21 December, 2008

Game Journal: Persona 4

GAME JOURNALS CONTAIN SPOILERS. DEAL WITH IT PINK BOY.

I started a new game on easy. It's still not giving me what I want. The game has an anti-grinding mechanic where you get less XP as you level. But my personas also get less XP. Which means I can only raise so many of them. And not knowing which ones have the cool skills later on, this puts me right back in the "game designed to sell strategy guides" dilemma. I just wanted to discover the cool powers on my own, then make interesting decisions about how to mix and match them. That's allegedly the draw of the game, but apparently it doesn't work that way.

I actually went to check the local Game Crazy to see if they had the guide so I could just get it over with. They didn't, so now I'm looking at gigantic tables of text on GameFAQs. Why can't everyone just learn to use MySQL and upload databases so I can run queries to get the data I want?

I'm just sayin'. It'd be easier.

For me.

20 December, 2008

Game Journal: Persona 4

Blah, blah, blah. Spoilers. Oh fine.

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR PERSONA 4

As is not uncommon with me, I both love and hate Persona 4.

The game itself has two parts. I love and hate both.

I mostly hate the combat. Ever since I learned that I had to max out my Slime persona to get a key ability for a bonus boss, I've been trying to compulsively level everything, lest I miss a key power. So that makes the game grindy enough that I hate it. I suppose I could get a FAQ and just cultivate what I know I'll actually need. But that, to me, is the same things as just removing the combat element from the game entirely. There's no discovery. But so far the discovery aspect of the game has been absolutely no fun, so maybe that's for the best.

All the mechanics of the game seem obfuscated, but in a way designed to sell strategy guides, not to provide the player with any joy of discovery.

The social sim part is closer to fifty fifty. It still has ridiculous genre tropes. It takes an entire afternoon to turn in certain quests and not others. It takes an entire afternoon to get a toy from a vending machine. If your courage stat hasn't been raised enough, you can't choose certain dialog choices. And on and on and on.

But when it works well, it's interesting characters who actually develop. Yukiko was being groomed to take over the family hotel. But her experiences have made her decide that she needs her own life, and she's planning to move away now. Kanji was the town bad boy, but he's really just misunderstood and surprisingly down to earth. If the kids who were into sports at the schools I went to were half as personable as Daisuke and Jou, I might actually have played, or at least gone to games. And as cliche as her story may be, I wasted many afternoons I could have spent with my friends helping Ayane practice trombone for the big recital. Even when I didn't get any more upgrades to the Sun Arcana and she stopped talking to me after practice I went. But I'm sick of it now.

I want to collect all the pokemons and mix and match them. And I want to see where all the stories go. But grinding is boring and the social part of the game plays at its own pace, which often leaves me hanging for no good reason. It's a game that doesn't want to be played. Not by me, anyway.

Keepalive: Rachet & Clank: Going Commando, Persona 4

I played it again. It still pretty much rocks. It's too easy with my uberweapons though. I'll need to start with the beginning weapons again when I inevitably play it through a fifth time.

I'm also playing Persona 4. It's an RPG, which I don't generally play anymore because they take too long. It's also something of a social sim about being a high school student in modern rural Japan. I should have played on easy, as normal is kind of a pain, but I'm a third of a way in (if the game is 100 hours as advertised) and don't really fancy starting over.

Expect a journal entry soon. Possibly as quickly as I can write it after I press the publish button on this post.

Impressions: Space Rangers 2

It's the holidays. It's a lazy time. And for the most part, I'm playing console games which provide no screen shots. Maybe someday I'll get a video capture device. But when I say maybe, I mean I have no intention. And by someday, I mean never.

I was killing a fair amount of time with one PC game, Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators. But that was mostly just because it was on sale for $4 and I was bored. I'd heard it was reminiscent of Star Control, but StarCon 2 is still the best in the genre by a number of parsecs. For one thing, the combat is turn based. This could be seen as a plus as it allows for much bigger battles.

But said battles are really big piles of randomness. If three bad guys decide they don't like you, you're toast. It's more about picking off the weak ones from the edges and scavenging what the bad guys drop and watching the tide of the battle so you run away just at the right time. I can't tell you how many times I jumped out of a system with enough missiles chasing me to destroy my ship twice over. Theoretically I was earning experience and making enough money by selling wreckage to maintain my ship. But it was so slow I lost all interest in sticking with it.

The text adventures I got by running errands for the "smart" race of aliens were easily the best parts of the game. But the game was originally in Russian and it shows, with many small errors that occasionally made it difficult to choose intelligently.

Sid Meier said it before, and I will say it from now until I die. Games are about giving the player interesting choices. The combat pretty much entirely failed to do that, and the multiple choice text adventures just weren't enough to keep me wading through the combat.

Oh, and there was an RTS in there too which was so pointless and lame I would have liked the game better if it had been left out. Meh.

11 December, 2008

Review: Far Cry 2

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR FAR CRY 2

And here's a silly video. It's me playing FC2 while listening to a bizarre Christmas song. This is the heavily annotated version. NO TAILGATERS!


So, back to the business at hand. I enjoyed Far Cry 2. There were a lot of issues with the game that tarnished it. I was warned about some of them on various podcasts.

Don't swim if you can avoid it. If you get a malaria attack in the water, you drown.

Make sure to keep a "rescue buddy" primed, so if you go down, an AI buddy will rescue you and keep you from losing progress. There are quick saves, too. But they seem to crash the game for many people. I never quick saved. I never crashed. Of course, I was also playing a cracked executable. Cracked executables are often more stable than the retail releases. I'm assuming this is because copy protection code is often a last minute addition and doesn't play well with the game proper.

Do the bonus missions. When you get a job, a fellow mercenary will offer you a longer chain of missions. Some people hate these because they make the game take longer. But the more interesting objectives were the only thing that gave the game any amount of character and variety.

I also had my expectations kept low in the area of immersion. Everyone in Africa wants you dead. There are no civilians, outside of safe buildings. No matter which side you're helping, their foot soldiers shoot you on sight. No retreat. No surrender.

I was not prepared for the ridiculous ability of the AIs to shoot through foliage (and occasionally solid rock) with perfect accuracy. Luckily the game is pretty forgiving on normal difficulty, but it was still annoying.

I was also not prepared for all AIs to go on alert even if I kill someone silently and completely out of view. Stealth (even with the upgraded camo outfit) is largely broken because of this.

Yeah, there are a lot of annoyances. But the simple fun of shooting guys basically works. Getting the high ground and cleaning out an outpost with a sniper rifle and running in with a machine gun and mowing everyone down both have their merits. And the game is pretty scenic.





I also found the moral issues the game raised at least somewhat interesting. The basic plot (Remember the spoiler warning?) is that you're a CIA agent sent to kill another rogue agent by infiltrating mercenary groups.

Immediately, you're taking on horrible missions. One side is making malaria medicine. The other side is afraid this will earn them money and good will, so you're tasked with taking out the facility. You're killing good people just because they helped "the wrong side".

In one of the key points in the story, you learn that you've been doublecrossed and you have to choose to save some civilians or your fellow mercs. I figured the mercs knew the risks, so I helped the civies. Later on, those mercs showed up to try and kill me. I played that section of the game twice.

The first time, I fought. I didn't want to, but they opened fire. The last one to go down was the guy I'd spent most of the second half of the game with. He was a crazy SOB. I didn't like him at first. But the situation had gotten so screwed up, I came to see his recklessness and general craziness as a reasonable response to an insane situation. We did piles of stupid stuff together. When the other mercs showed up, he told them we didn't need to fight. So there he is on the ground writhing.

That's a common animation for the AI buddies. If you leave them, they die. If you have spare medical supplies, you can save them. For a moment, I had a glimmer of hope. Sure, I had to kill all these morons, but if I saved him, maybe he might not come back as hostile. Maybe. So I went through the standard animation where I check for serious injuries before pulling out the needle. But no needle came up. Then the pistol came up. $%(@. I had no choice. The camera moves to look away as you pull the trigger.

It would have been pretty emotional if it had made any sense.

Then I reloaded the game and took a different tack. I just grabbed the suitcase full of diamonds they wanted and ran off. They never caught me. And they all lived.

Of course then the final mission forces the main character to kill himself, which makes not the slightest bit of sense, especially in my case, as I had remote bombs (called IEDs for maximum moral ambiguity) which I used to detonate the dynamite I was supposed to kill myself with. Of course, they failed to do anything because the dynamite was scripted to only explode when triggered by the suicide animation. Yet again, the game had the opportunity to provide a way out and a way for the player to feel they had choices that mattered. But no. They thought the message that the only way to deal with violent people is to kill them all was more important.

Maybe I'm talking myself out of the impression that I liked the game. :P

3 of 5

04 December, 2008

Keepalive: Ratchet & Clank

I played a little co-op Ratchet: Deadlocked, recently. It's hard to see with screens that small, so I figured I'd play some proper Ratchet & Clank. The first game is still good. Outstanding, really. The music rocks. The weapons are fun. The art is great. But the old fashioned controls, while very responsive, feel a little clunky. And the inability to access all of the weapons without diving into multiple menus limits the variety of fun. I barely touched the bomb glove, decoys, and half a dozen other weapons. And context sensitive gadget use was also a big improvement in the subsequent games.

