Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Archive for August, 2009

Batman : Arkham Asylum

A simple combat system with some evolving depth, great environments, (mostly) fun and challenging boss battles, an easy to use control scheme, a lot of exploration and secrets to find, a challenge mode, solid UI, heaps of back-story via an in-game encyclopedia on Batman’s villains, and a good batman-centric story with great voice performances.

What the hell?  Aren’t licensed games supposed to suck?  I always thought that’s part of the standard contract for a licensed comic / TV / movie property.

Clause XIII: Being a franchised title, and in keeping with the long-adhered to standard of said franchised titles, said title discussed herein must actually suck at least donkey-class balls as per the General Game Suck guidelines (appendix A-2), score less than a 60 on metacritic, and only exist for quick-grab bucks with a film tie-in or be a viable title that grand-parents can purchase for grand-kids because they think they like those “comic books stories” and don’t know any better.

So what went right?  Well, just about everything.  It’s like they took Metroid Prime, Chronicles of Riddick, and some Bioshock, blended it up with Batman as a centerpiece… and actually produced a good game.  Combat is fun, upgrading is fun, exploring is fun, bosses are fun, there’s a ton of extras and secrets to find, and you totally feel like Batman when playing, and you know what?  He’s a fucking bad-ass.  If anything, this game should turn non-batman fans into fans.  This guy gets beaten on over and over throughout the course of a hellish night against some epic enemies and he just keeps fighting.

This is one of those rare occasions where you don’t feel like the game got cut down, a mechanic removed, or some entire section of the design removed because of time or budget constraints.  The game feels complete.  As a game designer, I’ve always hit places in projects where something didn’t fit, had to be cut, had to be radically changed, or had to be postponed for an expansion or a patch… or never got added at all.  I’m not saying that the Rocksteady guys didn’t have their challenges in making this game, since every project does… but holy hell if they didn’t pull off a well-rounded game at the end of it all.

Sure, 360 owners may complain about the lack of Joker as a playable in challenge mode (I’m betting this will be a timed exclusive to the PS3), but if that’s all you really have to complain about… uh, yeah.

And props have to go to securing the animated series’ cast for the voices.  Hamill’s Joker is classic joker with some dynamite lines, Batman is right on the money, and all the supporting parts are voiced appropriately.  The dialogue has dramatic progression to it as the stakes are raised, the story makes >gasp!< sense for a Batman universe story, and the little touches as batman gets more and more beat down over the course of the game are great.  Torn armor and cowl, 5 o’clock shadow, cape ripped to shreds on the side… it all adds to the overall feel of progression in a great way.  Talk about something that they didn’t have to do, but they did because it made it just that much better.

My biggest complaints of the title are the camera in a few boss battles, and the fact that “detective mode” is just too damn useful.  Instead of being something you’d switch into from time to time, it’s so important that you stay in it almost 100% of the time, rather than enjoying the environments as the artists depicted them.

If I had to nitpick further, I’d say at least one of the boss battles isn’t as creative as I’d hoped, but given the others that knock it completely out of the park, it’s still not enough to detract.  The only other annoyance is that the stealth challenge levels have some very obtuse hints for how you’re supposed to get the rankings (bat symbols, whatever) as you complete them.  It would have been nice if the game had been a little more explanatory here, given how good it is at doing so at every other turn.

I had no idea this game would be this good.  I’ve always liked Batman, but my only video game purchase on his behalf up to now was Lego Batman.  That should be saying something.

Maybe part of the reason for Batman : AA’s high ratings is that it’s a licensed game that finally didn’t suck, and that caught the press and gamers completely by surprise… but maybe it’s because it’s just a damn good game by any standard.

Highly recommended.

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Whoops, I beat Shadow Complex.

I don’t think I’ve ever accidentally won a game before.  This was a first.  I was just running around, and bam — a boss battle that in no way did I think was the end of the game… but lo, when it was said and done: credits.  Uh… OK.  This is either a testament to my prowess as an ub3r gamer, or a sign that the developers at Chair didn’t really communicate the build up to the final battle.  I’m opting for the latter in this case.

