I Played That! #39: Diablo 2 (PC)

Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, Diablo 2 is probably the videogame I’ve had the most fun with and gotten the most value out of. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my regular updates involving Diablo 2 games, specifically involving Uvula the Druid.

There’s nothing really to Diablo 2. It’s got some more going on than Diablo, as there are gems and runes you can upgrade and use on weapons, plus a Horadric Cube you can discover secret recipes for. But the gameplay is more or less the same: go click on monsters to kill them. Get loot, which makes you stronger, click on tougher monsters. Repeat ad nauseam.

Yet I’d argue that its mindlessness was the appeal. I could zone out with Diablo 2, just sort of have myself on autopilot. I could pay as much attention to it as I wanted, either focusing on it to accomplish some task within it (usually grinding for a specific rune) or I could just mindlessly click, letting my brain think about something else. It was relaxing.

There are a world of mods and strategy articles and other things for the game which I never really used. For the time I spent playing with it, I’m sure other players would be horrified to discover how inefficiently and wastefully I played it, but I still had a good time. I even played online at Battle.Net for a while, but only because supposedly the loot was a little different there; I almost never interacted with any other players.

The other appeal was that even when I moved to a laptop for my computer, I was still able to play Diablo 2. Sure, it couldn’t run any modern stuff, but as long as it played this old favorite, I was happy. Even when I upgraded my laptop to a newer one, the improvements in hardware were pushed aside as I just re-installed Diablo 2 on it.

And then they announced Diablo 3.

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Fallout 4: Bomb Craters and Massholes

I’ve been playing Fallout 4 for a week now. Jenny Biscuits crawled out of Vault 111 in search of her kidnapped child and last night made it to Diamond City. If you haven’t played the game, let me assure you, that isn’t very far. She’s had a lot of distractions along the way.

My current impression of the game is that it’s got a lot of new and fun things but the new things aren’t fun and the fun things aren’t new. That sounds harsh, but please bear with me.

I’m a Fallout fanboy, so “More of the Same” wasn’t going to be much of a criticism for me, since I loved the Same and would happily play More of it. Taking Fallout 3 exactly as-is and giving me a whole new area with different inhabitants, stories, quests, landmarks, and secrets is not anything I’m going to complain about, and Fallout 4 delivers. Unlike some people I’m too far west to go see how my house fared in the apocalypse, but I’m enjoying roaming around the Boston area. I’m glad the map has a little more color to it, and the little hints of the big story I’ve gotten so far are interesting. Everything I want in a Fallout game is here, and I’m into it. Plus there’s more!

It’s the “more” that’s kind of bugging me.

There are two major additions to the game. The first is settlement building. You can actually edit places to remove bombed out houses and debris and erect new crappy looking structures instead. You can also add defenses, food production, shops, and all kinds of other stuff to help turn the settlement into a thriving community. This is something I’m not super interested in doing even outside of a Fallout game, much less within one. And even if I were, the interface for doing it is just not very good. Last night I built Jenny Biscuits a house and just making this thing:

took a long time, and it’s garbage. I mean, yeah, it’s a ramshackle hovel in a ruined wasteland, but also its corners don’t match up and I can’t place a rug because I guess I had to do that first and it’s just a mess. I wanted to put an item in it that I don’t currently have the materials to build and instead of showing me an outline of the item so I could at least save some space for it, it just does nothing.

The settlement thing also does some real theme-breaking. One of the first, easiest things you can build for your settlement are pumps providing clean, fresh water, making the entire main plot of Fallout 3 even more dumb than it was before. And it doesn’t take long to ask why these settlers can’t throw lumber in a pile and call it a house and need you to do it.

Fortunately, apart from an early and easy-to-complete mission, you can ignore the settlement building if you want to. The game doesn’t seem to rely on it. The same can’t be said about the other new major element, weapon and armor mods.

In Fallout 4, there are hundreds of new weapons because there are weapons that each have dozens of different modifications to them. You can take a 10mm pistol, say, and trick it out however you want. On the surface, that seems like not a bad idea, but in play it’s not so great.

My first problem with it is that it requires me to spend far more time diddling around with different weapons than I ever want to. even in Borderlands, which boasts its absurd amount of guns, I can easily compare two guns and ditch one easily. In Fallout 4, every new gun has to be analyzed and deciphered to see if it in any way can be used to improve my overall firepower, and the system for doing so is not easy.

For example, suppose you find a pipe rifle with a modified stock. You already have a pipe rifle with a site you like, and you want to add this stock to it. Instead of just removing the stock from the new gun and pitching the rest, you have to “construct” a standard stock on it, which will then put the modified one into your inventory to use.

Armor works similarly. It’s divided into different parts and you assemble it however you want. So if you want your left arm to be really heavily armored but your right leg to be free as a bird, you can do so, but nobody wants that. And once again, if you pick up a piece of lightweight armor and you want your current piece to also be lightweight, you have to make the new one not-lightweight and then attach the lightweight to your old one, assuming you have the materials needed.

It’s a ridiculously convoluted system and for me it’s not worth it. I really don’t care about the possible incremental changes in fire rate or energy absorption. I just want a gun and some armor and to get out and shoot things. I don’t want to play with my inventory when I could instead be actually out and about in this world.

So yeah, the two big innovations in the game are a bust for me. Maybe on a future replay or later in this one they’ll win me over but for now I’m trying to avoid them as much as possible.

But back to things I do like:

* You can’t kill Dogmeat AND you can have him wear bandannas and things, which is fantastic. Also, he (or she, as xe seems to have no gender characteristics of any kind) can carry tons of items in some kind of pocket dimension.

* Travis, the DJ of Diamond City Radio, is a great answer to Three Dog, though he needs to give “Anything Goes” a rest.

* I’ve already come to the aid of one same-sex, biracial couple.

* There are still these calling to me:

but now there’s the third big new innovation: pens.

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I Played That! #38: M.U.L.E. (C64)

Electronic Arts is now considered The Worst, but it started its life as one of the most innovative companies out there, and M.U.L.E. was an early release that showed this innovation. In a landscape of alien spaceships and road races, M.U.L.E. was an economic simulation. It reached into gaming areas that few others were looking into, including an innovative multiplayer system. It also had a great theme song.

M.U.L.E. didn’t sell well, apparently, but it is still regarded highly as a landmark game.

As for me, well…I owned a pirated copy of it and played it from time to time, but here’s the thing. There’s a boardgame called Planet Steam which I enjoy enough that I’ve bought it multiple times. Every time it’s brought up, someone mentions it’s basically “M.U.L.E.: The Board Game” and I always say, “NO. It’s an economic game but it’s not really that similar.” Well, in reading about M.U.L.E. for this post I have to admit yeah, Planet Steam is “M.U.L.E.: The Board Game”. I just didn’t remember M.U.L.E. that well. (But I don’t know if it’s more “M.U.L.E.: The Board Game” than M.U.L.E.: The Board Game.)

I played M.U.L.E., but it wasn’t a favorite and I wasn’t particularly good at it. Like a lot of Commodore 64 games, the fact that I had a bunch of them I’d pirated meant that there were few I really dug into, and something as subtle as M.U.L.E. couldn’t hold my attention as long. Still, I can hum the theme song from memory to this day.

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Weep for the Children of Northampton, Springfield

There have been a lot of stories lately about how, since heroin is now the drug of choice for middle-class white kids, we suddenly need a kinder, gentler War on Drugs. As long as it was just blacks and white trash using, we had no sympathy for druggies, but affluent white kids deserve a second, third, fourth, twentieth chance.

The other day my local news outlet ran a story of this ilk: How hidden heroin addiction is killing Northampton. I don’t even know where to begin with this thing.

Let me say right out the gate that I have a murky relationship with Northampton. Northampton (Noho) is a town about 25 minutes north of here, home to Smith college (and right next door to Amherst, where UMass is). It’s considered the hip, trendy, progressive capital of the area. Think Portlandia, New England style. And it’s true that this is where I used to go for my comics, for ethnic food, for fancy beers, for live music shows, and for offbeat movies. But gradually Noho kind of soured on me. It’s extremely smug and self-satisfied, far more impressed with itself than it’s really earned.

The “hill towns”, quaint little enclaves nestled in the Pioneer Valley north of Springfield, are all pretty impressed with themselves. If you’re moving to the area, it’s assumed that’s where you’ll want to live, since they’re so picturesque, quiet, and peaceful. They’re also way more expensive to live in and, as a result, are way more white than other areas.

Springfield and its “urban” counterparts, Holyoke and Chicopee, are sneered at by our northern neighbors. They all have problems…with drugs, with crime, with violence, with blight and ruin. They’re not safe. The schools aren’t any good. What’s more, even if you live in Springfield, it’s assumed that you agree with this, that you’ll find jokes about what a godforsaken hellhole you live in just as hilarious. I mean, good for you for trying to make Springfield work, but really I don’t know what can be done. The interstate between Springfield and Northampton seems to be strangely shorter in one direction than the other, where it’s no big deal for Springfield residents to come visit friends up there, but it’s just too much hassle for them to come down.

When I was hitting up bookstores in the area to promote Write More Good, I was told by one in Northampton that they “only work with local authors”. Seriously. Haven’t set foot in that shop since, and it contributed mightily to the downward slide of Northampton in my estimation. (In fairness, a different Noho book store welcomed me, and we had a great time.)

So let’s go back to this article about how heroin addiction is affecting the precious white babies of the hill towns. I know about this widespread drug problem, not because I personally know any addicts, but because I live in Springfield. Springfield is where these kids buy their smack. Heroin sales are part of why Springfield has a problem with crime and violence. When there are murders in this town, it’s not innocent folks getting shot randomly, it’s usually drug-related. We have gangs in Springfield fighting with each other over who gets to sell heroin to these kids of Northampton’s “affluent and prominent local families”. They come here, buy drugs and contribute to Springfield’s problems, and then go back to their enclaves and tsk-tsk about how awful it is down south.

This angle isn’t even mentioned in the article. Nor is the fact that the gangs aren’t only selling to North- and Easthampton kids, but to all over. Still, the real tragedy is the fact that drugs are wrecking Northampton! Our last best hope against the land of Mordor! And again, it’s assumed that this is disturbing to everyone within a 30 mile radius because we’re all pretty envious of the great lives being had by our wealthier betters. If heroin can go even to a well-heeled, progressive mecca like Northampton, small wonder that apocalyptic hellscapes like Springfield and Holyoke got hit too.

I hope things get better for the kids of quirky affluent Northampton. I hope so because addiction is awful and no one should be losing their lives to it. But I also hope things get better because then maybe we won’t also have to live with the dirty consequences of their habits, and be denigrated by them because of it.

But I ain’t bitter y’all.

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America is a Nation of Cowards

Following the horrific attacks in Paris on Friday, the United States has responded the way the world has come to rely on the USA responding: losing their absolute shit. The bodies were still on the Parisian ground when outraged Americans demanded the bombing of someone, anyone, in response to this atrocity.

It was nice to see the US claiming to care about another country, especially France, which seemed to earn our eternal scorn after they declined to follow our idiot marching band into Iraq in 2003. Of course, nobody actually cares about France, and it could have been any white country, so long as it helped us sing another refrain of “all Muslims are bad”.

We of course got to hear about how this wouldn’t have happened at all if Parisians walked around with guns all the time, and how we need to do something in Syria now, but since we’re already bombing the shit out of Syria and the NRA doesn’t fund French politicians, there really wasn’t much there to gain any traction. What we instead decided to focus on is how the US needs to not accept Syrian refugees.

I know that not everyone is sitting in front of a computer 10 hours a day and trying to keep up with events. Even people who are have a hard time following what’s going on in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. So I don’t expect that everyone would know that the war in Syria is pretty much being fueled by the US already, that the refugees are trying to escape radical jihadists who want to kill them, that they literally have no “home” to go back to, since there’s a proxy WWIII going on, with everyone joining in, in their own country. All they know is some Muslims want into the US and since all Muslims are hell-bent on destroying our freedoms, they need to be stopped.

A number of idiot state governors, having noted that the bar for being considered presidential candidate material these days is at an all-time low, decided to spice up their resumes by declaring that their states wouldn’t accept refugees. I’m ashamed to say that my own governor, Charlie Baker of “liberal” Massachusetts, is one of these clowns. They don’t actually have the power to do this, but that’s beside the point. In addition, the attention-whoring collective ironically called “Anonymous” has declared war on ISIS, which means you can expect a giant leak of the jihadists’ nude selfies any day now.

It’s so strange to me that a country which constantly presents itself as an ass-kicking, fearless, straight-talking juggernaut of swaggering he-man power is always so quick to wet its pants and cry for daddy when there’s any sign of trouble. LET’S ROLL! NO FEAR! COME AND TAKE IT! THESE COLORS DON’T RUN! but then “oh no I have to make sure my kids are safe from Syrian refugees”. The same patriots who have thirty-two semiautomatic rifles to resist the UN and Obama is terrified to let this bunch into the country:

This same crowd was yelling “ALL LIVES MATTER” not too long ago, and yet now it seems like eh, maybe some lives don’t matter too much after all.

Actually, the most insulting argument I’ve heard against allowing in refugees is “we have our own homeless we need to take care of”. The people resorting to this have never given a fig about America’s homeless, and aren’t about to start. It’s the “it’s a mental health issue” of this discussion, a content-less vapidity designed to simply make the discussion itself go away. We as a country have gotten quite good at identifying the true source of problems as other problems that we also don’t plan on addressing.

Conservatives (and others) used to love to refer to America as a “shining city on a hill”, bringing the good news of freedom and democracy to all. But now apparently that hill needs to be raised, fortified, and wrapped in barbed wire to keep a handful of militant lunatics from reducing it to ashes overnight.

The point that ISIS wants us to treat the refugees (and all other Muslims) like garbage because it furthers their goals, is valid yet unimportant. It requires one to actually think about the scope of the situation and carefully consider actions instead of just yelling “BOMBS AND GUNS! BORDER WALLS! NO MORE MOSQUES!” Even the evidence that the “Syrian” passports dropped by the French attackers were fakes designed to spur this exact reaction won’t stop most Americans from following the exact script ISIS wants. We’ve been dancing to the tune whistled by Al-Qaeda for over a decade and there’s no reason to stop now. It also doesn’t matter because there’s no way to defeat this paranoia and xenophobia. Establishing that the Paris terrorists were born in Europe simply solidifies the idea that we should keep all Muslims out, because none of them can be trusted.

And how is France, the direct victim of Friday’s attack handling the Syrian refugees? They’re continuing to bring in 30,000 of them.

Who are the real “surrender monkeys”, America?

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Trashfest Northeast 2015

For the third year in a row I went down to Connecticut this weekend to play a heaping helping of boardgames at Trashfest! This is always a good time and some fun people and this year was no exception.

I started out by teaching three other guys Battle Merchants. This is the second time I have played with the New Kingdoms expansion/alteration and I think the revised kingdom cards are really good. The new players seemed to enjoy it and one of them won, nearly steamrolling over everyone else (I was a very close second but only because I got really lucky in the final season.)

Someone there was selling Dark Moon, a game I’d had my eye on, for a really good price. It’s a retheme of “BSG Express”, which was itself a fan-made dice adaptation of the Battlestar Galactica boardgame. I’m not a huge fan of BSG, but more for the length and sameness than the central idea behind it. I wanted to jump on that sale price but felt I should give it a try first. I found some others who were happy to teach it and played a game. I was one of the Infected, and played cool for a while. At one point I selected an event card which could have given the game away and was disastrous for the humans, but it was because I was completely inept, not because I was trying to kill them all. When we Infected revealed, we had the humans on the ropes, but they wriggled out and won. Stupid humans. I had a good time and ended up buying that copy.

The people I had just tried to murder in Dark Moon wanted to play Space Cadets: Dice Duel next and I obliged. I tried this out at Gen Con and it didn’t do much for me then. It also didn’t do much for me now. I like dice stuff but I don’t like real-time everyone-roll-dice-and-then-yell stuff. Others had fun, tho, so I’m good.

The next game, though, was Space Cadets: Away Missions, and it was a blast. This has been getting a lot of buzz lately and was everywhere at Trashfest (the designers were there) but for some reason I thought it was some kind of miniatures game and that’s not normally my thing. It’s not. It’s more like a dungeon crawl game and it is a bunch of fun. We played a scenario where aliens were infesting our spacecraft and we had to defeat them all before the self-destruct went off. We were successful, but largely because of an amazing turn where the meathead character found some kind of adrenaline injector, Hulked out, and went on a rampage, mowing down aliens left and right. It was glorious. As I say, the designers were there, and the copy we played belonged to one of them, so it was the top-of-the-line Kickstarter edition with beautifully painted miniatures. I don’t usually care about such things, but in this case they really made the game come alive. It was loads of fun.

Then I played Albion’s Legacy and the less said, the better.

I was watching as Flick ‘Em Up was being taught, but it seemed like (a) way more than I wanted in a flicking game and (b) it would be kind of long and convoluted, so I bailed and joined a game of The Omega Virus. This game from the 80s was a hoot. There’s not a lot of play to it (you’re just kind of moving around and hoping to find stuff) but it’s a lot of goofy fun, as it has an electronic talking component, which serves as the countdown, the voice of the base computer begging for help, and the voice of the Omega Virus making fun of the base computer. I and one other player cornered the Virus in a room but he beat me to defeating it. I have been wanting to play Omega Virus for ages and am glad I finally got a chance. This makes me even more eager to finish SECRET BOARD GAME PROJECT “VICTOR MIKE”.

I can’t think of a better crowd to play Cockroach Poker with, and we had a great time. I pulled an especially gutsy move, passing a stinkbug to someone when I already had three of them in front of me. I figured no one would believe I’d do that, and it paid off.

There was a flicking game competition going on, and to help I brought my copy of Maus Nach Haus, which has not seen table time in far too long. You have six mice and someone spins a wooden ring. You try to flick your mice so that when the ring stops spinning and falls, they’ll be inside it. That’s it. It is a riot, and inspired a lot of obscene trash talk, as all the best games for pre-schoolers do.

I was ready to leave at that point but Matt Loter convinced me to stay for a round of a game he’s designing, U Mad Bro?, about the brain-twisting ineffable horror of Cthulhu and its effect on Jersey Bros. It’s a microgame, dumb as hell, and full of luck, and we had a lot of fun playing it. If you want a game where you stroke your beard and puzzle over interesting decisions in the problem space, it’s not for you. If you want to have a good time, it’s aces.

And that closed out another Trashfest. As always, many thanks to the organizers. I sadly did not play my traditional game of Ascending Empires on the Super Deluxe Board, nor did I play or teach The New Era. I saw other things being played that I’m now interested in, such as The Grizzled and Argent. Can’t wait for next year.

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I Played That! #37: Fallout 3 (PC)

I am a huge fan of the Fallout series, but when the third installment was announced, I was crushed. The announcement and screenshot showed that instead of an isometric, third-person RPG, it was going to be a first-person shooter. As I’ve discussed before, the types of games I loved had all vanished and now one of the few franchises that had been there for me was going to the dark side. No, I was not happy.

For four years I sulked and had nothing to do with it. But then in 2012, out of the blue, I bought a PC game I’ll talk about later (I haven’t approached this series in even an optimal non-chronological fashion, sorry), and the fact that I enjoyed it and that it ran fine on my laptop made me think that maybe I could take a crack at PC games I’d assumed my machine couldn’t run. So I bought Fallout 3.

It was a revelation. I loved playing it. I loved the sense of exploration, I loved the immersion, and I loved the combat. Hunting down feral ghouls and raiders with a sniper rifle was exciting and fun. I couldn’t get enough of it. I DO like FPSes, Sam I Am! And I will play them on a boat, and I will play them with a G.O.A.T.!

Here’s a little something about people in the world: sometimes they change their minds about things. They get new information. They are turned on to a different point of view. They realize their old views were sheltered or prejudiced or ill-informed and re-evaluate past statements and decisions. Sometimes it involves something minor like realizing you actually do enjoy a certain type of videogame you had declared contempt for. Sometimes it’s something much larger and more important. But it happens. It’s the point of growing up and gaining maturity.

It helped that the actual game of Fallout 3 was a lot of fun, with an interesting mix of excitement, humor, pathos, and mystery. The world was huge, and interesting finds awaited the intrepid explorer. The main storyline was kind of dull, absurd, and had an unbelievably stupid end to it, but the side missions were excellent, fleshing out the world and giving lovely story beats without simply dumping a bunch of text into a “book” or a baobab-sized conversation tree. A lot of thought was put into it beyond the weapons and the combat, and the whole thing works very well. It’s a world where you just don’t want to be a jerk, unlike a lot of other games I’ve played.

Fallout 3 was a gateway drug for me, and before long I was trying other FPSes and then moved to the Xbox. In fact, this really should be the final entry in this series, since this game directly led to me jumping back to consoles and eschewing the PC as a gaming platform, at least for the moment.

As you know, Fallout 4 dropped this past week and while I haven’t played it yet (I foolishly “pre-“ordered mine from Amazon, and it only shipped out yesterday) I can’t wait. It looks and sounds great, and even the aspects of it that I’m kind of wary about I’m keeping an open mind about because hey, I’ve been wrong before.

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J’Aime Paris

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