Wednesday, September 15, 2010

PAX: Prelude

For years, there has been an event that I have been dying to attend, but for one reason or another, have never been able to.  This year was different.  This year, my friend Jason and I were determined to make it.  This year we made our way to the gaming nerd's Mecca.  This year...we went to PAX.

For those that don't already know, PAX is the Penny Arcade Expo.  And if you don't know what that means, well I have no idea what you're doing on a site about video games.  Unless you're a friend of mine who just wants to check out what I've been writing.  So for you, Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and successful webcomics in the world.  They are so successful, that they've managed to create their own convention to celebrate gaming and get hundreds of thousands of people to attend.  These two guys, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (or Gabe and Tycho, respectively), along with their company, decided to create the kind of convention that they themselves would like to attend.  There are tabletop games, board games, and video games, panels from people in all those industries, as well as from some noted webcomic creators.  Also, concerts, cosplayers, stage drama (seriously), etc.  This isn't just a video game convention.  It's a nerd convention.  And dang it, I love it.

So on this trip, I took some pictures and video and thought I'd post them up here.  But looking over the videos, some of them (most of them) make absolutely NO sense without some context to explain them.  So over the next few weeks (as I am notoriously lazy in updating this blog), I'll be filling you in on what went down at PAX, travelogue style.  And to give you a taste of what's to come, check out the video below (From what I can tell, the side of the video may get cut off.  If that happens, just click on the video once it starts playing, and it will take you to the YouTube page):

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Our Story So Far: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 has quickly become one of my favorite games of all time.  Bioware has somehow managed to find the right blend of third-person shooter gameplay and RPG mechanics, and delivered it with an incredible level of polish to create an experience that is unmatched by any other game out there.  In my opinion, Mass Effect 2 has it all: an epic story, memorable and unique characters, fun gameplay, beautiful graphics, a sense of progression, and the feeling that you are having an impact on the events of the game's universe.  While Red Dead Redemption threatened to snatch the top spot from this list, I felt Mass Effect 2 had a more lasting impact on me and was just a better game overall.  This is the kind of game I've dreamed about since I was a kid, and to see it become a reality was simply amazing.

I loved the original Mass Effect.  Bioware had been refining their approach to RPGs over the years with games like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire (with great success on the former and maybe less so on the latter), and Mass Effect was their most ambitious attempt yet.  They were looking to make a RPG with an epic story in a huge universe that would appeal to mainstream audiences.  That's not an easy thing to pull off.  And they were trying to do it without the Star Wars license this time.  For the most part, they did pretty well.  By and large, the best thing about that game was the cinematic presentation.  The camera angles, the voice acting, heck, even the lighting all worked to make Mass Effect look like nothing before it.  The key element, though, was the dialogue system.  Rather than just picking a line of dialogue, you were picking the type of response you wanted to give, and your character, Commander Shepard, would say something according to that.  Somehow, this made the whole thing seem to flow more smoothly, though I'm still not sure why.  It was through the dialogue trees that you would decide what kind of Shepard you would be playing as.  Would you be the model of the virtuous soldier, or would you be a renegade agent who would get the job done by any means necessary?  Your choices had an impact on the events around you, and people could live or die (even in your own crew) based off those choices.  When the game was all over, I felt like I had just wrapped up an incredible journey rather than just a game.  Mass Effect got to me in a way even only a few movies have been able to.

That's not to say it didn't have problems.  When designing a game like that, you're bound to have some issues, and Mass Effect had more than its fair share.  The previews made Mass Effect look like a cover based third person shooter with exciting action and squadron dynamics.  Sadly, the combat didn't live up to expectations.  While it worked well enough, it became clear early on that you had little impact on the accuracy of your shots.  Instead, pulling the trigger was roughly equal to hitting the "Attack" command in any other RPG, and it was up to the dice rolls behind the scenes if you hit anything or not.  I didn't hate the combat, but it quickly became a means to reach the next story element rather than being an awesome part of the gameplay.  The graphics engine also labored to keep up with the game, with textures often popping in very late.  The worst offender to me, though, was the inventory system.  While it was cool in concept to have a ton of guns, armor, and mods available to spec out my squad however I saw fit, managing all those items was an incredible chore.  The menu became cluttered all too often, and almost half the game was probably spent comparing one piece of equipment to another or choosing what modifications to equip.  

