Monday, October 27, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Various games, comfort gaming

There were too many games to put in the title, so here's a list:

  • Descent 3
  • Fallout
  • Fallout2
  • Half-Life: Decay
  • Halo: Combat Evolved
  • Halo 2
  • Halo 3
  • Marvel Ultimate Alliance
  • Okami
  • Portal: Still Alive

Descent 3 and Descent 3 Mercenary: I pulled out my joystick to play these as they don't work well with the mouse. I enjoyed the Descent 3 campaign, but Mercenary's BlueDevil level doesn't seem to have any way to complete it.

Okami: I played this for several days and it enchanted me again. I don't know how long I will play before tiring of it, but it will take some time.

I find the total package of Japanese mythology brought to life in a game that looks like a painting charming, to say the least.

When it gets old - assuming I'm not comfort-gaming again - I'll turn to the next game that came up in the shuffle, Burnout Paradise. That may not happen for a while.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance: A while ago I took a break from Okami to play online with an old friend who lives halfway across the country and only owns a PS2 and a low performance Windows laptop. I picked the game this time, and because I wanted to play with my friend instead of against him, I chose Marvel Ultimate Alliance.

We didn't get as much enjoyment out of it as I thought we would. First, the action seemed kind of samey after a while - beat up bad guys, find puzzle piece, rinse, repeat. Second, while the game supposedly revolves around getting and using superpowers, we had no difficulty progressing through the level using nothing but the two basic attacks. Third, once I loaded a co-op game from a save, it became impossible to change the difficulty level. So we couldn't see if perhaps the superpowers would become more necessary at those higher levels.

Halo, Halo 2, Halo3, Half-Life: Decay: I've spent the rest of the time up to now comfort-gaming. I played through all three Halo games on easy, and they entertained as always. Then I set my sights on the comfortable Half-Life series. But instead of playing one of the games, expansions or episodes I'd already completed, I chose the only one I hadn't: Half-Life: Decay.

Decay comes with the PS2 version of Half-Life. It offers a co-op (or single player) experience, set during the Black Mesa disaster, but from a different point of view (like Opposing Force or Blue Shift). It departs from the Half-Life 'formula' in several ways:

  • Instead of a mostly seamless, load-on-demand world, it breaks the story up into discrete levels, called 'missions'.
  • Decay does not offer quick-save and save-anywhere. Instead one can only save at the end of a mission. Die during a mission and you must start that one over.
  • The game presents two protagonists, whether playing single-player or co-op. In single-player one can switch between them. Some puzzles require the two characters to work together.

I've enjoyed what I've played of it, though I found some of the co-operative puzzles a bit tricky when having to switch between characters in time for the second to take advantage of an opportunity created by the first. The 'aimig assist' feature also added frustration. You have to get the aiming reticle quite close to your target, then hit the 'lock-on' button to have a decent chance of hitting the enemy. The extra time spent locking on means that the small, fast headcrabs will jump and take a bite out of your face before you can zero them. I solved that problem by using a USB mouse and keyboard, which the game supports and which made targeting enemies (especially the headcrabs) much easier.

Perhaps I made a mistake choosing Decay for comfort gaming. Too late; it has hooked me.

Portal: Still Alive: I found it a bit pricey since I already had Portal (twice, actually - both PC and Xbox 360), but I just had to have the challenge levels. I didn't play them, though; I started playing through the main game again, partly to refamiliarize myself with the gameplay, and partly because it feels so darn good.

Fallout, Fallout 2: A new website called Good Old Games ( has arranged with the license holders of some good old PC games to offer the games as DRM-free downloads that run on Windows XP and Vista at very reasonable prices ($5.99 for most titles). I'd never played Fallout before, and at these prices I couldn't resist.

I didn't play either game much, just enough to begin to get a feel for the gameplay. I'll be returning to them when they show up in my random game selection. Meantime, I've returned to playing Half-Life: Decay, and that scratches my comfort-gaming itch.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Halo 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Halo 3, Universe at War

Halo 2: Finished it on Easy. I think Bungie made a mistake in having the narrative switch tracks (between Master Chief and the Arbiter) every couple of chapters. It makes it significantly harder to follow the story. I could and did follow it, but it took more effort.

This sort of thing works in movies because they have more frequent switches. This prevents the viewer from forgetting what happened in one track while following another. The Empire Strikes Back and the last two movies of The Matrix trilogy exemplify this technique done well.

Games have playtimes too lengthy for this to work well. I think Bungie recognized this and corrected it in Halo 3, where the player becomes the Master Chief for the entire game.

Bungie could have made this work in Halo 2 by turning the Arbiter's chapters into short cutscenes. But that would have meant cutting the game's length by a lot, which would have not gone over well with many reviewers and players.

Duke Nukem 3D: I bought it on Xbox Live Arcade. It plays and looks just as I remember it. All the humor and gory gibbing remains intact, as do the low-resolution textures. I could wish for the high-res mod, but understand that licensing issues likely prevented them from including it.

Halo 3:: I finished it on Easy, so my comfort gaming ends - for now. For my next such experience I expect I'll play through the Half-Life series, including Portal.

Universe at War: Earth Assault: After finishing Halo 3, I started this game again. I began from the tutorial mission in order to re-learn the controls. The next night I played through the two Earth faction missions and the first Novus mission (take down a Hierarchy walker). The game seems fun, but the controls strike me as complicated and hard to remember. I may have to replay the tutorial mission once or twice to memorize them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Gamer's Diary - GTA Vice City Stories, Halo, Universe at War, Halo 2

Issues in Real Life (work, chemo, surgery) kept me from playing as much as I'd like, though the hospital visit through some strange business accounting magic gave me this past weekend completely free.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories: I played this in the hospital, mostly because I remembered to bring my portable games, and forgot the books I wanted to read. I find it fun, although the quad bike race seemed gratuitous and frustrating. It struck me as one of those game tasks one grits one's teeth and soldiers through in order to get to the next fun bit.

Halo: Combat Evolved: Upon getting home from the hospital, I wanted to play, but nothing too taxing. So I loaded Halo and restarted the game on easy. I think of it as 'comfort gaming'. Fun as always. On easy the story stands out better than on the more difficult levels. I finished it over the weekend, with a short side trip to Universe at War: Earth Assault.

Universe at War: Earth Assault: Later I felt a little more ambitious, so I started playing UaW:EA the next entry on my wanna list. I only got through the video tutorials and the tutorial level, so I can't say yet what fun it may contain. The controls seem pretty good though.

Halo 2: More comfort gaming, with a restart of the game on Easy. Haven't finished it yet. After I do, I'll replay Halo 3.

Gamer's Diary - LAN Party

Saturday the 13th I attended a LAN party that a co-worker holds at irregular intervals. I arrived first, dropped off homemade chocolate-chip cookies and fudge, set up my pc, and futzed about on the Internet until playtime.

I missed the last few games because I needed to leave early (work next day, and fatigue from chemotherapy), but participated in the majority of sessions. Of the games we played, I participated in:

  • Serious Sam II
  • Team Fortress 2
  • Star Trek Elite Force II
  • Far Cry
  • Flatout 2
  • Painkiller
Everybody else had started playing Tron 2.0 when I left.

The host added animation to the proceedings with exultant laughs, curses and insults hurled at other players. He did it all in a spirit of fun, of course, and others hurled just as much back, but at lower volume.

Everyone had a good time with a minimum of technical issues, making the LAN party a success.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Too Human

I may have spoken too soon about beam weapons. I still favor them, but the latest enemies I've come up against seem nearly immune to them. I've seen the Valkyrie animation a lot lately.

A tip: Shoot the floating fat undead guys. They come with an army of nigh-invincible undead soldiers. Once you dispatch the leader, most of the soldiers seem to disappear, and you can kill those left much easier. I think the floating fat guy keeps them alive.

I found it difficult to target the floaters from within their army, but distance makes it much easier. Distance also makes it easier to kill them as guns have a longer range than the floaters' area attack.

I have finished the game. I had a very difficult time trying to take down Hel. I think the problem consisted of me dying so often that my weapons and armor all had zero state. In that condition I could not inflict any damage on Hell. The next time I played I repaired everything and re-spec'ed my skill tree. After that I successfully got to the final battle with weapons and armor in non-zero state. Then she went down in pretty short order.

I have one complaint about the game, something that all the reviewers seemed to miss: The game (with tutorials on) does not adequately educate the player in how things work, especially charms and battlecries and the skill tree. That information may reside in the manual (I haven't read it yet), but players should have it all available to them in-game.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Too Human

I've played this off and on for the last several days. Not a lot new to report, except that the story does make sense to me (so far), and that some of the weapons and armor you can get at levels starting in the mid teens deserve the term "sweet". And beam weapons (like the "silver beam cannon of rooting" or the "honed pulse rifle of hypnosis") rock. And cyborg zombies? Too cool.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Too Human

Too Human continues to entertain. I do not regret my purchase. As Kevin Pereira said, "Screw the Haters." Now, back to my questing and bashing of robot heads.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Too Human

I said that I would play Universe at War: Earth Assault next, but with Too Human in my hands, I couldn't resist giving it playtime first.

I don't get all the hate that reviewers and some gamers have unloaded on this game. I for one totally dig the cyberpunk retelling of Norse mythology, and the gameplay, as Kevin Pereira put it, "makes you feel like a complete badass." I will probably play this game every play session until I complete it.

I suggest playing the demo first. That will tell you if the game suits your tastes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Galaga Legions Demo, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Command and Conquer 3

Galaga Legions Demo: I downloaded, I played, I deleted. It just didn't grab me. Though it has perhaps too many controls, the game doesn't suck. Though I much appreciate what they've tried to do, I still prefer the original - which I have. And I only really need one shmup in my library.

Bionic Commando Rearmed: I started it up to register some facts about it in my games database, but soon found myself engaged by it and playing for a half hour. Good game.

Command and Conquer 3: I made this the main event of my playtime, and it did not disappoint. I much enjoyed beating the Hampton Roads level with just the commando.

Also, I found that the new (to me) unit selection modes offered less of an edge than I'd thought, though I should have used them more at Langley. By contrast, the select-entire army mode got a lot of use, and provided a fair amount of glee in seeing my total forces just steamroll over the opposition. Good times, good times.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Bionic Commando Rearmed, Command and Conquer 3

Bionic Commando Rearmed: Despite comments that the game would inflict punishment on the non-elite player, the demo, erm, hooked me. I had never played the original, and so had no basis for comparison, but taken on its own merits the game delivers a healthy helping of fun for 800 Microsoft points.

