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.