Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Under Construction

Posted by deckard47 on September 10, 2011

Like it says. Things are constructing themselves. I’ll let you know when they get done with that.

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Resuscitation: Dragon Age

Posted by deckard47 on February 23, 2011


You get dollars if you remember seeing this ages ago and thinking: "Crap, I hope that's not a real screen."

You get dollars if you remember seeing this ages ago and thinking: "Crap, I hope that's not a real screen."

I enjoy playing Dragon Age: Origins quite a bit. I haven’t written about it that much here, but I’ve played around two hundred hours of the game (spread across 3 playthroughs). Considering Dragon Age is a single player game, that’s actually very impressive. For me, 100 hour and over playtimes are reserved for multiplayer games like L4D2 and games with titles like Call of Honorable Men in Bad Companionable Duty.

While I’m a fan (of a sort) of Bioware’s writing, plotting, and actor-hiring, the solace I’ve taken out of all of these playthroughs (and especially the most recent one) of Dragon Age has had little to do with the game’s world or story. Instead, I’ve come to relish the game’s character leveling system and combat encounters. I certainly can’t praise Dragon Age’s combat mechanics. Party member AI in combat is almost unbelievably stupid (though this is a game brought to us by the people who created the path finding in Baldur’s Gate 2, so I shouldn’t be surprised). To start playing Dragon Age with a new character − especially after a long break from the game − is to be unpleasantly reminded of the AI’s complete inability to do anything right. Read the rest of this entry »

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Delayed Responsibility Sadface

Posted by deckard47 on November 24, 2010

So Marky Mark will be Nathan Drake in David O. Russell’s Uncharted (Link). This makes all of us here at delayed responsibility Enterprises really depressed. As you obviously know, we’ve always backed the Fillion on this one. When all of us get this sad, it looks like this

Sad Delayed Responsibility Cat

Sad Delayed Responsibility Cat

Are you happy now Russell? This is all despite the fact that I dig Three Kings in all of its late ’90s music video irony glory. Plus, the Fillion isn’t in action star shape anymore, is he?



Then again, I’m certain he’s just one Sony Pictures mandated trainer away from being in better physical shape than anyone, ever. My dreams have been shattered.

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Fallout 3 and New Vegas

Posted by deckard47 on November 9, 2010



Fallout: New Vegas

Raul Tejada. He's a Hispanic ghoul in a game set in the post-apocalyptic Mojave, a Mojave free of brown people! Humor!

I kind of despise Fallout 3. It’s bland, in its level design, its art, and its writing. The actors behind the characters are (like all Bethesda actors) complete villains: their voices are so completely unemotional and uninteresting that they sound like they’re acting from beyond the grave. It takes things from the original Fallout games (games I enjoyed) and updates them in the least imaginative ways possible. Turn based combat? It’s now a shoddy slow-mo combat mode, a poor copy of the kind of tactical brilliance and visual excellence found in Max Payne games, and ultimately the only thing that stops the gunplay from being a broken, unplayable nightmare. Try shooting something out of VATS in Fallout 3. I think this is what people think of when they trollishly mutter about “dice rolls” determining their bullets’ paths. Every gunshot feels wrong. The sounds are off, the animations are all wrong, and the interface can barely keep up with human input. VATS fixes the horrible controls and responsiveness, and reveals new problems: every other shot will hit an invisible barrier, or miss completely, even if there’s no chance of a miss. Combat is a demoralizing, unpleasant kind of busy-work.

Fallout: New Vegas wasn’t developed by Bethesda. It’s been farmed out to Obsidian, who really seem can’t escape from their gun-for-hire roots (unless it’s to produce the awful Alpha Protocol). New Vegas is also a better game than Fallout 3, and it’s certainly a better game than Alpha Protocol. It’s also a bit boring, despite having held my interest for 40 hours. It repeats almost all of the same mechanical and interface issues seen in Fallout 3. The new “true” iron sights mechanic feels better than the previous aiming, but there’s still the same bogus math behind the scenes. Try this out, devs: go play a game like Deus Ex. Hell, go play Singularity or Wolfenstein. Watch how those games have a base spread of fire for each gun, and how upgrades tighten that spread, depending on gun type. There’s never a time when my fire just fucking misses, if I’ve lined up the shot and my skill is high enough. That’s the problem at the core of VATS. Even when firing at point blank range, I can miss, sometimes because VATS glitches (actually, this happens quite often), or because the game’s math decrees it so. If the way you fix your broken shooting system is to introduce a broken slow-mo system, you’re well and truly screwed. The game feels like and action-shooter-RPG in every respect but the act of pulling a trigger. It’s surprising, because Bethesda’s system for To-Hit-Ratio and damage in Oblivion was strait-forward and fun. Here, melee is the best option, because as in Oblivion, assholes can’t dodge a lead pipe, but they can certainly resist its damage (though melee was useless in Fallout 3, so I have to credit Obsidian again for unbreaking it).

Fallout: New Vegas

My evil melee character. I quit playing him, because ED-E, that floating robot (who obviously uses invisible legs to navigate in-game terrain) behind me, broke my save.

But I’ve played a ton of New Vegas. I can certainly censure Obsidian for not removing Fallout 3‘s multitudinous interface issues, completely wretched voice acting, and crappy game engine implementation (that extra half-step-while moving problem is even worse in Vegas), I have to appreciate that they approached this new Wasteland with more than an ounce or two of thought and originality. There are things ingame that aren’t brown anymore. There are also trees and foliage. The world instantly becomes a few times less boring, thanks to these additions. There are more than 3 good guns. You can mod and upgrade guns in a way that’s fun, if limited to a degree I’d prefer it wasn’t. Upgrades are visually evident on every gun (that last should be a requirement for every game, EVER). There are more monsters and character models. Melee isn’t completely broken. Energy weapons aren’t completely broken (by this I mean that a player can set out to master these two tracks and not create a character destined for swift death). Water doesn’t irradiate you instantly. Cars don’t instantly irradiate you. As a result, it’s possible to explore most areas without bringing 50 Radaways.

The writing is also better, by a small measure. Obsidian does not commit the awful sin of having a 3 hour long tutorial that cannot be skipped, as did Fallout 3. They do make you answer a surprisingly annoying set of character-forming “questions,” though. Certainly, Caesar’s Legion are a boring lot (though their acting is what really ruins interactions with them). The game can feel a little small-scale (every Casino has its own loading zone in the strip, because the engine can’t handle more, apparently. It feels nothing like a city and everything like a corridor with glowing doors), and many of the locations feel perfunctorily written and designed (Primm is a complete nonentity, aside from its delightful cowboy robot). The central plot and quest line feel both inspired by and derivative of (awfully) Bioshock.

Fallout: New Vegas

Cass, preparing to harrow my soul with her voice.

New Vegas also competently recreates a variety of standard RPG quest tropes and traditions. There’s a Vault full of Thorian Creepers (I mean spore humans), a vault full of radiation, a messianic ghoul leader, betrayal within a small community, and gang allegiances. It’s all competently executed, though the rigid, instantly-boring graphics and animation rob the world of any excitement I might have found in its fictions. Despite all of this, it feels like what Fallout 3 should have been: an inferior first person version of Fallout, with a host of “modern” FPS and RPG innovations thrown in to keep things from getting boring. New Vegas recaptures a bit of the wit and cynicism that Fallout 1 and 2 honestly expressed and Fallout 3 callowly pantomimed. Certain characters were written in such a way that they produce amusing and entertaining dialogue (the aforementioned robot cowboy), while others produce similarly passable dialogue that’s absolutely murdered by the actors (Cass is the worst culprit. Amusing dialogue, horrid acting).

The radio stations are alright, but there aren’t nearly enough songs. There are 27 songs in New Vegas, while Fallout 3 had 37. Somehow, Bethesda managed to make those 37 sound like double that. Obsidian also managed to make it so that the same song would play back-to-back, so that probably has something to do with my hatred for the soundtrack. Likewise, fallout 3 had the outrageously hammy Malcolm McDowell murmuring on about America in a surprisingly (for that game) entertaining way. New Vegas replaces him with a silly, one-note joke station about stupid, stupid mutants.

Fallout: New Vegas

The Strip. Two casinos of it, that is, before you load the next road/set of casinos. You can see the door down there on the left.

New Vegas is also broken in about 20 other ways. I’ve had to download patches, sneak altered .dll’s in, and mod the crap out of this game, just to get it to work. I’ve had to reload countless games, waste hours of play time, and generally cover for a mountain of shit Obsidian, Bethesda, and Microsoft QA left in the game. Really, it’s like they went in and broke a bunch of stuff and then shipped the game. It still crashes my system regularly.

I’m not sorry I’ve played 40 hours of New Vegas. It can be a fun, engrossing game, when it’s not breaking, or the engine, UI, and developers aren’t tarnishing the experience. Apparently it sold 5 million units already. I hope this means Obsidian can make another game, a non-Fallout, non-Alpha Protocol game. One that isn’t Dungeon Siege 3, also (though maybe Square Enix will make these people produce a non-broken game, so…). I’d love to see Obsidian make a game whose play is at least equal to its writing (though they really need to work on never, ever writing Alpha Protocol-quality dialogue again). I can’t say I care what Bethesda does next. probably another Elder Scrolls game with a depressingly bad and broken leveling system and wooden, awful celebrity voice-work. maybe John Carmack and company will teach Bethesda how to make a game with guns and bullets. I can dream.

PS: So Rage looks like Borderlands mixes with Doom mixed with Fallout 3. I think it’s going to better than all three games, because it won’t be hilariously, ironically character-less and toneless like Borderlands was, and it won’t be shit to play, like Fallout 3 was. Maybe if we all believe in faeries…

PPS: The screenshot save/notation system for New Vegas is really very good.

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Disappointment: My Name is Michael Thorton. I Used to Be a Spy…

Posted by deckard47 on September 14, 2010

Alpha Protocol

Commence Operation: Bropocalypse

Alpha Protocol is about spies and spying, nominally and narratively. Everyone in-game talks about how dastardly and sneaky their cloak-and-dagger endeavors are. Michael Thorton, the game’s hero and our PC, talks a lot about how he and other spies do their thing. Interestingly, if Alpha Protocol is any indicator, real spies are clumsy, violent boors who can barely walk down a hallway without murdering someone. Worse, real spies can’t shoot for shit, and they couldn’t land a punch of a turtle-necked goon walked right into it. Oh, and they have a lot of trouble getting into and out of cover. Oh, spies.

Alpha Protocol‘s writing and acting don’t hold up well to repeat playings and viewings; the dialogue generally doesn’t even hold up to the first viewing. Characters ponderously explain who and what they are, and what they’re doing. It’s as if the two and a half hour experiment in continuous exposition that is Inception was part of Alpha Protocol‘s script’s inspiration. The cast may be flat and boring and their motives and speeches may be worse, but Michael Thorton is in a wretched class of his own. He’s halfway between Roger Moor and Jack Bauer: he’s a violent, crude egomaniac, no matter how you play him. The game’s one interesting conversational mechanic, the timed, non-repeatable talking cutscene, is wasted on Thorton and his glum cohorts. AP‘s conversation system (always comprised of four options, each option generally corresponding to “suave,” “agressive,” “professional,” and “get to the point/kill” dialogue options) is different than the system used in the Mass Effect series, but only slightly. Whereas in Mass Effect players could (as they can in most games) loop basic conversations with NPC’s over and over, in AP, players have a limited time to choose what to say, and can never go back and talk about already discussed topics. Conversations become even more like games in AP. Now, if you mess up or do something dramatic, there’s no way to return, save for using the reload button. None of this means much, since suave Michael Thorton is just as much of a dick as Professional Michael Thorton.

Alpha Protocol Tuxedo

I think the suit is supposed to make him look like a suave adult, when he's really just looking for the Natty Light.

Maybe Obsidian was trying to say something about spies when they created this leering, “funny” bro? Sadly I think that the script (and thus the stupid, chuckling Thorton) are deadly serious. It’s unfortunate that there’s so little to like about the talking and decision-making (limited though it ultimately is) in AP, because playing the game (outside of conversations) is difficult, frustrating, and often next-to-impossible.

AP‘s engine and UI are badly, unintuitively designed and presented, and badly optimized. Going from menu to menu (in inventory, in-store, or in the meta-game save menu) often causes the game to stutter or completely halt for a few seconds. The same hangups occur while transitioning from area to area, opening and closing boxes, using keypads and locked items, and often simply looking at different bits of the environment. These aren’t performance issues. Alpha Protocol is in no way a system hog. It’s possible to turn every setting down (on my already too-fast computer), or even install the game on a comparable, different computer. The issues remain; there’s no way to get rid o them.

These pauses and glitches, while annoying out of combat and in-menu, often spell instant death for Thorton when they occur during firefights. Sadly, these severe usability issues go hand in hand with the game’s awkward, unimaginative approach to third person shooters, RPGs, and “spy” combat in general. Thorton aims, shoots, moves, and punches stiffly and often uselessly. It’s hard to tell what I’m punching while I’m punching it, just as it’s hard to tell whether or not my bullets will actually fly from my gun to their target, thanks to a bad cover system and all-around mysterious, ever-changing hit boxes. Ranged and melee attacks (that hit) provide the bare minimum of feedback. Enemies are mostly bloodless, and only sometimes jerk around  a bit when I shoot them. The strict, rigid nature of melee chains means that it’s easy to punch air, over and over, while an enemy stands millimeters away from your fists’ field of fire. Grenades often bounce off invisible corners, getting into and out of cover takes repeated, frantic button presses, and guns are (in a strange, RPG way) innaccurate to the point of silliness.

Alpha Protocol Ladder

Spies hate ladders. It's so hard to climb them!

This last makes more of a difference than you’d think, as do the game’s difficult-to-predict combat animations and player movement. Since enemies can run around corners with robotic precision (and the shooting controls seem to have been badly calibrated to enhance moving targets’ bullet-shy alacrity), shooting and grappling with them is often a chance affair. I’m just as likely to kill an enemy as I am to punch the boxes next to him, stuck in a combo loop until he shoots me and kills me. The stealth system in AP (which mixes the awful, unresponsive cover mechanic with ludicrously wide enemy site cones and instant enemy reinforcements vis-à-vis alarms) is incredibly hard to navigate. It’s only on my second playthrough (what exactly is wrong with me, you may ask?) that I’ve gotten a handle on it. This means that I only reveal my location to enemies a third of the time, instead of my original average of fifty percent.

Thus, the life of a spy becomes one long, discombobulated journey from mob to mob. I’ll bump into walls, accidentally shoot desks, and generally fuck up more often than I succeed, all thanks to unintuitive controls, awful game feedback and information output, and an almost broken framerate and loading system. The spy game this creates is a spy game that lacks any sense of subtlety or grace. It’s quite clear that the developers wanted to create a mix of different conversational approaches, and several ways of moving through levels and dispatching opponents. Thanks to the worst controls I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with this generation, a bad script, and clichéd characters, Alpha Protocol fails at everything it sets out to do.

I’m impressed that SEGA released this game at all, instead of scrapping it like they did the Aliens RPG. Not only did I have to wait a half year to play this game (I was one of those gullible fools who pre-ordered the game on Steam), but what I played is the least complete “AAA” release I’ve ever played. I sincerely hope that Fallout: New Vegas and Dungeon Seige 3 are better-managed and designed than Alpha Protocol was, or I find it hard to believe that publishers will continue to knock on Obsidian’s door.

Posted in Disappointment, Impressions, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Post-Game: Call of Pripyat

Posted by deckard47 on August 20, 2010

Stalker: Call of Pripyat

A bro, sitting on a wooden wheely thing.

Hey Bro! That’s how everyone in Stalker-land greets each other. Or perhaps “Hiddy Ho!.” Oh, Stalkers of the Zone. Never change.

I’m going through one of those stages where I’m out of new games and I’m not inclined to finish games I set aside midway through (Lost Planet 2, because it’s too foreign for my in-house co-op partner, Starcraft 2 because Jim Raynor’s face makes me depressed, and Divinity 2, because, you know…). Of course, my natural response to such a mood is to replay a certain type of game, the kind of game I’ve already played through and through. Thus, a new playthrough of Stalker: Call of Pripyat was born. Now, I’ve finished this game once already. GSC Gameworld added a feature that lets me play on after the credits have rolled. There are a few new quests, or something, to entice me back into the Zone. Of course, I restarted my game instead, partly because I like to restart games and play from the beginning, especially when leveling/upgrading schemes are involved (there’s nothing quite like being at the bottom of that ladder, is there?), and partially because I’m having trouble getting excited about my 2nd Mass Effect 2 run.

Call of Pripyat is by far my favorite Stalker game. Clear Sky had some fun ideas about how to do large, single player armed conflicts (read more about this in my next GSW column), and Shadow of Chernobyl, was the most unforgiving and brutal of the three games (and thus, the game that all Stalker games are compared to on the “super scary, hard, Stalker” Scale of Intensity), but both were badly broken and still are, patches or no patches. SoC has a nonexistent upgrade/barter system, making item collection and weapon upgrades feel haphazard and tacked on (you can’t repair things in the vanilla game!). Clear Sky has a slightly less flimsy upgrade system, but it’s lacking in that trademark Stalker tension. Call of Pripyat blends the best bits of its predecessors, and isn’t broken by bugs and glitches. How novel. As such, instead of flirting with it and then losing interest (as I did with SoC and Clear Sky), I played it through and loved it.

