It's possible that you haven't played the last six Sherlock Holmes games from Frogwares Studios, but you might want to pay attention to the upcoming Crimes and Punishments. It looks gorgeous in this most recent trailer, and adds some novel ideas to the adventure genre, like going inside Sherlock's brain to solve mysteries.
There are so many different Shelocks to choose from these days. Between the BBC's Sherlock, CBS's Elementary, and Robert Downey's cinematic take on the character, it must be hard to keep mining the same character. Crimes & Punishments' Sherlock seems most like Downey's version (down to the slow-motion assessing of the situation), but also finds a new way to visualize the mind of a detective. As you can see in the trailer, a new mechanic puts gives you an inside view of Sherlock's brain, where you'll connect different clues and suspects on the "deduction board" until you reach a conclusion.
Frogwares also asks that we make note of the motion captured animations, meticulously detailed faces, and lip-synced dialogue. Those do all look pretty great, significantly better than The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, the last game in the series released on PC.
In the game, you'll comb through the evidence, interview suspects and accuse the potential perpetrators yourself through six different cases. Think of it as an L.A. Noire set in 1887. Crimes and Punishments is set to release in the second quarter of 2014.
The global PC games market is healthier than it s ever been, according to a new report from DFC Intelligence, as reported by GamesIndustry International. PC gamers are willing to spend more money than ever, and new free-to-play titles are bringing in new gamers by the truckload.
PC gamers can also thank our cousins in the console world for bringing more people to gaming overall. We actually think the launch of the new console systems will help lift the PC game business because there is large overlap between console and PC gamers and it becomes another platform for developers," analyst Jeremy Miller told GamesIndustry International. The more people who play video games, the more people decide they d like to check out PC games.
Image from GamesIndustry International.
Another surprise is the surge in free-to-play games, the growth of which has been almost perfectly mirrored by the decline of traditional MMOs. Check out the above graph, and then tell me who you'd rather be in 2014: designing a free-to-play MOBA like League of Legends or Defense of the Ancients, or preparing to unleash an ambitious MMO with a standard $15-per-month subscription fee? As PC gaming expands, it is becoming more friendly toward smaller, free-to-play games.
DFC has raised its forecasted global market numbers for 2014 to $25 billion, up from $22 billion. The high volume of cash and PC games fans is also good news for indie developers: there are an estimated 285 million people playing games on high-end PCs, which can add up to a lot of attention for Kickstarters, Greenlight campaigns and free-to-play games looking for eyeballs and receptive audiences. The full brief will be released by DFC on February 11, but you can see more early details here.
I spawn into every life of Strike Vector like a missile out of hell. Jets flaring, blurred periphery, hurtling toward a futuristic metal landscape. Other Vectors come for me, firing rockets and mini guns, dropping mines, zapping me from miles away with plasma snipers. I need to pull up, maybe slow down for a better shot and risk being an easy target. I need to figure it out quick or I ll crash into something and explode.
I barely hang on for every second of every match, so surviving feels like a victory, and taking out another Vector, watching it spiral out of control and slam into a girder in a blinding explosion, feels like it deserves a medal from the Air Force.
It reminds me of unforgiving arena shooters like Quake III and Unreal Tournament, but Strike Vector puts wings on the genre and creates something surprising in the process. Reductively, it s very much an aerial FPS, as developer Ragequit describes it, but its freedom of movement creates an experience that totally sets it far apart from other shooters. Now all Ragequit has to do is build more of a game around it.
Being able to weave in and out structures, narrowly slamming into cranes and pipes at breakneck speeds, uses my twitchy mouse hand in a completely new way. I m able to fly with as much precision as a I have with a mouse cursor, so I can thread my ship through dozens of near misses in as many seconds, but one millimeter the wrong way ends in an embarrassing death.
Combat is overwhelming in the best possible way.
Combine that with the ability to stop almost instantaneously and have the kind of freeform movement we used to see in games like Descent, and your mobility is limited mostly by your imagination and skill. Unlike other shooters that have very clear paths and "hot spots," in Strike Vector there are infinite ways to get from point A to B, and being unpredictable gives you an edge.
I m not the best shot in the world, but I m a pretty good pilot. Whenever I feel outgunned, I hit the boost and fly into the most claustrophobic part of the level. There, I can either lead my attacker into a tunnel where I ve dropped mines, or turn a corner, quickly slide into a small nook, then hit him with two shotguns blasts when he pops up.
It feels more exciting because Strike Vector looks freaking rad. Much like Hawken creators Adhesive Games, Ragequit knows that Unreal Engine 3 is great at rendering a dirty, bleak, war between machines, highlighted with a few neon lights and many explosions. The engine keeps up with the speed of gameplay without sacrificing little details you mostly just zoom by, creating a giddy feeling of overstimulation.
Being an unusual multiplayer shooter is good, but it also means that Strike Vector comes with a steep learning curve. Your Call of Duty and Battlefield experience doesn t apply here, and the tutorial amounts to only nine slides of text and still images.
My swarm missiles looking cool but not doing much.
There are eight weapons and a variety of upgrades, passive abilities, and perks. All of these are available to you from the beginning, but Strike Vector makes no effort to explain advantages and disadvantages, or how they might be useful in different situations. It was a couple of frustrating hours before I discovered a useful loadout, an unimaginative double dose of gatling guns. After I was killed by enough rockets, I learned how to use those as well, and think I ve figured it out. The missile seems to explode if it gets close enough, so you don t have to be as accurate as you d think, though its mechanics aren't transparent.
Strike Vector does so little to explain itself, I still don t understand how the homing missile locks on, how swarm missiles work, or why I would ever use an LMG over a gattling gun. Maybe they need to be rebalanced or some of the weapons just aren t worth using, and were included for variety in which case they aren't valuable. Half of the tools available are a mystery to me, and there's a design problem there.
My poorly pimped ride.
Say what you will about Call of Duty s weapon unlocking, at least it creates a logical progression, and, more importantly, gives me incentives to experiment. Strike Vector s greatest error isn t just that it assumes that I ll manage to figure it out I can do that in time but that it assumes I ll want to while better players swat me out of the air repeatedly.
Because I have no way of knowing if it s my choice of weapons, my aiming, or my strategies that are failing me, I don t know how to improve other than by a frustrating process of elimination. In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, for instance, every round teaches you something about your weapon choice or positioning in Strike Vector, you can go 10 spawns with the gatling gun and get very little feedback about your failures.
I play a lot of shooters, and most of them have left me kind of numb lately, so Strike Vector was worth my time for its novel concepts alone. It looks amazing, and while I lose far more than I win, those wins are satisfying enough to keep me coming back for more punishment. I hope Ragequit brings order to the disarray surrounding the combat, which deserves to be experienced.
Price: $25 / 19 Release date: Out now Publisher / Developer: Ragequit Corporation Multiplayer: Majority of servers are 12-16 players Link: www.strikevector.net
Youtuber Antti Kokkonen, who uploads Let's Plays to Youtube under the username Zemalf, is one of the best XCOM players in the world. On January 11, he finished a 50 hour run of XCOM: Enemy Within on Impossible Ironman difficulty without losing a single country. Or Interceptor. Or mission. Or soldier.
It was a perfect run on the game's hardest difficulty (and his first time through Enemy Within). On Ironman, XCOM is limited to a single save file. No do-overs. Beating the game on Impossible Ironman is a rare feat, but beating it without losing a single soldier? That really does sound impossible. But Zemalf did it, and he recorded it all across 58 Let's Play videos.
"I consider myself an okay player, but the run did go really well," he told PC Gamer. With Zemalf's help, we've broken down this achievement in XCOM mastery, dissecting his 58 part series into the key moments that defined the run.
As the XCOM faithful know, Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within operate on a reverse difficulty curve. They're brutally unforgiving in the early missions, when soldiers are inexperienced, panic easily, and die to a single alien blast. "The first five to ten missions are crucial," Zemalf says. "In this run I should've lost, or could've lost, a whole squad in a very early mission where I more or less played really badly. But just out of luck I didn't lose anyone."
If there's a consistent theme through all of Zemalf's run, it's luck. Luck in the missions the game generates, the panic levels he has to contend with, and the soldiers he starts with. And when luck fails him, Zemalf falls back on his slow and thoughtful playing style, methodically considering every option before making a move. He narrates his Let's Plays the same way, speaking in a deep, calm voice.
We've incorporated some of those LP videos below, timestamped to dramatic and crazy and revelatory moments in the run. Watch them as you read for examples of Zemalf's strategy (and some very, very lucky breaks). Danger zone: surviving the early missions Chance gets Zemalf out of more than one seemingly impossible situation. Early in the run, he's offered a council mission with a killer reward: five engineers, the equivalent of an entire workshop add-on to XCOM headquarters. He has to go for it. Fifteen minutes into the mission, though, things are looking bad. One of Zemalf's soldiers has already taken a hit and is down to 1 HP. And when he moves that soldier forward to deal with a lone sectoid, he accidentally reveals and activates two more (watch below now).
At this point, the sectoids get to take two shots at his sniper, who is perilously vulnerable in half cover. They miss, granting Zemalf another turn. He misses his first shot. His second, which needs to kill a sectoid, drops it down to 1HP instead. Then he makes what should be a fatal error: he presses the wrong hotkey, accidentally telling his third soldier now dangerously exposed to take a low-percentage shot. It misses.
He stews on it for a minute with only one move left. But that last soldier, the sniper, ends up saving his bacon.
Strategic moves "In most cases I took an educated guess or calculated risk moving into certain positions, knowing if I activate a group here, I can deal with it, like having a heavy with a rocket ready to shoot," Zemalf says. "I was always thinking ahead to activate aliens with moves left." At least, almost always he admits that on a few occasions, like the one above, those calculated risks got him in trouble.
A couple LPs later, Zemalf encounters his first UFO crash. Some risky advances pay off by not revealing additional aliens. If they had, he would almost certainly lose two of his soldiers. But this mission, which he calls the most tense situation of the entire playthrough, shows off the side of XCOM that can be maddeningly difficult: missing high-percentage shots (watch below now).
The encounter starts out easily enough, with one alien totally exposed and at 1HP. But an 85 percent shot misses the mark. And then a 71 percent shot misses. "Welcome to XCOM," Zemalf says under his breath.
A miss from one of the sectoids at point blank range keeps Zemalf's support soldier alive, but the next turn gets even uglier. He reveals three more aliens by advancing too far and spends several minutes considering every possible option.
"Looking back at it, I could've played a lot better, but that's easy to say now," Zemalf says. He makes a mistake by advancing too far, but this situation highlights Zemalf's strength as an XCOM player: he thinks through each strategic option before moving and only commits to the best course of action when he's sure it's the best. And when things get really dicey, XCOM pays back for its earlier cruelty by helping him land three moderate-percentage shots in a row. He wipes out four sectoids in one fell swoop.
Most of the time, Zemalf's aggressive strategy works well. He methodically activates a group of aliens, then tries to take them all out in one turn. He points to an encounter in his ninth LP as an example (watch below now).
Since this is several hours later in the run, Zemalf already has a MEC trooper in his squad. He uses the MECs as tanks to take hits that his other soldiers wouldn't be able to survive. As he faces a pair of Thin Men, he methodically thinks through each of his soldiers' abilities, using the MEC's collateral damage ability to destroy one alien's cover, and a grenade to take out the other's cover. That gives him better odds of landing shots with his remaining troops, and he never has to leave cover to fire.
"It's kind of hard to describe my own style, but based on the comments I get, I think I'm playing more aggressively than many others," Zemalf says. "When I have activated alien groups, I play very aggressively to take them out as fast as possible. I think that was key in not losing anyone. The game doesn't get any chance because of the mechanic of how the groups spawn if you can take the one group out that you activated, before they even get an action, they can't shoot you, and then you more or less can't lose anyone."
Being able to take out alien groups so expediently took some smart base planning early in the game. Zemalf aimed to get as many satellites up as he could in the first three months of the game, which would prevent the XCOM countries from panicking, leaving the project, and denying him crucial resources. He also rushed to build a MEC early and to research laser weapons, which he'd need to deal with the HP buffs aliens get on Impossible difficulty.
Still, it took luck to get him through those first few missions with inexperienced, ill-equipped troops. "Getting hit and not getting a lethal hit is lucky, and I had quite a few of those early on," Zemalf says. The heavy soldiers' rockets and grenades help him get through those early missions. Later he favors snipers and assault troops over heavies, because their explosives could destroy alien weapon fragments he needs for research.
Over the hump Zemalf's perfect run almost ends in the XCOM Council mission Confounding Light, which gives him 10 turns to outfit a train with transponders and send it down the tracks. The entire mission is tense; Zemalf has to push forward faster than usual, position his soldiers to activate the transponders, but still take out any enemies that could quickly decimate his troops. In the end, he's left with a single turn, a MEC one hit away from death, and isn't even sure he's going to be able to complete the mission (watch below now).
Here at the 10 minute mark, Zemalf accidentally activates some Thin Men and his MEC takes its first hits. Things get worse for the rest of the run. Skip ahead to 45 minutes to see Zemalf play through the last clutch turn. "Please, please, please," he pleads with XCOM as he tries to activate the train. Again, luck is on his side his MEC survives and he completes the mission with his last possible move.
Thanks to XCOM's reverse difficulty curve, he's over the hump by the middle of his 58 video run. Zemalf cites Confounding Light as the last mission he truly struggled on.
Enemy Within is, according to many players, a harder game than the original Enemy Unknown. It adds a resource called meld to maps that expires after a few turns, encouraging players to advance more quickly. It adds new enemies and missions. But it also adds gene modifications, which Zemalf uses to great effect.
"Something I think is borderline broken in the game is the mimetic skin gene mod," he says. Mimetic skin grants soldier invisibility and makes them untargetable. "Using the mimetic skin with the sniper, with squad sight, the aliens didn't even get a shot on me in many missions. , half cover counts as full cover and keeps them invisible. That was just ridiculous."
By combining mimetic skin with a sniper's Snapshot and In the Zone abilities, Zemalf was able to move his sniper and fire in the same turn. And with In the Zone, taking out a flanked enemy with the sniper lets that unit fire again. Zemalf could take out entire squads of enemies with a single sniper (watch below now).
This mission occurs about three quarters of the way through the run. By this point, Zemalf's soldiers are equipped with mimetic skin, and he uses that ability to get close to the aliens without worrying about taking a shot. He deals with them easily.
By LP 45, Zemalf is around 30 hours into his Impossible Ironman challenge. He hasn't lost a soldier or failed a mission. But he doesn't go out of his way to preserve the perfect run. Instead of abusing mimetic skin and coasting to a (relatively) easy zero-deaths finish, he switches out some of his troops for rookies and trained them up.
"I actually played quite sloppily in the later missions and I didn't shoot for not losing anyone," he says. "I just wanted to play through, and that kind of ended up happening anyway."
Amazingly, Zemalf went into Enemy Within with little foreknowledge of the game. He had played Enemy Unknown, but started Enemy Within soon after its release in Europe, and only spent a few days watching streams on Twitch before beginning his run. He knew that MECs were in the game, but knew almost nothing about them.
"I had seen the new stuff in some previews, I watched maybe a couple videos, but I didn't know what abilities the mechs had. I just knew they had a lot of hit points," he says. "I can't say it was blind, but I hadn't played any of the missions."
If not for the player/audience dynamic of Let's Plays, Zemalf likely wouldn't have come through his entire Impossible Ironman run unscathed. Commenters clued him into the gene mods, and he did research which autopsies he'd need to unlock them. They also warned him about the XCOM base assault, so he knew in advance how it would work.
"I got the mission relatively early as I built the hyperwave relay quite early. Some people said I was really lucky because I only got sectoids," he says. "I kind of would have liked to play completely blind, not even know the base assault was coming."
Even with some help here and there from the audience, Zemalf did something few XCOM players could accomplish. And he did it better than most others who have completed Impossible difficulty, too his game summary stats at the end beat the world average in every single category.
As the credits roll on his run, Zemalf reflects on his performance. "Little bit of an empty feeling as this draws towards the end. Little bit of sadness," he says. "But also happy that it went so well. And even more happiness at how much all of you have liked this. It's really something. I've always said that I'd be doing Let's Play videos even if just one person was watching, one person who enjoys them. And when there's a thousand, or several thousand, enjoying the videos, it makes it all even better. And the feedback that I get from all of you, that's what keeps me going. At times it was overwhelming. I was really happy to play this."
Zemalf plans to tackle the original X-COM: UFO Defense at some point in the future.
It's a shame to let a good engine go to waste, especially when it can expertly handle a huge, beautiful open world. DayZ is the most obvious example, but Ubisoft clearly understood this as well when it made Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which used the Far Cry 3 engine to build an '80s-themed spoof that was just as fun as the original game. The Far Cry 3 Z-DAY mod sounds a little too familiar, but the gameplay footage and explanation from the developer might win you over.
To be fair, Z-DAY is not as much like DayZ as its title may imply, and modder GC Vos says the name will be changed to something more original. To start with, it's a fully fledged single player campaign, not a multiplayer survival mod and showcase for human depravity. It will consist of 12 missions "much inspired by games like Left 4 Dead, but with a Far Cry twist to them," GC Vos explains. It will also add a new soundtrack and voiceover work.
The video of the first seven minutes of gameplay is the most impressive, showing the player trying to stealthily make his way out of a zombie infested town. Far Cry 3 was really great at letting you explore huge environments, jumping in and out of vehicles, and letting you seamlessly shift in and out of stealthy and guns blazing strategies. These are all things that seem like they could be used really well in an open-world zombie game.
GC Vos promises that the game's ModDB page, where you can also find more videos, will be kept up to date with the latest progress. Z-DAY is set to release in open beta on March 1.
Just because we weren't the biggest fans of Call of Duty: Ghosts doesn't mean it isn't still immensely popular. It has a huge, highly competitive following, big enough to serve as a primary attraction to Major League Gaming's eSports streaming service, MLG.TV. Those players care passionately about details in the game the average player won't even notice, which would explain why Infinity Ward's latest update focuses on eSports and balancing.
As the only first-person shooter in MLG's 2014 season, it's also a big opportunity for Call of Duty to claim a spot in the growing business of eSports, currently dominated by MOBAs like League of Legends, Dota 2, and real-time strategy with StarCraft 2.
Some of the patch notes specific to eSports and MLG in this latest update include:
Improvements to MLG Broadcast mode for highlighted players. Prevent eSports players (except COD Caster) from switching to 3rd Person Spectate cam. Better team identification in the MLG hud. Added killstreak count to eSports scoreboard. Added team names to in-game scoreboard for Broadcast mode. Restrict Ghillie Suits when eSports rules enabled (replaces with different game models). Add a kill feed to Broadcaster mode.
Improvements that non-pro players might care about include five new prestige ranks in Extinction mode, the addition of "Create a soldier" to Extinction mode, the return of the Gun Game mode to multiplayer, and many (many) other little balancing and performance tweaks.
The patch came out shortly after Infinity Ward announced what it will include in Onslaught, the first of four DLC packs for the game. It has yet to announce when the DLC will be available on PC.
You can read further details on fixes and additions in this latest patch on the official Call of Duty: Ghosts forums.
Octodad is a doting father and loving husband who mows the lawn, does the family's grocery shopping, and cooks the kids' dinners. He's also an octopus. That's the actually pretty funny premise behind Dadliest Catch, a physics playground and sort-of-puzzle game by new indie studio Young Horses, Inc. The joke is that even though he's literally an octopus in a suit, flopping around clumsily and knocking things over, no one ever acknowledges it. To his inexplicably human family, and everyone else, he's just a regular guy.
The first two levels are brilliant. Your tasks are mundane - weed the garden, grill burgers on the barbecue, pour your daughter a glass of milk, make coffee - but it doesn't matter, because you're an octopus. You control four of Octodad's limbs independently, which are ostensibly his arms and legs. Something as simple as opening the fridge, picking up the milk, carrying it into the living room, and pouring into the glass is rendered hilarious by his lack of a spine and wildly flailing appendages. Rooms are reduced to piles of rubble as you crash through them.
This should have been the whole game. Domestic drudgery made funny by the presence of an ungainly cephalopod. But then, presumably under pressure to make it feel more like a 'game', the developers start giving you objectives: solving simple puzzles, completing infuriating mini-games, and even a few stealth sections. Yes, really. It's not long before the laughter stops and the swearing begins, and the game goes from fun, slapstick comedy to maddening chore.
It's a shame, because those early moments, including a bit where Octodad has to 'walk' down the aisle at his wedding, are genuinely hilarious. The addition of ways to fail, like suspicious marine biologists that have to be avoided, or people getting suspicious if you smash the level up too much, feel unnecessary, and spoil the joke. Trying to drag Octodad up an escalator going in the wrong direction, or climbing a stack of tumbling boxes, only adds to the torment.
You can't fault its originality, though. It's a game bursting with colour and personality, although the chirpy music does begin to grate after a while. It's hard not to love Octodad as he stumbles through life, and the levels are filled with cute references to indie games and developers. I always feel bad about giving games that try something new a hard time, but playing Octodad feels a bit like I'm being simultaneously told a joke and kicked in the nuts.
I can't help but think that there's something dark beneath Octodad's whimsy. The way he crashes around his house - falling into things, breaking his kids' toys, leaving destruction in his wake - and the way his wife patiently smiles through it all. It could be that the whole game is, in fact, an allegory for alcoholism; a story about a dangerously drunken father and a family too frightened to confront him about his problem. Or maybe he's just a fucking octopus.
You'd expect the studio behind The Secret World to be a fan of mystery and conspiracy, but I doubt this is what the game's developers had in mind. On Wednesday, Funcom were temporarily suspended from the Oslo Stock Exchange, and they were charged under "suspicion of infringement of the provisions of the Securities Trading Act," regarding Secret World finances reported from August 2011 to September 2012. The charges also led to kokrim, the Norwegian economic crime unit, raiding Funcom's Oslo office and seizing boxes of documents.
Despite these events, Funcom say that things are back to business as usual. In a statement to Massively, director of communications Erling Ellingsen explained that yesterday's events were not expected to have an effect on either The Secret World or any of the studio's other games. Ellingsen also confirmed that Fumcom were fully co-operating with kokrim's investigation.
"Production on all Funcom games continues as normal, and the company remains fully committed to games in development as well as the continued operation and updating of existing live games. Yesterday's events is not expected to have any impact on the company's continued operation or the development on future releases.
"Funcom's key priorities are the development of the upcoming LEGO Minifigures Online, as well as supporting and expanding on the live games Age of Conan, The Secret World and Anarchy Online with new and exciting content.
"In terms of The Secret World, developers are currently in the process of finalizing its ninth content update, which will send players on a grand adventure through Tokyo, and Funcom will be releasing new information and screenshots from this update soon. Trading in the company stock was only suspended temporarily yesterday, and trading was back to normal shortly thereafter."
PC Gamer reviews free-to-play games when they're available to the public and charging real money - not, necessarily, when the 'beta' label is lifted.
"Lucky son of a bitch."
