Hollow Dissent, Stealth Simplified

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This game, by Dark Space Games, is definitely a first game.  Developers’ debut titles may carry certain elements that come through into the game itself: uncertainty, ambition, fear and paranoia.  Hollow Dissent certainly gave the devs a chance to release some of that my shouting into a microphone.  While it may have been therapeutic for them, it made my headphones buzz and my ears ring a little.  Of course, the fact that this game almost feels like a default game that came with Windows 98 kind of makes the game feel a little silly.  Let me explain.

When you start up the campaign, you aren’t given a story as much as you are given what you need to know.  Bunch of people on a base are starting to succumb to radiation poisoning and they are losing their minds because of it.  Kill them all.  Now, I’m no doctor but I am pretty sure that a lead enema isn’t the only treatment for radiation poisoning.  This seems suspicious.  Alongside the ominous music, this all seems like some kind of plot that I am being thrown into the middle of in hopes that someone can solve a really big fuck up.  You play as the wetwork ninja that will move in, eliminate all witnesses and resolve the issue.  Ah, mysterious paramilitary organizations, when will you learn?

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Turning enemies into anonymous clouds of red mist…

The controls are pretty simple and easy to master: spacebar shoots your rifle, arrow keys move, shift lets you interact with things.  Typically you will get through a level after eliminating all foes and get to a door to go to the next level.  It is never really specified whether you go up or down, but I always assume down.  Then there is the gun.  Remember when I mentioned this being a stealth game?  Well the main way you kill enemies is by walking over them like a fucking power up.  They’ll turn into red mist and give out a groan.  I don’t even want to know what this guy has that makes the corpse explode into red mist and even more terrifying is the fact that he never gets covered in enemy residue.  If you fire your gun, however, all the enemies in the level hear it and come running.

Who are the enemies in this game?  Initially you face the personnel of this facility.  The most interesting thing that this game does is make you feel bad for the guards.  Let me explain.  The two main enemies in this game are the guards and the scientists.  The guards are either stationed or patrolling and are ridiculously easy to take out.  In a game like this you would have a stationed guard switch his gaze back and forth between different corridors.  Not in this game.  These guys are practically mechanical meat-puppets that look only where their gun is pointing since that is how shooting works, right?

The other primary enemy you’ll face are the scientists… fucking little scientists.  These guys, unlike every other scientist in gaming, have decided to self-arm and start shooting anyone they don’t recognize.  This is a bitch.  Combined with the fact that they move erratically, they are a serious pain in the ass to take out.  On top of that, these guys spend the whole time whimpering and whining about “him” and “they’re gonna find us.”  This, combined with the totally forced voice acting for the guards makes the whole game start to slide apart.  I mean, the guards literally say things like “target acquired” and “moving to target” like they are a bunch of overweight local policemen playing paintball on a weekend getaway.  It’s pretty ridiculous.  I am sure even those weekend paintballers manage to sound more convincing.

Not sure why all the scientists are wearing orange-tinted fishbowls on their heads, but whatever...

Not sure why all the scientists are wearing orange-tinted fishbowls on their heads, but whatever…

Why do I feel bad for the guards?  They are useless.  Seriously.  They are doing their jobs, walking back and forth or standing there doing nothing; in some cases they are even facing a wall.  This would make sense if there was some kind of viewing window, but walking right up to them on the opposite side of the wall from where they are stationed results in staying hidden.  These guys are doing their jobs and continue to do so despite the fact that the scientists, who are supposed to be far more intelligent, start losing their shit and packing heat.  The guards even come running if they hear a gun shot like it might not just be one of the damn scientists giving into their insanity and killing themselves.  What with all their whimpering and bitching, I would have just ordered the R & D team be euthanized.  I wouldn’t even resist the main character, I would be helping him.

Then, about 4 levels down (or up, I am not really sure which) you run into a new foe.  These are some kind of groaning, grumbling comet-ghost creatures that can pass through walls, but they only move when you fire your weapon.  You can walk right up to them and they just stare right through you.  Shooting at them is totally useless, so you have to just get past them to finish the level.  The devs seem to favor putting these fuckers near the exits, forcing you to fire your weapon to get them to come after you… away from the door.  These ghosts don’t seem to affect the guards in the least bit but, entertainingly enough, the scientists splatter upon contact with these things.

Man, the flooring in this room is making me see some weirs ass shit...

Man, the flooring in this room is making me see some weirs ass shit…

Don’t get me wrong.  This game isn’t terrible, but there is much that could have been done to improve it.  Ambiance is held together by the grace of a solid soundtrack and decent graphics.  Your character looks like someone took a silhouette of a swat cop, put blue arm bands on him and said “fuck details.”  Guards are all the same little guy holding a pistol with a red dot and the scientists are the erratic little guys with the orange fishbowls on their heads.  This all kind of adds to the ghosts being a little more creepy when you run into them.  Everything already has an ambiguous look to it, but now you have these ghosts that are just all kinds of fucked up.

Level graphics are painfully simple and cookie cutter-styled.  Walls all look exactly the same, and every couple of levels the floor changes design; this would be ok if there were some explanation or pattern, but it goes from stone to riveted metal to castle flagstones so fast that after a while it is just as annoying as the scientists.  Story is delivered in the form of computer consoles that are placed randomly throughout the game.  Through the computers your character communicates with his employers, but this is very very vague and cryptic at every turn.  We have to guess at what is even being discussed at times since there is no internal monologue about anything.  If I saw a comet ghost when I thought I would be stabbing blood-puppets for the next three hours, I would stop to consider my circumstances for a moment.  I am pretty sure I passed by a terminal at some point, too, but it seems that you can go up the next level before finding the consoles, so those aren’t even entirely necessary.

Where's a proton pack when you need one?

Where’s a proton pack when you need one?

If you are jonsing for a good stealth game that challenges you in your stealthiness, you could do a lot worse than this.  Hollow Dissent still accomplishes what it sets out to do in that regard, but it wouldn’t be my first resort.  I am also not going to say that the 5.99$ asking price on the Darkspace Games website is entirely worthwhile, but here are some suggestions on how to make this game worth a little more than that:

Add in a few gadgets and, perhaps, a silencer.  Something more than just a gun and walk-over stealth kills.  The walk-over stealth kills would be alright if the guards looked around a little bit.  Add in some darkness and give guards and scientists flashlights.  This will act to show you where they are looking and add more spooky ambiance to the game.  Don’t make the ghosts glow, but perhaps add in a radar that pings gently as their groans draw closer in the darkness.  That is something the last Alien game did well, even if the only thing.  Put a little more variation in the walls.  Please.  Maybe little windows that stationed guards can look through.  It will add another obstacle and way to get detected.  These levels feel less like any kind of facility and more like mini-mazes to house a few meat sacks.  A little decoration could go a long way.  I don’t rate things, but that would take what is currently 40% of a decent game and punch it right up to 75% maybe even 80%.  I could pay 10$ for that comfortably.  And, please, get a better voice actor.  I could do it for you, I was in the army for two years.  I know what convincing “report” language sounds like.

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Efec and Death, Weird Like This is Tough to Find

Henry Sorren, I am finding, is a guy that created a lot of weird things.  This game is one of them.  There is much in this game that didn’t make sense to me, and I got the feeling that is the way it was meant to be.  Each of the Pulp Horror Games has a feel and tone of its own, and this one is just bizarre.  It is very creepy, and I feel like with headphones on in the dark, I would only have completed this game in pieces.  As it stands, I haven’t completed this one, but it has a haunting spookiness.

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Awful lot of birds…

Efec is you character and he is a vampire.  He has, apparently, been asleep for a very long time, so long that he wakes up and there is a pool on top of him.  Whatever, he doesn’t make any mention of it, Efec seems more focused on this hooded figure.  What does the figure want?  Well, this guy tells Efec that death has been hard on the town, and that Efec is their only hope.  He has to go find and kill death.  Efec responds, sure!  Right after I get something to eat!  Makes sense.  If I was locked in some ancient enchantment for years on end, I would likely want something to eat upon waking.

So Efec wanders out into town to find: absolutely fucking nobody.  Seriously, he says “nobody is in town.”  For half a minute I thought there would be a guy sitting there like “my name’s nobody,” but yea, I guess they all just fucking died.  The really eerie thing about this world isn’t the distinctly heavy side of the building to people ratio, but the ambiance of the world.  It has the same film grain that other Pulp Horror titles seem to possess, but this one has Ave Maria playing the entire time.  And it plays like it is coming out of some dusty old victrola in a haunted attic.

...yea seriously, cause I need blood.  Can I directions to the nearest blood bank?

…yea seriously, cause I need blood. Can I get directions to the nearest blood bank?

After wandering through the town like a groggy anemic, you come to a forest.  In this forest is a well, a house – which gives Efec a ‘bad feeling – and a giant, shrieking spider.  Approaching the spider reveals that someone stole its keys and that its kids are in danger.  Whatever, man, just shut the fuck up.  I will help you get free if you’ll only shut the fuck up!!!  Wandering around, you eventually find the keys.  This is a big relief since you have, like, zero visibility out there.  Of course, you get to repeat the process as you wander through the spider caves.  It feels like there is more distance to cover, all of it in pitch darkness.  At times I found myself using walls to guide myself only to realize that I was walking into walls after a while.  There are a number of doors with hidden keys to find and it is hard as shit; so, with the profound lack of visibility, I was unable to get past the spider caves.  This game is creepy as hell, and fits October perfectly.  Play it through at some point, I promise it will give you the jitters.  This title is another artistic piece by the Pulp Horror Games crew, and it costs only 0.99$ on itunes.  Check it out at risk of your own sanity!

Shadow Protocol, Super-Techno Euro Spy

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I am generally not a fan of mobile games, but some devs have really been killing it lately.  Seriously.  First I discovered Henry Sorren and his horror series, then there is Goodnight Games and this remarkably sweet piece of iOS entertainment.  I grew up playing games where stealth was a challenge and not a super-power, and this game just feeds that sense of profoundly badass precision tempered with a tension I rarely see anymore.  Come disappear into the shadows for a while.  I promise you’ll enjoy it.

In this iOS title you play a member of M.O.T.H., a super-secret organization so shrouded in mystery, not even the game explains what it stands for.  You are a covert operative trained to get in, get the intel and GTFO before the bulldogs catch on to your presence.  In this, as with many other stealth-based games, a main focus of the game is the gear.  Primary among your kit is that black alien suit you are wearing.  It allows you to melt into the shadows, avoid detection and be generally ninja-like.  When you are in the shadows, you are completely invisible and the music reflects this by going all enigmatic.

