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James Vogel
Sinistar is my patronus.
Sinistar is my patronus.
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For anyone over here who plays/follows Magic but doesn't necessarily catch announcements, there's a fairly major rules change happening when the Dominaria set releases this fall. Full details are linked, but long story short, the rule for redirecting non-combat damage from a player to a planeswalker they control is going away, and a shitzillion cards are getting errata instead.

I don't know what I think about this yet and will probably post more thoughts down the line.
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Took a short hiatus from Monster Hunter when the new Stellaris patch, but planning to log back in this afternoon and intermittently this weekend to knock off the new event quests, putter around with some tempered hunts, help out if anyone needs it, and generally commit some dino murder. I still need a Bow Charge Up gem to finish my bow set too, and wouldn't mind a few more augment drops to finish my "zombie gunlance" regen set.

Planning to do a long Stellaris stream tomorrow afternoon too. Mostly by request of a friend who wants to see how it plays. We'll see how that goes. I'm not sure how interesting it will be to watch, but I'll try.

Picked up Into the Breach, a new tactical tile-based mech game from Subset Games (the same team as FTL) and played it for a few hours. (I've been sick as hell the last three days. The upside is I've had plenty of game time, the downside is I remember it mostly through a blur.) Reminds me a lot of Advance Wars, though part of that is probably aesthetic more than gameplay. It's pretty fun.
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Another fun MH stream last night, much of which was me taking like ten years to hunt a Barroth because even with the (arguably) best light bowgun in the game I can't manage to get clean hits without getting smeared over the landscape. Ow.

But I did improve get my bow skills a lot, and managed to go 3 for 3 on sub-15 minute tempered Vaal hunts afterwards so that felt pretty good.

Not likely to be on MH quite as often the next week or so, though I'll be around and can always jump on to help if needed.
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Streamed some Monster Huntering on twitch last night. Showed off various sets, including a health regen set that killed Nerg in 8 minutes without drinking a single potion. That was pretty bonkers. Might do another one tonight with various other weapons and sets.

Then, of course, the new Stellaris stuff comes out tomorrow so that should be fun.
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A compilation of Monster Hunter Pro Tips [Public]. Mostly things the game is kinda bad at teaching. TBF it's a lot better than previous versions, where I'd never attempt to write this because it would be seven hundred pages long.

Slinger ammo to know: Flash Pods (crafted from Flashbugs) will blind many monsters, and if they're flying can knock them out of the air. Dung Pods (crafted from Dung or Dung Beetle Balls) will cause the a monster to flee; the main use for this is when you find yourself abruptly fighting more monsters than you were hoping to fight. Sonic Pods (I don't remember the recipe offhand) can often force burrowing or swimming monsters back to the surface and stun them. None of these have 100% success rate and may not work on all monsters all the time.

Equipping inventory slinger ammo: Navigate to them in the item bar and hit your "use item" button to load or unload them. While equipped they override whatever random environmental slinger ammo you have. Selecting them from the radial menu will also load/unload them. Once loaded, fire your slinger as normal. And if you're me using a bowgun, keep shooting poop at monsters because you constantly forget whether your weapon is unsheathed. (The Capture Net works the same way. Capture small critters like birds and spiders and set them loose in your house. Your roommates will appreciate it.)

Bomb sleeping monsters: When a monster is sleeping, the hit that wakes it up deals 2x damage. Unless you're a greatsword user the best way to take advantage of this is a Mega Barrel Bomb. Set it down and shoot it with a rock or something. (For GSers, a level 3 charge swing hits harder.) In multiplayer, each hunter can set a bomb. Note: the gunlance Wyvern Fire looks like one hit but it's actually 3 in succession. MBB is still better.

Check the supply box: Seriously, there's free shit in there. Also I recommend turning on autocrafting for Potion, Hi Potion, and First Aid+ and grab every Herb and Honey you run across. (You can skip the Herbs if you're just buying potions in bulk from the provisioner.)

Eat every hunt: There's no reason not to.

Item bar order: It took me forever to find this. On the PS4 version, if you open up your item pouch and hit (Triangle)[1] you can reorder your item bar, including sorting it to match your pouch order. Useful if, like me, you're tired of wondering why your traps and tranq bombs are like ten button-presses away from each other.

Froggo friends: The yellow Paratoads and blue Sleeptoads have crazy high status power and can paralyze or sleep most things in the game. Including you if you kick one and fail to GTFO. Good way to set up for a big hit or get an extra sleepbomb in.

Charms: At a certain point in the game the provisioner will sell Powercharm and Armorcharm. These give you a small but noticeable passive boost to attack and defense just from having them in your item pouch. Buy them when you can and never take them out. Also eventually you can craft them into upgraded versions (Power/Armortalon), which then stack if you re-purchase the base version. Four item slots is a small price to pay.

Free money: When you get the optional quest from an NPC to hunt a Rathalos and Rathian, do it. It rewards the Bandit Mantle, which causes hitting monsters to drop valuable vendor trash. Throw it on anytime you're hunting something you don't need an actual defensive item for.

[1] Can I take this moment to mention how much I have always hated and continue to hate the button icons on the Playstation line? What the fuck, Sony. Are you too good to use letters like everybody else?
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An extremely short review written in between the times when I was playing Monster Hunter World and the times when I was sleeping:

Monster Hunter World is a good game.
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[Public] OK so the Star Wars.

Thar be spoilers here.

s
p
o
i
l
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r
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s
p
a
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because in the Year of Our Lady of Discord 3183 gods forbid we have clickable spoiler protection on this platform[1].

FAVORITES:

- Holy shit the lightspeed collision moment. Just… everything about that was incredible. And it wasn't just visual spectacle, it was also a major character beat. I love it and want to get it framed.

- Even apart from that singular moment, I really enjoyed the film's look, which leaned hard on striking contrasts without falling back on "teal and orange". Krait's red-on-white look was my second favorite visual element, even if the symbolism is maybe a little too on-the-nose. (This is not a subtle movie, and that's saying something because Star Wars is not a subtle franchise.)

- The sound editing in general. Sound is something I generally don't notice unless it's either great or so bad it's distracting. It's a small thing but it stood out to me.

- Dunking on space nazis. Bless this film for making Hux into the butt of every joke, because this year we need The Producers a lot more than we need American History X.

- del Toro's unnamed codebreaker. Not every rogue has a heart of gold.

- The big Snoke/Kylo/Rey scene. This scene turns on a dime at several points, and one of the reasons I like it so much is the way it plays with our expectations. It's a scene that could only happen this way in a Star Wars movie, with the mythic resonance of Vader and the Emperor in the background, and especially with the newer movies being explicitly about the meta-narrative of young characters growing & defining themselves against the shadows cast by legends.

- That's also why I like the "Rey's parents" anti-reveal. I know not everyone does, and yeah, TFA seems to have been pretty clearly setting it up to be something more portentous[2]. But I also really dislike JJA and his stupid mystery boxes so I'm content with the final outcome and I'll be quite annoyed if the next movie pulls a double-reverse-reveal and it turns out Kylo was bullshitting her.

- Luke. I might actually write a longer piece on Luke in this film but I'd have to see the movie again, so I might wait until it's in a form I can watch at home with notes.

- Yoda, and after the prequels I wasn't sure I'd ever say that again. But I love his appearance here from start to end. (My favorite part being "There is nothing in the library she doesn't already possess", which both we and Luke initially take as a reflection on Rey's growth but actually she just bogarted all the books when Luke wasn't looking and flew off with them.)

LESS-FAVORITES:

- I generally liked the Canto Bight sequence, apparently more than a lot of people did. I thought it did good work on several fronts: it pushes Finn as a character, adds some texture to the setting, and gives the film some visual & stylistic variety in the second act, which would otherwise be nothing but greys. But I do think the way it's paired with the fleet chase is… awkward. They're tied too closely together in the film's structure. The Rey stuff can sort of float on its own timeline, but the Canto Bight sequence has to be bookended with the ticking clock of the fleet chase and it doesn't quite sit comfortably in the space the film gives it.

- I realize that the point, thematically, of Huldo & Poe's interactions is that neither has any real reason to trust or confide in the other, but I still file that entire thing under "problems that literally five minutes of conversation could have avoided", which is always going to feel like a clunky fix to me.

- "This looks a lot like an ice planet. How can we remind the viewers it's salt, not ice?" "What if someone basically licks the ground and says it out loud?" "Yeah, let's go with that."

THINGS I ACTUALLY DISLIKED

- Pretty much nothing.

- Though given how well it worked, I do wonder how running things into other things at lightspeed isn't like Battle Tactics 101 in this setting[3].

[1] Technically yes I could try adding it to G+ myself but, uh… yeah, that's not super likely to happen. For reasons.

[2] Though I seriously do not know how the timelines match up with Luke ever having had a kid. I admit I liked the theory going around that if she was anyone's descendant, she was Palpatine's, just for the symmetry of it.

[3] If there's a long tedious Wookiepedia article on the topic feel free to not link me I don't actually care.
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Video Games 2017 [Public]

2017 has been one long avalanche of burning fecal matter on almost every front. Except, somehow, for video games.

There were some damn good ones this year.

And fortunately, I'm not restricting myself to an arbitrary number of best games for the sake of nice round numbers. I'm going to praise every game I loved this year in its own unique way, plus one or two games I didn't love but that might be worthy of your attention anyway.

Best Game About Robot Feelings
Nier: Automata
This game set records for mood whiplash from confusion to fear to crippling sadness to "Romeo, thou stupid asshole!" It's almost impossible for me to criticize it because even the complaints I could make seem like deliberate stylistic choices to play into the themes of the game. Also they're all spoilers. Above all, I love this game because it's using the medium to its fullest, to create an experience only possible through the unique fusion of authored and interactive elements that video games can provide.

Best Game About Robot Dinosaurs
Horizon Zero Dawn
On the other end of the spectrum in so many ways – and yet, oddly, in the same gameplay genre, which I guess we're calling "open world action-rpg"? Horizon also features robots, only instead of being sad, they're tyrannosauruses. (I have my doubts about that sentence construction and about the word "tyrannosauruses"). HZD's storytelling is very conventionally cinematic, but the execution is top-notch. The writing is excellent both in the story construction and individual dialogues, the characters are well-defined and interesting, and they're brought to life by a strong voice cast.

Holy Shit, A Metroid Game
Samus Returns
What an unexpected delight! From "wait that's a thing" to "wait that's out tomorrow" to "holy shit this is pretty fuckin good", Samus Returns was the best surprise of 2017. As Zero Mission was to the original Metroid, Samus Returns is to Metroid 2: a fully modernized update of a game in the series often skipped for not having aged very well. It's not flawless (it's not Super Metroid, obviously), but it's still damn fun. And between this and Metroid Prime 4 being announced for next year, it's a relief that the franchise has shaken off Other M, a bad game for dumb garbage babies.

Everyone Else's Game of the Year
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It's fine.

The 2017 Shenmue Memorial Award for Ludological Ambition
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Ninja Theory has had some rubbish luck with publishers, and with Hellblade opted to go it alone, applying their AAA assets and talent to a more indie-scale budget with a focused creative vision. I think they fuckin' nailed it, and I hope more studios go this route. Hellblade is an engaging and immersive mix of visual puzzles and 3rd-person action. Put on some headphones to let the binaural audio recording work some actual magic and enjoy this game about despair, depression, madness, and the inevitability of death. Hashtag 2017.

I Won't Shut Up About This Game
Brigador
A bonus award; Brigador came out last year but got a significant update and relaunch this year and I think it deserves more attention. Brigador is an isometric mech/vehicle action game with lots of cool weapons, destructible environments, and a high-energy soundtrack. I've been boosting it intermittently on Twitter all year. If you like blowing stuff up, give it a spin.

Not the Best Anything Really But I Didn't Hate It
Destiny 2
The Chipotle burrito of video games: it was tasty enough and there was a lot of it, but for me it never rose above "good enough", and afterwards came regret. Much ink has been spilled on lootboxes this year – and yes, I'm aware many people find D2's implementation inoffensive – so I'll just leave it at "I wish it didn't have them" for now.
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Variance and Card Games [Public]

If you've ever played a few games of Magic: The Gathering, you know that drawing a bad balance of lands and spells is one of the most frustrating ways to lose. You need lands to cast spells, and you need spells that are worth casting. Too few lands ("mana screw") or lands that produce the wrong colors of mana, and you end up with a hand full of uncastable spells; too many ("mana flood") and you quickly run out of spells, saying "land, go" every turn hoping to topdeck something relevant. Although both the Magic design[1] team and the Rules Committee have experimented with methods to reduce the number of "non-games" where one player essentially doesn't get to play any Magic, it's still one of the primary ways that games of Magic are different from each other.

Looking at games that exist in the shadow of Magic design-wise, this resource issue is something many have tried different implementations of. Let's look at an example that's both simple and popular: Hearthstone. In HS, you are not required to play cards to gain resources: you start at 1 mana and automatically gain 1 each turn up to a max of 10. Relatively few cards interact with this, though some do exist, and so barring a few exceptional circumstances it's impossible to get screwed or flooded with resources.

This ends up creating an entirely different feel to the game, and I'm going to ramble a bit about why.

Card games like Magic and Hearthstone involve some amount of variance, and this is generally considered a positive feature as long as it stays within certain bounds. Historically, times when Magic tournament attendence has dropped off have been environments that strayed outside those bounds, formats ruled by either degenerate high-variance combo matchups or extremely low-variance "chess-like" matchups where both players have tremendous control over their draws. The downside of the former is obvious: players feel like they have little control over whether they win or not. The latter is a more interesting case, but it turns out the ability of less skilled players to beat more skilled players sometimes makes the game more attractive overall.

Anyway that's a little bit of a tangent. The point is that by design, both Magic and Hearthstone have some level of "per-game entropy" they're aiming for.

Now there are a few other differences in Hearthstone. One is deck size: a constructed deck in Magic contains a minimum of 60 cards, of which generally 18-26 will be mana sources depending on the format and the deck, and other than basic lands, may contain a max of 4 copies of any single card. A Hearthstone deck contains exactly 30 cards, and is limited to two copies of any given card (or one copy for "Legendary" cards). Hearthstone decks still have a great deal of draw power though, so it's not unusual to draw most of your deck in any given game.

Finally, Hearthstone has "Hero powers", an innate 2-mana ability intrinsic to the class of your deck that you can always use once per turn.

Let's look at these decisions all together: You will always make land drops from 1 to 10, you have infinite copies of a 2-mana spell, and you'll see most of your deck every game. Magic players - does that sound like anything to you? Because it sounds like Caw-Blade to me.[2] But the designers accounted for this: in order to bring the level of variance per game up, Hearthstone has many more cards with nondeterministic effects. Some of them have a narrow range ("deal 2 or 3 damage"), some have a very wide one ("each player gets a random spell from among all spells in the game").

The Magic designers, meanwhile, have generally come down on the side of not printing cards like that, or at least not pushing them to the level of "constructed playable".

So what we have are not two games that might have very roughly the same "average level" of entropy per game, but with very different-shaped "curves". The average of Hearthstone games is very flat compared to Magic, but the spikes, both positive and negative, are more extreme.

I think this explains why I personally had a hard time connecting with Hearthstone and eventually gave up: my cumulative impression was long stretches of similar and unmemorable matches. The events with emotional reactions attached, that stick out in retrospect, are the times I got wrecked by a coin-flip card.

It also explains why I'm enjoying Eternal, another digital TCG, a lot more. It has a more Magic-like approach to resources and randomness, and for me, the risk of getting mana screwed is a worthwhile trade-off for the experience of playing 3-5 matches in a row that all feel different.

(Eternal also has a color system much more like Magic, which I like more than HS's class system, but for other, different reasons. And that's another post entirely.)

[1] I'm using "design" and "designer(s)" as synecdoche for the whole process of getting cards and mechanics into print; in practice the pipeline for a Magic set is significantly more complicated that a single team printing nonsense, or at least it has been ever since a single team printed Urza block because wow.

[2] The Standard season of 2010-11 was one of the low-variance "chess" formats I alluded to, and Caw-Blade was why. The deck had an absurdly high level of efficiency and control over its draws, enabling it to easily beat every tier-two deck, and so Caw-Blade mirror matches came to define Standard, a match that the more skilled player won nearly 100% of the time. As a result of declining tournament attendance, along with everyone except hardcore blue players basically hating the deck, Wizards banned Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic in Standard, and Caw-Blade disappeared behind a shed. We were later told it had gone to a farm upstate to frolic and play with other puppies.
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Quick game roundup. Mostly thoughts I've already put on Twitter in various forms.

Samus Returns (3DS): Wow this game went from announcement to launch at some pretty high speeds. I love Metroid, but it's pretty inarguable that the first two installments have aged very poorly, and what Zero Mission did for Metroid, Samus Returns does for Metroid 2. It changes a lot more from the old version than AM2R (to which it inevitably invites comparisons) did. The gameplay and platforming are solid, the game structure is a bit less linear than the original M2 was, and there are some fun new upgrades.

Two major changes are free aiming and a melee counter. For free aiming, you hold down a shoulder button to lock Samus in place and get full 360° shot control. It's nice, and has some good quality-of-life features – for example, if you point at a grapple point while free aiming, you'll automatically use the grapple beam instead of shooting it instead of having to switch to grapple and back.

The melee counter is basically "hit X to parry certain heavily telegraphed enemy attacks". If you succeed, you stun and weaken the enemy so usually one shot kills them. I… don't love it. The idea is fine and it sees decent use in boss battles, but there are too many normal enemies that take a frustrating number of hits to kill unless you wait for them to charge and counter them. Not a bad concept, but overused it adds unnecessary tedium and ruins the fluidity of certain areas.

Still, it's a solid 2D Metroid game and I'd recommend it to any fans of the genre. Now if only I could stop trying to mockball.

Metroid Prime: Yeah I've been on a Metroid kick lately. And not just re-running Super over and over. In this case I realized I hadn't played Prime in a while and didn't want to set up the hardware so I downloaded the Dolphin GC/Wii emulator and imaged my Metroid Prime Trilogy disk.

And it took some doing, but I got my Steam controller set up for Wiimote emulation and I'll be damned if it doesn't work really, really well! (Anyone who wants to give it a shot let me know and I can share the relevant config files to save you some time.)

I'm enjoying Prime less than I did originally, I admit – compared to the 2D games it's heavier on the backtracking and lighter on precision gameplay. But hey, it's still good, and it's been a long enough time since I played through the Prime games that retracing my steps isn't more than a minor annoyance.

Eternal: This is a digital TCG from Dire Wolf Digital that's somewhere between Magic and Hearthstone. The interface is very Hearthstone-like, it has mechanics that only work in digital games, and it slims down the priority windows compared to MTG; unlike HS it does have instants, combat & damage are more like Magic, and it has a Magic-esque resource system of drawing and playing "Power" cards instead of HS's automatically gaining one mana crystal per turn. It also has five colors and some elements of the color/mechanics relationship are prettttttty Magic-y, but there are enough differences to matter.

(Unsurprisingly, it's developed by a bunch of Magic pros.)

Free-to-play, and pretty generously so, IMO. The crafting system for acquiring individual cards is identical to Hearthstone. Eternal generally discourages you from buying packs though by making drafting a much more efficient way to build your collection. Its drafting is more Magic-like (you are actually "passed" packs from other players in a way that even allows for some signalling, though certain booster draft techniques like hate-drafting and pass-cutting don't really make sense) and you get to keep the cards you draft.

And somehow a decent number of people are even worse at draft than I am (I will pause to let you boggle at that) so even rare-drafting for collection purposes you can win some games and the rewards are pretty good unless you completely punt.

I have some thoughts on why I find Eternal far more compelling than HS but they're probably going to go into a longer write-up where I talk about variance and why mana screw isn't the worst problem a game can have.
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