The Sims 4: A Christmas story

Upon the advice of counsel — which is a term that I’m using for “internet friends” — I did pick up the Seasons expansion for The Sims 4. This brought my grand total of Sims expansion packs ever purchased to (drum roll) one. I’m pretty happy with the purchase, since seasonal changes and holidays add a lot to the feel and flow of the game over time. It also makes for some interesting stories.

My neighborhood right now is pretty small; I bulldozed every lot except for a couple of small houses and families that I’ve created. My daughter asked to make a house with just me, so that’s her and me sharing our little four-room pad up there. One day after moving in, Christmas (or whatever The Sims calls Christmas) arrived, which set my virtual daughter off like crazy.

While I didn’t have much money left (or a job, for that matter), I did splurge on a tree and a small pile of presents. We opened them, she sang off key, and we tried to get into the spirit of the season as a blizzard raged outside.

I noted that there were icons representing what my character loved best about the holiday, and one of those for myself was making a great feast. Why not? We might starve tomorrow, but we’ll eat like kings and queens tonight! I set to making it.

So. Two problems. I have virtually no cooking skill and really shouldn’t have been trying to make a big dinner, and I forgot to install a fire alarm. Quickly, a fire burst out of the oven like it was transforming into a dragon, and we hightailed it out of the house and into the blizzard.

I did try to extinguish it, but I didn’t have that option (yet), so all we could do was freak out while standing in the snow. Burning or freezing to death? We might do both before the night was over!

Then, Sims Santa shows up and starts freaking out about the fire as well. I thought that maybe he would go in and save the day by putting it out, but no, he just started yelling and gesturing like the rest of us.

After a while, though, Sims Santa got bored of that and wandered into the house to add some presents to the pile. Good thinking, Santa — that fire was in danger of going out!

Really, I had no idea how a fire in this game works, so this is what I found out: It kind of burns up an area and gradually goes out as it moves along, leaving behind damaged and unusable furniture and a big mess.

Finally, I had the option to rush in and extinguish the fire. Seeing as how it was now 3:00 a.m. and all of our meters were bottoming out, I figured it was the best course of action.

Naturally I set myself on fire, because that’s how this day was going.

I extinguished myself, extinguished the fire, and looked at the sad ruin of our brand new little house.

My daughter was so exhausted that she couldn’t even make it to my bed — hers was burned to a crisp — before collapsing on the floor. Merry Christmas, everyone!

P.S. — My actual kids were watching all of this and were absolutely transfixed by the story that was unfolding, laughing and shouting non-helpful suggestions. It made for a nice bonding moment over games.

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Batman: Telltale Games review

As I mentioned yesterday, we recently went to family camp and enjoyed a fun week spent mostly outside and unplugged. There was no wifi or cell phone service in our cabin, so when the kids and my wife were asleep at night, I had to rely on preloaded games to keep me occupied. Actually, the bulk of the week was spent with just one game: Telltale Games’ Batman.

I’m seriously backlogged on my Telltale titles right now. It’s not that I don’t love them, it’s just that they kind of need extended periods of attention to really get the most out of these interactive movies. I seem to need a lot of motivation to get into one, but once I do, I quite enjoy them.

Anyway, kind of went into Batman without knowing much about the game itself. It turns out that it embraces one of the franchise’s greatest trends, which is to reboot and retell the origin of this universe. How many times has Batman begun at this point?

In any case, it kind of works out really well here, because there is both familiar ground and room for the writers to play out things a little differently. At the start of the game, Batman is starting to make himself known to Gotham but hasn’t gone up against any supervillains nor endeared himself to the police. Gordon is but a lieutenant, Harvey Dent is a mayoral candidate, and the Joker is a “John Doe” cooling his heels in Arkham Asylum.

The familiar structure of Telltale emerges — limited-time dialogue options, crucial choice junctions, and the occasional quick-time event — although it’s augmented by a kind of neat (if shallow) detective mode in which Batman combs through a crime scene and pieces together what happened.

