Monday, November 30, 2009

Games of the decade: Gears of War

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

Gears of War
(2006, Xbox 360)

You always have to be wary of alleged system sellers -- the games that the fanboys are already proclaiming the greatest of all time well before a console has come out, and the reason only an idiot would not buy their favored, someday game system. Gears of War was one of those. Well before the release of the Xbox 360, partisans spoke of it with reverence. Even as it slipped to fall of 2006, a year after the console's debut, we were assured it would be well worth it. Naturally, I assumed the worst.

I was wrong.

Gears of War is a remarkably well produced game. In its way, it's as unimaginative as every other monochromatic, dystopian shooter, but the execution is at such a high level that it all seems fresh and new. Even the game's biggest draw, the cover system, wasn't exactly an innovation. It had been tried in a few games before, never fully successfully. Gears showed how it was done. And afterward, everybody else got on board.

That fundamental mechanic was reinforced by the larger game design: in Gears, you are always outnumbered and outgunned. Often you have to fall back and play defense, and even when you're pressing into enemy territory it is only yard by precious yard. The characters are designed to look like the biggest and baddest dudes around, but when the bullets fly they put their heads down just like anybody else.

Gears also plays on a more topical fear. From the premise, in which the Locust race emerges from subterranean caverns to ravage human civilization, to the ongoing and unpredictable appearances of emergence holes, the thematic subtext of the Locust is that they're all around you. They haven't traveled from across the ocean or from a distant star. They're here already. They've been waiting to strike. In my review, I made a half-hearted attempt to paint Gears as a post-9/11 game for this reason, and I still think that's probably accurate. Frankly, I wish I'd had the balls to go all the way with it and see what happened.

Gears 2, although it was bigger, better, and more badass, was missing some of the desperation and grit of its predecessor. However, Horde Mode was a blast, and something I also hope to see other games copy in the future (some, like Left 4 Dead 2, already are). As Tim Rogers said in his epic review, "Let’s go ahead and mint a brand new law to be obeyed from here on out by all those seeking citizenship in the kingdom of videogames: if your game isn’t fun enough to be enthralling in the context of an endless mode, nothing else about it means shit."

More on Gears of War:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving thanks

Above: I'm not above recycling a Thanksgiving image.

Often, I see people lamenting the lack of good games criticism. I do this myself sometimes. But really, the state of things is better than it's ever been, so long as you know where to look. On Thanksgiving last year, I took a time out to pay tribute to the many terrific games blogs that I read. This year, that list is longer, and once again it's worth giving a shout out to the great work so many people are doing. Below is a list of all the game-related blogs I'm subscribed to. Some are dormant, some maybe extinct, but all have justified their inclusion in my reader. If you see some unfamiliar ones in here, please check them out. You'll probably like what you find.

Thanks to all of the following blogs, podcasts, and miscellaneous sites:
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Games of the decade: An introduction

Above: The first GIS result for "video games."

You might have heard that the end of the decade is approaching. If you read, well, anything, you might also know that everybody with an opinion has to rank their favorite everything of the decade. It's the law. Who am I to flout convention? Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing with you my favorite games of the aughts.

This isn't intended to be a definitive or an objective list. It's not the "best" of the decade, nor a list of the most important or influential games. Although they'll be published in somewhat ascending order, they're not even ranked. I'm framing it this way for a couple reasons. One is simply that there are huge gaps in my gaming knowledge, especially from the first few years of the decade. At that time, I was dirt poor and nobody was sending me anything for free, so I missed out on some likely favorites by circumstance. Plus, the last thing I want to do is get into a futile debate about which games are ranked too low or too high, as though there were a mathematical formula involved.

Instead, I want to do two things. First, whatever your thoughts are on these types of lists, I think it's nice, every once in awhile, to stop and appreciate what we already have. Ten years is a lifetime in the video game industry. In the year 2000, publishers were still releasing games for the N64. The PS2 was about to come out. Xbox Live was a gleam in J Allard's eye. PC gamers were buzzing about something called Deus Ex. That was all this decade! It's astonishing. I'd like to celebrate that.

