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5:55 AM on 09.05.2013

Saints Row IV References

I found this interesting, so maybe someone else will too.

Note: Some of these references are spoilers for both Saints Row IV and the media it is referencing.  I have put the name of the referenced media first, to help try to avoid unwanted spoilers.

-From Mass Effect- Your presidential advisor Keith David is voiced by Keith David, who was also the voice of Colonel David Anderson in Mass Effect.  I guess that’s not so much a reference as a fun fact, but I digress.  The setup of the ship in SRIV is very similar to the Normandy. Also,  each ally in both games has a “loyalty mission” that can be completed to power them up.  Finally, the scene at the end of Mass Effect 2 where Shepard leaps to the ship is very reminiscent of the leap of the Protagonist in SRIV when he escapes.

-From Star Fox 64 - an ally recommends you “Do a Barrel Roll”

-From Harry Potter - The unnamed protagonist asks if catching a glowing yellow ball gives him points.

-From multiple stories of Edgar Allen Poe - A text adventure game has a section meant to depict "terror as personified by [Earth's] literary culture" containing a raven, a pendulum, a heart in the floor, and a walled off skeleton. 

-From Metal Gear Solid - There is a stealth mission where the protagonist wears an outfit very similar to Solid Snake.  Also, during the mission cardboard boxes are used to hide from guards. Finally, during the mission one guard says “This snake is 100% solid!”, except in this instance he is referring to his junk.

-From Dragon Ball Z – When Genki goes Super-Genki, he starts glowing yellow in a Super Saiyan-esque matter.  There is also a Super Saiyan hair option.

-From Mortal Kombat – Once ally Pierce’s super powers are unlocked, he is outfitted with gear that looks similar to Kung Lao's.

-From The Matrix – Once ally Ben King gets his super powers, he is outfitted in Morpheus’ outfit from The Matrix. 

Gamefront made a video of another 50 references to pop-culture found in Saints Row IV   read

3:36 PM on 08.07.2013

Mark of the Ninja Review and a Short Look at its Symbolism

Mark of the Ninja, from Klei Entertainment, features a hefty amount of symbolism. In the game, the nameless ninja protagonist receives a tattoo of a red dragon using special toxin laden tattoo ink, or sumi ink as it is referred to in Japan, which grants him supernatural powers, such as the ability to stop time when throwing bamboo darts. Whenever a new piece is added to the tattoo the ninja gains another power. 

Traditional Japanese tattoos which depict images taken from myth or stories are known as Irezumi. In Japanese culture, dragons are known as protectors, and also as a symbol of the paranormal. Dragon tattoos also signify protection, as well as being a symbol for raw power. Also, Japanese culture sees red as a color symbolizing reproduction, or birth. The red dragon tattoo could signify the ninja’s rebirth as a super powered protector of his clan. 

I have chosen to focus mainly on Japanese culture when looking at the symbolism of the tattoo because the dragon in the tattoo has three claws, signifying it as a Japanese Dragon, compared to the four or five claws of dragons in other Asian cultures. Side note: Japanese culture believes all dragons originated in Japan, and as they moved away they grew more claws. 

The power from the magical tattoo comes at a price; it is said to drive whoever receives it insane. In order to protect the world, and the clan, from a super-powered mad-man, any who are chosen for the tattoo must commit seppuku once their mission to protect the clan is complete. 

The final power-granting tattoo is of a black panther. To borrow from Western lore this time; in Pagan cultures the panther is seen as a way to help people understand darkness and death, allowing people to harness their powers. In Christianity, a black panther is said to help keep Satan, or the diabolical dragon, away; so perhaps this final tattoo is meant to help protect the ninja from the madness that gaining the final understanding of powers over death induces.

Alongside all this symbolism and history is an amazing stealth game. The Mark of the Ninja begins with the protagonist waking up to an attack on his clan. Luckily for him and his clan, he has just received the power-granting tattoo. Once he sneakily deals with the intruders, he is tasked with eliminating all remnants of the group who attacked his clan. The game is broken down into five levels, with most levels containing multiple missions. The main plot follows the tattooed ninja in his attempts to ensure the clan is safe, all culminating with a satisfying ending.

Mark of the Ninja’s character design is reminiscent of recent super hero cartoons, though in kill animations the enemies gush blood in a way more akin to Anime’s like Ninja Scroll. The game takes place in mostly 2-D, with the only exception being the 3-D backgrounds. 

The gameplay focuses on sneaking past enemies. Checkpoints are frequent, which allows for some experimentation in how to deal with a room without a harsh penalty for failing. Hand to hand combat is possible, though recklessly dangerous. When close enough to an enemy, a stealth kill using a sword can be done by hitting the buttons prompted on screen. Bodies of slain enemies need to be hidden; if another enemy comes across a body he will raise the alarm. The alarm summons all the guards in the area to help search for whoever killed their comrade.

In darkness, enemies’ line of site is depicted by a cone projecting from their faces. If under a light, the guards can see the ninja regardless of how far they are from him. Most lights can be broken with a bamboo dart. Guards also have flashlights on their machine guns, allowing for a thorough search. Hiding spots like doorways, vents, and potted plants are littered around each level. To aid in sneaking around, the area of how far a noise will travel is depicted by bubbles.

The protagonist has a sufficient arsenal consisting of both attack items, like ravenous bugs that devour a body, and distraction items, like, in a nod to another great stealth game, a cardboard box. There are four different distraction and attack items. One attack item and one distraction item can be carried during each mission. Items can be swapped before each mission, and there are also a few spots during missions that allow for items to be exchanged. 

Items are unlocked using medals obtained by accomplishing goals. Medals can also be used to unlock techniques and buffs. Buffs include things like reduced noise from running, and increased armor. Medal goals consist of things like scoring enough points, collecting back-story laden haiku’s, and completing three unique objectives in each mission. The unique objectives have a nice variety to them; ranging from going through an area without being detected, to being smelled by all the dogs in an area. A total of nine medals can be earned during each mission. 
Six different outfits can be unlocked which grant abilities or buffs during missions. One outfit increases defense and knockback, as well as making stealth kills regenerate health, but time no longer stops when throwing bamboo darts. Another eliminates the noise caused by running, and two distraction items can be carried, but at the cost of a sword and an attack item. These outfits are a nice way to change up the gameplay.

I am not usually a stealth game fan, but I thoroughly enjoyed Mark of the Ninja. The symbolism helped to make the story more fascinating to me, but the fun gameplay is what will leave a lasting impression. 


5:08 PM on 07.09.2013

Machinarium Review

         Machinarium,from developer Amanita Design, is a trippy puzzle game with ingenious head scratchers that takes place in a steam-punked Dr. Seuss world; a lovely soundtrack and quirky story round out a great game.
          There is no introduction to the whittled down story; the player starts out in a dump as a dismantled robot (who the developers later identified as Josef in a forum post; named after Josef Čapek, the inventor of the word ‘robot’).  Eventually it is revealed that some jerks are ruining everything in their path, and they must be stopped. The full details of the story aren’t revealed until near the end of the game however. What little story there is takes place in black and white scribbly cutscenes in speech or thought bubbles. Characters don’t talk so much as grumble; think adults talking in Charlie Brown, only robotier and more pleasant on the ears.    If idle for too long, thought bubbles pop up from Josef’s head showing some backstory to the quirky character.  These minor cutscenes do a surprisingly great job of giving the story and characters personality.  The reason to play Machinarium is not for its cute story and characters however, it is for the puzzles.
          The six and a half hour campaign features a myriad of unique puzzles.  The 2D Josef traverses the 3D world using classic-adventure game style point and click.  The point and click method of control works a lot better on the PC than the PS3; moving the pointer from one edge of the screen to the other using the analog stick got annoying quickly. There are set points Josef can travel to in each screen encompassing zone, and every location serves a purpose in some puzzle or another. Items found along the way are stored inside Josef. Once items are used to solve a puzzle they are taken away in a clever manner, creating a very manageable and small inventory throughout the game. 
          The enigmas range from tasking the player to illuminate panels in a Lights-Out-esque game, to figuring out how to get money to buy batteries to repower a guard’s toy friend so that he will stop blocking the way.  Figuring out what is needed to progress kept me constantly scanning each area for items and clues.
          If the puzzles are proving too difficult, a single hint is available for each area. At times this helped, but other times it showed me what I already knew, without actually showing me how to do it.  Luckily for my feeble mind, if a further hint is needed to advance a sidescrolling 2-D shooter can be completed to unlock step by step directions to solve each area.
          The sound track is an amazing blend of electronic music and soothing sounds; every note of Lumines reminiscent music is delightful.  Even when stuck on a puzzle, the relaxing soundtrack diffused any anger I felt. Just as wonderful as the music, the picturesque taupe world is beautiful.
          Machinarium’s Dr. Seuss-esque world, serene music, and thought provoking puzzles make this one of the most rewarding puzzle games I have ever played.

Note: I played the PS3 version of Machinarium   read

6:00 AM on 07.01.2013

Review: The Last of Us

     The Last of Us follows in the footsteps of every zombie cliché, while remaining fresh and entertaining throughout due to an amazing story and its beautiful development of the relationship between the two main characters.  
     The majority of the campaign takes place 20 years after an infection has ravaged mankind, killing millions and turning even more into Infected. Infected have lost all of their humanity, and they don’t think twice about ripping people apart.  You play as Joel, a survivor who does whatever it takes to stay alive; including murder.  Joel is tasked with escorting a 14 year old girl, Ellie, across the U.S.  The story in The Last of Us is amazing; it is enjoyable to just watch like a movie while someone else is playing.  The relationship between Joel and Ellie is presented and developed amazingly well through banter and wonderfully written cutscenes, and it is one of the high points of the game.  
     One flaw of the narrative for me is that it fails to create an attachment to some of the ancillary characters. Without knowing how they met or what has been going on for the past 20 years, I don’t care about Joel’s drug-dealing partner.  Referencing a history with one-liner’s does not effectively create the attachments The Last of Us desires. The story is not a happy one, and it’s incredibly disconcerting subject matter gives The Walking Dead a run for its money. The ambiguity of the ending left me unsatisfied, though some may say it is how the ending played out that left me unsatisfied, rather than the quality of it.
Enemy types consist of four different kinds of aggressive Infected, as well as bandits and other survivors who carry a wide variety of weapons.  Clicker’s  are an interesting and unique Infected who use echolocation to traverse their surroundings; making a clicking sound as they wander through the ruins of civilization.  
     The Last of Us greatly restricts ammo, encouraging stealth when facing a large group of foes.  If Joel is low on supplies the best choice might be to avoid combat altogether.  When forced to face enemies head on, the gratifying shootouts and fist fights have an appropriate amount of gore for the games depraved future; zoom-ins during combat show things like Joel smashing someone’s head against a wall, or a Clicker ripping apart someone’s face.
     To help sneak around enemies while traveling in the decaying infrastructure of America, Joel can focus his hearing to “see” enemy movements through walls.  Bricks and bottles scattered around can be chucked at enemies to momentarily stun them, allowing Joel to take them out. Enemies will flock towards any sound, and by throwing bottles and bricks Joel can lure enemies just where he wants them.  Clickers kill in one hit, so getting the jump on them is often required.  

     A crafting system allows Joel to make health packs, shivs, and explosives.  Melee weapons can also be upgraded to kill foes in one hit by attaching a blade. Crafting is done in real time, so it must be done while hidden from enemies.  Crafting supplies are supposed to be limited, but the story creates such a desire to see every room and find every note left by other survivors that I often found myself with an abundance of supplies. Pills collected along Joel’s journey are used to upgrade things like increased health or faster crafting. Collectable Weapons Parts are used to upgrade weapons at workbenches strewn around the game world. Pills and Parts are rare, and it is impossible to upgrade all of Joel’s skills or weapons on the first playthrough.  A  New Game+ mode allows players to carry over their stats and upgrades from a previous playthrough.
     Joel doesn’t start out with much firepower, but by the end of the game he has an impressive arsenal.  Weapons include generic favorites like shotguns, pistols, bows, and rifles.  Nail bombs, Molotov cocktails, and smoke bombs make for an impressive explosives cache; while shivs, machetes, pipes, and boards enhance Joel’s hand to hand power.  The weapon sway while aiming is disabling at first, and even when the stability is upgraded using Pills it is still difficult to deal with.  
     Allies will help in battle, shooting at enemies with infinite bullets.  Joel cannot phase through allies, which can hinder escapes in frantic shootouts.  Allies can’t be killed by bullets or explosives, and they cannot be seen by enemies if Joel remains undetected. Allies can be grabbed and killed by enemies in shootouts however, requiring Joel to take down the offending adversary before it lands the killing blow.  During stealth sequences, while Joel is undetected, allies will at times run from cover to cover in direct view of the enemies, destroying the sense of dread and impossible odds the game tries to impose.
     The Last of Us is a great delineation of a man and a girl bonding in a desolate world.  Minor flaws in its narrative don’t detract much from the engrossing story, and the stealth-based combat is fun enough to remain entertaining for the entire 14 hour campaign. Everyone should play it, or at least watch someone else play it.


11:29 AM on 04.09.2013

Another Bioshock Infinite Review

I know anyone who cares has probably already read all the Bioshock Infinite reviews that they are interested in reading, But screw it, I write reviews to become a better writer, not because anyone cares. Anyway, here's another review.

Bioshock Infinite from Irrational Games is a beautiful first person shooter that draws the player in and does not let go for 12 hours. The immaculate art style, passionate voice acting, and the incredible level of detail provide a backdrop for the most thought provoking game I have ever played.

The start of the game is straightforward; the year is 1912, and you play as Booker Dewitt. In order to pay off a debt, Booker must take a girl, Elizabeth, from Columbia, a floating city in the sky. From there things start to get complicated, but everything makes sense once you have delved deep enough into the lore of Bioshock Infinite. The story provokes thoughts on philosophy, racism, big corporations, the idea of choice (in real life and in games), war, and more; it is something everyone should experience first-hand.

The art style is immaculate; every part of the city of Columbia is detailed to a demandingly engrossing level. I spent a large amount of time just looking around at the splendor. From statues of the United States founding fathers, to artwork hung on walls of mansions, to gardens, to just watching clouds below while floating along in a city in the sky; everything is picturesque. The exceptional beauty of everything in Columbia invokes an immersion level few forms of media have ever achieved. Everything is voiced, including hidden recordings that contain some backstory. The voice acting is superb; the emotions of the actors shine through their characters and pervade the mind.

At times, Booker uses a skyhook to zip along skylines (rails connecting parts of Columbia) in order to travel around the city. Skyhooking around is fun, but at times I had a hard time locating enemies or my destination while I was grinding along the rails. Bioshock Infinite’s combat doesn't reinvent the FPS genre (it is the same combat style from previous Bioshock’s), but is entertaining. The left trigger is ‘magic’, granted by drinking Vigors, and the right trigger is shoot. Enemies die with a generous amount of blood and gore. The horrified reaction from Elizabeth at the brutality of melee kills does a nice job reminding the player that slamming a weapon into someone’s face is horrendous.

There are eight Vigors to choose from; fiery grenades, bolts of electricity, Possession, Charge, Bucking Bronco (which levitates enemies), Undertow (which drags enemies towards Booker using a water-rope), Return to Sender (which reflects projectiles), and Murder of Crows (which summons a flock of crows to eat away at enemies). Most abilities can also be used to create traps. Casting two Vigors in succession will combine their effects into a more devastating attack. For instance, Murder of Crows plus a fiery grenade equals flaming crows.

Booker can only carry two weapons at a time, but he can carry ammo for his entire arsenal. This encouraged me to utilize all the weapons I could find, switching once I ran out of ammo. The guns can be upgraded with abilities like enhanced damage or reduced recoil. Pressing the left analog stick will zoom in on enemies through the scope of the weapon, but the reticle already turns red whenever a gun is aimed at an enemy, so there is no real advantage to using the scope of any weapons (besides the sniper rifle with its enhanced scope).

The gameplay is not the most innovative in the world, but it remains fun for the entirety of the game. The real reason to play Bioshock Infinite is the intriguing story and beautiful art direction, which do a remarkable job keeping the awesomeness going all game long.


5:39 AM on 03.18.2013

Tomb Raider Review

The reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, aptly called Tomb Raider, is an excellent example of an action movie in video game form. Every appealing aspect of the action genre is present; Explosions, Bloody fights, Explosions, powerful weapons, a Thrilling story, and still more Explosions. The third person combat is inviting to new players, while at the same time offering some depth for the more experienced player.
You play as Lara Croft, daughter of famed archaeologist Richard Croft. You start on a ship searching for the legendary Sun God, Himiko, and her kingdom, Yamatai, in the Dragon’s Triangle (a Bermuda triangle clone). Legend says that Himiko has mythical powers that allow her to control the weather. Perhaps adding to the myth, Lara’s boat quickly pulls a Lost and gets destroyed by a storm, stranding Lara and the surviving crew on an unknown island. The main story is interesting, and it moves the action along nicely. There are also collectible GPS tags, relics, and journal entries which provide some history about the crew and the island.
The story is made more impactful by the Amazing voice acting; Camilla Luddington does a fantastic job as the voice of Lara Croft. Everything is voiced, including the collectible journal entries. The graphics are also exceptional, even in today’s world of superb video game graphics. Liquids (whether they be blood or rain) will freckle the screen, adding an immersive quality to many scenes.
One of the main themes throughout Tomb Raider is the idea of survival. Lara will do whatever it takes to ensure both her and her friends survive and escape the island; even when what is required might make her sick with guilt. To aid in her survival, Lara’s ‘survival instinct’ power scans an area, and highlights enemies, loot, climbable walls, and hints on how to solve puzzles. The highlights are taken away once Lara moves, but as long as she stays stationary, you are able to easily track highlighted enemies, allowing you to find the most opportune time to strike. The cover system in Tomb Raider is near the final evolution of cover systems in video games. Lara automatically takes cover whenever she walks up to a spot she can hide behind; simple and easy. It is nearly perfect, but at times it was difficult to find cover while running away from enemies. There are few optional tombs to raid which require you to solve easy puzzles, and in reward the location of all of the collectibles in the area will be displayed on the map.

Lara earns survival points (known as experience points in all other games) by killing enemies, foraging for food, and looting animals she has killed. Once enough survival points have been accumulated, you will be able to choose from 24 different upgrades, split into three categories; survival skills, combat skills, and hunter skills. The abilities range from increased survival points earned, to new melee options, to increased ammo capacity.
There are four weapons that Lara picks up along the way; a machine gun, a pistol, a bow, and a shotgun. You can upgrade the weapons using salvage, which is obtained by looting enemies and searching crates. All of the weapons have the same basic upgrade options; such as reduced recoil, increased damage, and increased magazine size. Weapons also have unique upgrades. For example the bow can be upgraded to shoot through armor.
There is a multiplayer option Shoved in as well, allowing up to eight people to fight each other. Tomb Raider features the basic deathmatch and team deathmatch modes seen in other games, as well as two team based modes; Cry for Help, and Rescue. Cry for Help and Rescue are both three round matches, alternating between who are the Survivors (the crew from the ship) and who are the Solarii (the native islanders).
The objective in Cry for Help is for the Survivors to activate radio towers by standing near them for a set amount of time. The Solarii’s objective is to kill 20 survivors before the radios are activated. The Solarii have a Huge advantage, as the survivors are required to clump up to complete their objective, and killing 20 people who are constantly clumped up at a pre-determined spot is very easy.
In Rescue, the Survivors must gather medical supplies and bring them back to their base. The Solarii’s objective is the same as in Cry for Help; kill 20 survivors before they complete their objective. In this mode, the survivors don’t die once their HP is gone; they fall to the ground wounded, while retaining the ability to use a pistol. The Survivors can be revived by a teammate, denying the Solarii a kill. This gives the survivors a Huge advantage, as they basically have to be Killed Two Times. The Survivors can be executed by hitting them with melee attacks, but getting close to a person shooting a pistol at you is fairly hard.
There is also a leveling system in the multiplayer, which makes the first few matches infuriating. There are upgrades to increase health, to regenerate health faster, to take less bullet damage, and many more abilities that are great, once you get to a high enough level. When you are first starting out, having less HP than an enemy can be enraging.
Ignoring the multiplayer (as all but the most devout fans of the combat should do), Tomb Raider is a near perfect example of what video games should be; Bloody fun steeped in guilt, astonishing graphics, great voice acting, and a story that moves everything along pleasantly.

NOTE: I played the 360 version of Tomb Raider   read

7:13 AM on 02.11.2013

Horror Story: Horror Games as a Training Sim for Pyschosis

Horror games and I have a weird and strained relationship. Action horror games are a little easier, since the bullet firing covering covers most other noises. I have struggled with mental illness for more than half of my life. I have major depressive disorder presenting with psychotic symptoms, which is a fancy way to say I’m unreasonably sad and I hallucinate sometimes. I have both auditory and visual hallucinations, but the auditory ones have been more prevalent. I don’t hallucinate often, but it happens more than I would like.

My first hallucination was of a black goblin creature, kind of like Gollum, if his entire body was pitch black and he had no eyes. It was scampering up my walls to my ceiling, where it started talking to me. I do not remember what it said, but I do remember it scared the shit out of me. Since then, the hallucinations have fluctuated, but they always seem to hang around.

Videogames have always been a way to escape for me. Time roleplaying as Cloud is time spent not worrying about my problems. When I am having trouble handling my emotions in real life, it’s soothing to be able to easily have total control over a character. Mental issues have greatly impeded my way, and I think videogames have helped me to deal with that.

Horror games where the terrifying moments come from somebody bashing through a wall or window, like Resident Evil 2, don’t really scare me at all. They are startling, but that adrenaline rush wears off quickly. Besides, being surprised is far less terrifying then a creature on the ceiling talking at me (I say talking at me as opposed to talking with me because I didn't say much, and I don't think it was interested in listening to what I had to say anyway)

In games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent where the character is descending into madness, it is hard to know what sounds are in the game and what sounds are in my head, and even harder to differentiate between real sounds and hallucinations from the in-game characters perspective. Another good example of my struggles with what is real is F.E.A.R 3. There is a child crying somewhere off-screen at certain points. That child cried the entire game, or I exaggerated the sound with my brain; I’m still not really sure which. These games show me characters who survive terrifying hallucinations, letting me know it can be done.

Horror games where the character hallucinates, or there are chilling off screen sounds, offer a unique opportunity. Hallucinating, whether the sounds are in the game or not, while in a safe environment without any real world consequences gives me a chance to practice being crazy. Confronting the hallucinations helps me to control and cope with them. The more often you hear something that isn't there whispering into your ear, the less scary it gets.

Through years of therapy, medications, and even ECT, the hallucinations have stuck around. Thankfully, my ability to cope with them, due in part to my practice with horror games, has increased tremendously.   read

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