Friday, December 24, 2010

Year in Review: The best games of 2010

Above: Not even a game of the year nod can make Ethan Mars smile.

We're wrapping up our recap of the year that was. Today: the best games of 2010.

We've saved the best for last. You can click through to the feature on to read all the blurbs. Here's my list of the 10 best games of 2010.
  1. Heavy Rain
  2. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
  3. BioShock 2
  4. Rock Band 3
  5. Red Dead Redemption
  6. Dance Central
  7. DeathSpank
  8. Halo: Reach
  9. Bayonetta
  10. Final Fantasy XIII
That about wraps it up for 2010. As always, thank you so much for reading. Have a merry Christmas and a happy new year. We'll meet right back here in 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Year in Review: The worst games of 2010

Above: "It's just me getting killed by a giant spider for an hour and a half. It cost 80 million krone."

All this week, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: The worst games of the year.

As I keep darkly alluding, I found this to be a challenging year in a lot of ways.* Nowhere was this more apparent than with all the supposedly great games I struggled to play. Every year there's crap, and everybody agrees it's crap, but this year, more than any I can recall, there was crap that people kept telling me was an ice-cream sundae.

In chronological order of when I played them, here are the games I liked the least in 2010:

Army of Two: The 40th Day: I was sad to see this game go in the wrong direction, because I thought the first Army of Two showed a lot of promise. But the sequel ditched the humor, kept the monotonous duck-and-cover shooting, and added a terrible checkpoint system to boot. Nothing was worse than laboriously customizing your weapons, dying in the next firefight, and finding that you had to do it all over again. Ugh.

No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle: This is where we're talking about disappointing sequels, right? I loved No More Heroes so much, and I thought the sequel wasn't fit for the tissue box next to Travis Touchdown's easy chair. I can't even talk about it. It makes me sad.

Aliens vs. Predator: Never wrote about this one. In fact, I'd forgotten I played it until I saw it on somebody else's worst-of list. Whoever that was, damn you for reminding me of this awful game.

God of War III: Mechanically, God of War III was sound, but it was the moment when Kratos stopped being cool. Dude needs to get over it. He's like the guy who shows up at his 20th high school reunion wearing the same leather jacket he wore in the twelfth grade. It's embarrassing at this point.

Splinter Cell: Conviction: I get what Ubi was trying to do here. It just didn't work. Even if the aggro-stealth concept had worked, we'd still have had to deal with Fisher's motormouthed antagonists. Who the hell signed off on them?

Crackdown 2: We are drowning in awful sequels right now. Pinpointing the failure of Crackdown 2 is difficult, because in every way that matters, it is exactly the same game as its predecessor. Except the first game is still one of my favorites of this generation, and the second one is... not.

Limbo: Man, I don't even know. To me, this seemed like just another too-difficult indie platformer with delusions of grandeur.

Mafia II: Not without its charms, I still wonder what sane person would keep playing through this game's terrible action scenes unless somebody was paying them. It still wasn't enough for me!

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: This, not Limbo, is the game where I feel the most like I missed something. I read too many positive things from too many people I respect to discount it as simply a crappy game. But that's what it felt like to me: lousy camera, bad controls, dumb story. I can't get past these things.

Medal of Honor: If there was a more generic, mediocre shooter out there in 2010, I didn't play it.

Tomorrow: The best games of 2010.

*I'm just trying to seem dark and mysterious, for the ladies.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Year in Review: Honorable mentions

All this week, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: 2010 honorable mentions.

Rough as this year was, there were still plenty of games that I played and enjoyed, even if they didn't end up making my list of the best games of the year. In chronological order of when I played them:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2: I don't think I ever wrote about this game. I am generally tired of military-themed shooters, but I dug the big maps and the vehicles, and I want to apologize to the dozens of teammates I inadvertently murdered whenever I was driving.

Alan Wake: A terrific-looking shooter with a decent gameplay gimmick and a nice sense of pacing. If only this bestselling author hadn't been such a terrible writer.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: Even if I find myself reaching the "it's not you, it's me" stage with a lot of these Nintendo games, the quality is undeniable. You still can't screw with Super Mario.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane: A super-fun throwback arcade racer for Xbox Live Arcade. I really, really liked this game. It almost made my top 10 for the year.

Metroid: Other M: Uneven, especially where the storytelling was concerned, but Other M was a fun and fast-paced update to the Metroid universe. I just wish it hadn't gotten better after it ended!

NBA Jam: I almost forgot it existed, but I had fun with this game while it lasted. God, is that the most mild praise you can imagine, or what?

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem!: My first review for Joystiq was also my biggest surprise of the year. This game's reach doesn't exceed its grasp; it accomplishes everything it sets out to do.

Donkey Kong Country Returns: Rock-solid 2d platforming marred only by -- what else? -- shoehorned waggle control. Apparently there's a classic controller mode available, which probably would have helped to know when I was playing it.

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom: Another surprise. I predict that, a year from now, one of two things will happen: either you'll be able to get this game for five bucks from every bargain bin in the country, or you'll have to get it for a hundred on eBay. Both outcomes seem equally likely.

Mass Effect 2: All right, you bastards. You win. I like Mass Effect 2. Sure, I still find the moment-to-moment play excruciating, just trying to accomplish the simplest tasks, and the plot isn't that good. I've pretty much lost track of the whole thing at this point. The non-stop recitation of alien races and planets is stupefying. And, come on: The Illusive Man? Seriously? WTF kind of lazy storytelling is that? He smokes so mysteriously! And where the hell is he? Is there a bathroom on his solar observation deck?

But, on the other hand, my renegade FemShep is awesome. I like her dark humor and her clear-eyed take on things. She doesn't do the things I would do in her position, but neither do I feel like the game is forcing my hand. I'm trying to get inside this character's head. There are times when it seems like this is exactly what a roleplaying game is supposed to be.

Now let's never speak of this again.

Some Games I Wish I Had Played: Split/Second, Blur, Metro 2033, Joe Danger, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Pac Man CE DX

Can't win 'em all.

Tomorrow: the worst games of 2010.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Year in Review: Year-end superlatives

Above: A winner is you, everyone.

All this week, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: year-end superlatives.

Welcome Trend: Critical Non-Consensus

With the annual "Year in Swooning" quiz, I'm trying to point out how carried away game sites often get when it comes to the flavor of the week. But there is some progress in this regard. This year, I felt like there actually was legitimate, respectful disagreement about some of the highest-profile games, both indie and major-label.

I think it's a sign that gamers are feeling more self-confident that we don't have to band together all the time. This is a good thing!

PR Knuckleheads of the Year: Gabe and Tycho

Count me among those who thought the original comic was not only hilarious, but took aim at a worthy target. But the followup was a disaster. When some readers objected, Gabe and Tycho could have taken the criticisms in the spirit they were intended. A simple apology would have done nicely. At the very least, acknowledge the complaints respectfully and move on. Hell, ignoring them would have been better than what actually happened.

Instead, Gabe and Tycho doubled down with a comic that not only mischaracterized the complaints, but essentially said that the people who were offended are stupid. And then followed that up by selling Dickwolves merch.

All this was uncharacteristic for two guys who are so generous and inclusive, both with PAX and with Child's Play. These are the guys who banned booth babes from PAX, with the blessing of a majority of their readership. So I certainly don't doubt their motives. To their minds, a joke is a joke, but a bunch of their readers disagreed and I think they they did real damage to their brand by assuming a defensive posture instead of listening. To this day I don't think anything approaching an apology has come out, not for the first comic or for the followup.

For myself, I don't think they would have needed to apologize for the original strip, but they could have dealt with it in a better way than becoming the latest and most ironic exemplars of John Gabriel's Greater Internet Dickwad Theory.

Game Blog of the Year: Gamer Melodico

Barely one year into it, Kirk Hamilton and company have already made a big impact with Gamer Melodico. They did it all: good-natured jabs at obnoxious game design; satire; finding inventive ways to comment on topical subjects; round-table discussions that make you feel like you're sitting in a coffee shop with the writers.

All of it's done with a good attitude, a healthy sense of humor, and keen minds. I can't sum up the site any better than they did themselves: "Gamer Melodico is a blog about games, written by friendly people who like to play."

(And, what the hell, an honorable mention for Game Journalists Are Incompetent Fuckwits. Paddon's not on-target all the time, but, in the words of Han Solo, "I must have hit real close to the mark to get her all riled up like this, huh kid?")

Developers of the Year: Ex-LucasArts dudes

No big-budget studio jumped out at me this year. Rockstar San Diego did great work with Red Dead Redemption. Retro Studios successfully rebooted Donkey Kong Country. Quantic Dream accomplished most of its very ambitious goals with Heavy Rain. 2K Marin not only stunned me by releasing a worthy followup to BioShock, but by all accounts the "Minerva's Den" DLC was even better (unfortunately, I didn't play it).

But I have to give a shout-out here to two people that I am always rooting for, who found their voices this year with downloadable games. Ron Gilbert, via Hothead Games, brought us the hilarious DeathSpank, which was followed almost immediately by a surprise sequel. And Tim Shafer's DoubleFine Productions rebounded after the disappointing Brutal Legend to release Costume Quest, a funny and light downloadable game that's gotten plaudits from a lot of people whose opinions I value. 2010 was a good year for both of these guys, and they're two of the best we've got.

Publisher of the Year: Nintendo

Even though I still struggle a bit with a lot of the newer Nintendo games, it's hard to argue that Nintendo isn't the big-name publisher that is consistently putting out the highest-quality products. On the Wii, Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country Returns were both worthy of their names, and Metroid: Other M was respectable. On the DS, a little game called Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! was my biggest surprise of the year. Maybe sales of the Wii are flagging, but year in and year out, Nintendo never disappoints on the software side.

Game Console of the Year: Xbox 360

We've long since reached the point at which everybody has made up their minds on this generation of game consoles. Five years into it, the Wii's star has started to fall a bit, the PlayStation 3 has never gotten on track, and the Xbox 360 has almost defaulted to the head of the pack, massive hardware failure rates notwithstanding.

So why choose the Xbox 360 as the game console of the year? For one thing, the only hardware this year that even approached the level of buzzworthy was Kinect. The jury's still out, but it's got a lot of potential. It was the Xbox that once again had the lion's share of big exclusives, both in retail and download. And, price hike or not, Xbox Live continues to be the best online gaming option around. That's why I bought my second Xbox 360 this year.

That, and my first one red-ringed after almost five years. It was like the death of the last living World War 1 veteran.

Tomorrow: Honorable mentions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Year in Review: The best of the blog

Above: Actually the best of Insult Swordfighting.

All this week, we'll be recapping the year that was. First up: the best of Insult Swordfighting, 2010.

It's been a strange year. My output was lower than usual. I spent a couple of months without playing anything at all. When I did play games, I often felt uninspired, or even gloomy. Without making things weird between us, I'll just say that a lot happened this year, personally and professionally, that made me question the role of video games in my life. But it's all good. As we head into 2011, I'm excited about the way things are going, and I'm looking forward to playing and writing a lot more.

Without further ado, here are some of the better Insult Swordfighting posts you may have missed from 2010:

January: Bayonetta. How is it possible for one game to be so awesome, yet so embarrassing?

February: I returned from the disabled list. If you're wondering, I have made nearly a full recovery. The doctor and my occupational therapist both told me that it's extremely rare for people to heal so well from this type of injury.

March: I made the first of many impassioned defenses of Heavy Rain. And I spent way too much time writing about PAX East. Speaking of which, I still haven't gotten my pass for the next one.

April: I was about to vanish from blogging for awhile. One reason was Peggle.

May: N/A

June: What's with the collectibles in Alan Wake? Plus, my banned review of Splinter Cell: Conviction finally saw daylight.

July: I think a lot of people thought I was trying to stick it to Ebert, but actually this post was about how much I disliked Limbo, and the critical conversation surrounding it.

August: Seriously, I didn't like Limbo.

September: Why did Metroid: Other M wait until after the closing credits to get good?

October: 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is released, becomes a runaway bestseller, and revenue from its sales through my Amazon Associates account makes me an instant millionaire.

November: "The Year in Swooning" is always fun.

December: My vendetta against BioWare knows no bounds. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I stayed up until 4:30 AM on Sunday playing Mass Effect 2.)

Tomorrow: Year-end superlatives.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Above: It's the man, bringing you down.

Autolog recommends that you read my review of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit at If you follow me on Twitter (why don't you follow me on Twitter?), then you know that I love this game with a passion bordering on obsession. I found myself thinking about it as I went to sleep at night, and when I got up in the morning. When I load the title screen, my heart starts beating a little faster. This is shameful, but it's the truth.

In the limited space I have for reviews, I prefer to focus on one or two major points rather than trying to cover everything. In this case, it seemed most important to talk about how flippin' awesome the hot pursuits are, so that's the majority of the review. I didn't even mention the social features, despite how prominently they feature in the game's marketing, and even though I'm about to discuss them now, the bottom line is that the social features are a nice extra and not a game-changer.

For Autolog is, at heart, just a leaderboard. In that sense it's no different from the high score list on a Pac-Man machine 30 years ago. If no one else has played an event, you hop right to the top. If they have, your incentive is to beat them. Occasionally, you return to the game to find that you have been displaced. Your friends' scores update automatically, which, again, is not new or unique to Hot Pursuit.

