Archive for the 'Strategy' Category

Random Pick

As promised, a random pick today. The first roll of the dice got me Arthur’s Knights: Tales of Chivalry, a Cryo adventure from 2000, but I wasn’t able to get it working. I remember initially shelving it because of the GeForce bug that made the background render partially on top of sprites, but now it doesn’t even get far enough for that to manifest. Putting it into Windows 95 compatibility mode gets me as far as the main menu, where I can tweak the options to my heart’s content, but actually starting a game from there makes it crash to the desktop. The only concrete advice I’ve found online was a suggestion to turn off DirectX sound acceleration, which is already on my list of things to try when Windows games prove recalcitrant; apparently it worked for someone here, but not for me. If anyone reading this has better suggestions, I’d like to hear them, but for the moment, this is going back on the shelf once more.

So, having given up on that, my next random pick was the final episode of Heroes Chronicles, the episodic series of Heroes of Might and Magic III scenarios. My usual practice for random picks is to treat anything from a series as representing the series as a whole, so what I’ve actually picked is episode 3, Masters of the Elements. Yes, this practice means that my random picks are more likely to hit things with many sequels on the Stack. I consider this a good thing. Those are the games that really need playing.

Moreover, the Heroes Chronicles series as a whole became a wider target quite recently. You may recall that, in addition to the episodes that were published on CD-ROM, there were a couple of extra episodes available only online — one that you needed two registered episodes to download, and another that you needed three. Two more episodes besides those were added later in a collection package, making the extra episodes equal in number to the original retail ones. And that collection package was recently made available (and temporarily put on sale for five bucks) at GOG. So now the series occupies six remaining slots in the Stack instead of just two.

Even though I have Masters of the Elements on CD-ROM, I chose to install the GOG download, just to eliminate the inconvenience of physical media. Oddly enough, given my retrogaming habit, this is my first real experience with GOG. I’ve had an account with them for a while now — I registered when I was having difficulty getting Tex Murphy: Overseer working and I noticed that they had a version rejiggered to work with modern machines, but I changed my mind about buying it from them when I saw that it wasn’t the DVD-quality version. I do like their curatorial approach, though, and even though I don’t recall having incompatibility issues the last time I played a Heroes Chronicles episode, I appreciate knowing that the likelihood of running into them has been minimized, especially after my troubles with Arthur’s Knights. (I wish they’d pick up the Cryo games. I always seem to have problems with them.) And now that I’ve used their custom downloader and front end — something that’s completely optional, by the way — I have to say the experience is positive, nicely practical and minimal and unobtrusive.

Next post, I’ll try to talk a little about the Master of the Elements content.

Atom Zombie Smasher

Not a lot of time today, so I’ll just post a brief description (which I may expand on later) of yesterday’s session with Atom Zombie Smasher, an impressive one-developer effort from the author of the absurdist first-person spy game Gravity Bone. His sense of weird shows through here mainly in the occasional “vignette” cutsene, illustrated text snippets of odd goings-on with no obvious connection to the game, at least at first.

I have to say, though, that I knew I wanted to give this game a try the moment I saw the screenshots. They’ve got that ineffable Appealing Game factor, the sort that makes me say “Ooh, I bet I could do that! Let me try!” Also, this is one game where the screenshots really speak volumes about what gameplay is like. You play in a series of top-down cityscapes with humans and infectious zombies (represented as yellow dots and pink dots respectively 1Pink is an unusual color for zombies, but I suppose it’s because they’re atom zombies. ), and you have to save the former and kill the latter. You have a single helicopter for evacuation, which can make multiple trips and land in a different part of the city each time, but usually isn’t fast enough to save everyone. Crowds tend to glom together and flow through the narrow streets like fluid through a pipe, their density nicely indicated by brightness when you can no longer see individuals. Into this you place your forces. You have several tools, such as barricades and dynamite charges and zombie-proof infantry (one of the better tools, because it can be moved around). But only a random selection of them is available for use in any particular mission, which means that sometimes you get stuck with inadequate offensive power and have to rely entirely on delaying tactics. It all feels very much like a tower defense game, despite not having a whole lot in common with the customs of that genre beyond the mere act of placing defenses.

