Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Zombie Gaming

So I recently ran into this little Flash zombie game called The Last Stand. Zombie games are plentiful, but this one is interesting in its focus on zombie defense with light RPG elements. Each night you defend yourself against the zombie horde, and each day you decide how to split your time between repairing the barricade, searching for other survivors, and looking for weapons.

The dormant game designer in me really wants to take some of the ideas from that game to the next level. While I enjoyed The Last Stand, sitting behind a barricade madly clicking at impeding zombies does eventually get old. Fundamentally zombies just don't make very dynamic enemies. You've got to add something else to spice things up. Thankfully zombies are a common topic, so we can look at some high profile games and think about what they did to keep our lumbering friends entertaining.

Dead Rising is filled with traditional zombies. They mill about slowly and don't pose much of a threat if you're paying attention. The tension in the game comes from the sheer number of zombies, the scarcity of weapons, and other survivors who have turned homicidal. The zombies are more of an environmental hazard than a direct threat. Dead Rising has a survival mode, which on paper could be exactly what I'm looking for. Unfortunately success involves gathering up food, finding a good hiding place, and watching the clock count down before you need to make another food run. The zombies will never disturb you in your high perch, so really 90% of the gameplay is waiting. Success is only achieved by being completely risk averse, and I'm pretty sure Burnout taught us years ago that risk = fun.

Half-Life has a lot to teach us here, both from a perspective of zombie variety and entertaining defensive gameplay. The basic zombies here are easily manageable, but their agents, the jumping screeching headcrabs, demand that you keep on your toes. Your foolproof tactic of waiting it out from high ground could work against the basic slow zombies, but not when there are headcrabs crawling out of the ducts and fast zombies crawling up the pipes. Half-life has also demonstrated that defending your turf can be extremely engaging (the turrets in Nova Prospekt, the standoff in the Antlion cave, and the epic Strider assault from Episode Two). It's a shame Gordon's never had to hold it out against a zombie onslaught (the closest would be the elevator sequence from Episode One, which isn't as epic as what I'm thinking of).

And of course we can't forget the "fungal zombie" that is Halo's Flood. These guys leap more than they shamble, and have maintained the ability to use firearms. Paired with the humanoid zombies are swarmy parasites that require you keep an eye on as-yet-uninfected corpses. In addition to all this, Halo 3 added Flood that can change form to prevent you from playing too defensively. The strategy of fighting the Flood never gets as layered as what you get from some of Half-life's set pieces, but the moment to moment combat is always top notch.

As we can see, two of the greatest shooters of all time have stooped to using the zombie cliché. They've mixed things up as much as possible, but you're still basically just shotgunning down shambling masses on your way from point A to point B. And don't get me wrong, that's still fun. But would a more strategic zombie game work with survivors to rescue, barricades to maintain, traps to set up, and resources to secure? Well, you tell me, but I sure think so.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Now Playing

The Orange Box (Xbox 360)
I've already pumped a ton of time into The Orange Box and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I started out with Portal, which is a little slice of gaming perfection. I then moved on to play Half-Life 2 for my third time (yes, it's that good), but for my first time on a console and my first time with achievements (Ravenholm with only the gravity gun = good times). I've only cracked open Team Fortress 2 for one round but it was a total blast. I'm big supporter of renting these days, but really no one with a 360 should be without The Orange Box.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Xbox 360)
More of a good thing is still a good thing, and with Guitar Hero all I really need are more songs. Thankfully Guitar Hero III delivers a quality set list. Sure they've added multiplayer and that crazy battle thing, but that's not really what'll sustain me. I'm looking to Rock Band to evolve the experience, but in the meantime I'm content with more of the same from GH3.

Halo 3 (Xbox 360)
Really, who hasn't been playing Halo 3? As awesome as Halo's multiplayer is, I'm a member of the "singleplayer first" crowd, so right out of the gate I holed to play through the Chief's latest rumble in the jungle. I was not disappointed, as that Halo's level design seems to have caught up with the excellent gameplay. I've been squeezing in some multiplayer as well whenever I've had the opportunity, but there are so many games on my plate right now that it's hard to justify prioritizing another round of Slayer over other games. There's no rush, because we all know that Halo 3 multiplayer will be rocking until the End of Time.

Lord of the Rings Online (PC)
I spoke awhile ago about potentially putting down WoW and trying out LotRO. But I never proceeded to mention that I actually followed through. You heard me - I successfully broke free of WoW. You could say that I didn't quit, I just changed cigarette brands; but I haven't really been playing LotRO much at all, so it's more like switching to a nicotine patch instead. Don't get me wrong - LotRO is a very capable MMO and has a leg up on WoW in some ways. I like that they planned for varying group sizes (and even have solo instances). I like the ongoing epic quests. I love those moments when you connect to the book (like getting lost in the Old Forest, or climbing Weathertop). I love the deed system (i.e. MMO achievements). But although the game is technically more powerful it ends up feeling rough around the edges. The UI is unintuitive and clunky in a lot of places, and the art direction overall just isn't as good. It's still fun, but I have a hard time deciding if I'm not playing much because of some flaw or if I'm just burned out on MMOs in general.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii)
I'd probably be raving about Metroid all over the place right now if there weren't so many other great games also keeping me busy. Halo and the Orange Box came along and totally derailed my ongoing Metroid campaign. I'm hoping to get back to it now that I have some more free time, because what I've played so far has been great. The control scheme works really well, the action is great, and the environments are gorgeous. What more can you ask for from a Metroid title?

Guitar Hero 2: Rocks the 80's (PS2)
I think this one's destined to gather some dust for awhile given that GH3 is commanding my attention right now. But as a rental or a budget title Rocks the 80's is better than the bad press it got. There are some fun songs in there, just don't pay full price for this one.

Puzzle Quest (Xbox 360)
I heard that the DS version of this game wasn't quite as good as the widescreen version on the PSP, so I decided to wait until it hit Xbox Live Arcade so I could try the trial for free. Little did I know what I was missing all these months. Puzzle Quest is freaking brilliant. It takes the short term game from a puzzle game like Bejeweled and combines it with the long term structure of your average RPG. The result is an RPG that is fun all of the time, not just in the abstract. RPG elements have been tacked onto many other genres before in order to give them longer appeal, but this particular blend comes off really well.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS)
Taking a little vacation a couple of weeks ago gave me enough plane time to sit down with the latest Castlevania. I've had a hard time getting into it because it is so similar to its predecessor. More of the same gameplay wise isn't necessarily a bad thing, but recycled art sure is. You don't want people to feel like they're playing the exact same game. And that's what it feels like, except the characters and script are even more obnoxious. But hey, you gotta pass time on the bus somehow.

Final Fantasy VI (GBA)
I've had some frustration with the modern RPG lately, so I just had to go back and play one of the classics to cleanse my palate. I'm still a little burned out after WoW, and I've had to whore out my bus time to work for the past couple months, so I've been proceeding slowly. But FF6 really is as charming as ever.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Catching Up

A healthy, balanced life is within reach - I can almost see it. I haven't had much energy to post here, but thankfully I haven't been completely absorbed in work during all this time. I figure the best way to get back into the swing of things is to recap what I've been playing over the last couple months during my radio silence. I've got a big fat pile of games that I've finished and should really give a proper review, but I don't know if I'll ever own up to the backlog. So I'll just run down the list and keep it short:

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (Xbox 360)
An enjoyable but forgettable third person shooter. I enjoyed the dynamic of having your life constantly tick down as you freeze to death (I'm a run and gun player anyway) but spending so much time shooting storage tanks and trudging slowly through the snow to go fetch orange goop took out some of the bite. Shooting big bugs was fun, but oddly enough shooting snow pirates was not. But you can do a lot worse as a rental.

Bully (PS2)
I'm not sure why this game got so much controversy, because the content is no more racy than Revenge of the Nerds. The game really feels like living out one of those high school or college "coming of age" flicks with their cliques and quirky authority figures. The lead character may be a brat, but he actually grows as a character. The script is good, the cast is good… there's actually decent storytelling in there (in a video game of all places…). You can see the GTA roots in the gameplay structure, but this time around the violence is mostly cartoony (with noogies and stink bombs instead of AK-47s) and the topics aren't as blatantly offensive (sketchy lunchroom fare instead of coked-out hookers).

Super Paper Mario (Wii)
Even though I adored The Thousand Year Door, I was excited at the idea of changing it around to add more of a platforming focus to Super Paper Mario (there's always room for more classic Mario gameplay, right?). But, well… meh. I think this game went wrong in two key ways. First: Although it discarded the majority of the RPG genre's gameplay mechanics, it kept the whole "story" thing. The script wasn't poorly written, and actually has its cute moments (although not as many as Thousand Year Door), but from a pacing perspective it's really jarring to go back and forth from platforming to reading pages of text. Second: The mesh of the classic paper style and the retro 8-bit vibe wasn't very successful. Either would have been okay on their own, but together they created a visual style that felt disconnected and cheap. And although I don't think the 2D/3D gimmick ruined the game, it didn't help either. Super Paper Mario isn't a complete waste of time by any means, but you're better off going for The Thousand Year Door.

Command & Conquer 3 (PC)
It's a bit hard going back to C&C after experiencing the fine tuned excellence of games like Starcraft and Warcraft. But C&C always holds a warm place in my heart for nostalgic reasons. Sure, every game basically boils down to the same race to build super units and then stream roll over the enemy, but at least the game keeps that satisfying. This latest iteration takes the great graphical detail of Generals and applies it to this classic franchise. Good times, but not especially deep.

Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)
Although Rabbids is really just a minigame collection, it's got enough really good games in it to make for a pretty engaging experience. In particular, each stage ends with a great "on rails" shooter game. With the Wiimote this is the first time I've really ever had the feeling of playing something like Area 51 from the arcade in my living room. It's a fun and accessible gametype and I can't wait to see more games that focus on that. The rest of the minigames are generally pretty fun, so if you're looking for a way to swing that Wiimote like a crazy person, this is a good choice.

Well, that list of games that I've completed over the last few months. Of course I've got more that I'm currently working through, but I'll write up details on them later: