Sunday, March 25, 2012

Monday Musings - 26th March, 2012

Another week, another Musings. Interesting gaming habit abound. Let us continue.

Mass Effect (PC)

About this time last year i played through Mass Effect for my 2nd time. I started a fem shep, went full Paragon and completed every side mission i could get my hands on. Part of this was to have a really great character to continue on to Mass Effect 2 with. I never did get back around to playing Mass Effect 2.

Well this time i've surprised myself. I have taken my character from the first playthrough and decided to rush through and go full Renegade. I've tried this path before, and found it hard to continue. I just have this issue with purposely choosing selfish, bigoted, and sociopathic options. I don't really know what's changed this time around, but i've been progressing nicely. I just completed Virmire and am about to head to Ilos. I've been choosing the bottom right option for most speech, and choosing intimidate options instead when they present themselves. Most of the time i'm kind of detached and agape at the way Shepard is acting... and wondering how he still has his crew following him.

It is kinda funny how rushing through with a renegade character adds an extra dimension onto the play type. No investigating, no talking to people longer than i have to, no side missions. Shepard is focused only on carrying out his mission, and screw anyone or anything that gets in his way. It'd be kind of easy to respect if he wasn't such a horse's ass. Having a level 46 character with awesome weapons and armour also lends a lot to the single natured badass focus of the this playthrough as well.

Catherine (PS3)

After the initial days of the game pass, the rhythm becomes apparent. The intriguing introduction of new game concepts to the tower climbing, coupled with frustration at the hard bits (especially those during the boss battles). All this is followed by the revealing of the tale as the stakes raise more and more with each passing day. Then you have a short reprieve in the bar at night, where you can talk to your friends and some of the regulars before repeating the whole cycle again.

The bar is interesting because of how it links to the nightmare world (as it's not hard to link some of the sheep to their real world counterparts). You can also get drunk which increases your speed in the tower climbing portion of the game, and both in talking to the patrons and responding to text messages on your phone, you influence the morality meter that governs your responses during the next day's cut-scenes.

I'm on day six now. I usually try and play through two nights whenever i play, so i should be done with the game soon. Of course that would be easier if i didn't keep returning to old games on my PC (and i still have two games left from last year to try out)... but progress is being made, and one thing to say about Catherine is it's indeed a unique gaming experience.

English Country Tune (IoS)

This has a PC version too (

I discovered this game in an article about extreme game difficulty in the New Yorker. I was intrigued by the demo of the PC version, and decided to review the game for Appspy. The iphone version really impressed me (as swiping your finger to move makes more sense direction wise than using the D-pad... at least i think so).

Basically it's a puzzle game with little information about your goals but it uses 3d surfaces and each universe you play in (which houses a different puzzle) obeys its own sense of physics. Working out what to do isn't that difficult, but the devil is in the details, and solving some of these levels is maddening. Like any good puzzle game though, it's a positive kind of maddening, and thus when you finally reach a solution, you have this immense sense of satisfaction.

Now i haven't delved too deeply into the game (i've almost completed the advanced larval universe), and from the article it seems some of the puzzle mechanics to come are quite intense, but i view the game as a time waster on my phone. I load it up, play around a little and see if i can't come to a solution. I can at least recommend the PC demo (i'd recommend the iphone version, but the price is a little steep...well, steep for iphone pricing), but this is the difference between good difficulty and bad difficulty. Good difficulty puts the player in control, and encourages them to learn from their mistakes and persevere to overcome the game's obstacles. The game isn't being unfair. Bad difficulty is putting roadblocks in the way to cheat the player out of a positive experience.

This is all from one gamer's viewpoint though. Each individual player has their barrier for when a game crosses that line from good difficulty to bad difficulty, and there are those that really enjoy the 'butting their heads against the wall till victory' experience, as the immense satisfaction is worth the frustration. If given a choice in difficulty setting i'll always pick the path of least resistance, but if a game has no choice, and even if it's quite hard, if i sense the need to improve skill instead of the game being artificially difficult, i'll usually stick around. This is why i want to try Demons' Souls and its sequel.

Final Thoughts

Heh, the last couple paragraphs of the last section was almost a final thoughts in itself, but i'll take one aspect of that discussion and expand on it here. I mentioned playing around in English Country Tune till i could find a solution. This is a very important aspect of any game that is considered to be difficult, and i think it's a distinction between the well made ones and the ones that are made poorly. It's the aspect of being able to play.

In English Country Tune, your player piece is sort of a flopping paddle, flipping end over end onto the surfaces of the object you're on. Not only is this movement fun, but there's a sense of exploration is flopping around, and a curiosity about flipping the larvae around in that universe. I'm still not one hundred percent positive how gravity works in regards to the larvae, so half of the wonder in some of these levels is batting them along and off a surface to see which way they'll fall and how they react (this is made possible by the wonderful undo and restart buttons available). It's the ability to try things without any hesitation or fear that you will be penalised for doing so, and thus these brain teasers don't seem so threatening, almost inviting you to play around till the solution comes to you.

My favourite game of 2010 had a similar joy to it; Super Meat Boy. This was an insanely tough platformer that required your skill to rise to the occasion on almost every new level right through to the end. There was a playful nature to the dangers presented to you however. Part of this was how solid the jumping and running mechanics were, but it was the bite-sized levels coupled with the instant restarts upon death that kept us playing. If something wasn't working, you could easily try something else, and there seemed to always be more than one way to get to the end of a stage.

Even while playing Catherine (even though it has a difficulty setting), i get a sense of this playing around. The bottlenecks usually have a certain technique in mind and especially during a boss, you only have a couple seconds to think of what to do and try it out, but at least on easy, you have a judicious amount of retries available to you, so after experimenting and failing, it's hardly any time till you're back there, trying something new and playing around with the blocks to get to the top.

It's actually this freedom in how to climb (or the illusion of it) that has kept me playing, even on those segments where after twenty retries, i'm still slowly working my way up to a solution. And you know what, sooner or later i work it out and continue either onto the end or to the next bottleneck.

So what about you dear readers? What distinction do you make between a game with difficulty that encourages you to continue, and difficulty that only breeds frustration? Do you have any examples of games that do it right? Please let me know in the comments!

And till next week, happy gaming all!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Monday Musings - 19th March, 2012

Wow, what a fun week of gaming i had. There's a bit to get through so let's rev up the musing engine and go full throttle.

See, Full Throttle is a game and we're talking about games and going forward. It's a joke son!

Sigh, let's get to it.

Catherine (PS3)

With Borderlands complete i decided to return to this tale of supernatural infidelity. I'm on day four now. The tower climbing in night three was, well maddening would be a good start. Especially the boss. The problem is that these boss encounters have the enemy move so quick, when you come to a brain teaser climbing, you usually only have a couple seconds to make a decision, try something, and if that doesn't work, die a gruesome death. There was this one section in the middle of the level, a little after the first checkpoint and had me stumped for at least a good twenty minutes or so. I spent so many retries on it. The thing is when i finally was able to pass it through experimentation, the next checkpoint was ages away. I died a few more times and at least the first couple retries had me try to remember how i passed that difficult part in the first place.

The end of the boss encounter had another really tricky bit, but i carried a bell which turns all blocks normal. Yes it's cheap but i passed, and now i get to continue at least till the next night where i will most probably cry tears of frustration.

Despite all this though, i did not rage quit or even really get that angry playing. Because of the quick turn around and the perception that i was making headway, i took on that all too familiar gaming stubbornness. The ol "No! I will beat this dammit"! I've said before that if a puzzle game gets that reaction instead of the ol "This is BS", that puzzle game is doing something right.

Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx (PC)

This piece of DLC alone has made me more excited for Borderlands 2 than the preview video or that cute letter to PC gamers on the Borderlands 2 site. Over two nights i played through this with my friend Cam and we had a blast the entire way. The main quest was streamlined, all of the characters had hilarious dialogue that had us laughing through the entire game, and the ending was such an awesome surprise that i want to experience it again.

One aspect that can make a game great is consistent surprises. Things the player doesn't expect that put a smile on their face (or make them jaw drop due to shock or badassness.... yes, badassness). General Knoxx had this in spades. As said before, all the dialogue and the characters are written amazingly well and provide constant laughs. The enemies alone are full of surprises. You have ninjas, armored drones, giant mechs, desert spiders, midgets riding skags, and even rocketeers (some who also shoot rockets)!

