Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Uncharted 2's Looks a Bit Charted to Me

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

Interview With Scribblenaut's Creative Director, Jeremiah Slaczka

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 Wii version too, but we didn’t work on that. The Wii version is very different from the DS. And that game has a lot of story. I actually have a background in screenwriting and I’m really big into story, but for Scribblenauts I didn’t want it to have a story because I wanted it to be accessible to everybody. Just get in, get out, have some fun. Story can turn off a lot of people. Some people will want to skip through the cutscenes and just play, and some people will want to watch them. But we wanted this game to appeal to everybody. So it’s sort of a lowest common denominator- make it as simple as possible. That’s why I made the starites - they’re a macguffin - you just know you want to get them. Then think, "OK, what do I need to do to get that?"

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

Big Red Potion Episode# 21 Afterword

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 Fallout 3 rather than say, Mirror's Edge.

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.