Sunday, April 21, 2013

EDITORIAL: Blog Progress

I'm just going to be doing a short entry today. I'm toying with formats, and can't decide my best path forward. I'm not getting any real response, and am lucky if I get a dozen views. I'm not altogether surprised, but I'm considering options of how to improve things. The way I see it, I have 3 options on how to progress with my editorials.
I can keep on the same way I've been going. I call this semi-formal. I'm trying to make statements based off the way I see things but keep it grounded in some level of reality. I don't take the time to cite all of my information to keep writing time down. I can keep on this way, and continue posting every Sunday, and have topics to keep going for a while.
My second choice is to go completely formal, and professional, cite sources for all my info. This would take considerably longer, so I wouldn't be able to post on a weekly basis. My big concern here is that without regular updates, I'll be unable to get any kind of base. The information would be solid, but I have to wonder how much that matters. These are, after all, opinion articles on how I think the industry can improve.
The third choice is to go considerably more informal, and move into youtube or podcast space for my editorials, which I would link to on here. I'd still only do it about once a week, maybe more for special occasions. I wouldn't really be able to reference any sources. I would also do this without any real editing, just straight talking...at least at the beginning. The topics would be less structured, but I'm thinking that might end up being an asset.
So, I've got some thinking to do, as is my lot in life. I hope to have some new reviews in this next week, and next Sunday I'll release another editorial, in one format or another.

Friday, April 19, 2013

REVIEW: Antichamber



“Every journey is a series of choices. The first is to begin the journey.” These are the opening words to Antichamber. You start off in a small room, the above phrase is all that stands before you, and when you click on it, it shrinks and becomes nothing but a small icon on an otherwise empty wall. Pressing Esc, an action that normally pulls up the games menu, results in nothing happening.
At this point I begin to realize that I’m in control, and a look around the room makes it obvious that I’m already in the game. A clock on my right is counting down from 1 hour and 30 minutes, and the wall it sits on is marked “All You Need To Know”, and contains the menu options and tutorial. A window on my left displays a door marked “exit” with a door on either side of it. Behind me is another black wall with a single white box on it, and “Choose Your Destination” written across the top. With 1:29 and counting, I decide not to waste any more time.
Antichamber is a rather unique puzzle game. The creators were clearly paying attention to Portal upon its release, but the game bears little resemblance to it. You progress through a series of puzzles, and receive a “gun” that is used to aid you in these puzzles rather than fight enemies. That’s really where the similarities break down, as the puzzles are not really physics based, and there’s no narrator insulting you as you progress. There’s not really any comedy here, though a few of the images and quotes you come across can be amusing.
As you wander the hallways, you’re asked to solve problems that are largely about navigating the world. Doors that only open if you don’t look at them, walkways that only appear if you don’t jump off the edge, and windows that help you transport to another area (similar in the way portals work, but not quite the same.) The game will screw with your mind, and a friend I had watching for a short period of time said he had to quit watching because it was making his head hurt.
Eventually you reach your first gun, a white circular one with green pinstripes. The next area serves as a tutorial for the gun. Small blocks can be picked up and moved around. They can be placed strategically to block lasers that open doors. As the game progresses, you get a few more guns that grant you additional abilities that become necessary to move forward. A word of advice to those that will play it: if you come across an area you can’t figure out, move on until you get the red gun. There are many you just can’t solve that early on, and the red gun is the last to ensure you find everything.
As you progress through the game, hitting the Esc button returns you to the room you were trapped in at the beginning. Any pictures or quotes that you have found begin to take up space on the wall. The timer is still counting down on the wall, and behind you a map begins to take shape. You can click on the different squares to return to the different puzzles, and find ways to progress forward. One thing that would have come in handy with the map is a legend. I thought for the longest time that arrows mean I had more to explore there, but what it actually means is that it transports you to a different area that’s not adjacent on the map. A path that is cut off means that there’s a new path to explore, and a cul-de-sac means that there was a dead end.
These dead ends usually contain some interesting notes from the development process. A 3D map, pictures of the different rooms, varying items used elsewhere in the game. They are an interesting tidbit, but not a major draw. All they really do is serve to calm you down after solving a puzzle only to find a dead end.
If I have one major complaint about the game, it’s about the Exit. As you traverse around, you find fake exits, the last one I found had a message saying something along the lines of “You must tie up loose ends to exit.” Because of this, I spent a LOT of time going to different areas trying to find additional things to do, when everything I had left was dead ends. Instead, I could have, at any point during all of this, gone to what I knew was the real exit, and the games ending.
RATING: $15 Game. As much as I enjoyed this game and got lost in it, I have a hard time agreeing it should be $20. I actually struggled with it when I thought it was $15, but ultimately decided I would have paid that much. It’s just too short of a game, and it lacks the staying power of Portal. However, if you pass this one over, you’ll end up regretting it. Wait for a Steam Sale, and buy it, regardless of how much off you get.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

REVIEW: LIMBO



Limbo is a puzzle platformer with an aesthetic reminiscent of a horror title. The black and white of the game world gives the game a grim atmosphere that can, at times, make your skin crawl. A gigantic spider stalks your character, and other children try to hinder your progress. Beware the giant saw blades that you cut you to pieces, and be afraid of falling objects. For a world with so few enemies, there’s so much to be afraid of.
The controls in the game are fairly straight forward. You’re limited to moving left or right, jumping, grabbing certain objects, and pressing certain buttons within the game world. The challenge comes from the world itself and avoiding being killed by its obstacles. Towards the beginning it’s fairly simple, jumping over gaps, pushing crates to make a step. As the game progresses, it gets a bit more complicated, with the addition of gravity related puzzles. Nothing is overly complicated though, and if you get stuck at any point, it’s most likely because you’re overthinking things. This was the case for me. I got stuck at one point trying to time a jump properly for a while, only to realize that I was supposed to change the areas gravity instead.
The biggest thing worth talking about in the game world is the spider. Spiders are a staple of the game industry. It’s become increasingly hard to think of a game that doesn’t have them in some capacity. That being said, there’s something different about it this time around. You never see the spider fully, it lies in shadow the same as everything else. That probably works to the games favor, as it’s hard to imagine it being anywhere near as scary had it been more than a silhouette. When the spider is finally “defeated”, it’s in a sequence that’s made more grotesque by our imaginations.
There’s not much more to say about this game than that. It really lives or dies by its atmosphere, and it pulls it off spectacularly. It’s fun, it never feels like a chore, and it’s a pretty memorable experience.
RATING: $15 Game. There’s really nothing bad to say about this game. It’s fairly straight forward, simple, and fun to play. It doesn’t bog itself down with an unwieldy narrative, or too many game mechanics. The worst that I have to say is that, because of the black and white design, on a handful of occasions it’s hard to distinguish background objects from interactive ones.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: The Cave



Coming from the mind of Double Fine and Ron Gilbert, known for his work on Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, comes The Cave, the story of a cave! And the 7 people who, through a twist of fate (I guess?) find themselves trapped inside it. Like Gilberts previous efforts, the game focuses on simple controls, multi-part puzzles, and a reverent sense of humour.
The game contains some fairly basic platforming. A few jumps and twists in the caverns, but ultimately it’s fairly straight forward as you move between puzzle areas. The gameplay really serves the puzzles, and not the other way around, which is something that typically separates a good puzzle game from a bad one. You start the game by picking 3 of 7 separate characters, each with their own special ability that will aid during their puzzle area. For my playthrough, I chose the Time Traveler, the Knight, and the Twins.
The puzzle areas are very well done. They fall into one of 2 types: those that you will do regardless of who you pick, and those that tell a particular characters story. Each character has a special ability, and that ability is part of their puzzle. However, there’s really no advantage to most of the abilities outside of that, and when in another characters puzzle, there’s no difference between the Knight and Time Traveler. It’s a bit of a shame that Double Fine couldn’t find a way to make each characters special ability effect areas outside of their own.
The most useful of the 3 I had was the Knight, who could cast a protective bubble around himself. Outside of his puzzles, I could use this to jump from severe height and survive, which made traveling slightly quicker at a few choice places. The Time Traveler could teleport short distances, but was blocked by most barriers, namely those outside of her puzzle area. The Twins have the ability to, essentially, leave a phantom of themselves behind and continue to move around. This basically means that, if you needed to pull a nearby level and still walk through the door it opens (which really only happens during their puzzle), the twins were handy. I didn’t try any of the other characters, but I believe they have pretty much the same design in mind.
Each of the puzzle areas is fairly difficult but more or less straight forward. You never have to try every item with every environment object like you would in many of the old LucasArts games. Instead, it requires critical thinking and reasoning abilities. The result is you never really feel cheated when you have a hard time solving a puzzle, and when you do finally solve it, there’s a pretty severe feeling of self-satisfaction.
One of the main problems is some pretty severe backtracking. Through the entire game, you’re only ever in control of 1 of your 3 characters. The other two will catch up at key save points, but for the most part, within a puzzle, you’ll have to move them one by one to a particular area. The worst part with this for me was the late game puzzle where you are stranded on an island, and have to run back and forth at least half a dozen times. It’s a frustrating mechanic, and one I’m not entirely sure of how they could have improved.
The comedy is adequate, but slim in the way of laugh out loud moments. Personally, I got a chuckle on a few occasions, but I don’t remember a time where I was legitimately laughing. That being said, I never rolled my eyes at any of the comedy, as I usually do with the majority of modern comedy movies. It wasn’t offensive, or childish, or anything of the sort. I played through the game with a smile on my face from the narration, so I suppose I’d count that as a win.
RATING: $10 Game (4 out of 5). There’s certainly nothing really “wrong” with the game, and I would suggest people pick it up. However, once you’ve beat it, the only reason to play again is to see the other 4 characters stories. This means you’ll have to retread the same 4 puzzles twice each to get them all. I also found the noise that the Time Traveler makes when moving to become grating after a while.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

EDITORIAL: Rising Game Production Costs



One of the problems facing major studios today is the rising costs of game production. Many in the industry are fearful that there may no longer be room for mid-level developers such as the now defunct THQ, and everything will be left to either the major publishers like Activision, EA, and Ubisoft, or be forced to go independent. I don’t believe this has to be the case, and that games can be successful without breaking the bank. Not only is there space for mid-level developers, but $40 (instead of $60) games as well.
Let’s take Darksiders 2 from the aforementioned THQ, and development team Vigil. I enjoyed the game immensely. However, the production values had run amok. They obviously spent a lot of money making it so you instantly went from the menu into the game without much of a loading screen, but did the game need that? The draw distances were astounding, but how much time went into making that run smoothly? The art was amazing, but the game probably would have been better served if they had cut out a lot of the details.
 
 
Not pictured: flowing waterfalls and lava flows.

How much time do you think they spent on that? For a straight walkway. Admittedly, this is the main hub of the game, but keep in mind that essentially, the whole game looks like that. They could have lowered the budget considerably by cutting out some of that detail.
The game also includes several times that you have to find 3 of something. The 3 ghosts, each of which has 3 keys, each of which has been broken into 3 pieces. Cut that down. Streamline some of the dungeons, get rid of some of the sidequests, etc. Then we have the Crucible...an area of the game which is essentially a stadium. There are 100 waves of enemies you must defeat. While this may not sound terrible, consider that they had to spend a lot of time balancing this, and the developer would have been better off without it, considering it was never a selling point to begin with. Release it as DLC later, if the game proves successful.
I also know this is a bit more controversial, but re-use some environments as well. Even if it's just the overworld map layout. This game had the land of creation, and the land of death. The gates of heaven and of hell. While small areas, Heaven and Hell had entirely different layouts. But why? It would have cost less, and actually made narrative sense, to have them identical, or even mirrored. Instead you had these long pathways, full of tons of detail and cliffs and rivers and flowers and whatever else. It was a waste of money.
Cut some of that stuff out, and release it as a $40 game. It's not as big and wonderful as it turned out, but you still get a complete game, for a great deal less than what we paid for. If we're going to be doing DLC anyways, why not release a more "core" experience for cheaper, get people lured in, and pay the extra for the side stuff? It would also make Day 1 DLC an easier pill to swallow...knowing that "hey, even with the Day 1 DLC, I'm still paying less money than I am for Call of Duty or Mass Effect 3."
This is just one example, and I would encourage others to think about it as well. I’d love to hear some peoples responses on how some games could have cut down on their production values, without turning off their target consumer.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

REVIEW: BioShock Infinite



It seems like every year, there is a good game that is placed on a pedestal so grand that many of us will inevitably become sick of the holy praise it is given. BioShock Infinite is undoubtedly that game for me. Don’t mistake me, I truly enjoyed it, and suspect that many people truly will love it above all others, but it’s not even my favorite game I’ve played that came out this year (I consider Tomb Raider to be superior.)
The story starts off on a boat off the coast of Main in 1912. Two characters are rowing you out to a lighthouse that seems oddly similar to what you see at the beginning of the original BioShock. They speak cryptically about your journey to come, but do not address you directly. You play as Booker DeWitt, a veteran of Wounded Knee, and a former goon for the Pinkertons. Booker’s mission is to retrieve Elizabeth, a girl with special powers, from a city in the sky named Columbia. After a short section of light and sound that gave me Close Encounters of the Third Kind flashbacks, Booker finds himself launched into the sky in an introduction to Columbia. This intro is oddly similar to the original Bioshock’s intro to Rapture, complete with a blimp as a stand in for the whale.
As you step out into the world, it’s immediately apparent the people of Columbia think of this largely as a utopia amongst the clouds. They view the founder, Zachary Comstock, as a prophet who can predict the future. At a fair, you are introduced to the enemy of Comstock, the Vox Populi (Voice of the People.) This is your first hint of racism, as the Vox Populi is shown as a group of minorities, predominantly black. Ultimately, the racism comes to the forefront, and the populace makes a clear spectacle of it. I take a similar issue to this as I did to the portrayal of Russians in my Tomb Raider review. It’s easy to hate people that are racist on this level. The game needs a quick turnaround where you can feel good about starting to kill people, and so it uses racism as its excuse. It’s effective, but disappointing they took the easy way out.
 Probably my biggest problem with the game is the use of music. I’m not referring to the olde style versions of more modern songs, but the instrumental score. It comes across as very heavy handed right from the beginning. The melee kills marked by the shrieking strings gets old really quick, and I actually found myself avoiding melee for that reason. At several times, you’re supposed to feel sad, and music becomes cheesy, and I found myself laughing rather than sympathizing. The battle music was considerably less intrusive, but its presence still overwhelmed what was actually happening at a given time.
I played the game on a PC, and as you get towards the end, it really started to strain my system. I got to the point where I had to turn down my graphics setting, which is disappointing to be forced to do 90% of the way through the game. An earlier sequence that gave me that level of strain would have been appreciated, so I wasn’t suddenly introduced to lower resolution models.
One of the additions to the game is the inclusion of gear. These are clothes that you wear (although since the game is first person, you never see yourself wearing anything) which grant you special abilities, like the ability to set people on fire with melee attacks and bonus abilities during combat. Frankly, it’s an uninteresting mechanic that’s been overused in titles lately. The advantages are so small that it ultimately doesn’t matter what you have equipped, and spending time sorting it all out is not worth the amount it takes you out of the rest of the game.
The introduction of Skylines works surprisingly well, but not perfect. These are rails that are suspended from one locale to another or often in a combat arena. They serve the purpose of introducing new locations in the former, as you can usually see the name of the “island” that you fly towards as you approach it, and in the latter they are used to move around quickly and avoid fire. Many of the enemies will use them as well, and I found myself using it to funnel enemies to a hard to reach place where I otherwise could not be touched. It made difficult sections easier, and turned them into a waiting game.
However, there was an enemy that could get me out of that pattern, and it was the surprisingly under-utilized Handy-man. We were essentially introduced to them early on, before combat was an option. I naturally assumed they would be this games Big Daddy’s. However, during the course of the game, we only come across them on 4 separate occasions, and it doesn’t appear in combat until around halfway through. The enemy is a force to be reckoned with, and will jump to your location if you sit still for too long. If you stay on the Skylines too long, they jump on them and electrify them. They also can take a lot of damage…to a fault. I would actually argue that they could have used a larger variety of powerful attacks and would have been less of damage sponges, and then used as a more common enemy (like, maybe 10 during the game?)
Perhaps the biggest thing, which I have completely ignored to this point, is the inclusion of Elizabeth, an AI partner. Many were worried that this would be an annoying escort quest, which actually left me confounded. Escort quests aren’t usually that bad anymore. There are plenty of examples of games where you have an AI partner, who shoots alongside you and helps you when you get downed. Elizabeth is an evolution on that format. Imagine Gears of War where your AI partner doesn’t shoot enemies, but instead supplies you with weapons and health. Though perhaps not as revolutionary as people would make her out to be, she’s programmed great and does not get in your way during combat.
Outside of combat, she can get in your way a little more. You spend a good amount of time back tracking, and when you do, she sometimes is standing in the way, though she moves when you push her away. You can often find her leaning against the environment, or scouring the area for items you can pick up (such as voxophones, recordings of the games lore, or the lockpicks which she can use to open locked areas.)
Many of the staples of the previous games are still here. Plasmids are replaced by Vigors, and EVE is replaced by Salts, but it’s essentially the same. They are all introduced through the story this time around, so you only have to pick which you want to use. It includes the improvements that BioShock 2 made to the originals combat, by being able to use weapons and vigors side by side, and its level design, by not having you retread the same ground repeatedly like the original title did.
I’m going to hop back into story briefly before getting into the next area. The characterization of Elizabeth and Booker is pretty amazing. You feel like these are real characters. The situation they find themselves in comes across as a caricature, however. The story of class warfare seems a little played out at this point, if not through video games then through film as well. You never really identify with the situation on any level, and Booker makes it very clear you shouldn’t cheer for either side.
SPOILERS: From here on out, I will be mentioning story spoilers. If you wish to avoid it, skip to the score.
Before I get into the actual story, I want to mention Songbird. It’s kind of shameful how the protector for Elizabeth is used. Some allusions are made before you meet Elizabeth, which leave you kind of afraid to fight Songbird. You meet Elizabeth, and you hide from Songbird as it tears up her tower. Then, you don’t see the bird for a while, until another cutscene. And then, you don’t see it again until pretty much the end of the game, where you use it as an “air strike” of sorts. This is a character perfectly designed to terrorize you throughout the game, and there’s absolutely no reason for you to NOT live in fear of it, but for most of the game, I forgot about its existence. It feels like a Deus Ex Machina, a way to survive the final battle, that they then went back to try and thread it into the story earlier on, which is a shame, because you never end up fighting the creature.
I think the only way to have a discussion of the story, is to start with an explanation of what it is, chronologically. Booker DeWitt, veteran of Wounded Knee, seeks salvation afterwards. He finds a pastor, who offers to baptize him, and here the story splits in two. In Universe A, he accepts, and is reborn as Zachary Comstock and founds Columbia. In Universe B, he rejects and remains Booker DeWitt, who joins the Pinkertons.
Comstock meets Rosalind Lutece, who creates technology that allows everything to float. Comstock uses this technology to create his Utopia, claiming the angel “Columbia” told him to do so, he names the city after her. The angel is, in fact, a dimensional tear created by Lutece that she used to pull her “twin” through. It left Comstock delusional, and sterile. He proclaims himself a prophet, and marries one of his followers. He begins to look through the dimensional tears for a solution to his sterility.
Meanwhile, Booker DeWitt has begun to grow in debt, and has a child. Comstock takes notice, and proposes to wipe away all his debt if Booker will give the child to him. Booker agrees, but at the last minute changes his mind. As Comstock tries to take the baby (Anna in Universe B, Elizabeth in Universe A), Booker shows up and tries to take the baby back. The portal closes in time to keep Anna in Comstocks arms, but severs her pinky. Booker then continues his life in remorse.
Anna is renamed Elizabeth, and is soon after discovered she can create portals to other universes, presumably due to her finger being severed. A device is created to keep her from becoming too powerful and escaping or losing control, and she is held prisoner before it. Lady Comstock becomes angry over Elizabeth, and when she threatens to tell the populace, Comstock kills her and blames his servant Daisy Fitzroy. The Luteces see a future where Comstock uses Elizabeth to destroy the world below, and when Comstock finds out, he has their machine sabotaged, so they get stuck between universes. He then claims Elizabeth will be the salvation of Earth, and will one day destroy the world.
The Luteces then appear back in Universe B, and pull Booker into Universe A. Booker’s memory re-writes itself, and the Luteces play along in order to get him to save Elizabeth.
Now that the explanation is over, let’s get into the meat of it. The game takes 22 years after Wounded Knee, though Comstock appears to be in his 70’s. Booker is presumably ALSO 22 years after Wounded Knee, but he seems to be no older than around 40. There’s a pretty large disparity in age. Time in general is pretty tricky with this. Columbia presumably launched around 1895, meaning it only took 5 years for Comstock to build the basics of the city.
I also have to take issue with the idea of Dimensional Tears in this. You travel through dimensions a couple of times during the story, presumably leaving the past ones even more messed up than the past. Elizabeth believes she created these universes to satisfy a need, and that she’s to blame for everything wrong in them. Regardless of the case, they never bother to explain why you never run into an alternate version of Elizabeth, at one point making it seem likely to happen.
I’m not going to go into any more detail than I already have, but let’s just say that there’s a lot left to be explained, that it feels like it was inconvenient to do so, so they didn’t bother trying. The game ends with an explanation for the similarities between Infinite and the original, as well as giving an explanation for the title...with there being infinite alternate dimensions.
RATING: $60 game. If you liked the original, you’ll like this one. It’s a clear evolution and exactly how a sequel should be done...more but better! It has its flaws, and is not the saving grace of the gaming industry that many will undoubtedly claim it to be. I took the same issue with the original game, which was more of a rehash of System Shock 2 than a truly original story.