Shadow complex is a great update of Super Metroid.  It isn’t a great update of any of the Castlevania games that have come since, including the stellar Symphony of the Night (SoTN) and all the DS versions that have followed.  While SC sticks very close to the original Metroid formula, it doesn’t embrace any of the cool new stuff the CV games brought to the genre.  This is a shame.

The story in SC is completely random.  I understand that it’s part of Orson Scott Card’s new series / universe, but the game doesn’t stand on its own.  You obviously need more back-story to understand how this evil organization built an entire super-fortress in the Washington woods (easily reachable by day hikers), how they got funding for the massive super high-tech stuff they have, what exactly it is they stand for, and why liberating San Francisco (wouldn’t Seattle be much closer?) and killing the vice-president have anything to do with each other.  The connection is never explained.  Considering the entire opening centers on the VP getting axed, you’d think that would… play in… maybe?  No?  Ok, moving on.

Let me throw a positive note in here and say the game looks absolutely stellar and the Unreal engine does a great job of handling a 2D platformer.

OK, back to criticism.

There’s a few things missing from making this game great, namely: enemy variety, weapon selection, themed locations, and compelling boss battles.  Hmm… that’s really not just a few, is it?

There’s 5 or 6 humanoid enemies in the game, 3 robot types, and a few mechs / walkers.  They all shoot bullets or rockets or grenades or foam.  You shoot back bullets and rockets and grenades and foam.  It gets old pretty fast.  The gun upgrades are pleasing, but the combat isn’t that interesting.  There’s not a lot of unique patterns to enemy behavior, which would at least give you something to think about in combat.

You’d think in some massive underground fortress (built for a game) you’d have areas that would be clearly defined, like a reactor area, dormitories, weapons bays, command & control, research labs, etc.  You’d think that navigating each area would take that theme into account, with unique enemies and level layouts to match the themes.  This generally isn’t the case.  Aside from a few connected rooms with one theme, the entire complex is very homogeneous.  Perhaps that’s a good thing from a realistic logistical stand-point.  Decentralized control means that you can’t cripple the base easily if you attacked it.  Unfortunately for the gamer, this just means a complete lack of memorable landmarks in all but a few places (the lake & cottage, the mine claw, mine-cart ride shortcut) means the rest blurs together very quickly, making calling up the map the only way you’ll find your way around the massive base.  It’s a color coded map, but that doesn’t really help much.

If you’ve played any of the MetroidVania type games, the bosses in SC should be complete push-overs.  Most of them die very quickly to just the normal gunfire you can put out at the time, making the challenge of learning a boss’ pattern non-existent.  You just constantly shoot, jump a bit, and they die.  This is a shame, as you’d think that the bosses in this would be high-tech, epic and have some pretty amazing patterns to overcome, but alas.  They’re very rudimentary.  I was hoping for a boss I’d have to use the foam to slow, grapple to get an angle, then rockets to blow off armor, maybe using the grenades to lob into it and finally hit its core.  There’s only one boss that comes close to having any kind of layered strategy like this, and although I’ve played through the game twice now, and even reading exactly what the game tells you you can do to it, for the life of me I can’t defeat it the supposedly “easy” way.

If you like these kinds of games, it’s easily worth the $15.  The first time I completed it was in 6 hours with 99% map and 99% items.  Why only 99%?  Because Chair committed one cardinal sin of exploration games — they lock you out of a part of the game that has a critical item.  If you miss it, you can’t go back if you hit a save room once you’re past it.  Sucks to be you.

Let’s hope that for the next one (or DLC), the crew at Chair sits down and plays Symphony of the Night or most of the CV DS games that followed.  Maybe then we’ll finally see a 2D MetroidVania type game that will de-throne SoTN as the best of all time.

BTW, the 3D aspects in SC are fantastic to look at, but a gimmick in every other way.  All it did was add another complication to the shooting controls, which IMO, it could have done without.  Unless you play with your middle finger on the triggers (who does that?), aiming, moving, and using specials at the same time you’re holding the controller becomes rather… irritating.

OK, one last peeve — the map display in Shadow Complex is deceptive in that a “room” is actually larger than one screen’s worth of vertical and horizontal space, which all other games of this type adhered rigidly to.  This makes it rather challenging to figure out how to get to some of the hidden pickups, especially when you know they’re there.  You’d swear you’ve looked in every connected room for the way in, only to find that there’s an access hidden behind geometry (grenade room, I’m looking at you!) that you can’t possibly see behind or illuminate with your trusty secret-finding flashlight (a nice version of the x-ray visor).  You are still technically in the “same” space in the map when really you should be in another map grid.  My bad for assuming they’d follow that convention, I guess.

…and what’s with the almost complete lack of music?  The music being prominent during the drowned barracks sequence was a nice touch though.

Overall Shadow Complex is a fun ride while it lasts, with a few achievements that merit at least one or two additional replays.  There’s also a few extreme achievements that’ll require some dedicated play (and the use of at least one hidden secret!) to obtain.  I’d certainly recommend it to people who love 2D Metroid / CV type games.

…and if you like these kinds of games, pick up Castlevania: SoTN on LIVE or PSN as well.  An amazing game for only what?  $10?  A steal.  Sure the graphics aren’t nearly as spiffy, but you’ll find a ton to like in that title as well.

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Of developers and bathrooms…

Yuck.

No other phrase fits appropriately when dealing with the hygiene issues that can assault one upon entering most of the men’s bathrooms in any game development establishment.  The level of foul things or just simply unhygienic things I’ve been a hapless victim of or passive witness to is fairly staggering over the course of 16 years.

Walking into a washroom in a large development studio is a game.  Not a fun one, really.  It’s kinda like a lottery you DON’T want to win.  It’s that consolation prize that’s worse than winning anything at all.  It’s that image you’re not going to be able to get out of your head for hours afterward.  It’s that display of bodily function that I don’t need to be reminded that all my co-workers partake in… some with a lot more zeal and obvious enthusiasm than others.

It’s the artifact of an act that makes you wonder if you should ever shake anyone’s hand ever again… and if you do, sanitize yourself immediately following it.

There appear to be a few categories of players in this tragic tale.  Let’s break ’em down, but be aware that you can combo / stack categories for any one person, which some unfortunately do.

  • The Unsanitary
    Typically these types of restroom users simply don’t wash their hands after doing anything.  They relieve themselves, and walk out, likely directly to a client meeting, back to typing away at their keyboard, or picking things up in your office and playing with them.  I guess it’s just too much of a hassle to wash.  Besides, they showered this morning, right?  Well, maybe.  That’s for another entry.
  • The Moistener
    These are the folks that think running water over their hands for 3 to 5 seconds somehow certifies their hands as free and clear of any and all residuals.  Sometimes they use paper to dry afterward, and sometimes they don’t.  These are like the people that really believe that the dry-wash car wash foam is just as good as water and car wash liquid.  Yeah, keep dreaming.
  • Badgers
    Some places (like EA) have badges with the employee’s picture and name squarely on them.  These are usually clipped to the pants, which of course go down below stall wall level when people are doing their business.  There you are, seeing the goofy, smiling face of a co-worker staring at you from next door while you hear the sounds of their colon explosively expelling that macho double-del beef burrito they had earlier.  Ah, bliss.  Later, when you see them in the hall, try really hard not to replay those sounds in your head.  It doesn’t work.  Fortunately, unsanitary badgers make it easy to know who’s hand you should avoid shaking.
  • The Conversationalist
    Seriously, how anyone got into the habit of doing this is beyond me.  Who tries to have conversations while someone is taking a shit?  It’s kinda hard to discuss scheduling, projects, philosophy, or anything at all while you’re hearing things being expelled.  Libraries and bathrooms have a certain understood and unspoken rule: talk as little as possible.
  • The Gift-giver
    It’s like they’re leaving you something they’re proud of and want to share with the world.  Who knows, maybe mom took pictures of their “accomplishments” when they were toilet training and put it on the fridge (next to that picture of summer in Cancun, oh, wasn’t he just adorable?), but it’s really not what I or anyone else need to see… EVER.  I don’t want to know that you had a taco salad for lunch (with corn!), nor what made your sh*t green (green?! seriously!).  I don’t need to see corn, or peanuts, lettuce, how explosive it was up the sidewalls, nor if it’s floating or not, but oh boy you left it anyway, and now I have to enjoy it.  Thanks, fucker.  Does your wife / girlfriend have to deal with this at home?  Likely not, because you probably don’t have one after a few of these left around.
  • The Footloose (and fancy-free)
    Here’s one that I just don’t get.  Barefoot… at a urinal.  Barefoot?!  Have you ever looked down at the random spills and misses around any urinal in any public place?  It’s typically a nice mix of liquids from at least two orifices, plus the glorious occasional pube that finds its way into the broth.  Now step barefoot in that.  Wiggle your toes around in it.  Feel the coolness of it all, the mingling of discarded wastes and abandoned follicles.  Yeah, that’s nice, isn’t it?  What’s worse is that just like walking through a house with wet feet, you can track the perpetrator back out of the bathroom for a bit… not that you want to.  At least it tells you which area of the building you’re going to need to have sterilized.
  • The Cellphoner
    This is kinda like the talker, but since they’re on a cell phone, they’re usually LOUDER and MORE ANNOYING.  I can’t imagine what’s keeping the person on the other end of the phone on the line.  After hearing the echoing or any other sounds coming from my phone’s speaker, I’d hang up.  Since this is also a game company we’re talking about, there are rarely any conversations that are worth listening to.  At least with a quality fight with a girlfriend or an argument with a partner in a deal going south you can get some drama out of it — screaming, irrational dialogue, bizarre swearing chains, threats — but with gamers, not really.  Most of them are mundane, the kind of conversations that you had as a teenager when neither you or the person you’re talking to had any idea that you could have an idea.  Just tweet the fucking thing and shut the hell up, OK?
  • The Commentator
    Sometimes amusing, sometimes not.  Depends on your mood, I have to admit.  These types comment on their progress through the crap-taking or pissing process.  They encourage their “little buddy” while pissing or give you a blast-by-blast account of their last meal’s explosive exit from their colon.  When it’s funny, it’s like an audio recreation of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco, but instead of a bronco it’s a guy who’s having explosive diarrhea… and loving every minute of it.
  • The Exploder
    I don’t think I have to explain this one, nor will I try.  If you’ve seen this, you know that words simply fail.  The horror.
  • The Deodorizer
    Now you must be thinking that this entry is about someone that’s the complete opposite of the types mentioned before.  Nope.  These are not the ones that deodorize… these are the ones that need deodorizing.  In every office of more than about 50 game developers, there’s usually at least one that falls into this category.  They just reek.  They don’t shower often and they rarely use deodorant of any kind.  These types are not fun to be next to, be it in a stall or a row of urinals, because your gag reflex tends to constrict the muscles you need in order to expel things from your body in the proper manner.  They do however rapidly facilitate things coming out of other orifices that are usually reserved for when you’re really drunk or food poisoned.  The plus with deodorizers is that they’re also usually unsanitaries and sometimes footloose as well.  A 3-hit combo at least.
  • The Elvis
    They go in to take a crap and end up falling asleep, sometimes snoring.  All hail the king!

So that’s my list so far.  It’s not fair to say that this kind of stuff is limited to just the game developer environment.  You see a lot of this no matter where you are, but it just so happens that the type of people that work in game development seem to forget basic things like hygiene.

You could say that developers in bathrooms brings out the worst in them… usually while they’re bringing out the worst of their lunch.

Har-har!

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