Delayed Responsibility

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

Updates: Podcasts and a Review

Posted by deckard47 on April 8, 2010

So, once again, I’ve been silent. No apologies. Although I am reading Tintin and the Secret of Literature (great name for a book about Tintin), so I’ve been busy in that way.

I’ll get right down to business. Over the past few weeks I’ve been recording a podcast about Story in Games (some of my regular readers just fell asleep/closed Chrome. Simon probably popped a few blood vessels) for Popmatters, along with three other people. Those three other people are Chris Williams, Nick Dinicola, and Rick Dakan. It’s called the Moving Pixels Podcast, and this is the first episode. I think that’s all the information you’ll need to decide whether or not you want to follow that link. If you do follow it, I apologize for the number of times I say “you know.” It’s sad, and I’m working on it with a trainer. If you’re really interested, here are links to episodes 2, and 3. If you do listen to any of them, I’d like it if you’d leave a comment here, letting me know what you think… I’m a cautious, inefficient Podcaster, so my showing in these recordings is rather iffy. I wish you luck.

We also have this here review of Twin Sector, also over at Popmatters. I didn’t like it, at all. Here’s a bit about why I didn’t like it:

There’s no tension here, no skulking, creeping danger in these subterranean halls. The player character is some kind of slow motion, klutzy science experiment, and the rest of the cast is even less convincing and interesting. A game whose gameplay hardly exists beyond one puzzle solving mechanic absolutely must deliver a promising, compelling story and gameplay/narrative mélange. This game does neither of these things. I wish I could recommend this game. I like the idea behind the gameplay, and I could be convinced to like the story. In this form, Twin Sector is something I want to forget quickly.

If that doesn’t grab you, you obviously have no taste (or, you’re hiding behind something that prevents me from grabbing you). Read the rest of it here.


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PAX East: Mafia 2 Demo

Posted by deckard47 on March 27, 2010

It was short, especially since there was no developer interaction: it was just a booth staffer (pointedly attractive young woman who the vaguely young gatekeeper guy handed us off to) telling us how to play and awkwardly congratulating us the whole time.

The game looked pretty damn good. They’ve obviously spent an incredible amount of effort to get everything looking good and period-appropriate (to my untrained eyes). The animations and combat look pretty good  to me (deaths seem like a mix between canned Rogue Spear stuff and PhysX… It looks pretty excellent), though I never held the controller. A few of the old open world 3rd person bugbears are back to cause some trouble, unsurprisingly: opening doors still looks like some kind of force power (just gesture wildly and they open!), while enemy AI can be a bit slow on the uptake (they’re easy to flank, they make the NOLF enemies look like super-spies).

Really, I wanted to listen to the voice work, the sound effects, and the music. The shooting and environmental stuff looks good to adequate, but the world looks brilliant. I wish we’d had the time to just listen to radio stations and talk to people. I’ll probably forgive this game all of its little inconsistencies if moving through the world feels and sounds as delicious as it looks.

One caveat: during the presentation, Ron pressed “A” (pick up) on what he thought to be a gun of some sort. It was in fact, a Playboy Magazine, which are apparently scattered throughout the world in some kind of “historically accurate” deal with Playboy. The woman who started our demo (who had been trying to talk to me the whole time about what a great player Ron was) excitedly informed me that Ron had skillfully found the demo’s hidden Playboy. Thankfully, Ron was not treated to an entire period-appropriate issue of the magazine. Instead, a humongous image (big, wide screen) of a naked woman appeared on the screen. This image is what sparked our host’s enthusiasm

So, Mafia 2: looks amazing, plays good (according to Ron), hopefully sounds good. Message to 2K Czech: it’s obvious that you care about historical authenticity, or at least the appearance off historical authenticity. It’s also just as obvious that this Playboy shit is you taking a (no doubt) lucrative marketing/crossover deal with Playboy and selling it as enhanced historical depth/authenticity. You’re selling silly, obvious T&A as your way of being authentic. You sure as hell aren’t reproducing other books, journals, or mags, or any other sort of historically appropriate knickknacks. It looks silly. It’s the kind of thing that makes me take your talk of historical authenticity (in whatever capacity) much less seriously, and it just kind of annoys me. I better not have to listen to an era-appropriate speech concerning the benifits of “Teeties!” Please. Do not do that.

Oh, and thanks for making the always-peculiar/problematic booth girl/male journalists relationship 10 times more damn uncomfortable for those 10 seconds than it would have been otherwise. That was really great. Everyone present really appreciated that bullshit, in their different ways.

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Posted by deckard47 on March 26, 2010

It’s the game from the people (mostly) who made Crackdown, and a lot of people are really, really excited about it. I’m not sure why. We watched a bunmch of people demoing it while a totally excited guy talked about how exciting the game they were playing was.

