30 December, 2007

It's The Final Countdown

My DooM map is approaching completion, which is a good thing because the LAN party I hope to play it at starts in fifteen hours. I've restricted myself to monsters from the shareware episode, just to do it. But they go down so quickly, I'm worried my many hours of work will be played through in less than ten minutes. Oh well. There's nothing to do but finish the final battle and hope there aren't any showstopping bugs once multiple players enter the mix.

I took some time out this morning to play some Rogue Trooper on GameTap. I'm pleasantly surprised, thus far.

29 December, 2007


Today's gaming time was spent on mapping. My DooM co-op level is now much bigger in size. Not having people to test it with, I fear it may suck. But in the meantime it's still fun to read about new features. The DECORATE lump is frigging awesome. I still only read about it in passing, as I'm trying to keep my ambitions modest to meet my limited schedule. But every time I read about it, I keep thinking how cool it'll be when I can bring some of my ideas to fruition.

Then I think that without regular players, I'll probably lose steam and forget about it, like every other game dev project I've attempted. Meh.

27 December, 2007

Review: Lego Racers 2

Okay, so I'm basically GameTap slumming. Cope.

It's a kart racer where you can build the karts yourself. I don't know if it had to do with my turning off the "catch up" menu item, but the races were usually either super easy or pretty challenging. The easy races I expected, but I have to wonder if the other races would be frustrating for the game's target demographic. The races usually weren't hard because the AI of your opponents was any good. It was more because it's a weapon racer and unless you outdistance them quickly, you'll be sucking down homing rockets like nobody's business.

But just when I was annoyed to the point that I was going to shelve the game and do something else, I'd get to build a new kart for a new environment. I had my finmobile for the starting island, my rocket tank for the jungle, a spiffy hover sled for Mars, and my snow vehicle was super cool, thanks to some handrails that doubled as wings. And then, once my new kart was complete, I had to try it out. Despite the fact that the design has no real effect on the game, the fun of seeing my creations race kept me in the game until the end.

There's some guy you beat in the first game. Now you have to go to another planet and beat him again. It is amusing how kid friendly the game is. At one point you get an upgrade that falls off an opponents vehicle. You justify running off with it by saying you'll give it back when you're done with it. Nice one.

Lego Star Wars, this ain't. Still, it does the job.

Final Score
3 of 5

Everybody dance now!
(These aren't thumbnails, so don't bother clicking on them.)

Is it a frog? Is it a bee? I don't know, but it's got fins and a stick shift, so it's awesome.

It's too bad my "rocket engines" didn't give this thing any extra speed. I thought they looked good and beefy.

Of course, that would make this vehicle unfairly fast. The more parts you put on, the more junk comes off when you get in wrecks. :)

This is my greatest creation. Those handrail wings are perfect, and the old school Lego car doors made cool fins. This thing should be flying through space. Winning.

Plus flags are the new fins.

I call this the Obsidian Peacock. I knew I wasn't going to surpass the snowmobile, so I didn't really try. Still, I like to think it has a certain quiet dignity.

(Stupidian Peacock. :P )

Review: Jaws Unleashed

Jaws Unleashed (2006 Appaloosa Interactive) was a game made to cash in on the 30th anniversary rerelease of the movie that destroyed Hollywood. (The initial weekend receipts proved that you could make huge money on the strength of marketing and a wide release.)

For a game about eating stuff, the controls are surprisingly complicated. You have separate buttons for biting, tail thrashing, ramming, shark vision, targeting, target switching, and body part targeting. Oh and there's a dodge button as well. It's a little ridiculous. But then, that's par for the course as you'll often find yourself grabbing explosive barrels and spitting them dozens of meters to accomplish your goals.

The objectives are fairly varied. You'll eat some people. You'll fight people or sea creatures. You'll navigate dangerous waters (sometimes against the clock). You'll blow stuff up. None of these objectives has much depth, but the variety was appreciated. Trying to navigate the occasionally cramped spaces and wrestling with the targeting system are the most persistent challenges. I tried to target as little as possible (only when I wanted to chomp heads to kill a lot of people quickly). Sometimes it was difficult to figure out what you were supposed to do, as well. Turning on shark vision often helped with that, but I did have to consult FAQs a few times.

In an attempt to add a little more depth to the game, there's also an upgrade system to make you faster, stronger, and healthier. It felt mostly tacked on.

This is probably the best part of the game. It may help that I have a curved, gray, textured mouse, but the feeling of controlling a giant, speedy ocean predator is pretty cool. I would waste time knocking guys off their jet skis or flipping their catamarans just because. And don't get me started on the water skiers. The amount of sea life they put in the game just for you to chomp on between missions is really impressive, too. I ate a walrus. How awesome is that?

Appaloosa Interactive made the Ecco the Dolphin games, and they obviously leveraged some of that expertise here. The only problem is that the game has a distinct lowest common denominator feel (read "It was coded with the PS2's limitations in mind."), so the draw distance is pretty short, and the models and textures don't always look that great. The sea creatures are generally good, but everything else feels half assed.

Final Score
3 of 5

Ride the walrus!

To victory!

Review: Infernal

Infernal (2007 Metropolis Software) is a bad game. Let's skip the formalities and commence with the hack and slash, shall we?

It's a third person shooter where none of the elements satisfy. Shooting things is not very fun. Even on low settings, the frame rate gets bad in a hurry, so aiming is a chore. Also, because it's third person, I frequently got shot by enemies my character could see, but I couldn't because of the offset of the camera. The sniper rifle was the only weapon with a first person option, so there was no workaround.

The cover mechanics were useless as the perfect AI targeting meant they generally hit you just as much behind cover as not. Their use of cover and blind firing was decent, though. There were occasionally grenades provided to flush them out, but for the most part I just waited from them to pop back out, or shot them in the back of the calf, which they often left exposed. Morons. Of course, they do have the super power of being able to see through any gratings or foliage that doesn't block bullets as though it weren't even there, so it all balances out. >:P

There's stealth, but it's generally just a bad guy who's facing away when you enter a room. Once an enemy sees you, you can do a little cat and mouse by sneaking around behind them, but since you're usually fighting four guys at a time, one of them will see you and ruin it. Regardless, I did like the one or two times stealth worked. And I always like the feeling I get making my avatar crouch walk everywhere, checking the corners and "staying frosty". :)

There are powers in the game, but they're generally only used to solve the same locked door puzzles over and over. That and the visual effects that accompany them are disorienting enough to be a pain in the butt.

Also, it should be mentioned that I played through on easy because the uneven difficulty provided annoying sticking points. Even when I played on easy, a couple sections near the end of the game ran so poorly I couldn't perform any of my evasive maneuvers, making them unnecessarily difficult.

Oh and the checkpoints are way too far apart, necessitating manual quick saving after every encounter lest you have to play the same last lackluster thirty minutes over again.

Oy. The irrelevance of Infernal's story is eclipsed only by its ridiculousness. Every millennium, the planets line up in such a way that GOD CANNOT SEE EARTH. Apparently he lives somewhere specific in the universe and just has a really good telescope. The good guys decide to take advantage of this time to make mind control satellites to make everyone good and do away with that pesky free will stuff. Um. What did they think would happen WHEN THE PLANETS MOVED AGAIN? God wouldn't notice? They'd invoke finders keepers <Zoidberg>or maybe naval salvage rights?</Zoidberg> I reiterate, oy.

The voice actors actually do a good job, but with no direction, lousy translations (The game was developed in Poland.), and no attempt to give any of the characters a personality, it's a wasted effort.

Before I had to turn the settings down, the game looked really good. The sound effects are good. The music is okay. Like the characters, it tries too hard to be bad ass. And there are generally only two songs in a level (one for sneaking and one for fighting), they can get pretty repetitive. In an interesting quirk, I enjoyed anticipating where the musical phrase would end as Infernal uses canned transitions instead of just fading from one song to the other.

Final Score
2 of 5

26 December, 2007

No Gaming

There was no gaming today (or yesterday, if you want to get technical) on account of holiday. Gaming should resume tomorrow (or today, blah, blah, blah).

It does bear mentioning that I received a Mario & Luigi 08 shirt and a copy of Masters of DooM, which I had been meaning to pick up for a number of years. Yes. I am that lazy.

24 December, 2007

Review: Bully

Bully (2006, Rockstar) is the story of enlightenment through pugilation, AKA The American Dream. Seriously, though, it's about a kid who's dumped in a boarding school for troublesome children while his mother and her new husband (Number five? Six? It's hard to keep count.) go on a year long honeymoon.

Rockstar, for those of you who don't know, made the Grand Theft Auto games, Manhunt, and The Warriors. Bully definitely has aspects that are similar. The large environment, the large variety of activities, and the okay but not great combat are all intact. It should be mentioned that the hand to hand is decidedly better than all of those games. Even when I had a full inventory of weapons, I much preferred mixing it up.

The thing that sets Bully apart, is how many other things there are to do. Sure, GTA has a lot of side errands, but Bully has a bit more. There are classes to take, games to play at the boardwalk, money to be made mowing lawns and delivering papers, people who will randomly come to you with problems they need help with or dares you can accept or decline, and there's lots more. They're mostly just diversions, not full games unto themselves, but they're a nice change of pace and learning the one or two tricks to them provides a brief, Wario Ware type rush.

So technically I'm going to keep talking about the gameplay here for a bit because some of the most significant mechanics are about making you feel like a kid.

Many missions in the game are designed to tell the story and show, rather than tell, who these kids are.

(highlight to read by pressing CTRL+A or just dragging the mouse cursor over them)

I'll always remember the mission objective "beat the gate code out of the nerd". I was expecting to beat him down and take a piece of paper off of him, or watch a cut scene after a standard fight. He folds after the first punch saying, "It's 1138" and it's over. That was awesome, and gave me a sense of character more than any dialog would. And the game is full of stuff like that. Jocks like to tackle. The preppies use "fisticuffs" (so sweep the leg, Johnny). And the greasers are often fought on bikes ('cause they're too young for motorcycles).


Almost everything you do in Bully is on the clock. When you wake up, you've got about a minute and a half to get to class before you're considered truant and have to dodge school prefects (or cops if your ditching in town). Then you've got another minute and a half for lunch. Then your last class. Then you can roam free until curfew. Then you can roam unfree until 2AM, at which point you collapse and wake up with a minute and a half to get to class again. It certainly evoked the rigid structure of childhood for me. In fact, when I completed all my classwork and didn't have to go to classes anymore, I was weirded out.

Another gameplay addition was the social system. When locking on to a character, a little menu gives social options, like greet, insult, flirt, push, bribe; apologize. It could have been implemented a little better as you're often talking over who you're supposed to be conversing with, but just the concept of being able to talk your way out of trouble or provoke a fight (generally near an authority figure who would cream the other kid for you) added a lot to the feel of the game.

On the more traditional front, the acting and directing in the game is pretty good. The characters are fairly stereotypical, in the Rockstar tradition. The plot generally a collection of clichés as well. But it mostly works. From the intro cinematic, I felt for Jimmy. And when the time came, I was ready to lay some smack down. Eventually, I got a little sick of the way the game took him, though. While the violence in Bully is very subdued compared to Rockstar's other games, it's still used to solve too many problems. I really would have liked it if the end of the game had involved more brains and less brawns, not that certain people didn't have it coming, mind you, but it would have been more fulfilling if Jimmy had figured out a better way to overcome at least some of the final obstacles. Plus his bragging over defeated foes made him seem like a big jerk and only served to highlight how ridiculous his exploits had become. Maybe I'm thinking wrong to want a hero in a Rockstar game, though. They only give you the lesser evil, as a rule.

The game has the functional look of a PS2 title using RenderWare (the graphics engine Rockstar licensed for most of its PS2 releases). Special note needs to be given to the fact that the campus and town go through seasons as you play, and seeing the skeletons hanging in the quad or the Xmas lights in the city are worth wandering around just to see.

Final Score
A five.

Out of five.

The only things I wanted from Bully were more content and more refinements. And to that end...

There was some stuff about Bully that bugged me. I'm assuming the upcoming 360 and Wii ports won't improve these things either, but I just wanted to air them semi-publicly and didn't feel like padding my post count by making them a separate article. :)

First off, the combat had some annoyances that didn't need to be there.

Fighting multiple opponents didn't have to be so awkward. Often times I found myself getting attacked by someone who was obviously in my field of view, but because I was locked on to someone else, I would take the hits, instead of, you know, moving my hands a little to block a punch from someone else. I know I'm not playing Dante here, but with as much time as I spent in the boxing ring, it seems like I should have been able to block those blows.

Speaking of which, when I was boxing, I could duck and counter. What happened to that? Shouldn't the uppercut I learned work for that?

Second, I think the immersion provided by the school atmosphere, as great as it was could have been even better.

It seemed bizarre that you could show up to class with five minutes to go and still learn everything. What if it worked like this? If you show up before class or in the first half hour, you get the full time, lives, whatever, to complete your task. Then you reduce that for each half hour late until, if you show up in the last half hour, you basically get nothing. Of course, the classes never gave homework, either, but that's probably too far to go for realism.

For the overachievers who finish all their classes, the aftermath just seemed weird. Bullworth Academy was supposed to be oppressive, not the kind of place where you could skip class just because you'd "done enough work". Why not be able to exchange classes after level five for a job in town (close to one of my save spots so I can get there in the morning)? It could be the same mini-games, but it'd feel a little less strange for the boss of a half ass work study program not to care where I was than the administration at the academy. Plus I'd feel like I had beaten the system, which is always good.

Also, no Santa outfit? Sure, there's a piece of Xmas attire in the game, but I wanted the Santa outfit and the sack of "presents" (doorknobs) to deal with anyone who laughed at it. >:)

Search Concluded

My search for a fun world to explore ended today. I remembered I had a greatest hits edition of Bully I'd been saving for a rainy day. Sure, I'll probably go back to Steambot (and maybe Dark Cloud 2). But Bully delivers what I'd been looking for. A place that's fun to explore, with lots of stuff to do. I'll save the rest for the review, but between playing Bully and watching Arrested Development (for the third time, I think), I'm having a luxuriously useless winter break.

22 December, 2007


WARNING: This post assumes you know a metric butt ton of DooM editing information that, unless you're Chris, you don't know. Just nod and smile.

I'm not going to go into my long and storied history with DooM in this post. That's a time commitment. I'll just say happy 14th birthday and talk about what I'm doing with DooM right now. First, I'm playing it. Call it research. Call it procrastinating. I decided that if I was going to be working on a co-op wad for the new years LAN party, I should regain my feel for the game. I played through chief.wad, an old co-op favorite. I forgot how simple those levels were. They were also generally hub based, which meant that wherever you spawned, the action wasn't too far away. Good design. They were super basic, architecture wise, and sometimes painfully linear and cramped. I don't enjoy co-op when it's basically a conga line of marines each waiting for the guy in front of them to die so they can start shooting.

I've also been playing b2b.wad (Back to Basics) by Espi. It's a replacement for Episode 2, but generally feels too light and happy, not like a descent into hell like the original. Also, the levels are so huge I frequently found myself checking the map to figure out where this key I just got was supposed to go, but then I sometimes did that in the original DooM as well. The main thing I get out of it is the occasional deja vu of seeing structures that resemble ones from the original DooM, and since I'm using those textures, it's good to have a refresher.

How am I using DooM textures in DooM 2 you may ask? I'm taking advantage of the awesomeness of the Skulltag source port. It's crazy sweet. I just add DOOM.WAD to the command line and instantly have access to all the old textures and flats. In fact, there's no longer even a distinction. If I want to put a wall texture on a floor or ceiling (or vice versa), it's no problem! I can't tell you how convenient that is compared to how editing used to be.

I'm also using "Hexen" format, which has good and bad elements. It gives me access to all the funky fresh features like poly objects and lines that trigger scripts, but it removes a bunch of the old line types that I really liked. I can tell you right now, I'm never making a deathmatch level in this format. I love OpenCloseFast doors way too much. In the meantime, I've put a fair amount of thought into ACS and the DECORATION lump (the replacement for old DeHackEd patches). I would really like to try a class based co-op experiment. I'd also like to try some new monsters. I won't have that ready for the LAN party, though. For that, I just want a playable, decent looking level with lots of baddies to kill.

Oh yeah. And OpenGL is cool.


I seem to be playing (or trying to play) a lot of games about exploration lately.

I started playing Dark Cloud 2, a moderately cutesy Japanese action RPG with a heavy collect and craft element. It's too slow, and too hard. I say it's got exploration because it's got random mazes and you have to explore new recipes and upgrade paths. Also, there's a whole town building game to learn about as well. There's also fishing to try your hand at, and I'm only about five hours (out of a minimum of 30) in, so there may well be other new games to learn. The problem is, none of these games is very rewarding. If you win in combat, it's generally because you were careful, not because you were powered up, or pulled off a cool move (thanks to the clunky controls). Sure, you can go back to the easy levels and feel powerful, but you also feel like you're wasting your time when you're one shotting trash mobs that drop crappy loot. Leveling your weapons and other crafting requires better loot, but the drops are so varied and random, you have no idea if a trip through a level is going to be worth your time at all. Also the way you invent things by randomly combining photographs you take is entirely unfun. Even going to GameFAQs and cheating was worthless as the one recipe I could make requires ten of a rare item. (I've seen one drop the whole game.) Sick of that collection of boring, obscure mini games, I decided to pop in another collection of mini games in much the same vein.

Steambot Chronicles is a less cutesy Japanese action RPG with a strong crafting focus. Plus you can play in a band a do lots of other stuff. I'm barely an hour in, and outside of a completely unfair fight in the freaking tutorial, it's looking better than Dark Cloud 2, faint praise, but as both games are generally lauded by the same folks, I'm not holding out too much hope.

I took a look at some indie games. (I still need to check out this list, but one (One!?) thing at a time.) Most of them sucked out loud, but two of them were great. Knytt Stories is the closest thing I've found to Seiklus. High praise indeed. It's not quite as big or varied, but it brought back the simple joy that had been sorely lacking in my gaming of late. There are also additional scenarios for Knytt Stories I haven't dug into yet, so it may end up being just as long. I tried the author's other game (where you're a bouncing ball), but it wasn't very fun. The main game mechanic is being careful as the ball can be very difficult to control (or very boring as you have to stop and build up height again). Not as good.

The big exploration recently was Dwarf Fortress. I even created a mini blog for it. The short version? It's harder and more impenetrable than any of these other games I'm playing. But there's so much to the simulation, that's it's actually interesting. I just don't have the time to devote to screwing around with it.

There was also the big exploration of DooM editing, but I'll save that for another post. I've still got Gamma 256 to talk about, a game dev competition that restricted the authors to incredibly low resolutions. I didn't try all of them, but Bloody Zombies was the only one I tried that was amusing. I need to finish the list.

It doesn't really fit the theme, but I also checked out Infernal on GameTap. I recommend playing on easy, as the graphics and game setting are fun to experience (so far), but the gameplay is lacking.

Geeze. I guess I should update more when it's vacation and I'm playing games all day. :P

18 December, 2007

State of the Industry

The NPD sales figures for November are out (well discussed on the 1UP Yours podcast and disected on Next Gen). Since all the big games have already been released or pushed to next year because they couldn't make the holiday window, it's a good time to talk about what happened this year.

Nintendo mostly rules, except where they completely fail. The DS outsold the PS3, PS2, and PSP combined in November, moving 1.53 million units. Part of that had to do with them bundling either Zelda (kind of for gamers) or a pet sim (for normal people). In fact, no DS game sold in the top ten. When you consider that the DS installed base in the US alone is probably around 18 million, over double the Xbox 360 installed base, that's an epic fail.

The Wii's kind of the same story except they can't even put the hardware out there. GameSpot is selling IOUs (for the full price of the system, no less) to give desperate parents something to put under the tree. I heard a gal in the cafeteria at work talking about the supplies the big box retailers hoarded for sales last Sunday lasting for two whole hours. Again, these are stories of epic fail. But Nintendo's a conservative Japanese company, and there are Wii's sitting on store shelves in Japan, so they may have a fear that they're on the brink of bursting the bubble and having the Wii market implode. I really don't know. The truth is that gamers only have Wii's because of Zelda, Metroid, and Mario. Now that those games are out, Nintendo has one more game (Smash Brothers) the gamers are looking forward to.

Once there's nothing left but the alpha moms and mini-game lovers buying these things, who's to say whether they'll move on to some talking stuffed animal next year, forgetting all about the Wii? I thought the people calling the Wii a fad were idiots. Well, in fairness to myself, many of them aboslutely were idiots. But maybe a couple of them were ahead of me on this. Maybe they realized that the people Nintendo's marketing to now are fickle. Last year the novelty of the system and the family fun of Wii Sports sold it. This year Mario sold it. Wii Fit (a game which lets you stand on a fancy scale to control exercise games by shifting your weight) is out in Japan this holiday season. Are they going to hold it all year in the states so that they have something to generate holiday buzz next season?

Technically the 360 still has the installed base over the Wii, I think. But the truth is, they're not really in the same markets... at all. The 360 lovers are basically crack whores. They will let you do anything to them as long as they can see their next fix on the horizon. The thing still eats disks. The optical drives still fail. There are still folks waiting many weeks to get their refurbished, fail prone replacement in the mail. And it's kinda sorta working for them. By taking the repair bill as a huge hit in one quarter and releasing Halo 3 the next, they showed their first profitable quarter ever. They say they expect to be profitable in 2008 as a year overall. Doesn't sound like winning, does it?

Then you look at software. Four of the top ten games for November are on 360. Two of them are on PS3, but they're just PS3 versions of the far better selling 360 games. Call of Duty 360 outsold Call of Duty PS3 3.5 to 1. Assassin's Creed 360 outsold Assassin's Creed PS3 2.6 to 1. I'm guessing that's partly because Call of Duty is online, and the 360 is where gamers know their friends are, so they're less likely to want the PS3 version. Beyond that, the numbers seem to reflect the installed base, which is around 3 to 1.

As has been mentioned before, Sony's losing money like crazy. Any time one of their executives opens their mouth, only the most ignorant doublespeak falls out of their mouths (which I assume are surrounded by clown make-up). If gamers aren't so awestricken by Metal Gear Solid 4 that they're willing to drop $400 on a non-backwards compatible PS3 to play it, what has Sony got? Seriously, the best games on the system aren't selling for crap. Uncharted and Rachet aren't in the top ten at all. Next Gen said Rachet sold less than 150k copies. That's A) criminal and B) freaking bleak.

As the latest example of ignorant doublespeak, a Sony exec said they felt Sony was on a good course for their projected ten year life cycle. Do you think you can lose the better part of a billion dollars a quarter and have a ten year life cycle?

The Rest of the World
Shane Bettenhausen brought up something scary on the last 1UP Yours. These figures we look at are for North America, mostly. In Japan, it's very different. Japan's moving away from consoles to mobile platforms. There are Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy games you'll probably never see because they run only on Japanese phones (which blow ours away). And in Europe, apparently the PS3 is actually doing well enough that it might be the winner there. When a hit driven market becomes that fragmented, what does that mean? Even more first person shooters for the 360? Even more soccer and rally racing games for the PS3? Even more crap I don't care about for Nintendo systems? Blegh.

15 December, 2007

Flotsam and Jetsam

I don't really write up half of what's going on, gamewise, on this blog. I like articles. I like theses. I like cohesion. I like there to be a point. But I don't really do a good job of communicating the texture of my gaming life. It just seems so disparate and random sometimes.

I've been on a buying spree, picking up clearanced and used games online. Tis the season, after all. Of course, my backlog is so enormous that a sane man would declare a moratorium. I am not that man. And the simple fact is, there are a lot of games on my backlog I really don't want to play. Manhunt isn't fun. Hunter: The Reckoning: Wayward isn't fun. Headhunter: Redemption isn't fun. I think it's time to move on. Anything on my backlog that isn't fun is officially kaput.

If you were waiting for reviews of:

  • Burnout 3

  • Headhunter: Redemption

  • Hunter: The Reckoning: Wayward

  • Manhunt

  • New Super Mario Bros.

  • Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

  • Sam & Max: Season One

  • Zack & Wiki

You can stop. They didn't hold my interest. That isn't to say they're bad games. But after getting the gist of them, I didn't see anything that lead me to believe that continuing the experience was worthwhile.

Part of that has to do with being old. Being old means I've seen a lot of games, so I can see where things are going and decide when to bail out earlier than some people. Being old means I have some money, so I can afford to cut my losses. (It also helps that I am cheap and bought most of these games for under $20.) Being old also means I have big hands and don't see as well, so the experience of most portable games is pretty awful for me. If I could play on a screen I could actually see, with a controller that didn't cramp my hand, I'd probably have finished New Super Mario Bros. months ago. As it is, the experience just isn't appealing.

That was cleansing. What else is going on?

I'm playing stuff I haven't been talking about, mostly on GameTap. They supposedly lost 70 games off of their service because EA didn't feel like renewing a contract. It kind of sucks because part of me liked knowing I could check out the old Ultima games for research purposes. But I probably wasn't going to. :) As to the stuff I'm actually playing, well, it's embarrassing. Well, not all of it. I smoked Gunstar Heroes the other night. It was good to know it's still fun and that I can beat it on Normal with only a few deaths, validating my opinion of the overly difficult GBA version. In a Genesis mood, I decided to check out Beyond Oasis. I'd heard it was the Genesis' Zelda, and I can already tell why I never heard of it. It's pretty low rent. Add it to the list of games I probably won't bother to finish. Also, I've downloaded PlaneScape: Torment. I hear a lot of love for it in the PA forums (for the theatrics, not the gameplay), so I figured I should give it a look. The same goes for Baldur's Gate 2.

Did you forget about the embarrassing part yet? Whew. Wait, what? I brought it up again? Phooey! Okay. But there were extenuating circumstances! I had a bad day at work last week and decided to take it out on some swimmers by playing Jaws: Unleashed and am having enough fun that I'm well on my way to finishing it. Unfortunately GameTap seems to prevent taking screen shots as I spent a few minutes yesterday trying to photograph the sea of legs and torsos I created by using the body part targeting to rip the shore patrol jerks attacking me in half. Take that! Shore patrol jerks!

Mmmm. Shore patrol jerks.

Also, I'm making a new gamer friend. (Hi!) We started playing System Shock 2 co-op, and it got me in a mood, a good mood. I've been thinking about making some co-op DooM levels for the new years weekend network party he'll be holding. Turn out's been low lately, but that's great for co-op. I'm planning to use the Skulltag engine, as it supports all of ZDooM's fun wackiness but with joining and leaving the server at any time. Still, I've got a lot of work to do if I want to have enough co-op to be worth playing in only two weeks.

There's more I could talk about, mostly about the state of the industry, articles that have interested / annoyed me lately, etc. But who really cares. Life's too short to spend time not gaming. :)

Review: Super Mario Galaxy

Hmm. Writing an introduction for a flagship Mario game. Hmm. For those who might not be aware, Miyamoto dosen't design them anymore. Yoshiaki Koizumi was the director on Galaxy. But I haven't memorized that name yet, so I certainly don't expect you to. :) Back to business.

At it's core, it's still Mario 64 for the N64, which is a good thing. There are platformers I enjoy more than Mario (Rachet & Clank), but nothing exceeds Mario at actual platforming. This was why people didn't like Mario Sunshine, as the game was largely about shooting water, not pure acrobatics. Galaxy also has some gimmicks (collecting star bits, playing with gravity, various special suits) but the game is always about the movement, reaching your goal while avoiding harm.

There are still problems with the game. Even Nintendo still can't get the camera right. It occasionally gets stuck behind the scenery and there are jumps where the camera changes angle just as you approach them. But then, there apparently isn't anyone smart enough in this entire industry to make a camera that doesn't kill you sometimes. :P I sometimes wonder if stereoscopic 3D will ever become economically viable, and whether that won't alleviate some of these problems... probably not in my lifetime. And even if it did, neither of the problems I just mentioned would be fixed by it. :P

The bonus levels that open up after you beat the game are more tedious than fun. Well, the ones I played were. Then I got bored and decided to write this review. Still, this is the Mario game I've come closest to 100%ing. Sunshine's sliding levels where awful, and Mario 64 had many challenges that were more frustrating (read cheap).

Bowser kidnaps the princess. Mario goes on a quest to rescue her. Next.

Galaxy is a poster child for smart design and coding over raw processing power as the graphics look great on what is essentially six year old hardware. In some cases that's because it uses an overhead perspective, rendering far less than an over the shoulder view. Sometimes that's because the view is mostly skybox, which doesn't take much power to render at all. There's also some LoD stuff being done (with just enough pop in that I could tell it was happening, but most people probably won't notice).

The sound is true to the Mario formula. I enjoyed the references to music from the older games, and some of the newer orchestral stuff really sold the majesty of the setting. Also the sounds coming out of the Wiimote were kinda cool, too.

Final Score
4 of 5

Yeah. I know. Scandal. But I'm just not sad it's over or eager to play through it again. Blame the crappy bonus levels for souring the aftertaste. Say I'm an American violence junkie who doesn't like any game I don't get to cause harm in. Argue I'm too jaded to appreciate simple pleasures. Discuss how I also gave Portal a 4 and don't properly value "mindbendingness". At the end of the day, I find Galaxy solid fun, but not amazing.

10 December, 2007

Review: Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime

Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime (Square Enix, 2006) is a pretty odd concept for a game. Let's take a minor, generic villain from our premiere RPG franchise and make it the main character in an action RPG / tank battle game.

It's an action RPG / tank battle game. That's pretty self explanatory, right? Okay. Maybe not.

Essentially, the game has two parts. In one, you run around as a slime (in my case, a slime named Blain), trying to free your fellow slimes who have been captured by evil platypuses. (Duh.) This part of the game is mediocre. Combat is generally slow and annoying as you end up picking up people your trying to beat up and have to drop them so you can hit them again. There's a little puzzle solving, some of which is engaging, but most of which feels like padding for a zelda veteran like myself. The real point of this part of the game is the addictive aspect of collecting everything you see and shipping it back to town on carts for use as ammo, crew, and crafting materials (for better ammo) for the more engaging part of the game, tank battles.

These aren't strategically detached, hexy, turn based affairs. Oh no. These are frantic, no holds barred, super tank versus super tank slug fests. Your tank has multiple ammo chutes, each randomly delivering ammo you have to scoop up and hurl into two main cannons, one that shoots straight across, and another that shoots in a high arc. So while you're scrambling around on the lower screen, trying to grab a load of ammo and not run over your own tank crew who are also grabbing ammo, you're also watching the top screen, seeing what enemy ammo is incoming to see whether the kinds of ammo you're picking up would be best used to block or clear a path for better ammo or actually do some damage. Oh yeah, and enemies have infiltrated your tank and are trying to kill you and wreck up your ammo chutes. GO! GO! GO!

As daunting as this may sound, I think I lost one tank battle over the course of the entire game, so as long as you're collecting stuff and saving all the slimes in the on foot sections you should always have enough decent quality ammo to cause lots of trouble. And experimenting with strategies, crew members, and ammo loadouts was rewarding, as well. Although, the farming requirements to gather the ammo for some strategies made them prohibitively expensive, timewise. I would have enjoyed a tank test mode that let me experiment with whatever ammo types I had unlocked thus far against the enemies I had already beaten.

Rocket Slime is short on story. The characters in it are, at best, there for a laugh. It's lighthearted and endearing. To get an idea of how goofy the game gets, one of the enemy mechs you fight is a tree themed behemoth called Chrono Twigger (after Squares' classic SNES game Chrono Trigger) with the subtitle "Its bark is worse than its bite". Ouch. Also, almost every category in the credits has been renamed something to do with slimes. My favorite credit? Asquishtant Progoocer. :D

I like simple, cartoony, SNES era graphics, and that's what Rocket Slime delivers. The music is decent, if a bit repetitive.

Final Score
4 of 5

I almost feel guilty for liking a cute little collectathon so much. But I do. And the next time I'm burned out on whatever big budget action game I'm playing, I'll be right back in there, finishing the tank arena challenges, being congratulated by the slimes I saved, picking up those last few crafting recipes I missed, recruiting the last few monsters I don't have to my tank crew, and farming mats to try new ammo loadouts.

06 December, 2007

Review: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (2004), an action RPG using Valve's Source (Half-Life 2) engine, was the last game developed by Troika (which was founded by former Fallout devs according to MobyGames).


First off, the game is somewhat buggy. I played it as Steam delivered it to me, so some of the unofficial patches out there may have fixed some of the bugs I encountered. (Actually, reading them, they seem like they may improve the game a lot, but I'm only reviewing what I played.) The worst was getting stuck in the terrain a couple times, forcing me to reload. (If you're a power user, you can also start the game with the -console option and turn off clipping when you get stuck.) And loading and saving take a long time in this game, not long enough to kill the game for me, but enough to be annoying. Then again, I hate load times more than most people.

The action aspect of the game gives you options. Go unarmed. Go close combat weapons. Go firearms. Go stealth. Some of the later missions are entirely combat, which may render stealth impossible. I can't say as I went through as a Brujah (one of the six vampire clans you can play), mostly unarmed, then close combat weapons towards the end. I found this pretty satisfying, although there were only a couple baddies where my strategy was more complicated than "run up and make them stop living with my fists". Also the close combat collision detection is sometimes sketchy, which is par for the course in any game that isn't entirely hand to hand.

You also have Vampire Super Powers (called disciplines) to use. As a Brujah, I could magically slow time, boost my strength (although this became useless once my strength was maxed out, which is pretty lame), and produce a field that reduces the combat effectiveness of enemies in a small radius. Other clans can turn into animals, turn completely invisible, drive people insane, and other creature of the night type stuff.

Outside of combat, there's still a lot of options. The game is something of a big choose your own adventure book. There are multiple factions and individuals you can ally with and do side quests for. The game has five endings to reflect this. And there are multiple ways to accomplish many objectives. A hacker could shut down cameras whereas I had to kill all the guards. Some people can be smooth talked, seduced, or intimidated whereas my options were murder or bribery. It's a simple life. :) Fair warning though, many sections of the game, including the endgame, are strictly combat, so smooth talking will only get you so far.


Bloodlines has many memorable, well defined characters. The acting and directing are also well done. The facial animation system the Source engine provides could have been leveraged a bit more effectively, but overall, the major characters (and there are loads of them) are among the most fully realized gaming has to offer.

And you're one of them. The options the game gives you don't cover everything you might want to do in real life, but for a game, they're pretty wide ranging. I wanted to play the brute with a conscience, and the game pretty much let me. It was fun. I'm looking forward to the options I'll have as a master manipulator.

As for the overarching story, it's okay. I have a low tolerance for speculation, so the main plot didn't much intrigue me. People have been complaining that BioShock's endgame sort of betrays the principles the game establishes in the early phases. I feel the same way about Bloodlines. This game lets you make a lot of choices early on, many with moral ramifications. At the end of the game, you really have no choices at all. After a peek at GameFaqs, I can see that there are five endings, none of which change the endgame much at all. They probably ran out of money.


The sound's fine (although one of my pet peeves, ambient sounds that come from only one ear, is present).

The visuals are uneven. Some of the city streets look great. But some of the places you fight are the same textures over and over. The characters you talk to look great, but the characters you fight can appear downright robotic. Again, it gives one the impression that the developers didn't have the time or money to give the game its last layer of polish. Considering it was a November release, that's pretty par for the course.

Final Score
4 of 5

It probably bears repeating that my scores are based on enjoyment and replayability, and Bloodlines has replayability in spades.

1 = so bad I couldn't finish
2 = regret finishing it
3 = was worth finishing
4 = was good fun; may play through again
5 = sad it's over (probably already playing through again)

I'd like to try a female character. I'd like to try a manipulator. I'd like to see how difficult it is to play the clan that can't show its face above street level. Turning into animals could be pretty cool. And people on the boards say you have to play through at least once as the crazy clan. Yeah. I've got a lot to experiment with. Fun.

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

31 October, 2007

Review: Penumbra: Overture

Penumbra: Overture (2007) is a horror first person adventure by small Swedish indie developer Frictional Games.

It's an adventure game. You read stuff. You pick up stuff. You use stuff on other stuff. Since it's a horror game, occasionally you run from stuff. There are a few "action sequences" in the game, but for the most part, it's just puzzle solving and a little stealth.

Yeah. I know. The "S" word. Luckily the stealth in Penumbra is pretty easy. The music announces enemies before you see them, and there's always plenty of shadow and cover to use. And running away is usually a viable option, even if you are spotted.

There are a couple of "action sequences" that killed me the first time through, but they were mostly good, scary deaths, so I didn't mind.

Back to the adventure game part. The puzzles in Penumbra are generally well done. Every piece of text I found was eagerly devoured for information that might help me find my way. There were a few puzzles that were contrived. Nowhere but in a game will you find a floor covered with deadly steam vents that fire in a precise pattern you must memorize to get across safely. But for the most part, I enjoyed the puzzles and the clues.

Penumbra takes the System Shock approach to theatrics. Pretty much everybody's dead. You're reading their logs to figure out what happened and hopefully avoid their fate. You're also piecing together a history, trying to figure out what's wrong with the place and how your long absent father (who's notes brought you there in the first place) was involved. I was a little disappointed with the amount of light shed, but Overture was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, so I wasn't surprised.

The highest compliment I can pay the game is that I was under the misconception that Frictional licensed the DooM 3 engine for Penumbra and didn't realize they hadn't until I did a little reading for this review. Some of the art assets betray it's indieness, but the lighting effects are very nice. The enemies aren't much to look at, but if you do look directly at them a fear effect washes over the screen, blurring your vision, so problem solved. :)

The music also works quite well. There are plenty of good creepy sound effects, as well. I'm not sold on random panning noises in the soundtrack. Trying to scare the player that way has always seemed cheap to me. But overall I thought the sound was well done.

Final Score
4 of 5

27 October, 2007

Crysis Demo Impressions

Frankly, I'm surprised I'm' writing this. I didn't think the Crysis demo would even run on my woefully out of date rig. But if you turn everything down, it does. Looks okay, too.

But how does it play?

It's a mixed bag. I tried going through stealthy and I tried going through shooting everything that moved. Stealth sucked. It felt slow. The "sleep dart" add-on they give you can only fire once every ten seconds, and the bad guys wake up in a minute, so it's not very useful. And the silencer reduces your accuracy to the point where you might as well just punch the guy.

There were some environmental inconsistencies that made stealth frustrating. Lying low in the tall grass seemed to have no effect, but hiding behind a sparse bush made me completely invisible. Certain slopes that I had no issue standing on I would mysteriously slide off of when prone. I think it's safe to say that prone is generally considered more stable than standing.

Without my cloak on, I would instantly be taking fire from enemies in boats seventy meters away. Maybe that's fair on a high end system where I'd be able to see the enemy that far away too, but it's not fair on my system. Has anyone ever actually made a game that tweaked the visibility distance of the enemy AI based on the resolution you're running at?

Using my cloak, I could have a little fun tormenting lone baddies, but if you screw up, you're pretty much dead as AK fire at close range will end you tout suite. Plus the enemies go down so easily (on normal difficulty) that there's generally no point to stealth. I suppose more difficult enemies later in the game may make stealth a necessity. I hope not, though. It was no fun.

Going in guns blazing was more fun. Actually, having gained a healthy respect for the bad guys' guns, I was still picking them off and outmaneuvering them more than mowing them down. The guns aren't very accurate, so I wasn't about to trust my life to spray and pray. Outmaneuvering the enemies is pretty easy and fun. They basically close in on wherever they saw you last, maybe throwing a grenade in, meaning all you have to do is put something between you and them, walk around it, and shoot them in the back while they're wondering where you went. I call it Elmer Fudd AI.

Emboldened by my success in taking down the big enemy compound with no problem, I decided it was time to have a little fun. I picked up an explosive drum and put in the back of a pickup, planning to send it hurtling into the checkpoint for fun. But as my slip slidin' experience with the prone stance indicated, the physics of the game wasn't up to the job. There was a continuous clanging from the back of the truck, like the the barrel was continually "running into" the truck bed instead of resting in it. Eventually it stopped, but when I got out of the truck to shoot a guy, I looked in the back and discovered the barrel had disappeared. I suppose that's better than blowing up for no reason and killing me, but it's still kind of sad when Half-Life 2 was doing better physics almost three years ago and Crysis is supposed to be so advanced. Of course, even Half-Life 2: Episode 2 had to have special case code to attach a physics object to a vehicle, so maybe I should cut the Crytek guys some slack. :P

Regardless, I won't be upgrading to play Crysis.

(I'll be upgrading when those marvelous 512MB GeForce 8800 GTs hit $200. :)

25 October, 2007

Review: Second Sight

Second Sight (2004) is a third person action game by Free Radical Design, makers of the TimeSplitters series, and the upcoming Haze. Second Sight is the story of Dr. John Vattic, paranormal debunker, who wakes in a hospital to discover he has psychic powers. The story is far more convoluted than that, but no spoilers.

Second Sight's gameplay is pretty straightforward. You've got guns and psychic powers (and a melee attack that's pretty much useless). The shooting is mediocre. I've never been a fan of the "auto target then fine tune" mechanic that Free Radical's founders seem so attached to. The PC version didn't need it in the first place.

The psychic powers are okay. I wouldn't go so far as to describe any of them as fun, though.

The enemy AI is very inconsistent, sometimes seeming largely brain dead as it fails to notice its comrades keeling over three feet away and sometimes being able to run directly to your location from across the level when you are psychically cloaked.

You can duck and bind yourself to cover. This generally serves no purpose as you can sneak up to corners manually. This implementation is also poor. Most of the time, pressing away from cover will disengage you, but sometimes it won't. And some pieces of cover will automatically scooch you around corners you weren't trying to scooch around, alerting enemies or exposing you to incoming fire.

The game is often stealth based. All the usual baggage of bad stealth is here. Guards spawn in from impossible locations when alerts sound. Occasionally alarms seem to occur randomly. Some I assume were bodies I left behind being discovered, but some were obviously level triggers, and some had no ready explanation.

The camera is also crap, which further degrades the stealth segments. The shift key will give you a second angle on the action, but it's usually more useless than the normal one. You can't move in first person, which is sad. The game might have worked better that way.

The game uses a checkpoint save system which is mostly fine. Some of the checkpoints were too far apart. But when you've got this many gameplay annoyances, repeating sections of any length is often unpleasant.

This is the reason I put up with Second Sight. The acting is good. The directing is good. The writing good. The plot is good. That sounds like faint praise, on paper. But when you put it together, it's more than that.

The acting makes the characters worth something (not to the level of the Vances in Half-Life 2, but something). The directing gives the context and sets the tone that helps the performances (usually recorded separately) feel continuous and well paced. The writing gives the characters in the game their own points of view and avoids most of the easy stereotypes that make so many games (and movies) embarrassments to the art form. The plot keeps the action moving and gives you a purpose. The game's only difficulty levels are normal and challenging. If there was an easy mode, I'd highly recommend it, just to experience the story. Maybe cheat your way through. If I play it again, that's how I'll be doing it.

Second Sight looks like TimeSplitters. I knew who made it just by looking at it. While the look suits TimeSplitters, I don't think it's as good for Second Sight. It's cartoony and doesn't really fit the story. The music could also be beefed up a bit. The same "stealth blown" music is used from beginning to end, and I got thoroughly sick of it. There were also some technical issues with the sound that sometimes made it hard to hear dialog.

Final Score
3 out of 5

State of the Consoles

All facts courtesy of Next Gen. All lies and baseless speculation courtesy of me.

Sony lost $847 million on the games unit last quarter. (I believe both italics and bold were necessary for that word. :) I've often thought that Sony simply needed to suck up the financial losses and lower the price on the hardware enough to move units. Looking at numbers like these... They lose this much at their current, outrageously high price ($500 and $600). If they sold more units and lose more money on each unit, they would easily be losing more than a billion dollars a quarter. Combine this with the fact that the Unreal engine still isn't up to speed on the PS3 (Epic is being sued by licensees over this issue, and even Epic's own UT3, which was supposed to be the PS3's FPS savior this holiday season, was delayed until next year.) and you've got real trouble. There are rumors that Sony is going to developers to ask them to please not cancel the PS3 versions of their games. Who knows? Maybe a bigger portion than we think of those losses are the cost of paid exclusives. In the meantime they're releasing a cheaper ($400) PS3 with no backwards compatibility. Morons. Who do you think cares the most about backwards compatibility? That's right! Cheap asses! Never mind that Sony lied to our faces, making commitments to back compat and chiding Microsoft for going with software emulation. They deserve what they're getting.

The house that Donkey Kong built is still going great guns. The problem (and it's always been on Nintendo systems) is that it's mostly just Nintendo profiting. No titles from other publishers made the top ten this week. Admittedly the publishers don't seem to put their best teams on the Wii, so it's partly their own fault. You'd think with an example like Resident Evil 4 out there, they'd have learned that quality games (even ones that kids can't play) sell, regardless of platform.

Halo 3 destroys all. 3.3 million copies sold in the last eleven days of September. Just barely more 360s than Wiis were sold in September, as well. Third party publishers still see the 360 as the place to make money. Live Arcade and downloadable content is apparently raking it in. The funny part is that Microsoft, uncharacteristically, doesn't seem to have any further plans. They're not relaunching Viva Piñata or otherwise pushing any kid friendly brands to try and take some of Nintendo's demographic. They're not dropping the price enough to make the 360 the one true set top box. Don't tell me Microsoft is just going to improve their efficiency at wringing money out of young males when there are still worlds out there to conquer. Not my Microsoft!

22 October, 2007

Impressions: Hellgate London Demo

I took a break from Zelda for some scary games, in keeping with my October is for horror theme. Over this past weekend I took a break from scary games for a LAN party. While I was there, I decided to give the Hellgate demo a spin. You see, the LAN party I go to is a family affair, so they like to cooperate more than compete. I thought maybe Hellgate could be a good addition to the FPS, RTS; racing merry-go-round. It turns out Hellgate isn't planning LAN support, so it'll probably never fly at the LAN parties, but is it even fun to begin with?

For those of you unfamiliar, Hellgate is from the makers of Diablo and Diablo II. Much like Diablo, it can be played single player or online and you have multiple classes to choose from. I didn't play much Diablo and zero Diablo II. Point and click as a gameplay mechanic just didn't appeal. But Hellgate is third person action or first person shooting (depending on which class you play). The demo lets you try the Blademaster (hand to hand damage dealer) and Marksman (ranged damage dealer) classes to level five.

Unfortunately, the limited choice of classes and limited content makes it a bit difficult to tell if you're getting the real flavor of the game. Most of the monsters take zero effort to dispatch. The few that do take effort can usually be defeated through the use of a single healing potion while you continue to hack (or blast) away. It's still mindless fun, but I'm guessing the game gets meatier later on when you actually have to start thinking tactically and using the environment more. Of course just the fact that you can use the environment is a big improvement, in my eyes.

When I was a Marksman, running away from the giant frozen turkey monster (That's what it looks like!), I found an opening I could fit into that the monster couldn't and happily blazed away.) When I was a Blademaster facing ranged opponents I could duck behind cover and then use my sprint ability to leapfrog my way up to my foes. It was lovely, and something sorely missed in games like WoW where every projectile auto tracks. I guess the difference is that WoW is trying to make sure you can never have it too easy to prevent farming of mobs well above the player's level. Hellgate (like the Diablo games) doesn't seem to care if the players can thoroughly outsmart the AI. It makes me wonder about Hellgate's economy. To my knowledge there's no auction house and only 40 players in a hub area at any one time. It almost makes me wonder if selling drops or crafted items is a waste of time in the game.

The demo also had a lot of bugs. Some were forgivable, like floors you weren't supposed to be able to get to not being solid. But some didn't bode well for the game's overall quality, like the little leaping monsters that frequently disappeared or my weapons disappearing when I upgraded them with only the upgrade cannisters floating in space. Even their icons in my inventory disappeared. Luckily the box showing how much space they took up remained so I could still figure out what was going on. It a lot of ways it feels like a launch MMO. Sure the daily quests from The Burning Crusade are still bugged. We'll patch it eventually. :P

The worst part is, I'm sorely tempted to drop a ridiculous amount of money on a Founders account. For only ten months of WoW, I can play Hellgate Premium forever. It's #$*^ing sad when WoW has screwed up the value proposition that badly.

17 October, 2007

Review: Undying

Undying is a horror game circa 2001. You play an occult investigator visiting an old war buddy (from WWI) who's in trouble. Since this is a horror game, it's bad trouble. If you want some mood music for the review check out Bill Brown's sample page, which includes music from the game.

The gameplay in Undying is a hybrid of magic and gun play. The left mouse button uses weapons. This means guns, molotovs, and occult artifacts. The right mouse button uses your spells. Eventually you'll have eight weapons and eight spells. You also have an on-demand inventory to cycle through and use. This is too much stuff.

The game defaults to having you scroll back and forth through all your various inventories, which is a pain and will generally get you killed. I'll give partial credit for giving me enough configuration options that I was eventually able to work out a compromise that gave me easy access to most of my favored weapons and spells.

Favored spells are especially important as most spells cost way too much mana to use unless they've been fully upgraded with four "amplifiers". On one level, this lets you customize your experience. But in practice it just meant I didn't bother using half the spells in the game because they were prohibitively expensive.

These annoyances aside, the combat actually can be rewarding. There are spells with multiple uses or tricks to making them more effective. There are some boss fights that force you to think on your feet to realize what you need to do to win. A few enemies have interesting attack patterns. Overall I would say the combat was passable.

I'd say the same about the puzzles. There were a few deathtraps, the occasional jumping puzzle, and a lot of finding keys. Navigation is the biggest puzzle, especially in the early game where you're in a giant mansion, trying every door to figure out which one is unlocked this time. Which doors are locked / jammed always changes depending on where the designers want to funnel you next. This problem is compounded by the scarcity of health and ammo in the start of the game, in effect forcing you to check every door, or risk missing that crucial box of bullets or health pack that could have gotten you through the next encounter.

The difficulty curve of the game was also pretty uneven. At the start, I was constantly afraid for my life. By the mid game, I was an action hero. By the late game, I was a juggernaut. I had almost 2500 spare health in my inventory and was unable to pick up ammo because I was full of every kind. I had been taught early on to rely on spells and ammo free artifact weapons.

Undying attempts to tell the story of a family corrupted by the occult. Unfortunately, it does so through a few text journal entries and occasional reenactments by disembodied voices, which while somewhat effective, are too few and far between. System Shock did it much better, seven years earlier. The game actually begins with a flashback to the main character's experiences in WWI.

If they'd shown more of the decline and fall of the family in flashbacks like that, it would have been much more effective. The game was developed by Dreamworks Interactive, so it's not like they didn't know anyone with the talent or money to help out. According to WikiPedia, Dreamworks Interactive was sold to EA after Undying, so it's possible nobody really wanted DI around.


As you can see (if your monitor's brightness is high enough), the game is capable of impressive visuals. Unfortunately, most of the architecture is not this impressive. The low polygon budget means most of the interior of the mansion is completely bereft of furniture or furniture that is so low poly it's hard to look at. The game uses the Unreal engine, and most of it's outdoor terrain has the same grass texture on a gem stone look that Unreal's did. That said, there are still some environments (or at least sections of environments) that are impressive to see, and there is enough variety of environments to keep the repetition monster at bay. The weapon, magic, and weather effects also help to enhance the visuals.

The sound work is good, with plenty of creepy noises and distinctive weapon and spell sounds. In fact some of my biggest scares in the game came from my own weapons and spells. :) The music (in case you're not listening to it already) is also great at setting the mood.

Final Score
3 of 5

14 October, 2007

Review: King Kong

King Kong (2005) was released to coincide with the remake of the groundbreaking 1933 film.

Note: This review contains gameplay spoilers. I've put them in black text on a black background for the web page, but if you're reading in an RSS reader, you'll just have to skip them manually by looking for the *SPOILERS* and *END SPOILERS* markers.

You spend most of the game playing as Jack, the writer turned action hero trying to save the girl. This basically means hurling spears and shooting guns at various monsters. The gameplay is kept varied by different enemies and a few interesting mechanics.


The first is the spear mechanic. At various points (too frequently for realism, but who cares) you find native spears and piles of bones which can be used as spears. The spear has a poke attack which is used for impaling very small critters, setting the spear on fire, and keeping medium sized critters at bay. It can also be thrown. Bone spears are fairly weak weapons, requiring two of them just to take down a medium sized flyer.

The second is the bait mechanic. Most creatures on the island eat other creatures on the island. This allows you to kill one creature to distract others. This is often essential when you need to sneak past to get guns, spears or fire.

The third is the fire mechanic. Spears can be set on fire (given a fire source). This allows them to set otherwise impassible brambles on fire. It also kills any monster who comes in contact with the burning brambles. It also destroys wooden native structures (but the brambles have to be lit first. The wood itself doesn't burn). There are also occasionally sconces that can be knocked down to light the brambles underneath them.


When the pieces are put together with the varied environments and the fact that you're often looking out for (and being looked out for) by the other members of the expedition, it all works quite well. I was always extra aware of my environment, looking for that edge I might need to survive the next fight. It was almost more of a puzzle than an action game at times.

You're also on the lookout for "handles" which fit into the natives' door opening mechanisms. Those seem a little forced, but they weren't as bad as some reviews had lead me to believe. I don't think you look for ten handles in the whole game.

As for the Kong gameplay, it's fine for what it is. It does a good job of conveying the epic scale of his fights. But most of the traveling segments feel like Sonic Adventure. Hold forward and press jump once in a while. Also, I remembered him as moving with a little more pep in the demo. He seemed sluggish in the actual game. That's probably just me.

The game's plot is really too simple to merit discussion. You fight monsters to try and save the girl (regardless of who you're playing as). It's in the moment to moment struggle for survival that the game shines. At it's best, the game lets you feel like you're cleverly using all of the tricks available to you to just barely keep you and your companions ahead of a horrible death.

The fact that the horrible deaths are actually pretty scary helps, too. Your screen starts pulsing red, the action music becomes a pathos filled aria, and you're generally looking into the face of whatever is going to eat you. It's pretty awesome.

It's a rare game that gets dying right, makes it so scary and thrilling that it's actually a kick to kick off. I remember one death where one dinosaur grabbed me by the leg while the other circled around and chomped my head. I reiterate, pretty awesome. I just wish I'd had the presence of mind to say "clevuh gehl." :) Also, the presence of frequent checkpoints and a quick load that's actually quick helps a great deal in making death feel more like a fun scare and less like a penalty.

One more thing about your companions, in the scripted sequences they do a good job giving you cues and setting the tone for the action. Once in a while you'll hear the same warning or exclamation of terror too many times, but mostly they're good. Well, the black guy is good. Jack Black's character is a useless ass I would have killed myself, if the game allowed it. When I failed to save him from being eaten by a T-Rex once, it made me smile.

And for those who know me well enough to know this in joke, it's also pretty awesome that the young kid you find and try to save (I'm not spoiling whether you succeed or not.) is named Jimmy.

The game is good looking. Even in DirectX 8.1 in low res. The jungle vegetation is pretty thick. The low saturation gave the whole thing an old timey, far away feel. The music also does its job well, increasing the fear and excitement. The sound effects are good. Providing lots of ambiance. Also you grab the spears out of the ground (they're usually sticking straight up) with a satisfying slap. There are some little things that don't work (like the clinically diagnosable "procedural neck" some of the medium sized dinos suffer from). But for the most part, I had the feeling of "being there", which is a definite success.

Final Score
4 out of 5