I 'Dig' This Community Game - Hey Oh!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I long thought of removing the pun in the title of this article, so just go ahead and ignore it. And if Melech sees me at PAX this year--and that's very likely--he has permission to punch me in the arm and call me a "pun-happy-sonofabitch." If little-Melech is there, he can call me something more Disney, and I'll accept that, too.

Miner Dig Deep is possibly the strongest title on Xbox Live's Community Game scene. It's definitely one of the most unique. Taking the roll of a lonely miner, your quest is to dig--yep--as deep as you possibly can, into the earth, seeking riches to sell like Iron Ore, Small Gold Nuggets, and Diamonds. Sell those for money and buy some better equipment so you can dig deeper and get more expensive minerals. The concept is deceptively simple, but the game is incredibly addictive.

The way you get down into the earth is largely up to you, but the game offers a few specific tools at your fingertips. At the beginning of the game you have a rudimentary pick-axe, which you'll be able to replace with a better one once you find enough "Blueprints"--arbitrarily placed artifacts deep in the earth. You can jump and climb out two blocks deep, but if you get yourself stuck too far in the ground, you'll have to call for assistance to the surface, losing your haul of jewels in the process. Ladders and, later on, elevator shafts allow you easy access to the darker recesses of the earth.

You start with a small lantern, which illuminates the dense dirt around you and lets you see where falling rocks, minerals, or other things are. Your job is to find enough minerals to make each trip worth it, to make your yeild initially pay off the cost of refilling your lantern, which is constantly using oil when you're below the surface.

The weirdest thing is, as far as I can tell, there's no bottom. You dig and dig and sell and sell. I've found some interesting things down there. I've found a couple teleporters. Some falling rocks. Some abandoned mine-shafts. Some icy precipices. And yet I keep on digging and the game keeps on going and going.

My wife thought that she had the game figured out, so she started making checkerboard-like digs where she'd dig laterally until she reached the side, then she'd go down two levels and do it again. She would mine every mineral that way, get everything on her way down. Her mine would be neat, partitioned, orderly.

But when she made it about ten levels down, her mine became unstable. Her controller shook madly, and the screen kept warning her "Cave in imminent!" The earth began to fill in her overly ambitious project. Her mine was collapsing.

All this from a game that costs 200 MS points.

Miner Dig Deep
is easily one of my favorite Xbox 360 games, not just Community games. It's pure gameplay, pure lonesome digging, and pure fun. The alienation I feel while going down into more unstable and foreign territory has only been matched by Dead Space; even though Miner Dig Deep is cartoony, even though it's just a game, there's always as you play this widening detatchment from civilization--symbolized by a single shop and a tent which you've pitched at the surface--there's the feeling that time, in the form of your always shrinking light supply, is always against you.

There's an interview at this location for your reading pleasure--if you're into the indy scene and like hearing from low-budget devs talking about how they came about making their title.

Here's the XNA Roundup of Miner Dig Deep, so you can see some videos of it. Just remember that watching the game is not a good way to decide whether you're going to like it. You have to play it for a while.


Monday, April 20, 2009
Louis and Zoey can go to hell. I hope their damn boat hits a reef and sinks. Who healed Zoey when their own health was dangerously low, saved Louis from three Smokers in one level, saved Louis again when he walked into a witch, manned the minigun and killed a million infected while we waited for rescue? ME!

So when the boat finally got to the docks and I fought off the infected while he and Zoey got on the boat, you'd think they could help me out when I went back for Bill, killing a Tank and thirty infected before being brought to the ground. You'd be oh so very wrong though. For even as they screamed "FRANCIS!! NNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" they strapped in and shoved off, leaving Bill and I for dead. Hence the title of the game I suppose.

Maybe Valve intended it as more of a warning than a play on words (or numbers rather). Whatever the case, playing Left 4 Dead with only the AI as my ally has been an interesting experience. None of my usual friends have the game any more and I hate playing with strangers, especially (I wish I was making this up) when they're little kids that scream in terror whenever they see a group of infected.

I really do like Left 4 Dead, I just wish I had some actual friends to fight alongside with. You know, people that give a shit when you get dragged half a mile by a Smoker. The AI is a great shot for the most part and they certainly seem to care about the rest of the group while you're playing through a campaign. It's when you actually reach the objective that they tend to get a little antsy. Trapped by a group of infected near a saferoom? They'll be there in a jiffy. Incapacitated by three infected mere inches from the rescue helicopter? Enjoy being a zombie.

I doubt there will be any kind of patch to change this behavior in the AI. In fact, I think it's one of the more human behaviors I've seen in a game. Sure it's one for all and all for one when you're in the shit, but when everything you've worked to gain is only a few steps away, those bonds tend to stretch and break. Desperate situations breed blind eyes.

If any of you are reading this and have Left 4 Dead, give me a hand. I promise I'll return the favor.

Fabula Nova Holy Fucking Shit (A Brief Overview of Final Fantasy XIII)

Thursday, April 16, 2009
As I get older, fewer and fewer games really get me excited--that 'new game' electric feeling is, by and large, gone. I get the feeling, now and again, but it fades, usually, rather quickly. Almost never do I buy a game on 'day one'. In fact, I can't remember the last game I bought at launch. Metal Gear Solid 4, I think.

But there are four games that are, right now, excepted. One of them is the odd man out, and that's God of War 3. I just can't wait to murder me the king of gods.

The other three are Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and Final Fantasy Agito XIII.

You may have gathered: I might be considered the local FF fanboy. I even play Final Fantasy XI, the oft-scoffed at FF MMO that everyone agrees shouldn't have been assigned the honor of "XI" and just been "Final Fantasy Online". But I digress.

That said, I am not so blind in my faith that Final Fantasy can do no wrong in my eyes. Final Fantasy X, while widely-hailed, had a main character second only to Luke Skywalker for the 'biggest pansy-ass protagonist' award. In fact, almost everything about X was stupid, excepting the sphere grid and the ability to swap out party members. Final Fantasy XII had amazing sights, production values, and the best voice acting of many games to date, but the combat system and 'drop system' for items gave it such an MMO feel that it sometimes didn't feel quite right. The only thing I'm going to mention about Final Fantasy X-2 is that I'm not going to mention Final Fantasy X-2.

But Final Fantasy XIII is looking to change all of that with "Fabula Nova Crystalis", or The New Legend of the Crystal. Taking Final Fantasy into the current generation, while keeping some of the best features of the past, and pushing the boundaries of the future, the series is looking to re-entice gamers (as if it really needed to. I'm looking at you, Japan) this 'series' is the new face of Final Fantasy; it can be, however, a little confusing to make sense of it all. How are these games related? How many are there? What are they about? On which platforms are they (and are they not) appearing? Where are my pants? All questions that need prompt answers, and I, Hiro, shall lead you into enlightenment.

How are these games related?

Games in the 'Fabula Nova Crystalis' series are connected in the same way that the Ivalice Alliance games are connected. (Ivalice Alliance: Final Fantasy Tactics, FF Tactics Advance, FF Tactics Advance 2, Final Fantasy XII, FF XII: Revenant Wings) and Vagrant Story). They all take place in the same world, but in different areas and, perhaps, at different times. This is different from other, previous Final Fantasy games which always take place on a different world, (which often goes unnamed).

How many are there?

Three have been announced so far: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and Final Fantasy Agito XIII.

What are they about? On which platforms will they be published?

Details about plot are, of course, kept relatively under-wraps. Here is what we know:

Final Fantasy XIII: (Playstation 3, Xbox 360)

The first and main entry in the series chronicles the struggle of code-named "Lightning" and her struggle to bring down the holy empire of Cocoon, a magical floating paradise at odds with the world below--Pulse.

Gameplay: Turn-based RPG, with real-time elements mixed in.

See the trailer HERE:

Final Fantasy Versus XIII (Playstation 3)

In a kingdom that holds the last crystal, an onslaught of 'heretics' is coming to take it. Its last defender and heir to the throne, Noctis Lucis Caelum (absolute badass) will protect it at any cost.

Gameplay: Kingdom Hearts-esque action RPG for mature audiences.

See the trailer HERE:

Final Fantasy Agito XIII (PSP)

Long at peace, one military academy takes up arms against the others. Making a last stand are twelve students.

Gameplay: Action RPG, Similar to PSP title "Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core".

See the trailer HERE:

Where are my pants?

I'm not wearin' any! Whoo-dog!

Hope this clears up any confusion about Fabula Nova Crystalis our readers may have. I, for one, am motherfucking crackling electric.


When did everything change?

Monday, April 13, 2009
There I was, playing Red Alert 3, beating the piss out of the Allies again, when it dawned on me that this used to be harder. Skill and years of practice be damned, there was something fundamentally different about the RTS genre as I knew it. Somewhere along the line, these games got a little more forgiving.

For example, one of the later soviet missions has you on an island, surrounded by enemy forces. These enemies have significant air power and because of their vast numbers, I'm not really able to gain a foothold in the area. They cripple my resource production as I cripple theirs, their numbers are far greater than mine and my defenses are marginal at best. After 15 minutes of limping around the map, waiting for the death blow, I realize it isn't coming. Rather than finish me off, the computer seems more content to let me sit and whimper while it picks me apart. What military textbook did they study?

The skirmish mode for Red Alert 3 further proves my point. It took me about 5 minute to reach max tech level units while my adversary was still slinging conscripts at me by the dozen. It just didn't seem fair.

The rift between low tech and high tech units reminds me a little of Empire Earth. Few things feel better than dropping an atomic bomb on an enemy that still uses rocks as anti-air defenses. Delicious.

I've had little experience online so far, but given my history of dark diplomacy, I don't expect much of a challenge.

Anymore I have to go back to the Total War or Combat Mission series to really satisfy my strategy cravings. They offer a sufficiently complex structure and challenging AI for my style of play. The Total War games especially quench my thirst with the risk-esque world map and highly complex unit breakdowns.

I can understand why so many strategy games have dumbed down their difficulty. The console crowd (no offense) hasn't always been the type to leap at complexity. After all, the controller only has so many buttons. On top of that, most of the RTS games out there require strict unit management and quick-clicking around the map, something no analog stick could ever compete with. So the PC remains the dominant territory of the true RTS and I am left to mourn the pitiful specs of my once beloved PC.

I doubt we'll ever see a really solid RTS for the consoles. At least not until they offer keyboard and mouse support for it.

"Solar" and the Emergent Sandbox

Thursday, April 9, 2009
When I think "sandbox games," I think Grand Theft Auto 4. I think of tossing semi-trucks in Crackdown and tooling my ride in Saints Row. I think of running across latticework and leaping to ramparts, to wait, to watch and think, in Assassin's Creed. When I'm alone and tired I sometimes think The Sims, but, embarrassed, I don't usually utter it. The emergent game, the "do whatever you want" game, the paidia "childish game of amusement." Narrative be damned, sandbox is here to stay.

The idea of the sandbox is one of emergence. A game that approaches you with a task without giving away how you are meant to complete that task. Part of the "game" is figuring it out. I have one in mind. One I'm quite in love with right now. I mean to introduce to you, the somnambulant, to Solar.

It doesn't look like much, but Solar has it where it counts. Solar, like Flow on the PS3, is an emergent sandbox game that allows you to play however you want. You control a single star--a sun--and have the ability to wander the galaxy in search of planets to capture in your gravitational pull. The goal of the game is obscure--gain more mass by absorbing planets into you. Planets can absorb asteroids that orbit them like moons and gain mass as well. So it goes: planets absorb asteroids, you absorb planets!

Hierarchy aside, Solar allows for many different kinds of play. I spent a ton of time in the game's main mode "Sandbox Mode" making two orbiting planets denser and denser until they started producing spaceships. The spaceships would then fly around, protecting me from other stars and asteroids. In about ten minutes, there were dozens of spaceships, like little buzzing flies under my indirect control (they will follow you around, but you can't directly influence them).

There are elements of real-time-strategy in the game. There are puzzle elements, too. Solar is difficult to categorize because it's pathos lies in the execution of an idea instead of the execution of objective. But for those of you who need objectives, there are those too. Challenge mode allows you to do a timed run to goals like turning a planet into a sun, becoming a black hole, destroying another sun.

