Jun 292013

Jacked coverDavid Kushner’s Jacked is the story of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its implementors’ troubled co-existence with the moralistic society.

Rockstar’s journey from a small scottish publisher to the forefront of digital entertainment hasn’t been simple or free of troubles, and this book doesn’t shirk away from the bad press. On the contrary, actually, as at times the author seems to contradict the main interviewees.

Jacked also details the career of Jack Thompson, the single-minded lawyer who took on the company, and lost. Lost his career (getting disbarred in the process) and his credibility.

But as the book notes, things could have gone the other way. The sex and violence inherent in the criminal sagas might have been just too much for the american sensibilities, as some of the games did get banned in various countries. And the behaviour of the founders borders on self-destructive at times.

The book doesn’t attempt to be a company level ludography of Rockstar. It omits a lot, and concentrates on the controversy (such as the “hot coffee”-minigame of San Andreas) instead of the games themselves.

Also, for a book published as late as 2012, the coverage of the studio’s most recent games (GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption) is way too shallow. After all, the company reclaimed its seat with those two sandbox-games.

Jacked is not a bad book by any means. The text flows well, and the context of the issues Rockstar and its publishers faced is explained well to people not that familiar with the game industry.

But for most of its length it’s a book about a company and its founders, rather than its games.

And that, in my book makes it a far lesser book it could have been.

Jan 272013

Hill Climb Racing logoFingersoft’s Hill Climb Racing was one part of the finnish trifecta a couple of weeks ago: then a finnish game was on top of the three categories in the Appstore (most downloads for free [this game] and paid [Angry Birds Star Wars] games and most revenue generated [Clash of Clans]). The other two are pretty famous on their own, but Hill Climb Racing took pretty much everybody by surprise.

It’s a simple game with plenty of meat below a simplistic surface, there’s a lot more on offer than initially seems.

The objective of the game is simple, drive as far as you can, without succumbing to the twin hazards of a tricky track and a limited gasoline supply. And the track is indeed tricky – a two-dimensional hilly road that quickly gets challenging. The challenge needs to be tackled both with skill and with vehicular improvements (more powerful engine and such). And behind the first track and vehicle lie several more.

The controls match the game. There’s just two virtual pedals –

Despite an initial appearance that Hill Climb Racer is yet another IAP-monster, the need to purchase coins subsides fast once the track set on Moon opens – in the lighter gravity the jumps and flips quickly generate a seriously positive cash flow.

Hill Climb Racing

As individual games are short, this is a very good casual timekiller.

Jan 212013

Carcassonne: Traders and Builders logoThe Codingmonkeys’ fabulous iPad rendition of Carcassonne has been updated with the Traders and Builders expansion.

The second expansion adds a two new dimensions to the game: trade and repeated turns.

Some city tiles now provide trade symbols, and the player who hoards the most by the end of game gets ten points for each majority. The trick here is that the trade symbols are awarded to the player who completes a city, even if he has no meeples within.

A player may also place a builder meeple on a road or city – and whenever he grows the structure where the builder assists, he gets to pick and play a second tile.

The third addition, a pig meeple that boosts the scoring on a field, is more limited in scope to these two.

Both change the flow of the game quite a bit, and especially in games that use both expansions the scores tend to run high. In some ten games the AI has proven a bit fragile, the personalities that have been reliable high-scorers (count and countess) no longer rule the land as they have used to.

Like its somewhat simpler predecessor that went unreviewed here, this expansion is heavily recommended, even if its gamecenter achievements are very much on the boring side (and pretty much demand a few games against a local opponent that lets the wookiee win).

Jan 202013

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters coverThe first book I read this year was Anna Anthropy’s Rise of Videogame Zinesters.

It’s a short book on a very good topic: democratization of videogame creation.

In the age of expensive, publisher-driven, minimum-risk AAA games, there’s clearly a niche for interesting, topical alternatives written by a minimal team.

And that’s exactly what this book promotes: an era when videogames have been taken back from the few big publishers, when the barrier of entry has been lowered and the barrier of discovery kept really low symmetrically.

However, behind the admirable aims, the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. Currently the outlook of gaming is far from the bleak present laid out in the initial chapter – the indie games movement has significantly expanded frontiers, and the era of the appstores has eliminated the need to court publishers for an audience. Even the basic premise “games are for white males interested in shooting each other in the face” is increasingly less valid even in the mainstream – apart from the annual Call of Duty-dose (and its colleagues), it’s quite a varied world out there (especially outside the consoles where both development and distribution costs are orders of magnitude lower).

The answer to the dearth of interesting games is for the gamers to create new ones and distribute them.

Certainly a noble target, and the author both describes quite a few tools to get started with as well as laying out her own experiences.

The former is an eclectic selection – it covers the obvious (Scratch and a few commercial toolkits), not-so-obvious (Inform and Twine) and downright awkward (ZZT, which doesn’t even run in modern machines without emulation). The role of programming (and even understanding the basics of the art) is not really described that well (and a golden opportunity for tools like Processing is missed altogether).

As is the latter – the author’s quite keen on highlighting the queer (her word, not mine) agenda of her games thus far. But in quite shallow fashion, she doesn’t describe how she crafted the games, but lays out her biography via them.

The book is short and quickly read.

It provokes the reader in many ways.

And while hardly a real manifesto for changing the industry, it’s definitely a worthy read.

Apr 012012

Trainyard logoMatt Rix’s Trainyard was one of the very first games I purchased for the iPad, and one that I still enjoy occasionally.

Trainyard is a puzzle game where the aim is to build tracks to get various train engines to their destinations. The goal is complicated by the color requirements of the trains – the trains change color upon crossing each other and this ability is needed on most of the non-trivial levels.

The game itself is accompanied with a large and well-behaving community, where solutions to various levels are debated and optimized relentlessly in addition to members competing to create new content for the game. After all, the engine itself is simple, but stretches to very complex demands.

The user interface is exquisitely smooth, the difficulty curve pleasantly inclined and all in all the game’s been worth way more than its three dollar asking price.

And with a site explaining the theory and practice of track arrangement, it’s even easier to become a track-laying monster in the matter of a few well-spent hours.

Mar 052012

Mass Effect logo
The last steps between the second and final installments of the Mass Effect trilogy have been rather misguided.

Arrival, the bridging piece of DLC leading into the third game manages to forget everything that made the games worthwhile. It is a single character shoot-em-up with far too limited control over events. Gave up in disgust, my action chops were clearly inadequate to finish the repetitive firefights.

Deception, the fourth novel of the sequence introduces a new author. Drew Karpyshyn’s original trilogy went beyond expectations in providing insight into the universe. William C. Dietz’s take is peculiar to say the least, prompting guesses that it was written after no exposure to the vividly realized world. The fan reception has been so violently hostile that the publisher has announced it will rectify the worst offenses in future editions. Which, obviously, doesn’t do anything for the people who have already purchased the novel.

Feb 272012

1000 Heroz logoRed Lynx’s 1000 Heroz is a game that lasts a thousand days. At least.

The game is updated with new content daily, and thus there will be close to three years worth of new playing for the princely sum of a euro.

1000 Heroz is a simple game – the task is to guide the daily character (everybody has a quasi-historical name) from start to goal across a scrolling playing field as fast as possible. The journey is mostly against the geography – there are very few mobile elements on screen. The controls are simple as well, just three virtual buttons on screen – left, right and jump (where the duration of the flight is determined by the length of the press).

The games does not vary that much, the levels are pretty much the same – and the only goals are the twin times that mark silver and gold level of accomplishment. The former tends to be moderately reachable (though some levels put up a sizable fight), the latter sometimes trivial or behind a seriously optimized romp with no false steps allowed.

1000 Heroz pulls in new content daily. And the update cycle has been subverted for a good purpose already once.

Feb 062012

Pinball Arcade screenshotPinball Arcade, an extensible collection of pinball tables from multiple eras is set to hit iOS devices on Thursday.

Sadly, the web page is more or less useless, and the description and updates are available on Facebook only.

The game ships with four tables, with more to be released as DLC on a monthly interval.

The visuals are impressive, but as usual, a pinball game either lives or dies on how it feels.

Nov 152011

I’ve been persistently resistent to any learning to play the guitar.

Now, with two games to assist in becoming the latter-day-yngwie of Nöykkiö, it’s perhaps time to give the six-stringer a second shot.

In the electronic corner: Rocksmith, whose arrival in Europe has been delayed indefinitely by a lawsuit by a british band with the same name. The song list is impressively varied – and contains a couple of seventies classics that’d be nice in the repertoire indeed.

In the acoustic corner: Wildchords by Ovelin. The finnish iOS application has stormed into the appstore, but the website contains preciously little information about the actual content.

So perhaps it’s time to get not one, but two guitars into the HQ soon.