Playing by ear: A very non rigorous comparison of Media Players

Audio woes

Some time ago, I decided to make an investment in a reasonably good audio system. I tried to attack the subject as most of us do when we want  to buy a TV or a computer. As we don’t really understand it, we read some pages on the web with comparisons and opinions and follow those. Get in, read something, find the two or three good names and get out fast.

In the case of audio equipment, this technique proved useless. It is impossible to read about audio, the information is built like a black hole. You just dig in deeper, deeper and deeper with no chance of understanding what these crazy “experts” are talking about. It is probably the most esoteric and unapproachable technical subject on the Internet.

These things are scary…

Long story short, I was lucky enough to find a friend who helped me choose and I ended up with a fantastic sounding piece of kit that covered my needs and delivered an audio that I percieved as very good. I now have a good amp, a blue ray/DVD/CD player, a fantastic DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter), a very nice vinyl player and the jewel of the crown, two custom made speakers built for me by a music guru.

Feed the machine

So I was all set, the only thing remaining was to feed this system some audio recordings. But it’s not so easy, because digital audio is a bitch.

A very simplified scheme of a digital audio chain. There is math beyond this drawing, approach carefully.

First of all, you have the file formats. Streaming audio is normally crap, MP3 is also crap in most configurations but if the recording is good enough, the result can sometimes be also “good enough”. As a general rule, if you have good listening equipment, you need to use FLAC or AAC.

Second, good quality will be most noticeable with certain types of music. If your fancy is dubstep and electronica, then don’t bother. Most of dubstep is heavily distorted on purpose so having a discussion about audio quality is pointless. Audio quality is percieved well with jazz and with anything with guitars or drums.

Harlem shakers not caring about digital audio format

And third, a digital audio chain goes through lots and lots of pieces of software, filters, samplers and buffers that do nasty things to it before the pure audio equipment even gets to touch it.

The easiest, cheapest way to improve audio quality in your digital audio reproduction system is very simple and it applies to everyone. Just use good audio playing software! Media player software is not all the same. Many come with presets, others do more stuff to the audio, some use a famously crappy Windows audio engine and others use custom drivers.

And that is what this article is about (finally!). I have tried to decide what free audio/media player software performs best out of the box in a windows environment. And I have done it in a semirigorous way, that is… not rigorously at all.

Testing tastes… or is it tasting tests?

I have installed a list of audio sources and compared audio output using a good pair of good headphones. In order to spread the comparison, I have compared different music pieces with different characteristics to see if differences hold coherent between styles (they actually don’t).

This is exclusively a comparison of analog output. Comparing digital outputs is stupid because if you can get a bitperfect stream, then there will be nothing to compare. Getting bitperfect audio out of a Windows machine is more tricky than you think but I will let you figure that one out on your own.

The headphones are these, with the noise cancelling turned off. Volume is pushed far up and I used a series of three listenings of each song per player while writing down impressions on them. They are very middle of the road, a lot of people have better stuff so they should absolutely be using good software!

These are the programs I have compared, all under Windows 7 64 bits:

- Itunes for applelites and lazy iphone owners. It is beyond me why anyone would use this software now that you can get iOS updates without syncing. The scraper is bad, the interface is bad, it runs into problems when the library is too big and it is messy with folders and files. Also, “Genius” is a joke.

- Foobar2000 for snobbish audiophiles. A horrible interface with almost no options forces you to play music in this just as if you were playing vynil. It has no real library management features, it’s just a loooooonnnngggg playlist. No scraping, album covers or any fancies for this one.

Yes, it’s this ugly

- MediaMonkey is the all in one solution monster app for huge libraries. It plays video, lots of formats, scrapes reasonably well, allows lots of fancy tagging and networking tricks. For example, it includes a DLNA server to stream locally your content to other devices. Fancy and big. There is a deluxe paid for version that does even more fancy stuff with networks, but they both sound the same.

- MediaGo by Sony is a better version of Itunes in that is is simpler, reads FLAC and scrapes albums better. But it is still quite basic an much uglier than other Sony media related interfaces, like the ones found in phones or Playstation products. Clearly the PC version is an afterthought for Sony and yet, it’s still better than iTunes.

- XBMC is a shitty audio scrapper but a fantastic video player. Many media center solutions use either XBMC or it’s cousin, Plex. It is not good for a desktop or keyboard and mouse, but it is fantastic for a HTPC and a remote. If you want to browse through your media library from a couch, there is nothing better than XBMC or Plex. And there is a very strong case for connecting your HTPC and TV to your fancier audio system in order to have good audio when watching films too…

- VLC is the swiss knife of video and audio players, it plays every format in the planet. It is best used when associated with your file format tag, as it loads extremely fast and you are sure it will play whatever you throw at it.

- Google Music Play stores in the cloud 20000 songs for free and streams them to you. I don’t like the interface too much but it’s extremely robust. File upload is very slow but it works reasonably well.

- Spotify (local files) is the world’s biggest streaming solution and the client can play local files as well. The library is quite impressive but I find it very annoying to have to log in and as any modern “ecosystem”, it will shout at the world each and every time you listen to something, look at something and blink at something. Very socially advanced and extremely annoying.

I chose not to include Songbird, Winamp or the Linux bunch like Banshee or Clementine because these ones seemed to me like they covered the most obvious players for every type of person.

The songs I used for comparisons are the following:

- For Live Latin Jazz (MP3 HQ VBR), “Se me olvido que te olvide” – Bebo & el Cigala

- For Live Latin Jazz (FLAC), “Se me olvido que te olvide” – Bebo & el Cigala

- For Guitar rock (MP3 320 kbps), “Lonely Boy” – The Black Keys

- For Indie rock (MP3 320 kbps), “Teenage Icon” – The Vaccines

- For Indie (MP3 320 kbps), “Fake Empire” – The National

- For Classic Drums (MP3 320 kbps), “Young Americans” – David Bowie

- For Funk (FLAC), “The Healer” – Erykah Badu

- For Awesomeness (FLAC), “Crystalline” – Bjork

She f***ing rules

Some surprising results, others not so much

Ok, on to the results! I am not going to put a spreadsheet or graphs as I think that they’d be of very limited value. I am merely going to digest my impressions with some strong ideas.

Formats first, the difference between FLAC and MP3 is clear and noticeable, specially if the MP3 is variable bitrate. A live recording of very smooth jazz is all about lingering vibration in the air as the music blends into silence.You can hear the MP3 going down into white silence and a lot of nuance is lost.

A true audiophile would hear the smoke…

Second, music style, the less noisy and overlapped the music is, the biggest the difference. Hard metal and distorted electronica are harder to separate because many instruments cover each other.

Concerning MP3 playing, there seem to be two big groups of players, those that use their own audio rendering engine and those that use the generic Windows one. I will talk about these ones first.

- In all the cases where the player was using the Windows engine, the result was always worse and very similar between players. Itunes, MediaMonkey, Spotify and MediaGo all seem to use the same algorythms. They all give mushy, faded results. The bass is muffled, sharps are way less clear and the music is not at all vibrant. There was one song that broke this rule in one specific player. “Lonely Boy” played in iTunes is somehow pumped up by the player to extreme levels of trebble and bass. So much so that it gets to levels where the clarity is lost and distorsion appears. So yes, the Black Keys are not mushy when played in Itunes, but the actual audio is not better, just noisier and ugly.

