Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Red Alert 3: beta impressions

After playing the multiplayer beta of Red Alert 3, I can safely say that this is the weirdest, most complicated Command & Conquer game ever. It can be very hard to figure it out if you just jump into a game against other players (but of course, that's all you could do in the beta). There's still a lot I don't understand about it. Every unit seems very unique, and there are tons and tons of special abilities to go around. Reading the manual will be absolutely necessary unless you play the three single-player campaigns first, which I assume will train you on how to use all the units and abilities. The three sides are extremely different from each other. I can see this and C&C3 both retaining a large audience, because they are very different games.

Gone from C&C3 are squad-based infantry units and complete freedom with placing structures. The former is a matter of taste, and adds to the less military, more stylized feel of the game; the latter is probably a good idea, since structure placement in C&C3 was very confusing. No longer will you find yourself unable to place a structure on a gigantic, flat chunk of land that's well within your construction zone. In this game, structures are placed on a grid and can be rotated in only 4 directions (diagonally skewed in the default view, as has been the case with all C&C engines after the original).
Resources are also handled differently. Structures called Ore Mines are scattered across the map, and you build an Ore Refinery near one of them and let the ore collector start doing its thing. It most strongly resembles the Vespene Gas mechanic in Starcraft, with the ore mines becoming depleted after a while; the difference is that the ore mines are neutral structures and the refinery is built across from it. The ore collectors' turnaround time is quite fast assuming you place the refinery just a few blocks away from the mine, meaning there's really no need to build extra ore collectors unless the one that comes with the mine is destroyed. (Or for base expansion, in the case of the Allied ore collector.) The overall control scheme and interface of the game is basically the same as that of C&C3, although the graphics seem a little more advanced; I had to turn off anti-aliasing to get it running smoothly.

One of the most interesting changes across the board is the "special abilities" tree. Throughout the game -- I'm still not sure how, but it seems to have to do with construction -- you acquire experience points (I think they're called "defense points" or something) to spend on special abilities, which queue up on the left side of the screen the same way paratroopers, superweapons, etc. did in C&C3. There's a grid of abilities, with 3 columns and about 8 rows. When you spend points on one of them, it unlocks the one below it. For example, spending a point on an airstrike ability may unlock a bigger airstrike; however, they're a LOT more varied than that. Abilities range from basic things, like reinforcements, radar sweeps, and mild superweapons, to more advanced things, like a cash bounty that temporarily lets you get money from killing enemies. I'm told that this system is similar to something from Company of Heroes.
Compared to both C&C3 and Starcraft, there seems to be less focus on "upgrading" unit weapons and armor in the traditional sense. Any upgrading is done via this new ability tree system. The units more or less start off at full potential; however, almost all of them have a special ability that can be toggled on and off, or used after a cool-down period. Partially because of this, there seems to be a smaller, more focused set of units than in previous games, with some of the standard unit functions from previous games being combined into one unit.

There is a lot of focus on water combat. Obviously, every faction has a naval base that can build water vessels. But here's the biggest departure from tradition: many structures (if not all) can actually be built on the water, using a scaffolding/deck as visual justification. This includes turrets, as such base expansion necessitates defense expansion; so yes, you can build Tesla Coils in water. Quite a few units can cross water as well, including certain types of tanks, all engineers, and the Japanese Shinobi. All ore collectors are amphibious so that they can gain access to Ore Mines that are located in water. It appears that the only structures that can't be built on water are vehicle and infantry production structures; naturally, naval bases can't be built on land, but airfields can be built on either surface.

The soundtrack seems to largely follow the C&C3 mold in that it's dynamic ambient music rather than a tracklist of songs. When you get into battles it starts sounding more old-school, but I can't say anything for sure since I don't know how much of the soundtrack is available in this version. The main menu music is "Grinder", recycled from Red Alert 2, so I can only assume that will change.

With that said, I'll briefly go over the 3 factions.

The Allied Prospectors (ore collectors) double as C&C3's Surveyors: not only can they collect ore, but they can deploy into a base expansion area. Instead of building "tech" structures, Allies can purchase two levels of "clearance" to open up further construction tiers. I imagine this gives them the advantage of not being able to lose access to certain units until the construction building itself is destroyed. They have no grenade unit, just rifle and bazooka infantry; however, the rifle infantry can use "riot shields" which allow them to go into a garrisoned building and clear it out. Allies seem to favor units and structures where you can put infantry inside; their turret, their "hum-vee" type unit, and possibly one of the ships or aircraft allow this. (It's like C&C3's APC.) One of the Allies' coolest special abilities is Time Bomb, which lets you place a bomb anywhere not shrouded by "fog of war". I'm not sure how the enemy is supposed to diffuse it; possibly with an engineer? I didn't get much of a chance to experiment with their air and naval units, but they seemed pretty powerful. Tank-wise they have a relatively light tank and the Mirage tank from RA2, so the Soviets will outdo them in that department.