What they were playingg looked like a high-res version of The Matrix Online or Fallen Earth, but in a modern, drab city. We watched as people activated timed meters and (while  a bar/circle filled) beat up a passerby. We watched as they crashed cars into each other. We listened as the excited guy explained the APB/bounty system (which admittedly sounds interesting).

Why is this so exciting? The world and characters look incredibly boring. The overarching mechanics and ingame rewards/impetus to play system might be interesting (no way to tell from this demonstration), but the world and the characters themselves look like less exciting, more gray and brown versions of Saints Row 2.

Let me remind you: Saints Row 2 was not a visually exciting game, beyond really bright cars and hair. I can’t see being interested in this game for the world its characters inhabit. It looks as static and unappealing as any other “real city” MMO (like City of  Heroes or the aforementioned games).

What’s exciting about this? To beat up an NPC, you start a timed meter. You don’t just punch them a bunch. How do you go from the ludicrous punching of Crackdown to this? And how does this barren wasteland of a an MMO grab the press’ attention in this way? They must be seeing stuff I haven’t (easy to do, I should point out). It’s an open world where the only attraction would appear to be the mechanic by which players are matched up with each other.

It’s a giant, faceless city full of carefully designed thugs wearing (I’m sure) sweet tattoos and customizable bodies. Shouldn’t the world be  somewhat interesting? Is a neat matchmaking (’cause that’s what it is) mechanic enough to sell bloodless Saints Row 2 squad play? Apparently it is.

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Impressions: Battlefield Bad Company 2

Posted by deckard47 on March 8, 2010

Snow-soldiers being buzzed by a snowy helicopter. In the Snow!

Let’s start this off with a joke. Something about not being able to play the game while Simon plays it with impunity. That’s because he bought the console version, while I bought the PC version, which had broken-at-launch multiplayer (a week out, it still doesn’t work half of the time). He’s won this one, since he’s played the game for many hours more than me, but in the long run he’s a big loser. He loses, because PC gamers get the absolutely phenomenal BFBC 2 UI and menus. I’d like to post a screen of these menus, because they really are quite something. They’re responsive, clearly and brightly colored, and let you get to whatever information you’re lookingfor quickly. They aren’t a hideous crimson or blood-red, and there aren’t flames, helicopters, or other silly crap floating and animating in the background. True, the art itself isn’t fantastic (a brurning army guy and some tanks), but the fact that it isn’t trying to claw my eyes out as I play is both surprising and welcome. This menu is here (in a somehow understated Bumblebee color scheme) to fill you in on everything. I can’t remember another menu that does this so well. Congratulations, DICE.

What about that game, then? Here’s the real question : is is as good as that fabulous menu? Read the rest of this entry »

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Reviews: Stalker Call of Pripyat

Posted by deckard47 on March 4, 2010

A giant Claw Machine! digging into a quarry. I look on, modded pistol in hand.

From Sleeper Hit, I bring you my delighted review of Call of Pripyat. Read on:

I was, and am, incredibly taken with the Stalker games. To a lot of players and reviewers these are fiddly, overly finicky PC games that specialize in bad acting, bad writing, and a seriously retrograde sense of game design (see the cutscenes, quest and map system, and the complete lack of vital information, at points).

Of course, I look at all that and see the most convincing, “atmospheric” (if you’ll permit me that term) game I’ve played recently. As any good Stalker game must, Call of Pripyat tasks you with exploring, mastering, and respecting the wasted, irradiated zone of land surrounding Chernobyl, called, appropriately, “The Zone.” In previous games anomalies were semi-random, floating, often invisible distortions that damaged your avatar in various ways. They were often accompanied by radiation. In Pripyat, “Anomalies” are now huge, environmentally integrated objects in the world. A giant tear through the earth, a clawed hole in a hill (as if attacked by a giant hand), or any number of otherworldly landmarks will confront your hero. Within and about these blights float anomalies. They range from fiery geysers to black hole-like distortions, and while not all of them are deadly (instantaneously), they often conspire to weaken or kill your character.

Exciting, no? Head on over to the review, and find out more exciting things relating to Pripyat than you thought you’d ever need to know. Link.

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Impressions: Heavy Rain

Posted by deckard47 on February 24, 2010

A tense convenience store splitscreen scene, starring the Private Detective PC.

Here there be spoilers. So, yeah…

I’m now a few chapters into Heavy Rain, and I have all kinds of exciting things to tell you. First, despite the fact that the game’s dingy, decaying urbam settings are carefully, artfully crafted, it’s an incredibly European game. It’s supposed to be set on the East Coast (somewhere, who knows where, it’s like a movie shot in Vancouver, that “takes place” in Chicago), but every single thing is French. The toilets and bathrooms are separate, the children have some kind of awful Tintin-like Tipi in their room, and all kinds of other little things are just not (to use a phrase I don’t often use) in any way American. Your average hipster Architecture family would have graduated to different racist presents for their kids, I’d think. Casual racism towards Native Americans (of this strange, twice diluted variety, not in the garden variety, institutionalized, brutal way we practice it here in the US) is a specialty of the French, it would seem (watch the movie Cliente, if you want a lesson in this particular brand of bizarre second-hand bigotry).  This serves to undermine the (obviously incredibly careful) work that has gone into world-building in Heavy Rain. Instead of Somewhere, America, it feels like some kind of surreal, Prisoner-like sham is constantly underway. You aren’t really in America, you’re trapped in a not-quite perfectly realized version of America that hides a dark dystopian reality… Or something.

Really though, I find most of that quite charming (although if this game replicates Heavy Rain‘s treatment of African American’s, I’ll be forced to amend that judgment), much like I find the odd, all-over-the-place voice acting to be charming, in its mostly appropriate but always tonally off way. If you play with French subtitles, the sense of living in Mirror Universe America is strengthened, excellently. Unsurprisingly, the game is also incredibly worried about the possibility of the destruction of a happy bourgeois life. They’re all just so happy, but the, their suburban paradise is destroyed! Destroyed, so that they’re forced to move into a scary, poor part of town. Oh no.

The action scenes are really quit fun. I’m not sure what everyone is complaining about when it comes to Heavy Rain‘s controls. They’re too abstract, or something? They’re not like “real” game controls? It’s really unclear. I understand Edge’s issues (article linked here) with the game: button cues are sometimes inexpertly presented or represented… But then there are the reviews that delight in pointing out that the game isn’t always an action game, that it isn’t always “thrilling.” From the Destructoid review (link here):

Fortunately, however, the game’s many boring moments are offset by some of the most intense and sometimes terrifying sequences ever found in a game.

Actually, I’m happy to play games that actually try to inexpertly create an in-game “normal,” only to destroy that normal with the abnormal. Even if action/fighting are a common thing in a game, it’s nice to know that games can tell stories (however badly) with something that isn’t a gun or a fist. Let’s move on to this peculiar nugget of wisdom, again from the Destructoid review:

the very fact that Quantic Dream even attempts a serial killer story in a videogame is worthy of respect.

Really? They are? Actually, I wish they hadn’t. It’s not a genre I find compelling in any media, and it seems to me (from the story so far) that they’ve used it to pigeon-hole their narrative into a rather narrow, uninventive (aside from the TWISTS) space. It just means that their dark gray pallet comes from Poverty and Crime, and not Aliens and Space.

Ultimately, Heavy Rain is an experiment that both succeeded and failed, when it could easily have been a total success if the brains behind it weren’t trying so hard to be smart, and cared more about providing a sensible plot as opposed to a shocking one.

Well then… It’s like some kind of paradox, right? It’s one thing, and the other. I’m trying to remember where I read it, but someone (Quinns from RPS?) recently pointed out that saying that a game was “trying too hard to be smart” was a rather large journalistic mistake. First of all, how many mainstream games “try to be smart” in a way that doesn’t include Retro Chic and Art Deco, Cover mechanics, or Moral Choices? How many? None of them! Personally, I think the fact that the writing behind Heavy Rain was done by someone who actually had an abiding interest in something interesting is almost revolutionary. It’s not a game based on the insipid, stupid ramblings of an asshole, couched in the obvious struggles of robotic fathers and mutated sons (similar to Heavy Rain, I’ll admit), and it’s not a thrice-regurgitated, stupidly self-referential attempt at gravity, bombast, or “morality.” It may be badly written (edit: I can now safely say that it is badly written), have bad voice acting (I actually like the French voice work, although any Francophones in the audience can mock me for that), and traffic in clichés, but it’s still not a story about a Man who Travels through a Dangerous Shooting Gallery to Save his Girlfriend/City/Ship/People/World. Just in that, it’s (sadly) somewhat unique among video games. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

You know what is annoying about Heavy Rain? The awful, badly-explained difficulty setting. I spent a minute or two figuring out which was hard and which wasn’t. Likewise, the way many scenes always end one way or another (their “choices” are in no way choices) is pretty transparent, even to a first-time player. That’s the kind of thing we should be critiquing. Making fun of a game simply because it isn’t like what you think “games” should be is a pretty arrogant, foolish thing to do. I’d like to think that no one is that arrogant, to think that they can guard the gates of Gaming High Culture, but I’m obviously wrong. I’ll leave this one in the hands of Corvus Elrod (link to Semionaut’s Notebook!):

1a) If I ever suggest there is only one “correct” method of telling stories with video games–smack me.
1b) If I ever suggest that there should only be one method of examining any media–smack me again.

Let’s add a third, silent point there: If I ever suggest that there is only one “correct” method of controlling games and game characters, smack me. Yes, I think that should do it nicely.

This might be a good time to say that I’m really digging Call of Pripyat and Neptune’s Bounty. So much. More on those two later this week.

[Edit]: I just finished the first part where you play as Madison, and it was pretty bad. It’s a creepy, highly sexualized home assault where Madison gets attacked by a bunch of masked men, one of whom then slits her throat (but it’s a dream!). Of course, she does this all in her underwear, or naked, or in post-shower underwear again. It’s so obviously, cheaply about the threat of gynocide (BSG example linky) and rape. It really telegraphs the level of sophistication that went into writing parts (or all?) of this game. Fantastique.

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Impression/Review: Mass Effect 2

Posted by deckard47 on February 21, 2010

A Real Villain!

Hi there. It’s been a while. Back to work.

I’ve recently finished a game (from this year!), which makes me think that the End of Days may be upon us. This, of course, means I need to prepare myself: when you all get Raptured, I’m going to steal all of your cats and live with them in the giant treehouse at Disneyland. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Sadly, I’m disappointed in Mass Effect 2. While it has its own issues regarding the way in which its characters and world are written (a clue: you can’t be gay unless you’re a hot blue alien Woman, and you can’t be a woman unless you’re Quarian, Human, or Asari), it left me unfulfilled in other ways.

There going to be spoilers here. So, yeah: Read the rest of this entry »

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Article Roundup: Back… In the Saddle-Like Thing

Posted by deckard47 on February 11, 2010

Where a zombie once was a man… The people who read the third Doom novel can now join me in laughing/crying. It’s good to meet you.

It has been a bit. After that peculiar flurry of “Best of ’09” posting, I’ve been quiet. I can, of course, blame Mass Effect 2, Star Trek Online, Arcanum, Stalker (the original, now all modded up), and (now) Bioshock 2 for these delays. I could also tell you that I’m a flighty, inconsistent man. Both of these things are true. This post is meant to boot me back into writing, but it’s also meant to force me to post a lot of links and stuff I’ve been forgetting to post. So, let’s get that stuff out of the way first, shall we? First off, we have my new GSW column. It’s about Modern Warfare 2. Oh crap, don’t leave.

Really, it’s me whining about how people like the game, and they totally shouldn’t, because it’ll be the death of us. Or maybe just annoying. I suppose it could be either. To find out more (so much more!), read the excerpt below, and then head over to GSW for the entire, delicious thing.

The plot, writing, and characters of Modern Warfare 2 are all wretched. There are other ways to put this, but none of them communicate my full disgust with the separate parts of this product, and its heft and intention as a whole entity. Infinity Ward has mastered the art of pretentious (not because it is in any way intelligent, but because it thinks it is saying anything of worth or import) military drama, just as it has mastered the art of the contemporary linear military shooter.

As an “entertaining” piece of jingoistic military schlock, Modern Warfare 2 hits a few good notes here and there. The idea of a massive invasion blasting apart and disfiguring everyday America is a potent one, although as I’ll explain later, IW’s execution of this interesting situation leaves much to be desired. Likewise, its depiction of a long firefight through a capital in ruins is tense, desperate, and perfectly paced. Even a problematic trip to Brazil (opening with a hugely annoying mission) salvages itself somewhat, delivering a tense, alarming firefight through a crowded market where sight lines are crap and the enemies are plentiful.

Were you surprised? I was surprised. Full article at this link!

What’s next? A ton of Popmatters delicacies: Read the rest of this entry »

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2009 in Review: Left 4 Dead 2

Posted by deckard47 on January 26, 2010

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Divinity 2: Ego Draconis Review

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.

If that tickles your fancy, head over to Sleeper Hit and read the whole thing (at this link here).

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Interview: Jennifer Hale is Amazing!

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.]

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2009 in Review: Dawn of War 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.

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2009 in Review: Red Faction: Guerilla

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 in 2009 in Review | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

2009 in Review: Dragon Age

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 in 2009 in Review | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

News: Rockstar San Diego and Metro 2033

Posted by deckard47 on January 9, 2010

Two things caught my eye today: the now (or soon to be) famous “Rockstar San Diego Wives'” Letter (link here), and a new video for the exciting-looking Metro 2033 (link aussi).

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 in News | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »