Review: Tomb Raider

27 03 2013

Although it may damage my “gamer cred,” admittedly, I have not been acquainted with Lara Croft prior to this title. After my first outing with Ms. Croft, I’m now an official fan, but at the same time our understanding of who Lara Croft is may have changed forever.


The story begins as you might expect for standard adventure fare: an expedition crew goes in search of a mythic land in the heart of the Dragon’s Triangle and a brutal storm shipwrecks Lara and company on an unknown island. The difference is, this isn’t the same Lara Croft that people imagine when they hear the name. This is Lara before she knew she was Lara; this Lara is shivering, scared, and bleeding. Lara must sharpen her resolve and master the wilderness, outsmart her foes, and unravel the mystery of the island because the only other option is to die trying.

Tomb Raider is not only a story of survival, but also of growth and becoming. Contrary to the game’s tagline, Lara shows us that survivors aren’t born, they’re made; forged in the heat of the beating midday sun and doused in the night’s chilling rain. Through an unrelenting gauntlet of life-and-death gunfights, endless climbs up jagged cliffs, and bone-cracking falls (loooots of falls), players will watch Lara go from a sobbing mess of featherweight shark-bait to the one that says “Bad Mother Fucker” on it. Her appearance becomes rugged with scrapes, bruises and grime, her aim becomes steady and true, she’ll begin to retort to enemies’ threats, and she eventually unleashes some raw execution moves that would almost make even Kratos flinch.  Lara’s growth arc goes from blood, sweat and tears to just blood and sweat as she takes ownership of her situation and responsibility for her own life and the lives of her crewmates. When one is brushed with death so many times, they can’t help but change their colors.

But despite all the hardening up, at its core the narrative is about the softer, human side of Lara. Lara starts off the game vulnerable, fragile and afraid, and at the end of the game she is still all of those things but she’s found her courage and will to carry on. The plot does a great job maintaining a sympathetic image of Lara throughout the story primarily through the cast of supporting characters, the doomed exploration crew of the Endurance, that Lara must both protect and rely on. These elements serve as a deconstruction of the gun-slinging action heroine front that Lara has always been cast as, and reminds us that behind that nocked flaming arrow and underneath all that dirt and mud, there’s a person there.

The gameplay itself feels like an amalgam of the best aspects cherry-picked from Uncharted and the recent Batman and Resident Evil games. It will draw many comparisons with Nathan Drake’s series of games but tonally is quite different; much grittier, edgier and severe, more hold-your-breath than breathtaking. The player’s time will be divided between navigating Lara through expansive wilderness and ruins, scavenging for junk to improve equipment, bloody dirty firefights and heart-stopping action sequences. While I felt that the various elements of gameplay had nothing that I hadn’t seen before, each aspect is superbly done with a great amount of polish.

The game is masterfully paced, instilling both a sense of breakneck immediacy and a wanderlust and intrigue that beckons the player to venture and explore. The flow of the advancement reminds me most of Batman: Arkham City in which acquiring new tools and equipment figure into the progression, opening new paths that were hidden or inaccessible before in a way that revisits old locales with a perspective refreshed by a new ability and never feels like backtracking. While the meat of the action is in the main story arc there are indeed, as the name would suggest, tombs to be raided. There is an immense amount of challenge and enjoyment for completionists in seeking all of the extras and collectibles, hidden high and low in dark crevices scattered around the sprawling map. I made my way through the singleplayer experience in about 14 hours with 86% completion.

The combat is streamlined and frantic. At its most basic level when a fight breaks out it plays like a cover shooter, and you’ll want to lunge for cover as soon as it starts because it only takes a few good shots to put you down even with an improved health upgrade. Lara automatically ducks behind obstacles while moving about freely rather than “snapping” to a cover position which works very well and is simple and uncumbersome. It’s a real godsend for that since you’ll find yourself flushed from cover frequently by enemies who have deadly accuracy with their grenade type weapons (it’s like Lara’s fighting a roster of MLB pro pitchers sometimes). Oftentimes enemies will try to outflank you and close to melee distance, where things get really nasty. Lara has precious little she can do except panicked dodges when enemies crowd her but eventually she learns deadly counterattacks to surprise enemies that close in expecting easy meat, hewing them savagely with her crude improvised weapons. The combat can be quite deadly even on normal difficulty, but the difficulty can be toggled at any time in the pause menu.

If there was one thing that could have been improved, I wish the survival aspect of the game had more emphasis and ambitiousness. While hunting, foraging, and scavenging are prevalent throughout the game, none of them is imbued with the sense of significance or import that I was expecting from a game with the word “survivor” in the tagline. For one, these activities are never a necessity. There is no starvation or thirst mechanic to speak of; these activities are completely elective and carrying them out simply rewards you with some extra experience used to improve Lara’s skills. Additionally, the scavenging and rummaging for materials in the game is very abstracted; doing so rewards you with “salvage” points which are used as a universal currency to improve weapons and tools. I would have preferred a more robust and thoughtful survival/crafting system but this barebones system still gets the job done and at least provides the incentive to do such activities. But for me the most jarring omission is the complete lack of first aid or healing that is an immensely significant trope within survival stories. Sure, there are some story missions where Lara has to retrieve medical supplies for herself or a wounded ally, but the application is completely offscreen and never comes up as a gameplay element. Instead the game opts for the common 5-second magically regenerating health harkening from such games as Call of Duty which for me removes a lot of the threat and danger that could have enhanced the tension. And, since there is no healing items, crafting parts, or sustenance to carry around, the game also completely lacks any kind of inventory management, although I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing seeing how many games manage to implement it poorly (*cough* Resident Evil *cough*). Tomb Raider seems to give survival gameplay a nod rather than a fair shake and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater/Subsistence still features the best survival gameplay of any game I have tried to date.

There is also a multiplayer offering but it seems kind of like a tack-on. It features common deathmatch/team oriented modes with customizable loadouts and character selection. It is reminiscent of the multiplayer in the Uncharted games, in terms of both the general gameplay and the staying power. While the multiplayer isn’t really the main draw of the game it is nice that it’s available and certainly doesn’t detract from the game as a whole.

Overall, Tomb Raider is a triumph of a game with an engaging narrative, compelling gameplay, and gripping visuals, hitting all the right notes for a blockbuster action-adventure game while setting itself apart from the crowd as a unique entry and a cut above the rest. I recommend this game very highly to anyone even remotely curious on this reinvention of one of the golden oldies of action-adventure gaming. Whether this was meant to be a reboot or simply a prequel remains to be seen, but I look forward to my next outing with the new Lara Croft. I hope she’ll get another opportunity like this to show us who she is, not just what she can do, with a spotlight both on her exploits and her substance.

7 things about life I learned from the game Ascension – Part 7

1 02 2013

7. Sometimes it really is just the luck of the draw

One of the things that you have to remember is that Ascension is a card game, and therein lies an inherent element of randomness. This can be mitigated and controlled to some extent but invariably there will be situations in which there are no good plays or there are amazing plays that materialize for the opponent.


Sometimes this will happen, and sometimes it won’t happen for you.


Take a deep breath, take a swig of beer, and lean back and bask in the absurdity of the thing that just transpired. Learn to appreciate that ridiculous mega-turn the winning player had. There’s always next time, and there’s always tomorrow for you to take a mega-turn and run away with everything.

7 things about life I learned from the game Ascension – Part 6

30 01 2013

6. Things have no inherent value; value changes as the situation evolves

What makes a “good” card? While there are a few objectively good cards that are always useful to any player, most of the cards in the game are applicable to a certain strategy or situation. With some planning and consideration, a player can leverage their knowledge to evaluate what is truly a worthwhile investment.

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There are a few cards which are always good to have, no matter what. Everything else can be quite subjective.

Some cards are practically worthless without other key components that play off of them. Try to avoid purchasing these cards until you have secured other parts of the “combo” that work by themselves.

Banishment cards are some of the most sought after assets in the game but late in the game, once all the banishing is done, they become worthless and are ironically themselves prime candidates for banishment!

There are certain cards that pay great dividends in the late game, but require your deck to develop and reach that high-gear end game state before they are truly worthwhile. Don’t snag these in lieu of more immediately useful cards if your deck is not yet matured enough to make good use of it.


Void Initiate is highly desirable in the first few turns, however in the mid-late game it is a horrible buy, when you’ve either already done the majority of your deck-thinning or it’s too late to start. Conversely, cards like Tablet of Time’s Dawn and Twofold Askara are not especially helpful in the early turns but in towards the end of the game can be astonishingly effective.

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Certain cards are not as worthwhile until you have the resources to “fuel” them to their maximum potential.

Cards like Master Dhartha are always good…if they are in your deck; if they are in the opponents deck, they are very, very bad. Learn to banish power cards instead of holding out on the remote chance that you might afford it before a more focused opponent has an opportunity.

It is also important not to disregard the events that show up from the center row that will enhance the value of the cards of their associated faction. Always take these into account when weighing your options, but also remember that the event will probably phase out eventually…

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Certain cards get a huge increase in effectiveness when their favored event is out. Counting on those events to show up might get you in trouble, but when the events are actually out you have to pay attention to how much more powerful these cards become.


And finally, going back to the awareness advice (part 2), always keep in mind that the game is won by way of honor points. Nothing else really matters as far as the rules go. At the end of the game in particular, keep that fact at the front of your mind when you are making the decision on what to purchase.

Having a little perspective and analytical thinking will help develop the wisdom on what is a good move or not taking into account the current strategic situation. One man’s filth is another man’s feast, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and similar meditations on worth are all applicable and evident in this game, just like in the real world. Remember that the value of things fluctuate, and your needs will change with ebb and flow of the tides of time.

7 things about life I learned from the game Ascension – Part 5

29 01 2013

5. Know when to save and when to spend big

There are several kinds of cards that have a one-shot usage available after they are played or acquired, such as trophy monsters and certain constructs. Expendable assets that roll over from turn to turn can be much more effective when held in reserve than spent at the earliest opportunity. Knowing when to cash in these cards for a boost to your current turn can turn a good turn into a winning turn.

Most of the advice on getting “free” information on your turn (part 4) and paying attention to what’s going on in the game (part 2) applies to this as well; this is simply another consideration that needs to be at the front of your mind when you are weighing your options in a given turn. Having that awareness will determine if and how you “go nova” that turn.

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A few examples of cards that remain in front of the player and can be expended at discretion.

The most obvious instance to call your expendable assets into play is when there is a critical purchase or especially potent monster in the center row. If it seems like a very powerful card is just out of reach it is usually worth it to try and push to grab it. This is especially true if the particular card is also very beneficial to an opponent’s strategy; you had better give yourself the best chance to acquire it before it ends up in the wrong hands (no pun intended). As far as monsters go, it is sometimes worth making an effort to kill a monster if leaving that monster in the center row may be hazardous to your plans, such as an Acidic Crawler or Polaris Demon.

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If there is a monster in the center row that threatens your current strategy you would do well to make an effort to get rid of it…before someone else does.

Another thing to watch out for is when you may be able to trigger the end of the game with an exceptional turn. Remember that the end of the game is triggered by the emptying honor crystals, so this is typically done with power cards and killing several monsters. Because of the fact that in Ascension every player gets the same amount of turns in the game, it is usually best if you can end the game on your own terms and wrap up on a strong note, especially when opponents are unprepared to get the maximum potential out of their final turn.

And, on a related note, if you know that a given turn will definitely be your last, always burn all of your expendable resources. There’s no reason not to.

Resources that are a one-time expenditure must be used carefully for maximum effect. The players who know when to hold their reserves and when to throw everything in will reap the best rewards.

7 things about life I learned from the game Ascension – Part 4

26 01 2013

4. Get the bigger picture and consider your options before you make commitments

Although there is no limit to the “actions” you can play on your turn in Ascension and the cards in your hand can be played in any order, players who understand that there is a best way to utilize the cards they have available based on the order they play them will have a distinct advantage. Sometimes referred to as “order of operations,”  there is a certain sequence you should play out your actions when deciding what to do on your turn, which makes the right thing to do more clear and can sometimes transform an average turn into a power-play. What you are essentially trying to do is get visibility on what your really have to work with before you start partitioning out your resources. To use another money analogy, Imagine that you have 50 dollars but you also have a bunch of sealed envelopes with money inside. Before you hastily spend the 50 dollars, wouldn’t it be smarter to open all the envelopes so that you know how much funds you really have? If you did, then you might find that you have funds that allow you to make a more significant purchase. Likewise there is a flipside to smart spending: You wouldn’t commit your purchase to the first thing you come across that matches those funds; you would probably shop around and evaluate a few potential options to make the best use of your funds. These basic principles are very easy to carry over to Ascension; make sure you have done all you can to reveal what your true options are before you contemplate what to do. Acquiring the best cards is a matter of both having the resources and making the cards turn up when you do.


Even one rune can make a huge difference in the quality of the card you buy. Make sure you aren’t selling yourself short!

An easy thing to remember is to always play cards that give you free draws first. By playing any cards that cause you to draw before any others, you’ll have the full scope of your hand’s potential for that turn. Always make sure you get as many cards into your hand as you can before you make the commitment of discarding any. It’s a terrible feeling to have mindlessly thrown away an apprentice and later in the turn realizing that it could have made the difference between a 6-rune and a 7-rune buy.

wolf-shaman starchild-l1 temple-librarian2

Always play cards that give you free draws first to get a better idea of what you should throw out when  you play cards that require you to discard or banish.

There are certain cards that have effects that are effectively random. These should also be resolved earlier in the turn (but after free draws) than later, so that you can be aware of the effect that you actually receive and can integrate that info into your plan for the turn. Remember that soul gems must be used during the turn they are gained but they do not have to be used immediately, therefore you can hold off on playing them until you have more information on what you are able to do.

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Make sure you activate your “random” effects early to know what you have to work with. Certain effects can drastically affect what you are able to do on your turn so know about them earlier rather than later.

After you have gone through the previous steps you can now move on to the next source of information; the center row. There are various ways you may be able to affect the center row and fish for the potential purchase/monster that you really need. As mentioned, half of being able to purchase/defeat valuable cards is having those cards appear in the center row, but you can improve your chances of having such a card appear if you have ways to get cards flowing through the center row. Always be mindful of the fact that even though there are only 6 cards in the center row at a time, often you are not limited to those 6 cards. Remember that some cards have a Fate effect that appears when they appear in the center row, and unlike other cards that are played you cannot “save” the effect for later in the turn; it occurs immediately.

High priority banishes:

-Cards that can harm you directly, such as Sea Tyrant and Noxious Soul that you are unable to defeat

-Cards that your opponents want and you probably cannot afford/use

Lower priority banishes:

-Cards that nobody wants

-Cards that your opponents want that you may be able to afford/use

Another thing that you can do to increase your options is to use your “secondary resource.” Except for very focused decks later in the game, you will rarely have a hand exclusively made up of runes or power. In such a case you can use your “weaker” resource to try and clear cards out of the center row to try and reveal a good pick-up for the better resource that you hold. Power is generally more favorably used this way since the cards aren’t added to your deck; there is usually never a reason not to kill a monster in the center row if you are able. Similarly, if there are no monster cards in the center row don’t default to beating up the cultist multiple times; try to make a few rune purchases first and a powerhouse monster just might show up.

Finally, as a last resort you can purchase cheap cards from the center row one at a time with the hopes that something more powerful and worthwhile for your remaining funds will appear. Just remember to be careful about buying too many cards that contribute to deck dilution. There are several cheap 1-rune cards that can be bought safely since they provide draws and do not contribute to dilution, such as Arha Initiate and Hectic Scribe.

Once you have addressed as many elements of uncertainty as possible, the necessary path becomes more clear. Having the best information that you can have when arriving at those decision points will direct you towards the optimal things to do and help you make informed decisions that create the best opportunities.

7 things about life I learned from the game Ascension – Part 2

22 01 2013

2. Have an awareness of your environment and situation

One of the most subtle but important things you can do is simply to pay attention. Pay attention to what has been showing up in the center row. Pay attention to what players are purchasing, and how much runes/power they are averaging per turn. Pay attention to what cards are getting banished, and which are being left alone. Pay attention to over-talkative players who trumpet their good hands and announce their intended next plays. All of these aspects are sources of information that can be helpful guides to your decisions and help you make the best choice to help you in the long run. Even though there is a fairly low amount of interaction in Ascension, the game is not played in a vacuum. The cards that players purchase and banish are made unavailable to the others, and the cards that are in demand by certain players will likely continue to remain in demand for the entire game.

One of the most basic applications of monitoring your opponents is having an awareness of “competitive analysis.” Remember that the center row is a communal and all players make purchases from this same source. It’s open information on who buys what cards from the center row, and the purchases your opponents make can be indicative of their game plan. Also realize that there are only so many copies of given cards in the deck, and some very valuable cards have only one copy, so it is very possible for player to accidentally or purposefully cut into each other’s strategic niche by wanting to buy the same kinds of cards. If you see that the opponents are going for a strategy favoring runes or favoring constructs, for instance, there are two ways that you can react: You can imitate their strategy to try to compete with them directly, but this will sometimes result in both you and the opponent performing poorly due to the shared demand for cards that support the strategy leaving the other players (if playing with more than 2) at an advantage. Alternately, you could consciously avoid going into the strategy of your opponents and identify what they are neglecting and specialize in that; the “do the thing that everyone else isn’t doing” approach. If you take this approach, you’ll often find that this path gives several advantages: The in-demand cards of your opponents will have a high turnover rate and the center row will have a better chance of being populated with cards that reward your strategy, and those same cards will be ignored by the opponent even if they are powerful simply because it does not ascribe to their chosen strategies. Using the above example, you could react by going for a power-based strategy to clean up all the monsters that your opponents are neglecting to kill with their rune/construct strategies.

The other side of the coin is “denial.” As its name would suggest, the denial tactic is simply to be aware of what the opponent needs the most-what their deck/strategy is sorely hurting for-and make sure that they don’t get it, either banishing it from the center row or even purchasing it for yourself as a last resort. Remember that the game is a direct competition in the end, so sometimes you need to evaluate whether a play that hinders your opponent can be more valuable than a play benefits you in the grand scheme of things. If you pay close attention, you’ll have a better awareness of when this is the case and you can know when there is an opportunity to cripple the opposition in lieu of making a marginal gain for your own deck.

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Enlightened cards have the majority of the effects that banish from the center row. They are very effective for denial by players who monitor their opponents.

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Would you know which one to banish from the center row? Have you been paying attention?

The other very basic consideration that players should always keep en eye on is the approach of the end of the game. When the pool of honor crystals begins to dwindle, that should be your cue to change your perspective on what kinds of things you should be investing in. This is the time when your one and only focus should be getting as much honor (victory points) as possible, as quickly as possible since you will have only 3-4 turns remaining. At this time you should be looking at the cost-to-honor ratio of the things you are considering buying; Mechana constructs typically give the best cost-to-honor at a 1:1 ratio and in the end game, they should be purchased if possible even by players who are not playing a Mechana strategy.

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Mechana constructs have the best cost to honor ratio and are coveted by all players in the end game.

If you pay as much attention on your opponents’ turns as your own, and monitor the other happenings within the game, you’ll get a great amount of useful information that will help you make the best decisions when it is your turn to play. A little observation, analysis, and foresight can go a long way: Just like in real life.

7 things about life I learned from the game Ascension – Part 1

21 01 2013

1. Have a plan but be flexible

A generally good beginner’s strategy is to concentrate exclusively on runes or power right from the beginning. The basic theory here is that if you concentrate on one resource only you have a better chance of purchasing/defeating good cards of that resource on a given turn than you would if you “split” your strategy and end up being mediocre in both areas.

Specialization can be very powerful, but it is limited by the circumstances of what is available. While someone who specializes can run away with the game if the right cards show up, they are equally likely to be stuck with nothing useful for their one-and-only strategy in the center row.

Another common trap is over-commitment to an arbitrary strategy. Some players as soon as they buy their first Lifebound hero with Unite get this stubborn self-enforced doctrine of only buying Lifebound cards that appear from that point onward.

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It is tempting to chase a given strategy with cards like these.

Rather than thinking of it in terms of Plan A and Plan B, think of your potential paths in slightly more indistinct terms. I like to conceptualize the “Plan A, Plan B” model as “Plan Red, Plan Yellow,” but what I am really wanting to end up with is a “Plan Red” and a “Plan Orange.” That is to say, ideally my secondary plan can feed off of the things that I’ve already put into place for my primary plan, at least in an indirect way. A great example of this would be a Mechana/Runes strategy where if the Mechana cards I want aren’t showing up then at least I have the rune-heavy buying cards that I’ve been stocking up on in order to buy those Mechana constructs.

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These cards very potent with the right combos, but are still useful by themselves; a good example of versatility and being able to transition to different strategies.

On the other hand, you also need to have a keen awareness of when you really are committed to a given strategy and also have an awareness of when taking a certain action will commit you to a strategy. If you’re already 12 turns deep and have several cards that basically do nothing without comboing with other cards of the specific strategy, it is only going to hurt you to try and change course then.


There are some cards that are pretty worthless without accompanying combo cards. If you are stranded with several of them already you had better make a point of pursuing those combos or they will be useless for the entire game.

Goal-oriented decision making can sometimes corner us into difficult situations where we hit an unexpected hurdle and end up stagnating if the situation is not optimal for that particular goal. It is often better to set more than one goal such that you will be more likely to have a productive path towards meeting one or both given what is immediately available to you, especially if those goals are complimentary to each other in some way.

Producing a Cards Against Humanity custom expansion

1 11 2012

Cards Against Humanity is a great, great game. It is so good, in fact, that I found that new content for the game was coming out too slowly for me. If you go to their website, you’ll see that they encourage remixing and player added content, and the game itself is created under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. So I figured, why not?

It started off as many disorganized pet projects begin; as a Google doc. It was a fairly reflective period as I sat in my chair for lengths of time and thought of as many horrible fucked-up things as I could, being careful to check against the existing official cards for redundancy (and synergy). I asked for help and as more and more collaborators bought in to the effort, I had just shy of 20 people on board, each contributing some hilarious and terrible ingredient to our cesspool of ideas. Before too long we were looking at a hefty list of over 350 entries, quite enough to make the endeavor worthwhile. It was time to carry this thing to term.

Naturally, I wanted to find a method of production that would be the absolute cheapest yet at the same time I wanted acceptable quality and most importantly similarity in materials to the official cards such that the finished expansion would be able to integrate with the actual game as seamlessly as possible. It was an exercise in attention to detail as I examined dozens of fonts to find the correct match (Helvetica Neue 75 Bold if you wanted to know), learned of the correct cut of cards pertaining to width and height, roundedness of the corners, weight of paper stock and types of finishing and varnish available, and learned about resolution, color temperatures, and file outputs that high quality printing projects demand.

My first inclination was to research Chinese printing companies overseas which offered highly attractive rates. However, this soon became problematic due to the high cost of receiving samples which was integral to the process to ensure I got what I wanted. I then evaluated options stateside and while the costs were considerably higher, communication and negotiation with these companies was much more prompt and painless. I eventually settled on a NJ based company called AdMagic, who had very similar cardstock to what I needed and was also open to producing fully customized cards in irregular quantities.

I worked with various members from the AdMagic team to negotiate pricing and to make precisely sure that they understood the nature of the project and what I was trying to accomplish. I wrestled with their provided printing templates to avoid the setup fee and elected to do all the alignment and organization of the image files manually with guidance from the team, the years of self-taught dickering in Photoshop and Illustrator finally bearing fruit. All in all the project was turning out to be a lot of work but with the end in mind I feverishly edited, checked, and rechecked until everything was ready to go to the physical production phase.

However, perhaps I made the folks at AdMagic understand a little too well. Whether they had already heard of Cards Against Humanity, or looked it up on their own initiative, they contacted the creators of the official game about my proposed project; an understandable move from a legal liability standpoint. I was surprised to receive a message from Ben Hantoot, one of the designers of CAH in my inbox and expected bad news. However, I was pleased to hear that after his review of the material, the project had his blessing to move forward with two conditions: Firstly that I must never sell the cards from the custom expansion and second that I append “Kyle’s Custom Edition” or something of the like to the faces of the cards such that they can be differentiated from the official ones. The first item I had already accepted to be true under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0, and the second I was more than happy to oblige. So the CAH guys are indeed as cool as they say and there was finally nothing left to do except send the money to get this thing under way.

So a few weeks and several hundred dollars later the box shows up on my doorstep and I am quite pleased with how the set turned out. The cut of the cards is ever so slightly larger than the originals, noticeable only if you are looking for it, and using protective sleeves on the cards will probably mitigate this entirely. Even though it was grueling and costly, in the end I have a very fine finished product, a greater understanding of the experience of printing and producing physical games, and the smug satisfaction of carrying a project of this nature through to the end and having a pretty banging custom set of Cards Against Humanity that is uniquely my own.

“Fan”-ning the Flames: “Mega Man” in Street Fighter x Tekken

27 01 2012

I do enjoy a good troll once in a while and the particularly epic series of trolling from Capcom over the still-recent Megaman hullabaloo has been good for several chuckles and shakes of the head. However the latest development in this series of trolling has perhaps gouged a little too deep, even for the amused observer, and unearthed a lot of interesting questions about how companies should handle their own intellectual property.

For those who have not been following the Megaman fallout closely, I will give you a brief, abridged timeline of the key events that lead up to the current debacle:

1987-2009: Megaman, a.k.a. Rockman, is one of the most well known and beloved franchises in the history of video games, selling around 29 million copies over the life of the franchise worldwide. The iconic “blue bomber” has starred in a long running series of games, side series, spinoff games, and even his own animated series. Fans eagerly await the upcoming Megaman Legends 3, the anticipated new entry in a highly popular spinoff series.

2010: Keiji Inafune, lead producer of the Megaman series for over 22 years, announces his departure from Capcom due to what is speculated to be “creative differences.”

2011: Trolling begins. Development on Megaman Legends 3 is suspended indefinitely. The long awaited Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is released, with the iconic Megaman being conspicuously absent from the cast, although his partner Zero is included, as well as Tron Bonne from the Legends line of games.

Late 2011: Despite huge volume of fan requests, Megaman is still absent from the follow up Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, which introduced 12 new characters to the roster. DLC costumes for various characters are teasing acknowledgements and “tributes” to Megaman.

2012: 25th anniversary of the franchise. Proclaiming that “this is my destiny!”, “Mega Man” is announced for the upcoming crossover fighting game Street Fighter x Tekken and he looks like this:

This is my destiny!

At this point I think it is apparent to anyone what Capcom is up to. Petty revenge certainly comes to mind as a way of getting back at Inafune for bailing on the company by way of mistreating his beloved creation. But it is also a pretty flagrant F U to the fans, who have been clamoring for the inclusion of the classic character in some of the more significant releases by the company which are meant to showcase their “mascot” characters. What is baffling is how a company can blatantly snub one of its most enduring fanbases in such a backhanded way. It makes one wonder who calls the shots in the higher tiers at Capcom and what exactly is going through their mind when they sign off on such things.
The interesting question that ultimately emerges is this: How much respect does a company owe to their own intellectual property? Some companies will often make a mockery of their less successful or unpopular experiments as a way of sweeping them under the rug or “apologizing,” but that is clearly not the case in this instance; Megaman is one of the flagship franchises that put Capcom where it is today, even before the heyday of Street Fighter and the like. What they are doing is effectively holding their own character hostage and further alienating a disenchanted fanbase that represents a sizable amount of their support over the years. Is it permissible? Is it ethical? Is it business smart? We see that you know what you are doing Capcom, but with what end in mind? What will become of the Blue Bomber?

Big questions: If you create a something successful that millions of people love, how beholden are you to the IP and to your fans?

Lost Planet 2 and Japanese design philosophy

3 06 2010

I never really understood what people meant when they said a game was “very Japanese” I suppose in contrast to “American” or “Western” but I think I had a mini-epiphany when I was trying to wrap my head around Lost Planet 2. After playing things like Modern Warfare 2 and Red Dead Redemption recently, there was a stark contrast in the presentation and player experience that stood out. I imagine that Lost Planet 2 indeed falls into the “Japanese” design category because of it’s similarity to Monster Hunter, which is an incredible success in Japan but has a somewhat weaker fanbase over here in N. America.

There were three major things that stood out to me as distinct from Western-style games when looking at Lost Planet 2:
-Explanation of controls and player education
More accurately, the lack of this. Western games over the past decade or so have embraced a strict policy of communicating the breadth and depth of play mechanics to their players such that consultation of the manual is rarely necessary. This is usually delivered through tutorial segments or thorough in-game explanation. Lost Planet 2 seems to go the entirely opposite route, instead reveling in the mystery and untold intricacies of its mechanics. There are various techniques and maneuvers which are rarely if ever referenced in game that many players could go completely unaware of. For example, did you know that the shield can be transformed into a destructive laser weapon with an obscure button combination? Lost Planet 2 seems to leave a lot of the controls to the players to discover and experiment with, instead of making them fully aware of all of them.
-Unlock system
Western games which feature unlockables and level-up incentives usually go about it in one or two ways: they give the player a choice between a selection of upgrades, or they have the upgrades automatically given at set intervals. The player is mostly in control of the way that their character evolves and progresses. Lost Planet 2 gives the finger to this idea and has a completely random “slot machine” that the players can pour their hard earned cash into and get a random award ranging from new weaponry to simple titles for the character to use in online play. This random reward mechanic is probably the furthest from “Western design” and in to my tastes, the most irritating. Nothing like dropping credits from 6 hours of play and getting 5 different pants to wear.
-Character customization
Another thing that Western games don’t seem to accomodate as much as games like this, outside of the MMO realm, are the cosmetic changes that you can apply to your character. Not only are there various base character models included, but a bevy of customizable parts for each one that allow you to create a unique look for your character, and even the ability to customize a “loadout” of up to 8 different emotes that the character can display.