The Agony of Decision – Little Slices of Improvement in Boom Beach

Life is full of little victories that are wrapped in large clinging blankets of boredom.  Luckily there is a mad angry midget with hand grenades taped to their bracers who shows up when you are least expecting them and does what they can to make life (please select all that apply):

(a) Exciting
(b) Frieghtening
(c) Terrifying
(d) Cloudy
(e) Require the assistance of an attorney
(f) Launch angry fathers into the room
(g) Misundertood
(h) All of the Above
(i) None of the Above
(j) Some of the Above – Pick what Works Best??

As a part-time rational adult (the details behind THAT little matter are part of a whole other story so you will just have to take my word for it for now) I recognize that my professional accomplishments fall outside of the norm.  When my wife sets up play-dates with other adults and we be social certain things tend to happen.

One of those things that invariably happens when we meet new people – or more often when I meet people who are new to me but who my wife already knows – part of the polite conversation involves them asking me what I do for a living, and then telling me what they do – always in that order.

The thing is I suspect that they already know what I do for a living – I am a writer – so what they are really asking is not so much what I do for a living, but how what I do for a living works.

When the person asking the question is female, their eyes tend to glaze-over as soon as I mention video games – no matter how I mention them.  If I happen to be in a reviewing frame of mind, Glazed Eyes.  Walk-through Guides?  Glazed Eyes.  Feature Pieces?  Yeah, glazed eyes.

Interestingly enough that is also true if I am in Techno-Geek Mode and share the details of that – but it is NOT true when I am covering Fashion Week in Manhattan.  Odd that.

But I am totally upfront about the fact that I am a whore, and I write where the money is.  Totally up front.

The odd thing is that the fact that I know things about fashion and particularly period fashion and haute couture has just the opposite effect on them – suddenly they are very interested in what I have to say about what I do.  Weird.

By they way, haute couture does not mean what you think it does…  A lot of guys think it either means high fashion or expensive bits of cloth masquerading as clothing – what it really means is high sewing, and is a French phrase that carries a lot more meaning in two simple words than English speakers are used to encountering in their phrases.

Now for guys it is a different story completely.  Their reaction is almost always an are-struck question like “Wait, so you get PAID to sit around and PLAY GAMES?!” and “You get FREE GAMES?!”

Here is the thing – and I hate to burst their bubble, but no, I don’t get paid to sit around and play games all day – I get paid to WRITE about games.  That whole playing part?  It represents only a tiny fraction of what I do and… Why are your eyes glazing over?

Boom Beach Business

One  of the games that I got paid to play and then write about is called Boom Beach – and it’s from the same code wizards – an outfit called SuperCell – who brought us Clash of Clans and Battle Buddies.  It is a mobile game of the battle sort, with hints of city-building and resource management.  In fact its game play style and cross-genre complication can easily be held out as a metaphor for video games journalism…

Here is the thing – under ordinary circumstances I download a game/app, play the hell out of it, then write about it.  Following THAT process, I delete the game, and never think about it again.  Unless an expansion is launched, in which case I then re-download the game and its new expansion, and start that process all over again.

In the case of Boom Beach something went wrong.  I never quite made it to the delete the game stage, and what is worse, I still spend 10 minutes or so playing it every day.

This has actually happened before…  Do you remember the app/games Camp Pokemon, SSG2 and Storm Casters?  Yeah I still play those as well…

With Boom Beach at least part of the reason I still play it has to do with the very time-intensive process of how you make progress in it.  By building and placing defenses, then upgrading them. I am still doing that!  And I might add, making pretty good progress at it as well!

My goal is to get all of the defensive weapons to Level 7 – I am not wuite there yet though – right now I have 4 Sniper Towers, 2 Machine Guns, and 2 Mortar at Level 7, but I still have other weps that need upgrading (A Level 4 Cannon, a Level 5 Cannon, Level 1 Flamethrower, and a Level 5 Machine Gun) which means I have weeks and weeks of 10 minutes a day to play yet before I am even close to feeling secure in my defensive position.  Just saying.

But it is those little slices of improvement that help get you through the day mates!

It’s progress that in the big picture has no meaning – but still, it IS progress.

It’s like my favorite George Takei line: “We’re Lost!  But We’re Making Good Time!”

So umm, hey… What do you do for a living?

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Judging Gears of War: Judgement

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The Gears of War series has long been a favorite  – and really why wouldn’t it be?

It is a great game that has some great characters who you can easily grow to care about.  It is packed with plot twists and turns, it has something for pretty much everyone at least in terms of likes and expectations, and presents just the sort of light story content and heavy online multi-player.

When Gears of War arrived in in November 2006 it was already deep into the new game season.  It was an instant hit.  Really though that was not a surprise – like most AAA titles it got its fair share of promotion but even so there was an aura surrounding the game, and it is easy to understand why.

Of course shooters and Action-Adventure games today have very strong multi-player sides to them because, well, you cannot really make a shooter today that doesn’t.

The reason for that is because games like Gears set the standard for that side of things – and besides gamers LIKE being able to get together with their buds and kick the crap out of each other.  It is part of our DNA.

The fact that the team you played in Gears was likeable and, as odd as this sounds, came to be almost like friends as you helped them try to understand the Bug-Eyed-Monsters (BEMS) they were facing and why.  Aliens, yup, no question!

By the time Gears of War 2 hit consoles all over the world (it was November again, but this time it was November 2008) two years had passed – long enough for most fans to have played the hell out of Gears and be very ready for the next chapter in the series.

I am not sure that they were ready for Gears 2 really – things took a sort of dark twist – but the Gears stuck together and the boss mobs was exactly as tough as it needed to be to keep us angry at those damn bugs!

Gears of War 3 arrived in September 2011 (two months before we thought it would) and the very loud pre-release publicity claimed that it would wrap things up.

Unfortunately while it lived up to the pre-release hype and really did answer a lot of the questions that we had, it also gut-punched the serious fans, with events that left them reeling.

Okay…  There is room for that.  And besides that, all dogs go to heaven, right?   So do all Gears, right?

As noted a major element in the build-up to the release of Gears 3 was that this third story would answer a LOT of the questions that the previous games had left hanging in the air…

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Gears 3 Surprises
Shortly after the release of Gears 3 a lot of things happened in quick succession: it was announced that the story arc that was supposed to have just concluded was not really over – despite having answered a LOT of questions, there were still some more that needed to be addressed.

Now most gamers took this to mean that the next game in the series – Gears of War 4 – would be a continuation of GoW3, though just how that would be managed no one could say (or figure out.

Then Epic announced a spin-off for the series was coming called Gears of War: Exile. It was going to be for the Kinect, it was going to be a tight play experience, and even if you disposed Kinect, you were supposed to love it.

Hints and innuendo continued to leak as the fans and gamer world grew even more convinced that GoW 4 was going to take the current story farther – but as the hype train began to build for E3 a massive revelation leaked.

It turned out that when they said that “the next GoW would answer even more questions” they were NOT talking about GoW 4 – they were talking about something called Gears of War: Judgement.

As the details began to take real shape though, it became clear that while Judgement was legitimately part of the cannon for the first story Arc, it was NOT GoW4! Not only that but it was set to share experiences and info that covered a very broad range of times and places.

So OK that took some getting used to – but we were all set for E3 2012 and we were convinced that a lot of the questions we had about how GoW: Judgement would fit into the picture would be addressed there – all that we had to do was be patient, and attend the event.

So we were patient and waited for E3, where more things seemed to happen all at once: GoW: Judgement was part of the first arc, fully included in cannon, but was NOT a main-story chapter.

It was to be a prequel, it was to address specific issues that lead to the reasons behind how Delta became such a tight-nit unit, and provide the dirty details regarding the rumor and whispers in the first three games about the Gears being war criminals.

Oh, and we learned that Gears of War: Exile had been canceled.

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Winds of Change?

If we could briefly travel into the future —  say to the year 2050 — and then look back at the present day through the eyes of a gamer yet unborn, what we would see is a gaming world clearly divided by themes.

The first decade of the 21st Century — basically the years 2000 through 2009 — which in addition to being the first decade in the new millennium also happened to be the decade of dissent.

New game series were introduced and old game series were rebooted – but far more important than that is the changes that took place in the games community in terms of expectations and the industry with respect to focus, as the traditional  player-vs-player elements usually found in shooters became part of the DNA of pretty much EVERY game that qualified (even loosely mind you) as an Acton-Adventure title!

It reached the point that game studios and developers would not even think about releasing a game that lacked a robust online multi-player mode – and that turned out to be a very good thing indeed!

Dramatic changes occurred — not just in new titles but in the reboots of well-established game series from the 90’s like the Grand Theft Auto series — meant that studios had unlimited opportunities to recycle previous games by taking on a new multi-player mode.

Even marginal titles suddenly had new life breathed into them because gamers were ready for more.

While there was no way to accurately predict how good a new game was, one thing you could predict was that it would have an online cooperative multi-player mode!   This applied not just to Shooters but remains true even respecting Action-Adventure and Stealth titles.

If you fast-forward to the present day you find that games like Gears of War: Judgement have legitimately inherited the mantel of hardcore online Cooperative and PvP to the extent that the game has more online MP and CMP modes and content than it does Story-Mode Campaign!

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Which Brings us Properly to Judgement

Right, so if you were present at E3 2012 you got to sit in the catbird seat and really understand and appreciate the lengths that the development and planning team at Epic had gone to in order to address a lot of the nagging open questions in the story and plot that somehow yet remained in spite of the efforts that they made to address it all in GoW 3…

Bearing in mind that the Developers went out of their way to communicate the fact that Judgement was not to be a full-length game, was definitely NOT to be considered Gears of War 4, and was meant to be a fusion of 3/4 prequel and 1/4 wrap-up from GoW 3 and there is no room whatsoever for confusion, right?  Well… Not so much really.

Somehow and in spite of the pains that Epic went through to make sure that gamers knew that Judgement was not the first game in the next story arc for the Gears sage — somehow even though they made it clear on multiple and very visible occasions that Judgement was being created to fulfill the promises that were made years ago to provide players with closure of the first story arc…  Somehow a significant number of gamers and fans STILL got it wrong.

We actually sat through the briefing and demo at E3 TWICE just to be sure that we fully understood the message that was being delivered – and I am pretty sure we have it right.  We wanted to fully grok what it was, what it was to be, and how it all fit together.

During the Q&A one of the developers let slip to an Intern — who asked a specific question that I think the dev was not expecting — that the timeline in Judgement was split up into events that took place BEFORE Gears of War, and activity that took place just before the end of Gears of War 3.  That was confirmation of info that had not, up to that point, been public.

So when GoW: Judgement arrived and was precisely what the Epic Wizards said it was, you could have knocked me over with a feather when a significantly large percentage of the fan base began to shit all over the game, complaining that it was not long enough, that it was a disappointment, that the play style was “too different” and that it “Was Not Gears 4!”

Well sure it was not Gears 4 – I mean hell, they TOLD US that it was not Gears 4!

The venom that was being vented did not make sense.

This was happening before anyone could possibly have played through and completely understood what was being communicated in the game.

The negativity was flowing freely on day one of the launch cycle – but of course I would only discover how wrong these people were a week later, after I had the chance to play through the game in order to form my own impression.

Ultimately I found nothing to dislike at all –  in fact when I used the word “ambitious” to describe the game approach I had no idea at the time just how accurate that would turn out to be!

While GoW: Judgement did turn out to be considerably shorter than I wanted it to be, it certainly was not lacking in quality – and oh boy did it explain a lot.

The first three-quarters of the Judgement addressed the series of events that fully qualified as Prequel Content, being the back-story behind the two protagonist supporting character: Cole and Baird – heck that alone made it worth the price of admission!

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This Bloke Named Baird

Lieutenant Damon S. Baird was a commissioned officer in the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) — and the fact that he was a Lieutenant came as a shock to a lot of players and fans, myself included, as in the first three games he was nothing more than a grunt!

A major element in the story in Judgement consists of the revelations explaining HOW it was that he became Private Baird and as I say, that alone was worth the $39.99 we paid for this game!

You see it works out that Baird may look like a blonde California Surfer Dude and may act like one too, but his looks and ‘tude are very deceiving.

Not only is he a brilliant genius who could legitimately be addressed as Doctor Baird, he also happens to be the son of a wealthy family who chose to serve; he was not drafted!

This Bloke Named Cole

The Cole that we get to play and play with in Judgement is a very different man than the one we meet and play as and with later in the main series.  For one thing he is funnier now than he eventually became.  The good humor and positive attitude had not yet been beaten out of him at this point.

He still held distrust for officers, sure, but in the early days he must have been a lot of fun to hang and party with – based on his attitude and personality he was surely the life of the party.  It was good to get to know that version of him!

All Bafflement Aside

All of this considered, if you are a Gears fan and you are on the fence about Judgement, do not let the negativity of the vocal minority in the fan base keep you from playing this game.  It is priced as a short game because it is a short game – nobody at Epic tried to mislead any player – the people that are crapping all over this game either did not listen when the game was revealed at E3 or they are crapping just for the sake of taking a big huge dump!

Gears of War: Judgement is, in our opinion, totally worth the admission price.  I am glad I played it!