She hates iTunes too…

Of the remaining four players, they are all interesting in their own ways.

- The biggest surprise for me was without a doubt Google Music Play. The audio was sharp, warm and very well tuned. It was absolutely up to par with non streaming solutions. I loved the bass and the sense of space that you could percieve in the jazz recording.

- VLC is fantastic in the MP3, I found it less defined than Foobar2000 or Google Music Play but it boiled down to very tiny and probably subjective differences. I am sure that a different set of MP3 songs would have put VLC up to Foobar or Google’s level. On the other hand, FLAC was rather muffled and it was hard to see a difference between MP3 and FLAC.

- XBMC was also very good with MP3, almost the same as VLC. In the case of FLAC, XBMC went too far into trebble and unbalanced levels.

- Foobar2000 was in my opinion, the overall best audio quality. FLAC and MP3 were both fantastic. It is now my reference player whenever I want to listen to good music with either a good set of speaker or headphones. Pity that the interface is so ugly and simplified.

The good news is that there is a very good way to get good quality of audio for every type of user. If you want to stream your audio, use Google Play. If you want a HTPC style player, use XBMC (or Plex). If you simply want to double click in a MP3 file and listen to it, you can happily live with VLC associated with your MP3 file format tag.

But if you want to listen to digital audio the “audiophile way”, that is sitting down to listen to music, get Foobar2000. It’s awesome.

So there you have it, some advice based on purely subjective evidence… but this time it’s not about a game!

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

The first time I read The Hobbit, I was 11 and I was fascinated by it. The year after that I got my very own copy of The Lord of the Rings. It was Easter so I had a whole week of holidays on the countryside at my grandparent’s. I took the books with me, climbed a big olive tree and read the 3 volumes without stopping. I almost gave up eating or sleeping, I just went through the whole thing without the ability to raise my eyes from the page. After I finished I sat there for some minutes looking into the horizon. Then I took book 1 and started reading again.

XCOM is my Lord of the Rings of gaming. It is the game that made me be the gamer I am, bad at FPSs, horrible at RPGs and uninterested in real time, lootfests, MMOs or sports games. I think it is easy then to understand why for me this is a very difficult review to write. The problem is that no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot get perspective on the subject. I am an XCOM fan and I feel about it in a very emotional way.

I am still going to try. But I warn you, this could get ugly. And long.

A new hope

Let’s get through some basic facts first. For starters, it is important to remind you what we are talking about here. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the 2012 remake by Firaxis of the 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown (or XCOM in the US). Firaxis got the original name rights from a long chain of sales since the demise of Microprose. Some years later, in 2010 they decided to launch a turn based strategy game that would “reboot” the franchise. They intended to also release on the consoles as a turn based game.

Best game ever

All this is well and good and has happened before to other franchises. The problem is that as it happens, UFO: Enemy Unknown is the best game of all time. So Firaxis was saying that they could pull off taking the Mona Lisa, painting over it and making it better.

The lead designer of Firaxis for the XCOM project spent a lot of energy trying to explain to all the old and grumpy XCOM fans (i.e. me) that he too was an old and grumpy XCOM fan. And that he intended to respect and cherish the heritage. There is a very dramatic video where he says he’s going to keep “Everything” from the original XCOM design. But we all know that they always say that and we all know that it’s never true.

Not the best game ever

However, as the marketing campaign for XCOM started releasing information, they showed that at the very least they had put money into the project. XCOM would have nice graphics, good music and decent production values. Someone was betting money on the theory that there was still a good game in the old design and furthermore, a game that could sell. That was a relief and made me hope for something realtimeish with maybe one or two of the old aliens. But then they said it’d be turn based. And with two layers. And it’d have a story. And I grew… curious.

I followed the news until I saw the first gameplay video. What I saw made me a believer. They really had done a 3d environment with a turn based squad tactics game. That was all I needed, so I closed the video, preordered the game and went into information blackout mode. I did not want to know anything more. XCOM has to be played in the dark, at least the first time. This was roughly 3 months ago, when I let myself start hoping.

Hopes versus reality

So how did I feel when I finally unlocked the predownloaded version of 2012 XCOM? It reminded me the feelings that I had when I was waiting in line to enter the cinema for the first Lord of the Rings movie: Total fear and terror. They were going to ruin it, I was totally sure. They were going to take my childhood memory and make a farce out of it. It’d be like the Phantom Menace or maybe even worse. I just did not see how they could do justice to the game.

After 22 hours of gameplay I can stop to write this review and say that I really like the new XCOM. It manages to pull off an incredible feat. It takes most of the good stuff from XCOM and it makes it cool, really cool. So cool in fact that I think in some small parts, this game is (gasp!) even better than the original.

XCOM (old and new) is a two layer game. On one side we have the strategic level. In this area we fight a real timeish strategy war against the alien invasion of the Earth. Your task is to develop an organization that is capable of protecting the countries in the XCOM organization. As the aliens attack using UFOs, this implies detecting the UFOs, shooting them down and hunting down the aliens whenever they touch the ground. When aliens land, they have a tendency to terrorize, abduct and destroy anything they find, so your war is not going to be fought just on the air but also on the battlefield.

XCOM cleverly hides it's main base under a kid's ant farm. They'll never find us there...

There is a very irrelevant mini game related to the air battles that is a direct carbon copy of the original. However, the real meat of the game is the land battles. This is the second side of XCOM and the main area of focus of the whole game. It is a turn based squad level combat game with 3D destructible environment.

Here comes the micromanager

The real genius of XCOM’s design is how tightly the tactical game is tied to the strategic. Because what you do in one game impacts on the other, you will start taking decisions according not only to the constraints of the situation you have in front of you, but also thinking about the other side of the game. For example, you will choose to risk stunning an alien instead of killing him during a tactical battle because it’ll help your strategic effort. Or you’ll prioritize development of a weapon that will help you on the field while you delay other strategic moves. There are many examples of these systems working in the XCOM design, but suffice it to say that they make the overall game much more tense and interesting.

In the original XCOM, this strong links came at the cost of micromanagement. You had to manage inventories of ammo, grenades, many types of weapons, arm every squaddie for every battle, manually pick up items from the field if you wanted them back… lots and lots of micromanaging.

The original tactical combat also did fall into bean counting sometimes. It was a time units based system with unit facing. It allowed lots of flexibility but it required a lot of numbers in your head.

While preparing the new game, Firaxis identified micromanaging as their enemy.

As a consequence, the new game has as little micromanaging as possible. And incredibly enough, it works. Research is straight forward. Manufacture is straight forward. There is no ammo in the game. You have an infinite number of basic weapons and ammo. The black market does not allow you to sell the stuff you build, so it is much simpler (and harder). When you fight, you instantly pick up all the stuff. The base inventory is straightforward and equipping your soldiers works most of the time.

Dumb and Dumber?

