• November 23, 2014

The Play Button

Rachel Kaser
  • Rachel Kaser
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  • News, reviews and commentary on video games.
Thursday 11/20/2014
Assassins Creed Unity: …and The Ugly

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but Unity’s story is so unusually bad for the Assassin’s Creed series that I get the impression no one actually wanted to write it. “Oh, you wanted the series to go back to the assassination spectacle it was to begin with? You wanted a setting with some intrigue beyond ‘When will the hero realize his wife back home has probably expired?’ Well fine, but don’t expect us to get excited about it.”

Our hero is Arno Dorian, the son of an Assassin who was killed by Shay from Rogue. Arno was adopted by a Templar grandmaster, and grew up to fall in love with his foster sister Elise de la Serre. Arno was unaware of his heritage and grew up to be a rather idle man who nevertheless free-runs like a champ. He only discovers the truth when he’s accused of his foster father’s murder and thrown into the same Bastille cell as an Assassin who knew his father.

This all happens exceedingly fast, too. Arno’s the complete opposite of Edward Kenway, who only came around several years after the Assassins initially approached him. Arno not only accepts his cellmate’s blunt declaration, “Your father was an Assassin,” without question, but also seems to instantly understand that Elise, the love of his life and heir to the Templar throne, is now one of his mortal enemies.

More strangely, the game doesn’t seem interested in showing us the Revolution itself. Arno doesn’t seem to particularly care about the whole conflict. There’s certainly no sharing a horse with Paul Revere this time around, and that’s not bad. But at least Connor was allowed to debate with the Founding Fathers, allowing for something like a revisionist take on the American Revolution.

I said in my preview that the French Revolution is such a confusing and chaotic time in history that we needed some clear delineation of where the Assassins and Templars stood within it just to make sense of it all. We needed a smart, sympathetic hero and an enjoyable villain.

We got neither. Arno and Elise are bland and wishy-washy, and the Assassins and Templars might as well be chess pieces for all the conviction they show. Arno’s stated purpose to avenge his foster father’s death at the hands of fellow Templars is the closest we get to motivation, and I don’t know why the Assassins would even care if the Templars are killing each other.

Don’t get me wrong; I still liked Arno for his puckishness. He could have been a very likeable protagonist, had he been given a better script. His relationship with Elise could have thrown the usual Assassin/Templar dynamic for a loop, had it been handled correctly. I suppose that’s the big disappointment about Unity: It had so much potential, and most of it was wasted. It’s not a copy-paste job like Rogue was, but that just makes the let-down of it sting so much more.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, November 20, 2014 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Assassins Creed Unity: The Good, The Bad . . .

This might be the most asterisk-heavy recommendation I ever give, so to everyone reading this, make free with your grain of salt. In my Rogue review, I said that I prefer Unity, despite its faults, because it’s different. That’s still true; but just because I prefer the broken game over the lazy one does mean I don’t recognize the broken game’s flaws.

First, I have a few good things to say about the game’s mechanics, even if most of the good things are coupled with bad things. I liked Arno Dorian’s controls more than I thought I would. His movements feel more kinetic than Edward Kenway’s and the free-running feels more like free-running. The “free run down” control is welcome as well, as up to this point the only way to get down from heights quickly was to take a wild jump and hope it didn't kill you. The whole city felt like my playground, a feeling I've not had since AC2.

This more-fluid movement makes it all the more amusing when Arno makes an impossible leap and magically warps across the gap, flailing his arms, to land safely on the other side. This happened so often I came to rely upon it, making jumps I’d never have dared to in other games because I knew Arno’s grasshopper abilities would save me.

Speaking of which, by now I’m sure everyone’s heard of the infamous buggy launch. Even if I never had a game crash, I will admit that there were times when NPCs would glitch through each other. Sometimes their collision detection never triggered and Arno would run right through them, which I found funny. Not so much the framerate issues, which I even got on a console. I remember thinking that, had they spent more time doing QA testing and a little less time making Arno’s incredibly tight trousers crease around his sculpted backside as he …sorry, lost my train of thought.

I did like the assassination missions. In several, you have the option of completing reconnaissance objectives in order to make the actual killing easier, or to get more information. Usually the AC games are holding your hand right up until the moment you shank the target, and we haven’t done real recon since AC1. Still, you’ll want to opt for stealth because the combat has gotten even worse. Guards pick on Arno for no obvious reason and can then run him through with an epee with no option to parry. It’s kind of a mess.

One thing I loathed was the fact that Eagle Vision, a special ability which AC protagonists have had since the beginning with no restrictions, suddenly operates on a timer that recharges. The first time my meter ran out, I threw a fit. Ubisoft, you cannot arbitrarily decide, after six games and who-knows-how-many side projects, to put limits on your characters’ superpower just because you've realized it makes the game just a touch too easy.

Now we’re done talking about the mechanical side of things. Let’s talk about the story…

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, November 20, 2014 12:05 am. Comments (0)

Tuesday 11/18/2014
Should You Buy? Assassins Creed: Rogue

Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed…whatever am I going to do with you? I've mentioned numerous times that I’m a huge AC fan, and I have been since the beginning. I even played those horrible mobile games with Altair and Ezio. I make an effort to enjoy every AC game, so when I find as much to dislike in one as I did in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, there’s a real problem.


My initial impression of Rogue (and Unity, to a lesser extent) was that Ubisoft drastically overestimated audience dislike for poor Connor. They've now made games about his grandfather, his grandfather’s mates, the Templar butcher who befriended his father, and finally the ineffectual, foppish French Assassin who succeeded him. Yet they refuse to acknowledge Connor’s existence, even though he had a more tangible effect on the Assassin/Templar conflict and world politics than anyone else in that time period.


The underlying conflict of the whole series is the Assassins’ peace through freedom ideals vs the Templars’ peace through order. Up until this point, we've only seen it from the perspective of the Assassins. Occasionally the Templars are shown to be sympathetic, but this game marks the first time one is allowed to tell their side of the story. Shay Cormac is even a former Assassin, so this should be a watershed moment for the series’ story, right?


Wrong. I get the impression that Ubisoft had no idea how to give the Templar ideals any credence without turning the Assassins into cartoon villains and making them completely disregard their own beliefs and Creed. Here’s an example:


Shay is told to retrieve an ancient artifact, but in doing so he inadvertently starts the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, killing many innocent people in the process. His Mentor knew the dangers, but didn't warn Shay, which violates the first tenet of the Creed, “Never harm an innocent person.” They try to murder the recalcitrant Shay, violating tenet three, “Do not compromise the Brotherhood.”


It would be easy for a well-written Assassin defector to take exception to the Creed, especially the first tenet; the Assassins spare innocents, but kill people who disagree with them? But neither Shay nor the Assassins have the benefit of good writing, and all the Templars have to do to entice Shay is be civil.


This wouldn't be so much of an issue if the game was fun to play, but it isn't. The environments are copied from 3 and 4, with the exception of the truly spectacular Lisbon setpiece. Shay has the same moves as Edward Kenway, and he even has the same shipboard shouts. While this old stuff does work, it sadly comes with the same shoddy controls and is generally banal.


AC: Unity gave me a lot of rope with which to hang it, but glorified AC4 DLC Rogue was even worse. No matter how much I criticize Unity, I will take a broken new game over a functional but boring recycled game any day.


Oh and Unity? You’re next.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, November 18, 2014 3:35 am. Comments (0)

Friday 11/14/2014
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Multiplayer Experience)

I don’t think I’m really cut out for war games. I stopped playing the Advanced Warfare multiplayer because I wanted to spare everyone else the experience of playing with me. So the complaints I have could be put down to ineptitude on my part, and I wouldn't deny it. Still, I have the feeling that even some veterans will be able to relate to these criticisms.

When I finished the campaign, I remember thinking that the multiplayer just had to be better. It doesn't have that awful story, for one. Also, I’d have the chance to use the fun stuff freely. The magnet gloves, the variable grenades, that grappling hook that the game selfishly snatched out of my hands after just five minutes…even I, an admitted FPS imbecile, was excited to leap into it.

But Call of Duty knows one thing better than I do: Multiplayer maps are the bread-and-butter, and you change them at your own peril. With toys like those, you’d think the best sort of playground would be a vertical one. We could chase each other up the sides of buildings and hover-boost from level to level while lobbing ordinance everywhere.

But the game’s multiplayer maps are not (and possibly never could be) terribly creative. This isn't Titanfall, after all. So, in lieu of a good playground, the game withholds the toys. No magnet gloves, no grappling hooks; just guns, grenades and a few Exo abilities.

The player customization is pretty expansive. A Pick-13 system allows you to put together a hefty loadout. Even the neophyte going into their first match will be able to survive against experienced players, with some perks and scorestreak bonuses available right at the outset to help even the odds. The Exo abilities are perhaps the one toy the game doesn't skimp on, letting you get speed boosts, cloaks, and shields.

