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10:42 PM on 02.25.2015  

The Nine Best Dtoiders Ever

I am not the easiest person to get to know. I'm a quiet guy raised by quiet people and I'm 75% deaf to boot. It's not the sort of life that produces the gregarious, amiable type. Being friends with me usually requires people who are comfortable with long silences and minimal small talk.

I've been a part of numerous online communities over the years and I always tend to stay near the fringes. I'm more comfortable that way. That said, it's impossible not to be someplace for more than two years without making a few connections here and there. This is a list of people I may or may not be friends with but are definitely people who are important to the Dtoid community. It's also in no particular order.

1.) The Tunnel Snakes: Firion, Marche100, Luna Sy, & Orlion.

(My affectionate nickname for them, by the way.) I'm counting them as one because, really, they're one big anime-obsessed hydra. If the forums are Vault 101, they're the greaser gang causing trouble. The forums kind of hit rock bottom not too long ago in terms of people leaving for places that made them less miserable (or just getting banned). During that time, these guys were almost single-handedly propping up the place. The Bar and the Anime threads are always hopping with some new nonsense thanks to their stubborn refusal to fuck off like most everyone else did.

2.) Usedtabe/Tubby.

I don't agree with Tubby about much but I respect him for his lack of BS. As far as OG Dtoid members, he's the most legit. Unlike a lot of people who put up a front, he really can take it as well as he dishes it out. His razzing Andy Dixon in the Dead Space 3 thread is the reason I signed up for the forums in the first place. If Dtoid is a place where people can fuck with each other to that extent and not take it personal, I figured I'd do okay. #TubbyStrong

3.) Mike "PhilKenSebben" Martin.

Phil is the sweet, degenerate heart of Dtoid, to me. Unlike a lot of the old guard, he's been able to roll with the punches and keep the "Also, Cocks" attitude of Dtoid alive at the same time. His passion for dongs is unquenchable and so long as he's around, you know things will be alright. Or at least homoerotic. His recent promotion to Community Playdate Manager was a long time coming and well earned.

4.) BrownieWinkin.

I know nothing about the dude... but the lack of fucks he gives are admirable.

5.) El Zilcho/Trev.

Friday Night Fights was the first part of the community I started to feel at home in. This was while I was unemployed and in the midst of an all-consuming Warframe addiction. I feel like we get along fairly well but he represents the rare person I can argue things with and not feel condescended to. We've disagreed about things, sometimes loudly, but I never thought less of him for it and I never felt that from him either.

Best of all, he knows his shit and he takes none of yours. All good qualities when wrangling three other people to keep their threads and blogs updated so FNF can continue with no hiccups.

6.) Nanashi/Nanners/Bananners/NanaNanaFoFanners.

Oh Nanners. He has that earnest Jonathan Holmes-ian quality where you like him but you just can't stop yourself from teasing him. He's the perpetual little brother. I also love the extra syllable he adds when he repeats my screen name. Other people have shortened it to "Def" but Nanners still goes whole hog. This kid's going places.

7.) KymikoLoco.

Kym can cuss like a sailor AND beat your ass at Doots. There's no "token female" shit here and God help anyone who tries to pull that shit with her. She's tough, speaks her mind, and knows her shit.

8.) Nihil.

I think Nihil is stealthily the funniest dude on the board. In addition to sharing Gestapo duties in the forum with fellow German OpiumHerz, I feel like he always around waiting to crack wise before disappearing again.

9.) The Rest of the FNF regulars: DJ Puppy, Cornflake, Clockwork, Scield, Red #1, Red #2, Infrared, Nexus, etc.

While, as I mentioned, I'm not a big talker, I always feel comfortable hanging out on a Friday night with these dudes and finding some way to stomp all over the opposition in whatever game we're playing. Good teamwork with good people is hard to find and I don't take that for granted. After a shit week at work, I always look forward to hanging out and shooting moving objects on a TV screen with some good (likely drunk) dudes.

Thanks to the people on this list, and the entire community really, for making Destructoid a fun place to be a part of. (Except that one guy. Fuck that guy.)


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8:07 PM on 01.27.2015  

"The Badger" Answers Your Questions

Last week, I put out a call for questions to send our anonymous contributor The Badger and our virile community rose the occasion as only we can. The only questions I omitted were either redundant, rhetorical or incoherant. They ranged from silly to confrontational and, to his/her/it's credit, The Badger answered every one of them.

Many thanks to lovely boy Jonathan Holmes for faciliating, The Badger for humoring us and everyone in the comment section for rallying together. You guys even managed to resurrect the long dead and much missed Comment Of The Week feature in the comments as a reaction. Be it having fun or causing chaos, you're always game. I want to give all of you uncomfortably long hugs.

And now, on with the inquisition:

We'll begin with JawshButturBawls and the question on everyone's lips: Gardevoir?

More of a Scizor guy myself, thanks.

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GoofierBrute just wants to hang: What's The Badger's fondest gaming memory?

Either the first time I fired the shotgun in Doom or when I first shot the food in Gauntlet.

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Dreamweaver is having an identity crisis. He asks: Am I the Badger?

You might be. I may not be the only person using the account. I may not be the only person even answering these questions.

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Cannibal Steven is an odd young lad: What's the Badger's favorite snake-related-transformation-movie-scene?

There is some movie called something like SSSSSSSSSsssssssss. I think one of the white haired guys from Laugh In is in it. That whole movie is my answer.

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FullmetalJ has his priorities in order: What's your favorite David Bowie album?

Probably the Life Aquatic.

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Demo-Grafic is keeping up with the current events. He wants to know: If you are an industry insider, then maybe you can answer why the vehemently "anti-Gamergate" gets so much more instant press coverage? I've honestly seen far worse things said on their side than anything, yet no gaming site is willing to touch it when their nastier behavior is brought to light.

My guess is it's because GamerGate is a thing and AntiGamerGamer is not a thing. It's not Republicans and Democrats here. It's people who have chosen to brand themselves as GamerGate (whatever the fuck that even means) and then all sorts of people that are sometimes douchebags to people that have decided to brand themselves in that way. There are not hipsters and anti-hipsters. There are just hipsters and everyone else. Same with GamerGate.

Take it as a lesson. Branding yourself under some group label is basically begging to the world to get pissed at you for something that someone else did. If you don't want to be blamed for shit that the worst of GamerGate has done, stop actively calling yourself a "member of GamerGate". Your choice makes you look like either a douche or a fool. Also, deciding that everyone that doesn't like you is "anti-your group" makes you look like an even bigger fucking fool. Did you ever think that they didn't like you for you? Did you ever think it was your fault that people think you're fucking awful?

There is also the fact that GamerGate was started by a bunch of lying, mean spirited, hateful fucks who have effectively manipulated a lot of good people into doing their bidding. Can't forget that.

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Scrustle has one of those cool plastic pipes that blows bubbles and a nice deerstalker cap: What parts of the industry have you worked in? As in, are you a developers? Have you worked with different kinds of studios? If so, what kinds? Or are you a blog/site writer? Have you worked at different sites? How has your experience working at different places compared?

I can't answer that. Holmes made me promise not to reveal who I am in any way.

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The Defenestrator asks: What do you think of the rise of YouTuber's and the Let's Play scene versus the current model of game blogging?

I think that every generation of kids wants to toss out everything from the generation before in order to define themselves as special/new/different. It's why game consoles are on a five year cycle. After five years, you're officially "old" and the kids don't want anything to do with you.

Game magazines used to be huge money, then kids growing up on the internet abandoned them in favor of "cool new game blogs". Now the blogs are getting old so younger kids kids are into things that have only been big for a few years like Lets Plays, Podcasts, and other "Personality" focused internet stuff. Eventually the Youtube kids will grow up and some other thing will top the charts. Whatever. It's all just people talking about video games. Doesn't really matter how they do it.

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Enter the Dragon! KimikoLoco wants to know: So, why are "nerds" in game journalism not held to the same standards as nerds in print journalism? What is so special about them?

I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, kid. Are you asking me why society doesn't care about the people who write about Mario Bros. for a living as much as the people who write about world politics for a living? Ask your English teacher.

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Destructoid's resident magical girl Brittany Vincent has a fastball, high and inside: Why are you so afraid of coming out and saying the things you do using your real name? You're "in the right," at least in your eyes, so why not go public with your opinions? You mock journalists for obeying rules so as to not lose their jobs, but yet you fear for the loss of your own?

I'm not afraid. I was asked by Holmes to write under The Badger name, and the whole idea is for The Badger to be anonymous, like Batman or Michael Myers or some shit. I could be anybody, therefore I am everybody and nobody. I guess The Badger was the guy who started Destructoid's idea? Looks like he's pretty smart, because from what I've heard, I'm the most popular writer on the site going by pageviews-per-post Math. That's either a sign that I'm really good at this or the rest of the writers at Destructoid are really bad. Maybe both.

Here I thought you were going to ask me for tips on how to write more interesting posts.

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Handy also wants to clear the air: You’ve expressed contempt for gamers, publishers, PR, journalists, critics, their audience, and developers of both indie and AAA games, why continue to work in an industry that doesn’t pay well and where you hate everybody?

Ah, the questions are getting more irate now. Good. Shows that you care about video games.

I care about video games too. There are people in this industry that I absolutely love. There are new video games released every month that I absolutely love. That's why I get irate about the industry sometimes. If you absolutely love something, or someone, then you're going to get pissed off when some of their parts don't work. I could have used The Badger to talk about all the shit I love about video games, but you can just go read another bought off 10/10 game review or a glowing press release written by some dildo who's paid by hour to pretend they like video games if you want sunshine and fucking lollipops blown up your ass. Negativity and criticism are things that a lot of people in the industry hold back. They bottle it up, afraid to make enemies or to make waves. The fact that I'm voicing the shit that people have been too constipated with fear to shit out themselves is probably why I'm so popular. 

I am the Ex-Lax that gaming culture needs before its colon bursts.

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PhilKenSebben is taking a short break from his usual debauchery to wonder: Why should anyone believe you or care about what you say? You give no facts to anything that isn't already public knowledge, name no names and are just a moniker, ranting on a blog.

So lets say I wanted to tell a story about a hypothetical "game preview party" where, hypothetically, game developer CliffyB and game "journalist" Leigh Alexander fucked. Lets say this party happened back when CliffyB was actually relevant and when Leigh actually wrote about games people gave a fuck about. If Holmes were to let me post that, he'd have to back it up with evidence that this alleged party actually happened. He'd need photos of those two actually fucking, or first hand testimony from both of them confirming that they fucked or whatever. Without that, Dtoid could be sued for "slanderous lies" or some other garbage. That's how actual journalism works.

And for all you know, I write about gossipy shit like that all the time somewhere else on the internet. Thankfully, no one would really care if I did. Videogames haven't gotten to the point where we're as fucking bad as Hollywood.

Yet.

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Papa Bear Neiro is considering a career change: Teachers get paid less than McDonald's managers. Can get them some Nintendos?

Sure, kid.

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Destructoid's "Chilly" Bill Platt turns up the heat: If you knew about the rampant corruption as far back as 8 years ago, why did you wait so long to say something?

Maybe I did, under my actual name. Maybe no one gave a fuck back then. Do you really think anyone cared about corruption in some rinky dink shit like "game journalism" in 2008, back when people were even stupider than they are today?

If anything, you should blame Destructoid for not coming up with The Badger idea sooner, or some other way to get the word out about how shit the game industry can be without committing PR suicide with the big money publishers that they need to play nice with in order to survive.

That's why I'm here, right?

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EdgyDude will cut you if you don't answer: Why post here? I mean why of all sites that could host your opinion why pick the one that decided to be neutral and stay out of this whole GG issue from the start? Why not post in another site that falls in line with your POV instead of this one?

Blame Holmes. He's the one that asked The Badger/s to write for him. But he didn't tell me/us what to write. Fuck no. He tried to get me to write something differently once and I looked him in the eyes and said "fuck no". It was pretty funny. I did let him delete too many uses of the term "garbage fuckers" once though.

And I don't know what you're talking about with my post about GameGate. I didn't post about GamerGate. I posted about Ethics in Game "Journalism" once. Two totally different things.

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Sir Davies just finished the 50 Shades Of Grey books and desperately needs to know: Do you look yourself in the mirror when you masturbate?

No.

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hlarge4 is in the midst of an existential crisis: Am I part of the problem if I just want to play games?

Hell no. Just try not to get duped. If playing games is the best way for you to do that, then you have my giant, sloppy, loving, blood red stamp of a approval on that. Just remember that anytime you are tempted to buy something because "everyone else is buying it" or say something because "everyone else is saying it", it's your job to slap yourself in the face, yell "BAD BOY" and count to ten, or as high as it takes for you to start having original thoughts again. That time may vary depending on how brainwashed you are and general level of intelligence.

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MuppetTechNews menah menah: why is holmes such a wuss? as in why play the neutral game so much..its annoying.

Didn't the entire world get pissed at Holmes because he said he liked tripping in Smash Bros. once? Fucking nerds.

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Ragnar DragonFyre has gazed into the abyss and would like to know: What's it feel like to tell the truth, only to have your audience get offended by the truth? Does it make you want to give up or re-double your efforts?

Dude, I'm not fucking Gandhi. This isn't fucking Selma. It's just videogames. One of the nice things about them is that they just aren't that important. Compared to the fact that black youth are getting murdered by the cops every other day for "looking scary" , or that your parents probably fucked you up in some way as a kid, or that you're probably a way worse person than you want to be, videogames aren't anything to worry about. If you love videogames, do yourself a favor and lighten the fuck up when it comes to the topic.

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JoeyMcJoeJoey is not to be trifled with, sir: Badger. Do you believe you're the hero gaming deserves? Or the one it needs? And secondly: Wanna fight?

I think I'm going to help some people in some way, yes. Even if it's just making them laugh or think or feel for one extra second that day, then I did something helpful. But I don't want to fight. Fighting isn't interesting.

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pk fire wants you get comfortable and maybe give you a surprise back massage: What was your most awkward experience in your professional working environment?

Hard to say without revealing too much about who I/We are, but I can tell you that it's always awkward when you take a shit in the bathroom and it's really loud and then you get out of the stall and your boss is standing there. It happened to me enough that I stopped trying to run from it, so now I just embrace it. I get out of the stall and look the boss in the eye and say "loud shit, amirtie?" Now that I think of it, that's a pretty decent power play. Maybe I should write about some Alpha Male shit like that in my next column. A lot of you could definitely use it.

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Retrofraction is a stickler for good hygene: What conditioner does the Badger use on its fur?

The same stuff Jesse Venture waxes his mustache with.

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Isay Isay say: So is the whole Badger persona a cathartic exercise for you?

To follow up with the other question about why I've been pretty negative so far, I think the natural thing to do behind closed doors is to take a shit. Catholic confessionals? Taking a shit. Dear Diary journaling/journalism? Taking a shit. It's the reason 4Chan and anonymous internet culture exists. It's why the word "shitposting" was created. People want to shit. That's why we have 4Chan.

With The Badger, I've tried to take shitposting culture and do something at least partially productive with it. Given how many intelligent, invested people in the industry have either agreed with me, or used my posts as a jump off point to make valid and interesting counter arguments against me, I think I've done a pretty good so far.

Maybe I'll quit while I'm ahead though, because I have an actual job that's way more important to me than shitposting, productive or not. Beginning to fee like I'm wasting my time here.

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Finally, Reinhold Hoffman wears his sunglasses indoors and already knows the answer but asks regardless: Who are your favorite commenters on Destructoid?

I've never read the comments on Destructoid. Out of these questions, the best one came from Isay Isay, so them.

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Thanks again to everyone for contributing!


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6:02 PM on 01.13.2014  

Warframe: Advanced Space Ninja Theory

In my previous C-Blog, I went into the basics you need to know to get started on Digital Extreme's PC/PS4 free-to-play Canadian Space Ninja co-op action game, Warframe. Now I think it's time to move on to the advanced tips and tricks you'll need if you plan on thriving in this strange-but-addictive game. There's a surprising amount of systems in place and not much in the way of hand-holding, so getting the most out of the game may require a little help. I'm currently playing the game on the PS4 which is a few updates behind the PC version, so PC gamers may find some of this information to be old news.




Addendum and Errata:
A couple of days after publishing my Beginner's Tips, a new update for Warframe went live with a number of different tweaks and improvements that addressed some of the issues I had written about. In addition to a couple of new bosses, new weapons and a new Warframe, they also streamlined the previously clunky slide and wall running.

The slide no longer ends with you in a crouch but is also much more controllable, allowing you to go into and out of the slide whenever you like simply by holding or releasing the L1 button during a run. You can also start your slide in mid-air for an additional flourish, which is useful for advanced platforming.

Wall running can now be activated simply by holding in the jump button at a wall, which makes it much more intuitive. While you can shoot or stab in the midst of a wall run, it's still hard to pull off given the cursor's default position when you start the run. Luckily, the only time shooting while wall running is mandatory is the Rank 8 test which can be cheated with the Nova or Loki. Hopefully some additional patching will happen to make this a little less frustrating.

The update also added a Trading Kiosk for clans. So now you have the option of trading mods, keys or platinum between clan members which, in addition to a number of clan exclusive weaponry, makes joining a clan a practical decision rather than an optional one. (Clan Destructoid. Hint, hint.)

Capture and Rescue missions also got a little more complicated. The targets in Capture missions now fight back and run from you meaning you can lose them if they get too far ahead of you. Enemies will also now attack the person you release in Rescue missions, so simply opening their cell and bolting to extraction isn't always going to work.

Also, I neglected to mention that some stages (usually when fighting the Corpus faction) have lasers blocking the doorways that can cancel your shields if you run headlong into them. You can shoot out the cameras to drop the lasers but you can also powerslide or dodge roll through them. Which is handy if you're bolting through the stage in a hurry.

Also, enemies in Survival missions get stronger on a timer not due to starting new Life Support modules. That's what I get for listening to the guy yelling at people in game instead of checking the wiki.



Clans:
There are several bonuses that come with joining a clan. In addition to the labs that build gnarly clan exclusive weapons like the majorly OP Ignis flame-thrower and Ogris rocket launcher, there is an obstacle course for training your platforming, a dueling room for duking it out, and a Trading Kiosk. Only the Warlord can add or destroy new rooms to the Dojo but everyone in the clan can contribute to the cost.

Building labs to research new gadgets and weapons is a great idea and anyone in the clan can contribute resources towards starting the research, which is nice as it can be pretty expensive to do. Once research is finished, anyone in the clan can buy a blueprint and start building their new weapon.

Trading Kiosks allow you to trade mods, keys or platinum between clan members. Alternately, you can invite non-clan members to your Dojo to make trades there. You can barter or negotiate theses trades in the Social Menu (more on that soon) and then, by temporarily making them clan members, invite them to your Dojo to make the deal.

Some of the very rare mods can sell for as high as 200 or even 500 platinum right now, so while you can't make real money from it, your grinding efforts can pay off in lots of in-game cash.

(Insert shameless plug for the Destructiod clan here.)

The Social Menu:
On the PS4, the social menu activates when you press the Option button. The first tab that pops up allows you to access a public chat room for talking, trading or recruiting. The second is your in-game friends list and the third is your clan.

If you want to initiate a trade or recruit for your clan, this is where you'll go. Once the game goes cross-platform, this will be your only way to contact PC players. The main draw to using the social menu, beyond inviting friends to your game, is to join or ask for help with Tower Key missions and Orokin Derelict missions, which are where all the really sweet high level loot can be found.

Scrolling through an exhaustive list of every single Warframe player logged in for the one guy who wants to join you is a pain in the ass, so if you need to talk to or invite someone to your game, simply type this: /invite Username or /talk Username. It will save a ton of time, I promise you.



Tower Keys, Orokin Derelicts & Nightmare Mode:
Looking for some rare mods or some fancy-schmancy Prime weapons or Warframes? Don't mind an extra challenge to get it? Then you'll want to look into these options:

Tower Keys: Tower keys can be bought in packs in the Market or can be found as prizes in Survival or Defense missions for lasting a certain length or time or number of rounds. You access your keys through the Keys listing on your main menu. There are keys for every mission type with three different degrees of difficulty.

Tackling these Tower missions will require maxed out Warframes and weapons with a full crew. If you don't have enough friends online, recruit from the social menu. Seasoned players may be able to handle a few of the Tower 1 mission types solo but, by and large, you'll need help. The risk is worth it, though. Just be aware that the frame rate, especially on Survival and Defense, will drop precipitously towards the end. You may require a Tylenol after a Tower 3 Defense.

Orokin Derelicts: A step above the Tower Keys are the Orokin Derelicts. The blueprints for these are available for cheap from the Market but creating them is only part of the issue. These levels feature advanced platforming and harder enemies but most also have hidden rooms with high level loot that can only be unlocked with a specific Dragon key.

These Dragon Keys are also available for sale in the Market but require a Tower Key to be made, making them much more valuable. There are four Dragon Keys in all and equipping each gives you a different negative status effect: no shields, cripplingly low health, reduced movement or reduced damage to enemies. The hidden door in these levels can only be unlocked using one of these four keys meaning you will need four players with maxed out weapons/Warframes to survive, each equipped with a different key, if you want to find that loot.

Nightmare Mode: If you're still craving the risk vs. reward of super tough enemies for the chance at rare loot, you can also try Nightmare Mode.

Nightmare Mode is represented on your mission map by their skull icon. Once you complete a stage, it may pop up again with a skull on it denoting it as a Nightmare difficulty level. (You retain the ability to play it again at normal difficulty, though.) This could mean anything from level 40+ enemies, to no shields, low gravity, slowly dwindling health, a ridiculously short timer or any combination of the above. The upside is that the chances of finding better loot are increased (but not guaranteed).

So there's plenty to do in the game even if you beat every one of the nearly 200 individual missions in the game.



Weapon Tips and Suggestions:
Being currently unemployed, I understand the desire to save some money so I wanted to take the opportunity to make some suggestions about weapons and Warframes that will hopefully save you some time and money. I have not bought a single weapon in the game outright. My entire arsenal is built from blueprints. There's genuinely no need to waste money buying a weapon, just grab the blueprint and farm for some resources.

Choose weapons that best compliment how you're building out your Warframe. If you're tanking, you should really look into the Galatine sword. A Rhino with a Galatine can hold out for a long, long time by himself. Support classes might be better served with a sniper rifle or another mid-to-long range, high accuracy weapon like the Paris or Latron. If you don't have to be in the thick of it, don't.

I wasn't a fan of most of the primary weapons until I hit Rank 6. That's when the Soma unlocks. If you're in the game for the long haul, get the Soma as soon as you can. Between the accuracy, the clip size and the ridiculous critical hit chance, nothing beats it. I modded mine out with Point Strike and Vital Sense for increased critical hit chance and damage and it now has a 75% crit chance for 6.6 times the normal damage. In a clip with 120 bullets. I almost feel bad using it for how quickly it mows everything down.

The Soma: When you absolutely, positively got to kill every mothertrucker in the room. Accept no substitutes.

If you're more of a casual player or haven't hit Rank 6 yet, join a clan and pick up the Ignis flame-thrower from the lab. It. Is. Amazing. The damage output is crazy and even at level one any enemy under about level 10 will die instantly. Modding it with additional fire damage only makes it more ridiculous. A must have weapon. Similarly, the Ogris rocket launcher does amazing damage. The drawback is that you can blow yourself up with it via splash damage so be sure to watch where you shoot.

Beyond that, if you can luck into finding a Gorgon blueprint via the daily log in reward, it's a solid choice. It's got a slow wind up time but once it gets going, it can be very punishing.

Out of the primary weapon blueprints for sale in the Market, the Braton and MK-1 Braton are the workhorses. Standard assault rifles, to be sure, but reliable. There are burst-fire options like the Hind and Burston if you prefer accuracy over rate of fire but fully autos are more useful by far when things get heavy. The Boltor is well worth your time once it unlocks.

Shotguns aren't as useful as I'd like. Between the long reload times and tiny clip size, the damage they do doesn't really even out versus fully autos. That said, if you need a shotgun, the Sobek is a solid choice. Your enjoyment of shotguns will improve a lot if you can find the Tactical Pump mod that decreases the reload time.

For secondary weapons, similar problems arise. Single shot weapons do good damage but the rate of fire and the fact that every shot requires a button press means that on higher difficulties it becomes a pain to keep up. You even risk tiring out your trigger finger against bosses and higher level enemies. The first boss in Mercury drops parts to a single-shot pistol called the Seer which should be your go-to for the first couple systems. It's equivalent in other games would be a Magnum or Desert Eagle. Do yourself a favor and start farming that straightaway.

If you want to carry a single shot secondary, be sure to dual wield. Aklato, Akbolto and Dual Vastos are all solid dual wield options. Otherwise, Twin Vipers or Kunai should be your first stop.

Melee weapons are more or less a dealer's choice category. Each one has different strengths and weaknesses, but the close range necessary means that ultimately it boils down to what character you choose and how you play.

There's a reason about 50% of the Rhinos you see will be carrying the big, two handed Galatine swords. Turn on your Iron Skin ability and the ability to attack multiple targets in one swing will get you through just about any problem you face. Dual Ether swords, Fragor hammers and Scindo axes also advertise the same ability but the Galatine remains the most efficient and brutal choice.

I prefer ultra close range combat so I like the comically large Furax gauntlets, if only for the charge attack where you pull back and punch something in it's stupid, ugly face. There's also the Obex and Kogake if you want to look like a futuristic Muay Thai warrior.

There's a plethora of different swords with different abilities, so there's no shortage of options based on usefulness or aesthetic pleasure to choose from. However, it's pretty remarkable to me how much fun I have had with the Glaive. And not just because Krull was my favorite movie as a pre-teen. You can use is as a melee weapon or you can use it's charged attack to throw it and augment it with "punch through" and "bounce" mods to send it flying through multiple enemies and bouncing off of walls. Always a joy. There's also the Kestrel boomerang which will ragdoll enemies it strikes. Including humanoid bosses (at least until they patch it).

There's also a handful of different weapons available in Prime form by doing Tower Key and Orokin Derelict missions. Just be mindful of your inventory limit. You can buy two additional weapon slots for 12 platinum but if you're playing on the cheap you may want to go into a buy/level/sell loop for weapons you're unfamiliar with and keep a few slots open for your favorites.



Warframes:
The important question with Warframes is: how do I get more? Luckily, all frames can be farmed in game without the use of platinum, to varying degrees of difficulty. Some bosses drop parts which, after buying a blueprint in the market for credits, can be built in the foundry. Others are a little trickier. So, here's a comprehensive list of where to find which Warframe as of Update 11:

Warframe - Boss (Location, System)
Ash - Tyl Regor (Titania, Uranus)
Banshee - Very rare random drop from Capture, Spy & Defense Missions or Orokin Derelict Defense missions. Blueprint can be given as a Daily Login reward.
Ember - General Sargas Ruk (Tethys, Saturn)
Ember Prime - Random drop from Tower Key Capture or Defense missions.
Excalibur - Ambulas (Hades, Pluto)
Frost - Lt. Lech Kril (Exta, Ceres)
Frost Prime: Tower Key Exterminate missions
Loki - Hyena (Psamathe, Neptune)
Mag - Sgt. Nef Anyo (War, Mars)
Mag Prime: Tower Key Survival missions
Nekros - Lephantis (Orokin Derelict Assassinate)
Nova - Raptor (Naamah, Europa)
Nyx - Phorid (Infested Invasion - currently located at Naeglar, Eris)
Oberon - PS4: Not available yet. PC: Councilor Vay Hek (Everest, Earth)
Rhino - Jackyl (Fossa, Venus)
Saryn - Kela De Thaym (Marrow, Sedna)
Trinity - PS4: Councilor Vay Hek (Everest, Earth) PC: Capt. Vor & Lt. Lech Kril (Illiad, Phobos) [Placement will change with the update that introduces the Oberon warframe]
Valkyr - Alad V & Zanuka (Themisto, Jupiter)
Vauban - Random Alert Missions
Volt - Random rare drop in Survival missions after minute 20.

Your next question might be: which ones are good? Well, that depends on your play style. Different Warframes represent different styles from tank to support and in-between.

If you want to be a full-on damage dealer, your best bet is picking Excalibur as your initial frame. He's a melee-focused frame and since the Rhino can be found by farming the boss in the second system, Venus, you can fill your two initial Warframe inventory slots up straight away.

Between Rhino's Iron Skin ability, which grants temporary invulnerability, and his Stomp, which instantly kills lower level enemies and puts stronger ones in stasis for several seconds so you can pick them off afterwards, he's really the perfect tank. Paired with the massive two-handed sword, Galatine, he becomes a big, lumbering death machine.

Ember and Nova Warframes have stronger offensive abilities than the Rhino at the cost of being more fragile. As glass cannons, you're going to want to upgrade their health and shields as much as possible and be a little pickier about where you choose to make your stands. Ember's World On Fire ability allows her to push forward through a stage very easily as anything touching the ring of fire around her will likely die before touching her. Nova's Molecular Prime is devastating as well, turning a number of enemies into walking bombs. Killing one starts a chain reaction that explodes everyone else in the vicinity.

If you prefer a more passive support role, you should start with the Loki frame and try to farm the Trinity from Vay Hek in the Earth system as soon as possible as it is going to be moved to the much harder to get at Phobos system in the next update or two. Trinity's Blessing ability is the only one in the game that allows you to heal and effects all allies regardless of range. It also offers invulnerability for a short time, which can be upgraded with the right mods. My main frame is a Trinity and it's Blessing currently lasts for 22 seconds and can be further upgraded to just under 30. If you're in a problem that 30 seconds of invulnerability can't fix, there's just no helping you. There's also the Enegy Vampire ability which allows anyone shooting a particular target to regain energy, which is a godsend in boss fights. The downside is that you don't have any direct damage abilities.

Loki is an often underestimated warframe. Most players don't seem to know how to use him correctly. His cloaking ability allows him to help up KO'd players without being seen, his Decoy can draw enemy attention away from Defense targets and his Radial Disarm makes any enemy in it's area of effect unable to fire weapons (also excellent for Defense). Paired with a sniper rifle or bow, you can control the battlefield from afar, helping your teammates and picking off enemies without risking yourself.

The hard-to-find Vauban warframe is another great support option if you're lucky or obsessed enough to watch every alert mission for parts. Like Loki, he's all about battlefield control and smart players can even use seemingly silly abilities like Bounce to their advantage to keep enemies at bay.

Nyx is must have frame for any high level Defense mission as the Chaos ability pits all enemies in a radius against each other... and even unaffected enemies will attack the controlled enemies as the AI will go after anyone who attacks it. It has a couple of direct damage abilities as well, making it a good mix of offense and defense.

On that topic, if you're looking for a good split between attack and defense, your first choice of frame should be the Mag while looking to get a Frost, Saryn or Volt later on. The Mag is a very basic, unfussy frame that isn't particularly flashy but definitely gets the job done. It's generally best to whip it out when fighting shielded enemies but it's Crush ability is pretty lethal against anything. Saryn is the polar opposite of Mag in that her poison abilities work best against the Infested.

Even more than the Mag, Volt is particularly well-suited to Corpus and Grineer missions. I was lucky enough to get a Volt frame before it became a pain to find and people seem a little down on it but it is perfect for Survival and Defense missions against Corpus or Grineer and it's Overload ability can be especially useful in a pinch.

You're going to have to go pretty far out into the universe to find a Frost frame, but he is certainly worth the trip. Snow Globe is great for slowing down enemies so you can pick them off (very useful when defending a target) and Avalanche is a great high damage option if you mod its radius.

I don't see a lot of people playing Ash but as a stealth frame, it could be seen as a step above Loki for those who like distracting enemies but want some direct damage options as well. It's best to use this frame on a team with at least one character tanking, though, so he can flit in and out of battle with his Smoke Screen and Teleport without getting hammered with damage.

The only frames I would caution against using (at least at the beginning) are Nekros, Valkyr and Banshee. Banshee, in addition to being hard to find, has been made somewhat obsolete. Her Silence ability isn't as useful as it could be and the aura mod Enemy Radar has rendered her Sonar pointless. Her marquee ability, Sound Quake, does solid damage but leaves her stationary while it's active.

Nekros is a style of over substance frame. He looks pretty cool but his main ability, Shadows Of The Dead, is only useful for cluttering up a battlefield and hindering enemy movement. It doesn't do much in the way of actual damage. Desecrate is very useful for farming resources but otherwise there's not a whole lot to recommend it.

As far as the Valkyr goes, it seems like she was misconceived from the outset. Like Nekros, she looks cool but as a front line fighter her lack of shields make her a paper tiger. Compared to the Rhino, she's subpar in every respect. The idea, a berserker melee fighter, is solid the game doesn't really reward ultra close range fighting so you could spend most of the duration of her Hysteria ability whiffing at enemies who are just out of reach.

Good teamwork will be key to any mission so it's always best to find some reliable players and pick frames that best suit the situation and roles (offense, support, etc.) that give you the best chance at success.

In Closing:
That was a lot of words. I hope some of them help you find your way through this strangely addictive free-to-play shooter. The promise of regular updates and new frames is sure to make this a regular stop for me. I hope to see you out there in universe, Tenno. Good luck.


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1:11 PM on 12.10.2013  

Warframe: A Beginner's Guide To The Tenno

Warframe is an... odd game. The free-to-play PC/PS4 title mixes elements of loot hoarding games like Diablo with strategic combat aspects of MMO's and builds them into a four player, third person co-operative shooter. It's hardly perfect, it can be a little glitchy and rough-around-the-edges, but if you like a deep co-op experience (and it's honestly the only one available for PS4 players right now) there's plenty here to like. The developers plan to make the game cross-platform sometime in the next few months, so the merging of both communities will allow for even greater potential.



That said, Warframe is not a game that eases you into the experience. Playing Warframe for the first time is not unlike renting a game in the olden days that didn't come with an instruction booklet. There's a brief combat tutorial and then you're thrown into the game to learn either by trial-and-error or the copious use of online FAQ's. For those reasons, the game is not for everyone. Even at the low, low price of free, a lot of players will be turned off by either the F2P nature or the lack of hand-holding. Hopefully, that's where I'll come in.

I'm going to give you a brief rundown of some very important information you'll need to know to get through your first ten or twenty hours of the game and on your way to shooting jerks in the face with confidence.

Free Crap:
North American PS Plus members will immediately want to download the booster pack provided to them, free of charge. It contains 100 Platinum, the game's real money currency, 50,000 Credits, the game's in-game currency, 5 Mods for upgrading weapons and Warframes, and 3 Day XP and Credit boosters which doubles what you earn.



Warframes:
There are, at this writing, 15 different Warframes to choose from. After the game's combat tutorial, you get a choice of three basic Warframes. Choose wisely because the level cap is 30 and if you play regularly during while your XP booster is active, you'll level up very fast. The other initial Warframes are available to buy in the Market at a discounted price of 75 Platinum. Otherwise, you'll be paying 225 or 325 for a new Warframe.

Over the course of the game, you can find parts and blueprints that will allow you to create more Warframes using resources and Credits, but they are very rare drops and random to boot. I've logged about fifty hours into the game and I've found maybe ten or twelve parts to different Warframes so far. Not enough to craft a new one. (Farming bosses seems to be the best way to get more, something I haven't done overly much.)

Each Warframe has a unique set of skills for different play styles. Melee, support, ranged, stealth or a variety of different powers. However you like to play, there's a Warframe for you. You might just have to cough up some dough to play it.

Movement:
Very important. There are light platforming elements in some stages and I don't recall the game every prompting me how to do these so I'll highlight them for you here:

Wall Running: By holding in the run button and the jump button at walls and ledges, you can run vertically to areas above you or horizontally across chasms. Sometimes you may find a secret area or sometimes it's simply how you progress through the stage.

Sliding: The L1 button defaults as a dodge roll but if you click while you're in a run, you'll go into a John Woo-style slide that's good mostly for a stylistic flourish. You can't run and shoot so going into a slide allows you to continue firing while moving at a rate similar to running. The drawback is that isn't not a controlled slide, you simply keep going forward. The other is that you finish the slide in a crouch and you have to click the L3 to stand again. Stopping to shoot is a more effective option.



Missions:
Mission objectives come in several flavors, some self-evident, some not:

Sabotage: Destroy a set number of enemy devices or destroy a reactor and escape to the extraction point.

Exterminate: Kill all enemies in a single level.

Rescue: Find a jailed NPC, open his cell by completing a Cipher (a simple timed puzzle that has you moving hexagons to form a shape) and escape to the extraction point without letting the NPC die. The NPC's are fairly hardy so while this is an escort mission, you don't have to worry about guarding him too closely.

Capture: Find a specific enemy, kill him, and press the O button over his corpse to absorb his data and escape to the extraction point. (The game doesn't prompt you to kill him so the term "capture" can be misleading.)

Assassination: A boss fight. Find him, kill him, leave.

Defense/Mobile Defense: Find and guard a specific object for a set time period. This can be frustrating if you have a crew of lone wolves as people have a tendency to leave the spot in search of action. A Warframe with a defensive ability (like Loki's defensive bubble) can be a godsend here.

Deception: This type involves one character taking a datamass "payload" which they carry in one hand (reducing them to using only their secondary weapon or melee while holding it) and taking to a designated spot before exiting the mission.

Spy: Locate and hack four terminals and take the datamass objects back to extraction. Like Deception missions, carrying a datamass will reduce you to using a secondary or melee weapon while you carry it. Luckily, one member can carry all four devices leaving the others free to fight.

Conclave: A PvP arena.

Survival: Survival comes in a few different flavors. They're procedurally generated so you can never be sure which kind of mission you're getting or what the level will look like. If you want a lot of items, credits and resources in a short amount of time, this is your best bet.

Survival missions are wave-based Horde Mode types. Sometimes it's simply surviving increasingly difficult waves, sometimes you have to defend an object while the number of rounds you have to survive ticks down.

A Warframe with defensive abilities (like Loki) or a support Warframe with healing/invulnerability abilities (like Trinity) are pretty much mandatory. Health orb drops are not a sure thing and when you have twenty or more enemies charging your position, your shields and health disappear fast. Having support is the difference between tons of loot and pure frustration.

For the infinite wave type, after a set number of waves the game will give you an opportunity to take an upgrade and quit or continue fighting. It's a majority rules vote. The longer you last, the more items you pick up off of dead enemies and the stronger the item the game offers you when you quit.

Be aware, though, that between the tons of enemies, and four Warframes using flashy abilities, the frame rate can and will take a major dump if you're all clumped up together.

Another Survival type involves fighting while a life support bar slowly ticks down. After a set amount of time passes, a life support module will be sent into the battlefield where you might fight through a never ending army of baddies in order to turn it on to boost your life support meter. The catch is that every time you turn on a new life support module, the enemies increase in difficulty. After turning on a number of modules, your contact will alert you that they've found credits or an upgrade. Once the life support bar hits zero, your health and armor deteriorate quickly until only one hit will kill you. The longer you hold out, the more you get. Only one survivor needs to reach the exfiltration point to succeed.

Getting the most out of this mission type requires teamwork. The magic number you're looking for before turning on the next life support module is about 55%. You're going to have to move as a group to get to the next designated area or else people will get overwhelmed and left behind. Sticking together is key.



Upgrading:
Every facet of your weapons and Warframe can be upgraded, which is great, but it can also be a little daunting.

Upgrades are random pick-ups that take the form of a card, which looks not unlike something out of Magic: The Gathering. There is a name, a picture, a description, a number, a type, and a symbol. There's also it's commonality rating and some irrelevant fine print.

The number is the upgrade cost. Your weapons and Warframes max out at level 30, which gives you 30 total points to distribute to the various slots on your item at maximum. The symbols denote a specialty. If you match the symbol on the upgrade card with a slot bearing the same one, you can install that upgrade for half price.

The number of times a card can be upgraded is listed as a blank slot on the left center of the card. When you upgrade it, they slots will fill up with white marks.

You can further upgrade your loadout by using Fusion Core cards. These are random drops you find of differing rarities as you play. They can also be bought in packs via the Market. To place a Fusion Core, you can either click R3 in the weapon's menu or go your Arsenal screen and click on Mods and then Fusion.

The more rare the Fusion Core, the more oomph you get out of using it. You can use as many Cores as you like but you can't go past the max level of points you have available. There's also a negligible credit cost to apply your Cores.

If you find a Warframe or weapon you'd like to specialize in, you can buy an Orokin Reactor or Orokin Catalyst to super-charge them. This double the amount of points you can spend to a maximum of 60.

On top of that, you can buy a Forma, which allows you to either stamp a slot with any symbol you like or change one symbol to another at the cost of going back down to level zero. Presumably, this allows more advanced players to customize their Warframe with the abilities of any other Warframe, though I haven't been able to test that theory yet.

So while a maximum of level 30 seems really low, the number of things you can do are actually pretty robust.

Ranking:
The cumulative levels you gain in Warframes and weapons adds to a meter at the top of the main menu screen. When that meter is full you will get an option to take a brief test which, when you succeed, will raise your rank. Certain weapons and Warframes are XP locked and can only be accessed by raising your rank.

These tests aren't particularly difficult but you still want to take your best weapons into battle just to be safe. And rather than spending more and more money on new weapons and Warframes, you can simply buy a Forma for cheap, lower your weapon or frame back to Unranked and start all over again.



Sentinels:
Sentinels are optional armed, floating companions who accompany you on missions with a variety of different abilities. Like everything else, they are upgradable. Depending on your style of play, there's a Sentinel that should fit it. For combat specialist, there's the Dethcube Sentinel armed with a assault rifle, for stealthier Warframes, there's a Shade which will make you invisible to approaching enemies. I use the Carrier which comes with a shotgun and vacuums up item drops for me, so that I don't have to worry about missing an item in a rush.

They're cheap to purchase outright (75 Platinum) and easy to assemble by buying a blueprint, so there's no reason not to pick one up. Every bit of extra firepower will help on the more advanced stages.

Obviously there are a lot of gamers who will balk at the very idea of a free-to-play game and that's fair enough. It's also a very grind heavy game, which might be another sticking point. Warframe is certainly playable without any money but you will hit a ceiling very fast and your only option will be lots and lots of grinding. I've currently spent about sixty dollars on the game, the same amount as I would any new release game and, given the amount of time I've sunk into it, it seems like a fair trade.

It's a solid shooter with some quirky lore and plenty of replayability that I can go into in another post down the line. It has it's issues, the same as any other game, but if you bought a PS4 at launch, there's no reason not to at least give it a shot.

I've started a Destructoid clan so feel free to let me know in the comments if you want to join. I'm still working out how running a clan works on the PS4 vs. the PC but the hope is to allow people to rock the Destructoid logo on their shoulders as they play. Cross-platform play is scheduled to go into effect during the "launch window" so PC players can join the fun as well.

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6:33 PM on 09.15.2013  

Saints Row 4: A Collection Of Thoughts About Storytelling & Open World Gaming



As usual: Spoilers! Spoilers everywhere!

Discussing the quality of Saints Row 4 seems a bit of a moot point by now. It's got a Metacritic rating between 77 and 86, depending on your console. It's a fan service heavy love letter to the fans who helped a Grand Theft Auto also ran evolve into a satirical, over-the-top orgy of comedy and violence. As Volition's fourth entry in the series, they've streamlined the experience in such a way that it makes the pace of other recent open world games like Sleeping Dogs and even GTA IV look plodding and slow by comparison.

What really makes Saints Row stand out is it's populist streak and it's inclusiveness. It's more than just the character creation or the fact that the game never penalizes you for how you choose to present yourself, male, female or otherwise. (If I want to cruise around virtual Steelport naked wearing only a horse head mask, and believe me I do, so be it.) They also aren't afraid to offend the homophobes by tying achievements into doing everything you can with a character. Including having The Butt Sex off-screen. With Dudes!



Given that the plot of the game involves the Saints being imprisoned on an alien spacecraft, there are numerous sci-fi references, including several to the still controversial Mass Effect 3. At one point, still early in the game, you are given a choice between going through one of two doors (red and blue, 'natch) each with their own arbitrary and ridiculous list of consequences that have no bearing on anything we've experienced up until that point. Faced with this choice, all your character can do is just sigh dejectedly and choose. It doesn't come off as mean spirited but as a bit of pointed satire... however, if you're like me and you spent months waiting for game journalists to talk about narrative logic, story mechanics and subtext only to hear them drone on about more meta concerns like "artistic integrity" and "fan entitlement" in-between wildly condescending to, or even outright insulting, their audience then hot damn does this feel like a bit of validation.

(And, seriously, the next schmuck who whinges about "it's the journey, not the destination" is getting a Ralph Waldo Emerson book thrown at their head so they can read that quote in context and finally realize why it does not apply to art.)

Even the romances, if you can call them that, are used for parody. There's no conversational courtship, gift giving or friend/rival bars to manage, it's just a button press. And you can press that button as many times as you like. So if you're one of the many dudes on my Twitter timeline who are madly in lust with Kinzie, you are, at any point, a button press away from a punch in the face and some wild (off-screen) sex. It doesn't effect your game in any other way and, if you listen to the audio logs, you'll notice that all of the characters other than The Boss have unofficially paired off with each other. Yet somehow, even as parody, there's something satisfying about the instant gratification.



Ultimately, the romances in BioWare games are pretty tame affairs that result in an equally tame sex scene. Once you succeed, you may get some additional in game dialogue and a mention in the epilogue but otherwise that's it. You don't have to manage it and you never have to worry about breaking up unless you initiate it yourself. (Just like real life!) As much as BioWare fans invest in these romances, they're actually very, very surface level. So having Volition point out the very real silliness of them works as another little love tap to the series and their fans.

I do have my quibbles with the game but none of them are too serious. I experienced some (unintentional) glitches and several system lockup's when transitioning from the spaceship that serves as your hub to the simulation where you spend most of your time. (Which might be the game or a sign my 360 is about to poop in it's hard plastic casing.) Once you unlock superpowers, driving becomes not only pointless, but an annoyance when the game forces you back into a vehicle for story or loyalty missions. The addition of superpowered running and gliding also cuts the overall game length by probably 2/3rds since you can cross the city in a handful of leaps and bounds. The side missions, while fun, still feel like busy work yet upgrading your superpowers are tied to it. Also, while the definitely slapped a coat of paint on Steelport there's literally no variation between The Third and Saints Row 4. It's entirely cosmetic.



What interests me more are the storytelling improvements and how Volition treats the formula of open world gaming and storytelling, in good ways and bad, and how developers can improve the formula going forward. Especially with a new Grand Theft Auto dropping in only a few days for everyone to chew on.

Saints Row was a pretty standard crime story. Not necessarily poorly told but not memorable either. Saints Row 2 wisely doubled down on the comedy yet still had some effective dramatic moments as well. Saints Row: The Third, despite all the pointless excess typified by the in-game porn stars (apparently at then publisher THQ's behest), still told an effective, if silly, story. The big drawback has always been that the other Saints were always plot devices or caricatures as opposed to actual characters. Nowhere was this more clear than the case of Shaundi.

In Saints Row 2 she was a lovable, easy going stoner chick who mostly just got damselled. In Saints Row: The Third, she underwent a complete 180 into a hyper capable, well-dressed, no-nonsense businesswoman. Who, again, mostly just got damselled. Saints Row 4 attempted to reconcile her odd personality transplant by splitting her into two different people. Because Saints Row ain't exactly subtle.

The push and pull between O.G. Shaundi and the real thing was the best written and best handled subquest line in the game. Shaundi's shame at her past indiscretions and lifestyle and how it lead her to overcompensate into what O.G. Shaundi, acting as the de facto voice of a lot of Saints Row fans, considered a humorless stuffed shirt was great fun to watch. It's also important that they didn't choose favorites. O.G. Shaundi, while unorthodox, was still effective while Shaundi was to-the-point but equally so. And the whole thing culminated in what initially seems like another damsel moment where you have to choose between them before they take control and save themselves. It not only works to reconcile the both sides of her but as a clear statement that the writers are thinking a bit differently about how they approach their characters. (And a special shout out should go to her voice actress who nailed present day Shaundi as well as O.G. Shaundi's hoarser, smoked out tones.)



Unfortunately, this doesn't extend as much to the other Saints, but they present different problems. Pierce, as comic relief, doesn't particularly need a more clearly drawn character. More pathos would just make him harder to laugh at. You can't do much with Johnny Gat either without running into the Wolverine Conundrum: how do you explain how a badass character becomes a badass without making them less of a badass? Cleverly, his mission involves being dropped into a Streets Of Rage style brawler from back when no one gave a damn about believable characters or motivations. Bottom line: Johnny Gat was always a badass. The End. You could have argued that his "death" in The Third was due to a death wish brought on after Aisha's death but since they've retconned that... nevermind, I guess.

While people who played the first two games are well acquainted with Gat, some more examples of Gat actually being badass would have been nice. There's a lot of deference shown to the guy without a whole lot good reasons for it. Especially since the mission I had to replay the most was one where Gat was in a chopper and kept getting shot down. Which isn't very badass.

Not being very emotionally connected to the other Saints meant their missions were a little more by the numbers. The only real oversight was the one character who, after Shaundi, could have benefited the most from some actual characterization: Kinzie. We know that Kinzie is a riff off of Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo novels (in personality, at least) and that she's ex-FBI... aaand that's about it.

The extent of what I got from Kinzie's missions are: she's doesn't want to be "normal." Well, okay. Putting aside that it reused the 50's setting from the beginning of the game and a character from The Third with no direct connection to Kinzie and who they had to really stretch to make fit, it didn't really tell us anything new or interesting. Since she's the character you interact with the most over the course of the game, it felt like a lost opportunity.



This leads to something that's less a criticism of Saints Row 4 than open world gaming as a whole. We're rapidly reaching the point where the typical cycle of "go here, talk to this person and get a mission" is becoming stale. Many of the missions in Saints Row 4, for example, are gained by choosing them from a text menu. And that's fine. It's tried, true and easy to program. Nonetheless, with the number of games offering open world experiences increasing, the way developers approach interacting with the world is still largely the same.

We're given these huge worlds to travel through however we like, but the minute we undertake a quest it becomes an entirely on rails experience. Obtaining quests is also completely simplistic. Good writing can cushion the blow a bit but we're still able to see the strings being pulled. So what you end up with are games that constantly remind you that, when it comes to advancing the story, your freedom is a sham. And if you want to make it a question of immersion in the game: am I The Boss of the Saints because I'm the best? Or am I just the best at being told what to do?

Obviously most development teams don't have the time to implement a more progressive approach to quest gathering in open world games. Even Skyrim, which is arguably the best example of presenting a non-linear open world with dynamic subquests, is hamstrung by the fact that Bethesda has a reputation for games that are nearly broken on release which have to be patched over the course of months to be playable.

Part of the problem can be solved through things as simple as dialogue or misdirection. Having the character only grudgingly following orders or just changing mission objectives on the fly because your character decides he has a better course of action, just off the top of my head, would lead to a sense that you are still in control. Much moreso than just blindly following whoever is chatting at you in your ear. However much of a pain it would be to script entirely optional semi-hidden subquests or encounters that aren't listed on your mini-map with big gold stars, it would pay dividends in creating a world you actually feel a part of. In certain ways, I almost prefer the L.A. Noire style of open world where there are no distractions from the main plot. It had a story to tell and it told it.



Going into the next generation of gaming and seeing big publishers rely as heavily as they do on "open world experiences" some actual thought is going to have to go into how they present them. Assassin's Creed is going to eventually run out of notable time periods and locations to plunder for their yearly installments and even GTA is essentially presenting the same basic urban framework only bigger and more complex. Fatigue is going to set in, if it hasn't already. With the additional horsepower of the PS4 and Xbox One, hopefully we will some additional innovation to go along with it.

In the meantime, we still have games like Saints Row 4 which mine from a rich vein of potential parody in an industry that often, with the hundreds of people involved and potentially millions of dollars at stake, takes itself far too seriously. The series seems primed for a next gen reboot, unless they find some way to top taking over an interstellar alien race. (Time travel for an AssCreed riff?)

Parody and satire are a reaction to something rather than a facilitator, so while I don't expect the gang at Volition to redefine the genre, they've certainly proven themselves capable of evolving. We, as gamers, just need to keep the pressure on developers to keep evolving along with us rather than rehashing the same tired gaming mechanics.

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8:43 PM on 08.10.2013  

Gaming With The Defenestrator

Competitive multiplayer has never really interested me. It just hasn't. I have too many obsessions already without taking the time necessary to really excel at stuff like Call Of Duty or Halo. Deathmatches feel like a hamster wheel and the luck aspect doesn't exactly appeal to me either. You can memorize all the maps, prestige class five times over, tweak your loadout to the nth degree and still... all you need to do is turn the wrong corner at the wrong moment and you'll get laid out. I'm a very competitive player, I just don't get a feeling of actual success from the multiplayer games that are popular right now.

I know that most people like to use these gaming sessions as an excuse to bullshit with their friends but here's the thing: I'm 75% deaf. Shooting the breeze with me means listening to a lot of me going "Huh? Wha? What was that, man?" as I try to separate my friend's lame jokes from the explosions and gunfire happening around me. Which is no fun for anyone. So, yeah, I have a tendency to want to get to the point very quickly. I may like you and I may enjoy gaming with you but there's not going to be a whole lot of bro'ing out, in the traditional sense. What gets my blood up is the knowledge of a job well done.




I've being playing co-operative games for as long as I've known they'd existed. Going back as far as playing Contra with my big brother in the arcades to side-scrolling space shooters on the NES. They weren't games that were optimized for co-op but they were at least options. Even later games on PS2/Xbox like those cheesy Hunter: The Reckoning games got a lot of play amongst my friends. My first real taste of a true co-op experience was the least likely: System Shock 2.

It's only relatively recently that I've started following gaming sites closely so the initial release of System Shock 2 came and went without crossing my radar at all. It was about a year after it's release that I lucked into a used copy and it immediately became one of my favorite games of all time. I never beat it, though, because I didn't want it to end. (I had the same problem with Silent Hill.) So it sat on my hard drive for a couple more years until I found myself temporarily living with a very close friend of mine. I'm pretty sure he hadn't played it before and wanted to give it a try when one of us got the bright idea to burn an extra copy and try out the co-op. And it was glorious.



(As a side note: we are kind of the exceptions that prove the rule, as far as co-op survival horror. System Shock 2 was designed to be a survival horror experience right down to my friend, Lorin, and I sharing already limited resources. This is vastly different than something like Dead Space 3 which was built to be a action/horror game. It also helped that Lorin and I both went out of our way to keep the atmosphere of the game going: we only played at night with the lights out. Neither of us cracked jokes. We really gave ourselves over to the tension. Once we beat it, we tried playing with a third friend who just cowboy'd through the first couple of levels and we both lost interest. Even if you do build a co-op survival horror experience, it only works if both people want it to.)

The two of us picked complimentary classes, we used different kinds of weapons so as to not drain the other person's ammo, and communicated some basic tactics. If one of us was wounded, the other would take point. I'd do the hacking, he'd cover me with psionics. We took our time, savored everything we could and beat the game. Because Lorin was using a cracked copy, once we beat the final boss the screen just immediately went to black and booted us to the main menu but we didn't care. To this day, I have not had a better co-operative experience playing a game.

This is the sort of attitude I've taken into other co-op games, with varying degrees of success. You can't predict how other people will try to play so I generally find myself falling into a support role just because no one else will. Healer, mechanic, sniper, you name it. You get your macho dudes who want to hog all the glory for themselves, the schemers who think they can run a game like a military platoon (forgetting that military wisdom usually states that plans only work until the first time you meet the enemy), the inept, the lazy, the uninterested. You take your chances.



Outside of the two Left 4 Dead titles, the games I've played the most co-op this generation have been fairly unlikely obsessions: Lost Planet 2, Syndicate and Resident Evil: Revelations. In each case, your survival is dependent on the skill of your team/partner. If you go cowboy, you screw it up for everyone. Things like enemy placement, power ups and objectives are generally pretty static. It becomes a matter of how perfectly you and your team can execute your mission. That, to me, takes more skill than just spinning a roulette wheel in a Call Of Duty Team Deathmatch.

Lost Planet 2 took a page from the Monster Hunter handbook with giant monsters who could be taken down a number of different ways. Syndicate, while not the Syndicate people remembered (and brought low by a really mediocre campaign), nonetheless had an excellent co-op campaign that no one played. Both games were, to me, really undeserving of the dismissal they received. (Incidentally, I really wish Fuse were a better game because that could have totally been something I loved.)

Resident Evil: Revelations, while not exactly a return to form from a campaign perspective, has the excellent two-player Raid Mode. I've never played a game before where I had to trust my partner so much, especially if you're hunting for S Ranks or Trinity Bonuses. In the beginning, I was helped along by higher level players who shepherded me along, taught me the ropes, and really turned the game into a weird kohai/senpai relationship. Using the in-game chat system, they would tell me when to hang back or follow. Granted there were just as many people who played for 300 hours and still didn't know what the hell they were doing, but finding those guys who knew their way around was a godsend. And when I leveled up myself, I would go back and play the earlier levels, doing the same thing for the n00bs that others did for me. It turned out to be a really unique experience where the co-operation wasn't solely in combat but in the entire approach to the game. I've gotten more friend requests from randos playing Raid Mode than any other game... and most of them don't even speak my language.



In short, gaming with me means trying to find camaraderie in successfully completing a mutual goal, as opposed to a mutual BS session. It may not be as immediately rewarding as a simple hang with your friends, but when the pieces are all in place it can be truly memorable.

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5:44 PM on 06.22.2013  

The Last Of Us: A Great Time Being Depressed




As usual, my reviews are pretty spoiler-heavy, but I've cordoned them off after the end of the review for people who don't want to be... y'know, spoiled.

It's very heartening to me that the three video games that have provoked the most discussion in the last year are story-heavy games that center around a relationship between two people. This generation of gaming is rapidly coming to a close and we've gone from a situation where having a good story is a pleasant surprise or a bonus to an actual selling point. Telltale's The Walking Dead went for huge dramatic crescendos, Bioshock: Infinite went for more of a headfuck, and now we have Naughty Dog, already proven in cinematic game experiences, trying their hand at the post-apocalyptic action/stealth/survival horror genres.

The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead do share a lot of the same DNA, to the point that I was worried that Naughty Dog's offering would suffer from over-familiarity. "Older man with a violent past tries to escort an innocent young girl to safety during a pandemic/zombie apocalypse" is a pretty well-worn genre at this point. We know how it ends: "I can teach you no more, son." "Nooooo! You're like the Dad I lost/never had or whatever!" "You'll be okay, kiddo. I'm gonna die now." "Nooooo!" *fade out*

The Walking Dead played these genre conventions to the hilt but was saved by giving us a sense of choice in how we survived the world and a young charge we actually felt invested in saving. The Last Of Us, it turns out, follows the same basic story beats but ends up in a different place by the end. Telltale's episodic series is, by comparison, a celebration of the human spirit in comparison to Naughty Dog's bleak, hopeless, uncompromising world.



It's a world that is being slowly reclaimed by nature. Buildings, unused and unmaintained for two decades, have decayed, fallen apart, sprouted grass, and attracted wildlife. It's a kind of sad, frightening beauty that even extends to the areas taken over by the plants that spawn the cordyceps spores, which look almost like human beings turned inside out: petals that resemble skin and stigma, anthers, and filament that almost resemble human organs. It's a world that's devolved, slowly erasing or reclaiming every inch of human advancement. Whatever the world is now, it's not ours. Human beings have, naturally, devolved right along with it.

What were originally conceived as quarantine zones have becoming permanent city-states ruled over by fascist thugs. We see their handiwork right away, murdering anyone for any infraction they feel warrants it. It's a brutal utilitarianism that has no time for due process or empathy. In the wilds, you're constantly on the run from nearly feral hunters who have zero qualms about killing and possibly eating any unlucky travelers who wind up in their crosshairs. We occasionally hear bits of conversation that hints that these people are just trying to survive in a world that's actively trying to kill them, but the fact that they immediately default to remorseless killers whenever you're spotted makes them ideal cannon fodder as we shoot, stab and strangle our way through waves of them later on. There's a bit of every reviewers favorite new vocabulary term "ludonarrative dissonance" in that they never try to negotiate or surrender but that's still, to me, within acceptable levels.



Our protagonist, Joel, has no moral high ground to stand on himself. After the events of the heartbreaking intro sequence, he's been whatever he needed to be to survive: a murderer, thief and smuggler. He's a survivor but his loss and his subsequent experiences have turned him into a cold, selfish, stubborn, and largely unlikable man. He's very much the "grizzled hero" archetype but without anything resembling a heart of gold underneath it. I got the impression that if it weren't for his partner (and presumably his lover) Tess, he wouldn't be doing much of anything at all. She's the driving force of their smuggling operation while Joel seems to mostly just go through whatever motions are called for. Though the motions usually seem to involve killing someone.

The game proper kicks off when, after confronting a double crossing colleague, they get roped into escorting a young girl, Ellie, to the militant freedom fighter faction, The Fireflies, where they hope to use Ellie's seeming immunity to the cordyceps to come up with a vaccine. Joel, unwilling to invest in a quixotic cross country trip for some pipe dream, is ultimately forced into it. The notion of hope has apparently become so alien to the man that even the risk of believing in something is enough scare him off. Throughout the game, I never so much liked Joel as understood him.

Ellie, on the other hand, is immediately likeable. The "perky teenager" thing could have easily rubbed me the wrong way but as the only real bright spot in a cruel and fucked up world, she became a pressure valve. The foul mouth, bad jokes and general know-it-all teenager-ness of the character is usually the only thing to look forward to. You're playing as Joel but Ellie is clearly our point of view character. The first time she tried to help me take down an infected runner, I cheered. I had been busy trying to find cover to desperately flip through my weapons to find one that had more than a bullet or two and out of the corner of my eye I see her leap on the thing's back and start stabbing it with her pen knife. The little brat just saved my life and I loved her for it.



While the game is thankfully designed to not be an escort mission where you need to hold Ellie's hand the entire time, it was the thing that kept continuously breaking my immersion. Ellie is effectively invincible and invisible so there were many, many occasions where I'd be creeping around and trying to find an angle on an enemy and Ellie (or another partner) would literally walk right in front on them to huddle next to me. In a world designed to be so engrossing and intense, something like that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief. Frankly, I would have preferred if Joel just kept continually insisting that Ellie hang back in combat situations and she rejoins you when you've cleared the area out. Neither is a perfect option but to have my immersion interrupted repeatedly like that was the biggest obstacle in maintaining the experience Naughty Dog tried so hard to create.

Other reviews and comments I've read have complained here and there about the scavenging you have to do, but I loved it. Not only did it give me a chance to explore and admire the amazing art design of the game, it provided an opportunity to interact with it as well. What you see usually isn't just some background on your way to another combat scenario. Houses aren't just empty, they're abandoned. You can still see family photos on dressers and toys littering the floor in some child's room. They're interrupted lives rather than just some empty space that exists in the game. Finding some scissors or bandages or bullets was just a bonus for me.

The violence in the game is particularly noteworthy in that it fits the world perfectly. When Joel strangles someone, he actually strangles them. No Schwarzenegger-esque instant neck snaps. If you linger at enemies you've head shot, sometimes it looks like you can see the entrance and exit wounds. Other enemies, depending on the gun you use, will have their heads explode when you hit them. As in little tiny chunks of skull debris around their body. This game is definitely not pulling any punches. Occasionally Ellie will make a surprised exclamation when you brutally murder someone and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I didn't occasionally share the sentiment.

My only other major criticism of the game stems from the combat. Frankly, I was fine with the infected taking multiple headshots to kill, but when it came to the human enemies, things got very frustrating very fast. There are a couple of weapons that offer armor piercing upgrades but ammo is so scarce that you can't be guaranteed to have any when you need it. While I like the scarcity of the ammo as far as giving things a survival horror feel, the way that the ammo is parceled out made sure that there were long sequences where we are never given any hunting rifle or shotgun ammo, etc... so if you didn't save any from the section where it was more plentiful, you're just out of luck.

This lead to multiple situations like this: I'm in a firefight. I'm behind cover. I poke my head up and headshot a guy wearing a helmet. The guy falls down and pops back up again sans helmet. I pop up again and headshot him again. He falls down again. Assuming he's dead, I try to move to the next bit of cover only to get knocked on my ass by the same guy who is still shooting at me. I understand that this is a game where you're not supposed to feel like a superhero and many gamers would likely breeze through the combat if a headshot meant an instant kill but nothing breaks the spell of the game faster than an enemy surviving multiple headshots. It's one of two imperfect options but, like with Ellie's invisibility, I would have preferred the option that didn't take me out of the game.



That said, the scarcity of ammo and the strength of the enemies, especially the infected Clickers, make for some wild sequences. Shivs become mandatory in not only stealth killing them but saving you from their insta-kill attacks. Runners are easier to deal with but are big trouble in packs and Bloaters need to be shot in specific areas to be killed efficiently. On Hard difficulty, I rarely had more than ten bullets for any gun at any given time and every missed shot was enough to make me wince. Even scavenging as much as I could there would be lengthy sequences in which I was missing a specific ingredient for a much needed shiv or med kit. Every combat situation seemed to dissolve into panic by the end of it. Only a couple of times was I able to successfully navigate a sequence without being spotted and it felt goddamn triumphant when it happened.

The game is broken up into seasons which take place during specific locations including my hometown of Pittsburgh (it looks pretty much like I left it, to be honest). Each section has it's own unique vibe to it, which keeps things from getting stale, and the games take care to break up the style of play, so you may find yourself on horseback or hunting deer to change things up. Much like the Uncharted games, though, when you see oddly placed cover, prepare to start shooting.

After a blockbuster sequence during winter, we move onto the real finale which feels oddly like anti-climax. And I'm fine with that. Actually, I was oddly tense and keyed up for the final section the game because I kept expecting the writers to go for the obvious and easy ending but they never did. After an occasionally frustrating fight against some armored enemies, everything gets wrapped up in an intriguing ambiguity. You don't have to worry about the game leaving an important questions unanswered but it does leave you with a final scene that allows you to draw your own conclusions.

As a game, Naughty Dog is still perfecting it's cinematic experience. They're still not quite there in terms of making everything perfectly seamless from a gameplay perspective but it is a very well told story, even if it hews very close to what we'd expect up until the end. It's certainly a step up from Uncharted 3, which fell a little bit too in love with it's own characters. As a capper for this generation of gaming, it's a fantastic send-off. It's uncompromisingly bleak and gorgeous to look at. If you're open to the experience, it will take an emotional toll on you. Here's to a new generation of games that hopefully follow suit.

---

SPOILER WARNING! Here's where I start talking specifics about what I thought of the story, so back out now if you haven't played yet!








Joel is a dick. He's the character you control through most of the game but, as I mentioned in the review, I never liked him. Understood him, but never liked him. The loss of his daughter, calcified by twenty years of murder and robbery, had made him into a hollow shell. It isn't until Utah that he feels comfortable enough with Ellie to joke with her (having the shared experience of killing people who want to eat them is a pretty good bonding experience, it turns out) but by then she's lost in a melancholy of her own.

What makes Joel's decision at the end, and our complicity in it, work is that we know that Ellie is more mature than just about every character in the game, so when the Fireflies decide to operate on her without her consent, they've essentially compromised themselves into being the villains. As much as Joel's decision is driven by selfishness, he's not wrong to do it.

The irony is that if Marlene had taken the time to talk to Ellie instead of treating her like a non-human, something she felt she likely had to do in order to make what she felt was the "right" decision, there's a good chance Ellie would have agreed to the surgery anyway.

Ellie's melancholy at the beginning of the Utah sequence, I thought, was originally just her coming to grips with the events in David's camp. Until she has that conversation with Joel about what he thinks the Fireflies need to do in order to get vaccine. Joel, re-energized and hopeful, dismisses it as just doing some tests and taking blood samples... but Ellie isn't convinced. I think she was preparing for the fact that she was going to have to sacrifice herself to save the world. And was trying to be okay with it.

Marlene isn't evil, she's just lost herself. She got the means and the ends all mixed up. She knew that there was no guarantee the surgery would provide a vaccine. She was willing to kill a child she was tasked to care for on the off chance it provided something useful. Ultimately, she was just using Ellie to her own ends. Joel is precisely the opposite. As much as he wants to save this child the way he couldn't save his own, he's also doing it for her benefit. That's what makes Joel's actions ultimately heroic to me.

I get the argument that he is essentially damning the world but I don't agree with that either. There's no supporting evidence for this, but I think Ellie isn't just a genetic aberration, she's the next stage in human evolution. There's no way of knowing how many kids born post-cordyceps have developed an immunity until they get bit. But the chances of surviving an attack with just a bite are slim let alone other people letting you stay alive long enough to prove you won't turn. And considering you have as much chance being killed by hunters or dying from starvation or disease, there's no telling how many kids being born are just like her. But that's all supposition.

Ellie is "The Last Of Us" because she represents everything that's still good about humanity. She's the only character who doesn't act from a place of selfishness. Joel is Joel. Tess is out for herself and only sees the light when it's too late. Marlene cares only for her mission. Bill is a solipsist. Sam puts everyone at risk by not telling anyone of his infection. Henry blames Joel and then kills himself because he can't take responsibility for himself. Ellie is the only character who remains true, even after her run in with David who is arguably the worst humanity has to offer.

Joel represents all the bad decisions, selfishness and shitty, violent impulses that were ingrained in Humanity Mark 1. Protecting Ellie from those who wanted to harm her, even if she was prepared to sacrifice herself had anyone bothered to ask, and then lying to her afterwards are proof of it. Joel is not a redeemable character but neither is he truly villainous, just sadly human.

The question at the last scene is, to me, can Ellie believe the lie? She says "okay" but there's nothing in her face that particularly sells it one way or the other. And if she can, what does that say about her? Has she had enough of being the Golden Child and wants to get on with what passes as a normal life? If so, is that okay given what she's capable of? (Personally, I don't think the lie is sustainable.) The fact that they switch Ellie to your control in the lead up is a nice touch too, making it more like Joel is lying directly to you. Not only do I like that they left it pretty ambiguous, I like that they had the balls to not go with the dramatic-strings-and-weepy-send-off ending. It's ultimately a very personal story.

Like I said in the review proper, I really liked the game despite some flaws. I just hope more people follow Naughty Dog's lead and make more story-driven games that don't revolve around easy, smug horseshit like Far Cry 3's whole "you're a terrible person for enjoying all this carnage we lovingly provided for you." This game is a great example of meaningful violence. I'm definitely interested in whatever Naughty Dog does next.

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3:13 AM on 06.20.2013  

Anything Is Better Than Nothing: #Hashtag Culture & The Xbox One



This afternoon, Microsoft essentially threw a Molotov on a grease fire when they announced that they were backing away from the DRM, used games and online check-in features for the Xbox One that have caused so much consternation amongst gamers. After being flanked and decimated by Sony during their E3 press conference, and after a near terminal case of Foot In Mouth Syndrome in the wake of it, we knew Microsoft was on the defensive. However, adhering to the well-worn rule that corporations on the level of Microsoft never admit that they're wrong, many people just expected them to slide quietly into a second place showing in this generation's already carnage-fueled Console War.

However, in comes today's announcement which amounts to a full strategic retreat. It's not worded as such, naturally, (it's been pleasantly PR'd into almost sounding like it was their own idea) but just about all of the issues that stuck in people's craw were addressed: No daily online checks which will brick your system if you don't have a stable connection. You can resell or trade your games to whomever you like at the cost of announced features like family sharing and disc-free gaming. DRM will be up to the publishers and, after seeing the fit people have thrown in the last few months, there's a good chance they'll only institute it slowly and quietly. Also, to match Sony, the system will not be region locked. Unless you're like me and you mistrust the notion of cloud computing and/or hate the notion of an always on Kinect watching you like the quietly judge-y eye of Sauron, there's no reason the Xbox One shouldn't regain a place at the top of your Christmas list.

This has naturally provoked the usual responses: gamers cheering victory at having won a rare battle for game ownership and at the same time decried as a loss to publishers and developers by guys like Cliff Bleszinski. It's also been the subject of a lot of empty cynicism, typified by this tweet from John "TotalBiscuit" Bain (proof that not all bowler hat wearing British video game personalities are created equal) in which he turns his nose up at the idea that the hashtag culture and Facebook posts had any bearing on changing Microsoft's position because... dead revolutionaries in Turkey?

First of all, that is some wild, wild false equivalency there. To somehow equate actual dead human beings with a consumer rights issue in regards to a video game console reeks of an almost Autistic disconnection to reality. Mothers are mourning their dead children right now. You're arguing about video games. These two things don't belong anywhere near each other. For any reason.


Bain. BAAAAAAAAAAAIN!

To be fair, Bain clarified his position in subsequent tweets, almost to the point of completely neutering his original statement (unless you happen to be one of the ten people in the world who truly believes that their tweets were solely responsible for Microsoft's change of heart) but I bring it up more as an example of a particular worldview. Bain is far from alone in his assessment. There's a lot of people supping on sour grapes tonight.

To listen to the few developers and publishers willing to speak on the subject publicly, you get the impression that they aren't so much angry as exasperated. Like kindergarten teachers wrestling with a particularly unruly child. To hear them tell it, we just don't understand what they're trying to do with the Xbox One. We don't understand how badly developers are being hurt by used game sales. And if we did, we'd be completely on board with Microsoft's new all-in-one entertainment box of pure joy.

This speaks, in bold and italics, how little they think of their audience. And yet I still can't see them as mustache-twirling villains. I believe that they believe what's coming out of their mouths. Having worked for a Giant Unnamed Corporation for six years now, I see how these decisions happen. The people in charge are so removed from the way normal people operate that they're completely unable to relate. They think they're being magnanimous but they don't actually know anyone who is being directly affected by their policies. It's not evil (not normally), it's just out and out ignorance. So, yes, people like Cliff Bleszinski have yet to find a burden they aren't willing to unload on gamers to line their pockets, but they've convinced themselves, though ego and love of money, that we don't really understand what we want.

The Xbox One is not a carefully crafted compromise between what gamers want and what publishers and developers need. It shifts the playing field so far away from the rank and file user that a backlash had to happen. Microsoft would have us believe that they're essentially giving us Steam in a box with some bonus accoutremounts like "cloud computing," an always-on Kinect and TV integration. They also continue to completely miss what makes Steam appealing.


"Me no trust that white face man, like Geronimo..."

Valve's genius lies in the fact that they aren't a publicly traded company at the constant mercy of perpetually paranoid and frightened millionaire investors. They also have an unconventional management structure that companies like Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision, et al, would never have the bravery to implement. They want the money Valve makes and the goodwill it's gotten them without the sacrifices and risks they've taken to get there.

Microsoft wants the cheap and dirty answer to Steam. (Sometimes called "EA Origin.") Some game journalists, most of whom should know better, have talked pie in the sky fantasies about the Microsoft equivalent of Steam Sales and whatnot, also completely ignoring exactly how unique Valve's position is. Want proof? Look at Microsoft's attempt to steal Sony's shine with the Playstation Plus and their virtual library. Microsoft's offer? Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed 2. Games you've already played and sold years ago. Games that are multiple iterations removed from that by now. Games you can pick up for the low, low price of $3 or $6 used on Amazon, respectively. Games that have been cross referenced and double checked on spreadsheets for their minimum effect on the bottom line. Meanwhile, Sony is offering interesting indie titles like The Cave and Thomas Was Alone as well as smaller games like Sleeping Dogs and Spec Ops: The Line.

So, yes, Microsoft is clueless. They're looking at numbers and missing the big picture. Sony is only marginally better, having had their own descent into hubris with the PS3 announcement. Even now, their position is to just maintain the status quo, allowing them to pull ahead by virtue of doing absolutely nothing. Certainly GameStop is no hero, having sketchy policies that undercut their consumers as well. (Personally, I go to Mom and Pop used record stores for my game trading.) And while Microsoft soils their chinos? Valve is already floating the possibility of digital used game trading which will put them another generation ahead of their console brethren and win them a whole new round of plaudits.

These corporations exist to make money and will only give back as little as they can to maximize profits. That's business. Not good, not evil, just business. Yet corporate types and their apologists are only part of the problem. Some people are evidently immediately suspicious of what they see as an angry mob which steamrolls over any nuanced position.

While there's certainly no shortage of pointless, free floating anger on the Internet, it's often given far too much weight by virtue of the fact that people are drawn to negativity. A lot of these angry social media commenters are professionally angry. Acknowledging them validates them. Most people have a hard time keeping in mind that when it comes to dealing with trolls, you are actually the least important part of the equation. Their anger and whatever wires got crossed in their heads are the real issue. You're just a convenient target. There's a certain amount of ego you have to let go of if you're ever going to survive the Internet.

Which brings us to the courageous souls rolling their eyes at the idea that this angry mob of people who don't want to give up their consumer rights have somehow deluded themselves into thinking their voices matter, even if all they could do is change a Facebook photo and tweet at some monolithic corporation. Because, y'know, people are dying fighting for freedom in Muslim countries and that.

Firstly, if you're doing something, you're not doing nothing. That just seems like common sense. I'm a hack blogger no one cares about, I like talking to people about subjects likes this, but most people have lives and jobs and kids. This is of interest to people insomuch as they like games, but they're limited in the amount of time they can spend. There are no trenches here. There are no battles to be fought. You commiserate amongst friends, you refuse to pre-order, you tweet your displeasure at Microsoft. That's more or less the extent of what you can do. Because, at the end of the day, you're arguing about a luxury item.

If you really hold people gathering together around a common cause to be such a useless endeavor, what were you expecting to happen? An actual movement? Occupy Microsoft Headquarters? You'd just mock them for that too, for taking things too seriously. The reality is that every little bit helps. It fosters an atmosphere for discussion and gets the information out. Just because they don't wear the slogan on a t-shirt or tattoo it on their skin doesn't mean they aren't helping.



I consider my cynicism towards giant, multinational corporations to be an informed cynicism based on experience. In a sense, I admire Microsoft for being so ballsy with their wanton greed. Usually there are systems in place to hinder creativity, foster a sense of homogeneity, and avoid risk. People, on the other hand, are endlessly surprising. This isn't some kind of soppy, wet Liberal hugfest either. Microsoft's decision, I'm sure you'll find, was motivated by not wanting to lose money. They're worried about losing money because people were taking to social media and talking about how much they don't want what Microsoft is selling. Which translated into slower pre-order numbers. Which, compounded with the messaging problems they've been having, translated into A Problem. Twitter wasn't the only factor, but it was a factor.

One of my biggest problems with this industry is about how the gaming press, developers and publishers treat the people who make their livelihood possible. There's a disdain in a lot of people I find very disturbing. As if somehow we random dudes wield a power equal to the multi-million dollar corporations who provide us with our entertainment. Where all people remember is the troll who told them to "fuck off and die" and not the ten people who praised them. As if that's everyone else's fault and not the fault of the troll and the failing of the person's own ego.

We don't have any real power. That's what makes Microsoft's reversal all the more delicious. No one with any sense is claiming full credit for it, but nor are we just buzzing flies, fit only to be swatted away by those with a bigger soapbox to stand on. We won a very minor victory in a not-particularly-important fight. If someone wants to make a comprehensive chart about how much money the industry is losing to used games sales vs. how much they're losing to bloated budgets for bland sequels with diminishing returns, I'm down... but, if you don't mind, I think I'll take my victories where I can find them.

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11:02 PM on 06.13.2013  

The Problem With Silent Hill...

Hello, darkness, my old friend...

WARNING: Contains light spoilers for Silent Hill 2 and heavy spoilers for Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour!

Last year, I was lucky enough to attend the anime convention Saboten Con after hearing at the very last second that video game composer and producer Akira Yamaoka would be performing songs from his legendary Silent Hill soundtracks along with collaborators Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Joe Romersa, and Troy Baker as well as doing a Q&A. Not only is this an extremely rare occurrence in the States, it's extra rare for a burg like Glendale, Arizona. Having followed the series since it's initial release, I showed up without hesitation.

The Q&A ended up being mostly about sound design but Yamaoka-san did answer one question in a way that I found fascinating: when asked about technical limitations that may have hampered previous games and what he'd do now, he responded instead that the lack of limitations were the problem. Given my hearing problems and the J-Rock show going on the next room, I'm pretty sure that he was trying to make a point about horror games that many have made about horror movies as well: with an unlimited budget and the ability to create anything, how do you find the scares? Horror is about being in some sense confined, inside the game and out. Without deliberate limitations, there's no fear. For a psychological horror series like Silent Hill, one that's been looking down the barrel of declining sales and quality for at least the last decade, I'm wondering if the series isn't in the best possible place for a resurgence.

Survival horror games filled a hole in my life I didn't know was empty. Back when my brother and I were renting Playstations from the grocery store for the weekend, Resident Evil was a constant. The atmosphere, the helplessness, the long odds of survival, it hit home for me in a primal way. I never did beat the game. I never felt like I had to. Silent Hill was the same for me, but moreso. With all the goodwill in the world, Resident Evil did had a level of cheesiness to it that was hard to dismiss. Silent Hill felt more grounded... just a normal guy looking for his daughter and dealing with all of this insanity that's just thrust upon him. I never beat that game either.


Goddammit, steer INTO the skid, Harry!


I did beat Silent Hill 2, though. Played it right through to completion without a second thought. Not only was I in a dark place in my life personally, it also tapped into that post-9/11 sense of doom that seemed to pervade everything. The story, a man returns to a haunted town after receiving a letter from his dead wife, worked in a way that very few games had at the time. While it did have problems (the original voice acting was pretty flat) it represented everything that video game storytelling could be in a world that was, and still is, dominated by cookie cutter shooters. It was a psychological horror game in the truest sense of the word: the enemies were drawn straight from the lead character's subconscious fears and desires. Akira Yamaoka also turned in his best soundtrack of the series, with his usual range going from grinding industrial to sad and gorgeous guitar solos.

Silent Hill 3 was a return to the original game's rather convoluted mythology, which was fine, but it didn't resonate with me the way that the second game did. It was more notable to me for introducing Yamaoka to his musical muse, voice actress Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Her voice, alternately smoky or strident depending on the mood, matched perfectly with what Yamaoka had been trying to accomplish in his instrumentals.

A more experimental approach went into Silent Hill 4: The Room but not necessarily to it's benefit. I have a bit more fondness for it then other people I know. The first person sequences caused a bit of head-scratching but I liked it's return to telling a story independent from the earlier mythology. Yamaoka also turned in another brilliant soundtrack including a dark, seven minute hymn about hating your mother, "Room Of Angel," that ranks up there with the best in the series. Sadly, this was Team Silent's last game in the series as they dissolved after the tepid response to the game.

I never played Silent Hill: Origins, largely because it was initially a PSP exclusive that was ported to PS2 after my system had gone kaput. I've tracked a copy of the PS2 version down but until I buy a replacement PS2 system, I'll hold off on talking about it.


Wait, how old is Heather again...?

Silent Hill: Homecoming represents one of the lowest points of the series, only eclipsed by the most recent iteration, Downpour. While Double Helix had a good grasp of atmosphere and phantasmagoria, spurred on by Yamaoka's (arguably weakest) soundtrack, the story was very, very flimsy. The Silent Hill series has used the "children in danger" trope quite a bit but Homecoming and Downpour hammer it right into the ground. There was a time you could use it for an easy bit of sympathy but it's since been overused to the point of being meaningless. It only works if we're given a reason to care about the child, something that Homecoming and Downpour forgot. Instead, we spend the game chasing the idea of a child, which just doesn't work. Unless you're going to take Telltale Games' approach to The Walking Dead games and actually let us spend time with and bond with the child that's in danger, I don't think you can get away with it anymore. Not easily, anyway.

But Homecoming has much bigger problems then just that. The lead character, Alex, is initially presented as a soldier returning from war looking for his missing little brother which leads him to a bigger mystery involving the children of all of the town's founding families. Alex is presented as a sure-footed fighter, both in melee and firearms, due to his "combat experience" but, in the game's bid for a twist, it's ultimately revealed that he's an escaped mental patient, not a soldier. So why was he so good at combat if he's spent his adult life doped up in a mental institution? Moreover, the game introduces actual human enemies for the first time, which Alex dispatches as easily as the monsters. These human enemies are representatives of The Order, a shady group of people who... y'know what? It doesn't matter. It boils down to Double Helix trying to explain something that no one wanted explained in the first place. If you know the basic rules of how the town of Silent Hill operates, that's all you need. Conspiracies and cover up's and convoluted explanations just complicate things and ultimately lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. (Ahem, "midichlorians.") It slipped, a couple years later, that Double Helix wanted to position Homecoming as the first in a trilogy of games and I think that Silent Hill fans really dodged a bullet there.

This is why I found Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to be such a breath of fresh air. A Wii exclusive, Shattered Memories, is the strongest entry into the series since the third game. The biggest hit the game took from critics was completely removing combat in favor of occasionally annoying chase sequences and, while I see their point, it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the game at all. Shattered Memories turned out to be Akira Yamaoka's final soundtrack in the series and he went out on top. Despite how little blood there was in the game (to the point where actually seeing it became a little startling) the developer's use of snow and ice and Yamaoka's oppressive soundtrack lent it a lot of atmosphere.

The game reuses the premise of the original (Harry Mason searching an abandoned town for his missing daughter) and instead focuses on puzzles and exploration. It was the first time since the second game where I found myself questioning whether or not I wanted to open the next door. They present "psychological horror" as a literal thing, using a framing sequence of a visit to a psychiatrist, to bookend the chapters. Even more than that, the game is recording and cataloging how you play the game and offers you an ending (and occasionally costume changes) based on numerous, completely invisible, factors. Much like the second game did, just to a much smaller degree. Because you don't have the option of a binary choice, your ending feels more authentically yours, instead of just reloading a save to see what was behind door number two. And it works. Spend too much time in the brothel staring at pictures of scantly clad women? Spend too much time staring at the asses of the couple of women you meet in town? You'll get an ending that represents that. And so on. I got what I assume is the "good" ending and it actually made me misty-eyed, a new experience for me. That is a helluva success. During the credits, the game actually lists off an actual psychological profile based on your choices, which, while not entirely accurate, is a cool addition. (You could write a dissertation about Silent Hill and it's attitude towards mental health. Shattered Memories is the only example in the series of psychiatry not being presented as evil.)

One of the boldest sequences, which I won't spoil, follows the idea of making a player helpless to it's logical conclusion. An event happens and you are literally trapped. There is a longer-than-you-might-think period of time where you can't do anything. That initial panic of "what am I supposed to do!?" slowly gives into "shit, I'm fucked." Which is as close to an honest representation of what you'd actually feel in that situation as a video game could give you before the answer presents itself. (If you don't find the item you need to escape, the game doesn't penalize you, either. A nice touch.) The only downside is that, in an world of online walkthroughs, most people would probably see this as a puzzle and that they're just missing the right piece. Still, it takes balls to force a player to stop playing the game and my hats are off Climax Studios for it. While it wasn't a hit, hopefully it will reach the cult status it deserves.


Nope.

Which brings us to Silent Hill: Downpour and... it's pretty bad. Not broken, just bad. Much like Homecoming, the game has a strictly straight-to-video level plot, paper thin characters, and a serious deficit of tension or scares. However, it's by no means a total loss... there were some aspects of the game that actually worked: there's the addition of a UV light to help with certain puzzles. The graphics look great. As your progress through the game, the loading screen starts adding phrases like "She's lying to you" or "They know what you did" in-between the tips and tricks. And there are a couple of good sequences here and there. Unfortunately, the game can't seem to capitalize on even the things they got right. The UV light is never used beyond a bit of puzzle solving. The graphics don't matter if they have the most sterile representation of the Otherworld yet. And the best sequences in the game are optional side quests and easily missed. Not to mention "a couple good sequences" being not nearly enough for a 10 to 12 hour game. Much like the creepy loading screen phrases never build to anything, neither does the entire game. It's perpetually halfway there.

As the first game without Akira Yamaoka's score, Dexter composer Daniel Licht had really big shoes to fill and, in the end, was not equal to the task. He's fine for atmospherics but whenever the game needs your heart rate above normal, particularly in the Otherworld sequences, he's nowhere to be found. Part of the joy of Yamaoka's soundtracks were the effort that went into playing with sounds designed to make you uncomfortable. There's no sense of that in Licht's work. It's standard horror score paint-by-numbers. This pervades the entire game, including the endings which (in addition to the story problems already there) are almost silent. Worse, someone had the bright idea to waste good money hiring KoRn to do a song for the soundtrack. Putting aside that the song they turn in is really cringe-inducingly bad, if the idea was to attach a Recognizable Band to the game to get some attention, why on Earth would they use a band that hasn't been relevant for at least a decade? If they wanted an inappropriately emo band for the soundtrack, My Chemical Romance would have been a more timely choice and even their popularity was fading fast. Poor Mary Elizabeth McGlynn is reduced to a couple of tracks of humming.

The problems with Downpour are systemic. Nothing in the game is better than mediocre. The melee combat is perfunctory: block, wait for an opening, hit, repeat. All melee weapons are breakable and, apparently, breakable at exactly the same rate. Wooden sticks break exactly as often as lead pipes and metal axes. Gun combat is occasionally broken. I've missed enemies with a shotgun blast at ultra close range because my reticule wasn't just so.

The story is a mess. Everything about it is surface level. I was one step ahead of the story at every turn. Much like Homecoming, the protagonist is a sort of masculine ideal: a "soldier" or a prison inmate. Manly men. Not easily relatable and not as prone to being scared as you should be in a survival horror game. Nobody's reactions make logical sense. Murphy's first reaction to the Otherworld is practically non-plussed. The only time he shows any emotion is when he's being hurt during an Otherworld chase sequence (and his screams sound a lot like Homer Simpson) or when he does the groan-worthy "fall to his knees and scream at the sky" bit. The other characters fare even worse. The only female character in the game never gets to do anything other than screaming, threatening to kill you, or crying. The radio DJ is introduced and forgotten, never to be seen again. They even have a Magical Negro character. It's like reading a laundry list of every horror/suspense trope you can think of. They aren't even rearranged in some kind of interesting manner

The game introduces side quests, all of which are easily missed but provide some of the game's best moments. There's a sequence where you play a gramophone backwards to see a murder scene in reverse that might be the best scene in the game. But unless you have a particular item and notice a second floor light on, you'd never see it. There's another cool sequence in a cinema that ends with you going into the screen to look for an item, complete with an old school survival horror control scheme. Other side quests are utterly pointless. They're provided with no context and no payoff. Maybe you get an item or two but for a game that should be trading in scares, what does an extra Medkit matter?

The Otherworld looks dull and the your time there is usually just puzzles or chase sequences. You're not even being chased by a creature but a translucent red ball... which is hardly the most threatening visual in the world. Other than a couple homages to that old silent movie Safety Last! there's nothing of any real interest there. The "normal" world is appropriately dessicated but lacks the nuance to drum up anything other than the odd tense moment. The game allows you to peek into a room before opening it but then does nothing with the idea. Gone is the handheld radio that spits static whenever monsters approach despite really needing the extra level of tension not present in Licht's score.

Creature design? Again, completely surface level. Silent Hill 2 had all manner of weird monsters representing parts of James' subconscious, from the enormously phallic Pyramid Head to two pairs of women's legs connected at the hip. The man clearly had issues with women right down to the Mary/Maria thing. What does Murphy Pendleton have? Uh... prisoners? Which represent... umm... his time in prison? (Seriously, when the big prisoner guys put their arms out and do the "Come at me, bro!" move, you will laugh out loud.) The Screamers and the Weeping Bats are just generic designs. They have nothing to do with his dead son or the child molester or the prison guard he may/may not have killed. They're just sort of there.

Everything caps off with seriously lunkheaded endings that actively work to undo the character's journey. Both "good" endings shake out with the truth that Murphy wasn't responsible for killing the child molester that murdered his son OR the prison guard who tried to help him. In which case, what was the fucking point? Silent Hill exists to force you to come to terms with the things you try to hide from yourself and the people around you. Or else. It's about forcing you to take responsibility for yourself, in the most traumatic way possible. If you eliminate that, you've killed the character's entire arc and his reason for being there. You're then turned loose by the female character to... what? Spend your life on the run for a crime you didn't commit? Thematically, it doesn't fit. It would have made much more sense for Murphy to own up, go back to prison until he's cleared of assaulting the guard, and once he's out of prison, he can be truly free.

The "bad" ending has Murphy being put to death for the murder of the guard AND his son, even though the guy who raped and murdered his son had already been caught, charged, and imprisoned. He's injected, his eyes close... that's it. Cue credits. There's nothing to suggest that it's the town's influence at work. No hints of Otherworld influence. No stinger scene. Not even any music. It just sort of farts out there and that's that. Yet another wasted opportunity. I'm not even going to get into the special "surprise" ending which is neither as amusing or non-sensical at the previous ones. The only ending that works is the "Full Circle" ending where Murphy is caught in a loop and has to do the whole thing all over again or the ending you get if you fail the final scene where the female guard is forced to take your place. Those, at least, made sense.

The worst part is that all of these endings change through strictly binary choices. At a couple of points, the game stops and presents you with the option of trying to save someone or killing them/letting them die. Ultimately, your choice doesn't matter, (that would open a can of worms I don't think Vatra could handle) it just boils down to whether or not you're willing to try. The only other factor is whether or not you choose to kill the enemies you fight or simply leave them twitching and unconscious. This doesn't work for a couple of reasons. One, it flies in the face of ingrained gaming logic that says that enemies need to be killed or else they'll just get back up and keep attacking you. If it felt like the devs were trying to make a larger point about violence in gaming, that would be one thing but instead it just seems like an arbitrary choice. For another, not killing the creatures doesn't matter. They're not humans. They're not even alive. They're constructs that are (supposed to be) created from Murphy's subconscious. That means that there's no moral quandary about killing them which invalidates the idea that finishing them off is somehow "bad." Like everything else, it doesn't seem like a thought out decision but an easy way to tabulate what ending you get. Compare this to games like Silent Hill 2 or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where your ending would change based on things as esoteric as not slowing down so a character could keep pace with you or letting your gaze linger too long on pictures of some scantily clad women. It's hard not to see it as step back or a lazy design decision.

Am I being hard the game? Yes. Does it deserve it? Also, yes. It's a game full of missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential and half-assed design. If you want an idea of exactly how luckless the Silent Hill franchise has gotten, note that Downpour was meant to be one part of an entire Silent Hill themed month last March along with a Silent Hill HD Collection and a PS Vita game called Book Of Memories. Well, as it turns out, Downpour was extremely mediocre and undersold. The XBox 360 version of the HD Collection was a buggy mess that Konami REFUSES to fix and Book Of Memories was delayed until fall, presumably to be in sync with the execrable Silent Hill: Revelation which is Resident Evil movie level bad. (Not even cheesy-but-fun like the first movie. We're talking Extinction or Afterlife level.)

So, yeah, things are about as bad as they can be.

But they can get better.


Next level scary, bro. You don't even understand.

Survival horror, as a genre, has faded into the background. The best work is being done by smaller indie developers, which I think validated Yamaoka's feelings that limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, are where the scares lay. Look at Slender, for instance. Dead Space, the last man standing for big budget console survival horror, has given up and gone action. Outside of indies like Frictional Games, the field is nearly empty. It's all about mainstream multiplayer games now. Silent Hill will, in all likelihood, never reach the heights it once had.

So stop trying.

You can do what the Silent Hill movies seem to want to do and throw a bunch of potentially scary images at you with no logic or context, hope people don't notice and just milk those diminishing returns as long as you can. Or you can lower the budgets, hire on passionate, talented fans looking to tell stories in that universe and let them loose to make the scariest, darkest things they can think of. Lower your expectations and focus on quality storytelling. Build up a reputation for pants-wetting scariness and make your money from your cultish audience willing to follow you anywhere and buy anything with the Silent Hill name on it. Even if it isn't the biggest selling series in the world, make it mean something. And, for Christ's sake, get Akira Yamaoka back.

That would be the smart play. Now for the realistic one:

Developers and publishers need money... and since there's nothing about the Silent Hill premise that lends itself to space marines, giant explosions, and cover-based gunplay, they're limited on how to exploit the franchise to their best ability. Multiplayer is, according to EA anyway, a mandatory component of gaming now. Find some kind of creative way to integrate it into the franchise. They seem to have attempted that with Silent Hill: Book Of Memories but, not being a Vita owner, I'm not so much against the idea of a handheld, non-canonical four player action co-op multiplayer Silent Hill game as I am suspicious of their ability to pull it off. Vita's don't exactly have the largest install base right now so even if it does well, it's only doing well for a Vita game.

Don't make the mistake of going co-op. It's easy and fans see right through it. Look to how Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma used multiplayer and work from there. Allow other players to invade a person's world and cause havoc or act as some kind of invisible director, setting traps and enemy spawns. Think outside the box. The name Silent Hill still means something, even if it doesn't have the same meaning to kids as it does to 30-somethings like me. That should be enough to at least get you the benefit of a doubt.

It's crunch time for the franchise. Downpour was disappointing enough that there's only enough room for maybe one more game before people like me, people who have been there since day one, give the franchise up for dead. Bad movies aren't helping. Handheld co-op games aren't helping. At this point, only a "reinvention" could get enough people talking for it to matter... but for that you'll need more creative people on board then you already have. Go big or get small, just don't settle for mediocre.

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12:46 PM on 06.09.2013  

Quick Tips for Resident Evil: Revelations Raid Mode

Having spent well over twenty hours (and counting) traversing Raid Mode, I wanted to take a quick couple of minutes to pass on some tips to newcomers who might just now be trying it out in it's console/PC iteration.



What is it?
Raid Mode is a single player or two player co-op mode that pits you against the monsters of RE:R in a (usually) linear map where the goal is to make it to the end quickly. Completion time, enemies defeated, accuracy, and damage taken are the main factors in getting an S rank but there are also badges for defeating all of the enemies, taking zero damage, and attacking a level at an equal or lesser level than suggested. Getting all three badges at the same time gives you an additional badge, Trinity Bonus. Badges and higher ranks give more points which can be spent in the Store upgrading your weapons. (Your first Trinity Bonus also unlocks a new character.)



Tips for low level players:
If you don't want to take advantage of the two cheap DLC packs Capcom has released with a number of low level weapons and parts, my suggestion would be to log in and synchronize your account at ResidentEvil.Net. The site will provide you with RE Points which you can use to send items and weapons from the website to your game. The more you play, the more points you get. The first several levels can be a bit of a slog, so being able to send yourself a few more powerful weapons will make you more efficient in the early goings. Additionally, the @RE_games Twitter feed will occasionally offer Present Codes you can enter into the site for additional weapons.

Unless you've fully beaten the campaign mode on every difficulty level and gotten every SP achievement possible, you likely won't have many characters to choose from at the outset. As such, you should focus on using Jill and Parker to their best advantage.

Jill is a handgun/machine gun specialist, so finding high crit parts for the pistol and longer magazines for the machine gun should be a priority.

Parker is a shotgun specialist, so fire rate, reload rate and, most importantly, stopping power should be where you spend your money. Crowd control becomes a priority very early on. Having a nice shotty with a lot of stopping power means enemies will spend most of their time on their ass where you can easily melee them to death.

Speaking of crowd control, pulse grenades will be your best friend. Upgrade the amount you can carry first, as soon as the game allows. Grenades are a useful tool on Chasm difficulty but they do not level up as you do and, most of the way through Trench difficulty, I've yet to get an option to buy more powerful iterations. Even enemies with a weakness towards certain grenades will take dramatically less damage on Trench and Abyss difficulties. However, pulse grenades will always be able to daze foes. This is the ultimate crowd control device. It'll get you out of trouble when you're surrounded and/or open up the oozes so ridiculous damage from a fully charged melee attack.

I decided to tough it out and play Raid Mode solo for the first half of Chasm and, in retrospect, I really wish I hadn't. Solo is good for hunting badges but co-op is really where it's at if you want to S rank a stage. The game doesn't seem to scale in difficulty to having a partner so an extra body means more damage dealing and quicker completion.



My experiences playing with strangers has been almost entirely positive. The only downside is that no one appears to use voice chat, which leads to frustrating tactical situations where you'll be plugging bullets into an ooze that has crept up behind your partner and it wallops them for huge damage because you couldn't warn them. Co-op play is great but co-op play with a friend over a headset is ideal. Also, I have a feeling that participation will drop off pretty dramatically for this game in the next few months since Capcom haven't announced more stages via DLC, just extra characters.

I've played over 23 hours of Raid Mode so far and I'm only at level 25 and most of the way through the second of three difficulty levels. If you want to max out your characters for achievement hunting purposes, you're looking at probably around a fifty hour investment. The console versions of the game even have an extra long bonus map, The Ghost Ship, which has a recommended level of 50, so there's plenty of gameplay to be found in Raid Mode if you're looking to extend your RE:R experience beyond the admittedly goofy campaign. Going in, I didn't think it'd be worth my time but it's quickly become the highlight of the game. If you plan on renting it or picking it up cheap when the price drops, don't ignore it, it's actually well worth your time.

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12:41 AM on 05.13.2013  

Review: Dead Island: Riptide - ¡Viva la sangre!

Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Techland
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Dead Island is an easy series to criticize. A resolutely B level zombie game from relatively little known European developer, Techland, it only made it's way into the average gamer's radar thanks to a head turning zombie-attack-in-reverse cinematic trailer going viral. Up until that point, the only other console offering from Techland had been the middling Western shooter, Call Of Juarez. The trailer for Dead Island was a huge stroke of luck for a game that likely would have come and gone without making much of a ripple. It also raised expectations to an absurd level given the developers previous output.

Reviewers slapped it for it's graphics, it's clunky interface, a plethora of bugs, uninteresting characters, laughable dialogue and a nearly non-existent story. I even heard people complaining that the game wasn't like the trailer which boggled my mind because... how would that even work? (Does anyone think that the live action trailer for Call Of Duty: Ghosts means you're going to be able to play as an aborigine warrior? It was just a cinematic trailer, guys.) The game was carried mostly by it's melee-focused action/RPG combat. Guns and ammo were very hard to find and almost useless to anyone who wasn't playing the gun specialist character, Purna. Hitting zombies in the face with electric sledgehammers and poison katanas was a surprising amount of fun, even if the charm started to wear off by the last fourth of the game. This was enough, however, to carry the game onto being a modest hit.

I wasn't at all surprised when they announced Dead Island: Riptide last year. Careful to frame it as more of an expansion than a sequel, with a slightly lowered price point to match, it seems meant to serve as a place holder until a proper sequel can be released down the line. It features the same cast of character, with one new character who specializes in fist fighting, on a new island fighting the same zombie threat.

Most of the criticisms of the game are, in fact, pretty accurate and not much has changed for Riptide. The story is still very silly and the plot is advanced mostly through your characters being very, very dumb. There's still plenty of bugs to be found including glitchy weather effects that stop and start at random, very hinky frame rate drops when things get crowded, weird collision detection moments and a mini-map that has regressed into near uselessness whenever you're out in the forest or boating.

