Monday, March 30, 2009

Wanted: A good bang for my buck

I'm on record as an advocate of shorter games. I'd rather play an expertly paced 10-12 hour game, one which keeps surprising me and has the good sense to quit while it's ahead, than one that repeats itself for 40 or 50 hours and focuses too much on minutiae.* When the biggest criticism of a game is that it's too short, I think to myself, isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't a good game leave you wanting more? I think it's a better use of my time and money to play something short and sweet, rather than something that outstays its welcome.

But even I can't believe how short Wanted: Weapons of Fate is.

I sat down to play this game at around 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon. By 5:30, the end credits were rolling. This isn't the kind of game where the single-player mode is a perfunctory intro to the real game -- that is the whole game. There's no multiplayer to be had. You can play again on higher difficulty, or with different costumes, or with certain challenges, like only using physical kills, but nothing that fundamentally alters or expands the gameplay experience you've already had.

The tricky part is that Weapons of Fate is actually pretty good. I could make some token complaints, especially about the unimaginative boss battles, but it succeeds at its main goal, which is to give players the ability to bend the trajectory of a bullet. That's fun. The environments were varied enough, and the battles pitched enough, that there was a real sense of progression through a story. When the game ended, I felt I could have happily kept going.

Trickier still: if it had been fully twice as long -- a still-slim 8 hours -- without introducing any other new ideas, it's likely that I would have gotten tired of it. I can't say for sure, but even Wanted's last level, a chase up the stairs of a bell tower, starts to feel padded. So does the game deserve props for getting out while the getting is good, or reprobation for charging $60 for what ends up feeling like half a game?

Maybe both.

Related: A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Supply and Demand

*Fallout 3 excepted, of course!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Been a rough couple weeks over here. Got injured while snowboarding (again), then got sick, and to top it all off, work has been nuts. Sounds like this guy needs some Rock Band, STAT.

-This GDC week, people have been buzzing about OnLive, the game system to end all game systems. I'm skeptical, and Richard Leadbetter's Eurogamer editorial, "Why OnLive Can't Possibly Work," shares my skepticism.

To put it as simply as possible, gaming history is littered with ideas that were ahead of their time. Online connectivity was part of the original Famicom. The Xband Modem promised online play for the Genesis and SNES. The Dreamcast had an integrated 56k modem. None of this stuff worked, because the necessary technology hadn't saturated the market yet. The idea was just right, but the execution was lacking.

Xbox Live didn't succeed because it was visionary, or even because it was executed so well -- it succeeded because enough people had broadband to make the product viable. In my decidedly unexpert view, OnLive is something we'll be looking back at as ahead of its time, for that same reason. But like Leadbetter, I would love to be wrong.

-I may be done talking about Resident Evil 5, but others are not. (Note: Saying I'm done talking about a game is the surest sign that I will write three more posts about it, at minimum.) The Zero Punctuation review of RE5 was so on point, it was -- yes -- scary. I like to talk about big-picture stuff in my reviews, but Yahtzee drills down into the details, and everything he said was dead-on. The inventory system in this game is terrible. Having to trade items with Sheva just to discard something is ridiculous.

Another thing that irked me is that, unlike in past Resident Evil games, you don't have the option of using an herb you find, and bypassing your inventory entirely. No, if your inventory is full and your health is low, you still have to drop an item in order to pick up and use an herb. The item that you drop, by the way, vanishes from the game world. Smart.

-Evan Narcisse at Crispy Gamer posted one of the best takes on the racial angle that I've seen so far. I think his smartest point, and the one that seems to elude the most people, is that the question of racism is not necessarily one with a yes-or-no answer. Resident Evil 5's imagery evokes some colonial ghosts. It's fair to ask what those depictions mean, and why they're there. We are still at the point where we're arguing about whether we should have the discussion, rather than having the discussion, but you can't force these things.

-Finally on the RE5 tip, Daniel Purvis felt that the game's action bona fides overcame all other concerns. He loved it. And while I can't disagree with his substantive points about the quality of the action, ultimately what it comes down to is what you want from a Resident Evil game. Daniel's post did make me think that I might have been more receptive if RE5 were called something else entirely. Above all, there's a certain mood I'm looking for when I play a game in this series, one that RE4 managed to retain from its predecessors, but RE5 hasn't. I try not to go into any game with preconceived notions about what it should be, but it's tough when we're talking about a series with this much history.

(Daniel's post also calls to mind, once again, the drives that motivate different types of players. But I digress.)

-I am not at GDC. It sounds like I'm missing the party of the year. I've been avoiding these things forever, but I have this feeling like I'm going to have no excuse for not attending PAX 2010.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

There's nothing that a hundred zombies or more could ever do

Above: A Resident Evil 5 image I haven't seen all over the damn place.

