Monday, November 29, 2010

Breaking Down Brick Walls  

Games: Have you ever had a game that you just knew was going to take serious effort to complete, but you dug in for the long haul and stayed with it until the end? I'm not talking about the average (and tedious) 60-hour JRPG or anything that's a simple matter of hours devoted. No, I'm talking about something that's really difficult, or something that presents some sort of extraordinary obstacle to overcome. Something like the videogame equivalent of a brick wall.

For me, I've had two.

The first brick wall (believe it or not) was the original Mega Man on the NES. It may seem a little ridiculous that this game was such a huge hurdle for me back in the day, but it's true.


Getting through the bosses was no big deal, but the fight against Rock Monster drove me absolutely crazy. The way that thing split up into small pieces and warped back and forth across the room just tore me apart, and with the game skills I had at that age, I just couldn't do it.

I don't think I've ever mentioned this to anyone before, but it took me about three years to get past that part. Of course, it wasn't three years of trying ten times a day every day. I'd put it down for a few months and play other games and then come back to it when the mood struck me, but I did not see credits roll on Mega Man until literally three years after I bought it.

… of course, after I finished it legitimately, I found out there was an exploit to get past the bastard by hitting him once and then rapidly pausing/unpausing the system. If I had known about it earlier, forget three years. I would have polished the game off in three days.

My other brick wall is Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on PSP.

If you read this blog regularly, then you already know that I’m a recently-converted fan of the series. Monster Hunter Tri on the Wii got a lot of things right for me, and I still had a bit of an itch to scratch after I polished it off. I knew the PSP games had a dedicated following, so I figured I’d jump onboard that train and kill more giant beasties while on the go. Immediately after starting, I was glad I did.

Despite enjoying it a great deal, Tri felt like a stripped-down, uber-simplified kiddie pool compared to the amount of content I found in Freedom Unite. There are a ton more monsters, loads of new and different weapons, and a mountain of varied armor sets to collect. Interestingly, Freedom Unite also has tons of information, tutorials, training arenas and lots of other little bits that are completely omitted from Tri. When I saw how much was here, I was utterly amazed and quickly fell in love. Any way you slice it, MHFU is just a better game, all-around.

Better all-around… except for the camera.

While it's clear that Capcom has made some concessions to PSP players (i.e.- slower monsters, lower difficulty) the fact is that Sony’s handheld is physically lacking a second analog nub to handle camera duties and the Monster Hunter developers have never come up with a satisfactory workaround solution.

Finger joint degeneration... GO!!!

What are the options? Players either constantly click the left shoulder button to auto-center the camera directly behind their character, or they can control character movement on the nub with their left thumb while pushing left/right on the D-Pad with the left index finger. This tendinitis-inducing maneuver is "affectionately" known as the claw. Also, it's about four times more uncomfortable than it looks, especially in extended play sessions.

As I'm sure you can imagine, the giant hurdle to overcome with MHFU is finding techniques and strategies to survive while dealing with the absurdly unsatisfactory camera system. If it was any other game I probably would have kicked it to the curb after an hour, but it's impossible not to acknowledge the amount of quality content in the title. It really is a fantastic game for players of a certain stripe, and if there was some solution to the camera dilemma, I'd easily rank it as one of the best games available for PSP.

Don't take time to re-orient the camera... Tigrex gonna getcha!

Unfortunately, this is a game where even half-seconds count, and being unsure of whether a Tyrannosaurus with wings is on your right or your left is more than enough to trigger a Mission Failed. Death by crappy camera is frustrating in the extreme, and I have questioned my own sanity more than once as to whether I'm really dedicated enough to see this game through. After forty hours, I think I am... although whether that means I'm sane or insane, I can't say.

So, what are your personal videogame brick walls? I'd love to hear about 'em.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pigsy's Perfect 10, The Deep Cave, and some Random Links  


This has been a really crazy week, and that had nothing at all to do with Thanksgiving. Between Seattle's recent snowfall wreaking havoc with my work schedule and taking a mini-vacation from games, it's safe to say that I'm pretty far out of my groove at the moment. As such, I'm going to cop out on doing a full-on blog entry while I take care of other things. In the meantime, here's a few bits to chew on...


Games: The first thing I played after formally ending my hiatus from games was the Pigsy’s Perfect 10 DLC for Enslaved: Journey to the West. I don't want to say too much about it since I'm considering doing a quick review for it, but what I will say is that it was excellent from start to finish.

In a nutshell, greasy mech-mechanic Pigsy decides that he needs to build himself a robot companion since life in the junkyard is a little too quiet. Along the way to his goal, players will focus on minor stealth gameplay with a lot of sniping. He also uses his mechanical hand as a grappling hook, and can employ different types of supplemental gear other than what female lead Trip previously used.

Perfect 10 was exactly the sort of DLC that I love the most -- it built on a character and his story from Enslaved’s campaign, but the gameplay was radically different and the adventure was not meant to fit between levels, nor was it any sort of retcon. Personally, I found it to be totally worth the price of admission and would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Enslaved even a bit.


Games: Just a quick word on the recent XBLI release, The Deep Cave. It's a pretty high-quality title reminiscent of Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV. The graphics are nice and the music is actually fantastic. However, I have to be honest in saying that it's hard to go back to this sort of hyper-demanding, ultra-lethal platformer since Team Meat pretty much did it perfectly.

The lack of "weight" in Deep Cave feels weird, and I found it quite difficult to adjust to the jumping. The controls don't feel as accurate as SMB’s for some reason, either. I bailed on it pretty quick myself since I'm just not in the right frame of mind to play something like this right now, but if you want another F-The-Player-And-Kill-Him/Her-A-Million-Times-With-Irritating-Deaths game, this is one to check out.


Games: Here’s a few links to some random things.

>The latest GameCritics podcast is now available for your downloading pleasure. Episode 44 features Mike Bracken’s second look at Alan Wake, my extended thoughts on MGS: Peace Walker, Richard Naik’s alcohol-tinged review of Amnesia: the Dark Descent, and we also talk about about why large open-world games don't get a pass when it comes to bug testing.

Each new copy comes with a soundtrack CD.
>Atlus has just announced a new DS title called Radiant Historia. Looks pretty interesting to me, but check the announcement trailer here.

>This one is totally random, but the folks over at have a fairly accurate (and fairly humorous) breakdown of the different sorts of people you encounter on Xbox Live. I don't know why this particular site is hosting this particular list, but it seems dead-on to me. Click here to see it, and scroll down a little past the gospel singers. Yes, really.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Problem With Blaming The Gamer  

Games: Recently, I read an editorial written by Tae Kim over at GamePro. Here's the link, but basically Tae (and a few others) are saying the same thing that I've been saying for years -- most games are too long without the content to support such length, and that story-driven games in particular would benefit from being tighter and more focused.

I'm glad to see that this idea is starting to pop up more and more, because it's true. However, there’s a bit of a spin to Tae’s piece, and this little twist is something I have an issue with.

Here’s the opening of the article:

In this week's editorial, we present an argument for the idea that games, especially those that feature a narrative story arc, need to be shorter, and that gamers need to stop making overall game length a priority when they make their purchasing decisions.

It seems to make sense, so what's the problem?

The problem is that while critics like Tae, myself, and others are saying openly that bigger does not always equal better, asking the player to make purchasing decisions that ignore financial realities and perceived value comes off as a purely one-sided proposition. Asking players to modify their standards and expectations makes sense, but that’s only half the battle. Where’s the compromise on the part of the publisher?

Consumers vs. Publishers - Whose side carries more weight?

Before going on, let me be absolutely clear: I'm not trying to criticize Tae or GamePro specifically, nor do I have a beef with them. Honestly, I agree with almost everything Tae says in his editorial, and his thinking is correct -- it simply lacks a critical piece of the equation. It’s not just Tae, though. It’s uncommon to see anyone in the review sphere or the industry in general call for changes on any part except the consumer’s.

All the ongoing shrieks of ‘piracy’ and this friendly little war on used games that’s been happening? Those are the blind jabs taken by a bloated, outdated, struggling publishing machine that’s out of touch with reality.

Fact: Nearly every game hits retail at the one-price-fits-all of $60 regardless of length, modes, features or extras. For example, Enslaved: Journey to the West launched at the same price as Fallout: New Vegas, which launched at the same price as Call of Duty: Black Ops, yet there’s a significant difference in the amount of content and perceived value in each of these titles… yet they all cost exactly the same?

Following that line of thinking, here's another place where Tae’s editorial stumbles for me:

But my point here is that it is possible to also have a meal that isn’t nearly as substantial, but the quality of the food is so good, and the dining experience is so memorable, that you don’t think twice about how much you have to leave on the table when you get up.

It might taste fantastic, but would you really be happy paying full price for this?

What this says to me is that players are supposed to get over the pricetag and support ‘quality’ regardless of the cost or how much they actually receive. I understand what’s being said, but really… no suggestion that publishers need to change unsustainable business models, and not even a moment taken to call out the nonsense in the idea of one-price-fits-all?

In the real world, $60 is a lot of money to most, and buying every interesting title isn't a possibility when the price is steep for just one. A gamer pinching pennies wants to get the most bang for their buck, so if a person can only afford to buy one brand-new game a month, are they going to choose the eight-hour art-house narrative experience, the 100-hour open-world game, or the infinitely-replayable multiplayer FPS?

If I could only choose one game, I know what I’d pick -- and as much as it pains me to say, it wouldn't be the eight-hour experience. As much as I might enjoy the art-house title, I’d either rent it or pick up a used or heavily-discounted copy six months later.

(What's that sound? I'm not sure, but it might be the sound of studios going under…)

As a critic who’s been writing for years about wanting concise games, supporting smaller titles and cheerleading fringe projects, the ‘rent or buy used’ statement may seem like a contradictory one to make. However, when financial realities enter the picture, priorities change -- teenagers with tons of disposable income become parents with kids. The economy is in bad shape and jobs are scarce. People have rent to pay and the interest rate on credit cards is no joke. When money gets tight, luxuries like $60 brand-new games are the first thing to go.

Why didn't we launch at $30? WHY?!?

To use Enslaved as an example again, it was a high-quality title with great characters, solid gameplay, and attractive graphics. It was quite an enjoyable singleplayer experience, but there was precious little replay value once credits rolled. It also lacked any multiplayer to help extend the life of the game, so its estimated lifespan to the average player was somewhere in the neighborhood of eight hours.

Now, I'm not saying that Enslaved was built on a flawed model of game design, nor am I saying that it should have had ill-fitting multiplayer or more pointless collectibles to pad the playtime. No, Enslaved was just fine as it was, but the problem with it (and others like it) is that the publisher priced it exactly the same as competing titles that were both lengthier and more substantial.

