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mittens's Articles In Gaming » Page 2
January 16, 2009 by mittens

Every year I realize I don't really like writing lists or articles which end up sounding more like game reviews than critical analyses. So, to close out my list of 2008's best games, I offer the best of the rest:

Valkyria Chronicles
Sega's Valkyria Chronicles uses its pseudo-World War II setting to the best of its abilities, presenting everything from the blitzkrieg of an "evil empire" to the concentration camps of a group of humans who are discriminated against for inciting a war thousands of years before the events of the game. The game attempts to encourage players to treat the units in the game as individuals each with their own positives and negatives and, as such, character development is handled through one of five character classes and upgrades to these classes affects every character of that class type. This behavior does diminish the goals of most strategy RPGs but, at the same time, the inventive combination of real-time character movement/action and turn-based unit management makes for a superb tactical experience.

Luminous Arc 2
Unlike Valkyria Chronicles which handles its strategy/RPG gameplay in a very new and innovative way for the genre, Luminous Arc 2 is an SRPG which makes no attempts to hide its Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre-inspired gameplay mechanics. Unlike the sea of other games inspired by this very specific type of character development, Luminous Arc 2 offers an incredibly well-balanced difficulty curve over the course of the game. And through the use of Luminous Arc 2's "engagement" system, the game forces players to treat unnecessarily well-defined witches as a type of battlefield resource for the continued stat progression of the game's protagonist. Gameplay aside, the game has one of the best scripts I have ever seen from a Japanese RPG.

Boom Blox
Boom Blox is the kind of game everyone dreamed of when the Nintendo Wii remote was first announced. It's Jenga, it's throwing baseballs and bowling balls at complex structures to make them fall down, it's a party game, and it's a game where you toss heavy objects at a group of invading bear blox in order to safe a bunch of sheep blox. Yeah.

It's a game where you race through tracks that are procedurally generated based on the music that you choose. So you race your music. You race your music.

January 14, 2009 by mittens

It's easy to be disgusted by a game like Ninja Gaiden 2. Team Ninja's (now former) director, Tomonobu Itagaki, makes no pretense for a fair display of gender differences. The game makes no attempt to convey an intelligent and thought-provoking story through its occasional and concise cut scenes. And the game makes no attempt to further the integrity of video gaming as a medium. Within the first five minutes of the game a player is treated to pints of blood being splattered across the entirety of a given level and inhumanly large and buoyant breasts are barely stuffed behind a skimpy leather top attached to a CIA agent in an equally revealing miniskirt.

Unlike Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes, no aspect of Ninja Gaiden 2 is designed to subvert and exploit the expectations of the medium or the desires of young teenage males. Ninja Gaiden 2 is what it is and, really, not much more. It is, through and through, an action-focused video game.

And as an action game, Ninja Gaiden 2 is the absolute best in its class for one primary reason: the game places the entirety of Ryu Hayabusa's behavior into the hands of the player. There are no quick-time events, there are no platforming segments where a player solely has to keep the joystick pressed forward to successfully progress, and at no point is there an AI-controlled ally character who exists to help the player along. The closest the game comes to taking away direct control from the player is when Ryu is "obliterating" an enemy foe who is in a state of near-death and operating in like a kamikaze fighter. During these segments a five-to-ten second animation players where Ryu will absolutely decimate an enemy's body, thus preventing this enemy from ever troubling the player again throughout a combat encounter. These segments, as automated as they are, serve as the only moments of respite in combat and, on harder difficulties, are used as a strategic period of invulnerability against, say, a group of enemies volleying rockets into the air through their rapid-fire launchers.

January 12, 2009 by mittens

Around the time when I got my Nintendo DS along with Square-Enix's 3D remake of Final Fantasy III -- it's now cool to refer to Final Fantasy games without specifying the use of the Japanese numbering system, right? -- I experienced a gaming phenomenon more clearly than I ever had before. At that point I was already a couple dozen hours into the game and the finer aspects of its mechanics, character classes, and general progression of the game were all as well-known to me as they were ever likely to become. I approached the final dungeon with a feeling that I wasn't having fun anymore but I was close enough to the end of the game where stopping seemed absurd. After all it was the final dungeon and my characters seemed buff enough to handle whatever it contained. And they were.

They were buff enough for the first hour or two of that dungeon, anyway. After that I could sense a feeling of fatigue setting in amongst the entire party. Because what my characters were woefully unprepared for was the marathon of random battles, mid-dungeon bosses, and room-after-room in this dungeon that, all told, would take a player three-to-four hours to complete. And the time commitment wasn't a kind one. There isn't, to my knowledge, a single save point in the final portion of that dungeon. I ended up dying at the hands of one of the mid-dungeon bosses -- not only as a result of a lack of character preparedness for the long-slog, but as a result of sitting in the same couch for two or three successive hours dealing with random battle after random battle and eventually deciding: no.

A scenario like that may have been alright when I was growing up, unable to drive, and living in the middle of a rural nowhere. That kind of gameplay is embraced when it's an early Saturday morning in the middle of a Northern Michigan blizzard and the nearest friend is, at the least, eight-nine miles away. More importantly, though, is when a game like Final Fantasy III is one of a mere handful of games that a budding gamer has in his/her possession then that game will get play no matter how grievous its sins may be. When those young gamers get older and start getting more and more responsibilities and, in some cases, additional funds for acquiring a wider variety of games to occupy their time, the kinds of games which were once lauded for their difficulty and time commitment become the kinds of games that are actively avoided.

After that first attempt at beating the final dungeon in Final Fantasy III failed the game then enters a pile of games that I could play but didn't really feel like dealing with. It's a pile of games that gamers look at and worry more about the amount of time it may take to get to "the good stuff" or, more commonly, whether or not a gamer may have enough time to get from one save point to another.

January 8, 2009 by mittens

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a strange game to discuss. As a long-time fan of the series it is both a superb gaming experience and an absolutely infuriating one. The game presents itself to players as being almost two separate entities: the one the player is engaged in and the one that Hideo Kojima wants the player to watch.

For a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, franchise history is of paramount importance to any discourse regarding the game. Metal Gear Solid is a franchise that got its North American start back in 1998. The Playstation game was released to pretty wide critical acclaim and commercial success (shipping "six million units worldwide. The game made good on its tag line of "Tactical Espionage Action" by merging its action and stealth gameplay better than any game that preceded it -- a feat that went unmatched until the release of Splinter Cell four years later. Metal Gear Solid was, above all else, a game with sublime pacing throughout its duration; the gameplay was the focus, the cut scenes were lengthy for the time, but rarely excessive. The game's sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, was released two and a half year later and, despite critical and commercial success exceeding the original game, is considered a misstep in the series due to the change in protagonist, a pronounced increase in tangential storylines (especially the romance of two main characters), and more and longer cinematics.

When Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released in 2004, the gameplay, characters, overarching story, and level design were all better than they ever were before. And it was with Metal Gear Solid 3 that the franchise's penchant for unnecessarily lengthy storytelling through non-interactive cut scenes was most pronounced. The increased length of the cut scenes (along with an increased number of them) seemed to also go hand-in-hand with a poorly-crafted script that seemed to rely on a pure bulk of dialogue to present information and storylines. The franchise was always fond of its own verbosity, but each game in the series took it one step further.

And in 2008 Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released.

January 3, 2009 by mittens

Shortly after I started my first game of Far Cry 2, I was treated to an on-rails taxi ride where my driver pointed out some of the unique sites of Africa. There are groups of civilians wandering in hope of escape from their country, varied wildlife, the spreading of a flash fire spreading from a patch of dry grass to a nearby tree, and more than a few angry-looking mercenaries. Functionally, this segment did nothing for me that Half-Life's tram ride didn't do back in 1998. Though, the tour did allow me time to take in the harrowing beauty intrinsic to Far Cry 2. The game's microcosm of Africa is beautifully realized and serves the game as an entity unto itself; a living, breathing pseudo-ecosystem. More than that, Far Cry 2 provides the player with a robust toolset of destruction that makes each of the game's bountiful combat encounters play out different every time.

When the segment ends, my character blacks out as a result of what I soon discover to be a latent case of malaria finally manifesting itself at the worst imaginable time. Upon waking, I see that I'm recumbent in a shanty hotel room and there is an unfamiliar figure standing at the foot of my bed, reading my confidential mission documents aloud. He quickly makes himself known as The Jackal, the infamous arms dealer that I have been sent to assassinate. This first scene represents the sole objective of Far Cry 2's premise in its entirety: it introduces the player to The Jackal, gives some basic background on who he is, and what his relation to the player is. The scene ends when my character's malaria flares up again and he blacks out.

Next time I wake up it's to the sound of explosions and fire all around me as my hotel (and likely the rest of the village it's in) is being ravaged from a battle outside. I grab a nearby pistol and then learn the basic game maneuvers as I crawl through debris and jump over broken walls until I eventually make it outside the village and, once again, black out.

January 2, 2009 by mittens

It's been a superb year for gamers. There have been such a vast number quality major releases across any number of genres that the idea of a given gamer feeling "left out" is near unthinkable. The major, well-received releases can be categorized as a 4X RTS or simply a great 4X turn-based game. There are open-world shooters in Africa and two types of open-world games in the vein of Grand Theft Auto. Superb cooperative games involving things like zombies, chainsaw-mounted assault rifles, and a throwback to the days of Golden Axe. And then there are major sequels like Grand Theft Auto 4, Fallout 3, and Metal Gear Solid 4. Oh, yes.

The deluge of gaming was good to me this year as well as, for the first time in a few years, I was actually able to play every title that I had any desire to play across all non-Wii platforms (and even then, I'm currently borrowing one of those to play No More Heroes). Not since my 2005 games of the year have I felt well-informed enough to write about some of my top picks for a given year. Granted, I can't objectively write about games like Galactic Civilizations: Twilight of the Arnor or Sins of a Solar Empire -- both of which are games that I, as a gamer, hold in remarkably high esteem.

This year I'm doing something a little bit different. I'm not sure if I can really classify a deviation from a one-time top ten list as something "different" or not but I will continue to think my actions in this matter as such. It's no radical change, but I'm just going to write up three-four articles on games I consider to be the best of 2008's best with no regards to rank or categorization. At this point, I still have yet to figure out what I want to make two of the four games. They will be from the following list of games I'm in the process of choosing from. The following games are all superb and remain in my mind at this point in time as equally superb.

November 22, 2008 by mittens

Esquire's Future of Video Game Design is considered required reading in these parts from today onward. And, given this revelation, Jason Rohrer's Passage is also now considered required playing.

The Esquire piece brings about one of the game industry's favorite set piece discussions (along with digital rights management and booth babes): games as art. It's a topic I've discussed once before but don't relish discussing at length all too often. Discussions that wiggle around the specific semantics of a term as loosely defined as "art" aren't really conducive to any sort of definite conclusions; it's as subjective a viewpoint as the concept of "fun." Everyone knows art/fun when they see it or experience it, but trying to describe it as a definite concept is considerably more difficult. We can all point to examples of games which make us, as the player, feel artistically enlightened such as Braid and Rez just as easily as we can point to games that serve as their antitheses like Madden NFL 2009 or Gears of War 2. The same can be said for music and cinema. It's not about the definition of art, it's about the experience. And an experience isn't a conclusive piece of evidence either way.

I believe that anyone who plays Passage, in particular, will agree that it is an emotional experience. If one allows themselves to enter into the type of mindset when trying out Passage that he/she would when listening to music which conjures up pleasant or enjoyable memories or emotions, it seems a near-certainty that he will come away feeling something after the five-six minute journey. Passage stands out to me as the product of someone that has the ability to channel so singular a vision into a program and the result is, basically, an interactive emotional experience. That said, I'm hesitant to call Passage a game. Sure, it has all the trappings of a typical game: a linear progression composed of love and death and a metric by which progress is measured (the score counter in the upper-right), but these features don't make the title a game so much as they seem like set dressing for a just-interactive-enough movie that uses basic keyboard controls as a way to ensure it has the viewer's attention.

The current search for artistic games within the game industry is a witch hunt. But no witches will be burned in this witch hunt, no. The end goal is to make the witch be our friend. We want to make our witch famous so we can take her by the hand and show our friends in other industries that we have our own witch too -- one that is unique to us. The casualty in this search is the game; videos games are a medium which sacrifices that other stuff, like narrative, for the sake of the player. We all want our games to tell unique stories that could rival that of any book or movie but the concept of the narrative is diametrically opposed to the intrinsic dynamism of video games. The more a writer tells his story, the less the player controls his.

Then again, Jason Rohrer seems to have found a way to maintain gameplay and a dynamic story. But can it be extrapolated to a AAA game?

November 18, 2008 by mittens

I just got another mission from the unnaturally quick-speaking warlord of the African UFL -- one of two warring factions in Far Cry 2 -- when one of my buddies gave me a call on my cell phone telling me to meet them if I wanted to make my mission take twice as long as it would if I simply followed orders at no real additional benefit to me. I guess I could just do it, though. I mean, my buddy Nasreen is, apparently, one of the only two women in all of Africa. It wouldn't hurt to endear my playing character to her a bit more. It's an awfully big safe house, after all.

Wait, why is my screen pulsing and turning yellow? Oh, it's my Malaria. It's flaring up. There's an on-screen pill bottle that's telling me I should press my left shoulder button. But, I'm also in the middle of driving through the jungle since that checkpoint I just cleared out before getting my new mission already is restocked with new people. Maybe they're just meandering civilians? Probably not. They have guns. Do civilians in Africa have guns? All right, I'll just slow down my truck and take my pills. Done. No more yellow screen. I'm also out of pills, but I just got them refilled after I delivered some transit papers to an African family hiding in a broom closet in a veterinary office (under control by the African Underground). Am I really out of pills or do I just need to deliver more transit papers? Africa has a strange exchange rate.

November 3, 2008 by mittens

With the development of Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks faced a dilemma: they had to make a first-person RPG engine that was typically used for high-fantasy RPG/adventure games handle the intensity, gore, and statistical probability of the gunplay in Black Isle's cult-legend Fallout and Fallout 2 in such a way as to not annoy either first-person shooter gamers, fans of the Fallout games, and long-time patrons of the games in The Elder Scrolls series.

The problem with mixing a first-person shooter with a role-playing game is that they are, basically, as diametrically opposed as two genres can get. The cornerstone of an FPS is in the feel of its gunplay and player movement; the questions players subconsciously ask themselves while playing are: how does shooting feel? How accurate are the weapons and are the bullet spray, recoil, and weapon damage consistent with what a player would expect from the weapon? Is weapon behavior relatively reliable? Are the player's skills in targeting his own or is the game modifying them to an unexpected degree? A first-person shooter places the gamer at the helm of the game; the more a player feels like he/she is in charge of his in-game avatar, the better. With this preconception at the forefront of the game experience, players enter into a game world with expected grounded in their reality and expect somewhat realistic or reliable behavior. Shooters that have unrealistically-behaving real-world weapons will seem immediately "off" to any gamer whether he has real-life weapon experience or not; a shotgun which behaves like a sniper rifle will seem strange to anyone while a sniper rifle that has a large box of possible inaccuracy around a gamer's targeting reticule will be a source of future gamer rage-quitting.

October 27, 2008 by mittens

Interfaces of all sorts are one of the most game-specific features of any entertainment medium; there's never an ammo counter on-screen when watching John McClane do Die Hard thing or a health indicator attached to Forrest Gump's forehead in his movie -- that would be ridiculous. Yet throughout the history of the gaming industry UIs or HUDs are featured in just about every game; it's not a question of whether or not to have a HUD in a game so much as it's a question of what kind of graphics should comprise the HUD, what should be featured on-screen, how big should the health bar be, or how translucent should the minimap be? A couple of games released this past month have realized: wait, what?

Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2 is a game that takes great pride in its consistent usage of the first-person perspective to keep the player as immersed in the fictionalized portrayal of an African warzone. With a tap of the heal button the player's in-game character will, if his health is low enough, look down at his body and find a bullet wound; if that's the case, the animation continues by having the player character pry out the bullet with players or, in some cases, with his teeth. If the player's wounds aren't bad enough, a mere injection into the character's forearm will do the trick. Yet, despite such animations the game still reverts to showing an ammo counter or health bar if the player's health is in the process of increasing/decreasing (or alarmingly low), same with the ammo counter. Presumably, this is because Ubisoft Montreal could not figure out a way to properly convey this information in-game, but what they did figure out is how to convey locational information through an in-game map and GPS transmitter. When the Map button is pressed, the game's player character will whip out a map and GPS transmitter (shown below) and the player is tasked with finding his location on the in-game map and swapping between various "zoom levels" (shown in-game as separate pieces of map paper) to determine his position and plot his course of action to an objective.

October 20, 2008 by mittens

Everyone likes candy. Diabetics or people on a strict diet may nay-say such a statement but, for the rest of us, a bit of candy here and there is a little treat composed solely of sugar and happiness. Achievements in video games are similar class to a piece of candy. Players can gain achievements for beating a level in a normal progression of the game, beating a hard boss without using certain items, completing an entire playthrough of a game without dying, or, in the case of the recently released Mega Man 9, beating the entirety of the game five times within twenty-four hours. Once these achievements are earned, gamers can wear them as a nerdy badge of honor for others to gaze in awe upon. Or something. When done correctly, achievements are a source of positive reinforcement that encourage forms of player behavior or, better still, can foster an entire metagame with the potential to drastically increase the amount of time players can get out of a single game.

As far as the nonexistent history books on modern game designs goes, the originator of "achievements" as a term and systematical categorization of gaming accomplishments began with the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, the 360's online system/marketplace. A "gamer score" is displayed prominently for every Xbox Live player profile (see mine below) and points are added to this score whenever an achievement is unlocked during the playthrough of any given game. Microsoft's system allots 1000 gamer points (G) to any retail game and 200 points to any game distributed through the Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace. A typical achievement, then, has anywhere from 5-50G attached to it and when it is unlocked by a player's in-game exploits, a box pops up saying that an achievement has been unlocked. And, in a majority of cases, this elicits a very positive player reaction. Achievements have become such a mainstay of the Xbox 360 that there sites that are dedicated to categorically listing every achievement for games. For some gamers, the concept of having a high gamer score is important enough to some gamers that games are played solely for the purpose of getting easy achievements.

June 28, 2008 by mittens
June 20, 2008 by mittens

As Intellisponse recently discovered: it's not a very intelligent maneuver to, as a marketing research firm with clients like Microsoft and Activision, leave the company's data backend in a state that can be easily accessed by the public. When such a thing occurs, and this is just an example, the gaming press may get their hands on a great deal of unannounced information. So far gamers have discovered that the Xbox 360 has a Wii-like avatar system forthcoming, a third Forza game is in the works (yay yay yay), and that some company called Trioxide wants to do something where people could play console games on their PCs. That doesn't sound like a lawsuit waiting to happen at all. Anyway, thanks for the information Intellisponse and I hope you can still get clients in the future.

In the wake of Tomonobu Itagaki's resignation from his directorial position at Team Ninja it has now been revealed that every Tecmo employee is suing Tecmo. Tecmo instituted an illegal "flexible hours" scheme that allowed the company to avoid paying their employees overtime; the company was ignoring over one hundred overtime hours worked by its employees every month and falsified documented to cover the whole thing up. The filing was handled by two Tecmo employees (one of which was the head of Tecmo's Labor Division, Hiroaki Ozawa) and asks for 8.3 million yen ($77,000 USD) per employee as compensation. Basically, Tecmo has been a bad, bad company.



March 14, 2008 by mittens
Following my cohort's lead, I'm going to list some things or trends in video games which bug me in some way shape or form. Poorly-Placed Checkpoints: In games which have a checkpoint save system, the checkpoints are occasionally very poorly laid out; when the player overcomes a particularly difficult/annoying puzzle or makes it through a rough combat scenario not having a checkpoint immediately nearby does not add to the game's difficulty level. All the lack of a checkpoint does is make the g...
February 28, 2008 by mittens
It seems like it's time for the video game industry to grow up and realize that it needs to start producing games with the idea that the experience they provide to gamers is one wholly unique to the industry. I finally saw There Will Be Blood earlier this week and, after witnesses the absolutely mind-numbingly fantastic performance of Daniel Day-Lewis I came to a fairly obvious realization: games will never provide an experience as fulfilling, captivating, and, most importantly, truly captivatin...