Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zelda's Wacky Controls and Fallout: New Vegas  


Games: Game designer and low-around good guy Robert Boyd (@WereZomPire) has a nice little piece over at Gamasutra about the latest Zelda, Skyward Sword, and why the complicated controls may be more of a hindrance than helping to create an immersive experience. You can check it out here.


Games: After Skyrim bored me to the point that I did not care to continue, I felt a little disappointed... it wasn't so much that I had built my hopes up for that particular game, but now that I've played almost everything I needed to play before the end of 2011 (for review purposes) I had been looking forward to closing out the year with a bigger game -- something I could coast with for a while during my break from the hectic pace of “must review XYZ.”

I was still in the mood for a Western-style RPG, and a quick look at my backlog reminded me that I still had an unopened copy of Fallout: New Vegas that I picked up but never played thanks to the widely reported of glitches and bugs that plagued it. I got it for a song and I figured that if I waited long enough, the game would eventually be patched and playable. I did and it is, so I figured there was no time like the present to jump into it.

To give a little backstory, Fallout 3 is one of my favorite games of all time... you can even check the list on the right side of this page and see for yourself. It had a few problems and there were some things that I didn't care for, but overall it was a fantastic experience and if memory serves, I believe I put well over a hundred hours into it and never felt bored or tired of it until I got to some of the rushjob DLC additions. (Mothership Zeta is just awful…)

In any case, I wasn't expecting much from New Vegas except a lesser, repeat performance of Fallout 3. Now that I've finally started it, I've got to say that I've been loving every minute of it. I may even like it better than the previous game...

At this point I'm about twenty hours into the adventure and quite impressed. Of course, it's not as visually beautiful as the majestic trees and mountains of Skyrim’s Nord paradise, but the quality of the writing, quests, and general game design more than make up for a slightly lower graphic standard.

For example, I got to the town of Novac and was a little surprised at how well all of the various quest threads in and around the area came together to show how much care and effort the developers put into it. I don't want to spoil it for those of you who haven't played it yet, but I will say that if you take the time to talk to everyone in the town and follow up on all of the leads, just about everything there dovetails quite nicely, and in an intricate fashion.

My good buddy, ED-E. Don't piss him off.

I'm also quite pleased with the new emphasis on followers/party members in New Vegas. Although companions were present in Fallout 3, they didn't come into play until well into the adventure, and I rarely used them since I was too afraid of losing them permanently.

This time around, they see plenty of action and add a great deal of strength to my party thanks to the fact that they only get "knocked out" during battles and revive soon afterwards if you're not playing on Hardcore mode. I've only found four so far, but they're all interesting in their own way and each has much more personality and dialogue than the drones in Skyrim. They've all got their own questlines as well, which I think is just fantastic. In following one of those personal quests, I ended up triggering a series of events that altered my relationship to the entire world. It seems clear that these are just not just token additions, but substantial pieces of the New Vegas experience.

I can already tell that I'm still in the early days of the game -- I've got six or eight "main" quests open in addition to the critical path, and the game keeps "notes" of incidental or tertiary quests that are also available for completion. If the rest of New Vegas is as content-rich and as surprisingly varied as what I've already seen, then I'm guessing I'll be quite busy (and happy) in this wasteland for some time to come...


Friday, November 25, 2011

Gamer Pay, Kellee Santiago, 'Rimming Wrong, and Thanks.  


Games: My good friend and fellow GameCritics staffer Brandon Bales (he of the Lonely Gamer fame) has just come out with a solo video project, and it's pretty fantastic. Click HERE to see Brandon interview Kellee Santiago of THATGAMECOMPANY (fl0w, Flower) and tune in next week for part two. This is State of Play, and it's great, great stuff.


Games: My other good friend Andrew Groen (@ScienceGroen on Twitter) has just put out one of the most valuable games-related articles I've ever read -- how much money do reviewers and games writers actually make?

If you're thinking about a full-time career playing games and getting paid to write about it, definitely take the time to read this piece over at GamesRadar and see if the reality lives up to your expectations. My hat is off to Andrew for doing this piece… everybody I know has asked this question at one time or another, and very rarely have I ever heard a definite answer.


Games: So I've formally bailed on Skyrim. However, after my initial post about being tired of it after fifteen hours, I was inundated with comments from people on Twitter and elsewhere regarding my lack of enthusiasm for it.

How can this possibly be boring? Yet... It is.
 There were two big themes that kept popping up from fans of the game. The first was that I was "doing it wrong" by spending time on quests and not spending more time wandering through the landscape, discovering things as I went.

The second point people made was that I "needed to see XYZ quest”, meaning that the good stuff was elsewhere and I had been putting time into parts of the game that weren’t very good.

To both of these comments, I pose the following question: if I spent fifteen hours doing it wrong and completing bad quests, why is it so hard to find the good stuff?

For a game that's ostensibly about doing things the way that you want to, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me that the way I want to do things is the wrong way. I'm also a little surprised at how much of a pass the game seems to get for having a lot of quests which are less-than-thrilling.

I'm not bringing this up just to rag on Skyrim -- it's not my cup of tea and I accept that, and I also accept that there are loads and loads of people out there who think it's pretty fantastic. That's fine, and I genuinely have no problem with that. However, I do think it's interesting that so many people were so eager to explain to me why I wasn't enjoying the game. After all, isn't it Bethesda’s job to craft a product which is well-made and appealing? Shouldn't a great game be fun and engaging without someone there to explain the "proper" way to appreciate it?

If starting the game and playing it as it's presented to me means that I'm doing it wrong, then I think that points out a fundamental flaw in Skyrim’s design rather than a problem with how I'm approaching the game as a player.

Just something to think about.


Misc: To round it out tonight, I just wanted to say that even though yesterday was Thanksgiving, I thought I would take another moment here to recognize all the great things that I have in my life.

Like anybody else, I think it would be great to have a pile of money or a house ten times bigger than where I live now... all that stuff. But, you know... not really.

I've got the best wife a man could ever hope to have, I've got two little boys that I'm proud of, and I've got a job that keeps my family warm, dry and fed.

Even more than that, I've got a car, a TV, I play games almost every day. I have three grocery stores less than three minutes away, I take hot showers whenever I feel like it, and I've always got clean clothes to wear.

As if that wasn't enough, I have fresh water to drink, I don't live in a war zone, and none of my family members are dying from a disease that could be cured with one vaccine.

I'm definitely no stranger to hard times -- not at all -- but I do recognize that even when things really aren't going my way, the situation can always be infinitely worse. I may not be the richest guy on my block and I don't foresee any tropical vacations coming up soon, but I absolutely recognize the value in the things that I do have, and those things are not only enough, but they are deeply, deeply appreciated.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, happy belated Thanksgiving to you, and I hope that you've got things in your life that you are thankful for as well.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Guest Blog: Seb Wuepper on Deus Ex: Human Revolution  


Games: This year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution was quite a title in many ways, and I'm sure that it will be the subject of much discussion when the time comes for everyone to start comparing their GOTY lists… my personal take on the game is right here, but as a special treat tonight, I invited my friend Seb Wuepper to ramble at will and jot down a few words of his own.

Seb is a great guy, and quite amusing to follow on Twitter… he also blogs at Angry German Dude, which you can find right here.

Without further ado, take it away, Seb…


As a prequel to what was my favorite game of all time, this year’s Deus Ex Human Revolution had a lot to live up to. In general, it is a pretty solid and mostly enjoyable game for someone who has been waiting for a contemporary developer daring to tackle a modern take on this formula. While it’s largely well and competently executed, it is far from being a game without flaws.

Unfulfilled promises are at the core of my problems with the game. By tying it into the Deus Ex franchise, Human Revolution promises a multi-layered story with a lot of meaningful choices and how to approach them, a lot of exploration, and gameplay that lets the player chose the solutions to the problems the game throws at him.

The game starts out all right. The first missions are ripe with options and open ends. But by the time the first boss battle rolls along, I sense that something has gone terribly wrong in this game’s development. The bosses were featured prominently in the hype-inducing CG trailers, yet they are completely absent from the main game -story wise- until they start killing the player over and over again. Apparently there is a tie-in novel that gives those empty shells of disjointed gameplay moments some background, but none of that background has made it into the game.

The other characters inhabiting the game are a bit lacking themselves. Especially the antagonists. The literally elusive dragon lady is a paper thin mishmash of cringe inducing Asian clich├ęs at best, and not an inch more in terms of character and motivation. Which feels weird since a lot of other, less important characters are much better developed, even if none of them would win the game’s authors a creative writing award. In a time when games of the caliber of DXHR have come up with quirky, believable characters of Andrew Ryan’s size, this is just not enough. And it’s not like the game hasn’t had enough space for a similar form of characterization with the tons of emails, newspapers, newscasts and other snippets of offhand information the player can stumble upon.

Another thing is the game’s mechanics. They are serviceable most of the time. However the problems only come into full view after the player has spent a good amount of time with them. I am not a fan of simulation and this is not a critique of the game’s lack of realism. But the game world tends to lack internal logic. Case in point, the distinction between “normal” and “heavy” enemies. Normal enemies go down after a few shots, heavies take a few magazines. However both can be taken out by a single round of “nonlethal” ammunition or attack. This is basically a balancing issue - after all nonlethal ammo is very scarce in the game, however in some cases the distinction between normal and heavy enemies is gratingly arbitrary, only marked by slight variations in texture and the weapon they carry. One of the qualities of the original game was that enemies tended to run out of ammo. In DXHR they don’t. Ever. Heavies don’t even seem to have to reload. The game world’s rules work differently for normal people on the street, for enemies, for heavies, bosses and the player character. All of these operate on different levels. Of course those different levels can be learned and applied as such, however they fly in the face of any attempt of the game world at feeling organic.

As does a lot of the AI’s behavior and the “rules” of stealth. Sneaking into a super high level security facility, I can openly murder one building’s staff and security without much of a repercussion in the surrounding area or the building next door. I accept this since it is a videogame trope and this critique is bordering on a demand for simulation, yet I can’t help but feel that in this day and age we should get these things in more convincing ways. Hell, Metal Gear Solid 2 did a better job of upping the ante if a player screwed up being stealthy 10 years ago.

Then there is the unraveling of the main plot. Near the very end of the game, one of the game’s main players pushes a button, and everyone in the world carrying augmentations goes crazy. The cutscene in which this happens is heavily inspired by a similar witnessed in the opening chapters of Metal Gear Solid 4, of which it is known that the lead producers of DXHR were pretty fond. But for once, this scene itself was executed much better in the Metal Gear game, and also this event - a major part of the world’s population suddenly going insane and berserk - is something that flies in the face of the franchises continuity, since such a horrific happening surely should’ve been mentioned somewhere in the games that are set later in the timeline. Of course that’s not the only thing. There is Eliza, the newscaster AI, which seems far more advanced than the AI encountered in Deus Ex. But that is just a minor point.

The main story lacks significant punch. The climax and conclusion happen too fast. A lot of the game’s smaller stories and side missions are well crafted and interesting on their own, but their leading into the main plot feels a bit clumsy in execution. Basically, DXHR excels at being an episodic story about augmentations, but those episodes lack a common plot linking them all together.

The last chapter(s) almost feels rushed. Especially the final level is something of a multi-layered disappointment, as the gigantic arctic research station had been teased all through the game’s pre-release campaigns as well as throughout the game itself. But when the player arrives on site, the game suddenly transforms into a glorified corridor shooter. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the player there is pretty much forced to mow down hordes of augmented people having been driven crazy by the aforementioned event. There is no reprimand, no judging the player’s action when he decides to rather murder all these basically innocent people who could be restored to sanity when the player’s mission succeeds.

What a lot of the game’s levels feel like are missed opportunities. Panchea, the arctic research station, would have been a lot more interesting as a level if it had been built as a final test to the player’s mastery of the game so far. Instead all the level does is pit the player against what’s basically a horde of zombies, rushing him towards the game’s final boss encounter. Which mechanically is the best boss encounter the game is offering, only the aesthetics rubbed me the wrong way, as the look and feel was a bit too much anime inspired for my taste. But that’s only me.

The hub levels suffer from the AI being useless when idle. Of course there are a lot of possibilities to engage in side missions, but the everyday civilians never do much except walking around idly, which contributes to the hubs feeling like huge, pretty but essentially empty spaces. Also, and this is probably the fault of this generation’s consoles coming to their limits, there are just too few people around most of the time. The cities of other contemporary games manage to put up a lot larger crowds of people. This is especially felt badly inside the Hengsha level’s Hive Club, which although being praised as one of the most popular spots in town has only a handful of people around any time the player shows up. I’ve not gone and done a headcount, but the feeling I get is that the Hive club has fewer patrons present than Deus Ex 1’s Lucky Money Club had ten years ago.

A rather minor point is that some AI barks are off. Especially little attention has been given to the game’s police officers, whose vocabulary in addressing the player seems awkwardly limited. “Go away! You don’t belong here!” is what the officer throws at me when my character is wanted by what amounts to the Hengsha level’s police, while walking in my direction. What he should be saying is “Hey you! Sir! Come here, I have some questions!”

Another thing is that the game has a lot of beautifully designed levels. Huge city hubs with a lot of pretty sights, back alleys, stairwells, multiple levels. What I was missing through all of the game was a good cat-and-mouse section, with a powerful force of enemies being on the lookout for the player. Actively. A section where the player has to traverse a huge part of a level without being seen, utilizing the area knowledge gained so far to the best advantage. Something similar does indeed happen, but the police are not actively looking, not sweeping the streets. Avoidance is too easy.

This ties in with another critique about the game’s level design in general. The designers just don’t too awfully much with the levels they got. There are a handful of examples where a friendly space turns into a hostile space, but those are few and far between. Most of the time, the hostile spaces are entirely separated from the friendly ones, and worst of all, this dedication towards one or the other shows. Once the player has traversed the main body of the Alice Garden Pods hotel and has made his way into the cellar, the level design rapidly changes from an open space with a plethora of approach possibilities into a narrow, long winding corridor, the possible approaches limited to a handful at best. Worst of all, this makes the game world feel disjointed and unnecessarily artificial where it should feel organic. I would have much liked to see more levels re-purposed, akin to the second visit to UNATCO in the first Deus Ex game.

