steam

Early Access Journalism

The title for this post came from an astute observation made by a user on the /r/KotakuInAction subreddit. He/She hit the figurative nail right on the head.

People complain about Steam’s Early Access programme. Without going too much in to it, it’s fair enough for some of the complaints. The system definitely could do with an overhaul in an attempt to mitigate the deluge of shit titles that can appear on there, take money, then disappear in to the ether. It’s got issues, for sure, but I still like that it exists, as it’s furnished my game collection with some real gems over the years. If you are willing to do your homework and be aware of what Early Access actually is, you won’t easily fall foul of it’s downsides, but I agree that they exist.

This shit, on the other hand, is something I do not agree with, and it’s coming from a website that used to have my admiration and respect. They don’t any more, and not just because of this, but because of the way they have conducted themselves in this whole hot mess that is #gamergate.

We need money pls

That right there is the gaming industry ‘journalism’ equivalent of Early Access, except it’s not about getting involved with in dev titles, it’s about playing in to the bullshit rhetoric that the big sites are currently engaged in. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is asking for your money to enable you to take part in an enhanced subscription programme to their website, that will let you read opined pieces about, whatever they fucking want. That’s right, allow the floodgates to open and throw objectivity to the wind completely. They aren’t even trying to hide it any more. This is dangerous for a couple of reasons:

  1. It reinforces the idea that what the popular gaming media is doing right now is acceptable. It isn’t. You cannot continue to call yourselves journalists when you cannot even do the due diligence to remain impartial and objective.
  2. It creates a Fox News style echo chamber for uninformed and ignorant morons to push their agenda and silence dissent. Something we’ve seen a lot of the past month, particularly on the sites that were involved in the GameJournoPros email group scandal (I use the term scandal loosely, nobody has been held to task for that yet) and even on Wikipedia.
  3. It encourages the gaming media to continue treating their demographic like shit, as they have been all month. If they can not only get people to mirror their opinions in editorialised ‘Supporter’ pieces but also get revenue from them at the same time, the idea will be adopted by other corrupt media establishments.

What happened to RPS? It used to be one of the only places I could go for decent game news and light hearted discussion. Now it’s selling screen space to the masses, their masses, the masses that support the corruption. It’s a dangerous precedent to set.

We don’t need this shit, and nobody asked for it. It’s clear that RPS has lost some sponsors in the wake of #gamergate and is having to come up with new ways to raise capital. Unlike The Escapist, who saw the problem and acted on it, they remain stalwart in the face of accusations that they are corrupt, they don’t acknowledge it, they bury their heads in the sand.

It will be interesting to see if this opens up further and gets to the point where they allow these ‘Supporters’ to write their own pieces (think Fox News ‘contributors’) or how they deal with subscription holders who don’t echo the brainwashed masses in the comments sections. Then again I fully expect that anyone who has a Supporter subscription and doesn’t toe the line set by the editors will quickly see their articles or comments censored, removed, or put so far to the bottom of the pile that nobody ever sees them.

Yeah, you can’t even write that off as paranoia any more because that is exactly what is happening all over the Internet.

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Reddit witchhunt of the week: Hands off my DNS cache

It was a cold and dark November night in 2004, during my final year of university. I burst through the door, barely able to contain myself as I threw my grinning, gibbering mass into the chair next to my computer desk and brushed aside the half completed assignment that was due in a few hours time.

I hit the power switch, didn’t even wait for the POST screen, took the disc out of the box and carefully placed it into the drive. Finally it was here, and in a short while the install would be done and I’d be playing it.

Fucking Half Life 2, here, in my hands, ready to play. Or so I thought.

“The fuck is this shit??” I remember thinking the first time I learned of Steam. “I have to fucking WHAT??” I yelled when I realised I’d have to hulk my entire rig down to the computer labs to hook up to their T1 line just so I could activate and play the game I’d waited so long for already. I was pissed off. How dare a company demand that I be online for the first time to register and activate a game I’d just paid good money for. “Fuck Steam!” I thought, this will never catch on. But it did, and I’m so glad I was wrong.

steam

Valve’s digital distribution framework was still in it’s infancy back then, and I remember there being very little for offer on the store at the time (Codename: Gordon anyone?). In the decade since Steam has grown in to a worldwide gaming network and digital games library that is second to none. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever lost my Steam account, so I get defensive when I see shit like this:

http://www.reddit.com/r/GlobalOffensive/comments/1y0kc1/vac_now_reads_all_the_domains_you_have_visited/

Another classic reddit knee jerk reaction, which seems to be the raison d’être for some redditors. Long story short, someone claimed that Valve were now snooping on your DNS cache and storing information about what domains you may have visited so they could potentially decide to take action against you in case you were known to frequent certain sites that deal with cheats, hacks, exploits and the like for online multiplayer games. Similar to the outrage that happened years ago when Blizzard introduced it’s Warden security system into World of Warcraft. Of course this rather sensationalised title was not entirely accurate. Gabe himself has cleared the issue up here:

http://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/1y70ej/valve_vac_and_trust/

1) Do we send your browsing history to Valve? No.

2) Do we care what porn sites you visit? Oh, dear god, no. My brain just melted.

3) Is Valve using its market success to go evil? I don’t think so, but you have to make the call if we are trustworthy. We try really hard to earn and keep your trust.

By definition, anti cheat systems such as VAC are incredibly complex and obfuscate a lot of what they have to do in order to weed out cheating mechanisms and exploits. If you look close enough you are bound to find something that looks sneaky, because it is sneaky. It HAS to be sneaky to do it’s job. That does not mean it is spying on you. You cannot complain about hacks and exploits going unfixed, then cry about the way Valve tries to solve these issues using incredibly complex and sophisticated software. Not every tech company is some evil NSA sub-contractor out to get you or find out how many times you watched that midget fetish video on Pornhub.

I’m not saying put your head in the sand, but at least clear the sand out from between your ears before you make such wild accusations. Valve have demonstrated time and again that they are a progressive market leader that actually listens to it’s customers on a daily basis. Don’t look for evil where there is no evil to be found.

Or I could be wrong and this is all part of Gabe’s master plan to discredit us with our porn viewing habits…

gabenOhhh yeah, that’s right, I see what you’re doing there…mmmm keep doing that…

Indie game review – FTL: Faster Than Light

Welcome to my first indie game review – FTL: Faster Than Light by Subset Games

front end

FTL is a roguelike spaceship management / strategy game. For those of you who are not aware, roguelike games are defined by having the following traits:

  • procedurally generated levels / dungeons or what have you
  • tile based graphics with discrete movement possibilities within the game world
  • and more often than not, permadeath

They are named after the 1980 classic Rogue which, although rudimentary in terms of graphics, was extremely playable and directly inspired the classic dungeon crawler Hack (which in itself spawned Nethack). I want to talk about roguelike games some more but I’ll do that in a future post, for now back to the review.

Proof that indie games can demand the same if not more of your free time than AAA open world blockbusters, FTL is one of the most popular indie games from 2012. In FTL you command a ship and it’s crew as it traverses various sectors of space towards the ultimate goal of saving the galaxy from a vicious rebellion. FTL has polarised opinions as it is known for being an extremely difficult game and a lot of people simply won’t have the time or inclination to replay after dying (and you will die) dozens of times.

The goal of the game is to jump from one sector to another until you reach the final boss area and defeat him. Sectors consist of individual nodes (planets, nebulas, stars etc) and each sector is randomly generated when you enter it, so no two games are ever the same.

sector map

The sector map, showing all the nodes you can visit.

Once you enter a sector you start on the left hand side of the map and must choose carefully which nodes to jump to as you head towards the exit. As you progress further into each sector the rebel fleet are hot on your heels and will start to catch you up as you jump from node to node. You must aim to reach the sector exit before they catch up to you, or else you must face off against their powerful ships before you can leave.

Each node contains randomly generated events that usually result in battles with other enemy ships, civilians needing aid, or travelling space merchants. There are also some unique quests which will require you to visit specific nodes in order to complete, which is usually well worth doing as it gains you precious resources and scrap, the game’s main currency for buying upgrades, weapons and crew members.

The bulk of the gameplay takes place once you arrive in a node and have to fight or otherwise engage enemy ships. As you zone in to a new area, more often than not you will be attacked by various different enemy factions from pirates to rebels to lunatic aliens. This is where the real fun starts.

battle

A battle with an automated drone ship.

Combat takes place in real-time, however you can pause the game at any time and make your decisions whilst paused if things are moving too fast. You micro manage every aspect of your ship, from commanding your crew to managing the ships systems, weapons and power. You must plan and time your attacks carefully as each weapon has unique properties and subtle timing patterns that once mastered can really turn the tide of the battle. You win the battle by either destroying the enemy ship or by killing all of it’s crew (more on that in a moment) and once you are victorious you can take your spoils and be on your way. Whilst in battle however, you must wait for your ship’s FTL drive to spin up before you can jump which often means you can get utterly destroyed by the enemy if they outmatch your ship. This is part of the game that really shines, as there are dozens of combat techniques and strategies you can use to take out the enemy (and vice versa) and it is entirely possible that you can arrive in a node that contains an enemy that you are completely incapable of hurting, depending on your playstyle / ship setup.

boardingparty

A boarding party of Mantis crew members attacking an enemy ship’s crew.

It is simply not possible to have an ‘ultimate’ ship that excels at everything, so you have to be careful with the choices you make. Are you focused on weaponry and destructive force? then invest in a powerful weapons system. Or do you prefer sending an away team to murder the enemy crew? then make sure your teleporter is fully upgraded and your med bay is up to speed. This is a game that requires several playthroughs (or attempted playthroughs) to master. I personally enjoy the away team method, although it’s not feasible on certain ships with limited or no teleporter ability, and you can end up losing valuable crew members either to the enemy or your own stupidity when you blow up a ship that you’ve just teleported your heavies on to (yeah, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done that and facepalmed HARD).

Speaking of multiple playthroughs, that’s something you are going to have to get used to. As mentioned earlier you will die. LOTS. According to Steam I’ve put over 70 hours in to this game and I’m pretty sure at least a third of those hours was spent screaming “NO. NO. FUCK YOU!” at the monitor. And this is why a lot of people bash the game, because there is an element of luck to it all. Some playthroughs things will go your way. You’ll get plenty of scrap to buy upgrades and weapons, and you might be lucky and get free crew members by rescuing allied ships. Then again you could jump into a node in the first sector that contains a ship that is completely beyond your ability to damage, or into a nebula containing an ion storm that wipes out half of your ship’s reactor power. This is a common trait of roguelike games and a lot of people either love them or hate them because of it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times a single fire has spread across my ship and knocked out all my systems, leaving me a sitting duck for the enemy.

fire

Fuck.

Your crew members are not all created equal. There are several alien races in the game as well as humans, and each race has a unique trait that makes having a multicultural crew preferable to one composed entirely of one species. For example the vicious insectoid Mantis race are excellent at fighting other mobs, but suck when it comes to repairing ships systems. Conversely the half organic half machine type Engi crew members have their repair speed doubled, but only inflict half as much damage as other races. Balancing your crew is vital to prolonged survival.

crew

Apparently Slugs have evolved to fly spaceships.

The random events that you come across as you jump around the galaxy are incredibly well designed (yet sometimes frustrating) and occasionally very amusing. I won’t spoil it but the ‘Intelligent Lifeforms on Planet’ random event made me chuckle the first time I came across it. The crew members names are randomly generated too, which can often lead to humorous results.

craigthemantis

Yes, that is an insectoid alien called Craig.

Initially you start off with just the basic ship and you have to complete certain events or quests in the game to unlock more. Each ship has two variants, the second one you must unlock by completing two out of the three ship specific achievement in game. These achievements require you to alter your playstyle significantly (some are downright bastards to achieve) and really add to the replayability of the game. I’ve still got three ships that I need to unlock (just the first variant!) and I’ve put a lot of time in to the game.

ship choice

Unlocking ships is difficult but necessary if you want to get the most out of the game. And yes there is one that looks like a dick.

Your ultimate goal is to acquire as good a ship and crew as you can whilst heading for the final sector because once you arrive in the final zone you start a game of cosmic cat and mouse with the enemy boss ship. I’m not going to talk about the enemy boss, because FUCK THAT GUY. Google it or play the game yourself to find out how difficult it can be to take him out but what I will say is that once you do defeat him and complete the game for the first time though, it feels like a genuine achievement.

FTL is a fantastic game but is very niche and a lot of people might consider it too hardcore. However if you like your games to have a challenge and nuanced, interesting gameplay with many different outcomes, then give it a shot. Just don’t try it for the first time on ‘Normal’ difficulty. Not if you value your hair.

My verdict: Buy. You (probably) won’t regret it and you will get hours of fun but challenging entertainment for a relatively low cost.

FTL: Faster Than Light is available to buy on Steam for £6.99

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