Sunday, August 31, 2008

Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People: Episode One

I find these days on my Wii I'm spending more time with downloadable content than I am with games that come in a box.

Case in point is Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, which is available through the WiiWare service. It's by Telltale Games, the people who delivered the recent Sam & Max games, and it's more or less up to their usual standard.

The game's based on the Homestar Runner website, and it's pitched at people who are already well familiar with Strong Bad and his wacky crew. If you don't know the difference between Homestar and Homsar, or understand how Strong Bad can type with boxing gloves on his hands, then most of what's going on here will go straight over your head.

For Strong Bad fans, though, the game's a treat. Like the Sam & Max titles it's a classic point and click puzzle-solving outing, but it makes pretty good use of the property it's based on. All the cast have their original voice acting (i.e. The Brothers Chaps plus Missy whatserface). Locations you can visit include the House of Strong, Bubs' Concession Stand, and the King of Town's Castle. You can spend some time with classic Videlectrix 8-bit gaming, in this case Snake Boxer 5, and you can even design your own Teen Girl Squad comic, which is probably the most awesome minigame in the history of minigames.

One of the traditional problems with point-n-clicks is that while they can be a lot of fun, they rarely offer replay value. Strong Bad's Cool Game etc goes some way to addressing that by including both a number of achievement-style trophies, and an "extended play" mode that lets you keep exploring after the credits roll. Unfortunately there's not much guidance on how to achieve the trophies and the extended play option seems to be a little buggy so you'll probably end up consulting an FAQ to get the most out of the game.

This is, obviously, just the first episode out of several that Telltale plan to release. If it's anything like the Sam & Max games, they'll almost certainly improve over time as Telltale get comfortable with the license, so I have high hopes for future titles.

I played this game on the Wii, but it's also available for the PC. The game works well with the Wiimote but it does take up a sizeable chunk of your hard drive. It'll be interesting as future episodes come out because I don't think the Wii has enough on-board memory to store a whole season at the same time. The sooner Nintendo patch the system to let you boot from an SD card, the better.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney 3: Trials and Tribulations

There's few things more satisfying than seeing a good trilogy come to a satisfying conclusion, and Phoenix Wright 3 on the Nintendo DS is an excellent example.

If you're new to the Ace Attorney games then you're out of luck. Trials and Tribulations assumes you're already familiar with the rules and characters of Phoenix Wright's world, and spends most of its time resolving the hanging plot threads from the first two games and bringing the continuing storyline to a rousing finale. The original Phoenix Wright is all but impossible to find in stores now so getting into the franchise as a newcomer can be a tad difficult.

Series fans, though, are in for a treat. This is easily the best of the three Phoenix Wright games, and it delivers everything a fan could hope for in style. Not only do you get to play as Phoenix, but you'll also fight a couple of short flashback cases as Mia Fey, and for an all-too-brief segment you'll even get to control former prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. You'll get to see Mia's traumatic first case, foil the plots of scheming matriarch Morgan Fey, and solve the mystery of the missing master of the Kurain Channelling Technique.

There are five cases all up this time around, although two are quite short, and they're tied together with a much tighter overarching plot than in previous installments. You'll want to have played the previous titles, as the game wastes little time reintroducing characters like Franzciska von Karma, Larry Butz and Adrian Grossberg, instead assuming that you know the score and are ready to play. Similarly, the basics of cross-examining witnesses, producing evidence, and breaking psyche-locks are glossed over even within the tutorial case.

The game's legal system is still as silly as ever. To defend your clients from murder charges you'll need to not only establish their innocence but uncover the real culprit. You're opposed by a range of hostile witnesses and flamboyant prosecutors, and only sharp wits and a keen eye for contradictory evidence will get you through.

The logic may occasionally be rubbish, but it's internally consistent, and once you've got a feel for the way the game "thinks" you'll be able to progress fairly smoothly. You'll occasionally run into points where you just have to try every option available before finding the right one, but they're few and far between.

Like Phoenix Wright and Justice for All, this installment was originally released in Japan as a GameBoy title, and has been ported to the DS for Western release. The art and sound assets are, therefore, not spectacular, but they're perfectly suited to the gameplay and do a great job of conveying drama and character.

The real star of the show, as always, is the writing. Silly courtroom antics aside, these are tight, challenging murder mysteries. They're beautifully paced and solidly plotted and despite a wide roster of guest characters you'll be moved to really care about the characters you meet and their often bizarre dilemmas. If it occasionally feels more like you're playing an interactive novel than a video game, you won't care, because it's a really good novel.

In the end everything comes to a head in a fantastic final case. Trials and Tribulations delivers a compelling climax to the first Ace Attorney trilogy and will leave you feeling very generous towards the franchise as a whole. If Phoenix Wright is already amongst your fandoms then you absolutely must play this game, and if you haven't yet experienced the magic then you should start tracking down the first two games just so you can eventually finish this one.

Friday, August 29, 2008

SoulCalibur IV

SoulCalibur is still the best sword-on-sword fighting series around, and with SoulCalibur IV the core gameplay is better than ever. If you're as much of a fan as I am, that's more than enough to carry you over the disappointing lack of trimmings.

SoulCalibur IV is actually the fifth game in the series, the first being 1996's Soul Edge. Despite twelve years, five iterations and one disappointing spin-off, very little about the series has changed.

The premise is simple. You take one of a number of fighters loosely themed on 18th century history and proceed to use their distinctive weapon-fu to beat the tar out of all comers. With a winning concept like that you don't really need a plot, but for those who care it's all about one of those ancient clashes of archetypal forces you hear so much about these days. There's these two swords, see, and one's horribly evil, and one's not quite so evil, and...

Actually, if you want to know more than that you're out of luck, as the SoulCalibur narrative is completely missing from SC4's Arcade Mode and is given only the most rudimentary service in the horribly missnamed Story Mode. Context is overrated anyway - the important thing is weapon-fu, which I swear is absolutely a real phrase and not in any way made up.

Pretty much every series favourite returns; they're joined by SC3 bonus character Amy (now appparently balanced) and lance-wielding newcomer Hilde. Also, you get a handful of Star Wars guest characters, consisting of The Force Unleashed's "The Apprentice", and Yoda on the XBox 360 and Darth Vader on the PS3.

Gameplay-wise, the big changes are about penalising blocking. Each character now has a Soul Meter; blocking reduces your Soul Meter while successfully landing hits charges it. If your Soul Meter is fully depleted, you enter a threatened state in which your opponent has the opportunity to perform a "Soul Crush", which will destroy an area of your character's armour. In addition, Soul Crushes can be followed up by Critical Finishes, which are essentially one hit kills.

That's great and all, but unless you're some kind of guard-spamming coward it's a part of the game that's never going to worry you. And once you carefully put all of that Soul Crush nonsense into a cupboard and forget about it you can get right down to enjoying the fact that SC4 is otherwise exactly the same as whichever of the previous SoulCaliburs you loved the most.

The game's at its best when you're playing against other people. It works just like it always has if you've got a bunch of friends in your living room, but you can also go online for ranked or friendly battles. Sadly, the matchmaking is rubbish and likes to try and make friends by giving each player an extra-large helping of lag. And it just wouldn't be online gaming without a large selection of ass-clowns, who in this instance take a special delight in dropping out of matches if your play history is anything other than a perfect streak of losses. Don't get me wrong - online play can be fun, but you should definitely put on your Frustration Pants and Tard-Resistant Hat before signing in for a ranked match.

So in short the versus play is good. By which I mean that it's awesome, because I'm a total SoulCalibur fanboy and I want to have its babies. True story. But even while slavering at the mouth I have to admit that the single-player game is a mite lackluster.

In my mind, I picture the people responsible for developing the single-player component as 14 year-old boys who were too busy doing backstroke in giant tubs of money to get around to any actual game design.

Straight up, there's no option to set the difficulty. Story Mode is ridiculously unchallenging for even novice players, while Arcade is initially frustrating but quickly becomes old hat. I should say, too, that most of the difficulty in Arcade comes from a single fight against guest character The Apprentice, who is so comparitively hard he makes the other characters look like they're made of jello. Still, with this sort of game you improve, and it would be nice if the game could keep offering up challenge past the point where you become comfortable with grinding the Apprentice's whiny face into the dust.

Actually, the Star Wars characters as a whole are more of a curse than a blessing. They don't fit well with the feel of the game, and their mechanics are so different from the regular cast that they really throw you out of your flow. Yoda, for example, is totally immune to throws and high attacks.

In a similar vein, it's hard to hear about SC4 without noticing the new direction that the character design has taken. By which I mean, of course, enormous frikkin' mammaries. Practically every female character in the game now appears to be ridiculously well-endowed and the game is obviously set during a period of history prior to the invention of the bra. Fighting-games-with-boobies is a corner of the market well covered by Dead or Alive; it's disappointing that SC4 went down this path and it takes away some of what made the SoulCalibur franchise feel special.

One nice improvement is to character creation. There's a great character customisation system that lets you re-skin existing fighters or create your own based on one of the pre-set fighting styles. You can do almost anything, visually, although in practice your fighter will play exactly the same as whoever you based them on. But seeing a Cervantes-style fighter in a giant cat suit or the Hamburglar wielding the Soul Edge is priceless every time.

Having set the armour, you then get to have it knocked off you through the Soul Crush system, which occasionally yields sensible results but more often turns things into a game of Strip Calibur. Watching characters beaten down to their underwear varies between entertaining and disturbing, but on the whole it feels more like bad fan fiction than serious gaming. This is something SoulCalibur could do without.

The game's short on modes, too. Options from previous games including Survival, Time Attack, and Tales of the Sword are all absent or have been folded into existing game types. There's no branching storylines, there's no special encounters, and when it comes down to it there's not much to unlock other than a stack of additional costume items.

Look - I make a lot of complaints about SoulCalibur IV, and for good reason, but this is still one hell of a game, and as a casual multiplayer title it's something I'm going to continue getting value-for-money from for a long time to come. SC4 is at the peak of its genre and will thoroughly entertain veterans and newcomers alike. Get it now.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I'm trialling a new chat interface in the margin called Talkinator; if you're actually on the site rather than reading the RSS then you can real-time chat with other readers. There's no login or authentication so beware of people pretending to be other people, i.e. me. Just assume everyone's a fraud and you'll be well-served.

As a side note, if you install Talkinator on your web-page using the same room name you'll be hooked into the same conversation, which is awesome.

Yes, I know it's just IRC tarted up for the interwebs. Stop killing my buzz, man.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I went into Wanted with low expectations. It seemed reasonable that Wanted might be about as crapulent as the mediocre-but-watchable Jumper.

I set the bar too high. Way, way too high. Wanted is garbage from beginning to end.

The development of the movie goes as follows: noted comics writer Mark Millar (The Ultimates; Superman: Red Son) created a comic called Wanted. Later, a wandering tribe of barely pubescent orangutans made a completely unrelated film with the same name. Angelina Jolie stars.

To Hollywood executives that must have sounded like a one-hundred-proof bottle of win, but as so often happens they were so massively wrong that they tore a hole in space/time that even now remains in the ruins of their LA apartment gradually consuming our universe from the inside.

The plot follows white-collar worker Wesley Gibson. Wesley is what you'd get if Edward Norton's character from Fight Club were played by Hayden Christensen. No sooner has Wesley delivered a painfully whiny narration about his annoyingly pathetic life than he's inducted into a mysterious fraternity of super-assassins.

These assassins, descended from (I kid you not) homicidal medaeval weavers, are busily involved in killing off random citizens on the instructions of their magical loom. Wesley is put to work in the service of the all-powerful-loom, while simultaneously training to take down a powerful former assassin who's now gone rogue.

That may seem like an abridged version of the plot but if you make the mistake of seeing Wanted you'll realise that, no, that's the full monty. Super-assassins. They can curve bullets, which would be awesome were it not used so absolutely ludicrously. Also, their hyper-adrenaline lets them slow down time, which you would think would be a good excuse for gratuitous bullet-time effects but in actuality leads to a lot of tedious regular-style slow motion. With the possible exception of Angelina Jolie, no one in this film looks good in slow motion. There's not a lot of awesome slow mo fighting but there is a lot of non-awesome slow mo fat-bounce and jowl-wiggle. It's really quite disturbing.

The writers of Wanted clearly thought that they were both funny and awesome. The director thought it too, and helfpully inserted lots of pauses for the audience to laugh and gasp in. The writers, though, are not funny, and they are very definitely not awesome. Morgan Freeman is in this movie, and his wittiest line is "Oh, fuck me." When Morgan Freeman is in your movie and you still can't pull off witty or urbane then there is something deeply, deeply wrong.

I think some people will get enjoyment from Wanted but those people will be able to get equal enjoyment from throwing rocks at other rocks, which is cheaper. For the rest of us, this is an absolute no-go. I give it a solid rating of "not even if you liked Jumper."

Gamespot Interview Former Censor

Gamespot are currently featuring an excellent interview with former Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification Deputy Director Paul Hunt. In the past it's been notoriously difficult to get straight answers from our censors on exactly how they do their job; here we see a pretty good selection of the most sought-after answers.

It's a great piece and it deserves your attention. It turns out Mr Hunt has been thinking what we've all been saying, or vice versa:

I think we need an R18+ classification, and I always have thought this. Not having this classification is dangerous, naïve and stupid. It's a policy based on misinformation that treats one area of entertainment differently to the others.
- Paul Hunt

Read the full interview: Inside the Classification Board: Q&A with a former depty director (Gamespot)

House of the Dead Overkill Trailer

It's a new House of the Dead, and it looks like it's functionally identical to all of its predecessors, but still... that's one hell of a trailer. Grindhouse-tastic.

Updates! Oh Such Updates!

Okay, so I've moved house. I'm in Hackett now. The new house is awesome as it has carpet, which is a definite evolutionary step up from walking on naked dead trees. Plus it's not across the road from a bar, which means that there's no particular reason why I can't get to sleep before midnight on a Sunday night. It also has bay windows and a dedicated library, and costs about $100 a week less than where I was living. Definite win. So that's why the blogging has been short and infrequent.

Those who like to see what I have to say about games will note that I've been featured in the following places:

PALGN's podcast 40 features an interview with me, which is great and needs listening to regardless of how little I like hearing my voice recorded.

BigPond GameArena also has an article by me entitled A Gaming Australia. Give it a read.

Also the SimCity 4 challenge has been and gone, which was a huge success and thanks to everyone involved.

There's also an interview with me coming in an upcoming issue of Hyper Magazine.

The campaign rolls on; Canberrans can hear me on the Mike Jeffreys show at 7.10 am this coming Thursday morning.
UPDATE: Change of plans; this Thursday you'll be able to hear party president Darren Churchill. I'll be featured on a later date.

Gaming-wise things have been interrupted by the house move but I owe you reviews of Braid, Phoenix Wright 3 and SoulCalibur IV. Can I save you some waiting by saying SWEET JEEBERS YOU MUST PLAY BRAID.

That is all.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Said The Raindrop To The Seed

If you'll allow me the brief indulgence of going off-topic, I'd like to draw your attention to the above video. It was featured on YouTube a few days ago so I'm hardly posting from deep in the music underground, but that doesn't stop it from being rather good. Granted my tastes run naturally towards solo female vocalists but give it a listen. Her name's Jess Chalker and she posts on YouTube as as alleycat82.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2

It's really hard to believe that there could possibly be a game filled with more win than Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. But there is, and it's called Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2.

Developer Bizarre Creations puts the "2" in superscript as if it's an exponential, which would normally be hugely pretentious but in this case is totally justified. This game is to its predecessor as some kind of robot ninja would be to neanderthal man.

For those not familiar with previous iterations of Geometry Wars, these are games where you fly around a constrained two-dimensional playing field blasting the holy heck out of everything that moves. You move with the left analog stick, and shoot by aiming the right stick in the direction of your target. The genius is firstly in the ridiculously immense number of enemies on screen simultaneously, and secondly in the insane particle explosions you generate whenever you're introducing bullets to faces (which is all the time).

The first Geometry Wars for XBox Live Arcade was intensely addictive, but this time around Bizarre have offered no less than six game modes, several flavours of local multiplayer for up to four players, and a better paced and more challenging game experience across the board.

To unlock all the game modes you have to play through each one a few times, which is undemanding but initially off-putting. However, once you've got the drudgery out of the way, which takes all of half an hour, you're set to experience the full worship-inducing madness of Retro Evolved 2.

"Evolved" mode is the classic experience from the original, with a few new enemy types thrown in. "Deadline" is a version of Evolved where you have infinite lives but are struggling to get the highest score possible within three minutes.

"King" places circular "zones" on the playing field that enemies can't enter. You can only fire your weapons while inside a zone, but zones shrink and vanish over time. "Sequence" pits you against 20 pre-set patterns of enemies with no random elements involved and the difficulty turned up all the way to "crippling". "Waves" sees you blasting through screen-spanning walls of enemies which come at you from every direction.

The best of the new modes is "Pacifism", wherein your weapons are entirely disabled. An unceasing cascade of enemies pour after you, and you need to avoid them while crossing gates. Passing through a gate detonates it, which will destroy your closest pursuers.

The excellent leaderboard implementation from the first game is retained and expanded. Also, your highest scoring friend's name will now be displayed in the top right corner during play as the "score to beat", which is great for closely competitive friends but a little intimidating if someone on your friends list is a latter-day gaming wunderkind.

A significant change throughout all game modes is the way your score multiplier is handled. Whereas before it was based on the number of enemies you'd killed, and reset when you died, now it's all about collecting green sparkly things left behind by defeated enemies, and you retain your multiplier through death. The need to collect these things changes the dominant strategy significantly, which is an interesting if not particularly momentous alteration.

If you liked Geometry Wars, or just if you enjoy old-school arcade action done exceptionally well, then Retro Evolved 2 is absolutely worth your time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

You Don't Know Jack - Interactive Conversations

Y'all are aware that free Flash-based episodes of You Don't Know Jack have been regularly released online since 2006, right?

I'm talking about the best interactive quiz game ever created, and I was sadly ignorant of its revival myself until someone on my RSS feed drew it to my attention. If you've never experienced the magic you should absolutely go get yourself some Jack RIGHT NOW.

Seriously, I'll wait.

The thing that's always made YDKJ work so well is the presenter. The games unfailingly deliver the sense that the presenter is speaking directly to you, the player.

That's no accident. YDKJ creators Jellyvision know what they're doing. Interactive conversations are their niche, and in addition to pimping Jack they're also busy producing all manner of neat widgets for business. You should try some of them out - I'm not the least bit interested in architectural design software but Jellyvision's applet delivers a significantly more entertaining conversation on the subject than I'd expect from your average human.

Where I'm leading with all of this is that this is first-class game design theory. They've boiled their genius down into some easy-to-understand maxims that they like to call "The Jack Principles", which they've placed online for the unfortunately-named Joe Public to read at his leisure.

It's so refreshing to see game designers who actually understand why what they're doing is working. Big round of applause, everybody.

And then go play some Jack.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Club

The Club is very nearly awesome. Very, very nearly. But close only counts in horshoes and hand grenades, and in leaping for the balustrade of amazing it ends up falling face-first into the rosebushes of mediocre, badly hurting itself in the process.

Ostensibly The Club is a first-person shooter, but it's developed by Bizarre Creations, the people behind Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars, and it's got far more in common with those games than it does something like Gears of War.

The game's actually structured a lot like a racing game. The game's broken down into eight "tournaments", each set in a different international location, and each tournament has six or seven courses. The aim of each course is to complete the course with the highest score possible. The premise of the game is that you're involved in some kind of underground deathsport, so you'll find the way to build points is to make kills. Each successive kill notches up your kill multiplier, which makes the points come in even faster, but if you can't keep your kill rate both high and steady your multiplier will gradually drain away.

This means to get the high scores not only do you have to kill quickly and accurately, but you have to stay on the move, progressing forward down the course and bringing new targets into your sights. Some game modes really go all out on this aspect by subjecting you to punishing time limits as you sprint for the level exit.

Completing the eight tournaments isn't particularly challenging, and you can do it within a day if you're so inclined. The real meat of the game is intended to come from revisiting past levels to try and beat your high scores.

That's fun to a point. As anyone who's played Geometry Wars, Guitar Hero or anything made in the 1980s knows, there's real satisfaction to be had in seeing your skills improve. Unfortunately, The Club provides very little in the way of structure or incentives to motivate you to seek those high scores. You can watch yourself work your way up the leaderboards, but other than that there's no real sense of progression once you've finished the basic single player experience. Tossing in a bunch of unlockables and providing a few more sub-goals would have really helped flesh out the score-hunting aspect of the game.

There's also a multiplayer mode, which is best described as "decent". In the unlikely event you find anyone online playing the thing, you'll be treated to some of the deathmatch antics that we've all seen in ever first person shooter ever. It's not an awful experience, and if you're lucky enough to be matched against someone over the age of 14 it can even be a barrel of fun, but I'm of the personal opinion that everything there is to say about deathmatches has already been covered by the combined works of iD Software and Epic, and there's certainly nothing new here.

For me, probably the biggest sadness is that the game doesn't have more story flavouring. It opens with a cutscene introducing each of the eight selectable characters, and does a great job of making them seem like genuinely interesting people. And that's really the last you see of the plot, other than a ten-second outro at the conclusion of story mode.

Also, the levels could have used a bit more variety. About half the game has a "ghetto industrial" feeling, while the other half has a "European city" theme, and that's pretty much the extent of what's on offer. So it's great that bland now comes in two flavours, but on the whole the artistic ball was very definitely dropped.

The Club isn't a bad game. It's a pretty decent one, and it certainly has incredibly unique gameplay. But it's not a special game, either, and even genre enthusiasts aren't likely to find room for it in their top ten or twenty games of last year. Keep an eye out for it in the bargain bin, because if you spot it for around $30 AUD you'll find it perfectly priced to please.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sim City 4 Challenge

There haven't been many posts to The Dust Forms Words over the last few days - my apologies. That's been largely as a result of all the campaigning that's going on.

On that topic, I'd like to invite you all to All Bar Nun at the O'Connor shops this Wednesday 13 August at 7pm, where I'm taking part in The RiotAct's Sim City 4 Challenge. I'll be facing off against EA's city management sim over the course of a few hours to promote the ACT Democrats campaign and show that the electoral process can sometimes be a lot of fun.

Everyone's welcome, and I understand all the nail-biting action will be visible on All Bar's big screens. You should definitely come and have a beer while watching me tackle situations ripped from today's papers, such as the ever-present threat of giant monster invasion. I'm pretty sure the major parties are shaky on giant monster policy; that's a weakness I aim to exploit.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Halo Theme On Animal Emergency

Spotted on tonight's episode of Animal Emergency on WIN TV: music from Halo.

During the segment about the dog with the infected eyeball, the producers apparently selected portions of Martin O'Donnell's score for Halo 2 as their background music (it's the track that plays over the game's main menu). It's presumably chosen for its poignant and emotional qualities but it wouldn't surprise me if most of those involved had no idea where the music was sourced from.

Another sign of our gaming Australia.