Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I'll not bore you with the details of my PlayStation 3's long, grueling journey toward health, except to note that I still haven't sent it in yet. This is going to take awhile.

I was in the middle of griping to myself about how they just don't make consoles like they used to, when I realized that hardware failures are just a fact of life. The Xbox 360 has gotten all the bad press, but my systems have historically had about a 50% failure rate, no matter who made them. A look back:

Console: Atari 2600
Year Acquired: 1984 (?)
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: A solid performer, although we never touched the damn thing once we got the NES, so who knows how long it might have lasted.

Console: Nintendo Entertainment System
Year Acquired: 1988
Serviced or Replaced: Replaced.
Reason: I can't recall the specific reason why our original NES bit the dust after only a couple years of service. It must have been that warranty-busting Game Genie. Damn you, Galoob!

Console: Sega Genesis
Year Acquired: 1992
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: The first star performer of any console I ever had. As of the last time I plugged it in, probably 2004 or so, it still worked. Can't say the same for the controllers, though. It's hard to play NBA Jam when you can't shoot.

Console: 32X
Year Acquired: 1994
Serviced or Replaced: Junked.
Diagnosis: I uninstalled the 32X to play Virtua Racing for the Genesis, which was incompatible, and after that the 32X never worked again. You may remember that hooking it up involved metal plates and about ten yards of cables, so I think this was actually for the best.

Console: Sega Saturn
Year Acquired: 1995
Serviced or Replaced: Serviced.
Diagnosis: A simple lens error was easy to fix, although dealing with customer service was a nightmare. (Me: "I think it's a disc read error." Them: "Try wiping the memory." Me: "It says 'cannot read disc.'" Them: "Try placing it on the floor, lighting some incense, and dancing around it in a circle.")

Console: N64
Year Acquired: 1996
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: Another solid performer, the N64 was in fine working order as of the last time I hooked it up, probably five years ago or so.

Console: PlayStation
Year Acquired: 1997
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: The first and last time Sony would not disappoint me.

Console: Super NES
Year Acquired: 1998
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: This was the smaller, redesigned SNES, which may have helped, but this thing even survived several weeks in the common room of a dorm, getting stuff spilled on it.

Console: PlayStation 2
Year Acquired: 2000
Serviced or Replaced: Replaced.
Diagnosis: Some kind of massive mechanical failure. The disc tray stopped working, and the whole system took to emitting a loud grinding noise. I attempted to fix it myself, following instructions on the Internet, and ripped an important-looking cable. Ended up buying the newer, smaller PS2.

Console: GameCube
Year Acquired: 2004
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: Like the 2600, this one was obsolete before it had a chance to crap out. Still, a win's a win.

Console: Xbox 360
Year Acquired: 2006
Serviced or Replaced: No.
Diagnosis: Knock on fucking wood.

Console: Wii
Year Acquired: 2006
Serviced or Replaced: Serviced.
Diagnosis: The reason it went in for service was because it couldn't read Smash Bros, for which Nintendo tried to blame me, but was really because the system is cheap and dinky. At least it was free to fix. The bigger problem with the Wii is the graphical artificating, which occurred as a result of my leaving it in standby mode for six straight months, because there was nothing to play.

Console: PlayStation 3
Year Acquired: 2007
Serviced or Replaced: Serviced.
Diagnosis: Pending. I'm not entirely sure what happened. It might just have overheated. Hopefully they'll say what the problem was when they return it.

There you go. 13 systems overall, and 6 died a premature death. I guess they make them exactly like they used to.

Note: This post has been updated since it was originally published, to include the GameCube.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

The nation is reeling from the sudden, tragic death of my PlayStation 3. We'll try to soldier on, somehow. Some links might help with that.

-Magical Wasteland previews English literature's crowning achievement in the style of a video game publication. Spot on. The only thing missing is the Game Informer-style conclusion, "We can't wait to get our hands on this one." Some good comments on the post, too.

