24 September, 2007

Team Fortress 2 Preview

I downloaded the TF2 beta last week. Between the really nice deal that is The Orange Box, and the fact that I'd been feeling like I wanted to be involved with at least one phenomenon this year while it was actually happening (as opposed to the year (or more) later bargain shopping I normally engage in).

TF2 is a first person shooter. As you might gather from the name, it's team based. A lot of FPS games make that claim, but few deliver like TF2. I listened to the commentary tracks they have for three of the levels, and the designers are very explicit about (among other things) that they wanted to make sure the classes needed each other. Heavies are slow (super slow while firing their mini-gun) and attract a lot of attention, so they need a medic to stay standing. Snipers are great at range, but are likely to get demolished by most other classes at close range. Scouts are quick and pack some real punch, but generally get destroyed by the engineer's turrets because of their low health. The Demo Man can bust up groups of enemies with his grenades and lay nasty traps with his "pipe bombs". (They look more like tiny mines, to me.) But he's weak at a distance where his projectiles can be easily avoided. There are nine classes, so I could go on about this all day. These are the early days of the game, so no dominant strategies have emerged yet. Hopefully the game will prove balanced enough that other than having a diverse team and a few sentries in key positions, the game never will get too stale.

The Pyro is the only character people seem have little use for. I love the Pyro, personally, but I don't mind sucking as long as I get to set people on fire once in a while. Also the Pyro has hilarious voice samples. You can't understand any of them because of the protective mask he wears. Totally worthless, but awesome (some would argue just like the Pyro himself). On servers with friendly fire enabled, I would say the Pyro is indeed, nearly worthless. Most servers don't enable FF, though, so the Pyro is great at detecting enemy spies by giving everyone a squirt. If the spy is detected, he keeps burning, even if he cloaks, so a couple shotgun blasts can finish the job.

Friendly fire's a thorny issue, though. Should a Pyro be able to run into a room while a friendly Demo Man's grenades are going off all around him and a medic is standing in the middle of the inferno he's creating, healing him? It seems favor the offense a little, doesn't it? True, the defenders can have a Pyro, Medic, and Demo Man of their own at work, but as long as the people on the point live, the point is being captured. I don't really mind this emphasis on offense. In theory it keeps the matches short. But there are some "achievements" linked to defending on certain maps that are more a matter of lucking into a very unbalanced team situation rather than actual skill.

Of course, if you don't care for luck, just keep joining until you get an open slot on a clan server, with the clan. The clan teams are already forming the dominant strategies. Playing against them is like trying to rally The Washington Generals. Remember, we're not even out of beta yet, and some people are already putting "newbie friendly" or "new players welcome" in the server name so people won't be scared off. Of course, that's somewhat true of all games. You don't go onto a clan server for CounterStrike and expect to win. But you do expect to be able to get kills. And if you're working against a well oiled machine in TF2, that might not be very realistic.

That scout was charged up by the medic to 150% health, so he's not likely to go down so quick, and if you do wound him and try to chase him back to the medic, the engineer's got a nice upgraded turret waiting for you, provided you make it past the pipe bombs the Demo Man laid and the Sniper, covering that big open area. Yeah, you're pretty much boned.

But that's mostly me trying to find fault. Nobody else (including Bungie) has managed to make skill based matchmaking work.

The game is a lot of fun. It looks great. It keeps a high framerate, even on my older machine. And if you break down The Orange Box into the three new offerings (Portal, Episode 2, and TF2), it's only $15. If you're a gamer you want it (or you have it already).

18 September, 2007

Review: God Hand

God Hand was the last game by Clover Studios of Viewtiful Joe and Okami fame (obscurity?). It's essentially an over the shoulder brawler, but unusually difficult, complicated, and silly.

There's a lot to talk about with the gameplay, so let's start with the basics. The camera is mostly over your characters shoulder unless a special move takes over. The normal camera position can sometimes cause trouble as an enemy can attack you while standing behind your character.

God Hand has complicated controls, one might go so far as to call them arcane. The left stick drives you around like a survival horror character. L1 does a 180. This is pretty clunky for a beat 'em up, where freedom of movement is often the key to controlling a fight, especially with multiple attackers (who actually attack at the same time instead of just waiting their turn, but we'll discuss that later).

The face buttons perform your normal attacks and are almost completely customizable (the exception being the circle button which is reserved for context sensitive moves). The square button is your combo, while the triangle and x buttons may be assigned one move each. Also each of the custom buttons can have an additional move assigned for when you pull back on the left stick and press the button. Confused yet? You should be. Historically, brawlers are mindless fun. Having to manually purchase and configure your combos practically makes this game an RPG.

Seriously, unless you're a fantastic player, you're going to want to purchase better moves from the store. That means you're going to need to earn some money from the casino. There are also special moves that can only be learned by winning on the high roller slot machine on the top floor of said casino. So if you want to be well armed, you have to play some cards and slots (which unfortunately means doing a fair bit of save / load dancing as the odds are not in your favor). I'd usually do this just before going to bed, as it's boring as hell to watch a slot machine turn over. But I wanted that Mach Speed Punch, dammit!

The right stick is used for dodging. You press forward to duck under attacks. Press back to do a back flip. Press to either side to dash. Flipping or dashing makes you nigh invulnerable (except to a few special attacks) for an instant.

Finally the remaining shoulder buttons are used to bring out the big guns (well except for L2 which just taunts enemies). R1 controls your God Reels. These are special powers which do major damage to opponents. R2 triggers the God Hand. As you beat up bad guys, your God Hand meter fills. When it turns orange, you can trigger it rendering you invincible and very fast for a short period.

All moves have a number of attributes. Speed and power are the most basic. Then you have block breakers, juggles (which throw the enemy up), and launches (which hurl them away). Juggles and launches don't work against heavier opponents unless you're using God Hand and neither work against the games larger bosses (except to inflict their normal damage).

You might be wondering at this point if I'm writing a review or a FAQ. Probably a little of both. The problem is, God Hand is complicated. I've seen no reviews that give a real feel for the game.

So now you've got your moves. You've assigned them to buttons. It's time to go meet the enemies and get your ass whooped. Seriously, there's not much learning curve to the game. It's more of a cliff. Sure, the earlier opponents are easier than the later ones, but you'll still die a lot. It's expected. If you finish a stage (five to nine levels and a boss fight) using only ten continues, you get a reward. That's how tough the game is.

And it gets tougher. If you're doing well, a difficulty meter goes up. Killing enemies at a higher difficulty means more money, but it also means enemies attack more aggressively, even from completely off-screen. There are radar and sound cues, but I was always too intent on the fight in front of me.

So how does all this add up to fun? Well, when you start to master it, you know you accomplished something. God Hand is to brawlers like Skate is to Tony Hawk. It beats the crap out of you until you get it.

Oh. I get it. I need to dodge that one guy's sword attacks because they travel too far for the backflip to escape them.

Oh. I get it. I need to use dodge to cancel out of my attack when the enemy blocks.

Oh. I get it. I need to use quick combos on the weak guys to keep them airborne long enough to do real damage.

Oh. I get it. I can't use quick combos against the gorillas because they start blocking too soon. I need to get in one or two heavy hits and then go for the ground attack.

Oh. I get it. I need to use more area effect launch moves to keep some of these opponents off me.

Oh. I get it.

That's how God Hand is rewarding. In browsing the videos on You Tube, I learned some cool techniques I'd never tried, and I saw some people using exactly the wrong strategy for the enemy they were fighting. The game is deep... and inscrutable enough that you can really feel you built your technique up all by yourself. You bought the moves. You learned where they do and don't work. And unlike the wusses (Chris Roper) who just do two punches then backflip, you've actually learned to mix it up, dodge like crazy, pull off the counters, bounce the bodies into crazy air combos, break enemy combos, and generally own the fight.

God Hand's gameplay is not for the faint of heart. But if you like a challenge, the line starts here.

God Hand is a joke, literally. The enemies spout ridiculous Mike Tyson quotes and run the gamut of generic leather clad toughs, clowns, gorillas in luchador costumes, fat guys with energy cannons on their backs, and many more. Bosses include the gay circus acrobats, a pole dancing vampire bimbo, five midget power rangers, a killer robot with interchangeable limbs, and many more.

The moves are often silly with you spanking female opponents and kicking guys in the crotch. Some of the special moves actually blast the enemy into orbit with only a winking star to mark their passing.

For crap's sake, one of the ways you can earn money is by betting on chihuahua races where the dogs have names like "Boom Headshot" and "Massive Damage".

The voice acting is in keeping with the campy atmosphere always angry about something or changing mood for no reason. You almost wish the characters mouths moved more to make it look like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.

God Hand's look and visual quality is good for a PS2 game. This is somewhat helped by the close in camera that gives you a good view of the characters. The environments can be pretty plain, but I was usually too busying fighting to notice. The same goes for the music.

Final Score
I give God Hand a three out of five.

I wanted to score it higher. I had enough fun learning and experimenting with techniques near the end to make me seriously consider a second playthrough. But that's me trying to ignore the facts. When I first played the game I hated it because I had to waste all that time in the casino to get moves. At it's best, God Hand is a very rewarding four. But the casino busywork, clumsy interface, and cheap offscreen attacks you have to tolerate to get to that goodness are impossible to overlook.

15 September, 2007


The blog isn't dead (again). It may well die, but it's not dead yet. Gaming's still in my thoughts. And I am still gaming. I'm playing God Hand and Sam & Max: Season One for review. I thought about reviewing the individual episodes, but they really don't feel like entire games to me. I'm also busier at work, even staying late occasionally, so that slows me down some. And last but not least, there's my life pacing.

On a good night, I can fit in a couple hours of God Hand. Then it's WoW or Sam & Max to wind down (mostly WoW as I like to be able to finish an episode of Sam & Max at a sitting), then bed. Good nights have been hard to find lately as I've been spending time with friends and family and on a couple side projects (a homemade birthday present and a costume for a costume party).

Never fear though. "Everyone I know goes away, in the end." The party is tonight. My only Sunday commitment is working box office for a play. I'll deliver the present on Monday. And I'm most of the way through God Hand already. In fact, I'm already thinking about what to play after God Hand. I'm thinking I'd like to keep one action game and one slower paced game in the rotation so I can always have adrenaline and serotonin on tap.

I'm also thinking I'd like to be able to time it so I can start playing the few scary games I have (Manhunt, Undying, and King Kong) near the end of October. Wheels within wheels. :)

I also finally reprogrammed my n52 for Joint Ops. It is so much nicer than using the keyboard. Between the stances, vision mods, vehicle seating, voice and radio chat, and weapon keys, a keyboard really isn't the right tool for the job. I just wish Joint Ops could recognize my fourth and fifth mouse buttons.

I'm also programming some chat macros for WoW. I'm putting things like /attacktarget /incoming and such on the D-pad, but I doubt I'll ever use them. But that's really a separate post.

04 September, 2007

Needless Worrying

N'Gai Croal owns me. He works for Newsweek and knows more about big business and gaming than I ever will. N'Gai's Level Up blog is required reading, and has been ever since I found my way there via Kotaku.

Besides his impressive knowledge of gaming and business, N'Gai likes to think. Most gaming mags and podcasts are focused on the next big product for so-called core gamers. That's fair. That's who works on those mags and podcasts. But N'Gai watches the bigger picture and in his latest exchange with Geoff Keighley, asks whether the gaming press is missing the boat. The Wii has sold more units than the 360. The biggest Wii games are Wii Sports and Wii Play and Mario Party 8, which don't suck, but aren't of much interest to core gamers. But with the Wii sales showing no signs of abating, I have to wonder, how big will the mainstream market get? Is it bigger than core gamers? If core gamers aren't buying most of the games, are they really core gamers anymore?

Essentially, this is how I feel about most entertainment. Most movies, TV, and music are crap. I follow a few artists and listen to what my peers (or rough approximations thereof since I'm older than many of them, now) are saying about what's new and worth following. I am not a core movie viewer, core TV watcher, or core music listener. I am on the fringes. I can enjoy the mainstream stuff, but it's not my preference. I keep thinking that these are my leanings, regardless of medium, and as gaming goes mainstream, I (and most other core gamers) will be on the fringes again.

This isn't going to be a quick process, though. The games industry is large. There's a lot of inertia. It takes a couple years to change the direction of something so big. First, they need to realize where the money really is. It's not core gamers.

They're a significant audience, and publishers will slavishly cater to them while laboring under the illusion that their game can be the next Halo. But developing games for core gamers is a huge risk because their standards are so high. Development takes lots of cash and time and even small issues with the game will immediately be trumpeted on every blog and message board, hurting sales. The big market is in reselling people the brands they already want. Family friendly, easy to learn, well branded stuff that as long as it's semi-playable, will sell for years.

Nobody else seems to fear the mainstream. Am I just crazy?

02 September, 2007

Rubric Revisited

Playing Warrior Within I realized I have no business giving out buying advice, so here's what the ratings mean to me. Remember, this is my taste, which include such arbitrary pet peeves as a hatred of load times, disgust with trial and error gameplay, and a general need for constant stimulation.

I only finished it so I could make fun of it, or it was too broken to finish.

Points for effort, but I'd rather have my time and money back.
Examples: Devil May Cry 2, Jak 3

It was worth my time. I do not regret playing it.
Examples: Evil Dead: Regeneration, Destroy All Humans, Ico, Onimusha 3, Metal Gear Solid, Mark of Kri

Solid. I'm glad I picked it up. I might even play through it again, if it's not too long.
Examples: Okami, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, DooM 3, Um Jammer Lammy, Lego Star Wars, almost any old LucasArts adventure game, any Rachet and Clank game

Can't review. Too sad it's over / already replaying.
Examples: DooM, Devil May Cry, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction

Review: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

Warrior Within (2004) is an action platform game loosely based on the classic Prince of Persia games by Jordan Mechner. It's the second game by Ubisoft. The first Ubisoft game was okay, if a little shallow. The second was intended to appeal more to hardcore gamers and made grittier and darker.

Part of the new darker PoP (Prince of Persia) is more combat. Unfortunately, the combat still isn't very fun. You have to learn the techniques that work on individual enemies by trial and error. The female assassins will rape you if you jump over them using the jump key. But if you jump over them using the offhand key, everything's peachy. Essentially, the combat makes no sense. Also some enemies are recycled and come back ten times as strong as they were before for no apparent reason. The camera sets you up for a fair amount of offscreen attacks, which will often knock you off a ledge. Additionally the new giants you have to fight are mostly a waste of time.

As for the other half of the equation, the platforming leaves a lot to be desired, as well. For one thing, I found navigation a chore. Some people enjoy this puzzle aspect to the game. I find it a complete waste of time, especially when bad camera positioning is the only thing making the puzzle hard. And good luck to you if you've started a difficult section (platforming or combat) with no sands of time as restarting your game has an annoying lag while you watch enemies gloating or the empty hole you fell into, then an ugly splash screen telling you your dead (Duh.), and finally you get to reload your game. No fun.

Warrior Within definitely makes an effort. There's a plot. It's complicated. I didn't care. There was just so little of it, and it was so irrelevant to the action.

Graphically the game was okay. I don't think I played with the settings turned all the way up and still had some frame rate hitches. Most of the textures were nice if you stopped to look at them, but for the most part, brown and gray prevailed, in accordance with the grittier style.

Overall I'd say Jordan and the Ubi team had a lot of fun with the idea of taking the prince to a darker place, but never really managed to pull it together into a coherent game.

Two out of five.

Mini-Review: Gun

While the game displays promise, the level of detail system means that every time you get on a horse, you have frequent, regular, multi-second lock ups. It's bad enough that I'm not going to finish the game.

A one.

Out of five.

01 September, 2007

Review: Armed and Dangerous

Armed and Dangerous is an old (2003) game by Planet Moon Studios, who also did Giants: Citizen Kabuto. I don't know which came first, but even only playing the demo of Giants, I can see the similarities. Anyway, I finally got around to giving the game a run through on Easy (or Tourist Mode, as I like to call it) and came away with the following impressions.

The controls were fine. Running, jumping, and popping heads was easy enough. The camera leans when you turn, which was disconcerting until I realized what was going on. The weapons are okay, although the feedback to tell where you're hitting with bullet weapons is a little weak. Little jagged yellow cartoon bubbles would have been nice. Also, the shark gun isn't really very useful as it takes forever to kill and only lets you carry two rounds of ammo.

The difficulty, on easy mind you, was fine. Enemies generally dropped more health than I needed and only lingering under artillery would make me end up dead. There was a problem in one mission where you're supposed to stop paratroopers falling from zeppelins from destroying a village. It was completely frustrating until I found the right mounted gun to wipe out the zeppelins before they could drop their passengers. Then it was completely dull.

Armed and Dangerous has some funny cut scenes with writing well above average. The voice acting and directing are also very good. The characters are fairly broad, which is to be expected in a comedy but still a little disappointing, as the game made me come very close to giving a damn about them.

Being an older game, Armed and Dangerous is pretty blocky. I grew up on games with even lower rez, but it might bother some people. The settings in Armed and Dangerous are varied, if not particularly stunning. There are some wave crashing effects near the end that I haven't seen done elsewhere. The main characters are well rendered and animated. A lot of the models have an odd look, almost like scanned in miniatures or prerendered sprites. Speaking of prerendered, the cut scenes are a little barren, as well, but serve their purpose.

Final Score a three.

Out of five.