Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tearaway: The Vita's Iconic Killer App

If anyone's been waiting for the emergence of a "killer app" to justify buying a PlayStation Vita, then Tearaway is your answer. It took a while -- nearly two full years, practically a lifetime for a fledgling console struggling to find its feet -- but the Vita finally has a game that takes full advantage of its unique hardware and which provides a gaming experience unlike any other on any console. Tearaway is the singular game showcasing what the Vita is capable of, and it's the singular game for which it's worth owning a Vita.

Tearaway is, essentially, a 3D platforming game set in a world made entirely of paper. You take control of an anthropomorphic envelope, known in this world as a "Messenger," on a mission to deliver a message to the mysterious face that's suddenly appeared in the sun -- your face, as captured by the front-facing camera on the Vita. You are technically not the Messenger in this game; you are yourself, a sort of godlike figure peering into its world, literally holding the world in your hands. Using your special godlike powers (ie, your fingers) you're able to physically reach into this world and manipulate it, shaping its appearance and helping the Messenger on his (or her) quest to deliver a message to You.

The concept of being a "god" overseeing a world and altering it to your liking has been done many times before. So has the concept of the player being a real person whose computer screen is actually a portal to another world. Tearaway is not entirely unique in this regard, but I've never played (nor heard of) another game that gets you so personally involved in the experience. You're an on-screen character in this game, and every input has you reaching through the fourth wall to physically touch and interact with the world. It's unique, wonderful, and immensely charming, but what's perhaps more surprising is that it's actually a pretty good platformer, too.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror

For the second time ever, I'd like to talk about something other than video games. The last time I diverged from the chosen topic of this blog was to complain about that one really disappointing Batman movie; this time I'll at least be sticking to the general topic of gaming while I review my recent purchase of the narrative-driven, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Eldritch Horror board game by Fantasy Flight Games.

My friends and I all enjoy playing video games, and whenever we get together there's a strong tendency for us to setup a multiplayer game to pass a couple of hours. After a few years of playing the same games over and over again, I was getting a little tired of it and made the radical suggestion that we try playing a board game instead. Being completely unfamiliar with board games, the difficult part of that suggestion was narrowing such a wide selection of interesting games down to one. After reading through lists of popular games, I decided to go with Eldritch Horror because of its Lovecraftian subject matter and its blend of strategy and role-playing elements.

In Eldritch Horror, players assume the roles of up to eight investigators as they attempt to solve mysteries across the globe in order to prevent one of four "ancient ones" from awakening and ravaging the earth. Each investigator has their own unique stats and abilities; during encounters, investigators draw a random card from the deck, which describes each scenario as the story progresses, and resolve skill checks by rolling dice. As they travel the globe, investigators acquire arcane spells and artifacts, battle other-worldly monsters, close gates to other dimensions, and deal with horrifying supernatural encounters.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Planescape: Torment - The Best RPG of All Time?

"What can change the nature of a man? If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear - whatever you *believe* can change the nature of a man, can. I've seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag's heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me."
-- The Nameless One

Whenever people talk about role-playing games, Planescape: Torment  inevitably comes into the discussion as an example of how great RPGs used to be. Torment was largely overshadowed by the likes of Baldur's Gate and Fallout at the time of its release and was not much of a commercial success for developer Black Isle Studios, but it developed a cult following over the last 15 years and is now commonly regarded as the greatest RPG of all time. Its reputation has been so tenaciously uttered for so long that I suspect people just take it for granted without actually understanding why, and it's not uncommon to see someone name-drop Torment in online message boards as a way of validating their opinions and credibility. Over time, the shroud of Torment has grown from that of a cult icon to the holy grail of RPGs, taking on a mythological mystique entirely of its own.

It was about six or seven years ago that I played Torment for the first time. As a fan of old-school RPGs, I had to know what I'd been missing all these years, but my time with the game was cut short upon discovering that one of my discs was so badly scratched that my computer couldn't read the files, thus preventing me from progressing past a certain point. I liked what I had seen of the game, though, and have since considered it among the best RPGs I've ever played, even despite never finishing it. With its spiritual sequel Tides of Numenera on the horizon, I thought it was time to take another look at Planescape: Torment, to see what it is about this game that makes people speak its name with such passionate reverence, to figure out why, exactly, Torment is so often heralded as the best RPG of all time. 

Torment is without a doubt a unique and finely-crafted game that absolutely deserves to be near the top of any "best ever" list. It's one of very few games that takes full advantage of video games' interactivity to bolster its storytelling in unique ways that you can't get from books or movies. It's one of very few games that uses the "main character has amnesia" trope in a crucial way that permeates the very essence of the story and gameplay. The nature of the story, the way it's told, and your role in uncovering it (both as the nameless protagonist and as a person playing the game) are unlike anything I've seen in perhaps any other game. The story is Torment's best feature, but there's a lot more than that under the hood that consistently propels it into the discussion of being the best RPG of all time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Great Games You Never Played: Alpha Protocol

"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played

Formed from refugees of Black Isle Studios -- the development team responsible for some of the best RPGs in the golden era of RPGs -- Obsidian Entertainment has been making games for over a decade now. For the longest time they held the earned and much-deserved reputation of being "that game company that makes buggy sequels to other people's games," after releasing Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (a followup to BioWare's original Knights of the Old Republic) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (a followup to BioWare's original Neverwinter Nights). That reputation continued with Fallout: New Vegas (a followup to Bethesda's Fallout 3) and Dungeon Siege III (a followup to Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege I & II).

In each case, the games were maligned by critics and gamers alike for being buggy, unpolished, and in the case of KOTOR2, even unfinished, yet keen observers were able to look past those shortcomings to find games with a deeply rich soul and personality. In the case of KOTOR2 and FO:NV, the only two Obsidian games I've played, I actually preferred their versions of the game to their predecessors', since Obsidian's games showed a much deeper complexity and understanding in terms of RPG mechanics. I was easily willing to overlook the technical flaws in favor of their inspired and ambitious design. It's natural to say, therefore, that I hold a lot of respect for Obsidian and consider them one of the best designers of modern RPGs.

Alpha Protocol, released in 2010, was Obsidian's first attempt at creating an original IP, their first chance to establish themselves as a company that could do something worthwhile with an original formula instead of simply building upon other people's success (and, in the opinion of some gamers, ruining it with bugs). With this great opportunity before them, Obsidian failed big time and Alpha Protocol was gashed by critics. Besides the usual complaints of crashes, glitches, and it feeling generally unpolished, the game was criticized for its tedious and repetitive stealth-action sequences, its poor enemy AI, and its inconsistent game balancing.

Buried within this mess of a game is the soul of a good RPG, where your skills and stats determine your efficacy in encounters and where your decisions can lead to vast alterations in the course of the plot, complete with interesting characters and settings as well as one of the better dialogue systems in existence. It's clear that Obsidian know what they're doing when it comes to implementing compelling RPG mechanics in games, but it's also clear that the team had no prior experience with stealth-action gameplay. In most ways, Alpha Protocol deserves its bad reputation, but there's also enough here to enjoy if you're a fan of RPGs and want to experience one of the more unique RPGs we've seen in the past few years.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

16 Game Mechanics & Tropes That Need to Die

Video games are as much a science as they are an art; for every subjective opinion there also exists objective fact. Much of video game criticism stems from personal taste, with different individuals liking different games based on their past experiences and their own preferences. As with any art form, beauty ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder, but there are occasions when we can look at a certain aspect of a particular game and universally agree whether it's good or bad. If an advertised mechanic doesn't work the way it was intended, it's both fair and accurate to say that mechanic is broken and hurts the game's overall quality.

Over the years, a lot of mechanics have worked their way into the games we play. A lot of them are welcome innovations for the sake of convenience and have contributed positively to games as a whole. Some mechanics, on the other hand, show up with the best of intentions and ultimately prove disappointing and underwhelming. Some of these mechanics have stuck around and become so prevalent that their presence in games has started to annoy me, while certain other longstanding tropes have really begun to wear their welcome with me. The following are, in my opinion, 16 game mechanics and tropes that need to die.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Critical Flaws of BioShock Infinite

"If you're used to insipid boomfests like Halo then BioShock will seem like the shit, but if you're a long-time PC gamer spoiled by more complex FPS-RPGs then you're in for a kick in the balls." -- Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw.

Yahtzee's review of BioShock basically sums up my thoughts on the original game. Like everyone else at the time, I bought into the hype and bought BioShock for $50 on launch day -- a decision I quickly regretted once I discovered it came boxed with crippling DRM. The actual gameplay did little to assuage my disappointment at the technical problems as I grew increasingly frustrated with its excessively contrived sidetracking, unrewarding exploration, and binary morality system. Looking back, the first BioShock may in fact have been the catalyst that led to my current state of jaded cynicism whenever it comes to massively hyped mainstream games.

Going into BioShock Infinite, I was hopeful that the gameplay would at least be an improvement over the original, but I was still fully prepared for it not to live up to its hype. I had the distinct feeling in my gut that it would be another case of "all flair, no substance," and I probably never would have bothered playing it if not for PlayStation Plus putting it into their lineup of free games. Fortunately, many of the things that actively bothered me in the original have been improved or removed. Unfortunately, what we're left with in Infinite is a game that's been so streamlined as to cut out any form of meaningful interaction, while the game stubbornly insists on being something it probably shouldn't have been in the first place.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Impressions of Warframe

I spent most of my weekend playing Warframe, a free-to-play online cooperative shooter. It had been on my radar for quite some time, ever since it showed up on Steam almost a year ago, but as usual I never got around to playing it. Ever since Killing Floor jumped the shark in mid-to-late 2012, I've been looking for a new coop shooter with the same kind of depth, intensity, and longevity to replace it, and it seems like Warframe might have the potential to be that game.

Warframe is a futuristic sci-fi shooter in which players take the role of an ancient civilization of warriors known as the Tenno, battling a variety of humanoid armies throughout the solar system. As the Tenno, players have the ability to move like ninjas, running and jumping along walls and sliding across the floor, while their warframes (the suit of armor they wear) give them a variety of unique active skills. The action is fun and exciting, the controls are tight and responsive, and the visual style and atmosphere are very immersive.

The only problem I have with Warframe is that it's fundamentally designed like a free-to-play game: "free to grind, pay to have fun." In a way, that works in the game's favor because it offers a psychological satisfaction to be had from earning your improvements while giving you long-term goals to work towards. On the other hand, the grind can force you to spend dozens of hours slogging through repetitive missions with boring starting equipment you may not even like before you can even get to the fun part of unlocking new warframes.