With Mass Effect 2, I was expecting a lot of the same.  I knew they had made some changes, but I just figured some sacrifices had to be made in order to create the epic space saga Bioware was looking to tell.  Boy was I surprised when I learned that not only did Mass Effect 2 fix all my problems with Mass Effect 1, but it even improved on things I loved about the first game.  Combat was now an actual cover based third person shooter!  Leveling up would increase damage or give you special abilities, but the actual pointing and shooting was based on your skills.  Now combat was a key feature of the game rather than a necessary evil.  Texture pop-in was a thing of the past.  The cinematic presentation was even more incredible, and the characters even more interesting.  And the inventory system was basically gone.  You could still equip armor mods and choose your weapon loadouts, but it was far more simplified and intuitive than the prior game.  This game was as much fun to play as it was to watch.  

But the most important part was the story.  Mass Effect's story was, simply put, amazing.  Commander Shepard was placed in the midst of a quest to save the entire galaxy, and he and his crew were basically on their own.  While plenty of other intellectual properties have used that model, Mass Effect still managed to stand apart.  I had no idea where they would go next, but the game made it clear there was some unfinished business.  Mass Effect 2 somehow managed to come along and blow me away once again.  The quest seemed even more urgent.  The worlds and conflicts seemed more complex and unique.  And most of all, the characters seemed more interesting.  You're gathering a team of elite and specialized warriors to take on the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.  This brings you into contact with people like Jack, the most powerful biotic in the galaxy.  She also happens to be a psychotic killer.  How about Grunt, a Krogan bred to be the pinnacle of the Krogan species?  Or Dr. Morden, a Salarian scientist with some real entertaining quirks?  You take orders from the Illusive Man, a mysterious and powerful figure who leads one of the most controversial agencies of humanity (and voiced by Martin Sheen.  Martin Friggin' Sheen!)  Oh, and then there's Miranda.  Genetically modified to to be superior in every way.  I really like Miranda.  That's probably because I'm a guy, and she was modeled after and voiced by the girl from Chuck.  Yeah, there shouldn't be a question of which girl I had my Shepard pursue.

Of course, the most interesting character is Commander Shepard him/herself.  Not just because you can choose Shepard's actions in this game, but because of the actions you took in the prior game.  Mass Effect 2 takes all the choices you took in Mass Effect 1 and has them reflected in one way or another.  They can be as small as hearing some item in a news story, which still seemed awesome.  They can be as big as determining what state the Krogan homeworld will be in during this game.  In short, Mass Effect 2 has a way of making your choices feel important in a way no other game ever has, in my opinion.  Sure, you have to have played the original game to really feel the impact, but it feel incredibly rewarding to have done so.  This feels more than ever that it's your story.  This is your saga that you're writing.  This universe feels alive and tangible.  And the choices in Mass Effect 2 could be even more far reaching.  Considering the way Mass Effect 2 can end, I can't imagine what Bioware has in store for Mass Effect 3 and how they plan to address all those possibilities.

About the only thing that I didn't love in Mass Effect 2 was scanning planets.  There are a lot of upgrades available to you in this game, and you need precious metals and elements to unlock them.  Unfortunately, the best way to gain these resources is to scan planets from orbit.  This involves methodically moving a sensor across the planet and waiting for a spike in the readings so you can launch a probe.  This becomes really tedious really fast.  Some people found they were just fine without scanning very often, but I keep getting drawn into it for some reason.  Maybe I'm just OCD or something.  Thankfully, this wasn't nearly enough to detract from the rest of the experience.

