Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Touch of Evil: First Impressions

I picked up a copy of A Touch Of Evil at PAX last weekend, and what follows are my impressions from the first couple sessions. This is by no means a proper review, since I haven't played enough to really make any firm judgment (hell, I haven't even moved beyond the basic rules set yet). Nor is it really a good session report. But I figure there are people out there who'd be interested in what I have to say given that the game isn't set to officially hit stores for a couple weeks.

A Touch of Evil is a board game that can be best be described as a playable version of Sleepy Hollow. It takes place in the town of Shadowbrook, which has recently be hit by a series of murders. Each player adopts the role of an investigator who is trying to uncover the villain and defeat them in an epic showdown. The elders of the town might be able to help the heroes or they might actually be in league with the villain; it's up to the players to investigate the town before making their move so that they don't hit any nasty surprises. The players are trying to stop the villain before the whole town gets murdered off, but of course they're also racing each other to see who can beat the villain first and take all the credit.

For my first game I played solitaire to get acquainted with the game flow (using two hero characters with the cooperative rules set). My primary goal here was to make sure that someone knew the rules well enough so that the big game night later in the week would go smoothly. Playing solo with two characters allowed the game to move rather quickly, with the game ending in about an hour including time spent re-reading rules for clarification. The expanded Mystery Phase events added to the cooperative game helped accelerate progress by moving the shadow track often and creating investigation (the game's currency) on the board to jump start the economy. I was able to outfit my characters pretty well and win a showdown with the vampire villain no problem. All told it was an enjoyable singleplayer experience, although next time I would incorporate all the advanced rules to increase the difficulty.

With my trial run out of the way it was time for game night. Seven people showed up to play, with me being the only one familiar with the rules. Thankfully the game is pretty intuitive so everyone picked it up quickly. Unfortunately seven players make for a long turn sequence, and the game ended up taking around three hours. At some point we informally switched from a competitive game to a cooperative game for the final showdown in order to just end the damned thing. Despite the length, most people enjoyed the game and are eager to play again (although likely with fewer people and/or faster moving rules).

The villain we matched up against was the Spectral Horseman, and his rampage ride ability was a big hit. Every now and again someone would linger too long at a location and all of the sudden the entire board exploded with fights against the horseman. Unfortunately we had bad luck with Mystery cards and the rider got significantly buffed early on. It's odd to be wishing for murder to strike the town, but the trick is that murder cards both move the game closer to darkness as well as create opportunities. Some cards just straight up buff the villain, and we got a lot of those in the beginning. Because of this the shadow track didn't move very far until late in, so nobody was rushing to get a Lair card and attempt a showdown. But halfway into the game the town elders started dropping like flies, there were autopsies left and right, and all of the sudden the economy was in full swing.

One thing that definitely contributed to the slow down (in addition to the sheer amount of people) was the Fog card that subtracts from player movement. On paper it didn't seem like a big hindrance but it often pushed location runs just out of reach, subtly slowing down everyone's ability to explore. Given the choice between getting halfway to a destination and staying in town to draw another event card most people chose getting a card. All I know is that next time we play I'm buying a horse on my first turn and not looking back.

In spite of the length pretty much everyone still had a good time. But I think I owe them apology. I quote from page 3 the rulebook:

A Touch of Evil, The Supernatural Game can be played by 2-8 players, either Competitively or Cooperatively. For game length reasons you may find it best to limit 7 or 8 player games to Cooperative play or the 'Team Game' covered in the Advanced Game section. The game will work with virtually any number of players (limited only by Hero Characters available), but will become cumbersome with 7 or more individually Competitive players.

Whoops. Oh well. It was still a fun game and it's easy to see how different each session can be. I'm certainly looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Big Love

So there's this HBO series called Big Love, which I am currently working my way through on Netflix. I'm two discs in, and I am totally hooked.

Big Love is about polygamy, and it's absolutely fascinating. Mind you, the series isn't supportive of the concept. In fact the whole mechanics play out into one big train wreck. But it provides you a portal into a world that is both familiar and also completely different, which in my opinion is what good storytelling is all about.

The show centers around this polygamist family with one husband and three wives. They are all one big family, but each wife's time with the husband is rigorously scheduled in equal increments so that no one feels slighted. Each wife even has her own house. There's this odd balance between keeping everything together and yet carefully segregated. The dynamic between the three wives is really interesting, with huge heaps of jealousy but also some sisterhood.

Outside of the home the family leads a very different life, as that they have to keep their polygamist lifestyle secret, for fear that it tarnish the husband's reputation and thus his business. The family is thus very aware of the critical eye the rest of society places upon them. The only people who do approve are their extended family in the polygamist cult they grew up with, and they're all bat-shit crazy. The whole result is a very isolated family that has to lean on each other pretty heavily. Or at least they would if they didn't have so many issues.

In general the characters come off as genuine. Even though this is a very odd, obviously unhealthy situation, you can relate to them as people. The one exception is the second wife, Nicki. Her self destructive tendencies and malicious manipulation pretty much makes her the biggest villain of the show. But at least it's fun to hate her, and eagerly anticipate her inevitable spectacular breakdown. It's coming, I know it. Until then I eagerly check the mailbox waiting for the next disc to arrive.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Braid (Xbox 360)

I'd heard good things about Braid, so I snatched the demo up as soon as it became available last Wednesday. I was immediately surprised by the visual presentation. In static screenshots you don't really see the constant motion going on in the background that gives the game a surrealistic painted quality. It's subtle but really beautiful. But the first level included in the trial didn't knock my socks off from a gameplay perspective. So far the game had only shown me relatively straightforward platforming, and if I hadn't hear so much praise for Braid I probably would have left it at that. Thankfully I trusted in the good things I'd heard about the game and slapped down $15 for the full version so I could see more.

I'm glad I did, because Braid is the most mind bending experience I've had since Portal. And if you've played Portal you know how strong of a statement that is.

In each world of Braid time behaves differently. There's this one world where your character's position in physical space maps to everyone else's passage through time. If you move to the right, time move forwards for them; if you move to the left, time rewinds. This in itself is enough to make your head explode, but then on top of that different objects exist in different timelines, some which you can rewind and some you can't. Later in the game you split out your shadow out to walk in a parallel timeline, where you work together with it to gather keys and hit switches. And then later you gain the ability to manually place a time distortion bubble. It's nuts.

The puzzles in this game require you to think about time and space in ways that you never have before. The solutions are generally never very difficult to execute and are made easier by the fact that you can rewind your timeline. It's kind of like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, except you can rewind as much as you want, as long as you want, and at whatever speed you want. So the difficulty isn't in the execution, it's in getting your mind to wrap around concepts it has never confronted before. Which is the best kind of puzzle game.

But Braid doesn't try to be just a puzzle game. It actually has a story. It's true that after having gathered all the puzzle pieces and completed the story I can't quite admit to having the closure that my Closure achievement tells me I have, but I do appreciate that someone really tried to turn this puzzle game into something more. The music, the visuals, and the story all work together to create a truly unique experience. Yes, it's $5 more than Geometry Wars, and I probably will play Geometry Wars for longer. But Braid is one of those singular experiences where video games cross into the territory of art and leaves you with something truly memorable.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Xbox 360)

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was the title that really kicked off the whole Xbox Live Arcade thing. It combined classic simple gameplay with high production values at a low price, making it hard not to like. It's been quite some time since then, and this whole notion of small scale downloadable games on consoles has really taken off. And after all this time we now have a sequel, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.

Honestly, I wasn't super excited for this release. As good as Geometry Wars for its time, a lot has happened since then. The core formula was really simple, and since then two-stick shooters have become as ubiquitous on XBLA as first-person-shooters on the PC. I just couldn't see how this little game about shooting shapes in a rectangle could really evolve into something more interesting.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

You see, the original Geometry Wars was pretty hardcore. The whole scoring mechanic celebrated The Perfect Game. Dying reset your multiplier, but the difficulty of the game constantly increased, so a mistake early on prevented you from getting a decent score. The beginning of the game was really easy, so it took awhile to see if you were going to cut the mustard and walk away with an awesome score. But difficulty skyrocketed from trivial to ridiculous in a short time period, and pretty soon you were dead and stuck with too many enemies and no multiplier. The end result was largely decided by one little split-second mistake. Although I appreciated the skill involved in it, I just wasn't interested in getting that hardcore over a split-second.

