Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top 10 of 2010  


Another year, another breakdown of the year's best games - according to me.

Looking back, 2010 was an odd twelve months. Catching many players and critics by surprise, a large number of the most hotly-anticipated titles ended up being unexpectedly disappointing, leaving the top honors wide open for a number of lesser-known, smaller-budget projects. Unfortunately, while many of these smaller games displayed promise and creativity, most of them were flawed or uneven enough to give pause. The result? A year where (in my view, anyway) there really was no single runway pick for the year's best.

With very few games standing head and shoulders above the rest, I certainly had a bit more trouble putting this year’s list together that I have in the recent past. I should probably also note that there were several titles I would have loved to have gotten around to, but simply didn't have the time to play. However, I did sit down with quite a large number of things this year, and the group below represents the best of what I spent time on.

Without further ado, take a look at the titles I've selected and see what caught my fancy. If you agree, let me know. If you disagree, I'd like to hear that, too. If it so happens that I've called out that some titles that you haven't had the interest or opportunity to investigate, I hope that this list encourages you to track them down.

And now, the best of 2010…


10 - Epic Dungeon

One of the finest titles to hit Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie channel in the last twelve months, Epic Dungeon is an absolutely stellar labor of love created by one man in his spare time. I talked about it extensively on the GameCritics podcast, reviewed it, and did an interview with the developer. Even after doing all that, I still feel as though I should have worked harder to put the spotlight on this game. Without a doubt, it was the best dungeon-crawling Roguelike I've played in quite some time, and with an asking price of one dollar, there is absolutely no reason not to take the plunge.   REVIEW   PODCAST   INTERVIEW


9 - Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno is a game that by all rights should not have been good. Creating an intensely violent me-too action title based on a classical work of literature seemed entirely wrongheaded from the start, and the poorly-conceived PR campaign surrounding the game was done with incredibly bad taste, serving only to irritate and inflame. I fully expected to hate this title before ever laying hands on it, but you know what? I was wrong. Once I put my preconceptions aside, I was quite pleased to discover that Visceral Games had crafted a smooth, engaging, and fast-paced adventure with some interesting ideas and powerful imagery. Laying waste to the underworld with the holy light of heaven was one of the most satisfying experiences I had all year. I'm genuinely looking forward to a sequel.   REVIEW


8 - Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy has received so many well-deserved accolades this year, I hardly feel like it's necessary for me to say anything about it at all. Still, for the one or two of you out there who may have somehow missed out on all the buzz, the adventures of this animated cube of meat are not to be missed by anyone who can appreciate ingenious design, clever humor, and quality craftsmanship in 2D platforming. The game is certainly as hard as nails and demands much precision and skill on the part of the player, yet it never feels cheap or unfair even after a thousand bloody deaths -- that's quite a difficult trick to pull off these days. The challenge may be a bit stiff to please everyone, but there's no denying the sky-high quality on display.   REVIEW


7 - Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

An unconventional and innovative approach to demos, Capcom’s Case Zero marks the beginning of a new trend I suspect that gamers will be seeing quite a lot of. Rather than the usual ‘section of level one’ or the out-of-context, mid-game fragment that most developers offer, it was a stroke of genius to craft a stand-alone prequel that not only perfectly illustrated what the full Dead Rising 2 experience would be like, but actually rewarded players and gave them incentive to invest in the main game thanks to experience and money that carried over. Case Zero was an absolutely brilliant idea, and this $5 DLC ended up being a fresher, more enjoyable experience than the $60 full-sized game that came after.   REVIEW


6 - Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

This download title was one of the year's highlights for me for two reasons: First, it took a well-known, well-established property in danger of wearing out its welcome and totally re-imagined it in a way nobody expected. The second was because it offered some of the most entertaining cooperative play I've ever seen. While the title can be completed by a single player on their own, the puzzles and action absolutely shine with a partner. Rather than simply placing two players in the same environment, this game asks them to actively work as a team in order to progress past obstacles. It seems like a simple, no-brainer concept, yet very few developers have ever managed to make it happen on a level more complex than two players pulling a switch at the same time. Crystal Dynamics jumps several steps ahead of that worn-out implementation and utterly nails an all-new level of co-op here.   REVIEW


5 - Vanquish

Before playing Vanquish, I would have been hard-pressed to generate interest or excitement for another third-person shooter. 2010 had seen a string of subpar titles in the genre that had already been starting to feel worn-out, and I was a little leery of Vanquish in particular after coming away from its demo with very mixed feelings. However, I'm extremely glad that I decided to give the full version a shot, since I ended up going gaga over it. Shinji Mikami and Platinum Games have delivered a fresh, new spin on third-person action that explodes with energy and maintains a furiously high pace from start to finish. Toss in a story and characters that know not to overstay their welcome or bore the player to death, and the result is a delicious sci-fi adventure that brings it hard and easily bests the competition.   REVIEW


4 - Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain was a very interesting title this year since it started out being a white-hot phenom, only to find its status cool off to sub-Arctic levels in a relatively short period of time. Much has been said about the problems in this game, from everything such as the heavy reliance on QTE events, awkward voice work, or the story that isn't nearly as waterproof (haha!) as it should've been for a project that lives and dies on its drama. However, for all its flaws (and to be sure, there are many) I have to say that the work of David Cage and Quantic Dream was often intensely emotional in a way that many games fail to deliver. I also have great appreciation for the subject matter, and welcome any effort such as this one to deliver an adventure that doesn't revolve around zombies, space marines, or grinding for experience in any way. I certainly think that Heavy Rain is a step in the right direction for a genre that has not fully coalesced yet, and I hope that we see more like it.   REVIEW   PODCAST


3 - Nier

While I have definitely fallen out of love with JRPGs as of late, I was surprised and impressed with Nier – in fact, it can be reasonably described as the Anti-JRPG in many ways. Eschewing the usual ‘ragtag group of emo teens’ tropes, the care given to the offbeat characters pays off as the player’s party genuinely grows and evolves over the course of the adventure. The subject matter focusing narrowly on the relationship between a father and his daughter was a refreshing change of pace that struck close to home, and the gameplay is just as smart as the script, with numerous instances of genre meta-commentary found in absolutely ingenious dungeon and world designs. It was extremely unfortunate that Nier became known more for a poorly-implemented three-minute fishing minigame than for the many areas it innovates and bucks expectation, but it was definitely the most provocative and interesting JRPG of 2010.   REVIEW


2 - Limbo

A perfect blend of form and function, Limbo proves that developers don't need multi-million-dollar budgets and a small country’s worth of programmers to create something that makes players sit up and pay attention. Not only did it hold its own with absolutely amazing visuals and clever puzzles, the entire experience was pleasantly concise and sold at an extremely affordable price point. Short, sweet, and entirely to the point, this enigmatic gem kept me glued to my controller from start to finish. Special mention must also go to whoever came up with the concept of being chased by ‘that thing’ in the first section of levels. I'm still having nightmares.   REVIEW


1 - Deadly Premonition

If you listen to the GameCritics podcast, my number one pick for the year will come as no surprise. I have to admit that I struggled with the choice for a while, given that it’s so rough in terms of control, production values, and many other areas. The game is certainly not perfect, and I don't think anyone holding it up as 2010’s most memorable experience will say that it is, either.

…And yes there are more than a few of us.

However, giving a title top honors (for me, anyway) is hardly about the best graphics or the most polish. I genuinely feel that Deadly Premonition is one of the most challenging, creative, brave and underappreciated titles to make it to domestic shores. The work of director Swery 65 more than makes up for the various technical shortcomings with an extremely intelligent and mature storyline, and some of the best-written characters I've ever seen -- protagonist Francis York Morgan is someone I'll never, ever forget. Supporting its cerebral side, the game also offers a brilliantly fresh take on the open-world genre that manages to avoid the usual ‘blow everything up’ chaos and keeps razor-sharp focus on the riveting story.

There is no question that this game will be anathema to a certain segment of players out there, and that's quite all right. However, for gamers of a certain bent (like me, and hopefully you) this title will be an absolutely unforgettable one.   REVIEW   PODCAST   INTERVIEW   ARTICLE1   ARTICLE2 


So that's it, the best of 2010, according to me.

Feel free to post a comment here whether you agree or disagree, and especially if you have some lesser-known games that you think were overlooked. Also, thanks very much for taking the time to read yet another top-ten list. Breakdowns like this one may have fallen out of favor with certain people, but I'm an old-school gamer, and I'm not afraid to admit that top-ten anything for me is hard to resist.

Also, as a final note before ending this year's coverage, I'd also like to give a quick shout-out to three titles which very nearly made the list. Although none of them earned a spot in the top ten, they were all immensely enjoyable plays, and are well worth the effort of tracking down. These titles are Patchwork Heroes (PSP), Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP) and Faery: Legends of Avalon (XBLA). If you haven't already, do yourself a favor and give these titles a shot. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.


Special thanks to @TrentFingland, @HorrorGeek, @GC_Danny, and @JohnPeterGrant for the fantastic articles and reviews not written by me.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

New Podcast, Topless Banks, Fun Fly Sticks, and Emo Keflings  


First order of business: Happy Holidays to one and all.


Games: The latest GameCritics Podcast is now live. Episode 47 is our third-annual holiday spectacular where we nominate games for a bunch of different categories and announce GC’s official Game of the Year for 2010. If you haven't already burned out on end-of-year coverage, you can give us a listen right here.


Family: Kind of a funny story.

We were out and about today, walking down the street and getting some fresh air. On our stroll, I noticed a sign for a bank that was partially obscured from view. From the angle we were at, it looked as though the establishment was called "Topless Bank”. Stupid, I know, but it made me giggle and I mentioned it to the wife. She laughed for a second, and then we promptly forgot about it.

A few minutes later, my oldest son turned to me and said "I'd like to air-drop $50,000 into it, but it would be hard to see when it landed, and robbers might take it."

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about so I had him repeat it.

He said “If I was a pilot, I would air-drop $50,000. With a parachute.”

That was when it clicked. I clarified with him – “So you mean you want to air-drop a whole bunch of money into that bank we just passed… because you thought I meant it doesn't have a top?"

That wonderfully innocent childhood perspective... I love it.


Toys: I heard about a new-ish quasi-educational toy on the radio the other day, and the brief discussion about it was so interesting that I did something unusual (unusual for me, anyway) and ordered it sight unseen as one last Christmas gift for the oldest. I'm really glad that I did, because it was a huge hit.

Called the Fun Fly Stick, it's basically a gadget shaped like a magic wand. Inside the wand, there’s a little device that generates a static electricity field. After the thing is powered up, the person playing with the toy takes a small foil cutout (shaped like butterflies, globes, bows, etc.) and touches it to the wand. After just a moment, the cutouts start hovering in the air, and stay there.

It literally looks like magic, and the way the cutouts “inflate” and are able to be manipulated by positioning the wand underneath is pretty goddamn neat. Although it's too late to get someone one of these for Christmas, it's a pretty amazing little thing that I'm sure would bring a smile to plenty of faces year-around… it's kind of mindblowing when you see it in action, really. Here's a quick look at it.


Games: I just completed A World of Keflings (XBLA) late last night and I'm currently in the middle of writing the review. It's a great little title and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I definitely recommend it if you're on the fence, or if you're in the market for something kid-friendly, yet mentally stimulating enough for adults. It's good stuff.

Although my coverage isn't up yet, here's some information from the developer (NinjaBee) about an upcoming opportunity to unlock two Emotes in the game, if you already have it or plan to get it soon.

From the press release:

…Also keep your eyes open for those sneaky NinjaBees. They'll be teachin' people two secret emotes that you can only learn from someone else that knows it. Aye. If ya be playin' on December 26th around 7:00 p.m. PST (I think that stands fer Pilferin' the Seadog's Traysure...) ya may run into one. They'll be playin' their little hearts out, spreading their viral emotes like a bad case of scurvy.

Translation from pirate speak: Be online on that day and that time, and if you run into one of the developers or someone they've met, you can pick up these two Emotes for yourself.


Thursday, December 23, 2010



I don't know about you, but I'm not a very big fan of the holidays. I get that it's supposed to be this "special time" for families to come together and feel warm fuzzy feelings and all that, but I get along great with my family every day of the year. I don't need one particular day preceded by a month of cheesy music, crowded roads and retail establishments absolutely swarming with people spending money they don't have.

Really, I don't.

For me, the holidays are more about avoiding malls and shopping centers, having my regular places of business take on new, inconvenient schedules, and having my productivity plummet as the entire world basically checks out until the new year. For a freelancer like myself, December is not seen as a month-long vacation, it's a giant dead zone where I'm not earning much money and my normal routine goes out the window.

As a result, I feel like time is flying by and I'm really not getting much done… new entries at this blog aren't coming as often, I haven't turned in as many reviews as I usually do, keeping up with e-mail and Twitter has been next to impossible, and I haven't touched my next novel in a week or two.

You might feel differently, but I've had more than enough of the holidays already. Bring on January!!


Games: As I'm sure you might guess from the bit above, I haven't had a whole lot of time to devote to straight-up gameplaying. What little time I have had has been going to A World of Keflings on XBLA, and it's been time well spent. I'm working on a review for it at the moment, but I haven't rolled credits yet.

In the meantime, I can say that it is better than the original (A Kingdom for Keflings) in every way, and is a pretty outstanding choice for family-oriented gaming. If you're even remotely interested in the demo or the subject matter, it's basically a no-brainer purchase. Kudos to NinjaBee for another winner.

Otherwise, I've only been getting in little snatches of time with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. The oldest and I have been teaming up with has been great (local co-op with two PSP’s) and I am slowly, slowly, slowly but surely driving on towards the end of the single-player campaign.

At this point I have passed the 100-hour mark, and the fact that I'm still playing it definitely says something about both the quality of the game and the OCD-ness that can strike me when I find the right material.

In other games news, I'm glad to say that my 2010 Top 10 is essentially done. With only a few weeks left in the year, I'm pretty confident that nothing else is going to shake up the current ranking I’ve assembled. While on the topic, it's also worth mentioning that GameCritics has just chosen its Game of the Year for 2010, and it will be announced at the end of the next podcast. It's already recorded and in the can, only awaiting a few final edits before it goes live.

It might be a somewhat controversial pick, but I can say that I am satisfied with what came out on top.


TV: Just one final note... We introduced Dr. Who to the oldest for the very first time, and to our pleasant surprise, he loved it.  I'm so proud. 


Friday, December 17, 2010

Long Overdue  


Apologies for the lack of updates. It's been a crazy week and it feels like a million years since the last time I posted. Chalk that up to a combination of working extra hours and having a baby with a bad cold that doesn't sleep very well at night -- clearly, these are not the ideal conditions for extracurricular productivity…


Family: My oldest son is flying in tomorrow to spend Christmas with us. It's all I've been thinking about for the last few days, and I couldn't be more excited. He's a fantastic kid, smart as a whip, and goddamn handsome like his daddy. Although I won't be able to take two weeks completely off work to spend with him, we will be getting in tons of quality time and just generally catching up.

My big guy became a Monster Hunter Tri addict earlier this year when he was with us for the summer, and we spent lots of time going after the big beasties on the Wii. He asked for a copy of his own for his birthday (which he got, of course) and I just found out yesterday that one of his other family members gave him a PSP and a copy of Freedom Unite as an early Christmas present.

Needless to say, there's going to be a ridiculous amount of monster hunting going on in the next fourteen days... Doing co-op with your own child and seeing that they hold their own because you taught them how is the best thing EVER.


Writing: Doing some final edits on my second book, but it's going as slow as molasses due to the aforementioned reasons. Thankfully it won't be any major changes, but I've been guilty of the part-time author habit of putting the writing as low-priority as possible. Mea culpa, absolutely. It's a stupid thing to do since I could probably get the entire thing done in a week and have it turned in for publication if I just buckled down and did it... but I haven't. Not making any excuses here, I just need to kick my own ass and get it in gear.


Games: Continuing the theme, my game playing has been in a bit of a rut lately. If you read this blog with any regularity, you may recall that I started Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom a while ago. I had continued chipping away at that after the last time I groused about it here, but then I put that on hold to do a quick review for Tron: Evolution.

Evolution takes maybe six or so hours to blow through, and although it's really rough and suffers from a lot of the same things that most movie tie-ins do, the core gameplay of disc combat and parkour-style running and jumping is actually pretty good. it's simplistic, but it was fairly reminiscent of a neon-colored Mirror’s Edge in a smaller, stripped-down way. When the game is doing what it does best, it's not too bad, really. I'd like to see the developer take the same concept and expand on it with another title. Anyway, that review has been turned in so look for it soon.

So, now that's turned in, back to the game rut.

I'm still chipping away at Monster Hunter Freedom Unite (you just really can't get away from MH at this blog) and that's going to take me another pretty big chunk of time to polish off.

Apart from that, I went back to Majin just to be able to say that I saw credits. The in-game clock says that I've put seven hours into it, but if you had asked me, I would've said something a little closer to fourteen years. It's a real drag and I can't say that I'm enjoying it, but for some strange reason, I feel compelled to finish it.

Finally, I blew through the bulk of the content in the most recent Trials HD DLC, Big Thrills. There are a ton of tracks and it's a great value for the money, but I've gotten hung up on the last two Extreme courses. I can't really say for certain whether they're more sadistic than the Extremes the game has delivered in the past (and I’ve finished those) but for some reason I'm just brick-walling here. It's probably just a matter of putting in more practice and being less tired, but it's a little depressing to put 1500 attempts into a track and then lose a few inches from the finish line. These tracks are real pissers, I tell you.

Anyway, I don't know about you, but whenever I have multiple games going at the same time, it starts to feel a little overwhelming. I just don't like having too many unfinished things on my plate -- I generally complete far more than I don’t, but when my play schedule starts to bog down with half-finished bits like this, it's a real downer.

Rut Rut Rut...


Monday, December 13, 2010

Hands-On Preview: Magic the Gathering Tactics  


Games: Continuing the coverage from last week's visit to Sony Online Entertainment, here's a rundown of the upcoming Magic the Gathering Tactics for the PS3/PC.


Background: I have a hard time imagining that there are people reading THIS blog who have by some strange circumstance never heard of Magic: the Gathering. I mean, it's been a runaway success since 1993 and claims several million players all across the globe. However, in the odd event you have no idea what I'm referring to, it's a collectible Fantasy-themed trading-card game where two (or more) players square off against each other using spells and creatures. For more information, click here.

Sony Online has taken this extremely popular property and now transformed it into something slightly different. Magic the Gathering Tactics still uses the same basic premise of using cards to do battle, but now everything plays out in full 3D using a turn-based, grid-based system similar to what you might find in a standard Strat-RPG.

This is what combat actually looks like.
The Game: This might get a little nerd-intensive. Bear with me.

In Tactics, players start out by making a deck just as they would with the standard card game. The big difference is that now players have an actual avatar and combat happens in maps complete with various pieces of architecture. In the match I saw, two characters were doing battle in a swamp where fallen logs needed to be navigated around, and line of sight had to be taken into account.

That last sentence may have utterly confused Magic players, but let me explain...

Certain rules of Magic have been tweaked and interpreted in ways that make sense for a standard RPG, but have never been seen before in the card game. For example, when a Serra Angel is summoned, she must be navigated around the map and her life does not replenish at the beginning of each round. When Elvish Archers attack an enemy, they must actually be able to see what they are shooting at. Even more mindblowing? There are no Land cards in a player’s deck – Mana (the game’s ‘currency’ used to play cards) is awarded to the player every turn in colors based on the ratio of their cards.

The deckbuilding screen with loads of card info.
It would take a huge amount of time and effort to go into every nuance that's different between the standard game and Tactics, but let me just say that as someone who is more than familiar with the subject material, Sony’s efforts to implement it in a totally different way were extremely interesting and creative. I have a feeling a lot of players are going to be quite shocked when they see how the game has been reworked from top to bottom.

Final Impressions: I haven't played Magic in years, but seeing it in this new context had me seriously considering jumping back in. Taking a card game I've spent a big chunk of my life playing and extrapolating it into a Strat-RPG (one of my favorite genres) is like the old peanut butter/chocolate thing taken to an entirely new level.


Other important bits of info:

> Players will be able to buy virtual cards (for real money, of course) as either singles or packs.

> Some cards in Tactics were created especially by Sony for this game, and have never been seen before in any traditional Magic set or expansion.

> Players who want to buy or sell cards will have access to an online bazaar that functions similar to eBay. Player-to-player buying/trading will not be allowed as a way of cutting down on fraud and reducing any potential game-breaking issues.

> There will be a variety of online events take part in, offering a range of prizes and coming in several different formats.

> The game will be free to play (at least on PC) and will offer a basic set of cards and the first campaign for no cost. Additional campaigns and additional cards will (of course!) be available for purchase. At the time of this preview, campaigns were priced at $5 each. The price of cards varied, but the lowest increment was (I believe) thirty cents.


That's all the info I have on the game for now. Special thanks to @ThiefOfHearts for contributing some questions, and I'll have further impressions on the game if and when a review beta becomes available.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hands-On Preview: DC Universe Online  


Games: Today I had the pleasure of visiting Sony Online Entertainment’s offices to get an early hands-on with DC Universe Online (PS3/PC) and Magic: the Gathering Tactics (PC). Here's a quick breakdown of DCUO. Further coverage on MtGT in the next update.


DC Universe Online: I freely admit that I've got next to no experience with MMOs. I rarely play games on the PC, and my schedule is so busy and erratic that trying to coordinate with other people is next to impossible. As a result, I had only cursory knowledge of what DCUO had to offer. However, after the thorough walkthrough provided by one of the game’s developers, I'd be more than willing to give this one a shot.

The story: Famous DC supervillain Brainiac manages to take over future Earth. Lex Luthor escapes the catastrophe and returns to the past in order to warn the heroes of today that their ranks must grow in order to have a hope of fighting off the evil android. The player takes on the role of a brand-new hero created to help with this future struggle by establishing themselves in the present.

The game: DCUO begins with the player creating their character from a wealth of options. Male/female, skin textures (reptile!) and multiple costume options are included, as well as the ability to choose between being a hero or villain. After picking a side, the player then selects a “mentor” as their contact person for the adventure. (Superman was my big brother.) Of course, players have a number of choices when it comes to the kind of abilities and they want to use. There are too many details to cover here, but essentially there are three basic branches: Techno (i.e.- Batman), Alien (i.e.- Superman) and Magic (i.e.- Wonder Woman.)

While there seem to be quite a number of things to choose from, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that they didn't seem to be any options to alter body shapes. There was a buff Male and ridiculously endowed Female, but no sliders for players who wanted a character who did not fit into one of those archetypes.

When asked about this, the developer stated that it was their intended goal for all heroes to be able to “visually fit into the DC universe; for them to appear as though they could be real heroes.” It was also stated that famed comics artist Jim Lee was in charge of managing the visuals, and it was his oversight that guided their development. (I actually could have guessed that based on the physique of the female characters… the breasts are classic Lee.) This particular aspect felt like a strange place to limit player choice, but I'll reserve judgment until I get more time with it.

After putting a quickie character together, the game begins inside one of Brainiac’s airships stationed above Gotham city. This area acts as a tutorial and introduces the basic mechanics before letting the player out into the open world.

I'm quite happy to report that while DCUO retains things that are common to most MMO/RPGs (tons of gear, skill trees, hotkeyed abilities, etc.) the actual combat is real-time and skill-based. The player needs to navigate the environment and attack enemies as though they were controlling a traditional third-person action title.

I had no problem at all and jumping right into things and laying waste to the mechanical minions in the starting area, using starting versions of a lightning bolt and enhanced melee. Physics also play a role, with heroes or villains being able to pick up items (explosive barrels, enemy characters, buses, etc.) and toss them in a way that reflects the console-inspired action.

Near the end of the tutorial, Superman made an appearance and annihilated the remaining enemies in the area with little effort. After giving me a quick pep talk, he took off and I made my way to the player hub in the city below.

Checking out the Gotham home base, there were a large number of beta players (PC version) going about their business. Shopping, checking e-mail and messages, chatting with other players (voice chat will be enabled in the final version, but was disabled for the demo) and receiving missions are the main activities. Batman contacted me via communicator and alerted me to some thugs in the area. After accepting the mission, I went outside the hub and took a quick look around.

The character I put together had a flying ability, so I flew straight up above Gotham and surveyed the area. The square footage was immense, and during the time I had with the game, I was not able to find any invisible walls or limits to the landscape. That particular curiosity satisfied, it was a simple matter to follow the on-screen mini-map and start busting up some crooks. Although I was not in a group or a league, other heroes being played by real people saw that I was in the middle of a battle and popped in to lend a hand. (Special thanks go out to Arrow Green, and yes, that was his name.) Satisfied at emerging victorious, this ended my hands-on time.

Final impressions: Were positive. Playing a superhero is a subject that is of interest to me as both a gamer and a fan of comics, and dipping my toe into something console-based is quite welcome. Flying freely around the environments without restriction was a joy, and I would have loved another couple of hours to dig deeper into the abilities and stats.

On the other hand, the limits on character creation were a little concerning and I'm curious to see what kind of variety the missions present. If most missions are simple beat-‘em-ups, I can foresee the appeal wearing off before too long. However, if the game manages to deliver a decent amount of differentiation in the missions and some interesting bits of story, then this may turn out to be a real winner. At this point it's too early to tell, but I can certainly see potential here.

Other pertinent bits of information:

> Retail price of the game will be $50 PC/$60 PS3 with a $15/month subscription fee. This subscription fee is required, and no content will be playable for people who do not wish to pay the fee, or who do not have online connections.

> The game is able to be played solo, and has a complete story arc. While the end of this arc can be seen as an "ending", the developers reassured me that there would be tons and tons of content for players to dig into after this main campaign is completed.

> The current level cap is at 30, a level which is estimated to take around 40 hours or so to reach, provided that the player is completing only campaign-relevant missions and skipping sidequests and group activities.

> Content includes PVE, PVP, and a wealth of instanced missions. The developer stated that currently there are over a hundred recognizable heroes and villains taken from the DC Comics pantheon, so many of these instances will consist of going after a particular character that should be known to fans of various DC books.

> There is no crafting.

> When asked about character diversity, the developer stated that in their statistics so far, there was a surprising balance between the Techno/Alien/Magic branches, and that they have seen a strong variety in hero/villain types. He also stated that there was a nearly even split in most of transportation. Players can choose between flying, acrobatics, and speed. My assumption was that most people would choose flying, but apparently this is not the case.

> Contrary to some reports, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman do appear in the game. They are NPCs that will pop up from time to time to speak or lend support via communicator or in battle, but players cannot create these specific heroes. (Although, it is possible to make characters which bear uncanny resemblances…)

> Players who wish to re-spec their characters will be able to redistribute experience points in their skill trees, but will not be able to completely re-classify the type of character they have created. For example, a Batman-like Techno user can re-spec to put more points into melee if they decide that dual-wielding isn't to their taste, but they would not be able to re-spec into a Wonder Woman-like Magic user. It is currently unkown if there is a 'cost' associated with choosing to re-spec.

> When asked what advantage DCUO has over similar superhero-themed City of Heroes, the answer was in three parts: The first is that the game taps into the history of characters that the DC name brings. The second was that this is a true MMO taking place on consoles. The third is the emphasis on real-time action and the required element of player skill.


That’s it for now. More info as it comes. Special thanks to @Strident, @Dits, @ParkerXL, @ThiefOfHearts and @JayPullman for their contributions to my list of questions! You guys made me look really sharp!  ; )


Interview With: Mike Muir of Eyehook Games, creator of XBLI's Epic Dungeon  


Games: In case you weren’t aware, the developers on Microsoft’s Indie Games channel are in the middle of an Uprising.

Sick and tired of being drowned out by a flood of cash-in crapware, the people who take game-making seriously have banded together to release a slew of high-quality titles. One of the initial games available was the superb Epic Dungeon from Eyehook Games. Mike Muir, the man behind the magic, was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about his project.

If you haven't already bought and downloaded Epic Dungeon (it’s one dollar! what are you waiting for?) you can read my full review here, in addition to seeing what Mike has to say about skillfully traversing fifty floors of danger.


Hey Mike! Thanks for making such a great game, and for being willing to answer a few questions! For those that don’t know, tell us about Eyehook. How many people are in the studio, who are you, and what's your background in gaming?

Hi, my name is Mike and I’m a one man shop, but, luckily, my friends and the XNA (Xbox Indie) community have provided me with an amazing amount of help and support through the process of creating Epic Dungeon. But, when it comes to the nuts and bolts, it all pretty much comes down to me.

I grew up playing arcade games, and I’m still an avid gamer. Although, I must say I haven’t had much time over this past year! On the business side of things, I’ve been involved in software and technology for quite awhile now. I started off in the corporate world and then moved on to a few start-ups, before settling into making games.

It’s been a long road, but this is what I really want to be doing. So, I’m really pleased with the response that Epic Dungeon has been getting and am looking forward to continuing work on it.

Epic Dungeon (to me) seems like a perfect blend of elements from Diablo, Gauntlet and the Roguelike genre… plus a whole lot of awesome. How would you describe it, and what should potential players know about it?

I think that sums it up better than I ever could. My focus has always been to make a game that I want to play, so Epic Dungeon is really a distilled version of my favorite things: crawling through dungeons, collecting ever-more powerful items, and defeating hordes of enemies.

One of the fantastic things about roguelikes is their random nature, which adds a lot of replayability. It really has to be fun for me to keep pushing me forward in development. Also, it’s great fun seeing peoples’ reactions to permanent death—maybe I’m sadistic. That level of tension and fear has been pretty much left behind in modern gaming, and I miss it. I still break into a sweat when I’m low on health potions, my lantern is running out, and there’s no shop to be seen.

After finishing the game, it seems to me that the optimal build starts with the Berserker, and the other classes function better as supplemental abilities. Did you find that to be true also, or do you think each class is equally viable?

I feel that the Berserker is the most accessible character to play. His ability is comparatively easy to chain and can wipe out a lot of enemies, especially when combined with other skills. But, I’ve also found the tinkerer to be a good starting point. Exploding a level 10 orb can be pretty devastating. In terms of purely speed running the game, one of my fastest times was actually with the Gambler, but he definitely requires a bit of finesse to have constant trains of poisoned enemies. As for the shaman, his approach is a bit slower and more methodical. It really depends upon how you want to play.

I think once you beat Epic Dungeon it still offers a lot of different ways to play it. I’ve already seen a few posts challenging players to escape given different limitations. And hopefully, at some point in the future I’d love to add a conduct system for tracking these.

Is there an intentional decision in the programming that prevents Remove Curse scrolls from appearing for a LONG time if the player makes a rookie mistake (like I did) and gets cursed?

No. I’m not that cruel. Remove curse scrolls are rare by nature, but you can improve your chances of finding one by increasing your luck. Just always remember to identify before using equipment, and you’ll be fine.

What’s the deal with level 50? Wasn't that a bit extreme?

It’s hard to discuss and remain spoiler free, but I definitely wanted it to be a culmination of the challenges that you have faced through the dungeon. I suspect you’ll have an easier time on subsequent attempts. As an aside, I do have plans for a few, more interesting, changes. But, I can’t really comment until I have solidified my plans.

How did you (and Epic Dungeon) get involved with the Indie Uprising?

The Indie Games Winter Uprising was originally proposed by veteran indie developers Zeboyd, MagicalTimeBean, and radiangames. I really can’t thank them enough for the idea and making it a reality. I joined early on and have really had a great experience working with everybody involved in the Indie Games Winter Uprising.

What’s next for Eyehook?

Currently, I’m working on a patch release for Epic Dungeon. Update information is available on my website. For the near future, I want to continue improving Epic Dungeon until it truly becomes the ultimate dungeon crawling experience. After that, it’s hard to say. There are a few changes that are not going to be possible with my current engine, so I might jump straight in to Epic Dungeon 2.

Open mic. Anything you'd like readers to know. Go for it.

Well, first off, I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about Epic Dungeon and for taking the time to review it. I truly appreciate it.

I’d also like to send out a huge thanks to everyone that has played Epic Dungeon and sent me such great feedback. It’s been fantastic hearing from people that are as enthusiastic about this project as I am. It really has inspired me to continue work on Epic Dungeon!


…And there you have it, straight from the source. Infinite thanks to Mike Muir from Eyehook, and a very special thanks to @merrygodown for making sure that Epic Dungeon was brought to my attention in the first place.

Now, go buy this game!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Majin Drags, Monster Hunter Blues, and The Walking Dead Concludes  


Games: I scored a copy of Majin & the Forsaken Kingdom for cheap during Black Friday, and I've been putting time into it since then, albeit haphazardly.

While it's true that my work schedule has been kind of erratic and disruptive to my game schedule (which clearly, is far more important) the truth of the matter in this case is that I'm having a hard time finding the motivation to push forward. The game is cute and I'm always interested in how developers implement team/partner mechanics in singleplayer titles, but Majin just isn't doing much for me.

The biggest thing I've noticed so far is that the tone of the game has been pretty flat. I'm about halfway through the adventure after logging about five hours, but it feels more like fifty.

Most of the game is made up of getting through a series of rooms where each one has a puzzle of some sort to figure out. Suss out what you're supposed to do, open a door and move on. There haven't been any dramatic events to break up the monotony of this work (unless you want to count the two bosses I’ve seen up to this point) and the infrequent cutscenes are pretty banal. There's just no spark here... No fire.

Honestly, it's so lukewarm and toothless that it seems as though Majin is aimed more at kids than that adults -- and in that context it makes a little more sense, except that I would imagine some of the puzzles to be a little too vague and the bosses a little too frustrating for most kids to get through without some skilled parental guidance.

I'm going to keep forging ahead, although I guess I don't really know why… hopefully the game will end before my patience does. Although I was quite glad to see Majin developer Game Republic back in action, I have to admit that the fun factor has been dreadfully low so far.


Games: In the portable realm, I'm still logging some time with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on PSP. At this point I think I’ve spent something like 70 hours on it, but in stark contrast to Majin, it feels as though I've only been playing for a small fraction of that time.

Not Tigrex
I got hung up on a particularly nasty boss for a while (that Tigrex is no joke) but finally found a workable strategy and I've been knocking out missions pretty regularly since then. I don't want to speak too soon, but it's starting to feel like the end of the game is within sight.

The deeper I get into it, the more impressed I become with the breadth and depth of the content. It's really a fantastic, rich experience for the sort of gamer who doesn't mind the basic structure being split 50/50 between Really Hard Bosses and Grinding For Items. In fact, I'm enjoying it so much that it seems like a real injustice that the game makes its home on the PSP where the camera is so problematic that I can completely understand why many people would write it off as being unplayable.

I read a news blurb earlier today stating that the newest Monster Hunter on PSP (Portable 3rd) has already sold over two million copies in Japan. That's some pretty impressive sales, and I sincerely hope that Capcom is planning on bringing it stateside.

That said, people in America just don't get together for multiplayer portable parties the same way that they do in Japan. More significantly, this game demands better camera controls. Monster Hunter Tri on the Wii proved that the game is infinitely more playable with a decent controller, and as much as I enjoy the series, I can't say that I'm looking forward to more hand cramping with the PSP.

Of course, the optimal answer is that Capcom should do something with the Monster Hunter Frontier branch of the series and put the game on Xbox Live. Better controller, immediate online and group capabilities, and a much more powerful piece of hardware to run it on. Sadly, the last time I checked, Capcom said there were absolutely no plans to bring Frontier to the West, so there’s that... as much as it pains me to say, it seems as though Monster Hunter is squarely on the path of “successful in Japan and nowhere else.”


TV: After doing my best to avoid Twitter spoilers, I finally sat down with the final episode of The Walking Dead tonight.

I had high hopes for the show before it began, and despite the issues that might be raised about it, I think it was incredibly entertaining viewing. Honestly, it was a much better caliber of program than the vast majority of television shows out there.

I have to say though, that I was more than a little surprised at the amount of grousing from fans. I generally caught each episode the day after it ran, so prior to viewing I would often hear several negative comments or people declaring exasperation with nearly every episode. I braced myself for the worst each time, yet found myself consistently enjoying the show and wondering what the problem was.

I'm not going to get into every little thing I heard, but here's my brief take on it:

1> The TV show is not the comic book. After the first episode I accepted that they were going to be different animals with a common inspiration, and made peace with the fact that the comic book storyline was not going to be directly translated to the screen.

2> The production team had no idea whether the series would be picked up after this first micro-season, so it makes sense that what viewers got was fairly limited and wrapped up in such a way so that if no further episodes were ever shot, there was a close approximation of something that could be called closure.

3> Turnover of the writing staff: I see that as being a positive. While I don't have an episode-by-episode breakdown, it seems to me that the best moments of the show were most likely when director Frank Darabont and series creator Robert Kirkman stepped in as more than just consultants or producers. There were a few off-key parts sprinkled throughout that raised a few minor red flags, but the series remained must-see TV for me from start to finish, and hopefully the new writing staff will be more in line with the creators’ vision.

Overall, I remain quite happy with how it turned out and I'm definitely looking forward to the next season.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Interview With: Uber Entertainment on Monday Night Combat's New DLC  


Games: As a general rule, I tend to stay away from multiplayer-focused games. They generally don't do a lot for me, and very few of them are different enough or interesting enough to keep my attention for long. However, every once in a while one will grab me. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. One such title? Monday Night Combat on Xbox Live Arcade.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Uber Entertainment, the creators of MNC, back in August before the game released. In case you missed it, you can check out the original coverage right here. Now that some time has passed and the team has just released a major title update and some DLC, it seemed like the time was right to check back in and get the lowdown.

Here's what Chandana Ekanayake, All-Star Bacon Lover and super-talented guy at Uber Entertainment had to say.


Hey Eka! Thanks so much for taking the time. So, to start off… Monday Night Combat’s been out for around four months or so. At this point, how do you feel about how the game has been received? Has the success of the game met your expectations?

There was a general consensus before Monday Night Combat and throughout its development that multiplayer shooters couldn't work on XBLA, and that there wouldn't be anyone playing past the first week. We heard this over and over from on various websites, forums, etc. Even though our community is relatively small compared to the retail shooters, it's still very easy to find a match online and the game still continues to sell at a steady pace.

I think generally we're happy about how it's been received. We knew we were making a unique shooter with a different sensibility than what’s out there, and trying out ideas in the XBLA market made sense to us. We feel the key to continued success with MNC is to support it with regular updates and balance adjustments. Gaming as a service is something we believe in wholeheartedly, and we just had our first DLC release this week for free.

I've often heard developers say that players come up with tricks, uses, or strategies in a game that were never foreseen. Apart from bugs or exploits, have there been any 'legitimate' big surprises or interesting twists from players that you didn't see coming? Any unexpected outcomes?

I think the one of the biggest surprises for us was how far players have gone in the co-op Blitz mode. Top ranked players are playing through for 6-8 hours straight, and getting into round 2000+ range. So, for the upcoming DLC, we've added a tougher Super Sudden Death challenge as well as updated the round clocks to include four digits up to round 9999.

The various team tactics and combination of skills between players has been great. We're pleasantly surprised by how passionate our fans are about the game and we're also starting to see fan made videos like this one that show off some good team play.

What classes seem to be the most/least popular, and why you think that is?

The most popular for new players seems to be the Assassin because of several factors. First, she's the only female character in a male-dominated shooter. Second, she's a ninja with mostly melee, up-close attacks. A frickin’ ninja! Players soon find she’s also a difficult class to play well until they learn the depth of her class and her abilities. For veteran players, Assassin is also the least favorite class because so many new players prefer her. We feel like this is a good balance.

You mentioned the free DLC out this week. For readers who don't know, can you give us the highlights of Spunky Cola Special?

We've added two new maps, Spunky Cola Arena for the competitive Crossfire mode, and Survivitol Arena for the co-op Blitz mode. There’s also a new challenge. In addition to the new maps, we've added extensive Private Game options to let players customize their games, All Star mode that goes past the level cap of 99, new Protags, Club Tags, a whole heap of balance and bug fixes, and churros! You can read more about the specifics here.

Where does the game go from here? Are there plans to expand and build on MNC (further DLC or add-ons) or is the studio working on other projects?

We're very active on our forums and Twitter, and we get tons of feedback from our community for changes, additions, and improvements to gameplay. From here out, we're going to continue to work on new content for MNC, support the community and possibly other platforms as well.

For players who may still be on the fence about a MNC purchase, what would you say to them to convince them to join up?

I would say try out the free Trial version that we've extended to 60 minutes which should be plenty of time to get a feel for the game. Also with the Free DLC this week, new content and tons of balance and fixes there will be plenty of matches to jump into.


…And there you have it, straight from the source.

Infinite thanks to Eka from Uber Entertainment for taking the time. If you want more information on Monday Night Combat, the trial (and full game, of course) are available right now via Xbox Live, or you can click on over to the Uber website and read up on it there. Tell 'em I sent you.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Twelve Questions with: SWERY 65  


While the name SWERY 65 may not be instantly familiar to the electronic audience yet, anyone keeping even cursory tabs on the year's events in gaming has undoubtedly heard of his creation – it's easily 2010’s most talked-about title, the infamous and revered Deadly Premonition.

Striking several chords with both the review and sphere and gamers at large, it's quite safe to say that anyone who's spent time with main character Francis York Morgan and the town of Greenvale has walked away with strong impressions. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a game in recent memory that has been (for good and for bad) so utterly divisive.

Whether you’re a fan or not, the fact is that Deadly Premonition has made quite a splash, and eliciting such a response doesn't happen with just any title. Clearly, the director is onto something here, and the goal is to find out what. So, without further ado, here are Twelve Questions with SWERY 65.

…Oh, there are answers as well. Right, Zach?


Thank you very much for being willing to answer our questions! To start off, some reviews have said that Deadly Premonition is "so bad it's good." How do you feel about this description?

I think it is wonderful. In a way it means that you can make a game that people will love, even if it has graphics and controls that are hard to accept.

In other interviews, you've mentioned that you went to college to learn about film, and movies obviously play a large role in York's life. How did studying film influence your approach to game design? What differences in the two mediums are important to consider when trying to tell a story?

I think it had a tremendous impact on how I design games. For example, in movies you often have scenes where people are eating or driving or working. There are lots of scenes that depict daily life, and it is within them that the lines needed to unfold the story are spoken by the characters present.

However, most games don't have these scenes. The characters speak to the player in locations purposely built for the game, like corridors and open spaces. As a game designer, this feels so out of place to me. This may not apply to Western games, but most Japanese games have yet to escape this method.

You've said that when creating characters, you take inspiration from people you know, and even incorporate aspects of yourself when creating personalities of the cast. Was this a conscious method or did it come naturally? How do you think it impacts the player's connection with the characters?

I imagine characters as people I see around me. When I see someone intriguing on the street, I make a note of it. I never even read most of these notes, but by making these notes I've come to pay attention to people around me, and because they've caught my attention I observe and remember them. As a result, when I come to the production phase, I already have this "character bank" that I can withdraw from, even without my notes. I fumble about with these to create new characters.

As to your second question, I must say that games as a medium comes into being only when the player (audience) intervenes in what's happening, so you must always consider the main character and the player to be a set.

You’ve used the phrase "lovely useless elements" to describe parts of Deadly Premonition's design that have no obvious practical function, but which add to the sense of environment and the narrative. Do you feel this is a vital element missing from modern games?

Yes, they are essential to a game. The reason is that games themselves are lovely useless things in our lives. You can live without playing games, but I love games and I think they enrich our lives. So, that's why games need to include silly, useless things.

In the original 2007 TGS trailer for Rainy Woods, the FBI agent looks very different from York and quite noticeably, he does not have a scar. Why was York’s appearance changed so much, and was his scar part of a story change after Rainy Woods was cancelled?

The Rainy Woods project was halted and eventually cancelled. The Deadly Premonition project didn't start until after that. Please understand that the earlier FBI agent was a completely different character.

There are many details early in the game that contain clues to the final revelation, but are only referenced again much later and the game's mysteries are presented in a very non-linear way. How did you go about coming up with such a plot? Once you came up with the setting and the characters, did you have individual scenes in mind that were expanded upon, or was the ending planned from the beginning?

I will have a session at GDC2011 in which I will reveal the secrets of how I wrote the plot, so I would like to speak about it then. If I am selected as an official speaker, I will try to let everyone know. By the way, I worked on the ending right up until my deadline, writing, thinking, and rewriting.

What was your inspiration behind the York/Zach relationship, and how much detail was put into mapping out York's life from beginning to end?

The York/Zach relationship came out of a conversation I had with my co-writer, Kenji Goda.

We thought it up while in the midst of a brainstorming session based on some key words: "Talkative Characters", "Monologue", and "Player in front of the TV". York's life is still full of mysteries, but I have mapped out in detail the parts of it necessary to the story.

It’s been said that combat was a last minute addition once the bulk of the game was completed. If so, what was the reasoning behind adding combat?

The combat was added after we received advice from our publisher that Western audiences would have difficulty accepting a main character who didn't fire a gun. I don't know if that's entirely true, but our audience certainly accepted Agent York.

What's going on with the three farms? Each one is named and singled out on the map, and they've been populated with animals, but nothing ever happens there during the game. Were they originally connected to some cut content?

There are several elements that were cut, but I can't disclose for certain whether the farms fall into that category. Thinking about it realistically though, American small towns need farms. That is certain.

The game’s map is incredibly difficult to use. It’s far more troublesome than other games’ maps, or even maps in real life. Was that intentional? What's the reasoning behind navigation being so difficult?

This question is often asked of me, but the positive response would be that we wanted the player to travel freely about the town and learn where things are based on landmarks. However, I do regret how unusable it was. I will try to improve this if I get another chance.

Can anything actually be discovered through peeping in windows, or is it just for flavor? Also, what's your favorite thing in the game that average players won't see?

By peeping in the windows, you get to see a glimpse of the lives of Greenvale's residents.

For example, let's say that you heard about how Nick was telling Diane about Rembrant and Turner at the museum, and you saw him painting a picture at home. I think it [peeping] improves the reliability of the information you get from the townsfolk, and you, as a player, will feel a deeper connection to the game.

My favorite events to peep on are dinner at the Ingraham house, and Nick closing up at the diner.

You've said before that you may want to expand on the Deadly Premonition universe. Are you interested in doing a sequel or prequel, and would you like to explore York further? You've also mentioned that Deadly Premonition used to be an urban forensics investigation with a female protagonist. Would you re-visit this idea or start fresh?

If I have a chance to, I'd make a sequel or off-shoot of Deadly Premonition in a heartbeat, because people around the world have really accepted and come to love Francis York Morgan. It would be depressing to have to bring an end to a character that has been so loved. But, if we accept that his story is over, I will still bring other charming characters to you.

It might be a female forensic scientist or it might not, or it could be a retirement-age veteran of the force, or a gossipy florist… whichever it is, I will continue to make "lovely, useless elements".

I love you all! - SWERY 65


Infinite thanks to SWERY 65 for taking the time out of his schedule to speak with me, and for being willing to answer every question that was sent!

Thanks also go out to Michael Bitker of Marvelous Japan, in addition to Daniel Weissenberger, Jeffrey Matulef, Matthew Weise and the wonderful Animagess of top-notch Deadly Premonition fansite Planet Redwood for their assistance in putting this piece together. Couldn’t have done it without them.