Thursday, December 31, 2009

False Ending

So I've been continuing my exploration of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And you know what, I took down the boss and saw the credits roll. So that means I beat the game, right? Apparently not so much. I just experienced the premature "bad" ending. In reality I'm only halfway through the game.

Truth be told, if I were playing this game back in 1997 when it came out, I don't know if I'd have realized that I'd encountered a false ending. Yeah, it was kind of a crappy one, but there's a long history of unsatisfying endings in video games. This ending didn't resolve much of the story, but the story didn't make that much sense anyway and it's told with such horrific voice acting that there's a chance someone would have skipped it. Even so, nothing about what's said in the "bad" ending indicates that you did something wrong. You ascend the final staircase and beat down who you consider to be the mastermind of everything that's gone down. After that you're treated to some exposition and then some unskippable credits. How are you supposed to know that that wasn't the real deal?

You may be thinking that perhaps I rushed through the game and missed otherwise obvious details. But I'm pretty obsessive about exploring every last inch of these types of games, fighting every monster and getting all the loot. When I came across the final staircase I knew it for what it was and backed off to go scour the rest of the map for secrets. I've played enough games to know that once you've beaten a game the incentive to go after the little side objectives drops off dramatically. If I don't do it before the ending, chances are I'll never do it. I wanted to make sure I got everything possible out of this game, so I held off the final boss fight as long as possible. When I was satisfied that I had got as many secrets as I could figure out I went off and got my (apparently bad) ending.

What was I missing? As thorough as I was, I apparently missed not one, but two critical items. If you get these two rings, equip them, and go to the clock tower then a door opens up. You go down there, get a cutscene and another item. If you wear that during the "final" boss battle and attack this mysterious green orb instead of the boss you break the curse and continue on to the second half of the game and eventually the real final boss. Totally obvious.

Okay, one of the rings I missed just because I forgot to go back somewhere after I got the bat form. But nothing about that ring obviously indicates what you should do with it. The other ring was in a secret area I didn't figure out. It looked like a place you were supposed to bat and mist through, but you were actually supposed to equip this armor that lets you walk through spikes (which I hadn't realized you could do). That ring more obviously indicated that you should wear it in the clock tower, but it's also extraordinarily easy to miss. To get that spike armor you first have to figure out a whole sequence of other secrets.

If this were Metroid, it'd be the equivalent of having the game end after you fight Kraid just because you skipped picking up some hidden missile pack (no Mother Brain for you). Or like if Zelda if you never got to fight Ganon because you missed one of the heart containers. Why would someone intentionally obfuscate such a large chunk of the game? It's a terrible idea.

The only reason I knew to continue was that I had heard the term "inverted castle" thrown around in reference to this game and when I hit the ending I hadn't seen any inverted castles. I also had an inkling that there was more because I'd played the GBA and DS games, where they've for whatever reason continued this tradition of premature bad endings. Thankfully those ones were more obvious with their badness.

And that's the problem, isn't it? In order to have a false ending it needs to be sufficiently bad. Like you screw up and a nuclear bomb goes off in Manhattan. You know, obvious failure. You should be thinking "whoops, that probably wasn't supposed to happen." Not "good job me, now let's watch the credits." You essentially want something that dumps you at a clear "Game Over" screen (although not Symphony's, which has to be the cheesiest Game Over screen ever). It's okay to have a "what if" scenario, but not if the "if" is convincing enough that you're willing to accept it and unknowingly miss out on half the experience.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Torchlight (PC)

Okay, enough talking about games that used to be better. It's time for some positive evolution.

Torchlight is Diablo III for those of us who can't wait for Diablo III. It's that same delightfully simple visceral click-fest that kept us all loot-crazed in the late 90s. Well, it's not the same; it's way better. Not only does it feature great graphics and fantastic art direction, it's also streamlined to remove any of the frustrations with the old formula. Oh, and did I mention that it's cheap? Yep, $20. Actually, this weekend it's only $10 on Steam.

If you've never played Diablo, know that Torchlight may still be the game for you. All you need to enjoy this game is a mouse and a pulse. Left button for one spell, right button for another, and go. The MMO genre stole a lot of it's core ideas from Diablo, but slowed everything way way down. I think we'd all forgotten that it doesn't have to be that hard. You don't need rows and rows of action bars with obscure abilities to have tactical depth. Left button, right button, win.

So you click like mad and unleash your fury on hordes of baddies. Then you run around and scoop up their shiny loot. Maybe you got some fancy new thing for yourself (yay!), but if not you can sell it for cash money. And this time around you have a pet to help you with this time honored task. That's right, you don't even need to stop the action in order to sell your goodies - just strap the loot to your pet and tell it to come back with the proceeds. But your pet isn't just a vendor mule - they fight alongside you and can even be given gear and spells. It's brilliant.

Torchlight stands on its own, but it really excites me that this game is the foundation for an MMO the developer is working on. They're going to take this simple wonderful gameplay and bring in that connectivity and persistence that makes MMOs so compelling. I'm officially excited.

I could go on and on about this game. But it'd be mean of me to post about it after the weekend deal. So instead I'll just leave you with some words from Alec over at Rock Paper Shotgun:

The odd thing with trying to write about Torchlight is that I can barely remember playing it. I can remember installing it, then darkness, and then about a week later. I didn’t feel sad or afraid come said week later – time had just blinked past, pleasurably if not terribly memorably. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but really it’s a straight compliment – sometimes, it’s exactly this phenomenon that we play games for. We want something to take away time that we have no other purpose for. Not everything needs to fill our heads with tales of grand adventure, awe of digital entertainment’s great diversity or triumph over statistical adversity. Torchlight takes away time, quickly and painlessly, replacing it with a vague sense of achievement and a dim hunger for things that can be obtained with ease. If your life is overcomplicated, I can confidently prescribe Torchlight.

It isn’t this precise and effective medicine simply because it’s a decent Diablo clone. It’s because it ruthlessly removes the extraneous ingredients of what was already an incredibly simple formula. Anything that could waste your time or cause annoyance has been cleanly excised, leaving the perhaps cynical but absolute truth of why we play such games: we want constant reward from minimal effort. Click, kill, click, upgrade, click, kill, kill, kill, UPGRADE. It’s not even risk/reward – it’s just reward/reward

Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

The new release of Spirit Tracks reminds me that I never commented on it's predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. It's not that I didn't play it - I did. But I sent it back after only a couple sittings. I know, I know - I sent back a freaking Zelda games.

I love the Zelda series. The original game totally blew my elementary school mind. A Link to the Past is definitely one of my all time favorites (I'm sure boosted a bit due to my overall SNES nostalgia). I missed Ocarina of Time on the N64, but thankfully got to play it on the GameCube. I loved what Wind Waker did with the art style and with the story. The Minish Cap was a good enough handheld throwback. Twilight Princess was appropriately epic, but I really regret playing it on the Wii instead of the GameCube (the Wii controls were terribly gimmicky). There have been some missteps in the series for sure, but in general it has continued to satisfy me throughout.

Phantom Hourglass, however, frustrated me to no end. It wasn't the stylus controls. I was able to deal with those and appreciate that they made some things better and some things worse (I would argue a lot of those functions would work better if simply mapped to buttons). No, the thing that killed the game for me was the goddamn boat.

Instead of having an overworld to navigate through you're given a big sea and a boat. You trace out a path and the boat will follow that to get from island to island. That doesn't seem so bad, but then you're supposed to pay attention to fire the ship's cannons to avoid monsters and obstacles. The controls aren't terribly precise, but the real problem is the pacing. Most of the time there'll be nothing to worry about, and since you don't have to interact much you'll start to mentally check out. But you can't, because if some little monster pops up and wails on you might have to start your journey over from the beginning. So you're forced to be attentive in the face of overwhelming boredom.

The boat trips drove me absolutely nuts. I was mostly enjoying the game and then as soon as I had to use the boat I pretty much hit a brick wall. So I sent the game back to GameFly, heartbroken. It's too bad, because there were some good ideas in there, but just too many hang-ups for me to continue. And now the sequel is out in Spirit Tracks, and I don't know what to do. It's a reportedly high quality Zelda game, so I should play it? It's been described as just like Phantom Hourglass but with a train instead of a boat... should I give the formula another fair shake?

Venting on a completely different issue: please, developers, never ever use the DS microphone. A large percentage of people play handheld games in public places, and most of them are not interested in looking like an idiot in public. Phantom Hourglass had this part where I was supposed to blow out a torch using the microphone input, and rather than freak out the person next to me on the bus I closed up my DS to save that experience for later. But when I got around to it later that day it was way more annoying than I even anticipated. I blew soft, I blew hard, I blew from all different angles*, until eventually the flame went out with some random combination. It was frustrating, and I wasn't looking forward to any more "puzzles" based on that crap.