Based on this fact, I had a very hard time personally recommending Enslaved to anyone because $60 is a lot to ask for a once-and-done experience, regardless of quality. More often, I found myself saying that it would be a must-buy at $30, or that interested parties should rent or wait until it's on sale. The game-buying public seemed to agree -- general consensus was that it was a good title, but sales were clearly disappointing.

Retail let-downs that happen to great titles like Enslaved make me wonder why publishers don’t price their games more accordingly. I can't help but think that more people would have been inclined to pick up Enslaved or others like it, if only the MSRP had been more reasonable. In this case, let’s say $30 or even $40. I'd imagine this kind of aggressive new-release price would even serve to cut a chunk out of the used games market as well. After all, why wait two weeks to save $5 when it’s already quite affordable?

One possible explanation for this general adherence to the $60 price point? It’s been mentioned that all games launch at $60 since consumers assume that anything less means the product is going to be a poor-quality game – essentially, an ingrained, long-term consumer bias. This supposed bias might actually be true in some cases, but so is the opposite -- there are plenty of games that aren't worth nearly that much.

Honestly, I fail to see how supporting this conceptual fallacy of 'high price = quality' benefits anyone or why it even continues to be upheld. Gamers regularly get suckered into paying for titles that don't justify the price tag, and good games that might be worthwhile end up stagnating at retail because there's too much competition. There’s simply no way that consumers can buy as many $60 games as the industry (in its current incarnation) needs them to, so studios turning out perfectly decent (or better) titles are going under left and right. I think that in this situation, it's pretty clear to see why.

A brighter tomorrow?

Rather than perpetuating this ‘good game = $60’ myth, here's a wild idea: let's change it. If you ask me, it wouldn't be hard. If the industry took a few genuinely high-quality games and positioned them at a lower price point while marketing correctly, I'm confident that the target audiences would lose that $60 expectation in a hurry. I think the industry knows it, too.

…In fact, it might even become so popular that gamers would soon come to expect top-quality software at the new, lower price point, and why would publishers want to earn $30 less for each game than they do now? Ordinarily they wouldn't, but in the face of current economic realities, there may not be much choice. Isn’t it better to sell more units at a lower asking price than to sell a mere handful at $60?

I could certainly go on since there are many, many cogs in this retail-fail machine (and thank you very much for reading if you’ve made it this far) but my point is that it's not entirely correct or even appropriate to say that players need to be satisfied with less content, or that they should support low-replay games while everything is still one-price-fits-all. I think a more proper way to make that argument is to say that players should support those types of games if and when publishers begin to recognize that one price is not appropriate for every title.

Consumers alone aren’t the answer to the industry's woes. They don’t have enough disposable income to keep this lopsided beast lurching forward, and asking them to foot the bill for things that aren’t worth their hard-earned money is ignoring the other half of the equation. Give the player a true approximation of their money’s worth, and they'll respond. Keep moving ahead with the current system of one-price-fits-all, and the only result will be more of what we've got now: an utterly unbalanced system where a handful of million-dollar blockbusters sell truckloads, and everything else continues to fall by the wayside.


My sincere thanks to Mr. P and Ms. A for their assistance with this article.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Amazing Technology, and Taking A Break  


Misc: I hate to sound like an old fogey, but it occurred to me this morning that the age we live in is pretty amazing, and it's something I'm afraid that younger people (and really, I'm not that old) won't be able to appreciate.

It's MAGIC!!!
What brought this up?

My son has been watching the same kids' videos over and over, and while I understand that children his age are big fans of repetition, his mom and I are starting to go just a wee bit batty. I was looking for something else age-appropriate that he could watch for the sake of our sanity, and I randomly remembered a cute show with a car that I had seen once or twice a few years ago.

Twitter is awesome.

I could not remember the name of this program, just that it had a car and it was live-action. I hopped on Twitter and posed the question, and I had an answer (literally) within a few minutes. After that, I went onto Netflix to see if they had any listings for it. They did. In fact, not only did they have the program available, it was available as an instant-watch download.

Just think about this for a minute.

Within the span of a few moments, I solicited an answer to an obscure question from someone living thousands and thousands of miles away, and then was able to take that information and instantly call up the material on my television with no more effort than typing a few words into a keyboard.

People today take this sort of thing for granted, but it's pretty mindblowing when you break it down. Really, I don't think I would have ever imagined being able to do all this fifteen, or even ten years ago.

I mean, I can remember a time when no one had cell phones. I can remember a time when no one had computers in their home. I can remember when you had to get up off the couch and walk to the television in order to change the channel -- and you likely only had twelve channels at best!

Smelly and dim.

Technology has come so far, so fast that it's truly amazing, and younger generations will grow up not knowing how things were different. I suppose it's the same as when my grandmother used to tell me she used kerosene lamps for light, and how having electricity in a home was a real wonder. Still, I can't help but think that it's a little bit of a shame that people growing up now likely won't be able to appreciate how incredible technology is getting within their own life spans, let alone compared to those that came before.


Games: It's been coming for while, but I think I may be taking a brief break from games soon. Nothing drastic, probably just a week or two off, but I'm getting to that burnout point when nothing is interesting or exciting, and putting controllers down for a while is starting to look appealing.

Hoot hoot.
I'm still wrapping up Peace Walker and I've been playing a few levels a day of Legend of the Guardians (a.k.a. “the owl game”) so once I finish with both of these, I think my self-imposed hiatus will likely begin.

What will I do instead?

I've got some edits to do on my second book that are long overdue. I've also got a pretty tall stack of comics that need my attention. Besides the comics is an even taller stack of books to read... China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Brian Keene’s Lehorn’s Hollow collection, and Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts chief among them. Besides reading, I've got somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-two million movies that I've been meaning to watch, and there are still plenty of Dr. Who (and other television series) that have been on my list.

Basically, I don't think I'll have any problem filling the time that games used to occupy, and I have a feeling this mini-vacay will help restore the shine and newness to my favorite hobby. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, after all.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Iraqi conversation, Tennant Pleases, Game Chat, and Sex Toys  


Please forgive the lack of updates lately. The drought of content is due to a combination of things… primarily it's that there's not a lot happening with videogames at the moment in addition to my hitting a big between-project pause in the writing and a severe lack of sleep due to several too-early morning appointments that put a crimp in this night owl’s rhythm. If I can get at least one or two good nights to catch up on my Z’s, all will be well.

In the meantime...


Misc: Earlier today, I met a man from Iraq and had the opportunity to sit down with him and chat for a little while. He was a hell of a nice guy, about my age, had a wife and a small child. As we were talking, he shared a few stories about how his family left the home country due to the Gulf War, and the roundabout way they had arrived in the United States.

It was fascinating stuff, and while there's no end to the number of online sources, television programs and news articles that someone can read about this particular bit of history, there's definitely something immediate and gripping about talking to someone who was actually there and lived through it. Doubly so, because rather than being a politician, diplomat or soldier, he was just an average person. He could have been me.

As the conversation went on, it struck me more and more how incredibly normal he was. I don't mean to sound surprised, but he was so open and willing to talk about himself and his situation that even after all the hardships and trials he had endured, I found it amazing that he was able to sit down and just be. As cliché as it sounds, there was real value in being able to recognize that beside his clothing choices, his religious preference, or the times that he lapsed into Arabic, he was just a man like any other. His affection for his wife and kids, his desire for a better job and more income, his preference in coffee… this is stuff that anyone can relate to.

Afterwards, I was thinking (and not for the first time, honestly) that it’s really too bad the United States is so isolated from the rest of the world. Despite having Canada above and Mexico beneath, it's as though we are a lonely, introverted island that has no contact with anyone else. After all, there’s really no need for anyone to learn a second language, or to even be be aware of anything that happens on the other side of the ocean, and that's a shame.

It seems to me that this country and its people would benefit from having a few more neighbors, the way most other countries do. The exchange of ideas, the contrast of cultures, and the exposure to different viewpoints would only be a positive, let alone the fact that there are few better ways of remembering someone is a human being worthy of respect -- regardless of where they're from or how different they may seem -- than to look them in the eye and shake their hand.


TV: Caught a great Dr. Who double feature tonight. While I'm still not a big David Tennant fan, I thought his work in Season 3’s “The Family of Blood” (second half of a two-parter) was really great, and something of a breakthrough moment for me.

I think my biggest issue with Tennant is that he never seems to act like a thousand-year-old alien who's seen the birth and death of the universe. Instead, he usually comes off like some spastic dude who mumbles too much and doesn't take anything seriously. At the end of Blood, he finally delivers a moment that felt incredibly alien, and totally apart from what one would expect from an average human man. It did not endear him to me, but I deeply appreciated that I finally got this small glimpse of what I’ve felt has been lacking.

The second episode, “Blink”, didn't feature the same character work, but it was tightly scripted and incredibly suspenseful. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, but the way time travel was interwoven with the characters introduced for this particular plot was great, and I do enjoy when the show portrays the Doctor from the perspective of someone who's not familiar with him.

Great, great stuff.


Games: Can’t do an entry without talking about games for at least a moment or two. As a quick recap, I finished Faery: Legends of Avalon (XBLA) and enjoyed it immensely. The reviews I've read for it were disappointingly unfavorable, so I will be crafting my own as a counter.

Also finished the main portion of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP) and had a fantastic time with it. Not sure if I will review, but in the event that I don't, be clear in knowing that I give it two thumbs up. While I don't usually stick around for extra stuff that games sometimes offer after credits roll, there's quite a bit of content to be discovered here, so I will be staying with it for the next few days, at least.

One final games bit… I usually pride myself on being aware of just about everything that's coming out. Big stuff, small stuff, fringe stuff, but I have to admit that I had never even heard of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, (a.k.a 999) until just tonight. I've got no clue at all how this game managed to avoid every single sweep of my radar, but it’s got my attention now.


Sex: This link has been making the rounds so it probably won't be new to many, but just in case you haven't seen it, the Toy With Me blog reviews 8 Amazing and Bizarre Sex Toys. I think that pretty much says everything you need to know. Probably NSFW for some, so be warned.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shiver, A New Podcast, and Faery: Legends of Avalon  


Film: Last night was "date night" for the wife and I. Since we had no trustworthy babysitter immediately available, this consisted of grabbing a pizza from the local Neapolitan-style shop and popping in a movie. Dinner at a five-star restaurant followed by a moonlight cruise it ain’t, but when you've got a little kid in the house, you take what you can get.

ANYWAY, our plan was to catch Quantum of Solace, the second James Bond film starring Daniel Craig. We liked the first and we can both appreciate a good action flick, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

How wrong we were.

The "plot" of the film was incomprehensible, and only the loosest of threads connected each no-context action sequence. We mutually agreed to kick it to the curb about a third of the way through, which left us with a hole in the evening where a movie should be.

After a quick scan of Netflix instant-watch, we decided on “Shiver”, a Spanish Thriller/Horror film that neither of us had ever heard of, nor knew anything about. Here’s the Netflix blurb:

When a sunlight-phobic teen (Junio Valverde) moves to a remote mountain town -- coinciding with a series of mass killings -- everyone naturally suspects the strange newcomer. But the forest holds a spine-tingling secret that explains everything. Academy Award-winning production designer Pilar Revuelta (Pan's Labyrinth) applies her artistic eye to this atmospheric Spanish-language horror film that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008.

We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best, and it turned out that (insert old man Templar voice from Lost Crusade here) we chose wisely.

I don't want to give too much of it away, but the acting was quite good and the story kept our attention. Although it wasn't pants-wetting scary, it was interesting in a creepy way, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments to boot.

If you’ve got Netflix and are looking for something a little different (with subtitles) this one gets my recommendation.


Games: We just recorded the latest podcast tonight. Starring myself, Richard Naik, Mike Bracken, Chi Kong Lui and (as always) hosted by Tim Spaeth, we covered a range of topics, including but not limited to: Bugs in open-world games, the PSP’s MGS: Peace Walker, and PC’s Amnesia: the Dark Descent. We also took a second look at the 360’s Alan (the world’s biggest wanker) Wake while we were at it.

I'm such a bloody wanker.

While that episode is currently being edited, feel free to CLICK ON OVER to the current episode. While I'm not in this one thanks to a last-minute Internet outage, the rest of the guys talk about some of their early videogame memories. Please check it out if you're so inclined.


Games: Finally, just a quick shout-out for Faery: Legends of Avalon, currently available on XBLA, PC, and (I think) PSN.

In a nutshell, it's a very simple, straightforward RPG done in classic style. The player takes on the role of a fairy who must help save rapidly-dwindling magical lands being eroded by a world of non-believers. Quests are of the “talk to X, go to Y, do Z, talk to X again” variety and combat is a streamlined turn-based system. If you've ever played an RPG, then you know what this is all about. It's basic, basic stuff. 

While the general lack of complexity might be seen as a negative in most cases, I have to say that it's appealing here. In fact, it's actually quite relaxing. Each level is small in size, and it's easy to cover every corner of a map with a minimum of fuss thanks to the wings on the main character's back. Rather than artificially limiting things, the developers actually implement a logical, free-roaming, fly-anywhere system of travel. The freedom to explore in three dimensions (with an emphasis on vertical) feels unique and makes the back-and-forthing happen in a snap.

That said, the simple gameplay structure wouldn't be enough to satisfy on its own without the excellently appealing visuals and mythical elements that feel very faithful to the tone and flavor of European folk tales.

Instead of the cutesy Tinkerbell-ish slant so popular these days, Faery hews much more closely to the gothic, almost alien depictions of supernatural creatures. Sometimes precious and beautiful, at other times dark and frightening, it's a rarely-seen style I'm very much a fan of, and the aesthetic is appreciated here.

I haven't completed the game yet, but I've been enjoying every minute and I’m eager to get back to it when I'm away, which is always a good thing. Final judgment is reserved, but so far it seems like this was 1200 MS points very well-spent.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

MGS: Peace Walker, XBLA's UnderGarden & Faery, and the new Sherlock  


Games: Been spending some more time with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on PSP. Like I said in the last post, it got off to a slow start but it's really been picking up. After putting a few more hours into it and getting past the fifth boss, I think what I like most is that it's both stripped down (the tactical stealth action) and complex (the Outer Heaven sections) at the same time.

Sneaking through the various levels has kind of a “classic MGS” feeling to it, and reminds me of playing the earlier games on PS2. I really didn't care for MGS4 at all (you can see my Second Opinion, if you haven't already) so this comes off to me like a smart and very welcome return to form.

(…Oh, and before some of you try to call me on liking PS2-style MGS in Peace Walker and disliking it in MGS4, the difference is that I expect a hell of a lot more done with a game when it's running on a powerful piece of hardware like the PS3.)

Anyway, on top of the enjoyably stealthy action, what’s really fascinating is that Peace Walker strikes me as a combination of MGS and Capcom’s Monster Hunter. Totally apart from the crossover guest appearances (which are themselves extremely telling) the design of the peripheral content in both games have tons of similarities. Grinding for experience, harvesting resources, developing better equipment… very, very similar stuff.

It makes a brilliant kind of sense when you consider that the MH franchise is one of the most popular in Japan, and in my view, trying to capitalize on it can be seen as a smart move, though I may be a bit biased since I already enjoy both Monster Hunter and MGS. Either way, Peace Walker is hitting all the right notes for me, and rekindling a love for the series that I felt sure MGS4 had killed forever.


Games: A very interesting pair of demos hit Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service today: The UnderGarden and Faery.

The UnderGarden seems as though it's definitely going for the esoteric art-house vibe, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The UnderGarden

The player controls a creature that looks a bit like a miniature TeleTubby and flies around through 2D levels solving environmental puzzles as flowers sprout and lights glow. To tell the truth, it's all a bit surreal and hallucinogenic... but in a good way.

Faery is another game with heavy emphasis on visual style. After getting past the welcome screen, the player customizes a winged character that can be altered to a surprising degree for an Arcade title.


After creation, players are free to fly around an island environment complete with villagers to talk to and places to check out. Combat seems like fairly straightforward turn-based RPG fare, but the setting is certainly unique and I was very intrigued by options in the menu to further change up the player’s appearance and abilities.

Slightly eccentric projects like these are right up my alley, so they've both been earmarked for further investigation. If you've got some feedback on either one, post a comment and let me know.


TV: British programming has been dominating my family’s viewing time lately. In addition to plowing through the new Dr. Who on a regular basis, the wife and I recently watched the new Sherlock reboot (downloaded for free from PBS here) and we loved it.

This modern-day take on the classic detective has Sherlock as a hyperactive sociopathic detective who only lives for mental challenge, while Watson is an Afghanistan war vet who craves the adrenaline rush of living on the edge. The two seem to clash more often than they get along, but it's a terrific match-up and an invigorating vision – Sherlock’s pipe has been traded in for nicotine patches, and he sports an iPhone in lieu of the iconic Deerstalker cap.

The first episode (of three, they’re about 90 minutes each) was utterly fantastic, and did a great job of setting the stage and introducing the characters. The mystery of the episode was also quite interesting, and kept us engaged from start to finish.

The second episode wasn't terrible, but it wasn't up to the standard of the first. Including a lot of Asian/Eastern cliché elements that were utter crap, I felt like certain parts of it were bordering on stereotypical farce. The actors did a fine enough job, but the writers should be a bit embarrassed.

The last episode regained its stride, and was nearly as enjoyable as the first. It's in this segment that we finally meet Sherlock’s re-imagined nemesis, Moriarty, and see how such an evil genius was reinterpreted for today's audience. (And please, don't tell me that mentioning Moriarty is a spoiler -- these characters have been around for over a hundred years!)

I can't say that I've ever been a huge fan of the detective, but in this new take using forensic science, text messaging and some interesting visual information presented onscreen was time well-spent on the couch to be sure. Very much looking forward to the next installments of the series.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Undead Nightmare, MGS Peace Walker and Japan's Top 10  


Games: I’ve been trying to push forward in Red Dead Redemption, but after putting a few hours into it, it still hasn't grabbed me. Great graphics, plenty of content, blah blah blah…

I think the thing for me is that I’m a big story guy. Stories and characters matter to me, and if a game gets off on the wrong foot then it takes a lot for me to stay with it. I know a lot of people say that RDR really pays off in the end, but it just starts so poorly that I can't find the motivation to continue.

For example, the player does not see John Marston’s family when the game starts, so I don't have any idea in my mind of what I'm fighting for. Compounding the problem is that the game follows the typical Rockstar formula where the main character goes on all sorts of crazy adventures and absurd errands, arriving at the end by the most circuitous route possible. It doesn't make sense to me that Marston would seem so at ease and lackadaisical about getting his family out of danger, and almost none of the missions I've been through so far seem to have any direct impact on getting him towards his goal.

I can't get my head into the game, so it's pretty easy to distract myself with other things and feel no rush to get back to it. However, I downloaded the Undead Nightmare DLC before even starting the main campaign, so I figured I should probably at least give it a try before shelving RDR for something else. Ironically, I find Undead more engaging than the campaign proper.

I've heard a few people have some confusion about it, so here's the deal: Undead Nightmare isn’t just a multiplayer add-on pack, it’s a complete story-based campaign set in the RDR world, but with a “what if?’ twist of the dead rising from their graves. There are tons of cutscenes, all of the main characters (so far, anyway) make return appearances, and there's plenty of things to do. In fact, this is certainly one of the largest and most sizable pieces of DLC that I've personally played through, and I'm quite impressed with how much is here. I sort of expected to blow through it in an hour or two, but it's much, much larger than that.

Ironically, I think Undead Nightmare gets off to a much better start than the main game does. The scene is properly set, the player has a clear idea of what's required, and the game flows along a very logical path. There are certainly detours that can be taken, but pushing forward through the story feels believable and natural. An added bonus: it's pretty damn cool to ride across the prairie on a flame-haired, mythological steed.

I don't know if or when I'll ever complete RDR’s campaign, but Undead Nightmare has certainly been worth the price of admission so far.


Games: Aside from Undead Nightmare, I’ve also been putting some time into Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on PSP. It was a bit of a slow start and I can't really say that I'm very involved in the story, but after beating the first two bosses the gameplay is starting to click with me. Coping with full 3D play is a bit of an adjustment without having a second analog stick and things still get a little unmanageable when I get spotted and enemies go on full alert, but it's not too bad.

(While I'm on the subject: I've said it before and I've said it again -- Sony's decision to ship the PSP with only one analog nub has got to be one of the stupidest, most shortsighted and inexplicable hardware design errors in the history of videogames.)

ANYWAY… big Monster Hunter fan that I am, I'm very much looking forward to getting into the hidden missions in Peace Walker. Evidently, two large beasties from Monster Hunter Freedom Unite are hidden away somewhere, and tackling those with Big Boss and his arsenal can’t be anything but awesome.

The guest apperarances will apparently be reciprocated in the next Monster Hunter title hitting the PSP. CLICK HERE to see some pictures of the “Boss” and “Big Boss” armor players can collect and equip while taking down big game. My inner crossover geek is shrieking with joy.


Games: While I don’t usually make a habit of linking to 1UP, I found the list of Amazon Japan’s Top Ten Games posted there to be quite interesting. CLICK HERE to see what's topping their charts. I will refrain from making any comments, except that I can only imagine these best-sellers to be wildly different than what's hot in the US or EU.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Edumacation, Enslaved Didn't Sell, the Cursed Crusade, and The Walking Dead  


Felt like I kind of phoned it in last night… didn't sit quite right with me. Let's try this again.


Misc: Every year I go to a local community college for "a thing" that I can't really talk about, but what ends up happening is that I get to see a ton of PowerPoint presentations put on by students. I end up complaining about it every year, and this time is no different.

The thing that really gets me is that the quality of these presentations is so abysmally low that I'm shocked anyone would have the balls to stand up in front of a class and present them. For every two that are ‘pretty good’ or ‘not too bad’, I see at least ten or twelve that are absolutely horrible. Multiple typos and misspellings, points that are complete tangents to the subject, people reading as though they've just learned and mispronouncing things they've written themselves.

I've heard it said a few times that community college is the new high school, and I guess that's proving to be true. The sad thing is that most of these people who don't appear to have functional English skills have no problem configuring hardware, incorporating videos and music, quickly shifting files back and forth and troubleshooting the computers they're working on. I think it's great that these students are so technology-literate, but what about being a little more facile with the written and spoken forms of the language they use every day?

Of course, I realize that I'm making a gross generalization about community college students based on a small sample that I saw this week, and I'm certain that there are plenty of students out there who are absolutely brilliant… they just didn't appear to be present.

Anyway, there's probably a point to be made here about the shifting nature of our culture and how "old-fashioned reading and writing" are no longer seen as relevant in an internet society, but that thought is a little too sad for me to contemplate right now...


Games: Jennifer Allen over at Resolution Magazine in the UK was gracious enough to forward a link to THIS ARTICLE, in which writer Mark Raymond discusses likely reasons why the recent Enslaved has underperformed spectacularly, as some would say.

It's a very well-written piece and exactly sums up my own thoughts-- specifically that the buy-in price of $60 is much too high for a game which is known to be a "one time through" kind of experience, in addition to its status as an unfamiliar IP.

Why wouldn't you buy a game starring these three?
If you ask me, this situation with Enslaved was exactly the sort of instance when the industry should have rolled out a lower price point to reflect the relatively small amount of content on the disc, in addition to enticing more people on a budget to take a risk on something that they may or may not like. As much as I hate to say it, $60 is just too much for a game of this sort and as a critic, I would've had a much easier time recommending Enslaved if it had launched at $30 or even $40.

It sucks to factor economics into the critical equation, but that's just real life. I sincerely hope that the industry will snap out of this one-price-point-rules-them-all mentality and realizes that the people buying their games aren't made of money.


Games: Speaking of new IPs, today Atlus announced a brand-new one: The Cursed Crusade. Not much is known about it, but it seems as though they might be trying to capitalize a bit on the success of their recent superstar (and my game of the year for 2009) Demon’s Souls… And you know what? That would be absolutely all right with me. Check out the DEBUT TRAILER and see what you think. It's certainly got my attention.


TV: If you read this blog, then you know that I am a huge fan of Robert Kirkman’s comic, The Walking Dead. In case you didn't know (although you likely already do) the first episode of the television adaptation aired last Sunday, and it did not disappoint.

Directed by Frank Darabont, the premiere episode perfectly captured the tone and feel of the subject matter in a way that I could have only hoped for. If the rest of the series lives up to the standard that was set here, then this is going to be a spectacular series not to be missed… BUT, in case you did miss the premiere, it's available to be viewed for free by clicking on THIS LINK.

Oh, and before you do, please be warned that since this series is about survival in a post-zombie apocalypse, it's pretty raw stuff. Plenty of graphic violence, gory scenes, and the setting is mighty bleak. It's a hell of a lot more intense than most shows I see on TV, so please keep that in mind.

It's spectacular, but perhaps not for everyone.


Brief Thoughts While Wheels Spin  


Just a quick one tonight. It's been a long week, the baby's not feeling well and sleeping poorly, and there's still Thursday and Friday to get through… Anyway, without context of any kind and in no specific order:


> The Supreme Court seems to be a lot more savvy than the California lawyers pushing for game restrictions have bargained for. There are plenty of places online with transcript excerpts, and after reading some of those, I've got a whole new respect for some of those justices.

Oh, and Postal 2 was the main example California was using as something that should be restricted? Talk about clueless.


> Kinect launches tonight, but you won't find me standing in line for one. The launch software is stunningly unimpressive, on top of the fact that it seems as though every games journalist in the world has forgotten that Sony’s EyeToy ever existed.

I own an EyeToy and I’ve played the Kinect several times, and the two are basically the exact same thing. Of course, the Kinect is more advanced and (probably) better tech, but the fact remains that the two share the same general concept and perform essentially the same functions. Given this, I find it incredibly puzzling that not a single review or article I've read so far ever compares the two. Someone alert Rod Serling.


> Gameplay-wise, I bailed on Red Dead Redemption’s campaign for the time being. I might come back to it, but I had too many issues to really get immersed in it. Instead, I loaded up the Undead Nightmare DLC and although I only put a little bit of time into it, it's been a fun ride so far. I'll probably finish it up and then save the rest of RDR for some rainy day.

Apart from that, I've been juggling too many things... playing the co-op in Splinter Cell: Conviction with the wife, doing a level or two a day of Defense Grid, and still plinking around with MGS: Peace Walker.

