Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Assisted by Friendly Natives

We acquired our new apartment in Offenburg this week and started exploring the area around it. The good news here is that Offenburg is bigger than Kehl, and correspondingly more civilized as we define it. The stores are larger and have a better assortment of goods to choose from, plus being a little further from the French border it has fewer Tobacco stores and Casinos.

Anyways, none of that is as important as what I am about to tell you.

We were exploring the nearby stores and stepped into a local pet shop. It had the usual assortment of dog/cat products, fish, and the customary small furry animals section. Since that is always a favorite of mine, we headed over to check them out and were rewarded by a nice assortment of gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, etc.. and some really cute soft bunnies. It was good to see gerbils and long-haired hamsters, which were kind of scarce at the pet stores back in LA, apparently having been ousted by the less cute and more spazzy dwarf hamsters and short-hairs that were there instead.

Ok, all that is well and fine, but it was only then that we made our key discovery: They had a chipmunk for sale! That's right, the same little stripey tree squirrel that you see all over the states in the wild was here for sale as a household pet. And, giving him a little pat, he seemed completely ok with that idea. Cool!

A little research later turned up that apparently they are kind of a tough pet to actually have the right environment for. Quite energetic, they require a lot of room and not much noise. They seem to largely like the same sort of space and environment a chinchilla does. Not for us clearly, but still cool nevertheless.

All right, that doesn't segue at all into my real point for the day, so I'll just abruptly switch over to it in an awkward fashion instead. One of the things that I have noticed since I arrived here, is that the locals have been pretty darn helpful in getting us set up. That's great you might think, but trust me, when it is a struggle to do stuff like buy trash bags or order a pizza you really appreciate any help you can get. So with that in mind, I just thought I'd share a couple folks who have made my life easier since I got here. It'll let you put some faces to the names, and it will give me a brief moment to once again say Thanks All!

First up - Vladimir

Vladimir was the guy who originally convinced me to come to Germany. He's kind of a 'zany adventure' type and engages in pastimes like random trips to Spain and sleeping in train stations. He won't blink at getting up obscenely early in the morning to help out after a 3am bender. He tromped across the countryside with me to negotiate for my used car in Russian. We're off to France for more misadventures next week so pray for our safe return. :)

Next Stop - Mathias

Mathias is another programmer in my special projects group and sits next to me. He's a thoughtful and effective coder and has a quiet sense of humor that makes for a very pleasant work environment. Now when I first arrived in Germany, being the well-prepared guy that I was, I came equipped with several adaptors to allow me to use my US electronics here in Germany. Now that was a great idea except for one small detail. All the stupid adaptors had their plugs sticking straight out of the adaptor. Perhaps 20 years ago that would have been fine, but these days all German outlets are recessed to provide grounding. None of my stuff would work, and several trips to local electronics stores (who largely had English speaking workers) couldn't solve it. Mathias thought about it, checked the French stores (he lives in Strasbourg), and then when these didn't turn up a solution, took an old extension cord and hand-modified it to fit one of my adaptors! Yahoo! That was some cool stuff.

Here's Cay (pronounced "Ky")

Cay's the fellow who ended up with me working for him (instead of Vladimir) since his group needed someone more senior to build stuff. His English is great (he spent several years in England) and he'll happily translate menus, explain German cultural norms, figure out directions, and scratch his head at what he has decided are my 'list of food rules'. We joke a fair bit about who eats what and why, and he's willing to eat those green grubs on pizza. Oh, and recently he helped me find and arrange for my soon-to-be-installed high speed cable internet connection. Much kudos for that one!

Finally, my local guardian angel - Sanja

Sanja is the office manager at work - that person that just gets stuff done and makes everything magically happen. I'm not sure what prompted her to take me under her wing and help out, but to whichever deity was responsible - Thank you! She arranged for our temporary housing, chaufered me around town and translated for me to fill out the dazzling array of German legal paperwork. She actually found and negotiated the rental of our new apartment! She showed me where to buy groceries, acquire bus tickets, use trains, set up utilities, search for cars, order lunch, get to work in the morning, and more absolutely useful stuff than I could even vaguely begin to count. She says its because she is an immigrant herself, with her family having come from Croatia (when she was 5). I think she speaks 4 languages fleuntly, has 2 kids basically the same age as ours, and is just amazingly useful. I have no idea how we would have survived without her help. I hope any of you moving to a foreign country get a local Sanja equivalent to help you out too!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Germany is Mighty German

Ok, clearly we're not in Kansas anymore.

Every single day from the time I get out of bed until the time I go to sleep, it is altogether clear that we are not in America.

Sure, the giant obvious stuff you would expect. The locals all speak in German. The television is in German. The cereal, the toilet paper, the books, the maps, the .. anyways you get the idea. Everything is in German, and considering my German language capabilities rival that of a five year old child, that's kind of a daunting place to start.

Still, it is not actually terrible. I am learning, and I feel like I'm doing so at a reasonable rate. At least until I try to talk on the phone. German phones kick my ass. I'm never sure how many digits to dial. I know you're supposed to put a zero on the front (usually), but when they give you 12-15 digits of phone number, the actual location where you're supposed to put that zero can be anywhere from the first to the ninth number. We've got a phone in our house but it laughs at me. I can call the local pizza place with it, and not much else. For anything more complicated I have to use my disposable cell phone. It works exactly like you'd expect. You dial zero and ALL of whatever the horrible garble of digits are that compose the phone number, and it magically calls the right person. Maybe someday I will master the German phone, but that someday has not yet come.

Oh, and for bonus aggravation when I first moved in here my house phone used to ring every night at 1 am. Since every phone call I ever answered was a wrong number I wondered who would be calling me at such an hour. It turns out the sadistic soul in question was the actual phone, which apparently had a built in alarm clock that was set to 1 am. I eventually figured this out, but only after an embarrassing number of having to tromp downstairs at 1 am to make the darn phone be quiet. Cursed device!

If you have been reading Stephanie's blog you've probably already seen our excursions to the local sights, confusing shopping experiences, and amazingly small Everything. If you haven't though, go read it now. Lots of good stuff there, and unlike this, it has nice pictures. Enjoy: http://americanparisadventures.blogspot.com/

However, while the wife and kids have the advantage of time and a car to do their exploring with, I do have the advantage of spending day in and day out with a bunch of actual Germans, and apparently, of eating a lot more German food.

One of the things I decided to make a point of when I came, was that I was going to go out of my way to just try new stuff. We're here for new experiences after all, let's eat some weird new things and see what is good. I started this from my very first trip over, through London, where I made a point of eating some of the British food while waiting for my next flight. My advice to any who may follow in my path: Don't bother. I swear the English are the only people in the world who can screw up a simple biscuit, ham, and egg. I don't know how they did it, but I'm going to try hard not to give them the opportunity to do it again!

So, escaping the clutches of the evil proper-English-speaking food mutilators, I arrived in Germany and commenced trying out the local cuisine. On my first night one of my co-workers showed up to escort me to my hotel and then took me out for pizza. It turns out there is a lot of pizza in Germany. Its one of the easiest foods to find here, mostly because it is largely made by the Turkish people who seem to have an awful lot of local eating establishments. The pizza is pretty ordinary by American standards, so its safe to eat. Just make sure never to order it with Pepperoni. It turns out this translates to 'scary large green peppers' which are plopped on top of the pizza in question like some giant green grub. Avoid it if you can.

Your best bet of course is anything 'mit Käse' (cheese), or 'schinken' (ham). For some reason Germans are really big on ham, and it shows up everywhere. They eat it breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a whole range of products. Germany is a terrible place to be a pig. Cows on the other hand, must like it just fine here, since they seem to be eaten far far less. Pizza doesn't come with sausage or beef, pretty much ever. Though you can get some reasonable looking salami that does a decent pepperoni (our style) imitation if you have the urge.
Anyways, there are an awful lot of Turkish places around. Usually selling both pizza and döner kebaps which are big meaty gyros like you'd see in the US. Not bad and fairly cost effective for a quick meal out.