The maps are a fairly large. When I played, I found almost everyone brawling in one part of the map, like the hedge area in the Greenband map. Some of the gameplay modes offer a welcome variety. There’s a Combat Readiness Program for beginners, but I’m nothing if not enthusiastic and went right for the Free-For-All. This was after I wasted lots of time in the shooting gallery, playing with all the new guns.

About those guns: They aren't great. I had the same problem I had in the campaign: The guns are not really that different from each other, and the ones that are different aren't all that useful. The futuristic weapons aren't nearly as effective as the old reliables, and some of the special weapons are almost useless outside of their single-player context.

I guess the phrase I’d use to describe Advanced Warfare overall is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This whole game is like a store-bought cake mix; not bad, per se, but formulaic and notable only for reliability. All of the pretensions to near-future science fiction turn out to be a bit of window dressing and little else. I’m disappointed, but not surprised.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, November 14, 2014 8:29 am. Comments (0)

Wednesday 11/05/2014
Should You Buy? Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Single-Player Experience)
Honestly, I'm not sure why I even bother at this point. CoD’s single-player campaign exists solely as an extended tutorial for the toys we get to truly enjoy in multiplayer. I know that, and I wouldn't bother to give the campaign its own review ordinarily. But they got Kevin Spacey –Kevin Spacey!—to play a major character. If that’s not the new devs begging to be taken seriously, then I don’t know what is.
The problem is that, were I to review AW’s story with the any discernment, I think I’d start laughing and never stop. It is so unaware of its own idiocy; it’s like a big dog knocking your legs out from under you, and then cocking its head as if to ask why you’re on the floor. Here’s a *SPOILER* example: After the protagonist, who works for Spacey’s PMC, kills the terrorist he's been hunting the whole game, the terrorist hands him a computer chip and tells him Spacey's character knows more than he's saying. The chip does indeed contain the proverbial smoking gun, which begs the question: How did the terrorist, First-World Enemy Number One, get hold of it?
CoD’s linearity is practically a trademark, and it did not disappoint. The game penalizes even the smallest attempt to deviate from the script. For example, my partner Gideon and I jump onto the back of a bus to chase a terrorist down a Nigerian highway (no explanation as to why the bus speeds up when we jump aboard, but whatever). I end up hanging by one hand from the side of the bus. To progress, you have to shoot the two goons in a car. I thought, “I'll activate my bullet time ability and get some headshots!” But for some reason I suddenly couldn't. The game killed me multiple times for trying.
Protagonist Jack Mitchell is mocapped by Troy Baker. But we only get to hear Baker’s dulcet voice on a handful of occasions. I think that one was my fault. Way back when Ghosts came out, I decried the silence of protagonist-whose-name-I-forget and asked why he couldn’t at least narrate the between-mission cutscenes. In AW, the protagonist speaks in those cutscenes and nowhere else. They force the poor man to zip it during gameplay, even when it’d be logical or downright necessary for him to speak. Way to take me at my word, Sledgehammer.
The much-ballyhooed mocapping and facial tech that allowed Kevin Spacey to grace us with his presence is impressive, to be sure, but either everyone was on some serious drugs or they haven’t perfected the animation of eyes, because every character looked like a doll. It also calls attention to just how stiff and unreal everyone looks outside of cutscenes. Gideon especially walks carrying his arms a foot to either side so they won’t clip through his bulky suit.
So that’s how it feels to play the campaign of Advanced Warfare. I’ll have forgotten everything about it by tomorrow. I’ll do a rundown of the multiplayer gameplay next.

Posted in Playbutton on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 11:25 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 10/31/2014
You Should Be Playing: Alien Isolation

Happy Halloween! In honor of America’s holiday of fear, I give you the only purchase you need for your video game scares this year: Alien: Isolation.

Yes, this game is scary. The first time you see the Alien about thirty minutes into the game, it drops out of the ceiling without so much as a hiss or a saliva drip to alert you to its presence and heroine Amanda Ripley throws herself under a desk one half-second before it can see her. From that moment on, you are totally vulnerable. The Alien could be around any corner, in any open vent, in any dark hallway.


As stated, you play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley who never saw her again after she departed on the Nostromo. The game is set fifteen years after the first film, and Amanda is now working for Weyland-Yutani in deep space in the hopes of finding her mother. She finally gets a break when the Nostromo’s black box is found and she’s invited to accompany two W-Y execs for the retrieval. However, when they arrive at the location, a distant port called Sevastopol Station, it is abandoned except for a few survivors trying wildly to fend off a “monster.”


The visual aesthetic of this game is intended to be seventies cyberpunk. It looks dated now, but it imitates the technology shown in the original film. Every bit of technology you come across is meant to invoke those days of CRT monitors and green monochrome displays. The tools you come across are massive relative to what they do; the motion tracker is roughly twice the size of a barcode scanner and certainly bigger than your pistol. I found the style refreshing!


Sevastopol Station itself feels labyrinthine and confusing, like it was cobbled together from bigger stations with no thought given to the occupants who have to try and wind their way through the dark corridors. I admit though, it did feel deliberately padded in some places. The architecture sometimes makes no sense except to provide a place for the Alien to patrol and savage you. This, combined with the lackluster pacing of the ending, makes the game run out of steam in the final third.


I didn't really care for the android enemies that show up a bit later in the game. They weren't as scary as the Alien itself and were more annoying than anything else, pawing at my throat when they caught me and earning a swift bop on the nose for their troubles. But perhaps that’s because their smooth, inhuman visages didn't trigger a fear reaction in me. It’s not easy playing second fiddle to H.R. Giger’s nightmares.


I quite liked this game, and I relished every scare. Still, it’s a touch on the tedious side, especially towards the end. But that doesn't make the game’s beginnings and excellent atmosphere any less frightening, and I still think it’s worth playing on a dark, lonely night.


Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 31, 2014 1:00 am. Comments (0)

Thursday 10/30/2014
Coming Soon: Far Cry 4

Oh yes, November is going to be very busy. I’m going to do my best to get to all of the big games. If I can pull it off, I hope it’ll be as fun for you to read as it will be for me to play. I’ve got Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and finally Far Cry 4. I’m probably going to get to them in that order, too.

I never actually played Far Cry 3. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about it, and I’ve watched others play it. It looks like a romp, and I hope to get around to it someday. But since I never actually got around to playing it, I suppose I’m coming into this experience relatively fresh. I mean, I’m familiar with some things from that game, including the infamous primary villain, but I’m not going to be able to gauge how it lives up to its predecessor.


Far Cry 4 takes place in a fictional Himalayan kingdom called Kyrat. You play Ajay Ghale (I’ve heard varying reports on how that’s pronounced), the son of expatriates who has returned to Kyrat to honor his dead mother’s desire to be disposed of in her home country. I don’t really know much else about the story. I want to go in as a true neophyte. If I’m free of series prejudice, so I’ll try to go in without hype prejudice as well.


I did get some idea of what the villain is about. Maybe this is Far Cry’s signature hype method, showing off the colorful psychopaths that oppose their straight man heroes. My familiarity with Far Cry 3 is admittedly marginal, and even I’ve heard Vaas’ “definition of insanity” speech. Similarly, I’m not sure of the plot of the game, yet I’ve seen the pink-clad, blonde villain voiced by Troy Baker. Hopefully this Pagan Min is going to be the show-stealer Ubisoft seems to think he’ll be, because at this point I can’t expect any less.


Even if the story turns out to be a complete wash, the fast-paced gameplay might make up for it. I’ve seen Ajay fire an automatic crossbow, leap dramatically from car to car, and ride an elephant into an enemy outpost. The roaming wildlife also includes rhinos, leopards, and even honey badgers. That’s going to be a treat. Also I don’t care so much about how a game looks, but I do like the scenery on display in this one. The Himalayan Mountains look lovely and verdant, if a bit treacherous.


So Far Cry 4 looks like it’s going to be a barrel of fun. At least, I hope that’s what they were going for. I hope the devs aren’t going for a sober, topical look at small-scale tyrannical regimes. If you give me the ability to ride a rampaging elephant around, I will not be receptive to subtle storytelling.


Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, October 30, 2014 12:00 am. Comments (0)

Tuesday 10/28/2014
Coming Soon: Assassin's Creed: Unity

I’m a big Assassin’s Creed fan, and, as with all things I enjoy, I've been very patient with this series. But I’m starting to get a little frustrated. Specifically, I’m frustrated with the way Ubisoft is spinning their wheels, hyping historical fiction and new mechanics as opposed to the actual assassin part of their game. With that in mind, let’s look at the latest in the series: Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

I’m on record recommending Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. But both it and its predecessor shared one common trait for which I did not care: The main character was an outsider looking in at the central conflict with a sneer; Connor to the Revolution in 3, Edward to the Assassins in 4. But Unity is set in the French Revolution. That’s not going to cut it this time. This time period demands a main character invested in the conflict and willing to die for it.

