Raised from the fires of the ATARI 2600, Wizard and Warrioring my way though NES, Contra: Hard Corpsing onward from Sega Genesis toward PlayStation, N64, and beyond. I am a gamer in the truest sense: I may not beat you in Gamerscore, but I have played DOOM COOP over modem. I have hosted a dedicated Unreal server. I have been part of a clan in Tribes. I own the Ultimate Edition of Dead Space. And for one brief, perfect moment, I played a COOP game of System Shock 2 over the Internet. I have seen the mountain top my friends...
Recently my 360 died, so as of right now, I am PS3 exclusive. A part of me likes the newly uncomplicated nature of my gaming, but another part of me wants to finish Alan Wake.
360 vs PS3 is also difficult for me because although I'm better at gaming on a PS3, I don't like any of the console exclusive games. Uncharted I couldn't care for, God of War isn't fun, it's sadistic to play, and Infamous gets my vote for most annoying game of 2009. That being said, I never achieve a level above n00b in a game like Halo or Gears of War (both of whose stories I greatly enjoy).
Now that all of the hype has subsided about the amazing response to the Kickstarter, the nay-sayers are circling to point out all of the flaws with the project and inform people as to why it's already doomed. The biggest argument to this point is the fact that if you happen to have a tablet, or a smartphone with some form out HDMI-out, you can tether a controller and achieve the same effect. But the Ouya was never really about being a smartphone experience on your TV. That's not the point.
Right now, gaming is in an interesting place, mostly stuck between three factions: mobile games on Android and iOS platforms, the “Big Three” console manufacturers, and PC gaming. Although these platforms offer something for everyone, each also has their own unique challenges.
Consoles are famously expensive to develop for – to the point where some developers already think they’re too ‘broken’ and ‘dead’ to be worth the effort. The complexity of game console architecture has also made development become more and more complicated in order to create games that take full advantage of ‘next-gen’ hardware. Just ask Gabe Newell.
And then of course, there’s the fact that console manufacturers can be verypicky about who they decide to hand over developer licenses too. Even if you get that game out, patching won't exactly be a walk in the park either. As a recent Jimquisition pointed out, the features that once set consoles apart as convenient yet powerful gaming machines are disappearing.
PCs, meanwhile, though considered easier to develop for, are plagued by piracy. Those who choose to buy a game legitimately suffer from invasiveDRM. So while PC is an ideal platform for indie devs to get their game on, larger releases often impose restrictions to try to keep theft of their game down, which users steal out of spite anyway. It's a vicious cycle. Not to mention that updating your RAM, processor and graphics card every so often can be an expensive hobby.
Which brings us to mobile. Game devs have been pushing the qualityenvelop on mobile platforms and reaping big rewards. The trouble is, even with mobile platforms being wide-spread enough that a user base is guaranteed to exist, the interface can place some limits on what developers can do with it. You can tether a controller, sure, but with it not being an expected or even common feature for most smartphones, how many developers include support for such a peripheral? The gap is compelling enough that Apple is rumored to have invested in closing it.
So where does the Ouya fit in? Why did I just waste precious minutes of your life explaining the state of the industry? Because the point of the Ouya is to take the good parts of these mediums and combine them into a single system. Easy to develop for, cheap, and accessible via an intuitive controller that gamers will be familiar with.
However, that’s not completely it. Skepticism is sitting here wondering why the Ouya wasn’t simple a Kickstarter for a controller peripheral with open standards for the Android community. It’s telling you that the Android-based nature of the Ouya will lead to ever worse platform fragmentation and piracy, and that no one wants a new console right now. In order to explain why I was drawn to the Ouya, and why I think many developers and Android enthusiasts were drawn to it as well, I need to tell you a little something about my computer.
I am a Linux user. So what, you ask? As a gamer, there has always been a huge disconnect between gaming and the open source community at large. Sure, running Windows games on Linux is possible, but it’s almost always a shadow of what it could be on its native platform. Waiting for months after release for compatibility to be ironed out isn't everyone's idea of fun. So why not make native games on Linux? Technologies like graphics acceleration are almost completely closed. Whether on a console, a PC, or mobile, few companies want to release the documentation for their hardware (much to the chagrin of active open source community member and Linux creator Linus Torvalds). Does this have anything to do with Ouya? Absolutely. Because the Ouya represents the best chance we have to convince GPU manufacturers that they have something to gain from embracing open platforms. With Valve having recently revealed that it will be porting it’s much-loved Steam digital distribution system to Ubuntu Linux, this is a situation which may end up having more weight behind it than people are willing to give it credit for.
A lot of Kickstarters and gamers have criticized the Ouya for offering a paltry 1GB of RAM – which is to say twice the RAM of the both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. Mobile processors are snappy and fast, and as many PC building enthusiasts will tell you, in gaming, the GPU handles a lot of the heavy lifting. So while maybe the Ouya won’t be providing jaw-dropping visuals right now, the prospect of a completely open hardware and software platform for games means that years down the road we could see a console which has top-of-the-line innards and is both powerful and accessible for gamers and developers alike. As a crazed synthetic once said, “Big things have small beginnings.” Is this a pipe-dream? Sure. Am I willing to let go of it then? Absolutely not.
Heck, maybe the Ouya will spur a group of engineers to kickstart their own open graphics hardware. So, although you may think it’s stupid, I can’t say that when I signed up to receive my own Ouya that is was primarily to get a little, grey box no bigger than a rubik’s cube. It was to support the potential a truly open platform has for the future of gaming.
I have but one resolution for the new year in terms of my gaming habits: Play games I want to play. Before you proceed to flame me for my overly-simplistic assertion, allow me to explain.
Gaming is at an important watershed moment. The plurality of hardware platforms, publishers, developers, distribution methods, and control types has exploded and there are now more choices than ever for the average gamer. In the past when a AAA title was released, it would be the next big thing because it was a safe bet compared to the relative unknowns and shovelware which normally polluted the ecosystem of a console or PC. But independent studios and small-time publishers have slowly been gaining momentum, so when I say there are more choices, there is an important qualifier people must realize: There are now more high-quality choices.
However, the major marketing and hype waves of AAA continues. This was the year I stayed under the radar and proceeded to clear out many titles from my backlog of games. When I say that in the coming year I will play games I want to play, I mean I will continue this trend. I will not play a game simply because “it’s the game everyone else is playing.” If you’re like me than you have limited time to play games in between work, social obligations, and life in general. So I take a good, hard look at the titles that exist and are coming out and make more of an effort to play a series or game style I know I would enjoy rather than only play what’s current for a month or two and them dump it.
That doesn’t mean not trying new things or not enjoying new releases, it means knowing I’m playing a game I want to and not because I have to in order to feel like a ‘real gamer.’ The often unsung victims of this are games with stellar ratings but poor sales. Not advertising is not a crime, and if sticking with this strategy means experiencing more titles like Beyond Good and Evil, then that’s just fine with me. I feel like as a community, gamers are risking burying innovative titles like this. A lot of games coming out are suffering from the same syndromes that Hollywood is; They are rehashes of old IPs or done-to-death concepts with better graphics. A part of me wants to seek out experiences that will be generally memorable and enjoyable to me, and this doesn't always mean mindlessly buying the next big thing.
So my resolution is ignore the completely fabricated competition of gamer street credit churned up by large organizations and titles and seek out experiences I know I would enjoy or are genuinely interested in, regardless of how recent they are or how many other people I know just want me to play it. Therein lies the simplicity: Next year, I will only play games I want to play.
I am genuinely interested in the PS Vita hardware, but I can't support it in it's current state. As much as people scorn your current moves in the industry, I have to believe that Sony remains a core component of the gaming industry, or else I would not have made 'the switch' from having all three next-gen platform down to just one, the PS3.
But with less than 100 days to go before the Vita launch, you really need to take another stab at this. Do you fully grasp how much of your potential user base you are whittling away with each new detail you release about it?
There are three problems gaming media outlets, current Sony product holders, and market analysts have identified which I strongly feel you must address in order to save the Vita:
1. Battery life.
The original PSP was chided by many for barely being able to play a single movie from a UMD before needing a charge. Part of the core experience of portable gaming -- a piece both of your handhelds are missing -- is being able to frequently use it on the go. Even today's most powerful smartphones have more kick than the Vita.
2. Propriety memory cards.
I've heard your arguments for the use of proprietary memory. If this were the only hurdle in the Vita's way, I wouldn't be so concerned with it. But this is not the case, and as it stands now, with consumers already price-conscious as it is, the memory cards need some help. At the very least, include a coupon inside every new Vita offering a discount for Vita memory and offer some kind of respite for early adopters of the device.
3. Single account sign on.
First of all, Playstation Plus subscribers should be allowed to tether something like 3 PSN accounts to their Vita. End of story, not open for debate. But second of all, with the region-free hardware, why you would do this is a mystery to me. I had originally bought bought a PS3 because my friend who owned one allowed me to play around on it... using his guest account. I know you're piracy minded, and who can blame you, but with a mobile device you're going to be carrying around with you in public and among friends, disabling account switching of any kind is suicide. With mobile, sharing is caring. Do Android or iOS phones prevent you from signing into Facebook or Twitter with different accounts? Of course not. The presumption is that being able to give a potential device owner the full experience, on their own terms, without disruptions to the original owner's data, is the most powerful testament of that device's capability. A testament the Vita will remain silent of.
What is the most troubling to me is that you are ignoring the concerns of your customers. The people who may (or may not in this case?) buy your product. I can't think of a worse move, which is why I implore you to reevaluate the specifications of the Vita. I know you can do better than this, so the question as I see it is thus: Is the purpose of the Vita to make money, or to create the best possible experience for gamers? I think I know which option most people would currently say they see you pursuing with the Vita, but as ever, the ball is still in your court.
With the Gears of War trilogy coming to a close, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding “H8 out of 10.” But before people read past this and start wondering why there’s no ‘score’ here, or why I don’t focus solely on Gears of War 3, let me reinforce the title: This is a retrospective on my experience with the past three games, not a review.
Also, pro-tip: Spoilers for all three games ahead.
Gears of War was the game that sold the Xbox 360 for me. Before Halo 3 (because, if you remember, Halo 3 wasn’t a launch title) there was GoW. The dark atmosphere, intriguing locust enemy, and ‘destroyed beauty’ theme all drew me in. This was also a title, I’ll readily admit, that I sought despite me having no experience playing it. We all have those games, from time to time, that we have clocked no time on but simple need to purchase and play.
When I finally got my copy, GoW did not disappoint. Not only was it a shooter, but the novelties of vehicle sections, stealth sequences with the Berserker, the ‘stay in the light mechanic,’ and the hammer of dawn’s satellite-powered death beam were all welcome surprises to me. In the first game, little of the world beyond delta squad was fleshed out, and as I’ve stated in other posts, I find this a great strength. The ending boss battle was hard won, and the epic train-battle was both interesting and climactic to me.
I was among those waiting with baited breath as the sequel approached, but the experience was quite different than I had imagined. It was bigger and grander, sure; but the first game, due to the lack of other visible forces and characters, felt almost like it was straddling the line between shooter and survival horror. Unable to gather the strength for a full frontal assault, I had assumed, the survivors of Sera had no choice but to engage in hit-and-run attacks, or, in the case of the lightmass bomb, superior firepower.
GoW2 seemed to ignore much of the feel and story from it’s predecessor and took a radical departure, from an element of horror, to a mindless action game. I back up my descriptor of it being mindless by saying that I remember little, if any of what happened in the second game. I will fully admit I enjoyed it, but it was certainly not a lasting experience in the way a game like Resident Evil 4 is, where I can give you a point-by-point rundown of the events and story. In GoW2, you fight locust. At some point you you stop fighting them to do something crazy which promises to get them “once and for all” but ends the game in a cliffhanger. Sound familiar? I thought so.
GoW3 I was looking forward to, but not to the same degree. No fancy collector’s edition for me. I had learned my lesson, and if I were going to simply play it for the story, I didn’t need golden guns or exclusive multi-player models to do so. It was more of the same as GoW2. Though it promised to return to the series roots with some offerings such as a return of the Corpser and Berserker, it was still a blur of mostly unforgettable action. In the first installment, these two enemies, the Berserker and Corpser, were to be feared as rarely encountered but powerful enemies. In GoW3, just as with the Brumac in both GoW2 and GoW3, they are emasculated. And without the fear and prestige surrounding them, the become boring to me.
I think that’s a key component of my disappointment for these games: In GOW1, you run away from the Brumac, scared out of your mind, as you do the Berserker and Corpser. You end up defeating the latter, but only through ingenuity and using special circumstances, like Hammer of Dawn strikes or forcing them into a pit of emulsion respectively. Later, we kill these enemies with relative ease, and where I understand that this is supposed to convey the waning strength of the Locust, there is no corresponding growth or development on the part of the Gears. They’re still just a bunch of guys on foot with machines guns, but now, for reasons which are never quite explained, they can just kill things easier. These victories feel cheap.
In terms of plot and pacing, the series slowly degenerates into an irritating amount of pointless time-killing. In GoW3, you spend a significant amount of time driving around a tanker, to two entirely different locations, so you can get fuel for a submarine... but the thing is you never get that fuel. At the first location, the pipeline needs to be turned on, but the station becomes too overrun with enemies for you to have time to pump it. On your second attempt, pretty much the same thing happens. Upon reaching the submarine base, no fuel in hand, you find out there is a huge drum of fuel for the submarine on the base itself and easily refuel it – making Dom’s death while at one of the two former locations all the more meaningless and contrived. What is GoW3’s campaign? The important and engaging parts are too few and far between and take a definitive back seat to just shooting at things and cursing.
In light of this discovery, looking back at the previous plots of other GoW games reveals the same kind of trend. In GoW1, breaking into the emulsion caves and planting the tunnel-mapping device underground ultimately fails. GoW2’s story overall seems the most sound. Killing the giant worm was useful, and flooding the hive was a vague ‘win,’ but there is also a lot of moving between above and below ground over and over. Then of course, there’s the lab. I let my roommate borrow GoW3 and in light of the release, he decided to play the other two as a refresher. When playing the second game, he asked me one night, “Hey, in GoW2, why do you end up going to that research lab? The one with human-locust hybrids?” He didn’t know -- and he had just played it just then. I gave him the only answer I could: I also had no clue.
While I can understand the purpose behind these little detours, to make the eventual triumph more rewarding in light of previous failures, GoW just plain does it wrong. In a game like Demon’s Souls, victory is made to feel rewarding due to the punishing difficulty of the levels. This is a good approach to difficulty, because the alternative is a game like GoW, where the unavoidable screw-ups are predetermined. When I finally get it right, I don’t feel like I, as a player, have accomplished anything, because I wasn’t the one who screwed up in the first place. I’m reminded very much of the opening of Resistance 2, where Daedalus gets away no matter what you do. (Since this is technically a spoiler, but happens in the first level, I’m going to let it slide. Sorry.) These games always end up with me feeling like I’m being led down the garden path so to speak. That my actions in these games are irrelevant, because whatever happens is going to regardless of my own skill. Game devs: Please stop doing this in video games.
GoW feels too much like a series which expands and contracts as necessary. Each game seems to have an identity crisis in regards to the series as a whole, cohesive unit, and familiar aethetics from each are gutted from game to game in order to completely change what GoW is supposed to be. The first one wants to be a action / horror game, the second game a pure action game, and the third an emotionally moving experience with a blockbuster ending. To me, the quintessential scene of the series is in the beginning of GoW3. Playing as Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, you go to a stranded camp located inside of Cole’s old home stadium. The stranded there like Cole, but warn him that their leader isn’t too keen on Gears, even him. In a series with a vibrant cast of unforgettable characters, obscure or otherwise, this would be when a surprising twist reveal the stranded camp leader to be none other than lovable scamp #3, and the players at home would all go “Oh man, I can’t believe it’s that guy (or girl)! Wow!” But it isn’t. It’s just some women who yells at you. And then you fight things again. And then the game moves on.
This is what GoW ends up being to me. And experience you keep expecting more from but being disappointed in. By then third installment, GoW just seems to be a tribute to itself, and its efforts become lost on me.
I really hope Epic takes their engine and moves on. I’ll say right now that I don’t want to see another GoW game. I feel like this is Doom 3 all over again: A technically impressive engine and experience with potential that just isn’t being completely realised through it’s landmark title.
Multi-player isn’t covered here at all, because simply put, I did not enjoy it enough to play more than a handful of times. GoW’s single-player always felt like trench warfare to me. With the environments littered with chest-high walls, there was no reason to get close to your enemy. The multi-player is a strict departure to this concept. It’s about getting as close to your enemy as possible, and the single-player campaign neither prepared me for this or provided the kind of environment where I could ‘practice’ it before joining the fray. Horde mode was fun, but after the achievement was unlocked for beating however many waves, my friends lost interest and didn’t want to play anymore.
It’s true that later games had more close quarters combat in the single-player, but no matter how hard Epic tried by shoehorning in absurd weapon’s like Pyramid Head’s Great Knife, I never felt the need to embrace that vibe. The characters in GoW are not terribly mobile, considering how much like fridges they resemble when clunking around on foot, and being close to a hulking, insect-like creature seems like a terrible idea any way you slice it. In the end, I fully embrace the sentiment pioneered by Yahtzee: Games should be judged purely on the merit of their single-player, even if a multi-player mode is included because this is the bare-bones experience a player will have.
Of course, by the time of this writing, the larger, cross-platform, and more advanced Dark Souls has already hit shelves. Oddly enough, despite my having pre-ordered a collector’s edition I was very excited about, I haven’t even put the disc into my console yet. The answer as to why is part and parcel of this post. So join me, if you will, on a saga which began in 2009 and still continues even today. Follow me into the Northern Kingdom of Boletaria – back into the maw of Demon’s Souls.
October 6th, 2009 is a day which will live in infamy for me. Looking back now, I remember a surprising amount of detail. I had recently purchased a Playstation 3 at the behest of a friend and after an impressive experience with Killzone 2, one of the system’s premiere titles at that time. In an effort to give myself more experience with the system and flesh it out in its own right, I was eager to build a library of quality titles. At the time I worked at a popular electronics retailer, and it happened to be a Tuesday, when many new titles were made available for purchase. Arriving hours before the store opened, a fellow associate and PS3 owner called me over to check out a new game he had been anticipating: Demon’s Souls.
The title promised everything I was looking for and more. I’ve always been a fan of character customization, and thus far, all of my PS3 games involved being forced into the mold of a predefined character. But as we chatted, the promise of a fully-customizable action-RPG experience piqued my interest. We only had a few copies (three or four total, if I recall) and they each came with a free art book and soundtrack to boot. I spend the rest of my shift apprehensively checking Demon’s Souls’ scores on Metacritic. Though highly scored, many of the reviews hinted cautiously at the game’s element of difficulty. It was brutal. Unforgiving. Perhaps even downright malicious.
$60 was still a steep investment on retail pay and trying to make the call – weighing the high scores, recommendations from my friend and the idea of some quality-time with my PS3 against the haunting warnings from reviewers – was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in my gaming life. At the end of my shift, as I walked out the front door purchase-less, I had a change of heart. Heading back inside, I bumped into my friend who had already purchased his copy and asked if any were left. There was just one. He had left it in the warehouse for me. People had been inquiring about it all day, I remember him telling me; another sure sigh I was making a good investment. Pulling the last copy of Demon’s Souls from the back and bringing it up to the register, I reassured myself that this was a well-chosen purchase. Little did I know I was already in over my head.
(Sorry, I know most readers / consumers do not approve of this practice of ‘hiding’ games for ourselves and other employees, but you know what? Consider this payback for having to wake up at 3:00 AM or earlier during the holiday season to travel to work in the freezing cold, work 12-hour or longer shifts, even on the days both preceding and following Christmas and Thanksgiving – not to mention being assaulted verbally and sometimes physically by angry customers who blame their last-minute shopping habits on us.)
Upon returning home, I eagerly dove into the game... and died. Then died again. The trend continued with a bevy of means with which I met my end: Skewered by a red-eyed knight. Pushed to my death by relentless enemy attacks over parapets. Blown up. Impaled by volleys of arrows. Even crushed to death under a parade of boulders. In my desperation and anger, I foolishly threw consumables at my enemies, only to be left a corpse in their wake. I tried fire-bombs, swords, crossbows, and even used some of the abandoned ‘soul’ items which littered the first level, hoping a familiar “Level Up!” screen would appear if my counter grew to a high enough number.
No such luck. The game, if you are unfamiliar, is split into five worlds, but only allows you access to one until you’ve completed the first stage. A level I had no such success at. Doomed to repeat it over and over again, I burned up hours, and then days as time passed in a blur. Eventually my weapon broke. Then my armor. All of my health and offensive items became used up and I was left a shell of my former character. I could not afford even to pay the blacksmith to repair them, as my souls were currently floating over a pool of my own blood within the keeps of the Boletarian castle. Utterly defeated, I finally gave up. Removing the disc from my console once and for all, I vowed never to play the game again. Raging and spiteful at the idea of being bested by the title, I could not bring myself to do anything so extreme as hand it off or, as some gamers are known to do to things they hate, destroy it. And so it would remain on my shelf, a testament to my ineptness, until fate brought us back together in October of 2010.
At that time, I was both preparing to move to a new apartment by reducing the amount of my possessions and looking to cash-in whatever I could for some precious Amazon.com account credit through their trade-in program. I poured over my library, looking for old games which I never played anymore, ones which now had HD counterparts, or other safe bets for a lot of credit. I happened to glance over Demon’s Souls and a chill ran down my spine. My process for clearing out current-gen games usually involved me trying to achieve a Platinum Trophy before parting with it. Demon’s Souls, as of that moment, was on my trophy records as having zero trophies. Not even one.
Looking up the value online, it was surprisingly low, and the edition I had, the first-run collector’s with the art book and CD soundtrack, was somehow worth even less than the title by itself. But then, there was something else to this equation. Trading-in was too easy. It was the cowards way out. Demon’s Souls was unique in that I felt a kind of personal failure in losing to it. Like the concept inherently made me a bad person and a bad gamer. My old feelings of defeat and anguish washing over me, I pulled the now dust-covered case from the shelf and pledged myself to a daunting, unholy crusade: I would get my Platinum Trophy. No matter how long it took, no matter how angry I became, or what evil poured forth from my console... I would have my revenge.
I started completely fresh. I deleted the old character, carefully re-watched the intro and savored every facet of the tutorial. But I also armed myself with the most potent weapon of all when vying for Demon’s Souls: knowledge. I looked the game up online, and, for the first time probably ever was able to paint a rudimentary picture of how the game mechanics worked and what it expected of me, the player. To those of you who may consider this cheating, that I used a “guide” to spoil the game and gain an unfair advantage, I say two things. First, I didn’t spoil everything, I just looked up a few things I hadn’t been able to figure out on my own. For example, leveling involves spending your souls, not just gaining the right amount – and more importantly, you need access to a special NPC to do this. Secondly though, for anyone who has used game guides before and found the advice easy to transmute into success, I dare you to attempt to do so with this game. Demon’s Souls is unforgiving, regardless of if you know what’s coming down the pipe. A guide could prepare you to a degree, but if you’re all nerves when you finally reach the red-eyed knight and you mess up on a dodge, the claymore he’s holding still rends you just as mercilessly.
My old sins upon the dark Archdemons of Boletaria cleansed, I went forth, and after pressing on, fighting tooth and nail for every inch of purchase, I overcame my first demon boss. In the end, Phalanx was felled by my blade, and I savored its destruction. The feeling was elating; one of, if not the highest high I have ever felt in my history of gaming. Dark forces had conspired upon my destruction, and against all odds, I stood in defiance. “Let them come,” I taunted, “for they will all suffer my wrath!” And then I died again. Right after killing my first boss, I emerged onto a grand walkway and into Boletaria’s crisp air and sunlight. A dragon immediately swooped down and scorched me into oblivion.
I was admittedly upset, but instead of yielding, I steeled myself to overcoming this challenge as well, and many days of playing and learning later, I felled the mighty Tower Knight. As I played, I became more enthralled, discovered more valuable weapons and armors, killed more bosses, all the way up until killing my first world boss. The game slowly began to reveal its secrets to me. Demon’s Souls is a deep rewarding experience, for those who listen to its subtle dialect of both caution and encouragement. I’m sure you’ve already heard quite enough, about the difficulty and corresponding sense of accomplishment, so I’ll spare you, save for this one point I must reinforce: Demon’s Souls is deceptively simple. This is because it is simple. In modern gaming, developers all too often offer too many avenues of success to us. In order to satisfy our desire for easy progress, I would argue that too many concessions are made. This game provides no such liberty. While at first, this may seem unfair, the thing about Demon’s Souls is that the rules are applied evenly to all. Players and NPCs alike must adhere to the same tenants, and once this clicks, the deaths you experience you begin attributing to your own mistakes instead of cruel, otherworldly forces lurking within the game disc. But all this aside, Demon’s Souls also has other merits seldom found in contemporary games which quickly turned my hatred of it into a devout worship of it’s form and grace.
There is a story in the game, but it’s not overt or pressing. One of the critical flaws of many of my favorite series to date such as Gears of War or Mass Effect is that their developers are convinced that expanding the story or lore lies in detail. But for both of these titles, I have to say that the addition of some information was detrimental -- it felt like they were trying too hard to flesh out something which aught not to be given corporeal being. As an example (SPOILER ALERT, proceed to next paragraph to avoid), in Mass Effect 2’s included DLC for the PS3 release, Project Overlord, the developers begin to reveal technical details about the Geth. They claim (I say claim because I still find most of what they say to be ludicrous) that Geth communicate using some kind of faster-than-light transmission system, then go on to also claim that humans are capable of making the clicking and buzzing noises that the Geth make, and doing so will enable people to control them. Excuse me? The problem here is that some enemies are endearing because they are so frightfully mysterious. The Geth were a favorite entity of mine from the echelons of gaming because of their reputation as “boogeymen.” Precisely because nothing was know about them. Their arrival was always a mixture of fascination and fear. But in Mass Effect 2, BioWare destroyed this mystique with surgical precision.
I’m reminded of the Silent Hill games and their characteristic, unapologetic lack of any context or explanation. This is what makes these games both scary and interesting. And a lack of this is what makes Resident Evil, as a series, a ghost of what it once was. I had been scared by Resident Evil 1 and 2 back in the day. But now, with Capcom going to great lengths to remove any trace of mystery, they have degenerated into simple actions games of the lowest caliber. Game devs: Don’t be Resident Evil. Be Silent Hill.
Demon’s Souls, on the other hand, provides snippets of details from the passing remarks of NPCs, flavor text for items you find, and the general construction and design of the environments themselves. Just enough to engage you but not ruin the sense of wonder or discovery for you. At one point, in a fetid swamp, you come across a holy relic called the “Large Sword of Moonlight.” The flavor text for the item describes it’s association, in the time before the demons came, with the “Moonlight Knight Bito.” Another item, the Phosphorescent Pole, belonged to Lord Rydell. The flavor text tells you that one of the former holder’s most storied exploits was his theft of it from the witch in the sky. Never during the game do you meet Bito or the witch of the sky. Lord Rydell is featured very minimally, but all in all, you are left to fill in the gaps of information about the storied adventurers and the world in which they live, and this provides a sense of awe and mystery that I find unmatched. Although no concrete details are every provided, you never doubt that a rich and vivid world exists just below the surface of the limited portions of Boletaria you are privy to in the game. As a final example, there are five worlds which can be accessed from the hub world of the Nexus, but there are six stone monoliths representing the gateways to these locations. At some point early on in the story, it is explained that the sixth gateway, once leading to the lands of the giants, was the first to be overcome by soul-eating demons. In an effort to stop or slow their spread, the link to that place was destroyed, and now the ruined gateway remains. No other information is provided, but I immediately begin to wonder. What kind of giants? What was the land like? What demons now reside there? I have a mixed reaction. I want to know more about this strange kingdom, but at the same time, it is not-knowing which drives this fascination.
There are also NPCs here, but unlike in other RPG games where they have an omni-presence in towns that makes you wonder why they’re so flat and static, Demon’s Souls portrays the lone survivors of an apocalyptic destruction of humanity. In total, there are approximately ten NPCs. When you meet them in a poisonous swamp, or locked in a castle dungeon for an unknown number of years, you are not surprised to see they are stoic and dejected. Many are hopeless warriors such as yourself, and it’s never a mystery why they’re short on words and reluctant to engage in the battles you wage throughout the world. Instead of seeming empty, they seem hopelessly depressed to me, and this combined with the oppressive environments provides a kind of Gothic, dismal mood that is expertly crafted and never shaken. You truly spend your time in Boletaria feeling as if you are one of a handful of sane human beings left, living on borrowed time as you watch the world end around you. One NPC in particular, “Stockpile Thomas,” serves the basic function of extra storage space. But through your interactions with him, it is revealed that when the demons befell the kingdom, he abandoned his wife and young daughter to flee and try to save himself. Now, knowing that they suffered a gruesome fate, he tends to the possessions of demon slayers (Yes, there are more demon slayers than just you. More on that later) out of guilt and a sense of obligation to help remove this scourge from the world. There is no mystery here why he’s not out doing what you can so easily do -- a feeling I experience all too often in games where a dismal, apocalyptic scenario is easily overcome by a handful of moderately armed every-men: He is a coward.
A good and evil choice system is also present here, but it is not as pervasive as in other games and I enjoy this. The implications are subtle. Killing good NPCs moves your ‘character tendency’ (CT) towards black, other actions move it towards white. But aside from some differences in how certain NPCs treat you and in your character stats, there are no there direct indications to be found here. No ludicrous horns, no ‘bad guy powers.’ You could kill a harmless NPC for some material gain or at the behest of an evil NPC for the promise of a reward, but the action is its own penalty. Some NPCs upgrade equipment for you, sell rare items, or act as extra storage. Killing them will alter your CT, as stated above, but also lose you whatever ability they once provided. In contrast to over-the-top systems like those found in the Fable, Mass Effect, or Infamous series, this is a refreshingly minimalistic approach, and one which more closely mimics real-world, moral ambiguity. In the end there are no consequences save for those you reap for yourself. What’s really ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is decided exclusively by the player in Demon’s Souls.
Speaking of evil, this seems like a good time to introduce Demon’s Souls multi-player. Players in human form can summon phantoms (players who have died and lost their physical form) to help them fight through each particular level. On the other hand, a human player may use special items to manifest in another human player’s game as a black phantom, an evil creature only interesting in murdering them for their souls. These two things aside, players can also observe each other as ghosts as they play in parallel through each world, leave flexible but predetermined messages, and see how each other died via bloodstains. What makes the multi-player much better (yes BETTER) than the majority of games out there though is the limit on communication. Players hold “X” to use a short set of emotive gestures, but beyond this, there’s not messaging or chat. Here’s why this is a good thing: One, it goes a long way toward keeping Demon’s Souls hopeless atmosphere. The other players can’t interrupt the game’s natural flow and mood with their dialog or actions, nor you theirs. For players who are invaded, in fact, this tension is heightened. Two, it breaks down the silos between single and multi-player modes. Instead of having a mode for each, which are often at odds with each other in terms of gameplay styles, objectives and aesthetics for modern games, both are part of something bigger. And three, this forces players to actually, like, work together. When you choose to summon a player, there’s no expletive-laden dialog about what items you have for trade or other mundane tasks one of you wants help with. You both have a single goal: Get to the end of the stage. Beat the boss. Now let’s get to it. If you happen to get invaded, then there is a slightly different dynamic: Survive. Either way, these experiences somehow feel more polished and cohesive than all of the voice-chats in the world and never remove you from the experience.
The environments themselves represent some of the most unwelcoming, mysterious, yet fascinating places I have ever visited. From the large Tower of Latria which rise out of the gloom to cast narrow shadows against an eternal twilight to the remote, archaic Shrine of Storms which resides in the middle of the sea with the air of a place which continues to be extremely hallowed, Demon’s Souls encompasses a variety of locations each with their own unique flavor. Even now, I sometimes find myself stopping to soak in the games glorious views and wonder what other exotic locations might lie just over the horizon.
A culmination of these points and other subtle details are what makes Demon’s Souls, in my opinion, the best game ever. This idea has been brewing in my head since I offhandedly made a statement to a friend of mine after getting into the game, in which I claimed that Demon’s Souls was “the first next-gen game I have played which actually felt next-gen.“ While developers are busy streamlining processes and gameplay elements to minimize risk and maximize reward, they truncate an important part: struggle. Victory should feel like a win because it’s hard-fought and earned, not because it looks nice or was easy. But when most people think of 'struggle' as it applies to contemporary titles, it's in the context of trying to work around buggy mechanics, not putting genuine effort into overcoming challenges. Demon’s Souls was the first game that was epic in scale enough (hundreds of hours logged, many more to go), challenging enough, and rewarding enough for me to believe that it was using ‘next-gen’ hardware to its full potential. Though I would later become aware of From Software’s offerings for the Playstation 1 and 2 in the form of the King’s Field and Shadow Tower lineages, I still can’t shake a deep feeling that the picture Demon’s Souls paints is really what’s pushing the envelope of my experience with the Playstation 3. It is the title I have spent the most time with, like the best, and I still have a long ways yet to go.
So what of the worst? Why, if not for the difficulty, does my title reference such an extreme downside? The answer to this question comes in two parts. Firstly, at the time of this writing, I am on my third playthrough and have but two trophies left to achieve. My concern now, as I draw near the end of my time in Boletaria, is “what comes after Demon’s Souls?” The question fills me with fear and anxiety now as much as the game did when I first began playing it. What could possibly fill the void left behind? As odd as it seems, I have an unusual kind of Stockholm Syndrome. What I once hated as an unfair force exerting itself over me I now willingly participate in and enjoy. As my time until platinum draws to a close, I cannot shake the kind of melancholy of someone who is losing an old fiend or loved one. I don’t want this to end, this is not my choice. But what must be must be. The second part of my answer is the complete usurpation of my digital life. I had heard of people who experience addiction to games like World of Warcraft. Speaking as someone who didn’t even bother fully-level a character before becoming bored and moving on, I didn’t understand the concept until playing Demon’s Souls. I have played almost no other games in the time since I have started my quest, despite several purchases at prices I couldn’t ignore and sequels to series which were old favorites. Even now they continue to go unplayed. Demon’s Souls is the worst game I’ve ever played because it demands that I submit all of my time and attention to it, which I do willingly. But at any point I feel the need to break free and add some variety, the experience is hollow for me. A distraction to something I know is larger and much grander.
With the release of Dark Souls, I have some hope for a Demon’s Souls-free future, but only in the solace of the devil I know. It both encourages and frightens me that From Software has given me another lush world to explore and conquer. Will lightening strike twice? Will I feel as good playing this as I did playing Demon’s Souls? As an added comfort, I have been able to use my descriptive skills to recruit friends into Dark Souls. If nothing else, aside from Demon’s Souls which I undertook alone, I now have people I can gush about Dark Souls to without worry.
If you have not yet played the game and enjoy a challenge, I whole-heartedly recommend Demon’s Souls. But beware all ye who enter here: Though the experience is one you will never forget, such is not for the faint of heart.
#5: Sony Playstation I’ll admit first and foremost that these posts are going to be all about nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean they should be any less important. If PC gaming shaped my perception of what games could and should be (as you’ll see later on in my countdown), then the Playstation gets singled out as shaping my current tastes and chosen IPs of loyalty.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “What about Nintendo? Didn’t you have an NES growing up?” We did. My brother received it one year as a gift, and in all honesty, I think I got much more use out of it than him. Years later, we both received a Sega Genesis from my parents as a joint gift to the two of us. But it was only with the advent of the Playstation that I was able to enjoy the groundbreaking story and gameplay of series such as Metal Gear Solid, Mega Man Legends, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Xenogears, Parasite Eve, and more. Many of these games I still own and enjoy today, not to mention their various sequels, spin-offs and ripoffs. Things I now take for granted in my life – horror games, RPGs, zombies, and anime – can all be traced back to the Playstation.
One important thing to note is that the PS2 did not make this list. To me, the system was always a let-down. I would be a liar if I said that some of my favorite titles of all time like Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus weren’t on the PS2; but aside from a few core titles, I never found much joy in it.
As a final thought, I think everyone should spend a few minutes reflecting on how this important system continues to shape modern gaming. Disc-based game media, memory cards (which were still present up until the release of the Xbox 360 slim, and still have a modern cousin in the USB thumb drive), basic controller concepts such as shoulder buttons and dual analog sticks (dual analogs was introduced with the Dual Shock controller... it wasn’t the Playstation’s launch controller, but it was still there), and other traits which purposefully bred into the Playstation are still visible and viable today. This was a huge deciding factor for me when making this list. The only major concept I would argue has been implemented in consoles since, and is one of the major defining factors between the current gen, is online gameplay.
#4: Microsoft Xbox 360 I had a affair with Microsoft's community-driven, online-powered supermodel. Though brief, it was still passionate and exhilarating. The quality which comes from a pay subscription service, the platform’s incredible online stability, and years of significant technological enhancements have always ensured the 360 is a fun, fresh subject to discuss.
There are some low points of course, and by low points I mean the notorious red ring. For the most part, hardware improvements have made that a thing of the past, and more recently the Xbox 360’s controversy is surrounding the tight control that Microsoft imposes over it's platform. But in light of the recent Playstation Network (PSN) hacking and outage, I can't necessary fault them for not fixing something that isn’t broken.
Unarguably, the 360’s biggest asset is it's huge base of dedicated users. Like the PC platform, there are millions of active users online, however Xbox Live has a cohesion to its community I haven’t witnessed on any other non-PC platform. Everyone has a gamer tag. And I mean everyone. Microsoft has tapped into the sweet spot of nerd-meets-cool to the point where getting early access to the newest Spring Dashboard Update (a phenomenon which reinforces not only the enthusiasm, but the engagement and ‘discussion’ of the platform) will gain you clout in almost any social circle. Not to mention the fact that the Xbox Live community has a collection of names and faces to which the community can attach it’s joys, sorrows and feedback. I speak of course about Major Nelson, Machete Betty, lauralollip0p, e, litheon, and all of the other people whose gamer tags I can not only name, but whose real names I could also recall. This is a huge step for any platform, and Microsoft has found a way for it to work beautifully. A dimension of trust becomes factored in when following one of these accounts on Twitter, reading one of their blogs, or actually playing a game with them. Real people are behind the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, and these people are awesome. One of my favorite experiences with the system was getting to know them.
#3: PC I have not, as of the last few years, been faithful to PC as a gaming platform. I was gathered with the torch-wielding mobs when major gaming outlets and critics began to predict that PC gaming, as whole, was entering it's death-knells. Part of me believed them because of the rampant piracy I saw all around me. (None of my friends payed for games anymore, and indeed, many of them still don't.) Coupled with frequent, expensive hardware and software upgrades, and I, like many console owners, retreated to the safety of dedicated gaming consoles. But PC gaming would always have a special place in my life as the platform that showed me what gaming could be.
The graphics, engaging online experiences (which would later become a huge influence of the ever-popular Xbox Live service) and the expertly woven stories, characters, and locations which shaped my childhood will still be contributing to my expectation of what gaming can and should be for the rest of my life. In contrast to the Playstation, which I have already detailed in my countdown, the PC was known for pushing the envelope in terms of what a complete game looked like and delivered, a trend only recently being bucked by consoles with the addition of Nintendo’s Wii remotes, Microsoft’s Kinect, Rock Band, and the like.
I was there when having a PC that could run DOOM smoothly was a highly sought-after status symbol. I was there when FPS, RPG, and sci-fi fans all over the world found out what really happened to Citadel Station and stood toe-to-toe against an evil AI named SHODAN and her shameful creations; the former hellbent on eradicating humanity, the later on absorb it. And I was there, placing automated turrets, repairing generators, and flying APCs into enemy territory when Tribes defined team-based and class-based online gameplay with hard work, blood, sweat, tears and one of the most loyal and dedicated fanbases in gaming’s long history.
While AAA game developers like Crytec and Epic spurned PC or PC-exclusive gaming because of their past experiences with high-budget titles being pirated, I've come to realize that this phenomenon means something else that paints a slightly rosier picture of PC gaming. The high rates of game piracy means there is a huge, hungry demographic of PC gamers which are not being satisfied by their current offerings. They want content, and their discerning pallets demand it be of the highest caliber. Once developers find a way to satisfy this need and reach this market with earnest, high quality games instead of cheap ports and rushed, buggy releases, I think the PC platform stands at the edge of a second renaissance – the likes of which will make its console-based counterparts green with envy.
#2: Sony Playstation 3 On the surface, the PS3 is a glossier, bigger PS2, which is just a huge, black PS1. But booting the machine tells a different story; a tale of Sony going all-out to deliver a multimedia hub to not only become the center of your gaming experience, but your home theater as well. Netflix, DLNA, UPNP, external-storage, a plethora of codecs, Blu-ray, built-in wifi and optical out... You get the idea.
Obviously, the PS3 has not been without its own unique flaws and controversies over years. The removal of backwards compatibility with the PS2, and the theft of other OS installation still stand out in my mind – and yes, I say theft because I still consider Sony's vicious rending of features from the PS3 an unauthorized commandeering of content and features I paid good money for. After that, the turbulence continued with the hacking of the Playstation Network (PSN), while throughout, users were punished for the use of the PS3 with a barrage of firmware updates at an unnecessary, often irritating, frequency. (Sony: Take a cue from Microsoft’s Spring Dashboard Update on this one. Have one scheduled firmware update a year and make it into a celebration of new features instead of a mourning of your cumbersome inefficiency.)
But that being said, it's hard for me to imagine not coming home from a long, stressfull day of work, grabbing a beer, and switching on my PS3 to choose from a selection of evening activities with a wide range of social connotations: watching a Netflix instant streaming movie, watching a Netflix Blu-ray movie (or, of course, a disc from my own library), playing a game, buying a new game or some new DLC from the PSN, watching some random videos on YouTube with the integrated Web browser, or seeing what my friends are up to. The PS3 has becoming the center of my entertainment life, and I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing.
There has been healthy competition between Sony's PSN and Microsoft's Xbox Live service, but to be honest, I've always preferred the more modest PSN. Xbox Live is a highly engaging experience, but I always felt a little overwhelmed in the face of it. If you have friends online, there's pressure to play with them to make the service worth-while, often involving buying a lot of titles to satisfy multiple people. But when no one is online, Xbox Live can be kind of boring, if not baffling. I can't help but feel lost about what I should do with my library of games designed exclusively to capitalize on the service's capabilities when there is no on around with which to do so.
On a related note, herein lies the hidden charm of PS+, Sony’s foray into paid subscription services akin to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold membership, the latter of which is needed to play online and access many of Xbox Live’s other features. Sony takes an opposite stance to Microsoft, in that it offers online play for free, but gives PS+ subscribers a well-chosen variety of perks. The single-player demographic, who would normally be content to save their money on subscription services by playing offline, are rewarded with free games. Online players, on the other hand, are also being rewarded with exclusive multiplayer betas and discounted DLC. In my opinion, PS+ isn’t necessary, but has something for everyone, where Microsoft seems to be of the mind that their users choose between all or nothing.
#1: Nintendo DS Lite The DS Lite may be discounted by many as a lesser gaming platform because of it being a handheld, and it having less power under the hood than competitors such as the PSP and iTouch. But no gaming system has ever captured my heart like the DS Lite has.
Firstly, portable gaming, even when not taking advantage of the anytime, anywhere attitude, is still an advantage over the sometimes stifling hardware and accessory demands of its stationary counterpart: No controllers to buy, no HD or 3D TVs to pine for, no hard drives to upgrade, and the list goes on. Just self-contained, instant-on gaming.
When Nintendo said the DS would have two screens, market analysts and gaming critics alike scoffed. But the addition of a second screen allowed it a higher and smarter overall use of on-screen real estate that I would argue has never been matched in gaming's history. Even PC gaming’s attempt, a selection of keyboards with small, integrated LCD status screens, is frumpy by comparison. (I would not consider multiple monitors to be a true comparison in this case. Adding displays can enlarge one single view of the game, or give you a screen to chat and look up guides with, but it doesn’t really add any capability that is both unique and necessarily, completely related to the game.)
Likewise, the touch controls were bemoaned by many. “How can you use a touch screen when you’re holding the console with both hands? How is this practical?” While a library of core games doesn’t choose to depart from the formula that made the Gameboy Advance SP and other predecessors a success, this element has allowed innovative game mechanic as well as a library of non-games to take a dramatic departure from the norm and thrive. Your DS can be a game console, or a web browser (a concept capitalized on in newer DS consoles like the DSi and 3DS), or a cook book, or a number of other things that make the DS worth much more than just the sum total of its parts.
Combine that with a collection of games which run the gamut from education, action, adventure, real-time strategy, and role-playing, to even horror, and you have a rock-solid bombshell of core gaming ideals and concepts executed to perfection. Don't believe me? Next time you're at PAX, don't blame me when you can't pull out your DS to join one of the many available wifi PictoChat rooms and collectively geek-out with other attendees from across the event. The DS has tapped into something alive and vital about gaming that I find charmingly difficult to ignore, which is why it’s my favorite gaming platform of all time.