Word of mouth seems to have travelled on this piece of DLC as the reason i decided to play it was hearing rumblings in the gaming community about General Knoxx as a villain and how fun the DLC was. Trust me, these rumblings are true and i definitely recommend the 6 hours or so it takes to complete this.

Having just done a quick google search, it turns out that the amazing surprise at the end of the DLC is available one time only if the quest is triggered (boo!), but there is apparently a glitch to make it available multiple times. I'll put it this way... Mephisto runs.

I wish i had known about the glitch before :)

Journey (PS3)

Well i've already reviewed this game in my new 'Quick Review' segment (more on that in the Final Thoughts), but i cannot recommend it enough. I didn't exactly find it life changing or overly emotional while playing (your results may vary judging on the wave of positive reviews out there), but it was two hours of amazing visuals, an emergent soundtrack, and one of the best uses of co-op i've ever seen.

And there was one section of the game that literally had my jaw gape open, causing me to cover my mouth with my hand. I said this after Flower and i'll say it here, i cannot wait to see what Thatgamecompany does next. These folks know how to craft an incredible interactive experience.

I guess the downside of reviewing a game is that there's less to talk about in Monday Musings, but it could also be how short the game is and how more than most titles, i don't want to ruin anything for those that are interested and are going to play it.

Deadly Premonition (360)

The final game session. We did it folks! It took two years but Kenneth and I finally got through Deadly Premonition! The last couple chapters were a wild ride and i am as enthusiastic about the game now as i was when we started playing it. I'll definitely be looking forward to the remastered version getting a PS3 release sometime in the future. It will be worth another playthrough just for the fact that when looking through the manual during the credits, Kenneth found that there was actually a lock on button, when he spent the whole twenty hours of the game manually aiming (and sucking at it). Truth be told i don't expect it to make THAT much of a difference, but it might have helped. Ah well, part of the charm of the game i guess.

The last couple chapters had a driving section that plonked a demon dog down in front of us on the road (a giant demon dog), and the final boss fight, which consisted of three stages. By the end of the final one, we were not happy but the taste of victory was sweet (and the reveal before the final boss was..... um... interesting).

And can you believe we went through the whole game without eating Thomas' biscuit? That might be a good thing. That guy was one of the more memorable characters, and for reasons both amusing and terrifying.

So why no quick review of Deadly Premonition? Well i actually didn't play the game at all. Kenneth played the whole thing. I watched while back seat gaming, giving tips, making fun of poor performance, and laughing alongside the sheer battiness of the game.

I guess we need another game to play through as a team. We were thinking Nier but i dunno how a Jrpg would handle as a duo. Any suggestions from readers? It doesn't necessarily have to be as crazy and memorable as Deadly Premonition, but we probably want a game with enough to comment on and to be engaged with.

Final Thoughts

For those of you not reading this on the actual blog, i've stated writing what i call quick reviews this past week (already covering two games). There's also a post explaining my review structure. Readers may remember i was throwing around some ideas late last year about how to review games and i've finally reached a starting point where i can expand from as i write more. This means more extra content for all of you (even though the games reviewed could be from anytime), and it makes me think a little more on my experience after playing through a game (and perhaps i'll review games i stopped playing as well).

I've already explained why there's no review of Deadly Premonition but i'll also explain why there's no review of the Borderlands DLC i played through. I did review Borderlands, and many of the points addressed in the review would also apply to the DLC, and i don't want to start doing specific DLC reviews, so any DLC will be discussed here in Monday Musings. Man i said DLC a lot.

Let me know what you think about the reviews and till next week, happy gaming all!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quick Review: Journey

Developed by: Thatgamecompany
Published by: Sony
Released: March, 2012 on PSN

Story: Good

After playing, i still don't really know what my journey was all about, but the word journey is correct for what transpired for the time spent in-game. There are cut-scenes, and there's a backstory, all told in silent animation, but perhaps the argument could be made for the game being a giant metaphor. Still, even though ambivalent about what transpired, i was engaged as the world and the gameplay told me more about the story than the cut-scenes needed to.

