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10:00 AM on 08.09.2011

Call of Single Player - Worst of the Best

I was excited when I bought the Hardened Edition of Call of Duty Black Ops for PS3. My friends had been bothering me for years to pick up at least on of the games, so I made a compromise and went all in.

I explored all the easter eggs, played the zombie maps and spent quite a few hours online in many of the different game modes; classic and other styles. It goes without saying that the online modes were solid, offering plenty of variety and fast-paced gunplay and implacable enemies always willing to come back for more.

When my conceit led me to start the campaign on Veteran, any excitement I retained for the title curdled. Calling it difficult is a gross understatement; there are so many things wrong with the single-player balancing that it doesn't hold up to scrutiny when you scale difficulty. Each of the 3 major enemy types (rush/die, Stand/die, Rush to cover/die) are turned to turrets of death with pinpoint accuracy and a high probability of shooting you in the eyesocket. Combine this with a bodycount that even the governator would be proud of, and you have an excruciatingly slow crawl through a bland and repetitive narrative.

Call of Duty is so concerned with shepherding you from one explosion to the next, that the lack of real cosmetic change in difficulty is only mediated by your regenerating overshield. You will find yourself examining the textures of most waist-high walls and sandbags instead of spending time shooting at anything.

The worst offenders are the on-rails shooting segments where a stray bullet will end your life even if you shoot everything as fast as possible. Somtimes an enemy just out of your range will prolong your stay in videogame purgatory. Suddenly, that cool segment you breezed through before fails to hold up under scrutiny and all you want to do is push someone down the stairs.

After this herculean task of memorization, you may get a trophy or achievement, but no one wins.   read

11:04 AM on 07.31.2011

Downloadables: Rising Up from Hard Corps Contra roots.

Among all of the games I grew up with, Contra is one of the most memorable. Amidst the hail of 8-bit bullets, my friends and I would weave elaborate curses as each stray bullet whittled our lives to nothing. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I picked up a back-issue of Nintendo Power at my cousin’s house, that the wondrous Konami Code was revealed to me. Suddenly, a person who sucks at platformers(like me) could finally conquer it once and for all.

Contra has seen its share of console reincarnations and Hard Corps: Uprising, developerd by Arc System Works, is the newest entry in the esteemed franchise. Taking its name from ‘Contra: Hard Corps’ on the Sega Genesis, which featured multiple characters, endings and even choices which could affect stage progression, Uprising attempts to fill some very big shoes.

You control Colonel Bahamut and Krystal, two skilled fighters working for Resistance Forces, it’s up to you to execute a desperate plan to stop the Commonwealth Empire. Most of the classic arsenal returns, with the machinegun, flamethrower (Heat Gun), Guided Laser, Spread Gun, Ripple gun and Grenade Launcher (Crash Gun) rounding out the powerups. Bahamut and Krystal also have two weapon slots, so you can switch between powerups or leave one in reserve so you don’t lose it if you die or take a hit.

Both characters are gorgeously animated by Arc System Works, which puts their comparatively bland 3D rendered backgrounds to shame when under scrutiny. Unfortunately, some of the bosses are intimidating for their inventiveness but have disappointingly bland textures and modeling, while the simple designs make them fit into the overall world created, it makes even the business of mass side-scrolling murder seem a little bland.

In Arcade and Rising mode you get the choice between the protagonists Krystal and Bahamut through its eight levels of wanton violence, with more characters available through Downloadable Content. Arcade mode offers what we have come to expect from a Contra game, levels featuring multiple bosses, turreted gates and waves of enemies, with perilously few continues and lives to sustain you. Anyone who is looking for a speedy playthrough will find themselves frustrated often as there are many hidden dangers to catch you unaware. Since Bahamut and Krystal start with 3 health bars and two weapon slots, you can expect to die often as you learn boss patterns and how to most effectively use your skills.

The Rising game mode allows you to start from these humble beginnings to tackle each stage for CP, points that are gained by completing each level , and spending them on character upgrades for health, weapon pick-ups and skills. This expanded mode is where I spent the bulk of my time, as I built my characters up from their weakest state and into nearly indestructible war machines. In this mode, persistence pays off as you use hard-won points to ensure that every weapon drop is as fully upgraded, or that you sport the maximum possible health bar.

As you grind for points and purchase upgrades, the less you need them, until you make your way to the final levels and their unyielding boss battles. There is enough to buy to keep you busy for quite some time and even grinding can be fun as you refine your technique and challenge yourself to see how quickly you can complete a level or take down a boss. The more you push yourself to perfection, the more points you receive as a payout.

Unfortunately, such ambition is not without its own problems. Though grinding can be a lot of fun, the co-operative nature of the game rears its ugly head. Instead of the ugrades being shared among all characters, points have to be earned for each, which means you will have a lot of gaming to do if you intend to max everyone out. Though the hand-drawn visuals are gorgeous, the backgrounds often add little to the experience by comparison. Bosses are often impressive, but generally lack the visual bite of their player-controlled counterparts.

Though it uses the Hard Corps name from subtitled ‘Contra: Hard Corps’ on Sega Genesis, Uprising is sadly without the branching storylines and multiple endings of its original, but still has a lot to offer. Arc System Works expertly blends the retro-arcade style platforming action with a little bit of new-school sensibility and does the series a great service. While it may not be perfect, it does offer classic co-op online and offline with a pick-and-choose approach to upgrades that allows you to make the game as easy or difficult as you wish, easily placing it near the top of my list for downloadable excellence.   read

11:42 AM on 07.22.2011

After the Hype: LA Noire

I like LA Noire.

Whew, feels good to get that out of the way.

You are Cole Phelps, a Detective with a dark military past who has sworn to uphold justice and the law in postwar Los Angeles. With cases ranging from homicide to arson, it earns it's name and things get dark quickly, with the Coroner being a frequent contact at the scene of a crime.

The limited open-world gameplay handles a lot like Grand Theft Auto since it features a great deal of driving, but the cars all handle like freight trucks and traffic is designed to frustrate you. Anyone who is looking for cars that handle any better than the ones featured in Grand Theft Auto IV will be sorely disappointed. Luckily, you can have your partner drive you to different crime scenes, but any action sequences, like chasing a suspect and ramming their car, or tailing them to a location requires you to be at the mercy of the frustrating handling and awkward camera controls.

In fact, LA Noire feels best when you are focusing on the cases themselves and piecing together evidence to solve the case; there's not much more satisfying than nailing a line of questioning perfectly based on collected evidence and, sometimes, a little bit of Intuition. The rapid pace of cases (21 regular desk cases and 40 street crimes to solve), you will have plenty of time to perfect your technique and recognizing guilty looks. With it's lifelike face technology and engaging script, even the tedium of scouring a crime scene doesn't seem so bad when faced with the prospect of ferreting out LA's dark secrets.

However, this strength is also one of the game's greatest weaknesses. Forgetting where you acquired a piece of evidence and under what circumstances is common. It is never noted in Cole's notebook and rarely spoken during dialog so even checking the script log while the game is paused can leave you frustrated or considering a reset instead of missing out of crucial evidence.

Even cruisng through the game's main storyline missions, I would regularly miss the mark because I had forgotten the circumstances I collected evidence when it was being lied about specifically. The game attempts to correct this by giving precious intuition points that can eliminate a line of questioning, leaving you a 50/50 split or asking the community that gives you the percentage of the community that picked a particular answer (it also includes the percentage of people that got the question right using each method), but those are best spent during one of the games occasional frustrating witness moments since the game gives you so few unless you take the time to explore.

Despite it's huge flaws, the game manages to entertain with a story that mostly sets the tone for Cole's story as his dark past slowly begins to catch up to him behind the scenes of every case. Before too long, it consumes him, even as he moves forward in his career; he finds himself haunted by ghosts of war.

If you are a fan of adventure style detective noire action, LA Noire is a treat in a genre that hasn't had much competition since Adventure games held sway. The occasional frustration is soothed away by the game's slick presentation and voice acting; while you may groan at often having to chase down someone or beat them into submission, this is a definite case where the sum of it's parts makes it something truly great.

While it may not be the best detective game on the block; it's lack of competition leaves it king of the console heap, offering much more than games like CSI.   read

11:13 AM on 07.22.2011

Guilty Gunplay

With few exceptions, there are never civilians in first person shooters. We are used to them in arcade games like Time Crisis, Virtua Cop or Silent Scope; daunting machines designed to eat your quarters by challenging you to test your physical reflexes, which will never be quite fast enough (it is okay to blame the hardware). Yet, first person shooters rarely fill their corridors with scurrying secretaries, and boring cubicles. Instead, every industrial complex is a burntout warehouse, or improbably configured war-machine.

All conveniently stuffed with unfailingly dedicated bullet sponges.

It would take just one. One enemy dropping his weapon and diving for cover amid all the explosions to break my concentration. The other guys would call out from behind their improvised cover, dropping their guns and raising their arms.

They had decided to surrender.

Stuff that will never happen in an FPS.   read

12:48 PM on 06.21.2011

Trophies, Coins, Achievements - OH MY!

Once upon a time, great feats of gaming had no Achievements, Trophies, or Coins to rub in people's faces. What's the point, without them, right? Nintendo calls them 'Mythical Rewards', despite introducing them with the 3DS, and making it necessary to get so many to unlock applications on the new handheld. At their best, they are a point of pride; at worst, a mind-numbing tedium to shepherd you to gaming purgatory. In the old days, before fall of 2005, skillful gamers could only commit their accomplishments to video as proof, or make wild claims to whomever would believe them.

The list of achievements one could squeeze out of a game have ranged from epic to ridiculous for as long as games have been around. Passing that ridiculous kill-screen or claiming to resurrect Aeris (spoiler?) with a fabled Materia, has long been the stuff of myth and legend. There is no doubt that the rise of digitally tracked gaming accomplishments has changed the face of gaming, allowing you and your friends to compare their skills with yours in realtime; making it much easier to ferret out lies from the truth.

Even though they are tracked online by Microsoft and Sony, showing off is all they are good for; Nintendo is right in one respect -- they are only good in the social arena, there are no redemptive prizes like the ticket-spewing arcades of old. The main reason for this is most likely because it is up to the developer to set the conditions for unlocking a trophy or achievement - a process which can range from frustratingly difficult to mind-numbingly simple; some games only require that you complete every level to unlock them all, while others make you collect frustratingly obscure items. Many people are of the opinion, like Nintendo, that achievements are runing games as we know it, even though they have found other ways to shoehorn them in under a different name or condition to unlock.


A perfect example of developers changing the way we play a game is the first Assassin's Creed game. It exists on both platforms, but only the Xbox 360 version had achievements, at first. A great game in it's own right, it has a series of titles on every contemporary platform except for the Nintendo Wii, with it's fourth main installment coming out this holiday season. Yet, the series was not without it's missteps, especially when it came to these glorious dangling carrots. In the first game you are side-tasked with finding a ridiculous 420 flags and 60 armored Templar enemies 'hidden' in the game's hub world and thickly populated cities. While this kind diversionary tedium has often made appearance in videogames, this incredible use of achievements made a thin world traversal mechanic into an unbearable one -- but only if you care about your gamerscore enough to indulge it.

Mercifully, the PS3 version of the game lacked trophies, but even with trophy support, I would never have tried. Giving incentives for collections that add absolutely nothing to gameplay, storyline or mechanics is just a way for the developer to force you to play their game longer while adding nothing but meaningless fluff; fortunately, there are just as many devs that avoid this pitfall by allowing you to get every achievement with 5 minutes of button-mashing gameplay.

Since most games still require completing all trophies and gamerscore points to truly cash in, it's usually a mixed bag of nausea-inducing tedium punctuated by premature elation. Factor in online-only trophies and achievements that are unavailable to all of our offline brethren and you have an easy recipe for frustration and schadenfreude.


On the other hand, even the 'mythical' have ways of making us puff our chests out with pride, or smashing a controller on the Anvil of Frustration(tm) like the unapologetically challenging games of old; titles that rely on their mechanics, like Demon's Souls, are a perfect example of rewarding persistence with a medal that feels truly earned. Some are mimetic, cashing in on pop culture by awarding us just for pressing the start button, like Crysis 2's 'Can it Run Crysis?' award. Others are like scavenger hunts, the names hinting at what conditions need to be fulfilled; inspiring us to explore the game in interesting ways, like hog-tying a woman and placing her on train tracks to earn the 'Dastardly' achievement in Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption.

These are the silver-lining to the gloomy raincloud, but developers have truly started going beyond their humble beginnings.


Like it or not, Achievements, Trophies and Coins are probably here to stay. While Nintendo claims they will abstain from them even with their next generation of hardware, earning Coins on the Nintendo 3DS handheld is a similar enough approach that there is no doubt they will join the fight, even if some of the tasks are physical instead of purely digital.

Giving developers the tools to add extra incentive to gameplay, even if they don't always translate into tangible goods or novel experiences, only ensures that even the worst aspects of gameplay may be rewarded with a shiny gold star or scratch-and-sniff sticker; as long as there are weak mechanics and gameplay to exploit, don't expect some of the most glaring offenses to ever disappear.   read

8:04 PM on 06.17.2011

E3, Boring?

I think a lot of the people who said E3 was boring were only interested in the first-party titles. There were a serious lack of console exclusives this year, but we were still up to our necks in all kinds of titles that most people did not and probably NEVER will see.

If you judge each of the console makers by their exclusive titles alone, you will come away wanting, but if you dig a little bit deeper for some of the games that didn't see a lot of press coverage from larger media outlets the impression could be much different.

Since most people have finally settled into their comfort zone with their hardware purchases, the new hardware seemed a bit underwhelming despite it's overall potential.

The Vita has to contend with other devices like the iPad and Android platforms which offer more than just gaming as a utility. That it's priced competitively with the 3DS is a great thing, but it has to bring much more to the table to compete in the portability market. Granted, that's a moot point since people are always looking for different experiences than others might. It's just figuring out how to secure a market share, even if it means doing something different.

Probably the most interesting footnote is Sony value-pricing a line of 3D televisions. It's not much for big media who may already own a TV set, but for everyone finally considering the adoption of a HD set, it could be a godsend.

The Wii U comes at an odd time, with Wii price drops finally allowing many people to see it as a viable option, only to have Nintendo try to hit them in the pocketbook again. Nintendo have always led people around by the nose in innovative uses of inexpensive tech, but they have been lacking in software presence for quite some time. They showed reels of games coming to the console, but not any of those games running in realtime aside from Wii-quality games and a few tech demos. Not bad, but definitely not endearing to anyone who plans to support the platform (did you see the godawful developer testimony reel?).

There was a lot to get excited about, but most of it seemed to get buried.

Even Microsoft led the show with a multiplatform title, which just so happened to be the Eighth title in the franchise's history! It was hard for people to recover from skepticism after that, I think.   read

8:02 PM on 06.17.2011

Courting Female Gamers

Every gamer has their own 'flavor'; a genre addiction that constantly calls out. All you have to do is look at the games you own to find out exactly what scratches your itch; for me, bullets do the trick.

When Quake II came out I tore through it in no time, and quickly learned to use Gamespy and other clients to ferret out competitive servers for my burgeoning addiction. One-shot railgun kills and grappling hooks changed the game into a caffeine-fueled-eye-straining-gibfest. My favorite part of the entire experience were the angry waves of text as my female avatar soared through each level, pumping depleted uranium slugs into the face of her ham-necked counterparts.

That's right, female. A presence that is almost always conspicuously absent from games that involve unloading a few clips into the faces of a diverse range of assailants. The loving developers at Id gave me a choice that forever changed my view of shooters by allowing me the preference of a strong female lead in my blood-streaked after school playground.

I am male; at least I was the last time I checked. In most games that give me the option, I play a female because it almost always seems like a novelty. The main characters in games like Quake II, Call of Duty and many others are overwhelmingly male

This is not by accident. Roleplaying has always relied on story to drive the action and choice to give characters more involvement in growth, appearance and even gender; helping to bridge the gap between sexes, even if that sex isn't what you live day-to-day. Big developers like Activision have even come under fire by claiming that female leads "don't sell games", even generating as much focus group data (in delightfully skewed ways) to support their claims, according to articles popping up at industry-focused sites like Gamasutra
This would explain why their female leads tend to be Barbie and Dora the Explorer; not exactly reaching out to the female community.

Activision even seemed close to hitting the mark when their Black Ops commercial "There is a Soldier in all of us" featured women, in a variety of dress, duking it out with their male counterparts. Unfortunately, females are wholly absent from the multiplayer and single-player campaign, even though the game offers many degrees of customization it seems strange that they would fall short in this area, despite many online community forums consistently raising the issue with developers of First Person Shooters.

The developers that break stale tradition, like Valve's Portal franchise strike gold with the female set seemingly without effort. It takes aim at puzzles instead of wanton bloodshed, narrating the single-player campaign with witty dialogue and continuing narrative. Hell, there aren't even any faeries, horses or shades of pink anywhere on the box! Other genres, particularly RPGs, have often given the option to play as a female character in some way while including an overall narrative that appeals more to women.

So, what are companies like Valve doing that is so right while other companies let a growing market slip through their fingers?

Interpret, a marketing research firm, released a new report “Games and Girls: Video Gaming’s Ignored Audience”, which examined behaviours of female gamers, found that the market is growing and not just in casual(facebook), music and exercise games. They are only putting numbers to what developers like Bioware(makers of Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate) Lionhead (Fable) and Valve (Team Fortress 2, Half-Life, Left For Dead) have known for years: A good story and the availability of strong female leads help their games appeal to women, even if they exist in gaming domains people consider to be dominated by males. Not only that, but they are GROWING. According to the report recently released, by 50 percent in just the past two years, which saw the releases of 2 Mass Effect and Dragon Age games as well as Fable III and Left For Dead 2.

It's no surprise then, that the story-heavy games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age try to further their appeal by allowing characters to even use simple tools to modify the faces of their characters, helping them feel more emotionally invested as they make decisions and occasionally engage in visceral combat. The research lends more weight to this approach, with Courtney Johnson, an analyst for Interpret noting "they[women] are much more likely to prefer to play solo than men, and play games for less competitive and more narrative- and character-driven reasons."

When I think about it, it seems like the simplest thing in the world: inclusion. Games have had narrative and female characters for years, but many developers have been wildly successful making games where women are present, but only as eye-candy or impractical beings better suited to burlesque than serious protagonists (not that there isn't a time and place for these things).

Like 'Field of Dreams', it seems you only need to build it and they will come.   read

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