Rising Sun:
Definitely the oddball faction. Every single one of their structures is built as a deployable unit. So you don't just build a power plant; you build a power plant "core" and then you move it somewhere and deploy it. Even turrets are built like this. As confusing as this is, it has one obvious advantage: they can build absolutely anywhere. Hence, expect a Rising Sun player to claim all the ore mines near his base in no time. Whereas Allies need at least a refinery-collector combo and Soviets need at least a vehicle factory before expansion can happen, Rising Sun can deploy refineries wherever they want right off the bat. They can also send some deployable turrets along so the refinery won't be left vulnerable. They don't have an airfield, but most of their vehicles are actually "mecha" (giant robots), several of which can either fly around or turn into jets that fly around. They also have three types of flying infantry. One of the first types of infantry you can build with the Rising Sun is a flying scout unit that can sweep the map pretty quickly. The psychic schoolgirl is unbelievably effective against air and naval units, not to mention buildings. I was able to counter one pretty well with Shinobi (a ninja unit who basically looks like Sub-Zero with a sword), and I'd imagine anti-infantry turrets and other commando-level units would work pretty well too. The Rising Sun's standard infantry seem relatively weak, but they essentially have two types of "special" infantry (just below commando-level), both of which are good attackers.

The Soviets seem like the easiest faction to figure out. Their ore collector can't deploy into a base expansion area; that duty belongs to the Sputnik (who, incidentally, sounds like Borat). Hence, their biggest disadvantage is base expansion, especially compared to the Rising Sun; it can be hard to lay claim to all of the Ore Mines early on. Additionally, construction of Soviet structures requires that you place the structure first, before construction actually begins; Allies use the traditional C&C method of build-then-place, and of course the Rising Sun use something different entirely. Only the Soviets appear to have an advanced power plant. The Soviet Conscriptor doubles as a rifle infantry and grenade infantry -- you can switch them over to Molotov Cocktails, useful for de-garrisoning. They appear to have the best tanks, including one that's roughly equivalent to the Mammoth tank. They also have an air advantage, because only the MIGs need to dock at the airfield; their other aircraft can just hover around, so there's no limit to how many you can build. One Soviet special ability is Magnetic Lift, which can lift "certain" armored units into space, never to be seen again! I'm not sure yet what can and can't be lifted, but Rising Sun units seem most susceptible. I found this out the hard way when a Soviet enemy apparently figured out where my Mecha Bay was, and they sucked a bunch of my giant robots into space right after I built them. The commando unit, Natasha, can detonate buildings with a laser-guided bomb (so she doesn't have to touch the building), but she has to stand still for a few seconds.

This is going to be a very interesting game when it's released about a month from now (October 28th), and I'm looking forward to actually learning how to play it. With its complexity, innovation, and uniqueness, it should be able to hold its own against Starcraft II.

You can, of course, find more information about Red Alert 3 at the official website.

Monday, September 29, 2008

SOLD OUT -- I Selling Rolexes and other watches? DO uou want?

First off, I've set up an in-depth explanation of my review scoring system, to help explain the meanings behind my scores and hopefully stifle waves of angry e-mails. Actually, I've never gotten waves of angry e-mails and I'm curious to see how that works, so fire away anyway! http://sites.google.com/site/sirlemming/scoring-system-2

Fox's Animation Domination made its yearly return last night. And ever since that one glorious night in May 2005, when Animation Domination featured two new Simpsons episodes, the long-awaited return of Family Guy, and the series premiere of American Dad, it's been a downhill ride.

Since people on the internet complaining about past-their-prime animated sitcoms are easy to come by, I'll be brief. The Simpsons could've been written by a computer. Family Guy was its unfortunately typical new self, a mish-mash of blunt political statements and blandly offensive "edgy" jokes that offend those they're meant to offend without entertaining those they're meant to entertain. American Dad was the only show that provided more than a few laughs, but it was hardly its best outing, either.

All in all, thumbs down. I expect nothing from The Simpsons anymore; I'm beginning to expect nothing from the once-clever Family Guy; American Dad will probably still have a good season.

In other news, I'll be posting my thoughts on the Red Alert 3 Beta once it's completely over. So far, I'm impressed, surprised, and overwhelmed. It's unlike anything I've played before.

Oh, the title of this post is the title of an e-mail I found in my Junk Mail folder. I thought it was very nice!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

REVIEW: Crysis

The explosions look great, and they sound even better.

