Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Video Games in TV: NCIS (again)

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

The premise in this season 8 episode "Kill Screen" is that the lead programmer on the fictional game Fear Tower 3 was paid by a middle eastern arms dealer to put hacking software into the game, which would actively run hacks against the Pentagon whenever anyone played it. Mix in a couple of false leads, finger pointing, and good old-fashioned (and even new-fashioned) detective work, and you have a gripping crime drama that manages to make some more really stupid comments about video games.

Despite the central video game theme, this episode doesn't deal with the subject matter very much. There are only a half-dozen minutes of actual game-related dialogue scenes, and only in the last few minutes of the episode does the video game theme come front and center. But most of it is still pretty nonsensical, and is still worth laughing at. A video montage of some the dialogue awaits you in the full article, along with the rest of my break-down.

Friday, December 16, 2011

No More Room in Hell for This Game

My experience with No More Room in Hell, a George A Romero-style zombie survival-horror mod for the source engine, has not been very pleasant, but what's ever pleasant about the zombie apocalypse? This is supposed to be a slower-paced game about survival, making it through large cities by following objectives (typically "get from point A to point B," or "get key item C for door D") all-the-while scavenging for ammo, supplies, and avoiding the hordes of shambling zombies that populate the large maps.

The idea was to create a zombie game that plays more like classic zombie films, with a greater emphasis on survival and strategic maneuvering than straight-up action. This is a novel ambition, since most of the popular zombie games aren't really survival horror any more. No More Room in Hell shows a lot of potential, but in its current beta state (1.02b), it misses the mark quite badly. It's a game that I really want to like, but the experience has been a turn off and I'm left abstaining until future versions (hopefully) expand on its content and fix its design problems.

You can download the mod on Desura, ModDB, and FilePlanet and play for free. I would actually recommend checking it out if you're somewhat curious about it, so that you know to keep an eye out for its future updates; just consider yourself warned that it's still rather rough around the edges. Keep reading for my own review / analysis / break-down.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Voiding Expectations

This Half-Life 2 mod, Void, is something truly unique and remarkable. Developed by students of the Digipen Institute of Technology, Singapore, and receiving awards and recognition at the Chinese Independent Games Festival, it's something that I've seen before in other games (most notably Singularity), but it's never been as good as this.

Void is a first-person puzzler that has you navigating through a crumbling, dilapidated building with the aid of time-altering bubbles (called "rips") that change the space within the bubble back to the way it was in the past. In the game's current state, your goal is just to get to the exit of each level (much like Portal), but with an optional side quest to collect a total of six paintings to unlock something special at the end. Also in your handy toolset is a pair of glasses that let you see into the other dimension (how things look in the past, if you were to cast a rip).

This is a game that shows a tremendous amount of potential, the kind of thing that could easily develop into its own full-length game to rival even the likes of Portal, and is fun enough even as it is now. It's definitely worth checking out. More of my opinions after the jump.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

10 Games to Play for Christmas

'Tis the season, as the saying goes, to be jolly and play lots of video games. And yet there aren't very many Christmas-themed video games that are all that good. There's Elf Bowling as perhaps the epitome of stupid Christmas games, but then most of the others, like Santa Claus Saves the Earth, are so obscure that they're almost unplayable.

So what, then, are we left to play for Christmas? Luckily there are still plenty of games that come close to the essence of Christmas, even without being overtly related to the season, and yet more that are especially enjoyable in light of the season. So here are 10 games to consider playing in the weeks surrounding Christmas.

Friday, December 9, 2011

PC Game Series Ruined by Consolization

As an ardent player of PC games, I've noticed that longtime PC-exclusive series tend to get ruined the moment they make the cross over to the console market. There are over a dozen cases where an established, successful PC-exclusive franchise turned south almost as a direct result of console limitations, or for changing their design philosophies to match a new target audience. The end result is usually that intelligent, sophisticated, complex game series become simplified and lose a lot of their original appeal.

Consoles are also more prevalent among gamers, so producers can garner higher sales figures with the console market, which entices them to continue catering to the console audience with the next sequel. Which disappoints me, because even though a lot of these series continue to be released on the PC, they often just aren't as good as they once were. So in the full article I'll be taking a look at some of the PC-exclusive series that eventually broke onto the console market, and describing how the transition affected the integrity of the series.

Great Games You Never Played: Arcanum

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

If the words "Fallout" or "Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines" mean anything to you, then you owe it to yourself to play Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Developed by Troika Games (the team that made Vampire Bloodlines, and many of the key designers who worked on the original Fallout), Arcanum is a steampunk role-playing game that plays much like the best of the classic RPGs.

Set during an industrial revolution, conflict pervades a society torn between sticking with the history and traditions of magic, and embracing the new wave of "heretical" technology. You play as the lone survivor of an attack on the maiden voyage of the IFS Zephyr. Initially tasked by one of the dying passengers to return a ring to "the boy," you set out on adventure to find out why assassins pursue you and, ultimately, to save the world.

As an RPG, it's among the best ever. There are tons of different ways to customize your character, not the least of which is deciding whether to follow the path of magic or technology. One path has you casting spells of all sorts, and the other has you building equipment from blueprints and fighting with firearms. The game changes and reacts to your decisions in ways that are still unsurpassed in modern games, with a open-world to explore and fulfill quests in a non-linear order. So if you like good RPGs, then you should definitely give this one a shot.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Spread the Holiday Cheer with Killing Floor

Nothing puts me in the holiday spirit more than big guns and zombies, turning zombie-elves into giblets and decapitating snowmen to the tune of Tchaikovsky's Trepak. Tripwire Interactive's "Twisted Christmas" event returns to Killing Floor this year with the usual Christmas-themed specimens, a new level (the Ice Cave), new achievements, new character DLC skins, and seven new weapons. And as you'd expect from the kind people at Tripwire, the update is completely free. Except for the skins, which cost $2.

Oh, and there's a FREE WEEKEND EVENT now through Sunday night, so you can try the game out on Steam if you've been on the fence thus far. If you like online coop shooters, then I'd highly recommend checking Killing Floor out this weekend. And it's on sale for $5. Read my own words about Killing Floor here.

The update is a nice present for Christmas, certainly, because it's always fun to experiment with new weapons. Some of them are better others, but overall I'm optimistic that they'll add significant depth and variety to the game. My thoughts about each one after the jump.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Freedom in Video Games

A big reason why "sandbox" games like The Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto are so popular is because they give you more freedom to play the game your own way. Even the most linear, script-heavy game benefits from adding bits of freedom to let the player customize their gaming experience. Video games are interactive, after all, and it can be really annoying when a game forces you to play a certain way when other options seem completely obvious or simply more natural.

The most important aspect of freedom (whether it be the freedom to do quests in any non-linear order, or merely the freedom to choose your skills and specializations in a linear story) is that the player's input has a significant impact on the gameplay. You really feel like you're in control of the game and that your actions matter. "The main quest wants me to do this, but I don't want to yet. I'll do it later," or "I could finish my objective the obvious way that the game wants me to, or I could devise a clever scheme to get it done more efficiently." It just feels rewarding to make your own decisions.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Video Games in TV: Penn & Teller's Bullshit

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

For this installment of the series that makes fun of the absurd portrayal of video games in mainstream television media, I'm pleased to reference an episode from Penn & Teller's Bullshit series: season 7, episode 3, "Video Games." The show, if you haven't seen or heard of it (and can't guess from its title), is usually about debunking misconceptions and generally applying critical thought to controversial topics---in, of course, the characteristically blunt and comedic tone of the magician/comedian duo.

In a society that's often plagued with inept understanding and misrepresentation of video games on television, it's nice to see some people actually treat the "violent video game" controversy with sensibility and reason. In this episode, Penn & Teller interview Jack Thompson (the industry-opposing activist against violent video games) and get opinions from people on both side of the argument, basically concluding for themselves that violent video games aren't the real problem when it comes to real world violence.

It's a fun, entertaining watch that might also give you some new thoughts and perspectives on the issue. I don't have much of my own analysis for this one because the real analysis is done in the episode, but there are a few points Penn & Teller missed that I'll go ahead and highlight. My own thoughts (and the embedded link to the episode) come after the jump.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Indie Platforming Two'fer: Depict1 and Loved

In a holiday season that emphasizes good behavior for just rewards, it's especially fun to play two indie platformers where breaking the rules and disobeying authority is sometimes the only way to get ahead.

Depict1 (top left) has a slightly "Portal" feel about it, with you essentially going through test chamber puzzles guided by a disembodied voice. The voice gives you instructions on how to play, but the question arises very early on whether or not you can trust his/her/its advice, when it gives you clearly incorrect information that does nothing or just straight-up kills you. Between reverse psychology and outright lies, the game goes into a metaphysical realm that almost defies the conventions of ordinary video games.

Loved (bottom right) gives you the freedom to obey or disobey the voice's commands. Following orders causes the game's visuals to become clear and detailed, while disobeying turns the visuals into crude blocks and distortion. The voice rejects you from the very beginning, declaring you the opposite gender of whatever you picked, and when asked if you want a tutorial, you'll either be denied one (if you said "yes") or be told "you will fail" (if you said "no"). The nature of the voice (and indeed, the game) changes depending on your choices.

The thematic exploration of both games is very similar, in each case offering a unique twist on the way you play the game. Depict1 can be played on Newgrounds or on Kongregate; Loved can be played on Newgrounds or on Kongregate.

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Top 10 Horror Games

Horror is a tricky genre; it's really easy to get your game billed as "horror," just by throwing zombies and blood into it, but the best horror games are the ones that evoke a genuine feeling of dread, discomfort, and, well, horror. A lot of so-called "horror" games aren't really scary or horrifying, and it always boggles my mind that these faux horror games always top the mainstream "best horror games" lists.

So here's my pick of the games that best capture the essence of horror. As an added bonus, I'll even throw in a couple of honorable mentions to titles that accomplish some of the crucial aspects of horror, despite not being full-on horror games.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November Was a Slow Month for Posting

And yet it was my most active month yet, traffic-wise, bringing in over 50% more hits than last month. Losing both of your computers within a week of each other can throw a wrench in your routines; consequently I only posted seven articles in the month of November, and two of them were about my computers dying. So to commemorate my 7 articles in November, I'm going to describe 7 of the top November 2011 releases in exactly 7 words, none of which I've actually played. 

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Hopefully not as overrated as Oblivion was.

Click the full article for the rest of my concisely poignant and descriptive opinions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Despair in Life and Death: Wither

What's this? More GameBoy graphics on the almighty PC? Surely a modern PC can handle better graphics than the 1989 portable gaming brick, right? Well, yes, they can, but this is a design choice called style. I guess.

Wither is a free RPG Maker game by Rastek. It's a short adventure game where your only goal is to collect 12 flowers to place on your recently-deceased brother's gravestone. There's no combat or any other tricky nonsense, you just explore the small town, talk to people, find clues, and collect flowers. The game design is intelligent, with sufficient clues to guide you through without obvious solutions, but the story (or premise, perhaps the better term) is the real hook as you try to figure out what happened and what's going on.

This one is open to interpretation, meaning that a lot of its meaning comes from your own thoughts and reactions. These kinds of games have a tendency to come off as pretentious, but I don't get that vibe from Wither: it's a solid game with enough cranial stimulation to make it worth recommending. (It takes about 30 minutes to play.) My own analysis comes after the jump.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Great Games You Never Played: Killing Floor

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

On the surface, Tripwire Interactive's Killing Floor is a lot like Valve's Left 4 Dead series: multi-player first-person shooter survival co-op with zombies. Except that Killing Floor is actually much deeper than L4D, requiring more tact, strategy, skill, teamwork, and experience to succeed. Killing Floor boasts more enemy types that all function differently, a greater quantity and variety of weapons to use, and a class system that has players performing different roles in the group. To top it all off, Killing Floor has superior "in your face" gunplay that simply proves more cathartic than what you can find in any other co-op zombie-killing game.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Smashing Good Time: Super Smash Land

In an ever-popular avenue of indie games development wherein people "demake" classic games for older consoles, Dan Fornace has given us Super Smash Land, a free "GameBoy rendition" of the Super Smash Bros. franchise. Everything about it screams nostalgia, harkening back to the good old days of the early 90s portable gaming scene and the usual fun of smashing classic Nintendo characters to bits. Super Smash Land is definitely worth some of your time; it's impressive and fun, but I do have some minor nitpickings to lay against it. Video footage and my full run-down after the jump.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Another Computer Bites the Dust

A little more than a week after my laptop fried itself and became completely useless, I dug out my old desktop computer that I had custom assembled back in 2004/2005. I dusted everything off and it booted up just fine, except that the CPU seemed bogged down with a bunch of software and processes that I don't remember putting on there. Since I hadn't reinstalled the OS in all the time I'd had that computer, I thought maybe it was time for a fresh start---reformat the drive and start new.

Well I couldn't find my Windows XP (Home Edition) disc, so I borrowed one from my brother and proceeded to reinstall the OS like usual. Formatted the hard-drive for a clean installation, thereby wiping out the old installation and all of the cluttered file systems on the drive; installation went fine. And then when it prompted me for my license key, I entered the key from the sticker on my case and it told me it was not valid. Reinstallation of Windows XP came to a crashing halt.

So now I'm left with two completely useless, inert computers. The hardware on the laptop is fried and the software on the desktop refuses to cooperate. I'm not even sure what the problem is with the desktop, since I'm using a valid key and using the same disc version as my OS. I may have to resign myself to calling Microsoft tech support in the morning, but until then I'm left with nothing to do but cry myself to sleep, if my brain doesn't have an aneurysm before then.

I mean, why wouldn't it verify that I have a valid key BEFORE reformatting the drive? At least that way I could've determined that I had a problem and still had a functional PC. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Video Games in TV: Full House

I don't have very much to say about this one. In this season 8, episode 9 of Full House, Michelle plays a fictional Super Nintendo game, "Montezano's Quest," which she says is a "very complicated game that takes timing, skill, and plenty of brain power." So when she naturally fails (and the sophisticated voice-over system declares "YOU HAVE FAILED! AH HA HA!"), she turns to uncle Jesse for help, and pretty soon all of the adults are engrossed in the video game. We never see the game in action and only hear obscure things about the gameplay (intergalactic wombats, power biscuits, hyper punches, trolls, and enchanted kayaks). The whole affair ends with Michelle forcefully ripping the cartridge out of the console, instead of just pressing the "eject" button like any sensible person who takes care of their electronics.

So what kind of video game could Montezano's Quest be? Is it the hokey sequel to Montezuma's Revenge? What other whacky things are we missing out on that we never see or hear about in the episode?

Interestingly enough, the ninth episode of the eighth season of The Cosby Show also featured a subplot with children playing a video game that the adults eventually become obsessed with. Although the Cosby Show's version isn't nearly as fun or developed as Full House's. Coincidence?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Up is Down: Do You Invert the Mouse's Y-Axis?

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen a few posts in forums for specific games with people outraged over there being no option to invert the mouse's vertical axis. In most cases, they say that it's the most logical way to control with the mouse. Which boggled my mind, because even though I invert the y-axis with joysticks, it's never even occurred to me to invert the vertical axis on a mouse.

I grew up playing flight sims (X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, which I used a joystick for) where "up is down" is the natural, logical way to control your craft. Even with first-person games, when I'm playing on a controller, I perceive the joystick as my character's head; pulling back on the stick translates to looking up with my character's eyes. With third-person games I invert the camera controls by default, because I envision an actual camera that I'm physically moving around to set up a frame.

But with a mouse, I've never inverted the vertical axis. It seems only natural that up would be up with a mouse. Unlike joysticks, the mouse moves on a flat plane; it doesn't move in a three-dimensional space. On the desktop screen, if you want to move your mouse cursor up, you move the mouse forward, and so if you want to aim the barrel of your gun up, you move the mouse forward. That's just the way I've always done it. 

Can anyone actually justify why you would invert the vertical axis on the mouse, especially in a first-person game?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Spelunking for Treasure and Damsels

Spelunky, a free indie game by Derek Yu, may be the most addicting game I've played in a long while. A 2D platformer/roguelike, your goal is to make it to the bottom of each level, collecting as much treasure as you can and rescuing damsels along the way, all while avoiding traps and enemies. The levels are randomly generated to be unique every time, which is essential because the game's challenging difficulty means that you will die. A lot. And that's what makes it so damn fun. Throw in some interesting items and a monetary system, and you've got a game that keeps bringing you back for "just one more try."

For the more detailed description, continue reading the full article.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Horrors: My Laptop Fried Itself

In the midst of a fun-filled night of playing through Frictional Games' Penumbra: Overture, an indie horror game to match the theme of the holiday, my laptop froze up as if the display drivers had crashed and then failed to recover thereafter. Every time I try to boot up the laptop, I'm stuck with a glitched-out display, and no evidence suggests that it's even making it to the Windows loading screen (I never hear the startup sound).

I tried hooking up two different external monitors to no avail, and can't even boot up in safe mode. Which leaves me concerned that something is totally fried, maybe the GPU or the motherboard---perhaps meaning that the entire laptop is beyond repair.

This is sad news, especially since I don't have the money to replace it; I'll have to revert back to my seven year old desktop and relive the good old days of block-model characters with permanent fist-hands, blob shadows, and static lighting. It might seem too rough for me to handle, but I'm comforted by the knowledge that games were better back then. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Great Games You Never Played: Lineage 2

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

Lineage 2 may have been fated for obscurity from the beginning, if only for carrying the dreaded stigma of being a "Korean MMO," but it also didn't help that EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft were just around the corner. Either way, L2 never achieved mainstream popularity in the West. If you were too busy playing some kind of sissy MMO, then you missed out on the most hardcore online game of them all: PVP everywhere, clan wars and politics, 400-person castle sieges, and a huge, huge level cap.

Unlike some other great games that you never played, where you can still go back and experience their glory, this one is too late to get into, as the online community is almost assuredly dead. If not, then the player-base is assuredly well over level 80 and it'll take you way too long to catch up. But L2 was an excellent MMO in its time, and deserves a retrospective spotlight for its unique gameplay accomplishments.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Right on Time: A Very Killing Floor Halloween

Just the other day I was complaining to a friend about there not being a "Halloween Event" for Killing Floor, the 6-player online cooperative zombie-killing first-person shooter. Considering that they've already done a Christmas event and a summer event, you'd think that Halloween would be the perfect holiday for a survival-horror game. Well it looks like the good folks at Tripwire Interactive heard my complaints and managed to put out a Halloween event after all. Huzzahs all around!

But is it any good? Does it capitalize on the vast potential of the season? Does it rekindle my interest in the online community, full of compelling desire to decapitate specimens and to be destroyed by raging fleshpounds?  Find out after the jump.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don't Forget to Play Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia: The Dark Descent, by Frictional Games (they of the Penumbra series), may be the scariest game ever. So scary that I've forgotten my own name. Fortunately for me, it's printed at the bottom of each of these articles, so I can easily solve the mystery of my forgotten identity. But the rest of you will have to do it the hard way by risking your sanity in the dark abyss. 

Amnesia is an intelligent game that has a firm grasp of what makes horror scary. Making the player defenseless gives you reason to be anxious about your environment; the less you see of a monster, the more your imagination takes over; climactic moments work best with a slow and steady build-up. On top of the well-crafted horror, Amnesia boasts intelligent puzzles, interesting scenery, and a fairly intriguing story. 

Seriously, this is one of those games that comes along and changes everything. You may forget your own name, but don't forget to play this game. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Video Games in TV: Killer Instinct

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV

No, not the video game. This comes from an obscure television series that I never even heard of until it was randomly referenced in a google hit. Killer Instinct is a typical crime drama that only lasted a single season. This seventh episode, "Game Over," follows the typical formula of "psychotic gamers start playing a violent video game for real," complete with the typical stereotyping I've come to expect from these kinds of episodes. 

This episode doesn't display a lot of actual gameplay footage that I can make fun of, but the way the cops perceive gamers is pathetic, and the way they handle the investigation is almost equally absurd. All of the dialogue reeks of nonsense, and it even goes for the "video game violence causes real world violence" angle, which only further inhibits my ability to take it seriously. So let's get into the specifics and have a good laugh, shall we?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid: Super Cult Tycoon 2

Here's a free indie game by Eddie Cameron and Robert Yang (now of Altercation). In Super Cult Tycoon 2, your mission is to start a religious cult and summon the mothership before the FBI can shut you down. This creative idea blends elements of tower defense, tycoon, and real-time strategy with you using resources (Kool-Aid, manpower, and money) to build your society. The bigger your cult grows, the more suspicious the feds get, requiring you to spend more of your resources diverting their attention and fending them off until the final count-down.

Super Cult Tycoon 2 has some technical and design problems that leave it far from perfection, but the gameplay proves to be pretty fun, and that makes it worth checking out. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nature Treks: Healing with Bloom and Saturation

Feeling a little stressed out? Anxious about that big event tomorrow morning? Tired of looking at the same slate-gray city sidewalks all the time? Can't remember the last time you saw an honest-to-goodness tree? Then it might be time for you to go on a calm, relaxing walk through a mountain pasture.

Nature Treks: Healing with Color is a free Unity-based project by John Carline (of Greener Games) that aims to offer a relaxing, therapeutic gameplay experience. Its current build features two gameplay modes: a "trek" where you walk around collecting colored orbs, and an "auto trek" that lets you sit back and watch as the camera moves through the environment on its own.

As an interactive "game," Nature Treks leaves quite a lot to be desired, but taken as an interactive "therapy device," it shows some promise. If nothing else, the audio and visual experience is certainly quite relaxing and might be worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Grotesquely Obnoxious: Tactics

Grotesque Tactics: Evil Heroes, an independent game by Silent Dreams, bills itself as a "satirical RPG" that "pokes fun at" the well-worn tropes and cliches of popular strategy-RPGs and action-RPGs. When its description specifically mentioned Gothic as one of its targets for parody, I was all for a humorous tongue-in-cheek adventure that would make fun of my favorite game.

But it turns out that Grotesque Tactics isn't that much of a satire or a parody. Its jokes are worth a slight chuckle at first, but the amusement quickly wears off once you realize that its only way of satirizing the genre is to make you play obnoxiously exaggerated renditions of all of the wearisome aspects of the genre. It references a few games here and there, but only in oblique ways that don't relate to anything at all.

Besides that, the gameplay of Grotesque Tactics is pretty rough around the edges with bugs, glitches, random crashes, camera issues, targeting issues, interface issues, typos, and so forth. On top of that, for a game that's billed as a "tactics" game, there's not a lot of strategy or tactics involved. So putting "tactics" in the title may not be totally appropriate, but the experience certainly could be called "grotesque." More after the jump.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Black Lodge Annihilates Your Imperfect Soul

Black Lodge 2600, a retro pixel-art game by Jak Locke, would suck if it weren't intentionally trying to suck. Inspired by David Lynch's 1990 television series Twin Peaks, you play as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, trapped in the Black Lodge fleeing from his doppelganger. It's designed to feel like an actual old-school game, complete with a manual that explains the controls in terms of the Atari joystick, with keyboard controls scribbled in with pen. And that's where most of its charm comes into play (that and the whole Twin Peaks thing), but the actual gameplay can be very difficult and frustrating. Which I suppose is faithful to Atari-era gameplay.

Gameplay mostly consists of getting from one side of a room to another, avoiding obstacles like flying chairs, screaming Laura Palmers who invert your controls, statues that you can only pass by blocking its line of sight, and other such treacherous terrors. The longer you survive, the more obstacles you face in each room; suffice it to say, things get cluster****ed very quickly. The whole game is kind of surreal, like what you'd expect from a Twin Peaks game, but it's difficult to recommend unless you're a real fan of the show, otherwise the content and its references won't make any sense to you. It's available for free download (PC and Mac) here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Great Games You Never Played: Gothic

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

In 2001, Piranha Bytes created the pinnacle of action-adventure-RPGs: Gothic. Set in a magically-encapsulated prison colony where criminals are sent to mine magic ore for the war against the orcish armies, the convicts have revolted against the King's guards and now run the colony in anarchy. You play as a nameless convict who's just been tossed into the barrier. Initially tasked with delivering a message to the magicians at the castle, you become a key figure in trying to bring down the magical barrier and in stopping an event that threatens to kill everyone in the colony.

Besides the wonderfully unique setting and premise, Gothic also boasts some of the most compelling gameplay ever. Carving your way up the ranks in a hostile dog-eat-dog prison, where strong beasts and monsters also roam, everything is dangerous and there's always a challenge waiting for you. It's a game that doesn't hold your hand, with death and treacherous enemies around every corner; leveling up and getting stronger is its own reward as you become better-equipped to brave the non-linear, free-roaming world of the colony. Its attention to detail also make it one of the most atmospheric, immersing game worlds ever.

If you're still not convinced of Gothic's supremacy in the world of western RPGs, continue reading for the more detailed description of its feats and strengths, with some embedded gameplay videos to illustrate.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More Like Project L.A.M.E.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is pretty much a disgrace compared to the original F.E.A.R. Gone are the intelligent, tactical fights, gone is the creepy horror atmosphere, gone is my fun. Project Origin just feels like a lame, phoned-in sequel that didn't even try to innovate like the first game did. I've got a laundry list of problems with it, but the big issues are the combat and the horror atmosphere, the two things that are supposed to be the most important aspects of this series. Overall, it's still an enjoyable game, but as a fan of the original, and as a fan of good, intelligent games, I'm obliged to call it out for its failures.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Video Games in TV: CSI Miami

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

Season 4, Episode 9: "Urban Hellraisers" is as bad as they get. This episode follows the cliched "deluded gamers go on a killing spree because they think they're still playing a video game" premise, while the detectives use the video game as their main source of intelligence to apprehend the killers. Tax dollars at work. I think this episode may actually be more insulting to police detectives than gamers, just because of the team's over-reliance on coincidental logic. It's still rife with negative gaming stereotypes and fallacious misconceptions, mind you, so continue reading for the rest of the breakdown. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

All of the Dragon Age DLC Campaigns Suck

Golems of Amgarrak: The whole thing is over way too quickly, and it's not tied to anything relevant or interesting so it's hard to care about what's going on. Also, back-tracking with the different "color switches" was annoying. But at least it was actually challenging.

Leliana's Song: Alright, this one's actually pretty good. It's nice to get some backstory for a character that actually mattered in the core game, and it even has all the elements that make DA:O fun, like dialogue, looting, leveling-up, allocating skills, and an actual story.

Darkspawn Chronicles: It's almost impossible for me to care about winning a hypothetical battle as a darkspawn vanguard, especially when the entire thing is just straight-up combat. And the combat's not even fun because you're low-level and just use the same skillsets as an average warrior. 

Witch Hunt: It doesn't last very long, and most of the game is basically fulfilling an arbitrary side-quest that has nothing to do with Morrigan. She makes a brief appearance at the end, but it does nothing to satisfy our curiosity about what she's been up to and offers zero resolution to her character arc. Oh, and all of the locations are recycled.

So, yeah.... color me unimpressed. But at least I'm finally done with all things Dragon Age.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Help! There's a Cutscene in my Horror Game!

Cutscenes can help accent a dramatic situation, but they inevitably take control away from the player. That's especially problematic in survival horror games, the very essence of which is (supposed to be) tension. You're supposed to feel vulnerable and fear for your well-being, which is usually accomplished through the "survival" aspect. And then the cutscenes break the tension because you know that whatever happens is beyond your control; you just passively watch it. And that's no good.

Continue reading for examples of how horror works in Silent Hill 2, and how the cutscenes contribute (or detract) from that horror. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Awakening is Halfway Decent

Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening had potential to be a good expansion, but its execution leaves it a little mired. It amounts to mostly "more of the same," which would be a good thing if I were completely enamored with the original game. But since I grew weary of my time in the first game, playing the expansion didn't do much to rekindle my interests. It has its moments, certainly, but it's nothing particularly great. So I'll just run a quick list of things I liked and disliked in Awakening, after the jump. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Top 20 Video Game Soundtracks

"Top 20" is kind of misleading, because I don't even want to begin trying to rank these. But it wouldn't be very stylish to call this a "List of 20 Great Arbitrarily-Ranked Video Game Soundtracks," would it? In fact, it might not even be 20 soundtracks at all, as I'm almost certain I'll suddenly remember one or two more as soon as I post this.

The criteria for selecting these soundtracks is based primarily on how well I could remember music five, ten, fifteen years after playing the games. I looked over my shelves and collections of games just trying to see if I could remember anything about the music, and these are the 20 that I actually have lasting memories of. And that, I feel, is perhaps more important than a soundtrack's technical merits.

Continue reading the full article for my pick of top 20 video game soundtracks, complete with four embedded tracks from each of the games. Can you guess which games and songs will be featured?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Great Games You Never Played: Obscure

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

Talk about obscure games, am I right? They don't get any more obscure than Hydravision Entertainment's 2004 premiere Obscure (or ObsCure if you ain't got no understanding of how them there English grammaticals work), a good old-fashioned survival-horror game in the same vein as the original Resident Evil. This isn't a sissy game like Resident Evil 5 or Dead Space; this is hardcore survival-horror, complete with limited saves, weird camera angles, obscure puzzles, and more enemies than bullets or healing items. 

Not only is Obscure a faithfully functional rendition of the classic formula, it's got enough style to make it stand out from the crowd. You control up to five different high school stereotypes who've gotten trapped inside of Leafmore High while trying to find their missing friend. Each of the characters has unique abilities that aid your gameplay in different ways, and when a character dies, s/he's dead for good. (Unless you reload a save.) The campaign also boasts a strong two-player co-op that lets you and a friend play on the same screen. 

And if that's not enough to sell it to you, it features music by Sum 41 and Span, as you can read for yourself on the front of the box. Seriously, this is one you don't want to miss. More about Obscure after the jump.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins is a Bloody Long Game

What is there to say about Dragon Age: Origins that hasn't already been said? There's a ton of content to experience, lots of dialogue, lots of loot, lots of blood, lots of quality polish, and not so many dragons. It's probably the most "old school" RPG we've seen in the last few years (or at least the most successful one), and that alone makes it a very compelling game. But despite its many great features and overall high quality experience, DAO still suffers from typical BioWare shenanigans that leave me to say that it's merely "pretty good." 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Video Games in TV: South Park

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

I must be scraping the bottom of the barrel if I'm turning to South Park for video games in TV. The season 10 episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft" deviates from the typical formula of video game episodes because it's not a crime drama using video games as the murder mystery, and it's not one of those "trapped in a virtual reality game" cliches. Instead, our heroes---the boys of South Park, Colorado---must stop the killing spree of a high-level, powerful player who has transcended the rules of the game and become stronger than the admins themselves.

There's really not much to say about this episode. I'm sure most gamers have already seen it, and once you watch it all of the jokes make sense. There's no commentary to be had except laughing along with the jokes and nodding in agreement at the satirical portrayal of WOW and its playerbase. I've only played WOW for about 30 minutes one time, but thanks to the Internet and gaming stereotypes, I know everything there is to know about WOW; this episode is accessible to non-gamers a real treat for gamers, thanks to the fidelity of the machinima animation from the in-game models. 

Instead of writing a critique or commentary, I'm just going to post some of the quotes that I found most amusing, along with pictures and things of the like. Continue reading for the quotes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pretentious Dialogue Trees

I've noticed that some dialogue trees (specifically those in BioWare games) offer the illusion of depth and complexity, but then betray their shallowness in practice. Conversations give you various response options, but in most situations they have very little effect on anything at all. In the more expository sections, your response only affects the very next line the NPC says, and then they go right into talking about the other topics you didn't prompt. It only affects the order in which information is presented to you, having zero resemblance to an actual conversation and ultimately making your input pointless.

There are a lot of other, more minor issues that bother me with some of theses dialogue trees. Continue reading for more about what's wrong with them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

15 Minutes of Espionage: Gravity Bone

In Brandon Chung's Gravity Bone (of Blendogames), you play as a spy in two simple missions: poisoning someone's drink and delivering it to him, and taking photographs of mechanical birds. It's in first-person with block-style graphics, and even a little bit of first-person platforming. The gameplay is pretty straightforward (functional and intuitive), and it's over fairly quickly (almost prematurely, it seems), but it's enjoyable enough while it lasts. The ambiguity of its ending sequence lends itself to artistic interpretation, if you're so inclined. Even if you're not, it's an interesting concept nonetheless. Get it for free here

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lost in Ruins

Ruins, a free indie game by Jake Elliott of Cardboard Computer, is about many things---music, life, aging, relationships, dreams, art---all told through the perspective of a dog chasing rabbits in a dream. Best described as an "art game," Ruins is all about branching dialogue; the "story" shapes itself depending on how you respond in conversations. Respond with tired cynicism and the story becomes pessimistic; talk about things in your environment and the game explores those metaphors. You'll uncover different pieces of dialogue, depending on what you do, which makes the premise very intriguing as you start to figure out what's going on. All in all, Ruins is a delightful experience that you should consider checking out. More of my critique after the jump.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Console Commands: The Gateway Drug

The developer's console is a great tool that allows you to play around with game mechanics. You can activate cheats like "god mode," manipulate settings in the environment like gravity, adjust your stats, or even fix broken content like a glitched NPC. It's fun just because it empowers you to control the game more. However, it still amounts to cheating in most cases, and isn't something that's really recommended on a first playthrough unless it's really essential. Because once you start using it for one, specific purpose, you can't stop yourself from fiddling with everything else.

Monday, September 19, 2011

New Periodical: Great Games You Never Played

There are a lot of great games out there. You've probably played many of them. But there are a lot of great games that you probably didn't play, likely because you never heard of them or because they just weren't that popular. These games didn't sell well because the concept was too weird, or because of poor marketing, or because they were overshadowed by a mega-hit from an industry giant. But some of these games were truly excellent gaming experiences.

So this periodical will be something of a retrospective, digging up obscure games that deserve some attention, and describing what makes them worth playing. In most cases, these games offer unique gameplay that you just can't find in the popular mainstream hits. The games won't be too obscure, mind you---some games we never played for a good reason. These will be the good ones that you might want to consider actually playing, even today. Every so often I'll write about new game, so keep your eyes open.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

suteF is Pretty dooG

suteF is a free indie puzzle game that has a lot going for it. It's dark and weird, and the puzzles are very well designed. You play as a little blue man whose main objective is to reach the static-screened monitor in most of the levels, which must be done by flipping switches, pushing boxes, jumping onto ledges, and by utilizing gravity-inverters, screen wrap-around effects, and your grappling hook. All while avoiding certain death from laser beams and other nefarious obstacles. 

The puzzles are generally clever and challenging. The solutions aren't always obvious, which makes it satisfying to beat a stage and progress to the next one. Gravity-inversion isn't one of the most original concepts in a game, but the other unique elements of suteF keep it feeling fresh. On top of everything else, the atmosphere and general premise is enough to be intriguing with retaining some subtlety. It's worth a playthrough, certainly. You can get it here

Friday, September 16, 2011

Video Games in TV: Stargate SG-1

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

This season eight episode "Avatar" is yet another one of those all-too-common "trapped in a virtual reality video game" deals, but with a unique "Groundhog Day" twist. As Teal'c tries to stop a bridge security threat to beat the game, the game adjusts by adding new twists. Teal'c inevitably fails, restarting the game each time armed with new knowledge of what lies ahead, but the game is always one step ahead of him.

"Avatar" is a very self-contradicting episode. It doesn't do much to offend me as a gamer, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. The premise of the game, how it works, and how they finally beat the system are all too contrived to feel plausible for what is supposed to be a virtual reality training simulator.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good Indie Games Need a Good Hook

The hook is possibly the most important part of any game, because that's what determines if a player will continue playing past the introduction. The hook is supposed to intrigue the player with the premise, give him a sense of goals and directions, and set the stage for things to come. Above all, the pointy end of the hook is supposed to be the lure that compels you to keep playing this game, when you could be doing something else.

All games need to have a good hook, but I've found that it's especially true for these free indie games just because there are so many of them out there, and you haven't invested any money to justify your time with them. For examples of good hooks and further explanation, continue reading the full article after the jump.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Saving the Company is Hard Work

Saving the Company is a free indie flash game on Kongregate. The company is going under. You have one objective: save the company. Your objective is simple: break into a castle filled with random traps for no reason whatsoever and steal the treasure in the last room after defeating the boss and bring it back to save the company and stuff like that. These are the actual words of your character, who seems like he just wanted an excuse to play a video game. Sadly, you are not Boba Fett.

The gameplay is essentially a platformer/puzzler. You enter a castle and go through a series of rooms, each with some task to complete before progressing to the next room. Some of these are more traditional platforming tasks (avoid the spikes, avoid the lava, stay out of the dark spots), while others are a little more puzzley. The puzzles tend to be a riddle of sorts, some of which are fairly meta and require you to do things with your computer interface, instead of the game, specifically. So it's a fun, free way to spend a few minutes of your time. Play it here

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Defense of "Artistic Indie Games"

I recently stumbled upon two Destructiod articles in which Jim Sterling criticizes a number of "artsy fartsy" games. In summary, he says they're pretentious, self-righteous, and lack any redeeming quality in their gameplay. Ordinarily I would've disregarded this rant as a pretentious, self-righteous farce, just because it's Jim Sterling, but in the hundreds of comments that followed, a lot of people shared Jim's sentiments. I even found a few other articles and forum discussions with people up in arms over these games.

I don't understand why people are so intolerant. Is art not a free expression unchained by conventions and restrictions? Is beauty no longer in the eye of the beholder? Who says that games have to be necessarily "fun" to be enjoyable? Can we not appreciate something just for its aesthetic expression? If you're one of those who disdainfully looks down on games like The Path, then I think you've missed the point.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Great Philosophical Depth in the Infinite Ocean

Jonas Kyratzes' The Infinite Ocean is not remarkable for its gameplay (it's a standard point-n-click adventure), but its story is engaging and offers a lot of room for philosophical interpretation. It explores different aspects of artificial intelligence, asking us to reconsider our definitions of life, and wondering if it's possible for AI to actually be more "human" than humanity. The gameplay has a couple of problems, and there's an awful lot of reading involved, but the way the story unfolds kept me interested in continuing forward. If you have the patience to read a lot of text, and especially if you're interested in AI, then this game is worth playing. Continue reading for the rest of my review / analysis.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Hate Preliminary Character Creation

I don't like it when games forces me to make decisions about my character before I have any context to understand the effect of what I'm choosing. The decisions you make at the very beginning have long-lasting impacts that dictate how you'll be playing, when you don't have any grasp of how things work with this particular game. Several hours into some games, you might realize that you made a completely broken character, or you realize that certain playstyles are more fun than the one you chose. So I don't understand why games don't handle this aspect better.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Aliens vs Predator vs Boring

Rebellion's 2010 version of Aliens vs Predator feels like a less innovative version of their 1999 Aliens Versus Predator, and like a lamer version of Monolith's Aliens Versus Predator 2. There's almost nothing new or interesting going on here, it's just a modernized re-hash of everything we've already seen and done before. There are only five missions for each species, most of the combat breaks down to mindless click-fests, the missions themselves aren't varied, and it's just not that interesting. It's a shame, really. More about how boring it is after the jump.