Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best of 2011


Above: Kazuma Kiryu will beat your ass if you complain about how this list fails.

Do you want to read another top 10 list with Skyrim on it? Then you'd better look elsewhere. My list of the top games of 2011 is up now at thephoenix.com, and it is entirely dragon-free.

Bitching about year-end lists is a tradition as old as making year-end lists, so I won't indulge here, except to say that I think it's more fun to see an individual's list than a group list, because the former is bound to be more idiosyncratic. The drawback, of course, is that one person can't have played everything in a given year, so -- gasp! -- the list won't be "objective."

Maybe Skyrim would have been my favorite game of the year if I'd played it, or at least a contender, but I honestly have to wonder: who cares what I think? It's sold millions of copies. It's a critical smash. It's picking up awards left and right. Nobody needs my validation. But if my list can convince someone to give Yakuza 4 a whirl, or Jetpack Joyride, or Shadows of the Damned, or Outland, then I think I've fulfilled a more important duty.

Oh right, I said I wouldn't bitch.

But if you do you come here for the bitching, you could also check out my review of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which went up a couple of weeks ago. I promptly forgot about it, because this game has already taken up more of my mental energy than it deserves. Plus it's Christmastime. Why beat a dead horse?

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and happy new year. And, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Get to the point!

Above: Link actually gets to do something.

The first two hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword are just plain bad. You spend a lot of time reading endless boring dialogue; you receive lessons in the most banal gameplay mechanics, such as how to jump over a gap (you run toward the gap); you are leered at by grotesque circus freaks that represent some twisted Nintendo designer's idea of whimsy. You get a lot of minor quest objectives like, "Go talk to Pipit!" and "Hey, why not talk to Pipit again?" It's not a tutorial for people who have never played Skyward Sword, it is a tutorial for people who have never played a video game before, and it is excruciating.

When I complained about the slow start on Twitter, Kotaku's Stephen Totilo assured me that Skyward Sword becomes spectacular about 6-10 hours in. For a game that I've read is at least 50 hours long, that's perhaps a reasonable introductory period. In absolute terms, it's ridiculous. Only in a video game are you expected to log a work day slogging through nonsense just to get to the good part.

Every medium has its point of no return. If a book hasn't grabbed me by 100 pages, I'm likely to drop it. If a movie hasn't made its case within 45 minutes or so, I have no problem turning it off. In neither case does that seem like I haven't given the work a fair shot. In a video game, though, if I put 6 hours into something and don't enjoy it, people will still be counseling patience, telling me that it will all pay off eventually.*

Sure, some games have slow starts. All I ask is that it keep me interested during that period. One of my favorite games of the past few years, Far Cry 2, took a good 4-6 hours before it got completely up to speed, but it was good enough to start with that I was willing to make the investment. You do have to wonder: how good can a game become in order to justify a bad start? Isn't the beginning a part of the experience, too?

As usual, where you land on this argument depends on what you think the purpose of a video game is. Totilo made the analogy to learning to play a musical instrument: in Skyward Sword, he said, the game "is a piano and all you're doing right now is playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." But I think it's an imperfect comparison, because I already know how to play this metaphorical piano, and having to start with the simplest possible tune is, yes, a waste of my time. Where Skyward Sword deviates from the standard is by giving me 1:1 motion controls for the sword. So why not start there? Why not assume that I know how to jump across a gap without making some elfin freak explain it to me in numbing detail?

Besides which, I may have a more active role in playing a game than I would in listening to a song, but I'm still the consumer and not the artist. To use a different analogy, if Skyward Sword were a book, then the implicit agreement, when I crack the cover, is that I already know how to read. I don't need to be taken through the alphabet first.

I'm not trying to be cynical. I sincerely hope that the next time I talk about Skyward Sword, it's to say how good it's become. But no matter how good it ends up being, I can't imagine that it ever justifies such a slow start. There are only so many hours in the day.

*This was taken to extremes with Final Fantasy XIII, you may recall, when people talked about it getting good about 20 hours in. They weren't wrong, necessarily, but I thought the game was plenty fun from the beginning, thank you very much.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Above: Nathan Drake searches for something interesting to say.

My review of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is up at thephoenix.com. I was a little disappointed by it. Maybe it's just a case of expectations: the stuff that was good was not really better or different than what I expected, and the stuff that wasn't good seemed like a regression from Uncharted 2.

Even though Drake's Deception hit a lot of the same notes that I praised so much in Among Thieves, here it felt more obligatory. There were slow parts where you walked through city scenes, and puzzles, and some decent platforming, and a whole bunch of awful interminable shootouts. Worse still, I found myself less drawn to Nathan Drake as a character this time around. He still has some great lines (and some great line deliveries, thanks to Mr. North), but I just wasn't buying what Naughty Dog was selling. And I wasn't really sure why.

At any rate, it's still a decent enough game, but I do hope that if there's a fourth Uncharted, that it brings with it a few more surprises.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Quiz: The Year in Swooning

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

1. LittleBigPlanet 2
2. Dead Space 2
3. Portal 2
4. L.A. Noire
5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
6. Gears of War 3
7. Rage
8. Batman: Arkham City
9. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A. "The sequel is five times bigger and about a billion times better. You do the math."

B. "...every bit as charming and ingenious as its predecessor and, what's even more impressive, it raises the bar for what people should expect from the gaming industry as a whole."
 
C. "...capable of satisfying both fans and newcomers to the genre thanks to great gameplay and an involving story. A strong contender to the title of best game of the year and of the entire generation."

D. "...not only one of the best stories you ever went through, but one of the best and most addictive multiplayer experiences ever to hit consoles."

E. "From the art direction to the genre-bending gameplay... a landmark in game design that is sure to be referenced in the years to come. Buy it without hesitation."

F. "...jumps from one extraordinary set piece to the next, pushing the way a videogame narrative can be presented. Equal parts exhilarating and emotional, I can't say I have ever played a more perfectly paced game."

G. "...much more than just the best FPS experience I've had in 2011; it is a pivotal and redefining moment for the future of game design that will push your console further than anyone though it could go."

H. "The fantastic story, excellent pacing, interesting and engaging puzzles and other incredible facets to the game make it one that people should experience at any cost."

I. "...a ludicrously intense, graphically gorgeous, thoroughly atmospheric game that takes everything the first title did and ramps up the absurdity to dangerous levels."

J. "In the end it is something that will go down in history as one of the most innovative games of our time, and for good reason. You are simply supposed to have this game in your collection, if you consider yourself a gamer by any definition of the word."

ANSWERS:

1. B (MEGamers)
2. I (Destructoid)
3. H (Game Focus)
4. J (Team Xbox)
5. E (Worth Playing)
6. D (Xbox Addict)
7. G (Game Chronicles)
8. A (Games Radar)
9. F (Destructoid)
10. C (Mondo Xbox)

BONUS SECTION:

Which the best game Seth Schiesel has ever played this time?

1. LittleBigPlanet 2
2. Child of Eden
3. Shadow Cities
4. Batman: Arkham City
5. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

A. "It may actually be the most interesting, innovative, provocative and far-reaching video game in the world right now, on any system. That’s a strong, perhaps outrageous, statement. "

B. "...Sony’s stunning new entertainment ecosystem for the PlayStation 3. Entertainment ecosystem? That may sound like hype..."

C. "the finest, most exciting action-adventure video game in years."

D. "In its ambition, scope and sheer love for its decades of lore... the finest comic book video game ever to slip into spandex."

E. "...one of the most inspirational exhibits of artistry to be found in interactive entertainment today."

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

As always, compiled with the help of Metacritic.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Battlefield 3

Above: Jet gameplay. Not pictured: the pilot crashing immediately.

Ahoy-hoy! My review of Battlefield 3 is up at Paste. It is nice to be back at Paste.

This was a tough one to write, for reasons that I think will be clear when you read the review. When things go well, Battlefield 3 is stunning. The problem isn't just that things don't always go well, it's that sometimes they don't go at all. My play experiences tended to fall into one of five categories.

From best to worst:
  1. Time of my life -- awesome squadmates, great connection, action-movie moments that make me weep with joy.
  2. Dumbass teammates, but an incredibly fun shooter with constant surprises.
  3. Connection troubles, lag, lost XP and unlocks. Starting to wonder if it's worth it.
  4. "Joining Server" loop for three goddamn hours. Rebooting and cursing.
  5. Single-player.

For instance, I once paired up with a squadmate who was a virtuouso with a tank. He was driving, and pummeling our enemies. I was acquitting myself serviceably in the turret, and ended the match with something like 10 kills to 2 deaths. (Usually, for me, it's the reverse.) Not only did we win the game, but we earned the ribbon for the best squad, and even though it was all him, it was a feeling of satisfaction that lasted me through many worse performances.

Even when there is little or no cohesion, the game is still somehow incredibly fun, if only because so many variables are at play. At times, I held down capture points by myself, just a solitary man lying in some tall grass with a heavy machine gun. Once, after respawning, I wiped out the entire squad that had cut me down just moments before. And then, of course, there are those magical moments when you accidentally crash a helicopter onto somebody. I find it hard not to run upstairs and recount these things to my wife in excruciating detail.

There's every reason to believe that the Battlefield experience will get better, and I hope it does, because right now the thin candy shell is not properly supporting the chocolatey middle. I don't think I'm done with this game, not by a longshot.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Batman: Arkham City

Above: Batman struggles with the new Google Reader interface.

My review of Batman: Arkham City is up at thephoenix.com. I think that some reviewers have gone a little overboard with their praise (even though this review score was hilarious), but it's still a great game, and one of the better ones I have played this year.

For as much as people are still griping about the sins of past Bat-games, I think that if this were a new IP, we'd be more measured in our praise. Arkham City can tip too far into fan service, and sacrifice narrative cohesion in favor of Jeph Loeb-style stunt casting. Even though I like Rocksteady's interpretation of lesser villains like Clayface and Solomon Grundy, they also serve the same function in this game as the moles do in Whack-a-Mole. The same was true of Arkham Asylum, but less so. City is the better game; Asylum was the better yarn.

Now that we're in the thick of things, I feel even more behind than usual. I've got a Battlefield 3 review in the pipeline (which marks  my long-awaited return to Paste!), and Uncharted 3 on deck for the Phoenix. Somewhere in there, I've also got Lord of the Rings: War in the North to play. First world problems, indeed.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rage

Above: Some manner of anger. Fury, maybe.

My review of Rage is up now at thephoenix.com.

The buzz I had been hearing was not good, and the game's first few hours seemed to confirm it. Where Rage attempts to modernize, it doesn't work. It is kind of creepy how much time you spend standing mutely while people give you orders, and how un-interactive the world is. But where Rage plays to id's strengths, it soars. I forgot what it was like to play a first-person shooter as pure as large portions of Rage are.

There is strategy involved, of the sort where you're deciding whether you want to do a little damage or a lot of damage. There are fun, unexpected weapons to use, like a mind-control slug that allows you to walk an enemy, zombie-like, into a crowd of his compatriots before blowing him up. Traditional weapons are all given a chance to shine, as smartly designed levels transition from close-quarters combat to wide-opeen battlefields.

Mostly, it's a game about shooting, and so it gives you the tools to do that. You can carry 8 weapons at a time in rage. Your sniper rifle scope stays steady, even when you're zoomed in. The action is smooth and lightning fast.The best summation of Rage that I've read came from the Dead End Thrills blog, which in a post that was otherwise all about id Tech 5, had this to say about the game itself:
It reminds us how far we’ve erred from the thrills of ‘run-and-gun’ into pedestrian ‘stop-and-pop’; how we’ve lost the rhythm of the firstperson shooter; and how look and feel are still more important than gimmicks and Gamerscore.
I couldn't agree more.

Of course, it's fair to say that not all of Rage consists of these shooting sections, and I'm with everyone who finds the vehicle portions and the world-building to be suspect. But I'm also the guy who will dismiss a game completely if I don't like the inventory menus.

I'm not contradicting myself. What I care about is what comprises the bulk of the experience. It doesn't matter to me how great the story is in an RPG if I am spending all my time grappling with the interface. And it doesn't matter to me that Rage's shooting portions are stitched together in a dead world with the occasional mandatory driving section, because those are easy and brief. If my buggy had constantly been blowing up, and if I had to spend long stretches doing more in the city hubs than picking up missions, my impressions would have been quite different.

As it is, if Rage had simply been a linear corridor shooter -- paced more like Metro 2033 than Borderlands -- it probably would be one of the best of the year.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Driver: San Francisco

Hey there! Forgot to mention that I reviewed Driver: San Francisco for Joystick Division.

Don't have much more to add that isn't in the review. It seemed like a good game and I kept waiting for the moment that I would completely buy in, and it never came. I had some fun with it, for sure, but I'd play a couple rounds of multiplayer, or a few missions in the campaign, and start thinking about other games I could be playing, or things I had to do around the house. I never had any problem turning the game off.

Next it's on to Rage, it looks like, with some time for the Portal 2 DLC and a little more Resident Evil 4 HD. There's not enough time in the day.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shadows of the Damned

Above: Garcia Fucking Hotspur. 

With the fall review season in full swing, I've done the only logical thing and devoted all of my column space to a game that came out in June. Excuse me if I want to share the love.

You can read my review of Shadows of the Damned at thephoenix.com. In it, I make the case for Shadows as one of those litmus test games -- you might like it or you might not, but if you're on board with the notion of games as art, then you at least ought to check it out. Which is easy enough to say for somebody who skipped over it until the price went down. But the price went down! What excuse is there now?

I drilled down a little deeper in my biweekly column for Joystick Division, in which I mused about what makes dick jokes art. The column is mostly a comparison between one crude-minded game that nobody liked, Duke Nukem Forever, and this one. Why are wall boobs reprehensible, and why is a huge dick cannon hilarious? Find out!

Lots going on lately, and nothing at all. I should have a review of Driver: San Francisco up on Joystick Division by the end of the week. And I still haven't played Dead Island or Gears 3. Life is hard, man.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Working in the sweatshop


Have you been following Game Journos’ exposé of shenanigans at VGChartz? It’s a tale of a site withholding payment, refusing to honor its agreements with writers, and generally exploiting its labor force. Obviously, as part of the labor class, this is a subject of great interest to me – not because VGChartz’s treatment of its writers is so unusual, but rather, I believe, because it is so common.

Let’s start with a couple of disclaimers. As a freelancer, I can’t speak to the working conditions of full-time staff, especially at sites that offer salaries and benefits. My experiences as a freelancer are surely not the same as those of every other freelancer. I’m sure there are some writers who have it better than I do, and probably many more who have it worse. I’ve been lucky to have been able to write for awesome editors, and publications with integrity. I’ve rarely been stiffed on payments. I love what I do, and I don’t intend to stop doing it.

With that said: freelance game writing has got to be one of the worst ways to make money in a developed nation. There’s no relationship between the flat fee you accept from a publisher, and the amount of time and effort involved in delivering the work. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you play a game for 25 hours, and spend another 2-3 hours writing the review, you’d need to be paid around $200 just to make minimum wage. If you know of a publisher who’s paying that much for a review, please put me in touch with the editors.

Sure, not all games take that long. It’s why reviewers enjoy reviewing downloadable titles and short AAA releases. You get paid the same fee whether the game you played was 6 hours or 40 hours. You don’t need an MBA to know which one is more profitable. But somebody’s got to go out there and sink a week of their life into Skyrim, watching their wages drop with each passing hour, knowing that the fanboys will tear them a new one if, god forbid, they miss even the slightest detail. It doesn't matter if you love the game. Every hour you spend earning peanuts is an hour you're not doing something that earns you enough money to live on.

I’ve also found a significant difference in rates between print publications and online publications. Online publications – the ones that are growing, where more opportunities are – pay less than print, often much less. It doesn’t take any less time or effort to review a game for a website instead of a newspaper, but it is apparently half as valuable to the publisher. Lots of people who work in the web space get pageview bonuses, which, to this outside observer, seems a lot like a scam. Not only does it lead to garbage link bait instead of quality content, but you can be sure that the math is always in favor of the person paying the bonus, and not the person getting the bonus. There’s no good way to know what the standard rates for pageview bonuses should be, and the publishers like it that way.

What does this all mean in terms of compensation? It means that game writers are letting themselves be exploited, and even folks who are paid by the article are working for sweatshop wages. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my standard rate for reviewing a game, across all publications, probably averages $3-$4 an hour – well below the federal minimum wage. And I suspect I’m one of the lucky ones.

But I love writing about games, and if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d keep doing it. In that sense, I’d write for free. The truth is that I do write for free. Nowhere, in the past five and a half years, have I written more words than I have for this blog. My total earnings in that time, between Google AdSense and Amazon Affiliates, are about $150. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I would guess that my hourly wage for working on Insult Swordfighting is in the hundredths of a cent, if not thousandths. That’s far less than a kid making Nikes in Vietnam.

Look, I’m not pleading poverty here. Writing about games is a choice for me, a luxury, and a passion. It’s something I do when I’m not at my day job. I make a good salary; I’m better off than 99.9% of the world. But there’s an important principle at stake here, which is that people deserve to be compensated for their work. If someone is profiting disproportionately from your labor, then you have a right to be angry and you have a right to demand justice. Not that I think the owners of sites like VGChartz are lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, only that they seem to be one of the frontrunners in a race to the bottom.

The story of videogame writing in the year 2011 is the story of publishers who don’t care about the quality of their product, and writers who are so eager for exposure that they take shitty deals which drive down wages for everybody. Again: there are many great sites out there, staffed by talented editors who care about what they do. But the marketplace for writers is lousy, if not outright hostile. If the only viable business model is to underpay and rip off their writers, then there is no viable business model for these sites. I’m afraid that the malfeasance at VGChartz is the rule and not the exception. And I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse for writers – and, therefore, for readers.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fall preview



My list of 10 games to watch for this fall is up now at thephoenix.com. It seems like a good crop this year. Not only are there are a lot of games that look interesting, there are a lot of games that look different. I mean, really, who doesn't want to play that Sesame Street game?

That said, there's no question that the game I'm anticipating the most this year is Battlefield 3. I can't even really explain why. I haven't been into a military-themed FPS since Call of Duty 4, and even then it was all about the campaign for me. But I bought my new computer in large part so that I could play Battlefield 3 as it's meant to be played, and I've watched that Caspian Border trailer about a hundred times. It's going to be sad when I load the game, am not immediately good at it after 30 minutes of play, and break my keyboard over my leg.

Anyway, I had fun writing this year's preview, and I hope you have fun reading it.

Also, last weekend at Joystick Division I published a column about how Gears of War is the quintessential 9/11 game. As I say in the piece, I've always had that impression. It wasn't something I cooked up in a cheap ploy for pageviews. You may or may not agree with the article, but I hope you at least agree that it's the kind of discussion about video games that's worth having.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Above: Adam Jensen prepares to enter the Matrix.

My review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is up now at thephoenix.com. I'll level with you: I don't think it's a very good review. There was so much I wanted to say that I ended up not saying any of it. I tried to explain the game in the broadest terms to somebody who had never heard of it before. I felt like I needed more words. That's what the blog is for.

Part of the problem is that I am still a little confused about what I think of the game. When a game shows itself to be capable of greatness, it is all the worse whenever it falls short -- which DX:HR does, often. It's not like a lot of mediocre games that maintain a baseline of competence the whole through. Those are easy to figure out. This game consists of stratospheric highs punctuated by crushing lows. The mental arithmetic necessary to give it a score, and then call it a day, seems like it's either overcomplicating or oversimplifying things.

Let's start with this: for sustained stretches, DX:HR is brilliant. It is, at heart, a game about corporate espionage, and they've managed to make sneaking around office buildings and reading emails into a genuinely thrilling experience. Part of that is due to the interface. The stealth mechanics are intuitive and robust. Taking cover might make your character a little too invisible, but line of sight works just as well, and you never get a sense that the AI isn't playing fair. Every time a guard spotted me, I knew it was my fault and not the game's. When I was successful -- such as when I snuck past a room full of guards in a penthouse apartment, and waited for the elevator while listening to them talk about how they were going to kill me -- I wanted to find somebody in real life to high five.

And it seems, too, as though the character building and varied playstyles aren't just lip service. I tried my hardest to avoid fights and to build up my hacking abilities. For the most part, it worked. One of my favorite parts was when I entered a new section of an office building, sneaking around as usual, only gradually noticing that nobody seemed to be around. I saw one guard dead on the ground, and then another, and then I encountered a security robot that I had re-programmed several minutes earlier. My own lethal Roomba, puttering through the corridors, taking out the trash.

Then again, sometimes the stealth approach just wasn't happening, and the non-lethal goal seemed unattainable, so I would slowly and methodically murder everybody in the room. If you don't upgrade your combat capabilities, the shooting is clunky, but it still is not an impossible task to systematically pick everybody off with a sniper rifle, especially if you're in a room with multiple levels and numerous back passages. And what's nice about all of this is that there is no sense that the game is guiding you one way or another. The environments, the enemies, the tools -- they are there for you to take or to leave.

But when the game stumbles, it faceplants. To some degree, it's not even the game's fault. I once read an article about air traffic controllers, who work one of the most stressful jobs you can have. For hours, they stare at a screen that is full of hundreds of little dots all moving in different directions, and their job is to know what each one of those dots is doing in relation to all of the others. Occasionally one of the controllers will lose his focus, and suddenly instead of seeing hundreds of planes flying through the air with clockwork precision, he just sees a bunch of manic dots. And then he loses his shit and has to be placed on leave.

This is essentially how I felt every time something went wrong in DX:HR.

There's something to be said for gameplay based on the idea of your careful plans going awry. (This was one of the central pleasures of Far Cry 2.) When this game is humming, you're like the air traffic controller who knows what's up. You know where every guard is. You know where all your cover is. Your weapons are armed and ready. You have a plan for getting through this area, and it's working, and you could not feel better about it. When you get busted, though, it's not fun, and there aren't often clever ways to regroup. Usually you just restart.

If you're playing as I did, it's not worth fighting or running. Since I put no skill points into making my character a fighter, getting spotted meant instant death. Often I just gave up and let them kill me. Occasionally I'd hide in a vent for five minutes, which felt like a moral victory, but was boring and less productive than reloading. And because of the way the game saves your progress, if you die after updating your skill tree or earning bonus XP, you have to do all those things over again when you restart.

This isn't the worst thing in the world; it's a small annoyance that happens over and over. And it's one of those obnoxious things that only happens in video games, which a smart game should have figured out get past. DX:HR feels like it should be smart enough for that. For all its brilliance, it trots out the same old classic tropes that have been stale since the first Deus Ex: crawling through vents, stacking crates, atrocious voice acting. You can emerge from a vent into a locked room, and the people in the room will start chatting with you as though nothing unusual has happened. Oh, and there are the boss battles.

I don't want to be the millionth person to complain about the boss battles, but some things are unavoidable. It's not that they represent sudden, jarring difficulty spikes. It's that the rest of the game is based on player choice, and the boss battles have an Optimal Strategy that you can't deviate from unless you are a masochist. Were the game true to its principles, then there would be a way to hack your way through a boss battle, or to avoid it altogether. Instead, you can pick up the weapons that are helpfully scattered around the room, and then discard them when you're done. That's lazy.

Would I recommend that most gamers play Deus Ex: Human Revolution? For sure. But you need to be prepared to struggle with it a little. Wrestle it to the ground. It is not perfect, but it is not quite like anything else out there.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

PC gaming, I am in you

Above: The raw materials.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in my Joystick Division column about how difficult it is to return to PC gaming. Once you've been out of the loop for long enough, nothing about computers makes sense anymore. It's not like with a game console, where you can be reasonably certain that, once the PlayStation 3 has been out for long enough, you will be able to get a PlayStation 4, and that games marked "PlayStation 4" will work on it. You don't need to know anything about what's under the hood.

This is not the case with PC gaming. The two major video card manufacturers release a new generation of hardware each year, each with several options ranging from low-end to high-end. I don't mean to re-hash the column. I just want to point out that, while you have your choice of only three major game consoles in the year 2011, if you want to get a PC you must choose between 21 major video cards, which is to say nothing of processors, RAM, storage, and, of course, new hardware that will render yours obsolete the day after you buy it.

At any rate, it turns out that getting a new gaming PC is not so difficult or expensive, provided that you have a friend who is willing to do all the research, send you product links from Tiger Direct, and then assemble the machine for you. Sadly, my computer guru does not have an internet presence for me to link to, but he does share a fake name with a legendary singer-songwriter, and if you are in the market for a custom-built rig, you should try to track him down and hire him, A-Team style. He does excellent work.

So I'm back in the saddle. I've had the new system for a week now, long enough to put a decent amount of time into some games. I've come away with two major conclusions.

Above: The build in process.

1) PC gaming is awesome.

The controls are better. I can't believe I forgot this essential truth. It took me about five minutes of playing with a keyboard and mouse to feel like I was bending the virtual environments to my will. Years later, I still find it awkward to play an FPS with a gamepad. On the computer, I forget I'm holding anything in my hands at all.

You can save anywhere. You can save anywhere! It's so important that I needed to say it twice. As a coddled console gamer, I've gotten used to having checkpoints every few steps, but even then, you don't always get returned exactly where you want to be. On the PC, I can save my state any time I want. And I do it. A lot.

Everything looks a lot better. I thought I'd been spoiled by playing Xbox and PS3 games in HD for the past few years, but running Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 1600x1200 resolution, with a smooth frame rate, puts them to shame. The company logos that appear when I boot up the game look better than any console game I've seen in the past five years. This thing is really going to pop when I get a widescreen monitor with an HDMI port.

Above: The finished product.

2) PC gaming is awful.

Like a lot of people, I've gone for cheap laughs by mocking the PlayStation 3's endless system updates. But what is unusual for a console is standard practice for a PC, and I have to think that the only reason people don't complain as vociferously about computers is because of Stockholm Syndrome. Everything needs to be constantly updated. Your virus definitions. Your Flash player. Your operating system. All of it. And you usually need to reboot for the updates to take effect. And you'd better do it, or else your computer is going to fall prey to some hacker who enlists it to DDoS Sony's servers, thereby making it even harder to update your PS3. You just can't win.

DRM on the PC is out of control. Even these days, when you load a console game, presuming that it is a legitimate copy, it will work. But when I tried to install my retail copy of Deus Ex, which was sent to me by the publisher for review, Steam told me that I could not play it, because it hadn't been released yet. They didn't say it out loud, but I thought there was an accusatory subtext to the message. I don't think I should get special treatment because I review games*, but it seems like a waste of effort to make sure that nobody with a retail copy of your game can play it a couple hours early. Who cares?

In the first night of playing my first PC title in years, the game crashed twice. I can't remember the last console game I played that crashed (at least, the last console game not made by BioWare). I dealt with astronomical load times. I ran a stopwatch when reloading after one death. It took 36 seconds. Granted, these issues were addressed in a patch a couple of days after Deus Ex launched, which is a small point in favor, but it's not a good thing that publishers use patches as a way to ship games that aren't finished.

3) There's no third point, but I need a way to indicate visually that section 2 is finished.

I'm happy to be back in the land of the living. To some degree, the decisions are out of my hands, but I hope to review more games on this platform in the future, even if it means installing EA's sketchy digital distribution software to do it. Some of the big games this fall, Battlefield 3 and Rage chief among them, seem like they'd only be at home on the PC.

I'm also looking forward to catching up on some things I missed. I have a copy of Metro 2033 coming, which only cost ten bucks. The Amnesia demo was scary enough that I'm not sure I want to play the whole thing, but I could be persuaded by a Steam sale. I've even given some thought to downloading Crysis, just to say I ran it at max settings, which I am about 75% sure I could do.

Hell, with a computer this beastly, I probably have a good six months before I need to think about upgrading. I'll never die!

*I should get special treatment because I review games.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Are game reviewers bad at games?

If you've ever talked about video games on the internet, then you have encountered people who worship at the altar of difficulty. They claim that any game worth playing is worth playing on the hardest setting, that high scores are more important than a good time, that second place is the first loser. Stuff like that.

These people are not usually game reviewers.

I've always found it interesting that game reviewers tend to be modest about their own abilities. They might claim to know a lot about games. They are confident that they can write about games better than the average player. But, when it comes to skillz, it seems to me that most critics are happy to accept their limitations. So that's the topic of my latest column for Joystick Division, "Doing it wrong: Are game reviewers bad at video games?"

I did a little bit more legwork than usual this time, in that I actually solicited opinions from several writers I respect. They all gave me thoughtful answers.* Since I could only use a little bit of what they said for the column, I thought I'd use this space to reprint their responses in full.

The two questions I asked:
  1. Do you consider yourself good at games, however you define "good"?
  2. Do you think it's important for a game reviewer to be good at games?
These were their answers.

Justin McElroy, Joystiq:
I don't think I'm particularly good at games. I find I'm just good enough to finish pretty much ever game on normal with occasional frustration. In fact, that makes for a pretty good metric: If it's more frustrating than that (or not possible) I know it's a difficult game.

I believe in Koster's theory that fun in video games is really the sensation of learning, so if you were the sort that was so inept they were unable to learn, I think it could hamper you as a critic.
Sparky Clarkson, Discount Thoughts et al.:
I hope not.

I don't consider myself to be particularly good at games, and it doesn't bother me that I am not. I happily admit that I am incredibly terrible at shmups, have nothing like the reflexes needed to become a masterful multiplayer FPS player, etc. The prevalence of online leaderboards is of great assistance in calibrating this opinion. I'm not terrible at everything; my skills are probably about average, all games considered. And, I think this level is a good place to be as a reviewer. If anything, I should like to be slightly worse at games than I am, because while my skills are middling compared to dedicated gamers, they are much above those of occasional players, which means I may systematically underestimate difficulty. A reviewer needs to be good enough to finish a game if he wants to (whether he *needs* to is an argument for another time), and bad enough to fail at least a few times. This is a peculiar part of reviewing games. Being a "good reader" in the context of a book review means having an eye for plot and the quality of prose; it does not mean getting through the book without dying and having to start a chapter over three times. Games uniquely place barriers in front of players to prevent them (hopefully only temporarily) from seeing all that the game has to offer. A good reviewer needs to know what it's like to fail at each game, and a sense for when those barriers are too high, or even too low. So, I believe it's important for a game reviewer not to be too good at games.
Brad Gallaway, GameCritics:
I do consider myself good at games, yes.

I don't think I’m in the top tier of players and I don't put in enough time on any one thing to ever call myself "the best", but I'm adept in a wide variety of genres and can hold my own regardless of what I'm reviewing. Essentially, I take the jack of all trades approach – I’m pretty good at most, expert-level at none.

I do think it is important for a reviewer to be good at games, although I don't think that expert ability is required. For example, I don't think a reviewer needs to have a pro competitive level of skill in a game like Street fighter, although they do need to be able to perform the moves and (at the very least) finish the game a few times with a few different characters.

Primarily, I think that a good ability is important so that the reviewer is able to complete whatever it is they’re reviewing, and also to have the proper perspective on design and difficulty. If the reviewer isn't good at playing, then I think it would be hard to put stock in their opinion. If they claim a game is too hard or designed poorly, is that really the case, or do they simply lack sufficient facility? If they don't understand how game systems work and aren't able to properly utilize them, then how can they give a fair estimation of what the game is? It's a bit of a clumsy comparison, but how could someone review a movie if their vision is impaired, or how could someone review a book if they had a fourth-grade reading level?

I think there’s plenty of room for a variety of reviewers, but in my opinion there has to be a base competency in order for a review to be written.
Rob Zacny, RobZacny.com et al.:
I like to think I'm good, but the record tells me otherwise. I'm a Bronze League Stracraft player, I generally get taken to school in real-time strategy games and struggle to maintain a 1:1 kill-to-death ratio in Bad Company 2. Where my skill can be tested in a competitive setting, I generally prove myself to be a middling sort or gamer.

But is that a good measure? I review games, usually a different one each week. My objective with most games I play is not mastery, however satisfying that would be, but understanding. I don't excel at most games I play, because I my skill level is limited enough that I really have to work at a game to get "good" at it. But I would still say I'm good at games because I can quickly take any new game in almost any genre, acquire a basic level of competence with it, and then figure out what systems are at work and why they do or don't create a satisfying experience for me.

Ultimately, it's more important that a reviewer be good at analyzing and communicating experiences. Being good at games can help a lot when that skill leads you to having a richer understanding, and you can share that with your audience. If you were to go back to GFW Radio, Shawn Elliott sounded like he was a great shooter and RTS player, and that led him to offer special insights on how games like Company of Heroes or Team Fortress 2 worked. He was operating at a higher level than most people do, and he was able to bring back unique views from that level. That's where skill can make someone better at reviews and criticism. But it's not a requirement. Basic proficiency, knowing what you're supposed to do and why, is all you really need to bring to a game.
Thanks to all these folks for responding. Enjoy the column!

*All except for Kirk Hamilton, that is, who has apparently forgotten that I made him. Also he might have been busy covering PAX or something?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bastion

My review of Bastion is up now at thephoenix.com. You can add me to the chorus that's been singing its praises. It's a tight and smartly designed game that has a real heart. It also has a kickass soundtrack that you can buy.

Hmm. Guess that's it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Link roundup

Hello! You wouldn't know it from watching this space, but I have been busy lately.

First, my review of Child of Eden is up at thephoenix.com. I liked this game, although I utterly failed to connect with it on the level that most of its ardent fans seem to have. My biggest takeaway was that the Kinect version was slightly, though clearly, inferior to the gamepad version. I continue to think that the Kinect will never work if it is used to perform the same actions that a gamepad does. There's a reason Dance Central was awesome -- it would not have been possible to play it with the stock controller.

Also, I appeared on the most recent episode of the Experience Points podcast. Scott, Jorge, and I discussed what makes a game overrated or underrated, and how the expectations we bring to a game color our experiences. I had a great time recording the podcast. I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Finally, while it's not nearly as incendiary as the first, my most recent column at Joystick Division is all about the game I've been playing the most recently: Words with Friends, on the iPhone. In a late-breaking update, I am happy to tell you that I have won a game or two since that column was published. And also lost several more.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The case against Ocarina of Time

My first original column went up at Joystick Division over the weekend. It's called "Hey! Listen! The Case Against Ocarina of Time."

You can probably guess what it's about.

I never have understood the fuss about the game. Before it came out, I was as excited as anybody. I had pre-ordered it from Toys R Us so I could get the gold cartridge. The day it came out, I rushed to the store to pick it up, and drove home recklessly to start playing. Then I found it to be meandering and uninteresting, and before long I put it down.

Several years later, I started a new game, determined to crack its shell. I was successful, in the sense that I finished it, but out of a sense of obligation more than anything. There was a lot that I liked, and just as much that I didn't. After all this time, I still don't get it.

But there's something else I understand even less. I keep reading reviews that say that Ocarina is the best game of all time, or one of the best games of all time, and that the 3DS version is graphically stunning and every bit as good as the original. Then the reviewer gives it one point less than a perfect score.

Really? It's a superior version of your favorite game of all time, and not even that merits a pefect score?

I can only think that the reason not to give it a perfect score is because it's a remake. That's not a good reason. People complain, justifiably, about how reviewers don't use the bottom end of the scale, but it's just as nonsensical never to go all the way to the top. That's what it's there for.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever

After 14 years, what's another couple of weeks to wait for my review of Duke Nukem Forever at thephoenix.com? I tried something a little different this time, writing as a credulous fanboy in an alternate universe in which DNF was released more or less on time. I think it's pretty funny, but I'm never the best judge of my own jokes.

As it turns out, I may not be the best judge of a game's quality, either, because I honestly thought Duke Nukem Forever was all right. It's not spectacular, it's definitely dated, and it displays some major lapses in judgment -- but, so help me, it's a lot of fun in places, too. Yet I've rarely seen such negative reviews for a major release. Maybe seeing the Metacritic scores before I played the game put me in a forgiving mood. But I'd definitely take this over a more technically competent but entirely soulless shooter like Killzone 3. Despite all its problems, it's got a spark.

Not that things started off all that well. I was prepared to hate it as much as anybody when, in the first few minutes of the game, I fumbled around with a white board, first scrawling a bunch of nonsense and then erasing the whole board, while all the while the soldiers around me talked about what a genius I was. Even though that was part of a quasi-dream sequence, in the game's reality, it still seemed clear that Duke was as exalted by others as he was in his own mind.

A little bit later, I managed to scratch out the word "Duke" in a book for a breathless fan, who didn't seem to notice that my handwriting looked like that of an illiterate child with palsy. Then, as I walked away from the fan and his father, I heard the dad remark, "I thought he'd be taller."

Finally, I thought. The biggest problem with the textual reality of Duke Nukem Forever is that everyone else seems to think Duke is as great as he does. That makes it hard to buy any claims that the character or the game is satirical. To see his bravado punctured, even a bit, was welcome. Then it rarely happened again. But my favorite parts of the game tended to be those which seemed aware that Duke was not an admirable character.

At a few separate points, Duke is shrunken to a tiny size, and still spouts tough-guy bullshit with a voice that sounds like he's been inhaling helium. This is legtimately funny, and also makes for some of the most fun parts to play. One standout scene was a platforming sequence through a kitchen, which worked as a spatial puzzle and also included some inspired twists, such as when Duke had to hop from one hamburger bun to the next in order to avoid being burned on a griddle. Maybe I'm easily impressed, but this struck me as inspired.

Actually, I know I'm easily impressed, because much of Duke's dudebro humor worked for me, too. Not all of it, but it turns out that I am the sort of cro-magnon who is legitimately entertained by seeing a button prompt labeled HUMILIATE. I laughed several times during Duke Nukem Forever. I laughed when it made reference to other games. (My favorites quips, in ascending order: "Power armor is for pussies!" while looking at Spartan gear; "I hate Valve puzzles!" while futzing around with steam pipes; "I was expecting a monkey!" after climbing a staircase and killing the pig that was throwing barrels at me the whole way up.) Most jokes miss the mark, but that's not a problem unique to this game.

(For what it's worth, though, I laughed more during the second chapter of Transformers: Dark of the Moon than during the entirety of Duke Nukem Forever.)

Duke Nukem Forever makes more sense, as a game and as a cautionary tale, when you realize that the whole thing is 3D Realms' attempt to make Half-Life. The point of Duke 3D was to take what worked about Doom and give it an attitude, and the point of Duke Forever is to do the same for Half-Life. Yes, it is more than a decade too late, and this isn't the only game that has failed to emulate Half-Life's potent blend of storytelling and encounter design. Playing Duke Nukem Forever, you can start to understand why Broussard and company were never able to finish. Their standards are evident in certain scenes, which makes their failure to meet those standards elsewhere even more glaring.

Oh well. I am still glad that this chapter of gaming history has been closed. If nothing else, maybe Duke Nukem Forever clears the decks for a better Duke in the future.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

inFamous 2

Above: Betty Draper's weaselly brother IS Cole McGrath.

My review of inFamous 2 is up at thephoenix.com. This is one of those games that makes me question reality, because I haven't read one bad word about it, and I could barely stand to play it. Remember when I talked about how great Outland felt in my hands? inFamous 2 is the opposite. Nothing about this game feels right to me.

I don't like the way Cole McGrath moves, not on the ground or in the air. I don't appreciate the way he clings to objects automatically. I don't understand why the crosshair seems a touch off from where my shots end up. I resent not being able to lock the camera on to bigger enemies, who are able to fire devastating ordinance at me as I stumble into walls, looking for a safe place to hide but inexplicably grabbing a window ledge instead. Playing inFamous 2 feels like having a long, drawn-out argument with my controller.

I would estimate that my inFamous 2 experience broke down like this:
  • 10% failing to run in a straight line
  • 20% climbing something I didn't mean to climb
  • 5% failing to to climb something I meant to climb
  • 10% not damaging the enemy in my crosshairs
  • 5% getting killed all of a sudden for no reason
  • 10% doing unfun story missions
  • 20% doing unfun side missions
  • 20% looking for blast shards
That last 20% was definitely compelling, and it kept me playing longer than I would have expected, given how much fun I wasn't having, which is why I mentioned it in the review. But I want to take a second to talk about the missions. They are terrible. They may bridge cutscenes, but they don't advance the story in and of themselves, and many fail to contain an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. One of the mission objectives was literally to run a couple of blocks. I hadn't even seen what I was supposed to see and suddenly the debriefing screen came up. Then several of the game's unlikable characters had a conversation while I went to get something to drink.

The side missions are even worse, because I felt a junkie-like compulsion to keep completing them. I don't even mean the major side missions, which are often superior to the story missions and which earn you a nice chunk of XP. I mean the little events that pop up frequently as you traverse the map, which affect your karma meter. I foiled so many damn muggings, each one consisting of two immobile bad guys standing next to one immobile victim, all three waiting for me to show up before they started doing anything. Maybe I'd have had more fun if I'd been playing as Evil Cole, and taken random opportunities to murder buskers (really!).

Worst of all, by far, is the -- wait for it -- user-generated content. I've seen some people mention the inclusion of "UGC" as a way to extend the game's lifespan indefinitely, which they say as though it is something desirable. Of course every user-created mission that I played was terrible. That's to be expected. What surprised me was that, in the several days following the launch of inFamous 2, all of the UGC that you could play was provided by Sucker Punch themselves, presumably to set an example. And even that was terrible!

Not terrible in the way that the rest of the game is terrible -- terrible in all new ways. One of these missions had a bug that made it impossible to finish. I thought I had done something wrong, so I played it again, carefully, and the same thing happened. Then a third time. Then I wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. Not playing inFamous 2 anymore, that's for sure.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Outland

Above: Out is in.

My review of Outland is up at thephoenix.com. I'm always late to the party with my reviews, since I rarely get advance copies, but in this case it seemed even later than usual. The version I played, on Xbox Live Arcade, has been out since April 27. But in this case, Sony's loss is my gain. Thanks to the PlayStation Network outage, Outland will be out next Tuesday for PSN -- which makes this review timely as hell. PSN owners, if you want the short version: thumbs up!

Blessedly, I don't have too much to add to what I said in the review. I just thought this game felt great in my hands. So if the levels seem sparsely populated at times, that's all the better because it is such a joy to move through the space. Then, when you hit the frequent difficulty spikes, you at least feel equipped to get past them with enough honest effort. It's not one of those games whose sole purpose is to keep tricking you into getting killed -- ahem, ahem.

It is a strange transition sometimes between the Metroidvania stuff and the bullet hell stuff, and while a lot of positive reviews of Outland have called them two great tastes that taste great together, I don't know if I'd go that far. It's more like two great tastes that taste great near each other. Only during the boss battles do the two modes of play really seem integrated, and even then the only exploration you're doing is probing for weaknesses. No matter. Both are expertly executed.

Sadly, I was not able to try the co-op modes, since no one on my friends list had the game, and playing with strangers gives me heart palpitations. Given how much I liked the single-player campaign, my feeling is that the multiplayer could only be a bonus. If co-op is inferior, well, then you've still got an awesome one-player game. And if it's terrific, all the better!

All right, let's all go back to reading 8,000 identical Tweets from an E3 press conference.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Why I'll play Duke Nukem Forever



On Twitter, Rich Clark linked to a Eurogamer interview with Randy Pitchford that is like catnip for people who enjoy reading between the lines. Pitchford makes several pronouncements, one of which is that the launch of Duke Nukem Forever is the most important event in the history of games, and another of which is that reviewers are going to give it unfairly low scores, because reviewers are petty. Beneath his bluster, which includes comparing DNF to Half-Life 2, he sounds like a man who knows that his game is in for a drubbing. If you watch the launch trailer, you can see why. It looks pretty bad.

Maybe DNF isn't bad. Maybe it's as great as Pitchford says it is. I haven't played it, so I have no idea. But I have heard a lot of people say they refuse to play the game. Mostly, they don't want to play a game that perpetuates a culture of misogyny, or to financially support a company that profits from that culture. This is valid. I would not try to talk anybody out of such an opinion. In my own mind, there could be a distinction between how good the game is, and how offensive its content might be, but that is likely thanks to my privileged position: even if I don't find the joke funny, I'm not the butt of it.

