Archive for the 'Games' Category

Trekathon Special #1: Mass Effect 2

February 21st, 2010

Star Trek is a very influential show, and so I’ll be looking at a few other TV show episodes, movies and games inspired by Star Trek as part of the Trekathon.

First up is Mass Effect 2. The best Star Trek game ever made (even though it’s not a Star Trek game).1

In fact, Mass Effect 2 might be one of the best games ever made. It succeeds on every level: gameplay, plot, acting, graphics, sound.

Personally, I think that the plot and characters are the main thing that keeps me coming back. Mass Effect 2 is incredibly selfish, having more strong well define characters in one game that you normally see in a year of releases. As I played I found myself becoming very attached to the characters I recruited for my crew. And that makes the ‘suicide mission’ dynamic of the game, where any character can die in the final act, one of the tensest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. This is’t a case of a mistake causing you to lose a life, it’s a case where a mistake causes a friend you’ve been playing the game with for hours to die.

It’s also the best sequel ever. I finished Mass Effect 1 recently, and the links between the games are deep and complex. Many of the decisions that you made in Mass Effect 1 have some sequel or another here. Other games have tried to do this, but this is the first time it’s been successful.

But finally, Mass Effect 2 is the first the real role playing game. Plenty of games before have aped the mechanics of role playing games. But this is the first time when playing a game that I found myself trying to put myself into the mindset and position of my character in order to make decisions. And the game gives you enough freedom that you feel that you really are making choices, rather than being railroaded down the game developer’s chosen path.

I wish I had the time right now to start playing the game again, just to try and go in another direction and build another character.

  1. OK, quite a few people say that it’s Star Wars, not Star Trek. To respond, I’d say: it’s set in our future, not ‘a long time ago’, it involves a small set of discrete identifiable alien species, and you have a focus on your ship and crew rather than any mystic religion. Sounds like Star Trek to me. 

Game Review: Prince of Persia (reboot)

October 17th, 2009

[Prince of Persia]( is the seventh 7th game in the main Prince of Persia series, and the 12th game overall.

Spoilers in this review, so you’ll have to click through.

Read the rest of this entry »

Game Review: Half Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2

October 13th, 2009

I just finished playing through all of Half Life 2 (at least, all of what’s been released so far) for Rebel FM’s Game Club.

Yes, a little late to the party. But better late than never, especially for one of the best games of all time. I was playing through on the XBox – I’d bought the Orange Box edition last year for Portal, but had never got around to playing more than a few minutes of Half Life 2.

As an experience there are few things that have drawn me in as much as this. Other games have done the same with the strength of their plot – such as Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic – but Half Life 2 is one of the few that does it on the strength of character. Alyx Vance is the obvious standout character from the games, but even the minor characters come alive in a way that is disappointingly rare for computer games so far. This is due to a combination of technology, writing and environment that makes this an experience anyone interested in the evolution of computer games should go through.

But as a game, it’s a little harder for me to recommend Half Life 2. If it weren’t for the press of Game Club there are parts that would have made me give up. There are sections, especially in the main game, that go on for far too long. It’s nice to establish a few gameplay mechanics and play with them for a while, but there’s a distinction between escalation (which is fun and challenging) and dragging things out. This is better in the two sequel episodes, although only by a matter of degree. While others found the climactic sequence of Episode 2 a lot of fun, personally I found the new mechanics cumbersome and annoying.

It’s also quite ‘gamey’, something that only distracts me because of the quality of the plot and the characters. Given how strong everything else is, it’s distracting to see the obvious ‘points of no return’, mostly driven by your inability to jump very far. And to have a section, as in one point of Episode 2, where you go from being inside an alien hive to being back in a mine because it’s convenient to the construction of the level is distracting and annoying. It’s an artefact of building the game to be as fun as possible (and hence avoiding backtracking, something the design does well), but it comes at the cost of the sense of place.

I enjoyed Half Life 2 and its episodes a lot. Something that I would say about only one other pure shooter (Bioshock). And I’m looking forward to Episode 3, when it’s eventually released. But I don’t think that I’d ever go back to play them again, and would probably tell most people without an interest in shooters or ‘games as art’ to try before they buy.

Game Review: World in Conflict

January 11th, 2009

World in Conflict for PC is a real time strategy game with a new twist on the genre. Rather than emphasise the base building and resource harvesting that have been at the core of the genre ever since Dune II, it emphasises lower level combat, with fewer units and less emphasis on resources.1

So rather than building a base, you’re given a small number of units (purchased from a renewable pool of resource points) and given smaller tactical goals such as covering and securing a point in a town. The range of units is fairly broad (infantry, troop transports, tanks, helicopters, artillery and so on), but there’s no tech tree to manage – everything you can use is available at the start of a mission.

Taken together it’s a much simpler game to play than Company of Heroes or Starcraft. There’s a lot less strategic worrying in the single player game, it’s much more focused on the tactical end. You’re also not fighting alone – there’s normally several AI controlled units on the map along with you, giving you a better sense of fighting in a broader war than you normally get.

I think that all things considered I probably prefer the more complicated version of things. While the tactical micromanagement is fun, there isn’t as much satisfaction from wiping the enemy off a map – you’ve just been following the orders of your unit commander the whole time.

The biggest strength of the game is the setting. You play as US soldiers fighting Soviet troops, moving through the north-west United States, some missions in Mediterranean France, an invasion into Russia, and even fighting on Liberty island. The setting is late 1980s, with appropriate vintage military equipment (and music). The plot is also interesting, although there are some problems. There’s one point in the game where some information appears to be meant to be a secret to your character, but he was just in a meeting where it was discussed. It was like they changed the plot at the last minute and didn’t run all the changes through.

All up World in Conflict was probably the best RTS of 2008. If you like the genre, it’s a must play. If you don’t like the genre, maybe this is the game that will help you get into it, as it streamlines everything.

Oh, and it’s very, very pretty on a powerful enough PC. I found myself pausing and just going ‘Wow’ from time to time.

  1. Dune II was also the last time that the normal paradigm actually made sense. In Dune II you were harvesting spice, which gave you cash and so you could buy units. In every other game, from Warcraft to Starcraft and on, it always seemed much more arbitrary to me. 

The Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year 2007

January 4th, 2009

Yes, I’m aware it’s 2009 now. But I still need to cover the games that I played in 2007, before I can move on to the 2008 edition.

The rule is that it has to be a game that I played for the first time in 2007 – not paying too much attention to the original release date.

The finalists are:

  • Bioshock

  • Mass Effect

  • Portal

  • Super Mario Galaxy

  • Uncharted

  • World in Conflict

So, without further ado…

In 6th place is Mass Effect. This is a game that I was incredibly excited about, but never got the energy together to play more than about three hours. I’m sure I’ll come back to it some day, but it’s a game where nothing quite comes together properly. Of course, it still beats out lots of games that didn’t make the list at all.

World in Conflict takes 5th place. The main reason I didn’t finish this one was that it kept crashing on my MacBook Pro. But it’s a lot of fun – an interesting take on simplifying the real-time strategy genre, with an interesting plotline. Makes good use of high-end PC graphics as well.

For fourth place is Portal. It’s a great fun game (which I actually finished, so it’s also pretty short). But I didn’t get as much out of the plot as a lot of reviewers, and the humor was just ‘OK’. But an interesting take on the first-person puzzle game, a genre without a lot of entrants so far.

Super Mario Galaxy takes third place. This game is just about the only reason to own a Wii. I haven’t finished it, mainly because I was spending so much time getting each and every star that I hadn’t finished by the time I moved on to the next game. Fantastic, pure platforming fun, with an occasional frustration from an inconsistent difficulty curve.

Second place goes to Uncharted. It’s a simple Tomb Raider rip-off, with a little bit of Gears of War thrown in for the combat sequences. But it’s so well done, with a great pulp plot, that it’s one of the most compelling games out there.

And so first place, the inaugural Exasperated Calculator Game of the Year 2007, goes to Bioshock. The main attraction is the strength of the story, but the RPG-esque shooter gameplay is a big part of the attraction as well.

I’ll try and get to 2008 before too much of 2009 passes….

Game Review: Mirror’s Edge

January 3rd, 2009

Mirror’s Edge, by DICE, published by Electronic Arts.

I don’t play a lot of games all the way to the finish. The current pile of unfinished games includes Assasin’s Creed, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy and Psychonauts. So the first thing to note about Mirror’s Edge is that I actually finished the game.

The game itself is a mixture of very entertaining and frustrating. The basic parkour free running sequences are a lot of fun. But some of the rest of the game needed more work.

There are really three types of game built in to the game:

  • free running parkour sequences, where you have to get from one end of an environment to the other, often chased by enemies.

  • puzzle sequences, where you need to use the parkour moves in a more precise way to navigate around a room, usually to get higher. Usually no enemies chasing you.

  • combat sequences, where you’re fighting enemies directly, either using hand-to-hand or weapons you’ve picked up.

I loved the first type of play – innovative, exciting, and has the best ‘fall of a cliff and die’ effects of any game ever. The puzzle gaming was also a lot of fun – occasionally frustrating (when you fall all the way down and need to make your way back up), but satisfying in the same way that most puzzle games are.

The big problem with the game for me, right up until the last bit, was the combat. Firstly I made a choice to play for a PS3 trophy for not using guns – a mistake, as while you’re encouraged to not use them, you need to from time to time. That made my life a lot more difficult. But even taking that into account it’s just not that enjoyable, a lot of needless death until you accidentally find the way to get through the sequence. Unlike the first two types, I never really felt like I was getting through because of skill, just luck.

The last fight sequence in the game turned me around, a little. I realised that you could plan everything out precisely, and treat the combat almost like another puzzle sequence. That made the (difficult) final encounter a bit more palatable, but still it would have been nicer to have a good running sequence instead as the finale to the game.

Overall, it’s a superb game worth playing. The plot isn’t really worth mentioning, but the gameplay is mostly a lot of fun.

(Hey, I’m back! Don’t expect too much – I’m just going to post stuff as it occurs to me. Some weeks nothing, some weeks lots of things).

Why isn’t the computer game business more like films?

February 26th, 2008

Just last week Electronic Arts offered $US 2 billion to purchase another publisher, Take-Two.

This is part of a continuing trend in the computer video game business, with the really big publishers consolidating. In some sense, this is a lot like the film business – the big studios make up a very substantial proportion of the total turnover of the industry.

But the big difference is with the next level down. In the film industry almost everyone is a contract player – directors, writers, and actors all move from studio to studio, only settling at one studio for the amount of time to make one or two projects. But in the games industry most of the ‘talent’ is permanently employed, staying with the company for many years.

This is odd – in many respects the requirements are the same. Video games are expensive undertakings these days – $10-20 million to produce, millions more to market and distribute. This is still well short of the cost of a major movie, but the gap is closing.

In fact, the structure of the video game industry looks a lot like the movie industry of the 1930s. The studio system lasted until the vertical integration of the industry was stopped and a single tycoon (Hughes) stepped in. At present, much like the 1930s film industry, the video game industry has a few stars (which, in this case, are the intellectual properties like Halo or Quake), and most people in the industry are relatively anonymous.

So what will change? My guess is that it will be the rise of the talent.

At present there isn’t a single famous video game writer, and only a couple of famous ‘directors’ (the analogy isn’t perfect, of course). In fact, if you look at the industry’s Game Developer’s Choice Awards the nominations for writing, art direction and so on only mention the game, not the actual writer!

That’s slowly changing. The enthusiast press has been paying attention to the project heads for a while, and is starting to pay a lot more attention to the writers as well.

Once people know the names, the names can ask for more money. A few people can do this now, but as the media pays more attention, more people will become famous (at least in the video game world), and they’ll start to move from project to project in search of better money.

And once that happens, then the game publishers are going to start to look a lot more like Hollywood – they own the IP for some of the series, and they bankroll the whole thing. But the people making the games aren’t usually tied to any one publisher, and they move around a lot more than is the case now.

And this will be a really good thing for games, because the best talent will be recognised appropriately, and the best projects will attract the best people.

Criticising computer games

February 25th, 2008

I was struck by a really interesting post by Greg Costiykan on the difference between reviews and criticism, and the absence of real criticism of computer games at present.

Most people aren’t very interested in ‘criticism’ per se. Pauline Kael was one of the most influential film critic, but I’d imagine there are third teir reviewers for small outlets who are more widely read than she was. Most people are interested in the consumer reports side – is this a good example of the type? Should I go and see/buy it or not? And for computer games the outlets are very much in that mode.

As an aside, I’d note that ‘Criticism’ has become one of those over-loaded words. I think that when most people hear the word, they think of the dictionary meaning:

the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature.

It’s hard to think of a review of anything but an analysis. But there’s this additional, academic definition that a lot of people use: Criticism (a cousing of Theory). Which is where a lot of the points Greg Costiykan makes come from. So I think it’s a little unfair to say that reviews aren’t criticism – in the everyday sense of the word they certainly are.

But there’s still a really substantial point here – there are schools of Criticism for film, novels, poetry and other art. Why isn’t there one for games yet?

(Another aside: Computer games, as a mass market medium, are around 30 years old. The most common major theories of film didn’t arise until that medium was nearly 60 years old).

It’s a really good question.

Part of it is simple immaturity. And I don’t just mean that the industry is young. The industry sells to young people, who are really not the best audience for formal Criticism. This has changed a lot recently, but it’s still a big part of the media that surrounds the games market. We have 1Up, which is a lot like Empire, but there isn’t yet an equivalent to Framework.

Another part is the very real question about whether video games are art or not. Personally I think they can be, much like any other artistic medium, but the difficulty of the question has meant a lot of people who are interested in Criticism end up diverted into that question first.

And a final part of it is academic snobbery. Most Criticism today is the product of Arts faculties at universities. And I suspect most of the faculty members think of video games as a childish pursuit beneath their attention. Without the grounding in some of the pointless pursuits of academic Criticism (such as deconstruction) it’s hard to make your criticism sound like Criticism.

There’s a lot to be gained from having some better understanding of what works and what doesn’t in games, and the ways that they are put together. Some formal Criicism could be a really good thing for the maturity of the medium. I hope it happens. And I hope we can come up with a better theory than Auteur Theory.

Because Auteur Theory really sucks.

Wii unboxing

January 17th, 2007

In the rest of this entry are the pictures from when I got my shiny new Wii

back in December. I didn’t post the pictures at the time due to my laptop

explosion. Warning: only geeks will care.

For the rest of you: the Wii is great fun, and I wish I had some more

time to play it. It’s a large part of the reason that I haven’t

been posting to the blog as much lately. And the Zelda game is just

fantastic fun.

Read the rest of this entry »


December 7th, 2006

Yes, I was one of the sad multitudes who stayed up past midnight to buy the new Nintendo Wii. I regret nothing!

Haven’t had much of a chance to play with it, just a brief wrestle with the internet settings (no luck yet, but I’ll get there), and a few rounds of baseball, boxing and bowling in the Wii Sports game. So far pretty impressed, although that could just be the sleep deprivation…