As far as I can tell, the major review sites have given this title the praise it deserves. I played the demo, enjoyed it, and paid for the full game.

Command and Conquer 3: I'd had a yen to play this - and Universe at War - for days, and finally got to. Then I played it for three days straight, starting over from the beginning as I've done on other games I haven't played in a while.

On the first day I finished the tutorial and the prologue mission. On the second I got my rear repeatedly kicked by the first campaign mission (The Pentagon). On the third I did some research and found that the tutorial had omitted a selection option that made things easier. With the aid of that option I handily defeated Nod at the Pentagon. After that I checked the game manual and found more selection options.

This both gladdened and saddened me. It gladdened because I now have additional ways to organize and command my forces. It saddened because it makes the game a throwback to the days when vital information needed to play resided in the manual. Lose the manual and you couldn't play the game, or in good conscience pass it on to someone else.

That aside, the limited selection modes annoy me. Why not offer drag-select? Even the Playstation version of the original C&C had that. And I found a selection action which even the manual doesn't mention: holding the left shoulder button and moving one of the analog sticks presents something that looks like a formation selector. Though, why you would need something like that in a game like this mystifies me.

Don't let my griping put you off the game. I only spend so much time complaining about this one defect because the rest of the game delivers brilliantly. The selection issue certainly doesn't break it. Nothing satisfies quite like seeing my grenadiers blow the stuffing out of a garrisoned building which only recently rained bullets and rockets on my troops, or seeing the ion cannon strike I called in make the enemy base blow up real good.

Next up: One more session of C&C3 (to try out the additional selection options), then I will play Universe at War: Earth Assault.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Jade Empire, Eternal Sonata, Star Wars Starfighter

I've slowed a bit in my posts as a result of chemo-related fatigue. I have spent more time sleeping than playing. But I have done some, so here comes my blatherings about it.

Jade Empire: Another winner from the random game picker! I hadn't played Jade Empire in over two years, so I started fresh on Thursday. As before, I chose a balanced character to play as, and this time I chose the easiest difficulty instead of the default.

The whole package just works for me, delivering an entertaining mix of RPG, martial arts action, magic, and a story of an ancient alternate China. I've found a couple of "Whoa! Nifty!" moments so far, and both story and gameplay entice me to continue. This one definitely stays in rotation.

Eternal Sonata: I started this one over as well on Sunday, mostly to refamiliarize myself with the combat system and the story. It struck me, memory having faded in the year since I've played it, just how gorgeous the game creators made it. Even the sewers look beautiful.

The game revolves around the story - fortunately - since the gameplay, especially the battle system, elicits little more than a yawn. The game creators have given us get another ill-bred combination of turn-based fighting and realtime action in the form of action bars, with a twist or two not worth mentioning. I far prefer one or the other - either give me turns or give me action.

On the other hand, the story fascinates. What if Frederic Chopin had a dying dream of a magical, musical world that seemed to him more real than the world he fell asleep in? Might that dream world survive his death? Might that dream world offer him an afterlife? Play and find out.

Star Wars Starfighter Special Edition: Unable to sleep Sunday night, I rummaged through my playlist and chose this one. I wanted something that would offer plenty of action while taxing neither my brains nor my reflexes over much. Starfighter fit the bill admirably.

I enjoyed my time with it, though sadly I had to play it on my original Xbox; the 360 does not yet have a working emulator profile for it. Still, it looks good and plays well and offers plenty of fun.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Braid, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter

Braid: I'd heard all kind of buzz about Braid and its creator Jonathon Blow, so when it popped up on Xbox Live Arcade I thought I'd give it a try. Twenty minutes later I plunked down the Microsoft Points to buy it outright. I found the mix of platforming and time reversal (all the way to the beginning of the level if you want!) engaging.

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter: I hadn't played this, my game picker's selection for last night, for over a year. So I started over and went through the tutorial again. An hour's play reminded me of what I liked and didn't about it. I like category the action and the ability to command your squad, as well as heal them. I don't like the complexity (and sometimes arbitrariness) of the controls, and the fact that nobody can heal the team leader - he has to find a health pickup for that (weapons locker?). I find the drawbacks minor, so it stays in my rotation.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Persona 3 FES

I enjoyed an hour with this game Monday night. I like this kind of RPG - the 100% turn-based battles, the adventure-game aspect when not in battle, the ability to control the camera.

I also like the way that the social sim aspects of the game feed into the combat abilities. By becoming a better, more rounded high school student and making friends, the player's character gains combat power.

I don't like so much persona fusion. It incorporates a bad game design, in that it not only encourages the player to paint himself into a corner, it virtually forces him to do so.

First off, the player cannot undo persona fusion, so if one gets a less useful persona, one cannot go back (except by reloading a game save). When fusing personas, the player can see the name of the persona and the names of its skills, but the skill names look like Japanese words (or maDe-up ones) and the game offers no way to view a description of them prior to fusion. So the player must do fusion blind.

I suppose the next time I play it, I'll keep a FAQ handy so I can find out what the fused persona's skills actually do. I don't consider that cheating.

I consider this a minor defect, however; I suspect that one can play the game and win through to the end without ever fusing personas, and I mean to play that way as lohg as possible. In any case, I'm still enjoying the weird story and interesting combat.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Forza Motorsport 2, Indigo Prophecy, Star Trek Elite Force II

Forza Motorsport 2: The last time I played this I described it as "sweet, sweet candy." This time I found it somewhat disappointing. The game hasn't changed; I have. Since I last played Forza Motorsport 2, I've also played Codemasters' DiRT and GRID. Forza, while still fun, suffers by comparison to these.

Two main factors make Forza less fun than the other two. The selection of cars for unlocking lies at the heart of the first factor. In Forza much as in Gran Turismo , the player must spend much of the first hours of the game driving slow, poor-handling cars. These can be upgraded, but it takes quite a bit of time. By contrast, games like Burnout 3 , DiRT , GRID, and even Project Gotham 3 give you fast cars and a sense of speed right from the get-go.

The second main factor shows in how Forza handles racing. Much like Gran Turismo , it plays more like a driving game than a racing game. A.I. competitors tend to drive the perfect racing line, spread out in a queue, never battle the other cars, and pretty much ignore the player. But in DiRT and GRID , the A.I. opponents race against each other, use different strategies for getting around corners, make mistakes, and seem willing to trade paint with the player.

Playing Forza Motorsport 2 provides significantly less excitement than the other options I've mentioned, with the exception of the Gran Turismo series, which it surpasses. If you want an attempt at accurate vehicle simulation, play Forza or Gran Turismo . If you want racing fun, play DiRT, GRID, Burnout, or FlatOut

Indigo Prophecy : This game surprised me with just how much I disliked it on playing it again. Perhaps I overlooked it before, but this time I was struck by the game's reliance on "quick time" events for, well, pretty much everything. Pressing buttons in sequence or flicking the analog sticks in particular patterns is okay in very small doses, as in the recent Tomb Raider games or God of War , but too much resembles loading a fine martini with vermouth - it ruins it.

This game would have come across much better if it had stuck to the 3D adventure game framework, with action flowing naturally from the controls, much as in Dreamfall .

I think that I shall trade this one in or give it away, and I already got the rest of the story from online FAQs. The intriguing story line does not offer enough interest for me to play through the broken control design to get to its end.

Star Trek Elite Force II: I played this before, but only got as far as getting repeatedly killed by Borg in the first level. This time I played a little more intelligently, and instead of the half hour I'd allotted myself to play, I put a half hour plus three into it, finishing the first two action levels (Borg, Dallas).

I really enjoyed this game. It still looks great, controls well, and has a really good Star Trek vibe to it. I'll definitely return to this one when my random game chooser picks it again.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Max Payne, Burnout 3, Mercenaries

Max Payne: I ordered the Xbox version of this at the same time as its sequel (cheap!), and it arrived in the mail Tuesday. So now I can give away my PC version and still play on a console.

I had no problems playing it on the Xbox 360, beyond a barely-noticeable hitch when the comic book cutscenes start. I had fun spending an hour with Max. I like this Max better than the one in the sequel. He has an edgier look and a more distinctive face. The Max of the sequel looks more generic, more bland. The world-weariness and sardonic attitude don't show through in sequel-Max's face.

I also like the over-the-top 40's pulp crime story monologues. It goes so far over-the-top that one cannot take it seriously, and edges into parody of the genre. By contrast, the sequel does seem to take itself seriously, and as a result delivers grimness rather than humor. It makes Max Payne 2 less fun.

Don't get me wrong though; I liked both games. I just have a little more love for the first one.

Burnout 3: Takedown: The Picker selected the PS2 version of this for me to play. If I had to summarize this game in two words, I'd choose "bottled fun." With the face-melting sense of speed, the rough and tumble of takedowns, the joy of unlocking even more insanely fast vehicles, the brilliant destruction of crashes, the widescreen 480p graphics you wouldn't have thought possible on a PS2, the energetic music, and the mayhem of online racing and crashing, this game contains the perfect storm of ingredients for making an awesomely fun evening.

I only have two minor complaints to make about Burnout 3. First, the over-excited radio DJ, "Atomica", gets wearisome after a while. Second, the aftertouch camera points in the wrong direction. How can I guide my burning wreck into the path of racers behind me when the camera is looking ahead?

Except for those two tiny items, Burnout 3: Takedown delivers a truckload of fun.

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction: The Picker chose this for me Wednesday night. When I first bought the game, I didn't understand it. I thought it a linear game, with a single path through the objectives and movement outside that path restricted. So I played it that way and got bogged down in killing an inexhaustible supply of enemies.

When I played it Wednesday night I decided to go straight for the next objective and only kill the enemies that got in my way. I soon found that I progressed much faster playing that way, and discovered that the game actually offers an open world with various missions to complete, GTA style.

In fact, if I had to choose a more descriptive name for the game I'd pick something like "GTA North Korea" or "Crackdown North Korea". Instead of a criminal you play a mercenary, instead of a city you have a country, instead of working for criminals you work for the U.N. coalition forces, and instead of doing crimes for pay you capture North Korean war criminals... for pay.

