DMC Demo - Preliminary thoughts

Devil May Cry

So this might be cool.

So, that new Devil May Cry demo dropped on XBL today. Since I'm a big old fan of the games past, and I'm on holidays and bored and want something to do, I decided to write some thoughts about it. I really like it, although I've only played it once and there seem to be some control aspects I need to get used to.

Something about the controls feels ... off. Or maybe just different. I'm not totally sure. The basic move set feels oddly limited, even if you actually have a lot of options. First off, as far as I could tell, there's no lock-on. Which means that there's no Stinger, which was THE DMC move for me, and they've placed launchers and dodges on separate buttons. (This is based off memories of DMC3.) Maybe it's limited because it's a demo, and I couldn't upgrade anything, but that means no styles, no advanced moves, and no attacks to close gaps. It makes Dante's movements seem really limited, and I constantly found myself trying to surge forward and instead just slicing air.

Those additional options, however, come in "modifiers" that let you use other weapons than your sword. using the two triggers, you can switch between an area-attacking angel scythe with the left, and a heavy-hitting demon axe with the right. These can also be used to pull yourself towards enemies, or bring them to you. It's all done on the fly, so you depending on which you hold down or let off, you can do quite a bit quite quickly. These were all neat, and I actually find more effective than carrying weapons you need to swap out at shrines. The problem was that I'd constantly lose track of which weapon I was using, and be using attacks which were not at all effective in my situation. There were more than a few times I tried to fire my guns and started whipping this thing about, so I looked like a crazy person trying to tame these weird mannequin creatures. Also pretty annoying was being forced to attack an enemy with a specific weapon, which was almost always red. I don't know about you, but I don't like having to solely use a heavy weapon, so requiring me to use it is a rotten thing to do.

I'm not a fan of how demons look, but I never was ever, so whatever.

Also, a trend I found earlier this year has re-emerged: the existence of Nephilim. Remember how in Diablo III you were a nephilim? Remember how in Darksiders II you were a nephalem (different spellings, apparently)? Well, in DMC, you're apparently another one of these pesky angel-demon hybrids. I'm not going to say it's lazy or well-worn, because all of these games have been in development a while and couldn't have predicted each other. I'd just say that there should be a break from it soon, maybe. Yes, part of video games is that you're meant to be special, but I would not be sad to not see this idea for a while.

Overall, though, I enjoyed my first time through. I think it looks really nice, and I enjoy the style of it. The demons seem a bit out of place, but they always have in DMC games, so I don't mind that. I thought the 'The city itself is trying to kill you!' effects were neat, and looked kind of amazing in spots, especially the church. And the combat, although recognisably different, feels very similar to the past. You can hit attack attack attack, or attack pause attack attack attack, and what you see is similar to past DMC's. In fact, a lot feels like very specific nods. One cutscene shows a sawn-off shotgun. You collect Red Orbs. All that sort of thing. The rest is kind of too early to judge. One point is that it doesn't feel deliberate like many Japanese games in terms of dialogue. Everything seems to progress very naturally, with appropriate (systemically, anyway, not necessarily what's said) responses.

This guy? Maybe a brother to Dante. Who can say?

Would I recommend trying it? Hard to say. since I've only played it once. I'd only say that it's worth playing if you're fairly sure you'll pick it up and you want to get used to the controls, which do feel strikingly different. Otherwise, if you're apathetic or hostile to DMC, then don't bother. In fact, I suggest going back and playing DMC3 since that game is great. Or DMC4 if you're crazy like me and like it a lot.

If this sounds off-kilter, it's because I was distracted by kittens. Meow meow.

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Choices, Choices, Too Many Choices

What with being done with my uni exams, not getting a whole lot of work (which hopefully will change) and trying to find something to do, I almost feel like I've hit a critical dilemma in what I should play. I've just finished XCOM, which was great, but I kind of want to figure out what to do next, and I feel paralysed.

There are two of the best shooter franchises out right now, but there's also this looming backlog that I want to get into. Plus there's the fact that I want to get a PS3 since I have the money and want to play a bunch of games on there that I couldn't otherwise. And I feel obligated to keep playing some of the great smaller games I've picked up, although I don't feel that about all of them; while perhaps one of the most significant games of the year, Hotline Miami is not fun for me at all. In fact, it makes me feel routinely terrible.

So what are my options?

Halo 4

Structures!

This seems like the most logical option. I've been an enormous Halo fan for ages and ages, and the 24-hour stream by Alexis and Drew made me think "Yeah, I should go back and play some Halo 3!" And now, there's a brand new Halo out, and it's very much a Halo game. Great! What's holding me back?

Well, there's the Call-of-Duty-isation. Say what you will about past Halo games, I enjoyed the fact that it was and remained distinct. I didn't have to ultimately care about unlocks, and when they were there they were purely cosmetic. And that was addictive in it's own way; I didn't get it, but I would have loved to have died to the sounds of delighted children with one of those unlocks. But now, there's unlocks. That basically means I'll unlock the Battle Rifle and not much else. But until then, it may be an uphill assault, since I'll feel out of my element, suspecting that just about anyone else will have an advantage over me, just like I have in CODs past.

