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Review: FIFA Street

Apr 13 // Joseph Leray
FIFA Street (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3)Developer: EA CanadaPublisher: EA SportsRelease: March 13, 2012 (NA) / March 16, 2012 (EU)MSRP: $59.99 Everything in FIFA Street -- from the granular acts of dribbling and juggling past opponents to the overarching systems that govern in-game tournaments and team-building -- feels loose and disconnected. There are two different dribbling systems, but they never seem to interact. The right analog stick governs a large number of pre-animated flicks, step-overs, roulettes, and turns designed to be performed within the run of play. Another discrete system for dribbling while standing still ostensibly attaches your avatar's foot to the ball with an invisible string, but there seems to be no overlap between the two. While there’s a certain joy in being able to (relatively easily, compared to the core FIFA series) pirouette around opponents, this joy is tempered by the concessions required to make it possible. Street employs the same player impact engine used to great effect in FIFA 12, but in a mutated, shambolic form. Despite the ease with which players can make something cool happen on screen, Street is surprisingly hard to control for a game predicated on sophisticated dribbling, thanks to a mix of funky collision detection and overlong animations.It is, for example, impossible to make a player turn around and face his own goal if he has the ball. On both defense and offense, players get locked into elaborate animations, which lengthens input lag considerably. Players veer away from loose balls or inexplicably fall to the ground, apparently registering collisions that never happened. When collisions do occur, Street’s distorted physics take over, sending players flying, landing in crumpled heaps.Sports games depend on player skill and decision-making having a tangible impact on each game -- it’s what differentiates your first FIFA match from your hundredth. With its loose, unresponsive controls, Street denies players the opportunity to exert their will, and learning and massaging the engine’s quirks and pratfalls is often the most fruitful course of action. This gives Street the impression of being even flatter and more repetitive than most sports games. Nevertheless, there’s a certain rhythm that guides each match and, when things are going well, the game can be pretty fun in the same way that, say, Asura’s Wrath may have been considered fun: audacious, maximalist, ostentatious.It’s a shame, then, that these dribbling mechanics, problematic as they are, never feed back into the match at all.The original FIFA Street, from way back in 2005, featured a sort of trick meter that filled up every time you humiliated some poor shmuck. Once full, this bar unlocked a nigh-unstoppable trick shot that, judiciously used, could sway the momentum of a game. There’s no such mechanic in this year’s FIFA Street, though; and the ball hops, neck stalls, and rainbows are the ends unto themselves, not part of the larger structure of actually winning soccer matches. The dribbling and juggling mechanics simply aren’t good enough to support the weight of a fully-fledged game.This is mitigated by some of Street’s more uncommon modes. In the “Panna” and “Freestyle” modes, different skills and moves are assigned point values (the flashier the better) that are stored in a bank. Scoring a goal gives you the points in your bank, and drains the opposing team of theirs. These modes differ from the standard match insofar as dribbling and juggling -- the core of Street -- are central to winning each match, instead of being tangentially related activities. Here, dribbling becomes a tactical choice instead of a flashy distraction.“Last Man Standing” -- in itself a variation of a common playground soccer game called “World Cup” -- also uses the available mechanics relatively well. The game starts with a full team on each side, but players are periodically dropped as each team scores goals. The first team to get rid of all their players wins. This mode isn’t as explicitly tied to the dribbling mechanics as Panna and Freestyle are, but the crazy techniques feel more vital in one-on-three situations than they do in the standard mode -- which, incidentally, comprises the bulk of Street’s campaign. As previously noted, tricks in FIFA Street come with numerical values. In the career mode, these values build up as each player on your ever-expanding team successfully darts around a defender. The values are then translated into skill points, which are spent on upgrading your teammates’ attributes.These RPG systems have been inoffensive mainstays in the genre for years, but Street’s are intrusive and ungainly. They generally feel like a way to arbitrarily gate players’ access to certain moves and abilities. Most of the dribbling mechanics are based on half-circle turns and flicks of the right stick in conjunction with certain other button presses. (There are dozens of different tricks at your disposal, but remembering them enough to use them effectively seems impossible.) The patterns are recognizable, which means you may (falsely) be encouraged to experiment. But if you perform an action without having first unlocked it, your in-game avatar will stand there, vacantly. Instead of emulating the freewheeling samba of street soccer, Street constantly puts up arbitrary roadblocks. On the one hand, skill points are accrued very quickly, which means you shouldn't have trouble crafting a viable team after a few hours. On the other, in a game ostensibly about fast-paced soccer, you'll be slogging through unintuitive menus after every match to do so.  To recap: FIFA Street weds clunky physics to needlessly complex dribbling mechanics, and loops it back around to a tacked-on RPG system.The Street franchise has always been billed as a lightweight alternative to EA Sports’ core titles, easygoing arcade games in the style of NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, or, hell, Mega Man Soccer. And if soccer is the world’s game, FIFA Street has always been coated in a vaguely Eurotrash sheen. Previous iterations have been carefree and simplified, but they were responsive, fun, and thoroughly committed to a campy, so-called “arcade” experience. FIFA Street embraces the unfortunate task of asking me to remain po-faced as my character flip-flapsand hocus pocuses his way through the graffitied back-alleys of western France, and it rarely works. This reboot takes itself too seriously -- every texture is spit-shined and gleaming, every animation wrought with care -- without the self-awareness to sacrifice technical sophistication for ease of use. FIFA Street is enjoyable only under the best circumstances, before the engine and the sheer density of barely distinguishable, locked-out moves take over.
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The somewhat mythologized sub-genre called street soccer -- as presented by FIFA Street -- is hedonistic and excessive, with a strong tilt toward showboating and theatrics. It’s puzzling, then, that EA Sports decided to...

Review: Gears of War 3: RAAM's Shadow

Dec 14 // Joseph Leray
Gears of War 3: RAAM's Shadow Developer: EpicPublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: December 13, 2011MSRP: $14.99 / 1200 Microsoft Points There's a discernible rhythm to every level of design in the the Gears series. There's the ebb and flow of intense firefighting and measured walking; the surprisingly steady tempo of shooting, taking cover, gaining ground, conceding ground, flanking, and armadillo-rolling-into-shotgunning; the delicate timing of the active reload system. High-level Gears play has a way of mesmerizing people with its locomotion.Gears' distinctive fight-or-flight characterization fits into the later games, when the stakes and circumstances are clear, but it seems incongruous so early in the war. Michael Barrick -- the bemutton-chopped protagonist of "Shadow" and Zeta Squad's point man -- lacks the necessary self-awareness to wonder what the Locust want, who they are, or where they came from. It’s not so much that Gears is violent; it’s that the series is violent a priori. I’m not arguing that Gears of War should be re-imagined as a diplomacy simulator, but it’s discordant that Barrick never stops to wonder what the fuck is going on, a question that seems particularly salient when sub-human Morlocks start pouring out of holes in the ground for the first time. The flipside is that “RAAM’s Shadow” speaks volumes through its setting and visual design. Ilima City starts off relatively intact, but as time goes on, after heavy Locust incursion and a few misplaced COG laser strikes, it starts to break down. The dead bodies start to pile up as the sky darkens, and if Michael Barrick seems mutely oblivious to the destruction around him, maybe it’s by design. An extended, relatively non-violent horror section in the middle of “Shadow” harks to earlier games, calling up memories of the mission to the New Hope research facility from Gears 2. I can’t think of a single moment in 3 that was designed to be scary, and I had forgotten the role that suspense and atmosphere had played in the first two games. I’m glad to be reminded of it, because it’s in these moments, when Barrick has lowered his rifle and doesn’t have anything to kill, that he and the player both start to reflect on the situation: Barrick with crappy, jingoistic one-liners, and the player to himself, on his own.I’m willing to believe that soldiers like Barrick have evolved past self-awareness, irony, or self-reflection: those traits might not be useful for survival in a hopeless, helpless war. I’m also willing to accept that Barrick’s machismo and chest-thumping are a protective armor in the face of trauma. This is a videogame, after all, and I’m willing to accept that -- whether or not you agree that the characters in Gears are dumb and loud -- the narrative onus is on me, the player, to see the costs of war for myself. In that sense, I think “Shadow” fulfills its promise of showing players a starkly different, almost livable, version of the Sera we come to find in the original Gears of War. For those of us with the patience to invest in the surrounding lore, it’s nice to see where Jace Stratton comes from, or to notice that Anya Stroud hasn’t yet become the disembodied voice guiding us through the series. In almost all respects besides bodycount, the humans fare better than the Locust. Playing as the titular RAAM seems like it should be fun, but it’s not.It isn’t that he’s overpowered, it’s that the RAAM sections are boring, repetitive, and break up the otherwise smooth pacing of the game. Each chapter in “Shadow” counts down toward the Locust “Kryllstorm,” when the sky is finally dark enough to unleash the ravenous kryll -- the piranha-like bat creatures that live in the Hollow -- upon Ilima. This dawn-to-dusk timeline gives the game it’s own internal structure and a sense of urgency, but the RAAM sections are more like interruptions than fun diversions.Equally problematic, though, is that the writing team at Epic didn’t seize the opportunity to expand on RAAM’s character, his relationship to Queen Myrrah, or anything about the Locust at all. The Locust appear to all be totally identical and part of a rigid, Huxley-ian caste system of drones, Boomers, Theron, and Kantus. RAAM, however, is freakishly huge and, according to a few scraps of throwaway dialog, smart enough to coordinate complex tactics with Queen Myrrah. How did this happen?Other nitpicks and inconsistencies abound, anachronistic pitfalls of setting “Shadow” as a prequel. It’s admittedly petty to harp on the question of "cannon," but details are the lifeblood of fantasy genre writing. “RAAM’s Shadow” is relatively small and being sold to an audience that -- as a rule -- is already invested enough in the saga to notice that, for example, the iconic Gears Lancer shouldn't technically exist at this point in the war -- the COG should still be using Retro Lancers. It’s more interesting to notice that “RAAM’s Shadow” feels and plays more like the first Gears of War than the third, visuals and engine aside. Gears 1 had a unity and cohesion of both level design and mission structure that, I think, went missing in 2 and 3 but returns in “Shadow,” perhaps because of the DLC’s urban landscape. While the level design of 3 feels busy and trench-like, most of the original Gears and “Shadow” feel more open, like an arena. It’s less about winning and maintaining ground than it is using cover to flank and maneuver, and the firefights never feel staid or stale.The two final skirmishes in particular feel internally consistent and well-realized and are great examples of the dynamism possible within Gears’ ostensibly rigid and heavy framework. The most telling thing about the boss fights, though, is that they don’t feel particularly triumphant. Given that “RAAM’s Shadow” is simply the first salvo in a devastating war, it’s hard to feel too good about evacuating Ilima when it just ends up being swallowed by a giant worm a few years later in Gears of War 2. Gears of War might be a power fantasy, but it’s tempered, more than any other game I’ve played, by it’s oppressive bleakness -- each victory is small and pyrrhic. There's reason for hope, though: DLC like this continues to be a low-risk, high-reward laboratory for developers to expand their fictional universes and experiment with new concepts. “RAAM’s Shadow” isn’t perfect -- the Locust sections in particular need work -- but there’s no reason not to look forward to Epic’s willingness and ability to tinker with its formula and find new mechanics. It might take a while before we see anything truly innovative in post-release Gears of War DLC, but, in the meantime, I’ll be holding the line.
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"RAAM's Shadow"'s greatest strength is its premise. A prequel set in the hours following Emergence Day, the first piece of campaign DLC for Gears of War 3 hints at what Ilima City looked like before it was destroyed, both by ...

Preview: Gears of War 3: RAAM's Shadow

Dec 11 // Joseph Leray
The two-chapter preview build of “Shadow” I played is about watching Sera break down, about the fear and the doubt that creep into a society in the aftermath of large-scale trauma. It’s a prequel campaign that happens “shortly after Emergence Day,” in the shadow of the most devastating event in Gears history.Giving players a look at the immediate results of E-day overwhelmingly works in the game’s favor, but it’s also the source of a few plotholes: for soldiers that saw their first Locust drone a few hours ago, Michael Barrick and Minh Young Kim have a pretty sophisticated knowledge of Locust tactics and culture.Still, framing “Shadow” as a prequel reaps generous benefits. For one, dramatic irony is at a premium here: knowing, for example, who lives and who dies in the later games gives “Shadow” a level of gravitas that far outstrips what little of the content's actual narrative I’ve seen so far. Even divorced from the larger story, “Shadow” is ominous in its own way -- each chapter counts down to some other cataclysm called the “Kryllstorm,” and the game's uncertainty slowly morphs into fatalism.  When we first saw Sera in 2006, it was already scarred, pockmarked, pitted, desolated, and barren. It was Earth-like, but utterly alien. “Shadow” takes us back to a time when the planet’s social institutions still seem in tact, when human enterprise is still recognizable.Despite its title “RAAM’s Shadow” is (so far) bright and colorful, each Gear's armor is bright, burnished and smooth, and Ilima consists of beautiful sun-stained, Haussmann-esque boulevards and stately, pillared buildings. Gears' visual design has always focused on the juxtaposition of Sera’s soaring architecture and apocalyptic devastation, but "Shadow" is tinged with the knowledge of how the before becomes the after. Gears of War: Detroit.There’s a great fight near the end of the two-chapter, hour-long preview -- Scorcher-wielding Locust burst into the vault of a bank, setting gold bars and stacks of money on fire, and Zeta squad-member Tai Kaliso mentions that “monetary wealth is fleeting.” What sounds like a mystic bullshit platitude only makes sense if you’re curb-stomping someone: money doesn’t mean very much when the world is ending before your eyes. The bank scene acts as a harbinger of what we know will happen in Sera -- governments break down, social institutions fall apart, and previously entrenched authorities will eventually fail. Emergence Day changes everything. In the same way that the death of Osama Bin Laden only makes sense to people who remember what it was like to not live in perpetual wartime, Cole’s flashback is effective now that I can more easily imagine what Ilima’s thrashball stadium might have looked like, now that I've seen a handful of Ilima residents that might have cheered for the Hanover Cougars. The early portions of “Shadow” teeter on the edge of exploring how devastating -- structurally and psychologically -- events like E-day might be. But it’s all ancillary to the shooting, the active reloading, the stabbing, the cussing. It's just on the outskirts of the Gears experience, seen in the visual design more than the dialog or writing, and just out of reach. Dom probably forgets about his dead wife and kids when there’s a sub-human monster bearing down on him with a chainsaw-gun; and we seem to have slipped into a state of casual xenophobia and despair and political idiocy since we’re all too busy trying to find jobs and pay mortgages. I only played the first two chapters of "Shadow" to write this preview, but I'm tempted to say that -- in a flash -- it illuminates the entire Gears thesis. It might be dumb and loud and brash, but I think Gears of War has always wanted to examine what a degenerative process war can be, though that desire has always been subjugated in favor of the game's mechanics. In that case, not only is "RAAM's Shadow" a natural starting point for the Gears trilogy, it might be the only one. "RAAM's Shadow" will be available on the Xbox Live Marketplace on December 13 for 1200 Microsoft Points.
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There’s a scene in the second chapter of Gears of War 3 in which Cole Train has a flashback to his time as a professional thrashball player before becoming a COG soldier. When I saw it the first time, I noticed that it ...

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Capcom confirms: Darkstalkers coming to PSN this month


Nov 17
// Joseph Leray
Another day, another game outed by the ESRB and later confirmed by publishers. This time, it's Capcom community manager Brett Elston confirming that Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors is headed to the PlayStation Network, with ...
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Capsized goes free for iPad in the new year


Nov 17
// Joseph Leray
Over two years since it was announced -- and several months since it became available on Steam -- Alientrap's 2D shooter Capsized is coming soon to the AppStore, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade. First things fi...

Review: FIFA 12

Nov 11 // Joseph Leray
FIFA 12 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3) Developer: EA Canada Publisher: EA Sports Released: September 27, 2011 (NA) / September 30, 2011 (EU) MSRP: $59.99 EA Canada’s endless refinement, endless iteration, has turned FIFA 12 into the Galapagos Islands -- everything from the physics engine to the controls to the high-level design choices of each mode has been rarefied, specialized, and tailored to suit its environment. It's ostensibly similar to other games in its genus, but unrecognizable in its specificity and mutation.It’s not just that the crossing and through-ball passing are wonky and unwieldy (they are), it’s that FIFA 12 is simply more granular and oppressively sensitive than any of the games before it. It’s not necessarily realistic, but the technical nuance is at an all time high (or low, if you prefer the freewheeling goal-frenzy of the older titles). The difference between FIFA 12 and 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa (that title!) is the same difference between Street Fighter III: Third Strike and Street Fighter IV.It seems counterintutive, in 2011, to make one of the most popular games in the world more complex instead of less so, but there you have it. FIFA’s old two-button control scheme -- implemented in 2010 as a paen to simple, intuitive (casual?) grace -- is gone, replaced by a revamped “tactical defending” scheme. The barriers to entry have been raised and reinforced with high-impact glass. Tactical defending does three things: it introduces a “contain” mechanic (which functions similarly to the now-standard jockey command); nerfs the double-team function; and forces players to become more conscientious tacklers. The last is the most nefarious.Previously, tackling served as a panacea for players’ tactical positioning woes -- jamming the tackle button was a sure-fire catch-all. The new tackling mechanic is inexorably tied to FIFA 12’s new physics engine: defenders who tackle indiscriminately (like me) are now left unbalanced, out of position, and slow to recover. In the midfield, this leads to devastating through balls; inside the box, it leads to penalty kicks and wide-open shots.The assumed corollary is that dribbling should be more effective against clumsy tackling, but -- well, after six years of playing FIFA games, I’m still not particularly good at it. (The lack of tutorial or basic guidance on 12's ostensibly new Precision Dribbling mechanics really hurt, here.) Going up against CPU-controlled defensive players that move as a unit, disrupt passing lanes, tackle meticulously, and are no longer fooled by crosses, through balls, or Barcelonian possession, I often find myself at a tactical and creative loss.Don’t get me wrong -- FIFA 12 is capable of devastatingly good play, but it demands a deep understanding of both soccer and videogame soccer. It’s no longer enough to see the space and move into it -- it must now be done just so, with hitherto unrequired precision and finesse. Shooting, tackling, crossing -- all of it is more nuanced, sensitive, and strict. As a result, FIFA 12 is a more engaging, more active pastime than it has been in the past, even if (or because) you’re not scoring goals as often, but only after players agree to take the time to learn. From here, FIFA 12 balloons outward like a circus tent, with a host of elephantine modes and options. EA Canada took a few core concepts -- it’s fun to improve, it’s fun to compete, it’s fun to collect famous soccer players like Pokémon, and it’s fun to do all these things online -- and remixed, remastered, reconfigured, and recontextualized them over and over.The result is that each mode feels unique and different while retaining a baseline of familiarity. You’ll notice that there are, essentially, online Be A Pro leagues in a mode called Pro Clubs; or that career mode and Ultimate Team share a creative vision, even though one of them has a budget allocation mechanic and the other one is a trading card game; or that the promotion-relegation dichotomy that’s inherent to soccer fandom also works pretty well in a consistent, online league.Being fully-featured has never really been an issue for the FIFA series (or EA Sports titles generally), though. The real surprise is just how deep each of these modes can be. You can sign youth players as young as fifteen as a manager, slowly building them over the course of their decades-long careers. There is a live auction in which Ultimate Team cards are sold for hundreds of thousands of in-game currency. There are waiver wires, trade agreements, and free agency for online Pro Clubs players.That’s insane, right? That’s not to say that FIFA 12 is perfect. Each mode has niggling issues: free kicks are still a messy, unintuitive disaster; the in-game transfer market is probably too forgiving; Ultimate Team’s user interface is a pain (though it’s “team chemisty” mechanic is neat); and the netcode for online play can get choppy. Player development, both for youth squads and the player-created Virtual Pros, is particularly slow. After three seasons, virtual Joseph Leray is rated at 75 -- he hardly competes with Javier Pastore and the newly-aquired Cesc Fabregas for a starting position on my team. But, still, these issues often get swallowed up in the enormity of FIFA 12. There’s so much content, so much flexibility, so much dynamism that it’s hard to gripe too much. Tweaked mechanics and game modes aside, the defining achievement of FIFA 12 lies in the ways individual players change the contours of the game. Roman Palyuvchenko is no longer just a name on a character model: he likes to drop back and play as second striker, mopping up loose balls and creating plays. Aleksander Kolarov prefers making runs and crossing than he does actually defending. Mevlut Erding seems at his best sitting at the back post. boxing out smaller defenders for crosses. Andrei Arshavin and Kevin Gameiro make -- in my Twilight Zone version of Ligue 1 -- a devastatingly effective duo. Two takeaways: one, PSG has seen a huge influx of Eastern Europeans; two, EA Canada’s attention to the quirks and idiosyncrasies of individual players suggests a passion for the subject matter that tends to be forgotten when we talk about giant multinational corporations. In other words, FIFA 12 proves that human beings -- not Autobots -- make videogames, and these particular people are sharp observers of the beautiful game. I think it shows, and I think FIFA 12 is a better game for it. It’s weird, for example, that sports games assign arbitrary numerical values to athletes; it’s weirder still that EA Canada made an effort to eschew that reduction, to show us that pathfinding and AI aren’t -- or don’t have to be -- static and one dimensional. In the public eye, athletes tend to oscillate between being seen as outsized, outlandish personae, or reduced to a series of statistics and metrics. FIFA 12 attempts to humanize the enterprise of videogame sports simulation. EA Canada's relative success in that attempt depends, like actually playing the game, on players' willingness to buy into the system. It's an arduous mountain to climb -- even while writing this review, I was trounced twice in a row by lowly FC Souchaux and those irascible Girondins in Bordeaux -- but there's gold in them hills.
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My first impression of FIFA 12 was not good.Players moved like they were covered in molasses, my passes were inaccurate and under-hit, and apoplectic flailing had seemingly replaced tackling in my center-backs’ collecti...

Review: Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin

Oct 22 // Joseph Leray
Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin (Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: BioWarePublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: October 11, 2011MSRP: 800 BioWare Points (Mac, PC) / $9.99 (PS3) / 800 Microsoft Points (Xbox 360) Despite its artifice, Mark of the Assassin fares better than Legacy's otherworldly premise. Instead of being fodder for some hokey blood ritual, Hawke is once again cast as a political actor, a doer of great deeds. To have Hawke's accomplishments reflected back to the player is one of the strengths born from designing Kirkwall as a consistent (albeit relatively static) city. There's very little to say about the bulk of Mark of the Assassin -- its Dragon Age II with an overblown and crudely drawn French accent. There are new enemies called ghasts, but they aren't particularly interesting. Like Legacy before it, Assassin's strength lies in the way it expands the world of Thedas, with changes to mechanics and quest structure being largely secondary. There are a few exceptions, though. First, there are extended stealth and puzzle sections that range from passable to unoffensive. While nothing special in their own right, these setpieces provide a nice break from stabbing people in the neck until they explode. (Incidentally, the new gear and stat boosts aren't doing much to make Hawke's neck stabbing qualitatively better or worse, just stabbier. She's pretty much built to perfection and this point, her telos being destruction.) Second, the boss fight in this DLC is pretty good, not to mention remarkable for the way it marries Dragon Age II's action-genre affections to its stat-crunching, role-playing roots. If BioWare insists on adding environmental and spatial elements to its boss fights, Assassin's action-lite overlay is the way to go. Think the Rock Wraith fight from Act I of DAII, instead of the awful Corypheus debacle from Legacy. (Pro tip: turn all subtitles on for this fight. Your teammates bark useful information during the course of the fight, but it often gets lost in the din and explosions. Taking their advice improves the end of the game dramatically, especially on higher difficulty levels.) Finally, BioWare has apparently dropped out of the "from the rafters" school of enemy design. The only enemies in Assassin who pop into existence are magicked there by an Arcane Horror. It is also balanced pretty well -- I can only think of one difficulty spike -- and branches in a few typically BioWare-ian ways, plus a few subtler ways that take a second playthrough to notice. Still, the crux of Mark of the Assassin is that it's, y'know, more Dragon Age II. Even Tallis -- who joins your party complete with her own skill trees and algebraic tactics -- is more important as a catalyst for the story than for her role in combat. She's basically an Isabella clone with a less pornographic bust, and Assassin isn't long or varied enough to really explore her mage-smashing specialties. From that perspective, it's tempting to wish Hawke could whisk Tallis back to Kirkwall as though she were another Seb Vael or Shale. However, considering her position as an outsider -- she's an elf who makes her living as an assassin and holds, as you'll discover, some pretty out-there beliefs -- I'm glad that BioWare chose to keep her activity limited to this particular quest. Keeping her around any longer would ruin the mystique. Of course, it's almost surely the result of technical considerations, but it serves the story too. This is where BioWare's casting of Felicia Day morphs from a vaguely disconcerting boondoggle to a legitimate design choice. Tallis is voiced with an American accent, which immediately sets her apart from the rest of the British Roman cast. This reinforces her status as a cultural "other" while adding characterization that has nothing to do with the writing or plot of the game. In the service of the bare-bones heist plot, Mark of the Assassin explores different cultural territory than the mage-templar dialectic that dominates so much of the first two games. There's a hitch, though -- Tallis is a cipher for a hitherto under-explored subset of Thedans, but players don't have a baseline of understanding of her background and culture. The result is that Tallis is written to be subtle and nuanced, but -- Dragon Age II's dialogue wheel may be partly to blame -- she comes off as vague and obtuse. This represents a fundamental problem for BioWare -- the strength of Dragon Age DLC in general is that it expands on a rich, expansive world, but if players don't understand the world they're being thrust into, the entire enterprise is undermined. Nevertheless, Mark of the Assassin is a lighthearted and straightforward game that does most things right and nothing truly wrong. BioWare DLC has long been the purview of that company's tinkerers and iterators, its refiners and experimenters, and it's nice to be able to track the team's progress. Fans might be better served by longer, more fully-realized content, but the fact remains that I'm always looking forward to any excuse to dive back into Thedas.
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To play the first, oh, ten minutes of Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin is to gaze into the abyss, to confront everything weird about videogames and the culture that surrounds them. The scene: protagonist Hawke is enlisted ...

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Limbo dev: new game takes 3 years, our engine is FUBAR


Aug 25
// Joseph Leray
In a recent interview with Edge, Playdead game director Arnt Jensen explained that the Danish dev's next game will take three-and-a-half years to make. "A good game takes time," says Playdead CEO Dino Patti. Game director Arn...
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Feast your eyes: indie platformer Vessel gets trailer


Aug 25
// Joseph Leray
A few days ago, Strange Loop Games cut a sharp new trailer for their recently-announced puzzle-platformer, Vessel.  A few notes on the visuals: I love the lighting, the water effects, and the zoomed-out perspective, esp...
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Rad roguelike: Cardinal Quest is cheap and awesome


Aug 24
// Joseph Leray
A few years ago, one of my best friends bought Baroque, an Atlus-published roguelike, after I turned him onto Persona 3. It didn't go well: lured by the Atlus name and the misconception that Baroque was another RPG, he w...
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Impressions: a promising Owlboy demo teases


Aug 22
// Joseph Leray
The Owlboy demo makes a good first impression -- after D-Pad Studio's logo flashes, players are treated to a sweeping, pixelated vista as Otus looks on. Pastoral music plays and, though the demo begins in medias res, the menu...
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The Owlboy demo is both available and good


Aug 21
// Joseph Leray
A demo for Owlboy, the much talked-about 2D platformer from Norwegian indies D-Pad Studio, is now available for PC -- a good sign for a game beset my development trouble, despite winning a visual design award at the 2010...
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Wonderputt is the best way to spend your next 15 minutes


Aug 19
// Joseph Leray
What you're looking at, right there above this text, is a 620px-wide swath of Wonderputt, the best 15-minute putt-putt game I've ever played. Granted, I'm not exactly a golf aficionado, but Wonderputt -- designed by Damp...
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Death, memory, space travel: To the Moon lands this fall


Aug 19
// Joseph Leray
To the Moon, an indie adventure game developed by Freebird Games, is slowly but surely gaining traction around les salons of the games press circuit. And why not? It's heartbreaking premise and genre-swapping aesthetic ...
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New book PIXELGALAXY collects Game Boy art and essays


Aug 18
// Joseph Leray
"PIXELGALAXY is a book all about the Nintendo Game Boy and the pixel graphics. It includes its secret of success, an overview of the top games and takes a closer look at the graphics," writes Sergio Ingravalle, the book'...
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Adventures of Shuggy dev tells of XBLA publishing woes


Aug 18
// Joseph Leray
No one, I reckon, really wants to talk about David Johnston, the one-man dev team behind Smudged Cat Games' The Adventures of Shuggy. That's because his four years of development hell illustrate most of the systemic shor...
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If only there were an 8-bit Nyan Cat game by Konami


Aug 11
// Joseph Leray
So. Nyan Cat. There is very little left to be said about Nyan Cat, except that it's my profound disappointment to inform you that Konami did not, in fact, release a licensed Nyan game in 1988. Not only would Nyan Cat vs. Tac ...

Review: Dragon Age II: Legacy

Aug 09 // Joseph Leray
Dragon Age II: Legacy (Xbox 360 [reviewed], Mac, PC, PlayStation)Developer: BioWarePublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: July 26, 2011MSRP: $9.99, 800 Microsoft Points That “Legacy” resides largely outside the confines of the story of Dragon Age II mostly works in its favor. Varric very consciously gives Cassandra the Cliff Notes version of Hawke’s life, and the “Legacy” team was very economical, using the gaps in Hawke’s life to expand on the ancient Tevinter imperium and its relationship with both the Chantry and the darkspawn. Since it doesn’t explicitly tie into the core narrative, “Legacy” can be played at any point during Dragon Age II, a nifty benefit of writer David Gaider’s oft-touted frame narrative. It’s all heady stuff for Dragon Age devotees -- the presumed target of post-release DLC -- and your enjoyment of "Legacy" will depend on how much you've already invested in DAII.Unfortunately, its outsider status is only exacerbated by the way “Legacy” is clumsily implemented into the game world. Instead of adding the Vimmark Chasm to Dragon Age II’s map -- or, better yet, letting us play through the Carta assassination attempt that sparks the quest line -- “Legacy” is unceremoniously triggered by clicking on a garish statue smuggled into Hawke’s manse. While a Carta assassination sounds exactly like the high-stakes power struggle that runs through Dragon Age II, “Legacy” very quickly strays from that template. The quick and dirty synopsis is that there is a conspiracy to harvest enough Hawke-family blood to perform a cult ritual. This passable fare for the fantasy genre, but it strips away the most important lessons from DAII: that Kirkwall and its denizens react to Hawke because of the choices she makes, not her genetics; that Hawke is defined by what she does, and not who she is. It’s a semantic quibble, perhaps, but the dramatic tonal shift only reinforces the overall impression that “Legacy” doesn’t fit into Dragon Age II quite so seamlessly. But if “Legacy” stands out like a sore thumb, it at least brings its own architecture with it -- there’s a solid dramatic structure in place, with a beginning, middle, and end not often seen inside individual quest lines. The quests in vanilla Dragon Age II have a way of melting into each other, nested inside a larger story, that prevents any particular one of them from feeling conclusive -- it works because most of them contribute to our understanding of Kirkwall as a whole. But “Legacy” is cohesive (for the most part) and feels complete, concrete, and more individually satisfying that most of DAII’s quests.But a strong narrative arc doesn’t necessarily keep “Legacy” from feeling muddled and unfocused. Each of the dungeon’s sidequests are rich with narrative potential -- Hawke finds a ghostly mage, an altar to one of Tevinter’s old gods, and a missing dwarven Paragon -- but none of them further our understanding of Hawke or her world. The tiny mini-narratives never develop, nor to do they lead to interesting combat opportunities -- they might as well be glorified treasure chests. This kind of window-dressing is easier to hide in an expansive, 60-hour saga, but it leaves “Legacy”’s middle section feeling rather flat. Exploring the Vimmark and its caverns, Hawke very quickly reaches a point of no return -- cut off from Kirkwall and from the rest of the party, “Legacy” feels remote and unconnected from the main story. There is one chance (and only one) to pick party members, and there are no shops to peruse. The character interactions were perhaps the strongest part of Dragon Age II, and keeping them locked away to serve some convoluted blood magic plot point is a shame. In contrast, the plot does allow for the introduction of new darkspawn, "Legacy"’s brightest spark. The new variety of darkspawn are fantastic additions and do a lot to change the tenor of combat in Dragon Age II, and most of the mobs are complex enough to allow players to flex their tactical muscle. The alpha-type darkspawn are resilient and versatile, and complemented by a wide variety of well-placed grunts -- archers take the high ground, and beefy grenlocks block choke points. When "Legacy" is feeling particularly carefree, dragonspawn and corrupted spiders will fight among themselves before turning on Hawke. As a result, threat generation, stamina management, and buffs have never been more crucial, even during a standard encounter. The quest’s penultimate set-piece is also particularly well-paced. And if there’s one positive thing to be said about the way “Legacy” limits players to the same three companions the whole time, it’s that restriction often demands resourcefulness. “Fight smarter, not harder,” the designers seem to say, and I appreciate being given the benefit of the doubt, though that sentiment doesn’t extend to the final boss fight. Among BioWare’s more cynical fans, there is a deep-seated suspicion that lead designer Mike Laidlaw has forsaken his roots in favor of the action game, an allegation borne out in some ways by “Legacy.” The action and RPG genres have always been uneasy bedfellows, and that tension comes to a head in the last fight, turning a suitably dramatic climax into an exercise in frustration. The frequent glitches in this final section don’t help.In addition to the standard spells and buffs, Corypheus -- a souped-up proto-darkspawn, in the vein of Awakening’s Architect -- has environmental tactics that reward keen timing and pattern memorization more than they do strategy or team composition. This twitchy sensibility -- Dodge the moving wall of fire! Dodge the icicles! Maneuver this impromptu maze! -- was often detrimental to my fragile and slower companions who tail Hawke like ducklings and, as a result, were often caught in Corypheus’ traps. These deaths feel arbitrary and unfair, a place where the game’s mechanics failed to complement one another. Coupled with players’ inability to consult a shop or draft better-suited party members from the reserves, this encounter highlights the extent to which BioWare have incorporated action gaming tropes into this piece of DLC -- the last ten minutes feel disinctly different than the rest of Dragon Age II. This fuzzy, uneven game ends with a bit of reflection: Hawke, gazing into her hearth, contemplates her relationship with her mother and sister, but never spares a thought to poor, butchered Corypheus. And why should she? -- he’s just a darkspawn. But you realize that Coprypheus was never the point: he was always just a plot device to justify exploring Hawke and her heritage.On the one hand, I appreciate that BioWare are trying -- if not always successfully -- to offer something not quite so unabashedly conflict-driven; but on the other, this realization undermines the crux of the game. There comes a scene in every piece of BioWare content during which the game’s protagonist must choose between two equally dubious options. In a perfect world, these decisions would represent the apex of Hawke’s civic and moral engagement; in “Legacy,” it’s abrupt, perfunctory, and poorly implemented, and the results aren’t significantly different for each choice.“Legacy” has two undeniable strengths, each with a corresponding weakness: it houses some of the most technical combat to be found in Dragon Age II, but the final battle is a glitchy slog; its limited scope allows players to focus on one aspect of Hawke’s character, but its narrative is muddled and bafflingly tight-fisted with the funny, evocative moments that made the core game a treat. Ultimately, “Legacy” sticks out because it asks a relatively humane question: Is it so much for Hawke to ask that she and her family not be assaulted by a gang of blood-frenzied dwarves? A humble game for a humble premise. I guess Varric was right.
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“Legacy” comes from humble beginnings: Varric, our dwarven narrator, tells Cassandra, a Chantry seeker, that he didn’t tell her about Hawke’s excursion into the Vimmark because he “didn’t t...

Review: The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

Apr 06 // Joseph Leray
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Ska Studios Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios Release date: April 6, 2011 MSRP: 800 MS Points ($10) Vampire Smile's twin campaigns follow the eponymous Dishwasher and his stepsister Yuki in the events directly following the first game. The backstory is all a bit muddled -- especially if you never played the original Dishwasher -- but I'm pretty sure that the cyborg shadow government has set up shop on the moon; the Dishwasher wants to save the world (I think), and Yuki wants revenge on the people who framed her as a terrorist.The two different campaigns are similar but ultimately serve two different purposes. Yuki's is a more structured affair, and Silva's treatment of her psychological trauma is excellent -- Yuki is often unexpectedly sucked into a nightmare world which would be creepier if it weren't filled with on-screen button prompts. Silva's real success, though, is in the level design: the early maps are full of dead ends, secret passages, and looping corridors around fantastically oppressive and gloomy crypts, dungeons, and government prisons. The levels aren't so big that Yuki gets lost, per se, but the assets are similar enough for players to feel disoriented. This disorientation compliments Yuki's in-game paranoia nicely, and you'll never know when she'll have a psychotic breakdown. Making the player feel vulnerable works in Vampire Smile's favor -- the combat serves as a release valve, a cathartic bloodbath that eases tension.On the other hand, the Dishwasher character's campaign lacks any subplot, and his narrative moments are largely expository as he generally sticks to explaining the backstory. It's nice that the Dishwasher offers some context for the ill-articulated plot, but his campaign takes place after Yuki's -- he is always a few steps behind his sister's bloody path through the lunar cyborg capital. Players have two choices: play in chronological order and be confused for half of the game, or play the Dishwasher's story first and ruin what little pacing and structure there is. There are a few places where Ska Studios tries to compensate for this discrepancy, but all it does is create plot holes. In any case, the exposition that bookends each fifteen-minute level vascillates between being melodramatic and purposefully obtuse and the characters -- with names like The Fallen Engineer and General Diaboli -- are cheesy, pulled along on the strength of the game's gruesome visuals.The whole package works, but just barely, toeing the line between campy pop culture explosion and caricature. Most of the time, Vampire Smile's strange offerings are fun: enemies include, for example, a blind cephalopod samurai, a dismembered zombie shark with robot legs, or a two-story, fire-breathing skeleton sporting tank treads and a fur vest. There are times, though, when Vampire Smile's own desire to stand out is detrimental. Peppered throughout are short Guitar Hero-esque mini games that can be played with guitar peripherals. I didn't bother -- the segments are distracting enough without taking the time to lug a big plastic thing out of the closet. If it weren't for the dropped money -- used to buy upgrades for your weapons or magic -- most people would skip them. Late in the game, a text adventure section is equally problematic: when Ska Studios plays with retro game mechanics, it says more about its love for rock music and old adventure games than it does about the world or characters of Vampire Smile. What does tell me about the characters of Vampire Smile is the game's combat. Watching Yuki rip someone's throat out with her teeth communicates insanity to me better than the story does; seeing the Dishwasher pull an enemy's head off like a grape does the same thing. The combat is obviously the Dishwasher's strong suit and where Ska Studios devote the most of its effort. The  hand-drawn animations are fluid and pop out of the backdrops nicely; the controls are tight and responsive; and there are limitless options for juggling combos and chains, thanks to your ability to "blood warp" with a simple flick of the right analog stick. Both Yuki and the Diswasher have four melee weapons, four magic spells, and two ranged options with which to slice, cut, crush, pommel, hack, electrocute, blast, and saw a host of zombies, cyborgs, ninjas, cyborg ninjas, and ninja cyborgs. Vampire Smile is also quite well-balanced, with a slow and steady difficulty arc: I died often but rarely felt frustrated. The boss fights are particularly fun: each one requires a different strategy, each one teaching me how to better time my evades or how to use a more efficient combo.Vampire Smile is a hard game, no doubt, but that's mitigated by the game's co-op functionality (local or online) and what my mustachioed colleague Conrad Zimmerman calls "girlfriend bait." Both the Dishwasher and Yuki have pets that follow them around; I've dubbed them MurderBird and LaserCat, respectively. In single-player, they just hang out and look cool, but a player using the second controller can control them, a would-be allusion to Tails from Sonic 2, if Tails could shoot lasers out of his eyes. They're easy to use, play a supportive role, and -- better yet -- can't die.The muted color scheme works well during combat, with each enemy's accent color -- green eyes or a bright blue vest, for example -- standing out against the black and and grey scenery. The powerups are similarly accented, making it easy to find health and magic powerups when you desperately need them. That's not to say that Vampire Smile has to be mindless, as so many beat-'em-ups are wont to be. It certainly can be -- button-mashing works to an extent -- but money, health, and magic are dropped from enemies dispatched with special finishing moves (generally triggered by following on-screen prompts). It's not necessary to master these special moves, but Vampire Smile is tough enough that a light, well-timed touch is rewarded. Vampire Smile also uses slow-motion to great effect: a slow-down signals a narrowly evaded attack or a finishing blow. Vivisecting an enemy frame by frame gives an added sense of weight and resistance, visual feedback that suggests you're cutting through sinew and bone and not just polygons. In terms of cathartic dopamine drip -- pleasure, punishment, motivation, learning, empowerment -- the purity of James Silva's vision is clear, though stunted. Unfortunately, the lack of enemy variety or complexity hobbles the combat mechanics -- most enemies in the game are dispatched exactly the same way. Once you learn which weapons you like and the fastest ways to use them, Vampire Smile turns stale. Successful experimentation leads to muscle memory leads to rote actions: grap, juggle, evade, finishing move, ad infinitum. Vampire Smile never forces players to use anything besides, say, the Shift Blade; and at the end of both three-hour campaigns, I could juggle enemies in my sleep. As the maze-like level design of the first two-thirds of the game gives way to long corridors and boss-rush arenas, Vampire Smile borders on tedium. With very little to differentiate the two campaigns or the two protagonists, this weakness crops up relatively early in the total package. To put it another way: after a few hours, enemies begin feeling like a pesky chore sitting between the player and the next fun boss battle, not another chance to explore the game's combat.Thankfully, Arcade Mode returns, offering fifty short, one-off levels. Each level follows a general scheme -- kill all the enemies -- but there tend to be rules in place that change players' approach to each level. There may be a time limit, or special laws governing damage output or health regeneration, or -- and this is my favorite -- restrictions on which weapons you can use. More so than the story mode, the arcade forces players to experiment and use their limited resources the best they can. There are leaderboards for speedruns and the number of points scored on a given story level, but Arcade Mode is where players looking to learn and master Vampire Smile's mechanics will linger. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is a fun, quirky game, one whose strength lies in the care with which it was created. Playing Vampire Smile is like having a conversation with James Silva; and what a grotesquely fantastical conversation it is. Its goofy violence and goofier character design, married to its bleak aesthetic, are almost enough to keep players' interest on their own and are complimented well by tightly-designed combat. It's unfortunate that the game doesn't live up to its own potential, though -- the convoluted story wastes the potential of the rad premise, and Silva doesn't do enough to keep the combat fresh for the duration of the game. Vampire Smile can be loads of fun, but that fun is fleeting.
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Without digging into the semantic details too much, auteur theory -- the idea that a single, charismatic designer can leave his mark on a game -- was a popular talking point a few years ago. While no longer part of the games ...

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QWOP dev releases GIRP; hilarity ensues


Mar 28
// Joseph Leray
You remember QWOP, don't you? (Now on iPad!) Of course you do -- it almost spawned a meme, and you can't hear Chariots of Fire without seeing the bruised and broken body of QWOP's nameless protagonist. Today, Bennett Fod...
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Project Zomboid: a zombie apocalypse browser game


Mar 28
// Joseph Leray
[Update: Seems we got this one a bit wrong, originally reporting that the game would be an MMORPG. But according to the game's developer, that's not the case. Indie Stone's Chris Simpson explains that Project Zomboid is "pri...
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New games from Amanita: Osada, Botanicula, Samorost 3


Mar 27
// Joseph Leray
After the release of Machinarium in 2009, Czech developer Amanita Design have been pretty quiet. Sure, they're bringing Machinarium to the PlayStation Network after adding it and Samorost 2 to Wolfire Games' Hu...
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The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character


Mar 26
// Joseph Leray
I'm calling it here: 2011 is the year of the cephalopod. DePaul University already brought us Octodad ("Loving father. Caring husband. Secret octopus."), and Dakko Dakko's The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character...
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A thing of beauty: Plus Kareha's Aegis papercraft


Mar 25
// Joseph Leray
If you still haven't played one of three available versions of Persona 3, you may not see what all the fuss over this Aegis figure is about, but the beauty of a socially maladroit android who shoots bullets out of her fi...
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BioWare writer defends romance options in Dragon Age II


Mar 24
// Joseph Leray
When I interviewed David Gaider for a series of Dragon Age II-related previews, he seemed a charming, soft spoken, and intelligent writer with a passion for role-playing games. Imagine my surprise, then, to see the bespectacl...

Review: Dragon Age II

Mar 22 // Joseph Leray
Dragon Age II (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC) Developer: BioWare Publisher: Electronic Arts Released: March 8, 2011 MSRP: $59.99 Hawke-as-political-assassin is a fun role to play, undoubtedly, but Dragon Age II's scope is narrow -- without a Blight from which Thedas needs saving, Hawke needs an excuse to kill people and professional ne'er-do-well is as good a choice as any.  Given its frame narrative -- you play the story as told by Varric, a dwarven merchant being interrogated by a Chantry seeker -- DAII seems obsessed with player choice even while it stifles it at most major plot points. The dialogue in the game is notably heavy on phrases like, “I don’t really have a choice, do I?” -- a fourth-wall-breaking question for any game protagonist. There’s the temptation to interpret Hawke’s trials as one version of events that no one in Thedas seems clear on, to imagine that there is an externally “true” version of Hawke that may or may have done the things I did, but Dragon Age II never feels cheap or disingenuous. Abrupt and unfocused are better adjectives, but I never felt like I’d been lied to or manipulated. And despite the frame narrative and the premise -- Hawke’s mysterious rise to power -- she is rarely the agent of change in Kirkwall. She is simply in the right place at the right time and knows how to stab people until they explode, a useful skill in a town beset by religious fanaticism, terrorism, minority oppression, poverty, racism, and xenophobia. Lead writer David Gaider treats his subjects with the respect they deserve, giving Hawke the freedom to be as hard-nosed or relativistic as she needs, a useful outlet for my own helpless liberalism. While Gaider tips his hand in a few situations, Hawke is generally free to make her own choices, most often in response to -- as opposed to as the agent of -- change in her city. But because she doesn’t drive the narrative forward, the player is left to fill in her motivations. In Origins, finding a reason to act was easy -- because if you didn’t, everyone would die -- but DAII demands a more actively engaged role-player, and the payoff is generous indeed. Hawke’s companions have their own lives and motivations and generally act independently of our hero. Each companion is relatively well-drawn, and Hawke is often left with the unenviable task of picking up the pieces and protecting her friends from their foibles and pitfalls. The companion quests are by far the most engaging of the game, in terms of both quest structure and their contribution to that character’s growth or the overall narrative. Merrill’s is particularly harrowing, the result of which is an act that, more than any other in Dragon Age II, will define my experience with it; Aveline’s, on the other hand, is heart-warming in equal measure. It is unfortunate, then, that the game doesn’t allow for more interaction. The extensive back-and-forth conversations that so richly complimented Origins are only available during specific quests, the party’s camp having been replaced by individual houses and apartments scattered throughout Kirkwall. Fewer opportunities for interaction means that relationships are less subtle, less nuanced -- companions are drawn to overblown extremes in order to push their sub-plot forward. And that’s too bad: Hawke’s companions are weak, frail people with obvious moral blind spots and their own ways of coping with their lives in Kirkwall, and they are a joy to talk to. That I often sought out chances to excoriate Anders or protect Merrill are credit to David Gaider’s characterization and the role-playing he encourages; that I wasn’t allowed to do so is a black spot on Dragon Age II.  The series excels in the small moments of its games, and DAII is no different, but it’s a genuine disappointment -- stemming from moments of great joy -- that there aren’t more of them. Collateral damage includes the game’s romancing mechanics -- whether by design or the system’s own opacity, I accidentally broke up with Isabella and was locked out of pursuing other relationships or the option of trying to re-seduce her. Marian Hawke is apparently a prude. A corollary to the game’s basic interaction system is the friendship-rivalry dichotomy, the mechanic by which different characters respond to Hawke’s decisions. No one ever says that Hawke’s decision to, say, help a mage is immoral, but such an act would enrage Fenris and make Anders happy. Companions accumulate points on a sliding scale, unlocking dialogue options, quests, and abilities along the way. The system works well, generally, but rival is a misnomer -- even if you disagree with a companion, high rivalry scores open abilities and inspire loyalties just as effectively as high friendship scores. There are moments of genuine concern and kinship, even among Hawke’s so-called rivals. I was afraid that I’d never be able to do anything to push my companions away, that any animosity would just be funneled into rivalry points, but I’m glad to report that, with a little experimentation, I managed to get Anders, Isabella, and Fenris to abandon Hawke. Walking through Kirkwall and its environs -- the central area of Dragon Age II both geographically and narratively -- is a mixed affair. The environments are relatively bland and narrow to begin with, and BioWare’s decision to re-use assets for ostensibly different locations only reinforces the issue. I don’t mind spending the whole game in Kirkwall -- it gives Dragon Age II a familiar, intimate feel diametrically opposed to the “epic” quality of most role-playing games -- but the town is unfortunately static. There are few people to talk to, and fewer of them give you quests or valuable information. Not only did things get a little stale after sixty hours, but it undermines the potential of the frame narrative: the three-year time jumps that pepper the story ring false when Kirkwall never changes. On the other hand, simply hanging out in Kirkwall is the best way to learn about your companions -- the conversations they have in town are well-written and interesting, respond to recent plot developments, and never repeat themselves. I was also cat-called by some roustabouts at the dock, once. Dragon Age II’s ensemble cast -- complemented by evocative character designs that blow Origins' out of the water -- does much to mitigate its narrative problems, but there’s no denying that the game has serious structural and pacing issues: Act I is too long, Act III is too short, and Act II feels like the climax of the game but is largely tangential to the main plot. Nevertheless, the game is remarkably good at hiding its disparate narrative threads in the nooks and crannies of Kirkwall -- you never know which sidequests will provide relevant plot information or story beats, or tie together two other loose ends. Dragon Age II tends to drag in the beginning and speed up later, but the way Hawke weeds out information and learns about Kirkwall and its culture feels organic. And while the game clearly sets itself up for a third installment, it answers enough questions about Hawke’s life and its consequences to be satisfying, despite it's abrupt conclusion. And what a life it is! And what bloody, bloody consequences it bears -- Hawke and her friends rack up quite the body count in a decade of assassinations, two wars, and dozens of attempts on her own life. Despite Hawke’s efforts to be non-violent, there’s a certain allure of the combat -- its pace, its visual rewards, the way it empowers players the way Origins never could. Which is to say: pumping up your cunning stat in Origins doesn’t really re-create what it’s like to unleash a perfectly tuned party onto a group of ill-fated thugs in its sequel. The statistical gears and cogs that move the combat in Origins haven’t changed very much per se, but the animations have been overhauled to such an extent that DAII feels noticeably faster and more hectic. Each movement or attack feels more responsive, and each class' "closing attacks" -- designed to move in close to an enemy -- eliminate the trodding, shuffling combat of Origins. The result is that -- given that Kirkwall seems largely indifferent to her -- players only really get a sense of Hawke's power because it's constantly reinforced through combat. By and large, though, I played Dragon Age II the same way I did Origins: by pausing frequently to issue orders to my mages while my rogues and tanks followed a set of painstakingly algebraic tactics -- if-then statements designed to maim and dismember. The tactics system is more robust this time, with more sophisticated parameters and more slots to work with. The branching skill trees open up more interesting abilities earlier in the game, as opposed to the more restricted skill lines of Origins -- no more spending ability points on useless skills just to get down the line. To boot, each class is varied enough to compensate for most builds and play styles -- some abilities, like Rush or Archer's Lance, need to be micro-managed while others, such as Backstab, can be easily automated. Like the story, though, the game’s combat leaves much potential untapped -- rogues no longer have access to traps, and because combat abilities are only available during combat mages can no longer lay down defensive glyphs. Dragon Age II -- especially on the Hard difficulty, which I recommend -- demands smart, tactical play but impedes it at every turn. The camera is given much less freedom than it had in Origins, which makes laying down precise area-of-effect spells and picking strategic targets difficult, and your companions don’t hold positions like they should.  For better or worse, Dragon Age II focuses less on positioning than its predecessor, as new enemies spawn mid battle, making it easy to get swarmed. Crowd control -- large spells, threat generation, and debilitating status effects -- are the paths to success in DAII. It’s somewhat of a change from Origins, but even after sixty hours I enjoyed tinkering with my builds and experimenting with my tactical choices. It helps that DAII is exponentially better balanced than its forebears. Archers do more damage, the entropy school of magic is stronger, and ranged classes aren’t so frail anymore. Difficulty spikes are unfortunate hangers-on from Origins, but they’re less prevalent and less drastic. And, finally, DAII does a better job of drip-feeding decent equipment, but most of it is wasted: companion armor cannot be replaced, only upgraded. I'm sure this particular quirk was designed to keep each companion feeling like his own character, but I miss the flexibility. The trade-off -- and I'm not sure it's a fair one -- is that players now have enough disposable income to buy gear that plays to their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses. As a general rule, Dragon Age II gets better the more you play it – the story comes together, the combat becomes more intricate, and the quests become more interesting. A few bugs – two glitched minor quests, a bug in Merrill’s dialogue, and couple missing textures – notwithstanding, Dragon Age II is a remarkable game for the way it juxtaposes its flashes of brilliance with some baffling decisions. It’s a deeply flawed game, to be sure, wasting a wellspring of potential for no discernible reason, but one that should be played for being unafraid to show people at their weakest and most vicious. If the metric of a good game is that I keep coming back to it despite its faults, Dragon Age II certainly qualifies.
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Marian Hawke -- refugee of Lothering, Champion of Kirkwall -- is a liar, a thief, and a murderer, a political sellsword for the powerbrokers of the Free Marches. Most Kirkwallers assume she is a lesbian after a brief affair w...

Keep your friends close: character interaction in Dragon Age II

Feb 28 // Joseph Leray
But when viewed mechanically, games like Origins also espouse a type of cynical exploitation that's hard to shake. Positive character interaction is incentivized with extra skills and abilities, and Origins' comes dangerously close to suggesting that kindness is a way to manipulate people. Even more detrimental, perhaps, was Origins' gifting mechanic -- even the gravest offenses to your friends could be patched up with a bottle of booze or a nice necklace. Again, the shortfalls of Origins character interaction system are largely contingent on the player, but the potential for those choices to get whitewashed -- because Origins is at its best when the Warden is consistently gaining approval, character interactions never seem significant. When the the stakes aren't high enough to make failure meaningful, it's a little too easy to sleepwalk through the Warden's budding relationships with his companions. And that's part of what worries me about Dragon Age II's new friendship-rivalry mechanic. "What we're trying to do is torpedo the concept of 'negative,'" says Mike Laidlaw, the lead designer for the game, in a recent interview. Instead, "you either gain friendship or you gain rivalry." Friendship is a pretty straightforward concept, but rivalry is accrued by disagreeing with or antagonizing your companions. "If you're consistently saying, 'No, I disagree with the things that drive you,' you become their rival and they gain boosts, and content opens up as a direct result of that," Laidlaw explains. As in Origins, companions that are friendly toward Hawke, the sequel's protagonist, are rewarded with boosted stats and unique abilities. In Dragon Age II, though, rivals are similarly rewarded with their own place in the skill tree. "The two are actually both valid: they open up content, you can have romances with your rival and they do provide those different abilities," Laidlaw asserts. The friendship-rivalry dichotomy, with both ends equally incentivized, was designed to keep players from disengaging with the narrative in favor of manipulating their stats through approval bonuses. "It doesn't encourage you to act nicey-nicey if you don't want to," notes Laidlaw. "There's a valid path either way.  "And I like that a lot -- it's honesty [in role-playing]. And it is being able to have a consistent relationship instead of saying, 'Well, they're going to leave me [if I disagree with them], but I like them as my healer,'" he continues. "And I think it makes Dragon Age II a stronger experience over all." I am worried, though, that the friendship-rivalry mechanic strips some of the tension out of Dragon Age II's character relationships. On the one hand, players are given the chance to role-play freely -- without the temptation of character boosts sitting at the "nice" end of the spectrum, players can react as they see fit, without fear of locking themselves out of new abilities and features. And the value of that freedom shouldn't be understated. On the other, BioWare has provided players a safety net -- they'll be rewarded with extra abilities no matter how they treat their companions. I only got to spend a short time with an early build of Dragon Age II so my fears are speculative. But I'm disappointed by what the rivalry mechanic might imply: that Hawke can treat her companions however she wants, that she could force them into compromising moral situations without their being able to lash out. It's not that Hawke cannot or should not be spiteful, aggressive, or amoral, but there should be repercussions for her behavior. One of the pleasures of the genre is being able to weigh choices; but I'm worried that in the Free Marches, all choices about Hawke's relationship with her friends weigh the same. 
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Unlike games like Fable and BioWare's own Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins deftly sidestepped framing its character interaction systems as a set of moral binaries. It's a subtle shift: actions aren't judged in absolutes, but ...

Dragon Age II's frame narrative explained

Feb 25 // Joseph Leray
"We knew what story we wanted to tell for DA II, but we were talking about how we wanted to tell it," says David Gaider, the lead writer on the project. "Oftentimes, we do what's called 'the walk and talk': you're in every step that the player takes, talking to every person that the player talks to. A lot of RPGs do that, and we do it all the time. . . . But it also limits the types of stories you can tell." Instead of the "walk and talk," Gaider and the rest of the DA II team settled on a more novelistic approach. "[The game] takes place over a time span where you're looking at the most significant moments of a character or story," he notes. "And [videogame developers] don't do that." The idea of a frame narrative isn't new at all -- lead designer Mike Laidlaw mentions The Usual Suspects as an example of one, and Gaider points out that The Canterbury Tales featured over a dozen tightly-nestled stories -- "but doing it in an RPG, at least for us, it's nothing we've tried before," says Gaider. Given Dragon Age II's structure, it's unsurprising that the game is more character-driven than its predecessor, Origins, trading Ferelden macro-politics for one person's rise to power. The Blight is no longer a threat to Thedas, and Hawke lives -- if not happily, then at least peacefully -- in Kirkwall for some time. (That's not to say, though, that Hawke is apolitical -- don't forget that the Chantry is after her.) Even the surface-level changes suggest a strong narrative shift: Hawke is given a name, a voice, and a backstory -- a far cry from Origins' Build-A-Bear Warden. "Where I think Dragon Age II kind of stands out is that we don't do it with the impetus of the world needing to be saved again," Laidlaw asserts. "There isn't necessarily the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head, where failure will result in everyone's death. "And so, instead of 'The World Needs to be Saved!,' the world is going to change and I'm curious as to how," he continues. "I'm drawn forward through a different kind of impetus all the way through the story. But your character is still growing; your character is moving from boy to man, but more importantly, moving from refugee to Champion.  "And that creates a really interesting growth arc because it's driven in a different way than we normally would do." That growth arc seems particularly suited to role-playing games, whose mechanics prioritize a steady growth of power and skills. Laidlaw even describes Dragon Age II as a bildungsroman, a literary structure that charts the protagonist's moral and psychological growth through time. "In terms of the character's growth, what I think we do very clearly is establish what maturity means," Laidlaw states. "What is the mature version of the character you're currently playing?"  While Gaider and Laidlaw were excited about creating a lofty, ambitious narrative structure for DA II, the execution presented a unique challenge: how to fit the ten defining years of Hawke's life into one game. "A videogame is a really big story," Gaider explains. "You fit a lot of stuff into the amount of time you spend in a game." The solution: Varric, who is telling the story, will skip over years of events in order to hit the next hallmark of Hawke's life.  The time leaps were "just different enough that it added something interesting in the mix," says Gaider. "Especially building relationships with followers over the years, and seeing the consequences for your actions more immediately than waiting for the epilogue at the end of the game." Laidlaw takes a slightly different approach to the missing segments: "The key is, if you're going to take away years of content . . . and move to the next interesting bit -- the moments that really help define how you become the Champion -- what we want to do is make sure there's a payoff for that." Laidlaw describes that payoff as a chance to re-discover Kirkwall each time. "It's a new game," he says. "It gives you that [sense of discovery] multiple times. And what it really does is let you see that you made certain choices and how things played out."  On the other hand, it's a shame that some elements of DA II stay static, despite the time shifts. Art director Matt Goldman tells me, for example, that Hawke won't age during the ten-year period that the game covers: "From a storytelling aspect, the other characters change [and] upgrade around you. The game is about wish fulfillment and player choice, so we didn't want to change around the player character against your whims." The breaks also create distance between the player and Hawke. After the first time jump in the game, a rune salesman greets Hawke as an old friend, even though the player has never seen him before. It's a subtle reminder that Hawke and the player aren't the same character, and that, in the background, Varric is the one in charge.  I try to see how deep down the rabbit hole goes, but Gaider cuts me off at the pass. "You don't want to get too nebulous, though, to the point that the player suspects that everything he is doing is all a lie. That's going too far," he declares. "You want to give the player enough agency that they feel that they are the one telling the tale, not Varric."  Eventually, though, Gaider concedes my point just a bit, admitting that the player's choices reflect back to Varric's story: "I think it's fair to say that you're the puppet master . . . it's a different type of interactivity. Is it the same as feeling like you're directly in that character's shoes? I think it's just as legitimate. It is role-playing. It has the potential of having more impact."
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Very little of what BioWare has said about the upcoming Dragon Age II gives the impression of forward movement. In a Q&A session at BioWare's Edmonton studios, producer Mark Darrah explained that Dragon Age II isn't "a br...

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Bits and booze: The short story of Robotube and Gaijin


Feb 25
// Joseph Leray
When I try to get in touch with Jason Cirillo, founder of Robotube Games, he's in line trying to buy a bento box, somewhere in New York City. He's starving and needs to eat, so I try again later. This time, he's stepping onto...

The old school: Dragon Age II and its influences

Feb 24 // Joseph Leray
"I think [Dragon Age II] sidesteps what I see as almost like traditions. Traditional weak points of the classic RPG are ... they're daunting. High barrier to entry. They're hard to get into," he says. BioWare's own player-tracking statistics tell a similar tale: a significant portion of Origins players had their own mystifying "other" moments, dropping the game after only an hour.  "They weren't even getting an Achievement," Laidlaw continues. The team was tempted to chalk those dropped players up to rentals, but the stats made it clear that people simply dropped the game. Those stats had a dramatic effect on Laidlaw and his team, prompting them to totally re-evaluate how Dragon Age II fits into the auspices of classic role playing. "So our goal with 2, I think, is to strip away a lot of that barrier to entry to let you ease into the game," says Laidlaw. It is Laidlaw's hope that players will be able to gradually immerse themselves in the Dungeons and Dragons-based mechanics through a set of increasingly-complex stages. Deciding, for example, that "I'm pretty sure I'd like to play as a rogue who is male," is the first step, says Laidlaw. "And then I kind of ease into, 'Ok, cool, these are my starting abilities and do I want to go more archery, do I want to dual-wield, or do I want to ... use more bombs and poisons?" Laidlaw explains that the team was adamant about not moving away from it's Gygax-inspired bedrock, preferring to streamline the tutorial and user interface instead. While dense, opaque games like Ultima steered BioWare toward gentler entry points, games like Planescape: Torment guided writer David Gaider as he started drawing out the story and characters of Dragon Age II. Unlike Origins, whose protagonist is malleable blank slate, DAII features Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, complete with his own backstory and character arc. (Hawke's appearance and gender are entirely player-defined, though.) "As soon as you provide a voiced player, you're stepping on the player's toes a little bit," Gaider explains. "On the other hand, there are RPGs that can do that: Planescape:Torment, I think, was one of the best RPGs of all time." "You didn't have to decide who the Nameless One was, but that didn't stop you from feeling agency with regard to [his] choices and feeling like you were in charge of [his] life," Gaider continues. "We're not giving you a totally defined character, nor are we saying you can be anybody." Gaider's measured approach to his inspirations find a corollary from the design team. "You can tell where we came from, you absolutely can see the roots, but we want our own direction, our own feel and our own style," Laidlaw says. Those roots clearly include the lineage of older BioWare RPGs, particularly Baldur's Gate. The notion that Origins was somehow supposed to be a revitalization of Baldur's Gate still permeates, whether by design or through the imprecise alchemy of the internet, most discussions about the game. With Dragon Age II poised to "give the franchise its own identity," as Laidlaw puts it, there exists the sense that old-school RPGs may be a dying breed, vestigial organs of the modern game. Baldur's Gate had a lot to offer in the creation of Origins, and Laidlaw doesn't shy away from the comparisons. "Those gorgeous, gorgeous bitmaps that were essentially the levels were hand-drawn and ... that gave it its own character," he says. "So, with Dragon Age: Origins, we definitely tried to modernize that feel, right? It's got a lot of the aspects that made Baldur's Gate stand out and really work, but at the same time we wanted to move it in it's own direction, hence 'spiritual successor' and not 'direct successor.'"  Laidlaw is straightforward in his appreciation for the game, but also in his reservations about aping the style. "But I think that, you know, probably the best way to play a Baldur's Gate-style game is actually to go play those games. Because what they are is -- I hesistate to say it -- a time capsule," he concludes. "They are games that are consistent with the tech, platform, and time -- everything that was developed in Baldur's Gate at that time was done so within a context of what was capable.  "I think there would be a danger in trying to recreate that exactly. ... As a developer, you would feel like [you are] deliberately ignoring advances in user interface, advances in control schemes to try and get that retro feel and I'm not sure it would stand as strong because it's taking something out of context." Laidlaw is, of course, optimistic about his approach: "And I think it's paying off because it makes the game feel internally consistent with a game made in 2010."
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"I've been playing RPGs since ... Ultima 2 territory, way back on my PC," says Mike Laidlaw, lead designer on BioWare's Dragon Age series. "And it's like, I remember, actually Ultima 3 did this: 'Choose your gender: male, fem...


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