Mechwarrior Online

The Basics
Game Name – Mechwarrior Online
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – Vehicular Combat, Action
Educational Values – Teamwork, Strategy, Leadership, Tactics, Analysis
Platforms – PC
Where to buy – Download it for Free here
When should you buy it? – When you are looking to pilot a 50 ton avatar of destruction across the battlefield.

About the Game

The Mechwarrior franchise started back in the 80’s as a board game. It has since expanded over the years into a series of collectible card games, tabletop games, and video games. Mechwarrior Online is one of the video games (natch) and allows a gamer to pilot a giant robotic Battlemech or “Mech” in combat against other pilots from around the world in giant team arenas. Your character or “pilot” can purchase and own several Mechs, deciding at the beginning of each round which one to take into battle.

This game is Free to Play and can be downloaded from their website after creating a free account. As is common in Free to Play games, there are opportunities within the game to spend money. Some of the items that you can purchase include custom Mechs, experience accelerators, toys and bobbleheads for your cockpit, etc. All of the items that can be purchased enhance the gaming experience, but none of them provide someone with an overwhelming advantage on the battlefield.

Each round of Mechwarrior Online is called a “Drop”; you can drop alone or with a group of up to 12. If you head in alone, you are matched up with a group of random players. Dropping with a group improves communication and keeps your team working together. Whether that involves moving to a location together, coordinating fire on targets, or supporting someone who runs into trouble, this communication is crucial for winning a round. A pre-built team that works well together will almost always triumph over a Pick Up Group (PUG) made of random players.

There are currently two game-styles in Mechwarrior Online. The first, Conquest, involves five ‘control points’ that need to be captured and maintained to gather points. The first team to gather 750 points, or destroys all of the Mechs on the opposing team, wins the match. The other game style, Assault, is even more simple. The goal is to destroy the entire other team, or capture their base to win. There is nothing groundbreaking in the game-styles, but sticking with these basic conventions allows Mechwarrior Online to focus more on building interesting maps, and creative Mechs.

Within the rounds, there are a combination of short term and long term goals. When not in a Drop, a gamer is given additional options. There are mid-range goals of upgrading your Mech, or purchasing new Mechs and long-range goals of upgrading your pilot. Each of these goals requires planning, and a gamer can sacrifice a short or mid-range goal for the good of improving their pilot, which will improve all of their Mechs. Or they can ignore the long term goals altogether for building a stable of powerful Mechs, or they can ignore them both and just play the Drops with the stock Mechs for fun.

Let’s hope he doesn’t turn around.

What the Game Teaches Us

Since the Mechs vary in size and armament so greatly, and they can be customized even further, there are dozens of combinations that a team can choose from prior to a drop. There may be some team members given the responsibility of scouting the enemy movements, and they choose smaller, faster Mechs. While others are there to provide artillery or indirect fire support, and choose the heavier Mechs. This kind of role based decision making, requires understanding the pros and cons of the available Mechs and equipment, then formulating a strategy to meet the team’s objectives, and showing the leadership on the team to get everyone on the same page.

While in a round, a gamer has to transform that strategy into a series of tactical decisions. They must lead their Mech or team of Mechs around terrain features, and buildings, and maintain communication with their team to accomplish their objectives. This requires analyzing huge amounts of data and making decisions that will balance short term requirements (i.e. I need my Mech to survive this fire fight) and long term requirements (i.e. I need to capture that outpost) quickly and in rapid succession.

A small example of the data that must be continually analyzed at any given point in a game include :ammunition and heat levels, damage to their Mech and their teammate’s Mechs, the location of their teammates, and their opponents, the possible weapons loadouts of their opponents, determining which is the most appropriate target, their relative location to an objective on the map, etc. Managing that kind of complex information is difficult and stressful, but it is also educational. Learning to keep your calm in a stressful situation, and make decisions based on sound judgment are very important skills to have. When individuals become overwhelmed in life, they tend to react to that stress in emotional ways, playing games like Mechwarrior Online help prepare a gamer for those situations in a safe way.

Mechwarrior Online also teaches self control and reflection. While individual games are only 10-15 minutes long, the lumbering movement of a 100 ton Mech makes the pace of the game less frenetic than a standard First Person Shooter. And while your Mech is tough, getting caught all alone in the open is a quick ticket to watching the rest of the round as a spectator.

