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CCP 'confident' about Dust 514's five-year future

Jun 06 // Joseph Leray
"We already see that Dust 514, during open beta, had been driving hardware sales for Sony. We actually track that together," he tells me. "We so know that our fan base, Dust-curious players, are buying the PlayStation 3 to get into our game." More generally, though, Gunnarsson seems confident in Sony's ability to support the PlayStation 3 well into the next few years. "What we hear, anecdotally, is that PS3 sales are increasing," he says. "Sony have done a phenomenal job of managing console transitions, like they did with the PlayStation 2's cost and size reductions," he effuses. "We can make the logical assumption that something similar will happen as the PlayStation 4 comes to market," Gunnarsson continues, noting that the PS3's large European and Asian install base and incremental success since 2006 will give it "long legs" moving forward. His ultimate declaration on the subject is this: "If you look at the large third-party publishers, you'll see that Sony is not falling away from the PlayStation 3. What about Grand Theft Auto V? It took Square Enix years to come to the PlayStation 3." Gunnarsson's enthusiasm is partly diplomatic, I'm sure, but fans’ enduring interest in the PS3 is the crux of Dust 514's development strategy, which is to keep players coming back with a periodic trickle of high-quality -- and, most importantly, free -- updates. The foundation for these types of updates was laid when Dust 514 was still in open beta. Several months in, CCP rolled out a free, updated build of the game, called "Uprising," which overhauled the game's graphics, added content, and re-structured much of the game's user interface and menus. More updates -- most notably, a King of the Hill mode called "Domination" -- were made when the game officially launched on May 14 (get it?), only a week later. "Here we are in the late stage of the open beta, and we've completely overhauled the whole thing," explains executive producer Brandon Laurino during a brief chat. "Even for a PC MMO, that's pretty outrageous, but you've never had that for a console game. You've never had something like a demo or a version 1.0 of something in your hands and then had a huge graphics update on it." Dust 514 has been officially released for less than a month now, but the Shanghai-based team responsible for it is already in active development on new gameplay modes that should be available "very soon." (I should note that "very soon" int his case means up to three years from now.) In its current iteration, Dust 514 is a competitive, player-vs.-player, deathmatch-based affair. However, CCP Shanghai are working on cooperative, player-vs.-environment modes that they hope will encourage corporation-level play: "Survival" is a wave-based Horde mode, and "Infestation" will involve scouring any enemies trying to establish a toehold in corporation-controlled districts. In both modes, groups of players will fight against drones, the so-called "rats" or "mobs" of Dust 514, to gather money and other resources. The idea is that these PvE modes will give players and corps new entry points into the robust in-game economy that ties Dust 514 and EVE Online together. Eventually, CCP plans to implement space elevators to carry those resources from the planetary surfaces of Dust to the orbiting fleets of EVE, linking the two games physically as well as thematically, economically, and structurally. Other upcoming modes include “Penetration,” which will allow Dust mercenaries to raid and board EVE’s Titan-class warships, and “Gladiator,” a set of organized tournaments that will include in-game betting and streaming. The EVE universe spans hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets, each of which will need to be dynamically populated with weather patterns, terrain, vegetation, and architecture. Racially variegated weapons, vehicles, and space stations are also in the works. If that sounds like a lot, that’s mostly the point. “This is the way that CCP does a game,” says Laurino. “We’ll never make a Dust 514-2, right? We’ll never update the graphics, package up a bunch of content, and say, ‘Okay, now this is a $60 expansion.'” “It’s just all part of the game as a service that we provide to our users. That’s part of the value proposition that we offer,” he continues. “‘Uprising’ is not the end of the major, free updates. We’ve got quite a few more planned for the rest of 2013 and then out for two years, out for five years, out for ten years, just like EVE.” Still, CCP will eventually need to develop a PlayStation 4 version of Dust 514, link it to the PS3 version, and then tie both of them to Tranquility, the London-based server that governs everything that happens in the EVE universe. And they’ll do it, ideally, with as little downtime as possible. A tall order, but one that CCP are already familiar with. “When we launched EVE in 2003, it was running on Windows XP at the time, on DirectX 7,” Gunnarsson tells me. “We migrated to DirectX 9 with a live game in operation and ran a dual rendering across DX7 and DX9 for many years. We launched the Mac version the same way.” Not surprisingly, Laurino agrees, though he’s less concerned with the nitty-gritty details at this point. “Really, any game could be set up to this. So it’s more a philosophy than it is a real technical roadblock,” he explains. “Of course there are a lot of technical challenges, sure, but it’s about holding yourself to a different software development standard and a different standard for service that makes a difference.” “It’s also just common sense,” Laurino goes on. “If you want to sustain a ten-year product in the videogame industry, you have to upgrade at some point.” I ask Gunnarsson, somewhat dubiously, about the economics and logistics of running two different games on three platforms connected by one central server; he remains nonchalant throughout. “We’re very confident. We’ve already done this in the PC space," he explains. "If you think about it from that perspective, we’ve been doing this for years.”
Dust 514 photo
Free updates, more modes, and a new platform
Late last year, erstwhile EVE Online executive producer Jon Lander proclaimed -- perhaps emboldened by his own game's impending ten-year anniversary -- that CCP had "a five-year roadmap" for the recently-released free-to-play...

Night moves: No day cycle in World of Darkness, says CCP

Jun 05 // Joseph Leray
"We went through a lot of iterations on that," he explains when asked if World of Darkness would feature a day-and-night cycle. "At this point, we're pretty settled on it being permanent night." Vampire: the Masquerade and its first videogame adaptation -- Nihilistic Software's Redemption -- both included sunlight mechanics, but Troika's more recent game, Bloodlines, did not. Whether or not fans expected daytime portions of World of Darkness may depend on when and how they became familiar with the franchise.   While McDonough and his team experimented with sunlight, though, the idea quickly broke down. "The gameplay that surrounded making the transition [from night to day] was very convoluted," he says. "What could players do during the day? And how long did it last?" The implementation for one play was problematic enough, but the idea quickly ballooned to reveal more issues, like time zones. "So when is it day and night, and for who? If it happens on a fixed schedule, does that mean that if I live in Russia, it's always day?" he asks, noting the large Russian contingent in EVE Online, CCP's well-established flagship space MMO. "Maybe it's always day time when I'm available to play, so I don't want to," McDonough continues, rattling off a long string of unwieldy hypotheticals. "Or maybe I have to play this other character because we have alternate characters during the day." One workaround might be to corral the user base into different servers or realms, a common practice in other MMOs. If CCP could reasonably assume that every player on a given server lived in the same area, a more workable day-night cycle might have been possible. But World of Darkness, like EVE Online, is what CCP calls a "single-shard" game. That is to say that every player in the world will connect on one gigantic, persistent server. The thinking goes that with enough people in one on-going virtual world, drama, loyalty, politics, betrayal, friendship, treachery, and ambition should develop on their own, little bits of human nature enabled and nurtured by a few game mechanics. With no other server to offer safe haven, good and bad deeds alike will -- at least in CCP's estimation -- carry more weight. Designing an entire batch of secondary mechanics for sunlight-averse vampires is tricky enough, and McDonough's hypothetical Russian player doesn't help matters much. However, it's not just that accommodating worldwide time zones is difficult, it's that not accommodating them would violate the design ethos that governs everything CCP makes, from EVE Online to World of Darkness. "It's called World of Darkness. It's a game about vampires," McDonough says, bringing the conversation back to the ground.  "Ultimately, it became very convoluted and required a whole host of different systems that we felt was too complicated," he continues. "People want to play their vampire and, you know, it's the World of Darkness. That's really what it's about. That's the mood and tone." [Image credit: White Wolf Publishing]
World of Darkness photo
Because sleeping in a coffin is boring
News about World of Darkness has been predictably scarce: the CCP-developed MMO, based on White Wolf's Vampire: the Masquerade license, is still in early development, with no release date in sight. When I sit down t...

Boy's club: Why don't more women play EVE Online?

Jun 03 // Joseph Leray
Despite only comprising a meager four percent of the user base, women aren’t entirely unrepresented in EVE Online. Ali Aras, for example, is the online name of a woman currently serving as vice-secretary of EVE’s eighth Council of Stellar Management, a player-elected committee that liaises between developers and players. Still, EVE Online’s gender ratio is overwhelmingly, if not surprisingly, dominated by men, even compared to other MMOs. In a paper for Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, researcher Nick Yee presents the result of a multi-year survey of over 40,000 MMO players: roughly 15% of them are women. If EVE Online were trending with the broader landscape of MMOs, we should expect to see almost four times as many women than are currently subscribed. “I think we have to be realistic about what EVE Online is,” says Thor Gunnarsson, vice-president of business development at CCP. “Science fiction-themed worlds tend to attract men.” In a separate interview, EVE senior producer Andie Nordgren echoes Gunnarsson’s explanation, almost verbatim: “Part of it is due to the theme of the game. Science fiction is an extremely male-dominated domain,” she tells me. If EVE Online’s hard-nosed sci-fi trappings have been a stumbling block for women players, CCP is hoping that the supernatural horror of World of Darkness, an in-development MMO based on White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade series, proves more alluring. World of Darkness centers on the interpersonal drama and large-scale politics of a group of vampire clans, set against a gritty, urban backdrop. “When White Wolf was really the rock star of the pen-and-paper games industry, what they did was they created a fiction setting that, back in the day, had an almost equal gender balance,” Gunnarsson explains. “That was unheard of in tabletop gaming, and we’re certainly hoping to achieve something similar with World of Darkness in the future.” “The genre lends itself towards having a female population,” senior producer Chris McDonough explains. “When we were making Vampire: the Masquerade, you’d go to conventions and events and there was a significant number of women in that audience.” “Will there be more women interested in this than in EVE? The answer is yes.” It’s not enough to chalk the dearth of women playing EVE Online to their perceived distaste for science fiction, though: the game’s accessibility, interface, complexity, and design are also at fault. “There’s bad complexity in EVE,” Nordgren tells me bluntly. “Only a certain type of person will ever work their way through it, and the majority of those people are guys.” One example of bad complexity she gives is that new players often don’t have access to the information they need to understand the game’s mechanics. “We have those kinds of accessibility problems that we’re working on,” she explains, “and I think if we can shift some of this bad complexity out and just keep some of the good, interesting, challenging complexity, then we should get more female players as a result of that.” However, “It’s not a goal for us as a development team to specifically increase the number of female players,” Nordgren says. Having a broader and more balanced fanbase would be a by product of good design, “more an indicator than something strive for.” McDonough and his team are taking a similar tack with World of Darkness. Referring to his work on Vampire: the Masquerade, he explains that his team "never made a product that catered or specifically targeted women; we made a product that we thought would appeal to all gamers.” “Women are gamers just like everybody else, and our role isn’t to specifically point a product at them, but instead to make a product that we think satisfies a lot of different player-types,” he continues. “And when women fall into that player-type, that’s fantastic, and we think there will be some in World of Darkness.”
EVE Online photo
Better design will attract more diverse players, says CCP
According to David Reid, CCP Games' chief marketing officer, 96 percent of the people subscribing to his company's flagship MMO EVE Online are male. That's crazy high.

How CCP made a virtual reality spaceship dogfighting sim

May 17 // Joseph Leray
[embed]252800:48444:0[/embed] It’s not long before my screen starts flashing red, my cue to start swearing at no one in particular: some red-shipped scumbag is tracking me with a salvo of missiles. I swivel my head over each shoulder, curse some more, and then glance overhead, the space around me filled with friends and foes, neon lasers, and space debris, but no incoming rockets. I wait a few more beats and then accelerate, hoping to outrun whoever and whatever is chasing me. It works, and I live to go on a warpath of my own: I pick off three or four red enemy ships before my luck runs out. After my EVR demo, on my way out of the press room, I run into a man named Nate Mitchell. He’s the vice president of product at Oculus VR, the company that Kickstarted the virtual reality headset that EVR uses. He asks me if I liked the demo, and I say yes.“The Oculus isn’t even out yet, and they’re already making stuff like this,” he gushed. “Can you even imagine?” Andy Robinson is an artist at CCP Games who works on EVE Online. By his own admission, he doesn’t get many chances to talk to the media -- that’s for lead designers and executive producers. But when he sat down at a table full of journalists to chat about EVR, I was more than happy to listen. Put plainly: EVR is a prototype of a virtual reality spaceship dogfighting game built for the Oculus Rift that uses some assets from EVE Online. It was built by a group of nine developers and artists in accordance with what CCP calls “the 20% rule”: free time during normal working hours that can be used on personal projects and cool ideas. CCP actually contributed to Oculus’ wildly-successful Kickstarter and had dev kits on hand. Robinson explains that keeping all sorts of hardware around the offices is simply part of CCP’s culture and that their Reykjavik offices are full of things to tinker and experiment with.The project started as a neat proof-of-concept, but as more and more CCP devs got involved -- and as they realized how fun it was -- the team made a hard push to have a three-minute demo ready for Fanfest 2013. The entire project took seven weeks of nights, weekends, and 20% time, and the result is a thrilling look at what could be in store for virtual reality-enabled videogames. Robinson estimates that 85% of the game's art was made from scratch. EVE Online’s ships didn’t scale well enough to be used with EVR’s depth of field, and there weren’t any existing assets for the cockpit or launch tube.There’s no denying that part of the thrill of EVR is the simple act of flying through space, of watching it open around, above, below, and behind you. During early playtests, people had to be taught to look around with the Oculus Rift headset, which Robinson called “being deprogrammed.”More than that, though, EVR’s real hook -- and the great thing about virtual reality in general -- is that it manages to handle lots of complexity with a small number of elegant, simple controls. Not only do the ships travel at a fixed speed, but the camera and missile-guidance mechanics are both controlled by moving Oculus Rift headset. The end result is a full-scale, first-person, virtual reality dogfighting game that only uses three buttons: two triggers to fire lasers and missiles, and one joystick to steer -- piloting a ship in genuine virtual reality is less complicated than playing Call of Duty. The goal for EVR was to re-create the feel and atmosphere of EVE Online and “subvert it, open it up to a new style of play,” explains Robinson. EVE Online executive producer Jon Lander agrees: “We wanted to expand what’s going on in the EVE universe.”In that sense, it’s possible to contextualize a project like EVR alongside Dust 514: projects designed to drill down to the more granular aspects of the EVE Online universe, to explore the small cogs that turn EVE’s vast economies and war machines.Unlike Dust, which was formally released earlier this week, CCP’s official stance seems to be that EVR is doomed to be a one-off experiment, a curio for Fanfest 2013 attendees to reminisce over. There are “no current plans to take it any further,” Robinson says.For those interested in playing EVR at some point in the future, however, there remains hope: in 2005, an in-house team developed an atmospheric flight prototype that allowed players to pilot down to the surface of New Eden’s numerous planets. The idea was never really incorporated into EVE Online, but it became the basis of the dropships in Dust 514. EVR may have a similar fate.Nate Mitchell was also on hand during the final Fanfest keynote to sing EVR’s praises. He called it the first true multiplayer virtual reality game while Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of CCP, mused that maybe “something will come of it.”  “No matter what happens, the guys working on this are going to continue,” Robinson told me with a hint of defiance. “This is a passion for us. Given time, we can make this much, much better.”
EVR photo
EVR changes EVRything
EVR opens with a pilot in the cockpit of a small ship, docked in a cramped launching tube. After a short countdown, the ship is fired out like a bottle rocket, the compact hangar giving way to the sheer expanse of space, litt...


Hands-on with CCP's virtual-reality dogfighter EVR

Apr 26 // Joseph Leray
Codenamed EVR -- get it? -- the game pits two teams of six against each other, in an arena littered with asteroids, the ruins of a cathedral, and the shattered husk of a Tempest warship. The set up is pretty bare-bones -- kill the other team; stay alive -- but the Oculus Rift execution is spot on. Pilots have a full range of vision, and players who don't take advantage of the virtual reality's possibilities don't last long in EVR. The small dogfighters we piloted were fast and maneuverable enough to sneak up on unsuspecting or unfocused players, and I spent plenty of time craned backwards in my seat, looking for enemy missiles. As my demo handler put it: "If you're only looking straight ahead, take the headset off and we'll just give you a normal monitor."   The neatest trick was a missile guidance system that tracked to the Oculus Rift headset: hold the right trigger (we were using Xbox 360 controllers) to pull up the missile reticule, using your head to lock-on to enemy fighters. Even though matches are only three minutes long, there's a great internal rhythm to EVR: use lasers to close in on enemies, launch a volley of guided rockets, and veer off, hunting for the next target. The bad news: CCP's official line is that there are no plans to release EVR to the wider public. It was developed as a special event for Fanfest attendees -- CCP is hosting a day-long demo session tomorrow -- and this might be the only time it's available to play. Still, as a proof-of-concept or prototype, EVR is a strong showing. Not to disparage the bedroom developers that are modding, hacking, coding, and figuring out how to trailblaze virtual-reality gaming, but EVR is the product of experienced developers, and it shows. Even though the connection to EVE Online is purely cosmetic -- it's just a few art assets -- the Fanfest community is clearly excited by the prospect of virtual-reality dogfighting. I've only played one match of EVR so far, but I can't say I disagree with them.
EVE Fanfest 2013 photo
Experimental Oculus Rift game
Want to make 1500 EVE Online fans totally flip out? Corral them into an auditorium for an EVE keynote during Fanfest 2013, announce that a small internal team has developed a playable virtual-reality dogfighting game for the Oculus Rift, and then explain that a day-long tournament is going to take place.

Space hyenas! photo
Space hyenas!

Overview trailer for Mars: War Logs is exactly that


If Paul Atreides could shoot lightning from his hands ...
Apr 18
// Joseph Leray
Spiders released an appropriately titled "overview trailer" for its upcoming sci-fi action-RPG, Mars: War Logs, which is also appropriately titled: there’s a war, it takes place on Mars, and you’ll be shooting, e...
Splinter Cell torture photo
Splinter Cell torture

Ubisoft was right to nix Splinter Cell: Blacklist torture


If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right
Feb 01
// Joseph Leray
This week, a Splinter Cell: Blacklist producer confirmed that the game’s controversial torture scene, used as part of Ubisoft’s E3 presentation last year, has been removed from the game. “Definitely we are n...

Review: Borderlands 2 'Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt'

Jan 23 // Joseph Leray
[embed]242877:46499[/embed] Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: Gearbox Software, Triptych GamesPublisher: 2K GamesRelease: January 15, 2013MSRP: $9.99 / 800 Microsoft Points On the one hand, I understand the desire to use the safari adventure story as a jumping off point. Some of Borderlands 2’s best writing comes in the form of repurposed genre fiction, as evidenced by the Lynchwood and Captain Scarlett story arcs, and a hunt seems like the perfect, low-key excuse to shoot guns at terrifying creatures. Shooting a giant scorpion-esque monstrosity in the face is the ur-Borderlands, after all. On the other, Big Game Hunt pulls from a genre that’s rife with gross ideas -- phrenology and the White Man’s Burden -- used to justify American slavery and, somewhat later, British colonialism. The enemy character models for these “savages” are used unthinkingly and uncritically -- at no point does Big Game Hunt challenge, expose, or subvert the racist ideas that led to the creation of the stereotypes it so gleefully incorporates. In other words, the first thing that happens after fast-traveling to Aegrus is that my (white) Axton character jumps off a waterfall, marches into a village, and throws down a sentry turret. Less than thirty seconds later, that turret is surrounded by a half-dozen black men in loin-cloths, and I’m picking through their belongings like a conquering invader. It’s a harrowing moment despite, or because of, the fact that Borderlands 2 presents itself the majority of the time as a funny, non-serious game. Once the shock wears off -- and it does, and it’s horrifying how quickly that happens -- Big Game Hunt is uneven and uninspired. The campaign is ostensibly about hanging out with Sir Hammerlock for a long weekend of dick jokes, hunting, and zooming around in cool fan-boats, but the duo (or trio, or quintet, if you’re playing co-op) are foiled at every turn: Hammerlock runs out of dick jokes, a delusional Professor Nakayama interrupts the hunting, and the fan-boats are clunky, fragile, and ill-suited for Aegrus’ twisty passages and inordinately numerous cliff-faces. The Nakayama plot -- while well-scripted and voiced -- is unevenly paced and pretty perfunctory, a problem compounded by Big Game Hunt’s map design and quest structure. The safari conceit that should match so well with Borderlands lies fallow for most of the campaign: what could have been a cool boss-rush mode turns into a checklist of fighting larger-than-normal-but-otherwise-uninteresting variants of the beasties you’ve killed dozens of times already. The presentation and execution of each hunt is simply bland. These enemies’ redeeming quality is that they can be respawned and farmed for the campaign’s unique loot. In something of a departure from past DLC packages, none of Big Game Hunt’s coolest weapons are quest rewards -- they’re all tied to some infinitesimal drop rate. I’ve written before about the ways that the Borderlands 2 DLC is remixing and redefining the series’ goals by introducing instanced raid bosses and new in-game currencies. Big Game Hunt attempts, with limited success, to further change the formula, preferring to focus on exploration and emergent combat rather than deliberately paced sidequests or tightly constructed narratives. Big Game Hunt introduces two new types of enemy fauna -- boroks and scaylions -- and reintroduces the drifters from the original Borderlands’ General Knoxx DLC, but these are relatively boring compared to the “savage” enemies. “Savages” tend to hide in the shadows and murky Aegran swamps, ambushing and surrounding Vault Hunters at each turn. This makes it impossible to set up cover or find convenient sniping positions without hacking through a ring of enemies first. The dark, oppressive environments dovetail well with the tension created by these surprise attacks. “Witch doctor”- and “shaman”-class enemies act as support for the legions of spearmen that accompany them: they can slag or paralyze players while leveling up enemy fighters. Borderlands 2 has always done a good job of rooting players out from under cover with melee- or grenade-based psychos, and Big Game Hunt’s “savage warriors” fill the same role -- they just do it better. “Savage warriors” will bum rush players in groups of two or three, but they always break off in different directions at the last minute. Dynamic flanking, coupled with the bullet-sponge “witch doctors” constantly buffing his troops, makes Big Game Hunt an exercise in efficient target selection -- you may want to kill each shaman right away, but the bruiser who’s bearing down on you just gained three levels. It’s a fun-enough system, and it pushes Borderlands 2’s granular, moment-to-moment shooting in interesting ways -- battles are more dynamic and varied, and the importance of crowd-control, area of effect attacks, and elemental damage over time increases in lockstep with Big Game Hunt’s higher difficulty. Still, these are small changes, and they mostly stand out by putting the rest of the game’s repetitive combat in relief. There’s something to be said for exploring Big Game Hunt’s massive maps: the Pandoran environment oscillates between frozen tundra, endless desert, and ruined hellscape, so the murky, humid soup that is Aegrus is a welcome change. Each area -- and Hunter’s Grotto in particular -- is enormous, full of hidden caves, underground rivers, and winding passages through cliff-faces. Aegrus can be a fun place to get lost in, but the expansive maps and general uselessness of the fan-boat can make quest completion a slog -- all you want to do is kill Bulwark the Bullymong, but you’ve got a five-minute, on-foot trek through “savage”-infested villages first, and then another on your way back to the bounty board. The fun exploration always feels at odds with each quest’s pacing, which makes the campaign overall feel stunted and jerky. Of note is the level design in Roothill Village, a particularly frustrating tree-top enclave from which “witch doctors” and badass “savages” are more than happy to expel you. Happy climbing! Enjoying Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt is about managing expectations, about knowing what you want out of Borderlands 2’s constantly expanding menu -- its strong suits are the subtle twists on combat and enemy behavior, exploration, farming, and a hidden raid boss that costs almost 100 Eridium to spawn. Its narrative and mission structures are too loose and shambolic, though, and implemented with the same lack of care that led the designers to include a tribe of mind-controlled “savages” throwing spears at each other as the campaign’s principle enemy. Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt is, like each of the game’s expansions, more Borderlands 2 at its core, but it’s a shallow version of it, without any of the main game’s self-awareness or charm.
Big Game Hunt photo
Vim and vigor
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, the writer of Borderlands 2, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] It’s a good thing that Borderl...

Review: Borderlands 2 'Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage'

Nov 30 // Joseph Leray
Borderlands 2: Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage: (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: Gearbox Software, Triptych GamesPublisher: 2K GamesRelease: November 20, 2012MSRP: $9.99 / 800 Microsoft Points  Borderlands is, by and large, about math, about procedurally generating things by filling in certain categories with certain values -- fire rates, monetary value, drop percentages. This happens largely in conjunction with other designs inherited first from PC role-playing games and then from MMORPGs. Loot drops -- in addition to boss farming -- have been a huge part Borderlands’ continued success, the games’ internal random number generator driving players ever onward in search of the perfect gun or grenade mod. Torgue tokens, a new currency introduced by the Campaign of Carnage, changes that: you can now buy legendary, orange-level weapons right out of a vending machine. Torgue tokens are randomly dropped by powerful enemies, but they’re also rewarded to industrious Vault Hunters for completing missions. It takes 613 to buy a legendary, Torgue-brand weapon. The key here, though, is that these missions are short and repeatable. Under the right circumstances, you could grind out enough tokens for a legendary weapon in under an hour, which negates the need to farm these weapons from bosses elsewhere. With a little bit of dedication, anyone can have access to some of the best weapons in the game. The thrill of having the procedural stars align is gone, in favor of a flatter, more predictable system. [embed]239538:45937[/embed] This shift actually started in Captain Scarlett, with the introduction of Seraph Crystals and instanced raid bosses, but the concept is the same. Scarlett featured two optional, end-game bosses that a. dropped special crystals that could be traded for Seraph-level guns and b. could only be fought once per day. It takes between a week and ten days to farm for one Seraph gun. (Incidentally, the Campaign of Carnage introduces a new raid boss, Pyro Pete the Invincible, who also drops Seraph Crystals.) Carnage’s new currency stands out even more because it’s so much easier to use -- the grindable missions are short and don’t have that awful one-boss-per-day instance limitation that Gearbox mind-blowingly placed on Captain Scarlett’s best equipment. The democratization of Borderlands’ loot drops reimagines some of its guiding principles and introduces the possibility for grinding that was never achievable before. It trades luck for patience. There’s an entire meta-economy of farmers, hoarders, looters, dupers, and modders that ply in the trade of Pandoran weapons, and they’ve had a tiny piece of rug pulled out from under them. The Torgue tokens don’t really affect how fun the Campaign of Carnage missions are or how funny the writing is, but it’s an important shift in the dynamics of the series. As Brendan Keogh points out, the guns in Borderlands have as much -- if not more -- character and variation as the humanoids do. Each one has a certain feel, independent of the complex calculus that spawned it. If you’re a Torgue loyalist, the easy access to explosive legendaries makes the Campaign of Carnage an easy choice. The same can be said for anyone specced to maximize explosive damage like, say, a Gunpowder-tree Axton player. The main Borderlands 2 story was generally well-balanced, mixing stupid violence with somewhat characterized, intentional action, but Campaign of Carnage shifts to pure bloodsport: the eponymous Torgue has organized a deathmatch to find Pandora's "number one badass," for whom a new Vault will open. Without characters like Roland and Lillith to balance things, Torgue becomes the tonal center of the story, and Campaign of Carnage wallows in his meatheaded machismo. It’s not that script or delivery aren’t funny (they are), it’s that Torgue tells the same joke over and over, a joke that was already a large part of Borderlands’ goofy aesthetic. Where Captain Scarlett felt like Borderlands wrapped in a fresh theme, guided by Scarlett’s coquettishness, the Campaign of Carnage feels like re-treaded ground. The arid desert landscape that surrounds Torgue’s Badass Crater of Badassitude doesn’t help that perception -- we get it, Pandora is a blighted wasteland -- nor does the reappearance of Moxxi, Tiny Tina, Scooter, and Sir Hammerlock. The dearth of new enemy types -- and one of the tournament’s bosses is just an Ellie re-skin -- drives it home. Again, Captain Scarlett worked because it introduced new characters and new types of places to explore, even while it remained mechanically identical to the main game; the Campaign of Carnage struggles in the same places. This is surprising for a campaign that goes out of its way to be self aware -- the tournament is structured as a “leaderboard,” and Torgue admits to spoiling plot twists and massaging the results to “maintain dramatic tension” for the televised event. One early sidequest tasks you with hunting down and mudering ECHOnet game reviewers who panned some of Torgue's favorites. The tournament structure only reinforces the weaknesses of Borderlands’ MMO-derived, nested fetch-quests: it’s easy to justify all sorts of things when you’re saving the world, but being Torgue’s errand boy is harder to swallow. In other words, petty sidequests feel normal as part of Borderlands' vibrant, sprawling world, but they feel out of place in what's supposed to be a focused, structured event like Torgue's badass tournament. Still, fans of the series who have come this far won’t be surprised that the quest structure has remained largely unchanged. Indeed, repetition is part of Borderlands’ and its DLC’s appeal, like slipping into a worn t-shirt. There is a certain rhythm to life in the borderlands, and the Campaign of Carnage falls in step right away. Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage features some strong boss setpieces, but the real highlights are its arena fights and a new, dingy urban area north of the Crater called the Beatdown. The arena sections pit different factions against one another, and these different groups will fight amongst themselves if left alone. These fights are timed, though, forcing players to act more aggressively than they’re perhaps used to. It’s a small, subtle shift, but the added pressure of the time limit pays dividends. The Beatdown is a densely packed favela, all twisty alleys, rooftop-sniping and dead-end cul-de-sacs -- it reminds me most of Old Haven from the original Borderlands. Given that so much of Pandora is open and flat, the skirmishes, choke points, and ambushes of the game’s urban zones are always a treat. In both the Beatdown and the various arenas, each encounter and firefight is smoothly paced and takes advantage of the game’s level design. It’s a shame there aren’t more of both in the Campaign as a whole. For anyone deeply invested in Borderlands’ loot design, Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage is the most recent (and comparatively large) step toward shifting away from random number generation as a guiding tool. For everyone else, it’s a competent addition with a few bright spots that won’t make as much of an impact as Mr. Torgue’s own speedfreak sensibilities. And that’s the grand irony of this DLC -- Torgue is just funny enough to emerge as one of Borderland 2’s standout personalities among a pantheon of eccentrics, but not dynamic enough to support an entire story arc, his thirteen pecs enthusiasm notwithstanding.
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Torgue Time
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, the writer of Borderlands 2, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] The best downloadable content, in my...

Review: Pid

Nov 21 // Joseph Leray
Pid (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: Might & DelightPublisher: Might & Delight, D3 Publisher (Xbox Live Arcade)MSRP: $9.99 / 800 Microsoft Points  Pid is about a wayward young astronaut named Kurt who, becalmed on a foreign planet, is trying to find his way home. He becomes embroiled -- as you do -- in a set of larger political machinations: a missing monarch, the breakdown of social institutions and infrastructure. More pressing, though, is the fact that the planet in question in entirely inhospitable. The townspeople who aren’t aggressive are apathetic; a powerful shadow government goes out of its way to hunt Kurt down; and spikes, lasers, missiles, enemies, and traps abound. Kurt navigates these obstacles with a small, magical gem he finds early in the game. When thrown, it produces a shaft of light capable of sending Kurt floating through the air. With two beams, it’s possible to juggle yourself through large swathes of Pid, never touching the ground. There are, of course, a litany of extra items at your disposal -- bombs, a jukebox that puts enemies to sleep, a bag of dirt that reveals secret paths -- but the light beam is the core mechanic, and it gets repurposed and exploited in any number of ways as Pid oscillates between puzzles, combat, and pure platforming. Pid runs the gamut between elegance and finicky precision, but it’s all supported by a fundamental truth about games: flying is fun. Portal knew it, as did every Spider-Man game, as does Pid. Stringing together the perfect run through a set of obstacles, launching beams of light at just the right time, is immensely satisfying. With so many secret areas, Pid cries out for a level-select option: the basic mechanics are fun enough to explore on their own, even divorced from the story. I’d love to have easy access to my favorite levels, or another chance to find the dozen-or-so collectibles scattered about. This is a missed opportunity. [embed]238841:45867[/embed] There’s something melancholy about a lost little boy, but Pid’s use of perspective drives the point home: you are small and fragile in a dangerous place. The camera often pulls way back, making Kurt a small collection of pixels against the backdrop. It gives players a chance to survey the area for potential danger, and subtle parallax scrolling gives the world a nice sense of depth, of unattainably remote areas of the world. It’s not just that Pid’s toy-like art direction is striking -- it sets the scene for a moody, evocative game and plays on Kurt’s innocence and confusion. His head is just a touch bigger than normal, giving him the look of a highly ambulatory toddler. His naïveté doesn’t last long. The architecture and level design in Pid take up the fantasy mantle where the visual design leaves off. Pid ostensibly takes place in familiar places -- there’s a theater, a dormitory, a kitchen, a basement -- but these buildings follow their own type of internal, childlike logic. Kurt meets other characters in the game, mostly robots speaking in idiomatic gobbledigook, and he often asks them questions like, “Where is the surface?” or “Can you tell me which direction the workshop is?” The interiors are impossibly large and impossibly spaced, expanding forever upwards and rightwards, until you reach the final door. You’ll spend hours in a massive area called “The Sitting Room,” for example, only to emerge and discover that it’s housed in a humble little building on a sidestreet of the town.When I was a kid, my grandparents’ antebellum home seemed vast, palatial, and full of adventure. You could crawl under her wrap-around porch, dodging spiders and snakes and watching for what turned out to be a mythological pit. Now, it seems like an anachronistic relic with vinyl siding, nestled in a dying town in Mississippi. Pid never really lets go of that first sentiment, though, and each new location feels larger than life. Like a small boy in a foreign land armed with only a magic gem, explorers of the planet Humphrey will be wide-eyed. Pid is at its best when Kurt is inside a building or series of rooms, where the level design is tight and confined. This is usually where the game is more focused on its puzzles than its action, thereby making the most of its core mechanics and minimizing the need to jump or move quickly or precisely. More importantly, though, it’s here that the central mechanics get pushed the farthest -- Kurt can float enemies into spikes, move lasers around, trap missiles in mid-air. The light beam can lure giant moth-like enemies out of your path or guide a lamp through a pitch-black maze.Players will no doubt die in these rooms, but these deaths feel productive: each one pokes and prods at the puzzle, nudging Kurt closer to the fulcrum on which each section rests. An inverted Super Meat Boy-experience is at play, here: inch by inch, you’ll muscle-memorize your way through some spiky gauntlet, slingshotting your gems just so, making incremental progress. Where Super Meat Boy values speed, though, Pid prefers specificity and purpose. It’s no less frustrating, and no less rewarding. Unfortunately, Kurt’s light beam and his floaty, inconsistent jumping and sluggish movement aren’t made equal for all tasks. The game is weakest in its open-air sections, during which the controls don’t live up to the demands of the action -- instead of planning and executing, Kurt is tasked with running, jumping, and dodging. Deaths no longer feel productive, just unforseen. The level design starts to wander aimlessly, leaving Kurt to meander without any real thrust or impetus.There’s a very concrete connection, then, between Pid’s architecture and how successfully it employs its mechanics: in a very basic way, Kurt’s magic gem needs walls to work, and the game is weaker when there aren’t enough of them. The loose-leaf platform sections are annoying, and they trot out tired platformer cliches, but they also commit the graver sin of not doing anything interesting with the light beam mechanic. Instead, they rely overmuch on the game’s auxiliary bombs and weapons. These countless deaths do add up, unfortunately: after so much failure and so much frustration, Pid begins to feel long in the tooth in its last act. I spent two days on the "City" stage and its boss, and another two on the final boss. Pid’s saving grace is that it is superbly paced, both mechanically and aesthetically. New concepts are introduced almost agonizingly slowly, but they’ll build on each other organically and naturally. Might & Delight did a great job making sure that players really master each mechanic before moving on. By the end of the game, players will be stringing long sets of sophisticated maneuvers together instinctively. Almost without fail, after every difficult and frustrating slog comes something serene and beautiful. Like the rest of the game, this salve takes various and sundry forms. Sometimes a new concept is introduced, giving players a shift in momentum and the chance to go slowly and calmly. At other times, Pid simply revels in its own pretty visuals and haunting soundtrack, allowing Kurt to run, unmolested, through a rainy night or explore a glittering cave while a lone musician serenades him. After a particularly harrowing chase scene in a dusty opera house, Kurt bursts through a trap door into a grassy meadow -- literally a breath of fresh air. This type of tension-and-release structure gives players time to recharge their batteries, to reflect on the things that Pid has to offer, and to -- hopefully -- summon enough resolve to keep going.I really like Pid, despite its faults. It routinely makes me feel smart and suave, and it manages its tone pitch-perfectly: sad without being maudlin, effectively capturing childhood without being mawkish or explicit. It’s plagued somewhat by a misunderstanding of its strengths, but when the design -- of its levels, its characters, its aesthetics -- comes together, it’s a beautiful little gem.Feel free to throw it at a wall.
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You're not welcome here, little guest
All mystery stories necessarily deal in misinformation, and Pid, the new puzzle-platformer from Swedish firm Might & Delight, is no different. It keeps its secrets well-hidden. There’s the climactic plot twist that ...

Review: Borderlands 2 'Captain Scarlett' DLC

Oct 16 // Joseph Leray
Borderlands 2: Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's BootyDeveloper: Gearbox Software, Triptych GamesPublisher: 2K GamesReleased: October 16, 2012MSRP: $9.99, 800 Microsoft Points After playing hours and hours in a positive feedback loop of murdering crazy people and taking their guns (so as to more easily kill more crazy people), it's interesting to see how Blade and Scarlett interact with their respective crews. The profits from the killing and looting and exploding and dismembering they do ostensibly goes to, say, buying fruit to prevent scurvy, paying wages, and mending ships. There's a tension between the pirates' relative open-handedness and the Vault Hunter's individualism, but Captain Scarlett stops at merely suggesting this thematic texture without dwelling on or exploring it: for better or worse, Borderlands is not a game about business or about feelings; it is a game about shooting. [embed]236841:45445[/embed] And in Oasis, you can do that from a sand skiff, and you can do it to a variety of different enemy faces. Exploding harpoon is my favorite version of new hovercraft introduced by the Captain Scarlett DLC, but you may be partial to saw blades or the more pedestrian rockets. Most of the new creeps are simply re-skinned bandits -- psychos become grogmasters, midgets become cabin boys and swabbies -- but there are a few quirky variations. Corsairs are pirates that can disappear and re-appear somewhere else (similar to Borderlands 2's stalkers), cursed pirates steal health with melee attacks, and harpooners can wreak havoc with your positioning by spearing your Vault Hunter and dragging him around the map. These aren't major revelations, but Borderlands' inherent repetition tends to highlight and exaggerate any nuance or shift in the core gameplay. These new types seem to represent minor changes to enemy design, but they stand out clearly against the game's standard goons. The game's themes and enemies feel new and interesting, but thoroughly within Borderlands' wheel house. This appropriation extends to the writing as well: Captain Scarlett does a great job bringing competent pirate genre fiction to life. This DLC is all mutinies and treasure maps and peg-legs, but it feels right. What Borderlands 2 does to Westerns, Captain Scarlett does to pirate adventure. True to form, the new hub town of Oasis is vast. The new characters and enemies make Captain Scarlett feel weighty on its own, but the sheer volume of space and content give the package a sprawling, languid feel. Part of this is just the raw time needed to complete the story and Borderlands' now-familiar filler quests, but it's also structural and environmental. Several Fast Travel and Catch-a-Ride stations dot numerous and varied landscapes, from the skanky Panama City Beach-like town of Oasis, to abandoned dockyards, to a Hyperion refinery. So much of Pandora feels frigid and cold -- Frostburn Canyon, the Tundra Express, the Fridge -- that it's nice to head to the beach for a change. Hayter's Folly, a subterranean grotto-cum-pirate-cove, stands out as the most evocative of Captain Scarlett's environs. As seamlessly as Captain Scarlett fits into Borderlands 2 proper, it's obvious to me that this was clearly designed to be post-game DLC. Quests, loot, and enemies of course scale to the current level of any wayward adventurers that stumble into Oasis (indeed, the town is immediately accessible from any Fast Travel station), but my advice is to nevertheless wait until you're finished with at least your first playthrough. Narratively, Captain Scarlett stands as a vignette or short story, independent of the travails of Handsome Jack, complete with its own chapter-numbering scheme. But the real case to be made for the delay is mechanical: jumping into a scaled-up Oasis at, say, level 20 like I did will drastically over-level your character once you resume the main quest. More interesting is the creepy vendor in Oasis that refuses to deal with you until you've obtained a Seraph Crystal. This new currency is, as far as I can tell, tied to the last, optional quest in Captain Scarlett, which is hard-locked to level 50. Being severely under-leveled, I haven't traded with the Bobbum Man, but some digging reveals a supposed pink weapon tier only available in Oasis. Captain Scarlett's end-game shenanigans notwithstanding, this remains a thorough and thoughtful addendum to Borderlands 2. It's funny and confident in its storytelling and presentation with enough variation in enemy design and mission structure to stand out against the enormous backdrop of the core game. Get to work.
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Dat loot
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, the writer of Borderlands 2, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] Borderlands has often been desc...

Nordic New Wave: Technology and the new social game

Apr 19 // Joseph Leray
[embed]226044:43438[/embed] In addition to studying interaction design as a Ph.D. candidate at the IT University of Copenhagen, Wilson co-owns the game studio Die Gute Fabrik and is the lead designer of Johann Sebastian Joust, which has been popping up in bars, arcades, and conventions since its birth at the 2011 Nordic Game Jam. J. S. Joust is a bare-bones, slow-motion game played with some sort of accelerometer controller -- it's usually played with a PlayStation Move wand, but was developed using a Wii Remote. A Mac client with Wilson's UniMove plugin plays a selection from Bach's Brandenburg concertos while the game monitors the controllers' movement. During the slow stanzas, each player's movement window is restricted -- if your controller shakes too much, you lose. In the faster stanzas, that window opens a bit wider, giving players a chance to knock, shove, or jostle their opponents out of the game. Hence, jousting. There is no screen. "Moving in slow motion, no matter what you're playing, is f*cking sweet," Wilson said during his Independent Games Summit presentation at this year's Game Developers Conference. "That really is the inspiration behind Joust. 'Let's make a game where we just f*cking move in slow motion.'" The real trick to Joust, though, is that it changes players' relationship with the technology behind it. The truth of the matter is that accelerometers have limited use in traditional gaming -- they lag or they're imprecise. "Despite all these promises and optimism, all of these technologies kind of sucking is the reality," he continued. "To me, that's awesome. It's precisely because these technologies suck that makes them really interesting and fun. Part of the key is to embrace the set of technological limitations rather than trying to fight them." Joust embraces the accelerometer's clunkiness and makes it a central mechanic -- not knowing exactly how much the Move can shake at a given moment adds tension and excitement -- rather than trying to compensate for it. The mechanics and the technology work perfectly together because the mechanics are the technology. It only works with accelerometer-based controls and a large group of people. The same thing that gives PlayStation and Wii developers fits is making Joust a huge success on the indie games circuit. [embed]226044:43437[/embed] Wilson's brand of do-it-yourself tinkering isn't limited to his own ideas, though -- he recently reconfigured Foddy's GIRP, a physics-based rock-climbing game, using four stitched-together Dance Dance Revolution pads. "It was actually originally an unauthorized project," says Foddy. The Copenhagen Game Collective, a group of Danish artists, academics, and game developers co-founded by Wilson, was partying on a boat when MegaGIRP was born. Foddy continues, "[Doug] hacked together a keyboard controller out of four DDR dance mats, so you could play it in front of a crowd, with the game projected on a screen. They told me about the idea on Twitter while they were working on it." The original GIRP assigns different letters to golden rings set into a rock face. When a letter is pressed on the keyboard, the nameless free climber grabs the ring and hoists himself up. The goal is to get as high as possible before the rising tide swallows you up. Like in Johann Sebastian Joust, there's an interplay between the technology and the mechanics of the game. "There is an important correspondence between the virtual cliff face and the flat control mat in MegaGIRP," Foddy explains. "But the real 1:1 correspondence comes from the use of your physical body rather than the technology." Playing MegaGIRP is a full-body experience, the dance pad having replaced the keyboard. "The reason nobody has made it more than halfway up the cliff so far is not that GIRP gets a lot harder as you progress," says Foddy. "It's that in MegaGIRP, you get too tired to go any further." Using the dance pad instead of the keyboard may have pushed MegaGIRP closer to "real" rock climbing, but it also invites other social possibilities -- it seems a little awkward to play, like Twister but more difficult. "I think it's crucial that you look a bit silly playing it, and you're constantly at risk of falling over," says Foddy. "That creates a sense of excitement for the onlookers. Also, the crowd tends to participate, yelling out advice or warnings." Given that it takes a large screen and projector to work, and that it's designed so that players can't always see the the action, it's virtually impossible to play MegaGIRP by yourself -- it requires at least one other person in the room with you but is at its best with a group of friends. If both Johann Sebastian Joust and MegaGIRP seem tailor-made for large events, it's because a growing number of independent games festivals and art collectives have been sprouting up like weeds. These are organized staging grounds for the types of physical experiences described by so-called "folk games," an expression Wilson used in his GDC presentation to describe his projects. "The Kokoromi and Babycastles events have been running for a while, but there's also Wild Rumpus in London, Juegos Rancheros in Austin, Prince of Arcade in Montreal, and a bunch of other, newer groups all around the world," Foddy tells me. "For these parties, it's all about social gaming (in the real sense, not the FarmVille sense), and so there is a call for games that can be enjoyed in a loud place by a large crowd of drunk people. "For games to work at these events, it helps if they are multiplayer games, but even the biggest multiplayer games can only be played by a subset of the people there," he continues. "So the games need to be fun to watch and big enough for a large crowd to see what's going on. And traditional videogame tech isn't really conducive to that." While many of these social games are rendered somewhat inaccessible by their size and scope, or limited to large events or one-off art installations, Doug Wilson and Bennett Foddy's approach to non-traditional tech isn't taking place in a vacuum. Wilson is determined to make Johann Sebastian Joust commercially available sometime this year, convinced that a few gyroscopes and a music API can bring friends together in a physical space in a way "social gaming" can't. Follow the conversation on Twitter at #IntelAlwaysOn.
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With support from our partner, Intel, we're exploring how technology is evolving and improving the gaming experience. The company's goal is to develop tools that, in the right hands, allow us to play new and exciting games. A...

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...


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