Thursday, September 27, 2007

not like ted bundy

Mike mentioned in the recent barrage of comments aimed at this blog to talk about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (henceforth known as Stalker). I have no problem with this. He wants me to talk about it in reference to my previous tirade on poor game design. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether Mike thinks this game really is poorly designed, or if he's being an ass because he knows I love the game. Either way, here we go.

Stalker was released back in March of '07. At this time the game had reached a sort of legendary status, not because of all of the interesting game play elements GSC (the developer) had promised, but because the game had been originally slated for a 2003 release. Also, the constant delays did nothing to expand the game in any way. In fact numerous elements were stripped out as they proved too complex or unfeasible to implement. Vehicles, a persistent world with no level loading, and a larger area sadly were cut in the final release.

These disappointments aside, the game is fantastic. I've actually taken a go at playing it through again, and I'm still impressed.

The game takes place a few years in the future near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Horrendous mutations have occurred turning animals into deranged beasts, humans into zombies, the area is plagued with bandits and looters. Stalker uses the oh so contrived plot gimmick of amnesia to set the player forth on exploring the world. But we won't speak of the plot. It's a poorly translated, convoluted waste of time (the game was actually developed by Ukrainians).

Where the game excels is in its world. AI controlled animals and humans roam the countryside fighting each other, animals drag dead bodies away to eat them, characters sit around fires strumming away at guitars or telling jokes (I think so at least. Thanks to the absence of subtitles, I don't really know for sure. Everybody laughs at the end though so I think they were telling a funny...). It's a pretty neat thing to see. The combat is also very interesting. Weapons are wildly inaccurate, so great care must be taken in a firefight to aim properly. This is not a run and gun classic FPS.

The environments are also wonderfully done. Much of the game world was based on actual environments and buildings in the real world. The town of Pripyat and the famous Reactor 4 at the nuclear plant are just a wonderful sight to look at. You can tell that GSC loved their game and wanted to really capture the rundown world that surrounded the plant.

That was probably part of the problem with the game's development. I see the developers wanting to capture everything too accurately and trying to cram too much in, and they just couldn't pull it off. In the end, the game has a bit of a rushed feel to it. I'm pretty sure that the publisher THQ stepped in and started cracking the whip to get the game out. It's buggy as hell which can be really annoying when you can't finish quests, the game performance was shit initially, though patches have done much to help this. Also, as previously indicated there is a lot of spoken Russian dialogue in the game (imagine that!) but there are no subtitles. This can be very annoying and can really pull you out of the game world and experience.

But despite that, it's still one of the better more immersive games I own.

So there Mike. Stalker rules.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

elements of bleh

What causes developers all over the world to make design choices. Specifically, why do they make bad ones. Aren't they supposed to be professionals?

I just played through Kameo: Elements of Power. I've been thinking about how to best sum up my experience. Pretty. Normal Mapped. Charming. Poorly written. A constant wrestling match.

For a game that's almost 2 years old, it still looks pretty remarkable in places. Notably the use of lighting and extensive foliage. Some character models are downright jaw dropping thanks to a combination of design and animation. Other stuff doesn't fair too well. Bland and blurry textures are pretty meh, but they're not too distracting.

The game revolves around the player acquiring different elemental creature things which have a wide variety of powers. These powers are used mostly for environmental puzzle solving. The problem is that none of the characters are all that adept with combat. The first and last characters are designed specifically for fighting, but thats out of a cast of 10. It can make combat a bit frustrating at times. The puzzles range from decent to unbelievably mind numbing and repetitive. I can only use Major Ruin to spin into a ball propelling me up a ramp so many times before I start to get kind of sick of it.

Now we come to the really crappy stuff. The writing is laughably bad. The story is stupid and predictable and the dialog stilted. In fact, the game basically tells you in the first 5 minutes of play that one of the characters is going to betray you. I knew the ending in the first 5 minutes. That's some shitty writing people. It also feels really out of place. A plot that feels like it's written for 10 year olds existing with game play that has you throwing trolls into spinning fan blades chopping them into little bitty bits. It just feels really out of place.

There's also a bunch of overt sexuality riddled throughout the game. Kameo is scantily clad, her boobs almost busting out of her clothing. When she flies (she's a fairy...elf...fairy...thing) you get a fairly clear panty shot if you position the camera right. It's a good thing panties are around in the old vaguely European fantasy world she lives in. This stuff, however, is nothing compaired to when you rescue an elemental from a shadow demon. At the end of the battle you approach the elemental and "absorb" it. The disturbing part is the doughy eyed look each elemental gives Kameo, and the seductive slanty eyed devil grin she returns accompanied by a throaty sexual moan. The demon then bursts into the air and "enters" Kameo, with explosive results. I'm not making this up and I'm not embelishing. I was laughing the first time I saw it, and groaning with emberassment the last time.

And so we come to the biggest sin of all. Control. In this day and age, consoles have a pretty set control layout for games across the board. There is no excuse for a game in which the player must struggle to control the characters adequately. So what happens when a game has shitty controls? Why isn't it caught? Why doesn't someone on quality control say something? Why is the elemental who is supposed to specialize in underwater realms not controlled with the analog sticks? Why is one of the trigger buttons used to thrust the creature forward? It's hard to describe how bad this is for gameplay. It's ackward and completely unnecessary.

The final insult? The last boss. He's a huge troll who can take lots of damage. I understand wanting to make a boss be able to absorb a gigantic amount of punishment, but when your designers decide that it should take a full 10 minutes of constant attacks to down your last boss, that's unforgivable. Yes, it literally takes 10 minutes to beat the last guy. When I say, constant attacks, I mean it. If you don't use this certain elemental's attack, it would probably take 4 times as long. I'm not kidding.

It's especially odd for this game as well. Every previous boss battle involves finding some kind of weak point and exploiting it. Sort of a mini puzzle. The game trains you to think like that. Then you get to the final guy and the game just says, "Forget all the intelligent boss design. Just hit this guy. Hit him a bunch until he falls down." Why?

That's it for my Kameo rant. It was 20 bucks. It was fun in places, so I'm not too disappointed. Whatever.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Angels of the Fall

I don't get Halo. I haven't gotten it for years.

I remember when Halo was first announced as a PC shooter waaay back in the day. I don't recall getting too overly excited about it. I'd never heard of the developer, and for some reason, the gameplay just didn't seem to click with me. Fast forward to the Halo release for the Xbox. Madness ensues. It seems like everyone is touting it as one of the most amazing shooters ever. This was 2001. Not only was I an rabid PC gamer, but I'd also played amazing, groundbreaking shooters like Deus Ex, System Shock 1 and 2, and a crap load of other deep games. I was admittedly curious about Halo. Everyone seemed to like it so much. One day I got to play it.

My friend Greg had an Xbox. He had Halo. I will say this for Halo it's co-op is pretty fun. But everything else I saw...not so good. My biggest problem is with the level design. Some parts are really pretty good, with huge battles in open large environments with multiple AI entities fighting each other. Pretty much everything else is either completely empty or utterly derivative. Huge open spaces with absolutely nothing happening, you've just got to run across it and let me say that Master Chief isn't winning any sprinting challenges any time soon. The derivative stuff? Empty rooms and hallways that don't change for an entire level. Literally. It's possible to leave one room for another only to think that you had been turned around somehow because this new, untouched room doesn't look any different from the old one. It's worse level design than F.E.A.R.

The gunplay is boring, the enemies are annoying, the graphics crappy.

So I shun it. I shun the sequel which gets similar critical praise. The funny thing is that I own both of those games now. Greg gave them to me a while ago. I've tried to play them, honestly I have, but I just can't get past those huge problems I've just outlined.

Now Halo 3 is upon us. I'm not buying it, because Half Life 2 Episode 2 is coming out in October. That and the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion pack. But I can't help but feel like I'm missing something. I've heard the Halo story line is actually pretty decent and I've recently come to the realization that I place story above all else in games. For the most part. I did like Duke Nukem 3d for god's sake.


I think I'm going to force myself to play those games. Even if I hate every moment of it I'm going to finish the damn thing just so I can say that I have. Maybe I've got Bungie and their baby all wrong, who knows. It's just time to bite the bullet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Let's start it like this. Board games fucking rock.

I've been jaded without knowing it towards the board games for a while now. After a while, everything starts feeling pretty similar what with the moving pieces around a board, dice rolls, landing on stuff, and know the drill. That's not to say that it's a bad formula, but it just starts to feel pretty soulless after a while.

Anyway, I have some friends who are into gaming in pretty much every form, though video games take a back seat to them. This is interesting since I'm into gaming in pretty much every form, with video games taking the front seat, jamming down the gas pedal and rocketing me up into the atmosphere, only to slam on the brakes, projecting me through the windshield.
(Andrew and Amber, you complete me.)

So, they have quite an extensive collection of board games which they have been kind enough to share with my wife and me. On Sunday, we got to experience the awesome that is Heroscape. Basically the way it works is you pick some army units, all of which have differing stats like attack power, move speed and defensive skill. They also have unique abilities, like the ability to parachute onto the board late in the game, put up a smoke screen so they cannot be attacked, and grenade chucking. Brilliant. And did I mention that the units are well crafted plastic figures with a pretty incredible amount of detail and character?

You then take these units and place them on a board which you create. The landscape consists of hexagonal spaces which you can snap together, stack on top of each other or connect with bridges. If you have some creativity, or are good at building houses in The Sims, you'll be able to have a different game experience every time. Game types consist of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill. Yes these are terms from multiplayer video games, but it's eerie how well they fit here.

This all combines to create a fantastic gaming experience, the likes of which I have not had in years. Shockingly, the game is published by Milton Bradley which is a mainstream publishing house, responsible for games like Life, Battleship and Hungry Hungry Hippos. In all fairness, maybe I shouldn't be too hard on good ol' Milton. If Wikipedia is to be believed, these guys are responsible for some pretty unique games. It's just been so long since I've played one of those unique games.

Buy it.

I've got more board games that I need to talk about as well, but not right now. I'm done here.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Listen up Agent!

Everyone's talking about Bioshock. They should be. Everyone but me that is. I'm making a conscious effort to avoid talking about it too much here just yet. I'm not sure there's any good reason for that, considering it's one of the best games I've played in years, but whatever.

What I'd like to talk about instead is a 7 month old game going by the name of Crackdown. Why? Because I'm still playing it. Frequently. This obviously speaks volumes about the quality of the game. I own better games than Crackdown. I've played other games more than Crackdown. I've beaten Half Life 2 at least 10 times, but this is different.

The funny thing about Crackdown, is that the game doesn't really present you with that much stuff to do. There is hardly any narrative to speak of, and what is there is just present as a canvas so the designers could paint a picture on something. The weird thing is that the game is as good as creative as you are. That was a weird sentence (I'm not even sure it qualifies for that word) but you get what I mean.

Crackdown gives you superhero like abilities, a bevy of large weapons, and then sets you loose. Want to gather 10 cars, pile them all on top of each other, then toss a grenade just to see how big the explosion would be? Do it. Maybe you should litter the pile with dead bodies, just to see how high you can get one to fly. Try to climb the largest tower in the city with the car that sticks to walls. Or just do what I do. Run around and cause as much mayhem as you possibly can. This, above all else, is where the experience shines.

The mayhem is just so satisfying. Explosions look great, sound great, feel great. It's fun to toss tow trucks, and semis at criminals, or to jump off a tall building to see if you can land on someones head.

I realize that it's strange that I'm essentially dedicating my first blog post to a fairly old new-gen game, and one that didn't make that much of a splash with the gaming community. Yes, it sold well. Quite well actually, but it didn't really add anything too groundbreaking to the burgeoning world of sandbox gaming. I think what surprises me most about the experience is that the games I most respect are the games that have a good story and tell them in mature ways. The Half Life's, the Deus Ex's, the System Shock's the Bioshock's The Neverwinter Nights'. These are the high art examples from the gaming world. Crackdown is a form of art, just not one that pushes the art world forward. But despite that, wow.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Every story has it's beginning, and if I wrote them all like that, I'd never get anywhere.

I'm hoping for this blog to be a sort of catch all for my reactions to all things entertainment. I've always found the world of consumption (not the disease) and distraction a fascinating one, bordering on love-hate at times. My head is full of thoughts and feelings on entertainment, and I'm going to try to focus some of those thoughts down into thought out articles, paragraphs, sentences or whatever.