So many Mechs, so little time.

General Feelings on the Game

The Mechwarrior games have always been near and dear to our hearts. This latest iteration is a credit to nearly 25 years of great video games. It is complex, varied, interesting, and a heck of a lot of fun. The game just came out of beta, and there are so rough edges that are being sanded down, but the developers have been putting out patches as well as new content consistently for several months.

MWO is a combat game, that has simulated violence. While all of the violence is exclusively against the Battlemechs themselves, and there is no adult language, MWO is not for every gamer out there. But if you are looking for a Free to Play game that you can drop into for a few minutes, or play all night with your friends, this is the one for you.

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What is immersion?

One of the goals of most games is to get a gamer “immersed” in the experience. There are different types of immersion or “presence” , but in general it is an experience where a player’s entire focus is wrapped up in the game and they lose track of anything outside of it. A similar experience can be found in any medium. We have all read books that we “just couldn’t put down”, or watched movies that we were surprised to see end. Video games, with their built in engagement, offer more opportunities for immersion, and can allow immersion to be reached more easily than other forms of entertainment.

What helps with immersion?

A person can become immersed in written text.

Hardware to help – Omni/Virtuix, bigger monitors and better sound, using peripherals like Steel Battalion, or even the original Super Scope for the Super Nintendo (yes I had one, and no, there has never been anything cooler put out EVER).

Why do we seek it?

To lose oneself into the game is an amazing feeling. Whether you can get into the coveted “flow” state or just forget about the world for a while, immersion is one of the best reasons to play games.

I think that is because the modern world breeds ADD. I don’t mean that in a clinical sense, this isn’t the place to start an argument. But I am constantly checking my phone, my email, my twitter, then my emails, then my fantasy football league, and then my RSS feeds, and then my email…. etc. Even as I play games, I often have music or TV playing in the background. I sometimes find it difficult to focus on video games, the “apex predator” of sensory inputs. So when a game or experience comes along that offers me that sense of immersion, that sense of “holy cow! Did I really just spend two hours doing that?” I take note.

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Tiny Thief

The Basics
Game Name – Tiny Thief
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – Stealth Adventure
Educational Values – Patience, Visual Discrimination, Problem Solving
Platforms – IOS, Android
Where to buy – Itunes and Google Play
When should you buy it? –  If you enjoyed Angry Birds but are looking for something a little different.

About the Game

It is difficult to find a good, simple, stealth game, but to find one on the iPad is rare, and to find one that children can play is downright exceptional. You play the titular character, a small Robin Hood like thief who steals from rich or evil characters including a corrupt sheriff, pirates, and unfair baker.

The gameplay is as simple as can be, you tap where you want your Tiny Thief to walk and, when actions are available the game will present a pop up balloon showing you what you can do. All you need to do is avoid being seen.

Each level is a combination of puzzles that you need to solve to accomplish some goal. For example, you may need to collect ingredients from across the map and put them into an oven to make a cake. All the while, avoiding the gaze of guards. To be successful, you have to search, negotiate, plan, and try different approaches to advance through each level.

Similar to Angry Birds, you can earn up to three stars in each of the levels depending on how well you do. There is a single goal that is required complete each level, but accomplishing additional tasks along the way will earn you the extra stars.

Hide in the barrel so they don’t see you!

What the Game Teaches Us

Tiny Thief is a stealth game at heart. You have to take your character through each level without being seen, which sometimes requires you to wait patiently, hidden behind a shrub, while people walk just a few steps away from you. Unlike most games, where you can charge into a fight, or pick your own time and place to battle, stealth games force you to dance to someone else’s tune. That can be unnerving for some gamers, but it is a valuable skill to be able to sit and delay gratification.

Being a successful Tiny Thief is as much about seeing and understanding the  level as it is solving problems. There is even a hidden ferret on each level that finding gets your an extra star. Much like Tap the Frog, playing Tiny Thief helps develop visual discrimination, and the ability to gather and parse visual information.

Once you have learned to size up the level, and wait for it to unfold around you, a gamer can explore the core mechanic of Tiny Thief. Problem Solving. Unlike the old school “point and click” action games, where you were required to simply scrape the entire screen to unlock secrets, Tiny Thief requires higher order thinking to solve some of the puzzles. Don’t worry, for those puzzles where the gamer is just lost, there is a “hint book” that will walk you through the puzzles step by step.

So THAT’S how you do it!

General Feelings on the Game

I saw Tiny Thief on the Rovio website when I was doing the review for Angry Birds, and bought it on a whim. It languished for a couple of weeks on the iPad until I fired it up almost by accident. Wow was I impressed. Tiny Thief could be called “my first stealth game” since the gameplay and aesthetic is geared toward children, but that would be a gross oversimplification.

The story is told with a couple of pictures at the start of each level and then your actions in each level. And yet it works. At no point do you have to wonder what is going on, or why you are doing what you are doing. It is a testament to the developers how much information they are able to impart for a story without ever writing a word.

Tiny Thief is everything you want in a casual game. You can play a round in 5-10 minutes, during which you can learn all of the mechanics you need to be successful. The puzzles are creative and different throughout the game, and while they are ‘challenging’, they are not ‘punishing’. For only $2.99, you should definitely pick this one up.

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Why So Many Puzzle Games?

Anyone who has read this blog for more than 15 minutes knows that we love Puzzle Games. We love other games as well, but when you are looking for games that educate, Puzzle Games are a great place to start. There are several reasons why that is the case. Puzzle games are fun, they tend to be more ‘family-friendly’, and what they can teach us apply to any aspect of our lives.

The world is becoming a more complex place every day. My day job did not exist 15 years ago. The jobs that our children will hold  may not yet exist. To succeed, we must all learn how to adapt, and how to learn quickly. Exercising our brains is just as important as our bodies. So, when I see a way to relax in the evening, have fun and keep my brain in top shape, I jump on it. Puzzle games are like the cardio of the gaming world, they help you with everything a little bit.

Given our focus on education, we tend to write about games that can be played at school, or played with children. There are many games that we at gaming to learn absolutely love, that are not appropriate for us to write up. For instance, we wrote up a post on Left 4 Dead. For those of you not familiar, Left 4 Dead is a fantastic horror First Person Shooter which requires 4 people to work together to achieve common goals. It is one of our favorite games, and there is a lot to be learned from that it, but we did not post it. Not that we don’t recommend that game, you should definitely check it out if survival horror is your thing. But Left 4 Dead is not a game that we recommend for teachers and parents. 

Lastly, Puzzle games are just fun. We love to play them, we love to write about them, and isn’t that a good enough reason?

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Sanctum 2

The Basics
Game Name – Sanctum 2
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – SciFi First Person Shooter/ Tower Defense
Educational Values – Teamwork, Planning, Strategy and Tactics
Platforms – Windows
Where to buy – Steam, Gamersgate, Greenman Gaming, From their Site.
When should you buy it? –  You can’t decide between playing a tower defense game, or a first person shooter. Or you want an awesome co-op experience.

About the Game

Sanctum 2 is a slightly more ‘adult’ game than we normally review on this site. While there is no blood or sex, but there is some mild language that will not make it appropriate for every gamer or setting.

The original Sanctum introduced a new combination style of gameplay blending the standard “First Person Shooter” mechanics with “Tower Defense” mechanics. And it did it surprisingly well. You are tasked with defending your base against waves of alien attackers, and given resources that you can use to build towers to help fend off the attacks. In most Tower Defense games, you have 2 phases. The Build phase, where you build a maze or path for the attackers. And an Assault phase where the attackers go through your maze trying to reach your base.

Sanctum 2 has the standard two phases, with the tweak being that you are not playing a standard “top down” view, rather you are playing with a first-person view throughout the course of the game, running around on the ground with your character. You build the maze and the towers in the Build phase, but when the Assault phase comes up, you can jump up onto your towers and help shoot the incoming aliens.

As a gamer who is a fan of both genres, I was instantly drawn to Sanctum when I heard about the concept, and I want not disappointed. I was thrilled when I saw the announcement for the sequel, and again, I was not disappointed.  The first Sanctum was fun and well built, but unpolished. The sequel shows a development team that took what was good about the first game and improved on it. The sequel introduces new gameplay mechanics, new towers, and new weapons.

That’s quite a maze, but can you defend it?

What the Game Teaches Us

Tower Defense games are all about planning. To be successful, you must think tactically about the current Assault round, and also strategically about all of the following Assaults as well. This can mean struggling through a few rounds while you save up for the cash to upgrade a heavy tower. Or building heavier defenses on one side of the map and relying on your own attacks to fend off the other side. You are constantly being asked to make decisions and weigh the competing forces of short and long term goals.

Fortunately, the game gives you several ways to measure yourself and the towers you build throughout. The most obvious is the health of your “cores” which power your base. If they reach 0%, you lose. Beyond that, you can see how much damage each of your towers is doing overall, and how much they did the previous round. This allows a gamer to prioritize their upgrades as well as de-construct towers that are not pulling their weight. During the Planning Phase, the gamers are also shown which of the dozens of types of enemies that will attack them in the upcoming Assault wave. Seeing the enemies just one round in advance heightens the tension between the short term goal of surviving the upcoming round, and the long term goal of surviving all of the rounds to the end.

Whether you are determining which towers to use, or where to use them, or in what order to upgrade them, every decision must be made with limited information and limited resources. This scarcity is a driving force in the game, but it still falls behind the gameplay. The mechanics are intuitive enough that, after a few short rounds, you don’t even notice how complex it is and just enjoy blasting the aliens.

While you are blasting those aliens, it always helps to have a little help from your friends. Sanctum 2 allows for up to 4 player co-op play which adds to the complexity tremendously. The game forces you to communicate with your allies by not distributing resources throughout the team evenly, but allowing you to share resources quickly. It also scales the difficulty by making the attacking aliens stronger for each person you add to your group. So, while your team grows more powerful, so do your opponents.

Keep backing up and reload!

General Feelings on the Game

Sanctum 2 is an interesting take on the First Person Shooter and the Tower Defense genres. By blending the strengths from both of them, it creates a game style that is unique and one I hope other developers will explore further. It is fun enough to keep you and your friends playing through the levels and mods again and again, and complex that there is no ‘right’ answer. That diversity of opponents and gameplay make you think through each round.

I love any game that does co-op well, and Sanctum 2 does a great job of it. Whether it is making it easy to drop into a game with friends, or scaling the difficulty as your team size increases, or offering discounts on purchasing a “4-pack” of the game, it is obvious that Sanctum 2 was built from the ground up as a game to play with your friends.

Though it isn’t appropriate for all ages of gamers, Sanctum 2 is a great one to pick up, and it will teach you a lot. Even if you don’t notice it.

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Free to Play

What is it?

Free to play is a relatively new concept in gaming. Thanks to the growth of digital distribution (which has helped bolster the Indie Scene) developers are able to maintain an ongoing relationship with gamers. This allows them to continue to introduce new content for games and sell it as “Downloadable Content” or “DLC” in the form of expansions, new skins, new mods, etc. Free to Play is the next logical extension of that concept. The developers builds a game and gives it out for Free over the net. A gamer can download the entire game and play it as much as they want.

The way the developers make money is primarily in two ways. The first is to sell items or gear in the game that can only be purchased for real dollars. In most cases, these are things like novelty hats, robes, or skins for your characters in game. They do not impact the flow of gameplay or allow you to “pay to win” by providing advantages to a gamer. They are just fun additions that only costs a buck or two and make the game more interesting.

The second is by allowing a gamer to purchase accelerators within the game. This is more common in RPG games, where a gamer can purchase limited time upgrades or “buffs” for their characters that will allow them to be moderately more powerful or allow them to progress through levels more quickly. These types of upgrades tend to be much more controversial, with some gamers calling the “I Win Buttons” and deriding games that include them.

What are microtransactions?

In both cases, the practice is kept alive through microtransactions. That is the ability to buy a small good for only a few cents or a couple of dollars. In some cases, allowing a player to tap a PayPal account or credit card whenever they want to make a purchase, or, more likely, having a gamer purchase a block of in game Currency and using that block slowly over time. That way, the developers get more up front and if the gamer ends up not spending everything in game, they come out ahead. This sounds a lot shadier than it is. Purchasing a block of Currency also makes the experience for the gamer far more streamlined

Example games?

Some of my favorite games are Free to Play. Mechwarrior Online, League of Legends, Warframe, Team Fortress 2, and Tribes: Ascend are some of great examples of F2P and microtransactions done well. In cases where I play a F2P game and enjoy it, I make it a point to throw in a couple of dollars on something. Even if it is 4 bucks to make my warrior look like a Space Marine in League of Legends, or $2 for a custom paint job for my Mech in Mechwarrior Online. If you enjoy the hard work and dedication that goes into these games, you should let the developers and the industry know.