The last two games were sold on what one might call the “star power” of the historical characters. In AC3, it was “Pal around with the Founding Fathers, who were significantly less heroic than American revisionist historians would like you to believe” (the game’s explicit spin on it, not mine). In AC4, it was “Pal around with legendary pirates, who were significantly more ordinary than pretty much all of fiction since Treasure Island would like you to believe” (again, the game’s words, not mine).

“Star power” isn't going to work in the French Revolution. I’d wager that the average consumer of AAA games will not really be familiar with Revolutionary figures outside of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Napoleon without a long trip down Wikipedia lane. It’s just not an event that most people who are not French-educated have more than a passing familiarity with, at least in my opinion.

So, to compensate, they've added the asinine co-op mode, where, instead of distinct characters, the player will always see their character as hero Arno and the rest as his sidekicks. Ubisoft, we don’t need four generic Assassin drones to pilot. We need a main character who is a North Star by which to understand the Revolution and how the Assassins and Templars align within it.

As for the gameplay they've shown, I really have nothing new to say. They seem to be trying to reassure everyone that they've not abandoned the core mechanics. The trouble being they never perfected them to begin with. Altair’s dreadful combat was not much more fun when Edward was doing it, and the plurality of bells and whistles has made that fact infinitely more galling.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m not looking forward to the new AC game. I am! Like I said, I get particularly impatient with Assassin’s Creed specifically because I’m so fond of the series and I want it to improve. Funny how the series that fostered my early interest in AAA games is now the series to which I play fussy mother.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 5:30 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 10/24/2014
Should You Buy? Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments

Sometimes, such as with the Metal Gear franchise, I’m the newcomer at a disadvantage who has to tread lightly lest I criticize something that fans love. Other times, as with Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series, I’m in the fan position. I've been playing the Holmes games since Mystery of the Mummy and I've been a Holmesian since childhood. I give Crimes and Punishments my seal of approval, with some reservations.

I think they've captured Holmes almost perfectly. He’s extremely intelligent and witty, a gentleman always with the occasional bit of sarcasm; in other words, a great representation of the Holmes I remember (still no Jeremy Brett, but no one is). It’s a bit jarring to see inside the head of Holmes, a peek behind the veil almost. I recall Holmes himself saying that, were Watson able to follow the train of deduction as Holmes does, he’d find the whole thing rather prosaic. I like the new take on the formula, and being able to follow the deduction doesn't make Holmes seem any less genius.

The game is by far the most graphically advanced in the series, though I still had the occasional problem with texture pop-in. There were a few glitches, such as icons in the mini-games hovering in the air after the games were finished and layered over the environment in my periphery. But other than that, the sumptuous environments were a treat to explore, and I frequently imitated Holmes’ tendency to go over every inch of the scene.

Far be it for me to criticize any game for its puzzles, but I feel there are a number of them which are just busy work and are not based in cleverness or solving ability at all. One involves using a pencil to reveal the word impressions under a torn-out page in a notebook, and I almost gave myself carpal tunnel trying to run that tiny stub over the page.

I have one primary complaint. Everything else can be put down to nitpicking, but one thing just broke the game for me: The cases are inconsistent and just plain not mysterious. The best of them, by far, is “Blood Baths,” which involves a classic “locked-door” murder in a Roman bath as well as London’s origins as a Roman colony, and it could have easily been a full game onto itself.


It’s followed by a straight adaptation of “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” the solution of which you know already if you've read the story. That one would have been better as the first case; the story’s familiarity will be comforting to fans, while players become familiar with the mechanics via the simple forensics and moral conundrum at the end.


In summary, I like Crimes and Punishments, even if I don’t find it as fulfilling as Nemesis or Jack the Ripper. It’s a good game, if not precisely a good mystery, and I’m glad I played it. However, if you have a low tolerance for adventure game pacing or puzzle minigames, C&P won’t change your mind.


Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 24, 2014 9:40 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 10/17/2014
Who Is the Wraith in Shadow of Mordor, and Why Is He So Awesome?

I've never read any of J. R. R. Tolkien’s extended Middle-earth writings. When I was younger, someone who had read The Silmarillion said “It’s not so bad once you get past the first hundred pages,” which didn't do much to sell it for me. Okay, okay that’s my self-defense by way of philistine grousing. I’m done now.

Still, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor does do an admirable job of convincing me to read the books. The game is relatively clear where it falls on the timeline of the Ring saga. And it contains certain connections to Middle-earth history that are intriguing and invite me to learn more about the series’ complex and, up to this point, impenetrable history.

Okay, here come the *SPOILERS*: You know that Wraith I mentioned in the review and wasn't able to name? That’s because the revelation of his identity about a quarter of the way into the game is the connection to the rest of Tolkien’s canon. He is the spirit of Celebrimbor, the elven smith who made the Rings of Power at the request of Sauron in disguise. The Rings of Power are those rings mentioned in the first few minutes of the Fellowship film, for my fellow Philistines – the ones which the One Ring is supposedly capable of controlling, though I don’t really remember anything else.

That moment, when I discovered who Celebrimbor was and his part in the greater LotR saga, gave me pause. Speaking as someone who never made it far enough to understand the history of the Rings of Power, finding out that the Wraith was the person who made them left me curious. The main trilogy doesn't bother to go into detail about the Rings. Even the Peter Jackson films are strangely lean on information about what they actually do. It made me think, “You know, the question of where this super-jewelry came from had been curiously deflected up to this point. Now I must know more.”

Making Celebrimbor, essentially the Archduke Ferdinand of Middle-earth, the deuteragonist of Shadow of Mordor is an excellent move which will placate series’ fans without alienating the uninitiated. He is not a central character with a set backstory and a depiction that is burned into the collective imagination, like Bilbo or Aragorn. I think the part about his wife and child being slain is new, but that serves as an easy way to tie him to Talion’s more conventional protag motivations. There has to be a reason for the two to put up with each other, given how different they are.

Whatever judgments I made about the game itself, it’s clear to me that it was made by people who truly enjoy the source material. Digging up a character who is so important to the overall story of the saga and yet utterly unknown to anyone who hasn’t read the more obscure writings gives the game a bona fide authenticity it might otherwise lack. So good job, Monolith. You got this part right.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 17, 2014 11:20 pm. Comments (1)

Tuesday 10/14/2014
Coming Soon: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Like everything else Bioware has made in the last few years, the Dragon Age series is a pretty mixed bag. Dragon Age: Origins was a fantasy RPG I enjoyed so much that I’m not sure I can adequately convey it. Dragon Age 2…not so much. But we’ll get to that.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is (presumably) the final entry, and it’s coming out next month. I know there are a lot of other things coming out that I must preview and review. The reason I’m singling out DA:I is because I suspect Dragon Age: Keep will soon be available. Keep will allow us to import our game decisions to Inquisition, ensuring the world we made in the previous games will be the one we enter now.


So, in the spirit of Keep, here’s a quick review of our two previous entries. What should Inquisition take from both?


Dragon Age: Origins was a classic fantasy RPG with a story that was a slightly more whimsical and self-aware version of Game of Thrones. To this day, it remains one of my best experiences with roleplaying, second perhaps only to Mass Effect. The gameplay, story, and overall experience worked for me, though I can understand if the game’s wordiness wore thin for some. I give it a solid recommendation even five years later.

However, I can’t really give the same praise to Dragon Age 2. Better critics than I have taken this game apart and explained how it wasn’t as good as its predecessor. So I’ll confine myself to saying this: I liked the depiction of the world after the averted apocalypse and the expansive look at the troubled land of Thedas that Origins only hinted at. However, the multitudinous problems with the gameplay and the lack of depth to pseudo-Shepard protagonist Hawke kept me from really getting into it.


The only thing they really need to get right is the companions. The party from Origins was a well-written bunch, each character coming with a set of flaws and hang-ups they were all too conscious of. I never warmed to the posse from 2 mostly because they didn’t seem terribly self-aware, but I liked Varric and Isabella for their sense of humor. I’m avoiding pre-release info if I can, because forming your own relationship with your party is part of the DA experience.


I’ll be happy if the new Dragon Age takes the story pacing from Origins, if nothing else. What I loved most about that game was the sense that you are moving inexorably towards an endgame that would make every other battle look like a scuffle. They pulled no punches; you were pitted against a literal tainted god in the form of a dragon. I want to do that again, albeit in a different way if possible. I also want it to take Dragon Age 2’s sense of moral ambiguity and backstory depth. Make it an epic I’ll be proud to have spent my time on, and I’ll be happy!


Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 3:40 am. Comments (0)

Friday 10/10/2014
Should You Buy? Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Okay, I’ve admitted to not being a Tolkien fan. I’ve never made it all the way through his big three, let alone The Silmarillion. I probably wouldn’t have given Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor a second glance if I didn’t have to. But here a game has done the near-impossible: It made me want to read the books.


It’s the start of Sauron’s rise to power. We begin the game on the Black Gate, the border between Gondor and Mordor that’s tended by the Rangers. Protagonist Talion lives there along with his wife and son. A mysterious enemy called The Black Hand wipes out the Rangers and ritually slaughters Talion and his family in order to summon a Wraith.


Talion is not allowed to die, though. He and the Wraith, a centuries-old elven ghost with no memories, have been bound to each other. According to the Wraith, neither of them will be able to move on unless they defeat the Black Hand and find peace. Thus we are introduced to the game’s central mechanic: Talion and the Wraith share a body and switch out their two sets of skills as needed.


The gameplay is a very proficient combination of Assassin’s Creed free-running and Arkham Asylum free-flowing combat. Talion is a swordsman and dispatches the enemies up close, while the Wraith uses a bow for long-range. The longer they are bound together, the more abilities they unlock; including teleportation, mind control, and lethal finishing moves.


The combat is the best part of the game. It was incredibly easy for me to switch from the Wraith’s bow to CQC with Talion. The horde of Mordor frequently promotes individuals to higher ranks, meaning the enemies become powerful enough that the game was hard in spite of my spectral superpowers. My favorite move was countering two attacking enemies at once, which causes Talion and the Wraith to briefly separate and ruin enemies back-to-back.


I wouldn’t know if the story adheres to Tolkien canon, but I like it for what it is. The cutscenes showing Talion’s backstory are stringently economical, but it works. He and his new, Wraith-y better half take to each other surprisingly well, with only the occasional friction played for drama or very light humor. Gollum’s inclusion feels a bit token and out-of-place, but luckily it’s not a gamebreaker.


It wasn’t perfect, though. Some of the ability upgrades went entirely unused and felt unnecessary. Talion’s rather clunky free-running never seemed to improve. Also, while it is fun to slice through the legions of Mordor, we never really do anything else. Even the side missions to level up the weapons are only slight variations on “kill X amount of baddies.”


I want to write another column about the story and its literary origins. But taken on its own, the game’s quite fun and easy to enjoy. Wait until they knock twenty bucks off the release price and check it out!

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, October 10, 2014 12:25 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 10/06/2014
Nancy Drew: Labyrinth of Lies

Here we are again, in the shoes of everyone’s favorite girl sleuth, and I’m so happy to be back! The story this time around is one of the better ones I’ve seen recently. A small museum in Greece is preparing to open a new exhibit alongside the premiere of a new play at their revamped amphitheater. When some artifacts go missing, Nancy is brought in to investigate. The only other people around are the actors staging the play, and Nancy has to help them with their staging while also investigating them for possible involvement.


The story is equal parts familiar and refreshing. Greek myth was one of my favorite topics when I was in grade school, so wrapping myself up in it again is very comforting. On the other hand, the mystery itself has a noir-ish feel. No spoilers, but Nancy feels like the wrench thrown into the works of a much larger, well-organized crime, which is relatively rare for the ND series.


Some parts of the story don’t make any sense. For instance, it’s never explained how this tiny amphitheater can support extremely elaborate stages of the various parts of the Underworld nor how they can fit underneath the theater and yet are able to be raised to the stage. The sets include a coin-operated Charon and a model of Hades’ throne room which apparently includes real lava. If you’re going to include these things, I feel they’d make more sense as part of the museum exhibit, a la Secret of the Scarlet Hand.


My favorite thing about this game, aside from the setting, is the music. From plucky little lyre tunes as Nancy strolls through the exhibits to a somber vocal tone as she wanders the Underworld set, this soundtrack is by far the best one of the recent games. I should also mention that the environment and character design is gorgeous, even if I do wonder why the actors spend the entire day leading up to the show in full costume. The puzzles are also excellent and numerous. I have about six pages filled with notes I used to solve the puzzles, the most since Shadow at the Water’s Edge.


One thing that confounded me was the lack of phone connections. You can talk to Frank and Joe Hardy as well as Melina, your contact at the museum, but that’s it. Am I the only one who misses being able to call up Nancy’s friends and chitchat? Hearing Nancy give her opinion about the various details and suspects helps to flesh out the case. Bess and George’s exclusion is particularly bizarre, since they played such a large role in the last game.


Overall, the word for this game is “refreshing.” It feels like a new entry in this series and doesn’t rely on old or overused tropes. While some parts of it don’t quite satisfy, I had enough fun with it to play it twice. I call that an all-around good case!

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, October 6, 2014 12:01 am. Comments (0)

Monday 09/29/2014
Going Casual: The Sims 4

I’m not old enough to remember the reactions to The Sims, but someone had to have thought it was a joke at first. A game about life? Human life? Who on Earth would buy that when you can just live your own human life? But it’s a simple, brilliant premise for one reason: You’re not playing a human, you’re playing a god.


I only played the Create-A-Sim demo for Sims 4 because I’m not going to take that expensive, Origin-exclusive bullet if I don’t have to. I apologize, but in my defense, I don’t think I would have played Sims 4 for even half a minute outside of a review, and I’d like to hang on to those sixty dollars. The November release glut is getting closer.


Kind of a funny thing: I never play any Sims game for very long. I’m not really interested in playing an omnipotent figure unless the creatures I’m tending are zoo animals. But whenever I go through the character creator, I’ve always created the same family, if only because coming up with a new one would take slightly longer.


Over time, I’ve become attached to them. The two are Keegan and Kimberly Kane, who feel like the only sane, happy Sims in whatever demented neighborhood I put them in. I project heavily onto them, though even that has not stopped me from abandoning them the instant I inevitably got bored with the game.


I have a pretty clear idea of what these two look like. And, thanks to the huge wardrobe at the disposal of the Sims in the previous games, I’ve been able to give them the particular style that fits them. Not so with Sims 4. I’m choosing to take the demo as a microcosm of the game in general, which is probably unfair of me, but I had a number of frustrations with it that would keep me from buying the game even if I were a regular customer.


First of all, the way to adjust your Sim’s body is to click and drag a particular body part until it either shrinks in or balloons out. While this sounds simple, I got frustrated with it very easily. The drag only seems to work in a very particular direction, which means Keegan got eyeballs almost as far out as his ears when I tried to make them bigger. Also, the wardrobe initially available is paltry. I went through the handful of everyday dresses muttering to myself, “Kimberly would never wear any of these.”


So that’s my problem with Sims 4, or at least the demo I played. While supposedly upgraded from Sims 3, it’s actually quite unintuitive. While supposedly bigger and better, the choices are actually quite limited. I’m not a veteran Simmer, but I wonder if veteran Simmers would be as dissatisfied with Sims 4 character creation as I was.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, September 29, 2014 9:15 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 09/27/2014
Minecraft, Twitch and Big Money: A Buyer's Guide

It’s the month of acquisitions and big money… very, very big money! Here are the two big ones that affect the larger gaming community, and how they can be good things.


First, it turns out I was a bit premature when I said that Google was buying live-streaming site Twitch. Because now the skinny is that Amazon is buying Twitch instead after negotiations with Google fell through. The oft-quoted price I've seen is $970 million.


While I’ve already said my piece about Twitch, I’ll add this: I see the streaming service as a high-tech version of something that has always been a part of gaming: Watching others play. Until I started playing them personally, my only familiarity with most games came from watching my friends play. While the person playing the game on Twitch is on the other side of a screen, the experience is the same. And were I not professionally obligated to play new games myself, Twitch is probably where I’d see most of them.


Here’s my advice to Amazon: Twitch needs support. The service works, for the most part, but it could certainly use some help. Twitch is expanding rapidly, maybe faster than their infrastructure can stand. Give them what they need to grow. I fully expect Amazon to turn a tidy profit as the streaming trend continues to grow.


Second, Microsoft has bought Minecraft for an alleged $2.5 billion. Or, more accurately, they've purchased the game’s developer Mojang for $2.5 billion in cash. While there is universal woe at the departure of creator Markus “Notch” Persson, fans are otherwise split on the purchase.


If you have been living in a sealed cocoon for the past five years, Minecraft is a mind-bogglingly enormous sandbox game where everything, including your avatar, is made of textured cubes. You build stuff, and a lot of it. I don’t really play it, I admit, but I do think very highly of it. It’s the epitome of what games are intended to be, in their basest form: A way for ordinary humans to do what they would never be able to do in reality.


While Minecraft has never been my métier, it most certainly is for many people. According to Mojang’s data analysts, as of June 2014, Minecraft has sold about 54 million copies across all available platforms. I dare not even guess what that number is now. So this news affects quite a large amount of people. And some of them are afraid Microsoft will meddle with a game that does not need to be meddled with.


Here’s my advice to Microsoft: Be gentle with the reins. Don’t be completely hands-off, as some would advise you to be. Perhaps offer some item packs here and there. Beef up the tutorial. But Minecraft as it stands does not really need significant additions.


Happy spending, everyone! Oh, and good luck, Notch!

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, September 27, 2014 6:01 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 09/18/2014
My Date with Destiny, Part 3

The writing in Destiny is inconsistent and boring. Your Ghost does most of the talking, and yet the game can’t seem to decide if he’s a colorless drone or a quirky sidekick. If you hire Peter Dinklage to provide you with a voice, you had better use that voice to the fullest. Having him read the dumbest lines with the audible equivalent of a straight face is a monumental waste.


Quite besides the fact that most of the story is stuck on those damnable Grimoire cards, there’s a lack of detail that keeps me from getting fully immersed. The first time you fly up to the moon, you can see a giant gouge in the side. It doesn’t look like a bomb blast or an impact crater. How did that get there? Who did it? Good luck trying to find out. Maybe it’s hidden in the Grimoire cards. I wouldn’t know.


My breaking point came during the Sword of Crota mission on the Moon. After shooting your way into the interior of the Hive stronghold, you are instructed to grab the Sword, a relic that has been used to kill lots of Guardians. When you do, the perspective suddenly shifts to the third-person state usually reserved for the Tower, and you proceed to massacre the Hive foot soldiers with Dynasty Warriors­-style blade swings. The whole way through, I was screaming for joy, the monotony finally broken.


But this hurts the game in two ways: First, the sudden burst of gleeful awesome reminds you of just how dull the game truly is when you’re doing the FPS thing. Second, it’s not really in tone with the rest of the script. It’s the inconsistency thing again: This isn’t Saints Row, devs. You can’t just switch genres when it suits you. You just look ridiculous, like a businessman who showed up at work one day wearing naught but a loincloth.


Again, the biggest impression of the game is disappointment. Is this really it? After all the hype and build-up? Before I played it, I believed Activision wanted to make sure everyone could see the quality of their new IP and would therefore be convinced to take a chance on it. Having now sunk several hours into this pretty but rather empty shooter, I can’t help but wonder if the ads are where all the money went.


I know that I gave Watch_Dogs a pass even though it didn’t really deliver. In retrospect, I think I was wrong to do so, and I only did because I didn’t personally buy into that game’s hype. I wanted Destiny to wow me, and I think I now understand that disappointment because it didn’t wow me at all. Considering the price of the game itself and the comparative dearth of content you get in the base game, not to mention the lack of variety in missions and activities, this game is just not as good or revolutionary as was advertised.


Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, September 18, 2014 8:15 pm. Comments (0)

My Date with Destiny, Part 2

I've come a ways in Destiny, and I think I have enough experience with it under my belt to give my thoughts on it. I’m going to have to spread this review out over two columns. But, for openers, I can condense all of my thoughts into one line: “Is that it?”

First, I will give Destiny some credit: Having everyone exist in the same world serves the central conflict excellently. Going out into the warzone and seeing bands of my fellow Guardians flushing out the enemy or teaming up to take down some big public event baddies lends weight to the notion that this is a big conflict with lots of major players. The war feels real.

The gameplay mechanics are all solid. The guns are all proficient instruments, and every kind of gun feels different. You won’t be using a fusion rifle from a distance, but it decimates enemies up close. Trying to use a sniper rifle at close range is suicide, but using it to pick off the aliens from afar works well. Grenades and melee attacks are useful in equal measure, and the super-charged attack is so satisfying to use.

Also, and this is faint praise as far as I’m concerned but praise just the same: The game is pretty. The art and style are gorgeous, and the accompanying soundtrack sets the tone for a wistfully nostalgic, almost vintage science fiction adventure.

That’s the good. Now for the bad.

I've just described the surface of the game, and surface is all there is. So much is missing from this game that ought to be here. The Tower is beautiful, but it’s a lot of wasted space. The guns are all nice, but you’re going to be using them on the same three enemies. The sandbox is fun to roam, until you realize that these maps are the only places you can go. For the hype, this game should have come packaged with a lot more than it has.

I’m not sure who Bungie thinks they’re fooling with the “shared-world shooter” conceit. The classes are roughly analogous to Warrior/Rogue/Mage, and the whole upgrade system smacks of atavistic elements from when this was a pure MMORPG. The trouble is that these leftovers are all there is of it, to the point that you can’t even name your character. You have to go by your gamer handle. The simplistic anemia of it makes any effort you put into your character feel wasted.

There really isn't a social element to the games, either. I don’t know why, but the game just assumes that you have a group of friends ready to form your fireteam. There is no way to initiate contact with players you don’t know. You can’t team up on the field, clan recruitment is almost nonexistent, and there’s no local chat in the Tower at all. I’m hoping Bungie includes chatting in the next update, preferably binding it to the button that is currently wasted on that “point” action.

Finale coming in Part 3…


Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, September 18, 2014 3:00 am. Comments (0)

Friday 09/12/2014
My Date with Destiny, Part 1

I have to abandon my usual format here, because I’m still in the middle of my Destiny playthrough and I don’t want to give you a concrete “Should You Buy?” yet. Still, since it’s the only thing I’ve played or been able to talk about lately, I wanted to give you something in the way of first impressions.


I will say one thing for Destiny. I thought it was going to be bland and derivative. In the strictest sense, I was wrong. Yet I still have trouble thinking of it as “original.” The best way to encapsulate this conundrum is to try and describe Destiny using one game as a succinct point of reference.


Destiny is a science fiction first-person shooter.”

“Oh, so it’s like Halo?”

“…not exactly.”


 “It’s a shared-world game where you and a fire team take down bosses with progressively sexier guns for loot.”

“Oh, so it’s like Borderlands.”

“…not exactly.”


“It’s a story in which the budding human race, which has advanced rapidly across the stars with the help of alien tech, is threatened by the enemies of said aliens characterized as encroaching darkness.”

“Oh, so it’s like Mass Effect?”

“…not exactly.”


My character is currently a level 7 Awoken Warlock. I’ll try to make Titan and Hunter characters later. I don’t feel comfortable giving a full opinion until I finish the story or at least breach level 15 and get more Crucible time under my belt.


So far, the game is functionally well-done. The controls are intuitive and comfortable, which is good for me because I’m dreadful with console shooters. The graphics are stunning and the design, especially in the Tower, is beautiful. The missions and loot have been good for me, and my interactions with other Guardians have been cordial, with occasional dancing.


Still, the story, what there is of one, could really use some more fleshing out. I know, I’m just starting, and maybe the story will become less obscure as time goes on. But for the initial getting-to-know-you period of the game, I have barely a grasp of who I am. Most of the exposition is relegated to grimoire cards viewable on the Bungie website, and even then much is left unexplained.


I realize this is not a story-heavy space opera, but I’d appreciate even a little bit of basic info. How can I wield these weird, dark powers as a Warlock? Why is no one studying the Ghosts to better understand their abilities, which include being able to revive the long-dead? Why did we rebuild our decimated society in an ostentatious city directly beneath the Traveler as opposed to anywhere else? Is the answer to all these questions “Because Traveler?” I keep getting the feeling that a magnificent Isaac Asimov story is happening somewhere within this universe, and I have nothing to do with it.


Do I have a strong opinion yet? …not exactly. What I’ve seen so far is good, but not that great, and I don’t like that. Despite my tepid predictions, I really want to like this game. It has all the tools and polish to be a magnificent science fiction game. I’m going to keep playing, and I’m giving Destiny as big a chance as I possibly can.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, September 12, 2014 11:41 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 09/07/2014
Coming Soon: Destiny

When I say “Coming Soon,” I mean that Destiny is NIGH. The hype for this game has been pouring in since E3. I’ve been bracing for the release like I would brace for the birth of my child, if only for the fact that it is literally the only game in town. It’s the big release for the month. I don’t know about all of you, but I know it’s going to have to hold me until Alien: Isolation or thereabouts.


Destiny is set after the fall of humanity’s golden age. After building a space empire with the assistance of an alien sphere known as The Traveler, humans were nearly wiped out by Traveler’s enemies, the Darkness. Now what’s left of our race hides in a city directly underneath Traveler (which seems counterintuitive, but we’ll go with it). Guardians are humans or allied aliens who wield the power of Traveler to defend the city and strike back at the alien races that are ravaging Earth and the nearby planets.


My first thoughts when I saw the early footage in which a first-person protagonist shoots at malicious aliens is “Well doesn’t this look an awful lot like Halo?” That thought wasn’t fair. “Aliens invade and wipe out humanity” is an exceptionally common plot. Still, if what I’ve heard about the development of Destiny holds any weight, that feeling of déjà vu might be prescient.


According to Reuters, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick named the figure $500 million as the amount spent on developing the Destiny franchise. The same article quoted analysts who estimated that the company would have to sell about 15 million units just to break even. That number makes me cringe. This is a risk the likes of which I’ve never seen in the video game industry. And I can’t help but wonder if the gameplay and story are going to suffer as a result.


To give you some perspective, the only games I can think of from the last generation that have sold that well fall into two categories: They are either 1) family-friendly games like Wii Sports, or 2) part of an established franchise like GTA 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops, or Skyrim. The only outlier I can think of is Minecraft.


This game is going to have to appeal to a lot of people in order to sell as many copies as it must. Even moderate success will be a loss for Activision. So that means this new IP will not take a lot of risks in the story or gameplay department. I have the awful feeling it’s going to both look and feel like a lot of games we’ve seen before, just because those things we’ve seen before happened to sell well.


I won’t judge until I’ve gotten the game and played my fair share. If this succeeds, we’ll have a fun, beautiful MMO that promises to be around for years. Good luck, Activision. You’re going to need it.

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, September 7, 2014 3:10 am. Comments (0)

Monday 09/01/2014
Top 5 Saddest Deaths I've Seen in Games (SPOILERS)

Obviously, *SPOILERS*


5. Sarah, The Last of Us

Poor Sarah. She shoulders the burden of being the source of main character Joel’s tragic flaws. Not to mention we all knew she was going to die the moment we saw her. But still, seeing her die crying, in horrible pain while her father holds her and has a complete breakdown over her body…that’s sad on a primal level. It’s hard to resist the sadness, even if you’re actively trying.


4. The Joker, Batman: Arkham City

The death of a main character or loved one is an easy sell. The death of a villain? Still not too difficult…there are lots of sympathetic villains out there. But the death of the Joker? Making me upset about that has to be an act of genius on the part of the game writers. Maybe it’s the fact that it was easily avoidable, and Batman finds it deeply troubling. This game marks the first occasion where I understood Batman’s self-imposed directive against killing.


3. Wander, Shadow of the Colossus

I’m not entirely sure if Wander “dies” in the strictest sense of the term, but the ending where he has to fight against a strong current to get to Mono, the girl he felled sixteen colossi to save, was tragic. Not to mention the whole story has seen the poor boy descend to the point where he could legitimately be called the villain of the world. He was only trying to save the girl, and in the end, he doesn’t even get to see if his efforts worked.


2. Admiral Anderson, Mass Effect 3

Okay, I have my issues with Mass Effect 3, but it did one thing right: It used our attachment to established characters to drive the story. Inevitably, this meant some characters were going to die. The death of Admiral Anderson hit me the hardest. There’s no way to prevent it, and it happens so close to the end. Anderson is the only person in the series who acts as a mentor to galactic messiah Shepard, and hearing him praise Shepard affectionately one last time was one of the saddest and most human moments I’ve experienced in a game.


1. Lee Everett, The Walking Dead


The Walking Dead’s main character is Clementine. Even when we play as Lee, she’s the main focus and our primary concern. That’s what made the final episode of Season One, where she either has to shoot Lee or leave him behind to zombify, such a heartbreaker. It’s one thing to see a child die. It’s another order entirely to see a girl barely bigger than the gun she’s holding have to shoot the only person she has left in the world. Not only did we have to see Lee die, we knew he was distraught about leaving Clem alone and unprotected. My only consolation was getting to play as her myself the next season.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, September 1, 2014 11:45 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 08/25/2014
P.T.: Great Game, But Is It Actually Marketing?

If you haven’t heard of it by now, a mysterious new horror I.P. showed up at Gamescom 2014. It bore the nondescript title “P.T.” and was made by “7780s Studio.” Horror games are still in the Amnesia/Slender renaissance, so it’s no surprise that it drew attention. When people played the PS4 exclusive demo, they were struck by how scary and well-made this demo was, and how hard it was to finish.

The demo takes place entirely within a hallway and a few different rooms, an economical setup if nothing else. Without giving away too many of the jumps, the demo requires you to wander the same hallway on an endless loop, while subtle clues and changes to the environment suggest a larger story. It’s surprisingly difficult, and scarier than I can give it credit for in writing.


When you finally “solve” the demo (which seems to be almost luck-based), a cinematic trailer begins to play. As a man walks down a deserted and misty street, the names “Hideo Kojima,” “Guillermo del Toro” and “Norman Reedus” flash across the screen. As the camera pulls away from Reedus’s digitalized face and back into the fog, Akira Yamaoka’s signature sound starts. The title “Silent Hills” flashes up on screen, and it all becomes clear. You’ve been playing a Playable Teaser for the next entry in the legendary Silent Hill series.

P.T. isn’t actually related to the final product which will be Silent Hills, and high graphical quality was deliberately avoided. They were trying their hardest to make you think that it was something put together by a new indie developer with a minimum of resources. Nobody who has beaten the demo has any idea how they did it, and nobody can find a reliable method of doing it. Considering that the combined power of the internet and the gaming community has been working on it for a while now, that’s pretty impressive.

So is this perhaps a good example of the video game hype machine. It was all a trick designed to get us all excited about a teaser for Silent Hills. Would the trailer have raised even half the stir that it did if it had just been released in a straightforward manner at Gamescom? Would it have felt so satisfying if it had not been made a reward for braving the haunted hallway of P.T.?

It’s a very good way to get us to talk about a new game, but let me raise one point: We’re not talking about Silent Hills. We’re all still talking about P.T. P.T. was a great game, but Hideo Kojima has confirmed that it doesn’t have anything to do with Silent Hills. I’m excited for any new Silent Hill game, especially one with such a dream team behind it. But still, we’ve seen the consequences of hard hype with Watch_Dogs, and Silent Hills is taking it one step further by advertising a game with a different game entirely. And the sheer difficulty of P.T. means that anyone who finishes it will hold it in high esteem just for the sense of achievement it gives them.

Let’s just hope that Kojima and company can replicate in macro what they showed us they could achieve in micro.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, August 25, 2014 12:00 am. Comments (0)

Friday 08/22/2014
Coming Soon: Madden NFL 15

How bizarre that the first game to break my summer slump is the newest entry in the vaunted Madden franchise. I’m not really a Madden fan. I do love football, though, so I feel that I meet the entry requirements.


I didn’t play Madden 25, but I heard complaints that the game did not live up to the next-gen technology it could have used. Graphics and textures were better, but not so very much more than Madden 13. The sidelines and crowds were not as animated as the game’s pre-rendered footage had led the fans to believe. In short, from what I’ve heard, it was good but not precisely the next-gen Madden which fans had been promised.


The Madden series is currently the only game in town for gamers who are also football fans, since Electronic Arts has the exclusive license to NFL games. There is a devoted audience for this series, and they are the ones EA is endeavoring to please. That means there is a very particular kind of gameplay and mechanics the audience is expecting which can be improved upon.


Upgrading the defense seems to be the primary development from the preview installments. There is a defensive player-lock camera, with a tackling reticle to improve defensive tackles. You can lock right onto the quarterback as a defensive player and move to intercept him when he’s making the big play. That being said, I question the wisdom of making defensive motions hinge on quicktime-style button presses. Hopefully it’s more intuitive than it looks.


Another complaint I’ve heard about Madden 25 was that the celebratory gestures were overly-scripted and repetitive. I’ve heard that the devs have tried to overhaul that, claiming dynamic celebrations this time. I don’t know that I believe that: This is a video game, so everything is scripted to a certain degree. But we’ve also been promised half-time shows and in-depth first-half recaps.


So it’s glossy, it’s new, it’s updated…it’s also not completely next-gen. The game will be released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in addition to the new PS4 and Xbox One. I think that’s a good strategy on the part of EA: Sometimes those of us who are in the midst of the new console fervor forget that not everyone can afford them right now. EA wants to move as many copies as they can, and since this game will appeal to multiple kinds of people, it’s important to try and keep it as inclusive as possible.


I know that, regardless of what I say, the Madden series will be able to move a lot of copies. It’s a licensed franchise that has been heavily promoted by the NFL itself, and I can see the appeal for football fans. EA has made a good choice by releasing the game for PS3 and Xbox 360. Have fun and play hard, everyone!

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, August 22, 2014 9:40 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 08/18/2014
The Semi-Complete Guide to the Smash Bros 2014 Character Stable: Part 3

Before I begin, I have to admit that I’ve never played a Fire Emblem game, and my familiarity with them is marginal at best. I don’t think I’m the only one: I’ve met a lot of people who had no idea who Ike and Marth were before playing Smash Bros. So forgive me if I slip up on a fact regarding the next two characters.


8. Robin

This character is the default version of the customizable player character in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Since their debut trailer featured male Robin, I’m just going to assume, as with the Trainer and Villager, the gender shown will be the default, with the other as an alternate. Robin is a swordsman and magic-user, and his primary attacks seem to involve elemental magic. The trick with Robin is that his sword and magic spells can only be used at certain times before he has to fall back on his underpowered back-ups. Using him means knowing when to attack and when to save your specials for later.


9. Lucina

A warrior princess from an alternate timeline, Lucina was introduced losing to Captain Falcon. Despite this inauspicious start, she quickly joins Robin in the fight. Scuttlebutt has it that she’ll essentially be a clone of Marth, whom she disguised herself as in her home game. Her sword abilities will be like his without being distance-sensitive (Marth was best if you hit enemies a particular distance with the end of the sword). She should prove to be an easier character to use, but time will tell if that’s enough to distinguish her.


10, 11, &12: Sheik, Zero Suit Samus, and Charizard

One of the downsides to this new game is that characters cannot transform on stage anymore, so no longer will you have the Pokémon Trainer able to switch between three Pokémon. This also robs Samus and Zelda of some of their unique abilities. I’ll reserve judgment on whether or not these deconstructed characters will be good additions to the roster. I hope, in the case of Sheik and Zero Suit Samus, that neither they nor the characters they evolved from will be lesser by the separation.


13. You (or, rather, Mii)

I’ve saved the most dubious for last. You can now enter the stage alongside your favorite video character in the form of your Mii avatar. That is, you can in offline mode or local multiplayer. I’m guessing this is so we don’t have any offensive Miis running around the Smash competitive circles. But I think, in the limited capacity they’ll be available; they should be a fun addition to the roster. They can be Gunners, ranged fighters with high-tech weaponry; Swordfighters, who combine throwing weapons with their sword for close combat; and Brawlers, who prefer a short-range melee approach. Whatever their benefits or shortcomings, the Miis look like the greatest individual source of fun in the new Smash Bros.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, August 18, 2014 10:35 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 08/17/2014
The Semi-Complete Guide to the Smash Bros 2014 Character Stable: Part 2

Continuing where I left off:


4. Little Mac

I remember playing Super Punch-Out back when I was playing on my SNES. Needless to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Mac and Doc Louis. Mac is a brutal melee fighter, inevitable given his home series. He also seems to be immune to most damage when executing some of his moves, especially his dash. He also has a unique K.O. meter that charges slowly but leaves him capable of delivering a devastating punch. Still, he’s got poor aerial combat moves: As Doc himself says, “You ain’t no air fighter, Mac,” so keep his feet on the ground.


5. Palutena

The goddess from Kid Icarus joins young Pit in the fight. I quite liked her trailer, where she and Pit were animated by Studio Shaft. I have the feeling she’s going to be my new favorite character. Those of her moves I’ve seen are all about distance and crowd control. She’s heavy on area-of-effect spells. Of course, she also has so many powers that they can be switched out in her custom specials.


6. Rosalina & Luma

The Cosmic Mother from Super Mario Galaxy will be fighting alongside her starry children, the Lumas. Their most important feature is that they will be separate, for all intents and purposes. Rosalina seems to be a distance character, who wields her wand to both direct the Lumas and wreak havoc from afar. The Lumas are the ones who seem inclined to get up close and personal with their opponents. These two could potentially be a very damaging, if fragile combination.


7. Wii Fit Trainer

My first thought about the Trainer was “This has to be a joke, right?” The trailer was hilarious; as Link, Mario and Kirby struggle with the Tree Pose only to be blown off-screen by the Trainer’s Warrior II. Trainer uses projectile energy attacks in addition to striking poses as her form of combat. Her Deep Breathing down special seems like it has a long charge time and thus would leave her open to attack. I’d recommend her use by strategic players only, at least until we see her complete suite of moves.


8. Villager

Speaking of joke characters, I think this pacifistic character from Animal Crossing is almost as unexpected as the Trainer. I certainly didn’t expect him, anyway. The primary thing I noticed in his debut trailer was that he can catch projectiles, including charge beams. He can store the projectiles and other items in his pocket and use them later. This gives him a distinct advantage amongst the other fighters, I think. Some of his moves seem to be high-risk, like his Timber special, but I like that this little guy will definitely not be a punching bag.

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Sunday, August 17, 2014 9:25 pm. Updated: 9:25 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 08/15/2014
The Semi-Complete Guide to the Smash Bros 2014 Character Stable: Part 1

So…Smash Bros, huh? I’ve gotten so many questions about Smash Bros. Wii U & 3DS from friends and acquaintances. Is it looking good? Is it worth buying? Are the new characters going to be fun to play? These questions have been coming in since E3 in June, when news about the game formed the backbone of Nintendo’s showing, even though the game isn’t scheduled for release in North America until October.


You know what? Let’s start talking about it now! Why not? The thing that’s formed most of the hype propaganda is the staggered reveal of the characters that will be playable in Smash Bros 2014. So here’s my list of the new characters and how we might expect them to play in the latest in the series. This is probably going to be split into multiple articles, and I call it “semi-complete” because we could get another addition after this is published.


1. Mega Man

I think the inclusion of Capcom’s classic blue mascot has to be the best crowd-pleaser I can think of, as he’s been an oft-requested character for a while now. From what I’ve been able to see in the trailers and footage, he looks like a projectile-based attacker, and his attacks come from his arsenal of weapons rather than melee attacks. I particularly like his crowd-control Flame Blast and the support characters who assist him with specials.


2. Pac-Man

Another third-party guest, Namco’s Pac-Man joins in the fight in both his classic omnivorous ball form and an ambulatory two-legged form. He’s a melee fighter, appears to be able to summon sprites to help with combat, and can assume a giant Super Pac-Man form. I’m not exactly sure how he’ll fit into the ranks, considering we already have several melee-based fighters, but it’s nice to see so many of the original faces of gaming in one place.


3. Greninja

Now this was the one I truly was not expecting. With Charizard now being a solo character, I had the feeling that we’d be getting some more Pokémon as fighters and I was proved right within seconds as the two debuted in the same trailer. But my recall of the specific Pokémon and their evolutions is faulty, so I initially mistook it for Strider Hiryu. Its attacks are water-based, and it appears to be a very quick fighter. It also appears to have a pretty damaging set of aerial attacks, from what I can tell.

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Friday, August 15, 2014 1:03 am. Updated: 1:03 am. Comments (0)

Sunday 08/10/2014
Going Casual: Spirits of Mystery series

Casual game series are quickly becoming popular. I emphasize “series” because every game studio is now doing at least one series of genre-specific games. I’ve seen horror, mystery, fantasy, and yes, even romance. To that end, I recommend the entire Spirits of Mystery series.


Spirits of Mystery is a series of hidden-object games set in a fantasy world. They’re extremely pretty, fun, and easy to pick up and play. Not all of the games have romantic aspects, which is why I call them light fantasy rather than romance (we still have those; remind me to tell you about the Dream Day series some other time).


I love the games, but it’s perhaps best not to think too hard about the stories. In the latest game, The Silver Arrow, you play a young woman in love with a Prince. Per his kingdom’s tradition, he has to go to a high summit and fire a magical silver arrow over the kingdom. It will land in the home of his destined bride, who will present it to him on their wedding day. Here’s the transcript of my babbling during the cutscene that shows him doing just that:


“This is a weird way for the future head of state to select his consort. I mean, what are the criteria? Does the arrow pick the smartest girl? The most civic-minded? The most politically astute? Does it pick the one who will produce the healthiest children? Does it look for someone who will be compatible with the Prince himself? (arrow sails into my window) Well I don’t really care anymore because IT’S MINE NOW, B****ES!”


Here’s what catches my eye about a series like this: Every protagonist thus far has been female. When I wrote about Awakening, I pointed out that some more popular games could take a lesson from these casual games when it comes to making female protagonists. I’d like to explain that.


Normally, when a female character is introduced in a game, the fact that they are women is the first trait to be established. It’s usually through a feminine voice, or some display of a female body. Even characters I love, such as Bayonetta and Lara Croft, are subject to this abstraction of the male gaze. I can’t think of a single male character –with the possible exception of Kratos—whose masculinity is the first thing to be overtly established.


In Spirits of Mystery, the protagonists are female and some have very traditionally feminine goals, but they don’t have voices that I can remember, and the games are first-person. This means it feels more natural and less forced. It’s not “you’re a woman, now do the quest.” It’s “you’re the hero, now do the quest.”


So when I say some game developers could learn a little something from that, I mean that they could stand to be a little less preoccupied with proving that my character’s a woman and allow her to become more of a hero.

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Sunday, August 10, 2014 11:40 pm. Updated: 11:40 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 07/28/2014
You Should Be Playing: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

I’m still a bit bereft. Some of the better releases are still a ways away. For lack of any better ideas, let’s do a retro review!


I bought the entire Sands trilogy – when else – during a Steam sale a while ago. I started playing Sands of Time on a Saturday afternoon. Next thing I knew, it was my bedtime on Sunday night. I wasn’t quite sure what had happened to me in the intervening hours, but I could tell you all about what happened in this pretty parkour game from 2003.


You play the unnamed Prince, who has retrieved a treasure during a raid on an enemy palace. Unbeknownst to him, the treasure is the legendary Sands of Time. A traitorous vizier tricks the brash Prince into unleashing the Sands in the middle of the Persian palace, causing a curse to sweep through the land and bringing forth sand demons. The Prince happens to have the Dagger of Time, the only thing than can control the Sands; and he teams up with Farah, a prisoner from the enemy palace who knows about the Sands, to right the curse for which he is partially responsible.


Having read the 1001 Nights, I can tell you that this story reads exactly like some of the better-known stories from that. It also bore some resemblance to hero stories from traditional Middle Eastern epics, but Campbellian heroics are not exactly new in video games or anywhere else. I liked the Prince and Farah because they sound real; they came across as relatable and flawed.


Also like the 1001 Nights, the story is being narrated. The Prince is telling his adventure, and whenever you die or make a misstep in the game, the Prince stops, comments that he made a mistake in his narration, and the Sands will rewind time to give you the chance to do it correctly. It’s a cool mechanic and it fits perfectly with the framing narrative.


The first thing I noticed when I played the game was the beautiful environments. Indeed, it’s difficult not to notice them, as the first thing that happens in any given room is a long, sweeping shot so that you can see what you’re going to be navigating. Every single room and cave and bit of terrain has been designed to evoke the idea of a semi-mythical Middle East. While it is all obviously stylized, I’d say the people who did the design work knew a fair bit about the actual art and architecture it parallels.


I enjoyed Sands of Time in part because it met me halfway. It’s relatively simple, but not easy. It’s obviously inspired by myth and classical literature. The characters are complex, but still likeable, and the combat and parkour are extremely fun to play. It’s also pretty, which is the cherry on top of the sundae.

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Monday, July 28, 2014 11:55 pm. Updated: 10:52 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 07/27/2014
Role-Playing Chronicles for a Down Week: Part 3

Building the character’s appearance and stats, and giving the character a good name are just the beginning of the role-playing experience. The rest comes during the game itself, natch. Role-playing games thrive on the freedom to choose your character’s path. When done well, this could mean your character has a story to call their own. But what the player can provide independently of the game’s given story is their character’s motivation.


This might be a problem unique to me with my relatively short attention span, but I can burn out on an RPG very quickly if I don’t have motivation to continue. It took me over a year to finish the main campaign of Skyrim. It helps to have a handle on your character and to know what drives them to the endgame. ‘Motivation’ can mean something as simple as giving them a reason to pick certain quests or dialogue options.


My Vault 101 Eve was a daddy’s girl and it didn’t dawn on her until several hours into the main questline, with some prompting from Three Dog, how much of a difference she could make on her own. My Hawke of Kirkwall was a PTSD-stricken husk of a person riddled with guilt and self-doubt who covered it with infuriating layers of politeness and diplomacy. My Malkavian vampire was a chilly sociopath divorced from empathy even before he was Embraced.


Skyrim is an extreme example. With practically all quests and side storylines available right out of Helgen, there was never very strong motivation to get back to that whole dragon apocalypse I kept getting so much lip about. The story eventually crystallized for me when (*SPOILERS*) dragon mentor Paarthurnax points out that, as a dragon at heart, the Dovahkiin has the same natural inclination towards accruing power and sewing chaos as Paarthurnax himself; you just have to fight it. I’d spent 100 hours over a year’s time gathering power, titles, and money for Heike. She was swiftly becoming an unrepentant killer and menace. It was time to fight back, and the game climaxed with a fight against an angry destruction god who had come to represent both the threat to the world and my character’s inner demons.


One final note, and a huge call of *SPOILERS*: While I was playing Knights of the Old Republic, I had my whole schtick down pat. I knew my character’s name, her parent’s names, which planet she was from, and how she was going to handle any situation. The justly-famed midgame twist threw both of us for a loop so hard I allowed her to have a massive identity crisis until the game’s final hour. She fought not for redemption, but to be reborn.


In conclusion: Have fun with it. My intention with this series was to give everyone the tools to get as much out of their characters as I do. Go forth and play, everyone! May your weeks never be boring again!

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, July 27, 2014 2:45 am. Comments (0)

Thursday 07/17/2014
Coming Soon: Unrest

In the middle of doing all this writing about role-playing and how to get the most out of your RPG experience, I noticed that a game called Unrest on the slate for this month. I felt I needed to take a moment and tell everyone that this game is coming and those of my readers who play RPGs need to check it out.


Unrest is a game funded by Kickstarter. It has been compared to Papers, Please, that inimitable bureaucracy simulator, though only in the most tertiary sense. That might be because it’s very hard to describe in terms of the games to which it relates. Most other games on the market can be described in relation to another game: Mass Effect is a spiritual successor to Knights of the Old Republic. Titanfall is Call of Duty with mecha suits. Tomb Raider 2013 is Uncharted with Lara Croft baffled as to how she got there.


That seems to be difficult where Unrest is concerned. The connection to Papers, Please seems to be based on the unrelenting grimness of the reality. Honestly, just reading about it leaves me at a bit of a loss. It sounds like nothing I’ve played before.


The blurb for this game on its Steam pre-order page goes thus: “In Unrest, there are no heroes of legend, there is no mystical quest, and fate has not chosen you. You’re on your own.” There’s no better way to make the game sound like the direct opposite of everything that most of the RPGs I’ve been speaking of are about at their fundamental level.


You play several distinct characters in a fantasy version of ancient India, in a state called Bhimra. These characters range from a peasant girl who desires to escape an arranged marriage to a priest suffering spiritual doubts to a mercenary captain struggling to fulfill a contract. And you’ll play them all over the course of the game.


One notable, if not unique thing about this RPG is that when characters die, they die. Their choices and the outcomes of their stories, up to and including their deaths, become a part of the story. This is a story you craft and shape, for good or for ill, through a spider web of lives and choices.


The art in this game looks beautiful. The character sprites are all clothed in bright colors, and the architecture from the palace to the slums looks like it has a history all its own. That description goes for all of Bhimra: Beautiful, colorful, with a lineage that may or may not be commented upon in the game.


I’d give this game a go. It looks like it has an identity, and I’m eager to see how the story will play out.

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Thursday, July 17, 2014 2:15 am. Updated: 9:08 pm. Comments (0)

Wednesday 07/16/2014
Role-Playing Chronicles for a Down Week: Part 2

In my last column I gave some tips for naming your character in a significant and lore-appropriate way. Most of these tips are for those who don’t play RPGs very frequently. I do like everyone to get the most out of such things, especially since “role-playing” is right there in the title. Now here are a few tips on character appearance.


Most of this is, as with the names, superficial. However, everything you do when you build your character can be used to inform the character’s life and decisions. Some of these choices can have a direct effect on your gameplay, such as race in The Elder Scrolls. I’d advise against making the character look cartoonish and strange. Most RPGs can hold you for roughly three or four days of playtime, so having a funny-looking weirdo will get old quickly.


Your character’s appearance can cause you to reinterpret their life and attitude the more you learn of the game’s lore. When I made my first Dragon Age character, a human noble, I gave her an asymmetrical face tattoo. What I discovered over the course of the game was that tattoos are rare amongst civilized humans in Ferelden; your sheltered companion Alistair doesn’t even know what they are. For my highborn character to have a tattoo, I concluded she must have befriended the local wildling tribes and had one of them do it for her in a moment of youthful rebellion.


The most fun I’ve ever had crafting a character was in the Saints Row series, which offers the best suite of options I’ve seen. I used the same character throughout the entire series, having to take notes on the specifics so that I could make her again as closely as possible. Every Saints Row game begins with a sequence where your character’s face is concealed, so you can get the feel for the surroundings before you even build your avatar.


My female Boss had to be cool and intimidating in the second game, which is where I initially built her. I thought it’d be great if she looked the part of the femme fatale with a bit of an edge. I gave her long black hair, light olive skin and big red lips. When I got her into the game world, I promptly decked her out in enough tattoos to embarrass a Russian gangster.


Subsequent to that, when I remade her in The Third and 4, I altered her appearance to reflect her new status. As a media darling, she had less garish makeup and a short jetsetter cut (thank you Volition for the breadth of your character creation system) which mixed well with the superhero outfit she was always wearing. When she was elected President, I gave her a Bettie Page hairstyle that made her look more stately while still retaining her edge. She never once lost her sleek, in-charge persona over three games.


Have fun building your character! Final entry still to come…

Posted in Blogs/playbutton on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 2:55 am. Updated: 1:09 am. Comments (0)