Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Chocolate and peanut butter. Chicken and waffles. Citizen Kane and Toy Story? Okay, two of the best of any given thing might not always go well together. It works sometimes with food. Films could go any direction really. But what about two of the best video games in recent memory? That's what's in store for those who play the Xbox 360 edition of Minecraft. Similar to the recently released Mass Effect edition of the game, 4J Studios and Bethesda have announced a Skyrim edition to be released on 11/20/13. Last week was the 2-year anniversary of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (remember 11-11-11?), I couldn't think of a better time. The two are among the top of my favorite games of this generation, a perfect trio with Red Dead Redemption (say, a Minecraft mash-up with that game would work so unbelievably well - Rockstar would never go for it, but a guy can dream).

Like the Mass Effect edition it will give players a slew a skins to don for your avatar, switch all the textures, and provide 16-bit renditions of the game's excellent soundtrack by Jeremy Soule (can't wait to hear that main theme!). I tried out the Mass Effect version earlier this month to get a taste of what this might entail. How big of a difference could this possibly make? A big one! I first tried my own world (Land of Yore) with the mash-up and it was like exploring an alien planet that I was already familiar with. The music from the game was beautifully rendered and even the hud, reticle and menu system was changed to something that Mass Effect-players would geek over. I then went into the world that comes with the mash-up and I was blown away again. Iconic architecture from Mass Effect was towering all around me and the texture pack was utilized to the utmost.

It's no secret that the Xbox 360 edition of Minecraft pales in comparison to its mother PC counterpart. For one one thing the "infinite"-ness that PC gamers enjoy in their worlds is brought to shocking limitations when playing on Xbox. I painfully realized this yesterday after building a mushroom tower past the clouds and taking in the view, only to realize I could see all the borders of the world. Still enough to mine for untold hours, but there's something about unending horizons that speaks to the true adventure of survival mode, the only mode I enjoy playing.

Reportedly Minecraft: Skyrim Edition will have a pre-made world bearing the likeness of Riverwood, Bleak Falls Barrow and Whiterun, iconic destinations that all Skyrim players should be well-familiar with as chances are you went there from the start and likely went back to again and again. The game will also have an overhauled UI, but surely not just like Bethesda's latest masterpiece because one of my favorite things about it was the lack of HUD and one kind of needs that when in Minecraft.

I'll report back when it has been released and after I've applied the mash-up to Land of Yore and explored the pre-made world that comes with the package. As with most things XBLA-related you can try it for free (you just can't save the game while running Skyrim edition without a purchase.) It's probably just mindware, but what Minecraft mashups would you love to see?

On a similar and final note, I also tried out the trial versions of the Natural and Plastic texture packs and the full Halloween texture pack they gave to all players for free over the holiday. The Halloween pack was quite enjoyable; everything looked different from the brown sky to the green sea. My bed was turned into a coffin, my chests had giant eyeballs, the ladders had a broken rung and the pigs looked half-eaten. While these alterations are purely cosmetic, it's a big deal when it literally changes how everything looks. Still, the Halloween pack is not one I could see me leaving on for extended game time. It's more of a fun diversion to show others and to see what your place would look like if Tim Burton were your interior designer. 

The Plastic texture pack is one of the most visually pleasing things I've ever seen. Minecraft is often compared to LEGOS, this completes that relation. The blocks are so smooth and whole (in terms of color and space). An empty field of grass looks like the top of a perfectly glazed cake. Part of Minecraft's charm for me has been the imperfections and the limitations of its visuals which this version sidestepped and/or filled. In all honesty, it felt rather empty.

Then there's the Natural texture pack which took the classic Minecraft textures and made them more realistic and lifelike (if that's even possible). This one was quite nice to behold and it did work to increase my immersion into the world itself. Colors and designs are closer to reality and the game's fidelity grows as a result. Of all the texture packs I could actually see myself playing with this one enabled.

One last thing, over on Rev3Games' YouTube Channel they've posted "Adam Sessler Learns Minecraft from a Six-Year-Old." It's an adorable way to be introduced to the game. It seems like many people call it a kid's game or they tell me they have a younger sibling or relative that plays the game. What can I say, it's a hit with the up and coming generation. I would have loved Minecraft as a kid, but I actually think I love it even more as an adult.

Words by J.S. Lewis

Monday, September 16, 2013


Despite being one of my favorite video game series (perhaps only second to The Elder Scrolls) I have never gotten a Grand Theft Auto game at launch before. Until tonight.

In just a few hours I hope to have successfully secured my reserved copy of Grand Theft Auto V from the GameStop down the street from my apartment at its midnight launch. The last midnight launch I took part in was for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, despite having school the next morning I played until the wee hours of the morning. Flash-forward to my post-graduate life where now I got work in the morning but sometimes you must make first-world sacrifices.

Over the past week I've been prepping myself for GTA V by playing some of the earlier games in the series, namely Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV. Full disclosure, the only GTA game I've actually beat (as far as main missions go as there is always more to do, even after "100% completion) is Vice City - so I left that out of my recent playings even though I remember it fondly and regard it has having the single best video game soundtrack of all-time. Let me share some brief thoughts from playing these three recently and why each are masterful and vital examples of these things we call video games.

Get a load of them touch-screen controls for the 10th Anniversary edition of GTA III for the iPad.
I've been playing GTA III on the iPad (heaven forbid!) in all it's touch-screen glory. Not a minute goes by that I don't long for an Xbox controller. Sure, I own an Xbox version of the game but I'm committed to this unique hand-held experience. I look at it as a form of sadistic accomplishment. I started my game on the iPad last year and have been stuck on the Sayonara Salvatore mission for months and months, only occasionally trying my hands at it. This week I finally did it!: I parked a firetruck at the front of his driveway and tossed all the grenades I had from a safe distance. When skippity Seinfeld-like sting sounded and MISSION PASSED came onscreen I shouted for joy. GTA III brought the previously top-down game to a third-person open-city and changed the landscape of video games forever more, paving the long but always inclining road to what we'll have this week in the form of GTA V. I will always view GTA III as one of the most important games of all-time for what it did it terms of technical prowess and the sandbox experience, but after playing its sequels (especially GTA IV it became clear as day that the game was morally shallow and offered little to stimulate once's intellect and emotional resonance).

Photo taken of my game. Found the Chinese Grauman's Theater is Los Santos, can't wait to find it again in GTA V.
San Andreas built on its predecessors and blasted off into a whole new level. Dozens of new features (girlfriends, vehicle customization, lite-RPG elements, character appearance, etc.) were available to players. It's as if someone told Rockstar to go big or go home and they put their heads together and did the former in a massive way. Three cities to explore and vast country side between them with no load times was boggling to mind then and even a little now. To this day I could spend hours pedaling around (they introduced bicycles which are back again in GTA V!) Los Santos and the hilly(billy) regions north of Vinewood. That's still a game I've barely scratched the surface of...

Photo taken of my game. Niko Bellic is taking in the view of the Liberty City skyline. I was actually on this ship looking for an armor pick-up but had no luck...
GTA IV took the series back to Liberty City (i.e. New York) and surprised us all as a rather serious immigrant tale. It's still highly irreverent and full of what we've come to expect from a series with a name like "Grand Theft Auto" but cranked up the realism to a degree that was unsettling to many players. Tom Bissell's treatment of the game (and how it mirrored his personal life at the time) from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is a must-read for anyone who wants to treat video games with the maturity and examination that they deserve. Over the weekend I guided Niko Bellic, the player's character in the main game, to the home of an employer for my next job and was surprised to be treated with a cutscene depicting a conversation with his wife where we discussed the effect that killing others would have on the character's soul. "God is very complicated, you must not give up hope," she told us. Us = Niko and me. When you play video games you assume the role of an avatar and become kindred spirits with them. I'm still early in GTA IV as well, which I started anew last week after months of inactivity, but it's a heavy game and story to wade through. It's much less the sandbox that San Andreas delivered and closer to an epic crime saga that you're a thinking character of.

Even if GTA V was not coming out tomorrow I would have more than enough to consume my hands and mind for a long while with stepping stones I'm far from finished with. We all play games differently and I'm certain that my way is far from the ideal. It's a rare occasion if ever I finish with a game and I'm never ever just working on one at a time. I'm scatterbrained, always looking backward and always looking forward. At least one thing's for sure, it'll give me plenty to muse over and pen down about my play-through of GTA V.

Photo I took on the way to work this morning. GTA V billboard where movie ads usually are. It pays to advertise for the most expensive video game of all-time.
Rockstar Games has made it easier than ever to get pumped for their latest offering, which is reportedly one of the most expensive pieces of entertainment ever crafted at some $265 million, second only to the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Check out their robust website detailing many of the people, places and things we can expect to see in the Los Santos and the greater Blaine County area. Everything from the warring politicians to scouting the country club right for you is available to peruse. Oh, and you won't want to pass up sampling each of the 17 radio stations available in the game, a series (must-have) staple.

Let the stalking begin.
Then there's Lifeinvader, a mock social networking site that they launched for the game-world. You can actually sign in using your Rockstar Social Club account and get familiar with people and businesses you'll be coming across in the game. "Stalking" (instead of "Liking") Sprunk for example will get you a free drink in the game. Wow.

In this mini-game you guide Chop to the Ballas bustin' up Franklin's car, one of three activities you can do in the virtual pet piece of iFruit aside from general pet-care.
I found out just this morning that you can also download iFruit for your iPhone which turns your device into the parody mobile that the characters have in the game. You can access Lifeinvader on there as well as order customized vehicles and vanity plates (which will show up in your garage in-game) or train Chop, Franklin's dog, in a full virtual pet suite. Based on how you care for the canine will actually affect his performance in the the GTA V as well.

Last week friends and I spent some time perusing the leaked gameplay footage that was being uploaded to YouTube every minute. This has to be the biggest pre-release leak in game history, but if anything it has only helped Rockstar garner more hype and excitement for the release. Walmart and GameStop employees are such examples of the perpetrators. Who knows if they'll ever be reprimanded, but the rest of us were able to observe some of their exploits. In one video I watched Franklin drive up to the Getty, roll down a mountainside, hijack a bike, run into a deer and then get gunned down by the police. Nobody will ever replicate that same experience which is why video games are so incredible to me.

Last of all, in my preparation for Grand Theft Auto V I've been perusing reddit (the front page of the internet) where there are countless gamers just as antsy as I. Here are some favorites of their memes and pictures: 

I can certainly (mostly) relate to this one.

Oh, how I hope that's possible in the game!

A direct message to gamers who were boo-hooing over the size of the leaked map.

A co-worker and I were sharing what we would do first when we got GTA V. He was going to bike up Mount Chillead and jump off (with or without a parachute). I was going to try and find that reported submersible. We were both wrong.

The 5-year wait is in its final hours. Next time you hear from me I hope to have a report on some early impressions and what I actually ended up doing first. Until then, live on and game on!

Photo taken of my game. Grove Street. I'll be seeing you soon in HD!

More on Grand Theft Auto:

Words by J.S. Lewis

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Grand Theft Auto V (Preview III)

September 17, 2013 (Release Date)
PS3, Xbox 360

Developed by Rockstar North

Published by Rockstar Games

Rockstar will both put this generation to bed and breathe new life into it in one week's time with Grand Theft Auto V.

A week from right now I better be playing Grand Theft Auto V. I fear what will have happened in my life if I'm not. Far and away my most anticipated game of the year, Grand Theft Auto V is the swan song for this console generation, not just for Rockstar Games, but for the systems themselves. From all I've read, heard and seen this game is a massive endeavor and will be pushing the envelope in all the ways that the series has become known for. In terms of technology, in terms of content, and in terms of sheer amount of gameplay.

This marks the third preview I've done for the game. I've previously covered the innovative three main character system that the single player game throws at our feet and discussed how it's (unsurprisingly) the biggest entry in the series to date. What more can be said to increase our collective anticipation? Last week IGN posted exclusive Grand Theft Auto V content every single day beginning with "World's First Hands-On With Grand Theft Auto V," words by Luke Reilly and a video conversation between IGN UK's Alex Simmons and Daniel Krupa. Taking from IGN scoops and other recent sources around the web I will now share what has me more psyched than ever for the most expensive video game of all-time - not that that has anything to do with it, but clearly it does.

In several ways GTA V is an ultimate Rockstar Games experience, almost a greatest hits collection for them. Not only is it building upon each previous entry in the tentpole franchise, their other games are showing their influence. Everything from the racing of Midnight Club to the mechanics lifted from Rockstar Table Tennis. Even the surrounding country side is what part of Red Dead's territory would look like today. For more on this checkout Luke Reilly's "Grand Theft Auto V: The Sum of All Peers" over on IGN.

I could mention how the game world is reportedly 49 square miles, the actual map of which is believed to have leaked online (above). What's more, the entire map is available to players right from the beginning with a cloud over unexplored territory similar to modern Bethesda games. There's 17 radio stations in the game, 2 of which are talk radio. All this in addition to some 20 hours of original soundtrack, a first for a GTA game. There's more cars and weapons than any previous entry as well. Cops now have a "cone of vision," a much more realistic AI than the radius system we saw in GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, which was already a vast improvement over what came before.

It appears that you can switch between the three characters (Michael, Franklin and Trevor) on certain missions (heists I'm assuming) and at anytime during non-mission play. Apparently each of the three have a special ability (i.e Franklin has a bonus when it come to vehicle handling) which I won't lie, irks me a little. Giving "game-y" abilities to characters in an otherwise realistic game tends to pull me out of the experience. Such was/is the case with The Last of Us where you have a sensory talent that allows you to see through wall. On a merrier note, gone are the hidden packages and here (though not necessarily in lieu of) are radio announcements leading you to certain side-missions and the like.

Let's see, you can play full tennis and golf, participate in running and bicycles races (and of course a number of automobile races too), commander every type of vehicle imaginable including some type of submersible now, go to the movie theater, play the stock market, invest in real estate, the list goes on and on. And on. And I've yet to even make mention of Grand Theft Auto Online, a recent announcement that is replacing the game's multiplayer and is it's standalone experience. Fear not, it comes as a downloadable feature for all who buy Grand Theft Auto V, available on October 1st. More on Grand Theft Auto Online in its own upcoming preview.

For a lot more information I recommend checking out "Grand Theft Auto V: Your Questions Answered," a video with Daniel Krupa and Alex Simmons. 

I leave you with the official gameplay video they released in July, but because I haven't done a post since before that it's time now.

Words by J.S. Lewis

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Review on Reviews and Reviewing: The Review

"Judged as a piece of entertainment...It's pretty close to perfect." Destructoid. Score 10/10.
"Awful in nearly every way." IGN. Score: 2/10.
"Entertaining and unpredictable...delivers more shocks than schlock." Gamespot. Score: 7/10

These are all reviews from reliable sources and all from different games obviously. Right? No? You mean these are all from the same game, Deadly Premonition?

Well, how about this:
"Loses focus and fails to accurately assess which of its elements are truly worthy of being included." IGN. Score: 7.9/10 (Wouldn't expect that score with that kind of intro would you?)
"A mishmash of elements put together without any sense of care or direction." GameSpot. Score: 4.5/10
"Big, brash, and full of memorable moments." Gametrailers. Score: 8.8/10

These have to be for different games. What? They're not? They're all for Resident Evil 6? Well that's odd.  It sounds like, just maybe,

Reviews are just people's opinions!

Think about it: do you have the same interests as everyone else?  Does everyone agree with you about what is cool?  Does everyone love anime and JRPGs?

Everyone loves this game, right? Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
Sure, these are all people who play and rate video games for a living, but they all obviously have pretty different ideas on what makes a game enjoyable.  Some really love certain genres and will be either incredibly critical of any game that fits in that genre or give almost every game in it a pass.  Others have that one game or series they compare everything to, even when it doesn't make sense to.  And some, for the most part, try and look at what the developers were trying to do and see if they delivered to their audience in an enjoyable and meaningful way.

So why is it important to discuss reviews?  Because many gamers use reviews to see if they should spend their time and money on a game.  No one wants to plop $60 down on a game that they end up hating.  They want to make sure they are getting their money's worth.  So they see what the "experts" say.  But here, many people run into bad researching habits.  I blame the school system personally, but still, it's there.

One of the largest mistakes is only looking at the score. "8.2? Might be worth a look!" "9.5? Holy cow! Gotta buy that!" "6.1? Eh, probably pass." "3.8? Who would buy that crap?" Sure, scores are great ways to get a quick synopsis of what the reviewer thinks, but it doesn't tell you at all why the reviewer thought that. Maybe he loves any game that has Patrick Stewart?  Maybe she wanted the game to focus on the plight of the poor in Venezuela instead of using helicopters to fling tanks into fuel tanks?  Maybe he or she is just a moron?  But if you don't read it, you have no idea if you agree or disagree with their assessment of the game.  You may find that you completely disagree with why someone gave a game a low or high score.  Don't believe me? Go read several reviews for a game you played and remember well and see how much you agree with the reviewer.  You may be surprised.

I mean, this is all you really need in a game anyway. Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (2008)
Another common mistake is just to look at the average of reviews.  Take the two games mentioned above.  Deadly Premonition got a 68/100. Resident Evil 6 got 67/100 or the Xbox 360.  Pretty average you may say.  But let's look at the breakdown for these scores. Deadly Premonition mostly has reviews in the 70 to 85 range, but several reviews rate very low.  It appears most reviewers had favorable impressions for this game, but a few people despised it and so brought the average down. Resident Evil 6 has a pretty even spread across 60, 70, and 80 with a few scores above that and a bit more below.  Seems reviewers have quite widespread opinions about this game.  However, you would never gather this just by looking at the average.  Even worse, this just compounds the score problem mentioned above.  Instead of just reading a synopsis of a review, you are reading a synopsis of a synopsis!  Why did some reviewers hate this game while most liked it? Why does this game have a large spread in its reviews?  Unless you read the actual reviews, you have no idea.  Maybe most of the reviewers' idea of what makes this game good isn't the same as yours?  You go into a store, confident you are making a good investment, only to realize, to your horror, you just wasted $50 and 20 hours of your life on a game you would have hated had you only heard a summary of it.

So what do you do? Speaking for myself, I have found the best reviews come from people I know.  For one, you know the person giving the review.  It's not just some journalist or blogger telling you this game is great or terrible, it's your friend.  Someone whose tastes and interests you know.  You can ask questions about what you think is important.  You can maybe even just borrow it for a day or so and see what you think.

That's great but what if the game just came out?  For starters, don't just look at the scores or, worse, the average of the scores.  As mentioned, this is a terrible way to determine if you will like the game.  Second, look at reviewers who you have had a good track record with.  You will find that some journalists have similar interests to you.  Maybe run across a journalist and find you both agree completely on what makes a good FPS.  Then whenever you see a new FPS, you can see if he or she has done a review and get an idea if you would like it or not.  This isn't foolproof of course because no one is exactly the same as anyone else and the journalist isn't a close friend you know well or can question, but it's a good starting point.  Finally, read lots of reviews!  Obvious, I know, but it's amazing how many people don't do this.  Reading a lot of reviews, unlike getting an average score, lets you get many different perspectives.  From all these perspectives you can get a better understanding of the game, certainly better than if you just read one person's perspective.

Some of my favorite games that I've played for hours have been games many critics panned.  I've also been bored by games that many critics loved.  Reviews are great, but they can only get you so far.  Research wisely, ask around, and you can find those lost games you fall in love with while avoiding the popular games you know you will hate.

In case you just skipped to this.

Words by Joshua Matern

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Coolest Dad Ever?

You may have already seen/heard this story as it has been running around the gaming sites last week. Mike Mika, a game designer, is now an official candidate for the Coolest Dad Awards. As seen on Reddit and Mike's own YouTube channel he has hacked the classic arcade game Donkey Kong in order to appease his child's desires. Here's the story in Mike's own words:

"My three year old daughter and I play a lot of old games together. Her favorite is Donkey Kong. Two days ago, she asked me if she could play as the girl and save Mario. She's played as Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2 and naturally just assumed she could do the same in Donkey Kong. I told her we couldn't in that particular Mario game, she seemed really bummed out by that. So what else am I supposed to do? Now I'm up at midnight hacking the ROM, replacing Mario with Pauline. I'm using the 2010 NES Donkey Kong ROM. I've redrawn Mario's frames and I swapped the palettes in the ROM. I replaced the M at the top with a P for Pauline. Thanks to Kevin Wilson for giving me the lead on the tools and advice."

Behold, the result of Mike's work:

Should you know of any girl gamers who would also prefer to play this classic game as Pauline instead of the go-to savior Mario you can download the Pauline DK patch from the above YouTube page. For more see Mike's own article over on Wired.

This is the second time that Donkey Kong has brought about a compelling real-world story in recent years. Seek out the much under-appreciated documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters to know what I'm referring to.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Open Letter to Video Games: Recent Thoughts on Recent Things

Dearest (These Things We Call) Video Games,

How are you? I feel like we haven't talked in forever. So many things have happened since I last wrote to you...

Behold, the future is in your hands... with PlayStation 4.
The inevitable eighth console generation continues with Sony announcing the PS4, due out this year's holiday season. I just got a PS3 last Thanksgiving. Great. Microsoft has yet to announce the next Xbox (surely it won't be called Xbox 720, surely), but I suspect they won't let Sony have all the shelves to themselves come fourth quarter. Then there's all this chatter about the Steam Box, which makes very little sense to me. Couldn't you just refer to any gaming PC as a "Steam box"? Not to mention there's going to be a smattering of varying versions and specs... People buy consoles so they don't have to worry about those details. The whole idea behind this is bewildering to me. And how about the Ouya? Worst name since Wii U aside it looks the part of a sleek gift from the future and bears a price that no home console can dare beat. While Android holds no candle to the iOS market it's yet an another option in an industry bent on giving power to the players. That's important for the health of the industry and to each and every one's personal preference. However, all these systems and, more importantly, the games that run on them are going to be harder than ever to keep track of going forward.

One slice of civilization in an upcoming fantasy open-world. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2014)
I've been trying to keep up on news (reviews and previews too). Just finished reading the GameInformer cover story for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It's a medieval fantasy RPG series that already has two successful (first and foremost critically) games on the market. From everything I've seen/read/heard about the series it's a much-needed maturation to the genre and game-type. I always got an Elder Scrolls by way of Gothic vibe from it. This third outing is bringing players into an open-world that's 20% bigger than Skyrim, a game and province I still have much left unseen and undone. The Witcher 3 is coming out on PC and whatever "next-gen" (that perpetual term) consoles are ready for it sometime next year. Video game generations are only measured by the consoles... Frankenstenian gaming computers just evolve, don't they? I hope to catch up with the first two in The Witcher series before this one arrives. Also, developer CD Projekt RED's thoughts on DLC and updates brought hope to an otherwise growing and bleak trend in the "additional content" arena. I recommend looking into it if such aspects have ever interested or frustrated you in recent years.

Our central characters stagger through the post-apoc. The Last of Us (2013)
Three of this year's biggest releases, BioShock InfiniteThe Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, have all had their release dates pushed back. In my mind this is usually a good thing. The last thing players want is a game that isn't ready. It's more prone to happen in gaming than any other medium for obvious reasons. (It's not like you'd ever go to a museum and come across a painting that needs to be updated or patched - even if you might think it could use some work.) Rockstar Games and Bethesda Game Studios are notorious for having buggy experiences in their titles on Day One and thereafter. As an open-world aficionado I've come to expect and even tolerate this. I cannot fathom the testing and man-hours required of a developer to get all the kinks straightened out before launch. I am eagerly anticipating these long-lusted-after sequels and I am equally as welcome to the new IP The Last of Us from Naughty Dog, the famed team behind the Uncharted series. The previews for each of these leviathan projects is impressive. These are the titles that are pushing our current generation for everything they've got. These are the games that are signaling the future while saluting the past. The passing of the torch from one generation of consoles to the next is always an exciting time for gamers. Our thumbs twitch in anticipation while our wallets shudder at the thought. I was working at a GameStop when we ushered in the seventh generation (Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3) and can attest of the anticipatory spirit that fills the air. That was seven years ago... It's been a good run, but we're ready for the what cometh next.

NRA blames games like Kindergarten Killers for Sandy Hook. News flash: Nobody has played, let alone heard of, that abysmal game!
I'd be amiss whilst addressing the current hour of video game history if I didn't make mention of the hellfire that's been raining down on the industry as a whole since 2012's plentiful gun-related tragedies. The unexplainable events of Sandy Hook begged the need for an explanation. As a result Vice President Joe Biden met with the gaming companies, journalists (gamers and non-gamers) have been debating their respective sides on the issue for months, the social medias I plug into show many are outspoken on the topic while several others remain silent. Nothing is all that new on the video game front. It's just that these outside events have turned over old stones with the same arguments we've heard before... on both sides. I started this site as a place to talk about games on a deep, meaningful and creative level. This site will always be primarily about the games themselves, but it's important to be aware of what is going on in the industry. I sense a future op/ed piece from myself or one of the crew about this issue. We certainly shouldn't turn a blind eye to this but we should always keep an open-mind and can only hope other parties will too. As someone who listens to what any side has to say I am comfortable with concluding that gaming is neither the culprit or an innocent third party, it is merely a factor to consider. By comparison, untreated mental illnesses and the accessibility of assault weapons for those in such a state are much more impending factors. Still, the effect of violent video games on players is an issue I am deeply fascinated by and you can expect more thoughts on it in the months to come.

An actual screen from our server. This was my latest project... Minecraft (2012)
Maybe it's because of recent occurrences that I personally have not been playing a lot of games lately. Though the recently concluded movie award season is also a culprit of my time. Writing and films are my first passions and always will be, but there's an allure of gaming possibilites that ever beckons me. I actually hadn't been playing hardly any games since the New Year, an occasional iOS diversion here and a social multiplayer there, but otherwise none to speak of. That is until last week when my cousin suggested getting another Minecraft server going. With his help (I'm a noob is such areas) we got one going and it's been a mostly incredible experience ever since. Minecraft was my favorite game of 2011 right alongside Skyrim, but it's a prime example of a title that challenges the definition of "video games." I also hope to find occasion to explain my frustration with the term while addressing my complete adoration of Minecraft - whatever it is. 

We've come full circle. I write you this letter of recent happenings and my thoughts that surround them to let you know that I have not forgotten about this site, but mostly that I have not forgotten about you, these things we call video games.


P.S. One of the reasons I acquired a PS3 was to play Ni No Kuni. This has not happened yet but I long to with each passing day. Studio Ghibli + video games! How can I not? Well, it's the JRPG aspect that wearies me...

Words by J.S. Lewis

Monday, January 21, 2013

FTL: Faster Than Light (Review)

September 14, 2012
Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

Developed and Published
by Subset Games

Try to command a ship in deep space and survive in FTL.

Do you like dying in video games? Having your stuff blown up? Watching as your character slowly burn to death or asphyxiate (or both)? Well FTL may just change your mind about that because as they say, "Dying is half the fun! No...really."

If you've never played a roguelike, this is a great game to get the feel for what they are.  FTL: Faster Than Light sets you on a mission to explore and survive 8 different space zones as you flee a rebel armada and ultimately face down the most powerful ship in their fleet. You first get to choose your ship, its name, and your crew members' names before setting off.  I must say, it is great fun piloting a ship called "The Blue Ocelot" with Captain Depp at the helm.  At first only one ship is available but as you play more ships and layouts for each ship rapidly unlock.

Gameplay is like a real-time strategy with several levels.  The most micro is the crew.  You must assign crew members to different areas of the ship to either man stations, fix things, put out fires, fight invaders, or stand there doing their best mannequin impersonation.  The perspective is top down so that you can see all the rooms on the ship and the whole crew.  Each room is either empty or holds a station.  There are stations for shields, weapons, and the helm to name a few.  Some can be manned, which gives the station a small bonus. These bonuses factor into the next step up in gameplay: the ship.  As you play, you will run into other ships that you must fight.  You then have to allocate power to your equipment and decide which weapons to charge, how much power to give to shields or the engine, and when to run for your life.  A very fun and interesting part of this gameplay is the ability to designate where you shoot an enemy.  Do you take out his weapons so that he can't fight back or do you shoot the helm so he can't escape or dodge?  You decide what is top priority for surviving and act accordingly.

When you fight, you have to think fast, make tough calls, and deal with disasters.  Fires can break out that will quickly wreck your ship if you don't put them out.  You can either send a crew member to put it out or open the exterior doors and let out all the oxygen, killing the fire.  Enemies might board your ship and start blowing up your shields while the enemy ship destroys your weapons.  You have to micro manage your crew effectively in order to survive and it makes for fun and intense gameplay.

"See, we'll get rid of all the oxygen to put out the fires.  Nothing wrong with that plan." FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
Aside from fighting, the other main aspect of gameplay is exploring.  You get a star map and choose which station to jump to next, assuming you are in range.  You start on the left and are trying to reach the exit on the right to the next sector, but it pays to explore a bit on the way.  Shops are available for equipment and repairs.  Distress signals blare out that could give side quests or add a new crew member, but be warned.  They could be pirate traps.  You may also run into suns and asteroid fields which make combat very perilous.  Each new fight can damage your hull leaving you closer and closer to death.  And of course, the whole time you have to stay ahead of the slowly approaching rebel armada.

The slowly approaching red wall of death.  Fear it's power! FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
So why explore? One word: scrap.  Scrap equals money and without it you won't survive.  You can use scrap to either buy better weapons, fuel up, make repairs, get crew, and other such things at shops you come across, or you can upgrade your ships systems such as making your shields stronger, your engine faster, your doors sturdier, and so on.  You get scrap by destroying enemy ships, meeting friendly stations, doing side quests, and selling unwanted equipment.  Every sector require a certain amount of "grinding" for scrap or else you will quickly find yourself outmatched in later sectors.

As you explore, you may also run into situations that require choices.  Do you save a space station from giant spiders or flip them the bird?  Do you accept a pirate's bribe or be a hero?  Do you side with the fleeing fugitive or give him up to his pursuers for a reward?  Each choice can have good or bad consequences that change with each game.  Upgrading the correct system or having the correct species on board will also allow a third, usually better, option to become available.

The final level of gamplay is the sector map.  Once you reach an exit, you choose which next sector to go to.  Should you go to the friendly Zoltan sector or risk the Pirate sector for more booty?  Up to you, but you've got to try and survive all 7 sectors to make it to the final 8th sector and the end boss.

What makes exploration so entertaining is that every game is randomly generated so each playthrough is new.  You might have a great run one game only to go out in a solar flare blaze of glory in sector 3 in the next.  You never know what surprise the next station will have in store for you.  In addition, there are achievements to get for each ship that unlock new layouts and achievements for the game as whole so have fun trying to get them.

All that being said, I should warn you that the game is hard.  I mean, really hard.  Friends don't let friends start on normal.  Start on easy, get a feel for the game, then try normal.  You will die more often than you beat the end boss and complete the game, but like the developers said, that is half the fun.  The difficulty may turn off some people and I did get frustrated at times, but after a few games, you get a feel for the flow of it and it becomes very enjoyable.  

This game may not be for everyone and may be difficult, but anyone who enjoys space, rougelikes, or real-time strategies will find a nice charm from this game.  It's an inexpensive game that offers dozens of hours of fun gameplay.  Just don't get too frustrated when you die for the fifth time in a row.


Words by Joshua Matern