Friday, 16 January 2015

Cool Games Showcase: Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator is one of the most interesting and exciting PC games I've seen in a long time. Its got me rethinking what a digital game is and has potentially limitless depth. I must say that the developers have done a pretty lousy job marketing their own product- there’s a lot more to this than the table flip.

In case you don't know, and the name isn't obvious enough, Tabletop Simulator is a simulator of physical games. Tabletop Sim isn’t really a computer game in the normal sense as the software doesn’t regulate moves, rules and victory conditions. It is indeed less a game and more a tool for playing games.

To play the games you manipulate physics-based objects in the exact same way you’d use a physical table. If you have to move a piece 3 spaces then you must grab the piece with your virtual hand and move it one, two, three spaces. Dice rolls aren’t a random number generator you click on- they’re modelled three-dimensional objects you have to toss across the table- just don’t be over-zealous and pelt them off the table. Actions like that make Tabletop Sim far more immersive than any other digital board game conversions.

Connect 4
The controls are very smartly designed and cover pretty much all of the actions you would want to take when handling dice, models or cards. You can easily flip and rotate anything. If you throw any cards in your direction, they will snap into a hand area, obscuring their faces from the other players. Its smart decisions like this that prevent the virtual hand from becoming too cumbersome to manipulate with a mouse. The devs have succeeded in simplifying the most repetitive actions you’d perform with a board/card game. Some tasks are easier to do in TS than real life like the ability to shuffle cards by just shaking the mouse or the ability to snap placed objects onto a grid. I also must praise the ability to see a close-up of a card at anytime by holding alt. That one feature has probably saved me a ridiculous amount of time moving the camera. There is also controller support that I’m yet to try out myself.

Cards Against Humanity
Tabletop Sim really does just give the players some objects on flat surface. Its up to the humans involved to follow the rules and maintain a semblance of order. In spite of the inclusion of some admin powers, the potential for griefing is great. That is, if you were to play with strangers. In the 30+ hours I’ve played Tabletop Simulator, its always been with a small group of internet buddies with a skype chat running in the background. Its perfectly possible to play games with strangers- there is a standard server browser- but on a personal, social basis, I can’t bring myself to jump into a random server as TS requires chat. Perhaps there are more outgoing people out there than me but if I play a board game then I personally would choose to sit at a table with friends rather than with strangers. This review is now veering in a more personal direction so it would suffice to say that I can’t completely exclude the possibility of using TS as a way of meeting new people. Board games are relatively slow affairs compared to video games and are therefore excellent pastimes for socialising. You can even goof off while waiting for your slow friend, flinging coins in their direction and inflating the size of cards… which is slightly less a ‘simulation’ but its all good, stupid fun.

Boss Monster
Honestly, in reviewing Tabletop Simulator I have to get into the very appeal of board and card games as a whole. The impressive quality of TS is that it can take all of into the digital realm. The two main benefits of this transition are:
  1. You can play board games with your friends across the internet, including the friends you’ll most likely never meet in person.
  2. TS could theoretically offer unlimited games developed by other players all of which are untethered by any restrictions hard-coded into the software.
That second point is a bit of a legal and perhaps even moral issue- so lets elaborate on it. Tabletop Simulator has mod support. This means that anyone can replicate any board game to have ever existed. There are perhaps some that can’t be 100% accurately remade but with custom models there are very few limits. For deckbuilding games such as Magic The Gathering you can independently make a deck in one mod, save it, then carry that across into another game to pit it against an opponent (who is wielding their own custom deck).

Mods that use copyrighted assets are nothing new but these mods let you replicate the game experience as a whole. Imagine LittleBigPlanet let you download the original Super Mario Brothers. Not as a reskin of the floatly Sackboy adventures but as a replication so accurate you might as well be playing the game on a NES emulator. It would be a legal nightmare and the mods of TS very much border on this concept.

I haven’t heard of anything too controversial on the Tabletop Sim front, but that may be because of how relatively obscure it is at the moment. Whether or not these mods do indeed break any laws isn’t my decision to make. As it stands, the issue is whether or not you, the player, have a problem with it . To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a problem with it at all and actually consider the mods to be the main selling point of the product. Perhaps I was wrong about the poor marketing; perhaps the devs chose to hold that particular selling point closer to their chest.

For me, having mods is like having access to an unlimited toy-box and the vast majority of my time has been dedicated to playing copyrighted material (particularly Dominion). To defend the mods (and possibly justify my own use of them) these game are still mere recreations of the real products. One could argue that playing mods may encourage more people to buy the real physical board game. I know my numerous online sessions of Dominion has encouraged me to play more of it in person, which I have done so. I also look forward to buying my next expansion pack soon.

Tabletop Sim also includes some standard copyright-free games such as chess and reversi. There are normal decks of playing cards and given how many games you can play with those alone TS may still be a sound investment without requiring mods. The truly creative may use the mod capabilities to create their own original games. TS may even prove to be an ample testing ground for new board game designs.

Tabletop Simulator is an excellent union of digital games and traditional physical games. It’s a testament to the fact that board games have social qualities that a digital game will never be able to replicate- even if that amounts to nothing more than being able to fling the pieces around like an idiot. It should go without saying at this point but this should not be purchased if you have zero interest in playing with others. Solitaire only goes so far. This is a social game. Buy it with the intention to play with friends. If all of this sounds appealing to you, it may even be worth buying Tabletop Simulator in a pack of 4, as I did. This ensures that you’ll have some people to play with and may even prove to be one of the best gaming purchases you’ve ever made. It did for me.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Cool Game Showcase: Darkstalkers Chronicles: The Chaos Tower (on Vita)

It’s a somewhat harsh truth that despite some very impressive hardware, the PlayStation Vita is somewhat barren when it comes to must-own releases, least of all exclusives. However fear not as there are some interesting titles that aren’t necessarily part of the Vita’s main lineup. One of these is Darkstalkers Chronicles: The Chaos Tower, a launch title for the PSP which can be purchased for the Vita through PSN.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Darkstalkers is essentially the horror-themed sibling of the Street Fighter series, a take on the Universal Horror monsters (Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster). Darkstalkers Chronicle is based on the final original game in the series, Darkstalkers 3, and uses its select screen, stages and art. Darkstalkers 3 was arguably the game that got its sense of ‘style’ down – so it’s a shame its also the point when the franchise died. Rather than just being a port of that game, the unique selling point of Chronicles (originally a Japanese-only Dreamcast game) is that it lets you play as every version of every character in the series in a crazy mash-up. This includes original Darkstalkers 1 and Vampire Hunter versions of characters that didn’t appear in those games. At the start of arcade mode you get to choose what game to follow which determines how the super meter works and the round structure. Specific character versions also bring across their original theme music although on one disappointing note, only stages from Darkstalkers 3 are ever used.

I don’t remember this part of the fairy tale.
While the game thematically aims for horror, the game’s mechanics are characterised by universal chain combos, high maneuverability and extensive ways to use the super meter. All of these combine to create an experience that is unique and differentiates it from its more well-known sibling.

The combo system is both very easy to understand and very fulfilling to execute. Every character can string attacks from weak to heavy. The player is free to mix up high/low punches and kicks as long as they go from weak to strong. Once this mechanic has been learnt, practically any player can tap out a basic combo for any character. This bypasses the need to spend ages learning for even the most basic level of competency. The super meter can be used for many things rather than just one or two ‘super’ attacks (which is the Street Fighter way of doing things). Almost every special attack (think fireballs or dragon punches) can be turned into a super charged version by pressing two punch/kick buttons on the input. Rather than mere ‘enhanced’ EX attacks as seen in Street Fighter III and IV, these are full-blown supers.

Alternatively you can spend the meter on ‘dark force’ by pressing both medium attack buttons which is a timed buff. This differs wildly by character. For example, Jedah gains the ability to fly whereas cat-girl Felicia gets a friend to bound around on and cause havoc. On top of these you have your traditional fancy super combos with unique inputs. The player is given a lot of options and it is extremely enjoyable trying to decide on the whim of a frantic match what super attack is best given your current situation. Because most of them are just two-button modifications of normal special moves, it isn’t tremendously difficult to remember all the commands. The game also stands out in other, more subtle ways such as having unique dashes for each character (Demitri vanishes and re-appears, Morrigan turns her bat wings into a jet that can move her up or down) and giving every character at least one command throw (which are usually just the reserve of grapplers like Zangief).

A lot of the super combos are different to say the least.
When you’re done with arcade mode, there’s the titular ‘Chaos Tower’. This is a very, very difficult take on survival mode in which you take a team of 3 up the tower featuring unique challenges (such as no jumping or no kicks). If a character is KOed, they’re gone for good. Lose all three and it’s back to the beginning. If you take this mode very seriously there’s almost a Dark Souls type of appeal to it.

One area of disappointment is the lack of online multiplayer although you could always purchase the recent Darkstalkers Resurrection on PSN/XBLA to fulfil that need (though take in mind that Resurrection is a straight port of Vampire Hunter and DS3 lacking the extras of Chronicles). The game still has ad-hoc multiplayer if you can convince a Vita-owning friend to also purchase the game.

As mentioned, the characters were originally taken from the Universal Movie Monsters lineup whereas the later games got a bit more original (a jiangshi, a dhampire, a bounty-hunting Red Riding Hood). The cast is a vibrant and likeable a lot. Despite some of them being takes on rather over-used source material, Capcom managed to make them all exciting and different. The Mummy Anakaris for example can freely split in two and do countless other things way too bizarre for me to adequately put into words. This is not a cast of generic karate-guys.

Jedah vs Victor
Darkstalkers 1 was partially a tech demo for Capcom’s CPS2 arcade hardware before introducing the Street Fighter Alpha series. As such, the characters are incredibly well animated and very, very expressive perhaps inspiring the exaggerated facial reactions used in Street Fighter IV. These graphics transition very well onto the Vita. While most PSP games look horribly low-res compared to those developed for the Vita, Darkstalkers’ gorgeous sprites scale up very well and remain attractive despite some of them being 20 years old (yes, really). Just remember to do the sensible thing and keep the game in 4:3.

Speaking of playing this on the Vita, the system also deals with the two biggest complaints held against Chronicles when it made its original PSP debut. The PSPs controversial UMD format had some pretty heinous load times associated with it. Thankfully loading the game from a Vita memory card all but eliminates them. The other issue back in the day was with the PSP’s d-pad. I personally didn’t have too much trouble with the PSP pad but either way, the one on the Vita is a definite improvement (which may explain why it has attracted ports of Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3, Mortal Kombat 9 and Injustice).

Tower of Arrogance remains one of my all time favourite fighting game stages.
If you’re already a fan, this is the definitive handheld version of Darkstalkers. If you’ve never played it before and have an urge for a fighting game a bit more ‘out there’ than Street Fighter then I’d argue this is an excellent game to try, especially given its price-point on PSN. You may only be familiar with Darkstalkers from the occasional character appearance in Marvel Vs Capcom or Capcom Vs SNK but I urge you to visit the source and try this unique fighter.

My Experience Getting Into Warhammer 40k

Despite historically being into nothing but games of the digital variety, I have recently taken up the hobby of Warhammer 40k collection. Its been a few months since I've started and I’d like to share my experiences.

The reason I got into the hobby is because I already have a bunch of friends who play it. While at a BBQ they started talking about 40k stuff and I was completely lost. If only for the sake of being able to join the conversation, I decided to give it a try. I’ve also wanted a hobby that doesn’t involve a computer screen. One thing I should point out is that you really need friends who also play it. I suppose you may not mind playing against strangers but I think its very much a social activity. You could just ignore the game completely and collect models.

I like taking photos of the models and then stylizing them.
So far I’ve spent £90 on the Sanctus Reach Stormclaw Starter Set. This comes with Orks and Space Wolves. I got this from Games Workshop but since then I’ve discovered another store right around the corner that also sells models but with 10% off. So in the future, I would go there for models but I certainly don’t need to yet. I’ve also bought some old Orks (Boyz, Nobz, Deffcopters and a Warboss) for £30 from a friend.

At first I thought it would be incredibly expensive to maintain this hobby but then I realised how much time and effort you need in actually assembling the things. They come as bits of plastic on a sheet and you have to assemble and paint them yourself. This may sound like a negative but its actually my favourite thing about the hobby. You see, making and painting the models is time consuming in the best way possible. When starting, I assumed that painting would just be a necessary hassle to get to the main game. The reality is that, so far, I enjoy painting more than the game. Take in mind that I’m still grasping the core rules. Despite not being at all artistically-inclined, it turns out that I’m pretty good at painting. I think this is less about skill and more about how dedicated you are to making your models look good. I usually spend over 3 hours painting a single Ork Nob (an elite Ork). When you add up the stuff you get in Sanctus Reach, well, thats literally hours of entertainment for £90. So yeah, its a lot of money but its already consumed far more of my free time than if I spent the same money on random video games. In these 3 months I’ve only painted 6 Nobz, 10 Grots and a Killer Kan. I haven’t even looked at the Space Wolves yet.

Putting the models on a battlefield really brings them to life.
I meet up with my friends every Sunday at a club which is where I took these photos. If you have a long history with video games as I do, then 40k is a very fresh experience. Just being able to play a strategy game with tangible models is very, very different for someone like me and I can’t get enough of it. The game is very deep and it’ll take a long time to get accustomed to the rules. Just play with friends who can fill in the blanks whenever you get stuck as I do. The starter box comes with a 3 mission Orks vs Space Wolves campaign so you could theoretically play some games with just that. The games are as big or small as you want. I very much enjoy small skirmishes although that may largely be because I’m still grappling with the game rules. There are many great moments in my games such as getting my Ork warboss to knock down a building some Space Marines were hiding in. The funny thing is, I didn’t even know I could do that until someone told me. The game continually surprises me.

I’m not going to lie, the hobby is expensive. I haven’t even mentioned the codex (individual army rules), templates, dice, rulebooks, paints and other assorted things you need to play. But if you have friends who play it and you’re getting a bit burnt out on video games, then I really recommend it. If that seems too daunting or you just don’t imagine you’d like painting then I also suggest Magic the Gathering which I played on my games design course at university (I dropped it because everyone I know at home here plays 40k). Magic is a lot cheaper and lets you play games with less ‘set up’ time.