Branching Out

Friday, March 20, 2009
Not long ago, Harmonix released "Texas Flood" the signature album by Stevie Ray Vaughn. This is not the first time the developers have branched out from the core rock base for the game. Before this album was released to the game there were two country packs released and (in case you don't consider it rock) a Roy Orbison pack. More recently the team has released a funk pack which includes songs by Earth, Wind and Fire and James Brown.

But I'm not here to talk about those. I want to talk about Texas Flood. This is the first bit of blues we've gotten for Rock Band, and what a start. Stevie Ray Vaughn has always been one of my favorite blues artists and Texas Flood is my favorite blues album of all time. Naturally, I snapped up the DLC as fast as I could.

This is a good sign for blues fans like myself. This is the music I grew up with. I've been listening to the blues since I was in diapers. Hell, the first concert I can really remember seeing was B.B. King. These songs, this album resonate with me in a way that Livin' on a Prayer never could. This is my kind of music.

If you aren't a Blues fan, you should still try out a few of these songs as they are probably the most difficult songs yet released for the game. Forget Green Grass and High Tides, Rude Mood is the new king of difficulty. The only part on that song that isn't rated a 5 devils is Vocals, and that's because there aren't any.

I hope this isn't the only blues pack we'll see for Rock Band. The genre is one of my favorites and it's now been proven that it can't be matched for difficulty. Bring me some John Lee Hooker, Harmonix, maybe some B.B. King. I know I'm not the only Blues fan out there that plays your game and besides, my birthdays coming up. Put out a Black Keys pack and I'll forgive you for not getting me anything last year.

It Comes so Close.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Killzone 2 is very nearly perfect. I almost hate to say it . I wanted, no, part of me wanted to hate it as much as the first game. Yet I can't, because it's great. It's, as I said above, nearly perfect. There are just a few little details that keep it from being the best (yes, I said it) shooter I've ever played.

I don't have many issues with the game, but my biggest one is the lack of mute all option in multiplayer. As it stands I'm stuck trying to find the player being yelled at by his wife or blaring techno for two minutes between rounds. It sucks.

The controls still feel a little loose. It seems like there's a strange jump in the sensitivity of the analog sticks about halfway. Honestly, I'm probably just not used to the way the PS3 controller handles. I have the same aiming problems with Warhawk and Uncharted.

Finally, there's no co-op. I'm not the first to gripe about this, most of the reviewers out there picked up on this as their one issue. Honestly though, it looks like the game was built for co-op, you're almost always with a squad mate, and some sections of the game are so hard, they almost feel impossible ithout somone else to help you out.

Really, all this isn't much for a game whose previous installment I could only play for five hours before I traded it in. To go from that to what Killzone is now, is an incredible leap. I love what they've done with multiplayer, the experience system gives me something to work towards and the campaign is interesting. I couldn't have asked for much more except for those few things above.

Killzone 2 is almost the perfect shooter. It shouldn't have to be the best. That it's come so close should be enough. If you have a PS3, go buy it. If you don't have one, find a friend who does and grab an hour or two. You'll remember it, trust me.

Character Conclusions

Sunday, March 15, 2009
The results are in. The post is late, and I've been scrambling to come up with some conclusive answer to the question I posed last week. So, who is the more memorable, developer made or player made characters?

Given the responses, there is a definite trend towards the developer created characters. For Earthborn, the old (and awesome) characters he grew up with are the most memorable. Elementalist too felt that the characters encountered in his gaming infancy were the ones that stuck in his mind.

Characters like Frog or Tellah stick with us for many reasons. It is my belief that these early characters create the archetypes for future characters. These leave the first and most lasting impressions in our mind. Terra is the sage, the wise man who guides our heroes. Frog is the burdened hero, fighting to right a past mistake or failing.

Once these characters are established, we begin identifying similar characteristics in later games we encounter. We identify those resonant characteristics in different characters from game to game. We see bits of the sage in Cortana (Halo), we see the burdened hero in Thrall (Warcraft III).