And then there's the fact that it's just Halo. In ways, that's exciting, since I love Halo. In other ways, it makes me think "Oh wait, is this going to turn into another COD, and I'll find myself bored very quickly?" It's not, since Halo hasn't been sequeled out the arse, and it's actually been a while since I've played a Halo game. And you know what? I kind of want to enjoy some good Halo. There's plenty of buzz around on it from the Internet (even perhaps over the top in spots) and it's one of the mulitplayer games I've played consistently at all. So then, ideally, Halo 4 should be my logical choice.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Futures!

This I have almost no reason to be disdainful of, since I broke out of the COD cycle long ago. And this COD looks more interesting than any I've seen in a while. Part of my hesitation is the hesitation I developed a while ago. I felt like I got what I wanted out of MW2, but it ultimately seemed stupid to keep funding something which was so iterative but stagnant. But this seems different. The story seems interesting in a year full of interesting stories, the multiplayer is not only fleshed out again but trying something very unique, and I haven't actually gotten into the Zombies mode, so it might be neat to check that out.

But I know that my time with the game's selling point, the multiplayer, will be short, and that's sticking with me. I don't want to play with most of the people on the servers, since they are shitty people. I will probably always be bad. I will eventually get burned out, and put it away and never touch it again. And what makes me fearful of that is that my time with the last FPS I played, Battlefield 3, was extremely short. I dropped it very quickly, mostly because I never wanted to touch the single player again and the multiplayer, while super interesting, felt limited by the XBox 360's capabilities. The fact that it was an impulse buy might be a good warning.

Still, though, maybe this is the year I give it a chance.

Replaying XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Aliens!

I've beaten it on Normal, and now I'm considering whether to start a Classic Ironman run. Here's what's holding me back, since I really did enjoy my run of XCOM.

Normal was intentionally stressful, since I played it fast and loose, and was really there just to toy around with the systems. As such, my money was constantly in short supply and I lost way too many guys to hold my head high. This was all really entertaining, though. I enjoyed it a lot, I felt like I've learned what I should do now (build satellites and deploy them earlier for money, only need four generators, perhaps don't rush forward as much, get Titan armour way earlier) and would be ready to dip back in, if it wasn't for the stress. I want a good break from it. There's something heart-wrenching about seeing the Captain sniper who you were building up just get wrecked and make hours of work redundant. I only had two guys, a Sniper and Heavy who were both clutch to my party, get through all the way, and I don't think I'm ready for that pain.

So instead maybe I should be...

Replaying Viva Pinata

Sadists!

which I have actually been doing. But I've hit the wall where I have to grind a bunch, get a whole lot of money, set up an internment camp or start planting crap-loads of vegetables, or some other task to get to the point where the really cool stuff starts turning up. That may be a time and brain commitment that I'm not up for yet.

I think Viva Pinata is amazing. For a very bright, happy game that seems very child oriented, Relic clearly had way too much fun putting all sorts of dark, twisted stuff, including adult references, into its game. A-Team reference? Why not? Subtle undertones of bullying, animal cruelty and incest? Back-of-box quote! The explicit mention of the futility of death, and its integral part of the game function? Sign me up! It's kind of shocking how they didn't reign it in in some spots, even from the implication that there's very often "love dances". Not only that, but the game's wicked hard, too. You have to spend amazing amounts of time, doing very specific things to your garden, to try and attract every different, obscenely picky piñata to your crumby little patch of land. In fact, to do it properly, you need to have something like 5 different gardens serving completely different purposes ("This is my forest glade garden; this is my swamp garden; this is my exploitation-of-small-animals garden; this is my garden with a god-damn mine in it...") and it is almost beyond me right now to do something like that.

Anyway, those are my choices for now. I must say, looking at all that, it's very tempting to just get a PS3 and buy Journey and relax.

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New Old Games: Day 1 - Rhythm Heaven

Winter is here (or summer, depending on where you live) and thus comes a lack of any new, substantially good games to lose myself in. It always seems curious to me that suddenly the steady stream/flood of games trickles down to nothing around these times. Last year, when this happened, I bought a used PS2 and happily whiled away the time in Persona 4. Recently, though, I've decided to go back to some games that have been well hyped around these parts (both forums and staff) and try some of those. And because I have too much time, I'm blogging about them. What fun.

Anywho, this'll be something I do for the next 5 days because otherwise I'd be bored shitless. In any case, let's start off with a game that is, without a doubt, the game which has been most concerned with being a game that I've played in a long while.

Rhythm Heaven (DSi)

The only reason I have played this at all is because I bought a DSi off my sister who didn't want it for $50, she gave RH to me with it, and it was highly recommended by the Bomb Squad. I won't claim to be much of a fan of rhythm games in the first place (even now, I'm looking at a plastic guitar collecting quite the impressive pile of dust), but I would say that I have quite good rhythm for a lapsed musician. Therefore, I had no reason no to give it a shot, particularly because I had to justify spending the money in the first place. Here are the results from this test:

This game is both cutely whimsical, and hard as balls. And it's amazing.

If you've never played RH, it's basically a rhythm mini-game collection, based around keeping time with what's going on the top screen by tapping or flicking on the bottom screen. There are very few things that you can do; you can tap the screen, hold that tap, or flick upwards. On one occasion, it asks you to press the R button, but that's the only button you'll touch. The genius behind these controls is that it keeps it very simple, and then demands you to implement that simplicity in increasingly difficult ways. Besides this, you're required to turn the DS on its side so that your dominant hand has complete access to the touch-screen. This is, to me, the most clever decision they could have made, and it honestly feels way more comfortable than holding a DS regularly.

Whenever you're asked to do something, it's never particularly challenging. It could be something like "Tap to make the monkeys clap" or "Flick to strum the guitar". And, for the basic versions of each mini-game, you get a short training to teach you how to do it. At first glance, it seems like it'd be a very simple, rather short game, especially since each mini-game lasts roughly a minute, maybe two at the outside. Playing it, however, is anything but. You're regularly asked to perform quick actions with often not terribly much time to react, and the window of time you have to complete it is minuscule. For example, when building widgets, or whatever they're called, you have to flick a rod in between two parts, based on the rhythm. It's very easy, if you aren't concentrating, to wait a split-second too long and mess up, or go too early. Through all of this, you need to be meticulously keeping time, both on and off beat, in order to even be able to play at all. I can imagine that many people have been turned away from this game because they aren't very good at staying with a beat.

The part which I find makes it fun, and makes it suck away mountains of time, is how unforgiving this game is. You need to be constantly on if you want to get the 'Superb' ranking and get a medal, and then even more so if you want to get 'Perfect'. It's almost as if the little grey box has been taunting me, not letting me get away, and it's infuriating. I lost track of how many times I would think I had done well, got an 'OK', and then dived back in as some sort of vengeful attempt to win, as it were. And it's exhilarating when you do it, because it feels like you've genuinely overcome a challenge. And then I got to the more advanced versions of levels, and lost myself for even longer in those. Why do I feel the compulsion to risk mental self-harm in this way? Beats me, but I am genuinely impressed with what this game does.

However, I did find the decision to use the touch screen to be fairly limiting in some of places, just because using it is almost too large of an action to be done with some dexterity. Occasionally, trying to get a flick in a very short space of time seemed too demanding, as it was an action that had to actually move through space which could take up some time and momentum if you didn't know exactly what was coming. Similarly, I had some fairly significant issues with any games which involved tapping quickly, consistently and for long amounts of time. For whatever reason, I would end up penalised in some way or the other, occasionally in ways that I wouldn't know exactly why and wasn't told how to improve. It made it somewhat frustrating trying to be good at some of the mini-games, and it actively was preventing me from doing so.

But, regardless of these issues, I think this game is amazing. There's no story to speak of, and I for one am happy, since I always enjoy games which eschew story for simply making a very good game. It is a very good, well-polished game that, if I'm not mistaken, is really cheap and still fairly available right now.

Tomorrow: Katawa Shoujo, which I struggle to call a game, but will write about since I still enjoyed it.

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On Not Finishing Games: A Moral Dilemma

Playing games has been my major hobby for years now, and luckily I’ve been able to keep it out of the obsession phase. I play most of the major releases when they come out, and I’ll happily spend hours upon hours with some of them (Happy D3-Day, by the way, after which I feel sorry for my exam scores) but it won’t get to the point where I’m putting off exercise or socialising to play something. But at times, the major releases are few and far between and I must find other games, and this is where I reach a moral problem.

Why is it that some games can present themselves to me as a consistently good quality, enjoyable experience, and very early I just stop playing them and give up? Should I feel bad about not playing games that I ostensibly want to finish, even though I feel kind of bad when playing them? There are many reasons that I’ve thought about which provide some clarity to this, but none of them make me feel that I have an excuse, especially now when the times are somewhat dry. Here’s a few of those reasons.

1. Monotony of Gameplay

When a game has put something in your way that makes it absurdly boring to get to the interesting parts, is that game still worth playing for the good parts? Let’s put this into an example: Far Cry 2. There are many parts about this game that I think are kind of amazing, and I almost want to go into detail about. There’s a sense of desperation that permeates everything you do, from the extreme violence of the gunplay that makes approaching every paramilitary checkpoint tense, to the constant fear of a malaria attack, to the sheer feeling of doom I had when I first realised I had to put my dying buddy out of his misery. And what’s between every single great moment of that? About 10 minutes of driving or walking through empty savannah.

The African landscape of Far Cry 2 feels big, although not quite to the Skyrim extent. I was constantly driving around with my map out trying to keep some semblance of distance from my target, which was more often than not shooting dudes. I think it’s a fine world to inhabit, everything is beautiful and the inhabitants are messed up in a way that’s really intriguing. But outside of the central town and the small encampments, it feels like the place is completely empty of anything interesting. Sure, people would have fled a war-torn country in droves, but driving from the bus stop (which is a really weird concept anyway) to some point in the middle of the wilderness, killing a few guys, maybe finding a couple of diamonds and then driving all the way back, with nothing cool to interrupt you or make the journey interesting is not good gameplay.

