The Crying Game

It's not often that I get to feel a sense of pride (however misplaced) over my own stubbornness and rigid mindset, but methinks this compilation video of miserably failed attempts at clearing a single wave of enemies in Splinter Cell: Blacklist on Realistic difficulty using only a stun gun turned out rather nicely. Any sensible person would probably have used various gadgets - not to mention some, eh, actual stealth tactics - while still keeping the whole thing strictly non-lethal, but I restricted myself to the stun gun with its infuriating projectile arc and overall lack of speed. I eventually made it through wave 1-5 (out of 20 in this Horde Mode-inspired side mission) and was thus able to "cash out" and save my progress, but the process required almost 3 hours of laborious trial-and-error. The worst thing about it? I kinda liked it...

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Some thoughts on Blacklist, The Bureau and Saints Row IV

By virtue of being a Tom Clancy spin-off, Splinter Cell as a stealth series has for a long time been balancing precariously on the edge between the amoral universe of global espionage one the one hand and the nationalist echo chamber of something like Call of Duty on the other. 2010's silly but effective Splinter Cell: Conviction temporarily ditched the whole government agent framework in favor of a bombastic anti-hero epic with a more emotional core to the proceedings, but in Blacklist we are back to defending America in an official capacity again. Sam Fisher's return to the fold is especially noteworthy since a Mass Effect-style mission hub has been introduced which allows the deadly escape artist formerly voiced by Michael Ironside to purchase upgrades, take on optional missions, chat with crew members etc.

The actual gameplay is supposed to allow for both a purist stealth experience and a more action-heavy (or at least lethal) approach depending on the player's preferences and tactical assessments, but personally I'm more interested in whether Blacklist can deliver memorable environments and situations to warrant the typically slow pace. Hitman: Absolution was breathtakingly good at this, and I somehow doubt that the new Splinter Cell can top IO's underrated gem in that department given the more generic military operations which the subject matter seems to demand. So far I've mostly been focusing on the short but sweet side missions, and the contrived but effective mechanic of rewarding good performance with in-game cash (which is used for upgrades and character customization between assignments) definitely serves as an important incentive to handle every mission as flawlessly as possible. Sure, I do curse at the screen like a drunken sailor when things go horribly wrong ("brute stealth" would be an appropriate term for my clumsy trial-and-error approach to stealth), but finally getting to that wonderful moment when I know the level by heart and can nail a more or less flawless Ghost score is an immensely satisfying experience.

The XCOM strategy reboot from Firaxis is a game I respect more than I like. It was a slick, thoughtfully streamlined reimagining of the Jullian Gollop classic alright, but I ultimately found the new formula too predictable and linear and never bothered playing through the entirety of the campaign. However, the somewhat ironic side effect of Enemy Unknown's generally positive reception is that the troubled tactical XCOM shooter from 2K Marin lost some of its potential to enrage the throngs of entitled conservative miscreants we refer collectively to as the "gaming community". With Firaxis already having delivered (in many people's opinions) a "true" reboot of the franchise, the Mariners were in a slightly better position to just go off in whatever direction they chose to. Sadly, they seemed unable to decide on a path altogether, and for a long time it wasn't even clear whether the game was still in development or not.

Now The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has finally materialized (the same week as Deep Silver put out Saints Row IV and Ubisoft unleashed Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which can't be good for 2K). Judging by the first few missions it appears to be a decent squad-based shooter with a functional Mass Effect-style tactical element and some upgrades and optional side missions thrown in for good measure. The 1960s art design is a nice touch but seems rather inconsequential in the large scheme of things, and I already get the feeling that The Bureau will never be able to fully justify its own existence (let alone offer a compelling argument for why it's even an XCOM game to begin with). What I have noticed so far is that the game can be rather challenging on the higher difficulty settings since the combination of an initially limited array of combat abilities, incompetent squad AI and a survival horror-esque lack of ammo makes for a very unforgiving experience. I wouldn't be surprised if a maxed-out party with better gear leads to significant shifts in the balance of power later on, though.

Saints Row III was a decidedly average open world game with rudimentary shooting mechanics, boring side activities and a depressingly generic urban setting but the sharp writing and anarchic humor charmed a lot of people (myself partially included) and now the inevitable follow-up has arrived. This could probably just as well have been called "Saints Row 3.5" since most of the major features of the last entry in the series are back. Even though the game is ostensibly set in a virtual reality created by evil alien overlords (!), it all both looks, sounds and feels eerily familiar for those of us who played SR3. The extravagant, aptly named "superpowers" are a welcome Crackdown-inspired addition to the formula but the character upgrades, customization and mission structure are all things we have seen before. As for the script, it has so far been dominated by spoofs of Matrix, Independence Day and Armageddon (which at this point are old enough movies that a not insignificant part of the target audience might not even have seen them).

Perversely enough, I found Saints Row 3 to be most effective whenever it stopped trying so hard to be absolutely insane and instead focused on telling a surprisingly affecting (indeed, almost Houserian) story of friendship and loyalty between the gang members, and it remains to be seen if SR4 can match these high points. If not, I'm at least hoping that the game might include one or two moments which are as funny as the mission with the tiger in SR3 (which would be no mean feat, either).

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Bullet the Blue Sky: Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite [SPOILERS]

Note: While I don't normally believe in "spoilers", Bioshock Infinite is intentionally designed as a riddle wrapped up in an enigma so I guess it's only fair to say that some (relatively minor) story details will be "spoiled" in this article.

Party Like It's 1912

Just like the rest of the known universe I was anxiously awaiting the release of Irrational's new shooter Bioshock Infinite earlier this week. While the original Bioshock could never match System Shock 2's finely tuned mechanics - and the reuse of specific plot twists was jarring to say the least - the former was still a confident and mature game in its own right which wrestled bravely with political philosophy and provided clever meta-commentary on gaming itself. Despite the lack of RPG components and clumsy shooter controls, Irrational's 2007 shooter raised the bar considerably when it comes to world building and narrative sophistication in games.

After having played through Infinite, it's clear that Ken Levine and his hard-working minions at least got one of those things right for the sequel as well. To an even greater extent than the original Bioshock, Infinite's true appeal comes from the often incredible level design (arguably far more impressive than anything a technically more advanced title such as Crysis 3 has to offer). While Irrational's multi-platform release was clearly designed with currentgen consoles in mind, the gleaming facades of this Belle Epoque utopia simply look amazing (and the increased resolution when playing on a PC couldn't be more welcome). Infinite keeps throwing stunning vistas at the player throughout the 10+ hour campaign and you can take almost any random piece of in-game footage, print it out and frame it on a wall for non-gamer friends and relatives to gawk at.

Still in Kansas, Dorothy

In the gameplay departement, however, things are decidedly more mundane. Infinite's combat is decent but neither as satisfying as the best shooters out there nor as original as the very similar system used in its predecessor(s). The various rifles, shotguns and RPGs in Booker's arsenal certainly get the job done - not to mention make a pleasing amount of noise when fired - but the gunplay ultimately lacks the tactile precision of a Halo or a Battlefield. The Vigors are refined plasmids and that's nice and all but not the cool new thing that the plasmids were in Bioshock 1 half a decade ago. I also found the recommended Hard difficulty to be annoying because of enemies suffering from a bad case of BSS (Bullet Sponge Syndrome), frequent ammo shortages and some problems with getting a good overview of the action. The environments you fight in are quite large and it can be challenging to see who exactly is firing at you from what position, and I almost found myself wishing for a third-person cover system or something similar. I rarely used the sniper rifle, though, and it's not inconceivable that methodically picking guys off from a distance would have been preferrable to charging in guns/vigors blazing. The sky-hook is brilliant, but mostly because it showcases the incredibly expansive level design and really brings home the fact that in constructing Columbia Irrational cut no corners even where it would have been more than reasonable to do so.

Even outside of combat there are few meaningful innovations to the FPS formula in Irrational's latest title, and it's difficult to escape the feeling that some conventional solutions have seen better days. In particular, the heavy (if theoretically optional) emphasis on methodically searching the environment for stuff (ammo, cash and other resources) is getting really old by now. Even though it stimulates our innate foraging instinct, the mundane act of distinguishing interactive objects from non-interactive objects was always a peculiar art form which (at least in its current version) should have died out after the early point & click adventures. Apart from being a clumsy and superficial way of trying to immerse the player in the world, my own intermittent OCD tendencies tend to distract me from the experience when there's an ever-present risk of missing some of these often superfluous or sometimes even meaningless collectibles. This was a problem in Tomb Raider as well, which got the traversal mechanics just right but sadly confused the joy of exploration with the pursuit of property. And those audio logs which were clever in 2001 and acceptable if slightly artifical in 2007 have by now become lazy and almost comically contrived; to the point that they arguably do more to highlight the genre's long-established lack of meaningful interaction with the world than involve you in the story and characters. In short, I think it's time to start demanding that all seriously story-oriented FPS try harder to escape the confines of corridor shooters and embrace interactivity in a more meaningful way.

Infinite's one supposed innovation is the character of Elizabeth, who turns out to be a decent enough sidekick (unfortunate damsel-in-distress tendencies notwithstanding) and a lot of tireless scripting and sculpting has clearly gone into producing all the optional little activities and idle animations she's up to when there's nothing better to do. In stark contrast to many reviewers, however, I never once felt that her behavior approximated a real person to a significantly greater degree than similar NPCs in other games. To accomplish such wonders would have required an inordinate amount of additional content and advanced AI routines to ensure that Elizabeth reacts naturally to Booker's every move and takes initiatives at exactly the right time etc. At least with the technology we have today, that kind of realism isn't remotely feasible (and perhaps not even desirable), and I mention this only because the developers have boasted about their accomplishments in this regard. It's a job well done, for sure, but in the end it didn't amount to quite as much as Irrational claimed it would.

Tear me a new one

The story starts out promising but about halfway through it sadly degenerates into a convoluted science fiction mess - far worse than Mass Effect 3's ending as far as I'm concerned - and fails to resonate on an emotional level despite all the hard work that went into creating a bond between the player and Elizabeth. Without going into specific narrative twists and turns - not because I'm worried about spoilers or too puzzled by the events in question but because I simply couldn't care less about them - suffice it to say that the plot ultimately hinges on various complicated theoretical concepts which are far removed from our everyday experience. I really appreciate just how openly Bioshock Infinite acknowledges that everything is not what it first appears to be, but in the end the story's increasing emphasis on the truth behind the game's manifest image comes off as misguided. As the writing and Booker/Elizabeth's quest gets increasingly esoteric the story stops being about the city of Columbia with its seductive but ultimately despicable ideology and disgusting power dynamics. And in a game that's ultimately going to be remembered for its impeccable art design and the first hour's haunting yet resplendent representation of American fascism, that's just inexcusable.

In the discordant heap of separate time lines and isolated vignettes that results from Levine's loose interpretation of "plot", many intriguing possibilities are left unexplored and some really questionable narrative decisions are made. For example, I think it would have been much more awesome - yet still disturbing and ambiguous in all the right ways - to have the player be truly involved in (and not just briefly crossing paths with) the bloody Vox Populi uprising; taking over street after street from the Founder militia as Comstock's ideological infrastructure gradually breaks down and the once-ruling class suffers at the hands of the rebels (there's of course some of that in the game, but it's presented in a fragmented and detached manner). There would have been ample opportunity to question the degrading violence inherent in Daisy Fitzroy's glorious revolution while at the same time painting a much less one-dimensional picture of the rebel leadership. Ken Levine makes a very unconvincing case for some kind of sad moral equivalence between the two opposing leaders, and has been pointed out by John Teti among others there's a Rockstar-like "Nihilism Lite" at work here which frankly feels like a cop-out and a cowardly refusal to take a definitive stand on the issues. After all, Fitzroy's Voice of the People pamphlet supposedly calls for some worthy, distinctly democratic political reforms and does not appear to be a twisted mirror image of Comstock's Words of the Prophet with its Christian triumphalism and white supremacist creed. Politicians of every persuasion and perversion do indeed try to sell us a lot of bullshit, but to reduce it all to Machiavellian rhetoric used to disguise naked self-interest (with a bit of raving lunacy thrown in for good measure) is reductionist in the extreme. In the end it does matter a great deal whether what you're peddling is institutionalized racism or worker's rights; and I for one refuse to believe that the relationship between ideology and behavior is as tenuous as Levine seems to suggest.

Last Words

Artistically speaking, Bioshock Infinite is probably the best-looking game ever made and as such deserves to be experienced by all fans of immersive action games. It's very hard not to be impressed by what Infinite does right, and it's only because the game is such a big deal in the industry this year (both in terms of development costs, marketing budget and the overall level of hype) that it's really fair to criticize it for not going further and achieving more.

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A Confident Epic: Some Thoughts on Assassin's Creed III

Since the Xbox 360/PS3 release of Assassin's Creed III a few weeks ago there's been sort of a backlash against Ubisoft's latest open world action adventure, and by now the conventional wisdom seems to be that AC3 is somewhat of a disappointment and possibly even the worst game in the series (if only by a little). I have always had a love-hate relationship with Assassin's Creed - more of the latter than the former, to be honest - and playing through AC3's campaign in the console version I definitely had many of the same issues with the game's restrictive, dull level design and superfluous side activities as a lot of other players have struggled with. However, there were also parts of the epic if uneven storyline as well as the detailed, sprawling game world which truly impressed me, and it would be a shame if those strengths were ultimately overshadowed by the comparatively lukewarm reaction (i.e. by the insane standards of much-anticipated AAA releases) to the game as a whole.

In particular, Haytham Kenway is one of the best-written and most memorable acted anti-heroes I've ever encountered in a video game, and Adrian Hough deserves a medal or something for the bone-chilling voice work which brings this fascinating character alive. For narrative purposes his motives and behavior becomes more distasteful and cartoonish as the story moves on, but at its best the writing portrays Kenway as a mysterious, complex and multifaceted personality with an uncompromising and provocative but still uncannily ethical (or at least principled) vision of man's place in the world. Throughout the Assassin's Creed series there's always been this annoying, unconvincing vagueness about the supposed central philosophical division between Templars and Assassins (for example, what do the terms "freedom" and "tyranny" being thrown around by the good guys really mean in this context?), and even if AC3 doesn't exactly resolve this issue it becomes a lot more manageable due to the clear ideological presence of Kenyway. At least to me, the snarky and scheming Brit resembles some spirited caricature of a Straussian neo-conservative more than he does a stereotypical Manichean video game bad guy...and that's definitely a step in the right direction (not to mention curiously seductive to people like me who occasionally exhibit small-c conservative and elitist tendencies). Indeed, even though there have been attempts to blur the moral lines between Templars and Assassins before it's only with the introduction of Kenway that I truly felt a desire to abandon the romantic idealist fools and join the Devil's party for the good of mankind.

What saddens me the most about the AC3 bashing is that so much vitriol has been directed at the game's deliberately paced prologue, which takes about five hours to complete before the player gets to control the grown-up main protagonist Connor and do all the hunting and assassination stuff being advertised in Ubisoft's pre-release trailer campaign. While the tutorial sections which constitute the actual gameplay parts of the introduction do grow tiresome over time, I think Ubisoft should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to set the scene for the upcoming Templar/Assassin struggle and make very significant narrative investments for the story's second and third acts. In a MTV-primed media world which have made attention deficit disorder freaks of us all, there's something refreshing and bold about a game developer which insists that, yes, you're going to have to invest some time and effort and get to know the world and its characters since doing so will make you invested and immersed in a way that's simply not possible with, say, a mere half hour of semi-interactive intros. Furthermore, the game's prologue is arguably more focused and compelling than the entire rest of the game, which - with the exception of a hilarious Kenway-oriented "buddy film" section about two thirds in seems too preoccupied with retconning the American revolutionary war by inserting Connor at every historically important moment to bother telling a compelling, coherent and seamlessly integrated story.

That being said, once AC3 opens up it does offer what's arguably the most enjoyable game world to explore since Skyrim (although I have a feeling the upcoming, warmly received Far Cry 3 might soon steal the show in that regard), and the bar has definitely been raised as far as depicting interesting non-urban areas to roam around in. Too bad, then, that the actual main missions are so rigidly constructed and infuriatingly unforgiving and the combat remains as dumbed-down as it is meticulously animated. On a purely analytical level I do agree with the majority opinion that Brotherhood is the best AC game thus far in terms of game mechanics and overall structure, but from a personal perspective I simply had more fun playing the original Assassin's Creed (which, despite its flaws, was at least fresh and innovative for its time) and the latest problematic yet staggeringly ambitious installment in the series.

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Amnesia: A curiously relaxing horror game

Inspired by the Giant Bomb podcast discussion following Patrick Klepeck's recent playthrough of the game, I decided to finally start making my way through indie developer Frictional Games' celebrated survival horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I bought when it came out two years ago but for some reason never got around to at the time. Although I have certainly been at least moderately frightened by various horror titles in the past (and YouTube is full of "watch-this-kid-scream" reaction clips featuring this particular game), Amnesia honestly doesn't scare me at all. To be fair, the gothic environments are atmospheric and the game artfully maintains the illusion that grisly monsters could emerge from the dark shadows at any point. Crucially, however, the somewhat Lovecraftian enemies aren't nearly as scary to the player as they are to the slightly unhinged protagonist himself, and these creatures all too soon (not to mention all too often) reveal themselves to the player in all their low-polygonal monster mundaneness, instead of remaining a more intangible but distinctly unnerving threat lurking in the dark corners of Castle Brennenburg (which would have made the game better). Not giving the player any combat abilities was undoubtedly a clever design decision, but in practice the gameplay soon becomes very focused on a few core procedures (i.e. methodically searching rooms for valuable objects and hiding once in a while to avoid detection) rather than on being immersed in any kind of sustained state of anxiety and horror. And while the sound design is great from a purely technical standpoint, the supposedly spooky noises and sudden outbursts of the game's predictably dissonant score are simply not original, unexpected or eerie enough to catch me off-guard. Disappointingly enough, even the infamous water monster scene (assuming it's the one I think it is) turned out to be a lot more silly and annoying than it was scary.

I must admit that I'm a little puzzled as to why Amnesia has garnered such a reputation for being unusually frightening. A partial explanation for the praise of the game as an almost overpowering experience could be the fact that many younger players (i.e. people below 30) simply aren't accustomed to survival horror as a distinct genre. Self-described genre fans such as Patrick Klepeck aside, an ever-increasing percentage of players got into gaming only after the Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark series began their transformations into decidedly more action-focused affairs. These poor impressionable youths were presumably not prepared for the kind of slow-paced, unabashedly action-free gameplay which Amnesia delivers, but which isn't that exceptional in the context of the genre as a whole.

But even though other games such as System Shock 2, good old Silent Hill 1 (which I played for the first time relatively recently and was genuinely freaked out by) and arguably even some of the more cerebral titles such as Pathologic are ultimately superior as far as horror experiences go, Amnesia still provides some pretty neat gameplay which manages to keep the player engaged via atmospheric exploration, compulsive scavenging and simple but at least moderately engaging puzzles. Taking care to check every chest and drawer in the vicinity is almost always rewarding the player with additional items (mostly oil for your lantern and tinderboxes) or a bit of optional lore, and there's generally a nice balance between moments when you're simply exploring and other times when skillfully avoiding enemies is the primary concern. So while Amnesia doesn't make me scream (even in a good way), I'm still having fun with it. Indeed, you might even call the game relaxing...

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The Payne Of Being Impure at Heart: Thoughts on Max Payne 3 (PC)

Sequels made long after the original game(s) by a completely different developer are bound to make the Internet rage-o-meter rise to 11 and flood the global computational pathways with cries of "sell-out". However, in the case of Max Payne 3 I think the more interesting question is whether the series is even relevant at all in 2012. When MP1 came out 11 years ago it was arguably the most technologically advanced and impressively cinematic 3D action title ever released, but the third-person shooter genre has moved on since then and few of the series' hallmark features seem particularly amazing or ground-breaking today.

Rockstar's strategy has clearly been to retain some of the elements which made Max Payne unique while bringing in a few standard mechanics of modern action games and simultaneously suffusing the whole package with their own distinctive brand of cinematic storytelling (which apparently is referred to derogatorily as "Houser writing" these days). What's particularly Max Payne-ish about MP3 is of course first and foremost the inclusion of a "bullet time" mode as well as the comically absurd painkiller-based health replenishment. Also worthy of note, however, are some rather finicky shooting mechanics which - at least for a modern third-person shooter - seem unusually tailored to precision-based mouse aiming on a PC. The addition of Gears of War-style cover controls have been much-discussed, and there's no question that it fundamentally alters the gameplay formula by effectively relegating bullet time to a secondary role. Apart from the more questionable aspect of merely conforming to contemporary genre standards, I have a feeling the cover mechanics were added because Rockstar realized that handling most shoot-outs by constantly flinging Max through the air in slo-mo would get boring (not to mention silly). That they didn't dare bringing in any other, more original ideas of their own on how to modernize the gameplay is probably a sign that Rockstar still is surprisingly uncomfortable with the whole process of designing basic shooter controls.

Max Payne as a series has always been focused on delivering a more sophisticated, more stylized and arguably also more engaging form of storytelling than most other action titles, and in some ways that makes Rockstar the perfect fit for a sequel/semi-reboot of the franchise. Given that Remedy Entertainment is still around one might argue that they would have made a better job, but considering Alan Wake's flat characters, wooden dialogue and convoluted plot I'm actually somewhat relieved that they're not involved this time around. Rockstar has their own share of problems, though; most notably a one-dimensional and only vaguely political cynicism which dragged down the intermittently amazing Red Dead Redemption and could very well end up making MP3 into more of a downer than is absolutely necessary given the source material. So far it's clear that the writing in this game is less absurd and flowery than in its predecessors, but it remains to be seen if that was a wise choice or not.

The main reason I bought Max Payne 3 wasn't the actual gameplay per se but simply the promise of getting to experience an unusual and well-realized setting (the various locales of São Paolo with all its ruthless inequality and organized brutality) brought to life by Rockstar's usual attention to detail. If it ends up being an OK shooter too that's fine, but I feel the gaming world of 2012 doesn't necessarily need another Max Payne and has enough linear, story-driven action games already.

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How to Spend $700 on Kickstarter

So far I've either pledged or donated a grand total of $700 (!) to various game-related Kickstarter projects. That being said, some of the donations are rather small ($15 each); and could probably be as almost unreasonably cheap pre-orders rather than as altruistic monetary gifts to groups of brilliant but penniless developers. In either case, below is a quick rundown of all the projects I've supported thus far (oh, and I'm still very much looking forward to the rumored Tex Murphy and Dead State Kickstarters...);

Wasteland 2(Donated: $300)

As previously mentioned on this blog, this one was a no-brainer. Wasteland 2 represents more than the mere resurgence of a classic IP; it's a rallying cry against the current action-oriented state of Western RPGs. As much as I can appreciate flashy modern roleplaying titles such as Skyrim, Mass Effect and even Dragon Age 2 I really want to help bring back turn-based, party-based gameplay to the American/European RPG scene.

Double Fine Adventure (Donated: $60)

I'm no passionate fan of adventure games in general, so in the case of DFA I'm probably more interested in the documentary series being filmed during the production of the game than I am in the final product. Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert seem to be super-nice guys, and if the development-oriented discussion video they released at the beginning of the KS campaign is any indication there's much to learn from getting a peak behind the curtains and learn how they address specific design decisions in the months to come.

Shadowrun Returns (Donated: $50)

Apart from having briefly rented the SNES game (sadly not the Genesis one, which seems even more awesome) many years ago my exposure to Shadowrun as a gaming phenomena is very limited, but it sure seems to be a cool and original cyberpunk universe alright and the idea of a turn-based RPG with direct ties to the old console classics is very appealing.

The Banner Saga (Donated: $50)

Turn-based combat, ambitious storytelling by ex-Bioware developers, animated film-inspired art design and a Viking theme? Sold! The Banner Saga is a really intriguing little game which became an early Kickstarter success story when it was 700% (over-)funded and the project grew in scope and scale far beyond what the developers had anticipated.

Pinkerton Road Studios/Moebius (Donated: $50)

It's admittedly not saying much given the generally miserable state of video game writing, but industry veteran Jane Jensen remains one of the more ambitious game writers and designers around. I'm normally a gameplay-over-story kind of guy, but titles such as the underrated Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned and the mostly over-looked Gray Matter overcome their mechanical flaws by providing mature (if undeniably pulpy) storylines and compelling characters. Jensen's "Pinkerton Road" initiative has an unusually long-term perspective for a Kickstarter project and promises to bring us several new adventure games over the coming years, starting with the intriguing Moebius and an as of yet unrevealed mystery title...

Grim Dawn (Pledged: $50)

With Torchlight II and Diablo III coming out pretty soon the world might not appear to be needing another click-heavy ARPG in the near future, but Grim Dawn's ambitious open world design, distinctive art design and deep character customization got me interested. Also, the game has been worked on for quite some time before the Kickstarter initiative and thus represents a more substantial proposition than a lot of other KS projects.

Republique (Pledged: $40)

In the brief history of Kickstarter game projects, camouflaj's slick and innovative stealth/survival horror game Republique is probably the most nerve-wrecking tale of an experienced team of affable developers racing against the clock to get their dauntingly ambitious new IP off the ground (they got fully funded with less than 8 hours to go). Part of the problem with Republique - as well as its underlying appeal - is that unlike most Kickstarter games it's not at all about feeding on nostalgia and resurrecting a dormant franchise; this is a new and decidedly "modern" game with intentionally high production values, innovative control mechanics and cinematic storytelling. Some grumpy Luddites were undoubtedly put off by the emphasis on iOS, but for once I feel that a "serious" (i.e. non-casual) gameplay idea has been tailored convincingly to the strengths and limitations of the platform. And while it's clear that the team didn't take the decision to add a PC version lightly, they've been very clear about their ambitions to go beyond a mere port and adapt the experience and interface to PC standards.

Xenonauts (Pledged: $30) (not including a previously placed pre-order)

Almost everything I hear about Firaxis' re-boot of X-COM warms my geeky heart, but there's no question that the independently developed Xenonauts is even more of a "spiritual successor" to the original Enemy Unknown. Lead Designer Chris England has already invested a lot of his own time and money into resurrecting this innovative combination of isometric combat, UFO spotting and base management, and judging by the early demos this looks like a very accomplished and faithful take on the classic gameplay formula.

Legends of Eisenwald (Pledged: $15)

Probably one of the nerdiest indie game project on Kickstarter (...and that's saying a lot!), Legends of Eisenwald was almost worth $15 just for the adorably geeky promotion video in which the Eastern European developers dress up in silly medieval-looking costumes (with considerably less irony than might be expected given the surplus of fake armor). The game itself is an intriguing Heroes of Might & Magic-style strategy/RPG hybrid with a dynamic campaign and lots of tactical turn-based combat. As with Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, the game has been in development for some time already and could be among the first Kickstarter games to actually get released.

Leisure Suit Larry (Donated: $15)

Helping to fund a remake of Leisure Suit Larry is not exactly on the top of my list of priorities in life, but the original game was an early and formative adventure game experience for me (disturbingly early and formative, given the subject matter), so it could be interesting in more ways than one to get re-acquinted with the tasteless sleazebag Larry Laffer. If nothing else, "Ken sent me" is forever etched into my brain...

Nekro (Pledged: $15)

I'm not sure I quite understand what Nekro is all about, but the guy and the gal in that video looked like awfully nice people so why not? To be serious, though, I get a cool Overlord/Dungeon Keeper vibe from this action/strategy hybrid (Myth is also cited as an inspiration) so I hope this one turns out well.

Carmageddon: Reincarnation (Pledged: $15)

The original Carmageddon always had its twisted heart in the right place; belonging as it did to an interesting era in video gaming history when the industry was becoming rather large but not big enough to constantly have to worry about being all respectable and tasteful. My strongest memory of the original game is playing it together with a classmate who had been hit by a car a few months earlier and, well, needless to say he wasn't too excited about the whole experience. In either case, the mere concept of mowing down pedestrians might not be as quite as cool in 2012 as it was in 1997, but it could still be capable of providing some mindless irreverent fun. If nothing else, Stainless Games are the original creators of the series (as well as a fairly distinguished developer of downloadable XBLA games such as Risk Factions and Magic the Gathering), so one would think that they know what they're doing.

Two Guys SpaceVenture by the creators of Space Quest (Pledged: $15)

I know embarrassingly little about Space Quest, but apparently the games were very funny. Worth $15 for a spiritual successor? Only time will tell, but this one will probably get funded on the strength of its (implied) brand...

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Homecoming: Legend of Grimrock is out now

There's been quite a lot of excitement surrounding Legend of Grimrock in the months leading up to its release today on April 11th 2012, so it's perhaps best to start by putting this game in some kind of perspective. First off, Grimrock is obviously not the first traditional Western RPG in a long while, since the last couple of years have seen the release of more than a few excellent and deliberately old school indie roleplaying games (such as Swords & Sorcery: Underworld, Darklight Dungeon Eternity and Frayed Knights to name just a few). However, if we're talking very specifically about Western first-person/"step-based" dungeon crawlers with really high production values, polished user interfaces and proper budgets behind them, then the latest relevant releases before Legend of Grimrock were arguably DreamForge's Anvil of Dawn and Interplay's Stonekeep way back in the late autumn of 1995 (!). That is well over 16 years ago by now, and since the late 1990s just about the only companies producing this kind of RPG (either realtime or turn-based) have been obscure indie teams on shoestring budgets and Japanese developers of console and handheld games such as Etrian Odyssey, Class of Heroes and Strange Journey.

So, yes, against this particular historical background it's safe to say that Almost Human Games have achieved something historical by breathing new life into genre long since thought dead. This small Finnish developer might theoretically qualify as yet another indie studio, but in reality there's no question that the AAA-level pedigree and modern professionalism this group of seasoned veterans of the game industry bring to the table puts their product in another category entirely than most independently produced RPGs. If nothing else, the simple fact that Grimrock looks and sounds so darn good has resulted in a fair amount of attention and recognition from mainstream sites such as IGN and Destructoid which to the best of my knowledge have not previously been known to cover the indie RPGs scene much at all.

Historical or not, though, the more important question is whether this nostalgia-inducing new release is actually any good? Well, I haven't had much time to check it out yet but as I had anticipated everything about the game feels exactly like a Dungeon Master-style game from 20 years ago, except with a thoroughly modern presentation and an (even more) accessible and streamlined interface. In 1920*1080 the game simply looks stunning and modern features such as dynamic lighting and shadow effects add significantly to the atmosphere, as does the excellent sound design. The overall experience might not quite have the unique flavor of my beloved Dungeon Master 2 - and definitely lacks the goofy charm and character-rich storytelling of a game like Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos - but as long as we're talking core gameplay mechanics here I think Almost Human have really nailed it with this one. Best of all; despite being an accomplished product on its own this is just the developer's first, relatively hastily thrown together release. If Legend of Grimrock sells well enough, well, who knows what amazing stuff the future may hold...

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Why Dark Souls on PC will very probably save the world

By now the unofficial confirmations regarding a possible upcoming PC port of From Software's unapologetically hardcore action RPG Dark Souls are numerous enough that it's no longer meaningful to file this in the "rumors and wishful thinking" category. With that in mind, here are the top three reasons why I personally think having this game on PC is such a great idea;

1) Ensuring the long-term preservation (as well as incremental enhancement) of a truly great game.

Being able to play old games can be a hassle regardless of platform but console hardware developers such as Microsoft and Sony aren't exactly helping by severely limiting or even going so far as to actively strip out backward compatibility from their dedicated gaming systems, and the infamously subpar quality of (some) so-called "HD" re-releases of late don't inspire much confidence in the motivation of publishers to keep their older console games fully and faithfully playable on future entertainment rigs. Now, the PC platform has its own share of problems - enough of them, in fact, that entire commercial services (such as The Artist Formerly Known as Good Old Games) have sprung up to deal specifically with an increasing demand for easily playable classics patched up to work well with modern computers and OS setups. But the operative term here is "patched", since the inherent flexibility of the PC platform obviously allows both commercial and non-commercial actors to tinker directly with the game files and develop workarounds which adapts or even tricks the product in question to function properly on current operative systems and hardware configurations. An added bonus in this respect is modability, but at least in the case of Dark Souls I have a feeling that the focused design of the game in question makes modding a comparatively superfluous activity. User-made high-res textures, custom shaders etc. make a certain amount of sense but I'd probably put such efforts in the "modern compatibility" column since they don't directly influence gameplay.

It goes without saying that none of this perhaps needlessly pedantic concern with preservation would mean much if the actual product we're concerned with here wasn't worth saving from the slings and arrows of outrageous backward incompatibility in the first place. But despite not actually having played much of Dark Souls myself (I own PS3 copies of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls but have only played the former game extensively), judging from what has already been written about the grim brilliance of From Software's latest RPG I think it's already fair to say that it's one of the finest releases in its genre during the current hardware generation. Whether or not the cool but not altogether essential online functionality is switched off at some point - and here the PC as a platform could presumably make unofficial networking solutions a viable option - the mere thought of having this challenging, lengthy, multi-layered and extremely replayable RPG experience readily available on digital distribution networks such as Steam etc. for many years to come is enough to warm my old school heart.

2) Increasing the likelihood of more frequent console-to-PC ports of high-quality niche titles.

Provided that all those petition writers and forumites who have expressed their strong desire for a computer version of Dark Souls manage to put their money where their mouths are and actually support this PC release the game could do very well indeed; both immediately at launch and during a longer time frame which includes the inevitable price drops and Steam sales etc. In turn, that would make it somewhat more likely that the recent bout of more or less unexpected PC announcements (including Warren Spector's Epic Mickey 2 and Yakuza developer Toshihiro Nagoshi's Binary Domain) might become a real trend and carry over into the next console era, during which increased technological parity between consoles and PCs should at least in theory make the business of porting a less jarring "oh shit, this looks awful in 1080p"-kind experience.

More specifically, Dark Souls is probably the one big test case in terms of an almost universally acclaimed but still relatively niche title, which in all likelihood would never have been ported if there hadn't been a very vocal demand for it among both ordinary gamers and more professional journalists and media content producers alike. The broadly Westernized aesthetics might seem to make this is a somewhat special case, but I personally doubt that since one would have expected to see a lot more of, say, King's Field on PC if this line of reasoning was correct. Thus, a successful PC port of Dark Souls potentially could play a significant role for future PC releases of previously console-exclusive Japanese games.

3) Promoting a cease-fire in the unhelpful console/PC culture wars.

This third point is rather speculative, and there have admittedly been some not entirely unreasonable arguments made for why Dark Souls - with its' gamepad-oriented control scheme and resolute lack of quickload functions - could very well end up alienating at least those exceedingly dogmatic PC players who conflate platform standards with design imperatives (which even otherwise well-meaning enthusiasts sometimes do). If that indeed turns out to be the case, it's their loss.

However, I do believe that Dark Souls represents a golden opportunity for those often uninformed skeptics who mostly associate console gaming in general with, say, Gears of War and Final Fantasy to discover the rich Japanese subculture of challenging and often surprisingly Western- and/or PC-influenced console titles. Indeed, apart from their most recent titles Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, it's not hard to see why From Software's focused gameplay and understated art design have enabled them to make a breakthrough of sorts in the West at the exact same time that some of the Eastern heavyweights such as Square-Enix are disappearing further down the rabbit holeof tired JRPG conventions. Ideally, Dark Souls could serve as a rebuttal both to the notion that all Japanese games are messy, impenetrable and influenced by the least tasteful anime imaginable as well as the embarrassingly wide-spread idea that console games by definition are dumbed-down and shallow compared to PC games.

But, yeah, all I really wanted to say with this is that it sure is nice to know that there's going to be at least one version of this game without the much-discussed frame rate issues in Blight Town...

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Age of Fear 1.4.0 - Tactical turn-based combat with RPG elements

Some of you might remember Age of Fear: The Undead King, a turn-based wargame with strong RPG elements I briefly mentioned on this blog about a year ago now. Well, since then developer Leszek Sliwko has released tons of free updates adding more detailed graphics, multiplayer options, new units, extra upgrades, balance tweaks, code optimizations, camera options and much more to make an already rock solid tactical game bigger and better.

While the first few battles of Age of Fear include a very small number of units on screen at any given time, the scale of the skirmishes quickly ramps up. Holding the line is crucial in this game, since the AI will immediately seize on any opportunity to go after the player's archers, mages and monks. There are often distinct groups of enemies on the map, and it soon becomes clear that the different parts of the enemy force perform their own unique tactical functions on the battlefield. The gameplay does not include height variations to consider but as there's no grid-based movement in AoF the positioning of units requires a bit more thought than in most turn-based strategy games. In particular, it's easy (perhaps a bit too easy) to create bottlenecks in the battle line which limit your own attack abilities more than it protects your weaker units.

The game's campaigns are broken up into self-contained missions but the player gets to keep surviving troops from the previous battle; an interesting gameplay mechanic which always reminds me of Homeworld. The persistent unit economy is a crucial factor since soldiers gain XP on an individual basis and recruiting advanced versions is costly compared to making low-level units more experienced by having them kill enemies on the battlefield and then get out alive. Gold is awarded between missions and spent on buying and upgrading units, and any remaining gold likewise carries over to the next army-building session. The inherent risk with such a system is of course that, unlike in most games, Pyrrhic victories are quite possible; i.e. you can win battles with heavy losses and still make progress in the game but sooner or later find yourself unable to proceed because you simply don't have enough good units or money to stay ahead of the difficulty curve. Thankfully, AoF allows unlimited saves both during and between battles (and even includes autosaves during each turn of the current battle); making it easy to return to an earlier stage in the game if things get rough.

Considering the two full campaigns included and extensive support for stand-alone skirmishes I can think of few better ways to spend $15 for fans of serious turn-based combat. Most important of all, though, is that Mr Sliwko is currently hard at work on a sequel called Age of Fear 2: The Chaos Lords which will include a total of 70+ unique units, a completely new faction, fearsome boss creatures and even smarter AI. Any additional AoF copies sold will surely help the development of AoF2...

Official web site: http://www.age-of-fear.net/

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