-I just love Jonathan Blow. He has a way of cutting through the bullshit. In an interview with Press Pause to Reflect, here's what he has to say about finding meaning in games, which I have to assume is aimed at everybody who clamored for an explanation of Braid: "If I can just say what the point is, then we don't need games in the first place." I love it.

-Here's a new experiment, from Ben Abraham, that's setting the blogosphere on fire: permanent death in Far Cry 2. "The rules: Normal difficulty; fortunes DLC installed. When I die, that’s it. Game over." Both part 1 and part 2 make for some entertaining, NGJ-style reading. A couple other entries come from Michel McBride and Nels Anderson. All serve as stark reminders that Far Cry 2 was incredible.

-Okay, we can't avoid a little discussion of Michael Jackson. Clearly, the Internet has laid waste to the concept of "too soon." It's gotten to the point that when a celebrity dies, or a disaster happens, I'm not only expecting to see jokes, but I'm disappointed if there aren't any. Maybe that's another sign that our civilization is nearing its doom, but I'm serious when I say that I hope I matter enough someday for people to joke about my death on the Internet. I'll be disappointed if it doesn't happen.

Also, here are three good MJ eulogies from some unlikely sources: Roger Ebert, Joe Posnanski, and Ray Smuckles.

-One more non-gaming link, but it might be the most important thing you read this week: /film interviews Andrew W.K. about his new show DestroyBuildDestroy, plus his profound insights on the nature of existence.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fall down go boom

Above: Red Faction is smashing!

My review of Red Faction: Guerrilla is up now at thephoenix.com.

One thing I've said repeatedly is that I'd prefer a game to do one thing exceedingly well, rather than attempt a million things and not quite get there with any of them. All of Red Faction centers on knocking shit over. There are missions overlaid on that, and a storyline, and an economy system, and so on, but at its core this game would live or die by how much fun it is to demolish everything in sight. And it is so much fun.

The explosions are great. The feedback from the sledgehammer is great. The number of different ways you can take down buildings is great. I don't know how many times I sabotaged my own mission objectives because I couldn't resist stopping and trying to knock out a guard post, but I also don't care.

Even with that said, the design is still pretty smart. The biggest concern of the developers didn't seem to be to show off their considerable chops, but to focus on the player experience. And so you can fast travel, and sprint endlessly, and change the difficulty mid-stream. If your vehicle overturns, you can flip it back over as though it were weightless. One of my early complaints in the game was that my character couldn't climb onto ledges, but then I realized that I should be smashing through them.

Recently I discovered that this game was my go-to example for not one, but two different posts in which I critcized the culture of hype: once while ho-humming the announcements at GDC 2008, and once while bashing screenshot dumps that allege to be news.

I think this proves my point.* I had no expectations for Red Faction, and it was awesome. I learned this partly by word of mouth, and partly by taking a chance on the game. Not because I've spent a year and half street teaming for THQ. That's how it should be. Right?

*"This just proves my point" © Jonah Goldberg, idiotic political pundit.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

PlayStation 3 fail

Above: Sony gets its revenge for my reviews of Metal Gear Solid 4 and inFamous.

See that? That's the error message I got after my PlayStation 3 started freezing during gameplay, and sometimes during startup. If you can't read it, it says:
Get: 02155680
Put: 01c20c14
Ref: ffffffff

Pre: 30000000
Post: 10000000

Which I think translates into English as "You are shit outta luck, buddy." For the past two days, I've been unable to run any software longer than 10 minutes before that happens. This is going to make reviewing Prototype a little difficult, but it may be to the game's benefit that I did not have a chance to get tired of it.

According to Sony's website, repairs for an out-of-warranty PS3 run $149, which is outrageous. You could almost buy a whole Wii for that. If I had clout, I would totally be exercising it right now, browbeating Sony into giving me free, expedited repairs.

Instead, you can look forward to the HD sequel to the classic Insult Swordfighting series, "Wii Watch." There's no goddamned way I'm buying a new PS3, that's for sure.

