Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review - Jolly Blast: Soccer

**Originally posted on levelsave.com **

jolly blast soccer verticalOverall Rating: 3
Educational Value: 6
Age Appropriateness: 2
Enjoyment Factor: 1
I am a great lover of childrens’ literature. I have rows upon rows of picture books intended for an array of age ranges, and I can often be caught with my nose in some beautifully illustrated fairy tale or pop-up books of dinosaurs. My collection of books is steadily growing larger, and they are practically used in my work with small children all the time. There are a few programs that I am enamoured with as well. Good childrens’ interactive fiction (and non-fiction) is useful in educating kids, has replay value, challenges the child, and even remains fun, and that’s exactly what Jolly Blast: Soccer tries to achieve. Unfortunately, this app falls flat in several of these areas.
Jolly Blast: Soccer is well-intentioned and educational, but doesn’t serve to capture the imagination or even hold attention. It’s purpose is to teach it’s users about the basic concepts of soccer, as well as the vocabulary used. It does this aptly with the more interactive pieces of the program. There is a glossary of soccer terms which is quite informative, and one bit where shapes are associated with different parts of the soccer field which goes into more detail about rules. These parts are well-done from an educational perspective, but they have none of the fun involved in capturing and holding the attention of children. These good pieces are more a reference that can be checked for definitions and clarifications.
Where this app falls flat is in the fun and replay value, as well as the lack of attempt to put forth any appropriate challenge to the child. First, the font is too small to be read on my iPhone. I found that both my daughter and I had to squint to read some of the text, and some of the dialogue bubbles were nearly unreadable for their tininess. I would have been happy if there was a font-scaling function, so that if this game is bought on an iPhone 3GS (which does not have as high a resolution as the iPad or iPhone 4) it wouldn’t be nearly impossible to read. There is also the problem of the main story’s length, amount of text on each page, and the complexity of the language being used. It would seem to me that the content within this story is aimed at very young readers, but the sophistication of the actual words on the screen would be more suited to someone with a bit more aptitude in the art of reading. This can lead to either a frustrated younger one or a bored (or worse, insulted!) older child. The saving grace here was the voice-over function, which allowed the user to listen to the story audibly. This will ease some of our child’s frustration, but won’t allow him to practice his reading.
Also, children know how to use iPhones. The controls are as intuitive as shuffling papers around on a desk. Swiping to go to the next page, or to trigger an event on-screen in this kind of app is a no-brainer. Children will utilize their current understanding of how an iPhone works and try these things out first. The problem here is that Jolly Blast: Soccer does not utilize this native control scheme. I found myself tapping nearly everything, even when the item on-screen needed to be dragged across a surface or when I needed to flip pages. The tap-detection boxes are very, very small, as well. I was constantly double- and even triple-tapping one of the sparkling auras which signify an interactive item. This led to more frustration and even anger on the part of my daughter. iOS devices are expensive things, and personally, I wouldn’t want an angry child holding my $500 piece of hardware.
Jolly Blast Tony GonzalezTony Gonzalez, Tight End for the Atlanta Falcons is featured in this game. He has a video that can be navigated to via the main UI in which he details.. something. And here’s the thing, the audio for the video is much, much too quiet to hear. This negates much of what makes having an iconic sports presence in the app a benefit, and is yet another satellite of frustration orbiting this dead rock of an app.
None of this even mentions that there is no part of this game in which either my daughter or I were having any fun. This game is simply no fun at all. Well.. We did make fun of it a little bit, and that was quality father-daughter bonding.
Honestly, I can’t recommend this game less. Not only does it fall flat on it’s face in most respects, it also confuses it’s intended age level. I can’t even tell you which age this app is really intended for, and I have been to school to learn all about child development. Don’t waste the $1.99 required to own this interactive story. Put that money towards either a good, informational book about soccer, or just get your child a real ball.
The Jolly Blast website can be found here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Raven Plays - Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta Testing Weekend 8

In which my meditation is rudely interrupted by a.. Huge Pokemon?

Review: Defenders of Ardania

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

Defenders of Ardania is a beautiful tower defence game set in the world of the Majesty series. Paradox Interactive (Magicka, Crusader Kings II,) bring us a TD game with a twist. You play as one of three factions: Human, Nature, and Underworld to defend your sanctum against incoming would-be marauders. The difference here is that you also send forth waves of enemies to crush your opponents, lending some light RTS elements into a saturated and stagnating genre.

