Tuesday, December 29, 2009

the value of an idiot

One of my favorite cinematic "moments" of Left 4 Dead 2 occurs when some dumbass on your team decides that they're going to go scout ahead by themselves and clear the path for everyone else.  They might have other reasons, but they're largely irrelevant.  Because we all know what happens to the lone hero in zombie movies.


Left 4 Dead really punishes loners because if a special infected gets a hold of you, you cannot escape or fight your way out of the situation by yourself.  You need a teammate to come and rescue your ass before that Hunter tears all your guts out.

On the one hand, it can be pretty gratifying to watch dumbfuck "PsychoKilla69" get eaten alive because he simply refused to listen to everyone else saying, "stick with the group", "don't wander off by yourself", "cover me", etc.  Similarly, there's a sick satisfaction from watching the airheaded cheerleader bite the dust in any zombie flick.  Zombies provide a uniquely rapid form of natural selection.  You've got to follow some basic rules or you don't deserve to make it to that mystical "safe-house".  Who wants your dumbass genes polluting the oh-so-delicate future of the human race?

On the other hand, sadly, you sort of need Dipshit.  In L4D2, 3 good players can take on a zombie horde but there's significantly less room for error.  Inevitably, you'll find yourself running into dangerous situations to rescue said dumbass, and five minutes later, you're wallowing in a pool of your own bile, blood, and internal organs.  Where should we draw the line on self-sacrifice for our fellow human beings versus letting the Horde punish the Retarded?

Normally, I think we'd all be comfortable saying, "Fuck 'em".  But there's nothing "normal" about a Zombie Apocalypse.  In particular, the value of an individual non-infected human being is dramatically increased.  Therefore, when calculating whether you should put your own vulnerable ass in danger to save the life of an idiot, your brain needs to take into account the rarity of humanity.  This heavily skews our trusty cost-benefit analysis.

Another example of this is Battlestar Galactica.  After the Cylon attack on the colonies, less than 50,000 humans survive, instantly making us an endangered species.  The value of an individual human life skyrockets, which means that you have to learn to put up with idiots, pricks, and sadists.  I mean, in any sane galaxy (with billions/trillions of humans), no one in their right mind would let Saul Tigh near a car much less XO a battlestar.  But beggars can't be choosers.

So go ahead and jump in that sewer to save yon big-breasted bimbo.  After all, you need her for breeding.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


This semester has taken a heavy toll on the energy and motivation I usually have to blog or write about anything.  Which is unfortunate, since life continually offers up absurdities that are worthy of celebration on the internets.  In my free time, however, I have been indulging in the holiday gaming season (which is exceptional, this year) and wanted to share some of my thoughts on one of the current blockbusters:  Borderlands.

Borderlands is a bad-ass game.  And I don't want to sound like a fanboy here, since I think it suffers from some real issues as well - but playing this game is absurdly fun.  Borderlands is a hybrid mix of a first-person shooter (FPS) and action role-playing game (RPG).  I have a soft spot for action RPG's, even though I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I jumped on the bandwagon rather late.  I barely touched Diablo and Diablo 2, and my first real introduction to the genre was Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege (2002).  I bought Dungeon Siege on a whim and expected to tire of it quickly.  The basic principle of an action RPG is constant motion, combat, looting, and leveling.  It's an RPG for people with ADD.  There is only the merest whiff of any storyline, plot, or character development.  It's almost heresy to call it an RPG at all (especially for those trained on Dungeons & Dragons, Baldur's Gate, etc.), since the "role-playing" elements are minimal.  But every time you gib a troll and get a shiny new magic bow +200, you get this little dopamine burst in your midbrain that makes you want to keep playing.

Borderlands is all that and more.  What makes it unique in the genre is the setting, its focus on guns instead of swords, and its first-person perspective.  You're basically a bounty-hunter on an alien planet that feels very post-apocalyptic, and is inhabited by thousands of psychotic raiders, warlords, and mutant beasts.  You job is to kill.   Constantly.  And periodically get stuff from those you kill.  But mostly kill.

This maniac is coming right for me, with an axe no less, and I've got a sub-machine gun that sets you on fire.  That's fucking insane, all right. The problem is that right behind him are 10 of his buddies, including at least 3 midgets with shotguns.  This guy is just meant to distract me while lil' Mojo gets a beam on my head.  Fortunately, I have several aces up my sleeve.

Borderlands is fundamentally about developing into a one-man (or one-woman) wrecking machine.  As you progress through the game, completing quests and killing enemies, you gain experience and level up.  Leveling brings new skills.  Nothing new here.  You also discover better and better loot, which is mostly composed of different guns.  Borderlands has a clever random drop system that can generate a near infinite number of weapon combinations.  For example, you might find a revolver that electrocutes your enemies but possesses a slow reload time.  Or a rocket launcher than does corrosive (acid) damage to anyone caught in its blast radius.  A central joy of Borderlands is collecting a wide array of weapons that you can draw upon for different tactical situations.

You'll note some serious color-coding going on.  As with most action RPG's, the color indicates rarity.  Blue is rarer than green, purple is rarer than blue, etc.  In Borderlands, you're hoping for orange and yellow items and you'll be lucky to see one after a dozen hours of play.

There are 4 characters to choose from:  a brawler, a soldier, a sniper, and... Lilith.  I love Lilith.  She laughs gleefully when she crits some asshole in the head, and can enter an alternate dimension when shit starts getting out of control.  Here's her skill tree:

If you're at all familiar with this kind of game, you basically already know what Borderlands is all about.  It's solid, mindless fun.  But here's a list of things that I especially like and dislike about this particular game.

1.  Leveling pace.  The pace of leveling can make or break a game like this.  Players don't enjoy dying all of the time, but they also want a challenge.  The threat of death needs to be real, and it should happen if you play poorly and just rush into a battle without any kind of plan.  If the game lets you level too quickly, you might find yourself out-matching every enemy you encounter.  Borderlands suffers from this problem to a certain extent.  I made the mistake, on my first playthrough, of tackling lots of side-quests.  It's that whole OCD thing, cleaning up your quest log and all.  Unfortunately, by level 15 I was rolling over anything that came my way and the thrill of victory was reduced.  I had to force myself to ignore side-quests from that point on and focus on the main storyline in order to give myself any challenge at all.  Borderlands does allow a 2nd playthrough at a higher difficulty level (it'll take you from ~ level 30 to ~ level 50) and the enemies are significantly more intimidating.  Nothing like going up against a "Badass" alpha Skag who spits balls of lightning.

2.  Loot pace.  Borderlands nails this one down.  There are a shit-ton of loot drops, but you can quickly scan the ground for information on the weapons there and the color-coding system makes the good stuff really stand out.  You'll find a really exciting weapon every 4-5 levels, which translates into several hours of play.  This is a nice pace, since it allows you to become emotionally attached to certain weapons.  I remember this lovely shotgun I found on my first playthrough that caused enemies to explode, and I just walked around for the next 20 minutes laughing as I one-shot killed everything in sight.  I almost cried when I sold that gun to make more room in my inventory.

3.  Skill-tree depth.  Borderlands is very focused on weaponry & equipment (think, grenades and shields) and less on skills.  Or, I should say, active skills.  Most of the character skills are passive which provide bonuses to certain kinds of attacks (melee, for example), accelerate healing, regenerate shields, etc.  There is one active skill that each character can use - Lilith has her phase-walk, for example - but that's it.  This is somewhat disconcerting at first, since you'll want access to a broader range of special attacks.  But you'll get over it, because the gunplay is so entertaining and Borderlands wants you to focus on that.

4.  Presentation.  A heavily touted feature of Borderlands is its artistic style, which is "cel-shaded."  It gives the game a lovely comic book presentation that is relatively unique in the PC gaming world (the closest comparison is 2003's XIII).

5.  Console-ness.  It is clear that Borderlands was first and foremost designed for the Xbox360 and PS3.  This isn't exactly a "port" but it sometimes feels like one.  My two biggest quips are the following.  There's no storage system for loot beyond your personal inventory.  I would like to be able to easily transfer loot between my characters, for example, by having access to a shared storage area.  This is a common feature in most action RPG's and it's needed here as well.  I also would like to ability to cancel quests from my quest log.  As is, it gets cluttered in a hurry, making it more difficult to focus on those that are most important.

