Dracula ECCCCKKKSS

I know I’m getting old but goddamn it if every time I try to play this remake of a game that was never even released in the US I barely make it to the second stage before I throw the PSP off the bus.  Maybe this is why I play RPGs so much- they don’t require the dexterity and willingness for torture that a game like this demands.  Indeed this is what most games demanded back in the day.  RPGs, especially the old school Japanese variety I’ve been playing lately feel like a walk in the park, repetitive, simple gameplay and a sense of progression whose only requirement is your time.  Of course back then I was more than happy to use a cheat or code I picked up in Nintendo Power, these days I have some kind of purist mentality that demands I avoid gamefaqs unless absolutely necessary.  Absolutely necessary should not be before I reach the end of the second stage.  And what is the deal with hiding the aspects of this game that i actually want- Castlevania- Symphony of the Night and the original Dracula X ROM- within the game itself?  This one is heading right up to the unfun category.

…by any other name… (Final Fantasy XIII)

If Final Fantasy XIII were named Ultimate Illiad and made by a company that wasn’t Square Enix, it would not have been reviewed nearly as well as it has, nor would it be as controversial as it has.  Unfortunately, I’ll never find out whether all of the Internet Rage is justified.  After reading Christian Nutt’s sprawling review, I’ve decided I’m not going to play it.  Parts of the review cover game mechanics I literally can not comprehend.  And if said mechanics make up a battle system that many claim is the games one good aspect, I’m done.  The story seems to be meandering and hard to digest.  If those two things aren’t worth the effort in an RPG, then the game simply is not worth what limited time I have.

When games become games…

and stop being experiences:

Who decided that putting a game of Space Basketball into the 10th of 12 levels of a survival horror game was a good idea?  Having Isaac shoot hoops in the midst of a genocidal space zombie attack lends credence to the ever increasing notion that Mr. Clarke is in fact an unreliable narrator.  I’m all for breaking the tension but c’mon folks.

Why EA is skipping 360 for EA Sports Active 2.0

So EA Sports Active 2.0 is coming out on the PSWii and a few sites have been treating this as some kind of surprise or affront to the 360.  The truth is probably more technical than conspiratorial:

Bluetooth

It may not be the only reason but seeing as both the Wii and the PS3 support Bluetooth out of the box it is pretty likely that it was more cost effective to build a single one-size-fits-all peripheral for the game rather than build an entirely new one just for the 360 and pay Microsoft licensing fees on top of it.  They may even be able to squeeze iPhone and iPod touch out of this one device as well.  For a company trying to cut costs in today’s economic reality, sticking with standards may be the right way to go.  If anyone has financial information on just how much it cost MTV and Activition to build peripherals for their plastic toy games, I’d love to see it.

Of course, EA may just have seen some synergy in the introduction of the Playstation Move and the UI it shares with Wii.  Or they’re waiting for the moneyhat.

Random Thoughts on Mass Effect 2 (part 2)

Quick rundown of my playthrough:

  • Played it on Normal and it was in no way a challenge.  Now I didn’t play it for the challenge.  I played it for the story and the choices I’d make and because I’m really into the universe, though I can’t say whether I’m into it because of anything beyond how richly developed it is.
  • Doing a New Game+ on insanity and it is frustratingly difficult
  • My Shepard had a relationship with a character from the first game, and she did not pursue anyone in this one.  This may pay off in part 3 but it also closes off a lot of possibilities as well.
  • She opted to save a kid about to enroll in a mercenary squad.
  • Managed to keep her crew member from being exiled as well as stall a potential war.
  • Opted to kill off a band of rebels rather than brainwash their entire race.
  • Finally, at the end of the game, my Shep chose to cut off relations with the group sponsoring her mission rather than allowing them to pursue their own agenda.

There are a lot of loose threads that I can not wait to see tied up.

Random Thoughts on Mass Effect 2 (part 1)

Although I was thoroughly engrossed in the story of Mass Effect 2, my story of Mass Effect 2, I couldn’t help but feel a little weird when Dawn was watching me play through my choices.  Yes, this included romance dialog but even regular old paragon vs renegade type conversation.  The world of Mass Effect isn’t any more geeky and sci-fi than Farscape, in a lot of ways it is actually more convincingly conceived, but at the same time, the movie-like presentation mixed with dinosaurs in armor and musical-singing Salarians just seemed a little too…nerdy?

As much as this is Bioware’s “blockbuster” game, there is something about the way it is presented that still lands it firmly in the domain of geekiness.  Certainly Farscape is a geeky show but I get the feeling that non-gamers would really be willing to sit through someone’s playthrough of the game.  Certainly the mechanics are part of it- watching someone shoot and shoot and shoot their way through a story isn’t fun if you aren’t doing the shooting.  But is there something about the choose-your-own-adventureness of the story that diminishes it in some way?  I’m really not sure.