It seems unfair of me to be so unsatisfied when a game fails to evolve, but then also be upset here when a game fails during experimentation. I recognize that it's unfair, but that's how I feel.

I worry about the new trend in game controls (be it the DS stylus, touch on the iPhone, the Wii remote, or even Natal). These things have huge potential to open up accessibility of gaming to more people, but used incorrectly they create an imprecise frustrating mess. It takes some restraint to temper the new shinny thing with reason and arrive at a control scheme that makes sense. Okay, I'll say it: Japanese culture is obsessed with kitsch and gimmick. In the broad sense I think that's fine and healthy, but I don't know how much I can look to them to lead the charge on quality gaming. I'm worried that eastern development studios like Nintendo are losing touch with what they did to connect to me in the first place. Of course down the road something awesome will come out and temporarily restore my faith in them, but right now my optimism is low. Here's hoping my friends working on Natal nail it.

* Yes, that is what she said

Monday, December 14, 2009

Phoebe in Wonderland

It's kind of ridiculous, but the premise of Idiocracy basically convinced me to have children. Yes, it's a comedy, and one with extravagant extremes, but the core idea isn't wrong. And I can't really sit back and complain about that while also being part of the problem. But I'm not here to talk about Idiocracy, which has uneven quality at best. I'm here to talk about Phoebe in Wonderland, which is amazing (and is available via Netflix insta-watch, if that's your thing). It is in fact nothing like Idiocracy (I'm already beginning to regret using that as a segue), except that both of them made me think about parenting.

Phoebe in Wonderland is a story that represents everything I fear and everything that excites me about the possibility of being a parent. You have this brilliant vibrant child who is everything you could want: imaginative, creative, and smart as can be. But then you also have the sort of thing that every parent fears: that their child is broken. And that situation threatens to tear the parents apart (both from each other and from themselves). It's a story of the best and the worst. It's a story that forces me to confront the question "even if it's hard, is it still worth it?"

I feel compelled to write about this movie, but I'm having a hard time deciding what to say. It's not quite true that if I told you more it would spoil the experience, but I do feel like it would lessen it. This is a story in which uncertainty made the journey stronger for me. So here's what you need to know: It's a beautiful film, it's well crafted, and for me it was extremely impactful. I often judge a movie by the conversation it spawns afterwards, but in the silence after this one there was absolutely no discussion as I grabbed for the remote and immediately rated it five stars. If you at all consider yourself to be in a similar place in life as me then I highly recommend you watch Phoebe in Wonderland.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rise of the Argonauts (Xbox 360)

I'm not as much of a slave to my Gamefly queue as I am to my Netflix queue. Given the various platforms and their different economic models it's hard for rentals to be a large percentage. At any point I'll generally have a disc out from Gamefly, an MMO I'm poking around in, a handheld game for the bus, some slow burner on the console that would take too long to rent, and some downloadable game. But I'm always trying to push as much of my gaming to rental as possible, which is the smartest option for my rate of play. It has the side effect of encouraging me to try games I would never risk real permanent money on. Which means I throw stuff into my queue that is sometimes pretty borderline.

Oh, hello Rise of the Argonauts, I'm talking about you now. Not long into the first sitting I found myself wondering why the hell I threw this game into my queue. Ancient Greek mythology is up my alley, so that had to been a factor. But this game has a huge identity complex. The core gameplay mechanic is a third person action game. You know, a God of War knockoff. But Argonauts isn't nearly as good, even compared to other knockoffs. You aren't actually provided enough opportunities to swing your aggression around to succeed at being that type of game. Early on I was given an upgrade to a weapon before I had been given an opportunity to use the one before it. Instead of fighting there's lots and lots of dialogue.

For a game with so much talking the dialogue animations are awkward. Wait, they're not awkward - they're absent. Jason stands there in the same pose for every single conversation. And there's some serious recycling of the voice talent for bit parts. I think I had only talked to my fourth NPC before I hit a repeat.

I finished my first sitting and seriously considered putting the game back in the envelope right then and there. But something compelled me to stick with it. I definitely wanted to solve the mystery of why I chose to play the game in the first place. I knew where the answer was - in the GameTrailers video review. Most stuff in my queue first goes through a video review check (games are such a long time commitment that I like to see them first). But I knew that if I went back to the review at this point it'd bias my experience, so I held back and instead just flat out avoided the game for a week.

Eventually I came back, with revised expectations. This is clearly not an action game. It's something… else. I started looking for the positives. Jason may just stand there stiffly as he talks to people, but statically he looks pretty good. And his voice acting is quality. The interpretation of Greek mythology is a bit off canon, but at least they commit to their variations. I found myself honestly invested in what was going to happen next.

