Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Get to the point!

Above: Link actually gets to do something.

The first two hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword are just plain bad. You spend a lot of time reading endless boring dialogue; you receive lessons in the most banal gameplay mechanics, such as how to jump over a gap (you run toward the gap); you are leered at by grotesque circus freaks that represent some twisted Nintendo designer's idea of whimsy. You get a lot of minor quest objectives like, "Go talk to Pipit!" and "Hey, why not talk to Pipit again?" It's not a tutorial for people who have never played Skyward Sword, it is a tutorial for people who have never played a video game before, and it is excruciating.

When I complained about the slow start on Twitter, Kotaku's Stephen Totilo assured me that Skyward Sword becomes spectacular about 6-10 hours in. For a game that I've read is at least 50 hours long, that's perhaps a reasonable introductory period. In absolute terms, it's ridiculous. Only in a video game are you expected to log a work day slogging through nonsense just to get to the good part.

Every medium has its point of no return. If a book hasn't grabbed me by 100 pages, I'm likely to drop it. If a movie hasn't made its case within 45 minutes or so, I have no problem turning it off. In neither case does that seem like I haven't given the work a fair shot. In a video game, though, if I put 6 hours into something and don't enjoy it, people will still be counseling patience, telling me that it will all pay off eventually.*

Sure, some games have slow starts. All I ask is that it keep me interested during that period. One of my favorite games of the past few years, Far Cry 2, took a good 4-6 hours before it got completely up to speed, but it was good enough to start with that I was willing to make the investment. You do have to wonder: how good can a game become in order to justify a bad start? Isn't the beginning a part of the experience, too?

As usual, where you land on this argument depends on what you think the purpose of a video game is. Totilo made the analogy to learning to play a musical instrument: in Skyward Sword, he said, the game "is a piano and all you're doing right now is playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." But I think it's an imperfect comparison, because I already know how to play this metaphorical piano, and having to start with the simplest possible tune is, yes, a waste of my time. Where Skyward Sword deviates from the standard is by giving me 1:1 motion controls for the sword. So why not start there? Why not assume that I know how to jump across a gap without making some elfin freak explain it to me in numbing detail?

Besides which, I may have a more active role in playing a game than I would in listening to a song, but I'm still the consumer and not the artist. To use a different analogy, if Skyward Sword were a book, then the implicit agreement, when I crack the cover, is that I already know how to read. I don't need to be taken through the alphabet first.

I'm not trying to be cynical. I sincerely hope that the next time I talk about Skyward Sword, it's to say how good it's become. But no matter how good it ends up being, I can't imagine that it ever justifies such a slow start. There are only so many hours in the day.

*This was taken to extremes with Final Fantasy XIII, you may recall, when people talked about it getting good about 20 hours in. They weren't wrong, necessarily, but I thought the game was plenty fun from the beginning, thank you very much.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Above: Nathan Drake searches for something interesting to say.

My review of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is up at thephoenix.com. I was a little disappointed by it. Maybe it's just a case of expectations: the stuff that was good was not really better or different than what I expected, and the stuff that wasn't good seemed like a regression from Uncharted 2.

Even though Drake's Deception hit a lot of the same notes that I praised so much in Among Thieves, here it felt more obligatory. There were slow parts where you walked through city scenes, and puzzles, and some decent platforming, and a whole bunch of awful interminable shootouts. Worse still, I found myself less drawn to Nathan Drake as a character this time around. He still has some great lines (and some great line deliveries, thanks to Mr. North), but I just wasn't buying what Naughty Dog was selling. And I wasn't really sure why.

At any rate, it's still a decent enough game, but I do hope that if there's a fourth Uncharted, that it brings with it a few more surprises.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Quiz: The Year in Swooning

Match each of these games with the breathless quotation from its review.

1. LittleBigPlanet 2
2. Dead Space 2
3. Portal 2
4. L.A. Noire
5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
6. Gears of War 3
7. Rage
8. Batman: Arkham City
9. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A. "The sequel is five times bigger and about a billion times better. You do the math."

B. "...every bit as charming and ingenious as its predecessor and, what's even more impressive, it raises the bar for what people should expect from the gaming industry as a whole."
C. "...capable of satisfying both fans and newcomers to the genre thanks to great gameplay and an involving story. A strong contender to the title of best game of the year and of the entire generation."

D. "...not only one of the best stories you ever went through, but one of the best and most addictive multiplayer experiences ever to hit consoles."

E. "From the art direction to the genre-bending gameplay... a landmark in game design that is sure to be referenced in the years to come. Buy it without hesitation."

F. "...jumps from one extraordinary set piece to the next, pushing the way a videogame narrative can be presented. Equal parts exhilarating and emotional, I can't say I have ever played a more perfectly paced game."

G. "...much more than just the best FPS experience I've had in 2011; it is a pivotal and redefining moment for the future of game design that will push your console further than anyone though it could go."

H. "The fantastic story, excellent pacing, interesting and engaging puzzles and other incredible facets to the game make it one that people should experience at any cost."

I. "...a ludicrously intense, graphically gorgeous, thoroughly atmospheric game that takes everything the first title did and ramps up the absurdity to dangerous levels."

J. "In the end it is something that will go down in history as one of the most innovative games of our time, and for good reason. You are simply supposed to have this game in your collection, if you consider yourself a gamer by any definition of the word."


1. B (MEGamers)
2. I (Destructoid)
3. H (Game Focus)
4. J (Team Xbox)
5. E (Worth Playing)
6. D (Xbox Addict)
7. G (Game Chronicles)
8. A (Games Radar)
9. F (Destructoid)
10. C (Mondo Xbox)


Which the best game Seth Schiesel has ever played this time?

1. LittleBigPlanet 2
2. Child of Eden
3. Shadow Cities
4. Batman: Arkham City
5. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

A. "It may actually be the most interesting, innovative, provocative and far-reaching video game in the world right now, on any system. That’s a strong, perhaps outrageous, statement. "

B. "...Sony’s stunning new entertainment ecosystem for the PlayStation 3. Entertainment ecosystem? That may sound like hype..."

C. "the finest, most exciting action-adventure video game in years."

D. "In its ambition, scope and sheer love for its decades of lore... the finest comic book video game ever to slip into spandex."

E. "...one of the most inspirational exhibits of artistry to be found in interactive entertainment today."

1. B (link)
2. E (link)
3. A (link)
4. D (link)
5. C (link)

As always, compiled with the help of Metacritic.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Battlefield 3

Above: Jet gameplay. Not pictured: the pilot crashing immediately.

Ahoy-hoy! My review of Battlefield 3 is up at Paste. It is nice to be back at Paste.

This was a tough one to write, for reasons that I think will be clear when you read the review. When things go well, Battlefield 3 is stunning. The problem isn't just that things don't always go well, it's that sometimes they don't go at all. My play experiences tended to fall into one of five categories.

From best to worst:
  1. Time of my life -- awesome squadmates, great connection, action-movie moments that make me weep with joy.
  2. Dumbass teammates, but an incredibly fun shooter with constant surprises.
  3. Connection troubles, lag, lost XP and unlocks. Starting to wonder if it's worth it.
  4. "Joining Server" loop for three goddamn hours. Rebooting and cursing.
  5. Single-player.

For instance, I once paired up with a squadmate who was a virtuouso with a tank. He was driving, and pummeling our enemies. I was acquitting myself serviceably in the turret, and ended the match with something like 10 kills to 2 deaths. (Usually, for me, it's the reverse.) Not only did we win the game, but we earned the ribbon for the best squad, and even though it was all him, it was a feeling of satisfaction that lasted me through many worse performances.

Even when there is little or no cohesion, the game is still somehow incredibly fun, if only because so many variables are at play. At times, I held down capture points by myself, just a solitary man lying in some tall grass with a heavy machine gun. Once, after respawning, I wiped out the entire squad that had cut me down just moments before. And then, of course, there are those magical moments when you accidentally crash a helicopter onto somebody. I find it hard not to run upstairs and recount these things to my wife in excruciating detail.

There's every reason to believe that the Battlefield experience will get better, and I hope it does, because right now the thin candy shell is not properly supporting the chocolatey middle. I don't think I'm done with this game, not by a longshot.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Batman: Arkham City

Above: Batman struggles with the new Google Reader interface.

My review of Batman: Arkham City is up at thephoenix.com. I think that some reviewers have gone a little overboard with their praise (even though this review score was hilarious), but it's still a great game, and one of the better ones I have played this year.

For as much as people are still griping about the sins of past Bat-games, I think that if this were a new IP, we'd be more measured in our praise. Arkham City can tip too far into fan service, and sacrifice narrative cohesion in favor of Jeph Loeb-style stunt casting. Even though I like Rocksteady's interpretation of lesser villains like Clayface and Solomon Grundy, they also serve the same function in this game as the moles do in Whack-a-Mole. The same was true of Arkham Asylum, but less so. City is the better game; Asylum was the better yarn.

Now that we're in the thick of things, I feel even more behind than usual. I've got a Battlefield 3 review in the pipeline (which marks  my long-awaited return to Paste!), and Uncharted 3 on deck for the Phoenix. Somewhere in there, I've also got Lord of the Rings: War in the North to play. First world problems, indeed.