Call of Pripyat is at its best when it surprises players. This probably works best with new players, people who’ve never played a Stalker game. For these lucky souls, every bitter death, rationed bullet, and terrifying night-time excursion will be a new experience, unlike anything else they’ve played before. Nothing comes close, not Fallout 3 (easily Stalker‘s closest relative in the gaming world, which isn’t saying much), and none of the tired horror games we’re used to trudging through. For us seasoned Stalker devotees, the scares and tense battles are familiar, expected delights. Starting the game over, I encounter the same alarming, wonderful Firsts I discovered a year ago. My first confrontation with a pack of mutated dogs, leading to near-death and an empty shotgun. My first encounter with a snork, whose sudden, vaulting attack causes me to shriek. My return to the bloodsucker lair, creeping among tens of sleeping monsters. I’m still weak, at this stage in my playthrough: my guns and armor are upgraded to the first tier only. No high-grade optical sights, auto shotguns, and .50 caliber pistols here.

Stalker: Call of Pripyat 01

Sunrays, bro!

The transition to Call of Pripyat‘s mid-game is graceful. It doesn’t happen when I first travel to Yanov station (the second of CoP‘s three zones), nor does it happen when I get access to tier 2 upgrades. It’s a gradual process. It might be my first encounter with a telepathic, telekinetic dwarf, or a night-time Chimera hunt. I’m definitely into the mid-game when I start to actively seek out anomalies and nests of enemies (outside of quests). I may walk away from these encounters bloodied and short on ammo and supplies, but I always carry artifacts and new items with me. This section of the game isn’t quite as tense as the first section was. My stuff’s better, but so is theirs. Instead of one or two bloodsuckers, I’m asked to destroy a nest of three or four. Everything’s tougher and faster and meaner, just like me.

This exciting, ever-changing (new guns, new armor) portion of the game comes to a close as I cross the border between Yanov and Pripyat, crossing the boundary using the tunnels running from Jupiter Station to the ruined city from which CoP takes its name. Once I cross over into Pripyat, the game starts to lose its edge, for a few reasons. First and foremost, my guns and armor get fully upgraded. I’m a nearly-indestructible engine of death. Bloodsuckers bounce off me and even those zoomy telekinetic guys (they make you drop your guns!) are pretty ineffectual. Perhaps in response to this re-balancing of power, CoP throws tens of Stalkers at me at a time along with hordes of gun-toting (only in Stalker…) zombies. The first two thirds of Stalker are about forcing you to confront frightening, uncomfortable in-game situations, but those two thirds also carefully encourage players to explore and conquer. The final third is a long, hard slog: I’ll often enter an apartment complex or bunker and find the nearest closet or small room. Then I kill the nearest enemy, high-tail it to said closet, and slowly waste everything that pokes its head in the door. I’d rather not do this. CoP is best when I’m carefully bringing the fight to the enemy. In late-game CoP, there are so many enemies (and they cleverly sneak up from every direction) that open combat (or even sneaky combat) isn’t an option. It’s easier to sit in a hole and let my souped up auto-shotgun do the work for me.

Call of Pripyat has no cohesive endgame. Its main plot/mystery (why did a bunch of military helicopters crash in the zone?) is unexciting, and the endgame enemies aren’t as inventive or scary as the early bloodsuckers and snorks. Part of the problem lies in the city of Pripyat itself.  Most of the apartments and stores in Pripyat are massive, non-interactive boxes. It doesn’t feel like a city, it feels like a giant lego set, a cluster of nicely-textured rocks. Every once in a while (mostly when there’s a giant white circle on the PDA’s map), you can enter a building and kill its residents. Chances are, there will be 20 or so of them, an they’ll pour through the halls to get at you, walking into your steady, fully-upgraded fire. It’s boring, and it’s about as far from everything unique and interesting about Stalker as one can get.

This is mostly due to balancing issues. The enemies, missions, and anomalies in Pripyat are no match for a fully upgraded player (and it’s not that tough to get all of the upgrades). Still, the game also loses that signature menace and sense of isolation that make it so affecting during its first two thirds. If Call of Pripyat were to end as convincingly as it opened, it would have to introduce some actually mysterious, frightening new antagonists, and find a way to balance the combat so late-game battles weren’t giant shooting galleries. If Stalker 2 can manage this (and if it can create cities that aren’t full of our old enemies, the ever-locked doors), then it could surpass all of its predecessors.

Posted in Analysis, Post Game | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Updates: Everything’s Fine, Situation Normal

Posted by deckard47 on August 17, 2010

The Blacktooth Keep! SO SCARY.

The Blacktooth Keep! SO SCARY.

I’m fantastically busy, so I thought I’d touch on the various (exciting) things that I’ve been doing recently.

I’ve been playing a ton of fantasy-y, TBS games recently, like King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame – The Saxons (see, y’all this is why you don’t have a long silly name with a colon for your game), King’s Bounty: The Legend (again!), and Dawn of War 2. That last isn’t really a fantasy game, but A) it’s pretty damn close, and B) it’s a lot of fun. I’ve also been playing Risen (let’s pause as some of our regular readers make ugly faces and go somewhere else), and I just re-installed both Divinity 2: Ego Draconis (Aaaah!), and Stalker: Call of Pripyat.

So, really, there are just too many damn colons in videogame names. Returning to these games, I’m struck (sometimes for the first time, often for the somethingth time) by how all of them have interesting, different-feeling worlds and tones (aside from DoW 2, which couldn’t be more conventional if it had tried). Risen may be Fantasy, but it’s weirdly depressing, rainy jungle isle, pseudo Eropean Inquisition and horrible repression Fantasy, which appeals to me. It’s also as awful and difficult as it always was, which still appeals to me. Divinity 2 is not quite as bleak, but it’s Fantasy stuff is still pretty unique, if not (when examined alone) particularly memorable. The leveling system is a bunch of fun though, so I’ll wend my way back through it, if only to make annoying comments about it to Simon when I see him next.

Dawn of War 2 is only up on that list because I was driven to it by Starcraft 2 (more on that later). It’s less offensive narratively, and for all of the tricks up Blizzard’s sleeve gameplay-wise, Chaos Throne‘s loot and excellent squad play are the more exciting brand of RTS, for me. When’s the next one, Relic?!

Epic. But not an RTS.

Epic. But not an RTS.

King’s Bounty and King Arthur are both vibrant and, but Arthur really nails a kind of creepy, Old World-y approach to fantasy in the British Isles that games don’t give a shit about. I love deciding whether or not my king will spread Christianity or worship the old gods. In the Saxons it’s easier to go Christian, but in the original game paganism is by far the more amusing option. King’s Bounty is well known for its bright, exciting world (full of weird quests worded weirdly), but Arthur‘s England is about a million times more verdant and lush than the real thing (even it’s Winters and Autumns seem more full of life). Plus, you can recruit ogres!

I suspect I’m going to be writing a bunch about King Arthur and King’s Bounty. Both games I’ve played through, in another life, though I’m playing the Armored Princess expansion to KB, and The Saxons expansion to KA, so they’re new games, honest. I also suspect that this hypothetical article will be about games that mess up their play with story crap, and that it’ll be on Game Set Watch, so that’ll be exciting.

Speaking of which, I’ve a new column up at Game Set Watch, about Starcraft 2 and its wretched story (duh), and how it does more to mess with the surprisingly entertaining Single Player gameplay than you’d initially expect. An excerpt here, for consumption:

When I have to sit and watch my units talk, I accept that the single player portion of the game needs a reason, a purpose, for all of that toing and froing (more properly, gamers need these things). Likewise, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching quick mission briefings: I’m a commander, and commanders get briefed, or brief people, right? Starcraft 2 goes ahead and makes a significant portion of Wings of Liberty about upgrading a dude’s sweet ship, and about upgrading ingame assets using resources (rather incomprehensibly) earned from previous ingame missions.

Starcraft 2’s upgrade mechanics are mostly lifted from upgrades previously available ingame in Starcraft. If you want your marines to have stimpacks, or want to build medics without having to build a Barracks add-on, you must unlock those capabilities in the Armory. Percentage upgrades to damage and race-specific combat (damage to Zerg only, for instance) can be unlocked using research points collected in the field, and the lab lets players upgrade their forces using alien technology. It’s all here in the beautiful Hyperion, and it means that I’ve spent hours outside of the game proper fiddling with NPCs and upgrades.

Right. It’s pretty awful, and it makes the game bits worse, in a somewhat unavoidable way. The whole post, linked here.

Mafia 2… The music is all purty and old timey, the suits are so crisp, and the gunplay is a sight better than that which is provided us by Rockstar’s various megahits. The acting and writing (in the demo alone) are also better than GTA and RDR‘s affected junk.

That’s it. More on the Kings of fantasy strategy soon?

Posted in Impressions, Random | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Impressions: Starcraft 2 is a Great Starcraft Game and a Crappy Relic Game

Posted by deckard47 on July 27, 2010

Look, an UNCLEAN Planet!

Look, an UNCLEAN Planet!

Hey, it’s Starcraft 2! My brother and I went to a midnight opening last night (the whole affair was incredibly creepy, as one would expect things to be when one mixes Best Buy and the eager, bedraggled young Starcraft devotees of Connecticut), figuring we’d get it out of our system overnight, and be able to get back to work the next day. Of course, it’s 4pm here, and we’ve only now stopped playing. It’s basically the same game, but fancier (in many ways). I’m still awful at it, and the late game especially is opaque to me, as the super units are so rarely used that when I do buy one, I’m paralyzed by indecision. What is a giant walking robot good for? Apparently, dying in a hail of gunfire.