These matches take place within the context of a randomized overworld and escalating stakes. You and the zombies are both rated on performance in the mission and in continuing control of territory, and this contributes to a running score, represented as progress along a track. Whichever side reaches the end of that track first wins the overall game. It reminds me of the scoring tracks found on certain German board games, and it serves the same purpose: distilling a complicated set of rules about victory points into something you can simply see. At certain points along that track — different points for the player and the zombies — are several little circles marking events that grant permanent advantages when you reach them. So, when you reach a certain score, you get a powerful new weapon, and when the zombies reach a certain score, they suddenly start spreading to new territories faster, or start producing giant zombies. So there’s a strong motivation to not just try to beat the zombies to the end, but also to try to keep their score as low as possible. Obviously this system creates a positive feedback loop, but the zombies have such strong natural advantages that they always seem to almost keep pace with the player anyway. Conversely, if you fall behind, there’s basically no catching up.

In length, it falls into an unusual place alongside Oasis: a full campaign is composed of many missions, but is nonetheless a completable in a single sitting. It’s a typical board-game length, if I can make that comparison one more time. I suppose it invites comparison to board games with its top-down view and abstract figures. And, like a board game, it inspires replay. Not in a “gotta find all the secrets and Achievements” way, but in a “I could do that a lot better now that I’ve figured out the tactics a little” way, kind of like Civilization (itself a computer game inspired by a board game).

1 Pink is an unusual color for zombies, but I suppose it’s because they’re atom zombies.

Swords & Soldiers

OK, I’m interrupting the expedition to Syberia. I intend to get back to it soon. But for now, Steam is having another one of its promotions. Like last year’s “Treasure Hunt” (or this year’s “Potato Sack” promotion for Portal 2, which I sat out), it involves earning rewards via special Achievements in various games. And as before, I’m not particularly interested in the rewards, but I find the Achievements appealing. I don’t intend to buy any games just for the promotion, but I’ll certainly be trying for the Achievements in the games that I already have.

Day 1 of the promotion featured two such games, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which was also featured in Day 1 of the previous promotion (perhaps because it tends to come up first in alphabetical listings), and Swords & Soldiers, a game I know nothing about which I got in a recent Indie bundle. (For my money, games that I know nothing about are pretty much the point of those bundles.) AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!‘s new Achievement is to complete a special level with a five-star rating, and I made some attempts at this, but found it difficult; on a couple of tries, I came close enough that I would have succeeded if I didn’t keep smashing into things so much. This was frustrating enough that I took a break with S&S, which proved engaging enough that I wound up playing all the way through campaign mode for all three of its sides.

S&S is a port of a WiiWare game, but to my newly-sensitized-to-iOS eyes, it seems like it was developed with an eventual phone port in mind. Everything about the UI is extremely touchscreen-friendly. What’s more, it seems like a pretty good example of a post-Angry Birds iPhone game, or at least part of the same stylistic trend as Angry Birds: it’s all broad slapstick and extreme stylization. I just described the caricature in Syberia as restrained. There’s no sense of restraint in S&S. It’s a story of three childish nations warring over things like barbecue sauce and toys. The three sides, in the order they become available for play, are the Vikings, the Aztecs, and the Chinese, all thoroughly stereotyped, which strikes me as especially problematic in the case of the Chinese, who still exist. (Sure, descendants of Aztecs and Vikings exist, but the Aztec civilization is long gone, and Viking was always more of an occupation than a race.) The Chinese here speak in pidgin, they say things like “Ah, chop chop” when summoned, their swordsmen wear conical straw hats (which as far as I’m aware have never been part of any military uniform), etc. So it’s not even current stereotyping, but more like Chinese stereotypes from the 1930s, which is probably why the authors thought it was acceptable. For my part, as a white guy, it’s not my place to be offended on other people’s behalf, but it’s nonetheless too embarrassing to pass without comment, and for that reason has engendered some painfully clueless arguments about racism on the Steam forums (content warning: “It’s just a game” used).

Regardless, the gameplay is interesting. It’s essentially an RTS with asymmetric sides. It’s also a simplification of the genre, like Eufloria but in a completely different way. The biggest simplification is that the map is one-dimensional. Some maps have bits where the path splits for a while and rejoins, with a railroad-like switch at the branch point to tell your units which way to go, but even there, within the path you choose, you’re fighting for distance along a line. Furthermore, you have no direct control over your units. Whenever they’re not fighting, they’re moving from left to right. As is normal for an RTS, the simplest way to win fights is to have lots of units together, but the fact that they all go running off the moment they’re summoned tends to work against this approach. Each stereotype has different ways around this. For example, the Vikings, the most straightforward side, have a healing spell that you can use to help your frontmost warrior survive in combat until the guys behind him catch up, while the Chinese have a spell that duplicates a unit, letting you build a posse out of one guy. The Aztecs have necromancer units that can turn corpses into animated skeletons, so each guy that pulls ahead and gets killed gets to be part of an undead horde later.

The interesting part is how little these simplifications change things. In practice, RTS-style gameplay often reduces to a fight along a single path between two bases, each side throwing all they’ve got at it, trying to counter the opponent’s offense efficiently enough to have resources to spare on an effective offense of their own. S&S takes that moment and turns it into the entirety of the game. And it works pretty well. It’s essentially a game of tradeoffs. You’ve got the tradeoffs between current troop strength and research into more powerful stuff, you have to increase your gold-collection rate by spending current gold, and in the later levels of their campaigns, each side develops their own megaweapon that they can use if they can refrain from casting other spells long enough to afford its mana cost. The Aztecs can even sacrifice their own units to gain a little mana, but I suppose that’s essentially the same choice every side makes when they decide whether to cast a defensive spell to save a unit’s life or not. Apparently there are some gambits that are extremely difficult to counter, so two-player play might not be all that interesting in the long run. But the single-player campaign remains interesting and varied for as long as it lasts, which was about six hours for me.

Eufloria: Wrapping Up

Posting really late this time: I managed to breeze through the remainder of Eufloria on Sunday afternoon and evening. Some days, writing is just hard.

I said before that there was never a good reason to zoom in in Eufloria. This isn’t quite true. There are two reasons do to is. First, taking a closer look at enemy seedlings can give you information about their stats. The stats — Energy, Strength, and Speed, all determined by the properties of the asteroid where they sprouted — determine a seedling’s shape and size. This isn’t very useful, though; although having better stats doubtless helps, battles are generally won through overwhelming numbers, and you don’t need to zoom in to see those.

The other reason is that you have to zoom in order to reposition your view. There’s no way to just scroll around the battlefield directly; all you can do is zoom into a spot near the edge and then zoom out from there. A peculiar UI choice, and not the only one — to some degree, this game is a showcase for experiments. Consider the way you send seedlings from one asteroid to another. You can send the asteroid’s entire population by left-dragging from source to destination, or you can right-click the source repeatedly to increment a counter of how many you want to send, one seedling per click. Neither of these options is ideal when you want to split up your hundred-strong armada into two groups to pursue different routes. The solution here is to left-drag out only a little way — the targeting interface that shows the limits of where you can travel to also shows a circle around the asteroid you started at, and within the bound of that circle, your mouse-dragging acts like a radial slider for selecting anything up to 100% of the seedlings there. It was only well into the game that I started taking advantage of this, partly because I didn’t really understand it. The game could stand better documentation (or any at all), but then, I probably wouldn’t have read it anyway.

It turns out that there was only one more game element to be introduced after my last post: the flowers that I planted to let my defensive trees grow orbital defenses could alternately, past a certain level, be used to enhance seedling production. Beyond that, the remaining levels produce variety through the scenarios. One level plays with scarcity, in the form of asteroids that could only support one tree, or none at all. One is a timed survival challenge, one is an escort mission. Several of them have plot triggers when you explore particular asteroids — for example, one level has a particularly large one in the opposite corner from where you start, obviously serving as the enemy home base, until you actually reach it and discover that it’s just the beginning of a larger empire, which immediately attacks you. (This is where the limitations on scrolling around become important: they prevent you from knowing the true extents of the level.) Occasionally, the triggers are outmoded by the time you reach them: I recall getting a pop-up describing how the planet I had just explored had fallen victim to the “gray plague” (a side consisting of senselessly aggressive zombie seedlings), when in fact another computer-controlled enemy had already driven it out.

In short, most of the game is spent on the sort of thing I can imagine happening in any other RTS. But in a way, I think that’s the point: that your basic RTS tactics don’t have to be coupled to conventional military imagery. You can put them in a world of pastel colors and gentle ambient music and it works just as well.

Eufloria: Basic Tactics

So, I’ve played a bit more of Eufloria. My progress through the campaign mode has slowed. There are 25 levels, and my first session took me through levels 1-10, but my second only took me through 11. It seems easy to get into quasi-stalemates, which surprised me a little, because you’d think that whichever side has more trees would be able to just outproduce the other. But there seems to be a population cap for each asteroid, or perhaps a production cap — a total number of seedlings beyond which it won’t produce more until some of them get killed. Probably the latter, because that’s the mechanic used for the orbital defense platforms occasionally produced by the defensive trees. It’s easier to observe with them because the limit there seems to be one per asteroid. But I’m really not sure about the rules, and I’m going to have to learn more before I play much further, either by finding info online or just by observing things more closely.

The tactics so far haven’t varied a great deal: you wait for your asteroids to build up an army of seedlings, you send them to storm enemy asteroids. Defense seems to be a lot easier than offense, at least at the stage I’m at — I’ve only recently received defense-enhancing gimmicks like aforementioned orbitals, and if there are corresponding offense-enhancers, I haven’t reached them yet. This encourages turtle-and-rush gameplay, with a substantial delay in conquering asteroids when you’re in rush mode, because it takes a while to claim them fully: even if the enemy isn’t defending an asteroid, it only changes ownership once your seedlings have worn down its “energy” by sacrificing themselves.

The one useful tactic beyond this I’ve found so far is divide-and-conquer, splitting the enemy territory into separate pockets. And it’s kind of interesting how this interacts with the movement rules. There’s a limit to how far away from the asteroids you own your seedlings can go, and there’s a limit to how far they can travel in a single jump between asteroids, but seedlings are quite capable of using an asteroid you don’t own as a stepping-stone to get to their destination more efficiently. And the enemies are no different. If you attack an enemy asteroid, the enemy will often send seedlings from other asteroids to defend it. If they have to go through an asteroid you own to get there, and if that asteroid is bristling with defensive trees and orbital platforms, you basically get to take shots at the enemy forces for free. I’ve got to try taking more advantage of this, by doing things like repeatedly sending small waves of seedlings at two separated asteroids in order to make the enemy keep shuttling back and forth through my defenses.


The zoomed-in viewEufloria, like DHSGiT and Crayon Physics, is a game that I remember trying out in its more primitive pre-release stages, back when it was called Dyson. It’s essentially a slow-paced minimalist RTS, the sort that breaks everything down to its bare elements and then rebuilds them in a slightly different direction.

The setting is an agglomeration of circular “asteroids” sitting in a plane. On these asteroids grow fractal trees, and the trees are your fortresses and the source of your armies. They produce “seedlings” which are essentially little spaceships or fighter jets that go into orbit and harry intruders. You can send seedlings to other asteroids within a certain range, where they’ll do battle with any other plant empires present so you can claim the territory for your own and plant more trees. Planting trees uses up seedlings, so there’s a balance to be maintained between future growth and current numbers.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the core gameplay. I don’t know how much depth it adds, but I understand that there are game elements to be introduced that weren’t in the simpler version I played back when. That was one of the two basic criticisms of the original: that it was too simple, that there wasn’t enough tactical variation for it to be interesting. So I think that’s been fixed somewhat. The other criticism seems to still be in force. This is a game that lets you zoom in and out with the scrollwheel, from a wide schematic view of the entire level down to close enough that you can count the leaves on the trees. There’s a certain austere beauty to the zoomed-out view, where the seedlings shrink to dots and, en masse, flow like liquid, but it’s definitely at its prettiest when you’re zoomed in and can see the fractals and the individual seedlings going about their business. But — here’s the criticism — the game doesn’t really give you a reason to do so. You don’t get useful information from tree-gazing, and there’s no micromanagement to be done that you can’t do as effectively from the zoomed-out view.

And at this point, I find myself asking how this observation jibes with my comments about Bioshock. There, it struck me as wrong-headed to complain that the game didn’t force the player to appreciate all it had to offer. Why do I feel like the same complaint is more legitimate here? I think it’s mainly a matter of interactivity. My colleague who felt that Bioshock was stupid had refused to take advantage of the options it gave him. In Eufloria, unless there’s some mechanic I’ve yet to see introduced, there are no such options. The zoomed-in view is purely cosmetic, like clicking on individual troops to learn their names in Powermonger, only less story and more simulation.