I'm playing against a mage. He has two hitpoints left, I have six. This is one of those games you look forward to - hard-fought, tense, down to the wire. I've got a taunt card in play, which means that my opponent's minions can't attack me directly. He needs to do direct damage with spell cards if he wants to end the game this turn. If he doesn't end the game this turn, I'll finish him.
As a mage, his class power allows him to do a single point of damage once per turn. He needs to be able to conjure up five points of damage from his hand, then, in order to finish me off. I know he doesn't have any Pyroblasts or Fireballs, because he's used them already.
He plays Frostbolt, dealing three points of damage. Then, he pauses. He shuffles some minions around, pecking at my taunt card. Hearthstone highlights the edges of cards that your opponent is mousing over. It's a nice touch. It gives the time between turns personality, and lets you know when your opponent isn't sure what to do.
He plays Arcane Missiles. It deals three points of damage split randomly between all of my cards. I've got two minions on the board in addition to my hero, so Arcane Missiles has a one-in-ten chance of hitting my hero twice - which is what the mage needs to happen to end the game. The fact that he's playing this card means he doesn't have anything more reliable; he's letting the match be decided on a dice roll.
One purple projectile smacks into a minion, the second hits me. Then the third one hits me, and I know the match is over. I've lost. I use the in-game voice wheel to say 'Well Played!', but I don't mean it. I say something altogether less polite in private. It's a sore loss, the kind that effectively purges my brain of all the dopamine released by the last time I won.
Hearthstone is an excellent strategy game, and I'd recommend it to anybody - but not without the preface that it will sometimes feel utterly unfair, that from time to time you'll feel that all its Blizzard polish is just a classy facade for a casino. If you're the type to get frustrated by games of chance, Hearthstone will find a variety of ways to get under your skin - and its treacherous random number generator is only one of them. I'll get to that in a minute. First, let s ride the game's topsy-turvy emotional rollercoaster all the way back up to the things it does so well.
Hearthstone is tuned for accessibility, stripping Magic: The Gathering back to its essentials. Decks are smaller, meaning you spend less time pondering over what cards to include. There's a single resource type - mana - and cards themselves break down into readily understandable types and paradigms. Matches are usually over within fifteen minutes, and Blizzard's renowned presentation means that every clash of cards looks and sounds great. It doesn't just mimic the physicality of real cards - Hearthstone enhances it, using sound and special effects to sell you on the power inherent in every hand you play. It's a card game with Quake's punch and Peggle's desire to make you feel great about yourself. Remember the first time you smacked an imp in Diablo II and it blew up in just the right way to make you want to do it again and again? That, but with cardboard wizards.
One of the things that impresses me about Hearthstone is the way each class represents the character of the hero they're based on. Warriors are relentless, aggressive, tough to kill. Mages hold you at arm's length until their powerful late-game spells come into play. Druids can be played fast and feral or slowly and manipulatively. Experience of WoW won't help you very much when it comes to learning Hearthstone, but the fact that it can give you a sense of where to start is a testament to Blizzard's skill at evoking personality through design.
Matches have character, too. One could be a knife fight - lethal, immediate, over quickly. Another might feel like being a short kind on the receiving end of a playground drubbing, swinging pointlessly at the bully holding you at arm's reach. Then there are the drag-out matches that draw on every card you have, each play and movement inching you towards victory or defeat. Those are the best ones. The worst are the games that are spoiled by random chance beyond what a card game needs - the invisible dice rolls and ultra-rare legendary cards that sometimes show up to scupper your plans.
A clunky new player experience makes getting started more time-consuming than it should be. The tutorial does a basic job of explaining how to play cards, when to use hero abilities, and the fundamentals of deck construction. Then you're released into the actual game, able to play against bots or other people with the single class available to you at the start, the mage. You need to defeat the other classes in order to unlock them, and then every class begins at level one. Leveling up a class to level ten is necessary in order to unlock all of that deck's basic cards, which will take a couple of hours each depending on how well you play. If you're really committed to understanding how the game fits together, you then need to repeat that process for all nine classes.
