Monday, June 29, 2020

(Very Imprecisely) Command & Conquer

I am desperately someone who needs to get their eight hours of sleep in.

I can do a sleepless night every once in a while. Maybe two days in a row with only six hours. But anything more and I'm a zombie, simply bouncing from one stimuli to another until I eventually crash on the closest horizontal surface.

Sleep has eluded me this week. No particular reason. Sometimes it's an overly vivid dream that wakes me up and keeps me from falling back asleep. Other mornings, it's the sun, the great enemy, that overcomes our shade's defenses and launches it's dazzling assault into my eyeballs. Occasionally, it's our corgi, who finds the exact geometric shape necessary to take up as much of the mattress as possible.

So my ability to game has been compromised as my ability to form a coherent thought has gradually slipped away day by day. It doesn't help that most of my gaming has been of the hard as nails variety. Namely, the recent Command & Conquer remaster.

The game opens with a cinematic showing the computer inside the game itself, which is used as a conceit for the UI, as getting a graphical and audio upgrade. Apparently, the GDI and Nod Forces in game were using a Sound Blaster Pro in their computers: good choice.

The level of graphical spit shine is everywhere. In the UI, in the gameplay, and in the upscaled cinematics. C&C was an excessively ugly game, understandably so as it was pushing the infancy of the RTS genre and the use of live action FMV in just 1995. 

 I had played bits and pieces of the original back when it was newish. The original PC version was available at our local library, hidden amongst the edutainment and productivity software. I also recall having rented it for the PS1 at the local Blockbuster and hating having to control an RTS with a controller. Somethings never change. I had played more of the game in the mid to late 2000s. I own the complete collection of C&C games from a physical box I bought back in college and whose product keys curiously worked in the Origin gaming platform.

The game had become largely incompatible with modern versions of Windows, and the poor AI pathfinding and just straight up buggy micro control eventually made the game unplayable to me. So I was understandably excited with the release of the Remaster which came paired with a measly $20 price tag and some glowing reviews.

The problem, of course, is that while the graphics have been gussied up, the developers didn't bother actually fixing any of the gameplay.

The AI's hare-brained pathfinding remains as is. Moving units from one place to another is a roll of the dice on how and if they will actually get there. Attacking is also incredibly imprecise. Focus-fire is a thing, and usually works, but general orders to attack or defend an area functionally don't work. As often as your units attempt to kill something, they will just as often not do anything at all, or actually kill themselves. Friendly fire is a thing in this series, and your grenadiers don't particularly differentiate between enemy forces and your own. If your own units and are somewhat near an enemy the grenadier wants to attack, a virtually certainty consider the poor pathfinding, then all of it's getting blown up.

It ends up making the graphical upgrades somewhat pointless. Most people are going to play this package for an hour or two and bounce off it. EA is going to see a huge number of Steam Refunds here, the crust shows itself early and often. There's very little control here, as a commander you're mostly reduced to flailing your arms to command the dumbest soldiers on alternate earth. It's a bit like playing the first Street Fighter game, the genre as we understand it is too primitive here to enjoy. It's just not a fun time. Online play is going to dry up immediately, whose going to play this once the novelty wears off?

There is mod support. Perhaps the player base will fix what the developers neglected to.

It's perfectly understandable that the development team kept a hands-off approach. The graphical and netplay updates were probably more than enough for a small team to handle. And EA never marketed this as an overhaul, just a graphics upgrade.

But it would have been nice for the first big RTS game to have gotten a proper re-release. Lord knows the RTS genre could have used it. But considering how underwhelming the reception for both the good Starcraft re-release and the not-so good Warcraft III re-release got, it's not surprising that EA didn't commit a lot here.

Maybe now that I've gotten a decent nights sleep I'll throw myself back into C&C's grinder of a campaign. Or I maybe I use my newfound energy on something a bit less archaic.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Guess Who's Knack? Knack Again.

In a nice change of pace, my real life world seems to be doing quite well while it's my digital world that's feeling a bit sluggish.

I knocked out two difficult and physically painful goals this week. First, I finished hiking the local trail. 21 miles from one town to the other with no breaks. I finished it in about 6 hours and 45 minutes. That's a pace of about 3 miles per hour. Both the pace and the length would be respectable by experienced hikers, although my load was probably a bit less and I only did it for one day.

Nonetheless, I preserved through the sore feet, bad equipment, and the chafing. Oh the chafing. Also the ticks. Minnesota has a lot of them, I pulled probably 10+ in all off my shoes, socks, and legs. And that's with enough bug spray to make even an World War 1 commander nervous.

But that was not quite as painful as my other major accomplishment this week: beating Knack. Knack was a PS4 launch title and served as the butt of many jokes this console generation. I wanted to see if the jokes were embellishment and found a used copy for cheap from the local game store (pre-pandemic).

The jokes were not embellished.

Imagine if you were playing Street Fighter, but the collision hit boxes were off. Not by a lot, but by enough that even a casual player would wonder why punching the other dude in the head didn't result in anything happening. Imagine if the animation 'homed' in on the other player. Again, not by a lot. But enough that you execute your super-duper-hyper combo and still hit your opponent even though they clearly jumped over it.

Now imagine if the controls were just suggestions. You execute the 'Dragon Punch', except sometimes it just comes out as a normal punch. Or maybe it careens your character off-screen. Maybe it just doesn't do anything.

Even if all this stuff is only a little bit off, nobody would play that fighting game. It either has to work perfectly or it doesn't work at all. It's not like a racing game where you can flub some of the collision detection, or the cars can be a bit floaty. Everything would still be fun.

Knack wasn't that far off of being a good game. But if you want to make a hard-as-nails action platformer with one hit kills you really need to nail everything. There really isn't any graceful way for the game design to 'decay' here.

Combine that with the game's interminable length, lack of variety in both attacks and enemies, sterile graphics and music, frustratingly bad story, and graphical slowdown and you've got a game that deserves every joke made about it.

Knack does have a sequel. The trail I walked does have an additional 29 miles to it. But my body is not currently ready for more of either.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

It's Certainly Been a Week

I have admittedly not played a lot of video games recently. Some stuff here and there:
  • Minecraft Dungeons: It's baby Diablo. Except Diablo eventually gets a bit boring, but Minecraft Dungeons gets boring immediately.
  • StepMania: In 'normal' Dance Dance Revolution games, the difficulty scale goes from 1-10. With fan mods that scale goes much, much higher. But as a mortal man with a dance pad that likes to slip around my carpet as I play, a scale of 1-10 seems just fine to me. I've gotten to the point where I can beat a song on a difficulty of 6 on the first try, but I tend to fail at 7. It's time to pick a song and learn it, as finishing a 7 is my new goal.
  • Knack: Yes, the PS4 launch title that everyone uses as a punching bag. It's actually kind of a Dark Souls-light, at least on Hard difficulty. The animations are maybe not as tight as they should be, which leads to some frustrating deaths when I get hit by an enemy attack that doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. But dying only pushes you back a couple of minutes to an automatic checkpoint. I'm only on the 4th world of 12 but I really don't hate this game. Maybe it isn't what people wanted as a launch title but on it's own it seems perfectly fine to me.
But the weather and the news cycle has changed, one for the better and one for the worse, and video games are just not a priority for me at the moment.

The weather has been clear, sunny, and not too warm. My energies are feeling a bit pent up from having to stay inside because of the Minnesota winter followed by an Earth plague. There's a trail just outside of my town that goes on for about 50 miles. I have a long-term goal to walk this trail one day. With proper conditioning, and some good equipment, this can theoretically be done in two days. But these legs of mine have sat for about 6 months so it's time to get them off the couch and into the game.

The first outing ended up only being two miles. I decided to take Herbert the EverDog on my journey. She's a trooper, but unfortunately, her tiny Corgi legs aren't really built for distance. We just about made it to the first mile marker when she needed her first break.

We just about made it back to the trailhead when Mrs. Everwake rescued us with the EverCar. She took a big nap after that. The dog that is.

The second day I did about 7 miles. I could have done more but I didn't think to pass a lunch and it turns out hiking eats up a lot of calories. I did manage to go at about 2.75 miles per hour, which is a perfectly good pace, assuming I can actually keep that up for an entire day. I'm eager to get back on the trail. There's a small town about 20 miles into the trail that I would like to make it to next.

I could post more pictures but oddly enough they all pretty much look the same.

But that project has to wait at the moment because one of my basement walls is curving in a way that I find most unsettling.

We've lived in our new house for less than a year and during the winter the basement wall has begun bulging a fair amount. It wouldn't be super noticeable if I didn't have a tall bookcase up against the wall. It's not super uncommon for foundations to move around where we live, my wife, who happens to be an academic in these sorts of things, says the soil is just like that.

It's also causing problems around the house, some of the main floors are uneven, the driveway now slopes down towards the house (channeling water the wrong way) and the garage floor has giant cracks in it.

So the first of three contractors comes today to give us an estimate on the damage. Hopefully, it's only a couple thousand dollars which is a hit we can afford to take. But foundation problems are the most expensive of any house repair problems so it's not unheard of for the final price tag to be in the tens of thousands.

The joys of homeownership.

Hopefully this is just me overreacting and the problem really isn't a problem. Me and the wife have rented for most of our ten years together so it's tough to get a baseline for this stuff. And Google searching the problem leads to a bunch of SEO-optimized crap that doesn't actually help at all, so we are at the whims of the advice of contractors who are here to make a buck off of us. Not a situation I'm loving.

I've written and rewritten a couple of paragraphs on the protests surrounding police brutality in my country about a dozen times. If you're not interested in anymore discussion on this, now would be the time to close the tab. As someone who worked in the public-sphere, particularly in one of the major cities that's seeing protests right now, I can only say that this is the inevitable happenings of what has been wrought.

From my own perspective, police misbehavior is systematic because large swaths of our country view it as an essential feature. I think this Twitter thread from one Minneapolis' councilmen is a quick view into why this is such a difficult problem to solve.

My own, summarized view, is:
  • Civilian control over the police is not great in our cities. Police forces in many cities act autonomously and are very successful, and motivated, to reject any control over their power.
  • They do this through a variety of methods: strong police unions, withholding policing from neighborhoods and council districts that displease them, and aligning their budgets and training through the federal government or even private resources instead of local or state sources.
  • This is all very much by design and coordinated on a nationwide scale. Republicans have long failed to win mayor and council seats in large cities. Instead, conservative groups have made a concerted effort to win favor of policing groups, local judges, prosecuting offices, and influential bureaucrats through any means that isn't actual voting. The justice system in most areas have been effectively captured by a will that doesn't overlap with the cities it represents.
So this situation is going to get worse before it ever gets better because one side is essentially trying to remove a well-entrenched, well-funded, and well-motivated enemy. The other side will defend themselves with a religious zeal because they view "law and order" and "patriotism"  as their exclusive domains, and any criticism of that is a direct attack on them as people. With the demographic shifts in the USA, the Republican Party is forced to resort to more and more desperate power grabs to maintain influence as their ability to win elections becomes diminished. Both sides are scared, and both sides are flailing. And that means it's only going to get messier.