Today I get to do some pitching for a project. Last week I was contacted by Rusel DeMaria, the author of High Score, a book that covers the history of the Games Industry. He is trying to get a third edition published. This will expand the book to cover the last decade of the industry and has a kickstarter up to hopefully get the money needed to get the book published.

One of the areas that I feel strongly about is the act of game preservation: preserving the history of the industry for future generations. It’s why I am a supporter of backwards compatibility on past consoles and sites like Good Old Games. Anything that can help preserve the history of the industry is a plus in my book.

Here’s the link to his kickstarter page, even if you can’t donate any money right now, if you could at least spread the word, any help would be great.

Josh Bycer

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Real Time Strategy games aimed at the macro level of play are few and far between these days. As most RTS games are aiming towards smaller scale fighting. Eugen systems last game: RUSE was an attempt at combining macro level strategy games with the ability to control the flow of information. Their latest title – Wargame: European Escalation attempts to be a middle offering between a RTS and the wargame genre. While the game doesn’t succeed on all fronts, it does provide a fresh take on the genre.

The game’s setting is the cold war where you’ll be able to control both NATO and the Warsaw Pact units. The campaign provides a different twist, by being one of the few macro oriented designed games with persistent units over levels. The campaign also features a dynamic AI which doesn’t follow the same pattern on each match. I’m going to come back to the campaign further down, as it’s important to discuss the game mechanics first.

The best way to describe EE’s gameplay is that it’s between a RTS and a traditional war game. While all gameplay is handled in real time, concepts like flanking, morale, supply, and recon take center stage. Units lose morale base on the enemy fire coming their way, and fully shocked units will stop firing and try to retreat.

Every unit in the game consumes ammo and vehicles also use up fuel. Driving on roads is faster and uses up less fuel, but leaves units wide open to ambushes. Artillery units go through ammo fast, but can rain death from above on an area. The only way to keep units going is to use supply vehicles, which said vehicles can be resupplied by returning to a base or F.O.B. On smaller maps, supply is a useful afterthought, but playing on large maps, an army without supply can become dead in the water fast.

While there isn’t a literal fog of war, enemy units won’t be visible on the map without being spotted by your units. Recon units are vital for this role, having the furthest detection rating out of all unit types. Recon becomes necessary when dealing with areas with forests as units can hide within them.

EE definitely has a different feel to it from other RTS games on the market. It has a slower pace to it, as good recon can win the day. EE is also one of the few RTS that there is an emphasis on cover and defense. It’s possible to set up defensive lines using cover and just hunker down. While the wargame mechanics are already enough to shake up traditional RTS gameplay, there is more to EE once players go online.

EE features an unlocking system for new units. As you play online matches and level up or win campaign missions, you’ll earn command stars. Stars can be use to unlock either brand new units, or upgraded models of ones you already have. The flow online is that you’re building a customized deck of units to take into multiplayer matches. You can have at most 25 unique units (upgraded models are not factored in as you must have the base unit included to use them) to use during multiplayer. There is a huge variety of units and too many to list here and the Collectible Card Game mechanic adds another great touch.

However, one of the dangers of the wargame genre is having a layer of inaccessibility due to the complexities at work. While EE does get around some of those complexities with the real time format, it unfortunately created a few of its own. The learning curve is on the high side for a RTS thanks to all the mechanics mentioned above. The game does very little to help the player learn it.

The campaign gives a few brief bullet points during the missions, but is really designed for people who already know what they’re doing. For newcomers, playing the campaign is like learning how to pack a parachute while in free fall. The big selling point: the variety of units and deck building, is not only the least explained, but has the worst UI.

The armory- where you can view and add units to your deck was not designed for newcomers. You can’t easily compare units to see how they differ, and the sorting system leaves much to be desired. There is nothing worse for a new player when learning a game, to load up and see dozens of names, stats and values that they have no idea what they’re for. Due to the variety of units, having a complete guide for what counters what wouldn’t have been feasible. However, it would have been good to include something to help players understand how to build their deck and figure out the unit descriptions.

Unless the name of the unit has something like “anti tank” or “anti aircraft” in the title, I wouldn’t know what to use it for. There were several times went I bought units thinking they could deal with the enemy, to find out that they were the wrong counter for it. For people knowledgeable on Cold War armaments, they shouldn’t have any trouble in this regard. However the lack of feedback and information does a lot to alienate newcomers.

While the pace of the game is largely on the slow side, combat happens fast. As units take critical damage and suffer equipment failure or a more advanced vehicle steamrolls over weaker units. The minimalistic design makes it hard to figure out what happened and what you could have done differently. Most likely, the best way to learn is to hopefully find a friend who can show you the ropes and provide input on deck strategies.

For a generic name- Wargame: European Escalation definitely succeeds at doing something different with the RTS genre. Not only does it offer a middle ground between RTS and wargames, but the CCG aspects help keep things diverse. Unfortunately with the learning curve, chances are most people may not stick around to learn all the nuances. But for RTS fans who are tired of having to work on their APM (actions per minute) and want something slower pace, this is the game for you.

Josh Bycer

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DLC – three simple letters that have caused a lot of discussion. DLC has become commonplace across consoles and PCs, as developers have seen the success and profit from mega hits like Call of Duty and Oblivion. However, many gamers feel that DLC has done more harm than good, forcing them to buy games for less content up front. The other feeling is being nickel and dime as developers forgo expansion packs for just DLC.

Talking about DLC, we actually have two discussions to examine. First is the issue of what should be considered DLC? One of the arguments that gamers make is that any content developed before the game is released, should be available with the retail purchase.

When Street Fighter 4 was released a few years ago, many fans complained that costumes which were already completed and in the game, were locked behind a micro transaction. Personally I’m not a fan of designers before launch deciding what content is included, and what needs to be purchased separately. Day one DLC has caused arguments from gamers, such as the recent announcements about Mass Effect 3. This was discovered that a good portion of their day one DLC was already on the game disc. On one hand, continuing to develop content after the game has gone gold is commendable, but it does lead to that grey area of what is considered DLC and what should be retail.

Another part of this first issue is with the quality of said content. Playing Saint’s Row the Third, I have been really disappointed in the DLC. The bulk of the DLC are little costume and gun packs, and the full DLC episodes each last about an hour. I just can’t help but feel that the quality just isn’t there with the DLC packs so far. It feels like a lot of the content so far would either best be free, or built upon as expansion content.

With Civilization 5 there is not only DLC of new Civs and maps, but also an announced expansion pack. That to me sounds like double dipping or having your cake and eating it too. It remains to be seen just how much content is going to be in the expansion and what will be left to continue adding DLC. What is the point where newly developed content should be priced as DLC, or if it should be saved and put in an expansion?

Another important point about the quality of DLC has to do with the decision to make it. A popular reasoning designers use to support DLC, is that the content would not have been created otherwise. Once again quality plays a big deal for this argument. I could see things like additional characters, skins, maps and costumes fit this criterion. However, when we talk about new story missions, or content that changes the gameplay this point loses momentum in my opinion.

As a case in point, the DLC for Supreme Commander 2 restructured the tech trees and added in new experimental weapons. Now on one hand, the DLC only affects multiplayer games, but the changes radically affects player’s strategies.

Before we move to the next part of the discussion, let’s talk about where DLC has helped a game. I know that most people are going to cite Team Fortress 2, but I’m going to say something crazy and state that Team Fortress 2 is not an example of the pros of DLC.

Of course TF 2 has gotten more than its share of patches and new content. However every one of them (last I checked) cost the player nothing. For me, I can think of a better example and one that could not have succeeded without DLC: Rock Band.

Rock Band must have at this point the most DLC available for a console game. Between the three games, there have been new songs added on a weekly basis. Besides new songs, new challenges for players to compete against have given the game massive replay-ability. There is just no way that Rock Band could have succeeded as a music platform without DLC.

Moving on, the second half of this discussion has to do with pricing. Hopefully I’m not the only one who has noticed that big name retail games are still being priced at the high end of the scale, even though they come with DLC.

DLC has become a marketing tool by retailers to convince gamers to purchase from them. Unique skins, characters, weapons and more are popular hooks used. Then we have future DLC in the form of quests and new plots, such as with the Mass Effect Trilogy or Fallout 3.

The problem with DLC and retail pricing is that it really screws the early adopters or the core fans of the game. As a case in point, when Fallout 3 was released it went for the full price of a retail PC game, which I believe was $50 for the regular edition. Then the DLC which is now priced at $5 a pop (although I can’t remember if that is the original price.) Let’s say for the hell of it that a fan buys the game new and all the DLC, turning that $50 investment into $75. I however, as someone who wasn’t a fan waited for a steam sale and got the ultimate edition that came with everything for either $5 or $10 (I can’t remember this either.)

Think about that for a second, a hardcore fan or someone the developers want to keep happy, pays about seven times what I, who is not even a huge fan of the game paid. Now you can argue that over time the price of a game degrades, however dropping from $75 to $10 is a huge drop. Stories like this one are one of the common reasons I hear gamers say that they’ll wait for a bundle package before buying games with planned DLC.

The pricing of DLC and micro transactions have a huge correlation of the original game’s price. Free To Play titles like League of Legends and World of Tanks actually have expensive micro transactions. For instance in LoL, you can buy regular skins or champion skins which I believe come to $15 or $20 a pop. While in World of Tanks players can spend money on a variety of in game items. However in the grand scheme of things, both games allow gamers to pick and choose how much or how little they want to spend and can still enjoy the content of the game.

When DLC is priced adequately and has something to offer, it can be a great way to extend the life of a game and provide compensation for the designers. Last year, two of the games that I spent the most time with: Dungeons of Dredmor and Binding of Isaac, cost me a total of $12. Both games were $5 and Dredmor released DLC for $2 more, adding new skills, enemies, items and more elements to randomize. That added a huge amount of content, which you could argue is more then what most retail games give for more money.

With Isaac, the first DLC pack was free and the second one will most likely cost a few bucks. However once again, the content being offered according to previews will add a lot to the game. That I feel in my opinion is where DLC is at its best: making a great game better. Instead we keep hearing stories about online passes and day one DLC. These stories have affected gamers to the point that lurking on message boards, I hear the same story of gamers who flat out refuse to buy games with any DLC whatsoever.

Once again in a debate I get to sound really old. When I was younger, there was no such thing as DLC, whatever came on the cartridge or CD was it. I support well designed DLC, with the phrase “well designed” being the optimal term. That’s why I bought Dungeons of Dredmor DLC and will buy Isaac’s DLC on day one, as I enjoyed both games and want to continue supporting the developers. However, whenever I hear about retail games with day one DLC, or those that will have constant micro transactions, I just know to wait for a Steam sale and save.

As digital purchases become more commonplace, the inclusion of DLC will become more frequent. As games are developed with more and more robust digital packages, there will be fewer reasons to buy a retail copy. The question remains though, will we see a drop in game prices? Or will we still have to spend $60 to buy our games in pieces?

Josh Bycer

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I’m finding it funny that I’m playing catch up to all the uniquely visual games of 2011: Alice: Madness Returns, Rayman Origins, and now El Shaddai. Whenever we have games that go for unique visual styles, the question always comes up if the visuals distract from the gameplay. El Shaddai is going to be an interesting discussion on this matter and a hard game to analyze.

Story wise, I’m not going to get into too much detail about, one because it’s hard to follow (more on that further down.) And two, the plot is focused on religion and belief. As someone who doesn’t follow religion I don’t want to offend anyone and I’m just going to put it aside for this analysis. You play as Enoch, who must ascend a tower built by fallen angels and take each of them out to save humanity.

The visual style is the game’s strong point. Each chapter of the game takes place in its own unique art style. From a 2D fluffy cartoon look, to a futuristic cyber city and even more insane backdrops. The game is definitely a treat for the eyes even on a SD TV.

Gameplay is split between 2D and 3D platforming and 2D and 3D combat. The combat system is fairly simple: one button to attack, one to block/modify actions, jump and purify (more on that in a minute.) There are four ways to attack: a sword, dual bucklers, some kind of long range device and your hands and feet. Each one of the three weapons is part of a rock, paper, scissors balance: sword beats shield, shield beats long range, and long range beats sword.

There are three twists to the weapon system. First is that the primary way to acquire them is to steal them from enemies. The majority of the enemies wield one of the three weapons and if you do enough damage you can stun them. Stealing a weapon weakens the enemy and gives you a brief damage boost.

The second twist involves purifying weapons. As you continue to use the same weapon, it becomes corrupted by the enemies and will change color. Fully corrupted weapons do less damage, requiring the player to either steal a new weapon or purify the current one. Purifying a weapon leaves you momentary stationary, requiring the player to pick the right time to do it.

The last twist involves the platforming sections, as the sword and long range weapon allow the player to perform additional actions in the air. The sword gives you the ability to glide, while the ranged weapon lets you do an air dash. The buckler however provides no new ability making it the last weapon you want when it’s time to jump around.

Overall the combat flows well and the platforming makes a suitable challenge. However, going back to the first paragraph unfortunately the focus on art did get in the way of the gameplay. First the combat system is just a little too simplistic to hold up for hours of play. Each weapon is controlled the exact same way and the most complicated maneuver is the guard break. This requires the player to delay pressing the attack button during a combo.

Not helping matters are the enemies, as I mentioned further up, the majority of the enemies wield one of the three weapons. However, the actual types of enemies you fight are limited. The enemy, who wields the sword, will attack the exact same way no matter what part of the game you’re at. The only times that the player is tested, are the boss and mini boss fights which require more strategy. If there were just a few more variations of enemies or more differentiating factors between the weapons things would be alright.

Another area that feels underdeveloped is the side quest involving going into the underworld to find an item. As the player is searching, there is a pool of darkness rising up and if it hits the player, not only do they die, but they have to sit through about a minute of cut-scenes and loading to get back to the game. The item in question doesn’t even have an impact on the gameplay.

There is also this item that shows up during boss fights, that lets you see what weapon type the enemy is weakest against. The strange thing about it is that it seems to show up randomly during the fight. This becomes annoying against later bosses that change forms and weaknesses in mid fight.

The last issue has to do with the story, as I mentioned I’m not familiar with the Religious story that the game is loosely based on. With that said, even with post level recaps, by about halfway through I had no idea what was going on. Characters, who were supposed to be major players, seem to die or disappear without warning and good luck understanding the ending.

El Shaddai falls into the same camp as titles like Killer 7 and No More Heroes: A game which was designed in a very specific fashion to tell a unique story. Love it or hate it, I would still suggest trying it out to see what the game has to offer.

Josh Bycer

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