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Altum Videtur's blog

12:04 PM on 04.02.2012

10 Things You Didn't Know About Altum Videtur

So yesterday, bbain decided to try and start a super-neat list-off, reviving a 10-things-you-didn't-know-about-X trend that expired before my brief time here. The following is my attempt to blow a little harder on the rolling beach ball - I'd encourage you to pick it up and keep it going!

The following things are listed in no particular order; most of them are non-gaming related, chiefly because my habits and tastes are fairly pedestrian, so I hope that doesn't disqualify this from being interesting or anything

1. I learned an entire foreign language, and then forgot it.
When I was ~6 years old, my dad got a job offer way above his current pay grade. The catch? We were in the USA, and it was in Germany. So, he dragged us along to Deutschland for 2.5 years, and I had the distinct privilege of trying to integrate myself into a small-city German school, the inhabitants of which had no sympathy or patience for a kid that didn't understand a word anybody was saying. Despite what seemed like their best efforts to stop me, I managed to worm my way through a couple of grades, and shortly before we forced my father to find another job back in the States, I was able to speak the language as fluently as a native of my age. One German-free summer later, though, and I couldn't remember a thing. Even when I took German classes in high school as my foreign language, the only area in which I seemed to have an advantage was the accent - funny how that works.

2. Once upon a time, I was a die-hard, rabid Nintendo fanboy.
Even as early as the SNES, Nintendo was largely thought of as the one who made the "kiddie consoles;" my parents' consequent refusal to buy me anything else meant that while the other children were gawking at exploding zombie heads in Resident Evil and sniping each other's brains all over the walls in Halo, I was replaying Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario Sunshine again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and
Not that they're bad games, of course, but I had to stave off the jealousy and isolated despair somehow - and did so by convincing myself that everything anyone else has ever played is just bad, you know, and I've got the Nintendo console, which has all the real games and not your exploitative Grand Theft Autos and Devil May Crys. Soon, the acquisition of a gaming-capable PC introduced me to all the awesome I was missing, and an Xbox followed shortly afterwards - but those were some dark days.

3. Until quite recently, the only things in my entire (voluntary) literary history that were written after the 19th century were Harry Potter and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
My dear mother, being an English major herself, was one of the most instrumental forces driving me towards my present word-based inclinations. The downside: her primary interest is in 18th & 19th century British literature, so as soon as I was capable, I was getting nothing but large doses of Dickens, Austen, Bronte (& Bronte), etc. - the observant reader can see how the era's crippling fear of periods has seeped its way into my own writing style. Only after the acquisition of my shiny new Android smartphone and its handy-dandy Kindle app did I have the means and the inclination to branch out into more modern works, discovering super-fun modern writers like Terry Pratchett and David Foster Wallace.

4. I was diagnosed from an early age with a social disorder.
Like, for-real professionals ushering me through a bunch of tests and speaking solemnly to my parents when they think I'm out of earshot diagnosis, not "well an online survey said" diagnosis. I admittedly feel a bit hesitant about including this, but it's been such a major influence on virtually every aspect of my life that I feel mentioning it is unavoidable. They call it PDD-NOS, which from what I understand is the medical term for "look, man, we got nothin'." What it essentially means is that I'm unable to grasp a number of "intuitive" social things that the neurotypical person finds second nature. Example: You know the "awkward" feeling? Where someone says or does something that makes you bite your lower lip, glance upwards, and go silent? I don't. I've had to "memorize" how each thing I or another person could possibly say or do provokes a certain response as if it were another page in my mathematics textbook, and either restrain myself or fake the appropriate reaction as is necessary. This becomes particularly troublesome with nonverbal language - a major reason why I've gravitated toward the written word as my preferred form of expression and communication.

5. My username is deriding a dead language about which I know almost nothing.
Speaking of languages: "Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur" is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to "Anything said in Latin seems profound." When I was thinking about what to call myself, I wanted something that was 1. meaningful 2. not "tied" to any one product (i.e. not from a game or movie) 3. not too self-important and pretentious. The above fits #2 straight-on, contains meaning (as opposed to "[MLG] xXx_420SnYp3rTyL3R420_xXx"), and attacks its own self-important and pretentious connotation in a playfully ironic way. That, of course, is probably self-important and pretentious in and of itself, but since I literally don't know a single other thing in Latin (beyond a few English roots), I think it balances out.

6. I have an irrational discomfort toward providing information about myself.
Yeah, it's an odd thing to say in the middle of a blog post dedicated to doing precisely that - but due to #4, another two of the things I was unable to comprehend were bragging (I couldn't distinguish it from simply informing) and knowing when to stop giving and start taking in a conversation. To compensate, I ceased doing either; a countermeasure which prevented me from being ridiculed and derided, but made approaching and communicating meaningfully with others that much more difficult. It's why I passed on doing an introductory blog when I started posting here - I felt (and still feel) that things like my name, face, and so on are irrelevant toward my purpose of stringing words about games together at least once a week. Hell, unless I'm forgetting something, I don't even think I've mentioned my gender yet (the gentleman in my avatar is not me, clearly.) This kind of article is good practice toward overcoming that, though - and being careful with my personal information online has arguably done more good than harm.

7. I do some amateur music composition in my spare time.
And by amateur, I mean baby-level half-assed I-sure-hope-nobody-ever-sees-this amateur. Nothing I'm working on is finished and even less of it is good, but it's a fun little hobby - if I'm enjoying myself, it's worth it, right? Having been closely attached to an excellent band program throughout grade school, I please-oh-please-I-want-it-so-bad-please-please-d my parents into buying a composition program called Finale several years ago, and to this day, I still use it to dick around with things that I guess fall into the "classical" genre (orchestra, big band, woodwind quintet, piano, etc.), although in the crazy rules-and-standards-are-for-jerks modern sense. With virtually no knowledge of theory beyond basic basic chord structure, I'm unable to do anything but translate whatever pops into my head on paper (which happens about twice a season) - but maybe one day I'll finally wrap something up and post it on the Cblogs!

8. Despite this, I very rarely find myself listening to music.
Outside of using the radio for longer car-trips, I never really have the desire to listen to anything - one reason, I believe, is because I can "play back" any songs on my mind that I want in my own head; something I had initially assumed everyone could do, but later found out was apparently something of an acquired skill. More strongly and somewhat more interestingly, though, simply listening to music either bores me or distracts me - either the piece is too repetitive and simple to engage me, or (if it's not) I'm too busy trying to hear every individual note and color, identify every new incarnation of the melody, and so on; I have a very difficult time just putting music in the background. Unless I specifically plan and dedicate time to examine something closely, the vast majority of my days go by without me coming into contact with a single external source of music - not including whatever's going on with a game I might be playing, of course.

9. I don't use any kind of social media.
Seeing a pattern here? I signed up on Facebook several months ago under immense pressure from a couple of friends, and within a week, I'd completely forgotten about it. I already had other ways of keeping up with anybody who I felt was worth keeping up with, and every other aspect of the experience seemed to consist of people I've never spoken to trying to add me as a friend and lots of passive-aggressive drama I wanted no part in. I closed the account about a month after I'd opened it - again, the name and the face and the etc. lying about in the open internet caused me much more discomfort than the few paltry conveniences were worth. I have been thinking about hopping on Twitter some day in the future under this alias, but with precious few people to follow me, it doesn't seem like the right time.

10. I want to work for video games too !! !
There are a couple of reasons for me deciding to latch onto Dtoid as my next community, but quite honestly, this is the "real" one. The only thing I like more than words is video gaming, and the possibility of fusing the two into some manner of career, whether it's writing for or about the medium, is the very definition of "dream job." Will it happen? Who knows - but the Cblogs keep me writing and keep me reading, challenging me to not only find interesting sub-topics but present them in an entertaining fashion. That, and they provide a portal into a really-neat group of really-neat people - something which continues to become more valuable every day.   read

12:07 AM on 03.15.2012

How About a Mass Effect 3 Article with No Ending Controversy (Spoiler-free!)

Quick panic-edit: I wouldn't consider anything below even approaching spoilers, hence the title; however, I cannot guarantee that you are not the kind of person who would consider "Rico kills some bugs" as a bite of information that completely ruins Starship Troopers, so if you don't want to take my word for it then read at your own risk and I cannot be considered liable for etc.

So, by now, you've probably seen the ending to Mass Effect 3.

Fortunately, I'll be doing my utmost to stay far, far away from that topic - instead, I want to go a bit more general and write about why the third installment of Bioware's space-epic whipped me me into its little space-bitch, and why I'm incredibly happy it managed to do so.

You see, this is actually my fifth pass at writing an article about my Mass Effect 3 experience. When I finished the game on Friday (having stayed up until 6 AM, of course), I was subsisting purely on the unstable vibrations of a two-hour adrenaline rush, brought on as much by fatigue as by what I'll be trying to describe below. My feelings were an appropriately twisted and contorted jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions, so I stumbled into bed without changing clothes and hoped to sort it out over 10 hours of sleep and the mid-afternoon breakfast-lunch compensation to end all meals.

