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GPF News Archive

First Post Previous Post Next Post Latest Post December 6, 2004

 

Hey, gang. Yeah, I know, it's been almost a month since my last update... again. Sorry. With the Thanksgiving holiday throwing my mental calendar off and I've been sick off and on all November, I've been keeping busy. Unfortunately, I've had lots of stuff to tell you and I've let that slip until now. So I won't mince words any longer and we'll jump right into it.

GPF Holiday Shopping: First of all, I wanted to remind everyone that there's lots of great holiday gift opportunities for your favorite Faulties here at GPF. The GPF Store is full of nifty merchandise from prints and cards to shirts and magnets. Our books always make a great way to indoctrinate new readers, and with Surreptitious Machinations finally coming out, there's never been a better time to get started on your collection. The Fred plush dolls are still available, so anyone can adopt a slime mold to stay in your personal cesspool. And I can't think of a more awesome gift than an officially licensed GPF sculpted figurine from 'N'Tooz. If you're looking to give a gift to a special Faultie this season, or you're a GPF fan whom everyone says is hard to buy for, then these are some good places to start. We'll do everything we can to make your holidays especially jolly, and that makes the holidays more jolly for us as well. ;)

Fibonacci Google Hits: A number of you have pointed out through e-mail and on the forums that the number of Google hits on a search for "Fibonacci" in the November 27th strip are incorrect. Most of you quoted numbers approximately twice the value Sydney mentioned in the strip. To those who wrote, thanks for pointing that out, but keep in mind (a) I wrote that comic about two months before it ran, and (b) during that time Google nearly doubled its search index (see the November 10, 2004 entry in the Gooble Blog). Thanks for trying to keep me on my toes, guys, but seriously... it's time to get a life. ;)

Jeff's Review of Pocket Kingdom: As mentioned last month, I was tapped as an "Internet personality and community leader" to be one of 100 competitors in a preview competition for Sega's new massively multi-player online game for the N-Gage called Pocket Kingdom. Well, the competition is now over, and as you can tell from the rankings, I came in 21st overall and 5th out of the online cartoonists. Not too shabby, I think, especially considering the number of big name gaming comics I came in ahead of. (Draw your own conclusions from that.) Well, part of the deal for my participation includes some promotion of the game by me, which I'll do in the form of a review. (Hence why this news post is so long; I don't have anywhere else to put a review.) So without further ado, let me tell you about my experiences with Pocket Kingdom.

First of all, let me start off by saying I am not a gamer. I've never owned a gaming console, from the top-of-the-line XBoxes and Game Cubes all the way back to the original Ataris and Colecovisions. While all my school buddies were playing Super Mario Brothers on their NESes, I was writing my own games in BASIC on a PC clone. So perhaps I have a unique perspective on this, as I don't have any preconceived notions of what to expect. Of the games I do play, they tend to be RPGs and first-person shooters on the PC, and Pocket Kingdom is very different from those. So keep these thoughts in mind as you read this review.

My first draft of the review went in-depth into the N-Gage itself as a gaming platform. (Unfortunately, that draft, which was written entirely on my Palm, was lost in a freak Hot Syncing accident.) However, I won't waste space on that here. I will say that the N-Gage isn't bad from what I've seen, and Pocket Kingdom makes good use of the platform's capabilities. I'm not a big fan of convergent devices (i.e., electronic gizmos that try to do more than one thing, like the N-Gage being a GSM cell phone as well as gaming rig), but the N-Gage seems to do well enough in its dual role. Unfortunately, I don't have any other games to play on it yet and my cell carrier uses CDMA instead of GSM, so getting more use out of it now is my next big challenge.

Now, to the game. The story: Pocket Kingdom takes place in an online massively multi-player game world (how circular). The last ruler of this world was Ulgress, a "griefer" who dominated other players into submission and thus controlled all of the in-game world. However, Ulgress was ultimately banned from the servers, meaning that no single player has complete control over the game world anymore. All the small "pocket kingdoms" in the realm now have an equal chance to advance, grow, and dominate their peers, until someone finally takes Ulgress' place and "0wns the w0rld."