Faerie Solitaire

Above: Faerie Solitaire

One of the best games I've played in the past couple of years is Fairway Solitaire. It was a version of golf solitaire, which I hadn't realized was a thing, with some incredibly smart design decisions and a fantastic presentation. The replay value is great -- I downloaded it a year and a half ago, and I still play it often, trying to beat every high score. If you haven't played it yet, you really should. You can buy Fairway Solitaire (affiliate link) at Big Fish Games for hell of cheap. Well worth it.

So I didn't need much convincing to play Faerie Solitaire. It's essentially a re-skinned Fairway Solitaire, trading gentle humor for high fantasy. The gameplay basics are identical -- draw a foundation card, then remove any card from the board that's one higher or lower. Try to go on big runs to earn score multipliers. Clear the board for a perfect score. Every game consists of 9 different card layouts to be cleared.

It's pretty straightforward, but Faerie Solitaire, like Fairway, adds several tools to the player's arsenal. By earning money after each hand, you can buy upgrades: the ability to see the next draw card, extra mulligans, or a ring that will allow you to blast one card off the board. Some cards on the board are blocked, either by ice or by a thicket of thorns, and can only be cleared by removing a designated card from the board. There's just enough variation to keep things interesting across all of the levels.

And they are "levels" in this game, because Faerie Solitaire follows a storyline. I'll admit to not being terribly enchanted by it -- a kid wakes up from a dream and follows some faeries all around the goddamn place before defeating a sorceror of some kind -- but the narrative makes for an excuse to visit lots of different settings. The boards include fiery volcanoes, deep woods, and wind-whipped ice levels. The presentation is really good, from the panoramic drawings that makeup the cutscenes, to the ambient sound effects and ethereal background music, which I believe is an original composition.

The replay value isn't quite there. Despite some challenge rooms, which I haven't finished yet, it's easy to whip through the campaign. The bigger problem is that completing a 9-hole level is a matter of meeting a few criteria, usually some combination of filling the combo meter within a time limit, earning a specified amount of money, and getting a designated number of perfects. If you accomplish all your goals by the third hole, then there's no reason not to haphazardly click your way through the next six. In Fairway Solitaire, by contrast, the overarching golf conceit meant that every hole had to be your best. And that's also why I keep playing Fairway.

Still, Faerie Solitaire is quite good on its own merits. It even kept me up until 1 AM one night, something inFamous, Prototype, and Red Faction have all failed to do. I'd certainly recommend checking it out (affiliate link), but only after you download Fairway.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

This weekend I'm firing up the third in a series of what Simon Ferrari so astutely referred to as "open-world nonsense": Prototype. It'll have to be something special to top Red Faction: Guerrilla in that category, but as long as it's better than inFamous I'll be happy. The excessive gore may help with that.

-A couple more burnout-related links to share. In comments to my post, CBZ posted a link to an essay by Steven Poole called "Working for the Man," which covered similar territory in a far more comprehensive and thoughtful manner. Poole points out the preponderance of games that feature some kind of virtual economy, wherein you need to earn credits/points/dollars in order to make your character more powerful. I'd also add that open-world games, which often spring new objectives on you mid-mission, are a lot like working for a scatterbrained boss. "Go do this. Wait, no, do this instead! Why haven't you finished the other thing I asked you to do?"

-Duncan Fyfe comes at a similar topic from the opposite perspective. He says it's hard to write about games that don't excite him, good or bad. This is burnout from the writer's perspective -- when you feel you have nothing interesting or worthwhile to share about a game. That's hard to overcome. You can't force it. Last fall I expended many more words on a game I didn't like, Mirror's Edge, than some games that I liked very much. (But more still on Fallout 3, which I loved.) With writing, as with playing, the feeling that you're doing it out of a sense of obligation and not passion is the surest sign that you need to try a different approach.

-For an example of what inspired writing looks like, check out Alice and Kev, the tale of a homeless family in The Sims 3. In spare prose, Robin Burkinshaw details the virtual lives of Alice and Kev, which seem to contain far more pathos and moments of quiet nobility than you'd find in games with more intrusive authorship. This is wonderful stuff. And the screenshots are just perfect.

-Michael Abbott and Nels Anderson had a brief, cross-blog conversation about DLC (part 1 at the Brainy Gamer, part 2 at Above49). Both raise good points, but it's important to remember that not all DLC is created equal. Expansions to otherwise complete games, like Fallout 3 or Rock Band, are not quite the same as paying to unlock content that's already on the disc. Personally, I don't think I'd pay for a maxed-out golfer in Tiger Woods, or guns in a first-person shooter, especially if I could earn them another way. But given that doing so is likely to put you at a disadvantage in multiplayer, it does seem a little devious.

-Ben Abraham revisits the enigma of Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars. I'm not sure I ever read that blog more than once or twice, so the whole story was new to me. Ben is thorough in covering it all. The story of a pseudonymous blogger who gets fed up and sets fire to the place reminded me of Billmon. Some people say it's better to burn out than to fade away. I disagree.

-Shortly after I subscribed to the blog Fierce Punch last fall, Mike Rousseau stopped writing it. He's back now. Sometimes writing is in the blood. Good to have him back.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Burnout revenge

The estimable L.B. Jeffries wrote an essay for PopMatters about gamer burnout. Among the people he talked to, a common theme was that games are great until they start to feel like work. This is undeniably true -- nothing saps the fun of something faster than obligation. Playing games on deadline is no fun, period, and being forced to stick with a crappy game is a special kind of hell.

On the other hand, all this misses the point that playing games is a form of work. Maybe it's a challenging action game that requires players to learn patterns and hone their reflexes. That takes practice. Maybe it's a 50+ hour RPG with a sweeping story and slow-paced, strategic combat. That takes commitment. Maybe it's a sim that is best enjoyed with hundreds of dollars of peripheral hardware. That takes investment. Fun or not, getting anything worthwhile out of most video games is going to take some work.*

(Case in point: Fallout 3. That game came at the perfect time for me. I had several weeks without anything else to play, plus holiday and vacation time that let me sink my teeth into it. I loved the game, but I don't see how you could call it anything but work. Not only was there a massive time commitment required, but the missions were the sort of endless, chasing-your-own tail tasks you do at an office if you have a capricious boss.)

So when I say that I get burned out on games because they're work, I mean that less because I'm playing them as a professional service, and more because playing them is freaking draining. The last thing I do is play games for fun. They stress me out. And that's a big part of the reason why I like them, strangely enough. When I get home after eight hours of sitting on my butt updating a spreadsheet, I need some excitement. That's something video games can provide.

The burnout, then, doesn't come from getting tired of the games. It comes from getting too much into them. It's a natural byproduct of the focus and concentration is takes to succeed. After all that work, it's nice to take a vacation sometimes.

*Hence casual games, but that's another post for another day.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Feeling pretty run down this week. Swine flu? I'll try to pump out some links here before I collapse.

-Ron Gilbert revisits The Secret of Monkey Island. He is much less sentimental than a fan of the game would be (like, oh, this guy right here). He lauds certain design choices, noting that what he chose to cut was often more important than what he included, while criticizing others. It's a really interesting read. I'm more excited than ever now for the remake, especially knowing that there's a toggle between the updated graphics and the original.

-Bill Harris joins the anti-inFamous coalition. We're building a movement now! As always, his comments are well considered and to the point, but I was struck by his observation about Crackdown. He's right: its initial reception was hardly rapturous. A Metacritic score of 83 is good, but not great. It's gained cachet since its release -- correctly, in my view -- but it goes to show you that instant analysis isn't always correct. Which means that anybody saying that inFamous is better than Crackdown may want to give it a few months.

-I still haven't played The Path, but after reading an interview with the developers at Press Pause to Reflect (not to mention, you know, a ton of other stuff about it), I'm tempted. I especially appreciated this challenge to other indie devs: "We should be out there, exploring deeply in the potential of the medium. But most of us are happy to stick to tried-and-true ideas and we merrily re-use retro-genres."

-Not video game related, but I couldn't believe this story that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the lowest-testing film in the history of Paramount Studios. Of course it looks terrible -- beyond bad -- but still, that's pretty damned impressive. The lowest focus group ratings ever? We are in rarefied air here. Speaking as the guy who voluntarily watched Uwe Boll's The House of the Dead more than once, I'm now convinced I'll have to see this movie.

That's all I got this week. Looks like I'll be diving into Red Faction: Guerrilla this weekend. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gamestop.com User-Submitted Previews: Ghostbusters

Above: You're right, Ray. No human being would stack books this way.

Ghostbusters is just about the perfect movie, and I suspect that anybody who grew up in the 1980s can't help but look forward to a video game adaptation that features the voices and likenesses of nearly all the main cast. But will Ghostbusters: The Video Game live up to the film's lofty standards, or should gamers keep their five bucks? Let's see what the commenters at Gamestop.com have to say.

OPTIMUS 1 starts things off -- let's say it -- optimustically:
I saw the first and second movie and it was great . I reserved it because of the game and the free T-shirt . I can't wait until it comes out . This wil be the best game I will ever have. I would definitely recomend this to a friend . OH YEAH !

I think he confused the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man with the Kool-Aid Man.

MikeyJaymz lays it out for the haters:

Can't wait to get this game as soon as it is available. And for those who say it looks bad......who cares? It's Ghostbusters. I'd get it even if it was the worst game ever made.

Honestly, that's refreshing. No appeals to authority, no accusations of bad faith, just good old-fashioned slavish devotion. Busting makes this guy feel good, even when it doesn't.

RyanLec84, no fool, has waited to see what the reviews say before making up his mind.

...the game is getting fantastic reviews! OXM and IGN have already given it an 8/10...AKA "Impressive". NOT an easy feat!


(restraining myself)




(laughing so hard that I sprain something)

GamerGod198 puts together all the building blocks of a fantastic user-submitted preview. Let's break it down, section by section. First, enthusiasm:

I can't WAIT to play this game. I preordered it a few days ago and each day I have to wait is driving me mad.

Then, a grammatically confused description of the game's features:

You can destroy I would say everything, voiced by the actors and likeness of them is exact too !! plus it'll be fun to destroy the stay-puft and even vigo and gozer.

The shout-out to Gamestop and its business practices:

The shirt is worth it, to have a piece of history, something only preorderers get is cool.

The token point of concern:

The graphics look awesome and so does gameplay, worried about online and probably needing a headset, hope they might add DLC or something though.

And the "WTF" conclusion:

Lets just see how it is, at least if its not good, its better than the NES ghostbusters II or the last GB game of extreme GB on gameboy advance.


Let's give the last word to GEO 24:

Whoo ho it's finally going to come out i'm so excited man. once i have the game i'm going 2 play non stop. in the preview u get to face of the state puff marshmallow. i can't wait, i wonder if u get cover in marshmallow when u defeat him.^_^ :p

I know you're excited, Geo, but that stuff you're covered in ain't marshmallow.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A game which will live in infamy

Above: Don't kill the messenger!

My review of inFamous is up at thephoenix.com. It's the most negative review of the game I'm aware of. Most people I've talked to like the game, or even love it. So let's stipulate now that I'm a total idiot, I should be fired, and Microsoft is paying me off. It's all true.

Although I wasn't having fun almost all the time while playing this game, in the interest of fairness I should say that inFamous did speak to the completionist in me. The side missions get repetitive fast, but almost all of them take only a couple of minutes to complete. And when you finish one, a big chunk of your map gets transformed from "gang territory" to "liberation nation."* It's really satisfying -- more satisfying than blowing things up, for sure.

inFamous also scatters a liberal amount of collectable "Blast Shards" around the environment. Collecting the shards nets you a small amount of XP, and also earns you more electrical energy for your crimefighting. It's not as fun as hunting for the agility orbs in Crackdown, because the rewards aren't as great, and the platforming isn't as fun. (Often, the shards are below you on a building, and inFamous makes it very hard to move downward.) But it's still pretty absorbing, especially because your radar shows you where they are, which is a feature I could definitely use in my ongoing quest to find the last agility orb in Crackdown.

Still, moment-to-moment I thought the game was no fun at all, because the action was a grind, and the platforming was obnoxious. Battles played out the same from start to finish, no matter what powers you had or who the enemies were. As for the platforming, I was not a huge fan of the massive auto-assist. The only time I really liked it was when I'd jump off the roof of a building onto a powerline. The rest of the time, it seemed like the game was constantly overturning my decisions. I don't know if my armchair quarterbacking is all that helpful, but I think both of these problems might have been solved, or at least ameliorated, with the same fix.

First, I think they should have reduced the number of Cole's powers. I'm not joking. There are so damn many that I tended to forget about them, and a bunch of them never came in handy (I'm thinking specifically of the charged shot, which was mapped to R2). Other than the Lightning Storm, which you get late in the game, none of them really take advantage of the electrical conceit. They were the same attacks you see in any action game. So one or more could have been jettisoned without adversely affecting the gameplay.

Then, a spare button could be used for a Shadow of the Colossus-style "grab" function. That way, Cole would stick to things only when the player wanted him to. I can't tell you how often he would cling onto a light pole or something while I was trying to get away from a pack of enemies, or how often I tried to jump off of a building, only to have him spin around in mid-air and get sucked back like it was a black hole. Also, the actions to take cover and to dive out of the way are mapped to the same button, which means that you often dive out of the way when you mean to take cover. A grab button would have done away with all of this.

There are probably a million reasons why that wouldn't have worked. I'm trying to be constructive here!

*Not in-game terms.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

E3 bugs me. You may have noticed. Despite how it might appear, it's not because I'm a crabby old hermit who scurries back into his cave at the first sign of mirth. I love when people get excited about video games. I do it myself. But E3 is basically a big TV commercial, and it is strange that people don't take what they see there with a bigger grain of salt.

Every presentation has been conceived for maximum marketing impact, and I don't think the fans or the members of the media do themselves any favors by buying into the hype. Both in the press and in the wild, there's a tendency to breathlessly parrot every new announcement, as though it's surprising that there are sequels to popular games in the works. Besides which, there's a long history of games that made a big splash at E3, only to be delayed or canceled -- not to mention disappointing. I just want people to take games on their own merits, that's all.

Nevertheless, E3 was the story of the week, and as such, it comes up a lot in the links.

-Hardcasual absolutely killed it this week with their faux-E3 coverage. They punctured the bubble around the show, and they did it with good humor. This was the can't-miss coverage of the entire show, even though it was all lies. My favorites: "Microsoft’s Natal To Deliver 1:1 Teabagging on Xbox Live" and "Vendor Outside Los Angeles Convention Center Debuts Sleeker, More Delicious Hot Dog Wrapped in Bacon."

-Another cynical take on the show came from the Phoenix's Mike Rougeau, which, while harder edged than Hardcasual's coverage, was a welcome corrective after days of identical live-blogs and tweets.

-Speaking of which, while the real-time coverage of the Big Three press conferences was a bit much for me, several outlets did a great job afterward of looking at the big picture, none more so than Offworld. Brandon Boyer discussed "The 7 things you need to know about Microsoft's press conference," "The 5 things you need to know about Nintendo's press conference," and "The 5 things you need to know about Sony's press conference." Boyer's write-ups were free of gushing or hype, and instead took a measured look at the competitive landscape coming out of the show.

-It was also nice to see a bit more scrutiny applied to some of the games after journalists got their hands on them. Brian Crecente and Leigh Alexander wrote dueling opinion pieces about the upcoming Dante's Inferno game. Crecente is dubious:
While the developers seem genuinely interested in trying to present a tour of Dante's hell that remains at least mildly representative of the original works, it can't remain a passive experience and still be a mainstream video game.

Their answer: Make Dante the game's hero, Beatrice the game's damsel in distress.

It's this shift in perspective, no matter how tangentially rooted in history, that most threatens to deflate the experience of Inferno.

While Alexander welcomes the artistic license:
The Divine Comedy, after all, is largely a poem about two guys walking and talking -- not exactly the core gameplay of an action game. In that way, the liberties the team took were intended to create a stronger video game, a more reasonable priority for, well, a video game, than focusing on a strong epic poem adaptation.

My own feeling is that once you hear the words "Dante's Inferno: The Video Game," you probably shouldn't be surprised by any departures from the source material.

-And a couple of non-E3 links. (Holy crap, this post is getting long.) I had never listened to the Gamers with Jobs podcast before, but I enjoyed their discussion of inFamous, because their experiences seemed to track with my own. That leaves them, Tycho Brahe, and me as the only holdouts, I think.

-I did enjoy the completionist aspect of inFamous, though. The city is composed of three islands. Each island starts off under the control of gang members, which is represented by a red outline on your map. Upon completing each side mission, your map shows a chunk of gang territory changing colors. This almost single-handedly kept my interest throughout the game. It was also reasonably absorbing to search for blast shards, but not nearly as fun as hunting agility orbs in Crackdown. Anyway, GameSetWatch ran a good piece about the psychology of collectors and hoarders, which seems relevant.

Have a good weekend, all.

Metacritic's greatest hits

Above: Mitch Krpata reads the Metacritic page for inFamous, immediately after scoring it a 5.0/10.

It's a little tradition of mine that after finishing my own review, I pop on over to Metacritic and see what everyone else has to say. The Metacritic page for inFamous, besides giving me the increasingly familiar "I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!" feeling, contains this gem from GameFocus:
The overall quality of the game is not as high as I expected because I love the Sly Cooper games but as the first game this generation from Sucker Punch it makes this a must buy for PS3 owners. Just do not expect anything stellar or new in terms of gameplay, as we have seen much this game has to offer before and done slightly better.
Their score? 90.

Metacritic, by the way, once declined to include the Phoenix's reviews in their aggregates.

Crazy pills.

Links coming this afternoon.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

You must choose, but choose wisely. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

Above: It's good advice, no matter what the situation.

Morality systems in games are the new hotness. From BioShock's dilemma of whether to harvest or save Little Sisters, to the stacked ethical considerations of Fallout 3, it seems that game designers are interested in making players question their own actions. This is a good thing. While I like a brainless action game as much as the next guy, you can only accept so many attaboys for your genocidal prowess before you start to feel yourself covered in an indelible goo of wickedness.

So I appreciate inFamous's attempt at a moral dimension. After your character, Cole McGrath, becomes superpowered, his actions affect the way the citizens of Empire City perceive him. Kill civilians indiscriminately, and they will fear you. Save them, and they will grow to love you. Not only does it make sense, it also fits organically into the flow of the gameplay. Pedestrians writhing on the sidewalk are a common sight at Empire City. It's up to you whether to stop and help, or cruise right on by, and whatever you choose to do will matter, on some small level.

It's the big-money "karma moments" that seem shoehorned onto the proceedings. And it's these decisions that ultimately make the difference in whether Cole becomes a hero or a villain. The action stops, an icon appears onscreen, and Cole growls about the choice before him. In almost every case, the decision is contrived and simplistic, without offering any important gameplay consequences. "I could help this guy, or not," basically. Sometimes it's even less difficult than that. There are some choices where you can kill bad guys in order to earn power-ups called blast shards, or kill good guys to earn blast shards instead. Agonizing.

Part of the problem is that blast shards aren't nearly tempting enough to provide a real pull toward the dark side. Cole collects them to increase the size of his power meter, which is important, but not once in the course of gameplay did I ever feel in danger of running out of juice at an important time.

The other, bigger problem is that inFamous steers clear of ambiguity. Choices are obviously good or obviously bad, even when you get the feeling that the designers didn't plan it that way. There seems to be no admission that sometimes a moral choice can be good and bad, or that it can have unintended consequences. When Cole does good, the people love him. I was reminded of the Hamlet-like depth of Spider-Man, in comparison -- when Peter Parker does good, people still hate him!

Further still, the game rewards monomaniacal pursuit of the all-good or all-evil path by reserving some of its most potent powers for players who've stuck with one or the other. All of the game's karma moments lead up to one big decision near the end, which should be a tough choice but from a utilitarian point of view isn't difficult at all. If you've spent all your time pursuing one path, the decision is easy to make.

The idea almost certainly was to make players question all of the actions they'd taken in the game to that point, which is a worthy goal. But because the game's good-or-evil framework necessarily means that the storyline has to make sense no matter which path you choose, it's impossible for the consequences to be as momentous as they should be. inFamous actually disregards some of the choices you make. You make an ostensibly difficult decision, and then the plot says, psych! After all, you still have to beat the boss and finish the game.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Secret of Monkey Island

(The following piece was originally published on bostonphoenix.com on November 19, 2004. With news of an HD remake for Xbox Live Arcade and PC, it seemed appropriate to revisit it. Reading it now, I'm pretty sure the game continues to be more popular than I gave it credit for.)

Above: The start of it all.

The only problem with The Secret of Monkey Island was that it arrived about 10 years too early. As Pirates of the Caribbean proved, America loves comic buccaneers. I'm not sure whether Monkey Island lacked marketing muscle, whether audiences weren't happy with its dialogue-heavy gameplay, or if the nascent PC market in 1990 simply didn't have the sort of mass-market appeal it does today, but it seems tragically few people have played this game. The name of its hero, Guybrush Threepwood, should be as ingrained in the American consciousness as Mario and Sonic.

Monkey Island's greatness lay in its writing. While most games of the era were simple shoot-'em-ups and platform games, Monkey Island presaged the advent of software that was more about story and character than about high scores. And it was funny as hell.

At the beginning of the game, you arrive on Melee Island and track down the pirate bar to declare your intentions. "My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate," you say.

The pirate you're speaking to starts laughing. "That's the most ridiculous name I've ever heard!"

"Well, what's YOUR name?"

He adopts a grim expression. "My name is Mancomb Seepgood."

Guybrush wants to be a pirate for no reason other than that it sure sounds neat, but as he proceeds through the three trials necessary to becoming a pirate, he quickly becomes involved in a love triangle between Melee Governor Elaine Marley and the ghost pirate LeChuck, and eventually finds himself on the mythical Monkey Island. Along the way, he hobnobs with a menagerie of ne'er-do-wells and malcontents, gets shot out of not one, but two cannons, and discovers the uses of a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. And these are some of the less bizarre things that happen.

Much of the game progresses through dialogue trees. When speaking to a new character, you're given the choice of about five statements, each one resulting in an often-hilarious response. Usually the majority of the conversation has nothing to do with progressing through the game, but who cares? Pleasures like these are rare to find in video games.

Even swordfights proceed through dialogue rather than action. As your swordfighting instructor informs you, "Swordfighting is a little like making love. It's not always what you do, but what you say." And he's right. The only way to win is to out-insult your opponent, and it's a shame that Monkey Island's witty repartee has never caught on. Finding someone who knows the correct retort to "You fight like a dairy farmer!" is one of life's little pleasures.

The puzzles are just as unique. The door to LeChuck's underground headquarters is – what else? – a giant monkey head, and the key is a six-foot Q-tip. I'm sure you can figure out how that one works. But how, exactly, does one get "a head" in navigating?

Add to this a quirky Caribbean score and you have something that's never been duplicated – hell, no one's even tried. And though LucasArts has released three Monkey Island sequels, all of which have been pretty good, none has disproved the lesson Guybrush learns by the end of The Secret of Monkey Island: "Never spend more than 20 bucks on a computer game."