Quick Thoughts Friday

flyingA few quick thoughts to round out Friday this week:

LOTRO

Of course, it stands to reason that the very week that I pick back up my Lore-master we should receive news that Turbine’s planning a pretty severe nerf of LM pets come Update 12.2.  Turbine’s not calling it “severe” but players on the test server kind of are.  That makes me a sad panda, because I was enjoying my super-beefed pets.  Hopefully they’ll still be pretty decent but, y’know, I’m worried.

Since I’m continuing my 2014 theme of trying new things and pushing myself to get outside of my comfort zone, I decided to make my LM a crafter as well.  I haven’t really done crafting in LOTRO outside of a few half-hearted attempts at farming and a run with scholar for my previous LM.  So I trained up woodworking and forestry with the possible goal of being able to make legendary staves some day.

I spent a couple of play sessions doing nothing but crafting to catch up to Moria levels.  Because I had more money than interest in roaming around early level zones picking up wood, I bought stacks of mats from the auction hall and sat back as my LM crafted for hours and hours.  Really, after seeing how Guild Wars 2 does this super-fast crafting thing when you have multiple items queued up, LOTRO’s slow-and-steady production was almost painful.  At least I could tab out and do other things while that was going on.  With the help of a generous kin member who donated two tiers’ worth of mats for my cause, I’m now up to Ilex wood that I can gather and craft from Moria.

The Secret World

The Knights of Mercy reconvened last night to get me through my final elite needed: the Facility.  It was also the first time I had run that particular instance and we had a great time — few wipes, memorable boss fights, a quick resolution.  Plus, at the end you can run full-tilt into this doorway and be flung back.  We tried hard to get screenshots of all five of us flying through the air but we weren’t quite that coordinated.

I took a few preliminary runs at the Gatekeeper just to see what that fight was like.  I had heard horror stories, especially from guildmate and leader Maric, who I think spent three curse-laden weeks trying to beat this guy.  He is not easy, that’s for sure.  I need to do some reading up and perhaps make a new build.

Oh!  Speaking on new builds, I whipped up a really fun all-turret/manifestation build that synergizes with the passive skill Big Bang (each attack by a turret/manifestation does an additional hit).  It’s so dang cool to lay three to five of these down at once and seeing how quick the mobs go down.

Paperwhite

Now that I’ve been using the Kindle Paperwhite for a few days I have some follow-up thoughts.  For starters, it’s just been a great reading device.  The size and weight makes it ideal for me, as the iPhone screen is a little too small and the iPad has that weight.  I keep it next to my computer for reading during loading screens, reboots, couch time, and quality time in “the office.”  Yes, technology has advanced to the point where I can comfortably read and poop in the dark!  We truly live in a wonderous age.

So far the battery is holding up just fine, as I haven’t charged it since I first got it.  Probably my biggest complaint is the wake up switch — it’s small and not very easy to press with just one hand, so I have to hold the device with one hand and press it with the other.  It’s not a big issue, but it’s annoying even still.

I don’t know if I like how the device gives me a countdown of how long it’ll probably take me to finish the book.  It’s there at the bottom of the screen, sort of daring me.  Sometimes I find it a little distracting.

Old-school RPGs come to tablets

Two big RPG releases to tablets this week.  Baldur’s Gate II enhanced edition is out with just every expansion and addition that came out for that game.  Since I have it on GOG.com, I probably won’t be splurging $15 to get it.

Besides, I’m waiting for Final Fantasy VI to get into the app store.  It’s already out for Android and presumably is weaving its way through Apple’s approval process.  I wasn’t that aware of FF6 when I was a teen and considering that it’s many people’s favorite of the series, I do want to give it a good play.

Knights of the Old Republic, now in tablet form!

kotor

According to this here blog, the last time that I played Knights of the Old Republic it was 2009 and I did it in anticipation for the then-to-be-released SWTOR.  I think that three full playthroughs is more than enough for any given RPG, especially in light of the games I haven’t gotten around to playing yet.

But then KOTOR came out for the iPad and it dropped to $5 and… well, I was a little bored one evening.  Why not, I thought?

It’s pretty fantastic that we’re able to play full games like this on an itty bitty tablet, especially considering how games like this were considered so top of the line back when.  Even today, the amount of voice recording makes it a beefy game to download.  I’m building a dual blaster pistol-wielding Jedi, probably on the light side of the force.  I still wish I could shoot Carth Onassi in the head after first meeting him, or possibly airlock his butt out of the Ender Spire.

I don’t have any great goals of going all of the way through it again.  I might play it a little here or there, but right now it’s just a fun novelty that kind of makes me wish that SWTOR was on tablets too.

It’s really weird to go back from SWTOR to KOTOR.  The visuals are different — KOTOR is older, obviously, and… thinner, for a lack of a better word.  SWTOR had more colors and a thicker feel to the models.  The combat and builds are very primitive in comparison as well.  Plus it’s turn-based combat with a different RPG platform.

Aesthetically, there doesn’t feel like a big connection either.  I don’t remember seeing the silver-coated Sith troopers anywhere in SWTOR, nor the cheesy vibroblade models (although I know that there were vibroblades).  And how about that swoop racing and pazaak, huh?

Anyway, I hear that Final Fantasy VI might be coming out soon as well, so that could take up my tablet RPG time.  There’s one RPG I’ve never completed (nor really gotten very far in at all).

Tiny Death Star: Syp’s winning strategy

tinyDespite being a mostly reskinned version of Tiny Tower, I’ve been avidly playing Tiny Death Star lately — and it seems I’m not alone.  I’ve heard a lot of friends mention they’ve picked it up, especially due to the cute retro style graphics and Star Wars theme.

Since I feel that I have a good handle on how both games worked, here’s my personal strategy to building a good Death Star and keeping it fully operational.

  1. Go through the tutorial, staff the floors, and build at least three business levels and two residential levels.
  2. At this point, shove all of your Bitzens through the airlock if they don’t have a dream job match.  That’s right: Clear out your residential floors.
  3. The strategy here is “don’t accept any new residents unless you can immediately pair them up with a dream job.”  It’s a little hardcore, but ultimately it works.  Dream jobs (which give a x2 bonus for stocking) are absolutely crucial to making huge amounts of money without constantly having to babysit the game.  Yes, you could go the route where you keep shuffling residents around hoping that dream jobs show up, but that takes up apartment space.
  4. Again, you have to be patient.  Getting the first couple dream jobs will mean a lot of elevator trips and little money made.  That’s okay.  We don’t need to make huge money at first; we want to build a good business foundation.
  5. Eventually you’ll see dream jobs come in and your floors will start producing.
  6. DON’T spend your premium bux on anything other than saving up for the next elevator upgrade and moving businesses with dream jobs down to the bottom of the screen (I like to move them since it makes quick restocking a lot easier).  Also, moving floors like that will leave apartments and non-staffed businesses up top for quick reference.
  7. Again, don’t spend those bux.  Tiny Death Star is a lot more stingy with giving out free bux, so you’re going to need to scrimp and save.  Since dream job pairings also result in a free bux, that is a  great bonus.  In fact, if I have a floor with three dream jobs and a new resident with the same dream job comes along, I’ll evict one of the older guys to replace him and get that free bux.
  8. Generally you want to build a new residence level for every two businesses you create.  Once in a while, you’ll need to build an extra residence due to the math (3 bitzens per business, 5 bitzens per apartment).
  9. Eventually you’ll only need to worry about stocking three times a day to keep everything chugging along.  That’s why dream jobs rock, since they keep inventories full for longer.
  10. As time permits, do the Emperor missions and Vader missions (the Imperial levels) for extra money.  Don’t spend bux on them, of course.

Pocket Trains improves upon Pocket Planes

trainsI’ve been a big fan of developer NimbleBit since getting addicted to Tiny Tower three years ago.  Their design has been big on intricate pixelated graphics, cute charm, a F2P setup that is exceedingly generous and unrestrictive, and sheer addictiveness.  Their follow-ups have been solid but not as long-lasting as Tiny Tower, however.  Pocket Planes was too heavy on the micro-managing to be fun in the long run, and Nimble Quest was an amusing Snake-like that was interesting for a few days before losing appeal.

So I was really interested to see if their latest, Pocket Trains, would be able to rekindle the old feelings.  Spoiler: I think it has, although we’ll have to see how it fares over (ahem) the long haul.

Everyone seems to know that Pocket Planes used to be a train simulator before they thought planes was a better idea.  But while planes can go just about anywhere (given enough fuel), having the restricted rail lines of trains makes a game a lot more strategic.  In just about every way, Pocket Trains improves upon the Pocket Planes formula, keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t.

The basic idea is that you’re managing a rail empire by purchasing stations and railroads, then shuttling cargo from one city to the next.  Making bank is important to expand, although you also want to scoop up “bux” (premium currency) and train part crates.  The latter allow you to craft new engines and the former allow you to open the crates.  You can spend actual money for more bux, but you really do get a lot in the game so there’s very low pressure to drop cash on this.

So let’s talk about the differences from Pocket Planes.  PP’s airplanes would only let you take either cargo or passengers or a mix, whereas PT only restricts you by the number of cars that you can pull.  PP let you fly your planes anywhere as long as the plane could land at that airport and had the range; PT asks you to dedicate a rail line to a single train.  Because of this, there’s a lot of strategy in deciding where to put your best trains, how many stations/lines should be given to a single train, and so on.

One of the best changes is that Pocket Trains doesn’t charge for fuel like Pocket Planes did.  Often in PP you just would sit there, waiting for jobs to refresh, so that you could fill up the plane and make a profitable flight.  PT instead has a fuel meter for the cars that fills up automatically in the stations and drains while moving (you can make fuel cars to increase the tank and spend bux to quickly refuel if you’re that desperate).  This means that while it’d be great to have a “full” train run, it’s no longer necessary.  I quickly flick through the stations, load up, and send them on their way without freaking out about numbers.  It’s much more enjoyable and relaxing that way.  Psychologically, I like knowing that even when I’m not playing, the trains are doing something — getting to their destinations and refuelling.

There’s some manner of cargo micro-managing when you want to transfer goods long-distance (or get those valuable train parts/bux cars to their destinations), and the interface makes that a cinch.  Most stations can hold five cars, and you can pay to expand those.

So far my empire has grown to five engines that span from Glasgow to Minsk.  The same tiny world charm that Tiny Tower had with its rooms has returned in the cars, which range from karaoke to gothic castle (because, why not).  There are a couple of weird omissions, such as no “guilds” like PP had and no Bitbook (the fake Facebook app that dropped funny notices), but I’m glad to see music return and a much more friendly game all around.

Turning my iPad mini into a laptop

sharkkAs I’m starting to prepare for PAX in a couple of weeks, one of the things I was fretting about was the thought of lugging my huge laptop all over the convention center if I couldn’t secure a locker for it in the media room.  I love my laptop, as it’s got a big screen and plays my games, but compact it is not.

So it was fortuitous the other day that one of my Massively colleagues was talking about how she brought a little keyboard for her tablet to SOE Live and used that to take all of her notes.  That was the “aha!” moment that I needed — I could turn my iPad mini into a functional laptop and ditch the laptop while I was on the convention grounds.

I ended up purchasing the Sharkk iPad mini keyboard case from Amazon for a few reasons.  It had good reviews, it was a complete case (instead of a floating keyboard), and it looked rather slick.

I’ve been playing with it for a few days now and I have to say that I love it — and I think it’ll be a great asset for my trip.

The iPad itself clicks right into the frame with minimal hassle, and docking it via bluetooth was a breeze (it is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever used bluetooth anything).  I have to charge the keyboard separately, but it’s got an off switch so I won’t be wasting power unless I need to type.

If you think of this as a transformer, the case-iPad combo has three forms.  There’s the closed form, where the hard plastic shell protects it and a little tab keeps it from just flying open.  It can be opened and quickly swiveled to use as a standard tablet.  This is fine, although it’s a little thicker and more awkward than it used to be with my old slip cover.

Then if I want to use the keyboard, I slide out the back hinge and set the tablet at an angle in the groove.

The keyboard itself is small, as befitting the width of the iPad mini, so it’s take a little practice to use.  It reminds me a lot of my old netbook, although perhaps a little smaller.  I have the most difficulty accurately hitting backspace and enter, although the keys have great feedback.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to taking this on the road.  It’s all small enough to fit inside my small shoulder satchel, which is just perfect for what I’ll be needing that week.

iPad: Sorcery has bewitched me

mapI have a particular fondness for RPG gamebooks stemming back to my childhood.  They were like an awesome combination of D&D and Choose Your Own Adventure, and absolutely flourished in the 80s.  Now they’re enjoying a renaissance on mobile platforms, a place that seems ideal for these sorts of games.  I’ve played both Fighting Fantasy and Gamebook Adventures on the iPhone, but I think I’ve found my new favorite.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery is an adaption of Jackson’s four-part gamebook series (although only the first book is currently available in the game.  What’s impressed me is that the adaptation has gone way above and beyond what I’ve seen in other mobile gamebooks.  Instead of just flipping through pages, the team created this 3D world map that your character token traverses.  The story is told through little paragraph snippets that flow down over the page and are stitched together as you make decisions.  I can’t emphasize just how good the production values are here.

