25 May, 2008

Backlog: Neo Contra, Ninja Gaiden Black, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Crimson Sea 2, Penny Arcade Ep. 1

I gotta keep up with this blog. I don't feel like writing one day, and a week later, I've got too many little thoughts to keep track of. First off, I didn't feel like writing up a full review of Neo Contra, but it was fun. Chris and I played through co-op on easy, then I went back and played through on normal. Contra games never let you truly finish the game on easy. But with a final boss fight against Spuds MacKenzie in a Nazi biker helmet, easy is plenty nutso. Of course, on normal, the bad guy destroys the earth and moon, so that's pretty awesome too. I guess I need to play on hard or get super high mission rankings to see the "good" ending. But I can't imagine it being better than the bad one.

I've been playing a good deal of Ninja Gaiden Black. The sequel is coming out soon, and it had gotten a lot of press as being as good as Devil May Cry. It's not. The camera is far worse than Devil May Cry's, which isn't exactly awesome to begin with. I literally died on one boss with the camera looking at nothing. I couldn't see me. I couldn't see the boss. I couldn't see the attack. The 1UP podcast folks (talking about some time they spent with a preview of the sequel) said that it's a bad camera, not bad design. But it is bad design. If you can't even tell what's going on to fight, it doesn't matter how rewarding the fighting is.

So how is the fighting? It's okay. It's not as good as DMC, though. In DMC, I can watch my enemies and react accordingly. In NGB, most enemies do unblockable attacks at random intervals. This was a reaction to the problem of players simply sitting and blocking the whole game, but it really doesn't work. Fighting offensively, especially against multiple attackers, will always result in taking damage from offscreen attacks. Fighting defensively will mean falling victim to random unblockable attacks. If the unblockables had escape moves, maybe the whole thing would work out, but as it is, DMC is still king of the hill by a good margin. Maybe I'm looking at it through rose colored glasses though. It's been since DMC3 first came out that I've played it.

I also picked up Twilight Princess for the GameCube. I have a Wii, but I hate messing with batteries. I really wish there was a way to plug the Wii controller into the wall. Also, the Wii version is a graphical flip, which means Hyrule is backwards and Link is right handed. I understand they did that because most people would be holding the remote right handed, but I like the old fashioned way. I'm sure fishing and archery would be a little more tactile with the remote, but as infrequently as I do either, I don't miss it.

I also picked up Jam Sessions for the DS. It's not really a game, per se. Press buttons to choose chords and use the touch screen to strum. The D-pad on the DS is garbage for pressing diagonals, though, so I end up holding the thing facing away from myself, using my first and middle finger to press chord buttons with my thumb on the shoulder button to switch from major to minor. It's awkward. Still, I made one song I like, and spent a little time with the ear training, so it's been worthwhile.

A new concept has been kicking around in my brain, as well. Well, new is probably a bad choice, the Greeks pretty much cornered that market. But I keep coming back to Crimson Sea 2 and thinking about how it's "my kind of bland". I'm not even sure what that means. I just know that I spent time grinding, which I normally detest. It wasn't challenging on the setting I played it on. And the moves weren't very gratifying to pull off. But I could (and did) play it all day.

Penny Arcade: Episode One (On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness) was pretty much the same way. After the initial learning curve of blocking attacks and executing my own simultaneously, there really wasn't much to the game. But it was funny, and kept me hopping almost through to the end.

As an aside, I wouldn't say it's so much better than an episode of Sam & Max that it deserves to command more than double the price, but I get more than my money's worth out of PAX each year, so for me, it evens out.

Back to the point, I'm feeling like I need to revisit an article I started but never published where I try to get very specific about what I like about games. It would probably help me understand why I seem to be enjoying certain games more than I could have predicted, or can currently explain.

19 May, 2008

Color Me Topiary: Crimson Sea 2

Koei makes games. I mainly know them for an NES strategy game I never played and an interminable series of ancient Chinese beat 'em ups called Dynasty Warriors. Dynasty Warriors is powerful mediocre. Slash away at dozens of enemy soldiers until they all go poof. Crimson Sea 2 seems to be the sci-fi offshoot, occasionally throwing a roomful of angry bugs or humanoid reptiles at the player.

But Dynasty Warriors bored me silly. I just beat Crimson Sea 2 (just on easy, mind you) having gotten the highest possible rank in every mission. I believe that constitutes 60 missions, some played half a dozen times to secure the best rank. I believe my save file is somewhere in the 25-30 hour range.


Taming the audience certainly had something to do with it. All the cinemas from the first game are included. Watching them, I started to root for the folks trying to tell this funky story. Yeah, it's hyper clich├ęd. But like a good B movie, that all falls away when the action kicks in.

Variety helped. A lot of the missions were basically just killing lots of monsters or collecting stuff. But there are enough variations on the theme that I always kept on playing. There's even a stealth mission which didn't totally suck. Who'd have thunk it?

The collecting bug definitely got me. Bad guys will occasionally drop tokens which can be spent to power up guns, swords, or psionics. There's a guy on the space station who will pay for killing random types of enemies. And there's another guy on the station who will pay for hunting down these flying jellyfish things that only appear when you enter the level with no mission. Oh, and there are ways to get critical hits on bad guys that make them drop five tokens instead of one. I got bored with the bounty hunting as there weren't many items I needed. And I got bored hunting down the jellyfish, too. That guy was too stingy with the loot. But I'd still say the collecting element helped the game, overall.

The combat was pretty decent. Like I mentioned in a previous post, the combat is a non-standard system. Lock on or switch to strafe mode to roll instead of jump. R2 to burn 1/3rd of the psionics gauge in exchange for five seconds of slo-mo, during which your move set changes significantly. It's convoluted, but I still enjoyed it. Sure, there wasn't as much technique as Devil May Cry, but who needs technique when you're hacking and blasting away at a couple dozen rampaging monsters in slow motion. Plus extending combos and getting criticals was it's own game, one which I could strive for or ignore, setting my own level of challenge.

The game also has split screen co-op, but the control scheme is so arcane I doubt I'll ever inflict it on anyone. Maybe Matthew. :)

Final Score
4 of 5

17 May, 2008

Not Yet Abandoned: Ninja Gaiden Black, Crimson Sea 2

I started Ninja Gaiden Black on normal difficulty around a week ago. I was satisfied that it was probably as good as people say and haven't touched it since. It's a game that rewards observation, practice, and decisiveness. I kind of don't want to touch it, lest I ruin it.

Crimson Sea 2, however is a diamond in the rough that's not too perfect to actually play. Every time I go into a game store, I see used games I've never heard of. I generally leave them alone. But I finally went into my local game store and made a complete inventory. That's part of why I've been playing so many not quite good enough games. Crimson Sea 2 finally bucked that trend.

Crimson Sea 2 is, 9% into it on easy, really nice. It's got crazy Japanese controls kind of like Gunvalkyrie and Panzer Dragoon Orta. I'm not sure if the Crimson Sea 2 controls are better, or if I'm developing a taste for loopy Japanese control schemes. Regardless, the game is actually fun to farm. I go back into previous levels and mow down hundreds of bad guys in style so I can power up and mow down hundreds more bad guys. There was one room in the game where I backed into a corner and unleashed on the respawning hordes. I got a combo of well over 400, possibly even 500. It wasn't hard at all. It was just fun.

And it was the right level of fun. With the game's crazy controls, it wouldn't be hard to make the game super difficult and force you to zip around like a meth moth. The game could try to be Devil May Cry, essentially. But the camera mostly sucks, and enemies don't mind attacking from offscreen, so that would pretty much kill all the fun in the game. Nope, it's just the right combination of pretty bangs and quick movement without too much stress. Plus if I clear a level with the highest ranks in all categories (time, damage taken, highest combo, and enemies killed) I get a special bonus. With a difficulty level that makes attaining these special bonuses reasonable, I'm actually having fun replaying the levels in the quest for the perfect clear. I wish all games had difficulty options like this.

Abandoned: Mortal Kombat Armageddon, TMNT, GTA: LCS, Brute Force

I have been trying the second or third tier games in the last gen library.

Mortal Kombat Armageddon I bought for laughs. It has tons of fighters. It even has a custom fighter creator. Too bad you have to grind out a bunch of single player garbage to unlock it. Still, puking on people in the kart racing was great. I probably got my money's worth.

TMNT could have been a great little game. The movement is similar to the new Prince of Persia games, except for a few bugs. Donnatello's pole vault straight up doesn't work most of the time and wall running is pretty glitchy. If not for those two problems, the movement segments would actually be pretty awesome. But they're not. And the combat is slow and mostly just pressing the combo button over and over. Groo is unamused.

Liberty City Stories petered out for me on the second island. I bought it to keep myself from jonesing for for GTA 4. A few super pain in the butt missions cured me. I've heard GTA 4 isn't quite as bad, but I think I can safely resist until the PC version comes out.

Finally, I almost finished the squad based Brute Force, but it was just too much of the same thing over and over. Move up squadmates. Kill bad guys under covering fire. Repeat. It was good. And the co-op was decent. What I'm trying to say is that I liked the game, I just got tired of it.

More Cheating: Max Payne 2, Stubbs the Zombie

Max Payne wasn't very good. If you knew where the bad guys spawned, you used judicious slow mo to decimate them. If you didn't you might survive, but it was a lot less likely, and there wasn't much you could do about it as one hard to spot guy with a shotgun or uzi would end your game almost instantly. I can't tell you what possessed me to pick up the sequel. I guess I just got tired of it staring at me from store shelves. So I played it (mostly on god mode, which still didn't help with the annoying escort missions). It sucked. I can move on.

Stubbs the Zombie was a similar situation. I knew it was a third person Halo, which never had very good gameplay. Stubbs is even worse because it gives you a bunch of fun abilities, then makes them take way too long to recharge. At least in Halo, it wasn't fun for me in the first place, so I didn't get my hopes up. I got the cheat that let me use all the special abilities all the time. That was far more fun.

14 May, 2008

Game Set Watch Indie Game Quickie Reviews

Game Set Watch occasionally runs a feature on recent indie games. Then I go try them and crush the spirits of the generous people who made them.

Dino Run

The Pitch: Play as a velociraptor trying to escape extinction by outrunning a giant wall of debris. Play through many times to upgrade your velociraptor and unlock trophies. Compete in multiplayer and race against other people.

My Opinion: It's good. The running mechanics are a little weird. But the game isn't hard enough to make that a deal breaker. And in its best moments (usually when running downhill through a hail of boulders) the panic and chaos is absolutely delightful. The "gotta catch 'em all" aspect of upgrading and looking for hidden dino eggs didn't hold my interest, but I have no tolerance for grinding.

Everyday Shooter

The Pitch: Figure out the pattern to survive through a song.

My Opinion: It's kind of a low budget Rez, although Rez itself is only $10 too on Xbox Live Arcade. It's okay, but I'm not much for bullet hell and got tired of it fairly quickly.

Lego Indiana Jones Demo

Okay, so it's not an indie game. It's an Indy game. I didn't want to start a new entry just for it.

The PC version has a serious graphics glitch (not visible in the screen shot) that puts a shimmering black bar across the screen and makes it hard to see. So while I'd have a care before picking up the PC version, the gameplay was very much typical Lego, by which I mean simply joyful. The game is a little more complicated than the last Lego Star Wars, with slightly more elaborate puzzles, but not enough to trouble the children who are likely to play it.

There were other games I wanted to try out. But I also wanted to get this write up done. I'll add entries as time permits.

11 May, 2008

Keepalive: Mace Griffin: Bounty Hunter, Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes,

Games continue to fall by the wayside. Here's a rundown.

Mace Griffin: Bounty Hunter
The Pitch: Fly around in your ship, then land on a space station, walk out the back of your ship and start shooting stuff with no loading screen in between.

My Opinion: Bleh. It looks like a Halo wannabe. It plays like a Halo wannabe. The ship combat isn't nearly good enough to elevate it beyond that status.

Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes
The Pitch: Beat stuff up. Get EXP and loot to power up. Beat up bigger stuff. Repeat.

My Opinion: They kind of messed up the formula from Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. The combat is more involved, but this means I keep having to push the camera in to fight well, then getting blindsided by something I could have seen, but only if the camera had been too far out to fight well. It's always the camera's fault. :) I only picked it up in the first place for the co-op. So we'll see how that goes, if I get around to it.

Battalion Wars
Battalion Wars did not meet my expectations. I wanted a fun, simple RTS, where I could learn how to use my units, then find novel ways to mix them up. But the game introduces new units almost every map and then tells me how to use them. Plus the interfaces for targeting enemies and controlling my units are pretty terrible, which would have killed the game even if I had found the strategy elements rewarding.

GTA's The Same. GTA's Different.

Yeah, more about GTA. (You know you love it. :)

I decided to stop repairing my cab and ended my Liberty City Stories cab streak at 228 consecutive fares. It had gotten pretty old and I'd secured a tidy nest egg ($150k) that was more than enough to keep me in guns for the rest of the game. I felt like turning the game off but also felt bad for giving up on seeing just how epic my streak could have been and hoped running a couple missions would cheer me up. One involved keeping the Don's shoplifting girlfriend away from the cops and triggered a nasty sense of deja vu. Sure, this game is pretty much like GTA III with motorcycles, but I didn't have the feeling before that it was the same story. That felt a little too weird.

It's especially weird when I'm hearing the radio spit out adds for Space Monkey VII, calling the designers bereft of new ideas. If I've got my chronology right, Liberty City Stories is the seventh GTA (not counting handheld versions). I wasn't sure if Rockstar was making fun of themselves or not. They seemed to characterize the Space Monkey games as mindless shoot 'em ups, which is a label I'm fairly certain they wouldn't self apply, especially now, especially after GTA IV.

GTA IV is not the same game, violence wise. For one thing, most people seem to like the main character. And they want to be true to that feeling, to behave like a good person. I've heard a number of people say they drove and fought more carefully to avoid injuring civilians. There's more to it then that, though. In the GTA III series, civilians were broad stereotypes and generally nasty and unpleasant. I never felt bad for them. I've heard GTA IV is different.

GTA IV uses NaturalMotion's euphoria tech so that every time you hit someone, they try to protect themselves. They try to stay on their feet when they are punched, shot, or clipped by a car. When they hurt their leg, they limp. When their legs don't work, they try to stand and can't. Watching a civilian dragging a useless leg or cradling their arm as they flee from a firefight seems to make most people feel pretty bad. This is something that most critics of the earlier games' violence didn't understand. It was so over the top and unreal that most people really couldn't care unless they had an overactive imagination and started making up life stories for the poorly rendered stereotypes that populated the games. GTA IV appears to have changed that. And players are responding.

The media's responding, too. But I don't give them any credit for it. When anything makes half a billion dollars in a single week (and that's not even counting the significant amount of extra hardware it moved), corporate owned news networks will have nothing but praise.

10 May, 2008

I Have NO TASTE: GTA Driving

I finally got another PS2 memory card so that I could start playing GTA: Liberty City Stories, in earnest. As usual, I played a couple missions, then had to get behind the wheel of a taxi. It always happens at some point in a GTA game. Usually it's cool because it teaches me the lay of the land. But this is Liberty City. Admittedly, I don't remember every shortcut. But the general layout and most important shortcuts took no time to recall.

So I had a good run. My PS2 is currently paused. I've successfully delivered 200 consecutive fares in a single cab. It only takes 100 to complete the mission, and they don't have to be consecutive. So why did I keep playing?

It's partly because the radio stations are so fun to listen to, and the changing lighting and weather conditions keep things from getting stale, but also, I love driving in GTA. According to many people, this means I have no taste. Most of the reviews for GTA IV say the driving in the game is still "squirrely" or give it the backhanded compliment of saying it's better than the old games. So, why is every reviewer out there wrong about the driving in GTA, and not me.

(Rhetorical questions don't always get question marks. Deal with it.)

The cars in GTA use car chase physics. Every corner makes the car lean. Cars roll over all the time. It's cool that they do that because then everyone has to run away from them before they explode. (I've heard they don't always explode when flipped in GTA IV. I'm not sure I like that.) Spin outs are awesome because if you time them just right, you can drive out of them (sometimes in reverse) and keep going. Admittedly, this makes some missions a pain in the butt. But without it, GTA would suck.

GTA is about the crazy stories. Everyone knows it. GTA IV finally has a story good enough that people are actually finishing all seventy hours of it and are happy to do so, but the stories they really light up in telling are the crazy stuff that happens when they were supposed to be doing something else. Those stories virtually always involve a car wreck or the highly improbable avoidance of same.

Take a mission I recently ran. I'm supposed to be guarding a mafia restaurant from some rival mobsters. They come in waves. The first wave drives up. After a short gunfight, the guards and I dispatch them. Their car is now blocking the intersection and traffic is piling up. The second wave drives up. We gun them down as well. The area in front of the restaurant is now a barricade composed of two cars full of holes and a bunch of angry drivers. The third wave shows up in a Humvee which comes barreling down the hill, right into one of the shot up cars. Realistically, it probably would have just knocked the sedan aside, but in GTA, it pops up on two wheels, flips over, and skids to a stop upside down. The gunners crawl out and start shooting, but I'm already running because I've seen this film before. The Humvee starts to smolder. It explodes. This sets the shot up cars on fire. They explode. This sets the commuters on fire who panic and try to drive away before exploding as well. I ask you, do you want realistic driving phyiscs, or do you want the carnage I just described?

(See the question mark? Not rhetorical.)

09 May, 2008

Screenshots: The Suffering: Ties That Bind, RIP3, Darkstar One, Alpha Prime

I've been playing a lot of console games which meant not too many screen shots as of late. So to make up for that a bit, here are some belated screen shots of random stuff.

Here's a tastefully obscured shot of some bad guys from The Suffering: Ties That Bind. Trust me, you don't want a better picture.

Here's a more pleasant picture. It would actually be horribly bloody, but the RIP games let you substitute blood splats with flowers. How pleasant.

Here's a mildly majestic shot from Darkstar One. The game in general is mildly majestic. Meh. Space.

This is Alpha Prime, new on GameTap. You are looking at the best element of the game, the graphics. This game does metals and plastics as well as Doom 3, and does weathered metals and concrete a bit better, by my reckoning. The gameplay however, is so great I decided to ignore it and engage god mode. Running around and killing everyone by hitting them in the head with the game's solitary melee weapon (a rock hammer) was much more satisfying, mostly thanks to the humorous clanging sound it made. The plot was actually somewhat interesting. There's a lot of chatty cut scenes. But the translation and characterization didn't do the game any favors.

So there's four screen shots and one mini-review. Don't say I never gave you anything. :)

08 May, 2008

No Taste AT ALL!

Just in case anyone ever reads these reviews and starts to take them at all seriously (or, ego forbid, personally), remember that I have no taste at all. After having a minimal amount of fun with Panzer Dragoon Orta and Black, I just laughed myself silly kart racing in Mortal Kombat Armageddon. I had the AI turned down to Easy because I just wanted to screw around, and it was awesome. I played Bo'Rai Cho, the silliest character I know. (He's a rotund Chinese binge drinker who pukes on his foes. Also borracho is Mexican slang for drunkard.) All the kart racers have special attacks based on the driver. Bo'Rai Cho leaves a puke slick behind him. As proof that I have no taste AT ALL, I found the message "You puked on Raiden" consistently hilarious for the better part of a half hour. I still can't read it without laughing.

Just a reminder, it's gaming. Don't take it too seriously. I obviously don't.

Jaded: Panzer Dragoon Orta; Black

Two more games, two more non-reviews. I'm just not into it lately.

Panzer Dragoon Orta was at least a fun change of pace. I had to turn it down to easy difficulty to pass levels on the first try. The game only gives power ups if sections of a stage are perfectly cleared. That's a pain to do on normal, so it's doubly difficult. Plus it largely comes down to memorizing the order enemies attack in so that you can hit them before they attack (otherwise you'll waste all your time dodging). And dodging, as in most rail shooters, consists of making large lazy circles. There is nothing compelling, fresh, or fun about the gameplay. But the setting is bizarre and the graphics are decent, giving a good sense of speed and scale. So overall it was fun to breeze through. But I can't imagine what would compel someone to actually want to play the game as intended.

Certainly not the story or characters. Panzer Dragoon had an RPG incarnation at some point, but there were maybe four characters in the entirety of Orta. And the story was drivel.

Black was not even a fun change of pace. It's from the folks who do the Burnout racing games. The idea was to take their expertise at making big booms with cars and use it to make big booms with guns. But, like most first efforts, the game isn't actually that good. Sure, the fact that bullets kick up lots of dust and break apart certain walls is cool. But the fact that the AI could see perfectly through the smoke sucked, and there wasn't nearly enough destructible stuff to improve the feel of the game. Remember the prison shower shootout from The Rock? There's one of those, and it's probably the best room in the game because it's one of the only rooms with a high enough density of exploding stuff to actually feel like anything but a bog standard shooter.

Additionally, enemies take so much damage that it's mostly about head shots. The controls suck for making head shots. Sure, once in a while you'll accurately judge the distance and hit a laterally moving target in the head with a bullet that took half a second to reach the mark. That's satisfying. But that's fairly rare, and it's more of a victory over the controls than the game. Plus the ending is pointlessly difficult, featuring RPG shooting in enclosed spaces and enemies that spawn from nowhere and kill you from behind. Maybe if I'd had a mouse, the game would have been worth playing. Maybe.

If you want to keep score you could give Panzer Dragoon Orta a three and Black a two. Out of five.

07 May, 2008

More Meh: Darkstar One, Otogi

I play a lot of games. Most of them are lame. It's a service I provide to no one, telling them which ones I did or didn't like and why. Currently I didn't like Darkstar One and was ambivalent about Otogi. Neither seems worth a full review, so here's a combo.

Darkstar One is a space game. Where you fly around. In space. Sounds awesome, right? Yeah. Not so much. It's basically the same fight, over and over and over. You just have to waste some time trading commodities or escorting folks to buy better gear to fight tougher guys. I kept trying to eke some fun out of it, but when a bug blocked my forward progress, I was secretly relieved.

Otogi: Myth of Demons (From Software, 2003) is a half decent action game that I mostly liked for the Japanese trappings. The problem is that the combat is not very fun, and it actually gets pretty hard in the last few missions. My main problem with the game was that it lied to me. The early levels are so easy they bored me into complacency. Then the later levels are not only difficult, but the best way to tackle many of them seems to be spamming magic, which was pretty unsatisfying. I like to mix it up.

What I Want. What You Want.

The time has come, the blogger said, to talk of many things.

Well, okay, maybe not so many.

I am very interested in what makes games fun. For me.

But what does that do for you? Not much, I'd wager.

I'm fairly interested in the business of games, because I'm cheap and because it determines what games get made (which flows back into wanting games that are fun. For me).

What does that do for you? I suspect that does a little bit more, because you like to follow the business, see what the trends are.

You asked about graphics. Intel is apparently pushing real time ray tracing. (Intel will always push whatever requires more transistors because they sell those.) John Carmack is apparently talking about voxels and octrees. (Nobody understands John, but he made the industry we have today, and betting against him is unwise.) Nobody's saying much that interests me, though, so I don't write it up.

Graphics are done, for me. If it wasn't for graphics card memory constraints forcing certain textures to be lower resolution, current games like BioShock and Crysis would be about as close to real as I'd ever want. But visuals are just that. If the game is engaging, I don't care.

In fact, I was just talking to Chris the other day about how no FPS has significantly improved on DooM. They've added lots of stuff. But the process of prioritizing and eliminating threats is still the core of the experience. And I don't have more fun doing that in modern games than I did in DooM. The only thing more recent games bring to the table are more convincing environments and extra interactivity, which is usually just used to add puzzles and / or collectathon elements, which DooM had enough of (even too much of).

This is my long and rambling way of explaining why I don't write much about graphics. And even then the biggest paragraph had to be about gameplay. But I write about what I care about. And I've never learned to fake it.

04 May, 2008

Keepalive: Toejam & Earl 2, Mr. Robot, Otogi, Battalion Wars, Panzer Dragoon Orta, and No GTA IV

I've been sampling a lot of stuff lately, some of which I won't be writing reviews for. So set sail for tales of fail.

Toejam & Earl: Panic on Funkatron was the side scrolling sequel to the isometric exploration game Toejam & Earl. In my youth I only rented games, beat them, then took them back. I tried Toejam & Earl, but it's random maps and free form exploration didn't click with me at all. But since I saw the Xbox version at the local used game shop, I figured I'd check out the older games on GameTap.

Panic on Funkatron is a pretty cool game, hampered by the design zeitgeist of the time. It's a platformer with a lot of extra touches. There are gobs of secrets to find. There are bouncing platforms you can do tricks on. There are plenty of denizens of Funkatron who can give you things, or help you locate extra obscure secrets. There are lots of trees and bushes and manholes to search. There are underwater segments to explore.

The only problem is that the actual combat (capturing lame earthlings to remove their lameness from your funky planet) stinks. And it's unforgiving. What could have been a relaxing and silly adventure is made very annoying. I might have to download an emulator to play it so I can use save states to make the combat less of a problem.