Solar is not the first, nor will it be the last, emergent sandbox title. Flower, recently, on the PlayStation Network takes the element of discovery and makes it beautiful. It's the same with Solar. There's something peaceful, exciting, and rewarding to playing a game to understand the point of why you're playing it. It's the same sensation as starting a novel in the middle and discovering the plot as you go. That's what's so great about Solar. It throws you into the deep end, then it expects you to learn how to swim.

Are Gamers Ready to FLOCK to Live? Are Indy games the next big thing?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Well, are they?

Microsoft seems to think so. Of course, Microsoft is always toting their "Unique User" count on Live, and their "Attach Rate" for games (the latter being a sort of download-to-purchase ratio). I've always taken issue with the way Microsoft boasts of their service, giving fractions and percentages as though indicative of some kind of greater power favoring their side of the console-war, the way Greek gods did in works attributed to Homer.

I've had a limited experience with the PlayStation Network, but I want that to change. As content goes, they've got some great games on there, but as for features and utility, there's nothing really stand-out-ish that bloggers or paid games journalists care to write about. XBox Live has group chat (a godsend for gamers!), a feature that changes the scope and ambition of gameplay altogether (Left 4 Dead, Chromehounds, and Gears of War particularly benefit). It's a combination of commonality and imagination that gets gamers to use this particular service over another. Most of my real-life friends play games on Live, anyway, and my friends who have a PS3 don't call me up and say, "Wanna hop online?"

This week, I'm excited for FLOCK, developed by Proper Games and published by Capcom for Live and Steam, set to be released (on the former) this Wednesday for 1200 Microsoft Points. I'm excited for it despite the lack of online play (there's local co-op, however). I'm also a little disappointed that online co-op isn't standard in any game that's co-op on Xbox 360. I'm disappointed, but I'm not terribly surprised. Capcom has been hit-and-miss with their online play for a very long time. Everytime I think of the shoddy lobby system in Street Fighter IV, I die a little. If only that game weren't so fucking awesome...

And Flock seems to be another quality game from Capcom, another great addition to the still burgeoning library of Live and Steam. In it, you use a flying saucer to guide an assortment of barnyard animals (almost Pikmin-esque) to the mothership, called--I'm not joking--the motherflocker.

I guess my question is this: Capcom, have you learned your lesson by now? Didn't the Resident Evil 5 "versus mode" debacle and a lack of tournament system in SFIV show you that this sort of corner-cutting wouldn't fly in the post-Halo 2 world? My advice to Proper Games is that they try to work with Capcom to make a "proper" co-op mode for Live. Whatever you do, don't release pay-for-play online co-op mode. Don't even suggest it as an option. No one will forgive you for that, and gamer memory is incredibly contentious. Don't go so far into the uterus of corporate whoredom that you start to see dollar signs in the innocent faces of sheep.

Anyway, in other news, I've been very much into independent games lately, so much that I scour the "community games" menus on Live daily, hoping for some unique, lasting sustenance. There are a few things on there worth your time, such as CarneyVale: Showtime, which is a sort of 2D-puzzle-acrobatics simulator. Check out the demo if you haven't. The game includes a full map editor and some interesting game mechanics to lengthen the lifespan. And although I feel that once you've acquired all the abilities the game offers, the game seems to slow by giving you too much of a good thing, it's easily on par with the likes of World of Goo. I also recommend, Loot, Steal, and Destroy if you're a fan of pirates (and who isn't!?), Colosseum for it's sltylish art and use of gladiators, and Puzzlegeddon which is a Puzzle Quest derivative with solid gameplay (and up to 6 players online).

Check out the CO-OP video coverage of IGF, the Independent Games Festival, complete with blueberries and bouncing sprites! I'm looking forward to pretty much everything I saw there (especially Blueberry Garden, an ambitious work by Erik Svedäng ), and hope that those games at least see the light of day on Steam, if not Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, where they would--undoubtedly--thrive.

I feel it necessary to post the video for Blueberry Garden. Here it is: