Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

The “ABC”, Part I

Recently, I’ve been getting back into fighting games, and one thing that’s piqued my curiosity is joystick-less controllers, or “All Button Controllers”, otherwise known as ABC.  As I get older, I find that the joystick maneuvers are the parts that I get hung up on more than the button sequences or timing.  That, and I’m becoming very aware of how good / bad some games are about joystick input philosophy.

You know the urban legend about the origin of the QWERTY keyboard, right?  That it was intentionally designed to slow typists down because of the physical hammers that could easily jam?  Not exactly true, but it seems that some fighting games are embracing that notion for the same reasons.

The design of character inputs has to be a very tricky thing, but it feels as if the inputs that the designers demand in certain games aren’t the most elegant; they’re there to slow you down and create an artificial barrier between those that can and those that can’t.

Dhalsim in SFIV has a “bnb” (bread and butter) combo that involves sb. mk to lp hcb (yoga flame).  So that means you start with back + medium kick, then within just a few frames have to push the stick all the way forwards, do a half-circle down and back, and hit light punch.  Personally, I don’t know why they didn’t optimize Dhalsim’s flame attack when they had the chance — some earlier games switched it to just a down to back fireball motion — but whatever.  The link is inelegant and has a barrier to effective use; they even removed some of his other combos that were elegant (c.lk to fb, for example). It’s as if they intentionally wanted to slow ‘sim down and make a barrier to better play.

Not all of SF is like this of course.  Most of the shotos’ have a classic combo (j. hk, c.mk, fireball) that’s a great example of good flow.

KOFXIII seems to embrace flow.  While they have even crazier narrow timing & input windows than SFIV, they made most characters have very elegant combo input design; the combos flow from one move to another, typically ending the last input in the start location for the next input in the combo.  This makes it more about getting the rhythm down for timing, not the input itself.

When it comes to me and using a joystick in fighting games, I’m better being on the right side and doing motions that face left than I am on the left of the screen doing right-wards motions; my muscles just work better for motions in that direction.  I’ve tried to practice on this, and yes, there’s improvement, but it’s slow going, especially for things like dashing — I just have to move too many muscles to get the inputs correct.

But with buttons, that’s pretty much eliminated.  So, I’m going to try it out and see if it gets me closer to what I really want: A fighting game experience that’s less about input challenge and more about timing and appropriate usage of the character’s skills.

Currently, in the world of ABC, there’s only one commercial one on the market, HitBox, which I’d happily buy (and still will) once the 360 ones are available.  The wait has been frustrating though, as they’re reliant on a PCB from Japan and it’s been… dragging.  So while waiting, I decided I’d make one of my own.

Of course, I could just buy a wired controller from the MS store and hack it into an ABC with little effort… but what’s the fun in that?  If I’m going to do this, I need to do it right.  So what does that mean?

  • 360 / PS3 / PC support
  • Sanwa or Seimitsu buttons
  • SOCD cleaning
  • Built from scratch (no modding of one of my existing sticks)

So yeah, not as simple as just soldering up some inputs and done for me.  If you want to do that you can wire directly from a PCB in a pad, and if you want to mod an existing stick, there’s a lot of great parts you can get for Matcatz TE / SE sticks that make it rather painless to mod into an ABC.  But I don’t want to touch my TE stick, and my SE one already has a CHiMP in it, so those are out.

So, from scratch it is.


There’s lots of choices you have for what drives an ABC.  Like I said, you can use pretty much any wired USB controller and get it working with some soldering for any one specific platform.  I’m just being difficult by wanting one that supports multiple consoles.

When it comes to going multi-console, my choices for PCB are limited.  Toodles has a bunch of great stuff on his site you could use, and there’s also eTokki who offers the Joytron PCBAkihabara shop will have one (the one that Hit Box is waiting on) as well. Although I think that Toodles and Akihabara have superior products (simply because they can be firmware updated), I went with eTokki on this project because the PCB looked relatively painless to work with. I also ordered a joystick and button wire harness to keep the board clean (my soldering isn’t horrible, but having organized cables is nice) and a few cable loops to keep the cables organized when I install it.  I also picked up some PCB mounting feet (3 for the board, 2 for the SOCD) to make everything cleaner inside the case.

So, total so far: $79 (shipping eats $10!)

SOCD (Simultaneous Opposite Cardinal Directions) cleaner

There’s a big debate in the fighting game community about ABC input mechanics, since essentially, you can block in two directions at once, which a joystick just can’t do because of the physical limitations of being tilted in one direction or the other.  So when it comes to games, many don’t know what to do when two opposing inputs are held at the same time, and you can get random results from the software.  Hence, the SOCD cleaner.  You can wire your inputs to do exactly what you want when multiple opposing inputs are held together.  This gives you guaranteed consistency in results.  The HitBox has this built-in, but he Joytron does not.

Toodles makes a SOCD cleaner kit, which costs a whopping $7 (shipping is $6).  You have to solder it together yourself, but it’s pretty straightforwards.

Total now: $92


Of course, for an ABC, you need buttons.  At least 12 of ’em (8 buttons for attacks, 4 for direction), not counting the start / turbo / back / home buttons.  The HitBox features a larger jump button than the other inputs, so I decided to do something similar.  That means I need 15 24mm buttons and one 30mm button in order to cover all inputs.

You have lots of choices for where to purchase your buttons.  There’s plenty of good online suppliers in the US (such as lizardlick) or you may have a local arcade supplier in your town who likely carry buttons.

This brings the question of panel thickness.  For snap in buttons, you’re assuming a certain thickness tolerance for your panel and plexi. Personally, I prefer screw-in buttons since they can handle different panel thicknesses easily.

Of course, again, here I decided to get fancy, and fancy = $$.  I ordered from Akihabara, and not just buttons, but the clear Seimitsu buttons you can use LED rings to light (Toodles can hook you up on those and the controller board for ’em as well).

With the current exchange rates (and pretty steep ($23!) trackable shipping) for 17 buttons (I got one extra) from Japan, that’s another $69.

Current total: $161 ($39 of which is shipping!)

Now if you’re keeping score, the Hitbox is $159.99.  In a nice sturdy metal case.  All assembled for you.  With Sanwa buttons.  Bottom line, it’s a really good deal.

My .02: If you’re going multi-console, there’s no reason to build one yourself.  The Hit Box guys are giving you a great product at a reasonable price.

But of course, I can’t get a Hit Box for the 360 yet, so my project will continue.  Parts are all due in over the next two weeks.

Up next, case planning and layout.  There’s some inspiring stuff out there.  I may attempt laser cut acrylic for the case, as we have a local shop in Seattle that can do the work.

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Many games… new games.

Wow, really?  Duke Nukem Forever was my last post?  Yikes.

So what’s been spun in the consoles since?  Here’s a quick rundown with a few blurbs on each.

  • Lego Star Wars III
    This title almost made me swear off Lego games for good.
    It hints that TT has an A team and a B team for its games.  This was a B team game.
    Simplistic yet long RTS you have to play 40 times for that one achievement?  I hate you.
  • Lego Pirates
    Restored my faith in Lego games.
    Fun, charming, and certainly captured the Pirates feel.
    Highly recommended for all Lego game fans.
  • Red Faction Armageddon
    The only way the third person camera could have been closer to the character is if it was a first person game.
    Hey, let’s take a franchise that’s all about open-world exploration and destruction and take out the open world and really play down the destruction and… hey wait, where’d our sales go?!
    Some good dialogue from the main character, and a very amusing secret weapon.
    You feel more like a janitor than a total badass.
  • Singularity
    Highly entertaining.  It feels like this one slipped in under the radar somehow.  Surprising for Activision.
    Fun aging mechanic that’s used for good effect throughout the campaign.
    Love the paradoxes, time manipulations, and the multiple endings.  I’ll certainly play the sequel.
  • Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
    Feels like filler to hold up the “get an AC game out every year” desire.
    Still fun at its core, not rewarding enough in the restoring roma endeavors.
    AC: Revelations should be great and make up for this just being OK.
  • Mortal Kombat
    The best implementation of a story mode in any fighting game ever.  Everyone else got served.
    Hey wait, this is actually… competitive?  Cool.
    Lacks a really good training mode.  But then again, almost every fighter does.
  • BlazBlue : CS
    Amazingly deep yet shows that you don’t need 6 buttons to make a good fighter.
    So many unique mechanics per fighter that it’s really hard to master one and move to another.
    Story mode is just… insane in a “kitchen sink” kinda way.
  • Deus Ex
    The graphics aren’t cutting edge… but who cares?  Sci-fi open world sneaker / shooter!  Woo hoo!
    Makes the really bad taste left over from DXII go away completely; not everything is just a shade of grey.
    Aside from forced boss fights, this was a very fun game if you like making your own path through narrative.
  • Gears of War 3
    Much, much better than Gears 2.  Almost as good as Gears 1.
    In an attempt to make everything more cinematic, they forgot to make some things more tense.  It’s visually cool to see tendrils and emergence holes, but when they’re always down-field in front of you… not nearly as intense as it could be.
    Lots of great modes to play once the campaign is done.
  • Crysis 2
    Get cloaking.  Win.
    It’s disappointing how many cool upgrades there are in multiplayer that they don’t give you access to in single player.
    Seriously, can we get a hero that doesn’t just wander from place to place without deciding anything for themselves?
  • Bulletstorm
    Great idea, but didn’t go nearly as far towards pinball as it should have.
    Some amazing vistas and visuals.
    In the end, not what I expected and far too much reuse as the game went on.
  • Castlevania : Lords of Shadow
    Had this for a while.  Finally picked it back up and bothered to learn how to play it correctly.
    It’s not the castlevania game I want, but it was a good game none the less.  Fun light / dark system and you felt that you really improved as a player as you went.
  • Shadows of the Damned
    Fantastic dialogue and realization of the Demon’s world.  Johnson is very amusing.
    The side “fable” stories about the bosses were great.
    The main gameplay mechanic?  It’s… OK.
    Entertaining but easy boss fights.
  • EDF: IA
    As and EDF 2017 lover, this one didn’t do it for me.
    Too serious, too practical, too generic.  Not even any underground or mountain levels.  It was just one city.
    The jet suit was fun to use though.
  • Dead Rising 2
    I realized about a quarter way into this that I just didn’t want to have to level and start over again and again in order to have what I thought of as fun, so I quit playing.
    Weapon combination system was very enjoyable and yielded some really great and silly weapons.
  • Just Cause 2
    The best implementation of a bionic arm / grapple I’ve seen.
    So much to do that completionists can burn out pretty easily.
    The weapon upgrades peter out pretty quickly, which unfortunately makes the game get more tedious as you go on once you’ve unlocked everything.
  • LA Noire
    Amazing facial capture.  Great vocal performances.
    I was hoping for less “twisty mustache” and more connection through all the different cases into the “big picture” one.
    Absolutely annoying hidden object quests.  There’s no way you’d find all of them on your own without a guide.
  • Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
    Gorgeous look, great music and effects.
    I’m much happier with the beginning half of the game than how it ended, but I enjoyed the whole thing.
  • Ugly Americans : Apocalypseageddon
    I got hooked on the show, so I got this because it was co-op and it had new dialogue / story.
    I wish it was more than it was, but for what it was it was OK.  If you’re not a fan, it’s hard to recommend.
  • Bastion
    The narrative just makes this game.  Never play it without sound.
    You don’t appreciate the combat mechanics until your second playthrough when you self-crank the difficulty and have to really dodge, reflect, and attack well.
  • Renegade Ops
    Each vehicle / character isn’t as unique as I was hoping they would be.  Why can’t people learn from Raiden IV and apply those kinds of weapons / upgrades to a twin-stick shooter?
  • Toy Soldiers : Cold War
    It’s Toy Soldiers… better.  Get it!

Whew was that all?  There’s likely a few more in there that I can’t directly remember.  But with october around the corner, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of titles to talk about:

  • Dark Souls
  • Battlefield 3
  • Batman Arkham City
  • Assassin’s Creed : Revelations
  • Rage

Oh yeah, and that Call of Duty game… that may be good too.

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A belch from the past

Playing through Duke Nukem Forever takes you on a tour of game engines and tech over the last 12 years; witness the might of the Quake 2 (or 1?), Unreal, and Unreal 2 engines in all their… well not-so great glory.  There’s an entire room that you know was there to show off moving objects from when that tech was new, then another that’s got that “wet metal” look that was such a showcase piece in its day.

Gearbox did right by me with Borderlands (sequel pleasel!), which is why I decided to fork over the money for DNF.  Am I feeling ripped off?  In hindsight, foolish, but that’s about it — what did I expect?  A game that went through 3 companies for the last 12 years using outdated tech in multiple attempts to create a game — how else could it have ended?

I can say that there are some fun sequences scattered throughout, most towards the latter half, but they’re broken up by boring, offensive, or just stupidly hard sequences that make you scratch your head wondering how the creators thought the entire package worked cohesively.  For me, the key thing is that may of the core elements that made DN3D fun (secrets, cameras, pedestrian and relatable settings) went out the window, barely making any appearances except in limited places that don’t make great use of them at all.  It’s like 12 years was enough for even the creators to forget what the DNA of their series was.

To this day I still hold DN3D’s first level (the movie theater) up as one of the great multiplayer levels of all time — relatable, fun in teams, and needing only one slight mod to make it “perfect” for great play (duct from arcade elevator top to red room).  But it wasn’t just that level that was great — it was a lot of them.  They were mostly places that even if you hadn’t been, you’d understand the layout just fine because it mapped to reality fairly closely.  In DNF, they just kinda forgot about that.  Even when you’re in a fairly understandable location, it somehow feels disjointed, like the rooms don’t all connect if you were to plug it together.

Controls on the console blow pretty hard.  There’s barely any tuning of the movement and aiming for the analog stick, leaving you with a very unsatisfying play experience.  I constantly felt like I couldn’t hit anything while moving, when even being slightly off dead-center with weapons like a shotgun or machine gun would cause complete misses.

So too, the feel of the weapons have suffered.  Guns that used to be fast and furious with blazing reload speeds now feel sluggish and tamed to today’s shooter standards.  Do you even remember ever reloading in DN3D?  Not much, because it was far between and fast when it happened; most weapons just shot until they ran out of ammo.  Load up DN3D and shoot off a clip in the basic pistol — it’s so much more satisfying than DNF.  Pipe bombs don’t roll like they used to, and that great “clink…. clink, clink” sound — gone.  Trip mines kinda work, but they take forever to arm and again, feel neutered.  It’s like this version was afraid to let the player be unhinged and over-the-top destructive like the old game did.

And loading times?  They’re BAD.  Like “go make a sandwich / write a novel / have kids, raise them, send them off college, then come back and play” bad.  Especially when you hit one of the OMGWTFBBQ difficulty spikes, you’ll be looking at that loading screen for more time than you’re actually playing the game.  Only in the driving levels (and only while driving) do they cut you a break and instantly respawn you, which makes you wonder why they couldn’t do that anywhere else….

What’s disappointing is that DNF wasn’t just nuked (ha!) and rebooted around critiquing today’s shooter culture.  Maybe that’s the next (possible) game, where the moment a marine suggests that Duke can only carry two weapons, we’ll get him kicking the marine in the nuts and telling him that’s for sissies while he grabs a rack-full of them.  Then he can move on to wittily dissecting regenerating health, “hardcore” modes, flashlights, ammo restrictions, leveling up, classes, perks, nav beacons, driving sequences — a multitude of game conventions we’ve adopted as “modern” that could use a good kick in the nuts in the name of over-the-top fun through all-out gun battles with outrageous gibs and crazy weapons.  That’s the game I wish I had played.

Maybe that’s just called Serious Sam these days.

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Wanderin’ the wastes with Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout : New Vegas was an enjoyable experience, despite the bugs and lock-ups and all the other oddness that I’m hearing of a lot through second-hand channels, yet I experienced only a bit of myself.  My tally: 5 lockups, a dozen or so monsters under the terrain, a few WTF quest / faction moments, and a lot of slowdown on loading the longer you played.  That was it.

As I said, enjoyable.

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Oh yeah, that blog thing!

Man, it’s been too long. Maybe it’s because I moved to a new state, we’re in temporary housing, I have a new job, and have been running around like a maniac up until these last few moments.  Oh, and we just got the computer set back up.

So a lot has happened since my last post.  The major change is that I’m at Microsoft now, working as creative director for Windows Phone 7 games.  One thing I love about the WP7 is that it is no way a “me too” device.  It marches to the beat of its own drum; the UI and design are all about being socially connected first and foremost, which makes it stand apart from the competition in many ways.  I find it very easy to get used to and miss its clear emphasis when using my iPhone for similar things.  You can check the phone out from the link on the right.  Launching soon!

Since this is just a quick note, I’ll close with a few “things that make Adam happy” list.

  • TGS delivered.  A Demons’ Souls sequel (may as well be).  An Earth Defense Force 2017 sequel.  The Last Guardian.
  • DLC for Castlevania HD is supposed to be this week.  Raid instances done 2D Castlevania turns out to be really addictive to me.
  • Seattle is awesome.  Love the town, love the people, love the weather and the environment.  My god, it’s full of trees.
  • Halo: Reach is fun and the solo campaign was… pretty good by the end.  I’m just getting into multiplayer, but I still think Bad Company 2’s multiplayer unlocks and points system is superior.  I guess I love more class-based and objective-based MP games… but damn if Bungie didn’t pull out all the stops in making this one hell of a slick game package.  I especially like the sound design on the weapons this time around.  They feel much more appropriate and fitting.
  • Dominion, the card game is a blast.  I played two sessions with different folks over the weekend.  Quick to learn and amazingly dynamic depending on the cards you mix in.  Highly recommended.

I have a backlog of half-finished entries that I may get around to posting, or just start with new ones.  Who can say?

Also, my wife ran a successful food blog in Vegas (www.vegasmusings.com) which we’re now moving to Seattle at… you guessed it… www.seattlemusings.com.  It’s in no way even up at this point, but we’ve already amassed a bunch of reviews to post from our short time here, so it’ll populate quickly.  If you enjoy food, check it out!

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Site funkiness

It’s amazing how hard it is to move a site between accounts.  Pardon the dust as I get it worked out.

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Alan, wake already!

Maybe that’s a spoiler?

So Alan Wake was a game I was very interested in during production.  I’m a big fan of HP Lovecraft, and this seemed to be all about that from the previews.  The game turns out to be more Stephen King than Lovecraft, and not the King that knows how to end his books.  That said, there was some fun to be had along the way.

But instead of talking about fun, I think I’ll talk about what I don’t like.

This is the first game that made me want to throw the controller not because of anything within the gameplay, but by the constant equipment resets.  In every chapter you get stripped of all your gear.  Many times within a chapter you’ll also find that all the cool stuff you had is just… gone.  No flaregun, no shotgun, no high-power halogen death-beam… you’re back to the basic, crappy flashlight and maybe a pistol.  This gets old really fast.  I get that this game is about survival and such, but you’re supposed to up the ante against the player, not constantly reset them to make basic encounters “exciting” all over again.

The first several chapters of the game play like this.  Gameplay is essentially aim at enemies to burn off darkness, dodge any attacks, then shoot them.  Repeat in every encounter.  Fortunately, the latter chapters make up for it by offering new gameplay dynamics and adding NPCs that fight with you, which makes the experience a lot more enjoyable since they throw a good deal of enemies at you during those sequences.

Enemies aren’t very creative, either.  All of them lurch / run at you and attack.  One can rush you.  That’s it.  No massive enemy that you have to dodge first in order to defeat, or any that require any precise locational-based shooting (like in the back).  This is good and bad.  From a starting the game standpoint, it’s great.  I just learn to point and shoot and dodge.  It’s once you’ve got that down that the lack of diversity starts to become an issue.  I don’t want to say the game has no strategy to combat — the tight-in camera makes for claustrophobic encounters and enemies will take advantage of that by always trying to encircle you.  You have to use crowd-control techniques like flares to keep opponents herded to your front and out of melee range.  There’s just not enough of it, IMO.

There’s an interesting story buried in layers and layers of twisting narrative.  With a few less layers, the story would be pretty bad-ass.  If I was to compare it to King, it would be almost like IT, where a force is feeding off of the energy of a town while also keeping it alive in a sense.  In this case, the energy feeds by drawing powerfully creative people to it (musicians, poets, writers) and then attempting to make them re-write reality so that the darkness can gain power and eventually be released.  In essence, the darkness becomes the artist’s muse and grants them the power to twist reality, goading them into releasing it.  That’s pretty cool… if it wasn’t for the two extra layers of a writer writing a story about a writer in a story that was put in place by a writer/poet with a fail-safe shoebox so the writer would know that in childhood he knew how to fight the… yeah.  I don’t know what I’m saying either at this point.

Atmosphere wise, the game is a knockout.  The forests are creepy, the mines decrepit, the town appropriately deserted, and the constant fog and bleeding ink effect used all over the place is really well done.  It’s more reminiscent of a Silent Hill (still the king of atmosphere games) than a Resident Evil, and that’s a huge plus in my book, especially after RE5’s complete lack of horror.

Being Remedy, there’s plenty of side-content to watch, including a Tales from the Darkside themed live show called Night Springs on TVs, a talk radio show that matches the happenings around town, and the unfinished manuscript pages you find along the way.  I found the side content very engaging… sometimes more than the main plot.

My final peeve is that for a hero, Alan Wake isn’t really one.  Everything he does is motivated by someone else.  He never makes one decision for himself, but just follows along when someone tells him he needs to go somewhere, or hints that person X may know something.  By the end of the game you can argue that it’s appropriate based on what’s really going on, but still… it gets annoying that the protagonist is so weak.  Even Lovecraft’s doomed heroes would try to break the rules… they’d just all go insane for trying.

And a final nitpick – if you have collectible items in your game levels, and once I’m finished I can choose to play any chapter / part again, please put collection counters on the chapter / part select screen so that I know which ones I need to play in order to find the things I missed!  It’s great there’s a summary screen but not when it doesn’t tell me where I missed things!

So play it knowing it gets better as it goes.  It has its share of frustrations, but it’s a fun distraction for the few nights of gaming that it lasts (6-8 hours).  There’s at least 2 more chapters of DLC, one available now.  Given the ending, I’m curious to see how the DLC fits into the story… but not curious enough to purchase it for 800 points.


There’s a point in this game that gives you a brief glimpse into the Payne side of things, and boy was that cool.  Hearing just a few snippets of the old dialogue voiced by the same guy made me interested in playing through Max Payne again.  Hopefully the upcoming one will be just as brooding and dark as the original.

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'cuz I got bills to pay!

Finally!  Highborn, our casual turn-based strategy game for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch devices just hit the Apple store!  We’re discounting it for the first week, so get it for $2.99 while it lasts!

Highborn on the App Store!

10 hour solo campaign, multiplayer via FB connect, witty repartee — what more could you want?  A puppy?  pffh.

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Lack of updates is a good thing!

Gee look, not a lot of updates recently.  Why?

Because our new iPhone / iDevice game, Highborn, is nearing completion and we’re all very busy getting it ready for release!

In the meantime, here’s a few tidbits on what I’ve recently played:

Super Street Fighter IV : A great fighting game, now better than before.  I think I’m to the point that I have issue with some of the advanced things found in fighting games these days (like kara stuff), since they just don’t seem to reward thinking, are hidden from all but the hard-hardcore players, and and only reward constant muscle memory practice.  I had high hopes for Makoto, but she seems nerfed from her 3rd strike days.  Juri is surprisingly awesome.

Ratchet & Clank Future : A Crack in Time : I enjoyed playing through this, but the first R&CF game was better.  This one felt lighter on content and larger on fluff to pad it out.  Not a bad game by any means, and certainly charming in its core characters, but just not as deep and playable as the first.  Some really fun weapons though.

Battlefield Bad Company 2 : I usually don’t go for shooters focused on multiplayer, but this game is just awesome.  Buy it.  Get in to multiplay.  The campaign is fun for the writing, but multiplayer is where it’s at.  You have no idea how odd it is for me to say that.  The class system is great, the balance of kits interesting, and now that they toned down a few crazy things like the Medic MGs a bit, much more enjoyable.  Want a lesson in how to constantly reward players for anything they do and encourage teamwork?  Check this game out.  I was looking forward to SSFIV for months, but once I started playing this, I can’t find time to go back to Street Fighter.  I’ve not played the Reach beta, but I can’t believe it could even compare to this game’s MP experience.  Modern Warfare what?

I’m still working on my rather long and likely controversial-to-some writeup on RTS in a Console world, but that’ll be a bit.

Back to Highborn testing!

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Bayonetta: Better than you might assume

I had this game about half way down my Gamefly queue.  Of course, Gamefly loves to send you games that are half-way down your queue rather than the ones at the top.  Every third game or so you get from them is your first pick in the queue, but rarely do you get two in a row from the #1 spot.  I guess they feel that after sending you two other games you kinda wanted that you’ve earned the right to get your #1 pick.  When I do get my #1 pick it always feels like they’re doing me a favor by sending me the game I really wanted to play in the first place.  Wow guys, thanks!  It’s not like I have a damn queue for a reason or anything.

Anyway, I digress.  My fascination with Bayonetta had earned enough merit to put it in the queue, but it was constantly bumped down in favor of other games that I wanted to play more.

So, I end up getting it in the mail last week, and at first I’m a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a game I’d had higher in the queue, but I figure how bad can it be?  After all, it has a 90 (360 version) metacritic.  Yes, I know metacritic isn’t the beat-all end-all of scoring sites. I mean, CoD2 has a 94 on there… which is an 85 at best IMO.  But even assuming that there’s padding and fanboys in there, that’s an insanely good score for the type of game it is.  It’s also made by Platinum Games, which is the ex-Clover guys.  The guys who created Okami and Madworld, just to name two.

Side note: Okami is an absolutely wonderful game and one of the most criminally over-looked games (in sales) that I’ve ever played.  If you’ve not played it, go get it.  It’s on PS2 or Wii.  It’s cheap.  Get it right now.  Stop reading this, seriously.  Go play that game.  You will not regret it.

So anyway, two points in Bayonetta’s favor right out of the gate.  A great semi-meaningful score, and a great developer behind it.

I was a fan of the Devil May Cry series (for a while) and figured that Bayonetta was some kind of knockoff.  It’s even done by the same game director.  I figured it would play about the same as DMC did — endless button mashing that quickly gets tedious, way too many and mostly useless combos, mostly useless weapons, a story that makes no sense, generally useless move upgrades, lots of violence, and level repetition — and boy did Bayonetta not live up to most of those expectations.

Yes, I said it did not live up to those expectations.  I totally expected a knock-off of the DMC games… and that’s not what I got.  Not only is Bayonetta a good game, it’s a really good game.  I have to say in many ways it has the kind of simple-yet-deep gameplay that Batman: Arkham Asylum had.  The combat system isn’t as refined as Arkham’s, and it doesn’t do environments in the same open free-roaming kind of way, but it’s going for a different type of experience, so it emphasizes different things.

First up, the story.  It’s insane… but it works by the end of it.  Bayonetta is a witch who hunts angels because if she doesn’t she gets dragged down to hell.  Sucks to be a witch.  So, her life is one big game of baiting angelic creatures into attacking and then slaughtering them all to appease the devil she’s made a deal with in exchange for her powers.  Her order (the umbran witches) was one of two factions which kept balance in the world.  The witches are all hunted to extinction after a catastrophic event in the past.  Bayonetta is sealed away — banished — and got overlooked in the witch hunt.  Waking up some time later, she can’t remember anything about her past, but she still has to appease the devil, so off to hunt angels it is.  Of course, the sages (the counterpart to the witches) have run without balance for a long time, their own apocalyptic plans near fruition when Bayonetta comes back on the scene.  Long story short, Bayonetta has to kill her way through Paradiso’s forces (i.e. Heaven) to stop the apocalypse.  There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist.  The supporting cast you meet on her way includes a buffoon rogue guy, a little kid (not as annoying as you’d think), a fellow witch with an agenda, the ex-angel demonic weapons dealer doing his best Shaft impersonation, and a fat whiny schlub that screams of Joe Pesci from the Lethal Weapon films.

As for the main character herself, Bayonetta is part runway model, part stripper, part gymnast, part gunkata master, part commando, and all ass-kicker.  She slinks around the board in this amazing gymnastic style that is raunchy and classically sophisticated at the same time.  She poses like a model in a photo shoot after certain kills, complete with shutter click sounds and effects.  She does slinky stripper dances for taunts.  This crazy hyper J-pop version of “fly me to the moon” plays as she does her outrageous super attacks.  Her skin-tight outfit is also her hair, which is stripped away from time to time when you unleash finishing moves on bosses and enemies.  There’s no nudity, but it comes about as close as possible without showing anything directly.  It’s certainly risque.  She’s also British… because the accent is just cool, right?

The bread and butter of this game is close-range combat.  There’s a really solid underpinning to it that I didn’t see at first, but made the game immensely more enjoyable once I figured it out.  So yes, you can button-mash in this game like you did in any DMC.  You’ll get through most of the game on normal difficulty with just button mashing, and certainly on easy.  But you know what?  You’ll spend about 75% more time than necessary by doing so.  Although button mashing one button is cool looking and fancy, it does the least amount of damage of any of her attacks.  Multi-button mash combos are more rewarding, but again they’re wasteful.  Instead, patient use of the three attack buttons (guns, arms, and legs) in short bursts yields the most rewarding results.

For example, if I have the sword equipped and mash the attack button 7 times, I’ll get this fancy combo string that takes 15 or so seconds total and does about 20% of the total damage on a large enemy.  Now if I do a nice three-hit  combo alternating hands / feet / hands on that same enemy, I can do over 50% of its health in ~5 seconds.  So finesse is not only faster but it’s also more rewarding.  The entire game is like this.  Some of the best combos are short ones that require timing rather than mashing.  Once you start being patient with the game’s combat, it’s immensely more enjoyable… and less taxing on your button fingers.

There’s a combo string system very similar to the one found in Arkham Asylum.  It’s not as unforgiving as the Batman one, allowing you a window of time to do damage to anything in order to preserve your current combo.  You can rack up some insane combos and multipliers by chaining together different attacks and combos from one enemy to the other.  The main way you do this is through what they call “witch time”, which is just bullet time… for witches.  All it takes to use is nothing more than timing your dodges.  Dodge an enemy attack at the right moment and the world (except for you) slows down, allowing you to unleash some huge combos without fear of immediate retaliation.  Dodging is easy to do (tap RT), and except for a few completely visually insane fights, all the monsters telegraph their attacks with visual and audio cues.  If you pay attention, it’s easy to know when to use it successfully.  There are items in the game you can get that make it easier to do… and even automatically when you get hit.

Weapon-wise, almost everything they give you has places that they are useful.  The weapon selection is diverse, from swords and guns to lasers, whips, shotguns, rocket launchers, and razor-sharp ice skates.  Yeah, ice skates.  You even get Nightmare on Elm street-type claws that if you wear on your legs, the claw tips become the stiletto part of her heels.  Nice.  Aside from the whip, I found every weapon to be useful versus different creatures.  The sword ended up serving me the best for most of the game, but everything else (sans whip) had frequent use.

The amount of combos you can unleash are… well there’s so many I didn’t get close to doing all of them.  You can check what you have and have not completed, and I’m not even close.  It doesn’t help that every weapon combination you equip (and you can equip different weapons on your arms and legs) has different combos associated with them.  Did I mention there’s at least 8 different weapons in this game?  6 or so of which can be on your arms or legs?  Thank god there’s no achievement for doing every move at least once.

Level-wise, the game is paced really well.  There’s a nice diversity in the intensity and duration of fights on any level and the amount of puzzle & exploration time between each.  There’s maybe 10 different enemies you encounter on a regular basis, with a few larger ones and bosses scattered in-between.  This allows you to learn the behaviors of each so you’ll have a good idea how to fight them.  Some are nasty if you don’t pay attention.

The game is longer than you’d first think, clocking in at 10 to 12 hours on first play-through on normal, assuming you’re mashing for some of it.  Likely you could get that down to 8 or so if you paid more dedicated attention to learning the combo system than I did.  Unlike DMC4, none of the levels are repeats, so you won’t be backtracking at all.

It’s also a fairly diverse experience for the type of game it is.  You ride a motorcycle in a racing type game at several points, fly on a giant missile in a huge homage to Space Harrier for one entire level (down to the classic spinning oval shots and enemy patterns), fight on a raft plunging down a whirlpool, outrun several lava tidal-waves, hurtle buildings at monsters, dodge orbital weapons, and have a few battles that completely twist your sense of space and direction.  There’s wall running, ceiling running, spinning gravity platforms… the works.  They really try to mix up the game play in every way they can.  You even get a sequence that’s akin to a scene from the movie “Wanted” as you guide the final bullet in slo-mo directly into one boss’ forehead.

I wonder how well this game did sales-wise, as it is so easy to dismiss it as a DMC knockoff from seeing screenshots and press videos.  Even though it’s directed by the same guy that made DMC (and Viewitful Joe, Okami, and Resident Evil 2!), this game shows a lot more love and thought than the DMC games have had in their latest incarnations.  Maybe he’s had time to improve the formula since leaving that franchise.  The last few DMC games had no where near this level of finesse behind the scenes.  Whatever he did, it worked, as this is the superior game in the genre.

If you can put up with the absurdity of the story, the over-the-top dialogue, silly characters, and the fact you’re playing as a bad-ass stripper / runway model with guns, the game delivers…  especially if you look just a little deeper than what the surface may suggest.  There’s nothing in this game that’s revolutionary, but there’s a lot of well-thought through evolution on display for the genre.

Did I mention that after finishing it on normal difficulty, there’s two more difficulties to unlock, a secret boss, a full secret level, hidden weapons, time challenges, and two other playable characters to play with their own unique move sets?  A gamerscore fiend will have their hands full with this one for sure.

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