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November 26, 2009

Modern Warfare 2 Midnight Launch

Here's an article that didn't make it into this Tuesday's The Cairns Post. The editor decided to do a non-gaming article last week to space things out, which meant this article would have ran over two weeks after the event.

Hype, multi-million-dollar budgets and massive sales: All common elements of blockbuster movies and major video games. But there’s another parallel: The midnight launch, an event targeted at an existing fan base that will go out of their way to see/play the object of their devotion as soon as possible.

Retail chain EB Games organised midnight launches of the hotly anticipated action game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 across its Cairns branches on Monday, November the 9th. I decided to check out the one that promised to be the largest, at the Cairns Central store.

The queue

Oddly, Modern Warfare 2 is the sixth game in the core Call of Duty line. Its direct forebear, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, abandoned prior games’ World War II settings for contemporary battles between Western special operations units and Middle Eastern terrorists. Arguably, it’s also the most popular. Given the gaming community’s anticipation, I was surprised that only a handful of gamers had arrived by 11:15.

Braden and Ty
Within a quarter of an hour, the queue was around forty people long. This mightn’t seem small, but staff member Steven Poon reckoned several hundred turned out for the launch of the Xbox 360-exclusive Halo 3. Why less fan enthusiasm for Modern Warfare 2, available (at the time; the Windows PC version was released on November 24th) on both 360 and Playstation 3?

The answer probably lies in Call of Duty’s appeal to the 25-45 age bracket. Such gamers have day jobs and commitments that prevent them attending weeknight events. Younger gamers are often more flexible and find fantastic warfare more appealing than factual settings. The attendees were divided evenly between the school/uni crowd and 25-45s.

To make the launch fun, the store offered a NERF foam dart pistol each to the two best costumes. Most entrants turned up in camo fatigues, but Storme Sankey-O’Keefe donned a balaclava and aviator sunglasses after arriving. His chutzpah as the only terrorist earned him a pistol.

The store also set an Xbox 360 up with the original Modern Warfare running on split screen, allowing two guests to play head-to-head. This, the contest and the small crowd all made for a casual, friendly atmosphere.

While the older gamers were looking forward to the challenge of the story-based single-player campaign, the teens saw it as a training ground for online play. Ty Gordon said he’d play the campaign “for ten minutes” before going online to pit his skills against other gamers.

Costume prizewinners
Costume prize winner Scott Olafson was looking forward to “Going online with customisable kill-streaks.” Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode rewarded players with airstrikes and other weapons after killing several opponents without dying. The sequel will allow players to choose their rewards.

Sankey-O’Keefe expressed a balanced interest, wanting to play the campaign “on the hardest difficulty to challenge myself.”

“The first one took me four days of non-stop playing,” he said. “I can remember the (campaign) prologue off by heart!”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is on sale for Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC; RRP $99.00.

November 23, 2009

Notes on Session One of Dungeons & Dragons at Simon's

I've been meaning to mention that a couple of weeks ago, I did the first roleplay gaming that I've done in, sheesh, it must be around a year and a half. Simon was the gamemaster – well, actually, dungeon master, which should tell you fellow gamers out there that the game in question was Dungeons & Dragons, specifically 4th Edition. Although I've owned the Player's Handbook for about a year now, this was the first time I'd ever actually played a game.

I like it. After the first encounter, when there was talk of stopping, I spoke up for pressing on to the next encounter. In hindsight that was a mistake, as my fellow players – Simon and Cristel's four kids – can usually only handle a single encounter before getting bored. Simon's talking about setting up an adult gamers' group sometime in the future, although I reckon that'll be after Christmas. And I'd gladly be a part of it (hopefully I can drag Vickie along once she's recovered from her operation).

So what do I enjoy? Even though my dragonborn warlord was only first level, I felt as though my character sheet gave me plenty of options when it came to encounters. I like 4th Edition's new Powers system, where every class gets a selection of special abilities (be they a wizard's spells, a fighter's martial techniques or a cleric's divine gifts) which can be improved or swapped out for new ones as you level up. First level characters actually get a decent choice of abilities to start off with, and while I'd never played a dragonborn or a warlord before I had a clear idea of how my character was meant to function in an encounter (D&D jargon for fight or other momentous event) and once I got the hang of combat (fairly quickly) I was an effective part of the team, using my warlord's exploits to aid in a couple of sticky situations.

Now, I will say that 4th Edition seems to function best as a small-scale tactical wargame, with the “roleplaying” elements (character portrayal, the flavour of the world) treated as tasty garnish on a hearty meal. Those powers are like little toys begging to be played with, and the “mechanics” of the game Swing Into Action when encounters start. It might help comparing it to a modern electronic game; while the movie-like cut-scenes give the next fight a context and the player an emotional buy-in for getting to it, the real fun of the game starts when you pick up the controller or mouse and begin interacting with the game's opponents. And while some may dredge up the tired and dysfunctional argument of “roleplay versus roll-play” I have to commend D&D 4th Edition for having a clear cut vision of the kind of play it enables and sticking to its guns.

Would I ever be a dungeon master myself? No, I don't think so. I think 4th Edition requires somewhat more of a financial investment beyond the Core Rulebooks (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual, around AU$40 apiece) in order to get it running smoothly, and while I have a battle-mat (a large vinyl grid-map that can be drawn on with dry-erase markers) I don't have the finances to get miniatures, let alone the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual.

A couple of paragraphs ago, I compared D&D to video games, and there's another parallel I can draw. In an interview with Atomic magazine, artificial intelligence developer Dr. Ian Davis said that “... the goal of an AI (for an opponent) is lose convincingly.” The dungeon master in D&D, I feel, has a similar role. He's stuck in the unenviable position of making sure that a fairly complex system doesn't push the players so far as to kill their enjoyment, and as such has to put a lot of work into understanding the ins and outs of that complex system. Then, when you factor in all the supplements for the game which introduce extra powers, pieces of equipment and other abilities... Doing that much homework really doesn't interest me. Plus, having discovered my competitive streak through indoor soccer and Halo 3, the idea of pulling my punches seems kind of counterintuitive.

Then, as a participant in a roleplaying game, there's my desire for my players to entertain me as much as I entertain them, and maybe I'm judging this way too early, but I think that D&D's focus on being a very entertaining fantasy skirmish game won't give me, as a dungeon master, as much potential entertainment value as some other games whose rules are designed to help a bunch of people put their focus on challenging their characters as characters and not as tactical playing pieces, games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, The Shadow of Yesterday, Houses of the Blooded. The games I'd love to try if I weren't so terrified of tripping over the fine line between compelling, intriguing interpersonal drama and and outright ham (Dan, you know all the reasons I listed last night for why I'm scared of running Dogs in the Vineyard? This is the real one).

Still, after playing D&D, I did pull my Star Wars Saga Edition rulebook off the gaming shelf and give it another read-through, ostensibly to compare how the two similar systems do things, but not a little because I'm tempted to run it again...

November 16, 2009

Vickie Doing Well!

A quick break from my usual nerditude to let everyone know that Vickie came through today's surgery well! She should be out of hospital by the end of the week!

November 10, 2009

Local Gaming Editorial Content

Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially a published columnist. Click on the link below to feast your eyes on my article on what I like to call "got your back gaming"!

The Cairns Post, November 10th, 2009, Page 15

(Adobe Reader required.)

November 01, 2009

Surf And/Or Die

Earlier tonight I watched the lead story on this evening's edition of Channel 7's Sunday Night programme. An American named Jeb Corliss is planning to become the world's first person to land a wing-suit BASE jump without a parachute, a goal with very high odds of fatal failure. This man has been a BASE jumper for years, so he at least has some experience in the matter.

It was seeing this grown man who seems quite rational and understanding of the situation he's in yet still certain of what he's done with his life and what he wants to do with it that made a few ideas that have been rattling loose in my head since Vickie and I talked about Jessica Watson, the sixteen-year-old Australian attempting to set the new world record for youngest person to circumnavigate the world solo via boat, fall into place.

From one perspective, I can understand Jeb's point of view. As far as I can tell, and I think as far as he can also, he's found What He's Meant To Be Doing With Himself (something we're still not sure whether the young Jessica Watson has had the time to discover). It may seem insane from the perspective of living a long and healthy life, but perhaps the compromises he would have to make with himself in order to live long and healthy would break his spirit, especially given the fact that he was diagnosed at an early age with a condition known as counterphobia, which by my extremely limited understanding forces those afflicted by it to seek out whatever causes them fear.

Perhaps, to paraphrase pirate Bartholomew Roberts (thanks, Gav), the only merry life he can lead is the short one. And as long as he's careful enough to minimise the risk to anyone else, how can we tell him that settling for less is worth settling down?

Hot on the heels of that thought, though, was another one. As most of us workaday folks know, the “ordinary” life is fraught with challenges and pressures of its own. Perhaps taking the truly uncertain route to happiness is the one fear these modern-day Bartholomew Robertses can't face?