It still felt better than the time I spent with the PS3 version at PAX. And that fact is still an unpleasant source of cognitive dissonance for me. Some day (not soon) I'll get a PS3 and play through that game.

02 December, 2008

General Disinterest

Yeah. I finished GTA: San Andreas, again. I'm still playing Titan Quest. I played an AI skirmish in Company of Heroes to see if that caught my interest. I'm in a slump.

Also, I haven't talked about the state of the industry in forever, mostly because I don't really care. Wii still sells. The 360 got a price cut and is supposedly destroying the PS3. The 360 started with a one year advantage and continues to increase the gap because the PS3 is too expensive for most people. I also heard (from Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter on the latest Bonus Round) that there are ten million people buying stuff online on the 360 with only one million buying stuff on the PlayStation Network.

Essentially, it's a non-competitive environment. Sure, Sony is denying 360 users the ability to stream Sony movies over Netflix, so there's still some kicking and screaming, but who cares?

People have been speculating about the next generation of consoles publicly for months. Wii HD is being posited for 2010. But I don't care. My Wii is collecting dust. Mad World, No More Heroes 2, and House of the Dead: Overkill are the only announced games I'm interested in. I might pick up Mario Strikers for some co-op if I could find it for $20 or less.

Four freaking games. I have already bought that many 360 games without even having the console. (One of them got canceled because Target promised more than they could deliver, but still.)

I have Far Cry 2 on order for PC. Amazon had a great deal. But I'm bored with it, and I haven't even played it yet. I've heard so much about how it does many things poorly and a few interesting things. It's like I'm playing it for school. Sigh.

25 November, 2008

Keepalive: Supreme Commander, GTA: San Andreas, Titan Quest, Left 4 Dead

Maybe it's a holiday slowdown. Maybe I'm just bored. Okay, I know I'm just bored. Supreme Commander was basically Total Annihilation 2. The original TA wasn't very fun in campaign mode, either. And what's worse, the scale of the game almost always assures that you can never see anything interesting going on. In fact, the best way to actually play the game is to zoom out far enough that the units just turn into icons. So Supreme Commander gives me nothing. :P

I've almost completed San Andreas for a second time. Las Vegas is done. The bank heist is done. I've got a foothold back in LA. Then it'll be nothing but sandbox and side missions. It'll be nice to take over LA again. My first playthrough (back on the PS2), I completed the turf wars, only to have my progress ripped away by the story and never got back to it. It just seemed like too much to do two times in a row. Now, I'm looking forward to it. Plus hijacking a plane in mid-air to the chorus of Toto's Hold The Line was pretty awesome. :)

The Titan Quest Sunday group is still going. We've just about caught up to where I got bored of the game and quit. I've missed a couple weekends, so I'm grinding with my healer. It's a pain, so I try to do it in short sessions. On the plus side, a couple nice swords dropped, so my lower level Warfare character freaking melts bad guys. I named her Ginsu, I believe after one of Wayne's old D&D characters, but that was long enough ago that I may be mistaken.

Finally, I'm feeling pretty done with Left 4 Dead. I've got a number of players in my friends list now, so if someone invites me to a game, I may join, but I've played through on advanced a few times, and most people (myself included) aren't good enough to play expert. The finales on expert are mostly just trying over and over until the tanks get stuck and go down easy combined with BS strategies like hiding in closets. It's not my idea of fun. And versus is often pretty terrible too with wildly unbalanced teams and general incompetence. Plus the losing side often bleeds people like crazy, making it even more imbalanced.

19 November, 2008

Game Journal: Left 4 Dead

I don't care for people. It's a blindness. There's a certain spark, a mix of empathy, passion, and thoughtfulness. And if they don't have it, I can't see them. They're empty shells. I hate myself for being near them.

I played Left 4 Dead's versus mode today.

At its best, I was working well with fun people. In one particular incident, I was playing a hunter and had pounced on a survivor who had gotten out of position. Life as a hunter is generally very short. And when I saw one of the other survivors heading my way, I figured my fun would soon be over. Instead, one of my fellow infected, playing a smoker, grabbed him with his tongue from a distance away.

And there we were. Me ripping into someone. Him strangling someone. It was our most excellent moment together, and we were on voice chat enjoying every second of it. There was another time where one smoker kept pulling a survivor off the same ledge, one they had to cross to progress. So their friends kept having to come back to save them. It must have been a nightmare for them. But we couldn't stop laughing. How long could we possibly keep doing it without them getting a clue?

WARNING: What follows is pure boomer bile.

At it's worst, I was wasting my time waiting for people to fail to organize games, or worse, trying to support people who didn't deserve to have me on their team.

If that sounds arrogant, you're paying attention. But when people play on difficulty levels they have no business playing on, trying to hog kills instead of work together, making jokes that aren't interesting enough to be called insipid, and just generally being worthless companions, my tolerance is completely spent. It takes all the restraint I have just to keep from shooting them in the back.

Seriously, there were games when every time one of them would run into my line of fire, I wanted to pretend that I hadn't anticipated it and mow them down. Or someone would say something so stupid or insulting that the only reaction that made any sense was to plug them between the eyes, then keep shooting them on the ground until they were out of the game. I only did that one time, and that was to a guy who was so dumb he thought that shooting me with his pistols was funny. #(*$ that guy. Right through the hole in his head.

People with no microphones (or who won't use them) suck. It's a team game. You will often see things the team needs to know about. There were some good players who would type out vital information. Of course, by the time it came up, we were already screwed. Then they would blame the team for not "listening". #%(& those people.

The people who only want to play as the bad guys suck. They immediately kill each other if they have to be the survivors so that the round ends and they can go back to having their fun. Hello? What about my fun? #*^% you.

Automated matchmaking sucks. Multiple times it puts us on servers running on calculators or gives one side of a versus match horrible connections.

The way I feel right now, (#&$ everyone. I need to sleep and regenerate my tolerance.

18 November, 2008

Keepalive: Left 4 Dead, GTA: San Andreas, Universe At War

Whew! I'm spent. Left 4 Dead released last night, and I've been through the game a few times. Co-op can be very taxing. Especially when certain people do not listen at all. But vallav had my back. It is so great to have someone you can depend on like that. Unlike the demo, where you'd only fight one tank in a map, there were many maps with two tanks, and some with three. If you get lucky, a tank gets stuck in the environment and dies. That is no fun. If you don't get lucky, a tank kills everyone. That is also no fun.

Actually, it's not always no fun. One time we were fighting on a building rooftop, with lots of levels. The tank smacked me. I went flying. I figured I was toast. But I managed to land on a twenty foot tall air conditioning unit on a lower level of the roof. Then a hunter (one of the other boss zombies) pounced on me and started tearing me up. I figured everyone else was too far away from me to help, so I was dead. As he was killing me, I could see that the tank was still intent on killing me and ripping up a huge piece of concrete to throw at me. That's going out in style friends.

Except, it didn't happen. That giant chunk of concrete killed the hunter, saving my life. Crazy.

So it released. It was a big event. I'm sick of it. I'll probably be back tomorrow. :)

I also played a bit more San Andreas. I got through the crazy desert missions and am now in Las Vegas. There's a big casino caper and the final, completely crazy mission to still do. I'm looking forward to it.

I also played through the first couple campaigns of Universe at War (an RTS by former Westwood people). I would have played through the third, but it sucked. It was the same fight over and over again. And even on easy, it was a pain. I'll just move on to Supreme Commander on GameTap. I'll probably also play SC on easy. I don't really enjoy most single player RTS campaigns. If it's anything like Total Annihilation, though, it will be glorious to watch.

15 November, 2008

Review: Brothers In Arms: Road to Hill 30

Sigh. I wanted to love Brothers In Arms like I loved Opposing Force and Blue Shift. But I don't. It tries hard to be respectful to the source material, to the men and the history. But it's obvious they couldn't realize their ambition. The voice acting is pretty good, but the direction is poor, making the characters seem wooden and fake.

Moreover, the AI is so broken that I can't take any of it seriously at all. I shot an enemy soldier who was standing in a corner, running in circles. I imagined him emitting Curly style whooping noises as I shot him. Also, my men would regularly stand in the open. I'm supposed to care about these men. They're supposed to be my family. But when they display no regard for self preservation that illusion doesn't work. Also, they frequently refuse to fire on targets they should have no problem firing on. Sometimes it's because they won't move three feet to the corner of a wall without explicit instructions. Sometimes it's because they're behind a wall that's scripted to be too tall to fire over, even though enemies on higher ground are clearly visible and shooting them.

There are other reality bending minutiae, like bullets coming out of guns at weird angles and AI that can shoot you with total accurately through obscuring foliage, that make it impossible to suspend disbelief. The sequel, Earned in Blood, fixes none of these things. Based on the review scores and limited podcast discussion I've heard, it sounds like the recently released third game in the series also doesn't work for most people.

And it's not just about the lack of "realism". The game is generally pretty frustrating to play, as well. Sometimes enemies spawn next to you and you're instantly dead. Sometimes unsuppressed enemies can hit you from super far away, further than you can suppress them from. Sometimes I found myself facing three enemy elements with only one friendly element backing me up. How do you pin three enemy elements to move up in those circumstances? You don't.

