Archive for category Console Gaming

Xenogears: An exercise in unabashed nostalgia

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time drinking. I mean, hardcore, trying to kill myself, at least three-fifths of the worst rotgut I could find drinking. I was often so drunk on a daily basis that I would spend my nights unable to even go out and get drunk due to a combination of being unable to afford more alcohol and being physically incapable of going more than three feet at a time without the kind of visceral nausea that would probably have killed me had I been wasting money on trivialities like food.

During this time, I went from 312 lbs to 206 lbs. Somehow, I didn’t die or blow out my liver. I also managed to procure a PlayStation, and so, on nights when I was too slobbering drunk to even go out and drink, I would play the various games I bought on the extreme cheap. Silent Hill, an actual PS port of Diablo, and my at-the-time favorite Xenogears, possibly the best game not many people have ever heard of.

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Dragon Age II demo impressions

I didn’t like the first Dragon Age. I’m a die hard Mass Effect fan and I really wanted to like Dragon Age: Origins, but overall I thought the game fell flat. Some cool ideas, certainly, but it never really gripped me. I went into the Dragon Age II demo with extremely low expectations, prepared for more of the same — even the reviews and previews on major gaming outlets didn’t do much to sell me on the changes to the series in DA2.

The demo is fun. I didn’t expect fun, but fun I got. The combat is more enjoyable than Dragon Age: Origins (in my opinion, obviously), the Mass Effect-ization of the main character Hawke helped pull me into what little story there was in the demo sequences, and it was overall a more engaging experience. My brief experience with the demo was above and beyond my experience with Dragon Age: Origins, and it very well may have reversed my decision to not buy Dragon Age II.

I still have gripes, however. Allow me to detail them!

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The problem with hacking minigames

BioShock. Mass Effect. Fallout 3. Oblivion. All of these games are generally accepted as pretty damn awesome. You (and I) may disagree with how awesome they are, but the general consensus is that they’re great games. All of them have one thing in common that really bugs me: hacking minigames. “Oblivion doesn’t have hacking minigames!” you say. “It’s a medieval fantasy game! What are you even hacking!” There is a lockpicking minigame. It counts.

Hacking minigames are unfortunately common in AAA action/adventure titles, and the success of games such as Mass Effect and BioShock are likely to make them even more common as other developers try to learn from BioWare and Irrational Games‘ example. Just so we’re absolutely clear: I hate hacking minigames. Allow me to explain why.

They take you out of the action

To some degree they take you out of the action intentionally, with the developers fully aware of it. Hacking minigames pull you out of the explosions, gunfire and soaring magic and give you a cooldown period. You get a break from the point and shoot, even if the break is point and hack instead.

The problem is that in some parts of these games, most notably in BioShock, you are pulled away from the action too often. The hacking becomes tedious. As you get deeper into the game, you no longer want to do it at all. You start to dump all of your resources into being able to skip it or make it faster and easier, just so you can get through it. Using these minigames occasionally can certainly enhance gameplay, but when you walk into a room with 4+ hackable turrets that you either turn on your enemy or waste ammunition or EVE (mana/magic points) to kill, it doesn’t feel fun. You don’t feel clever for hacking that turret and turning it on your enemy when you do it four times in a row. You would really rather just get back to killing splicers.

They’re disability-unfriendly

The average gamer doesn’t think about it much, but there are people with disabilities that love video games just as much as everybody else. Why wouldn’t there be? Players with injuries or other disabilities want to play the same things that everybody else does, and generally they can. Maybe they won’t be as competitive in StarCraft 2 or Counter-Strike, but they’re perfectly capable of playing games like BioShock and Mass Effect, even if it means they need to keep the game difficulty quite low.

Then you throw hacking minigames into the mix. These minigames usually require stellar hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes to meet the time requirements. In the original Mass Effect, the typical hacking minigame requires you to carefully move an object through a series of concentric rings with moving obstacles. Already, that is more difficult for players with a limited range of motion than the game’s actual combat. On top of that, you generally only get 10-15 seconds to complete the challenge. Not likely. Luckily, the original Mass Effect offers an option that allows you to bypass the challenge completely. You can break down your spare, useless items into omni-gel and can spend it as currency to skip the challenge.

Mass Effect 2‘s minigames are not identical to those of the first game, but it’s the same concept. You have a short period of time to complete a reflex-based challenge. In this game, however, you don’t have the option of using omni-gel to bypass the challenge. If this only locked you out of bonus items or credits (currency), that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem is that there are places where an inability to complete these minigames can stop your progress through the game entirely. For those familiar with the game, there is a gate in Grunt‘s recruitment mission that you need to hack to get through. If you can’t complete that minigame, you cannot move on with the game.

What was gained by gating the story progression with a hacking minigame? Does that gain outweigh locking disabled gamers out of an otherwise disabled-friendly game? It’s certainly something that should be considered when implementing these games.

If I wanted to play flash games I would go to Kongregate

Despite these games being high-budget releases, these hacking minigames are glorified (and sometimes simplified) flash games — or maybe something far older and simpler. BioShock‘s hacking minigame is an updated version of Pipe Mania, a puzzle game from 1989 developed for the Amiga. Pipe Mania is a classic, but it has also been copied, rehashed and reproduced so many times throughout gaming on so many platforms that BioShock‘s hacking system strikes me as incredibly uninspired. It most certainly did not make me feel like an awesome hacker. More like a  plumber.

In the original Mass Effect‘s hacking game, you’re a small sprite advancing through lanes of obstacles and moving objects. Apparently to hack a computer console, you must play a circular version of Frogger. Once again, this minigame struck me as being uninspired. It didn’t feel much like hacking either, just like BioShock‘s hacking didn’t. It was a minigame for the sake of having a minigame. Mass Effect 2 improved on giving you the feeling that you were hacking something — the game actually used a technological aesthetic instead of brightly colored squares and triangles prancing about. Aesthetics help.

Okay, that’s what makes them bad. How can they be used well?

Let’s recap. I think there are a few important things to keep in mind when designing and utilizing hacking minigames.

  • Does this minigame make sense as a hacking minigame? BioShock‘s Pipe Mania does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect‘s Frogger does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect 2‘s “match the circuits” game (seen at the top of this post) did, in my opinion, feel like hacking. It was a simple matching game, but the aesthetics and tasks associated with it were clearly technological.
  • Do not make these games mandatory! They are an excellent tool for offering bonuses or even shortcuts. But if someone cannot complete the hacking minigame (whether it be due to lack of skill or lack of motor skills due to injury), it should not stop the game/narrative dead. Minigames are not the core of your game. Minigames should reward success, not punish failure.
  • Diversify them. It’s okay to have multiple forms of hacking games. It does not need to be a new game every time the player touches a console, but two or three different ones adds spice. Not every shootout in an action game plays out the same way. Why should this? Mass Effect 2 used two different hacking games and I feel that worked very well. It reflected what sort of work you were doing.
  • Use them sparingly. Don’t do what BioShock did and put several hackable turrets and cameras in small spaces. It becomes tedium. Spread these encounters out. It will make them more meaningful.
  • Don’t add minigames just for the sake of adding minigames. Do they add something to your game? Will your game be lessened by a minigame’s absence?

TL;DR

Okay, maybe I don’t hate minigames. I just hate bad minigames used poorly.

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God of War III: In which I’m Atlas

I wouldn’t say that the God of War franchise has taught me much, but thanks to God of War III, I have learned one very valuable piece of information: I’m not actually desensitized to video game violence.

I guess I thought I was, prior to having played the game, because it seemed like I’d be able to carry out pretty much every action a game necessitated in terms of violence against my character’s enemies. You need me to kill that dragon to move forward, I’ll do it. That asshole’s breathing fire at me anyway. You need me to set some zombies on fire? They’re dead anyway, and they’re also trying to eat my living flesh, so I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

Now, you need me to kill that human being over there? That’s a little tougher. If they’re shooting at me, I tend not to have a problem shooting back. It’s self-preservation. But even in a game like, say, Uncharted 2, brimming with charm and having a dashing, likeable player character, I had an issue with the sheer number of people I had to murder in order to have my globe-trotting action adventure continue. But I did it anyway, because that was the way to see the rest of the story, and I liked the experience of playing it.

God of War III is a different beast than Uncharted, though. You don’t really need to “get” it. Its story is about standard when it comes to action games — that is, it’s an adolescent male power/revenge fantasy. All the men in the game are musclebound. All the women are scantily clad, if they’re clad at all. There’s an orgy minigame, for Christ’s sake. It is the very definition of what vocal opponents of the modern game industry hate about games. And before you suggest that I haven’t played the other God of Wars (Gods of War?), I have. All of them, even the PSP ones. I knew exactly what to expect from this game.

But I bought it anyway, because it’s a tentpole franchise for Sony and I heard it looked really good! And it was on sale. But this isn’t about me being a typical waffley consumer, or about how big companies keep putting out games that are embarrassing to have a normal person walk in on you playing while you’re rhythmically tapping buttons to nail Aphrodite. At least, not today. This is about violence.

Anyone who’s played God of War or has seen someone else play it understands what its deal is. You’re Kratos, you have weapons tethered to your body via chains, and you perform brutal, grisly attacks on mythological creatures while moving from set piece to set piece. Like I said. You ask me to kill a minotaur, no problem.

The sticking point for me came in one of the early boss fights. I was tasked with defeating a particular god (though a human-looking one) through interacting with the level and causing him to topple from his vantage point. Upon defeating him, I was prompted to press some more buttons as he lay bloody and beaten. Press triangle to punch him in the face. Jam on the X button to kick him in the ribs. Press the square button repeatedly to ram him against a wall. Finally, time the button presses properly to tear his head off of his living body. I felt a little ill after I did it.

And I couldn’t figure out why, for a while. I’d played violent games before. Then it dawned on me.

In previous God of War games, those kinds of actions would have been something that happened in a cinematic. Take down the boss, the screen goes letterbox, Kratos beats him up tears his head off. It’s bad, sure, but it’s the same as watching a gory movie — there’s a sense of detachment when it’s not me doing the brutalizing, and when I know that it’s not real. After all, I don’t have Kratos’ motivations. As in most games, I’m simply having Kratos perform the mundane actions required to progress the plot, not moving it forward personally. I am not the character I play.

But by making the brutality against a human character something I have to take action for Kratos to perform, and not just watch it happen, suddenly it carries real visceral weight. I don’t actually like torturing or brutalizing people. I don’t care about monsters, but something that looks like a man, bleeds like a man, and pleads for mercy like a man is pretty much a man to me, virtual or not. I didn’t like having to bear the weight of actions that weren’t rightfully mine.

I talked to one of my game designer friends about the issues I had with continuing to play the game. He asked me if I felt the game would’ve been improved if some kind of morality system had been added, a la BioWare or Rockstar games. No, I said, however clichéd and stupid it is, Kratos is a character defined by his horrible moral choices and his brutality. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be able to choose whether or not he’s an asshole. He will always be an asshole, regardless of my input. I just didn’t want to have to become an asshole myself to play this game.

Well, my friend said, not be snarky, but you don’t have to play it. I told him he was right, and that I wouldn’t.

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DC Universe Online: The WoW of Superhero MMOs?

Everything gets compared to the most popular thing of its kind eventually. So might as well get down to brass tacks. DC Universe Online, while certainly not perfect, is probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a Superhero branded MMO, and I’ve played both City of Heroes and Champions Online.  Now, this isn’t meant to argue that CoH isn’t a good game. It’s success alone indicates that it has at least found a following, and for a time I was one of them. And Champions Online is not only based on one of the longest running, most successful pen and paper RPG’s (although to be fair pen and paper RPG’s are a niche market unless your name is “Dungeons and Dragons”) but is designed by Cryptic Studios, the same people who designed CoH in the first place. They know what they’re doing. In a way, DCUO could be seen as the sincerest form of flattery here, because it definitely follows in their footsteps. The innovation here is which steps they chose to follow, and which they leapt over.

The irony here is that Sony Online Entertainment, the folks behind DCUO, have done with the superhero mmo subgenre what Blizzard Entertainment did to them. They’ve taken the elements of successful games before them and refined the experience, stripping out a lot of the grind that serves as a barrier to entry for people unable or unwilling to invest hours of time at a stretch into the game. I help run a guild in and write about WoW semi-professionally, so I only have so much time in a day to devote to another MMO. And yet, I’ve managed to play through enough of DCUO to hit level 19 out of 30 available levels and I’ve never felt irritated with the game’s systems. Anyone who knows me knows that’s a feat right there. I am notoriously irritable.  Everywhere that DCUO manifests a system, it does so through simplifying potentially complex ideas.