I understand the need to structure the rate at which novice players encounter new mechanics, but for the player who wants to dive in and get started with the competitive game it feels like having your bungee cord spooled out to you a few feet at a time. Playing against AI will speed up your XP gain, but it won't teach you anything about challenging real people.
When you've done the grunt work necessary to start playing the game properly, Hearthstone comes into its own. It's at this point that a little homework is necessary, and it's a far more interesting part of the game's difficulty curve than the initial level grind. You'll learn how to balance a mana curve, draft combos, how to optimise every move you make to ensure that you're leading the game, not your opponent. After a while, losing starts to feel less arbitrary and the game becomes more of a contest. Then you'll progress beyond the point where your basic cards can win matches for you consistently, and you'll go on the hunt for the expert and legendary cards that you need to take your next big step forward.
Getting more cards means acquiring booster packs, which are available for real money, in-game gold, or through the Arena. Each contains a random selection of cards, and those same cards can be broken down into 'dust' which can be spent to create specific cards. If you're after the one legendary that'd be perfect for your competitive deck, you're either going to grind for it, get lucky, or spend real money to increase your chances.
There are better business models. Hearthstone isn't pay-to-win - every card is available for free, technically - but paying does help, and more to the point when you spend you're always buying a chance at getting the card you want rather than the card itself. It feels like gambling, and that can sour the experience when you find yourself getting smacked down by someone else's ultra-rare card: one way or another, they got lucky.
The Arena is a premium mode that costs either real money or a sum of in-game gold to play. You can earn that gold by winning games and completing daily quests - 'win two games as a warrior', and so on. Dedicated players will earn an Arena run once per day, more or less. In the Arena you pick a class from a random selection of three and then assemble a thirty-card deck, one card at a time, in the same manner. It's detached from your regular card collection, which levels the playing field. It doesn't matter how much time or money you poured into getting those legendaries if they don't happen to show up in your random draft.
Once you've built your deck, you attempt to build a winning streak. Lose three times and you're out, but every win improves the quality of the rewards you'll get when you're eliminated. Gold, dust, and booster packs are guaranteed. It's more fun than grinding out boosters through regular play, but it's still a gamble.
The most satisfying experience in Hearthstone is learning to control the chaos bubbling away under the hood. When you take somebody down with a commanding deck that you put together yourself - and pulled off perfectly - it feels great. The game provides that experience frequently enough to earn a recommendation, but it's let down by unnecessary degrees of randomisation elsewhere. If there was an option to drop a chunk of change to take away the card collection aspect entirely, I probably would; likewise, if I could trade with other players to build my decks on my own terms I'd do that too.
Blizzard have the power to make the game surrounding each individual match more rewarding: to level out the game's emotional arc and give players faster access to the tremendous competition that arises when two people, all else being equal, attempt to outdo one another. As it is, Hearthstone's competitive potential is hindered by the sense that you're never quite on a level playing field with your opponent - that a little money or time or luck could always tip the odds in your favour. Hearthstone goes from good to great, I think, by embracing the idea that luck isn't everything.
If I've learned anything from prison dramas, it's that sometimes a stern talking to just doesn't do the trick. You also need plenty of hard-work, a commitment to understand your prisoners, and a rousing and inspirational third-act speech, in which you learn that, actually, it was them teaching you all along. Alternatively, you need guns. For Prison Architect's seventeenth alpha update, Introversion have gone for the second option.
Armed guards will intimidate prisoners by increasing their "Supression" rating, and making them more compliant. The downside is that, to hire them, you'll need to build an Armoury, which will be an instant target for violent prisoners should a riot break out. In future, when reform systems are in place, suppressed prisoners will be less susceptible to education programs and rehabilitation, but for now, you're free to fill your jail with more guns than a Battlefield weapons crate.
Also in the update: trees! A new Forestry tile will automate the woodcutting industry introduced in the last update. You can read about all of the alpha 17 changes over at the Introversion forum.