Second, these writeups will be wholly subjective. I haven't written them all yet, so I can't say to what extent this will be the case, but they're not intended to be penetrating critical essays, or even garden-variety reviews. Playing games can be an intensely personal experience, and wherever possible I'd like to talk about the circumstances in which I played a game that turned out to be a favorite, or in which certain games have guided and shaped my approach to writing about all games.

That's the game plan. I'll be posting one game every day beginning on Monday, and continuing throughout the month of December. I hope you enjoy it! If not, it was nice having a thousand subscribers for a while there.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A well past due Modern Warfare 2 review

Above: Much rushin'.

My review of Modern Warfare 2 is up now at After playing long enough not to totally embarrass myself in multiplayer (harder to do than you'd realize), I settled in on liking it, but not loving it. The multiplayer is fully featured and robust, if the single-player is much less effective than that of Call of Duty 4. So it's good, not great.

I find myself asking the same question I always ask when a game is this commercially successful: Why this game? Why Modern Warfare 2 and not, say, Killzone 2? I'd put those games about on par in terms of quality. They both have splashy, unsatisfying campaigns, and deep multiplayer modes with tons of character progression and unlocks (excessively so, in the latter case). Yet Killzone is already forgotten, while MW2 is the biggest entertainment launch of all time. It's strange.

That said, it's certainly not a negative review, and I'm glad to have had a chance to play the game. I hope that Infinity Ward shows a little more restraint the next time out as far as the campaign goes, but they have a solid multiplayer foundation that's obviously working for a lot of people. What can you do but tip your cap to them?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Leveling the playing field

Above: Capitalism, a love story.

Designing a multiplayer game has got to be tricky. With a single-player game, a player who finds the game too easy or too hard can usually make an in-game adjustment to suit his tastes. In multiplayer, that's not possible, especially in a game like Modern Warfare 2, in which new players are constantly rotating in. The risk is that players who are much better than average will tend to dominate, while players who are much worse than average will have a hard time competing. And that's not fun for anybody.

Developers generally choose from at least one of three approaches to level the playing field:
  1. Match players by skill
  2. Give help to bad players
  3. Give incentives to good players
Matching up players based on their ability or rank always seems like a good idea, but it never seems to pan out in practice. Besides which, how are bad players ever going to improve if they aren't operating outside their comfort zone? The ideal situation, from a training standpoint, would be to constantly be playing against players one tier above you, if such a thing could be calculated. But you won't ever get to win in that case, either, even as you're improving.

Giving help to bad players is a good idea, but it has to be done delicately. Nobody thinks it's fair when the best player loses thanks to heavyhanded intervention by the game gods. How many times have you been cruising to a victory in Mario Kart, only to be undone by a succession of lightning bolts and purple shells? Often in games like that, it seems like being skillful is a detriment. What you want to be is second best, so you can zip past the leader right after Zeus strikes him down.

Incentivizing good play tends to work the best. In Modern Warfare 2, you earn XP for killing an opponent, but you earn more XP for killing him with a headshot. That's a nice touch. You're rewarded for being good, without being punished for not being quite as good. On the other hand, the killstreak rewards can seem like a case of the rich getting richer. It's not easy to get a killstreak long enough to call in the heavy artillery, and when you're still hanging out at the bottom of the learning curve, little is more terrifying than hearing the whine of your opponent's jump jet hovering over the battlefield. 25 kills in a row gives you the ability to deploy a tactical nuke -- if you can kill 25 people in a row without dying, you basically are a tactical nuke.

But the killstreaks are balanced nicely. They don't get out of hand. For one thing, I initially thought that you could only use one reward per killstreak -- i.e., call in your UAV after three kills, and your counter resets to zero -- but it turns out that you can use each killstreak ability as it comes. And the UAV is even persistent, after a brief cooldown. A big killstreak may be hard to come by, but even a mediocre player can occasionally luck into smaller ones, and it's nice to know they will be immediately rewarded.

Infinity Ward's other good idea is the deathstreak, lower-level help given to players who are getting killed over and over with nothing to show for it. Die a few times in a row and you're given the option to steal another player's class. It's a good way to switch it up when things aren't working for you. Die a little more and you might get the "last stand" perk, which lets you keep firing for a moment after dying. It's a smart way to keep bad players in the game without giving them an inordinate amount of help. If Modern Warfare followed the Mario Kart model, then the tactical nuke would come from a deathstreak.

Overall, the multiplayer is very well balanced. The best reap the biggest rewards, but the worst have a strong safety net. And for the rest of us in the middle, we are at least competitive, and who knows? Maybe the next care package will have that nuke in it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits-

Nobody's asked how NaNoWriMo is going, but I'll tell you anyway: I expect to cross the 50,000 word mark tonight or tomorrow, although the story itself will go on for a bit longer. It's been a rewarding, if taxing, experience, and I'd recommend anybody who's ever thought about writing a book give it a go next year. Or, hell, just try it in December! Writing is sweet.

-Kyle Orland has the definitive look at the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott. Not having paid attention to any of it while it was happening, I didn't realize there was a story with so many twists and turns. This just proves, once again, that Valve is one of the smartest companies around. But the boycotters made their point too, and overall the whole thing seems much more successful than the MW2 boycott.

-Speaking of MW2, I don't see a need to weigh in on the "No Russian" scene because so many others have already said basically what I would have, only better -- Kieron Gillen and Tom Chick chief among them. Nick Dinicola has a more sanguine take, arguing that Modern Warfare 2 accurately reflects the senseless state of warfare in the 21st century. He may not be totally wrong about that, but it's important to remember the extent to which we've sanitized World War II in our collective memory. Maybe there was a good reason for fighting it, but you can't tell that to the 50 million people who died, the majority of them civilians.

-Also at PopMatters, L.B. Jeffries stands up for the merits of linear narrative. He's right to frame it the way he does -- there's always a lot of excitement about emergent narratives and player-as-author design philosophies, but there's room for more than one approach. Well-scripted, linear games may not be sexy, but they'll never go out of style.

-Steve Gaynor puts together his picks for the definitive games of the decade, which he says "defined the state of the art in game design in the 00's." Good list with lots to think about. Like one of the commenters, I too think that Guitar Hero and Rock Band should be on that list in some form. They are simply too big a cultural and commercial phenomenon to ignore, and although music and rhythm games had existed in some form before, the original Guitar Hero is clearly the demarcation point between the genre as a niche and as a powerhouse.

-Sarah Palin may think she's going rogue, but it turns out to be a pretty weak build.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Draggin' age

Above: The author, after the game wiped out an hour of progress because he hadn't saved.

At long last, now that I've lost any interest in talking about it further, my review of Dragon Age: Origins is up at

I am pretty happy with the way this one came out. It is no fun to feel like the person on the outside, when everybody else seems to be loving a game that you just don't get. Fortunately, thanks in large part to your comments, I felt like I did come to a pretty decent understanding of the whole thing before I had to write about it. Even if that wasn't enough to change my opinion, it did help me to state it more clearly (and Krystian Majewski's Mass Effect essay was a big help, too). Dragon Age is such a big game that it's impossible to cover everything in 600 words and still make a point, but I feel like this one came close.

We are still in the thick of things, reviews-wise. All the whinging about Holiday 2009 delays is laughable in hindsight. This fall has turned out to be stacked. I feel pretty confident that I've already played my game of the year, but with Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin's Creed 2, and New Super Mario Brothers Wii all theoretically on the docket, that could change in a heartbeat. Now if only anybody would send me any of these games...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Some thanks are in order. First, to everybody who suggested gaming blogs last week, thanks for some excellent suggestions, and some new reading material. And second, I'm really appreciative of the thread that developed on the Dragon Age post earlier in the week. I still can't say I like the game, but I understand it much better now, and can say that I have more respect for what it sets out to accomplish. (Undermining that statement in 3... 2... 1...)

-The best blog post I've read this year is 's three-part dissection of the interface problems in Mass Effect. In exacting detail, and with illustrative screenshots, Krystian pores over the numerous bad decisions, both large and small, that make playing Mass Effect such a trial. Upon reading this series, I realized two things:
  1. Dragon Age's interface is a marked improvement over Mass Effect's.
  2. Dragon Age's interface is still terrible.
BioWare seems to value neat-looking menus, status indicators, and icons over useful ones. And the fact that you will eventually learn what all these things mean, and how to use them, does not mean that they are done right in the first place, or that you are not wasting lots of time getting to that point. The menus are a special kind of hell, though I have to think they'd be much easier to navigate with a mouse. Obviously, many people can get past this and enjoy the high-level stuff that BioWare does so well. But an increased emphasis on interface design could only result in more people getting into these games. That would be better for everybody.

-The crew at Gamers with Jobs are such sharp and perceptive writers that when they go wrong, you can almost hear the needle scratching off the record. Sean "Elysium" Sands writes in "A Dirge for the Sinking Ship" that gamers are inadvertently hastening the demise of high-quality, original games by making stupid demands and engaging in silly boycotts. Elysium himself admits to an "unfocussed rage," which is something of an understatement. I think I understand his sentiment, but his logic is baffling.

The linchpin of his argument is that people who complain about day-one DLC in Dragon Age are shortsighted and greedy. Certainly nobody would argue that the game, as it shipped, is lacking content. That's part of why people are upset, I think. You just spent $60 on a new game, thinking you'll settle in for 50 hours or so, and within about 5 hours of play an NPC is hitting you up for actual money. I am not outraged by this, but I think gamers are well within their rights not to buy it, and to let the company know why. That's how the market is supposed to work.

Elysium's larger, self-defeating argument is that if we want to avoid a future with crippled retail products and day-one DLC, then we are obligated to... buy day-one DLC. Well, I don't buy that. Publishers aren't stupid. The way to ensure more games like Dragon Age is to buy Dragon Age. The way to ensure more DLC is to buy DLC. And for the dubious efficacy of things like boycotts -- especially half-hearted ones -- it does work when gamers make their voices heard. The infamous horse armor from Oblivion is the go-to example of stupid, overpriced DLC, and what happened there? There was an outcry, Bethesda responded, and future add-ons were more fairly priced and offered a greater value.

Nearly all of the examples Elysium points to as games we'll be missing out on in the future -- remember, the future after we haven't bought Dragon Age DLC -- are strange ones. Mirror's Edge was a fine idea but a bad game. Ghostbusters was all right, nothing special, and hardly an example of what I'd call a risky game. Brutal Legend was inspired, but a mess. The Riddick remake was great, but it was a remake of a commercially successful title, which tells me that they've already sheared that sheep as much as they're going to.

And then -- Dead Space? Uncharted 2? Fallout 3? Borderlands? We're afraid there won't be more games like these? These are all huge hits. They're all packed with great content on the disc, full experiences in themselves, with some optional DLC if you're into that sort of thing. I guarantee you that we will be seeing more games like these. And if the concern is that we'll only be seeing games like these, which is to say sequels to these games, well, some of them are sequels already. Besides which, these are all games that have come out in the past year, not long-forgotten relics of a more creative era.

There is something to the argument that the à la carte model prohibits systemic support for smaller and riskier projects -- there are so many niche cable television channels today because subscribers have so little choice in which ones we get, so we end up pooling our money for all of them. But a simple look at the state of independent games, especially through digital distribution platforms like Steam, would seem to put the lie to that, too. Anyway, I'd really recommend you read the piece and the top-notch comments thread that follows. Many great points have been made on both sides.

-This is making the rounds. And it is very funny.

Happy weekend!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dragon Rage

Above: Finally, somebody had the balls to make a hot mage.

Every so often, maybe once a year, there's a game that stymies me. Often, this game is made by BioWare. The current culprit is Dragon Age: Origins. Before we get to the opinion part, first I want to lay out some facts.
  • This game has apparently been in development for at least five years.
  • I never heard of it before about two weeks ago.
  • I cannot look at a message board or Twitter stream without drowning in praise for the game, along with in-depth discussions of tactics.
So all those things are true. Dragon Age is sitting pretty with a Metacritic score of 91 for the PC, 89 for the PS3, and 87 for the 360. Obviously this is not just a good game, but one that people are passionate about. Folks have been waiting for Dragon Age, and now that it's here they are embracing it and laying wet sloppy kisses on its cheeks. And, like the guy who shows up to the wedding in a polo shirt and jeans, I could not feel more out of place.

Let's start with an admission: I am not a smart man. Oh, I know some fancy words, and I quote only the most highbrow cartoon shows,* but when it comes to mastering new systems and making long-range plans, I am less than useless. It might be stubbornness more than anything. When my party gets wiped out in Dragon Age, my usual response is to rush right back into the scrum, pressing the "attack" button more forcefully this time. This is obviously not the way you are intended to play.

But how the hell are you supposed to play? The game doesn't teach you. It lets you unlock a lot of powers and abilities, and it explains what those activities do in the most obscure and inscrutable of ways. This doesn't seem to be a problem among interfriends, whose earnest discussions about aggro and pulling are both easy and free. I, well, I don't know what these words mean in a practical sense. People and video games who employ them so casually do not make it easy to find out.

I want to enjoy the big-picture stuff that makes Dragon Age so appealing. Sword-and-sorcery is not my favored domain, which leads to a dilemma: One one hand, it's lazy and unfair to criticize a game for its genre. You wouldn't criticize Madden for being a football game, or Call of Duty for being a military shooter. On the other hand, if you didn't like football games or military shooters, what could convince you that those were better-than-average examples of their types? It's okay not to like a genre or a style of game, but not to damn them for existing.

Even so, I was cruising along with Dragon Age for a little while, not loving it or even really enjoying myself, but at least progressing. Then, when my party got wiped out at one point, I selected the default continue option. I didn't even read the menu; I just hit A when it came up. I think it said something about loading my last save, or last checkpoint, but whatever it said, I expected to start back at the area I'd entered most recently. I certainly did not expect to be transported back in time about an hour, before I'd accepted several quests and finished one or two others. Suddenly I was back in the middle of a pitched battle I'd easily won the first time through, and for some reason my party no longer seemed up to the task. We were getting slaughtered. And some significant progress was lost forever.

This is the kind of thing that's a dealbreaker for me. I can see how the depth of a complex RPG like Dragon Age can appeal to other people, even if it doesn't appeal to me. What I don't understand is how a game that can make that egregious and basic an error is supposed to make me want to join the club. The same thing happened in Mass Effect: I reached a part I couldn't seem to get by, but because of the checkpoint and auto-save system, as well as the quest structure, I couldn't leave the area, either. I must have thrown myself at it a dozen times. Finally my choice was either to start a new game or give up. I gave up, and spent several weeks afterward smoldering, especially as I read all the glowing chatter about the game online.

Ultimately I'd be quite happy to live and let live if I didn't have to review the game. I want to believe that it might be valuable for some readers to get the perspective of a non-RPG guy, but that seems kind of stupid on its face. Whose interest does it serve for me to write a review that says, essentially, "Hell if I know?" The angle will have to be the high barrier to entry and the dedication required to wring enjoyment from the game -- dedication I lack -- but it doesn't necessarily feel fair to slap a low-ish number on there. It feels definitive, and if there's one way I know I don't feel about Dragon Age, it's definitive.

*"Since we're all going to die, I feel there's one more secret I have to share with you. I did not care for Dragon Age."
"Did not care for Dragon Age."
"How can you even say that?"
"Didn't like it."
"It's like the perfect game!"
"This is what everyone always says."
"Explain yourself. What didn't you like about it?"
"It insists upon itself. It takes forever to get into it, I... You know, I can't even finish it. I've never even finished the game."
"How can you say you don't like it if you haven't even given it a chance?"
"I have tried on three separate occasions to get through it, and I... I have no idea what they're talking about. It's like they're speaking a different language."
"The language they're speaking is the language of tactical role-playing, something you don't understand."
"I loved Final Fantasy X. That is my answer to that statement."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Week one of National Novel Writing Month seems to be going well, at least where word count is concerned. Quality, not so much. That's the point! But with Dragon Age on the docket, week two promises to be much more challenging. Fortunately, there's always time for links.

-Paste posted their list of the 20 best games of the decade, to which I contributed both a ballot and a blurb for the #5 pick. For the most part it's an unsurprising list, though Guitar Hero III at number 10 strikes me as a disgrace. Otherwise there are a bunch of games I loved (Portal, BioShock, Shadow of the Colossus), and a bunch of games I didn't love but can't quibble with their inclusion (Halo, Grand Theft Auto, even Metal Gear Solid 2). People love to bitch about lists, but not as much as publishers love publishing them.

-I didn't see the video before it got pulled, but apparently Infinity Ward released a promotional video for Modern Warfare 2 in which Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels warned players against being grenade-throwing pussies, in a mock PSA brought to you by "Fight Against Grenade Spam." Har, har. There have been several decent reactions to the promo from around the web, but I think Denis's gets the closest to the root of the problem.

People seem to think that if stuff like this isn't "intended" to be hateful, then it isn't. There is some strange logic by which people convince themselves that if they call somebody a fag meaning that the person is an asshole, and not a homosexual, that somehow drains the word of bigotry. But of course that's silly. That's exactly where its power comes from. We have to be responsible about things like this, in the same way that we wouldn't walk around carelessly brandishing a weapon.

(Regarding the somewhat bizarre objection I've seen in a few comments threads that people should also be complaining about the violence in the game: That's irrelevant to the subject. Obviously everybody is welcome to criticize violence as entertainment, if they so choose, but it's really not the same thing. Besides which, conflict through violence is one of the oldest forms of drama, and I, for one, am not comfortable criticizing a game's portrayal of violence until I have the full context. I'd be happy to know of any extenuating context for a commercial that employs anti-gay slurs to sell a game. By the same token, I'd have no problem playing a game with homophobic characters in it, but I'd have a problem playing a game with homophobic depictions of characters. That's the difference.)

-The Boston Globe ran an article about computer and game addiction earlier this week, and while it's obviously an interesting subject, it's kind of weird to distinguish this from any other addiction. If you do anything to excess, it's a problem, whether that means drinking yourself into oblivion or being the crazy cat lady I saw on an episode of A&E's Hoarders. Still, it is of course helpful to be aware of the signs of compulsive behavior.

-It's a little late for Halloween, but I wanted to spotlight the Phoenix's new geek-lifestyle blog, Laser Orgy. Last week they ran a list of the 10 games that shouldn't have scared them, but did. I tried to suggest some things, but it was a lot harder to do than you might have expected.

-You know, I think I need to rep some new and different gaming blogs in my reader. Anybody have any suggestions?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

No rest for the wicked awesome

My review of Borderlands is up now at As you've ascertained by now, I really liked this game. I can't seem to stop playing it. I have vague memories of grumbling my way through the first few hours, making mental notes of everything to complain about. Not that there's nothing to complain about -- is that ever the case? But this game gives so much and asks so little in return that it'd feel tacky to run down a list of problems.

Actually, here's one major complaint: I haven't reached level 50 yet. Damn you, Gearbox!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 User-Submitted Previews: Modern Warfare 2

Above: This week's best game ever made.

With only one week to go until the release of Modern Warfare 2, many charming folks are clamoring to join the fight against grenade spam. They've gathered on the MW2 "user buzz page" on, where comments generally fall into four categories.

1) Sales Potential

Anyone who doesn't reserve is going to have to wait a couple weeks to buy it because this game is going to be sold out! There are going to be people fighting over this game.
Call of Duty MW 2 will be a big hit mostly half of u.s will potentalliy buy it and i also will look forward to it
king balla:
over half the world is probably gona buy this.
2) Quality Assurance

This game is gonna be 10 times better than COD 4 and 100 times better than COD 5.
Theres no way this game will not be GAME OF THE YEAR!!!
P.J The beast:
COD: MW2 is the best firts person shooter of the century.
This is going to be the best shooter 2 date.
Kilr Stud:
There is a very good chance that this will be the best game ever.
Personally, I think this is going to be the greatest game ever created for any game console.
This will be the best game ever created.
RE fan!:
this an 11 outa 10 game without a doubt
3) Sickness Quotient

This game however looks sicker than anything I have ever seen.
The graphics look sick and the gameplay looks sick. Everything about this game will be sick
king balla:
man this game looks siiiiiiiiiik.
4) Cries for Help

you can say i'm preety much pumped for it and you can be sure i'm picking it up at midnight and playing it for about 3 months straight without sleep even tho it is impossible i'll still try to attempt it!!!
A Customer:
im not going to get it right away not sure why i think im going to get borderlands first. o and to answer friar's question operation flashpoint: dragon rising blew cod 4 out of the water o and next time dont sound like a 3rd grader when righting your preview thing.
Dawn of war fan:
This game is going to be infested with little kids. Oh god i seriously mean it. I wont be able to enjoy this game because of all the little children bantering about nothing. Talking everyone ears off.
I'm just afraid that it will be too over hyped and not deliver on the expectations that the hype and ads are making it out to be. I'm praying i'm wrong and it blows everyones minds and is the best selling game of all time, but if i were Infinity Ward i'd be shaking in my shoes right now in fear. Who ever reads this pray with me that i'm wrong. Just pray.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Your level best

Above: Friends forever / Always we'll be friends

It's amazing what a powerful motivator leveling up can be. In any game with roleplaying elements, the promise of dinging the next level is what keeps you grinding through repetitive and, let's be honest, often un-fun gameplay. You know your hard work now will pay off later. (Sometimes much later.)

Borderlands does a better job than most of keeping you focused on this goal. Your XP progress bar is always shown on your HUD, right in the center of the screen. When it's nearly full, you'll do almost anything to push it over the top. When it's nearly empty, it's so shameful that you need to redeem yourself by taking on as many missions as you can.

But Borderlands also discourages grinding in the traditional sense. The difference in XP awarded is enormous, depending on whether you're killing garden-variety enemies or completing missions. My soldier character is at level 34 now, and I'd guess that I've only leveled up in the ordinary run of play once or twice. Every other time, it's either been upon killing a boss, or turning in missions.

The way the missions are stacked is pretty clever. They're not clever quests on their own -- almost all of the "go here and get this" variety. You can accept several missions at a time, though, and you don't earn your XP at the moment you've completed the objective. You have to turn in, which usually means returning to the place where you picked up the assignment. This is often very far away. As a result, it's easier to complete multiple mission objectives at the same time, and have several quests in your mission log marked as ready to turn in. Then you'll turn them all in at once for 40 or 50 thousand XP.

Missions are categorized by difficulty, according to level. If you're at level 25, a level 25 mission will be designated as "normal" difficulty, while a level 27 mission will be "difficult" and level 23 will be "trivial." These are often correct, and it's astounding what a difference a level makes. When the League of Extraordinarily Gentle Men first broached Old Haven, one of the best designed "dungeons" in Borderlands, we were ripped to shreds. Our first encounter ended with several deaths, a couple of revivals, and a hasty retreat. Two levels later, a couple of us went back in, and although it was still challenging, we accomplished our objective without ever risking failure.

Gearbox dangles one more carrot in front of you during the course of play. It's not uncommon to find weapons that can't be used until you've reached a certain level. Your inventory is pretty small in this game, even as it can be expanded over the course of play, yet it's impossible not to allocate one crucial spot to the bitchin-est sniper rifle you've ever seen, which sets dudes on fire and never needs to be reloaded, knowing that it will all have been worth it in eight hours or so when you've finally leveled up enough to use it.

With each level boost, your character grows appreciably stronger. Your bullets do more damage. Enemy attacks hurt less. The action points that you assign become exponentially more useful. My ammo-regenerating turret still isn't very useful for supplying my teammates, but no longer is it a wimpy sidekick. It fires in five-shot bursts, with my choice of elemental power. And with a much reduced cooldown, I can toss it onto the field numerous times per battle. I finally agree with Roland when he exclaims, "I love this damn thing!"

A few times before, I've mentioned that games are often more like work than they are like play, and Borderlands is a great example. Much of it is about putting your head down and taking care of business. Gearbox did such a good job of spacing out the rewards, and making sure that one is always visible around the corner, that it rarely falls into the trap of feeling like a simple grind. Sure, it's like work, but payday is every day.