My thirteen-year-old son, Aaron, groans upon seeing his character do a virtual face plant after leaping from height in Portal 2. He is sitting next to me on the couch, Xbox controller in hand, and I glance up to his part of the split screen, just as he glances down at mine.
“Did you put your portal over mine?” he asks.
“Oh, I’m sorry, son,” I say. “My bad, my bad.”
I’m screwing around with my portal gun, trying to get a feel for the game. Aaron dismisses my mistake with a good natured chuckle. There was time when I might have had a better grasp of a game as popular as Portal 2. There was a time when, if you had come to my house, you might have found various joysticks and force feedback steering wheels clustered around my computer desk, itself piled high with the cardboard boxes of games, or plastic CD holders stacked in towers. There was a time when I was the last one up in a quiet house, my face bathed in the monitor’s soft blue glow.
Of course, that time is now no longer with us.
After the jump, the prince kills the pauper. No wait, that can’t be right . . . Continue reading →
NOTE: The Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2 is finally available for the PC version of the game. Following is a reprint of the review I wrote for the Xbox 360 version.
Bioshock 2 is a tough act to follow. I don’t envy anyone who has to come up with the storyline for a ten-dollar downloadable add-on to one of the best written videogames you will ever play. That’s like having to make a short film to screen after Citizen Kane.
Oh, hello, Minerva’s Den, the single-player DLC for Bioshock 2. So. What have you got for us?
Hateful, threatening, sinister and not in the least bit thankful; it makes you wonder why humans were stupid enough to give others hyperdrive. The apes should have taken over if this was what we knew we were going to unleash.
Victoria 2 is Paradox’s massive spreadsheet strategy game about the 19th century, give or take. It’s the game I’ve been playing instead of Pride of Nations, since the “review build” of Pride of Nations is in really bad shape. The developers have their work cut out for them between now and their June 7th release.
So while not playing Pride of Nations, I was greeted by the following message in Victoria 2:
Scientists in our country have discovered Proto-Existentialism.
This was not a philosophical movement but disparate philosophers analyzing and discussing concepts and conceptions which they considered flawed. The general notion about things as Intuition, Time, Intellect, and Being had to be reformulated not do create pesudoproblems.
In terms of gameplay, it means my research had lead to an invention, which is an additional bonus that trickles out after you complete research. Instead of giving you everything at once — BAM! Now you can build granaries! or BAM! Now you’ve unlocked musketeers! or BAM! Now you can research the Apollo Project! — many research results dole out their benefits over time. In this case, Proto-Existentialism gave me a small boost to my prestige rating, which is a nation’s overall metric of success. This will happen some time after a nation finishes researching Idealism under the Philosophy category of the Culture tech tree. Even though it not a major gameplay twist, it’s a nice touch that many of the techs keep on giving with follow-up sub-techs.
But in terms of flavor text, it’s a brilliant combination of eternal wisdom, Paradox Interactive typos, and 19th Century philosophical earnestness. Proto-Existentialism is so hardcore that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry! And don’t get me started on my discovery of Neokantian Idealism shortly thereafter.
The difference between Pride of Nations and Victoria 2 is pretty stark, even though they have identical subject matter and are played at identical scales. Victoria 2 is Paradox’s classic model of gameplay as data surfing, where you just ride the wave of history as it’s presented in a realtime sea of numbers, charts, lists, tooltips, and map displays. And since the game has been out long enough to have three patches and plenty of rough-honed mods, I’m almost dreading the release of Pride of Nations, which will have no such advantage.
I’m afraid I have no idea what to tell you about this week’s releases. Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, some sort of fantasy action thingie from a developer whose last meaningful release was The Bard’s Tale back in 2004, starring Cary Elwes and a moldy Interplay license? Another add-on for The Sims 3, subtitled Generations and consisting of a set of grasping bullet points that include bunk beds? Considering how enthusiastic I was to discover BlazBlue recently, you’d think I’d be excited about BlazBlue: Continuum Shift II, but who can get excited about a such a serious fighting game released only on the PSP and Nintendo DS, neither of which has inputs for my decidedly serious Arcade FightStick Tournament Edition S? I predict your wallet is in very little danger this week.