The sequel innovates in a couple of key ways that dramatically improve the experience. First, your multiplier is not reset when you die, so there's no need to get overly frustrated when your perfect run is flawed. Second, your multiplier is not defined by how many kills you get, but instead by these little green geoms that drop from defeated enemies. This forces you to balance your play between adding to your score and increasing your long-term score potential by gathering multiplier. It also forces you to play aggressively, flying head-on into enemies instead of endless circling. Finally, the game features a couple of truly innovative modes that feel unlike anything else out there and emphasize the best parts of the new Geometry Wars gameplay.

Probably my favorite of these modes is King. In King there are bubbles where you are protected for a short time, but you cannot shoot while outside a bubble. This creates a brilliant pacing between aggressive and defensive gameplay. One moment you're unleashing carnage, the next you're racing for your life. It's one of the most brilliant gameplay innovations I've ever experienced. It effortlessly blends strategy into an action-packed twitch-fest.

GW2 also introduces multiplayer to the franchise, and King with four players is one of the best multiplayer experiences I've ever had. It's not head-to-head in that you don't shoot at other players, but that's not to say that it isn't brutally competitive. Do you put yourself at risk to farm multiplier or do you stay safe and shoot? Where do you shoot so that the geoms are most likely to benefit you and not your opponents? How do you plan your movement between bubbles so that you have a safe escape route at all times? How many bubbles can you pop to limit your opponent's options without impeding your own strategy? The amount of stuff going on is gleefully overwhelming. And at the core of this is a fast paced action game, so pretty much every part of your gaming brain is being tickled at once. It's incredibly fun, and thoroughly addictive.

King is great, but Pacifism is pretty awesome too. In this mode you can't shoot at all. The only way to kill enemies is to fly through gates that explode as you cross through them. Instead of dealing with sparse nimble enemies you deal with lumbering swarms. By having your offensive capabilities crippled you're forced to focus completely on movement, frantically bobbing and weaving through overwhelming odds. As far as I'm concerned the mode could have been called Balls, because without them you will fail. Just as in the other modes you have to balance multiplier and score, but in Pacifism getting that multiplier often means launching yourself directly towards the oncoming swarm. Seriously, balls.

Singleplayer turns out to be just as addictive as multiplayer in GW2, primarily due to the tight integration of friend leaderboards. You are constantly aware of your friend's high scores and encouraged to better them. It feeds that competitive drive, but in an oddly social way. My only complaint is that there is no persistence to multiplayer scores whatsoever.

Achievements are often misused in games. They should add something to your game experience, not entice you with ridiculous goals that exploit your inner obsessive completist. Geometry Wars 2 strikes a perfect achievement balance. Each mode in the game has an achievement that encourages you to play it in a different way. Instead of merely awarding excellence, the achievement gives you new stuff to do. It enhances the core game.

All told, I'm happy to have been proven wrong. I wasn't really looking forward to this game, and it's completely surprised me. Geometry Wars 2 has brought some serious innovation to the two-stick shooter genre. And it's only $10. So, um yeah. Hot.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

John Woo Presents Stranglehold (Xbox 360)

Given the reviews I knew that Stranglehold (sorry, "John Woo Presents Stranglehold") probably wouldn't rock my world, so I guess I wasn't too disappointed when it didn't. It's not bad, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it over all the other games out there. The premise is solid: a shooter with crazy destructible environments and a combo system that awards you for taking dudes out with style. But the execution of that premise left something to be desired.

The first style system I remember was from Project Gotham Racing. It had these challenge modes where the goal was to string together longs stretches of flashy moves while keeping up a fast pace and not bumping into anything. If you were really good you could keep one combo going for the entire circuit and get a crapload of points. Stranglehold tries to integrate a similar thing into its shooter mechanics, with you being rewarded for stuff like making a headshot while leaping through the air dramatically. Instead of getting points you fill up a meter that lets you heal yourself or unleash devastating barrages. Unfortunately the game has overly simple rules for detecting how suave you are, resulting in your best performances going by unnoticed while some sloppy mishap gets you tons of points. The adrenaline is there keeping you gunning for a longer streak, but the inability of the system to correctly gauge flair makes the whole experience feel slightly disconnected. It becomes clear pretty early on that the best way to get style points is to game the system, not to actually have any style.

It doesn't help that the weapons are uninspired. There's a long stream of guns that mostly feel identical. I know I'm spoiled by games that have the luxury of inventing death rays and plasma rifles, but realistic weaponry doesn't have to be so spectacularly generic. My advice: concentrate on fewer weapons but make them feel like they pack a punch. Anyway, from a game about gunplay I expect more.

The plot of the game is generic action movie fluff. You're a cop who doesn't exactly play by the book, and at some point I think the chief asks you to turn in your badge, although I could be confusing it with a dozen other action cop flicks. For a video game a generic plot is the norm, so he plot is perfectly satisfactory. The audio leveling, however, is not. This isn't the first time I've complained about being unable to hear story sequences in a game. It felt like I was watching FOX, where the commercials are many levels louder than the program you care about. Each time a story sequence came up I had to crank the volume, and then I had to remember to turn it down again as soon as the action started again. If they were looking for an efficient way to break my immersion, then mission accomplished.

Thankfully the destructible environments mostly distracted me from the lackluster gunplay and varying sound quality. While the bullets are whizzing by whatever area you're in gets torn to shreds. At the end of large fights I often found myself stopping to admiring the carnage I had wrought. Graphically the game looks pretty decent (if a bit too shiny), and it looks its best after everything's been blown to hell. If there's one complaint I have in this department it'd be that each level is a bit too long, extending well after you're sick of seeing the same scenery.

Stranglehold isn't bad. I mean, I played it through to the end. But it's definitely one of those rentals where I contemplated sending it back halfway through.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Conan (Xbox 360)

I've been doing the GameFly thing for quite some time now, and I've noticed that my play style has changed somewhat. Gone are the days of playing only a handful of games, but playing them so deeply that I know every last inch. I don't think it's correct to say my taste has changed, but I do think it has expanded. I now seek out games where the reviews criticize it for being "too short." I often would rather have short but memorable experiences with multiple games than a long deep relationship with one epic game. I've shifted to be a gaming polygamist. That's not to say that I don't enjoy deep, long-term gameplay (just look at how much MMO blogging I do), but I've now got a soft spot for the short but sweet weekend rental.

Conan is just that sort of game. Not to be confused with Age of Conan, the MMO, the Conan for the Xbox 360 is a simple third-person action slash-fest. You are Conan, and you kill stuff. And being the barbarian badass that you are, you vanquish your foes with gratuitous force. It's quite satisfying.

There's nothing terribly complicated about the core gameplay. There are three primary attack buttons and different combos for various sequences of these attacks. For the most part you can mash buttons and watch the carnage unfold. Later in the game you'll encounter foes that require you pull off specific combos to get passed their defenses, but it never gets too intricate. All told the combat feels pretty solid.

The boss battles in Conan are appropriately grand. You fight everything from a sand dragon to a kraken to an undead elephant. Seriously, the game gets major points for memorable boss creatures. Defeating the bosses involves a mix of standard combat and Quick Time Events. Thankfully the QTEs are lenient and never immediately fatal, so defeating a boss is never a matter of repetition until you achieve perfection.

You may be reading all of this and thing to yourself, "But I've played this game before." Yes, Conan is the posterchild for derivative game design. There is absolutely nothing here that hasn't already been done in dozens of other action games. But it's done well. Combat feels good, the animation is great, the bosses are memorable, and the whole experience only takes up about five hours of your time. This is the video game equivalent of the popcorn action flick. It won't give you any deep and meaningful revelations, but it sure is fun.

That's not to say that the game is lacking character. Conan may be a man of few words, but those few words are delivered well and are absolutely hilarious. The game has a charm to it. It's a chauvinistic and violent charm, but for some reason in the world of Conan the Barbarian that's totally endearing. For example, instead of collecting hidden packages, flags, or agility orbs, Conan seeks out topless women chained to poles. They strip off their shackles and thank Conan suggestively… achievement unlocked. It all sounds really offensive, but it fits thematically, and for some reason that makes it okay. Don't get me wrong, this game is not for the feint of heart. But for a five hour romp of decapitations and one liners, it's excellent.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Painting Zombies

I've been having a good time with Last Night on Earth, but poking around on BoardGameGeek I've always been a little jealous of those swank miniatures that some people have painted. I've also noticed that it's very possible to confuse the heroes while playing, so the painted figured do serve some functional value. So I decided to take up an arts and crafts project to paint the pieces from my game.



I've never painted anything like these soft plastic miniatures before, so I posted a query to the BGG crowd for tips. And I'm so glad I did, because those people were ridiculously helpful. Armed with pages of discussion on optimal painting techniques I headed to Michael's to get my materials.

Supply list:
  • Apple Barrel 24 color acrylic paint set - $4.99
  • Apple Barrel white, 2oz - $0.79
  • Apple Barrel black, 20z - $0.79
  • Delta Ceramcoat matte interior varnish - $2.29
  • Loew-Cornell set of four sable brushes - $6.99
  • Elmer's adhesive putty - $1.99
  • Solo bathroom cups (package of 80) - $2.39
Total: $21.88 (including tax)

The first step was to wash the minis. Apparently they have some residual stuff on them from the mold, and if you don't wash them the paint will have problems sticking. So I washed all the minis and left them to dry for a couple hours.




The next step was to prime them. I started with the zombies, because you've gotta screw up pretty fierce to make zombies look bad. Two coats of black paint later, my zombies were looking like freaky little tar monsters.

Someone from the boards had the excellent suggestion of using sticky tack to affix the figures to something so I didn't have to actually touch the figure while painting. Thus the plastic cups. There are two colors of zombies, green and brown, and since I needed to preserve that in my final output I marked the cups with either a "G" or "B".

With all the prep complete it was time to break out the color. I wanted to preserve the original skin tone difference between the two sets of zombies, so I mixed two not-quite-human skin colors. After the skin was painted on zombies I was able to go nuts applying various clothing colors to them, making full use of the 24 colors in my palette. Lastly I finished off the bases, starting with a dark-green base (to match the game board) and then accenting them with either a light green or brown to bring back the two zombie team colors.



The final step was to apply a coat of matte varnish to make sure that the paint won't wear down as the figures get handled during gameplay.


You can see more photos of the final result here. Personally, I'm extremely happy with how they turned out. Now that I've cut my teeth on the zombies, the next step is to tackle the heroes. There's more detail to worry about with the heroes, but the core steps should be the same. I'll post photos when I'm done.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Always a Critic

I worry sometimes that I'm too negative. If I scan back through what I've written on this blog, I see more negative statements than positive statements. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with criticism, but when that's all you've got to say it's pretty darn depressing. Saying the glass is half empty is fine, but focusing on the fact that it's one eighth empty is taking it a bit far. I don't want to be that person.

Sometimes the most succinct way to describe something is in the ways that it differs from something similar. If you had to illustrate everything from scratch every time, building up from the base to the small details, it would take forever. It's far easier to talk about things in relation to other things. This is a fundamental optimization of communication. But hidden in these comparisons are value statements. You say what something is, and you say what it is not. And it saying what it is not, you are often describing what it should be. And in pondering too often what things are not, it is too easy to lose sight of what they are.

This is a common problem. No one really talks about the ways in which the world's religions and denominations are similar; we focus on (and wage wars over) the miniscule ways that they are different. We don't talk about similarity because similarity is understood. There's nothing more to say. Everybody likes ice cream; everybody likes bacon. It's far more interesting to talk about ways in which we are different. But there's a difference between knowing how you are different from something and defining yourself by how you are different.

I don't think of myself as a negative person, and I don't think that I'm overly negative in my interactions with other people. I enjoy a good argument, but that's not the basis for how I relate to others. So is this disproportionate negativity just an anomaly of my writing?

I definitely know that I struggle with it constantly in blogging. Far more topics flit through my head than I have the time to put to words. So there's an ongoing selection process for deciding what topics to write about. The topics I write about are the ones that I have the most to say about. I've talked before about how this leads to me writing about games. But it turns out it's also a factor in contributing to an overall negative tone.

Concrete example: You'll notice I never wrote about Iron Man. Why? Iron Man was freaking awesome. Thoroughly enjoyable. I'd recommend it to almost anyone. But everyone knows that Iron Man was awesome. I didn't feel the need to tell anyone. It was just understood.

I also haven't written anything about The Orange Box, which was one of my favorite games from last year. Portal is gaming perfection, Team Fortress is refinement of a classic, and Episode Two ends with one of the most epic gaming sequences I've experienced in a long time. It's not like I decided to not write about it. It's still totally on my list. But I've subconsciously preferred so many topics over it. What's wrong with me?

I think it's a natural tendency, and one I'll probably always struggle with. Constant Vigilance, I guess. But at least I'm aware of it. I began this blog as an effort to help my memory, and in respect of that I think it's important to keep my personal time capsule from becoming a depressing log of spiraling negativity.

Paprika

I have no recollection of how Paprika ended up in my queue. Maybe someone else recommended it to me, maybe it popped up on a Netflix related list. Regardless, going into the movie I really had no idea what exactly to expect. I knew from the sleeve that it was an anime, and that's about it.

Paprika is a story about dream therapy. Not any sort of traditional dream therapy, but rather an invention that allows a therapist to enter your dreams and help you work through reoccurring dreams and nightmares. Unfortunately the device falls into the wrong hands, and a sort of dream terrorist emerges. Victims of his nightmares go insane and start throwing themselves out of windows and such. It starts strong, but the plot gets fuzzy real quick. There's some detective work going on to track down the culprit, but it's not told particularly well and I quickly became lost. I mean, I got the gist of it, but it wasn't exactly crisp.

Thankfully the visuals are amazing. The dreams are appropriately vibrant and surreal. The parade of insanity is creepy, but I especially liked the first patient's reoccurring dream sequence with everything from film noir to a circus to shrinking hallways. The waking scenes also are really well done, with a realistic style that sharply contrasts the insanity going on in people's heads.

But overall I was left disappointed. It was definitely pretty, but I felt like the premise was squandered. Basically the plot was two stars, and the visuals were four. So it really would depend on your mood how much you'd enjoy it. When I sat down to watch it I guess I was in the mood for plot, because in the end the movie didn't quite do it for me.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I Am Legend

I think zombie movies are most successful when they focus on what it means to be a survivor. Take our world, fuck it up, and then tell the story of the people living in that world. The world is some modification on ours, so we can relate to it; but the world is also changed, so it's a little more interesting.

Zombie survival stories are distinct from other post-apocalyptic stories in that the world is largely intact. All the stuff that mankind has built for itself is still there. The difference is that all the people are gone. The stories generally revolve around being lonely and coming to understand how much we depend on each other (both for infrastructure and for emotional support). But of course we live in a world that celebrates the resilience of the individual, so at the same time the stories are about how one resourceful person can survive untold odds and carve out a life. And that of course is one of the other themes: transcending just surviving to rebuilding civilization. These are the nuts and bolts that hold a zombie film together. The monsters, the action, the gore… these things are all secondary.

I Am Legend is a zombie movie (although you might not know it from the preview). Well, they're technically supposed to be vampires, but the vampires exist in great numbers and resulted from a worldwide infection. Whatever, they're nocturnal zombies. Anyway, the story is most successful when it concentrates on Robert Neville's (Will Smith's character) survival story. It's fascinating to watch the desolate city, his daily routine, and his bond with his dog. That stuff is all goodness. That's what a good zombie movie is made of: a great survival scenario.

I thought everything about the movie was quite successful until somewhere around the point where he makes contact with another survivor. It's not that adding someone else to the mix was inherently bad, it just happened so late in the film that it couldn't be fully developed. And the ending was just plain terrible. Why do we need so many stories of needless martyrdom? There's a place for sacrifice, but it has to have meaning. More often than not it feels like a cheap Hollywood cash-in for emotional filler. I personally like it when a storyteller has the balls to kill off a primary character when it fits the storyline. When characters survive everything unscathed it takes the bite out of their dangerous environment. But its another thing entirely to have a character take their own life in the face of danger when there were hundreds of valid alternatives. That's just cheap. It's not like the story of I Am Legend was lacking loss. Robert Neville loses everyone he knows, his whole family, and most poignantly his last companion, Sam. But Neville's death is pointless.

But I digress. The ending left some large questions about the evolution of the infected unanswered. Supposedly Robert Neville is some sort of brilliant scientist, yet he is completely oblivious to the obviously evolving intelligent behavior in the infected. In the theatrical ending, none of that was addressed. I didn't realize it at the time, but apparently that wasn't the original ending. In the original ending Robert Neville begins to see himself through the eyes of the infected. To them he is a murderous invader; he is the villain. The meaning of the title is different: he is a legend to them, as opposed to him being a legend to the remaining human survivors for creating a cure or some crap. The role reversal is a far more interesting premise, but apparently it was deemed unpalatable by the general movie-going public.

You know, I had the same problem with Wanted last week; an interesting story adapted to film and being changed for the worse. Sure, you have to change some things to a story when it crosses mediums. But don't change the freaking premise. In doing a little research on the original book I found out that it's been called out as a key inspiration behind such films as Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. This is a story that was instrumental in shaping a whole genre, and had already inspired two direct film adaptations. What about this makes a filmmaker think they can make a last minute change to the ending and have the same impact?

Okay, I'm done ranting. Seriously, I really enjoyed the first two acts. It's just frustrating that the ending was a total cop out.

Monday, July 14, 2008

WALL-E

Pixar has a pretty strong track record. They don't make many films, but every single one of them has been thoroughly entertaining. They might not all completely rock your world, but with those animators painstakingly scrubbing frame by frame it's pretty hard for complete crap to make it to the final cut. WALL-E completely lives up to its strong pedigree.

After the movie I polled our group to see where WALL-E ranked relative to the other Pixar films. We made it a little technical and did a quick and dirty ladder elimination. Here are the results:

  1. The Incredibles
  2. WALL-E
  3. Ratatouille
  4. A Bug's Life
  5. Monster's Inc.
  6. Finding Nemo
  7. Toy Story
  8. Toy Story 2
  9. Cars

It wasn't the most scientific process, so the list is imperfect. I don't think we ever did all the proper matches in the secondary bracket. But it gives you the gist. WALL-E is one of the best of a very strong list of animated films.

The Incredibles won out in that list, but it's hard to really crown a champion. Fundamentally it's too early to properly place WALL-E (time and another viewing could shift the mix), but there's no doubting that it's really good. Thoroughly enjoyable. Easily recommended to anyone with a pulse.

The premise is kind of similar to that of Idiocracy, except this time there's actually a worthwhile plot. Oh, and robots. Robots make everything better. These aren't your standard mutinizing deathbots, but they're so adorable that I'll forgive their lack of hatred for meatbags.

Most Pixar stories have a strong moral, with varying levels of subtlety. I'm okay with there being a message, but I don’t like being beat over the head with it. It's one of the few things I dislike about Monster's Inc, actually - it gets a little too warm and fuzzy. WALL-E has a message, but I never felt like I was being preached too.

Anyway, WALL-E is a totally charming. Unless you have a heart of coal I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Wanted

In watching Wanted I kept thinking of Assassin's Creed. Not just because they are both stories about leagues of assassins, but because they are both stories with a lot of style but not a lot of heart. That sounds cheesy, and in no way do I mean to imply that the film was lacking some awful stock romantic comedy love story. I mean that the story callously blew by some serious events that most humans would stop at. I felt guilty every time Altair needlessly knifed some guard who was just doing his job; similarly I couldn't help but notice the extreme collateral damage left behind by Wanted's Wesley Gibson. Seriously, train wrecks that kill hundreds of innocent bystanders are hard to let slide. I'm a reminded a bit of Die Hard 2 (which by the way is terrible), where McLane saves the day but somewhere along the way an entire passenger plane of people is incinerated and nobody seems sad.

Keep in mind that I don't have a weak heart for violence. I play video games, I watch action movies, and I enjoy a good zombie flick (especially when the good guys lose and everybody dies). I'm properly desensitized, right? Well, there are different types violence. The right setting can make violence contextually appropriate (sometimes entertaining, sometimes funny). Catch the wrong balance and you'll have me actually thinking about what's going on onscreen (which has a place, but only if you have the story and maturity of emotion to back it up). Wanted doesn't completely miss the mark - there are scenes that pull off the action with style or humor. But there were quite a few moments where I found myself thinking "was that really necessary?"

It's a delicate line. For example, stabbing someone in the eye with a carrot = awesome. Shooting someone through someone else's eye socket = gratuitous. It's a shame too, because the triumphant march of bad assery leading up to that moment is nothing short of beautiful.

All the chaos surrounding Wesley Gibson's rise to power left me undecided about his character. He's no lawful good hero, that's for sure. That's fine, I can handle the dark and vengeful hero (hey, it works for Batman). But that doesn’t really fit Wesley either, as he feels far more self indulgent than righteous. I'm not saying that everything has to be black and white good vs. evil, but instead of being complicated everything about Wanted's morality is just plain muddled. They try to fix this by providing a lame back story of The Greater Good, reinforced only by a quick fire-side tale from Angelina, but it doesn't stick.

Apparently this movie came from a comic book. And in doing a little research on the comic to film adaptation I began to understand more where the alignment got all out of whack. In the comic The Fraternity is not an order of righteous assassins, but rather a band of super villains. These quotes from the writer about the adaptation help put things into perspective:

"The only thing that they really changed substantially was where the assassins came from, and that does obviously mean a radical change running through it, because suddenly Wesley isn’t a force for evil – in some ways, he’s a force for good"
They changed the justification but let the actions and personality untouched. Maybe it's more palatable by the general moviegoing public, but it doesn't make any sense. Fundamentally, the righteousness is not what Wesley's journey is about. It's about him finding out he's special, standing up for himself, transferring from being shat upon to shitting upon others. It's not like the motivating factor in his transformation is that he found some higher calling to help people. Actually, the turning point is when he checks his bank balance and finds out he's rich (no really, that's the pivotal part for his character - go capitalism). So why bother adding justification to his actions if his journey is inherently self-centered? What was wrong with this being a story about villains?

"if everyone was outright villains, it made it hard to root for the guys, which I could appreciate, but not agree with. The Godfather is all about villains, and you end up rooting for them. You just have to put them against guys who are more evil."
This was another shortcoming for me. Even with the changes they made I didn't really feel like the villain was any more evil than the protagonist. I wasn't rooting for anyone in particular. Which is sad, because that's almost the same as not caring. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I liked the original concept so much more. Most of the things that bothered me during the movie are the same things that were changed in the comic to film adaptation. Guess I'm going to have to give the graphic novel a flip through.

Anyway, when it comes down to it I do always try to judge movies on very basic criteria. Was I entertained? Absolutely. Yes, I realize I just spent many paragraphs talking about stuff that bothered me. But there was totally good stuff in there. I really enjoyed how pathetic Wesley is in the beginning of the movie, hitting a little on that vibe that worked so well for Fight Club and The Matrix. Stylistically the movie had some strong images that are memorable. I had a good time watching it. It just didn't bring anything new or particularly impactful to the table, but that's not always necessary if you're just looking for an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Top FPS games of all time

ScrewAttack.com put together a video countdown of the top 10 FPS games of all time. I suggest you go and watch the video, but for discussion here's their list:

1. GoldenEye 007
2. Halo
3. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
4. Wolfenstein 3D
5. Quake
6. Counter-Strike
7. Duke Nukem
8. Half-Life 2
9. Doom 3
10. BioShock

It's a pretty solid list, although there are definitely some items I'd shift around. I don't think they're so consistent about whether this is a list of most influential games or most polished. The choice of Doom 3 over the original Doom throws it all out of whack.

I was curious how their list compared to review scores, so I put together a Metacritic query to get the top rated FPS games of all time. Collapsing to one entry per franchise, this is what you get for the top 10:

1. Perfect Dark (97)
2. Halo (97)
3. Half-Life 2 (96)
4. GoldenEye 007 (96)
5. BioShock (96)
6. Quake (94)
7. Gears of War (94)
8. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (94)
9. Unreal Tournament 2004 (93)
10. Thief: The Dark Project (92)

In case you're curious, here are the rest (this is from the top 50, which only includes games with a rating of 89 or greater, collapsed by franchise):
11. Team Fortress 2 (92)
12. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way (91)
13. Rez (Import) (91)
14. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (91)
15. Battlefield 2 (91)
16. Crysis (91)
17. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay - Developer's Cut, The (90)
18. Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (90)
19. Einhander (90)
20. TimeSplitters 2 (90)
21. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (90)
22. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (90)
23. F.E.A.R. Combat (90)
24. Portal (90)
25. Bangai-O Spirits (90)
26. Far Cry (89)
27. Max Payne (89)
28. Descent 3 (89)
29. Duke Nukem 3D (89)

Wolfenstein 3D is too old to show up on Metacritic, which explains its absence. As is the original Doom. I didn't hit Doom 3 at all in my walk through the top 50. Turns out it was a couple pages further down, with a rating of 88.

You'll also notice that Counter-Strike isn't on the list. That's largely because the version that people are still playing is a free mod, which puts it outside the scope of Metacritic. It's successor, Counter-Strike Source, does show up, with a rating of 88. It's hard to figure out a proper rating for these mini titles. You'll notice TF2 and Portal in the list above, although technically they could be roped under The Orange Box, which is how most people played them (a title which rates at a very high 96).

Duke Nukem is further down the Metacritic list than it is on ScrewAttack's, but I'm going to have to agree with Handsome Rob on this one. Duke Nukem was pure awesomeness back in 1996. It's elusive sequel is the butt of many jokes, but when that epic trailer hit in 2001 you know were excited. Hell, it still looks like it'd be fun.

But there's one place where I think the placement of ScrewAttack's list is way off, and that's for Half-Life. The PC is the prime platform for the FPS genre, and Half-Life is the best selling FPS on that platform (although yes, Halo 3 has sold more, but just barely). But ratings and sales aside, Half-Life for me personally is definitely #1. I know I'm a little biased, but I can honestly say that I wouldn't be where I am today in life without this game.

One thing I think is a little odd about the Metacritic list is that Metroid Prime 3 shows up as a shooter but Metroid Prime (one of the highest rated games of all time with an 87) does not. Having played all three of the Prime games, I'd have to say that they all are pretty equivalent in their shooter content. The Wiimote makes it easier to look around, but the core shooting mechanic still isn't the highlight of the gameplay. But it's more of a shooter than say Portal, which does show up. Bleh, all that genre stuff gets more and more muddled every day.

So what about my list? Ugh, that's hard. I think I can tell you this much:
1. Half-Life
2. Halo

I missed the whole Perfect Dark and GoldenEye thing. I was off in PC land playing too much Starcraft to care about early console shooters. Funny thing, Starcraft only averages a Metacritic score of 88, which shows you about how much weight to put in subtle score differences.

One of these days I'm going to crack down and list all the games I've ever played, autobiographically (High Fidelity style). Maybe then I'll feel like I've done the proper amount of introspection to present you with a solid top 10 list.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tabula Rasa On Hold

I quit WoW once I had seen all the sights I wanted to see and I knew that the rest wasn't worth the effort. I quit Lord of the Rings Online when I realized that the gameplay just didn't do it for me anymore. So why am I deciding that now is the time to quit Tabula Rasa? I've been totally digging this MMO. It's managed to turn traditionally slow MMORPG gameplay into something much more exciting. So if the game plays great, then what's the freaking problem?

As time passed playing Tabula Rasa, I began to realize that it was a really lonely game. I grouped up whenever there was an opportunity, and that was always fun, but over time it happened less and less. I started making it more of a priority, but the vast majority of my time was still spent solo. I think there are a couple factors at work here. One obvious problem is that the game hasn't been a smash success, and the population is on the decline. Spread the few players over segregated servers and level ranges and the result is that there are few people that you can actually play with. This is made worse by the fact that the traditional instanced group activities have zero replay incentive - loot is completely exchangeable in Tabula Rasa, so the only reason to run an instance is for the quest, and once you've done the quest there's no reason to return. So your only potential partners are people that are in your level range and haven't run the quest yet, and there just aren't enough of them. The fact that Tabula Rasa is lenient about group composition and travel is great, but it can't make up for a lack of players. It makes me feel guilty, because I know that me leaving doesn't make it any easier for the people I'm leaving behind, but the whole thing was starting to feel like a diluted single player game.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem whatsoever with a single player game in a large persistent world. That's how I find myself playing most MMOs. But if you're going to survive completely on that, you need something driving you forward that's as powerful as a traditional singleplayer epic. Tabula Rasa is overall weak on story and environment (although it does has its moments). Towards the high 30s I ran into a long stream of lackluster content that just killed my mojo. If there was some social gameplay to distract me I'd probably keep on truckin', but without that there just wasn't enough to pull me through.

I can blame that weak content for my waning interest, but there's also a bit of a flaw in the character development track. Through the lower levels you are very involved in shaping your character to your play style, with your final class decision happening at level 30. That's a great moment, and after that you've got quite a few levels to break in your awesome new abilities. But after you've pumped some points into them and found your balance you realize that there's nothing more coming. You'll get more points to allocate, making your abilities slightly more powerful, but there's nothing significant that will change all the way from 30 to the level cap at 50. By the late 30s I felt like I'd already mastered my arsenal and had nothing to focus on next.

So it was that I found myself with no one to play with, no interesting story to pursue, increasingly repetitive environments, and no long-term developments to look forward to. Basically, the long-term appeal was gone.

So I've put my Tabula Rasa account into hibernation. I could go back and start with another class, and that does intrigue me. In fact, even after everything I've said above, just thinking about the game makes me want to play it some more. But I think I'd rather put this one on the backburner and see if the development team can flesh more things out in the following months. I hope they do, because the moment to moment action of this game is still my favorite for any MMO.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Saints Row vs. GTA IV

I was a little curious what kind of angle Saints Row 2 would take with regards to the elephant in the room that is GTA IV. I thought they would just put distance between releases and act as if their competitor doesn’t exist. Nope. Instead they’re releasing videos that make direct comparisons in a virtual gauntlet throw-down. Now as I recall the activities in Saints Row were actually really fun, but going head to head with the obscenely well rated GTA IV is pretty ballsy.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Broken Flowers

I don't bust out the 1 star rating on Netflix very often, but Broken Flowers has received that honor. You'd think a movie with an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes would guarantee at least some level of enjoyment. Nope. The critics seem to love it, but if you look around at forums or user ratings you'll see I'm not alone in my disappointment.

It doesn't take much for me to enjoy a movie. I have to be entertained or walk away thinking. Either is acceptable, both are great. Broken Flowers managed to come up with neither. For a movie billed as a comedy it was decidedly not funny. No laughter, no smile, no dry statement aloud of "That's funny," not even a pleasant retrospective afterwards of some ridiculous moment.

Okay, so it's not humor I'm going to get out of this… maybe there are interesting characters? Nope. I'm cool with many forms of Bill Murray (everything from Ghostbusters to Lost in Translation to Life Aquatic), but his character in Broken Flowers has crossed the line from being understated to stating nothing. The women of the film provide the only personality, but they are constrained to short vignettes. So really you're stranded with no emotional anchor for the entire film.

How about plot? Certainly this slow, unfunny movie with bland characters must tell an interesting tale? Not the case. The setup is forced and the plot goes nowhere. No really, nowhere - the ending was extremely unsatisfying. You know, the sort where the credits start scrolling and you say aloud "Really? That's it?" You can squint and say that the movie made a statement about a man going on a journey to find out he wanted something he didn't know he wanted. But really at that point you're just trying to find a way to justify the wasted hour and a half of your life.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

28 Weeks Later

I quite enjoyed 28 Days Later. It's a zombie movie that's not a zombie movie. In this world it's not about the dead rising, it' s about a virus that turns people into rage-filled assailants. This curates a different theme from the normal shambling hordes (even compared to those movies that do have fast zombies). The story is unveiled in an interesting way too, with the events of the movie happening well after the initial outbreak. You usually don't expect mystery from a zombie flick, but 28 Days Later delivers. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and highly recommend it to anyone with the stomach for the thrills and gore.

So I decided to check out its sequel: 28 Weeks Later. And I'm decided more conflicted about this one. With one hand it makes bold statements and presents interesting scenarios, while with the other hand it frustrates me to no end with people making stupid decisions.

This movie takes place after the Infected have died of starvation and Great Britain is being reclaimed. The United States military is securing an area of London, incinerating any possible remnants of the virus, and slowly reintroducing the citizens that had escaped the outbreak. It's an interesting setting with lots of possibilities. Well, as far as moviemaking goes there's only one possibility (another outbreak), but you know what I mean.

I don't take any offense to the core events that unfold after this, but the details of how they came to pass drive me nuts. I don't like movies where the world is saved by the actions of one child's, nor do I like movies where one child's actions damn the entire world (although the latter is far more likely). There are too many key moments in 28 Weeks Later where everything goes to crap because of something stupid. There's no guard looking over the potentially infected mother; the civilians are frantically relocated to an unsecure location; nobody tells the kids nor their eventual caretakers that they might be different. These events unfold for stupid reasons, when perfectly good reasons could have been given with just a few more minutes of footage. There are guards posted over the mother, but they get distracted or just plain overtaken; There's a proper heavily-drilled procedure for locking down the civilians but something else goes wrong and the protection is compromised. Blah, blah, blah - it's not hard to switch the blame here from stupid people to something more reasonable. Yes, I realize that there are people out there making dumb decision that just might destroy us all, but I don't think that makes a good movie. That just gets you cursing that the screen, rolling your eyes, and saying "well I wouldn't have done that."

Despite these faults, the movie does manage to make some bold statements. It's not easy to get a viewer to sympathize with the military opening up on innocents, but in this movie you totally do. There's a theme throughout the movie of various people making sacrifices for the greater good. The ballsy thing about the movie is that these actions cause the end of all civilization as we know it. In other words, compassion and heroism not only leads to failure, but repercussions on an epic scale. It is by no means your standard zombie movie message, and it'll keep your brain churning well after the movie is over.

I'm finding that the movies in this genre I like best are the ones with smart people making smart decisions in a difficult situation. That doesn't guarantee success for them. That's a good message: the right choices don't always lead to success. Saying that dumb choices lead to failure is a worthless message. I liked the original Dawn of the Dead because it was a story about people trying to carve out a life for themselves in a horrible situation. You watched what they did and though "hmmm, that's an interesting idea - I wonder how it'll work out." You cared for the characters because on some level you could relate to them.

Now I'm not saying that 28 Weeks Later is a bad movie. It's not. It's has an interested setting and premise, it's well executed, and it'll keep you thinking afterwards. But there were some serious lapses in storytelling that almost ruined the experience for me. Almost. I would still take another ride through this world again 28 Months Later or whatever, but this time no freaking kids, okay?

Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360)

There was a fair share of controversy around Assassin's Creed when it was released last Fall. There seemed to be a split between people who thought it was flawless and others who got caught up on something and ended up bashing it. And now that I've played the game I totally understand why it played out that way. Assassin's Creed is a game that is so close to greatness that it's few flaws stick out in sharp contrast. Whether you love it or are disappointed by it depends on whether those flaws are enough to pull you out of the experience. I personally was able to largely ignore the blemishes and really enjoy myself, but I was left with a feeling that this game could have been so much more.

Let's get one thing out of the way first - Assassin's Creed looks great. The presentation of games these days is often judged on sheer graphic photorealism. And Creed has that, but what it really excels at is motion. Altair runs, stalks, climbs, and fights in a completely fluid manner. You leap across rooftops, drop down into the streets, and disappear amongst the bustling merchants… and it all looks totally natural and effortless. The way that Altair climbs walls, shuffling around and reaching for handholds, is truly impressive.

The cities in the game are amazingly lifelike. There's detail everywhere, and when you climb up to a vantage point to get a full panorama it all looks extraordinary. At the street level there are people everywhere going through their daily tasks, looking quite natural. But it's here that the façade first started to crack for me. I hadn't even finished my first assassination before I'd heard many of the voice clips repeat two or three times. It's hard to feel that it's a living city with realistically behaving citizens when they all say the exact same thing. This is standard fare in video games, of course. But Assassin's Creed hides its videogame-ness so well in so many other places that little things like this stand out.

For a game about assassination it's really critical for the world to behave believably. The game really succeeds when you're stalking your target waiting for the right moment, or frantically trying to elude the guards after you've raised the alarm. But it falls apart when you realize that the guards chase just as doggedly when you accidentally bump into one of them as after you've murdered their king. Or when you sometimes can take down a guard in plain sight and no one seems to care. Or when you decimate an entire section of guards because they always let you fight them one at a time. All of these things work to change the atmosphere from being a sandbox game to becoming an arcade game.

You follow an interesting structure leading up to each assassination. You scout out the area from the rooftops, perform some investigations so you know when to strike, and then you get approval from the local assassin's bureau to go after your mark. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be much point to carefully planning out your attack. The investigations you do simply unlock the final assassination - they don't actually have any specific bearing on how it carries out. It would be great if additional planning gave you the locations of the guards, or arranged a distraction that provided a better opening. But instead you simple waltz up to the target, see a cut scene, and do the deed. There are some satisfying assassinations, but in general there's a ton of untapped potential here.

One of the things that really bothered me was the inconsistency in Altair's moral code. He's supposed to be an honorable assassin, who claims poison is a cowards tool and refuses to slay the innocent. But somehow the town guards are not considered amongst the innocent. Never mind that these guards are just working people with families at home. Altair always sides with the accused in disputes with the guards, assuming them all to be corrupt. I know it's a lot to ask from a video game, but I feel that the game's story and characters would hold more weight if you actually had to do out your job in the least disruptive way. When I first played the game I naturally tried to bypass guards and perform the sneakiest assassinations possible (this coming from a guy who hates stealth games). But over time I realized it was far easier to just murder every single guard who got in my way. Subltety be damned.

All of these things I complain about are what prevents Assassin's Creed from being a true masterpiece. But I wouldn't even be talking about them if it weren't so close. When it works, it works really well. The premise behind the entire story is really clever. It provides an excellent framework and leads really well to more games in the same franchise. Which I hope to see. The developer has really taken some of the ideas from their work on Prince of Persia to the next level, and with some focus they could have something truly amazing on their hands. As is Assassin's Creed is still a must play, just forgive me for wanting it to be more than it is.

Friday, April 18, 2008

We Own The Night

From the previews I thought that We Own The Night was going to be the story of two brothers who end up as enemies in the war on drugs. But that's not really what it is. It's more the story of two divided brothers reluctantly coming together in the face of tragedy; basically a tale of the bond of family winning over everything else. And watching the preview again now I probably should have picked up on that, but it's hard to process all that information in a short time period.

It's a good thing, because the plot is far more interesting this way. Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play brothers who are headed in opposite directions. Wahlberg's character is following the footsteps of their father (played by Robert Duvall) as a police officer, while Phoenix's character is partying hard as a club manager and is slowly getting involved in the drug culture. In a lesser movie, Phoenix's character would be on path to become some villain who slowly loses his humanity and the ability to understand the harm he's causing. But this ain't that movie. Instead he goes through the painful process of abandoning the life he had built for himself when he sees harm come to his brother and father.

It’s all about family and duty. The two brothers don't get along at all. But even if in adult life you don't connect with your sibling that doesn't mean you can undo the childhood you shared. That bond, even if unintended or undesired, is strong. Phoenix's character throws away everything to protect his family, but he doesn't do it through some noble sense of martyrdom. He doesn't go through some heartfelt transformation and emerge sunshine and rainbows. He's conflicted the whole time. He loses the life he wanted, and he's pretty miserable afterwards.

It's complicated. I came in expecting something less subtle than what I got, so I was pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Tabula Rasa

You can currently get Tabula Rasa dirt cheap on Amazon. If you were on the fence but didn’t want to plop down the money for the initial purchase it should be a no brainer now.

I'm definitely still enjoying it. I'm currently at level 35, which means I've made my final class selection (Grenadier) and have had a few levels to play around with it. I don't have a flamethrower, but I do have a cryogenic disperser (or as I call it, "The Popsicle Maker"), which is equally awesome. That combined with rockets, chainguns, and some area of effect based Logos abilities makes me obscenely good at taking down large squads of enemies. I'm currently working on tracking down the Logos to unlock my class' signature Concussion Wave ability.

The development team is doing a great job of regularly making improvements to the game. The latest update made holding a crazy combo even more compelling and added some great rewards for attacking/defending control points. I hope they're able to keep up this agile development pace, because they have some really cool ideas in the pipeline. Tabula Rasa has a lot to teach the MMO genre at large, so I thought I'd compile a list of its strengths and weaknesses.

Things Tabula Rasa could teach other MMOs:

  • Quick Travel: Less time wasted due to instant and free travel between waypoints. Better connectivity due to multiple waypoints per zone
  • Play-Style Flexibility: Less rigid about grouping because instances scale to squad size
  • Feels Heroic: Multiple enemies instead of single targets that take a long time to kill. You are stronger than most individual targets, so you feel like a bad ass.
  • Risk: Incentive to play aggressively due to combo XP modifiers
  • Dynamic Environments: Control points provide a constantly moving PVE target. A mix of allied and enemy NPCs dropping in randomly creates a real warzone feeling.
  • Achievements: Per zone rewards for various accomplishments (Targets of Opportunity). Logos provide exploration oriented goals.
  • Informed Decisions: The most important decision for your character (class) is made after you've already had time to play and figure out what you like and don't.
  • Don't Make Me Start Over: Cloning lets you branch your character to try something different without having to start over from scratch
  • Levels Are Less Important: Less rigidness in the level strata means you can take on enemies well above your level. There's still a point beyond which you're screwed, but it's not as tight of a level band as WoW or LotRO.
  • Informal Cooperation: Kill credit is shared even if you're not in a squad, provoking more impromptu grouping
  • Share: Built-in support for sharing resources between your characters
  • Unlockables: The hybrid races are only available after completing quests, making them somewhat of a prestige item.
  • Community: Regular and frank Feedback Fridays let you know what the development team is up to
  • Development: Small updates with a short development cycle