Open world games work the best, for me anyway, when they focus on one of two options. The first is to make getting around fast-paced and easy, such as in Saints Row: The Third. I never minded getting around in Steelport, because I had a super-tricked-out car which could ram into semi-trailers and come out unscathed, or I had a tank which blew up everything because I could. And eventually, I just flew everywhere in my VTOL, which made it even quicker. I didn’t care about the size of open-world because I barely noticed it. The second option is to make your world detailed and full of things to do, one of the great successes of Skyrim. I spent 120 hours in that place because I was always finding something new, whether it was a random cave with an illegal gambling ring in it, or being attacked by a dragon as I’m scaling a mountain, or even just finding some random Khajiit who would spout nonsense. That, coupled with the lack of restrictions in direction and purpose, made for a very compelling world, which was huge and dense. Far Cry 2 achieves neither of those, and it’s the reason that I haven’t gotten past the first area: I don’t want to keep travelling around the world. Even though I enjoy many parts of this game, it is almost stopping me from finding all of the interesting parts of it.

2. Stupid Difficulty

Whether a high level of difficulty is good or not is very subjective; there are some who will steer well clear of very difficult games, and others who will bask in them. I come from a very specific subset of the latter, in that whenever I want to play difficult games (and I frequently do), I want the game to have the tools to teach you how to become better at it, and only punishes you up to a point while allowing some liberties to let you keep playing. (My quintessential example of this is Super Meat Boy, which I plan to talk about next week.) I don’t want to have to refer to FAQs, grind some number of hours just to become competent, understand very arcane concepts off of single examples, and so forth. The sole exception is with RTSs and fighting games, both of which I am terrible at and want all the help I can get. So, knowing my distaste for bad difficulty spikes, it’s perhaps no wonder I don’t plan on finishing Ninja Gaiden 2.

I can see the appeal of such a game. Having a very challenging game where being good at it is highly rewarded is not unreasonable, and it allows for a layer of creativity because of the stresses imposed. I personally think that Ninja Gaiden 2 doesn’t do this well at all. There is something satisfying about the weight of the combat when you can do it right, and the depth of what you can do is quite cool, but whenever I played, the game never seemed to give me any clue as to how I could become better and not die over and over again. Quite a few of the enemies give no indication that attacks are effective; often a hit that would cancel them out of an animation the first time would not do this consistently. Bosses especially are particularly obtuse, as there is often a very clear weak spot which I couldn’t tell whether it was being impacted or not. Typically I would eventually have to resort to some sort of Flying Swallow cheese tactic just to take them out, because fighting them traditionally at all was bound to fail. And then there are the challenge rooms, of which I am very convinced are meant to be almost impossible. Trying to kill hundreds of ridiculously hard enemies with a very limited source of health replenishment is insane; I would fight for 20 minutes in a row, trying desparately not to get hit, before being hit with one final attack that could destroy half my health and die. Is it unreasonable to not want to keep playing something which actively hates me? Not to me. I do want to like it, but I hate it too much to go back.

This game is partially about looking awesome. Rarely did I feel like that.

3. Too Cheap to Care?

Of all of my reasons, this one is both the weakest and the one I use the most often. This is not me saying that cheap games are bad, because often they are very good. To me, it’s this psychological idea that because it’s a lot cheaper than it used to be, and is cheaper than other games out at the moment, I don’t have to commit as much to following the game to its conclusion. It happens with Steam sales all the time (“Psychonauts for $10? How can I not buy it?”) and often when I’m hunting through used game shelves, but it shouldn’t really matter because these games are still pretty good, right? But it does when you’ve just picked up Mass Effect 3 for $90 (Australian, mind you) and you feel this need to get as much out of it as you can. It makes it especially weird when the game drought rolls around, and you look through your pile of games to realise there are some gems you should have gone back to ages ago, but just can’t bring yourself to.

For me, that difficult gem is Persona 3 for the PS2. Having played through Persona 4 and loved it, I found a very cheap copy of Persona 3: FES, around August of last year. Since then, I’ve played maybe 3 hours of it, not even to the first full moon. And there’s a lot of it I’ve seen which is exactly what I want. There’s the really unique story, there are interesting and diverse characters, the combat, while somewhat hampered compared to P4, is still very enjoyable and unique in some very clever ways, and parts of it are so weirdly Japanese that I should love it. But I can’t, for whatever reason. I believe it’s the more obtuse parts of the game which give me the most pause. Is there any reason why I should take out the weak fodder enemies apart from grinding XP? Not really, as far as I can see, although they give shitty amounts of XP anyway. And what with the fatigue, which is the part which perhaps annoys me the most, I constantly worry about how much I can fight anyway. And then with Social Links, there was a point where it seemed like my relationship with some dude got hampered? Why is this, and what will it do? I have no clue. And what’s going to happen during the full moon anyway? I have this weird anxiety where I’m perpetually conscious of how many days are left, and I’m always convinced that I couldn’t possibly be powerful enough to face whatever’s there (because it’s got to be a boss, right? Even though there are floor bosses in Tartarus anyway? I don’t know!) Perhaps this is the point where I need to crack open a FAQ and figure out what the hell I’m doing. It’s such a shame as well, since there are so many ways in which I want to love this game.

It's this weirdness that's so appealing! It's great! But I just don't get how to make this game tick!

Maybe I’ll eventually get over this odd agoraphobia in Far Cry 2. Maybe I’ll man up and take down Ninja Gaiden. And maybe, just maybe, I can learn to love P3. It's kind of sad how this list seems to grow so much. I’ve found it more and more difficult to get over my abandonment of some games, and maybe when August rolls around again with no games, I’ll spend some quality time catching up. For now, though, I guess I’ll be trapped in a terrible Diablo 3 hole for a while.

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Thinking about Gaming - 9/5/12 - Torchlight Edition

Thinking About Gaming – 9/5/12 – Torchlight Edition

So, two things. I've decided to get rid of the generic title of before, what with it being tacky and boring. This new one isn't much better, but it's one I'm okay with, so it'll do. Second, I've realised that I don’t have that much interest in covering too many current games, considering that they get inundated at the time of release anyway. Also, since this is basically my own little archive, I may as well seek out games I find interesting for one reason or another. But who knows? I don’t, and that’s gone alright so far. Anywho, if you find this, feel free to read if you like. In the meantime, let’s look at a little old dungeon crawler on the PC that manages to punch above its weight.

Torchlight

The most I’d heard about Torchlight before playing it was that it was a smaller Diablo I. I haven’t personally played many loot-driven action-RPGs, but I did quite enjoy Diablo II, and Borderlands took up more hours than I’d care to admit. Suffice to say, I knew the basics of what I could expect. I’m happy to say, even though it’s not a particularly long game, Torchlight was really enjoyable, and to some extent I want to go back for another playthrough. The combination of satisfying combat and a beautiful setting make for a game that can suck up a few hours pretty easily, and even though there are a few imperfections, I was happy with this $15 purchase (thank you Steam sale).

The most immediately impressing part of Torchlight is the combat, because it is not only competent at what it tries to achieve, but manages to make a great deal of what you’re doing feel powerful and punchy. I chose to play as a Vanquisher, since I always go for the range-focused characters if given the option (melee fighters are boring, and I have a fundamental issue with playing anything that relies heavily on spells) and had a blast taking monsters out with my crossbow/pistol/skeletal shotgun. For a good deal, I made the combat work for me because I went in the direction of getting lots of critical hits, and it’s a success of the game that that was a perfectly viable option, since I was gibbing zombies almost every time at a point. Even if it is very much Diablo-esque combat, it’s still really satisfying to kite enemies around as my cat summons zombies to bunch them together, before blowing them all up with an explosive round. Although close combat felt uselessly weak for my character (not unreasonable) and when I wasn’t getting crits my guns felt kind of weak, I really enjoyed smoking creatures all the way through.

The skills system surrounding the combat is a good example of the systems throughout Torchlight, which, although not original for several of them, are effective, uncomplicated and are allow for a lot of flexibility. The skills were all cool in their own way, because of how each had a particular job that it would fill very effectively, even though it had the annoying Diablo system I didn’t like of assigning points to skills so that you can either focus on a few or be a jack-of-all-trades. I understand that it allows for a lot of diversity, but it made me pick 5 or so skills and max them out. I’m totally happy with what I chose, but I would have preferred some sort of option so that I could try out some more of the skills; even if it was something ridiculously out of place like the ‘Tome of Skill Reset’, that would have been nice. The fact that you get a pet to follow you around, pick up items you want without having to walk over, fighting and casting spells, and especially dragging stuff to town to sell, was an exceptionally clever idea because of how much it reduced a good deal of the tedium of loot. I used that poor cat for everything. I would have it go around and pick up every crappy piece of white or green gear I could, truck it town and get me gold, as well as using it for crowd control with aforementioned zombie hordes. This eventually lead to the economy being entirely broken with me having thousands of gold more than I needed, but that was fine, since it allowed me to indulge in my gem crafting. I know it’s a real old, basic system, but there’s something about getting lots of crappy gems and eventually making a really good gem that is addicting as all hell. It will continue to be a clever system to me.

Obviously, this is not my screenshot. I hear the Xbox version is relatively well-done, though, and price would be comparable.

Of course, what would a loot-driven action-RPG without good loot? The loot, thankfully, is pretty good. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, with your greens and blues, with some orange and purple occasionally thrown in. There’s something exciting about finding a blue item, and wandering what it’ll be as you identify it. It’s usually not as good as what you have, but it doesn’t matter, and it makes it better when it actually is good stuff. When I didn’t want it, I’d just give it to my cat, which would make it into money. You have your usual array of swords, axes, shields, armour, and whatnot, and it’s all cool, but what I found the most interesting was the inclusion of guns. Loot-driven games have always resided in either medieval-ish settings, or modernistic design, a la Borderlands, so carrying around a sword and a piece at the same time makes for a cool look, sort of like the Warhammer 40K guy-with-bolter-and-chainsword motif. It became a bit weird when it seemed like the cycle of gear began again, and I’d start seeing stuff like ‘Epic Cracked Bow’, but the loot aspect of Torchlight is still very strong.

Perhaps the most impactful was the setting and environment. Torchlight is not the most technically impressive feat, considering that it’s about 5 years old or so, but that doesn’t matter; the setting is gorgeous. Everything is colourful and beautifully curved and makes the technical settings absolutely meaningless, since it looks so good. The colour that permeates every single facet, combined with the huge variety of environments and enemy types and the really interesting, magical-industrial vibe it puts off, makes it a great game just to wander through. (As an aside, it always continued to be weird to think about just how much Torchlight seems to live on. Even if there was an ancient race of beings that made a crazy nature-covered waterway underneath a bloody mountain, did said beings’ building planner make a staircase going down and fail to notice the bottomless caverns, lava-flooded fortress and demonic cathedral underneath?) In a media dominated by muted colours, often as a variation of grey, it’s nice to have this shiny, pretty think to look at and admire. And it helped me to ignore probably the weakest part of Torchlight, which was its story. I could not give an arse about the story, and I only really recall it in the sense that I know I’d been infected by some evil blight, and had to kill the big dude who’d caused it. But it was so easy to ignore it, when it was sending me to cool places all the time. I’m probably not giving the story enough credit, but it just seemed like the part that had had the least amount of time spent on it.

This is my screenshot, and I must have spent at least 10 minutes trying to take out this one damn thing.

The only major problem that I had with Torchlight was the difficulty curve, which seemed like something that the developers only remembered in the in QA section and realised “Oh shit, this game is really easy for ages.” Seriously, the game is stupid easy for a long time, even though I’d set it to Hard. It’s not purely because levelling up and good gear made me overpowered for a long time; it definitely did, because the skills I chose evaporated any and all. I believe it was because the enemies just weren’t designed to deal with an enemy that could keep away from it. Almost all of them were slow, and even the “extra-fast” enemies could be kited easily. And if they had a ranged attack, it would do little enough damage that I could ignore it, as well as blowing them up in a couple of shots. Even surrounded, I could use my explosive shot to decimate them. This led to the bad habit in which I’d never use potions, and I was just selling most of them, and that was bad when the game went from stupid easy to stupid hard. It was the last final set of levels which suddenly became ridiculous, because of a sudden increase in pretty fast mobs and one particular enemy with a lightning bolt attack which, almost uncannily, would hit me and take off two-thirds of my HP. When there was two of these nearby, or one on top of a staircase, or at worst an orange-named enemy, then I’d be trying to keep as far away from them as possible, trying to snipe these pretty beefy enemies for minutes at a time while also killing off these skeleton bastards who would harass me. The game didn’t become impossible, but it was the first point where I would stop because I didn’t want to play anymore. It’s a very curious oversight for the game to have, and I’m not sure if it was a problem with the design process, or just an issue which the developers, for whatever reason, struggled to get over.

Regardless of that quibble, Torchlight is a legitimately enjoyable game, especially for the cheap price I got it for. If nothing else, it’s acted as a good primer for Diablo III, since now I’m keen to dive in to that and get even more loot, as well as see how much each setting contrasts. If anyone’s looking to satisfy that quench before Diablo III hits (particularly since it looks like we’re headed towards another game drought) then I’d highly recommend picking up Torchlight, either on PC or XBLA, because of its pure, fun nature, caveats be damned.

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Levelling Up: My Gaming Experiences - 5/2/12 - Catherine

Levelling Up: My Gaming Experiences – 5/2/12 – Catherine

So, this was unexpected. Giant avalanche of university assignments, sport business and a broken collarbone are all really good at stopping me from following up on a blog for 5 weeks or so. Anyway, hopefully I’ll keep to some sort of schedule, just to have some sort of consistency. So, this week: subconsciously analysing my potential future relationships.

For those who don’t know, this is really a time-capsule-esque blog, for me. Feel free to read, I don’t mind.

Catherine

So Catherine comes to me at an interesting time in my love life. I’m between relationships (here’s hoping) and have spent some time thinking about my past one, which involved some of the best times in my life so far. I think I did fairly well in it, considering that the reason it stopped wasn’t solely (again, here’s hoping) my fault. So to play a game where relationships were the focus seemed an interesting concept, and one which could give me an interesting perspective, was intriguing. It turned out that I liked the game quite a bit, even though there were parts which seemed oddly flawed.

The most impressive part of the whole game was the story, because of the depths to which it was willing to go. In most games I’ve played involving love, sex and whatnot, the game doesn’t bring a relationship up to anything more than a game mechanic. Fable II had my favourite example of shallow love. Pick a random person, in this case a lady because you choose to be a lesbian; do enough expressions and bribe them with gifts until they love you, over the span of 5 or so minutes, if you’re a bit slow; get married, take her home and have lots of “sex”, which is not sexy, until you discover that, because your brand of sex can’t use condoms, you’ve developed 15 different STDs from your “faithful” wife. Catherine is very mature about its approach to love. A relationship is not something to take lightly. It requires commitment, attention and patience, and these are sometimes difficult to maintain. Throughout, the question of why some men stray is explored well, I think. The focus isn’t on staring directly at some cleavage or hearing some porn-level fake moans, but more about how to deal with the demons plaguing your thoughts and overcome them accordingly.

Perhaps not the most engaging block-climbing game you've played (if any) but it could have been much worse.

It also helps that the story is actually compelling. I was always genuinely interested to see what was going to happen to Vincent, the protagonist, always dreading the moment when Katherine would walk in and meet Catherine. It’s very close to well-made anime in spots, since there were times when I would just put down my controller and watch for a steady amount of time because it was all interesting. It’s not like Skyrim where I thumb through all the dialogue to try and get to the quest icon; I would sit and listen to all of them, because I liked a good deal of the characters. The core friend group around Vincent, including Erica, were all interesting people, who weren’t just straight archetypes. These were characters that came across as realistically developed, even though there was a weird dissonance where I’d here them and try and identify their Persona 4 voice actors. That made for some confusion early on. Apart from the most fleshed out group, though, the side characters were well put together, and I went back to them time and again because of their cool dialogue and identities.

It’s a slight shame, then, that the characters I ended up disliking most were Vincent, Catherine and Katherine. I have my reasons. Vincent is an indecisive sap who doesn’t have the balls to say no about anything. He can’t keep away from Catherine (although that could be explained away), he can’t tell Katherine that he’s dumped Catherine, and he’s basically only got any initiative in the dream world, which doesn’t count in my books. He aggravated me, as quite a direct, firm decision-maker, and made me not care a wink whether he came out good or not. Catherine is the clingy, head-in-the-air type who can have mood swings at a moment’s notice, which was both non-realistic, and made her extremely distasteful. Why you’d stay with the manic girl who’s probably had childhood issues, I don’t know. And Katherine, who is perhaps the most agreeable of the three, is some weirdly control-centric lady who treats Vincent like a pile of shit. Her relationship with Vincent is weirdly distant as well, considering that they still live separately after the 5-7 years they’ve been together. If anything, they seemed a bit more life friends who had decided to go out on a date, before realising how awkward it felt and wanting to leave right now. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, in the end, but I could have been totally invested in the story if they’d been better. But, it’s a video game, so moving on.

One thing that I could never get past was the morality system, which felt completely arbitrary. In a game like this, there should be more of an opportunity for grey, because that’s what a lot of the game seemed to me: Vincent was in this very grey area, where he was cheating when he didn’t want to, but didn’t want to hurt anyone. To reduce it to “Blue = good = Katherine, red = bad = Catherine” seems like a wasted opportunity. Sending text messages and phone calls was pointless, because of how clear it was to say one thing to go down one path. And then the ‘moral’ questions were not only blatantly either-or situations with no room to manoeuvre, but sometimes seemed to be ambiguous to the point of non-answerable. There was one question that boiled down to “Would you marry a robot if it was like an actual human?” with the answers “I don’t do robots…” and “Is it fully featured?” or something. How can you answer that without having a mind-bend? I was attempting to follow the path of Order, since Catherine was disturbing to me, and I thought “Well, if she’s fundamentally a human, then technically I’d love her just the same, right?” Nope, turns out following Order means not boning robots, even though that’s not what the question asked.

For the record, I totally picked what's up with Erica. Very happy with that.

Of course, apart from a somewhat stodgy but otherwise entertaining dating sim, there’s a block climbing puzzle game. The levels went from mildly interesting, to infuriatingly frustrating, to simply being a thing there; it was as if they were designed after the story, and couldn't quite fit in with the overall design. At first, I could not stand them, purely because of how monotonous and frustrating they were. The puzzles are well designed, for the most part, and the concept surrounding them that fit with the story, with the sheep men, was intriguing. Climbing those blocks, though, was not, because the controls didn’t seem tight enough and it was boring trying to get to the top. Plus, there was some random challenge spike at a point which made playing prohibitive. It was around the time of the ice blocks that I began actively turning off my console, such was my disdain for the puzzles. I pushed through regardless, and soon found the Inazuma tip, which was handy to say the least. It was practical, it could be done in quite a few situations, and it was easy to pick up. So, after that, the game became boring in another way, by becoming too easy. Scaling walls became a non-issue, to an extent, and building stairways became easy too. Soon I could just blast through levels without thinking, and without fear of death either (I had 99 retries way before the end came). It’s way more fun than dying because of crap knowledge, but that still doesn’t redeem it. Ultimately, the puzzles felt like giant ads in the middle of story bits, even though I look back I think I enjoyed it in the end.

Apart from all that, the only weird thing is how odd the block puzzles make the whole situation in the end. Why would Vincent, for all his talk of trying to get some sort of control, repeatedly get trashed every night for a week, like a sad alcoholic? It’s like congratulating a smoker for quitting as you see him fish a lighter out of his pocket. Then there’s the story twist, which was very left field. When was the decision made to make a fairly shallow, boring character the main villain all of a sudden? Beats me, since I thought that decision was stupid. But, oh well. Catherine is still a good game in my opinion, if only for the story. If this were some sort of anime, I would be totally on board with it, but I was suitably happy with the final package, even though it left me wanting that little more.

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Levelling up: My Gaming Experiences – 27/3/12 – Mass Effect 3

Levelling up: My Gaming Experiences – 27/3/12 – Mass Effect 3

I’ve decided to start conforming to Internet culture, and I’m writing a blog. This isn’t for anyone, in particular, mainly just me. I figured a sort of time-capsule for my opinion on video games is something I’d like, and I may as well start here, with the end of one of my most profound video game experiences I’ve had.

Random Blog Thought: Does Molyneux become better when it comes into contact with Molydeux, or do they cancel each other?

Mass Effect 3

I've been avoiding spoilers for ME3 as much as possible, but I have slipped about the others. 2+ year-old games, so it really should be fine.

Choice is one of the greatest features that video games have as a form of entertainment media, in my opinion. It allows for a greater engagement with the material at hand, whether it be high-concept or more low-key, and can explore topics in a way that static media such as TV cannot. I’ve played many a game in my so-far short life, and I’ve always found the more intensely fascinating ones deal to some extent with the concept of player agency, and sometimes allow for a great deal of change so that experiences aren’t always the same between players.

Knowing this, it was the greatest frustration for me while playing Mass Effect 3, based around a franchise where the core conceit is that each game’s decisions impacts its successors, for my decisions to suddenly feel completely arbitrary, and have the impact be set not by a choice of mine but a choice of designers. In my mind, this should have been one of the most impactful games of all time, taking choices that people made, potentially years ago, and designing a game that would be very much unique to each player. Did you save the rachni, keep the genophage cure and lose three squad members in the suicide run? No? Then your ending was significantly different to mine, not even counting hundreds of other factors. Maybe this is a stretch for game developers, considering the logistics needed to map out such a complex web. But even a simplified version would have made the experience seem genuine, pitching your Shepard as a narrative developed specifically for you.

The combat is still as satisfying as ME2's, and feels a touch faster.

Instead, it’s a menagerie of references to past events wrapped around a pre-conceived story. This may be over-simplified, but it’s how I came away from the game feeling. I couldn’t comprehend how some of my comrades who I’d previously had ready to die right next to me got reduced to a kind of okay side mission. For example, Samara, who should be a preternatural wrecking machine, ends up being some chump on the frontline, who never meaningfully affects the plot. This happened way too often for characters that should be given more meaning by the very fact that they had a significant impact on the previous games. Of course, some of the decisions I made were handled better than others. Did it matter that, for me, Wrex was leader of the krogan clans? Yes it did, since he had a definite impact upon the story which I could see having the potential to be completely different, and it was highly enjoyable. It almost makes me want to play through my Renegade Shepard (I, doing my usual thing, went Paragon first to justify being a dick later) to see just how different the missions involving him would have been if he wasn’t there.

There is one major problem with Mass Effect 3 that is stopping me from diving back in, and may stop me for a while. It is the ending, an issue many people have with the game but deserves discussion nonetheless. There are obvious problems with the ending that people have brought up on the Internet; it being a giant deus ex machina, it taking way too long to arrive at its conclusion and trying to explain it in a ham-fisted way, et cetera. I acknowledge all of these, and can see their pros and cons. My major issue is the one which shouldn’t have been present in this series at all: in the final moments, all your decisions that you make have absolutely no consequence to the ending. You could main-line the games, choose extreme Renegade and Paragon choice lines, or have everyone in your party killed. Ultimately, the most impactful thing that changes the ending is how much you filled that stupid green bar, and the most significant difference between endings is, in effect, a colour palette. (For the record, I chose the middle path, because I wanted to see exactly what they meant by their implication, and found it profoundly dumb.)This is gross simplification, but so was the game’s ending. It made me feel like the anticipation I’d had for this conclusion was a waste, since my impact on the ending was meaningless. This shouldn’t have been the case for a game like this, which had the potential to set a bar for all future video game. Instead, it feels like a setback for a great developer.

One thing that does feel really weird is that space doesn't feel big. At least, not as big as ME1, and definitely not with the stupid Reaper chases.

I am aware of the fact that Bioware intends to change the ending in DLC, which I almost don’t want to see anyway. There is something to be said about having some creative integrity, and sticking to your guns, even if what you produce isn’t satisfactory to some. The idea of ret-conning the ending seems to me to be Bioware giving in to fan pressure, which disgusts me to some extent. Even though I don’t like George Lucas’ decisions on the Star Wars storyline, I can respect him doing it since that is his story to tell as he sees fit (although Han shot first). It says something that the Mass Effect franchise has such deep reverence for some, but it should be by the will of its creators as their property, not the consumers. I am also aware of the Indoctrination Theory, which I thankfully discovered after finishing the game. While I really enjoy the idea of it, and would love if it had been there from the start, it doesn’t stand up to the light of day to me. For one, fans shouldn’t have to come up with a theory to make a game better; it should be great from the start, not afterwards. Also, a great deal of it can be explained away with either “Oh yeah, it’s a video game” or “Oh yeah, the game designers had 15 mins to come up with something so it’s crap”. These are cop-outs to some degree, but so is coming up with an idea to try and avoid a truth. Ultimately, the end is what it is, and I disdain it, and will disdain it more if it changes.

In a way, I shouldn’t even have to complain about this game, since it’s really fun. I legitimately enjoyed large chunks of the game, especially the genophage campaign where I felt my decisions had actual impact. The shooting, while not as high quality as a game like Dead Space, is perfectly competent, and I actually liked the larger range of weapons and improvements that could be made. A good chunk of the missions were good quality, excepting the N7 ones. Mining was dumber than ever, but it was always going to be hampered in some regard just by its concept. And the multiplayer, while not engaging and rather foreboding in the long term, was decently made and enjoyable, and gives off a good sense of loot lust. If not for the issues surrounding the story and use of narrative, this could have been my game of the year.

Maybe the funniest thing of the game. It's not often I'll repeat dialogue just to see a face.

This is in no way a review, and is purely a collection of my thoughts and opinions. But that opinion is that this game should be coming out in 2013, and should be kind of incredible in its use of narrative. It should take all of your choices from Mass Effect 1 and 2, and force you to be accountable for them. Instead, they come off as a distraction from the final trip, and misses the entire point of why video games can be so unique. I am very glad I played this trilogy to completion, and am sorely disappointed it couldn’t be better.

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