Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Going to be an interesting weekend. I made the mistake of signing up for National Novel Writing Month, which starts on Sunday. There goes my November.

-Brinstar wrote an interesting and all-encompassing look at Uncharted 2. Her comments on the game's portrayal of its female characters are right on. Despite the hyper-sexualized appearance of Chloe, both of the female leads are given actual personalities and motivations. Even better, they act like adults. They're not catty broads who fight over our bashful hero. Brinstar says that "[creative director] Amy Hennig stood her ground on gender issues like this many times over," which certainly wouldn't surprise me, and goes to show how much your game can be improved when you have a diversity of voices onboard.

-Torchlight seems to be dominating a lot of people's time right now. Elysium at Gamers with Jobs writes about the joy of being surprised by a game, which is something I couldn't agree with more. There's some fun in anticipating things, yes, but it always seems like you're setting yourself up for disappointment if you get too excited. Much better to be gobsmacked by something out of nowhere. (Re: Torchlight, it sounds interesting, but I can only accommodate one soul-consuming dungeon crawler at a time, and there's this game called Borderlands.)

-Shawn Elliott (him again?) predicts the upcoming controversy about Modern Warfare 2. I've not yet watched the opening sequence of the game, and in fact wish I didn't know anything about it before playing the game (thanks, Twitter!). Still, I respected the way that Call of Duty 4 coldly regarded the devastating impact of modern military technology, and I would expect its sequel to similarly pull no punches. The notion of killing civilians is, of course, shocking. I suspect that is the intent. Without context, it's impossible for us to say yet whether this serves a greater philosophical point, or, at least, a compelling narrative.

-Congratulations to Ben and the gang at Critical Distance, whose "Week in Game Criticism" roundups are now being syndicated at GSW and Gamasutra. Here's hoping this means a whole new audience for all the great writers Ben spotlights each week. And that he starts including Insult Swordfighting more often!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Aquaman, you go... talk to some fish!

Above: Borderlands characters arranged in ascending order of usefulness to the team (l-r).

Every heroic alliance has a weak link. The Justice League has Aquaman. The Avengers had Ant-Man. And the League of Extraordinarily Gentle Men has me.

Oh, you don't know that last one? That's the name we've given to our trio of Borderlands players. Except for a short single-player session the first day I had the game, I've played almost exclusively with the LXGM. Without going too deeply into detail, since I've still got a review to write, it's clear that Borderlands is an entirely different beast when you're playing with others. By yourself, it's a grind whose occasional rewards are overshadowed by lots of problems. With a group, not only do those problems go away, but character building starts to matter much more. Your skills affect those of your teammates, both in combat and character development. You may equip a class mod that boosts everybody's EXP by 20%, or grants everybody ammo regeneration.

Your skill trees also become more important. Each class can develop along three different tracks, so you can mix and match a few abilities, or specialize. Because the LXGM had two Soldiers, me and Bob, we decided to spend our action points developing unique tracks. Bob has been upgrading his medic skills; I've been going the support route. We're around level 30 now, and the stuff Bob can do is impressive. His turret casts a healing aura that quickly regenerates teammates' health. It has a chance to instantly revive downed players.

The best thing Bob can do is shoot healing bullets. He simply blasts away at teammates, and their health increases with the damage his gun deals. The ability doesn't require specific weapons or rare ammo. He can damage enemies and heal teammates in the same burst. It's helpful during firefights and after -- when the medic is playing, you don't even need to carry around medkits. This might be the most useful skill I've ever seen in a game of this type.

As the support gunner, I've felt a little bit less indispensable. My turret regenerates team ammo instead of health. Here's a little secret about Borderlands: you will never run out of ammo. Enemies drop it in spades. It's the most common thing you find in chests. It's cheap to buy at stores. And some teammates don't even need it.

