SquirrelWarz for iPad: Adorbs, yes, but also frustrating

The graphics are basic but adorable

The graphics are basic but adorable

I was given a copy of SquirrelWarz to review and, at first, I was very excited to check it out. It has a silly, hand-drawn quality to it and the tiny squirrel animations and voices are adorable.Within a few minutes of the tutorial, however, I found myself frustrated about some very minor issues that should have been fixed in testing.

You’ll be in control of a squirrel army and will even have the chance to unlock other types of squirrels with real money. I stuck with the newbie army and jumped in, eager to protect my home tree and to defend my nuts! (OK, make your silly jokes now. Ugh.) You’ll start by selecting a gathering squirrel and will send him to a tree to gather acorns. The tress run out really quickly, so you’ll find the pace of the game a bit quick for its tone. I thought I was getting into a casual tower defense game that might be good for kids and instead found myself scrambling to find more acorns… to always find more acorns. Luckily with a little time you will learn how to balance army size and gathering, but you’ll often find yourself with a tiny group of gatherers who have nothing to do.

There will often be an enemy next door to you, and they love coming at your home tree to attack. No worries, right? After all, you have four or five crafty units that will take care of them as… hang on a second, the enemy just sort of walked past your defending army. Oh wait, there they go, now they are defending… wait, OK. Nevermind. They are standing around again. Clicking on your units and moving them to the enemy can work, but often you’ll click to move them to an area for defense and the enemy will not register because your unit is still moving. It’s…. odd.

Being attacked!

Being attacked!

There doesn’t seem to be a way — at least in the beginning of the game (but why would the developers hide it for later?) — to select multiple units with a drag of the finger as you’d find in many RTS-type games. I am able to select five units at once, but sometimes in the heat of battle the tiny icons are hard to select and then I click on the ground and they would run there and once you click on a unit and then click on the ground the unit is deselected meaning that you have to reselect all of the units again! AGH!

It’s all good. Remember you have that special unit that goes berserk! Yes, it warns you that berserk-mode means that the unit will attack friendly units as well, but all good. There, he’s going berserk. OK, now he won’t stop. He’s attacking my tree. He won’t stop. He won’t stop. He won’t stop. It goes on forever. HE WON’T STOP ATTACKING HIS OWN PEOPLE.

I’ll craft more critters. I select one from the selection screen and… oh wait, I need to go BACK to the unit selection screen. How. There’s no back arrow to take me back to the unit selection screen if I suddenly decide I picked the wrong unit or want to pick a different one. You have to X off the unit you were thinking about making and you’ll go back to selection. It’s a small issue but these little things add up to a smooth (or rough) experience.

IMG_0178To be honest, the game feels like it wasn’t properly tested with anyone beyond the initial development team. I have seen this before, many many times: a small team makes a game and tries it out. Because they know how the game is supposed to work, they do not notice that the game is not smooth and polished. The team forgets little things, things that would have been noticed (and fixed) by handing the game to a newbie or stranger or family member and watching them play. Instead, the game was pushed out for $1.99 on the App store.

SquirrelWarz for iPad is adorable. The tiny icons, cute voices and smooth animations are the makings for a good game. Unfortunately, the game needs to go back to testing. Not for performance or for difficulty, but for the basics. Do the controls work perfectly? Does the game ramp up the difficulty too quickly? Should units deselect every time you click on the ground? Do many of the units look too similar to each other for a fast-paced game? Shouldn’t the AI be better?

Either way, I would be happy to play it again once it is patched up. It’s very possible that I am missing some of these basics, but the point is that many of them should be integrated better so that I do not have to wonder if I missed them.

Even at two bucks it’ll be a great deal, provided that the team tweaks it some more!

Beau

My, Trove, how you have grown into a proper MMO! @TroveGame

Screenshot (776)I have been playing Trove, Trion‘s lovely voxel-based sandbox, since its opening. I was impressed by how it looked, and still find myself thinking it might be one of the best looking games I play. Yes, even among the realist ones. I was also impressed by its free-form fun, allowing players to build almost anywhere, to explore as much as they want, and to still offer linear or quest-based content that resolves with leveling and skill-raising. It’s always been an impressive attempt at an MMO.

But then I logged in after being away for many weeks. Holy moly… how it has changed! It’s now more impressive and fun than I ever remember it. I couldn’t stop playing. That is, until my wrists started aching because of all of the fine movements needed to be made while playing the game. I started to set up my controller to do the work, but it would be so lovely if the game came with controllers already accepted.

You’ll start off on a small newbie island that will walk you through many of the basics. You’ll learn how to fight, craft and finally leave the island by crafting a gate that transports you to a more public area. I had no idea so many players had spent so much time creating massive structures; entire cities with friendly, open layouts and handy stations that can be used for crafting. I found several buildings that allowed me access to different types of crafting stations. Even though I had no idea what many of them did, a simple search in my own crafting menu told me details.

One of the great things about Trove is how simple it is. You can grab cubes of materials by shooting them (instead of mining them up close as in standard Minecraft) and can easily use those cubes for many different things. You can change those cubes into different types by using a station, and can eventually craft mounts, weapons, outfits and much more. If you want, you can also buy many of these items inside the in-game cash shop. Some of the items sell for coins that you can earn while playing the game, but a small, quick deposit will get you enough cash-shop cash to buy plenty of toys.

Screenshot (779)

Graphically, the game continues to impress. It can run on lower-end machines but cranking it up all the way shows off spectacular lighting effects, beautiful sun/moon phases and even rain that falls straight down, even if you dig a very, very deep pit like I did. As I said, it’s one of my favorite games for graphics, even taking into account amazing-looking games like ArcheAge or Guild Wars 2. I just prefer a stylized look, and the fact that one of the developers — @HeyAndrewK — told me on Twitter:

Thanks! I’m incredibly pleased with where we are myself. Much more to come – it’s a lot easier to add to vs. hi-fi MMOs.

.. makes it even better. Many players would see that quote and think “Oh, he’s looking for an EASY way to make a game” or “Ugh, easier to add means ugly” but the truth is that you want a developer who can easily add to an MMO, and an MMO that offers graphics that are easy to tweak. You want that, players, trust me.

Screenshot (780)The dungeon adventures are a lot of fun, and many can be found spread throughout the game world. I am not 100% sure, but I believe that players can host and make their own dungeons and adventures, as well. I found one in particular that sent me into a deep dungeon to fight some sort of mega-boss (and, by the way, the dungeons are open to other players!) and I had a blast figuring out just how to destroy him. He chased me around several corners until I fell into a pit. I could see him up top, laughing with an oddly-scary robotic voice, so I built a column of cubes, stood on top and pegged him with my gun until he burst! I only wish I had Fraps running at the time.

Trove is shaping up to be a fantastic value. No, it’s not a “Minecraft-clone.” It IS a wonderful, great-looking, open-world sandbox where players can simply and easily get together to build, loot, fight and explore. Minecraft offers that, yes, but Trove is all self-contained. No mods to download, no joining servers that could or could not be fun. Trove is a proper MMO and I am so happy to see it chugging along.

Beau

 

Star Stable turns 3… still a great game! @StarStable

Screenshot (764)I’ve written about Star Stable many times before. It’s a fantastic story-based MMO that runs on even basic PCs and is great for all ages. It’s based in a world of horses and young girls — yes, horses and young girls — and players spend their time going through a mostly linear quest line in the hopes of getting to the end (and to wait for the next portion to open up.)

I found it a wonderful, charming and inviting MMO for families and for older, casual players. It forces a cheap subscription after level 4, complete with bells and whistles. You’ll join up with a horse, the most important part of the game. The horses feel solid and are easy to control. In fact, I found the mounts to be some of the best in MMOs!

They are now offering a code for free in-game coins. Go to the site, sign up and enter BIRTHDAY3 in the redeem section. Sign up is free. Be aware that the game runs only in fullscreen mode and does take a while to download, but it’s totally worth it!

Now, get in there and get your horsey! You KNOW YOU WANT TO.

Beau

Is Wakfu’s improved early game really more fun? @WAKFUEN

Screenshot (754)I’m a huge fan of Wakfu. I was excited for its release, played in its beta and have continued to play it over the years. After becoming employed by another MMO this last year, I have been pulled away from playing MMOs like I used to but still managed to get into some of my favorites. Wakfu was always on my favorites list, but the last time I played I realized just how stuck my character had become. I considered making a new character but didn’t look forward to making my way through the confusing newbie levels.

Luckily Ankama recently announced a “re-do” of the beginning levels, adding not only new tutorial steps but helpful quests, NPCs and revamped areas to help smooth the transition.

Wakfu wasn’t a bad game before, really, but it was a standard sandbox in a lot of ways. One of the worst things that many sandboxes do is confuse “realistic challenge” with “just make the game confusing and perhaps a bit boring.” Yes, it can be argued that a sandbox needs to be somewhat more confusing or “hard” than a standard themepark MMO, but I disagree completely. First of all, the “challenge” of a sandbox — or any other game — should come from its intense gameplay or in-depth systems, not from the fact that its systems are just too wacky to figure out without looking up a guide.

Screenshot (757)Wakfu was just… odd. I like odd, more than most people, but not when it’s at the expense of fun or, well, clarity. Yes, I enjoyed the in-game biomes and weather systems and the way the players could actually destroy the environment, and I enjoyed the unusual lore and combat systems but in the end it just wasn’t much fun.

When doing quests, for example, a player might be given a hint at the beginning of the quest (“the dungeon is over there”) but after that the hint or directions often disappear. Going back to the NPC would fix nothing, and hints were rare. Isn’t it “realistic” to have the ability to ask an NPC “Hey, I have been gone for a week and forgot so can you tell me where that monster was again?” The developers had confused confusion with challenge, using confusion as a tool to create a feeling of being challenged.

So, are the new improvements in Wakfu helping it be more fun? Yes, I would have to say so. As I mentioned before, I do not have as much time as I would like to play MMOs like I used to, but in the short time I have spent in Wakfu on my new character I have enjoyed it a lot more. The new tutorial is long, funny and introduces players into the world of Wakfu without first inundating them with too many bland details. A class isn’t even picked until later in the tutorial, giving players a chance to feel out the rhythm of the turn-based combat without having to pick the class they will play forever. It’s a great move and makes those first levels much more interesting.

Screenshot (761)The ploy seems to have worked, as there are a ton of players in game. Sure, it’s possible they are just congealing around the new newbie area, but it’s nice to see. The cash-shop has introduced helpful NPC groupmates that can be bought or even “tried out” for a limited time, and the game even features mounts now! WEE! No, seriously… WWWEEEE!!

It’s good to see Ankama taking the newbie stages seriously. I imagine that the game previously lost a lot of players in those precious new stages, simply because the game was more confusing than it was fun. Now the entire newbie process seems to be smoothed out, having something to do with its recent Steam promotion (I’ll bet!) Either way, the game is finally shining as it always should have.

Now, what will it be like in higher levels? I’ll do a write-up once this character gets up there. I’m enjoying it so much that I will probably just keep playing this one.

Beau

Top 10 things to do while waiting for @ArcheAge ‘s queue

1) Crochet a Death Star.

2) Watch an episode of Face Off on SyFy. No, seriously. I watched one. Sasha won. Oh, hush, I didn’t tell you which episode. The fact is that as I write this (after the episode of Face Off) the queue is still saying it’s “less than an hour.” I should have watched something else as well.

3) Bake some bread. Hell, if you don’t know how to bake bread, you could learn. You have time.

4) Meditate. You’ll need the calm inner-reserve to get past the fact that you are never going to play this game.

5) Learn to blacksmith. You think the energy mechanic is bad in ArcheAge? HA! Try making a sword in REAL life. The game should make your character sit there for days while he or she whines about being sore after they craft!

6) Read up on the lore of the game. No smart-assed comment here. I mean, you could read the lore. It’s good stuff.

7) Play something else. I could name 100 different titles that you could play on your tablet or in your browser, but we all know you’re just going to stare at that queue all night.

8) Watch Spytle stream some Destiny as there is no chance in hell you are buying that game for yourself I mean it’s not even an MMO and who buys games for 60 bucks anymore I mean…

9) Troll the forums. You know it makes you feel good, that moment when you find a thread that is filled with the same horrific, anger-filled vitriol that you want to scream at the developers but don’t have the guts to because you realize that MMO launches are hard, and servers can be overwhelmed quite easily and that the developers did not, in fact, create the queue to hurt you personally so then you just decide to try again early tomorrow.

10) Go to bed. The queue will be there when you get up.

 

Beau

Explaining my strange love for Habbo Hotel — @Habbo

Screenshot (743)When I use the words Habbo Hotel, people picture a few things. OK, some of them would picture nothing at all because they have no idea what Habbo Hotel is, but for many gamers the words would bring up images of that strange, online, social, massively-multiplayer game thing that — if they could remember correctly — is for children.

Strangely enough, when I think of the game (and yes, it is an MMORPG, a browser-based social MMO that is generally thought of as a game for kids) I think of a massive building that floats in space. It’s filled with possibly trillions of people, all who work, socialize and live in tiny individual rooms and experiences. I have no idea if this is even the “lore” of the game, but when I see some of the art of the building I cannot help but imagining this is how it goes. I joked with my wife the other day that Habbo Hotel is where Tiny Tower people live.

I think I am in love with social-space MMOs because they feed into my natural tendency to suffer from nostalgia. I feel that funny feeling of the familiar so much that I even joked I must have a real-life nostalgia disease, one that effects particular areas of the brain and causes me to suffer from a love of tiny spaces, holidays and certain smells like pine and chimney smoke.

Just look at the little food.

Just look at the little food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These social MMOs represent millions of memories and interactions, more than an MMO that is based in action like World of Warcraft or PlanetSide 2. To me, playing or even “living” inside a social MMO is like walking through hundreds or thousands of player’s memories, experiences and movements. A social MMO is a collection of dreams, albeit sometimes goofy dreams or the selfish thoughts of a younger person.

Habbo Hotel allows for beautiful interactions with other players. Yes, the game has had its controversies stemming from a mixing of many different age groups (imagine a giant chat room. Now, imagine one that attracts younger players and offers avatars that can interact with each other) but overall it appears that the worst is in the past. The developers seem to push much tighter restrictions on age limits and enforce ban policies that appear to be doing a good job. When I find something that seems a little off in game, I report it. I have literally watched as an offending player has disappeared in mid-creepy-sentence, either due to an invisible judgment or loss of internet service.

A house in the woods.

A house in the woods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned, my nostalgia affliction causes me to love — how do I put this without sounding like a weirdo — cute or tiny things, things like miniatures or toy-like creations. A miniature, working robot or tiny house with minuscule lights puts me in a dreamy state. Let’s just say this: when I was a child I created a three-inch Christmas tree for the bugs that lived under our porch. I placed it under there one chilly night. Strange, yes, but the truth all the same.

Habbo Hotel is built entirely of these tiny encounters, these little bits of working squares. My character can walk around with a tiny, steaming cup of coffee and can open his little window onto a dark city view at night. It’s brilliant stuff, but it might only make sense to the very young or to those who suffer from my same strange disease.

I love the little notes on the board.

I love the little notes on the board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I suggest you try the game if you enjoy social MMOs, but the truth is that I do very little socializing. I admit to feeling a bit creepy at being a 40-year-old who might accidentally invade a discussion on the latest pop music, so I tend to explore, do quests and work on my own spaces. It’s strangely fun.

See you in there.

Beau

 

 

Is MMO exploration still a thing?

As many of you did, I jumped into the ArchAge beta this weekend with the hopes of exploring a virtual, magical world. As cheesy as that sounds, that is exactly what drew me to MMOs 15 years ago, and it is still what draws me to them now. Of course, the chatter about ArchAge being one massive sandbox didn’t help my expectations! The fact is that many of the people who moan about the lack of “real” sandbox gameplay in MMOs are the same people who rarely explore MMOs that are outside of their comfort zone (like MUDs or browser-based games.)

Once I got in the game, I was impressed with how it looked. It’s a pretty game, although to be honest I have always preferred stylized games (like The Chronicles of Spellborn, Wakfu or WildStar) over realistic looking ones. I am not a fan of the game’s character models, as well, as they just seem to pretty to feel real. Still, the game looks amazing and it only takes a moment to realize how spoiled we are as gamers, especially when it comes to graphics.

I was immediately spammed with quests, quests that were so basic that all I had to do was run to where the arrow pointed, turn the thing in and run to the next arrow. Ugh, I thought, this might be good for a newbie but for a gamer who has been at it for years. The simple quests made me feel more than a bit let down.

So, I did what any other explorer-type might do and ran off into the hills. Sure, I was still hit by certain kinds of content walls (leveled monsters, paths, etc) but overall I was able to get sufficiently lost within no time.

But is this the exploration that I remember? Is running off into the wilderness getting lost or is it just pausing the inevitable need to go back and do old quests or else be stuck with no abilities to move forward?

I think these feelings are due more to my years as a gamer. For me, exploration is no longer that much fun unless I am with other people. These days, people seem to follow the exact same path: grind, level, loot, grind… I have nothing in common with those players anymore, if I ever did. And, frankly, most of the older players who might feel the way I do have found a home game and spend time grinding in that one.

Even saying all that, it’s obvious that ArchAge is a fantastic looking game and promises a ton of adventure. I’ll wait until it comes out and will explore it some more. Perhaps I can really become lost next time?

Beau