I should really pick one or two of these and just power through, but while I'm sort of vaguely enjoying them all, none of them has really captured my attention or has engrossed me to the point that I'd put everything else on hold.

Hopefully something that knocks my socks off will come down the pipe sooner rather than later… can't say that I'm really a fan of feeling mired in the middle of so-so software.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Buggy Games, Player Choice Is Addicting, and A Zombie Survivor Quiz  


Games: A long time ago, I was talking with a friend and commented that one of the things I liked best about being a console-only gamer was that you never had to worry about PC stuff. Things like the bad habit of PC developers releasing unfinished code with the thought that they would simply release a patch later on. Screw that, we were plug-and-play! (I was young and naive then... Give me a break!)

Once taking consoles online began to seem more and more like a reality, the confidence I had in developers began to weaken. All of a sudden, it didn't seem far-fetched that some unsavory developers would let problems slide if they knew their audience would be able to get a fix later. It wasn't a big issue at the time, but the shadow was looming.

Fast-forward to today. As much as I hate to say it, it seems as though that undesirable "patch it later" mentality is becoming fairly commonplace. Normal, even.

The reason I bring this up is that over the weekend, my wife lost about twelve hours of progress in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on 360. She did absolutely nothing wrong, but for some totally random reason her save corrupted and was unrecoverable. Complicating things, LoS uses an auto-save system with only one file, so my wife didn't even have a chance to load an alternate save -- the whole thing went kaput, and all of the incredibly precious time she devoted during our son’s naps and staying up late was for nothing.

If I had known that there was a save issue beforehand, I never would have let her play it. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to check. If I did, I would've seen that plenty of players have reported similar problems on both the PS3 and 360 versions. The PS3 just received a patch allegedly correcting this problem, but 360 players have to take their chances since Konami is still working on a fix for them.

Too bad, so sad.

In the days before you plugged an ethernet cable in the back of your console, letting a glitch of this nature slip through QA would have been a public relations disaster on an epic scale, and would have incurred the wrath of the entire gaming community. At Konami, someone’s head would have had to roll. Apologies would have been publicly made. Free stuff would have been sent out as a way of saying sorry. These days, it's barely a blip on anyone's radar -- and of those that do notice, half of them don't seem to care.

I find it incredibly sad that it's come to this, but it appears as though this is the current reality. Without the ability to wave a magic wand and grant each game an extra 200 staffers for bug testing, I guess the best thing to do is change the way I organize my collection: one stack for “play it now”, one stack for “play it later”, and one stack for “after the patch.”


Games: I officially started Red Dead Redemption yesterday. It's one of the last "big" games I need to get to before the end of the year, so I figured I had best get to it. I'm still quite early in the adventure, but I have to say that one of the things that struck me almost immediately was a conscious realization that my tastes have changed.

Stepping into the boots of John Marston, I was keenly aware that during the plentiful cut scenes and numerous conversations, I was not being presented with any choices in dialogue. While having a set story in console games has been the rule for quite some time, more and more titles are bucking that trend, and for the better.

Mass Effect was certainly a very scripted experience, yet offered players a hand in how Commander Shepard conducted herself and in the pivotal choices that were made. Oblivion and Fallout 3 are perfect examples of combining open-world gameplay with player choice for a deeper level of actual role-playing. Hell, even Alpha Protocol presented a number of juicy options to players, and that was essentially a third-person action game. There are a number of other examples, but the point is that it feels hard for me to be satisfied with a one-size-fits-all experience; to go back to a character that I don't appear to have any control over.

To be clear, I don't think this is as much of a problem in tightly-focused action games. While I would certainly welcome having more choice, knowing that it won't happen isn't going to stop me from playing Gears of War 3 or others of its ilk. I think the problem for me lies in the fact that Red Dead is a wide-open experience that encourages exploration and sidequesting, and my brain is wanting more opportunity to personalize my character and craft my own experience.

While there certainly seems to be some choice in the way I conduct myself through gameplay -- do I save the prostitute from her attacker? Do I let the innocent rancher be shot? -- so far, I haven't seen any of these choices affect the cutscenes, the plot, or which missions I’m able to partake in. I'm guessing that if I spent all my time murdering shopkeepers and skinning friendly dogs, Bonnie McFarlane would treat me exactly the same as she does when I'm herding her cattle or protecting her property. If that's true, then I find that kind of disappointing.

Like I said, it's still early days yet. I could be totally mistaken and there could be more depth of the kind I crave later on... but I'm suspecting that won't prove to be the case. At the moment I'm pressing on and seeing what Rockstar's cooked up, but in all honesty, I'm not feeling very engaged or immersed. After having a taste of the freedoms (illusory or not) that other titles have offered, it's interesting to see that a title with such stellar production values and breadth of content has much less of an effect on me than it would have in the past.

I guess, sometimes, you really can't go home again.


TV: If you’re reading this blog, then I'm willing to bet that you’ve either watched the premiere of The Walking Dead on AMC, or will watch it quite soon. Haven’t seen it myself yet, but that will be rectified imminently…

Anyway, earlier in the day, I saw a link to a fun little game promoting the show. It's hardly scientific, but it was good for a chuckle...CLICK HERE to take the test, and find out exactly what kind of survivor you would be. Me? I’m a Born Leader. The wife? She’s a Loyal Sidekick. Oddly enough, I can’t argue with those results.

If you take the quiz, drop me a line and let me know what sort of survivor you are. That is, if you're a survivor at all...