Monday, March 30, 2009

Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders

Crystal Defenders is one of the worst tower defence games ever made and should not be played by anyone.

If you're not familiar with tower defence games, they go a little something like this: monsters troop across the screen following a fixed path, and you as the player have to erect towers to shoot them down before they reach the exit.

Crystal Defenders replaces the towers with characters from the Final Fantasy Tactics games, and replaces the monsters with... well, monsters. It's a strictly by-the-numbers affair. If you've played a tower defence game before, you've played this one.

The catch is this: the very best tower defence titles are Flash games, and are completely free to play. Crystal Defenders costs money, it has graphics which would look awkward on a 16-bit console, and it's significantly simpler and shorter than even the most basic of its web-based competitors.

For your money, you get twelve maps (fully half of which are little more than palette swaps), six deployable units, no in-game help or tutorial system, no unlockables, no story or victory animations, and an endless loop of some of Final Fantasy's worst crimes against the musical world.

It's also blisteringly hard. With no kind of guidance or strategy advice, even tower defence veterans will have a tough time clearing 30 waves on each of the maps. The strengths and weaknesses of your units aren't completely clear. Working out which units deal physical damage requires luck, guesswork, and some knowledge of other Final Fantasy games. Debuffs on enemies aren't marked, making it tough to assess the effectiveness of indirect damage, and survival ultimately requires not just killing the enemy, but correctly calling where you'll kill them, in order to allow you to deploy money-gathering thieves. Luckily, the availability of the internet will allow you to completely trivialise the game by playing a perfect round straight off the bat.

Crystal Defenders is available on Live Arcade, Wiiware and iPhone, and I understand it's exactly the same kind of garbage on each platform. It's emblematic of Square-Enix's general contempt for the casual and downloadable market and I urge you to avoid it as though it were made out of babies.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Prince of Persia Epilogue

After finally getting my copy of Prince of Pesia back from the bandits who've been borrowing it the last month or so, I've at long last had a chance to play through the Epilogue downloadable content.

Following immediately after the game's powerful ending, Epilogue sees the Prince and Elika on the run from Ahriman's power. Taking shelter in a dusty mausoleum, they stumble across a series of tunnels that run under the hills, providing a path to an area of comparitive safety.

The Epilogue doesn't shy away from the game's ending; in fact, the consequences of the ending are the core of the downloadable content. Elika is understandably not impressed by what's happened, but the Prince finally gets the chance to tell his side of the story. Not content with taking victory at a price, the Prince has chosen to gamble everything in the hopes of a more lasting win. Or at least, that's how his rationalisations go; it's clear his real motivations are more emotional than logical.

The writing in Epilogue is some of the best in the game, and as with the original content the dialogue and interplay between the Prince and Elika is the real meat of what's on offer. However, to experience it all you're going to have to put up with some of the most frustrating gameplay that Prince of Persia has to offer.

The gameplay side has seen some small improvements. There's a new attack option available - a running charge - and a new plate to unlock, which opens paths by summoning phantasmal wall sections into being. Also, the horrible plate-initiated flying sections are blessedly nowhere to be seen.

Checkpoints are fewer and further between, though - trips between one area of firm ground and the next can take upwards of a minute, which makes forward progress significantly harder. The rise in difficulty brings into sharper relief the game's mechanical problems, which were more forgiveable when you weren't falling to your death quite so often. The camera is still horrid, for example, sometimes automatically angling to where you need to go next but more often stubbornly pointing at dead ends while you're trying to look up and down for a way to progress.

The levels are unnecessarily dark; distinguishing the lethal shadow-blobs from clean wall at a distance can be tricky. Also, the timed sections make a return, where you have to clear a certain are before black fumes kill you. This mechanic was used well in the original content but here it's frustrating - the dark screen filter cause by the mechanic exacerbates the existing vision problems, and often the effect doesn't give you the necessary time to work out your next move while you're clinging to a mid-wall fissure and struggling with an uncooperative camera.

You'll have to deal with the green plates again, too. Those are the ones that send you charging up vertical walls at high speed. They were originally fun just due to the sense of speed involved; however, late in the original game the cheap collisions with scenery and the requirement to learn the route in advance rather than react on the fly made them a lot less welcome. That trend continues in Epilogue and the twenty minutes or so involving green plates are easily the worst twenty minutes in the game.

A lot of what made the original content addictive is missing, too. The levels proceed linearly, for example. There's no option to choose your next destination or revisit a previous one. You don't cleanse areas, so it's a lot less satisfying finishing a level, and there's no hunting for light seeds. The new collectible item is the "light fresco", a portion of glowing wall that you need to run or slide across to collect. You'll only be rewarded, though, for your first light fresco and your last, and the linear nature of the levels means that missing one (such as by not being aware that they could be collected) removes the incentive to go looking for any others.

For all its flaws, though, Epilogue is a first-class piece of downloadable content. It delivers maybe three or four hours of solid play, it's a non-stop parade of new levels and new challenges, it's built upon the very strong foundation of Prince of Persia's generally excellent gameplay, and it features some of the best story and writing currently available in a videogame.

If you enjoyed Prince of Persia, Epilogue isn't an optional extra, it's a must-have. It's an excellent addition to an excellent game and it only makes me more excited for the next installment of the Prince's adventures.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hope #2

Quick heads up: issue 2 of Grant Watson's bushfire-relief publication Hope is about to hit the virtual stands. I'm led to believe that there's something I wrote in it. Go get yourself a copy to find out if this is a true thing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

If you were wondering what Spike Jonze (director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has been doing with himself, the answer is: this. Where The Wild Things Are, a faithful recreation of the book that has nothing to do with the book. I have no idea how this is going to play out on-screen but I have the very real sense that it works.

Thanks to The Angriest for the heads-up.

Squeenix Hits Virtual Console

And let the name of Cecil strike fear into your heart!Hey Wii owners, it's a good week to be you. Not only did Madworld just drop into stores, but the Virtual Console is having something of a rennaissance.

Item the first: Sega, Taito and Nacmo are bringing some of their arcade hits to the service. The arcade versions, mind, not the dodgy console ports.

Item the second: Final Fantasy I through to VI are on their way to the Virtual Console in all their original non-enhanced glory. I assume that the ones that weren't originally released in the West (FF2, 3 and 5) are going to use the translations developed for the GBA / PS / DS adaptations.

Item the third: If you just can't get enough of Cecil The Death Knight from FF IV, you will be stoked by the appearance of FFIV sequel The After Years on Wiiware, alongside My Life As A Dark Lord, which is apparently a sequel to the poorly received My Life As A King.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


So today I was going to talk about hidden object games and their ominous rise to success but instead of that I'm going to instead travel back in time to 2006 so that Wonderella is new and fresh and I can recommend it to you before you discover it for yourself.

Seriously, it is worth reading. You will find The Non-Adventures of Wonderella both compelling and hilarious. True story. I have obligingly linked you to the first comic so you can follow the funny in sequential order. It is the comedy of the human condition. Haven't we all been tricked by leprechauns that one time?

I finish this post on-topic with the following statement-slash-rhetorical-question: Halo Wars - you promised so much but delivered so little - what is up with that?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Max Payne 3

One thing you can count on: you push a man too far, and sooner or later he'll start pushing back.

New Max Payne game? Yes. Nothing to do with the movie? Thankfully. Developed by Remedy, the people behind the first two? Not so much. They're still "hard at work" on Alan Wake, which will be completed as soon as they solve the pesky problems associated with getting hell to freeze, so this one's being done by Rockstar Vancouver, the team who did Bully. (And, for that matter, Homeworld, under their old name of Barking Dog.)

I didn't like Bully. Apparently, though, I'm in the minority on that, and in any case I'm more than ready to fork out for a new installment of Payne-themed action-noir. For those not familiar with why Max Payne is awesome, go check out this page full of quotes.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Peggle (Live Arcade)

I first played Peggle on the PC, when Valve inexplicably shipped a demo with the Steam release of The Orange Box. At the time I found it strangely addictive; playing it again today, on XBox Live Arcade, very little has changed.

Like most games by developer PopCap, Peggle's premise is simple. Part Breakout, part pachinko, Peggle sees you firing balls from the top of the screen into a field which is densely packed with coloured pegs. You're aiming to hit as many pegs as possible through a clever series of bounces before the inevitable tug of gravity pulls the ball off the bottom of the screen.

As with good games, the simple premise is easy to understand, hard to master. Your task is complicated by the peg colours. Blue pegs rack up points, but bring you no closer to finishing the level. Red pegs are the key to victory - clear them all to finish the level - and the more red pegs you hit, the higher your score multiplier builds, giving you an incentive to clear red clusters early rather than late. A single purple peg roves randomly around the field; hitting it results in a big point boost. And green pegs unleash special abilities ranging from the chaotic Multiball through to the awesome Zen Shot (wherein the computer subtly adjusts your chosen trajectory to maximise your points).

The Live Arcade version of Peggle is much the same as the PC version. The core experience is a direct port from the PC, identical level layouts and all. On the one hand, aiming your shots with the controller is slower and less precise than using a mouse. To compensate, the Live Arcade edition includes additional Challenge Levels, plus a lame multiplayer mode where players take turns firing balls into the same field. On average it seems exactly as fun as the original.

If you haven't played Peggle yet, you really should. Live Arcade makes downloading the free demo a breeze, so check it out and see whether you're one of the many people for whom Peggle is a horrible addictive drug.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Maw

The charm of The Maw's title character completely fails to compensate for the charmlessness of everything else in the game.

The Maw is a title by indie developer TwistedPixel, recently released for XBox Live Arcade. In it, you play a little blue alien who's been captured by some big blue aliens. There's no speech in The Maw, and in fact no dialogue or text of any kind, so we're left to deduce what's going on by the frenzied muggings of the participants. A quick trip to the internet informs that your character's name is "Frank", and that his captors are "Bounty Hunters", although what Bounty Hunters might want from Frank is a mystery.

In any case, the Bounty Hunters' ship crashes within moments of Frank's capture, and as Frank stumbles dazed from the crash site, he comes across Maw, a purple globby-thing who is apparently a fellow captive. Frank finds a kind of electro-leash with which he can lead Maw around, and from that point forward the game involves escorting Maw across the countryside while feeding everything that moves into Maw's steadily growing pie-hole.

There's a central dynamic of "Maw eats things, Maw grows bigger, Maw can eat bigger things" which at first seems like a cheap knock-off of Katamari Damacy. Further time with the game reveals that first impressions are correct. However, none of Katamari's charm is present here. The number of things that Maw can actually eat is quite small, and the environments don't really scale up to match Maw as he grows, which eventually leads to levels where much of the proceedings are completely obscured by Maw's giant head, leaving you to wander around aimlessly in the hope that there's something edible in front of the the big purple noggin that's blocking your vision.

The problems involved in seeing past Maw are compounded by horrid camera controls, which refuse to allow you to look upwards. The levels are three dimensional, so looking up is often fairly important, but the only directional options offered by the camera are "look at Frank's feet" and "look at the grass ten feet in front of Frank".

Speaking of the grass, it's pretty horrible. Ground, mountainsides and sky are rendered throughout the game using only a single low-resolution texture each; it's strongly reminiscent of Nintendo 64 platformers, but without the liveliness and artistic spirit that made the best of that brotherhood sparkle. While Maw and Frank are detailed and well-animated, the environments they traipse through are eye-burningly ugly.

Not only are they ugly, they're small. All but the last couple of levels are aggressively tiny. The game compensates for the small environments by requiring Frank and Maw to move at an infuriating crawl. Never has a game been more in need of a "run" button. When you're moving forward in the level it's not too bad, but if you need to suddenly backtrack to the beginning of the level to find an edible you missed earlier it's controller-hurlingly awful.

As a pseudo-platformer it's obligatory for The Maw to have collectibles. Each level features a finite number of edibles, plus a "hidden" flying bug-thing. Finding these collectibles is never harder than destroying ever object and following every path, but the edibles are often quite small and stand out poorly from the background, so it's easy to miss one just due to the art design. At best, missing one means a long slog back across terrain you've previously covered; at worst, it means replaying the level.

Maw can gain a variety of powers by eating unique animals. These range from a fire-breath to lasers to a ramming horn, and getting the powers is usually more fun than not getting them. In most cases there's only a single power per level; on the few occasions when you switch powers mid-level it's more of a curse than a blessing as if you've missed any edibles only collectible by the first power, it'll take a replay to get them once you've moved to the new power.

It is impossible to die in The Maw. The very few things that actively attack only bump you backwards. Typically, this kind of design decision would be in order to allow you to enjoy sandbox-style play or exploration without the threat of failure hanging over your head, but in The Maw there's nowhere to explore and nothing to do, so it really just feels like you're wandering around a small padded room while wearing a straightjacket. In later levels, the game will literally play itself, with The Maw charging forwards and blowing things up while you as player find your controls suddenly non-responsive.

The nerf-bat level of danger, combined with tiny levels, few activities to engage in, and a miniscule amount of content overall, make The Maw tough to recommend. It's just non-intutive enough to frustrate the children who are (apparently) its target audience, and for mature gamers, even casual ones, there's simply not enough on offer to entertain for more than an hour or so.

Maw itself is a very likeable character, but one character is just not enough to lift this game out of the doldrums. Take your money elsewhere on Live Arcade. It's not as though the rest of the marketplace doesn't spoil you for choice.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saints Row

DefJam-signed music artist David Banner first came to my attention for his appearance in the incredibly excellent DefJam: Fight for NY, in which he was a playable character who, in a shoutout to his Marvel Comics namesake, started battles by yelling, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry - bitch!"

It was dialogue that snapped, that rippled, that drifted across all that followed it like a silken banner blown by distant, heroic winds. In my mind, it raised the bar for speechmaking - the very science of speaking had been evolved. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt had had this technology, we might have realised that we had nothing to fear but fear itself, bitch. Had it been in possession of Churchill, we surely would have fought them on the beaches, bitch, fought them on the landing grounds, bitch, fought them in the fields and, bitch, in the streets, and so forth.

It is with unleavened delight that I discovered the good Mr Banner had delivered the title track to Saints Row. The anticipation of this musical masterpiece seasoned my early experiences with the game. Like all things worth having, acquiring this tune required work; it required unlocking, and by golly I unlocked. Collecting the last hidden CD from within the virtual city of Stilwater, I fired up the in-game music player, turned the relevant knobs to "Banner" and sat back to bask in the glory.

I was not disappointed. The lyrics to Saints Row's flagship tune - itself named "Saints Row" - proceed largely as follows:

"Holla bitch / holla bitch / y'all know me
Mississippi ho / I'm a real O.G.
If you're sick of being sick and you're tired of being broke
Go and get your guns and bring your ass to Saint's Row
Saints Row, bitch!
Saints Row, bitch!
(mumble mumble mumble mumble mumble), bitch!"

I'm telling you this story in order to warn you that had David Banner saying the word "bitch" been the sole redeeming feature of this game, with the rest being an unholy mashup of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy and Imagine Babyz, I would still have given it an enthusiastic pass mark. The man can do no wrong and, if Fight for NY is to be believed, he is not averse to throwing those who anger him in front of subway trains.

It is to Saints Row's enormous credit that it is possible to completely overlook the work of Mr Banner amid what may well be the greatest open-world game ever created by human beings.

Saints Row is a copy of Grand Theft Auto. If the box had borne the GTA logo, it would have been forgivable to mistake Saints Row for another entry in that august franchise. The thing about Saints Row, though, is that it is better.

Grand Theft Auto is the squalid third-world country squatting fetidly on Saints Row's borders. Saints Row is modern; in Saints Row they can afford luxuries like a user interface, a pathfinding overlay, and consistent mission difficulty. In Saints Row even the most ill-made vehicles are fun to drive, few if any cars engage in 360-degree rolls under normal driving conditions, and the whole game can be played from beginning to end without reference to a FAQ, hidden collectibles and all.

It's hard to imagine people who are unfamiliar with the Grand Theft Auto formula - possibly they exist in the darkest depths of Africa, or in the less popular homes for the aged - but for the purpose of refreshing memory it is this: you are set loose in a large virtual city, in which can be found guns, cars, innocent civilians, and police officers, and you are left to your own devices to cause havoc. In and amongst the creation of havoc you may find time to complete "missions", which advance a central storyline, and "side-jobs", which are allegedly optional and reward you by unlocking new weapons, abilities, and customisation options.

In GTA the havoc was great, but the difficulty of both missions and side-jobs would waver between "trivial" and "controller-snappingly infuriating" with all the predictability and grace of an inebriated hobo. Saints Row decides that too easy is, on the whole, a better place to be than too hard, and while you will certainly need concentration and focus to make progress, it's rare to need more than a couple of tries to finish any of the game's challenges.

That's great, because it lets you really concentrate on the game's strengths. The havoc-causing is front and centre, and it is almost exactly as good (in fact, almost exactly the same) as what Grand Theft Auto has been serving up for years. You smash cars into other cars, gun down civilians, blow things up with explosives, and then play cat-and-gun-toting-mouse with the cops until you eventually go down in a blaze of glory. The cops are noticeably more wussy than their GTA counterparts; they're slower to anger, easier to evade, and they're missing the auto-arrest-if-they-catch-you-prone power that made the GTA fuzz so effective. That's fine, though, because you're also able to piss off Saints Row's various rival gangs, and gangbangers are vastly more dangerous than their GTA equivalents.

What's better than all the havoc, though, is the story. If you've played GTA, you'll know that the story there is little more than an excuse to carry you through a succession of unlikely psychopaths who'll make awkward double-entendres while telling you to kill hundreds of innocent civilians (which you invariably do without question).

Saints Row, by contrast, sets you up as a fledgling member of the 3rd Street Saints, one of the city of Stilwater's four major gangs. Pushed into a corner by their rivals, almost completely stripped of territory, Saints leader Julius instigates a campaign to save the Saints from extinction and retake the city. Naturally, you get involved in the fight, and as the battle against the competition heats up you rise through the ranks, eventually taking a lead role in the final onslaughts against Stilwater's key gang figures.

Rather than linking missions to caricatured madmen, Saints Row carefully and efficiently introduces you to Julius' lieutenants - Dex, Tony, Lin, and Johnny Gat. It also brings the leadership of the rival gangs on-stage at any early point - each gang has three well-realised characters in its upper ranks, whose internal politics as shown through surprisingly well-written cutscenes offers a real personality and immediacy to the missions you'll be undertaking.

These aren't just questgivers - these characters have interrelationships. The history and brotherhood between Julius and rival gang-leader Benjamin King gives poignancy to the final missions against the Vice Kings gang. The mixture of hero-worship and frustration that the cool-headed Dex has for the violence-prone Johnny brings him to life as a character, and offers understandable reasons for the often circuitous missions he tasks you with. Lin, sent undercover with the Westside Rollerz, is in danger of coming off as a one-note bitch, but ends up a surprisingly memorable and powerful part of the overall story. Minor characters take surprising twists, becoming tragic heroes or unlikely villains.

Don't get me wrong - this isn't fine art. It's still a violent cops-and-robbers story about two-bit hoods with a dubious moral code. It's derivative and it's contrived and it's frequently crass. But it takes itself seriously, and it's not afraid to occasionally do things just a little better and deeper than it strictly had to, and after the narrative famine that GTA has been offering for years Saints Row makes for a feast of awe-inspiring proportions.

The combination of sandbox and story is supported by a whole host of fine detail that really lets the game shine. You can plot courses on your minimap; you pause the game and set a destination, and the game sketches out an optimal route in glowing blue dots. The pathfinder tool isn't aware of the many shortcuts across private land, and it gets a bit muddled with Stilwater's labyrinthine aerial overpass system, but it's still a vast improvement on trying to memorise the streets of the city's 36 distinct districts.

You've got a cell phone; I've heard a lot of people making a big deal of this feature in GTA IV but Saints Row got there first. You can call friends to back you up in combat, you can call taxis to ferry you quickly around the city, call ambulances for medical attention, and of course call a number of "secret" numbers for short humorous pre-recorded messages.

You can customise your character's clothing and appearance, setting racial type, hairdo, and outfit, with (naturally) more customisation options unlocking as you progress. There's a stupidly large number of radio stations to tune in to as you drive around, although (David Banner aside) the quality of the licensed music is vastly inferior to GTA's typical offering. The hip-hop collection is probably the highlight, featuring Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, and Xzibit, among other recognisable names.

Saints Row is the game that Grand Theft Auto has always wanted to be. It's loud, it's memorable, it's addictive, and most of all it's incredibly fun and if you're an XBox 360 owner you've really got no good excuse not to have your own copy of this game. Bitch.

Friday, March 20, 2009


At least half of the fun in mentioning Mirror's Edge every once and a while is the reaction it gets from everyone who disliked it.Please pardon the lack of posts; I've had a week or so where I just wasn't in the mood.

Gaming in brief:

- I finished the original Saints Row. It may unashamedly copy Grand Theft Auto lock, stock and barrel, but it's entirely excusable seeing as how it's exponentially better than any GTA up to and including San Andreas. (I haven't played GTA IV yet but I have a sneaking suspicion I'm still going to like Saints Row better.) The user interface is worlds beyond what GTA offers, the mission difficulty is set to "fair" rather than "infuriating", and - the biggest surprise - it has a fully fleshed out plot, complete with intelligent dialogue, characters you really care about, and subtle relationships you'll be thinking about long after you finish the game.

- Caught up some of the XBLA titles I've been meaning to try. The Maw is highly cute but so aggressively small-scale and challenge-less that it feels more like a demo or a toddler toy than a real product. Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders is one of the worst tower defence games I've ever played and it has the added insult of costing money to buy. Peggle is almost exactly the same game as the PC version, which is to say still totally awesome.

- I went back to Mirror's Edge to try to get more achievements, which is practically a first for me. In my house, once I put a single-player game back on the shelf, that's the last time I'll ever touch it, no matter what my intentions might be at the time. I'm speedrunning the story levels, and if the levels were thrilling the first time around they're even moreso when you play them this way. It feels like playing the game as intended; the only thing that stops it from being a perfect gaming experience is the punishingly high difficulty involved in getting a qualifying time at these things.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Don't Look Back

Time for a browser game; this one's right down the line between "games as art" and "games as brutal platforming challenges".

Terry Cavenagh's Don't Look Back is a reimagining of the Orpheus myth via the medium of the browser game; as the player, you'll descend into hell (this time with a handgun), and retrieve your beloved. The catch: once you've found her, you have to return to the surface without ever looking back.

This is not an easy game but it's not unfairly hard. Each individual room is very tricky, but you've got unlimited lives and a checkpoint at the start of each room, so you'll never have to replay an easy bit to get another crack at the hard bit. If more platformers were like this I'd be inclined to spend more time with the genre.

Don't Look Back is thoroughly entertaining, and an early contender for many of next year's indie and casual awards, so go check it out now before you're the only kid who hasn't.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Sound of Awesome

It's Jungle King, dummy. Not Tarzan.  Quiet, or you'll get us sued.Do you want to know what nostalgia sounds like? It sounds like a video arcade in 1982.

Actually I never visited a video arcade in 1982, what with being only two years old, but it's pretty much the same experience as a video arcade in 1988, which, coincidentally, also sounds like nostalgia.

I say this because someone excellent at took it upon himself to record himself playing games at various arcades between 1982 and 1988, on audio cassette (itself almost prehistoric), and then, more than two decades later, convert those cassettes into MP3s that you can listen to through your web browser.

This is even more awesome than it appears. You may have forgotten that arcade games were loud, and you can hear every sound effect coming out of the machine clearly, including the surprisingly catchy theme to Jungle King. If I had these on a CD I would play it as the background music to my house.

Go check it out! (And thanks to Dinosaur Comics for the heads-up.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Breaking Stealth

Solid Snake has only two natural enemies: Metal Gear, and Solid Badger.Stealth gameplay is broken.

It sucks. It always sucks. Stealth is the game element most likely to ruin any game that includes it.

Metal Gear Solid is a huge success. Splinter Cell and Thief and Tenchu have all done more or less okay. They have not succeeded because of their stealth gameplay; they have succeeded in spite of it.

The reason is this: stealth gameplay is broken. It is inherently bad gameplay.

Stealth avoids conflict

Avoiding conflict is not fun. More importantly, it is bad drama. The key to drama is conflict born out of the natual drive of the narrative; good story happens as a result of how that conflict changes those who participate in it.

You could say that the conflict in stealth is the player's desire to not get caught versus the desire of guards to catch the player; however, in most stealth gameplay the guards are not actively looking for the player, meaning they are not dynamic participants in the conflict. Neither protagonist or antagonist are changed by the activity.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth use stealth as a means to build tension, leading up to cathartic confrontations against boss characters or set-piece action scenes.

Stealth does not offer resolution

Stealth does not resolve problems. When you sneak past a guard, the guard is still there. The problem still exists, and may even complicate your further advancement. Your activity has made your situation more dangerous as a result of your activity, rather than increasing your mastery of the situation.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth use stealth as an element of assassination, rewarding your successful stealth activity with the elimination of the guard and a correspondingly less fraught game space.

Stealth removes the ability for the player to pace gameplay

Stealth gameplay proceeds at the pace of the guards. Your motions are dictated by the patrols of non-player characters. This disempowers the player and removes their ability to customise their game experience to their tastes. It creates periods of downtime in which the player can take no meaningful action without causing mission failure and thereby reduces the player to the position of an audience to their own story.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth offer alternative routes for navigating an environment, with each route offering a different pacing and a different level of risk. They also provide meaningful things that a player can do while waiting for guards, or offer a level of environmental detail that is inherently enjoyable to experience during enforced pauses.

Stealth mechanises NPCs

Stealth activity involves the player moving through the gaps in the enemy guard pattern. To successfully engage in this activity, the player requires three types of information: the location of the enemies, the cone of sight of the enemies, and the manner in which the enemies move. This is, obviously, a significantly higher level of information than the enemies have available.

In the most poorly designed games this information is not well revealed to the player; however, when it is available, it renders the guards no better than machines, bound to understood rules of behaviour and possessed of unfeasibily low levels of awareness and intelligence. It can be difficult to respect such enemies and take them seriously. Contemptible opposition isolates a player from the game world and inhibits their ability to become immersed and empathise with their avatar and other characters.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth take steps to equip their predictable NPCs with personality quirks, idle animations, a wide range of context-appropriate spoken dialogue, and patrol patterns that are believable and effective in relation to the environment. These games have NPCs who are inherently intelligent and effective, whose ability to spot the player is limited by the nature of the level design and the competencies of the player character rather than their own inadequacy.

Stealth is binary

You are seen, or you are not seen. You are alive, or you are dead. Where shooting games can include health metres and driving games include finishing times, there is no "almost stealthy". In a worst case scenario, being detected results in death, and you move back to the last checkpoint (or, worse, the start of the level). In a best case scenario, being detected sends guards into an "alert state", where they deviate from patrol routes and possibly even actively search for the player. The player must hide (which involves standing around in an isolated spot and doing nothing, a form of punishment itself.) If the guards find the player, though, we return to that problem - being found equals failure. Not "a bit of failure" or " a portion of failure" - just failure. If you're lucky the stealth game ends and you're now in a fighting game. If you're unlucky, it's back to the checkpoint.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth attempt to make failure non-binary by including multiple alert levels and allowing players to "fight their way free" of guards, effectively making their health meter a substitute "stealth failure" meter. They also make the process of hiding from alert guards a game in and of itself and minimise the "waiting for the all clear" downtime.


There are good stealth games; there are good stealth segments inside some games. But it's fighting an uphill battle. You're trying to bring fun to the player, instead of bring the player to the fun. Stealth is inherently broken; don't treat it as a gameplay staple, don't go there unless you know what you're doing, and for heaven's sake don't mix it into an otherwise un-broken product.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

God Hand

In God Hand you punch people so hard your fist comes out of the game and onto the cover art.The gulf between wanting to like something and actually liking it can be so large.

In God Hand you punch people so hard they fly over the horizon. In God Hand you punch people so hard that they fly into buildings and then the buildings fall down. In God Hand you punch people so hard that their soul comes loose from their body and then you have to punch that as well.

Also, sometimes you kick things hard, too.

This is a winning formula. This is something you can write on a white board and underline a few times and then sit back to watch the money roll in. If I were to write a book on designing "fun", this would be the first chapter, the case study, and most of the conclusion. I would write, "And in conclusion, in God Hand you punch people so hard that your fist breaks the sound barrier, and then the person you have punched flies off into the distance, also breaking the sound barrier."

So what really baffles me is why God Hand isn't fun.

Disclaimer: I didn't finish God Hand. I didn't come close. I just wasn't enjoying it, so I haven't seen the whole game. It's hard to imagine a second act, though, that would redeem the five hours or so I spent with it.

God Hand is a PlayStation 2 title by (now-defunct) Clover Studios, the same clever fellows who made the amazing Okami. Where Okami was the transcendent poster-child of the "games made art" movement, God Hand is something born wholly crafted from the mind of an illiterate 14-year old. It is crass, it is gratuitous, and it is crude in every sense of the word. In God Hand some of the villains are gay men and you punch them so hard you make them straight.

God Hand is clearly influenced by Capcom's action franchise Devil May Cry. There's a deliberate emphasis of style over substance. The plot is incoherent, the dialogue and voice acting are horrible, and your combat moves bear little to no relationship to the laws of physics. However, where Devil May Cry boasted smooth controls, deep tactical combat, strong level design and above-average graphics, God Hand instead opts for hand-twisting button maps and repetitive brawling in a series of unattractive linear corridors.

Unattractive may be an understatement. God Hand looks God Awful. One could be generous and say that level and enemy designs are "inspired by" such brawling classics as Golden Axe and Streets of Rage, and it's true that there is more than a little deliberate homage here, but the reality is that both Golden Axe and Streets of Rage had significantly more art in a single screen that God Hand can muster over the course of a level. Everything's done in pallets of dull brown. Enemy designs are so generic that even the villains of a Dynasty Warriors game could put them to shame. Ground surfaces are a flat brown while skyboxes are a flat blue. Every wall is set at right angles to another wall and the camera is not afraid of clipping right through surfaces to show you that they have no depth or substance.

The gameplay is standard brawler fare. You punch, and you kick. There are some 100+ punches and kicks available, and you can ultimately map up to 11 of them to your controls at one time, so there's some tactics involved in picking your repertoire. Most enemies are largely similar though, so once you've got a set-up you won't need to change it much. You run around a 3D level, and enemies mosey up you singly or in groups, so as to allow you to punch and kick them.

Every few punches or kicks, enemies will block. When they block, you'll need to back off, as hitting them while they're guarding allows them to do a dangerous counter-attack. So you'll get used to the pattern of punch-punch-punch, wait, punch-punch-punch, wait. Later on you get special "guard-break" moves which simplify the process. You yourself are unable to block, although you can dodge. Blocking was presumably inserted to pace combat and stop players from self-combusting from the sheer awesomeness of non-stop punching.

Defeated enemies sometimes drop money; money can be used to buy new punches. In God Hand you punch people so hard that they turn into currency.

Also, you have a rage meter, which when full allows you to turn invincible and unleash the titular God Hand for 10 seconds or so, and "roulette slots", each of which will let you pull off one of your particularly awesome super-punches. Using a super-punch empties a slot, which you have to refill by finding a magic card dropped by a defeated enemy.

God Hand is really hard, even on the easiest difficulty. Not consistently hard - you'll go from an enemy that just stands there as you punch him straight to a hell-demon that moves faster than you can see. Not interestingly hard - enemies you can't see because of the horrible camera will cheerfully punch you in the back of the head and follow up with a combo that kills you before you can recover. Just hard. Stupidly hard. Death usually means a trip back to the start of the level and up to twenty minutes of play erased. In God Hand people punch you so hard you travel back in time.

I've mentioned how the voice acting is horrible, but it's really just fitting into the overall audio standard. Pretty much every in-game sound effect is some variant of explosion, which at first glance seems to possess a certain kind of awesome but in practice really doesn't. There appears to be only one piece of background music, a kind of surfing-guitar reminiscent of Hawaii Five-O that loops endlessly. Enemies yell "Come on!" at you a lot, and "Oof!" when you hit them, and that's about it.

Actually the whole game feels more like a prototype than a finished game. There's the bare bones of a gaming experience, and a whole mess of awesome punches, but everything else feels like placeholders rather than final product. I can see that Clover were trying something worth trying, a kind of re-invention of the brawler as a genre, but that intention is in no way manifest in what they actually released.

There is a certain class of people who will love God Hand, and these people are not to be ridiculed. There is a genius located deep in the core of this unlovely software, a genius that knows that it is absolutely impossible to ever punch a videogame villain too hard. But those who can look past the eye-gougingly horrible aesthetics and the nun-punchingly torturous gameplay to find that genius will be few and far between, and for the rest of us it's worth mentioning that this game came out late in the PlayStation 2's lifespan, almost no-one bought it, and it's practically impossible to find a copy.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Hardcasual Is Mocking Me

Seriously, what picture would YOU have used to illustrate this post title?Oh, sure, they've changed names to protect the innocent, but I think it's clear to all concerned that game journalism humour site Hardcasual has looked into the shallow waters of my soul and constructed some harsh criticism from the muck therein.

That's it, Hardcasual - you're going on the list. Also Leigh Alexander. The list.

Loops of Zen

I refuse to make any joke that includes the word 'loopy'.Very, very busy at work and not feeling much like blogging after a 12-hour work day, but to tide you over in the mean time here's Loops of Zen.

It's a browser game, and it's simple. You get a board of tiles, each with lines and connections to other tiles, and you rotate the tiles until there's no dead ends on the board - every line must curve back on itself. Surprisingly satisfying and easier than it initially seems.

Go play it now.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Vote In IGF Audience Choice Award

Voting has opened for the Independent Games Festival Audience Choice Awards. If you followed my series of posts on the IGF finalists, and played some or all of the games mentioned, it's time to go cast your votes.

Only those games with a playable public demo are eligible; that does, however, include games that are only playable on Live Arcade or PSN, so very few voters are realistically going to be able to try out all the finalists.

The Audience Choice finalists are:

*Cortex Command
*You Have To Burn The Rope
*The Graveyard
*PixelJunk Eden
*Carneyvale Showtime
*The Maw
*Musaic Box

Notes: (a) please don't vote for You Have To Burn The Rope just because it's the easiest one to find and play - only vote for it if you actually think it's the best! (b) please don't vote for Musaic Box, at all.

Go cast your vote!