Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Quick Impressions: Recently Played Games

Review: Here are some quick impressions of games I've been playing in the last few months, with letter grades:

  • Nintendo DS: Metroid Prime Hunters

    About 15 minutes in. Looks and plays just like Metroid Prime on the GameCube. Pretty fun. A-

  • Nintendo GameCube: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

    About a half hour in. Good graphics considering the platform. So far it seems similar to Ocarina of Time but somewhat more grown-up. Don't like the horse as much as Agro from Shadow of the Colossus; the animations, especially the transitions between animations, are not as good. B+

  • PC: Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

    Played through the tutorial. Looks like fun. Reminds me of Ground Control. A-

  • PC: Doom3

    Completed on normal difficulty. Okay shooter, outstanding graphics. B

  • PC: Doom3: Resurrection of Evil

    A few hours in. It's much like Doom3; see pretty graphics, enter dark room, things attack from behind and in front, shoot them, continue to next dark room. It's okay but not spectacular. And everything looks just a little too shiny. B

  • PC: Galactic Civilizations

    About five minutes in. Looks and plays much like Galactic Civilizations II, which I got first. Pretty graphics, turn-based gameplay like Civilization or Alpha Centauri but in space, factions, etc. Looks pretty good. B+

  • PC: Rhem

    About 20 minutes in. Disappointed. Was expecting Myst and got something less. Glad it was cheap. D

  • PS2: Burnout 3 Takedown

    Lots of fun. Two words: road rage. The rush when you engage boost mode will scorch your face and blow your eyeballs back into your brain. A

  • PS2: Burnout Revenge

    Fun fun. Two words: traffic checking. The rush when you engage boost mode will scorch your face and blow your eyeballs back into your brain. A

  • PS2: Dragon Quest 8

    Several hours in. Pretty fun. Fairly standard pure turn-based JRPG fare but well-balanced, highly polished, and with a nice Dragonball anime art style that works well with the PS2's graphical limitations. A-

  • PS2: Final Fantasy X

    Around 80% of the way through. Engrossing, entertaining game. Production values are top-notch. The story and characters are well-done, even for a Western audience. Could do without the unskippable cutscenes (and there are a lot of them) and the overly complex levelling and crafting systems. But these are minor drawbacks. B+

  • PS2: Flatout 2

    Fun. Demolition derby is a blast, racing is fun, and ragdoll stunts are a hoot. A-

  • PS2: God of War II

    About 15 minutes in. Looks like more of the same as God of War, and that's a good thing. Greek myth plus outstanding gameplay equals gaming goodness. A

  • PS2: Guitar Hero

    Finished on easy, replaying for perfection. It's a blast. Super fun. A

  • PS2: Guitar Hero II

    Played a bunch of songs in "quick play" mode. It's a blast. Super fun. The addition of practice mode and two-player jamming makes it a bit better than the first. A

  • PS2: James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing

    About an hour in. Fun game. Good cover mechanic. First mission (Egypt) is really hard, even on the easiest difficulty available. It's like being in a Bond movie. Series regulars and Hollywood stars lend their voices and likenesses, including Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, John Cleese, Richard Kiel, Shannon Elizabeth, and Willem Dafoe. A

  • PS2: Rogue Galaxy

    A couple of hours in - off the desert planet and into space. It's a pretty standard JRPG, so far. Combat is real-time. A reasonably fun science fantasy. B

  • PS2: Shadow of the Colossus

    Finished once. Replaying to make machinima. This game is a work of art; sublime. Less than a full review cannot do it justice. Play it and see for yourself. A+

  • PS2: Star Trek Encounters

    Completed tutorial and first two or three missions. Not fun. Control scheme is a mess, and the addition of the third dimension is poorly handled. Should have left the three-level third dimension off. D

  • PSP: Burnout Legends

    About 15% complete. Looks and plays much like Burnout 3: Takedown. Fun. Minor quibble: where are the car stats? A-