Still, I feel as though I am making an exception in this case. Were this a completely new IP, I probably would not play it based on what I know about it -- at least, I would not seek it out -- but I can't imagine not playing Duke Nukem Forever. Why?

The simple answer is legacy. Duke Nukem 3D was a seminal game. It's a part of my DNA, just as much as Contra, Mega Man 2, and Super Mario Bros. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Fifteen years on, it's easy to focus on what was crude about Duke 3D. Scat humor, gyrating strippers, dick jokes -- Duke 3D was as lowbrow as it gets. I was 14 when it came out, which put me smack in the middle of the target audience. I'd like to say that I enjoyed the game in spite of its excesses, but if I'm to be honest, I really did spend a disproportionate amount of my playtime giving dollar bills to strippers and peeing in urinals.

But adolescent content isn't the totality of Duke's legacy. You cannot minimize what Duke Nukem 3D accomplished for video games. Not only was it technologically advanced for its time, its gameplay philosophy was one that that some games still struggle with -- that the world should feel real. Light switches should work. Toilets should flush. Glass should break when you shoot it. Fifteen years later, we're still playing games where a rocket launcher doesn't even make a dent in the side of a building. Duke 3D had higher ambitions.

In a time when online play still meant connecting directly between two modems*, Duke 3D brought unprecedented depth to the multiplayer experience. When we played Duke, we leaped out of windows on jetpacks. We circled around each other through shortcuts. We shrank one another and set traps. This was far beyond the experience of Doom, in which we ran around some rooms real fast and shot at each other. As simple-minded as the story and the characters were, they inhabited a sophisticated game.

Duke 3D was a great game, and an important one. It also exemplified the culture that produced it. Similar to how a modern filmgoer can appreciate the craft and artistry of Birth of a Nation while cringing at its naked racism, a modern gamer should be able to accept Duke 3D on its own terms. When most gamers really were teenaged boys and 20-something men, and "extreme" was the buzzword, Duke Nukem captured the zeitgeist. More to the point: if you had skipped out on Duke 3D in its time, your reasoning may have been sound, but you would have missed out on some incredible new things.

Of course, we're not talking about a relic anymore. We're talking about a new game (albeit one that seems to have slipped through a wormhole from another place and time, like the Romulan ship appearing at the beginning of the Star Trek reboot), and it should be judged by 2011 standards. If Birth of a Nation were made today, nobody would give a shit about how great its cross-cutting is, and when Duke Nukem Forever comes out in a week and a half, nobody will care if it is competent in ways that every other contemporary FPS is competent. It has to be good for 2011, not for 1997 or 2001 or whenever else it was supposed to come out.

So I guess Pitchford does have a point. It is impossible for anyone steeped in gaming culture to ignore DNF's protracted development. When Chuck Klosterman reviewed the Guns 'n' Roses album Chinese Democracy, which followed a similar trajectory, he started it by saying:
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?
Swap out three words in the first sentence and you could just as easily be talking about DNF. So what is the answer to Klosterman's last question? If Duke Nukem Forever is half as revolutionary for its time as Duke 3D was, then it will get terrific reviews regardless of content. If it is the perfected version of George Broussard's vision circa 1997, ignoring the intervening decade and a half of progress, then, sure, it probably won't get very good scores. Why should it be any other way?

Duke Nukem Forever may be an embarrassment. It may be the unlikeliest comeback story ever told in gaming. It probably is a bit of both. I won't know until I play it. And I have to know.

*Unless you were subscribed to the Total Entertainment Network!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

L.A. Noire

Warning: This long-ass post contains major spoilers about the plot of L.A. Noire.

My review of L.A. Noire is up now at thephoenix.com. Short version: I thought that the non-interrogation stuff was generally terrible, while the interrogations were a mixed bag. That's what the review focuses on. For a much longer and more complete review that echoes my thoughts almost entirely, I recommend Tom Chick's review at Honest Gamers.

Since I didn't have much more space to devote to the story, I will do so here. Like the gameplay, the story is incredibly uneven. It's got high highs and low lows, and its most impressive storytelling feat is that sometimes those peaks and troughs occur simultaneously.

Although the details of each mystery often stay mysterious, the broad strokes are clear from the start. Of the three larger crimes that you eventually unravel, only the first -- the true identity of the Black Dahlia killer -- comes as any sort of a surprise at its conclusion. The final saga, about greedy property developers, crooked politicians, and a generous interpretation of eminent domain, is the most well-written and absorbing of the three, but it's also evident from the first five minutes of the first case what the conspiracy is.

L.A. Noire shows us things that it shouldn't. Sometimes, you happen upon collectible newspapers that trigger movie clips which further explain the mystery you're solving. This is a major misstep, giving the player far more information than they need to understand the criminal conspiracy, while giving them nothing to help with the details of their investigation. Usually, in a mystery, these things should work the other way around. You should have all the details but not understand how they fit together until the very end.

The most stunning miscalculation in this vein occurs near the end. You find a newsreel clip as part of his investigation, which turns out to be a recording of a secret meeting between the major players in which they all but explain their devious plan while cackling and twisting their mustaches. Unlike the newspapers, this isn't a semi-optional collectible. It's a crucial clue, and necessary for your advancement. This sequence doesn't just hit a false note -- it's like one of those "shreds" videos on YouTube.

In other crucial ways, L.A. Noire withholds details that it should show us. We are supposed to care when a crooked cop uses Phelps' marital infidelity to get him removed from the vice desk. By that time, you may have to stop for a minute to try to remember when you last saw Phelps' wife at all. Oh, right, it was in the first three seconds of the game, when we glimpsed her waving goodbye in a long shot as he left the house for his first day as a patrolman.

Phelps' relationship with his paramour is also underdeveloped, played so coyly that for a long time I thought that something else was going on between them. Nope. It's just that L.A. Noire -- a game which has no problem showing you naked dead women -- has no time for that aspect of its supposedly mature storytelling, not when there's yet another torpid footchase for the player to suffer through. Not that I'm saying I wanted MotionScan-powered sex scenes, necessarily, just that Cole's affair is left so ambiguous that there's no impact when it blows up in his face.

Then again, the narrative structure of the whole game is pretty weird. While investigating a series of murders with a similar M.O., it is a little strange that only Phelps suspects a serial killer, but that's a well-worn trope, especially since there is political pressure to close cases and be done with it. But it is astonishing how many bloody pipe wrenches belonging to non-murderers one can find in the course of a murder investigation.

Flashbacks, shown between cases, eventually provide the game's true dramatic throughline. We suspect from the start that Phelps is not the war hero everyone thinks he is. He says as much to anybody who will listen. So it's not surprising to learn that he earned his Silver Star during a moment of incredible cowardice on Okinawa, not bravery, and one of the game's truer observations is that, in combat, the line between heroism and gutlessness is just as thin as the one that divides living and dying.

We were prepared for this part of the story, but less so for the picture of Phelps that develops over the course of the game. For as good as he is at working cases (and, no matter how many times you fuck up an interrogation, people never stop complimenting his casework), his straight-arrow routine isn't the virtue it is supposed to be. He is obstinate, bad at working with others, and hungry for glory.

We see this develop in the flashbacks as a rivalry between Phelps and another officer candidate named Jack Kelso. Suspecting that Kelso is the superior leader, Phelps undermines him to the point that Kelso is washed out of OCS. When they meet again on Okinawa, Kelso, as a non-com, is still the more courageous Marine, and has the respect of the men which Phelps lacks. Kelso, like the rest of Phelps' unit, keeps showing up on the periphery of the Los Angeles saga, until the game throws us its biggest curveball. You spend the last few cases playing not as Phelps, but as Kelso.

Frankly, Kelso is the more appealing character, and if he were to star in a sequel to L.A. Noire, I would look forward to playing it. He is more believable as a gumshoe sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. He takes more lumps in his few cases than Phelps does in the dozens before him, and keeps coming back for more. Phelps' sanctimonious act is hard to take; Kelso is more grounded.

Still, this makes sense for the story that you eventually realize L.A. Noire is trying to tell. The more we learn about Phelps' actions in the war, the more we realize how much he has to atone for. Besides his undeserved Silver Star, Phelps has something much worse on his conscience. After giving the order to a flamethrower to clear out a cave system, Phelps learns that the complex was housing not enemy soldiers, but wounded civilians. Not only is he a coward -- he has blood on his hands.

In the meantime, the suspicions that Phelps had about Kelso's superior bravery and leadership are proven, over and over again, to be correct. Why do you play as Kelso? Because he is everything that Phelps wishes he was. And he is what Phelps, ultimately, tries to emulate. In the end, Phelps sacrifices himself to save Kelso. The flood that kills him washes away his sins.

Here's the part that tripped me up. You play 90% of the game as Cole Phelps, and, at its foundation, the story is Phelps' redemption. When it finally happens, you're controlling somebody else! For better or worse, you've invested your time and energy into Phelps' character by playing this game. You've empathized with him when he's been less than the person he can be. When, for the first time in his life, shows true heroism, he does so in a cutscene, long after your connection to him has been severed. And the admirable man you're currently playing as? He's now the guy who needs to get bailed out.

Over the course of playing L.A. Noire, I got familiar with a sense of frustration and bewilderment that happened at least once per interrogation -- where I had been completely on board with the fiction, knew whether the suspect was lying, and understood exactly how to bust them, only to hear the mournful musical cue indicating that I had chosen incorrectly, instead of the chime that meant I was right.

In a sense, that's how I felt at the game's conclusion. Like I had missed something that should have been right in front of my eyes. I kept waiting for that chime. It never came.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

MotorStorm: Apocalypse

Above: This dude isn't waiting until May 21 to ascend to heaven.

Naturally, when I began my review of MotorStorm: Apocalypse with a joke about Christ returning before the PlayStation Network does, I was ensuring that PSN functionality would start coming online between the time I filed the piece and the time it went to press (not to mention well before Judgment Day this Saturday). Oh well. A good line is a good line.

MotorStorm: Apocalypse is not a particularly good game. What's strange and disappointing is that the gameplay hasn't improved in any meaningful way from the first MotorStorm, which leads me to believe that, unlike what I suspected in my review of the first game, it was in fact the game that Evolution Studios intended to make.

Despite the different vehicles you can drive, and the strategies available to you on each course, success in MotorStorm is less about mastering the game mechanics and more about memorizing the racetracks. You can't tell which debris you can smash, and which will smash you. Too many blind jumps launch you directly into a wall. Generally, nothing you learned from the last race will help you in the next one.

In the review, I didn't mention the weak narrative that ties together the game's single-player mode, because, although it is terrible, and has been a source of complaints in a lot of the other reviews I've seen, it is easy to skip -- and skip it I did. But that's not because I think racing games don't need a story. Rather, racing games already have most of the elements you need for a good story.

Take Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, a game I thought about wistfully during most of the time I was playing MotorStorm. That game lacks an overarching narrative, but the stories that play out during individual races are gripping and unpredictable. You know all you need to know from the setup. You are a cop, and you need to bust the racers. Or: You are a racer, and you need to outrun the cops. In either case, the conflict is readily apparent. A racecourse gives it a shape -- a natural beginning, middle, and end.

In Hot Pursuit, the story never plays out the same way twice. I've been busted in sight of the finish line, and I've busted racers in the same place. I've taken out my quarry within seconds of starting a round, and I've chased them down over a grueling, ten-minute-long duel. These were all unique, surprising tales that I authored. No narrative framing was necessary.

MotorStorm: Apocalypse does have moments when it approaches this level. You'll be charging through a mudpit in your big rig, and see some motorcyclists zip through the air above you on an alternate route. You're chugging directly toward the finish line. They're on a more circuitous path, but a much faster surface. Who will get there first?

And then, at the moment of greatest drama, you hit some innocent looking thing on the track that looks like a cardboard box, your truck blows up, and you think, "Screw this."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Portal 2


You can find my review of Portal 2, the least necessary Portal 2 review ever published, at thephoenix.com. High praise, naturally, which is why I say it's unnecessary. The critical consensus on this one is unusual, even in an industry where heretics are swiftly and severely punished. Don't let me be the one to dissuade you: Portal 2 is damn good.

Even so, I find myself in the strange position of liking the game a smidgen less than almost everyone else I read and talk to. Not a problem when writing for a more general audience, but on Twitter and in my own inner monologue, I focus more on the few things that separate us, rather than the numerous things that unite us. My complaints are all subjective, for what that's worth.

The biggest: no matter what kind of nutty things Valve included in the sequel -- and you know, if you've completed it, that they included some nutty goddamn stuff -- the novelty factor is still diminished, if not entirely gone. The leap from nothing to Portal 1 was much greater than the leap from Portal 1 to Portal 2, and how could it be otherwise? I felt the same way when I played Portal 2 as I did when I played Guitar Hero II and Left 4 Dead 2. It's probably the better game in every way that should matter, but its predecessor gave me a brand-new experience, and that's invaluable.

Second: The nerd bait was way overdone. Way, way overdone. Even while playing Portal 2, I thought a lot of the jokes were written with merchandising potential in mind, and nothing I've seen since then has changed my mind. The Weighted Companion Cube was a great joke in the first game, but I have a hard time believing anyone at Valve thought of selling a plush version until after gamers told them it was a winner. It's like they were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck. (They were really pushing the "animal king" thing hard.)

Third, and possibly the dumbest: I believed in the first game. GLaDOS seemed rooted in some kind of truth -- not a literal truth, but an emotional truth. She was the perfect embodiment of automation run amok, whose behavior was dictated by implacable logic. All the jokes and the hyperbole grew from a very real place. This is not the case in the sequel, where the jokes are often just jokes. Further still, the more I listened to Cave Johnson's recordings, the less Aperture Science seemed like the inevitable endpoint of scientific research unmoored to ethics, and the more it seemed like the inevitable endpoint of a brainstorming session with a bunch of smartasses.

The bull sessions may be responsible for my fourth complaint: too much talking! Sometimes I found myself wishing the voiceover of the moment would just shut up so we could get on with things. Valve's writers are too sharp to miss the mark very often, though, and there are some real gems. Something like the "edgeless safety cube" makes a real point about the power of euphemism to obfuscate the truth. (The edgeless safety cube is, of course, a sphere.) That was the sort of thinking that informed every aspect of the first game. Less so this time around.

Last: Having played through both campaigns, I can't think of when I'd pick either of them up again. I could see no reason to play co-op again with the same partner. If I played it with somebody else, I could see myself trying to hurry them through it, and that wouldn't be fun for either of us. On the other hand, any DLC for this game would be a day-one purchase.

There! Glad I got that out of my system. This game is sweet.