I’d thought that Among Thieves would be here, at the top. This is the last of these year in review thingies, because I can’t think of anything I liked more than Left 4 Dead 2. Yes, when Among Thieves was on its way (and while playing it), I thought that I wouldn’t play a better game this year. I still love Among Thieves, and maybe it will get its own post, as a consolation prize (a runner-up spot, maybe), but for now, it’s time to talk about L4D2.
Archive for January, 2010
Posted by deckard47 on January 26, 2010
Posted by deckard47 on January 24, 2010
Divinity 2: Ego Draconis is a video game about dragons, knights, and goblins. It’s like Drakan, but better. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs from my Divinity 2 review. It’s a fun, exciting, rather different game, and I quite liked it. Read this bit here, and if you want:
Divinity 2: Ego Draconis is a bit of a monstrous game, like the dragons that supposedly burst from its world. A third person European RPG, it is like its recent comrade, Risen, in derivation alone. While every second in Risen is a dark, dangerous, desperate fight for survival, Divinity 2 is a long hard slog, for the most part. Surprisingly, it feels quite unique in most ways. It takes familiar settings, plots, characters, and gameplay and turns them just a bit, so that you can see a different side of everything. Similarly, the developers at Larian have managed to twist all of these tired fantasy and gameplay tropes to their own will, making for a game just different enough to stand out from the rest.
Larian has quite a history on the PC. Their breakout title, Divine Divinity, was a game that most took for anotherDiablo clone. It was, in fact, much more akin to one of the more complicated Ultima games, and featured strange, troubling, and sometimes brilliant design decisions and idiosyncrasies. While the game’s sequel, called Beyond Divinity, was less popular, both games shared the same peculiar sense of humor and an interesting view on what was “good” gameplay. These were the kind of games that featured surprisingly intelligent writing, a healthy dose of irony, and incredibly detailed and interactive environments.
Divinity 2, then, looks like somewhat of a departure for the studio behind such quirky, anything-but-mainstream entertainment. While it might seem like just another Tolkien-aping third person fantasy epic from a distance, taken as a whole it is an interesting and surprising game. Divinity 2 takes place in a land where Dragons, Dragon Knights, and Dragon once battled each other for supremacy. Now there is but one Dragon Knight remaining, and you, as a newly minted Dragon Slayer, must destroy that Knight.
Posted by deckard47 on January 20, 2010
As if you didn’t know. You had better know. Really, if you don’t know, you might want to mosey on out of here. Head over to Simon’s blog, he might take your kind over there, what with loose standards and his ludic bent. Bah!
Here we have an interview with Hale (at Destructoid, strangely), in which she is funny and smart, and says things about acting in games that we all wish more people knew. It’s a cool interview, so I’ve linked to it, in my generosity, right here. Just to give you an idea of what’s being discussed, here are a few excerpts. The first is Hale explaining how she gets all of her characters to sound different from each other, and the second is her discussing working on Metal Gear Solid 4. Enjoy (or else)!
It’s nice that that has gotten across. It’s specificity. It’s all about specificity. If you’re general in your approach to playing characters, and you’re playing “a commander,” frankly that’s uninteresting. I think you’re cheating [the people] who play the games or the audiences who watch or listen. I think it’s lame. I don’t think it’s doing your job.
I think you have to be incredibly specific about who this person is, why they say what they say, why they say it how they say it, and what they want. When you get into those specifics, the writing will take care of you.
And here’s the second bit:
I did have the good fortune on Metal Gear [Solid] 4. We were brought in together. Dave [Hayter] and I worked together a lot; we had known each other for a long time…over ten years. So, it was fun working together on that. And Christopher [Randolph] and a couple of other groups of us got to work together on that in the same room at the same time, which was awesome.
Reading this, you realize A) how much Jennifer Hale rocks, and B) how great the characters in games could be if companies had both the will (apparently quite lacking, from the way companies write their characters) and the money (obviously an issue) to get actors and writers and directors together and make awesome stuff. And I still have to wait a week for Mass Effect 2!
[PS: That’s Torry Shepard up there, about to make her Paragonly way to the end of the game. She’ll be my first character in ME 2.]
Posted by deckard47 on January 20, 2010
I’m pretty wretched at RTS’s. I don’t say this out of some kind of misguided attempt to curry favor or make myself look different in some way (I’m sure lots of people are bad at these games). I don’t have the kind of mind that can properly analyze and respond to complicated moment-to-moment tactical developments, or one that can remember what to build fastest, first. Sure, I have a fuzzy idea of what does well, but playing against a human (or a computer above Easy) I’m weak and easily destroyed.
A few years ago I welcomed (a step above my normal “tolerate” policy for RTS’s) Relic’s Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War. It was like a mix of an FPS control zone capture-based mode and a cool, almost squad-based RTS. I was still bad at it, but it was tons of fun. I avoided the sequel for two reasons: at the time, my computer whimpered at the site of the game’s menu, and I figured I’d explored everything Relic had to say about that world.
I was, luckily, wrong. Not only had Relic plugged an amusingly simple (yet enjoyable) narrative full of ridiculous growly men into their world, they’d done it while pretending to be making the sequel to Dawn of War, while they were really working on the continuation of Company of Heroes, Relic’s awesome WW2 RTS (which would be on this list if it hadn’t come out prior to 2009).
It seems like a lot of people compare DoW II to Diablo. I suppose they aren’t far off, in some ways. The maps do all resemble dungeons (in their similar structure and makeup), there is a lot of loot, and there are mobs, boss units, and levels to be had. Playing the game (on a higher difficulty), the last thing on my mind was Diablo. Battles in DoW 2, when not handled properly, are quick, deadly things. Upon returning to the game after a month-long break, I started up a campaign mission. I’d forgotten who my best troops were, what powers and items they had (and what each power did best), and what abilities I’d gifted them with. It was like dropping into Baldur’s Gate 2 after a long hiatus. The first hour or so is spent enduring brutal, near-instant humiliation at the hands of the game’s enemies and AI.
What DoW 2 does is actually quite impressive, when you think about it. It takes that (necessarily) cautious, often-brutal squad gameplay, lowers the difficulty (just a bit), and turns everything else all the way up, especially in the explosions and eviscerations department. While that might not necessarily be your thing, as it is not mine, it facilitates (graphically) the game’s desire to let you mess around with every map and battle. The game is constantly, entertainingly willing to let you attack your enemies using a vast array of powers, in a surprising number of tactically viable ways. Again, I’ll compare it to a Bioware game, in this case, Dragon Age: when you come up against a horde, you might lose half or all of your squad before regrouping and healing. So how do you take the enemy out? In my case, you think, and you examine your crew. Maybe you restart the mission so you can drop in different units. Then you use your sniper crew (who I quickly upgraded to have super-ultimate cloak) to utterly destroy the enemy with satchel charges. Or you send out your heavy gunner crew, alone, and have them drop two devastating sentry guns in at the last minute, just as the horde is upon them.
It takes the tense tactical play of a squad-based RPG, and then takes almost all of the standard attacks, maneuvers, and abilities and makes them seem outrageous and ridiculously fun. In that way, it kind of is like Diablo (and its story is definitely closer to something you’d find in a Blizzard game), but only if Diablo was a game that focused on smart, squad-based tactical RPG skirmishes. It’s also beautiful, and almost every unit in-game moves and attacks with obvious weight and purpose. Watching giant mechs and aliens explode through walls, while smaller units use heavy ordinance to open new avenues of attack onto sniper units for the first time, I couldn’t believe (and still can’t believe) that games can get away without including this kind of fluctuating, controllable terrain (this is beginning to sound familiar). Despite these new levels of tactical nuance, the game is also, somehow, quite laid back in its pacing. My units may attack using ludicrous space laser swords, but battles are not quick affairs.
The pacing is also just about perfect. It is just fast enough that I can lose a battle in a few minutes, but i i’s also slow enough that I can think as I play (no need for a pause button), adapting to new threats as they appear, and reallocating my units as need be. It’s a far cry from my normal thought process in RTS’s, which is normally this : “Oh shit, here they come I’mgoingtodie!” The fact that this excellent gameplay comes packaged in a silly if mostly fun universe just adds to my delight every time I open the game. I can’t think of another game released this last year, be it an RTS or an RPG, that satisfied me and made me feel smart in this way.
Posted by deckard47 on January 19, 2010
Lots of games purport to deliver an amazing, open-ended experience where you can go anywhere and do anything. They all do their best, it their little (and sometimes bug) ways do deliver on this concept. Red Faction: Guerrilla delivers on its promises of wide-ranging, highly destructible combat with style and skill. Of course, unlike other open-world games, RFG fails to provide any kind of compelling narrative, its world, while beautiful and convincing in its austere, Martian way, is often drab and unexciting. The people and ideas that populate this game are old and dying, close to the point of carrying on as some kind of unhealthy undead fiction. Of course, absolutely none of that matters after the first hour (or after the sixth or seventh hour, for that matter).
Playing this game, I wonder: how can games get away with the ancient non-destructible (or in many case, scripted destruction) environments. Watching something built by designers topple thanks to my hard work is unique feeling. Watching it topple again in a completely different way, just because I wanted to do it better, is something else entirely. Games like GTA IV, Just Cause 2, and Crackdown 2 (along with shooters like Modern Warfare 2) all feature outrageously overpowered ordinances and explosion-ready targets. It’s actually quite surprising that more games don’t license the technology used in Red Faction: Guerilla and the Bad Company series (the only other mainstream action game to use such effects), now that those games have attained such success. It isn’t a gimmick. When everything (but, sadly, the ground) can be destroyed, a player is encouraged, allowed, and thrilled to approach missions and map-traversal in new, exciting ways.
Thankfully, the rest of the gameplay isn’t bad at all. Cars drive with an appreciable Martian lack of heft, enemies are dangerous, ever-present harriers, most of the weapons are fun and punchy (or even better, explosive), and multiplayer perfectly translates the single player gameplay into fast, frantic bouts of wall-breaking, jet packing deathmatch (in fact, the game earns a lot of points just for the inclusion of an amazing jet pack). Really though, what makes this game impressive is the way that the player is constantly encouraged (by what she has seen, what the game has taught her, and the options available to the her) to solve tactical situations using less-than-average techniques. In fact, in light of this recent blog post over on BLDGBLOG, I’d like to recognize these wonderful parts of Guerrilla for what they are: liberating, exciting explorations of unorthodox, randomized destruction and traversal of ever-changing architecture. I’ve played all of the open-world, sandbox games (of this and the past generation) out there, and this is the one that actually feels fun and dew when I start it up after a long break. I never have to watch warehouses blow up in canned animations, and I never have to work with anything less than what I want. It’s an impressively liberating experience, and it is fun.
Posted by deckard47 on January 16, 2010
At the behest of some of my supporters (er, I mean readers), I’ve decided to do a 2009 year-end summation type article. I’m late on this, and I’m unsure how to do it. I’d love to just steal from Simon’s version, but then he’d know, since he reads this. So, originality. Tricky. This will be the first of many posts, I hope. This one is about the game that I wish I could leave off this list. I love it too much to exile it, as you will see:
The worst game that I still genuinely enjoy, and actually kind of love: Dragon Age
Dragon Age. It’s a game I’ve been waiting for for a long time, a game I hoped would replace BG 2 as my go-to CRPG in the years to come (when that old itch showed up), and a stop on Bioware’s road to their ultimate narrative-centric RPG (they sure haven’t perfected it yet). It’s a game I’ve played at least 40 hours of, and one I still can’t bring myself to finish. The setting is wearing on my nerves, I’m having trouble getting excited over new, high level powers, and the silent protagonist stands out among her verbose companions. I still love it though, and it’s still Bioware, but for me, whatever magic they brought in BG 2 is less in evidence here than I thought it would be. They’ve shifted it, focusing on Mass Effect more and more of their considerable, admirable talents. I fully expect that game to be as brilliant as I thought the first one would be (and I think the first one is brilliant). Dragon Age is stilted, static, and turgid. I love the characters, much of the writing, and the spirit with which the game thrusts its universe into your face.
In comparison, in Mass Effect, conversations felt dynamic, fast-paced, and exciting. They weren’t perfect, but they sold the immediacy of the world much better than DA can possibly manage. Every conversation in DA is interesting and deep, and the characters are wonderful, but after a while I just wish they’d get to the damn point. Bioware’s strength these days is in highly cinematic (yes, I know, I mean that their attempts to replicate certain filmic visual gimmicks is always better and better, in-cutscene, that is) conversations and small groups of NPCs. Dragon Age just throws to much shit at me. Maybe I’m getting older and nastier, but I don’t care about my avatar, my hero, unless she’s a talker, a doer, and an obvious agent within the game. My character in Dragon Age tries, but she just doesn’t seem to do much, unless she’s having awful stilted sex with another robot.
Still, this game is, without a doubt, the most impressive thing I’ve seen this year (last year now, I know). For the first 30 hours or so, I wasn’t overwhelmed, I was swept up in their fiction, for all its faults. It’s a fictions as thick as any I’ve ever seen in a game, and it doesn’t rely on cheap tricks and tired methods of exposition to tell you the story of its world (although that codex is just unwieldy). It avoids the increasingly annoying “journal entry” and “voice recording” filler that stands in for a fully constructed world, for exposition delivered in an interesting fashion by characters, and in turn, by every inch of the world itself (not to say that Dragon Age does this, but it does a better job at letting its world and people tell a story than many games full of video diaries, blabbering NPCs (who we’re told, lyingly, are not cutscenes. THEY ARE), and loquacious robots and mysterious guides. I’ll finish it, because it proves to me that Bioware is on the right track in many ways (let’s consider this award from Able Gamers, for a moment, linked here), and that they’re hearts are in a better place than most. They’re creating games that are less and less marginalizing, offensive, and exclusionary. They’re so far ahead of so many companies, it’s just a bit sad. So, here’s to Dragon Age, the one game that shouldn’t be on this list (if this list is a tally of what I consider to be the best games of the year), but is so good, it found its way on anyway.
Posted by deckard47 on January 9, 2010
Let’s get the easy (but less depressing) stuff out of the way first. Metro 2033 is a game that a lot of people (including me, until the most recent Edge arrived on my doorstep) probably thing of as “a STALKER game that isn’t be the STALKER people.” It is not that. It sounds like a much more driven, linear experience (from the recent Edge article, it really sounds like their Half Life, if I may be reductive) as evidenced in the above video. It looks quite impressive, from a world-building and graphical perspective. The game itself is apparently still a little iffy control and balance-wise, but I’d love to see a different take on the post-apocalyptic that wasn’t direct from STALKER and Fallout land.
Now that other thing I wanted to talk about: Rockstar San Diego. There’s a letter, apparently written or overseen by the wives of people who work for Rockstar San Diego, detailing Rockstar San Diego’s reprehensible treatment of their employees (it’s a similar situation to the old “EA Spouse” letter from years ago, it’s just a bit less detailed). Still, it’s pretty damning, as shown in this bit of the letter:
Little is there to motivate continuation as they also have lost a free vacation week between Christmas and New Year. Without time to recuperate and no efforts made to alleviate the stress of such conditions would procure on an employee after a period time, serious health concerns. Yet, now the health concern becomes another financial concern as the stripping of medical benefits surfaces to realization. It becomes rather worse rather than better as employees gain experience and become “senior”. Instead of appreciation, numerous non-exempt designers and artists have had their overtime pay cut as a result for being “too senior”. Looking to upper management provides no comfort rather the contrary. With unsuitable behavior from a newly promoted studio manager that vulgarly speaks the F word in most sentences and those who refuse to look at the workers’ faces as they pass in the hall, it is clear their attempt to ignore the injustice they have implemented on their once valued and appreciated employees. Perhaps it should be them who explain to our children and loved ones the absence of their increasingly frustrated fathers.
As pointed out in the comments, the letter is in need of an editor, but the point it makes (and the points made in the comments by people who are, apparently, either present or former Rockstar San Diego employees) is an unpleasant and immediate one. I’ll re-post one especially interesting bit of commenting:
And don’t believe for a second that it’s just the management at Rockstar San Diego. It goes straight back to the boys in New York. Their lack of understanding of the development process has led to this whole mess. When you let a team create a game for 2+ years, building technology with little or no feedback, then jump in months before the project is to be shipped and *DEMAND* sweeping changes, you’re going to have deadlines slip, unstable fixes, and unhappy workers.
Now, given that (as I am honor-bound to note) we have no idea how much of any of this is true, I’m still curious to read that little snippet up there. If that person is telling the truth, then the people who made Redemption may have been completely screwed in several ways while they were trying to make this game (more so than normal, considering this is the video games industry).
Of course, video game developer employees getting screwed is not only unsurprising, it’s almost expected, in a quiet, shameful way (especially at big companies like EA, Rockstar, Activision, and others). If even a fraction of the stuff the people in those forums (and the people who wrote that letter) are saying is true, the I hope that A) Redemption is awesome, and they’re recognized for their work, and B) Rockstar owns up to their mistakes and tries to make amends.
I’m willing to bet that last part won’t happen, especially if people don’t dig deeper and figure out what’s what, and how things can be made better for the teams affected by bad management policies and unfair work conditions. Of course, I’m not contributing anything concrete to the conversation with this post, but if ever there was a time for some actual investigative video games journalism, this is the fucking time. It’s not like we all don’t know that many of the companies that make are games act like this and treat their employees like this (even though there are plenty of companies who are great to work for). Let’s see what happens.
Posted by deckard47 on January 6, 2010
I’ve just finished Modern Warfare 2‘s single player, and I’ve played around 20 hours of the multiplayer. While the multiplayer is as addictive and well-balanced as always (despite a few strange issues here and there), the single player is a truly unique, unpleasant beast. I’m not going to write specifically about “No Russian” here (maybe Owen and I can have it out about that later?), instead I’m just going to work my way though my notes and thoughts, having just completed the game (a warning: I will tell you who the villain is. So. SPOILERS: No Really, if You Care About the Plot, GO AWAY): Read the rest of this entry »