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Lou Chou's blog

4:27 PM on 08.19.2011

This was a triumph... (A Portal 2 Review)

When The Orange Box was announced a few years ago, it presented a line-up of Valve’s finest arsenal. Not only were you getting Half-Life 2 on console, a title which would have sold well all by itself, but you were getting both its expansion episodes, and its insanely popular, multiplayer cousin, Team Fortress 2. It was a fantastic deal, and worthy of a price tag double, or even triple its value at retail. At the back of theBox’s lineup was a little known entity by the name of Portal, an unassuming puzzle game which, surprisingly enough, used Portals as its base mechanic. On paper it sounded interesting, but for any gamer anticipating the Box it was nothing more than a quirky, little distraction from the main acts. Valve finally unleashed their collection on the World, and Portal became their little engine that could. Momentum thrust the game from an obscure tent in the corner of the corner of the festival onto the headline stage, bright lights and all, and within a month that quirky little puzzle game had risen to become Valve’s hottest property. The Orange Box remains one of the best reviewed titles on any gaming aggregator, and it’s thanks, in no small part, to the game with the cake.

That was four years ago, and Valve is back with Portal 2. Having broken free from it’s compilation roots, it stands proud as a full-length, and full-priced game. There is no lack of ambition here, either. As we start the game the first voice heard is that of Stephen Merchant – co-writer of The Office – taking the role of Wheatley, a dense but lovable droid who guides you out of a testing complex that’s collapsing to rubble and cinder. You jump from platform to platform, navigating through crumbled heaps of grey and brown cement. Clearly these are the beginnings of a game that wants to broaden its horizons, and expand beyond the sterile test chambers of its predecessor, igniting the notion that there lies a World beyond the Aperture Science compound.

Travelling through a hole in the wall you enter the complex, only, you’re behind the scenes. Panels jolt from walls, malfunctioning, throwing random bursts of life at you. It’s fitting, and is a perfect summary of the spontaneity contained within the complex itself. These are not the test chambers as we remember them, they’re feral from abandonment and lacking maintenance. This adds an interesting dynamic to puzzle solving, as it ends up being less defined exactly where and how you react with the environment around you.

Even in this weathered facility, puzzle solving is not beyond comprehension. And the difficulty curve is a comfortable incline, transforming slowly into a steeper and steeper hill. Opening segments act more as tutorials than true challenges, a useful way for those new to Portal to understand the central mechanic, and for those learned in its ways to brush up on their skills before being provoked properly. One intangible quality synonymous with great puzzle games is the ability to make the player feel smart; to imbue a sense of accomplishment from task completion. I had this feeling section after section while playing Portal 2. Even when it feels as if your epiphany has arrived completely by accident, the path towards that solution creates such an air of satisfaction that you’ll happily forgive yourself for tumbling over the finish line.

What envelopes the fantastic gameplay is a story with deceptive depth. While the first game kept its narrative consistently light, entertaining from start to finish, its sequel attempts to give the situation, and its characters some deeper context. In one such instance we uncover that GLaDoS, or rather, the intelligence planted within her, may have belonged to a former lover of Aperture Science CEO, Cave Johnson (voiced by the awesome J.K. Simmons). As you tread through sections of the game, hearing Johnson’s voice echo out on old recordings, GLaDoS will recall a mysterious fondness for the man, one for which she doesn’t quite understand the basis. It gives her personality, with its antagonistic wit and humour, a bittersweet face, and turns her into much more than just a malevolent machine.

It’s in this narrative depth that Portal 2 effectively distances itself from its progenitor, proving that beyond its longer length and funnier jokes, it’s a game with with genuine soul, and worth of anyone’s time. Even if the cake does remain a lie.   read

9:35 AM on 08.15.2011

East vs. West: Sympathy for the Devil Summoner

I’m no JRPG fiend. Many, many times over the years I’ve dabbled: a Legend of Mana here, a Wild Arms there, they’ve all been fairly distant and inconsistent forrays into a decidedly enthusiast style of game. Oddly enough, it was 11-year old Lou Chou who struck much more of an affinity with leveling up and the almighty grind than his 24-year old counterpart. Way back then Suikoden‘s was a World with near limitless possibility, committing to lengthy battles that juggled finite control of potions with hit and magic point conservation. I was overwhelmed by the potential these games offered, but all too suddenly things changed. A bright, bitingly chilly January morning in 1999 saw me tearing through a gift-wrapped rectangle, and behind that vivid paper was an orange box sporting text that read Half-Life. The rest, as tired cliches note, was history.

What Valve accessed with the creation of Half-Life, among a thousand other visionary things, was a way to tell a story so artfully, and with such engagement, that it became roleplay. It was by extension an RPG, only without experience points or jarringly translated text. The Japanese RPG had long remained the bar for those looking for a little sophistication or depth from their narrative experience, but with one game a standard was redefined.

In a post-Half-Life World western development had become increasingly more relevant, and when a game like Deus Ex was hitting the criteria for an RPG experience, whilst also escaping the standard trappings of party systems and gender-ambiguous protagonists with eyes like dinner plates, it became all too clear that there existed a lot of imagination in the West.

The current generation arrived, and thanks in no small part to Microsoft the West had become a crucial place for development. Microsoft was, very obviously, close to the PC platform. It recognized the talent behind some of the more seminal games studios, and put a lot of faith in those guys to bring interesting new ideas to its console. You have to wonder, in a World where a Microsoft console didn’t exist, would we still have Mass Effect or Bioshock? As notable beneficiaries of Microsoft support, it’s arguable that the budget just wouldn’t exist for Bioware or Irrational Games to be creating such staggering, triple-A titles.

Gravity is a motherfucker, and just as sure as things will soar, it’s only a matter of time before the consequent fall. The popularity of COD spawned an army of me too titles looking to cash in on the popularity of the first-person shooter, the effect of which has left us with a culture where even those within the industry are surprised if a period of time passes without the release of another shooter. The irony is that now Western gaming has a face, and it’s Call of Duty. The same way an uninformed, surface interpretation of Japanese gaming is that it’s all JRPGs with sickeningly cutesy Anime characters, Western gaming is now just army men awash in machismo.

So what does this mean for Japanese gaming? Well, now’s as good a time as any for Eastern development to force its way back into mainstream consciousness. While people are suffering shooter fatigue, it’s the perfect opportunity to come in with some different ideas and methods. All it takes is one game, one success story, to change the way people think about the games they want to play. Who knows, maybe somewhere in Japan a studio is working on exactly that game.   read

6:48 PM on 08.12.2011

A quick thought on Driver: San Francisco


9:29 AM on 08.04.2011

eSports: Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sports

I’m not going to be the guy who starts his article with a definition of the word “sports,” but it’s fair to say that that word does not belong to those who can throw an object 50 yards, or those who run several blocks in 8.3 seconds. Sport, on its most fundamental level, is people competing. And whether it’s the Superbowl, or an Albanian regional staring contest, the point of sport boils down to people being in competition with one another.

When you throw a lowercase E in front of sport, I start to take issue. See, eSport sounds a hell of a lot like sport, but it isn’t. It exists to separate competitive gamers from participants of more traditional, athletic activities. It’s a way of very easily saying that what a certain sect of people are doing is not in fact sport, but something else that likes to pretend it’s sport. This, to me, is wrong. If you’re playing a round of CoD, or racing in Need for Speed, then you’re part of a sport. Unfortunately, beyond the borders of gaming, the mindset is not the same, the irony being that the term eSport has come from the gaming press, and us, the gamers. We have sectioned ourselves off, and shot our own competitive scene in the knee caps, reducing it to a shortbus-riding version of something bigger.

I don’t mind that competitive gaming be something all of its own, but it’s a sport. If you’re a CoD player, then you still play sports, your sport just happens to be CoD, and so on/so forth. Sport, as a concept, got all fucked up when society decided to throw the word itself at folk doing athletic things, but at its root a sport is just a competition between people. If you’re an absolute boss at Starcraft, or Madden, then there should be no unwritten guideline deeming the skills you possess as any less useful than those of Dwayne Wade or Serena Williams. And perhaps dropping terms like eSports from the lexicon of our own community would be a small step on the way to making that a reality.   read

7:05 AM on 07.28.2011

Motion Control: Wii Punch Children

I have to admire any peripheral that inadvertently causes child abuse. That's not to say I'm a staunch advocate of waving a makeshift Nintendo wand around, or thrusting the PS3' glowing, blue dildo in opposite directions to knock a virtual Danny Trejo spark out. But when you can justifiably punch your step mother in the left tit during a game of Wii Sports, a device is bid a due.

It seemed inevitable we'd reach this point. The epiphany probably hit Nintendo creatives as they pondered how they could compete in the current market, and why they wanted to. Sure they could try, desperately, to compete on performance, producing a system that was just as fast as an XBOX 360 or a PS3. But why bother? Why attack a market that is already satisfied? Three's a crowd, after all. Nintendo decided instead to go for people who didn't even want to game: your mum, your infant brother, your gran, shit, you could get your dog Rex involved, granted you can fit the controller in his mouth. These were people who didn't want to play games, what they wanted was to play Wii.

Nintendo's Wii has led to the creation of modern gaming's favourite label, the casual gamer, the irony being that anyone considered such a thing, by a newly-defined ruleset, isn't a gamer at all. They are Wii players. They are clean, wholesome, fun people who take their vitamins and drink plenty of milk. They have lots of clean, wholesome friends with whom they occasionally play Wii sports between volunteering at animal shelters.

On the other side of town, far away from the glorious sunshine, and smiling babies farting rainbows, there dwells the core gamer. We're overweight, socially maladjusted, and probably play Call of Duty to realize our vivid dreams of shooting everyone at our school/college/workplace. We're disgusting, oozing energy drinks from every pore and orifice. We will kick your dog Rex, and burn your animal shelter. Milk is for pussies.

Seperation politics have created a clean, clear divide between those casual and those core. While the former take precedence over the latter for the time being, it wont last. Microsoft can't give their Kinect away, and I don't know a single owner of Sony's glowing, blue love instrument (seriously, it looks like it belongs in a hooker's bedroom in Mass Effect). We're the ones sustaining this industry, and as casual gamers fill more and more of their days with milk drinking and sending cute gifts to their parents, they will commit less money and effort to playing video games, until they become the afterthought.

I've never owned a Wii. I'm someone who sits down after work and just relaxes, and the idea of having to stand and ferociously throw my hands around to within an inch of my TV screen is opposite to my desires. I don't deny that there are plenty of core gamers out there with Wii consoles, I'm merely highlighting a vast majority outside of that sect. Be proud of the fact that you're the industry equivalent to a dirty word, because when the shit hits the fan it wont be Johnny Wholesomeface and his dog Rex that'll be turned to for help.   read

3:08 PM on 07.19.2011

Dam That Shadow (A Shadows of the Damned Review)

Shadows of the Damned is an important game. Sure, it features fantastically tight gameplay, an eccentric and entertaining series of key characters, and a soundtrack you'd be more than happy to buy on iTunes for ten or more dollars, but there's something a lot more important going on here. What this game represents is the near-perfect collaboration of two men to whom Japanese gaming owes a reasonable debt.

The first man is Goichi Suda (more famously known as Suda 51), the eccentric and arguably visionary game designer who brought us Killer7, and Wii cult hit, No More Heroes. Followers of his work, and he has a few, will tell you that the ace in the Suda pack is a wildly vivid, exciting imagination. The more honest of those followers, however, will also admit that this creativity often comes at the detriment of solid, or just downright enjoyable gameplay. For every fantastic idea that creeps into Suda 51's rainbow-colored brain, there's an element of functional game design screaming out from the distance with muffled pleas for consideration. All too often that voice is stifled, and tapers to a whisper.

Step to the forefront, then, the second half of Shadows' dynamic duo, Shinji Mikami. Not quite as famed a name in quasi-casual gaming circles as Suda 51 may be (perhaps because his name isn't quite as alpha-numerical), Mikami is no slouch, having been the driving creative force behind just about every Resident Evil game since the series debuted in '96. What the godfather of survival horror brings to the feast, in his many years of experience directing triple-A titles, is a technical ying to Suda's creative yang. Mikami becomes the megaphone thrown towards that whispered voice in the back of Suda's brain, projecting at great velocity the kind of veteran guidance that shapes Suda's brain farts into neat sprays of designer cologne.

I'll happily shine over the symbiotic relationship these two masterminds share in Shadows for the rest of the article, but that would be missing the case and point here: the game itself. Shadows of the Damned stars Garcia (Fucking) Hotspur, a Latin demon slayer with more body art than Tommy Lee. His girl is kidnapped by the lord of hell, and made to experience death on repeat. Hotspur's mission is to set her free from this grim cycle of suffering by fighting his way through hell and sticking it to the high ruler of down below. This journey is broken up into acts, each act representing some sort of world, or phase of hell. These sections are consistently different, and you're unlikely to find any two that seem cut from the same stencil, with the game throwing up anything from puzzle stages, to tower defence, even side-scrolling shoot 'em ups are represented here. It becomes crystal clear within an hour's play that the team behind Shadows absolutely adored this project, each act being a true labour of love.

These stages revel in their depravity, and the game has no interest in apologizing for the imagery it displays. For instance, I had to double-take on a string of babies overhead, each one hanging from a noose. Fully animated, they kick out arms and legs as you pass them by. It took more scrupulous inspection to determine that they were in fact dolls, not infants, but the impact that visual has still carried an abundant measure of weight. Remember, people: this is hell. Damnation and hellfire are not the only points of interest throughout your stay, you're going to encounter some gruesome things, half of which will revolve around your girlfriend as she's torn in two, exploded, decapitated (multiple times), and feasted upon.

For all Suda 51's demands to horrify and unsettle, at no point do we reach a level of excess. From the very beginning, Shadows paints a pretty clear picture of its intent. This could very easily have been a horror title, were it not for the tone of protagonist Garcia, and his glowing, bejeweled sidekick, Johnson. It wants to be sick, twisted fun. Humour plays a large part in this adventure, and while it's abundantly crass and juvenile, the funnies deliver with such a loveably cheeky wink and nod that you can't help but raise a wry smile. If Duke Nukem Forever's poor and uncomfortable forray into potty humour (rape jokes? seriously?) cast a doubt over whether that content has had its day, Shadows makes us believe once again - our collective inner-13-year old breathes a relieved sigh.

One thing thankfully deceptive in its maturity is the gameplay, as Mikami steps to the forefront of this process and applies a tighter version of the controls used in Resident Evil 4. It's a control scheme that seems specifically crafted for interaction with multiple enemies at once, giving you a button dedicated to a 180-degree turn, and an evasive roll that grants you escape from the very tightest of hellish (sorry!) situations. The latter offers something of an invincibility hack, actually, as enemies cannot make contact with you mid-roll, no matter how close to them you may be. I can see this being a justified grumble from the more hardcore crowd, but I personally found it a God send - it levels out overwhelming battles and affords you opportunities to restore health or reload weaponary.

I've gushed, but Shadows is not a flawless game. There's the rare issue of screen trearing, or collision detection which could render you stuck in an invisible gap, unable to progress. This is not a gamebreaker, mind you, and happens once or twice, if ever. What's important about Shadows is that it has very reasonable aims, and it hits them with the kind of style and attention to detail that you wont find in even the finest triple-A titles this year. It wants to be the kind of game you can pick up whatever mood you're in, and just have a blast with. It wants to access that dumb fuckin' kid in you, the one that existed before you started watching comedies by Christopher Guest or reading Chekhov, and let you know that it's alright for that kid to breath every so often. Who'd have thought it'd be the darkly depths of hell teaching us all to lighten up, eh, pandejo!   read

10:52 AM on 07.15.2011

Digital Distribution: Access vs. Ownership

We're all moving towards an age where online content servers are the status quo, handling our data and distributing our entertainment. Quite quickly the term "cloud" has sprung up to support technology that serves this kind of function, and, let me kick this off by saying, that term is bullshit. Plain and simple. It's a term coined by those selling online content solutions to make something old sound like something new. If we think about it for a second, just about every element of our online World is "cloud"-based. Our Facebook photos, our Youtube videos, our words and images right here on this site, they're all floating blissfully on a "cloud" somewhere. It's a loaded term, and it's all just online content, simple as that.

In our own gaming World programs such as Steam are using "cloud" services, storing our game saves and profile settings on their own servers so that they're accessible at all times, even in the event that, for one reason or another, we lose the games they're associated with.

This is all good, and ultimately benefits us consumers. My problem with Steam, and programs like it, is the idea that we're purchasing ownership of the games they offer. Steam's interface will quite frequently refer to the games you own, and/or would like to own. This is where it gets tricky for me, because my notions of ownership differ quite radically to Steam's. When I consider myself the owner of something, I have full control over it. That thing is mine, and I can put it and change it wherever and however I see fit. Now, Steam on the other hand, that would rather me not do either of those things. Steam would rather I just play the game, and use its interface to do so. Now granted, nine and a half times out of ten all I want to do is just play the game, but what happens to that point five where I'm feeling a little adventurous? And further to that, what happens to those reverse engineers, pulling things to pieces and seeing how they can be recompiled? Suddenly the game they've purchased isn't theirs. If they even attempt to make modifications they risk being banned, and could lose access to the investments they've made. This is where the idea of ownership dies, and what you truly end up paying for is access.

When a Steam sale comes around, and we're fervently buying up bargain titles, it isn't to own those games, it's to access those games through Steam. It's like having a lifetime pass to a virtual theme park, we're paying to get through the gate, and depending on how much we've paid we get to ride on as many, or as few attractions as we want. But, come the end of the day, we're not taking home a rollercoaster or a huge-ass, swinging pirate ship. Those things stay in the park, and if we want to ride them again, we need to come back.

I understand that achievements are one of a handful of reasons it would be complicated to allow people full access to their games, but their are solutions to consider. For instance, something akin to a warranty seal could be implemented, where people opt out of achievement and update support, unlocking their game at their own risk. The game remains Steam content, but is marked via the interface as "voided". It's not fool proof, but is at least one idea to put forward (I'm sure there are many out there with far more concrete approaches in mind).

At the point of writing this, and with a lot of help from the recent Steam summer sale, I have access to about 47 games. By that merit it's fair to say that I'm content using the service, I just don't fully agree with the way it's being advertised to me. These games are not mine, they're really just available to me.   read

2:24 PM on 07.12.2011

An Englishman in NBA2K11

I just committed a backcourt violation, and I have no idea what the fuck that is, or how I made it happen. The only things I see even remotely close to the backs of the court are the mascots, and I'm curious how either one of these hyperactive furries infringed on my ballgame.

The opposition are beating my shit like I'm missing payments, and for one shining minute I find myself with the ball. I decide to be real relaxed about my approach, and pass the ball around the D about 273 times. I'm looking for that finesse move, like a somersault slam dunk or some shit, but nothing presents itself. Suddenly a clock shows, and apparently I have a limited amount of time to shoot the ball. Panicked, I shoot a turd from the 3-point line which bounces twice off the rim and into enemy possession. Some tall drink of a motherfucker by the name of Dwight Howard jumps about 17 feet and dunks the ball onto my forehead. I shut down my XBOX 360 and sit in the dark for a few moments. People in the next room think they hear me sobbing, but they're probably full of shit.   read

9:21 AM on 07.07.2011

Thinking Vertically in Uncharted 3 Beta

Note: I know the beta is now available for everyone (not that it wasn't technically anyway), I just wrote this article a week or so ago when that shit was still on PSPlus.

Be it by astute opportunity ceasing, or merely fantastic coincidence, Naughty Dog have brought a multiplayer beta for Uncharted 3 to the Playstation Plus section of PSN. What was initially an exclusive extension of the PS3′s online experience (for anyone willing to put up the $50), Playstation Plus was opened up to the gaming masses on a free, 30-day trial basis as part of a coo to convince us all we could, and should, trust Sony again. The exchange pretty much rendered us a helpless spouse in an abusive relationship, only, instead of flowers we were given games we already had as symbols of reconciliation. It’s alright though, we know Sony will change. It loves us.

The Playstation Plus service itself is somewhat akin to a V.I.P. lounge at an airport, only that velvet rope that usually separates executives from commoners has been removed and now we all get to put tiny Plus signs in the top corners of our avatars. For the time being, at least. Another apparent perk for all us peasants suddenly riding in business class is a wealth of less than desirable freebies and goodies, the kind that appear novel on first glance, but we’ll ultimately want to discard at the nearest trash can. All in all we get the sense that that green, green grass on the other side doesn’t quite have that glow we caught from afar. We remain free of any potential buyer’s remorse, mind you, and all it really took was a month of downtime, and the pre-emptive cancellation of all our credit cards. Simple, really. Anyway, I digress. This is not a critique of the PSN service – just attempting to play a game co-operatively with one of your buddies is critique enough.

Uncharted 3′s multiplayer introduces us to the wonders in store for online bromancers worldwide come the game’s November release, and, to its credit, it’s giving them a thing or two to chest bump about, the starkest of qualities those Naughty Dogs are bringing to battle is verticality. Stepping into the beta had me treating the experience with the same attention and method I might apply to Call of Duty or Battlefield, and I cannot decipher the cognitive psychology behind it, but overcoming that horizontal interpretation of the way the land lay became something of a revelation. Rather than thinking across the map, as your standard online FPS would have you do, I was beginning to look to the skies and think upwards. Buildings were no longer bastard obstacles I needed to find doors to access, instead I could just scramble up the side of a building and through an open window like Peter Parker-turned-sex pest, or that Dawson from the Creek. Such freedom creates the potential for some genuine edge of your seat (or building) face-offs, with opposition players actually zip-wiring into gunfights at points.

I gush, but the multiplayer has its niggles. For instance, attaching to cover can be a little hit or miss, and at some very awkward and fatal moments. Occasionally instead of actually backing up to a wall I will engage in a rather spastic routine of squats, and end up with a shell to the face for my troubles. Also, melee attacks at close proximity could do with a shot in the arm, something more to the effect of COD or BF where in most instances they’re fatal, rather than being an invitation to the opposition to do the gun dance for a few seconds. My final gripe is, very simply, that I’d prefer tighter movements from the player you control, but perhaps this is configurable from a menu option somewhere (in the same sense that a PC gamer can adjust mouse sensitivity).

Naughty Dog are sitting on quite a robust multiplayer here, and it’s still only in beta. Levelling up and active, public progression in the online arena is currently the soup du jour when crafting an addictive, compelling experience, and with its reward system constantly gratifying co-operative players it all adds up to a motherbeast that could well be holding multiplayer company with Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 3 come Christmas time.   read

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