Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played

Soaring over Lake Hylia in Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A magical experience. Here is what I accomplished in a little over an hour with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I soared over a desert, and swam a lake. I explored a desolate mesa, and followed the path of a shooting star. I plucked a scale from a dragon, and battled past monsters to offer it up at a shrine. And I did all this in one session.

Easily in my top-ten list. After playing Breath of the Wild for the last five months, my appreciation is undimmed. The game sets overall goals and leaves it up to the player how to achieve them. It encourages exploration, whether to gather resources, find the next objective, or simply marvel at the game’s world. And it backs up its design with strong execution, from game mechanics to worldbuilding and story.

Continue reading “Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played”

Westerado: a short, sweet journey into the Wild West

Short, clever homage to Westerns. Westerado: Double Barrelled uses a simple premise — find the gunman who murdered your family — to take the player on a romp through the genre’s tropes: bandits, six-shooters, a crooked tycoon, a cowardly sheriff, horseback chases, blue-coated soldiers, and a protagonist who looks awfully like the Man with No Name. Mechanically, it’s a short-form open-world game, mostly top-down, although the occasional horseback sequences are viewed side-on. Solving quests earns clues as to the murderer’s identity; in between quests, the player can hunt bounties, explore the map, and tussle with bandits. That fits the premise, given that the archetypal western is about the stranger riding into town to solve a problem.

Brevity is part of Westerado’s appeal — I clocked in at 4 hours per Steam, after finishing many (not all) the side quests. That, to me, felt about right. First, I don’t think the game’s mechanics could support a much longer run; by the time I wrapped up, I had more than enough clues to find the murderer and was anxious to trigger the final showdown. Second, the designers set up the game to encourage multiple playthroughs — the player can ally with one of several different quest-givers, and following different quest lines will produce different endings.

Strong indie aesthetic — the pixel art can be striking (see above screenshot), and the soundtrack is twangy, catchy, and atmospheric.

Recommended. Since finishing the game a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been digging through spaghetti Western soundtracks on Spotify and contemplating re-watches of genre classics. It’s a good sign when a game prompts me to engage with its source material — especially when that game is a homage!

Further reading

PC Gamer and USGamer offer more detailed discussions of gameplay.

From the archives: What five games say about violence

I originally wrote this in 2013, contrasting the approach taken by five big-name games towards violence. Arguably, recent years have seen greater awareness of what’s possible for a non-violent game, such as “walking simulators”, a renaissance in adventure games, the growing popularity of creation-focused games such as Kerbal Space Program, and outright subversive titles such as This War of Mine.  I look forward to seeing what options are available in another two years.

***

“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”

– Terry Pratchett

I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach.  Below, I table their key differences.

violence-games-table-v2Read more here.

Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

Guns of Icarus Online is one of the most unique games I’ve played – a team-based dieselpunk airship game, in which rival crews try to shoot each other out of the sky. When it launched in 2012, it was strictly PvP. The following year, developer Muse Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to add PvE (“Adventure mode”), and it seems to be coming along nicely.

Read on for my follow-up email interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, about Adventure mode:

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

When I last spoke to Muse Games in 2013, you were running a Kickstarter campaign for “Adventure mode” — a large expansion pack that would add PvE and co-op to the game. How is that coming along?

Howard Tsao: It’s been a long journey, with the scope of the expansion arguably larger than the original game, but we’re constantly making progress. Right now, in addition to iterating on some of the game modes and honing AI director as well as AI enemy movement and behaviour, we’re also doing work on player, faction, and world progressions. A lot of the in mission or in match feedback and progression are being designed and worked on as well. We’re creating factional airships, boss ships, and wardrobe as well, and we’ll soon move into designing more maps and game modes as well.

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Transistor: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Transistor

Transistor is a clever game, let down by its ending.

 

At first, Transistor resembles a reflex-driven action-RPG, with the emphasis on “action” (a la Bastion). Within minutes, the combat system reveals itself as something else. To borrow my earlier analogy, the best comparison is an isometric version of Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Instead of moving and fighting in real-time mode, I spent most of my time in Turn(), a VATS-like mode where I could plan attacks in suspended time. With the press of another button, my plans sprung into action. There is no distinction between normal and special attacks; every attack in the game is an ability of some kind, and levelling up will grant a choice of new abilities. These abilities can be used on their own, or combined to produce a single, upgraded ability. For example, Crash() is a short-ranged attack that stuns enemies, and Breach() is a long-ranged beam attack. Using Breach() to upgrade Crash() will extend Crash()’s range, while using Crash() to upgrade Breach() will produce a long-ranged beam that stuns targets. There are sixteen different abilities in the game, which produces a lot of possible combinations — “interesting decisions” in a nutshell.

 

In a further incentive to experiment, Transistor reveals a little bit of backstory with each new ability equipped. This is indicative of its overall approach to story. Very little is spelled out: you are in a futuristic city, robots are attacking, and that’s about all the setup there is. Neither is there much of a plot. Instead, Transistor gradually reveals bits and pieces of its setting and backstory, and much of the fun lies in piecing together what’s going on. This minimalism would probably outlast its welcome in a longer game, but it works in Transistor, which I finished in five or six hours. I do have one minor complaint — since the player chooses the order in which abilities are unlocked, I never picked up certain abilities, and hence I never saw their blurbs. Upon looking them up online, they turned out to be important to the backstory. Perhaps those particular abilities should have been mandatory.

 

The bigger problem is Transistor’s ending, where I disagree — sharply — with the creators’ decisions. To explain why, I have to resort to spoilers:

 

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

 

Compare this to Bastion, where a particular sequence near the end has stuck with me for years (spoilers):

 

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

 

Exclude the ending, and Transistor is pretty good. It and Bastion share much of their appeal: art and an interesting world. Transistor is more innovative, mechanically. The decisive factor is that I like Bastion’s message far more, and to me, that makes it better both as a story and overall.

Transistor: 33% off on Steam for one more day

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Transistor

Very quick heads-up; Transistor, the latest game from the studio behind Bastion, is 33% off on Steam ($13.39, down from $20) for another 30 hours. I started Transistor tonight and after a couple of hours, I’m impressed. Transistor offers gorgeous art (it goes well with Steam Big Picture!), a unique combat system – the closest analogy would be an isometric version of Fallout 3/New Vegas‘ VATS – and an intriguing “mix and match” approach to special powers, layered over a subtly horrific world. I’ll post a more detailed write-up once I’ve spent more time with the game, but for now, I think <$14 is a steal. Check it out!

Assassin’s Creed IV impressions: Do you ever dream of the big score?

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Assassin's Creed IV

ACGA_SP_61_CaribbeanSea_Spyglass_1374243074 RESIZED

 

So far, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag impresses me.

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What five games say about violence

“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”

– Terry Pratchett

 

I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach.  Below, I table their key differences.

 

violence-games-table-v2

 

(Note: each game’s violence is largely directed against human enemies, such as mercenaries, cultists, soldiers, or police/city watchmen, as in the quote at the top of the page. Also, there are a few bosses, in both senses of the word; but most enemies are low-ranking grunts.)

 

My comments, and mild spoilers, below. Continue reading “What five games say about violence”

Wiping away debts: the BioShock Infinite spoiler post

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series BioShock

Since so much of my response to BioShock Infinite is wrapped up in the details of the game’s story, I thought it deserved a short follow-up of its own. As such, there will be extensive spoilers ahead – don’t read this post if you haven’t finished the game!

 

Ready?

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BioShock Infinite: The Verdict

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series BioShock

BI Beauty of the City Marred

 

 

“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.”

 

The year is 1912. With those words ringing in his ears, Booker DeWitt, washed-up private detective and protagonist of Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, makes his way into the flying city of Columbia. On his shoulders lie several burdens: the fate of Elizabeth, the young woman he’s been tasked to bring back to New York. His own destiny, as it becomes intertwined with hers. And lastly, the weight of the BioShock franchise, one of the most acclaimed in gaming.

 

Not playing much of the previous BioShock games (1) did nothing to water down my expectations for BI, a game whose promised features read like my wishlist. A game that gives players an array of special powers, and rewards them for ingenuity? An original setting, layering vibrant, imaginative mad science atop an underused historical era? A companion character, Elizabeth, for us to like and grow attached to? Sign me up! Read on to find out (spoiler-free) how the game fared against my hopes.

Continue reading “BioShock Infinite: The Verdict”

Tomb Raider – The Very Quick Verdict (and a reflection on cover shooting)

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider haze

 

After finishing Tomb Raider, I’m happy with the gameplay appraisal I posted halfway through. This is a title that’s not sure whether it wants to be “the subtle tale of a young woman using her wits to survive… or a summer blockbuster, long on explosions and short on brains.” There is a fair amount of running and jumping and climbing about, as much of a pleasure as it was in Assassin’s Creed; there are puzzles whose solutions made me feel quite pleased with myself; and there is a lot of third-person cover shooting, too much and too repetitive for my taste (and with some downright aggravating ‘watch pattern -> dodge -> counterattack -> repeat’  closed-arena boss fights).

 

Tomb Raider more ziplining

 

I do want to home in on one word in that last sentence – “cover”. In a game that derives so much of its appeal from the main character’s agility, I am not convinced that cover shooting was the best way to handle combat. Taking cover, by definition, deprives Lara of her agility; and while she has to move from cover to cover (enemies will lob Molotov cocktails or grenades if she stays still too long), a brief scramble to the next waist-high obstacle pales next to the freedom of the game’s non-combat segments. TR does contain a tantalising “what might have been” moment – one particular sequence is a lot closer to old-fashioned run-and-gun shooters, and it’s amazing what a difference that made to my enjoyment. Suddenly I could sprint! Retreat! Climb up and climb down! Fall back to a previously cleared section! Why even stop there? In a game with this many cliffside jumps and ziplines – see the above screenshot – couldn’t Lara have, say, an unlockable ability to aim her pistol in bullet time and shoot while in mid-air (a la one skill in Sleeping Dogs), or while shimmying along a rope? Surely the designers could have done better than the parade of shooting galleries that did make into the game.

Continue reading “Tomb Raider – The Very Quick Verdict (and a reflection on cover shooting)”

Tomb Raider: More brain & less brawn, please

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider splash

For the last week, I’ve guided Lara Croft across an island filled with dangers, both natural and two-legged, in Tomb Raider. This is the first game in the series I’ve played (apart from the Guardian of Light spinoff) – after developer Crystal Dynamics promised both lavish AAA excitement and a story with a heart, I hoped for something truly great. Halfway in, I can report this is good, and often exciting – but so far, it’s not great.

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Aviators of the smoky skies: Guns of Icarus Online

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

 

“You are required to manoeuvre straight through this debris…”

It seems all over for the crew of the airship Babbling Goldfish. On one side – the enemy, two airships bigger and heavier than ours. On the other – the ruins of a vast, ancient airship, still lodged vertically in the desert sand. Our hull and engines are being ripped to shreds, and the airship wreck blocks the most direct escape. Over voice chat, the consensus sounds in my ears: we’re going down. But manning the helm, I see one last chance. I steer us between towering pieces of wreckage – bare planks to our left, a piece of red-plated debris to our right. And the incoming barrage dies down. Did the wreck hide us from our pursuers? Or did they simply get bored and drift off? Whatever it is, we’re safe for now. Safe to make repairs, and safe to eventually rejoin the fight…

 

 

Each class has its own part to play. Here, I’m about to buff our main gun.

That is one of the stories I have accumulated in my last couple of weeks playing Guns of Icarus Online, a team-based airship combat title from indie studio Muse Games. (You might remember my very brief mention of the game last year, when it was just a trailer and a cool concept.) In Icarus, players take on the roles of airship crew – gunners, engineers, or pilots, with four crew members to one airship. (Note that the game is strictly PVP; while most unoccupied crew slots are filled by bots, each airship must be skippered by a human player.) Matches involve two teams (2-4 airships per side, depending on the map) either trying to score a set number of kills, or hold objective locations long enough to win. Each ship’s captain can choose between six available ship types, each of which can be further customised via choice of weapons – for instance, do I mount a flak cannon (long-ranged and best against the enemy hull), a carronade firing grapeshot (close-ranged balloon-popper), or a Manticore rocket launcher (long-ranged disabler) in my main gun slot? And depending on their class, crew members can choose which repair/buff items, ammo types, and piloting boosts to take into battle. Once in the game, the slow, deliberate combat feels closer to MechWarrior than to the typical FPS – ships take a while to reach their destination, and guns don’t fire that quickly. This changes once the ship takes damage – then it becomes a frantic game of ohnotheengineisred, and Someone fix the hull before we all die!

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Highlights from the EB Games Expo Sydney 2012: The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Wii U, Australian indies and more!

For the last three days the Sydney Showground has played host to the EB Games Expo, and that was where I spent yesterday. There I met some folks from the industry, both publishers and indie developers; watched trailers and gameplay  videos; observed live play; and last but not least, tried out a few titles for myself! Here are the highlights of what I saw (grouped by publisher):

Continue reading “Highlights from the EB Games Expo Sydney 2012: The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Wii U, Australian indies and more!”

Sleeping Dogs – The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs is all about action, whether it be unarmed combat…

 

I must be one of the few gamers out there not to have played Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other modern-day, open-world, crime-themed games that it spawned. None had premises that appealed to me – until now. Enter Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games’ open-world extravaganza, which casts the player as undercover cop Wei Shen, tasked to infiltrate the most powerful crime syndicate in Hong Kong. This premise has been mined many times before for its dramatic potential, with the most obvious parallel being 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. However, the key to Sleeping Dogs is that it’s not a homage to thrillers – it’s a homage to action flicks.

 

… firing from behind cover (NOTE: shooting without aiming works better with a shotgun)…

 

Specifically, Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay revolves around two activities: chasing rival mobsters, and pulverising them once you catch up. You chase them on foot (think the opening parkour sequence of Casino Royale) and in cars; you fight with fists, feet, and occasionally, firearms. The typical mission will involve pretty much every variation on these themes: Wei might drive to a target’s lair, disembark to beat up a first wave of guards, grab a gun to deal with a second wave of guards, jump into a car to pursue his escaping quarry, and finally jump from car to car in mid-chase to reach his foe. In between missions, there are other diversions available – special mention goes to a hilarious karaoke minigame (watch Wei during guitar solos, but make sure you don’t have anything in your mouth) – but speed and violence generally dominate the side quests, too.

 

… firing from a car (rail shooting has never been this much fun!)…

 

This is not a flaw.

 

What Sleeping Dogs does best is recreate the excitement – and yes, over-the-top destruction – of good action movies. There are deeper dedicated brawlers out there – tapping or holding one button will run Wei through predefined combo moves; tapping a second button will counter enemy attacks; a third will allow Wei to grapple enemies and, often, finish them off with a spectacular use of the environment, such as throwing them into the water, slamming them into fuse boxes, or even impaling them on swordfish. There are deeper shooters out there: Wei’s options largely comprise hiding behind cover, popping up to shoot, or vaulting over an obstacle in order to enter bullet time. And while I’m no expert on racing games, I would be very surprised if there weren’t games with deeper  driving models. But while each component is straightforward, the game (and the individual missions) string them together into an overall experience greater than the sum of its parts.

 

… or taking a brief break from firing, since even Wei Shen needs cover to survive a shootout.

 

The same holds true for the game’s story. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud funny, though they tend to be merely the comic relief between far darker events. On a deeper level, while the game is a long way from Shakespeare, it understands the importance of theme and character arc. Without them, I doubt I would have seen Sleeping Dogs through to the end – after 28 hours, I was getting a little bored of beating up gangsters and detonating their cars. With them, Wei’s adventures became a coherent, satisfying narrative filled with characters I cared about – characters who acquired depth through their different responses to one of the game’s central ideas, the lure of crime. I wanted to see how their stories would end, and that desire propelled me through an increasingly explosive (in every sense of the word) plot all the way to the credits. Far more ambitious games have done far worse.

 

When Wei isn’t fighting for his life, he can take in the sights of Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong. Here, he visits the night market.

 

Lastly, I should give a shout-out to the game’s soundtrack, which did so much to convey a sense of place. There are quite a few songs available, but my favourites by far were the (often instrumental) Chinese tracks. Motoring around the game’s version of Hong Kong, with the rain pouring and the car radio pumping this into my ears, wasn’t just atmospheric and relaxing. In its own small way, it was an experience I could not have gotten from another game.

 

At the end of the day, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction than this to the modern-day open-world genre. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, often exciting, and always entertaining, Sleeping Dogs is a very good game, well worth my money. I look forward to seeing what UFG does next.

 

We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Resources

An interesting take on the game’s story (some spoilers) (WSJ)

Buy Sleeping Dogs from Amazon (US)

 

The basis of my review

Length of time spent with the game: 28 hours.

What I played: The entire story, and many of the game’s side quests.

What I didn’t play: The remaining side quests.

 

Sleeping Dogs: The moment I fell in love

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Sleeping Dogs
Taaaaaaxi!

 

Sometimes you can trace when you fall in love with a creative work to a single moment, of joy or wit or creativity. And so it was with Sleeping Dogs, video games’ answer to Hong Kong gangster flicks.

 

Our story begins with our hero, undercover cop Wei Shen, between missions — quite literally, as his next objective was some ways off. On foot, too far from his motorbike and too far from his destination, it looked like Wei was about to add a touch of verisimilitude — namely, vehicle theft — to his criminal disguise. Then I saw a taxi. Salvation!  I sent Wei jogging over. The game popped up a message: “Hold Y to enter the taxi”.  Y! Wei opened the door. Threw the driver out. And climbed behind the wheel himself.

 

Oops. What happened was, I had missed the “hold” part and tapped “Y” instead. So much for “not stealing a vehicle”, but oh well.  When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When Sleeping Dogs gives you an ill-gotten taxi, you drive off (and luckily for me, there were no police officers nearby to object). But just because I had turned Wei into an unwitting car thief didn’t mean other cars on the road would disappear. In due course I ended up in the queue at a red light, patiently waiting my turn to go. So imagine my surprise when a passerby climbed into the taxi — only to open the door again and run for her life when Wei said, mildly, “Do I look like a cab driver to you?”

 

That made me laugh. It was the perfectly logical thing to happen in that situation — the taxi was stopped, Wei wasn’t carrying anyone, and there was no way the would-be passenger could have known he was not a real taxi driver. And yet, it was so delightedly unexpected — how often do games obey real-world logic, instead of their own? That bit of clever thinking by the developers sealed the deal for me. I can’t wait to see what else they may have in store.

Bleak, clever cyberpunk: the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A society consists of:

 

A handful of ultra-powerful ultra-rich;

Criminal lords who control everything not controlled by the ultra-rich;

Police whose only principle of operation is maintenance of the status quo;

Hordes of poor people starving in the streets;

Absolutely no middle class whatsoever.

 

Nonetheless, the society manages to remain at a high technological level.

 

– The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés

 

At first glance, one might think that Deus Ex: Human Revolution, last year’s cyberpunk action-RPG from Square Enix, falls into the above trap. A walk around its first hub area (which I’ve just completed), the Detroit of 2027, appears to tick every box. The game’s first act takes place over a single evening, so the sky is black and forbidding. The streets are filthy. Graffiti is everywhere. The beat cops all wear riot gear. The outside world appears no better: newspapers refer to an ongoing “Australian civil war”. At times, the exaggerated dystopia shades into silliness: why are middle-class characters living in the same garbage-ridden slum as the local arms dealer?

 

The grrrritty future: Detroit in 2027, from Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 

But dig deeper, and you’ll find more to Human Revolution than Generic Science-Fiction Dystopia. This is a world defined, above all, by one social issue, one conflict – transhumanism, in the form of cybernetic augmentation. This raises several questions. First, there’s the usual debate about the morality of humans “playing God”, evident in conversations with other characters, in product blurbs from cybernetics manufacturer Sarif Industries and in radio broadcasts from anti-augmentation terrorists Purity First. It’s done well, it’s done plausibly – the pro/anti-augmentation slogans would fit right into today’s culture wars – but it’s also what we’d expect from a work that tackles the topic. In other words, well-executed but par for the course. If you are already familiar with this debate, from other works of science fiction, then Human Revolution won’t do much to sway your mind.

 

The game’s real strength isn’t what it has to say about transhumanism in general – it’s what it has to say about transhumanism in this particular world, with this particular technology and set of trade-offs. The advantages to cybernetic augmentation are obvious – you get to play with them. Want to jump like an Olympian’s dream, fling dumpsters and vending machines as if they were tissue-paper, see through walls, turn yourself temporarily invisible? These are merely some of the enhancements available to hero Adam Jensen, and making use of them is what Human Revolution’s gameplay is all about. More prosaically, cybernetics also fill the role of real-world prosthetics – allowing people who’ve been injured or maimed to live better lives. These positives are real.

 

The glittering future: the Sarif Industries lobby

 

But there is a heavy price. Cyborgs don’t lose their souls. They don’t become evil or insane or deranged. They don’t go on homicidal rampages. The game is not so crude as that. They do become dependent on an expensive drug, “neuropozyne”, to prevent tissue rejection and eventual agonising death. What happens when a cyborg runs out of neuropozyne, from the hints we’re given (and from this live-action trailer, in the form of a Purity First propaganda video) is not pretty – and there are “people” in Human Revolution, such as pimps looking for leverage over their girls, who’ll take advantage of that. This trade-off isn’t metaphysical, or moral, or airy-fairy and abstracted. This trade-off is grimly practical. Would you make it? Human Revolution’s appeal lies in its ability to make us ponder that question – and sympathise with those characters who didn’t get a choice.

 

Perhaps my single favourite visual in Human Revolution is a billboard advertising a new opera, “Il Metamorfoso” (see the bottom-left of the screenshot below). The game conveys so much meaning with that one simple little image. What is the “metamorphosis”? We don’t know, but given context and the curved, circuitry-like lines just visible in the ad, we can guess it’s augmentation. What is the opera’s take on it? The “Metamorfoso’s” demonic leer, and the way his hair flows into the sinister red background of the ad, speak volumes. Augmentation, the ad seems to tell us, is a deal with the devil. Revel in its power, but know it has consequences.

 

The commercial future: Detroit billboards in Human Revolution

 

It’s that kind of clever touch that draws me to Human Revolution. This is no exercise in mindless nihilism. It’s a game whose creators put real thought into its bleak future, into art and aesthetic and concept – and then, as good science fiction writers should do, extrapolated the resulting possibilities, vile or otherwise. It’s a game that respects my intelligence, and I look forward to playing more.

Dark Souls impressions: The eloquence of the blade

This is part 4 in my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

After circa 25 hours in Demon’s Souls, it was time to take a break. I could have played something easier, brighter, more cheerful… but instead, I started its successor, Dark Souls. And no regrets: six or seven hours in, I’m having a good time. Early thoughts below:

 

Play style: This time, I opted for a build that was the opposite of the first game. In Demon’s Souls, I played a royal, a lightly armoured magic-user for whom melee was almost always the last resort. In Dark Souls, I’m playing a knight: lumbering (by default), heavily armoured, and reliant on melee.  While he does carry a cheapo bow and a painstakingly restocked arsenal of firebombs, most of his work is done up close, with sword and halberd. That has redoubled my appreciation of just how well the Souls games do hand-to-hand combat: even against trash mobs, it is a joy to dance past a zombie swinging his axe, cut him down from behind, and turn just in time to face a swordsman. Larger foes too: duck back from a knight’s enormous hammer and catch him while he recovers, hack away at a stone giant before it can awaken, dodge the whip-branch of an animated tree…

 

Level design: I think Dark Souls has the edge here. Three of the five worlds in Demon’s Souls, at least at the points where I was, felt like typical video game/fantasy environs: the pseudo-medieval castle; the prison/torture chamber; the ruined shrine. They were well-done, to be sure, but typical all the same. Dark Souls, in contrast, has given me a street battle through a pseudo-medieval town, followed by a dark, lush forest, both of which feel far fresher. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find it easier to suspend disbelief in the second game*.

 

Difficulty: Not being able to blow away weaker enemies with the wave of a wand should make my Dark Souls run harder, but so far, with one exception, it doesn’t feel that way. I can think of several reasons: (1) most of the time, Demon’s Souls limits the player to 50% or 75% of maximum health, a restriction missing from Dark Souls; (2) I think my knight’s armour does make a difference; and (3) I now have more practice at the combat system – probably the most important factor, judging by anecdotes from new players who are stuck on the first area. The exception relates to boss fights: in Demon’s Souls magic was the easy way to deal with most bosses, and I suspect that’s still the case. The most recent boss I fought was almost wholly ranged, though luckily, the designers provided a magic-using NPC to assist in the fight. At other times, I rely on the next point…

 

Multiplayer: This has been the source of some of my grandest moments. Co-op is still a blast – my favourite visual image from the game, so far, is three warriors, male and female, differently armed and attired, advancing across a rooftop to meet a boss. And after regularly dying to PVP invaders in the first game, it was a glorious moment when in co-op, I tag-teamed an invading griefer, shrugged off multiple blows from his hammer in a battle lasting minutes, and finally knocked him to his death off a ledge.

 

Overall first impression: A more polished version of the same, but that’s not a bad thing! If anybody out there enjoyed the first game but hasn’t picked this up yet, this seems well worth checking out.

 

* Though to be fair, I wonder if my reduced use of walkthroughs/maps in Dark Souls has something to do with this.

Difficulty in Demon’s Souls: what we can learn from… behavioural finance?!

This is part 3 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

 

Here’s a thought experiment to chew on. In each case, the alternatives are mathematically identical:

 

Scenario A. You can win a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either winning $2 or winning nothing. Which do you choose?

 

Scenario B. You can lose a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either losing $2 or losing nothing. Which do you choose?

 

You would expect these answers to be consistent – someone who chooses the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario A should also choose the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario B. However, this isn’t the case. On average, people will choose the certain gain in Scenario A, but run the risk of the double-sized loss in Scenario B. Why? Because, according to behavioural finance researchers, a loss is felt more acutely than an equally-sized gain (a phenomenon known as loss aversion*), hence the willingness to take the chance of an even greater loss just to avoid the agony of the small one.

 

Extrapolated to video games, loss aversion could probably explain a lot of player behaviour – abusing save/reload, anyone? It surely must explain why we feel death penalties so keenly, and since death penalties are so inescapable a part of Demon’s Souls, it helps explain why the game’s difficulty is often exaggerated.

 

Yes, I said “exaggerated”. This does not mean it’s easy; far from it. Even playing an easy class, using a walkthrough, and looking at a map, I died twice in PVE today, while PVP invaders routinely slaughter me. It does mean that the death penalty, loss of unspent souls if you fail to pull off a corpse run, is nowhere near as fearsome as it sounds. Souls might be easily lost, but they’re also easily acquired – co-op is the safest and best way, but even for a low-level character, it is not that hard to farm them. However, loss aversion would exacerbate the harshness that players perceive.

 

In my case, while having to replay a level does frustrate me, I don’t especially mind the death penalty. While I am very careful on corpse runs, I can shrug off failing and losing my souls for good. Partly, this is because I know, and thus can control for, the game’s mind tricks. Partly, this is because I’ve never lost a truly whopping number of souls – I’m always careful to return to safety and spend my souls whenever I have enough saved up. Appropriately, there’s another technical term relevant to that

 

* If you’re interested, you can read more e.g. here and here.

Demon’s Souls: Progress, progress, progress

This is part 2 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

In a game as unforgiving as Demon’s Souls, I have no pride. To me, there is no such thing as a “cheap” or a “cheesy” tactic in Demon’s Souls – either it works or it doesn’t. And in a game this unforgiving, there is no such thing as a “spoiler”. In search of advice, I will watch videos; read forums, walkthroughs, and wikis; gladly bypass trial and error.

 

It was those forum threads that led me to the Shrine of Storms, a ruined cliffside stronghold, in search of its fabled loot. I wasn’t too worried about the opposition – until then, I’d never met a trash mob I couldn’t handle with my starting spell, Soul Arrow. Sure, I’d be in trouble if tough foes survived the first couple of Soul Arrows and closed into melee range, but they were slow enough for that not to happen very often. The player character’s strength is his/her agility, and I was grateful for it.

 

The Shrine of Storms loaded up. I advanced. A skeleton sprang to its feet. I lobbed a Soul Arrow. And to my horror, the skeleton rolled at me – as nimbly as I could roll. “YOU HAVE DIED,” the game told me soon afterwards.

 

Bad enough that the skeletons were strong enough to survive a couple of Soul Arrows, and fast enough to close the distance. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) Bad enough that my rapier was about as effective as poking them with a cotton bud. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) The icing on the cake was that my reliance on magic meant I’d never properly learned the game’s melee combat system, and thus, I had a tendency to panic and button-mash when foes got too close. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says Dune, and in Demon’s Souls, that makes it a player-killer as well. As such, I soon grew used to the aggravation of watching the skeletons turn and swagger away* while “YOU HAVE DIED” burned on my screen.

 

But I was having too much fun to give up. I practiced my swordplay against the skeletons, ran the level again and again as a blue phantom, discovered to my joy that the Shrine of Storms is in fact a great place for newbies to farm souls. Once, as a blue phantom, I even made it as far as the boss room; the host and I took down 75% of the boss’s life bar, before I discovered the hard way that the boss could hit the ledge where I was standing.

 

I decided I’d clear out the boss later. I retrieved the sword for which I had originally come, then travelled to other levels. I killed the dragon who had previously tormented me, then took down another boss (via Soul Arrow, which turned the fight into a piece of cake; I understand that boss is a lot more difficult in melee…).

 

Beating that other boss restored me to body form and allowed me to bring in blue phantoms. And with that, I was ready to return to the Shrine of Storms.  Two blue phantoms and I overpowered the early skeletons, made short work of the level’s sub-boss, pressed on. About halfway through, I lost my first blue phantom to a booby trap; it was me who set off the pressure plate, but the resulting volley of arrows impaled him instead. There was a hairy moment after that, a point-blank fight on a dangerously narrow cliffside path, but with the help of my remaining blue phantom, I made it through. We fought our way to the boss room…

 

… and promptly died. After seeing how much health I lost to the boss’s first blow, I ran around like a headless chicken and ended up trapped in a corner. On my next two attempts to reach the boss, I didn’t even get that far – both times, I died right before the boss room. The first time, the boss’s “doorman” one-shotted me; the second time, I almost won the swordfight, but “almost” wasn’t good enough.

 

I think that is the game’s way of telling me I need to try another approach. A buff spell, one that significantly reduces physical damage taken, would be a huge help in the Shrine… and as it happens, I’ve fulfilled one of the two conditions to unlock that spell. I know which level I need to visit to meet the other condition (thanks, Demon’s Souls wiki!), so it’s probably farewell to the Shrine of Storms for now.  But I will return. And when I do, stronger and quicker and better prepared, the boss had better watch out.

 

* I’m sure it was just their usual walking animation, but at that moment, it felt like a gloating, troll-faced swagger.

Demon’s Souls: Misery loves company

 

This is part 1 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

Last weekend, flush with victory over the first boss of Demon’s Souls, I cheerfully declared, “Much less difficult than I was expecting!” I suspected I’d have to eat those words sooner or later, but hey, they were true at the time.

 

This weekend, Demon’s Souls fulfilled my expectations. Over the course of a circa two-hour play session, I was repeatedly BBQed by a dragon; made it past the dragon only to be carved to bits by a waiting knight; poisoned; ambushed from behind; and blew most of my precious healing items. What kept this fun rather than frustrating was that for most of this time, I was playing co-op.

 

While every game is better in co-op, this is doubly so in Demon’s Souls. This is partly due to the usual “many hands make light work” effect, partly because of what a relief it is to see friendly faces, but also partly because the game’s penalty for dying doesn’t always apply in co-op. For background, in Demon’s Souls, you can exist either in “body” or “soul” form. Dying in body form will send you into soul form, and dying in either form will make you drop all your accumulated souls, the game’s titular substitute for currency/EXP. If you die again before retrieving your souls via a corpse run, they’re gone forever.

 

Co-op works when a “soul” player leaves a marker indicating his/her availability to be summoned by a host, “body” player. The visiting soul will then drop into the host’s world as a blue phantom – and the beauty of playing a blue phantom is that in this form, you don’t lose souls from PvE deaths, making this a great, lower-stress way to explore a new level while building up a nest egg. If you die as a blue phantom, or the host dies (which results in all blue phantoms being booted), no problem – just lay down your marker again and wait for another player in body form to wander past. (I wasn’t the only one to do this, as I ran into the same blue phantom twice.)

 

I largely played my first few hours (single-player) cautiously, methodically, keeping an eye out for sudden death, and as such, they felt like hours. In contrast, those two hours of co-op flew past, laden as they were with memorable moments.

 

There were moments of endearing etiquette, when blue phantoms or the host would bow upon arrival.

 

There were moments bordering on farce, as three “mighty” warriors huddled together, cowering just out of reach of the dragon’s flame, before sprinting for their lives. (As such, this is the most realistic dragon encounter simulator I have played. You can in fact kill the dragon with enough patience, but evidently none of us had a bow with sufficient arrows.)

 

There were moments of wordless teamwork. Once, our way was blocked by a row of boulder-flinging monsters. The warrior next to me hesitated. And I realised this was a job for my spellcaster: I stepped forward, raised my silver catalyst, and began blasting away to clear our path – just as the third player present emerged from behind the boulder-tossers and caught them between hammer and anvil. This worked both ways – as a weedy spellslinging princeling, I loved having beefy, armoured knights around who could wade into melee and draw fire from me.

 

There were  moments of high adventure: the host player and I made it past the boulder-throwers and eventually came across the level’s boss, a giant, flame-lobbing spider who blocked the far end of a tunnel. (We lost the other blue phantom somewhere along the way – did he lose sight of us and disconnect in frustration? Did an unseen demon do him in? Did he fall to his death?) It was wonderful to watch the host player at work, shooting arrow after arrow at the boss, rolling left and right to avoid fireballs, taking the odd hit but always managing to heal in time. (As far as I could tell, the host was the one doing the dangerous part of the work – my contribution was limited to lobbing Soul Arrows from the back of the tunnel and hiding whenever a fireball came near me.)

 

And there was a moment of triumph, when the giant spider finally fell. “THE DEMON WAS DESTROYED” took over my screen, and souls flooded into my possession. I gave the other player the highest possible rating (I hope he/she reciprocated!), and back in my own world, took great pleasure in spending my newly acquired souls on a shield and some skill points. I didn’t push my luck after that in single-player – with that, I logged off for the night.

 

All in all, I had a great time playing Demon’s Souls co-op. And my advice to anyone scared by the thought of visiting the Kingdom of Boletaria: try it with a group! Safety in numbers might be a relative term in this game, but you’ll also enjoy camaraderie and the spectacle of seeing other brave souls in action. See you on the other side of the fog!

First impressions: Demon’s Souls, Bastion, Half-Minute Hero

Here are some of the games I started recently in lieu of pressing on with The Witcher 2

 

Demon’s Souls (PS3) – The infamously difficult action-RPG. As at the end of the first level, it’s actually much less difficult than I was expecting – it’s certainly less  frustrating than the opening sections of God Hand or The Witcher 2. It helps that I’m using a walkthrough and playing as the easiest starting class, whose ranged magic attack can OHKO most of the first level’s enemies. This doesn’t mean it’s easy. My magic takes time to lock on and cast, which leaves me vulnerable to being swarmed in close quarters; if you let attacks get past your shield or fail to dodge, you can die in a few solid hits; and if that happens, there’s the loss of time from having to replay swathes of a stage*. The one boss fight that I did was actually really cool: I ran from cover to cover taking pot shots, realised my approach wasn’t working, then pulled my sword and CHARGED! – what a thrill that was.  The online aspects of the game are also nifty – you can see ghostly outlines of other players, which once alerted me to an ambush (the ghost ran past a corner, then raised its sword to attack a foe I hadn’t seen), and touching bloodstains will let you see others’ last moments. I’m not sure how much more time I can spare for this game, but the first few hours were worth it.

 

* You can unlock shortcuts that allow you to bypass chunks of a level if you have to restart; however, there will still be some need to clear out respawned foes.

 

Bastion (PC) – Indie isometric action-RPG. I estimate I’m around halfway through, and so far, I’d consider this good but unspectacular. The game’s world is imaginative, colourfully drawn and fleshed out by omnipresent narration. Each stage feels distinct, both from an art and a gameplay perspective – some will involve a fairly long Macguffin hunt, in some you’ll find your Macguffin early but then have to flee a gauntlet of foes, and others steadily ramp up to boss battles. The combat feels fluid, as you alternate use of your shield, your various weapons, and manoeuvre. The difficulty level feels right – the mandatory stages start out reasonably easy (you can up the difficulty if you choose – I haven’t done so) while the optional stages are geared towards players who want a challenge. Yet, and this is very subjective, nothing so far has stood out enough for to consider the game “great”. I’m probably going to reserve this for when I’m too tired to play more involved titles.

 

Half-Minute Hero (PSP) – Now this is a clever concept. The flagship gameplay mode, “Hero 30”, is an 8-bit RPG boiled down into 30-second stages – level up, shop for better gear, recruit NPC allies, and then head for the boss’s lair! In practice, you’ll need more time than that, which is where one of the game’s key mechanics, paying the Goddess of Time to reset the clock, comes into play. As such, the challenge in each stage revolves around finding the right balance (on the fly!) between grinding, tackling the stage-specific challenges, allocating money between the Goddess, equipment, or other NPCs, and leaving enough time to reach the boss. A few hours in, I like its fast pace, I like its sense of humour, and just as with Recettear and Frozen Synapse, I like its original premise, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel (coming to Europe in October).

 

Take to the skies with these upcoming indie games: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online

Sometimes, sequels and remakes are exactly what the doctor ordered. In recent weeks, two upcoming air combat-themed indie games have caught my attention: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online.

 

AirMech

 

The further advanced of the two is Carbon GamesAirMech. This is basically a modern remake of one of my childhood favourites, Herzog Zwei:

 

 

Never played Herzog Zwei or Brutal Legend, another game it inspired? AirMech is an action/RTS hybrid where you fly about in your plane, purchase units and then transport them to the front, and drop down into robot mode to engage enemies on the ground. But watch out for surface-to-air missiles! Up to four humans or AIs can play at a time, and victory goes to the player whose army can destroy the others’ starting strongholds.

 

I’ve spent about an hour with various alpha builds of the game, and from a presentation standpoint, it’s already impressively polished. I particularly like its bright, colourful and slightly stylised art – this is how an updated Herzog should  look! The gameplay and interface are still being tweaked – the latest build plays very differently to the one I tried just a couple of weeks ago – but based on what the developers have achieved so far, I’m optimistic that the game can reach its potential. This just cries out for a Stompers of Comps multiplayer AAR, so stay tuned post-release…

 

Guns of Icarus Online

 

The other title to catch my eye is Muse Games’ Guns of Icarus Online, a steampunk airship MMO shooter. No actual gameplay in the following trailer, but it does look cool:

 

 

Critics were unimpressed with the original Guns of Icarus (which I never played), but the developers have acknowledged that “our ambition outstripped our schedule” for the original game; for the sequel, Muse is apparently better resourced and has benefited from its experience developing other games. While there will be PVP, I’m more interested in the “exploration” promised for the cooperative mode. At this stage there isn’t enough information to judge whether the developers can execute on this vision, but if they can, this could just turn out to be the steampunk airship Pirates! that I’ve been calling for. Worth keeping an eye on.

Could my dream of an open-world science fiction game finally come true? Prey 2

For years, I’ve wanted a really good, Ghost in the Shell-esque game that would let me wander around a futuristic city, gathering clues, wielding gadgets and hunting down evildoers. Now, it seems my wish may be granted: check out Gameshark’s E3 impressions of Prey 2 (published by Bethesda, developed by Human Head), described as a “science fiction, first person Assassin’s Creed” casting you as a bounty hunter in an alien city*. You can view a gameplay video below:

 

 

And here is a cinematic trailer:

 

 

The gameplay video mostly shows off taking cover and shooting, so I’ll be interested to see how other aspects of the game play out. Will the dialogue be well-written? Will the world be imaginatively designed and interesting to explore? (It doesn’t have to be Fallout 3, but I do expect at least some handcrafted little details.) How will investigation work?

 

We’ll find out in 2012, when Prey 2 ships.

 

* I understand this has little in common with the first Prey (a game which I never played, but which doesn’t seem to have left much of a mark) beyond the name.

Section 8: Prejudice – First impressions

Over the weekend, I had the chance to spend a few hours playing Section 8: Prejudice (see here for my “looking forward to…” post in which I mentioned the game), and so far I like it quite a bit. Here are some specific thoughts:

 

  • The game’s pacing feels about right. It plays quickly enough to have a joyous, madcap feel, and it doesn’t take long to get into the action. Power-armoured soldiers blaze across the map only to be cut down by in a volley from entrenched defenders, while respawning players take a mere 6-7 seconds to drop down from the sky. That said, the game is also just slow enough for me to keep up.

 

  • I really like how well the game accommodates players like me, who are terrible at the actual running and gunning in shooters. There are plenty of fun things I can do instead – I can indulge my specialty in video games, fortification, by patrolling the base, throwing down turrets in key locations, and repairing defences when necessary. I can equip myself to take out enemy turrets or outposts (which are easier prey than other players…), I can repair teammates’ vehicles, and so on.

 

  • And on that note, one area where I do seem to have an edge on random online players is teamwork and tactics. In one match, I thought I was the only guy who had ever heard the words “repair”, “fortify”, or “convoy”, and it’s a pain when other players capture an objective and charge off to the next one, only for the enemy to waltz back in and recapture the undefended objective. None of this is surprising, but still…

 

  • I also like the ability to call down vehicles as a match progresses. Not only are the vehicles themselves – a hover bike, a mech, and the holy of holies, a tank – pretty cool, but saving up for vehicles gives me something to look forward to.

 

So far, so good…

Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous

Black Lagoon is an anime series following the adventures of a crew of modern-day gangsters/guns for hire/pirates, and one very out-of-place Japanese salaryman, as they  battle mob bosses, mercenaries and maniacs. Meanwhile, God Hand is a PS2 brawler about a guy who protects the supernatural power of  the titular limb from hordes of mohawked punks, whip-wielding women, and demons who range from corpulent to alluring to plain monstrous. Other than violence, what on earth could these have in common?

 

The answer is, they are both powered by the same core concept, what I call Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous: if you’re going to tell a story that is ludicrous, over-the-top or plain silly, not only must you be aware of that, you’d better make very sure that the audience knows you’re aware of that.

 

Note that the Rule of the Ridiculous is not the same as “so bad it’s good”, although it is related to that long and honourable dramatic tradition, hamming it up. “So bad it’s good” is unintentional on the creators’ part, whereas self-awareness is the whole point of the Rule of the Ridiculous. Meanwhile, hamming it up is what happens when the actors, not the writers/directors/creators, are the ones who embrace the ridiculousness.

 

How does the rule apply to Black Lagoon and God Hand? Both take genres that, by definition, stretch believability – action films for Black Lagoon; video games in general, beat ‘em ups more specifically for God Hand – and drag them through the realm of self-parody. Action movies presented us with zombie pirates, whip-wielding Nazi-fighting archaeologists, and martini-quaffing, laser-defying, hit men; games often rely on endowing us with similar Macho McToughguy powers. Black Lagoon’s characters are even more overpowered, but it doesn’t stop there. Its heroes yell, “We’re being chased by an unstoppable killer robot from the future!” and in one episode, go up against an army of supervillains toting not just pistols, not just rifles,  not just swords, but every way to die known to man: flamethrower, chainsaw, minigun, even a kukri-on-a-rope. God Hand, meanwhile, will never have you looking at fight scenes the same way again after the first time you kick a demon in the groin, knock him flat, stomp on his head, and then launch his buddies into the sky, accompanied by an in-game laugh track.

 

In contrast, I can think of a couple of franchises that would have been improved had they run with the Rule of the Ridiculous:

 

  • Exhibit #1 is Warhammer 40,000, where IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, THERE IS ONLY WAR. And that war includes ten-foot tall superhuman space marines, barely-literate space orcs orks, space elves, space dark elves, 50-metre (150-foot) tall mecha piloted by machine-worshippers, demon-summoning cultists, rifts that can swallow up whole space fleets, and somehow managing to survive in all this, human grunts and tankmen led by sword-waving commissars.

 

  • Exhibit #2 is the Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise, which – in the entries I’ve seen – tends to follow a formula. Whiny teenaged heroes miraculously stumble into command of superweapons! Teenaged heroes repeatedly fight off hordes of enemies! Teenaged heroes barely take a scratch even when fighting veteran soldiers!

 

Are these universes inherently more unbelievable than those of Black Lagoon or God Hand? No. The problem is, they’re presented in so po-faced a fashion that my mind balks at accepting them. And from there, it’s only a short step to dwelling on their flaws. But in God Hand, and in Black Lagoon once it warms up to the Rule, suspension of disbelief never has the chance to become an issue – I’m too busy laughing, exclaiming, “Holy–!” or otherwise being dragged along for the ride.

 

And that’s the beauty of the Rule of the Ridiculous. It takes unpromising or hackneyed raw material, and transforms it into sheer glee, almost like a Philosopher’s Stone for storytellers. It makes Black Lagoon and God Hand memorable rather than generic. It lets creators achieve the cult classic status associated with “so bad it’s good” while skipping the “bad” part. And it can be as simple as exaggerating genre conventions instead of simply playing them straight. Of course, all this is easier said than done. But when the rewards are so great, and the risks (remember, we start with uninspiring source material) so marginal, well, wouldn’t failure to embrace the ham just be a recipe for… ridicule?

All roads lead to where you want: I want an open-world Roman game

Odds are you’ve heard of the Grand Theft Auto series (modern-day, urban crime action-adventures), even if you’re not a gamer. It was Grand Theft Auto III (2001) that propelled open-world games to prominence in the industry, but open-world games have been around for a long time – and while I am not very interested in GTA’s setting, luckily for me, it’s just the tip of the open-world iceberg. There are open-world first person shooters, such as Far Cry 2, set in an African civil war; and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, set in a near-future “Zone” around Chernobyl populated by mutants, monsters and mercenaries. There are open-world RPGs, such as fantasy epics Daggerfall through to Oblivion; and the post-apocalyptic Fallout series. There’s an open-world medieval combat simulator, the Mount and Blade series. There is even the open-world, multi-genre, minigame-filled extravaganza Space Rangers 2, where you variously fly a spaceship around the galaxy, command ground forces in an RTS, and get out of jail by playing text adventures.

 

But there is one potentially awesome setting that has been overlooked: Ancient Rome. Specifically, the city of Rome, during the fall of the Republic.

 

Now, Rome has a lot of things going for it. From a marketability perspective, we’ve all heard of it. We may no longer learn Latin in school, but we have seen the HBO TV series, watched Gladiator, played Rome: Total War. From a gameplay perspective, Rome was big! In its heyday, it was the most populous city in the world, and it offers a corresponding amount of variety for players.

 

Imagine a game that began with choosing a background a la Dragon Age. Perhaps you’re an equestrian youngster from the provinces? A dissolute patrician? Or the scion of an august senatorial clan? Then, choose your skills, choose your friends, and build a career as a hoodlum, orator and lawyer, aspiring politician, or merchant*, with distinct minigames and social circles: perhaps a text-based adventure for a lawsuit or a Senate debate, a trading sim for a mercantile transaction, a brawler for the street combat. These categories wouldn’t even be mutually exclusive! This was a city where politicians hired street gangs to beat up their rivals – and died at the hands of their rivals’ gangs.

 

Or if you wanted a more actiony game, what about the Hollywood, sword-and-sandals version of Rome? Consider Centurion: Defender of Rome (as described here by Troy Goodfellow), which, 20 years ago, let you race chariots, fight as a gladiator, and command the flagship at sea, in between more conventional land battles (preceding Rome: Total War). How cool would that be with modern-day technology, and the ability to explore Rome in between bouts?

 

Rome is only the start as far as historical settings are concerned. I know almost nothing about, say, early 1700s London, but from what little I know, it would work well: dystopic squalor amongst commoners and in Newgate Prison for a “street”-level game, tension between Whigs and Tories in the corridors of power for a more political game, the shenanigans of the South Sea Company for a game about the budding world of modern finance. Or – to name another setting I don’t know much about, but which sounds very cool – what of a game in 1500s or 1600s Asia, a world that increasingly encountered European freebooters, merchants and companies hungry for porcelain and spices?

 

Human history, in all its richness, is often tapped by strategy games and wargames. But to the best of my knowledge, there are rather fewer open-world games that take advantage of its possibilities. This is a pity. I hope I’ve shown the potential in a Roman game, or an early-modern British game, or an Age of Discovery Asian game – and if Rockstar can branch out to the Wild West with Red Dead Redemption, who’s to say that one day, we might not get free rein of the city on the Tiber?

 

* I haven’t played this series, Taikou Risshiden, but, in that it’s about playing one of a number of professions such as swordsmith, merchant and warrior, it sounds a lot like a Sengoku Japanese version of what I have in mind.

Magicka demo impressions: sadly, it’s the little things that count

Update: Following a patch, Magicka now allows you to save and quit at checkpoints (previously, quitting in mid-level would lose your progress). I now own the full game.

 

After hearing about Magicka, a newly-released game, on the Quarter to Three forums, I was intrigued. After reading this writeup of the game, courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun, I had to try its demo. After actually playing the demo… well, I’m glad I tried before I reached for my wallet.

 

The gameplay itself is, no pun intended, a blast. Think of it as a Lina Inverse simulator: the game is about fighting off hordes of goblins, trolls, and other nasties by tapping out different magic elements on your keyboard/gamepad to produce different spells. So tapping earth will fling rocks at your foes. Tapping earth and fire will lob a fireball. Lightning and fire together will jump from foe to foe and set them alight. Cold and arcane will produce a beam that freezes enemies in their tracks. Water will make enemies (or yourself!) more vulnerable to subsequent lightning magic… The devastation you can unleash is enormous, and the gameplay, as you mash the spellcasting buttons, is suitably frantic.

 

No, the problem is the technical package in which the gameplay is wrapped. You can’t just save anywhere you please. At least during the demo, the game isn’t as generous as I’d like with checkpoints, so I can clear out a room, die on the next room, and have to play the first room all over again. But that pales in comparison next to the fact that you can’t save midway through a level, exit, and resume where you left off. And we are not talking about five-minute levels here –30-40 minute sessions weren’t enough for me to finish the first level. You can remap the keyboard and gamepad controls, and return the keyboard to its default – but I haven’t yet seen any ability to return the gamepad to its default. And multiplayer, a major selling point of the game, reportedly doesn’t work.

 

I understand the developer and publisher are aware of the complaints. A patch has already been released, and more are on the way. That said, I was not encouraged to read, on the Steam forum:

 

“A save option can’t be added without some serious investement in coding time.

we’d much rather spend that time on fixes, more polish and other requested features.”

 

I hope Magicka’s developer will quickly tidy up its infuriating problems, because I want to fully enjoy its potential. ‘Til then, I’m saving my $10.

What I’ve been playing over the 2010 holidays; impressions of King Arthur & Far Cry 2

Over the last couple of weeks, while I’ve played a fair bit of Civilization V, on the whole I’ve taken the scattergun approach and spent a little bit of time on a lot of games instead of focusing on a couple of titles. Some of the games I played are old favourites: I returned to Fallout 3 in order to blast through the Broken Steel DLC before I wrote my feature on storytelling in Fallout 3; and I tried my hand at what seems to be the most popular challenge for Europa Universalis III veterans, rebuilding the Byzantine Empire. Some were titles that I hadn’t played before, but which I’ve owned for some time. And some were new games, largely purchased during Steam’s recent holiday sale. Here are my impressions on some of the games in the two latter categories:

 

  • King  Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame (new game): So far, I’m impressed by the production values of this game, its dark, brooding art and ethereal vocal music, and I love the premise that King Arthur and his knights live in a world filled with giants and faeries both “seelie” and “unseelie”, Christians pushing back against the old gods, and where half of England is covered by a mystic forest where time passes differently. However, I haven’t got the hang of the actual gameplay yet: more often than not, my battles seem to degenerate into confused brawls in the woods.

 

  • Bioshock and Mass Effect (backlogged games): Both these games intrigue me, and on paper, I should love both of them: one reputedly has fantastic writing and themes, the other is supposed to be a well-executed space opera pastiche. But neither has really grabbed me after the first hour or so, and again, the gameplay looks to be the culprit. Which takes me to…

 

  • Far Cry 2 (new game): This is the stand-out of the games I’ve dabbled in. When the game opened with a bumpy jeep ride through sub-Saharan Africa, with the driver telling stories about brush fires, bribing mercenaries at a checkpoint, and pointing out the last plane out of the country, I knew I was in for a distinctive, original setting. And when I lost my car in game, trudged along for a little while, realised why people find a car so essential to get around, and decided to raid a mercenary outpost just so I could loot a new one, I knew I was in for a distinctive play experience.

 

I still have many more titles I need to dig more deeply into (AI War, Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, The Sims 3, Resonance of Fate, Dragon Age…) and something else may well capture my attention. But just based on what I’ve played so far, I suspect Far Cry 2 will end up booting Bioshock and maybe Mass Effect back down into my backlog. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I like Far Cry 2, given that I also enjoyed STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, another atmospheric open-world shooter. And as a result, I suspect those shooters I buy in the future will likely be in the same vein.