Return of the Subway Gamer: War Tortoise

I’ve never claimed to understand the appeal of game streaming; why would anyone watch other people play games, when they could be playing the same game themselves?  Even if the streamer is funny or insightful or entertaining, it seems like a perverse way to spend one’s time.

But by the same token, I’m one of those weirdos who is fascinated and compelled by auto-clickers; games which, eventually, play themselves.  I still have an active Clicker Heroes save, which I’ve actually checked on several times today.  I’ve been heavily invested in Cookie Clicker – twice.  I had been playing Mucho Taco on my iPhone, but then put it aside to play Doomsday.   I’ve spent actual money on these games.

So who am I to judge?

Point being:  in the last few days I have become rather enamored of War Tortoise, which is a strange and uniquely compelling hybrid of auto-clicker and tower defense, with an RPG-lite skill levelling system, a strikingly gorgeous presentation (for the iPhone, at least), and the ingeniously designed option to jump in and play, rather than just watch.

This isn’t just an auto-clicker – the gameplay is that of an endless turret sequence.  You can usually just let it run while you tap on various currency drops, but if there’s a tough bullet-sponge enemy bearing down on you, you can reclaim the turret and use some of the heavy weaponry to help take it down.  It’s not necessarily difficult, but there is a strategy involved in terms of how to best spend your money and build up your defenses, and that’s where the fun (for me, at least) lies.

It’s a strange game, don’t get me wrong – I don’t know why I’m on a tortoise, or why I am some sort of field mouse facing off against hordes of armored iguanas and beetles and such – but I don’t care.  The game doesn’t explain any of this, nor does it really need to.  Nobody plays these types of games for any sort of narrative sustenance.

It’s weird, and I’m weird, and I get it, and I accept it.  War Tortoise is awesome.


I’m in a bit of a holding pattern as far as my game playing is concerned right now; supposedly the review embargo for Uncharted 4 drops tomorrow, and while I’m nearly positive I’ll be buying it, I’m still curious as to how it reviews.  I worry it’ll be too combat heavy, but I’ve said that about all the Uncharted games, and by and large they are still enjoyable games.

I bought SUPERHOT for the Xbox One this morning, even though as a Kickstarter backer I already had it on my PC; my PC is basically busted, though, and I never got a chance to finish the game.  It looks absolutely fantastic on the XB1, for whatever that’s worth, and it plays just as well as I remember it playing on the PC, so that’s really all that matters.

I’m close to the end of Ratchet & Clank, which has remained a very pleasant action platformer which eventually gets a little tedious and exhausting.  I’d like to finish it, but I won’t necessarily kill myself to get there.

Most of my gaming has been on the iPhone.  Before War Tortoise came along, I was heavily invested in Marvel Avengers Alliance 2, which is a free-to-play turn-based RPG with impressive production values and a rather enjoyable combat system.  I’ve also been addicted to Loop Mania, a rather deceptively simple arcade game that is easier seen than described.

on managing expectations

In last week’s entry, I sounded pessimistic about the Fall 2015 videogame release schedule.  Not much has changed since then; unfortunately.  We had company on Saturday and I was laid up with a nasty head cold on Sunday, and so I only had a few hours of game time, and yet I was still kinda non-plussed at the end of it.  I played an hour or so of the remastered Dishonored; it looked fine – about on par with my PC – but I’d already played those first few missions a lot, and I wasn’t feeling particularly inclined to play them once more, Achievements notwithstanding.  I also played an hour or so of the remastered Gears of War, and it looks very much like how I remember it looking, which is probably the best you can hope for in a remastered port; it’s just that, as with Dishonored, I’m not really sure I feel like playing through the rest of it.  Calvino Noir has gotten fair-to-middling reviews in the few outlets that have bothered to write anything about it, which is a bit disappointing, and Madden 16 simply isn’t my cup of tea.  So there’s that.

This week is Metal Gear Solid V and Mad Max.  I’m going to take a wild guess and presume that the release date review embargo for Mad Max probably means that it’s not going to score all that well, and also that launching it on the same day as MGSV probably means that its publisher isn’t expecting that much of a return.

Review scores are not necessarily the be-all end-all for me, of course; I have been mystified by the Metal Gear franchise at every turn and even though this latest installment has gotten impossibly high scores from nearly every outfit that’s looked at it, I can’t help but feel incredibly skeptical about it.  I didn’t particularly care for Ground Zeroes, and if this is simply a much larger version of that, with a plot even more ludicrous and ridiculous, well… let’s just say I’m glad I’m not buying it.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s maybe a point that I should probably have emphasized a lot more during this last year or so of general gaming apathy; I’d love to be proven wrong.  I’d love to sit down with either one of these games and get sucked in and have a good time.  That’s why I still write here, that’s why this blog exists.  I have precious little time for gaming these days, and so I’d like the time I do get to play to be well spent.  I genuinely hope that I can sit down later this week and rip open my rental copy of MGSV and get sucked in – if not to the impossibly ridiculous story, then at least into the moment-to-moment experience of exploring the environment.


Not all is doom and gloom as far as games are concerned, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw some love towards some iPhone games that have been kicking serious ass of late.  To wit:

  • Lara Croft GO, which is a strategy-action-board-game hybrid that feels far more accessible and interesting than Hitman GO, the game that preceded it; I was able to finish the entire thing without needing any help, which was very rewarding.  I’d recommend playing it on an iPad as opposed to an iPhone (if only because the larger screen makes it considerably easier to find the hidden collectibles), though my iPad 3 did not run it particularly well.
  • PAC-MAN 256, which is a novel combination of both Pac-Man and Crossy Road, and which works far better than you might expect; and
  • Sage Solitaire, which is a poker-ish solitaire game built by the guy who made the excellent SpellTower, and which is fiendishly addictive and maddeningly frustrating.

