30 November, 2007

Game Buying Decisions

I got to the end of writing this article and decided that one of the last points in it was so good it needed to be at the start.

And in big letters.

Every Purchase is a Gamble

We now return you to your regularly scheduled stream of consciousness, already in progress.

If you're interested in a game, play a demo. Sure, demos have their own limitations as they may only show off the best environments and gameplay may turn to crap in the late game (Half-Life 1?), but you can get a feel for the vast majority of games from their demos. If there's no demo, well, consider that your first warning. Why is there no demo? There are usually two reasons, schedule pressure so severe that there isn't time for a demo and / or the publisher knows the game is so bad that a demo would hurt sales. Neither reason is good as schedule pressure often results in games that are almost really good, but have those few hindrances that make them super annoying. (Mass Effect?)

But you're still interested. The game's from a franchise you love. Previews are looking awesome. RED FLAG! Previews always look awesome. That's their job. If the preview didn't look awesome, the publisher wouldn't have released it. Movie trailers are the same way. Only a movie or game that's complete garbage can fail to produce an awesome trailer. But what about gameplay videos, you say? That's not much different than a trailer, really. It's the best environments and often played by an amazingly skilled game tester showing off the flashiest moves.

But you're still interested. Great. Wait. About a week after the game's been out, hit metacritic or rotten tomatoes (but maybe not game rankings as they're owned by the same folks who fired Jeff Gerstmann) to see what the critics think. Hit the boards to see if the opinions there seem to be in line with the scores. If you really know your tastes, make sure they're addressed. I've seen people (after a few pages of other people's opinions) bring up specific questions to be sure their pet peeves aren't going to ruin a game for them.

If you're really lucky, you'll be able to find that one reviewer that you always agree with who gets a review copy in advance and can tell you the day the game comes out whether you'll like it. If so, great! But for the most part, you're much safer looking at the aggregate. It's harder to bribe and doesn't care if one reviewer had a bad day when reviewing the game.

At the end of the day, you're making a purchase, not just with your money, but with the play time you're expecting to put into the game. If two minutes on metacritic and one hour of checking the boards is too much trouble for the $60 and ten hours of your life you expect to spend playing the thing, well, you have only yourself to blame.

But my friends will be playing it immediately! Spoilers will be everywhere! Hey. I feel you. I don't play most games until months or years after they come out, so I've had a lot of stuff spoiled. But most reviewers and boards are pretty sensitive about trying not to spoil the game during the first week or so (and many sites even beyond that).

It's just a question of priorities. Do you value your money and time, or the "freshness"? If you can look that $60 in the face and say, I am willing to throw you away because I'm so sure I need to have this experience fresh, go for it! Good luck! Just remember not to let your desperation for that imagined killer experience and despair over the $60 you no longer have turn into anger, at anyone but yourself. You took a gamble you knew wasn't 100%. You lost. It happens. That's what life's about.

Sure you can vent by bitching about the misleading previews, trailers, demos, etc. But that's what they're there for, to excite you into buying the sizzle without knowing if there ever really was a steak. Just realize that you're essentially saying you were too ignorant or impatient to see past the industry standard lies. But then, if these unflattering words describe you, you're most people (or advertising wouldn't work), so maybe I should shut up before you form an internet mob and stab me with your internet pitchforks.

Jeff Gerstmann Was Fired

Penny Arcade basically broke the story with a comic, then followed up with a blog post saying that Eidos pulled a bunch of advertising after Jeff's review (or more specifically because of it's tone as he gave one of their games basically the same low score it's getting everywhere else), causing CNET (which owns GameSpot, where Jeff has worked for the last eleven years) to fire Jeff. Reading the fallout on the boards has been interesting. There are a few things we should keep in mind.

Any business is people.
Any "big game review site" is people. The people that make and promote the games they review pay for the reviewers' health care, mortages, homes, vacations, etc. Essentially, the game publishers own any business that covers games, effectively turning them into a PR arm of the industry. Now smart businesses that cover games know that their credibility is the only reason their sites are worth the hard disk space they take on the server and will take a short term hit. But businesses are only people, so CNET assumes no one will notice or care about them firing their senior editor and pulling the video form of his review to appease an advertiser. People are stupid.

There's no such thing as an objective review.
A distressing amount of talk on the boards centers on whether this and other reviews Jeff wrote meant he deserved to be fired, and on whether his reviews were objective enough. Just to have it on record, anyone who believes a reviewer should be fired over a single review has lost their place at the table, as far as I'm concerned. (Goes back to check whether he called for the firing of the reviewer who sucked at God Hand. Whew.) But the idea that a review can be objective needs to be crushed. No one is objective. Everyone has biases based on their previous experiences.

What's at stake here is integrity.
Eidos obviously has none because they pulled their ads, equating dollars to favorable reviews, so reviews of their products can't be trusted. GameSpot reviews cannot be trusted now because all the people doing reviews there know with perfect clarity that their livelihood rests on their review not offending the PR people at the publisher. This goes back to CNET being composed of stupid people. People who watch this sort of thing will now tell all of their friends to start reading 1UP instead. I hate their layout, but they're more trustworthy. But when the money gets big, the pressure gets big, and we probably won't even reach the next console generation before 1UP has some scandal of its own. So what do you, as a game buyer, do?

25 November, 2007

My Gaming Life (what I'm playing between SMG)

Where to begin... You know, if I thought anybody actually read these, I'd probably write an outline, organize it, and know exactly where I was going to begin. Meh.

I just finished watching "Anachronox: The Movie", which is basically all the cinemas from Anachronox strung together. It's over two hours, so I had put it off and forgotten about it, but a thread on the PA boards reminded me. By Hollywood standards, it's still not a great movie. There are a lot of bits that aren't explained in the cinemas, and the pacing is often slow, which is to be expected as cinemas are usually a rest between combat sessions. Regardless, the imagination that went into the story and characters was impressive, and I'm glad I finally saw it.

On the actual gaming front, Super Mario Galaxy dominates, even though I'm barely playing. No matter what else I'm playing, I'm essentially just making time until I feel just right to play Galaxy. When I play Galaxy I want to clear a hub, getting every possible star. I also don't want to clear more than one hub at a time, lest I spoil the experience by getting burned out. Also, I want to be feeling good in general. Considering these circumstances don't come together very often, it's not surprising that I've had Galaxy for a week and only cleared three hubs. So what have I learned in three hubs?

2D rules. The most amazing segments of Galaxy (the "I can't believe I'm doing this segments", as I believe they've been dubbed online) are essentially 2D overhead platforming. Sure the terrain curves away from you, but the basic concept could be done using an engine not much different from Tower Toppler (1987). What 3D allows is a greater sense of scale, and the ability to let the camera get a little bit off center, making the jumps appear much dicier than they really are. This lets the player feel like they're doing the impossible, when in fact they're pretty safe. Ingenious.

Back to the filler, I followed a couple links off of the free games thread on the PA boards and tried a couple games. The Last Stand is a side view game where you have to fight off zombies at night. During the day you choose how to allocate your 12 hours. You can repair your barricade, search for other survivors, and search for weapons. I find the game fairly easy, but still fun.

Then I checked out Desktop Tower Defense. Stephen Totilo (of the MTV Multiplayer blog and frequent N'Gai Croal sparring partner) said it was on his short list for game of the year. In a year with Galaxy, Halo 3, and a pile of other high profile games, that's a bold statement. It's probably also a reflection of his completist tendencies, as I beat the game on medium, beat it a couple more times until I had a score over 6000, then got bored.

While I was in the neighborhood I checked out The Fancy Pants Adventures. It's main claim to fame is some nice animation and special moves. But the environments are a little too sparse for an action game. If it was more puzzly, like Seiklus, maybe the relative emptiness would work better.

Finally I enjoyed Indestruct2Tank, a whimsical game where you score points by colliding your indestructible tank into enemy bombs, choppers, jets, and fuel trucks.

I also tried out Boxhead, Bowmaster: Prelude, and Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy, but didn't really get into any of them.

Back outside of flash games, I played through Gunstar Super Heroes on easy. Ordinarily, I wouldn't think of such a thing as I enjoyed the challenge of the original on the Genesis. But the game is so short they had to make it ludicrously challenging on normal. Plus you get kicked back to the title screen every time you die. No fun. Once I turned the difficulty down it was more fun, but too easy as I basically killed the final boss by just holding down the trigger. Meh.

In general, I hate playing action games on the tiny screen of a handheld. I'm too old, I guess. I even have a hard time getting myself to sit down with New Super Mario Brothers.

And finally, I overpayed for Zack & Wiki and have been playing through that. I say I overpayed because I was voting for good third party games for the Wii. I'm a cheap bastard and couldn't see paying more than $20 for my own personal enjoyment. Zack & Wiki is essentially an adventure game, but uses the Wiimote to make the puzzles more interactive. I do not appreciate the trial and error gameplay of some levels, but overall I'm enjoying myself so far (working on the lava hub).

See? This is what happens when you give me free time. :P

21 November, 2007

Review: Freedom Force vs The 3rd Reich

After all the gloom and doom of my scary October games, I decided it was time for something a bit more buoyant in tone. Freedom Force vs The 3rd Reich (2005) is a super hero strategy game. FF3R is a little less silly than I remember the original Freedom Force being, but it's still people running around in spandex, hitting bad guys with telephone poles.


The basic interface is like any RTS. You click on you hero to select them. You right click on characters, objects, and terrain to get a menu of actions your selected hero can perform on them. Unfortunately this simplicity means there are a lot of things you can't do. You can't melee a flying character even if they're right next to you (or even if you are also flying). You can't tell your flyers how high to be except by flying them over something that puts them at the height you want. You can't always queue actions, so if your hero is finishing a power you may have to wait for the animation to finish before you can tell them what to do next. These are all minor gripes, but they add up to make the game feel kind of low rent.

The strategy of the game comes in choosing which heroes to send on the mission, deciding which of their abilities to use, and prioritizing threats and targets. These are a few of my favorite things and experimenting with different heroes and their powers was almost always rewarding. The only problem was that I wasn't always allowed to choose my team. I understand you have a plot you want to push through by having certain characters interact. But which is more important, your plot or my fun?


FF3R is cheesy, flamboyant, and over the top. As such, I'm not sure if you can really critique the theatrics. They're supposed to be bad. Still, some of the voices are bad in the wrong way and sound like some developers got on the mic that probably shouldn't have. Try marketing and sales people instead. :) Or just hit up your local community theaters. Folks like Jen Taylor work absurdly cheap. :P

The plotting, when it wasn't getting in my way, was good. The big dilemma of the endgame made me want to keep playing past my bedtime, knowing I should stop but wanting to see what would happen next.


The game looks decent, with a simple cartoony design. When you've got a lot going on (and bother to pause so that you can bring the camera down and look at it close up) it can be downright impressive.

The sound design is also well done with lots of crashes, booms, and weird energy sounds. The way some of the sounds loop while the game is paused might not have been the best choice, though. :P

One of the coolest things about the original FF was how moddable it was. The customization options in FF3R are not nearly as good as the ones in the original, but I still managed to find a model that looked enough like a super me (after adding a little facial hair) to make the self-insertion Mary Sue I always wanted. :)

Thanks to Alex's Freedom Fortress for the resource collating web site, Courtnall6 for the amazing skins, Gni for making the mesh, and Italpornstar for having them make a hero with hair. (And after all that, it still doesn't really look like me. :)

Here I am kicking a guard off a guard tower. Super Me rules.

Final Score
3 out of 5

12 November, 2007

My Gaming Life (free MMOs and this great year in games)

Hey kids. It's been a while. Why so long? Mostly because I've been playing Hellgate: London. It's essentially an action RPG, so it's not just a wham bam. I'm thinking I'll have to go play Episode 2 again once I'm done. I've been away from its goodness for too long now. (That reminds me, watch your Black Friday ads. I heard someone out there is selling The Orange Box for $25!)

Also, I did spend one day on a little gaming experiment. There was a thread on the Penny Arcade forums about free MMOs. I hate MMOs, but I figured for free I could take a look at a couple. I checked out Acclaim's Nine Dragons kung fu MMO. It's okay. The concept of hiding some of the grind behind the convention of kung fu training makes it a bit more palatable. The game also has some pretty fancy graphics (nice water) for a free game. I also tried out Lunia, a SNES style MMO. You zip through a level with random people of your level beating up bad guys. You could call it Secret of Mana MMO, or something similar. It didn't recognize my gamepad, though, and playing on the keyboard was frustrating.

In the news of the world, Super Mario Galaxy is out. I don't pay full price for consoles. But I wondered if I knew any solid way to get a Wii for about a minute when I listened to every podcast and web site heap the superlatives (and game of the year nominations) on SMG.

Let's quickly recap the highlights of the last three months in games:

Metroid Prime 3
The Orange Box
Quake Wars
Call of Duty 4
Halo 3
Rachet & Clank Future

And this week:
Super Mario Galaxy
Assassin's Creed

Even if I'm not personally hyped about every game on the list, it's still a huge year for games. And these are just the titles I follow. The last three months also saw the release of a lot of titles I respect (even if I don't play them).

Persona 3, Skate, Project Gotham Racing 4, and Guitar Hero 3 all hit in the last three months.

And guess what's coming out soon?

Unreal Tournament 3
Mass Effect
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Rock Band

Thank goodness Grand Theft Auto 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4 got pushed to next year, eh?

Anyway, back to Hellgate. I'm on the last chapter so I should have a review up by the end of the week.

08 November, 2007

Review: Hellgate: London

Hellgate: London (HGL) is an action game from many of the makers of Diablo. Like Diablo, it can be played online with a small party (up to 5 people, including yourself).



To me, that is the Hellgate experience. I happened across a message board post that mentioned that the /stuck command will get you out of trouble if you get hung up in the scenery. I probably used it at least once every time I played. HGL is buggy as all get out. In fact, I couldn't finish it because the final quest is bugged. I've since been on the forums and seen a workaround, but I'm not going to bother. This game simply shipped too soon.

That said, I actually enjoyed myself, mostly. But I don't know if that's really because I like Hellgate, or despise WoW. A lot of people were comparing the two, and that probably made me like Hellgate more than it deserves.

Hellgate does have a lot of variety. Your choice of class, skills, gear, and weapon loadouts lets you experiment and play many different ways. A certain weapon and skill combo allowed my evoker (magic user) to tank a boss and his four giant friends. Figuring out strategies like that is very satisfying.

There's also enough variety in the enemies to keep combat interesting. And you're usually fighting mixed groups, switching strategies on the fly as the situation changes.

Grouping is also pretty cool in the game. You get more monsters, more types of monsters, and more rare monsters (which are more powerful and drop better loot) in a group. But again, bugs rear their ugly head as the "auto party" function in the game appears to have no actual function. If I hadn't been hanging out on the Penny Arcade Ventrilo server, I probably would never have partied at all. Of course, you get so much trash loot in the game that you're always waiting for someone to "play Tetris", rearranging their loot and breaking some of it down into parts which can be used to upgrade other pieces. Oh, and subscribers and non-subscribers often can't see each other when they're in a group. Feh.


The cinema that starts the game is good. The NPCs are reasonably well defined, but largely forgettable. I've heard the cinemas at the end are really good too. I may never know.


The game looks pretty good.

Providing the textures actually load.

And the clipping volume (the thing that determines where the ground is) isn't borked.

There are plenty of nice particle effects, and the sound work is good. You can even hear what quality of loot dropped by the sound. There are problems with some of the effects going off unrelated to your attack. Sometimes I would see and hear shooting but no damage being done or vice versa.

Final Score
3 out of 5