And as I've mentioned before, the fact that your troops only follow the shortest path between where they are and where you tell them to go means they have be treated like Amelia Bedelia, rather than combat veterans who know about fields of fire, using cover, etc. Also, giving the command I wanted to was often difficult to give. I'd be trying to point at a bad guy, but I'd get the movement cursor. A few times this meant my men broke cover and ran to their deaths when I wanted them to suppress a target. Essentially, the core mechanic is tedious and unreliable in a game that harshly penalizes mistakes.

As I said, I wanted to love this game. Gearbox is working on Aliens: Colonial Marines, and Borderlands, both sci-fi co-op games. I want them to be great. Based on Brothers In Arms, I'm no longer holding out much hope for those games.

Designers need to be monstrously ruthless about admitting what's broken and finding ways to fix it. I think the industry term is "killing your own babies". I'd like to believe that the people at Gearbox simply don't have the stomach for it. Because the only other options I can see are that they're oblivious to the game's flaws, or not capable of doing better. I'd prefer to think that they're simply "too nice" to make a great game.

3 of 5

11 November, 2008

Game Journal: Left 4 Dead

I keep trying to hate Left 4 Dead. I'm failing.

It's becoming a love / hate relationship.

I love shooting zombies. And this is the best zombie shooter ever. Zombies move with momentum and mass. If you bash one into another, they knock into each other and sometimes fall over. They jerk as you shoot them. If you have a really good gun they lose extremities. They blow up. They catch on fire and stumble around. If it was humans, it would be horrifyingly graphic. But since it's zombies it's superbly gratifying. Go figure.

And yeah, sometimes they get stuck in canned death animations that make it hard to tell when they're dead. And the fact that they fall right through you like ghosts can take you out of the moment, but these are standard game concessions.

I guess my main problem is that I hate having my success or failure rest in the hands of random people, or bad AI. (Seriously. Try taking down a Tank on Expert with only AI for backup.) The Penny Arcade beta group has a lot of good people, who are fun and don't suck. I would let fodder boy, Galaga Galaxian, or Carbon Fire guard my back any day of the week. But playing on public servers is a real crap shoot, and getting shot in the back or constantly having to go rescue someone who doesn't stay with the group gets old in a hurry.

I guess you could argue that I'm not deriving the appropriate pleasure from heroism. But if I have to save the same person repeatedly, I feel like I'm not helping. I'm enabling.

And of course everyone kills everyone else at the end of the second level because if you actually finish it you don't get any stats (like you do at the end of the first level), and you have to sit through the stupid "buy this game" movie. I COULDN'T BE PLAYING IT IF I HADN'T ALREADY BOUGHT IT!

Sigh. I want to love this game. I see many reasons to love this game. But I've played the two demo levels to death and it's time to knock it off. Back to World War II. Again.


But wait! What in the world could that be?


It's King Bill! Run!

09 November, 2008

Game Journal: Left 4 Dead

Things have improved some. A couple patches have added a server browser, so if people want to run private servers they can. It seems like a lot of people are still using the random matchmaking, though. It sucks to be in a really exciting part of the game and have the server admin kick everyone or have the server shut down with no warning. And verifying my cache files seems to have gotten rid of the purple checkerboards.

I'm still not sure about my purchase. The best part of it is playing with good players from the PA boards. But that was also the best part of playing Hellgate: London, which most people say is a horrible game. I probably should have stuck to TF2.

Still. It beats looking for work. :P

07 November, 2008

Game Journal: Left 4 Dead

Well, I've been through Left 4 Dead a few times now. If you keep trying long enough, you can eventually accidentally get on a good server. But you can never get on that server again, not on purpose anyway.

The difficulty is a little messed up, but that's to be expected from a game that's trying to provide dynamic difficulty. Hard is pretty easy. And Expert is crazy hard. One group I was in spent a couple hours trying to get through the second demo map on Expert. Of course, it didn't help that you start with whatever health you ended the last map with, so we always started wounded and had to waste time bandaging ourselves before we could start playing again. And fighting Tanks (giant bad guys) in the close quarters of the subway is almost 100% death. The winning strategy may be to play with one player always dead, as the game doesn't seem to spawn the worst baddies unless all four players are active.

Of course, this is all providing you're playing with competent players. Most people are used to standard FPS games and being the lone ranger. Going it alone gets you dead from the first boss you fight. But when you're together, you've just got a different problem.

Friendly fire is on in this game, and even when I wasn't playing with jerks who simply enjoyed killing each other, accidents were frequent. It's almost the best reason not to use a shotgun as one errant blast can knock a friendly out of the fight. But the best strategy is often to back yourself into a corner and kneel. That's pretty counterintuitive when facing a wave of ravenous undead. Most people run and jump and shoot like crazy.

And good luck if anyone in your group picks up a Molotov. Multiple times I found myself on my back, on fire, using my pistol to try and fend off burning zombies who were kicking me to death. It's fun the first time. :P

Overall, it's a pretty harrowing experience. And it only makes it worse that it's the same two maps over and over again. Returning to Brothers In Arms' hedgerow fighting will be like a picnic in an enchanted forest compared to this.

Also, I really don't see how this is a full price game. The online experience is sub par, and there are only four campaigns to play through. And I think you can only play two of those four with humans as the bad guys. And for all the supposed randomness, the encounters all just blur together after a while. I almost think I prefer the easier difficulties because they make boss attacks a change of pace. On Expert, you know there'll be another boss attack in about twenty seconds, so it's not really a surprise or very interesting. It's mostly just a grind.

Plus when I upgraded to the latest recommended video drivers, everything turned purple.


I think this is the first Valve purchase I've regretted.

06 November, 2008

Game Journal: Left 4 Dead

So far, the Left 4 Dead experience has left me unsatisfied. Single player works. But that's not really the point.

I managed to connect to one fellow Penny Arcade forum goers game, but even with a 100ms second ping (which is normally an okay ping), the zombies teleported all over the place as I was trying to shoot them. This lead to friendly fire and general confusion. And it crashed trying to load the second level. I tried to get into other people's games, but they were all reporting IP addresses from the far side of a router (192.168...), so they were unjoinable. Trying to start my own game, I was told that there are no dedidcated servers and I would have to host a LAN game. I'm amazed the other humans were able to move around at all. Or maybe they were instantly replaced with bots, and I didn't notice. Regardless, the netcode on PC seems pretty boned.

I thought this was a demo. It feels more like a beta. And with two weeks to the game's official release, that's cause for concern.

05 November, 2008

Keepalive: Left 4 Dead, GTA: San Andreas

The demo is pre-loading now. My understanding is that it won't actually unlock until 7AM, not midnight. Phooey.

It's probably worth mentioning that I rarely get on the hype train like this, but the beta for TF2 was super fun. The people in it were super happy to be in it and just generally crazy about the game. I'm guessing L4D will be the same. I am still a bit worried that I've overpaid. But it's Valve. They've earned it.

Staring at my Steam window so long, I got bored and clicked on GTA: San Andreas. Fake San Francisco is fun to drive in.

Keepalive: Brothers In Arms 1, Left 4 Dead

I'm playing Brothers In Arms 1 in small chunks. I've been lucky with recent missions, so it's not been frustrating. But I'm still apprehensive, so I don't play more than one map at a time. I'll probably be recording a video to give the flavor of the game soon.

But in the meantime, Steam is open. I'm staring at the line that says "Left 4 Dead (unreleased)". Staring. And staring. Twenty two hours or so until the preorder demo comes down the pipe. These are the times that try shallow men's souls.

04 November, 2008

Game Journal: Brothers In Arms 1

Yeah. Technically it's "Brothers In Arms: Road to Hill 30". But I'm not writing that every time.

BiA's a tactical shooter. Find the enemy. Pin them down. Flank and kill them. But it's rarely that simple.

Or maybe it's just me. But I feel like every time I move between cover without every nearby enemy suppressed, I must be doing it wrong. And, like SWAT 4, I don't ever want to lose a squad mate. But I always do. Sometimes they ignore grenades tossed next to them. Sometimes they stand next to enemy tanks I've dropped a grenade into. Sometimes they pathfind stupidly and wander in front of machine gun emplacements.

There are automatic checkpoints, but when I get kicked back for something that wasn't my fault, I get frustrated. I'm working harder here than I would in a standard FPS. So losing progress to stuff like that is more demoralizing.

My first experience in this game was in an internet cafe in Prague. I've just gotten past the point I left off at there. When the tanks come in, it's even easier to instantly lose the game. Enemy tanks will kill your men instantly, and if an enemy takes out your tank, you instantly lose the game.

I've got BiA 2 here. If the first one gets to be a pain, I may see if the sequel suits me better. The reviews on the third game (which came out last month) were pretty meh. In fact, taking a quick look at Game Rankings, it appears that the first game was the highest rated in the series.

Right now, though. Nothing satisfies. The gun combat is supposed to be gimped, and I accept that. But the tactical elements are also pretty gimped, and that's the core of the game. I mean, any time I tell my guys to put fire on a target, they stop moving, which means I have to manually step them up through cover while keeping the enemy suppressed. Plus I have to do all the flanking myself because I can't send them around anything. It's repetitive and dull and feels like work. Gearbox earned my eternal respect with their Half-Life add-ons and Doom deathmatch skills (or skillz, I can never remember the rule about when to use the "z"), but there's a good chance I just won't hang with BiA.

Dear Gearbox,
Please make Aliens and Borderlands super awesome co-op games.
Yours,
Blain

That reminds me... BiA could be a superb co-op game, but has only competitive multiplayer, which has it joining Republic Commando and Jericho as a Crime Against Co-op.

Here's a simple rule. If a game has the word "squad" on the box and has no co-op, the makers should die in a fire.

03 November, 2008

Keepalive: Jericho, Heart of Evil

So I've uploaded four of Jericho's five chapters (or acts or sections). I don't think I'm going to upload chapter five. It's mostly boss fights, and they're the type of boss fights that are only interesting the first time because once you know the trick, the execution is pretty straightforward.

The main thing the recording process has taught me is that it takes too long to upload these things on my connection. Only very special games will get that treatment, going forward.

Also, recording a game as a movie does introduce pacing problems. If you're playing, the game is hopefully keeping you engaged, thinking and decompressing, during travel time. But when it's just a video of someone else playing, there's no engagement.

I've toyed with the idea of editing out dull bits. But usually any given dull bit is me getting slightly lost then getting back on track, and the loss of continuity doesn't seem worth the seven seconds saved. But that was Jericho, which is super linear. Heart of Evil actually has levels I've gotten lost in for five minutes or more.

Game Journal / Review: Yakuza 2

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR YAKUZA 2

Oh wow. What an ending. I hated it and loved it at the same time. It was almost Metal Gear stupid. So the dead guy turns out to be alive and the mastermind behind a huge revenge which he never intended to go through with. Seriously? There were multiple cut scenes in the final section where I kept wishing SEGA'd just gone all the way and put the cast in full clown costumes. Only Metal Gear could have done it crazier.

The first game was melodrama. This one is just plain stupid. I mean, there's an "it was just a dream" segment and everything. Maybe that's part of Japanese culture I don't understand. But I think I'm done with the series. Much like Metal Gear, I respect it, but it's not for me.

Sure, there's nothing like it. Sure, the fighting is still decent. But I spent over thirty five hours on this game. And that's with significant FAQ usage. It's not like the next one will be shorter. Even the trailer SEGA showed at Tokyo Game Show was longer than I had patience for. Fifteen minutes? Seriously? I'm a guy who is literally sitting here in front of a computer, wasting his life blogging and gaming listening to podcasts, and I find that self indulgent. :P

Time to move on.

3 of 5

31 October, 2008

Keepalive: Jericho, Yakuza 2, Penny Arcade 2

I've put up a couple chapters of Jericho. It's not a long game, but the process of compressing and uploading the videos is very cumbersome. Also, I started to have frame rate issues, which I realized were because I was filling up the hard disk. Now that I've deleted the source movies, I'm back to a hundred gigs free, but I'm still thinking it's time to reformat.

I spent way too much time on my dumb hostess club. At least the host club experience was good for laughs. Outside of some bracelet, I've gotten nothing but wasted time to show for running a hostess club. Every menu takes too many button presses to get through. The time it takes to build up enough money to renovate the club while still paying enough bonuses to keep the hostesses happy is obscene. Now I realize that the reason there's a "dress up" game in Yakuza 3 is probably because you can trick out your hostesses. I respect the Japanese-ness of the game, but I don't want to pay money for it unless they've streamlined the process, and made it fun. When I finally got back to the game and got into a fight, it was like getting paroled.

I finished the second Penny Arcade game. I'm oddly detached from the experience. The combat system keeps me hopping what with active blocking, attacking, and putting in the many button presses required to pull off special attacks. Many things, which can scientifically be proven to be awesome happen over the course of the game. But, like the man said, "Science is not about your feelings", and my main feeling is apathy. Perhaps it's because the whole point of the first game was to beat down evil because it destroyed your house and was looking to destroy the world. The second game makes your homelessness a running gag, and I frequently lost sight of any overarching goal. Nothing felt new, and nothing mattered. 3 of 5

29 October, 2008

Keepalive: Jericho, Yakuza 2, Penny Arcade 2

For no good reason, I have started recording a playthrough of Jericho. I have not uploaded it yet. I mostly try to let the game speak for itself. I don't imagine anyone will actually want to watch it. My dialog isn't funny. The game is thoroughly profane. But the whole point of this blog is to get stuff out of my head, and doing a video playthrough of Jericho has been in my head for a very long time.

Next up will be Heart of Evil, the best Half-Life mod no one I have ever met actually played.

I haven't spent any more time on my hostess club in Yakuza 2. I started watching Justice League Unlimited and couldn't stop. But now it's over again, and I can get back to dealing with hostess squabbles, wallpaper choices, etc. I'm using the FAQ again, because I just want to burn through it, see if anything crazy and weird happens, then get back to the main game.

Episode 2 of the Penny Arcade game is out. It feels like a direct continuation of the old game, enough so that it's giving me the same deja vu as Yakuza 2, which is weird considering it was only few weeks between the Yakuzas and four months between the PA games, for me.

27 October, 2008

Keepalive: Titan Quest, Yakuza 2

I'm not playing Titan Quest single player now. I got bored again. But I'll still be around for our co-op festivals. I need to take some more video still, but here's a fun clip of us fighting a pile of rat men. Everyone glows. Everything explodes. Good deal.


There's also been some Yakuza 2. I resorted to GameFAQs to get through the host missions. It turns out they're just multiple choice quizzes where no kind of logic will get you to the right answers. Sometimes they can be figured out, but sometimes they just don't make sense. Maybe it's something lost in translation, but it's over now. On to... running a hostess club. Oy.

26 October, 2008

Game Journal: Yakuza 2

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR YAKUZA 2 (AND YAKUZA)

I'm very much enjoying Yakuza 2, although not for the love of the narrative espoused at The Brainy Gamer. That blog espouses. I blather. :) So let's blather.

My first impressions of the game were that it introduced many of the mechanics of the old game very quickly. Turning attacks. The shark based lock on system. (You have to move constantly for the lock to update.) Heat moves with QTEs. Dodges. Throws. I wonder if a newcomer wouldn't feel a tiny bit overwhelmed. Having played the original less than a month ago, I felt like I was playing almost the same game, even to the point that my cheapskate reflex was wondering why the game was worth essentially buying again. I got over it. A good experience is a good experience.

And the story does contribute. I'm not in love with it because it's not my genre. As much as the acting (voice and animation) is very good, and the story isn't a farce yet, I know the ending will be nuts. Heck, the ending of the first had the top of Tokyo's Millennium Tower exploding, and it's already exploded again in the first hour or so of the sequel. It exploded... again.

This is also Spinal Tap. :P

That said, the story does have a lot of well drawn characters. I knew from how many people figured out his "secret" in the first game that Terada was going to be an ineffectual clan leader, forcing Kazuma to return and save the Tojo. But that felt right. Kazuma didn't want to lead, and Terada was the only senior Yakuza in the story who wasn't crazy and was still alive at the end. Terada had also paid his dues in dangerous service to the Tojo, which Kazuma respected (even if it was disloyal to the Omi Clan and completely failed to fool anyone). Well, I can't really speak for Kazuma. But it's a very rare game where I would even begin to imagine that a character had a thought process that reflected their values and goals.

And as I'm catching up with so many different characters in the game, I'm appreciating what a diverse crowd they are. The homeless martial arts master. Majima's new business plan. Kage going straight (and wearing actual clothes). I'm loving how much they're underusing detective Date. He felt like the buddy cop that made the first game a buddy cop movie. But outside of a small role in the plot, and the information that his daughter is doing much better, he's barely been in the game. It's fun to anticipate him making a big entrance and having no idea what form it will take.

The new characters I'm not as attached to. There's a giant crazy guy in the Omi family who's taking the place of the giant crazy guy in the Tojo family from the first game. There's a lady cop who's also an orphan. For those keeping score, Kazuma and Haruka (the child he protects) are also both orphans. This feels like a somewhat blatant ploy to make her part of the gang, which was pretty unnecessary as she was already a badass lady cop. She spent most of the first part of the game being injured, but the one part of the game she has fought in was cool. She has some crazy leg around the throat grapple move that's fun to watch, and she can finish off bad guys on her own, which is also cool.

But it's really the insane stuff I still love. Readers may remember the first game introducing me to the concept of hostess and host clubs. Well, now they're called cabarets, apparently. And Kazuma is working as a host as part of a side mission to help out a host from Stardust (a club that helped him out in the first game) who's being scammed out of a lot of money by the club owner. This is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever done in a game, in no small part because it feels so ridiculously out of character for Kazuma. I know it gets worse in the Yakuza 3, with karaoke, dancing, and "hostess customization". But for now, between this absurdity and the "enormous police baton" fight, the game has absolutely fulfilled its stupidity quota.

That's enough blather. I've only got a few hours until Titan Quest, so I better get back to busting heads and selling the ladies overpriced drinks. ;)

25 October, 2008

Mini-LAN

We had a mini-LAN party last night. It was delightful. We played Zombie Master some more, and Nations at War, a mod for Battlefield 2 that makes the game fun. :) It is something of a pain to deal with super accurate shotgun bots, but it has so many fun toys it's really hard to complain. The silenced sniper rifle kills in one shot and can give precise targeting from a kilometer away. One class has a climbing rope that can be used to scale buildings or even mountains. The standard dune buggy comes with a minigun that can shred any vehicle lighter than a tank almost instantly. There is no limit to how long you can sprint for.

Basically, it's Battlefield 2 "Xtreme". And as a lover of fast paced games and weapons grade stupidity, it's right up my alley. It was weird, though. For once, people actually listened to me instead of all doing their own thing. With only five people versus 16 bots (with the aforementioned shotgun skills), we never managed to capture their final flag. And for the first time, I felt bad about that. Because people were actually doing what I asked, I felt responsible for the outcome. Since they never listened to me before, the soundness of my strategy never really mattered.

I keep going over the scenario in my head. Was there a way I could have moved forward faster, or was I doing as much as I could without getting reckless and having our thinly spread forces fall apart? Was I right to fight them down to a single flag with vehicles, or should I have allowed them to capture a less defensible site and tried to finish them there? All of these questions that were simply academic before suddenly mattered. And why was that? Was it because when my computer crashed we started losing badly, proving that I was worth listening to? Was it just a weird mood everyone was in? I don't know, but it put the game on another level, and made it much more interesting to play.

Zombie Master was still fun. That game runs on the players, though. If the person running the zombies is a jerk, they can almost always decimate the players. It's all about the interplay. Making the players feel challenged, but not overwhelmed, is very difficult. And sometimes personalities get in the way.

One guy murdered us all with the most powerful zombies in a confined space, giggling the whole time. So when I was in control, I pretty much murdered everyone too, because I wasn't having enough fun to want to entertain. And that's really what a good ZM is doing, providing a thrill ride for the players. That's what makes it a great game, and what makes it often not work. I wonder if Left 4 Dead will supplant it for our group?

24 October, 2008

Keepalive: Titan Quest, Jericho

I looted it up some more. I still have nothing profound to say about the game.

I set up it up so I can record myself talking over video games. My old headset was USB, so it couldn't be recorded at the same time as the game sound. And my relatively nice microphone picks up keystrokes, PC fans, and chair squeaks, so it was too distracting. I could have done post game recordings, but it's never the same.

Now that I've got the setup, which I've tested with Jericho, I'm not sure what I want to record. I went on YouTube and saw that someone else recorded a complete playthrough, in the past month. Plus a complete playthrough is overkill. I just want to share what I like about the game.

23 October, 2008

Only Entertainment

Part of the reason I haven't wanted to write a game journal about Titan Quest is because I'm still not sure if I'm happy to be playing it. And it's hard to separate real life guilt (where I should be spending more time looking for a job) from my grinding vertigo and concerns about virtual addiction.

Generally, I hate grinding. All games are grinds at some level, though. They all feature repetitive tasks. But in good games new moves or weapons or skills are frequently being introduced to keep things from getting stale. When things do get stale, it becomes very apparent that I'm in one of B.F. Skinners' operant conditioning chambers, being forced to press certain buttons over and over to get poorly spaced out rewards. I'm simply occupying my time, not enjoying it.

But do better spaced rewards and more varied sounds and lights make the experience any more valuable? It depends what you view as valuable. They make it more stimulating / engaging / entertaining. To the extent they may keep the mind and hands active, they might have some therapeutic benefits. It's better than TV. But it's still only entertainment.

I'm still specifically thinking about Jonathan Blow calling out World of Warcraft as fostering addiction. The anecdote I remember from Psych 101 was about animals and levers. If an animal gets a lever that always sends food down the chute, it presses it when it's hungry. If food coming down the chute has no relation to the lever, the animal loses interest in it. If the lever randomly causes food to come down the cute, the animal pulls it all day, just so see how much food it can get. You don't have to look any further than slot machines to see that the same principle applies to humans. Random payoffs foster addiction.

But all games are random payoffs. They're explorations. Usually they're literal exploration of a space. Always they're an exploration of mechanics and strategies.

So where's the line? It is repetition? If I find a group and learn my role to kill a boss in WoW, is that okay? But then it becomes bad if I do it twenty times until he drops the loot I wanted? Or is it the slowly ratcheting up of the amount of repetition over the course of the game that's somehow underhanded? Or is the fact that I had to make ties to a social structure to progress the dangerous part?

If that's the case, every team based FPS would be dangerous because clans will beat random players almost every time. There must be something else...

I just don't get it. A game's a game. A person chooses what they want and is responsible for those choices. If I have nothing I'd rather do than laugh and clap my hands, I don't think it's the magician's fault.


So, back to me wasting my life.

I'm farming loot in Titan Quest. I've currently got four characters I'm playing. In the original game, it sucked because one character would keep getting drops another could use and would have to sell them. But the expansion added a transfer ability, so now everyone has pretty nice gear, not to mention the stuff I've given away to my co-op group.

It's nice to finally be making gear choices instead of feeling like I'm always at the mercy of the Random Number Generator. As a result, the game's a lot easier, but then it becomes more about optimizing: picking targets, spending skill points, sorting loot; seeing how fast I can burn through an enemy camp.

Right now my rogue is having trouble with undead, who are immune to poison. I've tried to increase my trap laying skills to let the traps deal with them, but that takes too long. Meanwhile my warfare and storm magic characters are virtually unstoppable, regardless of the opposition. Their damage output is so high that even the most heavily armored enemies are little more than speed bumps. Is this a design flaw that undead are immune to the rogue's poison and bleeding damage, but no common enemy type is immune to normal damage or lightning? Possibly. I'll try to find a way around it (without dual classing, which feels like a cop out).

22 October, 2008

Game Journal: Titan Quest

I keep writing Titan Quest as "keepalive" entries. That's not really fair. If the game deserves my time, it deserves my attention. But it's late, so let's just ease into it with a nice easy gameplay video. There are a lot of audio-visual elements that go into giving the game a rich feel: lighting, sound, physics. Even though the video quality is pretty terrible, I recommend watching full screen to get as much of the effect as you can.



Here's the better quality version.

20 October, 2008

Game Journal: No More Heroes

No spoiler warning. To spoil a plot, the game would have to have one. :P

Seriously, the game is supposedly about a crazy loser becoming the world's greatest assassin so he can get in some gal's pants. It doesn't improve from there. There are false identities, a ghost, completely unexplained amnesia, back story so boring the game actually fast forwards through it... None of it has anything to do with the game. And what is the game?

It's an action game where you have to do chores to get back to the action. Seriously. To fight the next highest assassin, you have to do menial jobs like mowing lawns, pumping gas, and picking up trash. You can also do combat jobs to get more cash. Those were less terrible. But either way, you'll waste large amounts of time driving around Santa Destroy on your motorcycle.

At first I was into it. It's trying to establish a mood and a setting. Travis (the protagonist) is into anime and luchadors and super awkward around women. He's a joke. I'd go waste some time buying clothes he didn't need and doing odd jobs to pay for them. That's Travis. Of course he'd blow all his winnings on new pants then have to mow lots of lawns to get to the next fight. But it was too boring.

It's funny how feelings pivot. The open world stuff went from being charming to being a pointless grind, just like that. I guess that's partly because it was so irrelevant. A feeling is all it can give.

The combat was fine. Fighting the standard cannon fodder wasn't very involved, but if you like quick time events, you're in for a treat. I say that tongue in cheek as I know lots of gamers hate QTEs, but I don't mind them if they're done well. My favorite in NMH was running towards an opponent who was running at me and attacking just as he attacked, causing a clash event where I had to spin the Wiimote like I was turning a crank to win and behead the guy. Regardless, every finishing move in the game requires a quick flick of the control, and the wrestling moves require moving both the Wiimote and nunchuck, to vaguely approximate what Travis is doing.

And the variety in bosses was impressive. And there was only one of them that wasn't any fun to fight. This puts No More Heroes well ahead of most action games.

Overall, it was a fun experience, but I would never grind through the chores a second time.

Three out of five.

19 October, 2008

Keepalive: Titan Quest

Four player Titan Quest is deliciously insane. Tiberius will charge in with his sparkle trail and get the baddies riled up. Ozone will fight them as chase Tiberius back to us in a line. Once Ozone has built up a mob and has a giant glowing ring around him from his Onslaught ability, Justinius will fire off a giant wave of dream magic to hit them all. Usually a couple baddies break off for him, which he chain sleeps, and Tiberius picks off the casters so that Ozone doesn't take so much damage that I can't keep him standing. I will have to take some video recordings of our next outing.

We have a couple more people who are downloading the game to join us next time. Anyone who can make it to level twelve or thirteen (six hours or so of play) should be good to go. This is gonna be nuts.

Keepalive: Titan Quest, No More Heroes

Yay! It's Titan Quest Day!

I am furiously collecting more loot to share with my compatriots. Loot, loot, loot!

I'm having fun using my rogue, Knifey. He sucks against undead, but everything else dies like crazy from Xtreme Poison Damage. Often times he'll come up against four or five enemies and they'll all die from poison arrows before they can reach him. It's just so gratifying to see that last satyr wind up to strike you and collapse at your feet with a defeated grunt and clatter of falling loot. Will Diablo 3 be as fun?

