Sunday, November 30, 2008

Quantum of Solace

Last night I saw Quantum of Solace. I was not impressed. I can't even remember the name of the female lead, she was so forgettable. Also, Bond has maybe a page of dialogue across the entire film.

Dear writers: I, also, can write a page of dialogue. If I did, you would then have two pages, and the movie would be approximately twice as good.

It's clear that Bond wants to talk. He's aware that the villain's not up to snuff and his fake-Bolivian assistant is sub-par, and he's a bit embarassed that Dame Judi Dench is doing all the heavy lifting vis-a-vis characterisation and humour. But every time he opens his mouth to chat there's an escaping prisoner or a corrupt policeman or an aerial dogfight or some damn thing.

Still, it was better than all the Brosnan films except Goldeneye put together. So it's not recommended viewing, but I don't feel violated as a human being.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Michael Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City

Michael Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City is clearly the most awesome videogame since Michael Jackson's Moonwalker. It was released in 1994 by Electronic Arts for the Super Nintendo. They should make its release date a national holiday. An Australian national holiday. Really, it's something that people of all nations can really get behind.

You get to play as basketballer Michael Jordan, and do a whole bunch of things that Michael Jordan is famous for doing, such as:
* collecting keys
* defeating enemies
* exploring ancient Egypt

You'll also be put in command of Jordan's legendary powers of sorcery. By properly deploying the dark arts you'll be able to summon balls of elemental fire or ice with which to decimate your foes - who are none other than Jordan's arch-nemesis: robots.

It's hard to say what the best thing about this game is. A definite contender is dodging random bolts of lightning - just like Michael Jordan. And not just lightning - you get to dodge all the things that Michael Jordan is always dodging, including lasers, missiles, and a sand golem. I give them bonus points for remembering the sand golem.

Another highlight is meticulously searching each level for secret doors - just like Michael Jordan. I wasn't sure they'd work Jordan's penchant for hidden corridors in, but they managed it. That's pretty impressive. It just wouldn't be a game about Michael Jordan if you weren't uncovering obscured passageways and suchlike.

This is really the way licensed gaming should be done. Michael Jordan: Chaos In The Windy City captures everything that is memorable about Michael Jordan and distills it down into a single work of art. It mixes a contemporary plotline ripped straight from the pages of 1994's headlines with deep and thought-provoking social commentary, and ultimately it's a product that Michael Jordan and Electronic Arts can still be proud of today, some 14 years later.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Highlight

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is that United States institution where on Thanksgiving some big floats roll down a street and there's people and... anyway, this is why we can't have nice things.

Thanks for watching.

Ditmars - I Nominate Me

Hey there! It's that time of year in Australia - the time when people start nominating for the Ditmar Awards.

The Ditmars are awarded each year at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention (NatCon) and stand beside the Aurealis Awards as the most prestigious annual national fandom awards in Australia.

Nominations are typically made in the period leading up to end of each year, and are voted on prior to the following year's NatCon. The 2009 NatCon will apparently be held in Adelaide over the Greg's Birthday long weekend (6-8 June 2009).

So in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, I'm nominating in the following categories:

Best Fan Production
- The Dust Forms Words

Best Fan Writer
- Greg Tannahill for The Dust Forms Words

Will I win? Hell no! Australia is blessed with an incredibly talented and energetic fan community. It also has an extremely gray area between "fan work" and "professional work" so many of the people who appear in these categories are experienced writers with multiple published titles to their names. It's a distinct pleasure seeing these people nominated and eventually win each year, and I look forward to it again in 2009.

But if everyone out there could start stirring up some buzz that it would be cool to give me a trophy, that'd be just swell. Thanks.

Barbarella Remake

Very briefly continuing the theme of upcoming genre chicksploitation films, I thought I'd mention the Barbarella remake, which I was having some conversations about the other day.

Robert Rodriguez is still attached to direct (really direct, not produce) and he's passed over Erica Durance and Sienna Miller for the lead role in favour of, once again, his fiancee Rose McGowan.

McGowan's a better Barbarella than she is a Red Sonja but apparently his insistence on having her star has led to some funding troubles, so Rodriguez has taken the whole show on the road looking for a better budget than the 80 million or so that Universal is willing to fund.

The aim is for the finished product to hit cinemas in 2010 but seeing as there's no final deal with a studio yet that's all a bit pie-in-the-sky so I guess expect it when you see it.

(I've tagged this post as "News" but it would be more accurately tagged as "Old News"; however, if you're as behind the times on it as I am it's hopefully still fresh reading.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Witchblade Movie

Apparently it's chicks-in-chainmail week at The Dust Forms Words. As if the not-quite-Rodriguez adaptation of Red Sonja were not enough, we also have a big-screen Witchblade to look forward to.

It's to be directed by Michael Rymer (Battlestar Galactica). It looks like it'll focus on Sara Pezzini as the Witchblade-wielder but there seems to be no decision on who'll play her. Wikipedia hints at Megan Fox (Transformers), while other blogs are talking Angelina Jolie. I would have thought the question could be settled by reference to whoever it is appearing in the poster above but apparently not.

I'll be honest - I'm not a Witchblade fan to start with, and this has "unmitigated disaster" written all over it. My highest hopes are that it comes out at the same time as Red Sonja so that we can do some sort of back-to-back bad movie excursion.

The Chess Trick

Game design has this habit of touching on the nature of life.

The story goes that there is a man. This man goes into a chess club, and he introduces himself. He says that he has been learning chess at home, and he's never played a real opponent before, but he thinks he's pretty good.

The members of the club have a chuckle. They are amused. To chess, there are levels and levels and it is quite clear that the newcomer is what might be termed a "noob". What's more, he's picked the wrong club to make his boast in. This club, you see, includes two chess grandmasters.

And they tell him so. They tell him he's not as good as he thinks he is. But he doesn't take this well. He tells them that he's quite the prodigy, and he's spent a lot of time with his chess books and actually he's quite astounding. And he says he'll take on their so-called grandmasters, and he will win.

The club has a good laugh, and tells him that, no, he will not win. The newcomer gets quite red in the face, and so he puts his money where his mouth is. He says he will play both the grandmasters, and he will beat at least one, and if anyone says he can't he'll meet them in a $200 wager.

There's some more laughter, so the newcomer goes a step further. He will (he says) play both the grandmasters at the same time. The members of the club think this is the funniest thing they've heard all month, so one by one they make their bets, and two tables are set up for the games.

Well, the newcomer plays both the grandmasters, and lo and behold, although he loses to one, he beats the other soundly, and collects his money. And after he had left the club, considerably richer, the club members examined the boards of the completed games and found them to be exact mirrors of each other.

He had been copying the moves of one grandmaster against the other - the two grandmasters had effectively been playing against each other.

I've been playing Left 4 Dead. In the developer commentary for that game, it's mentioned that one of the design challenges was making sure the zombies could reach any place that the players could reach. If I understand their solutions correctly, one of the ways they solved this problem was with follower pathfinding - that is, working out how to get to a place based on how others had gotten there previously. That's effectively the AI getting "smarter" as a result of player discoveries.

You may be familiar with the Jabberwacky chatbot. Jabberwacky takes an extremely large database of chat and uses it to make contextual replies to conversation directed at it. When it's asked a question, it looks back through its chat logs to see how other users have answered that question in the past, and uses their responses as its dialogue. In effect, when you talk to Jabberwacky you're not talking to a program - you're having a (fractured) conversation with the millions of people who have talked to the program before you.

Is this artificial intelligence? Is collating and regurgitating the responses of real humans the same thing as thought? Is it any different to the way humans behave, or is it only a degree of sorting algorithm sophistication?

Is this the way forward for AI development in games? Is it cheaper to record and repeat the keypresses of millions of players than it is to create genuine logical behaviour?

Ultimately, what difference is there between live competitive play, and that competitive play being "played back" against a fresh player?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Red Sonja 2009

Red Sonja, coming in 2009. Robert Rodriguez to direct? Hell yes! Rose McGowan to star? Um...

I love Rose McGowan to death, but I'm not yet sold that she's Red Sonja material. I guess Rodriguez has time to convince me.

EDIT: Oh hell no. Rodriguez isn't directing, he's producing. Director is actually Douglas Aarniokoski, "best known" for his work on Highlander: Endgame. So much for that brief bout of enthusiasm. Sorry folks - false awesomeness alarm - nothing to see here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Disco Stick, Damn You

The words "disco stick" continue to generate roughly a third of my traffic. Clearly the public demands a blog that gets up close and personal with disco stick culture. I can only assume that the multiple and discrete spheres of disco stick scrutiny are being inadequately trammelled by the blogosphere at large.

To those of you asking "what is a disco stick", I once again suggest that it is not at all a portion of the male anatomy. Not at all. In fact, it's probably a kind of high-tech rod or pike which you can deploy to cause disco to occur. I'm forever needing instant disco deployment; this is a niche that had to be filled.

My exhaustive exploration of the nascent disco stick revolution will continue. Over coming weeks my aim is to get the straight dope from the movers and shakers of the disco stick scene. I'll be asking the hard disco stick questions and serving up disco stick exclusives straight from disco stick central itself.

If you've got a disco stick related question that you'd like to ask, why don't you leave a note in the comments and I'll work on getting you the answers that any hardcore disco stick fan deserves.

Revengers of Vengeance

While you're still laughing at the image, can I just say that I absolutely love these crappy print ads - I could blog them all year.

In case the text at the bottom's not clear, the warning in red reads: "Warning: Some scenes may be too intense for those who do not seek vengeance."

The genius of this ad sadly did not extend to the actual game. Revengers of Vengeance, released for the mostly unloved Sega-CD, is a lukewarm brawler-RPG hybrid that began life in Japan under the title Battle Fantasy. Players choose one of ten characters and then get down to the task of beating the snot out of the other nine.

As far as I can tell the title Revengers of Vengeance was chosen with absolute seriousness. Only the advertising company who did the print ad above seems to have discerned the inherent comedy gold.

The name of the armoured rhino in the middle of the picture, by the way, is "Psybart".

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fire Fighter

The text reads:

Rick Colby Thought He Was Hot Stuff.

Too bad about Rick. He was sure he could beat almost any game made for his Atari Video Computer System. Then he played Imagic's Fire Fighter.

Rick knew he was in trouble the second he leaped off the truck and began hosing down the flaming warehouse. As the fire leaped from floor to floor and the panicked victim climbed higher and higher, Rick tried desperately to reach the top floor with his ladder.

But it was too late. The warehouse was turned into a burned out shell. And so was Rick.

Please don't let this happen to you. Fire Fighter and all of Imagic's games are created by experts for experts. Do not play this video game if you are a weaselly, weak uncoordinated nerd. Unless you want to wind up like Rick.

Imagic. Created by experts for experts.
A potent cautionary tale from the gaming culture of 1982. Rick's fate is tragic, but it's hard to feel sympathy for him once you understand that he was actually rather crap at videogames. Imagic's Fire Fighter is generally remembered as one of the most kitten-pamperingly easy titles in the Atari 2600 library.

Fire Fighter was created by Brad Stewart, better known for his Atari 2600 ports of Breakout and Asteroids. Stewart's version of Breakout is notorious for being significantly easier than the original, and when he came to Fire Fighter he followed a similar formula.

In the end, it's fair to say Fire Figheter isn't the best firefighting game ever made, which is funny as it doesn't exactly have a lot of competition. In fact, it's not even the best firefighting game on the Atari - it loses out to the marginally superior Towering Inferno.

I have to say that the print ad featured above is vastly more entertaining than anything contained in the game itself. Also, I vote that we go back to referring to the Atari 2600 as the "Atari Video Computer System" which is a much more awesome name and doesn't include any unnecessary zeroes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Braid Extended Play

I may have been premature in saying I was done with Braid. I may also have been premature in saying it was a game about relationships. Apparently there is more to the game than just assembling all the puzzles and seeing the final level. Which is, I think, a shame. Sometimes games need to know when to keep their mouth shut.

Okay, so in the hub world there's a screen with a constellation, right? Apparently there's eight stars hidden in the game, and finding them all reveals the image of a chained princess in the sky in the hub world. Also, finding the last star involves doing something in the last level which... I don't know how to finish that sentence without spoilers, but as far as I'm concerned it ruins that level. And the rest of the game.

And then it turns out the whole game wasn't about relationships after all but was instead about the nuclear bomb.

Bollocks. Bollocks, I say. I am going to promptly forget I ever discovered this and I suggest you do too.

If you want to know more there's an FAQ here but you should be aware that:
(a) getting the stars is stupidly hard
(b) you can't do it if you've already finished the game - you'll have to start from scratch, and
(c) getting a single star can take up to two hours, and there are eight of them.

Thanks to Phrancq for the tip-off.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Currently Playing

Got a bunch of games in my queue right now, none of which I'm particularly near finishing, so I thought I'd do an "in-progress" kind of post.

Left 4 Dead (XBox 360): Awesome. Just... awesome. It makes my jaw drop roughly once a minute and I'm starting to get muscle fatigue around my mouth as a result. Some observations though: as you start to learn the levels the game becomes about speed-running, and I'm not yet sure whether that's an evolutionary step in the gameplay or the point at which ennui sets in. Also it's obviously focused solely on multi-player, and I can't say I've ever gotten more than ten hours out of a multi-player first person shooter before. This may be a first, I guess.

Rock Band (XBox 360): Finally out in Australia. Drumming is excellent and the handling of the vocals is several iterations better than the horrible Singstar franchise. Guitar is a bit lame though, due to an unappealing on-screen interface, a peripheral that pinches my fingers, and punishingly short timing windows. Playing with four friends is great, but the game feels poorly structured as far as progress and incentives are concerned. Luckily it's fun just playing, incentives or no incentives. Also it's clear the developers loved what they were making, which is something it shares with Harmonix's previous efforts Guitar Hero 1 and 2. Neversoft-developed GH3 didn't have that and it's that faceless-corporation direction the Guitar Hero franchise is going in that's really turning me off that brand.

Fable 2 (XBox 360): Not a fan. I can't get attached to the main character, who wanders mutely around the countryside expressing himself solely with corny poses while every NPC has rather excellent voice acting. I can't get attached to the NPCs, who will watch you kill their entire family in horror but then offer you gifts once you dance a saucy jig for a few minutes. The customisation system is shallow, and you end up picking clothes based on their stats rather than what they say about your character. The much-vaunted moral choices are poorly handled, especially compared to something like Mass Effect, and often boil down to "do what you're told, or be a petty jerk". Despite a lot of really well-implemented features, the whole package feels deeply artificial and I have serious doubts I can be bothered playing to the end.

Final Fantasy III (DS): I started this six months ago, I'm about three quarters of the way through and I can't bring myself to pick it up again. The graphical updates are nice, but the "job system" has been poorly grafted onto the original game, giving you little real incentive to play with the different jobs and in fact actively punishing you for changing class. The late game suddenly opens up the map but offers poor direction about where to go next and again can punish you for exploring with the sudden introduction of crushingly difficult encounters. The combat is painfully dull and considering that's most of the gameplay that dullness is a real problem. Despite my gripes it's still a great remake, especially considering the age of its roots, but not a real contender compared to some of the excellent modern RPGs on the market.

Age of Booty (XBox Live Arcade): Yar, me hearties! Age of Booty is real-time strategy dumbed down to its lowest level, where you control one ship and attempt to capture enemy ports with or without allies. It's effectively one-button control, ideal for casual players. It should be awful but it's a heap of fun and pretty much exactly right for the low, low asking price. Local multiplayer for up to four players, or you can take it online to battle the intertubes.

Overlord (XBox 360): Played the first level of this, loved it, borrowed it from a friend, and now it's just waiting until I'm done with Fable 2 or something so I can give it the time it deserves.

Travian (PC / Browser): Actually I've been playing this for a few months. A very hardcore real-time wargame that advertises itself as a casual-friendly city builder. One campaign lasts roughly a year of real-time. An excellent game providing you know what to expect; a very frustrating game for those looking for a casual experience who get eliminated by the cutthroat tactics of the real players. I'm loving it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

LFG Left 4 Dead

By the way, I have a copy of Left 4 Dead for the 360. I am committed to not playing this game until I can play it in co-op mode with people I know.

This requires people I know to own the game (and have a Live Gold account). If you've scored a copy, drop me a line (and your Gamertag, if I don't already have it) so we can hook up for some zombie-surviving fun.

EDIT: I'm posting this on my blog, so obviously I'm favouring a fairly generous definition of "people I know". If you're reading this and you're not obviously an incarcerated criminal you should probably take it to include you.

Condemned: Criminal Origins

This is survival horror done right.

Earlier this year I played the nauseatingly tepid Silent Hill: Origins, a game that grabbed the wheel of that well-respected series, steered it up a giant ramp of cliche, and launched it into a flying leap over a long parade of sharks.

That was clearly a bad game, in the Egon Spengler sense of the word, but it also made me worry that I'd just gotten tired of survival horror as a genre. Condemned makes me realise that no, it was just Origins.

As I see it, there are two sorts of people in the world: those who like murdering hoboes, and those who are terrorists. Assuming that you're not a terrorist, then Condemned is right up your alley. The game opens with some murdered hoboes, and then proceeds to throw more hoboes at you every few minutes until you're standing on a pile of murdered hoboes so high that you can begin sniping at hoboes in other cities.

I may be exaggerating.

You play Detective Ethan Thomas. He's voiced by Greg "Matt Parkman from Heroes" Grunberg, who does such an excellent job of being Matt Parkman from Heroes that you won't be the least bit surprised when Detective Thomas turns out to be a psychic supercop. That last sentence was a spoiler, by the way, and you shouldn't read it if you haven't played the game yet.

Thomas is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Matchmaker when he finds himself framed for the murder of two fellow police officers. His "friends" back at the station leap to some half-assed conclusions and soon Thomas is dodging cops while trying to catch up on his case backlog.

Unfortunately most everyone that Thomas runs into has gone bat-shit crazy. The city is crawling with criminals, addicts and, yes, hoboes, and there's not a man-jack of them who doesn't want to cave your skull in with a lead pipe. Turned into little more than animals by whatever fell forces are at work, these gutter-crawlers will come at you from every angle with a startling and frankly scary ferocity.

I'm not joking - these guys want to kill you. It's very rare for a videogame to so effectively convey malice in enemies. Most of the time they'll charge at you while screaming and swinging a blunt object but they're also cunning enough to lie in wait for you around corners. If you've fought the villains of Bioshock you've got an idea what I'm on about but the claustrophobic environments of Condemned do it better and the foes here exude a kind of physicality that Bioshock never managed.

You can find guns, but not ammo, so if you're lucky enough to snag a pistol you've got maybe a half dozen shots before it turns into an expensive paperweight. The real meat of the combat is in melee, in which you get to whack hoboes in the head with a fire axe. Or a sledghammer. Or sometimes a crowbar or shovel. Landing blows is incredibly satisfying, as your target will scream and stagger away from you, sometimes getting spun all the way around. It's massively visceral and really contributes to the sense of rage and madness that flows through the game. Blocking isn't quite as fun, but luckily you're not called on to do it often.

Occasionally you need to collect forensic evidence for analysis. It feels like this was originally intended to be a bigger part of the game, but in the final cut the game basically tells you whenever you need to do this, and it's rarely trickier than pressing a single button to get out your evidence tool and pressing again to collect the evidence. There's not a lot of depth to it but it's used to fantastic effect, particularly in the late game, to control the game pacing and set up some very creepy sequences.

Speaking of pacing, it's superb. There's just the right mix of action and suspense, and the two are integrated together excellently. The game does make the mistake of erring on the side of combat over suspense in its final level, but otherwise gets it just right. (Developer Monolith didn't do so well in its later title F.E.A.R which fell short in this very area.)

