Monday, December 28, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The other big piece of news is that I got taken on as a freelance reviewer for X-Play on G4. My debut article, a review of Lucidity, just went up, so check that out as well.
Also, to get more personal for a second, I started dating a new girl. This has been wonderful and could help explain my lack of internet presence. Games are great and all, but real life can't be ignored and I've been very busy living it to its fullest as of late. My new girlfriend is also a gamer (the first I've dated, oddly enough), so she's actually helped inspire some of my latest ideas. Who knows if I would have written about the "hug button" had she and I not discussed it for a few minutes, taking turns with the controller, getting our Blob on. So worry not, I'll still be regularly writing about games (even if she has gotten me hooked on the World Series. And I thought I hated sports).
Anyway, that's where I've been and what I've been doing. If my blog has suffered, it's been to offshoot everything else in my life that's going swell.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
One quick afterword though: I may have to eat crow on what I said about the puzzles being too handholdey. Justin Keverne's wrote a wonderful piece on the game, explaining how Drake is a man of action and shouldn't be held up for too long. In other words, the puzzles are easy to the player because they're supposed to be easy for Drake. In a sense, they're hardly even puzzles, but rather the illusion of puzzles to help drive the narrative along. While I appreciate my masochistic LucasArts and Braid-like mind-benders, they wouldn't have fit the flow of Uncharted's more guided experience. The game is always throwing something new at you, whether it be a shootout, an extended platforming sequence, or petting a yak's butt. Just because I like hard puzzles doesn't make them necessary for every game. It's good to be wrong sometimes.
One more thing- Drake kills a lot of people in this game. Granted they're all bad and trying to kill him, it still seems a bit sociopathic (which is brought up at one point). The game introduces stealth, but only insofar as stealth kills go. You cannot bypass a combat zone entirely by sneaking past enemies. I think that would be an interesting addition to Uncharted 3, so long as it's only optional and the game doesn't rate you on it ala MGS. Maybe then he can only kill 400 dudes, rather than 900. Just a thought.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The story is as old as time itself; a roadie gets blood on his cursed belt buckle, which is actually a demon, sending him back in time to an age when the gods of rock ruled the world. Okay, maybe it’s not The Iliad, but under its half parody of/half love letter to heavy metal coating, it’s a timeless retelling of a hero’s journey - a man finding his place in the world. There have been plenty of fantasies about lowly bumpkins with surnames like Skywalker and Potter who discover their destiny to save the world, but these blokes were always unremarkable and just got lucky in discovering their destinies. They didn’t have much in the way of character traits beyond whining and being unlucky as children. Eddie Riggs, Brutal Legend’s plump protagonist, is far richer a character, with genuine enthusiasm for what he does. i.e. being a roadie and living the rock ’n roll lifestyle from the sidelines. When he’s summoned into this world, all the skills that have made him an invaluable albeit invisible part of the industry manifest themselves in ways vital to saving the world. It sounds formulaic, but there are twists along the way, and the story is told with such enthusiasm that one can’t help but get wrapped up in Eddie’s struggles, "which some would call hellish. But I have to admit, is kind of badass."
Brutal Legend’s presentation is astounding - one of the best portrayals of a virtual world in a videogame. As Tim Schafer said, "if it looks like it would belong on a metal album cover, we can put it in the game." This is well presented in the environment, littered with runes of the ancient titans of rock. A giant wall of speakers, a skull for a moon, and a hive full of metal spiders that spin metal webs (of course) are just sample of the landscape available. Brutal Legend has the best art direction of any game since Okami. I wanted to take a screencap every 10 seconds and frame it on my wall. All this is aided by phenomenal voice-work by a star-studded cast, and one of the best uses of licensed music in a game with an epic soundtrack consisting of over 100 songs. All metal. All the time.
The game is also hilarious. The opening cutscene alone had me laughing more than any game since GLaDOS met her fate at the end of Portal. A good example ofBrutal Legend’s unique brand of humor is its mockery of the videogame convention where players must choose to accept a mission or deny it, knowing full well that the game will only progress with "accept". After being briefed on a mission, the game pauses at the most inopportune moment only to ask whether to attempt the mission now or later. I recommend choosing "later" just to hear the great dialogue as Eddie has a last minute change of heart and tries to weasel out of his world saving duties.
Read the rest of the review here, at TGR.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Imagine, if you will you’ll, that you’re looking at someone standing in an empty cave the size of a stadium, fighting a creature a hundred times their size. You don’t need words to explain this. It’s your classic David vs Goliath struggle, a story told entirely in images. An image, after all, is worth a thousand words. Now add music to that image. Now movement. Now control. What I’ve just described is a scene out of dungeon-crawler Demon’s Souls. It just so happens that you get to participate in those images.
Less is more
There’s little in in the way of plot, characters, or dialogue to bog things down. As such, the game functions more as an interactive picture book than an interactive movie. It’s been argued that games cannot have the depth of other, more linear forms of storytelling such as books or movies, but I believe that games tell stories that are much more abstract. These stories are based on each player’s experience of playing the game, and a game’s artistry can subtly guide this narrative experience, without overbearing the player with exposition.
Continuing with Demon’s Souls, one area of the game is based within a labyrinthine mine. You start out on the surface, along a lush canyon against the red of a sunset. As you enter the mines, you come upon dimly lit tunnels and wooden walkways. Plunging the mine deeper, you find yourself in ever darker, narrower tunnels, only to suddenly stumble upon large pools of lava with giant slug-like creatures. There’s a staggering feeling of isolation and helplessness as you realize just how deep the rabbit hole is, and this is all done with only the slightest hint of plot. Thus far, the plot has been very simple one about a cursed kingdom and an anonymous hero fighting legions of demons to save it. The story isn’t complex, yet it provides enough context to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. The real story, however, is yours as you fight the impossible fight against a gorgeously rendered backdrop.
Crackdown’s story is found in its world, not in its cut scenes.
Another game that understands this minimalistic approach to storytelling is Crackdown, even though it was frequently criticized for lacking a story. It did actually have one, but it was told entirely through its setting and gameplay mechanics. True, there is no real character development, and your only mission is to take out twenty-one targets, in whatever way you choose to. Crackdown’s story lies in its portrayal of a fascist society, something discovered by exploring its world and blowing shit up. The agents, of which your protagonist is one, are mindless drones that can be respawned from a number of supply points, a solid indication of how powerful and inhuman the Agency’s totalitarian rule is. The Agency Tower is the game’s tallest building, reinforcing the notion of a totalitarian, fascist society. The final twist reveals that the agency is (gasp) evil, and it’s hardly a surprise, given how the player has spent countless hours as a merciless killing machine. Subsequently, this heavy-handed explanation is the one point where the storytelling missteps, as it doesn’t trust players to figure out things for themselves.
Read the rest of the article here, at thegamereviews.com
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum, I realized that while I loved hunting down all the hidden collectibles and solving the wealth of Riddler challenges, it didn’t make sense for Batman to be taking time out of his busy schedule to do any of that. True, this has been the case with the majority of games, but I never really noticed it until Arkham Asylum. Maybe that’s because it’s so well-presented, or that it all conceivably occurs in real-time, given how it takes place over the course of one night and a playthrough lasts an appropriate nine to twelve hours.
Either way, it became apparent that most games suffer from this flaw. When there’s an urgent quest or mission at hand, the player is often urged to use their limitless supply of time to hunt down doodads. Even games that don’t have collectibles or side-quests still give way to exploration simply by virtue of housing a game world that can be explored. After playing through Arkham Asylum, I felt compelled to reflect on games that have sidestepped this convention, and to consider how to integrate storytelling with the player’s urge to explore, which is encouraged by any virtual world.
Appropriate exploration resurfaced in the second N64 Zelda title, Majora’s Mask, the platform provided in that game’s case by how it handled time. Unlike in most games, you couldn’t take your time in Majora’s Mask’s world, safe in the knowledge that you’d always arrive at the last minute to save the day. Instead, you had three in-game days to save the world, which constituted somewhere between fifty minutes and five hours in real-time depending on how much you slowed down time in-game. Fail, and you’d lose all progress made in that time. Rather than being a horribly frustrating, repetitious experience, you were able to revert back to the first day’s dawn at any time, keeping all the important objects you’d acquired in that time with you. This made it easy to make your way back to where you left off, and more significantly, provided the sense for Link to want to take his time to search for treasures to aid him on his quest. Simply put, Link literally had all the time in the world of Majora’s Mask.
Check out the rest of the article here at thegamereviews.com
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I have to admit that I'm rather excited for Uncharted 2. That being said, I have some concerns based on what we've seen in trailers as well as my take on its predecessor.
I liked the first Uncharted, but seemingly not as much as the rest of the world. I found it absolutely brilliant in some ways, but lacking in others. In terms of characters, dialogue, graphics, music, animation, and overall presentation, Uncharted was a tour de force. On the other hand, I found its core mechanics not particularly interesting. It seemed like it was 80% shooting, with very light, easy elements of exploration and puzzle solving thrown in for good measure. It was serviceable, but got old quickly for me. Compared to a game like the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum, which switches gears far more often, Uncharted's pacing just felt off. There's a lot more to treasure hunting than shooting hundreds of pirates in the head, and I'm personally more interested in the exploratory nature of the treasure hunt (something I felt like the recent Tomb Raider games have gotten down, in spite of falling short in all the other ways in which Uncharted succeeds).
As such, my excitement for Uncharted 2 was always a bit lowkey. I knew I'd play it when it came out, but had a hard time mustering up that much excitement over it. Then came the E3 live demo at the Sony press conference. It portrayed a four minute scene of Nathan Drake eluding a helicopter along a series of rooftops. In terms of presentation it set a new highmark as the camera would consistently portray the best angle on the action as the environments changed in conjunction with the aforementioned helicopter destroying them. Watching the clip, I was very impressed. Now that the early reviews have poured with scores off the charts, I decided to rewatch these clips for the first time since E3 in order to muster up my excitement. Sadly, they don't play as well the second time around, bringing me to my single largest concern about Uncharted 2.
The scenes we've seen in trailers look absolutely marvelous, save one crucial concern; the events look to be largely scripted. The first time you see a helicopter shoot down a building you're on as the floor slopes down and everything on it slides with it, it's a sight to behold. But imagine getting a game over several times during one of these setpieces and having to redo it again and again. Each time you'd see the same events occur and after the first or second time, they'd lose their "wow" factor.
If everything goes smoothly, the game looks great. If you mess up and get a game over, repeating previous sections doesn't sound very dynamic. If it's anything like the first game, it'll quickly resort into a case of "shoot these two guys behind that pillar, then move on until this guy comes in from the right..." In essence, these games are very much on-rails. They're little more than movies with interactive shooting bits in between.
This doesn't make Uncharted and potentially its upcoming sequel bad games. They're still superb linear third-person shooters. But my fear is that that's all they are. They're largely based on trial-and-error with little room for experimentation. You basically have to do things the right way or you can't progress; something that gets old fast. Perhaps if the game had a more vague narrative I wouldn't feel this way. Games like Demon's Souls barely have a story, and as a result, I feel less like I'm just going through the motions of someone's interactive movie, but rather playing the game at my own pace. It's a similar problem I came across with the Phoenix Wright games where you have to do as the designer intended or you can't progress. This is an interactive medium. I wish Naughty Dog used their stellar presentation to produce something where you could interact in more ways than just shooting guys or following a preset path.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Scribblenauts is the game that allows for you to summon just about anything you can think of in order to solve puzzles or satiate your own inner omnipotence. To get the lowdown on the game and the inspiration behind it, Jeffrey Matulef spoke to 5th Cell’s Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. He found out where the idea for the game came from, as well as the newly suggested official Scribblenauts tattoo.
TGR: What initially gave you the idea for Scribblenauts?
Slaczka: After Drawn to Life I still had a couple ideas. One was this building block idea called, "Once Upon a Time" where you’d write stories on the bottom screen like "the dog went through the forest", and then it would play out on the top screen. I thought, "That’s a really cool idea, but it’s not a game." So I shoved that idea for a while. And then I had a dream... I’ve never had a game dream before. I was in this Aztec Temple and there were these rooms, and in these rooms there were these weird puzzles to solve. There’d be like these three pictures and I’d have to line them up and then the exit would open up and I’d go to the next room. And in the other room there’d be like these dirty dishes and you’d go wash them. There wouldn’t be any clues - you’d just instinctively know what you were supposed to do with these objects. So I thought, "That’s a really cool idea for a game." But it didn’t really have a hook and there’d be no replayability, so I thought, "What if I just smash all these things together and we use keywords to solve puzzles? Then the replayablity becomes infinite."
TGR: Does the game have any kind of story at all?
Slaczka: No. No it doesn’t. And I didn’t want it to. I have another game coming out in October called Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. It’s a direct sequel to the first. There’s a
Just one of the many ways to help a lumberjack in Scribblenauts
TGR: Did the thought ever cross your mind to do a very silly Katamari-esque story?
Slaczka: There was! That’s why it’s actually called Scribblenauts. Originally [Maxwell] was an astronaut and he would go around these different planets and help them by scribbling on this notepad. So we kept the name. So if you write ’Scribblenaut’ in the game, you’ll actually get the original Scribblenaut. He’s an astronaut dude who looks kinda like a robot, but we wanted a guy who looked more human, so we went with Maxwell.
Read the rest of the interview here at TGR.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
My newest appearance on Big Red Potion opposite Justin McElroy (Joystiq) is up at bigredpotion.com. I was unusually quiet during this week's podcast as I was so fascinated by the discussion already happening around me and my rant about Assassin's Creed was cut probably because Sinan was worried what would happen if we said bad things about Ubisoft*. More accurately, I found myself too shy to interrupt such great conversations, instead opting to think of brilliant things to say and then not finding the opportune moment to say them. Until now, that is...
I've already written about the topic of game reviews here, but I wanted to talk about price and value bit. My feeling is that value is an incredibly subjective thing and based on three things: game quality, the budget of the consumer, and the free time available to them. The latter two are specific to the individual and cannot be judged by a critic.
We all want the best bang for our buck, but there's a stigma in our society that that somehow means longest game for least amount of money. Now that makes sense for some. I certainly remember when I was young and my parents would only buy me one or two games a year, so I'd have to make sure to get the longest games possible (provided they were also good, of course). If you have little money and lots of free time, you'll fall into this camp and be wise to spend your $60 on
However, for many, price may not matter all that much. What matters more is quality. And we've reached a point where there are so many great games being produced that it's nigh on impossible to keep up with them all. As such, greater gaming enthusiasts (such as myself) will want shorter games, so we have time to check out more of them. Obviously my view is a bit skewed as I'm a far greater game enthusiast than most and often get free games to review, but it's not uncommon for gamers to have a backlog of games they'd like to play, but just not had the time for for one reason or another. As such, the prospect of a great 6-8 hour game priced the same as a 60-80 hour game doesn't seem as skewed as it would have to me when I was younger.
Of course, one could argue that you could just rent shorter games and then buy them later after a price drop. That's a totally acceptable way to go about it and entirely economical, but let's face it; people like to collect stuff. Think about movies. How many times do you think the average person watches the average movie that they buy? Conversely, think how cheap and easy it is to rent movies these days. It would probably be cheaper to just rent whatever they want to see when they want to see it (even if it means renting it multiple times). Though there's something very appealing about just having it there at a moment's notice. Going back to games, I think it's important to mention things like length and replayability for the those in the small budget/lots of free time camp, but criticizing a game for being too short isn't really a criticism at all as far as I can tell. It sounds more like praise and that the game was so good and that they didn't want it to end. So yeah, value is in the eye of the beholder and docking a review score for a game being too short is akin to a food critic rating a burrito poorly for not being lasagna. Damn review scores! (Which I hear were invented by Paul Rooney.)
I also wanted to go into the concept of rating a rerelease. I disagree with Justin about them not needing a review. I think it's great to reevaluate how well a game holds up. Saying something was great "for the time" just doesn't cut it with me. I want to know how well it hold up to the current competition.
The Secret of Monkey Island is an interesting case though. Based on what I've seen and heard, the remade elements aren't that great (notably the new character model for Guybrush. Seriously. What were they thinking?), but the original game (included as part of the package) still holds up amazingly well. So how the hell do you score that? It's taking a great game and making it worse, so it should get a terrible score. Yet it still has that great game on it. Personally, I'd say the original game itself is worth $10 easy, and a reviewer could go into lots of detail on why that is and why it's held up so well over the years.
Beyond that, I feel like a review is little more than an interpretation of a game- or rather the experience playing it. We're all going to approach a game from our own perspective, and I've always personally found reading other people's perspectives on a game fascinating. It helps shape my own and often leaves me appreciating a game more for reasons I wouldn't have thought of on my own (or criticizing a game for reasons I wouldn't have though of). Writing about what's in the game isn't enough. A reviewer should write about what stood out to them, what it was like to play, and what things frustrated or delighted them about the design. A game is an interactive medium. As such, a review needs to focus on that interaction. Readers will be able to figure out from there whether it sounds like their cup of tea or not.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
about now, but I'm on a really big history kick.
In some ways, Batman: Arkham Asylum combines story and gameplay better than almost any game I've seen. Rather than come up with my own witty retort for why this is, I'll do the lazy thing and quote Dan Whitehead who'd already said it best:
"By placing the game in the realistically restricted confines of Arkham, and by having the unpredictable Joker as the antagonist, the story doesn't really have to stretch too much to accommodate the requirements of a videogame. Joker is playing with Batman, after all, and so it makes sense that he'll be opening up new areas only when you've performed specific tasks."
In some ways this is true. If you play the game straight through, you'll experience this seamless mix of story and gameplay. However, the game sort of dissuades you from playing this way with its host of collectibles and secrets.
I found myself scanning the room trying to solve the Riddler's challenges and find his hidden trophies, then thinking, "Wait a second. Shouldn't I be trying to rescue Commissioner Gordon?" If you're trying to take the story seriously, it doesn't make sense that Batman would be going off on all these archeological tangents.
At the same time, I'm not criticizing their existence either, because they're both fun in their own right, and help highlight the often brilliant level design as well as ensure that the player catch all the hidden details that go a long way towards fleshing out the game world.
But I find that these are two completely different ways of playing the game. Exploring is fun. The story is compelling. They're just at odds with one another, and I'm not sure what a designer could do to fix that. As a result, the way I'm trying to play is to ignore all the collectibles and respect the story and the sense of urgency that it conveys. Then once I've beaten the game, I'd like to go back and search for all the hidden goodies. That way I can put the plot on hold and think of it like an extra on a DVD where you get to appreciate all the details you didn't have time to catch the first time around.
Though my OCD does tend to make me want to scavenge every nook and cranny of each area when I enter it, but that's my problem. Not the game's. And I'm trying to fight it. Though I'm curious why I even care to find all these collectibles when I know I'll go back for them later anyway, as they break the illusion of being Batman hot on the Joker's trail. Is it due to year's worth of playing games where the plots are negligible, so I don't mind breaking them (Metroid certainly comes to mind here)? Is it because I dread the thought of having to retread old ground for something I've missed? I'm curious what other people's reactions have been to this and whether they notice or care that seeking out these extra challenges make no sense in the game's narrative. And how do you compromise these two divergent aspects of story and game? Perhaps only have the collectibles appear as a bonus mode post beating the game, so that they can't get in the way the first time through? Just a thought.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Okami’s unusual visuals are still beautiful years after its release
"It’s like someone read my mind for what would make a perfect video game, and then made it." So said a younger, longer-haired Jeffrey Matulef in the autumn of 2006. That’s how I felt when I first played Okami. Though I don’t know if the word "played" does it justice; more like when I absorbed, consumed, and experienced Okami.
So enamored was I with Okami that while I wanted nothing more than to continue playing it non-stop, I also didn’t want it to end. At the same time, I had less than two weeks to beat the game prior to the start of the Fall term, knowing once that happened, I’d have practically no time to game. As a result, I’d made a concerted effort to time it right so I’d beat it just as summer vacation would come to a close.
Read the rest of the article here, at thegamereviews.com