The character creation system is robust, but it lacks the wide variety of CoH. You can more or less design whatever costume or look you would like, but it isn’t nearly as flexible as those of its antecedents. The power/role system embraces the ‘everyone’s a hybrid’ mentality, with no dedicated damage dealing ‘classes’ as such. You chose from various power sets – fire and ice, for instance, are the ‘tank’ sets, while gagets and mental are the ‘controllers’ (what WoW players would recognize as CC, and other MMO’s have called the ‘mez’ for mesmerizer) and nature and sorcerous powers allow one to take on the healing role. Any of these can also be used as a damage dealer, so there’s no need for a pure damager and thus no systemic need for a damage handout or tax to any power set. There are also many choices you can make about your characters allegiance – up to six mentors are available, the ironic big three superheroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and their villainous enemies Lex Luthor, the Joker and Circe.  You can decide your personality which informs your character’s body posture and the type of dialog options, you can choose you form of movement (flight is slowest but it’s flying, dude, while super speed is of course the fastest but is entirely ground bound, while acrobatics is faster than flight and less restrictive than super speed) and so on. You finally can choose from a wide variety of ‘weapon styles’ which range from the obvious (big two handed weapons) to the subtle (brawling, bows, and martial arts).

Not having reached endgame yet (there’s 11 levels to go) all I have to go on is the missions I’ve been assigned. In general they’re not so easy that I can get away with rushing into a room full of enemies and gathering them all up, but as time has progressed and my powers (I’m playing a fire based brawler at the moment) have developed the missions have gotten harder and more elaborate, progressing from fighting Gorilla Grodd alongside the Flash to stopping Bane with Nightwing to defeating mind controlled Titans and battling alone inside Raven’s soul self and finally defeating Brother Blood where Doctor Fate, Zatanna and Raven all failed. (I get the sense I did that mission wrong, but a win is a win.) If you’ve played Mass Effect 2 and enjoyed the Shepard Effect of pure badassery in the dialogue, well, having Superman thank me for my help was a similar rush for me. Or for that matter having Batman tell you (in Kevin Conroy’s voice no less) that he’s counting on you! Batman! That dude doesn’t like anyone!

Now, the biggest draw for me in playing the game is the voice acting and writing. Marv Wolfman’s involved in the story, and if there’s one thing Marv’s good at it’s writing stories with huge casts of characters. Jim Lee’s doing a lot of the art and it shows up in some of the more outre character designs (at one point I swear I saw Perry White turn into a superhero) but love him or hate him, you know what Jim Lee is like as an artist. (I actually find his work pretty solid here.) The voice acting ranges from the superb (Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker? Seriously, these two are wildly unafraid of typecasting and I honestly can’t think of anyone who does these roles better at this point.) to the solid, there hasn’t been anyone I’ve outright cringed at yet. I think Adam Baldwin’s Superman voice here proves the dude should get to play him in a movie, and James Marster’s Luthor is actually better here than it was in the Superman/Doomsday movie, far more wide ranging and emotive. (It helps that he gets to be both evil Luthor and Luthor from the future, who sees the error of his ways.) Gina Torres is a fine choice for Wonder Woman, and Michelle Forbes positively knocks Circe out of the park, even if it brings me total Homicide flashbacks every time she talks.

It remains to be seen from my perspective if DCUO is deep enough to keep me playing once I’ve hit the level cap. So far I’ve been exclusively soloing my way through missions, haven’t done any of the alerts (effectively instances) that team you up with other players to defeat (or cause) a major threat. I have no idea how to effectively tank with the character as yet. So far endgame play seems to revolve around getting iconic gear, and I’ll admit the gear system in the game is a little confusing for me. CoH eschewed gear entirely, rightly pointing out that in most comic books superheroes don’t seem to change gear at all really (Luthor and Iron Man being examples of exceptions) but I haven’t found getting gear drops that jarring as yet, because most of it is themed in a way that makes it seem like I’ve simply changed my look a bit. Putting on a huge suit of Superman themed armor, though, seems kind of jarring and I’m not sure I like that in my Superhero game.

Overall I’d give it a solid B. I’ve had a ball playing it so far, but I do have concerns about the gear system and the control scheme was so bad that I had to get a Logitech controller just to play it. Seriously, I don’t understand how anyone plays this on a keyboard with a mouse, it was painful and disorienting. I haven’t a PS3, so I play the PC version, for all I know this is a non issue on the console.

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