Condemned dodges a lot of survival horror cliches. Hoboes make a nice change from demons, soldiers or zombies, and the fact that you can usually see their faces brings a lot of realism and immediacy to the proceedings. These are monsters you could actually meet in real life. The locations show some genuine creativity and include a department store, a library and a farmhouse. Even the well-trod staples of a school and an abandoned tenement are treated with a freshness that keeps them vital.

The music is unexceptional but appropriate. The sound design is excellent. It's worth noting the game doesn't use the "musical fake scare" of having music build to a crescendo when nothing happens. That's a cheap trick which has been overused, and Condemned has the confidence to rely on actual events to keep you on edge.

It's also excellent in its visual design, and I don't mean the art or character design, although those are great. What I mean is that it's very good at leading your eye. Condemned knows that players of first-person games rarely look upwards, and it also knows how unsettling it can be as a player to be reminded of this. Condemned keeps the vertical in play visually from beginning to end, even though height is rarely important to gameplay. Enemies are regularly seen climbing into roof ducts, dropping from the ceiling, or throwing things at you from higher ledges. The simple act of a paint can rolling down from a scaffolding can bring an apparently empty corridor to life.

Another simple-but-clever innovation is the game's use of corners. The largest determinant of player speed through a level in a survival horror title is how many corners there are. Each one could hide enemies, so the player has to slow down to look around each corner. Condemned appears to deliberately use this to keep the player moving at the right speed, and one brilliant use of it in a toilet block towards the end of the game is one of the cleverest attempts at building suspense using only level geometry that I've ever seen.

It's probably clear by this point that I really liked Condemned, so I guess it's time for the bad points. First of all, as I mentioned, blocking in melee is lame, and you have to do a lot of it in the last level. Also, if for some reason you don't enjoy hitting hoboes with fire axes this probably isn't your game, as there's rather a lot of that. The plot's poorly explained and the ending's a little unsatisfying.

The standard of realism is so high overall that when your immersion is broken it's particularly jarring. Some unrealistic shadow behaviour lets down the graphical side of the equation, and in terms of gameplay you'll be sceptical about the game's locked door system, where some locks can be smashed off with a sledgehammer while others will only yield to a crowbar or a shovel.

The game's achievements and bonus content systems send you looking for dead birds and pieces of metal in the levels. Not only is hunt-and-find gameplay not a great fit for a survival horror, but you're not given any reason why dead birds are something your character would want to collect. Revelations late in the game suggest that not knowing why you're doing it may be the point of the exercise, which in other circumstances could have been clever, but here it just falls flat.

Speaking of achievements, one achievement rewards you for completing the game without using firearms. Playing that way actually makes the game spookier, which is great, but unfortunately the tutorial level all but orders you to shoot a gun, so by the time you realise this achivement exists you've probably already blown your shot at it.

All told, Condemned is an excellent game and one of the best survival horror titles I've ever played. It's highly recommendable as one of the stand-out titles on the XBox 360 (plus it's also available on PC) and it's been out long enough you can probably find it at bargain prices in budget bins and second-hand stores. Go get it now.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

New XBox Experience

The new XBox 360 dashboard is here, for those who connect their consoles to the intertubes, and it's mostly an improvement. I guess.

The marketplace is much easier to navigate, which was the main focus of the upgrade, and it sure is nice to see the cover images for games float past as you browse them. It's also great that you can go from the data of a game you've played directly to the DLC for it.

On the other hand, Avatars are pretty underwhelming as there's not really anything you can do with them and everyone's tends to look pretty much the same. Plus at this stage the whole update is buggy as hell, reporting non-existent connection problems when browsing online content and suffering massive black-screen delays when exiting from some game titles back to the dash. The change-your-avatar system is poorly integrated, requiring the system to apparently load a dedicated application, and the dashboard automatically opens to the "Spotlight" channel instead of the "My XBox" channel which for some reason irritates me.

In game the changes are a mixed bag. The XBox Guide now opens in the middle of the screen instead of along the side, which is just stupid, especially if you're watching video. To make up for that, its functionality is vastly expanded and pretty much contains the entire old-style blade menu, which means you can view achievements for other games and browse DLC without exiting what you're currently playing.

There's the much-vaunted party system, too, which lets you keep up to eight players linked together across multiple games. I don't play a lot of Halo or Gears so I don't really have much occasion for eight-player gaming. Originally you were going to be able to watch NetFlix video as a party, but Australia didn't get NetFlix and the sharing functionality was ripped out anyway, which is a shame because as far as I was concerned that was going to be a killer app.

All in all it's much of a muchness really. In its current state it's pretty unexciting; it'll depend on where Microsoft takes it from here whether all the effort was really worth it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Climbing Games

The forgotten genre of "climbing games". I guess in 1982 pretty much everything was a platformer, a driving game or a shooter, so you could afford to discriminate based on which direction your character moved in. I personally was a big fan of vertically scrolling shooters but it's only with time that I've been won over to the horizontal variety.

Also, pardon my sudden abandonment of geek cred, but who's the character on the right supposed to be? I recognise Mario (or rather Jumpman) on the left and what may or may not be Donkey Kong at the top but the dude with the insect wings is a mystery to me.

Dial M For MODEM

This appears to be the opening page in an article from the December 1982 issue of Electronic Fun Computers (or possibly the "Computers" section of Electronic Fun). The text reads:
Dial M For MODEM

You've uncrated your machine, mastered BASIC and taken over the family TV set. But what do you do once you've played all the games and tried your hand at a few elementary graphic designs? You get a modem. Then - with the help of your telephone - you're ready to tap into remote databases and shop at Saks, research the family tree, play new video games and find out what the weather's like in Tanzania - without leaving your easy chair. The fun of personal computing has just begun.
I long for this idyllic age of proto-computing in which it was possible to "play all the games", and in which the receiver of a standard personal telephonic device was an important component of your MOdulator-DEModulator.

I'm also amused by how the computer comes in a crate, and the hypothetical operator is suggested to have mastered the BASIC programming language before hooking the computer up to a screen. This is a literal depiction of early 80s computing and not at all narrative licence.

For those who are interested, I've drawn this from a Flickr pool of similarly archaic early 1980s computing posters. There are lols to be had from its inspection.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go tap into some remote databases. Possibly in Tanzania. Possibly.

EDIT: Actually, I have to give this article props for spelling modem entirely in lowercase. They were well ahead of the literary crowd at a time when most people were busy reminding you that MODEM is a (stupid-ass) acronym.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stardock To Helm New Star Control

It was going to take a mighty piece of news indeed to get to me to forget about all the triple-A releases that I totally can't afford this month. Luckily, such news has been delivered.

Gamasutra is featuring an interview with Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock (Galactic Civilizations) in which Wardell says that their next games are going to be a new Master of Orion and a new Star Control.

Better still, the new games are going to be based on Master of Orion 2 and Star Control 2. The horrible third iterations of those franchises will be discarded like the chaff they are. ("We just pretend that never happened," says Wardell.)

But how, you may ask, will Stardock secure the rights? No-one cares! If big fistfuls of money won't let them put the Star Control name on a new box, then they'll go down the Bioshock route and make one of those "spiritual successors" that are all the rage these days. And, you know, that's fine by me.

Stardock is on my big list of developers worth trusting, a list notable for absences like "Midway" and "Sega", and this is pretty much the best news ever. Ever.

Now, take everything I've said above and go and blog it. And tell your friends. Your friends, and also strangers. It is not an over-reaction to use YouTube. I say this because wishing things sometimes makes them true, and candy-filled space unicorns only appear to people who believe in them, and suchlike. True story. And once you've done all that word-spreadage, come on back here, so I can mention that, actually, these appear to just be options that Stardock is exploring, or thinking about, rather than actual new game announcements. And you can hear that, and put on your pouty face, and we can all go drink ourselves happy.

This is the way news works.

(Read the actual interview.)

UPDATE: Zounds! I realised this article was totally lacking context. Some among you may not even know why this is great news. So, to fill you in, let me say this: Star Control 2 was the most awesome game ever made. I think it shot Hitler. With a crossbow. In space. A sequel would be like if it had done all that while riding a dinosaur. That should clear up the confusion. Thanks.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Mentioning Ugh! the other day has reminded me of another excellent PC game from the era of ye olde VGA graphics, which is of course Stunts.

Developed in 1990 by Distinctive Software (Test Drive, 4D Boxing) and published by 80s legend Brøderbund, Stunts was excellent for a number of reasons and it's a mystery to me how it's escaped a more widely known place in gaming canon.

To me, good driving games have always been about capturing the fun of playing with toy cars, and Stunts nails this. Most of the game involves jumping gaps, looping the loop, zooming around at high speeds and crashing into things. Its mission in life is to string together as many "holy crap!" moments as possible, back to back with nothing in between.

Also, Stunts is simple. There's no messing around with cutscenes or pimping your car or changing gears - it's all zoom, all the time. The mark of a classic.

Third, and most importantly, Stunts comes with a track editor - a track editor which is incredibly easy to use, and yet rather deep. Even a monkey can come up with their own improbable collection of loops, jumps, and inconveniently placed windmills. I probably spent as much time in the editor as I did in the actual game.

Stunts apparently still has a crazy-active fan community, and the game itself is abandonware and can be downloaded at (amongst other places) Abandonia. (Click here to download.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Another browser game for today. This one's called SHIFT and it's actually quite unique. Like every second casual game these days it rampantly burglarises a lot of its cool from Portal but it's all justified in the context of an absolute gem of a central game mechanic and some extremely solid level design.

Unfortunately explaining the core concept ruins one of the early moments in the game, so I'm going to let you discover it for yourself. However, I can say that it's a platformer (my arch-nemesis) and yet I loved it to pieces.

You should go investigate for yourself. It's really very clever.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Child's Play Remake

I post this photo (a) because it is awesome and (b) it reminds me of how hilariously ludicrous the Child's Play movie franchise is. There's not a plot point in the first movie that isn't stupid, starting with the dangerous killer who just happens to know a life-transferring voodoo ritual, and moving on to a doll-peddling hobo and ending with a hideously protracted final showdown in which a mangled Chucky refuses to die.

I also post it because (c) franchise director Don Mancini is apparently in the process of remaking the original Child's Play. Mancini will be taking the original story and "pushing it further" and "making a very terrifying version" of the first film, which "is pretty scary as it is".

Mancini, who not only directed but also wrote for the first film, has gone on record as saying that all that voodoo business wasn't in his script, and was added by other, apparently less talented, hands. Mancini says he envisaged Chucky as being "the living embodiment of the kid's id", and no disembodied serial killers were involved at all. That's a lot cooler. That's a movie I'd like to see.

Anyone else cautiously cheerful about this idea?

Hanna In A Choppa

Helicopter physics games have been around for millennia. Primitive cave paintings show neanderthal man struggling with the vagaries of WASD control configurations and floaty flying avatars.

Actually I might just be getting confused with 1992 shareware title Ugh!, possibly the best game about flying caveman taxidrivers ever made. That thing was where it was at. In fact, while we're taking a leisurely stroll down Nostalgia Avenue, why don't you go download Ugh! for free and get your cro-magnon on old-school style.

But that's not what I'm posting about today. For those of you for whom 16-bits is just not enough bits, there's a fancy-pancy modern browser-based helicopter game which I just now this minute discovered. It is called Hanna In A Choppa and it is, in the vernacular, "rather good". The frustration of this type of game has always come from when you inevitably ram into things, avoiding which tends to be the point of the game. Hanna has a nice balance, failing you for only the most spectacular crashes, but rewarding you with shiny achievements if you go the extra yard for a perfect flight. It's also got a wide variety of missions, starting with predictable "navigate this tight corridor" levels but working up to rescue-at-sea scenarios and the provision of monster-sized hairdressing.

Hanna In A Choppa is available through Kongregate, and probably some other casual gaming portals. Y'all should go play it some. I'm not kidding. It's delicious.

PlayNC Support FTW

I've ended up getting an excellent response from PlayNC support which I'm highly satisfied with. Vastly better than my experiences with Blizzard customer service, and I'm now inclined to play whatever NCSoft serves up next.

Thus concludes my support experiment.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Support Experiment - Promising Results

I was all set to write an angry email about not getting an answer from PlayNC, but then I found that I had received an answer, it was a very promising one, and Gmail had for some reason decided to hide it from me.

So at this stage, bearing in mind my issue is not yet completely resolved, I am cautiously approving PlayNC support as being probably awesome.

UPDATE: Apparently my support ticket has now been "escalated". That's good, right?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Support Experiment

I'm doing an experiment.

Today I cancelled my City of Heroes subscription because, well, I haven't played the thing for at least three months and don't plan to ever return. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't excellent. I play most single player games for a couple of weeks; City of Heroes lasted me about that long, so it's not like it was substandard.

Anyway, the experiment. The same day I cancelled, my subscription unluckily came up and I've been automatically billed for the next few months. I've sent a polite, reasonable request to PlayNC support asking whether it might be possible for that amount to be refunded and my access to the game blocked immediately. I've noted that they probably don't have any legal obligation to do that, and they'd essentially be doing me a favour because they're reasonable people and value me as a repeat customer over many of their games, including Guild Wars, City of Heroes and a brief flirtation with Tabula Rasa.

So, will I:

(a) receive an unhelpful automated reply and have no way to contact an actual human? (I call this the World of Warcraft option.)

(b) be told that I have to ring an international phone number at 3 am in the morning to discuss the matter further? Or:

(c) get a helpful and personal response, prompting me to do a gushing post about how excellent PlayNC support is?

Let's find out!

Obama's Victory Speech In Full

Barack Obama's Chicago victory speech from yesterday, in full. A cleaner, tighter, but sadly non-embeddable version is also available from the BBC.

There's a certain feeling in Australia almost of guilt. Of guilt because we care. This is America's election; this is an election happening to other people in another nation, across international seas. It's an election we don't vote in. We don't pick the candidates, we don't run the campaign, and ours is not the privilege to turn up to the voting booths on the big day. But still, we care.

Obama's victory yesterday was hugely emotional for any number of people. I am sure it is very welcome for a great many people in America, but it is also possessed of a powerful significance here in Australia. This matters to us, possibly more than our own Federal elections of last year. We care

The reason we care is that, for better or for worse, our wagon is hitched to America. At the close of the 19th century we may have been bannermen to the British Empire but by the dawn of the 21st we were all but the unacknowledged fifty-first United State.

And it felt bad. It felt bad to go to war for America. It felt bad to be apologists for America. It felt bad to be the henchmen to America's foreign-policy mad scientist. It felt like we were on the wrong side. Nobody wants to be Mussolini to somebody else's Hitler. Nobody wants to be the sidekick to someone who is inescapably wrong.

Strife may come and war may come but if they do let us at least know that we are engaged because of what we believe in. Let us believe in our own rightness. Let us do it on our own feet because we believe it is the necessary thing.

I think this is why Obama's victory matters. It's a thing America can be proud of. They can be proud that they have voted for the possibility of something better. There are hard times ahead, and they may have successes and they may have failures, but they will be able to say that they tried.

And it matters for us, for Australians, because once again we can feel that we're on the right side. It's been a long time since we were the proud battlers, since we were the lucky country, and that's been a loss I think we've all felt, but if Australia is to remember its own excellence it starts with the quiet assurance among ourselves that we are the good guys. And I think that, finally, that has begun.

This is a victory for all of Obama's campaign team, but I'd like to especially mention Obama's speechwriter, Jon Favreau (no relation to the Iron Man director). Working in concert with Obama, who I understand is a pretty decent speechwriter himself, Favreau's speechwork has been some of the most continually electrifying political rhetoric I have ever heard and I'd like to congratulate him for bringing a return to this consummate height of political address. The "ark of history" speech above is but one example; I think the speeches of this campaign are going to remembered and quoted and drawn from for a very long time to come, and that is an excellent thing.

Thanks, Jon.

RIP Michael Crichton

Author Michael Crichton died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Crichton is most famous for his science-fiction novels, including The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Congo, Sphere and Prey. He was also the creator of medical drama ER.

Crichton gained fame and notoriety in his later years for his fierce scepticism towards the idea of global warming, the dangers of second-hand smoke, and the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Whether or not you're a fan of his politics (I'm not), his books are highly entertaining, particularly his earlier writing. If you've never read a Michael Crichton novel, can I suggest you all go out and commemorate his work by reading The Great Train Robbery which (a) is excellent and (b) has the most consistently absurd misuse of period dialogue ever to appear in a novel.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Important Presidential Fact #1

In honour of the large number of Americans getting out today to vote in what seems to be a promisingly one-sided election, I'd like to bring your attention to this compelling presidential fact that I just learned right now:

You would think that 27th President of the United States William Howard Taft would have been happy to have an entire town named after him, and indeed that's what happened during the 1920s when a California municipality declared itself to be called Taft in his honour. He may have been less pleased, however, to discover that the town was formerly named Moron. Moron is today known for its annual "Oildorado" oil festival, which features the election of an "Oildorado Queen" and contests of skill at such pursuits as backhoe operation and beard-growing. Other town achievements include a nation-leading consumption of methampthetamines.

Also, here's a bonus "fact": legend has it that the corpulent President Taft once became wedged in the White House bathtub, requiring six attendants and a tub of butter to get free. Hilarious if real. Wikipedia lists this as God's honest truth but fails to provide a citation, much to my annoyance.

Anyone else out there got any Important Presidential Facts that need sharing? This sort of thing is of vital interest to the voting public.

Disco Stick, Again

In deference to the ridiculous number of people who have reached my blog from Google and then been soundly disappointed, I would once again like to use the phrase "disco stick".

Which I am sure is not any kind of salacious double entendre, and instead refers to those glowy tubes you buy at a rave. Surely.

Once again: "disco stick".

That is all.

Read This

Picture: you're standing around with your friends, and you hand one of them a document, and go, "Here, read this." The response is pretty standard: "What does it say?"

I love reading, but there's a time and place. It's not a social activity. It requires concentration, it requires a relaxed pace, and it requires something inherently worth reading.

No wonder, then, that MMos do such a bad job of delivering story through flavor text.

As mentioned previously, I'm playing World of Warcraft again. Being a long time Horde player, the Alliance content is wholly new to me, so I just ran the Stockades for the first time yesterday. We killed a bunch of guys. Who were they? I don't know. Why did they need killing? Beats me. I turned in some quests and got given some money. The questgivers seemed pleased that I'd murdered these guys, so I guess it's all okay.

World of Warcraft has thousands of quests, each with a couple of paragraphs of introduction text. Some quests have great introductions that enrich the world, while others are little more than a series of puns and pop culture references. The only way to tell which is which is to read them. Or alternately, you can skip all the text and just click the "Accept Quest" button.

World of Warcraft is a social game. A lot of the time that you are playing, you are intended to be grouping. Other people's time is valuable. When you are standing outside an instance, and somebody shares you one of their quests, you do not have time to read. You can hear their virtual foot tapping.

Reading text is not gameplay. Time spent reading is time spent not killing. It is time spent not levelling. For that matter, it is time spent not chatting with real people.

Text pops up in a window. While you are reading, you can see time passing around you. You can see people moving past you and presumably having more fun than you. Your chat window is scrolling. MMOs are a distraction-rich environment.

For all these reasons, text is an inherently poor way to present story in an MMO. It is not a fault of the players. It is not a fault of the flavor text writing team. It is just a bad idea. If you want to immerse players in the lore and narrative of your game this is not the way to do it.

The acquisition of lore needs to be passive. It needs to happen while players are doing other things. Storytelling needs to be during gameplay, not between it. Players need to be learning while they're fighting, while they're looting, while they're exploring.

Flavour text doesn't have to be long to be deep. A look at collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering or Legend of the Five Rings shows that an intriguing world can be built using only one line of text per card. A lot of small fragments can go together to form a greater whole. Everyone who's played Alliance is familiar with the kobold line, "You no take candle!" This could as easily have been a fragment of lore or flavour text.

Story can be told in many ways. Imagine that you want to tell players that a great war is being fought in an area. World of Warcraft has done this several ways, and is slowly improving. One of their first tries is in the Horde side of the Desolace zone. Here, an NPC who is just standing there, doing nothing, tells you in flavour text that they're in a desperate struggle against the centaur-like Kolkar. It's not terribly exciting.

A later try was during the Ahn-Quiraj war event. Here, NPCs at capital cities presented you with flavour text about the war, and visitors to the Silithus zone would see roving warbands, catapults being assembled, and major factional leaders convened around a map table.

World of Warcarft's best attempt, though, is one seen by all players setting foot in Outland for the first time. Upon stepping through the Dark Portal, you find yourself overlooking a massive raging battle where Horde and Alliance soldiers strive endlessly against huge demonic entities. No flavour text, no quest - you know exactly how desperate the battle is because it's right there in front of you.

This is a long way of saying show, don't tell, which is a key concept of storytellling in any medium.

If you must have text, at least make it dynamic. I understand that Warhammer Online is taking steps in this direction with its Tome of Knowledge. Lore should be collected, and be accessible at any point, any where. It should be broken down into discrete segments, with links to other relevant content. Players in World of Warcraft can already put dynamic links in chat which refer to loot, skills, and other game content; they should similarly be able to link to quick lore summaries. Picture your group leader saying, "Okay, now we're about to do [Uldaman]; this is one of the [Titan] cities so it's all [golems] and [dwarves]." The lore is right there if you want it, which is much better than scrolling back through quest descriptions or running off to find in-game books.

Sound can do a lot of work, too; Blizzard have experimented with zone-wide spoken dialogue in a few areas, most notably outside the Black Temple in Shadowmoon Valley where you can hear Ilidan's voice whenever a raid group reaches the final boss of the Black Temple instance. This can be annoying if done poorly, but with a sufficiently wide variety of dialogue and a reasonable spacing between repetitions players could hear a lot about the world while they quest.

Look, I don't ask for much; just do it a little better. When I do a new instance, I'd like to hear from other players, "The end boss here is Gromsh Arrowsong, who found this cave system but then was driven mad by all the ghosts," rather than, "The end boss is a big orc with a bow." In fact, I'd like to know that for myself when I start the instance, rather than learn it from the NPC nameplate when I finally get to the end. And ideally, it would be nice to have heard about Gromsh and know who he is four to five levels before I even get to his instance, so the whole experience means something and feels like the culmination of a story.

I note that Bioware has promised a story-driven experience for their upcoming Star Wars MMO. I'm looking forward to seeing how they do that. I'm not expecting much, but it's alright to hope, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Penny Arcade Episode 2

Regular readers will recall my review of the first installment of Penny Arcade Adventures was mixed; although the game was generally funny, the user interface was godawful and some bass-ackwards achievement implementation made finishing the game a tedious chore.

Penny Arcade Episode 2 fixes pretty much all of those problems, leaving the competent and genuinely entertaining core of the game to shine through.

First up, Penny Arcade is about murdering things. Last time around it was mimes and hoboes; in Episode 2 you'll get to go at it with crazy people and the obscenely wealthy. You wander from place to place and proceed to get your murder on with pretty much everyone you come across; in between all the good-times-killin' you can go searching for funny in the nearby scenery, and have hilarious dialogues with those few NPCs you come across who are non-murderable.

Being, theoretically, an RPG, levelling up is an important part of the mixture. If you've played Episode 1 you can import your level 15 character from that game, or if you're a newbie you can start afresh with a two-level penalty. Episode 2 takes you through to level 30, and replaces your boring old Episode 1 weapons with a new set of slaughtering tools, which are again fully upgradeable.

Surprisingly, the story actually begins to gather some steam in this episode. Two of the major villains are tied quite personally to your party members. This simple bit of character development does a lot to make things more immediate and relevant, and gives you a good reason to want to come back for the next round of goon-murdering.

Penny Arcade's real-time combat system is its biggest (read: only) innovation, and it's also its biggest problem. Once combat begins, it continues non-stop; while you're searching item menus for healing goodies, the bad guys are stabbing you. Minimising damage, and for that matter not getting killed by even the wimpiest of villains, requires blocking, which is done via button presses timed to your enemies' attacks. Your attacks also activate reaction-based minigames for maximising your kidney-punching. All that reactioneering makes combat stressful, attention-demanding, and occasionally frustrating. It's probably for the best, though, as without this gimmick it would be painfully dull.

The battling is better in Episode 2 than it was before, though. You now get an on-screen indication of when you'll need to block. Your attack minigames are more entertaining as well. There's adjustable difficulty settings; "normal" difficulty seemed to me a little more forgiving than last time around, as I was able to make it from start to finish without seeing any of my characters knocked out.

Episode 2 is a lot more colourful than last time around. And I mean that as a metaphor for "foul-mouthed". The language in Episode 1 may have been reasonably restrained, but the dialogue here goes off the hook, starting with your basic healing item, which "fucks pain up the ass", and continuing uphill. This is a great thing as it makes the proceedings feel a lot more like genuine Penny Arcade but if you're of a sensitive disposition you should probably avert your eyes for the entire length of the game.

For XBox 360 owners, the gamerpoint system is much better. Last time around the achievements asked you to play the game against the grain and do things contrary to the way they were intended. That's all out the door this time, and instead the achievements encourage you to build skill and finesse, with focus on things such as timing perfect blocks. It's fairly easy to pick up all 12 in a single playthrough. This is a great example of using achievements to enrich the core gaming experience.

The weakest point of this episode is the final boss battle; in the grand tradition of other really bad boss battles over time, developer Hothead has opted for a final fight which features unique and poorly-explained game mechanics. This was the only point in the game where I had to go looking for hints, and it was exactly the point where I least wanted the game flow to be broken. Once again, developers, unique mechanics on the last level is a stupid idea.

All told, Episode 2 is a vast improvement over Episode 1. If you tried the first offering and were undecided, Episode 2 offers a great reason to come back for a second taste. However, there's nothing here that makes the series more accessible than it was before, so if you're not a Penny Arcade fan or you really hated the Episode 1 then this is still not the game the for you.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Lost Planet

There's a pretty decent game hidden in Lost Planet, but much like the icy planet it's set on, the end result will leave you cold.

This is a game from Capcom, who are responsible for such games as Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, Dead Rising and Onimusha. Those games have a lot of things in common - confusing plotlines, horrible dialogue, occasionally clunky controls and questionable pacing. Lost Planet has all those things.

What Capcom are also fairly well known for is solid central concepts and games that are a lot of fun despite themselves. That, essentially, is what Lost Planet is missing.

The game sees you playing Wayne, who looks an awful lot like Keanu Reaves. Wayne lives on a frozen planet where the colonists are continually troubled by giant bug-aliens called Akrid. Much like the sandworms of Frank Herbert's Dune, the Akrid are both a menace and a resource, as their bodies produce the valuable chemical known as "T-Eng" which powers pretty much everything in Wayne's world. Wayne's father gets killed by an Akrid, and then... some stuff happens. There's snow pirates, and an evil corporation, but it's really hard to care, or even follow what's going on. All you need to know is that there's some bugs and some soldiers, and they need killing.

About half of the time you're running around on foot, which is pretty fun. Wayne's a dab hand with a rifle, and he's also got access to a freeform grappling gun which lets him quickly reach high places and get the drop on the bad guys. You collect T-Eng both from destroyed scenery and from downed enemies, and as long as you've got T-Eng in the tank you can heal from any injury within seconds. However, the freezing cold of the environment continually saps your T-Eng supplies so you need to keep moving.

These parts of the game are pretty good. Granted, there are occasional problems with targeting, and Wayne has an unfortunate tendency to fall over and get stunned if he's so much as breathed on, but by and large the on-foot bits work and consistently entertain.

But sadly Lost Planet isn't content with being a second-rate Halo clone and it tries to push the envelope. It does this with mechs. Early on you'll get access to a bunch of plodding two-legged "Vital Suits" which work like a Mechwarrior-style machine, letting you open up a can of whup-ass at the cost of some speed and agility. These things are slow, they're annoying, and they're completely incapable of hitting anything smaller than they are (despite the fact that computer-controlled mechs don't seem to have that problem). You'll groan every time the game forces you to get suited up - which is often.

Later, the mechs upgrade to speedy spider-tanks, and finally in the last stages of the game you'll get a Zone of the Enders-style sword-wielding flying machine. The tanks are actually pretty cool, mostly because they're a good deal faster than the other models. The flying mech, though, is an abomination and takes most of the joy out of the endgame. I'd like to say again how bad an idea it is to implement a wholly new control scheme entirely for the purpose of your final boss fight.

The mechs are a lot of what's wrong with Lost Planet, but they're not all of it. The levels, for example, are poorly designed. Despite the grapple gun being really kind of cool, you won't get much use out of it. Enemies tend to come in swarms that leave no time to get creative with the terrain. The high ground is usually already claimed by your foes, plus many Akrid can fly, climb or jump. The game also introduces the early concept of using the terrain to your advantage by detonating explosive barrels near enemies but this is poorly followed up in later levels where the game hands out rocket launchers every three steps in any case.

It's not always easy to tell which way to go next; most levels feature "waypoints" which show the path forward, which is great, but towards the end of the game they're few and far between, and the mapping system is next to useless. It's nowhere near as bad as the mazes from Halo but it's still a little frustrating. Also, early levels introduce the idea that enemies are either finite, or respawn from a node which can be destroyed or closed. This is abandoned about halfway through the game without warning, which left me struggling with one level for some hours before realising that it was no longer possible to clear out all the Akrid and explore. Endlessly respawning enemies are almost always a bad idea and this is no exception. Particularly if you don't tell the player that there's no end to them.

I've mentioned that the plot is terrible. It's really difficult to care about what's going on; it's really just a matter of killing some bugs, killing some humans, killing a boss, and then repeating. It's again hard not to compare it to Halo; the plot in Halo was very poorly told but it least it felt like something important was happening. That's just not the case here.

Some good points: the music is excellent. It's not the kind of thing you'll be humming after you stop playing but it's still very, very good. The graphics are also clean and sharp, and most of the main character models are good-looking (although the major enemy is so cartoonish as to be funny). The Akrid bosses are suitably impressive, and while they're not always exciting to actually fight they at least feel appropriately epic.

There's also multiplayer, which I played at the 2006 Tokyo Game Show prior to its release and adored. I can't say whether it's any good in the final version because no one's playing it; you can't find a game for love or money. I can't help but feel that valuable development time went into an online mode that no-one bothered with when it could have been spent making the single-player experience not suck.

I've played both the XBox 360 and PC version and the 360 is definitely superior; the PC one is, essentially, an afterthought, right down to still referring to the 360 controller scheme when describing how to play. It had some stability issues for me as well, but that may have just been my PC.

Lost Planet isn't an awful game. For example, I played it all the way to the end, which isn't something I always do. On the other hand, it's distinctly sub-par. There are so many really, really good shooters out there on the market that there's just no reason why you should ever have to play something less than awesome. You're best served by spending more time with Halo, Gears of War, Resistance, FarCry, Crysis or something else of similar pedigree, and let Lost Planet remain lost.

Wrath of the Lich King - Game On?

I should mention that with World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King only ten days out, I'm looking for other players to help me wade through the new content.

I run a Kara-geared Troll Priest on Dath'Remar; I'm levelling a 30-something tank on the Alliance side of Doomhammer. Any takers?

You're welcome to post the usual round of WoW related mockery.

ALSO, in unrelated news: Lost Planet was not the game I was hoping for, Condemned is reminding me what good survival horror looks like, and Penny Arcade Episode 2 is a vast improvement without in any way becoming attractive to people who disliked the first one.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Mirror's Edge Demo

Yesterday I played the demo for upcoming EA/Dice parkour game Mirror's Edge. At the time I was impressed but not overwhelmed.

Things they got right:

(1) The controls are intuitive. Left bumper is "go high", left trigger is "go low", and that's all the buttons you'll use 90% of the time. Right bumper is a 180 degree turn, and right trigger is "hit things" which is equally appropriate for punching bad guys and bumping open doors. Face buttons are used for some specific moves including disarming enemies.

(2) Music. Which is gorgeous.

(3) Running. You will actually feel like you're running, not just floating across the environment. There's a real sense of physicality, of momentum, and of speed, which is good when you're generally navigating the environment but becomes awesome once you get some bad guys on your tail.

(4) Graphics are clean, sharp and uncluttered. They look good without getting in the way of your play.

(5) Physics. Faith falls at real-life speeds. That means it's a very short trip from the top of a skyscraper to the bottom, which is nice.

Things that aren't so good:

(1) Anything involving ledges. Shimmying on ledges is painfully slow and badly breaks up the pace, at least in the demo. It feels like this should be about twice as fast.

(2) "Failing" in the tutorial. During the intro level, any time you stuff anything up the game instantly takes you back before you tried. This has two problems; one is that you don't get to see the consequences of your failure. Attempting jumps is only exhilerating when it's understood that stuffing up means falling a really long way. Also the tutorial makes you watch your trainer do each move before you get to do it yourself, and these are effectively unskippable cutscenes you have to watch each time you stuff up.

Things I'm not sure about:

(1) Combat. It felt a little awkward in the demo but you don't get a lot of chances to use it so it may be that I'm just still learning it. It's very timing-based so it's probable that I'll eventually pick up the skill to make it work.

Anyway, having been impressed but not overwhelmed, I've woken up this morning realising that I must have more so I think I'll be buying this when it comes out.