Sunday, January 29, 2012

In the Bleak of Winter: The Snowfield

There are certain kinds of games that warm my heart, even when their atmosphere is chilling my bones. The Snowfield is one of them. Everything about it makes me feel cold, vulnerable, and depressed as I wander through the stifling aftermath of a recent battlefield, clutching my wounds and fearful of freezing to death as I try to help the grieving and wounded soldiers around me. And yet there's something ever-so-slightly optimistic about it that, in the end, lifts me up from the grim bleakness that I feel from playing it.

Made by students of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, The Snowfield is really more of an experiment in video game design than it is an actual "game." It's an interactive experience with a primary goal/objective that you can fail to complete (and thus die), much like any other game, but its general presentation and mechanics might be a turn-off for some. But if you're the kind of person who values and appreciates atmosphere, then this is one you don't want to miss. It's free and can be played here, in your browser with the Unity Web Player plug-in. More of my thoughts after the jump.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Video Games in TV: Law & Order SVU (again)

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

In 2010, Law & Order: SVU took yet another stab at portraying gamers with the episode "Bullseye," in which two video game-obsessed parents neglect their ten year old daughter. Starved and desperate, she escapes their dirty apartment in search of food and gets violently raped by a pedophile. Detectives Stabler and Benson arrive on the scene to interrogate the parents and track down the rapist.

This episode is so bad that I didn't think I'd even be able to sit through it all. The video game stuff only plays a role in the first ten minutes, but this is the kind of ridiculous depiction where I had to pause the video every 15 seconds to make a note of how bad it was. Every line of dialogue, every scene of the game, everything. Just. So. Bad. Fortunately for you, you don't have to watch it. But if you're curious as to how bad it could really be, my break-down awaits in the full article.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Digital Distribution: Come on, Man

Last week I was looking to buy a new game ("less than a year old") to play on my new PC. While price shopping, I came to a surprising realization: the retail, physical copy for every game I was interested in was cheaper than a digital download version. Does this make any sense?

I thought digital distribution was supposed to be cheaper than retail, because they don't have to manufacture cases or print box art or manuals. I'm sure it costs money to host things on a server and pay for bandwidth and everything, but they don't have to pay shipping and stocking fees, either. It's like we're being charged for the convenience of a quick and easy download, or something.

So there I was, staring at prices and wondering what was going on. Cheaper prices are always going to sway the direction my wallet goes, but there are other more tangible reasons (literally) that make a physical copy more appealing, especially when the price difference is negligible, and reasons why I would never pay more for a digital version. More on digital distribution (and why it should always be cheaper), including price comparisons of the games I was looking at, after the jump.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

First Impressions of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Steam says that I have 10 hours logged in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyward, so now is as good a time as any to pause for a moment to articulate my first impressions.

The first thing I thought as I rode the wagon into town is that there must be post-it notes all over the walls at the Bethesda studio that say "Player must start every game as a prisoner." I mean seriously, is that the only way to introduce a character to your games' new worlds? Some guy always gets carted in from another realm (so that your ignorance of the lore and customs in the new land are reflected by your character) and put into a prison scenario (so that the game can force you into a confined, linear sequence as they show you the ropes of the gameplay).

The introductory sequence that follows is equally dumb when you consider that a dragon is flying around destroying the outpost, and yet everything waits for you to proceed to the next checkpoint before the next event happens. You just stand there and it's like time stands still with nothing happening, as if the whole game revolves around your every step (because it literally does). The guard stands there repeating the same lines of dialogue over and over and over again ("Check the treasure chest and let's get out of here." "This way! Come on!") as you twiddle your thumbs and kick crumbled bits of the palisades around.

But things do get better after that intro sequence is finally over with. Many more of my thoughts after the jump.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Introducing: My New Computer

The marvel of technology never ceases to amaze me. This is the cheapest computer I've ever bought, and yet it's two or three times as fast as my old one. The one that died, at least. This new build is miles ahead of the computer I'd been limping by on for the last two months.

I bought all of the components for this new PC (except the monitor, which was a Christmas present, and the 5.1 speakers, which I bought back in 2005) and assembled everything with the help and supervision of my brother. This was the first time I'd put a PC together myself, and everything went smoothly. So just to indulge myself I'll be posting the specs and screenshot comparisons of Killing Floor on my old PC vs my new PC, after the jump.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Abobo's Big Adventure Does it All

Do you remember the 1980s, back when arcades were still immensely popular and the concept of the home gaming console was just entering people's understanding? If so, then you should play Abobo's Big Adventure. Even if you don't remember that glorious decade, I'm sure the history books have taught you all you need to know to appreciate this game.

Abobo is a tribute to the classic Nintendo Entertainment System that hit the US in 1985 (and 80s pop culture in general). You play as Abobo on a quest to rescue his kidnapped son, Aboboy, by playing through eight NES-themed levels. Each level has its own unique gameplay styles much like the games they reference, such as Double Dragon, Zelda, Contra, Mega Man, Super Mario Bros, and Pro Wrestling (among others). Just watch the trailer, and everything will seem right in the world.

Abobo is a real treat to play. Its gameplay styles are all wonderfully faithful to the source material while also adding enough stylistic twists to keep the game interesting. Not to mention, Abobo is just a fun character to control, and the humor, animation, and design make his adventure absolutely worth playing. You can play it on its own website or on Newgrounds for free. 

It's also worth mentioning that I had only ever played about a half-dozen NES games in my life (Duck Hunt, Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, etc), and yet I was still able to enjoy Abobo's Big Adventure and pick up on most of its references. So that just goes to show you that it really is quite good at what it's going for. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Interactive Storytelling

Having recently played Metroid: Other M (and being rather disappointed with it), I felt a yearning to return to the brilliance of the Prime trilogy. So I dusted off my Echoes disc and started a new game. The differences between Other M and Prime are numerous, but one major thing I picked up on right away was how the two games go about telling their respective stories.

Other M tells its story with long, elaborate cutscenes, which serve for Samus to narrate all of the exposition and to describe the finer nuances of the plot. We watch and listen as the game tells us its story. Prime tells its story mostly by having the player scan things in the environment and read the subsequent scan results. Prime asks us to be more involved in its storytelling.

Naturally, I prefer the style used in Prime. That's not to say that cutscenes are inherently bad, but relying too heavily on them ruins the interactivity that you're supposed to get from video games. I could use this as a platform solely to bash Other M, but I want to make a broader point about how games can tell better stories. In the full article, I also use examples from The Elder Scrolls and Portal, and how they use NPCs and the environment to tell their stories, respectively.

Friday, January 13, 2012

How Low Can You Go: Limbo

So let's talk about Limbo. It's an award-winning indie platformer about a boy in limbo. He encounters all kinds of dark horrors on his quest, solving puzzles and avoiding the many, many death traps that lay in wait. Or, in my case, hitting every single death trap. Multiple times. And having to buy a new keyboard because it got smashed to bits in an unrelated incident involving the wall and projectile force.

Limbo is a difficult game that has you dying constantly. Some people praise its difficulty as being uniquely challenging in a world of games that hold your hand too much. It's definitely true that mainstream games are a little on the easy side, but that doesn't make Limbo's difficulty necessarily good. It borders on the gray area between satisfying and tedious, leaving the game a mixed bag of fun and frustration. Which, coupled with other major problems, leaves me disgruntled with this art game.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Video Games in TV: Law & Order Criminal Intent

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

Do I really have to sit through another one of these? This episode was especially unbearable. It doesn't get a whole lot overtly wrong, but the whole thing is just so boring.

Season 3 of Law & Order: Criminal Intent had an episode called "F.P.S." that, surprisingly, wasn't about first-person shooters (or should that be "unsurprisingly," considering how little these shows understand about gaming?). A bunch of money goes missing and a young woman gets thrown off of her balcony. Somehow it all gets traced back to a team of video game developers; apparently one of them was jealous about how the other guy spent his time and concocted a convoluted conspiracy to eliminate a third party. Detectives Goren and Bishop rush to the scene of the awkward, yawn-inducing love triangle.

As usual, a run-down of the episode with pictures, video, and commentary awaits in the full article.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Great Games You Never Played: STALKER

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

The STALKER games (in order: Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, and Call of Pripyat) are somewhat unique in the realm of first-person shooters. Whereas most shooters are content to be linear corridor-crawlers with heavily scripted action sequences, STALKER goes for a non-linear open-world formula based on quests, inventory management, and exploration. This alone makes the STALKER games a rare gem, but they also feature some of the best atmosphere you'll ever experience in any game.

Set in the irradiated "zone" surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the radiation and fallout from its fictitious second melt-down have caused biological mutations in the local wildlife. All kinds of hazardous, supernatural anomalies litter the environment. The zone is a dark, hostile place that only scientists, scavengers, and mercenaries dare to brave. You play an amnesiac adventurer who has to venture into this twisted, mutated wasteland with one simple objective: kill a man named Strelok.

STALKER has it all: tight, sophisticated shooting mechanics; conventional RPG elements like quests, inventory management, exploration, and NPC interaction; and a rich, thick atmosphere that sucks you into its dynamic world that simply breathes with life (and chokes in decay). STALKER is an effort of ambition that's unmatched by any other game; it tried to be something different, and succeeded at being something more. If you've never experienced the glory of STALKER, then perhaps it's time you did. More after the jump.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Top 10 From 2011: Best Reviews

In which I highlight some of my best articles from 2011. Shameless self-promotion with a chance to get some of my favorite pieces back on the front page. Huzzah.

Just to round out a solid trifecta, this time I'll be ranking ten of my best reviews. These won't be the ten best games I covered, because a lot of the games I covered sucked, quite frankly. These are the ten reviews that I had the most fun writing, and which I feel are some of the more descriptive and analytical ones. Exempt from this list are any reviews I wrote of free indie games, since I've got a separate list linking back to those articles. Click the full article for the full list.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Top 10 From 2011: Best Editorials

In which I highlight some of my best articles from 2011. Shameless self-promotion with a chance to get some of my favorite pieces back on the front page. Huzzah.

This time around I'll be ranking ten of my favorite editorials, those opinion pieces where I rant with divine authority on the industry: what's wrong with it, what needs to change, things that are good and we need to see more of, etc. I apparently had a lot of opinions back when I started this blog; here are some of the more interesting ones that also tend to have more original ideas and analysis than what other critics come up with. Click the full article for the full list.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Top 10 From 2011: Free Indie Games

It's that time of year when everyone reflects on the year's greatest achievements and ranks them in order of their success. Since I hardly ever play new releases, I can't compile a list of the top ten releases from 2011. Instead, I'll be highlighting some of my best articles from 2011. Shameless self-promotion with an opportunity to get some of my favorite pieces on the front page again. Huzzah.

I played a lot of free indie games in the past year. Most of them were pretty good, but some of them were a lot more memorable than others. Some of them had that extra spark of creativity to make them truly unique and original. Some of them were just a lot more fun than the rest. Not all of these games were released in 2011, but here are my top ten favorite free indie games that I covered in 2011. Click the full article for the list.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

First Impressions of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I had the opportunity recently to play about an hour's worth of Skyrim Sword, which was all it took for me to conclude that the newest Zelda game completely sucks. Well, I'd need much more time to come to that conclusion, really, but there were a couple of things that failed to impress me with the game's introduction sequence.

First on the list of stupid things I noticed is that this town in the sky is called "Skyloft." Seriously? They couldn't come up with a more original name than Skyloft? We already know from the game's title and every other detail of this game's release that it's set in the sky, does the starting town really need to be called Skyloft? For a society that treats living on islands in the sky as the mundane norm, you'd think they would have a less ostentatious name. It'd be like if I called my house "Brickdwelling"---it's not a name, it's just a dumb description of what it is.

More of my nitpicking awaits in the full article, after the jump.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Big Thumbs Down for Metroid: Other M

Changing the formula of a 25-year old series can be a much-needed breath of fresh air when all of its conventions begin to feel too tried. Sometimes change can be very beneficial, such as the case with Metroid Prime, which took a 2D side-scrolling series and made it into a fully 3D, first-person perspective with resounding success. Sometimes, however, the changes just don't work, and you end up with a game that doesn't capture the magic of its original formula, nor the refreshment of its new direction.

Such is the case with Metroid: Other M, a joint effort by Nintendo, Team Ninja, and D-Rockets to blend the gameplay styles of the first-person "Prime" trilogy with the side-scrolling platforming of the originals, with a newly prominent emphasis on narrative and backstory. Some of the new elements and twists work pretty well, but a slew of other problems drag the game's few prime achievements down into oblivion.

Plenty of criticism has already been leveled against Other M, but most of the professional reviewers only complain about Samus's characterization in the new story/backstory, and nitpick a few other problems (like the awkward control scheme). In the end, they still gave high praises to Other M, when the game doesn't deserve anything more than a mediocre "middle of the road" score.

Other M was a nice experiment, but the results are not worth praising. Besides the big issues mentioned above, there are a lot of smaller details and problems that ultimately make the game feel bland, generic, and soulless--almost a chore to play. It's nice to see Nintendo taking risks with such a staple franchise, but I hope they learn the lessons from this one and refine the experimentation process in their next release. More of my review / analysis after the jump.