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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010
Contextually, multiplayer doesn't make much sense in a game like Dead Space, so the context needs to change.

For a franchise like Dead Space, multiplayer is the logical “next step”. 


Dead Space was a beautifully realized game, a legitimately frightening over-the-shoulder shooter whose technique of punctuating long stretches of quiet with jump scares and panic inducing swarms made for a genuinely satisfying gaming experience.  The lack of multiplayer, while notable, didn’t seem like an omission so much as it did a stylistic decision; the difficulty of putting a believable excuse for multiplayer in a game so focused on isolation was immediately evident.  Dead Space forced us to play single-player, and many of us loved it anyway.


As such, it’s a little surprising to see multiplayer introduced in its sequel.  Without really knowing much about the storyline of Dead Space 2 (given that it won’t be released until January at the earliest), all we have is the first game to go on as a basis for the multiplayer, and the inclination is to think that the focus of the game will have to significantly shift in order to accommodate a multiplayer mode.  It doesn’t make sense, given the context, so the context needs to change.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 19, 2009
Examining exactly why 2007's Puzzle Quest was such a success.

Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.


The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…


...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.


While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.


This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.


What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.


Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).


Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.


Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.


What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.


Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jan 9, 2009
A defense of the narrative elements in Gears of War 2.

You’ve read the reviews.  Gears of War 2 has a marked lack of depth.  It’s relentlessly immature.  Its characters are a little corny.


As our own Ryan Smith puts it, “The rating on the game says it’s Mature, but half the time it feels like it was the brainchild of a 15-year-old boy.”


All of this is entirely true.  I have no argument refuting any of it.  What I will argue against, however, is the idea that somehow the story (or lack thereof) in Gears of War 2 makes it less of a game.  On the contrary, I don’t know that I’ve found a game whose story complements the gameplay quite so well as that in Gears of War 2 in quite some time.


Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations.  When you pick up a game that says Gears of War on it, to expect any sort of meaningful story is to be asking something of a game that it was never intended to provide.  The entire point of the Gears of War series is to blow stuff up and, if possible, look good doing it.  If you blast an enemy in the head enough times, that head explodes into a crimson gush of alien blood.  If you’ve got the guts to run up to a baddie, you’re rewarded with the opportunity to take a chainsaw to said baddie.  Your reward for doing all of this is to fight bigger bad guys and see the sights that new terrain has to offer.


The strength of the “story” in Gears 2 is that it is almost entirely motivated by moving the player from one dangerous situation to another.  The game starts in a bombed-out gray ‘n brown environment that looks entirely familiar to just about anyone who played the first game, but then you’re given an excuse to shoot reavers (giant airborn squid things) in lush greenery.  Then you end up inside(!) a giant worm.  Then you end up dodging “razor rain” in an all-too open environment.  Then you’re in a giant temple.  Along the way you blast away some humongous beastly looking things, ride a reaver and a brumak, and confront the Locust Queen.


The longer cutscenes in the game do their part in heightening the player’s anticipation.  A long sequence at the beginning features the gears’ commander giving a Big Important Military Speech.  Yes, it’s a clichéd trope when it comes to this sort of movie or game, but while he’s doing all of that, you get these tremendous panoramic shots that convey the scale of the operation you’re embarking on.  The scripting and the cinematography of the scene is perfect, and it’s a great way to get motivated for the operation ahead.


The intimate conversation with the Locust Queen does the same thing, but in a completely different sort of way.  Her quiet confidence and the constant presence of the impossibly agile, impossibly strong Skorge by her side as she speaks heightens the dread you feel as you know you’re about to face off against the Predator-like beast that caused so much havok early in the game.  She’s rambling on and on about infected locusts and lambent whatnots and maybe western philosophy and how to balance a checkbook, but it doesn’t really matter because, again, the game is not really about the narrative, the game is about look and feel.


Ah, but then there is Maria.


Maria, the captured love of Dom’s life, is where my argument is in danger of falling apart.  Maria is the closest thing here to narrative for the sake of narrative, because nowhere is the search for Maria truly integral to the progression of the story.  Still, in a land where the toughest guy wins, the search for Maria served to make Dom tougher, even as it gave him a gooey center.  Maria is his motivation, before and after we learn her ultimate fate.  His anger at losing her rubs off on the player, which actually makes chainsawing enemies into bloody giblets even more satisfying.  Again, the story feeds the sense of scope, heightening the drama and determination of the player. 


Of course this won’t be true for everyone; for every player that thinks the story works wonderfully with the game, there’s one that thinks it’s a distracting mess.  I have a theory as to determining which side of the fence you’ll fall on: Did you like Independence Day?  Did Armageddon make you tear up a little at the end?  Did you think The Rock was a cinematic masterpiece?  Aside from proving I’d never make it as a film critic, the fact that I can say yes to the aforementioned three questions (or anything similar that relates to big, stupid, Michael Bay-style action movies) has a lot to do with why I find the story elements of Gears of War 2 not only tolerable, but pretty fantastic.  The story makes everything bigger, and it gives me even more reasons to enjoy blowing things up.  What’s not to like?


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 10, 2008
Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator? EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.

Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator?  EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.  But is it enough? 


Judging from the pattern established by other Maxis/EA hits like the Sims franchise, Spore C&C will be the first in a long line of updates.  As with The Sims 2, Maxis has confirmed in a press release that they will employ a two-pronged approach to deliver additional building tools (in the form of “stuff packs”) as well as altered gameplay (in the form of “expansion packs”).  The first expansion pack, scheduled for spring 2009, will add depth to the Space phase. 


