Sunday, March 4, 2012

2011 in Review: Part 1

It's a couple of months after the fact, but, in keeping with what I did last year, I wanted to do a bit of a rundown of the games I played last year with some of my thoughts.  Without further delay:

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (360)

I'm a pretty big fan of Castlevania games (particularly SotN and the DS games), so I decided to give this new installment a try.  It was pretty fun, though not for the reasons that I usually like Castlevania games.  It reminds me a lot my experience with Metroid: Other M, actually.  Both of them were pretty fun games that did a great job of capturing the agility and badassery of their respective protagonists in combat, but what I was really looking for was the nonlinearity and space for exploration that other entries in their series' offered.  So yeah, while I had fun destroying Satan's hordes with fantastic whip acrobatics, it was a march-down-a-corridor for the most part.

Haven't I seen this before?
In addition to the God of War-ness of the combat, there were definitely a few other parts in the game which stuck out as a bit familiar:

Hold onto the colossus, err titan, as you climb it in order to stab it in the weak point!
I've seen this in...Shadow of the Colossus!


Change your polarity, err magic type, to match the energy rings so that you can pass through them to defeat the final boss!
I've seen this in...Ikaruga!

Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

I actually haven't played the original DKC games, but who am I to turn down a modern 2D platformer?  I'm a huge fan of DK64 anyhow (I seem to say this a lot, as I lamented when I talked about KotOR, but I loved that game for my ability to explore its big world!).  I also had extremely high hopes when I found out this game was developed by Retro Studios, the folks who brought us Metroid Prime, one of the best gems the gaming world has seen (if you don't like it, your opinion is bad and you should feel bad).  And in general, I did enjoy myself while playing this game, the levels were very well designed, the world was so vibrant and alive, and the platforming was solid.  I want to love this game, but there are two things that really, really hurt the experience for me.

Did you REALLY need the waggle?
When I'm playing a platformer, I need the controls to be amazing and perfectly responsive.  That's why I've never been able to really get into a platformer on platforms such as the iOS where there are problems like input lag and a lack of a tactile interface.  The Wii remote has buttons, though, plenty of them, certainly enough for a platformer.  And indeed, there were unused, accessible buttons for this game.  But for whatever reason (did Nintendo pressure them to have motion controls?  I have no idea...), they mapped one of the game's critical moves, a roll, onto a nunchuk waggle.  I do NOT feel more immersed by waggling, I've played motion games that have benefited from such controls but this game did it WRONG.  Especially in a platformer, where if the magic "detection" event happens too late or not at all, your character will mess up and possibly die (you do a longer jump if you roll and then jump, I did many jumps into a chasm because my roll wasn't detected).  I'm not trying to complain about this just for the sake of making noise, it REALLY polluted the entire experience.  Speaking of accidental deaths...

One of my biggest pet peeves in games is being patronized.  I am not unintelligent or unskilled, at least not as much as many developers seem to think.  Fine, they were probably trying to make this game playable by everyone and this one isn't as much of a deal breaker, but it was enough to make me pretty angry at the game.  If you die sufficient times in a stage, this STUPID pig will start jumping and waving a flag, trying to get you to talk to it.  If you do so, you get to have SUPER KONG beat the level for you.  I DON'T need to have the level beaten for me, I'm not a four year old who wishes I had a big brother to pass my controller to so they can beat the level for me.  Plus, Super Kong is worse than me.  Deaths where I died due to the controls aside, I often died going for perilously positioned collectibles within the level.  Super Kong just beelines for the finish line.  Well, aren't you skilled Mr. Super Kong.  If I'm playing a game with my friends and I'm doing poorly, I'd rather they make fun of me when I die than offer to beat it for me.  Perhaps they tried to make the system "kind," but I really just found it annoying.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC)

I already did a full post on this game, so I won't spend much time talking about it here.  I will say, though, that I've been playing more Bioware WRPGs since this game and I've been loving it.  I was told that I need to try out some games from Bethesda as well to diversify my WRPG experience, so there might be some Skyrim in my future.  But yeah, this game was awesome and got me out of the linear-game-funk I was in.

Pokémon White (DS)
Once a pokegeek, always a pokegeek.  Well, it's hard to enter a conversation with me for more than 30 seconds without learning about my love and encyclopedic knowledge of Pokemon.  So my thoughts on this game will probably be pretty clear.  The gist of it is, this is Pokemon, if you've played a Pokemon game, you already know whether or not you like it.  It has some nice graphical improvements - all Pokemon are animated throughout battle, which isn't a first for the franchise, but it's done really well here.  The story actually starts off pretty damn interesting, there's a group who is against the fact that humans enslave and battle Pokemon.  And you know, they actually seem to have a point.  Of course, they wind up being all corrupt and wanting the Pokemon for themselves, so don't get your hopes too high, but it was interesting at least that the game would, even if just for a portion of the game, question the morality of its whole premise.

I want to brag
After about 250 hours, I have a complete living Pokedex of all 646 released Pokemon.  By "living Pokedex," I mean that, in my boxes in my PC, I have 1 Bulbasaur, 1 Ivysaur, 1 Venusaur,... all numerically sorted.  It's beautiful.

I've got a pair of battling teams as well, my more serious one is actually a themed bug team.  Hand raised them all to level 100 (which was kind of tricky with the new EXP system, where you get fewer EXP points from the same Pokemon as your level increases (sort of double counting since the EXP required per level increases as well).  I don't want to divulge specifics of their stats or movesets, but I've got a great IV bred, EV trained team:
Scizor, Heracross, Ninjask, Armaldo, Galvantula, Volcarona

End of Part 1
On deck for next time:
-Chibi Robo
-Portal 2
-Steel Battalion

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dark Souls: A Senselessly Brutal Game?

I've never tried to hide the fact that I do have a bit of an addiction to the acquired taste of difficult games.  Needless to say, the reputation Dark Souls has of being a ruthless, unforgiving game was a huge part of why I decided to take it on.  Unfortunately, I missed out on Demon's Souls, so this game is my first foray into the series.

And to frame this discussion, my answer to the title is no, no it is not a senselessly brutal game.

Dark Souls (360)

Quick note about the box art.  I found a pretty awesome image in my Internet travels:

Funny observation about how having a lone character man facing directly towards or away from the camera is such a popular pose.

