Archive for video game reviews

GTAV, Art and Dat GameSpot Review

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ll post the review I wrote later. This needs to be discussed.

Yesterday, I pulled up a video game review on GameSpot and read some of the comments related to it, both on Twitter and on the site. Some people seem to be lining up on two fictitious, dichotomous sides on this one, and I think that’s terrible. I also think that’s pretty normal, honestly. However, I do believe that we need to develop a dialogue if we’re actually going to do some good here, so I’d like to invite you to read the article first. Don’t worry, it’s for GTAV, so it’s topical. You’re not really going to get what I’m talking about unless you do, so I’ll wait. Read some of the comments, too. Select “Top Comments” if you want to get some more perspectives on this. At time of writing, they haven’t descended into drivel. … Got it? Good.

I’ve never had an answer to a question concerning art or society that didn’t come with a caveat. Life is a complicated thing; you and I both know this. Society is infinitely more so. Keep that in mind and always dig. Always ask questions; never be satisfied with an answer if it seems too simple. That’s what I’m here to do today: ask questions and ruminate a little. I invite you to do the same. This is still through my eyes, though, so feel free to add your own perspective.

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If you read the article, then you’ll know by now that we’re talking about a review of GTAV by one of the ladies over at GameSpot. Apparently, she didn’t think it was perfect, so she gave it a 9/10.

That’s when everyone went crazy.

Of course, a gentleman over at the Escapist gave it a much, much lower score because the protagonists were depressing, and I have my own problems with the idea that we shouldn’t have evil protagonists, especially in a game where you pile up chopper kills like the vicious individual your character is, but that garnered a whole different type of hate.

The GameSpot review marked the game down for two points: 1. Being profoundly misogynistic. 2. Occasionally inconsistent character behaviour.

Now, if we’re talking about deeply flawed characters in a sub-culture that practically breathes coercion, I’m not sure you CAN have an inconsistent character. I have never met a consistent person in my life. Individuals piece together ideas of consistency and, in large part, we may appear consistent, but there will always be times in your life where you act outside of the norm for who you believe yourself to be. So, how can characters as fleshed out as they are in the game act inconsistently? I’m not sure, I haven’t played it through yet. Even so, it’s up to you to judge.

That’s only a side-note, though. We’re really here to talk about the idea that the game is misogynistic, how people reacted to the proposition and what kind of issues we’re really facing as an industry approaching an art-form.

Some people took this event as an opportunity to reconfirm their ideas about “femi-nazis.” Others took it as an opportunity to communicate the lack of attention women’s rights are getting because of how our society is organized. I don’t see a comprehensive answer in ignoring either of those perspectives. You see, when we approach society, we must always remember that it is a great, amorphous, fractured thing. As much as it’s unified, it’s also made up of billions of individual people that started their life, and therefore their development and experience within culture, when they were born. We’ve each got a limited perspective, and we’ve each had valid life experiences. Temporarily entertaining that notion is the price of entry into the next bit of this post, so I hope you’re on-board.

Is GTAV misogynistic? Does it hate women? That’s a complicated question. Do the characters in the game treat women well? When you see a woman, what is she doing? How are others treating her? How do you have the option to treat her? How are women, in general, portrayed? Why?

These are important questions, because misogyny is never about saying you “just don’t like them women-folk very much.” At least, it isn’t usually. But, that definitely happens. Misogyny is about organizing events and representations of women such that they are treated and perceived in a negative way. Everyone knows that literally not treating women as citizens was a dick move and obviously misogynistic, but misogyny has less-obvious forms. Depictions of women in films as either bitchy man-haters or flimsy stock-characters is a form of it. It might not seem like much, but those depictions help inform your understanding of society, and it WILL feedback into how you understand the people around you, especially if you see more television than people. You’re not stupid, though. You question those things when you see them, but you’ve glossed over some of them. I’m pretty sure most people have; I know I have. No one I know is perfect, and that’s okay.

So, I ask again, how are you invited to understand the women in this world?

We’re not done here, though, this is a deep, deep rabbit hole I’m inviting you down. The Escapist review of the game marked it down because the main characters were –using his word here– evil. So, based on that, how are you invited to understand the world’s men? Consider it carefully. Finally, let’s combine the two: how are you asked to understand people and their interpersonal dynamics? What relationships exist in this world to act as representations of humanity?

Okay, that’s the surface layer. As people, we must realize that there are many, many different lives going on all around us. The world teems with secret sub-cultures and worlds beyond our experience. As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time delving as far into as many of them as I can, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my –local– culture. That being said, somewhere, there are people similar in personality to the individuals in the game. As a series, GTA has always invited us to step into their strange worlds. These are lifestyles most of us won’t brush up against, let alone experience. This comes down to my next point: a sandbox is not necessarily an RPG.

Yes, we’re role-playing, but we’re not really character building. The scripted events and available choices you have will always narrow down who your character is for you, whether you realize it or not. Is there an option in the game to sit the fuck down and go to night-school while you work early mornings as a garbage man? Can you progress the storyline that way? No, I didn’t think so. For all the talk of freedom, we’re still limited, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s how you tell a story. A story about everything is a bad, impossible story.

While we are quite free, we’re still living in someone else’s life, in a sub-culture whose exploitation of women for money is, traditionally, stereotypically, beyond despicably common. That’s who these people are; that’s the story we’re telling. Could the game tell its story and not involve heavy layers of misogyny? Not if we’re going to be true-to-life. Could you do a protagonist sex-swap and tell the same story in exactly the same way? Not in the circles you have to run in in the game. I’m not saying that all career criminals are women-hating gadabouts, I know a fair few progressive ones, but the culture that surrounds the main characters is steeped in feminine exploitation. You’d have to tell a hell of a different story of clawing your way to the top.

Exploitation is an inescapable part of the game’s story, but how does the game itself handle it? Again, I can’t answer that for you.

I’ve heard that the game’s extreme celebration of masculinity is supposed to be satirical, and that’s definitely one way to look at it, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation, too. You’ll have to remember when you play it that an important part of satire is commentary. What is it saying? Is it saying anything? Are we to understand that the massive explosions and impossibly over-the-top story-missions are a portion of the commentary? Juxtaposition is a powerful tool, after all.

Another point I’ve heard brought up is that it’s just a game. It made me cringe a bit, but lots of people see games that way, even some gamers. There are a fair few people who see it as an emerging art-form, and I’m one of them. Again, sorry, the price of entry here is entertaining that premise. If games are art, then they need to be able to explore tough topics. They need to be able to show us and comment on uncomfortable aspects of society. However, that doesn’t preclude them from criticism; it invites it, in fact.  This game is a cultural artifact that has been created to represent our society, all of it, not just the salient, criminal aspects. More importantly, it’s an interactive artifact that invites us to live a portion of our life through it. This makes how it does so that much more important.

Again, though, we understand that it’s a game. It is something we experience and, so, something we judge. By experiencing the game, we can be brought to question, or we can be taught a way to think. This isn’t going to affect everyone universally. We are going to have individual reactions to the game. One of the reasons it’s a Mature-rated game is that it requires a critical eye to fully appreciate. After all, it wasn’t until much later in life that I asked why all the White Mages in Final Fantasy were women. It could be a world thing or a monastic Order thing. That’s not the present issue. The issue is that I didn’t notice or question it at the time. This isn’t exclusively a youngin’ thing, either. Humans can’t think about everything that crosses their path. They just can’t. Like, literally.

However, the difference between this game and Final Fantasy is that GTAV has direct manifestations within society. I’m not saying you’ll definitely be affected by it, but you must consider the idea.

Again, I’m not telling you exactly what I think. I want to stir discussion, not dispense a fully-formed opinion. So, how does knowing it’s a game affect your experience of the events within it?

You might be asking yourself, why is this an issue now? GTA has been a long-running series, and it hasn’t deviated from itself much. It’s still a ton of fun; no one is disputing that, but we can’t pretend it hasn’t been questioned in the past. The difference is, I’m not saying it’s a murder simulator. BUT, I am saying that if games are to be taken more seriously, then they Are going to come under harsher critical scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons gender politics have been popping up more and more in relation to gaming. Portions of the gaming community have a long history of treating women, both on-screen and on-line, poorly. Getting better, but still pretty bad. I’ve heard people say that it’s not enough and complain when people bring up examples of our progress, BECAUSE it’s not enough. I’m going to blow your minds: I think they’re right. HOWEVER, I do think that we need to acknowledge our strides.

It’s not the 1950’s any more. It’s certainly not the utopian future either, though. Either way, you can’t change the world, or people, overnight.

“Why do we have to bother with politics?” I’ve heard time and again, “It didn’t used to matter.” Well, actually, it did. Many of us just didn’t pay it much mind. We can’t really do that now. I mean, if you just want to play games, then more power to you, but the industry needs to pay attention. Art cannot divorce itself from politics. Of any kind. It’s the duty of art to comment, represent, pose questions and stir inquiry.

If nothing else, GTAV is doing that. But, what is it doing as a piece of art that represents society and allows you to explore it? In other words, what part of you is represented in GTAV? Take a minute.

Alright, let’s take a step back from that and return to the review. If you’ve been following along with my little questions, then you’ve got all these things bubbling away in your head. Bring up the part about how the game represents, and invites you to treat, the average woman within it. Now, how does experiencing that treatment make you feel? If you’re a guy, then how would that make you feel if they swapped all the sexes around? Really consider it.

Well, it didn’t make that GameSpot reviewer, Carolyn Petit, feel very good. Put yourself in her shoes. You’ve got a great game in front of you, but you can’t shake the feeling it gives you. What do you do?

It’s worth remembering that reviews are subjective things. You can’t actually do an objective review of the experience of a game. That –actually– doesn’t make sense. When I review a game (Yeah, it’s been a bit. Don’t worry, got some coming), I find it helps to start with how the experience left me feeling. I also record mid-game feels and pre-game expectations. Then, I dive into the mechanics of the game, what I know about the state/history of the industry and the story of the game itself. After that, I go through and try to piece together how that experience was achieved, where it fell short, where it excelled and why I felt the way I did.

Carolyn gave the game a 9/10, because she felt there was an issue with this incarnation of the series. I know we’re used to score-inflation, but 9/10 is amazing. I don’t think her integrity could have let her say it was perfect. I know if I had an issue I cared about, I wouldn’t say a game that I felt handled it poorly was perfect.

For example, one of my grandparents is from a group of people that experienced near-complete genocide. Do you think I could 100%-awesome a game that I felt treated it like it wasn’t a big deal, even if it was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical fantasy about something unrelated? No.

If the duty of a reviewer is to critique games. And being an art-form invites critique. And art cannot be divorced from politics. Then, Carolyn acted bravely and correctly. This is my conclusion. So, kudos from me to her, because she’s getting a lot of hate she doesn’t deserve. These may be the growing pains of a developing artistic medium, but that doesn’t lessen the force for those who experience it. Phil Fish would certainly agree.

Maybe she didn’t feel like anyone else would comment on the issue. Maybe she felt that she needed to stick by her guns. Maybe she felt like injecting the idea into the community. Maybe she believes we need to move forward in the same way I do. Whatever her reasons, integrity is what we want in a reviewer. Without integrity, we’re just for sale. The minute the content of our words is for sale, you can’t trust a damn thing we say.

You’ve been here for a while, so I’m going to wrap up with one last consideration. Should this game have been made to be accessible to everyone? Yes, art needs to be bold to make a point, but games are a special brand of art-form in that they’re also, directly, an industry. An industry in which GTA is a massive player. Rockstar Games KNEW that it was going to be released to, and played by, almost every gaming demographic. Did they have a responsibility to make it so that it could be comfortably played by everyone? Is being comfortable really what we want right now? To be complacent in an artistic medium can be dangerous.

Again, it’s more than an art-form; it’s also an industry. Making a separate campaign to appeal to another demographic would have been expensive. Would it be fair to ask them to spend even more money to realize another universe within the game? Should we question the artistic integrity of an industry that literally runs on money? Are we willing to judge it by its artistic merit and hold many interpretations in our mind? Because, like people, like society, the gaming industry isn’t universally consistent. It’s a fractured, amorphous thing.

We should expect that a piece of art as inflammatory as this will make some people uncomfortable. We should also listen to those people, because they may see something we don’t. After all, we can’t see everything at once. Maybe part of what we can take away from the reaction to this game is that we need to respect each other a bit more.

We can be a badass, cop-killing, helicopter-crashing, car-stealing mothafucka all we want in-game. It’s part of what the universe invites us to do. However, out here, respect means more than a double-tap. It means listening to and thinking about other people’s perspectives.

There’s no right answer here, no matter what anyone tells you. There are definitely better and worse answers, but we’re not here to judge. We’re here to inquire.

See you on the other side.

P.S. I invite you to openly critique my conclusions. Also, this week’s house-cleaning: The new story is up. Here’s another video. It’s part 2 of Psychonauts this time! Cheers!

…It’s Always Such a Pleasure

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. My computer’s in the shop again, and my projects sit on it, unfinished. Even today’s post is in its embryonic form somewhere on my D: drive.  Thankfully, this week’s story was sitting on my Google Drive, so it went up, along with today’s Let’s Play.

The post? Well, we’re just going to have to wing it, aren’t we? You all know how I love to harp on old topics, so let’s talk about the critical responses to The Last of Us.

Enough time has passed since the game dropped that we’ve gotten quite a few opinions on the much-vaunted game. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others are completely indifferent. Still others wonder why it was made within this generation at all.

I’m not here to comment on the game specifically. I still haven’t played it yet. Whoops! Did I type that out loud?

Unfortunately, I’m in a PC household now, so we didn’t have the hardware to play it. I was, however, privy to its critical reception. Again, I’m sure you can figure out why people liked it. Also, probably, why “the people that didn’t like it” didn’t like it. I read and listened to quite a few of them, but there was one thing that I wanted to discuss at greater length. That thing is the notion that the game was boring because it used stale mechanics.

Now, some of you might not have thought the game was boring, and that’s totally cool. I’m not here to reiterate the opinion. Again, I can’t possibly have one, because it’s a game I haven’t played. So much of a game relies on your engagement with it that it’s almost meaningless to write a review of a game without having played it. Sure, you can criticize things about it, but, as a holistic experience, you’ll be missing something if you don’t spin it up. Granted, you can rely on past experience to figure out what it would be like to play it, but you may still miss out on something integral to the game if you play it like a movie.

That over with? Cool, let’s talk about reusing mechanics. If you watched this Extra Credits video, then you’ll know that one of the best ways to start a game is to begin with a set of mechanics. This means that narrative is usually going to take a back-seat to game-play.

But what if you’ve got a story you want to tell? Well, you can use a franchise to do that. A franchise is a sub-section of genre, really. It’s a collection of mechanics that are wrapped up in an identity.  Look at the Halo and Silent Hill (you knew that was coming) franchises. The first games set the stage for narrative, but, more importantly, they also tested out the mechanics. Knowing how those mechanics would affect their audience, and how it would all fit together, provided the designers with the space to tell a story.

What if you want to tell that story without a franchise? Well, you can use the same techniques that Halo and Silent Hill used: you can learn from other games. As much as I hate to admit it, Silent Hill came after Resident Evil. RE dropped three years before the first Silent Hill. Games aren’t made in a vacuum, so you can’t possibly imagine that one didn’t affect the other.

In fact, if you really think about it, survival horror games would utilize the mechanics tested in the original RE game for years after its initial release. Few of them would truly add anything revolutionary to the formula, besides a new story. Now, I know that’s a pretty controversial statement, because games like Silent Hill 2 improved on the formula in many ways, besides through story-line, but you can see the similarities.

Fast-forward a little bit and we can see that trend blossoming behind us. We had the bloom of the first-person RPG, in the ancient days, with games like Deus Ex and System Shock. They would later evolve into the sleeker FPS with RPG elements of today, but that’s a different post. There was the era of the platformer, where every movie tie-in that had a story to tell became a jumping-puzzle game. Let’s not forget the Eldritch days of the point-and-click adventure. Or the sweet petals of the third-person shooter with RPG elements, still fresh upon the bulb.

I know, we didn’t really want another third-person shooter with stealth elements. Most of us have played Tomb Raider or Uncharted, so The Last of Us isn’t exactly fresh. I’m sure it doesn’t help that The Last of Us and Uncharted are both from the same studio. Nor that it’s a zombie game. If it smelled anymore like compost, we could use it to fertilize our vegetable gardens.

BUT, is that inherently a bad thing? Okay, sure, we can over-do things sometimes, especially in the video game industry. Playing through two very similar game-play styles in two different titles can be a bit of a pisser, because a video game is a long time commitment. Two similar movies, okay, that’s four hours. Two similar games? That’s at least twenty hours for two AAA titles.

Still, by all accounts, The Last of Us had a great story and solid game-play. Hell, I’ve read through it, and it made me wish I’d been able to play it, just to experience it. Maybe I’d have gotten bored after the sixth hour, I don’t know, but I can see what it was trying to do.

Video games get a lot of flack for telling bad stories, and that’s not undeserved. Many of the epics of our past are, from a strictly literary perspective, quite silly. Or simple. Even lame. Part of that is a haphazard approach to story-telling, and some of that is the result of completely disregarding it in favor of game-play. That’s not to say we haven’t had some amazing game stories, but Mario? Come on.

We don’t always need a great story for a great game. We can stitch it together through game-play or experience it through the world; that’s the sweet alchemy of video games, but what if you want to tell a story? A specific one. What if you look at a game and think, “I know exactly what story I could tell using that as a vehicle.”

Do we want to, on those grounds alone, muzzle creativity? Like or dislike a game all you want on its own merits. Maybe, you’re bored of the mechanics; that’s legit. Hate away. I think that’s awesome, and we can always use another voice asking for originality. However, I would caution anyone against pronouncing something stale simply because it’s similar to another thing. The deployment of a set of mechanics can be horrible, but the mechanics themselves are tools.