And then I remembered why I rented the game in the first place. It was precisely for that mix of compelling story but crappy gameplay. It's the flip of the video game cliché. I had left a little test for myself in my queue: I wanted to know if a game that failed at being a game but still had a decent story behind it could satisfy me. I've played a ton of games that strike the opposite balance and walked away content. Could I do the reverse?

The verdict? Well, I played the game to completion, but all that really means is that I'm willing to ride out a train wreck. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone else. I did continue to care about what was going to happen all the way until the end, but I was also pretty desperate to put that game controller to good use the whole time. Any time I play a game I could have easily reached for the remote instead of the controller, but there's something about my mood that decided on the interactive option.

Yes, Rise of the Argonauts has a story, but it's far from cinema quality. Nor does it muster enough quality interactivity to elevate the story to be more than it is. I'm left dreaming about how much better it would be if it had excelled more at either end. But it didn't, so I guess it's a failure. Oh well, back it goes in the envelope. We'll see what present I left for myself next.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I'm pretty much a slave to my Netflix queue these days, as that it is by far my primary source of video entertainment. Whenever someone recommends a movie to me, or if there's some repeating pop culture reference to which I am clueless, the movie goes in my queue. The rate I feed the queue is definitely faster than the rate at which I consume it, so over the years the queue has grown obscenely long. Generally I try to manage the top of the queue to keep titles up there that suits my current mood or are at least recently contextual. But every now and then I lapse, and, well... get Scarface.

I don't know what specifically convinced me to add Scarface to the queue. It's probably just the fact that it's one of those movies that people are generally aware of. You know, Al Pacino, "say hello to my little friend!" Having never seen the movie I could describe the cover and vaguely repeat the tidbits I've picked up from conversations over the years. This is the sort of situation that stuffs a movie into my queue. Which is too bad, because the review scores are lies. The ratings my friends gave it based on memory are lies. Scarface is not worth your three hours.

One of the problems I having here is the same I've been having with this Castlevania thing: I experienced this movie in the wrong order. I've seen films like Blow and American Gangster. This is not my first cinematic encounter with drugs and crime lords. It's unfair of me to make any comparisons here, because Scarface is a movie that really paved the way for those more modern titles. In its day it was a ballsy epic that blew people's minds. But for me, in my timeline, it's a story I've seen before and seen better.

What I will say is that Al Pacino is the redeeming aspect of this movie. Having seen him in so many other movies it's clear he is playing a specific role here and not just some stock Al Pacino character. It's not a likeable character, but he nails it. He also totally looks the part, ranging from sleazy to decadent throughout his rise to power.

But that's pretty much it. It's long, there's heaps of cocaine, people swear a lot, and there's violence. Where does this get compelling? I gave it two stars, with Pacino's performance pulling it up out of complete oblivion.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nostalgic Bias

As promised, I've started playing Symphony of the Night. And I'm having a hard time developing an unbiased opinion. I'm comparing my current experience with the experience other people had in the natural evolution of gaming. I'm coming to this game after having already experienced a half dozen of its indirect sequels. It's extraordinarily difficult to pretend that I'm not bringing a ton of baggage with me on this experience.

But that's always the case, isn't it? All of our experiences are shaped by the path we were on that lead us to them. Expectations, one way or the other, can completely tint our perceptions. Trying to be completely objective is futile, so I guess I shouldn't bother to try? In as much as this blog is a record of my memories, lack of bias is irrelevant. But as this blog serves as a form of communication with other people and a platform for discussion, it's more important for me to try to relate my point of view to a more broad point of view.

So I guess you should question my judgment about this Super Castlevania game. My opinions are not be trusted, as that they are steeped in a nostalgic bias. But should I question my own feelings? Given the warm fuzzies that nostalgia gives me, I don't really have any incentive to upend my positive experiences. But hopefully those don't get in the way of forming new experiences, because when that happens I'm officially Old.

Maybe the true solution is for me as a writer to share my history with you as a reader, so that you can judge how well your path aligns with my path. If you and I have been on similar journeys then it stands to reason that the way I experience something new will be very similar to the way you will experience it. Although you can read what I've posted here and piece some of that together, you'll always have incomplete information because you don't have my whole history. For some time now I've been meaning to put together the autobiographical sort of my gaming experiences (a la High Fidelity) which would definitely serve this purpose. But to take advantage of that I'm assuming a much larger investment from a reader than is probably sane. As I stated from the outset of this blog, I assume I am my only audience. So I should probably only engage such a task if it's appropriately self indulgent, for which I think this qualifies.

