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The Summer of Free Love
Written by Jock   
Tuesday, 05 July 2011
I hope everyone has been having a great summer. Mine has been relatively busy, but I thought I would leave my self-imposed exile from the Internet to talk about some of the gaming experiences I have gone through lately.

As you may know, if you are a regular on the BASH Boards, I've taken a little sabbatical from blogging to get a few Real-Life things done. Let me first start off by saying that blogging is way more addicting than I thought. The first few days I was away from the website I felt as though I was going through heroin-withdrawl (I can only speculate of course...never having ridden the white horse).

Every day that has gone by has been getting easier to be away from the 24x7 online world, but rather than go completely cold-turkey, I thought I would take the advice of BASHandSlash.com reader Liquid and fill you all in with some of the gaming experiences I've had while on hiatus.
 
Here they are:

Ctrl-Alt-Delete

Prior to going away, my hard-drive was chock-a-block with FPS titles: CoD4, BFBC2, MW2, Black Ops, Homefront and Brink were just some of the games I had installed on my drive. Sadly, they may have been installed, but I had only been regularly playing Brink, BC2 and with the occasional CoD4 Promod scrim from time to time...just to remember what real FPS gaming was like.

Once I had gone on hiatus from blogging, an interesting thing happened. My brain (or what's left of it), force-fed for years on FPS, finally began to take better stock of some of my recent gaming purchases. Could there actually be better games out there if we looked away from the FPS genre?

Heresy, I know. But as I said...I was (am?) going on hiatus.

Bye-Bye BC2, MW2, BO and Diet Pepsi

So, right off the bat, I looked at my Steam hours-played. BC2...0 hrs. MW2...had not played for a year. Black Ops...stopped playing months ago.

Clearly my hard-drive was due for a culling and knocking out Black Ops and MW2 were obvious decisions. MW2 was more deserving to be deleted, but Black Ops was also easy to be rid of when one realized how banal the game play had been. Bad maps, poor reg, hack-friendly and a god-send to the skill-less, the game was an off-tune rehash of MW2, which itself was a watered-down version of the FPS-standard we call CoD4.

Note: Recently, eSport friendly mods for BO have started to appear (source). If I see big ticket tourneys picking up the game I might rethink my execution order.

Well..those decisions were somewhat easy, but why delete BFBC2?

After all, BC2 is a technically brilliant game. Bottom line? I think I overplayed BC2 and I burned out. But there's another more insidious reason. It's the same reason I stopped drinking diet cola. Ever have a Diet Pepsi? If you are a regular drinker, you no longer notice the bad after-taste. You only notice it when you have a regular Pepsi. For me, the odd avatar movement, the sub-par reg and the lack of a hit-blip was the poor after-taste that I had failed to notice until I started playing other games a bit more regularly. Don't get me wrong, BC2 is still one of the best games of its generation...it just got a bit stale for me.

Brink on Notice

While those three games were given the heave-ho, I put Brink on notice. I haven't played it for a good long while and I don't have a compelling reason to go back to it. Long-term, Brink will either stay or go from my hard-drive based on how successful it is in the eSport world. Really, there's no other good reason to play.

Up to now, Brink's foray into eSports has been a dismal failure and its competitive future now rests with its appearance at QuakeCon (assuming it does make an appearance).

In spite of its drawbacks, I have given Brink a reprieve. But it was a touch-and-go decision based on its ample negatives:

- Lack of freedom. Brink's reward system forces you to co-operate and play in a team-oriented style. Well, dagnabbit, sometimes I don't want to be a team-player. Though you can freely do what you want in the game, not being rewarded for kills proved far too tough for me.

- Lack of eSport support. The eSport community has been tough on the game for not modding it fast enough to facilitate competitive play. It is currently a very one-dimensional game.

Reprieve aside, if the game falls flat at Quake Con...bye-bye Brink.

The Summer of Free Love

Frank Gibeau, head of the EA Games label, recently told GamesIndustry.biz that the publisher would continue to pursue the free games market.

"We're aggressively investing in things that are very low cost like free-to-play...the free-to-play group inside of EA Games is growing extremely fast - we've got 17 million users".
Frank Gibeau
Clearly, "free" is in these days. While the "freemium" marketplace was originally aimed at retail-impenetrable places such as Russia and China, the Great American Recession has certainly made this genre very relevant right here on this contintent.

On my vacation from FPS blogging and with my hard-drive cleansed, I began to focus on looking for good games to play...games from any genre, not just FPS games. What would I pick to play first?

Turns out the first game I selected was a racing/puzzle game


1. Trackmania Nations

A free-to-download game off Steam, Trackmania Nations is a unique experience that blends action packed wheel-to-wheel racing that quickens your heartbeat while exercising your mind.

The first few weeks of my sabbatical allowed me to become engrossed in Trackmania. Using my joystick as an input device, I found the game's feel to be about as good as any racing game I've ever played.
 
Back in the late 80's, I learned out how to race online using Geoff Crammond's famous racing game Formula 1 Grand Prix (World Circuit) and I don't think there has been a game since that has captured the feel of racing a car as well as F1GP. F1GP was built for the racing purist. Make no mistake, Trackmania doesn't even attempt to be a real-world simulator and is definitely no F1GP. While it does take a good run at the physics, I find that it usually ends up abandoning Isaac Newton and substitutes Isaac Asimov. Surprisingly, the result is a fun racing game that resembles more a Hot Wheels game than it does a racing simulator. The unique part of Nations is that while it is a racing game, there are "puzzles" to be solved within the game. Do I "blip" the throttle around the curve? Do I brake? Do I cut across the loop-the-loop? Solving the puzzles lets you get the best track times.

Ranking up during the SP portion of the game doesn't reward you with anything other than the satisfaction of having a higher world ranking.

Multiplayer is somewhat less satisfying and literally begs for a co-op mode. Dedis are out there, but there is a significant sparseness to them and this leads to rather laggy play at times, even here in NA.
 
Did I mention Trackmania Nations was free? Well, Nadeo, the game's french dev has come up with an interesting way to get you to pay for online play. They are now forcing the free-game players to sit out every fifth track (track = map for all you FPS gamers). That can get quite annoying and it really encourages you to purchase the game.

The big positive in MP is that you are unaffected by players racing with you (they can pass right through your car). Anyone playing the old F1Gp knows how annoying it was to be bumped off the track by your fellow competitors. As well, many servers play music while you are racing -- an excellent feature that only serves to crank up the adrenalin pump.

Lately, I've shied away from the MP due to the lack of real-world-like tracks...I like my racing to go round-and-round in a never ending loop, whereas Trackmania track-editors seem to like building maps that resemble dragster tracks.
 
For those of you never having tried a racing game, or are too cheap to buy the latest DIRT 3 game...this is an excellent bargain.

2. Europa Universalis III

This is a turn-based game that will appeal to all the world-strategists out there and a hidden gem of a global-strategy franchise that I got turned onto years ago. Imagine the board game Diplomacy and RISK had a baby...
 
I just started playing the third game in the franchise, so I don't have much to say about it just quite yet. Though my first thoughts are that the music and graphics are actually less satisfying that EU II.

I know this was supposed to be the summer of free, but I would argue that picking up EU III for ~$3 the other day on Steam was tantamount to free. Note that EU III Complete goes for $10. 


3. Tropico 3

Set during the Cuban-missile crisis era, Haemimont Games' Tropico 3 is part Sim City, part banana-republic-simulator. This is a fascinating franchise and while I've played demos of Tropico, the third game in the franchise is the first time I've actually shelled out cash for the game...bought it on sale so it was just about free (though you can get the demo for free).

I'm glad I did pay for the game though. It has been perfect for the mindset I've been in. I think its mix of 50's styling, sultry Carribbean sunsets, laid back avatars all make it a perfect game to play during the long, lazy days of summer.

As a bonus...hey, I like being called "El Presidente". It's a got a certain ring...

I'm about half-way through the campaign and I can definitely say that it was worth the few pesos I paid out for it during the Steam summer sale. Tropico 4 is in the works and while I love Tropico 3, I could definitely suggest some improvements:

1. More music, or even better, an option for players to create their own soundtrack, using their own music. A little Gloria Estefan, Los Tucanes De Tijuana maybe, even some Tito Puente! Please let the in-game radio station play our own *.mp3's!

2. Rather than just getting told the palace is being attacked by Rebels, perhaps we can get the devs to incorporate an FPS engine and have someone script up an actual attack which we can run'n'gun through. Say hello to my little friend indeed! If that type of expense is beyond the publisher's means, at the very least we should get a cut scene of the attack. Right now, we don't even get that.

3. The game is currently too much Sim City and too little banana-republic simulator. Haemimont should consider weaving the two sides of Tropico together a bit better.
Nevertheless, the game can be very rewarding and as El Presidente, I can't tell you how much I love to manage lil'Tropico's rise from no more than a sun-parched speck of dirt in the Gulf to a well-respect Snowbird destination for fat and rich northerners...almost as I see my off-shore account develop from all the favors I've granted to American oil companies. Viva Tropico!


I can't finish talking about the Summer of Free Love without talking some FPS.

CoD Mods

Of course, right off the bat, you can always play a little CoD4: Galactic Warfare (featuring my own Rebel Alliance voice-over)...you can read up on the mod here.

As well, BO Mods are starting to trickle in. eSport mods are now being released by the minute. Read more here.

Given that they are produced by our fanatical CoD community, Galactic Warfare and all the BO mods are free...though you have to have bought the original, underlying game.

Homefront

Edward Mendizabal (ex-KAOS dev) recently wrote to me about last week's Homefront sale:

"We finished work on the PC demo this morning and released it on Steam a few hours ago (it's a multiplayer demo with 2 maps).  We also have a 50% sale on the retail game on Steam this weekend which just kicked off tonight (sale ends 06/27):


Demo Available

The Homefront sale, coupled with the free demo should stir up some interest in this moribund title. While the demise of KAOS, its developer, probably had more to do with internal politics and the tax advantages of moving the franchise to Quebec (a tax haven for game producers...a meat-grinder for the average Quebec tax-payer), one cannot help think that KAOS might have sold more copies if it had handled the game release a little better. Faster bug squashing and more vigilance to thwart hackers are in hind-sight the real take-away lessons-learned from the experience.

KAOS failed on both counts and very quickly the PC community felt that support was missing. Thought the game has great potential -- and plays well now -- few if any are playing it. Hopefully, the demo will have convinced some to give it a try.

But with only 1234 people playing it all day on Steam today...it is set to do a "Thelma-and-Louise" off a high cliff.

It's all regretable really. I was greatly honored to see that KAOS actually took to heart some of the criticism the public offered and they managed to modify the game accordingly. Heck, they even were able to satisfy some of the issues I had in the game (footstep volume for example). Having said that, I am not playing it very much, though I would be if it wasn't for a lack of player opponents.

Homefront is now working off borrowed time on my drive.


A.V.A.

The Korean ijji's free-to-play shooter, Alliance of Valiant Arms (A.V.A), has been around in NA for a few years. You might all remember that BASHandSlash.com covered North American eSport teams fighting to win the chance to play the A.V.A Escort Championship in Korea two years ago (link), so we know the game fairly well.

A.V.A. has all the essential elements of a good competitive FPS game, with one exception: the graphics and sound are quite bad in comparison to modern AAA titles. But who looks carefully at textures when you're in the heat of battle? The sound on the other hand is over-compressed and over-modulated. Gun shots shound obviously distorted and simply hurt the ear.

The game speed, maps, aiming and damage system however are excellent.

Many will say that the rank-up system takes too long, but that's the free-to-play model. Want better weapons? You can always get them with real money. I'll pass on the latter idea, as I'm doing fine with the stock AK47 that you get as a noob. Speaking of noobs...you can farm them all you want in this game. I don't think my KDR has dipped below 2:1 since I started.

The AK kick can be quite ferocious, so just remember to tap the sucker and aim for the head. It's quite easy to bring folks down and the hit-boxes seem quite generous.

I've actually been enjoying A.V.A. quite a lot lately and find the gameplay to be on par or better than with any of the AAA-titles I've played this year. Yes, I know that's hard to believe, but that probably says more about the AAA's than it does about A.V.A. Note that CoD4 Promod still spanks A.V.A's butt...but, did I mention A.V.A. is free?

At the very least, A.V.A. let's me keep my trigger finger in shape.

The move by ijji to distribute the game through Steam will undoubtedly win A.V.A. thousands of new followers.

Currently, A.V.A. trails another free-to-play game, Global Agenda, on Steam Stats. Global Agenda is now also being distributed on Steam. We featured GA on a BASH cast a few months ago.

Speaking of Steam Stats, peruse them and you'll see that Global Agenda leads CoD:Black Ops in online players.  Yup, this is truly the summer of free.


Stuff I passed on...but worth a look

TF2

BASHandSlash.com contributor Beaknuke was kind enough to offer me this game years ago and when I found out that Valve was offering Team Fortress 2 for free...I was amazed. If you don't have TF2, you must try it out. Although my taste for military shooters meant I could not get used to the TF2 cartoon-like environment, you might like it. The gameplay is excellent and thus I still recommend the game.

ARMA II

I actually came this close to buying the game during the Summer Steam Sale. In the end I was talked out of it by a few folks who have it and think the game is a very authentic realization of modern combat with the downside being that it is dull.

Nevertheless, you can try it yourself right now at no cost because, in the honor of the Summer of Free Love, ARMA II: Free (A2F) is available for download.

Read more here.

Additional recommendations

jswizzy on our BASH Boards has some good game ideas for you to while-away the summer, right here: link

Add your own!

 
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