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Project Zomboid: a zombie apocalypse browser game


Mar 28
// Joseph Leray
[Update: Seems we got this one a bit wrong, originally reporting that the game would be an MMORPG. But according to the game's developer, that's not the case. Indie Stone's Chris Simpson explains that Project Zomboid is "pri...
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New games from Amanita: Osada, Botanicula, Samorost 3


Mar 27
// Joseph Leray
After the release of Machinarium in 2009, Czech developer Amanita Design have been pretty quiet. Sure, they're bringing Machinarium to the PlayStation Network after adding it and Samorost 2 to Wolfire Games' Hu...
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The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character


Mar 26
// Joseph Leray
I'm calling it here: 2011 is the year of the cephalopod. DePaul University already brought us Octodad ("Loving father. Caring husband. Secret octopus."), and Dakko Dakko's The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character...
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A thing of beauty: Plus Kareha's Aegis papercraft


Mar 25
// Joseph Leray
If you still haven't played one of three available versions of Persona 3, you may not see what all the fuss over this Aegis figure is about, but the beauty of a socially maladroit android who shoots bullets out of her fi...
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BioWare writer defends romance options in Dragon Age II


Mar 24
// Joseph Leray
When I interviewed David Gaider for a series of Dragon Age II-related previews, he seemed a charming, soft spoken, and intelligent writer with a passion for role-playing games. Imagine my surprise, then, to see the bespectacl...

Review: Dragon Age II

Mar 22 // Joseph Leray
Dragon Age II (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC) Developer: BioWare Publisher: Electronic Arts Released: March 8, 2011 MSRP: $59.99 Hawke-as-political-assassin is a fun role to play, undoubtedly, but Dragon Age II's scope is narrow -- without a Blight from which Thedas needs saving, Hawke needs an excuse to kill people and professional ne'er-do-well is as good a choice as any.  Given its frame narrative -- you play the story as told by Varric, a dwarven merchant being interrogated by a Chantry seeker -- DAII seems obsessed with player choice even while it stifles it at most major plot points. The dialogue in the game is notably heavy on phrases like, “I don’t really have a choice, do I?” -- a fourth-wall-breaking question for any game protagonist. There’s the temptation to interpret Hawke’s trials as one version of events that no one in Thedas seems clear on, to imagine that there is an externally “true” version of Hawke that may or may have done the things I did, but Dragon Age II never feels cheap or disingenuous. Abrupt and unfocused are better adjectives, but I never felt like I’d been lied to or manipulated. And despite the frame narrative and the premise -- Hawke’s mysterious rise to power -- she is rarely the agent of change in Kirkwall. She is simply in the right place at the right time and knows how to stab people until they explode, a useful skill in a town beset by religious fanaticism, terrorism, minority oppression, poverty, racism, and xenophobia. Lead writer David Gaider treats his subjects with the respect they deserve, giving Hawke the freedom to be as hard-nosed or relativistic as she needs, a useful outlet for my own helpless liberalism. While Gaider tips his hand in a few situations, Hawke is generally free to make her own choices, most often in response to -- as opposed to as the agent of -- change in her city. But because she doesn’t drive the narrative forward, the player is left to fill in her motivations. In Origins, finding a reason to act was easy -- because if you didn’t, everyone would die -- but DAII demands a more actively engaged role-player, and the payoff is generous indeed. Hawke’s companions have their own lives and motivations and generally act independently of our hero. Each companion is relatively well-drawn, and Hawke is often left with the unenviable task of picking up the pieces and protecting her friends from their foibles and pitfalls. The companion quests are by far the most engaging of the game, in terms of both quest structure and their contribution to that character’s growth or the overall narrative. Merrill’s is particularly harrowing, the result of which is an act that, more than any other in Dragon Age II, will define my experience with it; Aveline’s, on the other hand, is heart-warming in equal measure. It is unfortunate, then, that the game doesn’t allow for more interaction. The extensive back-and-forth conversations that so richly complimented Origins are only available during specific quests, the party’s camp having been replaced by individual houses and apartments scattered throughout Kirkwall. Fewer opportunities for interaction means that relationships are less subtle, less nuanced -- companions are drawn to overblown extremes in order to push their sub-plot forward. And that’s too bad: Hawke’s companions are weak, frail people with obvious moral blind spots and their own ways of coping with their lives in Kirkwall, and they are a joy to talk to. That I often sought out chances to excoriate Anders or protect Merrill are credit to David Gaider’s characterization and the role-playing he encourages; that I wasn’t allowed to do so is a black spot on Dragon Age II.  The series excels in the small moments of its games, and DAII is no different, but it’s a genuine disappointment -- stemming from moments of great joy -- that there aren’t more of them. Collateral damage includes the game’s romancing mechanics -- whether by design or the system’s own opacity, I accidentally broke up with Isabella and was locked out of pursuing other relationships or the option of trying to re-seduce her. Marian Hawke is apparently a prude. A corollary to the game’s basic interaction system is the friendship-rivalry dichotomy, the mechanic by which different characters respond to Hawke’s decisions. No one ever says that Hawke’s decision to, say, help a mage is immoral, but such an act would enrage Fenris and make Anders happy. Companions accumulate points on a sliding scale, unlocking dialogue options, quests, and abilities along the way. The system works well, generally, but rival is a misnomer -- even if you disagree with a companion, high rivalry scores open abilities and inspire loyalties just as effectively as high friendship scores. There are moments of genuine concern and kinship, even among Hawke’s so-called rivals. I was afraid that I’d never be able to do anything to push my companions away, that any animosity would just be funneled into rivalry points, but I’m glad to report that, with a little experimentation, I managed to get Anders, Isabella, and Fenris to abandon Hawke. Walking through Kirkwall and its environs -- the central area of Dragon Age II both geographically and narratively -- is a mixed affair. The environments are relatively bland and narrow to begin with, and BioWare’s decision to re-use assets for ostensibly different locations only reinforces the issue. I don’t mind spending the whole game in Kirkwall -- it gives Dragon Age II a familiar, intimate feel diametrically opposed to the “epic” quality of most role-playing games -- but the town is unfortunately static. There are few people to talk to, and fewer of them give you quests or valuable information. Not only did things get a little stale after sixty hours, but it undermines the potential of the frame narrative: the three-year time jumps that pepper the story ring false when Kirkwall never changes. On the other hand, simply hanging out in Kirkwall is the best way to learn about your companions -- the conversations they have in town are well-written and interesting, respond to recent plot developments, and never repeat themselves. I was also cat-called by some roustabouts at the dock, once. Dragon Age II’s ensemble cast -- complemented by evocative character designs that blow Origins' out of the water -- does much to mitigate its narrative problems, but there’s no denying that the game has serious structural and pacing issues: Act I is too long, Act III is too short, and Act II feels like the climax of the game but is largely tangential to the main plot. Nevertheless, the game is remarkably good at hiding its disparate narrative threads in the nooks and crannies of Kirkwall -- you never know which sidequests will provide relevant plot information or story beats, or tie together two other loose ends. Dragon Age II tends to drag in the beginning and speed up later, but the way Hawke weeds out information and learns about Kirkwall and its culture feels organic. And while the game clearly sets itself up for a third installment, it answers enough questions about Hawke’s life and its consequences to be satisfying, despite it's abrupt conclusion. And what a life it is! And what bloody, bloody consequences it bears -- Hawke and her friends rack up quite the body count in a decade of assassinations, two wars, and dozens of attempts on her own life. Despite Hawke’s efforts to be non-violent, there’s a certain allure of the combat -- its pace, its visual rewards, the way it empowers players the way Origins never could. Which is to say: pumping up your cunning stat in Origins doesn’t really re-create what it’s like to unleash a perfectly tuned party onto a group of ill-fated thugs in its sequel. The statistical gears and cogs that move the combat in Origins haven’t changed very much per se, but the animations have been overhauled to such an extent that DAII feels noticeably faster and more hectic. Each movement or attack feels more responsive, and each class' "closing attacks" -- designed to move in close to an enemy -- eliminate the trodding, shuffling combat of Origins. The result is that -- given that Kirkwall seems largely indifferent to her -- players only really get a sense of Hawke's power because it's constantly reinforced through combat. By and large, though, I played Dragon Age II the same way I did Origins: by pausing frequently to issue orders to my mages while my rogues and tanks followed a set of painstakingly algebraic tactics -- if-then statements designed to maim and dismember. The tactics system is more robust this time, with more sophisticated parameters and more slots to work with. The branching skill trees open up more interesting abilities earlier in the game, as opposed to the more restricted skill lines of Origins -- no more spending ability points on useless skills just to get down the line. To boot, each class is varied enough to compensate for most builds and play styles -- some abilities, like Rush or Archer's Lance, need to be micro-managed while others, such as Backstab, can be easily automated. Like the story, though, the game’s combat leaves much potential untapped -- rogues no longer have access to traps, and because combat abilities are only available during combat mages can no longer lay down defensive glyphs. Dragon Age II -- especially on the Hard difficulty, which I recommend -- demands smart, tactical play but impedes it at every turn. The camera is given much less freedom than it had in Origins, which makes laying down precise area-of-effect spells and picking strategic targets difficult, and your companions don’t hold positions like they should.  For better or worse, Dragon Age II focuses less on positioning than its predecessor, as new enemies spawn mid battle, making it easy to get swarmed. Crowd control -- large spells, threat generation, and debilitating status effects -- are the paths to success in DAII. It’s somewhat of a change from Origins, but even after sixty hours I enjoyed tinkering with my builds and experimenting with my tactical choices. It helps that DAII is exponentially better balanced than its forebears. Archers do more damage, the entropy school of magic is stronger, and ranged classes aren’t so frail anymore. Difficulty spikes are unfortunate hangers-on from Origins, but they’re less prevalent and less drastic. And, finally, DAII does a better job of drip-feeding decent equipment, but most of it is wasted: companion armor cannot be replaced, only upgraded. I'm sure this particular quirk was designed to keep each companion feeling like his own character, but I miss the flexibility. The trade-off -- and I'm not sure it's a fair one -- is that players now have enough disposable income to buy gear that plays to their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses. As a general rule, Dragon Age II gets better the more you play it – the story comes together, the combat becomes more intricate, and the quests become more interesting. A few bugs – two glitched minor quests, a bug in Merrill’s dialogue, and couple missing textures – notwithstanding, Dragon Age II is a remarkable game for the way it juxtaposes its flashes of brilliance with some baffling decisions. It’s a deeply flawed game, to be sure, wasting a wellspring of potential for no discernible reason, but one that should be played for being unafraid to show people at their weakest and most vicious. If the metric of a good game is that I keep coming back to it despite its faults, Dragon Age II certainly qualifies.
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Marian Hawke -- refugee of Lothering, Champion of Kirkwall -- is a liar, a thief, and a murderer, a political sellsword for the powerbrokers of the Free Marches. Most Kirkwallers assume she is a lesbian after a brief affair w...

Keep your friends close: character interaction in Dragon Age II

Feb 28 // Joseph Leray
But when viewed mechanically, games like Origins also espouse a type of cynical exploitation that's hard to shake. Positive character interaction is incentivized with extra skills and abilities, and Origins' comes dangerously close to suggesting that kindness is a way to manipulate people. Even more detrimental, perhaps, was Origins' gifting mechanic -- even the gravest offenses to your friends could be patched up with a bottle of booze or a nice necklace. Again, the shortfalls of Origins character interaction system are largely contingent on the player, but the potential for those choices to get whitewashed -- because Origins is at its best when the Warden is consistently gaining approval, character interactions never seem significant. When the the stakes aren't high enough to make failure meaningful, it's a little too easy to sleepwalk through the Warden's budding relationships with his companions. And that's part of what worries me about Dragon Age II's new friendship-rivalry mechanic. "What we're trying to do is torpedo the concept of 'negative,'" says Mike Laidlaw, the lead designer for the game, in a recent interview. Instead, "you either gain friendship or you gain rivalry." Friendship is a pretty straightforward concept, but rivalry is accrued by disagreeing with or antagonizing your companions. "If you're consistently saying, 'No, I disagree with the things that drive you,' you become their rival and they gain boosts, and content opens up as a direct result of that," Laidlaw explains. As in Origins, companions that are friendly toward Hawke, the sequel's protagonist, are rewarded with boosted stats and unique abilities. In Dragon Age II, though, rivals are similarly rewarded with their own place in the skill tree. "The two are actually both valid: they open up content, you can have romances with your rival and they do provide those different abilities," Laidlaw asserts. The friendship-rivalry dichotomy, with both ends equally incentivized, was designed to keep players from disengaging with the narrative in favor of manipulating their stats through approval bonuses. "It doesn't encourage you to act nicey-nicey if you don't want to," notes Laidlaw. "There's a valid path either way.  "And I like that a lot -- it's honesty [in role-playing]. And it is being able to have a consistent relationship instead of saying, 'Well, they're going to leave me [if I disagree with them], but I like them as my healer,'" he continues. "And I think it makes Dragon Age II a stronger experience over all." I am worried, though, that the friendship-rivalry mechanic strips some of the tension out of Dragon Age II's character relationships. On the one hand, players are given the chance to role-play freely -- without the temptation of character boosts sitting at the "nice" end of the spectrum, players can react as they see fit, without fear of locking themselves out of new abilities and features. And the value of that freedom shouldn't be understated. On the other, BioWare has provided players a safety net -- they'll be rewarded with extra abilities no matter how they treat their companions. I only got to spend a short time with an early build of Dragon Age II so my fears are speculative. But I'm disappointed by what the rivalry mechanic might imply: that Hawke can treat her companions however she wants, that she could force them into compromising moral situations without their being able to lash out. It's not that Hawke cannot or should not be spiteful, aggressive, or amoral, but there should be repercussions for her behavior. One of the pleasures of the genre is being able to weigh choices; but I'm worried that in the Free Marches, all choices about Hawke's relationship with her friends weigh the same. 
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Unlike games like Fable and BioWare's own Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins deftly sidestepped framing its character interaction systems as a set of moral binaries. It's a subtle shift: actions aren't judged in absolutes, but ...

Dragon Age II's frame narrative explained

Feb 25 // Joseph Leray
"We knew what story we wanted to tell for DA II, but we were talking about how we wanted to tell it," says David Gaider, the lead writer on the project. "Oftentimes, we do what's called 'the walk and talk': you're in every step that the player takes, talking to every person that the player talks to. A lot of RPGs do that, and we do it all the time. . . . But it also limits the types of stories you can tell." Instead of the "walk and talk," Gaider and the rest of the DA II team settled on a more novelistic approach. "[The game] takes place over a time span where you're looking at the most significant moments of a character or story," he notes. "And [videogame developers] don't do that." The idea of a frame narrative isn't new at all -- lead designer Mike Laidlaw mentions The Usual Suspects as an example of one, and Gaider points out that The Canterbury Tales featured over a dozen tightly-nestled stories -- "but doing it in an RPG, at least for us, it's nothing we've tried before," says Gaider. Given Dragon Age II's structure, it's unsurprising that the game is more character-driven than its predecessor, Origins, trading Ferelden macro-politics for one person's rise to power. The Blight is no longer a threat to Thedas, and Hawke lives -- if not happily, then at least peacefully -- in Kirkwall for some time. (That's not to say, though, that Hawke is apolitical -- don't forget that the Chantry is after her.) Even the surface-level changes suggest a strong narrative shift: Hawke is given a name, a voice, and a backstory -- a far cry from Origins' Build-A-Bear Warden. "Where I think Dragon Age II kind of stands out is that we don't do it with the impetus of the world needing to be saved again," Laidlaw asserts. "There isn't necessarily the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head, where failure will result in everyone's death. "And so, instead of 'The World Needs to be Saved!,' the world is going to change and I'm curious as to how," he continues. "I'm drawn forward through a different kind of impetus all the way through the story. But your character is still growing; your character is moving from boy to man, but more importantly, moving from refugee to Champion.  "And that creates a really interesting growth arc because it's driven in a different way than we normally would do." That growth arc seems particularly suited to role-playing games, whose mechanics prioritize a steady growth of power and skills. Laidlaw even describes Dragon Age II as a bildungsroman, a literary structure that charts the protagonist's moral and psychological growth through time. "In terms of the character's growth, what I think we do very clearly is establish what maturity means," Laidlaw states. "What is the mature version of the character you're currently playing?"  While Gaider and Laidlaw were excited about creating a lofty, ambitious narrative structure for DA II, the execution presented a unique challenge: how to fit the ten defining years of Hawke's life into one game. "A videogame is a really big story," Gaider explains. "You fit a lot of stuff into the amount of time you spend in a game." The solution: Varric, who is telling the story, will skip over years of events in order to hit the next hallmark of Hawke's life.  The time leaps were "just different enough that it added something interesting in the mix," says Gaider. "Especially building relationships with followers over the years, and seeing the consequences for your actions more immediately than waiting for the epilogue at the end of the game." Laidlaw takes a slightly different approach to the missing segments: "The key is, if you're going to take away years of content . . . and move to the next interesting bit -- the moments that really help define how you become the Champion -- what we want to do is make sure there's a payoff for that." Laidlaw describes that payoff as a chance to re-discover Kirkwall each time. "It's a new game," he says. "It gives you that [sense of discovery] multiple times. And what it really does is let you see that you made certain choices and how things played out."  On the other hand, it's a shame that some elements of DA II stay static, despite the time shifts. Art director Matt Goldman tells me, for example, that Hawke won't age during the ten-year period that the game covers: "From a storytelling aspect, the other characters change [and] upgrade around you. The game is about wish fulfillment and player choice, so we didn't want to change around the player character against your whims." The breaks also create distance between the player and Hawke. After the first time jump in the game, a rune salesman greets Hawke as an old friend, even though the player has never seen him before. It's a subtle reminder that Hawke and the player aren't the same character, and that, in the background, Varric is the one in charge.  I try to see how deep down the rabbit hole goes, but Gaider cuts me off at the pass. "You don't want to get too nebulous, though, to the point that the player suspects that everything he is doing is all a lie. That's going too far," he declares. "You want to give the player enough agency that they feel that they are the one telling the tale, not Varric."  Eventually, though, Gaider concedes my point just a bit, admitting that the player's choices reflect back to Varric's story: "I think it's fair to say that you're the puppet master . . . it's a different type of interactivity. Is it the same as feeling like you're directly in that character's shoes? I think it's just as legitimate. It is role-playing. It has the potential of having more impact."
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Very little of what BioWare has said about the upcoming Dragon Age II gives the impression of forward movement. In a Q&A session at BioWare's Edmonton studios, producer Mark Darrah explained that Dragon Age II isn't "a br...

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Bits and booze: The short story of Robotube and Gaijin


Feb 25
// Joseph Leray
When I try to get in touch with Jason Cirillo, founder of Robotube Games, he's in line trying to buy a bento box, somewhere in New York City. He's starving and needs to eat, so I try again later. This time, he's stepping onto...

The old school: Dragon Age II and its influences

Feb 24 // Joseph Leray
"I think [Dragon Age II] sidesteps what I see as almost like traditions. Traditional weak points of the classic RPG are ... they're daunting. High barrier to entry. They're hard to get into," he says. BioWare's own player-tracking statistics tell a similar tale: a significant portion of Origins players had their own mystifying "other" moments, dropping the game after only an hour.  "They weren't even getting an Achievement," Laidlaw continues. The team was tempted to chalk those dropped players up to rentals, but the stats made it clear that people simply dropped the game. Those stats had a dramatic effect on Laidlaw and his team, prompting them to totally re-evaluate how Dragon Age II fits into the auspices of classic role playing. "So our goal with 2, I think, is to strip away a lot of that barrier to entry to let you ease into the game," says Laidlaw. It is Laidlaw's hope that players will be able to gradually immerse themselves in the Dungeons and Dragons-based mechanics through a set of increasingly-complex stages. Deciding, for example, that "I'm pretty sure I'd like to play as a rogue who is male," is the first step, says Laidlaw. "And then I kind of ease into, 'Ok, cool, these are my starting abilities and do I want to go more archery, do I want to dual-wield, or do I want to ... use more bombs and poisons?" Laidlaw explains that the team was adamant about not moving away from it's Gygax-inspired bedrock, preferring to streamline the tutorial and user interface instead. While dense, opaque games like Ultima steered BioWare toward gentler entry points, games like Planescape: Torment guided writer David Gaider as he started drawing out the story and characters of Dragon Age II. Unlike Origins, whose protagonist is malleable blank slate, DAII features Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, complete with his own backstory and character arc. (Hawke's appearance and gender are entirely player-defined, though.) "As soon as you provide a voiced player, you're stepping on the player's toes a little bit," Gaider explains. "On the other hand, there are RPGs that can do that: Planescape:Torment, I think, was one of the best RPGs of all time." "You didn't have to decide who the Nameless One was, but that didn't stop you from feeling agency with regard to [his] choices and feeling like you were in charge of [his] life," Gaider continues. "We're not giving you a totally defined character, nor are we saying you can be anybody." Gaider's measured approach to his inspirations find a corollary from the design team. "You can tell where we came from, you absolutely can see the roots, but we want our own direction, our own feel and our own style," Laidlaw says. Those roots clearly include the lineage of older BioWare RPGs, particularly Baldur's Gate. The notion that Origins was somehow supposed to be a revitalization of Baldur's Gate still permeates, whether by design or through the imprecise alchemy of the internet, most discussions about the game. With Dragon Age II poised to "give the franchise its own identity," as Laidlaw puts it, there exists the sense that old-school RPGs may be a dying breed, vestigial organs of the modern game. Baldur's Gate had a lot to offer in the creation of Origins, and Laidlaw doesn't shy away from the comparisons. "Those gorgeous, gorgeous bitmaps that were essentially the levels were hand-drawn and ... that gave it its own character," he says. "So, with Dragon Age: Origins, we definitely tried to modernize that feel, right? It's got a lot of the aspects that made Baldur's Gate stand out and really work, but at the same time we wanted to move it in it's own direction, hence 'spiritual successor' and not 'direct successor.'"  Laidlaw is straightforward in his appreciation for the game, but also in his reservations about aping the style. "But I think that, you know, probably the best way to play a Baldur's Gate-style game is actually to go play those games. Because what they are is -- I hesistate to say it -- a time capsule," he concludes. "They are games that are consistent with the tech, platform, and time -- everything that was developed in Baldur's Gate at that time was done so within a context of what was capable.  "I think there would be a danger in trying to recreate that exactly. ... As a developer, you would feel like [you are] deliberately ignoring advances in user interface, advances in control schemes to try and get that retro feel and I'm not sure it would stand as strong because it's taking something out of context." Laidlaw is, of course, optimistic about his approach: "And I think it's paying off because it makes the game feel internally consistent with a game made in 2010."
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"I've been playing RPGs since ... Ultima 2 territory, way back on my PC," says Mike Laidlaw, lead designer on BioWare's Dragon Age series. "And it's like, I remember, actually Ultima 3 did this: 'Choose your gender: male, fem...

Building a better RPG: hands on Dragon Age II's intro

Feb 23 // Joseph Leray
"You get to an RPG and fire it up, and ... it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game," he says. To keep people from checking out early, Laidlaw's team totally reinvigorated Dragon Age II's intro. The result is so seamless and subtle that players might not even realize they're being taught to play the game. Sure, there are some button prompts here or there, but the way Dragon Age II introduces its combat and narrative are remarkably elegant. The game opens with with a cinematic. Varric, a dwarf, is being interrogated by Cassandra, a templar, the mage-police of Dragon Age. She is inquiring (rather rudely) after the whereabouts and identity of "the Champion." Varric grudgingly acquiesces and begins an account of the life of Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall.  Varric's retelling of Hawke's rise to power is the overall narrative structure, and his perspective is crucial in this introductory phase. "Part of the glorious advantage of the frame narrative is [that] Varric kind of lies about you. We establish how people perceive the Champion. This figure is of some import to the world." Since most people believe the Champion to be incredibly powerful, she is, at least for a while. Hawke's story begins as she and her family try to escape the destruction of Lothering by the Darkspawn horde. As the flee their burning home, they become surrounded by Darkspawn: the game gives a few quick prompts about how to use the basic skills of the class the player has chosen and the slaughter begins. The enemies are plentiful, Hawke cannot die, and the colorful and vibrant art give players a visual excuse to experiment liberally. After a short spurt of brutality, the game introduces slightly more powerful and slightly more complex abilities, and the violence begins anew. This process repeats itself a few more times before, without realizing it, Hawke has become impossibly powerful. This gives players a chance to learn the ins and outs of combat -- and with Hawke's infinite health and gentle guidance from the game, players can learn at their own pace. Thankfully, there's an abundance of willing Darkspawn. When Hawke rips an ogre apart with her bare hands and summons a dragon, Cassandra, quite literally, calls bullshit. "We give the player a chance to just bust out for a minute. Here you go ... go nuts," explains Laidlaw. He's clearly excited by the prospect and pantomines Hawke as a mage: "Cone of Cold, Fireball, rain fire down on your foes. That's cool, that's the mage experience in terms of combat." This perception of the Champion is so pervasive that most people aren't even sure what she looks like -- players won't customize their Hawke's appearance until after the intro, when Varric cuts out the mythologizing and sticks to the facts. No need to mess with dozens of facial sliders until players have already had fun with the game. At this point, Varric begins his story in earnest. Assuming you're now comfortable with basic combat, Dragon Age II dials back the theatrics but starts introducing complexity -- Hawke has access to her basic starting abilities, but she and her companions start accruing experience points, gold, and inventory. "You don't need to go to the tactics screen first, you don't need to pick how much dex you have first. It's part of the organic learning process," says Laidlaw. Tactics and statistics -- so the logic goes -- only make sense after a player has an in-game analogue for them. It's only after you've leveled up once that you start gaining new abilities and distributing stats, which dovetails nicely with Dragon Age II's new user interface -- each stat comes with a description of the properties it governs and damage is automatically calculated based on stat distribution and equipment, making it easy for users to see exactly how their choices affect the game. "So I think what that'll do is help us and help players keep engaged a little smoother without us having to say, 'Oh well, let's get rid of stats!'" Laidlaw continues. "We didn't want to do that; we wanted to present them in a better way." BioWare's stat-tracking tools presented them with a problem, but Dragon Age II's cohesion of user interface, narrative structure, and tutorial solved it.
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BioWare's made no secret of the fact that they keep a running tab of player metrics, and Dragon Age: Origins was no different. They learned a few neat tidbits -- "more people played warriors than rogues or mages" ex...

Art nouveau: Dragon Age II skirts its generic label

Feb 22 // Joseph Leray
And change it did: where Ferelden was filled with dour-looking peasants and muddy, muddled Darkspawn, the Free Marches seem a vibrant, thriving, sun-kissed locale. The character designs are sharper and more varied, the forests more verdant, the town of Kirkwall soaring -- thanks to DAII's new camera -- to new heights. I recently interviewed Goldman, and it was evident that his thesis -- not an uncommon one -- is that his art should complement Dragon Age II's focus on tight combat and character interaction, even while the story suggests darker and harsher themes. One of the most straightforward examples of aligning art and game design Goldman could give me was the character Fenris, a former Tevinter slave with lyrium scars from years of torture. "That guy, he required a lot of going back and forth between design and art. I think we redesigned that guy ten times." Fenris' character design is a function of his backstory as well as his role in battle, both of which changed well into development, sending Goldman's team "back to the drawing board ... trying to blend those elements into something that's interesting and unique from everybody else in the world." "I don't think you need to show a drill going through a baby's eyeball to tell a terrible story," he says to me. "It doesn't need to be black and dripping with blood -- that's pretty Halloween." He uses Halo as an another example: "If you read the backstory and the literature from that game, that is one grim hellhole of a universe. That's not what the game plays like." He adds that Halo doesn't look like that, either. In a recent Q and A session at BioWare's Edmonton studios, lead designer Mike Laidlaw explained that, for his team, "style is measurable." After picking a slew of visual inspirations -- other games, art, film, wood cuts -- the art team studied the color palettes and saturation levels that most appealed to them. Their first task was to set out to replicate those styles in Dragon Age II. The second step of Dragon Age II's visual overhaul was to create what Goldman describes as "picture-making opportunities." Taking particular cues from The Triumph of Death -- a 16th century oil painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Flemish artist -- and Akira Kurosawa's classic 1957 samurai film, Throne of Blood, Goldman's team studied each artist's use of planar composition and negative space to frame each scene in a way that focuses on character interaction. The result is a brighter, more colorful game, with a focus on a dramatic presentation layer. "Just because you're treating dark themes doesn't mean it has to be physically dark and that you can't see where you're going," explains Goldman, setting his game apart from the current trend in videogame visuals. "By setting the story in a place that has better picture-making opportunities, you can use the framing ... to evoke a mood." This new focus on framing manifests itself in battle: the corollary to producer Mark Darrah's oft-criticized mantra -- "When you push a button, something awesome happens!" -- is that the art direction makes sure it looks cool, too. But the shift towards careful composition also dovetails with the game's new dialog wheel. Gone, perhaps, are the days of picking dialog options from a list and watching your Warden, emotionless, as he plummets into the uncanny valley. (Ever the diplomat, David Gaider describes the Warden as a "posed, silent spectator.") Instead, Laidlaw describes a conversation between the player-character, Hawke, and Avalene, a Kirkwallian guard. "You go to the base, she's in a spot where she's at home, she's comfortable. We can have her leaning on desks, moving around, and interacting with stuff and a scene can play out. Not just, 'Hello, I am talking at you,' but a scene, a moment that occurs." In a different interview, writer David Gaider explains to me that, "Ultimately, what we're telling is the story of Thedas, the world of Dragon Age." And that world includes a myriad of races and cultures that need visual representation. Goldman's art direction again saves the day, circling back around to world-building, something BioWare does well. Players' abandon their suspension of disbelief when they realize, for example, that "everyone's using the same hand model. So the women kind of look like burly man-dudes because they've got rail-thin hips and these huge hands." Lazy art exposes the artificial framework that games like Dragon Age try to hide. "We have four different races in our game. That's an opportunity for us to explore different standards of beauty," Goldman explains to me. "So, in the case of the basic race-sex setup, each of them has to be attractive in their own right to somebody. I think that was really important and that took a lot of work." Having strong character designs not only keep each world internally consistent, but they fulfill the ambassadorial role that Goldman assigns to art design. Morrigan was the most successfully marketed character from Origins: "Her appearance is really unique. She had the best face, the best lip sync. And to [keep] that really good design on all of our characters, we made certain decisions -- to limit the amount of changes you could to do them." Goldman is modest about his team's role in Dragon Age II: "Art is ... the ambassador, you could say. People see it. And they can react to that with no other information than just a screenshot. ... But, that said, if the design is crummy, your product is not going to sell. I'm basically saying that, you know, art is important, but we have our place. You can't just sell something on the basis of art alone. Probably." He might be selling himself short, though, as it's clear that his team's work is crucial for presenting everything from the combat to the game's new narrative structure as effectively as possible. After some prodding, he comes around: "The art is important, especially for an RPG, because the art helps draw the player in and make it a more immersive story-telling experience ... If the art is aligned with the design intent ... then it makes the design much stronger."
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The videogames industry has a complex: it relies, perhaps too much, on the concept of genre, but being "generic" is an offense of grave proportions. Being "innovative" is, naturally, antithetical to being generic. According t...

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Dragon Age II dev on DLC: add-in instead of add-on


Dec 20
// Joseph Leray
"Oh, look, we've got a 91 Metacritic," begins Dragon Age II lead designer Mike Laidlaw. "But it's not 100, so there's got to be room to improve." Over the life of Dragon Age: Origins, Laidlaw's BioWare Edmonton team...
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Dragon Age designer on fan response: 'It's a compliment'


Dec 20
// Joseph Leray
It's not uncommon for fans of upcoming games to go on media blackouts -- actively avoiding screenshots, trailers, and previews so as not to spoil their initial impressions. So far, that hasn't been difficult with Dragon Age I...

Bloody, gritty, sexy: hands on Dragon Age II

Dec 20 // Joseph Leray
Dragon Age II begins with an interrogation: Varric -- dwarven crossbowman, entrepeneur, ne'er-do-well -- is being rough handled by Cassandra, a seeker looking for information on the Champion of Kirkwall. This Champion is Hawke, an attractive female rogue with red hair and emerald eyes, and Varric supposedly knows where she is. The dwarf begins his testimony: Hawke and her family are fleeing the destruction of Lothering but find themselves cornered by darkspawn. They cut down the darkspawn lines easily, stopping only to make grandiloquent speeches to reaffirm their determination. Hawke and her sister slaughter wave after wave of darkspawn and easily butcher an ogre before unleashing a dragon to destroy the rest of the hor-- "Bullshit!" Cassandra rudely interrupts. "Tell me what really happened." Varric restarts his story. Better killing through holistic design Varric's hyperbolic account of Hawke's escape from Lothering functions in two ways -- it serves as the game's tutorial while establishing Dragon Age II's narrative conceit. In Varric's version of events Hawke is decked out in impressive armor, carrying what look like a pair of bat'leth. She and her sister face three distinct waves of darkspawn, and their respective skills get more impressive after each wave. Neither Hawke nor her brother, Bethany, can die during the introduction, and there are plenty of enemies to go around -- the result is a safe arena for new players to explore different skills and familiarize themselves with the basics of tactical pausing, camera operation, and hot-keyed abilities. You'll notice, perhaps, that the fundamentals of combat in Dragon Age II haven't changed much vis-a-vis their Origins counterparts. Mark Darrah's go-to comment on the combat has been that, "When you push a button, something awesome happens." But Darrah needs clarification: the presentation layer has changed, but the mechanics haven't. Dragon Age II is still a stat-driven, Dungeons and Dragons-based game -- replete with inventory screens, if-then tactical Rube Goldberg machines, and little numbers coming out of heads. Standard melee attacks trigger a little bit faster -- thanks in large part to smoother animations -- and while it looks like a kind of combo, there's nothing mathematically different than four straight melee attacks from Origins. However, the combat has changed somewhat: BioWare has added a layer of spatial awareness to each character's skillset, which the team call "closing attacks." David Gaider, lead writer for Dragon Age II, describes the problems they wanted to fix with closing attacks:  The combat was fun, but, it wasn't responsive. Especially, I think what was bothersome was how slow it was, in terms of you doing something and finally executing it. For instance, the Shield Bash. When you SB somebody, you knock them down, and if you then try to attack them while they were down, by the time it sort of lined up the animation and you shuffled into place and finally swang your weapon ... Q: They were back up? A: They were back up. Dual-wielding rogues and warriors will find these types of movement-based skills especially useful, allowing them to close down gaps between enemies and allies. Another similarly useful addition  is that characters can now turn and attack in the same animation. The result in a more kinetic and spatial experience built on top of Dragon Age's RPG foundations. Complimented by the colorful new art direction, Dragon Age II's combat offers the visual rewards of an action game but without being mindless or mealy-mouthed.  That's not to say that some other writers at the event didn't try to Dynasty Warriors their way through the first few hours of the game, but they saw the game over screen a lot more often than I did. The Quartermaster If you look at Dragon Age II's combat and still can't contain your apoplexy, take a deep breath and open your character menus. Marvel at how clean and intuitive they are, spend a minute experimenting with your equipment, and watch as the game automatically derives your damage-per-second. With the power of math behind you, I'm sure you'll find the strength to admit that there isn't much hack-and-slashing going on. Perhaps the truly hardcore like doing their own calculations, but Dragon Age II is full of small design changes that make the user-experience a lot smoother and clearer, including (perhaps most importantly) an overhauled skill tree. Several familiar abilities make the cut from Origins, but the new focus on spatial relationships calls for new skills to take advantage of them. The new skills -- in conjunction with melee options for ranged attackers -- make, say, a rogue archer build useful for the first time. There are also warrior skills that, for example, get stronger when your tank is surrounded by enemies. It's obvious that BioWare took time looking at different builds and playing to their strengths. I also particularly like the new skill trees because they're so much more flexible than the Origins tables. Very few of the skills have prerequisites, and you can choose to spend points improving your useful skills -- make them faster, or cost less -- instead of wasting them on skills that don't fit into your build or play style.  The last major improvement in user experience includes crafting -- instead of collecting individual ingredients, Hawke has access to resource deposits that any craftsman in Kirkwall can use. Natural resources -- elfroot patches, lyrium veins -- can be found in the caves and hills surrounding Kirkwall, which gives players an extra incentive to explore and complete quests that they might've otherwise ignored.  In medias res What I particularly like about Varric's introduction of the game is the neat way that it locks his perception into the gameplay -- Varric already knows that Hawke is the Champion, and it makes sense that he would present her as a devastating warrior. It's convenient that being a devastating warrior is a nice, safe way to introduce complex ideas to new players without scaring them off. "We give the player a chance to just bust out for a minute," Laidlaw told me. "Here you go; here's two minutes, go nuts. Cone of Cold, Fireball, rain fire down on your foes. That's cool, that's the mage experience in terms of combat." But the frame narrative -- the hoity-toity name for "a story within a story" -- does more than set up a tutorial. It sets up a certain amount of narrative distance and flexibility that isn't possible in what writer David Gaider calls "walk and talk" RPGs: "You're in every step that the player takes, talking to every person that the player talks to." Gaider continues, "And, I mean, that's cool. A lot of RPGs do that. But ... it also limits the types of stories you can tell." Gaider described a more novelistic approach to Dragon Age II, with Varric serving as unreliable narrator, playing fast and loose with chronology. Varric glosses over Hawke's first year in Kirkwall, for example -- it's simply not important to him. These moments create a certain amount of distance between the player and Hawke as player-character: Hawke greets players as old friends even though the player has never seen them; supporting characters develop their own nuanced relationships with Hawke that the player is left to parse. The result is two fold: relationships feel organic and natural because they aren't saddled by long, overblown exposition; and Kirkwall feels immediately more reactive to Hawke's presence. Instead of a text box or an epilogue detailing the consequences of your choices, the extended timeframe gives Hawke enough time to see them first-hand. When one of your followers loses a loved one, you see it in her body language and her dialogue with Hawke, not forty hours later. Dragon Age II manifests the "show, do not tell" adage of storytelling. I mentioned earlier that I only played about four hours of Dragon Age II -- I only experienced one timequake -- but a bit of hard thinking leads me to believe that the benefits of the frame narrative are bountiful indeed. Keeping the narrative locally focused but chronologically expansive allows BioWare to limit the number of active quests. Gone are the doldrums of constantly shuffling between Denerim and Orzammar for this or that fetch quest -- BioWare promises a focused narrative with an equally focused gameplay arc. Dragon Age II is refined, polished, and clean, the result of a unified vision focused on reaping the intangible benefits of tactical planning and deep thinking -- it simply feels good to see your team cinematically executing your vision. The same compulsion I felt to buy Awakenings is at work in Dragon Age II: namely, I get a deistic kick out of tinkering, experimenting, and setting my creation loose. And the Dragon Age franchise -- with its labyrinthine systems and mechanics -- simply enables me to do so better than any game in the past several years.
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"Dragon Age II is not a brand new game; It's a better, more-refined version of Dragon Age: Origins," explained executive producer Mark Darrah during a recent press event at BioWare's Edmonton studio. Darrah's take on Dra...

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Dragon Age II dev diary addresses fan complaints (kinda)


Dec 10
// Joseph Leray
BioWare have been keeping details about Dragon Age II close to the chest, sparking the worst kind of tortured speculation seen this side of arsenic-based life-forms: "Dragon Age II is a hack-and-slash" is the new "...

Review: Pro Evolution Soccer 2011

Dec 06 // Joseph Leray
Pro Evolution Soccer 2011/Winning Eleven 2011 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC) Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo Publisher: Konami Released:October 20, 2010 (EU)October 22, 2010 (UK)October 23, 2010 (NA) MSRP: $59.99 PES 2011 is a game in conflict: the same mechanics that mark it as a crucial (albeit incremental) contribution to the sports sim genre undermine it at every turn, revealing cracks in the fundamental design of the game. But first, the obvious problems with the game: it's unintuitive and unresponsive. Players feel sluggish with respect to your input, the character animations don't accurately reflect or react to the game's collision detection, and passes and shots fly off at angles incongruent with pesky things like physics, center of mass, or human physiology. In short, PES 2011 does a terrible job of convincing gamers that their inputs have discernible on-screen results -- there's no visual feedback to speak of.   And yet, it can be a very fluid, beautiful, and exciting game. Because PES 2011's passing assistance is relatively loose compared to other soccer sims, passing into space is remarkably effective -- think more German counter-attacks, and less Spanish tiki-taka.   Learning to play PES 2011 is less about becoming a smarter or more technically savvy player, but is an exercise in massaging and noodling the engine, learning its ticks and adapting accordingly. The input lag is noticeable, and I hated playing the game until I learned how and when to compensate for it. I've come to enjoy the system, but the barriers to entry are high. Technical issues like physics and animation aside, player AI is another of PES 2011's, uh ... quirks. The defensive AI is good at blocking passing lanes and sweeping up loose balls, but not at tackling. Similarly, when the player is defending, pressing the tackling button is more a suggestion than a command.   The offensive AI is in a similar quandary -- unlike most soccer sims, there isn't a button dedicated to sending attacking players on penetrating runs. So players have to rely on the game's own AI to make plays instead of dictating the run of play themselves. The rub: the AI is fundamentally flawed for all but the best footballers in the game. Each player obviously has a rating, and higher-rated players are governed by better AI than lower-rated ones. This might seem intuitive -- better players are smarter players, right? -- but it exposes a misunderstanding on Konami's part about how real soccer players develop. Even the most bush-league no-names languishing in the world's third and fourth divisions know better than to stand around, or to stand offsides. Now, when those AI routines do kick in, they do so beautifully, but you'll find your offense stifled too often by off-the-ball players. (That is, unless you only play as Real Madrid, Manchester United, or A.C. Milan. Welcome to PES 2011's online community!) Luckily for PES 2011, many of the game's bad design choices are don't hinder the game's strengths: "Master League," Pro Evo's version of the now-standard manager mode, is, quite simply, the best of its kind I've played in a soccer sim. It's intuitive, accessible, and functional. Master League is in-depth without being opaque, and customizable without being overwhelming. Players can control every aspect of a team's growth -- recruiting, youth teams, different training regimens -- and dig into different coaching schemes, formations, and offensive and defensive strategies. Granted, this sounds like standard fare for sport sims, but I've never played a soccer game in which those types of changes translate so fully into in-engine matches. You can, for example, set up a series of if/then statements in the coaching screen that will, in theory, send your fullbacks on deep runs down the wings if you're losing after 70 minutes of play. When these player-created routines begin, they're noticeable and dramatic, and they do much to mitigate the AI foibles I mentioned earlier. PES 2011 is full of these interlocking mechanics that bridge the gap between the managerial responsibilities of "Master League" and the matches you'll be playing (or simming, if you so choose). The formations and schema you choose affect player happiness, which can impact them on the transfer market. Win games, and your scouts will have an easier time signing good players. Again, this type of functionality should be industry-standard by now, but the fact remains that PES 2011 houses a highly responsive set of systems -- "Master League" is a pleasure and the possibilities are legion, all bundled with an easy-to-use drag-and-drop user interface. My only complaint is that, despite all of your preparation and tweaking, PES 2011 often strips control from you and makes its own tactical changes during matches. It seems to me that this undermines not only your hard work, but also the design goals of something like "Master League." This annoyance is mitigated by the fact that the computer's changes are generally pretty smart. Konami scored a coup when it secured the rights to use the UEFA Europa and Champions Leagues in Pro Evo, and the synergy of European professional soccer lends itself well to "Master League" -- each game matters because domestic play determines your Europa berth, which can translate into a Champions League appearance, etc. Each season feeds off the one before it, and each game feeds off the choices you make as a club manager. Sure, much of Pro Evo's appeal rests on the back of the Champions League, but Konami has successfully leveraged that appeal, working it into every aspect of PES 2011. The game's "Become a Legend" mode, conversely, only exacerbates the engine's problems without the macro-managing of "Master League" to mitigate them. The idea behind "Legend" isn't a new one: control one player through his career, managing his growth until he obtains international super-stardom. Growth is governed by the distribution of talent points, which are gained by playing well, week in and week out.  Unfortunately, the mode is nigh-unplayable: the camera angle is unhelpful, you can't call for a pass, and if you do manage to win the ball, you'll find no one available in support. Without any way to dictate the flow of the game, players simply bumble their way through matches. It's frustrating, it's not fun, and PES 2011 would've been better off without it.  Despite the remarkable shortcomings of "Become a Legend," PES 2011 has lots to offer. It's a highly tactical game that rewards players who can maintain and develop long-term goals. "Master League" represents a cohesion of design that does much to negate the many shortcomings of the actual matches. Making the density of sports management accessible and fun is no meager feat, but Konami's lackadaisical approach to the nuts and bolts of sports sims -- animation, physics, controls, collision detection, feedback -- hold Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 back. 
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"Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win." So quipped Gary Lineker, an English international, after losing to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup. As in life, so in art: Pr...

Review: NOX Specialist Audio Headset

Nov 19 // Joseph Leray
Specialist Audio Headset with Negotiator Universal Gaming Adapter NOX Audio Now available MSRP: $79.99 (headset); $69.99 (adapter); $99.99 (bundled) The Specialist, by NOX Audio, is, as I may have mentioned, marketed as a gaming headset. That's probably a bit deceptive, though -- the Specialist is a perfectly functional set of all-purpose headphones that happens to have a retractable (and flexible!) boom-mic attached. Even if they didn't sound as good as they do, extending and retracting the mic over and over is probably worth the $79.99 price of entry. Well, no, it's not, but the retractable mic is cool. And not to harp on the mic-dongle, but I do appreciate the mechanism: the speaker casing on the left cap houses a tiny little crank attached to the mic; the right side houses a volume dial. It's a small touch, but the Specialist is remarkably compact for a catch-all headset -- I hate having a volume mixer hanging off the power cord. Another triumph of simplicity: the Specialist can be easily folded and contorted to fit into a hard clamshell case. It's portable and self-contained, and I already know I'll be leaving my bulkier Panasonics at home when I do my traveling this holiday season. All-in-one Skyping, too, is a breeze, thanks to the myriad splitters NOX includes with the Specialist.  Unfortunately, this simplicity doesn't extend to actually using the Specialist for gaming -- you'll need a special adapter for your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller, access to your console's optical port, a spare USB port, three salamander eggs, and one of Steve Balmer's hairs, plucked at midnight. To get started, I consulted NOX' own FAQ and this video, and exchanged a dozen-odd e-mails with a PR rep. A set of instructions would've been nice. Once you get your panoply of wires in the right place -- and, Christ, don't forget to change your audio settings! -- the Specialist actually works really well. The Negotiator is a proprietary attachment that balances in-game audio with chat which, coupled with the Specialist*, allows for a very specific audio quality. The unintuitive set-up aside, the Specialist works best when used as a gaming headset -- the mic is flexible enough to keep out of your face while still picking up your voice; the Negotiator makes it easy to simply turn off in-game chat if things get too trolly, and the Specialist is comfortable enough to use during your marathon sessions. Be aware, though, that the Negotiator isn't included with all the headsets -- you can buy the attachment separately or buy them both bundled. My online Pepsi challenge between the Specialist and the standard issue Microsoft headset produced mixed results, however -- some couldn't tell the difference while others found marked differences in audio quality. That's not to say the mic is entirely crummy -- in my experience, it holds up pretty well on Skype, for example -- but it seems the weakest part of the offering. For what it's worth, the Specialist won't be replacing the Blue Snowball I use for podcasting, despite the former's aforementioned ease of use. And that is perhaps the larger theme of my experience with the Specialist: It's a fine piece of hardware, but it won't change any of my audio preferences. The headphones have a warm, rich sound, and do a good job keeping noise out and audio in, but they struggle with the lower register. This is mitigated somewhat by the Specialist's specificity and the strength with which it carries out its tasks. The NOX Specialist has several things going for it -- simple design, portability, comfort, and attention to detail, especially in terms of online gaming -- and they'll be invaluable when I'm away from home, but these fragile little road-warriors aren't convincing enough to oust the big boys of audio. However, if you're still rocking those iPod earbuds from middle school and are looking for a headset that does music, podcasting, and gaming in one neat package, the Specialist isn't hard to recommend.  Specifications for the Specialist headset: Drivers: Dual 26mm Mylar Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz Noise Reduction: 6 dB @ 1 kHz Sensitivity: 104 dBSPL @ 1 kHz THD: <0.5% @ 1 kHz; <2% from 40 Hz to 20 kHz Input impedance: 32-ohms Microphone: 4mm Omnidirectional Weight: 0.30 lbs Specifications for the Negotiator adapter: Frequency Response: 20 to 20 KHz THD: < 0.5% SNR: 95 dB USB 2.0 Compliant FCC/CE Certified *Jason Statham and Bruce Willis are actually working on a buddy-cop movie called Negotiator and Specialist. [Full disclosure: NOX Audio provided me with a Specialist+Negotiator bundle for review.]  
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I once managed to get a set of Panasonic RP-HTX7 headphones (cream colored, natch) run over by a car. I don't need to discuss the Wile E. Coyote-esque set-up, but it has become my new litmus test for audio hardware. If it sti...

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Atlus promises Demon's Souls servers until March 2011


Jul 22
// Joseph Leray
Yesterday, Atlus sent a note to its fanclub, the so-called "Faithful," promising to maintain Demon's Souls' North American servers until at least March 2011. I suppose that you could play it as a single-player game, but ...
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Get Your War On with this Medal of Honor trailer


Jul 22
// Joseph Leray
Ok, so, Electronic Arts is publishing the new Medal of Honor, with EA Los Angeles in charge of the single player, and DICE manning the multiplayer. The beta has started across all platforms (but I haven't heard anything...
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Square announces Final Fantasy: Legends


Jul 21
// Joseph Leray
Following an article in last week's issue of Japanese game magazine V Jump, Square Enix have officially announced Final Fantasy Legends, a new mobile phone game by the Final Fantasy IV: The After Years team. Normally, a ...
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Famitsu reveals Tactics Ogre: The Wheel of Fortune (PSP)


Jul 21
// Joseph Leray
I guess Square Enix didn't get the memo about The Wheel of Fortune being an infernal American television show -- Pat Sajak and Vanna White are obviously zombies. Or vampires. Or zombie vampires -- but someone from t...
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Localized demo for item-shop RPG Recettear available now


Jul 20
// Joseph Leray
The main thrust of this news article is that developer-localizer Carpe Fulgur has released a demo for its first project, Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale. To understand why that's kind of interesting and cool, though, you'll n...
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E3 10: Have even more Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 footage


Jun 15
// Joseph Leray
Since they aren't a major platform holder and didn't host a press conference during which they announced a truckload of games (here's lookin' at you, kid), you might've forgotten that a little Capcom game called Marvel Vs. C...

Review: Dead to Rights: Retribution

May 20 // Joseph Leray
Dead to Rights: Retribution (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])Developer: Volatile GamesPublisher: Namco Bandai GamesReleased: April 27, 2010MSRP: $59.99 Dead to Rights: Retribution is set in Grant City, a grimy boom town in its death throes, beset on all sides by crime, violence, corruption, and poverty. The proverbial bell tolls for Grant City when the Triads and a union of disgruntled roustabouts, dockworkers, and roughnecks mount an assault on the local TV station. Jack Slate and his dad, both “renegade cops,” set about to investigate. Retribution is a conservative swan song: For half the game, the enemies are generic, stereotypical Asians and unionized laborers; in the latter half, Jack spends his time killing scores of stupidly well armed mercenaries who have been brought into to fight the (artificial) War on Gangs. Jack’s father, Frank, is a “good cop” from the old school, and they often mourn the dearth of “old-fashioned” “good police work.” Jack ultimately saves the city (spoiler!), but the last scene of the game takes place in a cemetery. A kindly priest explains to Jack that “these are troubled times,” and after paying his respects, Jack mutters, “I’ll be seeing you soon.” The old school, so touted by Jack and his father, seems irreparable. Retribution ends on a dark note, but that’s not to say that most of the notes before that aren’t dumb. The plot and play are enormously dissonant: Jack explains to Redwater, a particularly zealous fellow cop who's just attacked a suspect, that “This is not how we do things! We arrest people. We bring them in and we question them!” -- but he spends ten or so hours slaughtering generic bad guys. The bombastic score overwhelms the otherwise acceptable faux-noir setting (if noir was addicted to anabolics and PCP, that is), and Jack’s biceps are monstrous. His love interest is shuffled on and off screen too quickly for her fate to matter. And while I think we’re supposed to be dismayed that the final bad guy dies instead of being sent to jail (the old-fashioned way), it’s hard to pay attention when Jack’s vocabulary consists of bad police puns (“You have the right to remain silent!) and motherfucker. Retribution’s desire to look and sound cool overrides any chance the plot had of being good (or even making sense -- there’s a pretty nasty continuity error at the six-hour mark), and that desire threatens to spill into the game’s mix of brawling and third-person shooting mechanics as well. Thankfully (and for some gamers, perhaps more important), Retribution’s combat doesn’t have the same type of schizophrenia displayed by its narrative components. For the most part, the game’s promise to seamlessly blend hand-to-hand combat and cover-based tactical shooting holds up. Jack’s combinations of light and hard punches set a surprisingly fluid and rhythmic pace, accentuated nicely by his ability to disarm opponents. The lack of readily available ammo encourages players to experiment with all sorts of weapons, and Retribution is at its best when it doesn’t force you to stay in one place for too long. Even better, the game does a great job of steadily introducing new enemy types and new weapons. The enemy AI is another pleasant surprise given the tone of the review so far, impressively quick-witted. They’ll flank Jack, gang up on him, and pick up stray guns laying around. I once dropped a sniper rifle that only had one bullet left, thinking that a well stocked double-barreled shotgun would be more useful (and, in keeping with Retribution’s ethos, more bad-fuckin’-ass), only to find myself with a bullet in my brain, thanks to some intrepid gangster. Most impressive, though, is that enemies will fall back and regroup should Jack capture a hostage. The camera has a tendency to take a shit when Jack finds himself surrounded, a complaint that is largely mitigated by the fact that most of Jack’s repertoire -- hostage-taking included -- was designed for crowd control. Disarming leads to quick headshots; Jack can turn on a dime, comboing into several enemies without breaking his stride; Shadow is particularly adept at pulling enemies away from Jack; and Retribution’s brutal take-downs -- which threaten to be more gratuitous than useful -- are an easy way to thin enemy herds. Even the less realized mechanics, such as the bullet time–esque “focus mode,” don’t distract from the satisfaction of Jack’s brawling and from-the-hip shooting. Unfortunately, brawling is only one half of the Dead to Rights equation -- Retribution’s lackluster cover-based shooting comprises the rest of the game’s combat. Retribution’s cover system simply isn’t as competent or as fun as its fighting. The game isn’t consistent in terms of what can or cannot be used as cover, the camera isn’t optimized for ducking in and out of it, and you’ll often find yourself sprinting right past whichever doorframe or crate you were headed toward. And for all his utility, Shadow often gets left by the wayside when Jack takes cover. Unable to absorb as many bullets as Jack does, this when Shadow dies the most -- and trying to save him will just lead Jack into the nasty crossfire that killed Shadow in the first place. I really like that most cover can be destroyed by enemy fire; but not when the basic systems aren’t robust enough to compensate for it. The problems with Retribution’s tactical elements are aggravated by the fact that two of the longest levels in the game (one right after another, no less) are designed almost exclusively as linear crawls from one piece of insufficient cover to the next. In most of the levels, these cover-based sections are integrated within the larger context of varying Jack’s fighting and shooting techniques, but the middle section swells with bad level design -- one level features a stealth section; a long cover section; a survive-until-this-elevator-gets-here section; a puzzle section in a sewer (what?!); and several rooms whose doors only open when everyone is dead, even though the objective clearly states Jack should be running for his life instead of engaging the enemy. These levels, thankfully, don’t represent the bulk of what Retribution has to offer, although level design is always a niggling issue. There are a few unintuitive sections to be sure, too often exacerbated when Jack triggers a cut scene that drags the camera around the level or, worse, drops Jack (usually weaponless) in a totally different place. For a game that succeeds so well in terms of pacing its combat and (admittedly bare-bones) plot, it’s a shame that the level design creates so many stumbling blocks. Being able to play as Shadow presents an interesting, and largely successful, wrinkle in Retribution’s basic composition. Most of Shadow’s sections consist of stealthily killing guards and retrieving keys for Jack, and though I wish Volatile had given Shadow more, and more varied, face time, they’re largely successful. Shadow has a few basic functions -- sprint and rip out testicles -- but his most interesting mechanic is his stealth mode which allows him to effectively see through walls. Totally ridiculous, but I’ll chalk it up to his canine sense of smell, on the grounds the mode is really well executed. Shadow can perform stealth kills, hide bodies from (again) remarkably competent soldiers, and lure enemies away from large crowds with a series of barks and growls. Fans of Batman: Arkham Asylum will recognize traces of “detective mode” in Shadow’s stealth sections, but, for my money, Retribution pulls it off better. Shadow’s stealth mode doesn’t dominate the game -- remember how there was no reason to ever not use detective mode? -- and it’s one of the few times that Volatile shows anything resembling restraint over the course of Retribution. For a game with such a tired narrative structure, it’s no surprise that Dead to Rights: Retribution plays it safe with its mostly-successful mechanics. The story is bombastic and gratuitous and level design can be needlessly frustrating, but the strength of the combat and Shadow’s stealth largely compensate. Retribution is rarely fancy, but it’s quite competent, and there’s depth to be found in Jack’s arsenal of combos, disarms, and take downs as well as the tactical possibilities presented by Shadow. Dead to Rights: Retribution is Volatile Games’ first current-gen project and while the game is rough around the edges, they’ve laid a solid foundation. Score: 6.5 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)
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A few days ago, I was crushing beers at Shenanigans, a restaurant-cum-watering-hole in Sewanee, Tennessee, home of my alma mater, The University of the South. Specifically, I was talking with my friend Reed about videogames, ...

Review: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa

Apr 28 // Joseph Leray
2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], Wii, PlayStation Portable, iPhone)Developer: EA CanadaPublisher: EA SportsReleased: April 27, 2010MSRP: $59.99Just kidding! 2010 FIFA World Cup -- World Cup from here on out -- is actually pretty good. In an ideal world, this review would be titled “World Cup, or how I Learned to Quit Bitching and Love Iterative Design,” but iteration don’t come cheap at 60 bones a pop. In a move that somewhat mitigates Electronic Arts’ (successful) attempt to cash in on the World Cup, EA Canada made a few (equally successful) improvements to the core game. To be honest, I expected EA to slap some new character models on FIFA 10’s engine, add 199 national teams to the mix, and call it a day, but 2010 FIFA World Cup might be, in barebones terms, my favorite installment to date.World Cup’s improved dribbling, pass assistance, and collision detection, coupled with balanced defensive AI, result in a faster-paced, more fluid, and more creative game than the comparatively stiff FIFA 10. Passing sensitivity has been jacked up across the board, leading to more 50-50 balls, and more jostling. World Cup also adds a slew of stupidly complex dribbling moves -- fake shots and dummy passes, for example -- but that doesn’t keep your basic step-overs and drag-backs from being more effective than ever. It might be the first time in recent FIFA installments that dribbling is a viable option for the average player. In my experience, each FIFA game has had at least one major defensive gap: between 06 and 08, crosses and set pieces were the easiest ways to score; in 09 beating the offsides trap almost always resulted in a one-on-one with the goalie; in 10, a slow build-up and a few passes at the top of the box were, ahem, super effective. World Cup’s defensive AI has been re-tooled and, at least for now, all proverbial roads lead to Rome; on the flip side, all of your offensive tools -- passing, dribbling, crossing -- seem geared to take advantage of this newfound balance in cool and creative ways. But, it’s not all cupcakes and Skittles when it comes to FIFA’s defensive AI which is, let’s face it, a perennial bugbear. My latest grievance is that World Cup artificially and arbitrarily nerfs defensive players on weak teams by making them slow as frozen molasses. Instead of a defensive weakness manifesting itself in missed tackles or lapses in tactical awareness, “bad” is here represented as “slow.” Not only does it not adhere to reality -- I’m a mediocre soccer player because I’m not good, not because I run like I have hemorrhoids -- but it also kind of wangs up all those nice things I just said about the defensive AI (assuming you’re playing with a weak team).And for better or worse, you might find yourself playing with weaker teams relatively often. World Cup’s “Online World Cup” -- a quick, no frills online tournament -- has a metagame that encourages using weak teams: you’ll choose one team to sponsor, with each win contributing points to said country. Using weaker teams nets you more points for each win, and whichever country has the most points at the end of the in-real-life World Cup wins. On the one hand, it sets really interesting matches -- you won’t find any New Zealand vs. San Marino ranked matches (and more on those soon!) -- but it also forces you into a low-stakes prisoner’s dilemma: Playing with weaker teams might seem like a good idea, but the nerfed defensive stats disproportionally bone otherwise competent players, which throws off the metric. Other online options include old-fashioned ranked matches with a disarmingly effective twist: player ladders, kind of.  Before your first ranked match, you’ll be placed at the bottom of ten groups. You’ll have ten matches to score at least nine points (three points for a win, one for a tie, just like real soccer) to avoid relegation, or 16 to advance to the next group, ostensibly full of slightly better players. For the most part, these ranked matches work like they always have – e.g. me trying not to get trounced by some guy from Honduras – but the added incentive of progressing up the tables sweetens the pot considerably. Single player options are relatively standard -- a quick match “Kick Off” mode, a “Scenario” mode (which will be updated with scenarios from this year’s World Cup), and the expected World Cup mode. If I don’t waste much space on them, it’s not because they're bad, but because EA Sports has their execution down to a science: these results are reproducible. Worth noting, however, is how badly executed World Cup’s “Captain Your Country” mode is. It’s something of a poor man’s “Be A Pro” -- you know, that really awesome mode that’s been in most of EA Canada’s games for the past three years now. The premise is similar -- you control one player and are rated on each of his actions, the endgame being to captain your country’s first team in the World Cup – but the mode is stillborn. The problem lies in the camera: although you only control one player, the game keeps the traditional camera angle instead of the over-the-shoulder perspective of earlier versions of the mode. The problem is two-fold: World Cup visually suggests that players be able to control the players as usual, which simply isn’t the case; and when the ball is on the other side of the field, players can no longer see themselves, even though the coach is still rating you. Drifting out of position or falling offside results in a lower player rating, even though you literally cannot see your player for half of any given match. Somehow, I don’t think “Evokes feelings of frustration and impotence!” will make it into any World Cup advertising material. The last major update of note is World Cup’s new two-button control scheme. Spoiler: I didn’t really dig it. (But then again, I suppose I’m not exactly the target demographic.) “Two-button” is pretty self-explanatory: one button controls all of your passes -- through balls and crosses included -- and another shoots, with the game making contextual decisions about how to handle each action. It works pretty well for the most part, although playing defense is kind of awkward -- there’s no way, for example, to double team the ball carrier. Still, this approach to accessibility sits better with me than, say, FIFA Soccer 09 All-Play.I’m reluctant to use a “if X, then Y” construction, but I’ll leave you with this summary: the lack of a viable “Be A Pro”-esque mode is noticeable -- especially in light of the cheaper FIFA 10’s robust single-player -- but World Cup’s core game and online modes are top notch, a few missteps notwithstanding. EA Canada’s FIFA foundation is rock solid, so it’s hard to imagine a world where World Cup could ever be bad; whether or not it’s worth $60 is between you, God, and Daniel Agger who, let me remind you, was recently kicked in the face.Score: 8 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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After receiving a quick pass at the top of the box in a qualifying match against Denmark, Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi fired a neat ball across keeper Thomas Sørensen into the bottom corner of the goal.In the midst of...

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Geometry Wars 3? Not happening, says Bizarre Creations


Apr 01
// Joseph Leray
I understand that Geometry Wars and its sequel, brilliantly titled Geometry Wars 2, are something of Xbox Live Arcade mainstays. I also understand that some of you might be disappointed to hear that Bizarre Creations is so bu...
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Playing the Poem: a tour of Dante's Inferno, part three


Mar 31
// Joseph Leray
[Editor's Note: We're not just a (rad) news site -- we also publish opinions/editorials from our community & employees like this one, though be aware that it may not jive with the opinions of Destructoid as a whole, or...

Review: Risen

Mar 29 // Joseph Leray
Risen (Xbox 360)Developer: Piranha Bytes, WizarboxPublisher: Deep SilverReleased: February 23, 2010MSRP: $49.99 Por ejemplo, you'll discover soon enough that Faranga, Risen's tropical setting, is lush and seamless. As your nameless, shipwrecked castaway wanders (often aimlessly) about the island, he won't find any invisible walls or loading screens. The environments are sharply detailed, and the fauna roam free -- it's not unheard of to find, say, a pack of wolves attacking a group of gravemoths, or a clan of gnomes cooking meals and tending to their (stolen) homesteads. Usable, pickable plants are everywhere -- a sprig of mint restores some mana, a green apple some health. Backed by a dynamic weather system and surprisingly competent lighting effects, Risen sells Faranga surprisingly well. Exploring Faranga only gets more interesting as your player-character gains access to magic. Using a levitation scroll to access previously unassailable crooks and crannies has a certain zen-like quality, and looking out over the land and sea from the tops of mountains is simultaneously serene and empowering. Faranga can be truly beautiful, and it's nice to know that your visual rewards are the fruits of your ingenuity (that, and your ability to spam the jump button as needed). There is always something to see and do on Faranga, and exploration is often rewarding: it keeps your coffers well stocked and encourages experimentation and individuality. The island's towns and cities show similar attention to detail: the docks of Harbour Town feel lived in as you cavort with soldiers and sailors, cutthroats and clergymen, sellswords and whores. And while the NPCs you'll meet are all relatively flat, they're also realistically flat: they don't let you steal from them in broad daylight, they mill about, they solicit you for charity or sex. I remind you that Risen is game about a man with a magic monocle on his eye who fights giants; but, relative to other games in the genre, the suspension of disbelief is fairly easy to come by. Unfortunately, for all the fun to be had by exploring Faranga, you won't really want to, thanks to Risen's broken combat. I can forgive Risen for having unintuitive combat controls -- actually, most of the user interface is unintuitive, a vestige of its PC origins -- but not for being unresponsive. While Risen's character growth system allows you to add points to your weapon choice, everything but the most basic attack feels sluggish and therefore useless. Even after thirty-odd hours, the most effective attack was the default one. Ranged attacks -- bows, crossbows, magic -- are slightly more engaging, but the end result is still something akin to attrition. To their credit, the Farangan enemies are clever -- they will attack in groups, they will try to flank you, and they rarely stick to an attack pattern -- but Risen doesn't give you the tools to handle the onslaught. Never mind the fact that every killer badger and gravemoth on the entire island is blessed with the ability to read minds. Not only does Risen's combat make exploring the island decidedly frustrating -- and breaking the best part of the game -- it also ruins any notion of character progression. Given that a.) the combat is badly executed and b.) adding skill points to combat-oriented doesn't change that fact, I'd wager that most players will spend their points learning crafts -- alchemy, lockpikcing, smithing, prospecting, hunting -- and buying incremental upgrades to dexterity and strength. Since Risen never bothers to explain what, exactly, the strength and dexterity stats govern, those purchases ring hollow. Turning your character into a varied craftsman, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, being able to craft potions and weapons, and steal from townsfolk, and harvest skins will quickly line your pockets, breaking the in-game economy. On the other, it's one of the few ways to take full advantage of Faranga's bounty. Setting off into one of Faranga's many caves to mine a gold vein, only to take it back into town to forge yourself a new necklace is satisfying and rewarding. And since you amass your raw materials during the course of normal play, it never feels like a chore. My last gripe with the Risen's dogged determination to undermine itself through its shoddy combat is the way it handles emergent play. I mentioned earlier that most of Risen's NPCs act realistically -- if you're slick, you can lead enemy creatures into groups of villagers or soldiers, prompting them to jump to your (much needed) aid. This will seem like a viable strategy until you realize that your player-character doesn't receive any experience points for its effort. Not only does Risen punish the natural instinct to explore its beautiful world by interrupting you with shitty combat against stupidly unbalanced enemies, but it also withholds the spoils of war when you try to be smart about it. Neat. Risen fares better in populated areas, if only because there's not as much fighting. Farangan towns are filled, as I mentioned, by relatively realistic people, most of them with a name, a backstory, and a quest for you to complete. These range from bog-variety fetch quest to sprawling sagas in their own right, stretching over dozens of hours.  These quests are tucked away in a journal, ostensibly paired with a map marking exactly where you should go next. Unfortunately, this doesn't often work -- your instructions are often vague and, even when your map decides to include markers (this isn't always the case), it's often unhelpful, especially for longer quests. There's a fine line between exploration and wandering, and Risen stumbles over it often, falling into the pitfalls I've already mentioned. Risen's hands-off mission architecture isn't something I would normally take umbrage with -- a little lateral thinking and independence never hurt anyone, and I don't expect my videogames to play themselves -- but it becomes a problem when coupled with Risen's other shortcomings. But if no one wants you to leave town, Risen is pure joy. Three factions vie for control of Faranga's magical artifacts -- Don Esteban's bandits, the Warriors of the Order, and the Mages, the latter two united under the same religious leader -- and Risen's lengthy prologue lets you play these groups against each other for fun and profit. Even after you've committed yourself to a group, there are plenty people in each camp with conflicting interests, and squeezing as much information and resources from any given group without compromising your position with the other gives you a sense of purpose and agency that the narrative and combat lack. And while Faranga's often unpredictable weather can be a hindrance -- it's hard to explore if you can't see -- townspeople respond to it logically. They'll go back inside, making it harder to steal from them, for example; at night, the whores and guards come out and the pubs become crowded. Unfortunately, though Risen really shines in its cityscapes, they're also where the game also starts to show its seams. The dialogue is competently written, and voice acting (hell, the sound design in general) is surprisingly strong, though the dialogue trees aren't particularly sophisticated. More distracting, however, is that the same half- dozen glitchy character models populate the entire island;  and the animations are muddy at best and horrific at worst -- more than once, bodies have turned themselves around, only to leave still-talking heads turned around backwards. I'm not one to judge a game by its budget, but it's a shame that Risen again turns what should've been its strong suit -- NPC interaction -- into a cause for criticism. I think I skipped the plot summary portion of this review -- that goes at the beginning, right? -- but here goes: don't worry about it. It absolutely plods along and very little, in the grand scheme of the game, happens in the first twenty hours. Not only are NPC subplots and backstories more interesting than Risen's boilerplate fantasy, but the game, as usual, shoots itself in the foot with its delivery. Risen would be slow even under the best circumstances -- which doesn't necessarily bother me -- but it's impossible to know which quests are important and which are peripheral, so you'll spend a lot of time lost and dying, accomplishing nothing, feeling frustrated by the combat. Without any narrative momentum to push you roughshod through the game's busted mechanics, Risen feels that much more alienating. On the flipside, most everything gets better as time moves on -- the fundamentally busted combat notwithstanding -- but I'd be hardpressed to recommend Risen after the 30 hours I've spent with it so far. Writing recently about videogames and cocaine addiction, essayist Tom Bissell states that "video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you." Insofar as Risen is concerned, there's some truth to this. Somewhere, hidden in foreboding mountain peaks, deep under a gloomy cave, or in the back of a forgotten whorehouse, there is fun to be had in Risen. To be honest, I'll probably keep looking for it -- but I'll do so armed with a walkthrough and the knowledge that playing Risen might be a game of diminishing returns. Score: 4 -- Below Average (4s have some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst games, but are difficult to recommend.)
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Piranha Bytes quietly released the Xbox 360 port Risen to European audiences in October of last year, and brought it across the Atlantic at the end of February. Risen is arguably overshadowed by Piranha Bytes' other (and popu...







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