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Ethan Christopher Clevenger's blog

3:04 PM on 02.07.2013

DmC seemed fine to me...?

Full disclosure – never played a Devil May Cry game in my life, so to speak to the traits of the reboot in relation to its predecessors might be overstepping my boundaries a bit, but in terms of a singular game, DmC is stellar. Also, I usually don't post my reviews here and save them for my personal website while just leaving the interesting stuff for Destructoid, but with all the controversy over this title, I figured my two cents was overdue.

Platform: PS3*/Xbox 360/PC
Genre: Hack ‘n Slash
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language)

Players bemoaned a reboot of Devil May Cry for quite some time, fearing that Ninja Theory would destroy the series. I didn’t have much to say on the matter, since I’d yet to play any of them. For the same reason, I didn’t find myself overly excited about this new one. On a whim, I downloaded the demo and was immediately hooked.

Come full release, the game is everything the demo promised and more. DmC circles around Dante, a Nephilim born of a demon father, Sparda, and angel mother, Eva. His twin brother Virgil makes himself known and enlists Dante on a mission to destroy Mundus, the demon king at the head of the demon hold on mankind. He also killed their parents, so there’s a personal stake in the matter as well.

Right off the bat, the game is blindly bloody, inappropriate and sharp. It is my understanding that it grasps the intricate button mashing of its roots with admirable accuracy. Combat is nearly spotless. Dante is always acquiring new weapons, all of which can be cycled through swiftly in the midst of battle and all of which are valuable in their own way. Where many games present you with myriad weapons only useful as environmental tools for the level in which they were introduced, DmC keeps all the weapons relevant, tailoring only boss battles around their use, and even these don’t narrow your options for slaughter.

Additionally, enemy types are varied from start to finish, then appropriately amped up as you hit the higher difficulties on multiple playthroughs. These help to focus your attention and force all the weapons to be utilized, training you in the varied combat necessary for higher style rankings without you even knowing it.

Collectibles also make an argument for tackling the game at least once more. There are lots to be had, and many of them in early stages can’t be accessed until the player acquires weapons from later levels, paving the way for those secret missions and health upgrades.

I did encounter a progress-halting bug as two weapons seemingly disappeared from my inventory. An internet search found only one other soul encountering the problem, and after turning off the system and booting up another level, they returned. I can only hope the other guy had the same luck.

Graphically, this is a really pretty game, but shadows can be blocky, especially across faces, and it’s hard to say if this was an artistic decision or a glaring ugliness. The soundtrack is also killer. Under no other circumstances could I tolerate the heavy punk lining every level, but while tossing enemies to the skies and ripping them to shreds, there could be no other way about it.

The story, while somewhat predictable, is engaging enough. Ninja Theory recognized there wasn’t much to it, and so paced it pretty quickly so the player could go back and do it again. No one is very deep and Dante’s affection for the human Kat isn’t touching, but it’s better to take it for what it is, especially considering even Dante isn’t taking it very seriously. His conversations often consist of “Fuck you!” before tearing into battle. He does spin off a great one-liner once in a while, and it all rolls together to keep the game from being too dark and mundane.

More prevalent are the literary allusions. Using the Divine Comedy’s character’s names makes the game’s roots obvious, but the nature of the game can keep it subtle at the same time. While no one is surprised that Virgil is the leader of the Order that comes to recruit Dante, just as the writer Virgil led Dante Alighieri through hell in the Inferno, the relevance of Dante’s ascension of Mundus’s tower towards the later stages of the game didn’t resonate with me until Kat said “You’re going to have to go up five floors of hell.” Finance is located on the eighth floor of the building, and while fraud on this floor was likely, perhaps they would have been more appropriately located on the fourth floor with gluttony. Nonetheless, the more well-read of the game’s audience will appreciate the nod to 14th century Italian literature.

This is a game I’d love to get through again on a higher difficulty or two, so hopefully my backlog will allow it sooner than later.

Bottom Line: 9.5/10   read

2:27 PM on 01.07.2013

Games I bested in 2012 and a look at 2013

A little late, but here's what I managed to get through in 2012:

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
The Darkness 2
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
LittleBigPlanet Vita
Lollipop Chainsaw
Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Mass Effect 3
Metal Gear Solid 2
Papo & Yo
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale
Resistance 2
Saints Row: The Third
Sly 2
Twisted Metal

I'm currently playing Borderlands 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, both of which are fantastic. You want my game of the year? Toss up between XCOM and Mass Effect 3, staying strictly in games that were released in 2012. Mass Effect gave me that feeling you get when you finished Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and XCOM has managed to pull me into a genre I never thought I'd enjoy and get me thoroughly hooked. It's fantastic. You'll see reviews for it coming, and you'll notice a couple on here I haven't written up yet. They're coming.

A little disclaimer - I still haven't played Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution or Max Payne 3, not that I'm optimistic of those besting either of the two titles I mentioned earlier.

Looking onward, 2013 promises to be packed full of stuff. Despite the fact that the next generation of consoles could be here next holiday, we're seeing lots of new IP crop up. So what am I most excited about?

Let's get the little guy out of the way - my Vita has been getting plenty of playtime as I catch up on the notedly few titles out there for it, and fortunately for me, looks like there will be plenty of time to catch up. Ignoring Sony's cross-buy titles, Media Molecule's Tearaway is the only title really catching my eye, and in a really good way. This is one of my most anticipated of the year as a whole.

Onto the home console - what aren't I excited for? The spring is full of stuff that got bumped out of last year. Next week is the new Devil May Cry reboot, something I wasn't particularly interested in until I got a hold of the demo, and it looks like it's going to be fantastic. My only qualm is Ninja Theory producing on the narrative end. DmC has always been known for its combat, and I immediately fell in love, but if they try stretching this thing out over 14 hours, there better be a good reason.

Next on my list is Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. I saw Spirited Away for the first time this year and I was surprised just how much I loved it, so it'll be cool to have Studio Ghibli's narrative chops behind a video game. This is another one that had a demo selling me - I've never played much of a true RPG a la Final Fantasy, so this will be my first adventure. Look for this January 22nd.

Man I wish Rayman Legends was coming to other consoles. It doesn't justify me buying a WiiU. I loved Rayman Origins, and Legends looks to be even more of the same.

March kicks off with Tomb Raider on the 5th. I'll be the first to admit I have limited experience with the old Lara Croft, but this new title is dripping with pretty. Sure, it's taken some blatant inspiration from the Uncharted series, but no one is complaining. Some survival aspects should keep it sufficiently different from the infallible Nathan Drake, not to mention the grittiness the trailer is oozing.

In like a lion, out like an...eagle? Bioshock Infinite has all my attention. Ken Levine is my kind of guy - an English major designing video games based on political philosophy. Doesn't it make your spine tingle? I love that this entry will maintain the spirit of Bioshock, but still be a completely different game. Barring any more delays, I expect everyone to be knee-deep in Columbia come March 22nd.

We get April to calm down, but then back in the fray come May with The Last of Us. Naughty Dog has been turning heads with Uncharted for a long time, and truth be told, I don't think The Last of Us will be much of a departure. We'll see what happens. If nothing else, Naughty Dog is putting together an absolutely beautiful game unlike anything we've seen thus far.

Into the stuff without release dates. Quantic Dream really won me over with Heavy Rain, and so I can't wait to see what they do with Beyond: Two Souls. David Cage is another guy in the business I have a lot of respect for. Very cool to see an actual actress completely immersed in the game, and I love Ellen Page.

I don't know a lot about Puppeteer, but it looks like it'll be doing some different stuff, and I've always loved different. It's easy to get burnt out on those action/adventure titles.

Remember Me is the first game from developer Dontnod. It's a new IP that promises a lot of ingenuity. Not only is the story promising something a little more personal than a bad guy taking on the world with all this memory mixing, but the personalized combat system also has my attention.

Next up, South Park: The Stick of Truth. I've never been a huge fan of South Park, so I'm certainly a bit tentative here, but it's cool to see Matt and Trey actually behind the scenes on a South Park game and the rippy-bits art style faithfully represented. With Obsidian at the helm, I think we're in for a strange and exciting, if not a little buggy, adventure.

Finally, there's Watch Dogs. There's not a lot of information out there on this either, but it looks like it'll be exploring some possible conspiracy theories surrounding modern technology and the dangers of connectivity. Another new IP with lots of promise.

From there, I'll be waiting it out for the inevitable PlayStation 4.

But certainly there's more than that coming out next year! Yeah, so let's talk about those real quick. If it's not on here, I'm pretty "meh" on it, and there are a few I'll talk about specifically.

Dead Space 3 - looks like Lost Planet (the third entry also coming out this year). I don't need a big monster shooter and I don't need a co-op partner. I play Dead Space for small corridors and being scared out of my mind. EA promises it'll still be scary, know...EA.

The new Sly Cooper will be good, I'm sure, but I need to play the third before I decide whether or not I care.

Crysis 3 has a big focus on multiplayer, so I'm curious to see what happens from a single-player standpoint. I'm also a little sore about this budget not going to a TimeSplitters there's that.

Metal Gear Rising looks nothing like Metal Gear Solid. I'm sure I'll play it at some point, but I'm not itching to get at this button-masher, especially until I know if it's going to do anything for the Metal Gear canon.

I'm all God of War'd out, and I haven't even played the Origins collection, so the last thing I need is another one with Ascension - especially one with a new-fangled multiplayer that will get played for a month after release before everyone goes back to whatever they were familiar with before.

I've never liked Grand Theft Auto. Sorry.

Oh, and if The Last Guardian even gets a trailer this year, you know, that'd be awesome, too.   read

4:04 PM on 11.29.2012

Video games, art, an acceptable hobby and bringing the world together

Without much thought, art brings to mind paintings and sculptures, and over time it's grown to include music, and perhaps more begrudgingly books, while film continues to carve a niche in the world of "art".

Why have the last two come so late in the game? Film is a relatively new medium that continues to gain ground and dish out "classics" to be regarded in future centuries, but handwriting has been around just as long as any form of recording music.

Consider the ubiquity of more accepted forms of art. Anyone across the planet sees the Mona Lisa and generally agrees "Yes, this is art!" But more importantly, they may also exclaim "Sí, esto es arte!", "是的,這是藝術!", "Oui, c'est de l'art!" or even "جی ہاں، یہ فن ہے!".

Not sure what those mean? Roughly translated, they all recognize the Mona Lisa as art. Any person, any language, can glean something from the Mona Lisa. For that matter, Bach is also appreciated by more than just English speakers. Try that with "Casablanca".

So what's the significance of this on a blog about video games? One of the biggest hurdles facing the industry is legitimacy. While it spreads day by day, those of us not surrounded by other enthusiasts and industry analysts are well aware of the stigma that can come with the hobby and the glossed-over stares that a video game discussion tends to garner.

But bring up "The Dark Knight Rises" and the majority of the room can relate.

Does this mean "Arkham City" is less ubiquitous than it's film counterpart? Is the caped crusader less accessible to the masses in video game form than on the silver screen? While films translated for various languages overcomes these difficulties to most extents, I think there's something else to consider.

The English language consists of 26 letters and several pieces of punctuation that can be combined in seemingly infinite ways to mean seemingly infinite things. To the untrained Pakistani eye, Faulkner's use of those letters and punctuation means nothing.

Now consider Mario for your SNES. The controller had 12 buttons, the effects of which could be seen when activated. Death was met with a downtrodden ditty and dropping of the screen while victory meant riding a flagpole and trotting into the castle.

More importantly, anyone could figure this out. Without any help.

It might have taken a little while, but an afternoon was likely ample for anyone to get the gist, while learning a language without metaphorical training wheels will probably never happen.

While we've gained a couple buttons and the nuances may be more intricate, games today reflect the same attributes. One might not follow the plot all that well, but anyone can pick up Okami, take less time to learn the controls than it might take, perhaps, to acquire a taste for freeform jazz, and recognize that the scenes being played out are magnificent and wondrous.

And do we ever really do much with art other than enjoy it? Some art sends a message, but scores of people hang Monet in their living room because "it's pretty", and we enjoy "pretty". By that logic, even Mortal Kombat fits the bill as a way to have a rip-roaring time ripping your friend's throat out.

Speaking of multiplayer - does anyone really enjoy art as a group? We can both look at it or listen to it, and should we share a dialect, have a conversation about it. It's not unlikely, however, that the patron next to you at The Louvre doesn't speak much of whatever it is you're speaking, so good luck having a meaningful conversation about just what it is that Mona Lisa is smiling about.

Regardless of what language you speak, however, two people can really bond over a game of Smash Bros.

We overcome gaps in generations, culture and language. That's what paintings, sculptures, music and yes, video games, share. Meanwhile, without help from a translator, films and books struggle more to accomplish this, but it's unlikely anyone will groan and proceed to hide your gift to them to cover up the nerdiness if you bought it at Barnes & Noble.

But even if video games acquire recognition as art, a theme you may have noticed here, does that justify dumping hours of time into them? Not all that much. Additionally, does it grant grossly inappropriate games like Saints Row: The Third a free pass? Despite how much we may enjoy it, not really. There will always be the Hobby Lobby wall furniture we hang simply because we enjoy it - not because it's moving the medium in any significant way or making contributions as "art" is wont to do.

No, my point is that we enthusiasts clamored out of our parents' basements long ago. Schools for game design cropped up, we started playing Angry Birds in front of people on the subway and if nothing else, some of us gamers even make a living doing what we do.

And beyond all that, just like the girl on the train reading Tolstoy today and Dickens next week, we're more than that. That girl probably enjoys partying or hiking just as much as I also enjoy rock climbing or cooking. It's not defining to be an enthusiast, but gaming beyond your smartphone still seems to imply that.

If we recognize games as art or even just a legitimate hobby, maybe we can start moving past that.   read

12:56 PM on 11.26.2012

Brotherhood makes a case for the Assassin's Creed series

Consistently two years behind the curve, it's time for my annual Assassin's Creed review!

Platform: PS3*/Xbox 360/PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Players: 1 (Online: 2-8)
ESRB: Mature (Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence)

If you're a frequent reader, you're aware that I'm not the world's biggest fan of the Assassin's Creed series. That being said, the story continues to pull me back - "I gots to know!" So I cracked the cover on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.

Desmond is beginning to more strongly feel the effects of the bleeding as he begins to gain some of the skills his ancestors so often utilize, which led me to realize why everyone really started to love this series. Sequences with Desmond are Nolan North climbing on stuff and creating witty banter with a cute blonde. It's Uncharted! So much explained.

Of course, this is not the girth of the game. We meet up with Ezio Auditore da Firenze once again, who has lost the Apple of Eden to Cesare Borgia, a Templar. The rest of the game consists of building factions, procuring knowledge and getting the Apple back.

This title feels much tighter than the last two - a very good thing. Gameplay finally feels like it's found its footing, letting the entire experience mesh much better. Guiding Ezio through the city feels much less frustrating than it has in the past. This is not to say that there aren't moments where I'm rolling my eyes because jumping backwards is nigh impossible to gauge, but all in all, a much more pleasant experience than past outings.

The story continues to impress, though sometimes dialog and Italian names go flying by, so hopefully you remember faces well. Ezio is often tied up in someone else's problems, not actually making strides towards getting the Apple back, but such is the nature of being one of the most popular men in Rome.

That being said, the main path is not all that long. You'll spend much more time getting lost among the many other tasks available in the city. As before, Ezio will be renovating the storefronts of Rome to gain an income. Flags have taken the place of feathers as the collectible of choice, though there are still ten feathers floating around somewhere. There's some sweet armor to be had by tracking down a religious cult, quests for each faction and Borgia strongholds to usurp.

Unfortunately, all of this side-questing can be cumbersome. The map is littered with things to do, and some waypoints don't even disappear after being addressed. Repaired aqueducts and bought up landmarks stay on the map in the same form after the fact, so it can become confusing keeping track of what's been done already. Additionally, many of these things have no inherent reward. Do all the courtesan missions you want - I'm not sure there's a payoff. Playing through the entirety of Ezio's teenage love story is cute enough, but doesn't give much to the overarching cause.

One sideline of the game that actually performs very well is the "brotherhood" aspect. Ezio begins recruiting rebellious townsfolk to his cause and must train them to fulfill contracts across Europe. When they aren't out of town, assassins can be called to aid in battle. This is an extremely useful mechanic in many cases to keep cover while getting guards out of the way. The death of a comrade can feel like a real loss after training them to a high level, however, so one must weigh the chances of failure before calling them in.

All in all, it's really more Assassin's Creed, so there isn't a lot to say. The team at Ubisoft really colored inside the lines this time so that the game is genuinely fun and not as frustrating at a platforming level like the other games could be. That is, until the last forty-five minutes or so.

It's as if the team realized that release was impending. Most games, you simply delay the release date, but Assassin's Creed is an annual entry - no sir. For the last portion of the game, the player must wield one useless weapon that can't be switched off. The story begins fast-forwarding in time extremely quickly, bouncing months at a time. Suddenly, there's a siege. I'm not sure anyone knows where or why, but it's there. Ezio heads for a nameless castle and starts climbing things, but it takes a while to realize why or what's happening. Not only does the story start unraveling, but things start getting buggy. I got caught both in the corner of a catapult and the middle of a courtyard, enemies would ignore me and the game froze altogether at a couple points.

Fast-forward back to Desmond, who begins climbing about the Roman Coliseum. How he knows where he's going, we're not sure. The apparitions that lead him earlier in the game are altogether missing, but the camera points us in the right direction, so as the player, we roll with it. This portion is heavy on platforming, none of which lends anything to the story other than to be an obstacle to overcome. While playing as Ezio, platforming is part of who Ezio is. It develops his character. We know little-to-nothing about Desmond, and this isn't growing him in any way, shape or form. After an extremely redeeming game for the series, these last portions undermined a great deal of it, so if you're wondering why the score seems low for the praise I've given thus far, you can point to this section of the game.

Ignoring that, there's a lot to be said for Brotherhood bolstering the series. I may not be able to stay away as long as before. Revelations might just have to happen sooner than later. While I'm still not sure it warrants an annual installment, Assassin's Creed has me pretty well roped in now.

Bottom Line: 7.5/10   read

9:53 AM on 09.14.2012

The WiiU won’t increase market share – a stop-gap at best

This morning, Nintendo unveiled a slew of details about the WiiU, officially due out November 18th. Here’s the important stuff:

There will be two versions available. The base $300 model comes with the system, a GamePad, and HDMI cable, sensor bar and all the other goodies you need to get started. It’ll have an 8GB HDD, and it’ll play Wii games. This means no standard WiiMotes, which are necessary for multiplayer, and must be Wii Motion Plus controllers.

The $350 model upgrades to a 32GB SDD and tosses in a charge cradle for the GamePad and a console stand. The bundle will also come with Nintendo Land, the big launch title featuring your Mii, and a subscription to Digital Deluxe Plus through 2014. Currently, all we know is that it will discount your digital downloads, which will be available for all games.

The WiiU is going to have processing power similar to the PS3 and Xbox 360, which means its getting a ton of third-party titles shipped over including Assassin’s Creed III, Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Black Ops II and Darksiders II among others.

Nintendo TVii is a new feature that will ship with all consoles and be free to use, giving users the ability to direct streaming services to the GamePad, even if someone else is using the main TV. This includes Hulu, Netflix and even your DVR.

There will also be a social network for WiiU users called MiiVerse, which will support real-time communication among other things and will be accessible through your PC or smartphone as well.

So where does that leave the skeptics?

Overall, we have to look at the fact that the WiiU is still just catching up to current-gen systems. What’s Nintendo’s plan when Sony and Microsoft roll out their next consoles in a year or two? Rumors currently have Sony utilizing 4K resolution for the next generation, and while those TVs are way too pricey now to be mainstream, it’ll be interesting to see what the next year or two brings.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is filing patents for projection-based gaming technology that may well take over your living room. Should either of these come to fruition, the WiiU will be right back where it started, and third-party developers will have to scale back their dreams if they want their titles to work on the WiiU.

Speaking of third-party devs, while it’s great that the WiiU is getting ports of solid titles at launch, there’s no guarantee they’ll do well. To start with, few other than the Nintendo faithful can pick up a WiiMote and go – it takes a little getting used to. While some titles will make unique use of the GamePad, there are bound to be some straight ports. Why would someone want to buy an entirely new console to play the games they can already get on the consoles they already have with controllers they already like?

Things like Arkham City: Armored Edition are also disheartening. Similar spin-off titles of AAA blockbusters, such as the Wii’s Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition, have proven watered-down and sub-par.

Additionally, we have very little information on how the WiiU’s online will work, which will significantly hamper many of these titles. Look at Mass Effect 3, a game with, what I consider, one of the best online multiplayer experiences to date. How well will this work on the WiiU? It’ll already be hurting since Wii players won’t have played the first two titles.

Another of these third-party titles that has been confirmed is Bayonetta 2 – a sequel to a combo-heavy button-masher from Ps3 and Xbox 360. This is an interesting move by Platinum Games, considering other hardcore third-party titles exclusive to Nintendo’s latest consoles haven’t done so well. MadWorld and Red Steel were generally well-received by critics, but didn’t sell nearly as well as even the most average Mario titles.

Nintendo TVii is a great idea, but not a make-or-break feature by any means. TV is universal enough that the whole room is usually content watching.

The memory available is paltry, especially considering the whole library is supposed to be downloadable. Not including any WiiMotes with launch bundles simply means that it’ll be tough to get newcomers to the Nintendo brand – they’ll only have to pay more.

Speaking of paying more, the low price-point of the original Wii was a big draw to the casual gamer. While $300 or more for the WiiU isn’t unreasonable for the hardware you’re getting, it’ll be a turnoff to casual gamers anyway as smartphones absorb more of that market share. Where the Wii had a defined audience that no one else was targeting, the WiiU looks as though it could appeal to a slim niche.

So good news for Wii owners looking for HD graphics – it’s going to get the job done. And they’ll get more of the Nintendo IP they love with a healthy dose of third-party tossed in – for now. But it’s not going to get people who currently own a PS3 or Xbox to make the switch – but has that ever been Nintendo’s goal? We’ll see if Nintendo can keep pace when the new consoles hit, and that goes without paying heed to new players on the scene including Valve’s console rumors and the Ouya.

Be sure to comment with your own thoughts and anything I missed!   read

9:37 AM on 08.28.2012

Lights, Camera, Party struggles to break into a stalemate genre

From the inception of the Wiimote through the latest Kinect developments and even the in-between PlayStation Move, consoles have been plagued by shovelware – games designed to take advantage of a new and in many ways gimmicky feature. Red flags include low production value, poor or no voice acting, short development cycles, a collection of mini-games and release day price-points that cause you to raise an eyebrow. Little kids love them – they aren’t seeking any kind of artistic stimulation. While the game claims to target the party scene for any age group, it’ll never actually catch hold of the college crowd hanging out on a Saturday night. Mario Party remains the only franchise to ever overcome the party game stigma with Nintendo’s watchful eye separating it from the piles of shovelware.

Lights, Party, Camera from Frima Studio is looking to change that. Taking full advantage of the PlayStation Move controller, LCP is offering a set of games with a tad more polish that will hopefully gain it a following from those who can’t enjoy Mario Party.

Platform: PS3*
Players: 2-8
Genre: Party
ESRB: E10+ (Mild Fantasy Violence, Crude Humor)

In the face of a market that hasn’t fully embraced the Move controller, LCP gets off on the right foot by using a pass-and-play method instead of requiring each player to wield a Move controller. Not only does this facilitate up to eight players, but it also means that PS3 owners don’t have to invest in multiple controllers to make the party happen, opening up a wider audience. This is supplemented by the $30 price point – a tad higher than your average non-AAA collection of mini games, but still low enough to constitute a gamble.

This is where the accessibility ends. A party game is at its best when anyone can pick it up and play off the bat, and LCP isn’t always fitting this bill. Don’t even consider the hard difficulty for first-time players (and often even for veterans). Additionally, instructions for each game fly across the screen at breakneck speeds, sometimes not even covering the entire premise (there’s still one game involving dodging cream pies that I don’t quite grasp). This can be frustrating for newcomers who just want to play. While the Move functionality is very cool, it means more complex games as opposed to mashing a button as many party gamers are used to.

Some games require a bit of finesse, or at least give the impression they do. The Move controller is extremely intuitive, and so it reflects that no person can really hold themselves completely still, especially with a controller in hand. This can make intricate tasks seems abysmally difficult, especially on a 3D plane, which is still a fresh way of playing for many people. It’s hard to deem this as inherently bad, since this is the direction that gaming seems to be headed, but for the time and place, it might be a little much.

The story mode offers next-to-nothing and doesn’t even justify the time that may have gone into it. As many players as desired can participate to build a house for the Funzini family as they partake in a game show, Lights, Camera, Party! The characters sit in a couple different places that have no bearing on the festivities and then segue to strictly single-player mini games, many of which you’ll play multiple times, as there aren’t really that many. Whichever player wins the round gets a portion of the house built in their character’s fashion. The whole process takes about half an hour. With no script and paltry humor, time would have been better spent elsewhere.

Of course, it’s a party game, and so we’re much more interested in the party modes. LCP offers three, all of which balance a little bit of luck with a little bit of skill, meaning any player can win - a smart move to give experts confidence and newcomers the drive to become a dark horse. The mini games remain one player at a time, which eliminates some competition, but also helps to eliminate stratification of guests and the party host who has already played the game a thousand times.

Overall, LCP rises above the shovelware stigma, but is still trying to bust into a generally monopolized genre. Without popular IP, it’s a lost cause on gamers who don’t make a habit of browsing the PlayStation Store, and this is only kind of a bad thing.

Bottom Line: 7   read

4:49 PM on 08.21.2012

Papo & Yo and complicated relationships

If you haven’t heard, Papo & Yo is the story of a boy, Quico, and his large rhino-like friend, Monster. Monster likes to eat poisonous frogs that make him catch fire and become hostile to Quico. Quico is searching for the Shaman to cure Monster’s sickness. But this is merely scratching the surface.

Platform: PS3*
Genre: Puzzle/Platformer
Players: 1
ESRB: E10+ (Fantasy Violence)

Games create an avenue for stories that no other medium can create – a belief I’ve touted before. And these stories can come in many shapes of sizes – fiction and nonfiction, both tall tales and the eerily realistic. Papo & Yo provided an avenue for one developer to share the story of many living in abusive relationships. An extended metaphor for his own relationship with his alcoholic father, Papo & Yo knocks an emotional home run over the proverbial fence and further contradicts arguments that video games should not be taken more than lightly.