Anyhow, any time Dark Souls is brought up, the first thing people will mention is its perceived difficulty, how oppressively unfair and challenging it is and, in most cases, how it's not their type of game.

I want to rewind time a bit, to when I was a mini-gamer, 6 or 7 or so.  I had my SNES with Super Mario World.  Modern ROM hacks aside, that's not a game we associate with being an unusually difficult game.  But to little me, it was quite the challenge, especially when trying to uncover all of the secrets.  Despite the struggles little me had with the game, I persevered, and the satisfaction of success made it all worth it.

Alright, now fast forward almost 20 years to the present day.  I, and anyone else who has was a gamer in those days, has nearly an extra 20 years of gaming experience under their belt.  So we should all be video game demigods by now, right?  Well, the thing is, while yes, we've had a lot of time to play games since then, I would contend that most games nowadays are NOT harder than Super Mario World.  I'd go as far as to say completing most modern games is easier than completing Super Mario World.  Better stories, more complex mechanics, and more realistic graphics, sure, but harder?  No.  And it's not like it's that way without reason.  Developers don't want to exclude people with minimal gaming experience from playing their game.  Those games certainly have their place.  But it seems to me that nearly every game I play likes to pretend it's the first video game I've ever played.

I love Dark Souls because it doesn't guide you through 3/4 of the game on training wheels.  This game assumes you've been riding the metaphorical bike your whole life and pushes you right down the hill.  This is definitely not baby's first RPG.  But you know what, I got that feeling in the game that I relish so much, that same type of feeling I had when I was a goofy, uncoordinated kid struggling to beat Super Mario World.  The struggle makes the success so much richer.  It's time to play games harder than SMW.

Alright, so I've said Dark Souls is a difficulty tier above most games, but I claimed earlier that this game is certainly not "a senselessly brutal game."  As a veteran of games like I Wanna Be The Guy, I can definitely say that this is not the type of game that tries to blindside you with deaths against which clairvoyance is the only viable defense.  Care can save you from most situations, and action RPG skill can save you in the others.    This isn't a "death game" like Kaizo Mario World or Super Meat Boy, but just a game that pushes the envelope of difficulty a bit further than most games are comfortable doing, even right from the get go.  So you don't need to be twisted masochist gamer to love this game, you just need to like action RPGs and have a few under your belt.

I do wonder if people confuse the difficulty of the game with its lack of instruction.  The game provides very minimal direction as to how one should actually play it.  Indeed, the players of this game don't need to learn how to make the character run for the millionth time in their gaming career, but it might be nice to know how to read that obscure as hell weapon stats sheet, for instance.  It might be nice to know what ascending weapons mean, and to have some hint that upgrading weapons and armor should be a much higher priority than leveling up (got an in-person tip for that one, saved me a lot of grief in the long run).  When you encounter the first checkpoint (bonfire) in the main world, you are told "Use bonfires to level up and kindle."  Do you know what kindling is? Nope.  Try it: "You can't kindle while hollowed".  Okay, "Reverse Hollowing": "You can't reverse hollowing without humanity."  What the hell is humanity.  Alright, I found some after an hour of playing, and I've reversed my hollowing and spent my humanity.  Kindle: "You can't kindle without humanity."  Gah, all of this work to kindle and I still don't know what it is (of course, I do now).  So I go to find more humanity, and I die and become hollowed again.  There's some satisfaction in figuring out how a system works with minimal instruction, but I think Dark Souls drifted a bit to far in the direction of obscured mechanics.  And no, the provided manual doesn't help.  To frame this, on my first playthrough, I refused to use any online help.  I did on my second playthrough.

And now, after 2.5 playthroughs, I have completed all of the achievements, so I can put the game to bed.  I really enjoyed Dark Souls, and I think it's a pity that people have the notion that this game is a merciless bloodbath and decide to skip it for that reason.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Steel Battalion: Too Hardcore to Handle

A few weeks ago at a Friday Games@GAMBIT event at work, the theme was something like "games with giant robots that FEEL giant."  Having eluded me for the 9 years since its 2002 release due to its loft price tag, I was thrilled at the chance to play Steel Battalion.  And so I did.

With any luck you can see the combination of fear and excitement in my eyes.  I was immediately hooked.  Later that night, out of curiosity more than anything, I decided to see how much these things go for on eBay.  It was still a couple hundred dollars for the whole setup, but that's actually far less than I thought it would be.  So I impulse bought it, and it arrived at my desk shortly afterward.  It was a bit of an unwieldy box to carry ~1.5mi to my apartment, but after that, I had it.  Mine.

Steel Battalion (XBOX)

I LOVE hard games.  That amazing feeling I get when accomplishing something very challenging is really one of the driving forces of my gaming life.  This pushed that ideal to its limits.  And how did it do?  Well, it kicked my candy ass back to the easy games I like to play, like Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be The Guy, and Kaizo Mario World.

I've been playing through the game on ROOKIE.  The lowest difficulty setting.  But the fact is, it would be very difficult to operate a walking tank in the heat of a battle.  And this game strives (and does an awesome job!) to be a real simulation of what that experience would be like.  I'm willing to bet that once the Japanese perfect mechs in real life, those who played this game will be the ones that survive.

I feel I should describe this game a bit to those who are unfamiliar with it.  Well, as you may have caught on, this game involves piloting a big walking tank (vertical tank, or VT) in a futuristic war.  First, let's look at the controller:

Controller summary
Yes, this section's long.  Feel free to skip it if you're not curious.  If anything, the length required to briefly explain each of the buttons should convey my point well enough.

Yes, this is one monster controller.  (This picture is actually a first generation controller with green buttons, mine has blue.  My camera just sucks so I Google'd.)  Huge part of why this wasn't a commercial success, I'd wager.  It has something in the vicinity of 40 buttons, two joysticks, and three foot pedals.  Let's take a closer look at things.

First, the left block.  On the left, you've got a lever to use your tank's manual transmission.  No clutch or anything involved, but the gears have the acceleration/top speed sort of tradeoff like real life.  The next lever control's your mech's heading, so moving it left makes your walking mechanism turn left.  And you'll note that there is a small joystick on top.  This is used to control the direction of your view.  You have a 180 degree field of view about your mech's heading, so this can be used to look not-straight-ahead.  Clicking the joystick centers your view.  Next we have 5 toggle switches.  These are part of the initialization sequence, but more on that later.

The center block.  First, I'll point out the dial.  This is used to select your communication frequency.  Notable frequencies: 9 o'clock goes back to Argus, your CO, and 12 o'clock calls Wagon Master, used for ordering supplies.  We also have some communication buttons above that.  This controls what you say on the radio.  The first calls someone, or acknowledges their call.  The second asks for a repeat.  The third requests medical supplies.  Those are the only ones I've used.  Now, we've got a group of 9 buttons on the side.  I haven't had to use F1, F2, and F3, but allegedly they're mission specific things.  There's a button to detach empty fuel tanks (lighter and better fuel efficiency, but a supply chopper can't refill it).  FSS, forecast shooting system, takes into account enemy velocity when auto targeting.  Override is like overclocking your mech.  You burn triple the fuel, but you go FAST.  Manipulator trades your sub weapon for a cute little robot arm, which can be used to collect items, open doors, and torture cows.  Night scope activates night vision.  Line color change changes the color of your HUD so that you can see them better against variously colored environments.  And finally, we have 6 buttons at the bottom.  Washing clears the dirt off your windshield.  Extinguisher puts out cockpit fires.  Chaff messes up homing missiles with a grenade.  Main changes your main weapon, and Sub behaves similarly.  Magazine change reloads your main weapon.

The right and final block.  We've got yet another joystick here.  This guy controls where you're aiming (so your direction of movement, sight, and aim are all different).  He's got three buttons, a lock on button, main weapon button, and sub weapon trigger.  We've got 6 buttons beneath that.  You've got a multimonitor which can display a few things, like lock on view, rear view, etc.  Open/close toggles that monitor's appearance.  Mode select changes which view appears there.  There's a button to toggle the zoom on your mini-map.  And there's a button to change the mode of the mini map screen to various functions, like mech stats and such.  At the bottom, you can zoom the main view in or out.  We then have some buttons used at startup, the cockpit hatch, ignition, and start.  Finally, we have the infamous eject button.

We've also got three foot pedals!  The rightmost pedal is gas.  Middle one is brake.  Leftmost is sort of like a jump.  You can use it to jump forward, backward, or sideways, depending on your gear, whether or not you're pressing the gas, and the state of the rotation lever on the left block.

Right into the action
Phew.  With all that, the game gives you a comprehensive tutorial, right?  Nope, you will get thrown right into the heat of battle.  Shy of using these exact words, the game's instructions amount to "RTFM."  And that manual is pretty beefy.

37 pages, all dense in information.  It's primarily in fiction as well, which is pretty awesome.  If you play this game, prepare to get very friendly with this book.

Startup sequence
If there's anything that really hooked me into the game, it's THIS.  You are responsible for starting up your mech after you sit in the cockpit.  It's slow, and you do it every mission, but I wouldn't change it one bit.  Just feeling that satisfying "click" of the toggle switches.  I was won over instantly.  And it does NOT get old.

You need to close the cockpit, and then start the ignition.  The mech's operating system then takes some time to boot, and the controller does a pretty sequence of flashing lights.  You then need to flip the toggle switches I mentioned before, and finally hit the start button to get things rolling.

Harsh consequences
So this game strives to be an accurate simulation.  In real life, if you die in battle, that's it, no extra lives.  Steel Battalion believes that to be an important part of the simulation.  If your VT takes enough damage, it might be moments from exploding.  When this happens, an adrenaline surge takes over as you dive for the plastic-shielded eject button.  If you don't make it out in time, your pilot dies, and your save file is deleted.  High stakes, there's no casually playing this game.  But perhaps you have amazing ejecting reflexes; it's not actually that hard to hit the button in time.  Well, you just wasted a mech, and someone has to pay for it.  Use up enough money, and you get fired...and your save file gets deleted.  The game isn't very nice about it, either.

Particularly that last frame.  What the hell??  None of these are idle words, your save file is gone.  I hate patronizing games which try to baby you and make you feel good about yourself, and this game is as far away from those ideas as you can be.  And you know what, I LIKED it.  I lost, the game had the right to call me a loser.  Next time I beat that mission, I got to feel such satisfaction.  The game told me I sucked, but guess what, I'm beating you.  I would much rather a game taunt me like this.  In Donkey Kong Country Returns, I HATED that pig which tried to get you to skip a level if you failed too many times.  And I'm playing Ocarina of Time 3D now.  Content-wise, it's a carbon copy of the original, but they DID add some patronizing elements.  No, Navi, I don't want to consult the green-glowing, happy-looking "Shiekah Stone" to figure out what I'm supposed to do next.  I know damn well what I'm doing, and I'll deviate from the main quest and do side quests if I please.  (Also, stop telling me to take a break, I'll tell you when I've had enough!)  It's like being lost or challenged is a bad thing these days...

I keep mentioning that this game is designed to be a mech simulation.  I, personally, haven't really played many flight sims or realistic driving games.  But, in this game, the experience was so rich.  Very little takes you out of the world (I had some complaints about some of the apparently arbitrary time limits, but that was minimal).  I was really in the world, and the game did everything it could to maintain that illusion.  Even the instruction manual is primarily in fiction.  An apparent gaming trend today, pushed by all three major consoles, involves the removal or minimization of the controller.  However, this game, on the other end of the spectrum, achieves things that I believe are not possible with that sort of interface.  So much of the Steel Battalion play experience is tactile.  Immersion skyrockets.  Don't get me wrong, some types of games work with motion controls.  And I wouldn't buy a giant controller for every game (just this and rhythm games, apparently).  But the tactile experience with this game was quite unique for me.  They're making a new Steel Battalion.  Apparently it will use the Kinect.  It's currently unclear whether the Kinect will be the ONLY input, or it will supplement another giant controller.  Despite the logistic nightmare, I'm really holding out for the latter.

Gamer depression
I was quite bummed after losing my second pilot, I got pretty far.  I wanted to remind myself that I'm really not a horrible gamer, so I made this video of me playing Mega Man 10!  I'm doing the hard mode/buster only/no damage challenge.  I now watch this whenever I need a morale boost.  I show all 8 battles at once, so I recommend full screen 720p.  Solar Man (top) and Nitro Man (bottom left) are the best performances, if I say so myself.

What's next?
Well, I still haven't beaten the game.  I'm on my third pilot.  Both of my previous ones exhausted funds.  I'm almost at the end of the first campaign.  Money's getting tight though, so I'm nervous.  I can destroy the capitol building, but I haven't been able to beat the Juggernaut.  It's either its rail gun, melee flame torch, or some EMP thing it has that makes my mech shut down.  If I could just get a couple rail gun shots off...

I recently bought Steel Battalion: Line of Contact.  That's the multiplayer version of the game.  Two people at work also have Steel Battalion, so I hope we get a LAN game going VERY soon.

I REALLY recommend trying out this game.  If anyone I know finds themselves in my neighborhood, I'd be more than happy to set this monster up.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

KotOR: My first foray into WRPGs

Well I'm done with school now, I should have more time on nights and weekends.  That means more gaming!  It also means that I can get back to writing this blog.  Right now, I want to talk about a game I played this January.  I was a little late to the party, but I played:

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC)

While all of my remarks are inherently biased by games I've recently or historically played, that particularly holds true here.  This was actually my first Western RPG.  I've played countless JRPGs, but I never really got around to playing any Western ones.  I've got Mass Effect queued up, so it certainly won't be my last either.  Nevertheless, some of my comments will likely apply to the genre in general as opposed to just this game specifically.

Role Playing Game
I found the morality system quite interesting.  Certainly not for its complexity, it's very guilty of the bake-cookies-for-grandma vs. burn-down-the-nursing-home type of morality.  But, as someone who hasn't really played WRPGs and encountered this genre trope before, I found my own psychology interesting.  I could not actually bring myself to commit any dark side acts.  I'm not saying I'm some sort of light-side-paragon in real life, but, whenever I hovered my cursor over a dark side option, I just couldn't click it, I felt like I was betraying myself.  It later occurred to me that perhaps the feelings weren't caused by my own moral stances in real life, or even feelings belonging to some sort of virtual persona (hell, I digitally murder thousands of innocents all the time).  But I think it was my character.  I had given her a personality, and I could not let her deviate from the principles I had decided she believed in, lest she betray her allies and be untrue to herself.  I plan to test this hypothesis in Mass Effect, let's try a touch of evil.  Prove whether I was attached to those virtual values for their own sake or because that's who I decided my character was.  But I think this effect is a huge win for the game.  Role playing game.  In all of the JRPGs I've played, I play the role of the character given to me in its presealed package.  In this game, and perhaps WRPGs in general, the character is determined by HOW I play.  Even beyond stat customization.  Even beyond the arbitrary light/dark scorekeeping.  But I was able to project values onto my character and play the game through those eyes.  And it was fantastic.

Let me wander
Linearity is not always a bad thing.  Many of my favorite games are linear point A to point B platformers.  But that's not all I like to do.  I need to be able to explore from time to time.  I'm not even referring to super non linear open world games.  A game can satisfy my cravings for exploration even if it has a linear backbone, if it lets me deviate from the path from time to time, to explore the world, to talk to the native NPCs.  Before I played this game, I was in a bit of a linear rut.  Below, on the left, I've listed some of the games which have done fantastic jobs at satisfying my craving for exploration.  And on the right, I've listed some of their newer incarnations that I've played recently.

Super Metroid, Metroid PrimeMetroid: Other M
Castlevania: Symphony of the NightCastlevania: Lords of Shadow
Donkey Kong 64Donkey Kong Country Returns
Super Mario 64Super Mario Galaxy 2
Final Fantasy VI/VIIFinal Fantasy XIII

Before I get ambushed for this table, I realize that there were other linear entries in these series.  I realize that many of the games on the right are good.  But that's not the point.  The point is that I kind of had some hopes for games which would satisfy my inner explorer as well as the games on the left, but each greeted me with loads of linearity.  Minecraft helped this feeling a little bit, though, as fantastic as it is, exploring an infinite procedural world is a different feeling than exploring a contained, designed world.

I was thrilled when I played KotOR.  I could fly to different planets whenever I wanted.  I could interact with NPCs.  I could fill in the foggy sections of the map.  I could find interesting sidequests around every turn.  There was a linear backbone, there was a quest to be completed, but the freedom I had along the way was very satisfying.  One of the reasons this game sits so well with me is that it got my out of that rut where my inner explorer was alone and depressed.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2010 in Review: Part 4

Finally getting around to wrapping this up.  I've played some great games this year so I don't want to dwell in the past too much longer.

Super Meat Boy (XBLA)

A proud masochistic platformer which flaunts its retro roots.  I mentioned this when I talked about Mega Man 10, but I'm a sucker for a solid brutal old school platformer.

This game is proud of its difficulty, and I admit that's what primarily got me interested.  And the way this game handles difficulty is particularly interesting.  It's never unfair in the same vein as I Wanna Be The Guy.  It also avoid punishing the player too much like many other games in this platformer subgenre.  It keeps the levels quick and fast paced.  If you die, there is not a lot of retracing one's steps or wading through annoying menus to get back in the game.  You do die in one hit, but within instants you are at the beginning of the stage ready to go once again.  It leads to a great pace for the game, you can stop and take it easy when YOU want to, not when the game forces it upon you by interrupting your game flow with an unnecessarily long recovery time.  The game embraces the fact that failure is part of the game, something you're expected to do.  With many games communicating the attitude of "it's too hard if you can't beat it the first time," it's was great to see the problem solved by making failure recovery easier rather than making it more difficult to fail.  And, indeed, the only levels to frustrate me were the ones where they violated this paradigm (screw you Skyscraper, screw you to hell).

As a self proclaimed lover of NES era games, I was pleased to see the homage this game played to many titles of that era.  A fantastic example of this can be seen in the following video, which compares the chapter intro sequences to their "inspiration."

At GDC I was thrilled to meat (lolol) Tommy Referens, the programmer on the 2-man Team Meat.  I told him how much I loved the game's pacing and that the path to becoming a Golden God (100% game completion) was a challenging one indeed, he seemed happy that someone there had completed it.

When I was actively defending my leaderboard position, I peaked at #85 on the 360 leaderboards.  Out of the 150K scores or so, I was happy with that.  After a patch was issued, though, something weird happened and I was #1 for a couple days.  No complaints here!

Age of Empires III (PC)

This one had been out for a while, but there was a little promotion going on earlier this year where you could grab this title for a dime.  Works for me!

I had put off playing this for a while, but I absolutely adored Age of Empires II.  That game is probably why I missed the Starcraft bandwagon.  The RTS my group of friends played was AoEII, so that's what I stuck with.  I rarely did online gaming in high school, and I still don't very often now, but I had many fantastic late nights having amazing battles with some on my high school friends.

I admit, I didn't set the stage for having the same experience with this game.  Not knowing anyone who played it, I just stuck to the campaign for the most part.  Once I got past the inevitable "I don't know what any unit or building does" phase, it was really quite fun.  And it was absolutely gorgeous - I was partial to AoEII's clean 2D isometric appearance when I played it.  But that changed when I saw AoEIII not in static screenshots, but in motion.  Perhaps the nature of my research has me biased, but the game's physical animations won me over.  In AoEII, if a canonball hit a building, it might light on fire.  Here, it will punch a hole through the wall as rubble falls around it.  Great eye candy.  I also got this around the same time I got a new desktop, so beautiful PC gaming was pretty novel for me.  The campaign itself seemed like pretty normal RTS fair.  I'll have to take a closer look at multiplayer one of these days, though I don't think it would be the same without a community of players I know.

Braid (PC)

I waited too long to play this game.  It had been in my backlog for a while.  Tim was an unlockable character in Super Meat Boy, and one of my favorites to play as.  When this was shown as part of the Humble Indie Bundle 2, I knew I was left with no choice but to get it.

While a platformer, the pre-star platforming isn't really a challenge or the focus of the game at all.  It's all about puzzle solving with various twists on the time manipulation mechanic.  I won't go through them all, but each of them was unique and brought about several new affordances for types of puzzles.  And those puzzles...they were just right.  I was never stuck on anything to the point of being frustrated, but aside from maybe early ones I never blew them off for being too easy.  And they consistently left me with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  It's one of those games that makes you feel smart when you play it.  I am the time master.

I want to talk about the game's end and post game, so beware SPOILERS from here on out.  After I beat the last level, my mind was seriously blown.  I could not believe how well done stage 1: braid was done.  I didn't realize what was happening until I was forced to reverse time, even though all of the clues were there, you were stuck moving backwards for all of the other stages in the chapter, moving through them in reverse order...  what a twist.  While I resisted looking to the Internet for my playthrough, I dashed to it at this point to see what others had to say when I discovered the 'stars.'  Very secret and hard to obtain items.  Some include very tricky platforming.  For one, you are forced to stand on a cloud for TWO HOURS, the time it takes it to traverse from one side of the map to the other.  But you can do it, and you can indeed catch the princess.  Through the game's text, Tim is characterized as being obsessive, driven towards a single goal without regard for consequence.  I love how, to get 100% in this game, you must become Tim.  You have to do absurd challenges and waste your time, all to catch the princess who does not want to be caught.  And when you do catch her, as a not-so-subtle metaphor for the atomic bomb, she explodes.  Congratulations death, destroyer of worlds.  To celebrate your victory, the stars you found form a constellation, Andromeda - The Chained Maiden.  I only went through with this because of my obsession to complete games, so indeed, I was Tim.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn (DS)

My first Golden Sun game!  I'm slightly cheating with the inclusion of this game since I finished it in January, but I completed the bulk of it in 2010.  As context, I was going on vacation, and while some traditional folks like a book to read by a pool, I enjoy portable gaming.

At the time, I was in the mood for a basic JRPG, and this game delivered.  I'm not actually sure I can point to much this game does that's particularly novel or noteworthy.  I've also heard that it's EXTREMELY similar to past entries in the series.  Nevertheless, I had fun playing through it, and often that's all you need.  Leading up to this, my inner 'explorer' had been getting a bit anxious, so this, while not an iconic example of exploration, put off a break down for a few more weeks.

Well, that's that, the highlights of my gaming in 2010.  We'll see where I take this blog from here.  I'm still kind of playing around with how I want to structure it.  But, particularly if you spot a game you've played, I hope my thoughts provoke some thoughts of your own.  And if they do, tell me what you think!  At the very least, I've now got a personal archive of my thoughts more robust than my feeble memory.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

2010 in Review: Part 3

It's been a crazy few weeks.  Both GDC and PAX East, yikes.  Busy, but totally worth it.  GDC in particular, I hadn't really been to anything like it before.  My first time out to the west coast as well, so I got in some of the mandatory sightseeing.  I didn't really have a good idea of what to expect at the conference.  I had been told by a few conference veterans that the conference itself was okay, but the real highlight of the conference is the people there that you get to talk to.  I believed it was true for them, but I'm not exactly the most talkative individual, so I had my doubts of how much that would apply to me.  Turns out they were totally right.  So indeed, there were a few lectures I went to that were quite good (and a few dry ones), but the best part of the conference for me was the back corner of the show floor.  This is where they stuffed all of the IGF finalists.  All of the games were lined up next to one another, with their developers right there to talk about their creations with you.  I got to talk to developers from games I have played (Minecraft, Super Meat Boy [wasn't in the IGF this year, but they were there]), games I had heard of but hadn't played before (Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Bit Trip), and games I hadn't played until I arrived (Fract, E7, Octodad).  That is far from a comprehensive list, but it was great to hear the stories of these guys, who were often either students or small teams who just went for it and struck gold.  Really quite inspiring, I left very energetic.

Now back to my 2010 games.  We're in the fall now.  At my lab, my supervisor has a massive collection of games that he lets people in the lab borrow.  We also have a (backwards-compatible) PS3 in the office.  And, as much of a gamer as I call myself, I never actually owned a PS2.  So I decided to start off the fall with some PS2 games which I had wanted to play but never got around to.

Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

16 Colossi?  I can do it in a day.  And so I did, I decided I'd attempt to beat the game in one sitting (discounting food and bathroom and such).  And indeed, I had a ~10 hour power session where I played the game start to finish.  I'm lucky the PS3 didn't burst into flames after so much continuous play.  But it was extremely easy to play the game for a stretch like that.  You don't NEED to take a break from the game, you can just keep playing and playing...I was really impressed by this game, and my only disappointment is that it took me so long to play it.

Art Games
When people ask the question "Are video games art?," this game always is brought forth as supporting evidence.  Playing this game, it's very easy to agree with that sentiment, but it's much harder to dissect it and figure out exactly WHY it feels like art in game form.  And I don't pretend to have a good answer for how to craft an art game, but I'll make a few observations.  It's a very lonely game, you often find yourself traveling with just your horse across a huge landscape.  A lot of games don't really give you an opportunity to reflect while playing (without becoming boring), but this game hits a sweet spot there.  Mechanically, it's extremely simple and consistent.  You retain the same set of skills throughout the game, but you're provided with different scenarios with which to use those techniques.  Also related to consistency, the feeling of grandeur is extremely persistent, from the temple, to the landscape, to the colossi.  It's one thing to scale up your art assets, but to create that feeling of battling massive foes as well as this game does is quite a feat.  And, while not an extremely short game, there is no "fluff" present, I'll be very angry if someone claims that the traveling is fluff.  Another game I've heard called art is Portal, and indeed, there are some similarities with what I've mentioned - simplicity, consistency, lack of "fluff."  I don't really know what it even MEANS for a game to be an "art game", it's kind of an I'll-know-it-when-I-play-it thing, far from a universal standard, but if it means more games like this then I'm all for it.

Spoilers Ahoy!!!
I've played plenty of video games which have featured character deaths.  At the risk of sounding cold, it rarely fazes me.  But when Agro "died," yeah he survived but I didn't know that at the time, I was so incredibly shocked and upset.  That horse was really your character's only companion throughout the game, and he "died" in a last ditch effort to save his master and friend.  I hated the colossi at that point, and was ready to make the final push to finish those bastards off.  Also, while I'm talking about spoilers, that ending sequence - becoming a colossus, struggling in vain to escape the vortex, fantastic.  I don't believe that scene would have been nearly at powerful if it was in a cutscene.  But they let YOU be the colossus, and YOU can resist the winds of fate in vain.  Can you tell that this game actually managed to manipulate my emotions?  Games just never do that for me, I loved it.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)

My prior Metal Gear experience was Metal Gear (NES ) and Metal Gear Solid (PSX).  And I really loved both of those games, so this seemed like a fine choice to continue my progress into the series.  I really enjoyed the game and saw a lot of content, but I definitely owe this game a replay, it seems that there was a lot going on that I wasn't aware of.  Apparently there's a lot to be found by interrogating people, I sort of never figured out how to do that...  So while this is still a remarkable game at face value for those who do a standard or slightly-investigative playthrough, I don't have a lot to say about many of the more subtle intricacies of the world.  I will report back when I get a chance to continue that investigation.

The Story
It'd be hard to talk about this game without mentioning the story.  I'm not going to walk through the whole plot, I'd probably need a refresher anyways, but this game's story is fantastic.  Yes, you will spend a good chunk of your time watching cutscenes, but it's totally worth it here.  Spoilers ahead.  It had so many great characters and scenes - I was definitely a fan of one set of scenes in particular.  First, Snake loses his eye in the torture chamber.  Later, he is with Eva, and a butterfly flies by.  He tries to grab it, but is depressingly unable to with his now impaired depth perception.  But they gave this little scene closure, he later molds C4 into a butterfly shape, tosses it high, and catches it.  It was a small scene but it was just right.

The Quirky Gameplay
Consistent with my other Metal Gear experiences, this game has it's fair share of innovative and quirky gameplay moments.  Consider in MGS1, when you get taken prisoner and your inventory is stolen, upon its recovery, you are being tracked because they planted a device in it.  Getting rid of it is as simple as discarding it from your inventory.  It's something a REAL spy would have thought of.  In MGS3, one sort of quirky twist I liked was the "battle" with The Sorrow.  Here, you are in some weird dream-state-spirit-world thing...whatever.  But you are forced to march down a river of death, and in this river is every enemy you've killed in the game.  Fortunately, I didn't have THAT many unnecessary casualties, but still, it was a long walk, and a great scene which subverts the common video game trope of killing without consequence.

The Bosses
Okay, I just wanted to make a "The X" title one more time.  But the boss battles were varied and great.  I just need to complain that during the final form of the Volgin tank fight the PS3 froze and sent me back to laying C4, I was quite peeved.

The Explosion
This is a real life anecdote.  I was at the scene where Snake is being electrically tortured by Volgin.  At the same time, the lighting in the lab is getting repaired, you might see where this is going.  Anyways, after the lights were replaced in my room, I resumed playing, and the repairman left to flip the corresponding breaker back for the lights.  Well, poor me is getting zapped in the game, and all of a sudden there's an explosion on the ceiling in real life and there's a waterfall of sparks raining down around me.  I don't know if I've ever run so fast.  The breaker tripped again, so it didn't last very long, but damn, that was absolutely perfect timing with the events of the game.

Minecraft (PC)

I'm not sure whether to love or hate Minecraft.  On one hand, it brought me back to my Lego-loving childhood self, where I was just in this environment of pure creation.  On the other, it siphoned away so many hours by preying on my often OCD-like habits in games.  I'd say it checks out as A-OK in my book, though.

It's hard to make general statements about Minecraft - it really can be many, many things.  For me, it was mostly about terraforming and building large structures.  For others, it might be exploring the theoretically infinite landscape.  Others might become masters of redstone circuitry.  Some may dedicate themselves to destroying mob.  And some still may try to make a pretty house with a nice garden in the front.  Minecraft is less a game and more a possibility space.  Don't let the voxelized graphics put you off, they really do have a lot of charm.

Also, Notch (Minecraft creator) has an awesome hat and accent.  My stance looks kind of funny in this picture, I was leaning on a chair behind me, but who cares, I got to talk to Notch.

Rock Band 3 (360)

I fell in love with rhythm games around Guitar Hero 3.  I got the game around the same time I got mono.  I couldn't really DO anything for like a month, so I pretty much stayed at home and became proficient.  My rhythm game career hardly ended there, though.  I don't play guitar very much these days, after Through the Fire in Flames, I had accomplished my ultimate goal.  But there were still so many who were better than me at guitar.  I hadn't seen nearly as many great drummers, though, so I took that route, and I'd say I'm a pretty good fake drummer these days.  So I've played the crap out of Rock Band 1 and 2, so I'm mostly concerned with the new stuff RB3 brings to the table.

I picked up this game with the keyboard bundle day 1.  I decided not to bother with normal keys, it's just guitar minus strumming, so I went for pro keys.  I didn't expect to be phenomenal right off of the bat, but I was failing on EASY.  But I thought it was great.  I haven't had my butt kicked like that since I first picked up Guitar Hero, even drums I was able to do medium well enough from the start.  I've practiced a lot since and can pass slightly more than half of the songs on expert, so I'm getting there.  It does have an in game trainer which I have used to practice.  The most useful part of the trainer is that you can practice individual parts of the song.  Since it basically has you playing a 2 octave'd version of the actual instrument chart, sightreading well is pretty out of reach except for musical prodigies, which I am not.  Especially given that I have no REAL instrument experience, so I've got no childhood piano practice to build off of.  It's been a fun challenge though, and I know that pro guitar is waiting for me when I want to relive that.

Pro Drums
As I mentioned, I fancy myself a drummer in these games.  They added "pro drums," which adds three cymbals and distinguishes the chart appropriately.  The best part of this addition is that every song automatically has a pro drum chart.  I heard somewhere, no citation, sorry, that they were able to do this because the cymbal hits are stored in the animation data.  Regardless, I've enjoyed replaying through my library, with an extra twist.  It's generally not a whole lot harder, but the "feel" is right.

End of Part 3

And now we move towards November or so, almost at the end.  To wrap up:
-Super Meat Boy
-Age of Empires 3
-Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

Monday, February 21, 2011

2010 in Review: Part 2

Without wasting much time with introductions, let's get into the next set of games I played in 2010.  Chronologically, this is around my summer.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

Third and final Mario game for the year, I swear.  The Mario series has gone in lots of directions, such as 2D platformers and RPGs (and sports games and party games and kart-racing...), but here is Mario's continuation of his 3D platforming legacy.  This game is a direct sequel to the often praised Super Mario Galaxy (1).  Using the same engine, can this game stand out without the novelty of its predecessor?

The perils of the sequel
For me, anyways, the answer is yes.  Indeed, the fundamentals of the game engine itself are fairly unchanged, you're still dealing a typical-controlling 3D Mario navigating a space with spherical platforms.  The formula worked great when it was created, and it continues to work great here.  Some of the wrappings have changed a bit, instead of having a central world hub on a satellite-ship...thing, you pilot your own space ship around a classic (SMB3 era) level selection screen.  And by "space ship" I mean "face ship" (don't be angry with me, the game makes the pun off the bat).

Face Ship

I really got the feeling that the development team spent most of the time between SMG and SMG2 creating and refining the levels to perfection, given that they had a core game engine and design that worked.  And indeed, the novelty isn't there, it can't be, but the levels are so spot on.  I found myself so absorbed into this game, usually hauling in 30 stars per night or so (242 stars total).  They strike a great balance of avoiding both triviality and tedium.  SMG itself didn't really suffer much of a problem in these respects, but I felt that the quality of this game, as objectively as I am able to assess, is higher.

I find often that many sequels are bashed for not living up to the standards set by the original.  It's understandably hard to avoid, the first often has novelty for the audience, and the fact is that novelty does have value.  Of course, if the sequel is too different, then there are those who complain about the changes.  I can't say whether this means there are two groups of people (those who like novelty and those who like refining a good thing) or one group of people (those who like to complain) at play here, but it does make for sequels being a tricky business.  That said, there are definitely sequels out there which would more accurately described as a "level pack" and might warrant some of the criticism, but I don't think SMG2 falls into this category.  Mine doesn't seem to be a very controversial viewpoint either, so I will harp on it no further.

Monster Hunter 3 (Wii)

Seems this is a series of games that's much more popular with the Asian market.  To be honest, I knew almost nothing about the franchise prior to purchasing this game.  I was drawn to it because Capcom usually delivers, and it seemed like a pretty solid online game for Wii.  Plus I was looking for a game that would be a decent time sink for the stretches of free time which appeared before me over the summer.

I suppose I'll start this with a note about how my character turned out.

Boring character stuff for people who play MH

That's my Chromega, right there.  Reading off the screen, got to level 68, and it only took me 237 hours!  When I said I wanted a time sink for the summer, this game delivered.

I opted to be a lancer early on in the game.  Controls felt the most natural to me, and I just find myself to be the aggressive DPS sort naturally.  I'm sporting my endgame armor in that screenshot, full Agnaktor+, carrying one of my lances, the Alatreon Gleam.  I generally played as a counter lancer, so I gemmed my skills as such, with Constitution+2, Guard+2, Flaming Aura, Razor Sharp, and Short Sprinter.  I also found myself with a great lance collection, I got every ultimate lance save one, the Millenium, whose materials are obtained for a timed event my playing didn't line up with.  Not a fantastic lance either, but it is a hole in my otherwise complete collection.

One of the biggest complaints about this game is the grinding.  The premise of the game can be summed up pretty easily.  Kill dinosaurs and take their parts so that you can build better armor and weapons to kill bigger dinosaurs.  A lot of these parts are random drops, so you'll find yourself fighting monsters again and again.  And these aren't quick fights either.  Unless you're revisiting monsters with your shiny new weapon, your first few times against a monster will take a half hour upwards.

Something else that doesn't help the game's case is the way it eases you in.  Playing a good chunk of the first few minutes can leave you wondering where the combat you were promised is, as they'll have you gathering mushrooms and such.  The battles will come, but not right away.  If you're someone who likes to sample games to get their flavor, sampling this game will leave you unsatisfied.

Really, it all boils down to the core of the game: the combat.  If you enjoy the combat, then it doesn't feel like grinding, every battle is different.  If the combat grows stale for you, then yes, it is grinding, and this is not the game for you.  I loved it, but I can't see myself recommending the game to everyone.

The core of the game is combat.  You have a lot of control over the movements and attacks of your character, and you will need to become fluent in this control mechanism to be able to play this game.  This isn't the sort of game where you can take a swipe at the enemy, and it takes damage if it falls inside the attack's oversided hitbox.  Your attack hits if it hits.  And where it hits matters, all of the monsters take different amounts of damage in different parts of their bodies.  You can even break or damage parts of their bodies; one of the most frequent things you'll find yourself doing is trying to 'cut the tail' - the first time I did this is scared me, I thrust with my lance (which does do cut damage), and a giant sea serpent lept away from me, shocked, leaving behind a dead tail.  

The weapons in this game do behave very differently and serve different functions.  To give a sampling, lances are great for DPS, but are fairly immoble.  Bowguns are great for ranged combat, but have poor defenses.  Sword and shield has poor raw damage throughput, but is great at inflicting status or elemental damage.  This leads to very exciting team dynamics in online play.

I played through this game first in single player, and then later entered the online world.  I'm glad I did single player first so that I wasn't useless online (and there is exclusive single player content), but playing online is so much better.  Battles go faster, and it's simply the type of game where it's a lot of fun to cooperate with others.  The weapon distribution was fairly balanced, so everyone had a role, and, maybe I had good luck, but I found people generally adhered to their roles well and we had great runs with the monsters.  I only wish I had gotten a USB keyboard sooner, the alternative typing interface is very clunky.

Final Fantasy XIII (360)

You may not be surprised by the fact that I've got some Final Fantasy under my belt.  Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough to get the gist of the series (1, 6, 7).  You might observe that there are a lot of numbers between 7 and 13.  I haven't been observing the evolution of the series, so I was excited to see what they came up with.  I wish I could say I was more impressed, but fortunately there are older classic formula Final Fantasy games still left for me to play, maybe those will satisfy me more.  I'm all for experimentation, but sometimes experiments don't work out, and I hope the developers can learn from the game's drawbacks.

You all saw this one coming, so I won't harp on it too much.  But really, this marches you down a line nearly the entire game.  They don't hide it either, the linear hallways are visually all too plain.  If you ever see a fork in the road, spoilers, one is a short dead end with an item at the end, then you can turn around and get back on the main path.  Linearity's not always a bad thing, but, perhaps it's my mindset, I like to explore in RPGs.  Indeed, my favorite part of the game is when the linearity is removed for a while.  I've heard people assert that "it was just a tutorial before that, this is the real game now! (30 hours or so in)" or "the linearity exists to form a constrast with the open world of Pulse and exists to make a statement."  I don't know whether either of these is true, but it wore on me.

This game was a first for me.  The first time I've ever fallen asleep actively playing a game.  I fell asleep mid battle.  Rather than focusing on the "micro" like most FF games where you hand pick each attack, the focus of battle is more "macro" where you assign roles to your team, such as healer or black mage (or rather, medic or ravager).  The default command for attacking is "auto battle", where your characters will fight in accordance with the paradigms you have set for them.  Granted, the option is there to select your own attacks, but the pacing of the battles doesn't really lend itself to that, and I didn't really feel like extending the game much longer than it already was.

Not all is lost
The game did have its redeeming qualities, though.  I can't say I'm usually a harsh critic in this regard, but I enjoyed the story.  There were plenty of memorable cutscenes.  On a related note, the graphics for this game were absolutely stunning, but in those cutscenes and during normal game play.  But these redeeming qualities basically have nothing to do with the game itself.  And indeed, the game was really a pretty movie with some game-ness in between cutscenes.  Anecdote, I put the game into the 360, about to play.  My 360 misread the disk and brought me to the "Play DVD Movie" menu.  I felt very proud of the fact that I have a witty console.

Metroid: Other M (Wii)

Metroid.  When you put that in your title, you've got a lot to live up to.  I'm sure I'll do a post about why Metroid Prime is amazing at some point in the future.  But for now, suffice to say, I love Metroid, and was thrilled when this game was announced, and I was very curious to see what Team Ninja would do to the series.  And when I saw initial screens and saw it was in 3rd person, I was reminded immediately of what I thought the original Metroid Prime would be based off of the original E3 2001 trailer (relevant footage near the end of the video):

Ninja Samus
One thing this game nails is the feeling of an acrobatic Samus.  It's hard to get that with 1st person controls, so that element of older Metroid games wasn't really captured in the Primes, but this game hits it dead on.  This existed in both navigation and combat.  The perspective also naturally makes the game more amenable to classic upgrades such as the screw attack and speed booster/shinespark.  (Yes, screw attack was in Prime 2, maybe 3, I forget, but your mobility was far more restricted than here).

While this game destroys the Primes when it comes to capturing Samus's acrobatics, it's a far cry away from capturing the exploration prominent in classic Metroid.  Prime 1 captured this perfectly.  A more linear Metroid game isn't unheard of, this game is really the sequel to Metroid Fusion, a great and similarly linear game.  Fusion and Other M are also more story driven than most Metroids.  Perhaps some types of storytelling are most easily executed when there is a linear story presented to the player, who knows.  It's not quite on the level as FF13, there still is the hunt for powerups throughout the game.  But despite some hunting for powerups, I didn't really feel the spirit of exploration which drew me to other Metroid titles.

This is a big point of attack for this game.  And I'm not putting this section here to join in on the attack, I'm saying it didn't really bother me.  Sure, Team Ninja took some liberties and gave Samus some flaws (and incorporated "weapons authorization" as a very weak gameplay device).  I don't think humanizing Samus during by giving her flaws was necessarily a bad idea, perfect, flawless characters had been done.  Perhaps it's because so many players identify themselves with Samus since they had the opportunity to do so before, and now there is this needy, scarred-from-childhood girl forcing them out of the armor and taking their place. I can't say for sure.  As I said, I can see how it would bother some people, but I wasn't horribly taken aback. Besides, how can you hate a game with such lovable characters as below?  If you've played the game, you might be able to guess my favorite Metroid enemy.

Little Birdie

Post Game Content
I don't want to spoil much here, but this game has a kick ass post game.  You might see an old friend from Super Metroid.  But yes, the game's not over after the credits run.  Also, I did get in a second run through the game on hard mode.  No health upgrades.  I thought the game was on the easy end on my first playthough, so I definitely enjoyed it more on my second playthrough.  Most of the later bosses can one-shot you, it's intense.

End of Part 2

We're entering the school year now, fall semester.  For part 3/4, you can expect:

-Shadow of the Colossus
-Metal Gear Solid 3
-Rock Band 3