Strain Tactics (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Touch Dimensions Interactive || Overall: 6.0/10

Hey, you! Yeah, you! Get out a blender. We’re going to play a game. No, you won’t lose an arm or an iPad. It’ll be fin- IT’LL BE FINE, JUST DO IT.

Alright, grab an XCOM. Any one of them will do, we’re just going for basic themes here. Dump that in. Now, scoop up some Alien Swarm (it’s free) and plop that in there, too. Now, and this is important, add a dab of tower defense. Just a bit. Trust me: it’ll make some sense. Hit “blend” and watch those mix up. Take the pitcher of your rather interesting mix of genres and pour that shit into a phone and you’ve got Strain Tactics from Touch Dimensions Interactive.

Strain Tactics is a real-time strategy game that has just as many things in common with tactical squad games, like Rainbow 6 and Door Kickers, as it does with a traditional top-down shooter like Alien Breed. The player commands a squad of up to five soldiers of varying classes–each of which have varying skills and attributes–from their mobile helicopter base. Said squads are sent on missions on a campaign against the “strain,” each mission taking place on a contained map, with objectives ranging from “kill everything” to “rescue this guy.” Troops gain skills as they participate in combat, they can find, loot and equip items they find or purchase, and you’ll often lose troops (though not permanently, as they can be revived if you recover their bodies) in chaotic skirmishes with alien-zombie guys. Thus far, this sounds just like any other game where you deploy a group of soldiers to do a mission. However, there’s an extra degree of player interaction that I haven’t seen before for a single-player squad-based game, and that’s having full control over your team’s transport and air support.

Despite most of the game revolving around directly positioning your squad members and marking targets to shoot (though they engage automatically if enemies are in range), the squad’s helicopter is fully controllable at all points of gameplay. The helicopter acts as a storage locker for gear, a transport for players and NPCs, and fire support against visible targets on the ground, which gives the player immense amounts of control about how they deploy, what their troops are armed with and what their exit point will be. Your team begins each mission aboard the heli, and they don’t disembark until you’ve decided to. It’s a refreshing amount of choice in a genre that routinely grants you limited power despite your role as a “commander” or whatever. When was the last time you had the option of landing your squad near your target in XCOM rather than running a fucking marathon from your drop zone? Oh, never? What about using your dropship to blast the shit out of dangerous enemy units before they become a threat to your squad’s objectives? What?! Never?! What a shame! It’s okay, though: Strain Tactics lets you do that. Using a minigun, a small cannon, or even some big ass firebombs, the helicopter can lay waste to outside targets. While it’s not always a viable option, what with interior locations and the occasional heavy foliage area, it’s a rather interactive way to support your squad in a way that makes a ton of sense. Why this hasn’t been done before in mainstream titles is baffling to me, but Strain Tactics delivers this sort of engaging gameplay dynamic in a tight little package. I’d dare to say that it’s something you could make a franchise off of.

Because of this, even hand-crafted levels can be approached from various angles. You are never really forced to enter or exit the level from a specific point. Characters that aren’t suited for an encounter you’ve come across can be quickly refitted before picking a place to land, or left on the helicopter while the rest deploy. It seems like such a small detail or feature, but in the grand scheme of things it makes the standard gameplay loop really interesting. You can change tactics on the fly, including redistributing your team to split them up.

However, the honeymoon isn’t long. The game has problems, one so heinously rooted that I’m not entirely sure it can be easily fixed with patches: it’s a phone game.

This game was designed for touch interfaces, and it’s painfully obvious from the UI. Everything is rather big, from buttons to text. Item information and character stats are hidden behind an extra button, making quick comparisons between characters a tedious exchange that, in many cases, requires you to pause the game if you’re currently busy with alien-zombies. Inventory management is slow, requiring a click to select and another click to move it to another spot. Using stores or the locker is a tedious process, especially when you’re trying to clean house and organize. Information is usually somewhat vague, if it is even readable (some lower resolutions are just unreadable). I didn’t even realize there was a scroll bar in the mission debriefing, as everything is so huge I figured they were just using up space. While this is probably a really good phone game, it’s missing a lot of quality of life enhancements that I’d expect from a PC game in this day and age. It’s a real gear change compared to how gameplay flows outside of the UI.

