Archive for the 'vidja games' Category

07
Dec
09

Planet M.U.L.E. went live recently – Go play!

I’m going to begin this total gush post by saying I have nothing invested in the company that makes this game. Run over to planet M.U.L.E and check it out.

What is M.U.L.E?

Well it’s one of the most beloved games of all time. It’s one of those rare few game designs where people still talk about it and play it and adapt it, even though it’s decades old. It’s been on many different platforms over the years. You should have heard of it before now.

But fear not! Because now you can play it online with people…. with nicer graphics! As far as I can tell, it’s very faithful to the original, with perhaps just a small tweak or two. Go play the damn thing… it’s free!

Okay okay, maybe you need further information. M.U.L.E is an economic game. There are several different resources that players generate and trade with one another in order to make the maximum possible profit. The rules of supply and demand are captured beautifully here, better than most “euro” style board games that try to get a similar feel.

One of the particularly innovative features was the way the game approached bartering, where you have your character on one side of the screen, theirs on the other, and you literally “meet in the middle” on a certain price point. There is a time limit, and you are most likely negotiating as you move up and down. If you’re selling and you know they’ll buy, you can set a lower price, and as they approach you can pull back at the last second to make them come to you out of desperation. It’s awesome.

Planet M.U.L.E looks like it has a pretty good team that intends on adding more and more features to the game as time goes on. Currently, it’s free as I said … and I hope they can keep it this way. You can play it online with friends or random people, as well as locally in a network. Oh, it also runs on everything. How have you not clicked away from this and downloaded it yet?

On a personal note, M.U.L.E is one of those rare strategy games that I can truly enjoy even though I’m pretty bad at it. This doesn’t happen very often for me, but I never feel like I’ve been outwitted by some sort of cheap trick. I always feel like I’m learning something every time I lose. The game just went live less than a week ago, so I suggest you go pick it up and learn how to play before the sharks get really good.

Go give it a look!

26
Nov
09

“No Russian” and CoD4 MW2’s story

Okay, so there’s lots of controversy (or perhaps there was lots of controversy) about the “No Russian” terrorist level of Modern Warfare 2. Some say it’s the most shocking thing games have ever done, others say it’s no big deal. I played through the whole game before writing this, and let me say I’m glad I did, because it completely changed my stance on the thing.

Because “No Russian” actually makes MORE sense out of context.

In case you don’t know, this level is early on in the game, where you play as a CIA infiltrator in a Russian terrorist cell, and you need to at the very least witness (and at the very most participate in) a group of terrorists shooting up an airport full of innocent people. Oh yeah, spoilers.

If you play just the one or two missions leading up to this one, No Russian is shocking, but effective. The great graphics and excellent sound design that I mentioned in the last post about this game heightens the effect to a pretty damn visceral level. It should have more credibility than something like the Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, or Postal games, because the game makes no qualms about the fact that it’s putting you near bad people and that it will take part of your character’s soul, and it is ostensibly something that is being done for the greater good, whether you believe that’s okay or not.

The most shocking part, for me, was the ending, where the terrorist leader is about to make his triumphant escape and he spins around and unexpectedly shoots you, the player character, and leaves you bleeding to death at the scene. The level is called “No Russian” because they hide their nationality to frame the Americans for this attack. This single event drives the rest of the game, plus it makes the player character’s initial quest completely futile. What a great way to set up one of the game’s villains and kick off the story.

The rest of the game is damn goofy by comparison though.

Just a few levels later, you run through a bombed out Washington DC, complete with busted up White House and the Washington Monument missing large chunks. It becomes so ridiculous that it completely undermines the earlier terrorist level, making you feel like it was indeed just for shock value.

The game is short, and because of that, it feels like it’s stretching believability even more, with all the set pieces so close together. There is another double cross later in the game that more or less repeats the first one, and makes little to no sense by comparison.

“No Russian” should be a topic of discussion, but it shouldn’t be banned or anything of the sort. The game has no concept of how to handle it, but it does show us that games could be intellectually challenging if they knew how to handle themselves. Call of Duty 4 – Modern Warfare 2 is still worth playing though, just for the quick ride that it is.

But just expect a ride.

 

Loving the Craft : A short HP Lovecraft Review – “The Music Of Erich Zann”. FUCK YES this story rules. It’s very short, so I don’t want to spoil it much at all. The lightning fast plot pitch is this: a student goes to a weird apartment building, and his upstairs neighbor plays the strangest music that sounds like it’s almost not of this earth. This tale¬†doesn’t fit into any set of stories, in fact, it can be read completely separately from all of Lovecraft’s other works, and that is one of its strengths. It’s one of my favorite stories of his, and I recommend it to all. Enjoy!

25
Nov
09

Call of Duty 4 – Modern Warfare 2 – The Gameplay – The Blog post

Well, I was in Mexico for the launch of Modern Warfare 2, but I’ve played through the thing and it’s still within a month of the release, so I’m CURRENT for once!

We’ll talk about the game in this post and the controversial “No Russian” mission in another. Why? Because gameplay matters more, of course.

How’s it play? Quite well. The game follows much of the same format as the previous modern warfare game, but I’d argue it has a greater variety in the level design. Because you aren’t always playing as the same soldier, the game leaps around to all kinds of different locations, with many different styles of missions.

The sound design is particularly excellent. That’s not something I usually mention either. You’ll hear your teammates yell VERY specific things. Instead of “enemy to the east!”, you’ll hear “enemy behind that burger place!”. Seriously, it’s impressive. The AI is also quite good, for both AI and teammates.

The Call of Duty games have always done a good job of conveying a sense of chaos. With the aforementioned yelling and the explosions everywhere and several scripted events, they try really hard to give that cinematic feel. This is the type of thing that’s really cool for newcomers, but if you’ve seen previous games in the franchise, some of the gags might be a little old. The game repeats the “frantically running to a helicopter and JUUUMP” sequence at least twice, which is too bad, because the first modern warfare game had that at least twice as well.

They give you that “set piece” feel from time to time. One example is when you’re walking with your pals through a field and all of a sudden the game goes into slow motion as a bouncing betty flies up in your face and the words “press C to crouch” pop up on the screen like you’re some kind of fool. Some people will love those cinematic moments, others will find them really contrived.

The only real new innovation in the gameplay is breaching, where you set up a breaching charge against a door or wall, and then charge in and shoot things that are inexplicably in slow motion. I don’t know, I found these sequences pretty dumb, why is Call of Duty trying to be a John Woo movie?

My major complaint with the game is the checkpoints. The game saves whenever it feels like it, usually every couple minutes, so that you don’t complain if you’re no good. The thing is, I found myself in several “checkpoint traps”, where the game chose to save after I had been blinded by a flashbang, or seconds before an objective was about to be failed (maybe I’m no good). The game trying to hold your hand actually makes it worse, because you need to restart the level if you’re stuck in one of these situations.

We’ll talk about “No Russian” and the game’s story next time.

Loving the craft: A short H.P. Lovecraft Review – “The Unnamable”. This story is the second in the “Randolph Carter” series. I rather like this one. It leads the reader to the assumption that Randolph Carter is simply Lovecraft’s stand in for himself. Carter is a writer of Weird Fiction and he meets with another author to discuss their writing styles. His friend is critical of him using unknowable and indescribable evil in his stories, thinking that it’s a cop out… but of course, there’s a surprise waiting for him. This felt to me like Lovecraft giving the finger to some of his critics, but it made for a good story as well. It advances the Randolph Carter saga as well. Check it out, it’s a pretty good quick read.

26
Oct
09

I’m here to tell you how awesome Spelunky is.

Alright so I haven’t posted since the beginning of the month and I don’t even have an excuse this time. I was lazy. In the last couple days I’ve been playing a free little game from Derek Yu that has compelled me to post though.

It’s called “Spelunky”. This game has been out for several months now and it’s gotten quite a positive critical response, so perhaps I’m a little late to this party, but it’s due out on the XBLA some time in 2010, so at least I’m ahead of those Microsoft loving plebs.

In the game, you play as a little Indiana Jones style explorer and you need to explore these pseudo randomly generated levels in order to get money and plow through to the bottom of the cave. Apparently the game was made with classics like rogue and nethack in mind, meaning it has an initially simple premise and presentation, but it’s complex and rewarding over time.

What’s so awesome about it?

There is a legitimate sense of adventure. The game gives a quick little tutorial if you want it, but it doesn’t tell you anywhere near everything you need to know to survive. You will learn about the game world as you go, and you will enjoy doing it. Maybe you thought every little pile of bones you walked by was purely decorative until one of them jumped up and attacked you. Maybe you thought you could jump on one of those Audrey II style flowering plants. Maybe level 3 had always been lit, until this time, where you need to play though it in the dark! The game does have a limited number of tricks to throw at you, but for the first many plays, it will be a joy to discover them.

It’s not a completely masochistic game though, in case you’re thinking it is the challenge gamer in me doing all the recommending here. You’ll fail ALOT on your way to the bottom, but you’ll learn as you go… and it will never feel truly unfair. The game teaches you to be careful, to learn from your mistakes, and to be methodical.

When you do die (and you will), there is no recovery. You die and the game is over, regardless of how much wealth you built up on your way through the levels. Some things take hit points from you, but some hazards kill you instantly. This makes the game truly tense when you’re down to your last hit, or when you’re dodging monkeys over a spike pit.

I won’t say the game is “infinitely replayable”, because it’s not. The game is hugely replayable though. It will be a long time before you exhaust every possibility and learns everything there is to learn about Spelunky. Even when you do, perhaps you’ll want to play through and try to get the maximum possible amount of money. Perhaps you’ll wanna get through without killing anything, or trying any number of different challenges. I made fun of this kind of gaming when I ripped apart FFVII, but with this game it is particularly encouraged, plus the game is short enough to allow for it without needing you to be a complete lunatic.

Mac users, this game is worth dual booting to play (although I run it in VMware fusion, just to let Windows know it’s subordinated). If you’re running windows and you haven’t played Spelunky yet… give it a shot!

14
Sep
09

Area 51 – This conspiracy sucks.

So I’ve slowed down on my gaming in the last couple weeks. I think it’s because I’m sitting on a bunch of really involved games that I don’t have the time or concentration to sit down and learn, so I’ve been playing more brainless stuff in the meantime.

Lately I’ve been giving Area 51 a shot. It’s EVERYTHING that’s wrong with first person shooters today.¬†Please note I’m not referring to the old arcade shooter game. That one is a classic in many ways. I’m talking about the shooter from 2005…. it’s just awful.

Let’s start with the story. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting a really original or involved plot, but man is this one run of the mill. Ready? Something goes wrong at Area 51, and your dude is sent in with a bunch of other dudes to stop it. Oh noes! It’s a viral infection that’s turning everyone into bloodthirsty aliens! Oh noes! Your squad is slowly but surely killed off by scripted in game events!

David Duchovny voices the main character, who dumps huge amounts of already revealed exposition in voice overs between levels. Now, I love David Duchovny. I’m a big Californication fan. His voice acting is up there with Tobey Maguire’s for the worst ever in a video game. He sounds like he was woken up in the middle of the night and forced in front of a microphone. It’s awful.

Eventually, you’re the only dude left and you get exposed to the virus. For some reason, instead of turning you into one of the monsters you’ve been fighting, it gives you the ability to switch between mutant and human form… Neither one of these are interesting.

Human form gets the typical array of FPS guns as you take on about 3 or 4 different enemy types in really repetitive environments. Mutant form lets you shoot parasites (which behave quite a bit like bullets) or claw people, but you constantly need to replenish your mutagen. I found human form to be far more effective anyway… so that gameplay element gets immediately shot down.

It has all the things that games this recent should not be able to get away with, which I shall list in sentence fragments: Labeling objectives that are five feet away. Inane fetch quests where you get a key in one room and use it in the next room over. Repetitive level design that gives no sense of tension, progression, or exploration. Ridiculous amounts of health and ammo so that you’re always maxed out, even at higher difficulties.

There’s talk about making a film about the game. Hoo boy. It’ll be REALLY dull unless they punch it up and depart from the story big time. Wikipedia says they’ve hired Grant Morrison (a huge comic legend that I think is pretty okay) to write it. He’s known for really original stuff though, so maybe he’ll do something cool with it, like maybe portraying the aliens as sympathetic and the humans as the bad guys! Maybe they just want to leave Area 51 and we’re keeping them here against their will and experimenting on them! Oooh maybe the evil scientists are trying to capture boring protagonist guy because he is the only one that can mutate at will to use their abilities!

Nah that’d be stupid.

24
Aug
09

Evil Genius is such a dumb game.

Woo let’s get the mineshaft back to meaningless video game rants. I’ve been playing a game called Evil Genius recently. The premise is a bit like the old Dungeon Keeper games. You play as one of those Bond villain types with a ridiculous island lair and a group of henchmen and minions and whatnot. You need to organize evil deeds all over the world while making sure that secret agents (and tourists as well) don’t stumble on your hidden base.

This is TOTALLY my kind of game… in theory. I like strategy management type stuff, but at a certain distance. I don’t like Sim City quite as much as something like Stronghold or Tropico. What it comes down to is how close I feel to the little people. I like games with bustle, where I can watch my little people running around the streets, grabbing things and doing their job and being all helpful. I kind of enjoy the “evil lord looking down on his kingdom” type feel, even in games where it’s not encouraged, but in this game it is encouraged so it should be great.

I’ve done a bad job at hiding that Evil Genius disappointed me, but where exactly did it go wrong? Well… for starters, you really only manage one screen. You manage your island in a great amount of detail. When you conduct evil deeds around the world (often with silly villainy goals like kidnapping maids or stealing monuments), you move minions onto a risk style world map where they just sit there until you later receive a message saying you won or failed.

This is more or less the same set up as Tropico 2, where you run an island and only do a little bit of strategizing about what happens outside it, but what happens outside it deeply affects it. Thing is, Tropico offers a waaaay higher amount of customization and makes more sense thematically. In Tropico 2 you’re running an island full of pirates and their captives. You load up the ships with guns and whatnot and make sure the island has lots of booze and women for when the pirates come home. You aren’t the captain of the individual ships, you’re the pirate dude that runs the island. In Evil Genius, you’re the genius! You should have something more to do with the plotting and executing the plans other than just sending x amount of minions to a certain location.

The game also features the idea that the more you’re successful, the more your “notoriety” increases. As secret agents discover things and get away, your “heat” increases. Eventually, this means more and more agents show up on your island. This can be either extremely time consuming if you’re good and extremely frustrating if you’re bad. I set up fancy poison gas chambers rigged to pressure plates in my front hallway and INEVITABLY the agents would touch the pressure plates and the gas chamber would lower over my dumb minions instead. They quite often sabotage your stuff, and it is often very expensive to replace. The speed at which resources can be gathered seems rather slow as well. I spent several hours just kind of treading water, spending all my money on just holding the status quo and not making any advancements.

Then the game introduces super agents, which are spoofs of various action stars that show up from time to time. They cannot be killed until a very specific point in the game’s “narrative”. Until then, you either have to keep them busy using some silly exploit, or just endure them until they get bored and leave. Thing is, the better you do… the more of these guys that show up. It’s a horrible feeling.

I know somewhere in this review I probably accidentally made this game sound good. It happens all the time with this game. I bet I sound pretty petty. Until you actually play this game though, you have no way of knowing how frustrating and uninteresting it can get.

Maybe I can still get into the henchmen’s union though…

24
Jul
09

Martin Amis was right… writing and video games.

I know this post is late… I was holding off on a writing a post until I had played one particular game a little bit more, but I still don’t think I’ve spent enough time with it to be able to give an adequate post. So, today’s (yesterday’s) post is going to have to be on something completely untopical… like most things here.

We are going back to a gaming topic though! We’re going to combine my recent literary run on this blog with the usual gaming nonsense that I talk about. I’m just coming out of a two week gaming haze, so let’s talk about writing in video games.

It’s depressing if you really take the time to consider it; most video game writing is repetitive and uninspired gobs of dialog and cliche. The “story” of so many games today either comes off as a complete afterthought or just serves to clue the player in as to what previously established story they are loosely following (whether it’s the elite enforcement squad FPS or the magical rock collecting JRPG or whatever). It may be completely tired to say this in this current generation of consoles, but the emphasis on graphics can only go so far… the writing and story quality has, for the most part, completely flatlined over the last 10 years.

I’ve said before on this blog that I’m a challenge oriented gamer who is all about the endorphin release and being told by the game that I did the right thing. Really, I’m like a monkey with extremely good reflexes. I complain all the time that games are too easy and I search around for ridiculous challenges for no real reason. Every now and then though, I do want to be taken along on a truly interesting and involved story, or explore a completely new game universe.

The thing is, I have no idea what can be done to solve this problem. All I can really do is hope that the focus shifts a little more towards original storytelling… or at least sharper writing. I will offer a few hints about avoiding cliches though, just in case you have the ear of a game developer or two. These suggestions are broken up by genre, and most of the time they don’t even really involve an overhaul of the core gameplay, just a slight change in presentation.

RPGS – Find some other reason for the heroes to go through seven or eight consecutive and differently themed dungeons. Do away with long forgotten evils on the verge of reawakening and destroying the earth. I’m sure there can be a truly compelling villain and a truly sympathetic hero without having them both try to gather up a series of old artifacts that combine to create some ultimate power.

FPS – Come up with better protagonists and motivations. Most shooter characters are completely devoid of personality and sometimes even a name. You’re literally putting the player behind that character’s eyes… give them something to work with.

All genres – Use amnesia sparingly. I understand, the idea is to quickly get the player’s initial bewilderment from the interface and game world to match that of the character’s, but it’s completely overused.

Adventure games – Oh nevermind… the writing is usually one of the selling points of an adventure game.

Strategy games – This is a tough one since I recently had so much fun with Red Alert 3’s cartoonish storytelling. As a general tip, the generals and whatnot that the player interacts with should have a personality, and the player should have a better sense of the overall war in a campaign.

Sandbox games – DON’T chain the player to your story. The point is to let them run free, so let them do that as soon as possible. Let the story be there for those who want it, but don’t make it mandatory.

So, while offering no real solutions to the problem… there’s a tip or two.

What I’m saying is, the video games industry needs more english majors.