I have fond memories of Mechwarrior as a young rapscallion growing up. That’s why the “mech rejuvenation” we’re experiencing right now is so exciting – Mechwarrior Online and Hawken are storming back onto the scene, and taking back walking battle tanks. They’re taking it back!!

What’s extra interesting about these two titles is that they’re free to play. In the preview event video I recorded a few weeks ago, I speculated that free to play is a great hook for attracting folks who might not otherwise try out a mech game. I’ve never fully invested myself in a free to play game, but come Wednesday, December 12, I’ll get the chance to dive in headfirst with Hawken.  Thoughts on free to play and the return of the mech?

Friday, 4:15 pm – Gavin

http://mynintendonews.com/2012/12/14/nintendo-ds-passes-playstation-2-to-become-best-selling-video-game-platform/

I honestly didn’t think they’d make it, but it looks like they did.  Go Nintendo!

Friday, 10:32 am – Ricky

Hang on a second! My backlog is a relatively new phenomenon – I blame Albert, because it began to rise in earnest when I moved here, and then again when he turned me back on to PC gaming.

You can get a chance at a free game too, matt! You just need to buy me a game if I beat the challenge. Fair is fair!

Gaming-wise, it’s been fairly quiet this week. I downloaded Double Fine’s latest game, a free to play iOS title called Middle Manager of Justice. As a middle manager, you’ve been hired to run Justice Corp., a superhero agency that helps save people and foil evil! It’s an RPG game on the surface, with some very light combat mechanics. But really, at its core, it’s a time management game. And that’s about as much fun as you’d expect.

Every free to play game needs to have 2 hooks: 1 hook is what gets you to play the game, and the other is hook is what gets you to pay into the game. In order for you get hooked into paying, you first need to get hooked on playing. Some games do this really well by offering solid, dependable and fun gameplay, and then selling you on cosmetic items (think DotA2 and Team Fortress 2). Other games follow a bit more of a “pay to win” formula, where you can unlock items faster by buying them (Tribes Ascend lets you buy new classes instead of playing to unlock them). In either case, you can play the game without paying, and likely, you can enjoy it. Middle Manager of Justice misses the mark on the balance playing with paying. There are constantly things you need to do: train your heroes, train yourself, research new things, fight acts of crime, hunt down supervillians, and more that I probably haven’t even discovered yet. The thing is, you can be in all places at once. My active roster is at 4 heroes right now, but they’re too weak to take on thugs by themselves. So I have to train them. But wait! While I’m training them, the thugs are doing their thing and causing unhappiness in various neighbourhoods. This lowers my income from those neighbourhoods, which impacts the items I can buy and the facilities I can upgrade. The Middle Manager could do some “work” to earn money, but his time is also needed to boost a heroes’ morale, or to train their “intelligence” trait.

This balancing act would work fine with some longer timers, or less punishment for missing events. But as it is, there’s just not enough time to do everything without acquiring more Superium. Ah yes, Superium. The mythical element that lets us hire more heroes, train faster and complete tasks quicker. How do you get it? You can earn it by defeating thugs or supervillians. But if you’re stuck, and you need your fix, you can buy it.

There’s the free to play hook, and I just haven’t seen enough in the game to buy into the hook.

Thursday, 3:46 pm – matt

so let me get this straight; I have been bitching Ricky out for over 15 years about his backlog of games, and Albert and Prezzie get a free game?

wow.

Thursday, 8:46 am – Ricky

IT HAS BEGUN!

Scratching the Surface: The 2013 Backlog Challenge will pit me against the full weight of my 160 video game backlog of unplayed or barely-played titles. Starting on January 1st, 2013, I’ll commit myself to playing games from this list while following the rules outlined by the Challenge.

You’ll get to follow along on our weekly posts, and I’ll also make regular dedicated updates about the Challenge. Here’s hoping I can keep it going for the full year, because if I can’t, Preezie and Albert will never let me hear the end of it.

Wednesday, 8:50 pm – Ricky

Silly Gavin, there is no topic! The topic is whatever the hell we want to talk about. The No Russian level is a really interesting subject, and I think we’re both on the same page. Without context, the level is pretty useless.

Definitely a good idea to jump in and experience the free to play scene! There are definitely some jackasses present in games like DotA2, but that’s as much a function of the genre as it is the business model. MOBAs, lord management, whatever, they’re typically very hostile communities. Team Fortress 2 had a history of a highly competitive community before it went free to play. I’m interested in seeing what kind of community Hawken can develop – I’m hoping the asshole to good gamer ratio is 0 to 1!

Wednesday, 11:51 am – Gavin

Wow, I have a remarkable ability to drag us off-topic.

Last mech game I played was Mechwarrior 2: Pentium Edition back in 1995.  I sucked at it then, and I probably suck at it now.

I have also never played a free-to-play game (shareware excluded, obviously) that wasn’t a silly java game on NewGrounds or TeaGames or something like that.  Maybe I’ll get into DOTA 2 or Team Fortress 2 one of these days.

What’s the ratio of assholes to good gamers like in a free-to-play game?

Wednesday, 11:21 am – Gavin

Correct – you are given a choice in that you don’t have to pull the trigger.  I did not.  However, that choice meant absolutely nothing, as the “friendly” NPCs kill almost everyone – those who aren’t killed appear to get shot, but survive.  It’s a meaningless choice.  It doesn’t affect the development of the level, and doesn’t affect the outcome of the game.  There’s nothing you can do to stop that from happening.

The second page of the article highlights some of the serious problems with the level, both from an emotional point of view and from an artistic point of view, where “artistic” refers to the level within the greater context of the game as a whole.

I don’t mind a game making me bad or uncomfortable, because that means that it has registered on an emotional level.  The DLC mission The Missing Link for Deus Ex: Human Revolution shoehorns quite a significant moral decision into the game, and there’s no right answer.  I also don’t mind if a game makes me uncomfortable because of my own decisions – there’s a conversation with a police officer in Deus Ex: HR that, if it doesn’t go according to plan (my experience in this part did not go according to plan at all), frames Adam Jensen as an absolute jerk.  Even going as far back as the SNES generation, there are plenty of games where you can choose to save a specific character, playable or not.  FFVI with Shadow, Chrono Trigger with Lucca’s mother, Super Metroid with the Etecoons, etc.  They may not have far-reaching consequences, but it’s still your decision and it does affect some part of the game, be it the ability to play as that character (Shadow), the quality of the ending you obtain by beating the game (Lucca’s mother), or something as simple as the tacit knowledge that you saved an NPC who helped you earlier in the game.  Deus Ex and DE:HR are FILLED with situations like that.

So what’s the difference between not saving Shadow, or letting the hostages die in the first mission of DE:HR, or picking either of the options in the moral decision in The Missing Link, and No Russian?  The shock factor is an obvious one, but it’s the lack of frame of reference in No Russian that kills it.  There’s no context for it, and shocking scenes require context, unless you’re just trying to appease the masochistic crowd.  Otherwise, they’re just cruel for the sake of being cruel.  In No Russian’s case, they were cruel for the sake of telling a story.  It’s not necessarily a bad story, but it’s told very poorly.  That’s the biggest problem I have with it.

Wednesday, 8:53 am – Ricky

I remember the first time I heard about the “No Russian” airport level in Modern Warfare 2. I was oddly intrigued and kind of looked forward to seeing it for myself. If I remember correctly, you’re presented with a choice… of sorts: Shoot civilians, or, don’t shoot civilians. You didn’t have to pull the trigger on civilian NPCs.

The choice made the entire discussion surrounding the level even more interesting. Were people angry that they were presented with the option of killing civilians? Were they upset about about the manner in which the violence was portrayed? There’s been a lot written on the subject of choice and context for this level – I suggest reading this article from PCWorld for a POV that mirrors mine, but is obviously much better written.

There’s a lot to do around this time of year, and not a lot of time to do it! Budgeting time for gaming is tricky for me, but looks like a window has opened up tomorrow evening! Expect impressions on … something… on Friday, and the big backlog reveal tomorrow.

Tuesday, 11:23 am – Gavin

In news that would have been interesting in 2009, I started playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 over the weekend.  First impressions are critical, and I have to say that I’m not desperately interested in it so far.  Sure, it looks great, and Infinity Ward has done a decent job at turning a bombastic action movie into something that appears on your console, but as something that I will sit down and play, I’m just not sold on it.  From the first minute you play the campaign, you’re thrust into this ridiculous mess of an action sequence that is so confused about what it wants to be that you’re left just wondering where the hell the bullets are coming from.

Wild, open, and confusing action sequences are fine in games.  Sometimes they work really well, but there needs to be proper context to them.  The Stalingrad sequence in the original Call of Duty, the Normandy sequence in Medal of Honour, they both worked really well because there was pacing, and also because it wasn’t the first thing you saw in the game.  You don’t have time to orient yourself to MW2 before it just lets loose with a deluge.

MW1, while not desperately revolutionary (beyond production values), knew that timing, patience, and context were important.  If a game never stops throwing a million bullets at you, then you’ve got no frame of reference for the game.  It needs to calm down and take a breath – it doesn’t need to go on afterburners immediately.  The first mission in MW1 was calmly paced and juxtaposed deliberate, consequential action with a full-blown battle sequence near the end, and it worked incredibly well.  I understand what Infinity Ward was going for with that first battle sequence in MW2, but it just fell flat.  How many games start you off by throwing you into the thick of things, from a sensory point of view?  I have no inherent problem with innovation or risk-taking, but that doesn’t mean that every defiance of convention will result in a positive turn of events, simply because you’ve said “we’re innovating!”.

MW2 isn’t a bad game by any stretch, at least not what I’ve played thus far.  Unfortunately, it had the grim job of trying to stack up against MW1, which did a very good job at framing the action and at pacing the story.  I can already tell that I don’t enjoy it as much as MW1, for many reasons – hyperrealism does not always translate well to video games.  Military shooters by their very nature have to play around with realism.  Hiding behind a crate after getting shot 14 times doesn’t heal you.  You can’t just eject a half-full magazine and insert a new one without losing the bullets from the half-full one.  You don’t kill 100 enemies in the course of five minutes while your comrades kill nobody.  So, they’ve already taken liberties with realism.  Attempting to recreate a realistic military ambience will always fall flat when you’re dealing with televisions without peripheral vision (I wonder what will happen with Oculus Rift).  So, don’t be afraid to tone it down a little bit, IW.

I did get to and through the controversial level, “No Russian”.  If you know anything about MW2, you know about this level.  Seeing as how it’s been several years since it was released, I shall describe it.  Skip this paragraph if you don’t want it to be spoiled.

You are an American soldier working undercover, and you are placed in deep cover, working for a Russian Mercernary.  You aren’t told much about the level, except that you must work to ingratiate yourself with the mercernary leader.  The scene starts and you quietly step off an elevator and enter an airport filled with people, similar to the scene in Die Hard when Hans and his goons enter the party in Nakatomi Plaza.  Then, all hell breaks loose and the mercernaries kill everyone in the airport.  There are hundreds of NPCs gunned down, and ostensibly, your role is to participate in this, as you’re given a gun and you are allowed to pull the trigger.  At the end of the scene, the mercernary leader kills your character, in order to frame the Americans for the attack.  Predictably, this scene set off a firestorm, to the point that an update was released for the Xbox version (don’t know about PS3) that allowed you to skip this scene if you wanted to.

I hated it.  It was done poorly and it was just a malicious scene in general.  I couldn’t turn off the sympathetic part of my brain when I was playing it, and it just upset me.  I understand the decisions to craft the scene the way they did, but I just felt as though they weren’t handled with the sensitivity that this kind of event required.  The game doesn’t encourage you to kill civilians, but there are no consequences for you if you do.  Even if you don’t pull the trigger once (I did not – I couldn’t shoot anyone during these scene), you are still complicit in the attack, and I just felt that the whole event is never quite framed as “absolutely awful” in terms of the story; more “necessary for the progression of the game”.  Admittedly, I would have been less upset with it had the scale of it been smaller – let’s say you blow up a friendly military outpost in order to ingratiate yourself, and four soldiers are killed.  That’s still awful, but somehow it feels less insulting than gunning down hundreds of unarmed civilians, all running away from you and screaming for their lives.

Compare that to a few other contemporary games – Fable 3 (though really, any Fable game will work), Grand Theft Auto IV and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  In all of those games, you can absolutely kill civilians.  You can be absolutely ruthless and bloody and bloodthirsty and in the latter, you get gory and stomach-turning cinematics as you use your augmentations to drive a blade into the rib cage of your unwitting victim.  So what’s the difference?  Why don’t I rail on those games for the same thing?  Because there are consequences, which instantly means that there’s a frame of reference for the game, even if it’s as simple as “not all violence is good.”    Kill someone on the street in GTA IV and the cops might well come after you, if there’s anyone around to see you.  Same thing with Deus Ex.  Kill a civilian in Fable 3 and guards will chase after you and your character will change to be represented as evil.  And before anyone says “Yeah, but in MW2, you’re known to be evil – they don’t need to spell it out for you, therefore subtlety!”, I’ll say that obviously the same thing exists in F3, GTA IV, and DEHR, but there’s otherwise no context for the violence in MW2.  That scene is inserted as a plot advancement device and nothing else.  It went for shock value, and it accomplished that, but a success based on intent does not mean and has never meant “good”.

But that brings me to my next, and final point: video games as art.  As lovers of the medium, we’ll all agree that “video games are/can be art”.  But what does that even mean?  Million dollar question, obviously.  It can’t just be about technical achievement in graphics, or art direction, or music, or what have you.  What does it mean?  Obviously “No Russian” evoked strong and sincere emotions in people, myself included.  Who cares if the scene had no context or depth?  There’s no context or depth to half of the stuff put to canvas, so why should MW2 be treated any differently?  Because it was a commercial venture?  Well, Beethoven didn’t work for free either, so here we are.  I’m left a bit perplexed that a game that I haven’t desperately enjoyed has been the one to evoke the strongest emotional response in me, even if that response is overwhelmingly one of distaste.  It’s not a broken mechanic, like Big Rigs: Over The Road Racing.  It’s not a frustrating administrative issue, like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  It’s not frustrating difficulty, like Dark Souls, or terror, like Amnesia (OK, that one might have given me a strong reaction too).  It’s just pure anger at the content and the framing.  I’ve been told to watch out for To The Moon though, so keep your eyes peeled for my (predicted) emotional response to that one.

Tuesday, 9:38 am – Ricky

I finally wrapped up the main story line for Borderlands 2 last night. Great looking end boss compared to the first game, and despite the simple mechanics to beat it, it was a fun fight. Preezie assisted me and together, we freed Pandora… OR DID WE! There’re so many side-quests left to do in the world, and then there’s the new game plus mode called True Vault Hunter. Just like in the first game, the enemy levels will get ratcheted up a notch, and so too will the loot. Sweet, delicious loot. I’m looking forward to diving back in after some more bouts with Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 3, Halo 4… Wow. That’s a long list…

I have a plan to take it down though! Come back on Thursday this week for more details!

Monday, 7::55 am – Ricky

Hey look, a cinematic trailer!

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