I had a lot of fun with it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Max Payne 2, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Perfect Dark

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne: I ordered this (cheap!) as part of my campaign to replace my PC games with console versions. I found it in my mailbox Sunday, so of course I popped it in to the 360 to see if the game had scratches or data errors, to see if it would run on the 360, and to re-acquaint myself with one of my old favorites.

The disk had a pristine surface and no errors, it played flawlessly in emulation, and I enjoyed an hour of stepping into the shoes of my old friend Max.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance: My random game picker came up with this for its second choice; first it chose a Japanese RPG that would have required more time and brainpower than I wanted to put in.

I put in the 360 version (I also have it for PS2, because I play online co-op with a friend who has it for PS2 as well) and quickly discovered that I didn't have much progress in it. So I started over. I enjoyed playing as Wolverine for an hour, then put it away for another time, satisfied with my progress.

Perfect Dark: On Monday the picker chose this after several unsuitable titles. Playing this on my dusty Nintendo 64 reminded me of just how much developers can get out of limited hardware. I completed much of the Carrington Institute training and the first two levels of the campaign, and had plenty of fun doing it.

The graphics, of course, don't hold a candle to anything current, the limitations of the Nintendo 64 controller make playing a first-person shooter a bit awkward at times, and the voice acting didn't impress, but the overall gameplay still offers a lot of fun and the story promises interesting twists.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gamer's Diary - GRID, Battlestar Galactica, Black

GRID: Thursday evening I played some more, enough to win the Tuned Pro event. My strategy of restarting races until I win each race in an event continues to work well. But I've become tired of playing the same game too long, and so I've started picking a different game each time I sit down to play.

Battlestar Galactica: Before I talk about it, I should mention which one I played. I played the game released in 2003 for the Xbox and PS2, a space fighter simulator along the lines of Star Wars Starfighter or Wing Commander Prophecy, not the arcade game released for Xbox Live Arcade and PC in 2007.

I didn't put it in meaning to play it for any length of time; I wanted only to verify something I'd noticed before, that engine exhaust flares were incorrectly rendered in the Xbox 360's emulation. I ended up spending a good hour with the game anyway, because I was having fun trying to beat a mission.

Beyond that, I also ran the test I meant to; I played the game on both my original Xbox and my Xbox 360, and discovered that the 360 does in fact misrender exhaust flares. On the Xbox they appear white, as you'd expect, but on the 360 they appear black with a fuzzy white outline. I find it slightly distracting, but have no doubt that once I get used to it I'll stop noticing it altogether.

Black: Since I currently want not to play the same game for any length of time, I needed to pick a new one to play Saturday. I picked randomly from my playlist, and approved of the first one I found: Black. This game has lots of explosions, lots of shooting, and lots of destruction hung on a fairly thin plot. I think it's just the thing to relax with and turn off one's brain, like a fun action movie.

EA released Black to mixed reviews. While reviewers liked the things I've mentioned about it, they also criticized it for its lack of story depth, lack of any hint of multiplayer, and short length. None of those things bothered me about it; I don't care that much about multiplayer, I think too many games get artificially lengthened to satisfy those vocal players with an excess of free time, and a game about shooting things and blowing things up needs about as much plot justification as a pornographic movie. The developers called Black "gun porn" for a reason.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown, Puzzle Quest, GRID

Crackdown: Having beaten the final crime, I set about going after the achievements I mentioned in my last post. I got to the top of the Agency Tower, and I got all my skills to four stars. Then I shelved the game.

I found scaling the tower repeatedly to get the water jump achievement and grinding my skills to max tedious. So I put the game away (for eventual replay - it has lots of fun in it), and found another to put in my playlist: Perfect Dark Zero.

Puzzle Quest: Another hour of grinding roadside encounters, and I'd had enough. I still only have level 23, and need level 26 (25 if my luck is good) to progress on the main quest and some of the side quests. I still had fun with it, but I really wanted to play something else.

GRID: I have reverted to my old racing game tactics. If it looks like I'm going to lose a race, I restart it. Since GRID has no car tuning options (like DiRT and TOCA Race Driver), engineering my way to victory is not an option as it is in series like Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, and Need for Speed.

By restarting I was able to win both of the demolition derby races, and claim the gold cup for the event. Next up, the Tuned Pro event.

A comment on GRID's design: while it has licenses as does theGran Turismo franchise, it doesn't have GT's tedious and frustrating license tests to get them. Instead, I get licenses by winning races. I like to play to race, and this satisfies that urge. This has, like Forza, much more fun in it than the artificial skill tests in GT (license tests) and Project Gotham (kudos).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

Friday I defeated the Shai-Gen's last general and started after the final boss, Wang. It annoyed me to discover that I needed a four-star agility rating to reach Wang's rooftop garden, particularly since I'd already climbed halfway there. I spent the rest of my game time grinding that rating by sniping thugs from a rooftop and finding agility orbs.

Saturday I took on Wang and beat him. I found a rocket launcher useful for this. Either a Firefly or Hothead will do. Tip: Don't lock on to the bad guys, shoot the ceiling above them. Then I beat the final crime, and the game treated me to its mildly plot-twisting cutscene.

Next, I quit the campaign, respawned the gangs, and re-entered. I have two achievements I'd like to make before I put the game on the play-again-someday shelf. I'd like to scale the agency tower, and max out all the skills. The first does not require a gang respawn, but the second does. Skills for kills, agent; skills for kills.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Too Human Demo, Tales of Vesperia Demo, Crackdown

Tuesday evening, after gorging on trailers from E3, I tried the demo for Too Human. I had meant to play it for twenty minutes in order to get a taste for it, but ended up spending more than an hour. Needless to say, I enjoyed it. The combination of action gaming and RPG-style levelling, similar to Oblivion or Crackdown, left me deeply satisfied. I have put it on my to-buy list.

Wednesday evening I tried the Tales of Vesperia demo before returning to Crackdown. I liked the combat system - it seems to be pure action rather than a hybrid - and the game looks exceedingly pretty, with an art style somewhere between Dragon Quest 8 and Eternal Sonata. Other than that I found that it had little to offer beyond other RPGs - a story that, at least in the demo, didn't grab my interest, and the usual cast of misfit characters.

After that I spent some time trying again to cl9mb the Agency tower in Crackdown. I can get the SUV to start climbing a wall, but cannot seem to time the button presses right to keep the vehicle stuck to the surface. I think I'll just wait until I have a four-star skill rating in agility, then climb the tower the normal way - on foot.

I finished up the evening by taking down another Shai-Gen general. All I have left is two undiscovered generals, and Wang, the boss of Shai-Gen.

Thursday I tried to take down Shai-Gen's big boss, and discovered I don't have the moxie to do it without ridding him of his generals first. As soon as I began the assault on his HQ, so much fire came from so many directions that it transformed my agent from genetically enhanced supercop to genetically enhanced swiss cheese.

So, while waiting for the next general's dossier to download, I amused myself by scaling a tall tower and sniping random Shai-Gen enforcers. The rooftop cover makes it hard for them to shoot me, and the altitude means I get a small agility bonus for each one I kill.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

I still have not reached the top of the Agency tower, though I've seen YouTube videos of those that have. One actually drove the Agency SUV (with four star driving skill) straight up the side of the tower. Another did it on foot with four star agility.

I don't have four star agility, but do have four star driving skills, so I think I will make my next attempt in the SUV.

After an unsuccessful attempt Saturday to scale the Agency tower, I directed my attention to the next Shai-Gen general and took him down handily.

Every general has a finite number of guards, and in his HQ alcoves or other bits of cover where an agent can hide to recharge his shields and health. You can keep killing the guards and recharging until no more come, then take on the general alone.

Don't get killed while doing this, or quit the game; either will reset the general and give him a fresh supply of guards.

Finally, to kill generals I like to kick them to death. This might have something to do with my maxed out strength skill.

Sunday I tried scaling the tower with the SUV, and discovered that climbing walls with that vehicle takes more finesse than I have right now. So I switched to assaulting generals and took down another.

Next I shall spend some time learning to climb buildings with the SUV.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

The Volk I vanquished Thursday. Only the Shai-Gen remain. Not all of Pacific City's three boroughs have a final boss, though they each have a final crime. Los Muertos have a final boss, the Volk have something different.

I found the Volk's final crime easiest to tackle with a vehicle. Preferably one with guns, like the max-level Agency supercar.

Friday I killed the first of the Shai-Gen generals, after spending some time in Los Muertos territory grinding my agility skill. I'm starting to really like the rocket launcher - it fires like a gun, but gives really satisfying explosions and boosts the explosives skill.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

I finally figured out how to lower the 'drawbridges' to the Volk general's drydocked cargo ship. But I didn't have time to exploit them and reach the villain. I will try again tonight, though I'm getting a little tired of blasting a hundred thugs (or so it seems) every time I assault the docks.

Tip: For those who have trouble when faced by large numbers of enemies, I have discovered a simple trick that will help you take them down without suffering significant damage yourself. For this to work, you need cover higher than your head between yourself and the thugs, and a fully loaded Colby EAR50. It wouldn't hurt to have maxed-out shooting skills as well.

It works like this: Aim in the general direction of your enemies, maybe down a bit. Hold the left trigger and jump. While in the air, make sure you get a lock on an enemy. Once down, target the enemy's head and wait for the targeting reticle to shrink all the way. If the target is a long way away, activate the zoom and max it. Next jump, and when your target appears in your field of vision, shoot. A single headshot will usually do it. Rinse and repeat until all the enemies are gone.

By the way, this technique also works with grenades (except for the body-part targeting and the zoom), and will help you boost your explosives skill.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

Monday night I put down another couple of Volk generals. Cleaning up this part of Pacific City shouldn't take much longer.

I have discovered, to my delight, that not only can you add commandeered vehicles to your garage, but the Peacekeepers offer (no unlock needed) their own set of snazzy cars and trucks that equal or outperform the Agency equivalents. The Peacekeeper pursuit car, in particular, rocks. It has more speed and better handling than any other vehicle in the game, and it can drive under other vehicles and launch them into the air like the Agency supercar.

I had quite a lot of fun driving the wrong way around the Pacific City highway loop, launching car after car into the sky and earning the hatred of gangs and Peacekeepers alike. I think I have begun to understand why some people skip the story missions in Grand Theft Auto games and just wander around inflicting mayhem on the populace. Severing the traces that bind us to civilized, rational behavior and letting the Id roam free to wreak havoc, even if only in a pretend world, gives us a sense of freedom and wild, savage joy.

Tuesday night I continued my campaign against the Volk generals, but found myself unable to reach the next one. I have so far failed to find a route to get on board the drydocked freighter, where I think he has hidden himself.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

I spent a fun hour Saturday taking down the Volk's transportation operation. When I want to relax ard have some intellect-free shoot, drive, and blow-stuff-up play,I know which game to get it from.

I spent several more hours Sunday in the game. I have had so much fun with this game that I will probably keep playing until I finish it.

I have found a new favorite weapon in the harpoon gun. It hits instantly like Halo's sniper rifle, has a scope, provides a one-hit kill on most enemies, and then pins the corpse to the wall behind it. Sweet!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Crackdown

When I sat down to play last night, I wanted something different, some game I hadn't played in a while. I picked games at random from my play book until I found one that sparked my interest. I chose Crackdown.

I remembered enjoying it when I'd last played it over a year since, and that it didn't require a large investment in time or mental effort. So I thought it should offer the kind of after-work brain-switched-off half hour of fun I had looked for. I suppose then that irony best describes what happened next, for I spent four hours playing it.

I had forgotten just how much fun this game has in it.

Shooting criminals with a fully automatic assault rifle from insane distances, picking up cars and throwing them at bad guys, running them over with the Agency super car, leaping up the sides of tall buildings in a few bounds, jumping off said building and sniping a thug while in midair, making a Hulk-like dent in the pavement on landing, making a chain reaction of explosions including the cars the crooks hide behind, launching gang vehicles into the sky by driving under them with the supercar - I find very little not to like.

Finally, I really like the art direction. The game producers have done everything up in a semi-cel-shaded comic-book style that integrates well with the game's central premise of a superhero cop who partakes equally of Dirty Harry, Mr. Incredible, and Demolition Man.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Gamer's Diary - GRID, Puzzle Quest

GRID - I beat the demo derby event, but haven't won both races yet. I have still a little to do there before I move on to the next event.

Puzzle Quest - I keep grinding away. When I reach level 24, I can rejoin the main quest.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Quest, Lego Indiana Jones

Puzzle Quest - Still grinding. Still enjoying grinding.

Lego Indiana Jones - J--- and I played through two more levels. It seems that this game has a shorter playing time than the Lego Star Wars games. Perhaps our familiarity with those games has trained us in its conventions, so that we play through the levels faster. No matter; we still have fun with it.

From a game design point of view, the no-die feature succeeds brilliantly at taking the game-over angst out of the game while leaving the fun intact. Make no mistake though; this game holds little attraction for the hardcore, for the kind of player who exults in beating a level of Ninja Gaiden Black after the 73rd attempt. It makes its only two concessions to the hardcore gamer in the studs mechanic (which provides opportunities to buy in-game bling by performing well), and in the statistics and bonuses it provides for completion junkies.

The drop-in drop-out co-op also increases the game's accessibility for kids while making it a vehicle for adult-child bonding.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Quest

Puzzle Quest will present over-leveled foes not just in the main quest, but also in some of the side quests. You will have more success in grinding by seeking out roadside encounters.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Quest

Another hour of playing Puzzle Quest has confirmed what I suspected. Its puzzle-based battle system makes grinding fun.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Gamer's Diary - GRID

Doing better. Fourth place in the Michigan Demolition Derby. I think I have figured out the secret: Treat it like a regular race instead of an opportunity to smash cars (as fun as I might find that). The more I concentrate on crashing cars the farther back in the pack I finish.

Storytelling About Video Games

It has occurred to me lately that U.S. Culture has fragmented, and I find value in the notion of having a common one. In the eras before mass entertainment, cultures used folklore as one of the ways to pass its memes on.

Folklore tells us stories that help us define who we are as a people and teach us valuable lessons about life and our relationships to other people.

We find our folklore today in pop culture and mass media. They have such a large volume that everyone has to pick and choose what stories to experience, and so we each end up with a unique culture for every person rather than a solid common base.

Schools used to provide much of this through education in classic litersture and American folk tales, but a focus on multiculturalism (meaning every culture's stories but ours) has largely destroyed what cultural commonality we had.

This leaves us with pop culture, where the massive volume of material creates the fragmentation I referred to earlier.

I think that folk tale renditions of classic literature, plays, movies, television, books, comics, and yes, video games could help provide this common story database to define our American culture. Think of it as a kind of Cliff's Notes for American identity.

I've added to my (already over-long) to-do list making an attempt at composing and publishing under the Creative Commons license some such folk tales. Others are welcome to contribute, as long as they submit the material under CC or some other similarly non-restrictive license.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


For those who haven't noticed, I've started writing all my blog posts in E-prime. It has all the same characteristics of English, except for lacking all forms of the verb, "to be".

I think it tends to make my writing stronger, as it makes difficult (though not impossible) writing in the passive voice or otherwise omitting the agent of action.

So if you see some odd turns of phrase in my posts, you can attribute them to my attempts to rewrite sentences to avoid that verb.

I welcome any comments suggesting better, alternate phrasings that also eliminate that verb.

Gamer's Diary - GTA Vice City Stories, The Circus

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories - After finishing my blog entries, I still had time in my chemo session, so I put the Pocket PC away and pulled out the PSP. I haven't gotten that far in the game (finished the Phil missions in this session), but so far the missions and Vic Vance's character have seemed to jibe.

I've seen remarks on GTA IV from such luminaries as Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and MTV's Stephen Totilo that Niko's reluctant life of crime has a cognitive dissonance with the missions the game requires him to perform. He seems turned off by violence in the cutscenes, but has missions that require him to massacre entire groups of small-time nonviolent criminals.

Based on what I've seen so far, I don't think Vic Vance has the same problem. He needs money to help his brother, and will pursue any means necessary to get it. He tried an honorable route - the U.S. Army - but got almost immediately dishonorably discharged for following the orders of his corrupt sergeant. Bitterly disillusioned by his experience in the honorable world, Vic becomes willing to do any job that pays, though some of it still rankles.

Once while repossessing cars for Phil, Vic learned that most had actually been paid off, and he was just stealing the cars for Phil to sell again. This bothered him, and he said as much to Phil. Phil was unrepentant, and Vic dropped the issue - probably because he needed more jobs from Phil.

So I don't think the case holds, as either Mr. Croal or Mr. Totilo suggested, that how GTA characters behave in cutscenes always has a disconnect with how they are required to behave in missions.

And have I mentioned? If you can get past the idea that your in-game character belongs to the Bad Guys, or if you revel in that sort of thing, there's a lot of fun to be had in all the 3d GTA games - including Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - It became clear to me again last night that you do not need video games, movies, or television to have an evening of entertainment filled with rip-roaring fun.

The last time, a few months ago, I took my fiancée, S---, and her youngest, J---, to Disney on Ice's Finding Nemo. It reprised the events of the movie, but with ice-dance numbers and songs. It comes across as a whole different experience from the movie; live performers and the possibility of mistakes and the live immediacy of it all has something about it that lends it a certain extra intimacy and excitement.

The Circus comes across the same way, only more so. The audience is more involved; the clowns interact with the audience, and some lucky patrons who'd won some kind of contest came down onto the floor in trams among the performers. And certainly more excitement came from the acrobatic stunts, live animal acts, and clown comedy than the Disney production delivered.

After these two events, I think I understand why people still go to the theatre and sports arenas, even though television makes it easier to see everything up close; all these get their true magic from the live human experience.

Next: no worries, more about video games.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Cars, Legos, and Gems, Oh My!

GRID - I completed the goal I had set for myself - three consecutive wins in the Muscle Car Classic event. Having done that, I considered myself ready to participate in other events.


None of what I had learned in the first event prepared me for the next one - a demolition derby. I found myself constantly getting lost on the figure-8 track, bringing up the rear of the pack, and getting pulped by the other drivers. I only finished 11th out of 12 because one of the other drivers crashed out of the race.

Having learned my lesson, in future I will race an event until I win it, then move on to the next. Perfecting performance in one event does nothing to improve overall game prowess.

Lego Indiana Jones - J--- wanted to play with her Webkinz but Mom needed to use the laptop, so I offered to play Lego Indiana Jones with her. We played through the Nepal level, and found that we progressed through the level much faster when we focussed on it rather than loitering and trying to get all the studs and bonuses.

Like the Lego Star Wars games, this one can be played by kids and adults together, with tons of fun to be had by both.

Puzzle Quest - I thought that I had finished playing for the evening, but then my oh-so-lovely cat Bonnie decided at one in the morning that the time had come for me to play with her, and chose to let me know by dragging her favorite feather toy up onto the bed and meowing loudly in my face.

Bonnie's head: pop off or twist off? At that moment, I would have liked to find out.

Unable to return to sleep right away, I fired up the 360 and played Puzzle Quest for a while. I have seen forum posts complaining that enemies seem overly lucky in the game, or that they seem to have advance knowledge of what gems will fall. Playing it, I can see where they might think that, but I think they fail to notice all the times when the player gets similarly lucky.

I noticed while playing that sticking with story line quests results in the game pitting me against enemies that have a significantly higher level and better stats than me. It set me - a level 19 warrior - against a level 24 orc. I lost. Badly.

This means I will have to spend time grinding levels by performing minor quests and fighting road bandits, in order to get strong enough to fight the orc lord's guard. Ordinarily I would find such levelling tedious. But the fun nature of the combat means I will enjoy it instead. So, no biggie.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

RPG Battle Systems

Yesterday I saw an ad for an Xbox 360 RPG with turn-based battles (something I like in an RPG), and it reminded me of some ideas that have percolated in the back of my mind for some time now.

Nobody cares about your stupid battle animations. They resemble cutscenes but lack half the justification: They offer pretty scenes but do nothing to advance the plot. I find them interesting to watch the first time, after that they just slow down the gameplay. This holds doubly true for "summons" animations.

I think a move should take (barring an introductory battle animation) no more than one second from the time the player picks his action from the menus. Yeah, you read me right, one second. We don't put up with this kind of crap in action games, why should we in RPGs?

