Tuesday, March 24, 2009


On a more personal note, tonight my son participated in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. This year, he wanted to make a Warthog. I naturally was inclined to support his decision and help him with the project. :D

Click the picture below to view my Flickr set of the M12 Pinewood Reconnaissance Vehicle.

M12 PRV action shot

Although camouflage isn't a traditional color for a Warthog, my son's really into it lately. And it is his car, after all. ;)

Unfortunately, a Warthog isn't really built for speed — he placed 8th in his den. I suppose the chain gun wasn't sufficient in eliminating the competition. (Although it must've done some damage; several cars had wheels pop off over the course of the evening.) I suppose next year, we'll have to use a gauss cannon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Halo Wars

As someone who put many hours into the Warlords Battlecry and Star Trek Armada series on the PC, I've been eagerly looking forward to the release of Halo Wars for the 360. The demo only heightened my anticipation, and the release has failed to disappoint. As much as Armada thrilled my geek-self by letting me control the Star Trek universe, Halo Wars does the same with the very interesting Halo universe.

One common criticism is that, for an RTS, it has been "dumbed-down" for play on the console. As someone who's played a share on the PC, I can certainly see where this criticism comes from. Certain staples of the genre, like being able to assign units to groups, aren't there. But Ensemble Studios said they weren't out to port a PC-based RTS to a console; they wanted to build an RTS that was custom-tailored to the 360 and its controller.

The results are excellent. It controls "differently" from a PC-based RTS, but for a console controller, it's very intuitive. The game has a couple brief tutorials that take you through the basics, and control is smooth and natural by the time you're done. Ensemble has done a bang-up job in making sure that everything you need to do in an RTS, you can do in Halo Wars.

Still, adding Tom Clancy's EndWar-like voice commands or Chatpad support would've been a welcome addition — not in place of, but in addition to the basic controller commands.

The cutscenes are gorgeous. The characters are finely detailed and animated, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. If they ever decide to finally make the Halo movie, they could make it all CG from whatever was used to build these videos, and they would have a blockbuster on their hands. It's that good. I'd put these videos up against Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within easily. And there's one scene in particular where you get to see the Spartans in their prime. I won't go into details, since it's towards the end and possibly a spoiler, but I will say that's one cutscene I haven't skipped yet. :D

There is probably only one major complaint I have in this game as a whole, and that's of the mini-map. A colored reticule appears over it, indicating your current viewing angle (and those of your teammates). However, the colors are very dark, and it is very difficult for me to see most of the colors against the backdrop of the map. As such, it makes it rather difficult to find where I am and where I want to go.

One relatively minor complaint is the use of the D-pad for quick commands. I don't mind this concept in theory, but my major criterion is that there needs to be some kind of on-screen indicator of what the directions do. Left 4 Dead does this well, with a simple graphic that shows a D-pad cross and an icon at each point that shows what action goes where. Both Fable games do this, although their icons unfortunately aren't as intuitive. Halo Wars does not, requiring you to memorize that "left" cycles bases, "right" cycles recent events, and "down" cycles army groups. The fortunate thing, though, is that the consequence of pressing the wrong direction is minor and often immediately apparent, so all it takes is quickly tapping a different direction to switch the camera to the next appropriate target — it's a minor complaint, to be sure, but it can be stressful when you're under the gun and need to make a decision fast.

Another minor complaint is that I often wish I could zoom the camera out a little further than I'm allowed. It seems that I can zoom out to just about see the full line-of-sight for a single unit, but not so much for the whole army I might have selected all at once.

On my wish list, I wish I could zoom in a lot closer to units as well. You can be treated to a very close zoom when using the Arbiter's Rage attack, but you don't get treated to the same close-up detail watching a Spartan jack a Wraith tank. Also, the ability to record and play back battles would be great, especially if you could play them back from the point of view of your opponent and figure out just how he got that mega force built up so quickly. And, following along with the Halo theme, saving film clips, taking screen shots, and a map editor would've been welcome additions.

This game has certainly met all my expectations. I am enjoying it immensely (even when I'm getting overrun after failing to out-strategize my opponent). It really doesn't seem fair that this wonderful game that's selling exceptionally well came from a studio that was closed down before the discs even hit the shelves. My best wishes to the team that put this together.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The play date, after-action report.

At approximately 8PM EDT, I logged on and joined MUDH0G and True Anarki to represent GeezerGamers.com as we took on the public of Xbox Live in Halo Wars. It went something like this:

Game 1 pitted us against ForgottenProxy, iTz Ge7VoCidE z, and Z3r0 1st in the Frozen Valley. The Geezers started with a rush, but the challengers were victorious in holding us at bay. While CyberKnight stayed on the defensive against constant aerial bombardment, True and Mud sent in their support and used the time to their advantage to build up their own forces, and eventually, the Geezers pushed forward and wiped the challengers out. Round 1 went to the Geezers.

Game 2, the same team of ForgottenProxy, iTz Ge7VoCidE z, and Z3r0 1st played us in a rematch on Fort Deen. The strategies were slightly different, but the outcome was more or less the same. Mud and Proxy battled back and forth in the east, with neither side giving up any ground; while True and Cyber joined forces in the west and, taking advantage of the right moment to strike, cut a swath across the north and destroyed Z3r0 and G37VoCidE in less time than it takes to correctly type their names. Still, with his teammates destroyed, Proxy did not go quietly into that goodnight. Cyber and True started the final push and ran smack into a red brick wall, with ODSTs swarming around like red ants. Odds against him, however, he eventually fell, and the Geezers won their second battle.

Game 3 saw ForgottenProxy pick up two new teammates, VUA PuR3 sKiLlZ and Kamikaze Pandax, on Exile. VUA PuR3 sKiLlZ promised to drop the hurt on us with his ODSTs and treated us to his beat-boxing "skillz" in the pregame lobby. However, when the first of his four bases fell and he failed to retake it, it became apparent he was most skilled in the art of "RAGE QUIT". True and Mud circled around and took out Pandax, and Proxy, who had enjoyed an uneasy cold war with CyberKnight since the beginning of the match, now found himself completely surrounded. With only two bases and no economy to speak of, he quickly fell to the three-front onslaught. Round 3: Geezers.

We were ready to begin Game 4. ForgottenProxy was with us for the long haul. Unfortunately, we seemed to be out of sync with the community, who were in the middle of other games while we were ready to play. (I had been getting messages and invites to play, but it was of course in the middle of our games.) A friend of True, JackJim N Jose, joined Proxy, as did founding Geezer Jamey T, for a 3v3 match on Exile.

It was a hard battle. Cyber picked up a few bases around the edge of the map early, and True held the rear, while Mud was stuck in the middle of the map. The challengers, led by Jamey and his never-ending supply of Vultures, quite nearly took Mud out of the game early. If it wasn't for some last-minute support from True and Cyber, along with Mud's Spartan that just wouldn't die, it could've been the end. But Team Geezer pulled together and saved their fallen comrade, and in the end turned it around and wiped out Proxy, Jamey, and finally Jose to win the fourth battle.

Jamey had to call it a night, so we attempted to find a replacement. Sadly, we were unable to get any responses from community members or other Geezers (even those who were showing as being in lobbies or menus), so we decided to bring in a Heroic AI to round out the challenger team for our final match on Fort Deen. (It was, of course, only after the game was underway that messages started to come in. Just the way it goes sometimes.)

The AI kept Mud harried with wave after wave of infantry. Fortunately, Cyber, who had been building up a fleet of Warthogs for base capture and recon, was able to assist, while True scouted out base locations and built up his force in the east. Once Cyber's base became the target for the AI's ground troops (with Jose's mixed fleet joining in the fun), Mud and True returned the favor and kept Cyber on life support until the danger passed. Jose and Proxy took their time building and expanding, while the AI kept the Geezers busy. When Mud and Cyber finally had enough and tried pushing through to put an end to the AI's constant annoyance, Jose was there to snuff out the attackers like candles in the wind.

Eventually, old age and treachery wore out youthful dexterity. After telling the AI "I am lying," we finally defeated the computer opponent, and Cyber used its base sites to establish a new base of operations, from which Scorpions, Hawks, and Spartans could quickly augment the Scarabs and Suicide Grunts that True and Mud kept streaming in from their respective bases.

The team of MUDH0G, CyberKnight, and True Anarki ended our 5-game streak against ForgottenProxy and challengers undefeated at 1:45AM EDT.

All in all, it went pretty well. I regret that we didn't get to play with so few people from the community. There were a lot of people out there who wanted to play, and we tried to send invites between games. I knew that, of the 60-some random friend requests I had leading up to the event, I'd only be able to "serve" a small percentage, but even then, I only managed to bring in two or three. It wasn't for lack of trying, though. Still, it made for a good time. I hope the people we played with can say the same.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sometimes, I cheat for score.

I had one achievement left in Left 4 Dead: Zombie Genocidest. Kill 53,595 infected. I had made it a goal to kill at least 1,000 a night. It was a very attainable goal, and I was doing very well. I had less than 10,000 to go. Another week and a half, tops, and it would be mine.

However, Halo Wars' release date was looming. I knew, when that came out, I would be cramming in as many hours as I could before the Community Playdate to bolster my skills (not to mention I had been looking forward to that game for a long time). I didn't have 10 days to spare.

I had seen on the internet a technique for racking up zombie kills. It was very simple: it involved coaxing a boomer to the safe room door where he keeps spewing bile on you to call hordes of zombies, standing just close enough so your melee attack hits the zombies through the door, and rubber-banding your controller to hold the melee trigger down. Two days before Halo Wars' release, I did this; and in less than two hours, I got my last 6,000 kills while I was doing other household chores, and "earned" my last achievement.

It's not the first time I've done "peculiar" things for the sake of gamerscore. Even in Left 4 Dead, I got my expert campaign achievements thanks to the "dashboard glitch" (a glitch where accepting a game invitation into the final chapter from the Xbox dashboard tricked the game into believing you had completed the entire game up to that point). Most of my Halo 3 matchmaking achievements come from the cooperation of other players, the original ones earned by setting my console language to Chinese (a technique "achievement boosters" used to find each other). Heck, just about any game that involves finding any number of hidden objects, I have completed by using a walkthrough.

Not that this should come as any big surprise, of course. Guides, cheats, and walkthroughs have been around since games were invented. Even my first Pong game had a "no fail" mode that turned your paddle into a full wall. (Ok, it was technically a "feature" that turned the game into jai alai, but still…)

On the one hand, there is a sense of accomplishment in unlocking an achievement on your own, and I admit to a certain sense of disappointment in getting my last Left 4 Dead achievement with a rubber band when I could've gotten it on my own. (And, to pat myself on the back, I definitely had an ego boost when I played Pac-Man C.E. and earned all 200 points in one sitting, with no outside help whatsoever.)

On the other hand, there is another thrill in being able to game the system, as it were, especially when you have to work with other people to do it. Whether it's as simple as inviting people into my Fable II game to pop the Dollcatcher achievement for them, or as complex as sending players to the dashboard for an invite to glitch some otherwise impossible zombie-surviving scenarios, or as bizarre as setting your console to an unintelligible (to me) language and coordinating with four complete strangers over whose turn it is to kill everyone else with the rocket launcher when your only forms of communication are gunshots and squats — there's a certain sense of satisfaction in pulling together and getting that achievement to pop, whether it's for yourself or someone else.

On the other other hand, for achievements that can be obtained via a walkthrough or other guide, there is a sense of relief of just being able to "finish" a game, to call it "done", rather than having to spend hours searching out that last coin/note/suitcase/black box/key/skull/orb.

And on the other other other hand, it all just reinforces the point that this score really doesn't mean all that much. ;)