2009 Game of the Year: Strategery

I suspect the Ktarians invented Strategery.

Until this fall, the only PS3 games I’d played and really loved in 2009 were Valkyria Chronicles (a 2008 release that I started last Christmas and replayed in August) and Flower (a brief, downloadable game). I replayed Final Fantasy XII (again) and Shadow of the Colossus (again). And there were spans of several weeks where I don’t remember turning the system on at all.

But my console got plenty of use over the last three months of the year. I recently played through several high-profile, well-received games: Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II, and Dragon Age: Origins. I thought all of them were great. They were all ambitious, and each of them was successful. I can’t complain about any one of them being awarded GOTY by various other gaming sites.

However, my game of the year is Strategery: a $2 game for the iPhone with no music, no story, simple gameplay, and bare bones graphics.

Strategery is a stripped-down clone of the board game Risk, with a few major alterations: map layouts and initial army placements are randomly generated, and each game lasts between 30 seconds and ten minutes. The highest difficulty setting really is tough (your four computer-controlled opponents will often conspire to attack you, even if it makes no strategic sense for them, individually), which keeps it challenging — sometimes impossible — even for seasoned vets. And the short duration of each game always compels me to play just one more round.

I’ve played Strategery almost every day for the past nine months. If I’ve averaged a mere fifteen minutes per day (a modest estimate), that’s almost 70 hours of gameplay. And Kathy’s played it at least as much as I have.

We’ve played twice as much Strategery as we have any other game this past year. And it’s the one game I’ve played that I wouldn’t give up for any other. That makes it my game of the year for 2009 — and I’m still playing plenty of it so far in 2010.

Game of the Year: Strategery (iPhone/iPod Touch)

Favorite Console Game (2009 Release): Uncharted 2 (PS3)

Favorite Console Game (2008 Release): Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)

Pleasant Surprise: Flower (PS3)

Biggest Disappointments: Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (PS3) and Noby Noby Boy (PS3)

Favorite Non-Videogame Game: Premier League Fantasy Football/Soccer


The DLC I’d Like To See

I’ve written before about how game developers are, for some reason, still reluctant to give us players control of how we use the content we’ve bought from them. Now, there’s a perfect solution that gives them financial incentive to cater to players like me, but it’s not yet being used to its fullest advantage.

Many of us — maybe even a quiet majority of us — who buy videogames are more tourists than explorers. We don’t need to master each and every game we play. We just want to get through them, picking up some skills and enjoying the highlights along the way. This is especially true for us gamers who work full time, have gotten married, and have less time to dedicate to each title we hope to play.

When I vacation in a new city, I take advantage of maps, books, and guided tours, and I don’t feel like I’m being shortchanged on the experience. I know it’s not the same as taking up residence, immersing myself in the culture, and learning about my environs through trial and error. But I don’t expect it to be. If I don’t have the money or time to go native, an assisted visit is still a major step up from vicariously traveling via a Rick Steves special or a magazine article.

I often play games like a tourist, too. There are plenty of titles that have inspired me to perfect my skills (e.g., Shadow of the Colossus, Gladius, all the Final Fantasy games, etc.). But with many games, I’m happy just to get through them — and to do so with a reasonable amount of speed and ease. If I need outside assistance, like walkthroughs or cheat codes, so be it.

As online access has become ubiquitous for this generation of consoles, publishers have started offering downloadable content (DLC) for their games. For a small fee (usually topping out at a few bucks), players can buy additional costumes, weapons, songs, and other items for games. So long as the add-on content isn’t stuff that should have been included in the game in the first place, I’m fine with the concept.

DLC could, and should, be the perfect vehicle for giving me the gameplay I want — and at an extra profit for the developers. But they haven’t gotten it quite right, at least not yet.

A couple of weeks ago, EA posted several DLC packages at the PlayStation Store for Dead Space. Some of them were pretty cool and useful. Eugene, who’s playing through my copy of the game, bought a supercharged version of the force gun, which is already one of Dead Space’s best weapons. Additional packages included upgraded armor and overpowered versions of the game’s other weapons.

Those packages are decent. I applaud EA for making some game-enhancing DLC available at all. Most games still haven’t latched onto the trend.

But EA didn’t go far enough in their efforts. They missed a shot at offering the one option I would have bought immediately: invincible armor. If you’re going to offer upgraded items, why not offer the ultimate in upgrades? Why only go partway?

I enjoyed Dead Space, but I probably won’t be replaying it. However, were invincibility available, I just might feel like revisiting the game, whether playing it seriously or just for laughs. It might be fun to put the game on Impossible difficulty and just run through it weaponless, killing everything with my bare hands. Or maybe I wouldn’t kill much of anything at all. I’d see how many creatures I could get to follow me through an entire level.

And it’s not just for replaying. Even for my first go-round, I would always purchase invincibility (or its offensive counterpart: weapons that kill everything onscreen in one shot) for those games that are too difficult or that take too long to finish in the first place.

Sometimes, I really do want to play through a game, but I don’t think it’s quite good enough that it’s worth spending more than a few weekend hours to suss out how to beat it (Conan and Viking come to mind). DLC could be the solution. Similarly, it’s a great way for publishers to make some money off of those players who rent or borrow a game and only have a limited time to finish it.

In the future, I hope developers will consider offering this kind of content. It’s worth it for players like me — and for them. Satisfied gamers who finish games quickly are customers who will be happy (and ready) to buy another game, soon!

Dead Space: Press Button, Receive Beacon.