In the meantime, I encourage you to challenge what I have to say. I am only one data point. If you're in the same boat, give Symphony a spin and we'll compare notes. Or perhaps you've played Symphony but not Super Castlevania, and can give the reverse analysis. If we come to opposite conclusions than we've really learned nothing more than nostalgia is king. But if there's agreement then I think we're on to something.

Monday, November 30, 2009


I just polished off Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, while at the same time the Angry Video Game Nerd completed his four part series on the Castlevania franchise (told in parts I, II, III, and IV, and of course supplemented by his classic coverage of Castlevania II). Given the type of game the Nerd generally covers I usually only go to him for entertainment value, not critical analysis. But watching these videos on the Castlevania franchise I found he and I seem to be in exact agreement.

There's an inflection point on the Castlevania franchise, which is Symphony of the Night. Truth be told, I haven't actually played it - the hilariously bad voice acting turned me away immediately. But I have a good idea what Symphony is like because every Castlevania game after it carries its influence. This is when games stopped being called Metroid-clones and started being placed in the "metroidvania" genre.

I've played most of the handheld games (Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and most recent Order of Ecclesia), and they all follow the same formula. You're fighting Dracula (although generally with some other secondary villain). You explore his castle, progressing through tough boss fights and unlocking abilities that open up new areas of the castle. Gone is the classic whip, replaced with a set of swords, axes, pole arms, and sometimes magic. There's some attempt at a story, and it's always terrible. There is series gothic atmosphere, but the annoying characters completely destroy the mood (Portrait of Ruin's childlike heroes were particularly guilty of this, but to be fair Order of Ecclesia wasn't so bad). Then there's a layer of RPG elements where you have stats, level up, and manage all sorts of equipment. And throughout this is a ton of recycled art assets (going from Dawn of Sorrow to Portrait of Ruin I felt like I was playing the same game). Overall the formula takes in classic Castlevania and adds in elements from Metroid and Final Fantasy.

These sources are good games, so the combination should be awesome, right? Well, not really. The end result is… diluted. Instead of overcoming enemies with skill you can now just out-level them. But the developers have taken that into account so unless you know all the tricks you should expect to do some level grinding. And by tricks I don't just mean patterns, I also mean particular equipment combinations that exploit their vulnerabilities. A lot of that equipment comes from random drops, so you won't just be grinding for XP. Some of this grinding comes naturally, because the branching exploration means that you're going to retreat the same areas more than you'd like instead of experiencing a clear climactic progression. Despite all the flaws I obviously find something of value in these games because I keep playing them. But I'm always left a little disappointed because they fall short of that classic action game I remember so fondly.

What is that classic game? Super Castlevania IV for the SNES. On this the Nerd and I agree; Super Castlevania is the pinnacle of the series. The music... the tight control… this game is awesome. It's definitely on my short list for best 2D action games. Each level has it's own feel, with perfectly paired music and some challenging boss. The game is hard, but not cruel. You can infinitely continue from the beginning of the stage, and the password system let's you save your progress easily enough (for the standard of the day). So although there will be parts that test your patience and precision, it's manageable.

Your primary weapon in Super Castlevania is the whip, and here it is at its most deadly. You can attack in all eight directions, as well as control the whip's motion after the initial strike. This creates a weapon with a lot of subtlety, with plenty of tricks to master. The "evolution" from this to the wide array of single-button single-direction weapons in later games is a complete disappointment. Instead of being compelled to get better with the whip you're only strategy is to find weapons with better stats or larger hit boxes. Maybe this broadens the audience for the game by requiring less skill, but it's not like the whip is impenetrable.

I've always had this ambient dissatisfaction with the post-Symphony Castlevania games. I'm excited to start them, but by the end I'm left feeling that something was missing. Like they could have been better if they were less RPG and more like the classic Castlevania games. I figured it's possible that nostalgia had clouded my judgment, so I decided to dust off the Wii and download Super Castlevania IV for the Virtual Console. It did not disappoint. I played the game to its completion and enjoyed every minute of it. It's really amazing how little the series has evolved over the past 15 years, and how so many of the changes don't really add anything to the experience. The new titles have more gameplay breadth, but not really depth. In my opinion the franchise has lost its way and become something far lesser than what it once was.

The more I ponder this topic the more I realize I'm missing a piece of the puzzle. I'm going to go grab Symphony of the Night off XBLA and report back with my findings.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Let the Right One In

When Halloween rolled around this year I decided that I was very much in the mood for a vampire movie. So I flipped through this article on Rotten Tomatoes of the top rated vampire movies of all time. I cross reference that against the list available for instant watch on Netflix and landed on Let the Right One In.

This movie tells the story of a boy in some Scandinavian city who falls in love with a vampire. No, this is nothing like Twilight (although I will say the people that seem to loathe that movie need to get over themselves - it was neither spectacularly good nor spectacularly bad - it was adequately entertaining). The life of the vampire in this world is not sparkly and moral, but rather messy and vulnerable. She is both predator to humans and also completely reliant on them. Her motivations are not completely selfless, but there is something sweet about her connection with this boy. Which is not an emotion you'd typically associate with a horror movie.

I'm a fan of a careful blend of mundane and supernatural. If everything is fantastical then a story becomes hard to relate to. But if there isn't enough magic and mystery then it can be a little bit boring. There are real life stories that definitely entertain me, but I have a preference for something a little bit more than real. Given my video game habit it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm a bit of an escapist, but the trick is blending in just the right amount of fiction that it's still believable. Unbreakable is an excellent example of this. Let the Right One In also hits this sweet spot really well. Yes, this is a world that hosts vampires, but the story around this is such a sleepy human tale that the vampire element doesn't feel so outlandish. The movie doesn't gloss over vampire mythology, nor is it the focus of the narrative.

The movie totally scratched my itch. I was looking for an innovative new tale of those delightfully enigmatic bloodsuckers and that's exactly what I got here. If you're also looking for a more relaxed, less in-your-face (but still dark) vampire movie then you should check this one out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ghostbusters (Xbox 360)

Like many, the first time I went roller skating I was timid and hugged the wall the whole time. But there was a turning point where I finally gained enough confidence to let go, power skate as fast as I could, and really enjoy myself. That point was when the Ghostbusters theme song came on. I remember later in my life, going to some skating birthday party where my mom told this little factoid to a girl I was crushing on. I was mortified, of course. But apparently it doesn't embarrass me now, as I sit freely blogging it to The Internet.

The first time I saw the Ghostbusters movie I obviously enjoyed it enough to inspire death defying confidence. I mean, bustin' makes you feel good, right? But of course I didn't really have a clue about most of what was going on (keymaster… why are the adults laughing?). As time passed and I returned to the movie it just became more and more awesome. But I'm not here today to talk about the movie. I'm here to talk about the video game. No, not that one. The new one. Yes, there's a new Ghostbusters game that features all the original voice talents.

And really, that's what makes the game: the voice acting. You go around to familiar locales, fighting familiar ghosts, all the time listening to the chatter of Venkman, Stantz, Egon, and Winston. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis do an awesome job; Ernie Hudson does good but has a more limited role; Bill Murray pretty much phones it in. Murray's obviously the more successful actor, but he just doesn't feel like the same Venkman from his Ghostbusting days. But in general the whole cast transports you right back to the 80's, living out your childhood dream of busting ghosts with the Ghostbusters.

The core gameplay can be generally described as a first person shooter, but it doesn't really feel in any way like Halo or anything. Because instead of packing a rifle you've got a freaking proton pack. The developers did a great job of making the proton pack feel just right. It's got the sound, the look, and leaves just the right amount of carnage. You use the stream to wear down a ghost until it's weak enough for you to wrangle it, then you toss out a trap and suck that apparition in. It feels exactly how it should, and each capture is very satisfying.

To mix things up you also have alternate modes for you weapon. The slime feels very appropriate for a Ghostbusters game, but the shotgun and machine gun modes are a little more of a stretch. It's not so far out of place to yank you out of the groove, they're there for the less traditional ghosts that you don't actually have to trap. It doesn't feel as satisfying as the classic ghost wrangling, but the game is probably better for having the variety.

Basically the rest of the game rides on those two main strengths: the voice acting and the feeling of your proton pack. The rest is pretty standard for the genre. The environments aren't bad, but rarely are they particularly inspiring. The story is an appropriate vehicle for giving you an opportunity to return to classics like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but it isn't particularly memorable beyond that.

I'd say the biggest problem of the game is the uneven difficulty curve, which is exacerbated by the extremely long loading times. Every time you die you're dumped to the loading screen and treated to that ever so classic Ghostbusters theme. Every time. No, no, I mean every time. And it always starts at the beginning of the song, with the game finishing loading right about when you're going to find about "something strange, in the neighborhood." It's really amazing that no one realized how extremely annoying this would be. You get to some freakishly hard part in the game where some gargoyles are cheezing you, and you're going to listen to the first part of that theme a couple dozen times.

