Thursday, March 29, 2012

That Part with the Homage to Adventure Games

Writer's Note: While it requires some editing -- I pass from present to past tense seemingly at random -- the bones of this vignette align in my own brain. This acts as a continuance of sorts of my blog post "Hitting the Mat."
I hear waves.

No explosions, bullets, or foreign voices reach me. The pressure is off my leg and I feel warm. I move my arms and open my good eye.

I'm lying on warm sand.

I struggle to my back and prop myself on my elbows. In front of me, waves roll into the beach but 20 meters beyond the waves an opaque whiteness like a wall or some kind of fog blocks further view. To my right and left the white sand beach extends another 20 meters or so and seemingly blocked by the same fog. I rub my eye. The recent explosions and shockwaves may have done more damage than I realize.

I look again with a fresh eye, trying to blink my way passed the wall of fog.

Directly behind me are three palm trees. Nestled amoung them is a large wooden packing crate with the lid not quite nailed on. Beyond those objects, more fog.

I blink some more then gather myself.  I stumble for a step, but I managed to get my body to the crate and palm trees.

There are two dozen bottles of water, sunscreen, wool emergency blanket, a first aid kit, a bag of netting that turned out to be a hammock, a couple dozen k-rations, and three formal suits.

I stripped down and salved my wounds with ointment, wrapping gauze and bandages where I was bleeding or oozing most. I dry swallowed two pain pills. My stiff fingers worked enough to stretch the hammock between a couple of the trees. The effort exhausted my already spent carcass so with the small amount I had left I eased myself into the sling.

For the next two weeks, I healed under a never-changing sky and perfect weather. I drank most of a bottle of water a day, and what appetite I had was met with stale k-rations. The pain in my side receded to a dull ache and most of the rest of me felt much better in my little beach bubble. But I was restless.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Ants Came Marching

There's an analogy here, that I'm trying to figure out how it could apply to video games and the industry as a whole, especially in light of some dramatic changes that are happening on the retail side of things.

When wood starts to rot, especially in a low-rise apartment building -- due to exposure, poor maintenance practices -- there's an increased risk for carpenter ant infestation. Colonies thrive in this kind of environment so it's not uncommon that if the conditions repeat themselves elsewhere in the building that satellite colonies are created.

They can cause a lot of damage, or at the very least increase the damage already being done to the structure, to the point where wooden members can fail. There are warning signs associated with a carpenter ant infestation but those are often handled by spraying insecticide. And sometimes that's as far as it goes.

If the owner of the apartment can't readily see the problem, it will often leave his mind. Keep up the spraying, keep down the appearance of ants.

But take a seat across the street. Are there a lot of woodpeckers attacking the building? That's a sure sign that the infestation has gone from "manageable" to a job that will cost multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars to address. Not only does it indicate a strong likelihood of an infestation that would cause most of us creepy crawly nightmares, but it also provides a clear indication on how much the building is rotting from the inside out.

Like I wrote above, somehow this example is an analogy for the video game industry... It needs a lot of work at this point. Both the analogy and the video game industry.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Applause for Snake Eater

Maybe it was in the original PlayStation version but I have to hand it to Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D for making a huge nodding homage to those classic James Bond film openings, complete with song track that makes reference to the title of the game.

Besides getting me all nostalgic for watching Bond films, I wouldn't mind that instead of Naked Snake being the star of the show Konami just dropped Roger Moore into the central role.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mass Effect 3 - Report 3

I'm side-stepping the whole "ending" controversy. I don't even think I'm that close to the end at this point. From what I've been reading though, some of those gamers need to get over themselves. And the entitlement issues on display... I'd say those complainers are doing themselves a disservice by shining a spotlight of outrage on themselves. I might have more to say about this when I finally reach the end but so far, the game has been pretty enjoyable even if hitting comic book and sci-fi/fantasy beats overshadows some of the cooler aspects of the Mass Effect universe.

Why does it feel like the writers on Mass Effect 3 were constantly referring to Marvel Comics for inspiration? A couple nights ago I led my team in saving people from a "School for Gifted Youngsters." The entire set-up and execution felt like I repelling an assault on the Xavier's mansion.

Mass Effect 3's version
of Half-Life 2's Citadel.
Last night Shepherd activated a couple of thumpers to attract a sandworm. While she didn't ride the worm, it did send an impulse to my brain to read Dune again. Layered on top of that, is that this all happens in the shadow of a giant spire reminiscent of the Citadel in the middle of City 17 (see Half-Life 2) which, if you remember, is under the effects of a suppression field which basically means people aren't having kids (or even have the desire to try). And the whole reason Shepherd and crew are headed to this spire is to reverse something called the "genophage" which has kept race of ultra violent aliens -- the krogan -- from reproducing and overrunning the galaxy. (Replace "genophage" with "suppression field.")

Had I not played Half-Life 2 or read Dune I wouldn't have drawn any parallels or mumbled to myself about an "homage or something." But I did both. (And read far too many Marvel comics.) So, when these things come up I wonder why BioWare didn't do something more "original" and cool within their own universe.

Let me be clear about this point: I'm enjoying the game.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"A Radical 20 Years" -- DONE

In case you missed it on The Armchair Empire, all four parts of the Radical Entertainment 20th anniversary feature have now been posted:

I've noted this before, but overall I'm relatively happy with the way the feature turned out. I obviously would have loved input -- any input at all -- from co-founders Rory Armes and Ian Wilkinson. The latter in particular because he spent 16 years with the company. That's a whole line of untapped information and history that I just didn't get access to even though I fulfilled the requirements he laid out in our one and only chat. Never got a call back after repeated calls and even a letter that was mailed to his office. At least with Armes, I was gently told he wasn't interested.
Assistant: Rory will not be participating in interviews at this time.
Me: So, when will he be participating in interviews?
Assistant: (muffled words) Rory will, uh, not be participating in interviews.
Be that as it may, it's too much energy to hold a grudge. The article could have been much richer for their participation no doubt. I'm just thankful that at the very least Dave Davis was forthcoming enough to shed some light on the early days.

I'd also like to thank, in no particular order, Eric Holmes, Dave Fracchia, Matt Armstrong, Tom Legal, Ken Rosman, Kelly Zmak, Chris Ansell and Steve Cherrier for giving me some their valuable time and sharing their insight. Thanks!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gotham City Imposters: Actually Played It!

There was a recent patch (a big one) for Gotham City Imposters. I put a lot of hope into that patch -- that the connection issues and finding a game would make it playable. With actual people. And for longer than five minutes.

From my brief play time last night -- full rounds of team deathmatch for a stretch of 30 minutes -- it seems the patch has cleared up the problems I was experiencing. I played for 30 minutes, went from level 4 to (almost) level 8, unlocked a bunch of stuff, but had to to call it a night because the patch took so long to download. (Some of us have to get up and go to work in the morning!)

But the most important aspect is that after that initial rush of "Yay, it's working!" I was actually having some fun with it. And all those ""Team Fortress 2 with grappling hooks and skates" reductions aren't completely out of line, it does feel like the game is trying to carve out it's own identity. At least, so far.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dam's a'Burstin'

The other day I wrote about being completely blocked up when it came to finishing my feature on Radical Entertainment's 20th anniversary -- I've posted Part I! Read it! -- but on Sunday night, the damn burst.

As fast as I could type, the words poured onto the page, I cut and pasted quotes from the interviews I conducted, and screenshots and pictures materialized -- and it all stitched together. To be sure, there's still some fine tuning involved but it doesn't feel like I should tear the articles apart and start again, which is what I was encountering previously.

Even the capstone -- my little post script where "I" appears -- tumbled off my fingers.

Were the words there all along and they just needed time to percolate in my brain long enough to form into something coherent? Something good? Like sausages? The component parts don't always make sense but grind it all together and fry it with some onions... that's makes for good eating. Or reading, in this case.

That's my hope at least.

I mean, I like reading it. Onions or not.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Gotham City Imposters: No, Seriously, How Do I Review It?

 Steam tells me that I've spent about 9 hours "playing" Gotham City Imposters.

"Playing" is misleading as that word would tend to make a reader think I was, you know, actually playing the game rather than watching the match making screen continually cycle. I spent just over 20 minutes last night connecting to a solitary game. And you know, it was fun for the ten minutes it took to win the Fumigation map. But then it was back to watching that same old match making screen.

I've seen other players on the "experience level" in the 50 range. I'm at experience level 4. The ratio of experience to hours played is ridiculous. It should not look like me kill/death ratio in Call of Duty.

So, I come back to this same question I posed weeks ago: How do I review this game fairly?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mass Effect 3 - Report 2

Okay, BioWare.

First I come across a skittish crazy dude stealing lines from Ghostbusters in Star Wars: The Old Republic -- "Listen! Do you smell that?" -- now this brazen "homage" of a curvy female robot from an Avengers storyline? Honestly, the first time *spoilers* EDI appears, all curves and silver, I spoke to the game: What? What?

I first came across The Bride of Ultron, more properly Jacosta, in an old Avengers storyline called "The Korvac Saga" where the Avengers face off against the biggest threat the universe has ever known after taking public transit to get there. (There's a subplot involving the US government revoking funding and special status for the Avengers.)

But that's actually not the part that bothered me as much as the way the character is "revealed" -- like a stripper stepping through fog.

And to top it off she quickly demonstrates "Lt. Commander Data Syndrome." I expected EDI to explicitly say something along the lines of wanting to see what it meant to be human and she pretty much does just that. Before the end of the game, I fully expect to hear "What is this thing humans call, Love?" with some option for weird robotic hanky-panky further down the line.

I don't think Ultron would be okay with that.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mass Effect 3

Less than three hours into Mass Effect 3 and I'm hooked! I have a little trouble swallowing the whole "Reaper invasion? Okay, I'll go arrange a meeting about it!" arrangement (so far). Why am I traipsing around the galaxy with my Anne of Green Gables avatar, when it's so clear that by the time I actually get back to Earth there will be nothing left? In the opening minutes of the game it seems that the Reaper's will make very short work of Earth so when I bomb over to Mars, then zip over to the Citadel, then hop to Palaven (the turian homeworld), which is also defending against a Reaper attack... all I'm thinking is that Earth is done. It's all over for those poor bastards.

A concious choice I made before starting Mass Effect 3 was that, unless I was dealing with my squad mates, I would be a complete jerk. I would only make "bad" or Renegade choices. This has really help me deal with the crippling aspect of Mass Effect 2 that I never really overcame: choice. I was always concerned with what would happen if I made the wrong choice. This time around I don't care because I decided ahead of time what I would do.

Also, I'm predicting that the "Promethean device" will eventually require Shepherd to act as the "catalyst" to wipe out the Reapers. Or the device won't just destroy the Reapers, it'll wipe out everything.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Against the Clock

For the last couple of months I've been focusing a great deal of my attention on writing a feature on Radical Entertainment's 20 year history. Everything was coming together, despite the lack of any involvement whatsoever of co-founders Ian Wilkinson and Rory Armes, and I felt really good about the whole thing. But something has lodged a Godzilla-sized block in my writing brain.

I've gutted and re-written the feature a few times now but that hasn't deterred me from continuing -- writing through it, sifting the interviews, sorting the facts, etc.

But this is writer's block on a scale that I've only encountered one other time. I was 14 and desperately scrabbling for a satisfying ending to a short story that jumped around like a flea on meth. No matter how many plot lines I ran down, it never came together the way I wanted it to. There was always something that could have, should have, been better. Which is kind of what I think is happening to me right now. I'm not sure if it will ever be good enough.

I imposed a deadline of early March to get the feature posted. And it's early March now and the feature still doesn't seem presentable.

Maybe part of my problem is that a certain level of panic has set in -- and that's a very bad thing. Writing under pressure is one thing, writing in panic is another. I can handle the pressure aspect but the panic... it's a killer.

Even with all that sitting in the back of my head, I'm inexplicably optimistic that it will all come together! It's an emotional roller coaster! You can bet that when I'm "finished" I'll be doing cartwheels. And maybe I'll have just the slightest taste of bile in the back my mouth.

Monday, March 5, 2012

My Feminine Side

I made a sudden realization over the weekend that the last number of games I've played, if the option to to play a female character is included, that's the option I take.

Saints Row: The Third, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic, SSX (I'll pick Elise over any other character) and now Mass Effect 3.

Why is this? It hasn't been a concious choice to play all these games -- almost in a row -- to see if the "female experience" is any different than the usual male experience. I just picked that character. Is it a response to having played so many games with a male protagonist? At this point I'm not sure but I do think it deserves some more thought.

If there was a robot option would I want to play as one? Is that my next stop when it comes to choosing a protagonist avatar? Right now, games are making me think but for very different reasons. I'm thinking more about myself than any theme or design choice or game mechanic.

The only change I made to my Saints Row: The Third character was her skin color. She was green for a long time.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

March 3, 2012 - “Bread, Justice, Freedom”

This week The Armchair Empire brought you Reviews of:
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (360)
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (PC)
SSX (360)
The trio marks the successful "revival" of the SSX series, the seeming implosion of the Jagged Alliance series, and the first instalment of what is likely the first chapter of the Kingdoms of Amalur series. It's a good way to kick of March, which is shaping up to be another packed month for gamers.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Not Quite a Short Story: Hitting the Mat

I can taste dust and blood. My eyes won't open and my ears are pounding with my heartbeat. Somewhere it sounds like a crowd is cheering.

I manage to pry one eyelid apart. Everything's out of focus but it's clear enough that I can see the ropes of a boxing ring and a large splotch of red on the canvas. My whole body aches but I do what I can to get to my lead-filled feet. I try opening the other eye. Nothing. It's either swollen shut or I've been blinded.

A ding loud enough to cut through my pulse brings two men to my side and they help me to a small stool in the corner of the ring. A gush of water hits me in the face. The world starts to focus. There's a snap and the cavity behind my nose burns, clearing my eye but I can barely hear the men.

"C'mon, just another round! Just stay conscious for another round!"

"Gotta remember, that when that pug leans back you gotta watch for the feet!"

That doesn't make sense to me until I see that the team in the opposite corner is working on a gray kangaroo.

"Funny, I don't 'member going to Australia." I realize something has come loose in my mouth. I spit into the offered bucket. A couple of teeth clink into the bottom of it. I'm vaguely aware that I'm wearing boxing gloves.

The bell dings again and the other men slide out of the ring. The crowd begins to roar again.

The kangaroo cocks his head. I take a couple of experimental steps; my legs should keep me upright for a little longer. He bounds forward and lashes out with his right foreleg. Only the fact I stumble in surprise saves me. The punch goes wide, exposing his side. I put as much weight as I can bear behind the punch and sink my left hand into his gut. It registers and he's pushed off balance. I throw an uppercut with my right, hoping to hit him in the head. It sails wide and now I'm off balance but the kangaroo has hopped back so there's no follow-up.

We start making wide circles around the ring. The crowd is screaming.

The kangaroo feints right and like a chump I go for. It's a wild swing and he's ready for it. As I try to right myself, he's leaning back.

I see the feet coming but there's so little that I can do to prepare myself that both connect solidly, one to my face, one to my right side. The crack of bone, which is almost a nice staccato to the sound of pumping blood in my ears, sends me reeling. A web of pain stabs up my side.

He seizes the advantage. I can see the blurry punches coming but my arms aren't working. I can't get my hands up to ward off the attack. Can't even move my head.

The last blow starts the world turning and black around the edges. The canvas comes up and hits me in the face.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Gotham by Gaslight"

I love it when these kinds of videos "leak" out to the great gaming world. What the video above demonstrates is a tech demo for a Batman game based on a handful of DC comics published in the late '80s and early '90s.

It was prototyped by Day 1 Studios but -- and this is according to Wikipedia -- THQ cancelled the game. I wish I knew the timeline on when this was originally worked on. Does it pre-date Batman's game revival with Arkham Asylum and Arkham City? Were there guys at Day 1 that migrated to Rocksteady to work on Arkham Asylum and City? I'd love to know.

The one thing I do know is that the cape technology is crazy. In the same vein as Dead or Alive's Boob Physics, there seem to be too many ruffles, too much waving, too much motion, but you just can't take your eyes off the darn thing!