It looks very pretty, even close up. The single player storyline is massively stupid, just as you’d expect. Jim Raynor spends most of his screen time trying to decide whether to ape Mal, Han, or (awfully) Marcus Fenix. He’s not interesting or convincing, no matter which hat he’s wearing. That’s entirely irrelevant. Starcraft 2 is the same game as Starcraft in many ways, but it’s designed with more than one kind of gamer in mind, and it’s designed (often) with me in mind: I’m completely useless at remembering build tress, stats, potential build orders, and the best responses to sudden assaults.

In Starcraft, whenever I ventured online to stick my neck out for a stranger’s ax, the reasons for my inevitable loss were mostly opaque to me. Starcraft 2 takes everything about every match and makes it transparent and accessible (after the fact, via graphs and replay). I can watch every click, every decision my enemy made, and hopefully learn from them. The game’s still mind-bogglingly hard, for a gamer like me. I’m not smart enough, adaptable enough, and creative enough to win all but the most simple of skirmishes (with the least capable of opponents).

I got nothing

I got nothing

I do enjoy playing it, mostly because it’s pretty, the campaign and achievements are distracting, and it feels “new” again, something Starcraft hasn’t felt like in ages. The heart of the game, the multiplayer is still fast and fun and often impossible to follow. The only other RTS’s I’ll allow myself to play are those made by Relic. They’re more measured, meticulous affairs, for me, at least. Those games allow me to turtle a bit more, they allow me to build up my strength as I might in an RPG. It’s nice to come back to a game that is more about mastering an intricate set of tools, even if I’m incapable of mastering said tools.

There is, oddly, a bolted-on bit of a progression/upgrade mechanic in Starcraft 2. Raynor can visit his lab, armory, and bar (on-board his ship) and buy upgrades for his troops. These are mostly small things (increased health, say), but they’re also upgrades that used to be purchasable in the first game. Your marines won’t have stimpacks until you buy those stimpacks in the armory, for instance. This means that as you progress through the campaign, your armies gain in strength and breadth of ability. It also encourages retroactive mastery of particularly hard single player missions. If you can’t get all of the achievements for one mission, you can always go back when your medics are stronger, more powerful healers. It adds a little something to the straight-up Starcraft gameplay, but it feels a bit off. It’s as if different abilities and items could have been ingame, once-a-match upgrades, but were slotted into the meta/upgrade mechanic because it gave the game a more “full” or RPG-like feel. It’s much less enticing, much less immediately effective and exciting, than the progression mechanics available in Warcraft 3, Blizzard’s last RTS.

In Warcraft 3, items and skills leveled up over the course of each mission: items and skills were all optional; I upgraded what I could, what I wanted, but it felt like I was making interesting decisions for my character, making him or her change in exciting, powerful ways. Starcraft 2‘s upgrade mechanics just feels as if they were carted over from the single player campaign proper, refashioned to look like some kind of persistent mechanic, when they’re nothing of the sort. None of these abilities are game-changers: as I mentioned before, they’re the same powers you used to be able to upgrade at the machine shop. There aren’t any trees, paths, or upgrade decisions (you’ll never cut off one avenue of progression because you followed another, as far as I can tell). There’s no choice, no loss or equivalent gain, not yet. It’s almost entirely meaningless. It’s an excuse for Raynor to wander around talking to people (which might have been neat if they weren’t all boring and silly), and sway back and forth, idling in bars, on bridges, and in cargo bays.

Only space-pimps dress like this, have muscles like this, and sport ROCKING hair like this.

Only space-pimps dress like this, have muscles like this, and sport ROCKING hair like this.

Obviously Blizzard didn’t want to turn Starcraft 2 into an RPG. They’re taking Warcraft in that direction, and it’s an interesting direction, to be sure. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to make Starcraft the deep building/combat strategy game that it is. It’s just strange that they excised these bits and pieces of the game (for the single player campaign, that is) and tacked them back on in such an obviously, unfortunately ineffectual fashion. I still like leveling things up, but I can tell when I’m making choices and when I’m unlocking the next node on my “upgrade” tree, following the path laid out for me. This isn’t an RPG, it isn’t even whatever Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have become. It’s Starcraft mark 2. Were they worried that might not be enough? At least the menu, web/game interface, and learning tools attached to Starcraft 2 feel like organic extensions of the original game’s powerful interface and mod tools. They work, and they make the game immensely fun (much more fun than it would be if it were delivered by the bare-bones Starcraft menu and UI). I’m looking forward to the next two portions of Starcraft 2 (although I’m not happy about what a huge, obvious scam this all is… I just paid 60$ for 1/3 of a game), but sure as hell hope I’m not upgrading my Zerglings in the Spwaning Pool research bay, or buying new armor for my Zealots at the Sexy Protoss Night Club. That would be even sillier than Jim Raynor’s bulging muscles and Sexy, Sexy facial hair.

[PS: In Starcraft 2, the media is controlling things. It doesn’t want the public to know things! The douchey newscaster totally cuts off the reporter in the field who’s a real human being! I half expected The Voice of the Agency to appear and tell me that Bangers were headed my way. It’s incredibly juvenile. There aren’t any hawt chicks yet, but there have to be, right? Otherwise the game would implode.]

[PPS: Also, SWEET Soft Outer Space Rock is still the name of the game in the Starcraft 2 universe. That, along with the game’s constant cribbing from 80’s Sci Fi and action movies (along with the painfully uncreative theft of almost all of Firefly’s tone and setting) makes for a depressing, 80’s vibe that never lets. Really, they just needed Tom Cruise to star as Jim Raynor, and the effect would be complete.]

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Impressions: Alan Wake, Dearest of All My Friends?

Posted by deckard47 on June 10, 2010

Alan reads a page. He's the narrating and narrative subject!

Alan reads a page. He's the narrating and narrative subject!

A while ago, I wrote a little bit about why the Max Payne games were so great. Mostly, I talked about those games’ excellent, responsive controls, and the way both Paynes were fun, exciting games to play. Alan Wake certainly doesn’t look like Max Payne, and aside from a few slow motion flourishes, it doesn’t feel like it either. What it does share is the same penchant for not-quite-sensible grammar and tone. Instead of film noire, Remedy took inspiration from literary horror, specifically the (dubiously) famous works of the super-successful Stephen King. Remedy’s also wasted a lot of breath touting their love for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and other such weird, quirky treatments of small, mysterious towns.

I haven’t watched Twin Peaks (oh no he didn’t!), but after playing  Alan Wake, I can safely say that the game bears little resemblance to Stephen King and his work (aside from lifting the author’s favorite plot device, the horrifying living work of the author), or to the little I’ve seen of Lynch’s show. Alan Wake both isn’t trying hard enough to be weird, and trying much too hard.

Instead (of Lynch/King pretension), it feels like the logical extension of the reasoning behind Max Payne‘s tone and story: take what is most obviously iconic and supposedly resonant about a genre and pound those themes into the ground, through story, but also through gameplay. That’s why in Alan Wake, light kills enemies made up of shadows. Nothing is ever what it seems, except that the unexpected and unknown is the most obvious kind of unexpected and unknown. Thus, the absurd and horrific becomes normal and everyday, simply because these are the most banal kinds of “horrific” and “absurd” things. What’s so scary about the darkness in Bright Falls (hardly the game’s least subtle moment, that name)? Well, at night, things are dark, and people made of darkness try to kill Alan Wake (and the people he meets). That might sound bad, but it’s really the same aesthetic Remedy brought to bear on Noir for Payne. Remedy doesn’t do anything by half measures, it seems.

This town is so quirky, it feels almost... European. Not as European as Heavy Rain felt!

This town is so quirky, it feels almost... European. Not as European as Heavy Rain felt!

What the game does have (and this will come as no surprise to veterans of Payne 1 & 2) is a constant barrage of references to previous Remedy games and ideas. In a flashback, Alan is working on a manuscript for what is clearly a story about a Max Payne-type detective. The narration that accompanies each page is even told using Max’s distinctive monotone. In it, Max bemoans his reliance on pain pills, and explains his troubles using self-consciously purple, “noir” prose. It’s obvious that the team at Remedy have an ear for criticism directed at their own game, which means that their next game will include heavy-handed narrators, blazer-hoodie-wearing writers (really, it’s the most ludicrous getup), and Light and Darkness. That actually sounds hilarious and fun.

What also isn’t surprising is that regardless of how seriously Remedy takes Wake and the game that surrounds him, the Finnish team still knows its way around a video game combat system. Wake is easy enough to control, and like most heroes these days, he has a limited sprint to get him out of (or into) dangerous situations faster than would normally be possible. As Wake, I’ve fought shadowy axe men, and shadowy axe men. I’m sure slightly more varied enemies are on the way (larger axe men, perhaps?), but what concernes me about these sometimes-insubstantial enemies is how I fight them. All enemies in Alan Wake are spun out of a book written by Alan the author. Of course, it’s a book he never wrote, or rather a book he plans on writing, and yet he regularly finds pages from this nonexistent book, pages that either reveal key bits of backstory or presage coming scares and threats.

If all of Wake’s enemies (called the Taken) are mixtures of shadows and men (no axe women, just yet), then by Wake‘s logic, the only way to kill them is with light and steel. Thus, flashlights, flares, and conventional firearms become Wake’s only methods of fending off the shambling, shadowy masses. To this end, every enemy is initially wreathed in shadow. The only way to kill an enemy is to shoot him several times, but an enemy is invulnerable to bullets while cloaked in shadow. To remove shadows from an enemy, Wake has to keep his flashlight focused on his assailant for an extended period of time. That’s where the combat gets fun, and slightly fiddly.

Alan lights up some shadowy fools. Oh damn. Did you see what I did there?

Alan lights up some shadowy fools. Oh damn. Did you see what I did there?

It’d be easy to light up each enemy in turn, wearing away their shadowy defenses, if one was to fight uninterrupted. That’s why enemies come in packs of two or three (at least), and are constantly trying to remove Wake’s head from his neck. To dodge the swing of an axe or a thrown object (an attack that feels like it was smoothly lifted from Resident Evil 4), I need to tap the left bumper. That’s all there is to combat. Different weapons can mix things up a bit: shotguns have a shorter range but are more powerful, flares guns are basically rocket launchers (all Taken explode in a burst of light when near the flare’s point of impact), and lamps and streetlights act as pools of safety. Despite all of this, it’s the light/gun/dodge dynamic that ends up defining every confrontation. A well-placed flare or shotgun blast can quickly turn the tide of battle in Wake’s favor, but bungled dodges and clumsy use of batteries and the flashlight lead to quick death.

It wouldn’t be a Remedy game, of course, if the last enemy in every group didn’t die in a quick slow motion tumble. Likewise, a successful dodge will often play out in slow motion, allowing you to watch as a swung or flung axe sails by. It’s this extra kick, this little touch, that makes every combat encounter in Alan Wake feel exciting and wonderfully choreographed (even if it isn’t). That might seem to imply that the rest of combat is bad: it’s not. Combat is fluid, aiming is perfectly accurate, and Wake can do everything you need him to do to dance around your enemies and destroy them without taking a hit.

I’d also like to attempt to explain why the woods and mountains of Alan Wake are really excellent. Part of their appeal stems from their beauty. They’ve been carefully rendered, and some excellent sounds give voice to their mysterious depths. Even without the game’s shadowy enemies roaming the forests of Bright Falls, these woods feel threatening and exciting. You can see quite clearly through the night, which makes sudden fog-banks dangerous and frightening. When the wind kicks up and the silence of the forest disappears, it’s not just an annoying enemy spawn-indicator: it lets you know that nothing is right about this night or this forest. All of these elements blend together to make the forest bits of the game by turns peaceful and suddenly violent.

A forest scene. Things are creepy. They may even be atmospheric. Are they psychologically thrilling yet?

A forest scene. Things are creepy. They may even be atmospheric. Are they psychologically thrilling yet?

Just as carefully realized are the old and disused buildings of Bright Falls. The ghost town surrounding the mine, the hotels and logging cabins, all look as they should, in a campy, X-Files way. Likewise, Remedy’s (by now ubiquitous) penchant for unsubtle self-awareness is out in full force for the duration of Alan Wake. The Twilight Zone knockoff “Night Springs” once again appear to have been filmed using actors and models taken from the developer’s ranks, and these short “shows” (found on various TVs ingame) are both amusing commentaries on the genre’s (and the game’s) tropes, and a chance for Remedy to do what they do best: break up the action into little pieces, in obvious, incredibly frustrating ways.

Every time an enemy spawns into the forest, ruin, or dank cabin that contains Alan, some special sound effects play. Often, the camera pulls out to focus on them. When this happens, two things are certain. First, there are enemies in front of and behind Alan. Second, the best option is to circle strafe/retreat until you’ve used your light to disperse the creatures’ shadowy protection. This reveal takes all of the suspense and tension out of combat. Every once in awhile, I’ll miss the telltale signs of the Taken’s (what Alan calls them) arrival, and those moments are precious. Dodging an incoming ax swing because I heard the quiet sound of its flight is a wonderful feeling. The frustration (and momentary shock) I feel when I miss those warning sounds and signs is just as acute. It’s baffling and disappointing that Alan Wake sets up this dark, frightening atmosphere, and then does its best to ruin that atmosphere at every turn.

Of course, one could argue that Wake is an action game first, “psychological thriller” second (whatever the hell that means), and horror game third. As far as the game and the designers are concerned, that’s an accurate analysis. I understand that this is a game about weird, amusingly acted and written Euro-Americans and smooth shooter controls, just as much as it’s about running around in the dark being scared by things. I just wish that the game didn’t go out of its way to take the few scary sections it includes and completely undermine them. It’s hard enough getting into the game, what with Alan’s meandering, out-of-touch (he doesn’t appear to be reacting to anything in-game) narration. I don’t need these blatantly telegraphed “surprise” attacks thrown in to add insult to injury.

Alan prepares to have his palate cleansed. Ew.

Alan prepares to have his palate cleansed. Ew.

I like the combat, but I hate the way that it is integrated in to the story and the world. It certainly doesn’t make things better that the aforementioned TV shows (and occasional radio shows) break up the action in a stilted, mood-breaking way. It’s possible that these diversions are meant as palette-cleansers, but they come off (along with the other completely pointless, “game-y” collectibles) as artificial-feeling: instead of adding to the game’s atmosphere or sense of fun/tension, they seem to exist in their own narrative world, one the in-game cutscenes and action don’t give a shit about.

That’s not to suggest that I dislike the game’s most obvious, ostentatious throat-clearing, pallet-cleansing act: it’s TV episode-like outros. I like the music that plays during the end of each episode, and I really like the idea of chunks of play separated into narratively discrete “episodes.” After all, a lot of games already do this, they just separate these different plot zones using “hubs” or the amusingly pretentious “Acts.” Games (Deus Ex, Diablo 2, etc.) love to do this. It gives the play a sense of narrative (temporal and spatial) progression that the game probably doesn’t possess, honestly. Alan Wake, for all its narrative absurdity and heavy-handed writing, certainly has a narrative that goes from place to place and time to time. It has to, thanks to the action’s (near) ubiquitous night-time settings. There are times when the jumps made by the story (in between Chapters 1 and 2, specifically) don’t feel necessary or meaningful, but some of the chapter endings feel like perfect places to stop and take a break, musically, play-wise, and plot-wise (I’m thinking of how Nick Cave’s “Up Jumped the Devil caps off Episode 3). This is how you do an action full stop: do it when your character gets knocked out, underwater. Do not do it while he’s hiding inside a cabin, watching for scary shadow beasts.

I like Alan Wake, but I’m aware that it isn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be, and I certainly don’t think it’s as good as Max Payne 2. Unlike Payne 2, it’s not honest with itself, or with us players. It constantly undercuts itself, downgrading its successes and triumphs into failures and annoyances. I hope it sells well, because I like a lot of Remedy’s quirks and self-referential proclivities (I was quite amused to hear James McCaffrey, who voiced Max Payne, narrating Alan’s “film noir” book pages, and I still think Remedy does shooting and dodging better than just about every other developer out there). They’re willing to mock themselves, to mock the things most game studios take as deadly serious (how many developers spend much of one game mercilessly mocking their last game?). So, here’s to Alan Wake, a game that obviously had its troubles and still has many of them. It’s not the dearest of all my friends I’d hoped it would be (and that particular friend is in the hands of a group of people I have no love or trust for), but maybe it’ll let Remedy go on and make a really great game. I’d even take a second Alan Wake, if they mixed up their formula a lot. Adios, Alan, and good luck Remedy.

Alan fights a possessed train or something else no one cares about. Even Alan doesn't care.

Alan fights a possessed train or something else no one cares about. Even Alan doesn't care.

[PS: Those stupid fucking animated farm implements can die in a fire. There is nothing scary about every single damn thing in the world “animating” and flying at Alan. It looks silly, it’s broken (just hide behind a lamp post and Shine the things into oblivion), and it sure as hell isn’t fun. Never take your cues from Stephen King. He’s the reason Super Scary Native American burial grounds are in every damn thing. Think about that.]

[PPS: GiantBomb has nice screen shots. No one else uses screens in their articles (except Eurogamer?). Also, you should all thank Ashelia for this post getting written. I was planning on not writing/forgetting about it in favor of other posts. Unless you hate this post, in which case it’s totally not my fault.]

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Impressions: Red Dead Redemption

Posted by deckard47 on May 20, 2010

Red Dead Redemption

Well, this is a fairly straightforward post, obviously. I bought two games. I’ll talk about Read Dead Redemption first, just because.

I’ve been getting more and more annoyed by all of the reviews talking about “what Rockstar’s done,” and this new “Rockstar developed game.” There’s no doubt in my mind that the corporate overlords in New York came in at various points and game this game the flavor and airs that come with a Rockstar Title. That’s what they do. It makes them oodles of money, thanks to all of those funny, funny jokes (that’s a link to the “Dastardly” achievement, which players get for tying a woman up and leaving her in front of a train).

This is also a Rockstar San Diego game. They are their own development team, and however awful and constricted their workplace has been, they did their own work and made their own game. These are the people who, a long time ago, made the Midtown Madness games (on PC, before the series went to shit on the Hexbox). That’s actually really weird. Anyway.

RDR is obviously a “Rockstar Game.” It’s also obviously a game made by a team that knows a thing or two more than the GTA IV team. The shooting isn’t crap. The cover isn’t crap. The horses handle better than the cars ever did. You can save anywhere, mostly! Marston doesn’t handle like a bathtub on centuries-old wheels. No one’s talked to me about Teeties! Really, it’s a bright new world, and I kind of dig it.

It’s a slow, ponderous open world, and it feels just right. I don’t want to jet around like Rico or Alec Mason. I don’t want to insta-travel, or at least not often. More than Just Cause 2, even, this is a world I like wandering around. Even when I don’t find wildlife to hunt or instanced quests or bandits, the world is beautiful and character-ful enough that I’m not yet bored with it. I’m pleased with the game’s economy so far: ammo and money are everywhere (bandits, mostly), but so far, prices are high enough that I never have more than a few dollars on me after a trip to town.

Fighting, hunting, and running away from wildlife is more fun than I thought it would be. They’re hard to shoot, and they drop valuable pelts and skins. Combat is a measured, solid affair: it takes a while to properly kill or contain each batch of desperadoes, and reloading, Dead Eye (bullet time), and corpse looting all slow down combat. Combat encounters are either concluded instantly (thanks to perfect Dead Eye use) or slowly. The latter occurred when I chased down a group of bandits in a long canyon. It took about half an hour, but it felt like just the right amount of time for such a mission. I haven’t died yet in combat, so I don’t know if GTA IV‘s hideously spaced checkpoints have made a return. Honestly, the combat is easy enough (and fun enough) that I might not mind.

That’s the good stuff.

What’s not so great? The cutscenes and expository sections do the game, its story, and its writing a great disservice. Don’t get me wrong: the writing isn’t brilliant. The dialog and acting do, however, set an appropriate mood, and I haven’t encountered too many cringe-worthy story turns yet. It’s a serviceable Western, a story of loyalty, old and new friendships, and journeys home. I like Bonnie McFarlane, Armadillo’s Sheriff is entertaining enough, and John Marston is gruff, if bland. The problem arises in the absolutely interminable cutscenes and driving sequences. Cutscenes in this game last anywhere from 2 minutes to 10 minutes. Some are entertaining, some are boring, but all of them are too long. The periods where I sit, watching cowboys talk, never seem to end. This isn’t how you engage players: don’t take away my ability to do things for minutes and minutes on end.

The long horseback conversations (identical to the long car trip conversations en route to missions in GTA IV) are almost as bad. They’re glorified cutscenes. Marston and his chosen companion talk about the job ahead, their lives, or how they know each other. Luckily, if you ever have to repeat a mission, the dialogue will change. It makes a boring, frequent process slightly less boring. It never excuses these long, protracted sequences. I’d rather watch a cutscene, if I’m just going to be riding along a set path anyway.

So, it’s quite fun, if a little longwinded at (all) times. It’s also beautiful (really, the draw distance, level of detail, and quality of animation are all excellent) and wonderfully scored. The core and sound effects are great, with bullets, animals, and everyday sounds coming out just right, while the music feels just as whimsical, lonesome, and Morricone-like as one could hope for.

Alan Wake is (pretty obviously) an entirely different beast, but I’ll get to that in the next post

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Max Payne 2 and the Secret of the Well-Designed Controls

Posted by deckard47 on May 11, 2010

Bullet Kiss!

Bullet Kiss!

I’m quite looking forward to Remedy’s Alan Wake. I know that it’s supposed to be “overly linear,” that the facial animations don’t look great (they’re thinking of fixing that with DLC, oddly), there are “bad world textures” during the daytime (is that something that keeps you up at night after you beat the game? Really?), and it’s kind of the same thing over and over. I also know that the combat is supposed to be good, and fun, the game is supposed to be beautiful and atmospheric, and the voicework and writing range from good/hilarious to awful/hilarious. So it’s a step up from the Max Payne games then.

Max Payne and Max Payne 2 are, from a mechanics and rules standpoint, quite similar. Max Payne is a close-perspective third person shooter in which the player shoots hundreds of New York thugs, crooked cops, and other criminals using an outlandish collection of guns and a slow motion combat mechanic borrowed from The Matrix (and Max Payne did it first, amazingly). Honestly, that only communicates a portion of what makes Max Payne (and for me, its superior sequel) so much fun. The Max Payne games are, simply put, more fun and easy to control than a significant portion of every other single game ever released. I think it’s awesome that Remedy are doing what they’re doing, showing up huge developers (or smaller arms of huge developers) with their fun. “small,” and (god forbid) short games.

Max Payne 2 is Max Payne with some of the tedious stuff excised, and some less tedious stuff put in its place. In Max Payne there was the (hilariously, probably unintentionally vaginally referential) “V,” a designer drug that tore up Manhattan, and out hero’s life. In Max Payne 2, the silly dialogue and less silly dream sequences associated with V have been replaced by straight-up dreams and nightmares, all playable. They’re now long, weird-looking levels, with a bunch of vaseline smudges over the screen (and, often, screams and murmurs from the actress playing Mona Sax). That’ll do.

That’s it really. A few changes have been made to the bullet time mechanic, Max looks a bit older, and the cutscenes are now a little more “water color” looking. What matters – the guns, the combat, and the controls – are just the same: almost perfect.

Bullet Crouch!

Bullet Crouch!

Playing Max Payne, I’m reminded that when developers want to, they can create games, control schemes, and engines that respond with fluidity and rapidity to my every input. When I tell Max to dodge right while looking left, he’ll do so with alacrity. I can shoot just about anything I want, as long as I account for different levels of gun accuracy, distance, and intervening objects. The game’s limited jump is good for surmounting small obstacles and crossing short gaps: there are never anything but small obstacles and short gaps in Max Payne 2. How novel.

If I fail, or die, or take too much damage, it’s never because I had a time of it fighting the wretched controls. It’s always because I wasn’t quick enough on the draw, because I mistimed that bullet-dive, because I dropped that grenade this side of that explosive box, and not on the other side. It’s because I failed a test of skill against the game’s inhabitants and combat arenas, not the game’s controls. When was the last time I could say that about a game? Certainly, this can be attributed (somewhat) to the game’s terribly simple controls. There’s no such thing as cover here, or walking, or sprinting. I can’t move while crouched; instead, moving just forces me to stand. I can move, I can enter into super slow motion firing mode, and I can bullet dive.

None of these mechanics are fiddly, or hard to activate. None of them are withheld from me (for long, in the case of bullet time). Ammo is plentiful, if you’re a good shot. Enemies are plentiful, bot not too plentiful. The environments are well-designed: each one is a bit different than the last. Sometimes I have the high ground. Sometimes three snipers will get the drop on my instantly. Sometimes the best move is to whip out my MAC-10s and slow-mo into a room and shoot every last one of those assholes. It’s simple, incredibly fun, and, dare I say it, quite elegant.

Each kill incrementally slows down time (in the sepia-toned bullet time), enemies, and the sounds they make. After three kills, I’m in The Zone (what else could I call it, in a game starring Russian criminals?). I’m still moving, shooting, and aiming at maximum speed, and my enemies move like they’re running along the bottom of a pool, they’re gestures and motions comically slow. It’s at this point that I get cocky: I’ll waste my bullets on a corpse, to watch it fly a bit farther. I’ll pick the wrong target, leaving myself open to deadly attacks. Sometimes I just plain miss, leading to damage and death, if I’m not careful. This is where the real fun of Max Payne 2 comes into play. Time to hit that reload button. In Max Payne 2, the Quicksave is your first line of defense. Use it ever other 10 seconds, when not in combat. As soon as I die, I reload. Then I sit and think awhile.

Bullet Dodge!

Bullet Dodge!

Enemies in Max Payne 2 always spawn in the same place. Always. Once I alert them, they’ll always attack me in the same way, unless I change things up a bit. If I bust down the door and start firing off shotgun rounds every time, they’ll all dodge, find cover, or shoot at me, endlessly repeating one set of responses. It’s up to me to change the narrative of each combat encounter.

Once you realize that this is how Max Payne 2 works, you’ll start playing differently: I know I did. Every combat encounter become a playground of death and lead, open to my tinkering. Maybe this time I’ll throw a grenade through the door, snipe the first guard who shows his head, and dive through the rebounding door just after the blast. Or not. Maybe I’ll miss that shot, or the grenade will bounce off the door, or the door will burst open, knocking me back. Once I get a handle on that first encounter, I can control the situation. It’s up to me to do it badly, or execute my plan to perfection (even if it’s a bad plan).

