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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Column and Some Monkey Island Love

I'm sorry it's been so long since my last blog post, but things have been hectic. I went to E3 which I meant to write a lot about, but instead found myself exhausted after the convention, Disneyland and Magic Mountain (not in that order). Long story short; E3 was fun, Disneyland was moreso. Epic Mickey looks to be a happy medium, but still no substitute for actual being there. Okay, now I'm getting weepy over Disneyland withdrawals so moving on...

The big news is that I've stopped writing Challenging Conventions at TGR (nooooo!!), but started writing its spiritual successor, Defying Design, at GameSetWatch (yaaayyy!!). Think of it as Challenging Conventions 2.0. The first edition is about what makes a game scary as well as suggestion on how to make current more action focused horror games scarier.

Other than that, I've been on a big Monkey Island kick. While I was buried deep in announcements at E3, Tales of Monkey Island was released on PSN unbeknown to me. I'd always wanted to play it, but I didn't have a PC up to snuff and heard lackluster things about the price-hiked Wii port. Stubbornly, I held out in hopes of an XBLA or PSN port and over half a year later my prayers were answered. The PSN version looks great and runs like a dream. Better yet, it's a great game in its own right and while it has its flaws, it improves upon the series in a few meaningful ways. I'd tell you what they were, but may save that for a column;) Just know that despite its lackluster first couple chapters it gets better and by the end I cared about the cast more than I ever have before. Ultimately, it's a worthy chapter in the saga and the first traditional adventure game I've played in over a decade that I'd consider a real return to form for the genre.

So enamored was I that I picked up the special editions of Monkey Islands 1 & 2 and am playing through them now. I had some issues with the presentation and interface of the first special edition and found myself regularly switching between old and new, but so far I'm really blown away at how well they've adapted Monkey Island 2. The new look is lush and vibrant, and the animations smooth. The voices and music are top notch as well and I love what they've done with the interface. I'm only a few hours in so far, but color me impressed!

I also played Limbo and reviewed it for TGR here. As you can tell from the review I liked it quite a bit, but found myself perplexed and befuddled by the end. It's either brilliant and I'll prove myself a philistine for not getting it, or it really does have no story. I look forward to discussing interpretations with others upon release (which is today. Go out and buy it!).

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

Challenging Conventions # 16: Bite-Sized Gaming This was my final CC piece. It was about how most of the games I got excited about at E3 were digital downloads which tend to be cheaper, smaller, and exhibited a greater degree of creativity. On a side note, I think a lot of people were disappointed by E3 this year (where was The Last Guardian?!), and while there was no huge new game that got me excited (Zelda was particularly disappointing) I walked away feeling like I'd seen a lot of great stuff particularly from the downloadable market. Forget Kinect and move, this is the part of the industry that has me most excited.

Note: Forgive me if I don't update again soon. I'm moving house in a couple weeks, so I'll be pretty busy and without internet access for a few days.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Other Goings On...

My background with 3D Mario has been spotty at best. Not having owned an N64 in its heyday, my first foray into Mario's 3D adventures was the underwhelming Super Mario Sunshine. I liked it alright, but found controlling Mario in a 3D environment to be cumbersome. With so many different types of jumps and a controllable camera to manage, it was difficult for someone coming off 2D gaming to gauge depth. I also found the repetition of environments and tropical aesthetic tiresome. As far as 3D platformers went, I much preferred Sly Cooper's exploits.

I eventually got around to trying Mario 64. By an odd stroke of luck I acquired it for the DS and N64 on the very same day. I gave the N64 version a shot, decided I'd rather play a newer game at home and save Mario 64 DS for being out and about. From the little I gleaned of the N64 version the analogue stick helped, but didn't make the game. Ultimately, I found Mario 64 DS to be a step up from Sunshine in terms of variety and creativity, but still awkward to control and not nearly as much fun as its 2D ancestors.

So it should come as no surprise that I wasn't all that excited for Super Mario Galaxy. The use of motion controls were still novel and I was curious to see them implemented by the big N itself, but otherwise I was expecting a pretty good albeit unrevolutionary 3D platformer. I couldn't have been more wrong.

What changed my mind, you ask? Well, it wasn't any one thing, but a variety. Capturing star bits with the Wiimote pointer while otherwise controlling Mario with the analogue stick was a neat addition, as I felt like I always had something to do even when backtracking. I admired its unique spin on gravity and how it downplayed traditional platforming in lieu of spinning and interacting with the environment. Mostly, I loved how much variety it had on display with multiple objectives in the same galaxy taking you to wildly different places. I could go on and on, but others have sung its praises endlessly in reviews all across Metacritic. The point is that it gave me the sense of wonder and excitement that most people had for Mario 64 that I probably would have shared had I been into games at the time.