I'm almost done with No More Heroes. The second to last boss sucked, as she was mostly a waiting game. It was back in Batman for the Genesis (which I imported for no apparent reason) that I identified bosses where you get so few openings to attack them and they're so easy to dodge that the main enemy is boredom. The next to last boss in NMH is such a boss.

I've been happy with the variety in the game so far, but I would have rather repeated an old boss than fight that one. Plus one of the boss' attacks instantly kills you, no matter how much health you've got, not matter how far into the fight you are, the very definition of bull#*$&. It's easy to avoid after that, but for a boss that takes so long, it's an arbitrary punishment to die to it even once.

18 October, 2008

Game Journal: Condemned

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS

I love that giant disclaimer. Reviews are so much easier without worrying about spoilers. They make the review useless for anyone who's actually thinking of playing the game, but that's not you! Life is grand, for you and me.

Life's not so grand in Condemned, or "Bum Fight 2000", at it's otherwise known. I beat up bums in an abandoned tenement. I beat up bums in an abandoned office building. I beat up bums in abandoned subway tunnels. I beat up bums in an abandoned department store. I beat up bums in an abandoned library. I beat up bums in an abandoned school. I beat up bums in an abandoned country house. It was a bad time for bums in abandoned places all around.

But they weren't all bums. By the end, they were mostly monsters. I guess some people hated the game for going all otherworldly, but the player has visions of the killer before the first bum fight, so it's not like they didn't foreshadow it well enough. As a fan of The Suffering, this made Condemned feel derivative, but derivative of something I liked better, which improved my enjoyment of it.

I am fully cognizant of how insane that is. But it's how I felt. Imagining that Condemned was some sort of prequel or side story that would eventually tie into The Suffering made the "crazy government experiments gone wrong" storyline and monstrous adversaries completely bearable.

And having given up on the combat, I was free to enjoy myself. There were still some annoying fights. But I could usually cheese my way through them with the tazer. The endgame forced me to get good with the light weapons, so I was a blocking fool. I still couldn't say if blocking was more effective than the contingency plan, but when it worked just right, and I took out three guys without a scratch, it felt good.

And actually, while the endgame did force me to use light weapons for a while, I actually decided to get good at them during the school section of the game, where I had frequent access to 2x4s with nails in them. Imagining every enemy using the voice of Harry Shearer to fearfully exclaim "He's got a board, with a nail in it" made me all warm inside.

I also enjoyed being attacked by mobs. Half the time, I only had to hit the one in front and watch as his wild counter attack turned everyone against each other while I just pointed and laughed. In some cases it was just ridiculous as one counter attack would start another counter and so on, making a maelstrom of idiocy. I wish they'd found a way to make the credits roll over an endless bum fight.

I'd give it a three. Out of five. I had a four's worth of fun, but only because I refused to take the game at all seriously. Careful readers will note that I gave Jericho a four and didn't take it at all seriously. But I enjoyed playing Jericho and didn't mind the ridiculous bits. In Condemned I had to invent ridiculous bits, or choose to find the bugs amusing to make my own fun.

Here's my favorite clipping bug in the game. This guy was on all fours, getting to his feet when I paddled his bum with my board with a nail in it.

So there's his body, head stuck in a door, with an unpleasant stain where I whacked him with the magic wand of tetanus.

"I have no problem spanking men."

17 October, 2008

Game Journal: Condemned

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS

I had heard that the blocking was borked going in. Now I know it first hand. The problem is that every weapon has basically the same block animation, but different blocking stats. So sometimes a block with a fire axe works, but mostly it doesn't, and it doesn't seem to have much, if anything, to do with my actions. It's more like there's just a percentage chance a block will work, and with a big weapon like a sledgehammer or fire axe, it's about 20%. It might be that the block on the big weapons only works at the very end of the animation, but that means the lead time is so long you'll already be hit by the time the block is up. But this is all moot because the whole point of blocking is to get your opponent off balance for a follow up hit, but the big weapons are so slow that the enemy has recovered by the time it's possible to follow up.

So stick to the lighter weapons, you say. What, and take more damage? Half the time, when you hit a guy, he does a counter attack. About half the time, this is an instant counter which, even with the lightest weapon I've used (the board with bolts in it), isn't blockable. Add in the somewhat unpredictable timing of enemy attacks, and how much longer it takes to make a guy go down with a weaker weapon, I generally take less damage just wading in with an axe, soaking up the hits.

Back in the day (Batman for the NES) we use to call this "the contingency plan". Just take the hit and get on with it. When the contingency plan becomes the safest plan, the risk / reward balance is upside down and the game design has failed. You could argue that the idea behind Condemned was that the player is always supposed to be taking hits to make the combat seem more vicious, but that's a failure as well, because I know there's always a med kit close by. There has to be if you're going to get injured in every fight. The design betrays itself.

It's still fun to taser guys and do the finishing moves. But outside of those cheap thrills and some cheap scares, the game doesn't offer much. The story falls squarely into the poorly written hard-boiled noir category along with Dead to Rights and Max Payne. At least Max Payne's writing was so deliberately awful it was campy. Condemned is just dull. And the environments are already beginning to feel painfully repetitive two hours into the game. And on top of all that, they added a collectathon where you're supposed to collect dead birds and license plates for some unspecified reward. Even that part of the game discourages the player. I collected five out of six birds in a level and got a bronze medal.

As much as this game discourages player participation, I'm kind of interested to see how it plays out. Could it possibly improve? That would be nice. Could it possibly have any more horrible game design choices to reveal? That would be impressive.

Keepalive: King Kong, Lego Batman Demo, Condemned

I did try a little King Kong after yesterday's post. It had some very nice moments, but now it's locking up. I don't understand it. After I installed the AMD Dual Core optimizer, the game ran great, even without setting it to run on only one core. What have I installed since Sept. 14 which would make it start locking up? Skype? MS Security fixes? That's the downside of PC gaming. Save early. Save often.

Heck the Lego Batman demo didn't even install, which I am personally grateful for. I played enough of it at PAX to know I didn't want to play any more. But I figured I should at least give it a shot. Now I've made the effort and don't have to touch a lego game ever again.

The first Lego Star Wars was great. It took the unbearable films and made them fun. The second Lego Star Wars was decent. It wasn't as good as the films, but there was still some nostalgia glow, and the gameplay wasn't broken. Lego Indy's was, and I'm guessing Lego Batman's is too. All the comments one of the developers made about "games for kids can still be good games" ring completely hollow to me.

It all comes down to defense. The Star Wars games allowed you to defend yourself. If you were a Jedi, you blocked with your saber, feeling clever if you could block at just the right time to send the shots back at your attackers. If you were a blaster character, you jammed on the button to dodge and return a little fire. It felt like you were working harder than the Jedi to get the same results, but that made sense. Jedis are awesome. If you were a non-combatant, you were either ignored or expected to dodge like crazy and still probably take hits because you were playing the wrong character.

Lego Indy and Batman don't have these things. Every character has to dodge like crazy and still takes hits. Other people don't seem to care because it's for kids and the penalty for death isn't too big. But for me, the simple but fair combat was the only thing the games had going for them. The platformer bits were often difficult to judge, and the puzzles were, at best, a nice animation to watch between fights. Take away the decent combat system, and there's really nothing to like about these games aside from watching Legos move about. They're exactly the kind of pretty nonsense that gave children's games a bad reputation in the first place.

Unfortunately, Condemned is looking like it's pretty nonsense for adults. But I'll save that for another post.

16 October, 2008

Keepalive: Jericho

So I was thinking about needing to do a video playthrough of Jericho and decided to fire the game up. I finished it again. I forgot it was that short. :) Of course it helped that I knew how to beat all the bosses already. And playing through on hard wasn't that hard, just annoying because when I got injured it took forever to heal which meant flashing red screen and panic breath looping for days. I also started playing King Kong again when it was maligned on some other blog, but it's a bit longer and far less diverse, setting-wise, so I got about halfway through and put it down again.

I always wonder about my opinions. I know some change with time. So when people whose opinions I respect (or am supposed to respect) have opposite impressions of a game, I tend to double check. Playing through Jericho again, I can still see all the cheesiness. But it's still camp, to me. I can still see how haters of quick time events would be up in arms over the half dozen or so over the course of the game. But they don't penalize you and are cool to watch.

If anything I actually enjoyed the game more. On hard some of the encounters are long enough to feel like battles rather than checkpoints. I also experimented more with different characters. After using Jones for nothing but the situations that require him my first playthrough, it turns out he kicks $*@. Legionaries used to be a hassle. With Jones, they're so easy I feel a little guilty when I kill them.

15 October, 2008

Keepalive: No More Heroes, Titan Quest, Condemned, Jericho

I'm pushing on in No More Heroes. It is a bit of a grind, but tolerable.

I keep spending time with Titan Quest, toying with builds and storing gift gear for the rest of the group. Sunday can't come fast enough.

I also spent a little time with the PC demo for Condemned. I don't get the feeling the game has much more to it than what's in the demo, but I got a used copy off of half.com just so I'd have something scary to play this October. I'm thinking about doing a video playthrough of Jericho, for it's one year anniversary. People hated that game, and while I can understand that it wasn't what they expected, it was fun. Maybe the controls were horrible on the consoles.

13 October, 2008

Keepalive: GTA San Andreas, TGS, Titan Quest, No More Heroes

I think I've got enough GTA in me to last a while now. I was bored enough with the regular game that I started taking trucker missions. That's bored, people.

It's also the double edged sword of being a completist. The drive to see everything sometimes keeps me playing (sometimes too much), but it also burns me out sometimes. I guess that makes it a triple edged sword?

The Tokyo Game Show was last week. From my vantage point, nothing happened. Yeah, technically Microsoft announced a new Halo game, but I stopped caring at Halo 2, and the Japanese audience they showed it to never cared about Halo to begin with.

They like Monster Hunter, so much so that there were hour long lines to demo the new version, on press only days. I can only imagine how long the line got when they let the public in.

For my part, there's been lots of monster hunting... in Titan Quest. I didn't realize you were supposed to play the expansion from the beginning. I'd been missing out on many graphical and game mechanic updates, not the least of which is a storage container to let me hold items for others without cluttering up my own inventory. It's very nice.

Our first group outing was last night. There were four of us. We killed lots of stuff. Well, they killed lots of stuff. I healed and occasionally shot a few shots from my staff (which steals enemy energy to give me more healsauce). The monsters have a lot more hit points in multiplayer, so if you're not built for doing damage, it takes forever to kill something. But that's not a bad thing.

Everyone gets their moment to shine. I managed to save group members with heals many times, including one time when we basically fought an entire enemy camp at once. It was a good thing I poured virtually every skill point I had into decreasing the cooldown of the healing spell. And the dream mage, who also does a bit less damage, has auras which reduce the damage we take and add fire damage to our attacks. He also saved me with some well timed crowd control, putting some bad guys to sleep who were about to clobber me. It was fun.

Last but not least, I've been playing No More Heroes. It's a deliberately kooky action game for the Wii. I bought it a long time ago, but it took buying a nicer battery charger for me to actually want to mess with the rechargeable batteries to play the thing. I don't like wireless controllers. The lack of cord is not worth the hassle of batteries. Then again, I don't have pets and children around to trip over them, injuring themselves and breaking things.

11 October, 2008

Game Journal: GTA San Andreas


This is CJ, after he bought some gang colors. There's a picture of him on the right which shows how he appears at the start of the game. This is his mother's house. The game begins when he comes home after his mom has died.


This is CJ's neighborhood. You can see the freeway to the north. There's an empty aqueduct to the east. Rockstar North did a good job of making the area feel a little run down.


But it doesn't take long to steal a vehicle and head for the Hollywood hills. Technically the game calls it Vinewood.


In the interest of fairness, I should point out that it isn't all beauty or destroyed beauty. There are a lot of graphical glitches in the game, as well. This is a poorly placed exit camera, showing me carrying a stolen TV out of someone's home. Robbery is a decent way to make money in the early game. Spend ten minutes of your life, get $40k of in game money. You can even rob your own safe house(?). Abusing the save system to make money gambling might be faster, though.


Take a good last look. It's time for a change of scenery.


I consider this the Green Acres phase of the game, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It sucks, mostly, but it's supposed to.


Farm livin' is obviously not the life for CJ. The game has a lot of RPG elements, including the ability to beef up CJ. He could be trimmer and still be as strong, but when I was working on his stamina, I was worried that if he ran out of fat, he'd start losing muscle. I like him this way. In my first playthrough I basically made him look like Wesley Snipes in Blade. It's not a bad look, but I felt a little bad for not giving CJ room to be CJ.

Plus I'm too lazy to punch the run button on the treadmill for five minutes. :P

09 October, 2008

Keepalive: Titan Quest, Wario Land 4, GTA: San Andreas

I'm leading a strangely charmed life in Titan Quest. I wanted to check out the Storm skill tree and have been getting high powered item drops like crazy. Of course the one blue she could actually use rolled into the sea and was unrecoverable, but once we start multiplayer, she'll be Santa Claus to all the other players.

Also the storm tree is rocking pretty hard so far. One or two shots from a staff is enough to take down most opponents. And she's just flying through areas that I remember being slogs previously. I do have some +12% movement leg gear for when I pull six baddies at once, though. Cloth armor doesn't soak much damage.

I also got a used GBA player for the Gamecube and am playing Wario Land 4 on a big screen TV. It's not platform bliss, but I'm enjoying it, and both converter and game were less than Wario Shake

And I'm still futzing with GTA once in a while. Sometimes I get a little tired of the in game radio (this is my second time through game, after all), so I'm enjoying having my entire collection of audio on shuffle throughout the game. Bad Relgion. Talking Heads. Nat King Cole. Freezepop. Wipeout 3. MC Frontalot. Radio Orangevale. Craig Chaquico. Brother Nolan. Weird Al. ilovebees. Eclectic might be an understatement.

Game Journal: Odin Sphere (Errata)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY AND STORY SPOILERS FOR ODIN SPHERE

I didn't want to, but I went back to look at the manual for the game. I don't like manuals because they often contain spoilers, and Odin Sphere was no exception.

But in addition to spoilers, it explained elements of the combat that maybe would have helped a bit. There are low piercing attacks for knocking people down. I knew about these, but they took up so much "Pow" that I used them sparingly. Perhaps I could have made hit and run attacks more reliable, but I swear I still took retaliatory hits when using piercing attacks.

There are overhead attacks for knocking down fliers. I rarely had much trouble with fliers but I always felt like a dork jumping up and using air attacks just to pick apples. :P

And finally, it bears putting down in writing that this game is not woman friendly. Gwendolyn just swings from one man to another, and many of the female characters are comically attired and / or endowed. The final boss in the first campaign (Death) is a huge skeletal woman. The only apparent skin on her entire body is on her face and her giant, mostly exposed, breasts. You have to work pretty hard to be that sleazy.

Game Journal: Odin Sphere (Story)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF STORY SPOILERS FOR ODIN SPHERE

Story
Odin Sphere is an opera with no singing. Everything's melodrama. Circumstances keep everyone knowing just enough to make tragically wrong decisions. There's even a dragon named Wagner.

The game doesn't follow the plot of Wagner's classic opera. There is a ring that serves as the MacGuffin, but it isn't thrown into the Rhine at the end. Brünnhilde and Sigfried (Gwendolyn and Oswald) live happily ever after. Odin also lives (though less happily, the big baby). I guess you could say this is an opera even more childish than "What's Opera Doc".

While I recognized a lot of classic elements of drama, I never cared about any of the characters in the game. Gwendolyn started as a devoted daughter, betraying her husband (by an arranged marriage) to give her father the ring. Then she falls in love with her husband, fighting to recover the ring as a symbol of love and then he himself from the underworld.

Story Summary
It all works on paper, but I never bought any of it. Gwendolyn felt like a suicidal whiner with daddy issues who became an unstoppable love driven killing machine. The transition between the two, when her loyalties were divided, was mildly interesting. But she remained a boring blank slate, always tying her identity to daddy or hubby. If the characters aren't interesting, who cares what happens to them?

And more importantly, now that I've seen the time line of all the campaigns side by side, I know that her story ends last. The idea that all the other stories are just filling in the background for this one doesn't make me very interested in seeing them. Plus I'm tired of the grinding and mediocre combat. I think I'll let Odin Sphere sit for a while.

Game Journal: Odin Sphere (Combat)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY SPOILERS FOR ODIN SPHERE

Combat
Combat was not the game's strong point.

This was partly a trade off for having large, beautiful graphics. But getting attacked from off screen was such a pain that I found myself spending as much or more time watching the "radar" in the top right than I did watching the main screen.

This was also because the game rewards taking no damage by showering the player with loot if they win quickly and take almost no damage and giving them a solitary item if they take too long or take too much damage. Considering certain opponents have special attacks that will instantly knock you down three loot grades, the game is largely about avoidance. Good luck with that.

Enemies often attack in waves with many ground and air attackers vying for a piece of you. Blocking only halves the damage you take, so you still lose grades for doing it. Plus you lose "Pow", your stamina, so you still have to run away to recharge. If your pow runs out, you just stand there dizzy and take hits.

The only strategy I found to be somewhat successful was "charging" strikes. Gwendolyn (the character in the first campaign), can't technically charge an attack. And most enemies will just beat on you if you only hit them with the first three blows of her four hit combo. So I'd watch on the radar as they approached and start swinging at air. They'd usually arrive in time for the third and fourth hits, knocking them on their butts. Even this wasn't foolproof, and sometimes they'd still be standing and hitting me. But it was the closest thing to a successful strategy I found.

Bosses were a different matter. I've always been pretty good about picking up the cues designers use to tell players how to tackle a boss. One on one, most bosses in Odin Sphere were pretty easy. Wait for them to make a move. Avoid. Get off a combo. Repeat. To keep things challenging, they'd often add a couple weak enemies to harass the player. That was fine. But fighting two bosses at once was a recipe for boredom and frustration as waiting for both enemies to be in a state that made it safe to attack them was a pain. Plus, if I was in the middle of a combo and the second boss started to charge from way off screen, there seemed to be no way to cancel out and dodge (maybe ducking?).

Combat Summary
The combat in the game never let me feel like I was in control of a fight, like I had solid choices. Even the best choice would randomly fail. Luckily I enjoyed farming so much that I was overpowered. But I prefer to win with skill rather than force.

08 October, 2008

Game Journal: Odin Sphere (Economy)

THIS POST CONSISTS ENTIRELY OF GAMEPLAY SPOILERS FOR ODIN SPHERE

To recap for anyone who didn't listen to the audio of my first hour and a half with the game Odin Sphere is a beautiful 2D action RPG.

It's also pretty grind intensive. Usually I hate that, but there are so many choices and ways to be clever about it that I completed the first campaign in the game (on which I spent over 24 hours) before tiring of it.


Economy
Phozons
Phozons are experience points which level up your attacks and replenish your magic if absorbed. They also grow fruit. You get seeds in the game and when you plant them they absorb phozons to produce fruit (or in the strange case of one seed, a plant that makes sheep). You eat the fruit (or kill the sheep and eat the meat) to gain food XP, which raises your health. Later on you open up restaurants. If you don't mind cluttering your inventory with eggs and veggies and making sure to not to spend the types of coins they use, you can reap some massive food XP.

There are five types of coins in the game. Restaurants include specific coins in the recipe for a dish. If you have a coin (even one you know they'll take from another recipe) that's worth more, they won't even make change. It's stupid.

But if you've got enough health already, you can also sell food to raise cash. Many areas in the game will hurt you constantly if you don't have protection. Protection charms cost 100, so there's a lot of literal farming to do, if you don't want to be taking constant damage.

Alchemy
There are "material bottles". They have numbers on them. If you combine two materials, those numbers multiply. If you add a potion to a material, the number doubles. If you add pretty much anything else, it will add a fixed point value. Edible food items add five points (even if you've already taken a bite or two). Bones from meat add three points. And most other items (eggs, seeds, and food remains like apple cores and grape stems) add one. Numbers go to 99 and then start over at 0.

So what's the big deal about the numbers? Well, the ones digit determines what types of potions can be made from the materials. Besides the fruits and meats you grow, there are native vegetable creatures in each zone that live in the ground. They squeak if you run over them and pop out and run away if you jump on them. You acquire potion recipes that use them to make poison antidotes, potions to protect from the elements (in case you didn't want to farm for charms), and weapon potions like napalm and poison.

The tens digit determines how many phozons will be released as a side effect of the potion. Higher is better. This leads to a lot of hasty math, trying to figure out what items can be combined to make the right number in the 90s to make the desired potion. I eventually just broke down and used the back of an envelope as keeping everything in my head was untenable.

Economy Summary
With so many ways to go and multi-purpose resources (I didn't even mention using seeds to raise chickens.), there are still ways I could almost certainly do things more efficiently. Trying to calculate the relative gold and phozon values of every transaction in the game was further than I wanted to go. But it was apparent that a good amount of thought had gone into them. And trying to work out the smaller problems I had in front of me kept me feeling taxed and clever without burning me out (like Final Fantasy Tactics), which is what games ideally do.

Next up: Combat

Game Journal: Titan Quest

Matthew's been playing a melee build. I'm playing a hunter. The problem is, I wanted to play a ranted hunter, but the game is geared towards the hunter being a melee / ranged hybrid. Every level the game gives me some strength points I don't need, except for the fact that later bows will require a certain level of strength. Those all feel like wasted points to me. Worse than that. I'd also like to cast spells, which means I'll be splitting my attributes three ways. I should probably just give up and double up on another strength / dexterity hybrid like a rogue. But idohwanna. :P I wanna shoot guys with bows and freeze them with ice magic to keep them away from me. Is that so wrong?

At least later in the game I'll be able to reset myself so I can switch builds if I find Hunter / Storm too ineffective. It may be a cheap way to balance a game, but the developer went out of business anyway, so the worst you could say is that it wasn't cheap enough. :P

The game still looks good, better than in any screen shot you'll see because there's enough detail in the trees and grass that JPG image compression always makes them look muddy.

Anyway, I liked Titan Quest before, it was just too much of a slog for me to bother finishing it. But as a casual multiplayer game, I don't think I know a better one. I tried the demo of Sacred 2, and if you thought the women in Titan Quest were tarted up, you got another thing coming. (And no, I will not post pics. :P )

If you want to be a part of our casual destruction and jaw session, the gold edition (which includes the game and its expansion) is $20. You can download it on Steam or pick it up at Amazon or Best Buy for that price. The system requirements are very low by modern standards (WinXP, 1.8Ghz CPU, 0.5GB RAM, GeForce 3 level graphics card).

We use Hamachi (a free program that simulates local play over the internet). The game has internet play, but advertising a server on a Windows machine means advertising security vulnerabilities, so I don't blame Matthew for wanting to use Hamachi to keep the server unlisted.

We used Steam for voice chat last Sunday, but we might switch to TeamSpeak once we get a group going.

Right now there's a call for interest and voting on whether we want to play Thursday or Sunday nights. If you have an interest, just let me know. (My email's in my blogger profile.)

Back to my own experiments, I finally tried a Spirit (necromancer) character. Life drain is on enough of a cooldown (time between castings) that it can't be used to keep a wimpy caster standing while a gang of baddies or boss baddie beat on him, but it's still a moral victory to damage an enemy while healing myself. Also, the spirit tree has a really nice aura that weakens undead, which should be pretty valuable in a party.

My hunter's aura which weakens beasts and beastmen is really his main contribution to partying at the moment. I could add a snare ability, but since Matthew is playing a melee class, it doesn't seem like that would really be much help. One attacker, more or less, doesn't seem likely to make much difference.

I'll keep experimenting, as long as it's fun.

Keepalive: Odin Sphere, Titan Quest

It's saying a lot for Odin Sphere that I've played as much as I have. It's got a lot of grinding. It's got so many attacks from off screen that I find myself watching the mini radar more than the pretty graphics. But I'll leave all that for a proper game journal entry.

Sunday was Titan Quest night. Matthew's playing a heavy melee build. I'm playing a hunter. This was mostly a preview run to see if the game worked well enough on the network to be fun for group co-op.

Our test worked pretty well, with only one network glitch when I thought Matthew had stopped, but was actually up ahead fighting. It only took a few seconds to correct itself. If others are interested, we'll get to test how many people the game can handle gracefully in the near future. I'm looking forward to it. Much like WoW, I see the game more as a chat room with fighting, but it's simpler, faster, more fun, and costs only $5 more than a single month of WoW, after which it's free forever (and that's including the expansion).

I am a little concerned that the conservative christian crowd he plays with may object to some of the female characters in the game, but since the game is best played from a zoomed out perspective, maybe it won't be an issue.


Zoomed in shot of water spirit quest giver.


Normal view.

05 October, 2008

Sausage, Being Made (Odin Sphere)

"I say stupid things." You're darn tootin' I do, slogan! In most of my posts, I try to communicate fairly well (even though I know I use too much jargon). I try to keep things organized. As a result, these pieces don't really sound much like me. And they don't communicate the experience of playing games very well. To that end, and to test out a microphone, I recorded the first hour and a half of myself playing Odin Sphere (100MB). Be warned, it contains swearing and blasphemy, with some mild racism and sexism for flavor. If you want to jump around, here are the various sections.

00:00 preamble
00:40 intro music
01:05 PS1 controller's start button doesn't work
01:25 more music and attract mode dialog as I get a PS2 controller
06:05 new PS2 controller opened (and old controller eulogy)
06:55 list of old busted consoles


08:15 getting started
09:00 the weird starting menu
10:40 starting the game
11:15 opening cut scene


15:15 tutorial
15:30 basics (move, attack, jump, glide)
16:10 downward attack
16:20 guarding
16:55 power gauge
17:40 phozons
18:55 mistake about how phozons level stuff up
19:25 learning how to actually use phozons for magic
20:00 phozon help text and menu list
20:35 cypher help text
20:50 food and food help text
21:30 racist comments
21:45 seed stuff
22:55 tutorial grade (A) and loot
23:25 nonsensical treasure help text
23:40 additional mistake about how phozons level stuff up
24:25 cut scene
26:10 save game


26:40 talking to everyone before first battle
30:05 buying stuff from vendor
33:20 travel to battle (world map)
34:00 cut scene
35:25 insensitive comments
35:50 first fight
36:10 grade (A)
37:00 small worlds
37:40 second fight (first seed planting)
38:55 grading
39:10 area map
40:40 third fight (first butterfly)
42:45 grade (A)
42:50 butterfly help text
43:50 shopping (EXP stone)
45:00 more coin babbling
45:55 selling back is fail
46:40 talking to friendlies
47:55 fourth fight
49:10 grade (B)
50:20 fifth fight
51:40 grade (?)
52:55 figured out how food levels work
53:40 planting shenanigans
56:00 save
57:20 mini-boss one
1:04:00 grade (D)
1:05:35 shopping
1:08:40 can't repeat boss fight (wasted seed)
1:10:10 sixth fight
1:11:45 grade (C)
1:12:10 how to fight help text
1:13:00 can't fight old stages again
1:13:40 shopping
1:14:50 mini-boss two
1:17:10 grade (B?)
1:18:25 seventh fight
1:20:00 fairy fight
1:21:00 grade (C)


1:25:00 final boss cut scene
1:27:00 final boss
1:33:00 post boss cut scene
1:36:00 more talking to NPCs
1:41:20 all done