The game does make it a little harder to die as that as long as one of your fellow Ghostbusters is still standing they can revive you. Well, they can… but they might die before they get to you. Of course you have the return the favor, reviving them when they get knocked down. Which you will be doing constantly. There are many fights where you will spend as much time fussing over your comrades as actually unloading with your proton pack. It's hardly heroic. I don't mean to say that the game is too hard, because it's not. It's just that it's uneven. You will coast by most of the time, but occasionally you'll hit an annoying snag, and then you'll have the Ghostbusters theme song stuck in your head for a couple days.

Aggravating load times aside, I did truly enjoy this one. It's all about the source material. If you find the Ghostbusters movies hilarious, and you're okay with a light FPS, then this game is a nice short distraction.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Champions Online: Impressions

This past Halloween weekend Cryptic decided to offer Champions Online for free for a couple days. Promotional weekends are increasingly common in MMOs, but generally they're structured as a "welcome back" for old subscribers, and they're offered for older games. But Champions Online is a brand new title, so having the opportunity to try out a fresh new game for free was quite a treat.

In my lapse of blogging I completely skipped over the time period where I transferred off of Tabula Rasa and on to City of Heroes. I'll need to recap my feelings about that game at some point, but fundamentally all you need to know is that Champions Online is the successor to City of Heroes. Same dev team, save concept, better tech. As a developer this is an odd move, since common wisdom says that you should be looking to acquire subscribers and hold on to them. Starting over with a new title means you're going to be competing with your own product. This is why Ultima Online's sequel got preemptively canned back in the day. It's the same reason there's still people playing both Counter Strike and Counter Strike: Source. But I guess the MMO publishers are finding that players maybe aren't as faithful to one title as early behavior indicated.

As a player I like this quite a bit. The MMO genre has to evolve, and it's really hard to do that with an existing product with an already invested player base. Any major change will piss them off. The easiest way to innovate is with a fresh new title. Of course these games represent a huge development investment, so it's not sustainable for this to be the only source of progress. But I think a clean slate is necessary from time to time.

In the case of Champions Online, I definitely got the impression that this was a clear upgrade from City of Heroes. It's unmistakably the same feel, but care has been taken to smooth out a lot of the rough edges. That's not to say there aren't some issues with it, but in general I like what they've done. So to recap my impressions I'm going to list off my likes, dislikes, and "meh"s from the weekend. Keep in mind that I only had a day or two to fool around with the game, so these are truly initial impressions and may contain blatant inaccuracies.

Like: Character customization
Given the lineage this is no surprise, but it's even better here thanks to more abnormal combinations. Plus this time around you can make minor modifications to how your powers look. Want a half-robot half-wolfman wreathed in green flames? You got it. The buildings blocks are there to make a spectacular variety of heroes, and due to that I enjoy checking out other players at least as much as actually playing the game. It's fascinating to see what people come up with the tools they're given. You can see my creations here.

Like: Name uniqueness
With every MMO I run into a brick wall at the end of character creation when I have to come up with a unique name. With Champions they've skirted the whole issue by saying it's not the end of the world if there are two characters with the same name. Instead you have a handle to resolve name collisions, but that handle doesn't display over your character and spoil your design.

Like: One versus many
Most MMOs balance you as being more powerful than one opponent, but generally stressed to your limits with too many more than that. In Champions you are a superhero, and as a result you are able to take down multiple foes at the same time. In no way will you be bested by a cluster of boars, unless those boars happen to be super villains (I haven't personally seen any boars in the game, but knowing MMO tradition I can only assume they'll pop up somewhere). Having combat that isn't just one on one all the time really keeps things more interesting, with more potential focus on area of effect attacks and crowd control.

Like: Difficulty scales to party size
Both Tabula Rasa and City of Heroes also had this feature. There is a downside in that instances can never be as finely tuned as your general WoW 5-man affairs. But there's a distinct upside in that you don't have to actually get together an exact number of people in order to play in a group.

Like: Integrated mission tracking
LotRO recently added this feature as well, and there's rumblings of WoW doing it in the future (yielding to the extreme popularity of QuestHelper). Thankfully it looks like the entire MMO genre will evolve beyond reading obscure quest text and trying to figure out how that relates to your map. I certainly don't miss the days of either cheating with thottbot or wasting time aimlessly wandering.

Like: Light death penalty
If you die, you immediately revive at the closest spawn point. You get penalized one Hero Point, which will temporarily reduce your effectiveness. But your Hero Point comes back through combat, so you're not stuck with a fixed period debuff. In no time you're back in the action, with the only real damage being done to your pride.

Like: Travel powers
Getting around in Champions is fast, fun, and thematic. You can fly, you can jump, you can tunnel - whatever fits your character theme. And best of all, you get your travel power immediately after completing the (skippable) tutorial.

Like: Charge/sustain attack powers
Some of the powers in Champions can do more damage depending on how long you hold the button. The mechanics are simple, but they give a little more depth to what is otherwise mundane MMO combat.

Like: Not as heavily instanced as City of Heroes
This isn't really something to like the game for; it's more something to not dislike it for. In City of Heroes every mission involved going into an instanced area. Every. Single. One. Champions ditches this for a more standard split of partially open world and partially private instanced content.

Like: Achievements
I didn't get to dig into it, but I did notice that the game offers achievement-like rewards. As I've already mentioned, I'm a fan.

Like: Separate world resolution from UI resolution
Want really crisp UI but your video card can't quite handle that resolution for the whole game world? Normally you're screwed. But in Champions they let you have your UI at a higher resolution than the game world, giving you readable text but with reasonable performance.

Meh: Open missions
This is my first time trying out the feature that Warhammer Online made famous, and I wasn't very impressed. The idea of informally sharing a quest with other people seems cool, but I never encountered one that had clear goals and rewards. Maybe there are better ones deeper into the game.

Meh: Itemization
Mission rewards give you a large selection of reward choices that have dizzyingly similar starts on them. I realize that part of the problem is that I don't yet understand the meaning of all those stats, but I think it really stems from having too many attributes. It's good that these items don't actually change the look of your costume (which you carefully crafted), but that does mean that the only thing to get excited about with an item drop is a miniscule increase in effectiveness. I think I prefer City of Heroes' system of power modifications, where you choose what individual attributes to improve for each power like damage or casting time.

Meh: Theme
Don't get me wrong, I like superheroes and supervillains. But the whole defending Metropolis thing doesn't really do it for me. Helping out the local police force, freeing civilians from fallen rubble… yawn. These don't carry enough escapism for my video game criteria. Champions doesn't seem to have it as bad as City of Heroes, where you're fighting petty crooks the whole time. Once I was out of the tutorial area they at least started to mix it up with irradiated mutants and ice demons, but I still didn't really feel connected to the modern semi-realistic theme. I don't know why I can endlessly smash orc skulls in some fantasy based MMO, yet I have to talk to one policeman in Champions and it's a total turn off. For games with this level of time commitment, you really want the world to draw you in.

Dislike: Funky use/talk targeting
There's a "use" button in the game, which is overloaded to cover both talking to people and picking stuff up with super strength. The end result is that when you're trying to talk to some NPC you instead might end up ripping up a light post. You can instead click to talk to a NPC, but it requires more fiddling than you'd expect.

Dislike: Weak feeling melee
I tried out a couple different power sets, and universally I liked my ranged characters more than my melee ones. The animations looked flashy enough, but it just didn't match up with the damage I was seeing. It's pretty standard for MMO combat to feel disconnected, so you think I'd be used to it. But it's really disappointing to carefully craft an awesome blade swirling character to then try them out in game and have it feel totally weak.

Dislike: Where's the Xbox version?
When I first tried Champions it was the PAX after last, and I played it with an Xbox controller. It's clear playing the game now that some things were done a certain way to be more console friendly (like the funky talk targeting). But where's the news of the Xbox port? So many games have claimed they were going to bring the MMO to the living room, but no one's delivered yet. What gives? When will I be able to waste away my life from the comfort of my couch?

I enjoyed my weekend of Champions. Am I going to pick up a subscription? Probably, but not yet. I've got too many things in my queue right now. But I do definitely want to come back and spend more time with this one a bit down the road. Feeling ownership over a character is key to enjoying this class of game, and Champions really excels at that.

Hello Again

I've been off the wagon for quite awhile now. I have pretty decent excuses, given that since I last posted I got married, bought a house, and built a lot of software. I've been very busy, but not so busy that I should have put blogging on hold. This writing thing has been a good challenge for me, and I'm fundamentally just being lazy by letting it slip. But I'm going to try and not dwell on that and instead just start posting as if I never stopped.