(Note that the use of "l33t" throughout this review is, unfortunately, not a mistake. The developers wanted to not only target online gamers as players, but they wanted to foster the feel of a MMOG (something they shouldn't need to force upon the player, as that should develop on its own). Sadly, this includes reinforcing the stereotype that all your opponents are l33t-spouting prepubescents with no social skills, a chip on their shoulder, and a fondness for mild profanity. Maybe I'm getting old or I'm just out of touch with the online gaming community, but I kind of found this assumption about my maturity levels and vocabulary a little bit insulting and a whole lot annoying. And thus, I reveal my first problem with the game. Seriously, folks... yeah, I got excited and cheered a bit when I won a round against someone, but I didn't go around shouting "I 0wn j00, you @%*@&%$!" It seems to me that some of the language was totally gratuitous and was only added to give the game a tougher ESRB rating. I'm sure the real game world will be filled with enough l33t-spouting prepubescents so the developers don't have to pretend to be them when writing the NPC encounters. To borrow some l33t of my own, this makes them come off as p0z3rz.)

When you begin play, you start with your castle and a small amount of "loot." There are four main areas of organization, through which you control and expand your little kingdom:

  • The Store is pretty much self-explanatory. This is where you buy and sell items and units. In the beginning of the game, you must purchase combat units to fill your armies. You will also need to purchase things such as ores, jewels, and molds to build more powerful armor, weapons, and units. (I'll cover that later.) Since you only have a limited number of inventory slots (and unfortunately almost everything takes up at least one slot), you'll often find yourself selling items just to make room for more stuff that you'll collect through your conquests. (Another minor, but highly annoying, flaw in the game is the inventory system, especially when selling large quantities of similar items. If you need to sell 30 or so harps that are no longer needed, you need to go through and sell each and every one of them individually, a tedious and boring process if there ever was one.)
  • The Party screen lets you manage and organize your little armies. Individual units are placed into parties of at most four (some units may take up two or more slots). Within each party, you can manage what weapons and armor the units can use (sadly, they can only have one or the other, not both), what marching order they should follow, and what their target should be in combat (the first enemy unit they come to, the enemy unit with the highest rank, the unit with the lowest hit points, etc.). Between battles, you can also pay to heal damaged units or replace ones killed in battle. When you play online, one party will be set in defense mode and will defend your castle from attack by other players.
  • The Map screen is where combat really takes place. The map has two levels: one over-all world map that lets you move from area to area, and a local-level area map that focuses in on your current location. In an area, you may conduct searches to find player (if you're online) or NPC encounters, then scout out those castles to find out what you're going to face. You may also stumble upon boss castles, beast dens, and other NPC combat zones, as well as the occasional non-combatant village that's willing to trade with you. Usually, you won't be able to progress from one area to the next unless you've beaten the boss castle in that area. You also won't be able to play online at first until you've beaten at least three areas and have earned an "online crest." (Thus, you get a little combat experience under your belt before you go online and get your pants handed to you by another flesh-and-blood player.)
  • Finally, there's the Lab. I saved this one for last, because this is (a) where you'll spend most of your time and (b) where you'll find the most frustration. The lab gives you the ability to combine raw materials into more useful items such as weapons, armor, accessories, or "RankUps." Most of these raw materials—ores, jewels, and "others"—you will find as you scout and plunder NPC and player castles; however, you will be able to buy a limited selection from the store. Each combination requires a mold, an ore, a jewel, and some "other" item to create a magical item. For example, a sword mold, a piece of copper, a garnet, and a harp can be combined to create a copper sword with fire bonuses that magically increases the dexterity of the unit that uses it. To promote a combat unit to a higher level, you must create an emblem using a "RankUp" mold and the proper combination of materials. The type of unit and the type of emblem determines what type of upgraded unit will be created.

    This is where my second big problem with the game arises. As I mentioned, this is where you'll end up spending most of you time. Why? Because there are literally hundreds of thousands of permutations of molds, ores, jewels, and other materials available, and only certain ones really work. Thus, part of the game is trying hit-and-miss combinations to see if you can come up with something useful or nothing at all. And since each concoction has a chance of failure, you could end up wasting valuable, rare materials to create a useless dud. Now, for some people, this would be challenge, and if you're one of those people, I salute you. Me, I find this a tedious game of luck, and I don't handle monotony well. I had a hard time getting anywhere in the game and was almost ready to give up in frustration when one of my contacts from the contest pointed me to Warcry's PK site with a detailed database of items, units, emblems, and materials. I couldn't have gotten anywhere without that site.

    But that brings up an interesting dilemma. I don't know about the typical gamer, but I know my memory isn't the best. I have enough trouble remembering what I had for breakfast this morning, let alone trying to remember what combination of molds, ores, jewels, and knickknacks go into making a Bone emblem. As much of my mind that gets devoted to useless trivia and twisted comic plots, you'd think that wouldn't be a problem; but it is. So to me, Warcry's databases became an indispensable resource. I couldn't advance anywhere in this game without them. But here's the real dilemma: what about when I'm not at home with my nifty Internet connection? Isn't that what the N-Gage is all about? Mobile gaming? Yet every time I found myself playing away from home, I was stuck to simply scouting and attacking. I couldn't upgrade anything because I didn't have the databases handy to see what to make. To me, it completely defeated the purpose of playing a mobile game. Admittedly, this may not be a problem from some 12-year-old who would rather memorize hundreds of material combinations in a game than what he needs to recall for his history test tomorrow, but it is a problem for this old man. This aspect alone almost made me give up on the game, and if it weren't for Warcry's site, I probably would have.

On to combat: This is (supposed to be) the primary focus of the game. (I say "supposed to be" because of my above comments about the Lab.) In the map, you search for castles to rape and pillage, scout them to see what you're up against, then proceed with the raping and pillaging. Most of the time you will find the aforementioned NPC castles, beast lairs, boss towers, and villages, and you can be free of guilt in razing these targets to the ground. (That is, after all, what they're there for.) Upon defeating a boss tower, you'll receive "victory points" and often a new area of the world map will be opened to you. If you're playing online, you may also find player castles (if they are in the same area as you), which you can also raid. Winning a player-vs.-player round will earn you victory points as well as some raw materials; losing will cost you victory points. Needless to say, victory points and loot determine your ranking upon the server.

After you've found an opponent's castle and you've scouted it, attacking surely follows. You pick your target, then the party you want to attack, and then... you wait. You'll then be presented with a nice little pleasantly animated battle sequence where you watch your party duke it out with the opposition, where you either win by completely destroying or knocking out the enemy party or, if time runs out, the enemy party has taken more damage than your party. This is all well and good, but here comes my next big complaint: once combat has started, you can do nothing by watch the battle and wait for the outcome. When I first saw the battle sequence come up, I desperately tried to hit buttons to figure out what I had to do to help my little army fight. Then I realized that nothing I did had any effect; the battle's outcome had already been determined, and all that was left was to play out the scene and present the results. This got me thinking... why show the battle sequence at all, then? Sure, the battle has some of the spiffiest graphics in the game, but why should I be forced to watch a 30-second battle animation (which, by the way, if I'm playing online, is chewing up my cell time minutes) when there's nothing I can do to affect the outcome?

Maybe I'm griping about nothing here, but I think this is a major failing in the game. I can't help thinking about the classic original Civilization game when I think of a comparison. In Civ, it was all about micromanagement of your cities, resources, and combat units; Pocket Kingdom, to a large degree, is also a micromanagement game. But in Civ, when you attacked an enemy unit, there was a brief animation, a small sound effect, and you immediately saw the outcome. It was short, sweet, and to the point, but it did what it was supposed to do and got you back to the meat of the game: managing what was going to happen next. In PK, you initiate a battle sequence and are then forced to watch a 30 second (or longer, in the case of boss castles with multiple levels) animation the disrupts the flow of the game (i.e., managing your kingdom). It breaks the train of thought, it wastes battery time on the gaming rig, and—if you're online—wastes precious air time minutes. Now, if combat were the main focus of the game, this wouldn't be a problem. (Don't let the marketing hype fool you. This is a game about micromanaging your kingdom and your units; combat is only a small part of that, and it's only enlarged by the combat cut-scenes.) If I see a 2-D fighting game style arena like something out of Mortal Kombat, I expect to actually play during that sequence. Instead, I'm a spectator. Sure, I can root for my little armies as they thrash or get thrashed by the enemy, but I can't get the thought out of my mind that the outcome has already been determined, I'm not actively playing anything, and I'm wasting real-world resources doing it. Maybe it wouldn't bother me as much if I wasn't so concerned over the cellular air time (for the competition, I was given a free pre-paid phone card, so I wasn't paying for it), but frankly, I can't get around that hurdle. To be wasting precious minutes on nothing but a cut-scene hurts. Sega, next time, follow Civ's example and finish the battle in an instant; either that, or disconnect me during the cut-scenes so I can call my Mom this month.

By now, you're probably wondering if I have anything good to say about the game. :) I know I've sounded quite harsh, but I think my complaints and frustrations above are perfectly valid. I think they're either flaws in the design of the game or examples of where I'm not the target audience. But let me finish up by saying that I did have fun playing, and to tell you what I think the developers have done right.

First of all, the concept of the game play is truly unique. Multi-player games in handheld consoles are nothing new; "link" cables have existed for years now, and most of the handhelds out there now support Wi-Fi or Bluetooth wireless networking. (The N-Gage also supports Bluetooth, but not in PK.) Pocket Kingdom is unique, though, in that it's the first game (that I know of) that uses the cellular data networks to play wirelessly over the Internet. Thus, you're not playing just playing against the guy a few seats ahead of you on the bus; you could be playing him, or some guy on the other side of the country, or someone on the other side of the world. Most of my online battles were against Darren "Gav" Bleuel of Nukees, and it was exciting playing against someone in California while I'm sitting on my couch in North Carolina. This, combined with the mobility of the N-Gage as a cell phone, makes for a truly interesting twist.

For all my complaints about the Lab above, the endless permutations of items and RankUps does lead to some incredibly varied weapons, armor, and combat units. Just browsing the unit database is mind boggling; there are over 120 types of units available, which makes lots of varied game play. I was often surprised whenever I attacked (or was attacked by) Darren, catching myself exclaiming, "Where the heck did he get THAT?" There are lots of surprising (and occasionally funny) units in there, and that makes for some interesting strategies to be deployed for offense and defense. (Note that my previous complaint was about memorizing all the combinations, not about the units those combinations created.)

As I mentioned above, the graphics are awesome (as one would hope to expect from a company that's been around as long as Sega). From what I've seen so far of the N-Gage, there are two types of games: those that work well within the limits of the game's hardware, and those that try to achieve more than what the machine can push out. Most of the 3-D games fit into the latter category; those that I've seen usually are grainy and choppy, and today in the days of the superior 3-D graphics of console and PC games, it's hard to go back (especially when you see some of the awesome 3-D stuff on Sony's new PSP). PK, however, has a very retro 16-bit console feel, and on the N-Gage's little screen, it just seems to fit. The colors are vibrant and catchy, and the character designs just pop out at you.

The NPC combat isn't that great, and once you get to a certain point, their not much of a challenge. But they do serve their primary purpose, and that's to build up your units so you'll be ready to play online. And it's the combat against other players that's the most fun. Although my complaints about the combat system still hold, there is a lot of fun in being attacked and going back for retaliation when you know your opponent is a live human. It's even more fun when you know your opponent personally, which is why I picked most of my fights with Darren. :)

So what's my final analysis? Pocket Kingdom is an interesting and inventive game that definitely deserves props for being the first of its genre. Some people have touted it as being to the N-Gage as Halo has been to the XBox, the game that truly defines the platform. While I'm probably not in the best position to make that determination, I'd agree it has that potential. However, the game wouldn't be my first choice; the micromanagement angle is a bit too tedious for my tastes, and I'm frustrated by the lack of interactivity in combat and by my reliance on outside resources to make any serious use of the Lab. However, for players that can overlook these problems (or see them more as a challenge), the excitement of challenging players across the globe in combat is certainly a lot of fun. There are tons of items and units to create and upgrade, and the developers put a lot of effort into making it enjoyable for the long term. Just be prepared to buy a lot of extra cellular minutes, as anyone who is serious about the game is going to burn through those faster than an L.A. divorce lawyer.

(If you'd like to discuss this review, please use this thread on the forum.)

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