This delivery model will hopefully keep the game (and its accompanying online community) fresh and growing.  It will also keep the cash flowing into EA’s coffers, and this parts pack in particular feels more like a greedy grab for green than a bona fide attempt to refresh the gameplay.  Coming just two months after Spore’s initial release, the parts pack adds 60 new body parts, 12 new paint themes, and 24 “test drive” animations.  None of these additions alter the mechanics or difficulty of the gameplay, but are intended to give players more control over the appearance and abilities of their creatures. 


I strongly suspect that Spore’s upcoming expansion will be the first in a series of four expansions that will address each of the four phases of the game after cell phase.  Many critics of the game (myself included) felt that each phase merely scratched the surface of the genre’s capabilities, and I imagine that the expansions are going to offer Spore fans an opportunity to add complexity to the phases they like best without being obligated to spend money upgrading every part of the multifaceted gameplay.  Meanwhile—and this is pure speculation—now that a collection of creature parts has been released, expect to see additional stuff packs that expand the vehicle and architecture tool sets as well. 


After installing and playing with the Spore C&C for a while, I did feel that the game benefited from the greater variety of parts available.  Still, adding a few dozen body parts to the creature creation tools seems like a disappointingly simplistic approach to sparking creativity in the user community.  I couldn’t help but think back to a simpler time, when user-created content was an indie thing that required a fairly rigorous set of digital design skills but was completely and absolutely open-ended.  It seems to me that since so much of Spore’s concept revolves around a shared, creative community, limiting players’ creativity with a pre-set collection of materials impedes the growth of the fan base.  In other words, I think it’s a big, fat, hairy mistake. 


Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 56k dialup modems, there were games that were both fun and hackable.  Players would create their own content for their favorite games and upload it to fan sites, sharing among themselves free of charge.  Sure, you had to muck around with graphics editors and such, and the results were sometimes comically bad, but back in the early days of The Sims—and I know I am dating myself by admitting I can remember this—people just made stuff and shared it.  Independent programmers even made simple tools to help other people make stuff, and it was a labor of love. 


I mention The Sims specifically because, although there were many other mod-able games at the time, the large, creative community that emerged was an unforeseen consequence of The Sims’ open-endedness that took even Will Wright by surprise.  Later, the huge success of the fan community inspired Maxis to create tools like Creature Creator and The Sims 2’s Body Shop, which would theoretically allow more people to create more stuff with less effort. 


However, when the grassroots movement was absorbed by the establishment, as it were, Maxis wanted (and needed) to exercise control over user-created content in order to maintain their “T” rating.  In other words, bye-bye, nude skins and double-D-cup meshes.  By standardizing and controlling the tools, Maxis was able to limit inappropriate content, but they also squelched much of the creative open-endedness that was inherent in the first-generation, third-party tools.  Furthermore, they opened the floodgates for the less skilled, less devoted, and less innovative designers to create enormous truckloads of mediocre work.  In short, more people are now able to make stuff, but most of it is crap. 


Should Maxis give more control back to the players and create tools that allow users to generate their own custom body parts?  Is it worth having six hundred creatures that look like anthropomorphic genitalia if it means we also get a digital equivalent of the Venus de Milo?  For Maxis, the ability to control and regulate content is an important part of their business model, so it’s unlikely that they will be willing to relinquish that.  But it certainly would be interesting to see what would emerge if they did.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 8, 2008
Stardock has released a reduced but free version of their political simulator.

With the conventions over and vice presidents chosen, the electoral process is in full gear in America. Both sides have chosen candidates based on the gimmicks and audience they claim as their base, manifesting political divisions that have existed since Nixon first launched a campaign based on these nonsensical cultural divides. As an impressively neutral column over at The Economist explains, any hope of those cultural divides being put aside for the sake of saving our Nation have been all but forgotten. The Republicans all jeer about the liberal media whenever the flaws in their platform are pointed out, the Democrats ignore every flaw in their economic plan that doesn’t involve taxing the rich. Palin is legitimately inexperienced and ignorant of anything beyond the few issues she dealt with in Alaska. Obama’s inexperience is equally a legitimate point, making the Third party arguments more interesting than ever before in this election. And the fact that I’m comparing the Vice-Presidential nomination and the Presidential nomination’s qualifications instead of say, how they plan on saving the economy, speaks volumes about how idiotic the process has finally become. We will, as with the past two elections, get the President we deserve in this country.


I was not overly kind in my review of Stardock’s The Political Machine 2008 but I also admitted that I could very easily be biased because I just wasn’t in the mood for a lighthearted game about Presidential Elections. I’m not sure many Americans are at this point. Yet it must be conceded that any game that induces some kind of discussion about the election has value. Stardock has recently released a free to download shrunken version of their game that takes away your ability to make up candidates or tweak variables. Instead, you play as Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin in a set 24 week period. Just the mere act of pumping deceitful ads and tweaking your campaign message to your target state as a player heightens one’s awareness of the process in the real world. It is still not the deep and complex experience I pined for in my review, but perhaps it does not need to be. Whether you’re painting Obama as a snooty liberal or McCain as a dying old man, participating in the action raises awareness. And if we can do that, perhaps we’ll deserve a better leader than the ones we’ve been getting.


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