Another - minor - thing that irked me was the game’s tendency to have texture only doors turning into working doors later in the game. It’s really just a minor thing that makes the world less organic. There are better ways to wall off not yet visitable places in an open game world than to just deactivate the doors that are in plain sight for any player adventurous enough to discover them.

Probably the worst offense is the very conclusion, offering the player a room with four buttons to push to decide the fate of the world. Not only is this a space that has no other purpose than being a glorified menu screen to choose one of a number of cutscene endings, it also reduces player input to, well, the push of a button. Meaningful interaction and choices with consequences reduced to that - maybe that is a commentary on a certain mode of gaming itself. Push a button to see a video sequence.

While I may have pointed out a lot of the flaws of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, that does not mean that either I dislike the game, or that it is without merit. Quite the opposite actually. Human Revolution features high points that very few other games in recent years were able to deliver.

It is the contrast between those high points and the lower ones I mentioned before that makes the worse decisions the game’s designers made stand out even more clearly.

The Hengsha hub level for one, is one of the best looking, most believable open world-ish futurepunk city levels that gamers could explore. And there is quite a lot exploring to be done there. It’s thematically very interesting, the gargantuan upper city literally overshadowing the entire level. It’s the sort of sci-fi vision that’s seen rarely with this level of intricate detail in gaming. Also, Hengsha offers the highest density of “Deus Ex moments” - the Court Garden hotel with its multiple points of entry, the ramshackle Alice Garden Pod hotel, to name a few highlights.

The adjacent Tae Yong Medical facility mission also stands out as the best designed mission level of the game. Lots of different possibilities, of which few feel too forced, too video gamy. In this level it is actually quite hard to break suspension of disbelief, though I once did that by lopping a huge vending machine around, gazed upon by sheepish onlookers, to reach a higher up balcony.

The strongest suit of the game is creating believable environments. The random AI might not be up to much, the crowds in the cities might be too small, but the stages themselves are designed and decorated so well and there is so much to do and discover in them that these minor flaws don’t matter much. The hideouts of the very poor are damp to a degree that they almost smell beyond the screen. The lairs of the very powerful so intricately decadent, that they truly are a world away from the lower ranks of life.

Once the capacity of the AI is properly understood, it can actually be played with quite well. Combat works if the player is set out to really go toe-to-toe, otherwise, combat is best avoided completely, with the occasional nonlethal takedown - these are silent and instant, nondiscriminatory between heavy and normal goons. Once it is understood that a half-assed approach doesn’t work by far as well - and is much less fun to play - the game really comes into its own.

Another thing is platform. The console version I played first had very long loading times which really hurt a game like this, where saving right before a tight spot and experimenting in approaches is a given. Now that I played the PC version, which really doesn’t have this problem, my overall experience was very different and much more enjoyable.

The best parts of the game are indeed those which offer a multitude of approaches, and there are quite a lot of those instances. The way they are set up forces the player to utilize all tools given, even if other games might have implemented this in a better way. Compared to BioShock, DXHR just isn’t designed with quite as much player agency in mind.

In conclusion I have to say, DXHR is quite the HD upgrade to the formula established by the original game eleven years ago. Eidos Montreal hasn’t changed much of this basic formula for better or worse. There are some deep flaws in the game, not just limited to the boss fights, but grating as those may be, they don’t bog the overall experience down enough to make the game not a very enjoyable experience. Seeing how well DXHR sold, I do hope it signals the industry that there is in fact a market for games using this almost forgotten formula. I also hope that Eidos Montreal gets another shot at the franchise and I am now - after my second playthrough - quite intrigued what their take on Thief will look like when that game sees the light of day somewhere in the near future.


Many thanks to Seb Wuepper for the guest writeup, and be sure to follow him on Twitter (@SebWuepper) and when you stop off at Angry German Dude, tell him I sent you.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fifteen Hours With Skyrim... And that's Enough.  


Games: So, Skyrim.

Everybody's heard of it, everybody's playing it, and it's getting stellar reviews. Clearly this game is THE JAM for a whole lot of people right now, and that's pretty cool. Seriously, no hate coming from me towards those of you who dig it, at all.

For me, though... I have to say I'm just not feeling it.

At this point, I’ve put somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 hours into the game, and yes, I do realize that in the big scheme of things that's barely even scratching the surface of the ridiculous amount of content present here. However, that's still a pretty sizable chunk of time and I'm not too sure how much more (if any) I'm going to devote.

What's good?

> Content. Like I just said, the game has an unbelievable amount of content. I've got something like twenty or thirty incidental quests on my to-do list that I haven't even touched yet, and I've got at least five or six "major" quest lines going at the same time. For any gamer who is concerned about getting the most raw playtime possible for their $60, I'm guessing that Skyrim probably offers the best value of the year.

> Landscape. It's pretty damned beautiful. I've found myself looking out at tremendous vistas and often pausing just to sweep the camera around and take in the environment. Really impressive.

> Build choices. I picked a fighter-type character specializing in two-handed weaponry and heavy armor, but I could just have easily have gone the stealthy archer route or dabbled in several different kinds of magic use -- or any combination thereof. Add in all sorts of weapons, spells, and armor, and there's a lot of toys to play with.

What’s not so good?

> Character. I'm the kind of player that likes a lot of personality in my gameplay, and I'm a sucker for great writing. So far, it doesn't seem like Skyrim has much of either.

The characters I've met feel flat and unmemorable and I don't feel any investment in what's going on. Without any kind of human connection, the game comes off like a giant laundry list of quests to do because they're there to be done. Furthermore, the game introduces "companions" to quest along with you, and they could hardly be more dull. They barely say anything, they've got no discernible personality once they join you, and they don't offer much in the way of getting to know them.


In contrast, look at something like Fallout 3. Within the first hour, the player stumbles across a nuclear bomb in the middle of the beginning town and meets several interesting characters with a variety of problems. Later on in the game, there are any number of varied and diverse things going on -- two dueling superheroes, an orphan that needs a home, cannibals inviting you in for dinner, vampires, robots, and more... and the companions? Some were certainly better than others, but they were all interesting in their own way and had a ton more personality than those in Skyrim.

Although Fallout 3 has several complaints that could legitimately be leveled at it, I don't think anyone could deny that there were plenty of interesting characters and events happening there – honestly, the first hour of Fallout 3 is an order of magnitude more interesting from a story/character perspective than anything I've seen during my entire time in Skyrim.

> Quests. Now I fully admit that I've only seen a small slice of the quests available in the game, but what I have seen has not been very rewarding or entertaining, and I'm not encouraged to push forward. Almost every dungeon I've been to roughly follows the same “underground narrow hallways with some larger rooms” blueprint, and each final chamber has a very convenient shortcut door back to the surface. Whether I am clearing out a barrow, “sneaking” in somewhere to get some information, or just exploring, it all boils down to entering the dungeon and killing everything that's inside. There's nothing inherently wrong with dungeon crawling, but with a game that's so huge and so sophisticated, the variety of quests has been sorely lacking -- in fact, many are outright boring.

Where are the "tough choices" that make you sit back and think? Where are the quests that are won by tricking your opponent with clever speech, or by winning them over with your charm? Where are quests that don't involve traveling to a location and killing everything that's there? I mean, I've done a few where I'm taking an item to a certain place, but those are so piddling and forgettable that they hardly even count as quests.

> Weirdness and frustration. I've heard several reports of bugs and glitches, and I've seen more than a handful myself.

-I was walking through the countryside and a cluster of inanimate bodies fell from the sky to land at my feet. No explanation, no reason.

- A quest giver was on a staircase, and when I approached to complete the quest, they were unable to decide whether they were going up or down stairs and I could not complete the quest without reloading a save.

- I traveled to the correct location for a quest, but the person who was supposed to be there was not present. I spent several minutes trying to figure out what was going wrong and then eventually reloaded to save and tried again -- and that time the person was there.

-I was supposed to take an item to a location, and my map marker showed that it was all the way on the other side of the world. I fast-traveled as close as I could and then walked the rest of the way, committing a sizable amount of time to travel. As soon as I got to the map marker, it disappeared and reset itself to the actual location, which was fifty feet from where I orignally started.

-There have been multiple times when I've been in the middle of battle, and then an NPC quest-giver approaches me to ask for a favor. I am CLEARLY in the middle of battle, and these people end up dead without ever having given their quest, more often than not.

-I gave a large number of items to one of my followers, and then that follower was replaced with a new one that was required by a certain quest. My original follower disappeared, and I've never seen them again despite going back to the original location where we first met. All the goods he was holding? Gone as well.

Those things were clearly glitches, but there are a number of other things that I personally find irritating… things like the clunky, cumbersome menu system, having to go to different shops in order to sell different goods (yes, I know that this is a perk to be earned, but it's time-consuming and inconvenient.) It was also irritating to not have a place to store goods when over-encumbered... I eventually bought a house after much time and effort, but something so simple should be introduced to the player right off the bat, if you ask me.

Way harder than the dragons.

…Oh, and the dragons? Talk about underwhelming. At this point, I've killed at least six or eight, and each one was less than impressive. I expected that a game which features a dragon theme so heavily would make each encounter more of an awesome event, but they're just random enemies that pop up in the world, and they're not even hard to kill. More annoyances than anything else, I had a much tougher time fighting giants and mammoths than I did the dragons. These flying lizards are the definition of anti-climactic.

Is Skyrim a terrible game? No, not hardly.

I’ve played dozens of games that were far worse this year, and there’s a lot to like if you're inclined towards fantasy adventures. On the other hand, is it deserving of the 25 perfect scores (360 version) currently shown at MetaCritic? Is it going to rank as one of the years best games? For me, the answer is no to both.

To be perfectly honest, it feels too flat and dull to consider sinking as much time as it probably requires to get through even half… I’d much rather play something with more variety and better characters, and certainly something that feels less repetitive and checklist-y. I'm glad I tried it and I can understand why some people love it, but I don't think it's for me and I'm very glad that I'm not on the hook to do the review.

Probably going to move on.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

NFS: The Run, Ending 2011, Consequences, and Dead Island's Bloodbath  


Games: I never play racing games.

There are a number of reasons for this, but part is that I'm not very interested in cars in general, and I'm even less interested in playing a game that makes me repeat sections over and over and over in an effort to get my performance exactly right.

I'm no stranger to putting out effort in games, but there's something particularly unpleasant about trying to shave off fractions of a second while dealing with AI that rubberbands at will, or frustrating myself trying to find the right line through an evil turn while watching computer-controlled cars sail through effortlessly. Damn you, SkyNet!

Anyway, my point is that I don't play racing games. Or, at least I didn't, until today. I got my hands on a copy of Need for Speed: The Run. Since it was sitting right in front of me and I had heard that it integrated some out-of-car sections, I figured it wouldn't hurt to give it a spin. It's been getting a lot of bad word-of-mouth, but to be honest, I thought it was kind of interesting... I can't speak with any authority since I am as green as green can be when it comes to the racing genre, but the concept of having an actual character in a race across the country was unorthodox.

In terms of gameplay, I found it to be more difficult than I would have liked, although I freely admit that I am absolutely terrible at racing. Apart from that, there were a few segments where the main character is out of the car and does a few QTE cinematics. They're very brief, but I appreciated them, and the developer’s efforts in trying to incorporate even small elements of humanity.

Here it is, the actual run.
Although I didn't finish the game (had to send it out to another reviewer) my time with The Run left me with the impression that although this particular game may not be the title to capture the attention of a player like me who’s most interested in story and character, I think there is definitely room for the racing genre to open itself up to more cross-genre hybrids -- after all, cars can't do much without people behind the wheel, and I'd have to imagine that there are at least a few people out there like me who would be more interested in driving if there were more to it than just driving.

A racing/RPG title, anyone?


In other gaming news, I'm trying to play the last few things that I need to check out before starting my end-of-the-year wrapup. I've got most of my top ten squared away, although the exact order of the games isn't quite concrete. However, the final two biggies that needed some time were Batman: Arkham City and Skyrim.

I started Batman a couple of days ago, and I've got to be honest -- despite being a huge fan of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City left me pretty cold. I didn't spend very much time with it, but everything just felt wrong to me. A bigger emphasis on the large group combat, more gadgets and tools to mess around with, and an open world that didn't seem to add very much to the overall experience… it just wasn't clicking with me and I put it on my shelf, unfinished. Maybe I'll get back to it later on, maybe not.

You're already playing this, aren't you? Aren't you?!?!?
After that, I moved on to Skyrim and was able to put about three hours into it before I had to take care of real-life stuff.

I realize that three hours is probably about .00027 of the total Skyrim experience, but in that time I think I got a pretty good handle on it (in general) and it's been a much more pleasant and engaging than Batman was. I don't really have much to say on it so far other than the fact that it seems like a streamlined Oblivion+Improvements, but I am looking forward to logging some more hours.


My good friend @MrDurandPierre just had a piece go up over at Eurogamer, and I think it's a pretty interesting read. Titled “Failure is not an option”, you can CLICK HERE to check it out and see what he's got to say about games that don't actually deal with consequences.

"I'm pretty sure there are some actual consequences just over that dune..."
As an added bonus, if you listened to the last GameCritics podcast, I think there are a few related themes between this piece and the discussion on the pod about Uncharted 3 and how it deals with “you've just got one chance" situations.


Finally, if you read this blog with regularity or if you caught my official review over at GameCritics, you know that I'm a big, big, big fan of Dead Island.

I've heard that there are at least two pieces of DLC coming, but only one of them has any hard details. Titled "Bloodbath Arena”, this is the add-on that was included as a bonus for buying a new copy… I know there was some confusion since it wasn't actually ready for download at the time the game was released, but according to a recent press release from everyone's favorite PR rep @Chupacaubrey, it should be ready to go on November 22.

That's a whole lotta zombies...
Here's a little excerpt, verbatim from that release:

So what is this Bloodbath Arena, you say? It's a pack of four arenas that can be played either alone (srsly?) or in up to 4 player co-op with waves and waves of zombies hunting you down for their next meal. :D On top of that, all the XP points, items and gold that are gathered while playing in Bloodbath Arena can be carried back over into the main game campaign. Oh, and of course for ultimate zombie killing bragging rights, there will be leaderboards with Bloodbath as well, so that you can be like me and go around talking shit about how you are THE best Dead Island player in the universe and then check the leaderboard and get a massive gunshot right to the temple when one of your friends has a score that you have NO idea how the fuck he got it but you and your ego are tremendously irritated about it regardless.

So I know you can't wait for this! Bloodbath Arena will be released on November 22 - next week! - and will be available as a free download with the token included for those who preordered the Special Edition from GameStop or for $9.99/800MSP to folks who didn't preorder the Special Edition.

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


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Checking in...  


Just a quick check-in tonight...

Sorry for being MIA over the last week or so, and thanks to everybody who sent in messages asking if I was all right. Everything is totally fine, I've just been putting in a lot of evening hours at work lately.

Since I do most of my writing after my little boy is in bed, heading to a job instead of heading to my office once he's tucked in means that the writing just doesn't get done. Although working during the day and then working some more at night is not the ideal situation, being a freelancer means that you’ve sometimes got to take gigs where you can get them, and that goes double in an economy like the one we've got now.

Although it may change, my nights are looking a little more normal this week and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll get the chance to burn through some of my to-do list. If i get that chance, what's coming up?

I've got a couple of brief interviews and one potentially juicy one. I've got some hands-on impressions of Skulls of the Shogun coming. I've got multiple reviews in various stages of completion (Escape Goat, Fate/Extra and Saints Row 3) and I have a whole bunch of interesting links saved up as well.

I've definitely been busy enough to post some blog entries, the problem has just been finding the time to actually sit down and do them.

Anyway, thanks again for sticking around, thanks for checking up on me, and with any luck, I'll have some interesting stuff posted before too much longer.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Fate/Extra (PSP) and Aquaman #1  


Games: The PNWJournos group went out to Haunted Temple Studios to get a hands-on with their upcoming XBLA/PC game, Skulls of the Shogun.

I’ll have a full write-up on it pretty soon, so keep an eye peeled for that coverage. (The short version: it looks really great!)


In other news, I recently started Fate/Extra for the PSP. I know that it's based on an anime or some other related property, but I'm not familiar with the source material. In fact, my only other exposure to anything from the Fate series was the Fate/Unlimited Codes fighting game, also for PSP. (And really, that was pretty good!)

Given that I knew basically zero about this IP, I wasn't too sure what to expect, but I'm glad that I gave it a shot -- I'm enjoying it a great deal.

Rather than another fighter, Fate/Extra is a hybrid game blending the RPG and Visual Novel genres. Essentially, a huge portion of the story is told through text that the player must read (gasp!) and the plot revolves around a war for control of a "Holy Grail." This struggle is being fought by several people referred to as Masters, and each Master has a Servant who’s a famous figure from history. These Servants do all the actual fighting, but the twist is that their identities are hidden in order to maintain the element of surprise in each battle.

As the game progresses, uncovering clues about the other Servants becomes important because the game relies on a rock-paper-scissors combat engine. Without any information, the fighting is reduced to blind luck, and the player can count on nothing but a swift defeat. However, with enough information gathered, the opponent's moves are revealed and the player can choose their own moves to counter them. It's a very interesting mix of luck and skill, but there's quite a bit that goes into it in order to tilt the odds in favor of the player.

The writing is above-average, the setting is a great blend of Japanese high school, historical figures and the Matrix, the graphics are spartan but still very appealing, and although I don't think this formula would work at all on a home console, it feels like a perfect fit for a portable.

The game has predictable rhythms and very discrete ‘systems’ that give the game a very pick-up-and-play feeling for quick sessions here and there without sacrificing its satisfying level of depth. It may seem a little dry and grind-heavy to some, but it's a very interesting project and one that strikes a lot of the right notes for me.

I wouldn't want to sit down and play it for marathon sessions, but for an hour here or two hours there, I'm down.


Comics: I had planned to do another full-scale comics run down tonight, but I ran out of time to read, so that will have to wait for another day. However, I did manage to finally get around to Aquaman #1 thanks to @Andrew_Reiner’s recommendation, and he wasn’t wrong.

I'm not an Aquaman fan, never have been, but I liked how this new #1 (part of DC’s New 52 push) acknowledged this hero's semi-joke status and really addresses the fact that no one takes him seriously, not even the characters in his own world. Beyond that, what really sold me was the quick recap/relaunch of the hero that told me everything I needed to know without getting bogged down in old continuity. There were also a few moments showing a young Aquaman with his father that I found somewhat touching, so that was appreciated as well.

I haven't read the next issue yet and I'm sure that there’s plenty of opportunity for the thing to go off the rails since, you know, Aquaman, but I'm definitely interested to see how the series proresses. I would never have guessed it, but this was a great start.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Escape Goat, Flying Pirates, Dark Soul Fixes, and Child's Play  


Games: I've got a couple of interviews coming up quite soon, and this weekend the PNWJournos group is going to Haunted Temple Studios to get a hands-on with the upcoming XBLA title, Skulls of the Shogun. Look for some in-depth coverage of that in the very near future.

In the meantime, @MagicalTimeBean’s latest and greatest has just become available on the XBL Indie channel. Titled Escape Goat, it's about a goat who (wait for it…) escapes.

This art style kicks ass.
Essentially, the prison where the game takes place is broken down into a series of rooms, each room being a puzzle. The goat has the ability to double jump, to dash, and also gets an assist from a very helpful mouse who’s along for the ride… I only had time to run through the demo, but I was definitely into what I was seeing.

Although it bucks the $1 trend of most XBLI titles (purchase price is $3) the quality is immediately evident, and I had no hesitation whatsoever dropping a triad of bones on it. Do yourself a favor and check it out.


In other games news, I finally started playing Two Worlds II: Pirates of the Flying Fortress on 360.

As you've probably guessed, it's a DLC add-on to TW2 which released way back in January. I liked the core game quite a bit (here's my review, in case you missed it) and this new chunk is basically more of the same. That's not a bad thing at all, but after nearly a year away from the original adventure, it feels like the window of opportunity has passed it by... it took me quite a while to get re-acclimated to the controls, and I had forgotten how rough the game can run at times.

We've got boats, people.
Also, with Skyrim just around the corner, this DLC couldn't have picked a worse time to make its way to market. TW2 was perfect as a lighter, faster, more pick-up-and-play version of Oblivion, but with the "real" thing at hand, it seems to me that most people would rather hold off for Bethesda's latest than jump back into something that's feeling pretty dated right now.

I'll be turning in a full review at GameCritics, so look for that once I've wrapped it up. Apparently, this is a pretty sizable adventure (15-20 hours is what I'm hearing) so at the very least, it should provide a healthy amount of content for those taking the plunge.


Although I'm done with it and my review has been turned in, a very interesting piece of news was released today in regards to Dark Souls. Apparently FromSoft has completed work on their next round of patches for the game, and the list of what's been tweaked is absolutely massive.

You can click here to take a look at it and see what's going to change. It's hard to tell the ultimate effect that all of these modifications will have, but right off the bat a few things jumped out at me -- the amount of souls earned from PVE has apparently been doubled, the drop rate for Humanity has been increased, many magic spells appear to be weaker, and certain incredibly useful items like Homeward Bones and Skull Lanterns will now be dropped.

Regardless of my feelings on the game after completion, I'm very glad to see that From is continuing to work on the experience and improve it for those still playing, or for those who have yet to jump in. Thanks to @DemonicMurry for the link!


The GTAV trailer was released today and... well, it's a trailer. I'm not going to bother to link to it here since every games-related website on the Internet has been talking about it, but as someone who hasn't really been enjoying GTA since San Andreas, I can't say that I'm very excited. Rockstar really lost me with GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption, so I sincerely doubt that a pre-order for V is in my future.

Besides, with Saints Row: the Third coming out in just a few days, I suspect my open-world driving/shooting jones will be more than satisfied.


To close out today's blog, here are a few words on behalf of Child’s Play, one of my favorite charities. There’s no commentary from me below, just information straight from the organization’s press release. Please check it out, and donate if you feel so inclined... sick kids who love video games will thank you.

SEATTLE – Nov. 2, 2011 – Child’s Play Charity has officially begun its 2011 fundraising campaign, having already received more than $450,000. This year’s goal is to raise $2 million.

Since the charity’s establishment in 2003, it has distributed more than $9 million in donations from the videogame community to entertain hospitalized children across the globe.

The annual Child’s Play charity auction will take place on Thursday, Dec. 8th, 2011 at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. Tickets can be purchased at www.childsplaycharity.org. Passes will cost $145 per person and $5,000 for table sponsors.

“We are very excited to begin another year of Child’s Play and once again show the world that the video game community is altruistic as well as compassionate,” said Kristin Lindsay, Child's Play. “Since Child’s Play inception we have constantly been surprised by the generosity in both time and money of the community.”

Those wishing to contribute to Child’s Play can:

● Host a fundraising event http://childsplaycharity.org/events

● Buy or donate an item on the Child’s Play eBay Giving Works page

● Give directly via PayPal

● Become a corporate sponsor, email Kristin Lindsay

● Mail a check to Child’s Play, 123 NW 36th Street Suite 210, Seattle, WA 98107

● Text the keyword GAMERS to 50555 to make a $5 donation

For more information visit http://www.childsplaycharity.org/