Unless, of course, you’ve got Bioshock 2 on the PC. In which case, you might want to have ten bucks handy.
I’m half way through a game of Six Gun Saga, a Western themed strategy game from the developer of Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum. I’m playing as El Indio, an outlaw who can’t hire any lawmen, but whose dudes get a combat bonus for every lawman in an enemy posse. My opponent is the gunfighter Lucien Maxwell. On turn 12, I’ve got 25 victory points to his 11 victory points. The game ends at either 30 victory points or 25 turns. So I should have this in the bag, right?
I’ll be frank. This is version two of my Galactic Civilizations II game diary. Version one ended at the late-game slog in a large galaxy with a race of insects and reptilian slimeballs outside of my convenient alliance with the humans. The insects were small but nearly on par with my soldiering while the reptilians were the same but had more planets. This meant that hundreds of billions would have to give their lives to brutally conqueror worlds while the men and women back home would have to breed faster than rabbits to replace them. As much as I appreciate all that, I simply don’t have the patience to see it to the end of that glorious slaughter, nor try for an equally time-consuming influence victory. So here’s round two, more focused and more hate-filled.
After the jump, what I aim to accomplish and with whom I aim to accomplish itContinue reading →
The above mishap was entirely my co-driver’s fault. Right five, my ass. That’s a four if ever I’ve seen one. It’s bad enough that she keeps lying about the titans. “Titans, over bridge,” she’ll warn. I have yet to see a single blessed titan. I’m beginning to wonder if they’re even in the game.
The above screenshot from Shadows of the Damned is called The Big Boner. I have no idea why. I don’t know much about Shadows of the Damned, but I know enough to know that I’m psyched for its June 21st release. This is the first game jointly made by Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami since Killer 7. My only reservation is that it’s published by Electronic Arts, who somehow managed to squeeze the joy out of Bulletstorm, a shooter created by Painkiller developer People Can Fly. Will Shadows of the Damned survive EA’s joy-wringing process?
Check out more mostly incomprehensible screens after the jump, but note that last screenshot. Any shooter that does that is a shooter I want to play.
I’d just like to point out a few nifty details in the above replay from Dirt 3. Note the little figure dangling from the car’s rear view mirror. That’s my Xbox Live avatar. Mirror and dashboard ornaments were unlockables in Dirt 2, but in Dirt 3, you automatically get your avatar. Nifty touch, sure, but it’s a shame there’s no incentive to drive from that view. Also, you can’t drive from the wider view you see in the replay that shows both the driver and co-driver. Instead, the viewpoints is, as you’d expect, from the driver’s point of view.
This is a rally course in Kenya. That village looks every bit as good as, say, a level in Resident Evil 5 or Far Cry 2, even though you’ll almost never get to see it as anything other than a blur of scenery. Speaking of which, you might notice what looks like a radio tower in the middle of the village. That’s no such thing. It’s the base of a windmill that you can see when the course loads. And if you’ve turned off the music — and good lord, what a relief it is to turn off the music in Dirt 3! — you can actually hear the pastoral creak of the turning windmill. Did you see Meek’s Cutoff? Probably not. But if you had, you’d have an ear for the forlorn creak of a turning wheel.
The camera movement during the replay is automatic, and above you can see some of the more energetic instances of camera movement. It’s a bit gratuitous, but it sure does add a lot of energy. Videogames love to move cameras around, as if they’re lording it over real cameras. It reminds me of the scene in War of the Worlds when Tom Cruise is driving away from New York and the camera is swirling around and into the car while he and his kids freak out. That scene is like the replay from a racing game.
That’s the worst bridge in the world. Someone should tell whomever built it that bridges are supposed to go over the water, not under it.
Of course, I fully intended to hit that little sign with the happy face on it. Although that’s no happy face. It’s a stopwatch icon. Every time you pass those signs, your time is registered and you can see your rank among the other drivers running the course. Now the car behind me won’t know he’s coming up on a checkpoint unless he’s looking on the right side of the road. Ha!
At the very end of the replay, the camera glitches. Did you see it? Don’t blink! I love when that sort of imperfection is coded into a game, like lens flare in the olden days. Most recently, this was used to great effect in Kane and Lynch 2, which was made to look like a cheap digital video, with compression artifacts and smeared lighting. It was one of the boldest aesthetic choices I’ve ever seen in a videogame and I loved it.
I have no idea what kind of car I’m driving. It’s, um, a Monza Sport XL-5 Rally Car 2000. Okay, I made that up. Dirt 3 is really terrible about making me care about the cars.
Upon booting up a new game of Pride of Nations, the upcoming strategy game that models the era of the Industrial Revolution around the world, I poked around among the screens. I discovered that I can research molasses extraction centrifuges, which are represented by the above picture. Industry! These centrifuges will improve the efficiency of my sugar plantations. Also available on the research screen are standardized screws, schools of forestry, and the first synthesis of colourants [sic] and perfumes. I am simultaneously fascinated, delighted, and horrified by this level of detail. I’m not sure I need to actually play the game. I could occupy myself for hours just poring over the armies and leaders and policies and resources and cities and colonies and shipping navies, even before they get molasses extraction centrifuges.
(As a side note that doesn’t really have anything to do with the quality of the game, I’ve heard some of the most vile online conversations while playing SOCOM 4. I don’t pretend to have any insight into the game’s player community as a whole, and it’s entirely possible my experience wasn’t typical. But on separate occasions, the conversations I heard about military matters, politics, race and religion went well beyond the usual trash talk. Stuff about Obama, and what we should do in Afghanistan, and how Muslims are. Does the SOCOM series appeal to a certain type of player, or have I just not been playing military shooters online enough to hear these types of conversations? It’s enough to make me long for the days before anyone on the Playstation Network had a Bluetooth headset.)
I visited a friend of mine the other day. I walked into his house and instead of initiating the dialog for the story mission — we were going to see Pirates of the Caribbean, but there would be options in the dialog tree for Bridesmaids or Thor — I started going through the drawers in his kitchen. There had to be a junk drawer somewhere. A ha! Sure enough, I found 43 cents in loose change. I also scored some batteries, a ball of string, a screwdriver, and a roll of masking tape that I could sell next time I went to the store.
I found a key in there as well. Once I’d cleared the spare change out of the other drawers in the house (another 87 cents), as well as taking some jewelry from his wife’s jewelry box (score!) and changing into a nicer pair of pants I found in his closet, I tried the key on various doors. I eventually got into his garage. I found a bunch of tools, as well as some lumber and cloth. I did’t take the lumber since it just took up too much weight in my inventory. The entire time he was watching me, waiting for me to initiate dialog.
I understand why computer RPGs do this, and it’s a convention as old as the genre itself. The level designers have made cool locations full of nooks and crannies that you have no reason to visit, much less admire. So they sprinkle rewards around to encourage exploration. It’s part of the economy, and it makes gameplay sense. But the trade-off is that it damages world building and character development. In The Witcher 2, for instance, I can get into a groove where I’m digging on a town’s layout, and where people live, and what they do, and how they hang out and talk to each other. But the moment I open someone’s personal chest and help myself to what’s in there while he looks on? That’s the moment I’m back in yet another computer RPG. Furthermore, my Geralt in The Witcher 2 would never do something so petty as steal stuff from people. But the developers don’t acknowledge this decision I’ve made about the character I’m playing. What’s more, they punish me if I make this decision.
Looting friendly homes in an absurd RPG convention and it needs to stop. Bethesda’s games finally woke up to the fact that it’s odd to pick through someone’s possessions, so they put into their games ownership over items and whether or not people see you taking their stuff. It’s a crucial part of their world building, which allows for the concept of crime. It helps character development since it finally gives thief characters something to do beside pick pockets and disarm traps. And it also makes it harder to play otherwise solid RPGs like Dragon Age, The Witcher, Neir, and Divine Divinity.