Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Kratos finally gets some… revenge, that is.

The God of War games are just their own thing.  A completely unique identity and feel, copied by many and never once equaled.

Maybe this is blasphemy, but GoW3 is a great game that suffers from the “how can we top the last one?” problem.  They try, really, really, really hard.  Cameras zoom in and out, scale is massive, environments are detailed, deaths are elaborate, bosses are sometimes epic… but for me, never once did it hit the high of that Colossus fight in the beginning of GoW2.  Actually, in many ways, I think GoW2 is the superior game.

So why do I say that?

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Command & Conquer 4: In some ways yes, in some ways no

NOTE: I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, and that’s comment on a game without having finished playing it.  A big heap of “I may be misinformed” has to come with this, since I’m going to call things out by what I’ve seen so far and predict where they go (or don’t go) later in the game.

So let’s get this out of the way — I can see that there’s a game in here that is fun for what it is, but to me, what it is not is a core C&C game.

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Dark Void: I couldn't come up with a witty title; the game doesn't deserve one anyway.

I can’t remember the last time I sat down and finished a game in 1.5 sittings.  That translates to around 5 hours of play.

I had a lot of hope for Dark Void when it was announced.  There’s so much potential in the idea of a free-flying Rocketeer type game.  Sure, it seemed like it was biting off more than it could chew (flying, ground combat, platforming, etc.), but there was such a great road map of things to avoid (the Iron Man game for one) and plenty to inspire (The Rocketeer film, Crimson Skies… which this team made!) that I thought this one would “get it” and go towards the latter rather than the former.

Wow, was I wrong.

So if you’re making a game involving shooting and guns, you really should get those right.  The default weapon in the game (a machine gun) is buggy.  The problem: the gun can’t hit anything up close.  Apparently the bullet emitter is just a bit too far ahead of the muzzle on the model, or they’re moving to fast, or it’s just bad logic; the shit is broke regardless.  At point-blank range, only one in every 10 bullets or so doesn’t spawn past an enemy in front of you.  Sigh.  This gets worse as you upgrade the gun, too.  At one point, it seems I was doing no damage at all with it while closing for a melee attack.  The shots were hitting the wall behind the enemy instead.

Speaking of melee, it doesn’t fare any better.  Instead of making melee a dynamic part of the game, there’s canned animations for every melee attack.  This means that once you start a melee attack, you’re locked into it and can’t move or shoot until the animation is over.  The canned thing is nice when you need health to regenerate (you’re apparently invulnerable while doing melee), but isn’t nice for game play flow.  It’s jarring and very unsatisfying.  Damage from melee is a joke too.  The basic robots you fight you can 1-hit kill.  Everything else?  Try 3 to 6 melee attacks.  Or better yet, don’t try it, because it isn’t worth doing.

Machine-gun aside, there are other weapons that are more fun to use, notably the alien version of the machine gun, which has none of the basic machine gun issues and has upgrades that make it well worth using.  This likely has to do with the bullets being projectiles rather than raycasts with effect.  The other weapons vary from kinda meh to not really that useful.  The gravity gun seems fun, but there’s nothing to do with it outside of one level that you get it on.  The sniper rifle, even fully upgraded, can’t headshot and quickly kill most enemies… most of the time.  Again I’m thinking they have some really bad collision detection with raycast weapons.  The tesla cannon is fun for the mission you get it in, but not much else.

Lastly, the game makes one horrible mistake with aiming.  Where I’m looking (center screen) when I go into aiming mode doesn’t naturally become where the reticule is looking.  So, even if I’m in cover and move the camera to basically center on an enemy in the distance, as the view zooms in, I’ll be looking somewhere completely different, requiring me to re-aim once I’m zoomed in, making the entire point of general aiming worthless.  Any modern shooter has this working correctly, but not in this game.

So ground combat isn’t great, but then again the game is about flying, right?  With a cool jetpack!  That’s awesome!

Well, it should be, but it’s not.

Flying is a mess.  You have a poor sensation of speed.  The boost and brake abilities don’t do enough to speed you up or slow you down; Boost is too slow, and flying with brakes on feels still too fast.  There’s no way to lock on to enemies and get even a basic targeting / gutter arrow to tell you the direction of your target.  You can hold down a button to focus on the nearest enemy while trying to steer, shoot, and aim, but it’s uncomfortable on your hand to do so for more than a few seconds at a time.  Some enemies have flight trails behind them, but they’re not long enough and you can’t vary your speed enough to track them well anyway.  It’s easier to boost away from stuff, U-turn, then just shoot and repeat.  Dog-fighting is not enjoyable… in a game about dog-fighting.

Enemies have targeting reticules around them to call them out from friendly aircraft… sometimes.  There is no rhyme or reason to why you sometimes see them and sometimes don’t.  It’s not distance based, and has nothing to do with their health or yours.  Sometimes you just don’t get reticules to call out enemies, and other times you do.

You have a context action that you can do while flying to hijack an enemy craft or kill a few “boss” type enemies.  It’s tedious and boring, and like melee attacks, locks you into a canned animation as you fly automatically to the enemy craft.  This is really fun when the brilliant AI of an enemy decides to suicide below the game horizon, or is shot down by one of your AA guns and falls to its death as your guy is flying to the ship.  You end up flying right after it and directly into the abyss.  Some checkpoints can be far enough apart that this makes replaying the same mission sequence very tedious.

If you avoid canned death and get to the craft, you end up in this bad version of a simon game, except to win their version of Simon, you just hold down one button.  If the enemy shoots at you, you have to stop holding the button and move to another part of the ship… and just sit there unable to progress with the hijack until it stops shooting.  sometimes it tries to shake you off, requiring you to mash a random face button for a few moments.  Once that’s done, you move back to the panel and hold the button down more.  You repeat this until you pull off the panel to get to the pilot, then wiggle the stick to kill him and take the craft.  I can’t understand the call to make the path to success the most boring choice possible.  Where’s the quicktime event of hitting a few buttons in rapid succession?  Man, just take a look at any larger monster fight in God of War for inspiration.  Taking over an enemy craft has never been so unexciting.  Well, I guess it could have been more boring — just don’t do anything in order to succeed.

The other problem with many of the aerial levels is that it’s actually more efficient to jump into one of the AA turrets and shoot down the enemies.  The AA guns do more damage, are more accurate, and take a more punishment than you can with your rocket pack, even when upgraded with better guns.  When the main draw of your game isn’t the most efficient and rewarding way to fight enemies, you have a serious problem.

Finally, the story is bad.  Not cheesy and somewhat fun in a bad way like Darkstalkers was… like just bad.  Here’s an example:  You’re fighting robots and UFOs the entire game… and then suddenly at the end you’re fighting a giant mecha-dragon.  HUH?  Or what about Nikola Tesla being killed by an impostor Tesla who then doesn’t take Tesla’s place and cause havoc, but just stabbity-stab-stabs and… leaves?!  He doesn’t even try to sabotage your ship while he’s right there.  So weak.

I could go on, but this game doesn’t deserve any more words spent on it.

The TLDR version: Lack of good feedback on actions, poor controls, weak weapon balance, poorly paced upgrades, bad story, mediocre graphics.

6/10 on a good day.  Ouch.

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Daddy-do-right

I’d like to consider myself at least semi-intelligent.  Some games make me question that… or they make me question if the game itself was trying too hard to be intelligent.

Bioshock 2 makes me think there’s a bit of both going on.

Before I get to the story, let’s talk about the game.  It’s Bioshock.  More.  Not as fresh this time around just because the newness is gone.  Still beautiful, still under the water.  Still doesn’t use water as much as it should.  Still has the goal arrow, still has Gatherer’s gardens and Circus of Value, gene tonics, plasmids, weapons, weapon upgrade stations, and vita chambers are all around.  Still has big daddies and little sisters.  Most enemies are the same, except for a new big fat one and of course, the big sisters.

This time around, you’re a big daddy prototype that apparently had a lot more free will and ability than other big daddies.  You can use plasmids and do all kinds of things that the regular models can’t.  There’s some logic questions to scratch your head about, but whatever.  You also have this nice diving helmet masking part of your view for the entire game.  Yeah, turn that off and the game is more enjoyable.

You immediately get your goal — rescue your little sister — and from there the entire game is a stream of movement towards that goal, with roadblocks thrown up to make you detour elsewhere.  The areas you travel to in the massive city aren’t as connected to the story.  They’re just places that have problems.  You travel to different areas because you have to (you’re following a train route), stopped each time by some impassible gate that requires you to take detours into whatever crux problem each area has and deal with it in order to eliminate that gate and progress further; Powers are doled out, moral decisions made.

All the plasmids return from the first game (I think — it’s been a while) with a few optimizations and refinements to make the choice a bit less overwhelming.  However, they’re not that special any longer.  You just find them and buy them and you’re off using them.  Remember the drama the first time you injected yourself with the swarm tonic in Bioshock?  Your character screamed as the hive burrowed out of your skin.  That kind of stuff is just glossed over this time around.  The idea of splicing is taken for granted.

Kudos to allowing me to use both weapons and plasmids at once this time around though — that’s the biggest improvement over the first game without a doubt.

Weapon selection wise, they’re all kinda standard templates for FPS weapons.  Gun, machine gun, shotgun, sniper, rocket launcher, melee, and two tools for combat / exploration support.  Some of the weapon upgrades are fun to play with, although others (tesla shotgun?) I don’t see how they’d be useful.  Maybe there’s a nice mix of plasmids and tonics that would make them beneficial that I didn’t see.  After I got the option to go completely plasmids and melee alone, that’s what I did.  The drill charge was just too much fun not to use constantly.

As for playing uniquely, my combat style worked out to letting bees out everywhere, then dropping a decoy and mini turrets.  While everyone is busy hitting the decoy (and healing me by doing so) I’d drill charge or use telekinesis to grab enemies, melee them to death with the drill (also giving me back health) while holding them up in front of me, loot them, then hurtle their corpse at another enemy to weaken them.  Yeah, that was fun.

The level designers did a good job in presenting you with plenty of turrets, objects, and oil / water pools to allow you a wide range of plasmid / weapon strategies.  The new research mechanic, while clunky to start up, at least was not overly taxing in order to get full research on any one type of thing.  Very doable with one play-through of the game.  Getting full research was a pain in Bioshock 1, so I’m glad to see that it’s easier this time around.

The mechanic with the little sisters, which you had to “liberate” from a big daddy, then harvest OR use to collect ADAM, THEN either harvest OR release was… OK.  I’ll talk more about this in the story section, since it contains spoilers.

Bioshock 2’s moral pivot, which the nemesis (Dr. Lamb) balances her scheme on is one that I’m still having difficulty groking, even after finishing the game.  Since this part is laden with plot spoilers, I’d suggest not reading any further if you’ve not completed the game or have any interest in doing so.  Really.

Not kidding.  Stop reading, right now.

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The paragon

Mass Effect 2 is a very good game… even if the game part of Bioware’s titles are becoming less game and more interactive fiction.  In Dragon Age, I feel the game actually got in the way of the IF.  In ME2, I think the play compliments the IF rather than getting in the way.

Mechanic wise, ME2 strips a lot of the heavier RPG stuff out of the equation from the previous Mass Effect outing.  Want to know how much damage a gun does?  Not going to happen.  What about weapon attachments?  Nope, gone.  Armor for your allies?  Bzzzt.  Yet for some reason they show you shield numbers and health on the character screen.  I almost have to ask — why?  I never more than glanced at it, since there was no way to compare those numbers to any enemy damage values to get an idea how much you can take.

The only new game mechanic I can think of is the new ammo / heat system.  This is a nice addition, since it forces you to switch weapons and manage your ammo for what you think a mission will throw at you.  Maybe it was the difficulty I played on (Veteran), but ammo drops were not frequent enough to spam weapons fire.  I enjoyed this.  Playing a sniper, I certainly made every shot count, and would switch weapons in order to conserve my precious sniper shots for high-threat targets.  That was a welcome intellectual consideration while in the middle of battles.  The barrier / shield / armor / health layer system also presented some nice mix-ups for which power you’d use at what time and on what enemy.  It wasn’t so deep that I got lost with it, but it was deep enough that I did find myself using specific powers on specific layers of enemy defense.  Since allies also have unique abilities that are better at certain types of enemies or not, the choice of ally became important to what you thought you’d encounter on each mission.  It did become more rote as you get further into the game though, since the pattern of use never changes up.

So I’d say that 94% of this game is completely enjoyable.  However, there’s just a bit that’s not. Some of the side missions you can discover via anomalies are more dramatic and exciting than several of the main-line missions.  The green-fogged geth planet, the sandstorm (although that could have been even more intense, IMO), the chlorine gas / beacon, and the geth husk swarm missions all stand out… and they’re all optional.  Early on in the main game while getting your team together, there’s a great mission that involves the player staying out of direct sunlight, but after that, there’s no interesting environmental “twists” in many of the mainline missions.  I think this is a missed opportunity.  As a game maker, it feels like the mainline missions were done first, which allowed the designers to learn what they could really do with the scripting system.  Armed with more knowledge of the engine’s limitations, the side missions — which were done after — were a bit more “risky” and thus more creative.

Because I don’t want to give anything away, I’m not going to talk about the story any more than saying that it makes a lot of sense and has some nice pace… until it just doesn’t.  There’s a moment later in the game that comes out of no where and without a warning.  Once it happens, there’s different outcomes to the later game depending on your next immediate action, which goes against the “play at your speed” ideal the rest of the game upholds.  For a completionist like me, I was annoyed that they were hurrying me along, and punishing me (as I found out later) if I didn’t hurry, since I still had a few things to do.

The game has an interesting balance to it.  Imagine there’s a difficulty curve, and a player weapon power curve.  The power curve rises faster over time than difficulty, so eventually the power curve overtakes the difficulty, and then the game becomes easier.  Setting the game’s difficulty to higher levels only delays that moment.  I played on Veteran, which became easier to survive the further I went into the game.  I’m not complaining though — some of the early combats against large mechs were nasty, with multiple deaths before being able to overcome them.  I’m not complaining, though.  It kept me interested.  Even when things get a bit easier, are a few enemy biotics that are always deadly, and you can still die rather easily if you don’t use cover.  Enemies are never as powerful as your team is, which feels like a bit of an oversight, but it’s not as noticeable as in say Borderlands.

I still have the same issue with the dialogue UI that I had in the first game.  When you have subtitles turned on, you tend to read faster than they speak, so you occasionally hit the B button to skip dialogue sequences.  Of course, B also quits you out of conversations.  Sometimes the next dialogue choice tree comes up before the dialogue finishes… sometimes the moment you’re hitting B to skip it.  You then quit the conversation.  I don’t approve of that consolidation.  You end up screwing up a lot and dropping yourself out of some dialogue paths… some of which you can’t get back to without reloading a save.  Punishing me for not wanting to hear a repeated dialogue path isn’t very nice.

And now a moment of comparison.  Dragon Age vs. Mass Effect 2 —

Maybe it’s because it was sci-fi.  Maybe it’s because the game part was a shooter, catering to console.  Maybe it’s because it was a sequel and I could import my character.  Maybe it’s because the returning characters were ones I really liked in the first game.  Maybe it’s because I couldn’t play “who’s the tool / traitor / dead guy” as predictably.  Maybe it was because the AI for my allies was actually decent.  Maybe it was because ME2 feels like a console game, while DA felt like a port of a PC game, with large deficiencies in the UI and character control.  All in all I’m completely in the Mass Effect camp.  Really, there’s no comparison in my book.  ME2 is a better product… IMO, of course.

The low down: Highly recommended if you liked Mass Effect 1 or if you like fun sci-fi RPGs.  I use the “RPG” part loosely here, since there’s not a lot of that to it.  The normal and easy difficulties should make the game approachable for any level of player, even if you usually shy away from shooters.  If you’re even competent at shooters, play veteran or above.  You’ll enjoy the challenge.

Also, the game has an excellent and never obtrusive auto-save system, which makes playing a fluid experience.

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Recent Playlist

I’ve been derelict in my self-appointed duty to talk about games I’ve been playing lately.  This is a good thing however, as there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on at Jet Set, leaving me little time to write about games.

Of course, I’m still playing games.  Here’s a rundown of the recently finished games and a brief thought on each.

Ghostbusters

A fun game that nicely captures the spirit of the first two films and manages to tie a lot of the lore together in an interesting way.  I wish they’d stayed more mundane with some of the environments, as that was always the fun of Ghostbusters — the real mundane world mixed with the supernatural.  Once the game shifts into almost completely supernatural territory, it loses something (i.e. part of the charm).  Getting the original cast and music back went a long way towards making this a fun ride.

Dragon Age: Origins

DA is kinda fun in spite of itself.  I posted that on Facebook and got some good responses.  Here’s the best one from a friend of mine:

I really enjoyed some of the story telling, as simple as it was, it got to me a few times. The combat mechanics, pacing, itemization, etc. (anything that has anything to do with “game”) was a pretty big fail for me.

That’s dead-on.

I’ll only add that the being covered in blood from head to toe while having a nice polite chat with a king is fairly hilarious.  No one ever says “OH MY GOD YOU’RE COVERED IN BLOOD!” or even skips a beat.  People in fantasy times were just so polite.  Maybe they assume I just cut myself shaving?

Modern Warfare 2

Fun in parts, frustrating in others.  Great visuals with a story that just gets more and more out there as the game goes on.  Some interesting set pieces, and other not interesting ones.  The terrorist sequence was pointless by the end, especially when you think of the absurdity of events that happen because of it.

Without “clown-car spawning” that IW used to rely on, their design falters on some of the levels, making them throw cheap-shot enemies at you instead.  As far as solo-player goes, MW1 is a much better experience from beginning to end.

Fable 2

A “game” that gives you lots of choice that doesn’t impact the game’s story at all, except for one at the very end which kills the game if you make the wrong choice.  Hint: Choose Love.  Since Populous, Peter’s games have always been more of a simulation than an actual game, and this one leans in that direction.  There’s aspects of this game that are fun, but they never go past the level of moderate into full-blown epic.  There’s no bosses to fight, 8 enemy types total, a horribly implemented co-op mode, and a spell casting system that leaves a lot to be desired.

And if you happened to make the wrong choice at the end like I did, you can pay an additional $10 via DLC to remedy the problem.  Not.  Having the only real moral choice in the game be one that breaks any further play without paying more money is a horrible design decision.

Dead Space : Extraction

A great little shooter that’s good for about 5 to 6 hours of co-op play.  Puts you right back in the Dead Space universe without missing a beat.  Strong voice acting helps a lot.  The secondary weapon modes are useless except for a few puzzle sequences.  I wonder why they included them at all, really.

House of the Dead : Overkill

Remember when GTAIII came out, and suddenly there was this push of “extreme” games that were raunchy, foul-mouthed, and just downright bad?  Overkill goes back to that well… but it doesn’t drink so deeply that the game is bad.  Actually for a shooter on rails, it’s rather fun.  The team nailed the grindhouse atmosphere.  The story makes sense in a funky grindhouse kinda way, and gets more and more outrageous as it goes on.  Once you realize what the final boss is doing to spawn its minions, your jaw kinda drops.  No, really.

The director mode, which makes the levels longer by adding new sequences and tripling the number of enemies is the way to play.  IMO, this mode should have been the default.  The game is only about 4 hours long in non-director mode, and you’ll likely get through the entire thing without ever dying.  Director mode is much more challenging.

Zombie Island of Dr. Ned (Borderlands DLC)

Enjoyable, especially at mid-high levels when the creatures are tougher than you are.  I’m mixed on the next DLC release, so I’ll wait for reviews before picking that one up.  For the $10 Ned was a worthy purchase for a few nights of co-op with the wife.  Man, that sounds dirty.

Undead T.K. rules!

Upcoming

Currently on my gamefly queue, it’s Assassin’s Creed II, Saboteur, and Army of Two (for co-op!).  Gamefly tends to send you completely random games, ignoring your queue order, so I’m curious if I get any of those or something that’s like #18 on my list.

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YOO just need to shoot more BOO-llets!

Playing through Borderlands for a second time, one thing becomes painfully clear:  Sniper rifles don’t scale appropriately to other weapons found in the game.

My wife is playing a siren that puts out hundreds of damage per second with a L18 flame SMG (L18! And she’s L43 now!) and her Siren’s abilities tweaked to assist that. My Hunter with maxxed sniper skills and a 500+ damage L40+ rifle? Not even close. Even with damage bonuses and such, the time it takes to aim at a target, get a headshot lined and fire completely invalidates the usefulness of that shot’s damage.  The loss of instant, constant DPS from a pistol / SMG can never be equalized by a sniper headshot… unless the headshot was always instantly fatal, and even then I have my doubts.

For the hunter, the pistol tree is infinitely more playable the second time around.  You get both pistols and magnums to play with, and if you find one with ammo regeneration, you’re made of epic win.  You don’t even need a scope at that point.

It’s a shame, really.  The game is still fun, but not having any way to make that tree enjoyable is disappointing.  Sniping is fun, but slows you down tremendously when things get harder.

I’m hoping the DLC will bring some game balance tweaks as well, since the weapon balance appears way skewed to fast-firing constant damage weapons.  Even the skills available to the classes push you in that direction.  I’m also curious how the DLC will scale level-wise.

I guess the title really says it all.  Take the vending machine’s advice.  Go for fast shooting weapons!

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Adventures (and maybe just a -few- deaths) in Boletaria

dsouls

A while ago, I read an interview with a Japanese game developer (Kojima, I believe) that talked about the game design philosophy of the Japanese.  Kojima said that the Japanese liked making games around one core activity and allowing the game design to explore the furthest extremes of that activity.  Demon’s Souls is a shining example of that philosophy.  Fantasy melee combat, taken to extremes.  It’s also a great game, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

How can you tell if you’re not right for the game?

  1. You think you need to grok a game (i.e. understand it completely) before you can play it.
  2. You don’t enjoy having to focus on what you’re doing and what’s going on around you when playing a game.
  3. You like to blame your in-game deaths on everything other than what you did to cause it.
  4. You button mash in most games, especially when you get stressed in heated boss battles.
  5. You don’t like the idea that 30+ hours into a game, you may want to restart because you finally “get it”.

I’m not listing this stuff to brag in any way, as if I’m more ub3r for having gotten through it.  It’s honestly just not a game that some people will be able to tolerate at all.  I have friends that will love this game, and I have ones that will hate it with every fiber in their body.

Why is it so polarizing? Demon’s Souls is like Animal Crossing in a way.  Both games force you to play in a way that most gamers aren’t accustomed to doing.  For the latter, you had no choice but to play casually, which drove me completely insane until I got it… promptly stopped playing.  For the former, it’s restraint and patience that you must have, young Jedi.  Without it, you’ll just die, die, die, and die some more.

That’s not to say that you won’t die anyway, because oh you will, you will.  I never got frustrated at my deaths in Demon’s Souls, unlike the end of that horrible Saving Private Ryan inspired level in Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  In the case of Conker, I wanted to destroy my console as every soul-crushing death stacked one atop the other.  I cursed the game, the developers and myself for not giving up on the damn thing.  To this day, I still remember how horrible that level was.  In Demon’s Souls, I didn’t even get close to rage when I died.  Typically my deaths were because I screwed up in some way.  I swung too early.  I was out of stamina.  I forgot to block.  I dodged off a cliff.  I did something dumb or hasty or uneducated and it cost me.

There’s a ton of reviews out there that talk about Demon’s Souls difficulty, but let me be clear – the game isn’t that difficult if you pay attention.  You have to listen, you have to look, you have to learn attack patterns, you have to learn level layouts.  The game is amazingly honest in everything it does.  You hear monsters breathing from around corners waiting to ambush you.  You see enemies assemble themselves from bones before they start charging you.  You hear the “twang!” of a bow as an arrow comes whistling your way.  Almost everything in the game announces itself in one way or another, giving you plenty of time to react… as long as you look and listen.

Level design is very well planned and populated.  Almost every level has shortcuts that can be mastered or unlocked as you progress, allowing you to quickly get back to the boss that’s currently turning you into a soul-splat on the floor.  Monsters are presented in interesting mixes with space to breathe inbetween.  The varied environments provoke all kinds of sense of dread in different ways, from ruined castles on cliffs to poisonous rainy swamps, horrific bogs and rotting jails full of insane prisoners, the game has you covered.  The only level type I would have loved to see included would be a misty forest full of shadowy menace.

One of my friends calls Demon’s Souls the best MMO that you can play alone.  This is a very apt description.  The levels feel like raid dungeons with you running them solo.  You can play with others when you want to (mostly) and within your defined boundaries of interaction.  Multiplayer is unique and interesting, especially with bloodstains and messages left behind for players that don’t know the levels or the monsters they may encounter.  World 3 (The Queen’s Tower) ups the multiplayer aspect to a whole new level of “oh, that’s cool” which I won’t spoil here.

UI-wise, the game could have used a few more iterations.  Reading messages and then recommending them is tedious.  The gesturing system is interesting, but esoteric to the extreme (hold X for an undefined amount of time, then tilt / shake controller in different ways).  From Software could have done with a look at a TiVo’s UI.  Equipment management is sometimes a hassle, and the message pop-ups and dismissal of them can get you killed during a heated fight.  This at first seems like it’s a bug.  Why the hell can’t I just pick things up instantly?  And yet, there’s the game design rearing its head again, reinforcing the idea that you need to focus on the combat.  In the middle of a heated swordfight, is it really the best idea to start rummaging through the pockets of an enemy’s corpse?

What also gets you killed in this game?  Bravado.  In a game like God of War, wading into 10 enemies at once is exciting, fun, and generally the way the game is designed to play.  In Demon’s Souls, it’s not the case. If you have 10 guys on you, you’re dead.  Three guys at once is scary enough, and with certain enemies, two at once is enough to make you soil your pants.

Let’s take a look at the second time you encounter Vanguard, the monster in the image above.  The first time you fight him, you die — you have to.  Now you’ve encountered him yet again, ready to dish out some payback for the previous death that started this whole mess in the first place.  Do you:

    A. Rush in and start swinging wildly?
    B. Patiently engage him in a melee battle?
    C. Sneak around him and continue through the level?
    D. Get to a safe vantage point and and fill his fat ass full of arrows?

Of course, the correct answer is D, but could also be C if allowed, which in many cases is.  A is immediate death, so that’s out.  Sure, you can do B, but considering that one or two mistakes = death, why risk it?  The game wants you to play intelligently, which in some areas flies against all the other training you’ve had as a console gamer for years and years.  You really want to just rush right in and start swinging — most 3rd person action games today encourage that kind of behavior.  If you stop to think about it though, it’s pretty clear what you should do instead — survive.  The time it takes to fill him with arrows is a lot less than the time it would take to fight him, potentially die, and then have to come back and do it (and all the enemies leading up to him) over again.

The first character I played in Demon’s Souls I took to level 73 in about 40 hours played when I decided to start the game over.  I then took the new character and finished the game at level 95 in around 30 hours played.  I’m now level 110 with 39 hours played, and a good deal into the (much harder) second playthrough.  Why did I start over?  I learned what I was doing wrong.  Amazingly, I wasn’t pissed at all.  I was playing the game like just another 3rd person console game.  I was leveling in a way that wasn’t very focused.  I was randomly upgrading weapons here and there without concentrating on a few at a time.  In a nutshell, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the other aspects of the game besides hitting monsters, namely my character’s progression.

So yes, I started over, and had an amazingly smoother time the second time through.  Less death, more levels, better weapons, faster boss kills.  In every way the game got more enjoyable as progress came at a more steady pace.

So what’s not great?  For a game that has a lot of numerical detail to it behind the scenes, almost none of it is exposed to the player in a way that would let them develop strategies without consulting a source outside the game.  You can’t find out that skeletons are weak to fire and blunt weapons otherwise, unless through a lot of trial and error, and likely deaths.  This is flawed.  The game is challenging enough in combat and its manifestations that knowing that piercing does crap against hard scaly lizard creatures would be nice.  Sure it’s all fantasy-logical from the start (so again if you just think about your fantasy expectations…) but it’s also hidden from the player unless they experiment or read up on it.

The lock-on targeting system, essential in some places, is downright mystifying in its logic.  Sometimes it works great and immediately locks targets.  Other times you can’t lock on to anything even if it’s right in front of you.  To this day, I still don’t understand how it picks targets or why it won’t pick some from time to time.  I have a sneaking suspicion it’s designed like that and varies by weapon or by one of your stats.  Maybe high INT makes you lock on faster.  Who knows?

I picked up the collector’s edition, so I fortunately have the strategy guide to enlighten me on the location of ores, the trade-offs for using each spell to gain a weapon or magic, and other important pieces of game-altering knowledge, but even then it falls short on explaining some critical aspects of the game, like how stat bonuses work on weapons.  If you don’t have access to the strat guide, there’s two excellent wikis on-line (found here and here) that contain everything the strat book does and more.

So do I recommend the game?  Oh hell yes… but only if you’re up to the brutal humbling that’s initially in store for you.  I will say that although you may be beaten down at the start, you can walk away from this game with some serious bragging rights once it’s over.

Worth the $60 and then some.  I’d love to see a sequel.

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Check me out! I'm dancin!

Borderlands - claptrap

Borderlands is a great excuse to get you and 3 other friends online and shoot stuff until it stops moving.

Here’s a few realities of the game:

  1. This is a co-op game first and foremost.  Play split screen at the least, but for maximum insanity, play with 3 other players on-line.
  2. Ignore the story completely.  It makes no sense.  Once you reach the end and know what’s going on, it makes even less.  I was genuinely hoping for an option to turn it off on second play-through.  That’s how meaningless it is.
  3. You will use a sniper rifle, no matter what class you play.  Just accept that and have one on you.
  4. The game’s last few levels are tedious.  The enemies you fight in those levels are also tedious.  Have an electric and an corrosive weapon with you to make it a bit easier.
  5. The game title sequence and character intros are great, and then… they don’t do anything with them.
  6. If you play the Tank or the Soldier, you’ll get tired of their dialogue really fast.  They’re both kinda annoying.
  7. The comparison UI is about one iteration away from being incredibly useful.  As is, it’s annoying at times, especially when dealing with shops.
  8. The decision to not have characters vacuum-up money is mystifying.  It’s shared with all players automatically, yet I have to hit a button to pick it up.  Why?  I can hear the argument that it’s inconsistent to the rest of the “hit X to pick up” UI standard, but it’s also inconvenient to the player to make them tediously pick up automatically shared funds.  Let players make decisions that impact the game, not ones that don’t.
  9. Holding down X is the concession to the “hit X” UI, which allows batch-grabbing stuff in view around you (view though, not radial — again, why?) but can lead to some accidental weapon and outfit mishaps when you hold X down just a bit too long for the game’s taste.  Suddenly instead of wielding your auto-recharging room-killing explosive shooting shotgun, you’re firing a level 2 pistol at a level 30 monster.  Yeah, not fun.
  10. I really wish there was more than 2 vehicles in the game, or at the least they became more powerful as you progressed.  My sniper rifle does more damage than the rocket launcher turret on the car.  WTF?
  11. Not being able to bring a higher character into a lower character’s game is disappointing.  Does it really matter if you want to power-level a friend?

I liked Borderlands, but it suffers from the same thing that happened in Crackdown: you’re ultimately too powerful for the enemies you’re facing.  There’s only one enemy in Borderlands that can drop a turret like the soldier class can, but none of them can phasewalk, have some crazy pet they can throw at you, or go enraged and charge around punching things.  You’re too unique in this world, and that makes the later fights in the game boring.  They just throw more numbers of things with greater health at you rather than add new dynamics of enemy behavior.

I’m sure the game did well enough in sales to spawn more (DLC yep, sequel maybe?) adventures in that universe, so maybe next time around they’ll add more mission diversity (escorts, assassination, gauntlets, etc.) and more unique dynamics to the enemies… or at least some more interesting boss battles.  Most bosses are just normal enemy types with unique guns and/or lots of health.

If there was ever a game that lives up to the idea that it’s not the goal that’s important, it’s the journey to get there, it’s this game.  Borderlands lives and thrives in the moments of fun you have with friends along the way, not about the credit roll at the end.

It’s worth the $60 if you have at least one other friend to play with.

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Damn you, Mothership!!!

In waiting for the deluge of good titles that are coming out later this month, I picked up a $13 game from Amazon because everyone told me how horrible it was.  Lavish descriptions of the horribleness of the experience flowed from those that had played it.  Tales of  bad physics, terrible collision issues, horrible dialogue, early 90’s era graphic techniques, poor animations, silly enemies — it was an endless stream of bad… yet these were all recommendations for the game.

And you know what?  Everything they said is true… and more.  Earth Defense Force 2017 is likely the worst best game I’ve ever spent $13 on.

“Let’s hurry back and get a bite to eat!”

-Every soldier

I think what makes the game so amusing is that everything you’ve learned in how a player interacts in 3D games over the years — expectations of collision, physics, weapon function, gravity — it’s all thrown completely out the window in EDF: 2017.  Collision is almost non-existent, physics are comically exaggerated, falling damage is… what falling damage?

“Nests have appeared all over the world.  The bugs are moving around… and attacking!”

-The Reporter, who dies at least twice

The game takes place on Earth in the year 2017, when an alien force invades.  The aliens must have a sense of humor, because their primary invasion force is giant bugs.  Giant ants and spiders, more specifically.  They crawl all over the geometry, up buildings, under bridges, on ceilings, get stuck on things, have zero mass once killed, shoot web and acid at you, and are sufficiently creepy.  To this we add over the course of 53 missions two variants of a giant robot, a huge dino-bot, a big AT-AT-like walker, an air attack “ufo” and some drop ships.  Mostly it’s just ants and spiders though.

“Damn you, Mothership!!!  Did we wake you up?!”

-The Commander

Environment wise, there’s not much to it.  Buildings,  ground, a few trees, and maybe a bridge or so.  There’s only really four maps you play on — city, rural, shoreline, and underground.  Each map is cut up differently so you don’t see the same stuff that often, but it’s really just there for you to shoot stuff while standing on.  And boy do you shoot a lot of stuff.  There’s levels that drop the frame rate to a slide show with the amount of monsters they throw at you.

You can blow up just about everything man-made in the game, and oh do you take advantage of that.  Any explosive can drop any building.  40 story skyscraper?  One hand grenade and it’s down.  Shopping mall?  One grenade.  Playground?  One grenade.  Car?  Nope.  Cars don’t blow up, silly!  They just fly off into the atmosphere!

“Don’t you die until you’ve shot all your bullets!”

“YES SIR!!!”

-A commander and soldiers

What’s useful about blowing everything up is that you can then see the enemies coming, since they tend to swarm rather quickly, and you can keep them from spazzing out on the buildings.  Typically the first thing you do in a city map is just start chucking explosives around and leveling the entire city while the AI controlled soldiers make all kinds of silly comments.

Obviously there was a budget issue when this game was being developed, because there’s only three voice actors for the entire army, typically around 10 to 20 guys on a map.  This is amusing in many ways, not only because you hear the same guy talking as if he’s multiple guys, but there’s a dynamic dialogue system in place so that solders will answer each other as they talk… all in the same voice.

“The robots’ heads hide in their bodies!”

“That’s funny.  They don’t seem like the shy types.”

-On seeing the robots for the first time

The character animates poorly.  You can almost hear his spine breaking when you turn.  You move faster by diving in a direction over and over rather than running.  You have only one hit / death animation when you fly into the air either when you die or when an explosive lands near you.  It’s all bad, in a completely good way.

“I’ll see you on the other side… in HELL!”

“You bet!”

-Typical soldier chatter

I can’t really glean any lessons from this game because there’s almost no level design to mention because there’s no way to use the level to your advantage.  All the monsters just walk over things or shoot them down to get at you, so really you’ve got nothing but a flat plane, with the tunnel levels being the only exception.  If I could take the game seriously, I’d bitch about how bad the tunnel level is constructed — no landmarks, similar textures, lack of map, confusing layout — but I can’t so I won’t.  The monsters have (almost) enough sense to always come to you, so there’s not a lot of hunting you have to do unless one glitches and runs away from you instead.  It happens enough to mention.

What the game does gloriously in sacrificing everything else for it is give a great sense of scale to the enemies.  Bosses are not big, they’re friggin’ HUGE.  That mutated thing at the end of Gears 2 that you had to helicopter around?  Fighting things like that in EDF:2017, you’re on the ground right in front of them… and they’re not immobile.  The sense of epic (albeit cheesy) scale is awesome.  You ever want to fight an AT-AT from the ground?  One that’s also a carrier that’s constantly spitting out more enemies and armed with guns and shields?  EDF:2017 has you covered.

Weapons (171 of them!) vary from weaksauce piddly things to city-leveling epicness.  Some of them are grin-inducing.  A 30 round simultaneous grenade launcher with a 40m blast radius per grenade sent giant spiders flying in all directions including the stratosphere.  Very satisfying.  There’s a few rare weapons that some people have spent days of play time grinding for, while others (like me, fortunately) got them in just an hour or so (Lysander Z, baby!).  Ah, random chance.  In 4 years plus of playing WoW, I never had one random world purple drop for any of my characters.  Thankfully, EDF:2017 had my back.

So can I recommend the game?  Sure.  As a complete time-waster that’s got some insane difficulty to it, I certainly think it fits the bill.  Split-screen co-op (no on-line) keeps things interesting, so grab a friend and you’ll have a city-leveling blast for the 8+ hours it’ll take you to get through it… and that’s only on one difficulty!

And an amusing mentions on achievements — there’s only 6 of them total.  Beat the game on easy, normal, harder, hardest, and inferno for one each (no, you don’t get the easy one for beating it on normal!), and collect all 171 weapons.  That’s it.  It’s 99 Nights in its old-school achievement philosophy.

Here’s the trailer.

I see on Amazon that it’s up to 24 bucks now.  Apparently there was a recent list of the “hardest Xbox achievements” and EDF:2017 was on it, hence the price rising with demand.  It’s still a great deal — just keep your expectations of tone in check and you’ll have a blast with it.

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