The third member of the LXGM, Greg, has been doing yeoman's work as two different characters. At first he mostly used the Berserker, whose special skill is not using guns. His fists can pummel enemies into goo. It wasn't uncommon to follow Greg into an area and see his character standing there, screaming, on top of a pile of crushed corpses. All that without firing a single shot. Then he started playing as a Hunter, who probably would need ammo if he hadn't found a legendary revolver that drops most enemies in one shot, and, oh yeah, regenerates bullets.

Borderlands does let you respec, for a fee. You can buy back all your action points and redistribute them as you see fit. We certainly don't need a second medic. I could pump up my guy's firearm abilities on the infantry track, if I wanted to. But I think I'll keep him the way he is. There's dignity in making your choices and sticking to them. My Roland is a support gunner. He was born to provide ammo to people who don't need it. Damn it, that's what he's going to do.

Besides, every team of great heroes needs its useless character. That's one thing I know I can excel at.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Busy weekend ahead, highlighted by a (hopefully) long Borderlands session. The jump in fun factor between single-player and co-op is enormous with this game. Single player has its rewards, but they're tough to appreciate amid some problems. In multiplayer, the joy rains down from the heavens, and there is no shelter. Excellent game. And not the kind of thing I'd have expected to like so much.

To the links!

-Clink Hocking's Click Nothing Tour hits the road this Sunday. He'll be in my neck of the woods on Wednesday at MIT. Sadly, it's at 4 in the afternoon, which makes it difficult if not impossible for me to attend. I will try.

-Brandon Sheffield intervewed Suda 51 for Gamasutra. Suda is a fascinating guy whose games are always singular creations, and he has some interesting things to say here. Still, I don't know if it's the language barrier or what, but he's also a little curt. You get exchanges like this.
Honestly, I think that that's kind of what art is about, when you just create something and other people put their own meaning into it. I can see that as a critique of voyeurism, while to you, it's just something you made.

GS: Art? Mmm...
Thanks for showing up, Suda.

-Via Game|Life, tickets are now available for PAX East! It'll be held in Boston from March 26-28, 2010. I've never been to an expo like this before, but I suppose there's no way I can duck one taking place in my backyard. I'm still hoping there's some way I can get in for free, maybe by sneaking in through the vents.

-Two interesting takes on the evolution of difficulty in games. Michael Abbott compares the Wii remake of A Boy and His Blob to the original, while C.T. Hutt revisits Earthworm Jim and finds it more challenging than he remembers. User experience is a big reason why games are easier nowadays, but I think there's an even more prosaic explanation.

In the past, games were so short that they had to be incredibly difficult in order to be worth playing. Once you know how to beat a game like Contra, you can blow through it in about 20 minutes. If you could do that on your first or second playthrough, it wouldn't seem like much of a game at all. Even though we often complain about the length of 8-10 hour games today, most of them are significantly longer than comparable titles of 20 years ago. Even a game like Super Metroid, whose gameworld seemed massive at the time, today takes about 4 hours to beat. That's nothing.

(One more example: It took me 12 years to beat Super Mario Bros. We got the Nintendo when I was 6, and I finally beat it when I was 18. Shortly thereafter, I played through the first three Super Mario Bros. games in about an hour.)

-Not related to video games, but I need to thank Kyle Orland for linking the "Eye On Springfield" tumblog in his Twitter feed. This site has improved my life in ways I cannot possibly quantify.

All right, screw this "reading" thing. Pandora awaits!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Above: There's always a guy with a riot shield.

My review of Uncharted 2 is up at (No, that post on Monday wasn't a review.) To add to the chorus: It's great. Really great. This game doesn't step wrong. Like Metroid Prime and the Half-Life games, it's so confident and assured that you may forget you're playing a game for long stretches of time.

Frankly, I think people are overusing the "cinematic" descriptor for this game. I get why they say that, but if anything Uncharted 2 shows some of the ways in which games can be superior to movies for delivering action-adventure entertainment. As for the storyline and characters, okay, those are almost good enough to be called movie-like.

And now your note of caution (okay, cynicism). Uncharted 2 is the kind of game that is tailor-made for the reviewing experience. It's not terribly long, it's linear, and it doesn't repeat itself. That's where my tastes run anyway, but it's worth mentioning. Ordinarily this isn't something I'd stop to consider, but having moved on to the more professionally challenging Borderlands, I long for the halcyon days of last week, when I could sit down and blow through a game in one sitting, reasonably certain that I hadn't missed anything important.

There will, of course, be more about Borderlands to come.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The minimalism of Uncharted 2

Above: You have to listen to the notes they aren't playing.

By now, you may have heard about a little game called Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. You've heard how cinematic it is, how lifelike the graphics are, and how large-scale the action sequences are. It's all true. Sony's VP of Big Action Scenes is not lying to you.

Nobody seems to have put their finger on the true reason for the success of this game, though, which is what isn't there. Lots of games have great production values, with shiny graphics and booming audio bespeaking a massive budget. Yet most of them never achieve greatness, and while the reasons are different in every case, often it comes down to one or two root causes. Either the interface is overly complicated or unsuited to the in-game tasks (like Killzone 2, say), or the designers are reluctant to cut things they've worked so hard on even if it would improve the whole product (a good example of this is Prototype).* Naughty Dog nailed both of those things.

The interface would probably still be hard for a gaming neophyte to pick up, but for veterans of 3D action-adventures, it's remarkably elegant. For some reason, other developers force players to hold down a button to make their character run. Not only does that miss the entire point of having analog control sticks, but it also commits one of the buttons to an unnecessary function. Even with all the buttons on gamepads today, they're still a limited resource. By using the analog stick to make Nathan run, Naughty Dog frees up the face buttons for more important uses.

Another thing Nathan can't do is crouch -- at least, not on his own. If the player presses the button to take cover, and the nearest bit of cover is low, he will duck behind that. Again, it's a sensible solution, based on a realistic accounting of how players will want and need Nathan to move. I was a little surprised at first that I couldn't press a button to make him crouch, but after about an hour of gameplay I realized that it wasn't actually necessary. I was grateful to be able to clear that out of my brainspace while I was playing.

Nathan does a lot of climbing, swinging, and shimmying, which always has the potential to be a bear. Some games have done this stuff better than others. Although a lot of people liked the magnetic approach of inFamous, I thought it was intrusive. Uncharted 2 has a little bit of auto-assist too, but it's much more subtle. Nathan will turn and grab a ledge if you walk off it, but not if you run or jump off. Instead of being sucked toward grabbable objects in mid-air, most of Nathan's jumps are directed in such a way that you can't help but move in the right direction to begin with. This is the advantage of the linear, scripted approach over a more open world.

Those are some of the smaller things that Uncharted 2 does right, and they have an outsized impact on the experience. For the most part, you can forget you're even holding a controller while you're playing this game. But Naughty Dog made more brave choices with the gameplay, and I don't think they're getting credit for how much they left out.

I can only imagine how hard it must be to design video games. Imagine that some members of your team are working solely on your game's water. It needs to look right: it should reflect the light, be capable of different levels of transparency, maybe have some sand swirling around. The fluid dynamics need to be programmed just right, too, because you have a fantastic idea for a boat level. So your artists and programmers bust their asses for months, and they create the best water ever seen in a video game. What do you do?

You put water freaking everywhere.

After all, you can't let their hard work go to waste! Sure, it doesn't make sense to have water mains bursting in every single level, and that boat chase you had in mind didn't really work out, but you'll be damned if you don't share this wonderful water with the world!

That's all wild speculation on my part, but surely you've noticed things like this. Yes, it can be very hard to let go of things you've done. Unfortunately, this mindset often results in games repeating themselves. Things that are fun at first get old. Things that aren't fun at first become obnoxious. And things that don't belong in the final product are still there, because nobody had the courage to let them go.

There's not an ounce of fat in Uncharted 2. Most interesting things only happen once. Sure, there are your standard rooms full of crates to duck behind while shooting at dudes, but the shootouts never last very long, and they're often a waypoint en route to something more interesting. You hurtle forward, never getting bogged down. Enough wrinkles are introduced that the vanilla gunfights really do feel different from the ones on the train, which again are different from the ones in the trucks. The same is true of climbing sequences. Some are slower paced, allowing you to enjoy the environments, while some are more about racing against crumbling infrastructure. You don't typically repeat anything.

I don't doubt that Naughty Dog had to leave some stuff on the cutting room floor, some of it probably quite good. Somebody there must have had a laser-like focus on the final product. They took out all the right things.

*I should clarify that I liked both Killzone 2 and Prototype, the latter quite a bit. That's why they're instructive comparisons to Uncharted 2: They're well made, big-budget games that are fun to play, but are flawed in ways that could have, and should have, been addressed early in the process.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Don't know what it's like for folks in the rest of the country and the world, but here in New England we're having a spell of winter-like weather. It even snowed a bit last night. People are weeping and wailing about it, but as the proud owner of a brand-new snowboard, I couldn't be happier. If you haven't been able to tell from my Twitter feed, I'm itching to hit the slopes. It's been 7 months at this point! No man should have to suffer so.

Let's get to some links.

-Ben Richardson wrote a great article about Tim Schafer in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and I'm not just saying that because he quoted me in it. Although I didn't like Brütal Legend, Schafer is an awesome guy with some fascinating insights and a real love for metal. In some ways, I'm happy to see the wide-ranging reactions to this game. I feel like truly interesting and inspiring games will divide people. They will challenge us to think about them, both while we're playing and afterwards. Brütal Legend seems to do that.

-The Boston Globe reports on new research that indicates that playing games may be good for your brain. In the same way that lifting weights and running laps can improve your body's physical abilities, the challenges of interpreting virtual space can help your brain with a variety of tasks: "Fast-paced, action-packed video games have been shown, in separate studies, to boost visual acuity, spatial perception, and the ability to pick out objects in a scene. Complex, strategy-based games can improve other cognitive skills, including working memory and reasoning." This won't surprise many gamers, nor does it put to rest arguments about the effects of violent games on kids, but it's heartening nonetheless.

By the way, Steven Johnson covered similar ground, more readably but less scientifically, in his book Everything Bad is Good for You.

-Shawn Elliott appears, Bigfoot-like, to share with us the one and only right review. It's an aggregation of all the inane, venomous comments that readers like to post on game reviews. I love this line in particular: "Now the credibility I never had is as good as gone. "

I've been fortunate not to have to deal too much with this stuff. It's always surprising the tone that such comments take when they do show up. Disagreement is a healthy thing, but often commenters will ignore the substance of the review entirely and just slam the reviewer. The commenter acts as though he is in possession of some divine truth, and therefore it's not even worth engaging actual arguments to the contrary. (Do reviewers sometimes do this to games? Probably.)

It's kind of like the abortion issue.

-Today, October 16, is National Bosses Day, so it's appropriate to once again revisit a feature that Ryan Stewart and I collaborated on for the Phoenix: The 20 Greatest Bosses in Video Game History. It's not a particularly surprising list, but I was happy with the blurbs we wrote about each boss. Reading them now, I still am.

We wrote this in 2006, and I wonder if anyone has shown up since then who deserves a spot. No one immediately springs to mind. Maybe GLaDOS, or maybe the Joker in Arkham Asylum. Not sure. Many of the best games I've played over the past few years have not been distinguished by their bosses. Many don't even have bosses as we used to know them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Quiz: The year in swooning

Match each of these games with the breathless excerpt from its review.

1. The Beatles: Rock Band
2. Batman: Arkham Asylum
3. Killzone 2
4. Resident Evil 5
5. Red Faction: Guerrilla
6. Street Fighter IV
7. inFamous
8. Brütal Legend
9. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

A. " of the most memorable video games ever created. Not because it is particularly innovative, but because the mixture of shooting, climbing, creeping, thinking, laughing and simple astonishment works perfectly."

B. "There are very, very few games which truly make me sit back and go 'wow'. Among the slew of games that I’ve reviewed this year, there are only a couple that I really enjoyed playing, and continue to do so. [This] is one such game – even though I aced my Public Speaking and English Literature classes, words only slur together when I try to describe this game."

C. "This is simply a superb genre defining experience with two unforgettable endings."

D. "This action-adventure is so smart, so well-written, and delivered with such an obvious love for its source material, I daresay it is both the best licensed game ever made, and arguably the best game of its kind in our current console generation."

E. "...provides a transformative entertainment experience. In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made."

F. "The gorgeous graphics, the superb sound, the great (if sometimes twitchy) AI of your partner and the jaw-dropping gameplay take everything that was brilliant about [its predecessor] and ramp it up to the next level, making for one of the best gaming experiences ever!"

G. "This game deserves a place on everyone's shelf, from the most casual fan... to the most hardcore. No matter your personal skill level, you owe it to yourself to buy this game. [Its] incredible art style, rock solid gameplay, and infinitely compelling multiplayer make it stand out as one of best games of this generation."

H. "A fantastic game that sucks you in and doesn't let go... a seamless merger of technology and story telling that raises the bar for the industry."

I. "...the best console first person shooter ever. It will be bested one day, and that is as it should be, but this game has set the proverbial bar so high we reckon it'll be the king for a good long while... Hail to the king, baby."

1. E (New York Times)
2. D (Gamespy)
3. I (Playstation Official Magazine Australia)
4. F (AceGamez)
5. H (Gaming Nexus)
6. G (ZTGameDomain)
7. C (Play)
8. B (MEGamers)
9. A (Cynamite)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Brutal Legend shreds

Above: A common screenshot from Brütal Legend.

My review of Brütal Legend is up now at Now that I've read several other reviews, it seems like everybody's on the same page with this one. For me, that means a two-star rating, or 5.0/10 in the paper, although many other people thought the story and dialogue redeemed the lackluster gameplay. I just can't agree with that. Maybe if you spent more time with the story and dialogue than you do with the gameplay, it'd make sense. Not the case.

Writing negative reviews bums me out. I get no joy from it. Sure, there's a part of me that delights in coming up with a wicked burn, but that's the writer and not the gamer talking. I want every game to be good. I especially want a game by Tim Schafer to be good. I am not thankful for the opportunity to rip somebody else's hard work. But what choice do I have? This game is not good. There are lots of little things wrong with it; there are lots of big things wrong with it.

No time to dwell on it. We're in the thick of things now. Why, I've got a copy of Uncharted 2 right here. Onward!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Scribblenauts? More like scribble not.

Above: Exploring scribbles.

I have a review of Scribblenauts up at Innovative or not, it is not a very good game. It's fun to mess around with, and my wife wants me to tell everyone that she really liked it. (That's not as minor a footnote as it may sound -- this may be the first time that's ever happened. You wouldn't believe the number of supposedly casual-friendly Wii games she hasn't liked. The list of games she likes now stands at two: this, and Rock Band.) But there's little more here than promise that a later game might be better.

I find I'm losing patience with games that don't work well to begin with. Everybody made so much out of how everything you summon in Scribblenauts acts correctly -- bears are hungry, helicopters fly, and so on -- but I found that not to be the case. Things rarely did what I expected them to. Maxwell hardly ever went where I wanted him to. And perfectly logical solutions didn't pan out, because the governing logic naturally can't be all that different from one type of thing to another.

There was a time when I'd put up with a game's foibles, because it was the only one I had on hand, and what the hell else was I supposed to do? These days I feel more like I can't be bothered with a game that hasn't put in the effort to smooth out the edges. I love the idea of Scribblenauts. I really do. I also love the idea of world peace. Sometimes you bump up against reality.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I'm looking forward to playing the new Left 4 Dead campaign tonight. I also intend to play more Dead Space: Extraction this weekend, after being pleasantly surprised by the first two chapters. Will report back!

-A while back, I posted a list of songs I'd like to see in Rock Band. In that post, I predicted a zero-percent chance of one of those songs ever being released. Shows what I know: "Gay Bar" by Electric Six will be released as DLC next Tuesday. This is very exciting. And it's also another reason why I'll take the open Rock Band platform over the more hermetic Beatles installment. You're just not gonna get surprises like this from the Beatles game.

-In this week's Experience Points podcast, Jorge and Scott talk about downer endings in games, or, more specifically, a lack of them (inspired by Manveer's post on the subject). I think the issue really isn't one of "happy" or "sad" endings, it's one of thoughtful, mature endings that carry a character's arc through to a conclusion, or that contain elements of both happiness and sadness. I mentioned The Darkness in comments as a game that gets it right. The final sequence is viewable on YouTube, although I'm not sure it would make much sense if you hadn't played the rest of the game. The point is that it provokes conflicting emotions, while completing the protagonist's fall. It's brilliant.

-At Press Pause to Reflect, C.T. Hutt weighs in on something that's one of my pet peeves: overly helpful helper characters. Navi is the worst, and Issun clearly wasn't much better. Having an NPC partner isn't inherently a bad idea -- it's been done well in Half-Life 2, for example. It's when the partner is overbearing and impossible to ignore that you get into trouble. How hard would it have been to have to ask Navi for hints when you wanted them? Or better still, design the game in such a way that her particular brand of help isn't needed? Just more reasons why Ocarina is the Most Overrated Game of All Time.

-This one's a little older, but I didn't do a links post last week so I'll write it now. Michael Abbott wondered whether we praise innovation at the expense of execution, specifically talking about the difference in critical buzz between Scribblenauts and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. I recall that last year Leigh Alexander observed an opposite problem -- that we condemn innovation when the execution isn't quite there. They can't both be right, and I'd venture to say that it's not so simple as either of those formulations makes it seem.

Innovation is useful for a great many things, but it is not the endpoint. It's the beginning. Gaming history is littered with examples of games that innovated and failed, but whose ideas were subsequently improved upon. In his next post, Michael praised the value of iteration, which is a point I fully agree with. But if you trace these refinements back far enough, you'll eventually get to something that was brand-new, and which didn't work as well. You can't really separate innovation and execution.

As for why so many writers in the brainysphere are talking about Scribblenauts, it might be as simple as this: it's a game about words. We're the target audience!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Current events

Hello, Insult Swordfighting readers! You may have noticed that things have been quiet on the ranch lately. This is for three reasons, two of them mundane and one fairly exciting. I'll give them to you in that order.

1. I haven't been playing anything for the past couple weeks.

These days, when I don't have to review anything, I find myself playing nothing at all. And when you're not playing anything, it's hard to write much. This should be changing in the weeks to come. Look for a Scribblenauts review soon, plus stuff about Dead Space: Extraction and, in all likelihood, Uncharted 2.

2. I got sick for a bit.

God that is so boring. You don't care. I don't care either.

3. Starting next week, I'll be contributing to a more professional-looking blog.

Yes! I'll be publishing reviews and other game-related posts at, a sci-fi/fantasy blog owned by Macmillan publishers. The site mostly focuses on fiction, but its bloggers also cover comics, movies, anime, and lots of other great stuff. It's a very cool site. I'm excited to get started.

How will that impact this blog? In all likelihood, it won't. I've never really published straight reviews here, anyway, and given that InSword's primary purpose has always been to give me a place to talk about stuff I find interesting without having to worry about playing to an audience, it's likely to stay that way. I have also found that writing begets more writing -- it's possible that blogging for will only spur me to write more for this site.

That's the scoop. Thank you for reading.