Archive for Game Review

SPAZing-out on SPAZABH

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2013 by trivialpunk

Alright, hey, hello! So, today, we’re going to be talking about Space Pirates and Zombies and Bounty Hunters (Basically mercenaries). I picked it up because the recent pop-culture obsession with zombies has afforded me the excuse to include any number of unrelated titles in my blog. Ultimately, I’m looking for good horror games to write about, but it’s not in the cards at the moment. Perhaps, I’ll have to step back in time and review some older games. SPAZ (or SPAZAB) came out in 2011, so we’re not that up-to-date. Oops. Oh well.

header

SPAZ is a game that the creators put together because it was the type of game they wanted to play, as the intro screen is pleased to tell you every time you start it up. I have to admit that I haven’t played many games like it recently. The story is interesting to a point and the world it takes place in is pretty well fleshed-out. Suffice it to say, you’re on the edge of the galaxy and you want to be in the middle of it, because that’s where all the money is. The various star systems you visit are connected by warp-gates, which are guarded by the local UTA authorities. So far, so standard. However, the entire known universe has fallen due to a civil war of sorts over the frankly abundant resource pockets that dot the systems, so all the stars are disconnected. The only connected authority is the mercenary faction, whose presence can be felt almost everywhere in the entire… everywhere. It makes you wonder why they haven’t just taken everything over. Maybe it’s an allegory for capitalism, and they just don’t want to have to deal with all the administration bullshit. Each star is divided between the local UTA forces and the civilian rebels. Every star. To the point where it gets almost unbelievable, but we’re flying around in space fighting zombies, so who’s to say what’s believable any more. That’s the story, for the most part. The main characters are pretty likeable and, to be honest, they’re the only things that are going to pull you through past the five-hour mark. With that in mind, let’s move on to the rest of SPAZ.

It’s full of good ideas, but, despite pumping over 17 hours into the games, I don’t feel like it executes well on any of them. The story, for instance, is communicated almost entirely through dialogue and the odd thematic combat sequence. The dialogue itself only really serves to describe the reasons for the current fight OR send you on a galactic-scale fetch quest. Whee.

On the surface, it’s a top-down flight-combat, fleet-control game, but, once you peel all the layers away, it becomes clear that SPAZ is a resource management game. All of your missions and scenarios give you some combination of rez (the game’s currency), goons (the people you need to fly your ships), data (essentially exp for levelling systems) and reputation. Reputation is confined to a specific star-system, (unless we’re talking about the merc faction) and really only affects who will sell you what parts and what missions are available at a given star, so there’s no real weight to blowing up an entire civilian space station. Missions change over time in a star system. They’ll only be available for a certain number of “jumps,” then they’ll disappear. However, most systems only have 4 or 5 available mission-planets at most and most missions are available for around 7 jumps, so there aren’t any difficult decisions to make. Most of the time, factions will only provide you with missions if you haven’t been shooting them up lately, but, at the same time, that means that if you want to increase your reputation with them, then you’ll have to either start shooting at the other faction for a while or fly into their home base and hand over some goons or money. Of course, if you want to shoot at another faction, then you can’t just get your “fleet” to jump them. You have to use the one ship that you can control at a time to whittle down the shield of an allied vessel. There’s no ambush command. Even if you select and direct your entire fleet to attack, they’ll just sort of waltz with it until you’ve destroyed enough of its shield to show that you’re really serious. This can take up to a minute depending on shield strength, which really makes you wonder what they thought was going on during that time.

Though, even for a resource management game, there’s really nothing at stake. Goons and rez are easy to acquire. You just have to do a few missions and you’re golden. It doesn’t even cost rez to make jumps. Hell, you actually get rez and goons from making jumps. I’m sure this was designed to make it so that you’re never just stuck anywhere, but that also takes away the only conceivable use for actual mining (driving over space rocks in your buggy and getting a bit of rez), because mining is so laughably inefficient that it’s not worth the time. If you really want to make rez, then the best way is to do challenges for the mercs.

After playing through the game, it became clearer and clearer that the mercs were just tacked on, if their shoe-horning onto the title-screen didn’t already make that obvious. The game seems to want you to explore the galaxy, but if you destroy ships or do missions within a sector near a merc planet, then you’ll gain bounty. So, this adds a clock to every action you take. That, or you can go back to a mercenary planet and play their little combat-challenge mini-games.  These provide you with rez and rezpect, which cancels out bounty. However, for me, a big portion of the urge to explore was driven by the idea of finding new planets with new tech to buy or absorb through destroying it (You reverse-engineer spaceship designs by destroying them and collecting their black boxes). The merc mini-games kind of destroyed that aspect of the game for me. I mean, why would I bother testing out new ship designs or feel any sense of risk if I can just play the mini-game for free over and over again and make money at the same time? I think these challenges were added in to give you an easy way to make money and reduce bounty, as well as let you try out ship designs and tactics, but I lost too much of the potential of the game through them. However, the end of each challenge circuit gives you a special crew member.

Special crew members provide you with bonuses when they’re active on your crew. They also level up as your gain data while using them. Pretty straight-forward levelling system that nets you useful bonuses. However, you can only use a couple of them at a time and their bonuses are huge. I feel like more crew members with smaller bonuses would have provided more flexibility and customization. Also, how on earth is one crew member making that big a difference? Aside from the fighters, you main ship is bloody huge!

Ship on Ship Action

Ostensibly, the ships themselves provide plenty of opportunities for customization. There a many different types of weapons that play around with the mechanics the games uses quite effectively. There are scanners that you can mount on your ship that let you see the many cloaked units you’ll encounter. Otherwise, you have to find cloaked units by using a variant warmer-colder and spinning around in space shooting lasers everywhere. There are also tractor beams for picking stuff up more easily (a blessing, because the ships control like butter on a theoretical ice frying pan) and mods that buff other portions of your ship. However, you spend so much of the game out-numbered and out-gunned that you need almost every available port bristling with weapons to take out your enemies before they destroy you. At worst, it’s the illusion of choice. At best, it’s a mechanic that only becomes useful once your whole fleet is kitted out with enough large-sized vessels to accidentally have a port free.

Speaking of horrible controls, the game-play near the beginning of the game is a lot of fun. The smaller ships are fast and maneuverable and the enemies are, as well, so it’s a seek and destroy sort of game. However (and I’m saying that a lot today), the larger ships control like something you peeled off the bottom of a jet-engine that recently crashed at a junior go-kart derby. This makes chasing down the little buggers, which still get thrown at you late-game, by the way, all the more frustrating. The commands you can give to your wing-men are varied and sometimes clever. You can order them to eject their hulls so that they can get a boost of speed to escape, but you’re missing a few really crucial commands for the late-game. One of those, as I mentioned earlier, is the attack-I-don’t-care-if-they-like-us command. The ability to set patrol routes wouldn’t go amiss, either. The one that really irks me, though, is the inability to tell them to stay still and fire in one direction. Isn’t that a staple of micro-management games?

The inability to give a “hold” command doesn’t sound too important, until you consider the later enemies. One time, I was fighting a giant space station that had all three of my ships outclassed in terms or defense and fire-power. It literally regenerated health faster than I could damage it. So, I destroyed its escort, warped back to base and rolled out Base-Crackers. They had as many guns and output-mods as I could put on a ship without sacrificing its ability to hold people. The only challenge at this point was to sit out of range of the station’s guns and chip away at its health. My guns out-ranged theirs, but I needed them all focus-firing in order to make it take damage that didn’t heal instantly. My pilots must have been depressed because of all the bleak, empty space, however, because they all flew within the reach of the station’s weapons to take shots at it. So, I backed them up, one at a time, and went back to my ship. They just kept flying right in to get fried. There wasn’t much I could do, except cycle through them one at a time in the most aggravating, tiresome way possible. Finally, it died and took my ships with it, because they wouldn’t move out of the blast-wave and refused to take my commands as anything but suggestions. Oh well, I managed to save the ship I was controlling directly, any ways.

Penetrate

The galaxy you play in is pretty disorganized. It’s randomly generated, after all. That means that if you want to get all of the available ship upgrades, then you’ve got to fight your way through the lower-level areas that spawn all around the edge of the galaxy as potential starting-areas. Unfortunately, this also raises your bounty level, so you’ve got to either do challenges or bribe the mercs. Either way, you’re spending time freeing up the ability to explore. It’s like a pro-active Facebook energy system with a nifty wrapper. When you find a system with an upgrade you want, you’ve got to raise your reputation with the faction that controls it in that star system by doing missions for them or giving them goons. Giving away too many goons means you’ll have to do missions to get more, so you’re doing missions either way. If there aren’t any available missions, you can try the non-faction missions, which usually mean fighting that faction any ways, or faff about until the requisite number of jump-cycles has passed. Then, you’ll need money, but the lower-level areas aren’t going to furnish you with enough cash to go about your daily business once you’re at the point where you’ve broken the tech-level-barrier to the other lower-level sections, so you’ll have to go back and do high-level missions or more merc levels. Whee.

Do you see what I mean by good ideas poorly executed? Every portion of the game seems to get into the way of every other portion. The core game play is fun, even if the AI is predictable and lifeless. The music and voice transmissions that add life and character to the environment get repeated so many times that you want to find and blow up the transmitter. The missions quickly get repetitive, except when you run into the odd one that’s nail-snappingly difficult. If this game was shorter, it would be a lot more fun, but the massive randomly-generated galaxy demands exploration and time. Like I said, I poured 17 hours into the game. The first 5 hours, I thoroughly enjoyed. The next 5 gave me pause as I have all the ship designs ruined for me by merc missions and I got the haunting realization that earning rezpect was going to become a staple of game play. The last 5 hours were somewhat enlivened by the introduction of the zombies, FINALLY. I wish they had shown up earlier; it wasn’t going to take that long for me to grasp how to play the bloody game. They bring their own infection mechanic with them and make the marine ship-to-ship combat more interesting, but I was very low on interest by that point. The last two hours were a refresher for this review.

This game is cheap and it has good ideas. If you’re not too interested in finishing it, you might enjoy just tooling around the galaxy and exploring. Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the first five hours and that’s decent value for your money. Maybe you’ll even enjoy the things that I hated. Hell, I’m sure that a different play-style might make the controls and AI mechanics more serviceable. It’s not done, either. They’re still up-dating it. It did get released without the Bounty Hunters, after all. If an edition that major made it onto the up-date list, then maybe they’ll fix some of the problems I had here. They’ve really got to sit back and think about how all of their mechanics are interacting, though, because it’s a right mess in some areas. Also, record more audio tracks. Please…

-Transmission terminated under the authority of the UTA-

Far Cry from Bad… If You Can Play It

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week’s entry is a bitter-sweet tale. After an entire day of extolling the virtues of Far Cry 3, I get home to start it up and show my friend and it says, “Far Cry 3 has stopped working…” “Windows will look for a solution…” in that way that inevitably leads to nothing positive happening. That’s when I remembered that my game had blue-screened the night before in the middle of a gaming session, but I’d had lots of writing to get done that night so I wasn’t really that put off by it. Now, though, I’ve checked the forums and realized that this is a pretty common problem. Apparently, Far Cry 3 has a habit of just not working for lots of players for many reasons. Having tried everything on the forums and all the suggestions I can get through Google, I’m currently in the process of requesting a refund or a solution through the Steam support and ubisoft support services. Fingers crossed. There are other work-arounds, but given that I’m working through Steam and uPlay, the DRM they’ve written into the game prevents them from working. Steam hasn’t really failed me yet, but I may suggest that you avoid buying things through uPlay in the future. Again, though, if they handle it well, I’ll post an up-date on here, and sing about their willingness to put up the service behind their DRM strategies. Maybe try a physical copy. Any ways, let’s get down to Far Cry 3: a game that’s well put-together, despite occasionally being totally unplayable.

BUT, before we do that, let’s get some light on GID Radio. I’ve been going on about how games, the internet and technology are going to impact… well… pretty much everything we do as humans, and this is a nice little aside on that topic. I was going to post an article about the Microsoft boondoggle and a little opinion piece on constant internet connections in consoles, but I don’t feel like I have to. You know it’s stupid. I know it’s stupid, and it hasn’t been fully substantiated, despite the Twitter remarks of that one micro, soft bloke. I know for a fact that some of my family in the boonies don’t have the available infrastructure to support that kind of connection, and they like gaming, too. We can’t exactly pull them out of there, either, because someone has to grow our food, amiright? How many connections am I supposed to have in a house? I live with 5 other gamers with two consoles each. Do you really think we want to work around having them constantly connected? We are your customer base, Microsoft. We are the people that buy one copy of a game each to make sure we’ve got it in our libraries. Each of us currently owns at least one 360. That’s right, we bought new 360s after you messed up with the RRD problem. Please, respect those people.

download
Enough whinging! Far Cry 3 is an excellent game. Speaking of, you may have noticed the 3 on the end of this bastard child of a threesome between Assassin’s Creed, Just Cause and Borderlands, but don’t be fooled! The Far Cry series doesn’t really do continuity. Okay, you’re in an exotic locale shooting at guys in specifically coloured shirts (It is always Red versus Blue), but that’s about the extent of the similarities, besides inexplicable regeneration and a complete disregard for nutrition or malaria. The graphics are, as always, amazing, but, besides that, it’s everything a sequel should be. It builds on the original world and its concepts, improving them in many ways. It’s not afraid to gets its hands dirty and eke out an original blend of material, even if some of it’s from Assassin’s Creed.

