Thursday, November 27, 2008

The obligatory Thanksgiving post

Above: Charlie Brown would have made a great blogger, and Snoopy a great troll.

I'm not going to get all sappy on you here, but I'm genuinely thankful that, over the past year, I've discovered dozens of terrific gaming blogs. The "games" folder in my Google reader grows by the week. The best part is that I know I'm still missing some great stuff, which I'm sure you can help me fix by suggesting more in comments.

Anyway, on this Thanksgiving, let me just say thanks to all of these blogs for entertaining and enlightening me on a regular basis -- even those dormant ones that I just can't bring myself to unsubscribe from, in case they come back one day. In alphabetical order:
And yes, I do read them all -- all the ones that post less than 20 times a day, I mean. Now get outta here, ya knuckleheads. Go eat some pumpkin pie.

(Posting will resume on Monday.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits, Wednesday morning edition

Above: I can feel my tummy rumbling already!

It's nearly Thanksgiving, which means we're doing the links a little early this week. These should make for some good postprandial reading, if you don't lapse immediately into a meat coma.

(By the way, did you know my first job was at a turkey farm? I have intimate knowledge of how that bird gets to your table. I've seen things I can't un-see.)

-Simon Parkin is taking nominations for the best game writing of 2008. I'd never be so tacky as to nominate myself, but, you know, if you think there's anything I've done that might be worthy of the honor, I certainly won't stop you from suggesting it to him. Ahem.

-One of those fascinating cross-blog conversations blew up this week. At issue is whether game reviewers sufficiently value innovation. Leigh wrote two posts saying that innovation gets short shrift, N'Gai rebutted by saying that execution is paramount, and Leigh responded once more that there may be more common ground than N'Gai gave her credit for. For myself, I agree with N'Gai's points. Innovation is a means, not an end. The goal, in my view, is to make fun games that are easy to play.* If innovation helps with that, then innovate away! But without execution, innovation doesn't mean much. Sometimes you might have a great idea without being able to work out all the kinks, which seems to be what happened with Mirror's Edge.

(I covered some of this ground in a post last summer, "Standards and practices.")

-I loved Daniel Purvis's write-up of playing Left 4 Dead with strangers. The notion of the players' personalities creating a storyline within the more open-ended framework of the gameplay is exciting, and something I wouldn't have expected. My copy of Left 4 Dead is still in the shrinkwrap, but I think this weekend I'm going to rectify that.

-Tim Rogers's review of Gears of War 2 is insane. I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean the man's passion for the game has transported him to another plane of being, where he is unconstrained by your petty human concerns. He has become Shiva, destroyer of worlds.

-Is it Christmas?

*Not to be confused with easy games.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crack horde

Above: Not Horde mode, but OMG look at that

Since yesterday's post was about an area in which Gears of War 2 came up short, in the interest of balance I may as well mention an area in which it, er, comes up long. (Parallelism!) I'm talking, of course, about Horde.

Horde is really, truly fantastic, worth the price of admission, a non-stop roller-coaster ride of chills, thrills and spills, and so on. I've talked often about my general distaste for online multiplayer gaming, which has its roots in a few distinct places. Specifically:
  • I am shy
  • People are jerks
  • I suck at video games
  • Generally, I'd prefer a storyline to pure competition
  • Seriously, have you heard these d-bags on Xbox Live
Horde helps to do away with the Xbox Live troglodyte problem simply because it's fully cooperative. There's not an incentive to talk trash to your own teammates, and even my worst nightmare of a Gears player isn't so dumb as to hurl invective at the computer-controlled Locust. Even in public games, most of the chatter I've heard has been focused on the game, whether helpful ("Locust hiding under the bridge") or beseeching ("I'm bleeding out!"). It's a nice change from the usual pumped-up deathmatch banter.

More to the point, when I play Horde I feel like this is the game I remember. I haven't even made it to wave 10 out of 50 yet. The enemy advantage in both numbers and firepower becomes ludicrous by about the third wave, which is exactly how it ought to be. Flanking maneuvers with the help of your teammates become more important and useful than they ever are in the single-player game. Peeking out of cover for even a second too long can be fatal. There are numerous opportunities to feel like a hero for reviving your downed teammates, and your teammates in turn are much more willing to help you out than AI Dom ever seemed to be.

The fact that Horde doesn't follow a narrative arc isn't important, either, because with the benefit of two campaigns to serve as a backdrop, it's easy to picture it as a massive single battle in the context of the larger war. And it solves the problem I thought I had with the campaign: In Horde, the player is entirely on the defensive. There's no storming forward, no "lightmass bomb" to detonate. It's just head-in-the-dirt shooting, and the fear that comes with it. When I first heard about Horde, it almost sounded dumb to me. Instead, it's Gears of War stripped to its most elemental. It's genius.

(Now if we could just do something about that matchmaking system...)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Too dumb for print

Above: "Bro... you're overthinking it."

In writing my upcoming Gears of War 2 review, I started down a path of inquiry and then quickly retreated. It wasn't the kind of thing that would make sense to a general audience, I didn't think. Also, it was kind of half-assed. But I thought I'd run it past you all and see if you think there's something to it, or if it's a load of bollocks.

I was trying to figure out why the campaign seemed a little lackluster to me. Partly, it was easy to determine: a few too many turret missions, a bland vehicular sequence, and, ultimately, too many parts where the game got away from the thing it does so well. But that really wasn't all of it. I think the kids call it "ludonarrative dissonance," but I have a habit of picking these things up and misusing them later.

Here's how I see it: Gears' gameplay is essentially defensive. Taking cover well is more important than having crackshot aim. Using the environment, not targeting your enemies, is the skill you need to master in order to progress through the game. Most of the times I died during the campaign, it was because I had mistakenly dug in too close to the line, and was swarmed by foes. I learned to stay back as much as possible.

The storyline, though, puts the COGs on the offensive for the duration. It's all rah-rah, take-it-to-'em stuff. You get all geared up to fight, pardon the pun, and then spend all your time with your head down. That doesn't make sense.

I didn't feel the same way during the first one. In the original game, I felt very much on the defensive, overwhelmed and outgunned at all times. It made more sense for the story that I was playing it the way I was. The incursion into the Locust caves was presented as a suicide mission. In Gears 2, for whatever reason, the characters just don't seem to mind as much to be heading down there by themselves. That never struck me right. You could say it's because they know they have no other option, but I don't know if that's good enough -- even if it is the case, no one ever communicates it.

(Slight tangent: The sequel does a slightly better job than the first of making it seem like you're a small part of a bigger conflict, but why do they keep giving the most important jobs to just two guys? Is that some kind of advanced military strategy, giving your enemies as few targets as possible? Think of all the lives that could have been saved on D-Day if we'd had Marcus and Dom fighting for the Allies. "You two take Omaha Beach, and Baird and the Cole Train will take Utah." "Woo-woo! Pain train's coming!")

Like I said, it's a little half-baked and I'm not sure how much I even believe it, but there had to be some reason why the Gears 2 campaign didn't seem as gripping as the first. What do you think? Am I grasping for something that isn't there?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

Don't know what it's like where you are, but here in the Northeast we've been having January-like weather all week. The unexpected bonus: ski resorts are opening early.

-Downloaded the New Xbox Experience last night, as I'm sure you all have. Snap judgment: it seems just fine. The interface is a little smoother and easier to navigate than the old one. I don't think avatars were necessary, but other people seem to like them. Otherwise, the functionality seems the same, which is okay by me. What do you think about it?

-Brilliam has a request: Let's all stop saying "retro." Games like Braid and Ikaruga do interesting, new things, and it's dismissive to refer to them as throwbacks. As a fan of using words correctly, I'm intrigued by his argument.

-Duncan makes a point that I tend to agree with, that attempting to write completely neutral or objective game reviews is a fool's errand. I don't know if that's always the case. For all the grief I give the big outlets, their main goal probably should be to write product reviews bereft of interpretation. There's a place for that. But if you're writing a more subjective, incisive essay -- the kind of game review I'd like to see more of -- then it may not be necessary to include a token complaint just to show you're unbiased. It really depends who you're writing for, and what you're trying to tell them.

-I missed Kotaku's feature about Xbox Live trolls, so thanks to Julian for posting it in comments. It's pretty interesting stuff. I'm surprised no one has yet undertaken a full-blown study of Internet-based douchebaggery. Or, if they have, they should publicize the results better.

-Typealyzer is a site that looks at your blog and instantly psychoanalyzes you. Here's how it classified me, through the prism of Insult Swordfighting:
ISFP - The Artists

The gentle and compassionate type. They are especially attuned their inner values and what other people need. They are not friends of many words and tend to take the worries of the world on their shoulders. They tend to follow the path of least resistance and have to look out not to be taken advantage of.

They often prefer working quietly, behind the scene as a part of a team. They tend to value their friends and family above what they do for a living.

Is that accurate? Seems like it, but I don't know. It could also be so general as to apply to anybody.

By the way, that same site tells me that Iroquois Pliskin and Leigh Alexander both "enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters," Michael Abbott and Duncan Fyfe "come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about," and N'Gai Croal "might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Picked-up pieces

(Update: Welcome, Slate Gaming Club readers! Scroll down for the bit about Gears of War 2 and Contra.)

Because you can't make fun of defenseless kids all the time, enjoy some scattered musings.


All you need to know about why Rock Band is better than Guitar Hero can be summed up in five words: "Mission of Burma track pack."


Which of these is the best joke:

"I can't believe I missed the first three Left Dead games!"

Or: "I can't believe I missed Left 1-3 Dead!"

Or: "Will I know what's going on in Left 4 Dead if I never played Left 3 Dead?"

Or are they all failures? (All based, by the way, on somebody I knew in college who saw a commercial for Cradle 2 the Grave, starring DMX, and said, "I didn't know they made a Cradle the Grave 1!")


Last weekend I played Call of Duty 4 online for the first time in my life. Within 20 minutes of my joining, someone had called somebody else a "fucking little bitch" en route to mocking him non-stop for the remainder of my time in the game. Sometimes I think I unfairly generalize about the level of discourse in multiplayer video games. Then I, you know, play multiplayer video games.

Sub-musing: Why should it even bother me when a stranger cusses out another stranger during a game? I don't know. But it does.


I never realized the extent to which games these days are just rip-offs of older games. It was suggested to me that a sequence near the end of BioShock, in which you assemble the pieces of a Big Daddy suit, was directly influenced by the plot of Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest, in which Simon gathered Dracula's body parts in order to put him back together and then destroy him once and for all. Who would have guessed?

Gears of War 2 doesn't even hide its influences. There's an entire sequence that's basically the last level of Contra. It's not just that your squad gets swallowed by a giant worm and has to fight its way out. You have to avoid giant chomping teeth, kind of like this:

Arachnoid parasites leap from the ground and scurry toward you, just like this:

At the end, you must destroy the creature's heart, which bears more than a passing resemblance to this:

The big difference, of course, is that in Contra you were never in danger of drowning in a quickly rising pool of arterial blood. Lack of technology -- or failure of imagination?

(Thanks to this dude for taking so many great Contra screenshots, which I stole with glee.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sackboy's lament

Above: That's the power of love

I haven't devoted much space to discussing LittleBigPlanet here in the blog, and if you click over to read my LBP review in the Phoenix, you'll probably see why. I couldn't muster much excitement for the level editor, which is the game's main appeal. User levels can be impressive, but most often even the neat-looking ones still don't seem like that much fun to play. Even messing around with Sackboy's facial expressions and arm movements seemed hilarious at first, and then -- so what? "So what" sums up my whole reaction, in fact.

Again: dead inside.

I will say that I've been troubled by reports of the zealous moderation of user-created levels. I can understand Sony's position regarding copyrighted material, but at the same time, what the hell did they think would happen when they gave people the tools? And when the level editor is the one and only reason for people to keep playing this past last week, making people afraid to put time and effort into their works is foolish. I mean, when the Azure Palace went offline briefly, people must have been considering a boycott. That was absurd.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 User-Submitted Previews: Left 4 Dead

Above: Only teamwork will get us out of this accursed Web alive

Oddly, although Left 4 Dead only comes out today, has already switched from their previews to reviews. You'd think that wouldn't be enough time for their users to appraise the game. You would even think that they'd want to play the full game before trumpeting their thoughts and throwing around phrases like "game of the year."

You would be wrong.

"PFCOKAT" reaches for the brass ring straight away:
By far one of the best games I've ever played. If you like house of the dead and resident evil, you'll love this game. The demo alone has a high replay value and it's only two stages and doesn't even have all the capabilities the actual game provides... there are no complaints for this game whatsoever, if you're only buying one game for christmas, this is definitely it.

