Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Speaking Too Soon: Overlord

In all fairness, this being a games blog, I should probably be saying Terry Pratchett (father of well-known games writer Rhianna Pratchett) rather than vice versa.I'd like to just retract any negative comments I may have made about Overlord, in particular those relating to its story and the choices it provides you with. It turns out I shouldn't have passed judgement on those elements of the game before seeing the final levels, which are genuinely surprising and quite unexpectedly excellent. It's one of those rare cases of an ending retroactively redeeming everything that came before it.

Overlord's script and story are by game writer Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Discworld author Terry Pratchett) and it turns out, now that I've seen the complete picture, that they're quite an achievement.

I'd heartily salute Ms Pratchett, but in the process of some quick research I've been made aware that she's also the perpetrator of Mirror's Edge's story, which she either completely bungled from the get go or allowed to be butchered by someone else in the development process.

Either way, as I figure it Overlord and Mirror's Edge cancel each other out, leaving her with a relatively clean slate overall.

Zak & Sara

Too caught up in New Year's stuff to blog for real today, but rather than post nothing I give you c_click's fan clip for Ben Folds' song "Zak & Sara", which I like. Enjoy, and have yourself a good Calendar Rollover Day.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Wikimedia Funding Rebuttal

In quick response to yesterday's post:

Regardless of exactly how it gets spent, Wikipedia runs on less than six million dollars. The remake of the The Day The Earth Stood Still was shot on a budget of eighty million. Which would we rather have in the world?

Wikipedia could probably be done for a lot cheaper, and as a not-for-profit organisation it does deserve a hefty chunk of public scrutiny, but in the bigger scheme of things we're getting an absolute bargain.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Wikimedia Funding

[citation needed]If you visit Wikipedia today you'll be treated to a "personal appeal" from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. This replaces the donation drive image that's been up at the top of each page for the last few months.

After reading the appeal, you may be left thinking that Wikipedia is struggling for funds. After all, its budget is in the realm of "less than six million dollars a year". That's a lot of cash.

Hang on, though. The Wikimedia Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation which employs a total staff of 23 people. Six million dollars? Is that really what it costs to run servers for the world's fifth-most-popular web service?

Let's check out the Wikimedia 07/08 Annual Report. And we'll be glad we did. It turns out that the Wikimedia budget is less than six million dollars - a lot less. Expenditure in 07/08 was only three and a half million dollars, which includes $140,000 for the Wikimania convention and $309,000 in salaries for Executive Director Sue Gardner and Deputy Director Erik Moller.

That's against income of a little over seven million in the same calendar year; in effect, Wikimedia picked up a year's forward operating costs.

Let's look at that in a historical context. At the start of 2006 Wikimedia's net assets totalled $270,000. I'm not missing a zero there. Over that year they raked in one and a half million and shelled out $790,000. By 2007 their net assets were at $1.7 million.

So they want six million in donations for this financial year. What are they going to do with it? Let's look at the annual report again.

1) They're pruning back Wikimania by about 40K. That's probably to do with reduced costs due to the next convention being in Buenos Aires but it's still a reduction in community expenditure.

2) They're expecting no significant increase in legal costs. I'm not sure that that's realistic - as Wikipedia expands you'd think that risk of legal action would rise exponentially, but whatever.

3) Gardner and Moller are getting a combined total increase in salaries of about $170,000.

4) The Wikimedia Board (including founder Jimmy Wales) are having their funding (including salaries) doubled.

5) Administration and technical costs increase by millions of dollars.

The total anticipated budget for next year sits at a little under six million dollars. Income remains stable at seven and a half million, based on an estimated community contribution of not the asked-for six million dollars, but just three million.

I, honestly, have no idea whether $2.7 million in technical expenses is a reasonable figure in order to provide something like Wikipedia. In the absence of expertise I'm going to assume it is. But this doesn't appear to be an organisation that's in shallow financial waters. It's an organisation that's doubling its executive salaries during a global recession.

This is, mind you, just a casual glance over the most shallow of financial documents. I'd assume that no one would take it as gospel, and I invite both educated lectures about Wikimedia financing and barely literate flames. If you think Wikimedia is in more need of money than I'm making out, feel free to start the debate in the comments below.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Other Problem With Choice

Choose life.  Choose a job.  Choose a career.  Choose a family.  Choose a fucking big television.  But make sure to check which one gets you the Achievement.I've been playing Overlord, which I'm mostly enjoying, but I'm struck by the other problem with choice.

I talked about choice when I did my posts for Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, and how it's most often handled quite badly, those games being the exception. Overlord handles it badly.

When you attempt to put meaningful moral choices into your game, there are three ways you can go wrong.

One: The choices aren't meaningful. Either the choice has no substantive effect on the story and gameplay, or the player is provided with no information on which to base their choice, effectively making it arbitrary.

Two: The game clearly indicates that there is a right choice and a wrong choice, where players who take the wrong choice are suckers. This can be due to an imbalance of in-game rewards, a less interesting plotline connected to one choice, or simply by the game making the player feel like a complete tool for picking the "wrong choice".

And three: the other problem with choice. Which is that "a wide range of moral conundrums" often just boils down to one decision, repeated ad nauseum: are you a good guy, or a bad guy? Sometimes it's whether to kill the prisoners or release them, and sometimes it's whether to bully the villagers or defend them, but they're not different choices, it's just the same one twice.

Games rarely make the middle ground interesting. Contextual morality isn't rewarded by game mechanics. If you look at Overlord's list of achievements you'll see one for "maximum corruption" and one for "minimum corruption" but there's no points to be had for "a fascinatingly complex character with an off-beat but internally consistent moral code". Once you've made your first decision to kill a peasant, you'd better stick to it or you'll be missing out on a lot of what makes Overlord worthwhile.

Overlord probably isn't the most appropriate target of my ire here; it's something of a special case, where it feels like the ability to not do evil was only inserted to make the core gameplay of "slaughtering every man-jack you see" feel more punchy. It's kind of the reverse of Mirror's Edge in that respect, where the ability to kill makes the choice not to more satisfying.

I'll have a full post about Overlord coming soon; I know you readers are slavering for my opinion of a two-and-a-half-year-old second-stringer game, and I intend to deliver. Stand by for updates.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Auspicious Decembersday, Everyone!

That means you!

In other news: The Quick & The Dead is still the greatest movie ever. Nothing captures the spirit of the holiday season like Mortal Kombat done as a Western.

Catch you after all the seasonal celebration.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Phantasy Star Music

By the way, if anyone wants to do me an electronic Xmas present, you know what would be awesome? Instrumental renditions of the score to the original Phantasy Star. Which is, of course, hands-down the greatest 8-bit JRPG ever made.

By way of reference I offer links to MIDI files of the two stand-out tracks: the Cave theme, and the Motavia overworld theme. Also, while we're on the topic, the Phantasy Star 3 Main Theme, which I have fonder memories of than possibly any other piece of gaming music.

For some reason Phantasy Star 2, 3 and 4 are all out on the Wii Virtual Console but they've yet to release the original. What's up with that? I've still got my copy in its original packaging but that's not much use without a Master System to play it on.

EDIT: Those links above go to which has some sort of a "don't link to our files" policy, so when you get there you'll be dumped on a message page that you need to click on from to get to the musicz. Setting it up so you don't have to do that would take time and I'm sure you're all capable of navigating a splash page. If anyone wants to download the MIDIs and host them, I'll change the links.

On Endings

Joystiq is celebrating the year-end with a piece entitled "Telling Stories: What's Up With Lame Endings?" (link) in which they ask story-writers for games to chat about delivering satisfying endings to stories.

The most interesting section has them talking to David Gaider, who's apparently doing the work on Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins. Bioware is generally known for some of the most fantastic game finales in the business, with Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect being two stand-out examples, which makes Gaider's comments all the more baffling.

"Endings [...] get the shaft when it comes to development time. It would be nice if we could go and do the ending earlier in development so that it's as complete and polished as every other part of the game, but that just never happens. Nail down the ending too early and you run the risk of the rest of the game catching up only to find that it needs to be ripped up and re-worked all over again. So [...] the ending gets pared down simply by way of the fact that it comes last."
This may be true from a gameplay perspective; the ending should be the culmination of the gameplay leading up to it, and if gameplay gets tinkered with you'll need to change the ending. You can imagine in something like Zelda that a change to the way the hookshot works might significantly impact on a final boss battle.

But that's not the sort of game Bioware does. They do story-driven RPGs. They have the luxury of doing narrative the right way - that is to say, have a meaningful ending and make sure that every aspect of the rest of the story serves to support that ending. And in fact that appears to be the way they've done things in the past - it's hard to imagine that any significant aspect of the KOTOR's story was developed before they knew how it was going to end.

Gaider also says:

I've seen many players disappointed that an ending "cut them off" from continuing to play, even without a guiding story or further changes to the world. While I doubt that would be as satisfying as they think it might be, I suspect that the feeling comes from a desire to see their personal narrative continue even if the story's narrative ends. They're involved in their character's fate and they don't want to see it end. Endings suck.
I think this is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium. What Gaider says may not be totally without base, but I think it's less about story and more about gameplay. Players want more of it. If you've created an engaging game world and a solid game enginge, players want to stay in it. They want to keep exploring the world, they want to keep interacting with the world, they want to finish mapping the game space. This is the same instinct that leads to fan-fiction - the urge to experiment with possibilities that were not engaged in the first instance.

It's important that stories have an ending, and that that ending be absolute, but it's equally important that an arbitrary ending not be brought to the user's play. Intelligent "extended play" or "new game plus" options don't take a lot of development time, comparitively speaking, and they're the sort of things that really help players feel like this is their their game and their world.

That's my Xmas Eve ramble. There'll probably be no post tomorrow, and possibly none on Boxing Day, but I'll see you all back from at least the 27th. Have a Merry Decemberween, everyone.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pandemic of Nun-Punching

Nuns who punch back are right up there with cannibal kittens on my list of TERRIBLE INVADERS FROM THE BACKWARDS WORLDI have been known, on occasion, to describe things as "nun-punchingly bad", "nun-punchingly hard", or "so terrible that it punches nuns right in the face." The theory goes that there are three things that we as a society can agree are objectively bad - kicking puppies, punching nuns, and Hitler.

Friend, reader and generally awesome dude Phrancq warned me the other day that this phrase had in some fashion gotten loose from my blog and was now stalking the interweb looking for blood. Phrancq also claimed that I stole the phrase from him, and he in some fashion stole it from Jhonen Vasquez. My response is that Phrancq kicks puppies. Right-minded people agree.

In support of the "rogue language" threat alert, I helpfully offer examples drawn from the interweb:

1) The Magdalene Sisters was apparently a "nun-punchingly great movie".

2) Suggesting that the Tool song "The Pot" is about Mesopotamia is a "nun-punchingly stupid idea".

3) Salvia divinorum is a "nun-punchingly evil drug".

4) The following people are known to punch nuns: Tom Cruise, Jon Stewart, Sarah Palin, and any number of internet forum trolls. Apparently people who punch nuns are also highly likely to kick puppies, spit on kittens, drink the blood of babies and/or salute Hitler. Objectively bad.

Has anyone else spotted examples of people popularising a phrase which I totally invented and did not in any way steal? Failing that, have you, as a reader, managed to convince anyone that this is a real phrase which is in parlance among the hip children? If not, you totally should. Tell stories.

Dante's Inferno Trailer

For those who missed this last week, I present the trailer for Dante's Inferno, being created by the team who did Dead Space and being published by EA. It's good to see the deep waters of 14th century religious allegory being tapped by such a taseteful genre as survival horror. Bravo.

(Yes, of course I'm going to buy it. Which part of survival horror didn't you understand?)

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Note On The Body

Keep On The ShadowfellI'll do my Game of the Year post in the first week of January, so you can look forward to the mystery being resolved then, but in the mean time I wanted to talk about the note on the body.

I'm currently running Keep on the Shadowfell for a group of friends. Keep was the first official pre-packaged adventure released for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Also, it's awful.

D&D is 34 years old. As a franchise, it has had an exceptionally large amount of time to get it right. The combined expertise and development resources of Wizards of the Coast should ensure that a D&D pre-packaged module is the finest tabletop RPG experience you will ever have.

Pfft. It's D&D. Storytelling is something that happens to other people.

Keep is classic D&D. This is something that could have been published in the early 80s. It's all 10 x 10 stone corridors, goblin chieftains, and giant magical traps that don't make a lick of sense. And there's nothing essentially wrong with that. That sort of stuff is what D&D is good at, and it's the reason you might be playing D&D rather than an actual roleplaying game.

But it tries. Keep has a story, and it tries to tell it. It's not a great story, but it's just enough to give some context to a bog-standard dungeon crawl. Providing the players ever learn it.

And this is where Keep falls down - because it can't tell a story. It sets out the whole backstory in the Dungeon Master's explanatory text - so the DM will know it, at least - and then provides very few ways to get that information across to the players.

It makes some attempts. There are a couple of bearded mentor-types who are capable of regurgitating the backstory to the players. They're only around in the first third of the game, so if you want to use them you'll either have to frontload the exposition into the first couple of sessions, or use flashbacks or suchlike to pace the story out. Later there's a ghost who does a "hear my sad story" number, but by the time the players get to him they'll have missed all the spots where knowing what's going on could have enriched the experience.

The other thing Keep tries is the note on the body.

It's not alone here. This is an RPG cliche, and you'll find it not only in pre-packaged tabletop offerings, but scattered across the entirety of the computerised RPG canon. Going back as far as the SSI Gold Box games, and spotted most recently for me in Mass Effect, it's a terrible storytelling device that just won't seem to die.

It works like this: the player finds the corpse of a fellow adventurer, who's met a sticky end. Upon searching the corpse (as one does) the player finds a letter, or note, or diary, that details the manner in which the adventurer met his or her death, warns of some danger, and entrusts the player with a quest of some sort.

This is terrible storytelling. Just... terrible. First of all, it's an infodump. It's a big string of information in a row that the player or players have to rapidly absorb. At worst, it's the DM talking non-stop for a couple of minutes while the players frantically take notes, and at best the DM's transcribed it all onto paper for the players to hand around and read one at a time.

Secondly, it's non-interactive. The players can't ask questions, they can't interrupt, they can't express themselves in response to the narrative.

Thirdly, it's not immediate. It's the past speaking to the present, and even if what killed the poor adventurer is still nearby, it's a non-dynamic event and doesn't have any of the drive and urgency that good narrative demands.

Fourthly, it's non-descriptive. Even the most floridly written note telling about how the adventurer was mauled by a bear isn't as vivid as seeing the adventurer mauled by a bear, but being too late to save him.

Fifthly, it's just dumb. Apparently it's some kind of adventurer tradition to always write some expository information on nearby paper immediately before meeting your untimely demise. It stretches the bounds of credulity, and it's a cliche to boot.

Forget the note on the body. It's a bad idea. As a storyteller, you can try harder. Let the players see the adventurer meeting their fate; have them fail to prevent the death. Let them encounter a dying traveller and have a conversation about what's happened to him, and experience his final moments.

Failing that, let the scene speak for itself. If the players are going to find the partially digested corpse of an adventurer inside a gelatinous cube, there's no need for it to be carrying a note reading, "Ack! Gelatinous cubes!" If you want the players to tell someone about a dead body, have the corpse be carrying a locket with a picture. Identifying the picture is a lot more fun than following directions on a note and it's more emotional as well.

This cliche works for villains too. Keep is full of characters who the players can kill, and then find a note on their body reading, "Secretly, I was a traitor, working for (insert name of major villain here)." It seems to have given up on the concept of players who talk first and kill second, and instead of building scenarios to encourage drama it's just defaulted to tacking on the exposition at the tail end of all the slaughtering. The whole module seems pathologically afraid of the idea of players having a conversation with an NPC.

I'm sick of it. I'm going to try and rework Keep to fix its apalling storytelling, but if you're thinking of telling a story to me in future, could you at least make an effort to avoid the note on the body?


Friday, December 19, 2008

Game Of The Year?

Last year I unhesitatingly declared the Dust Forms Words Game of the Year to be Mass Effect. And I'd do it again, damn yer eyes. It beat out Portal, which to my mind was its only real competition.

This year it's a tighter field, and I've unfortunately not played a couple of key contenders, so before I go ahead and give the highly coveted and totally imaginary trophy away I thought I'd see if you wanted to weigh in.

What do you think should be the Dust Forms Words 2008 Game of the Year? Don't embarass me with a comment shortage - if you're reading this, give me your two cents, regardless of how many games you've personally played this year. Otherwise you can't complain if I give it to Imagine Party Babiez.

Also let me know if you think a game deserves some other award. Most underappreciated? Best character? Best story? Most original? Best browser game? It's a free-for-all, go nuts.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mirror's Edge

Screw you all. Mirror's Edge was excellent.

I say this despite my criticisms of its character design, despite years of dissatisfaction with publisher EA, and despite a general antipathy towards platform games stretching back over several decades. I'm sorry, but it was excellent.

Mirror's Edge is a first person parkour (free-running) game. The creation of a parkour game was more or less inevitable after Casino Royale popularised the sport for film and Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed did it in bastardised form for games. The majority of Mirror's Edge involves traversing an urban rooftop environment from various points A to points B using improbable but physically-possible acrobatics, all at an absolutely breakneck pace. It's unique, it's fun, and it's thrilling from beginning to end.

The excellence in Mirror's Edge stems from two areas. The first is the visual style, which is full of primary colours and sharp vertices. It evokes a highly realistic urban environment while at the same time being easy to read for players moving through it at high speeds. The game looks great, and it does it in a way that enables rather than obstructs play.

The second excellence is in the control scheme, at least as it applies to the XBox 360 version that I played. Almost all of the interactivity is mapped to the two left shoulder buttons of the controller. Left bumper (the upper shoulder) is "go high", while left trigger (lower shoulder) is "go low". You jump, climb, and run up walls by "going high", and you slide, break-roll and leg-tuck by "going low". Actions are context sensitive and always predictable - you very rarely slide, for example, when trying to break-roll, or jump when you want to climb.

Those are the basic controls. Right bumper does a 180 turn, most often used in a wall-run/flip/jump maneuver, and right trigger is "strike", used equally for punching out enemies, booting open closed doors, and crashing through panes of glass in mid-air. The "Y" button allows you to execute time-sensitive disarm maneuvers on enemies.

My main complaint with the controls is that you're always moving forward, so holding the analog stick up to move feels redundant (and starts to hurt the thumb). Given the racing flavour of the game, it would feel more natural and less hand-breaking to have an "accelerate" button mapped to the face-pad. But that's a small complaint. Generally the controls are visceral, intuitive, and achieve the goal of any good control scheme by allowing you to reliably execute the amazing without feeling like you're being babied or talked down to.

Like any platform game, you'll regularly make mistakes, and the cost of a mistake is usually plummeting to your death. Like any good platform game, there's no long term cost for these mistakes. Respawn points are placed intelligently, generally immediately before the start of any significant challenge, and a flubbed jump never costs you more than about 90 seconds of play. Also, you're never required to learn by trial and error - the learning process isn't about how to do things, but how to do things better.

One of the major complaints levelled against Mirror's Edge is its overuse of combat. Combat is definitely its weakest spot. It takes about three bullets or two pistol-whippings to knock you out on the default difficulty, which is a pretty thin margin of error. Using your character's library of martial arts moves feels clunky and unsatisfying, with the exception of the rather cool strikes she can do if she has a running start. Disarms are much more effective, but late game enemies give you absolutey tiny timing windows to do these, which can be frustrating.

However, a lot of the complaints about combat are misconceived. Mirror's Edge is a game about running, not fighting, and each and every combat encounter in the game can actually be solved more easily by finding the right parkour route than it can with your fists. Late encounters with squads of enemies which initially frustrated me suddenly became laughably easy once I discovered the optimal paths through the area. The infamous "sniper roof" and "server room" encounters on the game's final level have been designed to allow you to sprint through without downing a single opponent, if you're clever.

I love also that although the game lets you get your hands on your opponent's guns, it really encourages you not to use them. When you find yourself holding a firearm, throwing it away feels right, and it's very satisfying to get from start to end without shooting anyone regardless of whether the game awards you its rather finicky achievement for that task. This is how I want games to treat firearms - as a reality, but always in the context of there being a better way.

Anyway, combat may not be the roadblock that some claim, but running towards enemies in Mirror's Edge is not really fun, and these sections should have been brutally pared down. The best parts of the game are the chase scenes, where you're pursuing a fleeing enemy or being hunted yourself. These are the moments when you're genuinely aware of just how amazing your move set is, and there should have been more sections like this. The game doesn't stop often enough to give you time to reflect on its strengths.

The last highlight of the game is its music. The soundtrack is truly excellent, particularly the various remixes of the main theme, "Still Alive". It's one of those tunes that you'll be humming long after you've finished the last level, and I'm pretty sure that hearing it over coming months is going to get me excited about a sequel each and every time.

So - on to the bad stuff, which starts with the narrative. To say that the story of Mirror's Edge has a raging case of the sucks would be an extreme understatement. This is one of the worst stories I've encountered in a very long time. Tetris had a more engaging plot. From the beginning to the end it's badly told, horribly acted, appallingly scripted, schizophrenically paced, and does little to highlight the world, its characters, or any of the themes of freedom and movement inherent in the gameplay. The characters are unengaging and your long-term goals are vague or absent, and in a final kick to the face the game's ending fails to feature its major villain and leaves you stranded on a rooftop while most everyone you know and love is being hunted down like dogs. Plus all of the cutscenes are done in absolutely butt-ugly style of animation that has nothing in common with the clean, precise look of the in-game visuals.

Mirror's Edge is short. The story mode clocks in at maybe seven hours, with a lot of that made up of missing jumps and restarting from checkpoints. You can speedrun each level in less than ten minutes (often significantly less) so theoretically a godlike player could finish the whole thing in an hour and a half. From the way that important story points go missing it feels like maybe some levels were cut in order to get the game out the door on time, although given the overall incompetence of the plotting it may have just been intended that way.

Story mode is half of the game; the other half consists of time trials, which let you play specially arranged sections of the main levels as a timed obstacle course. Given the excellence of the basic gameplay, that's more fun than it sounds. The difficulty here is that the qualifying times for each course can be a little demanding until you find the optimum route, and your finishing time isn't recorded unless you beat the qualifier, meaning that a lot of attempts at a course can result in no visible recognition of succes. It would be nice if times were recorded no matter what, so even when you're sucking you can see whether you're sucking less. Also, you can download "ghosts" of other people's attempts to run against to find better routes and improve your time, but you can only access your friends' attempts, or the attempts of the top 50 or so players in the world, so as far as ghosts go you're limited to "unhelpfully poor" or "unhelpfully good". Ultimately YouTube, as always, is the solution.

The time trials, as I said, are better than you'd think, but it would be nice if they had more structure. The game tracks how many "stars" you've earned across all trials, and gives you some achievements for them (although even the first requires some pretty hefty practice), but there should have been some unlockables keyed to these stars, or some sort of reason to keep shooting for higher levels of excellence beyond the inherent satisfaction of success.

Still, Mirror's Edge attempts to create an entirely new style of gameplay and does a better job of it than 90% of those who try. Very few of its failures are to do with its core mechanics, which means it's created a strong conceptual base for future titles to build on. It's not going to be a game for everyone - the focus on precision and the short tolerance of error means this is a game for a hardcore audience, not casual players - but it's a solid continuation of a type of play which embraces well-loved franchises such as Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog and I see no reason why those who enjoyed games like those shouldn't thrill and revel in the realism and freedom that Mirror's Edge brings to that classic tradition.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Wish I Were The Moon / The Majesty of Colours

I've got two Flash games for you today, if you haven't already seen them. Actually, they're less like games and more like an arty interactive storybook. Very worth checking out.

I Wish I Were The Moon presents an odd little love triangle involving a girl, a boy and a planetary body. Also a seagull. The player interacts by "photographing" components of the scene and then moving the photographs to rearrange the narrative. The aim is to find as many different resolutions of the scenario as possible. It's by the talented Mr Daniel Benmergui, who blogs over at, and it is, in the vernacular, "rather neat".

Once you're done with Moon you'll probably be looking for more, so you'll be glad to hear that this kind of gameplay has been developed and expanded by a certain Gregory Weir in his self-described "pixel horror game" The Majesty Of Colours. Here you're placed in command of a Lovecraftian sea-beast and given the opportunity to terrorise or assist a small sea-going community as you see fit. Artistically.

This an engaging little sub-genre developing here, somewhere between point-and-click adventure and pop-art, and I'm looking forward to seeing where its next steps take it. Go check out the games and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fable 2

I did not enjoy Fable 2. In fact, it's one of those games that I've given up on forever after playing less than 10 hours. So this is not a detailed analysis of the game, but rather an explanation of why I completely failed to connect with it on every level.

Fable 2, like the original, is the work of Lionhead Studios, which is headed up by ex-Bullfrog developer Peter Molyneux. This is the man responsible for Black & White, Syndicate, The Movies, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper, Populous and Powermonger. Those are all games based around fantastic ideas which implemented revolutionary game mechanics, and which all laboured under crippling flaws relating to game balance, user interface, and complete absence of narrative and characterisation.

Fable 2 represents a step forward for Molyneux in as much as it makes a genuine attempt at storytelling. The game opens with the player in the role of a young urchin living wild on the streets with his or her sister. This portion of the game, which effectively functions as the tutorial, is excellent, and the sister is one of the most instantly engaging characters I've met in a game for quite some time.

At the end of the tutorial, your sister is shot dead, and having thus been taught an important lesson about emotional attachment you proceed to spend the rest of the game treating everyone you meet as a not-particularly-complex toy.

People in Fable 2 are idiots. They have a five second memory and are more gullible than some kind of animal which is renowned for being gullible. If the mood takes you you can invade the house of a small family and slaughter everyone present in an explosion of gore, with the exception of one traumatised survivor (probably one of the game's bizarrely indestructible children). Then you can dance a saucy jig in front of the survivor until she laughs delightedly and offers you gifts.

Fable 2 isn't the first game to have an exploitable social minigame. The Elder Scrolls is infamous for it, and you can go back further than that. But to some extent the exploits were the joy of those titles. In Fable 2 the game makes a point of attempting to acknowledge your moral choices, and encourages you to form attachments to the community by buying land, performing odd jobs, and getting married. So much development time has been spent on the social aspects of the game that their shallowness is hugely off-putting.

Take, for example, Fable's infamous titles. Your character doesn't really have a name, so you're just known by a "title" wherever you go, which can be something as simple as "Mayor" through to something like "The Fearbringer". Sometimes villagers will use your title appropriately - "Watch out! It's the Fearbringer!" - but then sometimes they won't: "How's it going, Fearbringer?"

Your character can't talk. Every other character in the game can talk. The lowliest peasant has spoken dialogue. Animals make sounds. Your character is mute, and can only express him or herself through the age old art of mime. It's very hard to take your character seriously as the Bringer of Fear when the only non-violent way to instill terror in villagers is by making scary faces.

In amongst all of the chatty salts-of-the-earth, there are really very few "anchor" characters. No-one feels unique, no-one feels special, no-one feels like someone you'd want to just hang out with. Any given NPC is only a couple of sword-swings away from becoming your next level-up.

Whether to murder these flesh-robots on sight is not a moral choice but rather a practical one. When you meet yet another superstitious villager with a West-country accent, you have to ask yourself, "Will disembowling this guy break a quest line?" If the answer is no then it's time to gain some XP. He'll respawn next time you load the zone anyway.

Combat is pretty good, I guess, even if it's not connected to the social part of the game in any way. It kind of feels like Fable 2 mashed an average hack-em-up dungeon crawler into the back end of The Sims. It doesn't excel in either area, although the dungeon crawling is reasonably unobjectionable.

Also, you get this dog that follows you around and helps you out. You can get kind of attached to the dog, I hear (I didn't), but that would be forgetting the important message taught to you in the tutorial. Treating the dog as a real character would just be setting it up to be horribly gunned down in the final act. I sure hope that doesn't happen!

So, anyway, Fable 2 really failed to grab me on any fundamental level. I understand that other people have had a blast with it, which is good for them even if they are clearly crazy. You should probably make up your own mind.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Left 4 Dead Rebuttal

In response to my own previous post regarding Left 4 Dead, I'd just briefly like to draw your attention to this post on Graffiti Gamer, which argues that it's the necessity of playing with digital sociopaths which makes Left 4 Dead so compelling.

"Half of the challenge playing Left 4 Dead is getting players to coordinate, understand each other’s playing style, and finding a groove that works. Left 4 Dead is, in fact, a social learning environment and its procedurally generated narrative structure is most exciting when the other players are unknown quantities before play, as opposed to friends whose play-style you’re already familiar with." (read the full post)
It makes an excellent point which in no way diminishes the frustration of listening to a 14-year-old kid giggling hysterically and refusing to use any weapon other than pistols while a Hunter rips out your intestines.

Left 4 Dead

Left 4 DeadStinking, slouching, shambling, forward forever, faces frozen, fixed in a repulsive rictus of rage. Their pallid flesh droops grotesquely from their bones, damp with strange moistures, and their skin is mere meat, obscenely exposed through torn and malmatched garments. There is almost humanity in their faces, but it is far, and gone away, and in going it has left a vacant wasteland of slackened lips and eyes locked with idiot intensity on an unseen and terrible horizon.

The sun has gone out on their world; what is left is waste and scrap. Out through the streets and on the rooftops and in the ruined basements their demented cries span the darkening cities, and in the forums and down the wires and through the invisible frequencies all of civilisation has gone dead but for their steadily rising brainless tide. Their bodies move and it is not reason that drives them but an insatiable and irrational hunger, a need, an urge to destroy no longer limited by emotion and logic but bounded only by the vastness of eternity's compass.

These are the people who make up 90% of the XBox Live player base. You'll want to get to know them, because Left 4 Dead is a wholly multiplayer game.

This is the dilemma of Left 4 Dead - is it worth playing a truly excellent game if the only way you can play it is by associating with utter douchebags? The answer to that question depends on exactly how many fourteen-year-olds have shotgunned you in the back in the last 24 hours.

The premise of Left 4 Dead is simple. It's the zombie apocalypse, and four survivors stranded deep in zombie-town have to make their way to an evacuation point. In most games, that would be an abridged summary of the story, but in Left 4 Dead that's really all there is to it. The game doesn't futz around with backstory and narration and plot - it gets right down to the business of killing zombies.

Four scenarios come packed into the box, each one retelling the "get to the evac point" setup in the context of a different environment. "No Mercy" features city streets, a sewer, a hospital, and a rooftop last stand, whereas "Dead Air" involves some greenhouses, a hotel, and eventually an airport. Playing through a scenario start-to-finish takes roughly an hour - this is a deliberate design decision and they're pretty tightly timed to ensure you finish within the hour no matter what.

Each scenario is broken down into five maps. The first four are a simple journey from point A to point B, where point B is a "safe room". Getting everyone into a safe room and locking the door ends the level, and moves you on to the next map. The fifth map on each scenario is a "last stand" setup, where you have to summon your evacuation and then hold off the zombie tide for a set period until your lift shows up.

Left 4 Dead is designed to be experienced with four players, each player taking one of the four survivors. If you can hook this up with the right number of friends, it's a blast. Much like Halo, the 360 version of L4D lets you guest a friend in your living room onto Live and play in split-screen, so you can get four players happening with as little as two consoles, two discs and two Live Gold accounts. The PC version, I assume, will require four whole computers and four copies of the game.

In the very likely event that you can't swing the equipment or people to play with an all-friends team, you've got two choices. By default, characters who aren't controlled by players will be piloted by the game's artificial intelligence. The computer is pretty competent, and is particularly good at concepts like not shooting you by accident. However, it can also be pretty useless and will accidentally alert zombies, fail to keep up with you, and not restock health packs and upgrade weapons even when the relevant items are right there. During early play sessions you'll be quite happy with the AI but as your skills improve its deficiencies will become more and more obvious.

Your other option is to fill out your team's ranks with random people from the internet. This is where the aforementioned "douchebags" become involved. If you're lucky, you'll end up with a laid back but competent IT professional from Manchester who is playing a quick round to break up the monotony of being a human being, but by and large your internet player comes in two flavours. The first are players of godlike skill who can complete each level flawlessly and will scream and swear at you non-stop for each and every second of non-perfect play that you wring out of your controller. The second are barely pubescent retards who will constantly blather into the microphone about things they think are pretty cool while relentlessly emptying round after round of ammunition into your back and refusing to make any effort to reach the safe room.

Left 4 Dead emphasises teamwork. You will need a full team of four to make it through a level. The various sorts of zombie have special attacks which can instantly incapacitate a player; even basic zombies have a "dragging you down" effect which makes it practically impossible to move while in melee. This means that if you come under attack and don't have a buddy to help you out you can go from full health to dead without a chance to fight back. Covering your teammates is core gameplay. It makes for great co-op gameplay, and intense frustration when you're lumbered with one or more immense tools on your team.

Provided you can solve the player problem, Left 4 Dead is excellent. The game benefits from the iterative playtesting that developer Valve is famous for, with every aspect of the experience feeling extremely fine-tuned. The zombies are well-animated and genuinely shocking - they're modelled on the fast undead from 28 Days Later rather than their slower moving brethren and you'll see them sprint at you, leaning into their turns to create a really visceral sense of menace.

There's not a lot of music, but what there is makes for a highlight of the game. Some "special" zombie types have a theme tune that lets you know when they're nearby - the unsettling composition for the Witch is a standout - plus there's several tracks used to represent how well the team is doing, including a depressing "all hope is lost" motif that plays when one of your group is killed.

A major feature of Left 4 Dead is the so-called "Director AI". Enemy and item placements throughout the levels are not predetermined - instead they are created procedurally based on how the team is faring, with the AI generating unique lulls and crescendoes for each playthrough. This theoretically means that no two runs of a campaign are the same, and mostly this is true, but after your third play of a map the randomness becomes routine, so I'm not really sure if the AI creates as much replayability as Valve suggests.

If you tire of the basic campaigns (and I have) there's also the option of Versus mode. Versus mode is the same as Campaign, except that the "special infected" (boss zombies) are controlled by opposing players. One group plays the survivors and are scored on how far they get before being gutted by the zombie team, and then the sides switch and the former zombies have to beat the high score. Like most online multiplayer, this is no place for beginners - you'll need a savant-like familiarity with the maps to avoid accidentally crippling your team. As both survivor and zombie, the only path to success lies in planning and co-ordination, which can be a frustrating experience for new players but a rewarding one for veterans.

The biggest complaint to be made about Left 4 Dead (other than the lobotomy-heavy player base) is the lack of content. The four included campaigns take four hours to finish, total. You can replay them but you might start tiring of that after three or four plays, so that swells the play time out to 12 to 16 hours, much of it recycled. Versus mode is good but you can only play two of the four campaigns competitively, and in practice the Quick Match option seems to return the hospital scenario for every game. Considering there's really no single-player component, you can feel justified in thinking there's a disappointly small amount of stuff in your Left 4 Dead box.

Left 4 Dead is an excellent game. There's no arguing with that. But whether you get your money's worth out of it is directly proportionate to how many of your friends own it, and how tolerant you are of society's internet-using dregs. If you're the sort of individual who got more than 30 hours out of Gears of War or Halo online, and are looking for something with a little more thinking and a little less teabagging, then this is the game you were waiting for. Alternatively, if you're the sort who enjoys co-op gaming in your living room and has at least one online friend who also owns a copy you'll have a blast. If you're the rest of the world, though, this is maybe better as a rental.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Kirby/Snoop Dogg - Drop It Like It's Hot

Apologies to those who have seen it before.

Apologies to those seeing it for the first time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Two Faiths

Faith - Original Faith - Edit
This is Faith, protagonist of Mirror's Edge. On the left is the original character design, as she appears in promotional artwork and in the game itself. On the right is a fan-created edit.

I've got a lot to say about Mirror's Edge, but I want to take a moment to talk about Faith. And about why the fan-created edit is better.

The key changes in the edit are that Faith has wider eyes, rounder cheeks, a larger bustline, more textured hair, a cleaner face, and the makeup is gone. The edit is better.

It's easy to misinterpret here. It's easy to think the question is, which Faith is more attractive to a male audience? The answer to that question is also the edit, but that's not what I'm talking about here. The edit is better.

It is excellent that the developers made Faith female. I've played through Mirror's Edge, and female was the right choice, on any number of levels. It is also excellent that they saw her as a strong female protagonist, and they carry this through inasmuch as is possible during the appallingly bad storyline.

Another thing that is awesome: they gave her a realistic body shape. That bustline on the edit isn't exactly fantasy, but it's unnecessary and not really ideal for someone who's going to be doing as much jumping as Faith. The original design for Faith includes some good calls, and they are to be commended.

Where they went wrong is the face. And the reason they went wrong is this: Faith's face is closed.

She's the protagonist of the game; more than that, she is the player's avatar. The player needs to be able to instantly identify with her, be welcomed into her world, and feel in tune with her motivations. Instead she's got this... face. In the picture above she's sneering; in game you only see her face a couple of times but it's got an almost robotic detachment to it. Either way, her face is closed - her squinty eyes and dirty skin and ludicrous make-up all come together to make a character who doesn't want you to get to know her.

Faces are icons. Humans, it turns out, are ridiculously good at idenitfying a human face.

We take our cues from the layout of the eyes and mouth. We've got a whole bunch of subconscious stuff going on when it comes to these parts of the body. Eyes which are large in proportion to the head evoke concepts of children, stimulating our urges of affection and protection. Eyes which are open and interested provoke engagement in the viewer (we tend to copy the expressions of people we want to engage with). Eyes with clearly defined edges are more iconic - they more loudly say "human" and therefore allow us to better project on a face; lines which break the outline of the eye make faces look more "alien".

This is basic psychology. It is the sad truth that when it comes to designing faces, there are ways that are better. The edited Faith has a sharper, cleaner face and is therefore measurably more effective at drawing the player into her world.

So, yes. Make realistic characters. Give us achievable female role models. Give us strong women doing awesome things who don't care whether or not they're impressing men. But, seriously, badly designed is not the same thing as interesting, and well designed is not the same thing as pandering to the masses.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Wrestler - Trailer

Holy crap, it's the biography of every wrestler ever. Mickey Rourke is channelling some powerful washed-up wrestling zeitgeist there.

The problem with "drama" cinema is it's so hard to tell the moving masterworks from the dreary slogs based entirely on the trailer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Communicating With Government Online: How To

Just a little addendum to my last post. Let's say, for example, that you, like most right-minded Australians, see the idea of a national net filter as not only fundamentally misconceived but also ineffective in achieving the goal it aims for. Let's also say you would like to communicate this in writing - let's say by means of a Federal Government consultative blog. (And I'll note that they haven't asked you for your opinion on that, which may mean they aren't interested in hearing it.)

Here are some things to try and include in your written communication.

- Correct spelling and grammar. These will make it look like your opinion has been thought about for longer than it takes to press the spellcheck button, and will also give the impression that you paid attention in school long enough to learn how to use a dictionary, and therefore possibly learned some other things as well.

- Formal English. Net slang is awesome, and there are a whole bunch of places where you can legitimately use it in a hilarious and attention-grabbing fashion. Formal government consultation is not one of them. It's not a matter of whether they "get it" (they might surprise you) - it's that, much in the same way as you wear your best suit to a job interview, you should wear your best English when you're genuinely trying to persuade someone of something. Avoid jargon and pop-culture references.

- Politeness. Even people who are wrong deserve your politeness. Assume good faith. Assume these are people who would honestly like to improve the lot of Australians. At the very least, assume that they are not particularly interested in reading past your insults in case you mixed some good advice in with your name-calling.

- Reasoned argument. "Net filter = fail" may be a pithy reference to modern forum culture but it is unlikely to cause anyone to have a sudden moment of enlightenment and convert to your point of view. Back up your opinions with reasons and examples, and if possible facts, statistics, and references.

- Constructiveness. For each thing that you say is a bad idea, try and include a good idea that could be tried instead. Also note that good ideas are received better when they are expressed without sarcasm.

- Conciseness. This is my weakness, don't let it be yours. The government does not have time to read everything you have to say, particularly in an online forum. Limit yourself to three key points, make your points in three sentences each, and make these the first three paragraphs of your text (with possibly a one-line summary/introduction at the top and a one line summary at the bottom). Even that's really longer than is ideal in a comment section.

- A forward outlook. Focus on the future. Focus on what can be done now, and done tomorrow, not what was or was not done in the past. The government is looking for ideas for future policy, not ideas for things to apologise about.

I hope this helps. I for one am already sick of reading comments consisting of "GG government better luck next election QQ epic net fail lolz you no can haz digital economy cheezburger", and I'm pretty sure the government is too.

Lindsay Tanner is Blogging

The Australian Federal Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has set up a "consultation blog" over at the Department website. You can read the welcome by the Honourable Lindsay Tanner MP, Federal Minister for Finance and Deregulation, or jump straight to the first substantive post, being on online access to public service information.

It's a little dry so far, but in the spirit of blogging it's a lot more conversational than your average government call for feedback, and I'd recommend everyone put their goodwill behind it by heading on over and checking it out.

In case it's not clear, this is a particularly welcome move because it's taking the conversation about digital culture into a medium where those most informed about it are most likely to respond. It's not only a form of honest and genuine consultation, but it's one that's likely to receive useful and representative responses.

Speaking of which, good to see strangedave among the commentors - also congratulations to anyone else buried in the fairly lengthy response thread. Thanks also to Julia for drawing my attention to the blog in the first place.

Awful Trailer For Awful Dragonball Movie

Oh sweet Jeebers no.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mirror's Edge, Dead Space Sequels

Mirror's Edge may not have performed quite as well as publisher EA were hoping, but that doesn't mean it won't be getting sequels. Probably once a year, if EA holds true to form. Same goes for their sci fi horror title Dead Space.

Joystiq reports on a conference call between EA CEO John Riccitiello and investors:

EA CEO, John Riccitiello, began the call by pointing out that 17 of the company's '08 titles earned aggregate Metacritic scores above 80, versus only seven the year before. New IPs – specifically Dead Space and Mirror's Edge – were praised, but Riccitiello pointed out during the Q&A portion of the call that these franchises will perform better once established. "Dead Space looks like a long-term big winner for us," he said, later confirming, "[Mirror's Edge] is going to go forward."
That's great as far as I'm concerned. Mirror's Edge is excellent, and possessed no real flaws that another six months in development couldn't have fixed. A sequel will give developer DICE a chance to smooth out the rough edges and show us what they were intending all along.

And yes, I've still got a review of Mirror's Edge coming, but I'm doing 14 hour days this week so it might have to wait till the weekend.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

How To Buy A 360 Jasper

If you're an uber-gaming-geek you'll probably be aware that Microsoft has started to manufacture a new GPU for the XBox 360. It's called the Jasper (in contrast to the current GPU, the Falcon), and it's marginally quieter, significantly cooler, and exponentially less likely to result in your 360 suffering the Red Ring of Death. It also ships with the New XBox Experience already installed thanks to some brand-spanking-new onboard flash memory.

The Jasper's only just starting to turn up in stores; if you're buying a 360 over Xmas you'll probably end up with a (crappy old generic) Falcon, as the boxes aren't differentiated in any particularly obvious way and I'd bet money on salespeople not knowing what you're talking about. The only way to beat the system and take home a Jasper is to be Clued In (TM). Clued In people are the best kind of people.

Bill at Dubious Quality offers the following advice on snagging a Jasper:
Can you tell from looking at the box? Possibly, and here's all the information I can give you.

1. On the outside of the box, the bar code sticker will include a "team" and a "lot number." The team must be "FDOU," and the lot number must be "843x" or higher. Please note that finding an 843x unit doesn't guarantee it's a Jasper, but any lot numbers below almost guarantee that it isn't.

2. The power supply is 150W, with an output of 12.1A. By comparison, my repaired launch unit has a 203W power supply that outputs 16.1A. Falcons have a 175W power supply and output 14.2A. The problem, of course, is that you won't know what the power supply is until you open the box.

3. If it's an Arcade unit, the features comparison on the side of the box must list "256MB" as the memory. The new Arcades come with 256MB built-in flash memory instead of the 512MB flash memory. All I've seen reported so far as Jasper units are the Arcade models, so it might be another few days (or weeks) until they start showing up in Premiums and Elites.
You can read Bill's full post over at Dubious Quality. (link)

Hit The Mute Button: 10 Topics To Kill For 2009

Just... shut up, all of you.

I've had fun with the internet this year, more or less. Actually, let's rephrase that as a question. I've had fun with the internet this year: more... or less?

I ask because it seems I can't load a single freaking web page without seeing the same ten topics run into the ground again and again. I'm tired of them. They've been thoroughly canvassed in 2008 and now with a new year looming it's time to move on. I'm going to list them here for your convenience, so that we can never, ever hear about them again.

1) Digital Rights Management (DRM)
Yes, it's terrible. Yes, it doesn't make sense. Yes, it doesn't even work properly. Spore, the most notorious DRM offender of the year, is also the most pirated game of the year. Stardock, a publisher known for an eminently sensible approach to DRM, are selling games hand-over-fist from what's practically their backyard and will soon need giant new silos constructed in which to store their piles of money. If you're concerned about DRM, here's a tip - stop buying it. Abandon the PC as the gaming wasteland that it is. Don't get your music from iTunes and don't buy your software from Electronic Arts.

2) Violent Crime And Videogames
Actually this is more of an appeal to the mainstream media. Gaming and violence has become a sort of reductio ad Hitlerum. "Violent criminal used to play videogames" is no more newsworthy than "Violent criminal used to eat cabbage". In the absence of a causative link, two unconnected facts do not become more connected just because you use them in the same headline.

3) Mirror's Edge
I am shortly to deliver an elegant thesis on why Mirror's Edge is awesome and you all blow goats. In the mean time, it is probably an overreaction to say that this game made you (a) develop bowel cancer, (b) feed small puppies to other small puppies, or (c) believe in the literal truth of Satan. Your concerns have been noted and will be refuted in due course.

4) New Music Games
Rock Band and Guitar Hero have the market sufficiently covered, thank you. I do not require any more rhythm-related shenannigans from Konami, Disney Interactive, or anyone else for that matter. I highly doubt that you know "where the rock is at", I am unenthused by your shoddy peripherals, and I do not need any more half-arsed covers of Blitzkrieg Bop. I also do not want to strum my Nintendo DS like any sort of instrument, unless it is maybe a sitar or theremin.

5) LittleBigPlanet Levels
Stop telling me about classic 8-bit games you have recreated in LittleBigPlanet. Seriously, just stop. I'm not interested. My enthusiasm has reached its ultimate ebb. Its nadir, if you will.

6) Rockstar Games
I am numb. Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games can no longer move me to either laughter or outrage. Even if their next game is entitled Ultimate Baby Raper 5000 I will merely nod in an unsurprised way and instantly forget that it exists.
... I tell a lie. I'm sorry, Ultimate Baby Raper 5000 would be a story. There's six months worth of news cycle in that thing. But that's, like, the threshold. Seriously, Rockstar is just doing it for the shock now. They're like some attention-deficit toddler.

7) Modded Retro Consoles
I have seen enough NES toasters, C64 fish tanks and Megadrive dog collars. I am not particularly interested in your ability to play Mega Man using a pair of cleverly-wired underpants. Either (a) someone has already done it, (b) someone did something similar, or (c) I imagined that someone did something similar, and had a pretty good imagination. Retro is mainstream now; you'll need to wait a decade or so for it to be retro again.

8) The Cake Is A Lie
We played Portal last year. We enjoyed it and we welcomed it into our pop culture. Months passed. The intricate ballet of time played out across reality's stage. In short, we have moved on. You are like that person that is still laughing at the joke after everyone else has stopped, cackling in a demented fashion while occasionally shouting, "It's funny because it's cake!" We are slowly backing away from you and reaching behind us for blunt objects.

9) Sephiroth
1997 is eleven years ago. Let it go, people.

10) "The Difficulty In Reviewing Games"
The difficulty in reviewing games is that there are more hours of gameplay released in any given week than there are hours in that week. Even if I don't sleep. Being a gamer does not make it difficult to review games. Not even if you raise one eyebrow like that. It's wonderful that the market is shifting towards casual games and plebians who've never played Phantasy Star but that doesn't mean that every Joe Lunchpail on the street is suddenly thinking hard about exactly what makes a successful game work. If you want to see why non-gamers don't review games you need look no further than the train wreck that is Soulja Boy Tell Em.

Thank you for your time. I trust your personal blog will soon be cleaned up accordingly. Stand by for next post, in which I bag out elitist gamers and arrogant big-mouths.

Lips First Impressions

SingStar is easily the worst game I ever played on the PS2. Yes, worse than Paparazzi. The whole SingStar franchise is a shameless attempt by Sony to bilk non-gamers out of their money based on the assumption that the average Sue won't realise they're paying full price for $20 worth of development. There's no game elements, there's very little coding, and it's hard to tell the difference between "playing" and watching a non-interactive karaoke DVD.

So I got to spend some time with Lips last night.

Lips is SingStar, as done by Microsoft. It's basically a glorified karaoke box, where songs play and lyrics appear on screen, and players sing along into a microphone.

The short version is that Lips is 100% better than SingStar, but still only 75% as good as the vocalist portions of Rock Band.

There are a lot of pluses. The included track list is a bit on the short side, but has zero filler - every song is a bona fide karaoke hit. The Australian version features honest-to-god Australian content, including classics like "Khe Sahn" and John Farnham's "The Voice". I find it very hard to say bad things about a game that includes "Walk Like An Egyptian" and "Bust A Move".

The microphones are also pretty sweet. They're wireless, you turn them on just by shaking them, they have some sort of motion detector inside, and they light up in unique colours to identify which player they're bound to. Once Rock Band patches to support these things they are going to be the vocalist peripheral of choice among gamers I know.

Unlike SingStar, Lips is an actual game. You earn points for your performance, and rank up over time. You earn medals for such things as perfect pitch and steady singing, and of course being on the 360 there are achievements to be had. There's not a lot of structure to the experience though, and you can't set or change the difficulty, so your tenth hour of play is going to be more or less the same as the nine that came before it. There's no unlockables, bonus content, or customisable avatars either. I didn't get the chance to see whether there were online leaderboards but the scoring system seemed fairly loose so I don't know whether global competition would be worthwhile anyway.

Probably the strongest feature is the multiplayer. Any song can be sung two-player, and you can start a song single-player and have a second player tag in halfway through just by shaking a microphone. There's not a lot in the way of duets present (in fact there may be none, I didn't immediately see any) but you can still belt out something like "Call Me" or "Stand By Me" as a duo. In addition, there are a bunch of competitive modes, such as one where you attempt to push the other player off a virtual stage by virtue of your superior performance.

Lips' last feature is more of an afterthought. You can theoretically import any MP3 from your music collection into the game, which sounds awesome, but of course they're not pitch-mapped and the game doesn't display any lyrics, so it's really no different to just playing one of these songs on your sound system and singing along. The game doesn't even download album art or anything so you're not likely to have a lot of fun with this option.

All in all, it seems that Lips is a karaoke game that doesn't insult its target market. There's a lot of room for improvement, but if you're the sort of person inclined to drop money for this sort of product, Lips is one of the best options currently available.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Press The Start Button

Icon may not have been as good as previous DefJam games, but it's good to see Ludacris is hard at work on the soundtrack for the next installment. Apparently.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


BEFORE YOU PRESS PLAY: This is wildly off-topic and just posted here because (a) I didn't have a gaming-related post today and (b) the Chernobyl meltdown has been my personal "learn about something new" topic for the last coupla weeks.

This video depicts material filmed by one Vladimir Shevchenko during the period immediately following the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in April 1986. It includes footage of Chernobyl liquidators and "biorobots" working to clear wreckage from around the reactor, and digging holes under the reactor which were to be filled with concrete. The majority of these people subsequently died of radiation-related conditions. Shevchenko himself also died as a result of the radiation. His camera was so badly irradiated it had to be buried with him. The video also catches on film the crash of one of the helicopters which were dumping material into the reactor.

The video does not contain any disturbing images per se but given the historical context it may not be suitable for all viewers. If you're up for it, though, it's compelling viewing. If the text is too shrunk when viewed through my blog you can see it in widescreen over at YouTube.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

New Ghostbusters Trailer

I challenge you to watch the new Ghostbusters trailer without smiling. I just... I challenge you.

It's so authentically actually the Ghostbusters. Original actors and everything. Recognisable faces, recognisable animations, recognisable cheesy ghosts. I'm not even sure I want to play the game - I just want to sit back and watch a spookily-young-again Bill Murray delivering line after line of dialogue.

This is probably one of those cases where the trailer is infinitely better than the game, but we can live in hope.

TV Failure

I am making a very sad face, because my TV has gone and died on me.

It's an LG 26LC2R, and the problem is that upon power-on it takes about five times as long as usual to power up the screen, during power on the power light flashes constantly (it normally flashes three times before the screen illuminates) and then once the screen is illuminated it displays no picture (not even the "no signal" message). I can't access the system menu either. I have checked all connections, tried removing all external inputs, and tried removing power from the remote control. No joy.

If anyone either (a) has a solution, (b) wants to come round and fix it, or (c) wants to buy me a new TV, let me know. In the mean time I no can haz XBox, Wii or PS2.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thursday Browser Games

See how I put "Thursday" in the title there, as though I've done this in the past or will ever do this again in the future? It's a tradition that starts and ends today; you can consider this post endorsed by the weight of a mythical history of repetition.

Anyway, a few browser games to entertain you which you may or may not have encountered before.

Hedgehog Launch is a neat little thing which challenges you to fling a hedgehog into space, using a combination of elastic bands and jet engines. Your first few attempts will be pitiful, but over consecutive days you accumulate cash with which to upgrade your elastic and/or engines. Surprisingly fun.

Splitter is a physics based game which presents the classic challenge of moving a ball into a hole. The catch is, the only way you can interact with your environment is by cutting things in two, and you only have a limited amount of cuts. Very neat.

Finally, Shore Siege is a defence-style game where you play a crew of shipwrecked pirates struggling to repair their vessel while being attacked by waves of enemies. In addition to deploying snipers and turrets, you take an active part by using a pin to pop balloons, a fire to burn marshmallow-enemies, water to douse fireballs, et cetera. Addictive.

All of the above links point to Kongregate, which is my way of attempting to get sweet, sweet referral points for that site, but I should mention that Shore Siege and Hedgehog Launch are the work of Armor Games and if you particularly like them you might want to visit their site directly.

Age of Booty

Who doesn't like pirates?

Hitler. That's who.

If you're not Hitler, then you'll like Age of Booty. At least, that's what I want to say, but I don't actually think Age of Booty is for everyone.

Age of Booty is available through XBox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network, so as you can imagine, it's really only a barely-evolved Flash game in scope and execution. It's much like a real-time strategy game, with almost everything that genre has to offer stripped out and replaced with a bucketload of simplicity.

You can tackle Age of Booty as a multiplayer game (local or online) or try out one of a number of single-player challenges. Either way, you'll be put in command of a single pirate vessel (possibly with one or more teammates) and have to struggle for control of a limited number of ports, competing with other pirate teams. The first team to reach a set number of ports is the winner, but to reach that number you'll typically have to steal ports away from other teams.

The game's presented from a more-or-less top-down perspective, and the map is made up of hex-shaped spaces. The combat is completely handled by the computer - sail next to a legal target, and your ship will automatically start firing. This is an important tactical consideration, as if there is more than one legal target adjacent your ship will split its fire between them, drastically reducing its overall effectiveness.

You can upgrade your ship at its home port, improving its cannons, armour or speed. (Armour is for chumps.) The resources required to buy these upgrades, though, are shared across your team, so it requires co-ordination to maximise your team's effectiveness.

The control is practically one-button play - the only time you'll need any button other than "Press A to Move" is when purchasing upgrades, which is still very simple. This would be make it ideal fare for a casual audience, except that it remains a viciously competitive game, even in the single-player challenges. And as with everything, the level of that viciousness increases exponentially once you take your game to the internet.

I had a heap of fun with Age of Booty. It's the sort of thing you can quickly fit in a round of with friends between sessions of Rock Band or Soul Calibur. The single player maps are at an appropriate level of challenge, and there's just enough of them to keep you busy without being so numerous as to make you give up.

If you're looking for a simple RTS you can play in five-minute stretches, Age of Booty might be for you. If you're in doubt, you should actually bother downloading the demo - you'll know pretty quickly whether this is the game for you or not.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

World's Oldest Lolcat

ICanHasCheezburger claims to have found the world's oldest lolcat, being a captioned photograph of a kitten dating back to 1905. The black and white image depicts a cat on a stool, with the text, "WHAT'S DELAYING MY DINNER?"

Answer: Japanese imperialist aggression and Russian civil unrest! 1905 was a bad year for kittens, apparently!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Rock Band

After an epic delay, Rock Band finally made its way to Australia this month, just as the rest of the world was getting to grips with the sequel.

It's more or less worth the wait.

Straight up front: I am a huge Guitar Hero fan. Rock Band is better than any of the Guitar Hero games up to and including number 3, easily. It's made by Harmonix, the people behind the first and second Guitar Hero games, and these are people who love their music and let it show. There is an authencity and rawness about Rock Band that steals the stage from beginning to end.

If you don't understand the concept of Rock Band after over a year of inter-buzz then you're a very strange and isolated individual, but in short it is this: a song is played, and you attempt to execute a faux performance of it on one of a variety of fake instruments. You have the choice of lead or bass guitar, drums, or vocals.

Guitar plays more or less like Guitar Hero. Notes flow down the screen, and as they cross a timing bar at the bottom you have to hold the relevant fret(s) on your instrument and strum. The notemaps are logical translations of the song and are better layouts on the whole than the ones in Guitar Hero, but in every other respect the guitar portion is inferior. For a start, hammer-ons and pull-offs are depicted with ever-so-slightly-smaller note gems, which are quite hard to spot unless you're an experienced player who knows when to look for them. Also, the included guitar peripheral has frets which pinch your fingers and (at least in mine) it seems to have some trouble detecting when you're tilting it upwards to activate star power.

Rock Band also adds a few gameplay elements to the Guitar Hero foundation. It introduces soloes. During a solo, the on-screen fretboard glows blue. If you're using a Rock Band guitar, you can move down to a second, lower set of frets on the peripheral and pick out the notes without having to strum. This is confusing and tricky for new players and a completely unnecessary addition to experienced air-guitarists. Also, the moulding on the peripheral makes the hand slide quite tricky and sharp edges on the fretboards can result in unintended minor injuries. The Rock Band guitar also has an "effect switch" to modify the audio playback in-game - you can add wah-wah, for example. There's no gameplay bonus; it's just cool. Rock Band on the XBox 360 is fully compatible with Guitar Hero guitars, and is in fact better if you're using one.

Vocals are pretty comparable to Sony's SingStar franchise. The game displays lyrics and a pitch track - you sing the vocals and try and match pitch. An on-screen indicator shows you where your pitch is compared to where it needs to be. You can "wrap" up an octave or down an octave if you don't share the same vocal range as the real singer. Star power is deployed by shouting or freestyling during gaps in the lyrics; during long lyric-less stretches of music the singer is encouraged to lead the audience in clapping by tapping on the microphone. There's no gameplay penalty for ignoring this clapping section which means if you want to sing and play an instrument at the same time you theoretically can. (You'll need to know the lyrics in advance, though, as following the vocal track and an instrument track at the same time on-screen really isn't possible.)

The highlight of Rock Band is the drumming, which replicates the experience of Konami's DrumMania arcade games. You get a set of four drum pads on a stand, with an attached footpedal, and a pair of authentic drumsticks. You're more or less performing real drumming here, which is excellent. The pads are well made and seem to withstand some pretty vigorous drumming, even from those prone to really bash the suckers. The footpedal is a bit more flimsy - a lot of people have reported breaking theirs, although I haven't had any problem yet.

The game really works best when you've got at least three people playing, with one of those people doing the vocals. Playing as a band is a great co-operative experience and generates real energy for everyone present. The solo tours for each instrument are a bit lifeless by comparison.

The two biggest disappointments in Rock Band are the set list and the progression system. A music game lives or dies by its selection of music, and Rock Band's collection is only so-so. There's a lot of genuinely excellent bands featured, but the songs for each band are rarely what most people would consider their first, second or even third pick. While OK Go's Here It Goes Again and Jet's Are You Gonna Be My Girl are solid choices, it's hard to understand the reasoning behind Orange Crush as the sole song from REM or Rock & Roll Star as the offering from Oasis. David Bowie gets Suffragette City, of all things, and the Rolling Stones apparently have nothing better in their catalogue than Gimme Shelter. Even Harmonix-favourite Freezepop have gone rooting through their B-list to provide the less-than-awesome Brainpower.

These problems are remedied to some extent by the massive amount of downloadable content available for the game, but even here the weirdness continues. The Killers trackpack overlooks Somebody Told Me and All These Things That I've Done in order to supply Mr Brightside, Spaceman and Smile Like You Mean It. There's an entire album by The Pixies, for some reason, but it's not the one that has Where Is My Mind? The Presidents of the USA get three songs but nothing off their first album. Out of eight Nirvana tracks they couldn't manage to give us Smells Like Teen Spirit, and despite seven Nine Inch Nails songs we're denied Closer.

The other major problem with Rock Band is it feels a lot less like a game than Guitar Hero. With four instruments and a massive number of songs, attempting to "play through" the game feels like floundering in a bottomless ocean. The solo tours involve slogging through the built-in songs, sorted by difficulty, with no real rewards or incentives.

The multiplayer "World Tour" mode at face value has more structure, with content locked off until you've acquired enough "stars" or "fans", but for some reason most of this mode is focused on making you play multiple songs back to back. Less demanding tasks ask you to play two or three songs in a row. Later you'll have to play six or eight songs without interruption, where failing one song drops you out of the challenge completely. World Tour mode culminates in the ridiculous "Endless Setlist" where you'll have to play all 50-something songs included in the game non-stop, without the ability to save your progress until you're done. That takes about seven hours.

There are some other things you should take note of if you're planning to buy Rock Band. There are two "real" versions, being the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 iterations. All the other versions are gimped in some essential way, starting with the inability to download extra tracks and moving on from there. Don't buy the fake versions as I do not have any nice things to say about them.

Also, there's quite a complicated treatment of gamer profiles. When you create an in-game avatar, it's bound not only to the profile that created it, but also to the instrument you were on when you made it. So you'll need to create separate characters for guitar, drums and vocals, and you'll need to be signed in on the instrument you intend to play to use them. Shuffling musicians around mid-session requires either a bunch of signing out and signing in, or people abandoning their avatars to another player and playing under someone else's name.

Also when you create a band, the person who created that band needs to be signed in on the same profile and instrument as when they created it in order for that band to be played at all. So if you created the band as a drummer, you'll always have to have a drummer when you're playing that band. It's a system which is frankly odd, and hugely frustrating to the process of organising local multiplayer. My experience is with the XBox 360 version so I'm not sure to what extent this problem might persist on the PS3.

Okay, so that's a long list of gripes, so I should probably say again: the Guitar Hero games are excellent, excellent games, and Rock Band is better. If you're not initially convinced, all you need to do is hear the crowd sing along during a particularly excellent performance of a song's chorus, or freestyle your first drum fill. This is an excellent game, and everyone should own it. Maybe own it twice. That's how good it is.