I don’t scare easily. I used to think I didn’t scare at all. Hell, I’ve watched every minute of every episode of every season of Dancing with the Stars, and I sleep just fine. (Lame excuse: My wife covers DwtS for her blog.)

But Dead Space changed all that.

It isn’t scary in the Silent Hill sense: eerie, foreboding, cerebral, and lonely. Dead Space is more along the lines of a Universal Studios amusement park ride or a high-budget haunted house, and about as subtle.

As you walk down a mostly predetermined path, shit jumps out at you, you scream “Eff you!” at your TV, and then you dump an entire clip of hard-earned ammo into something that you could’ve killed with a couple of well-placed shots — if only you weren’t still so ratcheted up from the last time this exact same thing happened, two minutes earlier.

Basically, it’s about twelve straight hours of this:

For the first several chapters of Dead Space, I could only play for an hour or so at a time. The game wasn’t too creepy or gross, but it made me so tense that I started to get a headache. Eventually, I was able to remind myself that videogame death, while undesirable, is often inevitable and always temporary.

A good deal of credit for the game’s effectiveness goes to the sound design — specifically the music. There’s almost always music playing in Dead Space, though you often won’t even notice it, because the music matches your mood so well. It’s more reactive than evocative.

In most games, music is used to elicit feelings: excitement, joy, sadness, dread. But in Dead Space, the music seems to react right along with you, reinforcing your emotions rather than altering them. When you’re in a safe area, the music is almost unnoticeable. When you accidentally kick a metal box in in a dark hallway, the music thumps and swells a bit, like your heart in your chest. And when a creature drops from the ceiling right in front of your character, a string section squeals (likely in sync with your voice from your couch). The cacophony lasts until you’ve killed the beast and taken some time to catch your breath.

There are few actual musical themes in the game. The score feels largely aleatoric (random and/or improvised). Combining this randomness of content with the reactive nature of the music makes the score almost feel more like sound effects than an orchestral soundtrack. It’s an interesting approach, and I loved it, in concept and execution.

The game looks good, too. The ship’s interiors and exteriors are detailed and gorgeous, the characters are well-designed, and the game’s humanoid monsters, called necromorphs, are suitably nightmarish. The occasional epic set piece really does look epic, even on my measly 32-inch screen. (The game’s concept art is well worth checking out, too, once you’ve completed a playthrough.)

Occasionally, though, I felt that the creators mistook dark and claustrophobic for atmospheric and spooky. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Disaster Report, Raw Danger, and Indigo Prophecy (Hey, the first half of it was good!) have shown how true atmosphere allows the coolest and creepiest moments to happen in plain view.

But Dead Space doesn’t always trust itself enough to scare you with the lights on. When you’re in an empty room, and some necromorphs suddenly drop in, the ship’s security system locks all doors — to quarantine the area, sensibly — and then…shuts off the lights. Why the hell would the ship’s designer make it that much more difficult for the crew to spot, capture, and kill invaders? There is no reason, of course. It’s just an obvious excuse to stack the deck against the player, and it brought me out of the game whenever it happened.

And it took about two chapters (of the game’s twelve) for me to get tired of the long, twisty, cramped hallways between almost every set of rooms. Even if there were no monsters onboard, it would be a chore to make it to the nearest bathroom in an emergency.

Fortunately, the game’s designers added a cool technique for navigating the ship. Instead of the little maps that often appear in the upper-right corner of some games (e.g., Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy), you press in your controller’s right analog stick, and a line lights up on the ground, directing you to your next destination. You never have to worry about the frustration of being lost or wondering what to do next. I sometimes depend so much on those little maps that I watch them more than what I’m supposed to be looking at. Dead Space’s on-demand pathfinding was much better for keeping me immersed.

And I was immersed, despite a story that kind of sucks. The mythology of the game is interesting, if cliched: something about mystic artifacts, religious zealots, and eternal life. And I liked learning about the Ishimura’s last days from the video, audio, and text logs you find laying about. But your own story is just stupid.

You play Isaac Clarke, an engineer on a small spaceship, the Kellion, that responds to a distress call sent from a big spaceship, the Ishimura. After crash landing on the Ishimura, the Kellion is disabled, so you need to find another way home for you and your surviving crew members.

Your ex-girlfriend, Nicole, happens to be stationed on the Ishimura, so I guess you want to save her, too. At least I’m assuming that’s the case. It’s hard to tell, considering that Isaac never says a single word throughout the game. There’s never any reason for you to care about Nicole — or Isaac, for that matter.

And why make Nicole my ex-girlfriend? What kind of incentive does that give me? You couldn’t get me to lend one of my real life exes twenty bucks, much less run through a ship of zombie-aliens. Nicole should have been a family member, or at the very least your current girlfriend, so there’s some sense of emotional consequence connected to her survival.

Apparently, the only way to save Nicole and get off the Ishimura alive is to embark on a series of fetch quests. Your Kellion compatriots order you to get this part and that part to fix this machine. Then, get this chemical and that chemical from different labs to make a poisonous solution. And so on. Each of these quests is, of course, really just a way to set you up for a series of ambushes by the necromorphs that lurk inside the ship’s ventilation system.

When the necromorphs show up, it’s time to start shooting. Isaac has plenty of weapons to choose from, though you’ll probably settle on a select few that you like best. I just used one, the Line Gun, for almost the entire game, because it could hit from long range, did a ton of damage (after upgrades), and had a wide enough area of effect that I didn’t have to worry so much about my horrible reflexes and aiming skills. It was the one weapon that didn’t really have a downside, except that its Line Rack ammo was sometimes at a premium. When I was low on Racks, I temporarily switched to the game’s default weapon, the Plasma Cutter, a laser pistol for which it’s almost impossible to run out of shots.

When you can’t find the ammunition and med packs you need inside one of the Ishimura’s many supply boxes or strewn among the viscera of slain enemies, you can always purchase them from one of the automated stores stationed around the ship. I felt a little guilty that I always seemed to have enough money to buy the weapons I needed to commit monster genocide, and yet the hundreds of Ishimura crew members before me were so poor or foolish that they apparently never combined their meager resources to buy themselves a few guns and some armor.

Speaking of armor and feeble civilians, I’ve always thought it was silly in videogames that the faceless extras in cutscenes always die from a single gunshot or stabbing, while the main character can somehow take a dozen bullets to the face before slowing down. In Dead Space though, this actually makes some sense. Isaac himself isn’t any more invulnerable than a normal human. His armor, however, is. Your hit points aren’t really yours; they belong to your armor. It’s a small detail, but I appreciated it.

Dead Space’s standard combat is fun. The mechanics are similar to other third-person shooters (e.g. Resident Evil, Uncharted), and the difficulty is well-balanced. There are spots where you’ll die a few times. But because the necromorphs are programmed to pop out of the exact same place at the exact same moment each time you enter an area, it’s easy to prepare yourself for subsequent attempts after a restart.

The trick to fighting in Dead Space is retraining yourself to keep from targeting the usual body parts. Unlike most shooters, going for the head or chest hardly does anything to your enemies. Instead, you kill them most efficiently by going for appendages: arms, legs, tentacles. This can be tough, especially when your instincts scream for you to blow off the head every time something jumps into view. But that’s part of what keeps the game fun and tense; you decapitate an enemy, and he still comes running at you.

If things get too frantic or your ammo gets too low, you can use Stasis and Kinesis powers, which allow you to slow down enemies and hurl nearby items (including detached body parts) as weapons, respectively. I didn’t use Kinesis too much. But I grew addicted to Stasis. It gives you a few seconds to duck out of the way of an incoming attack and put yourself into a better position for retaliation. Your supply of Stasis Juice (or whatever gives you the ability) is limited, but I used a cheat code to get more whenever I was in real danger. I’m not proud.

Though every enemy encounter seems like an event of some magnitude at the beginning of the game, the sameness of the hallways and small labs and control rooms — and the endless battles that occur within them — eventually seem like filler to make sure the game lasts at least ten hours. Almost every chapter is essentially the same: fetch this, fetch that, fetch the other thing, and then leave the deck. And sometimes, even the locations are the same. By the fifth chapter, you’re already revisiting areas you’ve previously scoured.

But amidst the filler, there are some truly epic set pieces and some innovative twists on typical shooter gameplay.

At several points in Dead Space, you’ll enter zero gravity areas. In these, your magnetic boots turn just about any surface into a floor, from your perspective. So, you can leap to a ceiling a hundred feet overhead, and the room will flip over for you. This adds a truly three-dimensional feel to the game, it can make a single room feel like like several different ones, and fights become much more complex — and less predictable.

The scale of some of the set pieces is awesome. In particular, a task that consists of placing an SOS beacon on an object suitable for launching into deeper space provides one of the most memorable sequences in the game.

And all of Chapter Six (Hydroponics) is a blast. Rather than strict fetch quests, it’s more of a Hide and Seek or Capture the Flag level. Plus, it has what may be the best battle of the whole game. I enjoyed that chapter so much, I was a little disappointed when the fetch quests returned.

Overall, I enjoyed Dead Space a lot. Sure, I have some complaints, but I almost always have complaints. The combat was fun, the visual design was fantastic, the music was outstanding, and — most importantly — it was truly scary. At twelve hours, it did feel a little padded. I’ll take a tightly executed four (Portal) or eight (Heavenly Sword) hour experience over a longer good-but-repetitive game every time. But, all in all, it was twelve hours well-spent.

More Sword: Heavenly Sword Addendum

Eugene was kind enough to lend me his copy of Heavenly Sword, and I played through the entire thing in a day. Eugene’s excellent review was thorough and spot-on, so no need to rehash the entire game in my own post. I would like to touch on a few points, though.

Sixaxis? More Like Sixasskiss

In just about every post I’ve made — or conversation I’ve had — mentioning the topic, I’ve railed against the PS3’s Sixaxis controller. At its worst (e.g., Ratchet and Clank’s laser-cutting connect-the-dots tasks), it’s almost pushed me to quit otherwise great games. At its best (Folklore’s system of yanking souls from defeated enemies), it’s been tolerable but unnecessary.

Over the course of playing Heavenly Sword, I underwent a transformation not unlike Winston Smith’s in 1984. My loathing of the Sixaxis wasn’t far off from the hate Winston initially harbored for Big Brother, the fascist figurehead of Oceania.

But just as Winston “won the victory over himself” by the novel’s end, Heavenly Sword helped me achieve my own sort of enlightenment. I learned to embrace the enemy. I loved the Sixaxis.

Though most of Heavenly Sword’s combat is hand-to-hand, there are some extended sequences in which you must use projectiles, like arrows or cannonballs. In these situations, you can just aim your weapon, launch your missile, and let it land where it may — Sixaxis-free.

Or, if you prefer, you can be the projectile: time slows down, and you get a first-person view of flying through the air. It’s like a camera shot from a Sam Raimi movie. During flight, you tilt your controller and guide the missile toward your intended target. If you’re really good, you can aim for specific body parts.

The Sixaxis controls in these sections are fun because the developers were smart enough to try a novel approach to game design: eliminate frustration and add forgiveness.

During the most difficult projectile weapon sequences, your character isn’t personally under attack. Because your only opponent is the clock, you can concentrate solely on your shots. And, for those sequences when you are under attack, the clock slows down enough during missile flight that you don’t have to worry too much about getting annihilated — at least not until your attack is over and the camera perspective returns to third person.

The slow motion adds another advantage. Because the flight of each projectile takes so long, you have plenty of time to compensate for minor steering errors along the way. It may not be realistic for a cannonball to curve upward at the last second, after skimming along the ground for hundreds of meters, but it sure is fun. And if, at any point, you realize that your shot has gone too far off-target to recover, you can bail out and shoot another missile, immediately.

Though Heavenly Sword didn’t make a huge impact on the gaming community as a whole — and Sony has already scrapped plans for a sequel — I hope some developers will internalize what did work about the game’s use of the Sixaxis.

Other Thoughts On The Game

The voice acting and character animations were fantastic. Presentation counts, as these aspects alone got me emotionally invested in a story that was decent, but lean and predictable.

I loved that Heavenly Sword was start-to-finish combat. There was no platforming, where you had to worry about falling off a ledge or restarting your game twenty times to do a single jump. And there were no braindead-easy puzzles to solve or quests where you had to backtrack and fetch a certain item before moving on.

The length was perfect for me. I can’t argue with anyone who feels it was too short, but I loved being able to blast through it in a single day. I played through an entire videogame, and yet it didn’t even blow my whole weekend.

My one gripe about Heavenly Sword is that the boss battles were boring, compared to the regular combat. Each boss battle — including all three segments of the final boss battle — consisted of nothing more than finding a successful attack-defend-attack pattern and sticking with it. The battles against waves of regular enemies were more challenging, diverse, and fun.

Folklore: Whofore Art Thou, Charlotte?

This week, Kathy and I finished playing Folklore. I bought the game because I’d heard the story was great, and — as I wrote previously — I’d heard it was supposed to be an RPG. Wrong on both counts.

The gameplay was action/adventure throughout, with some RPG aspects, like leveling up and resource management. That was a bit of a surprise, but not a disappointment.

The disappointment was in how the story devolved into a mess.

The plot conveniences may have been helpful cop-outs for those who wrote them, but they made little sense to me. Important non-playable characters showed up with no explanation and then disappeared or died with little fanfare. One of the game’s seemingly major plots, a series of murders, is dismissed (pretty much resolution- and justice-free) with a few lines of dialogue about three-quarters of the way through.

And I never did learn to care about either of the two protagonists, who both alternated between braindead and omniscient. They either figured stuff out hours after I did, or they sussed out plot points with no evidence or explanation whatsoever.

My favorite unintentionally funny example of this was near the end of the game (This is so minor as to not even really be a spoiler). I’m walking around this Irish village where most of the game takes place, talking to people for what may be the last time. As my final stop, I go into the local pub to say my goodbyes to the barkeep. Our conversation ends with my character saying something like, “It’s important that Charlotte has a father. Promise me that you’ll take care of her.” The barkeep solemnly swears he will.

That’s all fine, except for one thing: Who the hell is Charlotte? I’d never even seen her or heard of her, much less met her! Yet, somehow, she means so much to me that the last lines I speak to a member of this village are about her. I found out afterward that she’s some little girl who spends the game in a building you never need to enter — so I hadn’t.

All that said, I kind of loved the game. The gameplay was a lot of fun. It wasn’t too twitchy and reaction-based. Even with my crap reflexes, it was possible to beat most battles with a good plan*. I always appreciate that.

My only gameplay complaint was regarding the placement of save points. Most games let you save right before a boss battle. Folklore, however, makes you save a few screens before each boss. So, should you lose against the boss, you have to waste about 10-15 minutes blasting through the same dozen chumps beforehand, every goddamn time. Besides that, though, I thought the battle system was well-constructed and fair.

And while the story’s execution was weak at times, the premise (fighting with and against faery folk in the land of the dead) and moral messages (including a kind of rebuttal of Pascal’s Wager) were cool.

Overall, I enjoyed Folklore and consider it twenty hours well-spent. But I’m still waiting for the PS3’s first great story (Uncharted is tops, so far). And I hope some full-fledged RPGs start rolling out on the system, soon. Fortunately, I’ve still got a bit of leftover PS2 fare (e.g., Persona 3) to tide me over.

* – There was, however, one boss battle that was tedious, unfair, and had Kathy and me on the brink of quitting. It was this giant flying, spinning lizard/shrimp/fish boss that would leave the screen for minutes at a time. So, even after we came up with a strategy to beat it, the battle took half a freaking hour each time we tried. After four or five tries, we were close to chucking the whole game. It was just stupid.

Viking: Battle for Asgard — Run Away!

A highly touted, much-anticipated (at least by us) PS3 release, Viking ultimately falls flat on its lumbering, running face.

2 out of 10, THIS GAME SUCKS

Do you like to run? Do you like to run around a huge, empty world and pick up bags of gold? Do you like to run back through terrain you just spent 15 minutes running through? Then would you like to run some more? If you answered “Yes!” to all these questions, then Viking is the game for you. A more fitting name might have been Viking: Battle of Marathon.

