Hearthstone

The Warcraft franchise is a vast, ever growing, almost sentient thing. It includes a number of extremely popular strategic games, the worlds biggest MMO, spawned world’s first MOBA, inspired series of licensed novels, toy lines, an obscure and unpopular tabletop RPG and even a semi-popular CCG. When I say “semi-popular” I’m speaking in relative terms. For example, Magic The Gathering is genuinely popular. It’s the biggest card game out there, and the Warcraft CCG is nowhere near as ubiquitous or respected. Then again, my local Wallmart and Game Stop never carried MTG cards (you’d buy those in specialized nerd-friendly establishments), but they always seemed to have exactly five Warcraft CCG blisters behind the glass somewhere. So while few people actually knew about it and played it, it was always somewhat more accessible because cards were sold just about everywhere you could buy other Blizzard merchandise.

Personally I have never collected it, because I swore off CCG’s after I was done with Middle Earth: the Wizards. Honestly, I don’t care what you say: that game was motherfucking amazing, and we played it like a decade before Peter Jackson introduced Tolkien to the Internet by way of movies. But in addition to being obscure hipster game, it also had really cool set of rules which emphasized exploration, resource gathering and gearing up your heroes in almost RPG like fashion rather than the simplistic MTG wizard duel setup. It was nuanced game which could be won by persuading more factions to join your cause, or by throwing the ring into the volcano. After playing it for a few years, MTG and it’s clones seemed like a step down, and a waste of money. So I never actually got into the Warcraft card game. My evil arch-nemesis brother however bought , traded and eBay-sniped enough cards to build not one, but several competitive decks. So whenever we felt like playing, he would let me pick one of his decks, and then he would proceed to completely obliterate me with one of the remaining ones.

Warcraft CCG

First person view of me totally losing this game.

If you have ever played MTG, the Warcraft game is much like it, but simpler. For example, there are no lands but instead any card can be played face down as a resource that can be tapped just like a land. Some cards are special resources called “quests” which are played face up, and can be fulfilled (usually by tapping things) to give you a reward (usually extra card draws) and become regular resources afterwards. Personally I think the Magic resource mechanic is more intuitive, but Warcraft one ends up being simpler once you get used to it.

The only other departure from the MTG model is the fact that instead of playing a nebulous, invisible and anonymous wizard, you instead start by playing a hero card. Heroes have hit points, abilities and if they are equipped with weapons and armor they can make attacks just like the minions do. This makes for interesting strategies sometimes: for example, if you’re playing a warrior your goal is essentially to use minions as a meat shield until you gather enough resources to equip all your epic armor and weapons at two-hit your opponent while being neigh invulnerable. It’s a fun little game. Where it lacks in depth, it makes up with dynamic, fast paced gameplay.

Why am I talking about the Warcraft CCG here? Because Blizard’s new video game Hearthstone is exactly that game (it even uses a lot of same art on the cards), but even simpler and in digital format. I guess you can call it a CCCG. That’s a thing right? I mean, I know that there exists a digital version of MTG so I’m assuming they are simply following an existing business model and are attempting to steam-roll over it gliding on the massive (but very slowly waning) popularity of WoW.

Pretty much everything that made the Warcraft CCG unique and different from MTG is gone in Hearthstone. The quests and resources are replaced by “mana crystals”. You get one extra crystal each turn, up until you have ten ensuring a rather linear progression. At the beginning you can only play weak, basic cards, and must wait til later to play the big and scary ones. The character cards are also gone, replaced with the basic WoW classes. Each one has 30 hit points and one ability which costs 2 mana to play. Depending on class it could be direct damage spell, heal or a summon spell for a basic minion. Armor is gone, replaced with spells that give you temporary armor that basically pads your hit points. Weapons typically do not cost resources to swing, but instead have set durability which decreases with each attack until they break. All decks must have exactly 30 cards, which makes the system somewhat rigid and inflexible. Other than that it plays exactly as the real life CCG. Or, if you will, exactly like Magic, if Magic had weapons and was on the computer (which I guess it is, but bear with me here).

Sometimes you lose

Sometimes you lose very, very badly…

Hearthstone is free to play, but you will probably end up spending like $80 on card packs in the first few weeks because it is just too tempting not to. It feels exactly like a real world CCG. The game starts you off with a nice set of basic common cards, and you can unlock about a dozen uncommons and rares by playing the set of tutorial games against the computer. Then it slowly feeds you more cards as you start playing against real people online, each time you level up. But the higher you go, the least frequent are the new card drops and eventually they dry up. You also get small but consistent amounts of gold for each win which you can use to buy new card packs, but it is a slow grind… So the store conveniently accepts real world currency.

Blizzard doesn’t really pressure you into making purchases, because they don’t have to. They leave it to other players. When all your friends are crushing your starter deck with their legendary card sets, spending $2 to get 12 cards, 2 of which are guaranteed to be rares, and there is a small chance you will also get one or more legendaries starts to seem like a bargain. It’s a bit insidious because you do need at least a few decent cards to be competitive. You don’t necessarily need the epic and legendary level ones (though they are nice) but you do need more than just the basic set to actually build a deck with a good synergy.

Sometimes you win

Sometimes you dominate. I think I might have made this guy cry IRL.

There exists a crafting mechanic which lets you destroy cards you don’t like/need and turn them into “magic dust” you can then use to create new cards. Unfortunately this is economical only for the basic common cards you want to obtain for specific effects or abilities. Crafting rare and epic cards is not entirely practical as they require way to much dust.

The game has a ranking system which will ensure you are queued with the people whose decks suck about as much as yours, so deck envy is mostly an issue when playing against real life friends. Though if you always play ranked, then you will eventually hit a rank where skill alone won’t be enough to overpower much stronger decks. There also exists Arena mode in which each player get a randomized set of cards from which you build your deck leveling the playing field a bit. Unfortunately Arena costs either gold or real money to play, but it also offers prizes to winners. On a single Arena ticket you can keep playing until you lose total of 3 times. The more wins you score, the better prize you get: basic prizes include gold and free card packs, but with enough wins you might also get epic or legendary cards.

Deck building tool

Deck building tool

Like any collectible card game,Hearthstone has been engineered from the ground up to separate you from your hard earned cash. It’s actually quite insidious how tempting it is to just keep throwing cash at this game. and how easy it is to justify it afterwards (“I might have spent more than I intended to, but I got Onyxia legendary and two golds so it was probably worth it”). I hate this aspect of the game, but at the same time I can’t stop playing it, because it is actually a surprisingly decent CCG. Unlike a lot of free to play games, Hearthstone is a lot of fun.

The rules are incredibly simple, the game play is intuitive (you just drag and drop cards) and the pace of the game is very fast and engaging. The actual game UI is great (I especially love the fact you can fuck around with the game board and destroy the scenery while waiting for the opponent to make a move) and pulling off mad combos is extremely satisfying. While it is tied into the Warcraft franchise I think it stands on its own pretty well. You don’t have to know anything about the Warcraft lore to play it, but if you are a current or former WoW player it just adds to the experience.

I usually recommend enjoyable games to my readers, but I’m not sure if I can do that with clear conscience for this game. The truth is that it is addictive, and in the first two weeks you are going to spend as much money on it as if you would on a brand new AAA FPS, if not more. So, don’t play it. But if you do, my battle tag is reset#1266 so feel free to add me.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel seems to have figured out the superhero movie formula. Ever since The Hulk (which was was a bit of s stinker) every single-hero movie has been a gradual improvement over the previous one. I think part of the success is the established shared continuity which allows new films to build on mistakes, or success of previous entries. Whenever something doesn’t work or doesn’t sit well with the audiences, it gets aggressively retconned and “corrected” in the next installment, while things that do work get referenced back giving the Marvel Cinematic universe feel large, complex and interconnected. It is a magical universe of infinite possibilities that allows them to blatantly defy the conventional Hollywood rules and expectations.

Most blockbuster movie franchises never get past the second sequel. Even much beloved, and once ground-breaking Nolanverse Batman re-imaging keeled over in the third installment. Marvel Studios have nine movies and a TV seires already in the bag which are either direct sequels to each other or very closely connected sharing same characters and themes. They have four more movies currently in production and another dozen in early planning, or drafting stages. The only movie franchises that even come close to this kind of output are the “cult classics” such as Nightmare on Elm Street (9 movies) or Friday the 13th (12 movies) which roughly have been releasing one sequel or re-imaging for each new generation of horror fans coming of age for the last 30 years. Marvel built their movie library in less than a decade, and unlike above-mentioned horror series (each of which had a number of atrocious flops and low budget cash-grabs), pretty much every installment was an absolute box office slam dunk, and an instant favorite both among the fans and movie critics. This is unprecedented. The techniques Marvel is using right now to make sweet, sweet love to our wallets every summer will be studied and taught in film schools of tomorrow.

The Winter Soldier Poster

Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie poster.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another example of how Marvel Studios seems to be incapable of screwing up. Against all odds and all expectations they continuously find fresh and new things to do with their flagship heroes. Iron Man 3 was pretty much what you might have expected from an Iron Man movie. Thor: The Dark World was an interesting thematic escalation that showed logical progression and character development both for the main hero and Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved villain. The latest Captain movie is a little bit of a re-invention, mostly because it has to be. The First Avenger was a cheerful rah, rah, go America patriotism and Natzi punching which was exactly what it needed to be to make the origin story work. But now that Steve Rogers is in the twenty first century and there are no more Natzi’s to punch, what do you do with him?

Marvel decided to put him in a Bourne Identity style spy thriller and surprisingly it works surprisingly well. Steve Rogers not only has to deal with the culture shock of living in the future, but also with being a soldier in a world which does not have designated bad guys anymore. Instead of fighting Nazis he now works for SHIELD where no one seems to be capable of ever telling the truth, everyone has an agenda or a secret mission and nothing is what it seems. He has to sink or swim in the sea of lies, subterfuge and secret plots. Does this work change him? Does it make him jaded? Nope.

Even while in midst of an escalating internal SHIELD spy intrigue Rogers sticks to his boy scout morals, and remains a beacon of idealism and honesty. You would think that someone like that would be eaten alive by the seasoned spies and career lairs but the exact opposite actually happens. Captain is far from being naive, and his unshakable moral compass works like spy kryptonite. Against all odds, this approach works, and it works amazingly well. It is really refreshing to have a likeable, relateable and morally unambiguous hero to not only exist but also persevere in a jaded and cynical environment of a modern spy thriller.

The movie is darker and grittier than any other Avengers offering so far. It grapples with actual topical real world issues such as morality of preemptive strikes against “potential future threats”, implications of allowing powerful top secret intelligence organizations operate without oversight, dangers of drone warfare and drone policing escalation and etc. But despite heavier subject matter it never feels pondering and gloomy like that awful recent Superman film. Captain doesn’t brood or skulk – he punches evil in the face, and this is why we love him. This is why he is the hero we need, and the hero we deserve.

Personally I am sick and tired of seeing the brooding anti-hero archetype being shoved into every super hero property out there. It was cool back when Nolan’s Batman did it the first time around, but the gritty, overwhelming realism quickly overstayed it’s welcome and became insufferable by the third movie. Captain America is a breath of fresh air: he is neither Bond nor Bourne nor Batman. He is a man out of time, and a character seemingly taken from a completely different movie. He doesn’t play spy games: he smashes through the conspiracies. He is the antibody that aggressively attacks and destroys the disease that plagued both SHIELD and Hollywood super hero adaptations in general.

Granted, making your characters nuanced is generally a good writing advance. Steve Rogers can at times be a bit one dimensional, or even somewhat dull. There are some, like New York Magazine’s Abraham Riesman who think Captain should be more of a jerk to make him more interesting:

Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Captain America has the potential to be much more interesting — but only if he’s a jerk.

While on the surface this might seem like a common sense advice, I don’t think I agree with it. In fact, I think Riesman’s ideas to improve Captain by making him a sexist, racist, homophobe (because, hey that’s a thing they did in that Mad Men and Rogers is sort of from that kind of shitty time period) is so awful I won’t even dignify it with a proper rebuttal. I’m fairly sure it is self explanatory why we shouldn’t turn a hero who wears stars and stripes as part of his costume into a hateful bigot. But let’s read between lines and pretend Riesman did not just write an essay begging Hollywood to be more bigoted and exclusionary (as if it needed any excuse). Let’s pretend his advice was just about adding conflict and nuance to one dimensional superheroes. I still don’t think it works.

Internally conflicted, nuanced protagonists don’t seem to work really well with the comic book hero narratives. Batman is a notable exception, but for him the internal turmoil is big part of the source material. Other heroes do not typically have this sort of baggage, and tacking it on actually diminishes them as characters. It backfired horribly in Man of Steel and it continues to suck out the fun out of each and every single Spider-Man reboot Sony feels compelled to churn out on an annual basis to keep their licenses from lapsing. I think as audiences we have had our share of overpowering, depressing, gritty realism, and we are done with it. We want our superheroes to be larger than life, and fight crazy space monsters rather than struggle with existential dread. The Avengers was the most successful and most beloved super-hero feature yet, and it didn’t even have an ounce of grimdark and despair. It did not need it. It wasn’t appropriate.

But if you want to make a film that is darker and more serious in tone and topic matter, do it the way The Winter Soldier did: juxtapose it against the larger than life superhero. Pepper your gritty settings with occasional idealists, optimists and selfless heroes. While such characters may seem dull on paper, they really stand out in the finished product. In a setting where everyone is jaded, morally compromised and dead inside someone like Steve Rogers becomes interesting precisely because he is more normal, adjusted and easier to relate to. Or, you know, don’t do any of these things and let Marvel continue dominating the box office until super heroes go out of style.

What did you think of the movie? Let me know in the comments.

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Chromebook

A few months ago I wrote about my desire to get a Chromebook. Well, I finally broke down and got one. At first I wasn’t really sure if it was worth the expense but now that I had it for a few days it seems like it should have been a no-brainer. I mean, you can’t really go wrong with a $200 laptop which weighs less than an iPad, has an actual working keyboad and runs a real web browser.

My Chromebook

My Chromebook

Granted, before plonking down the very modest amount of money (compared to other tablets and laptops, you financial situation notwithstanding) you should understand that this is not a general purpose computing device. It is a web browser with a keyboard. While you can use it for “work” via all manner of cloud services (Google Docs, Microsoft Live, Share LaTex, etc..) it is not what it was designed for. It was built for browsing the web and comfortably typing in your Facebook updates, or making notes in Markdown Journal. It is a device that offers a hybrid experience that lies somewhere between a tablet an an actual laptop but it is not a replacement for either.

I do own an iPad and it is a perfect device to use if you like to read or watch videos in your bed, on the toilet (though I have a policy of never taking electronics into the poop palace) or on the couch. If I’m going on a trip, or staying somewhere overnight I typically load it up with consumable media and take it with me. I usually shunt downloaded PDF’s into the iBooks, use Kindle for purchased content, Comic Zeal for reading comics in CBR format and Comixology / Marvel apps for downloadable content. It works marvelously as long as I don’t have to type a lot on it.

Hell, even if you hook up a Bluetooth keyboard to it, copying and pasting and switching between different pages and apps tends to be a pain in the ass. Whenever I type on the touch screen I yearn for a real keyboard. Once I hook up a real keyboard I start yearning for a real mouse or a touch pad because fingering the screen to switch tabs or apps completely breaks my flow. Mouse and keyboard go are a great combo for a reason. It will become abundantly clear as soon as you sit down to do any serious typing and/or editing on a touch screen device.

Light Strip on the Back

Light Strip on the Back

This is where a Chromebook comes in: it lets me maintain my flow. It lets me compose a blog post complete with links, quotations and even code snippets without driving me absolutely insane with awkward mouse-less multitasking scheme. Not only that: as soon as you sign into Chrome it syncs up all your extensions, bookmarks and bookmarklets. This means I get the full benefit of indispensable little user experience improvement tools such as Adblock and Last Pass which don’t really work on my iPad due to extensive app sandboxing.

I keep comparing the Chromebook to an iPad because I think this is the most constructive way of thinking about it. I have seen countless reviews of these devices, all of which concentrate on comparing it to regular, fully functional, multipurpose computers. I think that’s a little silly, because in such a comparison the Chromebook will always come up short. The best way to think about it is as a low end tablet that swaps the touch-screen with a keyboard and a touch pad, and replaces the sandboxed app ecosystem with Chrome Extensions. This means that while you may not get the latest version of a flappy/angry bird themed game on it, you will have access to tools that can actively modify your browsing experience. Browsing the web on a Chromebook is no different than browsing on a Mac or Windows PC.

Size Comparison with the iPad

Size Comparison with the iPad

The Chromebook 11 is tiny, and weighs almost nothing. I actually believe that it is a bit lighter than my last gen iPad and has similar battery life. The other day I used it for roughly five consecutive hours of browsing (including some light editing in OneDrive version of Powerpoint) and I still had roughly 80% of charge remaining which is quite impressive. My MacBook’s battery would be more or less dry at that point. I don’t really think this is sheer battery efficiency, but rather the amount of processing being done.

Chromebook uses an Exynos 5 dual core 1.7GHz CPU which doesn’t actually seem to get very hot at all. I had the device on my lap and the underside was barely lukewarm even during heavy load which is probably contributing to the battery life. At a glance the slow CPU combined with mere 2GB of RAM don’t really inspire much confidence in this things ability to perform under stress. Indeed, if you open several tabs and load computation intensive pages the performance does suffer. Probably the most annoying side effect is laggy scrolling of “heavy” website. The Chrome OS itself however performs very well. It boots in seconds and it wakes up from standby instantly. You can literally take it out of your bag, open the lid and start typing.

I have used netbooks that were similar size, weight and price range before, but not of them even comes close to Chromebook with respect of performance and responsiveness. Those devices were severely bogged down by their heavy-duty operating systems. Chrome OS makes this form factor work.

In my initial post, I expressed a concern that Chomium OS seemed to be missing a lot of libraries which crippled the web experience. So far the Chromebook had none of these shortcomings. I used Dropbox, Microsoft Office cloud tools, Share LatTex service, Youtube and even Netflicks. All of which worked rather well. Netflicks was a little bit sluggish to load and buffer videos but playback was actually acceptable. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the invisible speaker built into the rim around the keyboard is surprisingly loud.

If you ever wanted a cheep, disposable, super-tiny, super-light laptop like device for web browsing, then Chromebook 11 is perfect for you. You can just throw it into a bag and not worry about scratching, damaging or breaking it. It will definitely not replace a regular laptop, nor can it compete with a tablet with respect to portability. To use it you still need a table, or at the very least a lap to prop it on. But I think it offers unbeatable experience for typing up emails, note-taking or doing some light web based work that does not require firing up native tools. It’s a great value for very little money and I highly recommend it.

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