Another important piece of gear is the hacking device, and it’s what you use to obtain the most important plot-progressing pieces of the game.  Throughout the game there will be terminals to hack, which will give you pieces of intel – usually objectives – and can also grant you access keys to doors.  These doors will be a bland white color.  Other doors seem to have been purchased from the 90’s era FPS games, as they are activated by keys matching the color of the doors themselves.  I didn’t have an issue with this at all; in fact, I found the keys an endearing element of the game, lending a nod to older games and utilizing the game’s isometric view to the best of its coded capacity.

Be a spooky shadow-ninja

Be a spooky shadow-ninja

Another piece of gear is the smoke bombs, which you will use to get past certain types of guards.  Generally, you can avoid the patrolling guards by staying out of sight until they pass then dodging past them toward your goals.  Cameras are pretty easy to avoid just by going into the shadows.  You can even move around in the shadows, you won’t appear on the camera at all.  I guess the villains were too cheap to afford motion-sensors.  Better to waste the funds on stupid muscle.  That always works out well. The last type of guard is a little something of a dick.  This guy sits in one place, usually guarding a door-key.  To move these jerks, throw a smoke bomb and slip past them, getting the key and gaining access.

Guards can be a little easy to get past at times, providing little more than a momentary obstacle, but they all have little surprises here and there.  The patrolling guards will look to the sides, rather than just in front, finding you just around that corner you thought you were safe beside.  Some of the guards go outside the methods you trained them on, so stay on your toes.  There is no telling where the next guy will be and how resourceful you’ll need to be to get past him.  It can be aggravating at times, but for fans of challenging stealth it is worth the play.

Of course, not every situation permits passive avoidance, and there are situations in this game that warrant a more proactive approach.  Before you Assassin’s Creed nuts start going all Altair on these guys, you have no lethal weapons in your arsenal.  All you have is a whip and a taser.  The whip has a slight chance of render enemies unconscious for a second, but there is also the chance that they might just come running after you; since the latter option is far more likely, you won’t be using this much.  Some guards will only move if you try using this thing, so it becomes a necessity in some levels.  The taser is the most proactive item you have, and this disables your enemies long enough for you to get away… so about 3 fucking seconds.  Using the whip will only disable enemies for 1 second.

...because guards are among the most intellectually superior creatures on the planet, right?

…because guards are among the most intellectually superior creatures on the planet, right?

The controls are pretty intuitive, though they can be frustrating at times.  You move via the touch-screen joystick that many iOS games use, and I have had many a time where I was playing too fast and I went the wrong way… in front of a camera.  Items are deployed by hitting the corresponding button on the menu at the right side of the screen.  Most of the items you just tap once and they’re used, but the hacking tool has to be held while a bar fills, hacking the terminal.  This can be infuriating as sometimes you have to do this before the guard gets back from staring at the wall for a few seconds, other times before a camera moves painfully slow into view.

The art and sound of this game surprised me, and were amazingly superior for an iOS game.  It looks and plays like a lost SNES title with art that is fitting and very enjoyable.  Characters walk and move smoothly and scenery is good.  Sound is enjoyable and helps to create the necessary tension that a game like this desires.  Everything comes together here to create a fun and interesting play, and it has a story that is frankly too good for the standard mobile fare. Add to that the fact that this game is a fucking challenge?  Yea, it’s a good play, for sure.  Seriously, though, the game goes from a pretty moderate walk in the park to “Oh my fucking god how did I even clear that goddamn level?!?!” in a few short (ish) levels.  All this, and the game itself is only 0.99$ on iTunes and the App Store.  I recommend this for iPad, but it is likely still very playable on other idevices.  Want to watch the trailer?  Here you go.

Hydrophobia: Prophecy, Drowning in Inadequacy

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This game suffers from being viciously misnamed.  Hydrophilia would be closer to the mark, considering how much attention went into this game’s water physics.  It is just a shame that a game with so much potential fell flat on its socially-progressive pretenses and turned out to be just another bowl of meh pudding.  Seriously, it wasn’t astronomically bad, but it failed so badly at everything else it tried to do that its nothing worth mentioning in the history of gaming.  Then again with how advanced the water physics were in this game, you might liken it to a socially conscientious, non-bigoted Birth of a Nation: it might be a shit, but it is a shit that made powerful contributions to its discipline.  On the bright side, at least there was no one in black face.

So it isn’t so bad that it necessitates drawing a comparison to the most violently racist film in American history, and that is part of the problem.  Aside from the water physics there is nothing else truly worth mentioning.  First, let’s start positive, since there is so little to say here.  This entire game takes place on The Queen of the World, which makes legal doctrines difficult to read in this since there are so many titles and such.  Thing is, the Queen is a massive city-ship built to be humanity’s solution to over population: not enough space on land?  Fuck it, let’s live in the ocean.  Now that is really silly, but the thing is, the rest of the world likely isn’t happy about the wealthy elites retreating to the ocean to avoid looking at the dirty plebs everywhere.  So the ship gets taken over by this terrorist group called the Malthusians, named after Thomas Robert Malthus.  Apparently the guy was a demographic scholar back in the day.  I don’t think he would have gotten behind killing everyone on the ship, though.  Just sayin’

What a cheerful group of boys and girls...

