PC gaming

How I Got to Elite: Dangerous

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Steam informed me recently that a game on my wish list was on sale. I don’t add items to that list often, but there are a few I forget are there. I checked it out and found that it was Elite: Dangerous.

I didn’t know much about it off the top of my head, but investigating the store page reminded me of the appeal. Open world. Milky Way galaxy recreation. Massive scale. MMO. Flight simulator.

So I bought it…

But first, let’s start in the mid-90s. For the record I was unaware until recently that Elite: Dangerous had previous installments during this time period. Had I known this the story would be different.

Anyway, I happened to pick up Lucasarts’ space combat simulator X-Wing when I was a kid. The box art and screenshots entranced me. I too would get to experience the ultimate freedom of space travel and get to blast Tie fighters into sparking fragments along the way.

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After several disks worth of installation (this was the original DOS version), I was ready to play and within minutes I was in the cockpit of the X-Wing, adjusting shield levels, engine speeds, and aiming at various vessels. This was what I was waiting for. True freedom.

This sense was quickly dashed, if only momentarily, when I noticed that those stars and galaxies and planets far off in the background were merely that, background. There would be no interstellar travel for me. Just intense space combat, and the promise of thrills like the films.

This series was quite popular as it turns out, spanning into the next decade with its sequel Tie Fighter offering the best experience in my opinion.

Still, there was that desire to fly among the stars that gnawed at me.

Let’s flashforward several years to the late 2000s. This is when I first tried EVE Online. This, I thought, was it. This was what I had always wanted. An entire galaxy to explore replete with space stations and starships, enemies and allies, and everything in between. Yes, it truly offers all these things.

Here I had my chance to be a renowned star fighter, but I could also be a pilot, a space miner (and perhaps have a daughter who would wrote a song about such things), an industrialist, or even a scheming CEO of a corporation filled with other real people to manipulate and command.

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The options were endless, but so was the path to progress it seemed. Now don’t get me wrong, EVE Online is great at what it offers, but it’s also demanding. And slow. And cutthroat. Eventually everything becomes a point and click affair, even space travel, which is more about navigating menus rather than space itself.

It’s not hard to admit that I enjoyed the game, generally but it is hard to admit that perhaps it’s a little more daunting than I would like for something that I want to truly enjoy.

At the end of the day, EVE Online offered quite a bit, more than I imagined in fact, but it still missed that certain something.

There were other games that came close, like Star Trek Online, with its arcade-ish space combat and the ability to lead away teams on planets. If you’ve wanted to be a Starfleet captain, or even a Romulan or Klingon, this is your chance. It’s a lighter version of EVE Online, to be sure, but its content is still entertaining and the fantastic setting is a bonus.

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After years of playing games, it’s safe to say that some of my earliest wishes have been buried under layers of reality and disappointment, but fortunately they have also been augmented by gaming experiences that have truly been enjoyable in unexpected ways.

So there I was the other day, loading up Elite: Dangerous. I tried the training missions, thinking that this really is a very similar game to EVE. Except that I was sitting in a cockpit. And that I could fly to any available star. And fight. And dock with space stations.

Then it hit me.

No, not that asteroid I collided with because I was still calibrating my controls.

No, it was something else: the realization that this is the game I had been wanting to play for almost twenty years!

Even better is the fact that Elite: Dangerous’ developers have already declared (not speculated as in the case of EVE) the kind of content they will roll out, like planetary landings and such. This is more than thrilling, and I feel like I’ve finally come full circle with those expectations born from the back of the X-Wing box all those years ago.  

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So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prep my ship for travel to see either the Sol system in way I’ve never been able to or what lies beyond the other side of the galaxy’s core.

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The Saga of Crusader Kings 2

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Crusader Kings 2, released by Paradox Interactive in 2012, is a grand strategy game in which you choose a person, from count to king, and lead him and his descendants through the medieval era through wars, intrigue, and rivalries against hundreds of other in-game personalities. Sound overwhelming?

It is.

And this game isn’t my first rodeo, but it is where I finally managed to rope the bull or whatever. I began several years ago when I picked up Europa Universalis 3 on a whim. I was intrigued but quickly overwhelmed. I returned when Europa Universalis: Rome was released. It and its expansion Vae Victis entranced me with the ancient Mediterranean setting.

I finally got Crusader Kings 2 on Steam, where you have access to all kinds of medieval methods to victory, and this game is the best iteration of this formula I’ve yet played.

For example, in my recent game I played as The Republic of Venice, or more specifically as House Participazio, a patrician family of power among others in the republic. When I wasn’t the Doge, I could still lead my family with a great deal of independence. I made it my mission early on to establish myself in southern Italy.

This led to centuries of on and off war with the Byzantine Empire. They were a looming giant in my game and there were several wars between us and we each had our share of wins and losses. In fact, after one war, my leader lost all but two counties to the Byzantines. That was about two centuries of work. But I didn’t give up.

My leader, who also became Doge, exacted his revenge with assassins. After about five Byzantine emperors fell to my scheming,, and several heirs too the empire finally fell into disarray and civil war. That’s when I regained my lost territories, but my assassinations continued with other European leaders, which led to the strange of affair of Ireland becoming a Europe-spanning kingdom for a brief time.

You see, you may be the only player, but all of the other in game personalities are carrying on, too, with getting married, getting killed, plotting rebellions, or being possessed by devils. Somehow my series of assassinations royally screwed up some successions and once Bulgaria regained its territory, it held sway over most of Ireland for the rest of the game.

Byzantium, too, defied history. Turks never came, and the Greeks converted to Catholicism. Thus anytime the east posed a threat, the west was happy to help their brothers under the cross, and a great foe never emerged to challenge the Greeks. Maybe if the Byzantines had really converted…

Oh and then there was the Aztec invasion of Spain and Norway. Even after they were repulsed, lingering Mesoamerican culture continued to influence those areas until the end of the game. Yes, Aztecs.
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By the end of the game, Venice controlled the lower half of Italy, but it had survived several dire moments. I may not have conquered the world, but the experience was better than anything.

I can even export my game to Europa Universalis 4 and continue this alternate world into the modern era, however the converter is currently not functioning with new patches as of December 2014. But, hey, at least this game continues to get patches and expansions. Lots of them.

And that’s where this game really succeeds. I’ve played several strategy games from the Civilization series and it’s spinoffs to some of the Total War series, and even some RTSs like the Age of Empires series, but very few of those games have come close to matching the varied and rewarding gameplay in Crusader Kings 2.
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As I get older I’m less interested in material or superficial things, and in my games I look for experiences that will last for more than a quick trip to the victory screen at the end of a thirty minute game. You may spend most of your time looking at maps, but Crusader Kings 2 tickles a certain strategy fancy in the most fully satisfying way.

Steam-y Reflections

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Valve Corporation’s Steam has undoubtedly affected my PC gaming experience much as it has for many other people. It’s been in service for over a decade now, and my first encounter with it several years ago occurred when I purchased Half Life 2, which required Steam in order to play it.

I remember begrudgingly acquiescing to this demand, which at the time seemed rather draconian. In fact, I was unable to play Half Life 2 for a while because for the first couple of years I lived on my own, I didn’t have internet. I was so Spartan.

Nowadays, Steam makes a common appearance on my PC desktop, where I can peruse the latest patch notes and updates, sort through random statistics (I’ve played that game for 200 hours!?), and sometimes I even get roped into buying a new game because of some special sale that happens every time someone breathes or something.

For better or worse, Steam has wedged itself into my PC habits. iTunes did the same years ago, but with streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, I rarely open that mess of mp3s anymore. Maybe something will come along in a few more years to replace it, but until then Steam looks to be a constant companion.

Having said all that, there are some things regarding my gaming habits that gave changed with my adoption of Steam and others (gog.com is another of my favorites). Here’s a rose tinted look at some aspects of PC gaming that have changed for me.

1. Shopping!

Well, I still shop for games. In fact, nowadays I can peruse more games than ever with my mouse.  I can view gameplay videos, cinematic trailers, and screenshots. I can read customer reviews. But there was something about walking into the store and looking at all the boxes lined up for you to feel and weigh and otherwise drool over. You could feel the discs and manual sliding around inside (Oh, that one feels heavy). Which leads to…

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2. Boxes.

PC games still come in boxes, but they’re usually the flimsy, cheap, DVD case kind. Before that they came in smallish boxes that where about the same size as DVD cases except thicker. And before that PC game boxes whee big and sometimes different shapes (I fondly remember Tomb Raider’s trapezoidal box). Sometimes cover flaps would open exposing more screenshots and features. Then there were the special edition boxes that were usually huge and contained all kind of collectible things. Long story short, PC game boxes used to set themselves apart, whereas now they attempt to blend in.

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3. Instruction Manuals.

I considered it a badge of pride when game companies would include decent manuals with their products. More than just installation instructions, good manuals included backstory for characters and setting, detailed explanations for in game features, and all that jazz. Great manuals were fun to read like magazines or something, and they always gave you a bit more to experience even when you weren’t playing the game.

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Nowadays, the digital days, these things are a rarity. Sure you can still go to the store and pick up a hard copy of a game, but it’s easier to get the same thing at home, and often for less money if there’s a sale.

Boxes are a thing of the past, even for consoles which are also providing non-physical options for purchase. Plus, they tend to take up space. When I moved last year, it was a pain to lug around boxes of old CDs and games and boxes. Boxes of boxes. Such a first world problem. You may not be able to make me get rid of my big box for Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but there’s a certain kind of relief in knowing that I don’t have to make room for boxes as I impulsively purchase games.

As far as manuals are concerned, I do miss them, but plenty more games are better about offering tutorials in lieu of physical instructions. When a game came with a great manual, I would skip any tutorial that was also available, but it’s nice to know I that they are more common now, and the internet is such a good place to get useless info anyway.

Times have changed for PC gaming, but I’ve changed as well. Perhaps I have rationalized my acceptance in order to better cope with the changes. I’m less interested in having physical things in favor of experiencing things instead, so holding onto discs and CDs and boxes and books and all that stuff is more of a hassle for me now. It is sad that young gamers don’t get to experience what I did years ago, but that makes those memories more special to me.

Besides, isn’t purchasing a game at home from your PC and then playing it just a few minutes later the future that we all dreamed when we were kids?