Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dave and Buster's brilliant business plan

Above: After 10 PM, the "DB" stands for "douchebags."

This past weekend, I went to a Dave and Buster's for the first time. As a chain restaurant-cum-video arcade, it's actually not too bad. The chicken fingers were crunchy, and the beers were tall and cold. Not much more you can ask from a casual dining establishment.

The arcade portion feels more like a casino. In my experience, arcades are dark and dingy places, with hidden corners you're better off not exploring. Dave and Buster's is big and airy, cacophonous and bright. Trying to eat dinner while watching the attract mode of dozens of arcade machines is not easy.

What was interesting was that the place clearly was not catering to gamers in any real sense. It was all about flashy peripherals. Almost every game they had was either a driving game or a shooting game. If you could sit down on it, even better. There were no fighting games, no beat-em-ups. The only game I recall seeing with a traditional joystick-and-buttons control scheme was Virtua Tennis 3, and even that was on a huge, fancy cabinet.

Razing Storm

So I mostly played shooters. It's amazing how, even though they're nearly identical on the surface, the quality can vary so much. Razing Storm was a good one, a Time Crisis clone from Namco that had a much better gun and fully destructible environments. I also liked Sega's Rambo game, which interspersed clips from the movie with fast-paced shooting. (Fun fact: In the game's first chapter, which takes place during Rambo III, you're assisting the freedom loving, god fearing men of the Taliban. That worked out well.)

Deadstorm Pirates

Best of all: Deadstorm Pirates, another one by Namco. This was one where you get inside an enclosed space that seems to be made entirely out of subwoofers. You're shooting ghost pirates, not unlike those in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, with some kind of high-powered harpoon gun. Deadstorm Pirates distinguishes itself with a simple and fun co-op feature. When you and your partner cross the streams, you get a damage multiplier. There are also mid-mission QTEs that take advantage of a built-in ship's wheel. Good times.

Paradise Lost

The worst shooter I played was called Paradise Lost, which seemed to be based on the original Far Cry. Hard to say why it wasn't good, really, except that it was bland to look at and bland to play. The better shooters on offer all had some kind of twist, whether it was Razing Storm's destructible environments, Rambo's rage meter, or Deadstorm Pirates' FREAKING GHOST PIRATES.

I also played Daytona USA. They had 8 cabinets networked. Amen.

What's weird about Dave and Buster's is how hard it is to know how much money you've spent. It's just one abstraction on top of another. You can get certain entrees with a game card for a discount. I got chicken fingers and a $20 game card for $23.99. In other words, dinner was four bucks. Good deal, right?

Well, I have no idea. That $20 game card turned out to be worth 100 credits. And all the games cost a different amount of credits, which were rarely round numbers. Skee Ball was a mere 2.4 credits, while Guitar Hero arcade cost 8.0.

Then you add tickets to the equation. If you're already struggling with the connection between your $20 game card, your 100 credits, and the 5.7 credits you just blew on the claw grabber, now try figuring out what your tickets are worth. For one thing, each ticket is actually worth two tickets. Why would that be confusing? It says so right on the ticket.

So after you spend all the credits on your game card and earn a pile of tickets, you can head to the "winner's circle" to redeem them for valuable prizes. Granted, we played a lot of video games, which don't reward players with tickets, but we also played a fair bit of Skee Ball and those weird coin-dropping games, and had a pretty fat stack when all was said and done. Turned out we had earned about 270 tickets.

What does 270 tickets buy you at Dave and Buster's? A little can of Tootsie Rolls and a thing of Pop Rocks. If you've been following along at home, that means we bought about fifty cents' worth of penny candy with our $40 of game cards.

Obviously, this is why Dave and Buster's is still in business. Well played, gentlemen.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Red Dead Redemption

Above: The evening redness in the west.

Sometimes, so many people talk about a game that it hardly seems worth adding to the discussion. Red Dead Redemption is such a game. For what it's worth, I thought it was pretty darn good. My review of Red Dead Redemption has been posted at thephoenix.com. It barely talks about the gameplay at all. Those are my favorite ones to write.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Above: Feeling dwarfed.

Every time a new Super Mario game comes out, I approach it breathlessly, and spend the first few hours in a reverie, jumping and climbing and squashing mushrooms with abandon. In 25 years and countless iterations, something core to the Super Mario experience hasn't changed. Playing Super Mario Galaxy 2, which I reviewed for this week's Phoenix, isn't a nostalgia trip as much as it seems to unify a lifetime of gaming into a single moment. It's like playing games was when I was a kid; it's like playing games will be when I am old. It almost exists outside the normal progression of games.

That sounds like high praise, doesn't it? And it is, in a sense, and probably the sort of sentiment that has earned Super Mario Galaxy 2 a Metacritic score of 98, one of the highest ever. I can't say the reviews are wrong, as though I feel like we'd played a different game. Galaxy 2 is a playground through which a few basic gameplay principles are applied rigorously and with increasing ingenuity. This is virtual play in its purest form. I get that.

I just don't want to play any more. After the first few hours, the sugar rush wears off. I find myself trying over and over to acquire new stars, failing over and over again until the fun is gone and it's become a grim sort of attrition. Galaxy 2 hands out extra lives like breath mints at a chain restaurant, so it's rare that a single challenge results in a game over screen. But, in a way, it's almost worse to have 20 tries or more to get something right, when it stopped being enjoyable after the fifth try. I can't give up now! I've got 15 more tries to get this star!

Why am I trying to get more stars? So I can get more stars, of course. Lots of games use feedback loops like this, successfully, but here it's unadorned. I have a hard time imagining the player who truly desires to save the princess. Finding her is secondary, maybe even tertiary, to the ultimate goal of mastering a hostile game world.

Galaxy 2 does have lots of sights and sounds that I want to experience, but I don't want to have to earn it in blood. Ultimately, I don't play games to be good at them. These days I can't imagine why else I would play a Super Mario game. It's not that Galaxy 2 is the hardest game I've ever played, it's that there's no other factor compelling me forward -- no story, no moments of serendipitous delight, nothing but the next looming challenge.

The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist, and the biggest trick Nintendo ever pulled was convincing the world that Mario games were easy breezy fun. They are hardcore.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Banned in Boston: The Splinter Cell Conviction review

For reasons that weren't adequately explained, a review of Splinter Cell: Conviction that I filed about six weeks ago never ran. Either there was a space crunch, or no one wanted to waste ink on a bad game, or Third Echelon has a highly placed mole in the paper's hierarchy. Another, less likely explanation is that the review itself wasn't very good. But that couldn't be, could it? You tell me.




Stealth bomb

Splinter Cell lacks conviction

“Stealth action” has always been an oxymoron. Satisfying though it may be, there’s not much action in crouching behind a crate for five minutes, waiting for an enemy guard to turn around so you can snap his neck. The Metal Gear Solid series has attempted to solve this problem, with varying success, by including slam-bang boss battles alongside the main course. The Splinter Cell series, by contrast, has always been more about diversionary tactics, creative use of the environment, and those breathless moments when its outnumbered protagonist waits silently for armed bad guys to pass him by.

Yet the problem with the newest Splinter Cell game, subtitled “Conviction,” isn’t that it paints a more overtly violent veneer on the robust stealth mechanics that have distinguished past entries. In Conviction, Sam Fisher has turned into a man with no allegiances and nothing to lose, and little reason not to kill everyone in his way. This time, stealth is a survival tactic, not a mandate. Sam can blast his way from one end of a map to another if the player chooses. This is a little harder than using tried-and-true stealth tactics, but that’s as it should be. Of course you’re more likely to die if you charge your enemies with guns blazing.

No, the problem here is all on the surface. Not to put too fine a point on it, playing Splinter Cell: Conviction is a pain in the ass. For some reason, the designers decided to ignore every other action game ever made, and come up with their own creative button mapping scheme. Look, every game needs to tweak its control system to fit its mechanics, but standards have evolved over the decades for a reason. This must be the only game in history in which you reload your weapon by clicking the left analog stick. Good luck remembering that in the heat of a firefight.

Not only unpredictable, the controls are inconsistent. One of Sam’s most effective attacks is “death from above,” whereby he drops onto an unsuspecting enemy and kills him instantly. When Sam is dangling from a high spot, the left trigger performs the move. When he is standing on an upper level, the B button does it. This is horrible interface design.

Some of the annoyances are even more rudimentary than that. Sam’s opponents are motormouths, to a man. Each one spouts inane babble that is apparently supposed to provoke the player into giving away Sam’s position, but more likely will provoke the player into giving away his copy of the game. Kirk Hamilton, of the Gamer Melodico blog, bravely catalogued over 100 lines of taunting enemy dialogue, including gems like, “Fisher? That guy's harder to kill than a cockroach with an Uzi.” God help him.

It’s probably not worth mentioning how stupid the story is, except to say that the harder you try to understand what the hell is going on, the less sense it all makes. But the conspiracy goes to the highest levels! This, too, would be fine if checkpoints were placed after cinematic sequences, and not before them. Dying in this game often means watching the same idiotic and unskippable cutscenes over and over.

A mode called “Deniable Ops” cuts the story almost entirely and lays out challenge maps. This is a little better, but gets at another of the conceptual problems: when your character is in shadow, he’s invisible to enemies, which is represented by the screen turning black and white. This makes it impossible to see anything. You can also use special sonar goggles, which illuminate enemies quite well, but obscure everything in the environment. Then again, with a game this irritating, maybe blindness is a plus.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Light show

Above: Flash! Thunder!

My actual review of Alan Wake is up now at thephoenix.com.

I think it's worth spending even a little more time on the lighting. The game plays around with lots of different light sources, primarily Alan's flashlight, but also including road flares, flashbangs, street lights, car headlights, neon signs, spotlights, and many more. Each has its own look and feel, and in a way the lights almost become characters. When Alan lights up a flare, it's nearly as blinding for the player as it is for the Taken. Watching the flare gradually fade and sputter, taking Alan's temporary safety with it, is a tense experience. You find yourself willing it to stay lit just a while longer.

That kind of thing is important, because the shooting itself is pretty easy. There's a heaping helping of auto-aim, and there wasn't a single moment when I felt like I had to conserve my ammo or my batteries. The limited resource Alan has is light, but only when he's got multiple enemies on him. It's very easy to kill one or two enemies, but when four or five are onscreen it's usually better to say the hell with it and run. I still might have preferred to feel a tad more desperate in the course of things, but to me it's always a plus when I can actually get through a game without tearing my hair out.

This is the second game this year, after Deadly Premonition, that is apparently bursting with references to Twin Peaks. Not having seen the show, I can't say myself whether that's true, but it does raise an interesting point: I should probably watch Twin Peaks.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010



Last week, for the first time in awhile, I played a video game. It was Alan Wake. I liked it. Maybe it wasn't as epochal as I might have hoped from a game that was five years in the making and that was pitched, if not necessarily as a killer app, then as a defining console exclusive. That's okay. Not every game has to rewrite the rulebook. Alan Wake is a good, solid shooter, with good, solid controls, and a good story that is more wobbly than solid.

The graphics are terrific, and I mention that not because the game is pretty to look at -- although it is -- but because the high-tech visuals are there in service of the gameplay, not as a substitute for it. In a game about light and dark, it's important for the light and dark to look right. They've never looked better than they do here. Flashlight beams, road flares, and far-off neon signs really do seem to be burning through a living darkness. There's a tactile sense to it all.

And even though the story is hard to follow, maybe that's okay. I suspect it would be less satisfying if I understood it. Still, this is manifestly a narrative game. Alan follows linear paths almost exclusively, with brief diversions to pick up supplies that never take him too far off the road. He picks up his cell phone without player input in order to hold long conversations. Many of the most interesting things Alan does happen only in cutscene form. The game is split into six episodes, none of which takes longer than about an hour and a half, and even if you immediately start playing the next episode, you get a "previously on Alan Wake" recap that's straight from television. Yes, it's clear that Remedy's primary aim here was to tell a story.

Yet the developer apparently didn't have enough faith in the power of their labyrinthine plot to compel players to repeat playthroughs. Instead, they populated their brief game with 100 barely hidden collectible coffee thermoses.

Look, I'm not against hidden items. Alan Wake's world is also dotted with portable radios, which you can turn on and listen to a local radio show. This serves a couple of purposes: one, the host is a minor character in the game's plot, and listening to his program sheds a little light on the spooky happenings in Bright Falls. Second -- and maybe this is just a personal thing -- late-night radio is really, really creepy, and it suits the game's atmosphere perfectly.

But these thermoses... yeesh. I don't know if they serve any purpose beyond the inevitable achievement for finding all 100. Maybe there's a status boost or something. Sure doesn't seem like it, though. They seem to be there only as an incentive to explore, which would be fine if they added anything to the game, but the reason to look for thermoses is just to look for thermoses. That's a nicely rounded circle that Remedy has drawn, but it's kind of like a perimeter fence.

Furthermore, having things like collectible thermoses can undercut the forward motion of the plot. At one point, Alan was charging into a cabin while somebody -- Barry, maybe -- was calling for help upstairs. Bam! goes the front door. Alan storms in, flashlight beam and pistol at the ready. Barry is screaming his head off. And instead of running upstairs, Alan notices a thermos, and takes a detour to pick it up. Then, for the hell of it, he rummages around the entire first floor of the house, looking for Energizer® batteries (hopefully the longer-lasting lithium variety!).

Eventually, the sound sample of Barry's cries for help stops playing, but there's no reason for Alan to stop looking for ammo before going upstairs. Barry's not going anywhere. These are the value systems video games are still working with. Even the "serious" ones.