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Maurice Tan's blog

11:22 AM on 06.02.2012

Goodbye Destructoid! Also sloths

It has been a crazy almost-2-years.

After joining the Dtoid community in 2007, more or less a million years ago, I suddenly found myself at gamescom 2010, writing previews for the front page. By the time gamescom was over, I was notified that my cushy university teaching one-year contract wouldn't be renewed (yay economy!), and it was time to re-evaluate what I wanted to do.

Something with games? Yes! Something more interesting than spending four years on a Ph.D in educational gaming that nobody (including myself) would care about by the time it was done? Yessss! But who needs a media psychologist foreigner who does studies on mediated behavior in the games industry? Not that many studios and publishers, apparently.

Staying busy and helping out the friends I had made at the site over the years seemed as good an occupation as any, and after Nick Chester gave me the OK to write a news post about some arcane PC space strategy sim, I just never stopped doing it.

So here we are, almost 2 years later. Things have changed. The community is always changing, new trolls come and old trolls go, new staff has been brought on board, others have left, but the spirit of the site remains intact.

It's also time for me to move on.

Starting Monday June 4, I'll be Kotaku's new European Editor of lol no. Maybe PR Manager for the Ghost Recon franchise at Ubisoft!? Nope it's not that either...

Sadly, I can't disclose exactly where I'll be going, yet, but two days is not that long of a wait. Keep an eye on Twitter if you are interested ;)

I want to thank Niero and Nick for giving me a shot, as well as the other staff that has made the site what it is today. Without you, I would never have bothered to become part of the community, and certainly never would've wanted to become an editor. Thank you for all the effort you have put into the site to date, and for keeping the balance between ridiculous stories and tl;dr journalisms.

To Jim, Conrad, Jordan, Joseph, Jross, and Dale: Days devoid of news and reviews were always better with you around in our "virtual office." Never stop.

To Tony and Holmes: Thanks for being Nintendo fanboys, or at least for being guys who are insanely passionate for things I could never care less about. I don't think we ever agreed on anything related to games or the benefits of HD, but it was always refreshing to see another perspective <3

To our volunteer reviewers: Over the past year or so, we've worked on expanding reviews for whatever we could do. Now we have reviews for things like Paradox games, weird indie stuff, space sims, PSP Minis, eShop games, and things we normally would never have been able to humanly cover. It has been a blast working with you, and I'm proud of the progress we've made as a group, as well as the individual progress you have made as writers. Now that I won't be managing you guys anymore, please make Jim's life a living hell for his Alpha Protocol review.

To the proofing team: Thanks for your patience :)

To everyone else, from contributors to hosts: You know you're awesome. Keep rocking it.

But most of all, to our community: Thanks for existing. Whatever people may say about "online friends," I can't think of any other gaming community where you can talk shit about games on the Internet, and then meet each other for the first time at PAX to continue talking shit about game as if it's the most natural thing in the world. There's something special about the way Dtoiders come from all corners of the world and all walks of life, yet share this one passion that makes us equal whenever we meet at an event or a NARP.

My only regret of the past years is that the more time I invested into writing for the frontpage, the less time I had left to interact with the community. IRC was always open, but the window would all too easily get buried beneath other windows of the perpetual 10+ things left to do. Likewise, it became harder and harder to keep up with the Cblogs. Between writing on the Cblogs and writing as an editor, I've never felt a big difference between the two, other than having higher standards to adhere to and having actual deadlines. Living in a European timezone never made L4D sessions with Dtoiders easy to start with, but the busier I became, the less I found myself doing anything with the community anymore, and that's the biggest drawback I have encountered as time progressed.

Looking back, everything I ever did for the site was simply a matter of A) helping out where help was needed or B) doing what makes sense to do. The reasoning was always "Go back to bed if you're sick, we'll take care of it" instead of "Oh boy what a great chance to show off my skills at journalizm!" It doesn't take a special person to do that, at all, but it takes a special place to make a person invest himself into a site and its people, and I'm proud to have been part of such a place.

The level of shared passion for the best hobby in the world is beyond amazing, and that's something that's evident not just in our community, but in our staff as well. Destructoid has always felt like a second family, sometimes even coming close to becoming a first one, and things like gender, job titles, race, or sexual orientation have never mattered one bit here. Also, you are all damn sexy people.

Bonus sloth!

So thanks for having me, taking the time to read my stuff, posting comments whether you agreed with something or not, and until we meet again!

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to cover as much as I can <3   read

2:28 PM on 05.26.2011

Pew Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

For new readers: I used to do a lot of "Pew Reviews" on the cblogs, and after becoming an editor it became a bit silly to post reviews on the cblogs instead of the front page. Hence why you haven't seen one in quite a while. I meant to post this earlier, but spreeing The Witcher 2 and L.A. Noire kind of destroyed my activity in the last week or so. This is not meant as an alternative review of any kind, but more as a more elaborate and different point of view on the game, as well as a place to discuss some of the game's elements in a place that is not flooded by "OMG y u no can play PC games!?" comments.

So The Witcher 2 then, a game I had such high hopes for. All the elements of a possible GOTY are in the first few hours: hard to master combat, hints of a huge and epic storyline, non-linear narrative, a different take on the western RPG genre and some great graphics and sound. Yet while I still enjoyed it enough to finish the game within two full days, it left me a bit stupified about some of the game's design choices.

Last week, I had quite a few chats with Jim about the game, discussing the things that irked us or just annoyed us (as well as things we liked). And while different things can annoy people in different amounts, we saw eye to eye on pretty much all the negatives that are there. Whether or not the good parts make you forget about the bad parts depends from person to person too; but it doesn't mean there are only good parts.

Although some people seem to disagree, the combat is a weird beast and in my opinion not for the better. First of all, you're thrown into the combat with the bare minimum of tutorial tooltip pop-ups. Which was initially fine with me, because it's a PC game for a mature audience after all; you can expect people will figure it out by themselves rather than forcing them through a silly training scenario that wouldn't fit in the game world.

However, while a few quick deaths teach you to block, evade, and deal with weaker enemies in groups lest you be overwhelmed, combat in Chapter 1 can be a pain. Part of this is excusable, as some sidequests make you go into caves filled with Nekkers (so racist!) who can rip you to shreds in seconds if you go there too early. It's an RPG, so you could say that you just shouldn't go there until you are ready.

The thing is, the game never tells you when you are ready or not. The first things you'll do after the Prologue is to upgrade your blocking skill so Geralt can actually block blows from behind. Blows that deal 200% damage, another thing the game never tells you unless you read the Sword tree description (which isn't accessible until you unlock it).

But for a strange reason, blocking costs Vigor: the same resource used for magic. Actually, in-game it feels like using Vigor to block a blow regenerates back faster than if you use it for magic, but the game never tells you that either. The result is that it becomes far too easy to be overwhelmed by groups of enemies even if you go down the pure fighter path. Vitality upgrades help Geralt become beefier, and so does armor, but pretty much all large combat encounters turn into you running around in circles when you get stuck in a group for a second or two and receive 70% HP damage.

Just having been able to block without it costing Vigor would've helped a lot in dealing with groups, something that may have been an odd remnant for the previous game's "group stance" that let you deal with groups more efficiently. Witcher 2's combat is all about one-on-one combat, and while you can disorient or disband groups with the tools at hand, in most cases you are just going to run in and hope for the best. Maybe that's a dumbass approach, but I couldn't help but do it continuously. A bomb here and there did help a lot, but maybe I needed those bombs for a potentially tougher fight, you know?

Sure, beefing up with potions before an obvious combat encounter helps. And sure, you can use bombs and traps for crowd control. But everything in the game almost screams at you to run in and be a bad-ass, so you do that and die repeatedly.

Moreover, because you die so easily if you're not playing at your best for every group encounter for the first 10-15 hours or so, you simply put skillpoints into Quen (a shield spell) so you can shrug off 3-4 hits before receiving damage and save yourself some loading of quicksaves. This in turn makes you cast Quen, enter combat, get hit, cast Quen again and repeat the process. A boss fight? Cast Quen and if you run out of Vigor when it hits you repeatedly, just run around evading patterns until Vigor regenerates. Because if you don't, you die easily and have to replay almost all sections of the boss fight again.

Simultaneously, while potions can make or break a combat encounter in Chapter 1, you are so powerful in later chapters that you almost never need them again (on the Normal difficulty at least). This in turn puts you off putting points in Alchemy. And because you need your Vigor to cast Quen and survive, the game also doesn't inspire you to put points into the other magical abilities. Normally I do like to take a caster approach in RPGs, but I also like to hack and slash things. And because hacking and slashing your way through it becomes so easy at the midway point, I never had a reason to spare points from something that would make me easier to kill and put them in some elemental damage or "confuse" spell power instead.

It's not that the combat is broken, but when you have a set amount of options at your disposal it's easy to go for those that actually help you not die instead of taking the opportunity to play around. And when the first half of a game is so brutal you end up making your character near invincible if you play it right, you've already invested those skill points into one type of character and you're not just going to put points into experimental skills when you don't know the level cap or the length of the game.

Strangely enough, Chapter 2 is a lot easier than Chapter 1 and this is where the game starts to shine. After a gratuitous few extra level-ups and a few new merchants for fancy armor, quests are better laid out, paced, and simply more intruiging and enjoyable. It didn't help that Chapter 1's forest can be a maze-like to find something without opening the map, or that you end up running back and forth a lot.

While Chapter 2 still does this with the city layout which makes you run around or check the map more often than you will actually be able to find the right door or NPC when you want to find it, the entire chapter is just more enjoyable. At least, from the perspective of choosing to support one character. Because if you chose the other, the ending of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is entirely different.

Non-linearity like this is great, and it begs for replayability. Yet one thing that makes you want to replay a game is also to enjoy the gameplay and story again. And after finishing The Witcher 2, I wasn't too keen on running around in the Chapter 1 forest for 10 hours again. Not just that, but the game's final Chapter feels rushed and doesn't tie up the story well at all. Or well, it does technically tie up some loose ends, but it makes you go "that's it?" A bit like seeing Anakin's journey to the Dark Side in the prequels, and then ending 20+ years of anticipation at the "Nooooooooooooooooo" part.

Which is a shame, because after Dragon Age II I was more than ready for a full-on epic adventure that doesn't restrict itself to one city and a couple of overused locations. After a great Chapter 2, you get a rushed Chapter 3 that feels underdeveloped and then suddenly an Epilogue and the credits.

Beside the story letting down in the end, and opening the door for a Witcher 3 years down the line, there were a few minor issues that drag down the game. The game loads procedurally for the most part, but makes you enter doors that don't always work. Sometimes a ledge can't be climbed unless you stand at the right location, even though Geralt should easily be able to climb it. You end up running back and forth over items until the "Pick up" prompt appears and stays on screen. And some scripted events can mess up a scripted quest line, but hey it's a Witcher game so I can look over little things like that.

And although the game's tutorial is pretty much non-existant, it seems to be that a "they can figure it out themselves" attitude permeates the entire game. At one point, you can choose to follow someone down a hidden path to gain entrance to a castle, or say hi to a group of soldier at the gate. If you do the latter, and didn't choose that particular group's side at the end of Witcher 1 and imported your save game, they will attack you and murder you. You of course try to outwit them and fight them all off, because it's a challenge. But even if you do, the entrance will remain closed. Not until you check the game's guide do you figure out that it's not really an option at all.

Also, some sidequests are just not worth it. I spent up to an hour to find the last Harpies nest to destroy by using a trap that a Harpy will fly up to its nest and make it explode. You need to have a few harpies around so one of them can pick up the trap/bomb. I tried all kinds of things: come back at a later time, meditate for a day to make them respawn, go to town and meditate there to make them respawn. But they just wouldn't grab that last trap. And even if they did, you do get a nice XP boost except that by that time you don't really need it anymore.

Still, when you are leveled at just the right amount for an area, The Witcher 2 is a great game. Great enough to play it throughout the night for two days straight, which is something you can't say about a lot of games (although I did do the same with DA II). Yet it's not a game that will be near the top of my top 10 list for this year.

Maybe I expected too much based on the game's first hours. But is it bad to expect a supposedly epic game to actually be epic? By the time the game ends, you are given a choice on how to deal with an enemy. And by that time, you've stopped caring. Most of all, it feels like a wasted opportunity for CD Projekt RED to blast away Western RPG conventions. Everything comes together, but it doesn't quite work as well as it should have.

And this is really the biggest letdown I suffered in the game. Some combat inbalance and other issues are things you can work around with some effort, because you play an RPG for the story. But when the story doesn't leave you satisfied when it concludes, that's another thing altogether. The game drags in places where it shouldn't, and even at 25 hours feels like it's on the short side when you consider what actually happens. That is, not very epic or not epic enough as far as I'm concerned.

In fact, if you strip away some of the sidequest filler and look at what actually happens, it feels like one disc of Lost Odyssey or something. Which can be fine in a game, and some games with confined stories can be great. But this game tempts you with a continent-wide scale of political intrigue and conspiracy, and when it's over it feels like you were missing an entire final chapter.

And what's up with developing all these major characters only to brush them aside in the final third of the game? I can understand this is Geralt's story, but characters like Dandelion, Zoltan and Iorveth are all build up to potentially have major roles in the game when only one (or two) of them end up having any "real" involvement in the final chapter. And even that is perhaps too much credit. They are just there, do some things and then you never hear from them again. Some of it might depend on your choices (Dethmold comes a bit out of the blue depending on some earlier choices for instance), but that's hardly an excuse.

If anything, The Witcher 2 would've benefitted from some user research and testing with actual players. Sure, PC gamers can be expected to be a bit more hardcore when it comes to figuring out things for themselves, but the balance of difficulty and difficulty progression just feels off to me. All the skills you need to survive at first just end up being a bit useless once you get the "Quen-attack-dodge away-recast Quen" routine under control. And while that's just one method, I doubt running around casting Igni (fire) and waiting for Vigor regeneration is much more fun. When it comes down to it, you approach a fight in terms of how much DPS you can deliver to reduce enemy HP in the most efficient way as possible, without dying yourself.

Regardless of all the issues that distracted me while playing it, I brushed off most of them and got over it. Some of you may do the same, and enjoy the game a lot. Some of you may die a few times too often early on, start playing L.A. Noire or one of the bazillion June games instead and forget where you were when you go "Oh yeah I still have to finished Witcher 2!"

In the end, I'll remember The Witcher 2 as a pretty good and fun RPG that had a lot of potential it didn't quite live up to, and left me unsatisfied. I still liked it better than Dragon Age II on the whole, even though they are really two completely different games. The latter game had better polished gameplay throughout the game while The Witcher 2 blows its mythology, politics, and fantasy world away. But they are still different beasts, and just because they are both Western RPGs doesn't mean they are that comparable. The only similarity is that both games end with openings to major events in the world, which you won't actually be a part of for at least 2 years.

Despite all the bitching about what is wrong with it, I think it's still worth checking out the game because it's beautiful and a blast to play when everything works falls into place and feels great. Which is about half the time you play it. And when it doesn't, I expect you to be able to get over it. That doesn't mean it's a perfect game, or even a 90s rated game on Metacritic if you ask me; too many issues detract from the overal experience for that. Don't think people complain about the game because they suck a it, we complain because we care about it.

But it's still a remarkable achievement that could've been a lot better, and a game that can be hard to put your finger on if you want to describe just what it is that feels "off" about it. But you have to take what is there and not what could have been. And it's one game I'll probably replay from a late Chapter 1 savegame at some point, but not any time soon.

If you really need a score to judge a game, then suffice to say I'd rate The Witcher 2 0.5 points higher than Dragon Age II. And while I criticize that game often, I didn't hate it. OMG points! Basically, this is how I feel about it:


7:29 AM on 05.10.2010

Pew Review: Alan Wake

Although there are plenty of reviews out there, it's worth looking at Alan Wake one more time in case you aren't sure if you should pick it up tomorrow. For this review, I'm going to play with a new format as well. Since I'm in the process of setting up a series of studies on the (interaction) effects of Narrative, Immersion, Presence and Identification on both gameplay and game experience, let's see how well that fits in a review.

First of all, the basics. Singleplayer only, 6 episodes that easily take 1,5 to 2 hours if you don't rush through it, it's pretty easy on Normal (i.e., not too scary in terms of survival), but it has an unlockable Nightmare difficulty which is required to 100% the collection cheevos. Oh, and you should get at least 800/1000 on a single playthrough or so.

Obviously Alan Wake's selling point and its strongest element is the narrative. The storytelling is, in my opinion, unparalleled in gaming to date. Forget Heavy Rain with its retarded story, this is how you do an interactive game. Luckily for you, you have a 360 and a PS3 by now, so you can play both! If you take apart the entire narrative for analysis, there are a number of influences that will either make you love the game, or just like it for a single playthrough. The most obvious influence is Twin Peaks: a small town, memorable inhabitants, a storyline that draws you in with its mystery, and a resulting feeling of "Get me the fuck out of this town. NOW!". While playing Alan Wake, you can feel like perhaps Remedy went all out on the Twin Peaks elements in an earlier design stage, but eventually removed some things so that game wouldn't alienate 90% of the consumers out there. Yet there are those few typical Lynch moments where you can just see the amount of love for the material and the years of trying to make it work. Luckily for Remedy, they pulled it off.

While the Twin Peaks influence is there, the storytelling itself borrows a lot from Stephen King and Lost. King, in the way that mystery leads to the supernatural in a way that is both ridiculous and believable within the still realistic world of the story. The horror is real for those involved while the outside world just goes on about its daily business, ignorant of the lurking horrors that exist. Or perhaps willingly ignorant of them? And Lost in the way that there is sometimes a giant black "smoke monster" thing that tears through the forest and makes noises all around you. Plus there is the whole "the darkness wears their face" Flocke/Esau/Man in Black thing for most of the enemies. Another way in which the Lost influence is obvious is the way every episode ends in a relatively surprising twist and a "Previously on Alan Wake" opening in the next episode.

Finally, there are plenty of Lovecraft over the place. In every episode, you can find a TV set that will show a 4 minute Twilight Zone kind of short horror story called Night Springs. Suffice to say that one of them is about a guy that ends up being impregnated with the seedlings of some Lovecraftean Old God with a number of singe quotes in its name. Awesome! A large part of the plot also seems to be lifted directly from Lovecraftean lore, but it's up to you to explore in what ways.

Suffice to say that if you love all of these things in books and TV, you will love the story in Alan Wake. If you do not like any of the things just described though, a feeling of sheer joy while playing or experiencing the game may turn to 'meh'-ness. One thing I noticed while going through reviews on Metacritic, is that there seem to be plenty of reviewers who do not really have any affinity with the material that inspired Alan Wake, and reflect it in their score or verdict about the game.

A big concern with all of this is that the story will have a ton of plot holes. Actually, there might be one or two if you look really closely. Because the format is that of a 45 minute tv show, you can expect about the same amount of narrative progression while playing through one episode. But because it is a game, and it has to be fun to play in between cutscenes (*cough Heavy Rain cough cough*), some of the plot twists may feel like they come out of the blue sometimes. That's fine with me, because after 7 years of Lost, I am down with that. If you don't like Lost, or don't have a 360, you may want to put extraordinary effort into trying to pick it apart and then whine about it on these internet blogs they have. In either case, you are dead to me. Then I will wear your face and harass your family. Moving on!

While this has been a bit of an overused word with plenty of commentary, Immersion in psychological research with respect to games can be loosely summarized as "The manner in which a player feels he is in a believable virtual world with both believable interaction between actors, and rules (cultural or other) that make up this world". If you can accept the world of Mass Effect 2, it can be highly immersive. If you don't, then you are more likely to focus on things like the core gameplay itself. But that doesn't mean it has to be a real world in any way. You can be immersed while playing Tetris for instance, or Ikaruga, or Sonic.

In Alan Wake, this process is being created by the Bright Falls area. A lot of effort has been put into the characters that make up the town and its immediate surroundings. While it is of course just a story, or a game, the setting is a realistic one. You use Energizer batteries and a flashlight, revolvers, shotguns and hunting rifles that you may find in a small mountain town where there might be bears, deer or wolfs around. While the town is mostly empty when you do get to 'freely' walk through it (at night of course), there is enough exposure to its inhabitants to make you believe that Bright Falls could be a real place. Let me put it this way: Bright Falls, WA felt as real to me as Forks, WA feels to Twilight fans. But then with 100% less sparkling.

As a location, the Bright Falls town and area make up the entire game. That means that you may encounter some areas twice, although they never feel the same. It also means that some areas that lie outside of the town take some time to get to. The game does a great job at making you feel you are actually a guy who has to walk or drive to get to places. Then again, sometimes you are at one location at one point, and then wake up somewhere entirely different. Luckily the narrative kicks in to distract you from questions like "how did I even end up here?".

While I'm not entirely sure if it is a part of Immersion, or better served as a separate element, the atmosphere in the game plays a huge part. The dark is always a threat, with enemies that can spawn behind you if you are fucking around for too long, and new enemies get introduced to keep you from feeling at ease while exploring for goodies. I recommend you play the game on Hard, as on Normal it did suffer a tiny bit from Dead Space syndrome; enemies can be scary the first few times until you figure out how to efficiently dispatch of them with a minimum of ammunition. You can also walk backwards and pick off enemies a lot, until some enemy appears behind you where you didn't look. In that regard, there are some traces of Resident Evil's tension building (i.e., where you don't look there may be a threat).

Overall, if the things mentioned in the Narrative section above intrigued you, you will be heavily immersed until the episode you are playing ends. Every episode also ends with a song, which is directly related to the plot developments or the episode itself. Even though I'm not necessarily a fan of the genre of music that was used, I noticed I just sat on the couch for a minute or two after each episode, listening to the lyrics and slowly processing what the fuck I had just witnessed. The best way I can describe the feeling is they way you feel after a great episode of Lost ends with the 'LOST' end title, after which you tend to sit and go "daaaaaamn".

Presence is basically the feeling of being IN the game. A lot of things can influence this, like the spatial elements of your surroundings. For example: I feel present in this room because I see walls, a roof, a door, the chair I'm sitting on and the desk I'm sitting behind. At the same time, perception factors into this feeling of Presence in different ways. Through tactile feedback, I know this chair and desk are here. But I only have my visual input to tell me there is actually a room with walls and a roof here. Maybe my auditory input also tells me something about it through the way sound reverberates, but for all intends and purposes, the room I am sitting in only exists in my mind through the sensory input my brain processes.

An easy way to discern Presence from Immersion in a game is to just look at a puzzle game. Tetris can make you forget about the flow of time through being immersed in it. Yet you never feel like you are inside Tetris's world. I am not the invisible cursor that controls the falling blocks. There is nothing to make me feel like I am actually present inside that world.

Other ways in which presence can be created is through the interactions with the world. Do people react to you in a realistic way, thereby establishing my being there through their responses to me? In Alan Wake, the sensory and social feedback is what drives presence. While the NPC's mostly act like NPC's in any story driven 3rd person action/adventure game (think Uncharted's interaction with Sully), they kind of respond to your being there with some scripted lines but still tend to just stand around, waiting for you to come within range before saying something relevant. Just like in Heavy Rain's mall level, you'll probably find yourself running into people or trying to jump on their head to see if they respond to it. Games are not there yet to create truly convincing NPC interaction to drive true presence, not yet.

While the social feedback from NPC's is decent, if far from perfect, Remedy plays around with your senses in the game's survival horror sections. Visual input is greatly reduced by the darkness, meaning you have to scout around with your flashlight in order to try and map the surroundings off the beaten path. If you strip down all atmosphere, the outside levels are similar to Fable. There is a clear area where you can walk, and where the level's borders are. But because there is no map, and because this area around the main path is large enough to want to explore, but not too large to get lost in, it feels a bit unfair to compare it to Fable directly.

Sound design works in making you feel ill at ease for most of the time. At some point about halfway through, you will have learned what is background noise and what indicates potential enemies, as there are different cues for them. If you don't think about it too much, it works. However, we've played enough games to know exactly where to look in terms of what sound means what. Still, it is interesting to see how sound is used to screw with your normal sense of presence as you have it in the real world. Sounds that make us feel at ease in the real world (a car honking in the background, a calm wind blowing outside) are used for calmer sections, while anything that can unnerve us if we heard it in an area in real life is used to do the same in the game.

The fact that it works to make you feel a range of emotions from calm to distress, depending on your health status and how far you are from a save point, is a testament to spending 7 years or so on making the game. If you want to nitpick though: other games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame have done the same before: twist sound and visual input to cause distress. An experiment has been done/is being done on twisting sensory input to affect feelings elicited through Presence in the Chinese Room project, for those interested.

Core Gameplay
Since it is a game, and not a series of interactive and seemingly random situations where you can make breakfast or go through a sequence of required boring actions to progress, it would be nice if the gameplay worked. Luckily, it works fine. You aim your flashlight at enemies to remove their shield, in a sense. Then you shoot them dead. Deader. Dead Again? You remove them from the game world, there. You can also focus charge your flashlight by holding the left trigger to be more effective at this, which costs energy that regenerates over time and can be instantly replenished with batteries. It feels similar to zooming in over the shoulder with LT to effectively kill enemies in, say, Gears of War. Yet it's different enough to stay fresh for a while.

Flares can be held or dropped to create a kind of shield, or if you are a dick you can drop them around some undead hick and then shoot his ass with a shotgun. Whatever works for you. Flashbangs can instantly remove a large portion of the shadow shield from larger enemies, or totally disintegrate lesser enemies. Finally the Flare Gun works like a rocket launcher with an AOE damage attack while it flies. If you play on Normal, don't be afraid to waste some shots, as you can almost finish the entire game without ever using it outside of some required sections.

A minor concern with the gameplay is that it can get repetitive. You don't want to wade through the same waves of enemies, even if they come in varied forms, for hours on end. As Jim mentioned in his review, the dodging can take a bit to get used to in terms of how long the animation lasts and at what point you are actually dodging an attack. Good thing you should only be dodging if you are failing at dispatching of groups of enemies. Then again, when a chainsaw guy runs at you and it's obvious you can't dispel his shadow 'shield' before he reaches you, many panic button presses may occur. Hell, you might even dodge him!

Any concern about the repetition can be solved in two ways though. First, there is the narrative and some expertly designed pacing to keep things interesting and varied. Second, it's best to play it one episode at a time. I played it one episode per day until the last two, which I did on a Saturday with a couple of hours break time between eps. This worked very well as you get a short recap before each episode starts, and you get some time to get into the game again instead of being dropped right in the action while you are still remembering what was going on again. The last episode is pretty long though, with a lot of combat and action. Some reviewers have complained that it got repetitive by then. I just saw it as a way to finally go all out on everything I had learned over the course of the game. A bit of a playground before the end, so to speak.

While studies on identification are not very prevalent in the body of literature when it comes to games (even though there is not really a giant body in the first place), they tend to focus on how people identify with their avatar for instance. In a study done by a group of my students in a game studies class, they found some effects for personality and avatar choice. For instance, some people like to choose an avatar in a game like Neverwinter Nights 2 that corresponds to how they perceive their actual self. Others (a majority in general) instead want an avatar that corresponds to their ideal self, although what influences their preference is dependent on personality factors (e.g., how open or closed off they are in social interaction).

As you can read, I'm not much of a writer so I don't necessarily identify with Alan Wake because of his profession. Actually, we don't learn that much about his personality at all, other than that he is mostly a typical human specimen that tries to deal with the success of his past books, a resulting dark period and the will to redeem himself. Come to think of it, I didn't really identify with any of the characters at all. Yet, they are mostly displayed in a realistic way, where "realistic" means "fitting in a Stephen King story". So if you are familiar with those, it is easy enough to kind of meta-identify with the characters through the familiarity with these types of characters and their motivations.

In theory, Identification can also work through familiar cultural and social aspects in terms of how people interact and in what ways. Since it's about a small town in Washington state, it's familiar enough for a Western player. I'd say that overall the immersive and narrative design makes up for the lack of identification with the main character, but you could criticize Alan Wake as a character if you want to (Hair Palace dude did for instance).

Well, that was a bit longer than expected. How do these elements tie together in Alan Wake, and is there more that should be analyzed separate from the current elements?

The core gameplay is fitting, and fun. But on its own, it doesn't hold up for an entire game. This is a game that is driven by the narrative though, and it succeeds in that regard. The immersion elements seem to interact with the narrative to create the best representation of a believable creepy small town in the middle of nowhere. So, the game world works and the story works as a device to not so much drive your progression, as it is there to lure you forward.

While in game, creative design with respect to Presence elements work to unnerve you and in many cases make you think twice about exploring in the dark with little ammo. Yet as an experienced gamer, you'll quickly learn when there is a danger, and when there isn't, which undermines your sense of dread. For that, there is the higher difficulty setting, as Normal mode was really too easy for a survival horror. Then again there are two or three memorable "L4D finale" sections that look like they would be hard enough to retry a couple of times on the hardest difficulty.

The weakest link seems to be identification, as it's a game about playing through Alan Wake's story, and not so much your story as a player. In that regard, it is a very disconnected experience, but at the same time similar to watching a TV show in the genre: the player is a viewer and not so much an actor in the sociological sense.

I'm still playing around with how these elements work together towards the whole of a game experience. I'll try to do it for this game and see how future game analysis will hold up, maybe a common theme will emerge by itself. Maybe not.

A strong narrative drives the progress through a highly immersion environment while the core gameplay is sufficient to keep the game varied and more than just 'interactive'. Design choices for presence help to improve the gameplay above what it is on paper, and to elicit emotional response while playing it. Interaction between narrative and immersion on one hand, and presence and core gameplay on the other, both work on separate levels to create a unique gameplay experience. Gameplay as in: a game and not an interactive series of scenes that are not really a game. Sadly, identification is lacking, but a probable direct result of using TV shows and books as inspiration, without the time or exposure to character development to really identify with the main character. To be honest, most of the side characters, while believable, are a bit stereotypical too if you are familiar with the genre material.

Sadly, that also means there is not really a way to rate it with these elements. Except in a model form of sorts. Perhaps that is the future of game reviews?

tl;dr verdict
Do you like Lost? Do you like Stephen King's better work or do you like him in general? Do you like Twin Peaks, or the idea of it if you never made time to watch all of it? Do you want insane horrors to exist in the dark, the shaping of reality and unreality slowly leading you down the mouth of madness? Then you want this game. The entire game is a love letter to those influences, and as someone who loves all of it, the attention to detail made this one of my favourite games of the year. Plus you'll probably be screaming for the DLC episodes down the line. I know I am. The main game's story itself does have an ending and if it takes 5 years or more to make a game like this, I'll gladly wait for it.

Do you not like any of those things? Then just rent it like you did Heavy Rain: to see what the big deal is. You'll probably find enough to complain about. That's ok, I recommend you go watch Date Movie or Meet the Spartans for your cerebral stimulation instead.

Do you guys think these elements cover most games, or am I overlooking an obvious element? I do tend to overlook things because of personal bias, and a preference for certain genre games, so shoot me a comment with what you think. Many researchers like the "videogame violence is a causal link for violence" people tend to show a severe disconnect between academics and how people actually play and perceive a game, so actual gamers' feedback should be a core aspect of any future academic or practical research into games.

Edit: After having finished it on Hard, I recommend you start the game on that difficulty. It feels more like the way it was perhaps intended to be. I missed a few collectibles that will make for some very tense searching around though... perhaps too much for me :)   read

7:39 AM on 04.12.2010

Pew Review: Splinter Cell: Conviction (360)

After how many years of development has this game been released? Lots of years! About as long as it's been since I've done a cblog review! So, this had better be worth the wait right? Right??

As someone who couldn’t stand the old Splinter Cells for more than 2 hours tops, I was kinda hoping that Conviction would be the action/stealth hit that I could stand. The older games we more trial & error based puzzles involving the stealthy removal of guards in levels. At some point I just grew tired of spending time on it, so I quit.

Conviction solves this problem by becoming not-Splinter Cell. Stealth is still the main draw of the game, but it has been Gears of War’d. You crouch, slide from cover to cover a la Wanted, hide in shadows to become stealthed, etc. And then there are SMG’s, Assault Rifles, really loud Shotguns and infinite ammo for your pistol. That’s right, you have infinite ammo for the pistol, which is also the most accurate, silent and useful weapon in the entire game.

Basically, Conviction is the game where Sam Fisher is just pissed off and going Bourne against whoever is opposing him. This supposedly explains why Sam doesn’t feel like taking his time and why he just wants to go from point A to point B in a level in an as efficient way as possible. Just like me! I am starting to like the game already.

This Bourne style comes back in multiple ways. First, there are some key Interrogation scenes where you get info about the story, and then totally forget about what is being said while you try to slam someone into the scenery as hard as you can. No worries: you can destroy a lot of scenery with a human body and it looks great.

Another aspect is more of a gameplay device. With every melee kill you perform (you cannot always run up to someone and melee him to death), you get the ability to mark a number of enemies and kill them all, regardless of whether they just ran behind cover or a metal truck. This leads to two big changes. One, the game’s puzzles become more skill based as you try to melee one guard, mark and execute 4 other guards, and then melee the last remaining guard to refill your mark/execute ability. This is opposed to just having to figure out yourself how you are going to clear an area like in the older games.

Another change that it results in, is that the focus is more on overt action than on stealth. You can stealthily snap someone’s neck in the dark, but once you mark and execute people while they are not the last in the room, others will notice. And if they notice, they will come for you. And if they come for you anyway, you might as well just use your ridiculously accurate pistol to shoot them all in the head in the first place!

One way to look at this is that the levels are just a playground for you to fuck around with the guards, and to take them out however you want. Stealth players can still sneak. Action fans can do their Gears of War thing, although they will get flanked and die a lot. This brings up the AI, which is at the same time great and severely retarded.

If an alarm is sounded, the AI will know your last known location and swarm it. Since you usually cannot cover all entrances to a location, this tends to lead to either a giant firefight, or death. So the AI can be competent enough to dissuade you from doing stupid things. However, the whole ‘leave a shadow image of your last known location’ can lead to ridiculous situations when guards shoot at your shadow image for a full minute while you sneak around to flank them. You would think they would be a bit smarter when dealing with a shadow image, but they are not. It works as a gameplay device because it makes them very predictable to deal with, but still..

With a half decent AI, the choice to go action or stealth, and around 10 levels or so to play through, there is a decent amount of content to play around with. One small thing makes the singleplayer campaign worthless however: the story is dumb. It’s not just ridiculous as you would expect from a Clancy story, what with secret organizations and government conspiracies and whatnot. It’s just a dumb story that you won’t care about, and that ends rather abruptly with no closure at all.

This is kinda interesting, because it looks like the script has almost nothing to do with the entire rest of the game. A lot of work obviously has gone into the level design, the models, the AI and behaviors and the “emotional design” which I’ll get back to later. The story feels like it was not really part of the game, and at no point will you care about it. It’s just there to make you go from one random level to the next.

The storytelling however, has some interesting elements. For instance, you are introduced to your creepy looking daughter in a way that explains some of the core mechanics of the stealth system. At the same time, it shows Sam as a character outside of the job. It basically does in 5 minutes what Heavy Rain tried to do in an hour or so, which was funny to see. There is also a lot of playing around with the storytelling’s more elliptical nature. Things are shown at one point, only to be seen from a different perspective when you get to play to that point in time. It works well enough, has that cool factor that sets it apart from the more average storytelling methods in other games (say, MW2) but doesn’t really reinvent anything either.

Ubisoft’s website prides itself for being the company that “designs emotion”. In Conviction, they definitely deliver. At times. Throughout the game, certain scenes that are happening right now, or happened in the past, are projected onto the game world itself. You’ve probably seen that in one of the interrogation scenes in the early videos: someone is talking about your daughter, and you see some events projected onto the wall. This works really well to keep you grounded inside of the game world and living through the character you play.

Another implementation of this is that hints and goals are projected one things that are along the way you are supposed to take, and on goals themselves (e.g., Power Generator One). It looks cool, and you won’t even feel lost since a marker effectively guides you where you need to go. More interesting is the method of projecting Sam’s feelings onto the environment during certain cutscenes. People tend to play and manipulate Sam, which makes him angry. During these scenes, you will see words like GRIEF, ANGER, BETRAYAL, REVENGE flicker and flash all over the walls and environment. It actually works really well to convey what emotions your character is feeling.

However, the bigger question is whether you should convey what your character is feeling. In this game, you are never really Sam Fisher because he is infinitely more BALLER than we could ever be. It was nice to see him react to certain news bits though, but at the same time it’s a bit of an easy way to circumvent the problem of how the player identifies with the player character. If you just tell the player, then that might come at the cost of identification since the player is just told what to think.

Aaanyway, back to the game. Long story short: it is fun to play. Once. Then you’ll probably not play it again. Which is kind of sad, since the game is only around 8-10 hours tops. Which is not worth $50-$60 at all!

Luckily, there is a really fleshed out coop mode with splitscreen and everything. Plenty of challenges to play, plenty of co-op levels (even a campaign) and probably some multiplayer modes. If you like doing these things, then Conviction might be worth a purchase. If you don’t really care for playing co-op though, or if you can’t see yourself playing co-op any time soon, then Conviction is just not worth it.

For me, it was a short game with a ridiculously stupid storyline and no conclusion whatsoever. If you want me to feel attachment to whatever I am supposed to do or save, it would be nice to get a little more than a “so he lived happily ever after” or a “too bad he died” kind of conclusion. Not that the game ends that way btw, but consider it a spoiler-less way of explaining it.

Overall I was just mildly disappointed in Conviction. The core gameplay is fun, if not perfect (but then I am not a stealth fan). It’s like what MGS4 was to MGS1. I hated MGS1 and quite enjoyed MGS4. But after Conviction, I can kind of see why MGS4 had such long cutscenes. Conviction does not have those, and as a result you basically have no story at all. Because the story is very important for a singleplayer game, especially one like Splinter Cell or MGS, it's really weird that so little attention has been paid on the script. It could have made the game great, yet now it makes it feel disjointed. Almost as if a publisher had put multiple fantastic teams on the game without really having a good creative oversight person in charge, hmmm!

There is some replayability if you want to, but I just don’t want to. In the end I mixed up enough straight action, stealth sneaking and gadget tomfoolery to have seen what the game has to offer, and that was enough for me. If you can, I’d just rent it/gamefly it. There are enough interesting ideas visible in the game to warrant a rental, but just go in not expecting much epicness. There is epicness, but it’s not worth $60. And without a same-level co-op partner, you will just not be playing this game after the first week.

Sadly, Splinter Cell: Conviction does not really live up to the hype. It is a fun ride, lets you play in a different way than you’ve probably been playing for the last 6 months or so, but is utterly forgettable.

Oh yeah, and indoor lighting looks really silly when there is no lightsource, the graphics range from nice to blehgeneric and everytime you melee someone to get the mark/execute ability, a giant flash with a loud noise makes sure you didn't miss that (which tends to look like you just got shot at or something, very annoying). It still has a better story than Heavy Rain though, but so did The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Played the game on the 360 on Normal difficulty. A Realistic mode is available which requires a lot more stealth and gadget use. And double the patience. Did not play co-op for obvious reasons. Hilary Goldstein over at IGN gave the game a 9.3 which is a bit on the high side if you factor in value for money. I'd say something in the 8 range would be fair. There is quality in the package if you care for what's inside, but most gamers will be better off just renting it.

Limited Edition preorder note: Assault Rifles are pretty much useless in the game, so don't worry about getting a LE unique Assault Rifle. It will be useless.   read

4:35 PM on 04.01.2010

Civilization V drastic race change announcements

Some new changes were announced for Civ V today:

- Automatic government change with double length revolt whenever all cities under your control have a Hospital.
- Cities receive -1 happiness and -2 culture per tile distance from an ocean.
- Double effects from Oil and Uranium deposits
- Declaring war under a Democracy Government does not lead to unhappiness when a City has a Church, Temple or Cathedral
- Marketplaces decrease Culture by 10%
- Automatic visual transport bridge from most north-western owned City from Capital City to Russian Capital City
- PAX Wonder, requires 5 Cities with a Game Studio, creates +1 happiness in every city worldwide

- Tanks in newly occupied cities with a Hospital lead to -1 population per turn
- Ability to build settlements in enemy territory without penalty
- Settlements within enemy territory gain +500% culture
- +100 gold per turn as long as Americans are in play
- Liberal media wonder: places a Cinema and TV station in every city on the continent, every city in the world from the Information Age onwards. If an enemy city does not already have a Cinema or TV station, cultural effects are -50%
- Double effects for Diamond and Gold deposits
- Random barbarians within enemy territory every 3 turns, every 2 turns during Information Age

- +100% damage against Israeli units
- Can only pillage Israeli cities, not occupy
- +50% production
- Can freely occupy any city of the Glorious Dutch Nation along a Sea Tile with the Tourist unit as long as a Road connection to an owned city exists
- Cinemas produce +100% Culture if any U-Boot exists
- After declaring war to a Nation, this Nation will never reach a Trust level above 5%
- Any Game Studio building will create +1 happiness and -10% culture, because their games look good but are pretty shitty.

- Units defending a city have a 50% chance of surrendering
- Cities on other continents get -1 happiness per 10 turns
- Railroads work at 90% speed
- -50% defense on Desert Tiles, -100% defense in cities on Desert Tiles
- Cathedral in Capital City gets a free entertainer/hunchback

- -50% Culture, no Culture effect on borders of the Glorious Dutch Nation
- Breweries create +3 happiness
- Cannot create any military units with an attack rating higher than 2

Glorious Dutch Nation
- Naval units do +100% damage against British naval units
- Banks create +50% Wealth
- Cannot build any land military units other than the Commando unit
- After Americans research Nuclear Fission, one American Missile Silo is placed in a random owned city

- +50% damage to French units
- +1 happiness in every City with a TV Station
- -80% Culture during Information Age because of chavs
- Every City on a different continent will revolt after 50 turns, -1 happiness in every owned City for every City that revolts in this way
- Eurogamer Expo Wonder: leads to 1 happiness in every city on the continent
- Always starts out on a small continent
- Cities on nearest continent or island will always have -33% happiness

Can't wait for Civ V! Maybe there are some things that Firaxis missed in the comments? Hmm...

Racist changes VIA JONATHAN ROSS   read

1:42 PM on 11.03.2008

Pew Review: My Horse And Me 2

Who needs Fallout 3 or Fable 2 or the Mirror’s Edge demo when you have glorious games like My Horse and Me 2? Not me! Let me tell you about this game. My Horse and Me 2 is pure win. What other game this holiday season brings you the joy of riding your horse and jumping it?

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle. -Winston Churchill

Gaming with Horse Power!
The core gameplay revolves around a complex but easy to understand control scheme for the hardcore player. The Left Stick moves your horse in the direction you want, that means that if you hold it to the left, you steer your horse to the left. Of course you don’t play the horse itself, silly goose. You are a rider that is on top of the horse! You can name the horse, which was called Cockbreath in my version. The left and right triggers control your throttle. There are 4 speeds, each denoted by 4 colors in the right side of your screen. A series of impeccably designed training missions guide you through the controls, which is a good thing since it can be pretty hard to use both the left stick and the triggers at the same time.

A lovely horse is always an experience.... It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words. -Beryl Markham

The main part of the game consists of finishing 8 tournaments and maintaining your horse. A tournament has three parts: Dressage, Jumping and Cross Country. Dressage puts you in a rectangular area in an exciting locale such as Béarn. You will have to walk over colored circles that form a path, in the speed that the colors coincide with. After a few of these paths, you will have to do a set of QTE’s by moving the left stick clockwise, counter-clockwise, sideways or up and down. This can be pretty challenging, but after an hour of training you get the hang of it pretty well.

Jumping requires you to follow a dotted line to hurdles and then jump over them. If you play the game on Amateur, the game will jump for you. If you play on the infinitely harder Professional difficulty, you will have to press A to jump yourself. Since I like living the risky life, I carelessly chose the Professional difficulty. Sometimes jumping over a hurdle is hard, if you approach it under a hard angle for instance. Each hurdle has a small area in front of it and you have to press the A button when it turns green. Wait too long, and it will turn red and make you fail the jump. Move while in the area, and you will fail. After some training, you’ll notice that you don’t actually have to approach it under any angle, since the game automatically corrects your angle if you just press A inside the box when it’s green. Easy!

A horse which stops dead just before a jump and thus propels its rider into a graceful arc provides a splendid excuse for general merriment. - Duke of Edinburgh

Cross country is an exciting track through a wild and rugged terrain, shaped by man for the sole purpose of equestrian elegance. In this part of a tournament, you can use the 4th and highest speed: Gallop. You will notice how fast your horse will go by the amount of speed lines that will appear in gallop. It’s fast enough to put Burnout Paradise to shame! While galloping through the course, you will have to jump the occasional hurdle too. It’s not too hard, but it’s a lot of fun to do.

Horse maintenance!
Now, your horse won’t just want to go from tournament to tournament. It has 4 status bars that you will have to manage between tournaments. You will need to ride your horse in a free riding area to keep it relaxed. During the riding, you collect stars that fill a gauge. When it’s full, your horse will be relaxed!

The other 3 status bars are caring, cleanliness and hunger. You must stroke your horse regularly and in all the right places to keep it happy. Actually, the stroking animations are spot on and really well done. It’s not easy to motion capture someone stroking a horse you know? You can also call the vet who will tell you what to look for when caring for your horse. Put a thermometer in its behind to make sure its temperature doesn’t rise above 39.5 degrees Celcius! Also feel the legs for bumps and ticks, and check the breathing rate.

A man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot. - John Steinbeck

Cleaning your horse is fun! You can spray it with water, and it will go “huuuuu, pfflflflflflf” when you spray it in the eyes. You can also brush dirt off your horse. Or use a little jackhammer thing to remove small rocks from the hoofs and then brush the hoofs. Finally you can pick up hay from the ground and put it in a wheelbarrow. You can fit 4 pieces of hay in one wheelbarrow, and there are 16 pieces of hay. After removing the filthy hay, you can fill the stable with fresh hay again. Mmmmm, smell that fresh hay smell!

The last thing you can do is feeding your horse. You will need to select grains, fruit and vegetables depending on how much work your horse has done. The game pretty much pre-selects what you have to select, but ah well. One can’t be too careful when it comes to proper horse feeding!

Horse Fun and Horse stories!
Throughout the course of completing tournaments, you unlock various Fun Games. These include racing against a storyline friend (press A and B till you win), riding a Bull (pretty hard but awesome to watch), navigating a labyrinth without Tom Cruise in it, herding foal into a gate and pushing a big ball through gates. Playing 10 Fun Games nets you 70gs while mastering each Fun Game gives you 10gs per game. Sweet!

He flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions. ~Stephen Leacock

The storyline is an epic tale of farmboy romance, making friends with Katelyn and helping your Uncle keeping his ranch by winning the final tournament. It’s not the best story ever, but it beats the one in High School Musical 3.

Horses on the Wii!
The Wii version is the same in all respects except graphics, sound and controls. Instead of using the left stick to steer, you need to twist the nunchuk and Wii remote to go left or right. This is a bit weird at first, but when you get into it, it feels a bit more like horse riding. Instead of the triggers, you use the B and Z buttons to manage your speed. To jump, you can either press A or flip the remote + nunchuk upwards like you were holding the handles. For the QTE’s, you will have to move the remote to the side or up or down. This is pretty unresponsive and kinda fails.

The graphics lack the next-gen polish of the 360 version. There is a lack of quality to the models, although the animation is the same. The grass is also less detailed in the Wii version. More importantly, there is not 5.1 on the Wii which makes horse riding a lot less fun.

Horse Conclusion!
That’s not to say that this is a perfect Horse riding simulation though. It’s obvious that Tate Interaction, a polish developer, took the FEI license and did with it what it could. The also managed some perky breast physics and bum movements. Although your character’s arms are really thin and blocky, she does ride her horse with girlish majesty. It’s just a shame that you can only customize the name, skin color, eye color and hair color of your protagonist. The same holds true for your horse: you can only choose body and tail/mane colors. Although you can customize your clothing and horse gear a lot with unlockables, it still leaves some stuff to be desired. Maybe we will get to see that in My Horse and Me 3?

O! for a horse with wings! - William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

The biggest drawback is that you do not get the achievement for finishing the game on Amateur if you finish the game on Professional. Since you get 140gs for this, it is very disappointing for the achievement whore. VERY disappointing!

Overall, it’s a solid horse riding game on the 360. The Wii controls are fun when they work, but since the QTE’s are very important in Dressage, you will fail a lot because of the unresponsiveness. It's just no Barbie Horse Adventures, but can any game really ever reach that level of horsey greatness ever again? I think not.

Check this glorious video in phone camera vision with Mumble(TM) audio since there are no trailers or official screenshots of this game at all, not even on the Atari website

Final Grade: 11/10

Interesting note: If you just keep pressing A to start the game, the game won’t select a storage device and those 5 hours you put into it late at night will all be UTTERLY GONE. For more screenshots, check this dutch site..

Stay tuned for a multigame review for two of the greatest Wii titles of 2008!   read

9:13 PM on 08.20.2008

Instant Replay: Geometry Wars 2, deeper than Braid?

Geometry Wars 2 might be a pretty new game, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less addictive than older games. It’s pretty easy to explain what makes it so addictive, but it’s harder to see through the game and find out what it really means (if anything). After Braid, which trains you to actively look into meaning instead of just consuming the gameplay, it’s worth trying the same thing with Geometry Wars 2.

Surface beauty
Let’s start with the gameplay reasons for addiction. I have to say that while I liked Geometry Wars 1, I never played it "hardcore". There was just not enough to make me keep trying it again and again, even if it was fun to play from time to time. Once you died, you had to start all over again. And after surviving for 5-10 minutes, it felt like too much effort to retry it just for the reward of a highscore that didn’t even come close to the top leaderboard scores. With Geometry Wars 2, the addition of using your friends’ highscores changes all that. When you die, it’s usually a matter of just you sucking at the game, which makes you want to try it again and not suck. Having a friend’s highscore in the top-right of the screen, taunting your inability with the game, only makes it all the worse. He’s only a million away from your highscore and you got that highscore by dying 5 times! There’s no reason you can’t beat his highscore by dying less right? And you can get back at your friends for looking at their blasted highscore for hours on end.

Even then, lots of games have leaderboards so why would it matter if this game has it? It’s basically the same, right? Well, not exactly. Usually leaderboards are full of random people you don't know, with scores that you may never beat to start with. If the game would just put the highest score on screen while you are playing it, you would probably get more demotivated than anything else. Having the closest highscore of someone from your friends list who you actually know, somehow changes the entire experience. The game may not have online multiplayer, but the highscores fulfill that role. You’re not just competing against yourself, you are competing for a place among your friends!

This is the real beauty of the game: it brings the oldschool Arcade mentality to your living room like no other XBLA/PSN game has done until now. Sure, playing an arcade-perfect port of a great arcade game from your couch is awesome. But part of the Arcade experience was having your name in the highscore list, giving you a sense of achievement even though it’s *cough* just a game. Now you're not just throwing in coins to get that higher score than your rival, you are playing against your friends while they can be playing the same thing at the same time! Without friends with insane scores, the game becomes a lot less interesting. I can live with the fact that I will never surpass Conrad Zimmerman’s 462 million score on Pacifism, but damn it if I can’t try to score at least 200 million.

To score, it doesn’t matter if you think of ways that would make more sense to do. It always ends up revolving around your skill with the dual analog sticks and the way you 'connect' with the game. After a lot of practice, you can feel yourself getting better and better. At some point, you even stop thinking about it at all and enter an almost Zen state of mind. While your brain continues to steer your hands, you are free to think about all kinds of other things. Important life questions such as: "What color is Chad’s amazing underwear today?" or "How many Korean puppy butchers has Reverend Anthony visited in his town?" What’s more, the game gives you a glimpse of a hidden meaning deep inside the gameplay mechanics.

Through the looking glass
So let’s cut away from looking at games review-style and use Braid’s method of looking past what is given to us. I’d say introspectives should be the new retrospectives in 2008!

Pacifism is the main mode that gives glimpses of hidden meaning in the game. If you are unfamiliar with Geometry Wars 2, this mode requires you to mob together groups of enemies that spawn in the corners of the field, who will always follow you around the screen. The only way to destroy them is to fly through ‘gates’, or lines that hold two explosive cores at their ends. Hit an enemy or a core and you die. You have one life. Enemies that get destroyed drop multiplier geoms (little diamond shaped things) that you need to pick up to make a decent highscore. But that’s just what it is on the surface. Beneath it all, this mode is a metaphor for life itself.

Just like you may plan your future in life, you can do so in Pacifism. It won't get you very far if your plans are rigid and if you are unable to adapt to rising situations though: everything is constantly in motion and your rigid plans of hitting 3 gates in a row 5 seconds into the future will only get you killed by hitting the wrong spot, as it has moved by the time you get there. You also can't assume everything will be set for you in the near future. Playing it conservatively means you might last a bit longer in the (game)world, but in the end it will also mean you don’t get a lot of multiplier geoms and your final score will not be sufficient. Besides, the core element of this and almost all modes is that death is inevitable; you just have to do the best you can in the time you are given. Playing it more risky could yield you more points in the short and long term, but you might make a mistake on the way and lose everything. Yet in the end, risk is something you’ll have to take. You can’t just play it safe throughout the one life you have, or you’ll always wonder what might have been if you just took that one chance.

Of course if you die in the game, you can just try again. But without taking risk and doing things that may have looked unsafe at first, you’ll never learn from your mistakes. "Why do we fall Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up" as Thomas Wayne once said. Don't be afraid of making mistakes, the game seems to tell us. And yet, even if our plans are flexible and allow for all the things we might have anticipated beforehand, accidents can always happen. Perhaps you'll plan to lure a mob of enemies to a corner filled with gates just sitting there as a perfect opportunity, but it will all be in vain if you end up in the middle of an enemy spawn. Such is life, you can't anticipate and control everything that happens around you, you can only learn from the accidental mistakes and add it to your repertoire of experience. Maybe it won't happen the next time, or you'll be a bit more careful? Maybe you just have self-destructive tendencies hidden deep within?

In another way of looking at it, killing the enemies by gates is also a metaphor for general problem solving. The problem of having enemies chase you is something that will always be there, the solution (gates) can seem far away and the race towards it can be stressful. But once you make it and solve the one problem of enemies at hand, you feel all the better for it. Yes, even if it feels pointless when you will never solve all the problems or kill all the enemies in the one life you are given. And then it's on the way to the next solution, since the enemies will never stop hunting you.

Even worse, it can sometimes look like you can kill off a lot of enemies with one gate. Such a clean solution can be appealing, but it tends to happen that a few enemies survive the planned attack and get you after all. Planning ahead to kill a lot of enemies with a few gates in a row, can once again sound like a good idea. However, in practice it just comes down to grabbing whatever gate presents itself to you at the most opportune moment and space, and going through a couple of them can kill all the enemies that were hunting you. The same is true for problem solving: an elegant solution can work in theory, if you know how to pull it off and if you have the knowledge and experience to take the risky undertaking. But it can also backfire, cornering you with problems and making a solution look out of reach, or outside a ring of enemies in this case. Scary as it is, just adapting to the situation at hand and taking whatever looks like the best solution, can make you survive the longest. To survive at all in this mode, you just have to let go of your perceived control and go with whatever opportunity presents itself to you; that perfect opportunity might never arise.

While playing Pacifism, or most modes really, you will wish for a fullscreen option to give you a grand oversight of everything that goes on in the playing field. But that's life, you don't get a full picture of all moving problems and where and when they might reach you. You can only see what is around you for the moment, until you move your ass somewhere else and perhaps shift your perspective. The game pretty much forces you to do this, especially in Waves where you can only learn to anticipate the next incoming wave of enemies by countless attempts of flying around the screen to try and figure out patterns. From one side of the screen, a Wave can seem quite harmless if you can see it spawn and fly towards some direction that can be managed. From another side, it can look lethal as hell, if a wave has spawned outside of your view and suddenly comes bearing down towards your vulnerable ship. You'll never know how hard a situation can be until you've seen it from those perspectives. It seems like it pays off to "fly around" and learn about all the possible ways to look at things, until you can figure out how it all fits together.

Finally in Pacifism but also in King, Waves and Evolved, greed plays a big factor. Since you need as many multiplier geoms as you can, you will inevitably make the mistake of risking it all for just a few more. It can pay off if you know what you’'re doing, but then it's no longer really a risk is it? Most of the time, you'll end up giving up the chance of future reward by going for a short term increase of your multiplier. Even if you could have just given up on those 10 geoms and lived to score 100+ a few seconds later. Trying to want to get them all can ruin your life in the game, learning to give up on some unreachable but tempting reward can yield you a far greater reward later on. Not only that, but you might make that highscore and feel great for having chosen the way you did. Or maybe you were just very lucky, in which case you'll be thankful for your luck in future tries where you never seem match your highscore again.

That's a bit farfetched...
One last thing to cover is multiplayer. It's a shame there are no leaderboards for multiplayer games, since it would make it all the sweeter to take a group effort to a leaderboard online, but ah well. Cooperative multiplayer is nothing more than a metaphor for Cold War economics. Yes, the Cold War.

This is because coop multiplayer is about scoring the most points as a team. Now, you might think that you could get 4 people together and lay down big plans to make them work towards a common highscore, but in practice it falls apart. Plans like that are just no fun. People would have to almost 'work' according to a preset plan, producing overt gameplay that may sound like a good idea, until it doesn't and until everyone starts to die. Opposite that, letting people just do what they want individually and hunt points according to a market system will make your team pretty efficient and most of all: your group of people will have fun while doing it. More mistakes may be made, but in the end the team on the whole will learn faster and adapt faster to whatever situation arises. In the planned scenario, the team will just continue to do the same thing over and over until it works, which is usually after the point where the team just falls apart because the individual members get fed up with the system. See? That's exactly like Cold War economics, 100%

Of course there’s also the option of collaborative group interaction to think of methods that can be more efficient than the greedy free-for-all, while staying within the borders of what is fun for the group. Maybe you can use the geom-collection skill of one teammate to give him the role of Collector, while teammates that have a good eye for anticipating where enemies will come from can be given the role of Enemy Destroyer. But that would be madness, almost implying that people would be best suited at the job they are best at, instead of just letting them greedily sort out their one life as they see fit, even if it destroys the group as a whole. Surely such a work method can't ever work?

In the end, the game is just what you make of it. Scorewhore it, or play it to chill out and gather your thoughts. I keep coming back to this game to try and dethrone someone on my friendslist, but also to see if the game shows me another hidden facet just lying in plain sight, waiting to be grasped. There’s no reason why a game like Braid should be the only thing to make gamers think about what they are playing. After all, Art imitates life right? And games are art, soooooo….

Also I am insane so disregard all of the above.

Can you think of any games that made you glimpse beyond the surface to notice something that may or may not be there?   read

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