by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Gaming”

How To Run A Crack Super-Villain Team: A Brief Seminar

Posted 23 October 2008 in by Catriona

Firstly, I want to make this point absolutely clear: we can’t all be Catwoman.

I know Catwoman is awesome. But she’s not the only one who can use grappling pads, swing from walls, or walk along tightropes. You don’t all have to turn into Catwoman every time you need to do one of those things.

Because there’s only one Catwoman, and I get to be her, that’s why.

Yes, I know there’s more than one variant of Catwoman in alternative versions of Gotham City. Yes, I know about Julie Delmar. And Eartha Kitt. And Michelle Pfeiffer.

You know, we’ve all seen the Wikipedia page, Mr Freeze. No, I don’t believe you just ‘know these things because you’re a scientist’—I can see that you have your laptop open under the desk.

Anyway, we’re not those Catwomen. Look, it says “Selina Kyle” quite clearly. And, no, I’m not getting into all this Golden Age/Silver Age/Earth-Two stuff; you know that confuses me.

One Catwoman, and that’s me.

Because I’m human and you are all computer controlled. That means I get to choose.

No, I don’t think that’s particularly speciest.

Well, maybe it is. But I don’t care. I’m not having this argument again. One Catwoman, okay?

But I do admit we need to share the booty more evenly from now on. I agree with all the anonymous notes that someone has been shoving in the suggestion box and, yes, I am looking at you, Riddler.

Because it took me three hours to decode the last “suggestion,” that’s how. You’d think you’d have learned by now that riddles are invariably going to lead back to a villain called “The Riddler.” It’s not a great logical leap, now, is it?

But you’re right: it’s not fair to use another person’s special abilities to open boxes and then switch back to Catwoman to pick up all the loot.

Yes, I know Scarecrow is annoying.

Well, I’m sorry, Scarecrow, but you are. Why do you have to run with your arms held straight out in front of you like that?

I know you’re a scarecrow, yes. And, yes, I know scarecrows usually have their arms held up on poles. But you do it when you’re not in character, as well; does Dr Jonathan Crane also have his arms held up on poles?

Well, stop it; it’s annoying the entire team. You look as though you can’t find the light switch.

Yes, I know Killer Croc runs with one arm held into his body, but it’s not fair to bring that up, now, is it? You know he’s not a well man.

No, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to pick on Clayface—you know this isn’t the one with hyperpituitarism. Picking on Preston Payne would be just as mean as picking on Killer Croc, but you know this is Matt Hagen, and anyone who steps in radioactive protoplasm is a fair target for mockery. Especially when he does it more than once.

Plus, I’m still annoyed by that bank robbery farce where he just stood there while Batman turned on the sprinklers. You’d think he’d have figured out at some point in the past forty years that he’s susceptible to water.

Idiot.

Well, he should have turned up for the seminar, shouldn’t he? Then we’d be insulting him to his face.

Now, mentioning Batman reminds me of something: we need to start bringing him in on more of these missions.

Just calm down, will you?

Yes, I do know that Batman is the arch-nemesis of most of the people in this room. I do remember that he’s beaten most of us up at one point or another.

Plus, let’s be fair, here: we’ve all beaten him up, too. Bane, you snapped his spine once, so I don’t know why you’re complaining now.

I do remember that he bounced you off all those shipping containers in the Gotham Docks level, yes. I was there, remember? Failing to escape because you kept bouncing off the walls?

Yes, I thought you’d forgotten that.

Look, this isn’t up for debate, okay? He’s a useful member of the team, especially when he’s wearing his glide suit. Yes, Penguin, I know you can glide, too—but you use an umbrella and I worry that it undermines the seriousness of our crimes when the criminal floats away under a purple umbrella.

Okay, we’ll discuss it later.

You have to admit, though, that it’s good for morale to see him beating up SWAT members occasionally.

What do you mean? How could it not be good for morale?

Oh.

Well, no—it’s not good for his morale. But I didn’t mean that. Did you read the title of the seminar before walking in? It’s written right on the door there.

Damn! Did anyone else see The Joker out in the corridor then? Quick, everyone under the desks before he spots us!

Oh, lord, he’s got Harley with him. And she’s carrying that giant hammer. Oh, this isn’t going to be good.

Who told him this was on today?

Oh, Poison Ivy. Why? You know I always give The Joker the wrong time for these seminars.

Yes, I know he’s technically a member of the team. But have any of you ever tried to facilitate a seminar with The Joker in the audience? If he starts coming to these, we’ll never be able to have a sensible seminar again.

Wait, why are you all trying to open the door?

Lessons I Have Learned From Playing Lego Batman

Posted 21 October 2008 in by Catriona

Lego Star Wars taught me many valuable lessons about preventing an evil galactic empire from taking over the universe, by blowing things up and constructing useful objects out of Lego.

I’m still waiting to put these lessons into practice.

But Lego Batman has taught me equally valuable, though slightly different, lessons about alternately protecting Gotham’s streets and menacing them when you are, in both cases, made out of plastic bricks that fall apart under pressure.

1. Batman is terribly serious: he has a little frown on what you can see of his face under his mask and he leans forwards when he runs to make the running seem more serious. (It’s hilarious to have serious-running Batman and waddling Penguin on the one screen.)

This intense seriousness makes it much more fun to take Batman into the Botanic Gardens level and spend a happy five minutes kicking Lego flowers to pieces.

Nothing beats watching a superhero very seriously kicking flowers.

2. I just don’t understand Harley Quinn.

I see the name popping up often enough online to assume she’s a fairly popular character, but the whole notion freaks me out.

She falls in love with the Joker almost instantly? He keeps abusing her, almost killing her on more than one occasion? He decides at one point that “it would be better if she were disfigured”? She believes that the Joker constantly reinvents his personality but argues that his affection for her is the sole constant?

Man, that’s messed up.

However, she does have a giant hammer with which she smashes things. That does go some way towards ameliorating my concerns about playing the character.

(It’s still messed up, though.)

3. Apparently, in Gotham, when your companion rapidly changes their clothes (and, sometimes, their personality) the entire world becomes temporarily fuzzy, often causing you to fall off a building.

At least, that’s what happens to my console when the computer-controlled player changes from one character to another, and I assume it’s an accurate representation of how the laws of physics operate in Gotham City.

4. Part of the fun of being a superhero is having a sidekick. If watching the live-action version of The Tick taught me anything, it’s that sidekicks should be enjoyed, exploited, and ostracised.

(I’m fairly certain that was the lesson I was supposed to take away from that show.)

But the computer-controlled characters don’t understand this, and keep shifting into Catwoman, when I want to play as Catwoman. Surely they must see that two Catwomen just leads to confusion.

They do this regardless of which character I’m playing, but it only annoys me when I’m Catwoman.

5. I don’t know who Clayface is, but I would imagine that being some kind of soil-based being who dissolves in water would be inconvenient.

6. Lego Joker is, if anything, even creepier than actual Joker. I don’t know why. Perhaps because his expression never moves—and neither does his hair? Perhaps because he’s the only villain you don’t get to actively defeat? Perhaps because at one point in the game he runs over his own girlfriend with a roller-coaster car?

I think it might be the last one.

7. I know Batman is a vigilante and often performs morally suspect actions, but I still suspect that smacking henchmen around until they explode into their constituent parts is crossing some sort of line.

8. The game is called Lego Batman, true.

And Batman is one of the great heroes of the comic-book realm, true.

But if he continues to get in my way when I’m trying to execute a tricky jump, I’m going to continue to shoot him.

9. Gotham has confusing architecture. It’s even more confusing when you’re flying through the skyscrapers in the Batwing. That’s why I keep hitting buildings and water towers, then exploding.

It’s absolutely because of the confusing architecture.

Not at all because I’m a rubbish flyer and keep getting lost.

I'm the Goddamn (Lego) Batman! (And I'm Adorable)

Posted 19 October 2008 in by Catriona

Why, yes, I have been playing Lego Batman.

I was certainly intending to spend the day putting my house into something resembling order, but, in my own defense, that was before I fell down the back steps trying to get to the washing machine.

Now I have an ankle that more closely resembles a water balloon than a human appendage, and don’t really feel like cleaning the house.

(I’m also really not looking forward to trotting across the Great Court on this tomorrow morning, standing for an hour giving a lecture, and trotting back across the Great Court for the first of three tutorials. But, firstly, I don’t have a choice so there’s no point whinging and, secondly, it may have gone down by tomorrow.)

It did make a great excuse for lying around playing Lego Batman, though.

And it’s true—I am adorable. Well, Lego Batman is adorable. He has a stern expression and leans forward when he’s running for extra speed. And I’m sure everyone can imagine how adorable a Lego version of Batman running intensely is.

The game still has the same frustrations as the earlier Lego games had; as the Kotaku review points out, the developers don’t seem to have worked out the glitches in the engine—such as falling through scenery or becoming stuck behind something with no way of getting out or, in extreme cases, killing yourself and rematerialising elsewhere—and the camera angles still make it difficult to negotiate jumps.

