Come play Absolute Zero

Over the past couple months, a friend of mine has been creating a fun Left 4 Dead campaign called Absolute Zero. The first map is done, and the second map is coming along nicely. We created some nice HD videos to show it off to everybody:

If you want to playtest map 1 with us, download the beta and come join the campaign's Steam group.

More Ice Caverns updates

Absolute Zero

A new pair of videos is out, this time showcasing an ancient tomb in Soul's Absolute Zero campaign for Left 4 Dead. The area's design draws from a lot of ancient civilizations to create a unique yet familiar look that makes you imagine what it was like in its original state. Even though it's not done yet, the architecture still looks pretty awesome!

During the making of the video we couldn't stop playing around as hunters. The area quickly reminded me of some of the freestyle trick maps for Quake where there is no particular goal, only at lot of stuff to play with. We began making tricks more and more complex and were having so much fun that I recorded a few of them for the start of the video. Despite consisting of a mere three pounces, the middle jump was by far the hardest to pull off, requiring snap aim, timing, and air control all within a quick few seconds.

Valve's original idea for Left 4 Dead was to make it a game of who survived the longest, not who survived. They didn't go through with that idea, but it's one that we've always liked. One of the first decisions Soul made when creating this campaign is that it would be much harder than Valve's campaigns. Even experienced teams shouldn't expect to survive without some really excellent strategy and teamwork. I know a lot of players seem to think that fun means winning and winning means never dying and finishing with a score of 8000 to 300, so this map might not appeal to all crowds. For people who enjoy a real challenge, I think this campaign will have a lot to offer.

If any mappers, modelers, or texture artists are out there, Soul could use your help! He's chosen such a different art design that most of Left 4 Dead's pre-made stuff isn't going to work.

The first level of the map can currently be downloaded from L4Dmaps. This second level is about 80% of the way toward a basic beta version.

Playing a lot of Section 8

Section 8

A month or so ago, I learned that an acquaintance of mine from a few years ago had got a job at TimeGate Studios making maps for their new title, Section 8. I missed the closed beta, but had enough fun with the open one to make me want to acquire the full game when it came out.

Apparently about half of their dev team are hardcore Tribes players, and to a degree it shows. The maps, while not as big as the ones in Tribes, are vast and open compared to most modern games. Players are able to customize their soldier with two guns, two secondary utilities, and ten points to distribute across a number of passive powerups. Players also get a shield, a jet pack, super-sprinting, and lock-on.

Section 8 is a capture-the-point game with a twist—as players start to earn points for various achievements, the game automatically starts up mini-objectives to complete. This turns out to be a great way to keep things challenging and fresh, while giving players a good reason to come out of their bases. If you turtle in a base and don't complete your objectives, the other team will win. This gives the game a higher learning curve than most other games, but most should only take a few days to get it down.

Section 8 is a multiplayer game, so I'd caution you against buying it if you're expecting a good single-player story. Some sites mentions that it has a single-player campaign, but it really only consists of multiplayer with bots tied together in an hour long tutorial story where an unseen general is yelling reasons to complete all the objectives you'd normally complete in multiplayer. But that's okay—the real fun is in the multiplayer.

Spawning is a unique experience in this game. You get hurled out of ships in orbit and are able to break mid-air to adjust your landing position. With a bit of skill and luck, you can actually land on enemies for a very satisfying instant kill. To combat you landing in enemy territory, anti-air comes standard in all bases and players can deploy more if they choose. Anti-air becomes crucial to gameplay—if yours gets taken down, the enemies will start to swarm in right on top of you. Players dropping down within an anti-air radius will either be shot down or take heavy damage before ever seeing another player.

The maps will remind you a lot of Tribes. They are big and open, with 2-4 bases scattered around them. They all feature dead zones defining their boundaries, which can change depending on the maximum number of players. The bases are pretty good, with an intricate futuristic design. Despite the large maps, the area in between the bases are for the most part also well very detailed. The mini-objectives will usually take place in these areas, so you may end up spending more time outside of a base than in one.

Character customization is one of the crucial areas of the game. You get ten points to spread across various passive power-ups modifying your armor, shield, attack strength, lock-on duration and resistance, accuracy, and a lot of other things. This is probably the biggest area to master—even after three weeks playing (two in the beta, one in final), I am still tweaking my passives to better support my play style. Several of them are very obvious in their usefulness, but others take a bit of play time to fully grasp.

Part of your load-out is two weapons. Unlike most games, Section 8 makes no distinction between primary and secondary weapons—it lets you choose whatever combination you want, be it a pistol and knife or a machine gun and missile launcher. There are several weapons to choose from, but unfortunately there isn't much diversity between them. If there is one area this game doesn't shine in, it's this. What we have now are basically all your boring standard bullet-based futuristic army weapons. Each varies in accuracy, shield piercing ability, and armor damage, but they're all just boring stuff we've seen a thousand times before. I would have liked to have seen some Tribes-inspired energy weapons.

