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Michael Carusi's blog

9:39 PM on 10.18.2011

Compilation Review: Prince of Persia HD

I have a confession to make: I missed out on the Prince of Persia trilogy.

Yes, some of the most lauded and famous sixth generation games completely escaped my radar. I’m not even sure why. I had a PS2, but I was going through a JRPG binge at the time. The most exposure I ever had to the trilogy was a brief bout with Two Thrones modified for the Wii which controlled as awkwardly as most third party Wii games so I’m inclined not to count it. I took particular note of the series after people started talking about it in hindsight, and after playing the 2008 iteration of Prince of Persia I became even more curious. HD-ification of the previous console generation has given me a chance to repent for missing out, so let’s see what this trilogy is like.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

I had an idea of what to expect when I loaded up Sands of Time, but for a game from 2003 it’s aged remarkably well. The story begins in mythical Persia as our titular unnamed Prince conquers foreign lands in the name of honor and glory for his father, King Sharaman. The cocky, arrogant Prince discovers an hourglass containing the magical Sands of Time, as well as the Dagger of Time. When a traitorous Vizier serving King Sharaman tricks the Prince into releasing the Sands, all of the people of Azad are turned into monsters, with the sands sparing only the Prince, captured prisoner Farah, and the Vizier. The Prince teams up with Farah to stop the Vizier and return the sands to the hourglass and restore his kingdom.

Sands of Time has a whimsical storybook nature to it that makes the game very easy to like. The Prince has a voiceover narration but it actually serves a relevant purpose rather than being a method to feed us exposition. Most of the development is actually left to the characters and their actions in an effective display of a storytelling tactic known as ‘Showing, not telling’. Any writing can explain to us the humility the Prince experiences, but showing the Prince’s robes gradually being torn and his body wounded gives us a physical representation of the changes he goes through. The banter between the Prince and Farah plays off of their personalities and develops them very effectively.

Gameplay is one of the earliest examples I can think of that counts as parkour rather than platforming in a strict sense of the word. The Prince’s slick movements coupled with the ability to quickly climb across massive structures, vault across walls, and wall jump makes the progression feel like a perfect balance between adventuring and puzzling. Sands of Time actually feels more freeing than its linear nature suggests because of how accessible most of the actual levels are. The parkour gameplay blends goes hand in hand with the beautiful Persian architecture to let you climb massive structures and statues.

In a way parkour becomes like a puzzle as you scan a large, open room looking for your initial ledge or climbing point. The game will often guide you but stops short of holding your hand, letting you develop your skills and understand the controls as you gradually figure out how to best get from point A to point B. A recurring theme for the entire trilogy is that controls and parkour are much like riding a bike. It’s a bit tricky to get timing down when it comes to wall-jumps, but once you it becomes effortless.

Combat is and has always been one of the very sore points of the entire Prince of Persia series, up to Forgotten Sands. The first time you acrobatically dance around your foes with leaps and dodge rolls is fun. So is the first time you vault over an enemy and efficiently slice him in the shoulder to finish him off. However, unlike the parkour there’s virtually no variation and it’s the same techniques and finishers used several hundred times. Repetition is only fun when we choose it. Combat is forced on you in a way that slows the flow of gameplay rather than contributes to it, although the graceful abilities themselves convince me that the development team at least tried to make it work.

Sands of Time famously incorporates the Dagger of Time, which among other abilities allows the Prince to rewind time and save him falls, mishaps, and even death. Time as a gameplay mechanic was nothing new at the time but even today it’s rare to see it used with as much finesse as there is here. The flexibility, freedom, and ability to correct your own mistakes is almost unmatched with this signature ability.

Did you mess up in combat and lose three quarters of your health? Rewind ten seconds and the Prince’s wounds instantaneously heal. Wall jump the wrong direction and fall to your death? Rewind and start over. Your limited number of charges can be recharged by absorbing sand from dispatched enemies, making the mechanic both limited but also very accessible. You also have the more traditional but equally effective ability to freeze time.

This is more of a retrospective on the entire series than Sands of Time, but art and music direction are stellar throughout the entire trilogy. The art is somewhat exaggerated, giving the Prince and other characters a cartoonish appearance that looks expressive and human in 2003, which is an impressive feat when compared to more “realistic” games during that time period. I’ve already addressed the storybook nature of the game, which is enhanced by the superb Middle Eastern music.

As much as I loved Sands of Time, I cringed a little, realizing what was next…

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

Let’s address the notorious tonal makeover of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and get it over with. I’m still at a bit of a loss about the decision to essentially take a gothic art brush to Sands of Time. Just look at the box art. The Prince is notably darker, violence is much more pronounced, and the soundtrack delves into bizarrely out-of-place heavy metal rock. Gone is the whimsical nature of the first game, and this new direction doesn’t seem to mean anything other than a superficial attempt at dark maturity – and backfiring spectacularly. It’s such a startling contrast to the earlier free-spirited nature that I can only wonder what the point was and who at Ubisoft is to blame for it.

Warrior Within actually is a solid sequel if you can look past the Prince’s incessant “dark” growling. The story is an interesting concept on repercussions, as the Prince is hunted by a beast known as the Dahaka. The Prince learns that he escaped his fate by not dying after releasing the Sands of Time, and the Dahaka is attempting to kill the Prince to restore order to time. The Prince sets sail for the Island of Time to prevent the Sands of Time from being created, thus preventing his past self from releasing the sands and changing his fate.

The writing is still strong but the narrative doesn’t possess the same charm or effective development as its predecessor, owing largely to the abandonment of the original theme. The dark atmosphere degrades the Prince into a generic tough guy and new heroine Kaileena doesn’t have any of the chemistry with the Prince that Farah had. Instead she falls into the predictable sex object role, proudly showing off her cleavage and existing as a love interest just by virtue of being a female tagging along with the Prince. I liked Warrior Within and I liked these characters despite their problems, but in terms of story it’s a big step down from Sands of Time.

Gameplay focuses much more heavily on combat than Sands of Time did and improves it dramatically. Fighting is diverse, visceral, and complicated in a manner predating God of War. Highlights include lengthier combo attacks that flow beautifully and the brutal finishers are extremely satisfying to pull off. The ability to wield two weapons at once and pick up other enemies’ weapons does a lot to mix up fights. Combat actually becomes a relevant and surprisingly enjoyable part of gameplay rather than a series of boring interims. It’s one of the big accomplishments in Warrior Within and enough to compensate for the atmosphere, at least for me.

The rest of the core gameplay maintains what makes the Prince of Persia series as a whole excellent. The Persian architecture and crisp visuals have been upgraded to allow for more variety as the parkour continues to shine. Wall-leaping, shimmying, balancing, and slicing your way through a tapestry to a floor, among other parkour abilities has been refined to the point of feeling like a balletic art form.

Warrior Within is somehow both experimental and imitative. The development team was clearly trying to listen to feedback by improving the combat but keeping the superb parkour, but it seems like they wanted to opt for a new direct to keep the story fresh. It’s laudable that they didn’t try to rehash the first game and took the narrative somewhere else, even if it didn’t work. Warrior Within was still very enjoyable, and the ending left us wide open for the third installment.

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

Ubisoft Montreal evidently realized they did the Prince wrong with the gothic treatment and wound their own clock back, in a way. The resulting Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones feels like a return to form. As the Prince sails into Babylon with Kaileena, he discovers his old enemy, the Vizier, besieging the city. Another consequence of meddling with time has resulted from the Prince’s actions. Because of events in the second game the Prince erased the events of Sands of Time, thus the Vizier was never killed.

This was a unique idea when it comes to time travel stories and an interesting way of exploring the ripple effects time has, not to mention it aptly characterizes the Prince as the likeable royal who can’t stop messing with things. The only problem is what I alluded to in the Warrior Within segment. While Warrior Within tried – albeit poorly – to take the series in a new direction the new romance between the Prince and Farah (who does not remember him) tries the same banter they had in the first game, but it doesn’t have the same spark as in the first game. Beyond this the story still builds on the Prince’s character arc, in this case helping the Prince come to terms with everything he’s caused.

By the third game in the series gameplay has been polished to a lovely sheen. Combat is still entertaining and dynamic, although much less visceral so it feels more like Prince of Persia than God of War. Combat also feels much more fast-paced, with the ability to climb about on walls and surprise kill enemies before they can react. The new quick kill system means you can dispatch enemies with greater speed and finesse. Pacing has always been a high point of the trilogy, but it’s bordering on perfect by Two Thrones.

The bosses in Two Thrones also deserve a particular shoutout for seamlessly blending the different types of gameplay. Rather than make certain bosses purely combat-based or parkour-based, different encounters test you based on everything you’ve learned. Without wishing to spoil, bosses require variations of parkour, sands of time techniques, quick-kills, and combat. Balance is the biggest strength of Two Thrones and it translates to the boss encounters.

The Dark Prince is arguably the weakest point of Two Thrones in terms of both gameplay and story. If you’ve seen the box art, you can probably figure out that he’s the Prince’s dark side and the Prince has to overcome him, but in practice it just feels like a leftover from Warrior Within. Giving physical representation to the Prince’s inner demons just feels like an excuse to not use the characterization from Sands of Time, and the Dark Prince’s gameplay segments are surprisingly stale and unrefined.

By this point in the series, there’s not much else that can be said. The story is a step up from Warrior Within, gameplay and parkour continue to be solid, and the art direction and narrative have return to their Persian roots rather than dabbling in dark heavy metal themes again. In a nutshell definitely back on the right track, but Sands of Time was still probably the high point.


The Prince of Persia trilogy has very big ups marred only by some mildly grating downs. As a flighty parkour-puzzle hybrid it’s second to none, and the combat becomes just as enjoyable by Warrior Within. The problems throughout the series – dull combat, bizarre gothic presentation – are all just blemishes on what winds up being an exceptional trilogy. Ubisoft picked a great compilation to HD-ify.   read

4:33 PM on 08.08.2011

Brink Review: Literally On The Brink

Brink is one of those unfortunate games where you see the vision of what the developers wanted as you play but it doesn’t show up on the actual disc. This far future acrobatic opus attracted attention as a new intellectual property that combined run-and gun action with graceful parkour reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge. The ambitious nature of the game is laudable in an era where most shooters opt to capitalize on the success of Call of Duty but ambition can only take you so far. In this case the finer points of Brink are constantly undercut by a lack of direction, unfinished gameplay, and buggy nature.

Brink is a multiplayer-centric team-based shooter on an Earth flooded by rising waters, driving survivors to The Ark, possibly the last bastion of humanity. War has broken out between The Security, which wants to impose strict order for the sake of humanity’s survival, and The Resistance, which strives to escape The Ark and the Security’s regime to search for other human survivors that may be out there.

What’s odd to me is that during the campaign Brink seems to strive to stand on its own as a story despite the lack of any meaningful character interaction or development beyond a few cutscenes explaining the parameters of each mission. The missions keep trying to make us think about the consequences of the actions of both sides and depict the Security and Resistance as morally gray with no definitive good guy but it falls completely flat. The nature of the actual game means we have no emotional investment in the story. It’s disappointing because the setting and relationship are depicted in interesting ways. Splash Damage had the framework for a really solid single player story and they abandoned it. It’s just one of many examples of what could have been in Brink.

The gameplay’s intent is to be objective-based team gameplay and for the most part it’s functional, if run-of-the-mill. The plot-driven nature of the game could have been used for interesting scripted objectives as a way of making Brink stand out in the crowded online shooter multiplayer market, but “objective-based gameplay” generally means running to point X and either hacking it or defending it. Each team only has one spawning point outside of medics reviving you so what typically happens is both teams reach X at the same time, gun each other down, mass revive, and repeat the process. Even if you manage to seize your position maps are so surprisingly linear that an organized team can camp every possibly entrance point and make it almost impossible for the other team to breach it.

The much-touted parkour is also rife with its own problems. The concept of being able to smoothly vault over stairwells and up ledges could offer a lot of freedom in what might otherwise be conventional maps, but unresponsive controls make parkour a game of roulette. When you’re racing towards an outpost under attack and leaping over hurdles the game becomes halfway exhilarating, but often the action wouldn’t register and my character would instead furiously run into a railing. The linearity of the maps means the game never really encourages you to use parkour and there aren’t enough platforms or ledges for you to take advantage of it more than a few times per game. When you factor in that people are shooting at you and by using parkour you leave yourself open to enemy fire you might as well just cut out the middleman and run everywhere.

Playing with human teammates is also mandatory because the AI in this game went to the same primary school as Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5. Both AI teammates and opponents get more confused by anything more complex than walking to their objective, and even if they do they won’t even bother to hack it or defend it sometimes. It’s common to ambush an enemy making a beeline towards an objective who then completely ignores you even as you riddle them with bullets, and medics have a painful, Gears of War 2-esque habit of half-ignoring you when you’ve been killed and need to wait for healing. Several times I caught a group of opponents camping around their objective without actually interacting with it, leaving me wide open to take it back.

There are enough players on Brink – or at least on the Xbox 360 version – that you can get a team together reasonably quickly but some of the problems you encounter when playing with bots are amplified online. The linearity of battlefields makes the rush to take control of objectives even more of a chaotic stalemate. When a human team camps on top of a safe they need to be defending as a group, you might as well just leave the game and save yourself the dozens of failed attempts to retake it.

The game also features a now-traditional experience system where you gain new equipment and gear as you level up. Just like in games like Modern Warfare 2 if you opt to allow players with higher ranks into your games you’ll be at a severe disadvantage until you yourself level up. You’ll also need to level up because a lot of the better upgrades are closed off until you go up in rank and get access to some cookie cutter strategies you’ll tend to notice online, like making a slow-but-heavy Medic who can freely revive teammates while being impossible to kill (this was brought up by Penny Arcade, no less). There’s always going to be some disadvantage for new players in a system like this but Brink arguably goes too far.

Brink has a slew of interesting ideas that the developers seemed to implement in all of the wrong ways. Parkour is offset by poor controls and linear maps. Objective-based gameplay is hampered by a glaring lack of objective diversity. A potentially interesting narrative is squandered by emphasis on multiplayer. At the best of times Brink is functional but it seems like Splash Damage was overwhelmed by everything they tried to do. Ideas can only take you so far and what’s left is a mediocre shooter with some unexpectedly good presentation that can’t mask the lost potential behind the curtain.   read

12:32 PM on 08.02.2011

The Grass is Always Greener When it Comes to Sequels

I read a very enjoyable article a few weeks ago on Kotaku. “Speak up on Kotaku” is basically an opportunity for users to say their pieces on anything gaming related, and the best get published on the website itself. User Acast010 railed against people complaining about video game industry sequels, correctly noting that complaining about sequels is commonplace despite lots of fantastic new IPs for this generation and that despite everyone clamoring for sequels to their favorite games, people then tend to be unhappy when they’re finally announced.

It reminded me of an article by David Wong on Cracked. Let me preface this by saying Wong’s article, called “The Most 6 Ominous Trends in Video Games” does have a lot of valid points and I love reading Wong’s work in general. My particular issue comes with point three, that we’re “on the verge of creative bankruptcy”. There are a lot of responses I could marshal to that claim, but one statement in general caught mt eye.

“Everybody complains about sequels and reboots in Hollywood, but holy shit, it's nothing compared to what we have in gaming right now.”

Is it, now? Let’s check the validity of that claim.

Let’s take a look at the current state of the movie industry. Take a look at the Top 50 films for the last weekend (of July the 22nd). Note that this is a single weekend, and among the films listed are:

#2: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
#4: Transformers: Dark of the Moon
#7: Cars 2
#20: X-Men: First Class
#22: Kung Fu Panda 2
#23: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
#25: The Hangover: Part II
#31: Fast Five (Fast and the Furious 5, basically)

Not only are those all sequels, but three of them are in the top ten and seven are in the top 25. Three of them also do exactly what Wong criticized something like Fable: The Journey for doing by removing the number in favor of a subtitle, four if you count X-Men: First Class since it’s a prequel. Let’s also bear in mind that summer is considered one of the biggest if not the biggest time for movies, comparable to video games during the holiday season.

Fair enough, that’s only one weekend, right? It’s only scratching the surface of the titanic sequel pumping Hollywood is doing. As it turns out 2011 will break the all time record for movie sequels released in a single year, with 27 films of 2011 being sequels. This article was also in February, meaning the number has likely gone up. That average to about one sequel every two weeks and, according to Slashfilm, around one fifth of total releases.

I’m sure the counter-argument would be that sequels represent a higher percentage of the video game industry. That’s a difficult claim to prove or disprove either way, but even if it were true, so what? Being a sequel doesn’t automatically disqualify something from being a good product or we wouldn’t have films like The Godfather Part II or Toy Story 2 or 3. Being a sequel doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s going to be a carbon copy of the first game that lacks any originality at all, either. Half-Life 2 felt like a standalone game rather than a Half-Life sequel and Resident Evil 4 was only tangentially related to the series.

If you’re looking for a big picture of sequel-mania in Hollywood, as of the end of April there are currently 95 sequels in development in Hollywood. These aren’t all sequels to recent modern movies like the Transformers films or on-going sagas like Harry Potter either – some of the listed sequels include Bad Boys 3, Bad Santa 2, Beverly Hills Cop 4, Evil Dead 4, and Ghostbusters III.

Of course, don’t assume Hollywood won’t wring every penny they can from recent cash cows, as they’re hard at work on Final Destination 5 (with promises of 6 and 7), Alvin and the Chipmunks 3, Indiana Jones 5, James Bond 23,[/] and [i]The Karate Kid 2 (of the Jaden Smith remake) to name a few. This isn’t even getting into would-be sequels in the dead zone of Hollywood development hell, in which case you could conservatively double that number.

Even if you went out of your way to quantify how many movie sequels versus how many video game sequels there are in a given year, entertainment mediums are saturated with sequels. The very interesting thing about video game sequels is that they can adapt to new technology and there’s always room for tweaking and improving gameplay that didn’t work in prior games. Assassin’s Creed II, Mass Effect 2, and Grand Theft Auto are just a few examples we’ve seen of how sequels build on foundations, expand gameplay, and ultimately result in better games. Films don’t even have that luxury; I can’t quantify the good-to-bad ratio of film sequels but if I had to guess I would assume there are far fewer good movie sequels than game sequels.

As far as I’m concerned, with video game sequels we have it all. Ours is debatably the only medium where sequels reliably stand a really solid chance of being significant improvements over their elder siblings, and it’s only gotten better as technology, writing, and production values for games have improved. It’s disingenuous to assume that sequel pumping is exclusive to video games and bordering on naďve. This especially applies when sequels have given us some of the most celebrated games of not only this generation, but generations past with classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, Thief 2, and Final Fantasy VI (the latter of which counts as a sequel by virtue of the number in the title). Yes, sequel-mania can be a problem regardless of what industry you’re analyzing, but it wouldn’t hurt to look at the glass half full sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong. Would I like to see more new intellectual properties? Absolutely, but I’m not going to turn my nose up at some of the amazing sequels I listed earlier or the ones referenced in Kotaku’s article. When all is said and done, you can have it both ways. Portal can exist and Portal 2 can exist, and we can enjoy both of them. Acast010 said it best: Videogames are fun. Let’s all just have fun.   read

10:31 AM on 07.27.2011

Necro Review - Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

I’ve had a rollercoaster of a history with tactical RPGs. I played Silent Storm until my PC overheated but after three attempts I just haven’t been able to get into Disgaea. Tactics Ogre is something I’m even more ambiguous about because the last time I played it in 1998 I was young enough that I had trouble figuring out these crazy nonlinear storylines. As it stands, Tactics Ogre was a widely celebrated game but I’ve heard that it requires a certain ‘taste’ in order to enjoy it or that it puts people off. This is a remake so I can’t really count it as a rose colored glasses review, but let’s see how it holds up.

Mind you, I did take a crash course with the original game as I played Tactics Ogre to see how the new one stacked up, and the first thing I noticed is that the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together does what so many remakes fail to do: Take advantage of the new technology and take time to fix things that didn’t work. I’ve reviewed plenty of remakes that are little more than slightly upgraded ports with leader boards, the occasional HD, and maybe a new mini-game mode. Sometimes it’s a short development cycle or a misguided sense of purism (like when people complained about Nintendo fixing the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time 3DS) but Tactics Ogre falls prey to neither of those.

What’s particularly laudable about this is that I actually enjoyed the PlayStation version of Tactics Ogre to a point. It’s aged as poorly as most PlayStation One and its counterparts from the fifth generation, but the mercilessly long and frequent load times and mess of technical glitches that infested the PlayStation version have been ironed out smoothly here. Tactics Ogre on the PlayStation had problems but I’d give it a tentative pass for a relatively straight port. Instead the game goes above and beyond to trim fat and tweak integral parts. What’s left is a game that represents its genre very well, but it may not necessarily be a genre that appeals to fans of shooters or less story-intensive games.

The overall gameplay is still your traditional tactical RPG setup. You have a big world map full of key points to travel and visit, where you encounter story advancement or battles. Like most tactical RPGs battles take place on a grid from an isometric perspective. The uniqueness of Tactics Ogre stands out in individual customization. Characters earn Battle Points in combat, which are spent on abilities. Your characters can select from a diverse variety of abilities but only a few of them can be used in battle. The game is well balanced for something as complex as a tactical RPG and there’s no one group of characters or classes that breaks the game.

Fans of the original Tactics Ogre may also recall the constant grinding and micromanagement you had to do because enemies scaled upwards to the level of your strongest character, meaning weaker characters needed to be leveled up so they weren’t liabilities. The PSP iteration introduces a class-based leveling system where all characters of a particular class are scaled to whatever level the class is. This cuts out a lot of fat from the game and it’s gratifying to see a remake not try to pass off excessive grinding as an integral part of gameplay.

The problem is that this leaves classes in the dust rather than individual characters. New classes start off at a low level even early in the game when you’ve been leveling up the classes you’ve had access to, and as the game goes on this becomes a progressively bigger issue. In a worst case scenario you may have to do a lot of grinding to get a class up to par, but given the alternative – especially in the original game – I’m inclined to let this slide.

Another tweak to the gameplay has been the difficulty, which players of the original may recall as being on romhack level in terms of brutality. Let Us Cling Together has the same transition from System Shock 2 to BioShock in that the designers sit down, proceed to tone down the difficulty, and then never actually stop. The game is much more reasonable but the Chariot Tarot system goes too far. I still appreciate the game being more user-friendly and rewinding the battle system is okay to a point, but letting you rewind over 50 turns just feels like playing with cheats on.

The story of Tactics Ogre is something is difficult to tackle because the actual delivery of the story is what hasn’t aged well rather than the quality itself. We live in an era where less is more. Games today excel when they say little but do a lot like Portal or Red Dead Redemption. It’s an engrossing story when it wants to be, delivering a thoughtful narrative about the war-torn nation of Valeria and clashing ideologies of the role of government. The problem is that it gets so bogged down in exposition that it tends to lose sight of what makes it strong. Similarly Final Fantasy XIII you’re given no real proper introduction to the world and all the make-believe terms and people make things a lot more complicated than it should be.

What’s much more impressive is the nonlinearity of the story, which was and still is way ahead of its time. A lot of games claim that “every” decision has a consequence but it’s rare to see a game like Tactics Ogre where a great number of your choices actually have significant consequences, be they more predictably far reaching decisions or even seemingly unimportant choices such as planning a direction of attack. It makes you consider your choices very carefully and several times I paused the game, put my PSP down, and thought for a good several minutes about choices I was confronted with. We all like to see the best outcome and Let Us Cling Together actually obscures it, meaning modern ‘morality’ games could learn from this system.

New to the PSP iteration of Let Us Cling Together is the World system, which augments the nonlinearity of the game beautifully. In a nutshell it lets you revisit certain sequences of the game where you are presented with choices and lets you explore alternate outcomes. I was initially a little disappointed that you need to play through the entire game to unlock the World system rather than just unlocking the ability to revisit specific points as you unlock them, but it would be too tempting to analyze every possible outcome as you play the story, so it gets a bit of a pass. In fairness, it’s also an excellent way to reward players by presenting them with the ability to see what could have been.

Let Us Cling Together is a game from a different era of RPGs, and as I played I increasingly got the sense that some things that put me off are things that JRPG fans or nostalgia buffs in general will enjoy, like the heavy story. The game has its share of problems but it certainly holds up as a tactical RPG, and the nonlinear story branching was and continues to be impressively ahead of its time. As I implied at the beginning TRPGs haven’t always been my cup of tea but the game does what it sets out to do and it’s a great representative of the genre.   read

6:29 PM on 07.24.2011

No Rose Colored Glasses: Vagrant Story

Right on the heels of the less-than-glowing retrospective I gave Xenogears, another classic JRPG is up to bat. This is Vagrant Story with no rose colored glasses.

When you grow out of adolescence and mature into an older gamer, you notice certain things about your childhood amusements. One particular thing I keep noticing is that games I used to play when I was little feel like pulling teeth now. I can’t remember how I lasted more than ten minutes on Quest 64 and don’t even get me started on what it’s like to play the original Goldeneye. Having not played Vagrant Story as a child I certainly hope the kids who did grew up to be members of Mensa International, because this game is more complex than advanced nuclear physics lectures.

Vagrant Story is one of those games where it seems to be designed for a specific clique in mind. Not even a target market like shooter fans or RPG fans, but a narrow group of extremely dedicated people who will take time to play it. Games often have learning curves when they’re complicated, but Vagrant Story could have its own eight week correspondents’ course for everything you need to figure out. It has its finer points, but the unprecedented learning curve will turn all but the most hardcore of JRPG purists away.

On a basic level I applaud Vagrant Story for not confining itself to the arbitrary “genre” defining elements of RPGs that BioWare eventually rescued us from. Combat is real time, which is surprisingly ambitious given how easy it was to create turn based combat by the 2000s. You can run and jump, making the game feel much more flexible and less static than a lot of JRPGs, and the game makes an effort at trying to incorporate puzzle and platforming elements into gameplay. The vision and the energy in Vagrant Story is something you see – the problem is that it manifests in ways that don’t accommodate players.

The setting and story encompass dozens of factions in a huge world; this sounds better on paper than in practice. The game makes a feint at attempting to convey everything that’s happening to the player but pretty much just shoves you into the story and hopes you have a strategy guide in your lap. Your main character, hilariously named Ashley Riot, is sent by the Valendia Knights of Peace to investigate another character’s involvement with a religious cult called Mullenkamp and its leader Sydney Lasstarot while another person called Romero Guildenstern is trying to capture Lasstarot without Valendia’s approval, but he’s under the orders of a religious cardinal and it turns out there’s dark powers hidden with people-yeah, this is where I gave up, too.

This is barely denting the impenetrable story and while it’s mildly interesting when I understood snippets of it, you need to have a Wikipedia page open to get a sense of what’s going on. It goes back to the recurring feeling I suggested earlier that Vagrant Story is a game that just doesn’t let you in. The game has an in-crowd of dedicated players possibly committed to understanding the labyrinthine story and gameplay mechanics but the rest of us laypeople can only watch from the sidelines. The writing is decent but suffers the same problem from Xenogears where tidal waves of it are thrown at you without giving you time to absorb anything.

Combat is a good example of Vagrant Story attempting to throw way too much at you in too little time. The inefficient menu-driven combat is made all the more awkward by being able to hit specific parts of an enemy’s body, and there’s a completely unnecessary “risk” meter that makes it easier to miss. You need to worry about a weapon’s “affinity” because various weapons have different effects on different enemies. Not only does this give rise to a lot of tedious busywork when you need to micromanage every single piece of equipment, but your gear actually changes alignment over time. You have to worry about chain abilities, defensive abilities, break arts, and enough specifics of combat that I could fill a book (and I’m sure someone did when writing the strategy guide). Some of these ideas are interesting, like chain abilities requiring you to time hits in a manner similar to a rhythm game, but this is not video game combat. This is basically a giant game of inventory management, except you’re paying except being paid.

It also has the problem as Final Fantasy VIII where the process of combat is extremely padded. Your attacks barely dent your enemies’ considerable health meters. Even when you chain combos you spend a lot of infuriating time missing because of the risk meter. The system and the ability to hit various enemy body parts suggest another quaint claim to being realistic. In turn this just becomes another object lesson in trying to be realistic. Eleven years hasn’t done much for the realism of Vagrant Story, and I suspect it won’t do much for today’s so-claimed realistic games either.

The puzzle elements in the game go past ambition and just venture into the realm of being lazy. The puzzles in this game involve a lot of boxes. Sound familiar? Push boxes, pull boxes, stack boxes, and most of them just wind up being a variation of “Stack this number of boxes so Ashley can get where he needs to go”. Essentially this does nothing but add another phase to the “Walk across the room, enter door, proceed onward” mechanic, but the game is rife with this kind of padding in and out of combat.

Visually Vagrant Story comes out as aging better than most 3D games on the PlayStation, but it has the reverse problem of Final Fantasy VII. Character models look surprisingly crisp almost to the point of being on par with stuff I’ve seen on the PlayStation 2 or PlayStation Portable, but backgrounds are another matter. All of the brown and gray stone bricks and caves make Vagrant Story almost feel like a third person Quake, and the environments all have a primitive quality to them like someone smeared brown and gray paint all over the walls. Music is classic Squaresoft, that is to say, fantastic, but it’s just one good point weighed against a lot of poor aging and bad design.

Vagrant Story is not a game for the faint at heart, or the casual player who wants to play a game in 30 minute bursts in between working on a project or looking after a family. This is a game that demands your commitment and will firmly lock you out if you don’t take hours of time to learn the excruciating amount of detail required to play this game both from a story and gameplay perspective. As big as it was for its time, look past the behemoth presentation and Vagrant Story is just a repetitive, needlessly complex JRPG opus on the PlayStation.   read

4:28 PM on 07.23.2011

No Rose Colored Glasses: Xenogears

As some of you regular blog readers may have noticed, I briefly disappeared off the face of the Earth. Starting a business keeps you busy, but things have cooled off, so I'm happy to return to video game writing. I've got a lot of backlogged content to publish and more time to do it now. I thought I would start off with something I'd gotten interested in a while ago.

It's an interesting effect to play games from 10 or 20 years ago that you missed altogether. What some person views through a nostalgia filter you just see as a poorly aged, barely functional game. As it happens, I missed a lot of the classic PlayStation JRPGs, which are now arriving on the PlayStation Store. So this is the beginning of what I hope will be a series called Rose Colored Glasses, where I take a look at an old game without any of the nostalgia that players may have, even on a subconscious level.

Xenogears is one of the most venerated classics of the PlayStation era. The game is hailed for being groundbreaking in terms of storytelling, but more than 13 years later it’s made the march to PlayStation Network. Has it aged into a timeless classic like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or will it be one of the many casualties of the dark ages of early 3D graphics like Resident Evil? Let’s dive right in.

Since we all know it’s coming, let’s just get it out of the way: Yes, Xenogears has aged as poorly as most of the original PlayStation’s library. Effects like fire look like shapeless blobs of tomato paste as early as the first cutscene and the isometric view of the game makes it easy to get lost in environments when colors blend a little too well. Indoor environments in particular can be confusing to explore as early as the first house you find yourself in. As I’ve said before early 3D always looks messy, and Xenogears simply isn’t an exception.

To the credit of Xenogears it features a 3D sprite-based appearance rather than the hideously malformed ‘realism’ that Final Fantasy VIII touted back in its prime. It doesn’t look quite as good in retrospect as Secret of Mana, but individual sprites are distinct enough that I could at least tell one from the other, and choosing the cartoony appearance rather than full 3D means the game is at least reasonably easy on the eyes. Everything is colorful and distinct enough for me to acknowledge that Xenogears was the pinnacle of visual work for its time, and the aging mostly comes from natural wear rather than visual style.

What impresses me much more is the narrative, which is a very noteworthy deviation from most JRPGs at the time. Forget your plucky twelve year old who gathers a motley crew to kill Satan through the power of love and friendship. Xenogears opts for the darker, Final Fantasy VII route but is much more direct in the subject matter it tackles. From a relatively light opening Xenogears delves into thoughtful criticism of religion and followers, the role of deities, and how seemingly little control over their fates humans really have. I’ve seen dark storylines in early JRPGs before but they’ve never been displayed with as much finesse as in Xenogears, and it’s what really held the game together for me. The story doesn’t pull any punches but stops just short of being heavy handed in its messages.

The story proper concerns Wei, an amnesiac in a world where two superpowers war for dominance and mechs known as gears are used in combat. His quintessential team of followers band together to uncover the mysteries of their world. The story follows a conventional JRPG thread but the writing is far superior than what people may be used to for 1998. World religions are represented in the game through theology and symbolism, and philosophy is integrated into the game. It’s unusual to see references of the works of Sigmund Freud or Friedrich Nietzsche in any JRPG but everything is tied smoothly with the plot in a way that makes Xenogears stand apart from most of its companions on the PlayStation.

Gameplay is an interesting mix of ‘classic’ turn based combat at the time and more progressive JRPG combat that edges into interactive territory. Let me make my position clear: Random encounters aren’t a part of the gameplay experience. The only reason they even existed is because it was easier to compute a single algorithm than to waste precious limited space populating worlds with visible monsters, which is why we don’t see random encounters at all anymore. They’re intrusive here as they are in any game. This is hardly a problem exclusive to Xenogears, but random encounters just don’t translate well into this day and age.

The combat is turn based but given flavor with a system that gives you a degree of interactivity rather than purely trading blows. Your characters use a number of Attack Points (AP) for offensive abilities depending on the power of the attack, and as the game goes on you can use more per turn. AP attacks can also be stored for combo “Deathblow” attacks, which are learned by repeatedly using specific abilities. This wasn’t necessarily the most creative method of unlocking abilities but it’s good to see a JRPG that rewards the large amount of fighting you do in any JRPG.

Archaic elements of gameplay also show through. As interesting as the narrative is, the story is conveyed through tedious hours of completely static cutscenes. This isn’t helped by the lengthy walls of texts you’ll have to navigate through to get any semblance of what’s going on. Using the D-pad for movement rather than the comfy analog stick feels grating after two generations of 360 degree movement, and holding the circle button to run is as agitating as it continues to be in modern games like Batman: Arkham Asylum. The biggest issue is this: Where’s my map of towns and actual areas, rather than just an overworld map? I got lost in the very first time because the lack of direction early in the game means you have no indication of where to go.

We often associate big, spiraling budgets with the AAA games of today but Xenogears suffers the problem of a weak finisher because of monetary troubles despite being made more than a decade ago. After two very strong acts the game quickly starts to lose steam around the third disc, when it’s easy to see the development team cutting corners. There’s a bizarre shift to 2D near the end, although this comes across less as more artistic philosophy and more an attempt to make sure the game didn’t wind up breaking the bank. The actual story ending wraps things up nicely but there’s a sense of rushed urgency about the finale that’s difficult to ignore.

Xenogears has its share of issues related to its aging and it comes from an era where more was more when it comes to writing, dialogue, and narrative. That being said I still see why it’s revered as one of the classic RPGs of its time. The rich narrative was interesting enough to keep me playing and the combat is reasonably enjoyable despite my established hate for random encounters. If you’re a nostalgia buff going through classics you missed, Xenogears definitely stands as one of the better games on the PSX pile in hindsight.   read

10:17 PM on 05.30.2011

VGR Review: 3rd Birthday

Parasite Eve is one of those franchises that never made it out of the original PlayStation era when JRPGs fell onto Sony’s first console like autumn rain. The first two games are often held up as PlayStation classics but the series seemed to be retired after 2000 when Parasite Eve II was released in the United States. 3rd Birthday is billed as a spiritual successor to the Parasite Eve series, but I certainly hope that the Parasite Eve games are better than this. 3rd Birthday is a poorly executed mass of ideas that does the franchise it claims to represent shame.

In the year 2012 on Christmas Eve, New York City is ravaged – the video game industry joining Hollywood in destroying New York City at least a few times per year – by tentacle monsters called Twisted. Series heroine Aya Brea is part of the Counter Twisted Investigation task force (seriously) and her role stems from her ability to use the Overdive System – no, not Overdrive, Overdive – which allows her to send her psyche into the past to change history. Thus Aya sets out to alter the course of history in the invasion of the Twisted and delve into a lot of expositive dialogue about her identity.

Aya has seems to have gone to the same school of characterization as Team Ninja’s treatment of Samus in Metroid: Other M. The strong, capable heroine the game seems to want to portray during combat is offset by every single moment of story development that characterizes Aya as whiny, submissive, and grating. When she isn’t cuddling in corners and trying not to succumb to the cold, her only role seems to be exploited by the tendency of Aya’s clothes being ripped off as a poor excuse to tease her physique. The irritation Aya provokes every time she opens her mouth makes the many, many deaths you’ll endure at least a bit tolerable.

The story proper starts off from a fairly stable launch pad but goes completely haywire within an hour as the narrative delves into an incomprehensible mess of existentialism and half-cocked philosophy and the relationship between the soul and the body. I like that the narrative attempts to tie themes into the core elements of gameplay but it seems like the writers and game designers were in completely different office buildings during development. Yeah, a few lines will make you question your role in the universe but the game generally just talks a lot without conveying anything of real importance.

3rd Birthday has been billed as a “cinematic action RPG” by Square-Enix and the game deviates from the survival horror nature of its predecessor. The “action” part consists of a bare-bones shooting formula that relies more on contests of who can stay alive longer than actual strategy or skill. Aya moves at a light jogging pace and a lot of enemies can cover the distance between you quickly. Enemies have ridiculously big health meters and certain foes can take away all of your health with just a few attacks. The game claims to deviate from survival horror, but similarly to a lot of survival horror games you’re the weak one up against these super strong otherworldly horrors – except that you’re expected to kill them all here. The game is basically a giant war of attrition with the deck stacked against you.

This is where Overdive comes in. The game touts the ability to have Aya possess bodies of different soldiers fighting alongside her on the battlefield, similar to MindJack. It’s a clever idea and adds a sliver of strategy to an otherwise extremely generic third person shooter, but taken at face value the ability to use soldiers as husks basically amounts to temporarily padding your health since you can abandon soldiers before they die. The occasional fun moment comes from rapidly jumping around to escape the giant marauding Twisted shaped like a testicle but all it does is reinforce the notion that all you’re doing is staying alive long enough to pepper an enemy with enough bullets that he’ll finally go down.

The attrition gameplay is made all the more apparent when you look at the only other uses of Overdive. If you attack an enemy long enough you can unleash a Psyche attack, which does a lot of damage but just briefly expedites the process of killing an enemy with a huge health meter. There’s also a Limit Break-esque technique called Liberation mode that lets you move swiftly around becoming a much more capable fighter, but it lasts only a few seconds and the bright flashing is almost painfully disorienting.

I could understand this sort of gameplay working in a survival horror context but the fights aren’t harrowing; they’re just irritating. The fact that you’re expected to kill all of these enemies through standard gunplay and the game’s own intended purpose of being an action RPG undercuts any sense of making you a survival horror character. It almost seems like in trying to be a spiritual successor 3rd Birthday wanted to stay “true” to the roots of its predecessors and wound up with something halfway towards an average shooter.

The “RPG” part of action RPG is sorely lacking. As you fight enemies you gain the usual experience and you can upgrade weapons to improve your survival skills such as increasing accuracy or ammo capacity. I barely noticed any significant effect in the upgrades I applied throughout the game, but for those of you here for Aya’s exploitation you can change her aesthetic appearance. There’s a rather transparent look at the intended exploitation of Aya when you notice that there’s a maid outfit. If there’s anything more appropriate than tight jeans for facing legions of fantastical terrors, it’s a maid uniform.

An astute reader may have realized by now that the constant battles of attrition in 3rd Birthday make the game mercilessly padded, which is why I was so surprised that the game took so little time. I cleared the entire story in about five and a half hours, and if my earlier criticisms of the story didn’t tip you off rather than a climactic finale you’re left with a pretentiously ambiguous ending. After enough deaths that reminded of my first time playing Demon’s Souls it wasn’t a satisfactory payoff by any means.

Depsite a few interesting gameplay ideas 3rd Birthday feels like an altogether different franchise rather than a spiritual successor to Parasite Eve. It doesn’t really hold up as either an action game or an RPG, and reducing Aya to a submissive sex object is something I don’t imagine sat well with fans of the series. The resulting game lacks appeal for Parasite Eve fans but really can’t bring anything to the table for a new audience.   read

1:25 PM on 05.01.2011

The Value of Sixty Dollars: Epic Games Edition

I was disappointed to read about what Mike Capps of Epic Games said the other week. He made the claim that the ninety-nine cent mobile gaming market on iOS devices is “killing us”, the “us” specifically referring to the conventional $60 game. He questioned how you sell a $60 game that’s really worth it and that there’s never been this much uncertainty in the gaming industry.

I’ve seen people in comments almost instinctively fling mud at Capps: He’s a greedy executive, he’s a money vacuum, he’s no better than Gordon Gekko. Calm down, everyone; let’s not take this out on Capps personally. He’s a smart, perceptive person and his tenure as the CEO of Epic Games has seen a lot of fantastic games as well as the Unreal engine.

What disappoints me is that Capps’ statement seems to contradict Epic’s commitment to quality, especially on top of his comments on used games. Based on some of their more recent releases Epic seems to understand what a lot of publishers either can’t or won’t admit: Some games are worth sixty dollars and others aren’t.

As quick as I am to criticize people who refer to 8-bit and 16-bit gaming as the “glory days” of video games, there are things we can learn from it. It’s why I started this blog in the first place. One of the things we can learn is the value of a lack of an MSRP, or a suggested retail price. It’s difficult to scrap together a consensus on the price points of different games during those eras, but the consensus I’ve been able to gather is that games ranged from $30 for something like Aladdin to $75 for a superstar like Chrono Trigger.

I’ve heard conflicting sources on when the suggested retail price came into effect, but one thing the 8 and 16-bit eras did have over today is that it was up to the publishers to make their game worth their price point. Chrono Trigger was $75 because of years of hard work by a superbly talented team, and I honestly would have bought it at that price in hindsight. If you wanted to make a game $60, you’d have to tell us why it’s $60.

In commenting, Jim rightly says that a uniform $60 price point is very silly because not all games are worth $60. I’m not sure of the solution be it a $40 middle tier a more broad pricing range, but the unfortunate truth is that Mass Effect 2 isn’t worth the same price as Alpha Protocol. Red Dead Redemption wasn’t worth the same price as Haze. All a “suggested retail price” is doing is giving publishers an excuse to uniformly charge for what essentially amounts to an upper-tier game even if it’s a licensed media cash-in. If Alpha Protocol isn’t worth $60, then video game adaptations of Kung Fu Panda or Wall-E aren’t either.

I hate to say this, publishers, but we don’t “owe” you anything, at least straight out the door. Especially when people like David Jaffe are saying that the consumer has no place in the used game sales debate. Telling us that we should buy your games at $60 because you need to make money or the used games market is “tough” for you isn’t an excuse. This is capitalism. Customer and brand loyalty are things that need to be earned and maintained, and it's especially arrogant to assume customer loyalty. Not to turn this into a referendum on used sales, but it seems like every time a cheaper alternative to $60 games comes along like used games or mobile apps, publishers get temperamental, since Reggie Fils-Aime has complained about mobile games too.

This is why Capps’ comment disappoint me. Epic of all companies should be aware that it’s up to the publisher to tell us why your game costs what it does. They’ve had a great commitment to quality and they have a good history of rewarding people who purchase their game brand new. Gears of War 2 at $60 netted you little unlockables like gold guns or an extra multiplayer map. The reason I went out of my way to buy Bulletstorm brand new is because it offered a lot of extra multiplayer bonus content and access to the Gears of War 3 beta. That was absolutely worth $60 to me.

If anything, the rise of indie development, cheap games on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and WiiWare, iOS gaming, and Facebook games are godsends. By undercutting the model of $50-$60 games, publishers now can’t uniformly say that games are charged in the $50-$60 range because “that’s what games cost”. I disagree with the suggestion that mobile games are killing Epic Games or anyone else, but if that’s what publishers think, they’re going to need to either:

A) Charge less money for games
B) Go out of their way to make their games worth sixty bucks

After all, who says capitalism doesn’t foster competition?

Final note: Yeah, I know this happened a while ago, but some computer troubles prevented a timelier posting. Blame my laptop’s fan.   read

6:01 PM on 04.21.2011

Fun with Math: M Rated Games and Minors

Out of curiosity I couldn’t help but ask Leland Yee and his chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, what they thought of the new FTC report published today, which indicates that a mere 13% of minors can purchase M rated games at retail outlets - a 7% drop from last year. They’d been conspicuously silent on the topic all day while the Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association rightfully started celebrating.

I tweeted the message “Any thoughts on the FTC's survey today? Video games seem even less easily accessible at retail stores.” to both Yee and Keigwin, and to my surprise, I heard back quickly from Keigwin. He had this to say: “good progress and worth commending. Unfortunately it still equates to millions of violent game purchases by kids”.

Kudos to him for being willing to talk about it rather than just hiding behind an editorial, and hoping to glean more insight I tweeted back “This is just testers though. Are millions of games being sold to actual children without their parents' consent in Cali?” As of this writing, he has yet to respond. I appreciate that this was only a few hours ago but I don’t see a response forthcoming (although updates will be posted if they occur).

“Millions of violent games purchased by kids” is almost a meme at this point. It’s the go-to argument of every advocate of video game restriction from Leland Yee to Joe Lieberman. One million alone is a big number, so you would think the results would show when you factor in purchasing statistics and facts, wouldn’t they? Let’s take a look.

Let’s take the recently released Call of Duty: Black Ops as an example, since it was the subject of a few questions at the debate between George Rose and Jim Steyer at the Commonwealth debate. Within 24 hours of launch, Black Ops sold 5.6 million copies in the United States. Note that this is the entire United States and not just California. Since parents do the purchasing of a video game 91% of the time let’s make an extreme assumption that 5.6 million parents with minor children purchased every single copy of Black Ops. 9% of that is 504,000.

Truly a compelling state need

Assume that each individual one of these 504,000 purchases was done by an underage minor in a retail outlet without the parent present. I know this ignores a lot of important factors including Internet purchases and the fact that a lot of non-parents obviously purchased Black Ops but let’s play along with the unspoken assumption here. If it’s a 13% success rate for a minor purchasing a game, then 65,520 copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops were sold to minors without a parent present in the United States under this rationale.

This already falls well short of “millions” for one of the best-selling games of all time, but we’re not done quite yet. If we assume (again for argument’s sake) that the copies purchased by minors were distributed evenly across States, then a paltry 1,310 copies of Black Ops were sold to minors in defiance of the ESRB ratings system in California. If we wanted to be even more generous we could assume that a third of all the copies in the U.S. were sold to minors in California that still amounts to 21,621.

So if we assumed that it was only families with minors purchasing copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops we still don’t even come to close to “millions” of games for one of the most popular M rated games of this generation. When you throw in in a slew of mitigating factors including Internet purchases, parents buying it for themselves and legal non-parent adults buying it for themselves I feel comfortable in predicting the actual number of minors who purchased Black Ops without their parents’ consent doesn’t even break 1,000 in California alone.

“But wait! That’s only one game!” True enough, but remember again that M rated games consist of only a small part of the market share. Also keep in mind that Keigwin never defined what he considered “violent”. M rated games? If so then California is making a fuss over Halo Reach being played by 15 year olds. Even if we go on Leland Yee’s assumption of what a “deviant” violent video game is (killing, maiming, torturing, dismembering, or sexually assaulting a human being), that’s far fewer titles and it becomes even less likely that “millions” of violent games are being sold to kids.

The true peddlers of violence

Then there’s the vagueness of the law, which I’m not going to go into too deeply because I’ve already discussed that. Would Gears of War 2, an extremely graphic game, be considered “violent” even though you don’t kill any humans? Are Left 4 Dead 2 zombies the “image” of a human being? Is it not "ultraviolent" to brutally maim and kill animals? Suffice to say this is the point where the argument gets very difficult.

It would certainly be problematic if “millions” of violent video games (however you define violence) that were being played without the parent’s consent but setting aside that this is a parental problem instead of a game industry problem, neither Yee nor Keigwin has offered any evidence whatsoever to suggest that it’s happening. They haven’t even offered any anecdotal evidence that a single M rated game was purchased by someone who wasn’t a hired tester.

It makes you wonder why taxpayers have now paid more than a million dollars to the video game industry for reimbursed legal fees. That’s a “millions” statistic I can actually cite, too.   read

12:33 PM on 03.24.2011

A Tale of Two Open Worlds

Open world games have become something of a staple in video games ever since Grand Theft Auto III revolutionized the genre. Ever since the technology became more readily available, open worlds have appeared in everything from run-of-the mill Grand Theft Auto clones to World War II games and even quasi-rock worlds. Eight years later it’s a lot easier for developers on tighter budgets than Rockstar North to implement open worlds, but how do you implement them well? When is an open world really an integral part of the game? I’ve come up with a theory that I think explains two successful formulas for open world gameplay and the relationship between them.

The Sandbox

This is an open world where fun, chaos, and catering specifically to the player’s impulses to be a colossal sadist reign supreme. I know the term ‘sandbox’ is ubiquitously applied to open worlds in general, but think about it for a second. Erase everything you know about the connotation of ‘sandbox gameplay’ for a moment. What do you want to do when you’re in a sandbox? Build a castle and then demolish it with your fists? Throw clumps of sand in the air or maybe into a playmate’s face? That’s what I always inferred a sandbox to be: An open world where wacky carnage takes at least some degree of priority.

A common – and critical – characteristic of sandbox environments is your character having the ability to defy physics, ignore gravity, miraculously heal from wounds, and cause more damage than Arnold Schwarzenegger from Commando. Embrace these traits whenever you can if you want a sandbox. It exemplifies the crazy, kinetic action and destruction we want to see – and more importantly, to cause – with fewer limitation or boundaries. The slapstick physics of Saints Row 2 make it a more effective recipe for chaos than the realistic driving in Grand Theft Auto IV (although I know I’m going to get at least objection to that claim). Similar Wile E. Coyote physics in games like Prototype and Just Cause 2 is what makes them standout sandbox games because you can do a lot more with less restrictive environments.

Freedom and the ability to move around very quickly should be paramount in the sandbox, especially to give us ability to cause as much destruction as quickly and as excitingly as we can. Just Cause 2 in particular lets you instantly grapple up tall mountains with a few hookshots or safely fall from the same mountains using unlimited parachutes, or simply by hookshotting into the ground at terminal velocity and magically escaping unharmed. Prototype lets you literally leap tall buildings in a single bound, scale them within seconds by dash-jumping, and glide through the air before immediately crashing to the ground from several hundred feet with no damage whatsoever. I’ve often found that the best sandboxes make the player a virtual god without regard to difficulty.

While it certainly isn’t mandatory for a fun sandbox, explosive set pieces or destructible elements of terrain are fantastic bonuses and can mean the difference between a good sandbox and a great sandbox. Mercenaries 2 and Red Faction: Guerrilla essentially let us go nuts with building destruction, but Just Cause 2 is again at the top of the sandbox class. It gets very proactive with offering buildings, satellites, radio towers, and fuel tanks that can be destroyed to raise your reputation, and certain story missions end with spectacular explosions that are only missing Rico Rodriguez putting on a pair of sunglasses while calmly walking away.

Alternatively, why not give us the ability to raise our own private army? Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and San Andreas both excelled at this because you recruited legions of gangsters to your ranks. Then it became equally entertaining to annoy rival factions, and watch the chaos commence. Saints Row 2 featured this on an even greater scale because there was much more contact between rival gang factions and low-level thugs.

Finally, don’t ever, ever get into the mindset that a sandbox is somehow less artful or sophisticated than the second item on this list, developers. It takes just as much time and craft to create a sandbox as it does a wild, rich experience like Red Dead Redemption, even if the atmosphere and playing intent you’re going for is vastly different. Using a hookshot to hurl several hookers off a tall cliff in Just Cause 2 may be a different experience than venturing cautiously into the forests of the Wild West, but hookshot your way up to the top of the same tall cliff and observe the beautiful scenery and vast, sweeping horizons. If that’s not artful I don’t know what is.

The Frontier

You humbly stand before a huge, dynamic world teeming with possibilities of exploration, danger, the unknown, and not quite knowing what could be over the next ridge. This is the ‘frontier’ open world, where you lack godly powers relative to the sandbox, but the world is deep, rich, and full of opportunities.

First of all, understand that there’s a difference between a physically big world and a deep world. The physical size of a frontier open world doesn’t matter as long as the world actually feels big. The world of Red Dead Redemption isn’t particularly large but horseback travel, galloping in pursuit of a fleeing criminal, or carefully hunting a wildcat lends itself to the world feeling vast and sweeping. A world can feel massive even relatively small by comparison; the world of Red Dead Redemption or even Fallout 3 would probably fit in Just Cause 2’s back pocket.

Having different types of terrains, settings, and unique settlements and dungeons is vital to keeping us exploring. Even in a world with a single prevailing environment like Red Dead Redemption with the Old West, Fallout 3 and New Vegas with the post-apocalypse landscape, and Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood with Renaissance Italy, subtle differences in districts, towns, or landscapes can mean a lot, like the juxtaposition between the wild ranches of Austin and the civilized nature of Blackwater. Alternatively something like World of Warcraft has vastly different terrains and settings, even more so now that Cataclysm is out.

The best frontier open worlds really make the map itself feel alive. Again, Red Dead Redemption is a class example of this. On any given trek across the wilds you’re likely to encounter hostile wildlife, beggars trying to trick you into getting off your horse so they can steal it, lawmen pursuing criminals, or people camping out in front of a fire. The Assassin’s Creed games all feel rich with life in the cities your characters inhabit, and traveling merchants or vagabonds that can lead into quests are fairly common in the Fallout games. Conveying the sense of the world being alive is what the frontier open world is all about, and pulling it off can make a game unforgettable.

When it comes to fast traveling and making it convenient for us to get around, don’t overdo it. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion made a big mistake by letting you teleport anywhere you want, which made the world feel watered-down and artificial. Absolutely give us a means to fast travel to specific areas we’ve discovered or the ability to take taxis, horse carriages, or flying mythical beasts between settlements, but making sure the map still feels deep and immersive despite this is paramount. If we lose the sense of grandeur that the map is trying to portray it keeps us from believing in the world.

Reconciling the two worlds

The most important thing to remember is that the sandbox and the frontier aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a constant balance between them. I’ve personally developed the theory that games with open worlds are often on some form of sliding meter between wacky fun and frontier depth.

The biggest mistake is trying to split the difference and include the best of both a sandbox and a frontier. The world of Red Dead Redemption wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if we had the ability to hookshot across entire miles of terrain (which would probably let us traverse the entire map in about ten minutes). Prototype wouldn’t be as fun if you had to manually walk or take a car in between objectives. It’s easy to make a successful open world out of elements of both a sandbox and a frontier, but trying to have both Red Dead Redemption and Just Cause 2 is what causes games to stumble.

For me one of the biggest examples of trying and failing to have it both ways is inFamous. Initially I felt like inFamous had a solid grip on a sandbox open world, but when I opened up the second district Cole suddenly got bogged down with a lot of tedious climbing and the parkour wasn’t nearly as smooth as it was. The game seemed to do an about-face and opt for something more along the lines of a frontier world, but the environment was basically a small slum and generally not that interesting to explore to me. I still enjoyed the game, but after I point I didn't enjoy the open environment nearly as much as I had in other games.

Join me next time on this little analysis of open worlds, where I’ll discuss how games split the difference between sandbox and frontier – and games that just have no point in their open worlds at all.   read

9:18 AM on 02.28.2011

Past and Present: Quake Arena Arcade Review

The verdict: If you’re a serious nostalgia buff you may see this as worth 1,200 Microsoft points, but you’re not missing much if you never got into the original game.

Towards the tail end of the 20th century into the early years of the 21st we lived in a gaming era where the Unreal Tournament model was influential in first person shooters. Shooters released around this time generally featured heavy emphasis on multiplayer while single player was scaled back to a series of fights against computer-controlled bots without any story. One of the earlier pioneers of the model that Unreal Tournament would eventually popularize was Quake III Arena, now the latest port to come to Xbox Live Arcade as Quake Arena Arcade. Eleven years hasn’t done much for Quake III Arena nor its archaic design philosophy, and hindsight gives us the perspective of why we can’t abandon single player.

The most glaring problem with Quake Arena Arcade is the aforementioned the lack of any story, narrative, or discourse. There isn’t even a setting so much as a generic cyberpunk backdrop. Battles are in brown, gritty futuristic scenarios and the only exposition we get is one-sentence blurbs that outline the NPC opponent you face in single player. Ranger has explored the Slipgates and survived unspeakable evils, Phobos is a veteran soldier who died facing demons on one of Mars’ moons, and on and on.

There’s no incentive or reason to care about any of these opponents, and in fairness I don’t think that was the game’s intent. The problem is that it underscores the fundamental flaw with a multiplayer-centric game. Why would I play Quake Arena Arcade when I could play Half-Life 2, Halo, or any first person shooter with an actual single player story in addition to excellent multiplayer? It’s especially important this many years later with even more games like Gears of War 2 or Halo: Reach out that have both single player and multiplayer.

The other problem is that like many games of the fourth console generation Quake Arena Arcade has aged poorly. The medieval castles and space stations that make up the bulk of the game locales are all so dark, brown, and gray that it’s impossible to make out exactly where your opponent is. Even when you do the gunfire effects are so blinding in stark contrast to the dark environments that getting disoriented as you’re madly trying to circle strafe around your opponent is easy. Environments technically don’t look that bad even though models are extremely lumpy, but the entire game is just such an assault on your eyes because of the coloring.

This issue is only compounded by the slippery controls. At its heart Quake III Arena was a PC game and the transition to a controller has been messy for Quake Arena Arcade. Without mouse control tight aiming or some form of auto-targeting is mandatory, but the game has the same problem as the 2008 Turok where it’s difficult to effectively aim at your opponent because the controls are hypersensitive. I lost count of how many times I would try and gently nudge my controller towards my strafing target only to swivel past him and have to desperately try to get him back in my sights as I strafed around his own attacks.

This again brings up the question of why I would play Quake Arena Arcade – for 1,200 Microsoft points, no less – when multiplayer-centric games like Team Fortress 2 look and play much better. Even Battlefield Heroes plays better than this, and that game is free. It’s also worth noting that Team Fortress 2 opts for a more unique appearance and cel-shaded art style. Eleven years can change a lot and I can’t say whether or not multiplayer-based Team Fortress 2 will still be worth playing then, but you need to make a multiplayer game unique in order to give it lasting appeal. Quake Arena Arcade has even less of an excuse because the first two Quake games had single player modes, so Quake Arena Arcade feels as much of a step backwards now as it did then.

Single player being as insubstantial as it is the only noteworthy part of Quake Arena Arcade is signing online and I can’t really vouch for the multiplayer either. The game has to compete with dozens or more games with multiplayer – everything from Gears of War 2 to Monday Night Combat looks and plays better. There’s a small crowd of players but finding a game can take several minutes, and controls are no less slippery online than they are off. At its best the multiplayer is functional and never lags or slows down but compared to more comprehensive multiplayer modes the standard menu of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag is starting to seem very passé.

Quake Arena Arcade is one of the most prominent examples of a fourth generation game translating badly into our glitzy modern times. A multiplayer-focused game from 1999 simply can’t compete with the bountiful offerings on Xbox Live, especially as a straight port. I appreciate that Quake III Arena helped pioneer first person shooter multiplayer but it’s a thin framework relative to multiplayer as we know it today. If you’re a serious nostalgia buff you may see this as worth 1,200 Microsoft points, but you’re not missing much if you never got into the original game.   read

2:13 PM on 02.15.2011

Five Instances Proving Anti-Game Activists Have Given Up

Video games are nothing if not familiar with controversy. Cliff Bleszinski even pointed out recently that video games are the new rock and roll. It’s a difficult position to argue since a ban was once put forth in the United States Congress to ban rock and roll and these days there are are calls to regulate video games on the state and federal level more often than John Boehner crying during speeches.

Actual anti-video game activists, though? They’re a thing of the past.

I’m talking about real moral guardians, like that bored housewife, Ellie Rovella, who went out of her way to launch a grassroots campaign when she discovered her 11-year old son playing Primal Rage and subsequently found out about the infamous acidic pissing finishing move. Even organizational moral guardians like the Parents Television Council seem more interested in filing FCC complaints about episodes of Family Guy. As a result of endless court defeats, expansion of video gaming as a medium, and the implosion of a certain attorney, most people who ten years ago would have crusaded against video games seem to have thrown in the towel.

What’s left behind is a small collection of politicians and media pundits who generally raise the issue of video game controversies without so much as a thought or care either out of a sense of throwing it in or just for ratings or political points. Don't take my word for it. Let's take a look at some of the evidence.

1. Joe Baca recycles press releases for game ratings acts

California Congressman Joe Baca may not have the anti-video game spotlight of Joe Lieberman or Leland Yee but he certainly has an axe to grind against the industry. Baca, who incidentally was named as one of the ten worst members of Congress and has considerable ethical baggage presumably not inspired by video games, recently introduced the Video Game Health Labeling Act of 2011 which would require all games rated T (Teen) or higher carry this label: "WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent videogames and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior."

Sound familiar? Baca introduced the exact same law in 2009, right down to the name. The 2009 version had no cosponsors and never got off the ground, so Baca is out to try again (he has one cosponsor this time). Why has Joe Baca given up? As The Escapist points out for the 2011 edition the press release for the 2011 edition of this law is recycled virtually verbatim from the 2009 press release.

I feel more aggressive already.

In business and political settings (particularly in public relations) there are situations where it makes sense to use similar structures or formats in letters or press releases, but if Baca even remotely cared about the issue you’d think he’d make even a cursory effort to try making this new law distinct. This would be equivocal to Activision copy pasting the press release for Call of Duty 4 to announce Modern Warfare 2 while changing the game title where appropriate. It’s nothing but a footnote in his agenda and it shows.

2. California lawyer forgets case law in Supreme Court oral arguments

Zachery Morazzini has been the California attorney tasked with defending California's video game law up to and including the Supreme Court, which isn't an enviable job. I've heard people sound off about what a moron he is and how stupid his hair looks, but remember: This is his job, and he’s not necessarily doing it because he wants to. He could be but a public defender charged with defending a serial rapist-murderer doesn't necessarily want to do it either. It's not easy being a state lawyer tasked with defending legislation that a first year law student could (and has, in my case) find a hundred holes in. Just listening to the audio transcripts of the Appeals and Supreme Court cases gives this writer the impression that Morazzini was just trying to use rhetoric to ensure he kept collecting paychecks.

Before I defend Morazzini too much I don't think it's too much to ask that he should actually cite the correct case if he wants to genuinely represent California's interests. As Gamespy columnist Eric Neigher points out on his fantastic Objection! series, Morazzini made a huge mistake that could drive the final nail into the coffin of Leland Yee’s legislation. Fair enough, that's provided that the other several thousand mistakes he made don't seal his loss first, but I digress.

Morazzini, in response to a question by Justice Scalia on whether or not anything with a plot wouldn’t be subject to regulation, says “No, Your Honor. As this Court held in the Jacobilus case, a single quotation from Voltaire on the fly leaf of an otherwise obscene work was not going to make that work non-obscene.”

Jacobellis v. Ohio (possibly a reporter’s typo with “Jacobilus”) is a landmark case in which Nico Jacobellis was exonerated for showing a film deemed ‘obscene’ to audiences, which was ruled to be not obscene by the court. Notice a problem? This case has nothing to do with Voltaire on a fly leaf.

That case is Kois v. Wisconsin, where someone included nude photographs with a poem and the newspaper was subsequently sued for violating obscenity laws. The Supreme Court held that since the poem and photographs were a real, genuine attempt at a work of art it wasn’t obscene, so Morazzini is wrong. What he’s thinking of is Justice White’s dissenting opinion that “A quotation from Voltaire in the flyleaf of a book will not constitutionally redeem an otherwise obscene publication.”

Let that sink in for a second. In front of the Supreme Court of the United States, California’s representative not only incorrectly cited the ruling, but cited the wrong case altogether. I may not be a lawyer, but I know people whose presentations or essays in law school have lost entire letter grades due to incorrect case citations. How do you think that’s going to sound to the Supreme Court? “In return for giving me the chance to argue my case before the highest court in the land, I’m not even going to fact-check a case.”

Antonin Scalia is not pleased, Mr. Morazzini. Don’t make him verbally K.O. you again.

3. Eliot Spitzer cites spoof site as “evidence” of violent media harm

Before Eliot Spitzer became a universal punch line for prostitution jokes he was the governor of New York. He was generally known as the self-proclaimed sheriff of Wall Street but he also waded into the issue of video games. Like Baca, he wasn't as pronounced as Joe Lieberman or Jack Thompson on the issue but he made the occasional quip in a press release or statement about how prostitution in video games was amoral and scandalous. He even made an effort to educate parents about video game ratings. It's something I might consider admirable were it not for a mistake that underscores his lack of caring for the subject.

During a video created by Spitzer and the New York Department of Justice to offer advice to parents about buying video games from their children, one of his sources was Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence, or MAVAV. If you aren't familiar with it take thirty seconds and look carefully at the website for MAVAV. Not getting it yet? Take a look at the Wikipedia page, or even put it into Google.

The site is a hoax.

MAVAV was launched in 2002 as a parody hoax by then Parsons School of Design sophomore David Yoo and it immediately went viral. It was relaunched in 2006 to highlight the stereotypes and misconceptions about video games. That should illustrate just how poetic Spitzer's little mistake is. Don't assume that this was just an administrative mistake, either; Spitzer himself endorsed the presentation before the error came to light (see the articles below).

Alright, fine, one prostitution reference.

One would think some fact checking would be warranted when giving a state-level presentation – from an Internet source, no less – but Spitzer cobbled this video together in about two minutes and it shows. The best part is that it would have taken him about 30 seconds to type MAVAV into Google and verify its legitimacy, or lack thereof. The Justice Department learned of its mishap only after GamePolitics ran a story about it since the source was quietly removed, but the damage was done. Consider it a valuable lesson in Internet research, Mr. Spitzer.

4. Cooper Lawrence and Carole Lieberman as Fox News Figureheads

While poor coverage of video games is a bipartisan prospect as far as the news media, Fox News seems to have a knack for enjoying waves of publicity due to a curious trend they seem to be a developing. Whenever a segment on video games is aired, a so-claimed expert is put forth almost as a sacrifice when the irate gaming community retaliates. Not only does Fox get plenty of attention, but the outrage is directed to someone else; it’s a win-win.

We’re all familiar with the Bulletstorm incident by now that probably has the Epic Games marketing team dancing in the streets. Carole Lieberman was quoted on Fox News as an expert who used insulting language in relation to Bulletstorm and was subsequently bookstormed on Amazon and flooded with hate mail by the irate gaming community. This is not to be confused with Cooper Lawrence from 2008, who was quoted on Fox News as an expert who used insulting language in relation to Mass Effect and was subsequently bookstormed on Amazon and flooded with hate mail by the irate gaming community. Is anyone getting deja vu?

We report, you flame, expert sheepishly backtracks.

It’s an open question just how involved Lawrence and Lieberman were with their respective games; whether or not they were briefed about them, and so on. I’ll even give Lieberman credit for being willing to do several interviews with Kotaku and GamePolitics among others. It’s important to remember that the Fox executives and anchors were the ones decided to cover Mass Effect and Bulletstorm without a shred of coherent research or any signs of caring about the topic at hand. Not only that, but they were content to sit back and let both Lawrence and Lieberman face the gaming community’s outrage while they enjoyed the mileage they got. Whatever the intent was behind these segments hiring an expert to serve as a receiver to deflect angry reactions from yourselves is proof of just flat-out giving up.

5. Postal 2

How many of you heard of Postal 2 back when it came out in 2003? Even if you did, how many of you even gave it more than a glance? It was crass, poorly made, and deliberately intended to be incendiary and controversial. Its intent was such that when Computer Gaming World declared that “Postal 2 is the worst product ever foisted upon consumers” with a zero out of ten, this was put on the box of the Postal Fudge Pack.

It’s fitting to compare Postal 2 to some shock exploitation movie made by an obscure snuff filmmaker (and you have permission to use this quote, Running With Scissors), but that doesn’t stop an increasing number of anti-game activists from holding it up as somehow representative of violent video games. This is also something we can attribute to Leland Yee but it raises unfortunate implications about the state of California’s ability to argue a case.

You are gazing into the face of deviant video games.

In presenting a brief to the Supreme Court the best they can come up with in 2010 is a game from 2003 that nobody seemed to even care about back then? While it is true that Justices Roberts and Breyer were particularly irked by Postal 2, so was Judge Ronald Whyte, and look how that ruling turned out. During Morazzini’s arguments, the justices also seemed to expose the fact that games like Portal 2 and possibly Madworld (brought up by Morazzini for literally one second) are the exception, not the rule.

When was the last time you even saw Postal 2 in a retail outlet? Is there even proof that kids want to play games as terrible as this? It’s not just Yee, either. Column after column specifically brings up Postal 2, oblivious of its purposely offensive nature. Why is it only Postal 2? Easy: People don’t do their research. By repeatedly sounding off about Postal 2 Yee has given like-minded supporters an example (albeit a poor one) that they can parrot without playing any games themselves. Why not? Nobody else on this list seems to be doing it.

If the laziness of Postal 2 as an example doesn’t work for you, consider another example brought forth by an anti-game activist. A Huffington Post writer advocating California’s law brings up Doom as an example. Not the series, the original Doom. Released in 1993. That somehow has even less relevance than Postal 2. Maybe Doom was controversial when it first came out, but again, it’s been eighteen years.

Is it aggravating to see these people arguing against video games despite clearly not caring? Maybe, but consider it relative to what we used to deal with. Just think that there was a time when the legal community took this guy seriously.

Suddenly you feel a lot better knowing that's in the past, don't you?

Incidentally, if you live in the United States, consider joining the Video Game Voters Network. Someone has to educate people on the merits of video games, and it might as well be us collectively.   read

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