Simply put, Mass Effect 2 is the most incredible game experience I've had to date.  Games have tried to blend these genre elements before, but something always felt off.  It always felt like some elements of the gameplay had to be sacrificed.  Mass Effect 2 is the first game that I've played that successfully managed to pull it off while making each part seem fun and fully realized.  Mass Effect 2 is emotionally engaging, full of exploration, and a ton of fun to play.  I feel like this could be a very important game.  I hope developers look at what was accomplished here and figure out how to build on it (however that may be possible).  Because Mass Effect 2 feels like a game that declares a new era for games has begun.  Ideas that seemed like a dream back when I was a child are now fully realized in this game.  Mass Effect 2 is my favorite game of the year so far, and I have my doubts that any of the games coming toward us this holiday season can top it.  But who knows?  It's been an incredible year so far.  There just may be some surprises yet to come.  And I can't wait to discover them.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Our Story So Far: Redeemed

Red Dead Redemption is the best game Rockstar has ever made.  Let that comment sink in for a minute.  If you don't already know, Rockstar is the company behind the Grand Theft Auto series.  Aside from whipping up a media frenzy, the GTA games have been best known for their ability to push video games forward.  Much of their development is geared towards creating huge open worlds where anything can happen, and the player can pursue the story at their own pace (or not pursue it at all).  For this reason, I would say Grand Theft Auto 4 was a more important game than Red Dead Redemption, as its engine made incredible bounds in creating a believable world and some decent gameplay within it.  GTA 4 had a bunch of issues, though, that eventually wore down my good will and left me feeling more bitter about it than it probably deserved.  Red Dead Redemption takes all the issues I had with GTA 4 and fixes them, and in my eyes it well surpasses the game it was built off of.

Red Dead Redemption takes place out in the dying days of the Old West, during the early years of the twentieth century.  The Industrial Revolution of the East Coast has made its way into the Wild West and begun to tame it.  Automobiles, gatling guns, and steam engines are all finding their way out into the formerly lawless regions, and "civilization" is finally making its mark.  You take control of John Marston, a former outlaw who has tried to leave his past behind him.  Unfortunately there are those who are unwilling to let him do so, and so John is forced to go hunt down a former member of his old gang, Bill Williams, and bring him to justice.  As the game opens, you're left to believe that the battle between these two men will be the main conflict of the story.  But as you learn what is forcing John to hunt his one time friend, you soon see things aren't so simple.  John Marston has to deal with some shady, naive, and sometimes downright despicable characters to try and finish his mission.  The West that Red Dead Redemption paints is the dirty and violent kind, not the noble and heroic one of the classic Westerns.  This is the Deadwood style Western, so expect plenty of brutal violence and racism here.  Yet John usually tries to stay above all that, wanting only to do his job and go home.

The character of John Marston can actually clash with the open world that Rockstar has created here.  You can live out your fantasies of being a heroic gunslinger or a down and dirty outlaw.  If you want to hunt down criminals, save people from wild animals, and defend stagecoaches, you can do so.  If you want to rob banks, travellers, and trains, well you can do that too.  The world is yours to do with as you please (though the world will react to you accordingly).  But if you turn criminal, that doesn't seem to reflect in the way John acts through the story.  He remains former outlaw who has tried to turn a new leaf.  Or I guess I should say I assume he does.  I didn't really break the law very much, though I do confess to shooting my poker opponents now and then.  I felt bad about it, though, so I'd always reload my last save afterward.

Speaking of which, I found myself spending a ton of time playing cards in game.  I have no idea why.  I mean, I'm still just playing Poker and Blackjack against a computer.  The game just does such a good job with its atmosphere that sitting down to gamble on the cards just feels right.  You really feel like you're playing against other people (until they start getting way too lucky, leading you to be convinced the game is cheating).  And I love how the cards look slightly worn and dirty too.

That's one of the great things about Red Dead Redemption: it does a fantastic job of creating an authentic feeling atmosphere.  You just feel like this is the Old West.  I felt like this is how is must have been, even though I have no idea what it was really like.  Atmosphere is something GTA4 did really well, and this game follows right along with it.  Most of the game is wilderness, and there are many different regions with their own distinct look.  And all of them look gorgeous.  The graphics in this game are top notch, at least in terms of the world.  The people can look odd, sometimes, but they usually look just fine.  Red Dead's musical score fits just right as well, enhancing the game in just the right way without ever overpowering it.  It was so good that I actually bought the soundtrack, which I rarely do.  Adding to the atmosphere are the random encounters that pop up as you travel.  People get shot at, bandits try to lynch innocents, horses get stolen, etc.  These can get annoying as the game goes on, but you don't actually have to do any of them.  They just help the world to feel alive, rather than just a big empty place.

The gameplay itself is pretty good too.  It basically takes the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto 4, but I still feel like Red Dead improves that part too.  The health meter has finally been stripped out here and replaced by regenerating health.  I don't think regenerating health needs to be in every shooter, but it feels like a necessity in the Rockstar games.  I can't tell you how frustrated I got in GTA4 when I died near the end of a mission just because there wasn't a health pack nearby.  We also get a real checkpoint system in Red Dead.  Thank the good Lord above.  Those two factors were my biggest and most hated issues with GTA4, and are why I got so negative about that game.  It just plain sucked to die in that game.  I had to turn off the console after failing a mission near the end of GTA4 because I couldn't bear the thought of doing that whole mission over again.  It still kind of gets my blood pressure up to think about some of those moments.  Red Dead is a far better game in my opinion thanks to this reason.  Some might feel Red Dead is too easy now, but I felt way more compelled to keep on going than I ever did with GTA4.  If I died, it wasn't a big deal.  And it helped the game just flow better.  I may be milking the GTA comparisons a little too much here, but I want you to understand why I think this is such a big deal to me.  The multitude of frustrations I felt in GTA4 were almost completely gone in Red Dead Redemption.  Rockstar finally got their combat right.

Probably the biggest thing to get used to is riding a horse.  This is vital too, as you will be on horseback for the majority of this game.  Assassin's Creed 2 had a really simple and intuitive system for horseback riding, so it took me a while to figure out how Red Dead's system worked.  I kept expecting it to be like AC2, but Rockstar took a slightly different approach.  You have to tap on a button to increase speed, and then hold that button to maintain the speed.  It sounds simple, but it took me a while to finally get it to feel just right.  Once I got it, though, it worked really well (though I still kind of wish you didn't have to keep holding the button.  My thumb got kind of sore on long trips).  Traversing an open world can often feel like a chore as you progress in these kinds of games, but for some reason I never got tired of riding my horse around in this one.  Fast travel is an option here, and one I chose quite often, but I still loved to just set a path and ride.  That just must be a testament to how amazing the world is that they've made here.

But it was the story that was king to me.  The story and atmosphere blend together to make an unforgettable experience.  I cared about the story of John Marston and really wanted to see it through to the end.  There were other games I was playing at the time, but Read Dead Redemption always took priority.  The voice acting is top notch, and this helps to give each character their own personality.  This is a game that got its hooks into me from the opening scene, and they still haven't really let go (and I've been done with it for weeks now).  That's something special for a video game to pull off.  Simply put, Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games I've ever played, and absolutely the best game Rockstar has ever put out.  All the ideas that they've tried to pull off in their other games have finally come together in the right way here.  Yeah, they could still improve on this one too, but for once I don't feel like it was missing anything (Bully may be the only other Rockstar game that fits this description.  Maybe I just feel the Grand Theft Auto games are lacking?  Maybe).

So is Red Dead Redemption my favorite game so far this year?  Actually, no.  And considering all the praise I've heaped on it up to this point, that should tell you how much I liked tomorrow's game.  If you read my intro to this "Best Of" series, you probably have an idea of what's coming.  So stop by tomorrow to see just how that game managed to take the top spot.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Our Story So Far: Welcome, Whole New Galaxy!

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an incredible platformer that surpasses the original in almost every way.  It ranks up there as one of the best Mario games, and it could possibly be the best game available on the Wii (with the possible exception of Shattered Memories).  You should play it.  You should be playing it right now.  So go do that.

...OK, I suppose I should go into more detail than that.  This is a core Mario game, which should explain a lot about why it's so good.  Yes, there are a ton of games that bare the Mario name.  Mario Party, Mario Tennis, Mario Kart, Mario MMA (OK, that's fake, but it would be awesome), etc.  Every month it seems some new title comes out baring the name of that most famous of mustachioed plumbers.  Yet fans know there have only been 8 true Mario games prior to Super Mario Galaxy 2.  Ten if you include the New Super Mario Bros. games.  Twelve if you include the Super Mario Land franchise on Game Boy.  Oh, and I think there might have been a Virtual Boy title too...Look, I'm trying to say that there are only a handful of games that can call themselves a true Mario title.  And I consider almost all of them to be ranked among the greatest games ever made.  Honestly, I think the original Super Mario Bros. IS the great game of all time, mainly due to how key it was to revitalizing the nearly extinct video game market back in its day.  About the only bump in the saga was Mario 2, which isn't even a "real" Mario game.  Sure, it counts now, but it wasn't one originally.  And it's still pretty good.  (Also, I never really played Super Mario World 2, so I can't actually speak to that one's quality.)  Thankfully, Super Mario Galaxy 2 lives up to the high standards of its forefathers.

When I said that SMG2 "surpasses the original in almost every way", I should explain that these are minor improvements to the already excellent Super Mario Galaxy.  This isn't leaps and bounds, but I feel the improvements are still noticeable.  The story is basically the same as the last game.  In fact it's really a retelling of Super Mario Galaxy with some minor differences.  But you don't come to a Mario game looking for its story.  The Mario RPGs, yes.  Core Mario games, no.  You come looking for the best platforming in gaming, and SMG2 delivers.  The gameplay established in SMG1 stays intact, with a few new things thrown in.  You have some new suits, like the Rock Suit and the Cloud Suit.  You also have Yoshi, who makes a big difference in the way you approach levels.  And Yoshi himself has some unique power-ups, so there is a huge variety to the ways you'll be playing this game.  These are all minor changes, though, so if you played the first game, you'll know what you're doing in this game without any problems.  If you didn't play the first one, then trust me, you won't have any problems either.  The controls are tight and responsive, just as a Mario game should be.

The biggest improvement here is in level design.  The first Super Mario Galaxy had some really clever world designs and played around with the gravity mechanics in some neat ways.  SMG2 takes those ideas from the first game and just goes crazy here.  There are a ton more worlds here, and each level within the world feels like a different experience.  One level will have you riding Yoshi, who eats chili peppers so he can run up walls.  Another level will have you skating on ice.  Yet another will switch you to a side scrolling perspective with you flipping upside down and right-side up.  Again, many of these were explored in the first game, but I feel that they really fulfill their potential here.  This was apparently just supposed to be a bunch of add-ons to Super Mario Galaxy, but they kept thinking up enough cool ideas that they decided to turn it into a full blown sequel.  I can see why.  There is so much stuff to do in this game, and I love all of it.

For me, the Super Mario series has long been the standard of excellence in video games.  I love stories, moral choices, and all the other innovations the industry has built over the years.  Yet Mario always manages to come around every few years and blow me away with an experience that just focuses on making the game as fun as possible.  SMG2 is challenging, but not punishingly so.  It requires skill, but that skill is not difficult to develop.  This is pure platforming entertainment distilled down to its finest.  Some people like to rag on Nintendo, claiming that they just mine their properties without changing anything up.  But Super Mario Galaxy 2 shows once again why Nintendo is one of the very best companies at doing what they do.  When they put their best into a game, there are few who can touch them.

Our Story So Far: BAAAAAAAAAAAAD Company!!!

I don't play online shooters.  It's not that I don't like them.  I think it's that I know I suck at them.  Most of the time, I just wander around for a couple of seconds and then wind up dead.  Repeat thirty times until the round ends, then let's go do it again.  You can see why I don't find that cycle to be very much fun.  Halo and Gears of War are franchises that have helped make XBox Live the juggernaut that it is, yet I've never touched an online session in any of those games.  And I've played them all.  I missed the boat on Call of Duty 4, so when I got in there I was way outclassed.  I lasted a little while in World at War and Modern Warfare 2, but still didn't revisit those games much after a month had passed.  About the only online shooter I ever spent a whole lot of time with was Battlefield 2.  I don't know what it was about that game, but I couldn't get enough of it.  I spent a good number of months on those battlefields, claiming flags and healing my teammates (I usually played as a medic).  Something about it just clicked with me.  So I guess it's fitting that the first game to come along that has replicated that addiction for me would be Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

Now I wasn't a huge fan of the original Bad Company.  Don't get me wrong; I loved the characters within Bad Company.  Sarge, Sweetwater, Marlowe, and Haggard compose what may be the greatest team in video game history.  The dialogue and chemistry between these guys was fantastic, and there were a ton of genuinely hilarious moments throughout the game.  And the story was pretty good.  A team of outcast soldiers looking to score a bunch of illicit gold in the midst of a battlefield is a story that movies have done before, but it worked just fine for this game.  But there was something about the actual gameplay that just put me off.  Maybe it was the fact that I could never see the guys who were shooting at me until my health was about 3/4ths of the way gone.  Maybe it was the fact that the mechanics were ripped straight from the multiplayer.  You would respawn after dying, with everything you had done prior still having occurred.  That didn't make sense to me in a single player campaign.  Whatever it was, I walked away from Bad Company thinking it was merely OK.  A great group of characters set in a mediocre shooter.  Needless to say, I didn't have high hopes for the sequel.

Thankfully, I was dead wrong.  I've heard a lot of reviewers complaining about the single player campaign, saying they made it too serious or something to that effect.  I can see where they're coming from, but I still argue that all the great humor of the Bad Company is still in there.  You just have to wait around sometimes to hear it.  The team will discuss their favorite scenes in Predator, why the black man calls 50 Cent "Fitty Cent", and how Sarge would fare as a mixed martial artist.  It is all fantastic.  Yet the actual story does take a more serious approach, so I see how that's not what some people were looking for.  In my opinion, though, almost every other part of the single player experience is improved in Bad Company 2.  I can see my enemies before I'm dead.  The respawning weirdness is gone.  You've got regenerating health to give you a fighting chance.  Really, the game plays a lot more like the Modern Warfare series.  And you know what?  Modern Warfare is pretty good!  And Bad Company 2 gives you more than 4 hours in its single player campaign!  I seem to be in the minority here, but I prefer Bad Company 2's single player to the original.  I just think it plays better.  Heck, I think it's better than Modern Warfare 2's single player too, which I thought was pretty darn good.

But there are a lot of people who don't want anything to do with the single player game.  To them, Battlefield is multiplayer, and that's all they care about.  Me, I never touched the mulitplayer in the first Bad Company.  I first played it on a rental copy that I got about a year after the game was released, so I figured I had missed the window on that part.  I got Bad Company 2 right at launch, and people were raving about the multiplayer, so I decided this time I would give it a go.  I got into a Conquest match, and it was Battlefield.  It was what I remembered from back in the days of Battlefield 2.  I was trying to capture control points, fighting off enemies trying to recapture them, etc.  It was a lot like the game I remembered.  I didn't like it at all.  Weird, huh?  I guess I felt Battlefield 2 was a great moment in my past, but online shooters had moved on.  Progression was in this game, but it was taking forever to get past rank one.  I wasn't unlocking anything.  After a few matches of that, I figured I was done with the online component.

Thankfully, I gave it another shot a few weeks later.  This time, I tried out the Rush mode.  And oh my God, was it glorious.  This is how you should be playing Bad Company 2.  I was unlocking multiple things each round, racking up the kill counts, and scoring huge points from completing objectives.  I lost countless hours in that thing, and I still kinda want to jump back in sometime.  Now I said I suck at online shooters when I started this post, but somehow I always found myself near the top of the pack in Bad Company 2.  I can't tell you how much that can make me want to jump into another match.  Much like Battlefield 2, Bad Company 2 has somehow clicked with me in a way other online shooters never have.  This is my FPS of choice right now.  A new mode has recently been released, so I need to get back on and see what that has to offer.  Call of Duty: Black Ops and Medal of Honor are coming later this year, and both are vying to claim the title of the King of Online Shooters.  Personally, I think they both have a lot to accomplish if they want any hope of topping Bad Company 2.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Our Story So Far: Someone Left the Cake Out In the Rain

I already went pretty in depth into why I loved Heavy Rain.  I recommend you check out that review if you want to know specifics about how I felt.  In summary, I thought it was a fantastic evolution of the adventure game genre that excelled in the way it not only told the story, but allowed the player to determine how the story would play out.  My brother recently finished the game, and when discussing the climax of the game we realized things played out pretty differently for the two of us.  Whereas I had all my characters survive up to that point of the game, someone died in his game.  Therefore, a character who played a key part in the final struggle for me wasn't even around for that whole scene for him.  It was actually pretty cool to realize how different things can turn out due to some decisions earlier on.     

This wasn't David Cage's first attempt at "Interactive Story Telling".  His previous project was Indigo Prophecy, a game that I really liked but can admit was still flawed.  In that game, you have two central characters (you take control of other characters, but these two are definitely the focal point). One of them is a man who finds himself possessed by something that forces him to murder an innocent person in a ritualistic fashion.  The other character is a cop who is trying to solve the murder after the fact.  The early acts of the game are an interesting game of cat and mouse for the player, as they are simultaneously trying to cover their tracks and uncover leads.  Then about a third of the way in, things get crazy, and the supernatural tones that were implied up to that point blow up into the main crux of the plot.  And that stuff actually stays pretty interesting as it pursues some Mayan mythology that doesn't really get explored a lot in modern entertainment.  But once the final act kicks in, the whole thing sort of goes out of control.  New plot points and antagonists appear out of nowhere and seem to derail the story.  There are alternate endings, but they don't actually take into account any of the actions throughout the game.  They only depend on a few choices near the end and how well you can do on the final QTEs.  It was kind of a disappointment, as the early chapters seemed to hold a lot of promise on how you could change the pace and mood of the story.

And speaking of the QTEs, this was maybe the big drawback of the gameplay.  When any action would start up, two "Simon-esque" circles would pop up on the screen to indicate which buttons you should press.  It worked OK, but having big multicolored circles on the screen could also distract from some of the crazy stuff going on at the same time.  This is one of the big improvements in Heavy Rain.  QTEs are still the main gameplay element when the action heats up, but the way they are implemented are miles ahead of Indigo Prophecy.  The button prompts are put in the best contextual point, popping up where your eyes would already be focused.  This tends to flow well with the action rather than distract from it, and makes you feel more involved in what's going on onscreen.

Heavy Rain also benefits from avoiding the supernatural tones of Indigo Prophecy.  As I stated earlier, I liked most of what Indigo Prophecy tried to do with the supernatural stuff.  There were moments early on in Heavy Rain where I thought they might veer back to the supernatural for their later chapters, but I'm glad they decided not to go that route.  Staying more grounded in reality helped the story have a much deeper emotional impact.  When your protagonist gets crazy superpowers and can start flying around, it gets hard to identify with him.  When your protagonist has to decide if he should cut off his finger in the hopes of finding a clue that could help him save the life of his child, well that pain becomes much easier to sympathize with.  The emotions conveyed in the game really helped you forget you were looking at computer generated characters, and made you feel like you were watching actual people interact with one another. 

I wrote my review of the game the same day that I beat it, so I wondered at the time if my opinion would change later on when the emotional high died down.  Five months later, I can say I still feel the same way about Heavy Rain.  I feel like this could be an important game due to the way it approaches its storytelling.  This is just one of a few games lately that will alter the way the story plays out according to the player's choices.  A whole lot of games have tried this over the last few years, but games like Heavy Rain, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and the Mass Effect series seem to be taking that concept and realizing its true potential.  I hope developers take note of what David Cage and Quantic Dream achieved with Heavy Rain and build on it.  This was one of the most memorable gaming experiences I've had all year, and I hope I get the chance to have more like it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Our Story So Far: Maximus, Your Ignorance Of Large Carnivorous Reptiles Is Embarrassing Me!

Sam and Max continue to set the bar higher than before when it comes to comedy in games.  This duo of an anthropomorphic dog and his psychotic rabbit friend have provided some of the best laughs I've had not just in games, but from all media this year.  With the latest installment in this franchise, The Devil's Playhouse, Telltale continues to show how modern adventure games, and episodic gaming in general, should be done.

The Devil's Playhouse is the third "season" of Sam and Max that Telltale has developed, although they seem to be avoiding the word "season".  I think that's because this series of episodes stand apart from the past two installments (although there are still references that those of us who have been devoted to the series can geek out about).  While season 2 very much felt like more of the same (which wasn't a bad thing), The Devil's Playhouse has thrown in some new hooks to the gameplay to make it feel a bit different from the standard Telltale formula.  Oh sure, that standard formula is still in there.  You have an intro sequence, then you get a series of puzzles that you can tackle in any order to achieve a certain number of goals, and then you get the climax of the episode followed by a cliffhanger to get you to wait impatiently for the next episode.  That has definitely been the case in the first two episodes Telltale has released so far.

Yet Telltale has managed to throw in some new mechanics to make the gameplay feel fresh and different.  Max has psychic powers now, and those powers have an impact on the game.  Sam and Max have come across the "Toys of Power", which originate from the Devil's Toybox.  Each toy has a different power that Max can use, and these are used to solve many of the puzzles in the game.  In the first episode, Max is able to see into the future, which was invaluable in helping me to figure out what to do next.  In the second episode, you can use a ventriloquism doll to make other people say things.  Aside from being helpful in the gameplay, these toys and the powers they hold are just plain quirky, and made me use them at random to see what sort of joke would come up next.  I should also mention that when you bring up the wheel of powers, it makes the whole world seem ridiculous.  Well, more so than usual.  Phantom objects appear that make it look like some characters are wearing novelty cowboy hats, or that a saguaro is now in a previously empty corner.  I'm not sure if this is an effect of the toys or just what Max normally sees, but either way it's a nice touch.

The second episode also used another trick to change things up.  Rather than play as Sam and Max, you take control of their great-grandparents, Sammeth and Maximus.  OK, so they're basically the same characters.  The difference is in how you view the story.  You are watching their adventure on old "dangerously flammable" nitrate film reels, and you have four reels to choose from.  Each reel is a different part of the story, and it becomes necessary to switch between reels to find clues that will help you in the other reels.  It's not unlike another Lucasarts classic: Day of the Tentacle.

But while the game plays well, it's the story and characters that make any Sam and Max game great.  And boy are they great here.  I'd expect no less from a series that featured a giant talking stone head of Abraham Lincoln as a major recurring character.  There are some familiar faces, such as Secret Service Agent Superball, Stinky, and Grandpa Stinky.  There are also some new faces, such as the first episode's antagonist, General Skunkape.  But no characters can top the stars, Sam and Max.  And they're in rare form here.  My favorite line of theirs so far has come in Episode 2.  Sammeth and Maximus learn that a certain character will always fall asleep when listening to "Ride of the Valkyries".  The camera pulls out to show Sam and Max watching the film.  Max remarks, "I can only fall asleep to the Tears of a Clown."  Sam replies, "Poor Chuckles."  Max answers, "I think his shackles are too tight." The bizarre and sometimes twisted humor of these games might not appeal to everyone, but I sure can't get enough. 

Simply put, the Sam and Max series continues to be the best in the modern adventure genre.  If you've ever had any love for point and click adventure games, you owe it to yourself to play this one.  Well, you're probably already playing it, but if you're not, get in on it!