Thursday, April 28, 2011

Portal 2

You can find my review of Portal 2, the least necessary Portal 2 review ever published, at 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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crysis 2: You are here

There's a moment in Crysis 2 when a massive explosion separates you from the Marine unit you've been assisting. The fight continues, but, unusually for a video game, it continues without you. From the the distance you hear gunshots echoing off the skyscrapers, the thumping artillery occluded by steel and concrete. The smoke has drifted into the air above you, and the reflection of the streetlights casts an orange veil over the street. If not for the barely perceptible sounds of battle, you might think you were the last person in New York left alive.

Unreality intrudes. An objective pops up onscreen. REJOIN THE MARINES.* A blue arrow on your HUD leaves no question about where they are. And your surroundings, which are nothing more than a long, narrow street with no doorways, leave no doubt about how to get there. You had no control over the explosion that stranded you here, and you have barely more control over how to return to the action. You need only to hold down the left stick in the right direction.

This is standard videogame stuff. You can bemoan the lack of player agency, especially in a game whose stated goal is to let you choose your tactics for every scenario. You can resist such heavy-handed design, and run around in circles, jump up and down, fire your weapon into the air. You know that you'll hear the same faint sounds of combat for as long as you stand still, and that the battle isn't really happening. The Marines will live or die based upon whether you show up, yes -- but, like Schrodinger's cat, they will be alive and dead, firing at their enemies in perpetuity, until you cross the invisible checkpoint that springs open the box.

Ironically, though, you do have a choice here. You can engage the game as it asks you to do. You can play with urgency. You can run toward the firefight. If you do this -- if you watch how the smoke intensifies the closer you get, and listen to how the gunfire and shouts grow ever louder and more desperate -- then you will find something very strange happening. You will find that you are sprinting through the streets of New York, about to throw yourself in danger, because you know you are the only one who can help.

Crysis 2 has its issues. But for that one moment at least, when I wasn't blowing up helicopters, wasn't skulking around invisibly, wasn't even firing my gun, it grabbed me and said: You are here. And I believed it.

*Or something like that.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Yakuza 4

Above: The crooked police commissioner can wait. I'm buying these ladies some champagne.

My review of Yakuza 4 is up now at You could probably tell by listening to the Brainy Gamer podcast: I loved this game. It is so surprising and strange.

Trying to sum it all up in under 600 words was impossible, and even attempting to present a vertical slice still missed a lot. For instance, there's a whole portion of the game set in an underground city populated by the homeless, which has its own economy based on trash. You could become a garbage tycoon down there, if you wanted. You don't have to. But you could.

For all that you can do in Yakuza 4, it's still restrictive in many ways. The reason comparisons to Grand Theft Auto games fall down isn't about ambition, depth, or storytelling mastery. In his book Dave Barry Does Japan, Dave Barry describes seeing a bunch of Tokyo's marginalized citizens hanging out at the park. The members of each group are dressed identically to one another, and perform coordinated dances once it's their turn. That's the approach this game takes to its "go anywhere, do anything" philosophy. In a Grand Theft Auto game, you'd be able to enter the Pachinko parlor and rob it, set it on fire, or jump out the window. In a Yakuza game, you can only play Pachinko. By the rules.

You know what else is missing from this review? Just how much fun it is to play. This has not changed since the first Yakuza game. Your characters are accosted every few blocks by street punks, low-level gangsters, and other assorted miscreants, and you have no choice but to beat the stuffing out of them using whatever you can get your hands on. So you grab whatever is handy -- milk crates, traffic cones, bicycles, even motorcycles -- and smash everyone up good.

All of the characters have a Heat meter that builds up and allows them to unleash even more devastating attacks, which are truly painful to watch. And there's a lot more variety than ever before, thanks to the four protagonists' different fighting styles. The cop will climb up an opponent's body like a monkey up a tree, grab his arm in a bear hug, and snap it. I never stopped wincing.

To dip into the superlatives grab bag, I feel comfortable saying that Yakuza is still the best series you're not playing. There's no better place to start than here!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


I appeared on the latest episode of the Brainy Gamer podcast, along with Brad Gallaway of and Nels Anderson of Above 49, to talk about what we've been playing lately. You'll find some solid under-the-radar recommendations, one of which I was glad to be able to provide. Hint: It's Yakuza 4. I also took a little more time to slag on LittleBigPlanet 2, which Brad admitted that he hated too, much later in the podcast than he should have.

The super-sized podcast also contains two other GDC-based segments, one featuring cool dudes Patrick Klepek, Matthew Burns, and Chris Dahlen, and one with Sean Duncan of Miami University (himself a cool dude). Give it a listen!