Thursday, December 26, 2019

No-Castling Chess

Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik has proposed a new chess variant: No-Castling Chess.

To Kramnik, the problem with high-level chess is that it results in draws more often than wins. The logic behind his proposal is pretty straightforward:
  • There are too many draws because defense is stronger than offense.
  • Castling is a very strong defensive move.
  • Banning castling keeps the king in the center, making it more vulnerable and empowering offense.
  • It also makes it harder to "link" the rooks.
Most other solutions for high-level chess have focused on introducing randomness and time pressure. This is an interesting proposal because there is no randomness at all. In fact, it's a simpler variant of chess that everyone learns before you learn about about castling. But because castling is so strong, pretty much all established theory assumes that one or both sides castle early in the game.

Kramnik is apparently working with Alpha-Zero, and he says that Alpha-Zero comes up with some very interesting games in this new scenario.

Of course, this isn't a proposal which makes it likely that humans will start beating computers once again. It may turn out that White's moving first is an insurmountable advantage with a stronger offense. And after a few years, new opening theory will be established. But for those few years, high-level chess will be very interesting as the game is figured out once again.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

First Impressions of Control

On a whim, I picked up Control, by Remedy Games, from the Epic Games Store because it was on sale for the holidays. I'm really glad I did, because it's a lot of fun. However, it's also a game where I would strongly recommend that you go in blind, because discovering everything about the setting and story is so enjoyable.

I've put anything even slightly spoiler-ish behind the cut. Here are the non-spoiler important points:
  • Control is a third-person shooter.
  • The setting is modern-day paranormal. Shades of the X-Files and Half-Life.
  • There doesn't appear to be a difficulty setting. However, the game does not seem to be overly difficult. It's possible it will get harder later, or maybe there's some dynamic difficulty going on.
Heh, it's pretty hard to try and convince people to play this game while withholding all information. But the setting and story of the game are just so interesting and well done.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Supergiant's Hades?

Supergiant Games--developer of Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre--has a new game out, Hades.

Or at least, I think they do.

I was browsing Steam when it popped up. I really enjoyed those three previous games, so I went to buy it, but then paused when I saw the 'Early Access' label. The three previous games were story-based games, so does that mean this one is not? Or perhaps they are releasing the story in pieces?

The game is described as a "rogue-like". The early reviews all seem uniformly positive, with many saying that this is one of the most polished Early Access games they've seen.

Supergiant themselves describe Early Access this way:
We designed Hades as an Early Access game from the ground up. Our foremost goal was to see if we could create something great in partnership with our community -- a game that was true to our values about design, worldbuilding, and storytelling, and could naturally evolve based on the feedback we'd get along the way. Every aspect of the game, from its modular structure to its approach to narrative, flow from this idea.
What the hell does this mean?

If I buy Hades now, is it a beta where it changes significantly, and I would have to start over when it reaches 1.0? Or maybe because it's a rogue-like where you are constantly dying and restarting runs, changes to the core game don't really matter story-wise. And the story is set in stone, even if new chapters are released slowly?

Should I buy this game now? Should I wait for Hades to actually release? Normally, buying a Supergiant game would be a no-brainer. Buy it, play it through to the end, thoroughly enjoy it, and then wait for their next game.

Why do game companies insist on making things complicated?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Jedi: Fallen Order Complete!

I finished Jedi: Fallen Order today! It was a great deal of fun.

The story was really good. A fairly standard story about a padawan becoming a knight, but executed very well. The characters and voice acting were good. The ending sequence was great!

The main villain, the Second Sister, was particularly excellent. Every time she showed up, she made the game better. One of these days, I really need to write something about how video games are so much better at making female villains than other media.

I can't really speak for the combat. This is not really my main genre, and I played it on Story mode. But even button-mashing felt a little strategic, and it was nice to pull off moves.

I really liked how the game slowly unlocked force powers through the story. It was interesting how you would return to areas where you had been, only now you can access new sections because of your new powers. They did a good job with the map, too, making it clear what you can and cannot access.

To be clear, Fallen Order isn't an RPG. It's a straightforward, linear, adventure game or platformer. It has lots of jumping puzzles and sequences, and no choices in the story. If you go in expecting something like Knights of the Old Republic, you will be disappointed. Fallen Order is what it is, but does a great job of being that.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Unique Character Archetypes

Unrelated to gaming, but I came across a character archetype I've never encountered before in Edith Layton's The Amiable Miser:
Alfred Minch was an amiable miser. He didn't kick beggars out of his way when they pleaded for alms in the street. He actually smiled at them. He just never gave them anything. ... Smiles and compliments cost nothing, and he was free with them, and good at them, too.
It was completely novel to me, and yet it makes logical sense, and hangs together well. Misers are usually miserable, cantankerous people, exemplified by Ebenezer Scrooge from Dicken's A Christmas Carol. Yet that isn't a truly necessary quality for being a miser.

Are there any other unique archetypes you've encountered in games, literature or other media? Archetypes that make sense, and yet you almost never see?

Monday, December 09, 2019

First Impressions of Jedi: Fallen Order

Looking to get the most out of my EA Access subscription, I'm trying Jedi: Fallen Order next.

Fallen Order is pretty much a pure adventure game, with lots of movement and jumping puzzles. The controls are pretty good, and so far the jumping puzzles aren't too hard.

I did turn the combat difficulty down to Story mode. I figured I was already dying a lot from failing to jump correctly, so I may as well skip dying in combat as well.

The story is pretty straightforward so far. The main character, Cal, is a padawan who escaped the purge and has been hiding ever since. But then he's forced out of hiding by Imperial Inquisitors, and joins a mission to reform the Jedi Order. So far the story is pretty straightforward. Cal is a likeable protagonist, with minimal angst, which is nice to see.

The game has pretty clever use of force powers, and interesting lightsaber combat. A little too heavy on the slow-mo kill animations, but that's a pretty minor quibble. To be honest, I'm pretty much just mashing buttons in combat, rather than parrying and using combos properly.

The main character animations, and the interactions with your droid, are superb. You can tell Respawn put a ton of effort into this, and they did a beautiful job.

All in all, it's a pretty fun game. Though if you hate jumping puzzles, you may want to give this one a miss.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Vampyr Complete!

I finally finished Vampyr today!

I was having a fair bit of trouble with the last boss. My build was based entirely around stunning and biting, and the last boss couldn't be stunned! Instead there were adds which you could bite for blood, but I was having trouble with them.

Finally after a lot of dodging, buying another rank of the health passive, and going though all my available health potions, I defeated the boss with a sliver of health left!

The ending was solid and tied up a lot of the loose ends. One thing that was interesting is that you could piece together the ending from all the various lore items that you picked up over the course of the game. The game also offered some lore items during the final chapter that filled out details, even though the final conversation sequence covered the same ground.

Now that I'm typing that out, it sounds redundant, but really it reinforced the ending. A little repetition in different formats allowing you to understand exactly what happened. A lot of games miss how hard it is to convey complicated information to the player without dumbing everything down.

I did beat the game without embracing any civilians, so I got the "best" ending. It was a satisfying and appropriate ending.

In particular, Vampyr has me reconsidering my penchant for playing games on Story difficulty. I very often do so, justifying it because I'm primarily interested in the story and not really a twitch gamer. But I rather think that without failing again and again on the bosses (especially the boss of Act III), I would not have experienced the point of Vampyr. The way Dontnod used the difficulty to simulate the temptation of drinking blood for the vampire. It was an excellent mechanic.

All in all, I really enjoyed Vampyr. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting RPG that's different from the normal fantasy world. Vampyr was an excellent blend of story, setting, and mechanics. I will be keeping an eye out for other games by Dontnod Entertainment.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

December Updates

World of Warcraft

Still boycotting.


I'm working on the boss of Act V (I think). This one puts circles of light on the ground that you have to avoid, but if you get too far away from him, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting. I'm still trying to find a good strategy of dealing with it.

I do have one side-quest outstanding. I may go and do that quickly before coming back to this boss.

The Old Republic

I think Bioware messed up the scaling on the vehicles. I'm taking my Inquisitor through Iokath, and there's this one part where you have to fight 3 giant Sentinel robots in a Walker, and I'm just getting wrecked. I can't even kill one before I die. I seriously do not remember this fight being this hard.

Final Fantasy XIV

I'm slowly leveling Red Mage. I'm up to 78 now. While waiting for the queue to pop, I'm leveling Botanist and Armorer. I rather like the changes that SE made to the gathering and crafting classes. They also level extremely fast now. I can get 2 to 3 levels of Botanist just from the class quests that come every 5 levels.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Vampyr Combat Mechanics

I'm still making my way through Vampyr. I estimate I'm at the 80% mark or so. I think there's two major reasons it's taking me so long. First, I'm very under-leveled due to the whole not eating people thing, and I'm not particularly skilled with twitch mechanics, so boss fights take me a long time to beat. In hindsight, I probably should have played the game on Story. Though I rather think I would have missed much of the "point" of the game that way.

Second, there's a lot of conversations and puzzles with the citizens that I'm really enjoying, and that eats up a lot of time.

I thought I'd discuss the mechanics of the game. They're nothing greatly out of the ordinary, but they work well together.

There are three resources in combat: health, stamina, and blood. Swinging your weapon costs stamina, as does dodging. If you aren't attacking, stamina recovers fairly quickly. Blood powers your vampire abilities, which includes a healing ability, an attack, a defensive, mobility and a special on a long cooldown.

Enemies have two resources: health and a "stun" meter. Certain weapons (like clubs or stakes) can inflict stun damage, as can timing a parry correctly. If you reduce the stun meter to zero, the enemy is stunned and you can bite them and drink some blood, increasing your blood meter. Once they come out of the stun, the stun meter goes back to full.

So combat basically follows a pattern of dodging and parrying enemy attacks, getting some damage in, stunning and biting, then using the blood to heal up and use vampire abilities, and repeat.

One other mechanic is that while you are biting someone, any other opponents won't attack you. That makes it a nice break to allow your stamina to regenerate. I'm not entirely sure if this makes sense from a logical perspective (after all, wouldn't you attack the vampire to save your friend?) but it does allow the whole cycle to actually work. Otherwise biting someone in combat would be an automatic loss.

There are other options. For example, you can alter certain weapons to drain blood, so you don't need to stun and bite. Not every weapon can parry. Some weapons are fast and some are slow. There are firearms, which do a lot of damage, but because of the time period they don't hold a lot of ammunition, so you get very few shots off.

Bosses have a lot of health, and if you get caught by them, they tend to deal a lot of damage in quick succession. A boss fight can be going reasonably well, and then you make one mistake and you lose 60% of your health in short succession, especially if you get knocked down. At least for me, most of the blood drained goes toward constantly healing myself.

All in all, the combat mechanics work well together, there's a nice flow, and they reinforce the whole vampire aspect of the game.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Reconsidering the Blizzard Boycott

I miss my guild. I miss raiding. I'm beginning to wonder if I should just bow to the inevitable, and give up this boycott of Blizzard.

There was a kerfuffle last week in the Magic: the Gathering community. Their Creative department had always been reliably progressive in past. Two of the five "main" characters, Chandra and Nissa, were both women and attracted to each other.

That relationship was unceremoniously dispatched in the latest novel, with Chandra emphasizing she was attracted to men. Wizards of the Coast followed the Blizzard playbook exactly and "apologized", but confirmed the new direction. The apology was not accessible from China.

Maybe China dictating the practices of Western companies is just the new normal, and the only thing one can reasonably do is enjoy the decline. 

Nassim Taleb puts forth an interesting theory in a chapter from his book, Skin in the Game: The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority. He suggests that in a tolerant society, the rules will be dictated by the most intransigent minority with skin in the game. In our new globalist era, that's basically China. 

It's a pretty interesting theory, actually, though Taleb doesn't really address what happens when there are multiple intransigent minorities holding opposite views. In this case, does the largest minority win? Does the market attempt to offer options, to placate each minority separately?

So that's what I'm contemplating. Should I reinstall WoW or not? I really would like to raid again. On the other hand, one cannot become an intransigent minority without actually being intransigent.