Friday, March 30, 2012

Impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare recently held a free weekend trial event for Star Wars: The Old Republic, the new Star Wars MMORPG with an emphasis on single-player story-telling. As a fan of the original Knights of the Old Republic games (especially the one BioWare didn't make), I was fairly excited to see something new in the KOTOR line. I hopped on board and gave it a whirl, trying three different classes and leveling two of them up close to the limits of the free trial.

To put it simply, my experience with SWTOR was a repeating pattern of excitement followed by boredom. The problem, near as I can tell, is that it tries to be two different things -- a single-player role-playing game and a massively multiplayer online game -- without being especially good in either category. It's a novel mixture that can be very compelling at times, but the two elements sort of clash and trivialize each other. Consequently, I wasn't convinced to take the plunge and subscribe. Continue reading for the rest of my more-detailed thoughts and impressions.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Super Smash Bros: Melee is Better Than Brawl

The Super Smash Bros series has been a longtime staple of my party-gaming lineup. Ever since the original was released for the N64 way back in 1999, my friends and I have always enjoyed getting together to blast each other into oblivion as our favorite Nintendo characters. Playing Melee after we all got off work on weekends was a regular pastime. We played the hell out of that game.

Seven years later, Nintendo released Brawl for the Wii, and I found it uncomfortable and underwhelming. The physics of moving and attacking felt weird, there weren't very many new combat mechanics, and many of the new features were downright bad or just not that exciting. Going from the original to Melee in the span of about two years was a phenomenal upgrade, but going from Melee to Brawl felt more like a step backwards, which is made even more distressing by the seven year wait. 

I'm sure there are ardent tournament players who could argue that Melee has superior fighting mechanics, but I was never that hardcore to be able to explain the precise details. This article won't be a detailed analysis proving once and for all that Melee is better than Brawl, but is rather the thoughts of a casual player of the series who was disappointed with Brawl, and who finds Melee the more entertaining experience to this day. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Path vs Dear Esther vs The Stanley Parable

Art games are a bit of a controversial topic. On the one hand, they sometimes offer beautiful visuals with the potential for an emotionally moving experience. On the other hand, they sometimes don't offer anything resembling worthwhile gameplay. Balancing the two is always a difficult task, and many art games often wind up sacrificing one for the other, for better or for worse.

Since I've recently played a number of more prominent, artistic indie releases, I figured I'd examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of each one. How do indie games like The Path, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable compare to one another, and how does each one represent the "art game" genre? How can we improve future game design by learning from these three examples? Continue reading to find out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Narrating The Stanley Parable

*Note: this review article is of the 2011 HL2 mod. For my review article on the 2013 retail release, click here

The Stanley Parable tells the story of a man named Stanley, who works for a company where he's known only as "employee number 427." Every day, he sits at his desk in room 427 pushing buttons on a keyboard, following the commands that stream in through a monitor. He relishes this job, always happy to press the buttons when the orders arrive. But one day, the orders stopped coming in. Puzzled at this unusual circumstance, Stanley leaves his post to find out what's going on.

You assume control of Stanley as he gets up to leave his post, searching the building for answers. A narrator tries to tell Stanley's story a certain way, describing Stanley's thoughts and your actions. But given that you're in control of your perspective, you have the free will to follow his narration or to disregard him and do your own thing. Numerous junctions present themselves with two options, and the story branches into entirely different paths depending on your decisions.

The Stanley Parable is an intelligent bit of metafiction. It's a story about a story, told by a narrator who realizes this is a video game. It explores concepts of free will, gets you thinking a little more deeply about video game design, and offers some witty commentary on the process of playing a video game. It's one of the smartest mods I've ever played, and it's presented with lots of charming style, which makes it truly stand out as an exceptional source mod that is absolutely worth playing.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Video Games in TV: Video Roundup

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

Since I'm struggling a bit to find full-length episodes online (that I can watch for free), I figured maybe it's time to roundup a number of smaller clips that I caught on YouTube. They're each just a few minutes long -- not worth dedicating an entire article to, so instead we'll get several all at once. Embedded clips from Dexter, CSI: NY, The Big Bang Theory, and Seinfeld, with a special appearance from the movie Reign Over Me await in the full article with my brief commentary.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day One DLC: Why I'm Skeptical

A lot of people are getting irritated with "day one DLC" becoming a norm among AAA releases. The general idea is that you pay $60 for a game, and then they ask you to pay an extra $10 to get the "full experience," seemingly raising the cost to an outrageous $70. Some people feel like they're being cheated out of content that should have been included in the full game at no extra cost, and other people are just concerned about developers and publishers abusing their customers' trust with a fiendish scheme to pinch more money from your wallet.

I can't voice my opinion one way or the other, because I don't think I've ever bought a game on release day. This stuff doesn't affect me, personally, but I am wary of it. At the same time, I'm not sure I fully agree with some of the comments a former BioWare employee made in defense of day one DLC. As Christina Norman puts it, "There's no point in releasing DLC a year after your game has come out when most people have already sold your game back to GameStop three times."

That statement makes sense from a developer's standpoint, but I don't think it addresses the concerns of paying customers, while also justifying their DLC practices by almost (and very subtly) blaming retailers and their customers. It just feels more like an excuse to me, rather than a legitimate justification, and leaves me just as skeptical as I was before. More of my rambling thoughts on DLC after the jump.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dear Esther, Don't Come Back

* Note: this review is of the 2008 Half-Life 2 mod, not the 2012 retail release version.

How many years have I put off playing Dear Esther? Apparently four, by the looks of it, as the original Half-Life 2 mod was released back in 2008. When I first heard about it, I was intrigued. Experimental first-person narrative storytelling in a video game? A ghost story that emphasizes exploration and offers a uniquely haunting atmosphere? It sounded great, but for some reason I never played it. With the recent Steam release of a newer, updated version of the game, I thought maybe it was time to finally getting around to playing it.

And boy was it underwhelming. When the screen faded to black at the very end, my only thought was "that was it? This is the critically-acclaimed game everyone's been talking about all these years?" It does more than just "stretch" the definition of what constitutes a video game -- it brazenly defies it with practically zero interactivity. Even though the writing is rather poetic and the voiced narration is well-done, the story lacks any kind of narrative thrust. And so, I was not impressed with Dear Esther. More of my thoughts after the jump.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Great Games You Never Played: Pathologic

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

Pathologic may be the most unique and remarkable game I've ever played. Developed by the Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge in 2005, Pathologic plays kind of like a cross between Silent Hill and Morrowind. It takes elements from different genres (FPS, RPG, adventure, survival-horror) and blends them all into a uniquely weird, disturbing, glorious, compelling, brilliant, horrifying, surreal experience. Whereas most games strive to create bustling, life-like cities and locations, Pathologic instead offers a dying city.

You play as one of three possible main characters arriving in town just before a deadly plague breaks out. As the town falls into a quarantine state and the plague kills more and more people every day, your mission is to find a cure to the disease and escape with your life. You have 12 days to accomplish this, with each day bringing about new tasks and challenges that threaten your survival.

It's a wonderfully original premise that's also fleshed out with intelligent gameplay mechanics. The face of the city constantly changes as the plague sweeps through different districts and as people fall further into decay and madness. Your survival hangs on your ability to manipulate a brutally harsh economy while micromanaging limited resources. Staving off infection is not your only concern, however, as death can come just as easily at the hand of a madmen or from simple starvation.

The atmosphere this creates is simply phenomenal, with you really feeling (and seeing) the effects of the plague as you try to get by in this hellish scenario. I've never felt more vulnerable in even the most renowned of survival-horror games, and even the story offers a lot of intrigue and philosophical depth, if you can understand all that happens in this weird, twisted place. Pathologic is just such a monumental game, and it's a shame more people don't know about it. If you're in any way intrigued, continue reading to learn more.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Impressions of Payday: The Heist

Steam recently held a free weekend event for Payday: The Heist, an online co-op shooter about robbing banks and other such missions in the life of an organized gang of criminals. It plays a lot like Left 4 Dead, except instead of shooting zombies, you're shooting cops. Instead of getting incapacitated by hunters and smokers, you're getting incapacitated by special forces units called the "taser" and the "cloaker." Instead of having to make it to a safe house, you're (usually) trying to break into a sealed vault somewhere.

Payday has enough distinctions from the L4D series to make it feel fresh and interesting, and could certainly provide enough hours of entertainment to justify a purchase. The RPG-style leveling mechanics alone could ensure that there's enough incentive to stick around, but after four hours of playing, I wasn't quite ready to buy it. It's a really good game, nevertheless, that you still might consider checking out. More of my thoughts after the jump.