Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Game Review: Half Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2

October 13th, 2009

I just finished playing through all of Half Life 2 (at least, all of what’s been released so far) for Rebel FM’s Game Club.

Yes, a little late to the party. But better late than never, especially for one of the best games of all time. I was playing through on the XBox – I’d bought the Orange Box edition last year for Portal, but had never got around to playing more than a few minutes of Half Life 2.

As an experience there are few things that have drawn me in as much as this. Other games have done the same with the strength of their plot – such as Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic – but Half Life 2 is one of the few that does it on the strength of character. Alyx Vance is the obvious standout character from the games, but even the minor characters come alive in a way that is disappointingly rare for computer games so far. This is due to a combination of technology, writing and environment that makes this an experience anyone interested in the evolution of computer games should go through.

But as a game, it’s a little harder for me to recommend Half Life 2. If it weren’t for the press of Game Club there are parts that would have made me give up. There are sections, especially in the main game, that go on for far too long. It’s nice to establish a few gameplay mechanics and play with them for a while, but there’s a distinction between escalation (which is fun and challenging) and dragging things out. This is better in the two sequel episodes, although only by a matter of degree. While others found the climactic sequence of Episode 2 a lot of fun, personally I found the new mechanics cumbersome and annoying.

It’s also quite ‘gamey’, something that only distracts me because of the quality of the plot and the characters. Given how strong everything else is, it’s distracting to see the obvious ‘points of no return’, mostly driven by your inability to jump very far. And to have a section, as in one point of Episode 2, where you go from being inside an alien hive to being back in a mine because it’s convenient to the construction of the level is distracting and annoying. It’s an artefact of building the game to be as fun as possible (and hence avoiding backtracking, something the design does well), but it comes at the cost of the sense of place.

I enjoyed Half Life 2 and its episodes a lot. Something that I would say about only one other pure shooter (Bioshock). And I’m looking forward to Episode 3, when it’s eventually released. But I don’t think that I’d ever go back to play them again, and would probably tell most people without an interest in shooters or ‘games as art’ to try before they buy.


Book Review: The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson

October 10th, 2009

I’m a big fan of money.

I don’t just mean in the mundane “it’s nice to spend sense”. Money is a profoundly weird, incredible invention. It is ultimately very hard to explain money, and hard to see how it ever really came into use. The story of money is incredibly interesting.

Unfortunately, that’s not the book that Niall Ferguson has written. Rather than being the story of money, the book focuses on the development of financial markets. Bonds, shares and insurance. Fortunately, that’s a big a field to cover. As with his previous books, the scholarly approach that Ferguson takes gives the details that bring the story to life, although his approach sometimes removes complications to tell a simpler, more coherent story.

This isn’t the same as Niall’s previous books. The list of topics is actually somewhat eclectic: cash money, bonds, stock market bubbles, insurance, real estate markets, public pension schemes, and international financial systems. This is probably a product of the book being linked to a TV series (a pretty good one, actually), so some breadth of topic was needed in order to sustain interest. But that breadth comes at the cost of depth, especially by contrast to some of Niall’s other books. His history of World War I, for instance, goes into fantastic depth on topics such as the bond market’s movements prior to the declaration of war.

I probably would have preferred a book that was more along the lines of his previous work. That’s because I work in this field, and I find it very interesting. But it’s nice to see his voice and tone translated to a more accessible form. So while ultimately I hoped for another book, it’s a book that is easier for me to recommend to others as a result.


Book Review: Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen

October 8th, 2009

When I first started reading this book my wife thought it was a waste of time. She said that I was already pretty much in touch with my inner economist.

That’s pretty much true. And overall she was right – I didn’t really get much out of this book.

Tyler Cowen is an economist who I can respect. His work doesn’t always agree with my views, but it’s usually well argued and thought provoking. But what works well in short doses in a blog becomes grating in larger doses. Throughout the book points are belaboured to the point of pain, and the central insight overeexplicated at the expense of subtlety and nuance.

Nothing in the book made me go ‘aha’, nothing changed the way that I was planning to behave. The advice was either obvious, or it was things that I would never consider doing for one reason or another. For instance, the advice on how to motivate your dentist comes down to “supporting their self-image as a good dentist”. The discussion around the problems with incentives is interesting, but the final advice comes across as flat and dull. Perhaps it’s because Cowen is ultimately too honest – he knows the complications that behavioural economics causes in most classical economics predictions. Which in turn means that there is little that can be provided in terms of concrete, usable advice.

So all the book had to offer in the end was a slight discussion of some interesting economics, devoid of concrete advice that might be interesting or provocative, and without the interesting stories found in books such as Freakonomics. Most non-economists would come away from this book with at least a greater appreciation of the complexities of the science, but most professional economists will find little new here.


Game Review: World in Conflict

January 11th, 2009

World in Conflict for PC is a real time strategy game with a new twist on the genre. Rather than emphasise the base building and resource harvesting that have been at the core of the genre ever since Dune II, it emphasises lower level combat, with fewer units and less emphasis on resources.1

So rather than building a base, you’re given a small number of units (purchased from a renewable pool of resource points) and given smaller tactical goals such as covering and securing a point in a town. The range of units is fairly broad (infantry, troop transports, tanks, helicopters, artillery and so on), but there’s no tech tree to manage – everything you can use is available at the start of a mission.

Taken together it’s a much simpler game to play than Company of Heroes or Starcraft. There’s a lot less strategic worrying in the single player game, it’s much more focused on the tactical end. You’re also not fighting alone – there’s normally several AI controlled units on the map along with you, giving you a better sense of fighting in a broader war than you normally get.

I think that all things considered I probably prefer the more complicated version of things. While the tactical micromanagement is fun, there isn’t as much satisfaction from wiping the enemy off a map – you’ve just been following the orders of your unit commander the whole time.

The biggest strength of the game is the setting. You play as US soldiers fighting Soviet troops, moving through the north-west United States, some missions in Mediterranean France, an invasion into Russia, and even fighting on Liberty island. The setting is late 1980s, with appropriate vintage military equipment (and music). The plot is also interesting, although there are some problems. There’s one point in the game where some information appears to be meant to be a secret to your character, but he was just in a meeting where it was discussed. It was like they changed the plot at the last minute and didn’t run all the changes through.

All up World in Conflict was probably the best RTS of 2008. If you like the genre, it’s a must play. If you don’t like the genre, maybe this is the game that will help you get into it, as it streamlines everything.

Oh, and it’s very, very pretty on a powerful enough PC. I found myself pausing and just going ‘Wow’ from time to time.


  1. Dune II was also the last time that the normal paradigm actually made sense. In Dune II you were harvesting spice, which gave you cash and so you could buy units. In every other game, from Warcraft to Starcraft and on, it always seemed much more arbitrary to me. 


The Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year 2007

January 4th, 2009

Yes, I’m aware it’s 2009 now. But I still need to cover the games that I played in 2007, before I can move on to the 2008 edition.

The rule is that it has to be a game that I played for the first time in 2007 – not paying too much attention to the original release date.

The finalists are:

  • Bioshock

  • Mass Effect

  • Portal

  • Super Mario Galaxy

  • Uncharted

  • World in Conflict

So, without further ado…

In 6th place is Mass Effect. This is a game that I was incredibly excited about, but never got the energy together to play more than about three hours. I’m sure I’ll come back to it some day, but it’s a game where nothing quite comes together properly. Of course, it still beats out lots of games that didn’t make the list at all.

World in Conflict takes 5th place. The main reason I didn’t finish this one was that it kept crashing on my MacBook Pro. But it’s a lot of fun – an interesting take on simplifying the real-time strategy genre, with an interesting plotline. Makes good use of high-end PC graphics as well.

For fourth place is Portal. It’s a great fun game (which I actually finished, so it’s also pretty short). But I didn’t get as much out of the plot as a lot of reviewers, and the humor was just ‘OK’. But an interesting take on the first-person puzzle game, a genre without a lot of entrants so far.

Super Mario Galaxy takes third place. This game is just about the only reason to own a Wii. I haven’t finished it, mainly because I was spending so much time getting each and every star that I hadn’t finished by the time I moved on to the next game. Fantastic, pure platforming fun, with an occasional frustration from an inconsistent difficulty curve.

Second place goes to Uncharted. It’s a simple Tomb Raider rip-off, with a little bit of Gears of War thrown in for the combat sequences. But it’s so well done, with a great pulp plot, that it’s one of the most compelling games out there.

And so first place, the inaugural Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year 2007, goes to Bioshock. The main attraction is the strength of the story, but the RPG-esque shooter gameplay is a big part of the attraction as well.

I’ll try and get to 2008 before too much of 2009 passes….


Game Review: Mirror’s Edge

January 3rd, 2009

Mirror’s Edge, by DICE, published by Electronic Arts.

I don’t play a lot of games all the way to the finish. The current pile of unfinished games includes Assasin’s Creed, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy and Psychonauts. So the first thing to note about Mirror’s Edge is that I actually finished the game.

The game itself is a mixture of very entertaining and frustrating. The basic parkour free running sequences are a lot of fun. But some of the rest of the game needed more work.

There are really three types of game built in to the game:

  • free running parkour sequences, where you have to get from one end of an environment to the other, often chased by enemies.

  • puzzle sequences, where you need to use the parkour moves in a more precise way to navigate around a room, usually to get higher. Usually no enemies chasing you.

  • combat sequences, where you’re fighting enemies directly, either using hand-to-hand or weapons you’ve picked up.

I loved the first type of play – innovative, exciting, and has the best ‘fall of a cliff and die’ effects of any game ever. The puzzle gaming was also a lot of fun – occasionally frustrating (when you fall all the way down and need to make your way back up), but satisfying in the same way that most puzzle games are.

The big problem with the game for me, right up until the last bit, was the combat. Firstly I made a choice to play for a PS3 trophy for not using guns – a mistake, as while you’re encouraged to not use them, you need to from time to time. That made my life a lot more difficult. But even taking that into account it’s just not that enjoyable, a lot of needless death until you accidentally find the way to get through the sequence. Unlike the first two types, I never really felt like I was getting through because of skill, just luck.

The last fight sequence in the game turned me around, a little. I realised that you could plan everything out precisely, and treat the combat almost like another puzzle sequence. That made the (difficult) final encounter a bit more palatable, but still it would have been nicer to have a good running sequence instead as the finale to the game.

Overall, it’s a superb game worth playing. The plot isn’t really worth mentioning, but the gameplay is mostly a lot of fun.

(Hey, I’m back! Don’t expect too much – I’m just going to post stuff as it occurs to me. Some weeks nothing, some weeks lots of things).