Monday, November 16, 2009

So, Dragon Age...

I'm an RPG guy. I love games that tell epic, sweeping tales using the player as a fulcrum on which to move the story. It wasn't always this way. I'd say the first RPG I really got into was Final Fantasy 3. 6. The one before 7. I stuck with the Final Fantasy series as the basis for judging all other RPG games until things started to quickly slide downhill with Final Fantasy 8, finally reaching shit-spelunking depths with Final Fantasy X-2. I think with the translation to the 3rd dimension we began to see the cracks in the JRPG formula and how pretty much everything was lost in translation for anyone who was not either Japanese or held an unhealthy obsession with all things Japanese.

And so I began exploring the world of Western RPGs more fully, and found there was a lot to like on the home front. But things never really reached the height of RPG love I felt with games like Final Fantasy 7 and Suikoden. We came pretty close with a lot of Action Adventure games like Legacy of Kain, The Elder Scrolls, and games in the Baldur's Gate line. But I never got as into those games as I had in my beloved JRPGs. I was a man without a genre, forever trying to make excuses for the bad JRPGs or the mediocre WRPGs.

Bioware is changing that, though. Knights of the Old Republic was a better Star Wars experience than anything Lucas has done since The Empre Strikes Back. It had its flaws, but it was a huge leap in the right direction. Mass Effect was also great, but it was so over written that it was difficult to get into as a game.

And along comes Dragon Age, a game I barely even knew was releasing until I was bombarded with internet advertising a week or so before release. To say this game sold me on the ability of western companies to make good RPG experiences would be a vast understatement. This is the kind of RPG I've been waiting for ever since I gave up on JRPGs during the PS2 era. It's engaging, epic, grand, and you will easily lose yourself in it if you give it a chance.

Let's put it this way. When I play my console games my wife usually sits next to me and knits or browses the internet. The game world is so interesting that she created her own character and now plays when I'm at work, or we trade off so she can play too. My wife is not a gamer. She plays the kind of games that you mostly just fuck around in - like Plants vs. Zombies or The Sims, or the digital crack that is Civilization IV. To see her wrestle with the controls of a console game and focus all of her intellect on how best to specialize her character is a beautiful thing, and only a game as captivating as Dragon Age would have ever drawn her in like this.

So far I've created two characters, and my wife has created two characters. We've probably poured a combined 100 hours into the game easily, and neither one of us has gotten particularly close to 'beating' the main campaign.

Now the game isn't without its flaws. My main problem is that it was clearly designed for the PC and inexpertly ported for consoles. This feels like something of a betrayal to me. I mean...this is Bioware! They make awesome console RPGs! Every game of note they've made began life on a console and was later made to work for the PC. Now their pièce de résistance comes and its better on the PC! The reasons for this are many, but primarily are due to how complex the combat can become. On my mage character I have probably around 15-20 spells and abilities that I would like to access quickly during combat. Using the Xbox controller, I can only quickly use 6 of them. The others I have to access through a cumbersome menu system that pauses combat and slows things way down. Clearly I was meant to have a clickable hotbar to be able to access these things. The other reason is that on a console you are restricted to one viewpoint. You can't zoom out, strategically select party members, and easily issue individual commands. It doesn't eliminate the joy of the combat system, but it does make me wish they had maybe adjusts one or two more things to make combat more fluid for consoles.

In the end though, Dragon Age is a game that I think everyone can find something to enjoy. From the gamer who's been playing RPGs since the early 90s to the casual player who just likes a good story, most people will find themselves sucked in.

For me, it really is the Western RPG I've been waiting for.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Halloween Playlist

Well this month I'm actually going to do something for Halloween. For one, I may venture forth into the public and attend some form of shindig. I may give candy to youngsters. But I've absolutely decided to mark the 2009 Halloween season as the time in my life when I will play horror genre games and not be a complete pussy about it.

So this month I will complete at least these two horror games: Silent Hill 2 and Condemned: Criminal Origin. These are games that come highly recommended and I have always wanted to play through them. I've even attempted to play Silent Hill 2 on several occasions. I've rented it at least twice, and I've owned my own copy for the Xbox for a good 6 months now. I haven't even been able to play past the first encounter with Pyramid Head.

I just get too into horror games, if they're done well. By that I mean if the atmosphere draws me in and I can, subconsciously, for just a moment, believe that the fantasy world I'm playing in is real - and I lose my courage. I make excuses like 'there are better things to do with my time', 'I need to finish this project', etc. But in all honestly I just don't want to have nightmares and be emasculated by such a silly thing as a horror game.

Well this October, bring on the nightmares and emasculation!

Review: Brütal Legend

I have to say, while I didn't necessarily notice the hype surrounding this game's launch I was nonetheless excited about it. Tim Schafer is one of my favorite game designers around, and he's produced remarkable work ever since his employ at LucasArts in the wondrous days of point and click adventure. Monkey Island 1 and 2, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Psychonauts - needless to say this game has an impressive pedigree with or without any hype.

So does it hold up to Schafer's previous titles? Short answer: if you let it.

Let me clarify, I loved Brutal Legend. I had tons of fun with it and I'll probably continue to enjoy it for at least a few more days after finishing the campaign. But your enjoyment of the game depends on a few questions you should ask yourself before you pick it up.

Do you now or have you ever loved Heavy Metal? If you answered yes to this question GO GET BRUTAL LEGEND RIGHT NOW. Don't read another sentence, go to wherever is closest that has games and get it. This game is a fantasy world of Heavy Metal and Power Rock come to life. The soundtrack is unbelievably epic. Release a Guitar Hero game with this song list and I might actually play it. But it's not just the music, it's the entire setting. Just imagine a fantasy world where Heavy Metal is a magical force that can alter the physical properties of the world and you've got Brutal Legend's setting. The enemies are glam rockers, emo goths, and demonic apparitions that you'd find in NIN or White Zombie album insert art. Your abilities are all based on utilizing your guitar and awakening the power of the Gods of Metal to crush your enemies. Your allies are headbangers, razor chicks, roadies, bikers, and basically anything you'd see on Rock T-Shirts from the 80s. I can't say enough about how well developed this whole Heavy Metal themed setting works. It is, in a word, BRUTAL. That's not even mentioning all the awesome and frequently hilarious voice acting by Metal greats like Ozzy, Lemmy, Lita Ford, and Rob Halford. Which actually brings me to my second question you should ask yourself before picking up this game...

Do you like Jack Black? I had my misgivings about Jables for this role. He's always worked best for me as a pudgy, bumbling, inept worshiper of Rock. Putting him in the role of a capable Metal Superhero seemed like a mismatch to me. But honestly, I found his enthusiasm contagious. But if you have a serious problem with Jack Black (its become fashionable lately to hate on him), you probably won't be able to get over it and enjoy the game. Your character takes on a distinctly Jack Black attitude and sense of humor, if a bit more restrained than his Tenacious D counterpart. I felt his voice work was outstanding though, and I was drawn in to the story thannks to him. But like I said, if you seriously don't like Jack Black you'll have a serious problem with Brutal Legend.

Are you willing to forgive some gameplay problems for an overall fun experience? This really is the ultimate question for this game. They've really piled on the genres here, and in the end the game tries to be too many things at once. When on foot it's a brawler, occasionally special moves will be rhythmic, with allies fighting next to you its a squad based fighter, in your vehicle its a driving combat sim, you can upgrade your abilities and car like an RPG, and boss battles are done in RTS format. To me the least successful was the RTS element, which I feel should never be on a console. It just doesn't work when you can't micromanage with a mouse and keyboard shortcuts. I was frustrated into putting the game down many times in the RTS battles because it is really easy to lose. There aren't any real structures that you can put up, and setting up a defense so that you can send units to attack is practically non existent. In the end I would just build up the maximum amount of units and have them follow me around as I switched to on foot brawler mode. Tim Schafer himself said that if you play the RTS portions like an RTS, "you will lose". Fortunately I found the brawling to be enjoyable enough that I never felt like giving up. There's something oddly satisfying about cutting up whining emo kids to pieces with a giant axe and a magic flying V guitar.

In the end the gameplay got a little too ambitious and odds are you'll find something that you won't like in the 5 or so different genres at work here. But I can almost guarantee you'll also find something you enjoy.

One last thing worth noting is the story in the single player campaign. It is phenomenal. I was surprised how much I ended up caring about the characters, and how motivated I was to follow through with the whole adventure. The writing is typical of a Tim Schafer game - hilarious, engaging, and well thought out. I'd go so far as to say thatBrutal Legend as Tim Schafer's top dog as far as writing goes. It really is a cleverly designed setting with fleshed out characters and an interesting premise.

Overall Scores (I use words instead of numbers, numbers are for sheep):

Setting: Rich
I'd buy the game for the setting alone. Every little detail is designed from the ground up to be the imagined fantasy world of Heavy Metal brought to life. Just driving around and seeing what's hiding in the various nooks and crannies is a joy.

Story: Engaging
Really fantastic story-telling at work here. It's a little on the short side, but you'll want to see it through to the end. Stick with it and you'll be surprised how interested you become.

Visuals: Eye-Catching

The graphics and art design here is really well done. Everything is varied and colorful and each new zone you go to has a unique and interesting look to it. Excellent art direction. My only problem is that some of the more cartoonish designs clash with the whole Heavy Metal theme.

Sound: METAL!
You cannot go wrong with the music here, it runs the gamut from classic Black Sabbath to DragonForce and even a sprinkling of Deathklok. There's a little something for everyone, provided you enjoy Heavy Metal of some kind. It permeates the entire game, as you would expect. You get 108 songs if you unlock everything, so you have plenty of rock to keep you company. Sound effects are appropriately brutal and definitely don't stray from the metal theme.

Gameplay: Inconsistent

I think if the designers had dropped one of the components of the game it would be much easier to recommend Brutal Legend. As it is any good review of the game has to excuse some of the more frustrating gameplay aspects that pop up in order to really give it praise. You'll find something to like and you'll likely find something to hate.

Final Score:
Fuck you that's what, go to metacritic if you want a score
. But yes, I recommend Brutal Legend for at least a rental. You can probably see most of what the game has to offer if you sat down and played for a full weekend, and it's worth at least that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The 9 Best Video Game Commercials

It took me a while to admit that video games were marketable to a broad audience. I liked thinking of gaming as a niche hobby for me, my friends, and people like us. But that's stupid. Games have been a big money business since the original pandemic known as Pac-Man Fever. But it wasn't until the last 10-15 years or so that that money was reflected in advertising. A typical video game commercial of my youth went something like this:

Why is it in the middle of a thunderstorm, is this supposed to imply that the NES conjures black magic?

Back then, games were just toys. They were advertised the same way that you'd advertise GI Joe or He-Man action figures. In fact, in case you missed it, originally Nintendo had a little friend packaged with it to drive home the 'toy' distinction.

I hate you, Rob.

It could be worse, of course. I'm looking at you, Japan.

Worse...or better?

Even today most commercials on the American market are meant to be humorous, trying their best to enforce the "games are just for kids" stereotype. Things are thankfully starting to change, and now some commercials have budgets you'd expect for Hollywood Blockbusters. And I love them. I love them so much. Its almost as if we're allowed to take them seriously. Now of course most of these trailers and commercials tell you exactly nothing about the game in question, deciding instead to rely entirely on hype and pre-rendered cinematics or live action sequences. And game developers almost always hire outside companies to do these things for them. I don't care. These commercials are eye candy at its best, and I can appreciate them as such.

So here's my list of the 9 most epic, over the top, ridiculously elaborate, or just downright cool video game trailers or commercials. Now this list will be biased to games released in the past 3 years or so, because prior to that point video game commercials were (as stated above) entirely based around humor. Therefore I'll make a supplementary list of the 9 funniest video game commercials at a later point. But for now, here it is. Bonus points to any commercial ballsy enough to be filmed in live action. Standard list rule of one entry per franchise applies.

9. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
This is a simple yet effective little number that puts you right behind Wolverine's eyeballs. You really get the feeling of what it would be like to be treated like a caged animal, and just how jarring and pressing your escape from that situation would be.

It's low on the list because it could have been so much more. I mean, you don't even ever see Wolverine's claws, and half the soldiers seem to fall down because he looks at them in a grimacing way. However, it's live action and it's the growling, slobbering, murdering Wolverine that we all know and love.

8. The Secret World
God. Dammit. I hate you, Funcom. I hate you so much. After Age of Conan I swore I'd never trust you again. And as I said above, there's no reason this trailer should make me feel any different. You didn't make it. But it managed to pique my interest just the same.

There are a few reasons I'm interested in this game, all beautifully displayed in this preview. The premise of a horror-themed MMO is something I've been wanting to try out since I picked up Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption on my old VooDoo based system. If the enemies in this game are half as cool as the enemies shown in these previews, I'm on board. There's a whole set of videos out, but this is my favorite. I just love the art and character design.

7. Fallout 3

Okay ignore for a moment that this is one of my favorite games of all time. When this came out, we knew nothing about it. Like many people, this was the first thing I officially saw relating to Fallout 3. And it is beautiful. It mirrored the opening to the original Fallout, while simultaneously updating it.

To me this perfectly represents what made Fallout 3 so great. It had a huge respect for the original franchise, but wasn't chained to it. Ink Spots song? Check. Pan out to destroyed city? Check. Threatening figure in power armor? Check.

6. Beatles: Rock Band
Now I know this one isn't as much pure spectacle as the others on this list, but if you think about it - it really is. There's the massive spectacle of seeing all the Beatles as if they were alive again, cut together with a crowd of clearly current generation young people that can easily appreciate their music even to this day.

It may not be truly 'epic', but this commercial really speaks to me. It speaks to the timelessness of the Beatles, how they'll always be great. It also gives me a little bit of hope that each subsequent generation will still be willing to pay several hundred dollars just to pick up plastic toy guitars and pretend to be John Lennon.

5. Fable 2
This one was really out there. I mean, it was just a tiny teaser that pointed out the possibilities and variety that they were going to put into Fable 2. You want to be Raiden from Mortal Kombat? Do it. You want to be a man-sized Balrog? You can do that too.

Except you can't do any of that. Peter Molyneaux is a dirty, dirty liar. If he's hyping something up (like the recent Project Natal), ignore it. Every single game he makes is supposed to end up being some kind of god-simulation where you have complete control over all the choices in your game. If that's true, why does he keep releasing mediocre carbon-copies of other games? Also, I never thought the folded bit of paper the girls used to tease me with in 2nd grade were so powerful. Still, it's an undeniably epic little teaser, and it was exactly what we wanted to see.

4. Gears of War 2
There's a special place in my heart for this one because it includes poetry, and the literary twat that I am loves that a video game company can draw from WWI poetry to make its product seem intense and important.

Pretentious? Possibly. Insensitive to the horrors of war the poem was meant to illustrate? Absolutely. I don't care, this commercial is awesome. The 'Gears' games have a ton of great commercials, and I could include every one on this list. But this is by far my favorite. What is it with Gears of War using obscure, indie-ish folk songs in their other commercials, anyway?
I would have liked to see them make it longer and include the whole poem, but then it may have worn out its welcome.

3. Mortal Kombat 2
This was the first commercial I saw where I nearly lost my 9-year-old shit at how awesome it was. It was the first commercial I know of to use live-action actors in a way that was meant to be taken seriously and not as part of some elaborate joke.

It was my first taste of the idea that video games could be made into successful live action movies. Sigh, if only Hollywood didn't replace good costumes and characters with their own ludicrous bullshit. This commercial alone was better than both Mortal Kombat movies (did you know they may make a third one? Ugh). And it wasn't just the TV spot either, the live action actors were used in all the magazine ads as well.

2. Final Fantasy VIII
This was something that seriously had me hyped up. This was before high-speed internet, and it wasn't really shown on TV. I saw this gem on a demo disc that came with Parasite Eve. It's not as if I needed anything additional to hype me up about Final Fantasy 8. I followed every magazine article, every fan preview web page on the budding 'world wide web', and I bought Parasite Eve specifically to get my hands on the demo, which ended with this video.

Whoa. You have to understand, this was before cutscenes were a normal part of gaming. The last time we'd really seen pre-rendered animation was in Final Fantasy VII, and they looked like clay marianettes. These characters looked so...real! This was also before gaming was marketable, before the commercials were shown on TV in America, before gaming was an every day part of American life. To see this kind of preview of an upcoming game was unprecedented. And yet, it showed nothing. When I saw this I spent weeks analyzing it and trying to pick apart plot points. I wanted to know everything about this game. I wanted to know the context for all the scenes, and I determine what brought about these events. Unfortunately, even IN context they make no goddamn sense. FF8 is one of the most nonsensical and boring games I've ever played. I could rant about it for hours and days on end. I should have just enjoyed the demo and never played the game.

1. Halo ODST

Love it or hate it, this commercial defines epic. I consider myself a reasonable man, and as such advertising rarely works on me. The Halo series leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I have many reasons to hate it. But God help me I love this trailer. For the duration of it, all I can think is "HOLY SHIT I MUST BUY THIS GAME RIGHT NOW". I come back to my senses soon afterward, but for that brief moment I am a Halo fanboy.

Holy. Shit. Who the hell needs a Halo movie? This IS a Halo movie. The actor who portrays the focus character in this commercial is amazing. He doesn't say a single line (the whole commercial uses the Gaelic language anyway), but we follow his journey from the funeral of what I assume is his father, through his training, to his ultimate status as hardened veteran. This commercial was the inspiration for this list, and I like it more every time I watch it. Sure, the game is an overpriced map pack of the same meh Halo gameplay - but this commercial almost makes up for it. Almost.

Honorable Mention:

Yes, this is a trailer for a live action Legend of Zelda film. No, it isn't real. It was an April Fool's day joke created by IGN. The terrible looking Ganondorf should have given it away. But still, it's incredibly epic and if it was only a real advert it would have made the list.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Extinguisher: 5 Reasons You Shouldn't Hate Halo (that much)

Each 'Flamebait' article will be followed by one such as this, describing the good things the mainstream or critically acclaimed game I am criticizing has done for the industry or genre it falls into. I'll limit these to 5 reasons, mostly because I doubt I'll be able to think of more than that for the games I've got planned for flamebait.

5. Halo's Music Is Incredible

This is one thing I can absolutely agree that the Halo series did extraordinarily well.
The music in the Halo games always gets me pumped up to play and really pulls me into the game. It is at times epic, tragic, sweeping, melancholy, grandiose, and always enjoyable to listen to. Hell for the most part I could turn off all the dialogue and close my eyes and the music would tell me everything I need to know about the scene. This was something that was missing from most FPS games, and one thing I actually wish more developers would try to emulate in their games.

4. Red Vs. Blue

I don't care who you are, whether you love Halo or you hate it, how can you not love Red Vs. Blue?

Sure, many of the jokes are hit or miss - but every episode I watch I find I'm embarrassing myself with loud laughter at least once, and that's more than I can say for most comedies on TV these days. This show is good enough that you should be thankful Halo exists if only to create a vehicle for the genius of Red Vs. Blue.

3. Halo Gave the Xbox a Mascot and Rallying Point

When you think of "Mascots" for gaming you think Mario for Nintendo, Sonic for Sega (the poor ring addicted bastard), Crash Bandicoot or Lara Croft for Playstation 1-2, and Master Chief for Xbox. System exclusive franchises help drive the sale of the system in question, and Halo is no exception. The series is a veritable money-printing machine for Microsoft Game Studios, and there is no question that sales of the Xbox and Xbox 360 increased as a result of the Halo franchise.

But even if you hate Halo with a burning fiery passion this is a good thing. There's a very good chance that without Halo, we would never have been able to play other great games on the Xbox systems. The 360 is one of my favorite gaming systems of all time, with modern classics like Fallout 3 and Bioshock. Now this is entirely speculation, but if Halo never existed would Microsoft's systems have been as successful? Would they be able to get licensing deals for some of my favorite games of all time? Would those games even exist without Halo, or if they did how different would they be? If you're a fan of console gaming and especially if you enjoy the Xbox andXbox 360, you should give Halo (and maybe even Master Chief) a break.

2. Halo really did revolutionize console FPS games

Look, let's have a little exercise, shall we? Close your eyes and say out loud "Halo games are fun to play with friends. Halo games are fun to play with friends." Now, don't we feel better? You know its true, I know its true, there is no use denying that Halo multiplayer is fun. Playing Halo 2 for the first time with friends I felt like I was back in middle school playing GoldenEye 007. And while us PC gamers had been experiencing awesome multiplayer like this for 2-3 years before Halo released, the console FPS market was honestly pretty terrible. No one got the controls quite right, nobody thought you could make an engaging FPS without using mouse click targeting, and all the ports from PC games were ugly and dumbed down for consoles. This is especially surprising considering how awesome GoldenEye007 and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter were. Their success was just never really duplicated.

But when Halo 1 and the Xbox came around, console FPS games were once again a force to be reckoned with. And the Halo 2's release cemented the series' place in history as it was probably the best game of its generation to be played via Xbox Live multiplayer. Did it have problems? Of course, but without Halo there wouldn't be a renewed interest in Console FPS games and as I said above we may never have gotten the joy of Bioshock, Fallout 3, or Gears of War 2.

1. The Market is Big Enough For the Both of Us

Now that we've hopefully been able to concede that Halo's multiplayer is at least a little fun, we need to accept one more concession. No one game, no matter how popular, can totally dominate the genre. Sure, we may see elements of Halo in almost every FPS that's been released in the last several years, but this kind of thing generally creates the kind of backlash we've been seeing. If people who weren't impressed by the Halo series continue to express their opinions, producers may realize that there is a new niche to fill. Millions of people play console FPS games, and not all of them liked Halo. As I said above, each progressive 'revolution' of FPS games brought new people into the mix. When the market is this big, if enough people dislike a game developers may start to make games specifically to sell to those people.

And PC gamers, stop worrying. Halo is not a threat to PC FPS games. There is a pretty thick line between PC gamers and console gamers, even today. I understand you're upset that people are claiming Halo invented all the things it 'borrowed' from PC games, but the fact is these things were new to most console gamers when Halo did them. I get just as perturbed as anyone when gamers new to the genre make wild claims about all the things they think Halo is responsible for, but I try to respond with a reasonable understanding that the player making these claims probably started FPS games on the console and has like never heard of Tribes or Unreal Tournament. And remember that Console FPS games and PC FPS games are two very different genres, and what was true for one may not be true for another. This is why Halo sucked on PC and Unreal Tournament sucked on the PS2.

Flamebait: 9 Reasons You Should Hate Halo

This will also kick off a series I will do that I've dubbed "Flamebait". Yes, I'm writing these specifically to incite a reaction from fanboys. You need to hear it from someone. This series will be for games that are highly successful, lauded by critics, and viciously defended by fans. Flamebait or not, these are my genuine opinions on the games or series. Hopefully we can at least have a meaningful dialogue about some these games. I doubt it, but some things just need to be said.

First of all, Spoilers will be in this whole article. So stop here if you haven't played through all the Halo games and you care about the story.

Now then, let's dive right in to a game franchise that has polarized the FPS playing audience for the better part of the last decade, Halo. Professional critics and fans of the series seem to think that the Halo franchise is some kind of video game messiah. Detractors of the series hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand Vegetas.

I am unable to express my feelings!!!

I'm here to explain where all that hate comes from. "Why now?" I hear you ask. Partially because ODST was just released to, once again, critical acclaim and market rapture - but also because I haven't been on the boards. I haven't discussed Halo ad naseum. So it's about time I put another good beating to this festering horse carcass. Besides, it's hard to find a reasonable criticism of the series that's more eloquent than the typical "lol halo sux if u liek it ur gay".

Don't worry Halo fanboys, I'll follow up every Flamebait post with a post explaining some things that were good about the game I just tore to pieces. Because honestly, mainstream games like Halo would have to do some things right or people wouldn't play them. Look for an extinguisher to this flamebait soon to come.

But for now, let's turn up the heat.

9. M Rated Games, But No Violence

So you're making a shooter. You know that you are going to be stacking up a body count so high that an M rating is guaranteed. You know this from day one. Why in the name of all that is brutal do you decide not to include any blood or gore in your game? Not even a little bit? Guess what, When you shoot someone in the head with a Sniper Rifle, they tend to bleed a little. When you hit someone with a rocket launcher, they do not bounce playfully into the air like they just fell onto a trampoline. They explode into many colorful pieces.

Pictured: my beloved gibs

This is my most petty complaint (hence its position on the list), but this has started a trend in the FPS genre that I hate. It's a complete cop-out to use rag-doll physics in the place of violence or dismemberment. I mean I'm fine with the occasional hilariously bouncing body, but when that is the only effect present to show that you've killed someone, it's a problem.

Not every game has to be buckets of blood and viscera, but an M rated FPS game should give us something to gawk at when we pull off a successful headshot or grenade bounce. Why is it the most violence we get nowadays is a small spurt of red dust when we shoot someone? And don't even try to tell me it's a technical limitation. When I kill someone in Fallout 3 and there's a spurting hole where their head used to be, I'm at least a little proud of it. Hell even in Unreal Tournament when you shoot someone with a rocket launcher you get the treat of watching chunks of unidentifiable meat fly past your head. But when I kill someone in Halo and they roll down the hill like Porrasturvat, it's just underwhelming.

8. Childish Enemies, Weapons, and Vehicles

I hate the grunts. How can you have an enemy that sounds like it would be too 'zany' and 'silly' for a Muppet Show and expect to be taken seriously? Comic relief is fine, but these guys are going way too far. It's as if Bungie decided they liked the idea of Jar Jar Binks, but he needed to be tiny and there needed to be lots of him.

"Oh great Prophet, in what color should we design our new gun that sends needles into our enemies' brain?"
"A nice, soft lavender."
"Really? Purple?"
"Yes, and make sure you coat it in that colorful plastic I love so much."

The Covenant guns are all some kind of iteration of shiny plastic in various shades of blue or purple that spew neon junk around like we were all suckling neon pacifiers in a warehouse lit purely by strobe lights and imaginary unicorns. Their vehicles don't fare any better, it's like they were all designed to be profitable and easy to manufacture toys (sorry, "collectibles"). What is it with the Covenant, was the entire culture designed by Fisher-Price? None of them ever seemed threatening to me due to how 'silly' they're portrayed. I want interesting and varied enemies that pose a significant and possibly terrifying threat in my FPS games. "The Flood!" I hear you cry. Okay, fine 1/3 of each game consists of a portion of hackneyed 'infected' enemies that are lifted from every other science fiction zombie every to have existed.

Both these issues (numbers 8 and 9) give me the impression that Bungie/Microsoft are trying to appeal to a younger crowd. For an M rated Game about snuffing out as much life as you can, I just don't get it.

7. Master Chief Is Not A Good Character

Okay I'm cheating a little bit here. Having an interesting main character is not a requirement for a good shooter. You didn't need a back story for your character to make Doom a great game. Gordon Freeman is nothing more than a nerd with a gun. And this certainly wasn't an invention of Halo. But it's different for Halo because of the magnitude of reverence people have for Master Chief. I have to ask, why? He's a non-character. I've seen lists of the best characters in gaming with Master Chief near the top. Seriously? He's a super soldier that does whatever he's told by the other characters in the games. Master Chief is little more than a paper doll for you to occupy as you kill baddies. Why is he getting so much attention as a character?

Why do you say things you know will hurt me?

The nearest I can tell it's specifically because he has no personality, no back story, and says little more than "alright I'll kill whatever you tell me to, Cortana/Johnson/Miranda/" People manufacture this huge mystery to the character and refuse to accept that he's just a super soldier that was programmed to kill enemies of humanity. We've seen the grizzled space marine bit a thousand times before, Master Chief is not unique. I think it's also partially due to Microsoft shoving his 'iconic' imagery down our throats every chance they get.

And seriously, the big reveal at the end of Halo 3 is that his name is John? John?!? It's like we're being mocked with how boring he is. Bungie is daring us to try to be impressed with him.

6. Mandatory Vehicle Sections

Now, to be fair Halo does their vehicle sections pretty well. It's a lot of fun to drive around in a Warthog or fly around in a Banshee mowing people down. But God have mercy on your soul if you're playing Single Player and are forced into using a vehicle that requires a second man to operate properly. The Ally AI can't shoot and they can't drive, and it will be an operation in frustration to get through these parts alone.

This is mostly on the list for the crap its inspired. Now every single shooter feels like it has to have a vehicle section, and these designers often have no idea what they're doing. This is at its worst in the most recent Halo inspired bucket of tripe, Haze. The developers clearly had no idea how to design and program a vehicle section, but they were added in nonetheless to ride the Halo train to succesfulville. It did not work. They controlled awfully, were always on a strictly linear path, and felt like you were steering a greased up monkey through a mud pit. And the monkey liked to explode a lot. Actually, that would have made for a much better game.

5. Health that automatically regenerates

Now to be fair here, Tribes had this mechanic long before Halo. But Halo's success propagated the use of a regenerating 'shield' or health bar over the use of healing items or stations. If you're not playing a Halo game on the legendary setting, it's offensively easy. Even on legendary the only way they manage to increase the difficulty is by giving the enemies divine cheat-aim and increased health in order to compensate for how easy the regenerating shield makes things. It baffles me how people cite this as one of the things that is good about the Halo series.

When people talk about Halo dumbing down FPS games, this is primarily what they're talking about.
In games that don't include this, every single encounter has to be planned out and executed well. You have to think before you attack, because if you don't you'll end up with a red blinking health indicator that sounds out your doom with each desperate beep. Not so in Halo! Just run and hide behind a crate or wall for a few quick seconds and presto-chango you're back at 100%! Most games would have this kind of thing as a power up that lasts a few brief seconds, but in Halo its the whole basis for your longevity.

4. Insta-Kill One Button Attacks

Here's another thing that people cite as being something that turned the FPS genre into a care bear stroll down easy street. Previously in FPS games if you wanted to whip out your insta-kill grenades or fuck you up hardcore melee weapon you would have to leave yourself vulnerable for several seconds before getting an opening to use it. Many games had melee attacks attached to their weapons, but it wasn't until Halo that it became a one-button one-hit kill. And don't even get me started on the energy sword or gravity hammer. "Hey kids, are you so ham-handed that you can't aim any kind of projectile weapon properly? Well worry not, because now all you have to do is sneak up behind someone and whack them comically in the back of the head and you win! Hurray!" This was the worst when the energy sword debuted in Halo 2. Ugh. I still have rage relapses to that dark time. Yeah, it's fun to super-leap onto someone's backside and slap them with a glowing tuning fork, but did you really accomplish anything worthwhile? According to the 11 year old guffawing into my headset and calling me a 'noobscrub', yes he did.

How do you spell, 'You suck at noscope'?

One button grenades are just as bad. Again, in previous FPS games if you wanted to fire the much more powerful grenades at someone, you had to be wielding them and therefore had no accurate weapon available. Or, in many cases, you had to be wielding a grenade launcher. You hit someone just right with a grenade and they're toast in any game, but Halo made it so that you could shoot grenades on the fly. You didn't need to have the situational grenade launcher equipped or quickly switch to a grenade when you saw a good shot, just tap that button and BLAM, you win. Not to mention that grenades are fucking everywhere in Halo, they are not rare and you do not need to conserve them as much as in other games. Add sticky grenades to the mix and you don't even need to be careful with timing and aim, just hit them anywhere on their body and you win. You did not accomplish anything phenomenal just because you hit someone with a sticky. They're easy to aim and arc and kill any opponent in one shit. Congratulations, you won the equivalent of a point and click adventure game.

3. Bad Endings or Cliffhanger Endings

Every. Single. Game. They all end the exact same way. Master Chief is on a ship, floating or flying to his next destination with little or no closure explaining what happened after the events of the game. This is of course because every single game ends with a sequel in mind. It's an obvious cash-in to keep players interested in the franchise until the next game releases, which will end in the same way as every Halo game before it. People have told me they enjoyed Halo's story, and it's even been called this generation's Star Wars. I weep for a generation who's ultimate sci-fi epic ends with a marketing ploy.

Halo 2 was the absolute worst for this, ending with nothing resolved.The plot barely moved forward at all in the entirety the game, and if you never played it the only thing you missed is that some of the Covenant aliens are now on your side (and that there is this Gravemind thing that you don't have to worry about because you never have to fight it). For a game with so many pretensions towards a sweeping sci-fi epic and grandiose storytelling, they ignore everything about telling a proper story. Where the hell is the climax? Halo 1 and Halo 3's end level is the same - you drive away on a warthog while whatever you're on explodes around you. This goes back to the problem of no boss battles. In a typical game your last encounter is the climax of the story, the final confrontation that the game was building up to. But in a Halo game, you escape from something that explodes and someone gives some exposition about how "it's only just started", how they are "going to finish this fight", or to "wake me when you need me" with a foreboding planet on the horizon.

2. Laughable or Complete Lack of Bosses

Name some bosses or boss battles in the Halo series, go ahead. I'll give you all the time you need. But here, let me save you a few seconds - there aren't any. First, let me define a 'boss'. A 'Boss' is an enemy character that has only one iteration that you fight in either a single battle more difficult and longer than any normal enemies or in several stages throughout the game. Shooters have always had boss battles. Wolfenstein 3D had chaingun toting Hitler, Doom had the Cyberdemon, Unreal had a boss battle practically every other level, Turok had bosses at the end of some levels, etc. The biggest problem with this in the Halo series is that the games are littered with missed opportunities to include epic boss fights.

You see, Halo 2 ends with a giant creature who leads The Flood known as the "Gravemind" presenting a looming threat over the entire Halo universe. The entire game heavily features the Gravemind, painting him as the ultimate villain of the series. He's big, evil, and the purpose of most of the plot is to get rid of him and the Flood he controls.

So when you finally face him in Halo 3, you...oh that's right, you never fucking fight him. The whole series was building up to a confrontation with this giant tentacled beast, but you never actually fight him. Halo 3 was peppered with threats and foreboding from The Gravemind. At the moment of truth, when the danger of the Gravemind is at its zenith, you're presented with a final encounter to save the universe -- by having a brief fight with what amounts to a protocol droid armed with a GI Joe laser. I'll admit I had been waiting the entire series for an excuse to throw that yappy C-3P0 knockoff in the scrap bin, but it wasn't what I expected to be the final battle of the trilogy. By the end you 'destroy' the Gravemind twice in Halo 3, both times via a remote explosion that 'kills' him off-screen during a cutscene.

The Prophet of Truth is another example of a chance for a boss fight squandered. Again, he was built up as an enemy the entire game - only to be killed in a cutscene. When he started showing signs of Flood infection, I thought "finally, this guy is going to turn into some giant creature that we can battl -- oh, never mind Arbiter stabbed him in the back." Both the Covenant and the Flood are alien species that come in seemingly any shape and size, yet the designers never included a unique enemy that was bigger than a taller than average Norwegian? What a wasted opportunity. Scarabs don't count, they're just a piece of scenery you climb onto and shoot in the giant "please don't shoot me here" light. And there are lots of them.

1. Insultingly Short Single Player Campaigns

This is my biggest problem with Halo by far. It's not necessarily the biggest fault of the gameplay or story, but it's had the biggest negative impact on the industry. Each game features a campaign that you can generally complete in less than 10 hours, and yet you're expected to pay full price because the mutliplayer is potentially going to be good. After all, why design a full game when all you have to do is design half a game and then a few extra maps and rely on the community to propogate content in the form of competitive multiplayer? What does it matter, the suckers will pay full price for it anyway! Some offenders are worse than others, and Modern Warfare really got to me the most. The worst part is, this awful trend will probably never change. Critics keep giving these games perfect 10s and players keep calling them the best games ever made, rather than clarifying that they're only talking about multiplaer. Single Player levels are hard to design, and as long as people keep buying these half games FPS developers will keep making them.

Now it's also important to remember that a game can be effectively made as a multiplayer only game. As I've said before, Unreal Tournament is one of my favorite games of all time. But that game was epic in scope, the amount you could do in UT in single player was absolutely amazing. The AI was fantastic for the time, you could customize everything about the bots, and the levels were varied and interesting enough that playing alone was often just as fun as playing with friends. Oh and you didn't have to pay a monthly fee.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when you buy a game that is advertised as multiplayer only, you know exactly what you're getting. You don't expect to have fun playing alone. People don't praise the great story, characters, single player level design, or enemy AI on a multiplayer only game. A game developed as exclusively multiplayer has no delusions of grandeur, it is exactly what it says it is. And often, multiplayer only games come at a greatly discounted price. Team Fortress 2 was included in the Orange Box with 4 other great games, I bought Left 4 Dead a month after release from Steam for something like $10, and I don't think I spent more than $20 on the original Unreal Tournament. But most console FPS games can still get away with criminally short single player campaigns because people keep buying them and excusing them due to their good online play. I don't blame the developers out to make money. I blame the consumers who made Halo 3 the best selling Xbox 360 game ever and continue to call it the best game of all time.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Opinions Matter in Gaming

Now before I get started, I feel its important to explain why opinions matter in the games industry.

It's easy to say "well if you don't like a game, don't buy it or play it". But that belies the fact that if said game that I didn't like or buy becomes a phenomenal success, I'll have to suffer through years of copies and clones trying to capitalize on the success of the game. This kind of thing is often referred to as "revolutionizing" a specific genre.

For instance when Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena came to the market in 1999, they expanded and, in my mind, more or less perfected the competitive online FPS genre. UT Classic is still up there as one of my all time favorite games. This started something of a Golden Age of FPS games. It's hard to determine where it started exactly (for me it was UT Classic), but the FPS games released around 1999 changed the face of gaming forever. Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 Arena, Team Fortress Classic, and Counter Strike were all part of a "revolution" that made "fragging" your friends and making the "gibs" fly a part of all our lives.

Of course they were all heavily influenced by GoldenEye 007 and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for the Nintendo 64 of all things (which released in 1997), but this was the first time you could do all the friend fragging online with a wider group of players. All of these games and their iconic combat style, weapons, and multiplayer dominance were successful because of players' opinions. If nobody reacted positively to GoldenEye 007, we likely wouldn't have any of the games that followed. Or, if we did, they would be completely different. Fortunately, this is an example of a "Revolution" I could get behind. I liked the game(s) everyone was trying to copy, so I had fun with each new game.

My point is that the entire industry is fueled by opinions, critical reactions, and word of mouth. That's not to say that whether a game is good or not will mean the success of the game. It just means that if people thought the game was good they'll tell their friends, who will probably buy it. If a popular review site (or combo review site like metacritic) has a positive review of a game, people will probably buy it. The game will make more money. Competing companies will see this trend and try to capitalize on the popularity of the title, creating very similar games. It's Economics 101.

So when you read my posts, someone's opinions on a forum, or hear someone ranting about how much they hate a mainstream title, understand that it's not as easy as "if you don't like it don't play it". Because their choices may be either play the game or one of its clones, or don't play a game in that genre for the next several years.

Hell there is an entire industry just of people's opinions on games. Magazines, websites, and TV shows that just focus on someone's opinion of a game are an industry unto themselves.

But don't take my word for it. Look at former editorial director for Gamespot Jeff Gerstmann, who was fired after posting a less than positive review for the game "Kane and Lynch: Dead Men". His firing was reportedly a result of pressure from Eidos Entertainment, the developers of Kane and Lynch, who had bought considerable advertising space on Gamespot. There was a veritable exodus of editors from Gamespot following Gerstmann's termination, citing that the site was caving to advertising pressure and moving to artificially improve a game's score based on how much money they were given by the developers.

Or perhaps look at the oft-overlooked yet brilliantly designed Painkiller. It was generally an obscure little game that no one paid much attention to, despite how great it was. That is, until 'Yahtzee' from The Escapists Zero Punctuation created a rare positive video review for the game. This one man's opinion on Painkiller increased sales on by 7,400% in a single night.

So Like it or not this is an industry shaped by opinions, both positive and negative. That's why we have console wars, flame fests, and fanboys. I encourage everyone to express their opinions about gaming, and not hide behind phrases like "well if you don't like it then don't buy it".

If you do nothing about a game you don't like, you have no one but yourself to blame when you're stuck playing Halo 13 on the Halo 360 while drinking Halo Dew, because there isn't anything else on the market.
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Thursday, October 1, 2009

I don't know anything about video games

Seriously, don't listen to me. I'm not a professional video game designer. I'm not a game critic. I've never been paid to do anything remotely related to video games. I haven't even made any youtube videos reviewing bad classic games or critiquing new smash hits. I'm just some guy with an opinion. I have no more god-given right to have a platform for my opinion than any of the other millions of semi-literate internet users, including you.

And boy do I have opinions. I'm creating this 'blog' thing for no other reason than to have a place to organize my myriad of opinions on the game design industry. "Why the video game industry and not politics, movies, space travel, books, or the intricate world of goats and the milking thereof", I hear you ask.

Well, because one day I hope to work in the game design industry, and I'll be damned if I can't at least vent, rage, and grandstand about how it would be a perfect utopia of design if I ran things.

But seriously, I know nothing about video games.

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Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.