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Monday, December 1, 2008

Edge Online's Gaming Lexicon

Edge Online has released an article entitled "A New Lexicon of Game Words." The named experiences are common to all gamers, and I really hope that some of these catch on. I especially appreciate the ideas of "Arenaitus", "Playacting", "Killicious" and "Finger-Feat."

Read up and incorporate into your daily videogame discussions, these things have needed to be named for a while now.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review Week Day 4: Tomb Raider Anniversary

The original Tomb Raider was one of the first computer games I spent any time with, and, like many impressionable early teens, it had an enchanting effect on me. For me, returning to the lost valley was like returning to my childhood (now if only someone will remake X-Com).

With the recent increase in the number of high production games there is a higher concentration of great games, so it's good sometimes to have a game come along that reminds us how things can go wrong. Tomb Raider: Anniversary is not a bad game, it's just mediocre. There are a lot of things it does well, a few things it does passably and a couple of things that it does poorly enough to detract from the rest of it.

The puzzling is excellent, with some true stumpers. They are all solvable, especially when the camera is working on your side and helps to hint at the next steps. Often, the continuous movement through a level gives a great feeling of acrobatic momentum. Towards the end, however, the puzzle difficulty comes less as a question of how to move around the environment and becomes the technical challenge of actually executing the necessary motions in the time allotted. In these moments the inconsistent camera becomes a serious issue. The angle of the camera at times works against the way you're moving the thumbpad (I played this with a 360 controller on the PC), sending you jumping off into space.

The Boss fights and cinematics show the same inconsistency. Most are entertaining, though only a few are actually difficult. The real challenge comes from finding the trick to beat them, different for each one. Each boss fight is preceded by or culminates in a quicktime event (some both) which are passably done and at times take away from the tedium of the inane cutscenes (story has never been a strong suit of the series). However, in some moments they drastically lessen the intended impact of the scene they are in, most obviously when Lara shoots Larson. Her over-dramatic display of guilt is a farce, since the game demands that you do it in order to proceed. This disconnect between impact and mechanic became especially apparent with the appearance of the T-Rex. What remains, in the original, one of the most cinematic, iconic and epic moments in gaming is here reduced to a trite and gimmicky quicktime event and boss battle. Before it was actually terrifying, as the music slowly built to the moment when the T-rex burst from around the corner, forcing you to run panicking away, firing wildly. In this game it's remarkably easy to off a T-Rex with a few spiky logs and timely button presses.

While many of the advancements in Lara's control and freedom of motion make the puzzles and levels more complex and interesting, changes like the quicktime events cheapen the effect. The one thing that the developers got very right though, is limiting the changes to those few things. There are no new weapons, no new levels, no drastic changes to the story (as incoherent as it is). The setpieces from the original remain largely intact despite the new ways you'll moves around them. If you have fond memories of the original Tomb Raider, this is an engaging walk down memory lane, even if it does fall short of the nostalgia. If you're looking for an acrobatic puzzling game and need to fill some time before the next Prince of Persia, the 8 hours it takes to play this to completion are worth it. Despite its niggling control issues and the occasionally questionable design decisions, this is a solidly executed platformer with a great sense of momentum and scale.

EDIT: This is the final entry for the review week, school and work have taken over and I don't have time to finish Bioshock to review it. As soon as I do have some time and some more games to talk about (Spore, Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 especially) I hope to have another review week.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Review Week Day 3: Crysis

Crysis embodies a fairly new class of games that we are seeing more and more often as the number of gamers and the available money increases. It is the gaming equivalent of a summer blockbuster: high production values, great special effects, high action and high adrenaline experiences complete with mind-numbing plot and questionable acting (though it's actually quite good in comparison with most other games). We've always had big budget games, but the budget and production for a game like Quake 2 that reached tens of thousands of people is pittance in comparison with the big money titles that we are seeing these days with six and seven digit sales numbers.

With that much money circling around, we've seen, in the last few years, a phenomenal increase in the number of truly excellent games that have been released. Crysis is no exception. But high production values and spectacles can only help or hurt a game so much. A game lives and dies by the quality of its gameplay (there is another interesting discussion to be had about the imbalance of elements inherent to games, but again, not in this post); and in Crysis the gameplay is solid.

The addition of the nanosuit turns this from an above average shooter into the high quality game it is. It acts as an enabler and exaggerating influence to every different playstyle, freeing the player to act how they want. Regardless of whether you like to stealth and snipe, to stealth and ambush, to run and gun or just to overpower your enemies, the suit functions will make each path more interesting, more effective and especially more fun. As the first type (like many gamers) I thoroughly enjoyed leading teams of North Koreans through the woods in panic. The game heightens every playstyle so that one truly feels like a supersoldier, like a one man army, but it doesn't make it easy. You will still be outgunned and outmanned, working from an inferior strategic position much of the time. The combat rewards bold moves, cunning tactics and above all careful and accurate shooting. The enemies go down fast when you shoot for the head, but the fights will take forever if you just spray and pray.

But that's just the first half of the game. In the second half, *SPOILER TIME* when inside the mountain and subsequently when the aliens emerge from said mountain, the combat changes tremendously. Here as you move from setpiece to setpiece there is little cause to use stealth, as most of the enemies will know where you are when they appear. That does not, however, reduce the fun of the combat. Fighting the aliens in zero-g or in the frozen wastes is always fast, dizzying and frantic, with lots of spent ammunition and cover to cover dashes. The fights here are much shorter but far more hectic. Each fight and each setpiece builds the scale of the conflict, reaching a crescendo in the final climactic moments.

The endgame is exaggeratedly epic, and because of that incredibly fun. A few objectives on the ship do feel like padding (nuclear core), but are only noticeable because they feel like unnecessary lulls in the high-action finale. The story ends on a cliffhanger, leading into the imminent sequel, but the narrative arc for the game is sufficiently resolved to give a real feeling of accomplishment.

Crysis is a finely wrought game. The combat, with the addition of the nanosuit, is exaggerated and exciting. The story is ridiculous, but, like a summer blockbuster, we're not in it for story: we're here to blow stuff up. And thanks to the excellent Crytek engine stuff blows up real nice. The world is rendered beautifully, the enemies are clever and aggressive, the open levels have plenty of paths to victory and side objectives, and the linear levels have tremendous setpieces and difficult, epic fights. Crysis is extremely well built from start to finish and I highly recommend it for any shooter fan.

Review Week Day 2: Assassin's Creed

My apologies for not posting this last night; the election precluded anything else (happy dance). So today we'll bring you two, starting with Assassin's Creed.

Assassin's Creed brings me back to my days playing the original Tenchu games; but here, instead of worrying about line of sight and complete invisibility, the player is more concerned with the social acceptability of their actions. It's a great move that creates a number of interesting situations around a well developed and compelling game world. In most stealth action games ninety percent of the people you encounter are enemies that will shoot on sight and the rest are civilians more accurately described as walking alarms. Here ninety percent of the people you meet are the colorful fauna of a medieval Arabian city, and the other ten percent will ignore you until you do something ridiculous. The bustle of the cities creates a great living world that changes the staple stealth game dynamics in truly interesting ways. Here when you're stalking your target you are just another face in the crowd, and when you're making your escape you have a thousand wandering people to brush and barrel your way through.

The movement and the navigation are where the game shines. Whether you sprint through the streets bowling over old ladies or take to the roofs, the movement is fluid and engaging. Despite the unapproving reactions of the city's populace when you're scaling their neighbor's house, the freedom of motion is incredibly fun independent of the game's motives: it creates a situation where the player is driven to accomplish goals not for the sake of the game but for their own sake, to climb the highest building simply because it's there and they can. In aligning some of the side goals with this natural impulse (placing a Templar in a broken tower atop the cathedral in Acre, the numerous flags scattered across the roofs, the benefits granted by the vantage points), Ubisoft encourages the player to explore, to play, and to generally mess about. The assassination will wait for you, right now there are guards to stalk and side missions to complete, buildings to climb and archers to throw off rooftops.

Which brings us to the combat. Many have maligned the combat for being too repetitive, a complaint that seems to ignore the numerous new moves learned in the remarkably Zelda-esque progression system (every story point reached garners a new life bar and a new tool/ability). To call it repetitious is a matter of opinion and playstyle: the combat can allow for a purely defensive, countering posture, but there is a rhythm to it that utilizes all of the dodges, combinations and throws to full effect, a rhythm which changes depending on the weapon used. I found the combat exceedingly fun, to the point where I spent hours riding my horse through patrols and into military camps simply to see how quickly I could dispatch the guards that surrounded me. It was immensely satisfying toward the end of the game to slice through ten guards in as many seconds, or to kill a templar with a single, perfectly timed counter-attack.

The medieval conspiracy story is interesting enough to drive the play (little motivation is needed when one enjoys the gameplay), but the unskippable cutscenes got tedious at times, and the game ends so abruptly it makes the accomplishment less satisfying. There will obviously be a sequel, and the change of setting will be interesting, but the story ends too quickly to properly close the narrative arc. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the dissonance between the story a game is trying to tell and the actual actions of the player, but here is not the place for it. In this case the story has an interesting question of guilt for the murders you must do as a player, but that imposed guilt was mocked by my own actions. Altair's guilty conscience about the slaying of one of the monstrous assassination targets is rendered hollow when he is standing atop a throne of skulls built from the hundreds of guards murdered and hunted through the cities and kingdom.

There were some bothersome crash bugs in the menu system, and at times I experienced a ridiculous framerate increase in-game (ridiculous in part because my computer is on the lower end of the system reqs). Right now my save game is unplayable and freezes on every load, so I cannot go back and replay some of the missions. Regardless, this is a highly enjoyable game that I would recommend to anyone who likes stealth action and/or open-ended game worlds. The story is capable, the setting believable and the gameplay is remarkably fun.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Review Week Day 1: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2

It's been too long since last I posted here. And now, staring down the particularly gravid barrel of the recent and upcoming release schedule, I feel the need to clear my desk in preparation for the new games I will have to get my hands on. So despite the needs of school and work breathing down my neck, I've decided that for each day of this week I will take some time out of my schedule to write a brief review of one of the games I've finished recently. We'll begin with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2.

GRAW2 is nothing if not a capable tactical military shooter. Emphasis on tactical, emphasis on military, de-emphasis on shooter. This is not a game for Quake 3 tournie jockies. This, like its predecessor and its predecessor's predecessor, is a game about tactics. The damage model is unforgiving; only two or three shots are needed to off you or any of your squadmates. The movement is slow and technical, but the tension provided by the ever-present snipers and machinegun nests balances well against the tedium of crossing a city at a cautious stroll. To add to the feeling of realism, your character's movements have a distinct weight not usually seen in a video game. It is disorienting at first that the button presses do not translate immediately into onscreen motion, but it strongly conveys the feeling that you have a physical presence in the game world. Your character, burdened with body armor and equipment, can only move so fast, so you have to think carefully before stepping into the street.

The campaign picks up the story close on the heels of the first GRAW, with Mexican rebels in alledged posession of a nuclear weapon threatening the United States. Through ruined border towns and haciendas you'll fight against an increasingly aggressive and well-equipped mercenary army. The game is fairly easy for the majority of the missions, but the difficulty is artificially inflated in the last mission when, within striking range of every airbase in Texas, you are forced to take a heavily fortified and entrenched enemy position on foot with little cover. The story is predictable flag waving Team America fanfare, complete with gruff-love marine generals and 'oh noes the terrorists are going to set up us the bomb' simplicity.

The AI, like the previous game, is not stupid as much as it is predictable. The gun battles are simple if you have a good place to camp and snipe, but the multiple paths in many of the levels allow the enemies to flank you if you are not careful. It's not F.E.A.R., but it does keep you moving enough to make it interesting. The AI also has a nasty tendency of waiting you out, keeping you on the defense even as you leave your hiding place after the smoke has cleared. Your squadmates' AI has improved since the last game, in which I thought they were malicious terrorist sympathizers. Here they are much simpler, a good thing for AI squadmates. They do not try to move out from the cover you put them in, they do not walk backwards around corners into a machinegun nest's line of fire, they simply sit where you tell them to sit, stay behind you and out of your line of fire and shoot when they get the chance. They also brought back the invaluable Recon/Assault switch from the first game which makes managing unruly teammates much less of a headache. Frustratingly, there is no instruction on actually using your squadmates' ZUES launchers against enemy armor and helicopters, which becomes necessary in the later missions and would have been helpful in the earlier.

All told, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is a well done game. It has its issues with the AI and the story is campy and overacted, but the final game is still worth playing. The gameplay is solid, the firefights engaging and, with the improved squad AI, the tactics are worthwhile. If you are a fan of the previous Ghost Recon games, especially GRAW the first, I can heartily recommend this game. If you are looking for a methodical and calculating shooter, you could do worse.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

X-Com: The Legend

At Greg's Stag Party the weekend before last, my good friend Glen delivered a delicious present that he had picked up for me some time before: X-Com: UFO Defense the Novel. I can't in good faith say it was a good book, but that doesn't mean it wasn't enjoyable. As an aspiring writer, the value of books that comfort my self-conscious worries cannot be underestimated. If this book can get the green light then I should be okay.

Regardless of the caliber of writing, there is something to be desired in a book where one can switch off all active parts of the intellect and simply enjoy, free of judgment and analysis. James Clemen's Banned and the Banished series is a great example of this type of intellectual freedom.

The best part of the book, however, is that it got me playing X-Com again. I absolutely, unforgivingly, unabashedly love X-Com. When you learn that the first two games we had when we bought our first computer were X-Com and Daggerfall it is not hard to see why I am still primarily a computer gamer.

But what is it that makes X-Com so good? I challenge you to pinpoint it. In today's game reviewing sphere we tear apart games for flawed ai, poor story, poor interface, bland graphics and flawed gameplay, but it is much more difficult to define exactly what a game does right, and that is the skill that seperates the best game journalists from the crowd. Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch, Shawn "Certis" Andrich and Sean "Elysium" Sands over at Gamers with Jobs, Shawn Elliott and Jeff Green at 1UP (formerly of CGW and GFW) and the folks over at PC Gamer are all journalists that can be positive about a game without the hype, can be negative without the hate, and can explain the reasons for every opinion.

So let's put on our reviewer hats and take a good hard look at this classic, ubiquitous top ten resident and nostalgia target.

X-Com: UFO Defense is a squad based tactical game with an overarching logistical management aspect. As the manager of the secret international anti-alien organization X-Com, you tasked with building, staffing and overseeing bases, research, manufacturing, finances and combat in order to put an end to the ever accelerating alien invasion. Perhaps the most striking thing about the beginning of the game is the vast gap between your soldiers and the aliens. Most games start the player off at a disadvantage, at level 1 with the most basic equipment, but most games also start off with weaker enemies so that the two can ramp up together, keeping pace with each other. From the very first fight it is clear that X-Com takes a different tack. Your unarmored, underskilled and underequipped squads are put up against aliens wielding terrifying plasma weaponry and mind control. They can see farther than you can in the dark, shoot faster than you can in the light and whenever you land they are already there, waiting. You are always assaulting a fortified position, always fighting at a disadvantage. One of the standout qualities of X-Com is that it is unforgivingly difficult at times. The computer doesn't coddle you through the first terror mission, when your terrified and harried squads are trying to take down a cyberdisc with only their rifles, or forced to gun down a teammate under alien control. And they never get much easier, even when working with a veteran squad, armored and equipped with heavy plasma, the aliens still always have the upperhand, constantly introducing new and more dangerous species into the mix. The battles are challenging and stressful, but because of that they are immeasurably more satisfying when your squad survives with a cargo hold full of alien goodies.

Completing a battle reveals one of the strongest elements of X-Com: pacing. Regardless of how tense and difficult the combat is, the world map is slow paced and thoughtful, allowing the player to sit back and relax a bit, to pick what research is most pressing and what manufacturing needs to be done. The steady pulse of the action in the game keeps everything fresh and welcome. The tech tree advances at a perfect pace, with enough different paths that there are always new things to discover and integrate. Each new technology is exciting, pushing for further innovation. It is something akin to the "One more turn" emotion of the Civ franchise, there is always a new horizon to aim for, whether it's a shiny new base in Asia or adding missle defences to you base in Europe, building your first Firestorm or equipping a Plasma Cannon on one of the beat up old Interceptors. And every advancement gives real, tangible rewards, whether it's increasing your squad's mobility with flying suits or shooting down that first large ufo and preventing a terror strike in New Delhi. There are no artificially retreating horizons here, each goal reached is a verifiable accomplishment that changes the way you interact with the game and the game interacts with you.

The few bothersome quirks with the game rarely get in the way, but there are some niggling issues. It would be great to be able to equip particular squad members from the base screen, rather than having to rearrange equipment before every fight. To the same end it would be immensely useful to be able to arrange your squad in the transport and choose who comes out first and who is stuck in the back. In fact, the way the game treats soldiers in general is almost as if they are never meant to survive. They are just names and numbers, sometimes a skin or hair color. One good shot will end them forever, with no notifier, no eulogy, no second chance, just a number in the mission summary and an open spot in the skyranger. Despite this murderous disinterest in your squads that the game displays, they will still move beyond the randomly generated name and numbers that the game presents you with, especially if you have a single squad that you work with through the entire game. You invest such a tremendous amount of emotion into each member simply to survive through each encounter that you cannot but see them as an individual. By the end of my first playthrough I had assembled, out of these fragments of names, numbers, battlefield pairs and performances, an entire back story for my team complete with sibling rivalries and romances, assigning character archetypes and histories to each.

X-Com: UFO Defense stands among the greatest games ever made primarily because it is challenging and cold. It will not guide you through to victory, and because of that each tiny victory is all the more gratifying. Every encounter is crucial, every technology valuable and every inch gained is fought for and died for. X-Com does not care if you fail, but it will reward you tremendously if you succeed. No one will help you climb the mountain, but when you get to the top and the cool breeze flows over you and the view opens up before you you will know that it was all made sweeter by virtue of the effort spent.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed.

People dislike change. It is as much a universal constant as change itself. Wherever things are in flux there are people that disagree with it and file petitions against it.

So it is shocking when a well loved IP comes out with a new version and there is not an outcry against it. Take the most recent iteration of the Dungeon and Dragons ruleset. Some would argue that the new direction is a "step backward", drawing the focus back from the roleplaying aspect and concentrating on the combat, but many others would counter that the new edition is easier to step into and easier to understand than previous versions (I'm looking at you thac0). "Easier" is not often a word that is welcomed by fans, usually supplanted by "dumbing-down" and followed by "for the console kiddies", but here it is hard to argue against. The younger generations have grown up with videogames, sitting around a tabletop "imagining" must seem like a waste of time when someone else has already done the work for them elsewhere. Dungeons and Dragons is operating in a difficult space and needs to work against that, and 4th Edition is an adept move in that direction. The online implementation could potentially allow for more flexible matchmaking and meeting as well as a competitive visual element to the playing field, the ruleset allows even first level characters to jump in and feel like heroes, the character classes are similar enough to be understandable while still fitting nicely into different combat roles. It is as easy to jump into as WoW.

Some would argue against that direction, but most understand the place Dungeons and Dragons occupies in the tabletop roleplaying landscape. It is a vanguard for all other tabletop games: almost everyone who plays got their start in Dungeons and Dragons. From there they branch out to White Wolf or Seventh Sea, the more complex systems focused on roleplaying over combat. Dungeons and Dragons is an entry point, and that is why it is so important that it is marketable to the mainstream. That is not to say that those who roleplay move past DnD and on to richer worlds. There is something very refreshing about jumping into a 4th edition game. With the simple combat and tactics of the miniatures it is easy to understand and fun. It is classic hack and slash dungeon crawling, which DnD has always done best, now they've just focused more upon it. There are other games that do the roleplaying better, there are other games that do intrigue and politics and suspense and horror better. Dungeons and Dragons has always been about dungeoneering, and this version does that quite well.

Update: In Episode 92 of the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call they discuss the relationship between the pen/paper and video game spaces. It's definitely worth a listen. One interesting point that Michael Zenke makes is that the simplicity of the combat ruleset allows the players and the DM to focus more thought on the other aspects of the game, i.e. roleplaying. It is a curious concept, considering that games with much more complex rules for combat (I'm looking at you Seventh Sea) do non-combat interactions so well, in part because there is a well-designed and dedicated ruleset for those interactions.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mass Effect

I have been in an extended stasis for a while now in my gaming endeavors, and while I have certainly been playing a pretty package of shining games I have not played any to completion in months now. The Witcher just came out with module support and new content and it recommends that I start my game over from the beginning. I've loved all the time that I've put into Bioshock, but for some reason I have had no desire to go back in and close out the story. I've put a fair spot of time into Age of Conan, but jumping between characters has kept me from moving beyond the initial island, so I hardly feel comfortable relating my initial thoughts. And then there's WoW; but leveling my second hunter through the mid ranges is certainly not headline material.

Then there is Mass Effect. Before I picked it up I would while away my game time mining iron deposits in the Thousand Needles or coldly and methodically eliminating the local raptor/panther/tiger populations in Stranglethorn Vale, feeling guilty for clicking on the golden W rather than Bioshock's russet button in my start menu. After playing through the first mission in Mass Effect, however, the other icons were merely start menu foliage I had to shuffle through on my way to the neat little Specter's N7.

It has been a long time since a game has grabbed my attention as quickly as this one. Maybe it's the fast rpg level progression or the piles of new weapons and upgrades to sift through with the clunky inventory management system (150 item limit? really?). Maybe it's the hectic, tactically-engaging real-time combat. Maybe it's the cinematic nature of the conversations, the fluidity of the writing and the caliber of the voice acting (overall quite good for a game, despite the few spotty parts). Or maybe it's the story set in a refreshing new IP. It's classic Sci-Fi without being derivative, without being campy and predictable: a space epic.

And it certainly is epic. I'm a bit of a completionist by nature, clocking a few hundred hours into Morrowind in the hopes of rooting out every bandit in every cave on the entire island, so the galaxy-spanning breadth of Mass Effect was initially terrifying and compelling like a colorful pile of mixed jellybeans is to an obsessive compulsive. Hundreds of worlds that needed to be explored, mined and liberated. As I looked through my journal at the ten different distress signals I would have queued at any given time I was reminded of the magazine ad for the game, with a default Shepard looking up into a night sky filled with calls for help. Every world had something new on it, and despite the oft-repeated building layouts the fast combat and the constant push for the next world kept things fresh and interesting. The important thing to note, however, is that the galaxy map was never unmanageable. There are just enough worlds to land on to keep it new, but many of the planets are simply there for background, or to survey from space. And there was never a shortage of things to do, the assignments tab in the journal is always full, and helps to guide your exploration of the galaxy from star cluster to star cluster.

It has it's flaws, of course. Every game has it's flaws. The inventory is needlessly clunky, driving the Mako feels like driving an RC truck (fun in it's own way, but if you have somewhere you want to be it gets frustrating fast), there is some mediocre voice acting, repetitive building layouts and occasionally strange AI behaviors in combat. But the important thing is that I didn't care. None of it's flaws detracted from my experience with the game. The story is excellent. The graphical style is beautiful and cinematic. The characters are well fleshed out and believable, drawing interesting commentary about xenophobia and racial pride out of the interactions between the different species. The level progression is quick and satisfying without being easy. The inventory progression keeps great pace with the levels, combining to make you feel truly powerful at the later levels.

All in all, Mass Effect was an excellent game. From it's opening mission to the epic close it held me in thrall, and I enjoyed every moment of it. I haven't had this much fun saving the galaxy in a long, long time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Audiosurf

If you are primarily a PC gamer, like myself, then you've mournfully watched the releases of Guitar Hero and Rock Band float past (I am going to ignore the PC port for GH3, since it does not bear any recognition). We've always know that the PC is, in some ways, the ideal platform for such games, owing to the long history of user created content. The PC certainly lacks the social aspect that is one of the primary draws of the game, but that is changing as consoles become more like PCs and PCs adopt some of the ease of use that draws us to consoles.

Audiosurf is, in many ways, exactly the reason that the PC could be the best platform for rhythm based music games. You can play the game to any song in your library (barring songs with drm, but that's hardly the game's fault, yeah I'm looking at you ITunes, and don't think you're off the hook Napster et al.). Audiosurf takes any music file you enter into it and procedurally generates a course that you can traverse in a hovercar, dodging or picking up different colored blocks to score points by matching blocks of the same color together. The gameplay can be as relaxing or as intense as your mood dictates, depending on the tempo of the song you choose. I get an entirely different experience from Moonlight Sonata then I do from Mars Volta's Inertiatic E.S.P.

The nearly endless replayability, as deep as your playlist and as wide as the many different modes of play that the game offers is driven further by the global scorekeeping for each song (though it relies on proper naming of the song). Not all songs translate well into the medium, as many are too slow and some are too irregular, or too complicated (many classical songs seem to have too many layers for the system to pick out specific instruments to map). The result is that listening to your music elsewhere, in the car or on the bus, you pay attention to the tempo of songs, and mentally flag ones that would work well in the system.

The graphics of the game are abstract and exciting, colorful and random, with smoothly curving translucent tracks and beautifully simple cars. There is enough in the background to keep it from simply being empty space, but not enough to distract the eye. Everything, from the track to the background to the movements of the car, is synced up with the song. It's a playable visualization.

The simplicity of the game means that anyone that has music and can move a mouse can pick up the game and try it. Any computer could run it, and even on low settings it looks beautiful. The low barrier of entry puts this on the forefront of my personal movement to widen the understanding of gaming in the public perception, alongside Peggle. Tell your ma, tell your pa, have your non gamer friends over and tell them to bring their music. This is why we game.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Neverwinter Nights 2

Yesterday being my day off, I took the opportunity to finish Atari's Neverwinter Nights 2, to mixed reviews. The first NWN caught my fancy early on and held it for a long period of time, driving me to play through the campaign and each of the expansions as different characters, as well as numberless modules, some good, some atrocious. And so, despite mediocre reviews, I jumped into NWN 2 with little reserve.

It seems as if something was lost from the formula when Bioware handed the IP over to Obsidian. The dialog remains the same, split into the three responses for lawful/neutral/chaotic or good/neutral/evil, and the general scope of the plot is strikingly similar, starting at an isolated crisis and drawing all of Neverwinter into war against a vast evil(by way of near war with Luskan). The implementation of the Influence system of party dynamics is well thought out, and puts an interesting turn on the old rpg problem of npcs with a different alignment than the pc. Its importance at some key segments of the game, and especially in run up to the final battle, is a clever use for the system.

The plot of the game is cliche, but compelling enough to draw the action forward, and there are someinteresting side stories. An uninspired game story is hardly an oddity, but in this particular instance, the rough voice acting and the atrocious painted still 'cutscenes' seem to draw a big red circle around the plot's deficiencies. Even a single good voice actor is enough to make a story, as is the case with GlaDos or with Glarthir in Oblivion (two of my favorite npcs of all time). In NWN 2 however, the delivery of the story-driving characters is either lifeless or overzealous. Most of the secondary characters are passably voiced, and over time you develop an affection for the particular flavor of poor acting that each of the members of your party espouses. Even when he's not casting the spells you ask him to cast, Sand's sarcastic quip about 'host tower thralls' is particularly humorous.

The controls were in fact my main issue with the game, which, between the sub-adequate pathfinding and the cumbersome action queue, made many of the fights significantly more difficult than they should have been. Often I would tell one of my characters to cast a spell and then would move to direct another character, only to come back to the first to find that they had decided not to cast the spell in favor of standing in place.

When the spells did go off, however, it was well worth the trouble, because the magic effects in the game are excellently rendered, and backed by satisfyingly vigorous sound effects. The smash and crackle of the Ice Storm spell, the sizzle of Chain Lightning, there was nothing as satisfying as a party full of casters opening up on an unsuspecting group of enemies. The graphics overall were quite well done (and hopefully so, considering the system drain on a contemporary pc), although some of the armor designs and locations did not particularly stand out. The characters were, for the most part, well animated, though the art direction seemed to rely too much on the d&d 3rd edition concepts for the other races, making for ugly elves and goofy half-orcs.

All in all, despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed my playthrough of the game. The npcs, I feel, played a large part in this, and by the end of the game I had developed a particular fondness for some of the characters, even though Zhjaeve's "Know this..." manner of speech was starting to grate on me. I quit out of the game a number of times in frustration at the controls or at the bugs, but when I stuck with it it was generally a hair on the positive side.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Oh, Blogosphere: Cruel Cold Mistress

It's really a fascinating place, this thing we call the blogosphere. Millions of people shouting into a void, wanting to be read, heard, respected. Everyone is writing, but how many are reading? How many times have you read some random blog? Have you ever seen Matthias and Jenni's "Discovery of the Big USA", or salivated over the recipes and pictures at Cinnamonda? Have you checked out the creations of Margot and friends over at un-BLOG-evable? There's only two posts at KittenLove.com, but, seriously, could one need any more? Ben's short blog starts off with a truly humorous story. "The Awsome [sic] Me and My Not So Awsome [sic] Family", mobile blog posting's flood pictures,... SalmonTorpedo.

Each one of these represents an individual voice, spoken in solitude somewhere. The posts are messages in bottles, tossed into the vast sea. Sometimes the posts speak to a specific group of people, sometimes they speak to the nameless, faceless 'you'.

How do we determine who is heard and whose voice sinks beneath the weight of the millions of other messages in millions of other bottles? What capricious fate decides who among the clamoring masses will be read? I imagine that it is by the same standards that the rest of the web is held to: frequent and interesting updates. However, there is so much out there that most never get their chance to petition the many, the thousand-faced adjudicator of the internet's fickle attention.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Storytelling and Internal Narratives

A few days ago I entertained myself by posing the following question:

Can a game's story only exist in the spaces where the player does not have control?

At first it seems like a simple no would suffice, the easy refutation being any Bioware game with branching storylines. But it isn't that simple. Even in a game with hundreds of different dialog trees and multiple endings, even in an open world like Oblivion where the player can choose what order she wishes to play the story elements in, even in massively multiplayer games the story is still decided by the game developer. The player only gets to choose which of the predetermined stories will be played out. Even if in Oblivion I choose to play through the Thieves guild quests and only then attempt the main story, I do not get to decide the order of the guild quests, nor do I get to make up new ones.

Which opens up the question: What constitutes "story" in games? The assumption put forward above is that the story is only the backbone elements of the game, the skeletal structure that the gamer fleshes out with her actions. Joining the Thieves guild and stealing the Elder Scroll is "story", but is the rest of it merely to be discarded? "Rhys joined the Thieves guild and progressed through ranks, ultimately stealing the Elder Scroll and becoming the Gray Fox" is not a satisfying narrative. "The Imperial Guard's footfalls echoed past Rhys's hiding place as he came to examine the overturned pitcher. She held her breath against the stone room's dry silence as he tipped his head one way and then the other, sniffing the air slightly. When he turned to leave, he would almost assuredly see her, but she doubted that she could kill him fast enough to avoid alerting the others. He snorted, eyes squinting against the darkness, and bent to pick up the pitcher. Rhys tightened her grip on her long thin blade." Is more like what can be called story.

But such an experience is not translatable, and is not recorded anywhere. The action takes place entirely in the player's own internal narrative. There is something in the nature of this internal dialog that bars retelling; we have all had the experience of trying to relate a specific fight or escape to someone else and only finding frustration when they are not as amused as we are. It cannot be understood in the same way that the player sees it, even if the other person is familiar with the game and the mechanics.

Though the question is an interesting thought experiment, it is also, in a way, one of the fundamental questions within the gaming world. Gamers understand this dialog between game story and internal narrative, between player actions and a developer's frame. Whether explicit or subconscious, we experience this every time we enter into a game world. It's the reason we take actions that are completely extraneous to the advancement of the game's narrative, like when we plug an extra few rounds into the corpse of an especially difficult enemy, or when we /dance with an innkeeper in WoW. This is why we game. And yet the very thing that we understand is specific only to gaming, the thing that sets gaming apart from all other forms of storytelling, cannot be understood by those that do not play. And so, when an outsider examines a game story they see only the skeletal outline that the developers set down. We can hardly fault the general opinion that game stories are derivative and cliche (of course there are exceptions to the rule, but it's a fair judgment to make of the majority of games).

So the answer to the original question is indeed a simple no, but in the examination we are faced with a number of other problems: What constitutes story? What is it about a player's internal narrative that makes it so difficult to retell effectively? How can we, as gamers, advance understanding of this dialog between game and player (a truly amazing occurrence, if you think about it)?

In answering these questions we can redefine how we think about games and how we play games. As we come to understand that intermediary space, where that complex dialog plays out between our story and the game's story, we can change the way we build games, the way stories are told in games. That is the most exciting element of game development right now: in games we have a storytelling medium that is unlike anything we have seen before, that involves a more direct audience participation then has ever been possible. The importance of audience participation, the primacy and necessity of it, is potentially the first new category of representation since Aristotle's Poetics. All the elements of storytelling used in every other medium were laid out in his scientific prose almost 2400 years ago. It's true, things have been done with those elements that Aristotle never would have dreamt of, works that have fundamentally changed the human condition, but none of them have brought a new aspect into the mix. Until gaming. This is not to say that gaming trumps all preceding modes of storytelling, such a claim would be ridiculous. It remains to be seen whether any good can actually come of this new development. It remains to be seen if we can figure out how this new element even works. It is exciting enough that these questions can even be asked.

The internal narrative that is written as each of us plays a game is the breaking open of a new space, a new way of thinking about storytelling. We shall see as gaming advances what fruit that new space can bear, and how it will affect the act of representation on a wider scale. I must say it's an exciting experience to enter into such uncharted territory.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Game Time, People!

Over at Gamers With Jobs there was a recent forum discussion on how much time people spend gaming. It's an interesting topic, and strikes on something I've often thought about but always believed I was alone in it. There are so many games that are good enough to warrant playthrough that the time one would have to set aside in order to experience them all, especially to play each to completion, is staggering to those of us who are employed or in school or both. But there is a definite, subtle message that seeps from gaming publications, brought on mostly by my own guilt in not having played all of the possible games, that I am somehow less of a gamer for not having played Bioshock or Team Fortress 2. It is well understood that gaming is an expensive hobby (a gaming pc or a decent tv and a 360 running close to $1000 at the entry-level, much more for the better experiences, not to mention the price of games) but the temporal expense of the hobby is less often spoken of. It was a satisfying thread to read, to realize I'm not the only person who can only eke out game time in the cracks between other more pressing activities.

This is coming from a person who spent the last five precious gaming hours sharpening his new knives on mana elementals in Netherstrom.

Though I lament my available game time I have actually spent a lot of my elective hours reading, a ridiculous amount, for some reason. I've continued into Swann's Way, which is invariably fantastic, and I read Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, which is a strange concoction. The poems are focused to a disturbing degree on vice and filth, on death and debauch, but somehow they are beautiful. I also started into the Wordsworth's Leaves of Grass, though as I read it I can only picture an old, naked man dancing in the woods and singing like some strange, bastardized Tom Bombadil.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Language of Games

Shelley and I have been playing Lego Star Wars II on and off for some time now, a level or two at a time. If you haven't played it, you definitely should. It is a brilliant little game with a great sense of humor, though there are some elements that make it feel like a direct-to-pc port, with console focused menus and gamepad oriented controls. Regardless, Shelley and I launched in, puzzlin' and lightsaberin' our way through multiple levels. It was a fascinating experience: she had not played a video game since Super Mario Brothers, and has had to learn to walk all over again.

Gamers take for granted the very specialized unconscious knowledge that we've been taught as the game evolved. Translating the two dimensional swivel of the gamepad joystick into a three dimensional environment viewed on an entirely different angle is not a natural ability. Even the pressing of buttons is a language in itself, as gamers are able to assign virtual motions and actions to specific finger movements, and to change those designations with each game they play. When I switch from Lego Star Wars to Psychonauts, I don't have to look at the controller and reassign my finger motions, I don't even have to think about the controller at all. My physical body is backgrounded by my virtual avatar. If you think about it, it is a pretty amazing thing that the human mind is powerful enough to divest itself from it's own physicality and inhabit a completely virtual or imaginative sphere. We've all been there, when you reenter your body after a particularly engaging session of gaming and realize that you have sat nearly motionless for hours, that your legs hurt and you're starving and it's two in the morning. That was my experience with Civilization IV, and there is not even an avatar in the game to inhabit! I had become pure mind, a hovering brain floating above the world and deciding the fates of millions. The same experience can be had with any truly engaging book, when the book in your hands ceases to exist and all you experience is the image, the voice in your head. Georges Poulet's essay "The Phenomenology of Reading" is an excellent account of that beautiful, terrible loss or sharing of self. Or, for another angle on the idea, read the first two hundred pages of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. Proust not only speaks to the act of reading as freedom from that physical binding, but his prose itself is entrancing, almost hypnotic, but always beautiful. I just began to reread Swann's Way, and I find that I am endlessly amazed at how the novel is built, his long weaving sentences that parallel the freedom with which it moves through time.

Substitute gaming for reading in either of those works and the feelings don't change. I would be ridiculous to place gaming on the same plane as Proust or any of the other literary geniuses, though that is no sleight against it. I don't know if gaming will ever rise to that capacity, though I do believe that it is a possibility, if tremendously far removed. Such works can only be the product of a singular mind controlling all the aspects, and gaming, like movies, is hamstrung by the fact that you need hundreds of employees and prohibitive production costs. But I digress, that's a talk for another time.

We were originally speaking about Shelley's adventure in Lego Star Wars II, right?

After learning how to move in the game's three dimensional space, the next hurdle that she has had to overcome is the visual language that games use. For Shelley, the screen is like a real area, where all of the items need to be paid attention to, but where individual differences do not distinctly stand out. For me, as soon as we enter into a new area I have, in a split second, mentally tagged each item that is usable, shootable or movable. The jumping lego blocks, the sparkles of the force, the jiggle of items that the developers wanted you to see, each of these stand out to me as if they were outlined in red marker. Any gamer would experience the same thing, because we are unconsciously attuned to those elements, we've been trained to notice things out of place. If you listen to the developer's commentary in the Half Life 2 episodes or in Portal (lovely Portal), they speak very clearly to the tricks that they use to tell the player where to look and what to look for. In some respects this training carries over into the real world. If Shelley asks if I've seen any particular item she's looking for, most of the time I can tell her where it is. As I move about the house part of my brain actively takes catalog of how things look, notices things that are out of place and tags them.

The most fascinating thing in all of this is that all of these processes are acting subconsciously, have become automatic in gamers. It is no surprise that Shelley has some difficulty jumping from platform to platform, I do too in 3D platformers. Not only is that the clearest test of the translation of joystick motion into three-dimensional space, one must also deal with the lack of a real depth of field. Games can simulate a three dimensional environment, but until we have two distinct viewing angles working in concert, as with our natural vision, I will always have difficulty platform jumping in empty space. Shelley has picked up the game surprisingly quickly, the concepts and the mechanics especially. She does amazingly well considering she is operating without the underground processes that gamers and game developers take for granted, the visual and conceptual language that has been in constant development since Asteroids.

Your obligatory picture:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Civilization IV

Being new to the Civ franchise, it did not seem implausible that if I started a game at 11 o'clock I would be able to play a quick hour and then walk away. I had heard rumors of the "one more turn" momentum that the game engenders, but I did not expect to sit down for a quck taste and not look up again until 1:30am, or that at that point I would actually tell myself "one more turn" and continue playing for another forty-five minutes. It is a brilliant game. The snappy pacing and the sense of accomplishment given by every building, wonder and research you complete combine to make it absolutely irresistable to simply dabble. You're tired? Well the people of Osaka are sick and overcrowded. You've got school in the morning? Well they just found oil outside of Kyoto and the English are crowding in on your western colony. What are you gonna do about that, huh? Salvage your nightly sleep, or Rule the World? I trust you'll make the right decision.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Pajama Sam 4: The Wreckoning"

This weekend Jeff and Greg and I got together to tap our gaming roots, and play some of the titles that put us into the hobby. There are a number of sites that make this available (vNES, for instance) and emulators that make it easy, but we were using a subscription to GameTap. If you haven't tried out the service, you may want to give it a look, or at least cruise the list of free games that they make available without a subscription each week. It's definitely a compelling service.

While the number of titles is deceptively inflated by games like "Pajama Sam 2: Thunder and Lightning aren't so Frightening" and others of that ilk, and while there are no Nintendo consoles supported (or Sony, for that matter, leaving emulation the only viable option for access to those games), the list of old dos, arcade, Windows and especially Sega titles is fairly delicious. Especially if, like me, you broke your gaming chops on the Genesis rather than the SNES. We played Golden Axe and Final Fight, Street Fighter II Turbo and Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. It was altogether a good time. One of the benefits of the GameTap console is that it detects and integrates any controller you put into the computer, which made using my 360 controllers quite easy.

On my own time, I've been using my subscription to play the Sam and Max Episodes (Hilarious), as well as checking out some games that I am shamed to say I never got into, like Civ IV and Psychonauts. If you're a fan of old adventure games like the "So You Want to Be a Hero?" games and the King's Quest series, those are well represented as well.

I don't want to sound like a shill for GameTap, but it is a fairly solid service. There could definitely be some improvements to the way it's managed, like the inability to change the storage destination, and the gamepad integration is not always smooth (I had some trouble trying to play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time with the 360 controller, though that could be the game's issue).

So if you get the chance, check it out, it may be something you would pay nine dollars a month for, and maybe it's just worth playing the free games.

In other news:

Happy Day


Rejoice, world, for today is the twenty fifth anniversary of my birth, which marked a new dawn in the history of man.

Tune in later for news and a new comic.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Treasure!

While rummaging about in some storage bins at my mother's house this weekend, I happened across a cd spindle of old games. Sitting between Jeopardy and Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time (aptly named) were several games that I had not seen in years: Warcraft II, Mechwarrior 2, Quake, Crusader: No Remorse, Command and Conquer Red Alert, Daggerfall and X-Com. With the exception of X-Com and a brief foray back into the original Daggerfall demo, I had not played a single one of these games in close to ten years (though not for lack of trying). It was quite the find for me. All together in a dark closet were the games that made me a gamer. Each game would play a pivotal role in placing the pc in the forefront of gaming innovation for the next ten years. It has slipped from the front in many respects, but it will always be the primary site for technical advancement as with graphics and physics. The consoles are undeniably the current center of gameplay innovations, mainly due to the Wii and Guitar Hero, which fundamentally changed the way the player interacts with the game. The release of Portal and the previews of Spore, however, show that the pc will never stagnate into purely derivative gameplay dynamics. But we'll leave that for now.

Of the games found, the only one I have been able to get running is Crusader: No Remorse. I had been searching for a freeware version for years, but it never occurred to me to run it in DosBox. The game is just as fun as I remembered, which is amazing considering its age. There is simply endless amusement to be had entering into a company's breakroom:









and reducing it to rubble:





The destructibility of the environments is fantastic, even the potted plants explode in a fiery puff of sparks and smoke. It's really a ridiculous game, but we'll forgive it for the hollow AI and the cliche story on account of the amount of fun it is regardless of these shortcomings.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Septuagenarian Blues

The troubling aspect of MMOs is the very thing that allows them to sustain themselves for any extended period of time: endlessly retreating horizons. I reached level 70 today in World of Warcraft, but for some reason the accomplishment is not as soul satisfying as I had hoped for. I don't know what I subconsciously expected, maybe I imagined that as soon as I hit seventy I would immediately be treated to all the best gear, or maybe I expected a clandestine invitation to some elite corps. Maybe I expected that I would only be able to reach 70 by accomplishing some Herculean task. No, I reached seventy while killing a earth elemental in Shadowmoon Valley, in the middle of some simple "kill x of y" quest. No fanfare heralded my ascent, merely a halfhearted 'congratz' from my only guildmate that was present to share my triumph. So I stand, wearing mostly the same gear I had at 66, broke from buying the flying mount, staring down the barrel of a 5000g + climb to the epic mount and the endless pvp grind and instance runs needed to get the purple gear. It takes much of the joy out of reaching 70, but not all. Even when you come over a ridge after a long climb and find that the peak is still well above you, you can still look back and be proud. Even though I'm only one of millions who have already made seventy, who have done it multiple times, it still feels good to get to this point.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Welcome

Welcome to SalmoTorpedo friends, I'm Tatterdemaliot, your impecunious internet impresario. I intend to post here with some frequency, discussing gaming, theory, literature, and daily life. We'll go from Portal to Plato, from World of Warcraft to War and Peace, and if we're lucky then we can find some common threads. Keep an eye to the site for comics as well, we'll hopefully keep a steady flow of new material coming along with the posts.

But enough of my chattering, let's go to the SalmonTorpedo Labs where a surprising announcement is about to be made: