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

11 October, 2007

Review: Half-Life 2: Episode 2

E2 rocks.

The gameplay is basically what you've come to expect from Half-Life, only better paced. Well, I like the pacing better. I suppose that boils down to there being a bit more combat and fewer physics puzzles. There are still physics puzzles, of course, but by the time you get to one, you've usually done enough fighting that you're glad for the break.

The combat also seems more fun this time out. The HL2 weapons don't really excite me. They're well made, but they're not fun to use (especially the SMG). But there are usually so many physics objects lying around in E2, the normal guns feel like your backup. An argument can certainly be made that there are too many handy objects lying around, but I don't care. It's more fun this way.

I'm also a fan of the less driving. Driving in HL2 stinks. That's partly because no game does great driving using a keyboard. Driving is a very analog thing. But it's also because the cars handle terribly. I always feel like I've climbed into a twitchy physics object more than a car.

There are two new enemies to fight. To keep this review as spoiler free as possible, I'll just say that I very much enjoy the one with fewer legs and, even though it wasn't very exciting to fight, still appreciated the variety added by the one with more legs.

Episode 2 does more storytelling in six hours than most games do in 20. It still has its flaws, Gordon's muteness when he has information he really should be sharing comes to mind. But I'm just sitting here, not wanting to spoil anything, thinking about all the cool moments. Obviously, this means the voice acting, directing, writing, and animation are all getting the job done. I don't normally call out the animation, but Valve's facial animation system is still head and shoulders above anything else in gaming. In fact, I'd be willing to argue that this game has the best storytelling we've seen in gaming. Admittedly, the characters lack a certain something. They're a little too pure, lacking the quirks that make a character breathe. But then again, you can't have them talking too much or you ruin the pacing. In fact, I'll bet there are younger gamers out there who hate any time spent listening to the dialog. Luckily they can throw bottles against the wall or otherwise amuse themselves during most of the dialog.

I suppose the fact that you can never actually participate in a conversation will always keep the exposition in Half-Life a drag. Maybe some day Valve will give you some little icons you can use to give you at least some indication of your feelings. I don't feel like Gordon's muteness enables me to be Gordon. It makes me mistrust him. He never comforts anyone, never cheers anyone on, never curses, never says thank you. If Gordon turns out to be human, I'll be both surprised and disappointed. I wouldn't mind at all if he didn't turn out to be a good guy, either. He took the man in black's deal, after all.

It's still Half-Life 2. It's been incrementally improving, but nothing jumped out at me as particularly beautiful. The environments were varied enough to keep me from getting tired of them (with one minor exception). The special effects are well done (with one wonky looking explosion near the end of the game). And part of the reason the graphics don't wow me may well be the older PC I'm running. The sound and music are solid, as well (although once or twice the music comes in too loud, as it has in certain encounters in the other HL2 games. When I'm fighting for my life, being able to position enemies I can't see by sound is crucial). I guess the bottom line is the aesthetics aren't as strong as the gameplay and storytelling, but then again, when I'm enjoying the experience this much, who cares?

Final Score
5 out of 5

And a note for cheap gamers: I wouldn't pay the $30 Valve is asking for this as a standalone. But at $20, I'd definitely recommend it. But if you're the type who has more money than time to play games (I don't envy you, by the way.), it's one of the best gaming experiences out there at any price.

10 October, 2007

Portal Impressions

Portal was a great way to not go to sleep on time tonight. It's part of The Orange Box, which I've already declared indisputably wonderful just from the Team Fortress 2 beta. Since I was up at midnight tonight, I decided to tear into the newly unlocked Portal and see if I could beat it before I got sleepy. No sweat.

For my non-gamer friends (This includes you, WoW players.), Portal was a student project at a game design school. Valve was so impressed they scooped up the team and had them revamp the game for The Orange Box. The setting is a test lab. You are a lab rat. Use the portal gun to solve puzzles. Sometimes you use portals to move around the level. Sometimes you use them to redirect projectiles to hit certain targets. Sometimes you use them to drop a crate through the floor and on top of a sentry gun. It's fun. It makes me feel clever (except for the two or three times the game managed to stop me for five minutes or so to figure out a puzzle). I finished the story in three and a half hours, but there are bonus challenges and commentary I'll most likely go back for. Also, just screwing around with portals is fun. To try and get a picture of the protagonist, I shot two portals on a wall and stood halfway in between.

I'm going to assume the second head is bug. :P

A lot of people have praised Portal for its comedy. Maybe I watch too much really good comedy, or maybe I was just too concerned with staying alive to care, but I never laughed out loud. There really only seemed to be one joke, anyway.

Regardless, Portal was a fun three and a half hours. It managed to make portals engaging and fun, something which the decade in development Prey didn't. Hopefully the bonus content will increase the enjoyment. And if the portal gun is well integrated into Episode 2 (or any other FPS), that could be a welcome breath of fresh awesome.

07 October, 2007

My Gaming Life

Well, the I-Ninja review is finally up. Bad games take longer to play, what can I say? Plus that game had a lot of padding. I actually might have scored it higher if it hadn't been so replay happy.

In the meantime, I'm still playing TF2. I don't play often, but when I do, it takes hours to tear myself away again. Should I even write a review for it? You already know it's a five, right? Yeah. It's a five. I was thinking about trying to write up an article on the similarities between TF2 and PvP in WoW. But I can probably just sneak into this paragraph. First off, I usually end up playing support classes (medic and engineer) because nobody else will (proof). In WoW my first main was a priest and my current main is a tank. Support classes. Much like in WoW PvP, teamwork trumps individual skills. When I'm on a good team, our spies our feeding us the enemy's moves so that we're ready for them. Our soldiers and demos are hurting themselves to get the medics ubered faster. Our engineers are keeping the trip to the front lines short with well placed teleporters. When I'm on a bad team, it's generally very quiet. I'm the only one trying to coordinate anything or communicate what the enemy is doing. Sometimes we make some progress because the defenders are also weak, but on defense, we almost always crumble against the first uber or spy swarm. On a really bad team, I get to watch through the kill cam as people on our team completely ignore enemies taking the objective point. (I'm watching through the kill cam because I was the only one actually trying to stop them. Everyone else was just deathmatching.) Warsong Gulch anyone? :P

Speaking of WoW, I'm online infrequently, usually just to do a little auctioneering. It's more rewarding than adventuring sometimes and more profitable than adventuring most of the time. I'm still a long way from my epic mount. I'm still a long way from caring. I'll be glad to hit 70 just so I can stop playing and no one can give me crap.

Beyond that, Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass came in the mail on Friday. I'm well over half done. I normally don't play games so current, but there was a deal (listed on CAG from Family Video), and DS games rarely drop much in price. That's part of why I normally try to stay away from handhelds. I also don't have a very good setup for playing them. Sitting on the couch, pillows on my lap to hold the DS at the proper distance, I get uncomfortable. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe I should just move around more. But I didn't much care for it. Perhaps I'll try the computer desk. Of course, the problem with Phantom Hourglass is that it's taking time from my October scary game lineup.

Manhunt is back in the PS2, but hasn't spun up yet. Undying and King Kong are waiting for me to free up a little hard drive space. With the upcoming release of Jericho (another Clive Barker game), I'm tempted to hit up Undying first. Folks on the Penny Arcade boards are saying Undying is far scarier. I don't remember liking the demo, but I think I played it for ten minutes, got stuck, and deleted it. Soon, Undying.

If my PC was nicer, I'd actually be playing Jericho itself. GameTap is having a $60 a year subscription offer, and I'm glad someone out there is doing the legal leg work to make old arcade games playable without crime, so I'm happy to support them. This means I'll technically have access to Jericho on the day it comes out, but I don't think I'll be playing it.

Oh crap. That reminds me. I'll have access to Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal in three days. Too much gaming goodness. Well, Half-Life has zombies. Zombies are scary, right? Right?

Review: I-Ninja

I-Ninja (2003), is an action platformer for PS2. You play a ninja who, after finding a mystical "rage stone", kills his master. Your master comes back as a ghost and sends you after the rest of the rage stones.

I-Ninja's gameplay is largely forgettable. Your attack is a basic sword slash. You have a couple special moves, but nothing particularly fun or more effective than standard slashing. You can upgrade your sword a few times, but it maxes out fairly quickly. You also gain special powers after every hub world that you charge by hitting enemies and breakables. Outside of being the only way of regaining health, the special powers are... nothing special. They're especially lame because you get no combo bonus when you kill with them, which means they hurt your score. You can probably sum up the combat by saying you will never have a fight as cool as the one that plays behind the opening menu.

Your means of locomotion include the aforementioned running and jumping, but also include double jumping, sword hovering / gliding, wall jumping, wall running, rail grinding, chain swinging, and a combo of those last two where you run down a path really fast, using your chain swing to make tight corners. And finally there are a couple levels that have you steering a giant rolling ball. Sounds like platformer heaven, no? Sadly the execution makes them less fun. You have very little to do while using them. You can jump from rail to rail once in a while, but you generally don't need to. Most wall jumping sections feel like they're just there to pad the length of the level (especially when your trying to complete a time trial). Combat and fun movement almost never interact.

Early on you have some interesting change-ups with vehicle fights. You pilot a giant robot in the first hub and a submarine in the second. The fights aren't bad, but they aren't good either. There's also a gun emplacement mission. By the end you're back to standard boss fights, which are okay, but never that exciting. Also, once you clear a level, you can go back to do various challenges. Doing some of these challenges are mandatory to level up so you can open subsequent doors. I started out trying for 100% completion, but got so bored with the game I gave up. There are only so many "kill every bad guy" or "find every coin" challenges you can do before you want your life back. Additionally, because I had gotten so many grades from earlier challenges, I completely skipped many later levels. Who knows? Maybe they were actually good? I'll take my chances.

Your character is a jerk. You can tell because he says mean things to the ghost of his master who's death he was responsible for. Your master is a moron. You can tell because he mixes up his clichés. That is the extent of the character development in the game. The voice acting for the main characters is performed by seasoned professionals (Billy West and Michael Bell) who have played some of my favorite characters in animation and gaming, so I can confidently say it's the (lack of) writing that make me completely apathetic to the characters and story.

The art and special effects are competent, but generally unimpressive. They remind me of the Ape Escape sequels.

Final Score
Two out of five.

03 October, 2007


I'm very late to this discussion (and not bothering to tell any of the people in it that I've thrown in my two cents), but I felt like commenting on an issue I believe Stephen Totilo (here's the post) raised about landmarks in video games. Jonathan Blow (a thoughtful indie dev) took up the question on his blog (and here's that post). A lot of comments were made, but it seemed to me that the discussion was trying to go in a few too many directions at once.

First, let's look at the original comment from Stephen Totilo.

Thirty, forty years in, video games, I am sad to report, are without many famous landmarks and places. N’Gai, can you name a single famous video game building? Princess Peach’s castle (and courtyard) from “Super Mario 64,” maybe? Anything else? Yes I can recall locations in games. For example, I remember the giant vat containing a massive, submarine-sized floating mechanical shark in “Banjo Kazooie,” and I remember the green hill zone of “Sonic: The Hedgehog.” But the truly great places — the postcard-worthy ones — include, for me, just the moon in “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” the big sword bridge in “God of War,” Sanctuary Fortress in “Metroid Prime 2: Echoes,” and, not much else. Almost every other spot — even the fun ones — from Dracula’s Castle to Vice City feels generic, familiar, or plain unspectacular.

And because of this, I welcome Rapture. It is a place that looks like no other I’ve been to in video games. Who cares if there’s a gameplay significance to its rising flood-waters! It’s a special, specific place. I’d like to go to a few more [times.]

First off, I have to wonder about Rapture. I have only seen the earliest parts of Bio Shock, but outside of having wonderful production values, the game still looks like a corridor shooter to me. I didn't see anything that I would consider a landmark, and games that make you come back to the same hub areas frequently (Hexen, anyone?) are usually criticized for it, and I haven't heard any talk of backtracking woes in Bio Shock. But let's table that for now and move on to what Jonathan Blow had to say.

If locales are really going to be game landmarks, rather than fanciful imitations of real-world places that you could experience as well in non-game media, then the impression they leave needs to happen through gameplay; they need to be memorable because of the things they encourage to happen within them, not (just) because of the way they look.
In a sense, he's saying that game spaces are about gameplay, not appearance. This is certainly a valid argument. Who really cares if you're using hand carved hardwood pieces or Simpsons pieces after the chess game starts? He goes on to make another point worth making.
Stephen casually mentions fame as being one criterion for landmarks, but I’m not sure that’s a good gauge. Most Americans have heard of Niagara Falls as some kind of great waterfall, but Victoria Falls is much more spectacular. (Just to take one measurement for example, Niagra Falls is about 60 meters high, while Victoria Falls is 100). Victoria Falls is a better landmark, but it’s harder for Americans and Europeans to access, so it is less famous for us (though it is considered to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, whereas Niagara just isn’t on that list.
This is especially true of gaming where one person's holy grail is a game someone else may never have heard of. I was shocked and appalled to find out that Blaster Master didn't sell well. I consider it one of the best games of the NES generation, yet many people of that generation never played it. Also, when I think of landmarks, my mind immediately flies to Nosgoth and the pillars. Anyone who's played through Blood Omen, Soul Reaver, and Soul Reaver 2 knows that fairly early on you get to be present at the pillars at a pivotal moment. It made me feel like a tourist in Berlin watching the wall came down. I was witnessing history. But for most gamers, Kain is just a cosplay outfit they mistake for a generic anime vampire. My mind wants to go in a few directions at once, so let's back up and summarize where we are in the argument.

Stephen says video games lack famous landmarks like the real world. Jonathan Blow wants us to consider that the game implications are more memorable than the visuals, and that fame is not necessarily a good criteron in the relatively young and fragmented field of games.

Okay, where to start?

What makes a landmark? Memory. What makes memory?

Most landmarks are landmarks because people have been visiting them for hundreds or even thousands of years. We see them in vacation pictures, on postcards, on t-shirts, in advertising, in movies, in songs. Games (in the less than half a century they've even been in stores) thrive on novelty. People criticize games for using the same locales (see Sam & Max: Season One), so they try to avoid it. In addition most games are sequels, sporting the same characters, villians, and gameplay they had in the previous iteration (or that the genre has had for a decade). So how do you set it apart? New tech; new gameplay gimmick; new setting.

Games really only hit two senses. Smell is a powerful memory trigger (possibly the most powerful). Games don't have anything in the way of smell or taste to trigger memory. Their touch is pretty weak, too. In fact, I keep hearing people on gaming podcasts say they only miss rumble in a few driving games where it's used as a cue to let you know you're close to losing traction. For my own part, my strongest touch memory of a game is from Metal Gear Solid. The rumble when Liquid's helicopter takes off at the start caught my attention and primed me for the real deal. When you find the hostage you're supposed to rescue, he's been poisoned, and you feel his frantic then fading heartbeat as he dies. It's horrible, but I'll never forget it. But that's still a very limited form of touch. I've never felt the weight or texture of something in a game world. I heard there was a peripheral that was supposed to simulate that on some level, but that was a year or two ago, so it obviously hasn't caught on. And even then you have no temperature, no moisture. All of these things contribute to memory, and games don't have them. And even in the senses games do play to, they still don't look (2D screens) or sound (no above and below which is kind of crucial if you think about it) real. In fact games have only a little bit more sensory output than movies and TV. How many landmarks have movies or television created?

At some level, games are daydreams we indulge in. Human memory is state dependant, so we're less likely to remember what are essentially daydreams. There's just something less impressive that comes from knowing that a canyon was built by a thirty man art team as opposed to six million years of erosion. Plus you can fall in and die. That's a pretty big difference, too. Finally, game landmarks are somewhat... flexible. I've been conditioned to expect that even if I do visit the same setting in a subsequent game, it may not be the same. All this contributes to a sense that game architecture is not there to be remembered.

Landmarks don't mean the same thing in games. When you're walking around in an unfamiliar city, you are very aware of navigation. You use landmarks. "Oh, Sacre Coeur's over there. Now I can figure out where I am on the map." Most games have their own maps that show your exact location. Many games don't even model any parts of the location that aren't directly relevant, so you don't really need to navigate much. You also go to real landmarks just to visit them. They are an attraction unto themselves. You got the pamphlet. A tour guide told you stuff about it. You can tell normal people you saw it, and they might care. (That's a biggie.) While some game landmarks have actual backstory (the Citadel from Half-Life 2 being the popular example on Jonathan Blow's blog), they generally feel like a bunch of combat encounters in similar looking hallways at the end of the day.

Last Words
Well, I didn't even get to Jonathan Blow's discussion of gameplay architecture as landmark or the validity of fame defining the landmark, but I've gone on too long already. Do I think games will ever produce culturally recognizable physical landmarks? Sure, to the extent movies and TV do. But as in those media I think it's an aesthetic element that can add to a game, rather than an essential ingredient the industry needs to address.

What I'm Playing and Thoughts on Reviewing

I-Ninja still isn't complete. Sam & Max: Season One is still languishing. I haven't read anything mind blowing in the media lately. But I still want to blog, just to let you know I still care (and because anything I don't make a habit of I forget completely).

I'm more than halfway through I-Ninja. Things would be going much faster if I wasn't such a completist. But I have to get every badge. I've got something like 42 out of 64, and I'm not really jazzed to pick up the rest, but I've come too far to stop now. Additionally, I can smell the Ape Escape "You must collect every monkey to get to the final battle" message coming. As kiddie as the game looks, it's not really very forgiving. But I'll write that review when I come to it.

I've been ill and sleeping irregularly, so I've been playing some WoW at odd hours. Odd hours are great for mining. I'm level 68 and only halfway to having the money for my epic flyer. I'm trying to get most of my XP through grinding so the quest XP will turn to much needed gold when I hit 70. Of course, now that I'm recovering, who knows if I'll play enough for it to matter. Besides, what do I need an epic flyer for? More farming? Zzzzz.

As for Sam & Max, they're still funny and the puzzles work, but I don't miss them when they're gone, which brings up an interesting (to me) question.

Do people really play games like reviewers do? Reviewers are usually under schedule pressure and tend to play games straight through. I was reading an article on GameSetWatch about SteamBot Chronicles. The author said that the game was very wide. There were lots of crafting activities, side missions, and even stocks to invest in (which your game actions could influence. Apparently the SteamBot world has a lax SEC (without boats even)). There were musicians you could travel around with, playing mini-games and other activities besides. But reviewers overlooked all of that stuff and gave it "good, not great" scores because they hadn't spent much time beyond the ten or so hours it takes to finish the central plot.

Additionally, I've found that there are a number of games that I can play for a few hours at a time, and no more. I still wonder if I would have finished FF6 if I'd played it in shorter installments instead of getting so burned out that I just quit after Kefka destroyed the world. Would some games get better scores if the reviewer hadn't been forced to play them straight through for a review deadline? Do most normal people play games straight through? If memory serves, many people don't even finish most of the games they buy. I don't have the answers to these questions, but it's worth considering the next time you read a review. Did the reviewer really explore the game? Are there complaints about pacing problems that may have more to do with the reviewer's deadline than the game's quality? This may be one area where print media has an advantage.

In online media, you get a game (especially an eagerly anticipated one) and there are other sites who you know will have reviews out the next day. Hell, some disreputable sites have posted full reviews of Team Fortress 2 the day after the beta went live. I don't care how good the game is, trying to play through it and write up a review in one day is going to result in shoddy work. In most cases this isn't an issue as well known review outlets get final builds before the general public so that they do get time. But with online games, those reviews are still very preliminary as there aren't enough people to give a real feel for how the game will play and perform when fully inhabited.

Ah well. Long story short, subjective reviewing is always difficult to separate from the circumstances under which the review is done.