I like multiplayer

Friday, November 28, 2008
Normally, our posts here at Somnambulant Gamer are a bit verbose, written with a greater truth in mind. We talk about games in the sense that each game can tell us something about both gaming and gamers. But for this post, I just wanted to say one thing.

I like multiplayer.

Let me say that again: I like multiplayer.

I'm saying it to convince myself as much as anyone else. See, I've always been a big single-player gamer. Even back in the day, a buddy playing Luigi wasn't always my cup of...whatever the hell it is that they drink in the Mushroom Kingdom.

In any case, it's a revelation that, while brewing for some time now, only really struck me today. Not only do I like multiplayer, but it is one of the main features I weigh when deciding on a purchase. No multiplayer? No way am I paying $60. That's it.

I did, would have and will make special exceptions--I am such a Metal Gear whore that I would have purchased MGS4 and MG: Online separately, (if not grudgingly). I will buy Final Fantasy XIII. I will buy White Knight story (if it's as good as it looks) and the next game from Team ICO. Now that I'm making a list, there are quite a few exceptions. The point is this: If your game can have multiplayer, it probably should. In fact, multiplayer should have been taken to the next level by now. Games that are simultaneously multiplayer-centric and story-driven that aren't RPG's--i.e., not WoW--should be taking the main stage...I can think of a perfect candidate:

Bushido Blade 3, anyone?

All right, I lied. I didn't just want to say one thing. But! Bushido Blade 3!!! Make it happen, SquareEnix.

From where I'm standing

The day after Thanksgiving is known as the busiest shopping day of the year. The nations houses empty into minivans and Walmarts hoping to score themselves some sweet deals. Well, that's fine for most folks, but it's a very different day in my house.

You see, two years ago (roughly) I met the woman who is now my wife. Rather than have to remember another actual date, we settled that the day after Thanksgiving was as good as any to celebrate our anniversary. After all, we started dating two years ago on the day after Thanksgiving, so it seemed only natural to celebrate it on that same schedule every year.

What does this have to do with gaming? Well, up to this point, very little, but bear with me. I didn't know from the outset that my future wife was a gamer. There were hints at it here and there, Pokemon references, a shared affinity for Penny Arcade, an interested posture when telling her about bitchin' raids. I should have known earlier, but it doesn't matter at this point.

The first game she and I really sat down and played together was Rainbow Six: Vegas. The Co-op was our playground as we moved (mostly) stealthily through casinos and warehouses. Terrorists could not stand up to our combined might. We never took the fight online, but then again, neither of us are big into online multiplayer.

From there we moved on to other games. I introduced her to Halo, playing through the co-op campaigns for the first two a couple weeks before the release of the third. We'd trade off on Guitar Hero, and eventually worked our way to Rock Band. We hosted Munchkin nights with our friends, trying ever so carefully to nudge them closer to trying D&D.

The novelty of a significant other that enjoyed games as much as I did wore off pretty quickly, but I still find myself smirking with delight over her uncanny ability to stick me from close range, or her ever so frightening ability to handle a Ghost. We've now shared a PAX, and trade off the DS when the other is busy with something else. We are still waiting for the second Professor Layton to come out in the states, and we still can't conquer Green Grass and High Tides on Expert, but we're getting there.

I've got a good life, there's no denying that. I'm not here to rub it in your face though humble reader. I'm just writing this to say thank you to the woman who's encouraged me to keep writing and is always there to play a couple rounds of Halo, or to pick up the vocals when I need a team mate. It tickles me to death to see her get giddy over Far Cry 2 and Red Alert 3. Thanks to the woman who as I write this is playing Crazy King on Guardian.

I couldn't have gotten this far without your support and help. Here's to two great years and many more to come. Hopefully the next few will have a bit more PS3 in them.

Remixing Nostalgia

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Last night, after mentally convincing myself that I could afford this small luxury, I bought (deep breath) Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. I've been excited for this game since its announcement and couldn't wait to download it. 

Like many of you, Street Fighter II was my first fighting game. I played it at a 7-11 across the street from my school whenever I could.  Back then, fighting games were only really worthwhile in the arcade. I remember a quiet rivalry between gamers when Mortal Kombat came on the scene, which splintered further when Killer Instinct brought its ultra combos to the table. No matter how many people were gathered around those gore-spewing, endless-combo-releasing, double flawless victory fatality machines, Street Fighter II waited quietly in the wings. 

I think it was plotting this all along. 

So, the question is, is the time right? Can Street Fighter retake the main stage with SSFIIHDR? (An acronym pronounced: essessefftwoehchdeearr--thanks guys from Halo: ODST!)

The answer? No. But that isn't what the game is made to do. This game isn't here to compete with Soul Calibur 4 or Virtua Fighter 5 or Tekken 6--it's here to take us back to the mean streets where all it took was a well-placed Shoryuken to turn the tide of battle. The classic street fighter back-and-forth is still there, in beautiful, breathtaking HD. It's a little more balanced, but, love it or hate it, one-button fighting can still best a seasoned player if he or she isn't careful. The new versions of classic SF songs present in the game are made of raw joy, sure to get your yoga fire burning. Many, if not all, of the characters from SFII and SFII: Turbo are present, with hidden characters such as Akuma as unlockables. The online component works flawlessly with, during my test fights, zero lag. (I still lost though...too bad). 

$15 is a steal for a game of this caliber--get it, you won't regret it. 

(Played 2 player vs., 2 player online and 1 player story mode on PS3 hardware). 

The trouble with opinions.

Monday, November 24, 2008
Eidos has a bit of a situation on their hands. Some of you might remember the incident with Kane & Lynch some time ago. Gamespot, a site in good standing, had advertised the game for some time prior to it's release. However, when the game was reviewed and Gamespot scored it poorly, or at least poorly by Eidos' standards, Jeff Gerstmann, writer of the article and long time editor for Gamespot, lost his job.

Of course, this as all unrelated to the review he wrote, or so we're all told. It's hard to swallow that story though, especially in light of recent events. Eidos is once again turning the knife by attempting to block reviews of Tomb Raider Underworld below 8/10. There hasn't really been much word on the part of Eidos about it except for a strange press release from Barrington Harvey. The entirety of it is an exercise in legal avoidance and exquisitely tiring.

What the press release really means isn't important to this post. What is important is that we understand our responsibility in all of this. As consumers, we often feel like the plankton of the commercial world. Everything else eats us and without us everything would wither and die. That is true in many ways, but it doesn't mean we don't have other options. We can ask friends about the game, we can read the reviews of sites that don't use scores in their reviews (honestly, those are the only ones worth reading in my opinion).

Eidos should understand this. I'd bet most of my substantially small income that many of their employees are gamers with fully functioning brains. Blocking or holding reviews below a certain score isn't going to keep the truth out if your game isn't very good. Honestly, 8/10 isn't a bad score, that's what I told my parents whenever I had a similar score on a test and they seemed to believe me. Review scores are largely subjective anyway, we've already discussed that at length.

I'm not sure what Eidos really expects to accomplish with this stunt. If they think they might drum up some sales with controversy, they're going about it the wrong way. I can see more than a few people writing intentionally bad reviews as a result of the holds, driving the metacritic score even lower. In the end, if you don't have the faith in your game to turn it loose to the savage reviewers, than you should be taking a long hard look at their development. You can't pretend to fix a stove and then insist that people ignore the uncooked food.

Online reviews aren't most gamers' primary source for recommendations. You know it, I know it, Eidos knows it. Word of mouth is the number one sales driving force in the gaming industry. We may take shots at each other from time to time, but we're a pretty close community for the most part. These are the people Eidos should talk to about their game. Then again, black bagging your customers is a little too obvious for most companies.

Time will tell if Tomb Raider Underworld is a good game or not. Eidos will just have to wait and see what the world makes of it. In an industry where only 20% of the products ever turn a profit, that's about a solid a business strategy as you can get.

