Sunday, March 27, 2011

Q1 Wrap-up

I know it's been ages since I've updated, so I'm just going to outline what I've written over the past couple months.

Why I Hate Red Dead Redemption. I was really proud of this piece as I'd chosen to take on one of the most highly regarded games of 2010. I'm really pleased at the commenters too. I expected to be torn to shreds over it, but it seems like a majority were in agreement with me (to an extent).

Bionic Commando Retrospective. I loved this game so hard. Truth be told, I didn't actually discover it until over a year after it came out when it was on sale for $10 at the local supermarket. Thanks to Brad Gallaway for convincing me to take the plunge.

Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 review. Never mind its short length, this was one of the hardest reviews I've ever had to write. Possibly because my editor, Ryan Kuo, has written for the Wall Street Journal, and I really didn't want to look stupid in front of him. He seemed to like it, so mission accomplished!

Two World 2 review. This was a really fun review. Also a fun game. It's totally rough around the edges, but after the generic first few hours I had a blast with it. To be honest, I actually liked it more than Oblivion (if only just. They suffer from a lot of the same issues, though, but TW2 had more personality, imo).

Spare Parts review. I was pretty "meh" on this game. It wasn't terrible and I actually kind of enjoyed its middle levels, but its so similar, yet inferior to the LEGO games and many of those can be found for about $10 these days.

Doc clock review. This is the worst game I've played this year. I came dangerously close to giving it a 1, but since that's the lowest score possible I figure a game has to offer absolutely nothing to get this. Doc Clock at least offered a good idea and crisp aesthetic, even if its execution was abysmal.

Knights Contract review. One of the most disappointing games I've ever played. As a cross between Bayonetta's crazy-go-nuts action and Enslaved or Ico's partner mechanic it looked like a winner. Unfortunately, its repetitive action, poor AI, and immensely frustrating QTE's made it a chore. For shame.

De Blob 2 (DS) review. This game wasn't great and I only barely gave it a 3, but what was there was perfectly pleasant and enjoyable. A bit costly for what it is, but it would have made a fine iphone game at a cheaper price point. Still a good kids game once it goes down in price.

Beyond Good & Evil HD review. This classic still hold up... mostly. I remembered it being pretty cheesy at times, but all the praise it's gotten since release made me think I'd remembered it wrong or was being too harsh. Nope, the script mostly sucks. Great design though, and I love Jade.

Yakuza 4 review. The Yakuza series is one that I want to love more than any other. I find them absolutely fascinating and ridiculous and wonderful, BUT, and it's a big but (hence the capitalization), I find them rather tedious to actually play. Sure you can do a lot of crazy mini-games, but most are confusing, boring, or both. This game reminds me a lot of Deadly Premonition where it's interesting to dissect, if a chore to play. I just happened to like DP's story and world more. Still, I'm definitely glad I played it as I've thought about it quite a bit since then.

Swarm review. I liked this game quite a bit and was very, very close to giving it a 4. The frustration factor and learning curve were just a bit too high for me, but I'm curiously compelled to go back to it if I ever find the time.

The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile review. I loved this game. At first I wasn't so sure as it just seemed too button mashy, but like all the best brawlers, it gets better on harder settings once you get into the minutia of its combat. I'm actually jonzing to play it some more. Gotta wrap up that Samurai Mode playthrough.

The rest are all my columns at Gamasutra

Scare Tactics - How Horror Games Have Evolved Their Controls - I examine several horror games over the past decade or so.

The Notebook - How Zelda's Notetaking Gives Handheld Inspiration - Why I love 2.5D Zelda on a touch screen.

Have it Your Way - Tailoring a Game's Difficulty to Players - The trials and tribulations of giving players options, but not overwhelming them. I don't envy designers on solving this pickles, but there are some neat workarounds that I discuss.

Sexism in Female AI Partners - For the record, I didn't find any of the games mentioned in this article offensive (except for maybe Knights Contract). I just find the overarching trend worrisome. There's a difference. That won't stop a lot of angry dudes from getting pissed in the comments section, though.

I've got a lot more coming soon including some reviews that have been submitted and will go up any day now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Additional Thoughts on Ghost Trick and its Use of Text.

My review of Ghost Trick is up at Paste. I wanted to address a couple things that I mentioned in the review, but didn't want to lose focus by ranting about. Notably its use of text.

Roger Ebert has a saying that "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short." I have a similar feeling about text in games. There's no "right" amount. What matters is what's in the text and if it's interesting. In most cases I'd say Ghost Trick's text is captivating with an intriguing plot and great characters. However, all too much of it is dedicated to redundant exposition of stuff you've already been told or pandering hand-holding.

This is especially irksome in the puzzle stages where you should be able to just have at the environments and go about your ghostly business, but are instead interrupted every two seconds by someone explaining what your actions mean or spouting out an obvious hint. This is extremely irritating as it not only impedes upon the puzzle solving, but ruins the pacing as well. There's also a lot of repeated text as you'll hear the same hints every time you perform specific actions. This can be sped up, but not altogether skipped. Very annoying.

Otherwise, I had no problem with Ghost Trick's talky nature. The plot was convoluted, but holds up well the more I think about it. I absolutely adored some of its twists and must give credit to Takumi and the translation team for dropping such subtle foreshadowing throughout. It really is a great story. It's just a shame I had to put up with such irritations to get to it.

I had a lot of the same problems with Phoenix Wright as well, but was hoping Ghost Trick's more traditional point-and-click puzzle mechanics would break free from the mold a bit more, so I could enjoy Takumi's great stories without the highly scripted hand-holding design. Sadly, that was not the case.


Oh, and here's some other stuff I've written lately:

ilomilo review - The first 5 star review I've given at X-Play. I had a feeling it would be good, but no idea it would be THIS good.

Raskulls review- I didn't care for this one so much, but it had some good ideas.

I Don't Know What Came Over Me - Analyzing the relationship between playable characters and the players who inhabit them.

Epic mickey's Epic... Success - Why I loved EM despite its major flaws. Focuses on how it achieved its goal of getting me into oldschool Disney animation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of the 2010: The Rest

As the holidays are quickly coming to a close and my work load is about to increase, I've decided to be a lazy bum and condense the rest of my faves from 2010 into one post. Without further ado, I bring you The GAMES of 2010!!!

In no particular order...

Epic Mickey
I've written about this one a lot -- and not always favorably -- but if you can get past that your playstyle doesn't matter as advertised, it's still a wonderful linear platforming adventure. The world and characters has more charm than just about anything I played this year, the story was fantastic, I found the moment to moment gameplay compelling, and it was up there with Nier as having the best soundtrack of the year. Not quite the masterpiece I was expecting, but a noble effort that really stood out to me.

The second most original game I played this year (next to Deadly Premonition). It doesn't do any one thing new, but its constant shifting of genres and tones made it feel extremely fresh all throughout. Characters are extremely memorable and don't fall victim to the usual stereotypes we see in these sort of games, and there's at least half a dozen fascinating vignettes placed throughout. Few games this generation have managed to consistently surprise and delight as well as Nier.

Deadly Premonition
The most moving game I played this year. It's rough as all hell with terrible combat and driving mechanics -- making it one of the only games I'd recommended having an FAQ handy for -- but if you get past some poor mechanics it's got a good story and probably my favorite protagonist in any game, ever. Francis York Morgan has stuck with me all year and I expect will stick with me for years to come. Deadly Premonition's unusual brand of offbeat humor and disarming melodrama make it stand out among anything else I've played in years. It's not "so bad it's good," as some reviewers have claimed, but genuinely fantastic.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
I know a lot of people have written this off as a God of War clone, but I thought it was better than that series in almost every conceivable way. The combat system, the biggest component of the game, was head and shoulders better than that in Kratos' swan song. I loved the light and dark magic mechanic which really encouraged players to vary their attacks. Elsewhere, it had great pacing (after the first couple chapters anyway) with an increasing focus on puzzles, marvelous atmosphere and art direction, and an epic scale. The storytelling was perhaps the only weak link in this otherwise grandiose action/adventure.

I reviewed this one over at Gamecritics. I don't have much to add that isn't in the review, but I'll just say that I don't usually like cover shooters, yet Vanquish managed to subvert that into a very fast-paced, tactical, shooter unlike any I've ever played. We've seen cover, slow-mo, and sliding before, so why did it take so long for someone to combine them?

Tales of Monkey Island: Season 1
Okay, so this came out last year, but its definitive console port on PSN came out this year and that's how I played it. I've not played a point-and-click adventure since Grim Fandango that's lived up to how I remember them being in my youth... until now. Not perfect by any means, but it got all the charm and whimsy of the Monkey Island series spot-on and more importantly showed me that I still have the patience and passion for these games that I thought I'd outgrown.

Super Mario Galaxy 2
I never expect to like these first party Nintendo games so much. Every time one comes out I think I've outgrown such shallow silly games, but when it's done right there's nothing else quite like it. SMG2 is hands-down the most fun I had with a game in 2010. While it's easy to write off as not very innovative, I'd argue that practically every level has some new idea in it. There's no major surprises -- it doesn't all of a sudden become a text adventure (like a certain game on this list starting with an N) -- but the devil is in the details, and every little facet of Mario's second romp around the cosmos is filled with unexpected goodness.

And to be comprehensive, I already wrote about Donkey Kong Country Returns and Bayonetta. I guess that makes it a Top 9. Beyond that, there's a few other standouts including:

Super Meat Boy - Very fun platforming goodness. I loved it, until I could take its abuse no more.

Limbo - Best graphics of the year, imo. Very stylish, well designed platformer/puzzler. I wanted a little more narrative depth, but hey, that's just me.

Enslaved - I'm still a bit peeved at this one for some major plot holes at the end, but it's otherwise got some of the best characters and art direction I've seen in a game this year. Really great time all around.

Bioshock 2 & Minerva's Den - I feel like Bioshock's gameplay has grown rather stale, which is why these aren't higher, but they otherwise both feature some really outstanding stories and end on a high note (unlike the first Bioshock which started strong and ended with a whimper).

Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light - I don't think anyone expected this. I for one still like Tomb Raider, but making it co-op and top-down seemed to defeat the purpose of exploring a 3D environment. Then I played it co-op and it had some of the best 2-player puzzle design I've seen.

There you have it. There's plenty of games this year that I didn't get to play (Amnesia, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Minecraft, etc...) so it's by no means a definitive list, but this is what stood out to me. May 2011 be as full of surprises. Happy New Year and happy gaming!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Best of the 2010: Bayonetta

While I've always liked third-person hack-and-slash games, the Devil May Cry series has always held a special place in my heart for its unique blend of melee and ranged combat. Going back to God of War or Ninja Gaiden, which focus almost exclusively on the former, just felt tame and flat in comparison. Bayonetta, from Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya, is very much the successor to that series taking what worked (guns + swords) and sprucing it up with a better camera, bigger bosses, and zanier setpieces.

The result is Devil May Cry on crack. It doesn't stray far from the formula, but so what? It's a great formula. Combat is quick with incredibly deep customization so you can alter it to your particular playstyle. I'm perhaps not the most experimental with this sort of thing, but I still found myself using more weapons than I usually do in this sort of game.

Then there's Bayonetta herself, the somewhat controversial overtly sexualized ass-kicking nun. Some find her insulting or pandering, but I found her empowering (I also didn't find her sexy, for what it's worth). She's flirty as all hell, but not in a way that's pandering to the audience. Being flamboyant is just part of her personality and her winking at the camera to me says less "come hither" and more like a teasing "keep up with me if you can." She's a handful, that one.

It wasn't perfect though and there were a few painful flaws that I never see anyone point out, so I will. Checkpoints are too generous, often appearing multiple times during a single boss fight. Dying simply sets you back at the last checkpoint with full health, so you're practically encouraged to get a game over when the next phase of a boss battle begins. Unless of course you're going for a high score, but if that's the case, the game fails as well by making levels far too long with insta-kill quick-time events that are sure to ruin your streak. And finally, the game's central mechanic, witch time (slow-mo executed by a well-timed dodge), is disabled in harder difficulties. Other equipment netting counter-attacks for successful dodges make up for this somewhat, but it's still disappointing they couldn't have found a way to make the game very hard, yet still grant one of the game's best features.

Flaws aside, Bayonetta was the most fun I've had with an action game since Devil May Cry 4. I played through it three times in as many weeks and writing this makes me want to play it again right now.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best of the 2010: Donkey Kong Country Returns

In honor of the year winding down I've decided to recap on some of my favorite games of the 2010. I'm not going to do a top 10 list per se, as I find it futile to rank such diverse offerings, but would rather dedicate a short blog post to each game that really meant something to me this year. So today we'll start with...

Donkey Kong Country Returns.

I wasn't that excited for this one initially. My memory of Donkey Kong Country is foggy at best, having only rented it when it came out a decade and a half ago. I remember liking it at the time, but given my age it didn't take a lot to impress me. Prior to DKCR coming out, I'd assumed that the series was mostly known for its graphics, not gameplay. There was nothing I could gather from trailers or my time with it at trade shows that made me think DKCR was anything more than nostalgia for nostalgia's sake and that a recreation of our early childhood memories wouldn't hold up in the modern era.

Still, My girlfriend was a big fan of the series, though, so for that reason alone I decided to take the plunge and check it out.

And boy am I glad I did! Initially, it didn't do anything to change my preconceived notions. There was nothing particularly innovative about jumping, swinging, shooting out of barrels, etc... But what I hadn't expected was just how fun it would be. Controls are tight and responsive, levels are lush and gorgeous, and the cute animals are genuinely cute. Like really, really cute. The way Diddy runs over a rolling Donkey Kong still fills me with delight every time I see it.

It's also plain exciting. There's a real momentum to some of these sequences as the levels crumble behind you as you desperately try to acquire the hard to reach KONG letter. It's definitely challenging, but rarely frustrating with frequent checkpoints and a liberal dose of lives.

Co-op was fun too. It's not perfect and you'll hemorrhage lives this way, but they're not hard to replenish. Playing through the campaign with my girlfriend was seriously one of the highlights of the year for me in gaming.

Once we'd completed it I asked her what she thought. She said she liked it, but was a bigger fan of the older games. My memory is too rusty to accurately compare, but I'll say that it effectively captured the feeling I got when I was 12 and a 2D platformer needn't be innovative or deep for it to be just about the best thing ever.


And for record keeping purposes, here's some stuff I've written over the past few months:

Defying Design: Dead Lines Rising. On how time limits can enhance or hinder an experience. Looking specifically at Dead Rising: Case Zero and Majora's Mask.

Defying Design: Cloak & Dagger. A look at competitive stealth-based multiplayer.

Defying Design: New Moon. On what makes a good reboot. Looking specifically at Castlevania and Silent Hill.

Defying Design: Gaming up the Wrong Tree. Analyses of games that misdirect the player from their true goal.

Defying Design: You Bet Your Life. A look at the role of luck in action game.

Defying Design: The Buddy System. How co-op has evolved in 2D platformers over the past few years.

Defying Design: Epic Mickey's Epic... Failure? How choice works, and does't work in Epic Mickey.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gaming Literacy

The charms of this game were lost on me. I should probably revisit it.

I was listening to the most recent Experience Points Podcast with one of my favorite writers, Michael Abbott as their special guest talking about how he recently had Portal added to the list of required for a freshman course at Wabash College where he teaches.

During the discussion, the concept of gaming literacy came up and I wanted to throw my own two cents into the mix...

It may seem odd now being the seasoned gamer that I am, but I recall struggling a lot with Ocarina of Time when I first played it about seven years ago. Embarrassingly, the things I struggled with would seem like common knowledge to any gamer now, yet confounded my rusty 16-bit gaming mind.

When I'd played Ocarina I was 20, just bought a Gamecube, and hadn't owned a console since the SNES. Gaming was a mere curiosity to me at the time, as I wondered what had become of my favorite childhood pastime. Little did I know how hard it would be to get back into.

I recall first getting stuck in Ocarina when told to head to Hyrule Castle. I went up to the gate, a guard told me I wasn't permitted on the premises, so I left. Given my background in point-and-click adventures I naturally assumed I needed permission before entering. I scoured the land far and wide talking to everyone, hoping someone would give me the proper documentation to enter. Inevitably I gave up and consulted an FAQ. The answer; I was supposed to sneak past the guards -- something that would have never occurred to me as I'd not had to do that in a Zelda game before.

Granted part of this was due to a technical limitation. Guards have unrealistic eyesight in that they're incredibly near-sighted and standing a scant 20 ft in front of them is considered being out of range, even if it looks like you should be clearly spotted. I chalked this up to me being a dunce and pressed on.

My next point of contention was not understanding that my fairy, Navi, doubled as a hint system. After Hyrule Castle I kept wandering without a clue as to where to go. Navi kept interrupting, saying that she wondered what my possible girlfriend back home would think of me now. Looking back on it it was obvious; she was telling me to go back home where I'd discover a new event that would drive the plot along, but I somehow thought that this was just cutesy dialogue meant to add flavor to my fairy companion. "Yes, Navi, I get it. I'm the hero of time. My g/f will be impressed. Whatever. But where am I supposed to go?!" Much like the castle, it wouldn't have occurred to me to go back to the starting village as I thought I'd already done everything there. Whoops!

And don't get me started on hitting A to take out/put away your sword. Apparently that doesn't matter as hitting B will perform an attack regardless, but it took me most of the game to figure that out as I constantly cursed the screen every time I'd accidentally sheath my sword when trying to read a sign.

It's easy to forget about these barriers to entry having played so many games, but I still find it fascinating what parts of videogame knowledge we simply take for granted. Let's hope Wabash's incoming class is smarter than I was (or that Portal is more intuitive than Ocarina. Which I imagine it is).


Here are some things I've written lately:

Blade Kitten review for Joystiq

And I've continued my Defying Design columns here:

Smooth Talk; the evolution of dialogue trees using Monkey Islands' present and past as a base.

Alternate Perspectives; examining how Nier only told its story through multiple playthroughs and the potential benefits and pitfalls to such an approach.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Save the World; about the pros and cons of silent protagonists, and examples of those that work best.

Altered States; analyzes the effects of moral choices on character design and how it can influence playstyles.

On a side note the Eurogamer piece was a major win for me as that was the site that initially got me interested in pursuing videogame journalism professionally. I can still acutely recall Penny Arcade linking to Kristan's Prince of Persia: Warrior Within review, which I thought was exceptionally well written. I liked it so much that I started perusing the site further and it soon became my go-to for game reviews and previews. This isn't to say that other sites aren't equally great or anything, but EG was my original inspiration and continues to hold a special place in my heart.

Friday, August 13, 2010

DeathSpank is Fun for all the Wrong Reasons

I'd heard DeathSpank was rather Diablo-ish going in, but my only experience with Blizzard's RPG was the scant demo I played of it half my lifetime ago. I barely recall it, but if memory serves correctly you merely pointed on enemies and your avatar fought them automatically, trading blows until one party fell. The skill came from deciding what equipment to use and stat buffs to utilize. One could still heal and use items mid-battle, but by and large, you had no active control in the combat. Of course, this is all speculation based on my memory of a 14 year old demo. But it's still what I think of when I think of Diablo.

DeathSpank looked a lot more enticing to me. I was mostly interested because of Monkey Island creator, Ron Gilbert's* involvement, but on a mechanical level the combat looked far more responsive. You could attack in real-time, block, and do all the things one would expect in a hack-and-slash action game. In short, aside from the loot-collecting, it didn't resemble my foggy memories of Diablo the way I expected.

So it was with a bit of disappointment when I played the game and soon realized it fell a little flat on the two things I was most looking forward to; the writing and combat.

The writing is certainly above average and traces of Monkey Island can be found all over the place, but I can't help but agree with Sparky Clarkson's assessment that while the game cleverly personifies its protagonist's world view, DeathSpank isn't a very interesting protagonist. Clarkson goes on to say that Gilbert did the "moron-hero" thing better in Monkey Island, but I'd argue that Guybrush Threepwood was never a moron. A wimp, certainly. And lacking certain social skills around women, sure. But not a moron. He was often clever, cunning, and aside from physical stature, really did embody the crafty skills his dream profession required. DeathSpank, however, is a moron. He's just a one trick pony. His one defining characteristic is that he's stupid, but thinks he's amazing. Guybrush too thought himself a mighty pirate, but the difference is that Guybrush had pathos. We felt bad for him as he tried to woo his love interest, an often sought after tomboyish governor. Everybody roots for an underdog and that's what Guybrush is. DeathSpank, however, is beefy and foolhardy enough to complete his quest, so there's no sense of overcoming the odds. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a good romantic subplot. Either way, I don't care much for this guy.

That being said, the jokes hit more often than miss and there's a lot of charm to be found in the game. It's just not as consistent or endearing as his earlier work.

I want to get back to the combat though, as my reaction to it was the most surprising thing. Going into it expecting more of a skill-based hack-and-slash, I was disappointed. The enemies cluttered the screen too much, I could never tell when to block, and even when I could block successfully I'd find enemies chipping away at my health without being able to tell that their blows were connecting. It was messy, sloppy, and dare I say, broken as an action game. Here's the weird thing; I didn't mind.

Despite having direct control over your avatar, combat is much how I remember Diablo. It's so imprecise that you'll end up trading blows with the opposition no matter how honed your reflexes are. You can't take on high-end enemies at first, but must be at an adequate skill level before you have any chance at success. It's ultimately just an excuse for you to kill things, gain new levels and equipment so you can take on bigger enemies, kill them, and gain even more levels and equipment. It's everything that I claim to hate about lazy, padded design.

And yet I like it. I like watching the numbers go up and my character getting stronger. I'm sucked in in the same way that's always alienated my from RPG players and I can think of two reasons why.

a.) DeathSpank is very well-paced. It seems as though I gain a new level or a better piece of armor or equipment every couple of minutes, so I'm never wasting a significant amount of time with negligible progress.

b.) DeathSpank is short. A vast majority of RPGs I've tried I've given up on after about a dozen hours. The few I've completed were rather slow-going by the end and I really had to force myself to push on. Admittedly I'm only 9 or so hours into DeathSpank and I'm sure that if it were a 30+ hour game I too would tire of it long before the end credits roll. Thankfully, it's not. I've discovered 23 of a possible 30 outhouses (respawn points), so I'm going to assume I'm about 3/4th through and thus have another 3-4 hours left. That sounds about perfect to me. As soon as I'll start to tire of the grind, I'll be at the end and ready to move on to something else. And it only cost $15, so I don't feel cheated about length which I know is a concern for RPG veterans who like longer games.

Ultimately, DeathSpank doesn't fire on all cylinders for me, but it fires on the ones I least expected. I still maintain the the premise was flawed and wish it was more Monkey Islandesque when it comes to puzzles. Though for a genre I always looked at from a distance and could never quite understand the appeal of, DeathSpank is a wonderfully accessible entry.

*Note: One of my most embarrassing experiences as a journalist comes from when I asked a friend at Hothead studios if she could introduce me to Ron Gilbert. She took a step forward, interrupted his conversation and said, "Hey Ron! This guy wants to meet you!" Horrified, I cowardly thanked him for Monkey Island, then snuck away with my tail between my legs.