Techland hasn't completely ignored our pleas, though. We now have a proper reticule. Importing your character allows for a raise in your level cap to even further buff up your character. There are also additional leveling you can do in each of the weapon types, hand-to-hand, blunt, sharp, and firearms, that will increase the more you use them, meaning finding that sledgehammer when you wanted a machete doesn't mean it has to be completely useless. Co-op play scales so that your level 66 Xian can play with someone else's level 10 John with no ill effects. Something you can't even do in a snazzier, higher profile co-op game like Borderlands 2. Guns and ammo are more plentiful and once you level them up a bit you can explode heads with your shotgun like a champ no matter which character you play. They've also added Dead Zones which are separate areas ruled by a much-tougher-than-normal mini-boss. These mini-bosses all have roughly the same abilities, though, so it would have been nice if Techland put a little more effort into giving these mini-bosses some extra flavor.

As is becoming the trend, the game also introduces a number of different holdout sequences with options like electrified fences, minigun placements and environmental hazards to slow down the horde. They game also introduces mines as a grenade type for some additional defense. Unfortunately, after the first couple, it starts to feel like a chore. It doesn't help that there are never enough zombies at one time for you to feel like you're in danger. Even on single player I never lost an NPC. Siege sequences like this need stronger direction so that it feels like you're barely keeping everything together as you rescue NPC's, erect new barriers or lay down some covering fire with a minigun. Without that, they feel kind of tepid and overlong.

That said, if you liked the first game, Riptide is an ever-so-slightly more streamlined expansion of the original. The quality I like the most about it is precisely the thing that keeps it's Metacritic rating in the mid-60's. While recent games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon trade on silly 80's nostalgia, complete with ironic homophobia and sexual encounters of questionable consent, the Dead Island games are what Blood Dragon tries so hard to be: the modern video game equivalent of a grindhouse movie.

As someone who grew up on weird cult movies, the one trait that they all share is the earnestness with which they were made. It's the difference between Evil Dead and House Of 1000 Corpses. Dead Island wants very badly to be a tense, gripping action/horror game. It isn't. From Sam B's omnipresent one hit wonder "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" to the frighteningly cross- and dead-eyed woman in the makeshift hospital who drones her sad life story every time you pass her by, it lures you into it's absurdity so often that it's impossible to take it seriously.

However, just when you think the whole thing is a joke, you take a trip through some pitch black sewer or sparsely-lighted building that surprises you with some real tension. You can hear the zombies moaning and your flashlight is almost dead, so you hurl a flare ahead of you to see a small squad of zombies standing there, staring at nothing and just waiting until you get close enough for them to lurch at you. Then it's back to the comedy as you pop it's head like a grape with a shotgun blast and kick it's still teetering corpse to the ground as it's arms weave around where it's head used to be, as if asking itself "wait, it was just here a second ago..."

I'm not sure if the debt Dead Island and Riptide owe to Italian horror movies by guys like Umberto Lenzi or Ruggero Deodato (or even Lucio Fulci if we're feeling generous) are deliberate but the parallels are certainly there. Other franchises base their zombie games firmly in the early George Romero model as far as clarity of tone and the simplicity of the concept. In Italian horror, the result is the thing. Whatever it takes to shock or appall, that's what they'll do. Slow zombies? Fast zombies? Big, hulking monsters in straightjackets? Sure, throw 'em all in. Left 4 Dead has the same approach but the setting and the atmosphere is vintage Romero.

Dead Island, on the other hand, is total Eurosleaze. The severed torso special edition that the gaming commentariat got so incensed over a few months ago is straight out of something like Cannibal Ferox or one of Sergio Martino's Giallo films. They can't go nearly as far as a Fulci movie without getting slapped with an AO rating but the basic components are all there: boobs, blood, bad acting, sub par design and copious gore wrapped around a little nothing of a story. And that final scene? Straight out of something like Nightmare City.

If you've been on the fence about the Dead Island series, that's all you really need to know going in. It's purely cheap thrills and low brow fun. If you can revel in the B movie cheese of it, you'll have a blast... especially with a team of four friends and a couple of beers. Riptide, in particular, cuts the fat that weighed down the first game so that it never wears out it's welcome. If Techland continues to release Dead _____ games of roughly this length at this slightly reduced price point, I think they could really be on to something.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it's genuinely not. The slightly sleazy Euro edge to the series is what makes it stand out in a crowded field of zombie games. I hope Techland delves further into that end of the pool for it's inevitable next gen sequel. I can be moved to tears by something like Telltale's The Walking Dead and still appreciate smashing a zombie's head into paste with a giant sledgehammer in Dead Island. The game is critic-proof, really, because it does exactly what it says on the tin. So long as Techland keeps the series fresh, they can have a perennial hit on their hands. It may never win awards but it can certainly be satisfying.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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7:59 PM on 03.23.2013  

Gears Of War: Judgement - Campaign Review

This post contains spoilers!

Gears Of War is a series I'm constantly on the fence about. As much as I love the series for it's cover-based gameplay, giant setpieces, and huge suite of modes and options giving the player great value for their money, it's not a series without some deep flaws. The characters are all cartoons, right down to their thick-necked, impossibly proportioned character models and ridiculous "ooh rah" mentality. Unless you're willing to read the novelizations and comic books, there's not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on from a story perspective. It's a bunch of war movie cliches and melodramatic nonsense that telegraphs every character moment and plot twist by signal flare.

The first Gears game is, to my mind, the only one that had the right tone: it was a romp. There were serious moments, or moments we were meant to take seriously, but it was all in service of blowing shit up. It seems that, once the first game set the world on fire, the writers never quite found their footing. They had to make the narrative more and more grandiose to match the level of attention heaped upon the game and it's never really been to the series' benefit. It certainly made for some excellent setpieces but the stubborn refusal of characters to act human rubbed against ham-handed moments so incongruous to what came before that my reaction was to sputter with laughter, not get choked up.

As a sidenote: there's plenty of people who like to act as though the narrative of the Gears games are bulletproof. Why question something so resolutely stupid? Well, for the same reason I was one of the guys criticizing the storytelling issues in Mass Effect 3: if the writers want us to take their story seriously, we have to oblige them and judge it as such. If this were Bulletstorm or Vanquish, I'd let a lot of things pass because they never wanted to be anything more than a ridiculous shooter. While Gears may have started as a ridiculous shooter, it discovered ambitions along the way they could never pull off. If you just want to shoot stuff, you can pretty much stop wasting your time with this article now. It's still really good at that.

This was all supposed to change with Gears Of War: Judgement. Developers People Can Fly, those responsible for the aforementioned Bulletstorm, are solid developers picking up a very tried-and-true series. There's no pressure to reinvent it, merely give it a twist while Epic proper works on the first next-gen Gears game. It's role as a placeholder actually works in it's favor because it means they can take more chances than Gears Of War 4 can. They picked game journalist and respected author Tom Bissell to write the game, lending a little credibility to the series and hopefully moving it beyond the Random Quip Generator it had been up to that point. Based on the hushed tones other game journalists spoke of Bissell in, I figured good things were in store.

Sadly, the campaign is only a marginal success... mostly due to the unimpeachable gory action the series is known for.

The first thing I noticed when they previewed the game was the slightly tweaked character models. While still exaggerated, they seemed a little less beefy and more realistic. As a prequel, this could either be because the characters are younger or because of a commitment to a slightly less bro-ified attitude towards the series going forward. Choosing Baird and Cole as the leads was a smart choice as they were the characters who had the most personality in the original trilogy. A game where we see Baird become the increasingly bitter and sarcastic man he is in the first Gears is very much a game I'd like to play. Turns out, I'm still waiting.

People Can Fly know their way around arcade-y score-based action games and Judgement sort of smashes together the vanilla story mode and the arcade mode from the previous games into one. The idea is to collect stars through your performance. Each area has three stars to collect depending on how well your team does. Die or go DBNO (Down But Not Out) and you lose stars. Kill your enemies in various creative ways to earn Ribbons which increase your stars. Collect enough stars and you unlock bonuses including an extra couple of campaign chapters called Aftermath which are a side story to Gears 3 and the only part of the campaign that has no Declassified modifiers. It's also the best chunk of the story in the game, partly for that exact reason.

Every significant firefight in the game has an option to be "Declassified," which imposes any of a number of different battle conditions on you from limited arsenals to increased difficulty to visual impairment which will allow you to earn stars faster at increased risk. It'd be an excellent system if it didn't hamstring narrative momentum and pull you out of the game.

By interrupting you every ten or fifteen minutes by asking you to click on a big COG logo to see what the Declassified factors are for the next fight, Judgement is constantly reminding you that it's a game. I'm a little shocked that Declassified wasn't offered as an optional mode or unlocked after beating the game. The single player wouldn't have been particularly compelling anyway but at least you'd have been able to focus on the story and the flow of action unhindered. Every Declassified logo was an opportunity for me to stop for a bathroom break or a bite to eat or a "Oh, hey, I should go back and continue my Persona 3 game... I'll come back to this later."

The fragmented nature of the narrative gives added scrutiny to the story that it doesn't particularly need. In addition to much quieter, more sober iterations of Baird and Cole (not once are the words "Cole Train" uttered over the course of the campaign), your other squadmates are by-the-book cadet Sofia Hendricks and scarred, grizzled Russian-analogue Garron Paduk, who sort of becomes the game's Baird despite the presence of the actual Baird.

Paduk is far and away the best character in the game. He has a history, a point of view, motivation, a disrespect for authority, and a sharp tongue. And then there's poor Sofia. If you were thinking that a respected writer might mean a well-drawn female character in a video game... not so much. At the military tribunal, Sofia is the only one to try and pass the blame to her squadmates. Later on, it's revealed that she was schtupping an ancillary character they've been searching for, a married man and father. And at the end of the Aftermath chapter it's revealed that she moved on to sleeping with Garron and was brutally murdered off screen to attempt to add a bit of dramatic weight to the story. The Feminazis Coming To Destroy Gaming will not be amused.

The game is ostensibly about Baird's Kilo Squad trying to stop a rampaging Locust leader named Karn by dropping a missile on his head. However, Karn is a just a walking boss fight waiting to start. The real antagonist of the story is Loomis, a moustachioed avatar of myopic military arrogance. After disobeying orders and dropping a Lightmass missile on Karn's head, Loomis has Kilo Squad arrested for treason. The game itself happens in flashback. (I was hoping there'd be some element of Baird and crew as unreliable narrators but that's a bit too ambitious, I suppose.) When you Declassify a section, there's normally a bit of text about how Kilo is alleging something that runs counter to Loomis or the COG brass' intel, illustrating pretty clearly how badly the Locust were underestimated. It's an additional shade to the series I actually quite liked given how black and white the conflict has been portrayed.

By insisting on court martialing Kilo Squad in the middle of a city that's at war, with Locust literally breaking down their doors, there's no interpretation of Loomis' actions that doesn't fit the definition of cartoon villain. Regardless of Kilo's testimony, it's clear he intends to kill them for their disobedience. Between the Declassified text and putting soldiers in harm's way needlessly out of ego and single-mindedness, they spend the entire game building and building up to a reckoning for Loomis and... it all ends with Baird essentially shaking his hand and going their separate ways. No harm done.

Yeah, really, that's it. It's a moment every bit as stupid as the finale of Gears Of War 3 where they tease the idea that there's something more to the Locusts before... well, committing genocide. There's no case to be made that Loomis is just a hard man making hard choices. He's willfully doing wrong because he cannot admit that the Locust are any smarter than "animals" and because he can't see beyond hardline military doctrine. There's a moment in Aftermath where Kilo Squad comes across a statue dedicated to Loomis and I would have been fine with that as a "the real heroes never get recognition" moment if it was clear that he got the ignominious death his actions warranted.

There are action genre rules, the same as in horror. If a character is a dick in the first act, usually an officer or bureaucrat, he gets his just desserts in the third. Hopefully in a fun, ironic way that will make us cheer. Because that's what we're here for. Maybe he dies due to his own arrogance. Maybe he dies despite Kilo's best efforts to intercede, thus making them seem more heroic. Maybe he survives despite all odds and Kilo helplessly watches him leave to continue to lose the war for them, but you don't have your hero characters absolve the villain without the villain changing their ways. If you're going to buck action genre conventions, you need to make your intentions very clear as to why or else it seems as though you're wildly out of sync with the genre you're working in. Because what we got was a very unfulfilling, sour ending.

If only this were the game's only story-related problems.

The game is woefully in need or memorable setpiece fights. The only one that stands out to me is a Normandy-like beach invasion followed later by a defense of the same area, which only stands out due to how tired of a concept it still is and how it will be nakedly reproduced for multiplayer. Judgement seems to have fallen in love with wave-based hold out sequences too. There's several dotted over the course of the game which only make the absence of a proper Horde mode more curious. It also becomes a crutch they lean on by the end of the game. By keeping you penned up in one area, they don't have to generate new areas or sequences. The combat mechanics are as solid as ever but nothing stands out after you're done as being memorable as far as settings or enemy types.

Loomis isn't the only character in the game who has no arc. Character development on the whole just doesn't happen. The opportunity to see Baird and Cole start as rookies and move towards the characters we know from the main series was tantalizing yet is absent in the game itself. Baird has a couple of quips but it otherwise bland as can be. We're left to understand that any serious adjustments to his character were made between the end of Judgement and the first Gears, which is an utterly wasted opportunity.

The handling of Cole is even worse. He has none of the boisterous personality he's known for and doesn't show any by the end of the game. At one point Loomis tells him that he's been "uncharacteristically quiet" and I had to chuckle. Where's this loud Cole he's talking about? The only lines of Cole's I remember are him off-handedly reminding us of how rich he was as a thrashball star. Using his inside voice, no less. There's a case to be made that Cole needed to be a bit more grounded in reality but, at the same time, it wastes Lester Speight as a voice actor. Dude does not do "demure" well. There's a middle ground to hit with the character that the game has no interest in.

These are all things that could have been handled in a few lines of dialogue or a short cutscene. I'm not asking for the game to be based around it's characters, merely that it give us something, anything, to chew on while we play. The Gears series has always struggled in this respect. While Judgement represents an attempt to grow the series up, it's still a long way from meeting it's potential. It still has the smooth, gratifying gameplay we expect from the series but there's only so long you can coast on that. Mechanics get repetitive over time and familiarity will eventually cause people to move onto the next thing. However, if your characters and your world are compelling, that will go a long way towards extending the life of your franchise. Given how sober and ponderous and mishandled Judgement's story turned out to be, it's a lesson Epic is still learning.

Gears Of War is not a series that needs to be taken seriously. It just needs to be a well-written action game. Well-written action, contrary to being "dumb" as people assume, actually means being clever rather than high-minded. There's no Terrence Malick film hiding somewhere in the Gears Of War universe. There are series that can get away with Big Thoughts but Gears isn't one of them. All we need is solid action and to not have our intelligence insulted. They've long since mastered the former, now we just need them to start on the latter.

Rating: 7 for gameplay, 3 for story

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