Alastair lives in Calgary with a wife and, according to medical professionals, a cat. He is, in no particular order, a playwright, a greengrocer, horrible at short biographies, and a fan of games of all sorts.
Jade Empire and I go way, way back. In 2005, I read an article in the Edmonton Journal about a game inspired by Kung Fu and Chinese mythology. The article talked about the fact that it was made by a game studio in Edmonton, Bioware. The article talked about the basics of the story. Most importantly, for me at least, it talked about how the mechanics of the game made the player feel. I remember this article vividly, because it was the first time I had ever seen a traditional newspaper write an article about video games as anything other than a product to be reviewed or a piece of of dangerous escapism. I remember thinking that not only did the game itself sound cool, the way the Journal wrote about it made me think about games in a way I had never thought about them before. I still think about that article when writing my own pieces on video games to this day.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually played Jade Empire. By this point, I had played some of Bioware’s more widely known games (Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), and I wanted to see what else they had available on Steam. I was so excited when I found out Jade Empire was on Steam. I downloaded it, and it didn’t work. However, unlike some of the games I’ve already talked about in this series, Jade Empire never made it to the “Doesn’t Work” folder; I wanted to play this game so badly that I spent the next several hours downloading patches and altering file pathways so I could play this game. Finally, I got it to work, and it was every bit as good as I expected. Sure, the control scheme was a product of the mid 2000’s. Of course, the graphics were dated. Sure, the voice acting isn’t especially great (despite a fantastic minor villain played by Edmonton’s own Nathan Fillion). I didn’t care. I absolutely adore this game. It represents everything I love about Kung Fu, about Bioware, and about games in general.
Last episode, I said I would spend some time talking about the special place games like Sleeping Dogs occupied. In short, I meant to spend some time talking about games that I did not or could not play due to technical limitations. However, I then got caught up in my enjoyment of Sleeping Dogs, and never got around to talking about those kinds of games in the blog.
I’ve only spent three hours in in Supreme Commander 2. I distinctly remember the game freezing up or closing without warning multiple times as I was playing. Unlike Sleeping Dogs, I never came back to Supreme Commander 2. Using Steam’s categories system, I banished Supreme Commander 2 to a folder called “Doesn’t Work”. My computer has been upgraded since then, but I never came back to SC2. At least, until now.
Supreme Commander 2 is a real time strategy game, or RTS. Unlike some other strategy games, where players get turns to carefully plan out each individual action, RTS games all happen in real time. Everyone is free to move, build, or attack whenever they like. This results, in most RTS games I’ve played, to a mad dash to gather resources, improve your defenses, and attack the enemies before they have a chance to do the same to you. Unlike Total War: Shogun, you won’t get a serene chance to review your income and resources at your leisure. You are locked into the micromanagement of resource gathering, unit and building construction, researching new units and abilities, and combat on any number of different fronts.
SC2 takes place in the far future, in a universe where humanity has split into three different factions. At the beginning of the game the factions are held together, barely, by a tenuous coalition. Because the game needs a story, or the combat needs a purpose, or any number of other reasons, the coalition immediately collapses and the factions are thrown into conflict with one another.
The three factions all have slightly different styles of gameplay and aesthetics. The United Earth Federation (UEF) is your standard militarized human force of the far future They favour hard hitting attacks from a distance, with lots of artillery and naval gunning. The Cybrans are technologically enhanced humans, featuring cyborgs and genetic augmentations. Their units are cheap, spidery robots. The Illuminate are a group of humans who made contact with an alien species, adopting their philosophy, culture, and technology. Most of their land units hover, leading to a quick, surprising army.
Massive Armoured Command Units (ACUs) provide the backbone of your military. They are slow, but tough as nails. They are equipped with devastating weaponry, and can be upgraded to make them even more fearsome. Furthermore, they are your main construction unit in the game. Despite the efforts developers have gone to to make each army feel distinct, gameplay boils down to the same pattern of gather-build-destroy-repeat. The addition of unique experimental units adds some excitement to the mix, but at the end of the day it’s just another unit, albeit a massive one.
Part of me wonders what a RTS without any combat component might look like. A game that used the same systems for building your base or civilization, a game that required the same careful management of workforces and resources, a game without the looming threat of attack. A game where the development of your world was the goal, as opposed to a step in the process of building your armies. I think I might like that kind of game sometimes.
In any case, Supreme Commander 2 is fundamentally not that game.
However, the game is undeniably fun. The designers knew they weren’t designing a military simulation game, so they decided to have some fun with. The Illuminate armies can build flying saucers. The UEF gets an experimental tank called the Fatboy, which is, essentially, a massive artillery platform supported by 4 smaller tanks. The Cybrans get Cybranasaurus Rex, which is described in game as an experimental lizardbot. The game is played on an exaggerated scale; you can zoom in so close you can practically see the nuts and bolts on your tanks, or zoom out so far all you can see the the symbols that represent them.
A phrase I’ve used before in this series is nothing revolutionary. Supreme Commander 2 fits that description nicely. The story is pretty standard science fiction fare, the gameplay is like that of any other RTS, and all in all, there’s not a lot to say about the game itself. Instead, I’ll talk about what the game represents in the place of my games library.
The “Doesn’t Work” folder was not a huge folder. There were, at most, a dozen games in there. Some of these games wouldn’t launch because of hardware issues. Some of the would run slowly, to the point of being too annoying to play for leisure. Some, like Supreme Commander 2, had bugs that would cause the game to close without warning. Hell, a couple times during this playthrough, the game would still randomly minimize for no reason whatsoever. The point is, the “Doesn’t Work” folder was useful for sorting my Steam library into more manageable categories. Some of these games work much better now, like Sleeping Dogs and Supreme Commander 2. Some still don’t work 100% correctly. Some I won’t find out about until I get to them in Full Steam Ahead.
Let’s consider this in a different perspective though. I own 130 or so games, and in order to keep the numbers simple, we’ll say that I had 10 games in the “Doesn’t Work” category. Imagine if every time you bought a dozen eggs, chances are that one of them, for some reason or another, was completely unusable. That’d suck. Or, to keep things in the context of games, imagine you are a golfer, with a bag of thirteen clubs. Some of the clubs are better than others, some are used in different situations, but on of those thirteen is non-functional.
In real life, you can go through the egg cartons in the store, finding one with perfect eggs. In golf, you can pick and choose clubs that best suit your style of play (I know some golfers would argue that none of the clubs in their bag work properly, but that’s just golf humour). If a club doesn’t work, you can return it to the store, or sell it yourself, or give it to a friend or charity.
For a long time, Steam games, once bought, could not be refunded. or returned. If you upgraded your computer accordingly, maybe you could play the games, or you could hope for a patch to make them playable, but you couldn’t get your money back. So far, I’ve been lucky. The two games from the “Doesn’t Work” category I’ve encountered in Full Steam Ahead so far have ended up playable. Still, it doesn’t feel great to have a game that is unplayable due to technical limitations.
Sleeping Dogs is a game I’ve already had the joy of discovering multiple times. First in 2012, when the game was released. I remember being fascinated by the idea of an open world sandbox set outside of the usual United States. Furthermore, it was being released by Square Enix, the same studio behind some of my favourite action games, Batman: Arkham City and Just Cause 2. However, it was a bit expensive for me to buy, so I decided I would wait until it went on sale. In 2013, a Steam sale came along, and I got ready to try the game, only to find my computer couldn’t run it. This was in the days before you could get a refund for Steam games, so I resigned it to the pile of games that, for some reason or another, I wouldn’t be playing. Fast forward to 2015, when a good friend of mine gave me his old graphics card. It may have been used, but it was still miles more advanced than anything my computer had. Dozens of games I couldn’t run in the past suddenly became available to me.
As you read on, you’ll get to know the story of Sleeping Dogs, a crime thriller set in modern day Hong Kong. You’ll also get to know the story of games in my library like Sleeping Dogs, what the game means to me, and specifically, the moment at which it stopped being just another game and became one of my absolute favourite games.
I picked up Arma II and all its various mission packs in a bundle during one of the Steam sales. If I had to guess at this exact moment, it would be the summer sale of 2014. Since then, across five different games, I have logged only 97 minutes. Arma 2 – Operation Arrowhead is just the first one to show up due to the random nature of Full Steam Ahead.
The Arma games are a series of military simulation games. They aim for a higher degree of realism in gameplay than say, the Call of Duty or Battlefield series, with features like bullet drop. The games and downloadable contents in the bundle included the Original Arma II, Combined Operations, British Armed Forces, Private Military Company, and Operation Arrowhead. These five different programs in my library vary in scale and in focus, with some adding new units and some adding whole new campaigns; however, all of these games are based off of the same initial programming, the same graphics, and the same core gameplay. Since I’m going to be encountering Arma II in some form or another four more times in the future of Full Steam Ahead, I want to try and cover some different ground with these posts. For the time being though, we will focus on the game at hand, Operation Arrowhead.
During the a Steam sale at some point in 2012, not long after the release of the wildly popular Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim, I purchased Elder Scrolls III – Morrowind. I did this partly because all of the Bethesda games were on sale, and I think Morrowind was the cheapest one. I also remember at one point, many years prior, having some fun with the character creator. I also remember having fun with Fallout 3, another Bethesda game. Also, to be perfectly honest, I liked the idea of playing a ten year old game while everyone was busy raving about Skyrim, because I was a bit of a hipster idiot.
Since that point, I have played Morrowind a grand total of 57 minutes. This game occupied so little of my interest that I couldn’t even spend an hour on it. Furthermore, I’ve tried playing other games in the Elder Scrolls series, most notably Skyrim, and found it very difficult to engage in the game in any way. The world of Elder Scrolls doesn’t fascinate me the way some games do.
Well, that’s what this series is about. Unfamiliar with the setting, unfamiliar with the game itself, with nothing but some fond memories of character creation, it’s time to dive into Morrowind.
Assassin’s Creed 2 is one of only fourteen games in my Steam library that I’ve favourited. As you can see from the amount of time I’ve logged before Full Steam Ahead, I played the heck out of this game. However, the last time I played it was back in 2011. How will it feel to return feel after over five years away?
My first introduction to the Total War series was Medieval 2, purchased during a summer in Calgary where my only activities were training for speed-skating, attending an optional religious studies course at university, and playing video games. The game’s blend of large-scale turn-based strategy (fulfilling diplomatic duties, strengthening my monarchical line, angering the pope) and intense bursts of high detail real-time strategy (flanking maneuvres, ambushes from the forest, angering the pope) left an impression on me that few game series have since matched. I’ve often heard people refer to the one-more-turn effect of some games like the Civilization series, or XCOM. Total War is the series that introduced me to this phenomenon. I guess I’m not terribly surprised that Total War – Shogun 2 is in my library.
I can’t remember why or when I purchased this game. Given how many hours I spent perfecting the Holy Roman Empire, being betrayed by the Franks, or attempting to keep Iberia from falling into the hands of Moors, I am surprised I didn’t log more time in this game before Full Steam Ahead. I’m especially surprised when I consider my interest in the Sengoku Jidai (warring states period) of Japan’s history. Why’d I stop playing? What have I learned from years of absence? Will these question actually be answered, or are they purely rhetorical? Oh well, this train-wreck has to start rolling somewhere.
“We used to play games we never pay for. Now we pay for games we never play. This is how Steam has changed PC gaming.”
I have, at last count, 131 games in my Steam library. This represents nearly a decade of money spent on things I cannot physically hold and hundreds of hours logged in worlds that do not exist outside of virtual space. I’ve often heard friends talk of their to-read or to-watch lists. Those of us who have Steam sometimes face the issue of an ever-increasing to-play list. Like the impulse CD bought years ago at a gas station, or the book from an old rummage sale, heading unloved from one person’s shelf to mine, my Steam library is filled with games I don’t play. In fact, there are some games I purchased, or received as a gift, and have never played; there are some I never even bothered to download.
In and of itself, that’s a fairly depressing statement. Games represent the artistic and technical collaborations of large groups of people, sometimes hundreds of people, but they have become backlog on my computer. It is, to be fair, the right of every customer to choose what they do with something once it has been purchased, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed with myself. I do not like to be disappointed with myself. To that end, I’m going to be changing the way I play games on Steam for a bit:
As of May 1, 2017, I am buying no new games on Steam, except possibly as gifts for other people.
I will play them in the order presented on that randomized list, writing down my observations and thoughts as I go.
Once the list has been completed, I can continue to use Steam normally, if I choose to do so.
This is less of an exercise in reviewing old games and more and examination of myself and the feelings these games generate within me.This series of posts allows me to explore the depths of my backlog, discovering, or rediscovering, games I love, games I once loved, games I played, but soon discarded, and games I can’t even recall. If it helps, imagine me dressed like Indiana Jones, spelunking in some long-forgotten temple that looks like the Steam library interface (okay, even if you don’t think of me that way, I’m going to think of me that way)
If people want, I’ll post the list of games so they can know what to expect. Also, before I go any further, I have to express my gratitude; a great big thank you to Almost Infinite for hosting these posts, and to the almost infinitely pleasant and thoughtful Graham MacFarlane for being interested in this project.
Here’s hoping some of you find this interesting as well. So, without any further delay, Full Steam Ahead!