  • PSP: Coded Arms

    An hour or two in. Poor attempt at a first-person shooter. None of the control schemes compensate well for the platform's lack of a second analog input. Something like the scheme in Metroid Prime or Tomb Raider Legend would have worked but they didn't do that. The game is also an object lesson in the pitfalls of randomly-generated content; all the levels seem pretty much the same, lacking tactical interest. Dull. D

  • PSP: Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

    About an hour in. Fun and funny. Within the limitations of the platform, plays just like GTA3. B+

  • PSP: Killzone Liberation

    About 20 minutes in. Seems okay so far. Interesting game design - isometric view, but still a shooter. B

  • PSP: Me and My Katamari

    Completed first two missions. Pretty fun. Plays much like Katamari Damacy, but the controls don't work as well because of the PSP's lack of a second analog nub. B

  • PSP: Metal Gear Acid 2

    About halfway through. It's okay. Not as fun as the first game, somehow. Same card-based RPG action. Maybe it's the cartoony art style. B

  • PSP: Pinball Hall of Fame: Gottlieb Collection

    Great for pinball fans. Authentic tables. Quick pick-up-and-play. Some platform related limitations. Fun. Don't like having to earn tokens to play Black Hole. Genie is a blast. B+

  • Xbox: Battlestar Galactica

    About an hour in. I've enjoyed it quite a lot, but then I'm a fan of mission-based space fighter games. It follows in the tradition of games like X-Wing, Wing Commander, Freespace, Starlancer, and Star Wars Starfighter. In that tradition, there's no in-mission save, and some of the missions are long and difficult. So it's not for everyone. B+

  • Xbox: Beyond Good and Evil

    Several hours in. It's a fairly enjoyable game. I'm not as fond of it as some of its more vocal fans. I found its mix of children's themes (cartoon talking animals) and adult themes (your protectors in league with your enemies) mildly offputting. Good gameplay though; the ideas are well-executed. C

  • Xbox: Black

    About an hour in. Gameplay is a blast (literally!). Cutscenes are over-the-top silly, too long, and (worst of all) unskippable. B

  • Xbox: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

    A few hours in. Creepy. Best chase scene in any game. Best heartbeat vibration effect. Really good story. Voicework pretty good. Slightly subpar graphics but gameplay and story more than make up for it. Very good LOD. A-

  • Xbox: Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

    A couple hours in. It's a blast, but then I love flying games. It's fun on Xbox Live as well, but I am not yet worthy to travel in their company. A

  • Xbox: Destroy All Humans

    About four hours in. Fun and funny. Lampoons the politics, popular culture and morés of the U.S.A. of the 1950's. Penalty for dying is having to restart the mission - that is, very little. A-

  • Xbox: Fatal Frame

    About three hours in. Creepy. Scary. Well worth playing. A

  • Xbox: Halo 2

    Finished on Easy, replaying on Legendary. Excellent shooter, though not quite as good as Halo: Combat Evolved. The story is not as coherent. The cliffhanger ending didn't bother me as much as it did some fans. A-

  • Xbox: The Matrix: Path of Neo

    Completed first mission and part of second. Okay so far, controls a little loose. Okay cover mechanic. Not as fun as Enter The Matrix. C+

  • Xbox: Ninja Gaiden Black

    Almost completed first/tutorial level. Lots of fun. The first boss is very hard. A-

  • Xbox: Quantum Redshift

    Just started. This game plays and looks just like the WipEout games for the PlayStation. I love those games, so this is a good thing. B+

  • Xbox: Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy

    About an hour in. Nifty 3rd-person action game. Combines platforming and puzzle-solving with themes from ancient Egyptian mythology. Zelda-like in some ways. Enjoyable. B+

  • Xbox 360: Burnout Revenge

    Fun. Fun. Fun. Two words: traffic checking. The rush when you engage boost mode will melt your face off and blow your eyeballs out the back of your skull. A+

  • Xbox 360: Condemned Criminal Origins

    A few hours in. Seems to be getting a little repetitious. Follow serial killer, beat drug-crazed attackers to death. Rinse, repeat. Environments don't vary too much. Good presentation, solid gameplay. C+

  • Xbox 360: Crackdown

    About a quarter of the way in. Super fun. GTA-style cartoony graphics work well. It's a blast to leap a tall building in a single bound while getting a headshot on a crook, or throwing a dumpster into a crowd of criminals. No real penalty for dying. A-

  • Xbox 360: Dead Rising

    A couple of hours in, sort of. A blast. GTA with zombies and RPG-style leveling. Being able to restart the game while keeping your level is a fun twist. A

  • Xbox 360: Far Cry Instincts Predator

    About an hour in. Pretty fun. Nifty jeep escape sequence. Gorgeous environments. Hard. B+

  • Xbox 360: Gears of War

    Completed story on Casual. This is a fun shooter. No one aspect of the game is a new innovation, but every aspect (except possibly the plot) is best-of-breed. And all the parts mesh seamlessly to create an outstanding gameplay experience. A

  • Xbox 360: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter

    Finished first mission. Fantastic looking and playing game. Good cover mechanic. Tons of fun. A

  • Xbox 360: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2

    Finished tutorial, started first mission. Seems much like the first, with some minor graphical and gameplay improvements. Challenging and fun. Good game. A

  • Xbox 360: Need for Speed: Most Wanted

    About a third of the way through. This game is fun. I enjoy the GTA-like open city aspect. The graphics are very good, the cars are slick and the tuning aspect is well done. Races are fun and evading the cops is even more fun. B+

  • Xbox 360: Oblivion

    Main quest completed, now playing the expansion and mods. Beautiful. Engrossing. Immersive. Addictive. Entertaining. Fun. Play. This. Game. A

  • Xbox 360: Perfect Dark Zero

    Completed first storyline mission (nightclub). Fair shooter. Good cover mechanic. B

  • Xbox 360: Pinball FX

    Okay pinball simulator. Tables invented for the game, none taken from real life. B-

Shadow of the Colossus: Machinima May Be Cheap But It Ain't Easy

I've been working on a machinima movie version of Shadow of the Colossus. I did some work on it last year, then put it aside. Now I've started shooting again, and am reminded of how difficult some aspects of making a movie like this are.

I'm going to tell you what the hardest part of making this movie is, starting with the other parts that weren't quite as hard.

It wasn't finding an affordable capture device. The WinFast TV USB II Deluxe does a quite adequate job of capturing SD content, at a reasonable price.

It wasn't finding an affordable editing solution. Between VirtualDubMod, AviSynth, and the wealth of filters available for both, capturing, cutting and processing the footage is reasonable if not easy.

It wasn't finding an affordable solution for authoring a high-quality DVD (my target medium). TheFilmMachine allowed me to use encoding bitrates above the limits set by consumer products like those from Sonic or ULead, and between IfoEdit and DVDPatcher I was able to properly mark my video as 16:9 anamorphic widescreen so that all players would handle it properly (something the consumer DVD-authoring products won't do reliably).

It wasn't beating each colossus gracefully and quickly in a single camera shot, a restriction I'm limited to because the music can't be turned off or down.

It wasn't even trying to play the game and manage the camera at the same time, or doing trick camera shots to eliminate the main character from a shot.

No, what is hard is trying to get on the thrice-damned horse! I'd been trying to get the second colossus in a single shot, and made more than twenty attempts before giving up. Sometimes I made Wander tiptoe when he should have run, other times I made mistakes when attacking the colossus, and so on. But the vast majority of the shot-killers were when I tried to get Wander to mount the horse, and instead he ended up leaping through the air next to it. Even with the jump-and-grab trick, I miss the horse more than half the time. It looks ridiculous.

So now I'm going to shoot each colossus in segments, and make sure than any necessary horse-mounting comes at the beginning of a shot. That way, if I muff it, I can immediately retry rather than re-shoot the several minutes that come before it.

Wanted: An Overlay Filesystem for Windows

One of the biggest advantages of game consoles over PCs is ease of use. Consider all that's often required to play a game for the first time on a PC:

  • Before buying check to make sure your PC meets the minimum requirements for the game.
  • Make sure your hardware drivers are all up to date (or out of date if newer drivers have problems with that particular game).
  • Defrag your hard drive.
  • Install the game.
  • Find and install any patches so that the game has a chance of working without glitchiness
  • Tweak all the game settings for your hardware, carefully balancing video, audio and gameplay quality against framerate.
  • Make sure the game CD is in the drive.
  • Play.
Compare this to what's usually required to play a game for a console:
  • Make sure the game is for your console.
  • Make sure you have a memory device for your game saves.
  • Put the game in the console.
  • Play.
Even on subsequent plays, the PC suffers in usability because upgrades to hardware, drivers or other software can render a game unrunnable. And the game will always take up a significant amount of space (several gigabytes for recent titles) on the hard drive.

If you have a hundred console games, you might need a few memory cards, but that's all. But if you have a hundred PC games, you're going to need a hard drive with 200 gigabytes or more of free space to install them. Or you're going to have to give up the ability to choose which game to play on a whim, and instead carefully choose which games you leave installed.

It doesn't have to be that way. Well, the hardware variation issue isn't going to be solved any time soon. But there isn't any reason why games should have to be installed and consume large amounts of hard drive space. There are some existing games that only store saves, configuration information and patches on the hard drive. Some of those don't even require installation. Here are a few titles I own that (can) leave their content on the CD-ROM:

  • Tomb Raider (#2 - #5)
  • Wing Commander 3
  • Some titles in the Myst series
  • Atari Anniversary Edition

Microsoft's ''Games for Windows" initiative is meant to deal with exactly this problem by making PC games run the same way that console ones do. Halo 2 for Windows Vista will not require installation but will load from the DVD just like its console cousin. This is terrific, but it only helps with new games. What about your existing library?

That's where an overlay file system comes in. Conceptually, it's like a transparency laid over a sheet of paper. When you first read it, what you see is the text on the underlying paper. But anything you write goes on the transparency, and when you next read it, what you see is mostly the underlying text except where it's obscured by the new writing.

With such a filesystem, one could:

  • Install the game
  • Burn a DVD-ROM with the contents of the installation folder
  • Delete the contents of the installation folder
  • Make the installation folder the transparency over the DVD-ROM drive
After this, attempts to read from the game installation folder would be redirected to the dvd if the file isn't found there. And attempts to write to the installation folder (for instance, for save games or configuration data) would go there and overlay the old versions residing on the DVD-ROM.

So the game would play off the DVD-ROM, while configuration data and saves would go on the hard drive. The only drawback would be the decreased file reading speed.

There is such a filesystem already for Linux called unionfs (and a newer less buggy version called aufs). It's how the Knoppix distro of Linux runs from DVD while keeping user data on the hard drive.

Now if we Windows users could just get a little of that love... :)

Gran Turismo 4's Useless Strategy Guide

When I buy a strategy guide, I have certain expectations. First I look for the lists. There should be lists of items in the game, lists of unlocks and their conditions, and lists of various statistics. Then I seek out the tips and tricks - advice on how to play the game better, legitimate play strategies for beating enemies or accumulating in-game goodies. Next there should be cheats, including such things as in-game backdoor codes, cheat device codes, and game glitch exploits. Finally the guide should include one or more walkthroughs, step-by-step instructions on how to get from the beginning of the game to the end.

By these standards, Prima's guide for Gran Turismo 4 falls short. It's got plenty of lists and statistics, but its gameplay advice provides little more than does the in-game text, and nary a cheat nor a walkthrough is to be found. In the case of cheats it can be argued that there really aren't any for Gran Turismo 4, and anyway one wouldn't expect to find them in an official game guide. Gameplay advice and walkthroughs are a different matter.

I suppose that it was a wise decision for Prima not to sell the book as a strategy guide, for there is precious little of that in it. As I mentioned, the gameplay advice is pretty much what can be found in the game itself. There is no walkthrough of any kind. Sadly, I was able to find more and better advice for free on the Internet than in this $17 book.