Role playing every game

Friday, November 21, 2008
I have a challenge for you dear readers. To warn you, it involves actual cognitive reasoning on your part, so those of you who inexplicably join my Xbox Live party to describe in broken detail how high your avatar looks/is may want to find more suitable environs. Are they gone? Good. Now, to the good stuff. I want you to role play every character you play in a video game.

This is an old trick I used with games I wasn't that into. I've since come to use it with all games to really get into the world, really let the game suck me in. From the moment the game first spins up to the end credits, I put myself in the characters shoes. I know what you're saying, we already do that because we're controlling the character. That's fine for playing a game, but I want you to dig deeper.

You are representing the player character in this world. It's your responsibility to make the decisions that will effect the character and their future in the represented world. Behave as you would in the character's situation, trust your gut. Don't make a decision because you think it might break the game or just because you want to cause some havoc. Make the decision that you feel is most right for the character you're playing.

It may seem very analytical, but play this way from the beginning and it should come as second nature to you. The challenge at the outset is to find some part of the character you can identify with, latch onto a reaction, a feeling, a movement, even the way the character looks. If you can find that one little piece to get you started, you're on you way.

I'm not saying you should invent complex back stories for the characters you play, most games story structure is too rigid for that. All the plot points and character relationship have already been established and will be made known when the time is right. Spend some time getting to know your characters in this kind of game. If possible, read the back story, look at the game site, find whatever you can about the characters in the game and their own perspectives.

Other games allow you a little more freedom with the story line. Fable 2 for example, puts you in a world where no one knows who you are (at least at first) and every relationship you make is dependant upon your reactions and your alignment. My hero was as pure as could be until he returned from the Spire. Upon his return, the game glitched his wife out of existence, leaving his now grown daughter mute and socially inept. She only returned to take the daughter she abandoned and tell me she was leaving for good. At that point, a switch flipped in my hero's head and he was never the same.

He raised the rent on every property he had, stopped giving to the poor, even stopped healing in battle, hoping that his life of self-destruction will finally one day kill him. He cannot trust any other Hero, nor any civilian no matter their standing. His faith and unwavering support for mankind has been lost forever. Such is the price of losing a loved one.

Try this out. If I'm right, you'll enjoy a deeper, more immersive experience next time you play. If I'm wrong, you aren't out anything and you get to make fun of me for it. It really is a win win. In all seriousness though, I think this is an important skill to have when slogging through a 20-40 hour game. It helps the time pass easier and I've honestly enjoyed games like Fable, Fallout and Far Cry more as a result of making real character based decisions instead of player motivated decisions. Please, for my lonely sake, give it a whirl and report your findings to me.

What makes a game great?

Monday, November 17, 2008
It's that question we've all asked ourselves at some point. There are games that are universally considered great, but what do these games have in common that sets them apart from the rest? Is there any single quality that marks all great games and is absent in all others? Do games like Final Fantasy VII, X-Com, Fallout and Far Cry 2 all follow a deeply complex formula known only to a secretive, cowled group of developers? The answer is surprisingly simple.

Like film, many of the games we mark as great are games that broke new ground for the industry. They are the bold pioneers, the games hat risked everything to show us something new. More often than not, these new elements were quickly included into other games until the mechanics became synonymous with the genre. Final Fantasy VII's Materia based skill tree has now become a standard part (albeit in mutated forms) of many RPGs. X-Com was the Citizen Kane of squad based action games. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Again, like film, those great games often times don't seem like anything that special when played parallel to today's games. The industry is an ever changing entity, constantly assimilating successful mechanics, art styles, etc. What was incredible and new five years ago is now the standard by which we judge all games in the genre. Those of us that played those great games when they were new understand, perhaps better than others, the awe and wonder of what they did. Even still, they often pale in comparison to more modern entries in the genre or even series.

If you're having trouble swallowing this idea, experiment with it. If you can, plop in one of your old favorites for an hour. play it as you would any other game. After the hour has been spent, swap it out for a recent game of the same genre. Make note, either mental or physical, of similarities in the two games. Don't leave anything out. If a mechanic feels similar in any way, if a scene reminds you of the previous game, note it. Finally, gauge your experience. Put the first game back in and play it for a while with the new game fresh in your mind. Mine and many of my friend's experience shows us that we don't feel the same thrill we did when we first played that great game.

More often than not, the old favorites begin to feel dated. The graphics aren't what make them seem dated, don't be silly. Because those old mechanics are so commonplace these days, the games that invented them often don't feel so special. It's unfortunate that we often can't enjoy these games as much as we grow. They really are great and deserve to be hailed until we're all old and senile. Unfortunately, since the industry if such a fluid entity, any popular mechanic is bound to be snatched up by other developers.

Keep a place in your library for the greats. You might not always be able to play them, but when your faith in games is wearing thin, it's often those games that bring you back into the fold. The real staying power of those games is their ability to remind us of why we play. The games you play today may very well become some of those enshrined few so keep that in mind while you play them. Some day you might be babbling to your grand kids about the good old days. This is certainly a very interesting time to be a part of the medium.

We are at a point when the games we play are undergoing significant change. Genres seem to be slowly disappearing. Far Cry 2 mixed the sandbox and FPS genre, Call of Duty 4 sprinkled some MMO in their own FPS. Old standby series like Fallout and Prince of Persia are being completely redesigned, Little Big Planet redefined user generated content. Portal messed with our heads and Mirror's edge messed with our inner ears. This may be the start of a great Renaissance for games. I'm proud to be in the thick of it, and you should be too.

The Growing Gamer

Friday, November 14, 2008
I have a family. My wife and I are both gamers and have been for years. As I've said in earlier posts, our ability to kill each other without fear of actual injury or abuse charges is one of the reasons we get along so well. Gaming is a serious part of our lives, as much as professional sports might be to other households.

We have two daughters however that are too young to really start gaming. The oldest is three and has had little experience with the controller or the keyboard proper. The youngest is nigh on 2 months old and doesn't even understand her own appendages as of yet. I hope that they show an interest in gaming as my wife and I do, but I can't be certain they ever will. They may see it as Mom and Dad's weird geek thing or they may even actively campaign against games altogether.

Naturally, I've spent a good deal of time thinking about how to avoid such a future. I've almost obsessed over it for weeks with a Doc Brown like fanaticism. After some thought, I've built a framework that I hope will encourage our kids to make games a larger part of their lives. Maybe you can use it too.

Family games come first. By family games, I mean games that everyone can play. Rock Band, the LEGO games, and Munchkin are all great games that anyone can play. Everyone can enjoy the game simultaneously. Halo may sound like fun but if the whole family can't play together, it'll have to wait until the kids go to bed.

Second, encourage your kids to ask questions about the games they see you playing. I can't wait to hear the questions they'll ask after watching me play Shadow of the Colossus. "Daddy, why did you kill Snuffleupagus?" To save the princess, sweetie, to save the princess. Honestly though, it's important for your kids to understand the games they see, even if they are a little high concept for their age. I they ask about Kratos, tell them the truth. Your kids are smarter than you give them credit for, I can guarantee you that.

It's equally important that you understand what your kids are ready to play. The ESRB makes for good baseline ratings, but every child is different. You might have a seven year old mature enough for Grand Theft Auto, it just depends on their attitude and understanding. Really take a close look at what your children sees daily. It'll help you understand what your kids can handle.

Finally, listen to your kids. If they don't want to play, don't force them to. If they want the biggest new release, don't get them the cheap knockoff. If you can't afford it, don't buy it and leave it at that. Gaming is a hobby and an art. Art isn't bought with rent money. If you can afford it and they've earned it, get it. You'll deepen their appreciation for the medium and who knows, maybe you wanted it too.

You can't force your kids to like games. You can raise them in an environment that includes games and is accepting of them. The rest is really up to them. Let them make the decision. If they don't care for Call of Duty, as much as it might break your heart, let them choose whether or not they play. The best you can ever do is listen to your kids and respect their decisions. They may be your kids, but they're human beings too.

When first we met.

Monday, November 10, 2008
The first video game I remember playing was a tiny little space ship game on my brother's computer. Each player controlled their own ten pixel ship and did their best to destroy the other player. That's all there was to it. No upgrades, no multipliers, no fine targeting. Just two ships, in space shooting at each other. I don't remember this specific game because it was particularly great, but because I played it with my brother.

Since that day, my brother's tastes in games has narrowed a bit. While I can still get some great rounds of Worms out of him and the occasional Rock Band stint, he really doesn't go for the shooters I enjoy so much, nor the RPG's I play from time to time. He's not a big fan of the controllers on modern consoles, and sticks mostly to PC games. For all my strategic prowess he makes me look like an idiot when it comes to most strategy games. I love playing them with him nonetheless because well, he's my brother, but more than that, playing games with the person who introduced you to them seems to bring back that magic.

I remember that first game very well. I couldn't have been much older than five at the time and in order to see the screen I had to sit on my brother's lap. He let me control the ship attached to the arrow keys while he manned the more complicated WSAD configuration on the other ship. He let me play around with it for while and I giggled as I spun my ship drunkenly around the arena, careening from corner to corner. Eventually I found the fire ke and the game was underway. I can't remember if I trounced or was trounced, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that I had taken my first steps into gaming with my brother.

To this day, whenever I play a game I think back to that time. As life-defining moments go, it's a bit tame for some but it meant a lot to me. I play games now because of that experience I had with my brother. I owe him for that. I think every one of us has someone to thank for our interest in games. If at all posible, give that person a call, thank them for what they did for you. They deserve it.

This is my thanks to my brother for starting me down a path that's led me here. Because you showed me the joys of gaming, I've made some of the best friends I've ever had, conected better with my wife and mustered the resolve to keep this blog running. Thanks, bro.

Sound is scary

Friday, November 7, 2008
Playing Dead Space has taught me a few things. First, space is scary. It's big, it's cold and you can't breathe in it. Second, necromorphs find me tasty. Third, sound is scarier than anything in the world (except maybe Hitler with a chainsaw arm and cybernetic limbs. That's pretty scary.)

I didn't think I'd ever see a game in the Hitchcockian style. What I mean to say is that Dead Space knows that what we can't see is much scarier than what we can see. What's stomping around out in the dark? You don't know, it could be ANYTHING! It could be Hitler with a chainsaw arm and cybernetic limbs, who knows! Run you fool!

If I had to compare, I'd say the moments without sound are probably the most frightening. I'd be hearing clanks and clangs, I'd have killed a dozen or so necromorphs then I'd round a corner into a hallway that was completely silent. Not one undead peep. That's when I'd moisten my engineering rig.

It's rare for a game to focus so heavily on sound design. It's rarer still to find a game that puts all that hard work to good use. I don't know what twisted mind they put to work on the sounds for Dead Space, but they found the most nerve shattering ambient noises I've ever heard. Every little noise is put there to make you feel ill at ease.

While the look and the movement of the necromorphs are very creepy, it all comes down to the sounds they make. A shrill scream, the wet smack of bloodied limbs on metal, the scraping of claws on industrial flooring. Euch. I shudder a bit just thinking about it.

I wish more games took advantage of sound's ability to trigger emotional reactions. Take a cue from Dead Space and spend some of that development time putting together a detailed auditory experience . If our glorious past time is to evolve, developers have to start thinking of better, more visceral ways of making us experience the game.

Sound is a largely untapped field and one that with a little work can make all the difference in the end. We gamers may not know exactly what the Ripper would sound like, but we can think of a rough composite. Use more "real thing" sound recording instead of pre-recorded 40 year old foley sound. Play with environmental effects such as echoes and rings. We hear these things in our lives, now bring them to our games. Trust me, you'll thank me later.

The New Faces of Platforming

Thursday, November 6, 2008
Let me be honest: platformers are not my bag--never have been. Yes, I played and enjoyed the original Super Mario games, Mario 64, etc, but I rarely am compelled to beat platformers.

While there are exceptions, (Psychonauts, I'm looking at you), in general, platformers have weak stories, average gameplay and, often, shoddy controls--anyone remember Bubsy the Bobcat?

Yes, the platformer has undergone evolutions and mutations in the long years we've been playing them. But it was only recently that I came across two games that I feel have truly changed what it means be a platformer.

The first of these is Little Big Planet. A sidescroller, LBP is based on the one mechanism that has and probably always will define platforming: jumping.

Aside from this, however, the game has taken every other facet of the genre and jumped light years with them. It delivers the simple, classic fun of any treasured platformer--I myself was again and again reminded of the joys of first playing Super Mario Bros. 3--and it increases the depth (both literally and figuratively; LBP has three planes of depth rather than the traditional one), adds in a fantastic level creator that gives the players all the tools necessary to match or even surpass the developer created levels, and, of course, it brings back the simple fun of playing with friends. And by playing with friends, I mean one, two, or three friends who can be as close to you as the couch or across the nation or world. In order to complete levels, players must help each other get through, rather than hinder--nobody wins until everyone reaches the end. This creates a sense of camaraderie seen few times before in platform gaming, if ever.

LBP is beautiful, customizable, creative, silly, and and at the end of the day, fun. It's changed platforming forever because in a post-LBP world, the game has moved from the hands of the developers into the hands of the players, joining us all into a community of, in LBP terms, "Creator Curators", enabling us to create our own worlds and share them with one everyone, guide and help one another through them, and reap the rewards together. Little Big Planet has made gaming an even better place to be.

Next: A closer look in the Mirror

This is the wasteland

Monday, November 3, 2008
Fallout 3 and I are still getting to know each other. It's an awkward relationship right now. I knew his older brothers and thought they were pretty damn awesome. But this youngest member of the family is so different from his relations that I feel I have to dig to find some common ground. There are some similarities in behavior, but the look and feeling of this one is very different from what I've come to expect from the exalted family.

Moving the camera from a top-down to first person view has the effect of making combat more hectic than previous Fallout titles. You no longer know if someone is behind you, often until you are shot. Since a lot of the combat is skill based, you aren't ever guaranteed to hit your target. You can try to go through combat in real time but the Oblivion controls are still a little stiff and don't provide enough fine aim capability for accurate shots.

The turn based feature, or V.A.T.S. as it's called, allows you to take more careful aim at your target by specifically body parts, but at least in the first part of the game you have to get so close to your target for a decent chance to hit that a lot of the magic of slow-motion shots is destroyed by a quirky camera.

One of the key parts of the old Fallout games was the writing. Snarky lines, interesting side quests and often hilarious encounters all revolved around the central story, woven in and out carefully. Fallout 3 almost gets there but can't quite reach the heights of the originals. I think the Bethesda folks are still getting used to the verbiage. Hopefully with time they'll become more comfortable in their new environs and we'll finally get that same caliber of writing the Fallout series has delivered.

I'm being a little hard on Fallout 3, yes. Do I dislike it however? No. It's still a great game, it just doesn't feel like the natural Fallout sequel I had expected it to be. There's plenty of fan service sprinkled about the items and dialogue, but beyond that, most fans of the original series should know what they're getting into. Don't expect it to answer all your payers and the two of you should get along just fine.

Fallout 3 does do some things very well. The first couple hours of the game teach you the controls and create your character in a very innovative way. I don't want to spoil it so I won't say any more, you'll just have to play it for yourself.

Somehow, the slow motion camera doesn't really get old. There's something incredibly cathartic about blowing a super mutant's head apart and watching the body collapse slowly to the floor. It's an aesthetic touch that manages to bring back a bit of the old feelings. Just a bit though

The real heart of the game is still alive and mostly well. One noticeable difference is that you don't get to choose any starting perks. On top of that, I've yet to come across one perk with any negative effects, an interesting choice with seemingly little reason behind it. It's as if Bethesda removed it to make room for the robust weapon building and salvage mechanics.

Remember, I don't dislike Fallout 3. In fact, I highly reccomend it to any fan of tomorrow land aesthetis, a taste for dark humor and a fondness for RPG action. Fans of the original Fallout series should take it with a grain of salt but should still come out pleased with the overall game.