I know this is the part where I usually make a joke, but... How can you judge replay value after a week? How can you know something is one of the best games you've ever played when you've only played the demo? It's just nonsense. On the other hand, nothing PFCOKAT wrote here would disqualify him from employment at most leading game review sites.

That is, if "Kaboose102" doesn't get snapped up first, thanks to this back two and a half somersault:

I think this game is a valve personal best. Heck i would even think its better than portal and half life and Team Fortress all put together. It just a simple zombie survival game and thats all. Buut dont get me wrong its not soemthing where u just fight zombies

The half twist at the end really put him into medal contention.

For "Ninjajaunt111," Left 4 Dead fulfills a lifelong dream:

I for one always wanted a great zombie survival game since I first saw dawn of the dead.

It's about time someone made a zombie game influenced by Dawn of the Dead. Okay, admittedly he specified a "great" game, and surely there haven't been any great zombie games since 1978 -- wait, he's talking about the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, isn't he? Get off my lawn, whippersnapper!

Lots of games recently have made moral choice a key part of gameplay, and according to "L4D demo Gamer," this one is no different:

In the game you start off with just a pistol and have the very important decision, Uzi or Pump action shotgun, it mean life over death.

And you thought you agonized over whether to harvest the Little Sisters!

"Penguin" gets a jump on the official strategy guide with these useful tips:

Some zombies have some bosses like the evil witch, if you point a flash light or shoot her she will hunt you down and kill you. The tank on the other hand, will see you if you go near that big guy, he's a big giant zombie, its like a zombie on steroids. I call him "The Hulk", because he looks like the hulk but just yellow! Eventually, I heard people in my party calling them The Hulk, and my friends call him that too!

I feel awful about this today. I feel like a jerk. It made this kid's day that his nickname caught on. What kind of monster would you have to be to make fun of him for that? It's like going to his birthday party and popping the balloons. While he was giving all the balloons names.

I am dead inside.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A fond farewell

Above: It's so hard to say goodbye.

I carried them with me for years, through cramped dorm rooms and ratty apartments. Whenever I packed up to move again, along came the dog-eared New Balance shoebox, whose ragged corners I'd reinforced with electrical tape. Its contents were the best of the 16-bit era. A Link to the Past. Mega Man X. Super Castlevania IV. Donkey Kong Contry. Contra III. Super Mario World. F-Zero. And more and more.

Problem was, they weren't mine.

In my freshman year of college, I made friends with a guy whose passion for video games dwarfed that of anyone else I'd known. The man was an encyclopedia of game knowledge. No detail escaped his attention. He had a penchant for launching into impassioned monologues at the mention of almost any game. When he found out I had never played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, he all but forced me to go buy it. (He was right about it -- it's now one of my top-10 favorite games.) He extolled the virtues of Tenchu: Stealth Assasins. I picked that one up too, and when I said it seemed merely pretty good, he said, "Don't even talk to me until you've got 100% clearance on the first board." He seemed to mean it.*

Shortly before spring break, we found ourselves reminiscing about Super Metroid, and hatched a plan to play through it in one sitting. I'd bring the game and the system to school after the break. For his part, he brought that box full of classic games, most of which I had never played before. I hadn't even bought a SNES until well into the 32-bit era, and it was exclusively to get my hands on a copy of Super Metroid.

Beating Super Metroid took only a short evening -- it's easy to remember it as this massive game, but even if you're not doing a speed run you can polish it off in about 4 hours if you know what you're doing -- but we spent the rest of the semester, along with our neighbors, polishing off the rest of what he'd brought. Nothing unified the residents of that floor like the Super Nintendo. I have a memory of leaving the common room while one kid was deep into Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, only return hours later to find him in the same spot. He eventually beat it, somehow.

People have a habit of simply vanishing when the school year ends, which is how I found myself with custody of the games over the summer. Suddenly, no one was left in the dorm but me and the box of games. That was a tough summer -- I'd run out of money over the course of my freshman year, and my few attempts to find a summer job came up short. Sporadic temp work doing data entry was the best I found, so I had plenty of time to plow through that SNES library. It was like compressing the first half of the 1990s into three months.

I brought the games with me the next year, figuring I'd return them whenever I saw him. But somehow I just never reconnected with my friend. He was a senior by then, and spent half the year in L.A. I was dealing with my own problems, the usual post-adolescent stuff, too focused on my own gloom to look outward. He graduated and moved on, and I scraped through the next few years, always with the SNES games in tow. Over time, I started to think of them as mine, although I never forgot that they weren't.

Which is why, when my friend emailed me out of the blue a couple weeks ago, my first thought was: "Damn, I'm going to have to give those games back." Not that I would seriously consider keeping them -- there's no grandfather clause here. And the advent of services like the Virtual Console means that playing perfectly emulated versions of those games is always an option (not to mention that I'd actually be able to save my game if I downloaded A Link to the Past). Nor was he getting in touch just to get the games back -- he didn't even remember that I had them in the first place.

I met him for dinner, with the tattered New Balance box in tow. Letting go of the games was actually easier than I thought it would be. We tend to get attached to these physical objects, but they're really only symbols. I carted them around with me for eight years, even though I stopped playing them after one year. They were a reminder of what had seemed like a short-lived friendship, and the brightest spots in an otherwise dark period. And as we sat there last week, trading meticulous tales of our exploits in BioShock, Fallout 3, Resident Evil 4, Far Cry 2, and on and on, I was happy to realize I didn't need to carry those games with me anymore.

*Not that I ever pulled it off! Tenchu is impossible.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

Some of you have suspected this for awhile now, and it's true: Insult Swordfighting is a ruse. The writer you know as "Mitch Krpata" is, in fact, nothing more than a carefully calibrated construct. All of Insult Swordfighting's posts are generated algorithmically by a cluster of Cray supercomputers running a total of 256 Intel Xeon quad-core processors. It's part of an elaborate Alternate Reality Game, whose purpose is to promote Tricomium Labs' new educational software, "The Taxonomical Imperative: Categorization and You." Apologies to all who were taken in by this hoax.

(Roll in, traffic. Roll in!)

-Gus Mastrapa's Media Coverage column at GameDaily had an excellent headline last week: "Readers, we hate you too." In the piece, he talks about the vituperative criticism game reviewers often face from the online community. Gus quotes me as saying that it'd be hypocritical to complain too much about getting our reviews reviewed, and I do mean that. Of course, the difference is that good reviewers ought to give constructive criticism to games we don't like, whereas fanboys don't have any such responsibility when telling us to get fucked. Fortunately, it's not something I've had to deal with too much.

-Hit Self-Destruct has a suggestion for how to get games journalists to do their jobs better: make covering the industry more like an ARG. Well-written stuff, as always (and a collaborative piece, to boot!). And what a great last paragraph. Nobody ends posts better than Duncan.

-Not to keep fellating Duncan here, but he also said this better in his Twitter feed than I could: "PolicyVixen707."

-On the PixelVixen tip, a couple of opposing views: The Brainy Gamer feels used, while Mike Walbridge think it's an opportunity for introspection. And in the meantime, the charade continues unabated. I continue not to know how to feel about the whole thing. "Bemusement" sums up my reaction, I think.

-Earlier this year, the superb NPR program Radio Lab did an episode all about deception. The segments include a snake that plays dead, the performance boost athletes get by lying to themselves about their chances, and the trail of mistrust left behind by a serial con artist. I don't know why I mention this just now. Not as though it has anything to do with video games.

Enjoy your weekend! I'm playing some paintball tomorrow, so if I'm covered in welts come Monday, that's probably why.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cry, cry again

Above: First you cry, and then, when you see the dancing, you cry again.

Now that it's been out for three weeks and has sold a million copies, I've taken the time to review Far Cry 2. Maybe this will convince a few holdouts that it's good. Really good. Somewhat of a tough nut to crack, I thought, but after maybe 4-5 hours I had fallen completely under its spell. Excellent work here by Hocking and co.

For even more ebullient praise, check out Ed Borden's diary-style review of Far Cry 2.

And, oh, what the heck -- as long as we're here, let's get one of the obligatory complaints out of the way. Why does everybody in this game talk so fast? They rush through their dialogue as though they're getting paid by the word. They sound like the Micro Machines guy, but without the joy. It's weird, because every single character does it: speaks in one long unbroken sentence, leaping from topic to topic.

Quite hypnotic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

PixelVixen707 would have gotten away with it, if not for you meddling kids

Above: Apparently this is not a photograph.

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Some excellent detective work by Simon Carless: It seems solid games blogger PixelVixen707 is a fictional construct, part of some ARG promoting something that has yet to be disclosed. If this is true, I have three reactions.

First, that's pretty awesome. Can't imagine the planning and dedication it takes to execute a stunt of this magnitude. I can't even successfully call out of work sick when I just want to sleep in.

Second, in the future I'll be sure to dig into the personal lives of any and all games writers for fear of this scenario happening again. Frankly, I never read the the post in question, "The Brink," because it started off with the sentence "I love my boyfriend" and then next thing I knew I was asleep with the keyboard imprinted in my face. I guess it turned into some kind of allegedly real-life survival horror scenario.

Last, whoever's actually been writing these posts about video games should keep doing it. They're good!

Update: Simon cracked the case. It's marketing for a book that comes out next year.

Monday, November 10, 2008

LittleBigPlanet confounds the taxonomy

Above: The cuddliest lil' fellas to mince down the pike since Bubsy the Bobcat

In the New Taxonomy of Gamers series, I argued that two basic motivations drive players. One is the desire to experience a game world, and the other is the desire to master it. (Read more about Skill Players vs. Tourists.) The idea was less than perfect, but nothing I've played since then has convinced me that those classifications are fundamentally wrong.

That includes LittleBigPlanet, whose cutesy aesthetic and ostensibly old-school platforming belie its status as a game aimed squarely at both types of skill player. For completionists, each level is stuffed with hidden collectables that you can use to customize your character's appearance and "Pod" (essentially his apartment). For perfectionists, there's the map editor, which we'll talk about shortly. For tourists, well, the neat things you can see and do are betrayed by piss-poor play control and an inane storyline. It's just not that fun to run through LittleBigPlanet in single-player mode.

Which isn't the point, of course. This game is concerned with a different axis of player entirely, one that's been around on the PC for decades, but is relatively new to the console scene: content producers versus content consumers. That level editor is no joke -- I'm sure I don't need to tell you. Ever since the beta test, LBP users have been running wild, and they've turned out some pretty impressive creations. One of the first user-created maps I tried out, basically at random, was an escape from Alcatraz that nailed the look and feel of the place. There are some real gems out there.

There's also some garbage, which is neither a surprise nor a strike against the game. Rather, it just goes to show how small the percentage is going to be of players who create something of worth to the LBP community. First of all, the number of people who will even publish a level has got to be miniscule compared to the number of people who will play one, while the number of people who will create genuinely good stuff is that much lower again. (I'm basing this on well-known "Web 2.0" formulas.) Still, in absolute terms, the amount of solid levels being built by LBP users seems impressive.

What I wonder is why the game's biggest draw is aimed at such a small proportion of its players. Building a good level has got to take a combination of inborn skill and serious dedication. The question is, was Media Molecule gambling by assuming that a relatively small number of users would become the engine that will power their game? Certainly it seems like the game is a commercial success, so even if they gambled it sounds like it was a good bet. I just wonder that vast majority of people who can't or won't put in the effort to make levels will stick around to see what others end up doing.

Granted, I'm not this game's target audience. Things like customizing my character have always baffled and annoyed me. The way I see it, I spent sixty bucks on your game -- the least you could do is a design a character for me. The whole idea of user-created content is strange to me. It's not my job to make the game for you, it's your job to make the game for me!

I don't want to go on a rant here [background fades to black], but this whole trend toward user choice in games is misguided in some ways. I was just reading a post about Fallout 3, in which the author wondered why doing things like jumping up on tables in the middle of crowded taverns never seemed to bother anyone in the game world, and I thought, well, why would the game give you the option to do that if there weren't going to be consequences? If everything is possible, why do anything? Am I a character who would jump on tables? It's fine if a designer wants to give me that option, but then it's his job to think through the consequences.

Say what you will about Far Cry 2, at least that game was consistent. Everybody started shooting at you, no matter what you were doing. And the other thing they did right is not to give you a choice to do good missions or bad ones. Personally, when someone tells me to go blow up a crate of medicine, my first thought is, no, I don't want to blow up that crate of medicine. You'd have to be a real dick to go and do a thing like that. But that's exactly it: In Far Cry 2, you are playing the role of a real dick! And while the game gives you a ton of latitude in exactly how you can go about being a dick, one choice it doesn't give you is not to act like a dick. If you could go through Far Cry 2 being Mr. Good Samaritan, it would be a worse game for it. Games are at their best when giving you the illusion of choice, while playing you like a fiddle.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, stay out of my booze.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

Oof, what a busy week. Good thing I wrote a couple of posts ahead of time, or you would have had nothing! At least the links have made it through unscathed.

As good as Far Cry 2 is, in my travels it seems like most people are too deep into Fallout 3 to care much about anything else. If you've overlooked this fascinating and absorbing title, at least check out a couple links and consider playing it later.

-First, Chris Remo at GameSetWatch wrote about Far Cry 2's slow burn, the process by which the game's sluggish pace initially seems offputting before casting an unbreakable spell. Also at GSW, an interview with Jean-Francois Levesque, the man who programmed the game's dynamic and unpredictable fire effects, which add a lot to the gameplay.

-PixelVixen707 examines the ways in which Far Cry 2 is the latest game to offer you gutwrenching choices -- or not, as the case may be. There is something to be said for the fact that your character is given an awful lot of unsavory things to do in this game, and while you could always choose not to accept the mission, you would then have nothing else to do. Games are great because they give the player control over how their events unfold, but sometimes I appreciate when they force me to do things I may not want to do. I'm playing a role. Think about how boring would books or movies would be if every character was just like you.

-Last but not least on the Far Cry 2 tip, Ben Abraham calls the game "Clint Hocking's masterpiece." Ben did a great job discussing theme and not plot details, so don't hesitate to read it for fear of spoilers. For all that the game's grim and humorless tone works, a part of me wonders if the designers let themselves off the hook by leaving out the real consequences of your actions on innocent people. Then again, the whole point of the story is losing your own moral bearings, so maybe it doesn't matter. Someone ought to write a post about that.

-L.B . Jeffries wrote a wonderful look at The Darkness, one of last year's best games. On that post, I commented:
Great analysis. I loved this game when I played it, and in the—what is it—16 months since then, it’s stuck with me. I think about it often. Really glad to see it’s had legs, and didn’t vanish down the usual hype->hate vortex.

Even with a game like Far Cry, which I’m truly enjoying, I always get stuck at things like a buddy system, wherein I’m supposed to like my character’s friends just because the game tells me I should. The Darkness is singular in that it really made me care. I cared about Jenny. I hated Paulie and Shrote. I loved the fact that the main conflict wasn’t an overblown end-of-the-world scenario, but just a vendetta between two angry men.
Seriously, this game is $19.99 at Amazon (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3), and will take up probably 10-12 hours of your time. Well worth it.

-I'm a little giddy to have contributed to Bill Harris's "Friday Links" on Dubious Quality. Sadly, it's just a link that I sent him about a "War of the Worlds" hoax in Ecuador, and not a link to this blog. Someday...

-Not like he needs the traffic from me, but this week's Zero Punctuation review of Dead Space is noteworthy. Yahtzee douses the flames of fanboy passions with a brutal -- and, it must be said, deadly accurate -- review. The content of our reviews was much the same, but his tone just seems ballsier.

-Speaking of Dead Space, have you heard a single person mention it since Fable 2, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, or LittleBigPlanet came out? And here I thought it was "an achievement that rivals greats like Half-Life 2 and BioShock."

That's right, I linked to my own blog in the Friday afternoon tidbits. What.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

That old-time rock 'n' roll

Above: The ending screen from Bucky O'Hare. It was totally worth the effort.

I often suspect, but don't want to admit, that many of my fondest gaming memories have less to do with the games themselves, and more to do with the circumstances in which I played them. Our neighbors down the street had an NES long before we did, and my first memories of playing Super Mario Bros. are at their house on a summer day, after splashing around in their pool all afternoon. I spent every day of February vacation in sixth grade trying to beat Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with two other kids in my neighborhood, and I was the first to succeed. Playing Quake 2 for hundreds of hours in high school wouldn't have mattered nearly as much if I hadn't formed a clan with some of my best friends.

It's hard to evalute old games fairly. Have you ever gotten your hands on a decades-old classic for the first time and wondered what all the fuss was about? Maybe you have warm and fuzzy feelings toward an 8-bit game nobody else liked, simply because it was the only one you owned and you had mastered it. Old games stir up all kinds of associations, prejudices, and emotions that we just can't separate from the gameplay as it is.

I had a chance to relive the childhood experience recently, at my friend Mike's bachelor party. We hooked up a Wii in one room and an NES in the other.* We had loads of classic games, including Mega Man 2, River City Ransom, a couple of Double Dragons, and so on. But for some reason, as the night wore on, a group of us found ourselves committed to playing Bucky O'Hare. Apparently, it was based on a short-lived cartoon show from the early 1990s, of which I have no memory. But this was probably around the time that any hope of high-quality licensed games was starting to die.

It's not that Bucky O'Hare was bereft of good ideas. Although you start the game playing only as the title character, as you progress you gain the ability to switch between Bucky and his crew members on the fly. Each one has a unique power that comes in handy at different times. One of them can hover, one can climb walls, one has a super-powered weapon, and so on. It's a neat mechanic, and the levels -- particularly near the end -- are designed to force you to switch characters often.

The problem, though, was that the game was brutally difficult in the classic 8-bit sense. Every boss battle was based on identifying fast-moving and constantly shifting attack patterns. Levels involving moving mine carts and shifting platforms required memorization in addition to quick reflexes. One-hit deaths were everywhere. The saving grace was that Bucky granted infinite continues, not just from the start of each world, but from the beginning of each substage. That's the only thing that kept us going.

So we pressed on, through the night and into the early morning. We traded off continues. Those not holding the controller looked for patterns and advised the player what hazards were coming next. At boss encounters, we analyzed attacks and suggested possible weaknessse. When things got really rough, my long-ago childhood friend Ryan -- the gaming savant whom I've mentioned before -- came into to slam the door. He bailed us out of so many seemingly impossible boss battles that we started referring to him as our closer.

We didn't beat Bucky O'Hare that night. Fortunately, the game had a password system, so we brought it to Mike's house the night before the wedding and got right back to work. Our group was smaller now, but no less dedicated. Only the groomsmen remained. Two days before, we had been strangers. Now, we worked together like a commando unit. We penetrated ever deeper into the endless final castle. We ascended shifting blocks tipped with insta-kill spikes. We swerved through speeder bike levels, and and dueled a massive airship. Ryan took pity on us and obliterated a Mother Brain-like boss. We kept going past midnight. Eventually, I could take no more, and fell asleep on the couch.

When I woke up shortly thereafter, no one was playing anymore, and I saw the screen that graces the top of this post. "Did we do it?" I asked, although the answer was clear. "We did it," they said. Victory.

Bucky O'Hare is not a great game. I would not recommend that anybody download the ROM, or petition Nintendo to release it on Virtual Console. But it's worth remembering, as we binge on one fall release after another, what pleasures can be found in playing one game, any game, in the right circumstances. It's satisfying to beat a game. It's fun to play with others. And it's gratifying to meet people who care about the same silly things you do. This is why I started playing video games.

*Isn't this what you do at a bachelor party?

Monday, November 03, 2008

The must-play game of the year

Above: Do it!

A while back, I reviewed Stardock's The Political Machine 2008 for Paste. It's a turn-based strategy game all about the presidential election, with fairly realistic simulations of campaign fundraising, political ads, and the all-important electoral college. It was a lot of fun, even for a remedial strategist such as myself.

As much as I decry ever referring to a video game as "just a game," they're all just games compared to a real-life presidential election. Many of us are spending the season agonizing over which hot new release to get. Even when we settle on one, we immediately feel like we made the wrong call. ("Why, oh why did I leave Fallout just sitting on the shelf?") It's probably not much of an exaggeration to say that gamers are putting serious brainpower into figuring out how to cope with all these games. But the impact of that decision pales beside the consequences of a presidential election. With a teetering economy, people losing their homes, two wars, and countless other obstacles facing us all, I am begging you, if you haven't yet, to spend just a little bit of time today not thinking about games, and instead thinking about who to vote for.

In the movie WarGames, the computer realizes that the only way to win a nuclear war is not to play. Voting is the opposite: the only way to lose is not to play. So please go out there tomorrow and cast your ballot for whatever candidate you think is the best choice, based on their stated policies. Every election is important, and this one is no different. Nothing else you do all year will matter as much.

(There, I made it through a couple paragraphs without getting cute or editorializing. I'll just hit the "publish post" button here and --