Lover’s spat

I don’t usually get real personal on this blog, but I think I know you all well enough now that I feel comfortable telling you about this. I just need to tell *someone* y’know? Just need a willing ear to listen to my tale of sorrow.

Y’see, Valkyria Chronicles and I have had our first fight.

Things were going so great, and even when the fight happened, I just thought it was a little thing that we’d just get through. A speed bump on the way to our long term bliss. But days later, we’re still at an impasse.

I just can’t beat Chapter 7.

Worse, it’s a *long* battle and I’ve played for over an hour before hitting the “Game Over” screen. It isn’t that I’m a poor battlefield commander: rather, the problem is the mission is one big fat puzzle, and you pretty have to resort to trial and error before you can get past it.


The goal is to stop a mammoth tank that follows (it turns out) a pre-set route through the battlefield. The tank is bristling with turrets that’ll kill a squad member in one turn if caught out in the open. And the tank can’t be hurt until it blasts a stone wall (which it has to do every so often in order to move forward), at which point some vulnerable Radiators are exposed for 1 turn. Classic boss-battle stuff. There are 3 of these radiators, and after you knock off two of them, enemy reinforcements arrive, including an unkillable character with a 1-shot=kill weapon. Worse, by the time these reinforcements show up, the AI has a so many Command Points that the newbies sweep across the battlefield all at once. So you’d better have everyone in deep cover when they show up.

There are 4 stone walls that the enemy has to blast, and 3 radiators to destroy, so you can muff one attempt. Basically you need to use your tank and lancers to destroy the turrets, then when the radiators appear, charge the tank with a grenade-carrying troop (ie, not a lancer) and stuff a grenade down the opening of the radiator (and once you destroy one, the others drop, so its not good trying to get 2 from 1 wall blast). So far I’ve gotten as far as trying for the 3rd spot, and I gosh-darned MISSED throwing the dang grenade (and really you’re just dropping the thing in a hole). ARGHHHH!

Each play through I get a bit farther along, but again..we’re talking an hour each attempt. I just now googled and there are some walk throughs for this mission, and I guess I’m going to resort to them. It’s just been such a shock and a disappointment to find such a puzzle-based, trial & error dependent mission after all the fun I’d been having finding my own way to fight each battle.

I’m hoping this battle is an anomaly and not the way the rest of the game plays out. I hate “puzzledy” strategy games. I want to develop *a* winning strategy, not find *the* single pre-programmed ‘win’ strategy through trial and error, y’know? [Having now read a few of the aforementioned walk-throughs, it’s clear there isn’t literally 1 way to beat the mission, but still all the methods are pretty similar, and you’d still never be able to beat the battle until you played a few times to learn where and when the triggers were.]

Valkyria Chronicles First Look: Part 3

Finally we get to the core gameplay mechanic of Valkyria Chronicles: combat. As you flip through the panels of the Book mode, you’ll come to missions that must be undertaken. You’ll also unlock skirmishes as you move through the game: these can be played over and over in order to level up your army.

Combat takes place on two levels: there’s a strategic ‘map’ view of the combat area used for planning, and then a third person view for the actual combat. Each turn you get a set number of Command Points which are spent to give a particular fighter a turn, or to issue a command-level Order. These Orders are learned via the old man in the Cemetery back at HQ or get unlocked via leveling your army. Orders do things like heal a particular unit, increase evasion, call down sniper fire on a specific enemy, etc. You’ll tend to use these pretty lightly, with the bulk of your Command points going to giving your troops a chance to move.

Once you expend a Command Point to activate a unit, you zoom down into the 3D representation of the battlefield until you’re looking over that unit’s shoulder. A unit has a set number of Action Points it will spend in moving around the battlefield, and the ability to perform one activity per movement phase. That activity can be firing at an enemy, hurling a grenade, or healing an ally. As a unit moves it’ll be given the opportunity to crouch behind sandbags, crawl when in tall grass, etc. There are no time limits to this phase, but enemies will fire at you while you’re exposed and moving around, which can put a quick end to that unit’s military career.

In order to fire/throw/heal, you tap the R1 button which brings up a targeting reticule. At this point time is frozen. You move the reticule over your intended target and hit the X button to fire. Location on the target does count, so you can try for head shots or try to hit the radiator on the back of a tank (the mechanical version of a head shot). Grenades arc and do area-of-effect damage but their range is pretty short. To heal someone (or in the case of an engineer, repair the Edelweiss) you need to be adjacent to them. If you’re firing on an enemy who is unaware of you, you get a bonus to you chance to hit.

After firing, a unit can continue to move assuming it has Action Points left. There is a brief pause after firing which seems designed to let the bad guys get off a least a couple shots at you, but it is very possible to dart out into a street, shoot a bad guy in the back, then run back behind cover before he can return fire. In fact, that’s SOP for a Scout. Once you are done moving and firing a particular unit, hitting the Circle button brings you back to Command view to issue more orders. You can issue multiple orders to a single unit in one turn, but each time they get fewer and fewer action points (and in some cases ammunition is limited and replenishes only between turns). At any time you can end your turn, and unused Command Points will “roll-over” to the next turn.

While the enemy is moving, you’ll be looking at the Command map. You’ll see spotted enemy units moving (and your troops will auto-fire on them from time to time, but seemingly not as often as the enemy does to you) or “hear” units moving in the form of comic-book style sound-effect bubbles appearing on the map. These will give you a general indication of where the enemy is.

And those are the basics of combat in Valkyria Chronicles. I’m finding battles to be an awful lot of fun, hearkening back to classic PC games like Jagged Alliance or X-Com. “Opportunity Fire” is represented by units auto-firing when they see an enemy. Most battlefields have Camps to occupy, and you can Retreat units from these camps (move them off the battlefield) and bring in Reinforcements from your squad in their place. So (for example) if you run into a squad of tanks and are short on Lancers, you can Retreat a couple of Snipers and bring in Lancers to deal with the tanks. Some aspects of the battlefield are destructable, which adds to the fun. When the Edelweiss knocks over a wall that’s protecting a bunch of AI units leaving them exposed to withering fire from your Shocktroopers…that’s a good feeling. 🙂

The AI isn’t particularly challenging, at least early on in the game, but the odds are always stacked against you (and finishing a battle faster yields a better rating and rewards). This fits in with the overall theme of the game being a small group of militia kicking the butt of a much larger military force. But I have seen the AI do some really silly things, like attempt to auto-fire on one of my troops but instead shoot another AI unit standing next to the firing unit. On the plus side that shows that ammo is “live” with a real trajectory and collision detection, I guess.

I guess that ends my rather verbose “First Look” at Valkyria Chronicles. I didn’t know much about the game when I added it to my Christmas List, other than the fact that it was a strategy game that was getting good reviews but not doing well in sales. So far I’ve been absolutely delighted, and I hoped that by describing the game a bit, I could turn on a few PS3 owners to this (so far, at least) excellent game.

Valkyria Chronicles First Look: Part 2

Today I want to talk about the somewhat unusual RPG aspects of Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3. Full disclosure: I’m now about 11 hours into the game and some aspects of it still haven’t “opened up” yet.

Individual characters in VC don’t gain experience or have inventories. Instead, characters (each of whom has a name and a background) are broken down into five classes: scouts have lots of mobility but not a lot of armor or firepower; shocktroopers carry machine guns for big short range damage; lancers are anti-tank foot soldiers with low mobility; engineers have low combat skills but can repair tanks and resupply everyone; snipers have high long-distance firepower but not a lot of mobility or armor. Finally your ‘main character’ is a tank commander, and he drives around in a custom tank named the Edelweiss – as far as I know this is the only tank you get in the game.

At the end of every mission you gain ducats and experience. Ducats are used to upgrade weapons, armor and parts for the Edelweiss. When a weapon is upgraded, every unit that carries that weapon immediately gets the upgraded model. So if you upgrade the sniper rifle, it means all your snipers get more powerful. Ducats can also be spent to finance the ongoing writings of an embedded reporter who travels with you. These unlock “side stories” to the main story, some of which come with extra missions, and some of which are just expository.

Experience is used to “level up” a class of soldier. You can spend experience points as you see fit, distributing it among the five classes, but I’d imagine most people are going to do what I’m doing and just distribute it more or less evenly so all classes stay about the same level. Frankly this takes a lot of the classic RPG decision making out of the game (which is part of why I’m calling this a Storybook Strategy game rather than a Strategy-RPG). There’s also a mysterious aged gentleman that you meet who can teach you new Commands in exchange for experience points. More about Commands in my next post.

So now you’ll be thinking that all your troops are more or less interchangeable, right? But no, each individual is in fact unique. First, their stats vary slightly, and with these, what you see is what you get. If you have a particular Shocktrooper with lower-than-usual HP, you just have to live with that. Also, each character has a set of other characters that he or she likes, and having characters who like each other fighting together gives some bonuses to combat.

More interesting though, are Potentials. Each character has a set of Potentials, which are either buffs or debuffs that trigger depending on the situation on the battlefield. Potentials can be environment related (some characters are country-bred and hate being in the city but get a bonus for being in the country, others might have allergies to pollen and are adversely affected by being in tall grass) and others are character-related. Lots of characters have Potentials such as “Likes Women” (potential for a bonus around females) or “Hates Men” (potential for a debuff around males) while others have Potentials related to how many people are around them. And it goes on and on… I’m still uncovering new Potentials all the time (as a class levels up they ‘unlock’ more Potentials for that class).

So this is where the real role-playing comes in: You’re about to go out on a mission. You check the terrain and the situation. First you decide what kinds of troops you’re going to need. Then you have to decide which individuals are going to work well in this environment, and further take into account their inter-personal Likes and Potentials in order maximize their chances for success. You can spend a lot of time building the perfect team for a particular mission.

A few last notes: when an individual’s health drops to zero hit points, he or she collapses. You now have three turns to get a friendly to the fallen unit in order to medivac them off the battlefield. Also, if an enemy gets to the fallen tropper first, the enemy will finish them off. Once an individual is dead, they’re gone for good. You have a good sized pool of soldiers to pick from, but remember that each has a different set of Potentials; you might really want that individual for a specific purpose later on. Plus you get to know all these people and it feels bad to let one die (assuming you’re any kind of role-player).

Lastly, if all this fiddling with Potentials and Likes and so forth sounds like too much of a pain, you can run “Skirmish” battles to earn ducats and experience and just level up your army, making them powerful enough that the edge given by careful team-building isn’t needed to win the day. I find choices in play-style like this to be a positive, but I know some people need to be forced into playing one way and will see this as a flaw. Do yourself a favor and don’t go crazy leveling up your army by grinding Skirmishes. The game is incredibly fun when the battles are challenging affairs.

Next time, I’ll finally get to Combat in Valkyria Chronicles.

Valkyria Chronicles First Look, Part 1

As mentioned, I received Valkyria Chronicles for the PS3 as a Christmas present this year. So far I’ve put 4-5 hours into it, and my initial reaction is very favorable indeed.

This game is probably classified as a Strategy-RPG but I’m going to coin a new genre here: Storybook Strategy. A Storybook Strategy game is a strongly narrative-driven game that uses strategy battles to move a story forward. In the case of Valkyria Chronicles, the term applies literally since rather than a world map or other device, you literally move through the game via a book.

The book tells the story of the small country of Gallia, caught between two super-powers in an alternate-world World War II (called the Second Europa War here). The Empire in East are the ‘bad guys’ while the Federation to the West are…well, less bad anyway. The Empire were the initial aggressors. Gallia sits on the coast of the North Sea roughly where Estonia and Latvia are in our world (geography isn’t exactly the same as the real world) but the little country feels more western than that. At the start of the story, the Empire is invading Gallia to get at the Ragnite that lies unmined under Gallian soil. (Ragnite, in this world, is the chief energy source; kind of oil and coal and dynamite — even medicine — wrapped into one resource.) The story revolves around Squad 7, a rag-tag militia squad doing their best to contribute to the defense of their country.

Anyway, back to the book, which looks like a richly illustrated history book, where each illustration or map triggers a cut-scene or battle (the actual text surrounding these panels isn’t readable). So you turn pages and work your way through chapters uncovering the story via cut-scene, and moving things along by winning battles. The ‘watercolor’ art style is very bright and peppy, but already there are some dark themes manifesting. The Empire has no qualms about killing civilians, even shooting them in the back as they flee. And among your squad there are issues of extreme racism and hate between members. Quite different from the usual “Good guys are GOOD” angle that most games take.

In Part 2 of my First Look, I’ll get into the RPG aspects of the game, which are fairly unique in a number of ways. I know that “linear” is a bad-word in the gaming nomenclature, but I really enjoy a linear game if it tells a compelling story, and so far Valkyria Chronicles’ story has me hooked.

No place like Home

The only “gaming” I did last night was running around in Playstation Home, since it was announced that all the free junk in beta would turn to “paid for” junk in Open Beta. I fervently hope this isn’t true, because if it is I think Sony is in for a big surprise.

Would you pay real money for a virtual ottoman for your virtual apartment? I know I wouldn’t, and I hope a lot of these ‘basic items’ remain free.

Overall, to say I’ve been underwhelmed with the Home beta would be an understatement. I think its a train wreck, and this coming from a Sony Fanboy. I greatly prefer the PS3 over the XBox 360 or Wii, but this…service. I don’t get.

Everyone gets a big sterile empty apartment that they can decorate and do nothing in. Or you can go to the Central Plaza, which is a big, sterile open area for you to do nothing in (though I understand they’ve added a game to this area in today’s update). You can go to the mall to shop for the aforementioned virtual items, but when you attempt to pass through the doors into a store you get a big menu pop-up. There is no actual store to walk around in. There’s a movie theater that, for me at least, takes longer to download the “movie” (trailer, really) than it does to play it.

And there’s the bowling alley, the one tiny pocket of fun in the service. You can play pool there, or bowl, or access an arcade machine. I’ve only done the latter and it was ok.

As for the avatars, they are universally creepy, in that “uncanny valley” way. Also they all feel completely generic. You have a ton of analog controls to set cheek height and mouth width and brow protrusion and on and on, but everyone still ends up looking like a 20-something mallrat dweeb. I feel that both the XBox Avatars and the Nintendo Miis allow a better “reflect my personality” experience with their virtual creations.

The bright shining hope for Home comes from Red Bull. There’s a Red Bull Pavillion that’s going in (maybe today?) that, from the previews I’ve seen, looks visually interesting and has some activities to do (flying a stunt plane). But the ‘out of the box’ content for Home is sterile, boring, and pointless. If it had just showed up it would’ve been fine (given that its free, after all) but after the months and months of hype, launching this is just another example of Sony shooting themselves in the foot.

But everyone is getting it, so I’d love to hear what I’m missing. Please leave a comment telling me what you’re enjoying about Home.

Here’s some footage from the Red Bull sponsored area. More areas like this one would make Home a fun and exciting product. I really hope this is in for launch.

Cleaning up

Haven’t done a ton of gaming so far this weekend so haven’t had a lot to post about. I did fiddle around with Nile Online a lot yesterday, but that meant checking in on my city every couple of hours. I’m still enjoying that game quite a bit.

One of my PS3 hard drives was getting pretty full so I spent some time cleaning that up. I watched episodes three through six of Qore, the online magazine on the Playstation Network. It’s an entertaining product, but I’m still unconvinced its worth the price, *unless* you’re all about getting into betas. If it gets you into one beta you’re really jazzed about, then the ~$25/year is probably worth it. (My math there is that the product itself is probably worth $15/year and getting into a beta you really really want to get into is probably worth $10 to you.)

In Warhammer, I put all my characters except my Witch Hunter to bed, mentally. I cleaned out their mailboxes, organized their inventory. In the case of my Shadow Warrior I pushed him to the next Rank so he could wear a cloak I’d sent him from another character. That way he’ll look a bit snazzier when I come back to him in a month or two. Everyone is in a camp now, drinking ale and waiting for my return. Everyone, that is, except my CoW character, who I’ll continue to play right up to the cut-off day, though honestly knowing the account is going to expire soon makes that feel a little sad. At the same time I’m already a little excited about the improvements that will be in the game when I come back to it.

Probably next weekend I’ll fire up the EQ2 account so I can get re-familiarized with things before the expansion lands on the doorstep. Hmm, actually that doesn’t bode well for playing Warhammer next weekend, so maybe this will be the last week for my Witch Hunter.

I played some of The Witcher last night. I bought this game a year or so ago and it wasn’t too good, but they released an “Enhanced Edition” a couple months back and offered a free “upgrade” mega-patch to all registered users of the game. I started a fresh game just before the Fall tsunami of new game releases hit. I’m not very far into it but my conscience has been nagging at me not to lose track of it. I started playing it once on release, then restarted for this enhanced version. I know myself enough to realize that if I totally lose touch with the game and have to restart a third time, I never will.

And it seems like a pretty good game now. It feels a little like a cross between Fable 2 and an MMO, actually. It has a skill-based progression (though with ‘generic’ experience so you don’t sculpt your character via actions like you do in Fable 2), action-ish combat (left click to melee, right click to fire a spell, melee chains via timed button presses) like Fable 2, an alchemy crafting system similar to what you’d find in an MMO (with you getting components from foes you slay), NPCs offering side quests and an apparently huge, MMO-sized world. Anyway, we’ll see. I need to get back to Fable 2 today!

So what’s everyone else been up to this weekend?

Sony’s Blunders

Is anyone else wondering what the heck is going on at Sony’s Entertainment Division? The past few weeks have seen one mistake after another:

  • SOCOM: Confrontation (an online only game) launched with the servers not working at all well. This is secondhand info but I read enough reports about the problems that I’m confident that they were real and widespred. People spoke of spending more time staring at menus waiting than actually playing the game.
  • LittleBigPlanet got delayed because of the Qur’an lyrics in one of the music selections for the game. How did this only become an issue in the eleventh hour? Wouldn’t you think you’d get a translation of any song lyrics that were going to be in your game, well before launch? The delay took a lot of the ‘bang’ out of the launch; instead of a single launch day when everyone was getting the game, we got a launch window of about 4 days. Which might have been a blessing in disguise because….
  • LittleBigPlanet servers were also borked on launch. Not only did this mean you couldn’t play online, it also impacted the single player game (if you were logged into PSN, which must of us are if our PS3s are internet-connected). I talked about this here; the long and sluggish load times I experienced were indeed caused by the game trying to talk to the servers and not being able to. Not the way to make a good first impression.
  • Last and admittedly least, the Mirror’s Edge demo is hitting PSN and XBox Live Arcade this week. There’s a lot of buzz and anticipation built up around this game, and for once, a demo was coming out first on PSN, and not on XBLA until the following day. Except the Playstation Store didn’t get updated until late evening ET. I’m thinking it was somewhere around 10 pm? I started to download the demo, but (Playstation Store servers being the slow beasts they are) had to go to bed before the download was complete. Advantage squandered.

I love my PS3 and during the prior console generation I appreciated the broader range of games offered on the Sony platform than you can generally find elsewhere. But now the JRPG’s are moving to the 360, and the ‘quirky’ games tend to show up as downloadable titles so you can get them anywhere. The only advantage Sony seems to still have is hardware reliability and even that may be fading as Microsoft finally starts getting the 360 hardware right.

Sony has been struggling and this holiday season is its change to turn that around some, and maybe it can. But it needs to stop making these highly visible blunders if its going to gain (and retain) the confidence of gamers. Fable 2 is only on XBox. Fallout 3 looks better on XBox. And Microsoft’s game servers tend to be pretty reliable. Let’s hope that the Resistance 2 servers are rock solid when that game launches.

Little Big Planet Day 2

I jumped back into this again, just for a few moments. Which turned into an hour and a half.

Servers are up finally, and load times are way way down, so as I suspected in my last post it looks like the game was phoning home for some reason and slowing down load times.

I re-ran the level that I got 37% in yesterday and got up to 50%. Still lots of hidden goodies! Then played through a few more levels, finishing the first “section” which unlocked more modes. Tons more fun tonight than last night, with jet packs and hazards and getting flung all over the place.

I downloaded my first user-created level. The bad: it took a bit for it to download. Not, y’know, 15 minutes, but maybe 3-4, which is a long time when you might get total junk. Also, in a way it made it apparent that Trophies will be pretty easy to farm in this game, since the level had a little treasure room that I got a 50X score multiplier in.

The good… it was a simple but fun level that had me laughing out loud the first time I played it. And of course I’ve forgotten the name of it, but I “Hearted” it so if you friend me (Dragonchasers is my PSN name) I think you can see what I’ve ‘Hearted’. Now what I love tonight I might think is mediocre after I explore more, so keep that in mind.

All in all, I’m totally sold. This is as great a toy as I’d hoped it would be. I imagine it’ll also be a cash cow for Sony… I’d be really surprised if they didn’t offer weekly DLC packs (I’m thinking $1-$2 packs with a bunch of items and stickers).

LittleBigPlanet quick look

Amazon finally delivered my copy of LittleBigPlanet today. I only got an hour or so with it, so the usual huge caveats apply…this isn’t a review or even an in-depth first look.

Bad stuff first: the online servers are borked. Trying to upload a high score (which happens automatically) fails, and there are other times where I *think* (hope?) the game is trying to call home and can’t. The reason I say I hope so is that the level loading times are just awful. The screen actually will freeze for long seconds before going back to an animated “loading” state, and I’m hoping again that this has something to do with the online servers. I should’ve tried logging out of PSN and trying again.

Once you’re actually *playing* the game though…it’s just a joy. Pretty much exactly what you think it would be… a physics-based platformer. The first couple levels (that’s all I did) are a mix of tutorials and gameplay. They’re very easy to complete, but getting all the hidden goodies on level 2 won’t be easy. I snagged 100% of the items on level 1 but only 37% on level 2.

The ‘marionette’ system is really neat. Turning the controller makes you sack dude (or dudette) turn its head. Holding a shoulder button lets you control the corresponding arm with the analog sticks. So you can turn and point and wave your arms’s pretty cute (though has no impact on gameplay). And there’s all the dressing up and decorating that you’ve seen in all the videos.

The presentation is superb, with Stephen Fry narrating, a great (and now Qur’an free, I suppose) soundtrack and those super sharp visuals you’ve already seen.

Now all that said… I’m not sure its a game I’ll sit and play for hour upon hour. I think its going to be more of casual “drop in and play a level or two” kind of game for me. But we’ll see. I just think at this stage in my gaming life I’m more interesting in compelling narrative than in just completing levels. That’s not really a flaw of the game though.

Oh, and I’m guessing this will be an absolute blast in multiplayer!