Sunday, February 17, 2002

To begin with, a quick supplement to the Phrase of the Day. When I said "heart-attacked," I didn't just mean getting a tastefully decorated black paper heart, although that was nice (and, if I may say so, whoever did mine created quite the pleasing product). The meat of the heart-attack was the sign on the wall next to the door saying "[insert name here], you've been heart-attacked!" and the eight little paper hearts next to that, one from each girl and containing some nice thing to say about us. And of course there was the signature on the inside of the valentine itself: The Tmony Girls. I thought that was a very classy way of saying "we're doing this in response to what you did for us" without harping on the subject.

Last Friday I went to Jammix in the company of Dr. Lear, whom I have so far found to be a thoroughly congenial girl. She used that word at some time during the night - "congenial," I mean - and it struck me as very appropriate to describe her. For one thing, she is congenial, or anyway her company is. For another, the fact that she would use a word like "congenial" in everyday conversation suggests one of the reasons why I like spending time with her.

And yet, I admit to harboring some latent dread where she's concerned. I'm not entirely sure why. Is it because I'm afraid she really will turn out to be the Deirdre Lear to my Kai Allard-Liao? I'm sure that's part of it, but I don't think that's a really satisfactory explanation. Is it that I fear we'll end up in a situation where she's interested in me as a boyfriend and I don't return the sentiment? That's a possibility too - and I admit that the news of her suitor doesn't really allay that fear any. Perhaps the missing element is that I fear we'll never move past the bantering//flirting stage to actually become friends. Yes, that strikes me as right.

In gaming news, I finally cracked open MechCommander 2 the other day. It lacked the cool cinematic opening of the original MechCommander, which I think is a shame since historically BattleTech computer games have had exceptionally good cinematic openings. Despite this failing, the game has not proven to be a disappointment. I attribute this to two factors: immersiveness and game design.

One of the reasons I continue to buy BattleTech games despite the fact that I don't like the direction the storyline has turned is that they have historically had that special something which makes you feel like you're there. In MechWarrior 2 the pre-mission fiction drew you into the Refusal War and placed your puny mid-'90s six-'Mech engagement within that epic larger context. Who will forget the experience in Mercenaries of watching Col. Holly die in the opening sequence and then getting her death letter, or your first encounter with the Clans? Or how about the first moment of MechWarrior 3 where you push your Bushwacker out of the sea and onto land and realize that your senses have been tricked into making you feel like you're actually thirty feet in the air riding fifty-five tons of dripping BattleMech?

MechCommander 2 has this magic, without which no game, however well designed or commercially successful, can truly aspire to greatness. It's in the radio chatter: "Nobody move, we're in a minefield." It's in the audiovisual effects: the ruby-red fingers of laser beams springing into instant existence to connect your 'Mechs to the enemy's, the deep-throated "ka-thunk" as an autocannon belches fire. It's in the between-battles, where the pilots who talk to you during a mission and call out to you for help almost become people you genuinely care about, and your mind starts to make up their stories.

As for gameplay ... I can't decide if I like the gameplay here or if I like the game in spite of it. The new way sensor contacts are treated is great: as polygonal icons on the 3-D map, with varying levels of detail depending on how good your sensor operator is at interpretating his or her data. That's just fantastic, and when you lose your sensor platform (as I did a few missions back, much to my dismay) you realize just how important it is to be able to see over the next ridge without poking your head out. That's the major improvement. Tactically speaking ... on the one hand, despite the absence of battlefield heat management and cover, the game really does feel like BattleTech. You can absolutely feel why the Inner Sphere developed its tradition of concentrating fire, and the utter dismay IS soldiers felt when they encountered an opponent who didn't do that because he didn't have to. The damage model reproduces the feel of the board game in a way that the MechWarrior first-person sims never will, which is extremely pleasant.

At the same time, I feel like the tactical skill involved in this game mostly happens before the shooting starts, and I can't decide if that's good or bad. On the one hand, it feels grittier and more realistic. For anyone who's ever played a halfway reasonable tank sim, you know that the skill in armor combat is in the positioning and the maneuver, not the shooting. The shooting is almost elementary. Of course there is some skill involved in managing your forces once the triggers start getting pulled, as I witnessed dramatically the other night when I managed to pull my team out of a very bad ambush. At the same time, having played all of the MechWarrior games except for the original and the MechWarrior 4 expansion pack, I can't help but feel like there ought to be more movement once the shooting starts. In short, I instinctively look for the ubiquitous Circle of Death, where one 'Mech circles another with torso turned inward. Now, being a reasonably experienced veteran of the board game, I know that the Circle of Death is a feature of BattleTech that the video games introduced to compensate for certain things the video games left out; in short, it's a foreign element in the universe. So I look for it instinctively but I don't really want it.

What would be nice is some better computer AI. Granted this game is two years old, but it seems to me that first-person shooter AI has gotten better than third-person tactical AI, and that galls me. When you can lure individual units into following you to the ends of the earth for an ambush, two things are wrong. First, you know that the enemy soldiers aren't talking to each other ("Charlie, you're five klicks out from base ... Charlie, come back, you've chased him off ... Charlie, at least wait for some backup ... Charlie!"). Two, you know the enemy is stupid, because he's following you like an imprinted duckling instead of a soldier with a wife and children who wants to do his job, yes, but also wants to live. People who want to live fight smart, and the MechCommander 2 AI is not smart. Very good level design makes up for this to a large extent, but I admit that this is a major failing of the game.

I guess that's enough blogging for now. I should go do some poetry for Wednesday's class.

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