I also have trouble—though I suspect this is simply my problem—with negotiating Batman’s glide suit; I don’t seem to be able to get enough height, and keep hitting walls. I was also driven frantic by a scene where I negotiated (at great expense—I think I died fifteen times, costing me True Villain status) a series of rolling lasers, only to find I’d gone through them with the wrong damn character and had to go back through twice (once to pick up the correct character, stuck on the far side of the lasers, and once to reach the correct side) in order to open the next door.

Stupid lasers.

But those are fairly minor quibbles. As is Kotaku’s other main complaint: that the game is something of a cakewalk. It is—but I don’t mind. The blog may suggest I spend most of my spare time playing video games, but that doesn’t mean I’m any good at them. I was surprised by how readily I was getting through the levels here, but I don’t object.

Why would I? I’m Lego Batman!

I have batarangs, which I use to hit targets and open doors.

I can change between glide suits, which allow me to negotiate gaps greater than my jumping distance; demolition suits, which allow me to blow stuff up; and suits that allow me to walk through freezing gas. (If I’m playing as Robin, I have two suits: one that’s magnetised and allows me to walk vertically up metal walls and one that allows me to walk safely across toxic sludge.)

I have a Batmobile. A Batmobile made out of Lego. (The best kind of Batmobile.)

And once I’ve worked my way through a level as Batman, I can go through a secret door in the Batcave into Arkham Asylum (let’s just skip over what a ridiculous idea it would be to have a door running directly between Arkham Asylum and Batman’s secret headquarters) and play a slightly different version of the level as The Riddler. Or Two-Face. Or The Penguin, Catwoman, or The Joker.

I have neither the inclination nor the ability to actually set myself up as a Batman-style vigilante.

But then why would I need to? I imagine it would be a dangerous, uncomfortable, and frequently cold or damp kind of lifestyle.

At least this way when I cop The Riddler’s question mark-shaped stick to the head, I just rematerialise slightly further down the street.

Goodbye, Packrat

Posted 17 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Packrat. In fact, I suspect that half this blog’s content derives from my becoming obsessed with some game and then writing endless posts on the subject.

But I think I may have just hit the point of no return in Packrat. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

Because the developers have just launched a new version of Packrat, which runs counter to the game we’ve been playing all year.

To play Packrat, you collect various cards in a themed set, combine some of them to make new cards, scour the sets of friends and the computer-controlled rats to find rare pop-up cards, and then vault all the cards in the set to complete it and obtain a themed “Feat of Wonder” card.

All well and good.

Then frustrations began to creep in. Originally, pop-ups were essentially stand-alone cards: you didn’t use them to make higher-value cards, just vaulted them on their own. So when you couldn’t find them, you couldn’t complete an entire set: frustrating, but, since it was only one card out of fifteen or twenty, not enough to bring the game to a grinding halt.

Then they started producing sets that were dependent on pop-ups: you couldn’t make the higher-value cards without them. When they started this, with the Quest for Montezuma collection, it was fair enough, because they warned us in advance that it was an unusually difficult set.

But then it became the norm: all the sets relied on pop-ups for completion.

And pop-ups aren’t distributed equally: half of the discussion forum posts were people complaining that they weren’t getting pop-ups, while other, smugger players were responding, “Really? I found fifteen of those cards in half an hour this morning. Have you tried navigating through the packs backwards?”

That was frustrating enough.

Then a set came in where the higher-value cards were not only dependent on pop-ups, but didn’t increase in value. Normally, if you combined three 1000-point cards, your resultant cards would be worth 5000 points or 7000 points—something greater than the sum of its parts, anyway. Not for this set: at one point, a 10,000-point card, a 7500-point card, and a 750-point card combined to make another 10,000-point card, which made you wonder what you were doing.

But the new version introduces a number of frustrating ideas.

Normally, you have fifteen spaces for cards in your pack. Once your pack is full, you’re stuck until you can swap something out and vault a set. This made creating some of the more card-intensive high-value cards extremely tricky.

Now we have ten spaces, which makes creating some of the card-intensive cards impossible, especially in Quest for Montezuma.

Pop-ups have been replaced with “bonus draw” cards, which doesn’t seem like a radical shift—except that pop-ups used to appear face-up. You knew exactly which card you were getting, and could choose not to pick it up if you didn’t need it or were approaching a full pack. But bonus draw cards appear face down; it’s pot luck which one you actually get when you select bonus draw.

But the most controversial addition is the tickets.

You used to buy cards from markets for credits, which popped up randomly as you moved through the game. That’s still possible.

But now we have three special markets, in which you need tickets. And tickets are bought for $10 U.S. per 100. This is the move that’s causing people to threaten to leave the game in droves.

The intention, allegedly, is to allow people to buy retired and rare cards. Pirate ships from the original High Seas Rivalry set, for example, have always been in great demand. Now you can buy them in the markets.

For 500 tickets.

That’s $50 U.S.

In the current climate (as people on the discussion boards keep saying), that’s a foolhardy move. But so far, no real harm: these are retired sets, not sets in current play. So you could simply ignore the ticket-only markets and move on.

But you can’t.

Because a fair number of cards for new sets are also only available in the ticket-only markets, including cards that were previously available for credits in the ordinary markets.

Take a look, for example, at the cards needed to complete the new Valley of the Kings set at the Packrat Wiki.

To complete the set, you need six Great Pyramids, both to vault on its own and to make three separate cards. But the Great Pyramid is only available to purchase via tickets: at 50 tickets each, this set is going to cost players $30 U. S.

And that’s just for the Pyramids. Throw in King Tut’s Mask, and you have another $20 U. S. And they haven’t revealed how much the Sarcophagus and Head of Anubis might cost us.

That may not seem like a great deal of money, but I’m not convinced that this is the cleverest move on the part of the developers.

I’m sure the game costs them an enormous amount of money to develop and run. But they did launch it on Facebook. To take it from a free game to an expensive game on a site such as Facebook seems counter productive.

And it is expensive, comparatively. I’m currently wondering whether Lego Batman is within my budget, at around $70 Australian for the Nintendo DS version. And that’s a one-off payment for a game that I can play whenever I like. Packrat fees, on the other hand, look to be an ongoing issue.

Sure, the developers claim that you can continue to play the game without paying money for cards. But their claim is vague:

“Items on sale for Tickets can be obtained in other ways for free. You’ll likely have to exercise a little patience, cunning or ingenuity. Even if you’re unable to spend a dime on PackRat, you should still be able to complete collections and earn your Feats.”

Best as I can tell, this can only mean that you may, with luck, find cards that others have spent tickets on floating among the rats’ packs. Perhaps there are people public-spirited enough to spend $10, $15, or $50 on cards and then drop them into the rats’ packs for complete strangers to find, but it seems unlikely.

Perhaps it means that these cards will eventually shift from the ticket-only markets to the credit markets, but if that’s the case, there’s an ethical issue there that bothers me: such a model would take advantage of those desperate enough or impatient enough to pay, rather than making the game even for all players.

And they do have other options. Plenty of people on the forums have indicated a willingness to pay a flat monthly or annual fee. Pogo operates successfully on that model. And iTunes runs more than successfully on a system of micropayments, rather than the macropayments requested here. (And running it via micropayments would be better for the developers, since it reduces bank fees, apparently.)

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be interested in micropayments, either. I will pay for games; I have a lovely set from Popcap Games, all of which I adore. But I’m not much interested in committing myself to a game that demands irregular payments of irregular amounts.

So I think this is it for me. I’ve enjoyed Packrat, but this new model is not for me.

And I suspect it won’t be for many other people, either.

Horrible Things I Have Seen And Done In Lego Star Wars

Posted 16 October 2008 in by Catriona

I frequently play Lego Star Wars as Darth Vader, because the Dark Side is way cooler. (It blows stuff up. When you use the ordinary Force—does it have a special name? I can’t recall—lights turn on, or plants glow a little and then dispense coins. But when you use the Dark Side, things blow up. Who doesn’t want to blow things up?)

However, I’m wondering if this is why I’m suddenly doing horrible things. And having horrible things done to me.

Of course, it could be that the game is a little mean spirited.

But I do love writing lists.

1. This is actually the event that inspired the post. I was working my way through the annoying arena scene in Attack of the Clones—you remember the one: they’d finally put Padme in sensible clothing, for the only time in all three films, and then a sabre-toothed tiger tore off the bottom half of her top. But naturally! The character is called “Padme (Clawed)” in the game, which always makes me giggle—when I came up against Jango Fett.

I’d almost beaten him, and he turned to run, but a battle droid grabbed him and threw him back into the battle.

I think that’s the coldest thing I’ve ever seen.

(Of course, it might have been a programming glitch. But where would the fun be in that?)

2. The event that annoyed me the most was this one, though. I’d had to shift from Vader to R2. Astromech droids can fly across bigger voids than the Jedi characters can jump. But they can only fly for short periods of time.

So I’d flown across, grabbed what I needed, and was flying back. I’d almost hit the edge when computer-controlled Vader, waiting on the brink, stepped across in front of me.

Deliberately.

I hit him and fell in the void. Fair enough: he’s computer controlled and not terribly bright.

Then he did it again.

Hmm. Of course, I’ve always been a little paranoid about the chances that the computer is conspiring against me and favouring its own characters. But, really, when computer-controlled characters behave like that, is paranoia really that . . . paranoid? (Wait, that doesn’t sound right at all.)

3. Even paranoia doesn’t justify my last action, though.

I put an Ewok down.

I didn’t really have a choice. Okay, I did. But he was really getting in my way and annoying me. So, I may have hit him with my light saber.

A little.

And in my own defense, he did rematerialise in a much less annoying position.

And I was playing as Vader. That would warp anyone’s moral code.

Lessons I Have Learned From Playing Lego Star Wars

Posted 7 October 2008 in by Catriona

1. Blowing up Star Destroyers is improbable, but fun.

2. Life in space comes complete with entirely irritating camera angles. This makes jumping in any environment or running along the edge of a platform on the Death Star fraught with danger.

3. There are many excellent reasons to spend all your money buying invulnerability (see point two). But the best reason is that when you’re playing as Bounty Hunter Leia, don’t quite get close enough to a lever to pull it down correctly, and instead drop a thermonuclear device, you don’t die.

Of course, that begs the question of who thought it would be unproblematic to have the actions “pull lever” and “drop thermonuclear device” controlled by the same button.

4. Ewoks run like girls.

I know, as a good feminist, I shouldn’t use phrases such as “run like a girl.” But it’s true: the female characters (which is to say, Leia) and the Ewoks have the same odd, splay-legged run, as though their knees flick out ninety degrees when they move.

I’m uncertain as to the significance of this, but I’m sure it can’t be good.

5. Girls are a bit rubbish.

Oh, sure, Leia has thermonuclear devices and can open bounty-hunter specific doors. That’s helpful. And if you play as Lando Calrissian and let Leia get too close to him, she’ll slap him in the face, which is frankly hilarious (if a little inconvenient when it happens in the middle of a battle).

But she’s not a great shot. And if you leave her standing around, she’ll put a hand on one hip, throw the other hip out, and stand there posing while stormtroopers try to kill you.

Of course, there aren’t any female Jedi characters, either, but I can’t blame the game for that—George Lucas doesn’t believe in female Jedis, either. (Oh, wait: there was that one in Revenge of the Sith, wasn’t there? The one who got cut down from behind without even having a chance to draw her lightsaber? Yep: I remember her.)

6. Nobody respects Darth Vader.

You’d think he’d be a force (ha! I crack myself up) to be feared throughout the galaxy. And at points, to get through stormtrooper-specific doors and to move objects that are only susceptible to the Dark Side, you have to play as Vader.

And the stormtroopers shoot at him.

The temptation to shout, “I am Darth Vader, your lord and master! Stop shooting me, you daft gits!” is overwhelming.

I think their helmets must affect their hearing, though, because they don’t stop.

7. Allies are more trouble than they’re worth. Really. They get in your way while you’re trying to kill stormtroopers (or when you’re jumping, and then you fall in a pit of lava and die, and there’s crankiness all round).

And then you catch them on the backswing with your lightsaber, and they die.

And, really, they deserve it for getting in the way. If they only stood behind me, it wouldn’t be a problem.

But . . .

Some of them make horrendous noises when they die. The Ewoks and R2D2 are particularly plaintive.

And who want to be the person who slices R2D2 into spare parts?

(Special Additional Lesson I Have Learned While Blogging About The Lessons I Have Learned Playing Lego Star Wars: when you microwave a cup of coffee, it doesn’t just make the coffee hot. It makes the cup hot, too. I feel this is a serious design flaw. Or, just possibly, my failure to realise this is a serious design flaw in me.)

8. Most spaceships have low ceilings, which makes it impossible to do the patented Jedi double jump then forward roll in mid-air.

This in turn negates any value in being a Jedi Knight, at all.

(Nick was showing me his barbarian character in Diablo yesterday, and pointing out how awesome the character was, since he can jump enormously high. “I can do that,” I said. “Plus, I have a lightsaber.”)

9. General Grievous really is a dreadful character. (A four-armed robot with four lightsabers? Gee, George Lucas, why not just give everybody lightsabers?)

Similarly, his level in Lego Star Wars is rubbish.

Possibly, I’m only saying that because it’s my least-successful level, even though it’s only one giant landing platform with some vague rocky landscaping around it. (And yet I can’t work all the way through it. It’s a blow to the ego, that’s for sure.)

But I prefer to blame it on Grievous. He’s no Jar Jar Binks, but still . . .

10. Few things on earth are quite as much fun as watching a Lego version of Darth Vader push boxes across checked surfaces. He really puts his little Lego back into it.

I make Vader do all the required box pushing.

He has to expiate his crimes somehow.

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