6.  Vehicular combat.  I was excited to hear rumors that Borderlands also featured some vehicular combat, but the fact of the matter is that it is a relatively minor aspect of gameplay.  Your character will use a car, often, for quick travel around the map - and you can even run over enemies for easy XP.  There are a few quests that feature vehicle-vs-vehicle combat, but it feels silly and unsatisfying, especially when compared to the visceral and challenging gunplay.

7.  Humor.  Borderlands definitely has a sense of humor and you can see it in the environment and in some of the characters you'll meet.  Scooter has some lines that will make you grin.  It should be noted that this is not a G-rated game; in addition to the massive, constant bloody violence, there is a fair amount of cursing as well. 

8.  Death penalty & checkpoints.  The above screenshot shows you what happens immediately after death.  Your body is reconstructed at the nearest checkpoint and you're charged a fee.  The system works decently well, since checkpoints in Borderlands are spaced regularly.  However, if you quit the game and reload later, you won't start at a mid-level checkpoint - the game will force you to start at the entry-point for that particular area.  This is a tad frustrating and there were a couple times that I cursed Borderlands for this.  It's another symptom of its console-ness.

9.  Second wind.  Borderlands includes several clever features that kick in when your character loses all their health.  For one, if you're playing cooperatively with friends, one of your buddies can come over and revive you.  They have only a few seconds to do this before you die, but it creates some great tension and teamwork that otherwise might not exist.  If you're playing solo, you can also recover on your own by killing an enemy before your vision goes totally black.  At this point, you'll get a "second wind" and recover your shield and a little health.  Often, this is enough for you to run away, recover, come back and clean up.  I've had some amazing second winds playing Borderlands, and they really are brilliantly fun gaming moments.

10.  Tactical depth.  When Borderlands is challenging, it presents a surprising amount of tactical depth, especially if you're going solo.  Rushing into a situation without a plan will likely get you killed, and a slow, deliberate approach is rewarded.  For example, I like to pick off sentries with my sniper-rifle before I jump into a nasty raider-camp.  I'll then toss a couple grenades that rain electricity to strip my opponents of their shields, and follow that up with a corrosive rocket so they're already taking significant acid damage when I finally show myself. At this point, my primary attacks are SMG and shotgun, both highly effective when in close-combat.  If my shield dips too low, I'll immediately phase-shift and either sneak attack their toughest mofo or find a quiet place to regenerate.  Cover plays a central role in Borderlands and if you use it to your advantage, you can win any fight.  Your enemies will often use it effectively as well, requiring that you come up with a flanking strategy on-the-fly.   All of this back-and-forth is very rewarding and makes Borderlands much more satisfying, I think, than a straight-up hack & slash dungeon crawler.

On a final note, Borderlands can be played solo or cooperatively with up to 3 other players online.  I have had a stellar time playing by myself, and appreciate being able to go at my own pace, read all the quest info without feeling pressured by other players, and hoarding all the loot drops for myself.  I have also dipped into cooperative play online and it's got some perks:  the enemies are tougher, the loot is better, and you get to see the other characters in action. But playing with a random PUG (pick-up group) is always a hit-or-miss situation.  My assessment of the fun-rating of this game is that it is best when played coop with friends, 2nd best played solo, and 3rd best played with strangers.  Recommended to satisfy your holiday season lust for (virtual) blood.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How to not buy crap for Christmas

I'm not much a a shopper, unless it is a thrift store. So talk about Black Friday and Christmas gifts kind of freaks me out. But many people love the gift giving aspect of the upcoming holidays, so let me make some suggestions that won't add more plastic crap to a household and might boost the economy of enterprising individuals rather than major corporations.

First suggestion is of course, make things yourself. I personally think that the idea of a home-made Christmas is the best. No one has to buy anything at all! Getting a gift you know was made just for you is truly heartwarming, as anyone who has ever hung kid's art on the refrigerator knows. Cards, cookies, homemade books about some event you enjoyed together, pictures in decorated frames, whatever. The list is endless. And they will like it because they like you, and you made it just for them.

Second best is to buy local. Not local as in your nearest shopping mall, but local as in the one-of-a-kind shop owned by someone who lives near you. You'll have to walk around your own neighborhood to figure out what remarkable items are hiding inside...

Third, buy stuff that is handmade and sold by the maker themselves. Going to craft shows is always fun, but you can shop handmade from bed, via the internet. The most well known handmade shopping site is etsy.com. You can find anything, and I can guarantee that you will find the perfect gift for even the most difficult to shop for person. They also make it easy to search by location, so you can buy homemade and local. Chances are, someone you know uses etsy to sell things they make. Many people I know do. Here's a sampling of creative folk I personally know and love:

My brother Orien sells handmade tools, kitchen utensils, and archery. Link to his shop here.

Tracey makes amazing jewelry here and here:

Or check out lovely Megan's wonderful bags here and here:

The samples above are grown up presents, but Etsy has tons of amazing and unique toys and kids items, too. For example:

Aside from Etsy, try the websites of some of these amazing craftspeople:

The pottery of Kate Brown can be seen here:

The metal work of Ginger Meek Allen (she made our wedding rings!)

The Handmade Toy Alliance has a long list of links to independent toy makers here.

Kid's music by original artists (that is pleasant for adults too) can be found here.

Magazines make great gifts too. Try these:
Cricket Magazine (award winning, no advertising!) and their other magazines for kids from toddlers to teens:

For ladies, Bust Magazine is way fun. And everyone loves National Geographic, including kids.

See? There are lots of fun ways to shop that let you avoid long lines at chain stores on Black Friday! Enjoy!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

monster anatomy

Aili and I found this while putzing around Drawn!
Yōkai Daizukai, an illustrated guide to yōkai authored by manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, features a collection of cutaway diagrams showing the anatomy of 85 traditional monsters from Japanese folklore (which also appear in Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitarō anime/manga).

The Makura-gaeshi (”pillow-mover”) is a soul-stealing prankster known for moving pillows around while people sleep. The creature is invisible to adults and can only be seen by children. Anatomical features include an organ for storing souls stolen from children, another for converting the souls to energy and supplying it to the rest of the body, and a pouch containing magical sand that puts people to sleep when it gets in the eyes. In addition, the monster has two brains — one for devising pranks, and one for creating rainbow-colored light that it emits through its eyes.

More to be found at Pink Tentacle.

Monday, October 12, 2009

bullet bill destroys earth

YES.  Animated gifs rule.

Friday, October 9, 2009

zombie driver

Aili and I are legitimately pumped about Zombieland, although we're not sure when we're going to get a chance to see it.  Hopefully, soon.  The pure absurd mayhem of it is certainly appealing.

Whether by coincidence or not, I've also been encountering a fair number of indie zombie games lately, both recently released and on the horizon.  Here's one I'll be keeping my eye on, again, just for the absurd mayhem of it.

Very old-school GTA meets zombie apocalypse.  Seems like a classic combination already.  If this is priced right (~$10), it could be an instant underground hit.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Steampunk Scrabble.  That's the best description I can give you of the internet game, Clockwords.  You're an inventor who's discovered a machine that runs on the power of language.  Your evil nemesis sends mechanical spiders to take away your best secrets.  Nonsense, really, and largely irrelevant.  The game is all about generating words from a small set of letters as quickly as possible.  There's a typing aspect too, since if you can't type them quickly, you're going to lose.

Each level starts simply, with a single letter.  If you use all the letters available to you to spell a word, a new letter will enter into your "chamber."  So now there are 2 letters for you - and then 3 - and so on.  You don't have to form words using all the letters in your chamber, but it's the best strategy to pass a level.  Once you get to 6 and 7 letters, things obviously become difficult - esp. when you see those damn spiders approaching your machine and you realize that every second you spend thinking about the answer is bringing you closer to defeat.

So, what's a word with E, G, D, F, and Y in it?  Quick!

If that sounds fun to you, try it out.  The basic version is free, although I believe the developers have plans to charge small amounts of money if you want to buy certain letters.  I doubt it'll ever come to that for me - but then again, I'm absolutely stuck at level 11 of the prologue and wonder if I'm capable of getting past it without some help.  Surprisingly, Clockwords has a certain amount of strategic depth to it.  After each level, you can visit your "boiler" to see all the letters that you've collected.  These are the letters that will appear in your chamber during the course of a level.  As in Scrabble, letters that are harder to use in words (X, Z) do more damage against the spiders.  So you want to collect those letters but not too many of them.  You can combine letters that you've collected in the "transmute chamber" to form new letters.  For example, if you put an "I" and "S" together, you might get a "G". 

 If you try it, let me know how far you get.  Level 11 is a bitch.

Friday, September 18, 2009

sleep dealer

Aili and I watched an interesting foreign sci-fi flick the other night:  Sleep Dealer.  Certainly
worth renting, especially if you have an interest in Mexican-US sociopolitics.  The best science fiction is speculative but realistic and tends to confront people's anxieties about the near future.  It can also approach difficult philosophical problems with a unique eye, given the enormous latitude it has in narrative.  Philip K. Dick, for instance, was particularly good at tackling tough issues, like the nature of human consciousness and "soul" (see "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and Blade Runner).

Sleep Dealer is very much an expression of Mexican anxiety about the current and future state of migrants.  It takes place in a near future where the wall between Mexico and the US is fully established, rivers have been dammed and water reserves controlled by militaristic corporations, and migrant workers no longer actually physically enter into our country.  Instead, the desperately poor have "nodes" surgically inserted into the bodies, serving as an interface between computers/virtual reality and the human nervous system.  These people often end up working in factories where workers "plug into" jobs located across the border, and find themselves remotely controlling machinery.

For example, the protagonist, Memo, finds himself "inhabiting" a small robot that is helping build a giant skyscraper in Los Angeles.  Workers endure long shifts, often falling asleep while still interfaced, and periodically suffer dangerous surges of electrical feedback that can leave them blind or dead.  So even though the "migrant" is no longer required to travel into the US to work, their condition in life has not improved.  Memo lives at the edge of Tijuana, in a desolate shanty-town inhabited by old, blind men, former victims of the sleep factories.

Memo's story is an interesting one - full of more depth and emotion than you'd expect from a science fiction film with TV-quality CGI.   And both Aili and I found it refreshing that while the movie is infused with anxiety and threat, there is no explicit "villain."  There is a Mexican-American military pilot, Rudy, whose narrative purpose is left vague for much of the movie, who but plays a central role in the metaphorically uplifting ending. 

Provocative and recommended.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Another fun, free interweb game worth playing on a lazy Saturday afternoon...
PuzzleBloom is a relatively simple and straightforward browser-based puzzle game, where you control a green nature-fairy-imp-thing (I think) who wants to transform an industrial wasteland into a giant tree.  Yeah, that's right. 

You do so by taking control of depressed looking drones, slaving under miniature robotic overlords.  The puzzles are quick and easy, involving obstacles, floor plates, and lasers.

Good times.  I think you need to install "Utility" to play it, but don't be afraid, it's just like Flash and not harmful at all.  I wish more games had such goals of environmental transformation and beautification.
PuzzleBloom has received comparisons to Okami, a typically odd Japanese adventure game whereby you play a spirit-wolf who leaves flowers in his wake (or something).  Don't have experience with it, but the advantage of PuzzleBloom is that it's free, quick, and easy to play.  Give it some time to load - it's all about patience and zen, man...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

3D animated gifs

Found these neato pics while researching animated gifs...


Must ask FP how this works before my head ah-splodes.
More to be found at:  three frames.

Friday, August 28, 2009

david lynch interview project

Have been watching a few of these every morning...

Lynch recently traveled X-country (twice) in a van with a small film crew to conduct interviews with random Americans in random towns. The interviews are nicely edited, often with music and backdrops of the local scenery. They are all quite short, less than 5 min each, which really isn't enough time for someone to tell their whole life story - but you do get a sense of what these people are like. Lynch asks them questions on their life-goals and regrets, how they'd like to be remembered when they're dead, what they're most proud of, etc. Many are fascinating. Here's the first:

"I ain't proud of anything except just bein' alive."

You can find all the interviews at Lynch's website.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

demigod strategy: oak minion build

In my last post, I chatted a bit about Demigod, an action-oriented, arena combat PC game featuring a compendium of fantastical beings. Of the 8 demigods currently playable, I've spent the most time with Oak. He's a "general" demigod, which means that he can summon and control minions. You can play Oak in a support style, since one of his powers is a potent shield that protects a demigod from all damage for a short period of time. However, I have favored a more aggressive style of play with him, in which I try to maximize my damage/second by creating an unstoppable army of undead minions. For, you see, Oak is a necromancer.

Here's my typical skill progression, by level:

1. Raise Dead I
2. Penitence I
3. Divine Justice I
4. Raise Dead II
5. Surge of Faith I
6. Soul Power I
7. Raise Dead III
8. Divine Justice II
9. Penitence II
10. Surge of Faith II
11. Raise Dead IV
12. Morale I (or Shield I)
13. Morale II (or Shield II)
14. Morale III (or Shield III)
15. Surge of Faith III

Your killing power with this build comes from the combo of 1) having as many minions around you as possible, 2) Penitence, and 3) Surge of Faith. As a demigod approaches, hit him with Penitence, then autoattack for a bit. Wait for them to use their interrupt if they have one (Sedna's Pounce, for example). If they stick close in melee, it's time for Surge of Faith. The dramatic increase in damage from your minions will hopefully lead to a rapid drop in your opponent's health. They will likely panic and try to run, at which point you should have enough mana for a final Penitence. This may or may not finish him off. This Oak build does not excel at killing demigods, but when I have used him, I often end up being the assist leader in my games.

Raise Dead is a fun skill to use. When cast, Oak plants a black flag into the ground - if any unit dies within a certain radium of that flag, it has a chance of being converted into an undead spirit which will henceforth be controlled by Oak. Try to place your flags in "kill zones," which will evolve and move over the course of a game.  Remember:  you don't have to be physically present to generate spirits.  Once created within the flag radius, they'll seek you out wherever you are.  Here's a pic of Oak with a couple of his spirit guardians floating about:

As a general, Oak can also summon minotaurs, ranged-units, and healers to his side. Here's a pic of Oak at 4th level, already with an army of 11 units (5 spirits, 2 minotaurs, 2 archers, 2 priests):

If he faces off against Unclean Beast now, Oak's got a nice advantage. As stated above, the key to making the most out of this army is proper timing of Surge of Faith, an activated power that drastically increases the effectiveness of Oak's minions:

It's worth noting that Surge of Faith also has excellent synergy with Divine Justice. Wait until you're surrounded by creeps and let loose with SoF.  Oak will gain health and mana from killing the horde, nearly paying for the entire cost of the surge.  This will allow you to speed up your leveling between 5-10.  Optimally, you want to be the 1st demigod to hit level 10 - Oak can really start causing damage at that point, and his devastation can lead to a relatively early win.

Penitence serves to slow an enemy demigod so that it's harder for them to escape, and it also increases the amount of damage they take per hit. A great combo with Surge of Faith.  But without minions, this build suffers. Oak needs to constantly check that he has a full army of spirits at his command, and at least a couple healers. If he goes toe-to-toe with an assassin demigod and doesn't have a minion army behind him, he's going to get wasted.

When it comes to shopping and item choices, I typically try to get items that help both me and my minions. Here are two of the best, I think, for the early to mid-game.

Hauberk of Life not only increases you max health and health regeneration, but also your minions'.

I also love the Gloves of Fell-Darkur. Along with one or two levels in Soul Power, they make Oak's auto-attacks much more damaging. But the gloves also increase minion attack speed and damage, making these gloves priceless.

Other items I like to get: Nimoth Chest Armor (to make Oak more durable) and Unbreakable Boots (for a health and mana boost).  Trade in your Nimoth for Platemail of the Crusader (which gives a huge boost of health and armor to both you and your minions) when you can afford it.  This probably won't be until after you hit level 10.

With regards to Favor items, it really depends on your skill level.  If you're relatively new to the game, or are generally interested in increasing your survivability, go with the standard Blood of the Fallen (+800 health, +5 health/sec).  It's every player's fail-safe.  However, if you really want to focus on minion damage, try the General's Favor item, Ring of Divine Might.

This build of Oak can periodically suffer from mana-deficits, especially if you forego any helms which provide boosts to mana regeneration. The solution to this is to maximize use of Divine Justice; this skill grants you and all nearby allies an increase in health and mana every time you kill a grunt. So if you're low on mana, go farm some creeps and pretty soon you'll be ready to jump in the fray again.  If you find yourself spamming Penitence and need more mana, you may need to save up and buy Vlemish Faceguard - the best helm for your money.

A couple final points. One nice thing about this build is that once you get Divine Justice, you shouldn't have to return to the health crystal very much (at least not until you want to shop). Most of your time in the early-mid game should be spent holding lanes, farming creeps, and helping your fellow demigods when they get into a bit of trouble. Because you have staying power, you should level up a bit faster than other Demigods.  Second, you should send out your spirits for various hit-and-run missions whenever possible. By default, pressing "i" selects just your spirits, allowing you to give them specific movement and attack orders. Proper use of this hot-key is fairly important in maximizing Oak's effectiveness as a general.  Attack squishy enemy heroes (Regulus, Torchbearer, etc.), attack enemy towers, attack the enemy Citadel after you hit level 10.  Just be sure to replenish your spirits, as they're likely to die fairly quickly once they're on their own. But don't worry about feeding your opponents more XP and gold: minions don't provide these!

Once I have a descent minion army, I mostly focus on pushing - especially attacking enemy towers.  Extra gold I have is spent on citadel upgrades and idol upgrades (siege engines are particularly useful mid-late game - set them to attack various towers along with your spirits, and you don't even need to be there). I don't typically have enough cash to buy expensive artifacts, but if you find yourself with lots of gold and want to be selfish, go ahead and buy some Godplate or the legendary Ashkandor. And, of course, don't forget to have fun.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Sorry for the hiatus. What with summer heat, Lolla & Lyme and all that jazz, blogging has been far from my mind. But it's time to jump back in, and what better way than with a nerdalicious game review.

My latest obsession is Gas Powered Games' Demigod. It's a lovely thing, all action and special effects and big noises. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it is not easily definable. It surely falls into the real-time strategy category, since time does not stop and you need to make quick decisions on the fly. But it's not like the typical RTS wargame where you collect resources, build a base, create multitudes of units, and attempt to overwhelm your opponent. Rather, you control one uber-powerful unit: the Demigod. Every game is team-based, and you can choose to play anything from 2 vs. 2 to 5 vs. 5. You and your teammates must coordinate your actions in an attempt to capture and hold strategic locations on a map, assassinate enemy demigods, and eventually destroy the opposing citadel. While playing with and against AI opponents is moderately amusing, the real meat of Demigod is online. This has its pros and cons.

There are currently 8 demigods to choose from, with 2 more planned for an upcoming (free) expansion. Here's the absurd Queen of Thorns, who is great fun to play but is sadly among the weakest of demigods:

Each demigod plays quite differently, with varied strengths, weaknesses, and special powers. To the game designers' credit, the demigods are also fairly well-balanced. The Unclean Beast seems to win more times than it should, and as stated, the poor Queen of Thorns probably needs some kind of boost in a future update.

After you choose you demigod, you can pick one of several maps, which vary in size and structure. From an artistic standpoint, these arenas are stunning:

(the astounding Exile map)

(Cataract: the most popular map)

These birds-eye views are available to you at any time during the match. With a turn of your mouse-wheel, you can also zoom in to watch your demigods in action. Here's one of the gigantic Rook facing off against the Unclean Beast:

On each map are a number of flags that serve as valuable strategic locations. By standing next to a flag for a few seconds, you can capture it, granting your team a nice statistical bonus (like increased mana).

(my Rook is capturing the flag in the background,
while a battle occurs in the foreground)

As you capture and hold flags on the map, your team's "War Score" will increase. Higher War Scores allow you to upgrade your citadel, enhance your defensive structures, and call in stronger reinforcements. This latter feature, in particular, is crucial to eventually overwhelming your opponent. Thus, map control is a central aspect of success in Demigod.

Besides capturing flags and facing off against opposing demigods, you also need to level up and acquire new powers. This is done by "farming creeps." On each map are a number of portals that release reinforcements at periodic intervals. These "creeps" march towards the enemy base in a predetermined path. If left alone, they'll likely run into enemy towers which will easily destroy them. In this sense, Demigod has borrowed quite blatantly from the Tower Defense genre of games. As a demigod, you can interrupt the path of the enemy creeps and easily slaughter them, gaining experience in the process. Eventually, you'll level up and be able to choose a new skill or power.

(skill tree for the Oak demigod)

Each demigod has several skills they can focus upon - indeed, too many to maximize all of them - so players should have a particular "build" in mind as their demigod grows in strength. For example, the Rook can be molded into a pure damage machine by focusing on his powerful Hammer Slam and the amusing Boulder Roll. Or you can create a more subtle Rook that excels in lane control - one in which he grows tower farms that slowly advance towards the enemy's base.

A great joy of Demigod is planning these builds offline and then testing them out in real games (this site has been incredibly useful for this purpose). Besides choosing your powers as you level up, you also need to go shopping periodically. Literally. Each side has a shop where demigods can purchase armor, helms, magic items, and potions. You can choose items that ameliorate some of your demigod's weaknesses (like Boots of Speed for the Rook), or you can try to maximize a particular strength by stacking a number of items that all provide similar bonuses (like choosing a number of items that all increase health regeneration). Your choice of items during the game should be informed by the "build" you are developing. If you want your Torch Bearer to spam Fireballs all day long, you probably need to invest in a couple magic hats than increase your mana and mana regeneration.

So you maneuver your demigod on the map, farm creeps, gain levels, try to team up on enemy demigods ("gank" them), buy items, and eventually force yourself into opposing territory. You'll need to knock down those pesky towers mentioned previously and eventually upgrade your reinforcements from simple grunts to powerful giants. You need to pay attention to what your teammates are doing, and whether they need your help, as well as where your opponents are at all times. The worst thing that can happen to you is you overextend yourself into enemy territory and suddenly 2 enemy demigods appear right behind you, cutting off escape. The strategic use of teleport scrolls is especially useful, for both ambush and escape.

There's a lot to like here. I typically hate online RTS games but I love playing Demigod, even against idiots. Games are the perfect length (~30-45 min usually). You get a real sense of seeing your demigod evolve into a powerhouse without having to suffer through hours of mundane back-and-forth play. Coordinating attacks and feints with your teammates is great fun, although if you have a weak player on your 3-man team, you're likely doomed.

However, if you've heard anything about Demigod since its release, you probably know that it didn't receive the best reviews right off the bat. The primary reason for this was internet connectivity issues. It was very difficult for players to form online games, and when they did get started, oftentimes the game would crash or players would get dropped. Not surprisingly, this did not enthrall reviewers. Since its initial release, Demigod has gone through a number of updates and patches and, for the most part, those issues have been resolved. I've played numerous online games and have never been dropped. Devastating lag can happen, if one or more players' pings are particularly high. In those situations, there's not much you can do but quit.

Rage-quitting is also an issue, as with most online RTS games. By this I mean the more general phenomenon of a player quitting a game part way through. This player's demigod will get taken over by the AI, which nearly always results in a loss for that team. There are rumors that in a future update, players will be able to adjust some of the features of the AI substitute (making it a bit more challenging, having it provide less gold to the opposing team, etc.) which may help alleviate this problem. Another feature I'd like to see instituted is better match-making. All too often, teams are unequal because of a particularly strong or weak player on one team. Demigod tracks all your stats (including win/loss ratio), so it should be fairly easy to group players of similar experience and ability.

Possibly a bigger issue at this point is the lack of a vibrant online community. Here's a screenshot I recently took of the available online games in the lobby:

Only 3 games open! Now, I should say that this is somewhat abnormal and I rarely have problems finding an open game when I want to play. But I suspect the early bad press for Demigod really hurt the potential playerbase. Part of the reason I'm writing this blog is that I hope some random people read it and decide to give the game a chance. It truly is a blast to play. Furthermore, the support this game has received, and will receive, from its distributor, Stardock, is strong. Updates and fixes occur regularly, often in response to consumer feedback, and the playing experience is improving all the time.

In my next post, I'll outline my favorite demigod build right now: minion Oak. Stay tuned.