In my more cynical moments I think the developers do this on purpose, specifically to slow down the gameplay. After all, how can your RPG meet the (legally required?) 40 hour minimum playtime if you don't slow the player down?

In any case, overlong battle animations break a cardinal rule of game design, and one of media development: "Don't waste the player's time," and "Kill your darlings". Long battle animations waste the player's time, keeping him from continuing the gameplay, and as for the second, I'll explain by quoting Samuel Johnson: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly, fine, strike it out."

Game designers often make the error of thinking that what they've created looks so fine, that everyone will want to see it...over and over. Final Fantasy X exemplifies this mistake. Not only did they think their battle animations so fine that you could only shorten the summons ones, not eliminate them, they thought their cutscenes so fine that they made them unskippable.

At the other end of the wasting-the-player's-time and kill-your-darlings scale we find Puzzle Quest, which gets it right. Perhaps the limited space for the game and limited resources for development forced adherence to these principles, or perhaps the designers used their noggins rather than their vanity when crafting the game.

You won't find any battle animations in Puzzle Quest, except for the (very brief) lightning bolt that damages a party's health. Each move, not counting a chain of moves, takes no more than a second. Cutscenes last only a short time, conveying through speech balloons the minimum necessary to advance plot and gameplay. The game moves along at a fast clip, never wasting the player's time.

Your stupid semi-turn-based semi-action-oriented battle system sucks. If you the designer wish to give me a turn-based battle system, then do that. If you want to give me an action battle system, then do that. But don't give me some half-baked combination of the two. I find little more infuriating than having to pick an action from a complex menu while the enemy's action bar charges. I know that when his bar fills, he will instantly lauch an attack. No time spent perusing menu choices for him, no sir!

Final Fantasy VII has this kind of system. Your bar charges, then the enemy's does. You can't even begin to pick an action until your bar becomes full. The instant the enemy's bar fills, he attacks. Even Final Fantasy X sins a little here; though 95% of the time you can make totally turn-based moves, when you pick a limit break move it forces you to play a twitch-based minigame. I find this frustrating, especially as I age.

I prefer games that stay firmly in their lanes, like Puzzle Quest and Xenosaga and Dragon Quest 8 on the turn-based side, and Mass Effect, Final Fantasy XII and Crackdown on the action side. All three action-based RPGs handle their battle systems differently, but all have good arguments for them. None of the action-based ones try to mix in turns, and none of the turn-based ones try to mix in an action twitch-fest.

Gamer's Diary - GRID

Played the Muscle Car Classic and won both of its races handily. I've won this event twice in a row now. Once more and I'll move on to other events. What can I say? GRID still thrills.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Pirates, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Halo 3

It seems odd that of all the puzzles I've played, I enjoy bilge pumping the most. The puzzle resembles Bejeweled, though not as closely as the one in Puzzle Quest. Next up: pillaging.

I would set up my fiancée's youngest daughter, J---, with Puzzle Pirates but for two things. First, she has 11 years and the game requires players of at least 13 years of age. Second, the game looks as though the age requirement is sensible. It looks sensible not because of violence or adult content, but rather because the mechanics of the game outside of the puzzles seems a bit complex and daunting, even for an adult.

But Puzzle Pirates put me in mind of another similarly themed MMO with an E rating: Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Online. It has a lot less to do in it than in Puzzle Pirates, but what it has seems fun, the game world appears more accessible, and its target market enjoys it, so why should I naysay it?

I installed it and helped her get set up in it, and she played it for a good two or three hours straight. She seemed to like it, and spent a good deal of time customizing her pirate and picking a name for her boat. I'll see if J--- still plays it in a couple of weeks.

Just as I had settled down in front of the 360 to relax with a session of Puzzle Quest, I got a message from my fiancée's son, A---, who currently stays in Colorado, visiting relatives and friends there. It turns out he wanted to partner up for a few rounds of Halo 3 multiplayer, so I put the disk in and away we went.

I have four things to say about that.

First, A--- has a temper problem, which shows up in his voice and language, especially as we progress through rounds without winning. By the end of the hour we played, he had progressed to cursing a blue streak in a voice as high-pitched as the stereotypical 13-year-old griefer.

Second, although I would have liked to have tried actual team tactics this time (with someone else as team captain giving orders), it couldn't be done. A--- had a crappy Internet connection up in Colorado (from Qwest), such that I typically could only hear half-second scraps of voice from him, now and then. Disappointing.

Third, I heard him at one point yelling at the opposing team that they, being in America, should speak American rather than Mexican. This struck me as wrong on many levels. I had little time, so I focussed on the one error of fact least likely to provoke an argument. I pointed out that the Internet is global, so he could easily find himself playing against Mexicans who play in Mexico. He should expect them to speak Spanish. He grumbled a reply to the effect of, "What's this country coming to?"

Last, I discovered that the practice of standby has life in it in Halo 3. For those unfamiliar with it, a cheater practices standbying by first becoming the host for the game round, then disconnecting from the Internet for a few seconds. During those few seconds all the other players get a "reconnecting to game" screen, and the cheater gets to run around in the game and kill people, take flags, and so on.

One can tell when one has a cheater using standby - as opposed to the game simply lagging due to poor connections - when one comes back from "reconnecting" and finds oneself and one's teammates dead, or finds the flag missing, and so on. That happened during one of the rounds I played last night.

I hesitate to report such things, because something similar can happen by accident, when a player with a poor connection also has host status, and simply keeps playing when the connection drops. I didn't find the event I witnessed blatant enough nor repeated enough for me to decide that the other team cheated.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Never Again I'll Go Sailing, GRID

After consulting a walkthrough and some forumites (forummers? forumians?), I came to the conclusion that Star Ocean: Till The End of Time has the hero spend the bulk of the game on medieval-level planets and stripped of his own starfaring culture's technology. It sprinkles some sci-fi in here and there, with a chunk at the beginning and another, larger one at the end, but for the most part it consists of straight-up swords-and-sorcery.

So into the archives it goes. I'll play it when I have no other games worth playing.

Now, as for GRID... it'll take a long time to get tired of that one. I did not have a lot of play time, so I ran the Muscle Car Classic again, and won handily. Tons of fun.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Bait and Switch

If you don't want story elements of Star Ocean: Till The End of Time spoiled for you, stop reading now.

I've had a couple more hours of Star Ocean 3, and I must say the game has left me bitterly disappointed. First, it confirmed my earlier suspicions by maintaining the same glacial pace as before. Second, it compounds the sin of including fantasy magic ("symbology") by stranding our young hero on a medieval planet (!) with elf-like natives (!!) oppressed by an evil wizard (!!!) (actually an advanced-technology human), stripped of his technology and with only his trusty sword (!!!!) for a weapon.

Thus the bait-and-switch of this article's title. I went in expecting science fiction and instead got medieval fantasy. At least Xenosaga had the decency to stay in science fiction land despite its use of "ether" effects.

I will give it one more chance; I will consult an online walkthrough to see whether the game detours briefly into medieval fantasy land or spends the bulk of its time there. If the former holds, I will grit my teeth and play through the medieval portion. If the latter holds, out it goes.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Star Ocean 3? More Like Ennui Ocean 3

I think that the publisher subtitled Star Ocean 3 with Till The End of Time not because the story takes the characters to the end of the universe, nor because the main characters have a love that lasts forever, but because it will take you that long to get through the interminable interactive cutscenes.

Seldom have I seen characters take so many words to say so little. And I found on many occasions that between snippets of conversation that the characters would pause. And do nothing. For 15 to 30 seconds. I kid you not. They did not emote. They did not make funny faces. They did not say things with body language. They did not engage in fisticuffs or greco-roman wrestling matches. They. Did. Nothing.


I said last time that I would be able to reach the first save point within five minutes of being handed control of the character. I made a mistake. It took more like half an hour. That doesn't count the half hour I spent in the battle tutorial. It was the cutscenes that slowed me down, including one that was mandatory for getting to the invasion event.

I have a theory about what happened. Play-testing revealed that players could complete the game in 20 hours. Marketing could not accept a length less than the 40 hours standard for RPGs. Some genius bigwig stood up in a focus group meeting and said, "I know! Cutscenes take up half our game's length. Let's just make them three times as long, and players will take 40 hours to get to the end." No one dared challenge the bigwig's logic, and so here we stand.

At this point, with a couple of hours of gameplay under my belt, I have trouble understanding the positive reviews this title garnered from the gaming press. Perhaps RPG reviewers, inured to this kind of padding, didn't even notice. Perhaps the publisher leaned on them to give good reviews. Or perhaps they were just such Square Enix fanboys that their slavish brand devotion colored their opinions and blinded them to the game's faults.

I don't know. What I do know is that I will give this game a couple more hours of gameplay to engage me, and if it does not, I'll put it on the list of games I give away to my friends.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Star Ocean, Last Remnant

Having seen a trailer for Star Ocean 4, and realizing the series consists of science fictional JRPGs, I decided I wanted to play them. I like science fictional RPGs. I found that the publisher had never released the first two entries in the series in the US, but had released the third, Star Ocean: Till The End of Time, for the PlayStation 2. And it had a very reasonable price at the local GameStop.

So I put it in the console, started it up, and spent the next hour wandering around the resort planet's hotel, talking to the inhabitants and barging into people's rooms. I had no idea of where I should go or what I should do. Finally I figured out how to get into the battle simulator (the game's combat tutorial), and when I left that the game proper began.

An unknown force attacked the planet, and the hotel residents (including my characters) teleported to an emergency transporter room. There I found a save point, used it, and that was the end of my free time for the evening.

I don't think that the hour I spent wandering means that the game has a slow pace, or that it gets off to a slow start. I think rather that it means that the game gives you a lot of not-very-important things to see and do at the outset. I will start the game over tonight and I expect to arrive at the save point no more than five minutes after I get control of the characters. Because this time I know what to do and where to go.

All this suggests that I wasted most of the time I spent playing and didn't learn much about the game (especially since I cut short the battle tutorial) or its story. That has some truth to it, though I did find out a couple of relevant facts.

First I found that the game has a battle system that uses auto-attack, much like Final Fantasy XII but without the seamless integration into the game world. One can pause the battle at any time to change the attack or use an item.

Second I found that one class of attacks makes use of "symbology". The game calls it that in order to avoid calling it "magic". As if nobody can figure that out. Why can't JRPG developers get away from using magic spells in their games? Other games have health packs for healing and guns for distance attacks...why can't these do that? The concept of nanotechnology for medicine has been around since at least the early 90s. I found this lazy reliance on magic one of the most disappointing things about Xenogears and Xenosaga - though they called it "ether" there.

I expect to have more to say about this title after I get futher in it tonight (and play through the battle tutorials!).

I came across the trailers for The Last Remnant again recently, and they reminded me of why I both anticipate and scorn this upcoming RPG. On the one hand, it looks very pretty and promises the kind of turn-based combat I like in a JRPG. On the other, one couplet in the first trailer sets my teeth on edge: "Who created those remnants? And for what purpose?"

If the localization team erred in translating those lines, that bothers me. If they didn't, it bothers me more. A translation error in the game's trailer suggests that more and worse will come in the game. If they translated it correctly, it suggests that the game developmers have no idea of what makes a remnant a remnant: a usually small part, member, or trace remaining of a larger whole. One does not create remnants; the destruction of the whole leaves them behind. Since the game's story revolves around remnants of an earlier civilization, this bodes ill for the game's nonsense factor.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Ahoy!

Last night I spent a little time playing Puzzle Pirates. Or perhaps I should say, reading Puzzle Pirates. I spent far more time reading the game's documentation and tutorials than I spent actually playing.

Once in the game, I spent most of my time learning how to manage my hut and booty, and wandering into the island's shops. Finally I rediscovered the mission interface, and accepted a mission to learn swordfighting. Having played that puzzle and losing to an NPP (non-player pirate), it was time to quit.

I learned two things from my reading of the documentation and my brief time in-game. First I found that the game has in it a lot to do, and second that I don't have to do everything.

I suppose that when I decided to try Puzzle Pirates I thought that it would just be a slightly enhanced multiplayer version of Puzzle Quest. Boy did I goof. It has a lot in it to do, from buying and selling on the islands, to manning duty stations on a ship, to building and owning ships and buildings, to taking on various levels of command authority (including fleet admiral or colonial governor), to participating in a naval blockade. And one can do many other things besides.

However, unlike many other MMOs, one need not spend most of one's time in these non-puzzling activities. Nor must one grind for hours, night after night, for experience points or gold. The player can engage in all the non-puzzle game activities if he wishes, or spend the bulk of his time with the puzzles. If she wishes, she can log on once or twice a week, play puzzles for twenty minutes, and quit. Tyler Durden, in Fight Club, said it very well: "You determine your own level of involvement."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Pointless Levelling

I found myself too fatigued to enjoy GRID, so I played the less-demanding Puzzle Quest. I beat a two-headed ogre, and discovered that storyline opponents level up with the player. If I have a level of sixteen, my storyline opponent will also have a level of sixteen - or higher. This means that fighting random monsters in order to level up doesn't help.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends

Last night, feeling better, I looked for a game to enjoy. I considered all the trailers I'd been watching, all the games I own that I'd love to play again, and chose ... GRID.

Yeah, I chose the same new game I just started playing. Why? First, it doesn't require much in the way of brainpower. Second, I can play it in short sessions (like other racing games). Third, and most important, it rocks. Hard.

Not only did I choose the same game, I chose to run the same event again ... and again ... and again. I cannot win the Muscle Car Classic consistently yet, and I have so much fun with that two-race event that even if the game consisted entirely of that, I would still have many hours of enjoyment. It doesn't matter to me that doing so makes me go through season after season without any real progress in the game. I'm having too much fun.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Game Trailers Screen Saver

My medicine has made me too fatigued and sick the last few days to enjoy games (beyond the easy trance-like play of Bejeweled 2 in Endless Mode), so I have spent my play time in less demanding pursuits, such as books, TV, and movies. I have also re-watched some of my old Xbox 360 game trailers, and set about adding them to my office screen-saver.

I have a Windows Media screen-saver installed at work, and it plays a Windows Media Player playlist. The playlist I have for it consists of movie trailers, game trailers, and screenshots. Every once in a blue moon I add new items to it.

I used to get the trailers onto PC by using a video capture gadget, until I realized that I could get them faster, easier and with better quality by finding them on the Internet. Two websites - and - have been especially helpful in that regard. I download the trailers, then store them on my hard drive and flash drive.

Not Safe For Work trailers I do not take to the office. Any trailer with blood or gore, with too-scantily clad people, or with sexually suggestive visual content, stays on the home PC only. Foul language or sexually suggestive audio I don't worry about, as I set the screen-saver to play without sound.

And yeah, I know this pretty much guarantees I'll never have to turn in either my geek or nerd badges.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gamer's Diary: Puzzle Pirates, #2

I logged into Puzzle Pirates again last night. Watch out for this gotcha (at least on Gutsy Ubuntu Linux): Resizing Puzzle Pirates to the size of your desktop paints you into a corner. The game lacks a full-screen option, and between its menu bar and the Ubuntu tool bars the stuff at the bottom of the game's window gets pushed off the screen - including the options button! I suppose I could have tracked down the config file and fixed it there, but turning on autohide for Ubuntu's toolbars brought enough of the window's bottom back onscreen to click on the options button. Moral of the story? Make Puzzle Pirates's window one size less than your desktop's height.

As I had planned, I abandoned the pirate crew I had foolishly joined the previous night and rejoined the Navy. I set about learning the various puzzle games, and found this nearly as frustrating as being on a real crew. Some of the games - it seemed to be the single-player ones - had a tutorial tab explaining how to play, but none of the multiplayer games I tried did.

What I would have found useful - but couldn't locate within the game - is some sort of centralized collection of puzzle instructions, the sort of thing one would find in a game manual. I did find it later in YPPedia on the game's website, but would have appreciated having the same information available in-game.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gamer's Diary: Puzzle Pirates

In my quest for a MMORPG that doesn't suck, I decided to try Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates. A quick googling told me that a Linux version of the client exists, so I would not have to reboot to Windows or mess with Wine in order to play. Off I went to the website.

It pleased me to discover that I could play directly in the browser; Java powers the client. But what delighted me was clicking on the download link, and finding myself on a page with a link for downloading the Linux installer and instructions on how to run it. The website had detected my PC's operating system, and sent me to a page containing the appropriate installer. Now that I call good customer service.

A few minutes later, after a trouble-free install process and some tweaking of Ubuntu's menus to put the client launcher icon where I liked it, I was online and playing.

My first impression is that one spends the bulk of one's time playing the puzzles. I like this; it means that grinding levels presents a diversion rather than a chore, that the lack of story - and therefore of plot and of world-saving roles - becomes irrelevant, and combat has the fun of puzzle solving rather than the boredom of auto-attack.

The game has elements that do not thrill me as much. Some of the puzzles have Tetris at their core, and I dont like the real-time pressure this puts on the player. Of the other two I played, carpentry had a time-pressure element, and bilge pumping appeared not to. So off to the bilges I go then. Yarrr!

I also did not like that when I chose melee training, the game put me on a ship manned by players rather than NPCs. Almost immediately another ship attacked and I had to play a Tetris variant for the boarding action, without any time to read the instructions for the puzzle.

Now that ship's captain has made me a full member of the crew. As a result, I do not seem to have access to the tutorials any more. The next time I log on, I intend to leave that crew and find the training ship once more.

So, I have mixed feelings about Puzzle Pirates, but I mean to finish the tutorials and give it a few hours after that to engage my interest. If it fails I can always resort to the single-player game Puzzle Quest for my RPG/puzzle fun.

A quick note on Puzzle Quest: It joins the ranks of a growing number of games that don't penalize the player for losing or dying. I like this. For me it does not reduce the fun factor at all. In Puzzle Quest, when the player loses a battle not only is it not a game-over-restore-from-save, not only does the player not lose any items, weapons, or skills, but instead gains a small number of experience points. Terrific!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gamer's DIary: Puzzle Quest

I spent much of last weekend working, so when I had time for a break, I wanted to play something requiring neither mental effort nor frantic button-mashing, something I could easily pause or quit when it was time to return to work. For that I usually play either Klondike Solitaire (on PC) or Bejeweled 2 (on Xbox Live Arcade or my PDA).

This time I wanted something a little different. So I chose Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, a game I'd bought on Xbox Live Arcade a few months back and never played again. It got me hooked almost immediately.

When I first read descriptions of the game, I thought winning battles would consist merely of reaching a certain score on a Bejeweled-style board before running out of moves. To my pleasant surprise, I found the puzzle-based combat significantly deeper. Each jewel-match boosts mana or damages the enemy, and the player's character has spells that can have effects on the puzzle grid and the opposing party. One's character can also acquire skills, stats, weapons and items that modify the effects of matching gems or casting spells.

The game's seamless integration of classic RPG elements with Bejeweled-style puzzle solving will provide hours of enjoyment for fans of either genre. I highly recommend trying the demo either on PC or Xbox Live Arcade.

Why I don't play MMORPGs

MMOs resemble work too much. And they resemble real life too much.

The Grind. The producers can't possibly create 20-60 hours of good, fresh content a month with a $15 USD subscription fee, so they space out the content by making players slowly perform mind-numbingly repetitive tasks to get it. One endlessly battles the same enemies or harvests the same resources in hopes of finding something marginally worth keeping.

The Roles Not Played. I play video games in part to play the role of the hero or villain, to become for those hours the person who saves or destroys the village, the city, the country, his people, the world, the galaxy, the universe, or even the multiverse. To become someone that matters, someone who makes a difference, as opposed to real life, where most of us have the mundane fates of regular janes and joes and jobs that don't involve saving the world.

The structure of an MMO makes this impossible. Every player can't play the hero. Only one person or party can save the world; not everyone can become the best. As Syndrome said in The Incredibles, "[...]because when everyone is super, no one will be." I suppose you could instance the whole game world. And then you'd just have a single-player RPG online. With more grinding.

The Stories Not Told. This problem outweighs the others. The aforementioned grind/content issue limits story variety and depth. The inherent structure of an MMO (real-time play, PvP, and grouping) kill videogame storytelling conventions and make it difficult to tell a party-based story. What if a member crucial to a major plot point can't play when the other members of the party do? Ways may exist to counter these factors, but to my knowledge nobody today does it.

Apologists will reply that the player makes the story. They'll point to events like some of the great swindles in EVE Online or a particularly brutal crushing of an enemy in Ultima Online. Wrong.

The sort of events described have problems. First they occur only rarely, second they require unreasonable effort, third they have a dark side, and fourth they reek of banality.

These events merit attention because they occur so rarely. All but a tiny fraction of players will never experience events like these. Most players will simply grind their play time away for as long as they stay. I meant thiswhen I said MMOs too much resemble real life.

Then we come to the effort required. In order to have even a chance at that kind of epic win, the player will have to spend untold hours grinding to get a character with the necessary stats. I meant this, and the grind in general, when I said MMOs too much resemble work.

These events have a dark side: every epic win comes with an epic fail. Every gank has someone who got ganked. Every swindle comes with a number of people who got swindled. Every brutal crushing has a crushee. And in some games, merely recovering from such a blow can take months. Months that feel like work, not play. So for the majority of players that participate in these events, the story has an unhappy plot with a bad ending. Again, it too closely resembles real life. And work.

And finally we see the banality of it all. Most of these events have no plot, no theme, no interesting characters. They have just the gankers, the gankee, and the gank. The swindle comes closest of any of these to the requirements of a story, and only the swindler gets a good one.

The Battles Not Fought. In part, people play single-player RPGs - and videogames in general - for the fun of combat. Much of the fun in a single-player RPG lies in picking the right combination of party members, attacks, weapons, and spells to defeat the enemy party. Most MMOs have an auto-combat system that involves picking those things in advance, then when combat begins waiting for your character or the enemy's to win. It sucks all the fun out of fighting.

Abandon All Hope? Not yet. All of the problems I've outlined above may have solutions or work-arounds. Game producers can reduce grinding by making additional content unnecessary, by implementing procedurally generated content, by giving diminishing returns for levels, by introducing handicapping systems, and so on. MMOs can compensate for the lack of messianic roles by making more ordinary roles fun to play in other ways, perhaps by giving them cool and unique items and combat moves. They can fix the story problems by eliminating the need for stories, or make stories part of the environment without giving the player any crucial role. Lastly, no reason exists why MMOs cannot have interesting combat, whether turn-based or real-time, that more directly engages the player.

I have heard of some MMOs that solve one or more of these problems, and intend to look into them further. Guild Wars and Age of Conan are supposed to have interesting combat. Puzzle Pirates (which I mean to try) attempts to solve all the issues by making puzzle-solving the central activity, thus greatly reducing the impact on the player of grinding, roles, and story.

I welcome comments, especially those naming MMOs that have solved, reduced or avoided these problems.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Joysticks Fade Away

(Originally posted on Slashdot)

I think the demise of the joystick tracks the movement of gaming from a niche activity to the mainstream.

Specialized peripherals such as joysticks, driving wheels, trackballs, arcade knobs, and spinners are ideal for the specific game genres that need them, while gamepads (and on the PC, keyboard/mouse) are good enough in every genre while excelling in almost none of them.

The Atari 2600 was the first and last console to use a joystick instead of a gamepad, and that only because the gamepad hadn't been invented yet. If you look at the vast majority of Atari 2600 games, you'll find that they would have worked better with a gamepad.

So for inexpensive mainstream gaming, the default controller was always going to be something like a gamepad.

The PC, on the other hand, started as a niche market; you pretty much had to be a nerd to own one and be capable of operating it, and to game on one made you even more of a nerd. Marketing specialized peripherals to technophiles is easy. Marketing them to people who (as computers became cheaper and easier to use) bought computers for Internet connectivity and word processing and other practical purposes is considerably more difficult.

What's a joystick specialized for? Flight and space sims (including mechs). Some would say fighting games as well, though the preferred peripheral there is actually the arcade knob.

Those of us who enjoy flight sims sometimes have trouble grasping just how unnatural an act flying is for most people. The controls don't do what they would expect, and managing the flight envelope while trying to fight is just too alien.

And flight sims are complex beasts that require managing a myriad of controls and instruments. This is even true for some space sims - energy management in the X-Wing series is a good example. This begins to pass what most would consider play into the realm of work. Only the true fans will find joy in this kind of activity.

Joysticks have always been a niche market; it's just that PC gaming's earlier days were entirely the same niche market, so joysticks naturally dominated there. Now that gaming (both PC and console) is a more mainstream activity, game producers choose to produce games that target that mainstream, and one of the ways they do that is by making games that work well with the platform's default peripherals. That's why the last three significant PC space sims - Freelancer, Eve Online and Dark Star One - are designed for mouse and keyboard; the first two can't even be played with a joystick.

There is still a place for the joystick - committed flight sim fans will still want one (IL-2 Sturmovik, Pacific Fighters, Lock-On, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator, and so on), it works well in games that have flying portions (like Battlefield), and games like Ace Combat 5 and 6 offered them as an optional add-on, but that place will remain as a niche peripheral for the forseeable future.

Game Saves Backup Quest - The Betrayal

This is a warning. Some third-party gaming accessories bear misleading, nigh-deceptive, and confusing product packaging. The two I bought recently certainly didn't do what I'd purchased them for, and can't be returned (clamshell packaging and GameStop's return policy).

I've been looking for ways to backup all my game saves to my PC. Experiences with bad media and accidental erasures have motivated me to preserve my saves. Since none of the platform manufacturers (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony) provide means to do this, the only option is third-party accessories. I've had mixed fortune with them.

The two I just purchased are the ones that did nothing I wanted them for. They are:

  • Action Replay DS
  • GameShark GameBoy Advance SP
Both products are, I'm sure, fine for their intended purpose - using cheat codes to make games easier. However, when it comes to transferring saves to and from a PC, they turned out to be useless.

The DS product I got has a cable to attach to a PC and upload/download, but it doesn't transfer saves. It only transfers cheat codes. The product I needed (I think) was the Action Replay DS Max, since discontinued. So I ordered one from a reseller. It's a minor difference in the product name, but a huge difference in functionality.

Sadly, the product I got from the reseller was the AR DS, not the Max. I returned it three times, and each time got an AR DS as a replacement. Apparently they've put AR DS units where the Max units were supposed to go...maybe they thought no one would notice? I also tried several big box brick-and-mortar retailers and they also had the AR DS on the shelf where the sticker said AR DS Max. So the only way I'll ever get one is an Amazon used products seller or eBay.

The GBA product I got was even worse. On that one I had done some online research, and found in the product's specs a cable, and I'd found uploaded saves on labelled with the product's name. When I looked at the product package prior to purchase, on it was a claim that I could "join the online community" and download codes and game saves.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the clamshell packaging and found that the portions of it meant to hold the cable and driver disk were empty.

Only after digging around for a while on the Gameshark website was I able to find a buried FAQ entry that explained that later versions of the same product have had the transfer capability removed, purportedly in order to leave more room on the cheat device for codes. There is apparently no way to tell which version you're getting without opening the package.


I suppose I could have "joined the online community" and downloaded cheats and saves as the product packaging claimed... for all the good that would do me without a transfer cable.

Well, it wouldn't have worked anyway; the transfer cable plugs into the GBA link jack rather than the cheat device, and I have a DS, which does not include a GBA link in its design. That oversight is my own fault for not doing enough research, but it's rendered moot by the fact that the GameShark lacked a cable.

So I'm still looking for a device that will let me transfer GBA saves to and from a PC. The only other thing I've been able to find is one of the devices meant for pirating GBA roms. I'd rather not purchase such a thing, though my intended usage of it is legitimate.

So if you want to make backups of your DS and GBA game saves, avoid the Action Replay DS. Also avoid the GameShark GameBoy Advance SP, unless you have a GameBoy Advance and can be sure you're getting one of the older cable-equipped models. A solution for the DS might be the Action Replay DS Max. Caveat emptor.

Gamer's Diary - GRID, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness


The kid had a softball game Thursday night (tie game and she caught a pop fly for an out), so instead of happily co-op-ing on Lego Indiana Jones, I had the flat to myself. I looked at my evening's agenda, and it had one word on it: GRID.

I spent several hours with it, interrupted only by supper and DVR'ed Battlestar Galactica, and I had a blast.

Simulation purists (or as I like to call them, sim snobs) may kvetch about the lack of perfect accuracy in the car physics and damage modelling. "Cry me a river," says I. It's fun, and it feels realistic enough to impart the sensation that I'm racing against other drivers, and that we're all beating the crap out of each other. And that's where it's at.

Let's face it - if all were simulated perfectly, most of us normal humans wouldn't be able to get the cars off the starting line, much less keep them on the track or win races. No, what we want is a physics and damage model accurate enough to make the game feel real, while forgiving enough to make it accessible to mortals. And that, GRID delivers.

Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness

Last weekend, I picked up a couple of titles in my continuing quest to replace my PC games with console equivalents. One was Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, which performed much as I expected. The graphics weren't as pretty on the Xbox, but the gameplay was just as good. The other was Angel of Darkness.

Yeesh. More like Angel of Suckness.

I remember playing TRAoD on the PC when it came out, and being puzzled by the low reviews. I set the PC controls to the Lara-relative movement scheme, as I was familiar with it from all the other Tomb Raider games. With that scheme, it played very much like those games. No problem.

But then last weekend I played the PS2 version, and I understood where all the bad reviews came from. There were crappy textures. There were low-poly models. There was slowdown in inexplicable places. Controlling Lara was like trying to thread a needle while wearing catcher's mitts on both hands. And all this was apparent in the first five minutes of play.

Unlike the PC version, it isn't possible to choose a different control scheme; the player is locked into a camera-relative one. That would be okay if she reacted instantly and smoothly to inputs, as she does in Legend and Anniversary. Instead she very slowly turns to face in the direction the player pushes the stick, and then begins to run flat-out. This is particularly annoying when, for instance, one is trying to get her to turn around for a jump. Typically she will turn around, then instantly run off the edge to her doom. Engaging the walk function doesn't help, as she won't turn around with it engaged. And all that's just for starters.

By the time I'd gotten her to the roof, I was ready to throw the controller through the TV screen. Now I'm astonished that the review scores weren't lower. It's an unplayable mess.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Lego Indiana Jones

Last night I brought home GRID and Lego Indiana Jones, both for the Xbox 360. Didn't get a chance to play GRID, as the evening was divided between a viewing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and a co-op playthrough of the first level of Lego Indiana Jones.