While we’re on the topic of enjoying the moment-to-moment experience of a carefully crafted world, I want to pour one out for the dearly departed Hannibal, one of my all-time favorite television shows and which featured as thorough of a mic drop in its finale as one could’ve hoped for.  Nobody else watched this show, which is why it only lasted three seasons, but they were three of the most gorgeously photographed and exquisitely acted and straight-up BOLD seasons of network television I’ve ever seen in my life.  Not since Twin Peaks have I been so genuinely unnerved by something on a major network; there are images from nearly every episode of this show that I will never be able to get out of my head (the totem pole, the angel wings, the mushroom garden, the increasingly horrible fate of poor Dr. Chilton, etc.).  It’s been a hell of a ride, and I hope they can secure financing for a filmed version of the 4th season’s arc.  If Wet Hot American Summer can come back as a serialized Netflix show, then anything’s possible.


I’m currently reading Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, which I’m enjoying, though not nearly as much as I enjoyed his debut novel, The Gone-Away World, which is one of the most fun books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time.  I loved that book so much that I ended up buying the rest of his published output, and I suppose I should’ve expected a bit of a letdown after Gone-Away World’s brilliance; I’m not done yet, of course, and there’s still plenty of book left for me to get knocked out by – he has a remarkable way with words, of course, and even if the plot isn’t quite as riveting, his prose is still genuinely fun to absorb.


Subway Gamer: Giant Boulder of Death

There’s been no posts this week; coincidentally, I’ve played no games this week.  My rental copy of Rayman Legends is somewhere in the aether, and in between reading Night Film and just trying to get caught up on sleep, I’ve not had much time or inclination to play anything in my Steam backlog.  I’m running out of steam with Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, which is a bummer; it’s cute but very tedious, and the game refuses to let me figure anything out on my own.  I’ve been sorta going back and replaying Mass Effect 3 every once in a while, because I’d like to see that Citadel DLC that I bought a few months ago, but that’s really been it.  Basically, I’m in a holding pattern, trying not to get wrapped up in anything, just waiting for Grand Theft Auto 5 to steal me away from my family, my friends, and my continued employment.

Of course, I always have time for iPhone games, and I will always make room on my phone for anything involving PikPok and/or Adult Swim Games, as shown below:

pikpok

So when the two of them released Giant Boulder of Death (iTunes) yesterday, I snatched it up immediately.  And, wouldn’t you know: it is wonderful.

It is Sisyphus’ worst nightmare, it is Katamari Damacy in reverse:  instead of rolling up objects, your task is to vengefully roll downhill and destroy everything in your path.  (There’s actually a very cute narrative justification for this; the fact that they thought to include a narrative justification for rolling a boulder downhill and destroying everything in your path just makes it all the more special.)  The game has a few controls schemes on offer, but the default tilt scheme works just fine; you just tilt from side to side in order to steer, and you tap the screen in order to jump.

You will steer and jump because there are dangers, of course; the general of the town that you’re ultimately gunning for will set up increasingly difficult obstacles for you to avoid – spike traps, homing mines, robot tanks, etc.   (I hate homing mines with the passion of a thousand burning suns.)

I suppose this is also, technically, part of the “endless runner” genre, and as such it also comes with meta-goals, requiring you to hit certain objects or reach certain multipliers.  Achieving each meta-goal awards you with something new that will populate the world (and which usually gives you a substantial points reward for hitting), which means that at a certain point there’s just tons of crazy things on screen.

The game is free to play, and while there are in-app purchases (because of course there are) they aren’t really all that necessary, and certainly won’t impede your ability to wreck wanton destruction and have a good time in the process.  That being said, I like these developers and want to support them, and so I had no problem shelling out for the coin doubler.  (I am a whore for coin doublers.)

Subway Commute-Specific Criteria:

Can you listen to your own audio?  Yes.  I suppose I should listen to the in-game audio at least once, just to hear it, but you can listen to whatever you want.

Can it be played one-handed? Yes.  The default tilt control scheme works just fine with one hand.

Will you look like an idiot playing it?  Probably not; the tilt control is sensitive enough that you don’t need to do any sort of contortions or anything.

Really, the game is terrific; it’s free, it’s fiendishly addictive, and the only caveat I feel it necessary to provide is that it’s a bit of a battery hog; I showed up to work today after a non-stop 40-minute play session (while listening to Spotify) and my freshly-charged battery was down to 46%, which is quite a lot.  As this sort of thing can often be fixed with a software update, it’s not that big a deal.  Highly recommended.

real talk, part two

Apologies for yesterday’s postus interruptus; as per usual around here, I tend to get very busy only when I’m working on blog stuff, and since the first half of yesterday’s post felt particularly good coming out of the fingers, you would be correct to  assume that I got absolutely buried in work bullshit before I was able to get to the second half.  Right now, none of my bosses are even in the office, so this is a perfect opportunity to start writing; of course, I didn’t end up playing anything last night except for my two current iOS obsessions, so I’m feeling a bit detached from the Assassin’s Creed 3 rant that I never ended up writing.

Let me start with the iOS stuff first, since I’m in a good mood.  I’m still playing the hell out of Chip Chain, and now I’ve gotten my wife into it as well.  Here’s how addicting and engrossing it is – I missed my subway stop yesterday morning because I forgot to look up from my iPhone.  I told my wife as much, and to be careful on the way home.  She then missed her subway stop coming home from work, even though I’d warned her, because she forgot to look up from her iPhone.  We are both fully obsessed with it; I’ve finally unlocked everything there is to unlock, and my scores have been getting better, but I’m still not quite the zen master that I feel I could be with just a few dozen more hours of play.

Ironically, the one thing that’s helped me curb my addiction to Chip Chain (besides my day job keeping me insanely busy) is another new iOS game called Dream of Pixels (itunes, $0.99).  The easiest way to describe DoP is that it’s Tetris in reverse; a solid wall of blocks slowly descends from the top of the screen, and you have to carve a given tetromino shape out of the wall before anything touches the bottom of the screen.  I’ve never been particularly good at Tetris, and I’m sure my scores in DoP are on the low side of things, but goddamn, it’s really well made – it’s got a really beautiful and soothing art style and sound design (For some reason, the art style reminds me a little bit of Braid, even though the only thing you see are block-shaped clouds), and even though things can get hairy, it never feels as chaotic as regular Tetris.  It even gives you a nice compliment after you lose, which is quite lovely.  I think the only knock I’d give it is that it doesn’t appear to let you listen to your own music/podcast/etc., but that’s certainly not enough to dissuade me from giving it a full-throated recommendation.  UPDATE:  Turns out my iPhone was just being weird; DoP certainly does let you listen to your own audio.  Fantastic!  No knocks to give!

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OK, so.  You may recall in yesterday’s post that I very much wanted to discuss what I’d just seen in Assassin’s Creed 3, but that I needed to get my Halo 4 rant out of the way first.  There are SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS ahead, but let’s also be pretty clear here – AC3 takes place during the years leading up to the American Revolution, and considering the events that the previous games let you be privy to, you have to assume that your character will be an active participant in certain notable events in American history.  Let me also state that even though I’ve been playing for a dozen hours or so, a lot of those hours have just been dicking around in exploration mode; I’ve not really advanced the story all that much, so what follows is still relatively early in the game.

The whole reason why I even bothered to put Halo 4 into my 360’s tray was because I’d just finished the Boston Tea Party mission, and I literally couldn’t believe what I’d just seen.

I’m not sure what the right word is to describe just that mission’s terribleness, especially considering just how all-encompassing that terribleness actually was.  It was downright farcical.  For a franchise that generally takes itself incredibly seriously (notwithstanding Ezio’s Uncle Mario, as well as everything about Leonardo da Vinci), the Boston Tea Party was a goddamned travesty.

My familiarity with the American Revolution is, admittedly, a bit rusty.  That’s partly why I was so interested in playing AC3 in the first place, though; I was really interested in seeing what these events might have looked like.

Wikipedia describes the Boston Tea Party as “a key event in the in the growth of the American Revolution.”  What the game presented, though, looked more like a frat party stunt gone awry, with just 3 dudes heaving boxes of tea off of a ship (or, at least, trying to heave boxes of tea off a ship – when I tried to do it, I was just as likely to throw a box into another box, or a ship’s mast, or even backwards), and also in a world where “awry” means the violent, acrobatic murdering of 20-30 British soldiers in front of a cheering (though utterly silent) throng of colonists.   And when it was over – when 100 boxes of tea (no more, no less) had been thrown into the murky depths of Boston Harbor, the cutscene that followed basically just showed 3 dudes walking, and the camera was actually drifting off of their faces – it looked like a bad take, frankly.

The whole thing could not have been more anti-climactic, which is the literal opposite of the intended effect, I would think.  I couldn’t believe that such an epic moment of American history could have been treated so sloppily.  And considering that this is but the first such moment I’ve come across, I shudder to think what else this game is going to have me do.  (I’ve already heard terrible things about Paul Revere’s Ride, which certainly doesn’t bode well.)

UPDATE:  not moments after I published this post, Kotaku revealed that Ubisoft is putting out an absolutely massive patch next week that should fix a lot of what’s broken.  That list can be found here, but I must also submit that there’s plenty about the game when it’s working properly that’s still a bit messed up.

weekend recap – AC3, Halo 4, and an iOS GOTY contender

1.  I’ve found a possible contender for iOS game of the year, and it is called CHIP CHAIN (itunes, free).  It’s a fiendishly addictive combination of Triple Town and Drop 7; if either of those games mean anything to you, you will get sucked into Chip Chain immediately.   For the rest of you, here’s the developer’s description:

Place and match 3 or more identical poker chips to earn a more valuable chip, then chain together matches for huge bonuses! Play power-up cards to make combos, extend chains, and maximize your score. The dealer tosses chips to get in your way, but if you play smart and think ahead, you can turn the tables and use them to your advantage. Earn gems to spend on better chips, more powerful cards, bigger hands, gem multipliers, and more!

It’s free, and while there are in-app purchases, they’re certainly not necessary – you earn in-game currency at a pretty steady pace anyway.  The only negative criticism I can offer is that it tends to suck battery life rather quickly; my morning-commute iPhone gaming usually drains from fully charged to around 80%; this morning’s commute drained me all the way down to the low 70s.  Hopefully that will be addressed in a patch.  That aside, I give this my highest recommendation.

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2.  I have given up on Need For Speed Most Wanted.  I tried playing a bit more on Friday night, and found myself cursing and ranting and saying things that I really ought to not say out loud, even if I’m in an empty room, yelling at the television.   Understand that it breaks my heart to do this.  Understand that underneath all the frustration and the bullshit and the cheap shots and the magnetized traffic and everything else that makes me seethe with white-hot fury, this is still a Criterion driving game, and as such there are still moments of breath-taking exhilaration to be found.   But there’s SO MUCH BULLSHIT you must endure before you get to those fleeting moments of glory, and I don’t have the time any more to put up with a game that makes me angry.

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3.  I don’t know if I’m giving up on Halo 4.  I did the first 2 missions and then put it down, and I haven’t really thought about it much since.   It looks gorgeous, and it still feels like Halo, which is what it’s supposed to do, I guess.  But the truth of the matter is that it only took about 5 minutes before my ongoing issues with shooter fatigue kicked in.   I’m really, really tired of shooting things, especially the Covenant.  I’d still like to try the co-op stuff, I suppose, but even that isn’t all that appealing.  I will say this, though – I tried the SmartGlass app on my iPad, and Halo 4 takes advantage of it in some pretty neat ways.   I suppose if I were really into multiplayer, I’d really get into all its stat-tracking and everything.   It’s certainly not essential, but it’s a nice feature to have if you’re into that sort of thing.

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4.   I did finally receive my Gamefly copy of Assassin’s Creed 3, which, as it turns out,  is very much the kind of game I’d rather be playing than shooters and frustrating driving games.  It’s a shame, then, that so much of it is broken.

My relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise is, for lack of a better word, weird.  I’m a devoted fan almost in spite of myself, because there’s just too damned much of it.

I really liked AC1, even if it was ultimately repetitive and shallow.  I genuinely loved AC2, which fleshed out the main story with a number of fun (and relevant) side missions.  And I still adore AC2: Brotherhood, which may very well end up in my top 5 games of this console generation.  The thing is, I never needed these games to come out every year.  Frankly, I suppose one of the reasons why I like Brotherhood so much is that I was legitimately afraid that it was going to suck – I worried that they were adding too much, too quickly, without giving the game enough time to properly cook (and without giving its audience enough time to achieve the proper level of excitement).

This is probably why I gave up on AC2: Revelations so quickly; my fear of diminishing returns finally came true.  AssRev was overly complicated, throwing far too many new ideas at the player – many of which were half-baked to begin with, and none of which felt particularly necessary.  I’d sunk over 100 hours into the first 3 games without ever once feeling like I needed to use smoke grenades, let alone a complex grenade crafting system.  I’d barely learned how to properly use the grappling hook in AssRev before I was being thrust into a ridiculous, nonsensical tower defense minigame.  And to top it all off, the controls were utterly fucked up; it felt like I needed to hold 4 buttons down just to run up a wall – something I’d already done at least a thousand times in the earlier games – and yet more often than not, I’d end up jumping into a ravine instead of climbing onto a platform.

And so, prior to AC3’s release, I must admit that I was a little worried.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for yet another Assassin’s Creed game, especially coming on the heels of the incredible disappointment of AssRev.  And I wasn’t sure how Ubisoft was going to fix all the things that needed fixing, while adding all the things they would inevitably add, in such a short span of time.

Indeed, I’m now 10 or so hours into AC3, and I’m still a little worried about it.  I am happy to say that I’m enjoying it a hell of a lot more than AssRev, but I’m also a little bummed out about how rough around the edges it seems to be.

The game is flat-out broken in a number of alarming ways.  And I don’t just mean that the player can get stuck in level geometry on a consistent basis, although that’s happened far too many times for an AAA title.  There’s one example I can point early on in the game where literally nothing makes sense.  

**SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS AHEAD**  

There’s a mission where Samuel Adams is ostensibly going to to show young Connor how to use the Fast Travel System.  The two characters walk towards the indicated waypoint, but the road is barred by soldiers.  Connor says, “How about I just take the rooftops and meet you there?”  Sam then says, “No, not that way.  You need to learn how to do this.  Follow me.”  Except he doesn’t move; he expects me to take him.    I don’t know where I’m supposed to go!

Here’s the catch:  I actually do, since I’d already explored this area during a previous visit and unlocked a few Fast Travel locations (before I actually knew what they were).  The problem is, when I try to take Sam to one of the other Fast Travel locations I’ve already discovered, the game tells me I’m about to fail the mission for leaving the mission area.

?!

I had to look at a walkthrough, which revealed that I actually did have to go to the place that was guarded by soldiers, and that the only way in was to climb over the rooftops and sneak in behind, which, as you’ll recall above, was specifically what Sam asked me not to do.

**END SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS**

At least I was able to complete this mission; the mission I had to do 2 missions before this one caused me to, for no reason at all, suddenly become attacked by dozens of soldiers.  Restart checkpoint – same thing happens.  There was no way to fix this other than to kill everyone.  And then Connor and Sam had a leisurely conversation, as if nothing had just happened.

Another thing that tends to get under the skin is the wildly uneven pacing.  I don’t mean in terms of the story – while a lot of critics have opined that the game starts far too slowly, I actually appreciate that the game has taken its time to set up where it’s going.  Instead, I’m talking more specifically about the errors of pacing where it’s clear that there wasn’t enough time to properly polish and edit each scene.  There are times when the game makes you walk 10 feet before a new cutscene starts; there are other times right next to them where you have to walk 500 yards to get to the next cutscene; there are times when you’ll start a mission and instantly jump to where you need to be; there are other times where you’ll start a mission and, as before, have to walk for 10 minutes before the mission starts.  I can’t say I know anything about game development, but I’d guess that if the game had even just a few more months of polish, these sorts of inconsistencies would be smoothed over and the overall experience would be much improved.  Instead, Ubisoft rushed it out the door in order to meet its quarterly earnings projections, and we ended up with something that isn’t nearly as good as it should be.

I can’t speak for all AC fans, but I can’t imagine anybody wants one of these games every year; I think they’d prefer to have these games to come out when they’re good and ready.  Because when these games work the way they’re supposed to, they are incredibly fun and engaging and immersive.  There’s really nothing like them, and that’s why they’re so special.

Nor would I contend that the thing that keeps people attracted to this franchise is all the crazy, random shit that has nothing to do with the business of assassinating.  Brotherhood remains the best game in the franchise for me because all the random stuff it added made sense, and added to the overall experience of being the head of an Assassin Guild, and most importantly – it was fun.

AC3, on the other hand, has a bizarre, overly complicated hunting system – which is fine, I suppose, except it doesn’t work all that well and it doesn’t do anything to enhance the experience, even though it’s incessantly shoving itself into your way.  (By way of contrast, look at Red Dead Redemption‘s hunting system – it was simple, easy to understand, yielded tangible rewards, and didn’t constantly remind you of its existence; it was there if you wanted to engage with it, and remained quietly in the background if you wanted to do something else.)

Similarly, I completed my first naval battle last night.  Let’s leave aside the highly questionable narrative decision wherein a seasoned British naval officer allows a Native American teenager to captain a fucking ship and engage in warfare on the open seas, and ask ourselves if this is something that ever needed to exist in this franchise.  Because even though the minigame itself was surprisingly well executed and even impressive, cinematically, it’s still totally unnecessary.

I’m not ready to give up on it, though; despite its brokenness and its near-desperate need to impress you with SOMETHING NEW at every turn, it’s a lot more fundamentally sound than AssRev.  I like these new characters; I like the shift in location and era; I like that the overall narrative seems to have gained some of the forward momentum it seemed to be lacking.  And, frankly, I miss this franchise.  Like I said above – when it’s good, there’s nothing quite like it.  And being that we’re in the middle of shooter season, this is a very refreshing change of pace.

Subway Gamer: airplane edition

I’m leaving tomorrow for a mini-vacation – a wedding followed by 2.5 days in Orlando – and since I’m not the best air traveler in the world (though I’ve gotten much better), I’ve been stocking up on iOS diversions to help keep my anxiety in check.  Likewise, there’s bound to be some downtime during this trip, so I’ll need some stuff to keep me occupied.

Here, then, is a quick rundown of what I’ll be checking out over the next few days:

Pocket Planes:  Nimblebit’s followup to the insanely addicting Tiny Tower arrived late last night, and I’ve become arguably even more hooked on PP than I was on TT.  Instead of building an endless skyscraper, you are gradually building an airline.  Right now, I’ve got 5 or 6 planes ferrying people and cargo along a narrow corridor in the Northeastern US (on my iPhone, at least – my iPad game is starting out in South America), and soon I’ll be buying airports in the Midwest and beyond.  It’s engaging, it’s non-stressful, it’s got the same charming 8-bit art style that TT had, and it’s FREE – and not in that annoying way where it’s technically free but you have to shell out real $$ in order to actually get anywhere.  Free, Universal

Temple Run: Brave:  Imangi’s follow-up to its mega-hit Temple Run, now with Pixar branding for its forthcoming film.  It is pretty much the exact same game as the original, except with better graphics and an “archery mini-game” which really just requires you to tap on archery targets as you run past them.   It’s a little awkward, but it does mix things up a bit.  $.99, Universal

Air Mail:  A truly gorgeous 3D flying/exploration game, reminiscent of Crimson Skies (but without the combat, at least so far).  It’s a little aimless at times, but it’s also one of the best-looking games on the new iPad.  $4.99, Universal

Defender Chronicles 2:  I’m not much for tower defense games, but this has been getting great reviews… $2.99, Universal

And of course, lots of 8-Bit Ninja, Spellsword and Fairway Solitaire.

The Anticlimactic Return of the Subway Gamer

The thing about the new iPad is that, for all its awesome qualities, it’s not something I feel 100% OK about using on the subway.  First and foremost, there’s been lots of reports lately about iPad thefts in the subway system, and while I’m generally a very careful subway passenger, you can never be too careful.  Furthermore, my iPad is wi-fi only, which makes playing stuff like Draw Something or Words With Friends impossible.  Lastly, the new iPad is, well, not as portable as an iPhone; and so the act of making swiping gestures occupies more physical real estate and makes you look a little sillier, and tilting the thing is not a particularly subtle act, and so the basic thing to come away from this is that if you’re trying to not draw attention to yourself on the subway, don’t use your iPad to play games on it.

So, then, the gaming that I do with it is mostly spent either at home or during idle hours at work.  (Hours = 5 minute bursts.)  This change in venue is worthwhile, though – it means that I’m 100% focused on the game, rather than trying to also maintain my balance on a crowded train or what have you.  And any excuse I can get to gaze upon that retina display without being interrupted is something I’ll gladly accept.

Here, then, are some quick impressions of everything I’ve bought since I picked up the new iPad a few weeks ago, in chronological order of purchase.

Zuma’s Revenge HD – I’ve played this on the iPad and the iPhone, and it’s more or less ruined the iPhone version for me as a result.  Not that the iPhone version is bad, but the screen is so goddamned small in comparison, and I find it much harder to be accurate with my fat fingers flying all around the screen.  The game itself is still the same ol’ Zuma, so it’s familiar and colorful and fun, although I’m not that big a fan of the soundtrack or voices.  (iTunes)

Waking Mars – This had been getting some rave reviews, and so I felt compelled to pick it up, sight unseen.  I’ve not yet spent enough time with this one to have something noteworthy to say about it, but I’m flying to Chicago in a few weeks and this will be at the top of my to-do list.  (iTunes)

Azkend 2 HD – I was somewhat of a fan of the first one, and the promise of HD graphics made this an easy impulse purchase.  But I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed in this one, mostly because it’s really, really difficult – unfairly difficult, right off the bat.  It’s not a hard game to play conceptually, but some of the first few objectives are frustratingly difficult to achieve, mostly due to the unfairness of the random tile selection you’re given.  I’d stay away until a patch addresses this, although who knows if such a thing is even in the works.    (iTunes)

SpaceChem Mobile – See Waking Mars, above.  People had been talking about this game for what felt like eons, so I felt compelled to buy it.  People have also said that it’s the sort of game that can make you feel really stupid, and I’m inclined to agree, which is why I haven’t played more more than the tutorial, which left me just as confused as I was when I loaded it up.  (iTunes)

Draw Something  – Chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this, you probably already own this, so there’s not much for me to explain.  My favorite part of the game is being able to see both how people draw, and how people guess, in quasi-real time.  This has actually come in handy in terms of drawing clues – you can use that quasi-real time nature to “animate” your drawings, which is awesome to see.  (iTunes)

Angry Birds Space – See Draw Something, above.  I think I’d played all of the previous Angry Birds games to death, and didn’t really think there’s be much to offer in a new game, but it can’t be overstated enough how fucking brilliant  the new gravity mechanic is, and how devious  the resulting puzzles have become.  Speaking of overstating, this looks absolutely incredible on the iPad’s retina display.  (iTunes)

rComplex – Another in the “endless runner” genre, a genre that I’m quite fond of, actually, and while it’s got a rather nifty graphical look to it, I’m not really finding it all that interesting to play.  (iTunes)

The Hunger Games – Speaking of endless runners, this movie-tie-in was apparently co-designed by the guy behind Canabalt, so it’s not total crap.  That said, I haven’t found it particularly engaging, either, so, yeah.  It’s free, though!  (iTunes)

MotoHeroz / Bike Baron – Two totally different developers, but they both fill the Trials HD -shaped hole in my heart.  (Being that the sequel to Trials HD is arriving on Xbox Live in a few months, I’ll probably put these down in order to play the real thing.  But it’s nice to see other people making these sorts of motorcycle/platform games.  Motoheroz: (iTunes)   Bike Baron: (iTunes)

Hunters 2 – One for the upcoming plane ride, I think.  It seems to be some sort of turn-based strategy/RPG thing, which has its proper time and place in my life.  Looks pretty enough, though. (iTunes)

Swordigo – Super Mario meets Zelda, with ugly graphics but compelling gameplay.  I’ve had quite a bit of fun with this, although, yeah, it really could use a graphical upgrade.  (iTunes)

Fibble HD – So Crytek decided to make a casual iOS game that’s a weird hybrid between platforming, coin collecting and physics manipulation?  That also looks incredible?  OK!  (iTunes)

Madcoaster – Another endless runner, sort of, except with a roller coaster.  Takes some inspiration from Jetpack Joyride and Tiny Wings, too, in terms of its meta-game objectives (which help you upgrade your coaster, although to what practical effect is as yet a mystery to me).  (iTunes)

Rinth Island – I bought this mostly because it reminded me a little bit of the upcoming XBL platformer, Fez, which I am absolutely foaming at the mouth for.  This game isn’t quite at Fez’s level, but it’s still interesting and different from most other platformers I’ve played.  There are two different control schemes on offer, and both of them are kind of wonky, so your mileage may vary.  (iTunes)

Light the Flower – Chillingo’s latest reminds me a little bit of Helsing’s Fire, in that you’re manipulating beams of light in order to accomplish your goal.  In this case, you’re not vanquishing ghouls, but instead giving flowers much-needed light in order to grow.  Awww. (iTunes)

Chaos Rings 2 – I was kinda hoping that I’d have enough sense to not spend $20 on a turn-based JRPG that I didn’t even know if I’d like.  And yet, here we are.   These are the times we live in.  One for the plane, most likely. (iTunes)

In terms of other, non-gaming iPad apps, I’ve been enjoying the GarageBand app – which can do quite a lot more than I ever expected.  Zite is a really interesting newsreader that adapts its content to fit your preferences – it’s like a Tivo for your Google Reader.

weekend recap: poor impulse control

I started playing a lot of games this weekend, and that’s not counting all the stupid shit I bought on Steam.  And the sad part is – I don’t know that I’m ever going to finish any of them, not with Gears 3 arriving tomorrow.

Anyway.  The bulk of the weekend was spent with my rental copy of Resistance 3.  I’d not been a fan of the first 2 games – indeed, I only played about 5 minutes of R2 before boredom set in – but the reviews of R3 were positively glowing, and so I figured why not.

I’m enjoying it, for the most part.  It generally looks really nice – not as jaw-dropping as Killzone 3 but it’s got great lighting and terrific art design.  People move nicely, although their faces (outside of cutscenes) are a little weird.  The weapons are probably my favorite part of the game – every gun is immensely satisfying to use, and I certainly enjoy leveling them up as I progress.  Hell, I like that I keep leveling up even if I die repeatedly (which has happened in a few sections, unfortunately – so much so that I ended up moving the difficult down to Easy just so that I could finish it quickly).  The biggest drawback, though, is the friendly AI, which is either stupid, non-helpful, or just plain broken.  They don’t hit anything, and indeed sometimes they don’t even fire their weapons, even as enemies pour into view.  What makes this even more frustrating is that the enemies seem to know this, also, which is why they only seem to target me.

I’m apparently at the end of Chapter 10 (of 20), so there you go.  As noted above, I’m definitely not going to have a chance to finish it before Gears 3 arrives, and frankly I’m not entirely sure I’m ever going to finish it.  But I’ll hold on to it in the meantime; maybe it’ll be something nice to switch back to if Gears 3 gets frustrating.

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I also spent an hour or two with Dead Island, which I’m playing on my PC.  I’d been hemming and hawing about renting it for a while, and after listening to a bunch of podcasts I decided to forgo the console versions and just give it a download on Steam.  I’ve heard it compared to both Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising, but to be honest the game it most reminds me of is Fallout 3 – specifically in terms of the size of the world, the combat, and the questing.  I think this is a good thing.  It’s a bit clunky in spots, and the writing/voice acting is a bit off, but it also feels wildly ambitious and I feel compelled to give it a good effort.

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I’m still plugging away in Driver: San Fransisco, which I apparently haven’t written about here.  I like it!  It’s a bit frustrating here and there, but I love how completely batshit insane it is, and I especially love how the developers really took this lunatic premise and went all-out with it.  And I also appreciate just how much stuff there is to do, which goes a long way towards easing frustration with story missions or races or what-have-you.

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As for Steam sales… god.  I’m such a whore.  Picked up Darksiders and Mirror’s Edge for 5 bucks apiece – both games I’ve already played before on the 360 – and then I did the Star Wars mega-pack, mostly because we also bought the Star Wars blu-ray set and so we had it on the brain.  (Which I’m sure wasn’t merely a happy coincidence on Valve’s part.)  I did the first 5 minutes of KOTOR and turned it off immediately – it felt very clunky with a mouse and keyboard, and I didn’t want my memories of that game sullied by reality.  Also – the Star Wars: Force Unleashed install was something like 24 gigs?  WTF?

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I keep meaning to do another Subway Gamer piece, and I keep not having time.  So here’s a quick taste of what’s been keeping my iPhone busy of late:

Jetpack Joyride might be my frontrunner for most addicting game of the year.

Quarrel is a fantastic word game – anagrams mixed with Risk.  If it had online multiplayer I’d never turn it off.

Monsters Ate My Condo is… I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a pretty insane little puzzler, good for quick 5 minute bursts.

Dragon Portals is something I downloaded for free the other day; it’s an intriguing take on the old match-3 formula.  Not sure I’d recommend it at full price, but for a free download it’s certainly worth checking out.

The Subway Gamer: Tiny Tower

I might be in trouble.  Tiny Tower is scratching an itch that I’d thought I’d gotten rid of.

Tiny Tower came out a week or two ago, to much acclaim from some of the gaming press.  A free-to-play title, filled with pixelated charm, capable of devastating addiction if not watched carefully.  I downloaded it (of course), but the tutorial was a bit confusing and I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to do.  So I put it away and forgot about it.

But people kept talking.  That’s the curse of today’s social media – if you’re plugged in, you can’t escape it.  I was bombarded with too many tweets and forum posts about Tiny Tower’s addictive qualities, and then somebody referred to it as a vertical Farmville, and suddenly I understood what the game was about.

And now I’m hooked.

I used to have a Farmville problem.  In fact, now that I think about it, it’s been just over a year since I pulled the plug.  Lots of people hate Farmville, and I suppose I understand where they’re coming from, even if most of the hate is simply based against Zynga’s horrendous business practices and/or “casual” gaming in general.  For me, though, there was something about it that was tremendously compelling.  In fact, now that I think of it, I realize that the appeal of Farmville (and other similar titles) was very similar to what I wanted to like about the Civilization games – it’s resource gathering, but without enemies or antagonists.  There’s no pressure.  You build, you reap, you sow, you earn, lather, rinse, repeat.  The Keflings games on XBLA scratch this itch for me too, although in both of those games I ended up screwing myself by running out of builders.

But Tiny Towers scratches this itch like crazy.  You, as a building developer, are continually adding floors to your tower.  A floor may be residential, or one of 5 different kinds of store.  You move people into your building and give them jobs in the stores.  Each person (or “Bitizen”) has certain preferences for where they want to work, and it’s up to you to manage their happiness – the happier the employees are, the easier (and cheaper) it is to restock their stores’ inventory.  That’s it.  When you’re done with all that stuff, your main task (besides watching the money roll in) is to work the elevator that lets visitors go to different floors.

The addiction sets in when you realize that need to build another floor because your tower has a need for a certain type of store, and then you realize that the floor you just built doesn’t have enough Bitizens to properly staff it, and so you then need to build another floor because you need to house all the Bitizens in order to staff that store, and then you need to build another floor because you have too many Bitizens without jobs, etc.

And the dangerous part is that each task in the game takes time.  But if you need instant gratification, you can spend “Bux” to speed the process up immediately, or you can transmute your “Bux” into in-game currency which can then be used to buy new floors.  And “Bux” cost real U.S. Dollars.  As the game is free on the iTunes store, I did succumb to temptation once and bought some “Bux”, but I rationalized it by saying it was a thank-you to the developer.  I am hopeful that it was just a momentary lapse of weakness.  I can’t get sucked in again.

Thankfully, this isn’t really something you can play for more than a minute at a time (unless you’re endlessly buying things, which you can only do with real money).  My commute to work is around 40 minutes or so, and there’s only so much elevator-ferrying I can do before I start getting restless.  But it is something I check in on every hour or so when work gets slow, and since the game is constantly running in the background, every time I log in I’m greeted with a large amount of cash that’s accumulated since my last check-in.  So that’s nice.

NameTiny Tower

Price:  Free, with endless opportunities for micro-transactions.

Description:  Some sort of tower-building sim thing.

Can it play background music?:  Yes.

Can you play one-handed?:  Yes

Do you look like an idiot when you play it?:  No.

The Final Word:  I’m giving this a 4 out of 5.  It’s relentlessly charming, and fiendishly addictive.  Your mileage may vary depending on your taste for this particular sort of gameplay; it’s not necessarily for everyone.  But it’s certainly for me.  Goddammit.

Introducing: The Subway Gamer

[This is the first of what will hopefully be a regularly recurring feature here at SFTC:  The Subway Gamer, wherein I talk about what I’m playing on my iPhone on my way into and from work, as well as what I see other people playing.]

[EDIT:  Can’t believe I posted this without the incredibly obvious scoring mechanism that I’ve now inserted at the bottom.]

Regular NYC commuters generally understand, whether they like it or not, that if they read a book, people will look at what they’re reading, make subjective assumptions based upon what you’re reading, and, more often than not, end up reading over their shoulder (especially if they’re reading a newspaper).

The same thing holds true for handheld gaming, more or less.  I’m constantly playing games on my iPhone when I’m on the subway, and from time to time I see people glancing at what I’m doing.  (This is mostly when the game I’m playing requires lots of hand movements, and I look like an idiot.)  Likewise, if I see someone else playing something on their iPhone, I’ll take a gander and see if it’s something worth playing for myself.  (I’ve discovered quite a few awesome games in this manner – Grim Joggers, Train Conductor and Cover Orange, for starters.)

There are a number of important criteria that I take into consideration when it comes to subway gaming.  The first, and possibly important, is whether or not I can listen to my own music while playing.  This has actually been somewhat of a deal breaker for me, to be honest – I’ve got a ton of supposedly really good RPGs on my iPhone, but I’ll never get around to playing them because I’m stuck listening to their music – music that doesn’t necessarily enhance the gaming experience.  By and large, the games that I tend to play are more puzzle-based rather than story-based, and so generally this isn’t that big a deal – my commute isn’t long enough to really get sucked into a story, anyway – but it’s a big enough deal that it bears mentioning.

Another issue is whether the game can be played with one hand or not.  (Don’t get any ideas.)  The general unspoken rule (actually, sometimes it is spoken – this is New York, after all) is that able-bodied, 30-something males are the lowest on the priority list if an empty seat is available on the train.  This means that I’m standing up 99.99% of the time, and I’ll need something to hold on to.  If I’m playing a game that requires 2 hands to play and I’m on a bumpy stretch of track, well, that affects the gameplay experience.  (It doesn’t mean the game itself is bad, of course; I’m speaking purely about my own personal experience on the subway.)

There’s other things like loading times and restart times, whether the game is fairly priced, whether the game needs to have wi-fi access, if the iPhone needs to be tilted or manhandled or needs the aforementioned crazy hand movements or requires you to do anything that makes you feel self-conscious and awkward.  And, of course, the game needs to be fun, and worth playing more than once.

At some point in the near future I’ll be putting up some Favorite iPhone Games lists so that you know where I’m coming from, but for now I just want to get started with a belated review of Flick Golf Extreme!, the sequel to Full Fat Productions’ excellent Flick Golf!

NameFlick Golf Extreme!

Price:  $2.99

Description:  A sequel/expansion pack to the original, outstanding Flick Golf!, a touchscreen-based bulls-eye golf game.  The new game is 2 dollars more expensive, and yet features less content than the original.

Can it play background music?:  Yes.

Can you play one-handed?:  Yes, although your scores probably won’t be as good.

Do you look like an idiot when you play it?:  If you’re really into finessing your shots with spin, you might have some arm flailing.

The idea behind the Flick Golf games is simple; simply flick the ball, and get as close to the hole as possible.  The closer you get, the more points you score.  You can adjust your ball’s trajectory mid-flight by swiping your finger across the screen, and you can also make adjustments to the ball’s spin once it hits the ground.  At higher levels, wind becomes a factor.  Very simple, very self-explanatory.

There are several different modes – one is simply a straight-up score competition, another tasks you with reaching a certain score in a certain amount of time (and great shots reward you with extra time), and yet another starts you out with only 5 balls (although you can earn more shots by getting holes-in-one).

This Extreme! sequel features only 5 courses, and they’re a little bit harder than in the original – you have much less surface area to work with.  This isn’t much of a problem if you’re a veteran of the first game and have a general idea of what you’re doing, but for the newcomer I would expect this game to be pretty difficult when starting out.  (The newcomer really ought to play the original game first, anyway, as it’s cheaper, contains more courses, and has been made a bit easier to get through in terms of scoring benchmarks, via recent updates.)

The game certainly looks beautiful.  The retina display is used to great effect here; colors pop off the screen, backgrounds are nicely detailed, and the game runs very smoothly.  Each level does take between 12-15 seconds to load up, which can get somewhat annoying, but once you’re in a level you can restart it instantly (which is very much appreciated – at later levels your score requirements get pretty high, and if you miss early you’re doomed).

I’ve been having quite a bit of fun with this one, but I can’t necessarily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played the original.  The original game is only 99 cents, has a lot more content, and is a bit easier to get into.  As noted above, this game is $2.99, features less content, and is a bit more difficult.  $2.99 is right around the threshold for me, in terms of how easily I’ll succumb to my consumer desires; considering how little is here, I’m a little bummed.  Still, though, it’s certainly fun for what it is, and if you enjoy the first game you’ll probably enjoy this one, too, and maybe you’ll justify the extra cost as a thank-you to the developers who packed in so much content in the original.

The Final Word out of 5.  This could go up, though, if they release more (free) content in future updates.