The game does tell a good story, but I don’t think it really says anything new.  I suppose it doesn’t necessarily need to but when a game is this hyped and this loved one would hope that it might deliver something more than a good heist.

Progress

How does this

Dragon Quest 4 :: NES :: 1990
Dragon Quest 4 :: DS :: 2007

Yet in light of today’s games, the DS version looks antiquated as well.  Granted the 1990 graphics were terrible even for the time.

The lull(z)

As much as I’m enjoying Dragon Quest V, I’ve finally reached a point where I don’t feel like continuing.  This used to happen with most of the RPGs I’ve played but I’ve been pretty good at finishing games lately.  A few factors I believe may be why:

No longer bussing to work- initially due to my bus route being closed from the snow, now because I’m back on my bus.

The game froze while in sleep mode and I lost about an hour of progress.

Even though I’ve only clocked a bit over 20 hours, my character is now married with kids.  This is pretty interesting, but for some reason I find it kind of annoying.

I’d love to be playing while Dawn watches the olympics but by the time we get most of our work done for the night I am too tired to do anything.

I’ll finish it, but I have low hopes for the handful of PSP games I picked up a few months ago.

Why Big Games Aren’t Blockbuster Entertainment

As I’ve been talking to friends and reading internet posts about Mass Effect 2, I’m constantly struck by how different everyone’s experience is.  This week’s Giant Bombcast points out that it is actually kind of hard to watch someone else play Mass Effect 2 because their Shepard isn’t your Shepard.  The shame about this experience is that it’s really something you can’t share with people as it happens.  Video games place you into a narrative in a way that other media don’t: To whatever small degree you are an active participant in the world of the game rather than a passive one.  I don’t know if it’s because videogames are so new or because gamers are isolated and insecure enough that they’re constantly trying to legitimize their hobby but we’re always trying to associate games with other media and the medium we choose is almost always film.

In one very important way though, aren’t video games more like books?

Like books, games are generally a solitary experience.*  You engage them on your own and if there is a social interaction regarding the media, it is after the fact, or in some kind of status reporting as readers/gamers progress.  You generally engage them over a considerable period of time, as opposed to the relatively small time investment of other audio/visual media.

Movies, music and television are all inherently social experiences.  We may not all experience them all together all the time, but their histories all share people coming together to witness a performance of some kind.  I may watch a two hour movie with Dawn, but it is pretty unlikely that she’ll sit through Mass Effect 2 with me.  Even though it is highly “cinematic”, the game keeps getting in the way!  Even a game like Uncharted 2, which was sold to people on the idea that it was indistinguishable from a movie, can be pretty hard to stick with if you’re not the person controlling Drake.  We just don’t crowd around the couch to watch someone play through a game.

At first I thought that this might be a “bad thing,” but ultimately it is just not an something that needs necessarily be shared during the “live” experience.  The social experience comes later, when we share our stories and experiences.  There aren’t book clubs for games, but in this age, there are certainly many forums for discussion.

So even though your Activisions and EA’s would like you to believe that Mondern Warfare 2 is as big a media event as Avatar, and it may be in terms of money, but as a cultural experience, it simply does not add up.  As long as games are designed with a single person in front of a single device (or in the case of MW2 many single individuals connected to one another over the internet- a potentially interesting discussion in itself), they will not have the same mindshare as other mass media.

The funny thing is that even though I don’t really enjoy the Wii experience, Nintendo is one of the few game makers that has really worked to engage the entire family and groups of people in play through the Wii, and this is absolutely by design.  Whether or not the Wii will be recalled as a fad or a shared cultural experience remains to be seen, but they are bringing the medium to people in ways that either didn’t exist or that’s long forgotten.

*Yes, people play multiplayer games online.  Yes people play games like Rock Band and Wii together.  But these experiences are not the “hardcore” and they aren’t the big budget, cinematic blockbusters that game studios keep pitching and that keep most of the game publishers in business.

The Evolution of Epic RPGs

I’ve been simultaneously playing two role playing games recently: Mass Effect 2 on my 360 and Dragon Quest V on the DS.  On the outside the two couldn’t seem more different.  DQV features cute, cartoony sprites and combat that my wife notes is little more than me “Hitting the A button for two hours.”  Mass Effect plays out like a high intensity shooting game with a dark, cinematic look that calls to mind Blade Runner, Star Trek and Farscape.

Dragon Quest
Mass Effect

What struck me about them both, and caused me to think about how Role Playing Games have evolved since their inception on computers and video game consoles, is that they both tell epic stories that sweep you up and give you the will to ignore any weaknesses in their gameplay as you play out the story.  DQV spans three generations of a family with a destiny, and through the game you experience  birth, the death of loved ones and a sense of loss that literally almost brought me to tears as I witnessed it last night.  Mass Effect is the tale of an intergalactic hero out to defend all sentient life from impending doom.  The way these games each tell their stories is quite different, and is in a way indicative of how the genre has evolved differently in Japan and in the West.  DQV is largely a directed narrative.  There is a story to tell and you play through it.  They do give you some interesting choices, including the woman you want to marry, but ultimately the story is largely out of your control.

Mass Effect on the other hand has a common beginning and a common end, but the story that gets told is your own.  The origin of your character, whether it’s a man or woman, who they want to fight and how, the relationships they have, etc.  The depth of logic and the amount of content that must be made to make this believable is truly amazing.  I could get into how games like Mass Effect must make Japanese developers quake in their boots- pulling together an epic narrative in a giant world is much less challenging when the world is made up of 16×16 tiles and all of the dialogue is text on the screen. I’m not saying its easy, but try blowing that up to HD, doing motion capture for all of the “actors”, recording thousands of lines of dialogue with professional actors (even Marsheen!) and developing a system that allows for a consistent narrative when almost every choice in the game is variable.  I’m not saying it’s perfect, but just comparing my game to those of friends, all of our outcomes are quite different.

Getting back to my point:  The video role playing game (as opposed to your table top version) is designed to tell a world spanning, epic tale of adventure.  The conventions of the genre have your character becoming more powerful throughout the game, accumulating skill in weapons, magic, conversation and any number of other variables.  As the game progresses, the hero and her party become so powerful that a battle with an enemy from the beginning of the game is trivial, even laughable.  To counter that power, the game creators have to create an equally powerful adversary, thus we get generations of rpgs where the endgame is literally stopping the end of the world.

The makers of RPGs have been trying to create a visual parity to the epic storytelling since the inception of the genre.   With the advent of the CDROM, they were able to include cut scenes- movie shorts that visualized the scope of the game in a way the tiny sprites could never do.  Over time, game graphics got better as did cut scenes, with Final Fantasy 7 ringing in an era where rpgs were just as much synonymous with rich computer generated cut scenes as much as they were battle systems or storytelling.  Through this perspective, games like Mass Effect and the upcoming Final Fantasy 13 are the ultimate expression of epic narrative that game makers have been yearning to tell since they began creating these games.  Both offer high adventure and incredible, cinematic visuals, and they’ve also been accused of “dumbing down” the genre as they’ve either removed or cut back on the statistics driven gameplay and exploration that are considered hallmarks.  What they haven’t removed is what I consider to be the true heart of a good role playing game:  They put the player into a world-spanning story filled with emotion, excitement and drama.  Only now it looks like we always imagined it to.

Feeding the OCD in Mass Effect 2

I’d love to know what the creators of role playing games think of their players, subjecting them as they do to endless repetition in its various formats.  It could be killing monsters endlessly in Dragon Quest or in the case of Mass Effect 2 it is the ceaseless, relentless mining tasks you can set about to do in order to upgrade your ship, weapons and abilities.

These missions are absolutely optional during the game, though I’ve heard that how well you’ve done your upgrades influences the end of the game.  I’m not even going to touch on how the game allows you the chance to completely direct the narrative, your various choices influencing how the story plays out. Back to the point, this game has taken many strides towards actually removing itself from the stat-based gameplay of its ancestors, with fighting taking place on a battlefield that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gears of War.  Despite those strides, we’re still subjected to the mining task, a video of which I’ll show you below:

I’ve clocked about 13 hours into the game so far and I’d say about 65% of it has been these goofy scanning missions.  The sick thing is, I can’t stop!  I still have a lot of game to play and it is absolutely not necessary that I do all the scanning now, but there is some kind of compulsion to continue.  It could be the weighty thud of launching the scanning probe, or the slot machine chime when you find something, but I literally could just scan, and I do.   Designers must acknowledge that a certain portion of their audience sees some kind of value in simple repetitive tasks.   I’m sure they love that their 12 hour game suddenly becomes a 40 hour game as well.

The funny thing is, this type of mission is pitched as a better alternative the planet exploration of Mass Effect 1!  And it really is a welcome change!  This is how video games work really, sometimes shooting for the “real” experience isn’t as fun as a well designed “gamey” experience that can’t exist in reality.  Given the choice to drive a vehicle around a huge planet, fighting off Thresher Maw’s and exploring abandoned research facilities versus moving a pointer over a grid, I would easily choose the pointer/grid!  The description I just made of planet exploration is accurate, but the activity was designed so poorly that it is largely considered the worst part of the original Mass Effect.  Your landing vehicle was hard to drive, the planets were largely identical except for weather and the color of the landscape and most of the buildings and enemies were all clones of each other.  Illustrated:

Over all, I can’t complain about this game because so far I’ve found the story completely worth the effort.

Mass Effect 2 Arrives

I have to admit I love the Mass Effect universe, its got the “humanity is out to prove itself” vibe of Star Trek and Farscape with the rough and tumble universe of the first Star Wars trilogy.  The second episode comes out on Tuesday and yeah, I preordered  I even got the call from Gamestop that I can show up at Midnight on Monday just so I can get the game super early and play it all night.  Even though I never would, I have to admit, it’s tempting. This trailer says all it needs to, I can’t stop watching it:

VVVVVV

Thought I’d point you to this amazing indie game from devs Distractionware (Terry Cavanagh).  Its called VVVVVV and it is about as simple and fun a platformer as you can get, and it looks like a game you might have been playing on an Apple II back in 1983.  It’s really a testament to just how far game design goes in lieu of amazing hi-res graphics.  VVVVVV manages to tell enough of a story and convey enough emotion through its simple sprites and awesome Commodre 64 inspired music that you want to play as soon as it lets you.  It is essentially gravity based- think the gravity puzzles in Strider minus the good graphics, swords and robot gorillas. The first two levels are free on Kongregate and you can buy the game here.

UI Done Right (Dead Space)

I finally managed to play a little Dead Space this morning, after years of putting it off and boy am I impressed so far.  The game manages to be incredibly immersive and downright frightening.  I understand that Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed are two very different games, and although AC2 post-dates Dead Space, AC1 came out first, so we can’t blame the AC team for missing the boat on next-gen UI innovation.

A still image does not do it justice

The entire game plays out in front of your character, while you can pause it you are given only the most meager options- all that essentially take place outside the game world such as audio and quitting.  The game’s “camera” is fixed over your silent character, and although you see him in the game world it in no way impacts the immersion into that world.  The truly amazing thing about the UI is that the game world defines it rather than having the game developers layer it on top of the action (see Assassin’s Creed 2).  Although there still exists time tested gaming tropes such as health meter, ammunition and other meters and displays, they’re embedded into the character’s gear- either as a glowing display on his back, or through a projected hologram where all of the game config and narration takes place.

And oh that hologram HUD.  If Isaac (the character you “play” as) switches to the 3D map, he can manipulate it in front of him and if you move the game’s camera around the screen, the map moves with you.  Everything from available armaments to additional (optional) narrative can all be easily accessed from within the game, and the real surprise is when you’re in the middle of reading a note and one of the game’s aliens (“necromorphs”- pity really) decides to pop out of a closet, there’s nothing you can do but try and turn off your HUD and run!  Its hard to describe but it adds considerably to the stress of the game.  And this being of the horror genre, you need that stress.

Game developers have surely taken notice, as the new Splinter Cell pastes its user interface all over the game field.  While that looks interesting, it still fails at bridging the reality of the game world with the game design. Isaac’s suit, his gear and indeed the spaceship he is fighting aboard are the game’s interface.

Additionally, the developers have so thoroughly and carefully designed the ship: As you navigate around the ship, it feels like a (formally) functional mining ship.  I’m not entirely certain why there is a research lab full of mutated fetuses but damn if it isn’t scary.  Hopefully that will be explained.  But this place is lived in, you find audio logs detailing the crews’ lives, litter, posters, crew lockers, everything.  And when everything, I mean everything:  When I decided to see if I could levitate the head off of a decomposing body in the morgue, well, I feel kinda guilty now.

The game has a lot of weight to it.  Your boots slam to the floor and if you have to melee an enemy you feel the thud of heavy equipment impacting into flesh.  And I can’t even remember if the game makes use of built in vibration the Xbox controller uses but I do remember the impact.

On the Audio Tip:

This game deserves an oscar for sound design.  With surround sound speakers and a subwoofer the game comes alive.  Not just the monsters creeping up behind you but clacking debris across metal floors, broken automatic doors slamming open and shut across the hall, whose sound becomes more muffled and no less frightening as you move from room to room.  The protagonist never speaks but if his oxygen gets cut off or he’s badly injured, you can hear his labored breath from inside his welder’s mask.  Voices over comms have an expected level of distortion.  They thought of everything.

In light of Dead Space the makers of Assassin’s Creed 2 have no excuses.