Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday afternoon tidbits

Rather than gaming this weekend, I'll be slogging through the cold and damp woods. It's fun, dammit!

-Chris Kohler echoes my thoughts on God of War III exactly: it's well done, and there's nothing wrong with it, but it proves beyond doubt that it's time for God of War to end. Everyone involved can walk away with their heads held high. Will Sony allow this to happen? Considering that God of War III was March's top-selling title across all platforms, I'm guessing it's not likely.

-When I was a kid, they always told me I'd grow out of video games eventually. It still hasn't happened. But, like Elysium, I find it impossible to shake the feeling that, yes, someday I still will grow out of gaming. Will it ever disappear from my life entirely? I hope not. But it's not hard to imagine a time when it doesn't seem like an integral part of my identity.

-Matt Matthews looks at the business of Gamestop. The big takeaways may not be too surprising: the biggest part of their profits comes from used sales, and that's also the part that's growing all the time. No wonder publishers hate them -- they don't see a dime from those sales.

-Now that Gears of War 3 has been officially announced, the Phoenix's Maddy Myers follows up on her post about the inclusion of, presumably, a playable female character. The tenor of the comments both on this new post, and on the original, are all the proof you need that Maddy's making good points.

-Tom Cross defends the story in Just Cause 2 -- or, more accurately, defends Just Cause 2 against its story. He brings up one of the biggest challenges for any reviewer, which is whether you're critiquing a game for what it is actually doing, or what it intends to be doing. This is where subjectivity and objectivity can run up against each other especially hard.

-Kyle Orland this week launched The Game Beat, a new media criticism blog. I'm a fan of Kyle's work going way back, and I know he'll be doing some great stuff with it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Extreme fever!

Above: Witness the instrument of your doom.

Sometimes in this life, there are certain inconvenient truths that you have to acknowledge, or else they'll destroy you. The earth's changing climate is one. The viability of Sarah Palin as a 2012 presidential contender is another. Even harder for me to acknowledge, over the years, has been my love of -- or, more accurately, compulsion toward -- casual gaming. I'm not talking about today's handholding in AAA titles, or even party games like Rock Band. I'm talking about simple, basic games that are usually free to play, except, of course, for the price of your soul.

Recently a friend loaned me his defunct iPhone. It has no sim card, but I can use it to check out some of the apps I've been missing, such as the instant classic Fox Smoking Pipe. But I haven't connected to the apps store yet. I haven't played some of the interesting games he'd already installed on the phone, like Doom Resurrection or even Canabalt. No, I've been playing Peggle.

Do you need me to explain Peggle? You've probably heard of it. (It's been out for a few years -- you've probably played it.) It's essentially pachinko: the game board is full of pegs that light up when a ball bounces off of them. The twist here is that the pegs vanish after each shot. Your job is to clear the board of its relatively few orange-colored pegs. You can do this with the help of certain enchanted shots (fireballs, auto-aim, etc.), but mostly it's a matter of carefully setting up a shot, then watching it go to hell as angles and pegs you never accounted for make the whole thing feel a lot like luck.

Good god, is it addictive. Made by PopCap, the fine folks who brought you web-game classics Bejeweled and Bookworm, Peggle starts with a simple idea, gives it a few twists, and then polishes it to blinding. The luck aspect gives and takes away -- a bucket that slides back and forth across the bottom of the screen will grant you a free ball if your shot ends up there. Getting saved from a bad bounce is like reaching into your coat pocket and finding a twenty.

The presentation is pretty slick, too. Cartoonish graphics and humorous interstitial text is always welcome, but the end-of-round event is brilliant. As your ball approaches the last orange peg, the camera zooms in, the game slows down, and the ball takes on a comet's tail. The ball can still miss at this point, and if it does, it's agonize. If it hits, "Ode to Joy" bursts out of the speakers and the ball sends out multi-colored sparks, before falling into a bonus-point bucket that erupts in fireworks.

A couple years ago when I argued against the terms "hardcore" and "casual" to describe gamers, this is what I meant. Peggle is a "casual" game by any definition. I'm not against describing it that way. But I am certainly not a "casual" gamer by virtue of playing it. In fact, it consumes me in a way that many recent "hardcore" games have failed to do. I agonize over my launch angle. I consult online videos of high-scoring shots. I forget to pick up my pre-ordered copy of Splinter Cell: Conviction because Peggle is waiting at home.

For all the high-falutin' talk about games needing to mean something, and the imperative for narrative and play mechanics to mesh, and whatever the hell else I say to sound smart, sometimes -- most times -- it's only about having fun. There's a reason great-looking console games come and go, but my FreeCell game count keeps rising. In other words, I play games like Battlefield and ask why; I play games like Peggle and ask why not.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Finally fantastic

Above: Fortunately, Lightning is not introduced by removing a motorcycle helmet to reveal -- gasp -- she's a woman!

Still clearing out some of the backlog, my review of Final Fantasy XIII is up now at This one seems to be polarizing fans, but as I argue in the review, every new Final Fantasy game seems to polarize fans. Popular opinion only coalesces much later. At least, that's the way it feels to me. Is it true? I don't know. This review ran like a month after the game came out. I had to think of an angle.

Argh, still being flip. I like this game quite a bit. The criticism about it taking 25 hours to get good feels off-base to me, as I allude to in the review. I think it's great fun before it allegedly opens up, and didn't have any problem with the way the game was laid out. Besides, if you're going to suffer through 25 hours of something because you've heard it gets better after that, you may want to re-evaluate your priorities.

There's still the argument about what, at heart, Final Fantasy is. Lots of people argue that it's always been about exploration, but the exploration has never been what's attracted me to the series. In fact, I had a hard time getting into the games for a long time because of the open-ended style of play. Only when I used walkthroughs to get through parts 1, 6, and 7 did I start to appreciate what Final Fantasy does well. For me, that's the combat.

That's why I was taken with this one -- it's nothing but combat. I mean sure, it's more complicated than that, but everything is rolled out so slowly and confidently that I didn't realize just how complicated it all was until I tried to write it down. Try to sum up paradigms, stagger, the crystarium, and inventory upgrades in 600 words. Maybe you can do it, but it won't be much fun to read. That's why I said the hell with it and started making fun of fanboys.

On the other hand, maybe it's just auto-pilot at this point. I just went back to read my review of Final Fantasy XII and it says almost all the same things. Good night, everybody!

Friday, April 02, 2010

Friday afternoon tidbits

Between PAX last weekend, and filing two game reviews this week, I could use a break. Fortunately, it's a holiday weekend, and at the very least I will be able to pause and eat some ham. That's how I roll on Easter.

-A few months ago I was invited to contribute to an exciting project, and now it's been officially announced: the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is available for pre-order on Featuring capsule reviews of, you guessed it, 1,001 video games, the book covers it all, from Pong to Dragon Age, and every platform you can think of. I think it's going to be a really special product, and I had a blast working on it. It comes out on October 12. (By the way, that's an Amazon Affiliate link, and if you order through there you'll kick a buck or two my way. Yes, I will continue to post the link!)

-Some good stuff about women and games this week. The Border House ran a couple of satirical pieces for April Fool's Day that invert common posts on traditional game sites. The first is called "How to Get Your Boyfriend to Play Games with You," which lampoons the depressing number of similar articles aimed at (straight) men. The second, "A Matter of Resources," posits an alternate universe in which developers simply can't prioritize including male avatars in their games.

Also, the Phoenix's Maddy Myers considers the addition of a significant female character in Gears of War 3: " that there's finally a chance to include a female character in this hyper-masculine world, ... the developers have decided that the reason she's there is because there's something 'wrong' with her that makes her an 'ineffective' woman (at least according to the rules of this universe)." Honestly, I do give them points for trying, but Maddy's right -- maybe it would help to get more women involved in development?

-Several game sites have picked up on the story of the kid who tried to steal the Breach source code from PAX, but I've seen it covered best at Joystiq. Between part 1, part 2, and part 3, there are several surprising developments, and guffaw-inducing quotes. Quotes like:
  • "He said several times he 'knew people' and 'could give us bigger and more important people' and he could 'name names.'"
  • During the Q&A section of the panel, the alleged thief asked if he could have his Gamertag unbanned. Toulouse asked him what he'd done, and he said that he'd played Forza 3 before release, which Toulouse told him he shouldn't have done. Toulouse was clear to point out during the panel that buying games early, from a retailer that breaks street date, and playing them online doesn't get Xbox Live players banned, but illegal pre-release play does. The suspect later admitted to Joystiq he illegally downloaded Forza 3 early.
  • An arrest warrant has been issued for 20-year-old Justin D. May, the alleged thief of the Breach code at PAX East, after he failed to show up in a Boston court today... May's current whereabouts are unknown, but we do have his Gamertag, which shows that wherever he is at the moment, he's playing Modern Warfare 2.
  • "At the end of the day here, we aren't exactly dealing with John Dillinger, you know?"


-Finally, a couple of PAX recaps. Julian Murdoch relays a funny and kind of touching tale of mistaken identity. Eric Swain captures the whirlwind of handshakes and introductions (with bonus photo of me!). Simon Ferrari had an interesting encounter at the Breach booth, which did not involve attempted theft. Sparky Clarkson focused on the indie games on the expo floor, as did Daniel Bullard-Bates at Press Pause to Reflect. And if you'd like the full story of the guy who yelled "These are my people!" at the first PA panel, read his recollection at Punching Snakes.

Clash of the Titans: The Official Game

Above: That fiery dude is always photobombing people.

All right, I think we can stop fluffing PAX and get back to talking about games now. And what's this? My review of God of War III is up at

I remember finishing the second God of War, which ended with Kratos scaling Mount Olympus on the back of a Titan, and wanting to play the next one that instant. God of War III does indeed pick up right there, and for a minute I was all jazzed up. Then they knocked Kratos back down to Hades, and he started ripping people's heads off and everything, and...

I don't know. This game does almost everything right. It's better in some clearly definable ways than its predecessors, and somehow worse in the gestalt. Playing God of War III, I was aware that I was playing a game that had been produced at a high level, but I just didn't care what was happening.

There was one sequence in particular that crystallized my tepid reaction to this game. In the Gardens of Olympus, there's a neat puzzle in which you have to look at your surroundings through the jeweled eye of a statue, which will turn a flat image into a usable staircase. As you do this, you need to drag around a big pedestal in order to fill several vessels with water, because they're on pressure plates that will open up parts of the path for you. You also need to use the deceased body of Hera to weigh down the final vessel.

This is pretty standard God of War stuff, and it's a fun enough puzzle on its own. It also rewrites all the rules of the game to that point. The garden has walls low enough that Kratos could easily leap over in any other part of the game, but here invisible barriers block his path. (He can't grab onto them, either). Although we've seen him perform astounding feats of strength and agility, including prying open the clenched fingers of a Titan and leaping hundreds of feet in the air with blades akimbo, for some reason he can't carry a 120-pound woman over his shoulder without lurching around like a drunk person. Kratos can't jump while he's carrying Hera, or throw her even a few feet. For the purposes of the puzzle, the game completely handicaps him without any good reason.

Beyond that, you can't say the action is bad in any traditional sense. It looks great, plays well, and sticks to the solid fundamentals established by the first couple of games. I felt like they went a little too far over the line with the gore this time around, but that alone isn't the reason I felt so disconnected. We've just played this game before, is all. Time for something else.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

PAX: People

Above: Onlookers gather as an unidentified fan chats with a famed internet author (left).

During the Q&A sessions between audience members and the tandem of Gabe and Tycho, you never knew what might happen. Most people couldn't help gushing a little, either about the comic or about the convention or about Wil Wheaton. Lots of people made jokes. Some asked for life advice. Some simply wanted to express their happiness. "These are my people!" bellowed a questioner at one panel.

But for me -- and, I suspect, for many others -- the high point came during the last PA panel, on the closing day of PAX. A girl stood at the microphone and confessed that she wasn't sure she'd be able to say what she had planned to say without crying. She told a story about being in the hospital as a teenager, spending most of her waking hours in agonizing pain, and not knowing if she'd survive her illness. The best part of her day, she said, was when the nurse wheeled in a cart with a TV, an N64, and a broken PlayStation. Gaming provided the only real relief during the endless surgeries, not just for her but for her constantly worried parents. It was a chance to get her mind off things, and to play like a normal kid.

Listening to this story, I was blinking back tears, and I wasn't the only one. When she finished, Gabe climbed down from the stage to give her a big hug. I've since heard that a scene like this happens at nearly every PAX, but that didn't make this one any less genuine or moving.

This spirit suffused PAX. At another point during the panel, Tycho attempted to give a prize, some fancy-pants Intel processor, to an attendee. After the fan took it, he gestured for the microphone and said he'd like to donate the processor to Child's Play. Somewhat abashed, Tycho took it back.

Any tribal gathering probably sends people away with positive vibes. I wouldn't be surprised if Tea Partiers get home from a protest, set down their "OBAMA BIN LYIN'" signs, and say to their spouses, "Y'know, that was just a nice group of people out there today. I feel so good right now." What the hell, I'm going to say it anyway: attending PAX made me feel great about gamers. My god, they were polite. I've never heard so many people in a crowd say "excuse me." Are these the same people who cuss me out on Xbox Live?

It all comes from the top. I ran into Tycho on the expo floor, walking along a row of booths with a smile on his face, and I had to say hello. That was all I intended to say. He wound up pulling me to the side to talk about Heavy Rain, and some of the things I'd written about it. Several other people started massing around us, and I began to feel guilty for monopolizing his time. But it was the most normal thing in the world -- just two guys talking games.

Blogging sometimes seems to take the form of a conversation, and some of my favorite things to write are responses to other posts. Even so, at the end of the day writing is a solitary pursuit. Writing, and playing, are things I do with my head down and the world closed off. This works most of the time. Writing may be its own kind of dialogue, but it's no substitute for the real thing.

When PAX East has faded a bit, I imagine the memories that remain won't be of the playable version of Splinter Cell Conviction on the expo floor, or listening to the Video Game Orchestra smoke a rendition of the Final Fantasy VII battle theme. I think it'll be the human moments. Getting beers with several incredibly smart writers. Using Twitter to figure out who else is standing in line with you. Making eye contact with someone and thinking, "Aren't you...?" and seeing the nod that says, "I am."

I can't wait for the next time.