Here you go: my review of Resident Evil 5 is up now at I feel like I've said so much about this game already -- for almost two years now, actually -- that it's almost a relief to finally be done with it.

This is usually the part where I say more, but I'm sick and I've got nothing. The plague metaphor rings ever truer!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Sega strategy

Above: What Sega hopes to do to the competition in the Wii market.

My friend Bob wanted to know about MadWorld.

"It's a beat-em-up," I said. "But it's in black and white, which is neat, and it's unbelievably violent. You get points for killing a guy, but you get more points for impaling him with a road sign, stuffing him into a trash can, and throwing him in front of a moving train."

"This is for the Wii?" he said.

I hadn't thought about it, but yes, Sega's ultraviolent MadWorld is only available for Nintendo's cuddly Wii, and not for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. The Wii's library is so far outside the milieu of the career gamer that I realized, upon loading up MadWorld, that I hadn't even turned the system on since October, when I was playing Mega Man 9. There was nothing during the holiday season that seemed worth playing instead of Dead Space, Far Cry 2, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, and so on and so on.

But let's just pause a moment, and look at some numbers:

Those are the lifetime sales for the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, respectively. In other words, the Wii, on its own, has sold almost as many units as the Xbox and PlayStation combined. 19,000,000 people have a Wii in their house and nobody is trying to sell them on "hardcore" games. Nobody, that is, except Sega.

In February, Sega dropped House of the Dead: Overkill, which has already been awarded the dubious distinction of holding the world record for profanity in a video game. Soon, Sega will publish The Conduit, touted as a graphically intensive FPS. And MadWorld combines over-the-top violence with black humor and a slick presentation that's got to be offputting to the granny set. Clearly, instead of battling other publishers on their own terms, Sega is trying to plant their flag in virgin territory.*

Is it working? Well, House of the Dead (released 2/10/09) sold only 45,000 units in February, finishing well outside of the top 10 best-selling Wii games in February. Of course it was outsold by Wii Fit, but it also couldn't make a dent in the sales of copycats like My Fitness Trainer and Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum. Quality could be an issue: despite some decent reviews, Overkill didn't set the world on fire. Mature titles like Resident Evil 4 have proven that it's possible for edgier far to be commercially successful on the Wii. The jury's still out on the Sega strategy, but it warms my heart to know they're out there trying.

*Isn't it awesome after you write a piece like this and find a news story that not only proves your point, but renders it redundant.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Resident Evil 5 isn't scary

Above: I don't want to point fingers, but...

In Friday's Penny Arcade news post, Tycho challenged the coalescing conventional wisdom about Resident Evil 5:
...I'm still trying to figure out how the game isn't scary. I keep reading that it isn't, and everyone seems to agree with this thesis, but no-one ever says why. It's true that the game relies less on what you might call "pavlovian" horror - it doesn't ring the expected bells. There is no haunted house, for example. There is a marked lack of jack-o-lanterns, and black cats are rare. When I run out of ammunition and five men are trying to kill me - one of whom has no head but rather a lashing, six foot trunk of slick vermin, I know that I personally find that unsettling.

I posited a couple of reasons why it isn't scary in my review for the Phoenix, which is coming up later this week. But it's worth going into in a bit more detail, because Tycho's right: people are agreeing that the game isn't frightening, without really saying why. Then again, horror, like comedy, loses much of its impact when you have to explain it. That's never stopped me before. I think there are a few reasons why this game isn't scary.

First, it's light out. I appreciate Capcom's attempt to try something new here. There may be no reason why horror couldn't work in the daytime. Still, I remember reading long ago about how the daylight was going to be incorporated into the gameplay. The contrast between brightly lit outdoor areas and shaded indoor areas would cause Chris to lose his eyesight, temporarily. I even seem to recall that spending too much time in the sunlight might cause Chris to start hallucinating. That all sounds awesome. None of it happens in the final game.

Instead, all that happens is that nothing seems to be lurking around corners anymore. Everything is right there in front of you. The essence of horror is what you don't see -- it's about your imagination filling in the blanks. Being swarmed by bloodthirsty foes in Resident Evil 5 may be exciting or tense, but if that's horror, then we have to start calling every game that gets your heart pumping a horror game. It simply isn't so. There's another quality we're looking for here.

Another problem is that, writhing bug parts aside, the enemies in Resident Evil 5 now appear so human that they've climbed out of the uncanny valley. Zombies are creepy because they're human, only not. They possess a lifeless, alien quality that provokes an instinctive revulsion. But the enemies in RE5 just seem like a bunch of angry dudes. Again, this is a decent setup for an action game -- but it's not scary.

As for the writhing things that tend to pop out of the villagers' heads, they sure are icky. But in Resident Evil 4, they were surprising. We already didn't understand why the villagers were attacking us, and then we really didn't know what the hell these things were that were popping out of them. In RE5, we enter the game with this knowledge. Therefore it's not surprising, and worse still, we understand what's happening and why. That cuts horror off at the knees.

There's one factor more than any other that makes Resident Evil 5 less scary than many of its predecessors. It's having a partner. That changes the entire calculus. In other Resident Evil games, back to the first one, you may have had allies in the game world, but you spent most of your time cut off from any hope of assistance. In the new one, you've got somebody at your side the whole time. She bails you out of tough spots, and can even revive you when you're about to die. Once again, this is pretty neat for an action game. But it changes everything about a horror game.

When I played Resident Evil 4, I had this sense that if Leon died out there, nobody would ever know what happened to him. That was one of the scariest things I could imagine. Playing Resident Evil 5, I feel just the opposite: that everything's going to be all right. What could be less scary than that?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Using the sniper rifle in Killzone 2: A photo tutorial

Here's a handy, step-by-step guide to using the sniper rifle in the smash-hit PlayStation 3 shooter, Killzone 2.

1. Press L2 to take cover

2. Push upward on the left stick to slide out of cover

3. Click the right stick to look down the gunsight

4. Aim with the right stick

5. Adjust the zoom by pressing up on the D-pad

6. Press R1 to fire

7. Headshot!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The 'Zone diet

Above: You know, it almost does look this good.

Mere months after most outlets got to it, my review of Killzone 2 is up now at This is one of those positive reviews that seems to harp on the negative, mostly because I felt compelled to beat back some of the fanboy furor, as evidenced by the prominent placement of the infamous PSXExtreme editorial. But most people I know have had fully sane reactions to Killzone 2, and the consensus that it's a good shooter is one I heartily agree with.

But: Is it a system seller? That's the question that gets asked of every PS3 exclusive, from Resistance to MotorStorm to Uncharted to Resistance 2 to, uh, MotorStorm 2... So far, the answer for all of these games has been no. I think the answer is no for Killzone 2, as well. The notion of a single game as a system seller is probably a myth, bolstered by the occasional Halo. Still, when you add up all of those games, and then factor in the terrific content available on PSN, plus the rapturous reception for the past two editions of MLB The Show, you start to have a compelling case. It's a good system.

All Sony needs now is a $100 price cut, and they'll be in business. $400 is still ridiculous, even if, every six months or so, that $400 will get you a bigger hard drive and a better pack-in game. We're in a recession, people!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What he said

I was going to write all about how Resident Evil 5's depiction of race strikes me as less problematic than did the initial trailer, but then Stephen Totilo went and said the same thing.

Context is everything, and the trailer didn't have it. The game clearly sets up the premise, and from the get-go depicts enemy characters who are visibly under the control of parasites. And strangely, I find myself agreeing with one of the more common arguments I tried to dismiss: when I'm playing the game, I'm really not seeing skin color. I'm reacting to threats. If I were only watching the game, as with the trailer, then I'd be taking more note of what everybody looked like. As a player, it's all about prioritizing my targets based on what seems most dangerous at the time.

I'm relieved, because I thought I wouldn't be able to think of anything else while playing Resident Evil 5. But I've been able to enjoy it on its own terms so far.

Instead, I want to take a minute to talk about how dumb Sheva is. As computer-controlled partners go, she's not so bad. She sticks with you (sometimes a little too closely, actually), and is a pretty good shot. She picks up ammo if she's far away from you, but if she's nearby she gives you dibs. But for all the basic things that she does right, strategic planning is still impossible.

Mostly, that's due to her strange weapon preferences. She seems to favor the weakest weapon in her arsenal at all times, no matter what's situationally appropriate. For example, I decided to keep the handgun and shotgun for myself, and give her the MP5. That also meant giving her all the machine gun ammo. Yet if she had even five bullets in her handgun, she'd use that -- and then pick up a new box -- rather than kicking ass with the machine gun and letting me have the handgun ammo.

Even worse, at one point she was standing motionless with the shotgun, because the zombies were too far away for it to be effective -- even though she also had the rifle in her inventory. Since she had shotgun shells remaining, though, she wasn't going to switch weapons. That was unfortunate. It might be nice if there were some way to control her more fully, but then you start getting away from the immediacy of the action gameplay, and nobody wants that.

It's clear that live co-op is going to the be the way to play, and I look forward to giving that a whirl tonight. My concern now would be that co-op couldn't possibly be scary when you're cracking jokes with a buddy, but then again Resident Evil 5 doesn't seem scary in the first place. In a Venn diagram of the series, with overlapping circles marked "horror" and "action," this game would be nestled securely on the righthand side.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

This weekend marks my last snowboarding outing of the season. It's been a good one. When I first went out in December, I could barely get off the lifts, and now I can make it down the intermediate trails without hurting myself too badly. So one last hurrah tomorrow, and then I have to find something else to do for the next nine months. Two tempting alternatives: playing Resident Evil 5, and putting in a little more time with Killzone 2's multiplayer.

-The blogosphere is blowing up about Far Cry 2, a development I welcome with open arms. Duncan Fyfe wonders why even ostensibly realistic shooters so often elide the human cost of war. Nels Anderson suggests that FC2 uses its environmental verisimilitude to smuggle in some deeper symbolism. And Ed Borden says that by playing the emphasis on first-person instead of shooter, Far Cry is actually the future of games. Good reads, all.

-Steve Gaynor explains how Flower's handle on the basics of good game design make it more successful than many bigger-budget, higher-profile titles. I often think it's more important for a game to pick one thing and do it well, rather than to try to mix and match genres and play mechanics. Flower certainly fits that bill. Bears repeating: if you're a PS3 owner, the downside for giving this $10 title a spin is non-existent.

-Ben Fritz compares the critical reception to the film Watchmen to the critical reception for, well, nearly every video game that comes out. Says Fritz, "'Watchmen' has four 100's, three 20's, a bunch of 75's, a bunch of 50's, a bunch of 40's -- the critics are truly divided." Compare that to the Metacritic score for Killzone 2, which ranges from 100 down to 70. Ditto Resident Evil 5, save for a lone 60 from G4TV. When it comes to big-budget releases, game critics nearly always march in lockstep.

It's a bit different story with smaller, less commercial games. Scores for Puzzle Quest: Galactrix range from 90 down to 40. Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard has a 45-point spread, from 70 down to 25. Somehow, that makes me more interested in playing it.

-Speaking of which, this week's awesome GameSetWatch editorial was written by Christian Nutt, who wonders, vis-à-vis Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, if it's possible to make a "B" game. This is a conversation that Ryan and I have had a few times, in regards to games like God Hand and Godzilla Unleashed. As you can tell from those reviews, I've reached the same conclusion as Nutt. Since videogames are active and movies are passive, it's harder to ironically appreciate their faults.

When you watch Plan 9 From Outer Space, say, the dialogue is awful, the acting worse, and the direction abysmal, but none of that impedes your ability to watch the film from beginning to end. When a game isn't executed well, it does stop you from proceeding. Instead of laughing at a snafu and moving on, you have to actually fight against it in order to get to the next joke. That saps the humor fast.

More to the point, nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie (Ed Wood certainly didn't). We love B movies because they try so hard to be A movies. That's the distinction. And it may be where Eat Lead missed the mark for so many critics.

-This isn't gaming related, but how would you like to have your heart freaking melted?

How Killzone makes you earn it

Above: An example of a weapon you cannot use for the longest damn time in Killzone 2's multiplayer.

Killzone 2's multiplayer is uncommonly deep and customizable. Players can choose from one of seven classes of combatant, like the standard rifleman, a medic, or the stealthy scout. But those classes aren't so rigidly defined, thanks to the medals system -- you can actually mix and match abilities, or "medals," to create a custom character type. You can form four-man squads on the fly, and even assemble 16-person clans made up of four squads. Plus, you can earn perks that allow you to do things like call in your own personal aerial drone to help out in combat. With massive, team-based multiplayer maps that support up to 32 players, you'll see something new every time.

At least, that's the idea. The reality is a bit different.

When you start playing Killzone 2 online, you can play only as one character, the infantryman. Your loadout consists of an assault rifle with limited ammo, a pistol, and a single grenade. You have no other abilities. By default, the game will match you with other players of equal rank or similar, so unless you decide you want to be killed instantly upon spawning, you play almost exclusively with other riflemen.

Killing opposing players and completing mission objectives earns points toward increasing your rank. You begin as a Private, and can work your way up to General (read an overview of Killzone 2's rank system). Each promotion earns you a new ability. Corporals can form squads on the fly. Sergeants can form clans, which I believe are persistent. These are not things that seem to mesh well with the chaos of a public game, although the option to respawn with your squad leader, no matter where he is on the map, is a good one.

It took me several hours of play to reach my current rank, Sergeant First Class. That's 200 points. My reward? A choice of shotgun or SMG. It'll take another 150 points before I can play as a medic. In fact, I've yet to even encounter a medic on the battlefield, thanks to the default matchmaking. Reaching the top rank, General, requires 2800 points. I can't even imagine how long that'll take.

Let's talk about those medals. You earn them by accumulating ribbons, which are rewards for certain achievements in a single match. For example, if you score at least 20 points in a match and don't kill yourself or a teammate, that's a "Good Conduct" ribbon. Eight Good Conduct ribbons will earn you the "Example Soldier" medal, which increases your starting ammo. That's pretty important, because grunts start with 64 rounds. It's easy to run out, and always, it seems, when you round a corner and come face-to-face with an enemy.

The Good Conduct ribbon is easy to earn. Some aren't so easy. One of the game modes is called "Assassination." In it, a player on one team is randomly designated the target. His teammates must protect him. The opposing team must kill him. If you are the target, and you survive, then you earn a ribbon. Five "Assassination Defend Specialist" ribbons will earn you a medal, which boosts your point total for subsequent successful attempts.

Here's the rub: On a full server, under standard settings, Assassination will be only 1 round of 6. When it starts, you have a 1 in 16 chance of being designated the target. You'll rarely have a chance to be the target, and it's not easy to survive. How long will it take to earn 5 ribbons, and the accompanying medal? Beats me. I've got 1 ribbon so far, thanks to my good friend Lady Luck. (Read an overview of Killzone 2 ribbons and medals.)

My complaint isn't the gameplay difficulty. (It shouldn't be easy to survive as the target.) The problem is the exorbitant commitment Killzone requires to play the multiplayer as advertised. You're promised deep customization and endless gameplay options, and that's not what you get. This isn't the same thing as Rock Band's lockbox. They're different types of games, with different objectives. I'm glad that Killzone's multiplayer gives you something to strive for. Still, there comes a point at which the game's attempt to provide incentives becomes a case of withholding content from the player.

Why aren't a couple of classes available at the outset? Why not a few different weapons? Why is everything that makes Killzone's multiplayer unique padlocked behind one door after another, like the entryway to CONTROL headquarters?

None of this is meant as a verdict on the quality of the multiplayer as I've encountered it so far. The network has been rock-solid, and even without the more advanced features, play has been satisfying and addictive. I can see myself sticking with it even after filing the review. But I have to wonder if people touting these features are speaking from experience or extrapolation. It's probably awesome to be a General, to customize your characters, and to participate in a coordinated clan battle. But I couldn't say for sure. I don't know who could.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Songs I'd like to see in Rock Band, YouTube edition

Ever since the release of Guitar Hero, and later Rock Band, discussing what songs we'd like to play has been a popular topic of conversation. I dedicate at least as much thought to this as to what I'd do with all the money if I won the lottery -- which is to say that I lie awake at night thinking about it.

Here are a few of my most wanted Rock Band tracks, in YouTube form. The only ground rule is that I'm restricting my choices to artists who, to my knowledge, have yet to appear in either Rock Band or Guitar Hero, just to keep it fresh. I also estimate the likelihood of my wishes ever coming true.

By the way, screw everyone who disables embedding.

Andrew W.K., "Party Hard"

Why: People either love Andrew W.K. or they hate him. I love the guy. His music, and this song in particular, is pure rock 'n' roll id. If you believe, as I do, that the point of playing Rock Band is to unleash the primal rock beast within, then no song is better suited for the task.

Likelihood: I could see this happening, particularly if he's got a new album coming out. They might follow the Killers model, wherein they release one new track alongside some old favorites. This would be a day-one download for me.

Refused, "New Noise"

Why: It's an astonishing feat of songwriting, starting off with a bang and escalating even further over the course of the song. The guitars are punishing and the vocals are off the charts. I think anybody who played this song in Rock Band would wind up smashing something by the time it was done.

Likelihood: Zero. Song licensing is the province of capitalist swine.

Dire Straits, "Money for Nothing"

Why: "Sultans of Swing" might be the better pick here, but the chunky guitar riff in "Money for Nothing" sounds like two Transformers mating. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

Likelihood: It's possible, although not the most likely Dire Straits song to make the cut. Additionally, they'd have to go with the radio edit that excludes the line about "the little faggot with the earring and the makeup."

Electric Six, "Gay Bar"

Why: Like AWK, Electric Six is a polarizing band. Once again, I know which side I fall on. A kick-ass surf-rock guitar part and hilariously blunt lyrics would make this Rock Band's guiltiest pleasure.

Likelihood: Zero. Really, I just wanted to share the video.

Joy Division, "Love Will Tear Us Apart"

Why: It's the most popular song by one of the most critically acclaimed bands ever, and one of my favorites. Rock Band is generally lacking in post-punk (let's be honest here: how much post-punk do you really need?). Joy Division would do nicely.

Likelihood: I think it's pretty likely, actually. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this eventually came available. I'd sell my soul for a JD track pack with this, "Transmission," and "She's Lost Control."

Sunny Day Real Estate, "Seven"

Why: Remember when "emo" wasn't a dirty word? SDRE was one of the best examples of the genre before it got all stupid, and this is one of their best songs. I chose this one because I think it'd be great fun to drum, but I'd be happy with almost anything from their catalog.

Likelihood: Eh, maybe as part of a 90s indie-rock pack. I'm not holding out much hope, though.

My Bloody Valentine, "You Made Me Realise"

Why: Oh, you know, they're only one of the most celebrated guitar-rock bands of all time, enshrouded in legend and spoken of in whispers. If Lush made it in, surely there's space for MBV. By the way, I originally was going to put "Only Shallow" in this space, but YouTube yielded only concert footage.

Likelihood: Low, because I think whoever had to draw up the note charts would jump off of something.

MC5, "Kick Out the Jams"

Why: Just a classic, awesome song. Anybody who knows the song would want to play it, and anybody who doesn't know it needs to learn.

Likelihood: I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility. Rock Band has dealt with the profanity issue before, by simply leaving out the offending words. I think anybody would be pleased as punch to belt "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" regardless of what the screen did or didn't say. I bet the folks at Harmonix would love to do it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Puzzling indeed

Above: The DS version does not look like this.

My review of Puzzle Quest: Galactrix is online now at There is a lot I don't understand about this game -- that much, at least, comes through in the article -- but with some distance I now think the bigger problem might be the shoddy execution of the Nintendo DS version. I think so partly because of Bill Harris's lauding of the PC version (see here and here), and also because I've played the downloadable PC demo and the web demo, which are both miles beyond the handheld version in presentation, smoothness, and playability. Should be said, too, that I played Challenge of the Warlords on PSP, which was executed well on a technical level, but had other issues.

The DS version, though, is ugly. It's hard to look at. The colors are washed out and the overall look is grainy. New gems don't slide smoothly onto the screen -- they pop into view. The touchscreen detection, as I mention in the review, is iffy. The audio is scratchy. It's just not a pleasant game to interact with. While I failed to engage the finer points of the RPG mechanics, that's only partly due to my well-documented idiocy in these matters. It's also because it's hard to get past such an off-putting surface.

Did I expect a graphical powerhouse from a Nintendo DS game? No. But I was taken aback when I first booted up Galactrix, and that feeling never went away.

Monday, March 09, 2009

In on the killzoner

Above: PSXExtreme editors hunt for cowardly Edge dogs.

I spent several hours with Killzone 2 over the weekend. It's good. I like it. In fact, the best thing I can say for it is that when I wasn't playing it, it still occupied a lot of my brainspace. I still have more to play before I can review it properly, but, yeah, good game. Yet I couldn't get that PSXExtreme editorial out of my head. You know, the one that said:
We all know that Guerilla's title is one of the best FPSs ever made; anyone who knows this industry and has a functioning brain will admit to this. They may not like it, but they will admit to its quality. This is what good reviewers do.

And I'm wondering, what else would good reviewers do? They'd probably talk about an unstable multiplayer experience, one which is reportedly costing people significant time and progress when it crashes on them deep into a match.

They might note a lack of campaign co-op, which wouldn't be a big deal if the campaign didn't saddle you with an AI partner for nearly its entire play time. As these things go, the AI is pretty good, but strategy and flanking maneuvers are nigh impossible. Live co-op would be far preferable.

While we're on that subject, how come playing the game demands that you heal your fallen comrades over and over, but they're unable to return the favor? Not that it really matters, since the checkpoints are so close together. But it's the principle of the thing.

(And one cheap shot: Why does the healing beam resemble a 1950s ray gun? It makes me laugh every time. It looks like a prop from a black-and-white TV show, where a guy in long underwear is fighting a robot made out of cardboard boxes.)

While admitting to Killzone's quality, they might point to areas in which the quality falters, such as the massive clipping issues on the train level. First, my wounded partner fell through the floor into an unreachable area. I could not heal him, and we could not advance. Next, I walked through a wall and was trapped (though well defended!). I had to blow myself up with a grenade in order to try again.

Finally, a good reviewer might point out that Killzone 2 doesn't have an original idea in its head -- not in terms of storyline, art direction, combat dynamics, level design, and so on. It looks and feels like a mash-up of almost every good shooter that's come out in the past few years. There's an aesthetic and narrative that borrows freely from Gears of War, an approach to killbox-style firefights that hails from the Call of Duty school, and a duck-and-cover mechanism that owes a lot to Rainbow Six Vegas.

None of this is to disparage Killzone. If you're going to steal, you should steal from the best. Barring any unforeseen catastrophes, I look forward to writing a positive review. No, this is to disparage, once again, the above-mentioned editorial, which has only become more nonsensical now that I've actually played the game. What good reviewers do is call a game like they see it, warts and all.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Watchmen comes out this weekend. Like Alan Moore himself, I have my doubts about how the book could possibly be filmed in a way that does it justice, but some of the early reviews are encouraging. Then again, some aren't. I look forward to finding out for myself.

-Lots of tearful goodbyes to N'Gai Croal this week. It may be useful to remind ourselves that he is, in fact, still alive. Still, there were some some elegant tributes to the man.

From Dubious Quality:
N'Gai is one of the very few people who writes about gaming who is a writer first, not a gamer. He could have written about anything and it would have been interesting (and I hope he does).
From The Cut Scene:
N'Gai Croal... forged a path in many ways for those of us writing for mainstream publications about video games as a business and an art form.
From Joystick Division:
Among a relatively small pool of games journalists who not only push the profession farther but are also, you know, read, Croal was a standout, and it's not hyperbole or blowing smoke up his ass to say the profession - not to mention the gaming community en masse - is a little worse off without his voice.
From Sexy Videogameland: of the things I credit most to him is helping delineate and cement the concept that there can exist game criticism as a discipline separate from traditional reviews, from pointed editorial and from news journalism -- writing that in part asks questions and shares experiences.
From GameDaily:
Perhaps the most surprising fact to come to light this week was that Croal has only been covering games for three years. It feels like he's been with us for much longer. In the short time N'Gai Croal has written about games he's opined on controversies and encouraged us to think about our pastime in new ways.
And, of course, at MTV Multiplayer, the final Vs. Mode: part 1 and part 2.

-I've said it before and I'll say it again now: Duncan Fyfe is one of the best pure writers talking about videogames. He's just wrapped up a nine-part series called "The Domestic City," which presents a fictional world in which videogames have the cultural cachet we keep pretending they do. It's just amazing.

-I'll link to anybody who's still talking about Far Cry 2. This week it's Michael Abbott, who says he couldn't take the bleakness of the game's moral vacuum. It's a perfectly reasonable position to take, and yet that was what excited me so much about the game. I felt like it was operating on a different philosophical level entirely from other shooters. Also, make sure to read the comments on the post. As usual at the Brainy Gamer, they're great.

-L.B. Jeffries wrote a critical analysis of Half-Life 2, the likes of which would be impossible to do under the usual review structure. You need this kind of time and separation in order to really be able to deconstruct a game. He makes a number of insightful observations about setting and theme, the kinds of things I only ever noticed on a subconscious level while playing.

Looks like I've got Killzone 2 on tap for the weekend. It'll be nice to finally see what all the fuss is about.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Level cap reached

No more Level Up.

I doubt he'd agree, but I owe N'Gai Croal a great deal. He was the first blogging heavyweight to link to Insult Swordfighting, to what I thought was a throwaway post about the similarities between the biggest game blogs. He kept linking, and those traffic spikes were followed by links from sites like GameSetWatch, Gonintendo, and even Kotaku itself,* all of whom, I have to assume, got to me through Level Up.

N'Gai's embrace of the New Taxonomy of Gamers is a debt I will never be able to repay. He first spotlighted the series in a comprehensive response last April, referenced it in a podcast, and was still mentioning it in Slate's Gaming Club in December (and then, between the time I wrote this post and the time I scheduled it to publish, he linked it in the last-ever Vs. Mode at MTV Multiplayer). While it would be genteel of me to say that satisfaction with my own work is reward enough, it would also be a bald-faced lie. The response from readers has been gratifying and validating. Every month or so, it seems, somebody else discovers the series, links to it, and discusses it. That's at least as much N'Gai's doing as it is mine.

For a few years now, Level Up has served as the hub of a certain type of videogame writer. Although there were always plenty of people doing interesting, thoughtful work about games, for too long they were isolated. N'Gai was like a switchboard operator, making the necessary connections to get the information through. I always talk, in general terms, about the need for a more thoughtful and substantive cultural conversation about games. N'Gai actually made it happen.

Whatever he does next, I'm sure he'll do well at it. But we will miss him.

*None of whom has linked to me for ages. Come back, Maggie!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Takin' it to the street

Above: Hadouken!

My review of Street Fighter IV is up now at

I had an epiphany while writing this one: I don't explain games on technical terms very well. I'm not sure whether I lack the ability, but in the case of fighting games, I certainly lack the understanding. Lots of words pop up on the side of the screen while you're playing Street Fighter IV, notifications of "counters" and such, none of which I ever conjured on purpose. The manual makes mention of arcana like "hyper armor" and "armor breaks" and "focus dashing." Again, while I might have executed some of these during play, it was never due to anything more than good fortune.

And yet, when we talk about whether this game is accessible or not, I think it's worth mentioning that you don't have to master those advanced skills in order to enjoy it. I had a blast playing this game, moreso than with any fighting game in recent memory -- maybe since Virtua Fighter 2. That's without having progressed in ability beyond the Street Fighter 2 days, when we all performed as many special moves as possible, regardless of what our opponents were doing. This method led to many more defeats than victories, for sure, but I never felt marooned as I have in so many other fighting games -- not even when that d-bag playing as Ken rattled off two perfect rounds against me in under thirty seconds.

That makes Street Fighter IV a success in my book.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009 User-Submitted Previews: Resident Evil 5

Above: The author, left, takes aim at commenters.

I'm going to be honest with you: the user comments about Resident Evil 5 at are a complete letdown. Nobody even mentions the racial angle. I can think of only two explanations for this. Either there aren't a bunch of mouthbreathers contributing comments, or the Gamestop web staff is moderating with extreme prejudice. Hmm, which one of those is more likely?

(As usual, typos are retained from the original.)

"A Customer" confidently predicts "The Best shotter game yet," declaring:
I think this game is the best shooter and the best resident evil game yet. It tops Naruto Ninja Storm.

Obviously, we'll need to wait for the full game to make a final judgment. But I don't see how part 5 could top my pick for the best Resident Evil game ever, Genji: Days of the Blade.

Readers often wonder whether the User-Submitted Previews are an example of astroturfing. If so, "pcrcbros" isn't even trying to cover his tracks:

Hey, I can't wait to have this game. Its the best. I love the graphics, and i always buy my games at gamestop. Its the best place to buy games.

This guy is cheerier than a Labrador Retriever. I would love to have such a sunny disposition. Imagine how great life would be if you were as happy as this guy. "Oh man, I'm eating Cheerios for breakfast. I love Cheerios. Now I'm putting on some pants. These are the best things you can wear on your legs."

Not to be outdone, "Toyocelica" says all exclamation points must go:

The game graphics looks awsome!
The game play is good, it changed a little, but I like how you can now quickly change weapons and assign items to your D-pad.
Overall the game looks like its going to be great!

I played the demo and cannot wait to play the game!

I got my copy reserved!

If your a resident evil fan, this is definitely a most!

Even if your not a Resident Evil fan, you would like this action/horror game!

I picture Toyocelica typing the first line, and then leaning back in his chair, puffing on a pipe. For several minutes, he gazes out the window onto a heath. Then, a devilish half-smile forms on his face. He leans forward, hits "enter" twice -- with deliberate, forceful strokes -- and bangs out the next line. The process of creation begins anew.

"King Games Version" didn't say anything worthy of ridicule. I just wanted to give his username a shout-out.

"A Customer" unveils a twist ending you'll have to see to believe:

the controls suck. First off you have to hold down the ‘x’ button to run which does not allow you to look around while running. This makes it extremely hard to see where you’re going, especially while you are trying to run away from zombies. Second when you draw your weapon or knife you cannot move your character. This makes it difficult when you are trying to kill the zombies with your knife because you have to run up to the zombie then pull your knife out to attack which takes a second to draw it out. Hopefully when they release the full version they fix the controls, because as it stands now this is on the bottom of my list to get.
Overall great game.

Angling for a job with GamePro, I see.

"EvilAngelSora" reminds me why I started doing this in the first place:

The fact it has two players online and co-op will keep this game alive and probably get a high score, and im hoping a 10 out of 10. The weapons are nicely done and the enviorment is stunning, and giving your partner advantages over the zombies makes this heart stopper even more funner. Co-op with your friend or computer makes you use teamwork or the optional DEATH. This game throws in team work actully making both players stay near and helping eachother instead of being able to leave them. This game is certianly a NOT MISS, MUST BUY, GAME OF THE YEAR, EDITORS CHOICE, A MUST GET AN AWARD. I clap chearfully to the makers of this game. Great job Capcom.

And reminds me, too, that no joke I could make would ever top the unintentional hilarity of these commenters. Bless their hearts.