Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

It's Super Bowl weekend. (Now that I've said "Super Bowl," and not something generic like "the big game," I expect to be sued by the NFL.) Madden predicts a Steelers victory, while I predict that I don't care. Definitely rooting for the commercials this year.

-Earlier this week, we wondered just how many third-party games were available on the Wii. While there are obviously plenty, some readers took issue with my contention that they were dribbling out compared with third-party titles on other systems. So that's only tangentially related to N'Gai's article about third-party Wii games, but I need a lead-in somehow. He argues that more third-parties should lead development on the Wii, and then upscale them to the PS3 and Xbox. It's an interesting idea, and it would be nice to see Wii versions of games that aren't just shitty versions of other games with awful motion controls grafted on. It's especially hard to argue with N'Gai's claim that "the most powerful hardware is not what’s required for a game or a platform to succeed. "

-Tom Cross's "Diamond in the Rough" column at Gamasutra this week was about the challenge of storytelling in games. Much of the piece is about Valve generally and Left 4 Dead specifically. Left 4 Dead doesn't just work for the reasons Tom specifies. I've still been unable to say this in a way that feels satisfactory to me, but what is so impressive about Left 4 Dead is the way that its framework allows the players' own personalities to create a new and unique narrative each time through. It's true that Valve gave each character his own traits, but it's the players' actions that provide subtext. Maybe Louis really is just a good-hearted optimist -- but, depending on who's playing, maybe his sunny exterior is actually masking a craven, selfish heart. (I'm reminded again of Daniel Purvis's excellent recap of one such playthrough.)

-Ed Borden argues, a little counterintuitively, that the Xbox is just dragging everyone down: "Now, I can't play Halo or Fable, and Blizzard can't sell WOW to 22 million X-Box gamers. Now, X-Box gamers get crappy networking and "matchmaking" for multiplayer (console gamers don't even know what they're missing), and I get the joke that is Games for Windows Live. Now, X-Box gamers can't even use a browser or access the huge libraries of classic games from or Steam, and I can't play XBLA games." It's a well thought-out piece with some provocative points. My last experience with PC matchmaking was Gamespy circa 1998, though, so I am pretty happy with Xbox Live.

-I won't get my hopes up for Arkham Asylum. I won't get my hopes up for Arkham Asylum.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I want to break free

Now that I've had a chance to play through both levels of the Resident Evil 5 demo, I think I share some of the concerns you guys expressed, but after a while the whole thing started to make a little more sense. The controls still are slow, but cranked up to the "fastest" setting, they seem adequate. I mean, Resident Evil games have always been slow. This one's at least on par with the fourth. I'm wondering if the transition from Left 4 Dead to Resident Evil 5 is to blame. They seem similar on the surface, but play so differently.

So far, I like the ammo allocation. It seems like you can only find enough ammo to last if you keep moving. It's all over the place, in crates, drawers, and barrels, but you have to overcome your natural tendency to bunker down when threats are coming from all angles. And it really does change the whole dynamic when you have to divide resources between teammates. The essence of survival horror is feeling like you don't have what you need to survive, and then finding that you just barely do.

In the first level, the AI partner seemed great: always watching my back, always quick with the ammo re-up. But not much was asked of her there. Against the chainsaw guy in the second level, you need a plan of attack. That's much easier with a live partner. Our strategy was simple but effective: we leapfrogged one another past the barrels, shooting them in turn as our enemy pursued us. After that, it didn't take too many headshots and frag grenades to put him down. Although I hope the full game has more of these kinds of mildly tactical scenarios for co-op play, my concern is that the single-player will suffer for it. We'll see. Put me down as optimistic, but not excited.

But the point of the post is this: Do you think the mustachioed zombie looks like Freddie Mercury, or Saddam Hussein? We argued this point for quite awhile.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Black Box memorial

Above: You will not do this successfully until your 30th try.

My review of Skate 2 is up now at This is just a good game, well made, accomplishing exactly what it means to. The word of layoffs at Black Box on the very day the game hit store shelves was all the proof you need that there is no underlying logic to this universe. We are all alone.

This is, by the way, an incredibly difficult game. If you're like me and difficult games get your blood boiling, you should be aware of that going in. I'm not saying to avoid it by any means. Just that it might be worth your while to set up a pile of pillows and blankets that you can safely punch after the 50th straight time you fail to defeat Danny Way in the super park. I was so excited when I finally did beat him, only to discover that it was a best 2 out of 3 matchup.

God damn it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Resident Evil 5 demo

I spent only five minutes playing the Resident Evil 5 demo. In that time, I wished the controls were a little faster (even after switching them to "fast" mode), failed to realize that I could quick-equip weapons by using the D-pad, and got killed by a guy wielding an axe the size of a compact car. Other than that, it seemed all right.

I'm planning to give it another go, obviously. I'm especially interested to try the online co-op. But I'm reminded already why I usually avoid downloading demos. There's the opening screen disclaimer about how the game isn't finished and might contain bugs.* You're dropped right into a scene without any context or buildup, although presumably it's intended to showcase the very best the game has to offer. There may be important gaps you're not even aware of. All in all, this is not the ideal way to experience a game.

Demos can be good or bad, of course, and I can't say yet which one this is. But I was going to buy Resident Evil 5 no matter what. It's following up what I've repeatedly called the best game ever made. What could the demo do but lower my level of interest?

I want you all to remember I said this when I'm hooked on the co-op and playing it exclusively.

That's just me. What's your take on the Resident Evil 5 demo?

*If you've ever taken a writing workshop, you've probably encountered several people who try to temper expectations for their work by muttering something like, "I didn't work very hard on this," or, "I just wrote this last night, so it's not really done." And you think, "Great, thanks for valuing my time, douche." That's the same impression I get from disclaimers like this. You know, sort of.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Nintendo playbook

We're all still scrambling to explain the runaway success of the Nintendo Wii. More than two years after its release, you can't find one on store shelves unless you're very lucky. Nintendo has sold every unit it's shipped, and has made a profit on each one. The "hardcore" among us have looked at the barren release schedule and wondered where the software was, while nearly every game that's come out has been a massive hit. The Wii has captured the imagination of millions of people who didn't consider themselves gamers at all.

Why are we so surprised? All this has happened before.

Nintendo's playbook hasn't changed since the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the game console that in the 1980s grabbed 90% of the market and whose name became synonymous with video games in the minds of parents everywhere. In the book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, published in 1993, author David Sheff laid out in meticulous detail Nintendo's rise to dominance. Sheff interviewed major players like Hiroshi Yamauchi, Minoru Arakawa, Shigeru Miyamoto, Howard Lincoln, and many other names I remember coming across in Next Generation magazine.

See if you can tell whether the keys to the success of the NES were any different from those that have vaulted the Wii to the top of the industry.

Nintendo emphasized profitability.

What system do you think the speaker is talking about here?
"The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply," says [the speaker]. He sought to make something smaller, thinner, and lighter than anything ever seen -- something that was also fun. (28)

Not the Wii, obviously. But it's not the NES, either. That's Gunpei Yokoi talking about his handheld Game & Watch system. Even before the Famicom, Nintendo's M.O. was to utilize pre-existing technology and to streamline its production. Money was to be made not just on software, but on hardware. Compare this to Microsoft and Sony, each of which sold their latest consoles at a loss (in Sony's case, as much as $260 per unit as recently as last spring).

Nintendo constricted supply to create demand.

Not that Reggie Fils-Aimes will admit to this, but it's eerie how the supply and demand curve for the Wii matches that of the NES. Hardware shortages both real and artificial plagued the NES, which resulted in sustained demand over multiple holiday seasons. The NES launched in the United States in 1985. Four years later, retailers still couldn't stock enough:

Before Christmas 1989, Peter Main was threatened with bodily harm and lawsuits by company managers and presidents who blamed him for single-handedly destroying their business. The only stores that had Nintendo products at Christmas that year were retailers that had sufficient cash reserves to allow them to begin hording systems and games that summer. (203)

This is equivalent to the Wii still being hard to find for Christmas of 2010. But considering that units were still hard to come by this past season, that's not so far off.

Nintendo treated software the same way.

...Nintendo did not fill all of the retailers' orders, and it kept half or more of its library of games inactive. In 1988, for instance, it sold 33 million cartridges, but market surveys showed it could have sold 45 million. That year retailers had requested 110 million cartridges, or nearly 2.5 times the indicated demand. (194)

Hands up if you attempted, fruitlessly, to find a copy of Wii Fit last spring. Obviously demand was high. But perceived demand was even higher when consumers went to one store after another, only to be told that the game was sold out.

Nintendo kept third-party publishers on a tight leash.

Most analysts blamed the great video-game crash of 1983 on a flooded market. The story of Atari bulldozing millions of E.T. the Extraterrestrial cartridges has become the quintessential cautionary tale, the "Bloody Mary" of the industry. As a result, Nintendo placed draconian controls on third-party publishers. All games had to be approved by a team of Nintendo employees. Game cartridges required a specific chip, patented by and only available from Nintendo itself, in order to even work in the NES. Most interesting to me, third-parties were permitted to release only 5 different games in a year.

Some companies skirted the rules. Konami created a second imprint called Ultra, which allowed the company to release 10 games in a year. Acclaim bought LJN, but kept the two brands separate for the same reason. An Atari brand called Tengen went so far as to hack the lock-out chip and release games without Nintendo's authorization.

As far as I know, we're not quite there yet with third-party Wii software, but the next time you wonder where all the new games are for the Wii, this is probably why. Nintendo doesn't need to let any old company release games for them, not when they can dribble out their own sure-thing properties every six months to a year, and even rely on occasional unexpected grand slams like Carnival Games.

Knowing all this, it's no surprise that the Wii is such a hit. It wasn't a result of Nintendo's still impressive cachet. This is a company that never lucked its way into success. The Wii is just a bit of history repeating.

Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children seems to be out of print, although my local library stocked several copies.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

No cute intro this week. Let's get to it.

-The news of layoffs at EA's Black Box studio must have been a punch in the gut, coming as it did on the same day that the company's Skate 2 hit stores. Black Box also made the apparently terrible recent Need for Speed games, but Skate is the real deal. Hopefully its core team is sticking around for the third game. Good luck to everyone else there in the hunt for work.

-Denis Farr questions the accepted wisdom that Gears of War is homoerotic. Interesting read, although you're never going to convince me that a bunch of sweaty, muscular dudes crouching together is anything else.

-How bad is Sony doing? So bad.

-Duncan Fyfe takes on Yakuza 2, as only he can.

-Jeremy Parish always does great, high-minded work, but a list like "The Worst Presidents in Gaming" is what brings the links.

-Speaking of which, are we what we link? I've always assumed that when I link something, the implication is that I endorse the quality of the article, not necessarily that I agree with the argument. Context helps, I guess. It's a bad idea to assume that people know when you're linking something ironically.

-I approve of Hardcasual's reinvention as Onion-style satire. Of note: "'Parent Killer 64' Had Nothing to Do With Me Killing My Parents," and "UGO Reverses 1up Buyout Thanks to Brave Actions of bdnjfbdenk."

-Is February the month of DLC? Sounds like it. I'm itching to get at Operation Anchorage.

-Iroquois Pliskin is back! I was starting to wonder if he'd died. Sounds like he nearly did.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Get the point?

When you look at all the things Microsoft has done right this console generation, achievements have to rank pretty high up there. This wasn't always a given. It seemed like a silly and useless feature to me, and in many respects it is silly and useless. You can't trade your achievement points for anything tangible. You can't use them to download new themes or Live Arcade games, or trade them for Xbox-branded products. I don't even think there's an easy way to compare your gamerscore to that of your friends, although admittedly I haven't looked very hard. It's like playing an RPG with no level cap -- and no discernible benefit from leveling up.

Yet there's something about earning achievement points that's irresistible. Partly, I think they nailed the tactile sensation of getting one right. The little "ding" of unlocking a new achievement has always sounded to my ears a little like a water droplet exploding, which may be helped by the way the graphic blows up like a balloon. It feels organic and germane. When the PS3 implemented their similar "trophy" system, they didn't get the feedback quite right. Earning a new trophy is marked by a muffled chime, and a little rectangular graphic that pops instantly onto the screen.

I like to earn achievement points, but not so much that I'll always go out of my way for them. In fact, my gamerscore is embarrassingly low, considering the sheer number of Xbox 360 games that have spun through my disc drive over the past three years. Partly, that's due to expediency: a lot of achievements don't reward powering through the main game, which is the way I usually play. They're for those who take the time to explore every aspect of the game. They reward dedication and sometimes even creativity. And many skew toward online play.

Even then, sometimes I can't imagine who out is earning these things. I sank something like 25 hours into Burnout Revenge, the first Xbox 360 game I ever got, and topped out at 110 achievement points. Among the many achievements I missed were "True Elite," worth 65 points for getting a perfect rating on every single event, and "Celeb Status," 70 points for uploading a clip that made it onto the top-20 downloads. I would love to know how many people actually did earn the "Celeb Status" achievement.

Mostly, I'm fine with picking up whatever achievements I earn along the course of a campaign. Part of the reason why my BioShock score was so high -- 730 points -- was that nearly all of its achievements were easily accomplished over the course of a single playthrough. Researching splicers was rewarded both in-game, by making them easier to kill, and outside the game, by tallying 10 achievement points each. Fallout 3 was like this, too, doling out 20 points for each mission, although most of those missions weren't mandatory to reach the end credits.

This is when achievements are at their best: when they encourage you to play the game the right way, and to experience things you might otherwise have missed. Left 4 Dead uses achievements as an incentive to be generous with health packs and pain pills. Crackdown's achievements reminded the player to make full use out of all of his powers. Sometimes they seem contradictory to a game's goals: Guitar Hero II included an achievement for failing a song on easy mode. Hey, it was good for a laugh, and one of the easiest achivements I've ever earned.

A few games maintain a hold on me. I'm still chasing the "Free Runner" achievement in Crackdown, which is worth 50 points for finding all 500 Agility Orbs. I'm up to 498 out of 500, and I've had the game for almost two years now. Some turn me off. Every time Gears of War 2 updates me on how far I am from the "Seriously 2.0" achievement (kill 100,000 opponents), it makes me want to curl up under my desk.

No matter what Xbox 360 game you're playing, the achievements game has become its own addictive enterprise. It's single-player game and multiplayer. It's all about the score, and all about maximizing your exposure to the breadth of a game world. It binds together a library of hundreds of games. Achievements are the Force.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The winter doldrums begin

Above: You Ent gonna enjoy this one. (It's a pun, you see.)

My first review of 2009 is up, and the game's a stinker: Lord of the Rings: Conquest. I try hard not to be mean-spirited when I write a review of a bad game, because I know a lot of people worked awfully hard on it, but at the same time I had almost a physical reaction when playing this game. My body rebelled, as though I was wearing an itchy sweater and I just had to yank it off. So there you go.

This, by the way, is the third game I've played by Pandemic Studios, and the third that sounded great on paper but failed in execution. The other two were the first Mercenaries and Destroy All Humans! I'll still hold out hope for Saboteur, though. Now that's a neat idea for a game.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

O my soul

Minor spoilers in the form of oblique references to the final sequence of Fallout 3.

I finished Fallout 3 this weekend. This should be cause for celebration, but instead I feel sad. I wasn't playing the game for a review. I wasn't trying to zip through it or affix a score to it. Most of the time, I wasn't even trying to do anything at all. I just wanted to explore the Capital Wasteland.

And now I'm done.

This isn't one of those complaints that you can't keep playing once you've finished the storyline. I knew that was coming, and I pressed ahead with it anyway. There was little left to do, really, particularly once I'd reached the level cap. Sure, there were plenty of locations left to discover, plenty of books to read, and even 17 more bobbleheads to hunt for. But at some point, you have to have some goal motivating you to keep playing, and all I had left was the main quest line.

In 48 hours of gameplay, I tallied 750 achievement points (which should have been 770). This is a personal record, just beating the 730 I got in BioShock.*

Every sidequest. 100 locations discovered. 50 locks picked. 50 terminals hacked. 10 bobbleheads found. 5 Super Mutant Behemoths killed. 300 creatures killed. 300 people killed.

I didn't have to do most of these. In most games, these sorts of tertiary goals strike me as padding. Not here. Almost of all these achievements came as a result of trying to put the post-nuclear world back together again. With the exception of the Behemoths, they all came over the course of my travels. Eventually, though, I ran out of people to help.

So I pressed on and beat the game. The climax was pretty neat, particularly the march with Liberty Prime. And while I share others' confusion about the very last bit of the game (why couldn't Fawkes go in there, again?), overall it was a satisfactory way to end things. I wouldn't have felt that way if I'd rushed through the main quest line -- if there was much left to do. But there was nothing else for me out there in the wasteland. There was only one way to finish my adventure.

*I can feel a post about achievement points coming on.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Ah, long weekends. I'll be spending mine with extreme sports, both actual and virtual. Snowboarding on Monday, weather permitting, and Skate 2 before that.

-Speaking of Skate 2, Gus Mastrapa wonders why the game so explicitly favors male avatars. In Gus's formulation, "if you chose to play with a female avatar in Skate 2, you're not playing a natural-born woman, so much as a post-operative transsexual." It's easy for me, a white, male gamer, not to notice these things, but lots of games make the assumption that the people playing are just like me. That is a little odd.

-I was surprised to see that Giant Bomb readers chose Metal Gear Solid 4 as their game of the year, and not just because it seemed absent from almost every top 10 list I read. It's just that, given the ongoing commercial struggles of the PlayStation 3, it's amazing that enough people even played it to box out some Xbox 360 titles. Then again, maybe the 360 vote was split, while PS3 owners had only this one game to rally around. (Although LittleBigPlanet also placed.)

-Two great write-ups about Braid came down the transom on the same day this week. Julian Murdoch at Gamers With Jobs writes about his inability to separate the work from its author. L.B. Jeffries at PopMatters defends the only universally maligned aspect of the game, its inter-level textual interludes. I'm glad people are still playing and thinking about this game.

-In the 1980s, only Galaga could provide a soft landing for a cocaine-addled Alec Baldwin.

-From Time's Karen Tumulty: "The metaphor came from our TV screens. On the day that George W. Bush gave his farewell address, the image that got the nation's attention was one of relieved survivors scrambling out of a jet that was sinking into icy water."

Thursday, January 15, 2009 user-submitted previews: Skate 2

Above: Sweet Suzie!

Like a lot of people, I'm looking forward to Skate 2. The first game was a real surprise, one of the few games I've ever thought I underrated in my original review. As a result, expectations are high for the sequel. You can tell just by reading what the kids have to say about it over on

User "none." gets things started with the airtight logic we've come to expect from our friends on the Gamestop boards:
This game by far beats skate 1. The graphics are/will be amazing and the game play is so much smoother and realistic feeling. Saying the graphics suck from just playing a demo is stupid, its barely 2gb, Just like Cod waw, the graphics were bad on beta and then they turned out to be good. The getting off board mechanics could be a little better but we'll barely ever need to use it unless getting up stairs and what not. It's all about skating, not who can run through the maze fastest. This game will be a must have for 2009. I would recommend this to anyone. give the game a chance instead of judging it by a 2gb demo.

Got that? Don't judge it by the demo, like I did.

The I, Robot award for most excessive use of a titular word goes to "Turbo 2112":

I personal think the demo is great. Skate was a fantastic game and still is. All skate 2 is added additions to skate for example getting off your board. Skate 2 is a great game and way more realistic than the first one. I cant wait to skate the other places in Skate 2.

Thanks to all this repetition, the word has lost its meaning. It's all just a bunch of bullskate.

"Boomshakatak" is a bit less optimistic than I am:

What were they thinking? I played the demo and i have to say what a great way to massacre one of the best games ever made. This game is nothing like the first one, too tony hawkish, controls flat out bite, tricks feel awkward, graphics are terrible. This is the worst let down i have ever experienced.

Let's hope he never gets turned down for a date.

I honestly can't figure out which side of the fence "Sk8SoDontH8" is coming down on:

I am a skater and was getting tired of the same old Tony Hawk games of pushing a bunch of buttons to land something. Then i saw skate and was blown away! Then saw skate two and almost cried!

Cried because it looked so good, or so bad? I can't deal with this kind of ambiguity and subtlety. Fortunately, we've got "A Customer" to get us back to what user-submitted previews are really all about: unreserved fawning.

Ok all I have to say is... this is going to be the greatest game ever made! I already pre ordered it. I can't wait! Skate number 1 was awesome! Now I can't wait to see what this is going to be like! It is going to be a whole new world to me and a whole new generation of video games!

Not to be outdone, "Grahamatic" says:

I have played skate. for the longest time and to be honest i haven't put a new game in my xbox 360 for over three months. Skate. is the best game ever made and don't even try to argue. The reason I am saying this will be the game of the year, if not best ever made, is because it is only perfecting an already perfect game. Skate. 2 will be the greatest thing ever to happen to the world since sliced bread! Can't wait, so pumped!

I'm speechless, as usual. And then "Deamon" proves, once again, that no joke I can make can possibly top the source material:

This game is gonna Own face all night long, Sweet Suzie! I can't wait to start my own label and make my own spots. That's gonna kick so much ya know what i'm saying dude. How can you not like Skate? C'mon u know u want a PRE-ORDER! WEWT!

But I'm not here to judge. I'm like an anthropologist, bringing you stories of far-off tribes whose cultures are quite different from yours and mine. Sweet Suzie!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Know it when I see it

We talk a lot on the Internet about an ideal for game reviewing. There's no shortage of helpful suggestions out there on blog posts and in forums, which often contain many correctly spelled words. One of the articles of faith among a certain anti-establishment type is that reviewers should complete games before reviewing. I agree with this, generally.


What about when a game just seems bad? How much time and effort are you supposed to put into something that seems disastrous from the start, hoping maybe it'll get better? I'm not talking about games that are slow to get started. It took me a good 4-5 hours to surrender fully to Far Cry 2, which turned out to be one of my favorite games of 2008. Near the beginning of Fallout, I was scratching my head about some of the quest objectives, but 40 hours later that seems irrelevant. Both of these games, though, showed enough of what was good about them to keep me interested until I was fully engaged.

No, I'm talking about games that start off bad and show no signs of changing tactics. Games that seem to be systemically flawed, whether you're talking about bewildering design decisions or rudimentary errors of execution. The kind of game that, if you'd rented it from GameFly, would have been back in the mail the next day. These games are easy to identify right from the start. I've played a lot of games that seemed good off the bat before descending into mediocrity, but rarely have I played the game that seems terrible and winds up being genuinely good.

It's times like this that I have to remind myself that this is work and not play. That's easy to forget during the good times, when I can't believe some sucker is paying me to play Left 4 Dead. I probably am not going to complete this game (what game is he talking about, anyway?), but I am going to continue playing it even though my sanity would have had me stop long ago. Sometimes I envy film reviewers, because a bad movie is rarely going to be longer than two hours. Two hours in a video game might not even be long enough to finish the tutorial.

I am curious to know what you guys think: How long do you need to play a game to know it's bad? The tautology I've used in the past is "long enough to know it's bad," but I'm looking for an estimate of real hours. One hour? Two? Six? Ten?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Fallout afternoon tidbits

Yes, I said "Fallout afternoon." I've now reached level 20 and completed all of the marked sidequests except for "Strictly Business," whose negative karma I just couldn't bear. Instead of accepting the quest, I murdered everybody in Paradise Falls. I think it was the right call. Now my goal is to collect a few more achievements, and then power through the main storyline.

By the way, I've been linking to it a lot in my Fallout posts, but let me take a moment to say how invaluable The Vault, a Fallout wiki, has been. I feel no shame in turning to the Internet for help with any game, but the usually indispensable GameFAQs was useless for this. It's impossible for any one person to write the definitive walkthrough for a game as sprawling as Fallout. The wiki approach is much better. The Vault answered every question I had.

Like Stephen Totilo, I too was unaware of how repairs worked until late in the game. We talked about it a little bit in comments to this post, but basically I blame my ignorance on a couple things. I think what happened is that the "repair" option on the Pip-Boy was inactive so often that I eventually stopped looking at it all together. When people said it was there, I couldn't even remember ever seeing it, but there it is, right under "equip" and "discard." I'd keep making excuses, but the truth is I just feel dumb.

On the plus side, ever since I started repairing things, the game has gotten easier and more fun. But I still can't tell you why I kept prioritizing my repair skill with each level-up, despite having no idea what the hell it did.

Speaking of which, I guess I get why they capped the level progression at 20, but it's disappointing to no longer hear the cha-ching of added XP whenever I kill an enemy, discover a new location, hack a terminal, or do literally anything else. I didn't realize how rewarding XP was until I stopped earning it. I'm just playing for the achievements now, which is not something I usually do. This game has awakened the completionist in me, the first game to do that since Crackdown.

Scott Jones wrote an interesting piece at Crispy Gamer about how he was shamed into voting for Fallout for his game of the year. I salute Scott's capacity for self-criticism, and I think he knows as well as anybody else that he should have been this honest and unsparing about Fallout from the beginning. Particularly when the game was selling 4.7 million copies in its first week, a well-written contrarian view might have been valuable. I am a little surprised at his claim that there are many like him, though, who were lukewarm on the game but nevertheless felt pressured into giving it plaudits. If true, that really sucks. And strange, considering that Michael Abbott had no problem finding 20 people with 20 different GOTY picks for his year-end podcast.

For all the Fallout criticism you could ever need, check out Sparky Clarkson's "critical thinking compilation," a collection of links to all the interesting Fallout essays he's encountered. You could probably spend hours reading everything here. Sparky's doing the Lord's work.

On a non-Fallout note, the news that UGO was buying was indeed huge. Jeremy Parish -- who still has a job, thankfully -- has some thoughts on the transaction, plus a eulogy for EGM.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The big picture

Above: The Red Racer Factory -- yep, there's a story in there.

It's fair, I think, to criticize psychic NPCs, repetitive interiors, and all the other problems that can pop up while playing Fallout 3. Certainly it would be nice if Fallout 4 could somehow do away with them. But it's still worth celebrating all that Fallout 3 does so well. The wasteland is a massive canvas upon which are painted scenes of depth and import, most of which aren't story-critical but instead serve to flesh out the mythology.

(Some spoilers follow.)

I talked about my trip to Vault 106 in an earlier post -- that was the Vault where all the residents had been driven insane by some kind of nerve gas. "Agatha's Song" sends you to Vault 92, whose overseers conducted mind-control experiments using white noise. And last night, I took a look around Vault 108, which was inhabited by dozens of clones named Gary. Regrettably, even Gary 1 felt the full force of my Super Sledge.

Vault 108, like 106, isn't integral to any quest line, and yet Fallout 3 would hardly be the same game without it. So much in this world is so interesting that I have yet to sit down and accomplish what I initially set out to do in a single session. I keep getting distracted. I also have yet to play it for less than 3 hours at a time. That's not just because there's so much to do, although that's part of the reason, but also because the extracurriculars are woven so skillfully into the fabric of the game world.

Take the Red Racer Factory. I never would have heard about it, except that in the course of searching a different building entirely (the Nuka-Cola Factory), I came across a dead body carrying a note. The note said that he was there to steal the Nuka-Cola formula, which he would then deliver it to his comrade at the Red Racer Factory. Logically, once I found the formula, that was my next stop. Once there, well, how could I resist going inside?

Inside the Red Racer Factory is, once again, a little self-contained storyline. Ghouls and Super Mutants patrol the interior, but they're controlled by brain implants that can be shut off by computer terminals. At the innermost point of the factory is a demented mad scientist wielding a missile launcher. There's no great reward for taking her out, but you do get a better understanding of what's happened to the world since the bombs fell. It would be possible to go the whole game without visiting this factory, just as I'm sure I'm missing many other similar places. But to do so -- to rush through the primary storyline -- would certainly be to miss what Fallout is really all about.

I once read an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto where he talked about creating The Legend of Zelda. He said he was inspired by the time he spent as a child searching the Japanese countryside for caves and other hidden wonders. Fallout taps into the same vein of curiosity and wanderlust. There have been a lot of games made where interesting things appeared on the horizon, but invisible walls blocked you from ever getting there. That doesn't happen in this game. If you see it, you can reach it, and you never know what might await you inside.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Run, jump, die, repeat

Above: It's no Sands of Time -- but then, what is?

My review of the new Prince of Persia is up now at I'm a bit surprised at how much conversation has sprung up around this game,* and while I've enjoyed reading it all I haven't felt compelled to respond. I thought it was a good, not great, game that overstayed its welcome, despite not being overly long.

The conversations about the difficulty level are interesting, as are various thoughts about the ending, but I don't know. Well before the ending, I had kind of stopped caring. But I was having a heck of a lot of fun for a good bit of time before that.

I know, this is why I didn't say much about PoP before now. This is how boring it would have been!


-The Brainy Gamer's four-part series, here, here, here, and here
-Shamus Young's video at Twenty Sided Die
-Tom Cross's "Diamond in the Rough" at GameSetWatch
-Scott Juster at Experience Points
-Sparky Clarkson at Discount Thoughts
-Sean's VideoGame Musings
-Probably more

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Falling in and out of love, part 2

Continued from part 1.

Problem number 2 with Fallout number 3: The clash between the open-ended nature of some quest solutions with the scripted interactions between quest-critical NPCs. Granted, trying to make all of the pre-scripted dialogue and actions line up neatly with the elements of randomness in this open world must have been like herding cats. But it doesn't mean I have to like it when something doesn't make sense.

At one point in "Head of State," you're given a few simple instructions.
  1. Go to the Lincoln Memorial.
  2. See if it's clear of Super Mutants.
  3. Return to the Temple of the Union and tell everybody that the Lincoln Memorial is free of Super Mutants.

It's as simple as it sounds. As the quest is written, you aren't supposed to do anything except travel to the Lincoln Memorial, look at it, and return. Except this is Fallout, and what are you going to do, not walk up the steps of the Memorial? That's even if you didn't notice the slavers walking around up there, which I assuredly did. So I went up there and cleared them out, gaining positive karma and XP all the way. It was great.

The problem arose when I brought my buddies from the Temple to the Memorial, at which time they all started griping about the Memorial being in the hands of slavers. But it wasn't! I'd killed them all! So we all walked up there, and I thought the quest should have ended. Instead, we stood around, and none of the characters presented any new dialogue options. Back to the internet I went, whereupon I learned that sometimes there's a slaver hiding in a room underneath the Memorial. I went in there, and sure enough, there he was. Once I killed him, I could finish the quest.

Let's recap what happened there:
  • I killed a bunch of slavers well before the game apparently wanted me to, even though it sent me right to their doorstep.
  • The gang from the Temple of the Union was incensed to find the Memorial in slaver hands, even though, as far as they could tell, it wasn't.
  • The gang from the Temple of the Union, in fact, was telepathic, and knew that a slaver was hiding silently underneath the Memorial.
  • The gang from the Temple of the Union, despite their obvious psychic gifts, were unable to communicate to me that there was still one more slaver holed up.
That's dumb, right? At the very least, it doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. And it's the kind of thing that punctures the bubble of reality that starts to surround you at certain points during the game. There's not a clear separation between the characters as physical entities within the reality of the game world, and between the "dungeon master" quality of the quest lines.

Further, my relationship as the player to my character is a little confused. This is the kind of game where blood spatters on your screen as though it's a camera lens, even when you're in first-person mode. That should be your eyes, right? Not a dealbreaker by any means, nor a mistake exclusive to Fallout. But a game that takes the time to think through these things will ultimately do a better job of creating an immersive game world with no stitches or seams (hello, Mr. Hocking!).

Monday, January 05, 2009

Falling in and out of love, part 1

After the past week, it's safe to say I've now played Fallout 3 as much as any other game I played in 2008, except for Rock Band 2. Not that I'm anywhere near done. I took a timeout from "Picking Up the Trail" on the main quest line weeks ago, deciding to put my effort toward sidequests and reaching level 20. I'd probably even be at level 20 by now if I hadn't spent most of my time on easy mode, costing me precious XP with each mutated beast I crushed with my Super Sledge -- but that's a discussion for another time.*

Thing is -- and I say this with the caveat that, yes, I love this game -- my opinion of this game, graphed as a function of playtime, has formed a neat parabola. You may remember that I had a tough time getting over some of the quirkier aspects of the game when I started, but eventually gave myself over to the setting. Well, after however many hours of play -- 30? 40? -- some of those annoyances have come back. I'm not talking about the crashes and disc read errors that continue to plague the experience, none of which occurred while I was playing Prince of Persia at the same time. Rather, Fallout is so ambitious and unwieldy that it can't help but trip over its own shoelaces at times.

Sometimes, this takes the form of confusing and unfortunate conflicts between quest lines and the karma system. I've been doing a good job of choosing the positive karma path most of the time, but sometimes the game likes to trick me into getting myself into situations that seem only to have a negative-karma solution. "Tranquility Lane" is a good example of this. There is a positive-karma solution to that quest, but it's so obtuse that I never would have figured it out on my own. (No, I have no shame about consulting walkthroughs, particularly with RPGs.)

There's a good argument to be made that Fallout is simply trying to make the player's choices matter, by giving them the freedom to do anything in this world except escape the consequences of their actions. It's the sort of thing I like on an academic level. But when it comes to playing a video game, though, what I really want is the chance to do something over again in order to achieve my desired outcome.

In pursuing Dave as part of "You Gotta Shoot 'Em in the Head," I found out only too late that I had boxed myself out of the positive-karma outcome thanks to my dialogue choices. Now, if I want to finish the quest and gain XP, I'm going to have to kill him -- a negative-karma outcome. If I'd even realized this was a possibility, I might have saved my game immediately before talking to him, but why should that be necessary? One of the cherished traditions of games is the opportunity to try again.

(This is taken to the other extreme in the new Prince of Persia, with some success and also with its own problems. By the way, anything interesting I might have thought to say about the difficulty level and gameplay philosophy of the new PoP is rendered instantly irrelevant by Shamus Young's awesome video on the topic. You must watch this.)

Oh hey, this post got pretty long. Let's pick it up again tomorrow.

*Briefly: Isn't the challenge of a game like Fallout simply finding the time to play it? It's hard enough to feel like you're getting to everything without also having to worry about dying. Exploring and completing quests is so time-consuming that adding difficult combat seems like overkill.