A Classy Nemesis Review of “Organ Trail” For iPhone and iPad

Earlier this year at PAX East 2012, I had the opportunity to meet the developers behind the recently released game, “Organ Trail”. A clever take on the classic “Oregon Trail” series (but with zombies), I found myself mildly obessessed with the concept and immediately contributed to the project in order to secure my own pre-order. Now that I’ve had some time to play, I have to say, I’m not disappointed. Take a look at my video review below:

No Power in the ‘verse…

StarCraft II Box ArtThere are very few things that maintain my complete attention for more than a few hours. Any more, and I just need to do something different, get my mind somewhere else (which I suspect makes me completely and utterly average). The recent exception of course, came about one week ago – the day my copy of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty arrived, eliciting a response much more akin to DROP-ALL-YOUR-SHIT-RIGHT-FUCKING-NOW-AND-PLAY!!!

Dishes? Ha! Bills? Whatever. Clothes? Are you mad sir? For me, the past few weeks have consisted of panning every shining particle of free time out of the river of my life (go ahead, groan – I deserve it) in order to play this game, resulting in absurdly gratuitous amounts of neglect in every other aspect of my social and personal well-being. Yet, having finally emerged victorious from the cave that is my study, I can say- it is glorious inside. Yes your skin may take on an odd pallor and yes, you may develop a repugnant odor, but it is all done in service to a greater power. Saving the universe.

Now, I haven’t played any of the multi player yet. That’s what most people are excited about I know, but I just love me some story. I’ve played through the Starcraft I/Brood War campaigns dozens of times over the years, and expect to get at least as much use out of SC II’s campaign. With that in mind, let me just say right now, this game is the closest we will ever come to a Firefly video game.

Our Hero, Mal Jim Raynor, the lovable rogue with a history, is tired and nearly broken ten years after his failed rebellion against the then-newly-created Dominion Empire. Ever the desperado, Jim decides to get his rag-tag group back together for one last hurrah, motivated by the bullet he’s saved for Acturus Mengsk, the sunnuvabitch that betrayed him and left Main Love Interest to die on a colony world that Mengsk sacrificed to a hostile alien species in order to further his own ends.

Jim is joined by Jayne Tychus Findlay, a rough-around-the-edges bad-ass with a mercenary attitude and thirst for violence. Tychus’ release from prison (and longtime friendship with Raynor) is the catalyst for the subsequent destruction of pretty much everything that gets in their way on their quest to take down the Dominion. Of course, Tychus, being who he is, has to make some difficult decisions concerning loyalty, in a way that will seem very familiar to the kind of person who knows the lyrics to “The Hero of Canton”.

But while the sci-fi/western theme absolutely permeates the atmosphere of the game (to great effect, I might add), I’m not trying to imply a lack of originality- the single smartest thing Blizzard did was not try to re-invent the Starcraft universe. Everything is pretty much right where we left it ten years ago- the tech has improved somewhat, and Raynor has developed a drinking problem, but all the old alliances and vendettas remain intact.

The story actually branches off at a few points in minor ways, giving you choices as to how to handle a given scenario. The options presented, however are not terribly palatable, and no matter how I decided, I always found myself regretting my decision, wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to pick the other scenario (which incidentally, is the same feeling I get when being forced to choose between contributing-something-of-substance-to-society and eating ice cream).

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say any more about the story, but below I’ve outlined a few more things that I noticed while playing and liked (or pretended to like so that I blend in with humans):

What’s he building in there?
Missions now take much less time to complete, averaging at about 30-40 minutes each. No longer will you have to explain to your mother that you’ll be downstairs for dinner “right after wiping out this Zerg base” every ten minutes for the next four hours then afterward, have to listen to a two-hour lecture about your “addiction” to “those games”, and how you should be making some friends, and meet a nice girl so “I can have grandchildren someday”.

Difficulty levels: I can haz easy?
“Normal” difficulty allows you enjoy the story without being prohibitively challenging- great for a first play-through, but there are incentives to replay the levels on “Hard” (or what I like to call “Starcraft I Easy”)

Making up for “1/3 of a game”
Even though Wings of Liberty is only the Terran campaign, within it Blizzard has embedded a Protoss mini/side-campaign that gives a taste of what the expansions might be like. There’s also a “Challenge Mode” which seems to be intended to teach you specific gameplay tactics for each of the three factions, but it is quite short, and I got bored with not killing everything instantly and effortlessly, so I went back to some of the aforementioned campaign mission paths I had missed earlier.

Gameplay fluidity
Units are now easier to micromanage, and abilities that should have been autocastable or passive in the previous games now are. Units also have campaign upgrades that you purchase between missions which allow you to focus on whatever gameplay style best suits you. Some units with overlapping capabilities have been rolled together or changed for better distinction in their functionality.

Vultures are still useless.

Not World of Warcraft Beta
I uber-hated the hero leveling and equipment system in Warcraft III, but thankfully, such mini-MMO features are nowhere to be seen here. You rarely even control Hero Units, and when you do, they are simply a unique unit with special abilities. No farming for XP, no enchanted items, and no potions that promise to make your staff bigger for only three easy internet payments of $19.99

“Click. Click. Click. Click. Stop Poking Me!!”

The Lost Viking

As is traditional with these people, Blizzard maintained proper decorum with the inclusion of the usual in-jokes and easter eggs, with references to many of their past titles (my favorite so far being “The Lost Viking”). Others have been spotted by eagle tortoise-eyed gamers and posted online, but I’m looking forward to seeing what else turns up once people have had more time with the game.

All in all, completely justified for being the first video game in over a year that I’ve paid more than $50 for (thank you Steam). Now that it’s over, I should probably take advantage of the break to do something of value with my time- read a deep book about an important modern issue, start a jazzercise routine, learn how to make food that is both edible and not on fire. But if you think about it, I mean, really balance the pros and cons, look at all the evidence, et cetera, et cetera e pluribus unum, habeas corpus, the only logical conclusion is that those things are boring.

*sigh*. I’m never going be president…

Criticizing a Critic

Roger EbertI’ve been thinking a lot lately about Roger Ebert’s opinions on video games. For those unfamiliar with the recent debate, Ebert published a post on his blog arguing his stance that video games could not be art. He was, of course, immediately flooded with thousands of Internet Opinions. He has since revisited his earlier assertion, writing:

I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

Which is fine – just because I disagree doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the argument. And even though Ebert tries to make this his last word on the issue, he seems preoccupied with the topic, unable to let it go. Frustrated, he posted the results of his informal internet poll, Video games 13,823, Huck Finn 8,088. He spends a lot of time using this to speculate not that the system was gamed (horrible pun intended), but that perhaps these are actual results and that literacy in the US is in decline.

My impression is that he is concerned about future generations losing the ability to appreciate an experience they will only be able to get from a written narrative. I’m sympathetic to this view, but I disagree with the cynicism that nothing can or will ever be able to evoke a given idea or experience as well/better than a novel. I’m guessing he doesn’t think that either, else he would be undermining his argument for the value of movies.

And maybe that’s where the disagreement is. To many my age and younger, movies and video games are equivalent mediums because as far as we’re concerned, they’ve been around for the same amount of time (as long as we’ve lived). I’m not saying that means those who saw video games appear and evolve cannot “get” them, simply that their impression of video games is going to be different. So to us, it seems silly to condemn video games, while praising film. They are media cousins. And no matter how well-considered such opinions are, they will almost always sound naive to those who take these mediums for granted. No wonder he loses people with his train of thought when he says something like:

…if I’m not willing to play a video game to find that out [if video games can be transcendental], I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see.

In my brain-thinking head I can only think (and I suspect I am not alone): “HOW ARE THEY ANY DIFFERENT?”

I want Ebert to convince me – I read his blog voraciously, nod in agreement with many of his thoughtful arguments and observations (including those about video games). But this argument continues to bother me, not because I think he’s right or wrong about video games, but because this is the one thing he treats differently than all his other opinions – instead of just saying “I don’t know if video games are art or not”, he tells us “I know they aren’t, but I shouldn’t tell people, because it is too much work to deal with them”. If Ebert was anyone else, I wouldn’t mind – but because he makes money on his opinions (even his blog) and many people (who shouldn’t) parrot those opinions without really considering them, I think he has a higher responsibility than the average person. When you have that kind of audience and power to disseminate ideas among them, I believe you have a duty to inform those ideas, not simply guess or offer an impression without basis. Not “having the time or desire” to educate yourself, even a little, about an opinion you’re selling to so many is irresponsible. It’s exactly because of uninformed opinions that gamers are stereotyped as childish, thoughtless hooligans.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Ebert on this. I do think he’s coming around – he recently wrote, in an unrelated post about Inception, and more broadly, the nature of criticism:

…if you say you dislike “The Godfather” or “Shawshank,” I can’t say you’re wrong. The one thing you can never be wrong about is your own opinion. It’s when you start giving your reasons that you lay yourself open. Many years ago there was a critic in Chicago who said “The Valachi Papers” was a better film than “The Godfather.” “Phil,” I told him, “film criticism is a matter of subjective opinion. Only rarely does it stray into objective fact. When you said ‘The Valachi Papers’ was better than ‘The Godfather,’ that was an error of objective fact.”

I’m hoping this means he’s thinking about whether his own views are opinions or facts.

"i am 8-bit" artwork

Digression:
And my take? In brief (because many many others have already tackled the issue so well already), I don’t think a genre can “be” art. Many movies and most video games have artistic qualities, but as a whole, do not feel like “art” to me. I would not call Super Mario Bros art. I also would not call Snakes on a Plane (love it though I might) “art”. I would consider both Mechanarium and The Shawshank Redemption to be art. Of course, I have no visual arts training, so who am I to say this is Truth? I’m not even sure of this myself, since yes, so much of it is subjective, and I have a clear bias – I’ve been trained in literary analysis, so there are tons of things I miss while I’m focusing on the narrative. But more to the point, I don’t think something has to be art to be culturally relevant or important. And I don’t think something being art makes it inherently “better” than something which isn’t.

A PC Gamer In Denial

I built my first gaming PC as an end-all solution for my gaming needs. Fueled by the dark power that is my geek passion, I connected every power cord, applied every thermal paste layer, and optimized every hardware component with a level of care I can safely say none of my loved ones can ever expect to experience. Was I blinded by the beckoning call of a new era of PC gaming? Yes. Did I realize the truth that lie in the future of my Frankensteinian creation? No. Did I assemble the machine’s delicate components naked in order to minimize the risk of static shock? Maybe.

The moment I saw that boot screen for the first time, I realized at once that I had successfully distilled every vice and addiction I had ever experienced into one singular, magnificent monster. With horror and delight, I squealed and basked in the glow of what I had created.

A few months ago, fortune rendered my self-built gaming PC (lovingly named ‘Hobbes’) into only the second most powerful machine in our apartment. This was of course, unacceptable, primarily because it was not me that fate had smiled upon. But this new… beast carves through anything I throw at it at with little resistance. And yet, it has seen most of it’s time thus far playing Diablo II, a nearly decade-old game. My girlfriend has been a gamer for a while now, but other than the casual round of Peggle, or odd attention-grabbing title (American McGee’s Alice), her gaming experience thus far has been a predominantly console-based one. Now that she has a gaming rig to call her own (though she now shares it with me after having walked in on me performing forbidden rituals in a bid to get my desktop to run Ghostbusters), her interest in PC gaming has also gained some ground. After the perfect balance of simplicity and addictiveness that is Diablo II, she demanded more, and so my recommendations began. I started her off with (the highly underrated) Hellgate: London, only to be reminded that her gaming experience had trained her for controllers and pointing devices. What were all these sound and graphic settings? How in god’s name, she demanded, does anyone play with a WASD key configuration? Why did the game just crash?

I answer her questions individually, and perhaps too thoroughly, giving her an unnecessary historical context for PC gaming, starting with oscilloscope Pong and working forward through time to the more recent advances in multi-core processing. Amazingly, she has not grown tired of learning about the culture and the forgotten nuances of a once PC-dominated gaming era. Quickly mastering the skills that acted as an accessibility barrier in the past, I am reminded of all the arguments made over the recent years that PC gaming was struggling and ultimately doomed to a long, painful death. But I don’t see it (though the power of my denial runs deep).

Digression (Vive l’Ordinateur!):
PC gaming has the advantage of scalable hardware. There’s a range of acceptable hardware for the user to choose from  and customize and yes (gamers gasp) use for non-gaming purposes. With consoles, you’re stuck with whatever hardware limits and mistakes exist until a new (expensive) iteration comes out. Not to mention: there’s a sort of personality that is lost when you game on the same hardware as everyone else – a personality that a PC gains as its user configures, upgrades, and molds its components and software according to their own personal needs.

And graphics, classically considered the benchmark of a game machine’s power, seem to be less and less talked about. I find it interesting that gaming seems to be approaching the ceiling on what graphics can do. Each year, the game selection looks more and more graphically like the last. Developers are now focusing on quality in tiny details, often in things the player doesn’t see- do we really need to render individual eyebrow hairs of our main character whose face we rarely see? It’s certainly impressive, but it does seem to indicate a lack of direction in graphical development. And it’s telling that the “advances” in gaming in recent years have referred to motion controls and 3D capability (ugh). So yes, graphics are becoming less important.

Oh-ho-ho! What, You Thought I Was Just Twiddling My Thumbs This Whole Time?

So it’s Christmas Eve and you’ve clearly nothing better to do than surf the Internet. Well have I got a proposition for you – how would YOU like to experience three- nay, four… maybe even five minutes of pure unadulterated joy? Yes, I thought so. Well just so happens I’ve been teaching myself Actionscript/Flash over the past few months and need brave recruits to test my new game. Hey now, come back – don’t be shy, I promise it won’t hurt a bit:

www.classynemesis.com/projects/zombievs/

Though it’s mostly complete, it is missing minor *cough* polishes here and there. But I’ve reached the point where I need other people to test the code in ways I haven’t thought of. Yes, I’m looking at you. And most importantly, I need feedback (of any sort)!

Thanks, and happy whatever.