Thursday, January 28, 2010

Two bad

Above: The unambiguously straight duo.

My review of Army of Two: The 40th Day is up now at I liked the first one well enough, but mostly I thought if the sequel could fix what I didn't like, then it could be something approaching great. Instead, The 40th Day eliminates what worked before, retains what didn't, bungles the play control, and ultimately doesn't work on any level. Too bad.

I wrote this review two weeks ago, and at the time had some more to say about it, but then I broke my elbow and had surgery and have endured a pretty rotten time of it, so now I can't remember what any of that was. Fortunately, I'm in the recovery phase now, and starting to feel okay. My arm is in a huge splint, but I can both type and play video games, so I'm hoping that next week I'll be able to start the machine back up. I'm not even sure what I should play. Probably No More Heroes 2.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday afternoon tidbits

Martin Luther King Day: that special time when we celebrate the life and legacy of a great civil rights leader by sleeping in on a Monday, and then spending the rest of the day on the couch. Truly, we have been to the mountaintop.

Tons of Bayonetta links this week. This game seems to have captured a lot of people's imaginations, for good or ill.

-Writing for the revamped GamePro (which seems pretty sweet, by the way), Leigh Alexander calls Bayonetta "incredibly empowering." I don't know that I'd agree with that, for reasons I may or may not elaborate upon as this post goes, but I want to highlight a really excellent point that she makes: "'s unfair to strip video game women of their sexuality completely, or to assert that if a character is sexual that she must be getting exploited." This is really true, whether or not Bayonetta herself is the best example of it. I'll go back to those terrific female characters in Uncharted 2, whose self-confidence also seemed to extend to their sexuality. They were neither chaste nor purely eye candy. Bayonetta? Well, she is intended to be eye candy, and the argument seems to be what that signifies.

-With a different view, Tiff Chow reminds us that "this is a game made by men, from the male perspective, for the male perspective, which is why so many of the cinematics seem awfully, well, porny." This is certainly true. The ass shots are legion. Here's where it starts to seem thorny to me: No one complains about male heroes wielding huge, obviously phallic swords, like Dante in Devil May Cry (made by many of the same people), or scantily clad male heroes like Kratos. Why are we saying it's not okay to be this outlandish when it's a female protagonist? Though there obviously seems like a difference between what Kratos wears and what Bayonetta wears -- the latter is overtly sexual, the former obviously not. If we want to get into questions of fairness and equality, you do sort of have to say that male characters have had plenty of opportunities to kick demon ass while wearing very little.

-Chris Dahlen's perspective is that the game falls in the realm of performance art, not unlike Lady GaGa or Bowie, and truthfully this is one of the best explanations I've read so far. And just like with Bowie (maybe not so much Lady GaGa), I enjoy the "music" of Bayonetta without necessarily enjoying the showmanship.

-Iroquois Pliskin returns from exile to make the case for Bayonetta as the apotheosis of camp. Well, sure. Maybe the argument people are having is simply whether camp has a place in games. Often we gamers seem to take ourselves too seriously for that -- which is not the same thing as saying people should lighten up if they're offended by Bayonetta. For what it's worth, I don't think there's a right or a wrong way to think about this one.

-Lastly, I'd just like to add to the chorus that you can help the victims of the Haitian earthquake, either by donating to a charity like the Red Cross, Oxfam International, or Yele Haiti. Additionally, you can text "Haiti" to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross, and the charge will appear on your next phone bill. Money's tight for a lot of us, but every little bit helps.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bayonetta: It's just so awesome

Above: Fox News contributor Sarah Palin

As promised, my review of Bayonetta is up at I am fairly certain that you will not read another review of this game that includes the phrase "weird otaku crap" in the opening paragraph. Dismissive? Maybe. Hilarious? Absolutely.

But this game is an absolute blast to play -- at least, it's a blast when you're playing it and not watching cutscenes. It's funny how I can play a game like God of War and complain that I keep getting locked into rooms with endless waves of enemies, and then play Bayonetta and complain that it isn't constantly locking me into rooms with endless waves of enemies. Every time Bayonetta steps away from its combat, it suffers, if only a little bit. That's not a slam against the rest of the game. It's praise for how much fun it is to fight.

I've played and appreciated some Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden games before, but I think I'd take Bayonetta over either of them. It does some of the smaller things better than those games did. For one thing, the game camera is really good. At first, I wished there were some kind of lock-on mechanism, but then I realized what a fine job the camera was doing of keeping things in focus. It keeps the character well in frame, and rotates smoothly to keep the action centered.

The camera also helps by swinging to show where the next threat is coming from. On normal difficulty, foes don't swarm you, but neither do they all hang back waiting for you to finish comboing one of their allies. The camera is smart enough to give you a hint about where you should be looking next. That, combined with the other visual and audio clues about who will strike next, means you don't have to stop and re-calibrate in the middle of a fight.

I remember Ninja Gaiden II, especially, had such a bad camera that it never seemed to show you what you needed to see. Only once in Bayonetta did that seem like a problem, against an enormous boss relatively early on. It's so big that you can't actually see when it's about to strike, so beating it takes guesswork. But that's the exception.

And I appreciated that Bayonetta was not painfully, absurdly difficult. I died a lot, but the checkpoints were so forgiving that it wasn't frustrating. Usually it puts you right back where you were, even letting you restart midway through a boss fight. I loved Devil May Cry 3, but I never could finish it, because even getting through one level of that game was so draining. With Bayonetta, the difficulty was just right, and I spent my time being exhilarated by the moves I was performing instead of stubbornly trying to advance to the next checkpoint.

All in all, I'm a little surprised by the reception the game has gotten -- its 90 Metacritic score includes a 10 from Edge, of all places -- but then again I can't remember the last game of this genre that was better. It certainly wasn't Devil May Cry 4.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bayonetta: It's just so embarrassing

Above: An unrepresentative, non-embarrassing screenshot of Bayonetta.

Later this week I'll be posting my review of Bayonetta. Sneak preview: it's positive. The action is terrific. But Bayonetta is an absolutely silly game, and I'm not using silly as a compliment. I've been surprised to see only Gus Mastrapa truly slam the game for its ridiculous style. Many reviews I've read mention that maybe the aesthetics aren't for everyone, but those same reviewers seem to suggest that it is for them.

Like Gus, I had a hard time with Bayonetta's style. Unlike him, it didn't prevent me from enjoying the game. But there were long stretches where I couldn't resist the urge to turn away. It's not just that the dialogue, the acting, and the storyline are awful, though they are. The actors in this game seem to be reading the script for the first time. They can't agree on how to pronounce some of its made-up words. They have appallingly awful accents. During the story segments, it's as though you've taken a time machine back to the 32-bit era, when voice acting and "cinematic" stories were a newfound possibility, only nobody had the slightest idea how to do them well, so you got the kinds of audio atrocities we're still making fun of today.

The cutscenes are at least skippable. (Though I never did skip them, even as I found myself checking email and Twitter rather than paying attention to them. Why that seemed like the better option, I'm not sure.) But you can't skip several of the other terrible presentational choices. You've got the merchant who says one of the same three things every time you go to visit him (the nod to the much worse merchant in Resident Evil 4 was nice, though). You've got enemies that look like penises and flying boats with bearded faces and other things I lack the vocabulary to describe. You've got a truly cheesy soundtrack that I think we're supposed to enjoy for camp value, which is probably the case with the whole game.

Games are hard to enjoy for camp value, much more so than movies. A game that succeeds at doing so, like No More Heroes, does so because it comments on the things it's presenting. I didn't feel the same way about the lunacy in Bayonetta because I never could quite tell what the intention was. It seems to be humorous, but what's the target? It's not enough to make cheeky references to other games in the dialogue, while also trying to tell an apparently straight mother-daughter story, while also letting you play as a sexy librarian witch with gun boots.

I almost wonder if the smooth and intricate gameplay is part of the problem, thematically. I still haven't been able to adequately explain, even to myself, why I was so enamored of the awful overworld and mundane side quests in No More Heroes, except to say that everything in that game felt of a piece. That's not the case here. The combat engine is an example of game design at the very highest level. It is so good that to surround it with such silliness makes it look like a three-story mansion in a neighborhood of one-story ranch houses. This game does not go together.

With all that said, I still like Bayonetta a lot, and when the review goes up, I'll explain why in a little more detail.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday afternoon tidbits

Here's hoping 2010 is off to a good start for everyone. It would be great if this was the last New Year's Eve we'll have to suffer those idiotic novelty eyeglasses, but somehow I don't see that happening. Alas.

-Like "a game that will make players cry," one of those long-sought measures of cultural legitimacy has been "game reviews in the New York Times." What more could you need for a seal of approval than coverage in the paper of record? Unfortunately, Seth Schiesel still seems to feel the need to grovel to the Times' august readership. His review of Dragon Age buries some good observations under so much hyperbole that an IGN editor might call it excessive. He calls DA "perhaps the best electronic game yet made," which is not to be confused with The Beatles: Rock Band, which was merely "the most important game yet made."

Look, I get where he's coming from. Long ago, I noticed that the more highly I praised a game, the more likely my editors were to tease it on the paper's front page. Sometimes I have to resist the urge to overplay a positive review for that reason, and sometimes I feel the need to explain why a negative or middling review of a big game might still deserve promotion. I can only imagine what incentives Seth has to try to convince his editors, and his readers, that this column is worth their time. But while I don't doubt his sentiments about Dragon Age, he sounds like he doesn't trust his readers to get it without so many adjectives.

Put it another way: I don't get the same sense of desperation for acceptance when Manohla Dargis goes nuts for Avatar.

-One of the good ones, Gary Hodges, has returned to write for a new site called GeekWeek, kicking things off with a 2009 year in review. He's joined there by some former Joystick Division bros, from back before that site went to shit (and, it should be said, became massively more popular). I'll be keeping an eye out for this one.

-I'm still enjoying reading about Modern Warfare 2's single player campaign, especially because it combines so much deft execution with so many idiotic ideas. Tom Cross has a great essay on MW2 at his personal blog, who rightly excoriates everything to do with the dialogue, storyline, and characterizations. And it's not that anybody played this game for the characterizations, but Tom's trenchant observation is that the game does seem to assume that we cared about Soap and Price the first time around.

(To be fair, though, on HBO's Generation Kill, which I assumed to be fairly authentic in its depiction of wartime, they say "Oscar Mike" just as much as they do in this game.)

-We talked about it a bit on the Brainy Gamer podcast, and now you can read Tom Bissell's piece on difficulty in Demon's Souls at Crispy Gamer. It's obviously an exaggeration to say, as I did on the podcast, that games weren't fun when I was a kid, but it's very much true that once you knew how to beat them, most of them took about 20 minutes to get through. All the replay value came from how hard they were to get through. You just had to keep throwing yourself at them over and over, maybe for months.

(And nothing about Demon's Souls sounds fair to me, not remotely. No pause? A guy who kills all the merchants, rendering your in-game currency useless? Higher-level players who can come into your game at any time and kill you? What the hell would make this game unfair?)

-I broke down and bought tickets for PAX East before early-bird pricing ended (you can still buy three-day passes for $50 each), so I will probably see a bunch of you there. I've never been to something like that before. I don't really know what to expect. Since it's in my hometown, I've been flirting with the idea of throwing some kind of pre-show bash the night before, but I don't know. Does anybody even show up early for these things?

Before anyone asks: no, you can't sleep on my couch.

To the weekend!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Listen all y'all this is sabotage

Above: Can't stand it / I know you planned it

My review of The Saboteur is up now at Given the unceremonious closing of Pandemic Studios, and my low regard for many of the developers' past games, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It shows the extent to which one good idea, well delivered, can often make up for rough execution in other areas. Criticizing a game's missions as the weakest part of the experience sounds a little strange, but I got a great deal of enjoyment from not trying to power through The Saboteur. Even though the story is pretty good, ultimately nothing beats blowing up Nazi machinery.

Playing The Saboteur after Assassin's Creed II made for an interesting contrast. They have much in common: open-world platforming, oodles of side missions, similar mission structures. ACII is probably better at the things it does well than is The Saboteur, and it is the more polished and ambitious game. But it's also so convinced of its own importance that long stretches of it are ponderous and dull. The Saboteur is more even-keeled, never truly great but never boring, either. In a way, that's better. This game knows what it does well and generally sticks to it.

In both cases, I'm glad to be playing more games with interesting settings, and not stock sci-fi or fantasy worlds. I've not truly been sold in the past on realistic renderings of modern-day cities, even as impressive as GTAIV's New York was, but Renaissance Italy and an impressionistic intepretation of Nazi-occupied France are both places I've been more than happy to spend time in. More like this, please.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

All mod confabs

Another year, another Brainy Gamer confab. This year, I joined the host Michael Abbott and guests Manveer Heir, of Raven Software, and Tom Bissell, author of the New Yorker profile of CliffyB, to talk about our favorite games of 2009.

Listening to it, I thought it came out pretty well, though as usually happens with these things it's a little long. Additionally, I'm rocking some pretty heavy sibilance, which I wish somebody had mentioned at the time so we could have tried to fix it. Even so, the discussion is pretty good, and covers all of our favorites, which were Borderlands, Uncharted 2, and Demon's Souls. Check it out!

This episode, by the way, is part 3 of 4. The last part is yet to be posted, but you can listen to part 1 with Chris Dahlen, Steve Gaynor, and L.B. Jeffries, and part 2 with Leigh Alexander, Nels Anderson, and Corvus Elrod.

Additionally, I've appeared on the Brainy Gamer podcast three times before:
Obviously I am running out of "confab" puns.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot

Above: Ra ra riot.

I named Borderlands my game of the year for 2009 for many reasons, but when it comes down to it, the most important thing is that the game lets you screw around with your friends, and doesn't do anything to get in the way of that. Something like Left 4 Dead 2 may be great, but its appeal comes from its difficulty -- and that means there are setbacks. With Borderlands, dying comes with minimal cost, and completed mission objectives are retained even if you get distracted and start doing something else. No matter what happens, you never have a sense that you're doing anything but progressing, if just barely.

I didn't play the first Borderlands DLC, "The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned," but I did play the newer one, "Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot." It's an interesting case because clamps down on the consequence-free feeling of the main game. It also takes a cue from the Horde Mode school of game design and throws waves of enemies at you, to the exclusion of any other objectives. You get three long and relatively difficult arena battles with enough inspired twists worthy of Borderlands, but which also lacks the feeling of upward movement that marks the main game.

The premise: Mad Moxxi is looking for her fourth husband, and intends to find him by running possible suitors through the gauntlet of the Underdome. Each battle, in one of the three arenas, consists of five rounds, with five distinct waves in each round. The format is a little like a game show: enemies get stronger at the start of each round, each wave has a different theme, and wild cards keep things unpredictable. So it's a relatively easy thing to beat a wave of weakened normal enemies with a wild card that increases one of your elemental powers, but it's difficult to beat a wave of strengthened badass enemies that are moving at twice the speed.

I'm a big fan of the pure gameplay of Borderlands, so overall I'm happy to be thrown into drawn-out battles such as the ones in "Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot." And there are some good ideas in there, too, such as the penalty box. When one person in your party dies, he's sent to a cage overlooking the arena, from which he can still shoot but can't otherwise interact with his teammates. We found that it was actually pretty helpful if our medic went down, because he could still heal us from the penalty box with his sniper rifle. And considering that the soldier's turret still works from up there, too, it's a nice way to keep downed players involved, and to allow for last-gasp victories when things look dire.

Even so, the biggest problem is simply that your team will fail to beat a round, often, and when that happens you have to start the round over again. This is not in itself a terrible thing. But it's something Borderlands avoided so deftly in the main game. The older I get, the less patience I have for games that tell me that the last 20 minutes of my life weren't worth anything. Besides which, you don't earn XP for killing enemies in this DLC, which is insane. Due to a hilarious mixup, I spent my time in the Underdome about halfway between levels 49 and 50, and despite killing hundreds of enemies, never reached 50 in that playthrough. It was a goddamn tragedy.

One more thing which is a bummer: the loot is severely restricted. You get supply drops of health and ammo between waves, but the only time you get loot is at the end of each round, when it spawns in the middle of the map for only ten seconds. You don't need to spend much time analyzing the guns, because also new in the DLC is the ability to store guns at a bank, which is a much-needed addition. Unfortunately, ten seconds sometimes isn't even enough time to get to where the guns are, especially when you keep forgetting that they're going to be there. The game never informs you that the loot has spawned, and it's hard to get in the habit of looking for it when you're used to chasing supply drops instead.

I'm glad Gearbox tried something a little different with "Mad Moxxi's," and I like the core gameplay well enough that I imagine I will go back and try to finish it off. But I do wish it felt more like a part of the main game, and less like what it is: an add-on.