Freedom Force: Ending

ff-gearThe ending of Freedom Force takes place in the Timemaster’s realm, an Ethereal-Void-type place. I’ve described this sort of environment as “Ditkoesque” before, but the styling here is still more Kirby than Ditko. The action takes place on a series of platforms in the shape of enormous rotating clock-gears, each replicating a small section of an environment either encountered earlier or, in one case, merely hinted at. Each gear contains a portal to the next, but it only opens up when you’ve defeated all the enemies there. It’s all a grand recapitulation of the game as a whole, with reprises of all the bosses, like the final dungeon in a Zelda game. It’s not quite the same as the first encounters, though, because all you really have to do to defeat the bosses this time around is knock them off the gear, which can be done with knockback moves, or, more easily, with explosions. Mind you, the same explosions can knock your own guys off if you’re not careful, but that just means you have to learn your limits.

There’s a very nice feel of finality to this whole sequence. You know that it all ends here, or… it all ends. No need to worry about Prestige or experience points: you’re as advanced as you’re ever going to be, and you just have to hope that it’s advanced enough. The whole mission consists of twelve gears (including the larger one where the final boss fight takes place) spread out over four levels. The four heroes you pick at the beginning of the first of those four levels are the last heroes you’ll ever use, so the decision feels fairly momentous.

Ultimately, I think any team could finish the game, but certain powers definitely make it quicker and easier. The team I chose consisted of Minuteman, Bullet, El Diablo, and Eve, which turned out not to be an ideal combination, but it all worked out okay. I’ve described Minuteman and El Diablo before. Bullet is the team’s speedster, and an asset to any mission, partly for his mere ability to get places first and hit enemies two or three times before they can hit back, partly because he can gain the power to “Energize” other characters, making them regain energy more quickly than normal. He also by this point had a good charging knockback move for shoving enemies off gears. Eve is a mystically-aware primitive woman, heavily involved in the Pan arc, skilled at archery. I mainly included her because she had finally learned the Acid Arrow move, which seemed worth trying out, but in the end, she was more useful for a debuff that temporarily blinds opponents, making it much more difficult for them to hit with ranged attacks. El Diablo’s role in the party was creator of explosions and chief recipient of Bullet’s energizing. Minuteman just sort of ran around hitting minions — he was by far the least useful of the four, especially in the final boss fight, where he basically couldn’t get close enough to make an attack. I’d definitely swap him out for someone else if I had to play the whole thing through again, but since he was the very first of the heroes, it seemed fitting that he be on hand at the very end as well.

And that’s that. Just in time, too: I shortly depart for Seattle, to attend my second PAX this year (and in my entire life). Fortunately, the next game I have on my docket is one for the Gameboy Advance, suitable for play during transport, or while waiting on line, if the lines are anywhere near as insanely long as they were at PAX East. As usual, I’ll also be bringing first-generation Pokémon in a vain hope that someone reading this blog will be there and interested in doing trades.

Freedom Force: Bad Guys

Nearing the end of Freedom Force, I have a pretty clear idea now about the breadth and scope of it. It’s a bit unusual. Most superhero games, whether based on comics, based on movies based on comics, or just featuring original characters loosely inspired by comics, focus on a single hero (or at most a small group of related heroes), and on the situations and enemies natural to that hero. Superhero comics cover a range of scales from the mundane to the cosmic, but specific heroes tend to fall on a specific spot on that spectrum, some defending a single city against lawlessness, others safeguarding the entire planet against alien invasion, yet others dealing in the realm of gods and mythical figures. And so a game about a specific hero will tend to focus on what’s appropriate to that character, but, in so doing, lose a big part of the character of the comics. I’m talking about the weird juxtapositions resulting from crossovers and team books. 1The Scott Adams “Questprobe” adventures are a notable exception, being even more chock-full of weird juxtapositions and non-sequiturs than the comics themselves. Spider-Man has been to other planets. The mighty Thor takes time off from Asgard politics to pick on street gangs, sometimes as part of a team that also includes Captain America. The weirdest thing about comic book universe continuities isn’t just that they simultaneously contain cyborgs and sorcerers, gods and ghosts and gunslingers and space aliens and talking gorillas. It’s that they all know each other.

Freedom Force is a simulated shared continuity. It tries to vary the scale and scope as much as it can within the constraints of its mechanics (ie, no space battles), but it’s necessarily an abbreviated form, with only one or two major villains per niche. At the most ordinary level, you’ve got Pinstripe, a mobster mutated by Energy X but otherwise simply functioning as a mobster. An escaped lunatic calling himself Deja Vu is the closest thing to a silver-age Batman villain, giggling and talking in rhyme and making the team solve riddles. Turning things up a notch, we have an army of city-crushing giant robots courtesy of Mister Mechanical, a snubbed and resentful architect who really has it in for the buildings rather than their inhabitants. Behind them all stands the space-opera villain, Lord Dominion, conqueror of a thousand worlds, whose main motivation here is amusement: he could easily crush the Earth, but he’d rather watch the earthlings do the job for him. But even Lord Dominion is a pawn for the Time Master, whose goal is the destruction of time itself. And somehow the god Pan is involved too, to bring in the mythical element — I expect that will make more sense after I’ve cleared a couple more levels, but there have already been mutterings that interplanar travel and time travel are really the same thing. This isn’t a complete list of the villains in the game, but it’s pretty close.

The one sort of bad guy that the game is really missing is the individual bad guy, the one who doesn’t need henchmen to be a menace, like Bizarro or the Green Goblin. Everyone here has an army of some sort. Pinstripe has his goons, Deja Vu his evil duplicates, Pan his confusingly-named “Bacchites” (perhaps the god was recast during development?). Anyway, it’s true that some superheroes habitually fight large numbers of anonymous grunts — Batman and Captain America come to mind — but it’s not nearly as universal as you’d think from this game. But that’s not even a problem with this game in particular. Aside from one-on-one fighting games, most genres of game that reasonably accommodate superheroes have a basic structure that involves fighting a bunch of lesser enemies before you get to fight the boss, and sometimes it’s a real stretch to provide that. (I think of the various Spider-Man games in particular. Most Spider-Man villains do their villaining as solitary individuals.) At least Freedom Force gets to make up its villains from scratch, rather than shoehorn established characters into an inappropriate format.

1 The Scott Adams “Questprobe” adventures are a notable exception, being even more chock-full of weird juxtapositions and non-sequiturs than the comics themselves.

Freedom Force: UI

ff-actionmenuThe user interface in Freedom Force is generally a joy to use. It’s a really good example of a mature system, but with a few bits of experimental oddity. The maturity mainly has to do with streamlining commonly-executed actions and providing multiple ways of doing things — for example, that you can select characters by clicking on them, or by clicking on their portrait at the bottom of the screen, or by pressing the number keys corresponding to those portraits. Since I’m used to using the number keys to switch weapons in first-person shooters, I find this last approach easiest. This is why I know that you can also use the number keys in ways more commonly associated with the mouse, such as double-tapping (which centers the viewport on that character), or pressing in combination with the shift key (to select more than one character at once, just like selecting multiple items in a drop-down menu). Of course, when you select multiple characters, it’s most commonly because you want to select all of them, to send them to a particular point on the map. This is simplified to a single key-press, and furthermore, one that’s easily discoverable by accident. (It’s the 5 key, just one to the right of the last hero hotkey.)

The simplest actions within the world can be performed by left-clicking on stuff, thus telling your hero to perform whatever the obvious action is: picking it up, talking to it, or whatever the context demands. If the thing you click on is an enemy, the obvious action is performing your default attack, which you can change at will. If you want to do something else, you can bring up a menu by right-clicking, which automatically pauses the game. Now, there’s a little display area at the bottom of the screen where it gives you a little information about what the cursor is currently over (including a handy summary of what sorts of damage it’s vulnerable and resistant to — yes, even inanimate objects have resistances, which is why, for example, it’s easier to destroy a brick wall with an explosion than with a radiation beam. 1Some seemingly inanimate objects even have mental states. During a mission to destroy a supervillain’s massive ray gun installation, I managed to render it Stunned, complete with animation of stars circling where its head would be if it had a head. ). And this is important information, because sometimes you want to target specific parts of things — the alarm on a guardhouse, for example. But even with that to guide you, it’s easy to right-click on the wrong thing — probably because keeping an eye on that status bar involves looking at a different part of the screen than where the cursor is (a problem with status-bar-based UIs that I’ve noted before). So they made the right-click menu moveable: as long as you keep the right mouse button held down, you can scan around with it, watching the menu change as it goes. This is one of the experimental oddities I mentioned. It should be noted that the background color of the menu changes according to what sort of thing it’s on, making it very easy to stop moving the moment you drag over an enemy.

Hovering over an option in the action menu displays a great deal of information about it: the tooltip area at the bottom turns into a summary of the effects, and the display in the world gives such information as the line to the target (useful for finding out if ranged attacks are blocked), whether or not you’re in range (indicated by the color of aforementioned line), and, if applicable, the blast radius (rendered as a sphere). The action selection menu itself contains a bar chart showing how much Energy you’ll have left if you select the action. You can choose to perform actions you don’t actually have enough Energy for, but you risk winding up Stunned if you do, kind of like spellcasting in Angband. 2It strikes me only now as I write this that I have a couple of heroes that are capable of curing mental states such as Stunned. Perhaps there’s a viable strategem to be made of this, of overpowering all your attacks and letting the cleric take care of the consequences. This is reflected by making the Energy bar flash red — the redder, the riskier. Raising and lowering the charge on your attacks is accomplished by right-clicking on the power to bring up a sub-menu, a rare example of a right-click menu within a right-click menu, and another element that I’d call an experimental oddity. It works, though.

The system for controlling the camera is, in my opinion, the least successful part of the UI.
Using arrow keys or WASD to scroll the viewport is fine, as is zooming up and down with the mouse wheel. (There’s a way to do this with the keyboard as well, but I’ve forgotten it. The wheel is just more convenient.) But I never got the hang of rotating the camera view, which involves combinations of key presses and mouse movement. I generally leave the camera orientation alone, and it works just fine. It means I’m not always ideally situated to see what’s going in in narrow alleyways, but I can always get a good-enough view by zooming way in: once you’re close enough, walls are rendered semi-transparent.

ff-upgradesOutside of the missions, everything is a set of nested menus, with a very satisfying “clunk” sound accompanying every selection. I spend fairly large amount of time in these, specifically in the upgrade section. Whenever a hero levels up, they get 600 “Character Points” to spend on gaining new powers or upgrading existing ones, and it’s always an agonizing choice. (The worst of it is that some powers cost more than 600 CP, so you can only afford them if you forgo upgrading for a level.) This is also where you can get full information on each ability’s stats, available on a separate screen by clicking the “View” button. And here lies my one complaint about the UI. In order to decide whether to spend the points on upgrading an ability, I need to know how the upgrade will affect it. The only way to find this out is by going to the “View” screen, committing its contents to memory, backing out, upgrading it, and then going to the “View” screen again. It could be worse: at least you’re allowed to undo your purchases (until you commit them by leaving the upgrade menu entirely). But I can think of any number of CRPGs that handle this better, displaying the current and improved stats side-by-side, sometimes with highlight colors. I hope the sequel addresses this.

1 Some seemingly inanimate objects even have mental states. During a mission to destroy a supervillain’s massive ray gun installation, I managed to render it Stunned, complete with animation of stars circling where its head would be if it had a head.
2 It strikes me only now as I write this that I have a couple of heroes that are capable of curing mental states such as Stunned. Perhaps there’s a viable strategem to be made of this, of overpowering all your attacks and letting the cleric take care of the consequences.

Freedom Force: Legion

I’m well over halfway through Freedom Force now, and slightly into the bits I’ve never seen before. And at last, I remember the game’s greatest cruelty: the cruelty of choice.

Progressing through the game means gaining access to more and more heroes. Some of them are simply slotted into your roster automatically. Others are made available for hire, and must be purchased with Prestige points. But you can only take four of them into a mission — and sometimes not even that; sometimes a slot has to be kept clear for a new arrival. And when I say “mission”, understand that most missions consist of two or three levels, with no opportunity for swapping in different heroes between. Furthermore, you don’t get the full experience of playing with a particular hero from just taking it out on a single mission as soon as it joins the team. Every hero needs to level up in order to get their full set of powers. The game is considerate enough to level up heroes that are just cooling their heels back at base, but at a slower rate than the ones in the field. If you want a hero to reach its full potential, you have to neglect others.

Pokémon had a similar dynamic, but with one crucial difference: there, you could always go back to places you had already visited for the sake of leveling up the newcomers. In Freedom Force, there is a finite sequence of missions. A single play-through is simply not long enough to fully explore the potential of all the heroes, and the closer I get to the end, the more I become aware that my opportunities are dwindling, even as my choices grow. It’s like a metaphor for mortality. I suppose the real point is to encourage replay, but that’s not something I’m likely to do soon, enjoyable as the game is.

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