Friday, October 31, 2014

Game vs un-game. Fight!

I am having a difficult time pinning down how I feel about The Evil Within. It has no characters of interest, no story and no feeling of world or place for the player to latch on to. It jumps from scene to scene like a YouTube supercut of the grossest moments in gaming. At five hours in I have no idea what is going on as the game has been nothing more than series of chases scenes featuring unkillable bosses and fighting sections with too little ammo. I shouldn't like this game.

Yet I played for around two and half hours straight last night. I was stationary on the couch long enough for my feet to fall asleep. I was not frightened or disturbed but I wanted to know what was going to happen next. How is the game going to top the long legged spider woman thing emerging from a pool of blood and chasing you down the hall? Who knows, but it is certainly going to try.

The Evil Within is interesting in spite of its lake of world building. There are little snippets here and there of what the story might be but nothing cohesive, at least nothing that I have seen yet. Areas are completely disconnected, to the point that the main character isn't even seen walking between them. He passes out in one and wakes up in the next and somehow isn't freaking out about the whole thing.

Here is a fair comparison: in spite of my (perhaps unwarranted) dislike for the end of Alien: Isolation, I did enjoy it as a whole. It is almost the opposite of The Evil Within in that is spends a great deal of time building tension and characters. It is less 'game-y' and more 'interactive experience-y'. The Evil Within is all 'game-y,' pun possibly intended, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It will increase the gross out factor until it ends but will not invade my peripheral vision as I turn off the lights in the basement and ascend the stairs.

P.T. did that. It still does that. When I turn off The Evil Within the game is done and I am checking the achievement list for my progress.

There is one specific mechanical complaint that I need to get off of my chest: I hate the letterboxed aspect ration. It is pointless. When combined with how close the camera usually is to the player's back a full third of the screen is obscured. Item pick up prompts are routinely just off screen, causing me to either miss precious ammo pickups or spend extra time looking up and down in every area. My guess is that it is supposed to instill a claustrophobic feel the game, which it does, but the damage it does to my ability to actually see what the fuck I am doing is not an acceptable trade off.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Too much, too soon

Shinji Mikami pitching The Evil Within.

'It's like Resident Evil 4, but, well...'



The Evil Within wastes no time at all with boring things like establishing characters or locations. Nope, it goes straight from 'possible disturbance at mental ward' to 'corpses suspended from ceiling being carved up giant chainsaw monster.' It's not bad but with nothing normal to be compared to the crazy stuff is less shocking.

Yes, it's gory. Yes, it's a little unnerving. So is a visit to the dentist, at least for me.

On the grand scheme of horror games this is much closer to Outlast that Silent Hill 1 or 2. 'Tis the season, though, so I will make the best of it. Resident Evil 4 was really good back on the GameCube, might as well play it again.

Now if I could fix this silly letter boxed aspect ratio.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

By jove, it does what it says

Remember what I said about Harmonix being staffed by miracle workers? (Or did I think about saying that and never wrote it down...) Anyway, some wise individual realized that the classical tunes were much more fun to play than the pop nonsense in Fantasia Music Evolved. This same wise person decided that the final two songs, the 'boss songs' as it were, should be original compositions. They were wonderful, both fun to hear and fun to play. If there was more classical DLC I would be more sold on the concept. There is not, and I have heard all that I care to hear and flailed all that I care to flail, so the game is now complete as far as I am concerned.

Fantasia has been the only motion-centric game I have ever played. Even games that have optional supports, like Alien Isolation and its leaning around corners, were always better served by the buttons at my fingertips. I will admit that standing in front of my television, turning on the Xbox with my voice, selecting the game (which was usually the hardest part) and starting it without touching the control felt very cool. I am incredibly late to the party on this, but that is fine because it my hesitance to jump in the technology has improved to the point that it actually works.

It is still a novelty. And the low ceiling in my basement is a definite hindrance. But it works and I had fun with a game that used it exclusively.

...

Why yes, I do feel like I have been a little too negative lately. How can you tell?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Agony?

Having to endure physical pain while playing a music game is not new. Rock Band and Guitar Hero are responsible for putting more miles on my hands than they were prepared to take. There was a hard limit on how long I could play a plastic guitar. Fantasia Music Evolved offers up a whole host of new aches and pains. My shoulders ache and my lower back screams after around an hour and a half. I am not entirely convinced that it is worth the agony this time around. Rock Band always worked and the amusement factor was determined by the quality of the music. Music Evolved doesn't always work and the music available, once the excellent classical tracks have been mastered, is equally suspect. On the rare occasions that everything clicks I find myself grinning like an idiot, waving my arms through space and thanking the gaming gods that there is no one around to see it.

