Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Games of the Decade: #40 - #36

#40: WarioWare Inc. (2003)
GameBoy Advance
There's nothing quite like WarioWare Inc. Even the sequels don't manage to quite capture the frenetic charm of the original. Hundreds of three-second games, each requiring only a single action ("Dodge!", "Stab!", "Throw!"), packed back-to-back at eyeball-breaking speed. It's a concept bred from genius and the implementation on its first showing is impeccable. It distills the pick-up-and-play philosophy that made the GameBoy such a hit to its absolute purest and frankly I think Nintendo would be better served by re-releasing the original on new consoles rather than trying to replicate it.

#39: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002)
The cleverest survival horror game ever made. Not the best - it's covered with edges so raw they'll cut you - but the cleverest. The reason? The sanity system. As your character encounters the supernatural menaces teeming in the game's corners, their sanity begins to slip away, and as it does the game becomes steadily less trustworthy. Doors open into deathtraps, where you watch your character die, only to awaken back outside the door. Mad voices whisper instructions from the speakers. Cockroaches crawl across the inside of your television screen and items you thought you'd acquired turn out to be entirely hallucinatory. In one memorable sequence the game pretends to reset back to the GameCube boot-up icon, purportedly erasing your entire progress since your last save.

#38: Pikmin (2001)
A totally unique game mechanic, a legion of adorable characters, and a compelling dog-eat-dog environment to explore and conquer. It's just one of the many triumphs of living legend Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and Zelda, amongst others). Pikmin's originality is matched only by its competence; for many franchises it takes several iterations to refine gameplay to this level but Pikmin achieves it on its first outing. As tiny space explorer Olimar, you use the analogue sticks to sweep your army of plant-like Pikmin around to assault enemies, explore territory, and convey heavy objects back to your ship for transport. It went on to inspire the reasonably decent Overlord games and the less exciting Pikmin 2.

#37: Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy (2005)
PlayStation 2, XBox
In Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy to Americans), developer Quantic Dream revisited the early 90s concept of the "interactive movie" and by and large got it right. They developed a compelling mystery, interesting characters, and a new, pulse-pounding way of interacting with and experiencing videogaming that is totally unlike anything before or since. The first two scenes, where you play first as a man struggling to hide a dead body and escape a crime scene, and then as the two detectives investigating that same scene, establish a high point that the rest of the game never quite lives up to, but it remains a breathtaking trip through territory rarely explored by mainstream designers.

#36: Zone of the Enders / ZoE: The Second Runner (2001)
PlayStation 2
I'm including the two ZoE games together as they really form a single, epic game stretched over two installments. The first game is so short you can't help but feel it's not complete and the second game is so tough in spots you'll feel like you missed a tutorial. Together they form a single narrative vision. Hideo Kojima's tale of humanity, rebellion, and spacefaring giant robots is a representation of mecha anime unparallelled in gaming history. It flawlessly defeats the problems of 3D-movement and combat that have been the bane of similar games and goes on to tell a powerful, engaging story spread across two planets and two main characters. They're hard to get your hands on these days but if you get the chance they're not to be missed.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Games of the Decade: #45 - 41

#45: Wii Sports (2006)
Wii Sports is one of the most important games ever made, and if it's not higher on this list it's only because despite being important it's not actually that great a game. Bundled with the Nintendo Wii, it's the game that not only introduced the Wii to worldwide audiences (and began an unprecented sales tornado that catapulted Nintendo back to the top of the gaming industry), but it's the game that unlocked a whole new marketplace for Nintendo (and eventually other publishers) to exploit. Ads featuring celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John enjoying tennis in Wii Sports told the world that the Wii was a console not only for gamers, but also for mothers, fathers, families, entertainers, and everyone who doesn't consider themselves "in" on the complex world of videogames.

#44: Sam & Max Save The World (2006)
PC, XBox 360, Wii
One of the defining events of the 1990s in gaming was LucasArts killing the point-n-click adventure genre; one of the defining events of the 2000s was Telltale Games resurrecting it. Through the medium of monthly episodic content, Telltale delivered two "seasons" of excellent Sam & Max games, along with four episodes of Wallace and Gromit, five episodes of Strong Bad, and a final triumphant resurrection of the Monkey Island franchise through the five-part Tales of Monkey Island. Sam & Max Save The World (the first Sam & Max season) stands in for all those accomplishments although it's a thoroughly deserving candidate in and of itself - funny, clever, and fully comfortable with its unique episodic format from the moment it steps out of the gate.

#43: WipeOut Pure (2007)
PlayStation Portable

The whole WipeOut franchise is an exemplary achievement in gaming; WipeOut Pure just happens to be the one I enjoyed most. They're amazing high-speed futuristic racing games but if that was all they were they'd lag behind Criterion's Burnout franchise. What sets WipeOut apart is the mood. WipeOut channels state-of-the-art electronica and trance music and combines it with soothing colour palettes and smooth, eye-pleasing lines to create not so much a game as a mental zone, a meditative state which, above and beyond the finish line, is the real destination of every WipeOut race.

#42: Ico (2001)
PlayStation 2
Ico is a game about holding hands. That's all it's about. It's about journeying from point A, to point B, while holding hands. Point A and point B are both located with an immense, brooding castle that at times is starkly lit and at other times hides in billowing shadows. With no real exposition, with no dialogue to speak of, Ico manages to create a poignantly emotional gaming experience without peer and is a must-play for everyone who aspires to discuss games.

#41: Psychonauts (2005)
PlayStation 2

Psychonauts is a great game, combining witty dialogue, well-crafted humour, and the most original level concepts ever seen in a videogame. But its real significance is in what it's come to stand for. Psychonauts is the game that got nothing but glowing reviews in every publication that reviewed it, and flopped on store shelves. It was a massive financial disaster for publisher Majesco. It's the key argument in the ongoing discussion of the battle between quality gaming and commercial success and as such is one of the most important games of the decade.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Games of the Decade: #50 - #46

#50: Burnout Revenge (2005)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Take Burnout Revenge as exemplary of any or all of Burnout 3, Burnout Revenge, Burnout Legends or Burnout Paradise, all first-class paragons of racing action. (But the less said about Burnout Dominator the better.) The Burnout franchise takes exceptionally well-implemented high-speed racing and combines it with cathartically transcendental devastation. Not only is crashing a car in Burnout both satisfying and (usually) helpful to your progress, the crashes are rendered with loving artistry to make each and every one a ballet of splintered metal worthy of the most aggressively independent film festivals you can think of.

#49: The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (2006)

I've never much liked the 3D Zelda titles. Despite all the praise lavished on Ocarina of Time, it was clunky, filled with tedious busywork, and still struggled with the basics of 3D game design, at that time still an emerging field. Twilight Princess is the finished game for which Ocarina was merely a tech demo. It's an emotive and well-told story wrapped in polished, satisfying game mechanics and to say it's the best Zelda game made to date is one of the highest honours a game can receive.

#48: Vagrant Story (2000)

SquareEnix (or SquareSoft, as it was then known) is a company with a willingness to take risks, and Vagrant Story was a big one. An intelligent, adult story told in an unfriendly gothic world was just the beginning; Square went on to hang the gameplay off a controversial "risk" system that involved lengthy attack chains where each successive blow you landed on an enemy did less damage and raised your vulnerability to reprisals. Together with frustrating box puzzles and an impenetrable crafting system it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. However, the art, story, and mindblowing conclusion were so outstanding that this game deserves to be on any list of first-class games. Sadly for SquareSoft, the risk didn't pay off - Vagrant Story was never a commercial success.

#47: SoulCalibur 2 (2003)
Gamecube, Playstation 2, XBox

It's no secret that SoulCalibur is my fighting franchise of choice, and to be honest I can't understand any alternate viewpoint. The magic of SoulCalibur lies in pacing that is both lightning-fast yet deliberate, a deep range of moves which are simple to execute, and clear visual depictions of the strengths and strike zones of each character that allow both masters and novices to understand the action on screen. SoulCalibur 2 is for my money the best entry in the franchise, although 3 and 4 both have their merits. If SoulCalibur is the decade's best fighting franchise and 2 is its best iteration, that makes SoulCalibur 2 the best fighting game of the decade, right?

#46: LocoRoco (2006)
PlayStation Portable

You can hate the PSP, but you can't hate LocoRoco. It's a unique fusion of music, art, and gameplay to create an addictive, compelling platforming adventure that will stay with you long after you put it down. The conceit of the game is that to guide your small army of singing, blob-like LocoRocos through a level, you don't control the Locos directly but rather tilt the entire world, to send them tumbling down ramps and flying around curves. There's nothing else quite like it - except, of course, for its sequels.

Games of the Decade: 2000 - 2009

It seems everyone is making "Games of the Decade" lists, and it seems they're doing it wrong. They're recentist, they're genre-centric, and dammit, they're not the list that I would make.

So I'm doing my top 50 games of the decade. They're the games I deem most significant, most iconic, and most downright good over the period between January 2000 and December 2009.

Here's my biases: I regard the PC and PSP as broken platforms; a good game on either platform is struggling against technical incompatibilities and bugs on the PC side, and horrible controls and loading times on the PSP end. There's PC games and PSP games on the list but it's worth noting they're not starting from an even footing.

There's also only two Flash games on the list. There've been a hell of a lot of good Flash games in the last 10 years but it's simply hard to put the majority of them side by side with the 50 best retail games of the decade and say that it's better.

The NGage never existed and the iPhone isn't a gaming platform. There have been some indubitably excellent games for the PlayStation 3 but with the exception of PixelJunk Eden, Flower and Linger In Shadows (none of which make the list... just) I haven't played them so you won't see them here.

50 seems like a lot but it's a hard cut to make. I wanted to include one of THQ's wrestling games on the list both for their massive commercial success and the often overlooked quality of the early-2000s titles - but they just didn't make the list. I wanted to include often-neglected gems like DefJam: Fight For NY or Amped 3 - but they're just not in the best 50 games of the decade. So just because a game's missing from the list doesn't mean it isn't high in my regard.

The list will be counting upwards from 50. Games are in order, with #1 being the Game of the Decade. Updates are every Tuesday and Friday at 10 pm Canberra time until the list is done.

Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Halo Wars (Multiplayer)

From my perspective, the only difference between an AI and a 14-year-old American is that the AI is polite.

I think this is what impressed me about Halo Wars. This is a game, like all of the Halo titles, that is clearly built for multiplayer. Around half of the game's achievements are multiplayer-only achievements. And yet, when I firmly informed the game that the "multi" part of the phrase "multiplayer" would be performed entirely by the game's artificial intelligence, it shrugged, started the game, and began duly handing out achievements.

I prefer playing bots. I really do. Not just because on average the XBox Live community is a cesspit of pre-pubescent homophobia and racism which Halo enthusiastically scrapes the bottom of, but because bots offer a more meaningful experience. They play at a level of skill determined by me and they make decisions based on fixed rules, which means that I learn faster by dint of being able to try different things in similar situations, and I can accurately judge my skill gain as while I am getting better they are verifiably remaining the same.

When I say that I want to play multiplayer, sometimes I genuinely mean I want to play with other humans. This is the case with most every co-operative game, and also with rare competitive exceptions like Soul Calibur and Call of Duty 4. But mostly it means that I want to experience the multiplayer content. I want to capture a flag; I want to get a killstreak; I want to narrowly win a hotly contested deathmatch. Experiencing the content is different from experiencing the competition. I don't need to feel like I won teh internetz. I don't need to beat any other real people. I could be the world's worst player and still enjoy beating some bots.

