Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Rotation, September 2010

The terrifying fact that September is over is somewhat mitigated by the great games I've played this month:

XBOX 360
  • Finally(!), Dragon Age: Origins goes down. Think I clocked in at about 55 hours for this first playthrough. At some point I will go back and play through the other origin stories; I have to be in a certain mood, I find, to put the DA disc in the drive, but once I do, time disappears. The expansion pack Awakening is sitting unopened on my shelf, but I think I'll let it sit a while longer before diving in. I need something a little less serious, like...
  • Dead Rising 2. Check yesterday's post for initial impressions. Will reserve further judgment until I've progressed more.
  • The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Inspired by Matt Weise's recent post praising this game, I jumped on Amazon and snagged the 360 update, the 2-fer pack of Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena. I'd played Butcher Bay on the original Xbox and had been pleasantly surprised; playing through it again, I have to agree with Matt that this game is way ahead of its time in a number of ways. It's pretty brilliant, actually, despite what one might expect from a game starring Vin Diesel. Look for a post soon on how Riddick anticipates, and in some ways exceeds, its spiritual successor, Batman: Arkham Asylum.
  • Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. This well-produced co-op platformer/beat-em-up/puzzler was great fun, mostly because it provided Mrs. JPG multiple opportunities to watch me, at her urging, plunge off cliffs to my death. "Okay, you jump, and I'll catch you with the grappling hook." "Are you sure? Because the last 13 times..." "No, no, really, this time I mean it!" Mmm-hm.
  • Shadow Complex. After finishing Guardian of Light, I jumped back in for another playthrough of the standout game of last summer. I was curious, after having just completed another terrific downloadable title, how well this one would hold up. Short answer: very well. In the coming weeks, I'll do a Tale of the Tape series comparing these two games, which I think are terrific examples of the most exciting new trend in the console space.
  • Civilization IV. Booted 'er up again to cope with Civ V envy, and hot damn is this a great game. There is something uniquely satisfying about not only building an empire, butcharting its course over centuries through political, technological, religious, economic, and military policy. It's hard to believe this is one of the few strategy games that truly understands that being a world power is not simply about military conquest. There is so much going on in the background of Civ games that it's really a staggering achievement of programming; it's a shame the fetishizing of "graphics" detracts attention from the genius of game systems. Although Civ can be daunting - there's definite information overload for someone new to the franchise - I think I've finally turned a corner and become a convert. And as evidence, I present my recent portable game of choice...
  • Civilization: Revolution. Sort of a weird iteration on the formula, isn't it? While Civ Rev contains a number of simplifications, it is surprisingly challenging, especially on the harder difficulty settings. I love the fact that these games force me to put them down; I know I'm not the first to dumbly stagger into the realization that you can't play a Civ game in one sitting, but it is remarkable how much time and attention investment the franchise encourages and expects. Because it's so well done, it pulls this off in a way, say, JRPGs often don't. But for a counter-example...
  • Dragon Quest I. Ostensibly as "research" for an essay I'm writing, I downloaded this classic to re-experience my favorite NES game as a child, Dragon Warrior. Turns out the ROM I got was apparently a hack of the GBA port of Dragon Quest I & II. Whatever. This was my first and best experience with an RPG, and the addictive kill monsters-level up-get gold-buy loot-kill stronger monsters progression ages well. There's always been a certain simple elegance to this game as opposed to the others in the series; once you add a party, that removes the peculiarly compelling sense of loneliness, which is what I latched onto twenty years ago. I have a lot more to say about this one, but I'll hold off for now.
  • Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. I remember downloading this ROM in college - the actual cartridge itself was so rare in the US I would've never played it otherwise - and getting inexplicably hooked. This is a bizarre-ass game, a weirdly charming hybrid RPG/RTS/Tarot card-sim that can be both extraordinarily punishing and rewarding. If Diablo is a loot-grab, Ogre Battle is a, and sorry if this sounds vaguely dirty, unit-grab? There's a strange thrill to recruiting new characters and assembling little divisions of your army. I haven't met many other people who've played this one, so please give a shout if you have - would love to compare notes. And finally, as if it wasn't strange enough, the game is also named after two Queen songs. I mean, that's pretty freakin' rad.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tired of Sex

Monday night I'm makin' Jen
Tuesday night I'm makin' Lyn
Wednesday night I'm makin' Catherine
Oh, why can't I be makin' love come true?
Weezer, "Tired of Sex," 1996

Played through the first hour or so of Dead Rising 2 last night, and I've already found something to gripe about that's not the save system.

(Note: minor spoilers ahead. Abandon hope all ye, etc.)

I like the game so far; it seems to be a solid iteration on the original, with a number of technical refinements and some welcome variety to the formula. I get to put on silly costumes and kill a bunch of zombies with found objects and that's all great fun.

But Christ, the women in this game.

In the opening sequence - in which protagonist Chuck Greene competes in the WWE SmackDown of the zombie apocalypse, a televised spectacle called Terror is Reality - we meet these ladies,

who immediately proceed to emasculate Chuck with some heavy-handed, confusingly unprovoked banter. The requisite innuendos - implying the dwarfism of Chuck's genitalia and/or his latent homosexuality - are delivered with the awkwardly stilted tone of a precocious ninth-grader's murder-mystery script. And it may just be a function of the cutscene's parody of a WWE broadcast, but as the camera swooped in to close on the girls' curvaceous figures, pausing to linger on their backsides, I couldn't help but think: the fuck is this all about?

Not that I had high hopes for a nuanced portrayal of character or a less-than-absurd tone in Dead Rising 2, but this was just weird.

Obviously, the game is setting up these women as future antagonists. Fine. It's a dumb tactic, but there's nothing quite like being emasculated - not even, say, devotion to God or country - to put a "real" man in the murderin' mood.

And given that this is a Japanese franchise - and a videogame, period - it's not especially surprising to see hypersexualized female characters front and center. Still, this encounter felt more gratuitous than usual.

Let's back up a bit. Just prior to this scene, we've witnessed Chuck being harassed by a fellow contestant as they prepare to enter the arena. Guy makes some stupid trash-talk comment about Chuck losing his wife to a zombie attack in Vegas. Chuck's reply - a quiet, terse "Save it for the show, shithead" - is a terrific little piece of characterization, with a great delivery by the voice actor and a smartly-framed closeup on Chuck's narrowed eyes. It's a small moment, but an unexpectedly interesting one.

Contrast that with Chuck's interactions with the similarly hypersexualized reporter Rebecca Chang:

You don't get a good sense of it from this screenshot, but so far, this character is even more absurdly and needlessly oversexed than the evil twins above. I won't give away the plot device, but for someone who should be, at least initially, fairly antagonistic toward Chuck, she is awfully flirty with him. Nevermind the huge chest, flawless skin, statuesque legs, and miniskirt; Ms. Chang's cloying voice and frequent, unprompted sexual innuendos are the primary culprits here.

At the point I got to last night, Rebecca bends over needlessly low to give Chuck (and the camera) a long look at her shapely ass as she unlocks a door. "What are you waiting for?" she asks, beckoning Chuck through. To which, our grieving widower, worried father, and potential fugitive from justice, replies, "Just admiring the view."

Again: the fuck?

You kind of have to see it firsthand to understand just how weirdly different the hypersexuality is in Dead Rising 2 than in other games, but, to quote Christian Bale: IT'S FUCK-ING DIS-TRACT-ING.

Setting aside any discussion of depictions of sexuality in games, or the ethical implications of the continued objectification of women in popular media, let's just agree on one thing: this kind of stuff adds nothing to your game. Unless Chuck's relationships with these women go somewhere - granted, I haven't yet seen most of the story - I don't understand what is gained by the game's insistence on fetishizing them.

It is possible, I suppose, that Dead Rising 2 is setting up a possible relationship between Chuck and Stacey, the zombie-rights activist he meets in Fortune City. So far, Stacey appears to be an attractive, but not overtly sexualized, female character.

Maybe there'll be some overarching motif where hypersexualization is linked to danger or betrayal and the game will become some kind of brilliant meta-commentary on sexuality and violence. But let's be real: it'll probably have the intellectual weight of a Miller Lite ad.

The thing about beer-commercial sexuality is that it's designed to sell beer. We've already bought the game, and we didn't buy it for gratuitous T&A. We bought it to slaughter us some zombies with chainsaws duct-taped to kayak paddles.

And that's why the hypersexuality here is particularly sigh-inducing. It's yet another reason we have to admit: this is why we can't have nice things.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Links

Please enjoy the quality content listed below in a set of convenient hyperlinks. (Yes, I'm running out of intros to these things.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

VGBC #2: Halo: Contact Harvest

Title: Halo: Contact Harvest
Author: Joseph Staten
Published: 2007

Halo: Contact Harvest is a perfectly abysmal videogame novel. The prose is readable, the plot is comprehensible, the characters have some degree of complexity, and the fictional universe is serviceable, if not compelling.

For an entry in the Video Game Book Club, these are all unforgivable sins.

Dammit, Joe Staten, you didn't give me a lot to work with here. Contact Harvest is actually a decent sci-fi paperback, and despite a few flagrant fouls - the medic named Healy and the one-armed captain with a robotic prosthesis straight out of Starship Troopers come to mind - blatant absurdities are few and far between in this book. And once you've accepted that you're in the Halo universe - or, even more simply, that you are reading a sci-fi paperback - you've already dismissed most of these, anyway.

The story of Contact Harvest, which is inexcusably coherent, centers around young Staff Sgt. Avery Johnson, who I guess grows up to be the badass with the gruff voice who orders you around in the games. Haunted by his past and indefensibly nuanced in his internal monologue, Johnson is caught up in the beginnings of the Terran-Covenant war. After an initial skirmish, Johnson is sent to Harvest - apparently some kind of Space Kansas - to toughen local farmers into a functional militia to defend the breadbasket planet from the approaching Covenant. Harvest's infrastructure is overseen by two AIs, whose internal monologues we are also privy to: an uptight Cortana-type called Sif and an aw-shucks Dubya-type called Mack, each of whom will become major players in the battle to come. There are also some other characters we give a shit about way more than we should.

Meanwhile, in a series of interspersed chapters, we are presented with a deplorably sophisticated portrait of the alien races of Covenant. Our protagonist for most of these sections is the preposterously-named but inexplicably likable Dadab, who is an Unggoy, or, as I understand it, one of Those Squeaking Little Bluish Guys With The Backpacks. He makes friends with another alien named (in italics, naturally) Lighter-Than-Some, who is a Huragok, or, as I understand it, a Covenant Native American. Staten uses these sections to flesh out the history and culture and religion of the Covenant, which is a particularly shitty thing to do, since now I have a clear understanding of and empathy for the beings I am going to repeatedly shoot in the face. Thanks, bro.

After some political machinations by Those E.T.-Looking Dudes In The Hoverchairs, the Covenant forces are sent to Harvest to eradicate the humans. Said holy crusade is, unbeknownst to everyone but the ruling E.T.s and the reader, entirely fabricated bullshit, making the massive conflict an entirely preventable war of volition and thus lending a disturbingly real-world sheen to the proceedings. Look, I'm not saying Halo: Contact Harvest grounds the mythology of a popular sci-fi videogame franchise in the flawed logic of the Bush Doctrine, but I am saying I'm pretty fucking mad at Joe Staten that his Halo book made me even have that thought. Or any thought, period.

Anyway, there's a climactic final battle, Johnson survives but the Fall of Reach can't be far away, yada yada yada. Let's just get to the
review criteria, shall we?

Fan Service Rating: KILLTACULAR out of 5 Stars
As the lead writer of the Halo games, Staten ought to know a thing or seven hundred about the franchise's mythology. My guess is that fans of the series will geek out over the copious backstory in Contact Harvest, although as a casual Halo player, to me it all sounded like a particularly dense episode of Deep Space Nine. Master Chief doesn't appear, but that's probably not an issue for fanboys since he apparently wasn't invented yet. Bro.

Of course, with all this attention on mythology, Staten occasionally lapses into Comic Book Store Guy gems like this:

No one had known that the Infusion Incident, as it came to be known, was the most important of many small grievances that precipitated the Unggoy Rebellion, a civil war that ushered in the Covenant's 39th Age of Conflict, and brought about a radical restructuring of the Covenant armed forces.

And I'm not accusing Staten of outright plagiarism, but I'm pretty sure this passage -
They had spent many of the holy city's artificial nights gathered around energy cores, suckling from communal food nipples and assisting each other in the memorization of glyphs and scripture.

- is directly ripped from Dianetics. Sneaky, Lord Xenu, very sneaky!

Explicit Callouts to Gameplay Rating: GRENADE JUMP out of 5 Stars
Contact Harvest is much too busy cleansing our Thetans to bother much with explicit callouts to gameplay, but there are a few instructive passages here and there. "In a war zone," we're told, "the Warthog's lack of roof and doors made it a dangerous ride." Oh, so that's why my dudes always get killed while I'm driving. Good to know. At one point there's a lengthy description of that one maneuver you do in the Warthog where you press the left bumper to skid, but since I can never pull that off without plunging off a cliff in the game I just kinda glossed over that bit.

Awesomeness of Front Cover Rating: BOOM, HEADSHOT out of 5 Stars
If you look closely, you'll see that the Ray-Ban-wearing, cigar-chomping, armor-eschewing, bicep tattoo-displaying Sgt. Johnson has a full clip of ammo in his Battle Rifle. NOT FOR LONG, BITCH.

Ridiculousness Rating: NOOB COMBO out of 5 Stars
This book is, unfortunately, well-written enough to pull off taking itself seriously for the most part. But Staten still manages to squeeze in the occasional fart joke:

Lighter-Than-Some deflated some of its gas-sacs with an obstinate toot.

And poop joke:

During the pause, an Unggoy named Yull idly scratched his hindquarters with a finger and offered it to another Unggoy to smell.

And sex joke:

She had always been partial to males with virile plumage. [...] With all the blood rushing to her shoulders, Chur'R-Yar began to feel deliciously faint.


The Minister of Fortitude had smoked too much.

Guilty Pleasure Rating: SPLATTER SPREE out of 5 Stars
Dammit, I didn't feel nearly embarrassed enough about reading this book, which, as I've said, is a sickeningly legitimate work of science fiction. There are even moments of sublime poetry:

Standing in the middle of the lowest tier, Avery couldn't see the falls past a border of magnolia trees, but he could hear them: water crashing against rock, like an endless peal of thunder - reveille for a world not yet awakened to its peril.

Of course, these are generally offset by groaners like,

"Bugger off!" Byrne yelled as the insect tumbled past.

And then there's the female military officer who has a spaceship named, I shit you not, Walk of Shame. I would feel significantly more guilty about reading Contact Harvest if Staten intentionally threw that phrase out there as a nod to any frat boys who might pick up the book as a distraction while their conquests padded around their dorm rooms collecting their clothes before embarking on an actual walk of shame.

Overall Infinite Lag Rating for Halo: Contact Harvest: KILLTROCITY out of 5 Stars
This book didn't suck nearly enough to qualify as a solid entry in the Video Game Book Club. Reading it, you will have far too few moments of clarity where you realize you're squandering your few remaining brain cells on a videogame novel. It's slim pickings for masochists, entirely lacking the oppressive inanity of Mortal Kombat, or next month's entry, StarCraft: Shadows of the Xel'Naga.

Screw you, Joe Staten. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Case for Case: Zero

I've made no secret of my love for the original Dead Rising. Naturally, I've been following the development of the sequel with some interest. And a bit of trepidation.

When Capcom handed the franchise's reins to Blue Castle Games, a Canadian studio known primarily for The BIGS games, I wasn't sure what to think. On one hand, Dead Rising did seem to suffer from a little too much Capcom-ness: the controls were (probably intentionally) awkward, hit detection was spotty, and that damn save system - the much-maligned single slot - felt more like a middle finger to the player than a clever structural obstacle. And despite its best efforts to appear thoroughly Western, there was something indelibly Japanese about the game, that peculiar sense of artificial difficulty that seems to permeate Capcom titles. (Call it the Resident Evil syndrome.) Maybe a North American developer was just what the franchise needed to ratchet up its over-the-top combination of gore and absurdity for the sequel. Even Keiji Inafune, producer of the original, says it's time to inject more Western blood.

On the other hand, dudes had only made baseball games.

So releasing the prequel chapter of Dead Rising 2, Case: Zero, on Xbox Live in August would be either a stroke of genius or a suicidal plunge for the franchise - and for Blue Castle. 500,000 downloads later, I think we can safely say it turned out to be the former. Reviews have been favorable, Capcom bought Blue Castle, and Dead Rising 2, which had lost some momentum this summer after its release was delayed, appears to be firmly back on track.

I was one of those 500,000 downloaders, of course, and while I enjoyed the game, what's most interesting about Case: Zero is not the game itself - although it was a lot of fun - but the gamble of the "Pre-LC" model. There were, after all, any number of factors working against this strategy:
  • Risk to goodwill. The mere mention of DLC these days seems to send a certain vocal contingent of gamers into a tizzy. Not only are we bombarded with additional content that too often feels like blatant money-grabbing, but we're being nickel-and-dimed like never before with the piecemeal removal of features. Those $60 games we buy are really more like $80 games when DLC is factored in. And now the publishers want to sell us content for a game that's not even released yet? Could feel like a slap in the face.
  • The myth of the "paid demo." It's silly to call Case: Zero a paid demo, as many people continue to do, since you can actually play at least some of it for free. Still, Capcom had to know they were taking a big risk with public perception, since that vocal contingent would almost certainly intentionally misinterpret Capcom's strategy.
  • Undercutting the retail game. Having played Case: Zero, I can say this isn't much of a concern; if anything, I think it'll work in reverse. But there was certainly a possibility that consumers could have simply bought the DLC and forgone buying the retail game, having already gotten their zombie-killing fix. This little appetizer could become the main course.
  • Sabotaging the retail game. Paying for an unknown quantity is a tough proposition, and Dead Rising 2 is not as safe a bet as most sequels, given the change in developers. The above point assumes that Case: Zero is a good game. What if it had sucked? This gamble could have sunk Dead Rising 2, and by extension, Blue Castle Games.

But since we know the Case: Zero experiment was a success, let's look at what it got right:

  • Price. Which should be written PRICE. Because for $5.00, this game is a fantastic value. I've blogged before about how "value" is a tricky proposition when it comes to DLC, but this is an easy call. The low point of entry largely dispels the risk of paying for an unknown quantity. If it sucks, you're only out a large coffee.
  • Scope. Because Case: Zero served double-duty as a demo and a prequel, it had to get the actual content-to-teaser content ratio just right. And here is maybe its greatest success. The "campaign" is just long enough, at a few hours, to give the player a good sense of the core mechanics and ethos, but not so long as to discourage the player from buying the retail game. It hits the beats it needs to hit: the new weapon-combining and shopping mechanics, the psychopath battle, the multiple simultaneous timed missions, the survivor escorts, the absurd costumes, the item-hunting, and, of course, the freedom to just screw around killing zombies.
  • Modularity. Again, I've written before about how this is a crucial aspect of good DLC. Case: Zero's narrative, such as it is, can be encapsulated in a sentence - stuck in a zombie-infested small town, Chuck Greene needs to find his daughter Katey a dose of Zombrex before the clock runs out - and is thoroughly inessential, I'm guessing, to the actual narrative of Dead Rising 2. Case: Zero and the recently-announced, unfortunately-titled epilogue DLC Case: West, bookend the retail game nicely, without making any pretense that they are essential pieces of the Dead Rising 2 experience.

I doubt there's an effective way to track this, but it would be fascinating to see how many of Case: Zero's purchasers follow through in purchasing the retail disc. My guess is it'll be a fairly big percentage. And if Capcom can score that high conversion rate, the implications for other publishers get real interesting.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Links

Some excellent, non-PAX-related stuff on tap this week:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Unquantifiable Metro 2033

Finished a playthrough of Metro 2033 on the 360 this week, and I pity anyone who had to review it. I don't know how in hell you give this game a score.

It's been while since a game inspired the kind of simultaneous engagement and frustration I experienced with this one. It is both remarkably well-made and infuriatingly poorly-made. The few reviews I've read mostly agree: the environments, effects, and UI are impressive, the shooting, stealth, and enemies are not. And since gameplay trumps all else, the game can't really be called a success. But it's an ambitious effort from a Ukranian studio, one that engages in the kind of risk-taking thoughtful gamers ought to encourage. I'm glad to hear Metro 2034 is in the works, so developer 4A can have an opportunity to correct the missteps of the first game, Assassin's Creed II-style.

Set in the subway tunnels of a post-nuclear Moscow and based on a Russian book of the same name, Metro 2033 interested me for a few reasons. Having studied dystopian literature in college, I'm not yet burned out on the apocalypse; I'm always interested in new visions of life after catastrophe, especially if they come from places and cultures I'm not familiar with. And what I'd heard about the game's UI intrigued me. Like in Dead Space, it was almost entirely diegetic, with innovations like having mission objectives written in pencil on a hand-carried clipboard and making bullets double as currency being terrific plays on the theme. It was clear this was a shooter that would take risks, which is much appreciated in this age of the annualized franchise.

In practice, though, the game has some serious flaws - not the least of which is a severe identity crisis. More on that in a moment. But first, there are so many things Metro 2033 gets right:
  • Sound design. You can anticipate tense moments by listening carefully to Artyom's (the protagonist's) breathing patterns. Low bass drones underline the tension of sneaking through the dark tunnels. A distinctive choking sound cues the player to don the gas mask, far more effectively than the visual cue, an indistinct greenish fog. The whipping of wind and plinking of water droplets have the right lonely quality to draw out the emotional contour of the setting.
  • Environmental art. Artyom's few forays up to the surface provide needed visual relief from the oppressive claustrophobia of the tunnels. More impressively, the tunnels themselves don't seem identical; most levels feel distinct, which is remarkable given the setting. While there are some issues with texture pop-in, it's easy to overlook technical snags given the richness of the art. I've heard the game is a joy to behold on a PC with the video settings cranked up.
  • UI/gameplay flourishes. Artyom's gas mask fogs with condensation when he's exposed to the open air too long and cracks when he takes damage. He pulls up his watch timer to see how long his current gas mask filter will last and illuminates his clipboard with a lighter shaped like a bullet. His flashlight and night-vision goggles need to be periodically juiced up by pumping a hand charger. And using bullets as currency is an idea I'm surprised hasn't been in post-apocalyptic games since the first Fallout. After all, it makes a lot more sense than bottlecaps. All this isn't impressive because it "adds to immersion," whatever that means considering one usually experiences said "immersion" whilst in pajamas on one's couch, but more because it's a creative way to approach delivering key game mechanics to the player.

Yet for all its successes, Metro 2033's flaws are equally glaring:

  • The protagonist could be interesting, but isn't. Artyom does the silent Gordon Freeman thing throughout the levels, but provides voice-over narration during locading screens. I guess this is a cool idea to keep us engaged while the game loads, but this trend is getting awfully tiresome. Like, even the other characters wonder out loud why Artyom doesn't reply to direct questions. The silence of the protagonist does not, repeat, NOT, "add to immersion," like some designers would have us believe. Most of us, I think, identify far more with a character who reveals a distinct personality through dialogue than a pathologically mute, possibly mentally-challenged, cipher.
  • Enemies are absurd. Accepting the bargain-basement sci-fi trope of nuclear mutants would be easier if they didn't look and animate like bargain-basement nuclear mutants. Fighting deformed gorillas in the Moscow Metro is silly enough, but when a Nazi soldier (yes, they're down there too) takes, and I was playing on Easy difficulty, SEVEN direct shotgun blasts before going down, you've got some serious balance problems. (And yes, I get the "dirty ammo" conceit, but it got downright laughable - after the initial cursing.)
  • The fiction falls flat. It's here especially that game reeks of unfulfilled potential. You can't talk much with the denizens of the subways; interaction is limited to overheard discussions, shopkeeper banter, and scripted plot events. From what I understand, the novel spends a lot of time exploring the ways in which people and society have degenerated into their basest state, illustrating how deeply selfish and petty we can become when survival is at stake. Yet you don't get to discover any of that in the game. I kept thinking how much richer the experience would have been had I had the opportunity for Fallout 3-style dialogue. And the story has a number of absurdities and gaping holes, especially toward the end. Limited resources, I know, but if the world is the selling point, you've got to give us more than shooting. Especially because...
  • The shooting is mediocre. Weapons feel very underpowered and inaccurate, as I guess they should in this setting, where proper maintenance is impossible. Feedback - damage indications on an enemy, for example - is largely ineffective. For a game that bills itself as a shooter, Metro 2033 doesn't encourage satifying shooting. Which means it has to compensate in other ways, leading to a schizophrenic feel.
  • Level design is alternately decent and horrendous. Naturally, the worst levels stick out. "War" and "Depository" were two of the most frustrating levels I've played in recent memory. In the former, because of extremely sensitive AI, I was unable to play through stealthily, as I think the designers intended. Yet the game checkpointed me essentially in the midst of firefights, meaning I had to endure being exploded by pipe bombs 20 times before finally escaping. In "Depository" - and in a few other levels - I wandered aimlessly, checking the same rooms over and over again for exits, attempting to follow the compass arrow and failing miserably, until I gave up and consulted a walkthrough. It struck me, playing through these levels, how elegant Valve's level design is; while Metro 2033 is in several ways an homage to Half-Life 2, including in its linearity, it fails to effectively lead the player along the linear path it sketeches out.
  • The worst offense: for a good portion of the game, it wasn't fun. And this is, I think, because Metro 2033 isn't sure what it wants to be. Is it a cover-based military shooter with stealth and platforming elements? Is it a post-apocalyptic interactive narrative? Is it a supernatural survival horror game? It tries to be this weird hybrid - an ambitious and admirable goal, but too scattered in execution to pull it off. As a result, I felt like I was fighting the game design more than overcoming obstacles. When defeating a group of enemies or traversing a difficult puzzle area, I didn't experience a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment so much as relief that an irritation had been removed.

I do feel genuinely sorry to level these criticisms against Metro 2033; the game has so many strong points that it feels small-minded to focus on the negatives. And I have to applaud 4A, again, for taking the risks that larger, richer, more established developers refuse to take.

Although often frustrating, Metro 2033 was a pretty instructive experience for me; it got me thinking critically about design, and reacting emotionally, in ways other games don't. How that translates to a Metacritic ranking, I have no idea. It's like trying to assign a student an SAT score by listening to a piece of music she's written. Good luck expecting that number to mean something.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday Links

Some links to kick off this Labor Day weekend while we batten down the hatches for hurricane Earl. Stay safe, East Coasters.

  • NYU professor Jesper Juul makes an argument that gamers who are prejudiced against social games are, ironically, unintentionally mimicking larger cultural prejudices against videogames in general.
  • Chris Lepine's post "The Neurotic Joy of Gaming" is a terrific exploration of the question: when does a game become "work"?
  • Matt Weise's post on Riddick is a terrific, if wholly unintentional, validation of my love for that franchise.
  • In the latest issue of The Escapist, both Jamin Brophy-Warren and Chuck Wendig present thoughtful pieces on race and diversity in games.
  • The Diary of a Zergling. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Boston GameLoop 2010

On Saturday I attended Boston GameLoop 2010 here in Cambridge. Organized by Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan, GameLoop is an unConference - the structure of which is best described by Rob Zacny in his write-up of the event. I won't bother with an overview here; Rob, Chris Dahlen, Maddy Myers, and others have already done so. Sometimes in doodle format.

Instead, I'll piggyback off of Dan Bruno's post, since I attended the same panels he did - with the exception of the last one, which I skipped because I was in the hallway having a great discussion with MIT GAMBIT Lab researcher and self-professed Kojima-phile Matt Weise. In the spirit of Dan's takeaways, here are some of mine, along with a few responses to others' reactions.

1. Let's get this out of the way first: Next year - and Rob, Chris & Dan, this is a direct challenge to you all, but especially Rob & Dan, since this was your idea - we will bring flasks, and we will take a shot every time someone says the words "Mass Effect," "BioWare," or "BioShock." Three shots for any non-Chris person who unironically utters the term "brainysphere." I'm putting time of death by alcohol poisoning at approximately 9:02 AM.

2. That said, I did find the discussions, laden as they were with references to the above games, pretty engaging. Rob is spot-on about some of them veering precipitously into armchair game design, but to some extent I don't know if that's preventable within the unConference (sick of the innerCap yet?) format. I'm not sure I agree with Maddy that the journalism panel was "so unspecific as to be almost laughable," but her points about the vagueness of the topics combining with the informality of the discussion structure to "devolve" conversations is well-taken. It looks like there's a building consensus that a little more structure would benefit everyone.

A few suggestions to that end:
  • Devote at least one panel slot to discussions organized into tracks: programming, business, project management, journalism, etc. These could be "keynotes" of a sort, led by established working professionals that Darius and Scott could enlist prior to the conference. Instead of determining on the fly whether these would be "expert"-level discussions, attendees would know going in that there would be at least one panel with reliably practical applications. And since GameLoop is growing, it wouldn't hurt to enlist a couple big names to help publicize the event.
  • Reserve one room exclusively for ongoing game/tech demos. It seems like it's a given at this point that folks will bring their work to show it off; instead of taking up a slot in the schedule, especially since it's tough to cram lots of people in one of those smaller spaces at the same time, why not devote one space to demos and have creators take turns manning it? (I realize that causes problems for small indies or one-man studios, but perhaps they could schedule a specific time for their demo and Q&A.)
  • With three years of GameLoop under their belts, Darius and Scott should have a good amount of material from which to predict, with some accuracy, some of the more popular topics. Why not prepare a list of "essential questions" in advance to guide discussions? These could be solicited from the community, and maybe even posted on the GameLoop site before the event to get people thinking about what they want to say. I don't think that would necessarily break the unConference format - if those topics come up, great, and if not, no one's the worse - but it might alleviate some of the meandering and give moderators the ammunition they need to keep things on track.
3. I've heard a number of attendees say the opportunity to network with other people both inside and outside the industry was a huge plus. No argument here. Getting to meet and talk with a bunch of awesome people made a ten-hour day fly by. For me, discovering the work of other bloggers like K. Adam White was an unexpected treat. That said: I can't speak for game developers, but I wonder if they'd find it useful to have a more formalized mechanism for expanding on their discussions of technical/high-level details, along with recruiting, demoing, etc. I'm not sure how to make that work logistically, but that might help these folks connect in ways that can have an immediate professional impact.

4. And while everyone I met was polite, articulate, and generally aw-shucks nice, I found myself having to just kinda butt in if I wanted to say something in the afternoon panels. The raising of hands only works so well; as a former teacher, I can confirm there's a real art to calling on people in a way that lets everyone's voice be heard. A little training for moderators would go a long way.

5. Finally, despite the various hiccups in the format, this was a damn fun day. I feel fortunate to live in a place where this kind of thing happens, where people who are passionate about games can gather and learn from each other in a welcoming environment. Kudos to Darius and Scott for an ambitious undertaking that I'm sure will continue to grow and improve.

For photos from the event, check out a slideshow here.