What’s probably the most interesting (if somewhat flawed) aspect of this game is that there’s a lot of juxtaposition between Bruce Wayne and Batman. You spend as much time as either, and Bruce kind of emerges as an actual character rather than an interlude for Batman’s adventures. Naturally, the player has some agency in shaping the attitude of Bruce/Batman over the game, making him as noble, violent, or cranky as desired. While all of this was appreciated from a storytelling perspective, all too often I was reminded that the game was on a linear track that wasn’t going to deviate much from the main narrative no matter what you said or did.

I really got into seeing this game’s version of the Gotham universe, especially with its villains. There aren’t too many here — Lady Arkham, Falcone, Catwoman, Penguin, and Harvey Dent are the main ones with few others given cameos in Arkham — but all seem a little more real and threatening than I’ve seen in some other mediums (Penguin most of all). The bat tech was cool (especially Batman’s transforming car) and at least one twist caught me by surprise.

And the combat, while simplistic, felt “cool” with all of the slow-motion moves that kept Batman’s prowess as a scrapper intact from start to finish.

Complaints? The story kind of kept leaping all over the place with the bad guys emerging victorious even when Batman saved the day. I lost count how many places were instantly taken over by the bad guys with no resistance, a trope that got very worn by the fifth episode. And the performance of the game (loading, switching scenes) was often atrocious. The sequel works so much better on my phone, so I know the fault was more the game’s than my hardware. Finally, there was one revelation that felt very much out of canon — at least, I had never heard that particular angle on Bruce’s parents before. I’m hardly a Batman expert, however.

When I was done with it, I instantly booted up The Enemy Within, the sequel series, to see what happens next. I liked how you could import your choices from the first game into this, so we’ll see how my promised favor to the Joker goes…

NES Classic finally joins my home arcade

About two years ago, I went through an agonizing and frustrating bout with the internet in general and Amazon in specific while trying to obtain the hot-yet-unavailable NES Classic. Nintendo either had underestimated the interest in an all-in-one retro gaming console or (more likely) deliberately underproduced stock to drive up interest and demand. In any case, no matter how diligent I was in trying to nab one, I never could — and I certainly wasn’t going to pay scalper prices.

So I played the waiting game. That was eased by last year’s release of the SNES Classic, a console which I had wanted much more anyway. Since then, I have hooked up the SNES in my office where it enjoys a lot of play from me, my kids, and anyone else in the church who has a hankering for nostalgia and genuinely fun games. Hearing my kids talk about Mario, Zelda, Starfox, and Street Fighter II puts a lot of happy in my heart, since I can share some of my own childhood with them.

I wasn’t really gunning for an NES Classic any longer — not seriously, at least — but a batch released on Amazon late June and, what the heck, I went for it. Got one in the first minute, and it shipped to my house about 10 minutes before me and my family were leaving for a week of camping. Totally forgot about it during that week, too, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it waiting on the kitchen counter when I came back.

I am at the point in my life where I’m very much opposed to spending money on games that I won’t play, so if I buy it, I have to play it. I set up the NES Classic on my desk and quickly put it through its paces, dipping into old favorites like Super Mario Bros 3, Castlevania, and Zelda while trying out a few titles (Kirby, Mega Man 2, Dr. Mario) that I never had the opportunity back in the day. Since our family never owned an NES, my exposure was limited to whatever friends would have or arcades would feature. Man, remember how much tougher the arcade versions of Mario and Castlevania would be? We were practically pouring quarters into them to survive the first levels.

Generally, I’m pleased with the purchase. I’m sure it’s going to get some play at our house, especially with the Mario games. However, I can’t help but keep comparing it to the SNES Classic, which dominates in every way other than the actual number of games. The SNES simply has better titles, better controllers, and more games that I want to play today versus ones that are enjoyable for nostalgia alone. The save states and other options are very welcome, and it’s always possible that one or two games might be worthy contenders for a retro gaming series.

It definitely feels satisfying having it in my collection. There are a few NES titles that are really missing here — TMNT (1 and 2), the original Contra, Dragon Warrior, Castlevania 3 — but I’m quite sure that Nintendo will break out an NES and SNES Classic II one of these years. Keep milking me for my nostalgia dollars, I’m good for it!

Star Trek Online: Armistice

For an expansion that only has six (now seven) missions as its main story content, you’d think that Star Trek Online would have to make every episode in Victory is Life absolutely count. With so few, they’d have to all be slam-dunk winners, right?

Well, I’m two episodes in, and so far I am incredibly underwhelmed. In fact, Armistice is one of the lamest missions that I’ve played in the game to date. Part of the problem is that this expansion is so deeply Deep Space Nine-focused that it comes off as a lot of fanservice that, as a person who hasn’t seen most of the series, will not get nor appreciate. Usually Star Trek Online is pretty good in bringing us non-viewers up to speed, but this quest was some sort of weird coda to one of the show’s episodes. And it was pretty dull.

Armistice had me heading into the Gamma Quadrant (which I couldn’t explore, as the mission auto-warped me right to the planet in question) where I was supposed to rescue the old Bajoran priest who was intentionally marooned here but now I guess they want to un-maroon her. Oh, and they had given her and her companions immortality via nanites. You’d think that all of the universe would be using these nanites by now, but I guess not? As I said, it’s very confusing if you’re dropped into the middle of it.

Anyway, getting her out is compounded by the pesky Hur’q, the new villains of this expansion. Like what I’ve seen so far, they’re kind of generic bug-aliens. Underwhelming. Lots of swarming and hyperactive jumpers.

Kira and Bashir come on this mission for some reason, and Kira — looking like a cartoon action figure — activates her bizarre pink lightning sonic power. Honestly, I have no idea what’s going on in this picture here.

Part of the dullness of this mission is that it’s very lopsided in favor of ground exploration and combat on a planet that’s just not interesting in the least. Oh well. I entertained myself by firing a miniature Death Star laser all around the place.

The worst part of the mission was the boss fight against this overseer insect up there. He hit so hard with multiple cone attacks, and any time we respawned, we were right at his feet and had no time to regroup and prepare. Basically, it was one of those instances of “throw your bodies at the boss often enough and hope that you get lucky sooner or later.” Took me about a dozen tries.

Back in space, there’s a hectic fight against a huge Hur’q fleet. Lots and lots of ships vs. me, my fighters, and the reprogrammed drone satellites. Everything was so small that I couldn’t really see it. As a carrier, I kind of have to take it on faith that my ships are actually fighting and not just doing donuts and figure eights.

I guess I save the day. Kira stops being a priest and goes back to being a captain, which is good for her because she looked like a gerbil in that getup. Then the wormhole opens and Sisko talks to the two Bajorans in a brief and unilluminating cameo. I get that they didn’t bring Avery Brooks back and so could only use voice clips for the show, but what was all that about?

I don’t get how this mission moved any sort of plot along, and even if it did, it wasn’t worth going through for the story or rewards. Two down, five to go!

Ranking World of Warcraft’s core races

Today, I’m going to look at World of Warcraft’s core races and running them down from best to worst, in my humble opinion. Wait, there’s nothing humble about it! Why would I be writing a public gaming blog if I was humble? This makes no sense.

Best: Gnome

Obviously. I mean, hate on the little dudes and dudettes all you like, but Gnomes are objectively and subjectively awesome. They have spunk, they have technology on their side, they have awesome emotes, they look cute as a button, they have the best facial hair in the game, and they’re perpetually the underdog in any given situation. Love my gnomies!

Draenei

Other than being slightly difficult to spell, Draenei — especially the female models — look pretty terrific while still bearing a very different body structure and features. I’ve always found them really appealing, especially if you want a “good looking” race that isn’t human. Other pluses include a self-heal, magi-tech totems, and a home that doubles as a spaceship.

Undead

Very few MMOs let you play as any sort of zombie character, so World of Warcraft’s Undead/Forsaken automatically distinguish themselves for this fact alone. I think I love the concept of the race more than the actual models (there are too few visual options that don’t make them look like drowned rats and the bones sticking out of the gear is a downer). Still, it’s pretty awesome to play a recently dead character that has a Halloween town for a capital city and one of their own as the war chief.

Tauren

Despite being too big and having slow running animations, I’ve always had a fondness for the Tauren. The mixture of native American culture and cows, weirdly enough, works. They’re kind of the “nice guys” of the Horde and have usually sported a really good class selection. Plus, the cow puns. Oh the cow puns. They moooved me.

Goblin

As the shortest race for the Horde, the Gobbos aren’t quite Gnome-levels of terrific, but they do have appeal. I like their fun little racial abilities, their quotes, and even some of their punk-rocker looks. I kept going back and forth in making my Horde Warlock an Undead or Goblin, and to this day I’m not sure I made the right choice.

Human

Yes, it’s the “boring” and “way too popular” choice, but there’s a lot to be said for humans. Armor looks fantastic on them and they get perhaps the most character creation options for visuals out of any of the races. Plus, the racials aren’t half-bad and the class selection is pretty much everything except Druids.

Dwarf

Dwarves are fine… in theory. My first WoW character was a Dwarf, in fact. I’ve always tried to get behind this race because I like to support the shorter characters, but the Dwarves seem so vanilla and bland in this game for some reason. Plus, I don’t like giant beards overtaking armor, nor am I a fan of the rather generic-looking female options.

Worgen

Great starting zone. Transformation options. Another Druid race. But that’s where the joys of Worgens kind of stop for me. You can’t stay as human in combat even if you want to (which, as a Druid, I did). The animations and visuals for this race suffer, as do the voices. Even though I played a Worgen Druid for a while, I never connected to it.

Pandaren

I think the best thing that can be said about Pandaren is that the models are well-detailed and you do get the option to choose your faction. But they still, three expansions later, don’t feel like they fit in World of Warcraft. I’ve tried rolling one and given up each time because it didn’t look right at all. They’re still pretty shunned by most players, so I guess if you really want to set yourself apart, here you go.

Troll

I’ve come to the conclusion that Horde is for masochists that enjoyed looking bad. Especially in Vanilla, where a pretty race was nary to be seen. Trolls, nobody likes Trolls. They’re just off-putting in their stance, their overgrown teeth, their three-fingered limbs, etc. Plus, their homes look like they just came out of the stone age, so why are they players on the level with some of these other races?

Orc

Yet I’d rather play a Troll than an Orc. I never even considered playing an Orc. They’re brutes that are ugly no matter which gender you pick, and Blizzard’s harping on them for story beats have made them even less appealing. Rawr, yes, but I’m not playing you.

Blood Elf

Yeah, don’t act too surprised that the despicable Elves are at the bottom of this list. That said, I’m putting the Blood Elves one notch higher because the Horde really did need at least one attractive-looking race early on, and their gold-and-red aesthetic is a nice color combination.

Worst: Night Elf

Where do I even start with these. They have plagued the game like cockroaches ever since Vanilla. People playing them don’t stop doing that jump-flip. Their Druidic forms are terrible. Their eyebrows stretch to the horizon. And THEY ARE ELVES. Arrogant, know-it-all, tree-hugging, we-know-better-than-you, we’re-connected-to-the-earth jerks.

Fallout 4: Take me down to the Diamond City

As I’ve said many times before, urban exploration in RPGs isn’t my favorite, so now that I’m starting to get into the thick of Fallout 4’s Boston, I’m giving up my systematic search in favor of following questlines and hitting up points of interest should I be passing by them. So far, that’s working.

Got to say, my favorite enemies in this game are the Synths, especially the second generation varieties. It’s fun to blow bits and chunks out of their frame while watching them continue to approach, Terminator-style. By now I have a few really powerful weapons that can take most enemies down in one or two VATS-assisted hits, so I keep myself amused with the slo-mo shots.

Every instance on the map typically has some sort of story attached that is unfolded by exploration, dialogue, computer terminals, and observation. The ArcJet plant surprised me with this rocket booster for the Mars Shot project in the basement. At first I thought it was a full rocket, but no such luck. At least I got to use it creatively to fry a whole bunch of Synths!

Feral ghouls throwing a pool party. They’re relatively weak mobs but they come on FAST and have a tendency to startle you with their unexpected presence. I’m getting really good at triggering VATS as soon as I hear something other than me or Dogmeat moving around.

What’s really fascinating me with this playthrough is observing the frozen-in-time pop culture and technology of this alternate 2077. It’s a world that was really sad and depressing in a lot of ways (even before the bombs), but it also had a lot of love for cool things like comic books and fun toys. Piecing together how this foreign world ticked and functioned is the most interesting aspect of exploring it.

One vault had a mockup street shooting gallery tucked inside. I did a double-take when I first saw it, thinking that I had come back outside somehow.

This guy died as he lived — with his face down on a toilet.

Bethesda has too much fun with propping up skeletons.

Since in the Fallout universe the microtransistor wasn’t developed, the technology stayed big and bulky, even as civilization developed rocket ships and power armor and computers. This “big, bulky, and metallic” design is all over the place (and I really dig it).

I was taking out some Raiders on a barge and saw that they had fished up and were eating… dolphins, I guess? Poor guys.

Finally, finally I arrived at Diamond City, which I had previously thought was just a walled-off block of Downtown Boston or something. When I saw it was Fenway Park I smacked myself in the forehead. I’m an idiot.

DDO: Don’t fear the Reaper 3

“Hey guys we should split up!”

“That’s the beginning of every bad horror movie, you know?”

And thus began another exciting group outing in Dungeons and Dragons Online, in which a group of slightly overleveled characters try — and succeed — in figuring out how to kill themselves doing low-level quests. We have a very special skillset that becomes a nightmare for people like us.

Before we get into all of that, night rainbows! Brought to you by Turbine and NBC’s The More You Know.

Also, I try to turn into an ursine transport for one of my dragon chums, but alas, mounts are not to be in this game. Wait, DDO doesn’t have mounts? I knew that. I just haven’t really thought about that in a while. That’s so weird.

Anyway, back to questing in the Harbor and Marketplace! With loads of buffs weighing us down and not a small amount of overconfidence, we kept jacking up the difficulty level of our dungeon runs. Reaper One? No sweat. Reaper Two? Well… I can’t really heal myself any more, but we survive. Three? Three smacked us up and down the place.

On one run, someone — don’t look at me — accidentally set the difficulty level to Reaper Ten. A dog was blamed for this. I think we got through two kobolds before the third one nearly wiped us all.

And speaking of wipes, here’s a horrid death trap room on Reaper Three in the process of killing everyone who dared come this way. It was one of those tragedy-upon-tragedy scenarios, where one person would die and another would dash in to grab his or her soulstone, only to die themselves, and then a third person would try to rescue them both, only to… yeah, we were very predictable here.

I think I found a new profession much better suited to my abilities. I’m kind of impressed she’s carrying eight goblets like it ain’t no thing.

All in all, it wasn’t the most productive night, although I did get a couple of slight upgrades in healing gear. I told the group that seeing a +28 heal crit pop over someone’s head was the highlight of the night for me. 28 points! I’m LEGENDARY.

Also, we had a ladder backup and ended up becoming way too intimate with each other as we waited for a pokey puppy to catch up with us.