Monday, December 29, 2008

Winter preview

Oh hey, check out this preview of the games coming out this winter. I'm looking forward to a lot of them.

Still on vacation.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Season's greetings to the douchebag who broke into my locker at the gym

Dear douchebag,

First, let me just say how impressed I am by your l33t skillz. I don't know how you were able to open my combination lock and steal my shit out of my locker. Maybe you were looking over my shoulder while I opened it, or, more likely, you know how to crack the widely used and ironically named Master locks. Hell, I don't know how you did it. I'm not a criminal. But you certainly rolled a 20 in lockpicking when setting out on your life of crime. Everything looked in order to me! Nice work.

The holidays are a season of giving, so let me say how glad I am that I unwillingly gave you my credit card, my debit card, and my driver's license, three things I certainly don't ever need, and which wouldn't completely disrupt my life if they went missing. You needed them all more than I did. Especially my ID, which has my picture on it instead of yours, and allows me to do things like buy alcohol and legally operate motor vehicles. Why I would I need to do those things at Christmastime? I had been planning to sit alone in my apartment with the lights off for a week and a half. There's no place like home for the holidays!

Speaking of which, thanks for timing your theft so perfectly -- just two days before Christmas, and not an hour before my vacation started! Sometimes we can lose sight of what's important during the holidays. Here I was, frittering away my last day of work this year tying up some loose ends at the office, and looking forward to seeing my family. I was being selfish.

You reminded me of the true spirit of Christmas when you forced me to sprint from the gym to my local bank branch, where I had to close my old accounts and open new ones. Sorry for being such a Grinch and cancelling the cards before you had a chance to use them! My heart must be two sizes too small.

Then, I had to go back to my office and find the one HR person still there -- who was, herself, about to leave for the holidays -- and find out that I will not be able to get paid on time next week, because I use direct deposit and the pay period is already over. It was just like the end of It's a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart is running around screaming "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls," except with profanity.

Truly, thank you for reminding what's important during Christmas. It's supposed to be about spending time with your family -- did you know that I only get to see them a couple times a year anymore? -- but at this year's Christmas celebrations I was able to focus on what matters: staring into space, entertaining elaborate revenge fantasies, and pretending not to feel well because I'm too ashamed to tell anybody what happened.

And thanks for making sure that when I was supposed to have a week and a half off, I'm instead going to be on the phone with human resources and payroll departments at two different companies, trying to get paid on time before rent and student loan payments are due. (Did you know I owe more than $600 a month in student loan payments? It's because I was dumb enough to go to college and try to make something of myself, when this whole time I could have been breaking into gym lockers like a latter-day Robin Hood, taking from the middle-class and giving to myself.) I'll also be sure to visit the website of every single company with which I conduct electronic business, so none of my bills bounce over the course of the next month. It's just as well: I had been planning to do fun things with my wife and my friends during vacation, like some kind of jerk.

But hey, thanks for leaving my library card in my wallet, anyway. I'd be ashamed if you tried to check out some crap like The Da Vinci Code on my account. Besides, since I can't really get to any of my money for the time being, library books will be the only entertainment I can afford! So much for snowboarding next week.

Most of all -- and this one I mean sincerely -- thanks for putting my wallet back in the wrong pants pocket when you were done rifling through it. Otherwise, I might not have realized anything was amiss for hours, or even days. Hell, I still probably wouldn't have had any reason to look in there. Think of all the thousands of dollars of fraudulent charges you could have run up during that time! Instead, I get my life knocked off its axis, and you get only the ten dollar bill you stole from me. This really worked out well for everybody.

In conclusion: merry Christmas, you douchebag, and a happy new year. I hope 2009 finds you ass-raped as literally as I feel metaphorically. Get fucked.

Your pal,


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Year in Review: The Best Games of 2008

Above: This is the one.
(Note to Harmonix: "This Is the One" would make excellent DLC.)

We're wrapping up our recap of the year that was. Today: the best games of 2008.

If you want to read the blurbs, you'll have to read the feature at But for discussion, here's my list of the top 10 of 2008:
  1. Rock Band 2
  2. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
  3. Braid
  4. Far Cry 2
  5. Left 4 Dead
  6. Fallout 3
  7. No More Heroes
  8. Grand Theft Auto IV
  9. Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2
  10. Yakuza 2

A couple things should go without saying. First, yes, I am aware these were my favorite games of the year and not objectively the best. Second, there were more than a few 2008 releases that I missed, although thanks to my cram session I think Fable 2 might be the only serious contender there. But who knows, maybe I would have loved something that got tepid reviews elsewhere, like The Force Unleashed.

I do feel that 2007 was a much better year for games overall. Not that it matters what the calendar says. You could reframe the debate and come out with a much different-looking list, as Iroquois Pliskin does in suggesting that video games completed the Tiger Slam from August 2007 through August 2008. What the heck -- we all enjoy these year-end lists, even if bitching about them is also fashionable. It's nice to take a minute and reflect on what we already have, before rushing headlong onto the next thing. Isn't that what the holidays are all about?

With that, I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

(Posting is likely to be light until January 5.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Year in Review: The Worst Games of 2008

Above: "It's just me throwing a glaive for an hour and a half. It cost 80 million dollars."

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: The worst games of the year.

To start with, let me say that I played nothing this year as cynical, calculated, or insulting as the two worst games of last year. The generally acceptable level of quality in 2008 extended to the weaker games, most of which were at least competently executed, and only lacking imagination in some crucial way or another.

Take Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. It was exactly like a (marginally) interactive version of the television program, which I enjoy. But it turns out that it is not fun to (barely) interact with a TV show, or to (almost) affect its storyline. Even when the jokes are good. Who knew?

And when I say that Dark Sector was one of the worst games I played this year, part of the reason why is that it could have been really good. I loved using the glaive, at least at first, and for the first couple of hours of play I was convinced that this game would turn out to be a real sleeper. But then I started getting bogged down in all the little annoyances and aggravations, and it became harder to appreciate what the game was doing well. Ultimately, I think there were too many possibilities left unexplored. Why could you only electrify the glaive in designated hotspots? Why couldn't you shoot out a lightbulb and electrify it that way? If that would have messed up the play balance, there's a simple solution: make an enemy that's invulnerable to electricity. There you go.

Similarly, The Bourne Conspiracy was a great game to look at, but that was all you could really do: look at it. Its total reliance on quicktime events meant that you'd have about all the fun you were going to have with it by the time you'd reached the first driving level. Matt Damon was right when he said they could have made a better Bourne game by trying to be more cerebral.

Look, I just don't find Super Smash Bros. Brawl fun in any way. I apologize. I'll accept that I'm wrong about this. But to the guy who commented on that review at to make sure everyone knew that I was an idiot and it was a surefire game of the year contender: how are you feeling about that prediction now?*

But there was one game this year that soared well beneath the rest. A game that was not just poorly conceived, but actually physically painful to play. I speak, of course, of Guitar Hero: On Tour, whose non-ergonomic peripheral was even more agonizing than listening to the hot licks of guitar legends like Maroon 5, Smashmouth, and Los Lonely Boys. As I said, on one level I'm amazed they could even put together a Guitar Hero game for the Nintendo DS, but otherwise there was nothing good to come of this. Easily the worst game I played this year.

*Note: After writing this post, I recorded the Brainy Gamer podcast with Spencer Greenwood, who actually did choose Smash Bros. as his game of the year. So much for that zinger.

Tomorrow: The best games of 2008.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The confab of confabs

If you have any of the same Twitter friends and RSS subscriptions that I do, by now you've probably heard dozens of times about the latest Brainy Gamer podcast. Just in case: Have you heard about the latest Brainy Gamer podcast? Michael Abbott has assembled a super-confab for an epic three-part discussion of the best games of 2008. I shared microphone space with Dan Bruno, Corvus Elrod, and Spencer Greenwood, who must always be referred to by his full name.

All three had unexpected picks for their favorites of the year, a trend which extended across every discussion. Michael says he asked 20 different writers for their picks, and got 20 unique responses. That's unbelievable, and maybe unprecedented. We had a bit of a discussion about what the lack of a consensus pick means, if anything, and I'm not sure I said what I really meant about it.

Essentially, when everyone you know picks BioShock or Portal for their game of the year, I don't think that's indicative of a hive mentality or a lack of imagination among gamers -- I think it means that those games were seriously awesome. This year's best games still all seemed to suffer from one massive annoyance or another, and it's a matter of each person's individual breaking point how they responded to that. That may be what accounts for the divergent responses.

If, instead of asking everyone for their top pick, Michael had instead asked for our top 10 lists, and then compiled the results into one master list, you'd probably get something altogether more predictable. Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV would probably be the number 1 pick, and most of us would think, well, it's not my favorite, but it makes sense to be up there. But that's much less interesting than the way he actually did it! There were games of all types represented here, independent and big-budget, story-driven and wholly competitive, new IPs and sequels. It's fascinating stuff.

Here's that link again.

The Year in Review: Honorable Mentions

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: 2008 honorable mentions.

If you hear me complain that 2008 was a blah year for games, it's not to suggest that we lacked quality software. Quite the contrary. Rarely did we have to go more than a month or so without finding something decent to play. But so often, that's all these games were: decent, especially compared to last year's standouts. This year, nothing I played was as purely fun as Crackdown. Nothing moved me as did The Darkness. Nothing blew my mind like Portal (well, maybe Braid). And nothing synthesized everything I like about games into one superb package, as did BioShock.

Then again, it's not anybody's job to make exactly the game I want to play, and I'm happy any time I play something I like, even if I don't love it. And this year, there were a lot of those. In chronological order:

Burnout Paradise: Wasn't perfect, but nobody does high-octane racing with spectacular crashes like the folks at Criterion.

Army of Two: Again, not perfect, but I played through the whole thing and it kept my interest. I thought the topical references were ballsy, the interplay between the leads was hilarious, and the Aggro system actually worked.

Ikaruga: Glad I finally got to play this cult classic, even if I ran away from it in terror once the review was finished.

LostWinds: Cute, with a winning aesthetic and a fun, innovative control scheme. I just wish I had known going in that it was only episode 1.

Ninja Gaiden II: I was far too unskilled to get the most out of this game, but even playing it as a button masher made for a gory good time.

Space Invaders Extreme
: Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

PixelJunk Eden: Thanks to the Serious Games Journalist Network of Pretension for turning me onto this one. It was just a nice, relaxing game that you could lose yourself in without realizing how taxing it actually was.

Dead Space: A triumph of execution, with excellent graphics, sound, and play control. I spent a lot of time harping on the negatives with this game, but it was a polished shooter that was well worth playing.

Silent Hill: Homecoming: Atmospheric and creepy. I thought this was the better horror experience, compared to Dead Space.

Gears of War 2: I wrote, scheduled, and published this post without remembering to include Gears of War 2, even though it was better than most of the other honorable mentions. Partly, that's because the top 10 list was touch and go for a while there, but I think it also goes to show how GoW2 made less of an impact than its predecessor. Horde mode is awesome, though.

Prince of Persia: It's as if the folks at Ubisoft Montreal made a list of everything that's annoying about platformers, and one-by-one excised each item from their game. The result feels a little bit like an extended QTE at times, but the newest Prince of Persia is beautiful to look at and a pleasure to experience.

Tomorrow: The worst games of 2008.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

We're approaching holiday zero hour, and that means parties and presents this weekend. Plus we're supposed to get hell of snow this weekend, so I may end up being housebound. Fine by me -- I'll take any excuse to get back to the Capitol Wasteland.

-I was just tickled to get an honorable mention in part 1 of Simon Parkin's roundup of the best games writing of 2008, for the "Sex, violence, and video games" piece. Thanks to him for the acknowledgment, and also to whoever nominated the story in the first place.

-Of the many great "year in review" pieces to come along, Iroquois Pliskin's "The Year of Being There" is one of the best I've read. It's true: this year's games took us to some amazing places, and many tried hard to stretch the possibilities of interactive settings. But there were definitely some growing pains involved.

-Also worthy: RPS's take on Far Cry 2. Jim Rossignol and Kieron Gillen both have excellent takes on the game. This seems like a game that's going to stick with people for a long time, despite its flaws.

-Shoe argues against reviewers trading or selling promo copies of games. This is something that feels wrong to me, too, but I could never figure out exactly why. Shoe doesn't really answer the question, either. He seems to take it as a given. For myself, I don't attempt to profit unduly from the free goods I receive once I'm finished with them -- I don't sell them for cash, and I often give them to friends who would enjoy them -- but I don't see any problem with trading stuff in for other work-related items. For example, I just traded in some games for Prince of Persia, which I'm reviewing, and Fallout and Yakuza, both of which I wanted to play before putting together a top 10. Still feels kind of dirty, but... why?

-Even though I'm a newcomer to Fallout 3, I'm glad to see that others are still writing some good stuff about it. Check out Tom Cross's column at GSW, CrashT's at Groping the Elephant, and Travis Megill's at The Autumnal City.

-Hardcasual's posts about David Schwimmer's WoW chatlogs really made me laugh.

The Year in Review: Year-End Superlatives

Above: A winner is you, everyone.

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: year-end superlatives.

Today, we're handing out accolades to the games, systems, and people who made the year so interesting.

Welcome Trend: Downloadable Content for Consoles

Downloadable content is nothing new, but 2008 was the year it matured. If you wanted to play the most interesting and innovative games, you had to download them. The Wii finally branched out from Virtual Console re-hashes and offered original content like the charming LostWinds, the much-loved World of Goo, and Mega Man 9, which I couldn't in good conscience have played on any other system. Sony continued to quietly turn the PlayStation Network into a high-end boutique with games like PixelJunk Eden, Echochrome, and Wipeout HD. And, of course, Xbox Live Arcade was the videogame equivalent of the 1927 Yankees when they released Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2, Braid, Bionic Commando, and Castle Crashers all in one month's time.

Noble Failure of the Year: Mirror's Edge

But we're not talking about this anymore.

PR Knucklehead of the Year: Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard

As quoted in MTV Multiplayer:
The games Activision Blizzard didn’t pick up, he said, “don’t have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million dollar franchises. … I think, generally, our strategy has been to focus… on the products that have those attributes and characteristics, the products that we know [that] if we release them today, we’ll be working on them 10 years from now.”

Not that it's anything we didn't know already, but usually they're a bit more tactful than that. Get ready for more awful Guitar Hero games, everybody!

On the other hand, maybe we should be giving this guy points for honesty.

The Donut Hole Award: Fairway Solitaire

Ineligible for this year's top 10 list because it was a 2007 release, and left out of last year's because I didn't play it in time, Fairway Solitaire was nevertheless one of the most fun and addictive games to come down the pike in quite some time. You really need to try this one. I guarantee that the 60-minute demo will convince you to buy the full game.

Game Blog of the Year: Hit Self-Destruct

Put simply, nobody else I know of is doing what Duncan Fyfe is doing at Hit Self-Destruct. He's a superb writer, whose narrative approach to writing about games is insightful and often very funny. He can take a subject like the old practice of naming your save files and make it sound both wistful and hilarious, while still making a good point about the player's role as co-author of the gameplay experience.

Publisher of the Year: Microsoft Game Studios

I say this not because of its major console releases, although Gears 2 was very good and an awful lot of people seemed to love Fable 2. In a year when Xbox Live Arcade beat the doors down, Microsoft deserves a little love. They published Braid and Castle Crashers, both independent productions made with a lot of love by their creators. Surely these weren't massive expenditures, but it still shows their appreciation for a creative vision. (Bonus points: Microsoft even put up with Dennis Dyack, which is prize-worthy all on its own.)

Developer of the Year: Harmonix

Rock Band and its sequel are both spectacular right on the disc, but Harmonix is special because of its commitment to supporting their games after its retail release. The breadth and quality -- not to mention the value -- of Rock Band's ever-expanding DLC is staggering. This company treats its property, and its customers, with care and respect.

Console of the Year: Xbox 360

Hey, didn't the Xbox 360 win this last year? Yep, well, there was no clear alternative for 2008. The Wii phenomenon is well beyond the limits of my understanding at this point, but a same-old, same-old sequel and a fitness trainer are not what I'm looking for out of my game console. The PS3 did better for itself than in years past, but its biggest exclusive title was a massive disappointment. Even the 360's exclusives weren't quite as great as in years past, but it did have more of them, and better, too. It continues to be the system you've got to have if you self-identify as a serious gamer.

(Oh hey, remember when the most consistently innovative games were coming out for the Nintendo DS? What happened there?)

Monday: 2008 honorable mentions.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Year in Review: Best of the Blog

Above: Actually the best of Insult Swordfighting.

Today through Christmas Eve, we'll be recapping the year that was. First up: the best of Insult Swordfighting, 2008.

I don't mean to get all introspective and self-centered on you, but on a personal and semi-professional level, this was a great year. I started tracking this blog's subscribers and page views last December. Since then, daily page views have more than quintupled, and the number of feed subscribers has increased more than tenfold. My thanks to all of you.

Just as satisfying was finding so many great blogs that I had no idea existed a year ago (and some of which didn't even exist a year ago). We are heading in the right direction, all of us, and I'll look forward to seeing what 2009 brings.

For those of you who are newcomers to Insult Swordfighting, here are some of the highlights from the past year.

January: The New Taxonomy of Gamers launched. I'll leave it to N'Gai to tell you that it was "the year's most essential blog series." I wouldn't go that far, but I am proud of it. It's the first thing I'd tell somebody to read on this blog, if they asked.

February: Some excellent discussion arose here and elsewhere regarding No More Heroes. I had too much to say about it to confine it to a review, so I wrote a blog-only review to supplement the Phoenix piece, which also triggered an interesting chat with the Brainy Gamer about the auteur theory in games.

March: A look back at sinking ships in games was not the greatest post ever, but it remains one of the most popular pages on this site for Google searches. Plus I have to pick something for March -- which was, if I'm to be honest, a pretty lackluster month, filled mostly with updates on the status of my Wii repairs.

April: Does relying on nostalgia help or hurt games? Is using familiar settings and characters a crutch, or an opportunity to enhance our appreciation for the classics? I looked at the contrasting approaches of Super Smash Bros. and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Also in April: a big-ass think piece for the Phoenix about video games and social responsibility.

May: Oh hey, another weak month, but I think a post about when a game is finished raises some ideas that should be explored more. Not by me, of course. I have Gamestop users to make fun of.

June: Metal Gear Solid 4 broke my heart. The dialogue and the cutscenes were just too much. If you were to chart my enjoyment of the game as a function of time played, it would look like one of those waterslides that drops straight down.

July: ...right until the the conclusion, in which I stopped trying to convince myself I was enjoying MGS4 on any level.

August: I went temporarily insane, thanks to an overdose of Geometry Wars 2, poring over the leaderboards like somewhere in there was hidden the true name of God. Also in August: what I thought was a pretty good post about user experience never gained much traction.

September: Mega Man 9 has much the same impact as Metal Gear Solid 4, causing me to question my love for the franchise.

October: The year in swooning quiz brings chuckles, guffaws, and, presumably, the undying hatred of everybody mentioned.

November: In a post almost as self-indulgent as this one, I say hello to an old friend, and goodbye to his kick-ass Super Nintendo games.

December: I answered some of the questions in Shawn Elliott's reviews symposium. Man, it seems like that happened just yesterday.

Tomorrow: Year-end superlatives.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fourth-person shooter

Above: 2 good 2 B left 4 gotten

My Left 4 Dead review is up now at Yes, this is a wonderful game. I do have some doubts about how it will hold up over the long term, but I feel comfortable saying that it's something almost everybody needs to try once. Playing to the end of the "Dead Air" campaign alone is worth it just for the astonishing sight right as your team reaches the tarmac. The first time I made it there, nobody on our team had seen it before. We all stopped in our tracks, stared at it, and exclaimed "Awesome!" about five times each.

God I love Valve Software.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Was Yakuza 2 the most overlooked game of 2008?

Above: A smashing good time

No, probably not the most overlooked game of 2008, but you have to admit that's an attention-grabbing title. Besides, I'm trying to write a blog post here, so let's go for it. Yakuza 2 garnered only "honorable mention" status on GameSetWatch's list of 2008's most overlooked titles, taking a backseat to games with names like "Soul Bubbles" and "Roogoo." With the exception of Pure, almost everything that GSW mentioned was an indie game -- a niche product.

I haven't played or even heard of most of those games (lending credence to GSW's argument -ed.), but I want to make a devil's advocate argument: It's hard to say it's surprising for independent games to be overlooked, because that's their nature. We live in a world where enough marketing muscle can make a million-seller out of even the crappiest games, so what are the odds that an independent game with no budget will ever get any attention? I don't like it either, but that's how things are. It may be unfair in a cosmic sense that these games never gained any traction. You may as well say it's unfair that gravity only causes things to fall down.

Yakuza 2 is a little bit different because it is a big-budget game, a game that incorporates most of the features that "hardcore" gamers respond to, and a game that does those things very well. It's got a sweeping, multi-layered storyline, an immersive setting that's packed with sidequests, and brawling combat so brutal that it makes you wince. This should absolutely be a hit.

It's not a hit, of course. I'm not sure most people even realized it had been released in this country (and I only knew thanks to Steve Gaynor's tireless Twittering about it). The original Yakuza was superb -- even made my top 10 for 2006 -- and sank like a stone in the marketplace. Maybe better marketing would have helped, or maybe the inherent problems in localizing such a culturally specific game put Yakuza behind the eight-ball from the start, but by the time Sega decided to release the sequel Stateside, they hadn't even bothered recording an English-language track. They may as well have affixed stickers to the front of each copy saying, "Even we know you're not gonna buy this."

Strangely, though, the lack of Americanized speech makes the sequel seem even better and more authentic than its predecessor. The guttural cadences of the Yakuza members are hypnotic to listen to. The storyline is still easy to follow, albeit filled with more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera, all of it anchored by its stoic, pure-hearted protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. I can't help but think that if Sega had really tried, they could have made this series a hit. Maybe that's what they have in mind for Yakuza 3, but if history is any guide, it's not likely.

Monday, December 15, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love Fallout

Above: VATS-tastic

I can admit when I've been prejudiced. Everything I heard about Fallout 3 made me suspect it wasn't as good as the rapturous reviews would suggest. That's not a fair way to put it: I was pretty sure I wouldn't like this game, despite its virtues. Mostly, that's because I didn't like Oblivion, and nothing I heard about Fallout made me think it was going to be different. Massive game world. Long-ass quests. Karma. Conversations with creepy, dead-eyed characters who have retarded requests. This is not a recipe for the kind of game I'm usually into.

For a while there, I thought I was right. Fallout's first hour is pretty interesting, both for the way it sets the scene and for the way it goes about the usual RPG rigmarole of creating your character. When I played Oblivion, I kid you not, I spent about ten minutes paging through the classes, trying to figure out what I should be. I eventually settled on "Dark Elf" and spent the rest of my (brief) playing time wondering if I'd made a mistake.

That's what happens in these games. You can perform the good action or the bad action, and each one comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. But I can't think of it that way. All I can think is that I chose the wrong one, I blew it, and I've doomed myself to a less-than-ideal experience for the next 100+ hours, all because of that idiotic decision I made before I had even played enough to know better. This first happened in Fallout, by the way, before I'd even left Vault 101. I thought the Overseer was attacking me, you see. I thought it was self-defense! It wasn't until his daughter was yelling at me that I realized I'd messed up. I could have gone back and re-loaded an earlier save, but that's the coward's way out. A man takes responsibility for his actions.

Anyway, I did like the way Fallout went about its character creation. When you're born, your dad says "We're going to name you --" and then you get to fill in your own name. That's the same way you determine your basic attributes, and your appearance. I still am not sure why you get so many ways to customize your physical appearance. You never see yourself except in those slow-motion VATS sequences, and my face has been covered by a mask 90% of the time. Just more things to fret about and, later, regret. (Why, oh why did I pick the guy with the sideburns?)

Later on, you take a Wonderlic-like test that fleshes out your character fully. But again, I agonized over these choices. I was convinced I picked the wrong ones. Even when Levar Burton (that was him, right?) gave me a chance to change my attributes later, I said no. This was my lot in life -- my cross to bear. Off I went, into the wasteland, muttering to myself the whole time, "Why did I stick with melee and science? Why? I should have chosen guns!"

I was committed to playing as a good guy. I only wanted to do that which would earn me positive karma. So when Moira Brown in Megaton asked me to help her research a book, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I was like a brownnosing grad student working for a star professor. Sure, I'll run down to the grocery store and grab some food for you! (I made two attempts to get the medicine, too, but those Raiders were too much for me.) With that accomplished, my next task was to afflict myself with radiation poisoning so she could study its effects. Again, I accepted the job, a little more hesitantly this time.

It was only after I spent five minutes slurping down irradiated water at a nearby well that I first thought to myself, "This is fucking stupid." I felt the same way a little later, when I was circling a pillar opposite a minigun-wielding mutant waiting for my action points to build up so I could VATS his skull in. And when I found out the the world map is basically useless for helping you get to where you want to go, I could feel myself about to get self-congratulatory and preachy.

But somewhere along the way, those bizarre quest goals and gameplay irritations faded as the allure of the wasteland started to take hold. When Ryan was reviewing Fallout for the Phoenix and I asked him how it was, he put it this way: "If you're walking down the street and you see the Lincoln Memorial, you're not going to not go in there." That is exactly what happens. I can't think of a better way to explain it.

Admittedly, even this sometimes has its drawbacks. On my way to Rivet City to talk to Doctor Li, I came across the Jefferson Memorial, and figured I'd take a look. Inside, I found a bunch of records my dad had left in there. Presumably, Dr. Li would have told me to go back to the Memorial to find them, so it was just efficiency on my part. But I generally prefer to be led along a dramatic path in a game, instead of stumbling my way through. I'm given so much agency in Fallout that I can actually play it in a way I'd consider to be wrong.

But the flipside was what happened when I was trekking up to Arefu and discovered Vault 106. It wasn't part of any quest: just another miserable, tucked-away place in the wasteland, home to a few straggling survivors who had all, regrettably, gone batshit insane. Vault 106 was bigger than I thought, and when the lights started turning blue and I saw people appearing and disappearing, I thought my Xbox was on the verge of melting.*

After I realized that, no, this was supposed to happen, that was when everything clicked. There was no reason to go into Vault 106, except that it was there. Inside was an entire chapter of the history Bethesda has built for this game. That was its purpose: to show me this world. I had only to look.

*I've been having serious problems, actually, and I don't know if it's the software or the hardware. Fallout has locked up on me about three times, and once the audio turned ungodly staticky for about a minute before cutting out entirely. Not to mention the Megaton Settler with no head, and a beam of light shooting from her neck into the sky.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

The end of the year is coming up fast. I'm committed to a last-minute cram session, which includes, at the very least, Fallout 3, Prince of Persia, and Yakuza 2. Ryan keeps imploring me to give Castle Crashers a go. I may have to listen to him on this one. Either way, all this stuff is going to keep me very busy this weekend. What will you be playing?

-I don't know a single person who listens to Nickelback. Do you? I know an awful lot of people who are passionate about rock music, but not one of them would admit to liking this band. And yet, in an era when album sales and live attendance are down industry wide, the rock band that no rock fans like continues to sell out arenas and release multi-platinum albums. What this has to do with the news that Nintendo sold 2 million Wiis in November, I'll leave up to you.

-Well, I didn't get a membership card this year, either, but at least Slate's Gaming Club, the year-end roundtable discussion between Chris Suellentrop, Seth Schiesel, Stephen Totilo, and N'Gai Croal, linked to me. In two places! As it was last year, some excellent reading here from some first-rate writers. Next year, perhaps I can stand outside in the rain and watch them type, a single tear rolling down my cheek.

-Shawn Elliott's official reviews symposium lifts off soon, but the meantime check out a couple more unofficial entries from Gary Hodges and Daniel Purvis. I love reading how other people approach their work, and I hope it's true for them, as it was for me, that sitting down and thinking about these questions is a clarifying exercise.

-I may as well acknowledge that a few people have complained about the whole symposium thing, such as some guy on the QT3 forums, and PixelVixen707, who I should remind you is not a real person and is just part of a marketing campaign for a book. I don't understand the objections. People in every field participate in professional development courses, whether it's novelists joining writers' workshops, or tech dudes taking programming classes. How is this any different? I suppose if you presume that it's going to be a circle jerk, sure, there's not much value in that, but I'm optimistic enough to think that it will encourage some genuine self-reflection.

-There's also kind of a weird, but ultimately positive, take on it from Gamers with Jobs.

-I'm not a fan of the lists people make about the sexiest videogame heroines, or the top girl-on-girl kisses in gaming history, or whatever, but it's only fair that the Phoenix's Maddy Myers put together her list of the top 10 videogame studs of 2008. Can't even quibble with her top pick, really, even if he had some questionable genes.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A question of motive

Between the Mirror's Edge conversation* and some recent shots across the bow of the Serious Games Journalist Network of Pretension, I've seen a couple of people mention that reviewers and gamers need to be considering more seriously the intentions of a game's developers. My gut reaction is to say "No we don't" and move on, but I'm incapable of letting this sort of thing go. Plus, upon further inspection, I don't think it's all that simple. Only mostly that simple.

Whether we're talking about books, movies, or games, in general I don't put much stock in authorial intent. I think my distaste stems from way too many encounters with sloppy writers who wanted to blame their own shortcomings on their readers. It is true that sometimes a writer might be perfectly clear in his meaning, and run up against a stubborn, uneducated reader who doesn't know or care what words mean, and disdains those who do. But that's a rare case -- sort of like all those fat people who claim that they have a glandular problem just because somebody, somewhere, actually does.**

The truth of the matter is that if a reader doesn't understand what you wrote, it's almost certainly because you did a bad job writing it. You chose vague words. Your grammar was careless. Your syntax was confused. If someone responds to something you wrote, having derived a wholly different meaning than what you intended, then it's a sign that you didn't do the best job you could have -- not that the reader was an idiot. And yes, this is extremely hard to remember when somebody slams your writing. That's all the more reason to keep it in mind when we talk about a developer's intent.

So, as I said, I'm not terribly interested in what a developer was trying to do. I care about what they did. Even trying to read interviews in order to uncover their intentions doesn't seem all that valuable, because I'm willing to bet that they intended to make a good game. Should they get points for that? Trying to consider any factors other than the direct gameplay experience seems to lead in a direction I don't want to go. We should be talking about what works and what doesn't, and, more importantly, what playing this game is like. I can't read the developers' minds, but I can play their game.

Still, this is a bit of a straw man. The side of the argument that makes sense to me is that a developer sets out to make a specific type of game, and it's nonsensical to review their product as though it were something else. For example, talking about Left 4 Dead as though the single-player mode were its top priority is probably not a great idea (but I certainly wouldn't see anything wrong with bringing up the strengths and weaknesses of the AI teammates).

Here's the thing: If the developers did their job right, then you don't need to know what they intended, because it will all be right there in the game. You don't need to know, going in, that Valve was trying to make a multiplayer shooter. Every design choice they made underlines that fact. Hell, maybe they were trying to make the best single-player shooter ever, botched it, and ended up with this sweet team-based shooter instead.

That's why, when I answered Shawn Elliott's questions last week, I said that I try to answer these questions in my reviews: "How do the game's apparent goals seem to mesh or conflict with its execution? What is this game trying to say?" I specified "game" and not "developers," because a game can speak for itself. Once it's finished and shipped, it doesn't belong to the developers anymore. It belongs to the players.

*No, this doesn't count as a mention of Mirror's Edge!
**Oh my god, I didn't just.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The honest-to-goodness last Mirror's Edge post until the next one

Above: How can I even look her in the tattooed eye after this?

Okay, the Mirror's Edge review is up now at, and that really is the last I will have to say about it. Until the post about the worst games of the year, I suppose.

Thinking about this whole thing has been giving me horrible Mass Effect flashbacks. You may remember that I couldn't stand that game, in contrast to the many critics who teamed up to give it a Metacritic score of 91. That, too, was a game that somehow kept coming up in conversation over and over again -- a game I couldn't seem to wash my hands of, no matter how hard I tried. Part of me didn't even really want to. Buried somewhere deep inside there had to be the game everybody else liked, and I wanted to play that game. Alas, I never found it in Mass Effect, and, tempting new DLC or no, I won't be trying to find it in Mirror's Edge.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mopping up with Guitar Hero: World Tour

Above: That red ring means the pad is broken.

It wasn't specifically part of my quest to catch up on a few noteworthy releases before the year is up, but recently I had the chance to try out Guitar Hero: World Tour. My love for Rock Band is well documented, as is my recent antipathy for Guitar Hero, but I tried to approach World Tour with an unjaundiced eye. Believe me when I say I do not feel personally gratified for having witnessed -- and even participated in -- the demise of gaming's once most unimpeachable brands.

From what I can tell in one short session, World Tour seems all right -- if not immediately distinguishable from Rock Band. I was most interested in comparing Red Octane's drumkit to Harmonix's. The cymbal placement, surprisingly, made a big difference. I didn't love the feel of the cymbals themselves -- they're just rigid pieces of plastic. They don't swing freely after hits like real cymbals do. But their location above the pads felt just right, and having to cross my right hand over my left to ride a cymbal was perfect.

The kick pedal, though, was much worse. There felt like a centimeter's worth of difference between the up position and the down position. When I first sat down and tried it, I had to ask its owner if it was jammed. No, she assured me, it's just like that. I'm no drummer myself, but we had a set in my house when I was a kid, and one thing I remember about the bass pedal was that it was heavy and complicated, with joints and counterweights all over the place. Rock Band's springier pedal comes much closer to approximating that feeling than Guitar Hero's.

If those were the only differences between them, I'd be tempted to call it a push. Both of those were things you could get used to, no matter which kit you were using. But I've read that lots of World Tour users have had trouble with the pad sensitivity, and this was definitely the case for me. The red pad -- which, as in Rock Band, functions as the all-important snare -- only seemed to be registering hits about half the time. I couldn't tell if it was my placement or my velocity, but I found myself bashing the sticks down as hard as I could to try to get it to take. That led to less bounceback, and worse drumming. Without being able to compare anything else about the two games, Rock Band wins by TKO.

By the way, given that the Rock Band kit now supports third-party cymbal peripherals, not to mention the altogether more real Ion drum kit, the one advantage the World Tour kit has over it is wiped out, assuming you're willing to spend the money. And I am willing to do that? Good god no.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Turning the page on Mirror's Edge, almost

My full review will be posted later this week, so this will be the second-to-last thing I have to say about Mirror's Edge. I was fascinated to see the passionate conversation that blew up in my neck of the blogosphere about this game, because as far as I can tell this is a relatively minor fall release.

Still, it represented a new IP, and more importantly a new idea, in a season that was full of sequels you barely even needed to play to know what they were about. It had a fresher look than most games. It had an innovative and intuitive control scheme. And, like its contemporaries Dead Space and Far Cry 2, it had a great take on its lead character's physicality. Mirror's Edge took a lot of chances and stood out in a crowd of predictable franchise entries.

And yet, in my humble opinion, it really, truly, sucked.

I mean, I hated every second I spent with this game, and it's like a six-hour game. There weren't all that many seconds to hate. Intellectually, I appreciated what Mirror's Edge was doing, and that's why I kept booting it up with a sense of optimism -- optimism that was destroyed within minutes of beginning any new play session. On a gut level, I just couldn't stand the game. I swore at it. I stared in disbelief. I came close to re-enacting the control pad stress test on more than one occasion. And lest you think it's just because I was bad at it -- and I was very bad it -- the game was designed in such a way that I couldn't help but blunder my way through it without ever having to master it. It was the worst of both worlds.

As usual, Penny Arcade's Tycho summed it up well:
I have really, honestly, and truly quit Mirror's Edge. At least, I think. Writing this will probably make me feel bad, and then I'll have to go back and pound my head against it until my skull is visible. I just got to a part in the game where I said, no. Nobody is paying me to do this. This is no longer a productive investment of my leisure time. The platforming doesn't even enter into it: if I die because I fell off of some shit, that's on me. And it's not about the combat, either: it's not a matter of how its implemented, or how it could be improved. When I come into a room I need to escape from, and I see a bunch of S.W.A.T. guys, my first thought is, why are they even here? When I see the (frankly, supernatural) trailer for the DLC, my heart skips a beat: that's the game I want. After that campaign, though, I don't want anything to do with Mirror's Edge. They had an excellent, well-manifested game mechanic that probably wouldn't work as a full retail product, and in the drive to shore up that "deficiency" they did violence against their creation.

Sadly, I was being paid to do it, which kept me going longer than I probably would have otherwise. I'm not a big believer that you should stick with a bad game in hopes that it'll get better. Life is short.

What's funny about this is that for all that Mirror's Edge (and, earlier, Dead Space) supposedly represents a "new" EA, what sunk it was its adherence to traditional gameplay paradigms. You're an outlaw. You're on the run. Men with guns are coming after you. Jump onto not one, but two moving trains in order to escape them. It's all boilerplate. I continue to believe that this would have been a far more successful game if it'd been more of a playground, but that's a tougher sell. It had to be an action game if they wanted to make that great commercial. That doesn't sound like a new EA to me.

Wow, what a miserable post. You see what this game has done to me? It's turned me into an asshole.*

*Showed my true colors.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

I'm hoping to get to some more Left 4 Dead this weekend, but first I have to face some other mindless, ravenous hordes when I go Christmas shopping. Just need a tree, really, since I do most of my shopping online, but what's worse than crowds of people who all want something? These days you can get trampled just for getting too close to the door at Wal Mart. Onto the links!

-Garrett Martin has written a pro-Mirror's Edge post, partly in response to what I said about it earlier in the week. He makes some good points, and while I wouldn't argue with the legitimacy of what he says, it still doesn't match up at all with my experience with the game. Meanwhile, Daniel Purvis also points out that the time trials may as well be a different game altogether, which is again true and which again doesn't match up with my experience. I will say this: the time trials are significantly more successful than the story mode as far as accomplishing what I thought ME was trying to achieve.

-Gary Hodges does a good job of negatively reviewing LittleBigPlanet without condescending or diminishing it. You could very well read that piece and know that LBP is the game for you. I also instinctively shy away from the kinds of proclamations that Gary quotes John Davison as making, that LBP "could be one of the most important game releases of the year." Or it could not be. Who knows? Not me, not you, and not anybody -- not for a couple of years, at least.

-Mike Walbridge accepted Shawn Elliott's challenge. Mike's perspective is interesting because he's looking at it from the point of view of an editor, as well as a writer. I'm lucky because I don't really need to worry about maintaining a consistent editorial tone with other people, or even worrying about how my scores mesh with that of the other Phoenix writers. That sounds like it would be a real challenge.

-Hey, Hardcasual is back. Sweet. And it gives me a chance to tenuously segue into talking about my favorite subject: myself. Apparently Chris Plante has been writing for UGO's Games Blog, alongside UGO editor Russ Frushtick. Russ and I lived in the same dorm at college, and although I knew at the time that he wrote for UGO, I didn't realize he made a career out of it. That's the second time this has happened, the first time being when I realized that Leigh and I were high-school classmates. Small world. (Oh man, and after writing this, I see a post on the Games Blog that mentions Qore host Veronica Belmont -- yep, another college classmate! Sheesh.)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Geared up

Above: Look, it's my blog and I can re-use images if I want to.

Now that nobody cares, my Gears of War 2 review is up at If you're a regular reader, you probably know the gist: campaign is good but not great, Horde is awesome.

With a little distance from its release, though, I have a couple more thoughts, neither of which necessarily has to do with the game itself. First, I understand that game publishers want to capitalize on holiday buying, and that's why they tend to release their biggest games in October and November. But as a gamer, it continues to frustrate me that I'm forced to choose between good games during this short period of time. If something like Gears had come out in wintertime or summertime, I probably would have happily devoted weeks to playing Horde. Instead, I pretty much had to drop it in order to move onto Left 4 Dead, which I like better. Granted, in different circumstances I might have bought Gears 2 and only Gears 2, and been quite satisfied with it. I still don't understand why publishers don't make more of an effort to release games when the spotlight will be all theirs.

Second, am I crazy, or is Gears 2 not making nearly the impact that the original did? When the first one came out, I feel like it's all people were talking about, and if I recall correctly it was the most popular Xbox Live game for a time. That doesn't seem to be happening this time.* It's not as though Epic did a faceplant or anything, and there's still not that much multiplayer competition this season. Far Cry 2's multiplayer doesn't seem to have caught on. Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Fable 2, and Fallout 3 don't even have multiplayer. Is everybody playing the new Call of Duty? (Is everybody playing the old Call of Duty?) Or is everybody playing Gears 2 and I just don't realize it because I dumped it as soon as a good-looking newer game came along?

*Note: I am too lazy to look this up and confirm.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reviews symposium: Partly, badly realized

Let's all welcome Shawn Elliott back to Blogistan. Hopefully they're not working his fingers to the bone at 2K Boston, and he'll have plenty of time to favor us with some posts. In the inaugural post at his new blog, Shawn posits a series of questions about the ethics and practices of game reviews. It's interesting stuff, and fodder for serious discussion. (Just like a LiveJournal meme!) I figured I'd go ahead and answer his questions. Maybe some of you will have reactions of your own to share in comments.
Question 1: How much is on our minds before we begin playing any given game for review purposes? Will we imagine a range of probable scores that a heavily marketed, highly budgeted, and hugely anticipated game will get? What when the game is branded "budget" or is the work of a lesser-known, less-storied studio? If so, how closely have actual scores correlated with our assumptions?

As little as possible, if I can help it. Generally the games we opt to cover at the Phoenix are high-profile ones, although it's nice once in a while to seek out something a bit more obscure. Even so, I try to avoid reading too much preview copy, or knowing more than the bare minimum about a game before I play it. That seems like the best way to be fair. Sometimes a little foreknowledge is unavoidable, though, such as when playing a sequel or a game from a distinctive development house. I think that's okay, particularly if you mention it during the review.

Question 2: Ought reviewers settle on a score before, during, or after writing a review? How consistent are our practices with our prescriptions? Have we, for instance, revised a score after writing our reviews, even though we advocate against it, and if so, why?

I don't know how much it matters. Most of the time I assign the score before I write the text, although there have been numerous occasions in which I've changed the score after writing the review. Usually it's a matter of a half a point, but it's happened on both ends of the scale. I've written reviews and thought, "This sounds like a 9.0 instead of an 8.5," and I've said, "This sounds like a 4.0 instead of a 4.5." Sometimes the process of writing a review can clarify your thoughts about a game in a way that thinking about it cannot. Reviewers ought to do what works for them. (I don't see why you'd advocate against changing your score, either.) If the review and the score don't seem to agree, one of them should be changed.

Question 3: When possible, do we look at the scores that other critics give to the games that we're reviewing, as we review them? If so, are groupthink or iconoclasty potential problems?

Never. Never. I go out of my way to avoid reading other reviews or looking at a game's Metacritic score until after I've written my own review. Whether you think you're impervious to this kind of influence, it's got to stick in your mind at least a little bit if you disagree with the masses. Why take the risk? 9 times out of 10 it seems like my score is right on the Metacritic money, but that 1 other time is where your integrity lies.

Question 4: Often times we will have repeatedly played and/or previewed games in development prior to reviewing them. Does this familiarity with a particular game's developmental process influence the scores that we assign to the final product in the way that a professor will take into consideration her students' limitations and proven potential when she evaluates papers at the end of the semester?

This has never come up. In fact, I'm still angry at Harmonix for not showing me the Guitar Hero prototype that must have been somewhere in their office when I visited. Frankly, I'm not sure how I'd handle such a situation. On one hand, a better knowledge of the challenges developers face might help me write more informed reviews. On the other hand, it's not my job to review what should have been, or what I know the developer wishes had been. I'd like my first exposure to a game to be its completed form.

Question 5: Review writing carries real consequence, especially among members of the enthusiast press. Once-warm PR people and game producers can become cold upon our publication of undesirable review scores, diminishing or eliminating our ability to secure subsequent interviews and access. Postmortem discussions and exclusive looks at the publisher and/or developer's forthcoming products are less likely. Conversely, a few publishers will permit us to post reviews before competitors, provided our review scores are favorable. Do such pressures produce a subliminal background or even enter our thoughts as we write reviews and assign scores?

Again, hasn't come up -- one of the benefits of writing for non-enthusiast publications. I have to say, I don't know how I'd handle it if I had actual relationships with PR folks. I have a horrible tendency to tell people what I think they want to hear.

Question 6: Is grade inflation an ongoing problem?

Less so than the habit of declaring games "one of the best," "one of the most," or "important," before we've even had a chance to let the disc drive stop spinning. Look, scores probably are too high. Everyone seems to agree on this. But I think the Metacritic model has largely done away with this problem. Can you tell the difference between a score of 9.6 and 9.7? Not on one site, no. But in the aggregate, yes. That is, a 10-point difference in a Metacritic score usually seems definitive to me, even if both games are scored too high.

Question 7: Do scores determine our tone? Can a "3" encourage us to explain an aspect of a game in clearly negative terms where our attitude is actually less decided? Example: Game X's camera obscures the action, combat is irritatingly difficult, and "save" stations are few and far between. In our reviews, is Game X's plot, which we're still thinking through, more likely to become miserable than plain?

In this case, I would probably skip discussion of the plot altogether, or mention it briefly as one case in which the game is not a total loss. Here's why: In this scenario, the game's plot, however strong, obviously could not overcome the game's other flaws. Therefore, who cares about it? It may be worth the mention for readers who might be interested, but, personally, I don't think it's the critic's job to try to divine what hypothetical human being might enjoy each and every game. It's the critic's job to be honest about his experience.

Question 8: Do scores encourage our readers to conduct a sort of text-to-number calculus where the two obviously negative statements in an otherwise positive-sounding review necessarily translate into every point deducted from the "10" that the game didn't get? Does this make reviews with high marks more likely to overlook fault, and reviews with low marks less likely to celebrate accomplishment?

If so, whose problem is that? But just as with the situation above, if a reviewer thinks a game deserves a 9 or a 10 despite some fault or another, I'm not sure how important it is to mention that. This does get at the basic problem of the scoring system in general. It's important to remember how much people really like scores, though, and how useful aggregators have turned out to be. I don't think the solution is to throw out scores entirely, tempting though it may sometimes be. The best a reviewer can do is try to be consistent. (Note: No one will ever accomplish this.)

Question 9: Which is more important to us, our scores or our copy? If the latter, have our responses revealed any inconsistencies between our attitudes and actions? Are we still convinced of the importance and power of scores?

Copy, copy, copy. Any writer would tell you that. Nothing is more important to me than the text of my own reviews. But I'll let the readers tell me whether my responses have revealed inconsistencies between my attitude and my actions. I don't think so, but I'm not the best judge of that.

Related suggestions for Ethics section:
Have we ever submitted review scores to publishers prior to their publication? If so, why?


Have we ever submitted review copy to publishers prior to its publication. If so, why?


Have PR people suggested that specific critics review specific games? Have we complied with their suggestions?


Reviews Vs Criticism
Question 1: What is the object of a review? What are the review writer's obligations?

This depends on the outlet. I actually do think the big sites should be acting as consumer advocates, even if I wish they were a little bit more adept at doing so. For myself, and for the kind of writing I find most interesting, I think the point of a review is to illuminate what a game is actually about, beyond the surface level of the plot and the play mechanics. How do they intersect? How do the game's apparent goals seem to mesh or conflict with its execution? What is this game trying to say? A reviewer's obligation is an honest and thorough attempt to find both the question and the answer.

Question 2: If the purpose of a review is to suggest to consumers how they should spend their time and money, why do we avoid less-granular grading scales such as Buy, Try, or Avoid? Example: Giant Bomb founder and former Gamespot editorial director Jeff Gerstmann told MTV's Multiplayer blog that “'How can I save people money today?' is basically the kind of mentality that I tackle this stuff with.” Under Gerstmann's directorship, Gamespot reviewed games on a hundred-point scale. Is a 9.6 different than a 9.7 when the wisdom of a purchase is what the reviewer wants to communicate?

Well, I don't think this is the purpose of all reviews. Like I said, for Gamespot or IGN, it probably is, and that's valuable in its own right. But for what I'm after in reviews, it doesn't matter if a game costs $100, or is free. I want what I say about it today to be true whether it's brand-new, part of a "Greatest Hits" collection, or even eventually available for free as abandonware. I probably don't always meet that goal, but it is the goal.

Question 3: Actual sales rarely correlate with review scores in cases where games are not also heavily hyped and marketed. Increasingly, gamers pre-order games prior to the publication of reviews. Interactive demos allow our audiences to decide for themselves whether or not a game will be worth their dollars. In addition, word of mouth and message board discussions inform our potential audiences' purchasing decisions with an intimacy and directness that we cannot provide. Finally, review aggregation sites such as Metacritic mute the bias of individual reviewers and provide a bigger picture. Do these circumstances suggest that our self-perception is, well, delusional – a throwback to a time when magazines and websites were gaming's gatekeepers? If our audiences believe this, even if we do not, what are they really reading for?

I don't think my self-perception is what Shawn implies here. I've had too many conversations with Phoenix readers who weren't aware that the paper even runs game reviews to get too full of myself. But this is part of the argument for deeper, better game reviews. It's good that gamers can decide on their own what to get, thanks to demos. It's not so good that a well-oiled PR campaign can turn an iffy game into a million-seller. If reviewers want to consider themselves gatekeepers, they are doing a very bad job of it -- numerous and varied counterexamples not withstanding.

Question 4: Can criticism (concerned with telling our audiences what they're spending time and/or money playing as opposed to whether or not a game is worth spending time and/or money to play) coexist with reviews? Is a competent review also a critique -- as is so often the case where lit, movies, and music are concerned -- or should we separate the two?

I think the best reviews would have a little from column A and a little from column B. If a review is written well enough, even if it leaves out some things that might be important, a reader should still get an idea of the game's gestalt experience. They may read a positive review and be convinced that a game is not for them, or read a negative review that nevertheless convinces them to give the game a chance. The goal isn't for readers to agree with everything the reviewer says, but for the reviewer to provide food for thought.

Question 5: What can (or should) such criticism take into account?

I think I got to this up above somewhere, but to distill it, I'll paraphrase Roger Ebert: "What is this game about, and how is it about it?" I'm still irked by criticisms of No More Heroes that complained about jagged graphics and the limits of the Santa Destroy overworld. The game was a satire. Those things were manifestly the point of the game. Now, a reviewer may still fairly dislike the game for these reasons and more, but it was a dereliction of duty not to accurately interpret the game's intent. On a broader scale, I believe games have a responsibility to be user-friendly, thoughtful, and moral (not moralistic). These are all things I try to think about when I write a game review.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thanksgiving leftovers: Left 4 Dead

Above: My family treats Thanksgiving dinner the same way.

I've been lying awake at night thinking about what wrong ever since my last, unsuccessful game of Left 4 Dead. Last Wednesday night, I was playing the "Blood Harvest" campaign with Chris and Michael, plus a random XBL denizen to round out our crew. It's fair to say that we weren't the most adroit zombie slayers you'll ever meet, but we stuck together, were generous with our health packs, and plowed our way through to the final chapter without too much trouble.

We just couldn't crack the last stand. Every campaign ends with a sustained siege by the infected against a fortified location. If you can withstand the attack long enough, a rescue vehicle arrives. We tried this one 5 or 6 times, barricading ourselves in a secluded farmhouse over and over, and nobody ever made it to the evac. Only twice, in fact, did we even survive long enough for transport to show up, and both times nobody made it from the house to the vehicle.

So what happened? I'd played a public game with strangers earlier that day -- the "No Mercy" campaign -- and all 4 of us had gotten to the chopper without much trouble. I would have expected it to be easier when I was actually communicating with people and, you know, participating fully in the game.

There were a few problems, all with the same root cause. We didn't fail every time our unit integrity broke down, but every time we did fail, that was why. Our silent fourth player was the only one who wouldn't share his health packs. At one point during the siege, I had about 10 health points, while my three teammates were all safely in the green. Either Michael or Chris would have healed me if he could have, I'm sure, but this stranger was holding onto the only one, and refused to share. A couple of us mentioned it. I ran next to him to make it easy for him. He wouldn't do it. So what happened? I died in the next wave of attacks, and my teammates lost cover on their flank. Worst of all, it was friendly fire from this same teammate that did me in.

Not to put all the blame on that guy. I made my own mistakes. At one point, only Chris and I remained alive, and I heard the rescue vehicle lumbering outside. I should have followed him down the stairs and stuck close on the short trip from the house to the vehicle. Instead, I jumped out a second-story window, sure I could close the gap before any infected got to me. You can guess how this story ends. I got ensnared, and was dragged to the ground about ten feet from the vehicle. I was looking into its open door. I tried to tell Chris to forget about me and get out of there (how noble), but they got to him, too, and we both died spitting distance from our salvation.

Somehow, after all this, the game only got harder. I didn't realize the Director was such a sadist. Dispirited, we gave up.

We could have done a few things differently. First, we should have made the effort to close all the doors in the farmhouse. It doesn't hold back the infected for too long, but every second counts in that situation.

Second, we should have been smarter about our defensive positions. We actually got a pretty decent setup going by the end. The second floor has a staircase, three bedrooms, and a closet. With one person at the top of the stairs, two people at the doors of the far bedrooms, and a fourth person in the closet, covering the middle bedroom, you essentially have everyone's back covered. Why we didn't make more of an effort to stick to this, I don't know. It might have worked.

Finally, and most important, whoever was left when the vehicle showed up should have maintained cohesion for as long as possible on the way out. But if that failed, I think it would have been okay if only one person got out alive. I would have been perfectly happy watching my teammate get away safely as the evac kicked up dust all over my gnawed corpse. That's just the kind of guy I am.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Thanksgiving leftovers: Mirror's Edge

Above: Allow at least one hour after eating before playing Mirror's Edge

Still trying to recover from a long weekend spent gorging myself on turkey, stuffing, gravy, pie, potatoes, cranberry sauce, egg nog... (Note to international readers: You might be wondering how a holiday centered on gluttony differs from an average day here in America. Shut up.)

Although I spent much of my weekend traveling and visiting with relatives, I squeezed in a little bit of gaming time. Mirror's Edge continues to baffle and frustrate. I keep reading things that sound like high-minded defenses of the game, or at least more charitable interpretations than my own. And there is something strangely alluring about this game in the abstract. Each time I load it up, I find myself a little excited, thinking that this time I'll crack through that shell and get to the delicious nut inside. That feeling lasts no longer than two minutes.

But considering how varied the reaction to Mirror's Edge seems to be, I'd hesitate to tell anybody they should avoid it at all costs. Lots of people seem to love it. I think this is yet another situation where we bump up against the different reasons people have for playing games. For some, the punishing, trial-and-error style of Mirror's Edge's story mode is a virtue. For me, it's a dealbreaker. I want a little breathing room in there. It's a six-hour game, but I think it could be made twice as long by adding more laid-back platforming sections, with less at stake. Not only would ME not suffer from its wider focus, it would actually benefit. Its insistence on constant chase-scene mechanics is a detriment.

Yes, this is the opposite of what I say about 99 games out of 100. Hang on, I'm going somewhere with this.

The reason Mirror's Edge exists is to showcase its first-person free-running mechanics. I don't think that's in dispute. Matthew Gallant compared it in that respect to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, which is a comparison I've also made. There's a game that provided you a new way to control your avatar, and then wisely stepped back and let you experiment with it. THPS had game-like goals -- hit switches, collect letters, find secret areas -- but permitted you the freedom to pursue them or not, according to your whims.

Another comparison I'd make is to Crackdown, which was a more traditional platforming game, but whose main appeal also came from the way its characters interacted with the game world. Your character could climb buildings, and eventually jump over them. There was some old-school run-and-gun action in there, which was necessary if you wanted to advance the story, but the game was most fun when you just prowled the rooftops for agility orbs. You had that option. You could play it your way. The designers didn't give you a set of tools and then refuse to let you use them.

Granted, that's not a perfect analogy to what happens in Mirror's Edge. This game's designers give you a set of tools and expect you to master them immediately. When I said the game could use more breathing room, this is what I mean: there simply isn't enough time or opportunity to learn the game mechanics in a consequence-free environment. As a result, you're stumbling through what are supposed to be fluid chase sequences. Unless you're an expert, your character jerks to a halt every few steps, and dies as often as most people blink.

(I loved the way Chris Dahlen put it: "I’d say that its core problem is that it looks like Rock Band 2 but plays like Mega Man 9; you want to settle in and enjoy the thrill, but imagine if Rock Band stopped the song every single time you hit a bum note.")

So often I feel like my argument against a game is, "I don't like this because I am bad at it." I feel a little bit like that now. But I wasn't good at Rock Band when I started playing it, or Tony Hawk, or Street Fighter, or Quake, or anything else that was new or different. How a game guides you up the learning curve says a lot about its priorities -- and, I'd argue, about its quality.

Huh, I was going to talk about Left 4 Dead in here, too. Guess we'll just save that for tomorrow.