It’s no surprise to me that one popular mod (“Battle Tactics 2.0,” I believe) for Max Payne played out like a third person, slow motion version of Frozen Synapse or X-COM. A turn based mod, players had a turn to move and shoot, and following that the AI would take their turn. Max Payne 2 is best played with an eye for moment-to-moment tactics and the smart allocation of resources. Like it’s successors (the FEAR games), it gives players powerful, simple, and exciting tools with which to alter its world. They’re not much to look at, but the Baretta and the Bullet-Dodge are a lot more fun than a lot of the bullshit thrown around in recent games.

From Divinity 2 (which I do have quite a soft spot for) to Dead to Rights: Retribution (a truly hideous game), games seem content to make usability and simplicity of control last on their list of things that should actually make it into in the game. These (and many other) games aren’t great, but I honestly couldn’t care less how good they are if their controls are pure shit. I don’t quit games: I play them until I’m satisfied that I’ve sussed out what fun there is to be had in them. The one thing that will cause me to hate every second of a game is that game’s inability to make interacting with its world fun and easy. Dead to Rights‘ control scheme is infuriatingly implemented: buttons aren’t reconfigurable (and whoever configured them doesn’t possess human hands), the gunfights are slight, boring things (the feedback for landed shots is bad), and the hand-to-hand combat is difficult to get a handle on. Even when you “master” it, the PC’s inability to flow from one target to another ( I miss you Batman: AA and Among Thieves) is incredibly frustrating, and his inability to perform more than the simplest combos (thanks to constant melee/ranged attacks) is even less amusing.

Max Payne 2 is fun. The story is silly, the acting is mostly bad, and the writing is ludicrous (but wonderful, in its peculiar way, I’d argue). It’s fun though. As a gameplay experience, it’s the easiest, smoothest thing I’ve come across that isn’t 10 years old and played out in two dimensions. The camera never once failed me. The game’s animations and weapons never once foiled my plans. It’s as if someone made a game that was meant to make my play experience fun, easy, and (to a gamer) highly intuitive. It even beats out Batman and Among Thieves, just because it’s a bit simpler; I’m, less likely to accidentally take cover or throw a stupid batarang in Max Payne 2. Why is this a rare set of qualities in a game?

Posted in Oldies But Goodies, Thoughts! | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Articles: A Rules of the Game Roundup!

Posted by deckard47 on May 7, 2010

Before I get down to business, I wanted to make a quick note of something I’ll (hopefully) be writing about soon: tragically irony-free, unselfconscious use of retro-chic/”art deco” styles in games to fill in gaping world holes and failings. I’m looking at the Bioshock series and Fallout 3 here. Mostly Bioshock 2 and Fallout 3, but Bioshock muscles it’s way onto the list, somehow. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, since I just beat Bioshock 2, and I’m playing Fallout and Fallout 3 simultaneously (all for Popmatters, actually). Anyway, it’s just impossible to escape the sense that these stylings are approaching unpleasant, completely meaningless levels of recursive, unselfconscious self-referencing and cultural “meaning.” But that’s for another post.

For now, I bring you a trifecta (yes!) of pieces from Rules of the Game. First, there’s Simon’s Section 8 (PS3) review. He feels much the same as I felt about it, especially that awful, nonexistent shooting/feedback issue. Check it out:

Unfortunately, one vital aspect of feedback is lacking from Section 8: the joy of the kill. You don’t notice how important this is in a space marine game until it’s taken away from you: the death scream of a UNSC Spartan flying through the air after getting stuck with a plasma grenade. In Section 8, enemies simply crumple to the ground when they die. Many times, I didn’t even know that I’d scored a kill, or how I’d done it, until I looked at the kill list. This is coupled t0 somewhat vague feedback from gunfire. With weapons that fire slowly, it’s easy to tell whether you’ve scored a hit or not: a significant amount of enemy health decreases, and you’ll notice a tiny radiating color coming off your targeting reticle. But in the case of rapid-firing weapons it can get aggravatingly tough to figure out how many of your shots are making contact.

Absolutely spot-on. Read the rest here, at RotG.

Next, we have Mariam Asad’s excellent piece on Heavy Rain, its camera, and the player. Here’s a bit to entice you:

My reading of the effect of camera angles is grounded in apparatus theory, specifically Jean-Louis Baudry’s essay “The Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus.” Baudry argues that the cinema embeds meaning through the camera’s very method of representation. It transforms discrete images (frames) into movement and continuity; the viewer forgets that the apparatus is present. By contrast, the camera in Heavy Rain is jarring and disruptive, which is especially evident through the use of quick cuts during fight sequences. While this is a standard cinematic technique, Heavy Rain takes this to another level by dedicating the L1 button almost entirely to changing the camera angle. This speaks to the significance of camera angles in the narrative design of Heavy Rain, not only as a heavy cinematic influence, but also to the way in which it impacts agency.

There’s a lot of stuff to be said and read about Heavy Rain, but this is definitely one of the more interesting ones. Here’s the link to the full article.

Finally, here’s my review of Zombie Driver. It’s not bad, though I neglect to mention the game’s interesting quest/regard/time passage mechanic, which is quite similar to that used in Dead Rising. It’s basically GTA 2 with hostile zombie hordes, and it’s way more fun than it has any right to be. Plus, those timed quests really are interesting. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many ways to wreak havoc: hit the turbo button, then throw your car into a power slide, and watch it cut a perfect arc of bloody death through the already dead. Maybe guns are too ostentatious; maybe you’d rather drive as close as possible to the exploding zombies. As you drive by each one, they’ll go off, destroying all zombies nearby, possibly setting off a chain reaction with other exploders. Exor Studios made sure each of these possibilities is as visually violent and tactile as possible. Different zombies make different noises when they attack you and when you run them over. Each gun has a distinctive sound and look, and (of course!) each weapon kills zombies in a childishly pleasing and different way.

So yeah. Go read it, maybe? Here!

Finally, in non-RotG article related news, I’ve a Metro 2033-centric piece up at Game Set Watch. It focuses on the things I wish Metro 2033 had really been about (something I touched on in my review). Here’s a bit of it:

In a game that looks like a scary corridor shooter,  a game whose most common enemies are hard to kill and take an inordinate number of bullets to fell, scavenge-centric survival horror gameplay can be incredibly frustrating. Of course, this scarcity of resources, when combined with an almost overpowering enemy force, creates a powerful atmosphere of danger. Yet Metro 2033 isn’t just content to communicate the horrible conditions everyone in Moscow lives in. They do one better and make combat in the game a pretty horrible experience.

Here’s the rest of it!

That’s it. I apologize for this giant link-dump/article roundup. It’s a bit lazy, but since I’ve been writing so much for these places, I haven’t had time to throw something up on the blog, which seemed unfair. So there they all are, the fruits of my and my comrades’ toil. Until later.

Posted in Analysis, Articles, Reviews | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

News: Rules of the Game Opens!

Posted by deckard47 on April 20, 2010

This is not us!

So, the super secret thing I was telling you about is this: Rules of the Game.

It’s a new site whose direction and design were conceived by SimonFerrari, a site which mixes critical games writing, commercial reviews, and academic games-centric writing and theory. Bobby Schweizer, Mariam Asad, Tom Gibes, Ben Medler, and (bien sur) Simon make up our academic writing crew. Ryan Theodores is our Events specialist, and myself and Andrew Smale make up the critical writing crew (though that list is bound to expand). In fact, you should head over to our Writers page and just look everyone up, because everyone who writes for or on Rules of the Game is awesome.

It’s an exciting new thing, and I think I’ll let Simon speak for me here (on what the site is about):

RULES OF THE GAME is a collaborative effort between game studies academics and game critics dedicated to an understanding that the expressive power of games comes directly from their rules and how players interact with those rules. The academics on our team are graduate students in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Digital Media program, established upon the idea that in order to criticize one must know how to design. Our critics come from a wider range of backgrounds and focuses—from narrative design, to cultural studies, to genre studies, to photography, to game history, and on and on.

I’m terribly excited about this. I’m excited to be working with some really awesome people, and I think it’s going to be a place where I can write really fun and interesting stuff, something I enjoy doing, despite appearances. I’m even more excited to see how all of the different pieces shape the site as we move forward. I can only imagine what interesting, fun things we’re going to explore. There’s already some cool stuff up on the site. Ryan talks about Fathom and Queens, while Simon has two pieces up, one is his critique/pseudo-defense of Final Fantasy XIII, and the other is his analysis of Orbient‘s art style. Finally, I have a somewhat positive review of Metro 2033 up. It’s a tasty set of articles, if I do say so myself, and there will be more and more soon enough.

That’s it, really. I’ll probably post regular, weekly updates (here) listing cool stuff from Rules of the Game, for those who may be interested. I’ll close by parroting Simon a bit: this site is going to eschew as many bad habits and preconceptions as possible (or as we are comfortable with). We’re open to reviewing and analyzing video games, board games, card games, board games, or any other kind of game you can throw at us. We’ll cover whatever it is, and we’ll cover the hell out of it (in a totally clever way), or as Simon puts it “you can be assured that we will always respect your efforts.” Until later.

Posted in Articles, News | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

News/Articles: GSW and a MYSTERIOUS SECRET

Posted by deckard47 on April 19, 2010

This shit is mysterious

There is in fact a new GSW piece up (by me!). It’s all about Red Faction: Guerrilla and Die Hard. If you’ve read “Naktomi Space,” you know where this is going. If you haven’t, then you totally should. Read it that is. Here’s a bit from the GSW column:

Games that create interesting, properly interactive worlds are special. Games don’t even have to be incredibly “interactive” to convince gamers that this world is exactly the kind of world that the player’s avatar would move through, in this kind of story and this kind of game.

Many is the game that forgets this rule and takes one kind of story and world and plugs the worst possibly matched gameplay and interface into that world. I loveMass Effect 2, and I like the direction Bioware is taking their third person shooting, but the world Commander Sheppard moves through isn’t an epic, highly fluctuating one (as the world of Sheppard’s words and deeds certainly is). Instead, ME 2’s world is dead, a beautiful clutch of austere worlds and rooms, each less believable than the last.

I hope that was exciting for you as it was for me. I rather like this one, because it’s about RF: G and Die Hard, but I also like it because it’s not complete shit. So that’s a recommendation, of a sort.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is the secret! It’s really exciting. It has to do with Simon Ferrari, he of the improbably porn-like (I bet he loves it when people point this out to him) name, among others. It’s going to redefine the way you think about life. Or it might just make you think about what it means for a person like me to say that something will “redefine the way that you think about life.” In other words it might annoy you because of how awesome it will be. Either way, I’ll be writing more about it soon.

That’s it. I’m playing X-COM: UFO Defense and Zombie Driver. Right now. One is fast and fun, but it makes me cry because of how bright and busy it is. The other is fun, but it’s so difficult and obtuse in places, it makes me mildly frustrated. That just means I want to play it more though, so “frustrated” is not by any means an attack on the game’s good name. I bet I’ll be writing about one or both of them soon. So, this post has mostly been a post about what I’m promising I’ll do soon. Now I know why you all come here. It’s for the cold, hard, facts, and viciously clever criticism I bust out every day. Thanks.

[PS: The photo there at the top is there because it’s the coolest thing that shows up in Google when you search for “mysterious.” It also has Gabrielle Anwar, Patrick Stewart, and Vinnie Jones, and giant poulpes. Plus, Stewart plays Captain Nemo, which is 100 times as badass as anything else, ever]

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Impressions: Just Cause 2 and the Unserious Game

Posted by deckard47 on April 12, 2010

My name is Bolo Santosi…

It’s not actually, which is good for you, otherwise you’d have to listen to me discuss island revolutions using an alarming number of double entendres and nonsensically sexual language.

Just Cause 2 is what I thought everyone in this industry had been waiting for. It’s a fleeter, less self-serious open world game than Red Faction: Guerrilla, and it’s more exuberantly destructive, beautiful, and full of possibilities than every other open-world game (though RF:G beats JC2 out in terms of destructibility). This isn’t to say that Guerrilla (or any game) should be free from critique as regards its failings and narrative aspirations. Guerrilla obviously drew heavily from two narratives (the general American discourse surrounding insurgency, and the Mars of the Red Mars books) to build its own sub-par story. It should not be forgotten that it took these two complicated topics and ran roughshod over them, destroying most nuance and meaning in the process. This is not what happened in Just Cause 2, mostly because Just Cause 2 doesn’t give a shit about anything, unless it’s exploding in mid-air.

People keep on asking when we’ll get our B game, a game that competently entertains you but self-consciously provides you with a hilarious, wretched story. This is such a game. In reviews, I keep on reading about how the game’s story is nothing to write home about, how the voice acting is terrible and the plot is utterly nonsensical. People love the game (even if it gets a little old after a while), but they can’t help but put on their story-critic hats and look askance at Rico and his husky, cackling cohorts.

I cannot understand how these reviewers and writers could call for a good game that knowingly flaunts and plays with narrative genre (action adventure in this case) conventions and then reject those aspects of Just Cause 2. This is the same industry that tolerates God of War‘s offensive lack of humor, its lack of self-awareness and irony. Like all games, God of War is unable to escape from the vicious cycle of self-reference and intra-industry “inspiration” that plagues all games. It can’t see its way toward interesting, out-of-the-way inspirations beyond  action games, 300, and simplistic Disney treatments of different cultures’ tales and traditions (though I’d totally play a Hercules game made by a good game company).

In a world where Kratos (and his hilariously stupid whitewashing of “Greece”) can be taken at all seriously, how can a character and world so obviously, knowingly, and winkingly stolen from 80’s action movies be seen as an attempt at gravity and “deep” meaning?  This isn’t Bad Company 2, which suggests that you take its tired narrative at all seriously just as you laugh at its levity and insincerity. It’s also not Modern Warfare 2, a game obsessed with its own insipid narrative and grandiose take on serious issues.

I’ve no doubt that Just Cause 2 could have concerned itself with neo-colonialism and imperialism as practiced by the United States government and the CIA in numerous countries around the world. There’s a lot of history, and a lot of fiction surrounding the actual and conceptual meeting point between oppressed peoples, oppressive governments, and destructive US meddling and US-funded violence. It didn’t it doesn’t even try to do this. As Trent Polack pointed out (on Twitter!), one bit of dialogue from Bolo Santosi reads like this: “Now you have the limo, Scorpion. That symbol of Western degeneration. Pick up the whore, Miss Stacey.” Avalanche Studios couldn’t care less about “Western degeneration” (and really, what exactly the hell does she mean? Is she talking about the gross consumption endorsed and required by American Capitalism? Who knows!?), they care about throwing as many ludicrous clichés, horrible accents, offensive caricatures (though the game apparently has only a vague understanding of what country or culture it’s mocking/representing…), and B-movie references as they can into one game.

Movies that are “so bad they’re good,” or movies that competently and entertainingly present stupid or tired plots are quite popular. People seem to want the same thing in games, but they also want readers, writers, and gamers to take games more seriously. We’re tired of listening to that kind of person, who keeps on saying that “it’s just a game.” Let me fill you in on a secret: we can do both! It’s possible, when one is both mature and intelligent (and is possessed of a strong sense of the ironic, of humor), to appreciate games that are serious and well-intentioned, and games that do their best to be ironic and knowingly campy. We might want to try not confusing the one for the other, or at least admitting that one does not have to be the other, if we’re going to hold ourselves to such “high” standards. That’s part of the problem with Guerrilla. It doesn’t know how to leverage its potent literary and real-world inspirations, but it’s also much too serious and vapidly preachy to infuse its fiction with a healthy, necessary sense of irony. I mean, you’re a bald space dude who breaks things, has no personality, and is part of a “people’s” revolution. If you can’t make that story resonate (even if you do so by accident, possibly unintentionally, as Simon explains here in his “Proceduralizing Terror” piece), then you have to turn it into satire or knowing, winking (often annoyingly) smirking “commentary” on the story you are in the process of telling (see Rockstar’s misplaced, badly performed attempts at “satire” for a great example of this).

That’s what Just Cause 2 is. Everything, from Rico’s outrageous voice (everyone’s voice, really) to Rico’s methods of island “liberation” (destroying everything “owned” by the government, including water towers), is Avalanche Studios flippantly, uncaringly leveraging our shared memory of various kinds of violence and oppression in countries around the world. Of course, they’re making a game about a thing that actually (in whatever modulated sense) happens, so the text of Just cause 2 isn’t impervious to helpful, insightful readings. It’s telling that Rico frees the people of Panau by destroying everything around them, that he works with dangerous people whose good intentions (toward Panau) are dubious at best, and that no one asks him for this “help.” Again, to say this would be to give these characters some kind of depth or moral agency: they have none, every single one is a cardboard cutout of a 2-dimensional character, every one is as flat and boring as possible. This is a game that ends with Rico and his buddy partying with some ladies as the nukes (that Rico stopped from hitting Japan, Russia, America, and China) explode in the ocean near Panau. Rico then makes a joke about barbecue, or something… It’s a deeply stupid, outrageous ending to an equally stupid story.

Again, I’m not excusing how dumb this story is. I’m simply saying that to critique the game for not being serious is one (legitimate) thing. Critiquing it for that same crime and claiming that it was trying to be serious is a massive error on the part of any writer. That’s not what this game is trying to do: don’t attack a game based on sins it hasn’t committed. Just Cause 2 is so cheekily, joyously nonchalant in its trivialization of so many things, it’s a shame so many people are unhappy with its “failure” to tell a good story. It’s a very fun game marred by some very bad balance and design decisions (mostly focused in the “why won’t you let me have some damn fun” area), and deliberately tells an incoherent, willfully ignorant tale of US-funded terrorism. Let’s not treat it like something it isn’t, and forget that “deliberately” in that last sentence.

[PS: The real crime here is that there are no pictures of Bolo Santosi up on the internet. What the hell internet?]

Posted in Impressions, Reviewing Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »