The plan was to write about Fable II in this Edition. After finishing Gears 2 last week I went onto Goozex and pulled a couple of games from my Hold queue into my Request queue so I could pick up something new to play. I got matched fairly quickly with a seller for Fable II and anticipated getting the game probably toward the end of the week but at least with enough time to get a decent start on it over the weekend.
Unfortunately the game didn’t arrive until fairly late on Saturday (after my typical Saturday morning game session, essentially) but I was pretty enthusiastic about it when I finally found it in the mailbox. As a mild digression, I picked up the original Fable thinking it was going to be just so-so and ended up really enjoying it. It certainly had its issues and the magazine article I read that had informed me of its existence was based on an interview with Peter Molyneux, whose pie-in-the-sky descriptions of Fable were… hopeful. The final product ended up being less ambitious than those descriptions but still a game well worth playing. Curiously, the announcement of Fable II didn’t really grab me the way a sequel announcement for a game I enjoyed typically might; it wasn’t until the prospect of actually trying it was sort of real and present that I felt and sense of anticipation worth mentioning.
In any case, when you tear open a package you expect will contain an epic swords and sorcery role-playing adventure and instead you find Skate-It for Wii (a system you don’t even own), anticipation quickly dissolves, like an ice cube frozen around a hard lump of disappointment dropped into boiling sulfur. To be fair, the heavy use of Goozex creates a situation in which this sort of mistake can be made fairly readily: You ship games to people who are basically strangers, sometimes even mostly masked by the anonymity of an online handle. These mysterious entities are a faraway address and an abbreviated name, mostly you think of them in terms of the game you’re shipping out. If several of these requests come in at once, confusing the packaging in a scramble to coordinate postage with game with shipping address across three or four shipments is understandable: Structured organizations devote entire departments of workers to managing this sort of endeavor and they certainly don’t operate at a 100% success rate.
It wasn’t the fact that I received the wrong game that turned my mood sour, it was more the notion that I was relying on a successful transaction to provide me with fresh gaming material for this week. Coupled with an appointment that precludes Monday Board Game Night, pickings were bound to be fairly slim to begin with. The hassle represented by the mistake wasn’t malicious, it was just poorly timed.
I attempted to remedy the situation by stepping outside the comfort zone I’ve lived in for a couple of months now and actually spent the money to rent a game. I went with Resident Evil 5 rather than Fable II even though at this point there is no certainty that I’ll end up with Fable in the near future; however it shakes out Fable II will end up being sent by this seller or another at some juncture. Instead I went with RE5 because a) Zombies and b) I can either wait for the game to drop from it’s lofty trade points price or slam through it in a week and save myself a trade for something that didn’t disappoint me by its mere premise.
- Resident Evil 5
For all my love of all things Resident Evil and especially the top-ranked fourth installment, the notion of 5 alone kept me from tracking it down day one. For one thing, the African setting felt like a dart-on-map concession to the “exotic” setting from RE4 which I thought was fantastic as a temporary departure from the saga of Raccoon City but had hoped wouldn’t become the series standard. Secondly, the full integration of co-op into the game felt even on a conceptual level like a drastic adjustment to the tone of the series. As a sort of pioneer in the Survival Horror genre, I felt like Resident Evil should be fully aware that part of the atmosphere that these games rely on to set their tone is the solitude, the loneliness of being (seemingly) the sole survivor faced with an unthinkable situation.
Perhaps if RE5 started with Chris and Sheva separated and the first couple of chapters revolved around their individual quests to rendezvous with each other they could have spared my skepticism: After all, it’s not like previous Resident Evil games have ever completely stranded the player’s character alone for the duration of the adventure. But the combination of a sort of mini-squad, the bright African sunshine setting and the scarce modification of the game from RE4 suggests to me that the developers forgot what made the originals good and RE4 great. Even narratively the game stumbles in trying to create an air of tension: In RE4 Leon stumbled into the village after an accident, expecting only to be met with resistance from the perpetrators of the kidnapping and instead finding the entire populace to be violent and unnatural. Here Chris and Sheva are dropped in like saviors, more or less mentally prepared for what they might find. That they have acronyms for the zombie-like creatures which sound like military jargon (Bio-Organic Weapons, called B.O.W.s) makes their incredulous surprise when they find monstrous creatures feel forced and insincere.
But as usual in spite of my grumbling about how much better everything would be if I were in charge, I don’t dislike the game. Fundamentally it’s still RE4—the criticism that the game is basically RE4.5 is not unfounded—which I liked enough to rate as one of my top 30 games of all time. What makes RE5 feel less significant is that we now live in a world where Dead Space and Gears of War exist. Dead Space nails the control scheme this game should have had and manages to get the environmental puzzles right while creating an appropriately creepy and tense atmosphere. Gears, meanwhile, is both better at presenting the co-op hook and is more effective with the action-break sequences like vehicle piloting. What RE5 is best at, frankly, is giving those of us who enjoy the admittedly campy lore of the series a new chapter in the twisty, rarely well thought-out epic tyrade against corporate greed.
I can’t say there’s anything I particularly hate about RE5 but I also can’t say I love much about it either. Story and dialogue-wise it has many of the same problems earlier games have had; I don’t know that we can keep excusing the games because they are translations. A lot of games are translated from Japanese and manage to not only avoid sounding like they were written by well-intentioned 12-year-olds but pass as examples of solid or at least competent storytelling. Never mind the ridiculousness of the premise and story-follows-game design issue I talked about last week with Gears of War, they miss almost every opportunity to create memorable, likable or at least relatable characters. Sheva has the potential to be as endearing as Faith from Mirror’s Edge but she acts exactly like we’ve come to expect Resident Evil characters to act: Kind of like a moron most of the time.
A lot of people focused on the lack of progress with RE5′s input controls and it’s casual treatment of racially-charged imagery. The problem, to me, is far more obvious and rooted at a deeper level in the development process: Resident Evil’s creative team hasn’t allowed it to grow and expand enough considering how long it has been around. The other series that I can remember leveling that criticism at was Tomb Raider around the Dreamcast era. Fast forward to the present: That series struggles to find relevance and threatens to disappear despite some too-little-too-late improvements. I hope Capcom figures it out before that happens to one of my faves.
- Left 4 Dead
After weeks of talking and waffling about it, I finally broke down last Tuesday while Nik was at school and turned off the headphones, plugged in the headset mic and fired up some Versus mode. Before I talk about the mode itself, let me just highlight two of the reasons why online multiplayer simultaneously represents the black, tarry pit of some vile purgatory as well as an endless plain of unrealized potential and the pinnacle of gaming experiences. If it helps, I have illustrations.
You can see each of these elements represented in the different matches I played last week. In the first match I joined as a complete newb, I realized quickly that having read a couple of pages of the manual (something I never do, by the way) was not sufficient to prepare me for how to play the game. I was dropped onto the Infected side where I was given some semi-confusing text about how to control my zombie (a Hunter) and what I needed to do in order to spawn. Meanwhile I was treated to a non-stop stream of pre-pubescent vulgarity in high registers, making concentration on the task at hand difficult due to my focus on grinding my molars into a fine white powder I could later use to suffocate myself with when the pain became unbearable. It never got to that point: When I did finally enter the game, I fumbled with the controls a bit and after my first death they called a vote to kick me out of the match and it passed in seconds.
I immediately rejoined a different match because, by gum, I was trying this online thing and I wasn’t about to let my first foray last three minutes. This time I found the headset channel to be dead silent and, lo and behold, people were just playing the game. It took me about half an hour to figure out what I was doing but by then I realized I was really enjoying myself.
One thing about Versus mode in Left 4 Dead is that the game lasts a solid two hours. Each team of four players gets a chance to play as the Survivors and the Infected on each chapter of which there are five per campaign. Playing in single player mode I can get through a campaign on the easiest difficulty setting in about 45-50 minutes. But the human controlled Infected element makes playing as the Survivors that much more difficult and time-consuming as many sections become almost attrition wars and with effectively two complete runs through the campaign in front of you, it takes some time. I jumped in around Chapter 2, so by the end of Chapter 4 (some eight rounds later), the dynamic of my team with players connecting and dropping ha changed almost entirely. At this point I found that one new guy was attempting to use his headset to play in a fashion I’d describe as “properly,” with team communication and coordination as a focus. But since the rest of us were so gun shy about engaging others online due to our presumably shared misery at earlier Live experiences, we instead tried to respond as silent minions. The dynamic wasn’t as effective as it could have been.
In spite of the social difficulty, the game itself is as dynamic and engaging as anything I’ve ever played online. There are points along the map that mark areas where Infected players can climb onto the level geometry so they can appear in those out-of-the-way places you find them in so often when playing solo. These are areas you’re never likely to see as an individual Survivor player but they tie directly into the spawning mechanism I mentioned above. You essentially have a timer when you enter the game as an Infected. When it expires you’re assigned a role as a special Infected (I found the Hunter to be the most common by far) and you appear on map as a ghost, amongst the Survivors. You can’t spawn there immediately, you must be out of the Survivor’s sight and you can’t be too close or too far away to maintain the balance. Playing as the Infected provides an interesting challenge: Excepting the Tank (which I regretfully never got called to play as) the Infected are relatively weak defensively. Their reliance on hit and run tactics (preferably from difficult to see or reach locations) is suddenly clear when you’re the one trying to avoid a clear path between yourself and the business end of a shotgun. At the same time you suddenly realize why the Survivor’s role is so much more difficult againt humans, especially if they decide to coordinate and communicate. Much of the success of the Infected in the finale of each level comes from preoccupation the small band faces with hordes of regular Infected and the rapid respawn rate of the specials. Once a Tank enters the fray, his heavy damage-dealing becomes priority numero uno and well-coordinated secondary players can easily find the weakest or the most separated player and target them first making each subsequent kill that much more efficient and strangely satisfying.
As a Survivor, I ended up being on my own in terms of human-controlled players at the finale. Gameplay prevents the teams from directly interacting but I would have loved to share the moment when I finally succumbed to their relentless assault: I had been alternating knockdowns and revivals with my one remaining AI companion for almost 90 seconds at that point, far afield from where I should have been near the ammo and health reserves practically in the middle of the lake, the only place that afforded me enough distance to lure my aggressors out of hiding and into the open where I could see them to shoot them down. It was the kind of gamble one takes when the end is inevitable but you want that last, moral victory. As my last assault rifle round flew, it killed a Smoker who had just dropped my AI wingman for the last time. I drew two pistols as the fresh Tank stampeded toward me. If the game allowed I would have put the gun to my own virtual head instead, to draw the end in the most truthful homage to zombie filmmaking. As it was I didn’t even fire. Instead I set down the controller and laughed.
- Castle Crashers
My friend from work picked this game up and hyped it to me, prompting me to give it the demo treatment and dive into some online details. Honestly I was surprised to find the game was Dan Paladin’s follow-up to Alien Hominid, which I really enjoyed, only instead of a frenetic take on the side-scrolling shooter, this was a frenetic take on four-player co-op brawlers like TMNT, The Simpsons and Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons arcade games.
I really like Paladin’s art style, and Castle Crashers’ presentation captures that same sense of dialogue-less narration that worked so well in Alien Hominid. Game-wise it’s hack and slash with much mashing on buttons. There is a light combo system and some simplistic role-playing elements built in but those serve mostly to provide some variety to the action while the focus of the game is truly the adolescent humor, the marvelous visuals and the nostalgic redux feel.
What really seals the game is four-player same-room co-op. Friday night I had the opportunity to join this rare gaming circumstance which I think recent memory has only allowed in conjunction with the more socially-neutral Rock Band games. We played for a couple of hours at least, advancing from the early stages well into the heart of the progression before the witching hour loomed and we were forced to concede to carpal tunnel avoidance. The thing about this kind of experience is that the dynamic is different depending on what the group architecture is like: In a small group of new friends and acquaintances, Friday night was mostly co-operative and lighthearted. I can easily envision a player modification or two that would create a sense of good-natured competition instead, with players competing for kills and coins. Even the occasional and clever princess-competition system could take on a new shine depending on who you play with.
For my part I could think of few better ways to spend a Friday night, but also like those old coin-op arcade titles I used to play, the desire to continue playing at my own pace in solo mode diminished as soon as the group disbanded. At 1200 MS Points ($15 for laypeople), I can’t say I rushed home to buy it.
- Gears of War 2
Most of the week proper was spent waiting for Fable II and playing a bunch of training in the multiplayer modes. Which is to say, I played multiplayer style games against the computer. It occurs to me that I may just have some sort of online-interaction phobia.
In any case I admire what Gears 2 is from a multiplayer perspective and considering how vanilla the narrative elements of the single player campaign are, what you have in the Training Grounds and Horde is the essence of Gears stripped to what you want most: Shoot a bunch of Locust to “win” based on particular criteria. I like Execution myself, although I have enjoyed the Horde mode quite a bit. The ability to manipulate the weapon spawns and victory conditions however you like makes the botmatch play that much more agreeable: Since the biggest drag in the mode is when you die early and have to watch the match unfold between conservative-playing AI avatars, setting the match time limit low erases this problem. Likewise many of the weapon- or action-specific achievements can be assisted by modifying the weapon drops to whatever you’re trying to accomplish.
On one hand I feel like this level of raw gameplay against computer-controlled opponents is sort of sad and lonely as if I were the social gamer’s version of the Maytag repairman. On the other I realize that the alternatives are braving the hip-deep waters of foul-mouthed middle schoolers or purchasing a dozen extra copies to pass around to my friends to make sure they have the means at least to play with me, I guess I choose to wear this badge of simulated loneliness with a clear head.
I discovered several things this week while playing Nethack:
- As much as people claim that playing Valkyries and Barbarians is a good idea for people who don’t have thousands of rounds of the game under their belts, I actually found that playing as a Wizard works best for me. The combination of having a relatively high likelihood of starting with some of the items and abilities I consider essential to surviving the lower levels (Identify scrolls/spells, magical property-granting gear like Robes of Displacement) plus the universal Wizard ranged spell Force Bolt creates an environment where I’m more likely to survive.
- Engraving Elbereth. I’m not sure how I missed this trick considering its importance in the lower levels, but combined with Force Bolt I was able to have one of my best games of all time the first time I discovered this trick.
- Using a nethackrc file to control the way the game works makes for a better experience. I copied and modified an rc file from Aaron that put together. With it I enabled color, set autopickup to OFF since it was getting me into trouble and added some extra flags to show a bit more information in the HUD. Considering the impetus for these sessions is score, being able to see how I’m doing helps a little in knowing how foolhardy to be. A bad, low-scoring game might have me running down any staircase I find just to see what might happen. I’ve been known in games that are going pretty well to retreat to the 1st floor from the Gnomish Mines just to find a chance to catch my breath.
- Plants vs. Zombies
Pop Cap games succeed I think in large part because they do the opposite of what games like Puzzle Quest or AlphaBounce attempt. So rather than taking a core mechanic and building an elaborate meta-game around it to expand the context of the smaller game at its center, Pop Cap takes a core mechanic and strips everything away. With what’s left they wrap it in a candy shell, brightly colored and expertly presented.
Plants vs. Zombies is essentially a tower defense game which you can find in spades all over the web. The reason why you might pay $19.95 for Pop Cap’s variant is strictly this presentational focus. Their art is phenomenal, the game’s progression is smooth and the interface is as simple and well designed as it can possibly be. I literally have no critique for the way the game rests in front of my eyes.
On the other hand, strategically the game funnels more of the twitch tower defense variants than the strategic. The base of the challenge lies in the slow doling of the game’s resource which is sunshine (you control the plants, by the way). Sunshine falls onto the playing field at intervals but the progression of the zombie hordes is too quick to rely exclusively on that trickle so you have to plant Sunflowers which slowly generate their own sunshine. Combined together you can get a fairly steady stream of resources to spend on active defense. But the root (har) here is this resource management because the zombies attack in a straight line from left to right on one of five rows. Later in the game the zombies come with special abilities like the pole vaulter who launches over the first obstacle in his path, or the heavy defense zombies (some have traffic cones on their heads, others have buckets) so the key trick is knowing when to plant sunshine-generators and when to build the defenses. Except in the levels you can likely reach during the trial game the first couple of waves are so slow that you have little to do besides crank on resource generation and by the time it gets hectic your production outpaces your ability to plant and in some cases even your available plant slots.
This isn’t as much of a complaint as it might sound. Again, a lot of the charm this game generates comes from outside the gameplay arena. But if you’re looking for a serious strategic experience you can find that in greater degrees for free with a quick search string in the engine of your choice. If, on the other hand, you want a polished experience with some of those same principles pressed gently into it, Plants vs. Zombies fits the bill.
- Puzzle Quest: Galactrix
I only played briefly, after last week’s lament I thought long and hard about it and decided that ultimately I don’t have time to waste on disappointing games. That I wanted Galactrix to be better than it was does not excuse it from being, frankly, no fun. That being the case I gave it a last try, for about 20 minutes. I was doing the “If I want to keep playing after X minutes” test and honestly at the 15 minute mark out of my designated 30 I couldn’t wait to turn it off and list it on Goozex. Five minutes later I could stand it no longer and decided my reluctance to continue even this small experiment spoke volumes about my intentions.
I pray the individual who I foisted this turd onto via Goozex has vastly different tastes than I.
- Bionic Commando
The multiplayer demo for the new, updated, all 3D Bionic Commando dropped early in the week, prior to the acquisition of RE5 so being in a lull I grabbed it and gave it several shakes one particular morning. Multiplayer demos for games I have on my radar as exclusively single-player experiences feel a little misrepresentative: Some games like Gears of War can probably be reasonably conveyed through multiplayer without spoiling the campaign at all, but others like Call of Duty 4 are good at representing a part of the experience while not really showcasing what some people are looking for to determine purchasability.
Anyway, I don’t have any specific criticisms for BC’s demo: I can tell you I won’t be playing much of the multiplayer if I do pick up the game but the key issue is that the controls are fairly complex, and in multiplayer where battles shift in an organic manner based on intangible elements like revenge lust, perceived weapon dominance and spawning point—dynamics which I’ve never actually seen accurately reproduced by AI—the controls need to be fluid and natural so they can stay out of the way. I can’t say in the four or five rounds I played if the controls would ever become a liability but I know that in a short visit I felt I needed a more gentle learning curve (the kind you’d get in, say, a campaign mode if you started from the beginning).
I thought the swinging mechanic was decent; I actually like the way it felt somewhat like Spider-Man only you had to manually control your latch points. I did find myself wishing there were other things I could connect to besides the dedicated points… I guess it seemed like there was too much level geometry that I couldn’t latch onto. The UI is sufficient at indicating where you can use your arm grapple but it felt like it was greyed out too much of the time. One thing that was key to the original NES title was how ubiquitous the grapple mechanic was throughout the levels. My fear is that the swinging will, rather than facilitating a sense of freedom, be just another nonsensical hook: An effort to mask the truth that it is merely another shooter in an invisible box.
Truthfully, the very best part of the game was the intro screen. The reimagined theme song was hauntingly done, if somehow the developers can capture that sonic nostalgia/revival hybrid in a game element, we won’t have a problem here at all.
- Cyber Troopers Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram
Virtual On (as we’re going to refer to it since there’s no way I’m typing that whole thing each time) was one of those games that I thought might—just might—finally match what I have long considered to be the pinnacle of video game experiences. You can see the beginning of it at around 3:12 on this video, but it doesn’t do justice to what I saw in my mind as a child. I’ve visualized this sort of full-range control, mech-combat hologram-based game since I was probably seven years old. I’ve noted games like Time Traveler, Battlecry, Project Sylpheed and of course Virtual On.
Virtual On doesn’t have the technical chops to quite stand up to what I wanted from this Grail that will likely never materialize. Principally VO is too slow and plodding to match my arbitrary ideal, but I was shocked at how well it stands up today, even visually. I know Sega made some enhancements for HD but even the models still feel decently detailed and well realized.
The demo is a little chintzy with its two characters and the price point feels a little high ($15), but the addition of online multiplayer battles means if it ever saw a price dip even into $10 I would seriously consider it. At $5 it would be a no-brainer.
One thing that felt particularly strange about renting Resident Evil 5 was the process of identifying myself as a gamer in a public forum again. I tend to forget how much this process has changed in the last five or six years as my appearance has caught up with my actual age more directly such that instead of a 25-year old that people guess is more like 19 or 20, I’m a 32-year old that most people guess is 29 or 30. What this does with my youthful hobbies is identify me in retail scenarios as a potential heavy revenue source. Consider that a store clerk can infer on sight that:
- There is no way I’m below the age cap for any given game, so the entire range of their catalog is open to me without outside approval.
- At this age it is probable that I’m gainfully employed, thus have access to my own disposable income.
- It’s fairly clear that I don’t have obvious interest in putting a ton of money toward my physical appearance: I don’t wear designer clothes or carry an expensive phone or drive a pricey car. I imagine it’s a ready conclusion that I prefer to use my discretionary funds on my entertainment.
So for the last couple of years every hobby store, video outlet, game shop and comic dealer I visit has begun to both stumble over themselves to cater to my needs and try to offer every service, product and customer-retention method they provide regardless of how self-sufficient I try to act. I found it funny/annoying that as I perused the aisles at Hollywood video looking for a game I wanted to rent rather than wait to pick up on Goozex I was shadowed by a well-meaning but overly zealous clerk who reminded me at least four times that I could also bring in my used games from home and trade them in for both more credit than GameStop would give me and toward anything in the store including other game rentals.
She also rambled on about their tournaments and release events and pre-order policies and tried desperately to get me to tell her which game I was looking for. Cynically I assumed she wanted to get an idea of what my taste was like so she could showcase her company-mandated product knowledge by helpfully suggesting alternative titles. I found it difficult to exercise patience and avoid hollering at her that I was probably better informed on the game market than she was and I was only wandering because I was mentally calculating the odds of this $7 rental working out in my economic favor when contrasted with the price of trading for the same game on my online game swapping service of choice, playing it at my leisure and shipping it off when I was done and not at some arbitrary date and time.
I guess I should be more or less used to it at this point, but each time I exit a similar establishment I feel assaulted as though my will has been weakened somehow. Sadly the effect is not what I expect they desire: My weakened state leaves me not more prone to additional purchases or subject to their clever ploys to ensnare me as a regular customer but instead exhausted by the entire brick and mortar scene and desperate to retreat to the shelter of home-based virtual commerce. This mighty effort they exert primarily results in my growing fear of architecture.