This game is presented very well. Colourful, vivid scenery comprises each level. There are three distinct level styles, one for each faction: Humans have their city streets and farmland, Nature has the lush greenery of the jungle, and the Underworld have their dark citadels and dead landscapes to oogle, ensuring you will never get tired of looking at these beautifully rendered environments.
The music is something else, too. An epic soundtrack heightens the feeling of heroicism, especially int he campaign mode, since mid-level battle tends to be a little dry and straight-forward against the AI. The sound effects do their job well, and blend into the music.
Ah, but the voice acting is terrible. I HAVE heard worse acting, but only in Japanese bullet-hell shooters that have been localized for North America on a near-nil budget.
That being said, the dwarves end up being ridiculously funny, giving you quests to secure beer instead of actually helping you investigate the main plot. Their awful, awful Scottish accents only lend to their drunken, uniquely dwarven charm.
The level selection screen is a nicely painted map that is a pleasure to scroll through. There is none of the interactiveness that you find in other Paradox games, (Crusader Kings, Sengoku,) but then the game doesn’t take place on the overworld map. It’s not even a flaw.
Defenders of Ardania is played very much like other tower defence games. Units walk along the shortest route to your citadel along divergent paths, which you can change by putting shooting towers in the way. But there is a slight difference: You are also sending out units to annihilate the opposing sanctums. This kind of game has been done before, but not quite in this upgradable, heroic, RPG-style manner. I say upgradable because there are successively tiered unit levels as in other TD games there are different tower tiers. Sending out ten units of any particular type will upgrade the unit type, making them tougher, hit harder, and cost more resources than their predecessors. This can be done three times, at which point a heroic unit becomes available. All of the heroic units have special capabilities, are much tougher to kill, are incredibly strong, and cost vast amounts of resources to call forth.
The heroic units are not quite as expensive and rare as the spells. Spells which heal and hinder can cost most-to-all of your resources to cast and on top of that have a cooldown time. This ensures that you can’t spam a healing spell if you are being pummelled. I feel Paradox has done this to add balance to the factions and also creates a more thoughtful, strategic game.
The two complaints I have about the gameplay is so niggling, I wondered if I should include them… But of course I will! Basically, you can only upgrade your towers once. Also, you are only allowed to have very limited towers on the map at once. This creates a flat, ceilinged tower strategy in dual-player matches. Once your towers are placed and upgraded, there is no need to change them up unless there is a gaping hole in your defence that needs to be patched. This leaves you with nothing to do but to spend all your time on the unit menu upgrading and spamming soldiers and dwarves onto the map. Though during four-player matches, I am grateful for this limitation. The chaos of having four people all building towers on the same small board and sending out wave after wave of units is more than my poor brain can handle.
The game modes aren’t all that varied, but they tend to be fun anyway. All modes are played on the campaign maps that have been presented in the main story-line with no extra challenge or multiplayer exclusive levels. Trying to find multiplayer matches is difficult, since the servers are devoid of open lobbies looking for players. Make sure you make a date with a friend to experience four-player chaos, it is well worth it.
The single player game modes include:
  • Campaign, which is straightforward Defenders of Ardania against an AI enemy.
  • Limited Resources, which increases starting resources but eliminates any way to gain more over the course of the game. This leaves you with some tough choices to make.
  • Survival, which is pure tower defence. Sending units is disabled and the enemy comes in ever-toughening waves which never end.
The multiplayer game modes include:
  • Full Frontal Assault, which is an every-player-for-themselves, deathmatch style game
  • 2 vs. 2, team deathmatch.
  • Team Survival, as single player but you co-operate with a friend in order to survive tougher and tougher waves.
  • Sudden Death, which can be added on to any of the other multiplayer modes. This function reduces all sanctum’s HP to critically low levels, creating a sense of immediacy and real urgency during the first few seconds of the game.
As tower defence games go, this isn’t the best one on the market, but it makes up for that by being slightly left of centre within a recently saturated genre. I can only givew credit to Paradox Interactive for participating in the evolution of the TD game, when they could have just built on the already perfected defence genre. If you’re a fan of the genre, I’d keep an eye out for this game.
Defenders of Ardania is available for PC and iPad, with PSN and XBLA versions coming soon. The PC version was used for review.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Raven Plays - Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta Testing Weekend 6

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

In which I justify my actions. What? Moral accountability in my MMORPG? Get out of town!

Paradox Promises King Arthur II Articles

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

With the release of Paradox Interactive’s King Arthur II: The Roleplaying Wargame on the horizon, fans have been promised a series of in-depth articles. Released once per week until the game’s release, these screenshot-laden articles will provide information about the perilous state of Brittania at the beginning of the game, as well as reveal details about gameplay. They will also serve to show off the game’s graphical beauty, and this game is very beautiful.
One such article has been released. Within this article is detailed several facets of the game, including unit descriptions, information about skill trees, as well as the signature Paradox-style map of Brittania.
Excerpt from the first article:
“The Campaign Map of King Arthur II is the eerily beautiful island of mystical Britannia, a fully three dimensional map with rivers, forests, marshlands, towns and legendary places. The area you can explore is twice as big as it was in the first game, now including everything from Cornwall to the northernmost corner of the land. You can venture even beyond Hadrian’s Wall and conquer the territory of the savage Pict hordes.”
So if you’ve got your sword and mouse at the ready and you simply must know more, Paradox has what you’re looking for.
Read the full article HERE.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Raven Plays - Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta Testing Weekend 5

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

Sassy aliens in cages are surprisingly easy to kill!

Xenoblade Chronicles Heading for North America

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

After the unpopular move to exclude North America in the release of the highly anticipated Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, fans of the Japanese RPG genre got together and started a campaign to bring Xenoblade to American shores. It is not yet known if the campaign, entitled Project Rainfall, is instrumental in bringing about the change of heart at Nintendo, but we will be seeing the game surface on store shelves in April of 2012.

Proponents of Project Rainfall are also making their voices heard over two other RPGs entitled The Last Story and Pandora's Tower. These two games have no North American release dates as of yet, but the fan campaign is still ongoing. I hope to hear more good news from Japan soon.

Please bring more good RPGs to my dusty old Wii, Nintendo!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

RE: Pathfinder Online

** In response to a post at levelsave.comhttp://levelsave.com/2011/12/pathfinder-online-announced/ **

The complaint with my early experience in 4th Ed D&D isn't necessarily with the system itself, but with the way the particular games at the Living Forgotten Realms nights in which I played were handled. The management team in Toronto for the LFR campaign is great, but some of the DMs are not. There is a policy that encourages players to rotate through DM duties every certain number of games. This leads to very player-driven sessions, a lot of looking up rules, and a ~lot~ of new DMs. This is a failing when trying to run story-driven modules, but not as much when running battle-driven modules.

This isn't an isolated problem, as I've seen the same kind of thing happen in other publisher-produced living campaigns outside of Toronto. I'm getting the impression that it's a living campaign problem more than anything. This may be why all of the modules in Forgotten Realms are so battle-heavy, with a story that ushers the next encounter, rather than explores the universe in which it is set.

That being said, the 4th Ed. D&D ruleset is definitely battle-oriented. The non-combat skills have been simplified so that rolling to tie a knot and rolling to hunt are based on the same skill. Whereas each segment of combat is accounted for, detail is high, there is "flavour text" for abilities that last less that two seconds. DMs and players can change that about their game, by adding complexity or by building highly detailed backgrounds with the DM. Roleplay doesn't need a bunch of attributes attached to it, ideally players should be able to choose to play out the role of their character verbally without any use of statistics whatsoever. Personally, I love that. Having a bare-bones character like you might in the 1st edition: Six statistics, a name, and a class. That's the ideal game for me. Combat in these games is driven in the same way, there is a stat that you are rolling against to "attack" and that's it. It's up to you to say if you are swinging from the chandelier and trying to upset the table that the Bullywug is standing on by throwing daggers at his feet and making him dance. (A lot of DEX tests on that one, yes?) There isn't any "Chandelier Barrage" ability which requires a unique formula to figure out damage for and might stun on a critical hit.

The 3rd edition, which is a medium complexity system, is also not for me. When I say I returned to "older systems," I didn't mean the third, I meant the first. I've been playing Labyrinth Lord for a while now, and I'm really enjoying the open-endedness of it. This game is perfect for me, and it's so simple to play and run that you can group more and more people together at the table. Taking on some of the older modules that required 8-12 characters to complete is an amazing experience. The table-talk around the game with that many players tends to be a lot of fun as well. This can't really happen with the 4th edition since battle tends to take so long that table-talk is discouraged. Making the game less and less social with each passing session.

This returns to the root of the discussion, MMO socialization. It is very true that MMOs don't tend to produce social buterflies, but there is a lot of socialization that happens in EVE Online. Joining a leading faction was actually a little much as far as my social threshold is concerned. I ended up just grouping with small squads to take down some other enemy-faction small squads. It was a lot of fun and a ~lot~ of socializing. This is why I have such high hopes for Pathfinder Online. There is a game developer who is interested in creating a sandbox, open-world MMO coupled with people who have been directly involved in an MMO which succeeded in doing just that.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Raven Plays - Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta Testing Weekend 4

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

In which I "fix" the graphical issues and have "no idea the enemy I'm making." Remember, it isn't murder without witnesses.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pathfinder Online Announced

** Originally posted on levelsave.com **

I have been playing tabletop roleplaying games for a long time, longer than I have actually been playing the video game variety. I was involved in a game of Vampire: The Maquerade when I was a mid-teen, and played in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign made up of almost all the same people. This was back in the mid-90s before I had experienced the crushing reality of life and I entered a sort of personal Dark Age of tabletop gaming. I wouldn’t play another game of D&D for over a decade, totally missing out on the entire third edition of the game. I began again in 2008 when the fourth edition was released, coming back to the table with fresh eyes and a willingness to adapt to all of the changes that had occurred over the course of the last 12 years. I created an elven archer and brought the character to my local Living Forgotten Realms nights, which are held across North America. I met new people and had some good fun, until I realized that I wasn’t playing Dungeons & Dragons. The system that I was playing was nothing like the D&D I knew. The battles were slow tactical affairs with grid-maps to represent the environment and markers or minis for your characters. The story was weak at the best of times, and at the worst of times would be completely skipped to fast-forward to the engagement of steel and mana. I felt like I was playing Final Fantasy Tactics. (Don’t get me wrong, FFT is a great game, it’s just not what I was there for.) So I made the jump back to older editions of the game, bringing a couple of my new-found friends along with me.
Many share my view about the fourth edition of D&D as opposed to older versions, but some maintain that it is the failing of the users to take the reigns and really drive 4E as it should be. I understand that view but would rather play a different game, thank you.
Pathfinder is a kind of spiritual younger sister to D&D. It grew out of the desire for more third edition content after the fourth was released. Since the latest system was changed beyond recognition, it made sense. Also called the “d20 system,” it too has undergone many changes in it’s rules. The errata to the core books that everyone needed to play was so large at one point that they rebooted the entire series and called it the 3.5 edition. There was a lot of grumbling and moaning about having to buy all new books amongst the fans of the game, but it wasn’t necessary. After all, there was the Official Errata, which was free but fairly confusing to use unless you already knew it inside and out. More and more errata was piled onto the system until Paizo, the company who handled publication of the Dragon and Dungeon lines of magazines. Announced that they would be releasing an RPG called Pathfinder. Obviously taken straight from the pages of the 3.5E and errata, they also made it their own. With new monsters, a slew of wonderful adventure modules, and new rules of their own, they released the hefty core rulebook under their own banner.
Now, Paizo has gathered certain figures from Wizards of the Coast (D&D Publisher) and CCP (EVE Online) to create a company called Goblinworks that will handle all aspects of what they promise is going to be a “sandbox/theme park” style MMO. I am assuming they don’t mean that all player characters will have mascot-heads and ride roller coasters for experience points. They are proposing a model of gameplay that revolves around player interaction, rather than collection and mail-runner quests. Paizo has stated that they would like to see players building glittering castles, garner support from neighboring townships to take down larger military powers, and yes, maybe even have a quest or two to kill a bothersome dragon.
This is exiting news for me, and I believe it can be done well. The way Paizo and Goblinworks are talking about this new project feels reminiscent, to me, of the power-struggle and economy inherent within EVE Online. Let’s just hope the project gets off the ground!
For more information about Pathfinder Online, visit http://goblinworks.com. If you’d like to know more about tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, visit www.wizards.com/dnd/.