13 hours and 5 pounds later, I'm here at my computer, fingers poised over the keys, mind racing, tongue quivering, emotions storming, eyes blinking at wind velocities, staring at a blank word processor and writing absolutely nothing. For what I'm pretty convinced is the very first time in my entire life as a gamer, I'm unable to form any kind of conclusive opinion on a game. So I write "I don't know what to think." I erase it. I write "When playing Mass Effect 3 I..." and then erase it. Okay, screw this. More sleep, try again tomorrow.

Academically, there's not much ambiguity. In a typical review analysis, I'd remark how the combat and progression strikes the sweet spot between the first two games, providing plenty of excitement, depth, and challenge; I'd say how the writing continues to strike eight hits for every miss, compelling me to care about the game's many characters and their uncertain fates; I'd note that, except for a certain 10 minutes I've promised not to mention, the story successfully and satisfyingly ties up all three games' worth of dangling, variable plot threads in a neat little ribbon. Incredible game, would recommend, neat/10, generational landmark, monumental achievement, etc., etc.

So, thought I, once again meeting the blank, indifferent glow of my monitor with an equally vapid stare, why the tits do I keep impulsively backspacing every time I try to say so? I tried to think about the moments I remembered most. A picture of me lifting bad guys out of cover and flinging them cartwheeling into the skybox as I danced my squishy Adept between and around hostile projectiles emerged, and then sunk just as quickly. It was replaced by moments. Story moments. These moments triggered emotions. "Bad" emotions. This scared me.

I've experienced the "OH YEAH MAN WE'RE GONNA F**K SOME SHIT UP" feeling before. This is not of note. I've bro-fisted the screen before. This is not of note. What I haven't done - and I mean this quite literally, as in "have never ever" - is been pissed at a fictional character for their fictional actions. I've been mad at writers for being jerks to their characters, sure, but (to try and avoid spoilers), when given the option to punch a supposed ally in the gut and order him/her/it/etc. the hell off my ship when he/she/it/etc. does something not very nice, I did so, in complete and total violation of my character's (and, as I like to play and would like to think, my) better judgment and usual manner.

I didn't do it because I wanted evil points, or because I'd thought I'd divined what'd happen shortly down the plotline, or because I'm one of those people who hits all the interrupts (you know the type). I did it because I wanted to. Once again, this has not happened in a game (or a book or an etc.) before, but the significance did not strike me until after I had spent several days distancing and detaching myself from Mass Effect 3's universe. Similar occasions - feelings of immense frustration, loss, hopelessness - began to pop into my memory as I half-consciously began to make words appear on the page. That adrenaline rush I mentioned earlier? That kicked up and into full swing as the game's final mission kicked off, triggering an imperfect but powerful marbling of complex and conflicting emotions which spiraled across my mind, filling the deep void left by the fact that I had no f***king idea what was about to happen..

I could die. Everyone I'd met could die. Things could go well, and we're better off than we were, but I can clearly and distinctly see all of my efforts marching the galaxy straight down the proverbial U-bend. And - this is the kicker - I cared. I've felt the rush of excitement as Luke runs the Death Star's trenches; I've held my breath in anxious anticipation as Frodo tumbles around the narrow precipice of Mt. Doom; but never in my life has a work of fiction not only compelled me to feel tense about "how it could go wrong," but also made me purely, genuinely, 100% afraid that I would lose people. Liara's immense information-based power is no longer applicable. Joker's prodigious plot armor could finally snap. Thousands of guns (along with my Shepard's vagina) may never see another Garrus-certified calibration.

Asking myself why this only happened now and not during Mass Effect 2's caps-requiring Suicide Mission, I guessed it was some combination of the stronger central narrative, the extra 20 hours of character development, and the fact that this really, really is the end, and continue to believe so; but the point stands that I felt things - real, tangible, complex emotions - which no creative work on the planet or beyond has ever been able to coax out of me. Dig further, and the reasons are not unclear - were I to break each Mass Effect entry down and scrutinize every aspect of its making, of course I'll spot cracks and bumps and a good few big gaping holes; but panning the camera back to the cohesive whole, all I notice is the incredible and colossal scale and ambition on display - and, perhaps more importantly, its variability.

I'm not going to tell you what my Shepard was like, or what she did and chose. You don't care. I don't care about yours, either, and, along with old-fashioned good writing and character development, that's the better half of why my for-real hands were for-real shaking over the potential fates of these not-for-real individuals. I am far from the first to note how the 1,000+ variables that Mass Effect 3 takes into account, whether as massive as a character who could've been dead for 2.5 games or as subtle as a single word in a single line of dialogue, amplified across what is now almost 70 hours and 3 complete narrative arcs, shape and color my playthrough in a way that's unprecedented in gaming and irreplicable in any other kind of media. But I will be far from the last.

During the next two days in which I tried and failed to put my thoughts into words, I didn't feel happy. The game dominated my mind - I was constantly distracted, trying to process my feelings. It wasn't dissatisfaction; it wasn't anger. I had no clue what I felt, except that I was convinced I could never go back and play Mass Effect 3 again. Doing another playthrough but picking different choices would amount to little more than an academic exercise, in which I play against my "true self" for the sake of measuring differences.

As the new week opened, I began to recognize the emotions as sadness and melancholy - my personal journey is over, and I can never experience it like that again. When I read a book, or watch a movie, or even play the average game, I am getting the "same" thing as everybody else who did likewise. Interpretations may differ, but the world and story remains there, like a photograph I can revisit. While, from a technical standpoint, Mass Effect is no different, my mind treats it as if I'd lived it; as if it is not merely a record, but an organic memory. However illusionary such an effect may be, it is still profound and unique - no work of fiction has affected me as deeply in as many ways, and even with decades of potential in video gaming, I'm not entirely convinced anything ever will again.

And yet, at this moment, I am currently 16 hours into my second run of Mass Effect 3. I didn't punch that person in the gut this time.   read

10:12 PM on 03.09.2012

Holy f**k-tits, why did I take so long to get around to playing Cave Story

Since I'm still trying to figure out just what the hell these feelings I've walked away from Mass Effect 3 with are, it'll be a short blog this week. I bought the last Humble Indie Bundle some time ago, but somehow just noticed the little entry called "Cave Story+" sitting on my Steam list a short couple of days ago. I'd always meant to play it, having read glowing reviews of the WiiWare version upon its release, but it always slid back into that huge indie-game-pool of "oh I'll get around to it some time." Oh, man, do I regret putting it there.

The "story" half of Cave Story had an intriguing way of sneaking up on me. I begin in a room called "Start Point," which leads me into another room called "First Cave." Proceeding a short distance downward, I pass a few obstacles, obtain a weapon and then go back up. I interpret this as a conventional but well-executed "natural" tutorial, familiarizing and acclimating me with game's rules and structure; I thus expect the game's draw and progression to be Metroidvania-like, with stages labeled and ordered as "caves," and some light, harmless plot sprinkled across the surface. Oh, cute bunny-people - yeah, that seems about right. I assume the increasing volume of words is merely some oddly-paced exposition.

Then somebody drops the word "killed," and things start to get dark.

Being a huge sucker for games with good stories and presentation, I can't say I'm surprised at how quickly and easily Cave Story drew me in, as I booted it up having read about how I'd receive just that - but there's something about a game that eschews those "surprises" and radical genre shake-ups for rock-solid design and a compelling yarn that flips on all kinds of otherwise rusty happy-switches in my mind. There's a comforting feeling about slotting into this kind of title; one that has its unique little moments but whose greatest strengths lie in taking familiar concepts and executing them to perfection.

Sure, its world isn't nearly as sprawling and labyrinthine as a Metroid map, being separated into a handful of discrete segments with only a few booster power-ups to complement the prescribed sequence of new weapons and abilities, but exploration isn't its focus - Cave Story is a much more driven game, carried along by the constant forward momentum supplied by its focused plot. It nails both the moment-to-moment gameplay bites and the all the various curves and flowing shapes that comprise the big-picture pacing - soaring over a long gap by using the recoil of my own machine gun is a thing of beauty, and only once (when I had to collect a bunch of dogs) did I find myself edging towards disengagement.

It's a game which doesn't need to do something big and flashy to prove itself - unlike many titles, my memory of it is more constant and fluid, built off feelings and generalizations rather than specific moments. The wow-factor that is ordinarily triggered by a huge set piece or head-bending plot twist is instead diffused across the entire experience - sure, it had its "oh crap" moments, but for the most part, my pleasure and satisfaction came almost by-the-minute. Nearly every area was filled with little instances which caused me to think, "neat;" here's a character! Here's a new weapon! Here's what that weapon does when you level it up! Here's a new plot development! Here's a new area! Check out this awesome music! Look at Balrog's adorable toaster-buttcrack!