What a cheerful and artistic group of boys and girls…

Coming back to the point, though, the terrorists decide to start blowing holes in the floating city.  Not usually a great idea, but hey, they’re villains in a videogame.  With breaches in the hull, water comes flooding in, and it cascades.  Seriously, though.  It looks awesome when the crashing waves of doom flood in through the doors or walls of an area you were having a pitched gun fight in, sometimes even to your benefit.  And that is about it.  Th water really looks like it is flooding into the ship.  Great.  The rest of the game? Well..

Again, not horrific, but not the magical amazing piece of “epicness” that all the hype back in the day implied!  First, there are these screenshots and such of your character with some magnificent power.  And it is pretty cool when you can lift things with pillars of water and throw explosive barrels.  But that is all you can do.  Oh, and you don’t play the WHOLE GAME with this power!  FUCK NO!  That would be too awesome, too much fun!  You get these powers in about the last 30 minutes of gameplay and then you have to face the only boss in the game with them.  That is like receiving training with your M16 in the military and being told it’s all you’ll need.  Then you get there and they hand you a fucking rocket launcher and a short faq sheet so you can reverse the blitzkreig!

Then there is your gun.  The malthusians typically have shot guns and machineguns while you are stuck with some state-of-the-art pistol that shoots 6 different types of ammo and the above-pictured MAV hacking device.  I want to use a goddamn shotgun!  A machinegun would be nice, but all you get in that department is some kind of automatic round that somehow makes your gun shoot faster.  That’s not how this works, it will still have the accuracy of a fucking pistol!

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I guess the plot holes got to her.

Then there is the story of the game as it develops throughout the game, which is to say it doesn’t.  You get the roughest outline of the idea of a story and then things start happening without any real explanation.  The terrorists are briefly explained in passing, and their goals are only really understood at the end of the game, and even then they’re still a little vague.  There is some kind of backstory regarding Mila Krass, the main villainess, the nanobots she wants to use to kill everyone in the world, and the ship.  But again, there is no real explanation to the player as to why they are here, why she wants them except some video-screens that you could miss if you are in the wrong room at the time.  Most of the plot is delivered through a series of documents and notes that you will most-likely run, or swim, right by.  I shouldn’t have to find the story of the game, you need to GIVE it to me.  The main plot of the game shouldn’t be like a football game at Thanksgiving where a few interested people get into it while the rest of us just ask for the score afterward!

Of course it seems that this was done to provide something to slow the player down as they progress through the game, which plays like a Die Hard movie with a thinner plot and less interesting enemies.  You run through the game so fast because the majority of it consists of you swimming out of the rapidly flooding decks.  You don’t actually fight enemies until a third of the way through the game, which is like serving food twenty minutes into an hour-long lunch period.  It’s just not fun, and I will likely have left to get a hoagie (massive sandwich) at the local Wawa (a convenience store).

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Mila looks more bored than threatening as she slaughters innocents by the truckload.

On the topic of things this game does only half-assed, there is a sort of rudimentary parkour engine in the game, but it’s boring.  Seriously, I am not sure how you can make parkour boring, but this deeply dreadlocked woman is the slowest parkour performer ever.  She makes Altair look like a fucking artists.  It’s like they wanted some elements of Mirror’s Edge in there, but didn’t have time to do it with all the work in the water engine.  Where you do use parkour, it’s slow and encumbering rather than fun and interesting.

But wait, there’s more!  The characters are unbelievably dull and fall into silly stereotypes.  First, this is a game with a female lead and a female villain, which should really be something!  I mean, it gives you a chance to see a battle waged solely between the females.  But then again, you have this snarky, annoying douche-nozzle named “Scoot” talking in your ear like he thinks he’s goddamn Otacon.  He also seems to get off on telling the main character (Kate) what to do all the time, then taking credit for it.  At one point that asshole is like “It’s so draining watching all this action, Kate.”  I imagined him saying this as he sits back in his little spinny office chair on A-deck.  The best part is that later in the game, malthusians storm his area, so he keeps his voice down.  At one point toward the end, Scoot leaves his console as the terrorists might have checked the broom closet that command usually keeps him in.  And then?  Well… he just kinda disappears.  His fantastic exit from the game after guiding you this whole time?  He just walks away from the fucking desk!  And you never figure out what the hell happens to him!

And this isn’t the only character that had a chance at a being interested, but got a bad wrap job.  Chief Bingham… Birmingham…  Mr. B is the chief of security on the Queen, and after you free him from a slow, terrible death he just walks off into a flooded room to “find a gun.”  Not before he has a chance to grumble out some insults of character implying that if you had done your job right, this might’ve been prevented.  That would be like the head of the FBI or NSA blaming their lower-level enforcers for 9/11.  Then you don’t see him again until a later scene in the elevator where Kate looks amazed and Mr. B is killed off camera.  And that’s fucking it!  In the original version there was the implication that Scoot was killed and you meet up with Chief B.  Kate wants to look for Scoot, but they find the room flooded and no Scoot.

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Piece from the end cutscene. Mila Krass dies. Spoiler alert.

Really, this is a game that might’ve been better titled “Water Physics Engine 3D.”  It is more a game about its mechanics than anything else.  There is a lot in here that games like Bioshock could have used in a sequel to make a neat “final death of Rapture” or something, but Hydrophobia: Prophecy just ends up being bland and flat as a stale cracker.  There could have been an interesting conflict between a badass female protagonist and a super-evil female villain.  Not really there.  Could have had a deep plot with connected characters and a plot that felt real and fun.  Scrap it.  In the end, what you have is a reason to market a water physics engine, and in most games the water physics barely even matter.  This is a game to avoid, with only a few redeeming qualities.  This shit ball is 4.99$ on Steam and I would recommend waiting until it goes on sale.  Seriously, it’s that non-fulfilling.

Slaughterball, Bloody Freaking Fun

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Recently, thanks to Erik at Frog the What games, I had the chance to play through a two-man game of Slaughterball.  It is an inventive and exciting game about a futuristic game, based on handball and combined with genetic mutants and freaks.  These people have been altered by companies to run faster, hit harder and have keen senses.  It’s almost like someone tried to create a human “master race” through genetic alteration, but all they managed was a really badass football team.  This game is up on kickstarter and they’ve been funded to their first stretch goal!  Get in there now and you can still get some serious early-backer swag!  You can also head to the Slaughterball website to get some more information about the game itself!

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Yes, that team looks just like a bunch of orcs.

My favorite part of this game is how everything feels like you should be narrating it with an announcer’s voice, and this is what I did.  It was legitimately one of the most entertaining times I have had sitting on my friend’s floor, playing a game.  As it went, we chose one of the four teams that came with the review copy.  I favored the spartan-themed Swords of Damocles whereas my friend went with the buxom Valkyries.  Now the pieces on the board are referred to athletes and the people playing the game are coaches, which makes sense considering either could feasibly be labeled “players,” so they opted to eliminate that distinction altogether.

Each athlete has 5 stats: accuracy, agility, brawling, speed and toughness.  Accuracy shows how good they are at throwing the ball, so when throwing the ball at a goal, you get the number of your accuracy worth of murder dice to roll.  I call them murder dice because they are covered in knives and skulls.  The more knives you get, the better you roll, so get knives.  To get the shot in, you have to get a number of knives equal to or greater than the shooting distance in squares between the shooter and the goal.  All of the tests work similarly with one stat giving you a number of dice and then another being the stat you roll against for the opposing athlete or just quick checks to see if you make a goal or pick up a ball mid-move.

Once you have your team selected, you have to place the little guys and gals on the board.  Everything is pretty well explained, though.  Once you’re all set up, it’s time to play.  Now each team’s turn encompasses three phases: draw phase, onslaught phase, cleanup phase.  The first phase is where you can discard any number of cards and draw more.  This allows you to mix up your strategy at a moment’s notice and keeps you from stagnating in actions.  There are a lot of cards, don’t be afraid to ditch the ones you have for something better!  During the onslaught phase, your athletes can move, chop (attack, basically) and pass or shoot the ball.  Moving and passing or shooting the ball are all pretty self explanatory, but chopping is where you use your athletes to attack the opposing athletes.

Successfully chopping the other team’s athletes is a good place to start really doing damage.  When you chop, it incurs a DnD-style chop test (with the brawling stat) which you roll the murder dice for.  For our game, both teams’ razors ( the skinny, accurate, fast ball-shooter) ended up in the slaughterbox, which is sort of the game’s hospital.  Except instead of healing the athletes, they are allowed to just lay there bleeding while kids and viewers throw popcorn and ice cream cones at them.  Getting off a chop attack will successfully down an enemy and, usually, score you points! Getting off more chops while they are down will get them injured, slaughter boxed, possibly penalized…. and more points!!!

That's not a scar!  I'll show you a scar!

That’s not a scar! I’ll show you a scar!

When you start the game, the goals are closed and the ball shoots out of a ball-port.  These blast the ball high into the sky, at least in my mind.  The athletes run in, grab the ball and then run into the meat grinder at the center of the board.  Wait…. fuckawhadinnabaht!?! No, they aren’t running headlong into a literal meat grinder like ball-playing lemmings, they are running into a section in the center of the arena filled with skin-slashing spikes, sandpaper carpeting and possibly demotivational posters.  It’s like the chokey for genetically-engineered athletes.  The best part is that you get extra damage on opposing athletes for knocking them down in the meat grinder.

Once someone runs the ball into the meat grinder, all the goals open and you can start making shots.  Keep in mind that any time you don’t run open goals or make a shot with the ball, anyone with the ‘Shot Clock’ card can use it to get an athlete in the penalty box, redeploy the ball and get a little edge over your opponents.  The structure of the game allows you to get some serious synergy, too.  During your onslaught phase, you can select three different athletes (indicated with the onslaught tokens) to make two moves each.  These can be used to run, chop, pass and shoot, as stated.  A lot of times I would use one player to run, grab the ball, throw it to another athlete who would run it to the razor or shoot.  My buddy Dave got two goals in the first round of the game this way.  Granted the ball practically deployed into his hands, but you roll a die to determine which port it comes out of, and the dice are always in that guy’s favor.  Gameplay is fluid, thrilling and fun.  Mostly fun.

So my master plan to get and score with the fucking ball didn't work.  Risk in this game is not usually worth it, unless you have the cards to back it up.

So my master plan to get and score with the fucking ball didn’t work. Risk in this game is not usually worth it, unless you have the cards to back your strategy.

Notice the letters in different shapes on the athletes’ cards.  These show the different types of athletes.  Int he actual game there will be lovely plastic pieces that have differently shaped bases, but the review copy had these useful proxies.  There is the butcher or ‘square B’.  This is a big fucker that will chop anything and often ends up in the penalty box when you can get the card.  You’ll have one on your team.  The razor or ‘circle R’ is a lithe and speedy little fucker with four-arms who can move like nobody’s business.  These guys make a lot of the shots.. at least until they end up in the slaughter box.  You also have one of these.  There is also the cleaver or ‘pentagon C’.  These guys are pretty good defensive athletes.  They have decent accuracy, agility and speed, but they aren’t much for brawling and chopping.  This means you can use them to run the ball and score pretty well if you lose your razor.  Then there are the slashers.  These guys have higher toughness and brawling than your slashers, which makes them decent for defense.  These guys will be good at carving (providing interference for athletes running the ball) and generally defending the guy running the ball long enough to get a score in.  They are a little slower, less accurate and agile than the cleavers.

Big surprise.. butcher in the penalty box.

Big surprise.. butcher in the penalty box…

I may have mentioned that there are penalties and fouls that you can call.  I love the way the rules are explained for this in the game.  A great way to look at the rules is like the truth during a great story: never let either get in the way of a great time!  This means that the referees of the game are all but fucking terrified to step into the arena.  I would be too with these genetically-altered freight-train people charging and chopping each other all over the place!  Each team looks like a scarier version of the Monstars from Space Jam!  Fuck!  So there are penalty cards, which can be used to call fouls.  This represents a time when a referee was paying attention long enough to call a foul on a player, likely getting himself side-lined to the slaughterbox in the process.  The thing is, violence is one way that the sport itself is so popular.  These athletes knock eachother down, injure one another, rub eachothers’ faces in the meat grinder etc. all for points and the entertainment of fans.  It is like soccer would have been in an ancient roman gladiatorial arena and it is brutal, spine-shattering fun.

One thing that I wanted in this game, which really disappointed me, was that there seemed to be no option for a “fantasy football” league.  You know, an option that would let you alter the stats of your team, name your athletes and get more into it?  I told this to Erik, the game’s creator and he said this:

“In league mode you can design your own roster, picking which athletes are on your team, you can spend winnings to increase your traits and skills.  However, there is no build from scratch mode in this release. That’ll be in the next Kickstarter. ;)”

Back this game NOW!!!!!  This is going to be something awesome that we nerds can have for our own!  It will be a sports game that will allow us to weave in our love of football, american football and other sports that will allow us to make our own teams, then compete on a larger level!  I can see this game being the next big international board game, like Warhammer.

I was playing this game and just imagining the athletes in the arena, I want to see this game turned into a show on adult swim.  Seriously, think about it.  The world has enough personality, there are several layers of conflict (athletes against eachother, teams and their coaches, all the athletes on the board and the referees, the fans and the referees), and you can throw in the TnA of the cheerleaders (available as an extra purchase on the Kickstarter) to make it a great show with an an amazing world.  On top of all that, it would be EXTREMELY relevant considering all the violence in sports these days and it already has a nice fanbase going.  For now, this is just an awesome game, and I am still hotly debating backing it although I can’t really afford to right now.  I mean, look at this game!  I only played a scrimmage, although I wanted to get a larger game going.  It is a great time and it allows you to fuck with the rules, bullshit and not get too upset over getting screwed.  You’ll be screwing up the other player at some point, too.  Sure, they are already backed, so let’s work on getting those stretch goals met!

EDIT: I recently caved and contributed 110$ to this campaign.  I got the early razor and the cheerleaders!  Ra ra! EDIT EDIT: I just bumped my backing up to 180$.  The things that made me do this was the fact that I was already at 150$ due to add-ons.  I also wanted to get my mitts on the extra team that was unlocked (Fury) and I wanted to get two teams’ cheerleaders! Sis boom ba! EDIT EDIT EDIT: Yea, changed it again.. hopefully the last..  230$ now so I can get my name on a card and a couple of cheerleaders teams! WOO TAH! ED.. oh you get the idea..  So I caved and I went for the Hall of Fame backing.  480$ for my name and picture in the game as well as the cheerleaders and every perk from the Butcher level.  I guess I will be really abstaining from backing people for a while! X P!

Influent, Game of Language Learning

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Something that I focus on heavily here is the artistic quality of games, but there is so much more promise and potential to videogames than just art and entertainment.  This Kickstarter-funded piece of educational software displays that games are tools for learning as much as devices of entertainment.  It’s not a perfect language-learning game, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction and a hell of a lot cheaper than Rosetta Stone.

Influent is a game that would, by normal gaming standards, be considered an educational tool because it is.  When you buy the game, you get to decide which language you want to give yourself a primer for.  To begin with, Influent does not teach you alphabets.  I already have some pre-existing knowledge of Korean and because I participated in the Army’s rigorous linguistics program, I know exactly how your brain learns languages because I had korean jammed into my skull so hard that two years after my last tests, I still slip into korean from time to time.  My biggest problem is that I don’t really have direct access to vocabulary lists, so this definitely helps in that way.

Why do I own three shirts but I've got twelve sticks of deodorant?

Why do I own five shirts but I’ve got twelve sticks of deodorant?

The way that you ‘learn’ in this game is by clicking different items with your mouse.  It then appears down below in the written format and someone says it to you.  The korean speaker has a hard time differentiating between the hard and soft sounds, but, whatever, I know enough to sort that out myself.  Once you have a word you want to remember, you hit the spacebar and it goes to a language list.  I tried sorting my vocab into neat lists like “clothing,” “food” and “things a baby might stick in its nose,” but things are sorted out in this game in a way that makes sense for life, not tailored to making little lists.  This is a plus because if you learn vocabulary in a certain context, you might have a hard time remembering it outside that context.  Right-cliking things in the world interacts with them, like opening doors and such.

Sometimes you will need to break apart a collection of items.  Luckily, the game has sorted this challenge out pretty well.  In order to select something that is a part of a whole, you hit ctrl to identify this, like the pillow on the bed or the leaves on a tree.  There is also shift to crouch so you can see things placed under the bed or in a cabinet under the sink.

Once you have your sloppy jumble of words that you’ve heard, it’s time to start trying to sort this stuff out.  There are two modes of mastery: time attack and fly by.  Time Attack is a mode that will time you on how fast you locate the words in the environment.  It says the words and you have to run around like a lunatic looking for them in the apartment.  This is a useful tool, too, because it lets you choose from a list of ten vocabulary words, which you will remember discovering them, even vaguely, in that order, so your brain lays those pathways pretty deeply.  Another feature of Time Attack lets you choose a randomly assembled list that the game concocts for you to identify.

The black vocabulary box OF DOOOOOM!!!!

The black vocabulary box OF DOOOOOM!!!!

Now, it’s good that you want to sort through these lists, but as you find the items, the words appear saying what it is, and someone says it.  It is easy for you to get brain-lazy and depend on that, though, and eventually you are going to have to start stripping the training wheels away.  This can be done easily, and the game encourages you to do it through the use of achievements.  When you do time attacks you’ll want to start getting rid of the visual aide because that will teach your brain to start identifying what those things are just by hearing them.  This is good because, most of the time, you will be hearing language and not reading it.  It prepares your brain for hearing it.  Take away the voice and leave the visual aide in order to learn the words based on sight recognition.  This will be important for learning to read the language.  I am not sure if you can disable both the audio and video for Time Attack to try in some kind of Hellen Keller mode, but the game doesn’t come with a module that signs vigorously into your hand.

Time to zap the fuck outta that vocab!!

Time to zap the fuck outta that vocab!!

Fly by is a mode where you learn vocabulary by piloting a little toy spaceship and zapping the item in question with the lasers.  Hitting control in this mode still works just fine, and it even slows down the speed of flight so you can adequately identify what you are trying to select.  Hitting shift will just make you fly faster.  Be careful, though, because you can crash the ship, which is mildly frustrating as you wait for respawn.

Overall this is a game that clearly has some thought put into it, but there are many limitations.  First off, there are a buttload of nouns, but there are only 5 adjectives and 5 verbs to learn in any language; in case you were unaware, most of language is fucking verbs and things placed to make the nouns interact with each other.  On top of that, this is not a language-learning game, so much a language supporting game.  It is great for studying up on your vocabulary and such, but it does nothing whatsoever to show you how to arrange those into a sentence and then use it to communicate… you know, the purpose of language in the first place.  No language is spoken by a bunch of people standing in a room identifying objects, although that reminds me of an episode of Star Trek for some reason.  On top of that, the game will show you the language as it is written, which is fine for most European languages as they all use approximately the same alphabet.  But if you want to learn something with a totally different alphabet, this game offers no assistance.  It just shows you how it should sound and what it looks like.  If you want to learn how to write that down, it’s on you.  And one thing that ANY student of asian languages can tell you, the stroke order is just as important as learning what to write.

You are correct, sir!

You are correct, sir!

If you need a great study aide, this game could be a great tool to include in your language-learning kit, especially if you’ve grown up playing games that teach you how to do math or something like that quickly.  I know I did.  Math Blaster was hard as fuck!  The thing is, this game has you trapped in your apartment and it is kind of depressing because you can almost tell what happened to this guy.  There is a report left on the printer, right?  Your door is locked and there is a newspaper and a ton of adverts for food places.  This is a guy who recently gave up on humanity and has decided to sit in his room all day learning languages from the disembodied voices in his head and the hallucinations in front of him.  When you pilot the jet in fly-by, your character disappears entirely, meaning that he is totally losing association with reality and even himself!  Then he runs around the house identifying various things in the house.  Fuck the cat, that thing never moves, it must have died long ago, sad and hungry because the owner lost his mind.

Or maybe it’s just a language -learning game that focuses on a small list of vocabulary to get you started with a new language.  Still, it would be nice to have various DLC’s that I could download for free according to new areas that pertain to real life.  I wouldn’t be able to ask about a library or a restaurant or anything.  It’s like a linguistic curriculum with only 10 different lessons.  But if you want to walk away from this game with a bit more of a vocabulary, it’s definitely helpful.  Check it out on Steam for only 9.99$ per language!

Spice Road, Culturally Confused Economic RTS

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If you’re like me, few things give you greater happiness in life than looking down on an anthill and watching them run around collecting food, attacking other bugs and working the land.  Occasionally it’s fun to spit on them or zap them with a magnifying glass, but even that is just to see how their society absorbs the blow.  Spice road is a game that allows you all the fun of watching an anthill, except that the anthill is full of people and they are establishing a regional trade-network.

To further enhance the insect-oriented analogy, the game regularly quotes economic magnates such as Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca and others.  This gives you the feeling of being a money machine without having the crappy toupee.  If you have a toupee, you have my sympathy.  When you start the game, you are looking down on a region that is clouded by fog and filled with possibility.  Your initial task will always be to establish a town, which will be your primary base of operations.  City-building is a major part of this game, and it is a lot of the fun.  As you build your towns bigger and bigger, you will have more people come to live in your town.  Pretty basic shit, really.

Aw, fuck no.  I am not going into the mysterious clouds of fog!  There could be naked cannibals in there!

Aw, fuck no. I am not going into the mysterious clouds of fog! There could be naked cannibals in there!

Some of the first things that you will build at any settlement will be houses, for the plebs, and scout camps, for innocent exploitation.  On the region screen, you will see your scouts appear as little blue bullet-shaped things.  While your scouts meander the terrain, they will discover resources, which appear as white diamonds.  As you uncover these resources, you will be able to establish more and more resource buildings.  Now, having fucking resources is great, food gets you more people and makes them happy, alcohol lets you get drunk at the saloon etc.  You will be able to manufacture goods from ores you mine and have a full, booming industry.  The thing is, you are in this game to make some serious fucking money.

This is where trade routes come in and make things more interesting, simultaneously making your settlements much fucking weirder.  To start trading, you have to build “trade route” buildings (The names of buildings in this game are pretty abysmal but it is still fucking fun).  Setting up the trade routes will allow you to trade with foreign trade routes (they appear as white arrows on the edge of the region map), other towns you may have set up or other factions.  Sure, you can set up a town and make that your only area of operation in a region, but that makes things a little lame.  If you limit yourself to one town, that limits how much money you can make.  Not to mention, if you can get closer to the foreign trade routes, you’ll have a significant advantage over competitors.  And on top of that, controlling a majority of resources in a region will (fucking obviously) give you an undeniable trade advantage over competitors.  So getting a couple towns, maybe even just a small trade camp or two alongside your towns, will put you above the competition.

Yes! Make me money!

Yes! Make me money!

Now, not everyone is capable of building a massive trade empire and making money appear out of nowhere.  There are some men who just want to watch the world burn, which is where bandits come from.  These guys are fucking annoying, and they will attack your trade caravans.  First, you have to find them, which can be quite a fucking chore; but if you have little angry-colored arrows going after your trade caravans, all you have to do is build a few extra scout huts and they will locate them.  All finding them will facilitate is a solution.  You can pay them off, but as you make more money, these parasites will want more, so paying off a bunch of bandits all the time is not a long-term solution.

Eventually you want to cut their throats and leave their corpses in the sand for the vultures to feed.  You can build a number of public-order buildings like armories and watchhouses to keep your citizens in line; but to deal with external threats, you’ll need to construct a few barracks.  These babies create expeditionary forces that you can use to guard caravans and murder bandits.  Once you have a few of them built, you can go to the region map and select the bandits’ camps to begin negotiating with extreme prejudice.  This is also the final solution that you’ll end up employing with competing trade-nations, because no one likes to share profit!

The goal is to not have your soldiers turned into bones.  That is bad...

The goal is to not have your soldiers turned into bones. That is bad…

Meeting some of the goals set out for you in the campaign is difficult, but once you get the hang of it, the game is a lot of fucking fun.  You can build a vast empire that encompasses and entire region and vie for control of trade routes, like a true imperialist dog!  You’ll also be able to unlock new buildings and upgrade your existing buildings.  For those more keyed up by micromanagement, you can go into each caravan, see its trade statistics and monitor the number of camels in a caravan to optimize the amount of money you are making vs. how much you are spending to get your camels out there.  Chaining trade across a region also becomes useful as having a smaller town is good just to get your main town into contact with a closer trade target and so you can trade across undiscovered areas.  There is a lot to do in this game, and it is a lot of fun for anyone looking for a great economically-driven RTS.  Combat is an option, but not the main thing.

Looking at the title of this article, you might be wondering what the fuck this game has to do with cultures.  Take a closer look at your town once you get it decently-sized.  Looks neat, huh?  Nations are mostly named after european powers like Burgundy and Moldovia.. You know, all the really important trade powers of their time.  The buildings that you use for trade routes look like these middle-eastern spires from downtown Baghdad and then there are these old-timey, wild west saloon that you build for your peoples’ recreation.  The town hall looks like a plantation from 1880’s Confederate America whereas the religious shrines are either little Ottoman-domed structures or Christian chapels.  Each settlement looks as culturally tangled as a set from Firefly so that you think one half might initiate a Jihad on the other half at any moment.  I was confused and a little terrified, but it just looks like a lot of ideas came together to make this game happen.  This is the only thing is suffers from is a serious thematic disparity.  If everything were added together and you told me this took place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and made things look like that, it might be less confusing.  But as it stands, it seems to be pulled between some kind of Age of Exploration and Age of Imperialism discussion with wild west tossed in there somehow.

Dammit!  Where is the level tree for nukes?!

Dammit! Where is the tech tree for nukes?!

Overall, if you are the type of person that likes to win an RTS through economic dominance and politics, this is a game for you.  There are a lot of features that add to the combat aspect, but combat is not directly controlled.  There is equal development to the city-building, economic and political aspects and it constantly allows you to find ways to make money.  The art is a bit on the minimalistic side, but enjoyable.  Music feels a little generic, but the overall design of the game itself feels and looks clean.  One feature of this game is that it eases you into the greater game fantastically.  It is complex and easy to fuck up, and the game itself gives you a number of goals and levels to screw up before you get to the game itself.  Steam will sell you this game for only 19.99$ and I will tell you, it is worth it.  Check this title out, it was a lot more fun than I expected it to be and is worth a few plays!