However, games also possess an ability to drag down a story like few other mediums can. Experts in the industry have long cited the inherent conflict between advancing a story and continuing to play a game. A challenge in the environment may be necessary from a gameplay standpoint, but it can be a severe hindrance to the narrative being told, and so it becomes a balancing act to keep the story moving while providing a reason to bother holding a controller at the same time.

Papo & Yo sometimes makes the player feel like a second grader trying to read Shakespeare in this way – what good is the story if we can’t advance?

The game is very short, and therefore doesn’t allow time to really develop a tool in the way that gamers who’ve played Portal establish the portal gun. This detracts from many of the “A-ha!” moments that Portal garnered – everything can be solved with the gun and tools in front of us; we just have to figure out how.

This lack of an established tool means that the solution to a puzzle is sometimes extremely unclear. To combat this, most puzzles are less “puzzles” and more “flip every switch you can”. In at least one case, however, Minority foregoes that formula, which results in a completely counter-intuitive solution with absolutely no indication of how to actually do it. When most paths or moving platforms are at least marked with chalk, this one came from nowhere. Even in the old days of video games without tutorials or hint boxes, the days that purists long after, we at least could say “Hey, that painting’s crooked. I’m going to straighten it and – oh I get it now!”

Any player can bite the bullet and find a walkthrough, but the fact of the matter is that this reflects a developer that was blind to the player and the careful balance required to keep a player interested in both that challenge and the story. And unfortunately, the short length of the game magnifies this singular moment.

Also awkward from a gameplay perspective are the numerous nooks, niches and crannies that exist in the environment. Small alleys and empty overhangs beg to be explored, but appear to offer little in the way of reward, and we’re left wondering why even bother?

Beyond this, there really is a fantastic story being told here. I’m skeptical of the blatant nature with which the developer approached the extended metaphor, and in my opinion may have done well to keep the entire thing under wraps until the player reached the twilight of the experience. Regardless, it’s an emotional keepsake that, for the small time investment, gamers would be remiss to pass up.

For being in development so long, the game is not well polished. Players will pass through several aesthetic features of the environment, Monster may reach through walls to grab you and one spot in particular has a severe sound discrepancy that caused me to think my headphones were going dead. No, that awful static was just the game. Things like this make me wonder what we were waiting for.

Overall, Papo & Yo does good things, but poor design really cramps its style.

Bottom Line: 7/10   read

6:09 PM on 08.09.2012

Ico and the power of video games

In Barnes and Noble, I came across “Castle in the Mist”, a novelization of the critically acclaimed Sony title “Ico”. This struck me as odd. I picked up the book and gave it a once over, and after a couple of pages, sure, it seemed like a good read, but something was missing. And as I thought about it, it occurred to me that any video game that can effectively be translated into a book is not using the full potential of the medium.

There was a day when the argument I’m going to make was less clear and fewer examples existed. There wasn’t a lot to take away from Mario if you weren’t just looking to kill a couple of hours. There wasn’t much to Crash Bandicoot beyond Dr. Cortex seeking world domination and you stopping him.

And these sorts of titles still exist. Mortal Kombat isn’t pushing a lot of boundaries, but there are plenty of gems out there with just as much to say as any of today’s blockbuster films in a span of ten hours instead of two, but now you play parts of it instead of idly watch.

Those games used to encompass my reasoning with people who didn’t “get” games. You like books? You like movies? You’ll like games – at least some of them. But there in the book store it occurred to me that that argument is a great deal weaker than it could be – than it should be. Video games have the potential to be much more effective than those mediums ever could be. There are many titles out there making a case for “Why should I care?” that can’t be ignored.

Books are written in first- or third-person. In third-person, you’re reading about someone or something. “So-and-so went here and did this and was happy about it.” In the current example, “Ico pushed the block.” Well, I guess. That doesn’t seem to encapsulate the situation, though. “Commander Shephard saved the geth.” Now that statement is just plain false. I saved the geth. Or for some, I killed off the entirety of that species! The statement isn’t particularly effective in this context.

What about first-person? “I pulled the lever.” Someone is telling you about it. Not only would I much rather blow up Megaton on my own than have someone tell me about it, but now we know that the main character lives until the end. Spoiler by way of voice. Besides, as anyone who played the game will tell you, Ico isn’t much of a talker beyond “Come on! Let’s go!”

While movies have lent visual stimuli to the otherwise fine stories literature has long been producing, the dilemma remains. The participant is still watching the action – letting it play out in front of them.

This is not to say that all games have built on this. While I enjoy the gameplay of “Metal Gear Solid 4" well enough, it’s the cutscenes and narrative that really get me. I could sit and watch all of those in succession and be content. But at the same time, other games have begun pushing further.

I’m not just talking about tackling more mature and complex themes à la Catherine or the upcoming Papo & Yo. I’m talking about a new experience altogether. I’m talking about being invested in a game at a personal level.

Games are very good at this from the get-go. Describing the premise of a game, in many cases, begins with “You are a…” or “You play as…” or “You take on the role of…” These statements are inherently implicit of the mountains they allow us to move in the long-stagnant field of story-telling. By their very nature, games change the way we relate to the tales we are no longer hearing but experiencing. It parallels the differences between sympathy and empathy. “That seems sad” versus “I’ve experienced that and I know how that sadness feels.”

Let’s bump it up another level with Ico. A boy with horns rescuing a strange girl. The antagonist is, in many ways, a giant castle. The biggest gameplay element? Holding the R1 button. Keep her hand in yours. Don’t let go. So simple, but with a notable lack of cutscenes or speech at all, an incredibly powerful mechanic. Any situation you approach where you have to let go is met with dread. Demons attacking her causes your heart to accelerate. Sure, the underlying fear is a game over screen, but it is so closely related to her not escaping the castle that falling away from her as her path retracts later in the game can be tear-worthy for many despite character development at a narrative level being nonexistent. The simple hand-holding objective created a personal investment and responsibility that set Ico aside from many of its peers.

Ico - an example of emotional attachment unmatched by other mediums

Looking ahead in the timeline, today’s games are moving even beyond that, effectively building upon the “choose-your-path” books, a gimmick once reserved for children’s franchises like “Goosebumps” – hardly a tool to be taken seriously.

These “choose-your-path” decisions now decide the fate of entire races when placed behind the guise of Commander Shepard – an avatar for your long-repressed dreams of being an astronaut. That “gimmick” now means life or death for a reporter, a private eye, an FBI agent, a father and his young son Shaun in Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain”. Very few movies have even approached this. The only example I can think of is a VHS-accompanied version of Clue, which was marketed as a game anyway.

They aren’t perfect for every story, but if you don’t “get” games, the only thing I can say is that there are times when a game is going to tell a story in a better way than any other medium ever could. Ico might be good as a book, but not without some artistic embellishment and certainly not on the same level the game managed.

See the original post on my blog Musings on Gaming!   read

10:23 PM on 08.01.2012

Changing the Model: Keeping AAA Afloat

There has recently been talk of the evolving landscape of video games and the future of the triple-A model. With indie studios like thatgamecompany pushing our concepts of games and price points while OUYA is raking in cash hand-over-fist on Kickstarter, you can almost smell the urine dripping down the legs of EA big wigs fearing for their franchises.

So what’s all the commotion about? Cost. Big publishers, from a business standpoint, are having trouble making the ends justify the means in the face of low-cost iPhone games and the freemium model, or that’s the prevailing belief. How can these companies keep the triple-A market afloat?

First, eliminate the notion that we, as gamers, will only buy blockbusters. It’s a blatantly wrong misconception. Angry Birds has made all kinds of money, and while this isn’t something that’s going to grab the attention of the core market, other small titles have. Small studios like thatgamecompany are setting a new precedent for what will sell and what won’t. Titles like Journey, Fez and Super Meat Boy received critical acclaim and have managed to profit due to small production costs without anyone writing them off as unappealing to the mass market. I’m shooting myself in the foot here as an aspiring programmer looking to get his foot in the door, since these smaller studios require more experienced talent, but it’s a shot I’m willing to take if it means jump-starting the risky and boundary-pushing titles that the small budgets of small studios allow publishers to make. Niche genres have suffered as of late with watered-down, mass-appealing versions of their former selves, and smaller investments may push a resurgence of the creativity that resulted in such games. While these will never replace the Grand Theft Autos and Elder Scrolls, paired with other changes to the business model of big publishers, it can be an effective tool for turning a profit. Sony has already taken to utilizing “incubator studios” that they help fund – small studios pushing out these innovative games.

This leads directly into longer development cycles for the big titles – Dead Space, Resident Evil and the like. While those two certainly aren’t the worst offenders, the point remains. My backlog is huge, and though I’m certainly excited about every title there, I would certainly be able to wait for some while I get through others. Gamers – how many boxes have we overlooked while too busy with the latest installment of Assassin’s Creed? Longer development cycles could bump sales of the titles that are releasing. Then we can stop listening to EA moan about the sales of Dead Space required to constitute a sequel, regardless of its quality, and quit wringing our hands hoping they don’t ruin the franchise by turning it into Lost Planet to push said sales. Starting from scratch is expensive for studios, and perhaps a more polished game with a longer development cycle supplemented by the indie-style ventures would be more cost-effective.

Of course, not everyone is going to jump on these indie-style games. There will always be those that laugh in the face of “art” or similar gobbledygook. What of them? While I’m not particularly concerned that they will abandon their games (look at Team Fortress 2, which has had a massive following since the release of The Orange Box), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to let the record sales of a new Call of Duty fall by the wayside every other year to make way for assuredly smaller profits from those downloadable goodies. How to keep players paying? I’m about to cross over to the dark side – DLC has its place. Indeed, it has many advantages both from the business and consumer standpoint. Call of Duty faithful have proven they’ll pick up the same game at full price year after year without blinking, but they’ll also drop the same amount of money on a few map packs with similar indifference. I imagine profit margins are higher on these map packs, so keep them coming to further supplement a longer development cycle. Gamers won’t complain if they’re waiting on a truly new Call of Duty experience and their friends keep playing the current one.

The same can be said for other games. Shave off cheap, cash-cow antics like Nightwing and Robin challenge maps, as these make it all-too obvious that pockets are simply being padded. I urge companies to look more to extensions of the game à la Harley Quinn’s Revenge. Give me a reason to pick up Mass Effect 3, Saints Row the Third, even a Fallout game and I’ll get on it. Nobody ever likes the main Fallout quests anyway. A new add-on pack would be not only warmly received by many, but would be much cheaper to produce than a full title. Rarely do we see great games properly and lovingly coddled. Red Dead Redemption got lots of love over a massive period of time, including multiplayer expansions and Undead Nightmare, which also stood alone as a full game. Saints Row the Third has received similar attention with more DLC still on the way halfway through the next year.

This is without mentioning the shift to downloadable triple-A titles. As the digital model gains ground, we’ll naturally see a fall in production and dwindling associated costs like brick-and-mortar upkeep and materials. Will we eventually see it disappear? We collectors hope not, but time will tell. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the feelings of any publishers, as EA is already shopping around the Origin store to PC gamers like no one’s business. Steam is strong evidence for the cost-cutting possibilities of digital distribution – gamers are currently mourning their wallets as the Steam Summer Sale draws to a close.

So as a gamer, I offer this friendly advice to publishers as a sort of compromise. Will they ever be able to retain the massive profits they’re used to? Perhaps not, not without taxing the consumer with higher game costs. A recent article on Gamasutra cites estimates that to keep up the current model, costs for game companies in the next generation will jump 25%. Putting all that weight on the consumer translates to $75 games, and with the freemium model making waves, it’ll never fly. Cost-cutting alternatives that, in reality, are good for everyone, are the only solution.   read

1:24 AM on 07.01.2012

The Tetris Effect

The first game console I ever got was a handheld – a Gameboy Color. While that puts me a bit behind many other gamers, I got off on the right foot on the software end, as my first game was the port of Super Mario Bros. This was a great game, but at the time was still a little difficult for me. I spent a lot of time moving from world to world, slowly but surely advancing. Each level was more difficult than the last. Each day became more strenuous. The Gameboy followed me everywhere that sufficient lighting existed – the bus, the couch and awkward family reunions alike. I ate up double-A batteries like whatever was eating Gilbert Grape. Homework could wait. I was an eight-bit plumber with an oddly non-plumbing-related job to do. Each toad assured me that somewhere, in some castle that wasn’t this one, there was an eight-bit princess waiting on me.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Tetris effect occurs when one devotes an excessive amount of time to an activity or game and it begins to overtake the sufferer’s thoughts and dreams. It’s named for Tetris. At its release, Tetris took the world by storm and people began to devote massive amounts of time to it. Players began to see the shapes in everyday life, trying to visualize how pieces of furniture and other objects would fit together to form perfect rows in line with the game’s goal. Dreams of falling blocks were also common.

Though Tetris’s heyday is long behind us, the term is not. The Tetris effect can be seen as a result of any number of mundane hobbies, tasks or other games. I can’t count the people I’ve talked to who stop in the middle of hallways to consider picking up an abandoned bobby pin after playing Fallout. Computer programmers and mathematicians are often assaulted by lines of code and complex equations as they try to fall asleep at night. A nagging thought, an obscure concept, a carrot on a stick dangling in front of our eyelids even at the precipice of consciousness.

Mario began to drive me insane. I imagined the levels rolling by – the identical bushes and clouds, the infinite bricks, the bottomless pits. But I could never imagine a level in its entirety. Instead, a level would form in front of me. The level would never end. I’d often be faced with never-ending stairs. Jumping and jumping and jumping to nothing. If I made it past those, it became a matter of avoiding pits that seemed to go on forever. No matter how I timed my jump in those sleepless nights, I would fall in by some omnipresent and unyielding force.

Mario in Super Mario Bros., one of the first games he starred in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I finally buried the Gameboy in the couch cushions. I could no longer play at the risk of losing more sleep. While the term “stress” was beyond my vocabulary for the time, I was certainly getting stressed out – over Mario. My brother mourned the loss of the Gameboy. I had no idea where it had gone! Oh well…

Eventually the Gameboy would be found, Mario conquered, and peace brought to the world, but I can’t say that I’ve gotten over the Tetris effect. I recall attempting to destroy every structure in The Saboteur. Marked on the map by white dots, they seemed to go on forever, and every time I closed my eyes at night I could only think about setting custom waypoints. Was I capable of moving through my everyday life without placing a marker first? Could I find sleep without setting a place on the map? But where the hell is sleep on a map!? The Saboteur proved to be much less difficult an accomplishment than Mario, but its finish allowed me to shrug off a massive weight and return to life my own person once more.

And now…Catherine. Oh Catherine. The block puzzle to rule them all. If you haven’t played Catherine, the object of the majority of the gameplay is to ascend an awry pyramid of blocks. You have to push them, pull them and crawl around them to drive onward, all the while racing the blocks falling below you. Every pile of coins I collect on the way up is like a frozen body on the trail up Mt. Everest. I’m still in the early stages and on the normal difficulty, but Catherine is proving to be one of the most trying puzzles I’ve ever faced.
And on the brink of sleep, if I’ve spent enough time playing, I can only visualize blocks. An infinite staircase, but now I’m building it in front of me. Pull a block out, climb down, pull out another and climb down again until the staircase is complete, only to find at the top another stack of two just waiting to be yanked out and adjusted to my needs. It’s worse than the Mario staircases as I have to double back on all my own work each time as I build them in front of me!

But I will not be defeated. I will conquer Catherine like I conquered the rest, but I’ve learned to budget my time by playing other games, reading books and watching How I Met Your Mother (I’m on season 5 – no spoilers!). I refuse to succumb to the Tetris effect. I have bigger problems. While the horror, no, the beauty of the Tetris effect is that it maximizes your smallest struggles, I can’t lose any sleep over a video game.

Disclaimer: This post is, in many ways, a dramatization. While the stories are real, I have a life, a girlfriend, a job and bigger problems.   read

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