I had the viewing in order to fill in a gap in my fiancée's daughter's pop-culture education. I would not have watched it for myself; Temple of Doom is the least of the Indiana Jones movies. After Marion Ravenwood, Willie Scott was a tremendous letdown. But the kid seemed to like the movie, and found Willie's idiocy hilarious. So what do I know?

Then she and I spent a while playing through the first level and part of the second of Lego Indiana Jones. What a hoot! The humor and the puzzles are all there. Traveller's Tales knocks it outta the park again. Just enough is changed from the movies to provide some real surprises while remaining true to its spirit, and some of the changes are just laugh-out-loud funny. I'm thinking in particular of Toht's medallion-burn, and a Star Wars reference that had us both rolling on the floor laughing.

GRID? Maybe tonight.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

DVD Controls for Video Games

Games should come with features allowing them to be controlled like DVDs. The player should be able to rewind, fast-forward, skip ahead and back, and jump in at any chapter point. Every cutscene, whether video or game-engine-rendered, should have full DVD controls. And all cutscenes should be viewable at any time.

Games are entertainment, and as such they should support the same kinds of user control we enjoy with our other media.

There are a number of problems involved in making this happen, and it's not right for every kind of game. There are technical, social, and design problems, and games with neither a linear nor a branching storyline are unsuited for some of these features. But for games which do tell a story these controls should be present. And even for the other kinds the underlying philosophy can be applied.

Games without any plot to speak of cannot have any kind of skipping ahead, as there's no plot event to skip ahead to. This includes some sports and simulation games (such as SSX or Gran Turismo), competitive multiplayer modes of games with a plot, and games light on plot (such as Crackdown). However, the principle is still valid.

Even if they can't fast-forward, they could provide ways to rewind, something similar to the undo feature found in many word processing programs. It would consume quitte a bit of storage, but a game could log all the player inputs and game events, and give the player the option to rewind to any point since the game began and play from that point.

This is nothing new and has been done before in various forms; games such as Doom and Quake and most recently Halo 3 have offered the option of recording gameplay and replaying it later (though not the option of jumping back into the action).

Skipping back is easier to implement, and really only requires keeping a save for each checkpoint passed. Something like this has long been available for PC games in the form of unlimited saves and save-anywhere, a typical feature of first-person shooters. It's more difficult for consoles, where storage space for game saves has until recently been quite limited. But the recent growth in available storage (in the form of hard drives, as well as higher-capacity flash) makes this less of an issue than ever.

Going back to a previous chapter presents exactly the same challenge as going to a previous checkpoint, but with an additional possible solution. Some games already offer this. Those that do, such as Halo and Doom, reset the player's status and give him a fixed set of weapons at the beginning of each chapter (or level, if you prefer). This makes it easy for games like Halo and Killzone to give the player the option of replaying any completed chapter.

Fast-forwarding is a tougher nut to crack. It would require the game to essentially take the player's place and play itself, and at increased speed. With modern games already using all of the processing power available to them, this would seem impossible. But there are tricks and shortcuts that can reduce the processing load, and some games that already do pieces of the solution:

  • Don't render every frame. In many games a large portion of the time is spent rendering each frame. When fast-forwarding at 2X, you would only need to render every other frame to achieve the same framerate.
  • Allow a lower framerate. This reduces the amount of time spent rendering even more. A framerate as low as 3 fps would be enough for most purposes, and is on a par with some DVD players.
  • Simplify the display. Gran Turismo 4 has a fast-forward when run in B-spec mode; it's just a 2D map of the track and a leaderboard. Something similar could be done for many games. RPGs come to mind. This would reduce the redering load even further.
  • Simplify the world model. There's no need to have the player's character aim his weapon, then compute bounding box intersections to see if there's a hit. Rather, combat can be resolved at least in part by using RPG-style dice rolls to figure hits and damage. Similar things can be done with physics-based events and other processor-intensive interactions.
  • Simplify computations during empty time. The game doesn't have to process visibility calculations on every frame; it only has to predict when the player will become visible to other characters and only calculate position until that time is reached.
The other part is that the game has to have AI good enough to take the player's place...which we can already see in a few games, such as the drivatar in Forza Motorsport, and the companion characters in Lego Star Wars.

Skipping ahead presents much the same problem as fast-forwarding, with some additional solutions. Skipping rather than fast-forwarding allows further simplification of the game world and its interactions; even visibility and proximity calculations do not need to be done. Skipping ahead a checkpoint's worth can also be handled exactly like jumping to a chapter.

Jumping to an arbitrary chapter or level allows the game to completely ignore game events, and simply set the player's state as well as the game world's to a reasonable value. Halo and Killzone already do this; the player begins each chapter with an appropriate set of weapons and everything else in the level in their predefined places. Games with more complex state such as RPGs would need to have a developer play through the story first to determine a reasonable state for the game at each chapter point.

As for cutscenes, some games already allow the player to go back and view ones they've already seen through gameplay (e.g. Star Wars X-Wing, Tomb Raider Anniversary). But I think that's not quite enough; they should be treated like chapter points or checkpoints and viewable at any time during the game.

And while I've seen a few games that allow pausing of cutscenes, far too many make them unskippable or only skippable. I've yet to see one that permits fast-forwarding and rewinding of cutscenes. When they can be upwards of twenty minutes long (Xenosaga), not being able to repeat or skip around is highly annoying. Life does intrude, after all.

I expect objections to these features to fall into two categories: the can'ts and the shouldn'ts. The can'ts in turn come in two varieties: technical and economic. I'll begin my discussion of the can'ts with a negotiated surrender. You're right, but.

It's not technically feasible to implement all of these features for every game. Some would require AI we don't yet know how to write, or more system resources (whether storage or processor cycles) than are available. Some games have a structure that just isn't suited for fast-forwarding or skipping ahead. But some do.

It's not economically feasible to implement all these features for every game, either. Some, though technically possible, would cost more than they'd be likely to bring in in terms of additional sales. Others might lengthen a game's development cycle beyond practicality.

However, this doesn't mean that these features shouldn't be considered, just because they might not be feasible. Rather, they should be part of any game's planning cycle, to be evaluated rather than dismissed out-of-hand.

Regarding the shouldn'ts, however, quarter is neither expected nor given. Here too the objections fall into two major categories. There is the competitive objection, and the directorial objection.

The competitive objection is that, particularly with the features that involve skipping forward, the player hasn't yet earned the privilege of seeing that content and should be prevented from doing so until he beats the current challenge. Skipping ahead is cheating, and also takes away the challenge that makes playing the game worthwhile.


There is more than one reason to play a game. One is for the challenge, to have one's prowess measured by the game (or by others through the game in multiplayer). But that's only one. There are others. Another is to have a interactive dramatic experience. A third is to have fun playing with nifty toys.

Only when playing for a challenge, or a combination of a challenge and the other reaons, is it appropriate for the game to treat the player as an opponent and withhold dramatic content as a reward for passing the game's test, for winning, for beating the game. In the interactive drama case, the player is not opponent but audience; he paid the price for viewing the content when he bought the game. Similarly for the toy case, the player paid the price for using the uber-weapon (or driving the uber-car) when he bought the game.

One way to handle these apparently contradictory requirements is to allow the player to declare at the beginning of play how he'd like to enjoy the experience - as a dramatic participant, player with toys, or as a competitor. In the first case, the player would be given access to the sorts of DVD-like controls I outlined above. The second is like the first, except that vehicles, weapons and other things not available at the beginning of the narrative would now be available at any point. And the third would turn off all the skip-forward controls and some of the skip-back ones, while adding rewards like medals and achievements for succeeding at various tasks in the game.

A player in challenge mode would be able to switch to either of the other two modes, and players in the other two modes would be able to switch between them, but they wouldn't be able to switch to the challenge mode without starting the chapter or game over.

Some games already implement these modes to various degrees, but without the DVD controls. A notable example is Lego Star Wars, which has a story mode and a challenge mode (free play). Dying in story mode has little consequence, except to cost the player in-game money required to buy trinkets that competitive gamers will appreciate but which don't affect progress through the story. However, like Halo, the ability to skip ahead is not provided. The developers could have offered such an option, since each chapter starts from a fixed state, but chose to make the chapters serially unlockable instead.

So it's possible to satisfy the competitive player while also giving the story-focussed and toybox players what they want - including DVD controls. This completely negates the competitive objection.

The second of the shouldn'ts is the directorial objection. Holders of this view would have it that indeed there are entertainment players as well as competitive ones, and that the entertainment player must progress through the game along the path(s) chosen by the developers, or communication of the developer's artistic vision will suffer.


Imagine the absurdity of this when applied to other media. How would you like a book where you couldn't skip to the end or to a favorite passage, where you had to finish chapter 9 before being allowed to read chapter 10?

How about a videotape that won't fast-forward? Or a DVD that disables all the navigation controls as soon as the movie starts playing in order to recreate the theater experience? Or a music CD that can only be played in order?

The only reason we put up with abominations like the unskippable cutscenes in Final Fantasy X is that we've been conditioned to accept it in videogames where we wouldn't in any other media. Partly this is because it's far harder to implement navigational controls for games than for linear noninteractive media, and partly this is because we're used to thinking of games as competitions rather than interactive storytelling.

There's one specific variant of the directorial objection I'd like to deal with before moving on: that DVD-like controls would ruin the feelings of suspense and fear in horror games. This was the argument used by the developers of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth to justify their use of a save point system rather than save-anywhere, and the painfully large distance between save points. This argument has it that if you can just restore from a quicksave when you die, you won't feel any fear.

This is patently false. Were this the case, horror movies would create no sense of suspense or fear in their audiences; after all, there's no equivalent to repeating a tough part when you're in the movie theater. Repeating a long tough part in a game isn't scary. It's boring and frustrating. And if fear of being bored and frustrated is all they have to offer, then that's pretty weak sauce.

Horror movies create fear in the audience through the situations, sights, and sounds. Horror games should do the same.

So... the directorial objection doesn't hold water either.

And with the can'ts and the shouldn'ts out of the way, I'll summarize. Games should be enjoyable in the same way our other media are, with DVD-like navigation controls. These controls should be implemented whenever it is technically and economically feasible to do so, and let the objectors go pound sand.