Things Tabula Rasa could learn from other MMOs:

  • Casual Play: Rest XP bonus rewards you for having self control
  • Items Have Value: Interesting rewards for running instances (especially since instances are available for all play styles now). The lack of soulbound items in Tabula Rasa makes getting gear a little too easy (and thus less rewarding)
  • Epic Boss Battles: Interesting scripted encounters that make you poo your pants
  • Customization: Any shortcomings in WoW's user interface can be overcome with UI mods. Empowering the community to do work for you is a good thing.
  • More Locales: There are currently two planets in Tabula Rasa, with each planet having multiple zones. Unfortunately this only really amounts to two different palettes. It's sad when a game with interstellar possibilities has less variety than Middle Earth.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Carnivàle

I recently finished the second season of Carnivàle, which since the show didn't get renewed means I've watched the entirety of the series. Really puts a damper on that planned six season story arc. The show took an aggravatingly snail-like pace to unravel the primary storyline, to the point where I just stopped caring. There's a personified agent of evil, his counter agent of good, and lots of tension… but they don't end up in the same place until the very end of that second season. There are shows out there that string mystery along successfully, but this isn't one of them.

I didn't stick with watching the show for two seasons because of the story; I did it for the setting. Carnivàle follows a traveling circus in the depression era dustbowl, and completely nails that dirty, desolate, freaky atmosphere. It's got one of the best title sequences ever. The costume design is also especially noteworthy; it takes talent to make me lust after a haggard three-piece suit that's been worn every day and drug all over middle America. Everything fits together to create a unique atmosphere that lets you completely forget the meandering plot.

The primary protagonist, Ben Hawkins, isn't really likeable. But he's not explicitly unlikable either... he's just kinda… there. He squints, he whines, but mainly he just putts about while having a hard time understanding the world he's caught up in. His antagonist, Brother Justin the preacher, is clearly the stronger character, but your feelings about him get all confused in trying to figure out where his sister fits in. Is she the root of his evil or is she a victim? From episode to episode her tact varies wildly. The writers set up Ben and Justin on a Good vs. Evil storyline but then muddle the characters in an effort to make them feel more complicated. The end result is that you just don't care what happens to them.

To be fair, it's only the main plotline that's unsatisfying. The stories of the secondary characters are far more interesting. It helps that their arcs are introduced and resolved in a timely fashion. They also get less wrapped up in the series' uneven mysticism. I'm all for the supernatural, but I was never really able to figure out how this world worked. There's obviously some stuff afoot, but too many ideas are introduced and not enough are explored.

Carnivàle is a good series to sit back and watch if you don't want to think too hard. Unforgettable scenery, great costumes, interesting characters, unsatisfying plot. I wouldn't recommend the whole pie but it is worth tasting a slice.

Jet Li's Fearless

When it comes to martial arts, Jet Li's Fearless delivers, but everything else is just blah, blah, blah. I realize that these movies aren't really about the plot… but is it that hard to make it engaging? Fearless is the story of a prodigy's reckless youth, the (self-inflicted) tragedy that causes him to go into exile and think hard about his life, and then his return with transcending maturity and eventual martyrdom. In no way does the younger character feel connected to the older one. It might be me applying Western expectations to an Eastern story, but I like to see a character grow instead of be replaced. We're an individualist culture, and like to see the soul of a character persist through a transformation. Jet Li's character's change isn't properly explained. It's like you take trauma followed by a breath of fresh air and out pops perfection. Formula for success. Maybe I just demand a few more flaws from my hero characters.

Anyway, Jet Li kicks butt 'n stuff, and it's all very pretty. No nearly as pretty as Hero or Crouching Tiger, but still pretty. The film was marketed as being Jet Li's last epic martial arts film, which made me very confused when I recently saw ads on a bus for The Forbidden Kingdom with Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Not that I'm complaining: that sounds like a great idea. It could be spectacularly awful (the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of a teenage boy… again?), but the match-up will no doubt be incredible.

Anyway, you won't be wasting your time with Fearless; it's entertaining. But it left me feeling a little empty.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Beautiful Katamari (Xbox 360)

If you've played one Katamari game, you've played them all. There have been some small variations on the core formula, but it hasn't strayed too far from "roll up stuff and get big." Which is good, because that simple thing is so entertaining. If you've spent a lot of hours on the PS2 Katamari games, there's not much new to play around with in Beautiful Katamari on the Xbox 360. But if you've never experienced the joy of rolling up huge balls of crap, Beautiful Katamari delivers. You'll grow from the size of a penny to be bigger than the sun, all while listening to crazy J-Pop.

Every time you roll into another size class it's an epic moment. It's like leveling up in an RPG and going back to squash all the baddies that gave you trouble before. It's extremely entertaining the first time, but after you've seen the whole progression it does lose a little of its bite. And unfortunately you can only get so big before there's no more content in the game for you to roll up. Actually, the more I think about it the more I realize that Katamari is an RPG.

I really enjoyed Beautiful Katamari, but I can't help but be a bit disappointed. I'm ready for something new. Later in Beautiful Katamari you find yourself rolling up all these famous monuments from different civilizations, like Egypt or China. It'd be really fun to start out in different locales like that. They can't really raise the size limit anymore (you're already sucking up black holes by the end), so they way to improve the game is to add variety in the existing spectrum. Although… it could be possible to take it smaller. I could totally see Katamari at the molecular level... or cellular like Innerspace or Osmosis Jones... or rolling on the surface of a dog picking up fleas and hairs. Really, the game writes itself. Picking up sumo wrestlers is fun and all, but I think this series is ready for a scenery change.

Ben Hur

It seems like bad form to criticize a man's peak performance so closely after his death. I didn't plan it that way; the disc was already on its way back to Netflix when the news hit. And I know if I don't write down my thoughts now I'll have promptly forgot them a month from now. So, um, sorry for the bad timing?

Bun Hur is a widely recognized classic. It won like a bajillion Academy Awards in 1960 (more specifically, 14), including Best Actor for Mr. Heston. But let me tell you, it has not aged well. The legendary chariot scene holds up, but the rest is… meh. The characters are paper thin, Charlton Heston is the super cheese, the naval combat scene is laughably bad, and the whole thing is long and pretentious. The only reason to watch Ben Hur is to check it off your list of "movies I'm supposed to see for historical significance." But your time is really better spent doing anything else.

The film labels itself as "a tale of the Christ." It's not; it's a tale of revenge, with a bit of Jesus bolted on after the real climax of the movie. For part of the movie I thought they were going to handle the Christ thing well. I seemed like they were going to subtly interweave the story of Jesus with Ben Hur's story to give more context to both. It could have been really thoughtful and classy. But all that goes out the window when Jesus' death is met with stormy weather and instantly healed lepers across the land. The whole thing would have been much more interesting if there was a chance Biblical connection that was a side note in the life of Jesus (healing lepers 'n stuff) but huge for Ben Hur. But this is not a movie of subtlety. It's a big mess of dress up (how do those Romans get their whites so white?) and play acting. Skip it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

ScrewAttack's Top 20 SNES Games

The Atari brought gaming home, the NES pushed games beyond the abstract, the SNES perfected 2D, and then things went into 3D with the Playstation and N64. Most people weren't willing to follow the transfer from 2D to 3D, and I really can't blame them. With that transition came an increase in control complexity and a drop in graphical quality. For most people it was a downgrade, and that marked the end of their time with video games. The SNES was really the pinnacle of the 2D era. I wish there were more epic 2D games being developed today, but there aren't, so a list of the top SNES games is about as close to 2D heaven as you can get.

You can watch the ScrewAttack coverage here: Part 1 (20-11) Part 2 (10-1). And I recommend you do, but for the purpose of discussion, here's the whole list:

20) Donkey Kong Country
19) Killer Instinct
18) F-Zero
17) UN Squadron / Gradius 3
16) Star Fox
15) Turtles in Time
14) Street Fighter 2
13) Super Mario Kart
12) Contra 3
11) Super Castlevania 4
10) Actraiser
09) Yoshi's Island
08) Megaman X
07) Super Mario World
06) Secret of Mana
05) Super Mario RPG
04) Chrono Trigger
03) Final Fantasy 6
02) Zelda: A Link to the Past
01) Super Metroid

Now that is a solid list of games. I have yet to post a list of my all-time favorites, but you damned well know that both Super Metroid and A Link to the Past are going be on there. I've been widdling away at my second run through FF6 on the bus, which is an absolute classic. Secret of Mana deserves the shout out, both for breeding RPGs with action and for the awesome co-op. And damn if Super Castlevania doesn't have one of the best video game soundtracks ever.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Magnolia

Apparently I'm going against the grain in saying that Magnolia didn't rock my world. It's not that I didn't like it; I enjoyed it very much, actually. But it's fatally flawed.

High expectations always ruin movies, so I generally try to go in with as blank of a slate as possible. But Magnolia breaks this by establishing expectations in the first few minutes of the film. It tells a couple of stories of coincidence, where all the pieces fall together in some sort of sublime harmony. The feature that follows is supposed to be another such tale, but it's not. It's a great story, but it in no way fits into the pattern of the first couple vignettes. This breaks the entire experience. For the entirety of the film I was ready for some grand connection which never happened. The movie set my expectations and failed to meet them.

If I could ignore what the movie told me it would be about, It'd be much happier. But disappointment is hard to overcome. Which is too bad, because it really is an exceptionally well told story. The many storylines are all interesting, and the way in which they are stitched together is truly masterful. The emotion from one story stays with you as you transition to the next story, and it tints it every so appropriately. It's as if the threads are finishing each other's sentences. From a storytelling perspective it's amazing, but of course that is a separate thing from the storylines being naturally connected. See, I really can't get over it. Those initial vignettes were charming, but they're out of place and in the end cripple the potential of this brilliant film.

Expectations are dangerous, but let me try to use their power for good. Watch this movie, but don't expect it to go anywhere transcendent. The movie will tell you differently, but don't listen to it. It lies!

Board Games meet Video Games

Thank you random blog for compiling a list of video game to board/card game conversions. They're not like movie to game adaptations, where the fundamental mode of consumption has shifted from passive to interactive. Both video games and board games are obviously interactive mediums, but the type of interaction is very different. Video games are limitlessly virtual, where board games are physical, tangible things. The challenges involved in converting something from virtual to real while keeping the same spirit fascinates me. What aspects of the video game experience are important enough to demand a real physical object in your hand? Do you keep the same core game mechanics?

So I clicked through some of the links to look at the more interesting conversions. I skipped the CCGs, as that I'm not interested in tempting another expensive trip through those types of games. I'll take the Card Game part, but I could happily skip the Collectible aspect.

Starcraft: The Board Game (review, picture)
Real-Time Strategy games grew out of turned-based strategy games, which in turn grew out of board wargames, so it's natural to see Starcraft come full circle. Certainly the thought of moving around hydralisk miniatures sounds awesome. From the reviews it sounds like a pretty solid game, with enough variety in victory conditions to mix it up while preventing long games.

Halo Action Clix (review, picture)
Of the three reviews I read, none of the reviewers were familiar with Halo... which blows my mind. I mean, most of the value of these cross-over games is in the brand, right? But it seems there is a whole set of people who are interested in video games but don't play them (either because the games are too violent, or the controls are too complex, or whatever), and a board game adaptation is great approximation. I personally have a hard time wrapping my head around how a turn based wargame can capture the spirit of Halo deathmatch. But a lot of people seem to dig this one, and the miniatures look rad, so power to 'em.

World of Warcraft: The Board Game (review, video review, picture)
Yes, there is a WoW board game. And apparently it's epic in length and a little grindy… just like the real thing! I'm actually very intrigued by this one. It sounds like they distilled down character development, traveling, questing, and looting into a nice board game. It sounds a bit like the Middle Earth CCG that I used to play back in the day (which was great, but way too complicated for it ever to be as awesome as it was in my head). The WoW board game is compelling as an accelerated version of the MMO, but keep in mind that means a game takes only about five hours… yeah.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tag Changes

Awhile ago I created a special tag for posts that didn't pertain to gaming. I used the tag "notgame," which seemed descriptive enough at the time. Well, then I started getting into this whole board gaming thing and it got confusing. If a board game post has nothing to do with video games, do I tag it with "notgame"? That seems... odd. So I changed the tag. I've started using "videogame" and "notvideogame" as that tags. All existing posts have been retagged.

Anyway, this is your head's up in case you were hitting the "notgame" page and not getting any new content. Redirect to here instead.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rock Band (Xbox 360)

Back in December I was harsh to Guitar Hero III, but with good reason. By the time I was trying to write down my thoughts on Guitar Hero I had already started playing Rock Band. And Rock Band blows Guitar Hero out of the water.

Let me put it this way. There's actually a PS2 version of Rock Band. It has the core gameplay, but lacks the online multiplayer, deep character customization, world tour mode, and downloadable content. You know what that sounds like to me? Guitar Hero… but with more instruments. I'm sure it's still plenty of fun (and I'm glad that a similar version is making its way to the Wii), but that feature set really impressed upon me how far ahead Rock Band really is.

The full Rock Band kit costs a pretty penny, it's true. But I think that even if you were only to play Rock Band with a guitar it'd still be a better value than Guitar Hero. The tracks aren't all guitar showpieces, and the upper echelon of difficulty isn't as ridiculous as Guitar Hero III. But the things surrounding the core guitar gameplay are way better. Your character may not be as flamboyant as the premades in Guitar Hero III, but you'll have a deeper connection with them through your fine level personal touches. The stages may not be as grandiose as Guitar Hero's, but the band members move more believably and the action is shot in a way that actually responds to the music. The fretwork may be less furious , but that's because you're not barraged with awful metal songs. Songs in Rock Band are better on average because they have to be well rounded in order to be enjoyed by a group. And if you don't like them, go hit up the weekly downloadable tracks and customize the track list to your liking. And if you do eventually tire of just playing the guitar, you can try out the vocal career with that headset that came with your Xbox. Even without getting the drums that's still a ton more game for your $60.

I'm not sure why I'm so stuck on defensively comparing Rock Band to Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is fun, and it's awesome that it's become a cultural phenomenon. I'll still totally rent the Guitar Hero expansions that come out. But I'm pretty sure the Guitar Hero franchise is going nowhere.

Enough of my negativity… let's talk Rock Band.

Rock Band is the ultimate party game. Because there are three different types of instruments, pretty much anyone can find something that appeals to them. Eventually you'll get sick of strumming or whatever, but change up your instrument and it's blue skies again. Add some DLC so that the song list doesn't get repetitive and you've got hours and hours of fun.

I do wish there was a better way to teach people on the fly, because in a party setting you'll get people rotating in that need some hand holding before they can survive on easy. If they take down the band they'll get frustrated and/or embarrassed and quit. The game needs a "Don't boo off my aunt" setting. Or some sort of mode that shows "here's what you did, and here's what you were supposed to be doing…"

You can go all night just playing song after song, but there's also a World Tour story mode. In it you go around world playing gigs to earn fans, fame, and money. It's a cool idea, and it was really fun at first. But after a while you get stuck with lots of lengthy gigs and songs you don't want to play. If there were shorter set lists or more customization options this would be a great party mode with a sense of progress.

Something I really appreciate about Rock Band is that it's reasonable about achievements and unlockables. I jumped right into Expert guitar in the solo mode but got stuck on the very last song (which is fun right until it gets completely obnoxious at 90%). Were this Guitar Hero, I'd be screwed and have to start over from the beginning on Hard. But in Rock Band I was able to drop the difficulty and finish off just that tier, which gave me credit for Hard, Medium, and Easy. Thank you Rock Band, for not being a dick.

Now that they've patched in an integrated music store, I'm not sure what more I want from Rock Band. I'd like to see the World Tour mode go online and get more variety. And of course more songs is always nice, but I'm pretty happy with the steady flow of a la carte tracks. A free play mode on drums would be fun. I also wouldn't mind a return of some of the stats added in Guitar Hero 2, where you could see what parts you needed to work on. But overall I'm totally content. I've been playing Rock Band pretty steadily for the last four months and I'm nowhere near bored with it.

Rock Band will change how you listen to music (so will playing an instrument, but Rock Band is much more accessible). You'll find yourself listening to the different parts of a song and thinking about how awesome it would be to play. Your idly drumming fingers will develop form and purpose. You'll love some songs you used to hate and hate some songs you used to love. You'll sign internet petitions to get The Darkness added to the DLC. You'll wonder when the manager of Led Zeppelin's digital content will get their head out of their ass. You'll wear eye liner to work and tell people that you're in a band. You'll start snorting lines of coke off of hookers and… okay, maybe not all of that will happen. Your mileage may vary. But it's a damned fine game, no doubt.