One thing the game's weaponry took from Tribes is the projectile-based guns, compared to games like Quake where the shotgun was hitscan (instant-hit). Ask any Quake Custom-TF player, and they will confirm the $25 shotgun can often be formidable against the $3000 rocket launcher if the wielder has good enough aim. In Section 8, all of the bullets fired are actual projectile tracer rounds that take some small time to reach their target. This is one of my favorite features, and I'm often disappointed that more games don't use it. Forcing players to lead their shots introduces a whole new dimension of skill to the game.

The two utilities you pick for your class are also pretty important. These include grenades, mortars, sensors, repair kits, and some others. Some of these provide a service to your whole team, so with some good organization you could get a really unstoppable squad. The grenades are basically proxy mines that you throw. They stick to walls, vehicles, and blow up if they get near an enemy. The mortars are like precision MIRVs, letting you drop concentrated groups of explosions that are great against pretty much everything.

There are a few things all players get. The first is a super-sprint, letting you fairly quickly travel the long distances of the map. You can use it to ram enemies, taking off their shield. The second is a jet pack with about five seconds of use before recharging. It is basically only useful for jumping small hurdles, or a quick large jump onto buildings in conjunction with sprint.

The third is probably the most controversial feature of the game: lock-on. While many multiplayer games have aim-bot cheats made for them, it's actually built into Section 8 as a slow charging 5-10 second lock-on ability. I've noticed a lot of mediocre players have grown to depend on it, and all the good players take advantage of this by developing strategies to make others waste their lock-on before jumping in with a good aim. They deserve some major props for creating a well balanced aim-bot that doesn't feel totally lame.

As you complete objectives, frag enemies, and capture points, you will be awarded with money to spend on deployables. You can buy supply depots, turrets, mechs, tanks, and anti-air. All of these are very effective in their own ways, but for some reason many players seem to forget to deploy anything until the match is almost over.

The game does have some flaws that will hopefully be patched soon. Like several Games For Windows Live games before it, Section 8 has plenty of people unable to launch it due to outdated GFWL installs. The game pulls down servers from the master list very slowly over an XBox-encrypted link. The in-game voice chat doesn't feature automatic gain, making most voices get drowned out by the action. The persistent stats system looks pretty cool but has been plagued with issues since the launch. Servers seem to be infrequently unstable, sometimes crashing or booting players. A few of the servers I've connected to seemed to lose sync, causing jumps as everything corrected itself every few seconds. Oddly enough none of these flaws existed in the open beta, making me wonder if the GFWL integration, which wasn't in the beta, had anything to do with it.

Flaws aside, I'm very happy with this game. There's a lot of fun to be had, and it delivers one of things I want most in a game: a large scale of skill that isn't reachable after only a few weeks of playing. Is it worth $50? I'm not sure there's enough content—8 maps—for me to say so. Maybe wait until it's $30 or $40. I'm hoping they release the map editor and enable mods. It's got a lot of potential for some good player-made content.

What the L4D2 boycott means to me

With over 40,000 people in the Left 4 Dead 2boycott group, there are bound to be a lot of varying reasons for why they're there. The popular one is about past promises unfulfilled, which I agree with wholeheartedly. I've also got issues with the general quality of support we've got from Valve.

Lack of content

One major nitpick I have with most of the boycott community is that a lot of people consider new content to be "free updates". A lot of us paid $50 for a game with very little content with the expectation, due to explicit statements from Valve, that we would be getting more. To me, this means I have already paid for this new content with my initial $50—it is not a free update. Consider it a pre-order.

Calling it free just gives the impression that any new content is a gift of good will from Valve, which makes a lot of people sound like whiners with silly expectations of getting everything for free. This is supported by the way the media has been reporting it—nearly all mentions of the boycott has attributed it to whiny kids wanting stuff for free.

So far, two minor updates have come out.

In the first update, we got the two old campaigns released for versus multiplayer. This amounted to adding invisible walls, very slightly restructuring some areas to be more balanced, and adding some climb spots for infected. The second update, called the "Survival pack", added a Survival mode where you see how long you can last against hoards of enemies. This added a new survival-only map and again very slightly modified all the old ones. Unfortunately most of us have found Survival to be a remarkable failure with very monotonous gameplay, a very quick curve to master, and virtually no replayability.

How much new content is enough content to fulfill the obligation from those promises? This is another point where people have differing ideas. I could personally care less about new characters, stories, or achievements. New weapons can be cool to degree, but they would need to be a real game-changer, like the gravity gun was in Half-Life 2, for me to care much. For new content in Left 4 Dead, I was mainly expecting my $50 to pay for another two or three full-sized, full-featured campaigns.

Valve recently announced a "Crash Course" campaign for Left 4 Dead. I'm really hoping they designed it with all the experiences and flaws of the current maps in mind. One interesting quote:

…the primary goal of "Crash" is to deliver a complete Versus mode experience in just 30 minutes, resulting in a streamlined version of the game's existing Versus campaigns.

I can't help but feel this is marketing-speak that means "We wanted to spend as little money as possible considering we've got a sequel about to come out, so we built a small campaign that should release us from our obligations of more content". Sigh.

Lack of support

Anyone who plays Left 4 Dead will be able to tell you how riddled with bugs it is, and how slow Valve is to fix them. The issue is compounded by Valve's veil of secrecy around development, because players don't know if Valve is working on a fix or has even acknowledged something is happening. With how little support the game has got to fix its flaws, I can't really feel comfortable thinking Valve will be any more competent with Left 4 Dead 2.

One example that I see in nearly every single game is 1-4 players are kicked from a game within a few minutes of starting, getting a "No steam logon" error that no doubt has to do with poorly implemented DRM. This is a pretty glaring bug that has been around since the initial release, with no fix in sight. Another is that games tend to get "lost" in Valve's master servers. In pretty much every game, new players will randomly stop coming in to replace old ones. Sometimes it recovers in 10-15min, but usually it doesn't.

A lot of maps have serious exploits. There are several areas that, with a little skill (or luck), an infected player can instantly kill a survivor. There are ways for survivors to skip or out-run crescendo events, which are supposed to be a major gameplay element introducing a temporary chaotic challenge. In areas you can't outright skip, there is almost always a spot where survivors can sit that makes it all but impossible for infected to deal any damage.

Left 4 Dead is incredibly sensitive to lag. Unlike most modern games, and even old ones such as the nearly 13 year old Quakeworld, Left 4 Dead has no sense of lag compensation. When pouncing a survivor, you need to actually make sure you land a little ahead of the player. Landing on the player will just result in you sliding off as your client catches up to reveal you didn't actually hit your target. Other players will just see some stupid hunter landing 10 feet off his mark. This isn't just something that affects those of 200+ pings, either -- it is still stressful at pings lower than 100.

There are some general flaws with gameplay too. "Ragequitting" was certainly not invented with Left 4 Dead, but it's the first time I've seen it become such a common phrase. Losing in Left 4 Dead can be a very frustrating experience, but there is nothing to balance that out to keep people having fun. Because there is no incentive to stay, the great majority of people will quit at the first sign of a loss. Sometimes they will even "grief" the game by killing themselves or their teammates. Most days it takes two or three games of everyone quitting before I find a decent one. Even then, the only prize for winning is often the enemy team quitting right before you get to play your fun infected finale round.

This could be partially solved by a better matchmaking system. The current one, when it actually works, makes no distinctions between skilled and new players, good sports and quitters, and full experienced teams and random people. Valve has been promising a new matchmaking system that solves at least that last point for a while now, but keeps pushing it back. Even then, it wouldn't solve the problem that the game just doesn't offer any reason for a losing team to stick around.

Street Fighter IV rocks on PC

Street Fighter IV

Street Fighter IV came out a few days after I left to visit family and I've been chomping at the bit to play it ever since. I came back home yesterday, and it was the second thing I did after stepping off the plane (the first being grabbing some fish tacos at El Siete Mares).

Having played the arcade and 360 versions, I knew what to expect. You get a lot of your favorite old characters, including all the originals from Street Fighter II and introducing four new to this game. Gameplay is a lot like Street Fighter III, with a big focus on strategy and the ability to pull off devastating but finger-twisting combos. A new feature I really like is a challenge mode that teaches you the special moves and combos your character can do, which really helps when you're trying to learn how to use one of the new characters or just refreshing yourself on an old one.

The only part still missing is the World Tour mode of the home editions of Street Fighter Alpha 3. As you fought through the roster, the points you get would let you level up. This let you upgrade your character to shift between a focus of power or defense, and let you select power-ups that let you do longer and more complex combos. It created a more unfair form of gameplay compared to Arcade mode and probably would have been too unbalanced for competitive gameplay, but it was still a lot of fun and would have been great to have in IV.

One thing I was worried about was how good the game would run on my system—from past experience, games ported from console to PC tend to run amazingly sluggish. With a sigh of relief, I put those worries to rest when I saw the game not skip a beat when run with all the settings maxed out. The game even has a special PC-specific settings screen with loads of rendering tweaks including the new Ink, Watercolor, and Posterize visual styles.

I've been having a lot of fun in IV between all the various modes of play. It doesn't top Alpha 3 as my favorite of the Street Fighter series, but it's up above everything else!

Left 4 Dead…2?

Seriously—what the fuck?

Despite promises to make enough new content to make Left 4 Dead worth the $50 we paid for it, 8 months later it is still without content, buggy as hell, full of map exploits, and with terrible matchmaking. Poor game design has made being on a losing team incredibly frustrating, making it so the only reward you get for winning is half or more of the other team ruins your game, either by quitting or by childishly killing themselves to ruin your infected round— every single time.

Valve stopped caring about Left 4 Dead a while ago, and now we know why—Left 4 Dead 2 is coming out with all the content that was promised for the first one. I don't think I'll be giving them any money for this one.

Bear McCreary to score Capcom’s Dark Void

8-bit Dark Void

Bear McCreary, composer of Battlestar Galactica, let out the information today that he is scoring Capcom’s new game, Dark Void. I remember some videos of this coming out a while ago, from E3 maybe, and it looked like a pretty fun game but after so much time I had forgotten about it. These new videos make it look as awesome as ever, though, and with Bear scoring it, you know the music will be amazing!

If you like his music, consider posting at Capcom where Bear is trying to get authorization to release a soundtrack CD.