Monday, November 5, 2012

Selected Items of Interest from Computer Games of Recent Vintage Part 1

As previously mentioned, I did a survey of PC games a few years ago in order to form a more modern impression of the state of that industry, what games were being made, what I liked about them and what I didn't.   

As you would expect, it was a mixed bag.   But out of the 50 or so games I reviewed, there were about 30 or 40 things that did impress me.  Here is a list, more or less at random, of 10 of those things.

See this post for a discussion of what I was looking for:

1. An idea so good you wish you had thought of it: Sissy Fight 2000

A turn-based game based on a playground in which young girls compete to become the most popular, or alternatively, do the best job of lowering the self esteem of the other girls by saying nasty things about them.

Although the server for Sissyfight 2000 is no longer operational, this high point in western culture will not be quickly forgotten.

2. A great user-interface idea: Grand Theft Auto III

In GTA III, you are given tasks to accomplish for the local criminals. They want you to drive their car somewhere, say to pick up their girlfriend. But the user interface is rigged so that it overreacts making it nearly impossible to actually drive the car without bashing into other cars, or people, or streetlamps. The car is rigged with all sorts of great breakaway parts that get destroyed colorfully. So you pick up the girlfriend, and she pretends not to notice that the hood is bashed in and the door is hanging loosely off its hinges.

3. A great story point / gag: Grand Theft Auto III

You are given an assignment, pick up the boss's girlfriend, there is a map, but the city and the map are perverse. You pull into a parking lot to turn around, in what is probably a stolen car, and discover that the parking lot is actually the lot for the local police station. You try to turn around to get out of there but as with the point above, the car is impossible to drive so you end up playing demolition derby with a bunch of parked police cars. These guys are very funny.

4. Something happens that makes you think that it is actually thinking: SimCity IV

I set up a toll booth to try and collect revenue from an interstate (e.g. only collect money from people passing through, not locals). But I do not realize that I leave a back street open that people could use, if they were clever or persistent enough to find it, to avoid the toll booth.   Trust me, this route was not obvious, it required going around through a bunch of back streets and then back onto the main highway.

So I put in the toll booth and, after a while, a local neighborhood group complains about too much traffic from cars passing through. The game is obviously simulating some of the crazy things people do to save money, in this case, having them drive all over the place to find the cheapest path. It greatly added to the sense that the game was actually paying attention and that there was something actually going on in there.

5. A game that results in learning something about the world: SimCity IV

Maxis says that SimCity is not doing real urban simulation, it is just faking it.  That may be true, but even so, it is an excellent learning tool for people interested in such topics as urban design and management and it is the only such tool that I am aware of that is available to the general public.   

6. A game that is useful in thinking through a strategic issue: Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars

Tiberium Wars is an amusing real-time strategy game, one of the few I enjoy playing.  There is nothing about it that is intended to be realistic nor is that its purpose in any way.

But it has a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) feature and there are several amusing things about it, I noticed.  It is implemented in a way that you always know who did it, you are warned they are going to do it, they can only use it intermittently, and it is very destructive in a limited region but you will probably survive the first blow.

What was interesting was that without thinking about it, I found myself implementing these counter-strategies: (a) distribution of industries in different regions, (b) duplication of key technologies in different regions, (c) attempting surgical strikes to knock out their WMD before they can use it (or use it again), and (d) developing my own WMD in response.   I did not think about it at the time, but in retrospect the strategies that evolved to manage the threat of WMD are some of the same strategies used in the real world to deal with this threat.

7. A game that did a good job of creating a mood or feeling: Bioshock

One of the few games I have found that did a good job at creating some sort of feeling or sense of place, this time of a strange underwater world. The equivalent of a good, bad horror film.

8. A game with a weird funny idea: Portal

Portal is a pretty weird idea, and well implemented. Whether or not it is a good game or not, I could not tell you, its not the sort of game I enjoy. But it is fun to look at, and it is actully somewhat original in concept.

9. A game with some whimsical humor: Command and Conquer Red Alert

Very few games have anything I would see as charming, or whimsical. You may feel differently about it, but that is my impression. But in this version of the C&C franchise, there are some very funny bits. My favorite is the type of Russian soldier, the great Russian bear. The bear can be delivered to a place (a battle, an island, etc) by shooting it out of a cannon. When you do that, it is very cute in how it flies, how it parachutes down, and how it lands. Its really charming in the great wasteland of not-charming of most games.

This bear is fierce looking.  The bear(s) in the game itself are adorable.

Tim Curry as Premier Cherdenko.  He probably got this part because of his role in Hunt for Red October.

10. A game with a great use of some technology: the Total War series

The game separates out the strategy from the battle. During the battle you are given a user interface to attempt to control behaviorally generated troops of soldiers. A Roman Legion for example, made up of the different specialities that existed within the legion. A lot of work has gone into making it possible to give direction to these groups of simulated people as they try to kill each other. And the behavioral is very good and works in real time with dozens of groups interacting with each other and thousands of individual foot soldiers being animated.   A very good job, overall.

A view from the Rome: Total War series.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen !

I will probably post another list of equal length sometime soon of other things I thought were well done.

Then I will tell you what I really think about the games I reviewed.

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