Impact on the industry?

Microtransactions have definitely changed the way we look at games. The ability to use real money inside of games is already changing the way developers build and market games. In some cases, not for the better, as the most recent Deadspace game showed us. But it also allows for games to exist and be played by a wider audience that would not have been made under the old “everything costs millions of dollars to build and we will sell it for $60” model. Right now some of the most played games in the world are Free To Play, and they are also making boatloads of money, so I guess they are not doing things too wrong.

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The Basics
Game Name – Magicka
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – Action-Adventure
Educational Values – Teamwork, Synthesis, Analysis
Platforms – Windows
Where to buy – Steam
When should you buy it? –  If you are looking for a game that is fun, clever, and a unique experience.

About the Game

Built by a group of students in Lulea University in Sweden, Magicka is a run-away success story of the indie realm. That is largely due to the unique gameplay  style, but also the bright and cheerful aesthetic with campy and playful humor throughout.

Magicka looks like a relatively simple, top down action game;  you control a small, cartoon wizard with a deep hood and a staff. You use your elemental powers of Water, Life, Shield, Cold, Lightning, Arcane, Earth and Fire to cast offensive and defensive spells and help traverse the world around you. First, you learn to combine the elements to form more powerful attacks like adding Water to Frost to cast Ice Shards, or cast a spell in a circle around you instead of throwing it in front of you. But that is just the beginning. Once you complete the tutorial and start your adventure, you realize that this play style is like nothing you have ever seen.

If Magicka has one flaw it is that it is very difficult to play solo. Designed from the ground up as a Complementary Cooperative game; playing by yourself leads to getting killed and restarting, a lot. Of course, playing with others is made more complicated by the fact that you can (and do) kill your teammates quite often. Fortunately, you can resurrect them very quickly and keep on fighting.

Working together makes your more powerful than ever.

What the Game Teaches Us

Magicka teaches us to have patience with our teammates! Being killed because your friend accidentally shot a fireball too close to you, or caused a rainstorm that made you wet when you were trying to cast a lightning bolt can get frustrating. But, once the initial frustrations of accidentally being killed have worn off, and your teammates start to do better, you start to realize how powerful combinations of wizards can be. Having one person summon a barrier of flaming rocks while another heals the group, and a third shoot at the enemies with frozen ice shards to injure and slow them down makes for epic combat and plenty of fiero moments.

Beyond the “plays well with others” aspect, Magicka is a simple looking game (you just click to move your wizard, how hard is that?), but the spell combination mechanic provides enough depth to make it varied and interesting no matter how much you play. For example, you ‘gather’ up to five elements at a time by tapping their associated hotkeys and then release them when you are ready to cast a spell. Each element you ‘stack’ on yourself makes your spell more powerful, but also makes you move slower.

If you want to shoot a more powerful Fireball, you can ‘gather’ more elements to yourself. In this case, you can tap “D” three times and “E” twice to ‘gather’ the maximum of five elements which makes your wizard move significantly slower, but allows you to cast a much more powerful Fireball.

That is just one example of the spell casting, but there are dozens of combinations available, each with its own pros and cons. You can combine Arcane with Lightning with Fire and shoot it as a beam. You can combine Life with Earth and shoot a rock that heals everything it hits. You can combine Earth with Frost to shoot a ball that freezes enemies and water, which allows you to cross streams and lakes.  From an educational standpoint, you have to analyze the game mechanics, understand them and synthesize an appropriate response.

While some of these decisions and analyses are built into every game, Magicka requires a gamer to move beyond the simple, “Aim cursor. Click mouse button until Target is dead.” that we see in so many other games.

Surrounded? Can’t swim in those heavy robes? Just freeze everything around you!

General Feelings on the Game

Magicka is creative, funny, and exciting. The solo difficulty is a little rough, but with a couple of friends, Magicka can provide hours of gameplay with plenty of “holy crap, did you know you can… ” moments. The self-referential humor and nods to various games and tropes throughout are enough to make any nerd giggle, while taking away nothing from someone who does not get them.

The gameplay is different, and even if you have trouble with the learning curve, it is still worth trying out. So many games today seem to be re-treading the same territory, and Magicka is a like a fresh breeze by comparison. Do not let the fact that it is different and a little tough dissuade you from trying out this game. Plus the price is right at $5.

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