The game, much like the similarly disappointing Assassin’s Creed, begins well enough. The undead legions of the Norse goddess, Hel, have overrun human settlements in her quest for vengeance against her fellow gods. You, the Viking warrior, Skarin, are saved from death in battle by the goddess, Freya, who wishes to save the realm.

Unfortunately, Skarin is a lifeless cardboard cutout with no personality. It appears Freya chose you as champion for no particular reason, other than that you dress differently from all the other vikings, who all dress the same. There is no backstory here; you don’t have a personality or motivation worth mentioning (unlike the compelling, family-murdering Kratos in God of War). You are just a random dying warrior Freya saved.

For the first few hours, I was enjoying myself. The ample violence and brutality of kills was enough to keep me interested. One particularly violent joy in this game is one of your finishing moves, where you whack the enemy’s head right off. As if he’s not dead enough already, you then hack down and take off his arms. I thought it was humorous, as it certainly is overkill (pun intended).

However, after a few more hours, the excessive running around began to slowly bleed out any enjoyment I felt. Thankfully, there are leystones, which serve as teleport points between areas in the game. Unfortunately, they can be few and far between, and they don’t help you with the recurrent backtracking in certain areas. Since the developers decided to make this game so running-intensive, they at least should have provided a sprint option to navigate more quickly.

The combat in Viking (like in many other games) steals amply from the God of War series. GoW continues to be the gold standard in hack-and-slash and must serve as the standard of judgment for games with similar combat systems.

When compared to the rapid-paced action of the GoW entries, Viking cannot compete. Skarin is more like a lumbering tank, and anything but your fastest attack takes a few seconds to initiate — and there are charged attacks that take even longer. It leads to a lot of awkward standing involved, while you and your enemies charge up. This all gives the game a clunky, ponderous feel, lacking the graceful and seamless fluidity in GoW combat.

That being said, there are powerup moves you can acquire to make combat a bit more interesting. However, the developers created built-in limitations for these powerups: you need to acquire crystal orbs from defeated enemies to utilize your new moves. Many of the moves require two crystals, and you can only stock five crystals at a time. So, once you run out (and you will quickly), you are back to standard stock attacks. It’s a needless restriction that contributes to the overall annoying nature of combat. Finally, when performing finishing moves on enemies, the game goes into slow motion. I cannot tell whether this is due to software/processor glitches or if it’s intentional. In any event, by the time you perform your 357th killing move in slow motion, you will be bored to death and wish it was over more quickly.

Here is my theory on these games: If you aren’t going to improve upon GoW-type combat, then at the very least, don’t do worse. I’d rather developers steal directly than drop the ball.

To obtain the advanced moves, you must visit the battle arena. There, a warrior spirit from Valhalla will train you. Oddly, you have to pay this ghost in gold for new skills. This bothers me. If there was a priest there, who demanded cash for access to the spirit, as a tithe to the Gods, I’d be fine with it. But directly paying a ghost in gold seems pretty stupid to me. What use does he have for gold? The developers should have gotten creative and had you drag him the head of a bad guy as a blood offering or something. I could see a ghost wanting that. It’s too bad designers get so comfortable with the gaming conventions and fail to see that gold as payment for all things is just a perpetuation of lame, status quo gaming. Details matter more and more in games, and paying a ghost in gold to train you is a sign of laziness.

You can also power up your axe and sword with fire, ice, and lightning runes. This works as a sort of hybrid between the magics and Rage of the Gods in GoW. You have a red meter that, when activated, powers up with whichever element rune you choose. It remains powered up until the meter drains to empty. These powerups are largely useless at lower levels. Your enemies crackle with minor energy damage (lightning), turn blue/white (ice) or run a bit red (fire). It improves later in the game, but still, this was another area where the developers were clearly lazy and went for a modest effect, rather than taking the time and energy to create something interesting and effective.

Another combat-related problem that Viking has is that the power orbs you pick up from dead enemies (these are red/green orbs that are blatantly stolen from GoW) don’t automatically flow to you—you have to get close enough to absorb them. This kind of sucks when you whack a guy and he falls off a cliff (there are lots of cliffs) or you step away a few feet to hack another person. This was a notable problem in GoW1 that was fixed in GoW2; in the sequel, the orbs automatically came to you after a kill. It is inexcusable that the developers of Viking would fail on this detail. Running around in a little circle and backtracking after every single kill (you will rack up hundreds) soon gets tedious.

One area worthy of praise is that you automatically go into a “stealth” mode when approaching enemies. You can purchase a combat upgrade from the warrior spirit that will allow for even better stealth and stealth kills. In some cases, enemies are actually asleep (why do undead warriors need sleep?) and you can initiate a quick kill on them. This is pretty cool, and I’m glad they thought of it. I enjoy these little details (when they get them right).

For most of the game, you will spend your time running around to free captive Vikings. These freed warriors will eventually amass into an army to attack a fort, stockade or stronghold. It remains unclear why Hel’s minions are capturing Vikings and allowing them to remain fully armed, armored, and dangerous in ramshackle wooden prisons. It also remains unclear how 15 fully armed and armored Vikings are not able to smash out of their dainty wooden prisons, but Skarin alone is able to do so on their behalf.

I’d also like to know why Hel’s minions are keeping fully armed and armored Vikings captive rather than just killing them. It could be that the undead eat them for food — that would be fine with me. But it still doesn’t explain why they are left fully armed and armored (sorry to beat this to death).

The objectives in the game are outlined in a map much like the one in Assassin’s Creed. However, it doesn’t really tell you which objective (there can be several) you should accomplish first. In some cases it’s intuitive, but in others, you run to an objective, only to find it is locked (you need a key) or blocked (you need explosives or something). You will then have to spend 5 to 10 minutes running to the next objective, hoping beyond hope that it is not locked.

At some point you will have freed enough Vikings to form an army and can call them to battle. The cutscenes here are pretty dramatic: dozens to hundreds of Viking warriors marching on dozens to hundreds of evil undead. You then take control of Skarin and the battle is on. While conceptually enticing, these mass battles fail in application.

Your Vikings do help you kill the bad guys, but they are strategically ineffective. First, there is so much going on, it is difficult to locate Skarin.

Second, you can in no way direct your army. They are morons. Many objectives require cutting through the enemy to kill multiple shamans who are raising undead reinforcements well behind the front lines. Viking allies hit the first wave of attackers and never penetrate much. That means you will have to wade through (and avoid) scores of creatures to get to the shaman. The game should have at least allowed for calling half a dozen Vikings to assist in your attack — a strike team of sorts.

You will also unlock dragons to assist you in battle. How awesome, you say! Locate a dragon gem, charge it with magic, place it on the dragon summoning stone and awake to service an 800-year-old beast! Look out, bad guys! I’m coming to battle and raining fire on you! Well, it’s not that easy. After you enter a large battle, only then do you find out that you also need a dragon rune to call the dragon to aid. Where do you locate one? Good question. After killing the first shaman in battle (shamans tend to be major battle objectives) you get a dragon rune! Now you will be ready to rain fire down on the other shaman! Not yet. You need two runes to destroy a shaman. So you have to destroy a second shaman before killing the third shaman.

Also of note is the development that shamans just happened to arbitrarily be carrying the one and only magic item Skarin can use to summon a dragon and destroy him and his fellow shamans! That seems awfully convenient. I was sure that, as the game went on, my enemies would wise up and destroy all the useless-to-them dragon runes they were carrying, so that I couldn’t use them, right? Nope. They carry them throughout the game. Idiots. I have no problem finding magic items in odd locations (like where I found the dragon gem), but the notion that bad guys would carry a rare and useless-to-them method of their own destruction for no particular reason irks me to no end.

Ok, finally, I was thinking I’d get some awesome cutscene fire rampage! Think again. You click the buttons to summon the dragon, it appears in the sky, it dives quickly, it breathes fire on the shaman, and (in the first battle) the battle abruptly ends. You’ve won. It all takes about 3 to 4 seconds (I counted) and was extremely anti-climactic. The quick dragon summoning you see in the commercials/trailers for this game is all that is actually in the game. At the very least, I thought it would be like summoning Bahamut (or Neo Bahamut or Bahamut Zero) in Final Fantasy VII on PS1. Remember how cool that was (and 10 years ago at that)? All the air in the vicinity got sucked up, the screen went black, and then a dragon appeared in space and spewed forth a laser that incinerated your enemies? This was nothing as cool as that.

So here we are again, where a PS3 game is trumped by scenes in a PS1 game from what, a decade ago? By way of additional comparison (to see how Viking fails to stack up), see the summoning videos of Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, as well as from the PS1, below.

It is a sad commentary on the state of PS3 development that the summons for the handheld PSP are excessively superior to the dragon summoning on the PS3 for Viking. It is absolutely ridiculous (I’m having buyer’s remorse. Perhaps I should have bought the PSP instead of PS3).

Viking Dragon (what you will see in battle is when the dragon burns the beached longboat at 1:21):

FFVII Crisis Core Bahumut PSP (holy shit is this cool!):

FFVII Crisis Core Phoenix PSP:

All Original FFVII Summons:

FFVII Bahamut Zero (PS1):

The voice acting in Vikings is subpar. Your allies all have cheesy British accents and stilted speech patterns. The script is about as cardboard as Skarin’s personality.

I was willing to cut Viking a lot of slack, because on paper it seemed tailor made for my interests: an ultraviolent hack-and-slash Viking game (my dream)! However, that only goes so far. This game ain’t no GoW2 (the greatest warrior game to date, and if you are going to aim for this target, you’d better not miss), nor does it come close.

Viking, much like Assassin’s Creed (review here) is not a finished product. I can only conclude the developers made an economic decision and rushed the beta version to market without proper testing and quality control. This seems to be an increasing pattern for PS3 releases (see Assassin’s Creed, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, Army of Two, Turok, etc.). You may enjoy Viking for about 2 hours. I did. But after that, getting through it is a marathon that will test your endurance for repetitive stupidity. My advice would be to pass this game up and go replay God of War 2. It might be the only thing capable of washing the bad taste of Viking out of your mouth.

Folklore: Early Impressions

I’ve owned Folklore for a while, waiting for the right time to start it. Today, Kathy and I finally set aside some time to blitz through a couple chapters.

The game takes place in two locations: Doolin, a town on the west coast of Ireland, and the Netherworld, a land occupied by faeries, monsters, and the spirits of the dead. As the game begins, two people arrive in Doolin on the same day. Ellen, a 22-year-old woman, recently received a letter from her long-dead mother, instructing her to visit the village. Keats, a 27-year-old publisher of occult magazines, came at the request of a mysterious phone caller.

Going through the game, you’re given the option to play as either Ellen or Keats. After completing a chapter, you can either continue to the next chapter with the same character, or you can switch characters and see the events of the current chapter from another point of view. We’ve been switching from character to character, hoping to get the whole story in one playthrough.

When not fighting, the storyline and presentation are similar to an RPG or point-and-click adventure. You walk around town (or the civilized areas of the Netherworld) and talk to everyone you can, hoping to piece together the story and find out about your next task.

There’s very little voice acting in the game. Most of the cutscene interactions occur in subtly animated comic book style panels, complete with dialogue balloons. It kind of makes me feel like I’m playing an old PSX game, like Vagrant Story, which is fine with me. It also means more time for the game’s excellent music.

So far, I’m intrigued by the main story, though the lead characters haven’t really done much to win me over, yet. When Ellen meets a talking scarecrow, learns that she’ll be travelling to the land of the dead, and dons a cloak that instantly transforms her from Hollywood Ugly (dowdy clothes and a ponytail) into Videogame Hot (no ponytail and plenty of midriff), she acts like it’s exactly what she was expecting to happen in Doolin.

Keats, at least, rants a bit about how unlikely it is that the Netherworld and its Faeries exist. The only problem with his skepticism: he tells all this to an invisible fucking man. Seriously.

So far, battles only occur in the Netherworld. Your character collects the Id (i.e., soul) of each type of creature — called folk — you’ve defeated. You then summon these folk to attack your next batch of enemies. It’s a pretty cool concept.

I’ve heard Folklore called an RPG. It’s not. While there is some resource management, it doesn’t amount to much more than deciding which folk to bring into a particular battle. And the combat is definitely not turn-based. It’s straight action. The system is much more similar to Okami or Kingdom Hearts than to Final Fantasy. We haven’t played nearly enough to have learned all the ins and outs of combat strategy, so it could be a while before I’ve really made up my mind about it.

The game does have some Sixaxis stupidity. Several months into my PS3 ownership, I still hate everything Sixaxis. In order to grab the folks’ Ids, you have to move the controller around a bit. Happily, it’s been pretty easy so far (as opposed to the pain in the ass of tossing grenades in Uncharted), but I just hate how Sixaxis usage been tacked on to just about every PS3 game, for no good reason.

So far, I’m enjoying Folklore. The presentation is great, the story’s interesting, and the battle system suits the game. When we finish it, I’ll let you know if it fulfilled its promise.

Quick Debriefing: Portal

It’s safe to say that Portal is the first game whose ending credits prompted me to play it. I first saw the YouTube video of “Still Alive” back in November, and I’ve had the song stuck in my head ever since — even though, for most of the time, I’ve had no idea who Aperture Science and Black Mesa are. (Note: You may not want to watch the video if you haven’t played Portal and don’t want to be spoiled. Seeing it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the game, however.)

The minute, the very second, that The Orange Box was released for the PS3, I immediately waited a few months until someone I knew had finished it and could lend me a copy. (Thanks, Tom!)

After weeks of reading about it in reviews and on forums, the consensus seemed to be that Portal is fantastic for a short, throw-in of a game. Turns out, Portal is fantastic, period. I’d argue that it’s worth a full 60 bucks on its own, and now I feel a little guilty for not buying it.

Though I’d spoiled the ending for myself, and I’d skimmed posts about Portal on the web, I’d managed to avoid much specific information about the game, itself. In case you’re late to the party, like I was, I won’t spoil any serious plot or gameplay details here.

I’ll just say that it’s a primarily a puzzle game, using first person shooter mechanics. There are some action sequences, in which your timing and aim will need to be pretty precise, but even a slug like me was able to accomplish everything. The script is hilarious. And the in-game music, though sparse, does a great job of adding to the atmosphere.

The game excels at teaching you how to play it as you go through its 19 tests. Because it’s challenging, but never feels frustrating or impossible, you feel smarter as you figure out the keys to solving each successive level.

The lying sack of crap reviewers at IGN bragged that they finished the game in about 90 minutes their first time through. What insecure assholes. I’d guess it takes most players — at least ones who come in knowing very little about the game and who like to explore and experiment a little — somewhere between three and six hours.

However long it takes you, the game is short. And that’s fine with me. I’ll take five hours of unforgettable near-perfection over 20 to 40 hours of merely good-to-great gameplay, every time. Plus, it helps clear out my to-play queue a little more quickly. That’s handy, especially when I’ve got about a half-dozen games in the hopper. Which is always.

PlayStation Home and the Power of False Nostalgia

Wednesday night, I read that the PS3’s upcoming free virtual world, Home, would feature 2D, eighties-arcade versions of some great modern titles, like Uncharted.

I was pumped. My immediate reaction was that nothing could possibly be cooler than some sweet old school, sidescrolling arcade action.

Then I realized that I was duping myself with false nostalgia. Though it’s a great idea for many gamers, there was little reason for me to be so excited.

When I was a kid, I sucked at most videogames–especially sidescrolling shooters and platformers. Back then, every twitch action game in the arcade kicked my ass, from Joust and Defender to Contra and Commando. I was never any good at these games to begin with, and I never improved, no matter how many quarters I invested.

I wasn’t much better at console gaming. On the Atari, I could make it across about four screens in Pitfall. Intellivision’s Space Armada and Astrosmash were near impossible. I think I got about a half-hour into Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES. And I could hardly start Genesis games like Altered Beast and Golden Axe before croaking in embarrassing fashion.

I was awful at all of those games, and I hated them for it.

Despite my dearth of gaming skills, I spent most my junior high and high school afternoons at Galaxy World, which was the dark, smoky arcade room of the local bowling alley. Some friends were sure to be there most days, and metal was usually blasting from the PA system. At Galaxy World, one could rely on the golden goose to be on the loose, and never out of season.

When I wanted to spend my money wisely and give myself a little self-confidence boost, I gravitated toward the few games at which I was decent, like Dig Dug and Elevator Action. Rather than depending solely on reflexes, they gave players a chance to see what was developing ahead of time and plan accordingly. I liked Elevator Action so much, I wrote a song about it.

At home, I devoted my nights and weekends to the Apple II. The closest I got to being any good at an action game was when I hunted for food in Oregon Trail. Other than that, the only games I was talented and patient enough to see through to completion were RPGs (e.g., Ultima IV) and Infocom’s text adventures (e.g., Deadline, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the damn near perfect A Mind Forever Voyaging).

To this day, I gravitate toward slower-paced RPGs and adventures. But things have changed some. It started with Silent Hill, on the original PlayStation. The story was so good that I wanted to finish it. And the action gameplay was just easy enough that I could finish it.

The real breakthrough action game for me, though, was God of War. My brother lent me his copy as soon as he finished it, a couple Christmases back. Because I’d heard it was good and I’d promised to give it a shot, I bumped it right to the front of my gaming queue. I loved it, and I even managed to become pretty good at it. More than any other game, God of War paved the way for me to play the other action titles I now count as favorites, like Shadow of the Colossus, Hitman: Blood Money, and…Uncharted.

Now that I’m a little more comfortable with action games in general, I’ll give the 2D version of Uncharted a try when it’s released. Heck, Home is going to be free, so there’s no reason not to. I just won’t expect too much from it–or, more accurately, from myself. Chances are, I’ll still be dead within 45 seconds.

Rapid Review: Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

Rapid Review (Under 1000 words or your pizza is free!)

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction for Playstation 3

Rating: 8,953 out of 10,003

Likey: Pretty Colors, Cute Lombax, Big Guns and Many Weapons Make Big Booms! Rail slides remind me of my roller-blading days in the late 80s. Pirate outfits!

No Likey: Loading the game the first time is a pain in the ass! Repetitive marble-maze puzzles (you’ll see) utilizing the Sixaxis controls. Continue Points when you die can be a bit far back.

I haven’t played the previous Ratchet and Clanks, so if you’re an old hand at the series and some of the shit I say is old news to you, well, too bad.

First off, when I loaded the game into my PS3 it gave me an error reading saying “You require 419 MBs of space to load this game, please remove programs from your hard drive and reboot.” Ummmm, I have like 70 MBs of free space. So I did a search on the internets about this problem and voila, it came up on the PS3 forum. It was an easy but annoying fix. You had to download a 500MBish game Demo or remove one from your drive (I had no demos, so I had to download one).

Apparently due to the various GB levels of PS3 drives, if you had a PS3 over 20 GBs, the game would always read the drive as being full. Somehow the download tricked it back into proper reality. This whole experience reminded me of PC performance issues and why people buy consoles–because you are supposed to pop a game in and play the damn thing without a hitch. But gone are those days I guess. It took about 20 minutes for my demo to download, which was lame too. Oh well. Now I have a Devil May Cry 4 demo out of this.

As to the game, it’s got a lot of elements of Sonic, Super Mario Bros., Star Fox (Old Skool!) and various shooters. The humorous storyline revolves around an inept galactic emperor whose primary objective is eradicating the Lombax species, of which you, playing as the adorable but deadly Ratchet, are the last known survivor.

You’ve also got a bumbling, egotistical, tights-clad (looks like the Tick) boss, Captain Qwark, who’s inane egoism adds to your troubles.

It’s a fast-paced, intuitive shooter with brief (sometimes repetitive and annoying) problem solving skills, a few of which utilize the dumb Sixaxis controls. This is the second game out of two I’ve played (grenades in Uncharted) where I find the Sixaxis unwieldy. Perhaps it will grow on me over time, or PS3 will simply drop its poor attempt at Wii-ness. The learning curve is pretty simple, just make sure you learn to strafe early and often, and manage your glides and jumps. Oh, and smash everything with your wrench to obtain goodies, upgrades, and ammo.

The amount of weapons available in this game is immense. From the mundane—your trusty wrench (smash!), flame throwers, rocket launchers, nuclear hand grenades to the bizarre, like the Hive something or other, where you toss a nano gadget out onto the floor and it creates a “hive” of nano bees that attack multiple opponents over a short time.

Plus, you have offensive gadgets that turns baddies into harmless penguins. Or toss up the Disconator (a disco ball) and your enemies can’t help but start dancing while you blast them away.

The game has a great sense of humor here and interesting enough storyline. The graphics and colors are simply gorgeous. And the designers throw a lot of enemies at you at once. The game dares the PS3 console to glitch and slow down the onscreen activity with all that action, but it never does. It’s a fine showing of what the system can handle.

To sum it up, it’s fast-paced and simple enough (once you figure out which weapons work best on what). If you can’t get through it without a walkthrough, you probably don’t have the brains to successfully download the game (per my first paragraph instructions) in the first place. I didn’t time my gameplay but think I clocked in at about 12 to 14 hours.

Kudos to Insomniac Studios for masking the ultra-violence of this game under a cloak of cute cuddliness that is the main characters, the adorable Ratchet and his better-than-Buck Rogers’-Twiki partner, Clank. Blowing things up never felt so innocuous.

It’s a pretty easy game, which is fine by me. I never had much use for Devil May Cry 3-type difficulty; those kind of games remind me of trying to play golf (I hate and suck at golf).

As a gamer with limited time on my hands, I gotta say, I’m appreciating these shorter games on PS3.

Gee Buck!