It explains why there’s some inconsistencies with the quality of art and the somewhat clunky controls. It’s a great phone game, I’d even go so far to say it’s probably one of the better ones you could play. It’s just okay as a PC port, though. I can’t call it a bad game–it isn’t–but it’s rather disappointing that something so close to being sublime stumble at some rather uncommon problems (as well as some common problems, like mediocre plot and dialogue). I mean… it technically works; it functions as intended when you click around, but it’s far from efficient. It’s like using a spoon to serve soup instead of a ladle.

At this point, I feel like I’m taking a huge dump on this game, and I don’t want to give that impression considering how good of an idea the helicopter base thing is. So, Touch Dimensions Interactive, if you’re actually reading this: keep working at it. Seriously. You are so close to something that is very much worth sinking hours into. You just need some polish, some design changes, and maybe a writer (let’s be honest: you could use one, at least for the dialogue). If Strain Tactics 2 ever gets kicked around, or you plan on fixing the UI, I’ll be back to revisit.

 

Rocking Pilot (PC) Review

Developer: Gungrounds | Publisher: Mad Head Games || Overall: 8.0/10

I’ve always been a bit soft on bullet hell shmup games.  I mostly get frustrated at how cheap some of the elements can be and well, just the ridiculous amount of <curse in Xartraxian> flying around never screamed “fun!” to me.  Rocking Pilot is a top-down twin-stick shooter that nestles right in with others in the genre.  The titular character is a sarcastic romp through a futuristic war story that has the appropriate amount of tongue-in-cheek and rockin’ tunes keeps the pace up, the adrenaline flowing, and the decibels rising!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  YEAHHHHH!!!!!

Rocking Pilot is a pretty simple concept.  You shoot stuff and stuff blows up.  However, the unique feature is using your helicopter’s propellers as a weapon as well.  You can consider it a “melee attack,” going right up to the enemy, mowing them down, or enabling Overdrive, which makes you temporarily invincible and empowered to kill and deflect everything.  Besides that, using Overdrive tactically is a necessity, otherwise you die, so you cant really use it on cooldown.  Many enemies also require you to use Overdrive to kill them, so having a limited amount of Overdrive charge becomes an important resource to manage.

Game progression is interesting, taking its cue from mobile game trends.  There are four worlds to unlock, each with about 10 levels.  When defeating a level, you’ll earn an assortment of awards, each independent classification (such as “Keys,” “Crowns,” and “Skulls”) unlocking their own string of levels and/or weapons.  Eventually, unlocking all of the weapons available makes your helicopter the most badass helicopter in all of history and all of the upgrades work in tandem.  Power-ups will show up on the board and you’ll temporarily use one of your unlocked weapons; there isn’t much agency here to “choose” which weapons you want to use, but you take what you can get and use it all up.

There’s not much more to the game, but there’s a lot of gameplay to be had.  I had spent about two hours and beat the main storyline, but there were still quite a few levels left to unlock, and most of the upgrades had yet to be discovered.  Once you acquire upgrades it’s well worth going back and trying previous levels you left uncompleted to see if you can earn even more upgrades.  The upgrades definitely make things easier for you and also keep things fresher.  The Score Attack mode available seems to be based on leaderboards, and challenge you to get higher on the board before awarding you, which can be quite an ask.  You can also restart your progress by deleting save data, so if you pine for the half hour where you only had a minigun, no missiles or shotguns and <curse in Xartraxian>, then it’s there for you.  Also, since you die a lot, having to wait a few seconds and physically confirm two times between each retry can get a bit tiresome, and breaks up the fast-paced feel the game tries hard to sustain.

The art is not too bad; it starts out generic at first then gets a little bit more wacky.  Eventually you start fighting aliens and that’s when the art begins to please.  There are some talking-head characters which are very nicely drawn, but this creative look doesn’t seem to carryover at all into the actual game for some reason.  The helicopter is also just some generic-looking helicopter, but maybe that’s the point there.  The sound is also very important in creating the experience of fast-paced craziness.

Rocking Pilot is mostly a challenge waiting to be had.  Once you get through the main story, you’ll have to go back and clean up what you didn’t do the first time around, and then some.  There isn’t anything in the way of a “free play” mode other than the Score Attacks, but those aren’t available on every mission anyway.  You’ll be heading into each mission with particular objectives in mind, most of them fairly unique.  The price tag is also very reasonable and if you are looking for a simpler, contemporary shmup, Rocking Pilot might be your <curse in Xartraxian>.

Rocking Pilot is available on Steam.

 

Grand Theft Auto V (PS3) Review

Developer: Rockstar North | Publisher: Rockstar Games || Overall: 9.5/10

For me, a Grand Theft Auto game is like one of those mini-milestones in my life; I get to experience something fantastic, funny, and overall extremely entertaining.  I’ve bought each of the mainline GTA games during the first week of release, and have thoroughly enjoyed each of them.  I still have yet to complete any of the games on PlayStation 2, and I still need to buy Vice City Stories, but I can pretty much say that GTA is a big part of what makes gaming so enjoyable to me.

So, does Grand Theft Auto V continue to be the torchbearer that has been such a motivator for me to stick with gaming as a whole?  The answer is yes, but the answer is also no, in some regards.  Grand Theft Auto is a lot of things to a lot of people — a social scapegoat, a cool game to fuck around endlessly in, and most of all an offensive and satirical look at America and what it means to be an American.

Grand Theft Auto V breaks the mold of its predecessors by allowing you to play as three different characters.  Each character has their own individual stories and some missions that overlap with each other.  The missions culminate at certain points of the story where you will do “Heists.”  Heists can essentially be looked at as the major challenge or “boss” of that point of the game. Heists themselves are very dynamic story missions that allow you to switch characters based on what sort of preference you have.  At times you’ll also be forced to change characters to progress the mission.  There are several occasions where a character has to drive 5 miles to a certain location, but during “their drive” you can switch to another character who is currently in the middle of another objective that is occurring.  After completing the Heist, all three characters have their own missions opened up again.

Each of the three characters draw parallels to previous characters in the series, with the character Trevor, who is a drug dealing crime entrepreneur being the most unique as far as the series-as-a-whole goes.  All three characters, and their motion capture/voice work actors, do an amazing job in conveying the story and making it enjoyable.  First and foremost, the story of Grand Theft Auto V is a character story.  There is very little strength in an overall arcing story, as it never really comes to a head, but the real joy of the story is the interactions between the characters and the way they live their lives and the things that go on around them.  The main storyline revolves around the government and government corruption, but is never fully realized in its potential.  My feeling is that there will be expansions, a la GTA IV’s expansions, where each character may be the sole focus to fully flesh out the remaining questions that each individual’s story sort of left open ended even as the credits rolled and after.

As a result, the story sort of just drops off at the end and you’re left with questions for each of the individual character’s stories without any real indication that they will be answered or even if the inevitable expansions are even going to focus on the main protagonists of the GTA V.  A lot of the plot points of in the characters’ personal stories make you question why they bothered having them when there was no real pay off.  A wait-and-see approach for the expansion plans is sort of unnerving, but if it pans out the way I hope it does then it may not be that bad.

