Archive for the ‘ Skyrim ’ Category

Freedom: On the Authority of the Character

Hey guys. This post is older than it looks, so it might not look as if it were intended to be part of a series. I don’t think it needs editing, though. Previous posts are here and here.

I’ve been playing Skyrim a bit in my free time. Also, I’ve been thinking about character interactions in Bioware games, as news about Mass Effect 3 reaches fever pitch. In addition, I was reading a thread a few weeks ago about graphics, so Uncharted 3 is getting mentioned (mostly by two or three people with Uncharted/Sony-exclusive-title avatars), as is The Witcher 2. I was also in a discussion a month or so ago about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a (not the winter one, an earlier one) Steam sale allowed me to purchase the DLC at $7.49.

These things all have something in common: Freedom. The other day, I read an article about 2011 being the year of the sandbox title (often associated with freedom), and, of course, I just wrote about the idea of total freedom a few posts ago. There’s a reason for this, but I’ll write about it at a later date. For now, let’s just talk about a hypothetical game and hypothetical freedom.

Game Q, as we’ll call it, generally offers you a lot of freedom. There are a few points, however, when it takes that freedom away. It’s not a mechanical breakdown, though. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution taught you to expect freedom and build your character as you saw fit, then turned everything on its head in a fit of stupidity, Game Q takes the freedom away when the plot demands it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve pissed off Evil Mister X. You’re playing a mission, sneaking around Factory Z in order to find evidence pointing to the location of The MacGuffin (though you could just as easily have gone in guns blazing, or maybe stealthily executed everyone in your path; whatever you wanted), when, suddenly, Evil Mister X calls you out on the PA system, locks the doors to the room you’re in, and fills it with sleeping gas. You wake up, tied to a chair, bright lights shining on you, with Evil Mister X’s favorite interrogator preparing to stab you with a few exotic-looking needles or something.

You’ve just lost the freedom to play the way you wanted.

Let’s back the story up a bit. Earlier in the game, you did a favor for Evil Mister X. Turning him down puts you in the first situation. He doesn’t hate you this time around, however, so when doing the mission, suddenly the alarms go off, soldiers pop out of nowhere, aggressively looking for the intruder. It turns out that Evil Mister X sent his favorite assassin in to help you out, but, being Evil Mister X, he wanted it done with some style, so the assassin went in guns blazing, ruining your stealthy plans.

Isn’t that a better game than one where you have total freedom to do whatever you want?

See, Evil Mister X is a pretty big bad guy. He doesn’t take kindly to doing things someone else’s way. He does them the way he wants. For him to be a valid character, he needs to appear as if he’s making choices, even if those choices conflict with the outcomes you had in mind. If everyone just listens to you and does whatever you want no matter what, they start to feel less fully realized. There’s something wrong with a game that gives you plenty of freedom, but bends over backwards keeping everyone else in check so they only ever do what you want.

Let’s look at Infamous 2 for a moment.

Nyx, the fire-wielding hot-head (a cliche that annoys me, but whatever) conduit, offers, a few times, to do things that sound totally batshit crazy, like crashing a trolley car into an enemy base to take out all the bad guys with relative ease (but it’ll kill lots of cops). If you choose not to do it, she gets pissed, but that’s about it. So far, she won’t do anything to contradict you (I haven’t beaten the story yet), and that actually kind of bothers me. It’d be nice if I planned to do something my way, and Nyx went ahead with her plan and made a mess of things anyways.

The one obvious problem is that you essentially have the same outcome, no matter what. If you do Nyx’s plan, other people will be mad at you and cops will be dead. If you don’t do Nyx’s plan, she’ll be mad at you… and the cops will be dead. All that really changes is whether or not you wanted it to happen, and then players run the risk of feeling like their choices have no consequence, which, as I’ve previously discussed, is a bad thing. There’s no point in having a choice if the outcome is always the same, after all.

Uncharted is a pretty great example of doing the opposite. It never lets you make a choice, and as a results, its characters can feel more like real people. Never mind that Infamous 2’s characters are way better than anything Uncharted has to offer–they’re held back by having to remain secondary to your choices. Uncharted’s aren’t. They can do whatever the writer wants them to do.

It’s a prickly problem: do you want freedom or do you want real characters?

…why not have both?

If Evil Mister X doesn’t know you’re going on this mission, maybe neither things will occur.

I’ve been running with the idea that, like Deus Ex, Game Q is an immersive sim. The idea behind immersive sims is that the AI often uses non-scripted behavior to make the world feel more alive. Wolves will hunt bunnies because it’s in their nature, not because the game designer said “okay, as you round this corner, those wolves will chase that bunny.” It’s a genre that more effectively creates game worlds which feel alive, and being able to transport us to worlds by making them feel alive is something that games really ought to be doing more often. After all, if they try to tell us a story and allow us to participate in it, then nothing should break that illusion, right? (Oh, man, that’s going to have to be another post for another day. Too long.)

See, scripting can be good–just look at the original Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time, for proof of that. At the same time, it can be bad when used in excess (see Uncharted, which is so much worse than Call of Duty when it comes to scripting and level design reducing freedom that it isn’t even funny–yet another post for another day). I think Game Q should operate with some level of scripting, but it should only do so in a way that enhances the story or the characters. Evil Mister X shouldn’t do a thing because the game designer wanted him to–Evil Mister X should be ready and able to do a lot of things dependent on the player’s behavior in the game, because that’s who he is.

Ultimately, those scripted behaviors throughout Game Q mean that the player feels like they need to interact in a specific way with any NPC they meet.

If Friendly Boss might help you out for sneaking in to Base Y, maybe you should let him know. If the game is able to track your play style (“player completes missions with 30% sneaking, 10% shooting, 60% disguises”), maybe NPCs might recognize that you did a mission if you keep using that play style, so you might want to consider changing things up. Maybe you know that one of Evil Mister X’s spies has infiltrated your organization (it might even be Friendly Boss!), so you decide not to tell anyone and do everything off the grid so nobody learns about your mission until it’s done.

Basically, I think removing player freedom doesn’t necessarily mean the game stops being free. If you lose your freedom as the result of your actions, then… it was your freedom that got you there. If anything,  your freedom is enhanced when it gets taken away. Ghandi once said (more or less) that freedom doesn’t matter unless you have the freedom to screw up. If you choose something that screws you over… well, that’s still freedom, even if it means being tied in a chair and being beaten by it. As long as Game Q doesn’t permanently take that freedom from you, it should be fine.

Somebody else once said that the people who value freedom are the ones who have it taken away. It seems to me that the game would matter more if you were put in situations where you had no freedom (as a direct result of your freedom, as just discussed), and you had to re-earn your freedom through some way.

Game Q should be able to combine the player the freedom and unscripted nature of the immersive sim alongside the scripted nature of more story-focused games, topping both by having characters that appear to make intelligent decisions based on player actions. They’re still reactive characters, like you’ll find in story-focused games like Mass Effect (I never said they had to be good stories, did I?), ultimately doing what they do based on what you do, but at least they’re not either simple AI behaviors or set-in-stone scripted behaviors.

I guess you could think of this implementation of scripting as… really elaborate AI behaviors. Jamie Griesemer and Chris Butcher, in their presentation “The Illusion of Intelligence,” which discusses the implementation of Halo’s AI, mention how part of the illusion of enemy intelligence was by giving Halo’s enemies a wide variety of things to do and letting them be around long enough to use some of those abilities. The scripting is just a really large event that occurs based on the context the characters find themselves in. It makes them seem better.

Complete (not total) freedom gives you a game that doesn’t feel genuine because its characters don’t do anything big. There’s rarely any human X-Factor in there. You just do things the way you want to do them, the end. The world doesn’t change as a result of your actions beyond, of course, “oh, this mission’s sub-objective was not to be detected, so you lost a chance to earn 500 XP and some dialog options changed.” The choices don’t really have consequences, and, as you should know by now, choices are meaningless without consequences. Likewise, a scripted game is going to be the same no matter what, so, once again, your choices have no consequences, because you have no choice. You do what you’re told and nothing ever changes.

A hybrid of these two should offer the strengths of both while eliminating their weaknesses.

That’s the theory, anyways.

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Reviewing This Year’s Games

Hey, guys. Still feeling sick and tired, so I’ve not finished up my giant, multi-part series I’m working on. Plus, my laptop was hit with a virus, so I’ve spent the weekend backing that up.

Hi!

From the article title, you’ve know what I’m writing about today. Why am I doing it? Well, here’s the deal: I wrote a blog post a while back where I failed to explain my thoughts on reviews, so I deleted it, but the general gist was that when you involve yourself in something, you become more inclined to be defensive of that thing. If you spend $500 on a watch, you’re more inclined to defend that purchase than if you spent $20. Likewise, if you spend several hours trying to save a virtual world, you’re likely to be defensive of it. I think that’s why you get such immediate fanboyism over games than you do most other things–because you invest your time and effort in completing them.

I think this is bad for reviews. If you’d talked to me ten minutes after I’d beaten Mass Effect 2, I would have screamed “GAME OF THE YEAR!” in your face. If you talk to me now, you’ll get a significantly different story. Now that I’ve had time to pull myself back from the experience and really get at it, I find it to be indefensibly bad. I think many of the people (not all, mind you) who played it and continue to rate it highly never actually played it again, much less thought critically about why it succeeded or failed.

So… I don’t like to review games until I’ve waited some time to think about them.

That said, I’m also short on time and can’t do another giant-sized Rage review, so what you’re going to get are short impressions of a bunch of this year’s video games I’ve played. I haven’t beat Resistance 3, though I’m quite close, but everything else I’ve played and beat weeks ago. I won’t be giving scores to any of them or anything like that. This is just a “what I think about my time with these games” thing. Very informal.

Saint’s Row: The Third

Saint’s Row 2 was a fantastic game marred by a bad port. My introduction to it this year was an intense, thrilling ride that somehow managed to be not only obscenely funny, but oddly compelling as well. I don’t want to say it was a mature narrative, but I can’t bring myself to say that it was particularly immature either… because it wasn’t. Unlike the game people insist on comparing it with, Grand Theft Auto IV, Saint’s Row 2 avoided being cliche and trite. It always presented players with the unexpected, even if that meant asking them to drive around spraying crap everywhere to lower property prices.

Saint’s Row: The Third isn’t quite like that. The engine and art is now cartoonish–though that’s not a bad thing, as the game is quite easy on the eyes. Due to the shift in tech and THQ apparently laying off employees, the game’s world isn’t nearly as well-defined as Saint’s Row 2’s, making it somewhat difficult to navigate on its own. Other failings include what appear to be missing cutscenes–whether this was a lapse in direction or the result of Volition running out of employees, I’m not sure. One of the series primary characters dies, another has a drastic personality shift, the game feels smaller, somehow, and… well…

Overall, Saint’s Row: The Third, feels like a game directed by someone who didn’t quite get what Saint’s Row was about. Instead of being a bit of a tongue-in-cheek game, balancing seriousness and hilariousness in a way that prevents its world and gameplay from being as dry and dull as GTAIV, the way Saint’s Row 2 did, it seems to want to jump off the deep end. The game starts out outdoing any set piece you might play in the Uncharted series, sets you free in a crazy world where reality tv shows include brutally murdering people and gangs have their own clone armies… and then ups the ante. It’s crazy fun and well worth playing, but every time I think about it, I find myself thinking that somehow, Saint’s Row 2, for all its crappy graphics, being a shoddy port, and everything else… was a better game. I beat it in just under 14 hours (note, that’s not a 100%, that’s screwing around in the game world, doing the story, and doing a few side missions).

Also, I was sad that “Down Under” wasn’t in the soundtrack this time. 😦

Resistance 3

It’s a strange beast, Resistance 3. When I first played its predecessor, Resistance 1, I felt bored, as if I were playing a poor man’s Call of Duty 2. The graphics sucked, the controls were odd, the level design wasn’t great, and the use of collectibles and stuff felt weird for the kind of game it was trying to be. That said, I had a soft spot for the world, with its fantastic guns and interesting premise, and was quite interested to go back. Too bad Resistance 2 managed to be one of the worst shooters ever. Yeah. It… I don’t think I’ve hated many games that much. I’ve never played such a charmless, poorly designed, dated (in a bad way) shooter–and even Darkest of Days had some sort of charm!

Then Resistance 3 came out and people said it was “the best FPS campaign all year.” For what it’s worth, they were lying and/or insane, but it was a charming, unique game that I have yet to beat. I’m literally like one fight away from the end, but then a Brawler hit me in the face and I decided that was a good point to stop. Considering I’ve beaten nineteen out of twenty of its levels, and that I’m only offering impressions, I feel okay in talking about it now.

Ultimately, I’d say it feels like a bunch of very talented people, probably people with a lot of experience on consoles and in the console gaming sphere–the sort of people who, if they were fans, would probably bemoan the number of shooters coming out (even though there aren’t as many as people think) and had only ever played Half-Life 2 when it launched with the Orange Box–decided to make a shooter. The end result was a bunch of fantastic ideas wrapped up in a bow of “I don’t have any idea what I’m doing or why FPSes are great, fun to play games.” [Bizarre Theory Time: People who hate shooters haven’t actually played that many. They have played Half-Life 2, thought the environment was good but were underwhelmed by the gameplay, and they consider it to be the pinnacle of the genre. Thus, they think that everything in the genre is less intelligent/worse than Half-Life 2.]

Resistance 3 apes Half-Life 2. You play a guy who has to get to a giant tower that’s opened a hole in space and time and shut it off. It’s got a silent protagonist, a Ravenholm level, aliens that turn people into pseudozombies, and so on and so forth.

Except… it does a great number of things better than Half-Life 2.

The story’s not as idiotic: from the get-go, you know who you are, why you are here, and what you have to do. If Insomniac had decided to give you a mystery, I’m fairly confident that they would have done so quite well. The guns are more inventive and fun to use (plus they have iron sights, and I like that), the enemies offer more variety (meaning more tactics are required to fight them), and there are multiple types of giant enemies to face (which is always a great thing; every game should have giant enemies, if at all possible). Throughout the levels, you’re alone quite frequently, which is a very good thing, because the friendly AI isn’t exactly great, and it really lends to the mood of desperation, particularly near the end of the game. Particles in the air look FANTASTIC–the game’s snow looks especially movie-like–lending to a mood that’s bolstered even more by some really, really nice (and non-repetitive!) art design. Every section of the game feels unique and different. Because the game uses cutscenes, you’re able to visit a broader variety of locations than Half-Life 2 allows (and there are much more unique, interesting objectives than Half-Life ever had), and it’s got a bunch of collectibles that makes the gameplay feel a bit more full than “hey, here is a puzzle where you use the gravity gun, otherwise, just shoot stuff!”

Unfortunately, there are many failings. The game’s controls don’t feel right. The sound doesn’t always sync up with the game–I’ve gotten ahead of it before, so someone was giving me instructions for something I already carried out and went right into the next line of dialog as soon as they’d finished. Strangely, the game spends a great deal of its time making you wait for other characters. “The door is open,” someone tells me, so I run to it, but it does nothing until they arrive. Other times, I’ll run up to them and they’ll just stand there for a while, doing nothing, until they finally decide it’d probably be a good idea to let me get past them. I encountered a few game-breaking bugs that required quitting and starting over–one actually froze my PS3.

The characterization isn’t particularly good, especially in regards to the religious people, who don’t seem like any religious people I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some WEIRD religious people, believe me); they seem like an atheist’s (provided he’s never met a religious person and only watched Hollywood’s portrayal) expectations of what religious people ought to be like, more than anything. “Hey, they’re superstitious, right? Why don’t they call that monster under the ground Satan? That makes sense!” Also, Charlie’s voice actor really annoys me. It also seems strange that my character is a silent protagonist… given the fact that Resistance 3 has cutscenes.

Its FOV is too narrow, but it likes to make you spend time in narrow corridors, meaning that disorientation is quite frequent. This is a problem because one of the most important aspects of design in any 3D game, particularly FPSes, is that the player always has an idea of where they are in a 3D space. Having a narrow FOV is like running around with horse blinders, and with enemies that are quite quick, you often find that they’ve dashed directly behind you and are now attacking from the rear. Also, because of the narrow FOV, it takes a longer length of time to turn around than it should, meaning they get quite a bit of damage in on you. Quite frequently, the levels are unintuitive (a monster’s giant claw makes it look like your path is blocked–you’re carrying a giant bomb, gas is obscuring your vision, and you just fell a whole story, so you’re disoriented–but the path actually isn’t blocked).

So… It’s better and worse than Half-Life 2, which is so desperately tries to imitate. For everything I find wrong with its story and gameplay, Half-Life 2’s atmosphere makes me want to jump back in every so often. That it doesn’t do bothersome things like making me wait for buggy AI or limiting my FOV to some crazy small number makes me prefer Half-Life 2 more , but Resistance has significantly better gunplay and enemy variety, encourages you to explore a bit more, and has a much better story (though, like Timeshift, it’s got much more poorly defined characters). For some reason, I feel like Half-Life 2 will stay with me, while Resistance 3 fades from my memories. :\

If I had to give it a score, I’d give it a C grade, or, for people who don’t use letter grades, a 70%.

The Witcher 2

I want to accuse The Witcher 2 of consolization, but the PC version came first, so I’m not sure what to do with that. The UI was very nice for consoles–significantly less nice for PC. I had a bunch of problems with the UI–for one thing, it wouldn’t tell you whether you’d read in-game books or not, which was irritating, especially since that was an element of the last game. I also had issues with the game’s control lag–at one point, I spent most of a five minute battle cycling through my “standing up” animation, then getting knocked down again. It was irritating as all get out. The skills aren’t particularly well balanced, meaning that a few choices could make your game super easy or super hard. While I like being able to meditate everywhere, not just at campfires, I felt like the potion system was weaker. The game was shorter than its predecessor, being about 35 hours to The Witcher’s 80something. The levels themselves aren’t designed well, so traversing the world doesn’t feel as good. Basically, stuff isn’t spaced out nearly as well as it could be.

…and it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played.

Ever. Played.

Seriously, the story’s fantastic! The characters are great! The world is GORGEOUS to explore! Your choices actually mean something, which means that you’re actually roleplaying. The combat, when it’s not suffering from control lag, is actually pretty cool, and it helps that there are plenty of different environments, equipment, weapons, and so forth to use. While the game is smaller than its predecessor, it’s also significantly more polished. The patches have fixed most of the complaints I had about the game, so the only one that’s still around is… I wish it had about 80% more content, particularly in that anemic final act.

Also, it’s the best-looking game of all time. Its only graphical failing stems from the game’s draw distance, which isn’t as impressive as Alan Wake’s, Skyrim’s (once properly edited), or Red Dead’s.

Dead Space 2

Wow. People like to say that monster closets suck. I think they’re just chickens who hate being startled when monsters jump out of nowhere. The game managed to be more actiony than its predecessor while being less repetitive, but at the same time, it managed to be more scary. I kind of wish they had spaced out the placement of brutes a bit better (and included more giant enemies), maybe actually explained some things, balanced the weapons so that the plasma cutter wasn’t still the best choice (“here, have an assault rifle that does half the damage and is hard to chop limbs off with!”)… but you know what? They introduced an amazing antigravity mechanic, the art design was spot on, the game’s sound and visuals created a sufficiently spooky atmosphere (not to mention it could be downright GORGEOUS at times), and the pacing was fantastic except for when I had to face that invincible, relentless, regenerating monster, which got a little irritating.

Dead Space 2 was better at its characters, better at gunplay, better at pacing, better at levels, better at environment variety… well, everything than its already-really-nice predecessor.

I think the people who’ve been sad it wasn’t on “Top 10 Games of the Year” lists are right–it was excellent and deserves to be considered among finest games the industry has produced in 2011. Get it on Steam–it’s crazy cheap.

Infamous & Infamous 2

I played both this year. Haven’t beaten Infamous 2 yet, but I’m having fun with it. Controls aren’t always what I’d like them to be, graphics in the first were atrocious, draw distance is really short, nobody explained why Zeke is still friends in Infamous 2, Trish should not have died the way she did in Infamous, Infamous 2 removed the awesome thundery sound that happened any time you jumped from really high up, Infamous had an insane telekinetic hobo king, the story and characters are pretty cool in both games, and everyone seems weirdly ready to defer to whatever Cole wants. Also, it keeps presenting me with good/bad choices, which is fine, but sometimes it’s like “um… well-realized character person, why even suggest this to me? There’s no way I’m saying yes. You should know that by now.”

Oh, I love the character of New Marais. Such a neat city. The improvement between Infamous 1 and 2 is a the difference between a C and an A for me. Infamous 2 is fun and worth, say, $15 or so, but I’d say Infamous 2 is worth at least twice that much, especially for its size. I really like the addition of pseudomods, but that just makes me wish that Infamous would be a PC game so it could really be modded.

Infamous is still second to Prototype, but the series is still fun in its own way. Get both games. Get them now!

Gears of War 3

Karen Traviss can write video games for me any time. She’s really awesome, except when it comes to introducing characters, it seems. This is the best war story of a video game I’ve ever played, and quite possibly the finest modern third person shooter I’ve ever played. Its enemies are great, its weapons are more than the norm, its levels are varied, its set pieces are fantastic… It does everything (except introducing characters and explaining the Locust Queen’s human appearance) right. It is a fantastically-told story–don’t let the overly-macho art design fool you. Gears of War 3 is a game that’s not only oozing with style (its overly-macho characters, its gorgeous depiction of dead civilization), but also with substance. Each character has their own distinct personality and way of seeing the world. Interestingly, Gears has a lot of subtext, particularly when it comes to Baird and Cole. Subtext is a thing that’s generally absent in video games, and part of the reason I dislike video game stories, but Gears 3 uses it to really

The multiplayer is awesome. It obviously has Unreal Tournament DNA, even if it is a much slower, ground-bound game.

BONUS: The DLC is cool, but I dunno if I’d say it’s worth $15. Maybe $10. I got it with the season pass, so I already got it at a discounted rate. I love playing as a badass dude with wicked mutton chops and a cigar, and it’s good to see Tai again. The game’s levels seem to have a lot less polish put into them than Gears of War 3 did, but it’s still quite fun.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

This game should be on par with Doom for “games that have mechanics people need to rip off.” In this case, it’s the conversation system. This is a game in which you can (and SHOULD) read people’s faces in order to have conversations with them. Its characters are some of, if not the best characters I have ever seen in a video game. They’re multidimensional. Human.

Human Revolution is a game about interaction. Technically, that’s what all games are about, but HR actually takes its purpose seriously. It’s a game that allows you to choose how to take your missions. All of its missions have been designed with dozens of possible aug configurations in mind. Whether you’ve got lungs that can breathe gas, augmented muscles to lift heavy crates or jump three meters in the air, or implants to help you sweet talk people, you’ve got a bunch of various ways to do a mission.

Okay, so the boss fights seem a little odd (they’re actually not; while tonally inconsistent with what the game has trained you to expect, they actually make sense in the context of the story–it’s absolutely believable that you might be forced into a situation where you must use only one style of play and if you didn’t plan for it, you’re out of luck), it’s irritating when the Chinese boss lady disarms your character in a cutscene when the player would never have let it happen, the game’s overbalanced for sneaky people (even though the gunplay is actually REALLY solid, particularly with the game’s great cover system), there’s no great way to store stuff you don’t want to take with you on a mission, and the fact that your girlfriend is still alive is only a surprise to Adam Jensen, but it’s still a fantastic game. The story’s well written (with the exception of the oddly-stereotypical Barrett and trash can lady) and extremely focused, the art direction is both functional and extremely stylized, and the guns, particularly when modded, are a blast to use.

As much as I love it, those flaws mean that my enthusiastic opinion for Human Revolution has cooled somewhat–now it’s a mere 9/10.

Bulletstorm

Due to a horrendously stupid advertising campaign and an attitude that could be a little off-putting, most people never got to see Bulletstorm for the brilliant, exciting game it really is. While it doesn’t feature jumping (which seems weird, since it had an option that would let you mantle objects, so it’s not like it couldn’t have used jumping), and is fairly short, Bulletstorm still manages to be a delight to play. Its inventive guns feel fantastic, the boss fights are awesome, its environments are gorgeous and great joy to traverse, and its enemies aren’t as dumb as People Can Fly’s previous game, Painkiller. The arcade-like combo system further enhances the game’s shooting mechanics, and really should be a system that gets ripped off more.

The game’s art direction reminds me, strangely enough, of Bioshock, except way, way more gorgeous. Seriously, Bulletstorm is a tremendously beautiful game.

Perhaps strangest of all is the game’s writing. It advertised itself as an over-the-top orgy of violence, which it absolutely is, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s a smart game. Trishka is actually one of the strongest, most enjoyable female characters I’ve played in a video game, and Bulletstorm is so confident in her that it doesn’t constantly throw it in your face. Its villain is one of the most hateable villains I’ve ever fought in a video game–easily topping Ra’s Al Ghul or Alduin or Wheatley or any number of video game villains I’ve had the pleasure of facing. Remeder’s script is a fantastic, pulpy one that doesn’t just get the job done, but has fun doing it.

Bulletstorm is a game that takes great joy in its existence. It is a game that loves to be played and rewards its players with a constant barrage of awesome. It’s pure, unadulterated fun.

Batman: Arkham City

This is a weird game. It lets you be Batman, but it’s also very gamey, so it doesn’t feel immersive. Also, it uses so many Batman characters that I’m not really sure where it will take place. How, precisely, does Rocksteady plan to one-up this? All GOTY nominations for this were deserved. The writing and voice acting is so amazing that I lost a minigame ’cause I was just listening to Zsasz talk! The combat system is like any good shooter’s: it’s really simple and easy to understand, but for anyone actually bothering to think about it, there’s a ton of depth there.

The end was a bit of a let down–it was pretty obvious who the main villain was and it didn’t feel very satisfying–but overall, it was a fantastic game. It’s become a game I fire up and start playing because I need to punch some criminals, even though the story is long over.

I do find myself wondering where they’ll go from here. How, precisely, does one top this? Do they go ahead and make a full-blown Batman: Gotham City game?

Portal 2

Portal was a brilliant game designed by brilliant people that was short and so good at teaching you how to play it that it was generally pretty easy to play. It was also designed with just a mouse in mind, I think, because my favorite kind of puzzles, the ones where you fling yourself through the air, using portals to keep up momentum, are a bit hard to do with controllers. It’s a game about flow and clever puzzles, and that makes it really quite fun.

Portal 2 sucks.

It’s funny, mind you. It’s really funny, the way that Arthur Christmas is a really funny movie, but not the way that Doctor Strangelove (Portal) is. For $10, it’s worth picking up, especially to hear the super duper voice acting. Valve always does an amazing job picking characters who they can sear into your brain, and a lot of this is because of how good they are at picking memorable, good voice actors. Sometimes, Wheatley’s voice would annoy me, but other than that, I liked just listening to Portal 2. It’s a game that sounds very good.

But as a game… meh. The new goo mechanics are incredibly fun, just like trampolines, but they’re never really used to their full potential. Light bridges are boring (unless used with goo), laser boxes don’t really interest me, and so on and so forth. The levels aren’t nearly as well-designed as they are in Portal, and I found my flow disrupted quite frequently. It took me a while (and Portal has trained me so well that I kept forgetting) to understand that Portal 2’s primary mechanic is this: look for the one Portalable surface that’s really far away and portal there. The end. I kept thinking that the puzzles were cleverer than they actually were, so I kept feeling lost and confused until I realized that actually, the puzzle was just ridiculously stupid.

So, um, it’s longer and its humor is much less deadpan and much more overt, so if that’s your thing, it’s worth your time but, y’know, the game itself… kinda sucks.

Haven’t played co-op. Can’t comment.

Dragon Age 2

Is a stupid game designed by stupid people who don’t understand anything.

Here is a list of things Dragon Age 2’s designers do not understand:

  • How to write good characters
  • How it can be okay to tell a gay character you’re not interested in him without being a bigot
  • Why anyone wouldn’t want to play as a gay character in a game about defining who your character is (believe it or not, I wanted to play as a straight guy!)
  • Why good characters would have defined sexualities and not all be whatever sexuality you want them to be
  • Why a mature story isn’t all about gratuitous sex and blood.
  • That nobody actually takes Enchantment Guy seriously; he’s funny because he appeals to our inner eight year old, not because he is an almighty wizard who actually means something to the plot
  • How to design non-repetitive combat encounters
  • That having a lot of skills that are just one-shot attacks that look cool is not a “more varied/useful RPG system”
  • How to make a good game
  • That repetition is a really bad idea
  • That everyone hated The Deep Roads, so keeping the person who wrote that on staff (and making her, apparently, the chief story editor) was a horrible idea, especially when some of her dialog consists of lines such as “Epic fail!”
  • Why people liked Dragon Age: Origins
  • How to write good stories
  • How to deal with just how obvious the protagonist is (admittedly, in DAO, everyone knew who you were, so being a fugitive seemed a little strange, but in DA2, it’s worse: if you’re a mage, walking around shooting fire in front of templars, they won’t realize it)
  • Why it’s stupid that a guy you’ve been friends with, a guy who has dedicated his life to proving mages aren’t evil monsters, would decide to suddenly turn into an evil monster and attack his friends.

If, as a friend of mine suggested, Dragon Age 2 is about gay rights, then, um, I guess the moral is that gays shouldn’t have any and we should kill them all, because they will kidnap your mother, butcher her, and turn her into Frankenstein’s bride. If they don’t do that, then they’ll summon creatures from hell and try to murder you. No matter how nice you are to them (after all, the game makes it very clear that the right thing to do is to be nice to them), every gay person ever will turn on you in the end and try to kill you and take over/destroy the world. But apparently, people who try to hurt gay people are also crazy. Everyone is crazy. Except the gay people in the game who are not the ones the metaphor is about, by virtue of the metaphor being about wizards; they’re actually okay.

Yeah, I get the impression that it’s… not really a metaphor for gay people. If it is, it’s about as immature and stupid as a sixteen year old girl’s yaoi fanfiction, which makes sense, because that is exactly what it reads like.

How did this get nominated for RPGOTY again? The Witcher 2 was snubbed for this? I… what.

I would recommend you save yourself the money and buy Gothic 4, which has a more interesting, open world, more interesting combat, better enemies, and probably has a better story, but I wasn’t paying attention because it was really boring. Dragon Age 2 manages to be worse.

Crysis 2

It’s a bad sequel, a pretty game (THAT TURNS MY SCREEN BLACK FOR SEVERAL SECONDS AFTER EXPLOSIONS, MAKING COMBAT ANNOYING), and an okay console corridor shooter. It gets a 0/10 for being such a terrible sequel to one of the most enjoyably open shooters I’ve played in some time. Also, its story was stupid.

At least the sound design was good, I guess.

Rage

Here is a link.

Skyrim

Don’t own a copy, so I haven’t spent as much time with it as I’d like… but I will say this: getting Dragons to come fight you can be infuriating, the game’s actually got an entire Thief game (with a bit less depth, admittedly) as one of its sidequests, the handcrafted dungeons are a nice touch but reuse so many assets (the game reuses a lot of assets, actually) that after a while, you get tired of exploring dungeons (and there are SO MANY of those), the storytelling (in how you interact with characters) is a bit nicer than previous games, but it’s still flawed (I don’t think I actually have a feel for any of the characters), the number of voice actors doesn’t seem significantly improved, the animations still suck, somehow Mammoths are more powerful than dragons, and there still appears to be an issue with level scaling. I regularly faced enemies well above my level, but rarely faced weak, easy to kill enemies at higher levels, so I didn’t really feel like I was getting stronger; the game would do well to make strong enemies live in certain places and weak enemies in others, so if you were overwhelmed by one area, you could leave and come back to try again.

…and it’s so compelling.

The secret to the game’s success seems to be that A) there is always something to do and B) no matter where you are on the map, except at the extreme peripheries, there are always at least two or three places to visit on your map. Also, there are random creatures and characters you’ll meat throughout the world, the weather seems to change dynamically, it’s got full night/day cycles, and there are no flat surfaces except in cities, so navigating the world isn’t nearly as boring as it was in New Vegas. Skyrim’s world is a rich, extremely varied experience. It feels alive, though not nearly as alive or well-realized as STALKER’s.

Modding makes it look gorgeous.

I was a tad bit disappointed by my visit to Labyrinthine, but only because the end just had me fighting a Dragon Priest, where the rest of the level was about me fighting zombie dragons and exploring massive chambers and huge ruins. It was an incredible dungeon with a downer ending.

It’s Bethesda’s best game, I think, though admittedly, I’ve never played modded Morrowind.

Also: about 90% of the elves in the game are total jerks, which is great, because the only racist tendencies I have are towards elves. Because elves are not real, hating them has presented a real pickle that Skyrim seems all-too-willing to help me resolve.

—–

Overall, it’s been an odd year. There are games that I have played that stick with me–that will, most likely, always stick with me. Whether it was because it was my first real year gaming, or because it was such a fantastic year for games, I’m not sure, but 2007 still seems to have beaten out 2011 for being the best year this gen, with releases like STALKER, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, The Orange Box, Assassin’s Creed, Crysis, and Bioshock. It seems strange, given that this year we had Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Witcher 2, Bulletstorm, Rage, Skyrim, Gears 3, and the like… but I can’t shake the feeling that these games won’t stick with me as long, or at least not in the same way that the aforementioned titles, or games like Fallout 3, Dragon Age: Origins, Alan Wake, and Borderlands ever did, which I find kinda sad.

Will they stick with me? I don’t know. I worry they may not.

Daily Think: It’s Okay To Make Stuff I’ll Never See, You Know

Sup, Game Devs.

Skyrim is upon us and it’s got me thinking: I remember reading a while back about how developers (It might have been about Bioware specifically, but I can’t be sure) were worried people wouldn’t get to see everything in just one playthrough, so they weren’t making as many secrets or allowing as many choices and so on and so forth.

I get that. You spend time on something, you want people to see it. It’s natural.

But might I suggest that doing the opposite might make you more money?

You’re trying to combat used sales, right? Sounds like you hate it as much as piracy, and I don’t blame you. People are basically spending their gaming dollars on things without you profiting, and that kinda sucks. Barring the obvious way to combatting this (psst: look at PC gaming, specifically discs that ship with Steamworks!), it seems that the most obvious solution would be capitalizing on something else. DLC is nice and all, but some people don’t love your game enough to want to spend more money on it. The guys who are looking to save money are the same ones who are the least likely to buy DRM and the most likely to buy used games, after all.

I’m talking about replay value.

Surely you remember it? It’s a metric that a lot of people still mention in reviews, talking about whether or not people will want to keep playing a game or not. If you want to keep people from trading games in, then provide them with enough content to keep them from trading in the game the second they’re done! I’m not talking about useless flags or feathers either (I’m looking at YOU, Assassin’s Creed!). Nah, I’m talking about new areas and quests depending on the choices players make in a game (after all, there is no such thing as a “meaningful choice,” only “meaningful consequence,” and if players make different choices that lead to different consequences, that’s a good reason to want to replay). If that doesn’t suit you, what about NewGame+ (Mass Effect’s awesome NewGame+ mode is one of the reasons I loved replaying it and bought a second copy when it became available on Steam)? Remember unlockables? Those were pretty awesome, you know. Letting people beat the game and then replay it with a new skin was a pretty enjoyable thing once upon a time. I get that you might want to make people spend $7 on the game, but just how much money are you losing with every copy of your game that gets traded back in, huh?

You know what else works?

Lots of content.

The more time I spend playing your game, the less likely I am to want to trade it back in, especially if I feel like there’s more to discover. Ever wonder why Bethesda’s games sell so well? Exploration is a HUGE element of that. If you go “well, we’ll cut exploration since only 15% of our players will see that,” you run the risk of making an inferior game. Look at Dragon Age 2. They made a game without of the content and variety that Dragon Age Origins offered, and as a result, released a game that reviewed and sold worse. When Bioware forced players through one specific story path, limiting a portion of their player base to playing just a few ways, the customers reacted and sales of the game dropped like a stone. Freedom and variety are vital to a good game experience (unless, of course, you’re making a linear shooter or something, where you can do variety a lot of other ways).

You don’t need to be afraid, devs. If I don’t see your stuff the first time through, that’s okay. It means I’ve got an incentive to play through again, and that means I’ve got an incentive not to trade in my game. If you get over yourselves and spend more time on games I’ll spend time on, you’ll make more money.

…assuming your game’s any good, of course.