Other characters last because of the time spent with them. Like a good friend, these characters are our companions through the game. Their fight, whether it be to become a pirate or repairing the Funktronic becomes our own. These characters, though player controlled, take on a more voyeuristic feel. We aren't a part of the character, but an ally. In this way, characters like Guybrush Threepwood, Toejam & Earl and even Solid Snake are the closest analogue to film characters.

Closer to the player built character, we run into the likes of Gordon Freeman and the characters from Bioshock, Far Cry 2 and Shadow of the Colossus. These characters, because of their silence throughout the game, give the players an opportunity to implant themselves into the character. We more than sympathize with their plight, we take it on ourselves. The events in the game have little visible impact on the character from a completely objective point of view. Instead, we, the players are the ones who feel the direct impact of the story. To an extent, we are an actor playing the character.

Finally, we come to the player created character. Here we are allowed the most freedom. Here we choose the height weight, look and feel of our character. Some of us, like Elementalist and myself, create alter egos for ourselves in Rock Band, painstakingly recreating our own tattoos and style of dress. Some of us create outlandish characters to wander the wastes, too stupid to speak in anything but grunts and half-words. (On a side note; if you've never played Fallout or Fallout 2 as a big dumb brute, you should. The frustration pays BIG dividends.)

The characters we create ourselves come into the world only with the characteristics we choose for them. Perhaps we play the scoundrel, pickpocketing whoever we can. Perhaps we play the epitome of righteousness and justice, righting every wrong, no matter how small. These characters are our babies. We create and nurture them along, mold them into what we think they should be. Some of us, and by us I mean me, even write back stories for some of these characters, give them strange quirks to enhance our experience. For example, I've decided that my character in Fallout 3 hates raiders and slavers more than anything else in the wastes and will not do anything else until he's found every camp and hideout and eradicated the scum within.

Whether they be created by us or not, video game characters connect with their audiences in a very personal way. Because we exert an amount of influence in their world, these characters are that much closer to us than those of other mediums. Though they have yet to rival (at least in my case) the depth of most classic literary characters, they will always be remembered alongside them as we continue to play.

Memorable Characters

Monday, March 9, 2009
What makes a game character memorable? Why do we remember characters like Master Chief, Samus Aran, Link, and Kratos while others fall by the wayside? More importantly, do we remember characters we create more fondly than the static characters mentioned above? Consider this post an active experiment.

I want to hear from you, dear reader and the rest of our somnambulant thrall. Which characters do you remember most? Why? Were they home-made or crafted by a team of developers? What makes your character stand out? Give us a game, a character, maybe even a particular event that cemented your relationship to the character. By this Friday, March 13, I'd like to see some contribution from everyone. It doesn't have to be long, just a few sentences.

Dig in there and really think about this one. I'm anxious to hear your thoughts. I'll be using the results as material for my Friday post, so the cut off time will be around 1:00 PM PST. Hope to hear from you soon.

When Innovation Attacks

Friday, March 6, 2009
Innovation is a two way street. Many of today's greatest games can link their success to something they've done differently. Call of Duty 4, Spore, Grand Theft Auto, Portal, just to name a few. But as I said before, no game has to innovate to be good.

All too often in fact, developers focus too much on innovation, ignoring playability or design in favor of some mechanic or another, turning something good into a gimmick. Other games just don't implement their innovative tech effectively. Either way, many games every year have their potential wasted in the name of innovation,

When talking about gimmicky games I can think of few better examples than LucasArts sole non Star Wars release in a billion years, Fracture. Fracture relies on one little piece of gameplay known to us as terrain deformation. Essentially you can manipulate the ground somewhat, raise or lower terrain as you see fit. It's nothing new, it's been a part of many games since Myth: The Fallen Lords. This however, isn't just a piece of the greater game, it's the whole damn thing.

Everything, from the level design to the weapons to the horrible story revolves around terrain deformation technology. Here's where it gets a little hard to follow. Playing through the demo, I could see where the story was wrapped around the play mechanic rather than the other way around. It's a time tested method for making a failed game, and it worked.

Trying to fit a game around a play mechanic is like trying to fit an orange skin around your head. It doesn't work out too well for the orange skin or your head in the end. Developers concept meetings should never start with "it'd be really cool if you could do (x mechanic) in this game." Comments like that too early kill games. That magic phrase should only come (if ever) at the end of the development process.

Some games manage to avoid this line of thought and still fail, despite innovative touches. Sometimes the developers try too hard and cram in too much stuff for one game. Sometimes people make Alone in the Dark (people in this sense being Eden games).

Alone in the dark didn't have to be a bad game. It could have been a great game in fact, had it not tried to stack so much new material into its spindly frame. All those different things you could make and do were really cool, I just wish it hadn't landed the game a control scheme more unwieldy than the pain box from Dune.

I remember one part of Alone in the Dark in a museum. I was being attacked by these fissure people (So-called because of the glowing fissures erupting from their skin. Aren't I clever?) and knew that ire hurt them more than just bullets. So, as the monster approaches, I open my coat, scroll to my lighter fluid, select it, then scroll over to my bullets select them and okay the combination to get a clip of flaming bullets. As if the process weren't tedious enough, Every time I ran out of bullets, I had to repeat the process if I wanted more.

Neither Fracture or Alone in the dark had to be this awful. They could have been good, or in Fracture's case at least not so awful. But Fracture's team had a mechanic before they had a game and Alone in the Dark's team didn't know when to stop. They all put their money on "innovation" and they all lost in the end.

More Than Enough

Thursday, March 5, 2009
I'm not sure if you've seen the post on, but this shit is getting out of control. And while I rather enjoyed the new Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena demo, and plan to buy the full game when it releases, there's a part of me that wishes for the whole film series to stop, just so I don't waste another ten dollars on something I'll regret I'd seen. Of course there's a silver lining: the games are freakin' tight. Check out this interview, if you're interested. Or play the demo (or Escape from Butcher Bay) to see how awesome this title is going to be. Athena is supposedly Butcher Bay plus multiplayer, another campaign, and more choice--whatever that means. Though I bemoan the film series, I want to see this video game franchise flourish.

I'm going to see the Watchmen film this weekend, so until then, I'm keeping my eyes off and Metacritic. I've played the demo of Watchmen: The End is Nigh on Live Arcade and, didn't suck, if that's what you're wondering. This one is pleasant, though straight-forward, beat-em-up fare; you choose either Rorschach or Nite Owl II and go around kicking the shit out of pretty much everyone you see. The controls are fairly intuitive: X and Y do various attacks, Right Bumper evades. Pick up tokens in the demo level (set in a prison, by the way) and you acquire the abilies to grab and chain attacks in a limited way. I saw a list of moves online and was impressed by its depth. The game is rather graphic--startlingly so--with plenty of slo-mo finishing moves that occur at random intervals as you fight.

I didn't get to use Rorschach's "Rage" meter as much as I wanted to. Supposedly, the meter fills as you dish out punishment, and allows you access to a few choice moves--"Bullrush" is available in the demo--that allow you to vary the way you dispose of enemies. I still prefer throwing guys over railings.

The End is Nigh

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
I remember that the Tick, Ben Edlund's unappreciated blue hero, called himself "nigh" invulnerable. I remember writing a short story in high school in which I used the word. But here, here, outside of the context of childhood fantasy, it exists in the subtitle to the new--perhaps unfortunate--Watchmen videogame. I'm not sure what that means for Hell, but it perhaps is a bit nippy down there.

I'm currently downloading this Watchmen demo. I'll let you all know, but I'm not holding out any hope for this small-screen permutation. All my hope is currently held for Zach Snyder's adaptation of the bigger variety. I'm not a huge fan of his me-proud-kill-enemy movie, 300, although I appreciate its bombast, and, in some way, its uncompromising vision. It's a pretty movie, but like a muscle that flexes for two and a half hours straight, it tires you out. Watchmen--the graphic novel--on the other hand has consumed my students' minds, made them do things they probably never wanted to. Some have performed psychoanalytic criticism on it; some have taken a Foucauldian route. Panopticons and power and such.

Assault on Dark Athena, the semi-sequel to the critically lauded Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is also in my download queue right now. For this game, I have a bit more hope. Starbreeze is full of a bunch of extremely talented people who know what "cinematic" and "fidelity" means--or should mean--in this strange world where comic books are becoming cannon. Also, it's got pitch black mode. Awesome.

Elemental1st, one of our other Somnambulant, and I have an ongoing grudge match in Street Fighter IV. We get pretty competitive in these sorts of things, but it's always with laughs and our fiery humors about us. His Cammy is pretty fierce, as is my Blanka, so naturally our games come down to slivers of life and some intense waiting and guessing. It's not quite rock, paper, sissors, but these key moments have the feeling of genuine strategy. Do I jump in, risking life and limb for a winning blow, or do I charge a Blanka-ball, hoping he doesn't block and counter? To our fighter-savvy readers, these examples will sound notably unsophisticated. But to bring up the philosophical question, I'm not really sure what to call some of the techniques. "Combo" doesn't seem to give the moment its due respect, while "chain" feels like I'm bound by the game's fetters. "Move" seems aptly broad enough, while suggesting a single move might, in some circumstances, be the right one. Good move. Good enough.

A Zone in Which Persons Kill

Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I had a chance to download the Killzone 2 demo the other day. Being a general fan of shooters, I figured, why the hell not. As the 1.2 gig demo dripped slowly onto my console I checked up on some of the reviews online. It seems like every mild mannered game critic out there says it's fan-fucking-tastic, so of course I was all a twitter when I finally got to play it.

Once I was playing I noticed a few things that I think were missed by too many of the reviews, Kotaku excepted. Killzone 2 doesn't do anything differently than other shooters. Throughout the game's singleplayer demo and even the multiplayer (I can only attest to this through heresay as the demo doesn't include multiplayer) no new ground is broken.

The class based multiplayer? Battlefield. The leveling system in multiplayer? Call of Duty 4. The cover system in the campaign? Rainbow Six Vegas. Every little piece of almost every successful shooter is in Killzone 2. The makers of Killzone 2 must have studied and played every shooter in the last 10 years. Oh, did I mention you can have bots in multiplayer? Yeah, my jaw went slack when I heard that.

Some people have been critical of Killzone 2 for exactly that reason. For some, innovation trumps solid gameplay. This is a pressure many shooter's feel in today's market. The genre has become so popular, especially on consoles, that every developer feels that their game must have some kind of distinguishing characteristic. Something that sets it apart from all the other shooters out there.

This isn't something that needs be discouraged, by no means. In fact, many of the best games this last year were innovators in some way. Mirror's Edge tweaked the norms of first person shooters by taking out most of the shooting in favor of more first person. Dead Space (not an FPS, but it counts in this context) drew our cross hairs off the enemies heads. Left 4 Dead forced to REALLY cooperate.

As nice as it may be to have some new mechanic to look forward to, as important it is that we push the medium forward, there is still a lot to be said for a game that does everything right. While Killzone 2 is doing all the things it's predecessors did, there is one thing it can claim as its own. Killzone put all those things in one place. You want to level up, you want character classes, you want active squads, you want a cover system, Killzone 2 has them.

A game need not innovate to excel. As long as it can do all those little borrowed elements as well or better than the original games they appeared in, no one should have any problems with it.

Now don't get me wrong, I believe innovation is key to the future of this industry, but we're bound to plateau a few times along the way. If we can't make a decent game with what we've got at those points, we might as well pack it all up and go home. Why make games at all if the only goal is to give the player they haven't seen before?

Later this week: When innovation attacks!: A brief treatise on the negative effects of innovative policy on games.