That being said, I was skeptical of Super Mario Galaxy 2. It had only been 2.5 years, and the trailer looked like more of the same. And in many ways it is. My initial reaction was underwhelmed. There was nothing wrong about it per se, but they set the bar so high two years prior that I'd already expected excellence. It had to go beyond that.

Eventually it did. There were more novel ideas thrown out faster than Yoshi after eating a flaming hot pepper and I found myself hopelessly addicted to collecting stars in a way I hadn't been since the last Galaxy. But where this one positions itself superior is in its lasting value. Just when I'd achieved 120 stars another 120 hidden ones opened up. One gripe- I wish these had been there the whole time as replaying earlier missions isn't always that exciting. Still, the great thing about the hidden stars is that they encourage you to explore each level to its fullest, often achieving tricks you never thought possible. It's a wonderful reward and certainly more fun that simply unlocking Luigi (who's also in this one and unlocked much earlier on).

SMG2 may not have stirred my imagination quite the same way as its predecessor did a couple years back, but it doesn't matter. It tapped into my OCD in a way that most games attempt to, but fail miserably at. If I'm not consistently making progress, being challenged, and discovering new things, I move on to something else. SMG2 has it's flaws (the swimming and repetition of the Bowser boss battle is a particularly irritating flaw as it's been true of almost every 3D Mario game, yet never been fixed) but it understands pacing perfectly making it my favorite game of 2010 so far.

Oh, and here's what I've written over the past couple months...

Nier Review- I liked the game a lot and meant to write on it more. Perhaps I will...

Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition Review- I didn't like this one as much, but it had its own charms.

Challenging Conventions# 12 Anticlimax is the New Climax- Games the buck the status quo of ramping up their difficulty for the endgame.

Challenging Conventions# 13 Graphics So Bad They're Good- An analysis of some games where the poor graphics actually enhance the experience.

Challenging Conventions# 14- A look at poor writing in otherwise great games and how at the end of the day fun is fun. But that won't stop me from asking for more.

Challenging Conventions# 15 What's the Hurry?- A look at fast-travel and how it can at times be detrimental to immersion.

Note: I previously believed Challenging Conventions# 14 to not exist as it wasn't showing up in the TGR search engine. Turns out the editor abbreviated it CC and it was nearly lost to the ether. Somehow I didn't remember writing it and thought I'd miscounted. I'm glad it's back and in its full glory.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Still Alive

After a several month hiatus, I'm bringing the blog back. It's been fun living my life, enjoying time with my beautiful girlfriend and all, but after awhile I started to feel like I wasn't contributing enough to the game space, instead squandering my (admittedly long-winded) thoughts to cryptic messages on twitter. To which I say, nay to 140 character limit. This is my space to unwind my thoughts. If not, what am I paying $15 a year on this domain name for?

I can't promise I'll update this often, but I'll try. I think the problem I was running into before was that I was saving my best ideas for published articles and worried I'd squander them here where I'm not getting paid, they're not getting published, and fewer people would see them. Furthermore, I was stressing too much over my other articles so the thought of writing in my free time sounded extra stressful. But one of the greatest advantages of a blog is that you don't have to worry what other people think or if your current article is making the grade. So here I'm just going to throw out random thoughts I have that maybe don't fit into other articles, yet still cycle through my head whenever such topics are broached.

So, without further ado, here's some links to stuff I've written followed by (drumroll please) a new entry!

Challenging Conventions# 10 How Bioshock 2 deals with Fatherhood Better than Heavy Rain

Challenging Conventions# 11 Playing Hard to Get- My take on Pixel's decision to make so much of Cave Story's best content an obscure secret.

The game I'm loving more than anything on the planet right now is God Hand. Yes, it's over 3 years old, on the PS2, has terrible graphics (even for its day) and scored mediocre critical reception. But I don't care. I love it.

Why do I love it? That question is a bit more complicated. Firstly, the game is extraordinarily fun. With all my highfalutin musings on innovation and narrative, at the end of the day, I mostly just want to have fun. At least that's where I'm at right now. Maybe by summer I'll be bored of fun and want something heady again. But I digress. Right now I just want to kick some ass and zone out on something that dazzles my mind and reflexes. And when I say mind, I mean that I'm constantly thinking while playing. Combat is a puzzle, in a sense. It takes quick thinking coupled with reflexes, contrary to the cliche that action games are mindless. It's rather that the type of mental engagement they provide is fleeting. It's not going to change my outlook on life or anything, but when I'm punching dudes and spanking women, I'm certainly not thinking about anything else. And there's a lot of value in that. It's meditative.

But this is true of any action game. What makes God Hand special is just how unique it is. The controls are just plain weird. Instead of learning new combos, you build them by buying moves and setting up your own. In essence, you get to write your very own symphony of destruction. It's a wonder why this idea of creating one's move set never caught on with other action games beyond simple weapon switching.

Character movement is especially alien. The game utilizes RE4 style "tank" controls, where the main character can't strafe and the camera is always locked behind them. There's even a 180 degree spin move like RE4. This should come as no surprise as God Hand was directed by RE4 director, Shinji Mikami, who also created the very first Resident Evil back in the day. Say what you will about those games (personally, I hated RE0 so much that I never tried any of the other early titles, but loved RE4), but you can't deny their impact on the industry. I find it fascinating that after the critical and commercial success that RE4 was met with, Mikami followed it up with this, which in turn no one bought. While the controls are unusual to say the least, Mikami clearly had an original idea as to how a brawler should control, yet it was rejected because it didn't have a controllable camera, jump button, or lock-on- ya know, things that critics at some point decided all third-person action games should have. Admittedly, God Hand's controls do have their quirks, but I find it no harder to control than other action games of its ilk (and indeed easier than the God of War series with its long, unbreakable attack animations) and it just feels so refreshing after years of god of War and DMC clones.

The game isn't deep at all, the story makes no sense, the dialogue waffles between hilarious to cringe worthy, but the sheer madness of it all combined with such excellent combat have made it my go-to game for the past few days. Mikami has said that he made the game just for him and since it failed commercially, he's trying to make his next game, Vanquish, appeal more to Western audiences. I can't say how much it hurts me to hear him say that. Then again, RE4 was a more Western direction for that series and it worked splendidly, so there's no reason to give up hope yet. I just hope he doesn't sell his soul in the process, because God Hand, it's nothing but soul.

Friday, March 12, 2010

More Things I've Written

Holy crap it's been a long time since I updated this thing. I was going to post a series of plot holes I noticed from Heavy Rain, but then read at least three other articles doing the same, covering largely the same ground. So instead I'm just going to archive some stuff I've written over the past two months. If you enjoyed my earlier Jumping Moustache editorials, check out the Challenging Conventions columns. Don't tell Sinan (TGR features editor), but they're basically my excuse to have a published blog on topics I would have written about anyway.

No More Heroes 2 Review

Endless Ocean 2 Review

Challenging Conventions# 6: The Likable, Mass-Murdering Hero- On less lethal alternatives for action-adventure games that don't break character.

Challenging Conventions# 7: Taking Stock of Mass Effect 2- The pros and cons to Bioware's more streamlined approach and what it means for the industry.

Challenging Conventions# 8: The Transparency of Mass Effect 2- Seriously people, Mass Effect 2 is NOT the greatest game ever. Though it is very good. Here's some things I found not-so-good about it. Not nitpicking so much as giving constructive criticism. It worries me when a game like this gets praised to the heavens, as I fear that its legacy of flaws will live on in the game industry under the philosophy of "Mass Effect 2 did it, so it must be good."

Challenging Conventions# 9: Heavy Rain fails to Understand what Interactive Drama Means- I did not like Heavy Rain. I did not like it for a multitude of reasons (as seen in my review). This article, however, focuses entirely on the design aspects and how Cage drops the ball on making the interactions meaningful.

Otherwise I've been playing a lot of Demon's Souls. It took awhile to really "click" with me, but it now might be my favorite game from last year. No, really. More on that later...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Challenging Conventions Retrospective

I've been doing a rather poor job of keeping up with this blog, but figured this would be a good time to link to my most recent Challenging Conventions columns as let's face it, wading through the TGR archives can be cumbersome at best. Thankfully, I am here to provide the necessary links. In this case, at the end of the great year that was 2009, I wrote about my three favorite games of that year in a row. Lucky me!

Here's a piece on Uncharted 2, and why its pacing makes it such an unusual and memorable game.

And this column is about Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and why it's lack of "gameyness" makes it all the stronger at conveying its meaning.

And finally, my take on The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, and why I love it, but also why many will not.

Hope you like them, and happy New Year!