Saturday, February 19, 2011

Demo vs Demo

Remember when I was almost posting regularly for a semi-lengthy period of time? My engine was revving up and a soft purr of posts were whirring out on the production line at what, for me, was a respectable pace. Then winter happened. Winter kills my motivation as surely as the cold will siphon the life out a lost chickadee, left behind by its flock.


So I played a few demos recently. Demos are something that I can't come to a decision about. Are they a good tool that allows us budget-wary gamers to test a game before we spring for the $69.99 price tag, or are they a lie, just like watching a 3-minute action packed trailer about a movie that ends up having that 3 minutes of action spread thin across 2 hours of badly acted drama?

The two demos that I played recently were the ones for the upcoming over-the-top shooter Bulletstorm and the anticipated sequel to the PS3 sci-fi shooter, Killzone 3. One of these demos won my money and its full-version will be purchased as soon as I can afford to do so. The other demo took the fledgling hope I had for the game and smashed its supple skull against the side of a moving vehicle. Then it urinated on it.

One thing that excited me about Killzone 3 was that it might be the first game to make proper use of my dust-collecting set of Move controllers and accompanying navigation units. I made sure the controllers hadn't lost their charge in their 2 months of disuse and started up the demo. After a quick calibration for the Move controller, the game started. My initial reaction was one of happiness that my crosshairs were moving about on the screen pretty accurately. My first attempt at a shooter with the Move controller was the Time Crisis demo, which yielded disastrous results that made me delete the game in a huff. Gladly, this seems to have been the fault of the game developers and not the technology itself. The initial happiness that surged in me quickly petered out as I realized that the demo was starting as a rail shooter. As my flying-ship-thing dragged me around a confusing display of explosions and ice, I shook my head several times at the numbingly bland military speak that spewed from the character's mouths. Alpha delta to foxtrot whiskey tangos cracked out of character's mouths and into my unwilling ears as I quickly became bored of my point-and-shoot start to the demo.

I never played a Killzone game before, so I wasn't sure If I was supposed to recognize and instantly feel attached to these characters or not, but the weak crutch of confusing military-speak writing and the somewhat off face designs of the characters already biased me fairly heavily towards any interest I might have in the story that the full-game might promise. Oh well, demos aren't about story, I told myself. They're about gameplay. My ship crashes and my character stands up, the camera simultaneously swinging inside his head in a familiar first-person shooter manner. I take a step forward and pick up a gun, then run towards where the action seems to be. Then I fall down a hole, instant death, game over. Ok, so that was my fault, I reason. Let's go again. This time I walk strategically around the hole and begin to shoot at some enemy soldiers. I ran up to some debris from my crashed ship to take cover and expected the game to prompt me on how to duck. No such prompt appeared, so I awkwardly mashed at the unfamiliar button layout of the Move controller and Nav unit. I changed weapons, reloaded, zoomed my screen in and threw a grenade, but failed to take cover and got shot to death. Ok, start over. I wasn't familiar enough with the Move controller yet, so my fault again. Unfortunately, my false starts were similar to how the demo proceeded. My unfamiliarity with the Move controller, paired with the game's refusal to give me some sort of tutorial on which button does what, resulted in death after frustrating death. The only prompt that I can remember getting was a Move controller with an arrow spinning around it to show me how to reload. This usually resulted in my gun bouncing about, taking the camera along with it and resulting in yet another fun-killing death.

Finally, I got to the part of the demo that featured the jetpack, a feature that the developers were excited to show off. It was the least disastrous part of my experience with the game, but I still managed to jet myself into a wall, groups of enemies or icey-watery death a handful more times. It was around this time that I decided that I was wasting my time and thanked the demo kindly for saving me $69.99. I will not be buying Killzone 3.

Like I said, the other demo I played was for Bulletstorm. The demo opens with a little story context and has the main character of the game narrating what the world is about, along with what the gameplay's goal is, which is to "kill with skill". An entertaining video quickly demonstrates what the game means by this as it shows the main character killing an enemy, rewinding, killing him differently, rewinding, killing him differently and so on. The objective of the game is instantly clear and the player is allowed to take control. Kill the enemies as creatively as you can manage. Go. A clear goal, free of boring, meaningless conversation between characters. Perfect for a demo. I hop into the game and kill the first few enemies as creatively as I can and in the process of getting caught up in how to kill the next few, I die. No problem, the demo restarts quickly and I get another chance to kill the first few enemies, which I do in a different way, giving me a chance to experiment with what might give me more points. It's just as fun as doing it the first time, since I still had various ways of experimenting with killing these enemies. The rest of the demo proceeded similarly, with me gallivanting through groups of enemies, killing them in fun and colorful variations. The demo wrapped up quickly and left me wanting more. Good job Bulletstorm demo, you just sold me a game.

So here's my dilemna when it comes to demos. What if I got it wrong? What if Bulletstorm shined as a demo since it gave me a confined arena to practice a few different ways of killing enemies, but then the full game ends up being a huge world with just as few ways of killing enemies. I hope, and certainly suspect, that the full game has many new ways to kill enemies, but what if that wasn't the case?

What about Killzone 3? Killzone 2 was favorably reviewed with a 91 on Metacritic and Killzone 3 thus far has an 85 on the same site. Perhaps the demo was a section of the game that was cut and pasted and is actually a lot more fun once in context of the full game. Maybe once I go through some beginning levels and get used to the controls then the part of the game I just played through would be much easier and more enjoyable.

The fact is that I have no way of knowing if the demo was an accurate snapshot of the full game that it is demoing. It's a view of the game that is extremely cut down and tailored by the developers and could very easily be painting a beautiful picture of a bad game, or a sloppy version of a pretty solid game. However, they are a bit of a necessary evil. Gamers need all of the tools they can get when investing in such an expensive hobby. Even if sites like Metacritic can include biased and purchased reviews and demos can be skewed versions of the full version, they are angles that help gamers take a look at a game and decide if it is worth spending their hard-earned money.

From what I've seen, game trials provide a more accurate image of a game than demos. Give the player a 1-hour romp through the full game. If a game takes more than an hour to get a player hooked, then there's a good chance there's something wrong with the game, and that it isn't worth your time and cash. There are no modified versions of the game and no potential for sloppy cut and pasted demos. I'd really like to see more games, particularly downloadable games that allow you to easily pay to unlock the full game and continue your save file, take this approach to demos rather than the movie-trailer lie that we often see now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bad Gameplay

We often look forward to specific parts of games when we replay them. Parts of the game that were particularly well designed or implemented that are just a joy to play. World 4 in Super Mario Bros 3 was such a moment for me. The novelty of the giant goombas, pipes and blocks and the ability to switch between tiny and large enemies in one particular stage was too much fun to play with. There is something more satisfying about jumping on a Koopa's head when he's 5 times your size. For a more recent example, Old Haven in Borderlands is another such delightful area for me. Every time I replay that game, I look forward to battling through the streets of Old Haven. It's a well designed stage and the first time you encounter the sinister Lance soldiers. Covering yourself from fire seems to work better here, with plenty of buildings and rubble to hide behind, but the challenge is also greater since the Lance have shields and turets they can employ, forcing you to take full advantage of your contours.

 Sometimes these moments are in RPGs when a certain song is played, or a line is delivered just right (Celes trying to commit suicide in Final Fantasy 6 chokes me up every time, or when Crono sacrifices himself to defend his friends in Chrono Trigger). Playing through the game, these moments, stages and areas are in the back of our heads as we excitedly edge near them.

There are also moments in games that elicit the complete opposite response. The dreaded water temples, sewers, dark caves, areas with high encounter rates, or the place with the annoying bird enemy that is impossible to hit. They are a counterbalance to the excitement we have at the golden areas that excite us so. My question is, why are these areas here at all?

(The following paragraph has some very mild spoiler-y information about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Read at your own risk!)

I can forgive older games since budgets weren't quite as high as they are now and mechanics and genres had not been standardized yet. Video games were still new and developers didn't have a full understanding of what exactly "fun" meant. But within newer games I am often baffled as I frustratingly struggle through an area that forces me to move more slowly than the rest of the game (underwater in Zelda games or Metroid games), or when the game forces me to walk slowly (slow walking bothers me, can you tell?) because I have to transport heavy or wiggling objects (Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood has one situation where Ezio has to carry a wriggling woman to a jail cell. It's an area that causes much a lot of grief, to say the least. The desire to slip her a taste of the hidden blade was tantalizing). Do developers and game testers not play their own games and encounter these frustrating areas of their games? I very much doubt that whoever is responsible for the hostage situation in AC:B played through that part all the while patting himself on the back for such a brilliantly built area and mechanic. Why not remove it? Or fine tune it to make it at least bearable, if not the best part of the game?

I sometimes write fiction in my free time and have encountered similar problems. Parts of the stories that I'm telling that are excruciating to read, either because of bad language or a boring situation that I've placed my characters in. When I read over a finished text and see these parts, I know that they must go. They have to die so that the rest of the text may live on and be something half-decent. But it's hard. You wrote it there for a reason and it either serves as a transitional part of your story or reveals something you believe to be terrifically important to the rest of the story.

       "Even if it's boring," I reason with myself, "it's crucial for readers to get through so that the rest of the story works as a whole." But no. No matter how convinced you are of the importance of this passage, it absolutely has to be deleted or drastically rewritten to be made interesting. Perhaps game developers experience something along these lines when they create a part of their game that is significantly worse than the whole. But, maybe it is also significantly more difficult to press the delete key on an entire section of a video game than it is for a sentence or two in a word processor. The work that went into that scene was not only the writing, but the design of the area, the voice acting, the graphics, the way objects interact with one another and so on. Because the work that went into this part of the game was several-fold more than the work it takes to write one sentence, maybe that justifying voice in their heads is similarly amplified.

    "No, we can't take this part out. It moves the story forward and we've already put a lot of money and man power into it. Players will just have to understand its importance and force their way through to reap the rewards at the end."

I want to make one distinction between frustrating gameplay elements and just plain bad ones. The water areas in Metroid games are very frustrating since you move slow, jump slow and are just a big glob of slow. But, once you get the gravity suit, suddenly all of these water areas are just lovely, since now you can leap about freely no longer hindered by the sludgey under-water game mechanic. This, to be contrasted with the end all of bad water areas, The Water Temple from Ocarina of Time. Even if they eventually give you the long shot to float about a little easier, it's still a supremely frustrating area that is confusing and hard to navigate. Sometimes an annoying area is presented for contrast to a better area to come soon, but sometimes it's just plain bad.

If there is one important lesson that I've been taught as a writer, it's that if you are bored while you are creating your piece, how can you expect your audience to be intrigued or suffer through that boredom? They owe you nothing. It is you who owes them for purchasing your future product, so the least you could do is take out the god forsaken Water Temple, couldn't you?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What I've learned and my Game of the Year

So I learned something with my last post. Not the one about the Wii. The other one that was up for about 15 minutes and that I then deleted.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post promising a retrospective on the Wii, PS3 and the DS. I had something to say about the Wii, so I thought to myself "I may as well do a year-in-review of the console, and while I'm at it, do one for the PS3 and the DS." The problem here? I assumed I'd have something interesting to say about the PS3 and the DS. Turns out I did not. My lesson learned? Don't promise readers future content when you don't already have ideas for those posts. If I actually had a decent readership, that could easily end with a lot of fans walking out the door, any credibility I may have built along with them.

So my apologies. I will not be writing a PS3 and DS year-in-review. Instead, I will be talking about my Game of the Year.

I thought carefully about what my Game of the Year was. I considered thinking about which game was most finely crafted, or the game with the most influence of the year. Then I read The Brainy Gamer's post about The most important game of 2010. It is, as always, an excellent post and one that I recommend you read.

So since The Brainy Gamer already covered the most important game of 2010 I decided I'd just go with my personal favorite. It was an easy choice, since there was really only one game this year that I fell in love with. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed many other games in 2010, but none of them really grabbed me as strongly as this one did. Most of the games I played this year were also 2009 games, so not legitimate candidates.

So with enough pussy footing around, here we go!

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies for the Nintendo DS. When this game was being advertised, it was made clear that Square Enix wanted to make the Dragon Quest series as popular in North America as it is in Japan. DQIX was the result of that desire. They did not do a drastic overhaul of the series to make North American consumers interested. They included one very North American gaming mechanic to draw some sales, which is to allow the player to create their own main characters in a character creation process at the beginning of the game. Other than that, the game is Dragon Quest through and through.

No one thing made me fall in love with Dragon Quest IX, but rather an accumulation of tiny details. This game was crafted with love. A fine balance of nostalgia from previous Dragon Quest games along with its own style, DQIX screams with personality from start to finish. The battle system is proof that turn-based RPG battles can still be fun amongst the onslaught of new battle systems in most new RPGs. It forces you to make use of your full range of spells and abilities, particularly during the challenging boss fights. One of the most charming things about DQIX is the humor. Almost relentlessly, the text in the game is full of puns and word play. Equipment names, character names and most of all, monster names, this game is full of some of the best wordplay that I've seen in a game. Names like Cruelcumber (cucumber monster), Zummeanie (zuchini), Wight Knight, Knocktopus, Stenchurion, Bad Karmour (a living armour enemy) and so on.

This game is also pack full of content. Hundreds of different pieces of equipment, 12 different classes and a post-game that is even larger than the main game. You will almost never run out of things to do in this game. And just to make things even better, there are dozens of quests available as downloadable content that are still being pushed out once a week, a service that only ends in January 2011. Oh, and the whole game can be played with up to 3 other friends via local wifi.

Square Enix did not hold back for Dragon Quest IX. Oddly enough, it was a much better game than Final Fantasy XIII, which was actually kind of awful, even though FFXIII had an absolutely massive budget in comparison to DQIX. They created one of the best (if not the best) Dragon Quest games to date and one of my favorite games of all time, much less of 2010.

I want to thank the few readers that I have for returning to my blog with its sporadic updates. I appreciate the traffic no matter how much or how little there is. When I have an idea about about video games, it's nice to know there's somewhere I can go to write that idea down and have you few people read about it. I look forward to what 2011 brings for gaming and I will hopefully be able to provide some interesting perspective on whatever happens.

Have an excellent New Year!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Wii 2010

This year Nintendo decided to flex its history muscle. In seeming response to the so called "hardcore" crowd hating on the Wii in all of its waggling glory, Nintendo hauled out the big guns and released a new main-series title for pretty much every single one of its franchises. Mario Galaxy 2, Metroid: Other M, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns and an announcement of a new Zelda game for 2011.

There is a thin line between being desperate and giving the fans what they want, and I'm not sure which side of that line Nintendo landed on this year. On one hand, they don't need money. The problem here is that the company knows that anytime they slap one of these big names on the front of a box that it will sell like hot cakes. The big N relies on these franchises like a BLT relies on bacon. There isn't a lot of room for interesting new franchises on the Wii since its constantly hit with wave after wave of shovelware and half-assed ports. The Wii's popularity is part of its problem when it comes to accruing favor in the eyes of critics and gamers. Thus, the Marios, the Metroids and the Zeldas. If Nintendo can pump out quality titles in these franchises fast enough, critics will turn a blind eye to the absolute lack of anything interesting happening on the console that was once named the Revolution.

Nintendo might have released very good quality games such as Mario Galaxy 2, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Kirby's Epic Yarn in 2010, but I feel that they've given up on part of their mission statement with the Wii. They have stopped trying to revolutionize the gaming world. They haven't even made a serious effort to make the Wii Motion Plus work particularly well yet, although that's presumably what the new Zelda game is going to be doing. As for 2010, Nintendo has mostly reached back into their past to find their acknowledgment from fans. It's not a bad thing. I enjoy the few first party Nintendo games that are released. I just don't think that they've done anything terribly important for the gaming industry this year.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Year in Review - 2010 pt. 1

The year is coming to a close and gaming sites, magazines and shows are getting riled up with game of the year awards. I'll be doing my own post on my pick for favorite game of the year, but I also want to do separate posts on the consoles that I played and what I think they have achieved.

I'll be talking about the Wii, the Nintendo DS and the PS3, but nothing Xbox 360 related , since I haven't laid so much as a finger on a 360 controller this year and nothing PSP related, since I only played 2 games on the PSP this year and they were both 2009 titles.

Since we're about to start the second full week of December, I'm going to do about 1 post a week, starting with the Wii.

I'll mention games I'm considering for my pick of the year as I go along and I'll wrap it up with one final post about that game and why I chose it among everything else I played.

I'd also love my very few readers to offer their thoughts on favorite games of each console as I make the posts. Feel free to talk about PC, 360 and PSP games as well and maybe if enough of a discussion starts up I'll try to work some of those thoughts into my last post of the year.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Supernatural

I am having a stupendously difficult time getting into Red Dead Redemption. I played the game for a good 3 hours. About one hour in I was looking forward to turning the game off, but I continued since I read so many phenomenal things about the game. I tried a second time and didn't get much farther. Every now and then I'll read something else about how fantastic the story or the music is in the game, pop it back into the PS3 and have a serious go at immersing myself in the apparently deep and rich narrative aaaaaand, fail to care once again and turn it off.

Why can't I enjoy a game that sits amongst the very highest scores on And it certainly isn't the first time that this has happened to me either.

Any release of Grand Theft Auto is met with critical acclaim and after reading about the game (let's use 4 as an example), I get excited that I might finally understand why people love these games so much. Then, sure enough, a couple of hours into the game I turn it off and put it in its case, never to be taken out again. Call of Duty games illicit a similar response as well, although I enjoy the Zombie maps in Call of Duty 5 and Black Ops.

What is the one things that all of these games have in common? They're normal. I don't mean normal in the sense that they are every-day, boring or lackluster. I mean that they lack supernatural elements. Even if the stories get a bit carried away, all of these games feature completely normal people without any super powers other than excellent aim and, occasionally, a super-powered attitude. All of the guns in these games are based on guns that actually exist or existed and so are the vehicles, scenarios and characters. It's not the "normal" narrative that I have a gripe with, though. It's the gameplay.

Somehow, the fact that it's technically possible for me to acquire one of these guns in real life and go out and shoot it (at a firing range, of course) diminishes how much I will enjoy the game. But throw in some super powers like in Borderlands and give me guns that defy logic and have fire, acid and lightning flowing out of their barrels, and suddenly I'm interested. Each time a new GTA game is released I can't help but find myself wishing that the main character had super powers. The idea of such an open and free world appeals to me, and I've heard that the stories get better and better as the series advances. Grand Theft Auto 4 is probably a much better game than Infamous or Spider-man Shattered Dimensions (two more open-concept sandbox games), yet GTA4 hardly gets 3 hours of my time, whereas I play these other games to completion.

Now, I'm not saying that Infamous isn't deserving of the title "great game". I feel that it is. The way the developers made it fun to just move around the city as Cole, grinding on rails and floating through the air with lightning-powered hand-thrusters is wonderfully done. Just moving in this game feels great. But, it doesn't have a strong story or very deep characters. Because of this, games like Infamous fall of the grid for the most part when it comes to discussing great design, advances in gaming narrative or game of the year topics, whereas a game like Grand Theft Auto 4 is still talked about several years later.

As much as I crave a good story in a video game, maybe gameplay is still more important to me. Something that my partner has made fun of me often for is my urge to feel "cool" in a video game. Because of this, games like Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry or Bayonetta (all games with famously terrible stories) are big winners in my book. I derive a huge amount of satisfaction from dodging, attacking and comboing to destroy enemies and looking awesome while doing it. When I'm playing a game as a cowboy with a pistol and a horse, I don't get that feeling. Because of this, the gameplay doesn't make me want to continue the game. I don't look forward to the next big shoot-out if I can't launch some lightning bolts or fireballs over there alongside my bullets. I can't look forward to the next part of the story if I can't even look forward to the next battle or other gameplay element.

I have the same reaction to sports games. I cannot play the newest iteration of FIFA, NHL, NFL or whatever. I do, however, play and thoroughly enjoy every single Mario sports game that is released.

I know that I'm amongst the few who do not play Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, but I'd be extremely interested in hearing if anyone else agrees with me. Do you have difficulty getting into these games? Is it for the same reason? If there are different ones, what are they?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lara Croft: Team Player

I just finished playing one of my favorite co-op experiences of the year: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. This entry in the long Lara Croft series of games is a complete reset. Gone is the behind-the-back 3rd person view to an overhead isometric view. It's a welcome refresh for the series that many players were starting to bore of.

One of the main focuses of this game is the co-op experience. Even though it is possible to play the game on single player, it's clear that it was meant for two people, which is made even more obvious when you get a silver trophy on the PS3 just for starting the game on multiplayer mode, and when several other trophies can only be achieved with a partner.

This is one of the few games I have seen in a long time that really tries to emphasize the co-op part of a 2 player adventure mode. In many games, it's more like you're playing in the same field, side by side, rather than working together, which is something I've talked about before. After the incredibly uncreative story opening (as much as I enjoyed the game, the story was atrocious. Clearly not a focus for the developers), the game starts up with the tutorials. Lara and Totec, her stereotypical guardian of an ancient evil that has been awoken partner, are shown to have different abilities. If Totec holds R1 he holds his shield above his head, or L1 to hold it in front of him. If Lara hits L1 or R1 she shoots a grappling hook. Totec has a spear that he can throw and stick into walls. Lara, being light and nimble, can use these spears as platforms to reach higher ledges. She can also stand on Totec's shield when he holds it above his head. If Totec attempts to stand on one of his own spears, it will break. These mechanics are crucial to the entire co-op experience. Totec can throw a spear that Lara uses to get to a higher ledge. From here, she can throw Totec her grappling hook and act as an anchor as he climbs up to the same ledge. If Lara shoots her grappling hook to a golden hook, Totec can use the rope as a bridge. How Totec can use a flimsy grappling hook as a bridge, but not stand on his own spears without breaking them is beyond me, but I accept it because it creates a relationship between player 1 and 2. It makes them need one another, most of the puzzles being impossible without cooperation.

Because of the interdependence that Crystal Dynamics created, each player can enjoy themselves in different ways. Some moments are clearly meant for Totec to lead the way, blocking arrows with his shield while Lara tampers away at a puzzle while under his guard. In other moments, Lara takes the lead, climbing and leaping along some cliffs, then shooting Totec her grappling hook at the end to help him up. Rarely does it feel like the other player is in your way, which is often a problem with co-op gaming. Sometimes a tug-of-war over the camera and which direction to go next happens, but it never lasts long and is hardly a hamper on the momentum of the game.

As admirable as Crystal Dynamics' co-op gaming mission statement is, they seem to forget themselves shortly into the game. In the second stage, a new weapon is acquired. Much to my disappointment, it is the exact same weapon for both of the characters: an assault rifle. Sure enough, as the game progresses, Totec continues to amass more and more guns of all types. It isn't until towards the end that you start seeing more "ancient" type weapons, but they are all variations on the spear he already has. As both players collect a similar artillery, the combat aspects of the game become just like any other in a multiplayer experience; Who can shoot the most baddies with your bigass guns? Gone is the cooperative aspect of the game and the unique qualities of both characters that force the players to work together. I would have loved to see Totec learn some magic while Lara collected bigger and better guns, and to have Totec's magic affect Lara's weapons in various ways. Just as an example. It's an area where the game is weak in its goal of being a fully cooperative experience.

Despite its shortcomings, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is still an excellent experience. I don't recommend playing it on single player. I tried it, and although it's still a great game, it really shines with a friend at your side.