Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Above: Adam Jensen prepares to enter the Matrix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

PC gaming, I am in you

Above: The raw materials.

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

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

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

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

Above: The build in process.

1) PC gaming is awesome.

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

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

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

Above: The finished product.

2) PC gaming is awful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*I should get special treatment because I review games.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Are game reviewers bad at games?

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

These people are not usually game reviewers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


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

Hmm. Guess that's it.