Hmmmm…. ok I know that so far it sounds like they are dumbing down a deep game for the console crowd. Well, yes and no. At it’s core, the strategic game is very similar to the old one. You have more limitations and more needs that you need to fulfill. It follows the overarching story arc’s script the same way as the old one but I’d say it is a little more difficult. I miss the geoscape’s total control of the first game, the multiple bases, the radar coverage woes and the night/day cycle impact on the battles. But on the other hand, the strategic game is now faster and more difficult. The big “money cheat” of the old game, the black market sales of manufactured weaponry is sadly now gone. So you’ll be in money trouble all the time. Overall, I’d say that the strategic level of the game is a resounding success.

The big shocker reveal is that 2012 XCOM’s tactical combat game is completely different from the old one. And it’s a shocker because Firaxis has tried to convince us of the contrary.

The combat turn is composed now of two actions. You can move twice, move and overwatch, move and shoot… it is easy to understand. The map has a grid overlay that did not exist in the old game and that shows you visually where the unit can go if it still wants to shoot or overwatch. It is pretty simple and makes the game much faster.

Pro tip: gasoline explodes

The new XCOM has discarded unit facing and that helps greatly with unit movement. The problem is that this has a big impact in flanking, the way fog of war works and has made stealthy tactics impossible. Additionally this time the aliens do not have a bigger range of vision than you. When you see them, they see you. That means that there are no more of the famous XCOM “shots from the fog that kill your commander without anything you can do about it”. In the old XCOM you could do many things apart from shooting. You could flank, you could use diversion tactics, noise was important and so was the day night cycle and it’s impact on visibility. You used to carry loads of flares to throw into the dark areas and then had to go pick them up from the ground and throw them again into the dark further ahead. All that is now gone. When you see them, they see you, they position themselves and off you go shooting and doing tactics under fire.

The flight of the bullet

Although I can nitpick about other some aspects of the new game’s tactical combat, there is only one thing that really nags me: The new game has no ballistics.

Let me explain: In old XCOM, a shot was traced from the muzzle of the gun until it touched its target. That meant that if you had some dispersion in your shot, the bullet might hit something before reaching it’s target. This had interesting consequences. For example, shooting at an alien standing behind your squad mate was very, very risky. Now it is no longer the case, the shot teleports into the square of the target and it may or may not hit, but it does not follow a realistic trajectory. As a side consequence, reconnaissance by fire is no longer possible, so you can no longer shoot at a wall to uncover the alien behind. Well, you actually can but only using the rocket launcher. Yet another nice tactic that is now gone.

See? No ballistics! See?

Why is this alien so angry?

So is the tactical game easier? Absolutely no. It is very hard, but more limited.

So how come that a game that has less tactical options than the original is so hard? If there are less possible strategies to choose from, then it’d seem easier to choose. Well, no. XCOM 2012 is hard as balls because 2012’s XCOM aliens are the stuff of nightmares.

The new game has taken all the original set of nice aliens for us to enjoy: The Sectoids and Ethereals that mind control your soldiers making them turn round and shoot their comrades, the Mutons that shoot perfect shots and have twice the hitpoints than you or the Cyberdisk that is basically a combat helicopter. They have also added some new ones like the Berserker and the one that I won’t talk about but that you’ll get to enjoy when you find the purple UFO (You are going to LOVE the purple UFO).

The bloom of the Chrysallid

And, most importantly, they have kept everybody’s favourite, the Chrysallid.

This beautiful piece of walking hell has a very funny power. When in melee range it grabs the soldier or civilian next to it and not only kills it in one attack, but it makes a zombie out of the victim’s body. Fail to kill that zombie on time and out of it a new freshly spawned Chrysallid appears. Now, think of the economics of one Chrysallid between 18 civilians on the other side of the map.

Chrysallid snacks come conveniently packaged

To make things funnier, this baby runs like a maniac (roughly double than you), it has more hit points than in the old game and the final, delicious touch: in 2012 XCOM Chrysallids appear in groups of 3.

I had a classic XCOM moment with my squad while I was assaulting an alien base. In the biggest room in the base I had a big firefight with three well protected Mutons. After killing two of them, the third retreated into the shadows. I advanced my men carefully, leaving time for the overwatch.

The perils of being point man

Lieutenant Pieman, my lead assault trooper, moved to crouch behind a pillar barely 3 squares ahead of his previous position. That is when he revealed 3 Chrysallids. They turned towards him and charged blindly towards him. The first one fell after taking fire from Pieman and from Dusk’s sniper laser rifle. The second one got nearer but fell under Sass’s and Tokette’s fire. The third one advanced, Tokey took a shot but failed and the thing ran next to Pie, lifted him up and cut him into pieces. It then segregated eggs that placed inside the body of Pie and let them grow there. And then it was the end of the Alien’s turn. Tokey (in a surprisingly realistic turn of events) panicked and started crying for his mom. Then he turned around and shot Tokette who went down cursing in Afrikaans (the late Tokette was Southafrican).

So there I was, with a full turn ahead of me, one woman down, other turned into a zombie and a third a useless pile of cowardice. And a Chrysallid. And in a few turns, another one.

Ok, let’s do this in style: Dusk cooly raised his awesome sniper rifle and in a single shot to the head killed the Chrysallid. Dimmy (who had been reloading in the previous turn) shot the zombie and put it’s hit points down to something manageable. It was all up to Sass, so pice of cake.

I have to stop and explain that Sass is a badass assault trooper with more than 37 kills under his belt. He is also responsible for all the risky stunts like running next to an alien to stun him or crossing under fire an open space to give first aid to a fallen soldier. Yes, in XCOM Sass kicks ass.

So Sass looked at his chances of getting a distance shot and he did not like them. So he simply run next to the wounded zombie of Pie, stopped right in front of it and shot it in the head. Yay, go XCOM!

In the next turn, I remade my formation, rewarded Tokey’s performance by giving him the point and advanced carefully.

3 squares further ahead, the fog of war revealed 3 Chrysallids more.

What flavour is your terror?

So yes, XCOM 2012’s combat tactics are simpler. But seeing these monsters charge down a corridor towards you and knowing that you might kill the first one with all your reaction shots but that behind there are TWO MORE is… pure XCOM terror.

They are angry for some reason.

When you get down to it, XCOM’s old combat was gripping not because of tactical depth (although it had it) but because of the permanent threat of a total party kill. It could happen in any moment and it made you count every single time unit. XCOM 2012 is an amazing game because it understands this perfectly well and puts you in exactly the same situation. There are special missions along the scripted parts of the campaign where you will simply hit a wall of resistance so strong that either you are incredibly lucky or you’ll have to retreat, regroup and probably still lose everyone. And that is awesome.

The veredict: 5 apples out of 10 grapes

The overall package comes out really well. The game is beautiful, fast, very spectacular, it has lots of tension and a lot of strategy in it. It is a properly long game with very uphill difficulty curves and a merciless Ironman mode that has forced me to restart 4 times the whole game.

Should you buy this game? Well… after all it is the second best of all time, so I’d say that the answer is yes.

XCOM 2012 is an awesome game, a triumph of style and focused game design. It has strong decisions in it’s design that may not have been mine, but they are not bad decisions. It is a different game but it still manages to capture the atmosphere, the tension and the beautiful sense of consequence of the old game. I think that after 18 years of wait it is much more that we could ask for.

Oh, and yes, I did really like the Lord of Rings movies, even if the books are still better.

DayZ Review: The triumph of the zombie

Ok, first of all, please take into account that this is just a hasty review on an alpha of a mod.

I am going to write it after only 18 hours of gameplay and beleive me, that is nowhere near enough. I have decided to write this down because this mod is currently overshadowing the almighty Diablo 3 in the PC gaming space.  It is a huge sensation and a lot of people are asking themselves whether they should invest in ARMA2:CO or not just to play an unfinished mod.

ARMA2: Shooting at tiny, tiny pixels

ARMA 2 is a relatively unknown game, specially if you compare it to other big modern military FPS. It is a hardcore simulation tool, with heavy emphasis on infantry combat. As most east european simulatons do, it is basically a level designing tool where the programmers give you a very deep physics engine, a very well designed map and lots and lots of cool toys to play with. In this case you can use tanks, helicopters and all sorts of infantry to create any and all types of combat situations.

Once you get in the game it becomes the slowest, most open first person shooter you’ll ever play but also the most complete. It uses advanced damage models and ballistics, a very interesting voice comms engine and it can be used to play massive multiplayer battles. You can hop on any vehicle, go anywhere and do anything you want. It is absolutely fascinating.

As most east european games, the menus are really old fashioned but functional and the interface is counterintuitive and complicated. ARMA2 is also hugely resource demanding and quite buggy. But, also as many good east european games, ARMA2 looks fantastic. It is more ambitious than any other FPS, feels incredibly realistic and once you get into it, is a wonderful story making tool. I really like ARMA2.

However, ARMA 2 has a flaw that has kept me from playing it more: the theme is really dry. The more realistic it gets, the more obvious it is that real modern military is really boring subject matter. Even when you play it in ideal conditions, there is nothing interesting happening in this game. Modern real soldiers act more like doctors than like heroes. Also, because it is realistic, the distance of the engagements is such that you’ll basically shoot at single pixels and announce their deaths with no hint of emotion. Cold and calculating with no hint of emotion, ARMA2 is a game in desperate need of epicness.

DayZ, an alpha of a mod for a buggy game

Of course, over the last years, ARMA2 has developed your typical small core of rabid hardcore fans, who mod for it, play it in huge 200 multiplayer battles and generally bother no one while they have fun testing 40 different models of fragmentation grenades.

However, it is out of this slow trickle of mods and this small community that came DayZ. A New Zealand programmer from the company that designed ARMA2 (Bohemia Interactive) used his holidays to program the mod. He did it with a clear goal: player freedom to create stories and take decisions. He told no one about his project and when he thought it was more or less ready for a little bit of stress testing, he asked some friends to hop in on the server to see how it would handle the load. He had a single server for 50 people. That was 2 weeks ago. As of today, there are 74000 unique players, ARMA2: CO has become the number one bestseller on Steam and this guy keeps adding servers trying to catch up with demand. And it is not working, demand has not reached it’s peak yet.


Simple, DayZ takes the huge accomplishment that is ARMA2 and makes a game out of it. It is a hard, brutally difficult, slow paced realistic game, but it is a game.

The setting is classic, there has been a zombie apocalypse and you are a survivor. You are stranded on the beach somewhere with some basic equipment, but you’ll need to scavenge heavily to survive. You’ll need an steady income of food and water, you’ll probably need new medical supplies and even if you do not want to, you are going to need more bullets.

The area where you’ll survive is called Chernarus and it has everything in it: Cities, villages, forests, castles, hospitals, airfields and lots, lots and more lots of infinitely respawning zombies. Oh and 50 other players, I somehow forgot about that.

In order to get supplies, you need to explore abandoned structures, where you’ll find that random loot keeps respawning. This seems trivial, except that zombies spawn from those same structures. In other words, if you stay in the forest you’ll starve. And if you go in the cities, you’ll die horribly.

If it sounds easy, believe me, it is not. Zombies run, see and hear. They hurt a lot and will mob on you at the sound of your (very few and very precious) bullets. They zigzag and will pursue you relentlessly for hours until they get you somehow. Getting into a town is a nerve wrecking stealth game, where patience is key. It is extremely difficult to avoid those zombies and still keep on getting enough supplies in order to survive. But it gets worse, much, much worse.

There are survivors that have guns with sniper rifles. And even worse, they have friends with more sniper rifles.

Bandits (survivors who have killed other survivors) tend to populate the hills around the biggest coastal cities, where poor survivors enter at their own risk in order to get some food. When they manage to get out with some supplies, they are actively hunted by those bandits who have spent their time getting better weapons and are ready to use them. Sometimes they’ll even act as survivors to lure the trusting loner into a deserted area where they can shoot and kill the survivor without alerting the zombies around them.

If you add all these factors, you understand why as of this writing, average life expectancy in DayZ is 28 minutes. It had gone up to over an hour, but the programmer updated the mod and more than doubled the number of zombies in the game.

Good people is being killed, robbed and betrayed all over Chernarus, all for a can of beans.

Sandbox simulators as storymaking tools

So there you have it, a huge chunk of beautiful terrain, lots of zombies, some ammo and bean cans and nothing else. This game has literally nothing else.

And yet, I would argue that that is plenty and more than enough for a game. It allows you to decide and out of those decisions, create your story.

The first meaningful decision is whether or not you are going to play as a killer. If you do, you’ll become a bandit. Your skin will change to reflect that and your humanity score will go down. Everybody will see you and know that you are a killer so it’ll be difficult to trick other into trusting you, whether or not they themselves are bandits. However, it can be done.

Death of a bandit by a well equipped survivor

If you do want to become a bandit, then you can simply start hunting players and taking their stuff. You’ll die often but your career path is simple.

If you do not want to become a bandit and will only kill in self defense, the question is simple: How are you going to survive? What will you eat? Will you stay near the coast, where there are more supplies but more bandits and zombies? Or will you go inland to the small villages where it is hard to scrape by but there are less enemies?

This game is about deciding about all the details that can make you succesful and failing catastrophically or succeeding epically. If you want to compare it to anything, you can compare it to Dwarf Fortress, EVE and the upcoming Project Zomboid. Losing is fun because it will end the unique story that you have created. These games are all about consequences and about enjoying the dilemmas you face. DayZ adopts this design philosophy to the extreme.

The triumph of the zombie

DayZ would simply make no sense without the zombies. They are the great equalizer,  their presence means that no one can stay put and build a strong defense. Everybody has to be on the move constantly as there is no way that you can hold a building against the zombies. No matter how good your equipment is, you never can forget the zombies in this game. They will kill even very strong players if they stop being careful. In my case, I have fallen prey to the zombies specially when I was very well armed, because I got reckless and paid for it. I will tell a typical DayZ story that happened to me yesterday.

I joined a server where it was nighttime and decided to cross the whole map in order to get to a famous weapons depot. It would not be easy, there were many dangerous zones in the way and the zombies could jump you at any time if you approached a village carelessly. I narrowly escaped many times the wandering zombies, but I was actually more worried about bandits. This particular weapons depot is famous all over Chernarus, there are many bandits who choose to stay around it and get easy prey. So I approached the zone really carefully and in the middle of the dark. If they found me, they’d probably shoot me on sight.

Sure enough, I saw a team of survivors get out of the depot, just as I was approaching a hole in the fence to enter from the back. They were using good infantry tactics and would have killed me easily, but they passed at less than 15 metres from me and I moved inside undetected. It had taken me around 3 hours of gameplay to get to this point, navigating in the dark and avoiding enemies.

I entered the depot and quickly found my price: a bolt action Remington shotgun with a flashlight attached. It is an awesome weapon for this game and pretty rare. The flashlight is a very welcome bonus as flares and glowsticks are completely useless. In the depot I got loads of good gear, like ammo, a bigger backpack, smoke grenades… I was loaded.

My mission had been a resounding success, I just needed to get back to my meeting point with Tokey and we’d go on looking for a weapon for him. In one hour, I’d be there.

And then it happened. Just as I was crawling in the dark to get from the weapons depot and into the line of trees, out of nowhere a zombie stepped on me. Zombies usually will not see you in the dark if you crawl and don’t make noise. I have had zombies pass at less than a meter from me, no problem.

However, this one stepped on me.

I rose up to run away and ten meters later, it was not one zombie but five, I was bleeding  profusely and it was then when I realised that I had no ammo for my shotgun, I had put it in the backpack instead of in the gun. I tried to change weapons to get my pistol, but that slowed me down and I fell under the hits of five angry zombies, not 50 meters away from the weapons depot.

I died horribly, shouting curses in the night and respawned on the beach, very far away. Probably my body was looted by another survivor.

I loved it.


I think this is a very difficult game to reccomend, simply because I do not know if you are going to see cool stuff or not. It impossible to predict. For example, I once watched from within the trees as a survivor lit some flares in the ruins of a medieval castle and tried to kill off the zombies within it. The flare projected against the wall of the catle the shadow of the survivor falling under the zombies, it was really atmospheric and cinematic. And it also was unscripted, it happened like that because that guy had decided to go there and I had decided to be there and to not help him.

Those moments are awesome and more powerful than any other game I can think off right now. No one strives to create those stories in a package that is so elegant as DayZ. It is a FPS with very, very complex technology and very deep decision making. But mechanically, it is simple to understand how it works and it has a ton of atmosphere. It is amazingly well designed to et out of the way, to just let you take pure decisions and cope with the consequences.

I think any gamer would enjoy that part of the game, but I think there needs to be a big warning. This game is very, very rough. It is an alpha. It is still going to change a lot and maybe it’ll never be finished or polished. Right now, it is difficult to install, difficult to update, difficult to join a server and even more difficult to find a daylight server. There are 70000 people trying to play a game that should be testing with 50. If we are lucky and Bohemia Interactive are clever, they’ll give this guy resources to prepare a serious DayZ module for the upcoming ARMA3. Then we’ll be cooking with gas.

I realise that I have been frustrated with DayZ’s lack of polish and I feel that some gamers will feel even more frustrated than me. Personally I think that the game is way worth the price of ARMA2:CO, but be prepared to be patient. You can lose your equipment to bugs, be reset in a server crash… many bad things can happen, but that is also part of the fascination and remember that we are talking about a free mod.

All in all, I think DayZ is the best PC game this year and much better than anything I can think of from last year (yes, including Portal 2, Saints Row 3 AND Crusader Kings). I absolutely reccomend it to you. If you are ready to cope, that is. Cope with the bugs, cope with the servers, cope with zombies and most of all, cope with bandits. Be ready to suffer, as this game is about overcoming the huge odds against you. If you do, the moments you live will be yours and only yours. Nobody will discuss with you what did you do with the prisioners in the airport, it’ll be just you there and nobody else will ever be in that same situation, ever.

If you are ready to cope, I will tell you only one more thing. As of rigth now, only 64000 of the 74000 players are alive. The other 10000 are victims to the bandits or to the zombies. It is unfair and I want to do as much as I can to stop it. I am slowly trying to build a YWBL4DA police force that will protect the innocent in the sandy beaches of Chernarus and I am looking for volunteers. It’ll take a load of time and effort, we’ll have to be ready to store extra weapons and ammo, find the right tools for the job, find out how to avoid losing our own men and try to find ways to help survivors.

So what do you say? Can you cope?

Crusader Kings 2: Finally, a step forward

Founding fathers

4x strategy (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) has a problem. None of the games seem to be able to tackle a basic design flaw that was already present in the original Civilization, the “snowball effect”.

In a normal 4x game you start in a weak position. Your first objective is to conquer any of your neighbours in order to become bigger and more badass. If the game is good, these are always scary times, you are small and a mistake will cost you dearly. Good strategies, bold moves and some luck is required. Fun!

However, as games are made to be won, you will inevitably expand and after roughly 3-5 hours you’ll have won some territories. You’ll have more money, more armies and basically be more robust. You’ll be for example 5 territories or cities strong and your 4 neighbours are size 3.

And here comes the problem: after 3-5 hours, you have already won the game. You have become too big to be stopped. You’ll be able to cope with those size 3 neighbours, double your size again and then be 10 territories strong with maybe one or two mighty empires of 15 ahead of you. You turn your back to them and easily wipe the other (by now) small size 3-7 guys. By the time you attack a big empire, you are twice as big as them and technology or geography do not matter, you are too big for them.  Since  the moment you overcame those one or two first neighbours and grew to size 3, the rest of the 30-100 hours ahead of you is just wiping out enemies weaker than you.  Your victory is inevitable,  congratulations, you have snowballed the game.

Should you feel proud of your strategy skill? Hardly, these games are all about growth and they include no mechanism to slow it or even reverse it, so you very rarely lose territories, face an alliance of AI neighbours or have to stop an invasion of green slimy hordes of flying worms. The last phases of any Civ-like game have always been brain dead boring, as you still have to push through yet another 100 turns in order to end the game.  You may have fun watching a battle between the AI’s last 2000 soldiers and your 16000, but the depressing thing is that you do not even have to properly move them. They’ll win the battle by default as they are 8 to 1. In fact you are more sympathetic to the enemy’s armies, as they heroically let themselves be decimated in one last stand.

I have played this arc over and over, complained about it and wondered if there was a way to elegantly reinvent 4x gaming. The key word here is “elegantly”. There have been many proposals to solve this, but they all failed. Many use special victory conditions, like Shogun 2 or Colonization, some use scripted events, like Rome:TW and others simply make the game impossibly complex so that you cannot play it well, like Victoria 2.

Enter the King

Here comes CK2, yet another 4x strategy game from Paradox. They are famously regarded as the designers of the most obscure and overly complex games in the current mainstream. Games like Victoria or even worse, Victoria 2, are simply layers and layers of monstrously detailed economic information that simply cannot be coped with and today, any Paradox game is to be approached with caution.

CK2′s marketing caught my attention more than a year ago because they seemed to be fed up with the snowball effect and they promised to have found the much coveted elegant solution. Instead of playing as a country, civilization or leader, you’d play as a dynasty.

It seems trivial but it is not because it allows for the designers to introduce multiple mechanisms that will slow down and even reverse your growth curve. It is fascinating to look at CK2′s design in this way, because it all fits.

In CK2 you start a as nobleman holding one or many titles to his name. You get to choose from any of the many counts, barons, dukes or kings in 1066 Europe. Each of these characters has a set of skills and controls a bigger or smaller piece of land. You will control him/her until he dies, when you will pass to control his/her heir. And so on and so forth until the game ends. There are three ending conditions, you lose when you lose all your titles and thus do not control any more territories, you lose if your last dynasty member dies without a heir and otherwise, the game ends in 1450 when you count your score. Your score is formed by the prestige points accumulated by all the members of your dynasty. So again, simple enough.

Each starting position is completely different. You might start in the middle of Christian Europe and be a small count who is vassal to a duke who in turn is vassal to a king or emperor or you might be surrounded by territories full of infidels or you could be neighbour to the most annoying piece of AI ever created, the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In any of these situations, your first order of business is to understand what is around you, but most importantly WHO is around you. Who is allied with who, who is father to who, who is going to inherit what, who likes you and who does not.

That is because the whole game is about people. As an example, I will describe the starting position of a single character, the extremely humble Count of Hainaut. This is when things get interesting.

The name is Flanders, Ned Flanders

This guy is 22 years old and unmarried so of course, no children. He controls a single territory in what is now the belgian/french frontier but he belongs to the Holy Roman Empire, the sum of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, half of Italy and much more. He is vassal to a Duke in today’s Dusseldorf that hates your guts because you are dutch and he, as the rest of the empire, are german. To the north of you lives your small brother who controls what is today’s Holland. All this is very nice and dandy, but as it turns out, you have a border to your west with none other than the huge kingdom of France. And in the kingdom of France, controlling what is today’s Dunkirk and Oostende, is the Duchy of Flanders with 5 territories. And the Duke of Flanders happens to be your father.

Hmmm, that means that when your father dies, his titles will pass on to the dynasty, meaning you (yay!). But as he has a Gravelkind succession system, the titles will split between the direct heirs (booo!).

When your father dies, you’ll become a french duke, the french king will hate your guts because you are dutch and not french and Hainaut will pass to be french (but only until you die, your heir will not retain Hainaut and it will go back to the Emperor). As a side note, of the 4 titles your father has, three will go to you and one will go to your ugly, stupid little maggot of a brother, who is sitting on his Holland county grinning because he’s going to take what is rightfully yours without doing anything.

Embrace the dark side, young padawan!

With this starting position, you have many different strategies. The most obvious one is to kill your father, thus speeding up the process of your inheritance. The second obvious one is to kill your brother. This would allow you to inherit the full Duchy of Flanders. However, the same is true for him. If he kills you somehow, he gets it all.

So you need to decide if you are going to actively try to kill your brother or not. If no, then you can protect yourself from any plots by ordering your spymaster to uncover plots in your county, that will make it hard for him to kill you. If you do decide that you want to rid the world of such vermin, you’ll  need  a lot of money and to do it fast before he is able to have a son/daughter. Maybe it’ll be easier to kill his wife instead of him?

You get the idea of how far this kind of reasoning can go, but the elegance of CK2′s design is that it affects your approach to the whole strategy and not only the diplomacy. For example, any kind of long term investment in Hainaut will be lost in around 40 years time when you die, so maybe it is not the thing to get into right now. Also, any advances in the relationships with your german neighbours are completely useless as you are to become french soon. You need to marry if possible with a girl from a good french family that will give you a solid alliance when you become Duke. You also need to start thinking about getting clever courtiers to help you in the council and be good teachers for your future sons. Those sons will be the ones you control when your guy dies, so you need a woman that can give you those kids. So not too young or too old then. Say, a 18 year old daughter of a count, or ideally a Duke, from France.

Magic glue.

This is more or less an example of what you are looking at when you start the game as the Count of Hainaut. And this guy is a random choice, every count/duke/king has his/her own story to develop that can be as interesting or more that the story of the Duchy of Flanders. The starting positions are complex and interesting because everything is interwoven in cool and deep ways.

So once you have taken a look around you and taken the first basic decisions, you can unpause the game, and immediately, your story starts to become unique. All your plans will be altered by marriages, unexpected deaths, the Pope, the Emperor, the King,  Holy war, lots of betrayals and many events that alter your course through this mess that is feudal Europe. You have chances of having gay sons, becoming converted to the Orthodox faith, being called on a Crusade, your mother killing your father only so that you inherit and one month later your wife kills you so that it is your son who inherits immediately…

It sounds chaotic and hilarious, but in fact it is simply brilliant: what you are seeing at work is the answer to the snowball problem. The brilliance of this game is using nobility titles to tie the grand strategy of a classic 4x game to the scale of a single person.

CK2 is a classic design that merges two types of gameplay, much in the tradition of XCOM or Rome:TW. In this case, instead of merging a grand strategy game with a tactical combat game, Paradox has merged the Sims with Civilization. And Nobility titles are the magic glue that tie both together.

Once you have the idea of the titles in your design, it is easy to introduce many different brakes to the growth curve that are fun and coherent. They can be events that happen to your characters (the Sims game), like for example if your guy decides that he can afford to take liberties with the wife of your financial advisor, she gets pregnant, the husband gets angry because even though he’s gay, he’s also proud. So he kills your character, forcing you all of a sudden to go on playing as the brother that you were planning to kill five minutes before. And of course, what seems as a nice relaxing evening with this nice lady ends up delaying your dynasty’s expansion plans for more than 20 years. The system prevented you from growing and instead of getting frustrated, you’ll be telling the story to your friends.

Or these events could be things that happen to your country instead (the Civ game), like your king getting into a war that he cannot win and you seeing that not only your king is getting resources from your territories to fight this lost hopeless war, but that you are going to lose everything. Unless you declare independence, of course. If you time it right, it might actually work in your favour, so what you could do is raise your army so that the king does not have the chance to get your men for his army, thus increasing his chances of losing…

The magic glue works, it all fits nicely.

Complexity version 2.0

Paradox games are complex and so is CK2, but the good news is that it is complex in the right places. For starters, technology, military and finance have been extremely simplified if you compare it to Europa Universalis or Victoria.

The interface is a scary beast at first, but it has a very simple rule that will make it very easy to use effectively: letting the mouse cursor hover over any piece of information will give you much more information. Also, although there are many menus and screens in reality the whole game is played by dealing with people, so you only need to really understand one screen in the game: the screen that describes each character. From there, you’ll do everything important in the game.

CK2 is a complex game with a complex interface and a lot of information to deal with but it is a kind simplified complexity, where you can move through lots and lots of menus in an intuitive way. The only game that I can possibly compare to CK2 is Football Manager and CK2′s interface is way easier and more intuitive than FM.

The other stuff.

Paradox has spent money in CK2 and it shows, but they are still Paradox. They have never been amazing at graphics and CK2 is no different. In comparison, Shogun’s 3D map is much more attractive and beautiful and is also faster than CK2′s. I’d say that for a strategy game, CK2′s maps and graphics are adequate.

The music is nothing to write home about, it is also adequate and there is enough of it that you will not get tired of it too fast. however, this is a game where you’ll spend many, many hours playing, so rest assured you’ll end turning it off.

The biggest complain I have with the game is the multiplayer. Labchimp and me have been unable to setup a game and I can assure you that the process is as obscure as it can be. We have not given up yet, but it has been frustrating and bad.

A minor gripe that I have is the launch process: the game seems to perform a first time install every time I launch it, then goes into a completely useless splash screen with only a single button that you have to press and then finally starts the incredibly long loading time typical of Paradox games.

And the last complaint I have is about the difficulty level, the game plays fairly ok in normal but when you want to increase it the two higher levels are simply AI cheats with military and economic bonuses. It is really a pity, because the standard AI is pretty good in all that involves diplomacy but it is very bad in military matters.

Get to the point!

It has been a long review, I know. And the point is this: CK2 is very, very good. And it is an important game because it moves the genre forward. It is able to brake the growth curve of 4x games in an elegant and enriching way that makes the game better. Previous attempts to do the same were frustrating and painful, specially in Victoria’s case where it was just so complex that you HAD to play badly. In CK2, not growing and thus losing is actually a lot of fun.

If you like 4x strategy, you simply cannot not play this game, it is up there with the best of the best.

YBL4DA Game of the Year Ceremony

Ok, the voting period is over and it is time to award the awards. It has been very interesting because some categories have has as many entries as voters, meaning two things, first that luckily there are many, many good games to be played and second that you are all wrong.

So on the results!

YWBL4DA Best Single Player Game Award

No game got voted more than once, so no game gets the award.

YWBL4DA Best MMO/F2P Game Award

And the winner is… World of Tanks!

It is truly a very fun game, the upgrade structure is very grindy but the fact that you can swap from battle to battle makes it very fast. The levels are nice and despite some graphics problems it looks very good. For me, the game has two flaws, the first is that the game becomes much slower in the high levels when you get to use tier 3 , 4 and 5 tanks, and the second is that in order to make a team and play together for a 24 hour period, you have to pay. Even that would be acceptable if group size was not limited to 3 players.

Still, for a game that is free, you get a lot. And it deserves our award!

YWBL4DA Best Indie Game Award

And the winner is… Sanctum!

Sanctum is weird. It’s graphics are weird, the guns are weird and the monsters are VERY weird. But it is the first game to make a successful combination with three very different elements: Tower defence, first person shooter and coop. All of these elements could work better, but the game is very enjoyable and when the onslaught comes and the system fails, it is epically fun. Also, the text to speech function is awesome.

YWBL4DA Best Coop Player Game Award

This is an important category, given that our group is mainly coop oriented. It was a close race between Dungeon Defenders and the winner, but at the end, a single vote gave the victory to… Portal 2!

What can I say about Portal 2? It is coop, but completely different coop from other games. It is puzzle solving coop. The two players not only collaborate in the actual actions that it takes to solve the puzzle, they also push their brains together in order to find the solution. Those moments when you think you have found a solution and want to explain it to the other guy, but it seems so crazy that you can not even put it in words are beyond what any other game has done before. I played Portal 2 coop with Labchimp and Johnny and both times we laughed so much that at the end I was crying and with a sore throat. The voice of GladOS, the very last puzzle once you are in front of the vault, the personality traits of both robots… a delight.

YWBL4DA Best Surprise Award

This one goes narrowly to… Bastion!

I cannot say much about this game, as I have not played it. It has had very good press and it seems that the voiceover is pretty unique. I need to get into it.

YWBL4DA Biggest Disappointment Award

Of course, YWBL4DA’s biggest disappointment this year was Battlefield 3.

This one was pretty much evident. We were all waiting for this game and unfortunately, politics got in its way. It is a disappointment because expectations were so high that factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the game itself have made it very divisive. A pity, because I am firmly convinced that the game is awesome.

YWBL4DA 2011 Game of the Year Award

Well, this one was hard to choose. There was a tie in votes between two very strong contenders, Portal 2 and Skyrim. They are both very different, excellent games. One of them is big, full of content and detail. The other is a miniature, a smaller detailed experience. One of them is an open world where you can do anything, the other is crafted to make you live very strong scripted moments. Both are awesome and very successful. It was a very difficult choice and it took me a while, but I did choose.

YWBL4DA 2012 Game of the Year, with a grand total of 0 votes is Saints Row the Third!

I know, nobody voted for it, not even me. And I don’t care, Saints Row the Third is the best game of the year.

You jump off a flying VTOL, parachute to the ground, land on a car, take out your giant pink dildo and use it to hit on a tank until it explodes, then you request a cluster bomb airstrike on a bunch of wrestlers.  What other game can beat that? The story is bonkers, makes no sense and yet when the end comes, it does make kinda sense. Every cutscene and mission will make you laugh out loud. I will not spoil anything but believe me, it is awesome fun. It is funny, yes. Really funny.

The graphics are very good, the weapons are awesome, the voice acting is incredibly good… It laughs at other games, it laughs at you, it laughs at itself.

It is the best game of the year and fuck democracy.

Games of 2012

Well, now that the the Steam sale is finally over, we can declare 2011 completely gone. I think it is a perfect moment to list the games I am most looking up to in 2012.

First of all, I have to say that I do not expect a lot of big titles in 2012. Many developers have put their best stuff on hold waiting for the new console cycle, so I expect this year to be an indie year. And yet, in spite of that, I am going to start the list with a non Indie title.

Stars Wars Kinect

This is probably the most important game of the year, at least concerning it’s impact on our community. The reason is obvious, our very own Dimmy is part of the hard working team and we all really, really want his game to do awesome so that his studio can thrive and make another game, although maybe this time Dimmy could convince then to do  something we can play on a PC…


This game has it all, it is indie, it is coop, it is class based and it is original. The idea is to plan a heist using the skills of 4 different types of thieves, each one controlled by a player. It uses top down perspective. It could be a real hit for us if the levels are well designed.

Project Zomboid

This one is really ambitious. It is a “realistic” zombie apocalypse simultaion. It is real time, multiplayer and very, very indie. I have played the demo and alpha versions and I have to say it is very good, but very hard. Think of it as the Dwarf fortress of zombie games, but multiplayer.

Dead State

Another zombie game, this one looks to be more focused on base management, interaction with characters in RPG style and specially, turn based combat. I do not think it will be multiplayer and I do not think it will be for everyone, but it certainly is in my top list.

World of Warplanes

This is going to be like World of Tanks but with me kicking everybody’s butt. I love flight sims and I will enjoy this one for sure. It is another one of the excellent batch of F2P games that is coming out lately.

Torchlight 2

This one is also known as “the game that killed Johnny”. It is Torchlight and it is coop. I am sold.

Planetside 2

Yeah Tokey, I know…

And that is my list! I am sure you all have loads of ideas, please post them here!

EDIT 1: Tokey’s ideas

World of Warships

Just grabs me more than warplanes, im basically hoping for a version of Battlestations Midway that isnt broken!

Guild Wars 2

Hopefully finally breaking that MMO mould and showing how things can be better

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Im hoping for this to be the next big 4 player co-op and Aliens is the perfect setting if these guys can pull it off

Borderlands 2

Not sure if this is due 2012?


Having never really delved into this style of gameplay which is now possibly the most popular genre right now this seems to be the time to get involved

Mech Warrior Online

Ive missed the mechwarrior series, hopefully this will be great!

Fallout Online

Interesting because its by Interplay and not Bethesda. Ive nothing against the new Fallout but it was the old ones I fell in love with. Im hoping for that same spark plus as you all know, I only play multiplayer games these days.


EDIT 2: MP’s ideas

Starcraft 2

This game needs no introduction. Ultra competitive multiplayer RTS made for superhuman korean teenagers, version 2.2

The new Left 4 Dead: Payday

Ok, let me see how can I put this:
Remember how in the forum I said that Payday looked bad and that I had no interest in this game and that is was derivative and boring and I hated it and I never, ever would ever play it in a million years?
Payday is excellent.
Yesteday Tokey, Johnny and me played two or three levels and we had a load of fun. I thought I would make a small review here so that you can see how wrong I was.

The first thing you need to know is that  this game is very, very similar to L4D. That is very high praise coming from me and my 200 hours of zombie shooting.

What these people have done is taken the basic mechanic of L4D (4 player FPS coop teamwork) and many of the core tools that L4D used to enhance it and THOUGHTFULLY changed the setting and tweaked the rules. And it works!

Just like in L4D, you carry resources like ammo bags that you need to share, you see the silhouettes of other team players when they are in other rooms, you can help up fallen comrades… it feels L4D.
However, it is not a complete L4D clone. The setting is very different, you are a criminal going through various assaults, sometimes on a bank, sometimes on a drug dealers den. It really tries to make you feel like a robber in the heist of the film HEAT, one of my most hated films of all time. I hate Michael Mann, even if I agree that HEAT is his best work. And the game succeeds in doing it. The weapons feel powerful, the levels are well designed, they are simple to understand and yet very dynamic, they are well illuminated, the sound is clear yet strong… this game has flavour.
The designers were very clever, because when they started designing all these missions, they realised that they were going to be extremely linear and guided. The game tells you all the time what to do: Go here and plant explosives, then go there and capture that guy, now go two floors down, kill one guy and steal his key. L4D does not really tell you what to do, it is usually very self explanatory and yes, it is also linear because the level design is linear, but it does not feel as linear as Payday does. In L4D, less is more, you do not backtrack, you simply push buttons to open a door or raise a bridge or something. Payday is more twisty but still exactly as linear. So what is the problem with linearity? That it can become a corridor shooter like COD or BF single player modes and that when you replay it it will get boring really fast. But Payday has got to be linear and guided, the bank heist theme imposes it. Are there ways to still make it fun in the L4D style of fun? Well, the designers have some very good answers for that question.

The first answer is that Payday is about following a path, yes. With emphasis on teamwork, yes. But it ALSO is about ammo management. It is designed so that even in the easy levels you will run out of bullets and need to share with your buddies. The most ammo that a group can carry will run out very fast if badly managed. The team needs to coordinate if they want to place the ammo bags in the right moments and spots so that everyone refills and the team can go on fighting. It means that you are constantly aware of how much ammo you have left and it introduces an extra task that feels very exciting.
The second answer is that although the game does not have the AI director of L4D, it has other tricks, specially the level design. One level is all about moving fast through a city. We did not manage the first two times because although we shot well, took cover and managed the ammo, we were too slow and ran out of ammo against the infinite respawns of the police. So the game is designed to keep you on your toes or you will be punished. The third element I noticed is that the levels are much more interactive than a typical L4D level, you can do things to affect the amount of police that tries to stop you, for example destroying security cameras in a bank. Or capturing and then freeing civilians in exchange of a captured member of your team (Although there is respawn, it is extremely slow, in the order of the 5 minutes).
Compared to L4D, each level is more complicated and much longer than a single scene of a campaign but it is still shorter than a full campaign and it cannot be divided in morsels, you have to play the whole thing through. That means that there is going to be a certain fatigue at the end, a certain feeling that you cannot keep this fight up for much longer because you are almost out of ammo, almost out of time and down on health. But it comes at the right moment and feels very good when you finish a level.

So as you see, the game has a lot going for it. I am really surprised at this game and I think they did many things right. On the bad side, the lobby is worst than L4D and I did not succeed joining a game in progress. Also, I do not know if the game is very long. We played 3 levels yesterday and they felt great, but I do not know how many there are. Still, as with L4D, game length is not easy to measure. L4D looks short but I clocked 200 hours on the first one. It is till too early to know if it is fun enough to be as replayable as L4D is.

A small note on the bots: they are like L4D bots, very good teammates but dumb enough that a team of 3 is much worse than a team of 4.

So to finish, I am going to say that this is an excellent surprise. It feels closer to L4D even than L4D2 and I for one intend to dive into it.

YBL4DA Game of the Year awards!

The end of the year is approaching fast and I have to say it has been a very good year for PC games. We have had plenty of good stuff to sink our hungry teeth into but as always, the question is what did you like best?

I am going to open the discussion with a list of categories and I will comment my personal choices. Everybody is welcome to contribute their comments and their own favourites. At the end, I will make another post with some kind of consolidated results. So here are the categories:

1.- Best single player:

2.- Best MMO/Free to play:

3.- Best Indie game:

4.- Best Coop Game:

5.- Biggest surprise:

6.- Biggest disappointment:

7.- Best Game of the Year:


So what are your choices? Do not hesitate to vote, the more votes we have, the better.

Whisky festival winners!

After lots and lots (and lots more) research, our team did finally reach a verdict on this year’s best whiskeys. We were extremely thorough and you can believe that we put the best of our soul into it.
I think that the team member that deserves a special recognition is without a doubt Invisible Johnny, who was key into drinking the 250 whiskeys that the rest of the team could not try.
So anyway, these are the winners:

Balvenie Peated Cask 17 years, really awesome stuff.

Balvenie Peated Cask

Connemara Single Cask, catholics make whiskey too!

Connemara Single Cask

And chosen by Invisible Johnny as we all know he would because he loves Japanese Whisky, Yamakazi 18 years.

Yamakazi 18 Years


The surprise of the year has to go to an amazing discovery by Labchimp. Kavalan is a very, very good Taiwanese Whisky that can easily stand by the best single malts in Scotland.

Kavalan Single Malt

Steam Sale!

I hope you are ready, because the double sale is starting. We are now going to see lots of good games from the beginning of the year at very good prices. If you kept your head cool and did not buy under the influence of an impulse (or too much booze), then you should be able to find some gems. However do not go all crazy, you can miss some titles and still be able to get them, do not forget the BIG sale after Christmas.
How does the sale work? It seems to follow the format of past years. There some permanent discount prices from publisher catalogues that go from 15% to 50%. Then you have the daily deals, those have been known to go all the way to 85% discount. Obviously the proper way to deal with this is to let the whole sale pass and get to see all the daily offers and the last day, search for any catalogue discounts that you may still want and never went on a daily.
Ok, so what is cool this first day? People in the forum are interested in Orcs Must Die (yay!) and in Renegade Ops (boo!)
And Portal 2 of course. I cannot understand how anyone would not have Portal 2 yet, but if you do not, just get it, you can thank me later.