Requiring you to be beat real people in order to experience the thrill of beating people is like a driving game that puts you in control of a real car in a real race against real drivers. It's certainly an experience but to a large extent it's redundant. The very attraction of games is their ability to simulate scenarios and experiences that may otherwise be too difficult, improbable or outright impossible for us to enjoy in real life. Defeating Sephrioth in Final Fantasy VII is not any less enjoyable for the knowledge that Sephiroth is not the avatar of a Minnesota high school student.

It's particularly an issue when it can be hard to identify an AI. In Halo Wars, if you have the chat turned off, the only way you could tell a human player from their gameplay is when they make a mistake. The only signs of human intellect to be seen are indecision, ignorance, and poor judgement; without them it's anyone's guess. AIs here are functionally interchangeable at all but the highest and lowest levels of play.

So in short I had a blast with the multiplayer component of Halo Wars. It was exceptional. It turns out that the average denizen of the gaming internet can indeed be replaced by a machine to the benefit of the world in general. For perfect realism I suppose there should have been an "AI will randomly quit mid-match" check box, to be toggled on or off, but in general I can't help but think that an MMO where all the other players were AIs might be something of a hit.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Crossing The Same Bridge Twice

The period from February through to August this year was a gaming drought of unprecedented proportions. I'm hard pressed to cite anything from that season that made me excited to own gaming hardware. Eventually September unfolded like a wonderful and exotic flower and since then the nectar has flowed with overwhelming sweetness, but in the wasteland that went before I was forced to go back to some old titles and enjoy them that little bit harder.


Theoretically the goal with Crackdown was to take my points for the game from an anemic 620 up to its current height of 1050. But really it was completely rediscovering what I had already considered to be one of the greatest games produced this console generation. Just moving around in Crackdown is a pleasure that plays on the animal parts of one's brain; it's a symphony of acceleration and exhileration that no game before or since has really managed to nail.

On my first trip though Crackdown I'd noted that it was able to stimulate real-life vertigo when I ascended to particularly high locations; this time I was able to realise the role that the excellent environmental sound effects play in that achievement. I also discovered that the game's driving systems, horrible for the majority of the game, suddenly become intensely enjoyable when you level up the protagonists's driving skill to maximum levels, unlocking a wall-climbing SUV, a missile-spewing APC, and a sleek, elegant racer able to devastate vehicles in its path merely by touching them. Rather than grinding completed content to achieve the game's remaining goals, I found myself using the goals as an excuse to keep interacting with the content. Crackdown is a sublime argument enjoyable process making the idea of meaningful rewards irrelevant.

Saint's Row

There are no words for how much I love the single-player portion of the original Saint's Row but it had frustrated me how many of the game's achievements were tied to multiplayer content. On my first interaction with that content I had no fun, and assumed I was simply over the game; too saturated in it to enjoy this online extension. A more recent attempt to go bareknuckle with the online play has corrected me - the multiplayer is hideously designed, inherently terrible, and to the extent that matches can be found at all in the barren wastelands of XBox Live they are dominated by the kind of spawn-camping software-assisted griefers who flourish in such carelessly-created environments. After an hour or so of being farmed for someone else's achievements I gave it up forever as a bad idea. In turns out the same people who created the majesty of the single player game ARE perfectly capable of designing multiplayer that efficiently murders babies.

Left 4 Dead

Every time I say that quality trumps quantity, Left 4 Dead laughs at me. I came back to it to sample the new Crash Course DLC and the Survival mode. Crash Course, naturally, is great. It's only two levels but they're longer than what came on the disc, which makes for an interesting variation to the game's pacing. There's more of the hilarous off-handed dialogue and a couple more memorable set-piece battles. But once you start replaying it (and particularly if you're going for the Littlest Genocide achievement which involves killing 5,395 zombies exclusively within Crash Course's two maps) the deficiencies of the "director AI" once again become clear, and you find yourself learning possible witch and tank spawn points off by heart and slaughtering the same zombie hordes with mind-numbing regularity.

I ran right into the game's brick walls again, as well. To tackle Expert difficulty you need four players - no ifs and no buts - as the AIs just aren't up to the task. With no guild play or team persistence, attempting to educate random strangers on how to not play like douchebags is a thankless exercise in frustration, and as far as playing with friends either you have three friends with the game and a Live Gold subscription or you don't, and even then getting them online at the same time can be epic. The other DLC - Survival mode - quickly convinced me it was a waste of time. Nothing's less fun than losing because a team member screws up, and Survival mode, with its "fight until you drop" mentality, makes that an inevitability rather than a possibility.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I am a fan of B-movies. If there is such a thing as a B-game, Wet is it.

When Activision and Blizzard went through their cyclopean merging last year and formed the entity affectionately known as Blactivision there were inevitable casualties. Two were Brutal Legend and Ghostbusters, who found new homes in the diamond-encrusted maws of EA and Sony, respectively. Another was Wet, a much lower profile development, and the fact that it has reached retail at all is due to the unlikely auspices of roleplaying powerhouse Bethesda Interactive.

Wet is a game which is nothing but rough edges. There's not an aspect of the game you can look at without seeing how money, time and polish would have vastly improved it. Travelling through its rather short story involves pinballing from limitation to limitation, and the whole thing eventually sputters out in an unsatisfying finale.

But, you know what? It's a blast.

This is a good game. It's a good game not because it is rough, and not despite being rough, but simply through enabling us to not care about it being rough. You can run on walls, you can slow down time, and you can shoot fools right in the muthafucking head, and beyond that really everything else is window dressing. If you get to the end and feel like you haven't shot enough fools in the head, you start a new game, maybe on a different difficulty setting, and introduce more heads to more bullets. It's not the milestones that are fun here, but the process of reaching them.

Wet knows it's a B-game. It glories in it. The graphics are overlaid with artificial film scratches, loading times are covered by drive-in cinema adcruft, and the plot is ripped straight from a 70s blacksploitation epic with a gravel-voiced Eliza Duskhu shoehorned into the leading role. Characters with improbable names like "Tarantula" abound; the game treats them with a completely straight face but never manages to elevate them to more than a gun-toting freak show.

Other games have gone down this path; House of the Dead: Overkill is a recent example. But Wet is somehow more authentic, because we, the audience, can see that this could have been a different game. All that separates Wet from something like Devil May Cry is six months in development and a budget to match. It's in the finest tradition of B-movies - reaching for the stars but settling for cardboard and glitter, and like B-movies of old it makes the perfect fit for the bottom half of a double bill. Enjoy a week of Brutal Legend, and follow it with a chaser of Wet.

Wet was clearly never destined for preorders and midnight launches, and in that sense it's a got a refreshing freedom of movement. It's firmly in the "stylish action" genre but it's free to borrow tricks from sources that haven't enjoyed Devil May Cry's level of commercial success. A "never stop running, never stop shooting" philosophy is lifted from Bizarre's The Club. Stylised swordplay and dry humour evoke No More Heroes. A kinetic variety of parkour-inspired motion brings to mind Mirror's Edge. But Wet picks and chooses from these very idiosyncratic games and it largely picks wisely.

Largely. It features one level so rage-inducingly-awful as to nearly make me give up in disgust. About halfway through the game, you find yourself exploded out of a plane in mid-air, and forced to dodge burning pieces of that very same plane while in freefall, while shooting at and being shot at by faceless goons who, like you, are also falling out of the plane, all with the intention of catching up to and utilising a mid-air parachute. It should be the game's definingly awesome set-piece but purpose-built mechanics, cheap one-hit kills, an inability to effectively read the environment and a complete lack of checkpoints make it a brick wall in the path of fun. Once you've solved it once it gets easier on replays but that's poor consolation to those struggling the first time around.

Wet is not anyone's Game of the Year. It's not a critical masterpiece or a roadsign along any of the streets that lead to the gaming nirvana. But it doesn't have to be. Even among mediocrity there is the good and the bad, and in that halfway house Wet is some of the best there is. There is room for the B-game, for that mixture of passion and compromise, of vision and clumsiness, and when a game like Wet emerges from the very heart of that territory it is a joy and a treasure that should not quickly be passed by.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Brutal Legend

The very best of games don't sell an experience; they sell an identity.

I, for example, have always been a huge fan of metal. Black Sabbath is a personal favourite. Motorhead are excellent. If you asked me to name one song I could never get tired of listening to, it would be Angel Witch. This is a true fact that applies to my entire life and it has applied to my entire life from five minutes after I booted up Brutal Legend until about 48 hours after the credits rolled. And then I was done. Maybe next game I'll establish my credentials in punk.

This is interactivity's shining citadel, the glorious pulsing heart that pumps enthusiasm through the gaming body. "This is Spinal Tap" is a movie about music; "Gitaroo Man" is a game about music; "Brutal Legend" is a game where the music and you are one and the same. The dissociating mechanism of the avatar is sidelined and the subject matter is infused directly into your veins.

This is Brutal Legend. It's a conversation between friends that starts with, "Say, you like good music and good stories, right?" and ends by leaving you convinced you were there at Tampa Stadium listening to Jimmy Page pick out the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven before a crowd of fifty-six thousand fans. It transmutes you into a fan; not so much original as prototypical; a storied soldier in an army a million strong. It can do this because, for Brutal Legend, Metal is not a familiarity with the music, a love of the personalities or a fondness for minutiae but rather an attitude and a manifesto. To be Metal, says Brutal Legend, all you need is a love of good music, a commitment to personal honesty and comradeship, and a nebulous but all-encompassing willingess to rock.

This is the kind of image that revolts some people. It's farcical, in a way. I'm perfectly willing to rock through hours of Brutal Legend, throwing up defiant horns in the face of all those who defy The Metal, and then turn off the console and kick back with some Sarah McLachlan and maybe a couple of sudoku. My metal-ness is entirely confined to the period during which I'm piloting a virtual Jack Black around the inside of my 360, but for that period it is absolute and unassailable. For $60 I've bought inclusion in one of the defining musical phenomena of the last hundred years, and I've done it without having to engage in the messiness of tours, festivals, or interaction with other fans. That's a bargain, if ever I saw one.

Is it hypocrisy or genius? Does it matter? It's not that Brutal Legend is a fantasy; it's that it's such a convincing one. The world presented through the game is one littered with chrome, fire, and semi-druidic monoliths. Noble barbarians wield the power of Metal against gothic organists, glitter-encrusted groupies, and apocalyptic demon beasts. Ozzy Osbourne himself does service as the guardian of the underworld and Lemmy Kilmister tours as a taciturn biker gifted with the healing magic of bass guitar. If this is fantasy it's one that even the genuine articles enthusiastically subscribe to.

As a game, there are shortcomings here. Your lantern-jawed protagonist is regularly called upon to engage in hack-and-slash that could generously be described as shallow. There's a motor vehicle that handles less like a car and more like a bad-tempered rhino. Real time strategy is dabbled in with more enthusiasm than genuine talent, and there's collectables and sidequests that would have looked dated in the era of the Nintendo 64.

But they're not sufficiently bad to stop you playing, and that makes them good enough, because the real treat here is the world itself, and the exhilerating storytelling, scriptwriting, and soundtrack that bring it, vibrating with passion, to life. Every moment spent with the game is a revelation, whether it's hearing the serious but self-aware dialogue, discovering a new and breathtaking metal-inspired landscape, or just kicking back and listening to Black Sabbath belt out another rendition of Mr Crowley. Simply being in the game is a pleasure and even those parts of the game that are trying to kill you are affectionately letting you know that you're not just any enemy but specifically their enemy. It's like being hugged, but with teeth.

This is the awesome pinnacle of ersatz awesomeness. It's art about trash made from art. And if, at a crucial turning point in the game, a chase sequence is punctuated by Dragonforce's epic power-metal ballad Through the Fire and Flames, does it really matter if I only recognise it from Guitar Hero III?


Nope, The Dust Forms Words is still dead, until further notice.

But I wrote some reviews the other day, and for lack of anything better to do with them, I'm queuing them up to publish here. They'll go up once a week, on Friday, until they run out.

For anyone still reading, I hope you enjoy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Back In Canberra

I'm back from holidays. Swancon was excellent. Thanks to the convention organisers; thanks also to all the awesome people I saw over the last couple of weeks.

Regular posting will resume here just as soon as I'm caught up on sleep.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

1995 Called: It Wants Settlers of Catan Back

It appears Wired Magazine has only just discovered Settlers of Catan. Stay tuned for their groundbreaking follow-up article, "Computers: The Next Big Thing?"

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Pull My Finger

This year's crop of April Fool's jokes are incredibly, incredibly lame. Shame on you, internet. Shame. You've managed to make my information feed useless for 24 hours without compensating with entertainment.

As a side note, April Fool's certainly brings into contrast the inherent strangeness of the game industry. I can't even tell if this is a joke or not.

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 coinopvideogames.com 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!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beyond Good & Evil

No, the name of the game is never explained. With Christmas well and truly behind me and the flood of blockbuster next-gen titles temporarily receding, I've taken the time to catch up on some overlooked gems from my PlayStation 2 collection, in particular Beyond Good & Evil.

This is a game from Michel Ancel, the creator of Rayman. At the time of its release, it sold poorly, but it's picked up steam as a cult classic and the general consensus on the blogosphere is that it's time to revisit Beyond Good & Evil with kinder eyes.

I'm glad I did. The game is excellent. After playing through the recent Prince of Persia I had been thinking to myself, "I want more like this," and now I'm feeling a little stupid because it turns out I had "more like this" sitting on my shelf for the better part of two years, completely unplayed.

In Beyond Good & Evil you play as Jade, photographer and surrogate big sister to a gaggle of assorted orphans. When Jade's adopted planet of Hillys is attacked by the militaristic DomZ armies, Jade is pressed into service to find out what the DomZ are up to and why, exactly, the local defence forces aren't doing much about it.

I say that it's a bit like Prince of Persia, and by that I really mean that it handles relationships between the core characters well. Jade is aided by her "Uncle Pey'j", an avuncular pig-man with a gift for mechanics. (Actually, Hillys is populated by all manner of animal-people, although it spurns catgirls and bunny-women in favour of antropomorphic sharks, rhinos and goats.) Later on you'll also team up with "Double H", a likeable resistance fighter who's forever quoting his role models "Johnson & Peters". These characters are really enjoyable to be around, and when the game makes you go solo you'll really feel their loss. The interactions with Pey'j and Double H form the emotional spine of the game.

Really, though, the gameplay is more like Metal Gear Solid meets Pokemon Snap. Jade's role as a photographer isn't a mini-game or sidequest - it's the core of the game. All your efforts are ultimately directed and getting access to places where you can take photos which reveal the truth of the DomZ plan. You compose and shoot your photos yourself, and the game stores the photos you've taken and weaves them into the game in unexpected places, notably to excellent effect in the game's final scenes.

To keep you busy between plot photographs, you're also challenged to photograph every animal species on Hillys, of which there are I think 50-something. Some of these are ubiquitous but others will require finding some very specific environments. The animals are beautifully unique and make sense in the context of the biosphere; finding the rarer specimens can be really breathtaking, whether it's turning out the lights in a deep cave to capture an unrecorded bioluminscent algae in full glow, or catching a giant blue whale in mid-leap as it breaches the waves. The nature photography is so excellent that I found myself wishing that it could have been the main plot.

Sadly, the other half of the game is stealth. Despite my love of Metal Gear Solid I've never enjoyed having to be stealthy, and I like it best as a vehicle for getting myself in the prime position for completely eliminating every guard in sight. Beyond Good & Evil does a pretty passable job at this type of gaming - the controls are tight and responsive, for example - but it still doesn't quite get it right.

The camera doesn't give you anywhere near enough information. It's not clear how many guards are around, where they're walking, or where they can see. This turns the stealth sections into frustrating trial-and-error processes where you'll proceed halfway across an area, realise there's an extra guard you couldn't see, get caught, and have to restart. Thankfully checkpoints are extremely generous and well-placed. Also, the consequences of detection vary. Sometimes you'll merely end up fighting the guards, which is an appropriate punishment as you'll usually win but at a severe cost to your health. On other occasions, however, detection results in immediate death from a previously-invisible hovering laser orb that can apparently shoot through walls.

Were it not for the stealth sections, this would be an extremely casual-friendly game. Nothing anywhere else in the design comes close to replicating the frustration and repetition of the sneaking missions; every time I started into a guarded area I came close to giving up the game for good and I ended up playing with a walkthrough in hand to minimise my negative experiences.

Everything other than the stealth is perfect, though. You can cruise around the watery surface of Hillys in a hovercraft, compete in suprisingly entertaining hovercraft races, discover hidden nooks and crannies, collect valuable pearls, and explore the pedestrian district of Hillys' main city.

That city, by the way, is a triumph. The main canals that connect everything are packed with an amazing variety of water-borne and airborne vehicles moving in every direction at once, while giant television screens hovering in the air boom out propaganda messages. This kind of business is something we've seen in videogames elsewhere, but the fact it intrudes out into the player's space - the other vehicles are using the same areas that you can use - makes it feel real and immediate and alive. It has an effect something like the cantina from Star Wars, giving you the impression of this being a real, diverse world, through the use of only a single scene. The city also grows and changes as you play, with the propaganda messages changing to reflect your exploits and growing numbers of citizens protesting in the streets as you take more photographs and uncover more of the truth.

The graphics are gorgeous. Despite being rendered on a last-generation system I had no cause to fault anything visual about the game. This is largely because it relies less on technical prowess than it does on genuine art; good aesthetics is good aesthetics at any level of resolution. These are clearly deliberate choices - for example, the art uses simple lines and blocky, childlike shapes for all the Hillyan characters, while making the Domz significantly more visually complex, with assymetries and irregular silhouettes. (The only Hillyan to copy this design style is Pey'j, presumably to reinforce him as a "grown-up" and set him apart from the "child-like" Hillys. It's worth noting also that, story-wise, he's not a Hillyan native.)

Jade is a textbook example of how to do a modern female protagonist. She's dynamic, interesting, competent and attractive, without being sexualised, gimmicky or shallow. Part of what makes her work is that she's "just a person", and a late-game twist that sheds new light on her background feels weak precisely because it violates her identity as someone "normal".

The music is fantastic. I've had it stuck in my head for days after I've finished playing the game, and the main theme is a genuine gaming classic.

I love the story, I love the art, I love the characters, I love the thrilling unexpected action set-pieces (in particular an amazing rooftop chase), I love that the action facilitates the story rather than vice versa, and I love that after such a long hiatus it's finally getting a sequel.

Finding a copy of Beyond Good & Evil is easy. It came out for every last-gen system, it's available for the 360 through XBox Originals for PC direct download via Steam, and if you live in Canada they're apparently giving it away for free with certain packs of cheese. If you haven't played it yet, get yourself psyched to complete some annoying stealth in pursuit of a greater good, fire up your system of choice, and sit back for one of the best gaming experiences ever produced.