Daily Think: On Great Difficulty (In Both Senses)

With all the love that Dark Souls gets, I’m starting to get a bit bothered by hearing about it. Everyone talks about how punishingly brutal it is, about how it forces you to do this or that, and blah blah blah. I don’t care. It might be the greatest game of all time, but its fans are really starting to get my goat, just as Demon’s Souls fans did before it. The worst part is how they talk about its difficulty as though its some sort of revelation.

It’s not.

Other games have done the whole “I’m really hard but if you treat me well I will respect you,” thing. The newest example of this is probably Serious Sam 3: BFE, though previous Serious Sam titles have done this as well. It’s the best game in the series–don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It has the best/most guns, the second-best humor (Serious Sam 2–note, this isn’t The Second Encounter, but Serious Sam 2–did do that better), the second-best art style (again, Serious Sam 2) the most enemy types, the most strategic element of combat (prioritizing which enemy gets which weapon depending on their location in relation to you and having to do so on the fly), and so forth.

…and it’s hard. I barely made it through the museum basement alive. My approach to the Great Pyramid killed me so many times until I finally found a sound approach to the situation. Learning from that mistake helped me in a later fight, which proved quite difficult at first, but once I got the rhythm of it all, I became a better player and ultimately prevailed.

Sam’s mechanical premise is simple: people run at you and try to murder you alive. You try to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Freedom: Bad Choices

Bah, sick, why must you be? Here’s a short post. I also posted a draft I had sitting around regarding Valve as an apology for getting sick and being unable to post. Longer posts will come tomorrow and Monday. I’m aware that I posted a very similar post earlier, but whatever. This is part of this series. 

Freedom is a good thing, right? Most of us, I think, would agree that this is the case. One thing that makes games unique is, of course, the player’s ability to make choices that in some way affect the characters or the plot.

Unfortunately, the implementation of freedom can get pretty screwed up, and Trish’s death is a great example of that. Essentially, you’re put in a position and given two choices: save Trish or save some doctors. If you try to save Trish, it turns out she was with the doctors all along, and she falls to her death dies. If you try to save the doctors, well, Trish turns out to have been Trish all along and… she falls to her death and dies. No matter what you choose, she’s always at the other location.

The problem here is that it’s a logical inconsistency in the game. How does Trish switch places no matter what you choose? How on Earth would your choice affect where she is? It shouldn’t.

Now, you may hasten to point out that Trish has got to die either way, but if that’s the case, why not just have a sniper shoot her through the chest (so she can talk to Cole before she dies; a headshot wouldn’t allow that) when Cole gets close to her? She still dies, but this time, she dies in a believable (not realistic, mind you; in video games where we can play as superheroes or Persian princes with the power of time travel, realism isn’t important, but believability within the scope of the story absolutely is) way.

There’s no point to having choice if your choices serve no purpose. Imagine going to an ice cream shop that lets you choose whatever flavor you want and asking for pickle and telephone flavored ice cream and getting vanilla. Then imagine asking for mint chocolate chip… and getting vanilla. Wouldn’t you take issue with their claim that you can choose whatever you want? At the very least, don’t you see how silly it is to offer choice without consequence? This point, the idea that freedom is choice and choice results in consequences, is vital to understanding what I’ll be putting forward in my next posts. It’s important, though, to realize that you consequences and outcomes are two different things: it’s possible to have a choice with one outcome (Trish dies), but with different consequences (Trish dies loving you, Trish dies hating you). By making it so that Trish’s death is illogical, you pull the player out of the experience and dilute its impact.

Now, that said, people can take it too far the other way.

Heavy Rain is a game I can’t much claim to like, considering the atrocious writing I’ve had to watch. One of the things I dislike about it is how easy it is to figure out the identity of the Origami killer–if you know anything about bad writers, you know that the bad writer is going to make the cop/detective the villain, because they think nobody would expect that.

Interestingly, some of Heavy Rain’s fans seem to be disappointed that Shelby’s always the killer no matter what you do.

Just think about that for a moment: these people want the identity of the killer to change based on your actions. This makes no sense at all. How, exactly, would his identity change based on your actions? What logical explanation would there be for the killer to become someone else? How would, say, failing a speech check during a conversation alter the identity of someone who has already committed an act?

It wouldn’t.

You may notice that my objection, in both of these cases, have something in common: it’s about the idea that something doesn’t make sense within the context of the story. A simple word for this is “coherence.” Is it coherent for the story to alter where someone is based on your actions in order to maintain the same outcome? No. Is it coherent for the identity of the killer to change because you mess up a conversation or something? Again, no. I’ll be exploring the concept of coherence more some time in the future, but for now, I’m content to leave it at this: freedom should not affect the believability of the story. If the freedom a designer offers proves to be unimmersive, pulling the player out of the experience, then that freedom should be either rethought or eliminated.

Sorry if this post wasn’t very coherent. I’ve got a headache and I’m going to bed. Hopefully, the main idea makes sense.

On Valve

I realize it seems like I hate Valve–and it’s true, I do give them more of a hard time than anyone else, but I don’t hate them as much as people seem to think. Yeah, they’ve demonstrated a great eye for picking talent and cannibalizing that talent to publish ideas that aren’t theirs under their name (to the point where only one of their games could be said to be original, and it’s based on Stephen King’s The Mist), which might upset some people, and yeah, they’re extremely popular, which might upset other people, and yeah, they have a monopoly in the form of Steam, and another final yeah, since a bunch of people are mad about the focus on CS:GO and DOTA 2 rather than Half-Life 2: Episode 3.

That’s… not why I dislike them. I’m somewhat uncomfortable by Steam’s monopoly, because I don’t like monopolies, but I feel Valve has generally run Steam quite well. If I hated popular things, I’d hate Bungie, the makers of Halo. If I hated unoriginality, I’d hate waaay too many people in the world. It’s not worth it. Also, since I don’t like Half-Life 2 and its episodes, I’m not exactly angry at Valve for keeping mum about Episode 3.

I dislike Valve for a couple reasons. Primarily, I dislike, as I’ve mentioned previously, their penchant for training the player and then abandoning that concept before letting the player loose to play the game how they want. I dislike their insistence on a lack of cutscenes and silent characters while their games aren’t served by their actions. I think the way they go about making games actually ruins the pacing and storytelling of their games. I’ve got other reasons too, but those are probably the biggest ones.

Ultimately, I’ll criticize anyone I’ve got a problem with. I write this blog because I want the game industry to be good, not because I enjoy insulting it. It seems to me that criticism is the best way to make things improve–after all, if you only focus on what’s good, you’re too likely to end up with people thinking everything’s fine or merely imitating what’s good. Valve, formerly one of my favorite developers, has made some really odd decisions as of late (forgoing fun for training, for instance), so I feel the need to talk about them.

Yeah, I could focus on other devs–and I do/will–but apparently, people want to read my Half-Life posts more than anything else on the site. So! I’ll be writing a huge bit on why I don’t like Half-Life 2 fairly soonish. It’s not meant merely as some troll post designed to get people mad, because I honestly believe what I’m saying and believe it needs to be said.

Freedom: And Here We Go

So, I have been working on a series of posts. I’m quite pleased with them. Before we get started, I’d recommend hitting up a few posts of mine, particularly the one about choice affecting story, the one regarding the production of content players might not see in a single playthrough, and, lastly, the one about totality. Oh, and you should read the messy one dealing with defining the RPG, because that’s going to be a pretty important element of the discussion.

I’m going to put forward a theory about the implementation freedom in a video game in the coming weeks in a series that discusses freedom in video games, specifically its implementation.

One thing I wanna do really first, though. I don’t know why it is, but people seem fairly uninterested in looking at the roots of something’s design; instead, they look at the surface elements. The other day, I said that what we’ve come to view as RPG mechanics are really just abstractions put there because there was no better alternative to simulating a world or character well enough to let us role-play. I’ll stick with that.

Today, I’d like to suggest this: People don’t really want freedom in games.

That’s not to say that they don’t want freedom, but that though they are asking for freedom, they really want something different. Let’s look at the sentiment expressed when people complain about linear games, not the “I want freedom,” one, but the other one. Let’s go back to the argument that a lot of people have made, but a lot of people have forgotten: “it’s not believable/realistic.” It doesn’t feel right to be forced down a bunch of hallways in which you shoot people. It’s not realistic. It’s a reminder that you’re playing a game. When people want to be immersed in a game, they don’t want to be reminded that “HEY NONE OF THIS IS REAL YOU ARE IN A GAME!” It ruins the experience.

Imagine if Amnesia kept reminding you how much of a game it was! The experience just wouldn’t be any good because you wouldn’t be immersed in it. It’d keep yanking you out and nothing would be scary because death doesn’t matter. Castlevania is not a scary game in the sense that “ohgodmonsterswilleatme,” and a large part of that has to do with how totally unimmersive it is. Amnesia’s scary because it’s immersive. By disguising the fact that it’s a game–by removing the gaminess, if you will–it achieves something that Castlevania never could. This isn’t to say Castlevania isn’t a good game–it’s generally considered to be a very good one–it’s just to suggest that certain kinds of games, particularly ones that are trying to immerse you (like ones where you’re role-playing as someone), the constant reminder that “THIS ISN’T REAL! NONE OF THIS IS REAL!” fights against the very nature of the game.

So, yeah, the idea here is that people, for whatever reason, often don’t seem to understand WHY they want what they do. When they complain about a game being linear or not offering freedom, that’s all they think they want, but what they’re really interested in is a game that doesn’t pull them out of the game experience

That means that sometimes, it’s okay for games not to be free.

The lack of freedom is a very important element of freedom. We’ll explore that soon.

Bonus statement, to followup on that RPG post I made: honestly, skills/stats are a game mechanic, not a genre. They’re not TRULY an element of role-playing games (except in the way that they can let you define your character, but you can do that with equipment and such if you want). They’re more like regenerating health–a tool that game developers use to create the game. That’s why they show up in everything from Darksiders to Diablo to Call of Duty.

Why Is It So Hard To Define an RPG?

I made this comment on RPS. Normally, I’d hold my posting to better standards, but I am tired and headachey and have only had one proper meal in the past three days.

This is just me, but I always had the idea that an RPG was a game about role-playing, and that being turn-based and all that other nonsense were just abstractions that we never needed to begin with (no reason to have a dice roll regarding the success of a rat’s dodge; the AI, physics, and engine calculation of my sword’s swing can handle that now).

I’ll try to get into my justification for that simple claim in a moment, but, first, I do wonder… why would anyone think any differently? The RPG is a role-playing game. It describes itself in the title. I like to think I can actually trust the English language enough to assume that a descriptor like that is quite literal. Presumably, a game that facilitates role-playing more than another game is the better role-playing game, right?

I’ve been thinking about this in part because, when I think about it, I did more role-playing in STALKER than I ever did in most RPGs. The skills and classes of those games limited me to a role, rather than letting me truly be the person I wanted. Granted, STALKER wouldn’t let me play as a pacifist, but that’s more because one wouldn’t actually find a pacifist in a place like the Zone, only a pile of monster shit. It is a game that dumped me in a world, set forth the rules of that world, then let me be whoever I wanted to be.

The stuff we generally think of as RPG mechanics are often unnecessary! Being turn-based, for instance, is the only way to keep a DM sane. Having dice rolls is the only way to keep people from being mad at the DM when he calls the outcome of a thing–it’s a bit harder to dispute a dice than it is to dispute a guy who randomly decides whether you hit or miss, after all.

The other night, a friend got all huffy with me when I said I was quite happy with where The Elder Scrolls was heading. He said it was becoming less of an RPG because it was getting streamlined. I suggested that instead, a lot of the skill stuff was being offloaded into other areas (or removed because they figured out how to do it better–see classes). Skyrim was, I argued, slowly evolving (I realize that the use of the word might be provocative, but considering that role-playing is inherently a part of the immersive sim, and that the IS removes abstraction, then surely it must be an evolution of the RPG, no?) into an immersive sim, which is really what Bethesda has always wanted to make.

My friend was a bit upset.

For him, the stat elements in Daggerfall and Morrowind were what made it an RPG. For me, and, I presume, Bethesda, who has made a game less dependent on stats and more dependent on simulation with each release, it was the idea that Bethesda could put you in a world and let you be whoever you wanted to be.

I guess I feel like people really want stats-based (or stats+turn-based, or stats+turn-based+isometric, or maybe something else) adventure games. Maybe they’d like a degree of choice, but that seems secondary to their primary interest, which is in a stat progression system (hi JRPG fans! It’s the only way you can consider your genre an RPG!). It’s why people seem willing to call Borderlands an RPG, when it’s no more of an RPG than Darksiders (in Darksiders, you gain souls to unlock abilities; in Borderlands, you gain XP to level up to get a skill point to unlock abilities). Ultimately, it seems as if a lot of people, particularly those who would moan about Skyrim being less of a game than its predecessors, are so focused on specific elements of RPGs that they don’t really pay attention to WHY those elements are there, or why they’re no longer needed.

Computers can simulate all sorts of things that dice rolls previously controlled. Now we can do things like fluid classes instead of saying “okay, you are a rogue so you can learn these things, and for no reason whatsoever, that guy over there cannot.” Those elements were a result of RPGs being tabletop games and running on computers with crappy processors. We don’t have those limitations any more, so the abstraction can be removed and people can focus on role-playing without having to worry about the excess stuff.

I’m not saying that the stats-based (or turn-based or isometric) game should die, just that I really wishthat the people who whine about RPGs shedding their previous limitations would shut up. It’s nice to see that they’re really trying to let people truly immerse themselves, not only in a world, but a role.

No matter what you say, you can’t really immerse yourself in the other RPGs. The second that you level up (yes, I get it, Skyrim does this too–I said it was an evolution of the RPG, not its apogee) or watch XP numbers fly in the air or watch your character do something for you… you’re not immersed. The game is being a game and pulling you out of the experience. Sometimes, that’s awesome. Sometimes, I want my games to be gamey.

But, yeah, um, this is getting long, so I’ll just finish it up with this: by being immersive, Skyrim’s actually a better RPG, because it’s removing as much crap as it can between the player and the player’s role. It’s not necessarily a better game–after all, The Witcher 2 has better graphics, writing, voice acting, sound design, art design, and a bunch of other details–but it is a better RPG, because there’s nothing stopping you from being the person you want.

Why would there even be a debate on what the RPG is?

(Also, Skyrim has more levels, skills, and perks than The Witcher 2. It’s a bit funny that I’ve heard people say Skyrim is dumbed down because of a reduction in skills, but The Witcher 2 is the year’s best RPG).

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: Immersed vs Engrossed

My favorite video game genre is the immersive sim. It’s a game that strives to be what the video game should be–an immersive experience that places players within a world and lets them interact with it. As a rule, it utilizes a hybrid of first person and role-playing elements (stats or conversation systems), but it also uses more complex AI systems to help further the illusion of a living, breathing world. It’s trying to simulate a whole world. Skyrim, for example, is a game that’s more immersive sim than anything else, because everything it does is about letting you really slip into the game’s world.

Anyways, some people seem to take issue with the word immersion, ’cause they point out that they can get immersed in other games.

Well… yes and no. We have two definitions for immersion, and generally, when someone talks about immersiveness in a game sense, they’re talking about getting players to feel like they’re really in the world. They’re talking about the holodeck style of immersion, rather than the other kind of immersion, which is more along the lines of engrossed. Someone can be engrossed in a chess match, but they can never be immersed to the point where they feel like the chess pieces are a real army fighting a real war. It’s too abstract for that.

So, next time you hear someone talk about immersion, try to figure out which kind they mean. If you enter into a conversation and you use different meanings of the same word, you’ll end up with needless confusion.

Oh yeah. I’m BACK. New posts inbound, hopefully all week. My “collection of  mini reviews for this year’s games that I didn’t review already” will be up next.