Crysis may not be a household name like Halo or Gears of War, but it's a name PC gamers fear. Some fear it out of reverence; others fear it because of its infamously high system requirements. The best approach, as long as you meet the minimum requirements to play the game acceptably (which is approximately a 2GHz dual-core processor and a $100 video card) is to take a look at TweakGuides' excellent document on how to fine-tune the game for your computer, figure out what works best, and then be content with it. Chances are you'll only lose super-high resolutions and a few neat light rays and stuff. Just pretend it's an Xbox 360 game. I say this because at maximum detail, it puts many Xbox 360 games to shame. It would also put many PS3 games to shame if there were such a thing as "many" PS3 games. Yet despite the game's seemingly excessive graphical aspirations, it's really amazing that it runs as well as it does. In fact, the few indoor portions of the game reveal just how efficient the engine is; they tend to run incredibly smoothly, even with complex polygonal humans walking about. The only part of the game that puts unreasonable demands on your PC is a certain ice/snow area that taxes the system far more than any other area does. I was able to resolve the situation by temporarily lowering my settings (namely, switching to DirectX 9 mode), but it's a bit of a quality-control blunder when what works for 98% of the game is suddenly insufficient for one part of it.

Lush jungle scenery. Lush!

Anyway, on to the game! Crysis is from Crytek, the makers of Far Cry, the original CryEngine game. The only thing more impressive than Crytek's undying devotion to the word "cry" is their game design prowess. (Seriously though, what's the deal with the whole "Cry" thing? It's like some sort of alien attempt at a pun that's meant to hide a very unusual subliminal message.) Far Cry took the PC gaming world by surprise with its enormous tropical environments and generally excellent open-ended gameplay. It was a unique first-person shooter (and a very difficult one) where the player could navigate to his objectives via several different routes and methods.

Crysis -- which, confusingly enough, is NOT Far Cry 2, which is being developed by a different company -- builds upon and enhances this design. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Nanosuit, which both provides a feasible excuse for one-man-army-ism (how did Far Cry Guy manage to wield an entire vehicle-grade machine gun?) and lets the player choose from four modes: Cloak, Strength, Speed, and Armor. The most interesting mode here is Cloak because it makes stealth a more viable gameplay option, thus adding to the numerous strategies you can use. As with all of the modes, its effect wears off after about 5 seconds of full-blown usage, but that's enough to let you sneak around quite effectively without making the game too easy.

The other major difference between Far Cry and Crysis is the storyline. Far Cry was basically just the story of an extremely sarcastic man in a Hawaiian shirt going up against a mad scientist who spun the Wheel of Sci-Fi and landed on "Genetic Engineering" (instead of "Nanotechnology" or "Alien Invasion"). The gameplay was great, but the storytelling was about as engaging as that of Millipede. With Crysis, the developers have taken cues from games such as Halo and Half-Life 2 and improved the narrative quite a bit. That's not to say the story itself is incredible. The aforementioned Wheel of Sci-Fi has landed on "Alien Invasion" this time around (with a side of Nanotech, but just a little), and it's the standard pseudo-military tac-ops thing with a rag-tag gang of just-witty-enough-to-still-be-serious soldiers. But if I've learned one thing from Burger Time -- and trust me, I have learned many things from Burger Time -- a game's story is only as important as the gameplay it motivates. Perhaps a more relevant example would be Half-Life 2, whose storyline, while certainly better than Crysis's, borrows plenty of elements from other Sci-Fi works and wouldn't be remarkable on its own. Rather, the skillful weaving of narrative into gameplay is what enhances the experience. Even though many sections of Far Cry and Crysis are similar on the surface (see: the general setting, the various enemy bases, firing rockets at enemies from the deck of a battleship, etc.), Crysis comes off as a bit more exciting.

Epic battles with aliens are fun, but not as groundbreaking as the rest of the gameplay.

However, the area of Crysis that deviates most from the Far Cry mold -- the addition of alien enemies -- is probably also the least successful aspect of the game. Most of the alien sequences are quite thrilling, especially on the visual end. But in retrospect, I had more fun during the parts of the game where I was crawling around in the jungle trying to evade and surgically eliminate swarms of Korean troops. The aliens look cool and allow for lots of explosive action, but it's in these parts of the game that you find yourself being led from one objective to the next almost on rails, which contrasts the freedom you have throughout the first 2/3 of the game. With all the military action surrounding you, it seems like there's not much for you to do except shoot things. The scope of these battles is nothing short of jaw-dropping, but a battle of similar scope near the end of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 provides a brilliant counter-example. If you've played that game, you know what I'm talking about, and it is both epic in scope and a challenging, unique, unforgettable gaming experience. In Crysis, on the other hand, the alien battles take the game down a notch from "revolutionary gameplay" to "good gameplay".

Next-gen gaming!

Most of the other key differences between Far Cry and Crysis fall under the category of enhancements, but they really do shine. With the possible exception of F.E.A.R., Crysis probably has the best, most intense, and most varied battles ever seen in an FPS. At the very least, I can say they're the best outdoor tactical battles to date. The battles rarely play out the same way twice, even if you load a saved game and try to do things exactly the way you did them last time. The nature of a battle also changes depending on how you choose to approach an area, i.e. sneaking in the back of a base, blasting through the main entrance with rocket launchers, or even skipping certain areas altogether if you find a different route to your objective. The advanced physics, far from just being a tech gimmick, give you even more options. For example, if you duck into a shed, the enemies have the option of using grenades or rockets to demolish the shed and crush you under the sheet metal and rubble. Alternatively, you can do the same to them. And if someone is sniping you from a guard tower, a well-placed missile launcher shot to its base will knock it down, if the explosion doesn't kill the sniper on its own. You can blow up gas tanks to create confusion and/or death (especially if you stay cloaked immediately before and after the fact), and if you decide you don't need to use any of their vehicles, you can usually blow those up too. Without said vehicles, you may need to make the next part of your journey on foot (aided by Speed mode), or you might be able to find a boat and cut across a nearby lake. Oh, and you can also knock down trees (as can enemies), pick up chickens and hurl them into the distance, and grab enemies by the neck.


The audio and graphical effects, if you can afford them, are worth the expense. On a good sound system, there is nothing more satisfying than blowing up a gas station and nearly feeling your own house collapse from the impact. As for the graphics, they're obviously phenomenal. Aside from the high polygon count, Crytek's use of coloration, blur filters, and subtle lighting and shading effects all combine to create a near-photorealistic style that still has some, well, style to it. But it's not just a tech demo. There are several moments in the game that simply fill you with awe, and it's not "whoa, look what my video card just did" awe. When you're running away from an enemy base mid-evacuation and you look up into the night sky and see jets flying by, rustling the palm trees in their wake, accompanied by the subtle flashes of distant gunfire and flares rising into the air, and then look down at your feet and see frogs hopping around on the jungle floor, you'll know this is something special. In other words, Crytek have used every last ounce of this engine's power to provide a memorable gaming experience packed with atmosphere. If you spend a little extra to build a computer that can run this game at high settings, those dollars aren't just going to put some shininess onto a bunch of bland military stuff. It's worth it.

The enemy AI is a step up from Far Cry, and it does a good job of making each combat scenario live up to its potential. It's not as advanced as the AI in F.E.A.R., but then again, in an outdoor environment the enemies in F.E.A.R. would be more or less impossible for one player to defeat. Immersion suffers a little bit in the occasional situations where you can fend off the entire Korean military by holding a barrel in front of you, or when one of them leaves his cover, stands up, and yells "Cover me while I reload!", but these are exceptions. (My personal favorite is when a soldier arbitrarily yells "He's ku-roaked!" when I haven't been cloaked in hours.) For the most part, this is an enemy force that keeps you on your toes and will overwhelm you if you don't play wisely. (This differs from the enemies in F.E.A.R., who WOULD KILL YOU almost every single time if you didn't have slow-mo powers and plenty of places to hide.)

Crysis isn't as long as Far Cry -- it's somewhere between half as long and 2/3 as long -- but it definitely never gets boring (and in that respect I do see the wisdom in transitioning from jungle-based tactical battles to alien shootouts). Far Cry did get a little repetitive in its later missions, so I commend Crytek for righting that wrong. The game ends with a blatant sequel tag, and I hope Crytek ends up making one, even if it isn't PC-exclusive. The stand-alone expansion, Crysis Warhead (which features a revamped Crytek engine that runs more efficiently), will have to tide us over for now.

5 stars (out of 5): Highly Recommended

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A weird display of fandom

I'll get things started in a small way. Here's a Mute Math mini-movie I made using The Movies. There's no point to it, it's just an exercise of some sort.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Where it all begins... AGAIN

Okay. So, a year after my latest "serious" attempt to start a web site, I am nowhere. Frankly my heart just isn't in it. So I'll just stick to this "blogging" thing everyone's so crazy about and bow to Google's ever-increasing authority. I tried GooglePages and Google Sites, but they're like this weird halfway point between a blog and a real web site. They look like blogs, but have pretty much none of the features of blogs, so what's the point? Apparently Google Sites is supposed to be some sort of Wiki, but what the heck do I need a personal Wiki for? Plus, if I wanted to make a Wiki, I would... you know... make a Wiki.

Further content to follow shortly after I figure out if this is really how I want to do things.