Friday, November 30, 2007

People believe what they want to believe

Since it's "late to the party" day here at Insult Swordfighting, I may as well mention the Jeff Gerstmann/Gamespot/Eidos flap. Briefly, Gerstmann was let go from Gamespot after something like a decade of service, and sources within the company are saying it's because he panned Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, a game that was heavily advertised on the site.

The problem with a controversy like this is that people already believe what they want to believe, and everyone's going to say what they're supposed to say. Unnamed sources will swear up and down that Gerstmann was sacrificed on the altar of ad revenue. And they have. Executives at C-net (Gamespot's parent company) will say that he was fired for reasons unrelated to his Kane and Lynch review. And they have. People who already thought enthusiast publications were corrupt will claim vindication. And they have. I don't know if it's worth discussing until somebody who is willing to be named steps forward with actual information. Otherwise, it's just rumors and speculation. And even if Gerstmann himself comes out and says he was fired to please Eidos, he'd hardly be an objective source.

I will say this: Gerstmann did not pan the game. He gave it a 6.0, which his own site defines as "fair." And if the issue is his tone, as some have suggested, then it's certainly not evident in the review itself. It reads as objective and fair, criticizing what doesn't work and praising what does. It's hard to imagine what else Gerstmann was supposed to do. I'm not a habitual reader of Gamespot, so I can't say anything about the rest of his body of work.

The accusations being levied at C-net are powerful ones, and that means that we have a responsibility to make sure we have proof before accepting them as fact. If they are true, it's a chilling indictment of Gamespot, particularly considering that it has a reputation for being tougher than many sites. I'm not sure how many people count on the big sites for game recommendations in the age of blogs and message boards, truthfully. Probably fewer people today than yesterday.

Rock Band impressions

Better late than never, I suppose...

We put a few hours into Rock Band last night and I came away feeling that it had met my lofty expectations -- although, strangely, I was not as awesome at playing the drums as I had been in my dreams the night before. It's that damn kick drum: either I hit it every time I hit one of the pads, or I forgot about it all together. Hitting the correct pads with the sticks is not too difficult to pick up. (What's a good synonym for "hit" in this case, anyway?) I can imagine the drums being more rewarding to master than the guitar parts, because it's more of a transferable skill. You will have to develop a sense of rhythm to play them well, and play them using much the same mechanics as playing real drums. I want to do a lot more of this.

Playing the guitar required a bit of an adjustment, thanks to the new peripheral itself, and the different design of the note charts. The biggest challenge for me was the lack of any space between the fret buttons. I usually use those to orient myself when shifting my hand position up or down the neck. The strum bar is much different, as well: without the obtrusive "click" of the Guitar Hero strum bar, I found it hard to tell if I was doing it right. It was a bit like driving an unfamiliar car: you need to orient yourself to the little things, but you're not in danger of veering off the road. And there's no question that the Stratocaster design is the most aesthetically pleasing of all the plastic toy guitars.

Singing was the most problematic aspect, and here's why: it was the place where it was the hardest to lose myself in the rock fantasy. When you play the guitar in Guitar Hero or Rock Band, your input doesn't result in something that sounds like the guitar part -- it is the guitar part. The drums are a bit worse in this respect, because even though you hear the correct drum sounds on the soundtrack, you also hear the click-clack of your sticks hitting the pads. While singing, I was aware only of the limitations of my own voice. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it, or that I didn't throw myself into it (particularly the optional yelling parts). Just that of everything I did in Rock Band, singing was when I felt the least like I was rocking thousands of worlds in a packed arena, and felt the most like I was in my friend's living room playing make-believe. Still better than any other karaoke game I've played, by far.

Better than a certain other recent guitar game, too.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Note to reviewers: It's broke. Please fix it.

Apologies if this stuff is only entertaining to me, although I'm starting to suspect that it's also amusing to the Metacritic editors. I was poking around for more examples of's grammatical pratfalls -- and they are legion -- when I encountered the best example yet of lazy clichés multiplying like Tribbles. The game is Guitar Hero III. gives it an 85, and writes:
Guitar Hero III abides to the "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" approach by sticking to the tried-and-true formula established in the first game and honed in the second.

In the very next excerpt, also an 85, Electronic Gaming Monthly writes:

The "ain’t broke, don’t fix" approach is evident.

As is the "short deadline, tired critic" approach.

Not to rip off Magical Wasteland or anything

I was just reading the Metacritic page for Assassin's Creed and came across this gem from, which was also flagged a couple weeks ago by Magical Wasteland:
The first half of Assassin’s Creed is a truly clairvoyant experience. You’ve never played anything like it. The sagacious story, incalculable crowd interaction, and unprecedented freedom to traverse the environment how you choose are landmark moments. Over time, repetition rears its ugly head, combat becomes a necessary routine, and dimwitted foes snatch you out of the third crusade and remind you that you’re playing a game. The potential here is undeniable, but there’s been some dust swept under the rug that places a blemish on an otherwise beautiful piece of art.

I cannot even fathom what the author meant by calling it a "clairvoyant experience." Perhaps Assassin's Creed was reading his mind -- sort of a modern Taboo: The Sixth Sense. Also, "sagacious story?" "Incalculable crowd interaction?" I do not think these words mean what the author thinks they mean.

On the cliché tip, check out these consecutive sentences: "A confrontation ensues and Altair ends up on the short end of the stick. Returning to his master with his tail between his legs..."

No wonder there's no byline.

Big Tools 4 U

The Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction review is up now. It's just what the PlayStation 3 needed: a fun, breezy game with colorful visuals and plenty of jokes, and few attempts to be groundbreaking. Great controls, too. Just an awesome game.

The culprit

A site called Magical Wasteland takes a look at Mass Effect and determines that most of its problems probably stem from a hard ship date -- meaning that the game wasn't necessarily done, but BioWare was committed to a November 20 release. It's a fascinating, measured look at the compromises that often must be made in order to put a product on the shelves (and of course the writer loved the game, despite the problems he elucidates). A few of the writer's observations:
There is no loot other than finding more weapons, and these automatically get better (in a completely linear progression: Assault Rifle I, Assault Rifle II, and so on) as you advance. Because they’re the only thing you can find, you’ll soon have piles of pistols and shotguns, which you can sell for cash to buy– what? The only thing you can buy is more weapons.

Not to mention that you can only carry a limited number of these items, but the game doesn't tell you that. Nor does it tell you how close you are to the limit. So all you can do is sell them, or melt them down into omni-gel.

One of the first things noticeable in Mass Effect is the tremendous amount of texture-popping that goes on as the player enters new areas. Occasionally, even just running from place to place results in a loading message appearing while the disc spins wildly inside. It’s clear that the popping wasn’t something the artists knew in advance to work around, since there are often shots in cutscenes that don’t even last as long as it takes for the texture to pop in: by the time the texture has actually loaded, the camera isn’t even on the object any longer.

This last part really bothered me, even though in theory it's the sort of thing that shouldn't matter. Quite often, a camera angle will shift during a conversation or cutscene and a character will be smooth and featureless, and then suddenly his face will "pop" onto his head. For a game that is so largely driven by conversation and story elements, this is distracting. Like so much of what happens in Mass Effect, it's like a developer shouting at you, "Hey! Don't forget you're just playing a game!"

Playing normally, I got stuck on geometry several times, with no way out but to reload an earlier save. I flipped my supposedly un-flippable Mako vehicle. A step that I had not yet taken was registered as completed in my quest log. None of these bugs severely impacted my ability to enjoy the game, but they do affect the "fit and finish" of the final product.

And here, again, is where I seem to depart from most other people who've played Mass Effect. These things do affect my ability to enjoy the game. I want to get lost in the game. I want to forget I'm even holding a controller. Mass Effect does not allow for that possibility.

There's one other point that this article raises, as well. Given that Mass Effect wasn't even finished when it went gold, it casts some serious doubts on the early reviews. Game Informer magazine, in particular, ran an extremely early review that scored the game a 9.75 -- while still making excuses for patchy AI and a terrible interface.

My question is, what was Game Informer reviewing? The Mass Effect in front of them, or the Mass Effect they expected to arrive in stores months later? Were they willing to overlook certain problems to secure the exclusive? Were they willing to furnish a certain minimum score? Do I have any evidence for these assertions? Is that why I'm writing them in an annoying "could it be" style, allowing me to make inflammatory accusations without taking responsibility for them?

The answer to that question, at least, is yes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills here!

First, I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.

Second, I have never felt more out of step with the public than I do with Mass Effect. The full review will be posted next week, but for now I want to make a couple of observations -- with the help, as always, of Metacritic.

Planet Xbox gave this game a 98, while noting:
Other than the AI issues, graphical glitches, and insanely confusing equipment screen Mass Effect is the perfect video game.

Oh, other than that. How often do you even have to contend with AI, graphics, or the equipment screen? Just, oh, every ten seconds or so. The perfect video game!

A site called Gamer 2.0, scoring Mass Effect a 92, has this caveat:

It may be difficult for some to overlook the new combat system, but once you get a grip on it, and look past the shoddy vehicular combat, you’ll find a game worthy purchasing.

So if you're willing to look past, er, a gigantic component of the game that is horribly and irretrievably broken, you'll find a game "worthy purchasing" [???]. And this excerpt doesn't even mention the menus!

Da Gameboyz [???] observe:

But in the end it really is the gameplay and story that counts here, and Bioware has wonderfully combined both in such a way that any of the minor complaints can be ignored.

The thing about minor complaints is that when there are so many things to complain about, as in Mass Effect, they stop seeming so minor. It's like death by paper cut. How can you enjoy the story when it's such a chore to get from plot point to plot point?

The excerpt from Hardcore Gamer Magazine most accurately captures my feelings, although again their review is largely positive (an 80):

As it is, it's merely very good on several different levels, and is more or less a must-play for RPG fans. It will drive shooter fans completely up the wall, though.

Up the wall and out through the ceiling.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Maybe it's time for some new clichés

Metacritic is an invaluable resource. Even if we agree that game scores are generally inflated, aggregate scores provide an accurate way to compare different games. A ten-point difference in a Metacritic score is definitive and often correct -- consider a score of 89 for Ratchet and Clank Future, and 79 for Heavenly Sword. Will anyone argue that those should be reversed?

There's just one problem. I don't know how painstakingly the Metacritic experts choose their excerpts for each game, but they tend to reflect horribly on game criticism in general. Here's the excerpt from Gametap's review of Ratchet and Clank Future:
It's rare that a game critic feels the way I do about this game, but in all honesty, I find it really difficult to find something that's not to like. The controls feel great. The graphics look great. The score sounds great. The weapon selection alone make me want to play the game over and over again, just to test out all the cool offered.

You've got the useless appeal to authority (Really? A game critic feels this way? Wow!), repetition of a fairly meaningless accolade, and, to top it all off, the grammatical abortion in the last clause. "Cool" is not now and has never been a noun. This stuff wouldn't pass muster in a high-school essay class. Maybe the full review is better; I didn't click through to see.

We're all guilty of employing clichés now and then. It can be unavoidable when you're on deadline. But it's rare that you see two reviewers employ the same cliché to make opposite points about the same game. It happened in the reviews for Uncharted. IGN's review, good for a Metacritic score of 91, declares that "The final sum is far greater than the individual parts." But EGM, doling out a pitiful 85, ruefully admits that "Everything's fun and exhilarating, but it never builds to more than the sum of its parts."

Hilarious, yes, but it speaks to the utility of the site that even such disagreements still contribute to the conclusion that Uncharted is a pretty good game. That's what I like about Metacritic: it's the sum of its parts.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Still interested in BlackSite

Wired's Clive Thompson takes a brief look at BlackSite: Area 51. I've been interested in the game for awhile, but it's going to be drowned out by the season's heavy hitters. It's too bad -- I'd like to support the team that made it. There really should be more games that are politically aware, even if the allusions are as blunt as Thompson makes them sound. But games have to be fun, too, and on that score it doesn't sound like BlackSite fares too well.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The soapbox

I sure hated Manhunt 2. This is the rare review where I feel like it actually says what I meant it to say, and have nothing else to add here.

I'd also recommend Ryan's feature article about Rock Band.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Uncharted demo impressions

Last week, Sony graced us with a demo for their upcoming PS3 action/adventure, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. This is the second of their two-pronged holiday attack, following the excellent Ratchet and Clank Future. Although it's necessary to withhold judgment until the full game is out, it seems unlikely that Uncharted is going to live up to its end of the bargain. The short demo certainly isn't bad, but its flaws could be fatal over several hours of play.

What should be one of the game's greatest strengths actually makes it creepy to behold. Half the time, it's a marvel to watch Nathan Drake scramble over fallen logs, leap gracelessly from one pillar to another, and slam up against a wall like a sack of potatoes. The developers have opted to make him a rough-and-tumble hero from the Indiana Jones mold, and it works especially well when he fights -- instead of the same identical, telegenic punches, Nathan throws off-balance haymakers and throws his weight into vicious tackles. I can't think of another video-game hero who behaves quite this way.

But there's also something a little unsettling about it. The lifelike animation places the characters deep in the uncanny valley. While playing Ratchet and Clank Future, one of the most visually appealing games I've ever seen, it occurred to me that graphical horsepower is better used for the fantastic than the realistic (take a spin through the asteroid belt in R&C and try to tell me otherwise). If developers want a grittier aesthetic, there's still a way to render a world with verisimilitude without plunging into zombie territory. Gears of War is a good example of this. As fluid and convincing as this animation is, a computer can't render life in a character's eyes -- at least not yet.

As for the gameplay, Uncharted is a strange mix of the cover-shooting mechanic of Gears of War and the environmental swashbuckling of Tomb Raider. The demo showcases wide-open jungle environments with lush greenery overgrowing crumbling, ancient architecture. There are only a couple of scenarios, and each is the same: clear out some foes, climb and jump your way to the next area, repeat. But there are some indications that it could end up more fun than it seems. At one point, I rushed an enemy from his blind side and hit the melee button, fully expecting to throw a punch. Instead, Nathan leaped onto the guy and broke his neck. I like when a game can surprise me like that. A wide enough variety of attacks and animations could keep the game fresh throughout.

One other point: the island is just littered with exploding barrels. They're everywhere. I'm not going to pretend I don't enjoy wiping out a group of opponents with a well-placed exploding barrel shot, but it'd be nice if there were at least some half-assed attempt to explain their presence. Who brought them there? What are they for? I could buy that the mercenaries needed to bring demolition with them, but dozens of unwieldy barrels just strewn evenly around the jungle? It would make more sense, say, to have a truck loaded up with them. Or to have them grouped around the exterior of a cave. Not lying on their side on top of a low wall. That shit makes no sense!

Thursday, November 08, 2007 User-Submitted Previews: Mass Effect

I pre-ordered Mass Effect today, and I thought I'd check in with my fellow Gamestop customers to see what the buzz is.
I believe this game is going to revolutionize the rpg and maybe even gaming as we know it. What other game is melding shooters with rpgs.

Let's see... nope, no other game is doing that.

This game is gunna be sick. it is oblivion, but in space and with guns.

And BioShock was Oblivion, except underwater and with guns. Need for Speed ProStreet is Oblivion, except in modern cities and with cars.

this game looks really fun. in a weird way, it kinda looks like halo..shooting, adventure, ya..killing is fun...but thats all u want from a shooter game, right? good graphics, kick butt online play, and cool player customization is all i need to have fun in a shooting game! so yeah...looks like alot of fun

Yep, kick-butt online play is all you need. If only Mass Effect had any!

I'm so excited for a game that really knocks my socks off this year as I was so sure that Jericho was gonna hold that mantle because I spent so much time obsessing, but apparently I was wrong. this one I've been careful about only to obsess on it a little. OMG i cant wait!!!

This guy is way off-base. Since it didn't work on Jericho, the solution to make Mass Effect great is obviously to obsess even harder.

This game is going to be awesome. It has Gears of War like combat along with a KOTOR style combat system where you can change at will.

I thought it was like Oblivion, except in space and with guns.

And like this

My high-school classmate Leigh Alexander has written a deconstruction of Portal over at GameSetWatch that does a nice job of exploring the role of player choice in the game. She also psychoanalyzes GLaDOS for good measure. It's a lucid and thoughtful piece, and if you don't fear spoilers you should check it out.

Predictably, the first couple of comments on the column are haughty and dismissive.

More like this

I've had The Escapist over there in my links for quite a while, but I'm not a habitual reader of the site. I think I like the idea of The Escapist more than I like the end product. The world desperately needs intelligent games criticism that doesn't focus on how good a game is, but what a game means. Usually, Escapist articles don't go far enough in pursuing an argument. They leave threads dangling.

That's not the case with "Slouching Toward Black Mesa" by Tom Rhodes, which attempts to contextualize the Half-Life series within the archetype of the hero story, and does so convincingly. Rhodes does a couple things well in this piece: he draws parallels between the game and Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," and he also examines the relevance of both to the modern world. It's sober and thoughtful stuff, showing great respect for Half-Life and for games as a medium. If gamers want to argue that games are art, then the way to convince skeptics isn't to nag at them -- it's to keep producing insightful criticism like this.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Call of Duty 4 -- who knew?

With several precincts reporting, Call of Duty 4's Metacritic score is a robust 95. More convincing still is Tom Chick's review, which praises CoD4's "engrossing, even astonishing single-player campaign," and calls it a "must-have game." I wrote this game off when it was announced, and haven't followed its development at all. Now it's just another on the long list of good holiday games that I'm missing in order to bring you reviews of dreck like Manhunt 2. (To be posted next week.)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hardcasual: The Groundswell

That would be a great name for a fantasy fiction trilogy, wouldn't it?

Anyway, a post on Level Up today addresses something that's come up in this blog a few times: the incompatibility of the hardcore gaming experience with the time demands on your modern adult. Nintendo talks a lot about recapturing people who fell away from gaming. But there's another huge swath of us who never gave it up, who started playing games as young children and kept it going right through college. The games didn't leave us -- they didn't stop being fun, or become too complicated. It just turns out that when you work a full-time job and have a family, gaming in six-hour sessions becomes less appealing, not to mention impractical.

Often, I read complaints that a game is too short. This is a value consideration: if you spend $60 on a six-hour game, that's only $10/hour. If you spend $60 on a forty-hour game, that's a piddling $1.50/hour. Objectively, it's clear to see which is the better deal, especially if the gamer in question is, say, a college student with unlimited time and extremely limited funds. On the other hand, I'd think it's worth the extra money for the salaried professional whose time is at a premium. $60 isn't cheap, but it's not back-breaking either. And let's say that, realistically, you can only squeeze in an hour or so a night of game time. This six hour game now takes almost a week to complete -- or about as long as it used to take me to plow through a 40-hour game in college. Both of these straw men spent $60 on a game that they completed in a week, using most of their free time to do so. They come out even!

This isn't to say that there isn't a place for both types of games. But I would hope that publishers understand that there's a large, well-heeled segment of the market that actually does want short games, or games that can be played in bursts, without sacrificing complex gameplay or mature themes. If "hardcasual" is to be the term, then so be it. Just don't confuse lack of time with a lack of interest.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Uncharted: The reviews are in

I think I could spend the rest of my life reading the user-submitted previews at and never get bored. Today, we're looking at some advance reactions to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune for the PlayStation 3. It sounds like a winner!
  • 5 star game from what i seen. i seen all the videos made for this game from the playstation network, from how they made it to the gameplay and i got to say i like what i see nice graphic excellent storyline and great gameplay. i got to say this is a top notch game. In my opinion they should of somehow added some online play but hey the game is already perfect as it is.
  • from the trailers ive seen it looks pretty damn good i just its not a disaster like heavenly sword which was about a 5 hour game and no weapons just a stupid sword uncharted has everything you can dropkick your enemies give them a a floy mayweather haymaker punch and to mention all the weapons the graphics look reaaly good
  • Uncharted Drake's Fortune is a action sort of thing. On the Playstation 3 with its Blue-Ray drive it offers the best graphics yet. If you were in to action and adventure games I would recomend you get a PS3 ( if you dont have one yet ) and get this game. About the game, it is a very action pack thriller like James Bond. If I were you I would spend 5hours playing the game. But it doesn't come out till next month. I am asking E3 please don't dissapiont all of us.
  • gotta be honest with ya, at first, i thought this game was gonna be gay!! but the more and more info im seeing is changing my mind, im actually getting kind of excited for it, it looks pretty sweet!!! so ill just see how it is when it comes out!!!
  • This game is obviously very good, but microsoft will probably buy this game of sony like it did with all the other games. Face it the ps3 has no exclusives. This game will be Alot better on xbox the ps3 is a dreamcast with no chance of getting any excusives and this will be another xbox gain. Way better on xbox.

Guitar Hero III multiplayer impressions

We put some time into multiplayer Guitar Hero III last night, and as I'm not reviewing it for the paper I'll just share some thoughts here.

To put it simply: the game is a blast. My understanding is that Neversoft didn't get any of the code from Harmonix, and had to build their engine from the ground up. That makes it all the more impressive that they've delivered, on a short timetable, a game that plays just as well as its predecessors. I've heard some complaints that the hammer-on/pull-off mechanic is more forgiving this time around, and while I agree that it is, I don't agree that it's a problem. You already have real guitarists getting elitist about Guitar Hero; let's not have expert-level players getting elitist too.

The tracklist is as good as I'd hoped, with the usual amount of bad songs that are surprisingly fun to play and good songs that are surprisingly lame to play. I wasn't expecting to be thrilled by the bassline of "Reptilia," but there you go. Metallica's "One" was worth the price of admission. Our biggest complaint in playing through the co-op campaign was that the final encore is a song called "Monsters" by a band called Matchbook Romance. The guitar part was ordinary, the song was boring, and coming as it did on the heels of songs by Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Living Colour, it was almost a cruel joke.

The new "battle mode" was a disappointment, at least from the brief time we spent with it. The idea of power-ups doesn't bother me per se, but it seems antithetical to the idea of Guitar Hero that a game can end within about thirty seconds. Any competitive mode ought to encourage more rocking, not less. As it is, we found that whoever sprang the lefty flip on the other guy first tended to win. Not really my idea of a good time. Fortunately, it's optional except for a couple stages in the single-player mode. I am willing to believe that battle mode is more fun when you get good at it. Still can't imagine it's worth playing over co-op or pro face-off.

I'm not sure I'll end up buying Guitar Hero III, if only because I don't know how much time I can devote to it. Plus, I'm still fairly convinced that Rock Band will be better. But it is pretty great, and the highest praise I can give it is that my wrist is hella sore today. That's rock and roll!