Castlevania: Mirror of Fate Demo Impressions

If it wasn’t obvious by the fact this game has TWO subtitles (the full name is “CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE”), Konami is being very, very careful not to attach Mercury Steam’s Castlevania games to the rest of the franchise canon, and with games like Mirror of Fate, I don’t blame them.

Mirror of Fate wants to be a “Metroidvania” like the now-legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And it fails. Hard.

Castlevania is not unlike Sonic the Hedgehog in that its gameplay is very much a product of the 2D viewpoint in which it used to be typically viewed. When you shift the perspective to 3D, all of the rules change so dramatically that you have to rethink nearly every piece of how the game is constructed. The NES Castlevania’s whip motion is not something that can be directly translated to 3D.

This is why, for so many years, you had bad 3D Castlevania games. Nobody at Konami could figure out how that game was supposed to work in the third dimension. Then came along David Jaffe and his team made God of War, a game that, when you really boil it down, is “Castlevania but for Roman Mythology”. Kratos’ dual chains are really just Castlevania whips, but rather than a forward striking motion, they become sweeping area attacks that hit multiple enemies in a radius around the player - something essential for combat in the third dimension. He cracked the code.

And so Mercury Steam decided to “borrow” from God of War to make Lords of Shadow, which appropriates all of the sweeping area attacks for its whip-based gameplay. And, to a certain extent, it worked! It was a bit clunky and probably overstayed its welcome, but it was the best attempt at a 3D Castlevania Konami had ever put out. Mission kinda-sorta accomplished, I guess. The problem being is that Mercury Steam’s Castlevania has now apparently superseded the “real” Castlevania games, and instead of your typical Koji Igarashi 2D Castlevania romp, we get a pale imitation in the form of Mirror of Fate - a game that perhaps exposes Mercury Steam’s total lack of understanding of what makes a Castlevania game.

Mirror of Fate mistakenly tries to take the 3D gameplay of Lords of Shadow and flatten it down in to a 2D plane. Now you’re playing a God of War game where you cannot dodge side to side, only forward or backward. And despite the move to the 2D plane, Mercury Steam decided to retain the combat system from the 3D game - Trevor has “direct” attacks and “area” attacks, but what this generally means is that you have very little incentive to get up close and personal with enemies because area attacks literally hit just about anything on screen in a single swipe. I’m assuming direct attacks do more damage, but I never cared enough to check because area attacks did the job well enough.

Because of this, often your attacks don’t even phase enemies. this is to stop you from just tearing through everything and force the player to actually bother to dodge or block an enemy’s offense. And you’ll want to - enemies seem to deal almost a quarter of your lifebar if they manage to land a hit on normal difficulty. In 2D Castlevania games, enemies were not something you had epic, protracted battles with, but Mirror of Fate really wants you to stand around and whip giant shielded skeletons for minutes at a time - but there’s no finesse to it, no depth. Mash until it dies, maybe wait for it to lower its guard so you can attack it directly. Ho-hum.

The rest of the demo doesn’t fare much better: platforming is extremely poor, and not explained terribly well. So much of the demo holds your hand, telling you exactly where to go and what buttons to push at any given time that the couple of times where they don’t do that lead to me running around in circles for ten minutes wondering where to go and just sort of mashing random buttons until the right thing happened. Case in point: Once you get through the opening area of the castle, you get inside a cathedral to find your first sub weapon and fight some bats. Clear the bats out and now you have to scale the interior. The problem: there’s a flashing ledge that you clearly need to do something with, but my initial attempts to grab on to it yielded no results.

In Mirror of Fate, the R button is the designated “grab stuff/read stuff” button, but for whatever reason, Trevor Belmont simply refused to grab the ledge. Eventually I found that when I dashed in to it and held the L button, he grabbed - though I would later find out that the L button was completely unnecessary for ledge grabbing; for whatever reason (a bug, perhaps), Trevor just refused to grab the ledge the first five times I touched it.

So now I’ve grabbed the ledge and I’m on an alcove and… now what? There’s a flashing blue rope to my right. Seems pretty obvious to me that this is a grapple point, so much like Super Castlevania 4, I jump off and whip at the glowing point on the rope. Nothing happens. I try again, getting closer. Nothing. Maybe it’s the wrong kind of whip? Direct whips don’t work, area whips don’t work. Jump at it and dash. Nope. No good. Eventually I have to pause the game and look it up that the R button is for grapple points - even though everything else in this demo so far that uses the R button comes up with specific text saying, “PRESS THE R BUTTON RIGHT NOW TO DO A THING”. Not this time, apparently.

Furthermore, once grappled, the only way to jump out is… not to press the jump button, but to press R again. Now, this isn’t a huge deal, but it’s one of those little aggravating things where you just go “Why would you do it this way?” The solution is functional but not ideal, because my first instinct to jump out of an action is ALWAYS going to be pressing the jump button. Doing it any other way makes the developer look like they are staffed by space aliens who don’t know how earthlings work. And after the sequence of events I just suffered through - mysterious, unclear game mechanic after mysterious unclear game mechanic, that does not seem too far off from the truth.

So I grapple and jump across these chandeliers and get to the other end of the cathedral where the platforms get much smaller and the distance between them gets to be much larger. I’m supposed to use the grapple here, but because of level geometry, a grapple point gets obscured and I end up trying to make a jump using a complicated ledge grab, which actually works - but after I safely make the jump, only then do I notice the glowing blue grapple point. Figuring it’s an item I can pick up, I jump off the platform, collect nothing, and fall straight back to the ground floor again - taking fall damage on top of it all.

Fall damage. In a 2D Castlevania game. I almost shut my 3DS off right there.

Fall damage is typically reserved for games which are trying to be “realistic”. Super Mario Bros. did not have fall damage, but Prince of Persia did, because Prince of Persia was about a real human person going through a dungeon to save a princess. Super Mario 64 had fall damage, but quickly thought better of it for future 3D Mario games. Castlevania, in all of its incarnations, has never been a “realistic” game. Not even Mirror of Fate, which has you fighting giant demonic bats using a whip and electrically-charged Romanian ninja stars. But here it is, and here I am missing half of my health bar because somebody can’t design levels to be clear and understandable. It wasn’t a jump that looked like I needed to be use the grapple to reach it, so why would I even try? And obviously I made it without needing to grapple, to boot! On my first try!

So after some more swinging and ledge grabbing I finally make it up to this gear which opens the path somewhere else - at this point I will admit to not really paying attention all too well to what was going on, as I had passed my frustration threshold a while ago. What I do notice, however, is that a new grapple point has appeared up by the gear. I use it and swing across to a grab-able ledge I used to get up here. Except… wait. Trevor doesn’t grab the ledge. Instead, he plummets straight to the ground - the fall damage so great, that it instantly kills him. Great. Thanks.

It restarts me back up by the gear, and only now do I notice the problem: the ledges I used to ascend up to the gear are no longer flashing. Ostensibly, Trevor has decided he doesn’t need to use those ledges anymore, so you can’t grab them to make your way back down. Just to make sure, I swing out to those ledges again, and Trevor completely ignores them, going from a full health bar down to zero thanks to fall damage. I’m flabbergasted. I have no speech.

Is this game design? What is this? It’s not fun. It’s not even logical. The grapple point even suggests that I’m SUPPOSED to swing out to those ledges, because there’s certainly nothing else to swing to. Using a safer, more clunky method, I climb down and continue in to some sort of catacombs or crypt. It’s rather unremarkable save for moments where I can’t tell the background apart from the foreground and flashing walls to clearly denote “HEY, YOU CAN WALL JUMP HERE, AND ONLY HERE”. I didn’t want freedom anyway.

Which is a re-occurring theme. Eventually I hit some kind of symbol - the game tells me to press the R button while standing over it, in which I am told: “This requires Shadow Magic. Come back once you get it.” A statue later in the demo tells me the exact same thing - but instead, it wants Light Magic. It’s the notion that it has to tell me to come back that’s the problem - Super Metroid never spelled it out in human english, “you need super missiles to open this door, come back later”. That was a mystery you had to deduce on your own. Apparently people were smarter in 1994 than they are now.

The demo is capped off with a boss encounter - and it’s one of those bosses with a health meter that is entirely too long for as simple as it is to bait in to a pattern. As long as you keep your distance, the boss will charge in to a wall and dizzy itself, giving you a significant opening for counter-attack. Repeat ad nauseum.

While you could just say, “it was a bad demo”, there are things in this demo that showcase a developer that seems fairly clueless as to how to make a game like this. The only thing that would save it in my eyes would be the promise of them either delaying the game or issuing a patch - but it would have to be a pretty significant patch, all told.


Pent Up Review Dump

So I've been writing reviews for TSSZ News for like, what, five years now? That's kind of a long time. I've done kind of a good job re-posting my reviews from there over at Giantbomb here eventually - usually they go up on TSSZ exclusively for a couple weeks or maybe a month and then I copy them over here. I basically got my job at TSSZ by posting reviews at sites like Giantbomb, so I figure I have to stay true to my roots.

But I forget sometimes. So today I'm going back through the reviews I forgot to post here and... well, posting them. At the very least, it'll help diversify my review portfolio here, because right now it looks like the only games I ever play and review are Sonic games.

So, have at it:

Honestly, I figured I had more reviews I hadn't put up here (I had Dead Rising 2: Case Zero and Jet Set Radio HD ready to post until I saw they were already up), but whatever.

I'll probably have a review up on TSSZ for the 3DS version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed by Monday, so make sure you check that out, too. It'll end up here on Giantbomb eventually, but I feel obligated to the place that actually like... pays me to review this stuff. So obviously, they deserve the exclusives.

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BlazeHedgehog's Game of the "Year" 2012 (?)

It would seem like 2012 has been a rough year for a lot of people. There have been a lot of ups and a lot of downs (and for some of us, more downs than ups), so I am more than a little eager to get 2012 out of my life and move on to whatever's next. Thankfully, because of some of what's happened in 2012, I've ended up playing - and more importantly finishing - way more video games than I probably have in a really, really long time. Of course, just like last year's entry, not all of these games are from 2012, but that's just the way the dice fall, sometimes.


Journey was a pretty cool game, and really marked the sort of experience you'll probably never get on an Xbox 360. Part of that is the developer - "thatgamecompany" is intrinsically tied to Playstation probably forever, but the other part of that is simply that I'm not entirely sure if a game like Journey could ever live and thrive on the Xbox. This is a deeply personal game, and something about the way Microsoft carries themselves and the Xbox as being perhaps a little more "dudebro" than the Playstation makes me think a game like Journey just wouldn't work there. I'm glad I got a chance to play it on my cousin's PS3.


You know what's dumb? That Microsoft has a "no refunds on digital purchases" policy. That's not to say I didn't want The Simpsons Arcade - I had brought up the "purchase" menu specifically because I was debating on whether or not I wanted to drop points on it. Unfortunately for me, I thought I had moved the cursor down to "Cancel" and blindly pushed the A Button without really paying attention and before I new it, The Simpsons Arcade was mine. Fortunately, The Simpsons Arcade ended up being a fairly good version of the game - Backbone Entertainment has typically become known for putting in the bare minimum of effort, leaving a bunch of games out there with bad sound emulation, blurry graphical filters and missing features. Here, Backbone has generously gone above and beyond to give you a host of options, including the ability to cycle through which region-locked version of the game you play. Plus, I mean, let's face it - this is the one game I never thought I'd ever see get an XBLA release, given the licensing quagmire behind it, but somehow, EA, Konami and FOX all came together to work things out. Good licensed games are few and far between, which makes it all the more sad that the few good licensed games will probably be forever lost, never to see the light of day ever again. It's great that we got The Simpsons Arcade at all.


It's perhaps a little unfair to list Hotline Miami here, considering I was just bought the game less than a week ago and don't have a PC to play it on. But given all of the buzz out there about how stylish and awesome this game is, I'm almost tempted to install it on this crummy laptop just to see if it'll run - it is, after all, a game created with Game Maker, a simple-to-use game creation toolkit (I'm more of a Multimedia Fusion man, myself). Having played other GM games before, it would probably run just fine on this Laptop - and I just barely skim the game's system requirements. If not, I'm sure it'll still be there by the time I can buy a HDD so I can finally get my desktop back up and running. And the sooner the better - I really need to buy Forza Horizon.

BEST GAME I BEAT THAT WASN'T RELEASED IN 2012: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PC)

Well it only took me three different installs and like seven years, but I finally finished Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I first bought the game back in 2005, and made it all the way up to the game's final mission before I lost my save file to a HDD catastrophe (which seems to be a reoccurring theme in my life). Over the years I started numerous save files, but only one finally brought me to the end of the game, making San Andreas the second GTA game I've ever beaten. And the best part is, I've already gotten the itch to start another new game and do it all over again. Of course, this has been a big year for clearing out my backlog, too - in particular, the completion of Saints Row 2 is a direct consequence of finishing San Andreas, as every time I'd come close to starting a new game on GTA:SA, I'd force myself to play Saints Row 2 instead.


Unsurprisingly, 99% of my multiplayer this year was still Left4Dead 2. Perhaps one of the worst things about not having access to my desktop is the fact I haven't been able to play with the crew in nearly three months. Do they even play Left4Dead 2 anymore? Did my leaving kill it? That's probably an egotistical assumption to make. And with the rush of Christmas, we always ended up playing a little less - Left4Dead 2 always thrived more in the summers, when there was nothing coming out. I hope everybody's still alright. There's some custom campaigns I want to play. Now I just sound like a doting parent, or something, but I'm serious when I say Left4Dead 2 is the only thing I ever consistently played multiplayer in these last two years. The runner-ups exist in this category because those are literally the only other two games I can remember signing on to Xbox Live for. Ever. At all.


So if you haven't picked up on it yet, my desktop is out of commission for at least another 2-6 weeks. Unfortunately, everything on it went bad literally the week before The Walking Dead: Episode 5 released, something that was a level of excruciating I can't even begin to communicate to you. I have very nearly hooked everything all back up and tried to boot in to the desktop one last time just to try and play it - but I can't work up the nerve to do so. At the very least, I'm going to need to boot in to my desktop to rescue my save file, but that shouldn't take more than a couple minutes, tops. As such, I have spent this last month and a half carefully avoiding any and all discussions about The Walking Dead's ending. Even Game of the Year discussions have set me on edge - when Patrick booted in to The Walking Dead yesterday on GiantBomb's GOTY video feature, I shut the video off before I even knew what episode they were playing, simply because I want to avoid any and all references that could even hint at what I'm missing out on right now. Hang on, Clementine - I'll be there soon. Well, y'know, eventually.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GCN)

Ever since buying it in 2006, the fact that I never finished Twilight Princess has hung over my head like a lead weight. I had gradually made it up to the game's penultimate dungeon - the Twilight Realm itself - before shelving the game eternally in 2008. So when my first HDD went, I spent my computer-less downtime starting a new game on Twilight Princess. The verdict? Tedium. Twilight Princess is an extremely atypical 3D Zelda experience - almost nothing was innovated upon. You know how most Zelda games give you some variant on the Hookshot? Twilight Princess subverts your expectations by giving you two hookshots. That's how little it cares. Instead, all of TP's effort has been shifted in to expanding the scale of everything else. Hyrule Field is now unnecessarily large, and even though you're given familiar quests, each one of them comes with a mile-long list of sub-objectives that slow the pace of the game down to a crawl and left me shouting at the TV, "JUST GET ON WITH IT!". Twilight Princess is a 75 hour game that could've easily been cut down to nearly half of that length and been better for it. And let's not even talk about the absolutely stupid final boss gauntlet, which phones it in harder than any Nintendo game I've ever seen. The one bright spot was Midna, who's impish sarcasm was a breath of fresh air for how stoic and boring the rest of the game was.

GAME OF THE YEAR 2012 RUNNER-UP: Dust: An Elysian Tail

As a budding game developer, the story of Dust: An Elysian Tail is inspiring. Here is a one-man-army game development team who basically sits down, creates his dream game, and actually does an incredibly good job at it. And, I mean, yeah: if you haven't played An Elysian Tail yet, you're missing out on one of the best games this year. Beautiful animation, a haunting soundtrack, and air-tight gameplay really elevate this title above most of the other dreck to come out this year. I've seen that some people have been turned off by the game's art style, which can bring to mind some of the more unsavory corners of the internet, but I don't really think that's Dust's fault. Put aside any misgivings you might have about the style of character and just play the game itself - you might be surprised, assuming you can force your brain to stop thinking about what the depraved do on the internet with... art like this.

GAME OF THE YEAR 2012: The Walking Dead (PC)

I don't need to play the 5th episode to tell you that The Walking Dead is my game of the year. After coming away from Back to the Future: The Game feeling kind of luke-warm and hearing about how abysmal Jurassic Park was, I was concerned for the future of Telltale Games. They say it gets darkest just before dawn, and that oddly rings true - The Walking Dead might just be the best thing Telltale has ever produced. The heart of Adventure Games isn't silly logic puzzles where you use honey and cat hair to make a mustache, it's in clever dialog and meaningful story progression. And that's what The Walking Dead does best, with an emphasis on defining your own path. While ultimately your choices don't make as much of a difference as you think they might, just enough changes that every decision feels important and emotionally resonant in a way few video games can hope to. My only concern now is that with stuff like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park being so hit-or-miss, that Telltale knows exactly what works best about The Walking Dead so they can iterate upon it for all of their future games (even ones that don't involve zombies and protecting little girls). I have faith that they do.

And so ends 2012. Good riddance, you horrible, awful year. Onwards towards the ominous sounding 2013, and the prospect of brighter futures.


* A special deal and/or gifted

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New Video Review: Trick or Treat 2012 Feature!


New video review, y’all! This is something I’ve actually mulled over doing literally for years, and never have gotten around to it. Basically, I pick a selection of free (or at least cheap) horror games you can play for Halloween and talk about them. I can't post it as a formal review here on GiantBomb for obvious reasons. The idea started as a blog series I wanted to write three or four years ago, but it’s one of those things I just never got around to doing. 

I almost didn’t do the video review - I had the idea to do it in September, with the intent on getting it out by the first or second week of October. But then I had to write reviews for Jet Set Radio, NiGHTS, and Sonic Adventure 2, and on top of that I did the Goosebumps livestream. And since nobody really cared all too much about Goosebumps, I was not feeling too terribly motivated.

But of course, I always go overboard for Halloween, so I decided “Eh, why not”. Because of that, this might’ve been the shortest turn around time for a video review since Sonic Unleashed. Sonic Unleashed was literally me going “I should do a video review!” at like, noon on a Monday, and by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning being finished. That means in around 48 hours I wrote a script, recorded VO, captured 4+ hours of gameplay footage, created intro and outro bumpers, and edited the whole mess together. When inspiration strikes, I am a mad man.

After talking it over with a friend, I made the decision to go ahead and make it on Wednesday or Thursday of last week. The original September rough outline of the video review was to feature ten games, but because of the tighter deadline, I cut it half. It’s a good thing, too - the video review as it stands now is 14 minutes long. Had I gone all the way with the full ten games, it probably would’ve been closer to 20-30 minutes, which would’ve been sort of insane.

So yeah. Go watch it. I’m super proud of how it turned out - and if you could, spread the word. I’m not quite sure how to advertise myself out there, so every little bit helps.
Happy Halloween!


The Vampire Jeff Goldblum PC Adventure Game [Livestream Archive]


I had intended to tell you guys before it actually happened but when it comes to promoting my own livestreams,  I make the really bad habit of forgetting where all to promote it. I tried posting it on places like Reddit, but it was my first and so far only post there, so it dropped like a rock and did not get a single upvote. It probably didn't help that I inexplicably chose the one day where it seemed like literally the whole entire internet was doing a livestream - I did not intend for it to overlap the Extra Life Charity stream, but that's just kind of what ended up happening and by the time I knew it was happening, it was too late for me to reschedule.
As such, I did not end up getting a downpour of viewers, but I did get more than a dozen, which given that I usually just stream for a few friends, is above average for me. It's a shame I didn't get more, though - the game I was streaming ( Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland) was probably the perfect length for such an endeavor. Coming in at two CDs in length, it is absolutely overflowing with live-action FMV, plenty of green screen antics, and stupid costumes. As a whole, the game lasted almost two and a half hours, making it ideal for finishing in a single sitting. Of course, I had a FAQ on another monitor for when I got stuck, so if you were playing this old-school-style, it might've lasted you significantly longer. That's in part because it totally does the 90's Adventure Game thing where there are items you have to pick up at the beginning of the game and carry with you all the way to the ending, basically. After a certain point you are not allowed any way to go back and get them if you do not already have them, meaning you'll very likely get to a point where you need them, do not have them, and cannot backtrack to where they are. 
Besides that, though, this game moves. You're never really in any one location for too long, and unlike something like say, Sam & Max or whatever, there's not much in the way of NPCs to hold conversations with - you play the mute 4th friend in a group of kids who get sucked in to Horrorland, a demonic amusement park full of monsters. What ensues is something like 7th Guest for kids, where you run in to werewolves, mummies, and vampires. Speaking of vampires... 
 "Now eventually you do plan on having VAMPIRES on your horrorland tour, right? Yes? Hello?"
In what can be best described as having lost a bet, Jeff Goldblum shows up near the end of the game as none other than Count Dracula himself. He hams it up with the best of them, while simultaneously looking as though he's struggling not to gag on his prosthetic fangsall while trying to seduce a 12 year old. No, seriously. Reportedly Steven Spielberg was involved in the creation of this Goosebumps game, and by relation that's how Goldblum signed on. It's a shame the plot itself isn't better - the game just kind of “ends”. Maybe there’s multiple endings for getting all of the trading cards or whatever, but the build up to and conclusion of the finale feels super convenient. One of the characters even basically says, “I don’t know how I did this, but I’m doing it!” as he saves the day and almost kinda winks at the camera as he says it.
But hey, at two hours long, I don't know how much I can complain. There's usually some station airing the Goosebumps TV series around Halloween and I've seen enough of that to know "conveniently everybody lives and then maybe something horrible happens at the last second but we never know for sure" is par for the course. It's breezy and silly enough that it's right up my alley for Halloween, and I can see myself going back to it every year (or two, probably).
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Final Thoughts: Black Mesa Source

It was more than a week ago that I left off with Black Mesa Source; I had a Jet Set Radio HD review to write, and I'm the kind of person whom, when there is work to be done, it's kind of all I can focus on. I more or less refused to let myself play anything other than Jet Set Radio HD until I was finished with my review, so with that finally out of the way, I started two things: preparing for my next video review (it's going to be a doozy if it pans out), and resuming Black Mesa Source.

 Delicious singularity

I wrote some preliminary words about the first three hours, but now that I've finished the game, I can definitively say...

This game is too difficult. There's a reason the default difficulty is "Easy", and that's because "Normal" difficulty is for crazy people - I can't even imagine how anybody would be able to contend with "Hard" mode.

People will tell you that Half-Life is not a run-and-gun game like Doom, or Quake, and that's absolutely true. It's actually rather remarkable just how tightly Black Mesa Source holds to the themes that separated the original game from the shooters of its era - and not only does it hold to them, it intensifies them. Half-Life was a much more logical, believable, and realistic game than shooters to come before it. It wasn't just a collection of maps, it was a living, breathing location. Whereas Quake would have a hallway because that makes good level design, Half-Life had hallways because that made real-world architectural sense. But it was still a video game, in a lot of ways. Black Mesa Source takes the sometimes-simplistic or still-slightly-nonsensical Half-Life maps and fully realizes them. Empty walls are now covered in what look to be functional electronics, and any questions of "Why is this thing here?" are answered because Black Mesa as a place makes more sense now.

That translates to characters, too. One of the best, most insignificant touches in this game is how Gordon himself becomes splattered with various fluids. In all of the Half-Life games, no matter what you do, your arms always stay in pristine condition. The walls could be splattered with blood or slime floor to ceiling and you are apparently still clean. In BM:S, close-encounters with aliens and humans alike leave marks not just on the environment, but on you, too. At some point it began producing this amazing mental image of a haggard and tired Gordon Freeman staggering in to the final Lambda laboratory a broken mess, covered in burns, bullet holes, and various unmentionable fluids ( sort of like this). It's that little extra touch of reality that goes a long way to grounding you in that world in a way the original version of Half-Life (or indeed, any version) did not.

But, perhaps in that transition, something about the world became too real. I had a few reactions around the web to my previous blog and my complaint that BM:S was too difficult. A lot of people told me that Half-Life was a game about being resourceful and making smart, tactical decisions - and that is absolutely, without a doubt true. But that's not Black Mesa Source, unfortunately.

 I suggest running.

Enemies often see you before you see them. That's a big problem, because most of them immediately start attacking. Before you even know what's happening, your health is dropping at an alarming rate, likely because these enemies are also far more accurate than you are - even though they are largely using the same weapons, somehow, 100% of their shots hit versus a 50% hit rate on your gun. You can hold a maximum of 150 rounds for your SMG/Pistol (they share the same ammo pool), and on Normal difficulty, it's not uncommon to waste a fourth of a clip on just one soldier. One soldier in a squad of at least five or more. And they all have total accuracy. Dealing with a scenario like that is just one giant headache in a way that it shouldn't be.

Remember: I am not some newbie, here. I have played the original Half-Life dozens of times; it is one of my favorite games basically ever. I know what Half-Life is "about". I know how to play the game "properly". And the strategies you used to get through HL1 on higher difficulties simply do not apply to BM:S. In my experience, the comparison between difficulty in HL1 and BM:S breaks down like this:

Some people have told me that they think this is okay, because for them, "Normal" difficulty in Half-Life felt too easy for them. That's kind of an arrogant thing to say - just because you've played a thousand hours of Half-Life does not mean you should raise the difficulty of Normal mode! If Normal is too easy, just bump it up to Hard mode, otherwise you're punishing the rest of the world just because you want more challenge at lower difficulties. Difficulty selectors exist to eliminate those problems, not exacerbate them - there was nothing more frustrating when growing up than a game with multiple difficulty settings that was still too hard no matter what it was set to.

Difficulty balance is the one thing nobody ever gets right, even the most talented indie game developers*. That's a not-so-sly segue to say that hey guess what: Black Mesa Source is really intelligently designed. A lot of that can be attributed to Valve's original concepts, but Black Mesa Source actually makes a ton of really smart improvements to the original maps that make everything way more obvious. In the original Half-Life, a lot of hazards were just implied - here, things like electrified water are more logically identified as such, and are far easier to avoid as a result (plus, the electrified water effect looks really cool). Puzzles with unclear solutions that required trial-and-error to solve have been greatly streamlined or tied in more tightly to the game's story so that - much like the level design itself - it just makes more sense

Unfortunately, this also generates a side effect: Black Mesa Source is missing a lot of things from the original Half-Life. In the process of streamlining, entire sections have been chopped out and either replaced with different set pieces, or have just been excised entirely. While generally the cuts are smart, there are a few iconic moments that have been lost in translation (the awesome vent sequence towards the end of the game with the soldiers no longer takes place). But the important thing to note here is that while the game is missing some content, rarely do you notice - there are no obvious "holes" where you can say, "oh they, cut that part". If somebody hadn't told me, I probably wouldn't have even noticed that things like the vent scene were gone.


I did not think I would say this, but I actually became legitimately sad when I finally reached the Lambda reactor core. I didn't want Black Mesa Source to end - for as much as everybody (myself included) loathes the alien-world, Xen, I wanted to go there, if only to see what the Black Mesa team did with it. And I'll be frank: I don't have high hopes that they'll ever get there. It took them five or six years just to do this much, and if what I've been hearing is true, they intend to extend Xen and practically turn it in to its own stand-alone game. If we ever get to play it, it'll be many years from now.

Some could say that's atypical for a Valve game, though - I think the only game they've ever made with a definitive, serious "ending" was Portal 2. But Half-Life 1 had its own weird cliffhanger in a completely separate way; here we're just left with a teaser of what might be and then left hanging for all eternity.

But at the end of the day, this is still a full length retail game. It's not everything I wanted, but it's still massively impressive. I just hope they continue to update the game between now and six years from now when Black Mesa: Xen releases.

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Impressions: The first three hours of Black Mesa: Source

 "Just one of those days, I guess."
So, after five or six years, Black Mesa: Source is finally released. It's not the entire game, mind you, but it's everything up to the part nobody actually likes to play (the alien world, Xen). So while it's not everything, it might as well be everything, and even if you're playing the numbers game, we're looking at probably close to 95% of the game. So, how is it?
Different. The easiest way to describe it is to relate to something else I've been playing for my first time: the original Resident Evil. The original Playstation game is goofy and kind of dated looking, but was sort of a landmark game for its time. When Capcom opted to remake Resident Evil for the Nintendo Gamecube, it was not a straight conversion - though the same basic structure of the game remained intact, puzzles were retooled, the storyline was made a little bit deeper, and the visual fidelity became much, much more rich. That's what we're looking at with Black Mesa Source: This is the game you remember, but enough about it is different that even if you've memorized the original Half-Life, this version still feels new, fresh, and exciting. 
 This thing looks TOTALLY safe!
In a lot of ways, its sort of impressive that this is a fanmade mod. The quality of the textures is phenomenal, and the amount of detail packed in to every single map is impressive. It almost feels like a retail game - if not for a couple of awkward animations and some hit-or-miss voice acting, anyway. Polish is generally very high, but it makes the few moments where the game lacks polish stick out even more - in particular there's a whole lengthy segment now before you get your crowbar where you have to use flares to set zombies on fire, and it just seems kind of awkward to me for several reasons - namely that zombies can be set on fire easier than basically everything else in the game world (including wood and paper), and the fact that fire interrupts anything a zombie is doing. While that's to be expected, in practice it looks kind of funky when a zombie is crouched over a dead scientist and then robotically snaps to his "oh no I am on fire" animation. Similarly, female scientists seem to have problems with regards to the way their hands animate - there's lots of ugly clipping problems, especially when they cross their arms. Relatively small things in the grand scheme of things, but all the more obvious when you consider how high quality literally every other part of this mod is.

I'm still undecided about the quality of the voice acting in BM:S. They have a very small pool of actors to pull from, and one of the biggest problems seems to be their adherence to specific "iconic" lines - their actors seem to be caught between reciting the line with same cadence of the original game and trying to put their own spin on it. The end result are lines that sound close to the original Half-Life dialog, but are just a little bit off - and never in a way that sounds appreciably better, just kind of... wrong. When the actors are given new dialog to play around with, however, everything is fine - and some of the new dialog is pretty good. My current favorite is something from earlier in the game:

Security Guard: "Oh, would you look at that! Freeman DID show up for work today! Looks like somebody owes me lunch." 
Scientist: "Ugh. Hello, Gordon."  
Security Guard: "Yep, yepyepyepyep... looks like there is a peperoni pizza in my near future." 
Scientist: "I hope you choke on it!"

 "Do you think you can come in on Mondaarrghhhhhh."

With a sense of humor still intact, BM:S also redoubles its efforts to make Half-Life feel like a horror game. It's easy to forget with how dated the original game feels, and how Half-Life 2 moved more towards orwellian overtones, but the original Half-Life started out playing kind of like a horror game. Ammo is scarce, and your friends are dying all around you - or worse, they're being turned in to unspeakable monsters. All hell has broken loose, and you're at the center of it. BM:S makes the Resonance Cascade feel dangerous again, though part of that is also due to rebalanced difficulty. 

If you played the original Half-Life on normal difficulty, you were in for a game that required stealth and a tactical advantage in order to win. After having played and re-played the original Half-Life on easy difficulty for years, sometime last year I decided to play through the game on normal and was angry with myself for missing out on it for so long. It was like a completely different game - one that required a great deal of thought in order to clear. The jury is still out on whether or not this has been accurately translated to Black Mesa Source - but my first encounter with the soldiers was one of frustration.

 Bullets! My one weakness! How did they know?!

These guys will chew you up and spit you out. They don't seem quite as mobile as the original soldiers, they don't communicate as much as to what they're doing, and once one of them gets a bead on you, you've only got a couple of seconds to get to cover before your entire supply of health and armor is gone. It feels a little overly difficult compared to the original game, which lead me to bump the difficulty of Black Mesa Source back down to easy mode again. Resources just feel too scarce for normal difficulty, and there are a couple of areas that put you a little too up close and personal with soldiers for me to feel comfortable. It doesn't need a ton of rebalancing, but it feels like it is just barely on the edge of being a little unfair. I've played quite a few shooters, and a metric TON of Half-Life in particular, and it just feels like I shouldn't be having this much trouble.

In general, though, BM:S is making a very strong first impression. I almost kind of wish Valve had picked these guys up - with some extra resources and the guiding hand of a multi-million dollar game developer, the few rough edges in BM:S would have been buffed out and I'd have nothing to complain about. Then again, my complaints are generally small things that are easily forgotten for how absolutely great everything else about this mod has been so far. It doesn't even really feel like a mod; this could very well be a retail game, and while it's not all of Half-Life, we're looking at something that will easily last you 7-10 hours.

It's not often you get to play something like this. Check it out, folks. 


The Odd Tale of Why You Shouldn't Buy Stranger's Wrath on PC

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath was, if you asked the right people, the "secret best" Xbox game. In the day when first person shooters were Halo, Half-Life, and Call of Duty clones, Stranger etched out his own unique gameplay, with an eclectic mixture of platforming, shooting, and exploration, all set in the backdrop of an alien wild west.  It had the unfortunate luck of hitting right before being swallowed up by the looming shadow of the Xbox 360; a game seemingly lost to the ages, not supported by the Xbox's backwards compatibility because by the time that became a "thing", Oddworld Inhabitants' own Lorne Lanning had washed his hands of the videogame industry. Stranger's Wrath was his swan song, and with Oddworld Inhabitants having closed shop, any hope of Stranger appearing on any console but the original Xbox was basically impossible. Almost immediately, the Xbox was pushed in to a shallow grave and summarily buried - and so too was Stranger's Wrath, albeit unintentionally.

That was going to change, when in 2009, a company based out of England called " Just Add Water Developments" (or JAW for short) announced they had acquired the rights to port Stranger's Wrath not only to the Playstation 3, but most importantly the PC, as well. Their port would feature upgraded, modern graphics, achievements and other amenities. Stranger was given a second lease on life - and I viewed this as my opportunity to finally see what Stranger's Wrath was for myself. What felt like years went by, with only a few concept renders being released, showing that their new Stranger's Wrath HD assets not only matched, but possibly even surpassed the visual quality seen in Stranger's pre-rendered full motion video. Beyond that, there was nothing. No gameplay footage, no screenshots. Nothing at all.

Sometime in 2010, it was finally revealed that not only would Stranger's Wrath be coming to the PC, but that JAW would also be bringing with it a first-time PC port of Munch's Oddysee, which would be outsourced to a different porting team. Both Stranger and Munch would be bundled together with the previous two PC releases of Abe's Oddysee and Exodus, forming the four-game "Oddbox". In addition to all of that, JAW was now apparently the sole proprietor of the entire Oddworld franchise, and would be making announcements for a brand new Oddworld game "soon". I had owned Abe's Oddysee on the Playstation in my younger days but found the game too difficult and sold it to buy Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It was one of the only times in my entire life I had actually took some games in to a used game place and got cash for it, and it very quickly taught me that despite walking in there with like six or seven Playstation and Saturn games, I would barely get enough money to cover the purchase of one (heavily discounted and pre-owned!) game in return. That was fine, I was at an age where I saw games like Abe's Oddysee (and other games broken from the Prince of Persia mold) as being archaic and busted in the face of much easier to control platformers like Super Mario Bros. Being rid of it was no skin off my back, though as I grew older, I really began to wish I could go back and revisit the game. With the Oddbox, I could kill four birds with one stone and be caught up on the entire Oddworld legacy. The Oddbox finally dropped just before Christmas 2010, and sight unseen, I not only bought a copy for myself, but even gifted Stranger's Wrath to a couple of friends. This, I thought, was going to be awesome.

And then it wasn't.
The first and most immediate problem was that of performance. Despite being a five year old console game, Just Add Water's port of Stranger's Wrath was not friendly to aging PCs. My PC hardware at the time wasn't exactly the greatest - I was poking along with a 3.2ghz Intel Celeron processor and a GeForce 6600, and at the game's default resolution (640x480), I was getting single digit framerates. The game was simply unplayable. To put this in perspective, however, the Xbox was running hardware from 2001 - while the PC I was running was dated by 2010 standards, it was at least  five times more powerful than the system that Stranger's Wrath originally launched on in 2005, and I was getting single digit framerates. No graphical options were available to tweak, save for one single variable upon starting up the game that let you set the game's resolution (with only three settings: "Low", "Medium", "High" and "Ultra", with no indication as to what resolutions those options corresponded to). JAW sounded off, stating that their in-office testing PC, a dual-core system with a GeForce 8600, could run the game in 1024x768 at 30fps, and they felt that was more than adequate, even smugly noting that there were those on Youtube that were "jumping to their defense".

Obviously, others didn't. After many complaints and patches, Stranger's Wrath finally had a proper menu for setting the game's resolution and a moderate boost in performance. As it turned out, the entire problem was something endemic to the Xbox hardware. You see, the first Xbox was basically just a bunch of off-the-shelf PC hardware thrown in to a box and called a videogame console. Games on the Xbox even ran on a specialized version of Direct X - one that was similar, but not identical, to the one being used by Windows at the time. Thinking they were similar enough that it wouldn't matter, JAW made the boneheaded decision of porting Stranger's Wrath over more or less verbatim, with much of the original Xbox shader code still intact. When that shader code began looking for specific functionality that existed on the nearly decade-old Xbox hardware but was no longer available on modern-day PCs, the game began to suffer from crippling, unplayable slowdown. A few of the worst offending shaders were identified and summarily re-written, and the game's framerate more than doubled. Stranger's Wrath still wasn't running as smoothly as one would expect a five year old game to, but it was running well enough for most. 

Unless you were on Radeon hardware. And when I upgraded my PC in April 2011, I switched from a GeForce to a Radeon.

Stranger suffers some pretty bad transparency issues on Radeon hardware
Just Add Water had ported Stranger's Wrath to OpenGL. In recent years, OpenGL has fallen out of favor with some; there were questions as to whether or not it would even be supported in Windows Vista, as Direct X was primarily the 3D rendering solution supported by that operating system. Still, some held on to OpenGL, and the graphics rendering format is still popular enough that iD Software's Rage displays using OpenGL. But if there was somebody out there who really did not like meeting OpenGL standards, it was AMD. AMD's Radeon graphics cards have had issues rendering OpenGL for years, and despite cries from consumers and developers alike to get their act together and fix it, they refuse to stick to the OpenGL specification. This causes incompatibility problems with some games - Rage launched more or less broken on Radeon hardware, and given that Stranger's Wrath was ported to OpenGL, it too was basically unplayable on Radeon graphics cards. When confronted about this issue, JAW stated they got in contact with the Radeon tech team about the matter, pointed out what exactly was wrong with their OpenGL support, and were summarily given the cold shoulder. Rather than go in and write specific compatibility for Radeon graphics hardware, JAW opted to let their game stay broken, citing Rage's example and how id Software apparently never patched their game to work Radeon hardware either ( see this NeoGAF post by the JAW CEO under the name "GoldenHelmet").

Except Rage was eventually patched to work on Radeon hardware.
 Stranger's Wrath wasn't.

You'd never know it judging by the Just Add Water twitter account, which very quickly shifted gears to talk about other subjects. JAW also took it upon themselves to handle tech support for the equally botched PC release of Munch's Oddysee (so botched that the initial release even contained menus prompting users to "Exit to Xbox Dashboard"). JAW would eventually vow to do an HD touch-up for Munch's Oddysee, much like the one they were doing for Stranger, and on top of that, their promise of a "New Oddworld Game" was fulfilled with the announcement of a full HD reboot for Abe's Oddysee at some point in the indeterminate future. Stranger's Wrath HD was released on the Playstation 3 to critical acclaim, something JAW celebrated on their twitter account for months after release. A Vita version of Stranger was announced. Supposedly, the PC update that would enable all of the Playstation 3's HD remastered visuals would come with a complete Direct X re-write of the game, fixing the previously noted OpenGL graphics corruption. But when would that be? Days passed. Weeks passed. Months passed. No update on the PC version.
But there was still hope. A tweet revealed JAW had an announcement to make on Wednesday. Today. Stranger's Wrath's long-awaited update would, just five months shy of two years, be finally coming to the PC. Right? Maybe?

At 10:32pm in England, the JAW twitter account updated to say that there would be no announcement made on account of the staff being overcome with "illness". What exactly would this announcement have entailed, production-wise, that would be so stressful on potentially sick staffers? And if they were so sick as to delay this announcement, what were they doing on twitter at 10:30 at night? Wouldn't it have been prudent to send a "sorry, not today" message out before it was approaching midnight if you knew ahead of time that you would be too ill to push out the announcement? And are you seriously going to tell me that this sickness has seriously laid out every single person on staff at JAW to such a degree that nobody could make the announcement? Somebody over there was well enough to be using Twitter. Was nothing prepared ahead of time?

While I've spent the majority of this blog talking about Stranger's Wrath being busted all of this time, it's also worth mentioning that both Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exodus also immediately crash on start up, likely because they are 15 year old PC games that run in 256 colors mode and were never updated to run on anything newer than Windows 98. Despite this, they continue to be sold for cash money on Steam despite the fact they are totally and completely unplayable without installing some kind of unsanctioned, third-party hack that forces them to run in windowed mode. This isn't even considering Munch's Oddysee, which due to the frustration I've experienced with the whole rest of the "Oddbox" package, I haven't even bothered to try and install because I'm pretty sure that it also will not work.

I'm usually a pretty patient guy - especially when it comes to hassling companies and corporations; I just don't usually care enough to deal with the zombie trapped in a phone tree maze just so my complaints can get ignored by somebody who doesn't see my problem in his binder full of pre-scripted solutions and therefore does not care. But my patience is gone. I paid for four games almost two years ago, and 3/4 of those games don't work, and have never worked. It is patently ridiculous. At this point, I legitimately feel like JAW owes me a lot more than simply a stupid patch, because they have wasted both my money and a staggeringly massive amount of my time.  In the time it has taken them to make this Stranger's Wrath PC patch, studios have developed and released whole entire games from scratch. When put in that perspective, I am flabbergasted.
I advise you to think twice before you dare buy anything that features the "Just Add Water LTD" logo.

SSX (2012) Demo Impressions


So the SSX 2012 demo dropped today. It's pretty cool, I guess. You can see me running through the demo for my first time in the video above (or if that doesn't work for some reason, click here), and at the end I play a little bit of SSX3 (and fail pretty bad at it - I was pretty rusty, and the controls for SSX 2012 were throwing me off a bit on top of that). 
Tricks are way easier to pull off than in previous SSX games - you'll be doing wild spins and flips in no time. It's way more forgiving with what it'll let you successfully land, but it's definitely not "easy" - if you genuinely goof up, the game will fault you for it in a big way. SSX3's "tap the button to get up faster" system isn't here, so you could end up tumbling down a pretty significant chunk of the mountain before your rider gets up and back on his board.
The most immediate change is the trick system - by default, it controls similar to Skate's "trick stick" system. Traditional SSX controls usually have you jump with the A button, boost with the X button, and use the d-pad for flips and spins. Spins and flips had to be pre-loaded, too, almost like an ATV racing game. The new SSX has the same "flick the stick" concept for everything from jumps to flips and grabs, though it lets you use the face buttons, too. R trigger is for boost, and L trigger is for snapping to grindable ridges. The tutorial at the start begins by mentioning there's a "classic controls" option for SSX veterans. too.
Achieving "Tricky" status is a lot easier, too, but by that same vein, you LOSE it a lot faster, too. In the single race event in the demo, you can achieve and lose "Tricky" status a dozen times if you can't keep a combo going. It's all about more rewards and more risks. 
Leaderboard integration is cool. Without even having to tell it, SSX downloaded and had me face off against time trial ghosts from guys on my friends list. I really appreciate stuff like that, and more games need to adopt this kind of system. I can imagine something like Trackmania really benefiting from this concept - but by that same token, I can see this being the kind of feature that only really thrives on the consoles. I have Need For Speed Hot Pursuit for the PC, and my Autolog is a ghost town because the game has its own separate friends list from Steam or Games For Windows Live. For leaderboard systems like SSX's to thrive, there needs to be more cross-pollination between friends lists, because the bigger pool you can pull from, the better.
The only major issue I have with the SSX demo is rider controls. Tricking's easy as pie, but steering your dude when he's carving up the snow is squirrelly and sluggish. You might see in the video that I'm constantly zig-zagging back and forth a lot, and that's because it was difficult for me to get a bead on how tight I needed to turn to get my guy to react. That might not be an issue once I get used to it, but for now it feels laggy and I don't like it.
The second major issue, of course, is the fact that for a demo already so deeply hooked in to leaderboard stuff, they make you watch the stupid trailer and do the five minute long tutorial every single time you boot up the game. I realize this is a demo and all, but it is basically the world's longest and worst "BUY THE FULL GAME!" nag screen. That's not helping your product, EA. If you're going to give me reasons to play your demo more than once, don't make it such a frustrating, tedious endeavor to get back in to it.

Breaking news: Microsoft shows competency (Re: Dashboard update)

Ladies and gentlemen, I will just not shut the hell up about the Xbox 360 dashboard. There was an update yesterday morning, and I feel like I have to say something about it, given that my previous statements on the subject were, to quote, " this is bad enough that it almost seems like you're deliberately sabotaging yourselves, Microsoft."
Somebody out there was listening. To me specifically? Probably not. But I was hardly the only voice. While the display issues with certain apps does not seem to have been corrected, yesterday's Xbox Dashboard patch has seemingly redesigned a significant portion of the Game Marketplace. 

 The old dash (top) vs. the new dash (bottom).
What a world of difference! One of my main complaints of the old game marketplace was the fact that icons were all a random jumble of unrelated garbage - you had some icons that were like Windows icons in green squares, you had some icons that were random unrelated clip-art, and there were too many "clicks" standing in the way of you getting to the categorization options you wanted to get to. Now, everything makes a lot more sense. We lose sorting options like "Most Popular" and sorting by Genre, but now Xbox Live Arcade, Games On Demand, and Xbox Indie games are out in the open, no longer held hostage by the weird Parkour Girl. When icons deviate from the standard Xbox "green background and white pictograph" image, they're showing the best-selling products in their section - Castle Crashers, Halo Reach, and (ugh) FortressCraft. It's smart, it's focused, and it's the way it should've been to begin with (though given Microsoft's deal with Mojang for Minecraft on Xbox Live Arcade, I have to wonder how they feel about FortressCraft getting billing like that). Similar improvements have been made across the rest of the Marketplace:
Holy organization, Batman.
Unlike with the games tab, where we lost sorting options in favor of exposing certain game types better, the add-ons section loses nothing but gains a ton of readability. System functions are clearly identified and grouped together, though the "subscriptions" tab is still off by its little lonesome there on the right - but I can't imagine a good place to put that myself, so it's fine. Again, this is exactly the way the dashboard should have looked when the update launched. It finally makes the whole thing feel cohesive; there's no more stopping and having to think about what might be an advertisement or a promotion - it's all properly organized and completely obvious, even at a glance. 
Of course, I don't have to go through every section of the game marketplace, because it's all like this now. Microsoft deserves at least a little pat on the back; they took what used to be a slight trainwreck and made it workable. It's still not quite as good as it could be, of course, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.