Don’t say that a mechanical paradigm is inherently dull. The industry listens to that kind of thing. Say that it was used badly. Say that this particular game could have benefited from X instead of Y. Say that you’re tired of hearing about zombies! Say anything, but remember that what you say will be heard. We’re part of the creative process. When we criticize better, the industry becomes better.

I know I hold this stance because of how important stories are to me. I admit that without any shame to provide you with full disclosure of my bias. I’ve read through horribly written books for a good story and vice-versa. I’ve watched terrible movies for analogical reasons: to learn something about them and myself. I approach games in much the same way. I believe that some games should exist because they tell a story. Others, because they are fun games. Other because we want to learn how to type faster while we kill the undead.

We wouldn’t have Megaman X without Megaman. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2 without Resident Evil. We wouldn’t have SpecOps: The Line without CoD… or SpecOps. You know where I’m going with this.

Actually, SpecOps: The Line is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Think about it. It wouldn’t exist without the games that came before it: without a profound understanding of the mechanics they used. Maybe The Last of Us didn’t utilize the mechanics it had perfectly, but if we didn’t try that sort of thing, we wouldn’t have games like SpecOps: TL. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2.

In other words, gaming would be the lesser for it. So, don’t get down on rehashing mechanics. Get down on doing it poorly. Or, just get down.

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Crying Over Cry of Fear

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

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

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It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

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Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Life Goes On Trial

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Don’t get too excited, we’re not talking horror today. Although, we’re staying in the lovely field of morbid I like to call my home. You see, I decided that it had been too long since I’d stretched my legs and taken a walk in the outside world. So, I tagged along with my room-mate to a gathering of local game devs. Thankfully, there was a terrible storm suffused with funnel clouds and hail going on, so I didn’t melt in the sun. While I was there, I realized that I haven’t done any work with the local publishers in my city, unless you count ragging on BioWare occasionally. And by ragging, I mean completely forgetting to include Dragon Age: Inquisition on my E3 wish-list. Of course, that might have something to do with my relative disinterest and the fact that you’ll hear about it everywhere else anyways. Yeah, it’s a good series, but… Wait, we’re not here to do a break-down of Dragon Age.

We’re here to talk about Life Goes On from… Ian, Susan, Erik and David. That’s right, this isn’t a studio project. It’s a passion project from four people with a concept, some skills and a dream. That’s about as indie as you can get without just being that NotePad fan-fic you won’t let anyone else see. Or, maybe that’s just me. Anyways, it’s good, or I wouldn’t be raving about it. Without further ado, let’s delve into…

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There’s something a bit weird about reviewing a game based solely on the demo, because any criticism I might level at it can be countered with, “What do you expect? It’s not done yet!” That’s very true, and we should do all we can to support the independents, but… well, let me tell you a bit about the game first. It’s a puzzle-platformer that requires -requires, no less- you to kill your character in order to proceed. Basically, to solve the traps and get past the puzzles in the game, you need to be in two places at once. To deal with this ordeal, the best solution would probably be to go home, learn to use your sword and die happy knowing you didn’t waste your life so someone else could claim a prize. However, there is an alternate strategy: use the corpse of the last sucker to do the work for you. I mean, there’s no way what happened to him could happen to yo-ugh!

Anyways, sorry, what was he saying? Right, you direct your little minion into death-traps so that it leaves its corpse in a convenient location to weigh down a switch or act as a platform. There’s one particularly nasty puzzle where you have to jam yourself onto the bottom of a rotating bed of spikes so that you can act as a moving platform for the next yourself. Sound confusing? Here are a couple illustrAUGH!!!:

dead knight on switch with respawn landing on knight

>.> …. It’s a wonderful example of that mechanics-as-metaphor thing I keep banging on about. The basic message being: “Every life makes a difference. It’s a continuous stream of effort.” This sentiment should be familiar to anyone in the field of science. Or arts. Or making bloody good sandwiches. No work is ever THE final word in the process. No civilization has ever been the unquestionable peak. Even though you may fall, others can pick up your work and continue on towards the goal. All it takes is a little inspiration and a nearby spawn-point: perhaps, a hospital. Effort is made to give each of the little guys a bit of personality by giving them individual names that get scritched out and scroll by on parchment when they die. They’re even differentiated by gender. Sweet. Although, honestly, they die so fast that it’s difficult to notice any differeEuuugh!

Iiiiifff…. I had to offer any criticism, and I do, it would be that the game-play feels a bit flat. There are some really cool puzzles here, but the life-line of the game is going to be its level design. There are cannons to shoot you around. Switches and moveable spawn points to act as logical puzzle-gates. Spikes and conveyor belts to get you to and from. But you, as a player, don’t do much with the environment, besides move through it or die on it. I feel like you could replace the knight with a ball and experience the same game-play. There’s very little conflict outside of the obvious timing-execution requirements, and that’s going to damage the amount of the engagement that the final product can offer. This is why Mario had coins, moving power-ups and enemies; and why Donkey-Kong had bananas, collectibles and enemieEEEEKKK!

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There IS this little guy. You can find him in each of the levels. He’s kind of a collectible, but he actually collects you. I know, I know, he LOOKS cute, but step too close and he’ll make a quick meal of you. That’s not quite enough, though, and adding too many extra elements like the cannon to the environment risks making the play feel gimmicky. You’d need to add different ways to interact with the environment, like using your sword or writing out a last Will and Testament, to produce the emergent game-play properties that will keep things fresh. However, this is a puzzle game, so maybe it IS just about getting from one room to the next. The designers even made sure to zoom the camera out to give you a better view of the environmental hazards you’ll be dealing with. I guess I’m just not a fan of puzzle-platformers. I feel like it could be more engaging, especially with how cool the concept is. Oh yeah, and it controls a bit wonkily when it comes to turning around, but it’s still in beta, so what do I expect? Although, besides the turning around bit, it controls like butteh.

…<.<….. >.> …. umm… okay, thaAGUGH!

The graphics are good, the aesthetics brilliant, the environments charming and the humour legitimately funny. I’d recommend downloading the demo and giving it a try for yourself. Despite all the negative things I’ve said about the game, I’ll still be keeping an eye on it. After all, the credits are extremely clever. Who’s to say that they couldn’t carry the game on charm and level design alone?

<.<

*phew*

Penumbra: Black Plague – Mining for Survival Horror

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by trivialpunk

First, a little house-cleaning. Unfortunately, Duel’s development is going to be put on hold. Not scrapped, mind you, just pushed back. I’ve added a Trivial Letsplays section for your amusement, instead. I’m working on a novella and a screenplay this week, so expect very few posts… or a lot, because I’ll be procrastinating. Oooonly kidding… >.>

Alright, now that that and the oligatory E3 post are out of the way, let’s step out of the future and into the past for a look at our survival-horror roots. If you pay attention to my videos, then you’ll know I spent a gaming session finishing Penumbra: Black Plague. It’s a sweet little first-person survival-horror adventure game that was developed by Frictional Games and published by Paradox Interactive. It’s the second in the series, so it follows in the footsteps of its ancestor. It features stealth elements, (click-drag) physics puzzles and puts a heavy emphasis on creature avoidance. If this sounds familiar to anyone else, then you’ve probably played Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia was the spiritual successor to the Penumbra series, but the developer probably already tipped you off to that. Without further ado…

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The horror in this game is pretty adequate. It’s only slightly let down by the sheer density of the enemy AI. I know this is to make the stealthing more manageable, but it hits the mark and keeps going. Enemies are often a bit slower than you, so you can even just out-run them. This is a trick, though. Penumbra wants you to run, because it wants you to realize that you have nowhere to run to. This is the soul-crushing dread of being alone, trapped in an environment both hostile and alien.

Speaking of being alone with an alien, the game introduces a little brain-parasite named Clarence that talks to you as you play. He serves to add an interesting layer of existentialism to the story. Is he an entirely new entity? Was he formed by your memories? He certainly absorbs your memories; by doing so, does he become someone entirely new? How much of him is you? He also messes with your vision and becomes a pretty significant plot-point later on, especially when he’s begging for his life. Including him was a risk, because he could have become very annoying very quickly, ruining your immersion and the feeling of loneliness. However, because of the special circumstances surrounding your relationship, that loneliness morphs into something inscrutable. It’s unnerving thinking that you’d be alone but for yourself. If you dig deep enough, it might even cause you to reflect on your self.

Our brain is a parallel processor of insane complexity. Even the two lobes work together-apart, connected by, among other things, the corpus callosum. That doesn’t mean it’s a unified entity, though. In some ways, it’s like separate entities talking to each other. People with split-brain syndrome often think and communicate using one side of their brain. As thoughts become words and your words become your identity, you start to define your self. However, the other half of your brain, the one not being expressed vocally, now unconnected to the other half, is still around. Is still listening. Many people with split-brain syndrome sometimes report feeling like the other half of their body, the one controlled by the silent brain, is an entirely different entity. This applies to neurotypical people, as well. Ever feel like there’s another voice in your head? A conscience? Someone second-guessing you? Could be.

Now, of course, this is science softer than your average volleyball after a brisk day at the local volcano, but it serves to illustrate how tenuous our connection to Gestalt is. How fragile our “self”, our holistic entity, is. We’re never more than a couple steps from revelation, and that’s terrifying. Err… so… yes, I like the character and what his frame-work adds to the ideas presented by the story.

Oookay, well now, let’s mozy on over to the puzzle end of the spectrum. This game has some interesting puzzles, but some of them are glaring problems. Personally, I would never consider a block-stacking task a puzzle. I would never be rummaging around in my kitchen, see a box on the top shelf and think, “How the hell am I going to use a stool to get that thing? Swat at it with the legs?” Of course, it helps that I’m 6’2”, but you understand what I’m saying. That being said, there are some pretty nifty puzzles. There’s one that requires you to lift up disembodied arms so that they snap into place with a sickening crunch and burst into flame. There’s another that’s essentially the best kind of boss-fight, one where you have to apply what you’ve learned and put yourself in harms way, under time-pressure, while doing it. Then, there are the others… the ones I mentioned earlier this paragraph…

Did you ever hear anyone talking about the recent The Walking Dead game say, “Yeah, it’s kind of an adventure game, but the inventory puzzles are so obvious. I mean, you hardly have to spend twenty minutes fiddling around with the controls to make progress!” No, well that’s because the person I made up was an obvious straw-man, but he serves to illustrate the major problem with some of the puzzles in Penumbra and, inversely, why The Walking Dead streamlined the process. Classic adventures game puzzles absolutely destroy the flow of play. Thankfully, Penumbra doesn’t have too many of those, but it does have a couple others that do the same thing. There’s one that requires you to push some buttons in order to make all of them match. There’s a barrel puzzle that’s downright confusing until you figure out what you need to do. Seriously, I was pushing barrels around in the dark for close to ten minutes. In a game that barely clocks more than four hours, that’s a substantial chunk of time. Honestly, though, most of them are pretty intuitive. You’re in a room. There’s only one unique object in the room, you’ve only got one item that will work in it, so you mash them together. Ta-dah! Progress! It does, however, have its share of fetch quests. The unfortunate nature of them means that you’re going to be running around the same hallways a lot. That saves on programming time and money, but any hall you end up wandering around for twenty minutes is going to lose its haunting atmosphere as you whiz busily from place to place. With that in mind, they designed a very specific type of enemy…

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Frictional knew that if they had you running back and forth between areas, then you would cease to be afraid of the environment. So, they dotted the landscape with axe-mining pick-claw-lantern-wielding threats. This is where the stealth elements come in. Stealth is all about making waiting interesting, and survival horror is all about avoiding death, cringing at the thought of the next encounter. You can see why they’d meld nicely. Penumbra lets you defend yourself, but not to any great degree. It’s mostly about sticking to the shadows and avoiding the lantern-gaze of your enemy. This is perfect, because the creature in a horror game is most effective when it’s not seen. When it’s only heard. When the consequences of it spotting you are all in your imagination. Your mind will always be able to terrify you more efficiently than any outside source, especially while you’re tense, anticipating. Ever had to wait on a dicey test result? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Survival horror is all about providing you with the context with which to send your brain into over-drive. You are your own worst fear. Because, that part of your brain that’s listening? It knows you better than anyone else.

So, when it comes to creating an unnerving, thought-provoking, fear-stimulating environment, Penumbra succeeds brilliantly. This atmosphere is only slightly damaged by its AI. The most damaging aspect of the game is its puzzles. One particularly annoying experience involved the freezing cold and a box-stacking task. Even so, once you get past that, the game is an excellent example of how to do survival horror right. It may be a bit old, but compared to the Resident Evil franchise, it’s aged like a fine wine. I give it Two crispy, well-baked pizza pockets out of Finding out the weather is nice on a stroll to the corner-store.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side!

Bastion – Unspoiled

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week, I sat down to play a game from my list of “Have to’s.” You know the ones, like Portal, Amnesia and SpecOps. The ones people won’t stop going on about. It’s rare that I’m disappointed by one of these games. In fact, with the exception of SpecOps, I’ve usually ended up playing them through in a sitting or two. I tried doing that with Skyrim and almost failed a class. I also ran dangerously low on snacks, but that’s another story altogether. My point is that this week, I span-up Bastion and gave it a go. And, in stark contrast to the way this usually goes, I finished the game in one sitting, then decided to play it half-way through again. Then, I slept and finished it for a second time. So, if anyone was wondering where I went for that couple of days. Yeah, that’s where. By the end of the second play-through, I had so many notes covering the four-page spread I keep by my computer that it looked like the scribbling of a mad man. In truth, that’s kind of what it was. I’d lost it, fallen absolutely in love with the game. At the end of the experience, though, I looked back and couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. I’ve played games with better combat. Better graphics. More nuanced stories. I was flummoxed. So, I loaded it up again. I realized, while playing through for the third time, that I’d simply been suffering from a broken heart. I couldn’t see the positives of it, because this game isn’t something you can just pick apart and expect to hold up. Every element of it has been polished and placed with care. Like a well-made BLT, it was the combination that elevated it. In combining so well, it had created an atmosphere that drew me into its world. Once it was over, though, that world ceased to be. Then, like a rejected cultist, I was forced to sit outside and think about what I’d done. What I’d done was spent 16 hours playing a 7 hour game (give or take, depending on whether or not you do replay + and finish all the challenges). I’d lost myself in the world, but I couldn’t get that part of me back. So, all I wanted to do was criticize it.

So, that’s where we’re at now. Part of me is forever lost in Bastion. However, maybe with enough analysis and a couple snippets from its truly excellent soundtrack, I’ll be able to get through this without crying. More than the once I already did. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to take a page out of Bastion’s manual and rebuild myself from the shards of the game I get by killing… windbags… Does that mean I have to commit to brevity? No, that’s never going to work. Oh well, roll the dice. I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to go over everything I wanted to without ruining your experience of the game. So, I split the post in two. This one will focus on its art design and some of the game-play mechanics that interact with it. Next post, I’ll talk about its story-line, narration (<3) and the mechanics that interact with that. Then, I’m going to load up a good old-fashioned horror game and cleanse this warm-fuzzy feeling from my cartilage.

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Let’s get a little background first. Bastion is an isometric hack-and-slasher with customizable difficulty from Supergiant Games (Published by Warner Bros.) that emphasizes rebuilding your shattered world from the remains of your once-great civilization using a powerful Deus Ex Machina. As you wander through the levels, the world forms underneath your feet. However, it’s only reformations of structures and places that once were, so there are edges to it that you can fall off of. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “An isometric game about platforms that float in space that you can fall off of? That sounds like a nightmare!” And yeah, it really could have been. Knowing your precise positioning in a game like this is crucial. They didn’t have much margin for error. One tiny step in the wrong direction could have made this game an absolute pain to play, but Supergiant pulled it off without a hitch. It’s quite an accomplishment! So, let’s talk about how they did it.

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Open up the picture in a new tab. It becomes quite large, so you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about. Supergiant had a couple big challenges with this game right off the designing board:

1. Creating a fleshed-out, atmospheric world with limited levels on platforms that were easy to navigate, even as they were forming up underneath you.

2. Making the characters fit into the world, while still allowing them to be easily discernible for the more hectic portions of combat.

We’re going to use that one picture as our primary example for now. Like much of the game, it features a central platform connected to others by bridges and smaller sections that appear under your feet. It’s pretty easy to tell where the edges of the larger platforms are in this one, but I want you to appreciate with me for a moment how fantastic the art in this picture is. How incredibly detailed it is without being cluttered. For the most part, it’s those details and differences that let you know where the edges are. Between railings and embossments, it makes sense from a design stand-point. That’s how you would make a bridge. That understanding helps us to define those boundaries. It’s also intuitively ergonomic. The center of each area is where most human interaction would take place, so things like barrels and benches line the outside. That all being said, it also happens to be perfect for combat.

To get from place to place, the bridge platforms form up in front of you in relation to your walking and rolling speed, so you’re never stepping out into thin air. It’s designed well enough that you soon get a feel for where you can and should not step. If you’re right at the edge and one isn’t popping up, then I’m sorry to say that nothing’s going to be breaking your fall, except perhaps the ground. I’m not even kidding, when you fall off the side, you get blasted up by a wave of tamed wind that thumps you right back on the platform again. Face-first. The wind-taming narrative mechanic is actually brilliant here, because it gives the game an excuse for getting you right back up on the platform and provides you with a primary mode of travel between levels. That way, they can stay disjointed but accessible. The timing of each fall is short enough that it doesn’t become frustrating, but it stills punishes you by taking away some of your life and breaks your combat flow a bit. It’s a lovely balance. They also give you quite a bit of leeway when it comes to being “on” a platform. You’re basically wearing snow-shoes.

For those of you that pay attention as psychotically as I do, you’ll probably have noticed that the picture features four different art styles crammed into one. Well, I say crammed… but that’s because it sounds better than masterful combined. I feel like I’ve worshipped enough for one day. The background is a beautifully detailed, high-definition watercolour. The platforms look a little more computer-rendered, but bathe in the same static art-style as the background, relying on shading detail and simple animations to bring them to life. The Kid, and the other characters you interact with, are a little more dynamic again, constantly moving to help them pop out of the background. At the very foreground of the screen is a screen-saver like effect. In this particular picture, you’ll notice leaves on the screen. They and other objects, like feathers, drift straight down to give you a thematic sense of the level. It’s kind of like how liquor commercials always feature really attractive people. They have nothing to do with the actual product, but it’s an encouraging association.

These different art designs are wrapped together by their placement. More detailed movement takes place closer to you, adding another layer to the fore-shortening perspective tricks that make up isometric geometry. They all also share a common pallet. The platforms are slightly different designs based around the same theme with colour-schemes that alter only enough to let you know they’re different platforms. Nothing bleeds into the next thing, but they’re also quite unified. Talking about pallet actually brings us neatly into character design. For this we’re going to focus on The Kid, as opposed to the stock-samurai, the tooth-paste creatures or the old guy, so let’s get a look at him…

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There he is! Sombre little guy. Now, let’s toss in one more landscape shot just for good measure.

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Notice again the criss-crossed boards and crumbling walls that define the edges. Now, take a look at The Kid. He’s got white hair (yes, they address it), darker skin, a red scarf, dark-brown boots, grey-green armor and a dark shirt. Now, look at the environment. Each and every colour on The Kid is echoed in the environment. There are hints of white everywhere and accents of red all over. The boards are similar to his skin and the lanterns reflect his armor. Without being too obvious about it, they’ve made us intuitively aware that he’s a part of this world; he belongs there. Look at his trade-mark weapon: The Cael Hammer. The handle is his hair, the head is his skin, the end of the handle is his armor and it’s even accented with a red slash. It’s basically him, but like… a hammer.

Of course, all this palette resonance might have made him difficult to see and, in an isometric game, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where your character is facing at a given moment. For hack-and-slashers, these things can be devastating, especially for the block-shield-counters. That’s why The Kid has an asymmetrical design. You’ll notice that his shoulder plates and glove stand out, so you can easily tell which direction you’re facing in terms of left or right. For forward and back, there’s a big, bloody hammer to assist you. However, there’s more to it than that. Look at the details and you’ll notice that every point on his body is accented by a bit of white/grey: hair, wrist-wrap, boots and shoulder. In combination with the dynamic quality of his idle and run animations, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a pseudo-point-light-walker. Our brain is very good at reading patterned and biological motion in these cases, and Bastion takes full advantage of that to let us see where we are in relation to the things we’re bashing over the head. Or cutting open. Or shooting. I’m not going to judge you for your combat preferences. When you run, you also leave tiny dust clouds behind you to let you know what direction you’ve come from. This, alongside a static-dynamic camera, is a big help in creating a realistic sense of motion.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got to say for the art direction in relation to game-play. The rest of it is basically going to be you applying what I’ve hinted at here to understand how the game’s art makes its mechanics more tenable and its world richer. Creating depth and atmosphere can be difficult, but if you unify everything, from the palette to the design, then you’ll have an easier time of it. Every part of a game is going to influence every other part when it’s experienced by the player, so its important to keep unity in mind during development. That’s why everything in Halo is so bloomy-shiny. That and, you know, the engine. Geeze, will you look at the time? We’ve still got plenty of space. Let’s talk combat.

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You didn’t think I was going to talk about a hack-and-slasher without at least mentioning the combat, did you? The things I’ve mentioned about the environment are inversely applicable to the enemy models. They share almost none of the same palette as The Kid, so you don’t really confuse the two. They’re mostly blue-green. However, their palette, again, reflects the environment, while small accents of brown reflect The Kid. They also move in very different ways. The ninjas dash. The gasfellas float. The scumbags… skid. So, you’ll never really lose yourself in the fray, no matter how cluster-fucky it gets. Biological motion. Yee-haw.

All of the weapons experiment with difference aspects of the combat engine. Some of them do great amounts of damage at large distances very slowly. Some quickly do a lot of damage at close range. It’s the standard play with the variables of range, speed, damage, influence on enemy placement, armor-penetration and personal manoeuvrability gambit. It’s pretty effective, too, because the levels you find each weapon on are designed to showcase their usefulness. Of course, you can switch back before too long if you don’t like the style. Each item also comes with its own training ground that you can use to improve your skill with the specific features of a given weapon. Do well enough and you’ll unlock items or special moves. Oh yeah! Each weapon also comes with its own special move that you can equip one at a time and use. They draw from a small pool of uses, but you can increase that pool by equipping Spirits. You know, like liquor but magically formulated to improve your dexterity, in stark contrast to the way spirits usually affect you. Different liquors have different passive buffs and you can equip up to ten at a time, one for each level you gain. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve and compensate for their various variable features to further fit your own personal combat style. So, combat-style is quite customizable. Each level of weapon upgrade makes you choose between one buff or another. So, you can make a really middle-of-the-road weapon or pimp yourself out for doing one thing really well. You can always change your mind for no cost at any forge, though, so you’re free to experiment.

You must be thinking that, between levels, spirits, weapon upgrades and a full range of customizable combat-styles, your enemies aren’t going to be able to stand much of a chance. You’d be mostly right. The base-line enemies are still challenging, though. They’re not going to give you a run for your money, but you’re not going to be so bored that you fall asleep mid-session. HOWEVER, you can upgrade their combat abilities, as well, by evoking the power of the Gods. One of the later buildings you unlock allows you to evoke the various idols of the Pantheon of the Gods of the old world. Each idol you evoke gives you a small money and exp bonus, but also provides your enemies with increased capabilities. You start out with only one, but you can unlock more through play or buy them at the store. It’s a sort of free-market Godconomy, if you will. So, if you’re ever feeling cocky, then take on fast, damage-resistant, randomly reflective, self-healing, occasionally invincible, heavy-hitting, enemies that injure you when you collide, don’t drop health tonics, damage you when they die and slow you with each hit. You might not be stopped in your tracks, but you’ll definitely be frustrated. Then, try the final, unlockable, Game-plus gauntlet with all those on. I assure you, it’s a challenge.

So, that’s Bastion. There’s lots more to talk about, but I think you should experience it for yourself. Next post, I’ll be talking about how its mechanics and narrative coalesce to create an immersive, or at least interactive, experience. It’s going to be a raging spoil-a-thon, though, so read at your own risk. I urge you to play the game first. It’s cheap and well worth your time. I promise you. Also, use an X-box controller. It’s just better. Take care and I’ll see you on the other side!

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.

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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.

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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-

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!

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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!

Horror, Asymmetrical Dementia and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Soap Not Included)

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello ladies and gentles! Tonight, on a very special episode of Trivial Punk, we’re going to highlight an article that I think is hilarious to a certain point. It’s about the kind of personalities that can manifest when we’re thrown to the wolves. It’s a bit of a hard line to take, because we’ve all been “that guy” at one time or another. Don’t kid yourselves, girls can be “that guys,” too. Guy is hardly a gendered term any more. Where was I? Oh right, we’re only going to be spotlighting one blog a post until mid-terms and final papers are over, so I can maintain some vestige of conscious thought.

So, what’s in the news? Oh, right, there’s the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines thing. I know a lot of people beat on this game, and with good cause, but it’s a sign that gaming is still moving on up, as it were. It has been named as the next official step in the Aliens continuity, so that must mean something. Unfortunately, the small nation of developers that this game had seem to have been breathing in paint fumes during its creation. Oh well. Let’s hope that the next time a popular movie franchise decides to throw its IP to the critical gaming community, it doesn’t turn out so shit.

Moving on from that piece of gaming history, let’s move on to another of my favourite slow-moving targets fashioned from potatoes without ham-strings: Dead Space 3. Now, I know I’ve said everything that I needed to say about the game itself, but there’s still the multi-player component to spray down with Lysol. Up front, I’m going to say that I think it was an interesting idea. Adding a little multi-player to a horror experience may seem like a terrible idea on the surface, and the way they implemented it, it was, but there’s a flash of something shiny underneath. So, let’s start up our drills and dig until we hit diamond.

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Some might say, and indeed I have, that adding another player to a horror experience eliminates the feeling of soul-crushing aloneness that leaves one feeling over-whelmed and out-matched against impossible, alien odds. That’s true. It’s also hard to maintain an atmosphere when you can do things like throw a limb into a loosely re-assembled pile of body parts and get the “First Aid” achievement. This happened to me playing two-player Monkey-swap on Dead Space 2 with a room-mate. We laughed for about an hour of game play. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have laughed longer than a minute, tops. However, used correctly, another player can add something that no horror game can hope to match on its own: an unpredictable element. Sure, some games can be surprising, but nothing in the world will make you feel more alone than knowing that the only other sane being in the room may turn around to try and kill you at any point. Nothing is more difficult to cope with than another intelligence in indirect competition with you. It can be hard to craft a horror game, a primarily experience-based, narrative-driven genre, that is viable in both multi-player and single-player modes. I think Dead Space 3 should get props for trying to pull together two entirely different campaign paths into a unified experience. Here, they might have spread themselves too thin, but they also took a somewhat flawed approach.

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They introduced a mechanic called asymmetrical dementia. It basically means that your partner doesn’t see all of the same things that you do. This means that, to you, they may start behaving very strangely at times, without explanation. This is cute, and it’s a nice way to squeeze another player into the game while trying to maintain an air of suspicion, especially considering the largely illusory characters that made up the cast of the previous two titles. However, I have two problems with this approach. The first is the most obvious one. We know that asymmetrical dementia is a part of the game, so there’s really no reason to be weirded out by our partner’s unusual behaviors. If they do something strange, then it’s pretty easy to chalk it up to the mechanic. The second is related, but slightly different. There’s no reason to fear your partner’s behavior. There’s no distrust. In order to make a set-up like this effective, you need to combine unusual behavior with an untrustworthy situation or demeanour. I’m sure that the people who pull phishing schemes are suspicious, but there’s no reason for me to be afraid of them until I start making some rather unwise decisions concerning my chequeing account. Essentially, there’s no threat, and, for a horror game, that’s a pretty big problem. You need to give partners a reason to distrust each other, but, also, a need to cooperate. Given that DS3 has you working together against an overwhelming enemy while you’re both slipping slowly into hallucinogenic madness, it’s easy to see how the opportunity was well developed, if unexploited. So, how do we get people to work together to cut their own throats?

Let’s begin by looking at some other examples of hybrid-cooperation games that didn’t pan out. Call of Juarez: The Cartel included a sort of levelling system that relied on each player completing secret objectives while the others weren’t looking. It meant that your allies would be sneaking around on you to get upgrades to… assist you. Yeah, that’s where the whole thing sort of breaks down. Why wouldn’t you do your best to help your partner get that BFG? So, the problem was that there was really no level of competition. Sure, you were supposed to play within the rules of the game, but players will always meta-game, especially in cooperative games. So, as developers, we have to design games that take advantage of that tendency and forces them to compete head-to-head in the for-realsies world, while still wanting to cooperate. That’s how we fuck with heads.

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Speaking of, have you played Zombies Ate My Neighbours? It’s a great example of a game that requires cooperation but still stokes competition. At the end of each level, a score is displayed that shows how well each player did that scenario. Pick-ups are limited and enemy weaknesses varied, so items are always at a premium. Losing your lives, obviously, resets you with the starting gun, so you want to make sure that you get a share of all the loot in case your partner dies. In multi-player mode, the fast-paced, quick-decision type of game-play leaves you cooperating and competing at the same time. It’s a perfect example of the type of formula you need to ensure that players will work together, but also, occasionally, turn on each other, or vice versa.

That leads me nicely to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Illustrated here…

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is classic game theory. Not for developing video games, but the kind that has been involved in everything from espionage to chess games. Basically, you and your partner in crime have been captured by the police and are both being interrogated in separate rooms. The time-frames and exact penalties vary a bit, but the basics of it are that there are four situations:

If you rat on your partner and they stay quiet: you go free and they get a big penalty. Let’s say, like the illustration, it’s 20 years in prison.

If your partner rats on you and you stay quiet: they go free and you get 20 years.

If both of you rat: You both get 5 years.

If both of you remain silent: You both get 1 year.

Essentially, by the numbers, it’s always better for you to rat, because you get an okay result no matter what your partner does. However, it’s optimal if both of you to stay quiet. BUT, you can’t possibly know if your partner will, and it’s devastating to you if you do and they don’t. So, you’re left to ponder your partner’s motives and your own decision. This is what it means to set two people who are better off working together against each other. Of course, we can’t just copy-paste that set-up, or the ZAMN one, into Dead Space 3, especially since everything uses AMMO-brand ammo, but we can do something similar…

Given that we’re giving each player slightly different information, and given the tendency for players to meta-game, then we just need to set up a few more caveats. First, we ensure that they are competing for something. It could be something as simple as weapon up-grades, but it could be plot-points, if we really want to make them hate each other. For instance, if both players perform a certain action, then they get a full ending, but if one does something else, then the other player is killed, while they get a personalized character ending. Then, we ensure that they can’t just save-scum that part, a’la The Cave. Even more dastardly, you could include some form of friendly-fire, while making life imperative, but with the same sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma-like result. If your partner kills you, then… etc. You have to make sure that one partner can’t just instantly murder the other, so there’s a point to staying on edge to give you that extra reaction time. The point is to get the players to distrust each other through the mechanics, while still making the play rewarding and challenging. If you make the co-op mode difficult enough, then they won’t want to hold their partners back. However, if you make the rewards tantalizing enough, then your players will spend the majority of the levels looking over their shoulders for big, soft targets in which they could, theoretically, plant speeding projectiles that blossom into blood-fountains.

This is just one way of thinking about it, but it makes a lot of sense considering the asymmetrical dementia approach. Under a regime of oppression and suspicion, unusual behavior becomes the most terrifying kind. It would really help to mechanically represent the distrust a psychopath might have for another murderous psychopath as they try to, carefully, navigate the murky waters of cutting each other out of their straight-jackets with only a single knife, literally, between them. If we’re going to begin introducing co-op into horror games, then this is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to master.

There are as many different ways to breed distrust as there are wants in the dreams of the most avaricious among us, so I’m sure I’ll end up discussing a few more in the time to come. If you have any ideas, then feel free to post them in the comments. I’m going to get back to stitching together what brief strings of sane thought I can into something resembling a cogent essay. See you on the other side!

Resident Evil Retrospective: From Survival Horror to Splatter Thriller

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2013 by trivialpunk

It’s that time again! Today’s reference letter for interesting articles come to us from my love for the Crysis series. I’m pretty in love with its design, and the first article of the day shows a ten minute clip of Crysis 3’s beta. Sweet Jesus, listen to those gun sound-effects! I know it’s a weird thing to mention with all the pretty bloom kicking around, but I really appreciate guns that sound like… well… guns. Halo 4 sort of kicked it for me there. http://whatsyourtagblog.com/2013/01/31/i-suck-at-crysis-3/
Next on the chopping block (?) is an article about the Top Ten Comic Book Movies (Without Superheroes). It seems pretty self-explanatory, but many of these movies are amazing, so I think the list deserves some (more) attention. http://houseofgeekery.com/2013/02/01/10-comic-book-movies-without-superheroes/ Oh, also, listen to Caravan Palace! It’s electro-swing, and it’s terribly addictive. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RaKSRU60bw&list=PLZh2pDMvoNNMFkxu5cOqJXq3F5M3ug0JL

With the introduction-introduction out of the way, let’s get down to why we’re all here: video games and video game accessories, Specifically, horror. I’m still playing Resident Evil 6, because it’s been a busy month, but, honestly, I could do the review now. The reason I’m not is because I want to address another topic first. I’ve been bashing Dead Space a bit for… well… go read the article “No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones” It’s the one immediately before this one. If you want to save some time, then I’ll sum it up thusly: the timing of a game affects how it engages the audience. Without time to appreciate danger, or any reason to fear it, then the game loses some weight. Putting your character in a scary situation will not chill the player down to their core. You need to think about how they’re reacting and being engaged. A big part of this is how fast they must react and what kind of commands they can issue. As well as the player’s level of kinaesthetic projection (I’d like to do a study on improving the rate at which this occurs someday, but…). It also helps to make them dread dying without being annoyed by the death. Silent Hill and Resident Evil were both games that could involve a lot of combat (you would also run away… a lot), but were able to use clever, albeit clunky, designs to engage the player in a way that demanded attention, but didn’t give them enough power to feel like they were cutting swaths through the enemy ranks. It was an uneasy balance that was bound to topple. I’m going to blow your mind here, because I really think Dead Space is going in the right direction. Despite my constant ragging on them, I think I see the problems they are trying to address. At the same time, I don’t think they’ve quite gotten the hang of it. It all feels a bit… obvious. Subtlety, though, comes from refinement and sophistication, and we’re just stepping up to this problem.

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I do a lot of speculation on this blog. However, today, we’re jumping on the speculation-train, destination: Nannerville. So, hold onto your shoes, or they’ll fly right off. Originally, I was going to do a side-by-side of Silent Hill with Resident Evil. I’m sure I’ll make mention of it, but I think, for the sake of brevity and not beating an undead horse, we’ll just address Resident Evil. Let’s go for a retrospective ride on the Resident Evil death-train! Chew-chew!!
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Let’s start with Resident 1, because it kicked the series off. If you were playing survival horror games around this time, then you’ll probably have a couple points of reference. There was the Clock Tower series, Dino Crisis, Resident Evil, Silent Hill and a list of other one-off titles that didn’t get picked up with quite the same verve. You’ll probably notice similar movement systems. Not exactly the same, mind you, but they’re related through the time-frames they create. Of course, Dino Crisis introduced a proto-quick-time event, and had jump-scares closer to Dead Space than Silent Hill. Clock Tower was more like a point-and-click, at the time of RE1, than a third-person shooter, but the time-frames they created were similar in their most basic elements. Between an encounter and making a decision, the ratios are remarkably similar. Remember that, because we’re coming back to it later. This is why the remarkably agile dogs, Hunters and Lickers always faffed around for a while before attacking you. They were coded so you’d have enough time to panic slightly, take aim and fire. Then, you’d either have to take clunky evasive action, or keep pumping out bullets. Of course, they could still jump at you from off-screen, but that’s more of a camera-angle/jump-scare issue. (Oh man, I just opened the RE Wiki… I’m in trouble… forty minutes of thoughtful clicking later…)

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Alright, let’s get off just movement for a bit and get down to game-play. RE1 used zombies as their primary enemy, because they were slow, menacing, and easy to defeat. It also opened up many other possible designs through their use of the game’s Phlebotinum, the T-Virus. Like the Pyramid Head fight I mentioned last week, many of the enemies in this game attack along certain vectors, so you’ve got a fighting chance to avoid them. Upon release, RE1 was particularly memorable for its voice-acting and elaborate mansion: The Spencer Estate. Many of the puzzles were so unusual that they gave the game a surreal quality in the midst of a seemingly normal mansion with a standard under-ground laboratory. Zombies created by viruses are one thing, but what kind of twisted forces created the mansion and the abominations within it? Yeah, it’s Umbrella, but ssshhhh -Spoilers!- it was just off enough to unnerve, while retaining enough atmosphere and originality to spook players. Zombie foot-steps echoed through the halls. People kept disappearing. There was a giant fucking shark in the water-filled area. Despite its many flaws, it was still memorable enough to fuel the creation of an entire series.
ImageEventually, the game would be re-mastered. They actually made significant changes to the game-play through the introduction of super-zombies. Thanks to the regenerative power of the T-virus, a zombie that wasn’t burned after it was killed would come back to life stronger and deadlier than before. I should also mention the save-ribbon. Saving was done at typewriters and was limited, on Normal difficulty and up, by the number of ink ribbons you had on you. Both of these elements, the burning and the saving, respectively, were limited by the amount of gas and the number of ribbons you could find. This created a kind of Sophie’s choice tension for gamers that didn’t want to fill up their limited item slots or waste those precious resources. You had a storage chest, but those items weren’t very helpful in the heat of battle. Saying no more about that, let’s move on to RE2!

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RE2 didn’t change much in the way of game-play. It had a graphical up-grade, but most of the controls and game-play elements from the original game were moved over. It had some different enemies, like a crocodile that was one of the few creatures alive that could relate to the shark from Jaws. The big thing it did was introduce the city. RE1 took place in a mansion and its underground laboratory, so it was a pretty tight experience. RE2 was still just as tight, but it took place in Raccoon City. Now, the entire fabric of society was breaking down. Zombie howls echoed through burning streets instead of wooden doors. It also introduced Claire and Leon to the series. These two, along with Jill and Chris from RE1, would go on to be forever hunted by horrible monstrosities from beyond the budget of most pharmaceutical companies. Now, the surreal horror of the mansion comes into its own as we see exactly what Umbrella can, and will, do. The true monster… IS MAN!
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You can’t say you didn’t see that one coming. There’s something to be said about the break-down of society. You’re very purposefully led to locations one would normally associate with safety, like the police station or city hall. This is intended to bring the full reality of the break-down of the city to the player and get all confrontational about the future of the rest of the world. Moving right along…

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RE3 introduced another element of horror that I adore: a recurring, unkillable bad-guy that’s out for your, and mostly your, blood. Okay, not unkillable, but that machine gun isn’t going to do much. Other games had recurring monsters, but Nemesis made a habit of popping out of everywhere, and disappearing just as fast. It gave you the feeling of being pursued by a mechanical, intelligent monstrosity of science and English dentistry. I think my favorite set-piece for this game was the hospital, because… hospital… patient 0’s. That sort of thing. Then, there was the giant worm in the park. The game also included a few puzzles in the general city area that were just as insane as the ones in the mansion. Which makes the player wonder if Umbrella controlled more than we thought, or if the RE designers were just crazy. Either thought was unsettling 2 hours into the game. The game itself ends with a bang, but, in my mind, the most effective explosion is the one near the middle. Having managed to signal an Umbrella helicopter for a ride (think of an umbrella helicopter and capitalization seems far more important), you’re waiting on the rooftop for pick up. In the distance, you see the helicopter approaching, and everything seems hunky-dory. “I guess we’re switching to another charac…” BAM! That’s when Nemesis, with his magical disappearing rocket-launcher, shoots down the rescue bird. After all that effort, you’re sitting on the roof of an infested building, surrounded by death, with imminent destruction at hand, and the seemingly unstoppable killing machine just gave you a huge middle finger. Not only that, but HE HAS A ROCKET LAUNCHER NOW?! HE CAN USE WEAPONS?!?!?!? With that thought in hand, let’s move right along…

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Resident Evil: Code Veronica was most memorable for its look into the curious, insect-obsessed lives of the owners of the Umbrella Corporation. It also gives you some background on the virus, left you trapped on an infested island, and brings back Albert Wesker… but with powerful up-grades. I can’t remember why there aren’t more over-powered monsters like Wesker, but whatever. It’s Resident Evil. If we worried too much about plot holes and retcons, then we’d have exploded by now. The game didn’t add much besides those things, and felt a bit… like a formula game. Instead of a mansion, it’s an island. Claire and Chris make another appearance, though, so it’s alright. Moving along to RE0!

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Resident Evil 0 took a chance, and added dual-character game-play, along with a serious graphical up-grade. Now, you could switch between different characters to solve puzzles. It was an interesting mechanic. However, it somewhat limited the sense of isolation that the series was, at least partially, shooting for. Most of the time, you only met people tangentially and then passed like ships in the night. Also, there were leeches. Again, there wasn’t much of a change in the game-play’s combat department. Although, now you had to manage two inventories and constantly juggle an AI ally. Thankfully, they didn’t do too much besides follow you.

It was around this time that most people were grumbling about the combat. “Why can’t you aim for the head?! It would be easy to survive the zombie apocalypse, or at least stop Umbrella, if we could just shoot slightly up!” Until that point, you could only aim at three different angles that, roughly, corresponded to Up, Forward, and Down. From there, your character had to be relied upon to auto-aim. So, most bullets just went into your enemy’s chest. As we all know, that’s just silly. Along came Resident Evil: Dead Aim (Biohazard: Gun Survivor 4 in Japan)

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As we can all tell, there’s a 4 on the end of that! So, this wasn’t the first FPS, light-gun, Resident Evil game. Clearly, Capcom had been working with their silly systems for a while. Before we get on to how the two systems were pronounced lawfully wedded, let’s look at Dead Aim.

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You could switch between third-person running and first-person shooting with the light-gun. I should also mention that the light-gun worked extremely well for this game. So, if you’re going to play it, then I recommend finding one. It was most memorable for its androgynous, electric-powered villain. Oh, there was a cute Chinese lady, too. The male lead was basically Jeff Foxworthy. I’m not going to bring up every game, but the damage ratios in this game were well balanced enough to show us that being able to aim for the head wouldn’t destroy the balance of play, if it was handled correctly. Again, this is speculation.

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The story wasn’t particularly memorable, but it introduced the t+G virus, and it took place… wait for it… here it comes… on a boat. The slight rocking motions, interesting monster designs, and use of sound effects makes this one of the most atmospheric light-gun games I’ve ever played, and I drained my bank account in the arcade more often than I’d like to admit. It did have the small problem of being beatable with the starting pistol, but it still required fast reflexes and too much caffeine, so I’m going to call it a success. Now, the moment we all knew was coming…

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This was Capcom’s magnum opus. It’s still one of my favorite games, and for good reason. It married the FPS design with the third-person camera, allowing for situational awareness with full-bodied actions and accurate aiming. It include an intuitive inventory system and one of the most memorable merchants in gaming history. It also had one of the most endurable escort components since ICO. Every piece of this game dripped with atmosphere and was so very camp that is was hard to be scared by it. Although…

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Now, we’re getting back to the timing problem. With the introduction of the free-aiming system, it was obvious that you couldn’t have zombies shamble slowly up to you. Even the massive hordes of Dead Aim wouldn’t prove much of a challenge for a character that could easily strafe in circles and run freely… as well as kick down ladders, jump out of windows, close doors, move furniture… In terms of a video game that can be beat, it wouldn’t do to plunk you in the middle of a city and make you fight the 200 zombie hordes it would take to challenge/horrify you at this point. I’m sure it could, because an unstoppable, encroaching mass of mindless flesh is still frightening (see: the mall on Christmas), but it wouldn’t make for a very varied or fun game. So, they introduced the Las Plagas. It was a parasite that was the game’s replacement for the T-virus. Now, the zombies were smart. Well, they were more like villagers, really.

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You may have noticed a bag-headed fellow featured prominently in the two pictures I posted. He’s the first true threat you face in RE4. They introduce him with a few other villagers in a brief cut-scene. They then proceed to chase you around their homes with scythes and blood-thirst. Oh, there’s a chain-saw, too. You may be thinking… “Wait, isn’t that what Dead Space did? Didn’t you complain about that?” Yes, but there are two key points to recognize here.

First off, RE4 represented a real shift in tone for the series. It started tackling the problem that Dead Space would later run into. In a game with an action-heavy protagonist and freedom of movement, as well as mounds of heavy, upgradeable ordinance, how do you design creatures that are challenging, fair, and frightening? I didn’t mention this earlier, but while the timing is different, the time ratios between Dead Space, RE3, and RE4 are similar. The difference is that you don’t have the extra seconds that the clunky combat of RE3 provides to worry about being attacked or scared. It’s either do or die. Much the same way that ripping off a band-aid, or taking a test, is more painful to think about than actually do, preparing for action is more frightening than actually shooting a gun. In a game. I bashed Dead Space for how it handled the situation because it introduced soldiers and monsters by having them murder people in front of you. This, effectively, eliminated most of the mystery or suspense. This brings us to some of the creature designs in RE4, and how they handled the problem.

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I wasn’t in the planning room, but much of the horror of monster designs in RE4 came from everything but the combat. This particular baddy would have to be kited around, in relative silence, because it hunted by sound. Then, it would dash towards you like a demon out of hell and strike. His weak point was on his back, of course. El Gigante was a huge giant that had to be brought down with lots of bullets before it could be directly injured. The Regenerators were really creepy sounding monsters that could only be killed by shooting the parasites in their bodies with a sniper-rifle equipped with a heat-sensing scope. Notice anything odd? All of these creatures have to be moved around, kited, or dealt with in a specific way before you can begin chipping away at their invisible health bars. The horror came from the anticipation of the fight, and from the relative permanence of your obstacle. It created the same kind of time to consider the situation that the original clunky combat did. Only now, the creatures are faster, so you have to be, too. This sort of unites the constant tension and dread of the Dead Space and Silent Hill systems.

Lastly, let’s look at the guy with the bag on his head, because he’s pretty much the quintessential version of what I’ve just outlined. He’s shown with a chain-saw, so we know he’s menacing. He has the added bonus of an obscured face and an almost direct resemblance to Leather-face. He’s introduced in the first area, so you’ve only got a pistol, and very little combat experience. There’s a shot-gun in the village, but if you don’t know where it is, then he seems incredibly powerful. Even shooting at his head and moving gracefully around, two advantages that, until that point, have been your aces in the hole, are meaningless with only a pistol at your command. It’s a real rat-in-a-maze feel. With a cat. Also, the cat has gas-powered teeth. You don’t see him cutting anyone up, so you’re left to imagine the result of his weapon meeting your soft, squishy bits. This makes it extra effective the first time he tears into your flesh with it. I was sort of stunned the first time. I wasn’t ready to believe that the game would just kill me like that. I actually looked away, because I didn’t want to witness the brutal, graphic death I had experienced at his hands. It was a truly stirring moment. RE4 wasn’t fucking around. Let’s recap. He’s effective because, while obviously menacing, he’s left to wreak havoc on you first, leaving everything before that up to your imagination. Plus, he delivers on the threat by destroying you absolutely. For all your new-found movement and fire-power, you’re nothing before a whirring chain-saw. That is, until you get a shot-gun, or learn how to kite him. Then, it’s pretty much over.

I could go on about the one-hit-kill head-parasites that caught me off guard. The occasional trapped wires that make you extra aware of your surroundings, and reinforce the hostility of the entire environment. The unbelievably corny dialogue, and standard Resident Evil plot, but I won’t. I want you to try the game. It’s worth your time, even now. Next stooop!

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Resident Evil 5! Like Dead Space, this game was sort of pre-empted by RE4. Space-zombies are a cool concept, and really well animated, but, eventually, the idea-bucket runs a little dry. RE4 had so much packed into it that RE5 didn’t have much left to work with without blatantly ripping the whole thing off. Then again, they sort of did that anyways. The game got a graphical up-grade, thanks to the next generation of consoles, and a more refined environment. However, it also added an AI partner that was denser than lead shielding. I don’t know anyone that didn’t hate Sheva because of how her AI played. If you’re going to play this game, then grab a partner. It’s not worth the agony otherwise. The inventory system was cut down from the intuitive briefcase system to a standard slot-system to accommodate the introduction of a partner that you could trade back and forth with, a’la RE0. Only, you couldn’t take control of Sheva directly, and you couldn’t trust her, either. If you gave her health items, then she squandered them. If you gave her bullets, then she’d waste them. Don’t get me started on rocket launchers and grenades. She tended to walk in front of your line of fire and just generally derped around. It was like she didn’t know she was in a survival horror game or something. The rest of the game played almost exactly like RE4, but the tone was absolutely destroyed.

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As this picture might illustrate, there were some allegations of racism in RE5. RE4 got some flack for having a village full of Spanish-speaking peasant-zombies, but they didn’t feel blatantly exploitative. As I mentioned earlier, the whole thing had this ironic sense of camp about it. RE5 did that adorable thing that Resident Evil games do and took itself seriously. The opening was an infected village that looked like it might have, believably, been from a poverty-stricken portion of Africa. I’m not sure. Mud huts belonging to grass-dress wearing, spear-wielding Africans are a little more questionable, though. Capcom aren’t bad people. I would like to think that they’re just a little mis-guided. Although, let’s be honest; my limited exposure to the African continent basically ensures that I can’t empirically prove that there isn’t one village like that somewhere, albeit less fetishized and infected.  Maybe that’s what they were hoping for. Either way, I did feel kind of uncomfortable walking through it snapping off head-shots, so maybe it did its job properly. Again, the true monster IS MAN!!

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As you can probably tell, I wasn’t that big a fan of RE5. Besides this guy, who moves suspiciously like Pyramid Head, and some questionable ethnic representations, the franchise has finished its shift to Splatter Thriller. You’ve got a wise-cracking side-kick, free movement, enough ordinance to blow up the entire mansion from the first game, a portion where you’re in a volcano punching boulders into lava, and a hilarious end-scene where you do an anime-style back-to-back double-rocket launcher finishing move on, you guessed it, Wesker, who has transformed into a mutant monster swimming around inside said volcano. You also fight a giant crab. Some scenes are disturbing, and may legitimately frighten you, but there’s no fear, and hardly any tension.

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I’m doing a full review of Resident Evil 6 pretty soon, so I’m not going to jump into it here. Suffice it to say, I’ve got some good and some bad to say about it. As usual. RE5 mis-stepped pretty hard, but it wasn’t that far removed from RE4. So, you can see how fine an edge horror stands on. Dead Space 1 was like the RE4 of the series. There were still things to be surprised by and a certain amount of pacing. As you can see, it’s not just the combat that can destroy a game’s tone. In my earlier overview of horror combat pacing, I criticised the game for its approach to horror, going so far as to re-categorize it. I stand by that, but I wanted you to realize exactly how difficult it is to create fear in today’s industry. We’ve seen a lot, but not everything. The margin for error is smaller than ever. High definition makes it harder, and less desirable, to obscure our antagonists. There’s a definite feeling of inertia that encourages games to stay within acceptable boundaries and play the same old tricks, especially with the sheer cost of creating current-gen games. That won’t do with horror, though, because there’s nothing less scary than something you’re expecting. Unless, of course, you don’t want it. Then, it’s terrifying. Maybe Dead Space made its combat too viscerally fun. Maybe it was the way it introduces its creatures and has them engage the player. Maybe it’s their vulnerable nature, spindly scab-monsters that they are. Silent Hill made many of the same mistakes in its new releases. With an upgrade in graphical and processing power, there’s a push to make characters more animated. As a result, they’re expected to speed up and move more fluidly. Silent Hill Homecoming’s combat rolling is not the answer, though. Silent Hill Downpour made similar mistakes with its big-bads by making the glowing red ball of light visible and… not at all scary. Oh, there’s the hammer-guy, too, but he’s just Pyramid Head with a hammer.

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So, it’s a challenge, but that doesn’t mean our industry will go quietly into the good night. There are plenty of new approaches being tried. Maybe they’ll even revive the Clock Tower IP, but they better be damn careful with it. There’s A Machine For Pigs coming out, with Amnesia: The Dark Descent as its grande herald. We got where we are today in a very logical manner, and I want to give props to the Dead Space team for their progress on an incredibly difficult task: making my dried-up husk of a child’s heart beat with terror once more. Then, all I have to do is implant it once more and the device will be complete.

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