31 August, 2011

PAX 2011: The Games

written by Blain Newport on Wednesday, 31 August, 2011

I took a notebook to PAX. I wrote quick impressions of sixteen games from the show floor. Because I don't hate you, I'll just discuss the interesting bits.

First off, the best experiences I had were not on the show floor.

Bushido Blade

I had spent all day in lines. And playing Red Faction: Armageddon in console freeplay had only confirmed what I'd heard about it being less interesting than Guerilla. Then I wandered over to classic freeplay and saw three guys playing Bushido Blade on PS1.

The only other time I've played Bushido Blade was at the first PAX back in 2004. It's a technical and challenging dueling game where one hit can kill. But if everybody playing sucks at it, it is a hilarious collection of lucky and unlucky accidents. At one point my legs had been crippled and I was flopping towards my opponent like a fish, trying to stab him in the shin. It turned my entire day around.

Left 4 Dead 2

During one of the gauntlet sections (where zombies spawn infinitely until you run a maze and flip a switch), I crouched in front of the group with a fire axe and began singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as I cut down the constant flow of zombies in front of us. One of my companions started singing as well and it was magical. It could only have been better if I'd been using an oar and we'd sung a proper round.

And now, for the less awesome show floor. Feel free to skim or stop reading if it gets dull.

Alice: Madness Returns in 3D

The game isn't new, and the tech isn't new, but this was the first time that I spent more than a minute actually sitting down and playing anything in 3D. Honestly, I didn't think the 3D added too much. I didn't find myself being more certain of my jumps or combat positioning. What I did find myself doing was moving the camera to angles that were worse for gameplay just to put more stuff in the foreground so that I (and the people watching) could see the 3D.

Since I started recording game video, it jumped out at me how much a player can enhance an experience by paying more attention to camera movement and positioning. Heck, in some games, you fight the camera more than the enemies. 3D made playing camera man a little more rewarding, but not so much that I'd pay extra for it.


Firefall will be a free to play futuristic action MMO. The teams on the demo I played were so mismatched that I don't really want to play it now. Such are the dangers of running largely unattended demos at a convention. At least in the Brink demo last year the devs tried to give advice to the losing side. When one of the Firefall stations went down, the employee I told didn't even seem to care.

Battlefield 3

A lot of people are really hopeful about BF3. My feelings are less positive. They demoed no vehicle combat at PAX. They are not selling on Steam. They will only have servers available until EA wants players to buy something else. Mod support is highly unlikely. And the co-op is only two player. I can't imagine what it would take for me to care about BF3. That game is going to be dead and buried, and I'll still be playing BF2 (with the Nations at War mod).

Twisted Metal

I was never big on the Twisted Metal combat driving games, but (once I figured out where the accelerator was) the new version seemed both a little easier to get in to, and presented more variety. There was a semi with turrets on it's trailer. Friendly cars could drive into the truck and man a turret. I drove an ambulance that shot homing gurneys with crazy people covered in dynamite on them. If I had a PS3, I'd definitely keep an eye on it.

Everything Else

Dead Island

Beating up zombies is fun, but the five minute demo leads me to suspect that the devs are just as worried as I am about its longevity.

Black Knight Sword

It's a side scroller with a nice paper art style and lots going on in the background, but the jumping bits kill the momentum.

Bloodrayne Betrayal

It looks like a decent side scroller. I just wish Dust: An Elysian Tale had come out. With stuff like Black Knight Sword and Bloodrayne Betrayal out, it may get buried.

Dragon's Dogma

It's Lord of the Rings meets Monster Hunter. It felt a bit sluggish, but it has potential.

Asura's Wrath

Oh, Japan. The realistic art style and attempts at gravitas belie a very cartoony action sensibility. It felt like Dragonball for people who think they're too cool for Dragonball.

Charlie Murder

Another Final Fight game for Xbox Live Arcade. Meh.

Retro City Rampage

I don't know if it's just because I'm old enough to have played the 2D GTA games, but it does nothing for me.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

I enjoyed the action game version of Return of the King. It had a lot of issues, but the connection with the films and passable combat were enough for me to have fun. The demo of War in the North might be as good, but this many years later, that's pretty disappointing. Maybe it's just the segment they chose to show, but the combat looked very bland. The only reaction to attacks I saw were damage numbers or death. That's fine for tower defense, but action games need more feedback and give and take, in my opinion.

Resistance 3

I played a little deathmatch. It was alright. But I've heard that the best part of Resistance is the crazy weapons (which makes sense coming from the developers of Ratchet and Clank), and I didn't have time to experiment with them much in the hurly-burly.

Counter-Strike: Global Operations

It's still Counter-Strike. I would have thought Valve would want to show off more of the new stuff to bring in new players, but they seem focused on people who still want to play de_dust for the billionth time. I suppose there are a lot of them, but they already have the game they want, don't they?

Path of Exile

PoE played like a slightly less refined Titan Quest. Still, I liked Titan Quest a lot. They also gave me some beta or demo disk, so I'll likely try it out.


It pretty much looks like expected. It's pretty, but the need to show off enemy behavior has turned them into bullet sponges that make the guns feel wimpy. We'll see.


It's an indie platformer where you use fluid dynamics and creatures made of fluid to solve puzzles. I was pretty impressed with the puzzle design and the way the game valued the player's time by not forcing the player to run all the way to the edge of the screen before loading the next puzzle. It was fine until the lava area. I sprayed water on it until the surface looked safe, but then it would crack and I'd die instantly. After almost completely solidifying it and still dieing, I moved on.

21 August, 2011

Variety Pack

written by Blain Newport on Sunday, 21 August, 2011

It's been a busy week, gaming wise.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath

Stranger's Wrath is a western on an alien world. I played it on the original Xbox. I wasn't a fan. There are definitely some bugs with the PC port, but I was lucky and only had a few graphical glitches. I don't know how much was the improved controls and how much was the fact that I'd been through the game and knew what I had to do, but I had a lot more fun this time than previously.

Here I am hiding in the bushes, preparing to ambush three guys. I stunned one with a lightning bug and tied the other two up in spider webs. By the time I'd finished capturing the first two, the third stood up, just in time to get punched in the jaw and go right back down.

I also think Stranger's Wrath has my favorite regenerating health system since regenerating health was invented. You have a stamina bar you use to jump, melee, and heal. If you're injured, you take cover and press your heal button to shake it off. Managing my stamina and choosing when to heal felt like I was managing resources and making choices, as opposed to Halo's hide and wait method which felt like forced time outs.


Bastion also feels like an alien western, albeit with a more steampunk, anime vibe.

Bastion's claim to fame is a narrator that talks about what you do as you do it. It's novel and well done, but doesn't make the game. I can see the clever bits in the story and storytelling, but with such a desolate setting and empty archetype characters, there's little reason to care.

The combat is also a little bland. There are a bunch of weapons that can be upgraded multiple ways, but the combat situations don't vary much, and any weapons are good enough, so I never felt like I'd made a clever choice and done the job right.

It's a good first effort, and the art and music are nice. But there's room for Supergiant Games to improve. (I initially wrote grow, but that was too punny.)

Star Wars: Battlefront 2

Dune Sea is a great map, maybe even the greatest map.

The sarlacc grabs characters and small vehicles and eats them.

I dubbed this vehicle the Party Skiff, and the name stuck so well that one of the players changed his Steam name to Party Skiff. As an assault vehicle, it's junk. It's flimsy. The passengers are fully exposed to small arms fire, and the sarlacc can eat it. But when you've got three gunners zooming across the landscape firing wildly like stereotypical drunken hillbillies, it's a quality assclown experience.

Plus Tie Tanks. I don't know if a modder made these up, or if these exist in some novel or comic book I never saw, but they're so ridiculous that I can't help but love them. They're actually pretty good at running over people, too.

And last, but not least, there are proper flying vehicles in the map. The map makes is pretty cramped for flyers, but outside of Hoth it's the only place I've seen armor, air, and infantry all going at once, making it the battliest battle in Battlefront. Hooray for Dune Sea!

13 August, 2011

Blasts From The Past

written by Blain Newport on Friday, 12 August, 2011

I have no idea why, but IdolNinja and Digital decided the Penny Arcade forum members hadn't been playing enough Star Wars: Battlefront 2. And you know what? They were right! I remembered we tried Battlefront 2 at a LAN party a long time ago and me not thinking much of it. The weapons feel puny. The movement is artificially smooth. The bots can swing between useless and uncannily accurate depending on what weapon or vehicle they're using. And the game has some features that take a while to figure out.

All that stuff is still true, but as long as you don't take it at all seriously, there's a lot of fun to be had. For one thing, the game is old enough that you can put in a ton of bots, making the battles feel like battles.

For another, there's a mod called the Conversion Pack which adds maps and additional vehicles, including content from Knights of the Old Republic. A lot of it's pretty janky because it's pasting textures of KotOR characters onto existing models, but sometimes that just makes it hilarious. The run animation on Mission is just her walk animation at double speed, which always makes me laugh. Plus the KotOR Wookies have huge heads for some reason.

Plus the combination of all the elements of the game frequently causes scenarios you can't find elsewhere. An enemy Jedi was bearing down on my lowly imperial officer. I'd been force pushed from my feet and I thought I was doomed. As I started to stand, I jammed on the mine button, hoping I could drop a mine that would take my attacker out with me. I drop the mine, but get knocked down again. Death seems imminent. Out of nowhere, a friendly Jedi force pushes my attacker. He flies into my mine which flings him across the room and into a bottomless pit! Force powers are to high explosives what peanut butter is to chocolate.

It makes me sad that companies are trying to eliminate mods and user run servers. I know they want us to buy new games and pay for new content. That's the business they're in. But no one will be having this kind of fun with today's games six years from now. The servers will be gone. Outside of a few map packs, no additional content will ever be developed for them.

As we put more and more effort into creating games, the results of that effort are being abandoned quicker and quicker.

07 August, 2011

PAX Is Coming

written by Blain Newport on Sunday, 7 August, 2011

In three weeks, PAX will be almost over. Who knows what wonders I'll have experienced by that time. If you don't care about PAX, you can safely skip this post.


I've put up the announcement for the NorCal pre-PAX lunch, and some of my favorite people have already responded, so I'm pleased. I've also signed up for the pre-PAX dinner and post-PAX party, so even though I'll be missing the Magical Mystery Tour this year, I'll still be hitting up many community events.

Oh, and here's a dark secret for you. My memory for names isn't so great, so I cheat and review previous PAX posts.


I still plan to hit up the expo floor, but I have no specific games I'm looking for. While it was good, chartered accountant style fun to compile a list, it never ended up being useful. It's easier to simply get the map that comes in the program and work my way from front to back.


I haven't been too big on panels for the last few years. But going through the schedule I found myself wanting to hit up more of them than usual this year.

In a recent interview, Ken Levine talked about designing the companion AI in BioShock: Infinite. It sounded like he was moving forward with the work done by Valve in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and LucasArts on Republic Commando. I'm very curious to know if John A. Hancock's work on Republic Commando informed their design process and whether they recorded dialog as a group. Since the two principle voice actors will be there, I probably won't even have to ask.

Randy Pitchford will be hosting the now traditional Sunday Gearbox Pizza Panel. But instead of just Duke Nukem Forever, he'll be talking about Duke Postmortem, Borderlands 2, Aliens: Colonial Marines, and the bizarrely lighthearted Brothers in Arms: Furious Four. That's a lot of games I'm interested in. Well, I'm not so interested in Duke, but he might have some interesting postmortem observations.

And while I'm usually not up for spending an hour of PAX in a single demo, I might make an exception for Skyrim. I'm honestly not that interested in the game, but Todd Howard is demoing it, and I've enjoyed listening to him on various podcasts. He's earnest, intelligent, and soft spoken which could serve as a welcome break from the bombast of the expo hall.


Here are my button designs for this year.

This is a bit of a pun as the grenades can be the best tool for taking down the game's bosses.

The second one goes with a design from last year and is the center of a three year story arc. Here's the one from last year.

Next year will be "My Frog Got Better" and feature the final image from the game. Of course, that means I'll actually have to beat the game again. Just getting to the frog boss took longer than I expected, so I should probably beat the game now while my chops aren't entirely rusty.