So I have a pair of pliers and a good grip on a man’s healthy molar. He’s yelling and whimpering. My wife, having watched me hook the man up to a car battery earlier, is getting uncomfortable, so I tell her not to watch. In a series of deft maneuvers – with my off hand, no less – I rock the tooth out. It falls to the ground with a wet plop. He’s willing to talk now.

Yes, I’ve been playing GTA V. There is indeed a torture scene in the game, which also involves a wrench and a gasoline can filled with water. It’s satire, of course – the entire game is a satire of Californian/American civilization, with all its excesses and debauchery – and a lovingly detailed and fond-of-its-subject satire at that. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles are a joy to drive, the scenery is huge in scope, and the three characters you get to switch between at will – Michael, Franklin, and Trevor – are all interesting, funny, and nuanced studies in criminal behavior. Trevor, a unique homicidal maniac that I doubt anyone will be forgetting anytime soon, is especially twisted, embodying the lawless open-world spirit of the game in a way that no GTA protagonist has before. And it’s incredibly funny to use him to play golf on the game’s nine-hole course.

I read a review recently, the location of which I’ve now forgotten, that the plot of the game was a cross between Heat (Michael), Boyz in the Hood (Franklin), and Breaking Bad (Trevor). That’s a fair assessment. There are heists, drug deals, meth labs, crooked FBI agents, everything you’d expect. Hundreds of people, especially cops and security guards, are killed and the city barely blinks. But that’s how the GTA universe works. And it’s fun, despite H insisting that I obey traffic lights while driving.

Rome Total War 2

The Total War series of games is a series of flawed gems. Some, like the original Rome Total War and its expansion Barbarian Invasion, are classics, whereas the most recent entry is a bomb. Despite the passage of eight years and vast increases in computer horsepower, the sequel is a bummer all around.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. The game largely looks great. It’s this visual gloss that made me buy it. The units and the terrain are all well rendered. I like the ships in particular. I was prepared for an epic experience.

So that was it for the good stuff.

Combat is a quick, disappointing mess. Every battle turns into a giant mosh pit that lasts about five minutes. As such, units that are not heavy infantry are useless, and tactical moves are pointless; just smash through with all you have, and you win. Sieges are a special joke as both the pathfinding and AI for both sides is broken, making it impossible to exit gatehouses, use battering rams, and in general navigate near city walls.

The main strategic map is also a rambling mess. Only generals can lead armies now, making it very laborious to garrison cities beyond the minimum, which is necessary when cleaning up after conquest, and you only get a handful of them.  The building system has been simplified and abstracted into something I don’t care for anymore. Enemy strategic AI is bafflingly incompetent, either running away from battles it could win, or recruiting armies made up near totally of useless slingers. The scale of cities to their respective countries is ridiculously off; Athens, Rome, and Carthage are all the size of New York or larger.

Also, perhaps most frustrating, waiting for your turn during the main game is agonizingly slow. My machine and graphics card is not a slouch, and the original Rome TW was miles faster.

Can a series of patches fix these things? I am/was playing 1.0.0. I sure hope so.

Shadowrun Returns

I played the SNES Shadowrun a long time ago. Since then there have been various attempts to reboot the franchise, which was tabletop to begin with, into another successful game. Shadowrun Returns, released late last month, is that game, born of Kickstarter.

If it was any other franchise, I would deem it a small failure. The engine’s world is not particularly populated with things to interact with, other than talk and shoot. The pace is perfectly linear where there could have been a more open world. The branched conversations all lead to essentially the same places, no matter how clever you are.

But it has a major saving grace in that the story is written pretty well and keeps the pace up. It’s a noir murder mystery, much like the amnesiac mystery of the original, and both genres tend to maintain attention. We can apparently expect more content, also, given that the game is as much a story as it is a development package being released to the wild, where more labors of love await.


I continue to have free time on my hands, this being vacation, and have added Silversword to my list of temporary game obsessions that will have to end in a matter of weeks as a busy semester ramps up. SS plays like what it is: an iOS combination of Bard’s Tale, Dragon Wars, and a Gold Box game. In other words, it is difficult, slow-paced, and excellent, rewarding both patience and persistence. My only quibbles are with the inventory system; it should expand to the whole screen and freeze time. It’s difficult enough to avoid accidentally using or dropping a rare item when you can be waylaid at nearly any time by monsters.

Agricola and Le Havre

I’ve been playing a lot of Agricola and Le Havre on my aging iphone. Both are boardgame adaptations. I’ve owned a copy of the board game of  Agricola for awhile, but not until very recently did I acquire a copy of Le Havre, as it is out of print. I needed it to learn how to play the iOS version, as Le Havre is easily the most complex-looking board game I’ve played. It is fairly easy to play once you know how, but when I first bought the iOS version, not having any experience with the board game, I was intimidated by the sheer amount of information that I had to process on the tiny iphone screen. Only by working my way through the board game did I gain enough familiarity to play the iOS version.

Both games are designed by the same fellow and have a similar core mechanic. In Agricola, you have to build up a farm with structures and animals while simultaneously feeding your family, an activity that is often at odds with farm-building; in Le Havre, you have to build up a small shipping empire while simultaneously feeding your workers, with a similar build-in growing tension. And of course, you are playing against other players trying to do the same thing, and your actions often block them from doing what they need to do in a given turn.

Now all they need to do is finish the PC version of Twilight Struggle.


H recently introduced me to CCS, which I knew was F2P, but not in any particularly insidious way, until I hit a certain level where the difficulty went from 0 to 100. Now normally in my old age I tend to quit a game when it gets inordinately difficult – and therefore less fun – but it occurred to me that I had hit a kind of paywall that was designed to extract money from my wallet in a seemingly innocent fashion.

Most of the apps on my iPhone are of the pay-first variety. I paid dearly ($9.99) for perennial classics that I play all the time, like Carcassonne and King of Dragon Pass. This model makes sense to me, particularly because they are known quantities. Carcassonne is a great board game, and KODP I know from its PC origins. I’ve gotten far more than $9.99 out of both. But in-app purchases, especially from a game that has no real pedigree?

I suppose I should really say that if it is free, I expect it to stay that way. I’ve played a lot of TF2 on the PC and not paid a cent, despite a certain deal of incentive to do so. There is a certain unspoken contract there that I will not be forced to pay anything I don’t want to. I would happily pay to play TF2, but I’ve never been required or even asked to.

I buy most of my PC games off of Steam and GOG nowadays. I still refuse to play MMOGs because I’m waiting for one that makes sense. The vast majority of game apps for the iPhone disinterest me until they are board game reworkings like Elder Sign: Omens or Ticket to Ride, for example. The unofficial Dominion app, which I’ve played to death, is merely a precursor to the official F2P, which will have monetization qualities.

Anyway, back to the original link, which details “monetization tricks” peculiar to F2P games. I’m not for or against such tricks – interested in them as a rhetorican, yes, of course. Obviously some percentage of the player base for CCS pays out for powerups that allow bypassing levels. These powerups are very transitory things – they don’t last. If I bought a hat or a special weapon on TF2 I would always have it, unless I traded it away or abandoned the game.  And yet this transitory nature doesn’t bother some people.

This reminds me of why I got into rhetoric – trying to understand why people are persuaded to do seemingly illogical or inadvisable things. I do know that once something is perceived as coercive, it loses most of its persuasive power. CCS seems coercive to me at the moment, but Bioshock: Infinite, which cost me near $60, doesn’t, despite its 10 hours of play. Well, I suppose that’s the difference between raiding a vending machine and visiting a museum – it’s the quality of time spent, not just a dollar value.

Really what I think we are seeing in the gaming world is a scramble for new ways to make money, and if psychology can be bent to squeeze a few more dollars out of the average “gamer” – wow, how the definition of that word has changed – then psychology it is. The question is how the player base will react to such tactics. A “gamer” can be anyone now, not just us geeks, and thus gaming developers are faced with a very complex audience.


Having this website is frustrating sometimes, because I can’t really write in detail about most of the things that I’m currently engaged in or find interesting. I’m working on an article on Luke-Acts, but posting unfinished work seems unwise. Ditto for another article on workplace documentation. I’m not concerned about ideas being pilfered, but my personal quest for perfection gets in the way.

I just finished Bioshock: Infinite, but that game is so easily spoiled that I dare not say a word about it lest some virgin wander by. Ever since I, purely by accident, told H that a certain someone killed a certain someone in a certain book, I have been trying to be careful about such sensitive information. I will simply say that it is very, very good.

In the end, I suppose, I have absolutely nothing to say at the moment, but that beats 90% of the web most days.


It is probably too early to judge Simcity 5 still. I bought it several days after launch so I did not experience the plague of constant disconnection that most people did, but I am sensitive to such things. I think EA has done an upstanding thing in offering a free game to early buyers – I just picked out Dead Space 3, so I ended up with two new games I wanted at $30 each.

Now it is true that pathfinding is a mess. It is pathetically easy for any vehicle, especially fire trucks, to become confused. Stuck trips appear to be resolved auto-magically at some point, but poorly chosen paths are not. But this is something that is fixable. Overall the cities, while small, come alive in a way that previous entries in the series did not accomplish. I would like to see more callbacks to the original game, which I have very fond memories of, and terraforming custom levels/scenarios, but Maxis/EA still has time to add these things. Not every gaming house can be Paradox, but we can hope for and demand that level of commitment.

Assassin’s Creed 3

It’s exams week and the essays are piling up on my desk rapidly, waiting for a gentle grader. For some reason one of the exams is scheduled for Saturday, a situation that is unfortunate, but survivable.

I am morose about the holidays so far. The usual perpetual state of mild excitement eludes me completely. I do like the weather, but that’s about it.

I finished Assassin’s Creed 3 the other day. Its attempt to retell the American Revolution through a half-British, half-Native American assassin was only mildly successful, but one part of the game really, really worked, and that was the sea battles. It made me want to play Pirates! all over again.

After sinking a few frigates and thus ahistorically making the patriot navy near invincible, I had to wonder – why isn’t this the entire game? Screw running around on rooftops, dodging musket balls; ducking broadsides while waves crash over the deck is far more entertaining and exciting. I could definitely see an entire game built around AC3-style naval combat. Basically, I’m asking for Pirates! and this section of AC3 to get together.

The rest of the game did have a few moments, but I have to take issue with the introduction to the game, which seemed about ten hours long before I controlled the main character and felt like I was playing an AC game. Designers, you created an enviable sandbox to play in – I just wish you would let some of the plot emerge from that. For example, have whether or not Connor has liberated some of the British forts affect the plot. It would also be notable if someone in the game acknowledged Connor’s propensity to be at every single damned decisive moment in the war. He was five inches from signing the Declaration of Independence below Hancock.

I’m not going to talk about the metanarrative. Well, maybe I will. Frankly, I have to say something. If you’re going to present a up/down choice to a gamer, don’t yank it away in favor of predestination.