They’re sending me to Viet-nam. It’s this whole other country.
The Vietnam War is a unique beast. The most unpopular of wars, made immortal through popular culture. Veteran PT readers need no further preamble from this still-FNG to illustrate how Vietnam was as much as a battle of political and ideological PR as it was bush patrols and F-4 sorties against a liquid, unknowable enemy. My digital experience with the theater has been limited to the most facile of shooters, which either made me the perfect or the worst candidate for reviewing Vietnam ’65.
The average wargamer will arrive in Vietnam ’65 as a veteran of countless WWII sims and possibly the occasional Napoleonic sortie. But across the Ia Drang valley, against the buffer country of the Cambodian border, the player must wage a new kind of war. This is a fascinating tale of Kalashnikov phantoms and the military giant sent to exorcise it from the jungles of Indochina. I would be inclined to call this the new Unity of Command; being a game unafraid to welcome new and seasoned alike, with a distinct core that isn’t merely the sum of factory standard parts. Unity of Command was a game that taught imperatives of supply. Vietnam 65 is a lesson in political motivation as a resource, as well as illustrating the confounding operational logistics of the conflict. It’s not the deepest game, but I wish more wargames were this bloody daring.
Long ago, before Sorcery! showed up, the undisputed king of digital gamebooks was Australian developer, Tin Man Games. Sure, since then companies like inkle Studios have turned digital gamebooks on their head, but Tin Man hasn’t let that get to them. They’re still routinely cranking out quality gamebooks, albeit ones that look and feel like those little paperbacks you used to read back in the 80’s.
If you’ve been paying attention, however, you’ve already realized that Tin Man doesn’t have their head in the sand. They proved they can move away from their standard format last year with Appointment with F.E.A.R., which replaced the sepia tones of their other books for a comic book look and feel. Their most drastic departure, and the one that shows that Tin Man is still a major force to be reckoned with, was just released last week: Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be. Yes, it’s Shakespeare and yes, it’s easily my favorite gamebook that Tin Man has ever done.
Just so we understand where this is going, let’s start by listing all the things that Card Crawl is not:
Deep or heavy
If you’re looking for a game that is those things, turn away. While Card Crawl puts on an RPG mask and presents itself as a dungeon-in-a-deck, it’s nothing of the sort. You’re character is merely a nameless card. You never level up. The challenges you face remain the same from game to game. What Card Crawl is, however, is a simple solitaire card game that is short, addictive, and has become my favorite new time waster.
I am waiting At the counter For the man To pour the coffee
Mad machinimist David Cage is a divisive figure. Some love his dedication to blending a decidedly ’90s television aesthetic with games, striving for fast-tracked cultural legitimacy in telling quote-unquote serious and emotional stories. Others see his efforts as mawkish, awkward attempts at story-telling profundity that bottom out in the kiddie end of the pool. But I cut my teeth on his ultra-Euro science fiction debut, Omikron: The Nomad Soul and it made me a fan. Omikron suffered from being made well before the technology could do the concepts justice. It strained against the limits of 1999’s 3D rendering technology (and an evident shoestring budget) to bring us a video game starring David Bowie that exuberantly poured in elements from multiple genres: brawling, shooting, adventure gaming, navel-gazing — it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
So being the David Cage fan that I am, I go into Fahrenheit (sold in America as Indigo Prophecy) excited to see what the French auteur and his studio managed to do with this much better funded 2005 followup to Omikron, which was just released for iOS a couple of weeks ago.
If you’re the kind of sophisticated lady or gentleman who peruses Pocket Tactics [I’m revising this in my bathrobe whilst watching COPS –ed.],there are two probable reasons why you recognise the name of Auro. Firstly, it springs from the mind of idiosyncratic designer Keith Burgun, maker of Empire and 100 Rogues. Secondly, it’s “that-game-with-the-thirty-stage-tutorial” [this is not a joke –ed.] where it is possible, nay–likely–that you will lose. A substantial tutorial has come to be seen, within the environment of mobile gaming, as somewhat uncouth, like showing up at a party with a lengthy list of dietary demands. A sophisticated game, the sages say, should usher the player into the game with a minimum of fuss. Thirty levels of tutorials? You might as well use the Ludovico technique, surely.
But look at Auro. Look at those gorgeous, Toriyama-esque character designs and chunky sprites. That’s not an unfriendly game is it? Auro’s tutorials are indeed, though brief, rather thorough. But it only does it because it cares, reader. Auro wants you to understand. It wants you to have a good time. It wants you to see how clever it is, and to show you how clever you are.
At first glance, XCOM: The Board Game looks like your typical high-spec Fantasy Flight board game. It’s got loads of detailed plastic tokens, a forest worth of heavy stock cardboard chits, and enough ambiguity in the rulebook to turn the forums at Board Game Geek into a particularly rowdy episode of Jerry Springer.
It’s that rulebook that makes this into something quite different from your usual Fantasy Flight Game. XCOM: TBG doesn’t actually ship with a rule book, which is why I’m talking about a cardboard game on Pocket Tactics: there’s an app.
“You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him.”
There’s a plasma-hot streak of can-do spirit and 1950s pizzazz in Space Age, an unwavering optimism that colors every moment of the game’s pulp adventure. Early space race kitsch is the style here, with our cast of cosmic explorers decked out in fishbowl helmets and garish spacesuits (with hoop skirts for the ladies, of course). Out of this crew tasked with investigating the alien world of Kepler-16—a crew which includes a suspenders-wearing, toolbox-carrying engineer and an Obvious Love Interest/chief science officer—we have a most average of Seemingly Average Heroes, a lowly private who can barely manage to communicate with his fellows between rapid-fire gees, goshes, shucks, and painfully naïve quips. (Quick paraphrase: “Is there a special girl back home, Private?” “Of course! My mom! Oh, and the family dog’s a girl too, I think. And maybe my neighb- OH YOU MEAN ROMANTICALLY.”)
Space Age is an odd mash-up of action, adventure, and some light (like, lunar gravity light) squad-based tactics. The game itself, as befits the dream of a push-button future, seems to want it all: a little bit of twee sensibility here, a little bit of stealth-game sneakery there, some timing puzzles off to the side and then a big, earnest slice of American apple pie on top. That is a tough ship to get into orbit.
“I want you to get excited about your life,” says Detective Doctor Phil.
The Detail is a police procedural adventure that wears its influences like a badge. It’s channeling NYPD Blue and The Wire just as hard as it can, but the end result isn’t a tribute as much as earnest, po-faced fan-fiction.
Every character in the game is a care-worn cop show sawhorse. The first of the game’s dual protagonists is a grizzled veteran homicide detective who–wait for it–is getting too old for this shit. The other guy is a criminal who’s gone straight, but once he thinks he’s out — they pull him back in. It gets worse, I’m afraid.