On demons and their coming third age.

Saturday, June 28, 2008
As I'm sure most of you are aware, Blizzard officially announced Diablo III this morning to the delight of many a squealing fan. I've seen the trailers and the gameplay footage and it all looks very polished. Then again, this is Blizzard we're speaking of, and I can't think of a single game of theirs that wasn't polished. Any game from Blizzard that showed signs of failing has been axed or made to quietly disappear.

The footage I've seen shows a streamlined experience as opposed to the clickfest I often found Diablo I&II to be. The overall picture they've painted has shades of World of Warcraft in it's hotkey bound abilities and aesthetic design. The gameplay preview mentions surprisingly little in actual gameplay mechanics and particulars, focusing most of it's attention on reassuring us that everything we remember about the Diablo series still exists. In a nutshell, the narrator says something to the effect of "Diablo III looks really good. We have lots of enemies, new abilities, in-game quest events, and a witch doctor class that can spit locusts. Neat, huh?"

Yet, when you watch the trailer carefully, you can spot a few other elements not really spoken of. The destructible environment looks to have been handled more carefully than just incorporating set piece destruction (i.e. knock a wall over onto a horde of zombies). A short wall collapsed when a dead enemy struck it at high speed, sending the corpse tumbling down to the level below. Another enemy, reduced to a skeleton, disturbs the grass as it rolls down a hill. Tables shatter, bookcases are emptied, etc.

The preview only shows two classes in action. The returning barbarian, wielder of giant weapons and hulk-esqe smasher of things large and small and the new witch doctor, a summoner of disease and powerful creatures. Of the two, I found the witch doctor the most interesting. He acts as a combat controller class, suited mostly to manipulating the odds with fear and confusion. The ability to infuse your summoned pets with disease efects is nice, though all I really want to do is summon that wall of zombies over and over again.

Enemies also seem to have a few new tricks up their sleeves. If you watch the gameplay preview, at about 7 minutes in you can see a ghoul crawling towards the character after losing it's legs to a strong attack. Others will unleash a horde of lesser enemies when they die. If a giant bloated frankenstein isn't freaky enough, how about one filled with what look like giant eels?

The effects I saw during the preview were very impressive. Watching enemies explode in a spray of blood or be eaten away to a skeleton is a sight to behold. Everything moves fluidly and dynamically according to the terrain. Even the grass is rendered in exquisite detail, something I've yet to see from a top-down game of it's nature. Every little detail is there and it's all been treated with care. But we should be careful with what we take away from this.

The game isn't finished. It's been in development for about four years now and it's obvious they've been planning this announcement for a while. We ought to take this preview with a grain of salt. This was a prepared demo meant to build hype for a game still in development. What we see here should in no way become the benchmark for our expectations. I've seen this thing happen before. Early gameplay footage creates a mystique for a game that ends up falling far short of what it brought us to expect. Mass Effect comes to mind. We were shown a deep and intuitive combat system, and a smooth, realistic graphical experience. Corners were cut and the finished product was a far cry from what we saw.

I'm not saying you shouldn't be impressed by what Blizzard has on offer here. I have yet to see a product of theirs deliver anything less than what was promised. I've played every game they've ever put out and had little complaint to offer in retrospect. Hopefully, the game we see here is the same Diablo III we'll take home sometime in the future. In the meantime, be excited, by all means, but don't lose your head.

Online multiplayer.... meh.

Saturday, June 14, 2008
According to most industry gurus and console slinging tycoons, every blockbuster game has to have a killer online multi-player mode. Thinking back to the hits of 2007, Call of Duty still stands out from the pack, dominating sales through mid spring of 2008. The combination of customizable classes and an MMO style leveling system did well to secure it a solid following. Halo 3 also came out of the gates strong, with added level editing, saved films and customizable armor topping off it's already solid multi-player offerings.

I've played both of these games a lot. I've been a fan of the Halo franchise since it's inception on the original Xbox. I have many saved films showing off my exploits, both epic and comic. I've finally reached prestige mode on Call of Duty 4 and am an established sneaky bastard. Yet apart from these two departures, I rarely play games online.

It's something I come by honestly. I prefer a single-player campaign. If I can get a co-operative campaign I'm even happier, but I can't bring myself to get too interested in online multi-player. That's all I've really ever said about it. I haven't taken the time to sit down and puzzle out this conundrum.

I play a lot of shooters. Back in the day I was a big Time splitters fan. I can still remember the five hour capture the flag game my friend Levi and I sat down to. We filled the ranks of a two monkey team against an army of Robofish. One hit kills, Crossbows and bricks. When victory was finally ours, we felt we had really accomplished something special. That was a great multi-player experience, but it was one I shared with a friend in the same room.

That's where I earned most of my multi-player chops in fact. In the same room as my opponent. Games like Worms, Goldeneye, Halo, Perfect Dark, Turok, Tanks, Super Smash Brothers Melee, the list goes on. Most of my dearest gaming memories are of games with people I didn't have to communicate with via headset or keyboard. That group dynamic, especially the larger team-based games really kindled something in me. It's something I can't recreate when matched with random people over Live or PSN. Though if that's true, I shouldn't enjoy COD4 or Halo 3 nearly as much as I do.

Campaign modes really draw me in. I like being part of an arcing narrative (especially if I can drag a friend along with me). I need an objective, a clear idea of the world around me and my enemies in it. I yearn for the kills I get to mean something in the grand scheme. I will play a campaign hundreds of times, just because I love them so much. The Halo franchise didn't have the most compelling narrative of all time, despite it's strong suits, but it did offer me a co-operative campaign option, which I happily snapped up.

Single-player games like Oblivion, Mass Effect, and their ilk are really the core of my gaming experience. I think that's why 2007 was such a stand out year in gaming for me. I had a slew of single-player only games that I found compelling and creative. Yet despite wonderful offerings from Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect (the game that sold me on the 360 two years before it was actually released) there was one game that everyone stood up to recognize.

Portal delivered a complex narrative web with only one speaking character that was not only intriguing but very very funny. My favorite line "Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is preserved between portals. In layman's, 'speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.'" The gameplay was mind bending, every inch of that game was spit polished and gleaming My only- THE only- complaint was that it was too damn short.

I'm a child of adventure games and slow connections at heart. I wasn't there for the start of the online gaming phase, I was still browsing for a Riven walkthrough on a 28.8 modem. I missed out on Tribes because my Packard Bell couldn't run it. I wasn't able to play all the sweet online games so I had to content myself with single player games. I've played and beaten every Lucasarts adventure game from Maniac Mansion to Escape From Monkey Island (Full Throttle has always been my favorite. Can't explain why). I solved Myst: End of Ages in five hours. Name a Total War game and I own it. I've thrown money at Bioware like a crippled man at a tent revival. I am the master of unlocking. I fear the air-raid siren. This is how I got into games.

Despite my humble beginnings, certain multi-player titles peak my interest. COD4 kept me playing with it's reward system and strong team-based gameplay. Halo 3 has it's co-op campaign and the Forge where I can tweak the game to serve my dark needs. But even these don't offer enough in the end.

To be perfectly honest, the only thing that really keeps me online is the ability to play with friends. I am happiest when I can sit down and play a few rounds with my wife and close friends. It's a joy to share an experience I enjoy so much with the people I care about. Plus, your round, shiny EVA helmet makes an easy target from across the map.

Ninja Gaiden, my worst enemy...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008
I know Ninja Gaiden 2 is fun. I know it's satisfying to slice demons and rival ninjas apart. I know that if I buy it I'll cackle madly in the night. All that aside, I'm not about to buy another Ninja Gaiden game, ever. Ever. The reasons aren't industry related, nor do they point to a larger issue within our niche. It all goes back to my freshman year of college.

I lived in a small dorm room with my good friend Conor. We had between the two of us, much to our delight, every current console. My prized possession was my Gamecube, but it was may of 2004 and Ninja Gaiden was due to be released on the Xbox. In a whirlwind tour of tutoring I scraped together the cash for the game. On buying it I was given the option to buy the strategy guide along with it. I refused, outraged by the very thought of relying on advice from some book to guide and hone my ninja skills. Ahem, I mean skillz.

Conor and I got back to the dorm somehow. I know neither of us had a car at that time but we managed to get across town and back with so little adventure that I hardly remember it. This is particularly strange as Conor and I are known for our, shall we say, shenaniganary. We create between each other a kind of bizarre devil that acts through us to achieve it's dark ends. It rarely ends well for any party involved. But that's all beside the point.

The disc was torn from the case and roughly inserted into the tray of that humming black box I called friend. I toiled through the night, rarely pausing for anything but the most basic of needs; food, toilet, MacGuyver. The first few levels offered a decent challenge and I was pleased with my progression.

As the days wore on my abilities grew. I became something less than human. Like the black armor clad tyrant of lore, I was now more machine than man, sans twisted and evil. I scoured every inch of the maps for golden scarabs, I found every weapon in the game and farmed enemies for hours to level them up to their keenest edge. I beat eight or nine combatant battles in less than a minute. I had become a weapon, unleashed upon unwitting ninjii (can you pluralize a japanese word using latin rules? I say Yes!) and demonkind with devastating result.

Boss fights were difficult, but I rarely died more than three times before claiming my enemy's head/tentacle/eyestalk/carapace. My greatest achievement came when I finally gripped the powerful hilt of the "unlabored flawlessness", the ultimate and cataclysmic final form of the previously useless wooden sword. I was pleased with myself.

I was treated with a great deal of respect by my fellow dorm-dwellers. The kind one shows for a wizened master of the dark arts. I was a god. Victory was close. The enemies were hardier with every screen and the towering spire in the distance loomed closer and closer by the minute. Then everything changed.

I was greeted with an entirely new threat in the form of large ghostly piranha eager to rend flesh from bone. My weapons seemed to have little effect on them, and I knew I couldn't risk using up all of my ninpo energy on these beasts. Working past these dread beings cost me three months of my life and more health and elixir than any other section of the game. I was frustrated but remained stalwart in the face of my demon enemy.

Finally, after another month of battling the cursed fish and various other lesser demons, I came to fight the slaughtered horde's general. Like a coward he conjured illusory beasts for me to fight. I dispatched them as best I could in my weakened state, and found myself at the feet of that slavering beast, bloodied steel at the ready in only a few days time.

Beleaguered and enraged, I fought bravely on as he flew, taunting me by staying just out of reach of my most brutal assaults. When finally he fought on my terms the death knell rang for me and my days of action gaming.

I fought that wretched being for nearly a year. That same battle raging almost every night until it played in my head while I slept. The demon beast invaded my dreams, humiliating even my subconscious self, patiently waiting to strike at me from behind my eyes. I suffered crushing defeat every night for nigh on 10 months.

Somewhere in that nightmare I cracked and bought the strategy guide, but even it's limited expertise could not assist me in the state I entered that fight in night after night. 9 times out of 10 I would face the beast with a quarter of my life remaining. Still I fought. Surely, this must end some time, I thought to myself. Still death came as swiftly as it always had, night after night, day in and day out.

This incident came very close to swearing me off video games for the rest of my days. I couldn't look at my console without feeling a growing well in my stomach. I couldn't bring myself to play anything else but that relentless and now epic battle over and over again. I had no hope for victory anymore, I simply knew nothing but this one fight. Loss came as easily as breathing.

Then came the day. I fought the same beast in the same arena on the same terms. This time though, I was winning. I was now in a position to reverse my fortune for months on end. All my pride and integrity was again in my grasp. I felt good again. I was confident. Conor, on seeing how close I was to delivering the final blow sat transfixed by the historic moment. The great demon reeled from my attacks, bled profusely from every wound I inflicted. His eyes grew desperate. His death called for him and he strained against it's dulcimer notes.

Now ready for the blow that would end this fight once and for all, I readied my blade. I struck, but too late. The beasts last desperate claw caught my face and sent me hurtling against the rock wall of this bloodied theatre. My body collapsed, dead. Some part of my true self died at that very same moment. All the determination I had to defeat this fiend and move on with my game was replaced with spite. I hurled my controller across the room, screaming expletives. I immediately removed the disc from the tray, placed it in it's case and traded it in for store credit.

Having been through my own special hell with Ninja Gaiden, I believe I've played enough of the action genre to satisfy me for the rest of my life. I feel no desire to play any such game, be it this latest iteration of the Gaiden series, a Devil who may or may not cry, or any other brand listed under this genre. I simply can not bring my hands to grip a controller in thrall to those mechanics ever, ever again.