With the recent release of Monaco, the internet is buzzing about this unique game. I recently sat down with two friends and played my way through the first few hours, and I can say that this heist simulator is all it's hyped up to be, gentle readers.
A strongly graphic visual style immediately sucks you in.
In Monaco, you and up to three friends play as a gang of thieves on a variety of missions. It might be a bank robbery, or a prison break, or a daring escape from a burning yacht. Different characters are available, and each has a specific useful skill. The Lockpick can pick locks faster. The Lookout keeps track of guards outside your field of vision. The Pickpocket (my personal favorite) has a pet monkey that sneaks ahead to steal coins. The Cleaner knocks out unsuspecting guards. There are more unlockable characters, and you can mix and match them to accomplish your goals in different ways. Going into a heavily-guarded compound without the aid of the Lookout or the Cleaner is incredibly challenging.
And that's the great thing about the game. It's challenging. It starts off simply enough, but the difficulty curves up very quickly, with larger levels, increased security and traps, civilians that will alert guards and dogs that can track your scent. If you have friends obsessed with collecting every coin and cracking every safe (as mine were) it makes things that much harder. Even after only two hours of gameplay I'd experienced plenty of frustrating moments. Gloriously, the game can become even more fun when things go wrong. Sure, it's great to pull off a perfect heist, avoiding every guard and not once raising the alarm, but it's also really fun to scramble to a hiding spot when the entire place is on alert, outrunning guards and ducking into vents and bushes, using your precious few smoke bombs and weapons to escape, waiting for calm to settle before trying, and perhaps, failing, yet again.
Shared field of vision with guards around every corner makes for a highly cooperative experience.
Above everything, this is a game that emphasizes cooperation. As we quickly learned, going three separate ways into a building is a recipe for disaster. Inevitably, someone will run into a challenge their character can't deal with or raise the alarm, and everyone is put in danger, resulting in your teammates yelling at you to stay with the group and stick to the plan. Especially in later levels, coordination is required. One person disables the security systems while another takes out the guards. One person sneaks ahead, offering a wider shared view of the building. In dire situations, someone can create a distraction and hide, letting the rest of the party escape. And if someone goes down, someone else will have to find a way to revive their teammates without being discovered.
It's refreshing to play a game that falls outside the usual genres of shooter, platforming and the like. This isn't the sort of game where you can run into a room, guns blazing, and expect to walk out unharmed. Your weapons and resources are very limited. Maybe you'll have a shotgun with one bullet in it. Maybe you'll have two smoke bombs. These are the sort of tools to be saved for desperate times, when every guard is bearing down on you. A bare glimpse of a guard's pixelated back in the hallway ahead is enough to set your heart racing. This is a stealth game, and it's easy to get overpowered and outmatched. Some games that try emphasize stealth make it all too easy to shoot your way out of a problem. In Monaco, if you pull out a gun, you know you're in trouble.
Beyond the fantastic gameplay, the game feels right. Areas not within the players' range of sight are grayed out, while seen areas are awash in muted colors. The plunky jazz club piano music is straight out of a noir movie. When the guards are in hot pursuit, the music intensifies, becoming more frantic until things calm down. As the game takes place in the French-speaking country of Monaco, the characters all speak in French. It adds a lot to the atmosphere to hear the guards stalking around, muttering to themselves or shouting out to escaping thieves in French, while the thieves' (English) dialogue is peppered with “oui, oui”s and other such phrases. The game is utterly immersive, and you'll be leaning in close to your screen before long, desperate to keep track of the labyrinthine levels and countless details.
And there are a lot of details.
With a game this unique and engaging, you can't go wrong. I had a blast during the few hours I played, so it's well worth your time to check out Monaco.
Ah, sequels. We love them or we hate them. We'll froth at the mouth in anticipation of more games that we love, and the release will either prove us right or make us swear of games forever. Any sequel, no matter how clever or amazing or game-changing, will invariably be compared to the original, for better or for worse.
Sometimes, though, sequels get things right. They improve upon the previous game, and they don't feel derivative or like cheap knockoffs. They feel fresh and new, like experiencing the first game all over again.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on Banjo-Tooie when it came out in 2000. I'd loved Banjo-Kazooie. It was my first game. This one had to be good too.
And it was.
Whether it was better than Banjo-Kazooie is debatable, and an entirely different topic. More important is what we can learn about how to make sequels from the bear and bird's second outing.
1. Give the players more of what they liked Everything Banjo-Kazooie had, Banjo-Tooie had more of. More eggs. More moves. More memorable side characters with funny voices. More transformations. More absurdity and leaning on the fourth wall. While it's possible to lean too hard in one direction and end up pandering entirely to the fans, it's also important to recognize where and how to deliver what the fans like and expect.
2. Bigger scale Bigger isn't always better, but it's an easy way to add more to the game. I'm not saying games should pad their length (I'm looking at you, Phantom Hourglass), but most players will expect a sequel to up the ante from the last game, and scale can do just that. The worlds in Banjo-Kazooie were a good size, but Banjo-Tooie kicks it up a notch with worlds so sprawling and huge that teleportation pads are needed to properly navigate them, from the giant prehistoric Terrydactyland to the labyrinthine five-story factory complex of Grunty Industries.
The worlds, which were separate entities in Banjo-Kazooie, get a sense of connection in the sequel. Besides the train that links several of the worlds together, many worlds have secret paths that connect them, often to solve puzzles or access new areas. All this made those big levels feel more manageable, and some of the passages led to some nice "Ah-ha" moments. And the bosses were bigger too, literally in most cases, lumbering monsters that dwarfed our heroes. They may not have been difficult to figure out how to beat, but that didn't make beating them any easier. And man, was it cool.
Like I said, they were big.
There is, of course, the risk of getting too big too fast and constantly trying to top oneself, resulting in an absurd parody of what once was. Banjo-Tooie never feels like its trying too hard, and some games purposefully do over-the-top and do it well (the Metal Gear Solid series), but it is something to be wary of. Sequels can feel bigger without growing to the point where they collapse under their own increasingly gaudy weight.
3. Build logically on previous mechanics and ideas Everyone expects sequels to have new things in them, something to keep the game feeling new. New things, be they mechanics, characters, or items, shouldn't be there for newness's sake. They should feel like logical and natural inclusions in the game world, building upon player's previous expectations and experiences. Perhaps the best example Banjo-Tooie presents is the split up mechanic. Banjo and Kazooie spent all of the first game together, Kazooie a constant passenger in Banjo's backpack. The two acted as one unit, despite being two characters. So it was only natural that they be able to separate, and that's just what the sequel gave us. The two could venture out on their own, each able to solve separate halves of puzzles or explore areas open only to one of them individually. They each got new moves, with Banjo utilizing his now-empty backpack in different ways and Kazooie now able to glide, jump higher, and hatch eggs (it sounds silly, but they make it work).
It's a natural extension of the previous game in terms of mechanics and flavor. Nothing feels forced.
4. Fulfill expectations, but have some surprises Like most sequels, Banjo-Tooie follows a formula set up by the first game. An overworld, connecting levels, jiggies and notes, quiz show, final boss. Indeed, it would be strange if Banjo-Tooie had completely abandoned everything set up in B-K in favor of something entirely new. Likewise, Banjo-Kazooie dangled secrets and promises in front of us for the sequel to deliver on. The washing machine and T-Rex transformations, Gobi's mention of the 'lava world' and the Stop and Swap eggs and key (dissapointing though that conclusion was). Meeting those expectations establishes trust with the player.
Mumbo get new stick, this one not work.
This is not to say that Banjo-Tooie was a carbon-copy of its predecessor. Even similar aspects were mixed up to keep the player surprised. There might have still been a quiz show before the final boss, but the Tower of Tragedy was a very different sort of quiz show than Grunty's Furnace Fun. There were still minigames, but very different kinds from the last game (the first-person shooter levels comes to mind).
There are, of course, other things good sequels must do, such as eliminate that which doesn't work, but I couldn't find any good examples in Banjo-Tooie. Maybe that's just a sign that nothing bad existed in the previous game.
The elephant in this article is Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, the controversial third entry in the Banjo franchise. Why didn't I bring it up? Because I haven't played it. I'd like to write an article about Nuts and Bolts some day, perhaps about what NOT to do with sequels. We'll have to see.
Until then, what are you waiting for? Go out and dust off your N64s and relive Banjo-Tooie!
Last week the highly anticipated and advertised game Injustice: Gods Among Us was released. As both a fighting game and a game about superheroes, if had my immediate interest. I followed all the promotional material, the screenshots and alternate costumes, and especially the videos of character moves and supers. Who wouldn't love a chance to make Superman and Batman punch each other to death? The battles possible in this game make about half the absurd fanfiction on the internet true and settle untold number of nerd debates. Add in the simple Mortal Kombat control system and it sounds like recipe for success, or at least for entertainment.
I recently had the opportunity to play this game. I didn't play it for more than an hour and only played the multiplayer, but it was enough for me to get an immediate impression. Would a more fully-formed set of opinions by someone who'd played through more of the game be more informative? Maybe. However, as someone who knows the DC Universe well (and has complained about the recent reboot), and by virtue of being a person on the internet, I feel as though my opinion demands attention. Demands, I say! Give me my soapbox and the five seconds of fame I'm entitled to!
While other bloggers and sources will provide detailed critiques of every aspect of the game and present an nice score at the end, I am primarily interested in one question: is the license used well? A lot of superhero games come out each year, and a lot of them are crap. Does Injustice: Gods Among Us stay true to its comic book roots or is it a cheap reskin of a fighting game?
From the multiplayer alone, it's readily apparent that this is a fun game. A very fun game. Even though I'm not very familiar with the Mortal Kombat system (Super Smash Bros and Marvel vs Capcom are my fighting games of choice), I was still able to figure out the very basics, which was enough for me to do decently well. When you're able to pull off a combo, even a very short one, it's very satisfying. Watching Harley Quinn fill Solomon Grundy with bullets, smack him with her hammer, and flip-kick off him into another attack is amazingly satisfying. Most importantly, the characters all feel like their comic book counterparts, both in how they're animated and how they control. The Joker is all tricky moves and fast, flailing attacks with insane weapons. Sinestro hovers about and sets up traps while Green Lantern grapples people in midair with his power ring. Characters with super strength can throw pieces of the environment as weapons while super-skilled humans can lay traps or use the stage for tricky dodges and jumps. Comparisons can be made to the way certain Mortal Kombat characters play, but this still manages to feel fresh, and despite the MK-esque controls, I felt like I was playing a new game and not another Mortal Kombat title (as compared to, say, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe).
Past that initial fun, there are some issues with the game. Balancing seems to be a problem. Aquaman, of all characters, can lay waste to any opposition. Other characters seem less powerful, or just plain less fun. Some seem very out of place. Despite DC's immense cast of iconic characters with variable powers, some more famous characters are strangely missing, their places taken by questionable C-listers. I wasn't even aware that Ares was a DC character before this game, and the inclusion of Killer Frost is odd, when Mr. Freeze and Captain Cold are much more famous and cool (ha ha) ice-based villains. Other fan favorites are forgotten entirely. Martian Manhunter is reduced to appearing in the background of the Watchtower level. It's a shame, especially because Martian Manhunter's bevy of powers, including flight, stretchiness, telepathy and invisibility, would make for a fun character. Other characters I'd love to see include Zatana (magic!), Plastic Man (stretchy!), and Black Canary (stunning screams!). There will be a DLC, but we're going to get characters like Lobo (he uses weapons and punches things! Sounds all too familiar). I understand the desire to give some of DC's lesser-known characters a chance in the spotlight, but everyone I've talked to so far has blinked at the mention of Killer Frost and wondered why Mr. Freeze wasn't included instead. Sometimes what the fans want is right.
The less that's said about the story, the better. It's a convoluted mess full of murders and betrayals and punching, all so there can be an alternate universe where Superman is evil and everyone hates each other enough to start fighting. It's like they needed to justify the premise. But it's a fighting game. The only justification I need is “Don't you want to see the Joker and Lex Luthor fight to the death?” I'd rather have that very simple setup than a complicated and poorly-written story that disregards canon and character. It's worked for plenty of other fighter games, and even with fighting games that have stories (Castlevania: Judgement, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Soul Caliber), the stories are kept very simple: a fighting tournament, or stop some big threat. There's no need excuse your premise and create a story that'll make comics fans upset. I don't want to downplay the need for story, but this is not the sort of game that needed an extensive story, and I'll take a simple premise with minimal story over a large and poorly-executed story any day.
The writing, then, is the biggest disappointment for this game. Granted, it's not the sort of game that needs much of one, but considering the richness of the DC Universe, there was a lot of wasted potential. Superhero games have proved that they can have good stories (Batman: Arkham Asylum and X-Men Legends come readily to mind), so it's a shame that we missed out with this one. However, the game design here is spot-on, with moves and mechanics that feel right. There's no doubt when you play as Superman that you're playing as Superman. It's a joy.
A fighting game is a pretty good fit for a superhero license, but as much fun as the results can be I'd personally rather see the DC characters used in a game that emphasizes a good plot and an epic world-saving quest. Imagine a Justice League game where you could play with all the DC Universe's best heroes in a variety of missions, from stealth to information-gathering to sabotage to space adventures to good old-fashioned beat 'em ups. The upcoming Young Justice game seems to promise that, to an extent, but I think we deserve more. When I think of the DC heroes, I think of large scale. Injustice is a good game, a solid fighter and a lot of fun. But there are grander things that can be delivered with the same characters, a chance to feel like a superhero as with Injustice, but also feel like you can really save the day.
Overall opinion? This game is worth checking out. Renting, certainly, especially if you have friends over, but if you want a more complete and engaging superhero experience, stick with Arkham Asylum.
I spent a while pondering what I could discuss in my first blog post. The first post sets the tone for the rest of the blog and all other posts to come. A daunting task, to say the least. What would this blog be about? How serious should its tone be? What font should I use? After numerous decisions made and summarily rejected and multiple nervous breakdowns avoided, I decided the most appropriate topic for my first post should be my first game.
Banjo-Kazooie was my first video game, and it's still one of my all-time favorites. As I've played more and more games and become more aware of game design and theory, I've realized that Banjo-Kazooie wasn't just a fun game. It stands as a great example of game done right. There's a lot of lessons that modern games can take from Banjo-Kazooie. Below are what I consider the top five.
1: Scale the learning curve Not that many games overwhelm the player with complex controls from the start, but it's still a fundamental of games that must be remembered. Banjo-Kazooie started you off with the most basic moves before letting you loose in the first world, and new moves were acquired in the first 6 worlds. Rather than dump all those moves on you from the start, the game eased you into those moves, usually with a puzzle in each world that required the use of that new move. Basic? Maybe, but it's something game developers would do well to remember.
2: Have a prominent villain Who doesn't remember Gruntilda the witch? She's probably the most memorable character in the game, and that's because her presence is constantly felt. She shows up in the opening cutscene and then doesn't re-appear until the last two challenges at the end of the game, but she constantly mocks and insults you as you make your way through her lair. The fact that she only speaks in rhymes, is funny and comically disgusting, only serves to make each line she spouts more memorable. Borderlands 2 recently did this with the villain Handsome Jack, and it's just as effective. If you want a memorable villain, keep them at the forefront of the player's mind like this. Villains should be more than just things to punch at the end of the game. They should stick in the player's mind long after the game is turned off.
3: Throw the players curveballs After completing all the levels in the game, one would expect to right away face off with the final boss. It makes sense. It's a formula that games have used over and over again. Banjo-Kazooie threw players for a loop, though, because before fighting Gruntilda, there was a quiz show hosted by the witch herself. The questions asked could range from general trivia about the game to identifying music and sounds to re-doing earlier puzzles with either a shorter time limit or some other challenging twist. Asking players to remember as much as they could about the game and recall how to beat specific puzzles was an unprecedented twist in the eleventh hour of the game. It's good to keep players on their toes, and while a trivia show might not be right for every game, it was a good way to shake up this platformer/adventure game. A complacent player is a bored player. Keep them surprised.
4: Dynamic soundtrack Every great game needs a great soundtrack, and few deliver like Grant Kirkhope's unique soundtrack, full of marimba and horns and peppy step. Beyond being fun, the soundtrack was dynamic, smoothly transitioning themes from one area to the next. The main theme of the overworld was always the same, but when the player approached a world entrance, the theme was played with different instruments and tempo more fitting to the world's feel: chimes for the winter level, an organ for the haunted house level, and bouncy brass for the swamp level (with accompanying frog choirs). Click Clock Woods, a world that takes place during the four seasons, has different variations of the world theme for each season. This went a long way to adding to the atmosphere of the game. A changing and dynamic soundtrack makes the game feel more alive and keeps the player alert and interested.
5: Use system limitations to your advantage Unlike most modern games, the characters in Banjo-Kazooie didn't have voiced dialogue. Instead the text on screen was presented with a string of garbled noises representing each character's voice. It was funny and gave the player an immediate sense of what the character should sound like. This was done because of limited space on the game didn't allow for proper voices. But you'd never be able to tell because the “voices” used blend seamlessly with the feel of the game. Silent Hill is another game that comes to mind, its use of fog both meant to obscure the scenery that hadn't yet been rendered while also heightening the player's fear of whatever was just ahead of them.
Given today's more powerful systems and larger memory space on games, this is less of a problem than it once was, but still a useful thing to keep in mind. When you're restricted or limited in your game design, don't despair: work with it. Limitations breed creativity.
There are doubtlessly other lessons that can be gleaned from this gem of a game, but I felt that these were the most important ones to emphasize.
Doubtless there will be more posts to follow, and I have plenty more to say about Banjo-Kazooie! Stick around, folks!