brand. Other Lego games have found their way onto my console, but the L:SW games remain high on my all-time favorite games list.

Three Things I Like About: Illuminati

Illuminati cards

In trying to get back into the swing of things, this latest installment of Three Things focuses on one of my favorite card games from my college era. Illuminati, from Steve Jackson Games (SJG), was a favorite midnight pastime in my dorm and quickly became the go-to game whenever a bunch of us needed a study break. It was common for a resident to wander into the commons room at any hour and find a group of players attempting to rule the world through a network of conspiracy.

Illuminati has each player taking the role of an ominous secret society, often based on a true/urban legend organization. The game is completely tongue-in-cheek, seen in its cards that parodied real world organizations such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, the Congressional Wives, and the Semiconscious Liberation Army.

Conspiracy-inspired

As stated, the game takes a lot of its inspiration from the rampant mythology of civilization about secret societies and organizations. The conspiracy theory angle proved to be popular and the game won an Origins Award in 1982. Future revisions and incarnations garnered additional Origins Awards through the nineties.

The entire object of the game is to take over the world through the use of various shadowy organizations, ultimately controlled by the player’s Illuminatus.

Tools of the Illuminati

The cards themselves were a major hit. Each had a power, resistance, and income value; some had particular alignments. The descriptions were often conspiracy theory in-jokes using typical SJG humor. Groups, when networked together, exerted their influence to absorb or attack other groups not aligned with the Illuminati.

Favorite cards of mine included the American Autoduel Association (an in-joke for SJG’s Car Wars), the Fiendish Flouridators, Robot Sea Monsters, and the Evil Genuises for a Better Tomorrow. Announcing the network chain in play was often hilarious, just from the oddball combinations. “The Gnomes of Zurich, using the Hackers with assistance from the Democrats, Loan Sharks, and Madison Avenue, are attempting to neutralize the CFL-AIO.” And so it went.

Ease of Play

Playing a game was quick to set up and execute. Though you could have a minimum of two players and a maximum of ten, five or six seemed ideal. Each Illuminati had their own characteristics and abilities; maximizing each one while staving off your competitors in order to fulfill the special victory goal took a little practice, but you could do well aiming just at the total power structure goal. Random special cards added a nice level of randomness to the game, enough to disrupt but not destroy your game plan, and of course the luck of the dice could derail your attempts to achieve world dominance.

While not really in production any more The game has morphed with the times, with a few other expansions released over the years. The rules are available via a PDF download, and boxed sets can be found at game dealers and online.

Fnord!

Three Things I Like About: Adventure

Adventure Cartridge

One of the first Atari games I played on my Sears knockoff system was Adventure. Created as a graphic game based loosely on a computer text game, it was Atari’s seventh best-selling 2600 cartridge.

[begin shameless plug] (I do mention Adventure and other Atari 2600 cartridge games in my book, Games’ Most Wanted. Go buy it.) [end shameless plug]

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Visual RPG

Adventure is the first real graphical roleplaying game I remember playing. It allowed you to have a stash of items, which you had to select one to use at any given moment. You could drop and pick up items without using a text command. And it even managed a ‘fog of war’ effect where much of the catacombs you explored were obscured except what was immediately around you.

So what if the maps were mirror images (thanks to the limited processing power of the 2600). To my eight-year-old mind, it was like playing D&D on the computer screen.

Story

This was also my first true experience with story in a video game. Granted, many arcade games of that time had stories, but Adventure was a game I could play over and over again without burning quarters and on my own time. Plus, the game’s rudimentary use of the game reset switch after you ‘died’ put you back in the gold castle; any objects you had on your person remained where you met your demise.

The story was a quest: find the enchanted chalice and return it to the gold castle. You had to search a myriad of castles, mazes, and other rooms within Adventure‘s world to find the sword, keys, bridge, and magnet you needed in order to succeed in the quest. Oh, and you had to kill three dragons (in the easy version, only two).

Adventure (Atari)

Endless Play

As I mentioned prior, the game allowed you to resurrect your player after death – as long as you didn’t turn off the console or flip the game select switch. Adventure also gave you three play methods: Simple, Standard, and Random. The random version (Game 3 on the select screen) randomized all of the objects in the game, making it a different adventure every time. (This also, on occasion, made it impossible to solve at times.)

Some of my absolute favorite video games – and a feature that weighs heavily in my purchasing and play decisions – are ones with good replayability. I’d like to think Adventure was the genesis of this trait.

So: visual, story, replayability. Three basic and important pillars of how I personally judge video games, and I can trace all three back to Atari’s Adventure console game. It’s not the first video game I ever played, but it certainly is one of the most influential.

Three Things I Like About: Car Wars

Car Wars - Deluxe Edition contents

Back to the Three Things series, done in conjunction with my recently released book, Games’ Most Wanted.

Car Wars, developed and produced by Steve Jackson Games, was a favorite of my high school gaming group. (Yes, all four of us.) We picked up the Deluxe Edition one day during a comic book run; epic city demolition derbys became a common weekend pick-up gaming alternative.

In Car Wars, you took control of a car or other powered vehicle, from motorcycles to semis to tanks and even aircraft. Custom designs allowed you to tweak armor, chassis, weapons, and other equipment so you could survive your opponents’ attacks and dish it right back to them.

Counters, Maps, and Movement

Back in those halcyon days of gaming, cardstock counters were a common sight, rather than precisely detailed metal miniatures. City maps and roads used a grid system; when combined with the Third Edition’s “turning key,” precise maneuvers could be accomplished. Successfully executing a Smuggler’s Turn at 30 mph and then gutting your pursuer with your hidden heavy caliber cannon was hard to pull off but very satisfying.

Later editions adjusted the scale from the 1″=15′ (1:180) to 1″=5′ (1:60), so you could use Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars along with S-gauge scenery.

What my group really liked were ‘chase’ scenarios using the game’s generic highway tiles. Endless ribbons of asphalt allowed a Mad Max style ‘run to the death’ game that was a common staple for us on Saturday afternoons.

Gameplay was relatively simple and ended up being one of my gateways into more hardcore wargaming. Car Wars used a combination of measurements for movement and range, line of sight for weapons fire, and simple dice rolls for resolution. I think getting a grasp on these three basics of tabletop wargaming helped prep me for my college and post-college gaming days. A balance had to be struck using the right number of maneuvers; the harder they were and the more you did, the more difficult the movement and possible success in the result. Failure led to epic crashes…which in all honesty, was half of the fun.

Car Wars: Rouge Arena

Cars, Cars, Cars

The addition of customized rules allowed you to build whatever vehicle suited your style. (My favorites were reverse-trike escorts for a heavily armored semi-truck and trailer combination.) The basic rules built from the standard car chassis and eventual expansions spread the game out to cover virtually every type of vehicle built by man.

You could buy a cardstock version of the counters that were in black and white, giving you the ability to create custom paint jobs for your vehicles.

A typical game was the simple arena-style demolition derby, using a defined area that included buildings, debris, or even an oval track. Tournaments — though I never actually participated in one — were more ladder-style games. These allowed players to upgrade their cars between each round using accumulated in-game cash winnings. The games I saw played at Origins used a detailed scale model set and custom-built car models.

Mad Max

The setting is what initially appealed to my group. Influenced by the Road Warrior movie in the Mad Max series, Car Wars described a post-apocalyptic America suffering from resource shortages and a second Civil War. A new sport called autodueling – armed demolition derbies – arose. Human cloning made driver death irrelevant.

The role-playing aspect of the game had potential but my group never got involved beyond having a few favored drivers and their rides. Our RPG tastes were sated elsewhere, though on occasion I do remember writing short blurbs that summarized some of our arena games, just for fun and amusement.

So there it is. Car Wars, a game predominately from my adolescent years, still holds the nostalgic factor in my game closet. I have a battered copy of the Deluxe Edition I bought two decades ago and it remains in a place of honor on my gaming shelf.

Three Things I Like About: Mechwarrior Dark Age

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Today I’m setting my Three Things sights on a Collectible Miniatures Game (CMG), that of Mechwarrior: Dark Age (and its second phase, Age of Destruction). CMGs are similar to CCGs (collectible card games) where game pieces are purchased in ‘blind’ booster packs. Because the contents are unknown, part of the challenge for the player is in learning to use what’s inside to maximum effect on the table top. Of course, a secondary benefit is the horsetrading that goes on as players seek to acquire their favorite factions, pieces, or other criteria in order to field a table army that best suits their play style.

Oh, quick sidebar: if you’ve not checked out Games’ Most Wanted, please do. I and my coauthor appreciate the sales and spreading of the word. (Online reviews don’t hurt, either!)

Speed

One of the great things that attracted me to this game was its inherent speed of play. Everything critical that was needed was included on the individual game piece’s dial, which you clicked as it took damage, reducing (or in some cases, increasing) its effectiveness. The MWDA game was built as a fast game; typical engagements between two players took an hour or less when using the average 300-500 force build limit. At its simplest form, the game only required your units, 3D6, and a measuring tape for range and movement.

For comparison, a similarly fielded BattleTech game would take 4-6 hours to complete. While I love BattleTech, the appeal of a faster, simpler ‘Mecha combat game was hard to ignore. I got my ‘giant combat robot’ fix in quick and had time for other afternoon activities.

Visual

The prepainted sculpts of MWDA pieces has had a lot of detractors, mainly those who were used to building/using metal miniatures. For players such as myself where metal modeling is a major investment in time and money – and as such, not as easily maintained or accomplished, the decision by WizKids to use prepainted figures was a treat. For the cost of a booster pack, you got three (four; I keep lumping both infantry units as “one”) decent-looking plastic miniatures ready to go. Plus, they did not require the more extensive care and handling some metal miniature pieces need after their completion. Out-of-the-box games transformed a table surface into a visually appealing landscape of destruction.

I’m not saying all of the sculpts or paintjobs were perfection. But for the price of the box, the quality was better than average. I and others have repainted some of these pieces, or touched them up in spots, but that’s more to assuage our visual OCD. To a young gamer? These figures were akin to breaking open an action figure bought at the store and ready to play.

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Competition

Competitive play for MWDA was also a major draw. Through WizKids’ sanctioned play, players could participate in monthly storyline campaigns where individual game results would build towards the greater plotline. Worlds within the MWDA universe could rise or fall based on the collective wins and losses of a faction. Players who registered through the company’s game website declared their faction of choice and contributed to its successes and failures.

Stores and organizers could also run unrestricted events. While these did not impact the overall storyline, it did provide opportunities for localized campaigns.

Speed, visual look, and competitive play are three aspects of MWDA that appealed to me when the game was in its heyday. WizKids did have its failings, to be sure. But those failures did not detract from my enjoyment of Mechwarrior as a whole. I only need to look to my game closet and the few standard armies I still maintain to know of my appreciation for MWDA.