Now one place Germany has clearly got the US beat is its ubiquitous snack food store. Instead of a Starbuck's on every corner (which for all I know, they might have in bigger cities), Germany has a bakery on every corner. Although small bakeries exist (frequently with woefully inadequate stocks and only open for some gruesomely stifled amount of time), the bulk of the bakery locations seem to be dominated by two chains - Dreher's and Armbruster. Each of these sells a variety of bread and pastries that are pretty good. I've spent some time sampling the contents just in the interests of science of course!

The Salzbrezel - This German standard is found at every bakery and is universally tasty. Simple, salt + firm bread and it is a winner. They're great snack food and always welcome.

Quarkini - Similar to beignets, these are small round donut hole-like items with a cinnamon sugar coating. Somewhat rare, but worth eating when found.

Yeah ok, I was going to give German names for the rest of the stuff but darned if I know them. There are a variety of ordinary croissants, danish-type items including some with a vanilla filling that I quite liked, some wonderful firm yet fluffy rabbit cookies (I think those were for Easter, but fresh ones are great), loaves of bread (usually somewhat grainy but fine tasting), and an assortment of other smallish pastries. You can also get quite ordinary pre-made sandwiches on bread, with cheese or meats similar to pre-made sandwiches in America but with better bread.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Two of my absolute favorites German bakery goods:

Apfeltorte- Kind of an apple pie with a creamy topping. Not something you see all the time, but yummy regardless.

And... (drumroll please)....

Strueselkuchen!! I love this stuff! Firm bready interior with a crumb topping. It is more substantial than it looks and makes a great snack or breakfast accessory. It isn't nearly as sweet as you would expect when looking at it, but once you get used to that you realize it tastes great regardless.

Anyways, that's probably enough about German bakeries. They're good, not hugely expensive, and plentiful. Thumbs up from this reviewer.

With that in mind, how about the 'real German food' you ask (wait, I already gave you Streuselkuchen, go be happy!). Sure, there are no shortage of 'Gasthof's around advertising schnitzels with schinken (I swear the German pork industry must be as strong as the US corn industry, it is in Everything!) but at about 15-20 EU/plate, four of us to feed, and a tiny salary to work with, such places are just going to have to remain unexplored for the time being. If I'm going to spend a lot on food, I want it to at least be French food (which in my so far somewhat limited experience, is the best stuff around).

However... work actually provides an opportunity here. You see, in the interest of keeping us all there for more hours every day (probably a good investment), my employer hires a regular caterer. The food is heavy, usually no more enjoyable than it has to be, and well.. just the right price. But they definitely provide resoundingly German food. Which is perhaps why I kind of unfairly associate German food with prison-quality grub.

Anyways, in the efforts to both conserve money and to try a bunch of weird German stuff, I make a point of eating the free lunch when I can. The menus are generally in German, but Google Translate does a surprisingly good job of deciphering them.

Daily options generally include some sort of meat buried in a large pool of brown sauce with spetzle. If you're really lucky the meat is breaded as well (though still buried in brown sauce). There's sometimes a noodle option (spaghetti in tomato sauce with a large hard slab of parmesan cheese stuck to the top), or fish fillet (buried in brown sauce), or some sort of salad with stuff in it. These are all regular offerings that come back a lot, and most of them are edible if not exactly something to write home about.

However, there's also some weirder stuff thrown into the mix as well. So our adventure-seeking explorer (whoops, that's me) will order those as well. I admit I'm a little more gun-shy these days after some early bad experiences. I tried the 'sausage salad' one day thinking "Well, I can eat most forms of sausage just fine so it should be ok", and then opened my tinfoil box to view the abomination within. Tiny strips of baloney like substance were mixed into a large heaping of onions and various plant stuff and then doused in a huge vat of grease. My boss looked over at it and said "Yeah, I could see how that might not be quite what you were expecting."

I've ordered dumplings with vanilla sauce, and been pleased to discover they were exactly that - two large squashy dumplings in a tin of vanilla cream sauce. I don't know why it qualifies as a lunch, but it tasted pretty good. The dumpling with soup was a bit less desirable (the soup wasn't good), and had jam in the middle.

I wish I had managed to catch the apple strudel so I'm hoping it makes another pass. This week I also declined the 'housewife herring', which the menu assured me was 'made in housewife style!' I think I will have to try that at some point though, but instead I went for the 'helen toast', which largely was unexplained on the menu. I mean, shouldn't we already know what that is? Heck, not me. I'll let you know.

*Follow up* Ok, so the helen toast turned out to be a large slab of cheese browned and melted over a warm slice of ham, warm peaches, another slice of ham, and stacked on top of two soggy pieces of white bread. I think perhaps sitting in the tin for a few hours didn't do it any favors, and the bread really seemed sad to be thusly abused, but overall relatively harmless.

Germany! What Am I Doing Here?

Those of you who read my past blogs are probably expecting another game review. The truth is that its been a fair whle since I really played much new so I don't have anything too interesting to say there. Instead, I spent most of the last year the same way I spent the year before that - unemployed, and trying to maintain a semblance of sanity while so. I scoured job openings, applied for countless different ones of all flavors (executive, senior & ordinary producer, creative director, designer, and programmer). I would reshape myself and my presentation for each role and plow through, trying my hardest to project that yes, THIS was the job I both wanted and was ideally suited for. Whether that was running a AAA gaming studio, producing WWF wrestling titles for chinese distrubution, or programming medical imaging software, by golly that was exactly who I was. I waded through a zillion applications, phone screenings, interviews, panels, flights, etc... and had tons of close calls, but to no avail. Stephanie worked, having good success at her writing, but it paid badly, and I scraped up the occasional contracting job to augment, but mostly we just burned through our savings, our 401k, my portion of my grandparent's estate, and accumulated credit card debt.

It was pretty horrible in a 'try not to show it' sort of way, and feeling increasingly desperate as time went on. We eventually figured out that there was no way our house was ever going to recover, so we may as well stop paying on that. Eventually we were simply running out of time and I vowed I was going to land _something_ one way or another. I would do it by force of will alone. I'm kind of a pushy bastard when it comes right down to it, so this should be doable.

I applied for another batch of jobs and got a number of good responses. By simple act of will I stopped biting my fingernails after 20+ years of doing so because I thought it made me look better for interviewing. I took a 10 hour programming test for a company in Germany figuring if nothing else it would be good practice (yeah, do _that_ for fun sometime). I had one company actually tell my recruiter they were offering me the job (to largely run their company) and then... change their mind at the last minute! I had the company that makes the game I play the most (Riot - maker of League of Legends, see past blog) offer to make a kick-ass Design Producer role just for me, and then I must have fumbled one of my last couple interviews and they didn't make the offer either. And oddly enough, the place in Germany offered me the job. The pay was terrible (no, I mean *really* terrible), but it was located in Germany, right on the French border, about 2 miles outside the city of Strasbourg. As an added bonus, one of the producers made a point of visiting me while he was taking his US vacation, was a pretty cool guy, and said "come to Germany, please!"

Now two years ago I probably would have looked at that and said yeah right and skipped it. But really when you think about it, you know how you have those life moments that you always look back on and say "but what if I had done that?" Yeah, this was clearly going to be one of those moments. I thought about the fact that my wife would really like to see Europe. I thought about the fact that my kids would have stories to tell about it for all their lives. I thought about the fact that continuing to be unemployed in America really wasn't that compelling as an alternative. And I thought... hm.... I could say yes.

I told Stephanie I was willing to take the job. I think she was just dazed by it. She had wanted me to say yes, but I don't think ever believed I would. We arranged to sell the cars, as much furniture as seemed practical (no where near enough), packed and prepped. The company said they'd pay to fly us over, stay somewhere for a while, hire a broker to help find a permanent spot, pay to move our stuff, etc. The final contract said all that only it also said for no more than one month's salary's total cost (doh). In the end we sucked down the price of moving, sold some furniture, packed about half our stuff, 3 beds, 1 folding table, and a chest (and no other furniture), and walked away from everything else (tvs, furniture, house, etc...). I flew over two weeks ahead of the family, worked nonstop from the time I landed, and all of a sudden we were in Germany.

I admit on reading this again to myself it all sounds a bit grim, but I wanted to give some honest context on how I got here. On a more positive note, we're here for an ADVENTURE, and we're going to live and breathe it every day. We do try new things, meet new people, and have a wealth of experiences we would never have come into contact with before. I moved all my childhood, but never to somewhere as resoundingly NEW as this. So let's see where this wild ride takes us!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kongregate (Web)

I'm going to deviate a bit from my standard format today and just talk about something cool and free that you might not be taking advantage of. Now I have kind of a love/hate thing going with free gaming. On one side, I fear that having high quality free games around makes people feel entitled to gaming for free instead of cultivating an expectation that if you want something good, you'll need to pay people to make it. On the other side though, I foolishly spent my life pursuing game making instead of doing something that earns money like I dunno - baking or sanitation work, so having fun stuff around for free is quite useful. I guess I'll just recognize I can't really change it regardless, so I will simply be bitter and play some good free games.

On that note, here's a site you should have bookmarked: www.kongregate.com

Kongregate is an aggregator, which means it scoops up free Flash games from a variety of sources and provides them in one location. It has a ton of games of every size and style available for public consumption. Now many of these are fairly low quality and not really worth your time, but there are also a huge number of absolute gems buried within the collection. These actually aren't very hard to find, since Kongregate does a pretty good job of putting them right out front with their Featured Games, and you can always search the highest rated lists by genre to find games you'll like.

Kongregate then wraps these games with a lightweight achievement system. Basically points, levels, and badges that don't particularly mean anything but make you feel happy. They also throw in some random unlocks on their site-specific card game (Kongai), that you'll probably want later.

Ok, so now you've got the basic idea. Lots and lots of Flash games with a better percentage of higher quality stuff than on the majority of similar sites and some really damn good ones mixed in. Got a little time to kill and want some random fun? Head over and try something out. To get you started, look up these and give them a play:

Sonny / Sonny 2 : You play as a zombie with memory loss in this turn-based combat/RPG. The first guy who talks to you calls you 'Sonny', so that's your name. Nice skill system, classic japanese-style RPG combat, and just all around too good for a free game.

Gemcraft : If you haven't done so, there's an entire genre of 'tower defense' games you need to try out. Whether or not you've already done this, give Gemcraft a try. You place gems in towers to shoot at the attackers with a variety of gem types for different abilities. Its massively long though, so don't feel compelled to finish it. Just savor the experience while you have the urge.

Epic War : I believe there are 4 Epic War titles built now and they're all pretty good. You play as one side of a big battle and churn out units to take out the other side. There are very few commands in the battle so its much less about micromanaging your units and more about monitoring the flow of battle and spell use. Between levels you'll get to unlock and improve powers and units and customize your army to your preferences.

Momentum Missile Mayhem (2) : Stuff explodes and BOUNCES! Simple mechanism makes for very enjoyable play. Typical minor enhancements and unlocks, but the key remains the joy of knocking stuff around and causing it to explode.

Kongai : Kongregate has its own strategic collectible card game associated with the site and it is very well made. Think of this like rock/paper/scissors on super-steroids. Each player picks three heroes who come with four special moves and a single item. You play against another player and simultaneously select your action for the round. The server then shows you how those actions interact. The balance is good enough (not perfect, but what is?) that games are really decided on how good you are at guessing your opponent's actions and outplaying them.

PlanetDefender : A constant stream of missile-shooting spaceships attacks your poor hapless planet which you must coat in defensive structures. You'll need to carefully weigh the tradeoffs of building lower strength structures for short term advantage or saving for larger stronger items or researching new options. This is another example of a simple mechanic that is well used to make for compelling gameplay.

The Necronomicon : Based on the Cthulhu mythos, this strategic card game has all the tentacled monsters and gibbering insanity we know and love. Using a large collection of horrific events and creatures, you try to kill or drive your opponent insane. What's not to love?

There are many more worthwhile games on the site waiting for you to give them a try, so hopefully I've at least tweaked your curiosity. Don't be afraid to just poke around and try stuff out. The real joy of Kongregate is that it really does have a ton of very good games hidden a few clicks in. Explore a bit and you're sure to find something you enjoy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bayonetta (PS3)

Bayonetta, by Platinum Games is a low-impact semi-erotic dance video that someone in marketing figured might sell better as a PS3 action story game. You laugh, but play it through and then come back and tell me I'm wrong.

You play from the perspective of the title character - an impossibly leggy gun-toting dark witch with weapons on every appendage - who blasts her way through a variety of feathery 'angelic' critters and halo'd giants with creepy baby faces. Beset by a healthy dose of random memory loss to provide an excuse for reveal background information at regular intervals, she bounces and blazes through a strictly defined story path.

A hail of bullets rains from Bayonetta throughout combat. Actually, a hail of bullets just rains from Bayonetta all the time. She probably has to pull slugs out of her shower walls. As mentioned before, she's got a gun on each hand and another on each foot and makes constant use of all of them. Prancing through combat with moves that would make a professional contortionist cringe she gyrates and weaves with joyous abandon. The lower the difficulty level the more random bullets are launched, but even on the harder levels she apparently exudes them from her pores or something.

Bayonetta has a zillion combat moves, but learning all of them is largely a waste of time because the difference between a spinning uppercut and a sliding hell jab is basically nil. You can button mash to your heart's content whenever something isn't actively pounding you and be rewarded by a series of increasingly powerful attacks that culminate in a nice combo finish. What does matter is your ability to get out of the way of incoming attacks - either by movement, jumping, or a well timed dodge. Performing such a dodge at the last moment also unlocks "witch time" - a world slowdown so you can pound on stuff some more for free.

Weak enemy monsters have absolutely no chance against Bayonetta at any difficulty level and you can roll your fingers as much as you like until they are all dead. However, Bayonetta is full of boss fights. Some of these are just big tough creatures that you have to fight in a more cautious fashion (dodge occasionally), and some are terrain unto themselves that you will end up climbing, bashing, jumping off of, etc... in sequences a bit reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. Boss fights also involve following key and control sequences displayed at the bottom of the screen in order to avoid damage, advance past cinematic moments, or (at the end of every fight) cause your clothes to vanish and your hair to turn into a giant demon which them crushes the boss in question. Yes, Bayonetta understands the truly important rule of combat - when you want to really kick ass, its naked time!

Artistically, Bayonetta is fairly pleasant, if a bit heavy on the juvenile fantasy. She's enjoyable to watch fight, bouncing around smoothly with a wide variety of moves in a graceful fashion. They did a good job with the animations and make frequent use of wall walking to add to her field of movement. To add to the video > game quality, the entire game is packed with cut scenes, breaking into one between every fight, and sometimes several times in the middle of those as well. Bayonetta uses these to trade inane banter with whatever large nasty has come to eat her, or the couple people with a vested interest in her future. High marks for the choreographer but the script writer needs a firm talking to.

There's a shop with additional unlockable moves, equipment, temporary boosts, etc... that you will visit between levels. Unfortunately there's also a painfully dull shooting gallery mini-game that comes along at the same time. What's odd is that they actually put a lot of work into providing additional mini-games throughout and then decided to use this particular turd as the one that you play over and over. There's an entire level with a Space Harrier feel to it plus driving and shooting games. Someone spent a lot of effort on making them all, but then felt compelled to use a horrible no-depth 3 target shooting gallery as the between level repeat instead.

The truth is that Bayonetta is mostly about just watching her bounce around and randomly kill stuff in a cinematic fashion. However, to be fair, they really do try hard to mix in a lot of gameplay at the same time. There's clear effort into maintaining a high standard of artwork and many cases of opting for gameplay variety with interesting surfaces to fight on, jumping puzzles, shooting challenges, missile guidance, and more. I love the way they introduce new bosses (boss arrives, looks mean, gets named and framed, then gets on with killing you). They even unlock animal transformations about halfway through and all of a sudden your movement capabilities have been expanded. Its just a bit hard to take too seriously with all the silly dialogue and dance moves.

Don't expect anything deep but you'll have some fun anyways.

Rating: 7.5

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

FrontierVille (Facebook)

Wait a minute, why are you reviewing facebook games?! The reader stomps off in a fit of rage...

Yeah, I think most self-styled hardcore gamers will be pretty down on any facebook related gaming thanks to the click-farming horrors that we all formed our association with. However, with the massive influx of first-time gamers that facebook brings to the table, and the huge amount of revenue pulled by some of these titles, it becomes worth your while to at least take a look and understand the genre.

There are a lot of facebook games around now, so I'm going to pick the one that seems to be the latest evolution, crafted by facebook giant Zynga - FrontierVille.

FrontierVille's basic premise is that you are a brave pioneer, working hard to set up a new place to live 'out west' somewhere, probably during the mid 1800s. You arrive alone in your covered wagon and have to clear land, plant crops, raise animals, build structures, tend trees, and do other wilderness-oriented stuff to improve your personal space.

Every action generally takes one energy to perform, and you have a limited supply of energy which regenerates one point per five minutes of real time. You also get refills by leveling up, or the odd bit here and there from random drops (when you clear land/harvest/etc it drops goodies), or you can purchase more from the shop in exchange for food resource.

The first few levels come very quickly, so you get to play a bit longer on your first sitting since it keeps refreshing your energy every time you level up. It has a long quest path where you are assigned one task after another. This both gives you something to do, and lead you towards developing your area in the normal sequence. Note that you can choose to completely ignore the quests and just do your own merry thing - build 28 sawmills into the shape of a giant turtle if that's what floats your boat, but the quests give you useful rewards and generally ask you to do reasonable stuff so you'll probably follow along.

You quickly run out of energy and will need to set the game aside for a bit. "How annoying!" your hardcore gamer self says. But that's also an advantage for their target demographic - casual gamers who really don't want to spend a lot of time playing something. Instead, it rewards them for checking in on it every day, puttering around a bit, and then setting it aside again without the pressing temptation to just play nonstop.

Normal gameplay is to check in once or twice a day and see what you can do to advance your homestead. To begin with, your entire area is overrun with weeds, rocks, trees, etc.. These need to be cleared out so that you'll have room to build and plant. Occasionally clearing something will turn up a varmint which also needs to be chased away (more energy use). This portion of the gameplay isn't bad. You've got a couple limited resources (energy, wood, food, money) and make choices on how best to build your homestead (buildings, trees, animals, crops) to unlock new items, create additional resources, and advance your quests. All pretty solid gaming fare and enjoyable in a bit of a Harvest Moon sort of way. One interesting element is that the land actually evolves a bit in real time, so each day when you check back the trees grow and you'll have more grass, flowers, bushes, saplings, etc.. there to deal with. More importantly, the new arrivals are proportionate to what you had on your homestead beforehand, which is both a plus and a minus. Careful though! It is very easy to clear every single cactus from your homestead early on and then never see one again only to later realize you have a cactus quest for 5 of 'em and no way to cause new ones to grow.

After you progress down the quest path a bit you start getting letters from your wife who will come out and join you if you make the right preparations, build the right structures, and collect the right supplies. Unfortunately this is also where you're going to start hitting the loathsome aspect of facebook gaming - the expectation to spam your friends. Yeah, all building construction requires building supplies that can only be acquired by spamming your friends for help. It is typical stuff for facebook games, but honestly pretty crappy. If none of your friends happen to be playing this game at the same time you can make yourself a fake account and farm it that way, but welcome to nuisance.

Even worse, later on you'll hit the minimum number of frontier friends requirements to unlock various items and structures. "Sorry, you can't do that until you have 3 more neighbors!" This too, is a common evil of facebook games but one that I feel really breaks the original purpose behind facebook - that of having a social environment to keep touch with your friends. Now you end up making one of several distasteful choices. You could spam your other friends who aren't already playing to play too - generally a bad option since if your friends wanted to play they'd already be doing so. You can create some fake accounts to neighbor you - bunch of extra nuisance for a low impact game. Or you can just friend a zillion random internet strangers who play the same facebook games you do and turn your facebook experience from one of interacting with actual people you know, into just a platform for crappy games.

I'm sorry facebook game makers haven't figured this out, but while cooperative gaming is good as an opt in experience, expecting people to spam their friends frequently or with stuff they don't actually want is terrible. I hope they figure it out before the industry suffocates itself with this kind of garbage since when you disgust a casual gamer to the point where they quit playing, you didn't just sour them on your game, you probably soured them on the entire genre. Its really just greed pushing marketing decisions that spew onto game design in a putrid way. Zynga, get your act in gear now!

So you probably get the basic idea now. The game progresses further down these lines. You have a kid, build a schoolhouse, convince a teacher to come work there, make more buildings, raise more animals, plant more crops, spam your friends, etc... The school teaches classes, which also require friends to send you supplies, and there is a quest path to expand your homestead (give you larger playing area) which also requires you to... wait you know this one... spam your friends.

Overall the game is moderately fun, and does have some nice resource tradeoff decisions and a cool gradual land evolution which lets you tailor your environment. The later quests get ridiculously long and repetitive so you need to kind of figure out when you feel done rather than expect an end to it. I'd suggest trying it out just to get a feel for what's hot in facebook gaming these days. This market is huge now and doesn't look to be going away soon.

Rating: 6.1 (basic gameplay probably 7.1, but -1 for friend spam)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Might & Magic - Clash of Heroes (DS)

I know it reveals my inner dinosaur, but I'm still a big fan of turn-based gaming. I really miss the plethora of such titles that used to grace us on the PC so I appreciate the turn-based goodness that is provided by my Nintendo DS.

This week, a franchise that has spawned both good and poor games - Might and Magic, makes a foray onto the machine in question. Clash of Heroes, no doubt named in hopes that you'll feel some vague association with their Heroes of Might & Magic line, is an enjoyable puzzle / RPG.

You play as some forgettable generic storyline hero and fight some generic storyline villians to give you an excuse to play the game. Fortunately, the gameplay is neither generic nor forgettable, and is actually quite a bit of fun. All battles are resolved using a 'match three' style playing field. You have a variety of troops that stack up against the enemy that can be rearranged or removed in order to form sets of three or more. Once a set is formed they lock into place and charge up to deal damage to the enemy a few turns later. Enemy units that get in the way of this damage can blunt it (block with your face!) as can walls.

Its an easy mechanism to understand and has some variations and bonus complexities to produce fancier effects. There are larger and more powerful units that can take different matching sets to prepare and have more impressive combat effects. You can match units sideways to build walls, and you can stack multiples of the same type or timer for extra power. There are also some additional spells that are powered up as you get hit that produce powerful turn-around effects - significant damage, protection, board sweeping, etc.

All this is wrapped by a lightweight RPG excuse to provide flow and progression. There are five different factions that pick from, each with slightly different powers and units. The variations aren't particularly large, so battles are decided more by successful matching and pre-emptive attack (a unit locked into a matched set and powering up has significantly more durability than one standing around by itself, so you want to make sure to block with matched sets or walls, not idle guys). Each race's advanced units have a bit more variety to them, with some stunning, or absorbing health, destroying multiple rows of guys, or firing concussive blasts into the enemy. These advanced units are frequently what dictates the success or failure of a battle, so getting them set up early is very important.

The whole game has a bit of the same feeling as Puzzle Quest, with simple gameplay fleshed out a bit to include some variety and a nice dose of smoothly crafted fun. The campaign has a few amusing bits (undead dragons are good), and provides an excuse to play through each of the five factions. There's quests, items, gradual acquisition of units, minor resources, and the usual stuff you've probably come to expect in such games.

Overall I found it quite playable, and worth a run. If you're looking for something to bring with you on your next airplane trip, pack this in your bag.

Might & Magic - Clash of Heroes
Rating: 8.1