Where the Autolog departs from tradition is in the ease of use. You might finish a race and return to the menu to be interrupted by a breaking news update that someone has just beaten your score. With one button press, you can immediately load that event and set to work getting your revenge. More than once, this feature resulted in an asynchronous multiplayer game between me and some of my friends who were online. We could have raced each other head to head; instead, we were trading lap times in what felt like a 21st-century update of playing chess by mail.

That's intended as a compliment.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mass Effect 2

Above: Mass Effect 2 cast members plan their revenge against me for this post.

In advance of turning in my list of the year's top games, I decided to play a little catch-up this weekend. What better place to start, I thought, than with Mass Effect 2, one of the best-reviewed games of the year, and one of my favorite excerpts from this year's "Year in Swooning" quiz?

Despite Chris Buffa's command that I buy it immediately, I skipped ME2 the first time around. You may remember that I hated the original. That's not a word I use often, or lightly. I seem to have a mental block when it comes to BioWare, and it didn't seem fair to me or to them to keep reviewing their games when I'm just going to say the same things over and over. So Maddy reviewed ME2 for the Phoenix and loved it, and I went about my merry way.

Still, with the year ending, people starting to tweet about their best games of the year, and the price having dropped to $20, I figured: what the hell. Let's give Mass Effect 2 a try. I picked it up on Friday and put about six mostly painless hours into it over the weekend. Without question, it is a huge improvement over the original. But I remain baffled by so many of the design decisions, most of which have the effect of making the game hard to play. I don't mean that the game is difficult in the traditional sense, I mean that performing the most basic actions is always twice as complicated as it needs to be.

Over a year has passed since Krystian Majewski's epic three-part dismantling of the interface in Mass Effect 1, and despite minor improvements in this regard, that's still your best resource for understanding how and why Mass Effect 2's interaction design fails. When it comes to maintaining a consistent control scheme, to conveying appropriate information to the player, and making it easy to parse your character data, BioWare doesn't get the most basic things right, not even by accident.

This is but a sampling of the problems I encountered in my time playing Mass Effect 2.

Press A to confirm, or press B to... confirm?

Mass Effect 2 likes to change what buttons do from one screen to the next. By now, it is accepted convention that on the Xbox 360 controller, the green A button means "yes," "accept," "confirm," and so on. The red B button means "no," "deny," "cancel," and so on. Sometimes this is the case in ME2, and sometimes it isn't. When you select a costume for Shepard, the icons helpfully tell you "(B) Confirm." I think this is the first game in history to do that.

In other screens, the game doubles up on functions. At the end of each mission is a debrief screen that runs through your stats. When you scroll to the last menu option, you read "Exit (A)." And at the bottom of the screen, you also read "(B) Exit." That's hardly game-breaking, since it's hard to imagine what else you would want to do at that point. But it's BioWare's approach in a nutshell: never use one button when two will do.

Bait and switch

There are two primary modes of playing Mass Effect 2. Either you're walking around and talking to other characters, or you are shooting other characters. Both modes look exactly the same. They control the same, at least as far as moving your character goes. They transition from one to another seamlessly. Yet, when you move from one to another, certain buttons swap functions. Some things stop working. It is bizarre.

In non-combat play, clicking the right stick will bring up a static map (clicking the left stick will bring up the map, too -- again, why use one button when two will do?). Clicking the right stick again will not exit the map, despite how much sense that would make, but that's not really pertinent to this point. If you have an objective, you can click the right bumper to bring up a little arrow on your HUD that'll point where you need to go.

Once you're in combat, this changes. Now there's no map screen at all, and clicking the right stick brings up your objective arrow instead. This is necessary because the right bumper has been re-mapped to activate your ammo power. Makes sense, right?

The worst part of all of this is that I might have gotten the details wrong, but I would never be able to tell.

If the light is red, move ahead

Games can communicate information in lots of different ways: through text, through color, through sound, through force-feedback. When an interface is designed well, all of these elements work together to tell the player a story in the blink of an eye. When it is not, they will provide confusing or contradictory information to the player.

The best example that I saw in Mass Effect 2 came the first time I entered a mass relay, which is the device that lets you jump to another star system. The screen showed me a zoomed out galaxy map, and I could move a crosshair with the analog stick to select my destination. When I highlighted the nearest star system, I heard a buzzing noise, and a red line appeared connecting that system with the one I was on. "Whoops, guess I can't go here yet," I thought, and exited the map to try to figure out what quest-critical task I had not yet accomplished.

It took me three trips into the mass relay to realize that nothing was preventing me from proceeding, and that a tiny "travel" icon was also appearing at the bottom of the screen, along with the buzzing and the red line. This could have been avoided with a "ding" sound and a green line, don't you think?


Mass Effect 2's icons make no sense. When you're in combat, you can give your squadmates orders by pulling up a wheel that is studded with icons representing everybody's special powers. It is impossible to tell just by looking what any of these powers are. Even when you point the cursor at one of them, it's still not easy to tell because they all have sexy names that don't reflect their actual function. (Why is the command to heal your squadmates called "unity" and not, you know, "heal"?)

So in order to tell what anything does during battle, you have to scroll around reading fine print, most of which is hidden from view until you highlight a specific part of the radial wheel. This is a stunning feat of communicating as little information as possible to the player, while still taking up the maximum possible screen real estate.

(Just to rep Krystian's article again, he did a much better job of demolishing Mass Effect's iconography than I ever could.)

Ordering off the menu

Trying to navigate the menus in Mass Effect 2 feels like you've stumbled into an M.C. Escher painting. They never go where you expect, and they're full of extraneous information that doesn't help you accomplish your goals. You can read detailed paragraphs about your weapons, but you can't compare their stats side-by-side when you're selecting your loadout. That's the most important function I could imagine these menus serving, and it's just not there.

Or take the process of making upgrades. You access a console on your ship that brings up a top-level list of available upgrades, broken out by category. But the top menu item isn't selectable, and it isn't an upgrade. It provides a general description of what upgrades are. It looks like a menu option -- it just doesn't behave like one.

As you scroll down through the menu, detailed descriptions of each category display in a box to the right. I get that a lot of people who play games like this are interested in lore, so I'm not too bothered by so much of the screen being taken up by information that seemed superfluous to me. But guess what happens when you select one of the categories: in the next sub-menu, the first highlighted option is, again, a description of that category, which tells you nothing you didn't already know. But it does take up the first spot in the list, despite not sharing the same function as the other items below it.

Once you make an upgrade, you are booted back out into the ship, and must re-enter the console. You can't go immediately to the next upgrade you wanted to make. Which makes sense. Who would go to the upgrade console wanting to make upgrades?

That really got out of hand fast... I think Brick killed a guy!

Whoops! This was supposed to be a short post. I didn't even cover every problem I encountered, and remember, I only played for six hours. As with other BioWare games, I felt like I was playing a video game that was made by people who had never played a video game before.

This is probably a good time to go for the deathbed salvation and say that, despite it all, this time I can at least see what other people like about Mass Effect 2. Visually, it's a massive upgrade over the first, with vibrant alien worlds to explore. The storyline seems like pretty standard space opera stuff, but there's nothing wrong with that, and various individual scenarios I played were well paced. And the characters and dialogue trees remain the game's best achievement. Unlike in the first game, I started this one as FemShep, and I don't regret it. It's really nice to be able to play as a female hero who isn't defined (confined?) by her gender.

Will I keep playing Mass Effect 2? Maybe. I hear it gets better as you go along.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Let's get ethical

Hi there! I would like your opinion on something.

For several years now, I've had an Amazon Associates account, which lets me earn a small commission off of purchases I refer to Amazon. I rarely use it. For the past several months, all I've done with it is keep a persistent ad in this blog's righthand column to the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, which is awesome and which you should totally buy. No problem there.

One of the quirks of the Associates program is that if I refer somebody to the site, I earn money on any purchase they make during that session, even if it's not the specific item that I linked. Recently, somebody bought a pricey television set via my affiliate link, which single-handedly resulted in my first payout in the three years I've had the account. That was exciting.

This week, you may have noticed that I posted Amazon links to both of the games I reviewed. The logic is simple: I put a lot of time and effort into writing about games, and I'd like to be compensated for it as much as I can. I think this is reasonable.

My concern is that if I stand to profit off of the sales of a video game, then I appear to have an incentive to praise the game, in hopes that I will convince you to buy it. It doesn't even matter if this is true or not. As they say in journalism, the appearance of a conflict is just as bad as the conflict itself. This has been my chief criticism of Game Informer over the years. As a subsidiary of Gamestop, they clearly have an incentive for you to buy more games. Whether or not that accounts for their surfeit of 9+ scores, I don't know, but it sure makes sense to me.

If I don't have the credibility with readers to know that I'm being honest, then I have nothing. No amount of money is worth losing that. On the other hand, I think it's reasonable to treat this blog as a commercial enterprise, same as anywhere else. It's not uncommon to see, for example, links to buy tickets alongside a movie review. Nobody thinks Roger Ebert is fluffing a movie so you'll click his Fandango link.

What do you think? Do these Amazon links constitute a conflict, or an appearance of one? Is there a better way to include affiliate links that maintains a wall between advertising and editorial?

And can I interest you in a Sony BRAVIA XBR Series KDL-52XBR9 52-Inch 1080p 240 Hz LCD HDTV, Black?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom

Above: It's a good thing he's a vegetarian.

My review of Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is up at Joystiq. This was a nice surprise. Definitely not a game I'd have sought out for myself, but I was glad to have played it.

I focused primarily on the mechanics in this review, because they're interesting, they work, and they overcome most of the game's problems, instead of being overshadowed by them. It didn't seem worth mentioning the bizarre voice acting, because it is so bizarre that it is the first thing I'd expect a reviewer to mention, and I like to keep things fresh.

But, so you know, the voice acting is weird. You talk to a bunch of animals throughout the game, and they have the strangest voices. I don't even know how to describe it. None of the American voice actors attempts a dramatic accent (though many go for silly voices), and they all sound freakishly laid-back. It's like the casting calls were posted exclusively at community colleges near the beach.

That said, although the storyline is boilerplate fantasy stuff, I was surprised by how much I grew to care about the Majin. His dialogue can be annoying at times, but he is such a reliable partner that I actually started feeling anxious when we got separated. It was always a relief to turn around and see him lumbering toward me, his knuckles practically scraping the ground. At the game's emotional climax, I wouldn't quite say I was moved, but I did care, and I think that's an achievement worth celebrating.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Above: A serious mine furor.

My review of Donkey Kong Country Returns is up now at I'm starting to feel like a broken record with these rebooted Nintendo games. I like them, and can't deny the quality, but don't feel especially compelled to keep playing them. Often it seems like my complaints come down to "this game is too hard," but that's not exactly right.

Honestly, DKCR isn't that hard. You die a lot, but it's not stingy with the 1-ups, and nothing in it is insurmountable provided you put in a reasonable effort. What bothered me was its old-school approach to recording my progress. Which is to say: it didn't. In any given level, there are several goals you might try to achieve. Several times I'd successful pick up the K-O-N-G pieces, but die before reaching the exit. Then, I'd complete the level but miss one of the pieces. Of course, I could go back and try again. The game is expressly designed that way. But it doesn't mean I wanted to do it.

In other words, I enjoyed DKCR well enough to play through it, but not well enough to shoot for 100% completion. In some games, that might not be a knock, but in this case I could tell that I was supposed to. So I'll put it in the "good but not great" category, with the caveat that it's not my kind of game anymore, but it's probably yours.

Yep, these are the hard-hitting videogame insights you come to this blog for. Say, have you heard about this Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit game?

Friday, December 03, 2010

A milestone in the Laser Orgy 500

Awhile back, I mentioned the Laser Orgy 500, a battle royal put together by the Phoenix that lets users vote in randomly generated matchups between hundreds of video games. It's fun and incredibly addictive. If you haven't voted in the LO500 yet, you should start voting now.

This week, the paper ran a special selection of the current top 50 games, which includes short write-ups from several writers, including Garrett Martin, Chris Dahlen, Maddy Myers, Ryan Stewart, and myself. And it's not a bad list.

As with the entries I wrote for 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die (which makes a great Christmas gift!), I found real value in revisiting these games and trying to come up with something new to say about them. For instance, I hope my story about Mortal Kombat II isn't just funny, but says something true about the nature of arcade competition.

People like to complain about best-of lists, I know. What's great about the LO500 is that if you don't like it, you have the power to change it. What are you waiting for? Give it a shot!

(And also check out the slideshow of videogame characters invading Boston.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quiz: The Year in Swooning

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

1. Bayonetta
2. Mass Effect 2
3. Heavy Rain
4. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
5. Red Dead Redemption
6. Super Mario Galaxy 2
7. Halo: Reach
8. Rock Band 3
9. Call of Duty: Black Ops
10. Donkey Kong Country Returns

A. "A knockout in just about every way it can be... you owe it to yourself to rush out and buy this."

B. "There are so many aspects... that make it an experience above and beyond all other open world sandbox experiences that we can't even begin to list them all. Some of the reasons that stand out are a wealth of content, a beautifully rendered and detailed world, an interesting and engaging storyline, a fantastic roster of characters with their own personalities, great and believable dialogue, the ability to experience the game world online with or against others; the list can go on forever. Rest assured that this is one of the greatest game we've played in 2010 so far, and possibly ever."

C. "There is simply not a better, more complete shooter on the market, and with all this content, there isn't any way you can find something that you cannot sink your teeth into."

D. "I have never played anything so momentous or revolutionary... In the coming years I expect the game's influence to be felt throughout the industry in terms of gameplay, storytelling and interactivity. This is a game that deserves all the plaudits it can get. So please go out and buy [this game] and reward those that have made such a groundbreaking videogame event."

E. "Far exceeded our expectations and is without question one of the best games we've played. Use whatever positive description you'd like. System seller, potential game of the year, landmark achievement; just make sure you buy it immediately."

F. "With a ton of incredible levels to conquer; gorgeous, perfectly designed graphics (wait until you see the first sunset level!); retro-inspired music; and smooth, flawless gameplay, videogames don't get much better... I can't recommend this game enough."

G. "Easily the best FPS I've played in a long time. Dialogue that makes me want to watch a feature film starring these guys. A virtually flawless single and multiplayer experience."

H. "One of the best first person shooters this year, and is obviously a must have for any action fan. Intense, gory and quite brilliant, maybe it's not refreshing but at the same time it's a stunning game."

I. "Across-the-boards perfection [that] can't be measured by any scale. It's simply in a class by itself. This is where games need to go for my money... A modern-day masterpiece."

J. "This is a rare occasion when the hype can actually be justified; ...quite simply, a masterpiece."


1. I (Play Magazine)
2. E (GameDaily)
3. D (Boomtown)
4. G (GamePlanet)
5. B (
6. J (Gamestyle)
7. C (ZTGameDomain)
8. A (Atomic Gamer)
9. H (3dJuegos)
10. F (Destructoid)


Which game is Destructoid calling close to perfect?

1. The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
2. Rock Band 3
3. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
4. Deadly Premonition
5. Limbo

A. "Judged as a piece of entertainment, as a game that consistently surprises and amazes and leaves jaws hanging... It's pretty close to perfect."

B. "About as close to perfect as you're going to get."

C. "It's warm and satisfying with a near-perfect consistency throughout."

D. "It delivers a near-perfect competitive experience, in a way that few games... can."

E. " close to perfect at what it does as a game can get."

1. C (link)
2. B (link)
3. D (link)
4. A (link)
5. E (link)

Compiled with thanks, and apologies, to Metacritic.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dance Central; or, what is Kinect for?

Above: Centralized dancing.

My review of Dance Central is up at I spent a good bit of it on the recent developments surrounding Harmonix, maybe a little too much. But, really, Dance Central is simple to explain and works as advertised, so what more needs to be said? Without having played any other Kinect titles except for Kinect Adventures, I feel comfortable saying this is the best reason to get a Kinect.

I never tried out the hardware when it was in development. My first experience with Kinect was when I bought one. After checking Best Buy for a couple of days without success, I stopped at a Toys R Us on a whim and they had several in stock.

(I haven't been to a Toys R Us in years. It's a weird, vaguely unsettling store. I remember it being like an amusement park, but it's actually just harsh lighting and metal shelves piled with crap. Plus I got bowled over by not one, but two determined moms doing some early Christmas shopping, and waited in line for several minutes before I could actually buy the damn thing from a 16-year-old sales clerk who seemed in over his head. Toys R Us sucks. Don't ever go there.)

Right, so, Kinect. It was a snap to set up: just put it in place, plug in the power supply, and attach the USB connection to the back of the Xbox. Start to finish, it took about a minute. As a former 32X owner, I appreciated this more than I should have.*

Part of the allure of Kinect is that you can control what's onscreen both with gestures and with voice, and I think it's going to take some time for developers to figure out which function works better for which applications. The Minority Report-style grabbing and pulling of menu options works quite well when you're browsing the Kinect hub. To actually select something requires you to hold your hand still in mid-air for a good second or so. It's hard to see how that's an improvement over a split-second button press.

You can also use voice command here, and it seems dicey. If other people in the room are talking, the Kinect doesn't pick up your voice. Sometimes it doesn't pick up your voice even if no one's talking. Sometimes it misinterprets what you said. And it's a slow process. You say "Xbox!" and then wait for it to acknowledge that it's now in voice command mode, at which time you can give the real command. Again, this is not actually an improvement over using a joypad.

(One place I could see voice command being a real plus: entering download codes. I was thinking about this during the ten minutes I spent trying to enter my online pass for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. How great would it have been to be able to just read the code aloud? Apparently that's not a feature yet, or if it is, I didn't know how to do it.)

Awhile back, I wrote a defense of the standard gamepad, in which I argued that, complicated though today's controller is, it has also evolved to do lots of things really well. Kinect does not seem to do most of the traditional controller things well. What the controller does best is translate minimal player input into maximal onscreen action. Moving the analog stick a few degrees is the difference between your character tiptoeing and sprinting. Kinect, it seems, requires big movements on your part to do something as simple as pausing your game (hold your left hand out at a specific angle for several seconds).

Kinect obviously has loads of potential. About half the time, it works so well that it feels like there's an alien intelligence in your living room. And about half the time it takes a dump. The challenge is going to be for developers to figure out how to use it. It simply will not work if they try to shoehorn motion controls onto traditional games. This is a lesson that took a year or two for studios to learn with the Wii and DS, and I expect that at this time next year we'll be looking at some games that make good use of the hardware. For now, it seems like Dance Central is it.

*I've mostly suppressed the memory at this point, but as I recall, the process for setting up the 32X involved putting metal clamps inside the Genesis's cartridge slot to hold the doors open, only the clamps were thin and tended to fall inside the slot, at which point the doors closed and they were impossible to get out. The 32X also had numerous passthrough cables, its own power supply, and I think you had to make a burnt offering each time you turned it on.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem!

My review of Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! is up now at Joystiq.

This game was a nice surprise. I had no expectations for it. In fact, I hadn't even heard of it until the review was offered to me, and I got the sense that they were foisting it off on the new guy. Which was fine with me -- I was happy enough to be contributing to Joystiq. That Mario vs DK turned out to be pretty darn good was a bonus.

In this case I don't have much to add to what's in the review. This isn't the flashiest game coming out this fall -- not even the flashiest one starring Donkey Kong -- and it's not required playing, but it certainly is a hidden gem. If you're at all inclined toward games like this, check it out.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rock Band 3

My review of Rock Band 3 is up at This is one where I gave the game a high score, and then spent all my column inches talking about my reservations. And I didn't even get to all of them!

