Posts Tagged Trading Cards
Do you remember 3d Realms? Of course you do, their name alone has become a form of inside joke among gamers. Their failure to develop Duke Nukem: Forever in over ten years is an hilariously funny caricature of delayed release dates, except it’s real. And what’s the punch line? Duke Nukem: Forever, a game that doesn’t exist, has gotten more attention than a game they actually released while developing the former. I’m talking, of course, about Prey.
Now, while this project managed to hit shelves, it is by no means a stranger to 3d Realms delayment prone management. Prey was first announced all the way back in 1995, with early trailers released in 1998. Considering were talking about a game that was only released in 2006, a close 11 years after the development had started, one could be forgiven for thinking that by the time Prey made its way onto our hard drives, the main mechanics and graphics were already dated. But the truth of the matter is that when this game was first thought up, technology wasn’t ready to bring it’s sheer innovative power onto screens.
Are you familiar with the saying “Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.”? Then you’re one step of Domasi “Tommy” Tawodi, the game’s Cherokee protagonist: He desperately wants to leave the reservation together with his girlfriend Jen, though I doubt he planned to leave earth while at it. He, his girlfriend, his granddad and large parts of the regional populace are swept into a giant spaceship by an alien race that feeds on humans. Luckily he manages to escape and starts searching for his abducted girlfriend all over the alien spaceship. Literally.
At the time when Prey was released, and even more so at the time when it was first presented, there were a couple of distinct rules and forces in the genre of shooters that simply weren’t messed with. Gravity. Space. Then along came 3d Realms and completely distorted our vision of how these things can work. You see, this alien spaceship the game takes place in, is quite unlike any other spacecraft you may have seen before. It’s basically a large, mostly hollow sphere and its workings are so bizarre and crazy that just wrapping your head around them is part of the enjoyment of this particular title. There are parts where there’s no gravity, there are parts where you can influence it and there are parts were you can defy it. And then there’s the portals, seamlessly connecting parts of the game, which can appear out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere and even might start moving around.
Combine all of this, add a large taste of Doom 3 and you get the first few hours of Prey: An experience that is as much spot-on, as it is completely mind-bogginly confusing. There’s eye-opening moments of outright brilliance that will completely change your perceptions of what’s possible for a game to do, like this one: You come into a room and notice a small stone inside a glass box on a pedestal, then a portal opens and upon walking through you find yourself, shrinked, on the small stone you just looked at, running around it Super Mario Galaxy-style. Then a common enemy, now seemingly giant looks at the glass box, screaming, warps in and you start fighting in this pocket world.
But as strange as this sounds, even such events get old after a while. The first few hours of the game are brilliant, but that is mostly based on the fact that everything it shows you is still new and exciting. The core shooter mechanics are functional, and fighting enemies while both of you are upside down, taped to the ceiling is just as entertaining as it sounds, but it does slowly get loaded down with ancillary nonsense. This might really be one of the few occasions were a game has had too much innovation going on, seeing how somewhere between the reality distortion, puzzle elements, supposedly epic story and vehicle sections, it quickly loses sight of just what it wants to be.
Take the story, for example: Initially it seems to be going for a scifi-horror themed approach. If you hadn’t already noticed by the grotesque monsters and man-eating aliens, then the possessed children certainly gave it away. But during Prey‘s progress, it slowly opts for a more spiritual approach, making full use of Tommy’s cultural heritage. Then, by halfway point, most of the things that were established are completely thrown over and a whole new set of plotpoints is brought up without the previous ones being finished (and indeed they never are). I don’t doubt that somewhere in there was the recipe for an enticing plotline, but upon trying to be everything at once, the good parts were buried beneath overambition.
Before release Prey was advertised as a kind of shooter/puzzle game hybrid wherein solving gravity based conundrums would take up the majority of your time, but there’s really only a single occasion in the game where I had to think to solve those “puzzles”. For the better part, they just challenge your perception, since the solution to your problem can be quite literally anywhere: Floors, walls, ceilings. And you know what? That could have been enough. The game could have functioned perfectly just by messing with my head and letting me vent my frustration on the occasional enemy. But then they had to bring out the vehicle sections.
You know, vehicle sections are supposed to allow the protagonist to travel in more interesting ways, not less interesting. Here we have a guy who can walk on walls and ceilings, travel through the very fabric of space, bend and break gravity: How is stepping into a shuttle and using good, old-fashioned flight an upgrade to that? There’s no portals while in the thing, gravity has to stay stiff and downward facing for it to work and there’s no puzzle solving. We’ve just traded an innovation-festival for a generic insipid shooter experience.
But I’m beginning to ramble on. And no matter how much the game lost pace in the second act, I can’t honestly bring myself to dislike it. The first half alone, with all its brilliant design and mind-blowing mechanics is more than enough reason to play the game. In fact, every flaw here is irrelevant: You have to see this for its utter reality-bending factor alone.
Bottom Line: If you haven’t seen Prey already, then you should definitely check it out. It may not be the best shooter out there, or even a good shooter, but it’s unique, it’s surprising and it will have you smack your gob and stare.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
The Lord of the Rings movies are awesome. There, I said it. Put the pitchforks down people, I know what you’re going to say: Yes, they had their flaws. Yes, they omitted Tom Bombadil and plenty other parts of the story we love so much. But on the whole I think we can definitely agree that Peter Jackson’s attempt to turn the fantasy classic into a movie was very successful. Isn’t there something about the battle scenes that makes you want to be there and be epic? Well, the official Lord of the Rings: Return of the King video game allows you to do both, without having to risk your face getting bit of by a Nazgul.
The game’s premise is simple, really: It puts you in the shoes of several characters from The Lord of the Rings and in the middle of those dramatic battle scenes, allowing you the reenact the whole thing yourself. And since I just circumscribed that the game is about hacking and slashing your way through legions of orcs, it should come as no surprise that gameplay largely takes the form of hack’n'slash mechanics, mostly copypasted from previous examples of the genre. It has virtually nothing unique about it, and as functional and inherently entertaining as the mechanics are, they also have this crudeness about them that leaves the connoisseur unsatisfied. Firstly, for the better part of the game, literally all you’ll do is mash blindly away at your buttons. Sure, they introduce combos, but all that means is that you’ll be mashing a different pattern from then on. Perplexingly enough, though, gameplay really isn’t what I should be talking about right now.
Let’s talk about atmosphere people, because this is the one point where Return of the King truly shines. If you’re the sort of person who enjoyed watching both the battle for Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, who got the goosebumps during the rousing speeches, who ever found themselves humming parts of the soundtrack, then this game won’t so much immerse you in the experience as completely drown you in it. In fact, every single part of the game experience is geared to make it come as close to the movie as possible. The in-game models, while crude by todays standards, carry a lot of resemblance to the cast, the voice acting is done by the original actors, the original soundtrack makes an appearance and in-game cutscenes seamlessly merge into clips from the movie. This game sure makes no bones about its movie tie-in nature. Once you start thinking about it, the connection to the Lord of the Rings movies is the only thing that keeps the games out of the realms of mediocrity.
That being said, having such a close connection to movie nature also brings a lot of issues. For one thing, on account of following the movies narrative, the difficulty curve wavers up and down a bit too much for my taste. There’s one frustratingly hard boss fight very near the beginning that makes the final boss pale in comparison, while most ordinary battles occupy roughly the same level of difficulty. And once you dribble out just how many times I had to replay the same missions time and again, the game is actually pretty short too. But this is one of the rare cases where I don’t hold it against the developers. Firstly because that’s simply the material they were given to work with, but mostly because it seems they were well aware of that problem and tried to fight it. There may not be a lot of iconic battles in the movies that they could base additional missions on, but at the very least they threw in a couple of interviews with the actors, bonus characters, even two completely made-up levels.
And then there’s this thing with the two player coop. It’s a welcome addition and can make for barrels of fun with a good tag-team partner, but the fact that the balancing isn’t changed in the slightest to adjust for the additional sword involved makes it a bit too easy. About the only downside in terms of balancing is the fact that two players will have to split up the experience and level slower, but that one is easily accounted for by the fact that they can (unlike in single player mode), go back and redo previous levels. Apart from that, two players mean two health bars, plus one respawn, and twice as much attack force easily solving all the tricky situations in which a lone wolf would have had to split his attention between several tricky objectives.
So is Return of the King a good game? I guess that depends on what exactly you are looking for. If you want a hack’n'slash game with great mechanics and satisfying combat, well then the actual game parts of this game might disappoint a bit. But if you’re mainly interested in the title because you liked the movies, then I can tell that it is likely what you’re looking for. And let’s be honest here: Who didn’t like the Lord of the Rings movies? To my own experience, most people who claim it actually mean “I liked them, but…”. If you want a feel of the energy portrayed in some of the greatest cgi battles scenes done to this date, then by all means, grab a copy, a friend and have the time of your life.
Bottom Line: Well worth the investment for fans of either Lord of the Rings, or coop fun. Not so much for fans of the hack’n'slash genre.
I’ll be honest with you here: I didn’t plan to review Elements. In fact, reviewing is quite the opposite of what this game made me do. There I was, three days before my self-set deadline, none of the reviews finished and I continued to waste hours of my life away through some browsergame. And why? Because it’s a really good browsergame.
Elements is, at most basic level, a browser-based trading card game, borrowing very heavily from Magic: The Gathering. The game offers an abundance of cards, split into 12 different colors. You use those cards to fight turn-based battles against either A.I. or human enemies. Upon winning these battles you are awarded a few (in-game) coins you can use to buy new cards. Then you repeat this cycle, ad infinitum. That’s just how trading card games work, and safe for the money-absorbing aspect, that’s how Element works, too.
Now, I can imagine two different reactions to the above paragraph. The first one can be roughly summarised as “A free trading card game? Coolio”, the response of anybody who ever tried their hand at one of them. But if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, I guess you’re currently asking yourself “Where does this get fun?”. To be honest, this is less entertainment than it is an obsession. Finding and perfecting a working strategy and cleverly responding to enemy actions are core parts of the experience, as is constantly searching for new cards and strategies that could either be implemented into your own playstyle, or that you need to learn how to defuse. Those workings tickle the RTS-enthusiast in all of us, and Elements very efficiently transports them to browsergame nature. Battles don’t usually last longer than five to ten minutes and, especially when compared to the big players in this market, the amount of cards available is actually pretty tiny. But the game isn’t any worse of for it. In a genre that’s dominated by battles of epic proportions and rule books resembling bricks, Elements‘ quick, straightforward and clever little matches are a welcome change.
So everything’s slinky, right? Well, no. The game is free, and as such I’m inclined to forgive quite a lot, but there’s one thing about Elements that really irritates me, and that is grind. I guess they needed something to replace all the money you’d normally sink into this sort of thing, but the amount of time you’d need to spend on this game if you want to see everything, is nothing short of outrageous. Victories only award minor amounts of cash, sufficient for buying starter cards, but most cards aren’t even available for sale. You have to hope you’ll randomly be awarded one after winning. Then there’s the option to upgrade your cards, an incredibly costly procedure you’ll have to repeat with every single card in your deck, even duplicates.
And to what end? The balancing of the starter cards is great, but once upgrades and rare cards come in, the whole thing is largely askew. There’s only two types of PvP matches, one that doesn’t allow any upgraded cards and one with no holds barred. Wandering into the latter with just a few upgraded cards is close to suicide, so you won’t really have anything of the procedure until you’re close to finished. Why even bother? At best, the balancing at this stage is as good as it was in the beginning and the few additional tactics don’t make it worth your while. But maybe I’m just bitter for all those times I undeservedly lost a match just because my opponent pulled a rare Deus ex Machina card out of their arse.
What’s a little harder to forgive are the few mechanical issues. Luck has always been a factor with this sort of thing, but with Elements, it goes a little extreme. As with most games of the like, your fortune in battle will depend largely on drawing enough resource cards in the beginning. Not doing so will result in a slow starting phase in most other games, but this game is so quick that by the time you make it out of your dry spell, you’ve already lost. Also, the game is perhaps a little bit too enthusiastic about rock-paper-scissor balancing. With every action and tactic in the game there’s corresponding tactics that will reduce you to shreds in a matter of seconds and others that will suffer the same fate at your hands. The problem is that there’s often literally no way to be ready for such events. You can only ever have one deck at a time, you can’t adjust to your enemy before you go into battle, nor can you seek him again once you did. It’s like entering an advanced rock-paper-scissors tournament, with complex rules and around 40 different manoeuvres, but you have to limit yourself to just three for the course of the entire competition.
Bottom Line: All in all, Elements is fun and free, making it a definite recommendation. It’s a nice take on the trading card concept and clever enough to keep me interested. You could do a lot worse, unless of course you discover it when you should be writing a big review project.
Do you know Nival Interactive? They are a russian game developer, perhaps best known for creating the latest installment in the Heroes of Might and Magic series. But Heroes of Might and Magic V is by no means their only game. Way back in 2001, they released a game called Etherlords, the sequel of which I want to highlight today.
Etherlords II is perhaps best described as a cross between the Heroes of Might and Magic[ series and the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. It's run of the mill fantasy world is filled to the brim with a magical energy called
mana, sorry, ether. Turns out, this ether comes in four different flavors, each one having a matching faction: Earth, Fire, Air and ,uhm, Cybernetics. Maybe things aren't this run of the mill after all?
Even though ether enables to perform all kinds of wondrous acts of magic, its unsurprising prime use is warfare. The four factions of this world are constantly fighting for power. Except for once every thousand years that is, when they pause briefly to fight even harder for power. Don’t look at me like that, I’m just giving you back story here. Anyway, you’re dropped fresh into the fight for the faction of your choice. After earning your spurs however, you’ll soon find out that the rivaling factions aren’t the biggest problem right now. A mysterious sorceress by the name of Diamanda, who apparently gave all four sides of the ether-lolly a lick, is supposedly traveling the world and robbing it of color and ether alike.
You’ll spend the first half of the game trying to find out about this enigmatic lady and the puzzling pale disease she’s spreading, but after a few twists and turns, without trying to give too much away, you’ll spend the second half controlling Diamanda herself. Let’s just say she hasn’t been draining the magic on her own account.
For all the cliche it sounds, it may surprise to hear you that the story isn’t actually half bad. To keep up momentum, believable motivation and characterization through not only one, but two changes in perspective is not a small feat, but Etherlords II pulls it off. Despite staggering a bit in the beginning, the story turns out to be functioning perfectly. What’s especially impressive is the huge change in the character of Diamanda throughout the plot. During the entire first half she serves mainly as a carrot on a stick, occasionally posing just out of your reach. But as soon as she is under your control the game goes through great lengths to fill her with more life. She’ll be talking, thinking and reflecting plenty. Hell, she even managed to get me rooting for her.
But I digress. Gameplaywise, Etherlords II is divided into exploration and combat. Exploration is where the Heroes of Might and Magic part of this hybrid comes in. Unlike HOMM (and Etherlords 1) however, you only get to control a single character at all times. Whom you use to walk around the map, looking for quests, treasures, merchants and above all, trouble. Not unlike its big role model, Etherlords II is clustered with creatures that stand in your way.
This obviously is where the combat part, and the Magic: The Gathering part comes in. To fight, you have to rely on a deck of 20 spells of your choice, that you’ll be able to go through up to 7 times during combat. Once you confront any kind of monster, you’ll find yourself in a small arena with your opponent, starting with 5 random spells on your hand. At the beginning of each of your turns, you’ll draw one spell and gain one ether channel (more if you’re higher levelled). Each of these ether channels will produce one ether every turn, to be spent on your spells. These spells allow you to summon creatures, boost your own creatures, weaken those of the enemy, deal damage, heal, hide, reflect, destroy, resurrect and all other kinds of crazy things. To win, you’ll have to rid the enemy of all his life points. And to do so, you’ll have to attack him with your creatures, which he will try to block with his own (And vice-versa once it’s their turn). There’s about 200 spells included in the game, 50 per faction (But safe for Diamandas part of the campaign, there’s no mixing in between factions), and you’ll gain more just like you gain experience: For completing quests and beating enemies.
Combat is the point that really made the game stand out for me. Not only is it a unique new take on turn-based combat, but it puts a much larger stress on creativity and tactics than similar games. While in most games you can’t actually mess up hard enough to lose provided you have big enough an army, the most powerful spells will mean nothing in the hands of an inept player here. And this simple fact does not only raise the challenge up quite a notch, it also does wonders to your self-esteem should you succeed. It just feels good to have a working combination figured out, or as Hannibal Smith would say: “I love it when a plan comes together”.
But with the large dependence on your brain comes the lack of a “skip fight” button, that would calculate how the battle would probably go down and take you straight to the results. And since monsters not only give you experience points but also new spells, you’ll spend a relatively large part of the game fighting for easy victories. Combine this with the warm-up phase even the mightiest deck needs to clear out any opponent and things can get a bit frustrating after a while. But fortunately, those periods never go too long before you face an actual challenge. Sadly, there are other flaws. As with any card game, luck plays a much bigger role than you’ll like. While it’s never as big a factor as tactics, it can happen that you start out with much too expensive spells while the enemy is off to a flying start.
And while the exploration in between fights serves beautifully to string things together, the mechanics it’s based on should perhaps have been updated once the developers decided to go for one character only. For instance, why does it need to be turn-based, if you’re the only one who moves? Instead of just clicking somewhere and the character going there immediately, this means that I have to set a goal, then click the “End Turn” button, then the character will move there. And before I can do it all again, I have to acknowledge the “Turn X” pop-up. Despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed going through the campaign, if only as warm-up to Duel mode, which offers all the tactical possibilities without any of the exposition.
Bottom Line: There’s a relatively simple way of finding out whether you’re going to enjoy Etherlords II. If you like either HOMM or Magic: The Gathering you’re in for a treat (especially if you like both). If you dislike both the concept of trading card games and turn-based strategy, then the game won’t sell you on it. But if you’re still undecided, you should check it out by all means. It may have its shortcomings, but at the end of the day it sure feels nice to have a trading card game that doesn’t constantly ask for money.