Darren is a scientist and an educator by day, and a writer and reviewer by night. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. Additionally, he produces the Zero Cool Podcast, and he plays board games quite a bit.
PAX Prime 2010 has come and gone, far too quickly, as usual. Everybody has slightly different memories of the extravaganza; indulge me for a moment to hear about mine.
I got in on Thursday evening, and called up Wedge, because I was staying in his hotel room the first night. I knew the Sixth Avenue Inn was on Sixth Avenue, but I didn't know if it was north or south of the convention center. Apparently Wedge didn't either, and he told me I had to go away from the convention center. I assumed I knew what that meant, and went off south. After walking about twelve blocks, I realized that if a person is at the convention center, literally every direction is "away" from the convention center. Oops.
After finding the Sixth Avenue Inn (PROTIP: It's north of the convention center), and dropping my stuff off, it was time to head to GameWorks. We had a pretty large group there, and I'm pretty sure we pissed off this one dude who just wanted to watch the Seahawks lose to the Raiders, because we kept standing in front of the TV. I got to glimpse the Brournal, which is every bit as ridiculous as you could hope.
On Friday morning, I woke up on my own before my alarm went off, because I was so excited for the day. I spent all of Friday at panels. bluexy and I started with the keynote, given by Warren Spector. He made a point that I have to consider from here on out: gaming is mainstream now, and we don't have to be ashamed of it in public any more.
After the keynote, bluexy left, but I stuck around for the Penny Arcade Q&A panel. As usual, those guys are funny, and it was a good time. After that, the Rooster Teeth guys had their panel, where they did Q&A, but more importantly, showed the last two episodes of the current Red vs. Blue season. The second to last one is effing amazing, and you can watch it now here.
After Rooster Teeth, I had to head back up the hill and get in line for LoadingReadyRun's panel. If you're not familiar, LoadingReadyRun is a sketch comedy troupe that puts out some pretty good stuff. The highlight of the panel was an advance showing of this week's Unskippable, which you should totally watch if you haven't already. After LoadingReadyRun, I was off to the GameTrailers panel, where we got to see an advance showing of the current Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin' episode, which you should totally watch if you haven't already.
After that, I ended up at the Friday night concerts. I had never heard any of the stuff by the Protomen before, and it is incredibly ridiculous. I'm not entirely sure how they relate to video game culture, aside from their name, but the lead singer has a really powerful and impressive voice. However, I was mainly there to see Anamanaguchi, so it was lucky that they were up next in the lineup. Unforunately, they suffered from a couple of technical issues, where the chiptunes were almost inaudible during the first song, and one of the monitors wasn't working later on, causing one of the guitarists a significant amount of stress. Still, it sounded fine to me, and I couldn't help but rock out to "Dawn Metropolis."
I took off after Anamanaguchi so I could meet up at the Elephant and Castle with the rest of the Dtoiders, and luckily I ran into Hamza on the way saying that the party had moved elsewhere due to staff douchebaggery, so we headed back to GameWorks. I was starving at this point, having not eaten since that morning before the keynote (roughly fifteen hours before), and I was devastated when I got to GameWorks just after the kitchen had closed. I could watch other people eat, but couldn't order anything myself. I tried to buy Samit's half-eaten sandwich from him, but he wouldn't let me for fear of spreading conSARS. Dejected, I decided to go back to the hotel to drop off my stuff, and find food elsewhere.
I texted Polo Guy, one of my temporary roommates to see if he wanted to head to the Whiskey Bar to meet up with some people, and he told me that they were eating at the Elephant & Castle. I had him order up the most delicious hamburger ever for me, but in hindsight, it probably only tasted so good because I was about to die from starvation. It was funny that we were back at the E&C with Hamza, since just an hour earlier he said, "Never go here again, these people are dicks to us." The tune changed when it turned out it was the only place still serving food that late into the night. Polo Guy is an awesome dude, by the way. he bought my hamburger for me, despite my offers to pay him back. I got him a beer at the Whiskey Bar later, but it didn't cover what he paid for me at the E&C.I didn't spend too much time at the Whiskey Bar on Friday. The Destructoid LIVE! panel was early the next day, so I wanted to make sure I could wake up the next morning. I got back to the room and into my sleeping bag at two in the morning. I woke up on Saturday at around eight on the floor with my legs propped up on the loveseat, ready to start off the day.
I got myself a burrito at the convention center, then headed up to the sixth floor to wait in line for Destructoid LIVE! I was the first in line, but the Enforcers kicked me back down to the fourth floor, saying that the sixth floor wouldn't be open until ten o'clock. When I was finally let back upstairs, I was still near the front of the line, but not first. While in line, throughout PAX, I canvassed for Dragon Quest IX travelers, and was able to upgrade my Quester's Rest to what I think is completion.
Destructoid LIVE! was just what you'd expect. Niero came on with the serious business stuff (N33T sounds pretty cool), and then Jim, Chad, and Jonathan brought the irreverence. The entire panel is going up soon, so keep an eye out for that. Everybody saw the Bit.Trip FATE reveal coming once Jim posted the obvious teaser, but it was cool nonetheless. And of course, it's always a pleasure to see Lost Crichton in tiny shorts; that he also devoured a sinner's sandwich was icing on the cake.
I will say though, to the guy who got up and asked, "When I come to Destructoid, should I leave my brain at the door?" Screw you, pal. Jonathan Holmes had a very graceful answer to the question, "You should bring your heart to the door," but if I were up there, I would have just said, "Eff off if you think you're so much better than us." If you can't find the intelligent discussion on Destructoid, then you're not looking, and if you can't stand the less-than-intelligent discussion that much, then get out. I'm all for promoting pertinent discourse, but there's a line you cross when you get up in front of a bunch of editors and hundreds of community members and insult us all right there.
After Destructoid LIVE!, I had what might have been my memory of PAX 2010. As lame as it sounds, it doesn't involve any unreleased game, but rather a game that has been out for nearly a year, that I play almost nightly. One of DJDuffy's PC gamer friends challenged us to settle a debate once and for all: who is more skilled, PC FPS players or console FPS players? So DJDuffy, Mid3vol, Kryptinite, Knivy, BigPopaGamer, Storytime, and I assembled our team and headed to the console freeplay area for some Modern Warfare 2. Due to unfortunate limitations, the best we could do was 2v2, but we played about five matches and won every single one of them.
"It's okay," we said to them, "You're going to school us on the PC." When we first started up the game in the PC freeplay area, it seemed that would be the case. However, we played their preferred gametype (Team Deathmatch) on the console, and played OUR preferred gametype (Domination) on the PC. So even though we kept hitting the wrong buttons (I could never find the melee button when I needed it), and most of us ended up with a negative kill/death spread, we finished the first game (Domination on Afghan) with just a few points ahead. The second game was Domination on Sub Base, and we really got more into the groove of it. Despite still being underskilled in terms of pure shooting, our teamwork got us through to a pretty commanding win.
At this point, we maybe started to feel bad that we were beating these PC gamers on their own platform, so we decided to play some Team Deathmatch on it. The PC gamers got their first win of the day, but their victories wouldn't last long. On the last match of five, on Favela, we started with a deficit. I still needed to get my bearings on how to effectively play without being quick with all of the buttons, so I took on the Overwatch class (default classes only) so I could shoot down UAVs. After awhile, we made up our deficit and took a pretty commanding lead. I managed to accumulate a 5-kill streak, and I tucked the Predator missile away for later. Near the end, I saw the scores at 47 to 30-something, and announced, "All right, let's end this." I called in my Predator missile, and once I saw the screen, a flurry of unusual trash talk came out of my mouth. "Oh man, here it is, triple kill, suck it!" Boom. Three kills with a Predator near the soccer field. I stood up and shouted out an uncharacteristic "Fuck yeah!" and high fived Storytime and Duffy. It was probably one of the greatest gaming achievements I have ever accomplished.
The PC gamer guys were pleasantly good sports about losing to a group of ragtag console gamers, but I'm pretty sure this settles the debate; console gamers are better than PC gamers, fact.
After the Modern Warfare 2 games, I made my way off to one of the more professionally important panels I've been to, about studying games academically. At my core, I am an academic, and it would be a dream for me to do scientific research on games. It was enlightening, for sure, and I will definitely follow up with some of the panelists soon. Fingers crossed that it will lead to something good in my future. After that panel, I was tasked with babysitting Storyr while he gallivanted with the robot helmet. We got some pictures with a Katamari cousin, headless Zero Suit Samus, and some completely lame Kinect action. It was good times, but when it was over, I really wanted to finally hit the show floor for myself and check out some games. Of course, I only had about an hour to do that, so I didn't get more than a few hands-off glimpses of the PAX 10 indie stuff.
When the show floor closed, I decided that I'd call up my first night roommates Wedge and bluexy for some board games. They brought everybody from the room, including GrumpyTurtle, to my surprise (I thought I was the only person who was nerdy enough to enjoy strategy board games but also like Call of Duty). We all played a game of Shadows Over Camelot, which is a fantastic cooperative board game based on the Knights of the Round Table, but it was unfortunately the least perilous instance of the game I have played. Not once throughout the game did I think we were going to lose, and we beat the game pretty handily 10 to 2. It probably has to do with the fact that I've gotten more experienced with it (everybody else was playing it for the first time), and we lucked into having no traitor among us. I apologized that the game wasn't as fun as it usually is, but my fellow knights seemed to enjoy it just fine.
Once we packed up and turned in Shadows Over Camelot, I figured it was time for me to hit up the meetup at the Chapel. At this point, my phone was dying, so I was avoiding talking on it, but rather just texting people for directions. For the second time this trip, I was given poor directions (Polo Guy meant turn right but he said turn left), and I ended up going about three miles out of the way in total. After some lifesaving help from J-Ro, I got there, and got to enjoy some of the most delicious-yet-strong beverages I've had.
The venue itself was kind of a bust in my mind, because I'm not really into music so loud that you can't talk to each other, or bartenders so busy that it takes twenty minutes to get a drink, or transsexuals. Still, there were other Dtoiders there, and there was plenty of drunk to go around, so it wasn't all bad. I spent the majority of my night outside, as far from the oontz as possible, chatting it up with one of my former citymates, Zero Atma. When it was time to leave the Chapel, I was instructed on just how easy it was to get there, and I cursed my lack of a smart phone.
Back in the hotel room, Stella, Mikey, and Trevkor just stayed up chatting about random things while sobering up. It sounds like a minor event, and I don't even remember anything in particular, but after an exhausting day, it was just what I needed to get geared up for Sunday.
I was woken up on Sunday morning at around eight by Polo Guy coming back to the room finally (that man can party). I got myself all cleaned up for the day, and set out to enjoy the final day of PAX. The only panel I had on my schedule was for Gearbox, but I wrote that down when I was expecting something about the future of the Borderlands franchise, and after hearing the buzz on Friday, I was pretty sure it'd be all about Duke Nukem Forever, a game that I care nothing about.
So I started the day off completing my PAX XP quests. It was a neat little thing they put together for people new to PAX to get a feel for the layout, but it was still helpful for me now that there were so many areas offsite from the actual convention center. I also sort of did it just out of curiosity; the loot promised was a "PAX XP Zipper Pull," and I had no idea what that was. So I went around the convention center, performing random tasks (like rolling a 20-sided die or escaping from a Sumo bean bag) and gaining XP for it. It turns out that a zipper pull is a little button with a clip on it so it can attach to zippers. I was a little disappointed, but hey, free stuff, right? I clipped it on my hoodie and made my way to the show floor.
Almost all of my time on Sunday was spent at the PAX 10 booth, but my experience with those games will be saved for a future blog, so keep an eye here in case you're interested in cool indie games. Other than those, I also played some Monaco, and I watched several rounds of SpyParty. Monaco seemed very interesting, but I think I would have to have a set group of people with specific types of personalities to really enjoy it. As a cooperative game, it was really frantic when played on the PAX show floor, but I would have much preferred a slower paced, more methodical approach to the game. From what I could tell, the game is completely playable that way, but it requires the players to want to do it. I can't say much about SpyParty that hasn't already been said by people who have actually played it, but suffice it to say that I've always been really interested in asymmetric multiplayer, and Spy Party really looks like an interesting take on stealth and subterfuge.
Another indie game I played was the much-buzzed-about Slam Bolt Scrappers. I only got one game with it, and it was against more experienced players, so I might be wrong about it, but it just didn't click with me. When I wanted to play it like a thoughtful puzzle game, Alex Barbatsis would come over to my side of the screen and kick the crap out of me, and when I switched to playing it like a fighter, my tower got destroyed. It was altogether too frantic for me; I couldn't tell what was going on a lot of the time, and I couldn't place pieces where I wanted to with the speed an precision I would have liked. Perhaps it just takes some getting used to, but it's certainly not a game that I could immediately pick up and play.
Outside of the indie area, I spent a bit of time in the Nintendo booth. I watched somebody else play a cool looking platformer called Fluidity. It looks like a cross between LocoRoco and PixelJunk Shooter,
in that movement is controlled by tilting the world from side to side, but what the player is moving is an ever-growing mass of liquid. It looks cool, and I wish I could have tried it out. But alas, I spent my time at the Nintendo booth standing in line to play Kirby's Epic Yarn.
Let me just say that Kirby's Epic Yarn looks beautiful. It might be the best looking Wii game I've ever seen, and if I hadn't known any better, I would have said it was running at 720p. Of course, it's on the Wii, so it's doing 480p at best, but you wouldn't know it by looking at it. Secondly, I don't think the smile left my face during the entire demo. I played cooperatively with LK4O4, and while he was collecting gems and other knickknacks, I just kept double tapping left or right so Kirby would turn into a car and drive around. Also, when one of the characters swims in the water, he turns into a submarine, complete with propeller and periscope. It's not a very difficult game, but it is by far one of the cutest games I've seen.
The last thing I did at PAX proper was to attend the final round of the Omegathon. Not many Dtoiders care about going to it, but I always enjoy it for two reasons. One, it is sort of like the PAX closing ceremony, and two, there is nowhere else in the world that you will be in a room with thousands of other like-minded individuals, cheering on two guys playing the claw-grabber crane game. Of course, the game changes every year, but this year we were treated to the Omegaclaw. Watch the video above, and tell me you wouldn't like to have been there to see that.
After PAX, I met up with Polo Guy (have I mentioned how cool he is?) to get some Thai food at one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle, but it was closed, so we ended up just walking aimlessly until we found something. We smelled something good, and popped into a slightly overpriced Japanese place, only to see Tactix and company. We sat down and had some delicious katsu curry, before heading out to the final Destructoid meetup at Rock Bottom.
I was impressed when we got to the Rock Bottom; we actually had an entire huge section cordoned off just for us. And doubly surprising, there were several people there on time. I mostly stayed in my booth, but I got to talk to the ridiculous Jon Carnage, and I spent time with the talented and insightful Sean Carey. Also, I ate some bacon brownies, which were probably the best idea somebody has ever had. Afterward, I was awarded with a coveted Destructoid bobblehead, just for volunteering to chaperone Storyr with the helmet, something I had done simply to be helpful.
Unfortunately, I had to turn in early, so I left long before all of the shenanigans were over. I got back to the room and got a good five hours of sleep before waking up to catch a cab with Knives up to the airport. My last memory of PAX 2010 was drinking a Frosty milkshake with my Mexican friend before hopping on a plane and sleeping forever. Looking back at this blog, I really did quite a bit, and still, I wish I had more time to spend with you all. This was the best weekend of the year. PAX is better than the last day of school. PAX is better than Christmas. And so long as my finances allow it, I will see you people at PAX every year from now on until I get too old to fly my ass up there. I miss you guys already, and I'm looking forward to PAX 2011!
With little fanfare, Aero Racer was released last week as a PS3 Mini. Indeed, so little effort is being put into marketing this bite-sized gem that developer Halfbrick Studios makes no mention of it on its website. This may have to do with its status as a free downloadable for PlayStation Plus members, however for the rest of us, the going price is a paltry $2.99.
The idea behind PlayStation Minis is a noble one: offer small, simple titles at budget prices. Aero Racer takes that idea and runs with it. On its surface, it's a simple racing game, with one button for thrust, two directions to turn, and not much else. Despite its initial appearance of simplicity, Aero Racer ramps up in challenge pretty quickly. A lot can be said about making a compelling, deep game with controls that could have worked on the NES.
The racers drift a substantial amount, which is frustrating at first, until the player gets to understand why. The main conceit behind Aero Racer is that while thrusting against open air can get you where you want to go, thrusting against a wall will get you there faster. The introduces the idea of "grinding," where racers want to get as close to walls as possible, without hitting them.
It introduces an interesting risk/reward scenario, where skilled racers can speed around corners, assuming they can keep their vehicles right on the edge of disaster. Aero Racer capitalizes on this idea with tracks that have multiple paths; yet unlike any other racing game before it, the shortest route is typically not the fastest.
In addition to its minimalistic control scheme, the game also has an old school feel in terms of difficulty. It starts off easily enough, with tutorial levels allowing the player to get a feel for the floaty racers, but pretty quickly ramps up to asking the player to achieve a certain number of grind points and complete the track in a particular amount of time, which can be extremely taxing. However, many of the tracks last only ten to fifteen seconds each, so retrying one multiple times to get a perfect run isn't unreasonable.
Still, it takes a particular kind of person to enjoy a game like Aero Racer. It's fast, it's exhilarating, but more than anything else, it is challenging. If you miss the days of twitch action that requires precise player input for success, then you'll probably love it. If you prefer your downloadable games to be relaxing, mindless fun, you may want to look elsewhere.
In case you don't know, 'Splosion Man is an XBLA platform game that was released last year. Even if you don't have firsthand experience with it, you ought to know a bit about it, as it got a nine out of ten in the official Destructoid review.
And indeed, much else has been said about the game's style and charm, including Ashley Davis's piece on 'Splosion Man's idle animations.
However, Team Meat's Edmund McMillen's recentblog posts on fundamental game design principles has gotten me thinking less about the style 'Splosion Man exudes, and more about all of the other design choices that Twisted Pixel put into the game. Specifically, how everything comes together to make 'Splosion Man a nearly perfect game.
The first thing anybody notices about 'Splosion Man's design is the simplicity of the controls. The titular character moves with the left stick and has but one action, assigned to all four face buttons; pressing any of them makes him 'splode. The beauty of 'Splosion Man as a character is that 'sploding may be all he can do, but it serves several purposes. 'Sploding lets the player jump, attack, defend, and interact with the environment. As far as controls are concerned, 'Splosion Man is a game whose mechanics could have been on the NES, and held its own against the myriad of 2D platformers of the time.
The single player campaign is fast-paced endeavor, but it adheres closely to McMillen's ideas on his upcoming 2D platformer. The risk/reward is present in 'Splosion Man's cakes, which are typically either out of the way or in plain sight but visibly difficult to reach. The reward is largely intrinsic, though the cakes do contribute to Achievements and higher Leaderboard scores, if those hold any extrinsic value for the player. And much like Super Meat Boy, the behaviors that 'Splosion Man rewards are exploration and raw platforming skill.
One of the elements of 'Splosion Man that really shines is its difficulty curve. The above video shows one of the more exhilirating later levels, and it demonstrates something that appears impossible to a 'sploding novice. But with frequent checkpoints and unlimited lives, the player can work his way up to completing each of the games 50 levels. When he does get to the end, conquers the final boss, and watches the ridiculous closing credits, 'Splosion Man informs the player about Hardcore Mode, which removes checkpoints and adds one-hit kills. And after struggling through the last few levels, even an experienced 'sploder will deem the task impossible.
Ingeniously, the Achievements actually provide a road map for how to play through and completely finish 'Splosion Man. Beat the single player campaign? Good, now get all of the cakes. Did that? Try the multiplayer campaign. Done with that? Go for all of the multiplayer cakes. Even the seemingly inconsequential Achievements, like "get through an entire level without killing any scientists" teach the player about 'Splosion Man's attack range, jump distance, and the game's general physical mechanics. Got all of the other Achievements done? Now you are ready to take on Hardcore Mode. The task is certainly daunting, but not nearly the impossibility it appears to be upon beginning the game.
I implied earlier that the cooperative multiplayer in 'Splosion Man is a different experience than the single player campaign. To be more explicit, if you have only played 'Splosion Man's single player, then you have not nearly experienced everything the game has to offer. The recent trend in game design is to craft compelling multiplayer experiences beyond simply allowing more than one person to simultaneously play through the regular campaign, and Twisted Pixel delivered on this front better than anybody could have expected.
Whereas the single player experience is one focused on speed, precision, reaction, and memorization, the multiplayer campaign features an entirely different set of levels, focused on planning, communication, and coordination. While this slows the game down considerably, Twisted Pixel did some subtle, brilliant stuff with the level design to alleviate that. In the cooperative campaign there are the main puzzle rooms, and the intercalary corridors. While the main rooms will test your party's abilities to the extreme, the hallways in between the main rooms are easily navigable and filled with breakables. These serve as mini rewards for finishing the main sections. After what could potentially be several minutes required to coordinate a team through a main room, the players are all gifted the ability to just run amok and take in 'Splosion Man's other virtue: its aforementioned charm.
All of these design decisions come together, along with the expert creation of a character who is inherently entertaining to play as, to create a nearly perfect experience. If I were ever asked to lecture on great game design, my PowerPoint would be filled with slides from 'Splosion Man.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo is upon us, and that means several things. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony will all be vying for your attention, some unexpected announcements will be made, and videogame writers from sites across the Internet will complain because for one week out of the year they actually have to work hard. So for those of you out there looking for sympathy because you have to wake up at eight in the morning to make it to Nintendo's press conference, I bear a message from the rest of us: SHUT. UP.
Let's face it. If you are doing what you're doing, and you're able to pay your bills by writing about games alone, you have a dream job. Now, when people say that, Douchebag McGee (fictional game journalist) may retort with something like, "I don't really understand why people covet games journalism jobs. You don't actually get to just sit and play games all day. It's the same as any job with the same amount of drudgery." But if you even get to play for only an hour a day to do your job, then that's an hour more than most people with any other job get to play while at work.
To step back a bit, let's take a look at the six major factors that contribute to job satisfaction, according to a 1998 study. They are:
Starting from the top, I'll concede that the pay in game journalism is certainly less than ideal, especially among enthusiast bloggers as opposed to corporate journalists. Very few can make a living off of writing about games alone, but those who do are very fortunate, and some even realize it.
Skipping hours of work (we'll come back to that), the next item on the list is future prospects. At first, it seems that videogame journalism scores pretty poorly here as well. What does a game writer become when he is promoted? Super game writer? It appears to be an end of the road kind of deal. However, there is anecdotal evidence of a man going from writing simple blogs to now working at Microsoft, or another guy starting in the same place but ending up as a star in a popular webseries and a writer for Gearbox. Simply put, if you're good, you've got places you can go.
Difficulty is an interesting topic, as it's not necessarily true that easier is better. One of my previous jobs was in data entry; sitting at a computer copying information into a form is about as mindlessly easy as it gets, and as such, it is terribly boring. For a job to be satisfying, it needs to be difficult enough for the worker to feel like he is actually necessary, but not so difficult that he can't reasonably complete his tasks. Game journalism scores well in this category, as it's clear that not everybody can be an effective writer, but for those who are, the opinion pieces, news items, and reviews flow onto the page pretty naturally.
In the interest, prestige, and independence section is truly the reason to be a videogame journalist. Admittedly, there is little mainstream prestige in writing about games, but among the game community, who hasn't heard of Adam Sessler, Brian Crescente, or Nick Chester? As far as independence goes, a more valuable job lets the worker feel like he controls what he does on a day-to-day basis. While a writer may be given the task of "review Game X before Time Y on Date Z," he still has control over exactly how he tackles the assignment. He is at liberty to decide how much of the game requires playing before an accurate review can be written, and he chooses what kind of tone to use in his writing.
Still, prestige and independence are nothing compared to what ought to be the main reason anybody becomes a videogame journalist: interest. Are you passionate about games? Do you love writing about your hobby? Do you enjoy your time working, or do you view it as "drudgery" and you look forward to the end of the day when you can go home and forget about games until tomorrow? Simply put, if you're interested in videogames, then spending your day writing about them should be a pleasure, not a chore.
There is a stigma among gamers, one that is waning more and more as time goes on, and has been outright disproven by this very community, and that is the idea that we are lonely and friendless. Interpersonal relationships are something that game writers very certainly build up while doing what they do. A wise man once said that the secret to his success was in the idea of buena gente. By surrounding yourself with good people, good things will come. And the interpersonal relationships one can build while working with buena gente are fantastic.
So far, game journalism looks to score pretty highly as far as the six factors go. While the pay could be better, the rest make the job seem ideal to anybody passionate about games. But we skipped over the topic of hours, as that is what specifically relates to E3. During any time of year outside of major events like E3, Gamescom, or TGS, the hours seem pretty sweet to an outsider. Some work a standard eight hours a day, some work fewer, and some work more, all depending on how much time a person can commit to the job. The nice part is that a game writer can choose specifically which hours he works, in addition to how many. Night owls can put up posts at three in the morning if they so choose.
During events like E3, however, the industry goes into overdrive. Now, I am not trying to discount just how much work is done during a week like this one. Sixteen hours days for a week straight is not easy, and the work ethic necessary to keep that up is commendable. However, there are people who work twelve to sixteen hour days on a regular basis -- not just for a couple weeks out of the year. Tactix is a graduate student in Organic Chemistry, which is known for having consistently brutal hours. He still does it because getting a Ph.D is worth all of the work for him. Ark is an animator at Dreamworks, and he regularly works insane hours as well. Again, the job is inherently rewarding enough that it is worthwhile in his mind.
And that's what it all comes down to. Game journalists: do you love your job enough that you can endure a week of long hours and come out of it exhausted, but with a smile on your face? If not, then I'm sorry to say, but you're in the wrong business. If you want to gain sympathy from us regular people because you had to stay up late to finish writing about the game that you got to play a year before its release, then please do the following: shut up, quit your job, and make room for somebody who would appreciate it, "drudgery" and all.
If I could toot my own horn for just a bit, I'd say that I think I'm pretty good at turn-based strategy games. I spent countless hours playing Civilization III, I recently extolled the virtues of Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, and if one were to take a look at my save file on Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, he'd see a totally golden menu, signifying complete domination over the game.
In Advance Wars 2, I S-ranked every mission in the hard campaign, and made that game beg for mercy. So naturally, going into the critically acclaimed PS3 strategy-shooter, I felt pretty confident in my abilities.
But then the skill ratings started coming in. B-rank on the tutorial mission. C-rank on the next. D-rank, D-rank, D-rank. "What am I doing wrong?" I thought. But after some more consideration, I think the real question is, "What is this game doing right?"
What Valkyria Chronicles does that contrasts it with Advance Wars is so simple, it's impressive how much it changes the game. Rather than the nameless, faceless forces that each AW commanding officer has in tow, all of the soldiers fighting under Lieutenant Welkin have unique names, faces, voices, and personalities.
It originally appears as a throwaway feature in a game about war. The player can set up his squad from a long list of recruits, and he can view short bios on each unit. From there, the brilliance really begins to show. As Welkin fights more battles with a particular soldier, that character's bio page gets updated with more and more information. It implies that while this team is fighting together, they are also talking to one another, sharing with each other their lives, hobbies, dream, and fears. Giving a name to each soldier makes the player feel as though he has not only handpicked this team, but that he needs to take care of them as well.
Gameplay-wise, there is little penalty for losing a soldier in battle. They can be replaced with others of the same class after a battle, with nearly identical combat ability. The only real penalty of losing a nonessential character to the enemy's fire is the weight of guilt on the player's conscience.
After coming upon this revelation, I realize now some things about other games I've played in the past. A more apt comparison to the Advance Wars games is the Fire Emblem series, and yet, the one key difference of permanent character death in Fire Emblem has kept me from finishing the game on two separate playthroughs, while I have beaten three of the Advance Wars games, each two times over.
It has been said that a great military leader is not only one who can win a battle and bring back all of his men, but one who knows when to sacrifice his team to win the war. But if my soldiers have names, I cannot be that man. I am no general; I cannot lead my men to death.
But as I continue through the game, earning my C-ranks and D-ranks, I will take solace in knowing that although I am a poor military leader, not a single member of Squad 7 will be left behind.
So, an RPG, a turn-based strategy, and a puzzle game walk into a bar. There they meet some spiffy, yet slightly generic manga-lookin' characters. Everybody has a grand old boozy good time, they go home together, and the result of a night's worth of debauchery is this game. Now, it could have turned into a royal mess, but by some stroke of luck (or more likely, due to Capybara Games's development prowess), Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes got all of the best traits from each of its parents.
Seriously, if you own a DS and like puzzle games and/or turn-based strategy and/or RPGs, then you want to go and buy this game right now. But I suppose I should elaborate.
Hamza's preview of the game, while informative, doesn't really do it justice. (Plus, that's from six months ago, and there hasn't been any mention of it on Destructoid since.) While everything he mentions is true, he was not able to spend enough time with the game to really understand its intricacies. What initially appears to be a simple match-three puzzler very quickly becomes an extremely satisfying battle of wits.
The overworld exploration is kept to a minimum, with the player traveling between nodes, a bit akin to the travel in fellow puzzle-RPG Puzzle Quest. Hamza dumps on this in the preview, but it feels perfect for the game because despite how our hairy friend feels, this game is not about exploration, it is about battles.
The battles occur with the player's army on the bottom screen and the opposing force on the top screen. Each army has "Core" units that take up a 1x1 square, "Elite" units that require a 1x2 area on the battlefield, and "Champion" units that fill up a huge 2x2 portion of the screen. Most of the battle involves matching up three Core units in either a column for attacking, or a row for defense. The actual unit movement occurs in a Critter Crunch-esque manner of moving the bottom-most unit in a column to the bottom of any other column. And of course, pulling off moves that create several rows or columns at once reward the player--in M&M:CoH, the reward is more moves per turn to set up attacks.
The different types of units introduce an interesting dynamic, in that Elite and Champion units do more damage than Core units, but they take more time to charge their attacks and are more difficult to maneuver due to their size. I personally found myself avoiding the Champion units in favor of Elite units because although a fully charged Champion unit typically spelled defeat for the enemy once launched, the five or six turns required to charge was frequently enough time to win without them anyway, so at that point, they were just taking up space on the battlefield.
All in all, the battles in Clash of Heroes are superbly satisfying. Combining more advanced techniques like linking attacks (launching two or more of the same color units at once) or fusing units (stacking identical attacks to double power while retaining the shortest countdown) can sometimes lead to a blitzkrieg assault that feels like a symphony of destruction. There were times when I couldn't help but show my friends. "Look at this work of art I just created," I'd say, just before I was about to completely obliterate the CPU with an expertly planned offensive. Sadly, without much experience with they game, they could not truly appreciate it.
With a DS collection pushing 60 titles at this point (legit boxed cartridges, not R4), I consider myself somewhat of an authority on the platform. And it is without hyperbole that I can say that Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is one of the best--if not the best--DS game I played in 2009. I bought it on the same day as Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, and despite the typical quality we have all come to expect from the Zelda pedigree, I have already put at least four times as many hours into Clash of Heroes than Spirit Tracks. You owe it to yourself to try this game out.