I hate motion only games. Strike that, I hate the idea of motion only games and had not ever given one a chance until Fantasia. There was a never a game I saw whose gameplay was significantly improved my using motion controls over a controller. Before you say 'dancing game' know that that is genre that I will never touch. Ever. Fantasia sneaks in the door because I have a soft spot for music games. And Night on Bald Mountain kicks ass.

At it's core the player is tasked with waving his or her arms in time with one of several available tracks. That's all; and, much to my surprise, the technology side of it works. Once I had rearranged my basement and was able to stand far enough from the screen I was waving my arms like a champ. There is a specific feel to it that takes a while to dial in. Once I started moving sooner than I thought I would need to it became much easier. The technology is not the problem. My issue, and what will keep this game from joining Rock Band in my limited collection, is that the action called for often have little to do with the music itself.

There is a one to one relationship between action and reaction in Rock Band, especially at the highest difficulty. A note appears, I play the note, I hear the note. Fantasia is much more abstract, especially when you are accompanying the vocal tracks. The music and the actions do not match. Instead of waving to the music I am just waving and that is not nearly as much fun (sober). More than half the time I was watching, not listening, thus defeating the purpose of a music game.

It is possible that I am expecting far too much from a glorified party game but Harmonix has proved to be staffed by miracle workers. I wanted what will not happen: a new Rock Band. What I got was an exercise program focused on my shoulders with a more miss than hit soundtrack. Not a bad thing, but not worth the pain it causes.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Warning, bitchiness incoming

Too annoyed to write. Engine fried in my crossover. Spyder is in the shop for its 3000 mile check up and transmission problems. It has been warm enough to ride most of the week but won't be by the time it is done. People keep asking me for support on things at work that I don't support/don't understand/have never actually seen.

And Alien: Isolation ended with a quick time event.

I could see it coming. I could see it coming three hours from the end when the game should have finished but no, it had to have the same kind of false endings as Alien and Aliens. The Return of the King of more concise about its ending then Isolation was. I could see it coming as Ripley was cornered by an alien that should not have been where it was and forced backwards into an airlock.

Down, Down, Left, Right, A, credits. Fuck you.

How is that better then having the player actually control the events? Let me turn around, look for a way out, find the airlock, run in and press the button. Let me die a few time trying to figure it out. This is how the rest of the game worked and it was (sometimes) marvelous. The alien in combination with the environment created unexpected problems and solutions. It played on stealth games tropes and punished the player for relying on them.

Yes, the alien can see you under the desk and yes, he will kill you for your folly.

This was all thrown away in the last thirty seconds for a scripted ending and a few meaningless button presses. All of the effort and daring was for nothing because someone in the chain of command couldn't let the game be a game to the bitter end. Someone decided that their vision for the end was the only way and that that was what the player was going to get.

Games can  be more than that. The rest of Isolation proves it. The people who make the games just need to be brave enough to finish what they start.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

He'll never see me there


He walked right into the room, got a drink from the water fountain, and left. Either the alien can only see straight ahead or he was no longer hungry, having filled himself on replicant goo. Either way, I lived to see another ten minutes of the game, so it was a win for me.

I thought that I would use the Game DVR and streaming functionality of the Xbox One much more than I have been. Around eleven months in and that is the fourth video I have bothered saving and posting. Either interesting things just don't happen to me or I forget that it is there. I toyed with streaming briefly while playing Thief but I did no talking so people jumped in and quickly back out. Honestly, I prefer streams without the face cam and crude monologue. I am there to see the game and have no interest in how drunk/stoned/homophobic the person playing is.

In about a month I am going to do a year one retrospective on both consoles. The Xbox One has seen much more use but is it really better or do I pick up that controller out of habit? Is it worth paying for both Xbox Live and PS+? What has happened to my electricity bill since two 'always on' consoles took their places in my entertainment center? No to steal my own thunder, but the way Microsoft has leveraged achievements and how your list compares to your friends is the work of an evil genius. It is the first thing that I look at when I turn the system on and the last thing I check when I shut it down. They have perfected the metagame via a meaningless number.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Peak-a-death

How an encounter with the alien usually goes in Isolation:

Look, there it is, I should run away.


Too late.

I have muttered 'oh come on' and thrown my hands up in the air more times in frustration than I care to admit. This is not an easy game. The alien behaves almost randomly, only he always seems to be where he needs to be in make you nervous. Human encounters are almost worse: if they figure out that you are hiding in a ventilation shaft they will just sit at the entrance and wait you out. The first human encounter took me almost an hour. This was an hour me poor Ripley getting shot because I came around a corner too quickly or waited in out place for too long. I was attempting to play stealthily in a Metal Gear Solid way watch the enemies long enough and you will find the gap in their patrols. In Isolation someone always shoots you in the back or, worse yet, you get torn in half by an eyeless uber-predator.

This does not cause a problem because Isolation makes no attempt at hiding the fact that it is a merciless stealth game. Even when you have ammunition, which you rarely do, shooting humans or androids just brings the alien running. Sneaking is the only way and even then you are going to die, often, in messy ways.

The problem is that all save points are manual and they are spread way the fuck out. If the alien kills you a few feet from your destination but fifteen minutes of play time from the last save point guess who gets to go back and do it all again. And again. Repeated trips though areas break the immersion because you quickly figure out where it is scripted that you can been seen and heard and where it isn't. Dangerous areas are scripted to be dangerous and nothing you do before will prevent that. To the same token safe areas are always save (unless you start throwing pipe bombs around) so you can sprint through, uneaten.

There may not be an easy fix for this. Isolation is making every attempt to stay true its vision, that combat is never the correct option, and it is hard to fault a game for doing what it says it is going to do. This makes the game inappropriate for marathon sessions, at least for me. There is only so much frustration that I can take.


Friday, October 17, 2014

I am tired of pressed X

I will try to squeeze out a few words between worrying about Microsoft Partner renewals and fretting over storage space.

...

Out of an abundance of consistency I must condemn Shadow of Mordor for committing Chamberlain's cardinal gaming sin: the final confrontation ended with a quick time event. To explain my disappointment I need to step backwards in the came to the halfway point. At the end of the first half Talion was tasked with killing five uruk war chiefs. The game wanted me to do in tactful, almost sneaky manner by killing their body guards first and then luring the big bads out into the open. It gave me the option of doing it Conan style, that is, killing everyone with a big sword, so that is the one I took. Point for player freedom, hooray!

The second half ended much the same way, only instead of killing the war chiefs I was supposed to posses them, add them to my own personal orkish army. Subterfuge was again suggested: posses the body guards, use them to kill the chief, then the possessed body guard takes his place. Again, the Conan option was available. It was more difficult this time but I succeeded in strolling into their head quarters, cornering the chief, then beating him with my sword until he was on the brink of death.

This is all fine and good, but what do you do with your own uruk army? Storm the black gates, that what. Storming the black gates was the giant, movie quality set piece and encounter that Shadow of Mordor so desperately needed. Talion shows up with his blue eyed uruks in tow and run headlong into a much larger force of urks still loyal to Sauron. It is a chaotic battle, one that had me killing my own men as often as I killed the enemy, but Talion comes out on top.

Game over? Not quite. Talion scales the black gate and fights the creepy dark captain in a stealth based encounter. Not as epic as the giant uruk battle but at least I was in control of what was going on. Game over?

Nope, finally Talion and Celebrimbor face the black hand. The battle starts out interesting: the black hand slits his own throat and then pulls Clebrimnor out of Talion. For some reason the neck wound switch to Talion (don't think about it too hard) and I was ready for a battle between Talion and his families killer without the aid of the power of the elven spirit who had been keeping him alive throughout the game.

Then the black hand was possessed by Sauron which was a bit much. Then I pressed X to not die.

I understand the corner that the game backed itself into: how do have the player character fight and win against Sauron without cheapening the villain? Easy, fuckers, let him lose. It was already established that Talion was immortal. Yes, Celebrimbor was gone, but Talion had been 'denied death.' He was still immortal, just not as powerful. It was the perfect set up for a sequel, it could have logically explain why Talion lost all of his powers between games, but no, the games cheats with a interactive cut scene and a feel good ending.

God damn it I was annoyed. Shadow of Mordor was by no means a great game but it had a shit ending and that is what I am going to remember when the second one roles around.

...

Pay no mind to NaTURAL DOCtRINE disappearing from the coming soon list. I played it for about ten minutes. It was a PSP refugee pressed to a PS4 disc in a genre that I neither enjoy nor have any ability in. Translation: it was ugly as sin and I want to play Alien: Isolation.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Second verse, same as the first

Shadow of Mordor has caught more than a little flack for its Batman inspired (stolen) combat dropped into a different environment. This is not exactly fair, the Arkham series did not invent its combat system, just honed it to near perfecting. I do not fault Shadow of Mordor from borrowing it, the system keeps fights manageable even when up against dozens of enemies. It should have freed up development time for other things like creating interesting environments or better writing for the characters. Nope. Instead we get incredible enemy variety in the form of uruk captains and a punishing early difficulty curve the discourages exploration.

Not all bad, not all good.

Shadow of Mordor has no sense of place. The opening area is half destroyed buildings and grey skies and the second is more half destroyed buildings on a grassy savanna. Nothing is memorable. Think back to the Lord of the Rings movies: Mordor is almost a character. The black gates are intimidating as fuck. In the game they are just doors, just another random backdrop that unfortunately detracts from the good that is happening in front of them.

Poor Talion may me immortal but for the first several hours he isn't very tough. Uruk captains killed me just enough time to discourage me from trying their missions. I did other things, avoiding them when possible, and it turned a 'open' ended area into a very linear set of missions. Exploration equaled death if they found me. Many hours later Talion has toughed and I am not constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for Orkug the Human Gnasher to shiv me in the back and then talk about how easy it was to kill me.

Still, it scratches the same itch as Assassin's Creed and inFamous games. Get to new area, do all sub-missions, begrudgingly advance story, move to next area, repeat until credits. It just doesn't do it very well.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The fractured mainstream

In the tiny pantheon of people I know there are precisely three people who play video games. One is a member of the PC master race, at least he was until an SSD in his rig took a shit, and now he recommends melancholy indy titles that will I play eventually. Another plays nothing but NCSoft handheld RPGs, taking the occasional break to invest ludicrous amounts of time in Dragon Age games. The third plays nothing but first person shooter with friends. He was thrilled when I started Destiny, decidedly less so when I put it away because I had had my fill after around a week.

The people that I see most, at work (ugh) have no idea what I do in my free time. When asked I usually deflect the question with half truths like rock climbing, which I do but only once a week, or not answering at all. I am not embarrassed of the fact that each and every evening ends with around three hours of screen time but trying to explain that to people whose definition of 'fun' is so different would be next to impossible.

Word of my trip to Chicago for UFGT leaked out two years ago. I had told one person who almost understood and he of course told the boss. When I got back he asked how I did, which was easily answered (terribly) but I could tell that he wanted details. He and I don't have enough communal vocabulary to make this possible. If I say Street Fighter he has no idea what I am talking about. If I say competitive fighting game he thinks I am donning pads and stepping into a ring. This is not his fault, he is around sixty five and from a different world, but the disconnect is astounding.

Not that he doesn't keep trying. Just yesterday he asked what I did over the weekend, then made a joke about playing games. I couldn't tell him that I play every night, that I ran through Horizon 2 in a week, he just wouldn't understand. So I lied, told him that I play when there is time and that I was currently working on an open world racing game.

As 'mainstream' and common as video games are there is still a massive chunk of the population who have no interest in or understanding of them. This is not necessarily an age based discrepancy. Yes, I am on the upper edge of years for people who play games consistently, I got in on the ground floor and never stopped, but there are people significantly younger than I whose entire gaming experience has been on phones and tablets, to whom owning a console would be an inconvenience. It is a fractured pass time unlike all others.

Television and movies at least offer common ground between preferences. I don't like horror movies but I know what Saw is and why I will never watch it. I don't have cable but I know what Game of Thrones is and that I really should find a way to see it. Ask someone whose definition of games is Candy Crush Saga and Bejeweled what he or she thinks of the last Call of Duty and you will either get a blank stare or be told to talk to the kids.

Thank goodness for the internet, a place where I can say 'No Russian' and someone will know what I am talking about. I can complain about Yun's bullshit or unwarranted Blanka nerfs and be instantly greeted with cheers and jeers. Places like this don't exist in the real world.

At least I don't think they do. At least not in the Midwestern fly over states.

Gaming isn't mainstream yet. It is accepted but not embraced. It means different things to different people so it may never be. The guy who buys nothing but Madden every year has nothing to say to the JRPG enthusiast with the waifu pillow pre-order bonus. Neither of them are wrong, they just don't speak the same language.

To be clear, I do not think that anything needs to be fixed. It is wonderful and broken like vanilla Sagat.

Look it up.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Meeting in the middle

It's well over a week since my last entry of substance. I have so much to talk about and I fear I am forgetting most of it. Let's start with things that have pissed me off recently. Being good and mad at video games should get my gears turning again.

Velocity 2X has been my go to game when I only have a few minutes to play. Due to its handheld roots it worked quite well in short bursts. A few levels and I had played my fill. It has been more than good enough to deserve being played to completion, which is exactly what I intended to do last night. I would have, too, if the game has decided that it wasn't going to let me.

Each completed level is graded based on time, collectibles and score. I almost always maxed out on the collectibles, rarely missed the score and came in about the second threshold for time, meaning I came away with around 90% of the available points. New levels were unlocked based on the accumulated points and I had always been fine, so much so that I stopped paying attention. On level 42 the game decided that I was not good enough to continue and that I had to go back and clean up my previous efforts. The deficit was small so I did so by replaying the first level. Satisfied, the game let me play level 43.

The gap to level 44 was in the hundreds of points, to which I say: fuck you. Save that shit for score attack or post game. Let the player see the whole game without having to jump through asinine hoops. My initial comparison to 'Splosion Man was unwarranted. 'Splosion Man was an excellent game. This might me but it is determined to not allow me to see it all.

Speaking of games that I did not pay for, I have managed to catch up on at least trying all of the free offering for PS+ and Xbox Live and it was a disappointing month. Chariot, the lone new game on Xbox One, look and plays like a glorified flash game. The entire concept is as follows: drag a wheeled coffin through levels to accumulate loot. I was bored after three levels.

Spelunky is a true rogue like. Rogue Legacy was fun because it created either constant advancement or at the very least the illusion of advancement. Spelunky does not. I did not feel bad for turning it off before surpassing the first area.

Pix the Cat is Chu Chu Rocket crossed with Snake and dosed with Space Giraffe. I get it, I think, but I am not sure that I need to play it. Work gives me enough headaches, I don't need another source.

Now, the main event, a game that pleased me to no end but that I am already done playing. Forza Horizon was my favorite racing game of the previous generation. Expectations for Horizon 2 were sky high and the game beat them all. Every box is checked: the game looks awesome, the way the cars feel is a nice midpoint between Gran Turismo and Project Gotham, the world is huge, events do not repeat for the first several hours, the soundtrack is a bit meh but you are able to turn it off, it is just about the perfect racing game.

The game goes out of its way to make sure the player is having fun. For example, every few championships there is a special race that pits the player against some ridiculous opponent. There are five of these, ranging from 45 hot air balloons to a giant cargo plane. They are races that feel un-winnable but each time,  be the thinnest of margins, I came out on top, and I am pretty sure the game let me.

This is not the AI rubber banding. I can attest to there being no such assistance for the drivatars in the actual races because I destroyed them on most occasions. This is the game modifying a meaningless race to keep it exciting. They feel almost scripted, and if I tried harder I probably could have lost, but all five of them, from the train to five jets, ended in a visually stunning matter with me on top by around a second.

I have no proof that this was intentional but it felt to good to be random. If it was by design I have no problem with it, in fact I applaud it. This is a racing game meeting the player half way, creating a special, exciting moment by bending the rules a bit in a race that doesn't matter anyway.

After winning the Horizon Final I tried to start another season. My gaming wanderlust was in full effect and I was unable to continue, the pull of Middle Earth or Aliens was too strong. All in all I saw about 15% of the total races. There are entire classes of cars that I never drove. Next summer, when the list has dwindled and I am complaining of nothing to play, I will come back to Horizon 2.

Hell, I might even purchase the damn game.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Once again I am not dead

Just on vacation over the weekend and now paying for being on vacation with two days of work that no one else could do.

Being indispensable is nice but it sure makes it hard to get time away.

Forza Horizon 2 is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I will go into more details tomorrow (hopefully) but it is a racing game that wants the player to have fun and actively makes exceptions to its own rules to facilitate it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014