Monday, November 22, 2010

Games I Want to Make: Console Based "Tabletop" RPG (Part 1: Concept)

It has been argued that the modern internet exists for one reason: nerds wanted to use their computers to play Dungeons & Dragons. Since message boards and chat rooms have existed, they have been used to play D&D. MMORPGs descended from MUDs which descended from text based adventure games, the last of which also spawned the modern CRPG and allowed the PC to stand as a gaming platform before the era of GUIs.

Yet, for all these attempts at simulating the D&D experience, few have come close. The majority have focused on single-player narratives which, as fun as some of these are, seems to entirely miss the appeal of the tabletop genre. How many of you have played D&D or any other tabletop RPG? How many have played these games alone? Almost none, right? The vast majority of these games' appeal comes from their social nature.

The closest any game has come to capturing this experience, so far, has been the original Neverwinter Nights. Ironically, this essentially D&D game's attempt is imperfect, in my opinion, because it sticks to closely to its pen and paper roots. Instead of taking the experience and adapting it into a digital medium, it makes a literal translation of the source material. There has yet to be a title that utilizes interactive media to its full advantage in creating this style of game.

Neverwinter Nights' Aurora toolset remains somewhat notoriously esoteric. This would be a title designed for simplicity, providing as much depth as possible without necessitating a complicated adventure editor.

Thus, one of the game concepts I've been playing around with for a long time is one of a console based RPG done in a "tabletop" style. That is to say a CRPG that plays like Dungeons & Dragons, WFRP, etc. While I have a prototype of such a title as a work in progress, it's quite far from any publishable state. But what would such a title entail?

Well, for illustrative purposes, let's have a look at a possible menu tree:

  • -Solo Campaign
  • -Load Solo Adventure
  • -Find an Adventure
  • -Find a Campaign
Dungeon Master
  • Adventure Editor
  • Campaign Editor
  • Host an Adventure
  • Host a Campaign
Community Created Content
  • Adventures
  • Campaigns

(edit:  There was some confusion, but the intent here was to imply nested menu options, going from one screen to another. The list has been reformatted to reflect this better. Thanks NINJ4KYL3.)

So, what he have here shows the gist of the game. What we have is a title that allows users to take on one of two active roles, that of an "adventurer" or a "dungeon master." The former's role is that of the traditional player character, while the latter is that of a host, amateur designer, and nemesis to the players. This is the essential element of the tabletop game.

As the adventurer's role is the easiest, we'll take a quick look at that first before getting into more detail in another post. The options under this menu include playing the game's default solo campaign, loading a custom adventure they have downloaded, or seeking out either a short term adventure or long term campaign online. It becomes important, here, to define the terms "adventure" and "campaign." An "adventure" is a relatively short, single session, self contained quest. A level, basically, akin in scale to what one might design for Little Big Planet. A "campaign" is a larger set of linked adventures, with characters and rules that persist across adventurers and game sessions. An adventure is basically a pick up and play scenario, where a campaign will be designed for a single host to run a long term game for a constant group of players, possibly over the course of many game sessions. (More on this later)

The game's built-in solo campaign would be relatively short, simple, and archetypal,  intended primarily to introduce new players to the game's mechanics and to provide a modicum of offline utility to the title. In this, the player would be able to choose a single one of the player classes and play through a rather traditional little RPG storyline on their own.

The "Load Solo Adventure" menu would lead to a menu allowing the player to load any of a number of community created solo adventures made by themselves or others from the Dungeon Master menu.

The "Find Adventure" menu would lead a player to a familiar game lobby browser, wherein they can browse and enter a multiplayer adventure lobby hosted by another player. From the browser, the player may be able to see information such as the adventure and lobby name, host, number of players, number of players requested, and the average rating of the adventure. Essentially, it should appear to be a combination of a multiplayer game browser and a custom content browser. Once in a unique lobby, the players and host will be able to converse via microphone or text chat and choose their characters.

The "Find Campaign" menu would lead a player to a similar lobby, wherein they can browse and enter a multiplayer Campaign lobby hosted by another player. This would be differ from the above in that campaigns would have somewhat differing descriptions, and that campaigns in progress would only become visible to players already involved in those campaigns. Xbox Live functionality (I have no realistic means of publishing on PSN) will likely play a large role in this aspect of the game, as it is both essential for voice communication and likely how most recurring campaign lobbies will be populated.

For Dungeon Mastering, we have a somewhat more varying set of menus.

The "Adventure Editor" is where a great deal of the Game Mastering gameplay will take place. This will function as a traditional grid-based map editor, where the player can design the adventure's terrain, place decor, and NPCs. The game will take place from a top-down perspective, with grid based construction. This will allow the player to construct entirely standalone games, allowing non-hosted play. (More on this in its own post, as this is really the heart of the experience.)

The "Campaign Editor" allows a player to compile multiple adventures into a single campaign and define the properties of that campaign.

The "Host an Adventure" menu allows the player to do just that. The host, or "Dungeon Master," does not remain complacent, however, as he retains the full breadth of his editorial power as the game takes place. He may drop in new enemies in for an ambush; manipulate, even kill, characters and terrain instantly as the narrative demands, rather than the literal on-screen actions of the players; reveal hidden passages, etc. at will. He may even choose to construct the adventure as the players go. If the DM likes, he may save such changes at the end of the game. Think Halo's "Forge." Furthermore, he may choose to fully take on the traditional role of the DM, narrating, roleplaying NPCs, and engaging the players in roleplay. It remains the hosts choice weather he runs a silent hack-n-slash Gauntlet style game, a session of deep role-play, or a little of both.
This classic scene could be recreated in minutes. First, the DM quickly designates the terrain type, caslte, and designates the floor spaces. Next, he places 3 NPCs defined only by their models, 3 chests, a door, and a staircase. He sets each chest, and optionally the door, to be opened by 'key 1' and could choose to either place their contents in ahead of time or drop them in during the game. From this point, there is nothing left to do but handle the role playing encounter during the game and to adjudicate any unexpected actions by the players.
The "Host a Campaign" menu will be largely similar to that of the adventure, save for having the additional functions necessary for longer term games. Key here is that, after the initial run, characters will sustain across sessions. Imagine playing a game of Little Big Planet, when someone gets a call. Rather than ending the game, the players may choose to collectively save and pick up right were they left later on.

And, finally, we have a couple of unspecific menus.

The "Community Created Content" menu will allow players to browse custom adventures, campaigns, and possibly other content created and uploaded by other players.

The "Options" menu is self explanatory.

"Virtual Tabletop" programs, such as MapTool, pictured above, differ in that they are tools intended to facilitate the play of entirely separate games. This, however, would be its own, self contained title.
The game seems perfect for the XBox Live marketplace, and PSN if that were an option, for a few reasons. First, it is an essentially online experience. Without the social interaction, it is all but nonexistent. Thus, 100% of the game's potential audience has access to digital distribution. Second, it is an essentially niche title. It's new territory, and thus few publishers would be willing to risk a large investment on it. While proper execution could bring in a large audience of people who always wanted to try tabletop gaming but never had the opportunity, and a cult following could easily become a phenomenon, this does little to provide resources for the title's development. If anything, such success could lead to a full, disc release of a AAA sequel down the line.

So, thoughts?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Faery: Indie Game Failure

So, I;m sitting in a room full of friends, myself and three others, playing this game I downloaded off of Xbox Live. Faery it's called. Unfortunately, we can't tell head from tails on this thing. It's one of those games that tries to be so original it fails at ever successfully capturing anything playable. What, I ask, is its audience?

That isn't to say that somewhat eschewed mechanics are necessarily bad. Some games are built on the basic concept that figuring out the gameplay IS the gameplay. When done well, this can be quite fun. It is, however, an extremely difficult trick to pull off. A good designer knows not to intentionally confuse their audience without a very good reason. That is not what Faery presents us with. Faery is merely incomprehensible.
Hey,cool! Wish I'd seen this in the demo.
The game does, it seems, present a fairly accurate depiction of faeries via Germanic folklore. The controls and the players goals are incredibly esoteric and strange. We want very badly to break into this game. We want very hard to "get" it. We understand that, behind all of this effort, there is a designer. There is a man. This man has the intent of bringing an enjoyable experience to the end user. However, we simply can not reach this experience. Perhaps there is some fundamental importance to this product. Perhaps this is one of the most breathtaking experiences yet to be visited upon the direct-to-console market. Yet, we can not successfully penetrate it. I see this as a failing upon the designer. Yet, I welcome any commentary he may have.
Romantic subplot? Bow chika bow wow!
This is one of those games that strikes me as some indie films do. They are so completely hard to comprehend, despite my desire to do so, that I am left with nothing more than a dismayed critic's resolve to present a rational opinion. It is a game. That is a fact - no, a possibility. I have yet to confirm this. That, it would seem, is the problem. I can not tell that this is a game. I can not confirm that this is in interactive entertainment experience. This may be a problem.
I cast lens flare!
I don;t know. I like the idea of the Xbox Live Marketplace. I like the idea of indie games. When one shows up that seems so incomprehensible, however,  I sometimes find myself thankful for the draconian policies of software publishers.

This game is a good lesson for indie devs. Do you have something brilliant? Is it amazing?
Is it the most fantastic thing ever to visit the gamescape©? (new word, free for public yet nonprofit use) Awesome! Does it make any sense? Damn. Back to the drawing board I guess. One must always be cautious not to allow vision to outpace ability.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fatal Flaws: Short Instruction Manuals

Going forward, whenever I'm doing an article which highlights a weak design feature, but not a game as a whole, I'll be using the "Fatal Flaws" tag.

In this case, the subject of discussion is Call of Duty: Black Ops's instruction manual. I know, weird thing to be concerned about right? Hear me out though.

Black Ops's manual for the Xbox 360 is a total of 12 pages long. One of those pages is the cover art, the next is your standard seizure warning an ESRB info page, followed by the table of contents, then we have a page about connecting to XBox Live, another is a blank "notes" page, two pages are your standard "software license agreement" begging you not to pirate the game, and finally we have the back page which discusses customer support.That leaves us with a grand total of 4 pages actually providing instructions related to the game.

I was shocked by this lack of content. Then, I pulled out my copy of Modern Warfare 2. It has the same amount of pages, and is almost the same exact text.

While most people wouldn't make a big deal about the manual, as it isn't really part of the game, it seems a shame to me. First, I find that manuals are often indicators of quality in games. Guild Wars's manual is, for example, over a hundred pages, with half of that length discussing the game's setting and cultures. It really emphasizes the effort the design team had put into developing the context of the game and told me right away that this would not be the last title set in the world of Guild Wars. Blizzard tends to take similar steps, with Warcraft 3's containing a piece of short fiction telling the story of the ancient evils which once beset its world. The recent Call of Duty manuals, however, seem like afterthoughts. If so little thought was put into this aspect of the product, the user may think, where else where corners cut?

Second, I am dissapointed in that game manuals have, historically, been a part of the process for me. When I got a new game a kid, I would be absolutely ecstatic about bringing home a new game. I had days of amazing fun and wonder in that box, but it couldn't be released until the car ride was over. This anticipation resulted in me opening the case and reading the manual on the ride home. I would read every word, contemplate the significance of esoteric terms, as these were often JRPGs at this stage of my life, and carefully look over each peace of art. Before the disk ever hit the tray, the game had already started for me.

Recently, I experienced this ritual again with Halo: Reach. The delivery man came to my door right as I was leaving for work, so I didn't have time to pop the title in the Xbox for a quick game. On my way out the door, I stuffed the instruction manual in my pocket. Whenever I had a free moment at work, I would pull it out and tear through it. This was, again, a highly designed product. It had little in the way of fluff, but was covered in Halo flavor graphics and full of information. On the down side, however, I think there may have been a technical problem with this manual. Anywhere I touched smudged the ink. I tried washing and drying my hands, but the problem persisted. It seems that graphics on every inch of the page might have been an overuse of ink in this case - or Bungie simply used a low quality printing service.

I hate that, over time, the trend has become to focus less and less on game manuals. I hate that this ritual may be lost on future generations of eager gamers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Popular Mechanics: Far Cry 2's Health System

As noted in the previous post, an old top 5 list I did for my college newspaper, I hated Far Cry 2. Now, part of that was due to my high expectations, but the fact remains that the game is inferior to its predecessor. In the video game industry, unlike in film, this is a rarity and an unforgivable one at that. That being said, there were good ideas in the title, good parts that never equaled a satisfactory whole. The most impressive of these, to me, was the health system.

In Far Cry 2, your health bar is similar to those you've seen before. It's a horizontal line that fills from the left. It's divided into segments, but that we have seen before as well. This, however, is what gives us the first notably unique aspect of Far Cry 2's health system. These segments represent a hybridized version of the now standard recharging health system, popularized by Halo, and the old school health pack method. After taking damage and finding a moment to rest, your health will not recharge fully but, rather, fill the current segment. This means the hero is never totally helpless, with at-least some sliver of health, but also provides long term punishment for recklessness. This balance works well, satisfying both the game designer's love for the elegant and self contained recharging health and that segment of the gamer community that feels recharging health too contrived.

What really makes this system, however, is the way in which players begin to regain that health. Rather than damage being treated as if the player is a water balloon, leaking HP through his bullet holes, Far Cry 2 tracks actual injuries. If you get shot, there is now a bullet lodged in you. If you fall, you have a broken leg. These things really improve the immersion felt by the player and seem to make each injury feel more serious, without ever actually changing the risk/reward dynamic.
This little piggy should have stayed home.

In order to regain health, the player must treat these individual injuries. This requires removing foreign projectiles, dislodging terrain on which you have been impaled, stitching up gaping lacerations, resetting bones, etc. This becomes a really pleasing mechanic for two reasons. First, the injuries are very viscerally pleasing. You see the end of your finger come out the opposite side of your arm when you push a through and through out. You see flesh burning as you cauderize an open wound. You hear the crack of bone. It's simultaneously disgusting and spectacular. For the more squeamish players, I can see this being more motivation to keep their heads down than the threat of death. Compounding this, however, is the sheer multitude of animations and variants to these injuries. Quite some time will pass before you see the same animation again, which prevents these injuries from ever seeming trivialized and really adds to the verisimilitude of the whole experience.

Still less painful, however, than the rest of the game.

All in all, this system is a big winner for me more because of its psychological aspects than its objective ones. It provides that super soldier level of endurance necessary for a game in which the protagonist is expected to fend off an army on his lonesome, but never really makes the player feel superhuman. These constant reminders of your mortality and how hard the fight has been go a long way to contextualize the combat.

While I've seen no game sense which has copied this system, I will note a vaguely related piece of design in the Halo franchise. As of Halo: Reach, the players health no longer regenerates along with their shields, recalling the original title. This promotes a bit more caution in the player, as though they have little health it can be the difference between going down in 5 shots or 6. I've often noted situations in which taking the time to grab a health pack has saved my life. While this might not have been directly inspired by Far Cry 2, and was likely done more as an effort to return the series to its roots and maintain chronological canon, it does show an increasing popularity in this hybridized method.

Outdated Game Reviews: The Best (And Worst) Games of 2008

With all of this year’s big releases now on shelves, most gamers have more options than cash. So, to help you out, I’m breaking down the top five games of 2008.

#5: Left 4 Dead
PC, Xbox 360
 You know how horror movies get better with other people around? That’s “Left 4 Dead”. The best horror game of ‘08 is co-op. It’s scarier, and more fun, than “Dead Space” ever was. Plus, when you’re tired of surviving the zombie apocalypse you can play as the zombies.

#4: Gears of War 2
Xbox 360
 Futuristic marines with chainsaws and fully automatic weapons, a tried and true gaming formula. “Gears of
War 2” is the kind of game that makes you want to beat your chest and mark territory. The “Gears of War” series has deeper gameplay and better art direction than “Halo.” Chainsaws are better than gun butts. “Gears 2” is better than “Halo 3.” Deal with it.

#3: Grand Theft Auto IV
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Let’s not ignore the games that came out earlier this year. “Grand Theft Auto IV” is still the last word on sandbox gameplay. The single player is not only the most enjoyable, but has the most sophisticated narrative in the series. Even without the online play, you’re not likely to wear the fun out of this game. Ever.

#2: Call of Duty: World at War 
PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii
The “Call of Duty” series has become the most cinematic in gaming. The single player campaign is the gaming
equivalent of a “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers.” If all games were like this and the acting was just slightly better, there’d be no reason to go to the movies any more. Plus, it’s one of the best online games of the year.

#1: Fallout 3
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
“Fallout 3,” is basically “Oblivion” with guns, better art direction, and infinitely better writing. It really lives up to its pedigree. The depth of this game means that, even without an online element, it’s worth every cent. “Fallout 3” is the best RPG of the year, and the best game of the year. I can only hope the real post-apocalyptic future will be this fun.

The Worst Game of 2008

Far Cry 2
Yep, my least favorite game of the year is one that’s been getting great reviews. I’m sure it will end up in someone else’s top 5, but I hated it. It’s like the second Matrix movie. Something amazing was followed up by something terrible. The technology was there, the gameplay was there, but the designers failed to produce a fun game. Instead, Far Cry 2 felt like a boring, repetitive shadow of what once was.

Outdated Game Reviews: Halo 3

Halo 3 Shines, Even by PC Standards

     Bungie Studios' "Halo 3" came out Dec. 25, and instantly became a must-have game for the XBOX 360. "Halo 3" improves on the formula on many points, and finally matches the kind of shooters seen on the PC.
    The original "Halo," like "Goldeneye" before it, provided an entertaining social outlet in the form of a well-designed multiplayer console shooter. However, repetitive game-play and an unoriginal plot plagued the single player campaign. The single player took a backseat to the multiplayer game, and this trend has continued.
    In the single player campaign of "Halo 3," the player made constant progress through ever changing locals on their way to the final destination. This and the memorable set-piece battles dispersed throughout the campaign put an end to any feelings of repetitiveness and gave the game some epic action sequences that rival anything else on the market.
    The story, however, was still lacking. The player again takes control of a poorly characterized super soldier cliché fighting against alien clichés. Master Chief is Samus Aran, the "Doom" guy the "Quake" guy the "Marathon" guy a Terran or any of a long lineage of space-marines.
    The flood were essentially the "Starcraft" Zerg, right down to their species assimilating nature, hive-mind leader and even their sound effects. The Zerg themselves where derivative of the "Warhammer 40,000" Tyranids, which were derivative of "Alien", and they where all derivative of Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers."
    Games like "Half-Life 2," "System Shock 2" and "Bioshock" are forcing the market to produce shooters with well-written plots, deep characters, and quality acting to match their gunplay. While Cortana, the Arbiter and Sgt. Johnson receive competent actors, and the plot is definitely complex, it is simply not as well written or emotionally engaging as other titles.
    Halo has, since its original release, been the best deathmatch style game on any console. I qualify that statement because most PC gamers found "Halo" unimpressive. While console gamers had been limited to split-screen play before the previous generation of consoles, PC games were able to take advantage of online-play since 1993, resulting in several series including "Doom," "Quake" "Tribes" and "Unreal Tournament," all of which had done everything Halo had before and, arguably, better.
    "Halo 3" changed this by increasing the scale and depth of the game-play in both the single-player and multiplayer. Bungie added large maps rivaling those of "Unreal Tournament 2004." They also balanced the weapons to near perfection. These improvements, amongst others, made "Halo 3" the best deathmatch style multiplayer game out.
    It may not be the best multiplayer shooter on the market though, as class-based and tactical shooters have had very good releases recently. "Team Fortress 2", and the upcoming "Unreal Tournament 3" and "Call of Duty 4" are going to be tough competition.
    Epic Games'" Unreal Tournament 3" appears to be the greatest threat to "Halo 3". Epic games had great success with "Gears of War" on the XBOX 360, and with "UT3" they seem to want to correct their previous mistakes on the console market. The PC's premier deathmatch-style game is due out on the 19th, and the PS3 and XBOX 360 versions are coming soon after. Look forward to my review of "UT3" to see how the two stack up.

Outdated Game Reviews: No More Heroes

No More Heroes is Half Awesome

    No More Heroes" for the Nintendo Wii has arrived in stores, and due to the critical acclaim of 2005's "Killer7" it is getting a lot of attention. Good news, the game is good, mostly. It is two animals on one disk, one-half "Devil May Cry" and the other a sad "Grand Theft Auto" rip-off. No More Heroes is a shining example of when adding too much detracts from the whole.
    Those expecting more of Goichi Suda's bizarre design will be satisfied. They may be disappointed, however, that this outing has suffered to reach a more mainstream audience. Gone is the psychodrama of "Killer7", and in its place is violent and vulgar brand irreverent humor that will probably offend you slightly less than it entertains you. It's very funny, and intentionally sophomoric.
    The character's main motivations are pride and lust, as well as the other seven deadlies to varying degrees. In "Killer7" we delved into the psyche of a murderer with multiple personalities. In "No More Heroes" Travis kills people to try to get into a blonde's pants. Obviously, Suda slightly lowered the intellectual bar.
    The game play, however, has not. In fact, it's far more fun. The core of the game is a classic beat'em-up, which arms Travis with a copyright infringement safe version of a lightsaber, and professional wrestling moves. Combat is a matter of charging into a group of foes with your laser blade, slicing off a series of vital body parts and finishing off whoever survives with a crossface chickenwing suplex. After a series of mooks, the game treats the player to a fantastic cut-scenes and well-designed boss fights. The game isn't breaking any genre conventions here, but it is excelling at them.
    Unfortunately, between levels you are required to travel around an artistically uninspired and technically flawed town playing a series of boring mini-games in order to earn progression. Watch Tarantino's "Kill Bill", but after the Bride kills each of her targets pause it and work a Dominos delivery shift before continuing. It only serves to artificially lengthen the game. I want to love the game despite this horrible decision, but it's hard. Without this, it would be a quick adrenaline rush completed in one or two sittings.
    The game is certainly outstanding, but not because of revolutionary gameplay or story. The game's style makes it unique. You'll revel in the "Sanjuro" style blood spray and Travis's over the top ego more than anything.
    There is no real reason to buy this game. You can easily complete it within a rental period. I'd advise renting it if you're a Suda51 fan, appreciate off-beat design or a beat'm-up fan. Just be prepared for some frustration. "No More Heroes" gets a 5/10 from me. I'll assign half of a perfect score because half of the game is fun and the other is utter tripe.

Outdated Game Reviews: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Super Smash Bros. Brawl Is a Wii Essential

    The third entry in Nintendo's "Super Smash Bros." series was released this month, and it refines an already well designed fighting system, revolutionizes it's story mode and retains its position as one of the top fighting games on the market.
    Those who've played previous titles in the series, know that they are fighting games starring iconic video game characters in a style similar to "Marvel vs. Capcom," but with completely different gameplay. This time around, the total of playable characters reaches 35, with no roster padding.
    The most obvious improvement is the addition of new characters and levels. There are fourteen new characters, most notably including Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog, meaning that future installations in the series could include just about anyone. I'm hoping for some Megaman on Belmont action.
    All of the clone characters from previous games have unique move sets this time, so they are essentially new characters themselves. Nintendo rebalanced the old characters aswell. Link, for example, is now a more powerful sword fighter rather than a ranged specialist, making him my new favorite character. Nintendo removes only four throwaway characters, and replaces them with similar but more interesting ones.   
    The other major addition to the game is the subspace emissary single player campaign. No longer is it just a string of fights and min-games. The campaign has a simple but effective plot, well made cut-scenes and many levels. While the old single player modes lasted an hour, Brawl's took me three long gaming sessions to finish on medium difficulty.
    My problems with Brawl are minor, and the only ones really worth faulting it for are the technical issues with the map builder and online play.
I am not a pokemon fan, so I would really like to stop seeing new pokemon and have them all consolidated into the new pokemon trainer character.
    The map builder is very weak. I can't even flip objects horizontally. For someone who is used to making maps and mods for games that allow users to add their own textures, models and code it seems extremely restrictive. On the other hand, it is fun and I've made many maps including my own tribute to "Mega Man 2's" Metal Man level.
    The online play is a nice option but, in order to prevent Timmy from ever seeing a curse word, it's neutered. You cannot effectively group with your friends to play online. The network forces the player to wait five minutes for random matching with three other anonymous players for each match. There isn't a skill-based matchmaking system or even text chat. On the bright side though, the net-code is fantastic. I haven't experienced any lag.
    I find it hard to praise this game too much. If you own a Wii, you have no reason not to buy this game. Super Smash Bros. Brawl easily earns a perfect 10/10.

Outdated Game Reviews: GTA IV

GTA IV, This Much Fun Should Be Illegal
(And your senator probably wants it to be.)

    I'm not normally the type to wait in line for a game at midnight, but I wanted to get my hands on GTA IV as soon as I could. Not 30 minutes after its release, I was home and driving through the newly redesigned streets of Liberty City. How has my ride been? Awesome.
    This is a significant improvement over other GTA titles. It is not simply more of the same, but an evolution on the theme that takes you on its own uniquely insane ride.
    The biggest difference may be fully executed online multiplayer. Deathmatch, racing, and good old cops and robbers play out over the entirety of the game's city map with up to 16 players.
    The first thing that impressed me was not the new gameplay but the writing and presentation. Niko is the first GTA protagonist that I would consider a deep character. His supporting cast is similarly so, though most appear as thin caricatures at first glace. You get the sense that the actors were really, oh I don't know, acting. The main characters give a fantastic performance I've rarely seen the kin of in the video game industry. Some scenes fall flat, but overall this story is as much fun to watch as it is to play.
    Then we have the technology. Obviously, it's pretty. Most impressive to me, however, is the Euphoria engine. This software allows the game to dynamically generate many of the characters animations. Gone are ragdoll physics, in favor of intelligent human reaction. The point is that no two instances of similar events, like jumps between buildings, should look the same. This prevents the visual repetitiveness common to video games.
    GTA veterans will notice little touches that fix old realism issues. You can hail taxis, not just steal them. Drivers have stopped leaving cars unlocked with the keys in the ignition. If you steal a car with a passenger in it, he might attempt to take you down. Overturned cars do not necessarily explode. You can call the 911 as easily as anyone else. It feels like they really sat down and addressed every problem they had with San Andreas.
    The only area I've seen gamers overrating the game in is its combat. Both the melee combat and gunplay are far better than they have been in previous titles in the series, and they're quite enjoyable, but it's not quite as fluid as some games designed entirely around firefights.
    GTA normally risks offending people, but discovering the ability to drive drunk was a surprise. You're guaranteed to wreck and get police attention, but you can do it. More interesting is that if you are merely buzzed, you can drive fine. Things are just a little blurry. Like other things in the game though, it's an option and exists in case you'd find it fun.
    I give GTA IV a 100% rating. I wanted to be the guy who saw through the hype, but this is simply one of the best video games ever. If you own a PS3 or 360, buy it. Hell, steal it. Just get it!

Outdated Game Reviews: Braid

Braid, Best Puzzle Game Since Portal

    Braid is a side scrolling puzzle game developed by Jonathan Blow and released earlier this month for the Xbox 360. The game is available for download via the Xbox Live Arcade.
    The gameplay has its roots with Super Mario Brothers. The game even features piranha plants that emerge from pipes in the ground. You run, you jump, and you land on enemy's heads.
    With these familiar elements, Blow proceeds to create something unique. Over seven worlds, Braid presents the player with a number of challenging puzzles solved through a time reversal mechanic. Each successive world adds its own unique twist to this mechanic, but the game never feels confusing. Simplicity is one of Braid's design triumphs.
    Unlike Prince of Persia where time powers basically serve as a limited continue system or Timeshift which becomes a series of press X to win scenarios, Braid's time manipulation is constant and unlimited Through it's use, any mistake can be quickly erased. If you know what to do, then doing it will be no problem. The challenge then lies is your ability to reason, not your twitch skills. The only true platforming challenges in Braid come in its final chapter.
    Visually, the game is quite impressive. The visual designer David Hellman achieves this through good old-fashioned artwork rather than bleeding edge technology. Hellman's style is not only beautiful but also intricate, leaving no part of the screen without its own unique features. Graphical effects convey game concepts such as the passage of time or unique game elements efficiently, never intruding on the overall design.
    Braid's hand-painted aesthetic sets a surrealistic tone. This supports Blow's poetic approach to storytelling from merely appearing vague.
    The story centers on Tim's quest to save a princess. This, again, harkens back to Mario. However, Blow again does something special within a familiar framework. The gameplay itself is metaphorical and in the end, the player will find the story ambiguous but intriguing.
    Braid is one of a very few games which invite me to discuss its storyline with other players as I would a poem. On the other hand, Braid allows the player to ignore the storyline if they choose. Many self-important developers refuse to allow this option, a frustrating trend.
    While Braid is excellent, it is not perfect. The two boss battles seemed to conflict with the game's overall design, and each featured the same foe only under different circumstances. Its use of time travel in a new way, but it is simply not as groundbreaking as Portal was. As a puzzle game, it also lacks much replay value.
    While it is not for the hardcore FPS and action game crowds, I recommend Braid to fans of puzzle games or anyone who enjoys quality game design. It is a fine example of independent game design and it is certainly my favorite Xbox Live Arcade game I give it a 90%.

Outdated Game Reviews: Mercenaries 2

Mercenaries 2 a Giant Disappointment

    "Mercenaries 2: World in Flames", which hit shelves August 31st, is the latest release from Pandemic Studios for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Playstation 2.  Highly anticipated due to it's predecessor, the title simply does not live up to the hype.
    As a sandbox game, I have to compare "Mercenaries 2" to "Grand Theft Auto". Unfortunately for Pandemic, that comparison is rarely favorable. There are two kinds of "GTA" fans. Those that enjoy the missions and storyline and those that just turn on cheat codes and go on rampages. "Mercenaries 2" is for the latter group, those who just want to make something explode.
    The storyline of "Mercenaries 2" is laughably simple. Guy pisses off Viking, Viking kills guy, nuclear war occurs incidentally. Pay it no attention to it because Pandemic didn't either. The cut-scenes are at best slightly funny and at-worst awkwardly mechanical.
    While both Mattias Nilsson and Chris Jacobs, voiced by Peter Stormare and Phil LaMarr respectively, feel well characterized and fun to play, I felt that Jennifer Hale phoned in her performance as Jennifer Mui. I began the game as Jennifer, preferring the character's speed, but hated her character enough to restart as Mattias.
    The entirety of Venezuela isn't at your mercy, only the immediate area around Caracas. This is adequate, however, as each part of the world is unique and interesting. The only filler is in the relatively small cities, which have none of the charm of those from the "GTA" series. The only buildings worth noting are those that employ you, all others exist only to be razed.
    Pandemic implemented the cooperative game play well. However, the game has no local multiplayer options. You cannot play co-op unless your friend has another Xbox, Live account, and a copy of the game. I hate this trend.
    The developers have accomplished their goals. The variety of vehicles, air strikes, and weapons available allow you to lay utter waste to a large game world alone or online. However, everything else feels unpolished. The big things are great, but the details are fubar.
    Rarely do I see this many glitches in a major release. There are too many to detail here, but the worst is the NPC chatter. Intended to be informative, it is instead rage inducing. If someone is in my vehicle, for example, he spends his tenure constantly, as in every three seconds, saying "Hello," "Hey," "Yo," and "Hey look, it's Mattias." It's like a world populated by "Ocarina of Time's" Navi, but far less useful. An hour into the game, and you'll wish Pandemic put a shut-the-hell-up bomb in your arsenal.
    Yet, somehow, it remains fun. Any game where my buddy can carry a tank with a helicopter, while I use that tank to sink an oilrig, is going to be fun. "Mercenaries 2" survives on such moments of over the top spectacle.
    I give "Mercenaries 2" a score of 75%. It's fun, and a worthy rental, but there's no reason to buy it.

Outdated Game Reviews : Star Wars, The Force Unleashed

 The Force Is With The Force Unleashed

      LucasArts' "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" was released September 16th 2008 for the Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Nintendo DS, N-Gage, iPod Touch, and iPhone. The game is the flagship of a LucasArts' multimedia project which also features a novel, comics, toys, and a supplement to Wizards of the Coast's the Star Wars tabletop RPG.
    There are differences between each consoles' versions of the game. I played it on the Xbox 360. This version is essentially identical to the PS3 version, and similar to the Wii, PS2, and PSP versions. The Wii, PS2, and PSP feature levels not seen on the Xbox 360 or PS3. The Wii also features a multiplayer "duel mode." The other systems, however, are likely to be more dramatic departures. So, I can't speak for their quality.
    The game follows the story of Darth Vader's secret apprentice Galen Marek. His mission, to help Vader overthrow the Emperor, is the player's experience. Full of both action and intrigue, the tale will more than satisfy Star Wars fans. However, the short cut scenes occasionally rush the narrative. This is most evident in the underdeveloped love story.
    Fans have no need to fear that "TFU" to dispenses with the Star Wars canon. The game manages to capture the feel of the original trilogy well. While Marek becomes incredibly powerful, the same is true for all other force users in the game. Its not a matter of story, but rather of presentation.
    The gameplay is exiting and full of energy. I was worried at first, as the simplistic lightsaber combat from the demo paled in comparison to the depth of "Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast." After playing through the actual game, however, I see that the two titles are completely different animals. "Jedi Outcast" is a first person shooter, while "TFU's" stylistic combat best fits into the genre of "extreme action" with titles such as "Ninja Gaiden" and "Devil May Cry."
    "TFU" shines when the Apprentice is dealing with throngs of enemies or huge opponents. Marek is one of those characters that, like "God of War's" Kratos, is simply fun to control. The player feels powerful but always challenged.
    The presentation is generally top notch, but the menu system remains a leash that occasionally delays your fun. This and a few bugs occasionally crop up, but never break the experience. Due to LucasArts' commitment to quality, Star Wars remains the exception to the rule that all licensed games suck.
    The game lacks replay value as once you've seen both endings, there's little to call you back. However, its a great rental and a must play for Star Wars fans. It will definitely have you looking forward to a sequel.

Outdated Game Reviews: Spore

    I had a friend request that I post some of my old newspaper game reviews online, so over the next few days you'll be seeing those. I figured I'd preface these as A) They're coming out far after the initial releases of these games and B) They refer to their releases as if they'd been recent. That being said, I figure it's probably best to put them up in their original format.
Spore's Shallow Gene Pool Lacks Intelligent Design

    On September 7th, Maxis released "Spore," one of the most highly anticipated titles of the year, for the PC. Unfortunately, it's all hype.
    Lead designer Will Wright, famous for "Sim City" and "The Sims," set ambitious goals for the title. Unfortunately, Wright has developed Peter Molyneux syndrome. The entire industry was abuzz with what "Spore" could be. "Spore" is fun, but will never live up to the expectations of its audience.
    In "Spore," the player begins as a cell then guides that cell as it evolves into a land animal, develops society, and eventually develops advanced technology. This process is broken down into five stages, each with different game mechanics.
    While the overall scope is impressive, the individual stages lack depth. Each stage is an oversimplified example of a popular game genre. Because of this, "Spore" actually encouraged me to play other games. Not a good sign.
    The initial cell stage is the simplest, and serves as a tutorial for the rest of the game. While this stage feels the most polished, it is also the least substantial. In about a half hour most players will not only be able to complete the stage but also exhaust all of the stage's available entertainment value. This is not one you'll likely come back to. If you like the cell stage, play "Flow" or even "Pac Man."
    The creature stage is one of the highlights of the game. Here you really get to play with the game's powerful character creation engine. The stage plays like an MMORPG, without other people, as your creature either wipes out or befriends other beasts. Doing so will add their evolutionary traits to your options in a bizarre "Megaman" like system.
    Biology majors beware; this is not a life simulator. "Spore" uses an odd hybrid of evolution and intelligent design, allowing you to completely change your creature within a single generation. Furthermore, it hinges on the outdated assumption that evolution equates progress.
    The tribal and civilization stages each proceed as simplified real time strategy games. Tribal plays a like StarCraft, where what's important is which buildings you develop. Civilization plays like, oddly enough, "Civilization." There's little real strategy here, however. The most engaging part of either is the ability to customize your buildings in the Civilization stage.
    Finally, you gain access to space flight. This stage feels like the game you've been working toward the whole time. It combines aspects of all the previous stages into one. You can alter the ecosystems of planets, create new life, and conquer unknown worlds at a whim. The depth of this mode leaves the other stages in the dust.
    The widespread misconception about this stage is that there is some form of multiplayer component. This is false. What the game does is send your creations into other people's game, and theirs into your. You will never interact with another player.
    "Spore" is a good game; it's just not the game you want it to be.