I took that free knowledge and did a little research of my own. I replayed GT4 from the beginning and took notes. You can find the results here in my blog article, The Lazy Gamer's Guide to Gran Turismo 4.

A final note: If anyone is wondering whether the official guide for Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec is any better, well, it isn't. In fact, the two guides are so similar that they look like they were authored by the same people, despite being from different publishers.

My Halo Heresy: Bungie's Mistakes

On the Halo Story Page and in the Halo forums the participants can be seen dissecting every piece of minutia that comes from Bungie. Posters derive long chains of reasoning and speculation from the tiniest details of the games, books, the graphic novel, and interviews with Bungie employees - the material considered canonical. Here I commit sacrilege:

  • Bungie makes mistakes.
  • Story continuity is not Bungie's primary concern.
Evidence follows.

Here are nine items, each of which supports one or the other of the two claims above. Each can with sufficient effort be explained away, but not without straining the bounds of credulity. In each case a more likely explanation is the one I propose.

  1. Continuity: No Brutes or Drones in Halo: Combat Evolved

    The Brutes and Drones are nowhere to be found in Halo, but are common in Halo 2, which occurs only a month later. There have been attempts to explain this away, but none seem very likely. Let's examine these:

    • The Brutes and Drones have only recently joined the Covenant, and have only just begun to be deployed on Covenant vessels.

      I'd have an easier time believing this if there were only a very few of them in evidence in Halo 2. But they're already more common than Hunters.

    • Brutes and Drones were not previously trusted enough to serve on Covenant ships.

      If that were true, that isn't the sort of thing that happens all at once. Trust takes a generation or more for a new subject race to earn. But even that doesn't make sense; in any empire built on subjugation -- as the Covenant is -- the first thing that a new member of the empire gets to do is to serve as cannon fodder.

    • The ages-long feud between the Elites and the Brutes precludes them serving on the same ship, in the same fleet, or even in the same chain of command.

      ...which is flatly contradicted by events in Halo 2; Elites and Brutes worked together (at the mining platform and on Delta Halo) until the Prophet of Regret was killed. And even if this were the case, it doesn't explain the absence in Halo of the Drones.

    • There just didn't happen to be any Brutes or Drones in the portion of the Covenant fleet that went to Halo.

      Coincidence? Now there's a likely explanation. In which case you'd need to also explain why they didn't appear in The Fall of Reach, which is supposed to be consistent with the "Halo Bible".

    No, the most likely explanation is the one that's outside the story. The game developers wanted to give the player new enemies to fight. So they invented a couple and then did their best to backfit them into the storyline, with limited success. The reason that the story bits presented for the Brutes don't seem to fit with the events seen in Halo is that they don't. They're not so much explanations as rationalizations.

    In the beginning of the "Et Tu, Brute" video documentary a Bungie developer comments that the Brutes were introduced too late in the development of Halo 2 and were not well thought out. This suggests that the Brutes, maybe the Drones, and possibly the entire Covenant civil war, were not in the Halo Bible prior to the development of Halo 2.

    In the universe of Halo: Combat Evolved, Brutes and Drones simply didn't exist.

  2. Continuity: Brute Changes for Halo 3

    The video documentary on Brutes introduced us to new behaviors, uniforms, and group tactics for Brute warriors. The absence of these in Halo 2 poses the same problem that the absence of Brutes did in Halo: Combat Evolved. The same arguments and counter-arguments apply.

  3. Mistake: Covenant knowledge of Earth

    By the end of First Strike, it's clear that the Covenant knows that the location of the human homeworld is Earth. Yet in Halo 2, only six ships show up, and it becomes clear from their radio chatter that they came to Earth expecting to find something, but not humanity.

    What appears to have actually happened is that Halo 2 was originally meant to be the conclusion of the story. Bungie made a mistake in the development process and as a result had to reduce the scope of the story, cutting the last three chapters, moving that part of the story to a third game, and also moving the main invasion of Earth there.

    Bungie's development mistake is an idea supported by interviews with Halo 2 devs in which they admitted spending so much time producing the new game engine that they were left short of time for content and polish.

  4. Mistake: Cortana's First Insertion into Master Chief's Armor

    In The Fall of Reach, which takes place before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana is inserted into Master Chief's armor during its testing. Yet at the beginning of the game when she is inserted for the second time, both she and Master Chief react as though it's a new experience.

    "Hmm," she says, "Your architecture isn't much different from the Autumn's." "Don't get any funny ideas," he responds. Her comment makes it clear that she's encountering his suit's computing architecture for the first time, and his indicates that this is the first time he's discussed her potential control of the suit with her.

  5. Continuity: Johnson's "Special Moment"

    Upon completing Halo: Combat Evolved at Legendary difficulty, the player is treated to a special cutscene. Sergeant Johnson and an Elite are wrestling over an assault rifle when they notice that the Pillar of Autumn is about to explode. They stop wrestling, Johnson says, "This is it, baby. Hold me," and they hug(!).

    This scene breaks continuity any way you look at it. I realize it's meant to be a joke, and it is funny, but that's the point; continuity is not Bungie's primary concern. They'll sacrifice it to improve gameplay (Brutes and Drones) or even to make a joke.

  6. Mistake: Johnson's Flood Immunity

    After publication of First Strike, Bungie discovered that the explanation for Johnson's immunity to Flood infection was problematic for their long-term plans for the storyline. So they added a story to The Halo Graphic Novel which presented a contradictory account of Johnson's escape from the flood, and a page of documents, one of which suggests that the prior explanation was a hoax perpetrated on Dr. Halsey by the Office of Naval Intelligence.

    The problem is that even with the fig leaf of an explanation at the back of the graphic novel, the story in it (Breaking Quarantine) still contradicts the account in First Strike. While ONI could have falsified Johnson's service record (and would do so were he a Spartan-I and they wanted to conceal that), what they could not do is falsify the results of Halsey's own tests. She investigated his immunity and found that he had a neurological disorder that prevented Flood from infecting him. How he got the disorder is irrelevant; it's incompatible with the graphic novel's story in which he escaped by means of massive badassery.

    So Bungie made a mistake in allowing an account inconsistent with their overall storyline to make it to publication, and then made another mistake in trying to fix it.

  7. Mistake: Knowing Halo's Name

    No one on the player's side is aware that the ringworld is named Halo until Captain Keyes reveals it on being rescued from the brig of the Truth and Reconciliation. It's clear that it's new information to Cortana, as the first thing she does with it is to search Covenant radio chatter for references to it, which she would have done already had she known its name.

    However, on the Pillar of Autumn's bridge, in the first cutscene of the game, there is a diagram on the main computer display that's clearly labeled "Halo".

  8. Mistake: Cortana's Subspace Remark

    In the first scene of Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana tells Captain Keyes, "No one could have missed the hole we tore in subspace." That is the first, last, and only reference to "subspace" in the entire Halo corpus. Everywhere else it's called "slipspace". Perhaps Jan Taylor was channeling Star Trek for a moment?

  9. Mistake: Halo's Destruction

    It may have been dramatic for a piece of Halo next to the Autumn's explosion to fly across the ring and smash through the other side, but it was wrong. The Autumn was lodged against the inner surface of the ring, and that factor combined with the ring's rotation would have caused any ring fragments to fly outward.

    Then there's the ring's rigidity. No object of that size is going to show the kind of stiffness shown in the explosion sequence. Even if it were made of scrith the ring would bend and flex like a rubber band when disrupted.

There are more examples to be had, but these are enough to support my thesis.

So I say to all the Halo theorists out there, lighten up! Don't overthink every detail and nuance of the Halo corpus looking for hidden meanings, like some lit-crit professor run amuck (if that isn't redundant). You'll get the answers soon enough, when Halo 3 comes out.