The story, though, is all its own. It’s the  journey of Jason Brody: a rich, daredevil douche-bag that’s captured by slavers on a world-tour vacation. From there, he goes on a personal sojourn of growth and accomplishment as he adapts to the slightly racist ways of the jungle by hunting, killing, tattoing, crafting and skinning his way through an island of pirates and hapless wild life.  There’s even a little Disney-esque magic involved. That would be good enough for a slap-dash first-person shooter, but the mechanics weave into the narrative well enough to give Far Cry 3 a unified aesthetic that rivals anything I’ve played this year.

far-cry-3-291828

Like Silent Hill 2, much of what you get of the story is delivered through symbolism. Okay, so maybe they explain a lot of the symbols, but there’s a solid foundation of art and drug-induced hallucination for them to work from. I don’t want to spoil too much, but, at one point, you come back from the dead in one of the most effective contextual button-press cut-scenes I’ve seen in a while. Of course, this game is full of those scenes, but they’re supported by the game’s insistence on doing everything in first-person. You rarely leave Jason Brody’s perspective, so everything that happens to you in the game is delivered through the same lens, lending a continuity to the proceedings that brings the events home to the player.

I said that everything was connected and I meant it. Far Cry 3 is a sand-box, but it’s a sand-box done right. You start the game with a pistol and a prayer, but you can unlock free guns (weapon mods sold separately) by climbing radio towers and destroying the signal dampeners that keep the island shrouded in darkness. That shows you where the enemy bases are. By clearing the bases, you get more fast-travel points to work with and quests to do. Doing the quests brings you out into the wilderness and exposes you to new weapons and tactics. Quests and base clearing provide you with experience that gives you skill points that give you new abilities. They’re not totally new, though. For the most part, they’re improvements on existing abilities. However, they’re substantial improvements that let you use old abilities in new ways, so the core of the game remains intact. For instance, you have a silent take-down move that makes it easier to clean out camps without being detected. Through the use of skill-points, you can gain the ability to drag a body away, use the enemy’s knife to kill another enemy at range, kill one after another in a rush like a vicious machete-samurai and drop down on enemies from above to kill them from different directions, which opens up whole new ways of assaulting bases. That’s not all of them, but you get the idea.

While you’re poodling around doing all this, the jungle is busy teeming with animals, some deadly, some not so much. Hunting, killing and skinning those animals lets you craft new and better item pouches and weapon holsters. There’s more to the crafting than that, though. As you do missions and quests, you unlock new, exciting drugs to improve your performance. While the Olympics might frown on the practice, these help ensure your survival, especially the medical ones. It’s not hard to get the resources to craft them, either. Plants are lying around everywhere, just waiting to be plucked. So, it’s not a frustrating crafting system, but it does have the effect of encouraging exploration. While you’re running around following quest objectives and hunting game, you’ll run into ancient ruins (That I encourage you to explore for experience and items) and impromptu wars.

The residents of the island have had it up to …here?… with the pirates, so they’re behind you 100%. In your journey, you’ll run into fire-fights and pitched battles between animals, pirates and the native population. Sometimes, all at once. However, most of the time, you’ll run into them in their designated zones. The native residence take the compounds you clear… appearing out of nowhere the minute you’re done succeeding (nice timing, guys) and sit around in temples and hovels asking for assistance. Animals have zones they prefer, although, they show up in cages and from out of nowhere, occasionally. Pirates travel the roads and water-ways, squat in compounds and patrol… places. Just like… a small stretch of sand. So, they’re everywhere. As everywhere as the animals, actually. Before we get to a comparison between combating animals and pirates, I just realized that you hardly see any women on the island. I mean, there are a few, but the population is so ridiculously skewed that I’m a little glad you can’t choose to be a female protagonist. (Huuuungry eyes… ooh oooh oooooh)

Far-Cry-3-preview-thumb-large

The difference between hunting and fighting is a perfect example of the way the game’s flexible mechanics are organized to produce different experiences based on the way they’re employed. I haven’t made any mention of the audio, but there’s nothing quite like listening to the roar of gunfire to help you find a nearby fire-fight. However, once you’re in the thick of the foliage, the only thing that will help you stalk and counter-stalk the jungle’s deadly predators is what you can hear. You’ll definitely spend more than a couple seconds carefully listening to your headphones to make sure that the next splash of crimson the jungle gets didn’t recently belong to you. Besides admirable differences in enemy AI, most of the time, you’ll be hunting animals in the claustrophobic jungle, which makes the balls-to way they run after you that much more terrifying, but, at range, they’re pretty harmless. The opposite is true of the pirates, though. At range, they can actually be a problem once the game ramps up to RPGs and grenades, but they’re cannon fodder up close, especially with the best take-downs available.

In the beginning, you have to make a couple choices between stealth-based game-play and over-powering your enemies in the skills tree and with the limited weapons available, but, by the end, you get enough resources to make effective use of either set of tactics. Even the experience system reinforces this. Most of the avenues to gaining experience come through quests and events that most players will have to go through, or can go through with very little effort, during course of regular game-play. So, by around the middle of the journey, you should be about as bad-ass as you’re going to get. This ensures that you’ve actually got time to enjoy it all. There are tiers of bad-ass, though. Many of the higher-level upgrades require you to be at a certain point in the campaign before they become available. At that point, the enemies have stepped up their game, as well. You’ve become so much more through the course of the narrative, but your challenge is equal to you.

In a staggering lack of segue, movement in Far Cry 3 is both varied and fun! As I said earlier, the first-person perspective improves many of the more engaging aspects of the game, and there’s nothing quite like cliff-diving off a waterfall or out of an air-plane in a wing-suit. One of the last upgrades you get access to lets you sprint around forever, and, I have to say, moving around the world itself is fun, even though, or possibly because, you end up parking most of your cars in lakes or on fire.

Spoilers!!

far-cry-3-vaas

There are problems, though, aside from the aforementioned refusing to start issues. Vass, the most well-developed antagonist, is killed off half-way through the game, and it’s kind of a downer. You don’t really get to kill him, either. It all happens through a hallucination that doesn’t make much sense and in a situation where you’ve already been heartily stabbed.  The guy they replace him with isn’t nearly as interesting or engaging. The accents are schizophrenic and, at times, jarring. Many of the climactic encounters in the game are taken care of by quick-time events, which do make the encounters more personal, but robs the game of some of its epic quality when they’re put next to the warpath you had to carve to get to them. The parkour moves they include in the game to ease your movement work effectively most of the time, but, when they fuck up, they’ll send you careening off the tops of cliffs and towers.

Bugs aside, it’s well unified. It manages to marry a ridiculous sand-box with an intense, personal story-line that follows an interesting narrative arc, even if it gets a little pulpy at times. Get a hard-copy of this game, load it up and enjoy. I’m giving it A well-thumbed copy of your favourite book out of Having too much chocolate and having to share it with that hot girl from accounting for the game itself, but a Morose man covered in slightly scabby skin out of Too many spiders to squish with one foot for its frankly disappointing number of crashes.

Memorable moments: Shooting the driver of a vehicle and watching the war-wagon careen off a cliff. Doing a quest for a ghost. Dive-bombing face-first into a jaguar.

guns-motorboats-rivers-far-cry-3-HD-Wallpapers

Resident Evil: Communities, Companies and 6

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2013 by trivialpunk

Aaaaaaand… We’re back! Holy crap, it’s nice to have Sherlock back where it belongs. So, we can get back down to the business of writing about and reviewing games! Being without a computer or a phone has been an interesting experience. It was a weird deconstruction of the article I wrote a while back about the emergence of the Singularity over time in our culture. It was a sort of… “Whoa! Hold on! We’re not at full saturation, yet. You’re missing the gaps in your narrative!” In a way, though, it kind of reinforced the experience of my dependence on it for this work. I felt my connection (or lack thereof) palpably. For better or worse, Sherlock is a part of me now. I just shivered a bit writing that. Excuse me while I fan-boy for a second…. k. BUT, now I can get down to the business of reviewing Resident Evil 6! And, just in the nick of time! It goes on sale on Steam today. So, let’s take a look at whether it’s going to be a delicious confection wrapped in a soft, warm shell, or if the franchise has been run through a digestive process already and ended up a bit more… Steam-y.

First, though, we’re doing our spotlights! I like to focus on blogs here, because writing is the medium of expression on WordPress, but I want to bring some more attention to this video. I love Beetlejuice, Minecraft and passion, so it’s not hard to figure out why I’m so enamoured. The next one is a blog post about the top ten depictions of Satan. To me, Satan has always been a really interesting character. He’s so many things to so many people. My favorite literary interpretation comes from William Blake. If you get a chance, then pick up some Blake. Spend some time with him and you won’t be disappointed. Counter-Attack! one of the first blogs I subscribed to on WordPress, is giving away a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown this week! Go check them out and maybe you’ll win a copy of the most innovative, integrated, qualitative…sorry… games of this year. Dooo it! Lastly, I’d like to link you to my video review of Painkiller: Hell and Damnation. I hope there aren’t too many ads; the companies that own the rights to the two songs in it filed against me, so I don’t have any control over that. The video is part of my on-going critique of the horror genre and it’s the last one in the planned series that isn’t actually a horror game. Enjoy!

…Speaking of contests! I’m going to be doing a BioShock: Infinite letsplay the minute I get my hands on a fully-downloaded copy of the game. As luck would have it, I pre-ordered a copy, and it came with a few extras. One of them is a copy of the original masterpiece that started it all. I already own this awesome game, naturally, but if you don’t, then just follow the link I’ll be posting on here to my video, Like/Comment and send me a message on YouTube with your name, e-mail or Steam account. Then, I’ll put all the names in my hollow plastic skull and pick one. The winner gets a copy of the game and the knowledge that they umm… watched a couple of my letsplays. Only the first two videos in the BS:I series will be eligible and you can only enter once per video, but, if response is low enough, your odds will be fantastic! I’ll be holding the draw a week from the release date (March 26, 2013), so you’ve got some time to enter.

#Realtalk: Next, because I didn’t get to do a full post last week, I want to quickly address another issue that has been niggling at me: defining gamer. If you’re part of any gaming Facebook groups or frequent any meme sites, I’m sure you’ve seen the odd picture depicting a straw-man gamer with a quote-witty-unquote response along the lines of, “You’re not a real gamer. WTF casual newb. (Or…) Ger merk serndwich, slurt!” I find this incredibly discouraging. Gaming as a medium is growing up, and we can’t keep this to ourselves. People argue that the “casuals” are flooding the market and accepting more sludge as a result. I have a couple problems with this idea… The more people there are in the market, the more capital they will introduce. The more capital they introduce, the larger the market will grow. The more it grows, the more concentrations and niches we’ll begin to see. The market will diversify. You will find people to serve your niche if you know where to look. Right now, I’m cozying up to project Greenlight on Steam, but there are a thousand more developers making games that you just have to look to find. Before you argue about the quantity of titles being produced, you need to look for them. Second, I’ve been gaming for a long time. I remember the stuff that was being produced for the Super Nintendo. Believe me, it’s not the flood of “casual” gamers that’s causing the games industry to spew out simplified-sludge; it’s a time-honored industry practice. Whenever a movie came out, or an artist found a cool picture or a piece of clay fell and resembled a cat, they made a platformer about it. A lot of the passion and innovation we remember came from smaller, cottage projects or as a result of years of work from the industry at large. Silent Hill 2 wasn’t programmed in a day. For every good game, there was always a bunch of knock-offs or so-so titles out there to frame it. So, don’t think this is a new thing.

Last, I’d like to say that we shouldn’t be worried about defining “gamer.” It’s a subjective thing and it’s a term that’s going to evolve and, someday, hopefully, become meaningless. Vestigial. “Oh, you’re a gamer? Cool, I think most people are to some extent.” Games are spreading and we shouldn’t be rejecting people. We should be welcoming them into the fold and guiding their exploration. Shepherding and critiquing. Recommending and welcoming. If we’ve been gaming for a long time, then we’ve got a wealth of available knowledge and experience to help people discover new experiences. What we shouldn’t be doing is telling people they can’t be one of us, or that they don’t qualify. If you gamed as much as I did in high school, you might have experienced a bit of ostracization. That’s the common nerd-narrative, isn’t it? The truth is, despite playing Magic cards, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon in the hallways, I don’t remember ever caring. I had my world and the things I thought were cool. Occasionally, I got to share that appreciation with someone new. That was always a rewarding experience. However, if we are, indeed, the care-takers and key-masters of this World of Games, then shouldn’t we honor the narrative of the “geek-community” and learn from the sting of the rejection we’re supposed to have felt? Or, are we going to make the same mistakes as the guys from “Revenge of the Nerds” and end up with sand on our faces? Gaming is growing up. So, we, its community, need to, as well. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I needed to get that off my chest. And, hey, if other parts of the community want to be xenophobic, then the reasonable parts of it can go and do our own thing and help newer gamers decide what we want “gamer” to mean to us. Besides, if people want to go about bandying relative meanings for “gamer,” then what does it mean that I started learning how to play cards and chess around the time I was five? I’m not going to hold that, or any lack of experience with gambling debts, against anyone. Honestly, though, I can write all I want, but I –think – –Extra– –Credits– –said– –it– –better-.

Alright… let’s get to it!

download

Ostensibly, this review is for people who might be thinking of buying the game on Steam, so I’m not going to spoil the plot, but, suffice to say, it has Resident Evil and Capcom written all over it. So, it’s not what you’d call… deep. However, it does explore some issues that the other games left hanging. Issues like: actual combat-organizations using bio-terror weapons in conjunction with organized armies, the nature of fighting a weapon that is alive and the difficulty of extinguishing an enemy that isn’t an entity, but a process. An idea. An idea of us. THE TRUE MONSTER IS MAAAAN!! Sorry, I love saying that.

The characters are a little more complex, but still deliver their dialogue like they got caught off-guard by the microphone. Some of the dialogue is hilarious in and out of context and the complexities of character-motivation are, as always, both mysteriously obtuse and face-meltingly obvious at the same time. They do, however, take their time and really try to get into their character’s heads in a way that they haven’t before, especially Chris. Leon hangs out and does Leon-stuff, so that’s always a plus. Hunnigan makes a come-back and actually gets some screen time, and, for a RE game, has some decently legitimate chemistry with the characters she interacts with. I’m not going to spoil the rest, because it’s convoluted and ridiculous enough to be enjoyable. There’s also something to be said for the web-motif and the relation of the plot-points, and I think I saw what they did there. Feel like playing an arachnid simulation? Hmm?

You can pick to start the campaign from any of three points, but I think most people are going to start with Leon, since it’s at the top of the list, so we’ll focus on that for now. The intro-sequence is pretty well done and shows a commitment to pacing and interactive quality. There’s a set-piece in the subway that actually shows a legitimate consideration of horror-elements. Shadows on the wall in the distance, ravenous sounds in the distance… it’s almost like something out of 28 Days Later.  However, when I started the next (Chris’ campaign) section, it took me 13 minutes from the time I pressed start to get to the point when I actually knew I was playing the game.

This is, in part, because of Resident Evil 6’s approach to game-play. Sure, there’s a mechanic where you aim a red dot at things and you shoot the thing and then the thing might die, but large portions of the game take place in the language of contextual button-presses and rely on a sense of Kinaesthetic Projection to feed into your actions and the actions of the character on the screen. In many ways, it’s pretty intuitive. You’re in a car, you’re looking for the keys, so you press the right control-stick to look around for them. It sounds straight-forward, but it’s not you moving the character, it’s you deciding in which direction the character is going to move itself. So, the KP is sort of ruined. To be fair, the actions all make sense, and there’s nothing that’s really going to throw you; the quick-time events are nicely cued and give you more than enough time to figure them out before punishing you. It gives the game a more cinematic feel, but I think that honestly works against it at times. I just don’t feel immersed enough to experience the events as a player, but I also don’t feel detached enough to project myself like a viewer. It’s an awkward middle ground, but I see what they were trying to do in terms of interactive story-telling and I have to respect that. I don’t, however, have to respect being locked in a vehicle for five minutes with nothing to do but look around. It’s a cool sequence, but it felt forced. Hollow. Sweet. The game-play flows into the cinematics so well that it’s hard to tell the two apart at times. That isn’t praise, though. This is, after all, a game, not a movie.

The parts of the game-play that are there are pretty good, though. The aiming system they’ve been using since RE4 makes a return, but brings a beefed-up melee system with it. It’s limited by a stamina bar and includes contextual attack-moves depending on your proximity to enemies. When it works, it looks awesome. You’ll pull a knife out of a zombie’s chest and force it to make friends with its brain. When it doesn’t, though, you’ll back-hand a wall while a zombie eats your face. The HUD is nicely designed and changes aesthetically based on your campaign. Leon, for instance, uses a touch-screen phone to keep track of his objectives, health, stamina, ammo and herbs. I’d really like to know where he got those apps from. Probably a secret-service thing.

hudleonre6pr03

Herbs are kept in your bag when they’re waiting to be used, but, once you’re ready to “spend” one, it gets broken down into chunks based on its strength (a max of 6 for a red + green combo) and deposited into a pool on your HUD. This pool can then be accessed on the fly like a supply of tic-tacs and used to replenish one minty-fresh breath’s worth of health. If you run out of health, then you collapse on the ground and have to either wait out a timer or wait for your partner to revive you. Then, you either take a herb-tac, or you die the next time you go down. (There’s an upgrade that makes your partner feed you a herb when they revive you on single-player that has the function of making you almost immortal. Oops. Although, honestly, a pat on the chest would probably serve just as well)

When a zombie gets on you, your health will slowly drain, even if it’s not actively damaging you with teeth. This lead to a couple unusual scenes where I had waited out my death-timer and gotten up just in time to be ballroom tackled by another zombie and, while turning in place, my health ran out. This was followed by my partner’s hilarious dramatic cry, “LEON!!” that follows every death. Only, this time, there were under-tones of jealousy, as if she was saying, “How dare you dance with him! See if I stitch your face back on again!”

The end of each level, each kill and pick-ups in the midst of it all allow you to collect “skill points” that let you unlock upgrades for your characters (Although, I’d hate to see what Capcom considers skill, given what it rewards them for). Each of these upgrades can dramatically change the game itself. I mentioned the partner-herb-revival one earlier, but there are a bunch. One increases the drop rate of items from downed enemies. take this upgrade with caution, because it virtually ensures that you won’t run out of ammo for most of the game. I mean, you can try to spray your name on the wall in bullets, and, yeah, that’ll probably bleed you dry, but regular combat won’t be impeded by ammo consumption. The weapons are nicely varied. but it’s all pretty standard fare. If you’ve played a shooter in the last six years, then don’t hold out for anything new. It’s all pretty much the same stuff that was in RE4, but why fix what isn’t broken?

The enemies themselves are a little more varied than most Resident Evil games, if only because you’re actually fighting deployed biological weapons. They make nice additions to the set-pieces and mesh well enough to really bring the world to life. I think you might really enjoy some of the outdoor sequences of the city tearing itself apart, tooth and nail. Even the graveyard scene uses its monsters to create a vague Poltergeist homage. Of course, while the enemy types are a little more varied, the individual enemies get copy-pasted a lot. A few times, I found myself fighting three of the same guy, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of existential crisis they’d be having if their brains hadn’t turned to goo and their stomachs hadn’t rotted their appetite out the bottom of them.

The improved enemy variation brings predictable, but welcome, mechanics with it. However, the boss fights really profit from the growth in variation, even if they absolutely refuse to stay down when you kill them (Remember: the most powerful weapons in the Resident Evil universe are angry punches). One of them was almost a puzzle in itself. I won’t ruin it, but you’ll know it when you get to it. Overall, the puzzles are actually pretty well implemented and, I think you’ll clever your way through them before you even realize you’re utilizing lateral thinking skills and pattern recognition. Of course, they’re not particularly difficult, but their smooth integration into the story and game-play is thoroughly appreciated. This isn’t just a pile of books in a book store with a poem, now is it, Heather?

heather-mason-e1337838134209

Sorry. Umm… speaking of characters! Capcom seems to have decided that they give up on programming AI that can deal with differential inventory management and have just sealed your partner’s goodie-bag off. As a result, you won’t get any moments where your partner will whip out a health spray for a boo-boo or waste all your shotgun rounds on a giant crab while it’s functionally invincible. The AI just seems smarter in general. It’s pretty decent at reviving you and it never once managed to grenade me or a hostage to death. It follows you pretty closely, but that leads to some ridiculous moments when you’ll be running down a hallway and (after hours of hand-to-hand combat and unbelievably nimble escapes) unavoidably trip over a body that’s sprawled, like an obvious troll, on the ground. Then, your partner, ostensibly a sophisticated, composed, graceful agent of death, will notice your mistake and follow suit.

The continuity in the game is pretty messed up, as well. At one point, you fall into an hour-long flashback about your time in ‘Nam, and, when you emerge blinking into the real world, you’ll be carrying the items you had in the memory. Whoa. That’s some mind-bending epistemological shit, right there. And, because of Leon’s magical TARDIS hair-cut, you’ll end up revisiting the intro-sequence again, but the entire experience is very, very different. One might say, entirely so. That part is pretty much glossed-over, too. Overall, though, it holds together pretty functionally, and the narrative is decently organized, delivered in nice bite-sized chunks. It’s the usual string of ridiculous coincidences, but, what were you expecting?

The differences between the campaign settings are pretty pronounced and I like how it provides a sense of transition without removing you from the game entirely. Each one focuses on a different sort of engagement based on the enemies and settings it utilizes. I said earlier that the monsters bring the set-pieces to life, and it really shows between settings. Leon’s campaign is a little more zombie-survival-horror oriented, while Chris follows a tank around and blows enemies away with a machine gun. It’s actual bio-weapon combat, which I really like. So often, we see Umbrella-tech being deployed accidentally, and it was refreshing to see it being utilized as weapon’s tech. I thought it was a nice touch. I won’t describe the other campaigns, so you’ll have something to discover, but I think it highlights how a small change in engagement and enemy-focus can alter an entire game-play experience. It feels like a few games in one, despite the fact that the control scheme remains constant.

Overall, it’s ridiculous, over-the-top, cinematic (is that good?), campy-gritty-serious and fun on a certain level. The pre-baked action sequences, cinematics, and death and knock-down mechanics can get in the way of things occasionally, but they aren’t deal-breakers. The aesthetic changes between campaign settings serve to provide a nice level of demarcation, while also reinforcing an experiential progression narrative. However, they never go so far as to render it entirely different. The HUD is clever and the AI partner is a huge step up from the usual Capcom dross. The combat is nicely visceral, but the QTEs can leave you feeling a little disconnected. They’re still a bit jolting. When the cinematic-game fusion quality works well, it’s seamless and wonderful, but, when it breaks down, and it often does, it ends up being hilarious. Bosses are appropriately climactic and the story-line is grade-A Resident Evil material. The characters are enjoyable, and the settings and set-pieces are varied enough to keep things interesting. The monsters are occasionally imaginative, but usually derivative, and, oh yes, there are enough zombie skulls to smash to keep you playing for hours.

There’s a multi-player option that you can en/disable that allows people to hop into your game as a monster or a partner, but I avoided it. Didn’t seem like much fun, honestly. Why would I give up my AI partner now that they’ve finally made it decent? Besides, it lets me faff around more when I’m not following someone that’s just plowing trough the levels. The atmosphere and glitches are some of the best parts of the game, as well as the hilarious situations (HOW MANY SECRET LABS ARE THERE? HUH? WHERE IS THERE NOT A LAB?!?), so you might want to take your time through them. Still, it could be fun to hop in a game and take over a zombie. After all, they have been sped up enough to compensate for the increased speed and abilities of the player, relative to the original Resident Evil games. Why not take advantage of it to work out those repressed feelings of anger towards the hairdresser that cut your hair too short for the first time by chewing someone’s scalp clean off?

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the experience more than I hated it, despite, or perhaps because of, the cheesy dialogue. I give it 3 oily saxophone players of radically different heights out of a fifth of vodka chased with custard.  If you’re in to this series, then I’d recommend it.

Although, Gamer Cat questions your credentials. Are you nerd enough for Leon’s new hair? I guess we’ll see. Yes, what is with all the cute animals lately? I don’t know. Take care until next time. I’ll see you on the other side!

117394-cat-gamer-cat

Something after the animal this week? OH! I got the results from the letsplay requests back. Now, it’s time to vote on the next one!

SCP – Containment Breach: Survival Horrgasm

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

I haven’t written anything with this little rest under my belt in a long while. Thankfully, I don’t have to be anywhere for a few hours, so I’ll get a power-nap in. So, without further ado, let’s get to it! Today’s first article I’m putting under the spotlight is the beginning of a series that I think could prove quite interesting. It’s a look at different MMOs, an important topic to discuss given the amount of time that a player has to sink into one to really get a feel for the game. The second article comes from the hilariously named “The Second Breakfast.” I can’t help it; I love LOTR.

I know this blog isn’t the “Hate on EA and Dead Space Show,” but I think they’ve started deliberately trying to provoke me. I see what they were going for here, I really do. EA realizes that the micro-transaction model is here to stay, as well as a great way to make money. It might be a good way to keep games costs down (something I haven’t seen yet), but it has no place in survival horror. Although, given the seeming permanency of the financial model, I’m starting to wonder if that’s a bad thing. We’ll get back to that in a second, but first, I just want you to look at the quote, because it is a quote. If you think about it for a second, you’ll see the problem with it. If you’ve only ever played games on your smart-phone, then how could you be a survival horror fan? I’ll give you action games, because they’ve already started to incorporate MT systems into on-line play. That’s fine, but I’m not an action-game writer. I can assure you, with some authority, that there are no good survival horror games coming out of the App store. You can count the Slenderman port all you want, but the original is more immersive, if only because it’s not on a tiny touch-screen.

I tend to think of survival horror as an art-form; at its core, it’s about evoking something in your player. Throwing something as needlessly materialistic and fourth-wall-breaking as a MT system into a survival horror game is ludicrous. I know I said Dead Space 3 wasn’t going to be a survival horror game, but, please, EA, stop trying to defend your decisions. That or make better ones. Don’t, whatever you do, don’t call what you’ve been doing survival horror.  I’ll give Dead Space 1 a nod, because that shit was great. It got a bit dodgy towards the end, but was solid at its core. Dead Space 2 gave me more laughs than a barrel of monkeys in fedoras, and the Dead Space 3 demo was full of more cheap attempted scares than that same barrel of monkeys covered in marinara sauce, but far less disturbing. We’re not here to talk about Dead Space, though.

I only mentioned it because I like to try to stay topical (HA!) and it highlights an important point. I mentioned that survival horror, as a genre, isn’t really set up to incorporate micro-transactions directly into game play (until someone gets really clever), so the prevalence of the system might make survival horror games harder to come by than they already are. Of course, there are mounds to be made in DLC, but that’ll remain to be seen. Then, there’s the independents section of the market. Nowadays, when I want horror, I go to the internet. Things like creepypastas and Slender are making up for a lot of the content that the larger developers aren’t creating. I was listening to the very first podcast from Counter-Attack, and I realized that I was sitting on a hidden wealth of horror that I was selfishly keeping to myself. This summer, I sat down and wrote a horror game RPG system from scratch. During the process of its creation, I did a lot of research. During that research, I was fortunate enough to be  made privy to hidden gems like Uzumaki and The SCP Foundation.

Uzumaki is great, and I encourage you to read through the archives of the SCP Foundation, but we’re here to talk about games! Mostly. Much the way Slenderman gave rise to the Slender game (Did you know they’re working on a sequel?), the tales of the SCP Foundation gave rise to its own game; that, you can download here. Coincidentally enough, it’s free and the topic of today’s discussion. So, let’s get on our Reviewing pants and crack this baby open (not literally, please). If you’ve got some kind of Reading wear, then feel free to mix and match, but try not to clash.

01_2527536

SCP is an excellent game, but its graphical fidelity reflects its independent origins. The characters are stocky and the sound-effects are pretty terrible. However, what its game designers lacked in financial power, they made up for in knowing how to put together a survival horror game. It is in the beta phase, so it has problems. More than once, I loaded through the floor. The levels are procedurally  generated ( an interesting addition to the horror genre that deserves its own article) and the save system is a bit creaky. BUT, if you can get past these problems, then I think you’ll see the potential this game has.

The story focuses on the daily activities of the SCP (Secure. Contain. Protect.) Foundation. During a routine test on one of the SCPs, a malfunction occurs that forces open the door. Depending on how far you get in the game, this seems like either an overly convenient plot twist or something far more sinister. As a result, the SCP you’re investigating breaks loose and starts rampaging through the building. Your goal is to survive long enough to escape… you probably won’t.

The look of the game is dark and simple. Obviously, there were graphical limitations that had to be considered, but it sort of gives the impression of being a rat in an underground maze. Off-putting at best. The music is slow and unnerving, with plenty of clash for the occasional hairier moments. The sound effects really help bring the world to life. While they do sound a bit tinny, the things going on around you add layers of depth and atmosphere to the environment. One time, I heard a guard commit suicide in the washroom. Disturbing. The procedurally generated nature of the game really helps here. It means that, despite having played it a few times already, I’m never really ready for the ambience. It’s a nice touch.

Let’s look at the interface before we shift over to the alpha antagonist. It takes place from a  first-person view. The controls are the standard WASD affair, with a menu controlled by the tab key. Escape brings up the Save and Quit screen, and left-shift lets you run. You interact with objects in the environment by clicking on them.  That’s it. Oh, and the space bar lets you blink. It’s a pretty simple interface, and if there is more to it, then I haven’t found it. “Wait, what? Blink?” Yeah, the game implements a standard sprint-meter, but also adds a blink meter. At regular intervals, you have to blink. That only makes sense. However, it becomes rather inconvenient as you try to progress through the game. If only you possessed the super-mutant abilities that other video game characters do and simply didn’t need to blink. Oh well… There’s also a gas-mask that changes your HUD and forces you to look through two shadowy lenses, making the environment darker, but letting you avoid gaseous hazards. It’s a nice visual touch.

You might be expecting some kind of “What’s behind door number 1?” joke from me, because the procedural level generation adds to the tension of trying doors and not knowing what will be behind them. But, no, I’m better than that. I’ll only subtly allude to it with smug superiority at having avoided such a lame joke. All the same, it does let me segue nicely into the creature designs. At its heart, The SCP Foundation website is a user-created database of creatures and items with horror-themed backgrounds. As a result, this game had a plethora of creatures to choose from, and I don’t think they could have chosen any better. If you’re a regular reader, then you might recall my previous few articles concerned with the timing elements of survival horror games. The gist of them was that a creature is more effective if we’re left to both wonder about it and dread it. The SCP chosen to be the primary antagonist of the first part of SCP – Containment Breach is perfectly suited to both of these requirements.

SCP-173, known colloquially as, “The Sculpture,” is an unstoppable living statue that compulsively kills everything near it. However, in the tradition of the Quantum Locked angels from “Blink” and the ghosts from Mario, SCP-173 cannot move while you’re looking at it. However, if, and when, you blink, it moves towards you with lightning speed. As a result, you never see it kill anything, so you’re left to imagine. After it breaks out of its cell and starts wreaking havoc all over the building, you’re trapped in a game of cat and mouse with it. This creature design is perfect because you can’t do anything to hurt it, so there’s no combat to mitigate the tension of the chase. At the same time, it also ensures that you’ll be looking at it when you encounter it or that your death will come so quickly that the viscerally resonant snap will catch you by surprise.

This creature has another effect on the player, as well. Part of how a games engages a player is through what it asks the player to do through, and in addition to, game-play. Amnesia asked that we be aware of our concealment and the level of light in the general area. Silent Hill asked that we be mindful of its metaphorical elements so that we could tackle its puzzles more easily (Think: the first boss in SH1).  SCP – CB asks that we keep our eyes searching, straining through a gas mask at, the darkness: looking for threats. Most importantly, looking for SCP-173. It’s not the only threat by far, but it’s the first one you’ll encounter, so it sets the tone for the whole piece. Aaaand, that tone is paranoia.

SCP-Containment-Breach-1

They do a lot to create an excellent atmosphere. They’ll waste entire rooms just to help build tension. That is, in part, the work of the procedural generation, but realizing that it was good for the game is a thumbs up for its developer: Regalis. If you want to increase your level of immersion, then I’d recommend listening to some of the audio files on YouTube or reading through The SCP Foundation’s files on-line. I don’t want to say too much more because a good portion of the game is discovery under a repressive regime of terror, but I’ll conclude by out-lining something that will happen to you. When it does, it’ll be no less effective for having read this. That’s a mark of a good horror game.

You’re walking down a hallway. You’ve left the doors behind you ajar because they won’t do much to stop SCP-173, but they’ll waste precious seconds of your life as you try to open them. Up ahead, you hear the solid clunk of metal on metal as the door at the end of the hall slides open and closed. You slip into a side room and pull on your gas mask, just in case. You blink before you go out to increase your chances and, just as you’re rounding the bend, you see a giant, demonic Pillsbury dough-boy wrought from hatred and baked with malice. Panicking slightly, but keeping your head, you begin to sprint backwards down the hallway away from SCP-173. Going through the door, you close it in front of you. As you keep running, the closed door in front of you fades into the darkness, but, just beyond the edges of your vision, you hear the door open. Then, you blink. On the penumbra of your sight, an outline resolves.

You keep sprinting and closing doors, but your stamina is running out. As you slow down and run only intermittently, the outline becomes more and more solid every time you blink. Suddenly, you hit a locked door. You can’t turn around to open it, or you’ll be dead. You need to blink, though. You can’t help it.


SCP_Containment_Breach

It’s not moving. It’s an absolutely solid mass, totally serene, perfectly benign. You feel your eyes begin to twitch…

No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by trivialpunk

If you read my review of the Dead Space 3 demo, then you’ll know that I don’t consider it horror, least of all, survival horror. That leaves a big bloody, gaping question, “What is it?” To answer that question, we’re going to compare it to, surprise, surprise, the Silent Hill games. It’s not that I think that all games should be like Silent Hill. Indeed, later entries in the series attempted to copy the form of the game without understanding the subtleties. Silent Hill is just a convenient starting point, because we’re going to be taking on both series as wholes. So, without further ado, let’s get this rolling.
Image
As you may know, it’s getting harder and harder to address the genre of a game. Traditionally, there weren’t that many different kinds of games to choose from. However, things have complicated themselves as the gaming industry has expanded. Sure, we’ve been staying close to many of the original formulas in a lot of ways, but we’ve been reproducing and changing enough that some really unusual mutations have begun  to appear. It’s not enough to say that something is a first-person shooter, anymore. That barely tells you anything about the game. Fallout 3 is technically an FPS, but I’d hardly call it one to its face. Dark Souls is an RPG, but that’s not really the core of it. Dead Space 3 is full of gore and threat, but I’d hardly call it a horror game. If it were, then Max Payne and Painkiller would have equal claim to the title. They don’t, though. Even games that we tend to call horror games, like Alan Wake, feel a bit off. Look at the box, it bills itself as a “Psychological Action Thriller.” Here’s where the hands of the brighter gaming scholars in the class will shoot up and ask the burning question, “Doesn’t that pretty much describe a horror game?”
Image
You’ve got me there. Sort of. Like Fallout 3 and Painkiller, it’s all about how you approach the subject matter. Anyone familiar with sarcasm knows that you can answer a question, using exactly the same words as someone else, and mean something profoundly different. I’m going to crib off of Penny Arcade’s Extra Credits here and say that a game’s genre is defined by what you come to the game for. Using a little backwards engineering, we can look at how the game is affecting the player. After all, that’s the ultimate defining factor. I don’t know any people that watch “The Shining” because it’s a laugh-a-second thrill ride, or read Archie comics for their brilliant satirical deconstruction of white-bred suburbia. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do that, but I just don’t know anyone like that. I’m going to guess that not many of us do. That being said, it’s going to get harder and harder to define game genres as time passes. That doesn’t mean it’s fruitless, though. Like all categories, they’re just general descriptors. There’s plenty of room to move around inside the box. There is a threshold, though, one I think that Dead Space 3 has hit.
Image
Of course, the game I’m talking about only released a demo, but if we look back at the other games in the series, we can see a pattern emerging. Even more telling, is part of the Dead Space 3 design philosophy. I’ll link you to my sources —> http://forums.aegis7.com/32-dead-space-3/2637-why-have-they-turned-dead-space-gears/page_4.html#post22344 via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Space_3
For those of you who didn’t feel like following the link, I’ll sum it up. They wanted to make Isaac more responsive. He’s able to take cover, combat roll, and move more organically. This was done because, and I quote, ” [they] want the horror to come from the terrible things that happen in the game; not from the horror that something is moving slowly towards you and you can’t shoot it because the game controls like a piece of crap.” Man, that’s discouraging. It seems like they’ve missed the point of the crappy controls like a champ. Then again, most people who are using cliff notes seem to. I wasn’t there in the planning room for the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games, so I can’t tell you the intent of the control scheme. It might have been a limitation thing, or even an accident, but the results were a feeling of limited efficacy and helplessness.
Image
If you’ve ever played through this fight in Silent Hill 2, then you’ll know what I mean. For most of the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series, the control scheme was such that you had to rotate your character, and move it forward and backwards, separately. In addition, the room for this fight was quite small.
Image
That’s most of the rest of the room. As you can probably tell, Pyramid head’s weapon is quite large. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but, when swung, it takes up most of the area. To fight him, you’ve got to run around him, with the clunky controls, get some space between you, and fire off a few shots in his direction. Then, you’ve got to wait until he drags that giant blade towards you, and, when he’s about to swing it, run around him. He’ll switch up the angle of his attack. He does an over-the-head swing that reaches most of the way across the room, as well as a quicker stab attack. This being a well-designed survival horror game, he will eventually leave, even if you don’t shoot at him. This takes much longer, of course. Why design an encounter this way? Because the point of this fight isn’t to shoot enough lead into a seemingly indestructible creature until it bleeds enough to fall over. No, that’s too easy. The point of this fight is to survive, and experience, the helpless claustrophobia. Between the movement restrictions, and the pace of the fight, you get just enough time to realize when he’ll be swinging his big ass sword at you, and that it’s going to kill you.

This goes right to the pacing of the entire game. Silent Hill leaves you room to consider the situation you’re in, and actually makes you dread it. If James Sunderland, the hero of Silent Hill 2, moved as freely as Isaac does in Dead Space 3, then the Pyramid Head fight would be laughable. Or, more likely, the entire fight would have to be re-tooled. Pyramid Head would probably move faster, and the arena would be larger. His attacks would be more varied, and you might actually have to whittle down a health bar. That being said, it would still be a tense fight. If you didn’t have a health bar to whittle down, and he still eventually left, it could actually be quite frightening. After all, there’s no indication that you’re actually hurting him. It actually makes a “Ting!” sound when you shoot him, like one of those inexhaustibly annoying kids on the playground that played Cops and Robbers with Superman-like invincibility. Of course, that kind of movement would mean a re-tooling of the whole game. As it stands, you can get good at moving with the clunky controls if, like me, you played it obsessively as a child. However, every movement still requires a certain level of planning. You’ve got to set up your angle and make a break for it when the time is right. This creates the perfect level of hesitation, because you’re well aware of the threat being posed, and your tenuous ability to meet it.
Image
In an earlier post, I mentioned that well-designed games tend to follow a similar arousal curve in all aspects of their game play. Fast-paced games usually throw you right into the action after brief moments of respite that give you just enough time to reload before the next wave . It’s up and down and up and down. Slower games do much the same thing, but the length of each portion of the pattern is different. How do Dead Space and Silent Hill differ in this regard? As my break down of the Pyramid Head fight illustrates, it holds true for combat. So, let’s look at Dead Space. Every Dead Space game has a token attempt to build atmosphere, but it never lasts. Before long, you’re slogging through Necromorph after Necromorph. Even the tension-building phases have walls covered in blood and bodies. The parts without it usually involve breaking open item crates, solving puzzles or doing quick-time events. It’s trying to keep you engaged and tense. However, as anyone who has watched a horror movie knows, the horrific moments are all the more salient for the snatches of respite around them. That’s why you’re thrown back to Regular Silent Hill after the climactic portion of every Dark Silent Hill section.

