Video Games

I Wrote Stuff: Week of March 29

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Hello! Here’s a quick rundown of writing of mine that appeared on other sites last week.

For PC Gamer:

  • My weekly mod column covers Altis Life for Arma 3, a game mode where you assume the life of either a civilian or a police officer on the massive Altis map. As a cop, I ran around with other cops desperately trying to find crime to stop. As a civilian, I bought a car and ran myself over with it. Somehow. That’s me in the above picture, under my own car. I don’t even need enemies or other players in order to hurt myself in games, apparently.
  • My Rust diary wraps up with a long, lonely jaunt around the entire map and a return home to find that my cozy neighborhood has undergone some major changes.

For Rock, Paper Shotgun:

  • In my weekly early-access column, I took a look at Planet Explorers, an ambitious survival slash exploration slash crafting slash building slash multiplayer game. It’s trying to do a lot of different things, and doing most of them pretty well. Best of all are some of the interesting-looking alien dinosaurs.

I don’t think I added to my DayZ tumblr this week, as I didn’t have much time to play. I’m thinking about trying the new experimental branch to check out some of the upcoming changes, though.

Video Games

I Wrote Stuff: Week of March 22

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Hello again! Just a wrap-up of my writing that appeared on other sites last week.

For PC Gamer:

  • In my weekly mod column, I take a look at a Spelunky mod that replaces monsters, items, weapons, music, and other assets with elements from the Metroid series. It’s incredibly well-done. It doesn’t change the gameplay, but you have to relearn which monsters are which so you know which monsters do what. It’s fun!
  • In the second part of my Rust diary, I experience the perils of home ownership, namely, that once you have a home, people know where you live. And they start stopping by. Often, in the middle of the night. Often, to kill you.

For Rock, Paper, Shotgun:

Hey Are You Cool:

  • I added a couple entries on my ongoing DayZ tumblr. I find it interesting that I can spend hours on a full server and never see another player, yet sometimes on a server with only three people on it, we all wind up in the same building at the same time.
Screen Cuisine | Video Games

I Wrote Stuff: Week of March 15th

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Hello! So. I need to do a better job of posting here when I write stuff that appears places other than here. I’m going to try to do a weekly post linking the stuff I’ve written for other sites. This should catch you up to the present day.

For PC Gamer:

  • Also for PC Gamer, I’m currently doing a multi-week diary about the survival crafting game Rust. You can read part one here, in which I vomit on a campfire until I die. Part two will be up this coming Wednesday! I don’t think it will contain vomiting because I learned how to cook.

For Rock, Paper Shotgun:

My DayZ Tumblr:

  • Lately I’ve been keeping a tumblr describing my encounters with other players in the multiplayer survival game DayZ. The encounters can be weird, funny, disturbing, violent, or poignant, and frequently several of those at once. There’s no update schedule; I should probably have one. Right now, I write when I play, and I play when I have time.
Video Games

“Breaking Madden” Is Some Great Games Writing

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Before I direct you to some truly fantastic and hilarious games writing about the Madden video game series, let me spoil today’s Super Bowl for you.

Kris and I played the Super Bowl with Madden for Xbox 360 the other night. Kris played the Broncos, I played the Seahawks. Final score: Broncos 27, Seahawks 21. I fully believe this will be the outcome of today’s Super Bowl.

If our game does correctly predict the real Super Bowl, here are some highlights today’s actual game will include:

  • The game will go into overtime as the result of nobody being able to score in the 4th quarter
  • Four out of five field goals will be missed
  • The winning quarterback will be Tim Tebow (we were playing Madden 2012)
  • The Seahawks will replace their quarterback with their punter for two full quarters before the coach realizes his mistake
  • This mistake will be considerately pointed out by the Bronco’s coach
  • The aforementioned Seahawk punter will throw seven interceptions

I’m pretty sure all of those things will come true.

Anyway, I mainly wanted to point you to some outstanding video game writing about the Madden series. Jon Bois writes a column for SBNation.com, wherein he experiments with the settings of the Madden game with hilarious and interesting results. He’s also a fantastic writer, a skilled video editor, and a magnificent craftsman of animated GIFs. You should read/watch/enjoy this entire series and everything he ever writes from now on.

For instance, he simulates the Super Bowl using a team of seven-foot-tall, 400 pound Seahawks vs. a team of tiny, unskilled Broncos.

He plays a game with an entire offense comprised of Tom Brady clones.

He recreates the unstoppable Bo Jackson from Tecmo Bowl.

He tries to see if Colts punter Pat McAfee can win a game by himself.

Check out his stuff. Even if you don’t like football, you’ll like his columns.

Video Games

Hey, PC Game Reviewers: I Think We Should Take Our Own Screenshots

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I recently reviewed a horror game called Outlast for an upcoming issue of PC Gamer Magazine. While I’ve written for the magazine before, this is the first actual game review I’ve ever done.

Naturally, when reviews of Outlast started popping up online, I wanted to see what other reviewers thought of the game. While looking through the first handful of reviews, I noticed something that didn’t quite sit right. Many of the reviews — about two-thirds of them, in fact — used the same three or four screenshots. These were screenshots given to them by the developer (I got them as well, along with review code) as part of a PR media kit.

Using a developer’s screenshots for a PC game review seems… well, a bit misleading. The reviewer doesn’t know for a fact that these are genuine screenshots. They may have been embellished, or touched up, or Photoshopped, or specially rendered. Presumably, these developer screens have been carefully selected as part of the game’s promotion. Reviews, on the other hand, are not (or should not) serve as promotion. Reviews are an opportunity for a writer to describe his or her specific experience with the game. If a reviewer doesn’t use his or her own screenshots in the review, it seems (to me, at least) that they’re not accurately describing their own personal experience.

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Summer Movie Fantasy League

Summer Movie Fantasy League: The (World’s) End

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Well, the summer movie season is over and it’s time to tally our final scores in the Third Annual Summer Movie Fantasy League.

Long story short: Kris destroyed me.

It was pretty anti-climactic, really: even after my early lead, Kris didn’t even wind up needing her final three movies to beat me in the domestic opening box-office department. Almost every single movie I picked, with the exception of Still Very Fast And Quite Furious, underperformed. After Earth was a financial and critical dud. White House Down didn’t deliver. None of the kid’s movies I picked came close to Monsters University and Despicable Me 2. And, while The Wolverine did pretty well, it fell far short of the predictions for its opening weekend. Kris outplayed me to the tune of almost $70 million, even though she picked a few duds herself.

Even worse: it looked like I had the lowest RT score portion of the summer locked up, but this morning I went back to check all the scores again, as they tend to fluctuate throughout the summer. My best-worst pick was Hammer of the Gods, which had scored a zero! Unfortunately, a couple late reviews were added, and two of them were positive, meaning the film now scores at a 30%. Not good, but still enough to bump my total up over Kris’s, meaning she has the lowest combined RT score, meaning she wins that contest too. DAMN.

Here’s a look at the final tallies:

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That’s it until next summer… when I will have my revenge.

Movies | Summer Movie Fantasy League

Summer Movie Fantasy League: Huge Ackman Edition

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Hi! Kris and I are deep into our 3rd annual Summer Movie Fantasy League, so I thought it might be time for an update.

With each of us having had seven of ten movies released and tallied for their opening weekend domestic earnings, here’s how the picture looks:

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I came out of the gate strong, with Fast & Furious 6 nabbing almost $100K, but it was all downhill from there. World War Z did pretty well, but my poor choices of After Earth, Epic, White House Down, and Turbo did me no favors. Meanwhile, Kris picked the single biggest film, Man of Steel, plus got the two biggest kiddie flicks, Monsters U and Despicable Me 2. With three movies left for each of us, things are looking grim for the former champion (me).

However! All is not lost. With a string of crap and duds hitting the theaters over the past few weeks, and The Wolverine basically opening without any competition, I could cut a hefty chunk out of Kris’ $96 million lead this weekend. Unfortunately, I doubt it’ll be enough to win. She still has Elysium, which 1) has been advertised like crazy, 2) looks like it might be good, and 3) MATT DAMON. I’m not sure how 2 Guns will do, but it’s got Denzel Washington and Marky Mark, so I assume it’ll have a healthy opening. I think I’m still gonna get beat, but maybe it’ll be close.

Meanwhile, our three film picks for lowest Rotten Tomato score was close for a while! The Purge and The Internship were both basically the same degree of stinky. Kris looked like she might have run away with it by picking Syrup, which had zero positive reviews for WEEKS, but suddenly a positive one appeared, knocking it up to 17%. I managed a 0% pick too, with Hammer of the Gods, but we’ll have to keep an eye on it in case some tool decides to like it enough to give it a decent review. R.I.P.D. was much-hated, but not as much-hated as the most-hated Grown Ups 2. As with Syrup, these scores tend to fluctuate a bit as late reviews come in throughout the summer, but right now, I think I’ve got this portion of the summer league won.

Video Games

The Division: Trailer Breakdown

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This week I watched a few E3 presentations and tweeted annoyingly about them (sorry). For the most part, I saw a lot of vague information about new consoles I have no interest in buying and fancy, glossy, pre-rendered CG trailers for games I have no interest in playing. However, one game trailer caught my eye: Ubisoft’s multi-player third-person action RPG called The Division.

There were actually two trailers for The Division. The first contained the backstory for this Tom Clancy game: apparently, terrorists put some sort of super germs on all our money and on Black Friday, when everyone goes out to buy Christmas presents at two in the morning, they get sick from the terror-germs, which completely destroys the United States. It’s sort of a weird message– don’t go shopping on Black Friday or you’ll die from moneygerms– for a game made for two new game consoles that will probably be sold during Black Friday. Also, people still use cash to buy things? And people still go to stores? If you want to infect us, terrorist, put some germs on Amazon.com’s one-click button.

Anyway. The “everyone is infected” angle led me to initially think: zombie game. Another damn zombie game. Then Ubisoft aired about eight minutes of (what appeared to be) actual gameplay footage, and I found it entirely engrossing. The footage involves the exploits of four co-op human players: Bronson, Megan, Chris, and Nick (whose perspective we are watching from.) You can watch it right here, and I’d suggest doing it on the biggest screen you have, because there’s a lot of detail. Once you’ve seen it, check out my notes below!

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Video Games

Seven Examples of Gunpoint’s Great Design Choices (That Have Nothing to do With Gameplay)

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If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that when I get bent out of shape about a video game, it’s usually over something minor. Bioshock Infinite, for example, doesn’t allow players to manually save their games, which I groused about at length (well, at a length of 140 characters, at least). Far Cry 3 cluttered my screen with huge reminders to stay on-mission, despite being an open-world game where missions are the last thing I wanted to be doing. (They later patched this out due to gamer complaints.)

It’s not that these little details are game-ruiners, but when something minor is overlooked it makes me wonder if game developers actually ever play games. Like, did it not occur to the makers of Bioshock Infinite that I might want to save my game and quit, rather than run around for five or ten minutes trying to trigger the autosave function?

That’s why it’s so exciting when I realize that a game’s developer has actually thought about their game from the viewpoint of someone playing it. Dishonored’s comprehensive user interface settings is a great example: you can toggle and adjust just about everything on your screen, from quest markers to health bars to mission notifications. This sort of attention to the finer details says: “Hey, we make games, but we’re gamers too.”

Gunpoint is a new 2-D stealth puzzle game created by writer Tom Francis. In it, you infiltrate secure facilities, elude (or leap, tackle and punch) guards, and rewire electrical systems to help you navigate through buildings. Full disclosure here: I’ve never personally met Tom but I consider him a friend, I’m a huge fan of his writing, and he was integral in getting me started freelancing for PC Gamer. I’m not reviewing the game itself here, (though I think it’s excellent: fun, funny, and highly replayable, with charming art and music:  you should check out the game’s launch trailer to see what’s in store for you).

Instead, I want to point out a few examples of some design choices Tom made, and how they show he genuinely kept gamers in mind while creating his game.

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1) Try Before You Buy (In the Game)

As you complete jobs and earn money in Gunpoint, you can spend your virtual cash on new gadgets to help with your heists. This is nothing new in games, except for two distinct differences. You can try the gadgets out on a mini-level before you buy them, which is great. It sucks when you buy an upgrade in a game and wind up hating it, or worse, finding out that it doesn’t suit your playstyle, and you end up wishing you hadn’t bought it. Gunpoint gives you a chance to put your new gadgets through the paces to see if it’s something you want before you spend your precious heistbux on it.

What’s more, you can return your gadget to the in-game store for a refund. What’s even more: it’s a full refund. Whoever the unseen gadget vendor is in Gunpoint, he’s better than any other vendor in video games EVER. Vendors in video games are notorious for buying back your gear at far less than you paid. Not Gunpoint. Dude gives you a full refund. He is my hero. I think I’ll call him Clark. I love you, Clark.

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2) Try Before You Buy (In Real Life)

There’s a demo version of Gunpoint, so you can try out a handful of levels and see what the game is all about (you should do this now). Most game demos let you play for a while and then end with a splash screen, listing a bunch of features about the game, or maybe a link to where you can buy it, almost as an afterthought: “We’ve given you a taste of the game, and here’s a static list of features for you to stare at for ten seconds while you hammer on the Escape key. We’re done here.”

Tom actually created an interactive conversation between two of the game’s characters to let you know the demo is complete and suggest that you now buy the full game. It’s witty, it’s meta, it’s clever, and, hilariously, it lets you actually participate in Tom’s efforts to convince you to buy the game. I’ve never really seen anyone do something quite like that before. Most of all, it shows he didn’t just slice off a chunk of the game, stuff it into an executable, and theatrically dust off his hands. He gave this demo some custom content and personal attention.

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3) Failure Is an Option

In the spirit of games like Spelunky or Trials, screwing up in Gunpoint is usually funny and isn’t always a huge setback: the simple tap of a key gets you right back into the game. Gunpoint does this especially well by giving you some choices on reloading your game, as shown above. Do you want to erase the most recent stupid move you made? Maybe the last two? Or three? You can restart from scratch, load your last manual save, or rewind by several steps. The point is, you have options, where in many games, you don’t. ATTENTION EVERY OTHER GAME: DO THIS THING.

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4) You’re Not Slow, You’re Just “Thoughtful”

Like many games, Gunpoint tracks how much time you’re spending in a level. Games are notorious for pointing our your shortcomings, but when you’ve spent perhaps too much time solving a puzzle, Gunpoint gives you a speed rating of “Thoughtful.” This is nice. I mean, I know I suck, but Gunpoint is at least being considerate of my feelings. I appreciate it.

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5) Music Volume

This is totally minor, but I still noticed it. In any game with a constant soundtrack, I’m going to reach a point where I have to go into the options and turn the music down. This is especially true in puzzle games, where I need to concentrate. Even if it’s good music (and Gunpoint’s music is good), I just can’t think properly if the music is too loud. (I have the same problem while driving and trying to find an address: I have to turn my radio off). By default, Gunpoint’s soundtrack is set to 40% volume by default, saving me the trouble. The trouble, by the way, consists of me having to open a menu and move a slider, which is not even remotely trouble. But the idea that Tom knew players might need to do it is the point I’m trying to make.

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6) Story? What story?

Tom’s a writer, so I’m not surprised to find some great, snappy dialogue in Gunpoint. Of course, no matter how well a game is written, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to have to experience the story in full every single time you play. Once you’ve had enough of the story you can skip past the dialogue and just get right into the puzzles. I think Tom even knows you might not want to read everything on your first time through the game: as you can see above, even the character we’re playing doesn’t seem truly interested in the finer details. He just wants to break into some buildings and slap guards around.

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7) Commentary & Prototype Versions

If you buy the Special or Exclusive Edition of Gunpoint, you gain access to extras like developer commentary and prototype versions from earlier stages of development. MORE GAMES NEED THIS. Some of Valve’s games have commentary, one of the Riddick games does too, I think, and maybe a handful of others. Not nearly enough, though, and I think it’s something gamers would like to see more of.

The commentary mode plants little figures of Tom and his development team in the maps so you can listen to their thoughts on the game while you play. I did try to tackle and punch Tom (in the game), but it doesn’t work, sadly (I only wanted to do so because his avatar suggested there were eight different ways to solve a certain puzzle, and I had only come up with two).

At any rate, a lot of gamers are interested in how games are made, and there’s really something great about playing a game while listening to developers talk to you about how they made it. The prototype levels are neat, too, because you can play with the game at its earliest stages, and see firsthand how it has developed and changed over the years.

ANYWAY. GOOD JOB, TOM. Gunpoint is available on Steam (as is its demo) and you can find more details here at the Gunpoint site.

Movies | Summer Movie Fantasy League

Summer Movie Fantasy League 3: This Time It’s Personal

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It’s summer! There are movies! My wife and I are bored! That means it must be time for the Third Annual Livingston Summer Movie Fantasy League! Each summer, Kris and I each choose the ten summer movies we think will have the best domestic opening weekend earnings, and see who combines for the highest total. We also each pick three films we think will combine for the lowest Rotten Tomatoes review score.

I never posted the results from last year’s SMFL, because after that psychopath killed twelve people at The Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, Colorado, writing about box office totals just seemed completely inappropriate (particularly since we have family in Aurora). Still, you can see the final totals here, as well as the RT score.

Anyway, we’re back for a third go-round! We started with Memorial Day weekend this year, meaning we missed out on Iron Man 3 and the new Star Trek, but here’s a look at our 2013 picks, in release date order:

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I think my biggest mistake was picking After Earth (which is getting horrible reviews) in the third round, which left the door open for Kris to grab Pacific Rim. I also somehow let Kris snag the two kids movies that will be both good and make money (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2) while I wound up with four that open later in the summer and will probably all stink. So, I’m not too hopeful at my chances of a three-peat this year, though Fast and Furious 6′s big opening weekend gave me a great start.

Anyway, I’ll post some updates at the summer progresses, and Kris is going to be writing about it this year too:

Kris here: I’ve lost two years out of two. Not spectacular. Last year, I passed on the Avengers and went with the Dark Knight as my first pick. Many of the people I love live in Aurora (or A-town as my brother calls it), and my niece’s husband is a huge Batman fan. I checked with my brother, and was very relieved to hear that my family was okay.  After the shootings, we didn’t really have much fun with the league. The trash talking didn’t feel right.

This year will be different. A few days before our draft, I was stuck in the jury duty waiting room. I had eight hours to do my homework thanks to the free wifi. I mapped out the possibilities, and think I did pretty well this time. I picked a lot of late summer movies again. Not sure how that keeps happening. At the moment, I’ve got two more weeks before I can even get a single dollar on the board. Some thoughts on my picks (in order):

“Man of Steel” – Most of the trailers have been pretty dull for this one. Plus, another superhero movie to start didn’t seem like the way to go. That is, until I finally saw an awesome trailer for this movie the night before the draft that made picking it seem like a no-brainer. Michael Shannon as General Zod in a voice-over, demanding Superman to come forward. They never show that one. Why do they never show that one? Seriously, they need to get on that.

“Despicable Me 2″ – To be honest, I never saw part one. I don’t even know what those little yellow things are, but they seem irritating. Learning from the past: what is irritating to me, is box office gold. Plus, it’s due out over the 4th of July weekend.

“Monsters University” – I saw a bit of the first movie, and it was a cute and sentimental. I like cute and sentimental, plus Disney/Pixar will surely market the heck out of this one. Try to avoid this one! I dare you!

“Pacific Rim” – I was on the fence on this one. I wanted to go with “Fast and Furious 6″ – I really did. It hadn’t been picked as yet, and I knew people were going to go see the hell out of it. However, Pacific Rim has giant robots, it’s coming out in IMAX, will involve cities getting smashed up, has that “WHOOOOOMP” noise in the trailer that everyone loves, is directed by Guillermo del Toro, and did I mention GIANT ROBOTS?

“The Heat” – Had to toss in an “R” rated movie, because adults see movies too. Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig are back together, and Sandra Bullock is back on screen. I’m rooting for this one.

“Elysium” – I loved, loved, loved “District 9″, and this one seems like that movie on steroids. Plus, Matt Damon is part machine. I recently watched “Behind the Candelabra”, and if Mr. Damon plays this one half as earnestly as he played Scott Thorson, we’re all in for a treat. I’m thinking he won’t be wearing any glittery speedos in this one, but he’ll likely smash a guy through a wall while wearing high-tech body armor. I’m in!

“World’s End” – Likely that this one won’t make too much money. However, my favorite movie of all time is “Shaun of the Dead” and I had to show it some faith and love. It’s really the only movie I’m excited to see this summer. Hopefully, I’m not alone in that.

“Lone Ranger” – At this point in the draft, the pickings were getting slim. I really don’t know about this one. It kept showing up on the Summer duds list, and it’s a western. I’m not nuts about westerns, myself. Think I may have thrown a wild pitch here, kids.

“2 Guns” – Sometimes, when you start throwing wild… you can’t stop. However, ladies (and quite a few dudes) seem to love Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington, and dudes (and quite a few ladies) seem to love guns. Let’s hope these hold true. It’s not due out until August. Perhaps it will be very hot out in August, and people will want to sit in an air conditioned movie theater?

“This is the End” – Pretty much ended the game with a balk. I know it, you know it.

For worst Rotten Tomatoes score, I went with “R.I.P.D”, “The Purge” and “Syrup”. All based on trailers alone. Couldn’t even get through the trailer for the Syrup movie.