I also tried Mr. Robot. It's an isometric puzzle game / platformer with a computer hacking RPG thrown in for good measure. None of it's actually fun enough to carry the other elements, though. Tycho from Penny Arcade loved it (and the preceding game from the same indie studio). I didn't like either one. I guess I have a feel for where our tastes diverge, now.

That's all for what I gave up on. Here's what I'm still playing.

Otogi is an action game for the Xbox. I was expecting it to be a poor man's Devil May Cry. That's basically true. It's slow. The controls are cumbersome. The moves aren't very interesting. What the game does have going for it is very Japanese designs. From the opening menu, everything about the visuals and sound evokes a foreign sensibility. There's even a Japanese language track I turned on, so I'm watching the game play out with subtitles. Like Just Cause, I enjoy the atmosphere and tolerate the gameplay.

Battalion wars is a simplified RTS for the GameCube. I was hoping it would be a simple game, where I could quickly learn the units and get strategizing. But I've fought across the first continent and they're still introducing units with every map. They're not useful units either. There's nothing new the assault unit brings to the party. It just makes rifle units obsolete. Also, like most console RTS games, the controls are cumbersome.

I've only dinked with the tutorial so far, but Panzer Dragoon Orta is looking promising. It's a game where you fly around on a dragon and shoot stuff. It's by the same folks who did Gunvalkyrie, and it shows. The controls are fairly complicated and arcane. It should be a fun challenge.

Speaking of which, I finally broke down and ordered a huge challenge: Ninja Gaiden Black. Some say it's better than Devil May Cry. I doubt I'll like it better as DMC was my first love in action games. But I'm guessing it'll still be wonderful.

I have not broken down to get GTA IV, however. I've read and watched reviews and discussions. I know more than I'd like to about the game already. But that's something I accept as a cheap ass gamer. The consoles I'd need to play it on are still vastly overpriced. Sure I wasted a lot of money on a Wii just to play Galaxy, but I also wanted to support Nintendo in trying anything besides "the same games only prettier".

Looking at the two remaining consoles I see bad hardware, expensive online, and mercenary microtransactions versus ridiculous price, lousy online, no rumble, and no backwards compatibility. Throw in the fact that I'd want to replace my old TV to get the full benefit, and I'll be lucky to get to play GTA IV this year. Here's hoping for a decent PC version.

Reviews and Expectations

I've played through most of Shadowgrounds: Survivor twice now. It's good mindless fun. So why did it get a score like it wasn't good enough to play through twice when I first reviewed it?

Review Format
I was still using the structured review format at the time. It emphasizes theatrics as right below gameplay in determining the value of a game. S:S does not do well by that metric.

Sequel Issues
The original Shadowgrounds had serious problems, mostly related to pacing and horrible theatrics. S:S mostly got rid of the pacing problems by making the game linear and somewhat improved on the theatrics. These half measures made me feel the game wasn't that much better, really just good enough to enjoy. That's a three game, not a four.

Different Genre
Because of the way S:S tries to treat its story (especially at the end), it's trying to be considered "Serious Business". That probably hurts the score as well. The reason I picked it up again was that it's good mindless fun, not an epic saga. One thing I liked about RIP was the ridiculous option to turn enemy blood splats into flowers. That's right. You shoot a guy, and flowers come out. If S:S had offered itself up as a beer and pretzels game, it would have gotten a four.

Devotees of this blog (if there was more than one. Hi Paul. :) might remember an earlier entry with me railing against the enthusiast press for trying to judge Clive Barker's Jericho as "Serious Business" when it should have been rated on the beer and pretzels scale. This begs two questions. Should there even be two scales? How does one tell the difference?

The question of whether there should be two scales is actually a little disingenuous. There already are multiple scales. It's not fair to mark down a strategy game for being less visceral than an action game. Everyone (sensible) understands that. So why did I rate Shadowgrounds: Survivor and Jericho on the "wrong" ends of the action / horror spectrum compared to other reviewers?

Truth be told, I'm not sure. There's enough in either game for someone to think they "know" what it was trying to be. Jericho has unlockables that give its characters fairly detailed and traumatic backstories. It was developed with input from Clive Barker. It was released on Halloween. Is it really fair to call other reviewers fools if they thought it was supposed to be scary? Hell, the PR for the game practically guaranteed it! By the same token, Shadowgrounds: Survivor was a budget title from the word go. When mainstream reviewers have gotten acclimated to $60 games, anything remotely playable (much less fun and good looking) for $20 is a pretty big deal. I can see why they think that way.

It all comes down to expectations and context. I knew people hated Jericho going in, so I didn't expect as much. But I also knew the original Shadowgrounds wasn't very good, so it's not like I had unreasonable expectations of Survivor. Survivor built those up all by itself. With its Aliens vibe and forlorn mission briefings it was trying to build a sense of dread. But the gameplay was adrenaline.

A lot of people talk about how much story and character add to games, but Survivor's was done so poorly that I would have given it a higher score if they had skipped it. Listening to poorly directed actors talk about their apprehension and fear totally undercut the fast action that drove the game. Going through the game again, and skipping the briefings has been more fun. It's kind of like a Star Wars prequel. The first time I expected characters and story, and I was sorely disappointed. But watched a second time, just to see stuff blow up, it was good.

Okay. That's all well and good. But what about the score? Now that you've figured out the right level to enjoy Shadowgrounds: Survivor on, what score does the game get?

It gets a four. But does my learning how to enjoy it mean the game is really that good? Was it my fault that I didn't enjoy it before?


The game has its baggage on board. It has a lame story and poor characterization that tarnished the experience, whereas Jericho had it's problems outside of the game. The game itself never felt like anything but an Ultimates style super hero comic book with a Clive Barker influence.

I will cop to not giving the gameplay in Survivor enough credit. Especially after playing pretenders like Alien Shooter Vengeance and RIP, I appreciate it more now. But all I can do as a reviewer is tell you what the experience was like for me at the time. That's all any reviewer can do.

I can say that after writing this, I'll try to be more sensitive to my own expectations going in. In fact, I'll try to briefly write them up in the first paragraph. It wasn't doing anything useful anyhow. :)

03 May, 2008

Keepalive: Alien Shooter Vengeance, RIP, Shadowgrounds: Survivor

There's been a lot of abortive playing as of late. Alien Shooter Vengeance threw up a brick wall to my progress in the form of level eight. For one thing, other on foot levels gave me a chance to buy upgrades right at the start. Level eight doesn't, and I was out of armor and health packs. Plus it threw me up against giant monsters launching homing rockets in areas with basically no cover.

RIP also brought the fail. The difficulty was not well balanced. I played on easy, or "tourist mode" as I call it, and generally ran into very difficult levels not too far in. I understand that from my few forays into single player DooM maps. It's at least mildly interesting to design the level for yourself, which usually ends up becoming the medium or hard level of difficulty. Designing for the other two levels is just lame as you really don't know if it will be appropriate to their skill levels or even fun. The easy way out is to always design to the same pace and just make the enemies weaker or stronger, but that's generally no fun at the higher difficulty levels as it simply increases the time one has to spend dodging while plinking away at the baddies. Of course that doesn't account for RIP 2 having a bug that made level 40 unbeatable. But whatever.

I went back to Shadowgrounds: Survivor. It has the option to start the game fairly powered up, which was plenty fun. I played through almost the whole thing, which begs the question, should I retroactively raise it's score if it's fun enough to play through again? I'm not planning to, but maybe I should.

Of course, if that's the case, I should probably raise Just Cause's score, too. I've played that some more. But truthfully, I'd just done it to drive and fly around the pretty islands. Any attempts to actually play the game just annoy me.

No, S:S might deserve better. So why didn't it get better in the first place? Stay tuned.

02 May, 2008

Dying And Killing: Causality

Life is cheap in games. In the old days, you'd get three or four for a quarter. Games have gotten more expensive, but lives haven't, largely thanks to multiplayer. In some multiplayer games, there's a server setting called "Force Respawn", so the dead can't even rest. It's right back into the fight with them.

Here are some random thoughts on ways to die and kill in games.

The Dying

The Struggle
I remember The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600. It was just me in my tiny snow speeder against an endless progression of walkers. The designers did a great job of making me feel like a wasp trying to kill bears. My shots didn't slow the walkers. Theirs batted me around like I had no mass at all. I furiously pumped dozens of shots in them, slowly changing their color and eventually destroying them. I think my ship could maybe take two shots before turning into debris. Yep. The old games were often purely about putting my back up against the wall and then coming straight at me. Death brought that bizarre combination of frustration, relief, and resolve to do better that brought me back for more.

This is death as a learning experience, death as a challenge.

The Cheat
This is the kind of death that completely undermines The Struggle. It happens when a hazard that was established to inflict a minor penalty is instantly lethal, when an AI opponent is stuck inside a tree, able to attack but never to be damaged, or when the camera angle makes me misjudge a crucial jump or attack. There's a credibility bank that games develop where I'll tolerate a certain amount of cheap deaths if I feel the game is mostly fair.

This is death to get your quarters or artificially lengthen a game. Sometimes it's just plain thoughtless game design or making a game hard because games are supposed to be hard.

The Doom
This is when I have no chance. When the game or the other player has backed me so far into a corner that there's nothing to do but die. If it's not a cheat, it can be a sight to behold. To think of every option and see that it has been accounted for and eliminated can be as impressive as it is horrible. Clevuh gehl.

The Random
Many games are not games in the strictest sense. They are simulations of other realities, some more fantastical, some more mundane. In these simulations, death comes swiftly and indifferently. Friendly fire kills just as quickly as hostile fire. These are often unsatisfying deaths. After being the hero for so long, it's not much fun to be just another grunt, to feel that my forward progress is at the whim of a random number generator. Why play a game that feels so indifferent? I've got the real world for that.

In multiplayer, it can be different. Sometimes the huge amount of death flying around is like a circus. Rounding a corner to see a wall of superheated plasma flying at you can actually serve as comic relief. It is a good day to die.

The Killing

The Struggle
The amount of effort required to make a kill is often commensurate with its perceived value. The last Space Invader nets the same amount of points as the first, but the effort required to lead the target is what makes it a special challenge. The

The Cheat
This is using a cheat code or weakness in the AI to essentially skip the struggle. It's generally less rewarding, but sometimes a game is so uninteresting that I just want it over with. Sometimes the AI cheats so badly that I feel like I'm levelling the playing field. Sometimes it's just fun to be free of even the phony consequences games impose and act with impunity. Want to punch a guy in the face while his bullets bounce off you harmlessly? Go nuts!

The Doom
There's nothing like outmaneuvering a skilled live opponent. A tactical decision is formed in an instant. The execution must be perfect. It is. The feeling of perfect planning and execution under intense pressure, knowing that any mistake will end me, is the razor's edge. It's the purest rush. Some single player games come very close, throwing so much death at me that my mind can do nothing but follow the dance that's being led.

The kill that comes at the end of it is the purest relief and exultation. Those feelings overwhelm everything else. I'm just so happy to be alive, so amazed that I pulled it off, that there is almost nothing else. In multiplayer, it can be topped off by an acknowledgment of the skill involved by the deceased, of course, so this is the kind of kill that never feels real.

The Random
Sometimes I'm shooting at someone or racing somewhere and someone gets in the way. No one seems to have an AI smart enough to hear sirens or squealing tires and look to see if they should move. Most AIs aren't even smart enough not to run directly across a line of fire. Sometimes I feel bad about killing them, but mostly not. They are dumber than any animal. They are game tokens. The only problem is when their lives are tied to my success. That's frustrating.

Sometimes I have a hunch. Sometimes there's just so much opposition that firing some suppressing fire seems like it might be worth the ammo. To fire that rocket down the long corridor, keep running, and see your kill count tick up a few moments later is a special warm feeling.

Well, that's some stuff. You read it. Now you know. I don't think it's what I meant to write. It should also be mentioned that most of these anecdotes come from DooM 2 deathmatch (with a little GTA and generic action games thrown in). DooM 2 was the last time I had humans at my skill level to play with. TF2 is in the same league, but the fact that it takes eighteen people just to field two full teams means it's not possible to find the same balance and intimacy that DooM produced.

01 May, 2008

Review: Destroy All Humans! 2

Destroy All Humans! 2 (Pandemic, 2006) is a darkly comedic action game set in an alternate version of the 1960s.

DAH2, unlike its predecessor, is pretty much a straight up action game. Shoot stuff on foot. Shoot stuff from a flying saucer. Then run missions to get more guns to shoot stuff with. As such the game is fairly satisfying. Throwing people around with psychic powers and hucking tanks into buildings with the saucer's abducto ray is always good for a laugh. The jumping mechanics are a little hinky, as are the shooting mechanics. The control never feels tight like a Ratchet & Clank game. But it works.

There's a pronounced collecting element to the game. In the saucer, abducting people lets you improve your psychic abilities (like taking over their bodies when you need to pass undetected). On the ground there are two types of collectibles. One lets you upgrade your weapons. The other gives you access to a special weapon (and maybe something additional if you collect them all. I never bothered). Overall, it's mediocre collecting. There's nothing fun or engaging about it. There's never any new challenge to the abducting or finding the other collectibles. Eventually the collectibles show up on the mini-map, but I prefer the no nonsense approach of putting them on the big map. If I want to power up. Just let me. Forcing me to scour the place does not leave me liking the game.

It doesn't help that the game really doesn't look very good. Part of the issue is that DAH2 is trying to support seamless transitions from street level interaction to flying saucer rampages. It may also be a case of designing for the lowest common denominator (PS2, in this case). Regardless, looking at Stranger's Wrath (which came out a year earlier) makes DAH2's visuals hard on the eyes.

But that all makes sense, once it's understood that DAH2 is exactly what it's name would imply, an homage to cheesy old sci-fi flicks. This being the 60s version (the first game being the more classic 50s style), there are all the requisite jokes about dirty hippies and, as much of the game takes place abroad, plenty of cold war and racial stereotypes. Oh, and there's sexism. It's kind of an Austin Powers vibe. Some of it was funny. Some of it wasn't. That's above average for a video game. Some of it was also hurt by a very weird dialog system. The game gives choices for what you want the character to say, but often the one line of text doesn't actually reflect what comes out of the character's mouth, and the conversations often don't flow naturally, changing topic at random and making the comedy seem artificial.

All griping aside, the game does essentially work. There are enough weapons and powers that experimenting with them was fun. The mission objectives were just varied enough to keep me playing. And I did laugh once in a while.

Final Score
3 of 5

DAH2 also keeps track of your statistics, who you used certain weapons on the most; who you abducted the most. I killed well over 2000 humans (possibly over 3000, I'm not sure if the main figure was a grand total or needed to be added to the civilian count). But I don't feel at all bad, like I did about the 800 pikmin. And I wouldn't be surprised if I hadn't killed that many people in all the PS2 Grand Theft Auto games combined. (Well, I actually killed a boatload of people in the gang wars of San Andreas, so maybe not.) There are some double standards at work here, but I'm too tired to think about them now.