The addition of the map/game board really helps with visualizing your progress through the world.  Sometimes gamebooks lost me after the thousandth choice, but here I always have a quick reference for where I’ve been and where I’m going.  Another nice touch is a nice variety of ambient sound effects to represent the region you’re currently exploring.

In addition to making decisions, picking up loot, and spending gold on rations and other goodies, Sorcery has two systems for engaging enemies.  The first is a swordfighting system that is definitely different than your standard dice rolls.  You have to choose a stance for the next round based on what you think your opponent will do (sometimes you get clues in the text), and if you’re smart enough, you can win without taking too much damage.  The other system is a somewhat complicated spellbook.  There are 48 spells (!) that are detailed here, although you can’t always use them all — and when you do they either require an item in your possession or some of your precious stamina.  I have enjoyed casting spells, however, because they do a lot more than just launch a fireball at your opponent.

Anyway, I think Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is available on both iOS and Android platforms, and even with the $5 price tag, I think it’s well worth picking up.  I’ve spent hours engrossed in the adventure so far, and I’m looking forward to the next three books to be added (apparently your character’s progress will carry over).

iPhone: Nimble Quest takes Snake to the next level

nimbleI get ridiculously excited whenever NimbleBit releases a new game.  Tiny Tower remains one of my most-played iPhone games, and Pocket Planes was a good ride for a time.  Last night the studio released Nimble Quest, a mash-up between the classic mobile game Snake and RPGs — and it’s pretty addicting.

The basic concept here is that you start with a single hero (that you choose from a list) and walk around a big room while slaying enemies.  You start to accumulate other heroes to follow you in a chain, and their attacks are added to your arsenal.  If you bump into a wall, an object, one of your own heroes, or an enemy with your lead character, you die and have to start aaaaall over.  Your lead character can also be killed with enough attacks.

So you’re trying to get as far as you can in a single game because every new level that you conquer for the first time grants you a new hero for your chain.  There are a number of RPG elements in here: power-ups, leveling up your lead character, permanent buffs, etc.  And since all of the heroes have different styles of attacks, picking the best one for your lead can change everything.

I put a couple sessions into it so far and generally like it a lot.  The controls are simple and responsive, and it creates a zen-like experience as you continue to move and attack without stopping.  There are definitely some strategies in play here and both the look and one hit, one life attitude make me think of old-school console games.

The Walking Dead and your own chosen adventure

walkingAlong with what seems like half of the gamers I know, I’ve been playing through Telltale Games’ excellent Walking Dead as of late.  I’ve had it for a while, just didn’t give it a try.  Once I did, it became like a gripping novel I couldn’t put down.  Daresay, I think I enjoy it better than the TV show (I shouldn’t be that surprised, as the Back to the Future game from Telltale was also pretty awesome).

Apart from great voice acting and a terrific story, the element that’s capturing the attention of gamers is that the game is rife with difficult — and often snappy — choices that must be made.  It’s all about choice and consequence, and you never know what consequences that your decisions, even your dialogue, will cause.  Some of it’s somewhat superficial, as the game will proceed more or less the same no matter what you do, but a lot of it is substantial (or at least feels that way).  I’m almost always left wondering what would’ve happened if I had done something different, if things might’ve turned out better.

It’s the kind of choice-and-consequence dance that I think we were hoping for in SWTOR (and perhaps saw come to life from time to time).  It works because the game goes to great lengths to have you get to know the characters as actual people — and then it puts you in near-impossible situations that could have a dire impact on them.  The choices are painful as they are delicious, because you honestly feel like what you do matters.

As an MMO gamer, I think that’s what I’ve craved.  I want my actions, my choices, to matter.  In LOTRO yesterday, a quest gave me a choice to tell the truth to a dad who had his daughter run off with a farmhand or to lie to him so that the newlywed couple could get a fresh start.  That could’ve been a tough call, except that I’m pretty sure that there will be no real consequences from that choice.  So it becomes cosmetic.

The Secret World isn’t big on offering those kind of A or B choices, although it has happened a couple of times.  Yet I feel a kinship between TSW and The Walking Dead for a couple reasons (beyond zombies, the apocalypse, and a general horror setting).  In TSW, we really are getting to know a much smaller cast more intimately, which makes my feelings toward them more significant since I could be seeing them again.  Really getting to know their motivations and stories provides motivation for me to do the quests for something other than the material rewards.  Last night I was talking with a kindly bartender in Transylvania who could feel the pain of those who died in the area — including her parents — and I genuinely wanted to do the quest that would help give her some small measure of peace.

Both games have really made me think about who my character is and what kind of person they are.  I’m willing to bet that most people in The Walking Dead play Lee as nice and honorable as possible, but you don’t have to.  He could be a complete jerk, a pragmatic leader, a crafty soul, or what have you.  But I’ve gotten to know my Lee to the point where I know what he — not I — would decide in any given situation.

Likewise, Yeti in TSW has developed her own quiet personality that’s seen perhaps only by me.  She feels a bit naive yet hopeful, a little put out at being played as a puppet by forces beyond her control, and stubborn (with a shotgun!) against the evil that’s leaking out everywhere.  The world and its characters are so rich that it’s encouraged me to imprint an equally rich personality onto her, which might have been one of the reasons why Funcom made it so that your character doesn’t ever talk.  It’s an intentional gap to let your imagination create something better.

Anyway, back to choice, I know it’s a lot more difficult to have the kind of deep impact choices from The Walking Dead in an MMO for many reasons… but I can’t help but be wistful that we don’t see a studio go all-out with that.  BioWare really had to hobble itself when it came to the consequences of player actions, especially when it came to companions (such as no companion death).  Maybe there was no way around that in SWTOR, but I do wonder what it could’ve been.

I’ve got a little over an episode to go for The Walking Dead, and while I’m curious how things might have gone differently, I don’t think I’ll be replaying it.  I want this one story to be my story, and when it’s done, it’s done.

Evaluating the iPad Mini

apple_ipad_mini_sizesSo I’ve had my iPad Mini for about a month now and have spent a fair amount of time evaluating its capabilities and potential usefulness.  As I’ve said before, I’ve often been a bit puzzled as to the purpose of a tablet, especially for a person who owns a smartphone and a laptop.  The question that was bouncing around in my mind was: What niche or unique role does this gadget serve that the others don’t?

I think I’ve found a few answers to that.  The overall answer is that it kind of doesn’t — many of the things I’d do with the iPad I could do with one of my other devices.  But that’s not the end of that answer either.  The Mini straddles the line between laptop and smartphone by proving more portability than the former and more screen space than the latter, and that’s where I’m finding it useful.

For portability, it’s just not practical to have my laptop out on my small desk or in bed with me at night.  It’s too bad, because I’ve got all my MMOs on my laptop, but oh well.  With the tablet, I’ve got a device that’s far easier to take anywhere and use with minimal setup (I purchased a leather cover that can transform into a stand).  It’s a great gadget to have in bed at night, to take for a little bathroom reading, or even to set up on my desk to watch a little Netflix while I grind mobs.

The mini is a definite improvement over the sheer size of the regular iPad.  I’ll gladly trade off the retina screen for a tablet that’s the size of a larger paperback book, because it’s easier to hold, to transport, and to use.  It can be put in just about anything, and I dig that.

What really surprised me is how much I enjoy the extra screen space.  Realize that for years now, I had gotten very used to operating on the iPhone’s really small screen.  I played games on it, wrote on it, watched movies on it, and read on it.  For sheer portability the phone is great (the iPhone is always with me; the iPad isn’t), but I don’t mind setting the phone down when it comes to, say, reading Kindle on a bigger screen.  No longer am I flicking to a new page every three seconds, because now the screen can handle a normal book page’s worth of content.  I also am definitely liking the bigger screen for strategy and RPG titles, although my hands won’t stretch as far on the bigger screen if it came to more actiony stuff that requires a lot more movement (at least on the iPhone, everything’s always within easy reach).

It’s a pleasure to do blog reading on the tablet through my reader, which is something that always frustrated me on the iPhone.  That’s definitely nice.  And the battery life has proven to be quite good.

There are some iPad-exclusive apps that are quite nice to have, such as Baldur’s Gate and Magic 2013, and some of the universal apps look and function better on the tablet.

There are a few downsides, however.  My mini only has 16 gigabytes of memory, so it’s really just there for apps and little else.  My 32-gig iPhone has a lot of my music and movies, which makes it more well-rounded.  I’m also nervous to bring the mini outside with me, since I can see this as being easily losable or stealable.

By no means am I done evaluating its capabilities, however.  I do want to get a bluetooth keyboard for it to see if I can start using it for some of my normal activities on it.  I also need to figure out how to get my iTunes account to accept that I don’t necessarily want to sync up the same applications and downloads on both of these devices.

For those of you that do own an iPad or an iPad mini, what apps do you find especially useful on them?