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Video Games of 2013 [GO]
Jan 3rd, 2014 by Dan

Chifles

This is where a lot of the magic happened this year.

Writing this list each year is one of my favorite things to do at the end of the year. It forces some perspective on what I played and coheres my thoughts on the experiences this year. I spent less time with video games this year, to the tune of 19 fewer games played. 2013 heralded a shift toward portable games for me thanks to a rapidly maturing 3DS library and a nice, new phone.

JANUARY

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward – If you thought 999 had the coolest story in video games, you’ve clearly never gotten around to spending enough time with VLR. The advantage of being a one-system game gives 999 a slight advantage in its huge twist moment, but VLR‘s meditations on quantum theory and its further exploration of the morphic resonance forces tons of interesting thought experiments. It’s a narrative gut punch that unravels with a brilliant pace.

The Cave – Ron Gilbert made himself a neat, interesting meditation on obsession and enlightenment, except he also mad ea game with ridiculous padding that required too much repetition of the same puzzles. It’s funny, but, sadly, I wasn’t ever able to motivate myself to go for all the endings.

FEBRUARY

Professional Baseball Spirits 2013 – I absolutely love these games, but I don’t know if I should keep getting them for a few years. I just don’t have the time to finish whole seasons any more. Maybe I should just get the last PS3 one and wait a while for the PS4 ones to get good?

Fire Emblem: Awakening – Allowing players to grind for levels was a weird decision. I think I got too distracted with grinding and lost momentum and motivation to finish the game. Still got a ways to go…It’s a strong SRPG, but I’m so distracted with other portable games that I haven’t gone back to it yet.

MARCH

Tomb Raider – Remember when I beat this game on my channel? It was pretty good. I didn’t have high expectations for Tomb Raider remade to be Uncharted, but it actually held its own pretty well. If it had a better handle on its narrative it might have ended up one of the best games of this year, but you just can’t hide significant story details in found audio or text logs…

Sim City – What a shitshow. Seriously. EA really dropped the ball on this one with the overloaded servers and poor handling of their PR. To top it off, city simulation managed to feel simpler and less deep than Sim City 3000 which, I’ll remind you, was released about 14 years ago…

Bioshock Infinite – Remember how I said that audio logs are stupid? That’s the bread and butter of this series and it’s overdone. The shooting lacked a little impact, but the skyhook was pretty fun. Supposedly this game has a cool ending and a neat story, but I’ve had trouble motivating myself to come back to this to finish my series on it.

Dead Space 3 – Played this all the way through with David. Co-op = fun and awesome. Game itself…not so much. Just a laughably bad story, but we had a good time playing it together.

Harmoknight – Tiny little rhythm game by Game Freak. I ended up not loving the timing of the button presses, but I did like the relaxed plot and creative arrangements.

APRIL

Digital: A Love Story – I don’t really remember why I ended up deciding to explore Christine Love’s oeuvre, but the fact that her first two larger releases were free probably contributed. Digital covers a time period that is slightly before my internet days (one where BBS was king) and the love story is, ultimately, not quite convincing enough, but it was interesting and it tangentially ties into Analogue

don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story – I rant to all kinds of people about how privacy in the modern era is an illusion. don’t take it personally goes and makes the argument for me. It also highlights how those of us in charge and legislating now still don’t really get it (and probably never will). Never have I seen a game do a better job at illustrating the generational gap and give both fairly substantial and even weight. The only thing I didn’t like was the kind of gross romance subplot…

Poker Night 2 – Remember the first Poker Night? It’s a little more advanced than that, but I like Ash and CL4P-TP less…

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine – There was a fantastic couple of days where Min, David, and I just rocked most of the Monaco campaign and its prestige mode. Man, what a ridiculously fun co-op game. Especially with the way that David plays with his burrowing through every wall…

MAY

Rayman Legends – Better than Origins in some ways. Murfy is interesting too, but I have yet to play a level as cool as the treasure chase levels…

JUNE

Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Slow and leisurely. The feel-good, laid back game of the year. Animal Crossing might be low on action, but it’s so overwhelmingly nice and welcoming that it feels like the kind of world I’d want to live in. It’s just too bad that the guilt factor of being away for too long keeps me away.

The Last of Us – Yet another game I played to completion on my challenge. The chief problem with The Last of Us is that it’s just not fun to play. There’s nothing fun about the ugly violence committed by and against Joel and Ellie. It’s a brutal, depressing game that beats you down and ends with an unreasonably selfish decision that makes for a uniquely interesting ending and experience.

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future – Didn’t quite finish this one. It’s more Layton. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not gonna set anything on fire with its innovative ways.

JULY

Analogue: A Hate Story – The summer sale allowed me to finally pick up a game I’d heard such intriguing things about. Like Christine Love’s other games, Analogue is about a spaceship society that went kind of…weird. It was heavily modeled on an Joseon society that actually existed and it was a little horrifying. The way it all plays out is a little voyeuristic, but also super interesting and fun. I can’t wait to play Hate Plus to learn how the ship developed in this way.

Shin Megami Tensei IV – This is not Persona. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s odd that the two don’t borrow from each other a whole lot more. SMT IV still does things that feel so old-fashioned while Persona feels so progressive and fun. Definitely the best old-school JRPG that I’ve played in a while.

Evoland – It’s all kind of a joke, really, and not a very fun one, unfortunately.

Thomas Was Alone – You play as these little shapes! They’re so cute! There’s a really fun story! British accents!

AUGUST

Pikmin 3 – I was surprised by how much I loved this game. Allowing the player to split attention between three avatars was a brilliant move for efficient play. I’m more surprised that I haven’t yet gone back to finish it because it’s ridiculously fun.

Rogue Legacy – Sharp, tight controls. Super fun conceit with the progression of heirs. Go play it. It’s the Metroidvania/Roguelike-like of the year.

Papers, Please – Have you ever wanted to run a depressing, Soviet-style border checkpoint? Yeah…that’s this. It sounds dreary and boring and it kind of is, but that’s the secret genius of the game. The mundane tasks infect your morality and you actually start trying to game the system in a lot of insidious and awful ways. It’s kind of gross, but also very powerful.

SEPTEMBER

Didn’t start any new games in Sept!

OCTOBER

Plants vs. Zombies 2 – I don’t like playing this on my phone. It’s a silly complaint, but the game just isn’t good on that small a space. I’ll come back to it on PC.

Pokemon Y – The revolution we were all waiting for. 3D pokemon is awesome. Less awesome: the still asinine/mediocre story. I just wish Nintendo would step up the level of interest in the story if they are going to continue to try to force more and more complicated stories on the games. Other than that, the perfect pokemon evolution. Seriously awesome.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies – So it’s not the best Ace Attorney game out there. It’s lacking the influence of Shu Takami and that has a bigger impact than I would have expected. The game is more anime-y, if that makes sense, and a little less cohesive, but it’s still the best ridiculous, non-real world law simulator out there. Good times.

Hometown Story – Not good times. It’s by the Harvest Moon guy, but it feels half done and not too put together. I only gave it an hour, but I didn’t like what I played so far.

NOVEMBER

Ridiculous Fishing – Avoid the fish on the way down, hit them on the way up. Slick Disasterpeace music, neat art design, a weird story. Pretty fun way to kill time on your phone.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – The music in this game is so…good. It’s a must to play this with headphones. The way the game handles the 3D graphics is also super fresh and vital. I wish I’d played more, but I’m saving it for after Pokemon and Phoenix Wright.

Super Mario 3D World – The most brilliant execution of game mechanics released this year. That final boss…holy cow! It’s even fun for four players, unlike some of the NSMB games. Perfection. Get a Wii U and play it.

XCOM: Enemy Within – You’d think that the new additions would be incremental and not all that game-changing, but the MEC stuff and the difficulty curve tweaks for Classic have made this game way different and way tougher, but also…more fun. Those robot suits are badass.

DECEMBER

Super Mario 3D Land3D World made me insanely curious about Land, another game people rave about. Holy eff. The way the system makes use of its 3D engine is super cool. This game is so full of brilliant platforming that feels more rewarding than anything else. It’s less ambitious than 3D World by necessity, but this game (so far) is just a wee bit better realized on its platform.

NES Remix – Less fun than I was hoping it would be. Making it more Wario-esque would have been better, I think. Still kind of neat and only $15.

Project X Zone – I think I’d need a little more time to have a definitive verdict on this, but it’s reasonably fun. I just want to play as Rockman. Right now.

The Walking Dead 400 Days – Five (very) short stories. Five (very) smartly told stories. I really do love how the vignettes say something about each person in the camp and about each person who plays the game. I only wish they hadn’t tied an achievement to the Paper, Rock, Scissors part.

The Walking Dead Season 2 – Just as polished and well put together as S1, in my opinion. I have no idea why some people haven’t liked the first episode as much. It’s tragic and brutal and just as insane.

Risk of Rain – Played a few rounds with Min and Lee. Brilliant co-op, but it feels just a touch half-done in its menus and interface. Worth continuing to investigate in 2014.

Another Tomb Raider Trailer [GO/ER]
Jun 4th, 2012 by Dan

It’s clear that Eidos/Squeenix is taking a TON of inspiration from the Uncharted series, but this trailer does feature a distressing amount of violence toward women. It’s kind of grimy feeling to watch, but this game could be very interesting to play.

What I’ve Been Doing 17 Oct 2011 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Oct 17th, 2011 by Dan

Scouts

Those stupid hats everyone makes fun of actually do motivate me to play sometimes.

Movies

Bran Nue Dae – Disappointingly mediocre. I was expecting something interesting from a musical about aboriginal life in Australia, but it just wasn’t there. Uneven pacing, bland characters, and, worst of all, completely forgettable music. That’s the one thing you have to do right in a musical!

TV

How I Met Your Mother – The Jenson episode was great and the roommate episode brought us tantalizingly close to the “Mother”, but I’m catching up on this show by virtue of inertia alone. HIMYM is not a great show, guys. Not anymore.

The League – My favorite kind of crappy show. Can be super hilarious some days and middling other days. It’s a shame that they had to come up with an excuse to not have Nadine Velazquez on the episode. She’s funny and hot.

Homeland – Bizarre opening theme. So weird/surreal/cool. I guess it ties in with Claire Danes’ psychosis. The prince/consort subplot is boring to me, but we’ll see if it bears any fruit.

Prime Suspect – I like the main character, but I don’t love the procedural nature. I’m all about the season long investigations like The Wire. That show really has ruined cop shows for me…

Up All Night – After just watching Bridesmaids practically twice, I was a little tired of the female rivalry thing that Christina Applegate had going on in the class. Still a pretty good show, but this was the weakest episode I’d seen so far.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – The writers on this show get so much mileage out of the title cards. So funny even if all of these people are terrible, horrible people. It makes me laugh when they call out Frank for being racist or a jerk, but they’re just as bad all the time.

Parka and Recreation – Not enough April this week! Ann being terrible at being a girl scout was awesome as was the Batman suit, but it wasn’t my favorite episode of this show.

Community – Super dark. Last week’s statement that the study group’s love was weird was right on the money. Seeing that Jeff, who brought them together is kind of bad for the group is really dark. I wonder if this has to do with Dan Harmon’s recent personal problems. This show is going some really heavy places this season.

Better Off Ted – “I think I need to get new breasts. These are covered in sad.” Finished S2 and, hence, the rest of the show. Not too bad. I can see why it was canceled, even though I liked it. Good light entertainment, but it’s not the greatest.

Dexter – This season has been bad so far. The story beats are obvious and too overbearing, even by Dexter standards. I don’t like following the “big bad” around, especially when they’re being annoyingly cryptic and awful. When they said this show would be really changing this season I didn’t think they meant that it would be getting awful. I really hope this season picks back up.

Music

Extra Hot Great – I love this show, but they made me think that maybe watching Footloose might be a good idea this week. Now to somehow suggest it to the girlfriend without letting on that I actually want to see it…

Books

Reamde – Finished the book. Very Stephenson. Brings to the foreground his love of guns, anarchy/distrust of government, MMOs, and his obsession with the way money/gold works. Good read, but not his best work. Anathem was more philosophically interesting and Crytonomicon had better characters.

(EDIT: You’ll note that there’s no talk of comics here. I might be starting a separate project to discuss them elsewhere.)

Video Games

The Binding of Isaac – Finally defeated the first form of Mom, but now I’ve got to get to her heart to slay her. I’m getting better at this game, but I’ve got a ways to go before I can beat the boss.

Mass Effect 2 – Kasumi’s loyalty mission is being annoyingly buggy, so I’m stuck on the final boss and I haven’t felt motivated to tackle it again after two nights of trying and either doing well and having it bug out on me or failing.

Team Fortress 2 – I painted Max’s Severed Head pink and it’s kind of awesome. Been getting a lot of Soldier and Demoman time in, two classes I really didn’t love before this. They’re not so bad, I guess…Had a killer round with Lee as a Heavy/Medic combo. We were unstoppable!

Gears of War 3 – So much Horde mode this weekend! I will unlock the Laugh Track! Just you wait!

EDIT: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – Forgot to mention that I started my replay of the Uncharted series to prepare for the third iteration’s release next month. Good game, but the visuals are starting to show their age after all these years. It’s still a pretty game, just not as pretty as Uncharted 2 or 3.

Gears of War 3 Campaign [GO]
Sep 23rd, 2011 by Dan

Gears of War 3 - "Ashes to Ashes" trailer screenshots

Dom's emo beard is the lynchpin the game revolves around (Picture courtesy GamingBits)

Yesterday I did two stupid things. When I started up my Public Arcade mode campaign I enabled “Scavenge Mode” (or whatever the mutator is called), which forces players to scavenge for ammo rather than find it littered about in ammo crates. Then, around midnight when I was hovering around Act IV Chapter 5 I thought, “Boy, there can’t be much more left to this game. I should just finish.”

Four hours later (ONE spent on the final boss alone (more on that later)) and I had beaten the Gears of War 3 campaign on Hardcore.

Some quick thoughts:

– Remember how your least favorite part of Uncharted was that part where the Nazi zombie monster things attacked you? Epic must have misinterpreted how almost everyone on earth hated that part and decided to put in a part in Act III/IV that’s just that, but more explode-y. Easily my least favorite part of the campaign.

– In fact, all the melee enemies are a pain in the ass. Lambent wretches especially. Holy shit do they deal a lot of damage when they explode.

– Hey, everyone, don’t play the campaign on Hardcore with the Scavenger mutator on. Seriously, you will regret it against the final boss. It’s a long fight and quite the slog, but it’s made worse by the complete lack of ammo drops that comes from playing on Scavenger. We fought Queen Myrrah for so long because we had to let each member of the team die to respawn with ammo again just to do damage to her. What should have been a 10 minute boss battle instead took us 60-90 mins. You don’t have to listen to me, but I’m right.

– Min and I just finished playing Gears of War 2 and the distinct lack of Maria in this game only makes it better. She still affects the game somewhat (see Dom’s beard), but the roster of players shifts so much and (apparently) Dom and Samantha are kind of an item now(?) so it’s a little better.

Emily vs Claudia

My deep love for Claudia Black's role as Chloe Frazer alongside Emily Rose in Uncharted 2 is what prompted this picture instead of just Black (Photo courtesy Yembles)

– Speaking of Sam: she’s not in the game enough. It’s sad. I mean, it’s not Nan McNamara’s fault that Anya is totally boring and lame, but I’d still prefer to have Sam around more often than I’d want Anya. Since Anya is kind of a legacy character I see why we get her for the last parts instead.

Gears of War 3 - "Ashes to Ashes" trailer screenshots

Anya, you are boring. Sorry. (Photo courtesy GamingBits)

– Speaking of boss battles two points before, the Lambent Berserker is stupid long. I know we’re far past the arcade days where enemies flashed red to indicate damage/proximity to death, but the Berserker, man…it just takes a licking FOREVER with almost little indication that you’re doing ANYTHING to it. It’s pretty frustrating. We fought that dude for an hour too.

– “Mad World”‘s return was pretty awesome.

– The context it returned was not. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but it was a cheap resolution to that character’s story/arc.

– I did enjoy that our principals each semi-got their own moment. I would have traded, I dunno, some of Cole’s ridiculous amount of exploration in this game for more about Samantha.

– Jeff Gerstmann was right, making mutators stupid-hard to unlock does nobody any favors. Why do this?

– The best sign that this is a great game is that I want to keep playing it more along with similar games. I want to get to Resident Evil 4 HD, Uncharted 3, and Resident Evil 5 (with David) as soon as I can.

– Stop having so much school work Min. We need to play through this campaign pronto!

Uncharted 2 Review [Sony]
Jan 5th, 2010 by Dan

In my office there hangs a picture of Marilyn Monroe, a woman synonymous with beauty and sex appeal, but when you get closer to that picture the outline of Albert Einstein replaces the blonde bombshell. Uncharted 2 is a exactly like that.

It’s hilarious to me that in a world where I want people to stop comparing video games to movies, I find myself so enthralled by what is actually the best action movie of last year. I’m pretty sure that I said that about the first game too, but that’s how consistently the folks at Naughty Dog deliver top-notch, high-quality games. Nathan Drake is the Indiana Jones of the modern age, especially after George Lucas betrayed us all with that abomination of a movie in 2008. I’d even go so far as to say that the success of the series almost exclusively lies with the dude himself.

In the world of male power fantasies, I’d say there are a few ways to go. Muscle-bound ‘roid freaks who have big guns and kill everyone while being super macho men, suave ladies men who can get any girl they want, and the kind of skinny, smart-mouthed, clever scoundrel type (there are also combinations of these three for those who like to double dip their archetypes). Nathan Drake is the scoundrel type who gets to adventure in exotic locales in a partially tucked in t-shirt and jeans with a gun. As a guy who doesn’t own a gun or really go adventuring in exotic locales, but who does wear jeans frequently and plenty of t-shirts, how could I not want to be just like Nathan Drake?

Now that you’ve got this lovable scoundrel adventurer crafted, the next step is to have him hunt for a famous treasure, but put a spin on it somehow. The first game has Nathan hunting for El Dorado, but I won’t spoil what the spin is. This game has him searching for the Cintamani stone, a lesser known mythical object of wealth, but a valid one nonetheless.

Just like that, we’ve got two parts of every Indiana Jones movie already figured out. The next step is pretty obvious, you need a love interest for the hero. She can be either loyal, innocent, and a bit snobby or she can be sexy, dangerous, and possibly traitorous. We had Elena in the first as the first archetype and now we’ve got Chloe for the second. Perfect, we’re almost there.

The final touch for any Indy movie is a bad guy, preferably of foreign origin so that the Yanks can feel like they’ve triumphed against the world. Drake’s Fortune featured Gabriel Roman, an older British man, and his sidekick Atoq Navarro of unknown Hispanic origin. For U2, we get Eastern European warlord Zoran Lažarević. Just like that our pulp movie plot is complete.

It seems so simple when you put it that way that it really gives me pause. This is more than the plot to the (awesome) Indiana Jones movies, it’s also a fairly common plot that I find myself bored with 98% of the time, so why do I love it so much? What is so crunchy about the way this game is structured that I find myself unable to put the controller down when I’d normally just turn off the tv?

I give a tremendous amount of credit to Amy Hennig, who I know has creative authority over all of Naughty Dog’s products. It’s got to be her touch that gives Uncharted its extra little bit of awesome, because it’s an otherwise standard game. Plenty of folks complain about the shooting mechanic being imprecise not to mention the ease with which most puzzles can be completed. In fact, if you’re ever just a wee bit stuck on a puzzle, all you’ve got to do is look in Nathan’s notebook and the solution is right there. The only natural conclusion is that the strength of the game must come from the way that Hennig and the folks at Naughty Dog put together all these mechanics combined with the look of the game and the behavior of its characters.

A great example of how all of the game elements combine to create something great (and how Naughty Dog is a superior developer) has to do with the set pieces throughout Uncharted 2. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a set piece takes all of the elements that you’ve been used to dealing with throughout the game and throws them at you in some ridiculously awesome form. For example, both Uncharted games have Drake hiding behind cover on land shooting at enemies. My favorite set piece in Uncharted 2 has Nathan jumping from truck bed to truck bed, shooting enemies and using the truck walls for cover. It’s a fantastic application of the mechanics I’ve already been playing all game long and, best of all, they only use it once during the entire game.

Many developers would be tempted to try and reuse the same set pieces over and over with slight modifications. Since they spent so much time on them, they may as well get use out of them, right? Think of the old arcade and SNES classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. They had these bonus stages where the turtles were on hoverboard-type things that they created to break up the typical sidescrolling stages. Not content to just let this happen once, they reuse the stage twice in the game, dulling the impact of how cool it was. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have something like Miyamoto’s hyper conservative use of Kuribo’s Shoe. It appears in only one level and plenty of players can just skip it with a whistle.

I applaud Uncharted 2 for taking these huge moments, the train fight, the truck part, the part where you’re escorting the cameraman, and do them only once. Then again, maybe I’m giving them too much credit, since the same background motion tech in the first two scenes I mentioned were probably first developed in the first game (that jeep escape scene comes to mind) and helicopter fights do make repeated appearances in many places, but still, it does seem like the big moments are unique.

Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, the game is not perfect. The game may not repeat set pieces over and over again, but the firefights can start to wear on a player by the 50th time he has to do the same thing. They do a better job of pacing the cutscene, shoot, explore, shoot, cutscene, lather, rinse, repeat structure that persists in this game, but it’s still not quite perfect. There are plenty of times where I’ve just thought, “Boy, I’d much rather just keep exploring around instead of shooting fifteen guys again.”

Speaking of the shooting mechanics, Naughty Dog clearly heard everyone complain about men in t-shirts taking so many bullets to take down, so they completely adjusted the bullet counts to take down enemies. Most lightly armored enemies mercifully take only two or three bullets while the seriously armored Gatling dudes (and those stupid blue guys at the end) take clips upon clips. Aiming is also a little easier and the weapon variety is way better.

Uncharted 2 is unbelievably beautiful and, more importantly, completely brilliant at exactly the same time. There was not a better put together gaming experience all last year. It’s a must play.

The Portrayal of Women in Gaming [Game Overview]
Jan 1st, 2010 by Dan

Despite the growing number of female gamers and older gamers, the larger audience in gaming does lie within the 18-35 (or whatever the range is supposed to be), male demographic, which means that games are made primarily for that audience (fortunately (for publishers), most 14-17 year-olds respond to the same marketing techniques). It follows that what comes out of the industry revolves around heavy action and sex appeal. For every indie game that attempts to take a mature look at female sexuality like The Path, there are at least five games where women are two-dimensional characters wearing ridiculous apparel meant to emphasize their unnaturally oversized assets.

Again, it’s not that surprising, right? Sex sells. It starts getting strange when you look at the results of a recent study by Carrie Lynn Reinhard (Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?). The results of the study showed that men prefer to play as more realistically proportioned women when they play games. They’re also more likely to recommend the game to a female friend if the avatar is more realistic. Meanwhile, women are more likely to enjoy playing as hyper-sexualized avatars and more likely to recommend these games to their male friends. It’s definitely not what I’d expect, but it makes sense given the cultural assault on women to be hyper-sexual and the empowerment the might feel, while it seems that playing as a hyper-sexualized female makes a man feel emasculated.

I guess I can kind of support those conclusions, at least with the way that I see other people play online. My entire character selection strategy is primarily geared toward emasculating and embarrassing my opponents. In almost every game where such a choice is available, I will always make my avatar either pink or female (or both) for the simple reason that it riles up the competition when they lose. I think that perfectly sums up most of the gaming landscape: sexist and immature.

Leigh Alexander is fond of saying that the immaturity of the gaming landscape is mostly due to the immaturity of the men who run it. In article she wrote titled “Bang Bang, Is Creativity Dead?” she quotes:

“There is a cycle in game development. People making games usually make games that appeal to themselves, and choose from a narrow set of inspirations — Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Tolkien, World War II, super-hero comics, and a few more. Then, those games appeal to a certain set of fans, and some of those fans will eventually grow up to make games themselves, and those games end up looking like the previous generation, because they were made to please a similar bunch of people. That loop just repeats and stays the same size forever.”

-Tim Schafer

This concept has appeared many times in her work when talking about mature games versus “mature” games. Something like the upcoming Dante’s Inferno game is rated mature because it contains gobs of bloody gore and bare breasts. A game like Mother 3, which is outwardly cartoony in appearance, is actually mature because of the way it deals with death, family, and its themes of community and isolation.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for immaturity in art, but when it’s all your work has to offer, it’s almost insulting to me as an adult gamer. Take Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, released on the Xbox back in 2003. Never mind that calling it “xtreme” is already ridiculous, but the game itself is pandering to an extreme degree. The most clear cut goal in the game is to raise the friendship levels of the beach volleyball teams so that you can give your partner as revealing a bathing suit as possible to wear. I was 17 when this game came out and even then I was too old to be amused by such obvious attempts to catch my attention.

The first great hope that we were making progress came in Valve’s 2004 epic, Half-Life 2. Not only was Alyx Vance a smart, capable sidekick to the mute Gordon Freeman, she was realistically proportioned, wore jeans, only barely showed her midriff, had no cleavage showing, and donned a jacket that covered her arms to her elbows. To this day Valve continues to render its female characters in a realistic fashion. Chell, of Portal fame, was also not sexualized and Zoey and Rochelle, the two female leads in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, respectively, are also both modestly attired and realistically proportioned, but Valve is in the minority in this industry.

Also in the minority in the industry are women with positions of power. Video game development is unsurprisingly male-dominated (I say unsurprisingly because, in my experience, most computer scientists are men), but there are a few relatively famous women with positions of power. The first really famous woman I can think of is Jade Raymond of Ubisoft. I know I’m about to be super unfair, but Jade Raymond is known more for being hot than for her roles at Ubisoft. I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed, so I can’t really speak to its quality, but, despite her role as producer of the game, I couldn’t help but feel that Ubisoft was using Jade Raymond as the face of the game for more insidious purposes. I know that almost every video I saw where she was talking about the game was filled with immature comments by viewers about how good looking she is. Again, my statements are not saying anything about how good she is at her job. She’s clearly great at it, since she’s been named president of Ubisoft Toronto,but the immaturity of the medium has prevented some from really taking her seriously.

The other famous woman I can think of (probably because I’m such a fan of her work) is Amy Henning, the Creative Director at Naughty Dog. It makes sense that Jade Raymond has a wiki page, but Amy Hennig doesn’t, yet I feel that Amy Hennig has done way more for women’s portrayal in gaming than Jade Raymond has simply because of the characters that Amy Hennig has created for the Uncharted series.

Like Valve, Naughty Dog’s female characters are strong, confident, and able to take care of themselves. Nathan Drake, the star of the series, does have to rescue them from time to time, but both Chloe and Elena are more than able to handle themselves in the face of danger and both have saved Drake a fair number of times as well. While it is true that Chloe is a more sexualized character thanElena, she’s neither a ridiculous piece of eye candy nor a woman who trades exclusively on her sex appeal to get what she needs. It’s almost incidental that she’s hotter than Elena and, no doubt, a creative choice meant to emphasize Drake’s character arc in the second game as he is forced to choose between being selfish or doing the right thing.

It’s clear through the many interviews and videos of Amy Hennig I’ve heard/seen that she was the driving force behind forcing the moderate and respectful portrayal of women in the Uncharted series. No longer content to continue to watch women being objectified and marginalized in her medium, she was a vocal supporter of the idea that people will still like these games and characters even if they’re not all T&A. To her credit, I’ve never heard anything but praise for the characters of the Uncharted world. T&A or no, I still get hits on my blog on a daily basis looking for dirty pictures of Elena and Chloe. Could it be that men are just as happy with women who are real too? Does everything about a video game have to be a ridiculous empowerment fantasy?

I’m hopeful that the maturation of the field will yield more Zoeys and Elenas and fewer Lara Crofts and Bayonettas (new game set to come out this year focused entirely on the lead character’s sex appeal). It’s not that every game has to have realistic characters, I mean the men of Gears of War are no more realistic than Lara Croft in their own way,not to mention that even popular, respected, mature mediums feature plenty of shallow characters, but it would be nice to start seeing real people in our games.

On Tim Schafer, Apotheosis, and Video Game Rockstars: A Brütal Legend Review [Game Overview]
Nov 20th, 2009 by Dan

Apotheosis -
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.

Do you know who Tim Schafer is?

When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.

My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.

The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.

It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.

Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.

Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”

Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.

I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Have you ever played Grim Fandango?

We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.

The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.

What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.

Did you buy Psychonauts?

I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.

Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).

It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.

The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.

Was that a good idea?

It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.

Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.

I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?

As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?

“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”

– tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review

tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.

I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.

Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).

“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”

-Tenacious D – “The Road”

Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.

So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.

The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.

Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).

At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre

Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.

Quick Aside Time

I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.

Back to the review…

I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.

At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?

Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”

Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.

Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.

Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.

Saving the World with an Half-Tucked T-Shirt [Sony]
Jun 3rd, 2009 by Dan

I just can’t wait until Friday to start putting these things up. Uncharted is one of my favorite games for the PS3 and the sequel promises to be all that and more.

Things to note:

– New love interest…who cares…
– Snow
– ELENA! OMG ELENA! She’s back and her shirt is also only half-tucked. Naugthy Dog has got to be just rolling with the joke now
– Sully is back too
– Some rando dude is on your side

Yep, Uncharted 2 appears to be the action movie video game of the year, yet again.

Valkyria, Tomb Raider, and Realism? [Sony]
Dec 4th, 2008 by Dan

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about it, but I’m still very excited for Valkyria Chronicles. I promised my family that I wouldn’t make any purchases until after Christmas (not that I should be making any at this point), so I have to wait until at least then to hope that I get what promises to be a sweet looking video game. Enjoy the video review.

We shall see if it’s as good as it’s claimed to be by people like Shane Betenhousen and the PA guys.

Now for a bit of a digression/editorial:

This excerpt from an Action Button Dot Net review of Tomb Raider: Underworld written collectively by the staff will spearhead our topic:

“Does anyone in the audience here have the upper body strength to do one pull-up? It’s really hard, isn’t it? Now imagine doing a pull-up and then, at the end of the pull-up, pulling down so hard with your biceps that you launch your entire body six feet into the air, then grabbing a ledge and doing another pull-up and launching yourself six feet into the air. It takes roughly six hundred times the upper body strength* (*these figures have not been evaluated by the Olympic gymnastics committee) to launch yourself six feet in the air after a pull-up as it does to do a single pull-up in general. Now imagine a wispy girl doing it, fourteen times in two minutes, and with two sub-machine guns on her back (about eight pounds each, we reckon), with a pair of D-cup breasts pressed uncomfortably against the rock.

We say, the better the graphics get in these games (current status of game graphics: “Prettttttttty! Good!”) the more ridiculous these things look. You might as well just make the hero of this game a super-hero. Iron Woman, maybe. As-is, you’re kind of giving impressionable young people the wrong . . . impression.”

So yeah, I mean, why bother worrying about stuff like realism when it comes to a series so clearly based in unrealism as Tomb Raider. Lara Croft is a caricature of what a real woman is like. She is, as many have said in their reviews, a Barbie running around these exotic locales (exterminating endangered wildlife the whole way through!) that are looking more and more photo-realistic with each iteration. Her face, her character model, her proportions, they just don’t fit in any more. Not to mention how unlikely her ability to complete the actions she completes are.

Call me a nerd. I’ll take it in stride. I write a blog! It’s mostly centered around video games. I have a strong desire to make this a career. How else can you describe me? However, there is a deeper level that you don’t know about. I’m an engineer, so I am almost physically wounded by witnessing bad physics in movies and games (so long as I’m thinking of it in a real context). Nathan Drake, for some reason, didn’t bug me as much. He’s a lot less ridiculous, but he’s also able to make leaps that require ridiculous upper-body strength and grab hold to precarious handholds. The rest does seem somewhat more realistic though…although the gunplay is equally ridiculous. A shotgun to the body should kill in one hit…

Sorry, I’ve been wandering…my point is that somewhere, deep within my consciousness, I crave a more realistic experience. I want a game where if you jump from a high enough location, you break your legs. I want a game where one good slash of a sword will kill you. Bullets should be more lethal. It seems like a really bad idea, but I think they kind of do that with the Rainbow Six series (at least the first one).

Then again, how would that be fun? Say you’re playing a regular Joe in one of these games. You probably couldn’t run full speed around the whole map without getting tired. You probably couldn’t carry infinite inventory and run as far as you could before. You probably can’t stuff a giant sword into your pants to store it.

There are people who love stuff like this, they’re crazy tabletop RPG players, but that’s not what I want to do. I just want to boot up a video game and complete a cool scenario that doesn’t require me to be a superhero. I want the game to be about a regular guy, have regular physics, and just make a lot more sense. You could still have aliens, but recognize that organic life is organic life. A good bullet to an alien will still probably kill them, right?

I’m rambling, but we’ll see if something like this ever happens in the future. We’ll see if anything like this will ever be fun.

Game Overview: Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 27th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Wow, we’ve finally made it to the last week of my all-stars feature! Beginning back in November of 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360, this generation has seen some of the biggest shifts and changes that the industry has ever seen. Again, starting with the 360, consoles finally began to be a match for the PC market with online matchmaking services rivaling the best on the PC drawing gamers to the consoles in droves, depleting the once very robust leader in innovation and technology’s user base. Not a group to sit on its haunches, Valve re-invigorated the PC market with its Steam platform, a release and matchmaking mechanism that has recently started to rival Xbox Live in terms of functionality.

The PS3 launched about a year after the 360, promising much, but struggling to deliver any worthwhile software for a full year after launch. Its online service also leaves much to be desired, with no cross-game integration to help it out, it pales in comparison to XBL, even though it is free.

The greatest shift in gaming has come from the revolutionary Nintendo Wii and the Big N’s “Blue Ocean” strategy. Nintendo, understandably weary of being in last place for the last two generations, decided to take their console in a totally different direction, emphasizing the casual through an accessible control mechanism, affordable system, and lighter gameplay fare. While their strategy has succeeded, selling out systems each and every month and given them a greater install base than the Xbox 360, even with a full year’s delay in launch dates, many a “hardcore” gamer feels like Nintendo has forgotten about them with their new strategy.

The brilliance of this strategy has caused many a developer shift as both Microsoft and Sony attempt to develop motion sensitive controls to mimic the Wii and the huge blockbuster game releases of last gen start to tone down some of their production values in favor of appealing to the mass market. Minigame compilations flood the market as countless companies try to tap into the previously unreachable markets. Most find failure as Nintendo continues to milk dollars out of the Nintendo DS and Wii, causing concern for third party developers on both systems.

While the music gaming phenomenon technically began last generation, both Harmonix and Activision have enjoyed unprecedented success with their Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. It seems that music gaming is one of the next big things, with Activision basically saturating the market with GH products and Harmonix releasing track packs every week to expand the already robust playlist of the party-friendly Rock Band.

Yes, the new generation has advanced gaming by leaps and bounds, with the 2007 holiday season being one of the best gaming history has seen in a long time, but the new generation has also drawn new lines; created new schisms. All of a sudden the terms “hardcore” and “casual” have divided a once unified user base. Nintendo’s radical decision to eschew high definition graphics in exchange for cost-effectiveness has split third party developers who now have to choose to develop for the HD systems or the system with the highest rate of ownership, but smallest attach rate (average number of games owned). Many claim that this will be a long one, unlike last generation, since Nintendo has proven that low-tech can still bring innovation and sales. All I know is that it’s still early and it’s still anyone’s ball game. The slow start of the PS3 is turning out to have been a slow boil while the 360 is looking like a flash in the pan as it peters out. Nintendo’s massive onslaught of sales still hasn’t even shown signs of slowing down, baffling everyone who said it was just a fad. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out when the dust settles, but until then, I’ve been enjoying some great games. Let’s take a look:

This first game revolutionized the gaming world last year by proving that a cohesive, well-thought out, well-written, but incredibly short game can top a robust 20 hour experience simply through the power of brilliant game-design, hilarious dialog, and a little bit of cake. Yeah, it’s Portal.

#3 Portal

Many of you know the story of how Portal came to be developed at Valve, but for those of you who don’t, here goes:

Up in Washington there exists a game design school called DigiPen. Since Valve is a Washington-based company as well, they tend to send people to check out the work done by students to find potential new hires and ideas. Cue Narbacular Drop, a project by students that featured the portal jumping gameplay we know and love in Portal. The story goes that someone from Valve saw the brilliant idea, brought them over to Valve headquarters to show Gabe Newell, and Newell hired them all on the spot, which was a brilliant move on his part.

Portal is a shining beacon of game design because it does everything that it sets out to do perfectly. It’s just the right length, has just the right amount of humor, has just the right difficulty curve, etc. Valve takes forever to produce games, we all know this, but Portal proves that our patience is definitely worth something.

There’s not really much else to say about this brilliant game, it has to truly be experienced to be understood as the masterpiece that it really is. Go out and buy it, seriously…it’s only like $20 on Steam

Here’s the ending credits, complete with the super-famous “Still Alive.” DO NOT WATCH IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME!

International “Still Alive”!:

My #2 game would actually make a better Indiana Jones movie than the abysmally stupid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It currently tops my most anxiously awaited sequel list based on the promise of another adventure with its hilarious and cool protagonist. Last clue: the PS3-exclusive company that produces these games seems to have an affinity for main characters sharing the same name that starts with ‘N’. These obscure hints may lead you to realize that I’m talking about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

#2 Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I bet you didn’t realize that the best action movie of 2007 was actually a video game. Uncharted follows Nathan Drake, supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake, as he searches for the hidden treasure of El Dorado throughout the South Pacific. Joined by his partner Sully and the requisite sassy reporter Elena (yet another example of a restrained female character design that is STILL cool despite not having huge knockers. Take that sophomoric game designers!) Drake faces off against a plethora of pirates and puzzles as he discovers the dastardly secret of Drake’s fortune.

It sounds pulp-y, but that’s the point. Uncharted is the first time I’ve ever played a video game and thought “Well, this could actually be a movie without very much changing about it at all.” Play it and you’ll get the same impression. Voice acting is superb, the story is pretty cool, there is very real chemistry between characters, and the game just looks beautiful. Along with MGS4, this is one to show off your HDTVs to your friends. (Quick MGS note: I haven’t beaten MGS4, so it’s not eligible for this list).

Gameplay is pretty simple and mostly revolves around third-person shooting coupled with a cover system a la Gears of War. This part does get a little old sometimes as enemies continue to spawn at some points, but it’s well-done enough to not be too tiring. There’s also some platforming tossed in as you explore ruins that feels very satisfying. In fact, a great deal about what makes Drake such a cool protagonist stems from the fluidity of his movements both in combat and exploration. The way that he jumps from ledge to ledge, stumbling as he lands gives you that all important “Yeah, I think I could do that” feeling that makes up a successful everyman protagonist.

If you’ve never even seen Uncharted before, go rent it or buy it or come over my house. I’ll let you try it out.

E3 2007 Trailer;

Gametrailers Review:

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my #1 game of the current generation. My choice may surprise you, but I think that at the end of the day, it has to be number one based on how much time I’ve put into it compared to any other game in my entire library. There’s no good way to hint at it, so I’ll come out and say that my top game of this current generation (so far) is Rock Band.

#1 Rock Band

Rock Band and I had a strangely hostile relationship when I first learned of it. Not being as well-versed in video game news as I am nowadays, back then I had no idea that the original developers of Guitar Hero II were behind RB, I just saw that someone else was trying to make a music game and that it was really, really expensive. As a fake-guitar player, I also didn’t quite see the allure of drums or vocals.

That all changed when I started to see footage of both games and learn about the pedigree of both series. Concerns began to crop up in my mind as GH3 coverage showed the game design to be stagnant, note charts a bit asinine and arbitrarily hard, and art style to be ridiculously ugly. This was also about the same time that I learned of the very ugly breakup between Harmonix and Red Octane and EA/MTV’s partnership with Harmonix. There was an immediate shift at that point where I realized that I was siding with the wrong company and antiquated game design. The music game future lied with Rock Band, its new digital distribution system, and four instruments.

As a quick aside, I actually actively hate Activision and the GH franchise over stupid stunts like this one. There’s no reason why they should have screwed over PS3 GH3 owners who just wanted to be able to use the same guitar peripherals over both games. No one needs as many plastic instruments as Activision is going to force upon us very soon…

Back to Rock Band: it’s yet another one of those casual games meant to open up the market. How does it do this? There’s the simple four-player multiplayer aspect that makes the most sense in this context. Gathering up four friends to play music on fake instruments has turned out to be a tremendously appealing concept. I can honestly only think of one or two of my friends who doesn’t enjoy Rock Band at all. Friends of mine who live thousands of miles away are excited to get some Rock Band in next month when they come to visit. It has that much draw, especially to people who typically don’t game at all, including older gamers (NOT my parents) and women. While being able to shred on expert isn’t about to impress any of the ladyfolk, it’s still a good game to bridge the gap between the gamer and game-hater, since most people who have never played video games can understand music within a few minutes.

The other real innovation in casual gaming is that Rock Band is not as ridiculously hard as Guitar Hero 3. Activision went the totally opposite direction, attempting to create a hardcore experience with note charts that made no sense, but were harder to play. Rock Band’s more intuitive note charts seem way easier by comparison, but they still provide tons of fun and, most importantly, they generally won’t fail an appropriately skilled player during multiplayer play, the main draw of the game. Yeah, Rock Band is a lot less fun solo than with friends (still way fun though), but it’s meant to be played with friends, not alone. I’ve spent countless hours with large groups of friends handing off the guitars, drum sticks, or microphone as we shredded the night away (and probably made our dormmates hate us…bwahaha).

Rock Band is, by and large, the only reason I turn on my Xbox anymore and it gets playtime at least once a week from me as they launch new tracks each and every week. As it introduces me to new, sweet music (Boston being my favorite discovery so far), it’s impossible for me to not rate this as the best thing to happen for me since I started gaming. I’ve always loved music and had some aptitude for it, but never really learned to play anything. RB gives me the freedom to love that music using a medium that is friendlier than actually picking up a guitar (although I do aspire to actually start playing at some point in the near future). Detractors will say, “Why don’t you just play real music?” I will say, “Because I love music, but don’t have the time or money to devote to learning a real instrument right now. Besides, this is fun for me and my friends, so stop being a jerk.”

At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters with a video game? Aren’t we just supposed to be having fun?

“Margaritaville” Guitar and Drums:

“Rock and Roll Band” (one of my favorites!)

Another funny Rock Band-related PA comic.

And with that, I officially close out the Game Overview All-Stars feature on this blog. I’m sure you readers have pretty different opinions from me, so feel free to let me know what you think. I’m not planning on doing any runner-ups for this generation, but keep an eye out for game reviews in the future receiving the prestigious all-star award.

Remember guys, video games are all about fun. I spend a lot of time gaming, so it’s good to know that there are such fine specimens of gaming to make deep, lasting impressions on me. Keep it up game devs and I’ll keep picking up that controller.

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