For instance: Did you know that lots of songs that have keyboard parts only have a few seconds of keyboard parts? Terribly deflating for the solo pianist. You bust out a couple arpeggios for the introduction, and then wait, fingers primed, for your chance to knock 'em dead with a solo. And you wait... And you wait a little more...

Or this: Some of the tracks that come on the Rock Band 3 disc don't even include a keyboard part. If you needed further proof that the keyboard player is the most uncool person in the band, there you have it. The improved drop-in and drop-out capabilities help, but it's still disappointing when you want to play the new instrument only to find that your singer wants to play something that doesn't support it.

Or this: Even though all the DLC you've previously downloaded will work in Rock Band 3 (a definite improvement over Beatles), it does not include keyboard support, even for songs that are crying out for it. Really? You're telling me the Killers have "no part" for keys? I understand why it has to be this way, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. This Joystiq story seems to indicate that it will never be possible to upgrade most of these past tracks, and if it is, you'll have to pay for it.

In fact, as a huge Rock Band fan, I'm starting to feel gouged. By the game's count, I've already downloaded 88 songs, which at about two bucks a pop is almost $180. The keyboard bundle was $129 (and no, I didn't get a free copy). If I want the pro guitar, that'll be $150. The Squier that comes out next year is $280, and you need the $30 adaptor for it to work. The notion of Rock-Band-as-platform was one I supported, but I didn't realize it was meant literally. Rock Band now costs more than Kinect.

But here I am, seriously considering buying one or more of these extra things. The reason is simple: this game is awesome. I have played so many lousy games this year, especially those which were supposed to be great, that I've started to wonder if I even like games anymore. Rock Band 3 puts my fears to rest. It's fun by yourself, keyboard lulls notwithstanding, and it's fun with others. And it has the genre's single biggest advance since Guitar Hero invented it.*

Pro mode changes everything. While I still pump my fist at the end of a song when I'm on guitar, and while I still prefer drumming to anything else, the idea that I am playing real music on the keyboard tickles a completely different region of my brain. Within an hour of starting the pro keys tutorial, I was successfully playing scales without looking at my hands. How long would that have taken without the aid of the game?

Playing pro mode is an order of magnitude more difficult than playing regular keys, and at this point I am still muddling through on easy or medium difficulty. I'm reminded of my difficulty learning to drum, but playing the keyboard is much more complex. The biggest obstacle isn't following the note chart onscreen, it's finding the correct key. If you're one of those people who think games aren't challenging enough anymore, here's the one for you.

*Let's not get pedantic here, people. You know what I mean.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Medal of Honor

I can't believe how mediocre Medal of Honor is. It's like every military shooter ever made was puréed into a smooth but flavorless paste. Nothing about it was new or interesting. Nothing was terrible, either, but then again I'm pretty forgiving about things like AI squadmates who hunker down and refuse to move until I cross an invisible checkpoint. Just as long as I can keep blasting away, I'm good. Still, every time I play a game in this genre, I think to myself, "I've had about enough of this for a lifetime." And then when the next one comes out, I play that one, too.

Medal of Honor is supposed to be different because it's supposed to be more realistic than its contemporaries. Certain things are true-to-life: the way people and places look, for example, and the way the weapons work. Other things are less so. That's the ground I cover in my review.

I was actually glad to see a friendly-fire incident, since those are pretty common, and that was the game's biggest feint toward real realism. Of course, it was ordered by some needle-nosed bureaucrat in Washington who'd been out of combat for years and who, presumably, the CIA had pushing too many pencils. This is seen from a distance, in satellite view.

But I kept thinking about Pat Tillman, and how, faced with the barrage of friendly fire that would kill him, he was reported to scream "I'm Pat fucking Tillman!" However brave Tillman was -- and he seems to have been uncommonly courageous -- it was a moment of sheer terror and panic. He didn't sacrifice himself for any great cause. His death was one big fuckup.

Why was I thinking about this? Because I kept accidentally shooting my squadmates, and they kept brushing off my bullets with quips. There wasn't a Pat Tillman to be found.

The real truth of warfare is that people die in all kinds of stupid, ridiculous, and not at all heroic ways. Combat deaths are senseless at least as often as they are heroic. Could you make a game out of something like that? I don't know. But I know that Medal of Honor didn't try.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Boomshakalaka etc.

With about 30 triple-A games coming out this week and next, I imagine the thing you want to read most about right now is a review of NBA Jam for the Wii. Not exactly the most penetrating criticism you'll ever read, the review can be boiled down to one message: the price is too damn high.

When I expressed interest in playing the new NBA Jam, somehow it escaped me that it would come on a disc. I assumed it was a download. And even when I had it in my hands, it didn't occur to me for a couple of hours to check how much it cost. Fifty dollars! Good gravy.

Granted, I paid zero dollars for this game, so I can't say I had anything but a good time. And usually I strive to separate a game's cost from its true worth. But I'd be surprised to find that anybody thought this thing was priced right.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Above: Castlevania, now with 20% smaller heads.

In his farewell post for PopMatters, L.B. Jeffries said something that resonated with me: "In games, more than any other medium often the problem is just you."

Whenever I dislike a game, especially one that other people seem to like, that's how I feel -- that, far from being flawed itself, the game is illuminating inherent flaw in me. In theory, I like the idea of being the guy who goes against the grain, but when it actually happens, it's cause for a lot of sad-bastard navel-gazing on my part. I won't subject you to it here, except to say that my review of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have me questioning my own sanity.

I have been reading many positive tweets about this game from people I respect, and it has a healthy Metacritic score of 83. But there really wasn't one thing I liked about it. Rookie mistakes like putting checkpoints before cutscenes rankles (yes, you can skip the cutscenes, but it's a more cumbersome process than it needs to be). Constant and needless hints on the screen prove to be a distraction (how many times do I need to be told to "press RT to grip?" I got it). The platforming was bland. The combat had promise but lacked any visceral impact. Nobody else seems to be making this complaint, so maybe I'm just crazy, but I swear that half the time it didn't even look like my weapon was making contact when I did damage.

Sort of like with Metroid: Other M, a large part of how you approach this game depends on what your mental picture is of a Castlevania game. As a Symphony of the Night fan, I certainly would have preferred a new Castlevania that took more of that game's approach. If anything, a back-and-forth platformer that borrowed more from Prince of Persia than from Devil May Cry would have hit the spot for me. I enjoyed how overpowered Alucard was, and the fun of Symphony is in exploring. The castle is your enemy more so than its inhabitants. But that's not the game Konami wanted to make in 2010.

And that's okay. In a lot of ways, Lords of Shadow is more of a throwback to the original Castlevania, and to Super Castlevania IV, which I also loved. An action game is not a radical departure for this series. But, I don't know, Castlevania or not, this isn't one of the best action games around. This is a case where I feel like the scores actually do tell the story: I scored Lords of Shadow two points lower than God of War III and Devil May Cry 4, and scored both of those games two points lower than Bayonetta. That sounds right to me.

I am clinging to Ben Kuchera's review of LoS like a life raft. He makes many of the same points that I do, and many more that I didn't, but which are entirely correct. His article has hundreds of comments, most of the "no offense but you're an idiot" variety. The comments also open up the question, once again, of what a game review is supposed to be. That's another discussion, but the real takeaway, for me, is that some readers don't want writers to be honest with them. They want a pat on the head.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Metroid: Other M review, fall games preview

Above: This stuff -- good.

I meant what I said last week that Metroid: Other M isn't a bad game, and my review of Other M in the Phoenix provides a more balanced perspective than the blog post did. Considered purely on its own merits, this game does some things right, and it wasn't something I had to force myself to play through solely due to professional obligations. When you stack it up against other Metroid games, sure, it falls a little short, but I still think it was better that Nintendo tried this than Metroid Prime 4.

I am also jonesing to play Super Metroid again. Especially thanks to the pre-rendered Mother Brain cutscene at the beginning of Other M. Hachi machi!

Above: Yes, please.

I also filed a fall games preview for the paper, with my picks for the games worth watching this season, based on rigorous speculation and exacting wishful thinking.

The big story, unfortunately, is Move and Kinect, and despite some positive early reviews, I am wary of both peripherals. I look at Move and I just see Wii. I look at Kinect and don't understand how it's an improvement on standard game controls for standard games. (Hold a pretend steering wheel? Really? In what universe will this be more precise than an actual steering wheel, or even a thumbstick?)

The other part of filing a fall preview is that, lacking hands-on time with all of the available options, the hype machine tends to force my hand. It's very hard to give a nudge to a sleeper hit. Usually it's all about sequels, reboots, and whatever else the press has been talking about for months. Not that I even get those right. I left Call of Duty 4 out of the preview a few years ago. Durr.

One final note on fall preview: of everything listed there, I think I'm looking forward to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit the most. I wouldn't have expected that when I started. Rock Band 3 also looks incredible. After that, it's all "wait and see." Nothing wrong with that, of course. But that's my opinion. What are you looking forward to this fall?

Now that I've got a week or two clear in my schedule, I am thinking about giving this Halo: Reach a fair chance. But that's probably a bad idea.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Stay tuned after the credits for a special treat!

Above: Samus' goth high school portrait.

Metroid: Other M is not a bad game. It's not a great game, either. But it's a strange game, and the strangest thing of all is this: it gets much better after it's over.

The initial campaign took about ten hours, all told, and while it had its moments it was also frustrating. For the most part, you can't explore. You have to go where the game tells you to. Your suit upgrades are doled out by a third party, and not because of anything you do.

This last part is pretty ridiculous. You repeatedly run through hot lava levels that sap your life, before some guy says "Oh hey, how about you use your Varia Suit?" You've had it the whole time, you see. You just didn't think to turn it on.

The same thing happens a little later: Samus is about to be blown into the vacuum of space, but fortunately, the game seizes control from you and activates the Gravity Suit. Well thank god for that. I didn't want to have to do anything there.

Some items are impossible to pick up your first time through, because you can't use Power Bombs until the plus game starts. Besides that, because so many doors are arbitrarily locked in service of the story, you're not free to backtrack whenever you do find an upgrade.

Worst of all is the story. Look, Nintendo and Team Ninja were under no obligation to meet some Platonic ideal of Metroid that may exist only in my head. If they want Samus to talk, Samus can talk. If they want her to whimper while a manly man father figure heroically sacrifices himself to save her, they can do that too (of course, they really shouldn't have). But, Metroid or not, they shouldn't have made long, talky, boring cutscenes that, when they aren't interrupting the gameplay, are replacing it.

Then, after the terrible climax,* the credits roll, and Samus flies back to the space station. Suddenly, it feels like Metroid again. Samus is alone. There's not some idiot chirping at her every five minutes. She can explore the space station at her own pace, and under her own direction. At this point, you have all the powerups, so the only upgrades remaining are generally more missile packs and energy tanks, but that's okay.

I'm not sure what to make of it. The plus game is a hallowed tradition, but it's not something I've tended to pursue. One playthrough is usually enough. Here, I'd say that it's almost worth plugging through the first game just to get to the second one. It's not a good thing that it takes ten hours to get where you're going in Other M, but it's nice to arrive.

*Story of my life.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Mafia II

Above: Vito Scaletta hides from my review.

My review of Mafia II is up at

I've said before that a good game succeeds despite its flaws, and a bad game fails despite its virtues. This is a prime example of the latter. There is a lot of good stuff to be found here. I don't agree with Bill Harris when he says that the writing is brilliant, but it is above average: thoughtful, deliberate, restrained. Character driven? Not exactly, but closer than you usually get with a game of this type. Compared to other recent gangster games, Mafia II avoids the fetishization of violence of The Godfather II, and the tone-deafness of Grand Theft Auto IV.*

The story needs to be good if you're going to play through a game like Mafia II, because the structure is very much cutscene-gameplay-cutscene. It looks like an open-world game, but it doesn't play like one. Were there side missions? If so, the game did a good job of hiding them. Not that side missions are the most important part of a game. I just mean to say that when you're driving down a street in Empire Bay, you do not stop to explore anything that catches your eye. You keep going to your next objective.

When Mafia II is bad, though, it is bad. I couldn't believe how awful the shootouts were. The enemies are bullet sponges, which is very much at odds with the game's ostensible realism. Targeting was next to impossible (I eventually discovered that there was a smidgen of auto-aim if you snapped in and out of cover quickly enough, but it usually didn't help). And the worst thing was, they all played out exactly the same way: rote duck-and-cover sequences taking place along straight, narrow corridors. Even outdoor shootouts found a way to lock you into what were, functionally, crate-filled hallways.

My experience with the game came to follow a pattern. First, a slow burning enjoyment, as I eased myself into the slow pace and focused on the story. Then, bewilderment and frustration as I came upon some idiotic part of the gameplay that I usually ended up repeating several times. Any spell the game started to cast would be broken.

The worst thing about it is that I would like to be talking about Mafia II solely in terms of the story. I'd like to be talking about what it's saying about loyalty and friendship. I'd like to be praising not only the direction of the storyline, but the obvious pitfalls it avoids. And in a sense the game would deserve that. But it's too hard to see past the basic mechanics of the thing to do that. It's really too bad.

*Though GTAIV's story is the far more dramatically interesting of the two.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Announcing the Laser Orgy 500, plus a Hydro Thunder review

Got a couple of important links before your Labor Day weekend.

