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.