Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bundle in a Box - The Adventure Bundle

In case there's anyone reading my blog who somehow hasn't heard from a more prominent source, allow me to make a quick plug for Kyttaro Games' recent launch of a new "pay what you want" bundle of adventure games, the Bundle in a Box. For a minimum asking price of $1.79 (with the price set to drop even further as more bundles are purchased), you can get: Gemini Rue, The Sea Will Claim Everything, Ben There, Dan That!, Time Gentlemen, Please!, and 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. If you beat the (current) average price of $5.76, you also get: Metal Dead and The Shivah -- seven games for one low price.

Purchasing the bundle will give immediate access to direct downloads (100% DRM-free), and you'll also receive Steam and Desura keys for applicable games. For every 15,000 bundles sold, Kyttaro will donate $2,000 to the Indie Dev Grant, a fund used to help upstart indie game developers, with the winner determined by votes cast from bundle purchasers. A portion of the sales revenue will also be donated to Perivolaki, a non-profit NGO helping mentally ill children and their families in Greece.

I've had a chance to play a couple of games in the bundle and can vouch that these are really great experiences that any fan of adventure games would enjoy (I'll be writing official reviews shortly), and you'd be doing some good for indie developers and disadvantaged children in the process. If none of these games interest you (or if you already own most of them and don't wish to buy this bundle), keep an eye on the site anyway, because they'll be running other bundles after this one. The Adventure Bundle will be on sale until June 6th. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Impressions of Red Orchestra 2

Steam recently held a free weekend event for Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, a multiplayer FPS set in the eastern front of WW2. I'm not normally one to enjoy competitive shooters, but considering my fond appreciation for the work that developer Tripwire Interactive puts into its other online shooter, Killing Floor, I thought I'd give RO2 a shot. And then I was promptly shot to death. Many, many times.

The core concept behind the Red Orchestra series is to create more realistic military shooters that rely more on teamwork, tact, and strategy than the run-n-gun bravado of more popular franchises like Call of Duty or Battlefield. The pacing is much slower with a greater emphasis on using cover and moving strategically across the map to occupy zones and choke points. For new players, there's an "Action Mode" with all of the full gameplay features, tweaked to make it more action-oriented, and there's also "Realism" and "Classic" modes for more unforgiving, tactical gameplay. 

Even understanding the basic tactics (run from to cover to cover, don't leave yourself exposed, survey the terrain before moving), I still spent most of the free weekend being killed instantly by hidden players. Consequently, a lot of my time in RO2 amounted to pure frustration as I carefully planned my every action, only to die without any chance of survival or retaliation. On the other hand, I found it incredibly satisfying whenever the tables turned and I was the one gunning down hopeless players from a clever vantage point. 

As inexperienced as I was, I could tell there was a lot of room for personal improvement, and I really liked the map design and the general feel of combat. Playing with a lot of fellow newbs in Action Mode, I didn't get the best sampling of the strategic gameplay, but I could tell how much of an impact it has on the game. So even though I was really, really frustrated with the game at times, I decided to take the plunge and buy the full experience. More of my impressions after the jump.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Metacritic: A Blight on the Industry

The recent release of Risen 2: Dark Waters was met with mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. I never expected Risen 2 to do well among mainstream gamers (whose definition of a good RPG consists of Skyrim and Mass Effect), so it's no surprise to me that its metascore is currently sitting at a mediocre 69. Honestly, I would've given it a similar score myself when I first played it. Seemingly broken combat, graphical glitches galore, watered-down gameplay elements, and other issues with design and presentation left me feeling very conflicted about a sequel that should have only improved on the success of the first game.

Less than two weeks after its release, however, Piranha Bytes released a patch which addressed nearly every major complaint I (or anyone else) had with the game. They added roll-dodging and the ability to block monster attacks, which greatly improved the feeling of combat, they adjusted some really distracting graphical issues like low draw distance and growing/shrinking foliage, they fixed a few quest bugs and other glitches, they improved enemy and companion AI a little bit. It's still not a perfect game, but it became instantly more enjoyable with just a single patch.

And yet virtually every single review was published before the patch was even released. Surely these review scores would have been more favorable, maybe averaging in the 75-80 range, had they reviewed it with the patch. To be fair, the game should never have launched without these basic components, and PB / Deep Silver deserve to take the flack for its launch status. At the same time, however, shouldn't they be cut a little slack for addressing all of the major issues in a timely manner? Either way, as far as Metacritic is concerned (and any casual consumer consulting it), Risen 2 is just another mediocre game not worth your time or money. 

So I have a few bones to pick with Metacritic. In the full article, expect a fair bit of ranting about what's wrong with Metacritic and how it's destroying the industry, with other examples besides just Risen 2.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Walking Dead: Episode One - Review

After fumbling the ball quite pathetically with Jurassic Park's deplorable quick-time events, Telltale seem to have gotten their head back on their shoulders and created an enjoyable experience with The Walking Dead. You play as Lee Everett, a convicted murderer being escorted to a life sentence in prison. When the police car strikes a zombie, you find yourself swarmed by a horde of the walking dead, left to escape on foot. Rescued by a young girl, Clementine, you two strike a bond as you meet a considerable cast of other characters attempting to survive in the zombie apocalypse.

There are some minor missteps here and there, but TWD strikes a nice balance between interactive cutscenes and more conventional point and click adventure gameplay. The story it tells is fairly typical zombie canon, but the characters are all fairly interesting thanks to some good writing and voice acting. More importantly, your interactions with other characters feel meaningful; you're presented with a lot of dialogue options and have to make tough decisions, and characters remember these things down the road. Your actions shape the nature of the story as it develops.

Telltale's The Walking Dead is a very good game that I enjoyed playing. It's not perfect, but the problems were not enough to detract from the experience, and I found myself surprisingly engrossed in its world. It's an easy game to recommend if you're a fan of The Walking Dead or if you're just looking for a fun adventure game. For more of my thoughts on the game's first episode, read my full review in the May issue of Adventure Lantern

The Dream Machine - Review

* Read this review as it originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Adventure Lantern.

The most notable aspect of Cockroach Inc's The Dream Machine -- an episodic point-and-click adventure game -- is its animation style. Using the time-honored art of claymation, every scene in constructed from clay and cardboard and animated with stop-motion photography. It looks fantastic. With just a cursory glance, you can already tell that The Dream Machine stands out from the crowd, since so few games have ever used claymation. As great as the visual design is, however, that's not the game's biggest selling point -- it's the quality of the gameplay.

As a point-and-click adventure, the gameplay revolves around solving puzzles to progress through a prominent story. The puzzles in TDM are all very clever and feel rewarding to solve, often because they're well-implemented in the environment and contribute to the pacing of the narrative. Nothing feels obtuse; everything's there for a specific (and convincing) purpose. The puzzles offer a satisfying challenge while always being completely fair to the diligent observer, and the story develops at a consistent pace, hooking you from the very beginning with a sense of mystery before hooking you with another plot element at the climax of each chapter.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Demon's Souls is Not That Hard

When Demon's Souls was first released in October 2009, everyone was quick to propogate the hype that it was a brutally hard, soul-crushingly challenging game. After all, it had once been advertised by the publisher, Atlus, as "a game that enjoys the taste of your tears." There are numerous bosses and enemies that can kill you in one hit, and you're expected to be slaughtered to death before even finishing the opening tutorial sequence. When you die, you lose all of the souls you collected (your currency and experience points), you get sent back to the beginning of the level, all of the enemies respawn, and you suffer a penalty to your maximum health.

For a new player unfamiliar with the ropes, this means repeatedly finding yourself back at the start of the level with all of your progress undone, and with no souls to spend buying extra healing items, ammunition, upgrading your stats, or repairing your armor until you can get back to your bloodstain to reacquire your lost souls. Dying once is bad enough, but fighting your way through the level can be even harder the second time around, especially if you used all of your healing items trying to survive in the first place. And if you die enough times in body form, your game's world tendency will shift to black, populating the level with even tougher enemies.

Whereas most games help you get back on your feet after death, Demon's Souls punishes you hard for dying. And yet it's not an unfair game, and actually becomes incredibly easy once you know what you're doing. While virtually every press release has touted the game's challenging difficulty, and many gamers have accused it of being exceedingly cheap, tedious, and frustrating, the simple fact of the matter is that Demon's Souls is not that hard, as long as you approach it intelligently.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Exploration and Self-Discovery

One of my greatest joys in gaming is the feeling of discovery one gets from exploring a finely-crafted world. When a world is designed properly, it can really suck you into its setting, and when you have the unrestricted freedom to explore its boundaries, you get a strong sense of place in the environment. It's not merely the sightseeing that makes exploration compelling -- it's the rewards you receive for your discoveries, whether they be little treats left by the developers or just the psychological gratification you get for finding a more efficient path.

Some of the real fun, however, comes from discovering tricks that the developers neither intended nor anticipated, like backflipping into an exploding bomb to reach a high ledge in Ocarina of Time, or planting mines on a wall and climbing up them in Deus Ex. These discoveries are more fascinating to me because they're completely unscripted. As rewarding as it can be to bomb a cracked wall in The Legend of Zelda and find a wealth of hidden goodies inside, it's really just a scripted sequence designed to happen in a precise way. There are obvious clues telling you what to do, which make these discoveries a little less personal and a little less dramatic.

Exploration plays a prominent role in non-linear, open-world, free-roaming sandbox games. Much of the appeal stems from the player's freedom to go off and search for adventure in his own way, but some games promote and reward exploration much better than others. Playing Risen 2, I've noticed that the exploration is at times very creative and satisfying, and other times it's rote and boring, which got me thinking about the broader picture on how games can design worlds that beckon for a deeper, more personal level of exploration and discovery.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Great Games You Never Played: Painkiller

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

In the world of first-person shooters, Painkiller is a throwback to an earlier time in gaming history (back in the days of Doom and Quake), when shooters were all about fast-paced, cathartic action. Developed by People Can Fly in 2004, Painkiller tells the story of Daniel Garner; after dying in a car crash with his wife, he's sent into purgatory to battle Lucifer's army, in order to prevent a war between Heaven and Hell and to earn his passage to join his wife in Heaven. Alone against the armies of Hell, Daniel must fight the demons through different slices of history recreated in purgatory, before facing Lucifer himself in a final showdown.

In Painkiller, the main point of the game is to walk into a room and turn every moving thing into a shower of blood and dismembered body parts. The action is fast, the shooting intense and cathartic, and there are no other objectives besides "kill everything." As much as I enjoy more sophisticated shooters like STALKER and Deus Ex, I also hold a fond appreciation for shooters that can make mindless action fun and engaging. Thanks to the tight shooting mechanics, the wonderfully diverse and evocative level designs, the unique variety of weapons and enemies, and the colossal boss fights, Painkiller does the action very well with fantastic presentation.