Hey Google, You’re Doing It Wrong

13 01 2010

My opinion column for the newspaper continues to be read by very few people, yet that does not deter me from writing one anyway and occasionally providing it for you to read (enjoy?) as well. Be aware, however, that typically these columns are the last thing I do as my deadline fast approaches and therefore, are often filled with ideas that are not fully formed or particularly well thought out.

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My Year in Games

11 01 2010

Having finally acquired an HD TV, a mighty blow from which my credit card has still not fully recovered, I officially entered the modern era of gaming in 2009.

Thus equipped, I spent the year checking out the hype on new games, but also pursued low-fi fun by replaying of old favorites and discovering the joys of a java-version Settlers of Catan.

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A Worthwhile Experiment

14 05 2009

For many geeks out there, the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering was something dabbled in to some degree or another during middle school but quickly abandoned by most. It ranks up there with Dungeons and Dragons in the unsexiness department. However, it’s a hobby that I’ve always felt has never been given it’s proper due and with the relase of the CCG-RTS hybrid “Battleforge” from Electronic Arts, it might finally get some mainstream cred.

battleforge

CCGs still remain a staple at the fringes of nerdom and there’s really a great variety of different options to indulge in. However, few brands, with the exception of Magic, enjoy any long-term success. A couple of video game adaptations have been made in an effort to bring the hobby more exposure, but these too have failed. Yet, as one of the world’s biggest video game publishers, EA has recently thrown the resources and ambition to give this experimental project a chance.

The key difference between “Battleforge” and many of its predecessors is that EA has fused the gameplay with one of gaming’s most popular genres, real-time strategy, in order to make it accessible to a larger audience. Combine that with borrowed loot mechanics from “World of Warcraft” and an RPG-esque division between PvP and PvE and you get one of the most innovantive adentures in video gaming in quite a while.

It works like this. Before playing the game proper, you select 20 different cards from an initial pool of 160, split across four elements, and these form the “deck” you take into a match. The cards include creatures, spells and defensive structures. Once the game begins, your entire deck is available to you and you can play any cards for which you have the proper resources and prerequisites. There is very little in the way of traditional RTS base-building and expansion, which gives the game a fluid, fentic feel. The ability to instantly summon units onto a battlefield changes the dynamics significantly and helps the game stand out from the usual RTS.

The game also features a kind of practice arena called the Forge where you can test out newly formed decks. Here you can pit your creatures and spells against waves of AI foes or even face your cards off against each other. It’s alot of fun to mess around with and you can easily lose hours tweaking and experimenting with different combinations. Another winning attribute is that many of the available scenarios in the game are co-op, with increasing levels of difficulty and rewards (making it a kind of MMORTS). For anyone who’s seen the kind of disputes that can arise from a “friendly” match of “Starcraft,” the option to work together is a welcome addition.

In order to financially support continued patches and content for “Battleforge,” EA is relying on the tactic of tradtional CCGs. In order to acquire new cards after you initially purchase the game, you can buy booster packs of 8 random cards at $2.50 or bid on an individual card through the game’s built-in auction house. Herein lies a large part of the game’s gamble, as it remains to be seen whether or not players will be willing to pour in more money after throwing down $50 for the game.

This also creates another problem. The holy grail of all RTS games is balance, trying to give each faction a unique feel without any one objectively superior to the other. However, the fact that the composition of your army is somewhat subject to the random luck of booster packs creates an uneven playing field.

In the end, the game is certainly fun to play, the action is not very micro-intensive, but there are moments where the game feels dangerously shallow. The Forge, while great, can be frustrating lacking in features and the game in general, from the graphics to the lore, has a very raw feeling. It seems clear that EA won’t hesistate to cut the strings on the project if it doesn’t pull in any revenue.

The potential is there, but the future of “Battleforge” will depend on how many players the game can draw and, subsequently, how much effort EA will put into developing new content, cards and patches. Without a constant stream of new decks, maps and features the game will become stale and lose its chance to establish a foothold in the competitive RTS landscape. Afterall, “Starcraft 2” isn’t that far away.

Still, in an industry where the vast majority of titles are sequels and popular forumlas are endlessly cloned, it’s good to see that EA was willing to put up some money on such an expirment.