The game play has been universally improved from GTA IV.  Combat is a lot more fun and refined.  The addition of the weapon wheel allows for switching guns in a more efficient manner.  Many of the same features you expect in a GTA game are present, and have been refined as well.  Being able to customize cars permanently is a welcome addition for the single player mode.  Speaking on cars, your characters all have their own “personal vehicles” that you will undoubtedly drive more often than not.  This is a vast change from previous games where you would always just steal a car to get around the city.  Now that you have your “own” personal vehicle you can always rely on using that car.  I actually preferred to use the personal cars to give the feeling of consistency for the story.  The cars are also unique, so you can tell when another character is driving it or is parked somewhere waiting for you to start a mission.

During a lot of the missions there are opportunities to catch references to action movies in a way that is an homage to Hollywood and Los Angeles.  There are plenty of hilarious scenes and subtleties that make this Grand Theft Auto leagues ahead of any before it, while still harkening back to them.  Most notably is GTA: San Andreas, as you encounter gangs that existed in that game as well as visiting CJ’s home neighborhood — you will instantly recognize it and there is even a mission where you will have a shootout through the whole neighborhood.  You will also be able to walk into a lot of different buildings during your missions — one such being the LifeInvader offices where there are a lot of Facebook-related jokes and scenes to be had.

Missions are split out into separate categories — “Missions” and “Strangers and Freaks.”   During the series there has always been those “off-storyline” missions that came around that didn’t have much to do with anything.  In Grand Theft Auto IV, they added “strangers” that you could meet on the street and talk to them for a little while or even do a mission for them.  The Strangers and Freaks missions in Grand Theft Auto V allowed Rockstar to combine both of those aspects and let themselves go really crazy with designing missions.  Shooting aliens after smoking weed, kidnapping a movie star for two old British tourists, and skydiving out of a helicopter into the city are only some of the things that you can do in tandem with the main storyline.  Another welcomed feature is the ability to replay all of the missions you find and refine your score on them so you can earn trophies.

With Grand Theft Auto V, you can tell that even though the game is goofy at times, they have made it a point to make the game act much more “realistic.”  The way people walk and run, physics that are toned down, and the serious storyline are all honed in on this goal of becoming a “realistic” game.  A major casualty of this appears to be the loss of many of the more “traditional game” elements that we have seen in the Grand Theft Auto series, namely Vigilante, Ambulance, and Firetruck side missions.  Vigilante has been seemingly replaced with “random events” that you will stumble upon as you are driving through the city.  During these random events, people will get their property stolen or police will be in a shootout with the criminals and you can either step in or let them go.  While they are nice as an addition, I think I would have gotten at least a couple of more hours of enjoyment from being able to hunt down a list of bounties or have the game generate a group of criminals for me to take down, like in GTA IV.  It is unfortunate because GTA V’s combat system is A LOT OF FUN, and I wish I could just have more combat outside of missions.  Being able to access the internet on your phone is also very convenient, but it seems like there are a lot less web sites to find this time around.  Watching TV is also not as convenient because there is no “full screen” mode and the volume never seems to be able to be turned up loud enough where I can comfortably hear what is going on.

The graphics in the game are very impressive.  Really awe-inspiring, however, is how big the game’s map is and how accurate it is to Los Angeles and the surrounding area in California recreated as Los Santos, Sandy Shores, and Blaine County.  Being from the LA area, I felt right “at home,” and the lighting in the game makes it that much more authentic.  The wilderness and desert areas are much more fleshed out compared to how they looked like in GTA: San Andreas.  You can even hunt in the wilderness.  While GTA V is a “revisiting” of San Andreas, the lack of San Fierro and Las Venturas can sort of irk you if you are a stickler for the “lore” of Grand Theft Auto.  As a result of having the game be more focused on Los Santos itself, we got a much more detailed and expansive city.  The radio stations are also pretty good and varied.  There are some great tracks, but since nothing can ever live up to GTA: Vice City, we’ll just have to say it’s about as good as it can be.

A part of the experience to note is that ever since the Hot Coffee controversy became a big deal with GTA: San Andreas, Rockstar started becoming more and more daring with what actual sex content they choose to depict.  While GTA IV poked fun at themselves by saying “hey wanna have some HOT COFFEE” and then had a lot of groaning noises saying how good the coffee is, in GTA V they literally have people having sex in plain view as part of missions — not something that is really optional like dating.  And I don’t think anyone even gave a fuck (pun!) about it this time around!  I was laughing my ass off when I saw one of the “movie stars” getting pounded doggie style as you take pictures of her, which resulted in her chasing after you in her convertible trying to kill you.  GTA V can just be a lot of fun.  You can also call random characters up to “hang out” with them and play mini-games, but as opposed to GTA IV, you aren’t forced to maintain any relationships and as a result there doesn’t seem to be any benefits from them now.

Playing the game for about 50 hours, I can say that GTA V is the best game of the series.  Growing and changing as a gamer since playing GTA III, I find myself less and less inclined to just “fuck around” for an endless amount of time.  I just got through the missions, played a couple of the repeatable side missions, and called it.  Ostensibly, it was worth my $60 regardless, but the point of mentioning it is that sandbox games have become a more focused experience and can be less about “go do anything you want” and more about “here’s the things we want you to do, go do it the way you want to do it.”  This is the way gaming has evolved and I do enjoy a more focused experience for sandbox games since they can get very distracting at times.  Not to say that you CAN’T just go do anything you want to do for hours on end, but it pushes you towards what it wants you to do much more than other GTA games.

GTA V also comes with GTA: Online, which is basically just a fleshed out version of the multiplayer from GTA IV.  GTA: Online is structured more like a free-to-play MMO game with progression of your character, and also gets back to the more “gamey” aspects of the Grand Theft Auto series than the single player experience offers.  There’s definitely more people playing it than GTA IV’s online mode, but since GTA: Online is almost its own game entirely, I will just review it later if I get around to it.  It is constantly changing as well since they will be adding patches and re-balancing as time goes on.

GTA V is good, and I hope to see more for the game soon.

 

Joke #9217

There was a man called Jim, who lived near a river. Jim was a very religious man.

One day, the river rose over the banks and flooded the town, and Jim was forced to climb onto his porch roof. While sitting there, a man in a boat comes along and tells Jim to get in the boat with him. Jim says “No, that’s ok. God will take care of me.” So, the man in the boat drives off.

The water rises, so Jim climbs onto his roof. At that time, another boat comes along and the person in that one tells Jim to get in. Jim replies, “No, that’s ok. God will take care of me.”  The person in the boat then leaves.

The water rises even more, and Jim climbs on his chimney. Then a helicopter comes and lowers a ladder. The woman in the helicopter tells Jim to climb up the ladder and get in.  Jim tells her “That’s ok.” The woman says “Are you sure?” Jim says, “Yeah, I’m sure God will take care of me.”

Finally, the water rises too high and Jim drowns.  Jim gets up to Heaven and is face-to-face with God. Jim says to God “You told me you would take care of me! What happened?”

God replied “Well, I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What else did you want?”

Another version of this joke:

Old Mrs. Watkins awoke one spring morning to find that the river had flooded the entire first floor of her house. Looking out of her window, she saw that the water was still rising. Two men passing by in a rowboat shouted up an invitation to row to safety with them. “No, thank you,” Mrs. Watkins replied. “The Lord will provide.”

The men shrugged and rowed on. By evening, the water level forced Mrs. Watkins to climb on top of the roof for safety. She was spotted by a man in a motorboat, who offered to pick her up. “Don’t trouble yourself,” she told him. “The Lord will provide.”

Pretty soon, Mrs. Watkins had to seek refuge atop the chimney. When a Red Cross cutter came by on patrol, she waved it on, shouting, “The Lord will provide.” So the boat left, the water rose, and the old woman drowned.

Dripping wet and thoroughly annoyed, she came through the pearly gates and demanded to speak to God. “What happened?” she cried.

“For cryin’ out loud, lady,” God said, “I sent three boats.”