Image

Dead Space is all tension. As a result, you really don’t experience any of it. Sure, you might feel it, but that’s not really the same thing. Eventually, you habituate to it, like the clothes on your body. Even the gore gets tired. Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee pointed out that the scene from Heavy Rain where the guy cuts his finger off is far more effective than, well, any of the dismemberment that goes on in Dead Space, and I can’t help but agree. It happens so often, and so quickly, that there’s barely any time to consider the ramifications of it. Part of what makes horror so poignant is the degree to which we can imagine ourselves in the same situation. For a more clear example of what I mean, think about that one scene in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf hits his head in Bilbo’s house. Whether you’ve smacked your head on a low-hanging arch or not, you’ll have a vague idea of what it feels like. Any thoughts about having your face torn off? Arm severed by a killer space scythe? No? Well, shit.
Image
The result of this is that Dead Space never really gives you the feeling of being horrified. It can jump-scare you, and leave you feeling tense, but real horror comes from the mind of the player. It comes from putting yourself in the place of the protagonist, and thinking about the ramifications of your actions. It comes from thinking about the world and the horror around you. From feeling the difference between the horrific, the sublime, and the banal. There’s no time for that in Dead Space. You’ve got to be shooting shit, now! Well, there are a few moments of considered terror. A fight in zero-g, from an earlier game, with a giant monstrosity was paced just well enough to leave me shaken. It was overwhelmingly, brain-defying huge. I actually got to think about the situation. Go Dead Space! There’s not much to the series like that, though. It’s mostly blood, and run-shoot-run-shoot-AUGH! As for the portion of the design philosophy that referred to “the terrible things that happen in the game,” all I have to say is that disturbing images aren’t scary if they carry no weight or consideration. I can’t stress this enough, you have to give us time to imagine, because imagination is the seat of horror. That being said, it’s not a straight-up action game, either.
Image
There may be a lot of shit going on all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s in the same boat as a Call of Duty game. The type and tone of the encounters means that it’s not strictly a first-person shooter, but it sure wants you to fight like it’s one. You see, the pacing penetrates as far as the most basic layers. Isaac’s enhanced movement means that monsters need to be faster to keep up with him. As a result, you can’t really afford to run away from them. Hell, most of the time, the game won’t let you continue until you’ve filled everything around you with enough hot plasma to power a warp-core. This is a huge shift in tone. Survival horror, if Pyramid Head, and the controls, didn’t make it abundantly clear, is a game-type that relies quite heavily on the ability to run away. This makes the times you can’t all the more effective. Monsters in tight hallways have to be dodged, because there isn’t a lot of ammo lying around and your weapons are slow and unwieldy. This is aided by the speed of the main character, which the monsters are programmed in relation to. They’re slow enough that you can run, but fast enough that they’re a bitch to fight. Dead Space encourages you, through its movement and ordinance-heavy design, to fight. You Are The Reaper. In a way, you’re the Pyramid Head of the Dead Space franchise. If Necromorphs feel, then you can’t imagine they’re ever elated by Isaac’s appearance in their midst.

Now, let’s bring it all together. Dead Space, and games like it (Resident Evil 4-6, Silent Hill Homecoming, etc.), aren’t really paced for horror. Their engagement, mechanics, and story-line are geared towards more constant provocation. It’s all about jump-scares and a constant feeling of low-level preparedness. That’s the problem: preparedness. It’s great for keeping people tense, but if you’re feeling ready, then you’re not expecting to be caught off-guard. That makes the moments you are all the sweeter, but much less likely to occur. Silent Hill lets you relax to make you think and to make the moments of terror stand out. The series’ more recent releases have kind of lost sight of that subtlety, but either they’ll find it again, or they won’t. In my opinion, they could have made Silent Hill 3 and knocked off for the rest of time and I’d still be a fan. Yes, I’m also a Dead Space fan, but now I’m just going to go to their games for something other than being truly terrified. Instead, I’ll enjoy it for its bombastic gore and constant tension. There are no secrets in Dead Space, only outright disturbing splatter. In recognition of the shift of tone that the series has taken, and for the convenience of talking about games like it in the future, I’ve chosen to call this type of game a Splatter Thriller (Optionally: Gore Thriller). A toast, to this new(ish) and, literally, exciting genre!

Image

Dark Souls: Prepare to Do the Same Thing Repeatedly Edition

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ve left myself in an awkward position. Let me get a blanket. There… that’s far more comfortable. This week I looked for a couple articles with a female perspective. I found this interesting post, which I suggest you check out. http://smsmith.com.au/2013/01/23/why-should-i-care-about-sexism-in-the-gaming-industry/ I also found this start-up blog, which looks to have the potential to develop into something interesting http://oliviaashegaming.wordpress.com/

Now, as you might have guessed, we’re sitting down to do a little reviewing today. Honestly, I’m going to have a little difficulty with this one. I’m wearing my reviewing pants, but they’re just not keeping me warm through the onslaught of uneasiness. “Why?” you may ask. Am I so torn? Well, let’s start with the subject matter: Dark Souls. This is a game that I really want to love, but can’t help but hate. I’ve tallied all the numbers over and over again, but I keep getting different results. Let me show you what I mean.

I want to start this review by saying, “Dark Souls is a well put-together game, but I wouldn’t recommend playing it.” I’m also inclined to say, “Dark Souls is a terrifyingly manipulative RPG, but I recommend trying it for the experience.” You see? I’m extremely conflicted. To alleviate this mess, and balance the final score, I’m going to alternate between bashing on Dark Souls with an extremely large rake, and cooing gentle nothings into its horribly mutilated ear.

Image

For the sake of full disclosure, and to make everything a bit more clear, I should say that I didn’t finish the game. I’ll explain why in a bit, but, also, I didn’t play it on-line. I played with no patches. Nothing. I wanted to experience the game the way the first players did, because I’m really interested to see what “From Software” thought their finished product should look like when they shipped it. It’s an interesting question, because in this age of constant internet access, DLC and continual patching, it’s difficult to tell when a game is “done.” You see, between when a game’s code is finalized, and the day it hits shelves, there’s a wealth of time. Sometimes, this time is used to improve the product, because there simply wasn’t time to fit everything into the game. So, in the interim, game development continues. Huge changes manifest as release-date DLC, and costs a bit of money because you need to pay your programmers. Small tweaks manifest as patches. So, lacking those, I delved into the game. I had a room mate, a long time Dark Souls veteran, there to help me with some of the less-obvious stuff, as well as to leer in time with the coming of danger. It was sort of like having a carbon monoxide detector, only I still died a lot. Without further ado, let’s go for a trip!

Dark Souls is another vacation to Havok land! Players familiar with the slippery game play this implies will know how dangerous it is to make a game that requires precision using the Havok engine. There are a lot of finely-crafted environments that require careful navigation. Unfortunately, you’ll probably end up flying off more than your share of bridges before the end. This isn’t the engine’s fault. It tends to work pretty well, but the control scheme is a bit more reprehensible. The majority of it is fine, but there’s a major problem with the jumping. You press Up and Attack to jump-lunge forward. However, this is also precisely what you will do when you want to walk a couple steps forward and attack. Given the difficulty the game has with differentiating between a small tap, and a great thwap, I guarantee that you will lunge a couple times when you Don’t. Want. To.

The jumping works a bit clunkily, too. You have to dash forward with B, then tap B again to jump. This makes jumps in small areas a nightmare. Of course, this makes a lot of sense. Most of the game, you’ll be in heavy armor. You can’t just leap around in that shit. This control scheme holds when you’re naked, too, but it can be difficult to properly map buttons, and you won’t be platforming much, anyways. No, this isn’t the damnation it sounds like, because Dark Souls has a real commitment to realism. Undeath and death hang heavily on the edge of a sword, so the slightest shuffle in the wrong direction can spell doom. The combat is tight, taking full advantage of the Havok collision detection capabilities. It doesn’t take much to screw up, and timing is of the utmost importance. It makes for viscerally engaging combat.
g
However, timing is of the utmost importance and it doesn’t take much to screw up! As a result, you’ll spend most of your time getting that timing down and learning attack patterns. I heard this twice, from two different sources, so I decided to look up a couple posts about Dark Souls. It turns out that, almost universally, people say the second play-throughs are much quicker. This doesn’t make much sense for a difficult game, but it fits perfectly with an execution challenge. Dark Souls is one big execution challenge in a shiny fucking bow. Don’t worry about not getting enough practice, though. You will see the same enemies over and over again.

This isn’t because the levels have repetitive designs. In fact, they’re quite ingenious. There are short-cuts, and secret areas strewn throughout. In fact, it’s a nearly seamless world, with a fantastic, immersive feel. You can get most places in the early stages without going too far out of your way. It’s all very open-concept. Sure, you can kill this dragon, or whatever, but if you don’t want to, how about you chill under the bridge? The story-telling is especially delightful. There’s almost no exposition, but you find out a lot about the world by playing within it. The game really benefits from the exploration, which is one of the principle things that will keep people playing. Loading screens have interesting tid-bits about the world disguised under helpful hints. I know most games do, but it’s subtle enough to pass for great writing. Considering this game was developed in Japan, the English writing is superb. The localization team did their job amazingly well.

All the good writing in the world won’t make up for poor conveyance, though. The world is huge and seamless, but you aren’t ready for it. Right off the bat, I wandered off into three different areas I didn’t belong in. Instantly, I was squashed by powerful opponents. With a little initiative and innovation, I managed to squash one or two enemies, but it was an extremely discouraging experience. I remarked that it wouldn’t have happened in the on-line mode, because other players would have left me little messages telling me not to try and fight the ghosts. You can’t even hurt them without a curse or a holy weapon. It does reflect how a true adventure might begin, but it’s not fun. Still, they really want us to try out this on-line play feature, so I shouldn’t complain if I’m trying something the game wasn’t designed around. Pushing on without it, I finally found a spot I could deal with. It turns out that that was the way I was supposed to go. Hurray.

With that, the game opened up before me. I even managed to make some progress. Sure, I fell off a couple bridges, and got roasted alive by a dragon, but it was fun to explore. Not only that, but the enemy placement was really well thought-out. There’s this bridge a little later on that is being constantly bombarded by fire-bombs. The room at the end of it is full of baddies, one with a shield in particular, that can be challenging in the early stages. Taken together, the fire-bombs and the monster formations can easily take out your entire life-bar in a few seconds. However, with a careful and considered approach, you can surmount the obstacle, and it feels pretty good. Monsters that spawn in specific spots even have particular AI attached to them. For instance, there’s this one shield-skeleton in the cathedral that I noticed is always defensive. It’s a nice touch. AND the nice thing about execution challenges is that they’re usually rewarding experiences in the long run.

Still, I’d recommend learning guitar over learning Dark Souls, because A: you’ll get more out of it and B: this is where the game really falls apart for me. There’s this neat little story-fluff that’s pretty central to the game. You’re an undead. You respawn at the last fire you rested at, but you lose all the souls and humanity you had on you. You use humanity and souls, among other things, to strengthen yourself and your gear. You can reclaim what you lost by returning to the place you died last and picking up everything you had on you. However, this also means you can’t die. Even funnier, many of your enemies share this same trait. I remember accidentally stabbing an NPC to death. Later, he was right back where I’d left him. After he attacked me and was killed a second time, he didn’t come back, but that only makes sense, because of flibberdeeflobbity gibberbits. What does make sense is that all of the trash mobs in an area respawn every time you die. They also respawn every time you sit down at a fire. They’re undead too, right? Many of the larger lads stay dead, but the majority of your opponents are right back up and fighting the minute you are. Wait for it… wait for it… right! That means that, at any given time, you’ll be fighting the same enemies, in the same locations, over and over again. Remember when I said repetitive? Well, I’m saying it again.

This does give the game a certain feeling of progression, though. You’ve got a flask on you that refills at fires. It comes with a set number of charges, and once it runs out, I would recommend walking back to the fire. As you do better and better at a particular section, you’ll have more charges available and you’ll feel more confident going farther. You can also invest humanity to increase the number of charges you get from a particular fire. The short-cuts serve this purpose, as well. It cuts the game up into learn-able sections. It balances having a refillable potion on you pretty well.
Image
It also has the lovely side-effect of chaining you to fires, though. If you want to level, then you have to invest your souls in yourself at a fire. This also means that all of the baddies will respawn, as well. This creates a sort of gambit where you have to balance real, observable progression against clearing out an area again. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though, because you’ll be doing that a lot. Careful considered approaches are fine the first time, but you’ll eventually tire of them. It’s sort of like Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. The game is designed around keeping you wandering around farming, but the enemy placements are more reminiscent of Castlevania 1. This combination results in a tiring grind as you die in later areas and have to fight your way back to try again. If you aren’t familiar with the comparison, then watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aip2aIt0ROM It’s Sequelitis by egoraptor. If you aren’t familiar with the series, then I heartily recommend it. However, all this does is pad out the game play time.

This allowed them to fit a long game into a small area, though, and what’s there is pretty polished. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, as well as interesting easter eggs. You can level up weapons, and armor, as well as learn spells. It’s not all fireball or lightning. You get slow-fall and illusion spells. You get interesting utility items like the Prism Stone, which allows you to judge the depth of a fall by dropping it. It all fits together in the fantasy world pretty well. Even the progression system allows you to craft a hero and a fighting style that suits you, without too much contrivance. You’re not a rogue because you picked a rogue. You’re a rogue because you specialize in back-stabbing, wear light armor and parry-riposte with daggers a lot. It’s a flexible, intuitive system…

Which does nothing to distract from the fact that you’ll be learning one fighting style really well. Different weapons handle quite differently, which is a point for realism, but means that you’ll have to re-learn your timing if you want to switch up combat. Of course, much of the learning revolves around your opponent’s timing, so it won’t be that hard to switch. Still, I can’t count anything as a point in the game’s favor if I have to learn how to use it. If I wanted to sit in dull combat, over and over, with people that block too much, then I’d go back to WoW PVP against warriors. None of this is as unambiguously bad as the targeting system. I thought this was something we’d perfected in the N64 era. If I point at something and press target, then it means I want to target that. It does not mean that I want to swivel around and lock on to the closest enemy charging up the stairs behind me. Of course, you can only target through stairs when you don’t want to. The rest of the time, the targeting is finicky and unreliable around obstacles.

Once you’re locked on, the workings of the system are pretty good. It’s much easier to hit things that way. Given, it’s not easy to screw that up, but given some other parts of this game, I wouldn’t be too surprised. The boss fights are suitably epic, and you can even hack the tails of bigger monsters off for the chance to get a nice weapon. Once you’ve got your hands on a good weapon, the combat gets a little easier, and it feels a little less grind-tastic, though no less repetitive. Finding the blacksmith is a big boon, because the up-grades are really effective. A +2 sword feels like a +2 sword should: a noticeable improvement over the original.
Image
This also means that moving forward in the game relies on improving your gear and levelling. For all the talk of the game being an execution challenge, you can’t free-roam all that much until you know where to go to acquire the items necessary to survive in a given environment, and have levelled up enough to use them. Oh yeah, you can’t save or pause, either. It auto-saves for you, and pausing is for noobs. Apparently. The game also has this annoying habit of making you swing your sword more times than you intended to. The cusp between one and two swings is very fine. Another aspect you’ll have to learn. Yay. However, it supplements the first annoying habit with a second of putting important NPCs in barrels that you have to smash them out of. So, if your sword is a little longer than you think it is, then you might cleave through a couple barrels and nick the person that was inside. This resulted in my losing the ability to learn fire spells. The same thing happened when I was attacked by a rat in the sewers, except then I lost a recurring merchant that levels up his wares. Thank god there’s no way to apologize or reset their aggro. I mean, I clearly meant to attack you. The rat gnawing on my leg is a pet. My player-coach recommended restarting my game, but this was programmed into the game. So, getting an authentic experience requires that I be able to make those kinds of mistakes. Even Oblivion had a yield system built in.
Image
I feel like this two-faced thing is a bit played out, so let’s bring the criticism together. I had a friend refer to it as a modern-day arcade game, and I can’t help but agree. It’s mercilessly padded and, were it sucking in quarters, I’d say it wanted that. Instead, all I feel like it wants is time. There’s a reason that we don’t make arcade games anymore. That kind of design is annoying. Sure, it suits some players, and it’s probably the best imagining of the formula that I’ve seen so far, but that doesn’t make it good. It’s good at what it does, but what it does isn’t enough to keep me invested in doing it repeatedly. Foreva.

I had someone say I just didn’t like it because I was bad at it. Truth be told, I’m pretty decent at the game. I just don’t want to invest more time into playing it. There’s so much more to see and play, so I don’t see how it could expect me to eschew lampooning Resident Evil 6 in order to kill another corridor of the same enemies (Spoilers). There’s this culture of “difficulty” around Dark Souls that I think helps give the game a pass for its dodgy game design. If you give up, then the game has beaten you, because it’s difficult. That’s not accurate, though. If you want to look at an execution challenge that benefits from a similar learning-curve, but is designed around the required repetition, then look up Super Hexagon. It’s a cheap indie game that breaks down the design to its simplest form. The thing that will beat you in Dark Souls is the drudgery, not the difficulty. Since I’m talking about difficulty, then I’d better define it. A difficult game is one that maintains a high level of challenge throughout, regardless of the number of times you’ve done the challenge. That is, unless you’ve learned them to a muscle-memory-fine point. Compare Mario (for maintaining challenge) and R-Type (for maintaining difficulty). Dark Souls definitely has difficult moments, but the overall meta-game eliminates it once you know what to do. That’s fine, most games are like that, but trying to dress up bad game design in the fabric of “oh, it’s just hard” smacks a little too much of console gaming’s quarter-eating counter-part.

If you can get past that, and truly enjoy the combat enough to do it over and over, then Dark Souls will really come alive for you. It’s skillfully executed, well presented, and thoroughly interesting. It stops just short of being a good game for me, because I’m looking for engaging games that add something to my life experience. Or, failing that, are fun to play. Dark Souls does neither of these things.

The designers know this, though. One of the benefits of the on-line thing is, again, patch access. Many of the things I outlined here were mitigated in patches. Ghosts drop souls, and soul drops are increased. There are more fires, so the runs between them are shorter, so the grind is mitigated further. The targeting system got a once-over, though I don’t know if it fixed the priority-cursor problem. The drop-rates on level-up items have been increased, so the required farming decreases, as well. Curses no longer stack. There’s a list right here —> http://darksouls.wikidot.com/game-patches

It might be enough to fix some of the game’s issues, but it won’t change the underlying problem of the game being padded. The reward for committed play isn’t high enough to justify the time-sink and the clever story-elements don’t make up for the ultimately frustrating combat. For putting frustrating combat in a combat-based game, I give it 1 stale, unsalted pretzel out of 23 unsorted beakers full of strange fizzing liquids

Mechanical Metaphors and Monopoly

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by trivialpunk

Today, I want to go back to basics a little bit. This is, most assuredly, not because I spent the last week playing Dark Souls and don’t have a comprehensive opinion yet. No, this resulted from a conversation I had earlier today about Monopoly. Boiling it down, the conversation had two points of interest: Monopoly is a terrible game, and it’s a bleak, some-might-say accurate representation of unmitigated capitalism. I’d like to take some time out of your schedule to examine those two claims.

Image

The first point is a little hard to justify. Clearly, it’s a game that has been around a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, no matter how much we hate sitting down with the family to roll dice for three hours. Then again, that sentence itself kind of deconstructs the whole experience. It is pretty much just a dice-rolling game, with a few exceptions. I’ll get into those in a bit. There’s not much depth, or complexity, to the game, except what you add yourself. There are multiple variants, house-rules, and board games, but the essential experience is the same. With a game this old, and a system this simple, how can Monopoly possibly be relevant in an age of complex table-top gaming and high-res, high-quality video games? It’s because, despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, it can deliver a truly focused experience with a well-developed mechanical metaphor: fuck players, get money.

This plays directly into the second point: the representation of capitalism. On the face of it, capitalism is about acquiring money, re-investing it, and making more of it to re-invest, and crushing anything that gets in your way. Well, that’s a simplified, cynical vision of capitalism. I’m not going to get into the finer points, because this isn’t an economics blog. We’re here to get our game analysis pants on.

All of the various aspects of Monopoly communicate the need for competition. The limited resources ensure that you’ll be struggling over them with the other players. Consuming those limited resources strengthens your opponents, so any loss by you is a gain by them. This is what’s called a zero-sum game. These resources are, of course, properties, but they apply equally well to the currency system, as well. It has been shown that games with the $500 Free Parking rule go much longer. This is because there are more resources available in the overall pool. Running out of resources ends the game. This also adds a running clock to the system and reinforces the value of both currency and property.

So far, so simple, right? This is a deep rabbit hole. Each and every piece fits together to inform the experience. Take Go for instance. Passing it allows you to collect $200 dollars. Its placement on the board is a well-calculated decision. Immediately after you pass Go, there are cheap properties, with low costs and low rent. However, as you loop around the board, the properties get progressively more and more expensive (This adds another layer to the Free Parking space, because it acts as a padding gate for your entrance into the more expensive areas). So, by the end of your trip, you’ve probably spent the money you made by passing Go. In fact, there’s a chance you might be knocked out by the green and blue properties in the end-game before you get a chance to collect it. This is fine for the first few rounds, but it has an interesting effect later in the game. It separates players into a couple different categories, two of which I’ll discuss here: the haves and the have-nots. Simple and elegant naming aside, these two categories reflect two different economic life-styles: living pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque and collecting dividends. For the well-invested, the end of the month, or cycle of the board, is simply a chance to add to their pool of resources for re-investment. For others, the less-than-lucky among us, it represents one of the only sources of income they have. So, it’s a kind of windfall. Of course, that’s just a stalling method, because they’ll eventually be bled dry by the best invested players.

I mentioned luck earlier, and it’s a pretty big part of the game. Rolling high on the dice makes your trip around the board shorter, and increases the number of overall times you’ll get a chance to pass Go. Luck also dictates what properties you land on and when. Probability will ensure that the disparity between different players on the total number of spaces they move each game will be low. However, when and where you land is important. Moving around the board can be seen as moving through time. High rollers will get past more obstacles faster. Metaphorically, this is like getting through a month without incurring any extra expenses. Landing on a property in an early cycle of moving around the board is the best, because you get either a chance to buy it, or don’t have to pay much. However, as time passes, and the players cycle around the board more, there are fewer and fewer available properties. Needing a set of three properties to build houses also ensures that expenses will only mount as time passes. This side-effect of cycling around the board also ensures that the metaphor of dwindling resources, and getting in early, is clearly represented.

This might be a dig at capitalism, as well. When you land on a property, so when you “get in,” is essentially randomised, or, at least, largely luck-based. There’s a money-management component to the early cycles, but it usually amounts to buying every property you land on, and hoping for the best. Again, high-rolling players will get to the better neighbourhoods first, reducing the total number of available high-price properties available to those that come afterwards. On a purely probabilistic level, it’s always better to get there first, and roll higher. Of course, it’s not all about high rolls. Landing on Free parking, the rail roads, and un-rented property takes all kinds of rolls. Equally so, landing on Park Place with four houses can be the result of any roll. Notice, also, that there’s a gap between each two-property set. This ensures that you can always get to the second property from the first with a well-placed set of snake-eyes. Again, good for initial investors, but a capital sink for those that come after.

Image
Jail is an interesting beast, as well. There are many different ways to play Monopoly, but, given the simplicity of the system, there’s a pretty clear end-goal. As a result, those in an unenviable position, pricks, or the very young, may be tempted to play outside the rules (read: cheat). I’m hoping that you can see how this parallels reality pretty well. When you don’t have, then you’ll be tempted to do anything to win or survive in a zero-sum game. That is, if you commit into its all-or-nothing, tooth-and-nail mechanical environment. Expanding further on this, depending on your position, going to jail can be either a good or bad thing. Right now you’re saying, “But Trivia, that doesn’t make sense! Cheating in real life doesn’t land you in jail in the game!” That’s true, assuming you’re using standard rules, but it does highlight the costs and causes of cheating. If you’re doing well, then you’ve got a lot to lose, so you’re not quite as likely to cheat (unless that’s how you got there). Whereas, if you’re not doing well, then you’ve got little reason to stop yourself from taking an extra hundred from the bank when no one’s looking. Similarly, being in jail stops you from moving around the board, but, more importantly, it also prevents you from paying or collecting rent. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Doubles! Doubles! Doubles!… JAIL! Now that we’ve looked at jail, we can talk about this rule. As we’ve established that quick movement is desirable, and that snake-eyes will generally land you on property of the same set (assuming you’re on the first square), we can see why doubles would be awesome. So, rolling a lot of doubles is desirable. You will either be moving a large number of spaces, or very few. Compared to any random combination of numbers, doubles is generally superior. You’re either moving a large number of spaces (8, 10, or 12), staying in the same general rental neighbourhood (2), or ensuring your escape from a set of well-developed properties that you’ve already landed on, or are close to (4, 6). These results can be replicated by a random, non-paired combination, as well, but doubles are solid rolls. As a result, rolling a lot of them can be akin to doing a little too well in the business world (insider trading, anyone?). That, and it once again shines the spotlight on randomness and its ability to land you in the dog-house.

Speaking of trading, I haven’t yet mentioned how you make most of your sets. If you were lucky enough to land on a set of properties and snap them up (statistically more likely if you got there first), then you don’t have to worry about it. However, if you didn’t, then you’re going to need to trade. This aspect of the game adds a certain level of depth to the proceedings because you’ve got to save all your dickery for after you’ve eliminated your need for your opponents. That’s why most of the time people: save house-purchasing until after all the properties have been bought, and have a trading-phase once the last property has been nicked. So, you either hold onto properties and deprive your opponents of a much-needed resource, or you leverage your opponent’s need into an advantage. this also preserves every property’s value into the end-game. Yes, the rent on Marvin Gardens may be low on its own, but it beats the hell out of landing on Virginia Avenue with a hotel. How you deal with your opponents is up to you at that point, but I should also point out that grinding your opponent into dust puts their properties up for auction, allowing you to snap up that property you need in the wake of their fall (depending on who does the auctioning in your house-rules, you might also have to play two-faced with your opponents all the way through to avoid pissing off the auctioneer). This further cements the feeling and drive to compete and destroy.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well duh! Monopoly is about competition! Thanks for wasting a couple thousand words illuminating that.” You’re welcome, because that thought brings us full-circle. The rules and mechanics of Monopoly all work together to serve the overall metaphor and purpose of the game: driving competition in an environment of luck, initiative, and strange bedfellows. As games become more complex, it’s occasionally difficult to see the forest for the trees. The basic elements of every game come together to create the overall experience. A well-crafted game will communicate its meaning on every level of design. From the different pictures depicting Mr. Moneybags, to the rules and mechanics of the game, and the lay-out of the board, the entire Monopoly experience is shaped around its message. Even children, who barely understand the concepts we’re bandying about and actively deconstructing, grasp, just through play, the strategies and meanings of the game. Nothing will convince you of this more than the blood-thirsty cackles elicited from their sweet, innocent mouths as you land on their well-developed properties and they get to drain you of your last cent.

So, is Monopoly a bad game? Well, it lacks a grand level of strategic depth, but it certainly communicates its point well. So, if I can give SpecOps and Silent Hill 2 a break, despite their mechanical sketchiness, because they’ve got an excellent , unified aesthetic, then I think I can do the same for Monopoly. As a metaphor for capitalism, it’s a bit bleak, but not necessarily untrue. Maybe inaccurate, but those are different things. As for relevant? I think everyone should play it at least once, or twice, even now. As gaming, and the gaming community, moves forward, it’s always worth a little retrospective. There’s a lot to be learned from simplicity, and the mistakes of the past. We’d do well to remember how Monopoly, with a board, some dice, and some cards, managed to create an experience so immersive and comprehensive that, given the chance, you’d buy your Grandma’s property right out from under her without a second thought.

XCOM: Pithy Remark

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on January 8, 2013 by trivialpunk

Aaaaaand… we’re back! Back in class that is. Yes, now the whims of fate are directed by my weekends instead of the other way around. That being said, I did find time in my fate-bending schedule to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown for three days. Three days. Do you know how long its been since I’ve all-nighted a game like this? Any ways, I’m sure you don’t want to sit here and hear about how good the game is. So, you sit there and I’ll go on about it from here.

Image

I’ve heard that it was based on a game from the long, long ago: UFO Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense, depending on where you live. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (from the minds of Firaxis and the wallets of 2K Games)  lets you take on the role of the Commander of XCOM: a military organization that was hastily put together to defend the earth from an encroaching alien menace. You receive funding from the various nations of the world depending on how well you keep their populace from panicking, and the strength of your satellite-interceptor response network. You research the technology and creatures you capture to improve and accelerate your development, as well as improve the life expectancy of your various ground troops. Developing the base, doing research, customizing load-outs, managing your networks, ordering construction and deploying your troops are all done from the XCOM base. Once you’ve received a mission, through force of communique, or by scanning the world (a handy mechanism for speeding up time), you select your ground-team and move on to the turn-based tactical game-play.

XCOM does a wonderful job of synthesizing base management with its tactical components, without making either of them seem vestigial. Taken together, they produce an enthralling experience that had me forgoing both sleep and company for another pot of coffee. The tactical interface is pretty intuitive, and easy to pick up. I would say difficult to master, but as mastery usually amounts to figuring out play-styles that work for you, it’s more fun than difficult. That’s not to say that the game isn’t difficult, though. I’d recommend saving-and-loading often, because time is of the essence.

Many of the primary mechanics that the game employs in regards to base management are time-sensitive. As a result, and because the tactical portion of the game is so dependant on the base management (and vice versa), one small slip can have you combating alien ground-troops by having a squad of barely-functional rookies furtively wiggle their eye-brows at them. Some of my favorite moments came after particularly difficult missions, when all my best trained troops were out sick with plasma burns, and I had to complete a particularly nasty challenge with a handful of rookies and a top-notch sniper.

I want to discuss the temporal and spatial aspects of the game in more detail, but I’ll need to spoil a few things to go on with that, so I’ll put together a second post tonight with a more thorough analysis of the game-play, so as not to ruin it for anyone that’s just here for an opinion. Let’s just review this sucker! There are a large number of maps, but they do tend to repeat a bit. However, as the enemy spawns are randomized (except in the pre-assembled levels), and the game has a few different challenge modes, you won’t really notice. Moreover, as you advance you unlock different abilities, so many of the levels open up a bit as you become more mobile. It also might be because I had to play the game through twice-over to beat it, because, the first time, I messed up in the base management portion of the game.

“How did you manage that? Do you have a lemon where your melon should be?” Yes, and no. I’ll let you know now: you can excavate, build, and order multiple items at the same time. So, you don’t have to wait for that satellite to finish, or a room to get excavated, to issue more commands, provided that you have the resources and man-power. That’s a free tip, because I had no idea. As a result, my satellite network was weak, my income was piddling because I was only monitoring three nations, four nations had already withdrawn their support, and my troops were just getting lasers when they needed plasma rifles.

I probably wasn’t going to be able to recover, because if you lose eight nations, or if the overall “Doom Counter” clock strikes midnight, then your carriage is turns back into a pumpkin, with its orange goop splattered all across the countryside. It’s a pretty delicate line to walk, especially if you’re going to do it well. Even on my second play-through, I still lost four countries. All of which raises an interesting question, “If you’re going to be killed in any event, then why are you withdrawing support from one of the few world-wide organizations that has been put together to fight this menace?” It’s not like there are many others. Prompts let you know that the nations themselves are fighting, but they don’t have the reality-bending power of your ridiculous research team, nor the frankly bewildering skill of your engineering department. Given that XCOM is making progress towards destroying the alien menace, it seems a bit churlish to withdraw funding just because you couldn’t keep your citizens from panicking. Then again, I’d be pretty upset if the one steady hope for humanity only deployed one 4-6 man group squad at a time. It’s hard to justify the funding when your population is rapidly dwindling under the claws and weapons of a horrifying enemy and your go-to squad is off somewhere killing ten, large-headed cream-puffs in exchange for two-hundred dollars.

Image

Like any, the game has its problems. It’s a 3-D, isometric-view, tactical game, so there’s an awful lot of environment clipping. Rarely, a trigger won’t go off, so an ability won’t work quite the way you want it to. The game uses cut-scenes and dynamic camera movements to create tense moments during game-play, especially for kill-shots and enemy spawns, but they can get a bit tiresome. Of course, I’d been playing for almost 19 hours straight by the time they did, so it might have just been the lack of sleep. It’s chance-based, so you’ll probably miss a few shots that seem ridiculous, while the enemy makes a few that will have you clenching your teeth in impotent fury, but there are enough of the opposite events to keep you smiling (They won’t bring back your highly-trained Support-units, though). The most glaring issue is camera movement. There’s no level map, so you’ll have to move around the level a lot. Depending on the terrain, this can be an exercise in patience. Tall structures, multi-storied buildings, or weird angles can cause the camera to freak out, or speed around the level. Nonetheless, if you use the mouse-wheel height system carefully, and get used to feeling out an area’s length instinctively, then you’ll be fine.

That being said, there is still one depth-issue I’d like to address. It’s difficult to tell how long XCOM is, or how deep the rabbit-hole goes, so prioritizing facility development can get a bit sticky. For instance, scientists exist primarily to allow, or speed up, different types of research. However, near what I came to realize was the end of the game, I had so many scientists, and research credits, that almost all of my research finished within a couple days. So, it was a bit difficult to tell if I’d need any more, or if that was just a waste and I should expand the engineering department (much like my local university). It’s hard to tell if you should invest in laser weaponry, or wait for plasma. Should you send some troops for psychic testing, or would that be a waste at that point? Do you invest in building an awesome interceptor, or are there more models to come? Which resources do I keep?! Of course, this is all part of the game, and it’s nice enough to wait around for you to finish certain events before really ramping up the challenge, but it can be a bit bewildering the first time through. On my third play-through (because there will be a third), I’m sure things will go a bit smoother. Then again, that’ll be an iron-man run, so I’ll probably be regretting those words in no time.

Playing without save-scumming, a practice I tried out for about an hour before weeping quietly in front of my memorial wall (Yes, it has one of those), really gives one the impression of fighting a desperate struggle against a powerful, nebulous foe. In terms of mechanics-as-metaphor, the entire game delivers its experience very well, without making it all seem hopeless. I’m sure, with what I know now, I could go back and save that first play-through, and really savor the challenge. It’s worth the time you put into it, and it’s quite a singular experience. That’s why I’m giving it this week’s highest rating: Two Banana-nut Muffins out of One Small Lock of Albert Einstein’s Hair, Lovingly Combed and Preserved in a Hermetically-Sealed Batman Lunch-Box.

I’ll get back to XCOM tonight with a more thorough, and spoiler-filled, analysis of its temporal and developmental components. Until then, keep watching the screeeeeeeennsss…

Dungeon Defenders: Be the Tower

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , on December 30, 2012 by trivialpunk

I’m going to try to stop prefacing my reviews with the phrase “I really liked this game, but…” because it’s really starting to sound insincere. It really makes one understand the plight of reviewers that have been around the block a few times. Take Yahtzee, for instance. He’s coming up on 280 videos, and it’s sort of tiresome to always have something negative to say about a game. Beneficial? Yes. Encouraging? Occasionally. Zero Punctuation kind of by-passes the whole business by starting off with an attitude like someone treated Yahtzee’s burning rake injury with a vinegar-soaked tensor bandage. That’s not to say that I don’t thoroughly enjoy him, or that you should too, but be aware: there’s a lot of “inappropriate” language. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EpzwuZOvKY&list=PL58FD3A7244B64B99 As you might already be aware, that was just a framing device for a shameless plug. I love me some game reviews. Oh look, here’s one now! Dungeon Defenders? For me?! You shouldn’t have!

Image

Dungeon Defenders is another one of those mash-up games that attempts to combine two different, but not mutually exclusive, “genres.” Genre here being a loose term that’s continually changing definitions. This time, it’s classic tower defence with a playable hero defender that levels up as you go. Oh, also, you can level up your armor, weapons, and get pets. If I was a bit more cynical, I’d probably say that more games are adding RPG elements in an attempt to lengthen game-play. That being said, the tower defense formula is used to being shaken up, and this game does it pretty well. Let’s start with the premise…

There was a group of adventurers that defended the land, locking evil away in some magic doohickey, before leaving on a crusade of some kind. You are one of a group of miniature versions of the original adventurers that knocked over the magical device while you were playing one day. This small accident, which would have been preventable with an IKEA home display case, has the unfortunate effect of unleashing evil forces that bray ceaselessly for the blood (?) of any and all nearby Eternia Crystals, which they will do anything to savagely assault, without cessation, until the crystal is destroyed, or you’ve killed them to the last soldier. That is, unless victory requires them to jump down a small ledge, or attack en masse. As with all tower defense games, there’s an unusual feeling of triviality about the whole business as monsters tend to meander single-file, in straight lines, directly into enemy fire. On one hand, it seems like it could be a cynical depiction of industrial warfare, but could be used to describe a customer service job equally as well. Choose your demoralizing, cynical metaphor and let’s move along.

You summon towers using mana crystals that you get from chests and downed enemies (that, incidentally, drop items, too), and your hero gains experience. Once you’ve gained enough EXP (I feel like I can comfortably use that abbreviation from now on without losing anyone), you level up and can put an increasing number of points into abilities that either boost your character’s personal abilities, or that of its towers. Also, it increases the amount of mana you can carry on your person at any given time. Any mana that you didn’t use is stored in a mana bank, not accessible during levels, and is: used to buy items, or pumped directly into items until they hit a levelling threshold after which point you can level them up in much the same way you level your character. Different items will enhance different stats, have different level caps, strengthen different abilities, etc. So, you can see how far the rabbit hole could go. It’s not the insane customization level of Disgaea, but let’s be thankful for that, because, in many ways, the RPG elements hamper the tower defense part of the game. At least, they do at first.

This is where I got a bit frightened that we were just wasting time for time’s sake, but it does serve a purpose. You see, when you start a new character you can only carry enough mana on your person to make one basic tower, or two barricades, at a time. So, if you want to create more elaborate defenses, then you’ve got to run back and forth collecting mana crystals to build more towers. It’s not too bad, because the early levels are designed with simplicity in mind, so there’s not a lot of running. It’s more annoying that anything. Eventually, you sew enough pockets onto your invisible rucksack that you don’t have to worry about that. This particular mechanic is in place to provide a decent pace to the levelling curve, though. While some towers are unlocked based on your level, tower up-grades are based on the amount of mana you can carry at a given time. For instance, in order to up-grade a tower to level three, you need to pump 400 mana into it. If you can only carry 380, then you’re stuck with your wimpy, level two death-dispenser. It also makes you hop around like a frenetic jack-rabbit in search of mana during rough combat sections when you need to cast a healing spell or repair a barricade on-the-fly. That being said, gaining mana is also a double-edged sword. Once you die, all the mana you were carrying on you disappears. You can bank it between combat sequences, but if you die near the end of a particularly viscerally-gratifying wave of plonky-plinky mana-gem collecting fun, then you’ve lost a good chunk of your reward, and resources that you might use to bolster your defenses further.

I have some visual problems with the game, as well. The maps, while extremely helpful, leave something to be desired in the elevation department. This level, for instance, is far more simple to defend than the map would have you believe.

ImageThe lower levels are easy to discern, but there’s a logic to how you should set up your defences that just isn’t apparent until you’ve run around checking all the stair-cases and firing-lines. That being said, there’s the need to run around the level opening up chests at the beginning of every level so that you can get starting mana to begin constructing your defenses, any ways. That, and identifying random items that are laying on the ground, will keep you running around levels for days. You better make sure you check them all out, too, because they get sold at the end of every level. I’m making that sound like a bad thing, but it’s really useful on multi-player maps, and even single player, when you just don’t want to have to pick up every individual piece of gear and sell it. That being said, identifying an item only takes one second of scrolling over it, before it’s immediately compared to your currently equipped item. The shop even has a convenient Lock-Item-Sell-All function that speeds up the selling process. The game knows it’s going to be shoving gear up your nose, and it knows equally well that, by allowing you to level up, name, and customize items, it’s discouraging you from switching them that often, so it designs around that understanding.

The camera is a bit dodgy. It zooms in and out to multiple vertical levels, each with its own horizontal logic. There’s even a first-person mode for when you’re having trouble seeing around the awful corners it occasionally stuffs you into. There’s also a problem with summoning towers. When you’re placing it, there’s a helpful circle that shows you where you can place your Crowd controller, how you can rotate it, and its field of influence. The problem comes into play with the field of influence, arguably the most important attribute of your tower besides the direction it’s facing. The camera tends to swing up and hover directly over-head, limiting your view.

Image

This would be a major issue, except that it’s usually a pretty simple direction-choice, and the camera generally obliges if you’re on a larger level, zoomed all the way out. This is further aided by the general flow of game-play. While some veteran tower-defense players may have been a bit perturbed by the limitation of vision, the building of barricades, or building single towers are a time (when you might be used to mazing instead), this game embraces the differences in the combat engine.

Having a fairly direct effect on combat through personal intervention means that, on multi-player mode, your towers won’t be doing all the work. That being said, if you were to insert a combat-skilled player-character into a classic tower defense, then they’d pretty much just be another tower, albeit a mobile one. That’s kind of the case, but instead of building mazes, or strategically positioning all your towers, with over-lapping lines of fire, to mow down waves of enemies, now you’re building fortifications that are being directly assaulted. It feels a bit like a MOBA, but without the other team, and the creep aren’t using sticks. Also, you can build towers. Thankfully, you don’t have to maze, because there’s a pretty stringent limit on the number of towers you can build based on their value and the levels’ defence value cap. As a result, a lot of you end-level mana will go towards repairing towers, casting spells, or padding your mana bank.

This difference in combat really shakes up the whole formula. It means that you can directly intervene when a defense is in trouble, weakened or destroyed. Barricades and towers taking hits means that up-grades also increase health, adding another level to your up-grade strategy. Bosses can be more interesting. You can kite an enemy away from a defense while an ally fixes it. If you’re like me and lucked out by finding a tiny god tied to the end of a staff, then you can handle whole waves yourself. You can even, and are indeed encouraged by the game to, build a tower-buffing character, and a dps character. I’m sure there are other builds, but I only got so far in the game, before it badgered me for more money so that I might enjoy its DLC. It all goes towards adding another layer of tension or purpose to the combat sections, other than frantically building towers further down the line to catch stragglers. Now, you might be frantically running around a level to kill a suicide mob, or a nasty troll (It also makes picking up items more palatable, because you’re out there, any ways.). There’s a subtle layer of choice to make between staying behind defences to add to their fire-power, or charging out to take down more dangerous enemies, because leaving your fortifications means that you’ll be picking up mana that you might lose upon death out in the thick of it. It makes multi-player a more interesting proposition, and can make for some daring manoeuvres, because you respawn (sans out-of-pocket mana) when you die. You never get the feeling that you’re out of hope, or things to do, until the Eternia Crystal falls, because you can jump in to fill the gaps. That, more than anything, is a welcome addition.

All in all, the RPG elements make for an interesting addition to the tower-defense concept. Thankfully, the Dungeon Defender developers knew that they’d have to re-imagine a few concepts if they were going to add it on, and the game plays rather well. Aside from having a slow start, and a bit more faffing around than I’d like between levels, as well as a couple of minor, workable handling problems, the game is an entertaining take on a familiar concept. It’s the Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes of Tower Defences.

Top 5 Lists and Such

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on December 21, 2012 by trivialpunk

It being money-haemorrhage season, I thought I’d make a list of the Top 5 games I played this year to help you with your purchasing decisions. Then, I thought, why not make a list of my Worst 5 games so you’ll know what to avoid. Then, I thought, I wish I could download all these Steam games from the Christmas sale without destroying my bandwidth so I could write this to the soothing sounds of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.. a very Cthulhu Christmas… seriously, follow this link. You’ll see what I mean.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptP0OR-e7rI

So, the theme of these lists will be things you can download from Steam and the Android store, partly for your convenience, and partly because half of it’s on sale right now! Not all of these came out this year, because, while I like to keep up with games, I also like: having money in my wallet, and passing all of my courses. Besides, we’ve got all of gaming history to choose from!

Worst Games…

5. Dead Pixels – This was a game that had a lot of potential, but they tried to cram too much in. It’s a decent game when you can play it, but there’s so much faffing around trying to get to the point where you’ll be able to free-run and shoot zombies that I just can’t recommend it. It’s number 5 though, so it’s still playable.

4.Dead Island – One of those games that explains itself almost entirely in the name. You’re on an island, there are zombies, go. I started out really liking this game, but I got a horrible creeping sensation as I continued playing… this is World of Warcraft, but shallow. The weapon customization is token at best, and, while beautiful, I can’t forgive a game where wearing heels doesn’t cause extra kicking damage. The thugs suck, too.

3. Hamlet or the last game with MMORPG Elements… – I know, this game is coated in pretension. That, and it’s a cheap indie title, so why is it on here? Because, it looks and feels good to play, at first, but it’s just so short and flat. Most of the puzzles solve themselves, even without the Hint function, and the ones that don’t follow the worst kind of adventure game logic. The story is a re-hash, a badly done one at that, and the game-play is boring. It’s just… a bad game. I felt bad for playing it. Still, I finished it, so that should say something.

2. League of Legends – Some people think this game eats chocolate and shits gold, and I can see why they’d think that, but I’m putting this here as a friendly warning to anyone thinking of getting into it. The community is full of angry people. The game-play is well-executed, but the money and experience systems are incredibly manipulative. The game has so many heroes, and a constant system of created imbalance, that I’m not sure you can escape once you’ve put in the requisite hours to learn what you need to to play it well. However, the developers are pretty close to the community. If you want to immerse yourself completely in something teeth-grindingly, friendship-breakingly frustrating, then I’d recommend it, and it’s free-to-play. BUT, in terms of being fun or easy to pick up and enjoy, I’m going to say, “avoid it.” You get it on-line, that’s why it’s on this list in particular, even though it’s not a Steam game. Well-crafted, but it’s more a job than a game.

1. Will be saved for the end. Aww 😦

Yay! Now I get to talk about games I like! It’s hard for me to find games that I can’t recommend for some reason or another. Even my second-worst “game I’ve played this year” choice had its merits. It’s just that the rest of it has had such a glaringly negative effect on the people around me that it got shoved into the bin. Now, though, I get to tell you about some wonderful experiences!

5. Legend of Grimrock – This was going to be Psychonauts’ spot, but it disqualified itself because I just wrote a review on it yesterday. LoGrimrock is a really interesting take on the dungeon crawler. You walk in lock-step around a grid like a group of really intimate D&D characters. The puzzles are interesting and intuitive, while still having really simple puzzle-mechanisms. If you want to look at how to employ interesting puzzles in a game with a simplistic design, then give this a go. There are very few games out there like this.

4. Crysis 2 – If you’ve got an over-powered Atari simulator like I do, then I’d recommend this game. It’s a solid shooter with some well-implemented, basic upgrade elements. Granted, you don’t so much level, as augment your weapons and suit, but, then again, you don’t so much shoot at things as place bullets within them. It looks good, feels good and plays well. It’s solid.

3. Borderlands 2 and Diablo 3 – These games are good. If you liked Borderlands 1, then you’ll enjoy its sequel. The same goes for Diablo. If you liked Borderlands 1, then you’ll like it. They’re essentially the same game with the same problems. Re-playability, except for the rabid, is stunted, but the games themselves are marvellous. If you like collecting loot, following a linear story, and killing tons of dudes, then I’d recommend either. Diablo for the Diablo-style connoisseur and Borderlands 2 for the shooter enthusiast.

2. FTL: Faster Than Light – This game sort of came out of nowhere for me. It’s sort of like a rogue-like, but in space, with missiles, and a giant enemy craft at the end. There are unlockable ships that really switch up game-play, and an interesting universe to explore. It’s not the biggest game ever, but the price is right and the game is awesome. Painkiller Hell and Damnation had this spot locked until I noticed that I had too many shooters on the list. Sowwy!

1. Yeah, I’m doing that again.

Before we finish up and award the used-needle-filled slime-bucket to the Worst Game and the Golden Coconut-Creme-Topped Cheese Cake to the Best Game, I’m going to give you a couple other titles to think about. These games are either interesting, or well put together. Again, still available on Steam.

Alan Wake
Bastion
Deadlight
Edna & harvey: Harvey’s New Eyes
LIMBO
Lone Survivor
Psychonauts
Sequence
The Stanley Parable
XCOM: Enemy Uknown
SpaceChem

Alright, before we hand out the big awards, let’s hit up a few minor ones…

Best Interactive Story – Gaming is a primarily interactive medium, so you’d think all games could hold some claim to this title. You’d be wrong. These games are all story, and they’re good. They actually change themselves to respond to your actions without needing a morality meter. These are just stories.

Runner Up…. Home – This game almost took the title, with its branching binary paths and deliciously creepy atmosphere, but it got beat out by a stronger opponent.

A Winner Is… Dear Esther – This title had me and three of my friends sitting in front of the screen watching a fourth play through it. Then, we each had a go. Give it a try.

Most Critically Recommended – These games I didn’t hear enough about. Seriously, I’ve heard some games repeatedly recommended, so I thought that, even though I haven’t played them yet, I’d put them on this list.

Runner Up… Fallout 3 – Critics love this game. I guess there aren’t many like it, so it might be time to give it a shot… provided that you have the time.

A Winner Is… Spec Ops: The Line – I know a lot of people were surprised by this game, and it’s downloading again as we speak, so I had to put it on here. If you haven’t played it, then give it a go. Just keep an open mind.

Game I had the Most Fun With – These aren’t games that are necessarily good. I just really, really enjoyed them.

Runner Up… Super Hexagon – The pounding music and interesting difficulty curve had me coming back for more for hours, even though I lost constantly. Loved every moment of it!

A Winner Is… Symphony – I love any game that can combine my favorite songs with a fast-paced, well-balanced top-down shooter. It’s shiny, fast-paced (If you’re into that sort of music), and it just feels good. The difficulty curve ramps up nicely, as well.

Zach’s Pick! I asked someone named Zach what he’d rate as their number one game and he came up with…

Runner Up… Guild Wars 2 – If you’re not into MMOs, but would like to be, then give this a go. It might ruin you for others, though 😉

A Winner Is… The Walking Dead – fun, fast-paced interactive story-telling with adventure game elements that apparently rock so hard that the dead had to get in on it. He said that he didn’t so much play Dota 2, as play Dota 2 until the next instalment of this series came out.

Now for the Rotten Cantaloupe Sitting Out in the Sun All Day with Sentient, Evil Maggots in it Award…

The Worst Game I Played – Anna

This game seemed like it could have been good, but, while it sets a decent atmosphere, there’s no danger. There’s no logic to the puzzles. There’s nowhere to go. Hardly anything to do. One of the “masks” gave me a constant headache. The story isn’t good. It’s just a terrible game. Three of us sat in front of the computer trying to figure out this game, and we ended up groaning every time we got an answer. Give this one a pass.

Last, but so far from least, the That Hot, Rich, Successful Person You’ve Liked All Year Asking You Out for Drinks Award goes to…

The Best Game I Played – Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I love horror games, and there haven’t been many. This game fixes many of the problems that previous games from the same developers had. Its stealth mechanic works well. It’s frightening. It’s well-paced. The story is interesting. The game-play and puzzle mechanics are solid. It’s good. Just… just play it.

Thanks for reading! I hope that I helped you make a few buying decisions for the year. The Steam Sale is starting now, so there’s lot to sort through.

Happy Bargain Hunting! 😀