First, now that it's been out for over a month, check out my long-awaited review of Hydro Thunder Hurricane. I really liked this game. Like I say in the review, it's not groundbreaking, earth-shattering, or sky-rending -- nor will it convince Ebert that games are art -- but it is pretty awesome. I was especially impressed how unpredictable and chaotic online races were, given the lack of missiles and such.

There's a much more important project at the Phoenix that you need to check out. In the Laser Orgy 500, you can vote for the best video game of all time. This isn't like most best-of lists you might have seen, or participated in before. This is a battle royal. Two games are chosen at random from the database, and you must choose which is better.

Sometimes, this leads to agonizing choices (Counterstrike vs. Civilization IV, say.) Sometimes, pairings so comical you'd swear there was a human intelligence at work (Gears of War vs. Xenogears). Sometimes, games so bad that you'd rather leap off of something than play either one (E.T. vs Custer's Revenge).

After awhile, it becomes less about which game is "better" than which game you'd rather play right this second. You'd be surprised what you come up with.

Vote in the Laser Orgy 500. And say goodbye to the rest of your afternoon.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Above: I'd even go so far as to say this game looks better in stills.

My review of Limbo is up now at I promise you that it is not intended as kneejerk contrarianism. The tone of this review is partly a reaction to the praise, yes, but I'll defend the substance of the criticisms any time. I'm not discounting the validity of the profound experiences so many other people are claiming to have had with this game, but, wow, I didn't see it at all.

All I saw here was smoke and mirrors. Some clever ideas thrown onscreen with no regard for how they fit together, and no semblance of anything I recognize as good game design. Games are about rules, with the occasional exception that throws you for a loop. Limbo is all exceptions and no rules. If there had been an open microphone in the room while I was playing this game, I imagine it would have picked up nothing but a steady stream of "What?" "Huh?" "Wait... what?" (Plus the f-word a lot of times.)

Not that Limbo is difficult, per se. The puzzles aren't brain-busters, and even though you die a lot, it always puts you right back where you started. It's just so capricious. It never bothers to set limits or rules for the world you're in. Its sole concern seems to be killing you for no apparent reason. Instead of asking you to apply what you learned from your previous deaths, the game keeps changing the rules so it can kill you again. It's as though it's making things up as it goes, like a rambling first draft that could use a good revision.*

As for whether Limbo is the long-awaited proof that games are art, well. We can agree that it sure looks neat. And we can probably agree that the big spider is pretty scary. Beyond that? I'm not buying it. The closest this game gets to something resembling truth and not artifice is the occasional appearance of larger boys who ambush your character and then scurry away. This is interesting, and feels unforced, especially compared to the rest of the game. As with everything else, Limbo passes over this tantalizing opportunity. The boys come and go, and nothing much happens.

Meanwhile, the game moves onto much less evocative threats, like buzzsaws and electrified rails. (Yes, those certainly speak to the essence of your childhood fears.) Doesn't that all seem backward? The big spider comes first. Then the creepy bullies. Then a bunch of clanking machinery with no character at all. Talk about diminishing returns. If there had been another level, our hero would be trying to avoid eating his beets.

Limbo just seemed so desperate to convince me of its profundity. I wanted to put my arm around its shoulder and say: You've got a lot of growing up to do, kid.

*See also: this post.

Friday, July 30, 2010

At last, the game that will convince Roger Ebert that games are art

Above: A man who is ready and willing to listen to what I have to say, because -- no, seriously, listen.

A few months ago, Roger Ebert wrote the stupidest thing any Pulitzer Prize winner has written, at least since The Hours. This asshole actually said that video games are not, and can never be, art. (Not going to link him -- don't want to give him the traffic.) Can you believe this idiot?

To his credit, Ebert walked back his argument later, saying that while he, personally, does not give a shit if video games are art or ever could be art, he hasn't played enough to speak knowledgably on the subject.

Like we're going to let him get away with that.

I have just the game that will steer Ebert away from the dark path he walks. The game that will convince him not only that games are art, but that they have always been art, and always will be art, and will never not be art. A downloadable game has just come out that proves, once and for all, the incredible depth and meaning even the smallest games can possess. A work of uncommon subtlety and insight, it will convince even the lowliest, most wheelchair-bound, most unable-to-talk-anymore cretin that video games are art.

You know the game I mean. Roger Ebert needs to play Hydro Thunder Hurricane.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane uses well-worn gameplay tropes as a Trojan horse to deliver an army of metaphors into the walled city of your brain. Consider: Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a racing game. What else is a race? Working life is often called the "rat race." The Amazing Race is an Emmy-winning TV show. Politicians are always talking about the importance of race relations. (I'm not sure what this means??? I think it has to do with Nascar fans not getting along with Formula One fans.) Already you see how Hydro Thunder Hurricane is brimming with allusions to some of the core aspects of our humanity, not unlike other things that jerks like Roger Ebert would say are art, such as movies and books.

As the name implies, Hydro Thunder takes place on the water. ("Hydro" means "water," Roger. See? Games can be educational!) Maybe that's why it's so deep -- pun intended! Most of the courses aren't circular in this game. They have distinct start and end points, which are meant to represent birth and death, respectively. Each track is full of shortcuts, which are fun to find but which all lead to the same place. Isn't this like life itself? We all take our own paths -- maybe I'm a blogger, maybe you're a pompous movie critic who keeps talking shit about stuff he knows NOTHING about -- but in the end we all die. (Some of us hopefully sooner than others!)

Nor is the path to the finish line calm or smooth. Your hovercraft (representing you) is buffeted by wind and waves as you head toward the finish line (which is death, remember). The symbolism of the turbulent racing surface is clear: the waves represent the inherent uncertainty of our daily lives. We try to outrun our problems, but the faster we go, the choppier they get, and the more of their salty spray gets in our eyes, which makes it look like we're crying even though it's just because the saltwater stings. They're not real tears.

You can pick up "boost," which helps you get to the end faster, but is that such a good thing? And is it a coincidence that the boost is depicted in the shape of bottles? The bottle has had ruinous consequences for many people, most of whom were using it just to get through to another finish line (the end of the workday, say, or a long car ride). It was a brave choice of developer Vector Unit to tackle such a debilitating social ill, but I would argue that this is one of the noblest purposes of true art.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane toys with the emotions of the player -- it is at times beautiful and at times terrifying. The player runs the emotional gamut by the time it is over, and is left considering the consequences of what has just occurred. It is a difficult game, but there has never been one quite like it that so effectively communicates this trying world to the person who is experiencing it.

It is the kind of game that changes who we are. It tailors us; puts us in a place that is far away from where we were before we encountered it. And you can't say that about many things.