Since it's 1. freeware and 2. dirt-cheap when it's not, I doubt anybody who clicked on this blog hasn't already played Cave Story, so it's probably time for me to stop preaching to the chiptune-choir; but, in the unlikely event you've yet to discover this little modern classic, go. Play it. It defies criticism - the only one I could possibly throw at it would be a lack of depth in its mechanics, but I'm more convinced that such simplicity is the point. In this age of blockbuster, multi-million dollar extravaganzas, a retro-infused masterwork like Cave Story is the best kind of antidote - worth every minute of its five-year development.


3:58 PM on 03.04.2012

Cblog Analytics - February 2012

As someone who likes to think they could be classified as a "writer" (if only under the broad definition of "somebody who writes,") I honestly believe that the only situation worse than not being able to write is not being able to write anything good - but even still, four weeks of blog-abstinence is a little much for me, so I'll try and sidestep the issue by addressing a little question I had mid-month: daily recaps are super-handy, but what does the Destructoid Cblog community's output really look like over a long period of time?

In answer, I present to you this experimental and (hopefully) inaugural edition of "Cblog Analytics," in which I comb carefully and lovingly through the month's expressions, exclamations, examinations, expoundings, and excretions for precious numerical data to compile, calculate, and serve hot & fresh in a simple and straightforward format.

For this month, I'm relying on the tried and tested method of scrolling down the blog index and counting things by hand, so it is entirely possible there are inaccuracies present in this data; I have also omitted a couple of planned stats, which include but are not limited to "new bloggers" and "longest blog." Going forward (and assuming this is a thing you guys would want to see more of), I'll be noting and tracking data on a day-to-day basis so that, come month's end, I'll be able to include some deeper things, along with more visual supplements - and, of course, if there's any other information you'd like to see for March, post it in the comments!


But that's enough introduction. Let's go:

A total of 505 blogs were posted this month!

The most-blogged day was Tuesday the 14th, with 26 blogs!
-Which happened to be Valentine's Day! Guess love (or lack thereof) really does perk up the collective muse

The least-blogged day was Sunday the 18th, with 8 blogs!

On average, there were about 17 blogs a day!
-A simple trend-line on the graph below indicates a fairly minute drop across the month, and a quick glance at the per-day data does confirm that more days were hitting the 20-blog count earlier in the month than later - perhaps the "freshness" of the month prompts Dtoiders to lay their pens to the digital paper, as it were?

The most popular Bloggers Wanted topics were Improvement and Endings, both prompting 24 blogs each!
-I would say "everyone's a critic," but that'd be a cliché, so, instead, I'll cleverly avoid that trap by noting that saying "everyone's a critic" would be a cliché. Rhetoric! However, most of the people speaking of game endings talked about their favorites, so perhaps negativity isn't the easiest fuel for writing after all

The least popular Bloggers Wanted topic was Beginnings, prompting 12 blogs!
-A personal note: I literally cannot recall a moment in my life where I was not immersed in gaming, nor a moment where, after subsisting with mild and casual play, I suddenly realized, " VIDEO GAMES," and then invested myself fully into the medium. Were I to guess, I'd say this phenomenon contributed toward the topic's lack of attention

In total, 77 blogs were written under a Bloggers Wanted prompt! That's about 15.25% of the month's blogs, or a little over 3 out of every 20!

The flavor of the month was Mass Effect, which was written about 15 times!
-When you look above at there being 505 blogs, having 15 be the largest number centered around a relatively narrow topic seems a bit odd - but I guess it just highlights the staggering diversity both in video gaming as a medium and in the thoughts, interests, and experiences of the Destructoid community. Runner-ups were the Resident Evil, the PS Vita's release, and the eternal back-and-forth on used games, piracy, and DRM

*Less than 5 blogs per unique topic

The sluttiest blog (most faps) was A Compulsive Collector's Haul - JAP & PAL Edition! (I HATH RETURNED!), by Funktastic, with 40 faps!

It was also the most commented blog, with 39 comments!

The shortest blog was Delete, by nabokovfan87, which consisted of the following text:
"Seriously DToid... I can't delete a blog?"
-Another blog (0gaddsaf, by Justin Annett) consists merely of the text "0," but, judging by the comments, there used to be words there, so I'm discounting it

The most prolific blogger was StealthMaster, who pumped out 12 blogs (that's an average of 3 per week!)



-Cblog Recaps are not counted, but all other serials (like FNF) are, under the rationale that serials still exist for the purpose of "creating" content under a certain topic or theme, while the Recaps merely seek to sort and organize the day's blogs

-For the Bloggers Wanted stats, I begin with the first week in which a day of the month appears and end with the last full week of the month, assuming the week begins on Monday and ends on Sunday

-For the flavor of the month, I do not count Bloggers Wanted topics, but the blogs themselves are factored in

-There is still some inherent subjectivity in deciding what constitutes a "unique topic," so keep that in mind if there seems like there's some obvious category that I've ignored (although feel free to tell me)

-For shortest blog, entries whose primary content consists of 1. pictures or 2. links are not considered

-Statistics are not intended to impart any kind of judgment or opinion in and of themselves - If I have any personal thoughts, they are noted below each statistic   read

12:53 AM on 01.28.2012

Location: Darkest Africa

Well, now that I've done a bunch of soapbox-y, preach-y three-pagers, how about a nice, short, soapbox-y preach-y segment with lots of pictures? I was tempted do do this entry on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but having already spent my biomechanical energy on the Sarif piece, I figured it'd be better to revisit a game that's not quite as recent.

Oh, how many words I could extract out of Far Cry 2. I never seem to hear it spoken of kindly; people (rightfully) tend to recall the sparse narrative that, like a horrible boyfriend, opens up with a bang, but shows up again only once or twice, stumbling around drunkenly for a bit before rushing through the obligatory motions and hastily bowing out the door; they can only seem to remember the bloodthirsty roaming guards, who would DROP EVERYTHING to chase you to the ends of the earth, even especially when you were working for them; they always mention its painfully repetitive missions, which only break up the identical go-here-kill-this jobs by inserting identical go-here-get-pills tasks in between.

And yet, Missed Potential: The Game remains one of my favorite games of 2008, second only to Fallout 3 and the incredible Grand Theft Auto IV, thanks to the very thing in this blog's title: Location. Far Cry 2 positively nails it when it comes to setting, from the mosquito buzzing across the main menu to the torrid sunlight dancing across the lush savannah grass to the half-naked mercenary rolling on the ground, crying in Afrikaans for somebody to put out the wild flames that have engulfed him and the fifteen square meters around him. Nothing in the game - neither the increasingly-grimy weapons and vehicles that require continued maintenance, nor the fiddle and drum-laced soundtrack, nor the rough map and fuzzy GPS, nor the minimalistic UI - escapes without being run through its blood-and-coffee-colored filter.

Oh and fire, don't forget fire

I hate to drop the word "immersion," since it makes me sound like a lesser order of hipster trying to convince you why my preferences are so superior in ways you just can't understand, man, but there's simply no better term to use. It's rare enough that we see games with the kind of pervasive thematic consistency that courses through every micron of their presentation, but Far Cry 2 coats it all in a slick, tight layer of AAA polish that elevates it above something like, say, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whose rough frays and edges continually poke outside the suspension of disbelief, popping the fragile bubble in which the game tries so hard to encapsulate me. Far Cry 2's repetition definitely is tiresome and its hyper-aggressive inhabitants are indeed infuriating, but - crucially - my frustration with them rarely pulls me out of the dark and twisted world its designers have crafted.

I could drone on and on and on about this, but my insistence on providing due reverence would stifle any entertaining witticisms I could provide just as much as it would bore you to death; so, instead, I'll go and take a few in-game shots and annotate them - somewhat in the spirit of an expedition to a foreign land, you could say.

While the grand vistas are certainly impressive...

The details are even more important. Little things like the player's arm stretching out to grab some ammo...

...and the visceral intimacy of plunging your machete into a wounded enemy stack up, enhancing the player's sense of physical place in the world despite not being immediately apparent.

This is a zebra. Gameplay-wise, its contributions are insignificant - it will run when I approach it and fall over when I shoot it or hit it with my car, and nothing else. From an aesthetic standpoint, though, it's another out of the dozens of elements that serve to make Far Cry 2's Africa so singularly believable and (here I go again) immersive.

Look and sound isn't everything. The brutal and satisfying gunplay is an element that does not so much add to Far Cry 2's locational coherence as it prevents a subtraction - were the shooting anything but great, any clunkiness, floatiness, or other failing would instantly tear me "out of the game."

Similarly, the sense of freedom provided by the open-ended nature of the missions furthers the impression that the game's environment is a living, reactive place, rather than a static, artificial gallery.

The tension in the cease-fire zones is palpable - everybody has a gun and nobody likes you.

The sense that a firefight could erupt at any second is made even stronger by little taunts thrown your way - "We both know you ain't gonna do shit" when you point your pistol at somebody, for instance.

The fire propagation system possesses an interesting duality - it serves to both show how fragile Far Cry 2's natural world is, highlighting the wanton barbarism of its warring factions...

...while, thanks to its tendency to also engulf you, serves to emphasize the cruel, unforgiving themes at the heart of the game's design. Oh, and if you'll let me take off my elitism hat for a second - it's also f*cking awesome.

And really, that's what makes Far Cry 2's setting so impressive to me - it can at any time (and sometimes simultaneously) be beautiful, detailed, and alluring; expansive, indifferent, and living; cruel, merciless, and overpowering; and, most of all, absorbing, captivating, and - one last time - immersive. Location doesn't get much better than that.   read

12:25 AM on 01.20.2012

Bigger, Longer, also Harder - A Counter-Case for Longer Games

Oh my, those last two bits I've written were awfully dry, weren't they? I mean, this is still going to be a totally srs blog about totally srs things - I'm completely starved for good topics and then a blog gets written and I don't agree with some parts and that's totally not how it works and my god I can't just let this sit here and THESE WRONGS MUST BE RIGHTED - but I'll try my best. A dick joke in the title's a good a start as any, right? (As this post is a direct response to the blog linked below, I'll assume you've glanced over that article's finer points, or maybe even read the whole thing if you're a super cool person)

I'm honestly a bit hesitant to strap on my high-brow argue-boots and stomp around the well-worn "what game length is best length" Astroturf, making only a few more insignificant marks among the hundreds of much more comprehensive and well-stated opinion-prints, but as much as I may want to issue a bunch of half-hearted excuse-mes and I-know-you've-heard-this-before acknowledgements in what is no way a means to try and not write a proper intro paragraph, I can't help but lay down the wholly subjective law on something as crucially fundamental to game design as the amount of time a player is intended to be enraptured in front of the glowing screen. Fortunately, kona, in his nice little essay on this very subject, has given me a wonderful set of points to counter and work off of, making the part where I organize my thoughts much simpler and straightforward. Thanks, man!

As noted, games these days do seem to be a lot shorter than in the past. As noted, a significant contributor to this trend is how much useless, redundant, cumbersome, and/or repetitive ass-poo is being excised as our standards rise and our technology advances. As noted, game designer's continuing insistence on aping Hollywood narrative structure necessitates more truncated campaigns in order to better serve the story's pace. This is fine. "Length" in and of itself means little when that extra time is spent trudging through identical corridors and hobbling back and forth across the same barren, static landscape - "filler," as it is often referred to in modern parlance.

What grabbed my attention, though, was this little sentence - "Quite simply, if games are to truly make the next step and finally offer up our 'Citizen Kane,' there needs to be more care put into storytelling." I could write a whole article on this notion - I probably will on another slow week - but the next assertion, detailing how shorter games would more easily accomplish this, I just can't accept. The thing about Citizen Kane - why film critics adore it as frequently and vigorously as young viewers (like myself) wonder what the hoopla is for - is that it's not simply a good story, but that it's a brilliant film, taking advantage of the medium's unique qualities to craft a means of portraying Kane's meteoric rise and decaying soul that you simply can't do any other way.

Pictured: Another timeless, evocative masterpiece of film, for what are many of the same reasons, I assure you

If a video game is going to achieve that same significance, it can't be content with plucking out and flash-cloning the same kind of storytelling methods; it has to present its narrative - if the best way of doing what it wants to do even falls under the category of narrative in the first place - in a way unique to its own qualities of interactivity. Restricting itself to a shorter structure simply because that's what movies do, and movies are, you know, pretty good sometimes, can only stifle, if not completely prevent, that kind of achievement.

The fact that movies are (or perhaps were, depending on your perspective) the primary form of entertainment for gobbling up all our hard-earned free time, on top of being the second most advanced form of visual media, is likely the reason why we can't stop getting away from the need to do what they do, but there's a little something else I'd like to divert your (probably already-wavering I'm sorry man I'm trying) attention to, and that's the humble "book" - feel free to look it up on Wikipedia if the term's unfamiliar. There are some that you can boldly charge through in a couple of hours' time, but for the most part, if you're one of the six or seven people left on the planet who reads with regularity, you're going to eat up a few chapters, put it down, come back later, consume some more, etc. Sound familiar? Just as a novel's length does not preclude it from "hav[ing] some decent character arcs," the same applies to the video game.

Perhaps what seems like a growing impatience for lots of words on a page has some relevance; the CNN article kona cited indicates that gamer attention spans are horrid at best and shamefully abysmal at worst, informing us that that only 10% of ~23 million players finished 2010's quite lengthy (and quite excellent) Red Dead Redemption. And yet, while he attributes the blame to developers who don't know how to focus their storylines, I can't help but feel a good bit of it simply falls to people's inability to stick with and finish something that's not movie-length, be it a video game or something completely different. Should, then, developers chop off the ends and move toward shorter narratives simply because that's what 80-90% of gamers don't have the time or patience to become so absorbed? I can't think for a moment that such a thing is a good idea; it'd be an arbitrary limit borne solely out of monetary and market concerns, which are two things that (for a pretentiously elitist snob like me) need to stay far, far away from developers' creative direction unless absolutely necessary.

Two of Metroid Prime's biggest strengths are how its world slowly opens and expands as you grow and evolve and the sense of personal presence and consequence - something its relative length actually augments

Then there's this little bit - it's mentioned that older games used to be harder, and were thus "lengthier" not because they were filled with more content (however repetitive and bland) but because when you played one of those games, you died. A lot. In many ways. Then you ran out of lives, and then you had to start the whole level -if not the whole game - over from the beginning. Difficulty is an equally important and fundamental limb of a game's anatomy that I'll try not to lovingly caress and dissect in this piece, but the go-miss-restart-go-miss-restart-go-miss-restart-oh-suck-it-game mentality has faded away because it's an incredibly frustrating way to play a game; a tenacious little leech of a hold-over from the arcade days where the objective of the designer was to prevent you from finishing it so you'd feed the machine more coins and allow the greasy pizza shop owner to buy himself a prostitute and a new bottle of shampoo. In a time where challenge was quite literally the only incentive to continually play a game, that was okay; but in this modern era, when developers actually want a person to experience everything their game has to offer, intense difficulty (primarily as a means of extending a game's length, that is) is a design choice equally as lazy and artificial as tossing in four context-less fetch quests in a game's second act.

Kona concedes in the last paragraph that the Skyrims and Mass Effects are fine and deserve their place, and likewise, there are plenty of people who take the very things I've lamented above and make shining gems out of them, from Uncharted's captivating nods to adventure films to Super Meat Boy's gleeful delight in making the player hate everyone and everything around them, but thing about each of these games is that they don't really seem to think about length. They know what they're doing, and they do just that, adding as much as they need - no more, certainly, but also no less. VVVVVV, agonizingly frustrating as it may be, remains engrossing not because it makes me want to punch several holes through my monitor, take a sledgehammer to my computer, burn all the little pieces in molten lava, and then buy another so I can do the same thing all over again, but because it's varied and creative level design means I'm constantly encountering new surprises and twists on its simple base mechanics. Portal kicks butt despite its short length because it chooses to feature only two (okay, three and a half) characters and deliver them over a focused arc, while Red Dead Redemption, mentioned above, includes loads and loads of colorful individuals, painting a narrative tapestry that's necessarily longer but all the more detailed and captivating for it. Neither is wrong, and neither is right; neither is the "way" to do it, and neither is the "way" not to do it.

And yet, writing off these longer games either because the majority of people don't have the time or patience or because of some rose-tinted longing for the past is, I say again, a painfully arbitrary and stifling limit on the creative potential of the medium. Imagine what'd happen if they tried cutting out more from the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings because movies aren't "supposed" to be two and a half hours long. Madness.

(Okay, yeah, you could've gotten rid of Aragon's elf lady; seriously what was that all about)   read

5:01 PM on 01.10.2012

What I Want in 2012: Bioshock Infinite

So I see the week's question and immediately go "holy crap I can actually write about that," but before I can finish my second paragraph, somebody's already posted an entry on Bioshock Infinite. Curses! With my usually-disarrayed thoughts already whipped into a coherent form and my typing neurons already warmed up, though, I figured I might as well go ahead, since the backup option would've just been a two page long Half-Life 2: Episode 3 joke.

Ordinarily, this first paragraph would be the part where I'd explain 2007's Bioshock to the potentially unfamiliar, but if you're not already aware of Irrational's masterpiece, you're missing out on one of the most singularly intelligent, compelling, memorable, unique, gorgeous, haunting, thoughtful, and intensely entertaining experiences in gaming - one that's among my top picks for best game of this console generation. So, instead, I'll do that thing where I tell those sadly deprived individuals to go and play it while the rest of us wait.


For me, Bioshock stands tall as, quite possibly, the most complete representation of all the different factors that make video games so goddamn awesome. The shooting is tight and varied, mixing with the delightfully satisfying and visceral Plasmid powers to form a beautifully intertwined, constantly developing system that keeps on giving and never gets old. The art direction and sound design find the sweetest of spots between Art Deco, 50's American culture, dystopic steampunk, and good-old-fashioned bump-in-the-dark horror influences, creating a setting that's as original and engrossing as it is nostalgic and unsettling. The writing and acting, despite being presented almost entirely through grainy audio-logs, constructs complex and relatable figures, giving us one of gaming's most powerfully tragic figures in the form of the impossibly willful Andrew Ryan. And, to top it off, the entire thing is presented from an (almost - that ending, man) unbroken first-person view, creating the sense of personal presence in its captivating world that you simply can't replicate in any other kind of media - along with an illusion of choice it gleefully deconstructs.

Its premature (though brilliant) climax leaves the third act wanting and the balancing can get a bit wonky, but with everything else in Bioshock feeling so completely, cohesively right, where do you go? How do you improve? I wasn't sure a significant leap was possible, and the good-but-underwhelming sequel by 2K Marin merely solidified that belief. But then my monthly issue of Game Informer (hey don't be hatin' it's a good magazine) landed in the mail, and its freshly laminated pages held all the answers.

One look and you instantly know what the game's setting is like. That's impressive stuff, man

Yes, it has a gorgeously twisted, sci-fi-infused take on a major waypoint in the American cultural zeitgeist, this time selecting the imperialistic self-aggrandization of the early 1900s. Yes, it features a devilishly entertaining-looking combination of supernatural powers and shooting goodness, spiced up with its new world-altering, interdimensional "tears." Yes, it indulges in heady themes, using its crumbling dystopia to communicate the destructive potential of ideological binarity and the need to let those we love grow up and flourish on their own. But the things that really excite me about Bioshock Infinite aren't those which Irrational has already proven its mastery of in the first Bioshock - it's the uncharted territory they're exploring, and all the riches and dangers that lie within.

The "Skylines" that let you zip across the floating city of Columbia look like both a super-sweet gameplay mechanic and a hugely impressive technical feat; bringing the kind of fast-paced freedom of movement you'd usually only see in a Tribes CTF match to Bioshock's more cerebral style seems counterintuitive at first, but, if done well (and if the E3 demo is at all indicative, it definitely is), the role of movement and positioning could be amplified to become a central piece of the tactical puzzle, further diversifying what already looks to be a well-rounded package. Combined with the aforementioned "tears," Infinite's gameplay has the potential to completely sidestep the complacency issue, constantly offering new and exciting reasons to mix up one's approach.

This could be you!

At the same time, the demos we've seen haven't really given a good indication of how free the game's level design is. If it's going to adhere to a similar layout as Bioshock, presenting a handful of largely open environments connected in a linear sequence, I have to wonder how they're going to "close off" each area from Skyline access until it's time to go there. The sense of freedom the mechanic offers would dissolve the instant you run into some obstacle (no matter how well-contrived) that prevents you from landing on a perfectly healthy piece of land simply because the story says you shouldn't be there yet. On the other hand, were Infinite to choose an open-world approach, I have to wonder how they can keep the narrative pace flowing smoothly while staving off the feeling of artificial emptiness we saw in last year's L.A. Noire and Mafia II, whose faux-sandboxes arguably negated any advantage they would otherwise have over a more linear model.

Similarly concerning to me is Irrational's choice to go with a voice for Booker DeWitt, the player character and protagonist. While I find that this tends to be a more subjective thing, the unique advantages to going with the unbroken first-person perspective - specifically, the transparency between the player and the world, and the consequent potential for increased immersion and personal investment on a non-mechanical level - simply aren't conducive to the necessary depth and complexity required for a well-written protagonist. Having the player character say anything instantly yanks me out of that feeling that I am the one in the story, instead reminding me that I'm just a puppeteer - it feels like the protagonist is getting in my way, saying things I don't think and pushing me out of my own personal place in the story, unlike a third-person game, where I begin and end the experience having never really been in anybody's role (which is fine.)

He may be ruggedly handsome, but he's not me, and that can pose problems in a narrative-heavy FPS

On the other hand, if there's anybody who can pull it off, it's probably Ken Levine & co. Every interview I've read has placed considerable emphasis on the degree to which they're emphasizing the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, the woman he is charged with rescuing - not merely how they want to make it engaging and believable, but how they want it to nail the sense of seemingly-emergent dynamicism which even the most labyrinthine of RPG dialogue trees have never quite managed to replicate, human interaction being as complex, nuanced, and unpredictable as it is. Combined with more complex NPC behaviors, where Columbia's residents (unlike Rapture's sploicers splicers) are not necessarily hostile to you, but could become so at any time, the systemic certainty that pervaded Bioshock - that Splicer will attack you, that Big Daddy won't unless you harm it, this character will say and will do this at this time - could give way to an incredibly compelling kind of volatility; one just as effectively elevates its characters and its narrative to never-before-seen areas of interactive depth as much as it slides and crawls under the player's skin, implanting the notion that you really never know what's going to happen.

Bioshock hit the gaming landscape as something of a surprise, erasing any doubt that you indeed can make a video game that's original, deep, fun as hell, and able to sell millions of copies. In many ways, it places immense amounts of pressure on Infinite to shake up the medium with another tremor of equal or greater magnitude - and if it lives up to the incredible amounts of potential on display, it quite possibly can, layering on an unparalleled range of dynamic depth to its character development and a breathtaking level of scale and freedom to the already-winning formula of powers, guns, and philosophically-charged dystopias. I can't think of any other game in 2012 that could possess the ability to be as engaging in and of itself as it is healthy and important for the industry as a whole; I can't think of any other game that's primed to both flawlessly execute the trademarked strengths within its own boundaries while simultaneously pushing those same boundaries farther that most people are daring to even look. I'll keep on watching, but I can't think of any other game I'm more excited for this year than Bioshock Infinite.


12:12 AM on 12.22.2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - David Sarif

The Destructoid writers' Character of the Year article (specifically, the Adam Jensen entry) got me thinking about my own favorite collection of pixels and polygons in 2011. I then thought, "oh wait, I could turn this into words!", and thus the piece below was born. I was originally just going to do a bit on DX:HR being my game of the year, but since I have yet to play Skyward Sword (which can potentially capture that throne) and it'd be a horribly generic thing, this seemed to be a much better option. Also, spoilers for the entirety of Human Revolution contained within.

Deus Ex's world is one replete with conspiracies, shady figures holding ulterior motives, plans within plans within plans within plans (within plans), and, to quote one of Human Revolution's trailers, corporations who hold "more power than the government." Who better to exemplify this, thought I as I first begin playing, than David Sarif, founder and CEO of Sarif Industries, one of the world's leaders in human augmentation?

Clearly, I continued to smugly muse to myself, he was a simply a fusion of Joseph Manderly and Bob Page from the first Deus Ex; a power-hungry executive putting on a facade of fatherly warmth, ready and waiting to shank me in my mechanical back as soon as the plot assumes I least expect it. What? That new research could completely change the face of augmentation? Sure, Mr. Sarif, if by "augmentation" you mean "our profit margin." Oh, you're ordering me to prioritize secret company technology over the lives of hostages? How much of an obvious mid-game twist-villain could you be?

My certainty wavered a bit after the first real mission; faced with the prospect of being politely and amicably dismantled and disgraced by anti-augmentation advocates, he complains to a friend and mentor about having to bend over and take it to save face. But that couldn't be right... surely an evil CEO knows how to do these kinds of things better than anyone? He must know I'm eavesdropping and is putting on an act to divert my suspicions. Still, ordering me to break into a police station (and casually mentioning that he controls the cops' retirement funds) assuaged any doubts that I would soon be horribly betrayed.

I would ordinarly make a snarky witticism here but this really is a cool shot

As the story builds and layers of deceit and secrecy peel away, I discover that the terrorists who slaughtered our science team gained access to the building via a hidden security loophole that nobody knew about - except for Sarif himself. Conspiracy! I wonder how he's going to suddenly turn on me once I reveal I know what's going on? Is he going to bring in security and lock the doors? Is he going to be mysteriously missing, leaving a lethal trap in his place?

No, actually. After a drawn-out "social fight," everything I thought I knew about the man was drawn into question. I had assumed his concern about the introductory massacre was related to stolen technology and missed opportunities, but I can just as easily detect an underlying guilt about all the deaths he now knows his security backdoor is partially responsible for. The backdoor itself existed merely to try and dig out my childhood origins, the dark details of which were obscured simply because he didn't think it was his place to inform me that my own childhood memories were essentially a lie.

I continually dug at his actions and characterization, expecting to find a needlessly complex series of plots and machinations, the spiraling lines and twisting convolutions of which would eventually trace back to some stereotypical lust for power, control, wealth, or other villainous desire; instead, I unearthed understandable decisions, relatable concerns, and a huge range of conflicting beliefs and wants.

Pretty swanky office. I wonder what the balls mean

Despite having the necessary shrewdness to survive in the cutthroat corporate world of Deus Ex, Sarif is an idealist, committed to the belief that his company's discoveries will lead to nothing less than a complete rebirth of human society, elevating us to heights and feats we previously could only begin scrape in our very dreams. He's not so humble as to deny the exorbitant wealth that being at the head of this advancement would send his way, but the profit is a bonus, second to his goal of allowing humans to, in his words, "unlock the potential in our own DNA." His commitment to this goal - and belief that Sarif Industries' survival is key to its fulfillment - causes him to keep his eyes firmly planted on the ends, glancing toward the means only when necessary; what are a few hostages or reluctant purists compared to the exponential advancement his discoveries will bring to humanity?

Pride in his work, his company, and in what he could potentially do for society surrounds Sarif. He is a direct man, recoiling at the thought of saving face for PR's sake and perfectly willing to bask in his own importance. It's both a strength, solidifying his unwavering adherence to his ideals, and a weakness, allowing him to internally justify his more immoral actions. It drives him to seek affirmation of his beliefs; to show to the world what he's found, what he can do, what he can provide. It fuels his fight against regulation, blinding him to the possibility that his technology could be misused for ungainly ends.

As the face of the side that's willing to replace our flesh and blood with metal and wiring, it makes him ironically human. Rather than a one-dimensional, moustache-stroking miscreant in search of profit, he's just a guy with a dream - one that's both so incredible and so close to coming true that he's willing to step on a few heads if it means making the world, as he sees it, a better place. Since Human Revolution is a video game, whether or not he succeeds - or, even, whether or not he lives - is up to the player; but any way you look at him, it's impossible to ignore how he stands out in comparison to the game's other, more archetypical characters. In a sense, the simplicity underlying his actions, juxtaposed against the convoluted conspiracy that surrounds the plot, is what makes him so interesting and complex of a figure; whether or not you agree with his conclusions, you can see the reasoning behind them.

No other character this year surprised me and intrigued me to the extent David Sarif did; he's certainly coaxed more full paragraphs out of me than any other game in 2011. I don't know when or if we'll be seeing more of the Deus Ex universe, but if Sarif is any indication of what Human Revolution's writers are capable of creating, it's in good hands, son.


9:50 PM on 12.16.2011

Young Person Plays Old Games: ActRaiser

My first gaming system was a Game Boy, my first console was a Nintendo 64, and my first non-Nintendo console was an Xbox 360. Ouch. This means I missed a lot of awesome games; but, thankfully, I now have the means to revisit those classics and semi-classics, and after finishing a few, I asked myself, why not accompany my experiences with words, in what is not but can potentially become a recurring thing? I'll start with ActRaiser, which is a game about how God The Master rebuilds a world, banishes a mortal enemy, and lights trees on fire for fun and profit.

Look at that pre-Photoshop box-art! That's how you know you're in the early 90s

I've been aware of ActRaiser on some level for a very, very long time, in the same way one instantly recognizes the name of some second-rate celebrity despite not knowing a single thing about the guy; I'd see it on another things-I-like-or-can-at-least-find-a-common-theme-to-write-by list, go "oh yeah," promise myself I'd look at it later, and then forget about it within less than six minutes. In these past few days, however, circumstances aligned in just the right pattern, and I found the time and occasion to sit down and try this supposed SNES classic out for myself.

After the brief download and startup, generic SNES-band music and an overly elaborate SuperFX-abusing title screen flashed up in my face and my stomach immediately dropped a couple of inches, anticipating another mechanically incompetent, nostalgia-clouded try-hard project; but I've been meaning to play this thing for years and I'd be goddamned if I was going to quit now, so I hit the start option and gritted my teeth. A little naked baby angel tells me: "Please create a name for yourself." Okay.

See how nicely it fits into the character limit? It's like they want me to do it

Naked-Baby-Boy explains to me that monsters control the world and that "This all came about because of a demon they call Tanzra, the one who sealed your power." Translation! It's an early SNES title, though, so I can forgive whichever underpaid intern had to pump these words out. What now? He tells me we need to rekindle the people's faith in me, to which I (mentally) respond, "Oh. It's like Black and White, but without animal poo. Ugh." Then he tells me that, to begin, I need to head down to Earth and destroy all monsters.

Hell yeah.

A sparkle which I presume to be me floats down into what I presume to be a statue, and some neat music kicks up as the stage begins. The gameplay is quite reminiscent of older Castlevanias, in a good way - a button for jump, another button to swing the sword - and immediately takes me by surprise with tight and satisfying leaps and slashes. Sure, the graphics are a little basic, but a cursory glance at Wikipedia tells me that the game was released alongside the SNES's North American launch, assuaging any concern. Outside of the illogical button setup (in no 2D-platforming universe is Y an acceptable attack button), I find myself quickly acclimating to ActRaiser's mechanics and tempo, and soon encountered the first boss - a centaur-dude with a lance-thing, whom I immediately cut down with the greatest of ease.

Bad. Ass.

Equine foe vanquished, I'm immediately transported to an overhead map of a town I now know to be "FILLMORE." Naked-Baby-Boy (who insists on addressing me as "Sir ASSDICKS," much to my conceited delight) instructs me to direct my people toward empty land so they can build new homes and farms, which sounds easy enough, while shooting roaming monsters down using his arrows in the meantime, which also sounds pretty straightforward. Then, "Sir ASSDICKS, I know it's unexpected, but our people in FILLMORE have something to tell you." They want me to burn a couple of nearby bushes so they can expand the town. An excuse to set the forests alight with my divine wrath? Awesome.

A few burned bushes later, and Naked-Baby-Boy once again apologizes for an unexpected message from my people. They now can seal monster spawns, so that I don't have to keep picking them off. It's pretty basic at the moment, but ActRaiser's already displaying a pretty significant progression mechanic; I later discover that as my population grows, not only do I gain extra points of health during the platforming segments, but I also discover various magic spells to further assist my ground-level exploits.

The rest of the game proceeds similarly, and I find myself curiously absorbed. While the game seems mechanically basic, there's a surprising amount of depth in the city-managing; new upgrades, situations, enemies, and more continue to be brought forward, providing a steadily increasing difficulty curve, and better city-building directly ties into ActRaiser's platforming half, encouraging me to fight off monsters and expand my towns as quickly and efficiently as possible. A handful of elements actually tie between different locations (the game has six different towns, each with two platforming segments), as the game presents a quasi-open ended structure which allows me to choose freely between stages but requires me to be at a certain level before I can progress, helping to create a sense of wholeness and continuity between what could've been just a few discrete locales.

Shooting down various monsters is a great way to give you something to do while your city grows

I finished ActRaiser after a few hours (maybe 6? I didn't count), and left it feeling immensely satisfied. Despite being about twenty years old, it's a perfect example of how you take two disparate genres and merge them, combining the long-term progression mechanics inherent in city-builders with rock-solid action-platforming. Looking at it, there are only a couple of niggling flaws I can really jump on; the translation is a bit poor and the city UI can get a bit cumbersome to navigate, but ActRaiser honestly provided me with a more consistently varied and entertaining package than I've found in many modern games.

A success story, then; another classic game to notch into my nerd-belt, and a very enjoyable one at that. I hear there's a sequel which is trash, but I also hear there's a spiritual successor by the name of SoulBlazer, so I guess I'll give that a shot some time down the line. I hope it lets me name my character; I could act out the adventures of Sir ASSDICKS's marginally less profane protégé, Master BUTTPENIS! Or I could search for another old-school classic I've never gotten around to. Back to the things-I-like-or-can-at-least-find-a-common-theme-to-write-by lists, then.   read

8:34 PM on 12.11.2011

Review: Saints Row 3

What happens when you combine family obligations and weeks of Skyrim addiction? Broken promises and disappointment, mostly, but a lot of words also don't get written; so, to make up for it, here's a review of a game that's already been out for a month. Surely a couple of you are old enough to play it but young enough to still be holding out for Christmas presents, right?

Saints Row: The Third (I'll call it Saints Row 3 from now on for sanity's sake) is designed to make things as easy as possible. It's not that there's a lack of challenge; it's that nearly every facet of the traditional crime sandbox genre has been worked through an effort-stripping processor. Need a ride? If you don't want to instantly dive through an occupied car's window and speed off in less than two seconds, pull out your phone and get anything from a bike to a convertible to an attack helicopter delivered instantly. Cops or gangs on your tail? Duck into any building you own and your pursuers immediately break off. Sick and tired of the way you look? Stop by plastic surgeons and clothing stores to completely redesign your character (selecting from six unique voice actors) for inconsequential fees.

While the narrative concerns the Saints' fall into obscurity and slow rise back to the top, you certainly wouldn't know it considering the speed with which you obtain portable Predator drone controls, a high-rise penthouse, and more; combined with the series' trademark gonzo wackiness and the focus on ease-of-play, Saints Row 3 quickly seats itself in a perpetual all-cheats-are-on state of glorious, ludicrous excess, where dildo-bats are common weapons, all of your melee attacks aim for the groin, and boss fights can take place in Tron-like digital arenas; remarkably, the game manages to continue conjuring up new and exciting set pieces all the way through the closing credits.

The Luchadores are actually an entire rival gang

The variety present in Saints Row 3's story levels, however, doesn't quite manage carry through to the gameplay itself. In an effort to introduce as many shiny doom-toys as possible as quickly as possible, SR3 ends up suffering from severe frontloading - after kicking things off with a promising bank heist (in which your entire gang masks themselves with bobbleheads of fellow gang-member Johnny Gat, including Johnny Gat), the majority of the core missions fall into the trap of dressing the same run-and-gun-and-hide-and-heal shtick in different locales. Mechanically, it's fast, tight, and satisfying, but when a naked shootout through a BDSM-club and a daring escape from a military base feel like the same thing, something's clearly lacking.

Helping to ward off some of the stagnation that continually threatens to engulf the gameplay is the Respect system, returning from Saints Row 2. No longer tied into your ability to progress through the story (thank God), it inhabits the role of a standard experience-and-leveling mechanic, in which you gain "respect" by completing missions and pulling off neat moves (like several consecutive crotch-melees) in order to unlock purchase-able upgrades. The depth and range of elements to improve is quite impressive, ranging from dual-wielding pistols to adding nitrous boosters to every car you drive to (at max level) giving you complete invincibility and infinite ammo, and it manages to pace itself out to the point where you're able to get just about everything useful by the time you're close to 100%-ing the game.

The level of customization is incredible. Also, pixelated dongs

Once you do manage to see everything there is to offer, however - it took me about 18 hours to finish the story, all the context-limited side missions, and purchase all the city's available stores and properties - there's not much left to do. While the story is surprisingly well-acted and well-written, remaining consistently entertaining throughout, the few branching options it provides hardly affect things enough to warrant a second playthrough, especially with no option to replay missions or start a New Game+ with all your upgraded weapons and stats. The city of Steelport itself lacks the painstaking detail, depth, and dynamicism of its contemporary (whose name I'm sure I don't have to mention), leaving few reasons to explore and mess around beyond baiting cops and mowing down mindless pedestrians; bringing in a friend through the drop-in drop-out co-op can help, but, with only a couple of the replayable side-missions proving to be consistently entertaining, if you want to get the most out of Saints Row 3's open world, you'll need to be pretty good at making your own fun.

Still, despite the bland world and repetitive nature of the gameplay, Saints Row 3 really is a bunch of over-the-top, walls-to-the-balls fun; it's a toybox of re-donk-ulous insanity that takes the too-far line and, instead of crossing, continually orbits it to the point where you can't help but smile and admire the puerile earnestness of it all. Only the most self-absorbed and snobbish won't find something to love in Steelport; for everyone else, you'll have to try pretty hard to not have a good time with the Saints.   read

5:45 PM on 11.24.2011

Thanksgiving: Opening it Up for All to See

I was planning to just do a MW3 piece this week and save this one for later, but then the Doom 3 source code was released and the Thanksgiving theme popped up - so now it's suddenly timely and relevant!

A short while ago, Rockstar Games started gearing up for Max Payne 3's pre-release media storm, and it got me in the mood to dig up and re-install Max Payne 2, a game I remembered enjoying immensely. After a few parargraphs of stilted dialogue and horribly overwrought monologuing, I was diving in slow-mo through doors and across tables just as I had been years ago, surprised by how tight and fluid the action still was, but I also noticed a little something I hadn't immediately remembered: those blood effects are weak - the splashes are small and wispy and the decals only stick on the floors.

Today, that'd probably never be an issue, but assuming it were, I'd have to just suck it up and deal, marking off points from the game for having somewhat unsatisfying hit feedback. But Max Payne 2 is relatively old, so instead, I hit up Google and typed in "max payne 2 mods," got pointed toward a couple of websites, and searched around for something to cure my bloodthirsty ails. A good portion of it was ludicrous - this is an actual excerpt from one mod's description:

"This is a mod that I've been working on for quite some time. It will reinvent MP2 into what I've wanted it to be. Armed with a giant Katana and a new Gunslinger fighting style, Max Payne 2 will never be the same."

Another popular mod. Apparently that's supposed to be Max

Not what I'm looking for, obviously. Despite their extravagance, the depth of some of these projects surprised me - on top of the obligatory new guns and models, there were such things as entirely new self-contained fan-campaigns and a number of Kung Fu mods. Those're still not what I'm looking for, though, so I pick what looks to be as close as I'm going to get - something called Payne Effects 3. The installation was simple - unzip one file, put it in the game's folder, and load it at the game's launcher - so after just a few short minutes, I booted up the game, worked my way past a couple of altered menu images, and tried shooting again.

At first it was promising - the blood was nicely satisfying and some screen shaking had been implemented when I fired my guns, lending extra weight and impact - but then I dipped into Bullet Time, and after I'd shot a couple of enemies, it started playing Screamo-metal. I can put up with a lot, but I didn't just sigh and resign myself eariler, so I sure as hell wasn't going to now - it was time for me to take this into my own hands.

Another Google search leads me to the official mod tools, which I promptly install. Having had the benefit of poking around a number of games before, I was able to intuit my way around the way things worked, and quickly set to figuring out what went where and how best to fix my problems. Here's what I had to do:

1. Figure out which file is the blood particle effect.
2. Make a new one in the (very well designed) particle editor to replace it.
3. Figure out how to compile it in a package file.

Trust me, it's way easier than it looks

#1 was pretty simple - in the game's folder structure, it was inside the database/particles/projectiles directory under the name "bullethit_character." #2 took a bit as I had to figure the particle editor out, but, as I noted above, it was surprisingly intuitive and easy to understand, and they provided an excellent sample file which, after only slight alteration, turned into my new particle effect. Compiling was easy - just make a replica folder structure containing only the modified files, and use the provided program to package it. Within less than an hour, I was booting up the game to test my new creation, and it was just what I'd wanted.

It was at this point I sat back and thought - "you know, you just can't do this anymore." Very, very few major releases this year can be easily modded, and even fewer - off the top of my head, only Skyrim, Red Orchestra 2, Crysis 2 and Portal 2 - have official mod tools either released or on the way. What happened? A number of things have been suggested - a fear that modders will produce content that eclipses official paid DLC in quality, the fact that modern engines are usually drowning in middleware and licensing lawyer-speak, some developers that just don't care - but even despite all of that, I can't think of a good reason to stop us from at least opening up the asset packages and replacing a few ugly textures.

Being big on video games, one of the most fascinating endeavors for me is prying open the shell and examining a game's inner workings, figuring out how the developers put their creation together; it's like reading the sheet music to a kick-ass song or the blueprints to a super-awesome machine, both neat in and of itself while also expanding my knowledge of the medium I love so much. But it's also a means to extend the game beyond its initial limitations - a way to make it more than something to consume and toss aside. You see, after I'd done that blood particle effect, I wondered, "why I should stop there?" I found a way to make the decals draw on all surfaces. I looked in that mod I downloaded and found out how to add the screen shakes. I figured out how to get enemy dialogue to slow and distort when subjected to Bullet Time.

Crysis 2's powerful editor in action

I took the game and made it my own, personalizing my experience in a way clothing options and Facebook plugins could never accomplish, while simultaneously learning a lot about what went into Max Panye 2 and, consequently, what goes into making video games as a whole. I can't see how opening one's game up to the public, even if it's just to change some assets and scripts, leads to anything but benefits, helping people like me who want to examine and learn, aspiring developers who want to gain practice and experince, creative types who don't want to attach themselves to commerical projects, end-users who just want to download a couple of mods to improve the longevity and quality of their purchases, and more.

It's why I'm thankful to those increasingly few developers who've stuck with the modder's mindset; Valve's practically made an art of plucking out the best to add to its ranks, Bethesda's older games are still heavily played thanks to all the new things the fanbase has been able to crank out, and even DICE, who seem to be dismissing any kind of mod support for Battlefield 3, is filled with talented developers who got their start modding older Battlefield games, and, as noted above, id Software (whose Doom went a long way towards kickstarting the modern modding scene) just released the source code to Doom 3.

Thanks for giving us a window into your world, guys. There's no better way to learn and appreciate craftsmanship than to see how works are crafted; being able to mess around with the innards of Jedi Outcast, Call of Duty, Half-Life, Halo Custom Edition, Unreal Tournament, Crysis, Oblivion, and other titles has been one of the most significant contributions to my interest and knowledge in the medium, and I'm sure it's done just as much (if not more) for thousands of others. Here's hoping you don't stop any time soon.   read

4:56 PM on 11.16.2011

Zelda Week: Grotesque and Horrifying Things

Note: I have not had the pleasure of experiencing any of Zelda's handheld outings beyond Link's Awakening, and shall thus omit them from this post. I will also go ahead and mention the CD-I series in its entirety so I can place it as far from my mind as possible.

The average person could be forgiven for assuming that Nintendo, the company that recently found immense success in courting little tiny kids and frail old grandparents with bright, happy, sterile games and images, could ever be capable of conjuring up anything more unsettling than the shiny and insincere smiles of nuclear families tinkering around with a Wii. The average gamer could be forgiven for making the same assumption while noting an exception for the Metroid series. Those of us who've stuck with Zelda through its many incarnations, however, know that its developers possess the kinds of warped and twisted minds you'd only see lurking in gaming's most macabre niches or plastered on the front page of a newspaper website with the caption "LUNATIC PERFOMS SELF-SURGERY, EATS OWN PANCREAS." Since it's Zelda Week, why not take a look back at all the moments in Link's adventures that left us with the lights on for a month and our young minds scarred for life?

Both Link to the Past and the original entry, groundbreaking and timeless as they may be, were a bit short on horrific monstrosities, so we'll skip right over to Zelda II. Like the moustache- and power armor-adorned franchises that complete the holy Nintendo triumvirate, the series' second outing was an unconventional one, moving most of the gameplay to a sidescrolling perspective and adding in a bunch of RPG weirdness we really haven't seen since - but those who've played it probably remember precisely one thing:

The corny laughter mitigates the impact somewhat and it's easy to get accustomed to after seeing it (inevitably) several dozen times, but after the black screen and light melody of LoZ's virtual afterlife, getting thrown to this blood-red backdrop was enough to ward me away from the title for a whole week after my first try. Special mention must also go out to final boss Dark Link, but he'll show up a little later.

Hopping over LttP leads us directly to Link's Awakening, the odd but much-loved Game Boy adventure. We all know it's weird as hell, and this, combined with the story's thematic focus on dreams, provides ample room for things that can make your skin crawl in spite of the dramatically reduced screen size. First up - bosses. Observe the gallery below:

The Angler Fish, from Angler's Tunnel, is not only ugly, but chases you around in a pool of water, in which your movement - even with the aid of the Flippers - is horribly awkward, often sending you careening directly into his gaping jaws. The Nightmare's final form and Facade, both pictured on the bottom, are just plain creepy and unsettling in and of themselves. Slime Eyes at the top right may seem unassuming, but he's here because of his frighteningly sudden appearance.

Then there's the last "dungeon". When you make your way into the Wind Fish's egg, perhaps expecting another sequence of doors, dangers, traps, and tricks, you're instead met with a long sequence of barren hallways, filled only with this music. And if you haven't completed the long trade quest and discovered the proper movement sequence? Until you give up and leave out the bottom, your trek through these halls will never, ever end. Creepy. As. Hell.

Of course, one of Awakening's biggest shocks and surprises stems from the little shop in the opening town. For the only time in the series, crafty maneuvering will allow you to make off with any of the store's items for the princely sum of 0 rupees. Your name will be permanently changed to "THIEF" too, which is kind of funny, but if you ever decide to show your face into the store once again, you'll be greeted with this:

And then you'll die.

This brings us to Ocarina of Time, which, in my opinion, holds the crown for Greatest Quantity of Shit Likely to Turn Your Gaming Childhood Into a Waking Nightmare. The list is gigantic - the Forest Temple, with its haunting ambience, dark corridors, and Skulltula infestation. The skeletal Stalchildren, who rise from Hyrule Field at night, only growing larger and more numerous as you fend off the infinite horde. Redeads, which a-WRAAAAAAAAAGH! Gohma, whose entrance is triggered by you staring up at its horrid eyeball. Wallmasters, which stalk you from the ceilings, creating only a shadow to notify you of their impending descent. Dark Link, and the room in which he lurks. The first sight of the ruined Castle Town after emerging from the Temple of Time as an adult, which rivals Final Fantasy VI's apocalypse as one of the most sudden, unexpected, and horrific transformations of a game world. But the worst - the absolute goddamn worst - isn't the Shadow Temple, but its younger cousin: the Bottom of the Well.

You're facing this shorter dungeon as Young Link, locking you out of your most useful tools. This is where the game introduces Giant Skulltulas. Undetectable pitfalls are scattered liberally. It's dark, dank, dilapidated, and whatever else you want to call the most unsettling location in all of Hyrule, and it's also home to a very special mini-boss. Everybody, meet Dead Hand.

He's a big pile of bloodied zombie flesh with about eight too many arms, and attacks by grabbing you with one of his pale appendages so he can maul your helpless face. Yes, we're talking Zelda, not Resident Evil. I could say more, but all of you who played Ocarina as relatively young children know exactly what I'm talking about, and the four or five of you who didn't - you are lucky.

So how about Majora's Mask, then? It does for Zelda's 3D half what Link's Awakening did for the 2D side, and, while excellent, there seems to be a notable minority of non-hipsters who would elevate it to "BEST ZELDA EVER" status. Dark horse or not, it's pretty easy to say that, hot off Ocarina's heels, it comes in a close second for the GQoSLtTYGCIaWN prize. Any mention of the game would be remiss without one of its most notable and memorable features: that goddamn moon, which draws nearer and nearer every minute.

There's more, of course. Every time you put on a transformation mask, you're treated to one of these lovely cutscenes - pay special attention to the Zora mask. Nearly every location is designed to unsettle, from the murky Southern Swamp to the snowblinding Snowhead Peak. There's this fine gentleman of a mini-boss. While the shocked farm inhabitants stop being creepy when you realize the problem is that aliens abducted their cows, your first bewildered encounter before you know how to blow away the big rock is positively haunting. Then you finally get inside the moon, and then you get to fight the final boss, and oh man.

Most notably, though, Majora's Mask has the proud distinction of housing the most ugly and horrifying contribution to the Zelda franchise; something that is perhaps the most vile and disgusting entity in the whole series.

That leaves two games - Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. I want to close off with the former, so here're a few things about the latter: there's the vision sequence, which neither can nor should be described with words. The giant-ass bug boss in Lake Hylia took me by complete surprise after I'd been accustomed to hunting down the little tiny insects. There's the first encounter with the invisible ghost-rats - all of the sudden, you're moving far too slowly, and there's this mad chattering. Turn into wolf and activate senses - BAM. It's a one-time shock, but is it ever a shock. There're those Wallmaster-alikes near the end of the game, which are harmless to you but play the horror equivalent of a brown note once they get close to taking back the big glowing ball.

Even for a series that's been around for 25 years, that's a lot of stuff for what's ostensibly a kid-friendly franchise. Yet there is one thing in Wind Waker that trumps absolutely everything above. It is literally the first and only thing in a video game that caused me to audibly vocalize my fear; I've never been utterly terrified about anything anywhere in any game more than this. Point and laugh and call me funny names if you must, but there's just something about these goddamn cyclones.

I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's the exaggerated art style accentuating the shape, the fact that it continually grows larger and larger as you draw near until it utterly dwarfs you, or the sudden storms that accompany its presence, but I do know that after my first sighting, I turned tail and sped away, working my way around the controller faster than I had previously thought possible - because I did not know where one might or might not be, every trip from then on was utterly nerve-wracking. Little did I know that one of the Plot Orbs must be placed on an island perpetually circled by one, and then after the next dungeon, I had to sail right up to one. Sure, they go away after obtaining the warp power, but I still had to direct my eyes toward the ceiling as the cutscene played out, every single time. Even today, I continue to have that same feeling of dread every time I pick Wind Waker back up and start sailing; it's no longer the cyclones themselves, as I'm always going "oh, that's it?" when I finally see one. It's that inescapable, intangible fear, which convinces me that something horrible is always right around the next square, or right behind me.

With Skyward Sword just around the corner, I have faith that Nintendo will come up with fresh new horrors to plague our minds, and look forward to discovering them as soon as I can scrounge up the cash to buy it along with the rest of the awesome that's releasing this month. Surely I haven't found everything in the series, though; what's the most terrifying thing that's happened to you guys in a Zelda game?   read

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