Mechanics: Good

The game is rather simple in its gameplay. Each section has you reaching a temple stone of sorts to guide you to the next area. Getting to the stone takes, floating with your magical scarf, and manipulating all the other fabric in the area to form bridges or to recharge your flying abilities. Secret glowing glyphs can be found which lengthen your scarf and the time you can spend in the air. Between sliding down sand dunes and flying around, there's a certain amount of joy given to such an apparently meaningful trek forward.

Aesthetics: Great

The use of colour and lighting as the game changes locations throughout this experience is breathtaking. The sand shimmers reflecting sunlight, and as the colour changes in future locations, so does the mood. As the game plays, the orchestral track seems to have an emergent quality, swelling bombastically or fading to a low hum depending on the significance of the immediate actions in relation to the story. There will be more than one time you'll find yourself marvelling at what's been presented for your eyes and ears as you play through.

Technology: Good

Part of the selling point of the game was the ability to have a meaningful cooperative experience. I really had no idea how that was going to play out, but after one section of the game with my nameless companion, i marvelled at the simplicity of how co-op was approached, but yet how meaningful it truly was (and it became later on in the game). The only way to communicate is in tones by pressing or holding down the square button, but that was more than enough as we worked together to find secrets, evade danger, and have fun. It'd be easy enough to play through the game offline, but i think that player would be doing themselves a disservice.

Overall: Good

Only taking two to three hours to complete, Journey's experience is a short one, but one well worth taking. Whether it's for the intriguing cooperative play, the presentation, or just the fun of flying and sliding your way around a desert, Journey gets a definite recommend.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quick Review: Borderlands

Developed by: Gearbox Software
Published by: 2k Games
Released: October, 2009 on PC, PS3, 360
Played on PC

Story: Average

While nothing too engaging, Borderlands had some colourful characters and an interesting world. They also get points for mostly telling the story through audio logs and video in the upper right corner as to not disturb gameplay.

Mechanics: Good

Two words; shoot and loot. With critical hit points on all the enemies, a talent tree for each of the four distinct classes, and the amusement of the crazy car physics coupled with the drive for treasure, it provides a unique first person shooting experience, though does kind of overstay its welcome with the length of the campaign.

Aesthetics: Good

The cell shaded wasteland is gorgeous. Everything pops color wise and there's a grand sense of scale. Voice acting is great, making the characters come alive, and most of the sound effects are meaty and satisfying (although the constant 'burning to death' noise got tiresome on my last play).

Technology: Good

There were a couple screen tearing issues, and the Gamespy friend system for co-op is a joke, but aside from these complaints, the game runs smoothly in both co-op and single player.

Overall: Good

Especially now with all the DLC released and the constant Steam sales, you can pick the game up cheap and it's well worth the price. With friends it's a blast, and even in single player, the visuals, characters, and most importantly the constant treasure hunting for that better weapon or shield will keep you playing for hours.

Quick Reviews

Some might recall that last year i announced i would start reviewing the games i talk about on Monday Musings when i stop playing them. Well the main reason that didn't go into effect was i became stuck on how exactly to format the review.

I believe i have found a breakthrough.

I have almost finished reading Jessie Schell's 'The Art of Game Design', which is a fantastic read for anyone interested in making games. Early on in the book he breaks games into four categories that need to be in balance to make a fantastic experience. They are story, mechanics, aesthetics, and technology. I decided that these could be the categories of my reviews that i had such a hard time searching for. I tested this method on reviewing Borderlands this morning and it seems to work for a quick overview.

So starting with my Borderlands review, i will endeavour to review the games i play here and tweak the review structure as i go.

So the overview.

Each of the four categories will have at most a paragraph. Then there will a final paragraph summing up the game. Each category will receive a score and there will be an overall score. The score will be a 5 star system, but i will be using words instead.

Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5... each category and the game overall will receive a 'bad', 'poor', 'average', 'good', or 'great'.

This way there's no numbers, but there's still a qualifier, and if you want more info, there's a short paragraph to read. Win/win for all i believe. We'll see how it goes.

And as always i'll take any and all valid criticism on board (and by valid i mean a point of view with some thought behind it other than a knee jerk reaction).

First review coming soon.

Monday Musings - 12th March, 2012

It's gonna be a short one this week folks, but i wouldn't dare deprive you of your musings. Let us muse onward!

Borderlands (PC)

I completed my second playthrough on Sunday. Now one can argue the game has pacing problems but usually there's enough variety, cool boss monsters or treasure chests to keep you going along. That last section of the game before the final boss however? Yeesh! Not only are those vault defenders damn annoying to kill, but you end up exhausting a lot of your ammo before the final encounter (with no top up areas). Still, i had a shotgun that did 700 base damage with replenishing ammo, so when i ran out of ammo on my favourite weapons (mainly my awesome fire SMG), i switched to that and the vault guardian went down pretty quick. Until the vault defenders came out however, the game turned into quite a joke... in a good way though. That fire SMG i mentioned, it just tore through anything living and burned it to a crisp. Enemies with extensive shielding? Well i had an electric firing revolver for that, but mostly the fire SMG was enough to take care of that too.

It reminds me of the last chapter of Half-Life 2 when you get the god gun. Now i've talked about that section on this blog before, and i've had many arguments with friends who hate that section, as i happen to love it, but end game with a Siren felt like the same power. Most of the game was fairly easy, but there were some tough spots, especially when weapons with good elemental damage were scarce. Once i got a hold of this weapon however, everything died. The Rakk hive died in an instant. The Lance soldiers in Old Haven were a joke. The Salt flats and the Lance headquarters? Forget about it! It was oddly satisfying to revel in so much effortless carnage. The only downside was that the screams of the Lance soldiers as they were burning to death started to get to me. I guess i don't have what it takes to be a homicidal psychopath after all.

Now i mentioned pacing problems and this has led to some internal conflict. Take last year when i played Vanquish (or any other game on Monday Musings i started and dropped a week or two later). I stopped playing that game specifically because by act three, i felt the game had played its hand fully and there was nothing else to show me gameplay wise. So why have i completed Borderlands twice now? That game kind of plays its hand really early on. In fact after the Dahl Headlands when you reach New Haven, it's all on repeat.

I think it may have to do with two things. Firstly are the RPG levelling mechanics. Getting more powerful each level, and getting to add a point into a new skill, or to beef up an old skill can keep a player going. I mean that's half the balance of most successful RPGs. Half of it is the story (and perhaps more importantly the world the story inhabits), and half of it is feeling more powerful each time you cross one of these levelling milestones. Borderlands' story has a couple interesting hooks, my personal favourite being the madness of Patricia Tannis through her audio journals, but i don't think its really enough to sustain players, at least not compared to the levelling system.

The other part of the equation is the loot. I mean Borderlands did kinda sell itself as a run and gun version of Diablo, and that's not really being hyperbolic either. I played Diablo 2 for years, and when i think about it, the questions i have about my dedication to Borderlands echo my time with Diablo 2. It's the talent tree and becoming more powerful (and Diablo 2's tree was much more complex than Borderlands' is), but it's the loot. It's one hook of the MMO, constantly giving the player better gear to keep them moving forward, especially if you uncover a rare drop and can rain destruction down upon your enemies (like my precious fire SMG to bring the whole thing full circle). Borderlands went pretty crazy with its loot mechanics adding a lot of variation and randomization to what kind of weapons you uncover (plus the ability to play harder versions of the game to get even better loot).

Huh, it is actually that simple. Why am i dedicating so much time to Borderlands? Because it fills that spot that was left when i finally got bored with Diablo 2. With Diablo 3 and Borderlands 2 both hitting this year (i still am a little sceptical on D3), it'll be interesting to see which one holds my attention.

So... now it's time for Borderlands DLC!

Final Thoughts

Last week i went on a bit of a tirade about having to wait to play Journey. I got some facts wrong and it seems that everyone is getting the game on the 13th of March (except for those people on Playstation Plus who can play the game right now... bastards). I apologize for my error. I was blinded by wanting to play this game, and Tuesday, it shall be mine. I have the day off work and i will download it and play it all in one sitting. Haha!

I should probably pull back as the last time i hyped myself up for a game release (Skyward Sword), i found myself let down. It's hard to stay calm and collective sometimes. Call it gamer's passion.

Anyways, till next week, happy gaming all!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Monday Musings - 5th March, 2012

It's March! March Musings! What does this mean? Nothing! Well except that summer is technically over. Let the cooldown commence (ohpleaseohpleaseohplease). Let us muse.

Borderlands (PC)

It's amazing how many times you can play something and actually miss what was most likely the strategy the developers had in mind for that situation. For instance i had my fight with Mothrakk on this character. Usually i light the torches and high-tail it to the nearest cover, where then a fight ensues that lasts forever and a day. This time the cover i ran to was a 'catch-a-ride'. A bright idea occurred. "Hey wait a minute. Why don't i spawn a machine gun car, lock on to Mothrakk and hold the fire button down as i zoom across the landscape?" Wouldn't you know, it worked like a charm! Sadly when he fell nothing of value was dropped. It felt very anti-climactic.

One downside of a system that relies on random weapon generation to create an almost limitless amount of loot to collect is actually finding something good that's level appropriate. I don't just mean not letting go of a gun as you level because of a couple perks it has on it, but also buying an amazing special bargain from the vending machine only to have the gun or shield be a couple levels ahead of your grasp. Being a Siren kind of negates this problem as the gun itself is not as important as the level of elemental damage it can do, and what type of elemental damage that is. Still i find myself drawn to the arsenal i used on my Hunter; sniper rifles and revolvers. I do like my SMG that sets people on fire however, and the electric shotgun is great for dealing with hordes of Rakks.

Reaching New Haven always felt like a nice accomplishment as you now had a hub to set out to finish the rest of the game. The problem is that i forget how much the game expands after New Haven, especially if you're running a lot of the side quests. Oh well, defeating Krom is the next tick on my to-do list and if i remember, there wasn't too much more after that. Then DLC!

Dear Esther (PC)

The video review of this over at Gametrailers had me spending $10 almost immediately to purchase this off Steam. I sung its praises over Twitter (as the game only took an hour to complete), but it hit a certain sweet spot for this gamer. Some people play games for their sense of exploration. I'd go as far as to say that's a big reason Skyrim has been such a success. To have this majestic world in front of you to traverse and come to terms with seems to speak to our core as humans, and since there are only a few places on the planet we haven't explored (and as not all of us are cut out for real life adventuring), videogames present an amazing opportunity to explore what's in our DNA (pun!)

Dear Esther is pretty tiny compared to a Skyrim but greatly intriguing nonetheless. You are on an island. A blinking light on a tower in the distance beckons you. You'll explore caves, beaches, grasslands, creaks, and it's all breathtaking, creating a sense of immersion coupled with the sound design. The gameplay is mainly exploration. You can walk. That's all. It's your job to explore, and try and reach the light. As you walk, a voiceover narrates pieces of a diary (most likely yours). These pieces are apparently randomized on each playthough so the other part of the game is piecing together the narrative. From the one playthrough i have a good sense of what everything that transpires is about, but i will be playing again to fill in some gaps (and to try out some other pathways i skipped the first time around).

Not a bad start to the gaming year, as this is the first release of 2012 i've played (i'm still playing catch up and getting distracted on getting through all of last year's games). Yes i know it technically doesn't count as it's just a spruce up of an old HL2 mod, but while i've always mentioned technicalities, i've never felt limited by them. So there!

Final Thoughts

I would have played another 2012 release over the weekend but region locking decided that was not to be. If you live in the US, you may know that Journey was released. The 3rd of March i believe. I was super excited! As i've said before, it's my most anticipated game of this year. I've been waiting for it ever since i played Flower and wondered what that team was gonna do next. Well suffice to say here in Australia it didn't drop on March 3rd. Nope. Best i can tell, we're gonna get it March 13th.

"Now Dave", i hear you say, "You can't wait a couple extra weeks?" Well in this case a couple weeks is not that bad, but i think this being a digital download title, not having a world release (well at least in English speaking countries) is pretty inexcusable. That and a lot of other releases can take up to half a year or more to hit PAL territories. I've railed against this problem before but not getting to play an awesome game while other people are getting to play it really saddens me.

I don't really have a point, just using the Final Thoughts this week to vent. I hope all you Americans who are playing Journey are enjoying it. I will pout and fume and join you soon.

Till next week, happy gaming all!