Deus Ex: What Happened?

And here we are, nearly four months after I said I’d be picking up the pace on Deus Ex soon. I have a history of dragging my heels in this game, but I seem to be a lot worse about it this time around than in my 2010 sally: in six months, I still haven’t covered the same ground as in two weeks back then. What happened? I’ll tell you what.

When we last left off, I was, as per the post title, “nearing the turn” where player character J. C. Denton finally turns against his fellow UNATCO agents in a really noticeable way, whether the player wants him to or not. As I mentioned before, this is the point where I had previously avoided a long and difficult firefight down the stairs of a multi-story building by instead jumping off the roof, an act made survivable by a leg upgrade I had acquired. This time around, I didn’t have the leg augmentation. After spending some time backtracking to see if I could find it, I hit up a walkthrough and learned that I had missed it several levels back, in a place I couldn’t access any more without replaying a largish section of the game. This was fairly discouraging! The upgrade isn’t completely essential, of course, but I felt cheated out of the option of using it. (This may well be the core attitude that makes me ill-suited for this game.) I knew I wasn’t going any further until I got the upgrade, and I didn’t feel like replaying so much right away, so I stopped dead and lost all momentum.

And once in that state, I had a hard time getting out of it. Back in real life, I was working on a contract that I found particularly draining, and which left me too tired to play anything as involving and demanding as a Deus Ex. I instead spent my free time during these months playing a number of low-effort and low-context games, like idle games and tower defenses, two genres of game that you largely play passively. I played quite a lot of Train Valley 2 — it has several DLC packages now, some of which are just curated collections of Steam Workshop levels that you could play for free individually. I bought those collections anyway, to avoid the burden of choosing. That’s the state of mind I was in.

The contract ended in June, and I took a bit of a break to recover. But by then, there was another obstacle to resuming Deus Ex: It was summer. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a very dark game, not just in tone but in actual illumination. You really need to play it in a reasonably dark room just to be able to see what’s going on. My current apartment captures enough sunlight to make it basically unplayable during daylight hours, even with the blinds closed. And daylight hours currently last well into the evening. So, no more conspiracy-busting for me until autumn.

In the meantime, this month has given us both a major Steam sale and this year’s ParserComp. Let’s go with ParserComp for now. There’s a modest 16 entries, and enough time left in the judging period to vote on all of them if I get cracking.

Train Valley contrasted to its sequel

Train Valley 2: Seldom have I seen a sequel so thoroughly change the fundamental character of a game without altering its basic gameplay.

That gameplay consists mainly of laying tracks to join stations. Games based on that idea run a spectrum from abstract puzzle games like Trainyard, to realistic simulators like Railworks, and Train Valley is toward the abstract end of that, but not quite as far out as Mini Metro. You have fanciful toy-looking locomotives on a grid of big chunky squares, dotted with obstacles and color-coded stations. Trains randomly materialize at the stations, and if you get them to their destinations in good time, you earn money that you use to build more tracks to cope with increasing demands on your network and the gradual appearance of additional stations. Your chief enemy is the constraints of the grid: tracks can only turn 45 degrees per tile, and each tile can contain only one switch or crossing. And on top of that, it’s prudent to have redundancy, to keep any trains going from point A to point B from blocking trains departing point B. Sometimes you wind up making a complicated web of junctions to cope with the constraints, and once you have that, it’s very easy to leave something switched the wrong way and send a train to the wrong place. The scale goes together with the art style to make it all look and feel like playing with a toy train set: sometimes the distance between stations is barely longer than the trains running on them.

Train Valley 2 shifts towards realism. Mainly it does this by adding more ways to affect and be affected by terrain. You can build bridges and tunnels, at great expense. There are slopes, which you can build tracks to ascend or descend but not running along laterally. There are steeper slopes that are just plain impassible. This variability makes it easy for the designers to make the kind of congestion that dominated the first game local to a part of the playfield. Distance is now a big problem. The tiles are smaller, or, equivalently, the levels are larger, and trains can take a significant amount of time to get where they’re going. To intensify this, you have a limited number of trains that can be running at one time. You can purchase more, or upgrade them to run faster, but this comes at a considerable cost, which can delay the purchase of essential bridges and tunnels.

Most of all, though, the trains in Train Valley 2 are purposeful. It’s not just a matter of “Train at blue station arbitrarily wants to go to orange station”. Rather, stations are associated with commodities. Each level has one or more towns, which produce workers at a steady rate and which have icons indicating certain needs, like “this town requires 12 copper ingots, 16 books, and 6 airplanes”. Fulfilling those needs is the goal of the level. Other stations will take specific resources to produce others: workers + grain = cows, for example. (Like all resources, workers are absorbed in these recipes.) It’s a bit like Hero of the Kingdom but with trains. And it has a profound effect on how the game feels. The first Train Valley was all about reacting to events. Train Valley 2 is all about planning. The first thing you do on loading a level is scan the map to see where the towns are, and where the resources that require nothing but workers are. The hierarchy of dependencies is like a story, a sequence of events with an optimal ordering that gets you everything you need within a par time.